When I got home that afternoon the house was stuffy with the day’s heat. I was living in a rented house in the canyons that year, with a patio out back that caught the sun all day long. I went around opening windows, and mixed a whisky sour, heavy on the whisky. Then I sat on the sofa, shirt unbuttoned, watching the breeze play against the net curtains and wondering what had happened to make the world such a sordid place.
Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Raymond Chandler. I don’t live in 1950’s LA. I live near Melbourne, Australia. I’m not a private detective; I’m a teacher. I don’t work from a dingy office; I work at a language school in the city. Right on the corner of Queen and Bourke.
Yet today’s world is a mixed-up place. As mixed up as Chandler’s was. In Mexico, a government official is to be charged with supplying hospitals distilled water instead of chemotherapy medicine for children; The Gambia is in turmoil; Syria is beyond words. Today we see the stupid US stupid Presidential stupid Inaugu stupid Ration. Today I read that Thailand has roads less lethal than only one other country on Earth — Libya, where presumably explosives are a traffic hazard — and thought of my smart, charming Thai students with their deep humour, their gentleness, their study goals.
Today I said goodbye to some of those students at 1.15 on Bourke Street and trotted across the road to meet a friend for lunch at the GPO. Twenty minutes later this strip of asphalt would be the scene of the kind of carnage that the city of Melbourne, located at the arse end of an underpopulated island at the arse end of the world, has seen maybe once or twice in its short, dull history.
I was lunching maybe 50m from the wrong side of the road, and even when the choppers snarled overhead I refused to believe there was any threat to the typically Melbourne alleyway cafe where my friend and I were eating. People deserted tables en masse, yet I knew in my heart that whatever the sirens outside meant, it wasn’t a terror attack. I perhaps stubbornly continue to maintain that Australians are too lazy, too well-fed and too un-philosophical for such acts, and that those who haven’t yet achieved the degree of leisurely ease that preempts the perpetration of generalised terror are suitably surveilled by the state. The timely foiling of the Christmas plot on Flinders Street is a case in point.
Indeed, I was right in that: it wasn’t a terror attack. It was a doughnut-driving moron mowing down pedestrians wholesale, and giving the old Aussie saying “busy as Bourke Street in peak hour” a heart-stopping new meaning.
The fact that Christine Nixon, Victoria’s former Police Commissioner, happened to be walking the pavement at the time was hardly surprising. In the aftermath we find ourselves reminded how small Melbourne actually is — as people posted to social media about their safety, and I overhead conversations on trains and trams, I realised that just about everyone would know someone who was there, or someone who knew someone who was there. Whatever graces we confer on Melbourne, it seems it’s still just a big country town with pretences of Paris.
Later, my lunch date called me. She told me we were lucky, but I didn’t feel it. Christine Nixon, stepping out of the vehicle’s path, was lucky. Those near but not killed were lucky. My friend and I were never in danger. Yet, looking down my form in the bath hours later (a whisky sour in the bath is my cure for everything) I realised that all my self-possession, all my strength, lies in the fact that so far, my body has not been violated. Against the majority — victims of rape, violence, road accident, genetics, cancer — I’m unbelievably fortunate. I do not yet know that sense of bodily invasion, the loss of ownership that must inevitably be felt when fate — or fucker — intervenes in your physicality. So I am lucky — extraordinarily so.
It’s a strange day when a maniac in a car in a pedestrian zone in peak hour becomes more explicable than the fact that you were eating a pizza on the other side of the street. Why was I not on the wrong side of Bourke? On the wrong side of the law? On the wrong side of lucky? It’s a good question, but one that quickly becomes problematic. In this equation, the “wild car chase” is the constant. Your own location is the incalculable variable. Suddenly nothing makes sense. Life is simply chaos.
On the train home after the event I tapped on the video of the driver doing doughnuts at Flinders Street. I watched circle after circle while listening to another train passenger call friends and tell them she was there, she saw it — all with the calm disbelief of someone who needs to normalise — and wondering if I should go and talk with her.
But the video engrossed me. I watched the people standing watching the car, obviously bewildered, bemused, and I watched a figure with a baseball bat run into the road to try to strike the vehicle and stop it. Choppers blatted in the tinny phonecam soundtrack — the police were there — but here was an ordinary person who knew bad news when they saw it and was willing to take the risk. To try.
If only, I thought, remembering the defunct pram on its side in news photos of the crime scene, and wishing — as so many must be now — that time could be rolled back. If only. But fuck it, baseball bat guy, you had the balls. You, of all these bystanders, tried. And tried when there was still a little time. The merest sliver, perhaps, but enough.
Nothing is fated, after all. Life is chaos.
Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Chandler. By the time I got off the train, the woman had given up calling her friends. She was sitting side-on in her seat, facing the window, her eyes on the gold-cropped, perfect plains that raced past in the evening sun.