The Substation Melts Down
That magnificent sound of bedsprings at night has eluded me for a number of years now, even though everything else still punches through the darkness of my room: – the neighbour’s dog howling mindlessly at emergency vehicles; trucks shifting gears up on Woodville Road; the clicky morse code of bats eating berries in the Lilly-pilly tree outside my window; a lone cockatoo squawking at the orange moon.
But wait a minute; hold on, what do you mean . . . it’s eluded you? Really –
How many years are we talking about?
Enough for it to bother me; too many to admit. Basically I am still a man and feel easily ashamed about these things; not to mention it invites automatic comparison to my better performing peers, whose dividends often pay in rounded proportions to their success at this wonderful game of life.
But yes, enough; and even though it was mostly my own fault, a number of questions still would float over me in the darkness of my room; what are you going to do about it? Can lost fortunes such as these be restored?
There was someone who I secretly liked, however. She lived in the flat on the top floor of this building: Melanie Parker had short dark hair, freckles; was a few years older than me, and worked at a posh waterside restaurant in Milson’s Point.
But that’s not say we got on; for some reason we were always clashing.
Occasionally the postie would accidentally give her my mail – I was flat 10a (whereas she was 10b) – and I would come home from work to find a magazine subscription scrunched up under my door. There was another time, too, when she had told me off for not attending an important strata meeting, where she and a few others had tried to oust a rogue landlord from the committee, but had failed through lack of numbers; and before I’d had a chance to explain to her that I didn’t actually own the flat I was renting, she had stomped off up the stairs in a huff.
But still, I couldn’t help but find her beautiful, and I often wondered why she was so angry. Had someone who looked like me cheated her in some way? Or had some cherished dream not turned out for her?
I understood these things, because I wasn’t far behind. I was a cataloguer at the State Library, and my sideline ambitions of becoming a published author had never taken off. Of course, I was lucky to have a job around books; but I just hadn’t succeed in writing one.
And I wasn’t very successful at relationships either. I would come home in the evening, make myself a cup of tea, and look at all the carefully sorted books on my bookshelves and wonder if perhaps they were the only things I was capable of caring for.
Anyway, for this reason, I understood that there were lots of stagnant waters waiting for you in the river of life: little eddies that went round and around, that once you got stuck in, were near impossible to get of, unless some kind soul helped you – or the river let you go again.
Anyway, that was were I was at . . . well, also in bed, thinking about these things.
All day, the temperature had been climbing. It had started off bright and sunny in the morning, the humidity coming before lunch, the temperature going up through the thirties, and then into the forties in the middle of the afternoon, where it has stayed until now. Can you believe that it could be 38 degrees at ten o’clock at night?
Despite the fires, the sky had been a beautiful blue today, the kind usually paired with a sparkling ocean and a sunny, sandy beach, a few clouds, and a long dissolving vapor trail; picture perfect, if it had been a menthol cigarette ad from the 1980s.
Having thrown off my doona, I grabbed a sheet, and then tossed and turned with that for a bit, before getting up to go to the bathroom. I had a drink of cold water from the tap, then pushed the cracqueled glass window open as wide as it would go, and leaned out to look at the street, to see my yellow Hatchback parked a few houses up, a neighboring yard full of people laughing and having a party, two cats milling around the tyre of a parked Jeep, and a stray dog panting underneath a sprinkler running its timed routine despite water restrictions. Then a Domino’s scooter went up the street, and I thought, who would eat pizza on a night like this?
As I was coming back from the bathroom, there was suddenly a bright light that filled the room – a flash on the horizon that came through the sitting room window, and the floor shook with the sound of a loud explosion. The sound seemed to dive down like a plane falling from the sky – and all of the little ancillary lights of gadgets in my room blinked off, as the phone charging in my kitchen lit up.
I ran into my bedroom to have a look, and see that the whole street was in darkness.
I grabbed a pair of trousers out of my laundry basket, and pulled them on over my boxer shorts. I threw on an old heavy metal t-shirt, and grabbed my house keys, rushing down the stairs to join the other neighbours emerging from their flats, many already milling about on the pavement, some in their pyjamas, others who’d managed to get a dressing gown on even though it was still too hot. Mostly, they were dressed in singlet tops and thongs.
