D. A. Cairns’ worldly character returns to his hometown in suburban Sydney, finding it unchanged since his youth – and yet horribly changed.
It was exactly like walking into an air-conditioned room on a stinking hot day. A faint lemongrass fragrance casually floated in the air bringing the kind of peaceful comfort which only comes when one feels safe, fortified, and impervious. A sense of well-being which is tangible, soft like your favourite pillow. I was home at last. I was finally back where I belonged. Sadly, the euphoria of my triumphant homecoming was not matched by any signs of sincere and enthusiastic welcome. I may, in fact, have exaggerated or imagined those feelings.
I walked into Parry’s and ordered a chocolate milkshake for old time’s sake. I wasn’t going to drink it all though because I had developed a slight intolerance to lactose which would wipe out the pleasure of the rich, sweet flavored milk faster than I could expel an appreciative belch. The old guy who served me was as familiar as the retro signage on the shopfront which proudly declared that Parry’s was a milk bar. The hard seat beneath me was as rigid as the day it arrived from the factory. Everything about this place reeked of resistance. Resistance to change. Resistance to the inevitable and relentless forward march of time. It was as though Parry’s neither feared the future, nor believed in it.
My walk home from school had always been via Parry’s for a milkshake and a side order of skylarking. That was before we discovered Sned’s pinball arcade and swapped milkshakes for cold cans of Coke from the temperamental vending machine inside that dingy upstairs fun parlour. The torrent of memories nearly drowned me as I sipped my milkshake. The battles I had fought against the Pinball Champ. Would I have lasted at school as long as I did without these old haunts, and my friends? I missed them now. They weren’t here. They hadn’t come home. Why had I? What was I doing here?
I heard the quiet and was surprised by it, and by the realization that I had only just noticed it. There were others in Parry’s. A group of teenage girls in short skirts and tight, half unbuttoned blouses were talking softly, almost whispering. A heavily tattooed man sat staring at his mobile phone as though engaged in telepathic communication with it. A woman, surrounded by shopping bags and wearing a mask of tired indifference sipped a coffee. I remembered there used to be a jukebox in the corner of Parry’s, so I turned and was reassured to see it sitting, hunched in the corner like a broken relic. It too was silent.
Startled, I looked up and saw a pretty face which instinctively made me smile. I recalled working on the art of the non-threatening smile when I realized that staring usually made the objects of my visual affection uncomfortable. The distance between an interested glance and a leer was not as far as I had once thought it was. When an attractive woman caught my eye and she busted me ogling her, I wanted to convey warm and innocent admiration, not lust. I figured a smile was the best way to do that. The jury was still out on the effectiveness of this approach.
“Hi to you,” I replied.
“May I sit down?”
She spoke quietly as though fearful of being overheard. I simply maintained my smile and gestured for her to sit. I confess to being unnerved by her conspiratorial tone as she spoke.
“Are you visiting Caringbah?”
I had travelled a lot since my high school days in the Shire. I’d spent time in the Philippines, Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia, and I lived in Hawaii for a year. In each of those places, I stood out like a shag on a rock as someone who was obviously from somewhere else. I had been asked this question many times, but found it strange in this context. Why would this woman assume I was a visitor of some sort? Caringbah was not a tourist hotspot. In fact, it was barely on the map. Known to locals but offering nothing at all to attract sightseers other than the Camelia Gardens, it was merely a suburb outsiders might pass through on their way to the beaches at Cronulla.
The woman’s smile faded as though I had offended her with my deliberately guarded response. I was beginning to wonder if I wanted the conversation to continue. A creeping disquiet was intruding.
“I haven’t seen you here before. That’s all.”
That’s all, what? Perhaps I had met the local busybody. The one who made everyone else’s business her own but stickybeaks were usually partially fossilized retirees with nothing better to do with their time. I decided I didn’t want to talk to her anymore.
“Excuse me,” I said as I stood, “I have a meeting.”
The woman followed me out of Parry’s and onto the Kingsway. “Can I help you?” I asked, hoping to convey my displeasure.
She came closer and I recoiled instinctively. “You should keep your voice down,” she said. “And if I were you, I’d forget about that meeting of yours and just go back to wherever you came from.”
