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Edition 39

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Small city/Large town

MOST MORNINGS, AFTER dropping my kids at school, I walk up on the Domain – a raised strip of bush land that runs the length of Hobart's CBD on one side, and the Derwent on the other. There's a loop of tracks I have picked out, muddy or dry, depending on the time of year, which snake through the bush. Over the nearly three years I've lived here, rains have plumped up the grasses and added entirely new blues and greens to the vegetation.

Walking hard up steep dirt paths, arriving at the crest and making my way back down – with a nod to Mount Wellington on my right – I feel at one with everyone who has ever appreciated natural beauty. And yet I also feel alone in a way that even a good family life, which I have, prohibits. While I'm walking I forget everything that identifies me in the city laid out below. For that half hour I'm just myself walking, taking in the landscape.

My children are nearly teenagers, which should make me an old hand at rushed school breakfasts. And yet even though I've cooked breakfast in a rush these past ten years, each morning my cortisol soars as I try in vain to pack an hour's activity – boiled egg, jam toast, school notices, water bottles, packed lunches, musical instruments, sports clothes, stray bits of homework, multivitamins, and bag packing – into the forty minutes remaining. At 8am the ABC newsreader butts in to tell us that more Australian troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and that there is absolutely no certainty about the day's weather.

 

THE MORNING MY story opens is more rushed than usual. I drop my kids off, late, climb the hill on to the Domain, and head for the loos by the sports oval – rather than left up my usual track. Pushing open the heavy outer door of the women's toilet block, two faces turn to meet mine, blinking into the light. One man is kneeling, the other standing. They are in the middle of having sex. The kneeling man blinks at me like an owl. 'Whoa!' I say, fairly loudly. And then, 'sorry,' as I turn on my heel and back out.

My thoughts are in a mess as I head towards The Soldiers Walk, a gravel path that follows the spine of the hill to the edge of the city below. Here I am, a middle-aged woman, feeling exactly as I did at twelve walking home from school, flashed at by a man in a raincoat. A long raincoat. Standing in front of the last commemorative plaque on The Soldiers Walk I read about Patrick Clark, a young man who died defending his country in his late teens in Egypt. Much younger, it strikes me, than the two men I've just encountered in the toilet block.

In my previous life – before having the family that now defines what I care about most – I interviewed Andrea Dworkin in a hotel in Cadogan Square. We liked each other immediately. Her stare, fierce yet kind, met mine over her blue dungarees. For a brief two hours history threw us together in her swish London hotel room. She talked passionately about men's inhumanity towards women, and only incidentally about her book on pornography – the prompt for our interview. She also turned a few questions on me. It was as if she recognised, as I then couldn't, that life was yet to happen to me. As a young feminist I warmed to her forthright vulnerability – for daring to wear her heart on her sleeve. I admired her refusal to wear women's clothes, and was touched by her vanity when the photographer entered with his lights and tripod.

What, I ask myself, standing in front of Patrick Clark's newly planted fir tree, would Andrea Dworkin have said about what I've just witnessed in the women's toilet block? Outrage at two gay men meeting in a women's public space? Surprise that despite gay liberation gay men still choose to meet this way? Or might she be struck by how far society has shifted – that what was a public offence when Patrick Clark grew up in Elizabeth Street North Hobart, is now broadly accepted?

 

DEPENDING ON YOUR mood, Hobart is a small city or a large town. Making my way back down the hill, Hobart spread itself out like a large town before me. In a small city you can escape and enjoy a degree of privacy as you go about your day. In a large town you cannot. As an Adelaide girl, I understand this difference very well.

By lunchtime I'm still bothered by the morning's incident. Knowing that my husband and I are due for dinner with two gay friends that evening, I decide to talk it through with him – to prevent me blurting it out that night. Pushing open his study door he looks up and frowns. Conscious that he doesn't like being disturbed when he's working – and even more when he isn't – I get straight to the point. Within an instant he turns the situation round. 'Do you,' he asks, 'usually use public toilets?'

'Well, yes,' I reply, sensing where this is going, 'sometimes.'

'Of course,' he continues, seeing my reaction, 'it's not a very nice experience for you. But don't you think that part of your upset comes from not being able to imagine two people so desperate for sex that they'd take that kind of risk?'

He has me there and he knows it. I turn to leave his study. At the door I look back. 'But why,' I ask, 'didn't they lock the door from the inside? They must have known anyone could walk in. Did they want someone to interrupt them? Was that part of their excitement?'

'No,' he replies, 'I don't see why. How many people could be expected to use a women's public toilet at 8.45 on a Friday morning? I bet it's hardly ever used. You, and they, were just unlucky.'

'Oh great,' I reply, no nearer closure. Which is probably why I bring it up at dinner that night with our gay friends – who, I might add, act far more like a married couple than my husband and I do. Not at the beginning of dinner, when the elder of the two does most of the talking, but later on, once the embers are glowing and the evening has softened.

'Ha!' the elder man says, pouncing on my story. 'Didn't you know that the Domain is the place – the only place, really, where men can meet up casually like that? And of course,' he adds, flourishing his hand, 'they were in the women's toilets. Because if they'd been in the men's toilets, they'd risk being bashed up.'

'Right,' I say, looking deep into my glass.

'Why,' he persists, 'don't people bat an eyelid at people being gay these days, when just fifteen years ago it was a criminal offence – in this state at least?' He's in his familiar huff. It's almost as if he feels let down by society's lack of interest. Is this indifference, he asks, feigned? Is it a sign of our greater civility as a society? Or is it simply that most people these days are just too busy to judge other people's sexual lives?

