By Helen Garner
Edited by Sophie Cunningham
If you happened to be driving from the city to the Melbourne Cup, you’d whisk through our shopping centre, Newmarket, in the twinkling of an eye.
It’s a block and a half of Racecourse Road in Flemington, an old-fashioned street of peeling two-storey Victorian buildings. It’s got a few nice trees, but apart from its sprinkling of Asian and African restaurants and its small, hard-core caffeine outlets, it’s just a classic, modest, suburban strip where you can buy booze or food or a newspaper, return a library book, or catch public transport to the city. The 57 tram runs along it, and the Craigieburn train line crosses it on a bridge near the huge old pub, the mighty Doutta Galla.
On Racecourse Road, Chinese and Somali grocers unload deliveries to their battling stores. The opshop ladies patiently scoop up armfuls of useless clothes dumped at their door under cover of night. Druggies and their dealers slink along close to the gutter. Bulked-up gym junkies bound out on to the pavement and stare at the world with unblinking eyes. Old alkies sprawl spitting and cursing on the bench outside the pawnshop.
I can get a nod or a smile or a good morning out of most of these citizens, but the newer ones, people who move along the street in fluttering ankle-length robes and white embroidered caps, or with their heads shrouded in scarves or grandly bound in folds of stiff striped cloth, tend to practise what I think of as guardianship of the eyes. Not that there’s hostility: my anxious grandson bounced out of his first day at primary school and declared that he had ‘made two friends, one white and one brown’; and at school concerts the women in hijab laugh and whoop with us and ululate at the kids in their wacky home-made costumes. But on the street there’s little or no cross-cultural eye contact, none of the mutual acknowledgement I’m always longing for—until the day when, for a reason nobody could have foreseen, it burst out among us.
My grand-daughter and I stepped out of a café at ten o’clock one morning.
Something was wrong, we could feel it. Where was the noise?
Traffic had slowed and stopped. Fifty metres away, under the railway bridge, a cluster of police cars was parked nose to tail in a triangle: they seemed to be protecting something on the ground.
Robed men and taxi drivers were spilling out of the Sudanese café. One of them saw us hesitating. Instead of blanking me in the customary way, he looked me right in the eye, held my gaze, and said in a low voice, ‘Somebody jump.’
The traffic lights at the bridge were blinking emergency. My grand-daughter, in a panic, leaned forward to break into a run, but we could not get home without passing the cop cars. A crowd was gathering on the intersection, lining up along the pavement edge, every head turned towards the three cars and whatever it was they were shielding. The girl pushed through and took to her heels up the crescent. I stayed.
Shoulder to shoulder we stood, women, men, pressing close on the pavement, breathing together in silence. Some people’s mouths were open, seeking more air. Everybody needed to stare. I wriggled forward to the gutter. On the black bitumen, in the space that the cop cars were guarding, lay a deflated hump of orangey-brown cloth. A small woman beside me, tightly shawled and scarved, turned a stark face to me and whispered, ‘He dead?’ ‘I think so.’ She kept staring at me. Her eyes filled with tears, and so did mine. I wanted to put my arm around her, or take her hand, but we just stood there, packed in with the rest too tight to move, all of us strangers except that someone had jumped from our bridge, and broken himself on our road.
An ambulance slid in. Men in uniforms and hi-vis milled about in the shadow of the bridge, trying to make themselves into a screen. But when the paramedics lifted the hump off the bitumen, an arm flopped out. People uttered gasps and low cries. It was a white arm, or rather, pink: a young man’s arm, hairless, chubby, with a small tattoo near the shoulder. Hastily the ambos covered it and loaded him into the vehicle. The doors slammed and they drove away.
The crowd let out its breath, and began to loosen. Nobody was speaking, but faces of every colour, age and gender were open, chins high, eyes wide and undefended, heads turning this way and that, glances meeting and holding. People needed to look at each other. It was as if we were reluctant to disperse until someone had made a sign of reverence, some symbolic gesture understood by all of us that would express our horror, and fear, and pity, and more than that, a sudden comradeliness, the solidarity of the living.
I called the police station. I said I was a writer who had seen the dead man on the road and wanted to tell the story of how his death had momentarily changed things. But the police officer said, ‘We don’t give out details of suicides. So there’s nothing I can tell you.’ I took a breath to say I didn’t want his name, only his age, but I knew the cop had a lot of other things to deal with, and I didn’t want him to think I was some sort of morbid nutcase, so I hung up.
When I got home my grand-daughter and her mother were sitting entwined on the couch, not talking, just looking out into the garden.
I joined them and we watched the lorikeets squabbling in the branches of the palm tree. In a while I walked back to Racecourse Road to buy something for dinner. The shopkeeper was a sweet, warm, funny man who knew everyone’s name and circumstance. We talked in whispers about the man who had jumped, perhaps he was only young, we thought, perhaps even a teenager, for some reason we felt sure he was very young, oh, his poor parents. I knew nothing about the shopkeeper’s family but suddenly he began to talk about one of his children, a boy whose illness he, the shopkeeper, had always stoutly maintained was only something that his wife was imagining, that there was nothing wrong with him, nothing at all – but she had insisted and now they had a diagnosis, and then the shopkeeper began to cry and I cried too and we stood there facing each other over the counter, wiping away our tears, and he handed me my parcel and I gave him the money, and I thought, as I walked home again beside the railway line, trying to think of a prayer or a poem or some words with meaning, that the boy who jumped had cracked us all open, that conversations like mine and the shopkeeper’s, gentle revelations and exchanges of sorrow, were probably happening in every shop on the street and every house and flat in the suburb, and that this was the boy’s gift to us, although he could not know it; and although it would be of little comfort to his family, I wished they could know that a tide of sorrow for their boy had passed through our whole neighbourhood and broken our hearts and joined them to each other, even if only for one short hour.