Topography of Memory

Stephanie Convery

The house we bought was on a floodplain. We fell in love with its elderly grace but it was a tired old building. The 1940s steel window frames were rusted and warped and full of draughts. The tiles on the roof were disintegrating. The pipes clanged. The floors creaked. On cold mornings we could see our breath billowing in little clouds above the bed. When it rained, water dripped from the ceiling.

A little way from the house, a small creek bubbled through a reedy, overgrown park, locally known as the old golf course. The golf course was in living memory, and the grassy stretches that were a haven for noisy miners spoke of an aesthetic inheritance—a preference for English parks and gardens. The trees, though, had a longer memory. Remnant river red gums whispered of a time when the water was all around: when the bush was tangled and lush; when the air was thick with insects, and the birds and frogs and lizards feasted. Some wildlife still clung to that strangled patch of remnant greenery—tawny frogmouths and turtles, herons and swamp hens and tiny native fish—thanks to golfers’ need for a water trap. The creek was the only open, flowing water for miles—between the Yarra River to the north and Mordialloc to the south. Everywhere else, it ran underground, in secret, out of sight, out of mind.

Soon after we moved in, I rode my bike into the suburbs. It was a longer ride than I’d endeavoured for months, and almost all uphill. The route was a bike path upstream from the old golf course. It followed the line of the creek, back from the tangled weeds, along the ridge of the smooth, half-moon of the stormwater drain. It took me from my new home up through my old neighbourhood: past my high school, my parents’ house, the supermarket where I got my first job, and into the semi-industrial suburbs beyond. Around the spot where it first plunged under the concrete—a few blocks north of my old high school—is the neighbourhood where my best friend used to live.

When I first decided to move back to Melbourne, after five years of being away, I never believed I would settle so close to where I grew up. When I think about my youth, it seems characterised by a constant desire to be other, to be elsewhere. I used to think that every adult understood that desire to be somewhere else, but then I learned that we are truly a divided people: there are those who believe they will always be near where they grew up, and those who cannot even countenance the idea. How jarring it was to realise you’d circled and circled only to land closer to home than you ever thought possible.

I rode my bike along the path to the place where the water sinks below the concrete; where the creek that has become a drain becomes a stormwater pipe. Since the city was built here, we’ve been burying the water. We’ve poured concrete over it, channelled it, manipulated it, carved off rough edges into featureless curves, trying to get it to move the way we want it to, forcing it down into the dark. But the water understands the earth better than we do. It gets in the cracks, it fills up the hidden underground reservoirs, it soaks up through soil. This is a place made for flooding, and yet people still build their houses here, even though they know. They call this area ‘reclaimed swampland’, but that always makes me think: reclaimed from what? From whom? From the Yalukit Willam people whose tens of thousands of years of stewardship was butchered in less than a decade? From the water itself? Either way, it was never our land to reclaim—as the water constantly reminds us, when the rain comes and the land grows soft and the damp starts to rise and the ceiling drips. The water has memory. The water will remember long after we’ve forgotten. The water knows where to go.

I spent an evening once digging through the online archives of the State Library of Victoria, trying to find maps of the creek’s original route. I could only find visuals of its mouth—where it now widens out to a sculpted canal, near the open expanse of the bay— though legend has it that it stretched all the way up to where my parents lived, four or five kilometres east from the old golf course, to where their house, an old weatherboard Californian bungalow, still stands. At the end of that street where I grew up, at the bottom of a gentle sloping hill, there once was a creek—a tributary to the one I was now cycling along. Every time it rained, that cross-street would be the first to flood. I remember the city being hit by a squall one New Year’s Day—sheets of driving rain and blasts of lightning and thunder: a classic summer storm. The drains in that street overran as masses of water hit them all at once. The adults always told us to keep out of the floodwater, warning of debris, garbage, glass, and things that would scratch or spear or bite. But we splashed about in it anyway, taken by the transformation, however temporary, of our neat suburban neighbourhood into a kind of urban wilderness.

Kate was my best friend. We met in early high school. My friendships as a teen were fractured and thrilling, and I now understand that the power dynamics between the girls I spent my time with during my high school years were complex and often cruel—see-sawing wildly between extremes on any given day. Kate and I were as moody as the water—we bickered like sisters did—relentlessly, absurdly, almost performatively. But our friendship was also constant: the heat went out of our arguments as quickly as it arrived, and after even the wildest of tantrums we would snap back to our old dynamics as if nothing had happened at all.