I heard someone mention a ‘substation’ – and it suddenly made sense. They were the first things to go when the weather got too hot. But I had never heard one explode like that before.
Looking up the street, it was a pattern repeating on every block: lights out, everyone on the street.
Parents took their small children back inside while older kids went riding off on their bikes to find the source of the explosion.
I spoke to Ken who lived on the groundfloor, a plumbing contractor who worked on building sites. He made a wistful face and said that it would be a while before they’d get this fixed. “Too many fires in other places,” he said; we’d been hearing sirens in the distance all day.
Then I noticed a lone figure coming down our street, and I automatically tensed up. Even in silhouette I knew who it was – my next door neighbour.
She slowed as she approached our block, trying to make our faces out in the dark. She walked slowly up the front path to where Ken and I were standing.
“Power failure,” said Ken.
And I added, “We think a substation blew up.”
Hmmm, she nodded. “I just got off the tram and it’s still working. But the lights are off all down the freeway.”
“The whole area is probably affected,” I said.
But she was no longer listening.
“Okay, good night.”
And she walked into the foyer of our block. Ken then said that he better go back in and see if his wife and kids were okay.
I stayed outside for a bit longer, watching the street.
A few minutes later, I heard a woman’s voice behind me. “It’s Roger, isn’t it?”
I spun around; it was my neighbour again.
“No, it’s Max.”
“Sorry – Max.”
She seemed agitated.
“Look, I’m sorry . . . but I was wondering if you could do me a massive favour. I’ve left my house keys at work . . . ” She winced, “Well, my purse as well; but I don’t need that until tomorrow. Anyway, I was wondering if you could call me an Uber.”
“Sure, of course!” I felt around my pockets for my phone; and realized it was upstairs. “Look, I could drive you, if you want.”
“No, I wouldn’t want you to do that.”
“My car is just over there, and I also need to get some milk for tomorrow.”
“Look, I don’t know you that well. I don’t really want to put you out.”
“It’s no problem,” I said. “I don’t think an Uber will find you easily anway. It’s dark, and there’s people all over the place.”
She thought about it for a moment, and then said,
“Okay. Thanks . . . Max.”
For a moment, as we walked over to the car, it felt incredibly awkward. But then she said, maybe to save us both, “Max, my name’s Melanie by the way. I think we’ve spoken once or twice before.”
“We have,” I said, and tried to hold back a smirk, as I unlocked the car. I noticed that the cats from the Jeep parked in front of me had scarpered; they were probably watching everything from the safety of a bush somewhere.
My car was a Corolla, an angular 1982 model. It was definitely unlike the soft contours of earlier seventies models, but it still retained some of the charm of an exciting palette that characterized this era, before turn of the century tastes had drained the colour spectrum of all vitality. My car was burnt sienna.
As we drove off, she ruffled around in her tote bag, then stopped in thought: “Do you mind if I have a ciggie?”
“No, not at all. I don’t think I’ve ever had a smoker in this car. But it’s certainly equipped for it,” I said, tapping the push-button lighter.
“I’ll just smoke out the window. I’m sorry, I’ve had a terrible night. We had a horrible customer who threw his plate at one of my younger wait-staff.”
“Geez, really?” I said, turning to look at her smoking. “Do you always get that?”
“Not at this restaurant. Maybe at some of the others I’ve worked for. But it’s this heat; it’s driving everyone mental! I don’t even know why you would want to eat on a night like this.” She took a long drag of her cigarette, and then blew the smoke carefully out the window, so that it wouldn’t come back into the car. “All I want to do in this weather is drink. Give me a pool full of gin and soda, and I’d drink the whole thing!”
“Yeah I feel like that too,” I said enthusiastically, “If I had to choose between giving up eating, or giving up drinking, I’d choose to give up eating. I’m happiest when I drinking something – tea, coffee, beer; whatever!”
“Really?” she said, stubbing out her cigarette in the slide-out ashtray. “I wouldn’t take it that far. I still like food. Just not tonight.”
“No, yeah sure, I know what you mean.”
