It’s a long way from Melbourne to Sydney. The train journey took over 12 hours. It was, however, a very pleasant 12 hours. The NSW XPT trains are segregated at Southern Cross Station, somewhere in a back corner. They didn’t bother to check my ticket at the gate, they just waved me through. Onboard, they only asked for my family name. I liked the informality of it. I spoke with a New Zealander shortly before departure. A strange man, but that seems to be the case with New Zealanders. The Australian woman sitting next to me for most of the journey was far more pleasant — and far more interesting. Her son is moving to the UK, her husband holds dual UK-Australian citizenship. As is so often the case, there is a great deal of overlap between the UK and Australia. They’re not exactly the same, far from it, but they’re not exactly foreign, either.
In Victoria, the obligatory Myki card costs A$6. In New South Wales, the Opal card, the state’s comprehensive travel card, was free. I saw that as an improvement. I managed to find my Sydney hotel quickly. It was a treasure. It lacked the faded grandeur of my Melbourne B&B, but it was certainly not an inferior experience. The owners are a Greek-Australian family. The manager and I hit it off right away. He appreciated my sense of humour and my relatively easy nature. He also told me that I’m the time of person that could eviscerate someone with a beaming smile. We had a good laugh and had a go or three at the expense of German tourists, especially the couple he had chucked out a few days prior. Sydney gets humid. It was especially humid when I was there. Several inches of rain had fallen and it was in the 20s C. The air conditioner had some condensation. They were deeply unhappy about that. They complained about everything and were incredibly demanding. After several increasingly tense run-ins with them within a few hours of their arrival, he had enough and told them to leave.
I arrived too early to get into my room, but he gave me the key and held onto my luggage for me. He invited me down for a coffee — a free, well-prepared flat white. I appreciated that. I had a good chat with some British holidaymakers. We immediately coalesced into an amicable group, a couple from the Midlands, a woman from Cornwall and the lone Dorset-resident.
Hyde Park Barracks, my top priority, was closed. Hey ho. I re-visited a few museums in Sydney: the Justice Museum and the Susannah Place Museum. I visited a few new museums as well: The Museum of Sydney, Elizabeth Bay House, the old Sydney Mint and the Reserve Bank of Australia’s currency museum. The Sydney Museum left me a bit cold. I bought a special museum pass for A$24 which gave me access to a number of historic houses and museums. That is the only reason why I didn’t feel cheated at the Sydney Museum. For a city with a history that rich and complex, it really didn’t go into any sort of depth. The film about the British settlement of Sydney was probably the best thing about it, though I did take issue with the occasional one-sidedness of the narration.
Sydney left me a bit cold. It was beautiful, of course, but it felt empty, somehow. There was so much, too much, going on around me but it felt so very lonely. Everything was very commercial, everything was very money-oriented. Melbourne had the air of the insufferably smug about it, Sydney reminded me almost of Los Angeles in its immediate judgement of people based on money and appearance. It is beautiful, it is grand — but what it isn’t is very humane. There were some good aspects, of course. The breakfast at the hotel was excellent. Freshly-prepared and delicious without fail, made to order! There was a charming coffee shop at the entrance to the metro station. A young Korean couple owned and operated it. It was well-made and, despite the gritty surroundings at King’s Cross, it lent a touch of class and charm.I found a bakery owned by a Vietnamese man who had been a refugee in his youth. No excuses, no moaning, no complaints. He simply started a business, made a success of it and carried on with his life. He made a good life for himself and he is deeply grateful to Australia for giving him a go.
The Susannah Place Museum was interesting. The Elizabeth Bay House gave insight into the other side of the social spectrum. The man who worked at the front desk moved to New South Wales from Dorset in his youth. We had a good chat and he appreciated some of the updates about poor old Blighty. There was something haunting about that building. One of Australia’s grandest estates, it never-the-less has a very tragic, troubled past: ego in excess of means, pride in excess of humanity, ambition in excess of capacity.
