When I was in Year Eight, my classmates and I, in a weekly lesson known simply as ‘Music’, used to have to sing an outlandish song about going to the Emerald City, where, for some reason, wizards were going to give us lemonade. The final line was ‘It’s a land of precious pretties/Ruby roses never fade’. This ditty, with its lyrical prophecy of the mystery of Ruby Rose having carved out a lucrative, and apparently durable, career, was again running through my mind when I recently returned to Sydney on family business.
Essentially because I am too cheap to spend the money, I always shun the option of simply getting a taxi the whole way from Sydney airport to the suburb in which my mother lives. Rather, I choose to (like the cast and crews of Australian television shows from the days of yore who apparently had an overwhelming preference for the Travelodge over all other accommodation) catch the train. As I approached Central Station on the night of my arrival, I waited in suspense for the traditional baffling halt when the train on which one is travelling ceases all movement outside this transport hub, for periods that can extend to forty-five minutes and the reason for which invariably remains unexplained.
Feeling nostalgic, I was almost disappointed when the locomotive continued unhindered on its merry way. However, having reached Central but also having just missed the train I needed to complete the next leg of my journey, I was pleased to note that Sydney Rail indicator boards still, in the time-honoured tradition, stay on ‘7 minutes’ for approximately ten minutes, drop down to ‘5 minutes’ for a while and, just as you get your hopes up, jump back up to ‘6 minutes’, then remain unchanged for some time. While I waited, I was, at least, diverted by a monologue from a lady, who, although she looked a lot younger than I, was insisting at large to the gathering on the platform that her father had personally founded Australia.
While I was in the taxi taking me on the short final leg of my journey, I heard an advertisement on the radio for a wedding reception venue called ‘Manderley’, the voiceover making reference to the happy memories that this name evokes. I was delighted with myself as I reflected that, to the best of my knowledge, the word evokes the tale of a naïve young woman who marries a man who has murdered his previous, unfaithful, wife and disposed of her body on a boat, concluding with the man’s ancestral pile being burned to the ground by a mad housekeeper. Then, though, Internet research revealed that the Lane Cove reception centre in question calls itself Mandalay, which is a different thing altogether. Still, I was delighted to see that Mandalay is described on its website as a ‘19th-century Tudor home’. When I was a child, I loved Tudor-style houses. Even now, I like to envisage Henry VIII, say, expressing a strong preference for settling on Sydney’s lower north shore and, having done so, pouring himself a Strongbow on a heavily beamed Tudor-style bar.
After I had arrived at my mother’s place, chugged back a couple of glasses of red wine and delivered an hour-long monologue about myself and my doings, Mum asked me if I’d heard about ‘that football player who’d been caught having sex with a dog’. She and I caught a flash of a photograph of the dog in question on the late news, Mum pointing out in tones of distress, ‘And it’s such a little dog!’ I was relieved to discover the next day that the NRL player in question had only been simulating sex with the little dog. That night it was also revealed that Qantas, the carrier on which I was travelling, had had trouble with an exploding engine, which continued to happen on seemingly an hourly basis for the remainder of my time away.
While I was buying an excellent coffee the next morning, I saw a poster advertising an event that featured Richard Neville, and had a name very similar to ‘Sculpture by the Sea’ but that, on closer inspection, was revealed to have nothing at all to do with this popular event. I was reflecting on the fact that in forty years in Sydney, I’d never once embarked on the celebrated walk from Bondi to Tamarama but used to lie and tell people that I had, when I was struck by the poster’s description of Richard Neville as a ‘Futurist’. Who could forget Neville on the Midday Show and Extra Dimensions, always, as I remember it, wearing a light-coloured suit with white shoes, and talking animatedly about, say, the effect of smoking marijuana on one’s ability to drive a car? From memory, he was preoccupied with the future even back in those days and now here he is, in it. While I appreciate the consistency of Neville’s interest, I am unhappy with his use of the term ‘Futurist’, given that, as far as I am concerned, Duran Duran will always be the true leaders of this pointless movement.
On Sunday, I went into a bookshop that has a portentous name along the lines of ‘Volumes’ but is actually the kind of bookshop that would normally have the words ‘dirt’ or ‘basement’ in its title, such is the cheapness of its wares. While I was walking around, holding a no-doubt-extensively-remaindered memoir that I knew even I would be embarrassed to be seen reading were I to buy it, a man started talking to me. Unlike the lady at Central Station, he was bathed and coiffed, and looked like a normal human being, but after fifteen minutes of solid talk from him about why people in medieval times saw fit to kill witches by drowning, as well as about Hillary Clinton having shaken hands with the Taliban, the desire to say goodbye to him overwhelmed me.
When I got to Sydney airport, I saw that my plane, which was scheduled to depart at midday, had a boarding time of twelve-thirty-five. Even while I hoped this was a simple mistake, I knew in my heart that it wasn’t. Still, I attempted to be philosophical and settled down reasonably happily with my five-dollar coffee. Behind me was a man who, judging by his telephone conversation, was also suffering some kind of delay, the consequences of which, interestingly, would be that there were no longer going to be ‘rallies across Europe’.
For once in my life, I’d been sensible enough to purchase a return ticket for the SkyBus to Melbourne airport, finally shouting down the voice in my head that said I would surely die before I got to use it. So, having left Sydney, I’d been congratulating myself for the entire plane trip on the fact that for me there would be no queuing at the SkyBus booth and having to watch the next departing vehicle drive away, due to a strapping Dane with an enormous backpack attached to him having an endless conversation with the ticket vendor.
Unfortunately, however, it seems that I had thrown away the return ticket at some earlier point in my journey. This means that not only did I waste ten dollars, I lost the coupon that would have got me, a true ‘precious pretty’: a jelly shot, on the house, at Dracula’s Theatre Restaurant.