Each morning I get off the train at Spencer Street station to go to work. I’m part of the crowd that pours out of train carriages onto asphalt platforms, that ignores the yellow painted safety lines signalling the barrier between safety and train-struck oblivion, and that sweeps down the wide concrete stairwell onto the street. I wait most mornings until the crowd moves on without me, opting out of the wave of bodies. When you’re in that wave, there’s no need to check the ground in front of you for trip hazards, or look either side for oncoming traffic, or peer around for exits signs; you are protected from such concerns by the flock moving as one around you. Only those on the perimeter, those most vulnerable to attack, need to worry.
Two homeless men on the platform argue about a cigarette. The first one dangles it on his lip and lights up, and the second one bellows at him for the theft. The crowd is fluid, and dips in to give them the space they demand. The two men are like a shark swimming into a school of tiny fish that moves as one out of their way. The men are unaware of the threat they pose, which is a shame really. I’m sure they’d be delighted.
I’m claustrophobic. I don’t cope well on peak hour trains which means I get into work later than everyone else. I get off the wrong end of the train, the one furthest from my station exit, and hover by the metal benches buttoning up my jacket. As the last of the crowd makes its way up the eastern escalator, I skirt its edge and head west towards a quieter exit. I swipe my rail pass at the barrier. The gates slam shut behind me. I breathe in, and breathe out, and head towards the stairwell that will take me down to Spencer Street and into this city that I love.
I’m a slow walker. Joss says he can walk from home to the station in ten minutes. I can do it in 13, but like to leave myself a little over 15, just to be safe. When I cross the road, I factor in how long it would take the oncoming car to brake if I were to trip in front of it. And I won’t run across because that increases the chances of me falling.
I always wear at least a singlet and undies to bed, even in summer when the sheets cling and the heat thickens and stills the air, in case of an emergency. I watch news footage of bodies being pulled from the wreckage of bombed out buildings in Kabul, or of teams of emergency servicemen lifting slabs of concrete to reveal people trapped by earthquakes, or of neighbourhood women on the streets, shaking in front of their burnt down homes. I don’t want to be caught short and undressed should such disasters occur. I know which shoes and bra would hold me in good stead if we had to escape our house late at night on foot. I won’t let Joss lock us inside at night unless he leaves the key dangling in the lock. I learnt about fire hazards when I was young. And witches who were burnt at the stake. And Nazis.
These things make me sound neurotic, but I’m not. I function in the world. I perform well at job interviews even though I’m not particularly career focused. I’m comfortable with how I prioritise the spending of my paycheque. I work hard most days, with only the occasional afternoon secretly surfing the net for cheap flights to exotic places. Everyone has quirks and behaviours that they keep to themselves, including all of these individuals that make up this new crowd that I meet up with at the intersection of Spencer and Bourke. A tram dings its bell, warning us of its intention to run the amber light and over anyone in its way. We cross Spencer Street as one, and I duck and weave to get to the left of the pack so I can make my escape into a side street before I’m swept up Bourke St with the rest.
I’ve always taken side streets. And I’ve always preferred to walk than to take short trips through the city in trams. It stems from my claustrophobia. When I cut up Little Bourke, I slow and turn my face up towards the sky. High on the wall of an old red brick building are bold back words painted onto a white backdrop. Nous le regrettons. We are sorry. It is an apology to the stolen generations. Every morning when I pass it, I am moved by it. I breathe deeply and furrow my brow, my throat tightens, my eyes become a little damp. Another little quirk of mine.
I keep meaning to bring Joss here. I know he’d like it. This city is littered with surprises like this. I learn that there is in fact a map of all such surprises. Joss and I could come into town and follow the map. We could see all the council commissioned artwork. We could stop spontaneously for coffee, or find somewhere unexpected for lunch. But it wouldn’t really be a surprise then, if we were following a map. We wouldn’t have that initial reaction, where we look around to see if anyone else has noticed what we’ve noticed, where we try and figure out if this is meant to be here for us to see or if it’s a wonderful accident that we’ve found ourselves in the right place at the right time. It wouldn’t be the same, so I never get around to taking Joss on a walking tour. And besides, then I would have to share this moment that I steal each morning on my way to work, this little piece of me.
I pass the apology, its bold message constant even when I’m not there to see it, like waves eternally washing up against the shoreline. I pass the Australia Post depot and peer in to see the jumble of bright yellow express post delivery vans, parked tightly together. I pass the giant crater that will one day be an office block and the tiny construction workers who all nod and point at the crater in their fluorescent hard hats and high vis vests. I pass the backpackers hostel and the backpackers sitting on the doorstep sending text messages to Japan and sucking on cigarettes. I pass the strip clubs and the court houses, which are located unsurprisingly close by when you think about it.
A new throng has emerged from one of the underground stations and is headed straight towards me. I cross the road and cross another road. I pass through two sets of automatic glass doors and smile at the man at the cafe in the foyer who will make my coffee later that morning. I take the lift to my floor and pass through another set of automatic glass doors. I say good morning to my colleagues, drop my bag beside my desk, and switch my computer on. I login, check my email, am asked how my weekend was, and do the same back. I hook my grey jacket on the back of my chair and open up the document I was working on Friday. I smooth the front of my grey slacks with the palms of my hands while I wait for the document to load and I think of Joss and our flannelette sheets.