by John Clare
I just wanna ride on my motor cy…
That is from an Arlo Guthrie song whose name I can’t recall. Nor do I. Want to die that is. Or if I have to, I want to die on the sounding of the last chord of a track by Duke Ellington, or Miles Davis and Gil Evans, or John Coltrane, or leaving the water in a brilliant day, or dismounting after a sprinting, gliding run on my racing bike over the Bridge to Careening Cove or to Maroubra or out west or right around Botany Bay. Or at the end of Images Pour Orchestre by Debussy. Or Good Vibrations, or the medley (yes an actual old fashioned medley and probably the greatest in all music) on side 2 of Abbey Road. Or in the Block Arcade in Melbourne under the central glass dome. Or after meeting George Power again. Where are you, George?
I have no idea what happens then. Nothing I hope. I have no confidence in God’s infinite mercy or unconditional love. Call me literal minded, but if His mercy was infinite there would be no one in hell. There is nothing I can do about any of this. Let’s just say nothing happens, admit that Kerry Packer was right and go on our way. What we do not look forward to are final years with none of the things that have made life meaningful and worthwhile. No warm bed, to start at the basic level. A few moments ago I listened to Billy Strayhorn’s Midriff, with its initial blithe dance, its pouring reed unisons, the curious trumpet of Ray Nance – like porcelain but also like puffs of white sky writing; then Ellington’s own Stomp Look And Listen with its mounting excitement, its streams of sound, its collisions of brass heard as light, as smashing foam, as water strained over rock, as cirrus strained across an early winter sky, blue, blue, with climbing vapour trails, vertical at the horizon, arching overhead, its radiant climaxes; and I stood in a tower of tears and sharp joy. The trumpet of William Alonzo Gonzales (El Gato) screamed and electrified the aura that now stood about me. Now? Are you ready? Sure, but I’d like a little more.
That blithe theme is the sound of curiosity, of walking lightly in a street of shops and cafe tables; the sound of whimsicality, of sophistication; of sophisticated appreciation, of the civilised; of women young and old smiling at me in the sun because I am smiling. They smile at me as I smile at babies. There is no secret to it. Good heavens, Ita Buttrose once smiled at me as we passed on either side of the narrow street slanting down by Badde Manors. I am ashamed to say that I barely responded. It wouldn’t have hurt me. She wore a bright purple dress the colour of the Tibochina tree and directed a large smile, perhaps lascivious, through the sun across the street toward me. I feel bad at barely smiling because a radiologist I know told me that Ita was one of the very few celebrities treated at RPA who engaged with nurses and technicians as human beings.
Down the Parramatta Road end of Glebe Point Road the shops and cafes have verandas overhead that almost extend to the street. That one opposite has a dark green wooden restraining fence above the road. There is a black metal or plastic disc somewhat bigger than your head on the top rail, and on that the number 11 in a bold white serif face. You might call the woodwork British Racing Green on a car. Or viridian if not. Close to viridian, which means green anyway but is often applied to a particular shade.
At the very end of Glebe Point Road, where Parramatta Road has become Broadway in its career downhill toward the city, the bright day opens another vast blue room due to the park opposite. Paths, people walking and sitting on slat seats and on the sunlit grass spread out beyond the dark olive green leaves of the figs, where the flying fox live. Some lie on their backs. There is a pond with two islands supporting bullrushes and a miniature forest with tree ferns. A bridge that is part of the approach to the university. Through there is City Road and the sky comes down closer to the ground because of the low buildings, but the sign TOBY’S ESTATE – once again bold white serif face on a black panel – sits high in a gap between the trees. My son worked for Toby as a barista. I wonder if Toby knows he has gone. I should go over there and tell him. Wait. Here in the now widened sky are more cirrus in streaks and twisted skeins and scourges. Here is a towering vapour trail, still active, still unravelling upward but not appearing to move in space because of the distance, the tremendous height, like water bubbling on the stove. Far up in that celestial blue, at the very bubbling tip of the trail is a tiny plane in milk white silhouette, smaller than my fingernail. But it is a 747 or something large of that order, yet I can pick out some details. The vapour trail is really four – two issuing from the engines on each swept back wing, each pair then plaiting together some distance back from the plane. Also small flocks of cumulus, whiter than any sheep. Recollection of Ray Nance who also plays the violin. My favourite jazz violinist.
Back on Glebe Point Road there is a tiny, thin, two story building of great antiquity though recently repainted deep red. On the rusty old hinged sign I think I can make out Boulanger Pattisserie. It is now a cake shop and perhaps always was. On the roof is a weather vane. It tells you which direction the wind is blowing. Natch. This is the Bishopthorpe Estate, once part of the parish lands (the Glebe), now largely Department Of Housing. In some streets are fat palms with grey beards and tall skinny ones. There are tree ferns. Toward the point where the road rises by the Valhalla Theatre before diving to a reach of the harbour and the affluent still hold the land, you should cross the street and find the tiny stone stairways and narrow steep streets from which you can look out from the hillside to the towers of the city, the Harbour Bridge, the Anzac Bridge and the Pyrmont. And the remnants of Glebe Island Bridge. Some of the federation mansions also have towers, turrets and domes. Race back to the other end of Glebe and you will see Sydney University across Parramatta Road. I can see the carillon tower and part of the Great Hall, designed by Edmund Blacket, from my place on this side. Years ago I saw a girlfriend go up on stage in her black robe and mortar board to be congratulated by the Chancellor who was so kindly and gracious he seemed like the living spirit of the place, the essence of a kind of knowledge-vapour floating in the sunshine around the gargoyles of the quad. Some time later my son got his music degree from the University Of New South Wales. I was there with his mother and sister Rebecca, who loved him perhaps more than anyone. Royal Prince Alfred is beyond. I will probably die somewhere in the region.