“I grew up here. I went to Caringbah High and lived in Ultimo Street. I’m from here, but thanks for the advice.” I concentrated on removing any residual trace of friendly tolerance from my voice. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” I turned away from her and hoped like hell that she would give up on me.
After crossing the road, I turned left and walked past the Westpac bank where I had made my first ever withdrawal of cash from an ATM. Back then they were a marvel. An exciting novelty. Now they were mundane. The book store next to the bank was decorated with overflowing boxes on trestles which offered a diverse selection of cut-price books that presumably no one wanted. There were customers inside the store but no sound emanated from within. I glanced back across the road. The nosy woman was watching me, no doubt now aware that I had lied about having to rush off to a meeting. That mattered to me. I shook my head, disappointed with myself.
Rifling through the collection of books, I found a copy of A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, and subsequently hurried inside to purchase it. When I handed it over to the assistant, he stared at the book as though he didn’t know what it was. In the awkward and pregnant silence that followed, he laid his palm on the cover and gently stroked it. Without looking at me, he said, “This book is not for sale.”
“Pardon me,” I said, not sure if I had heard him correctly.
In that same low disconcerting tone that the busybody at Parry’s had used, the man repeated himself.
“It was out the front in a box with other discounted books,” I protested. “It’s got a price on it and I want to buy it.”
The man slowly removed the book from the counter and placed it underneath the register. He finally looked at me, and I was temporarily lost for words as I tried to read his expression. It was he, not I, who spoke next.
I continued to stare at him in mute incredulity.
“Are you visiting Caringbah?”
I left immediately and once outside, I thoroughly examined the shopping strip. Twenty years had passed since I last stood on the Kingsway. Most of the shops were the same. St. George Bank. Soul Pattinson chemist. Kodak. Thanh’s Bakery. The Post Office. The footpaths had not been repaired or upgraded. No new trees had been planted nor any obviously removed. The street furniture was as I remembered it. Physically, Caringbah had not changed, but clearly there was something funny about the place. Something not quite right. Dissonance ballooned.
At the takeaway place, I was suddenly hungry, so I ordered a hamburger with the lot. I assumed the management had changed as I didn’t recognize any of the staff, and although I recall these burgers were never as good as those from Lady Hill takeaway, I needed to eat.
“We don’t make hamburgers with the lot,” said the sour-faced fishwife behind the counter.
I looked up at the menu board. “According to that,” I said, as I pointed, “You do.”
The woman glared at me as though I was accusing her of lying. I was. Stubbornly, I repeated my order, “A hamburger with the lot please.”
She was in the process of shaking her head to deny my request for a second time when a man, with a bushy moustache and a grease-stained apron stretched over his pot belly, joined us. If his smile was intended to be conciliatory, it didn’t come across that way. He asked if he could help so I repeated my order and explained the discrepancy between the menu and the conviction displayed by the fishwife. My sarcasm missed its mark.
“Are you visiting Caringbah?”
“Why does everybody keep asking me that?”
The man raised his hands palms facing me and said, “You should keep your voice down, and unless you want to change your order, I suggest you leave.”
Had I realized the danger I was in, the perilous mire into which I was sinking, I would have fled. I had been in threatening situations before: traversed unsafe territory like dark alleys in Bangkok, and lonely forest tracks in Northern Luzon. I had taken risks which now, with the benefit of wisdom which only comes from time, I would avoid like the plague. But my back was up. An image of my dog, Taz, popped into my mind. His fur raised along his back like a fin as he battled our other dog for the right to the remaining food in his bowl. A primal defensive instinct had been aroused in me, as in him, and rather than being frightened, I felt enraged.
Mustering control, I acceded to the man’s request and lowered my voice. “What sort of hamburgers do you make here?”
“We don’t make any sort of hamburgers for visitors,” said the sour faced woman.
“All right, what’s going on here?” My foot stamped the floor without my permission and with similar willfulness my hands found their way to my hips. “I can’t buy a book I want. I can’t get a hamburger and everyone keeps asking me if I’m a visitor. Don’t you get many strangers around here?”
The impassive expressions on their faces indicated they weren’t going to oblige my desperate curiosity with answers, so I left. As I stood on the footpath staring at nothing, trying to make sense of what was happening, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was then I became aware that everyone in the takeaway store was ogling me. I ignored the tapping, but it persisted.