And then we both went into another relatively awkward silence, as I turned onto Broadway, driving past Haymarket and Chinatown, then past the cinema strip, turning onto Sussex Street, with a few sweeps and whirls before driving up the ramp onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Going across the bridge, the wind off the ocean was stronger. We had both our windows open. I felt the breeze swirl around my feet and then go up the leg of my pants, and I suddenly remembered that I was still in my boxer shorts underneath. I only wore them to sleep in, never outside, as they left me feeling too exposed.
I turned off the bridge, looping around into Milson’s Point.
I pulled up outside her restaurant – Farinelli’s, a restored weatherboard cottage on a run-down bowling green. Melanie got out and ran up the steps to knock on the door. Through the window I saw a table of Italian men drinking with the lights low. One of them got up to let her in.
Not knowing how long she would be, I put the radio on. It was still hot, even with the breeze coming up from the harbour. I looked down towards the two massive pylons that supported the bridge, a group of teenagers drinking long necks. Out on the water, a party boat was floating by, coloured lights flashing, revellers laughing and shouting, dancing on an enclosed upper floor.
In the bay around the corner from Luna Park, there was a marina full of moored yachts. Each time a ferry went by, a swell would roll underneath them towards the small shore, and they would all gently rock, flag lines clinking melodically against the masts.
Luna Park itself was closed for the night, all the rides shut down. But there was a still a ring of lights around the giant smiling face, whose mouth you passed through to get in.
“Hey – did you used to go there as a kid?”
Melanie was suddenly standing by my window, clutching her purse. Laughing.
“Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean to make you jump!”
“Nah, it’s okay. I always do that. I must’ve watched too many horror films as a kid.”
Gesturing for me to get out: “Come on,” she said, “We can go for a walk down there if you like.”
“Don’t you want to go home?”
“I think the power will be out for a while. I really can’t sleep without the air-con.”
When I got out of the car, I realised that she was holding a bottle of champagne and some plastic cups, and she explained that her boss had given to her, a customer had asked for it to be opened, and then they didn’t drink it. She cradled it in her arm, as we walked down the hill towards the water, past the outdoor swimming pool – one of two Olympic-sized pools built back in the 1930s (the other was out west in Granville where I had grown up), coming onto a wooden boardwalk that ran around the outer rim of the amusement park.
We walked for a few minutes, past the Ferris Wheel and the Hall of Mirrors, and had almost reached the Pirate Ship, when Melanie stopped and walked right up to the water’s edge, and stepped over the wooden balustrade, sitting down on the other side, so that her legs were dangling over the edge. I climbed over and sat beside her. We could hear the water lapping at the barnacled timber pylons underneath.
“Here you go,” she said, elegantly pouring bubbly into the two cups, and handing one to me. “Cheers,” she said, and we bumped the cups together. The lights of the city rippled brightly on the water like oil slicks. I couldn’t believe that only just an hour or so ago, I was lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself. Yet now here I was, down by the harbour, drinking champagne with the woman of my dreams.
A ferry came by, throwing squares of yellow light across the water to us like a lighthouse. As it pulled away, a massive swell rolled towards us, making the pylons groan like old giants.
“You know, I always wanted to go on the Ghost Train when I was a kid,” she said, “But it burnt down before I ever got a chance.”
“I remember my mum talking about that,” I said. “And when my parents brought me here, I pictured where the Ghost Train might have been, somewhere next to the roller coaster.”
“That’s the old Sydney,” she said. “It doesn’t seem old, but what we are talking about is already a long time ago; nobody even remembers when the Roller Coaster was pulled out!”
She drank some of her champagne.
“I do. Some of the residents in the new flats complained about it. It was some time after the Olympics.”
“Wasn’t that a fun time?” She lit a cigarette. “You don’t mind me smoking do you?”
“No – I used to smoke as a teenager. I still smoke a cigar occasionally.”
She took a drag, and blew the smoke out sideways, so that it wouldn’t go near me. “Good that you quit; it’s a disgusting habit.”
But the truth was I didn’t mind women that smoked. One of the nicest memories I had was of an older female cousin, who, whenever she gave me a hug, would always smell like cigarette smoke, mingled with perfume.