It all came rushing back to me the day I rode my bike out that way, up towards home. Her family always lived in the same street, always on the same hill—even when they moved from a shitty brick veneer rental to a block of land where they built their own home, they moved only two doors down. On my trips home from Sydney, driving past the turnoff on the way to my parents’ house, my eye would be drawn to that block, to the houses behind which I knew her family’s had been, as if, by straining hard enough, I could see her. For what? I was never quite sure. To remind myself of our friendship? The house? Her? Because one moment she was in my life, and the next she had vanished.

When I tell people this story, I find myself searching backwards, retracing the path of our friendship, trying to find clues about what eventually happened. Since I cannot ask her, I have only myself to interrogate. Perhaps, I think, I seemed controlling? I wanted to be seen and heard—perhaps I made her feel invisible and silent? I don’t remember her complaining of anything like this to me, but perhaps she did and I didn’t hear her? I chastise myself for crimes, real and imagined alike, then shake myself out of it and remind myself of my friend as I knew her. If we’re attributing blame, she was unreliable, secretive, never punctual, and she could be terribly petty and jealous. I did not make her do what she did. Her actions were her responsibility. But in the darkest moments I wonder: were we ever really friends? Can a constant battle of wills be termed a friendship? I laughed the hardest when I was with her—not at her, but with her. Was that merely a cathartic release between skirmishes? My mind alters the contours of our friendship with every memory, and then resolves itself into something more familiar. The ephemeral moments: a long drive into the bush in her mother’s blue Toyota bomb, smoking cigarettes, singing along to songs taped on cassettes off the radio. And the serious ones: the time she came and found me in the dirt, in the dark, far away from the tents and the campfire, after the boy I’d been hooking up with left me there, passed out in the undergrowth. That was not the act of a friendship defined by cruelty but rather by a furious kind of love, electric and brilliant. Perhaps my failure was that I knew I would never break that current, and so I believed it was inextinguishable. But I never counted on her.

The day our friendship ended, I was waiting for her. I was starting an honours degree and in the process of leaving home; she was working in a cafe, trying to figure out what was next after art school. It had been weeks since we had seen each other. I kept trying to organise a time; she kept postponing, cancelling. But this time, dinner at a house I was minding, she promised she was coming. As recently as that afternoon, she had promised. I got home from work. The appointed time came and went. I texted. I started cooking. An hour passed—nothing. I called this time. I called again. Another hour. The food was going cold, so I ate. I listened to some music. I cleaned the kitchen. I folded some clothes. Five hours later I sent a final message. ‘I guess you’re not coming, so I’m going to bed now.’

A sudden response: ‘Sorry, I fell asleep! I’m coming now!’

It was 1.30am. ‘Don’t bother,’ I said. ‘I’m tired, and I’m tired of waiting.’

I remember recognising the weight of those words as I typed them. I knew that I would be severing something, and that what was severed would be irretrievable. But if that was all it took to cut loose our entire friendship, I think now, there must not have been all that much of it left. She must have been leaving—chipping away, snipping at each of the tiny intricately woven filaments that joined us—for months, perhaps years, without me even realising it. I did not see how far from me she had gone. All she needed by that point was an excuse to turn her back.

Riding those streets again, the memories washed in, bracing and cold. Eventually I could bear it no longer and turned my bike around, taking the downhill, heading back home—not the family home, not the old home from my old life, but my new home: the one at the mouth of the creek, the one that let the water in, that set itself beside a swamp and saw beauty, not squalor.

Riding back, I saw a different journey. I could feel the moment the path began to follow the creek—the weight of the moisture in the air, the sharp drop in temperature along its spine. The grass was greener, the trees lush. Then the stormwater drain opened up, bursting out of the underground. The water, spitting, sloshing, trickling from the pipes hit the sunlight and sparkled like shattered glass. I found myself pushing the pedals hard, as if riding the current: passing over it, skirting around it, bridge and road and path and highway—as the drains and the pipes and the different hidden waterways fed and guzzled and gushed and spluttered and saw the sky and kept going. The canal, the tangle of weeds and wetlands, the river red gums arching their boughs over the creek until finally, there it was before me, opening out in all its silvery beauty: the sea, the sea, the sea.

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia. She was previously the deputy editor at Overland magazine and a freelance writer and arts worker. Her first book is the critically acclaimed After the Count: The Death of Davey Browne (Viking).

Illustration: Marc Martin

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.