“We don’t see many strangers around here,” said the tapper. “It makes us wonder if you’re a visitor.”
“Visitor. Stranger. Traveller. What’s the difference? What’s the big deal?”
The question was apparently nonsense to my interlocutor. Then it dawned on me. Ridiculous as it sounded, I had to ask. “Do you mean a capital V visitor? Like from outer space?”
Non-plussed, he remained standing by my side until another man sidled up, and very quietly suggested that the former shut up before he got everyone into trouble. There was no attempt on the second man’s part to exclude me from this warning. The two of them turned from me and walked back into the takeaway joint. Certain as I was that it would be a waste of time to ask, I nevertheless posed the question.
“Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on? Why do you want to know if I’m a visitor, and what do you mean by visitor?”
My demand for information was greeted by a synchronized turning of human backs and brutal silence. Thus rejected, I walked south along the Kingsway until I reached the newsagent where I entered and selected a bottle of water from the fridge. Although pleasantly surprised when the lady behind the counter accepted my money and politely thanked me for my custom, I was still agitated by the events of the last hour of my life. I had almost been compelled to return here against my will, driven by some (no doubt misplaced) nostalgic drive to make this trip to Caringbah. After all, I had stolen magazines from this newsagent by concealing them inside newspapers. I had a strong connection to this place but no solid plans for this homecoming, nor any satisfactory reasons why it was necessary. There was nothing definite in my mind about what should or should not happen, about what I would do or where exactly I would go. Although I was hoping to see some old familiar faces wandering the streets, going about their business, that didn’t strike me as crucial. I was frustrating myself. I expected it to feel good and it had felt great until that conversation in Parry’s. I replayed the sequence in my mind. Fast forwarding and rewinding, pausing, struggling to piece it all together. There was obviously something about my appearance that marked me as an alien, but how could that be when I looked basically the same as everyone else. Maybe I smelled different.
A reasonably comfortable looking bench presented itself, so I sat down and continued my musings. With my head back and mouth open, I was pouring cool water down my throat when someone joined me.
“Are you visiting Caringbah?”
I swallowed and then waited. My new friend’s inquisitive eyes were burning a hole in my cheek by the time I answered.
“I’ll tell you if you tell me why you want to know.”
He glanced over his shoulder, then up and down the length of the Kingsway. His furtive actions reminded me of a rat sneaking out to feed in the family kitchen after the lights had gone out. At any moment someone could return and then it would have to scurry back to the darkness of the hole in the wall from whence it had cautiously ventured.
“We don’t get many visitors here.”
“The thing is…” He broke off to do more surveillance but I was growing impatient.
“Stop doing that,” I said. “And if you have something to say, then for God’s sake, say it will you!”
“We’re all sort of waiting for someone to come and…”
“I told you to stop doing that,” I said. “It’s annoying. Waiting for someone to come and what?”
He leaned so close to me I could feel his breath whistling in my ear. “We’re waiting for someone to come and let us out.”
“Some of us have been talking, and we think we’re stuck here.”
I didn’t know what to say. Plainly, I had encountered the town loon. Some poor unfortunate schizophrenic who was off his medication and generously sharing his paranoid delusions with anyone who would listen, and probably to everyone else within earshot as well. I sipped my water. Once. Twice. Stalling. Hoping he would get bored and go away.
“And another thing,” he continued, in the same hushed fearful tone that appeared to function as a defacto local dialect. “We can’t seem to get to tomorrow, and somebody stole yesterday.”
I looked at my watch. Studied it. I didn’t like watches but a girl I met in Malaysia had given it to me. At the time I thought she was proposing but I was mistaken and forced to humbly accept the watch as a token of her appreciation and friendship. This sudden and unnatural fixation upon my watch failed to deter my new friend. Maybe if I was nice to him and played along with his nonsensical little fantasy about the thief of yesterday, he would leave me alone and give me a token of his affection. I wondered what one earth he might be able to offer me apart from his departure.
“Is it working?”
“Is your watch working? Is it keeping time?”
“Damn,” I said, as I stared in disbelief at the frozen second hand. The time read three past two in the afternoon. I couldn’t remember exactly when I had arrived in Caringbah, but that was pretty close.
“I think you’ve probably been here too long already,” said the man.