I drank my champagne and then Melanie refilled my cup. Out near Goat Island, green and red lights blinked in the darkness, helping boats to find their way around. The warm air and wine relaxed me so much, that I began to smile. I loved the harbour, and could remember catching the ferry with my mum when I was little, looking over at the jellyfish bobbing to the surface as the ferry sliced through the swell.
Our surroundings suddenly became a shade darker; we looked around and saw the tungsten filament dying out in the floodlights above the swimming pool. The clock at the end of the pool was pointing pretty close to 12.
I said, “I’ve been wanting to go to the beach for the last few days, the weather has been so great; and I felt annoyed that I hadn’t gone. So it’s funny that I’ve ended up at the water tonight.”
“Ha!” she said. “This is nothing like the beach! That’s why I like working night shift. I go all the time. Can’t you tell by my tan?” She took a drag of her cigarette.
“Well,” I said, “I knew you liked swimming! I always see your cossie and towel on the line.”
She pulled her head back a bit: “That’s not very neighbourly of you to notice.”
I went bright red. “Sorry, that sounds terrible! I don’t mean it in a creepy way. I just notice things really easily.”
“I’m kidding Max! I only don’t like it when people steal my bras, which sometimes happens.” The horn of a boat sounded in the distance. “So, what do you do for work?”
“I’m in a library.”
“No — just a cataloger.”
“Isn’t that boring? You must really like books.”
“I do, most of the time. But I like other things, too.”
“I’m reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt at the moment. Have you read that?”
“No – but I’ve heard it’s meant to be good.”
I could see that Melanie was trying to hold back a smirk; she was looking down at my shirt, an attempt to shift whatever she was finding amusing, out of her mind. And up until now, I knew she hadn’t taken me very seriously. She thought I was just a boy, not a serious contender. But yet, the questions kept coming.
“Do you do anything else? Any hobbies?”
“I like writing. I’m researching the history of analogue synthesizers.”
This made her grin. “That sort of sounds counter-productive. Wouldn’t it make more sense to be playing one?”
“Well I can – I’m just not that great at them. I’ve recorded a few songs, but it’s just for fun.”
“What sort of music?”
“Sort of what you might call, synth-pop and Italo disco.”
Now this really did make her laugh. “I’m Italian, and I don’t even know what that is. I know synth-pop, like Duran Duran – but what’s Italo disco?”
“Well, to put it simply, it’s just a kind of music that’s like synth-pop, but it was made mostly by Italians. They made it after disco had died out in America. You see, people in Europe still wanted to dance to this kind of music, so these guys used the cheap synthesizers that were just coming out, to making disco-styled music. It was a win-win for everyone. Then the Americans and Canadians started buying it back for their underground clubs.”
Melanie put out her cigarette, and produced a small container from her tote bag, which she locked her cigarette butt away in. “That’s some strange sounding stuff, Max. I’d love to hear some, some time.”
“You might already have heard some. Groups like Pet Shop Boys and New Order were influenced by it. They used to hear it at gay night clubs they went to in London.”
“Well, I love New Order, so I’m sure I’ll like this music.” She stood up. “Come on, let’s get going. You don’t mind driving me back, do you?”
“No, not at all.”
We walked back along the boardwalk to my car, passing the park and the orange-lit pylon. The boys drinking were gone. Seagulls circled in the lights above the bridge, as a train rattled over.
Glancing up at station, I knew that there was a 1930 marker sitting above the mouth of the entrance, marking the year the station opened. My attractive neighbour had brought me to one of the best suburbs of Sydney.
Parking in the same spot, the streetlights were back on. Everyone had gone back to bed. The two cats asleep again under the jeep.
Melanie and I cut across the lawn, into the building, where we stopped next to my door.
“If you wait a moment, I’ll grab some Italo disco that you can borrow. I know you can easily look this stuff on Spotify, but still . . . ”
And then I felt her hand on my arm. My head instantly felt like it had filled with helium and my heart raced. “Come up to my flat for a little while, if you want.”
“Sure,” I said.
And I followed her up the stairs to the third floor, both of us treading quietly. She unlocked her front door. I took a few steps into the dark while she went for the switch of a corner lamp. Her room lit up, and she turned on the air-con, slipping out of her shoes.
