How to wait
My father walked a lot. He had learnt to drive but after a minor accident decided it wasn’t for him, and instead chose to walk everywhere in this pedestrian-unfriendly city. “Getting a lift” from him meant going on an accompanied walk.
When I was a kid, we walked from Summer Hill to the Lebanese sweet shop in Dulwich Hill, a good 40 minutes, to be rewarded with sticky namoora, baklava and thick coffee served in silver pots. One time we took some five-year-old friends of mine, high on the promise of syrupy sweets, who then dragged their feet, close to tears, on the return journey. Once he had apologised to their parents and they had all left, he looked at me proudly and said, You are a true walker.
He valued robust independence, and always spoke to children like fellow intellectual companions. I made sure never to complain of sore feet or aching limbs, as I wanted to remain like this forever in his eyes.
He set our vigorous walking pace but was open to my deviations, and over the years we cultivated a shared rhythm. The distances we walked grew as I got older, and our conversations ambled along the curving Sydney streets.
Spell pharmacist, he asked, as we walked past the Italian pasticcerias of Haberfield.
F. A. R. M…
Try again, he gently prompted.
What year was Sydney founded, and what does terra nullius mean? he asked as we walked past the Chinese grocery markets in Ashfield on our way to swimming classes.
We walked past the flaky sandstone buildings after family picnics in Balmain and talked about our favourite myths and legends.
But why did Orpheus look back? I asked. I don’t understand – they could have got away.
He saw light, and he wanted to share his joy with Eurydice, he said. Sometimes we don’t know how to wait.
When I hit my 20s, boys started arriving at my front door with their cars and gearstick love. And I realised, this is a city made to drive in. We’d tear down the network of busy, huffing, impatient roads. SUVs, soccer-mum mini-vans, and off-roaders driven on-road ruled the streets. To drive from the east end of the city to the far west takes two hours, and once you are trapped on the road, it is about moving forwards and onwards. Horns blare and yells unite: Fucken cyclists! We’d drive, wind in hair, salt in eyes, splicing through the core of the city, as lights flashed by us: coast, bridge, river, bar. I couldn’t tell if the impatience came from within or from outside demands, but one day it just felt normal to be rushed. I wanted to go faster and I wanted to get there quicker.
There was no time for walking.
When I came home to visit, Dad would offer me a “lift” to a friend’s place, hoping to catch up on what I was doing, what I was reading, and whether I was any closer to working out what it was I wanted in life. I groaned inwardly as he went to the hatstand to don his Uzbek fur hat, and desperately wished he drove and wouldn’t ask me so many questions. I would never exchange lights and excitement for a world of slow-burning time, I decided, as I threw him a non-committal grunt.
And then, suddenly, my world slowed. Dad’s diagnosis was terminal, and the rushing sense of urgency of this city, part life force and part mania, fell away to a stateless rhythm. Days lost their structure and dissolved at the slightest touch.
I walked to the hospital, crossing the road from the artisanal cafes shutting up for the day, cutting down Victoria Street, past the wall that the homeless and the drunks piss against.
One time he was asleep when I arrived. He asked me always to wake him up, no matter what. But for a while I just stood in the doorway watching: the thin, hospital-issued blanket tucked up to his chin; his grey hair shading the stark white pillow; his eyelids fluttering, dreaming of places I will never know.
Outside, the light fell away from the sky, and I remembered when I was 18 and he took me to Istanbul, and we walked up and down Istiklal Avenue, where each laneway branched off and felt like a new discovery.
And I turned to him in the street and said: This city is like a pomegranate.
And he kissed me on the cheek and said, Yes, yes, that is a perfect way to describe it.
And we walked down one of the crimson chambers marvelling at the city and its history and its colours, unaware then, that the real marvel was something as small and as grand as sharing time in a place together.
He kept dozing, and I squinted and tried to imagine that what was happening now was like the membrane of white pith that rests lightly concealing the true reality of the pomegranate that I could choose to peel away at any time.
Because I couldn’t understand how we got here so fast. Or why we were being taught to do this long, swampy, unbearable goodbye. Or how I would ever wrestle time back into an orderly shape, where a minute means 60 seconds, and a year is filled with those little marked calendar squares that people cling to and fill out, and allow us to share a smile with a stranger and say mundanely, Where has this time gone?
Where has this year gone?
I left his room to walk home, alone now, and my heart felt like it would burst across this city, all jewelled and spattered and red. Like the seeds of the ruptured fruit.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 13, 2021 as "How to wait".
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