I went to visit my aunty today.
It was hot and overcast when I left home at around 1pm. Rail-work was being done, so I knew the trip would be long, but I didn’t mind that. Never have. It’s a point of constant contention in my family that I do not drive, that I am obstinate in my refusal to get a license or a car. They love the damn things, these metal beasts with their black breath, recycled air and leather-belted convenience. Comfort traps, I call them. Corrugated coffins in the making. Consequently, every visit, we have the same conversation.
Comfort traps, I call them. Corrugated coffins in the making.
“Have you got your license yet?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“How can you not want to? How?” Their incomprehension and disgust is palpable.
“How can you just…walk everywhere? And catch the damn bus.”
Here’s the thing. I love walking. I love the simple pleasure of moving, of feeling my legs at full stretch. I’m a tall guy – being able to move in fullness is a luxury I crave. In that sense, I hate most modern modes of travel, which seem built under the premise of ‘fast and tiny’ but with the paradoxical desire to cram as many people within as possible. Even walking in the city is a hassle most days, with the amount of people crowding the sidewalk. I always feel as though I’m half-a-breath short, as though if I could only just get past this old lady, and that couple there, into that little pocket of space, I just might be able to fit one full step in.
Walking unimpeded is, I think, my greatest pleasure. It’s a rare but simple magic. Not that cars and buses and trains don’t have their own spells to weave, they’re just of a different nature. With trains, especially the longer trips, I can sit in the main carriage, extend my legs, open a book and fall into another world. And that’s perfectly all right with me. So I caught the train to Olympic Park, a bus from there to Merrylands, another train to Liverpool, and a second bus the rest of the way. This bus didn’t go as far as the route I normally catch but that was okay. It was ready, and there, so I took it.
Walking unimpeded is, I think, my greatest pleasure. It’s a rare but simple magic.
It never fails to surprise me how much sensory-memory a place can contain. The bus dropped me outside Casula Mall, a huge building surrounding by an even larger car park, and in front of a dental clinic. As soon I saw it, I felt a flash of remembered pain in my teeth, and my gums ached. I could smell that horrible antiseptic air, could feel it creeping down my throat. And then I was off, and it was forgotten, and the sun was out in full force. I put away my book, a re-read of American Gods, a story full of its own everyday magics, and walked up the hill, over a bridge, and down my aunty’s street.
It’s a walk I’ve taken a hundred thousand times, each time a different age, each time a slightly different shape, so that by now, it’s no longer an expanse of metres to be crossed but a walk through space and time and self. Each trip has laid a latticework of memory and emotion into the cement, into the air, so that now it is heavy with remembered observations and experiences. For instance, I recall one time when, just past the bridge, at the very top of the hill, I got punched in the face by my brother’s ex-girlfriend.
it’s no longer an expanse of metres to be crossed but a walk through space and time and self.
I was only about 10 at the time, just minding my own business, thought I’d go down to the mall to see if my cousins were there and out of nowhere a red buggy car comes screeching to a halt in front of me and out she storms, this tall 16-year-old Latina girl, and says, “when you see your brother, give him this.” And punched me in the face. I’m not quite sure if I fell or if I just stood there in shock. It was as odd a thing as has ever happened to me. Hell, maybe that’s even part of the reason I hate cars.
Her logic was flawed, regardless. The likelihood of my punching my older, bigger brother in the face as a courtesy to her was never strong – I’d only have earned myself another for the trouble. I found him just a little ways down the road and told him and he seemed as perplexed as I felt, and probably a little relieved too. So many memories, so many emotions, all extending in front of and behind me, all being re-experienced in some measure and all from the simple chance that I decided to take the bus that was in front of me this day, and not the one I usually do.
So, I arrive at my aunty’s (and to my point, I promise), and I eat and make the usual small talk. After a while, my cousin arrives and we’re sitting there when my aunty gets up, and goes into the kitchen. From the corner of my eye, I see her standing at the kitchen sink, but my attention is focused on the television and the cricket. I’m thinking, who the fuck can stand to watch this? How is it still a thing? It’s a marvel, really. The camera pans over a half-shirtless crowd, beer bottles and cans in hand, and I think, ah. Maybe that’s it. Then, my aunty babbles something in Arabic, and says ‘Come, ma’shallah, come. Let me show you something. Jalal, Omar, both of you, come.’
My cousin, who still lives here (with his wife, no less), grunts. “What?”
“Come here, now! By the grace of God, come, let me show you.”
So we trudge into the kitchen, and follow her out into the backyard and now, somehow, my cousin seems to have divined her intent. “You’ll see now, you Jewish dog.” He’s behind me, she in front, and I say how I feel like I’m being taken out to get shot. The sun bears down, and the yard is long, uneven, and broken – a mixture of browns and greens. In the middle of it, a large metal contraption sits, empty. Four dull-red (rusted through) metal poles connect to a square that once held a sagging patchwork of smaller mesh squares for vine leaves to grow into.
My aunty leads us to the furthest of the four metal poles, where a fledgling vine leaf plant has only just started to grow. Some plastic blue fibres hang from the top of the structure down, and as we lean in, my aunty points to the vine leaf plant, which has, seemingly of its own volition, stretched out connecting tissue to entwine securely around the fibre. As though it sensed a way up to the sky, and took it. “Look at this, just the other week I planted it, and look how it’s tied on.” It did indeed look like tiny hands had carefully taken one fragile strand of plant and wrapped it around the fibre but I was thoroughly unimpressed. Yet, to my aunty, it was evidence of God, evidence of magic most extraordinary.
Who was I to discount it? Just five minutes earlier, I’d asked her what her youngest daughter was getting up to now that she was married and she said, “Nothing, the usual. Her husband works, she shops and cooks and cleans. Like I used to.” The lack of inflection in her voice, her tired eyes, and general resignation was enough to drive a wedge of ice into my chest. Here was the banality I’d fled from my whole life, and dear god, how it terrified me. I thought of that deadness, and looked at her now, in the sun, staring down with shining wonder at a tiny flowering plant and realised whole worlds spanned those last five minutes.
Here was the banality I’d fled from my whole life, and dear god, how it terrified me.
My cousin, a muscular, bearded gnome of a man – bald head shining – was pointing out a tree he’d planted further back, and exclaiming as though it too, was magical. “Only put it in – how long ago, mum? – a few weeks ago and look at it.”
I nod and smile and actually, it’s not for show. There is a power and a beauty in the ordinariness of growing things – in that we should ever consider ordinary the ludicrous nature of plants and fruits and things flowering, twisting and winding out of dirt to give shape to everything we need. Sometimes, it might be certain nutrients. Sometimes, it might be faith. Another time, I might have scoffed at my aunty, but not today – how could I, when here I stood luxuriating in my ability to time travel, to remember at that very moment:
– ‘Red’, the pitbull we used to own, leaping and bounding around the yard
– The metal beams when they were shiny and new and carpeted in dense green foliage
– My grandma’s plump shape on a step-ladder, pruning and collecting the leaves
– That awful day with the spider and the clothes on the washing line
– Endless fights, endless BBQs, and small plastic pools
This yard fairly pulses with remembrance, flickering with my past selves, and theirs, and life. So I say nothing and when my aunty takes my arm as we go back inside and says, “Now listen, I want to visit you in Jannah (heaven), so please straighten up,” I just smile.
She has her own kind of everyday magic, and I have mine.