'Perhaps,' I reply, looking at my watch and giving a thought to our babysitter. 'But it's also that we don't feel we have the right to an opinion on what others do in private. It's not really a subject that you can be right about, is it?'

It's cold and wet on leaving our friends' warm lair. Stars dot the sky. At home, my son is playing chess with our babysitter's boyfriend, sprawling on the couch and pretending not to be tired.

 

THE WEEKEND PASSES, as always, too quickly. Early the next week I have a magazine interview that I'm nervous about, and so book a haircut to brace myself (female logic). It's ages since I've had a proper haircut, having taken to cutting my own hair years ago now. But, once in a while, I like to see what a real hairdresser will do.

The hairdresser is having lunch when I arrive, finishing off with a caramel slice. We introduce ourselves and I sit in the chair. Yes, I tell him, I want a short cut. But not severe, I add, recalling a few London cuts when I'd suggested a short cut and left the salon feeling shorn. Fine, he says, as he pulls out pieces of hair from different points on my head. Then he pulls out his scissors and starts cutting – after I explain that I need to be out of the salon in half an hour's time.

The only two in the salon, our conversation immediately drops into intimacies. 'My mother has always spoiled me,' he says, apropos of not very much.

'Do you,' I ask, curious, 'feel spoiled?'

'Yes I think I do,' he says simply. 'My mother left a violent relationship and then went on to do well in real estate. She's still gorgeous, you know. She's only fifty-three.' He stands on one leg and waves his scissors towards the window, as if she might pass by at any time. 'As soon as my sister and I could drive she bought us new cars. And then, last year, she helped me to buy my own flat. Oh, and a couple of years ago she came up to Sydney and encouraged me to leave a bad relationship. She knows me so well. I feel so grateful to her.'

He pauses while his scissors fly over my hair. When I look up into the mirror it's to catch his face, not mine. 'Of course I'm gay, you know.'

'Mmm,' I reply.

'It's hard in Hobart,' he continues. 'Everyone knows everyone. The pool is so small that, apart from passers through, there really isn't anyone around who hasn't had a relationship with someone you've had a relationship with.' And he looks me in the eyes through the mirror, scissors straight up like Edward Scissorhands.

I sympathise with him. But I also admit that I like Hobart for all the things he doesn't like about it. 'I like it for everything that thirty years ago I left Adelaide to escape.' 'What do you mean, exactly?' he asks.

'Oh, bumping into people I know in the street, socialising with people from different walks of life, and also living up to my own expectation of a good life, rather than following the prompts that large cities, like London, issue daily. And', I finish, 'I especially like that my son can ride his bike to school across the city, and that my daughter can walk most of the way home with friends – without my having to worry about them. It was worth coming just for that.'

'Nor,' I add, starting to talk too much, 'do I think that life is necessarily better elsewhere. Perhaps it's because I'm a bit older than you, and have already lived elsewhere. Perhaps it's because my husband travels a lot and I see first-hand how unsettling that can be.'

'So,' he asks, 'you don't think I should leave for somewhere bigger?'

I pause, sensing we are getting in deep. 'Well,' I reply, 'I did that myself when I left Adelaide for London in my early twenties. But, in retrospect, I find that I really admire the friends who were able to stay and do their growing up at home.'

'Do you,' I ask, partly to change the subject, 'find hairdressing satisfying?'

He laughs and moves from foot to sneakered foot. 'Yeah, I suppose I do.'

'I guess,' I continue, 'it depends a lot on your clients.'

'Absolutely,' he returns, and quickens his pace of cutting as he notices me glance at my watch.

I'm five minutes late to interview the conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in his white, asymmetrical, windowless office. Tiny bits of hair, my daughter gleefully tells me later, speckle my face. The conductor, Marko Letonja, is charm incarnate, bowing to my questions without a trace of misgiving.

That evening, my daughter and I sit in the orchestra's auditorium for a family concert. The presenter teases the more serious Marko at the podium. The suite of music, playful yet ambitious, holds the young squirming audience in something close to silence.

On the way home my daughter tells me repeatedly that my new haircut makes me look like an egg. Because of my rushed day, it isn't until everyone is in bed and the music has stopped ringing in my ears that I peer into the bathroom mirror and see just how short my hair is. As short as the Vidal Sassoon studio cuts from my London days. Except that now my incoming grey hair is clearly visible – which could be what my children don't like.

The next morning it's the same mad school rush – made slightly worse due to the concert the night before. When I look into the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand, I think it must be someone else. My hair is just as short as the day before, shorter even after being flattened in sleep. But it's not until I'm on the Domain, with rocks underfoot and wattles breaking into yellow all around, that I tumble to what's really been bothering me.

It's not that my hair is a lot shorter than I wanted – no, it's something much more narrative driven. Something almost Ruth Rendell. Something that my unconscious has been telling me since I walked into the hairdresser on Monday and the hairdresser put down his caramel slice – brushing his hands and apologising for eating.

Wasn't it the hairdresser who'd been in the women's toilets six mornings ago – having a rendezvous before the salon opened? Wasn't he the younger man standing behind the older kneeling man? Of course, I thought to myself, almost falling down the hill made muddy with rain. And was that why he gave me a half-price haircut and offered me himself in conversation so readily – and myself to him?

I'd been wearing the same grey felt cap when I walked into the toilet block as, five days later, into the salon. How could he not have recognised me? I laughed aloud – not that anyone could hear me. How dumb I've been, I thought to myself. And how I wish, my thought continued, as I re-entered the town below, I could talk to Andrea Dworkin now.


From Griffith Review Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review