When I ascended from the depths of the underground loop at Parliament Station it was still dark - the sun still a promise. I walked quickly - lacking time before my children arose to conquer the day.
I passed a swish, old fashioned hotel, all plush and chandeliers, studied Parliament House across the road and sighed over the extravagance of the Princess Theatre - spoils of the Gold Rush I assumed.
I had planned to catch a tram, but within minutes I'd turned down oak-lined Victoria Parade and was passing the hospitals.
It's not a far walk to the suburb of my first memories - one of Melbourne's oldest. I grinned as I turned down Brunswick Street - all the memories from my late teens and early twenties - meet ups with friends at the Veggie Bar, dates at the Black Cat Cafe, the Rob Roy hotel where I lost my dad's green leather jacket he'd kept from the seventies. I walked these streets so many times, dressed up and eager to be going out, tipsy in heels and heading for the last train home. I was wearing heels then, in honour of that time, and also a habit on my few kid-free occasions, to mark the event. My camera was heavy around my neck - I was unbalanced in all direction
The council high rise flats spiked into the sky opposite the turreted shop I bought a Persian carpet in with my first professional-job pay cheque. Most of the kids in my prep class were recent immigrants who lived in the high rises - I think I was one of only two or three kids in my class who spoke English as a first language. I wonder if any of the kids from that class still live locally.
Gertrude Street is a strange mix of highly styled, hip retro shops, with concrete floors and lots of in-jokes, lovely old terraces and colourful but slightly unsettling graffiti. I walked down with joy, eagerly noting the mix of new and remembered.
On a whim I crossed the road and veered down Napier Street to the church I went to as a child. (Memories of haunting, ancient music and the scent of blown candles.) In the shadow of the high rises, it's an old, bluestone building and I caught my breath when I saw it had been turned into high-security apartments.
The church is one of my main connections to a young woman whose life I stole for one of my characters. She was born ninety-nine years before me, went to the same church as me, her father owned property on the street - a block away - that holds my first remembered home. She attended Methodists Ladies College, which is where my grandmother went and my father taught. Her father and brothers went to Scotch College, like my cousins, uncles, grandfather and great grandfather. One of her brothers went to Melbourne Uni - my Uni, and also my first home. She had a brother called Caleb - my son's name, a brother called James - my nephew's name.
Her name was Grace Cheong and she died of complications after influenza in 1898. If she had not died she would have gone to Melbourne University. (I think about her daily and hope any distant relatives do not mind how much of the facts of her life I have purloined. I hope it helps I do so with love and respect.)
Of course, my character (my book being a fantasy) has powers of water, bestowed by being outside during a phenomenal solar storm, but I discovered Grace while doing research on the Chinese in Victoria during the time period I set my book. (Fire & Tempest begins properly in 1905, when my character - Lilias- is twenty-two, a widow, with a half-indigenous child who has been stolen and placed in a mission.)
Pondering, I continued on my way, imagining Grace walking beside me, laughing with her sisters, escorted by one of her brothers, secure in the knowledge she was 'the flower of her family', protected by wealth, education, strong church connections and family, from the racism of the time, not yet affected by the White Australia Policy.
Retracing my steps to Gertrude Street, I turned at the next block down Gore Street, where we moved when I was two. The hodgepodge of old houses and the overgrowth of greenery delights me. There is peeling paint and graffiti - incongruous with what I know of the astronomical house prices in the area.
I passed the old house of childhood friends, tried to work out the house across the road that was my childcare, where Father Christmas one year decided to journey across the roof, fell, and broke his ankle. There are apartment buildings where the carpark used to be where I'd play kick-the-can with the big kids after community meals. I believe there might have been a murder there at a later date.
After I studied my first home from across the street, the big ashram next to it that ensured I fell asleep to chanting through most of my early childhood still large and imposing, I made my way down to the grunge and history of Smith Street.
I've taken this area as the setting for another group of stories - about a group of five sisters granted access to a magical world created by the wishes of Scheherazade's descendants. My on-earth descriptions are too one dimensional so I was attempting to observe and document, solidify the now, rather than the blurrily remembered. Compared to where I live now these streets appeared grimy, hemmed in, chaotic. I was overwhelmed with the confusion of colour, style, brick and blue-stone and tenacious green living things. Memory, history and the Now collided in a cacophony I needed time to make sense of and I struggled to take in all the details I was determined not to forget.
The sun had risen, hazy from the bushfires. The rubbish truck lurched up the street. (I made a note of the time and day for later use.) Time for me to leave, to try to unravel the density of memory, history, story and the scents and visual details of the-here-and-now.
A quick call to my mum - the kids are still sleeping - but they won't be for long. My eyes darting here and there, camera constantly clicking - the focus playing up as I'm out of practice, my head completely taken in story and fragments of description, I cross the road to the tram stop, eager to begin the journey back to the suburbs and my life as it is now.
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