“That’s heaps better. Do you want a gin and tonic?”
Melanie opened the door of the fridge, and then said, “Hey you didn’t get your milk!”
“You said you needed to get some milk earlier on.”
“Oh, yes I did! It’s okay — I’ll get it tomorrow.”
“I’m surprised anyone drinks milk any more.”
“I’m surprised anyone smokes!”
She laughed. “It’s the hospitality business. It’s very stressful. If you don’t smoke, then usually you end up stress-eating or becoming an alcoholic. I’m going to quit soon, but I just need to get my life a bit more sorted out.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing,” she snapped quickly, but not rudely. I’d crossed a boundary. She’d been a stranger up until tonight; a stranger who had told me off. I wondered if she even remembered that.
She handed me my drink, put her own drink down on the coffee table, and picked up her phone. “So come on, tell me one of these Italo disco tracks.”
“Okay,” I said, sipping my drink. “Try Stranger in a Strange Land by N.O.I.A.”
She tapped at her phone, connected her blue tooth speaker, and set her phone down in a cradle by the television screen.
The music came on.
Melanie picked her drink back up, and tilted her head a little bit.
“This is alright. You’re right. It is like synth-pop – just with an Italian accent.”
“Cheers,” she said, and tapped her glass with mine. She drew her feet up onto the crème lounge. She was wearing black slacks, and a blue cotton blouse, with purple straps sometimes slipping out onto her shoulders, freckled like her face. She also had long attractive feet with red painted nails.
I drank my drink, and then she made another for both of us. We both drank this quickly too, and she made a third, bringing the gin and the bottle of tonic water over to the coffee table, with a melting tray of ice, the water quickly soaked up by the unvarnished wood of the table.
Whatever app she was using was on auto-pilot, pulling up more Italo disco tracks, but shifting onto English stuff as well, some tracks that I had not heard before; but we were both feeling relaxed, as the air-con blew down on us, and the drinks went to our head.
“So Max, you probably remember me getting angry at you.”
“Yes, I do remember that,” I laughed nervously. “I actually thought you’d forgotten about it, or not remembered who I was.”
Melanie leaned a bit closer. “I do know who you are – and I’m sorry about that. I didn’t realize that you were only renting. You looked like someone who would own their own flat. You always look smart.”
“That’s just a mirage. I dress like that for my job. I guess I like to look neat and tidy. But I used to be more of a wildcard when I was younger.”
“I noticed!” She laughed. “Your t-shirt. That’s not a retro one, is it? You’re not wearing it ironically.”
“No.” I laughed and looked down at the faded Iron Maiden t-shirt. “At first I thought I was — But then I noticed the shirt just made me feel good; it reminded me of the past.” Smoothing the t-shirt out, I added, “I guess that’s what getting older is: not caring any more.”
“Or caring about the right things,” she replied quickly. “That’s what happens. You begin to realize how important it is to do the things that make you feel happy.”
“Like going to the beach regularly.”
“Well, I’m Italian. I love the sun!”
She inched a little closer, leaning over me to pour another drink. She spilt a little bit of the gin, and mopped it up with the bottom tip of her blouse. “Here you go.” She handed me another glass. I drank it quickly, and before even knowing what I had done, we had leaned into a kiss. I felt her fingers move around to rest gently on the back of my neck, as my arms hooked under hers to meet near the crook of her back. Beneath the cotton fabric I could feel the plastic clip of her bra, and my fingers clicked it out of its resting place.
Melanie pulled away from me for a moment, magically drew off her bra through the sleeve of her blouse – then leaned back into kiss me, her breasts still under cotton, pushing against me.
We kissed for a long time; it was like drinking cool water from a tap.
Then in the next moment, we were lifting off our clothes, throwing them aside, and edging our way into her bedroom, turning the light off on the way.
We fell down onto her bed, and the first thing I noticed was there were no bedsprings; just a slight squeak of wooden slats as the mattress absorbed our weight, and then nothing much else, other than the sounds of us.
For a moment, I saw out the window the silhouette of dark buildings, and I imagined a pile of books by my desk at work — and suddenly those quiet slats were fine by me, I loved them as much as anything else.