An Assemblage of Wonder
Above her, the fire-red canopy of an elm tree explodes into the darkening blue sky, its leaves a hard-won celebration of change, the blush-carpeted ground beneath her their fallen confetti. She is contracting and expanding in place. She is a deeply felt sigh, a woman sitting alone in the dying of the day’s light, in the pleasured ache of autumn moving to winter.
In front of her, a group of women in gold headbands and hot pink elastic shorts sit on a rug and drink wine. An old woman walks by singing to herself. A man and his young son rest on the edge of the colossal fountain and point up at three concrete half-fish half-humans holding up its base with water slow flowing over their unmoving heads.
She feels the first cool wind of the oncoming night brush against her knees, and twists a thin gold ring on her index finger, remembering her father giving it to her as his last gift. The last day she saw him. The excitement she felt as she drove down the highway for days to reach here. The missed phone calls from her mother just days later. Promising to return home to Queensland, but never getting on that plane. Her new home offering a relief from what was, and the potential for making new memories.
On a long green seat to her left, a young couple bend into each other and laugh. Near them, a small child lies at his father’s feet on the grass, his chest rising like a swelling ocean. They are, she thinks, all of them, together as memory unfolding. Together they are watching the distant city lights start to brighten. Together they are lifting their noses to the smoke filling the air from the chimneys of nearby homes. Cheeks flushed, arms stretched, mouths moving, their shared space a tapestry of involvement.
She loved these gardens, had loved them since she discovered them a decade ago: a handful of coins grabbed from the share-house kitty jar, and her voice echoing down the hallway and into bedrooms—I’ll go get the bread and milk. Walking down towards Rathdowne Street in the early morning with Ugg boots on, a scarf around her neck, muttering to herself about a kind of cold she’d never felt before. Without gloves, her fingers began to cramp, and as she turned left onto the already busy street, she saw it for the first time—the great hall fixed solid in Carlton Gardens. Its cast iron dome rising high up into the grey morning sky and surrounded by black skeleton trees bereft of foliage. Its grand entrance larger than any she’d ever seen. As she walked through what would become an electric splendour of perfectly planted flowers in summer, the heavy hum of the unexplored city softened and quietened behind her. This place of leisured history and perfectly manicured lawns was a place of belonging for her, a soft-hearted embrace for the newly arrived, a place of refuge, of return, of building new memory. Golden brown leaves twisted in the air at her ankles.
Tonight, as the new moon starts to rise as a shining motif over the canopy of trees, she watches the women with gold headbands and hot pink elastic shorts start to get up and hold each other close, hug each other as sweet goodbyes—a new memory for each of them to hold on to, she thinks, and a reminder to her of how physical friendship can be. The young boy is now a watery mess of tears, sitting on his father’s lap in babied anguish, as his mother crouches in front of them both and holds tissues to his eyes for relief. When he is an adult, she wonders, will he think back fondly on the comfort given so freely by his parents? Will he, like her, think of the last day he saw his father?
She places her headphones in her ears, taps play, and the wounded-sound lament of Paul Kelly’s love lost and found in places not far from here fills her ears. It blares—so pretty and dangerous—his celebrated voice firing longing and regret for so many in this city. And as his voice lifts in her ears—love like a bird flies away—she rises from the blush-carpeted ground, starts walking to the edge of the park towards home, watches as the night advances without burden over the rooftops of houses that have stood around the edges of these gardens for generations. What stories do they hold, what memories have shaped within them? She reaches the edge of the gardens, where a pair of young lovers are kissing under a streetlight—as perfect as a cliche she thinks, but forever original in their new loving. As she passes, one of them looks over to her and smiles, their mouth opening wide like a breaking wave near the shoreline, and they are surging with wonder and contracting and expanding in a place that they may never forget. She walks on.
In the pleasured ache of autumn moving to winter, she knows she is a small movement in a symphony of far grander proportions, a long breath in a tender collective sigh, a treasured detail of another’s recollection. She is, picking up her pace and one step, two, jumping on a bus on Rathdowne Street, her new home now two suburbs away. She is, standing on the bus and seeing her reflection in the windows as a splitting image of her father. She is, an assemblage of wonder, a seasonal delight, a woman who knows where she now belongs. Watch her.
Mandy Beaumont is an award-winning writer, researcher and reviewer. Her collection of short stories, Wild, Fearless Chests, was shortlisted for the Richell Prize, the Dorothy Hewett Award, and a story from the collection won the MOTH Short Story Award. She teaches at Griffith University and is a researcher at RMIT. Mandy’s debut novel, The Furies, is out in 2022.
Illustration: Nyein Chan Aung
Brought to you by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for Melbourne Writers Festival. Excerpts of ‘Writing Melbourne’ and accompanying illustrations can be seen at City Square on Swanston Street when restrictions ease.