Not long ago, around my sixty-third birthday, I was visiting Sydney, and went searching for where the old lane used to be. It was around lower Pitt or George, that lane. All demolished and redeveloped now, of course. But I was curious. Where had it been exactly? Was there still some kind of thoroughfare there?
Why was the lane in my mind? When did that lane disappear? It had disappeared, hadn’t it? Surely there was nothing left of it, what with all the new hotels and arcades.
I’ve always liked to immerse myself in the crowds of Sydney’s narrow Circular Quay end. You’re in a bustling pit, full of approaching faces, with the city above you. It’s not a feeling you can get on the draughty, gaping boulevards of planned cities. Lower Sydney hugs you in.
Best of all, in my youth there used to be these lanes you could slip into sideways, interesting lanes with small shops, some of them lively, well patronised, others drab and obscure. In the Sydney of my youth, you could be a flâneur, a word the French use for an urban rambler and browser. Ah, those lanes that used to be…
Used to be? In my youth? I seemed to be looking for my favourite lane in the present, weaving through the crowd, expecting it to be there…
And it was!
I found the lane! First the dark delivery access, then, past the loading dock, round a narrow bend…
The stamp shop! Still there, after so long! Nothing bright or gooey in its window, just stamps of the good old sort. The pastels of old stamps draw the eye without saturating it. The colours are soft, outlines are soft. You have to peer. You want to peer.
There was the classical record shop, with the music buffs hunched over the boxes of LPs. Deutsche Gramophon covers, gold and black. CBS covers, with stylishly blurred action shots of Van Cliburn or Bernstein. Perhaps I would go in, see what had changed…but what else had survived in the old lane?
The glove shop was still there! The windows were cluttered, the glass smeary, as always. I couldn’t quite see if the owner was behind his tiny counter: that stooped man in his cramped box of a shop, which was almost always deserted. He sold gloves made of kidskin. I bought them for my mother and sister, more than once. He had the little cloth cap sewn on to the back of his head; every word was quiet and measured, like his movements. I felt they must be good gloves. It was all he did, after all.
The book shop! But hadn’t that been in another lane? Apparently not. The smell came back to me. There was always that dusty smell on entering; then the owner, with his strained face and peevish manner, which lightened a little if you bought of book of some substance. He once straightened up in respect and gave me the vaguest of smiles. I think it was the time I bought the Dante, in Italian, with those intricate Doré woodcut illustrations. I loved the passive, absorptive effect of woodcuts in old books. I still love it, now I’m sixty-three. Maybe there were a few decades when I was above that sort of thing. Ah, that bookshop! To think it was still there. Surely the owner was also still there, slumped in his chair, reading with a shrewd or quizzical expression, holding the book well away from his body, glaring almost dismissively at customers: the archetypal bookshop guy. We called him Sneery.
But how was Sneery’s bookshop still there? Hadn’t that been in a different lane? After all these years, hard to say…
Ah, the oyster bar, with its bunched queue trying to keep to the sliver of footpath, waiting for those plump prawns in pale yellow ooze over rice…the curry smell! But hadn’t the old oyster bar been in some other lane? Had all the old places shifted to this one lane, a kind of refuge, a retreat point?
Over there! That tangle of crazy shapes and colours in the window…The magic shop? Cyril Clarke’s Parlour of Magic! Still there!
The magic shop: I have to go in…
But it’s the glove man minding the magic shop now, for some reason. He nods to me, and the slight movement exposes the little cap stitched to his hair. Now I know that’s called a kippah, or yarmulke. With a slow, scooping sweep of his arm, he invites me to browse down the long corridor…and I go.
But there had never been a long corridor in the magic shop! This is somehow different…
Following a recent habit, I look down at my sleeves, at the blotching and creasing of my aging hands. (It’s been concerning me lately, like too many things). The clothes I’m wearing! Beige moleskins and a paler beige pullover. I remember putting them on to go to the city, the day I bought a record in the lane, when I was just out of school. I put the clothes on after much thought – after too much thought – and got the look wrong, as bookish, cerebral teenagers often do. When I saw my reflection in David Jones’ window, the clothes matched too much, looked like pajamas. I felt self-conscious, exposed, foolish, all that day.
Now I’m wearing them again. Beige and paler beige. My colours of regret, embarrassment.
Doors. Along the corridor, which is now murky and smelling of dust and curry, there are doors. They are heavy, old-style, wooden doors, with dented brass handles. How many doors? Fifty? Sixty?
Each door is marked with a number. I wrench at one handle, then another. I feel, I know, that on the other side of each is a person, a chance, maybe a choice. Something I need to reach…something that’s mine, something I can reclaim…
Some doors seem to bend or bulge, I can see behind them, through the slits made by the bending. It is bright inside, blindingly so. And I am filled with the conviction that, if I can get in, I can make it better inside…or what’s inside can make me better…or both.
But the doors bend shut, or will not open at all. I tug away at one till the handle falls off…
Startled, I notice who is seated at the murky end of this corridor. It’s Sneery, the bookshop guy. He is seated with a book, held far back from his body. He looks at me with an air of reproof, shakes his head, then goes back to his book.
So I try each door more gently…but even more urgently. Looking around, I see Sneery still shaking his head, and I hear his voice, or someone’s voice:
“It’s not a dream, you know, not really. We Guardians, we use the technology of dream, but it isn’t really a dream.”
I find myself moving up the other side of the corridor, back toward the counter, trying doors. Door after door, some of them bending to let me glimpse the brightness and some enticing movement inside, but then bending back to be fixed like stone.
Suddenly, I am back at the counter. The tall, stooped man with the kippah is standing there, folding and packaging gloves, gloves of kidskin. The coloured items of Clarke’s magic shop are all gone. It’s all just dark corridor and this counter.
The man looks up from his gloves and boxes, observes me, waits. I find my voice:
“Please, I need to get through some of the doors. There are people I know, some things that belonged to me…”
He shakes his head with that slow deliberation, as when he sold me gloves for my mother, now long gone.
“You can’t go through those doors. They’re closed. All closed and locked.”
“But unlock them!”
“Oh, someone locked them all. Locked them for good.”
“Who locked them? Why?”
“You. You closed and locked them all. Now, would you like gloves for a lady?”
“Gloves? Maybe later. I want to get through the doors. If I can get through the doors then…”
“There is one door available. See, behind me.”
I look to where he is gesturing, with that slow, sweeping movement of his hand, as he turns slightly. Behind him is a door, marked 63.
“You can go through now. It’s not locked.”
I step around the counter, around the stooped man, and turn the handle on the door. It yields easily. The door opens wide, and I step through. The light is neither bright like behind the other doors, nor murky like the corridor. It is normal light.
It’s my office, in my house. Outside I hear the birds, cat birds and whip birds for the spring season. I hear the horses moving, snorting, near the house fence. I turn about. All I see is the wall of my office. Now I walk outside, to the front deck, with its view of the Great Divide. I startle a five-foot goanna on a prowl; he waddles off in panic, giant claws rattling on the decking. There is bamboo framing the mountains to the west. To the side of the house, a regent bowerbird, so pompously coloured, is tearing at the tentacled golden blooms of a silky-oak. It’s been a dry spring, the silky-oaks are in a frenzy of gold. It’s my home. It’s now. Everything is normal, yet maybe a touch richer, or brighter…
Then a voice:
“Don’t come back to the lane. The Guardians won’t be here again. Other things to do, you know. Can’t be repeating these things. It wasn’t a dream, you know, not really. Same technology, but something else again. In any case, don’t come back to the lane…
“And, really! Kidskin gloves? These days? In Sydney?”