A couple of Hun tourists had a go at me about the UK and its current political situation. They quite confidently told me that the UK had better make its mind up — do they want trade with Europe or not, because trade and European investment were contingent on the EU. I told them off. If Japan, Korea and Taiwan can have smooth supply chains, if Singapore and Malaysia can have smooth supply chains, if the USA and Canada can have smooth supply chains and dynamic economic relations without the need for a suprastate, perhaps it is the Europeans that need to re-evaluate their outlook. They refused to talk to me again after that. Some Australians came to my aid once again and made it clear that Britain is not without friends and allies and certainly won’t be after Brexit. (If we leave at all)
I travelled to Chatswood a couple times to dance with the past. I have fond memories of the place and had some momentous experiences there, some years past. My memories and I danced a final waltz and we could take leave of each other. I’d not mind owning a flat in Chatswood, life continues on with best wishes and hopes.
I travelled to Bathurst by train. It was remarkably affordable. I bought a banh mi, Vietnamese sandwich at that little bakery on the way as well as a final flat white from the Koreans. The Blue Mountains are beautiful. I felt relieved as the urban clutter of Sydney disappeared behind me. The plains turned into hills, the hills into endless green mountains. I changed to a coach at Lithgow. The Korean man sitting near me was picked up by his working holiday sponsors.
Bathurst is a pretty town. As the first official inland settlement in New South Wales, it has a relatively rich history. Their museum, while small, is surprisingly good and the volunteers were absolutely lovely. We had a good chat about a wide range of issues. I found that Australia and Britain are facing similar challenges in many respects, hence the increased political fragmentation in both countries and political classes utterly estranged from the concerns of their electorates. It sounds heavier than it was. We understood each other very well.
My room in Bathurst was in a stunning building — one of the grand estates. Built in 1870, it was perched on a hill with views over the plains and the Blue Mountain foothills. I managed to get lost one night, but was able to see the southern skies.I gave up after walking around in circles for nearly two hours and simply took a taxi back.
I travelled to a small town to see an old friend who has been poorly. I learnt valuable lessons about rural characters. The first is that I should shut up. The second is that I have nothing to say and really need to shut up. The third is that I should be helpful, but must shut up and should by no means expect a “thank you” for going out of my way to be helpful. Shut up I did and it was for my benefit. It was brilliant hearing them have goes at each other, eavesdropping on the banter and being able to piece together fragments of inside jokes. All in a coach driving through the hills! My friend and I met, it wasn’t clear that we would due to communication difficulties. At the last minute, something was arranged.
I found my way through the streets we walked together years ago. She was asleep when I came, the morphine did that. But she came to. When she saw me, she hugged me tight and broke down in tears. Cancer has a way of changing a person. The skin discolours, the limbs become emaciated even as the core swells. Then there is the stench of death, that reek of cancer. I did my best to play the clown. I got a few good laughs out of her. We chatted for a few hours as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Any effort exhausted her. We bade our farewells. She was in high spirits, determined to live, determined to make it to the beach again. Her partner saw me off.
I returned to Bathurst and sat silently in the coach listening to the same cast of characters telling more stories. I enjoyed that, enjoyed it more than anything. There is something utterly refreshing about candid, risqué, anti-PC humour. All on a coach!
I picked up a few things to eat at Coles. Nothing spectacular, but I had a small kitchen to myself at Bathurst and could do my wash and hand it out to dry under the autumn skies. It sounded trivial, but it’s been a long time since I could do something like that. I cried that night. I knew my friend and I, almost a second mother to me, would never see each other again. If nothing else, we had that last meeting, that last cup of tea together.She passed away a few days ago. A few days after I left, her condition started to deteriorate drastically.
As I walked to Bathurst Station to return to Sydney, the woman from the museum saw me and ran across the street to have a chat. I had plenty of time and it was reassuring to know that there are still places like that, still places where people remember you — where you can still be a person. She bade me farewell and insisted that I come back to New South Wales as soon as possible.
The return journey went smoothly and I made it to Kingsford Smith in good order with lots of time to spare. The Qantas flight to Brisbane was surprisingly pleasant. But Queensland proved to be quite an experience…