Sam Rutter: “Box Hill”
Samuel Rutter is an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne. He lives in Brunswick West and has an ardent passion for all things Latin American.
The beer was sitting uneasily in my stomach. Carl had the window of the taxi down as far as it would go, letting the air hit him full in the face. We rounded the corner and made it halfway up Whitehorse Road before the meter ticked over and we had to tell the cab driver that this was as far as we could afford. He pulled over almost immediately and rounded up the figure, the doors still locked as Carl handed him some notes and I left sweaty coins on the dashboard. He could count it if he liked, it was all there. I thanked the driver, without thinking why, and Carl was already on the footpath heading towards a service station in the distance when I slammed the taxi door shut.
Carl always got this way when he came back from his trips: impatient, brooding, nocturnal. I caught up to him and put my arm around his shoulder. His steps were surer than mine, although it was my neighbourhood. I had drunk too much beer.
Every time one of us came back we’d do the same thing. With the passing of the years, it was something we held on to as old school mates. We’d meet somewhere near Melbourne Central then head to a nearby bar where we’d drink beers by the jug until someone got hungry. So then we would set off for Chinatown looking for the same cheap restaurant we’d eaten at last time. We never found it, but quickly settled on one that might have been it or looked just as disreputable. There we’d eat three course banquets and wash them down with watery Asian lagers recommended by the waitresses. As the years went on, these nights began to end earlier and earlier; some had work the next day that now mattered to them. Work never mattered much to me, and even less to Carl. He didn’t have a job anyway; he was just back from South America.
As I shifted my weight from my feet to his shoulders, I told him how the others were turning into suits, how they now had office jokes and not much else to say. How they had changed, or maybe how they hadn’t changed but had stopped pretending to be something they weren’t. Carl agreed with me, and told me that I hadn’t changed, that I was doing different things but I was still the same. Even when things are different they’re the same I told him.
We were now past the church with signs covered in Korean writing and walking in the lights of the service station. We didn’t have to watch for traffic or lone trams rolling into the terminus as we crossed the road. It was past four in the morning and there are no cars, not even taxis, at that hour on a Monday in Box Hill.
I told Carl we should walk up through the mall as I wanted to go to the ATM on our way through. The mall joins the old Whitehorse Plaza with Box Hill Central, the bigger shopping centre set above the train station. Both of them are part of a chain of shopping centres that nearly went under last year. They are now joined as one, Whitehorse Plaza has been completely refurbished and is no longer the dark old cavern it used to be. I was too young to remember it first-hand but I got lost once in the supermarket there when I was about three. It was the lady from two houses down who found me and had them put an announcement over the loudspeaker for Dad to come to the service desk. Her name is Margaret, she used to be a nun and she still lives two houses down but I used to call her the Bird Lady, for the huge aviary of quails, finches and budgies along the back fence of her garden. To reach the bank, we passed through a neatly paved area where they had torn down a wooden gazebo overgrown with wisteria. They tore it down because men and women in tracksuit tops, jeans and runners used to drink there well before noon and smoke rollies in front of their children.
Carl hung back by the glass doors as I pulled cash from the metal slot in the wall. I’d lost the habit of using a wallet along with my actual wallet when travelling through Europe, so I just stuffed the two plastic notes into my pocket along with the bankcard, driver’s license and train ticket. My other pocket was reserved for a single house key and my mobile phone.
We walked by the TAB, with its tattered receipts and betting forms littering the pavement outside its locked doors, and Carl still wasn’t talking. I wasn’t feeling much better than in the taxi but I was no longer stumbling, the walk and the air putting an end to the spinning. It’s those dodgy restaurants every time it’s the same I told Carl and he said I ought to be used to it after twenty-one years and no wonder I hated the Chinese food in Europe, it just didn’t have that taste of home and that I must be the only white guy still living in Box Hill. I told him I was born here before it changed and he asked me if I could even remember that, if that even meant anything and so I told him if he didn’t like my neighbourhood he could fuck off back to the dead centre where he came from. And that must have hit on something he’d been sitting on for a very long time because he began to talk then and he spoke uninterrupted for what seemed like an hour, probably because I was drunk, but he spoke and I listened.
He said it’s not a question of like or dislike because you take your home with you whether you like it or not. He told me he’d left the desert behind years ago but that he still found the desert everywhere he went. Even when things are different they’re the same he told me. And then he told me about the ants. He said that in the desert, the sand is red, but red like it is nowhere else in the world. Out there in the day, he told me, it looks like there is nothing alive because there’s no vegetation and the wind leaves the sand rippled like a rusted sheet of corrugated iron. But there are ants out there, he said, not little black ants like the ones down here but ants as big as your thumb, and they live in this heat and build anthills as tall as a child. So all day these ants go about their business, using their six feet to move quickly over the scorching surface in a single file, working together. But at dusk this desert turns into an icy tundra and the ants have to retreat underground, where the heat stays trapped and doesn’t seep back up to the stars. The ants march back, he told me, they march back in single file, and one by one they climb up the mound and then down into the hole, down into the warm earth where they’re safe from the cold. This column of ants heads down, all except the last one, the last ant in the single file. That’s because this ant gathers together a clod of sand and pushes it up the anthill, stopping the opening with it so the cold can’t make its way into the nest. This one ant stays behind and stops up the opening and doesn’t go down into the warmth with the rest of the ants. It finishes its task and then does nothing. It sits there in the growing dark, waiting for the cold of the desert night to kill it.
All this time we kept walking, past the chemists where the signs were no longer in English and Italian but English and Mandarin, or English and Vietnamese, or Mandarin and Vietnamese, and past the stationery and gift shops and internet cafés, past the two dollar shops and the restaurants. The restaurants weren’t too different from the ones we went to in Chinatown, but at this time of the morning they weren’t lit up and didn’t smell of ginger or ginseng or shallots but like burnt oil and spoilt wantons. In the windows of the Yum Cha dens the metal hooks hung empty; only hours ago sides of pig and chicken feet and whole ducks dangled from them, glazed and crisp with the fat forming congealed stalactites threatening to fall as the night wore on. They would all have been full. Carl sucked on a cigarette.
We crossed the road, walked down Station Street and into Harrow Street, coming up against the huge, concrete Centrelink building. I started to tell Carl about Baudelaire and the swan but it didn’t come out right because I started to feel like I needed to vomit and next to Centrelink is the cracked white weatherboard house, which now has its window frames painted bright blue and I told Carl that’s where Mum lived for a while after she left and Carl nodded.
We weren’t a hundred metres from my house now; we were turning into my street. I was tired, my feet ached and my guts churned again. I was tired, but I wasn’t thinking about my house or my neighbours, the Hong Kong family whose grandma still called me Boy after all these years. I was thinking about what Carl had said. I pushed the key into the lock and we echoed through the hallway, collapsing finally into the couches. I knew Carl was tired too, but I also knew he wouldn’t sleep. He’d lie on the couch for a couple of hours perhaps, drink plenty of water. But as day broke, before the house stirred, he’d go, leaving the front door ajar to spare the clash of wood on wood.