Trains aren’t running from Blacktown Station. It takes me a long time to realise this. I’ve been up since 2 o’clock and driven 400 kilometres and my brain is soupy. That’s why I ask whether trains run to Town Hall when I discover they don’t run to Central. That’s why the station official looks at me oddly. I lumber my suitcase down to the bus bays, impressed by my unexpected capacity to follow bright orange signs.
The bus is packed with young people, sporting ear plugs, emerald green turbans and surprising courtesy as I struggle to put my seat belt on. I settle down for a long ride but the bus speeds along roads called M something and I’m soon in the Lane Cove tunnel which looks unfinished and lasts forever. I don’t like it – I’m stretching my eyes forward, edgy and waiting for daylight.
I get out at Wynyard. I’m wobbling, both physically and mentally. I see myself as others might see me – an elderly woman, dressed in black, carrying a black briefcase and unsure about what she’s doing. I head towards the train to Town Hall and then decide to walk down to the Quay. There I’m caught up in crowds and not-enough: not enough time to ride a ferry; not enough energy to walk through the Gardens.
I sit on a bench with a wedge-shaped view of the oily harbour. I let the ghosts inhabit my brain – Joe, in his lunch hour from the public service, envying the men in the barge picking up rubbish; Bea Miles quoting Shakespeare for sixpence and creating a niche for herself in Sydney legend; Chris Brennan stumbling drunkenly and carrying his vast intellect into poverty and death by cancer; Ken Slessor (middle name Adolf) mourning his mate Joe Lynch who drowned in the harbour. My mind in free-fall imagines tipping myself over the railings into the oily water.
Instead I totter my way towards my rendezvous with friends, through the chilly gorges of the city. I’m still too early. I order coffee in the Queen Victoria Building and watch feet traversing its mosaic and shopping bags hanging heavy from weary hands.
Finally I see S coming towads me, trim and elegant in navy – a gored denim skirt; a jacket; a necklace of iron-grey slugs, and then A, vivacious in a black jacket with red underpattern showing through. S has just been to church seeking support for her bike project; A. to watch her daughter’s step-son play soccer. I feel countrified and idle.
We drift, in the awkwardness of three in crowded streets, down to China Town for an early meal. Queuing outside for a meal is a new experience. Here food preparation is performance. The window is occupied by two young men, a bowl of dumpling- shaped dough, cartons of eggs and a bench. They reach for the ball of dough; fist it flat; pick it up and begin whirling and spinning it by the corner until it is large, thin and square. Then maybe it goes straight on the griddle, or they break an egg and sprinkle onion before folding it. The cooked roti is sliced or shaped into a tall cone. In the background another young man pours a brown liquid from container to container at full arm span, stretching it to produce the froth for Teh tarik, classic Malaysian sweetened tea. Passers-by stop to watch, reassuring the waiting queue that they are not queue jumpers. Eventually we overcome our threeness (most diners come in twos) and are admitted.
After dinner we emerge into the crowded streets and set off in search of black sesame seed ice-cream. We settle for the lounges and coffee in paper cups at Gloria Jeans. I sit back, trivial, while my companions discuss world affairs. We’re all tired for different reasons and we say our farewells – two or three times – as we move underground up George St to Town Hall station.