I detected sadness in his voice and for a moment I couldn’t breathe as a vice tightened around my chest. When it passed, I exhaled violently as though I had been trying to break a breath holding record. Trying to breathe normally proved futile and panic was rising.
“It doesn’t hurt. Don’t worry. Stay calm. There’s no point getting all worked up.”
It was more comforting than I would have imagined possible but his large hand on my shoulder mollified my anxiety. I drank some water and turned to look at him.
We sat in silence as I continued to recover my senses. My surroundings meandered back into focus, and someone loosened the jaws of the vice which had imprisoned me with terror. I observed the cars parked along the street and how dirty they appeared. I hadn’t noticed that earlier. As I waited and watched, no one returned to their vehicles and no new cars arrived searching for parking. In fact, nothing was moving. There were no cars passing nor any pedestrians. I couldn’t understand how I had missed all of this detail before, or had it only just started.
“I can’t remember,” he answered. “No one here in Caringbah remembers anything. It’s like I said. Somebody stole all our yesterdays.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Possible or not possible, it is the way it is,” said the man.
“Why aren’t you whispering anymore? A minute ago, you acted as though you could be jumped at any moment by some secret police force.”
His laugh was disturbing. Humourless and cold. “We spend a lot of time discussing the problem of visitors,” he conceded when he finally pulled himself together. “Some say we should embrace them. Welcome them to our community and help them to adjust to our unusual situation. Others want to ignore visitors completely, while another group wants to warn them and try to save them before it’s too late.”
Everything he said gelled with my experiences in Caringbah. I had met representatives of each of those groups. My current companion was clearly in the welcoming group. With time apparently on strike, I relaxed a little and allowed the full story, or as much of it as could be told, to be unfurled for my education.
“The problem is,” he continued, “is that we never know who will stay or who will go. There’s no way for us to tell whether we should be accepting visitors, shunning them, or threatening them to scare them off. Some stay and some go but we have no control over that. It’s got nothing to do with us and we can’t tell if what we do makes any difference.” He shook his head. “You can see the problem, right?”
“My watch has stopped,” I said. “So does that mean that I’m staying. That I’m stuck.”
“I just told you I don’t know. I can’t tell. None of us can tell.”
“So I have to just to wait and see. When will I know if I’m to become a permanent Kingsway shopping strip fixture, or not?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Where are you going?”
“I need to stretch my legs.”
He shook out each leg as though trying to dislodge small parasitic creatures, then straightened his back and rolled his head around slowly.
“So you don’t know when you became a permanent resident?”
“Walk with me,” he said, dismissing my question like he hadn’t even heard it. He ambled away southbound along the Kingsway’s footpath, and after a moment of deliberation, I followed him. “Why did you come here?”
“I’m from here. I grew up here.”
I smiled, which struck me as bizarre and inappropriate given my circumstances. “Something like that. I’ve been wandering around for a long time, drifting restlessly, purposelessly. Looking for something without knowing what. Never being able to settle. The last place I felt like I really belonged was here, but it isn’t at all what I remembered, what I expected. I mean it felt nice at the start, but the romance faded faster than the stench of cheap perfume. Caringbah looks the same, but it feels very different. I guess trying to recapture the past is a wild goose chase.”
“Not to mention the fact that you’ve stumbled into a…”
We stopped walking simultaneously. Countless eyes assaulted us. The quiet intensified. The air felt as thick as soup, like a terrible thunderstorm was about to crash upon us. The man placed his hand gently on my shoulder, prompting me to keep walking. I could feel blood draining from my face, taking consciousness with it, peeling away my life, layer by layer. A frightening lightness enveloped me causing me to stagger. The concrete rushed to greet my face in a game of chicken I had not agreed to play. I was powerless to turn way, too weak to stop, to protect myself.
Dragging myself from the blackness which had swallowed me, I cautiously climbed to my feet. I was standing beside my car, in the carpark behind the Go-Lo discount store. I was thirsty but intuition advised me to get in my car and drive to buy a drink elsewhere. Driving west along President Ave, I took deep breaths to calm my nerves. I was trembling as I observed a sign coming up fast on my left. It announced that I was entering Miranda and when I passed it, I could no longer remember a single thing about my visit to Caringbah.