A Space For Change


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Wiley Park hides shyly behind a screen of native trees at a corner where two major roads in suburban Sydney meet on a ridge and the park drops away below sight. Col had enjoyed the surprise of discovering it, immediately fallen in love with it and, after getting the job at Roselands Post Office not far away, she’d taken a lease on a flat nearby. It had felt the right thing to do, even though it now took more than an hour on public transport to meet up with her city friends.

Life had been tough at times in the city and, after only a week in the new job, the outdoor life of a postie felt good. What’s more, Mary, one of the counter staff, had welcomed her with “Ask me anything, love. No question’s too dumb.”

“I’ve been homeless and busking on the streets since I pissed off from the farm,” she thought.  “It was so good to get away from the old rentals back then. Dad couldn’t keep his hands off me, and mum was no help. This is heaps better.”

She would have liked to stay on the farm in Bega but it had been passed down to the men and she didn’t want to work for her brother who was next in line.  His attitude to women was just like their dad’s. Her great, great grandfather had bought it after his boot making business in Ireland had gone bust. He’d sailed to Melbourne and the goldfields, bringing with him his optimism, his wife and six children. However, there weren’t many riches left for novices like him, and they soon returned to Melbourne.  That was in 1891, when the economic boom came crashing down here, too. The banks collapsed, the family lost their savings and there was no work to be found.

Then their luck had turned. A cousin offered work and lodgings at his farm in southern NSW. They uprooted themselves yet again, far less hopeful than when they first arrived in Australia.  Yet over the years the farm had flourished under the care of successive generations of her family. Active in the community, they followed the Irish tradition and extended their activism into politics, and her grandfather had been elected as an independent MP in State Parliament. Col had never tired of hearing these stories and the political arguments at home. They helped form her attachment to the land and to politics.

When she’d first arrived in Sydney she’d made new friends and had some wild adventures in a squat in Pyrmont. She’d become involved in demos, political meetings and producing a left wing newspaper - not writing, she didn’t have the gift like some of her friends, but taking photos for the articles was hands-on work she enjoyed. After a couple of years, though, she grew tired of the sex, drugs and raging in the squat. She wanted a different life: a regular job, some money for a future, and a space for herself - one that also came with a reliable hot water service and a bath. Maybe she was going soft, bourgeois? Yet she remained committed to her left wing politics. Was she just growing up a bit? She cast aside the questions. Once she knew what she wanted, she always took action. That’s what had saved her in the past.

The first day she caught a train to her new place, Col had seen a small plaque at the railway station describing how the park had been named after John Wiley. He’d bequeathed the land to the local council over a hundred years ago specifically to be used as a park. She felt grateful to him for this gift and, later, more of a connection when she discovered that Wiley had been a bootmaker, just like her great, great grandfather.

Some internet searching revealed that the land belonged to the Bediagal clan of the Dharug language tribe. Pemulwuy, a great warrior of the clan, had speared and killed Governor Phillip’s gamekeeper in 1790. After a reward was offered, he was shot dead in 1802 and his head cut off. Worse still, his head was supposedly sent to England, but had never been found. Col felt angry and guilty about the cruel way people like her ancestors had treated the First People of this land. “I suppose most people thought differently then, but they're still being treated badly, today” she reflected with a sigh. At school she’d had some Aboriginal friends, and had stood up fiercely for them when other kids called them names. Col was tall and strong and not afraid of bullies, suffering occasional injuries with pride. She hoped she wouldn’t have to wait too long to meet some locals.

  Wiley Park wasn’t a rural scene that offered the companionship of a herd of friendly cows, yet she liked the way the park had been thoughtfully developed and obviously valued by its neighbours. Last Sunday there’d been large family groups gathered on picnic rugs, fathers turning meat on barbeques, mothers supervising kids on the playground equipment, circles of women chatting and laughing while tending to their babies, children running freely over the mown grassy lawns, and even a small group of elderly Koreans practising tai chi. Many people were in traditional dress:  Bangladeshi women in colourful tunics and pants, other Muslim women in exotic looking scarves or mysteriously hidden behind black veils and long flowing robes. A couple - the bearded man in tunic, pants and cap striding in front of his wife, her head lowered and completely shrouded in black - had strolled past twice on the path that bordered the stream joining two duck-filled lakes. Col wondered how the woman could possibly be happy, yet all around her she saw evidence that contradicted her concerns.

She didn’t have any Muslim friends and didn’t know much about them, only what she’d read in the Telegraph, and that was usually about terrorism and gangland crimes. Col thought their stories just tried to stir people up - lots of different types of people committed crimes; only a handful of them had been terrorist. More Googling on her phone revealed that Wiley Park’s ethnic identity had begun to change in the 1970s, moving from largely Anglo-Celtic to highly multicultural.  She was bemused to find she was a minority in this new multicultural mix, where 17% of the population in Wiley Park were from Bangladesh, followed closely by Lebanese, Chinese, English, Pakistani, Indian and Vietnamese. The total who shared her Anglo-Celtic ancestry was just 8.4%, not much more than the Chinese.

The block of apartment where Col lived told the same story. After she’d returned from work the other day, Nadia, in No. 1, had invited her in for a cup of tea and proceeded to gossip about the others in the block. What she said confirmed that Col was in the minority there, too. Nadia was from Iraq, settling here with her young family after the Gulf War in the early 1990's. Others in the block were Bangladeshi, Lebanese, Chinese, Indian Fijian. Vietnamese, as well as Indonesian, Iranian, and Serbian.

“And what about you, darling?” Nadia had asked with a loudly lipsticked smile.

“I’m Irish on my dad’s side and English from my mum,” she replied, returning a smile.

“And you are living alone?” she added.                           

Col’s smile faded. She liked Nadia’s warm and friendly nature, but felt irritated by her nosy questions.

“Um, yes,” she replied shortly.

“Ah! Just like me!” she exclaimed, raising her hands. “We are both single. Maybe we can go out one night and find a good looking man?” she added, cackling loudly.

Now Col was becoming annoyed and uncomfortable, not knowing what to say or do next. “Should I take the direct approach?” She mused. “Declare we have nothing much in common. Tell her she assumed wrongly. Explain I live alone but I’m not single. Say I’m not interested in hooking up with a man, I have a girlfriend in Erskineville.”

 For Col, it was none of Nadia’s business and she didn’t want to make it her business. She decided to not react, to take her time getting to know her new neighbours. She soon finished her tea and excused herself, saying she had to make a phone call.

A few days later loud voices jarred Col out of a deep sleep. She lay still, working out where she was. Her eyes fell on the sun gently patterning its way in stripes through the blinds and across her bed.

“Thank goddess for all this”, she thought. “But what the hell is that noise?”

Staggering out of the bedroom, she went through the lounge room and stepped onto the balcony, to look over the edge. Two men were standing in the driveway shouting at each other.

The younger one was one of the students in unit 3. Was his name Ahmed? Asad? Whatever. ‘A man' had been a nuisance the day she moved in. He’d parked closely behind her while she was upstairs unpacking the gear she’d moved over, and he’d then disappeared for a few hours. She’d had to pay for extra car hire because she ended up returning the car late. She’d made sure he knew that she didn’t want it to happen again.

She recognised the other man as her neighbour, Bojan, who she’d met the day she’d moved in.

“Welcome!” he’d called down to her from his balcony as she was unloading her carshare vehicle that day. She’d warmed to him as he added, “We’re a happy little community here. People from all over the world. We get on well together. My name’s Bojan.”

Looking up at him in his checked flannelette shirt, she’d thought, “Bojan, the bogan”, adding wryly to herself, “Watch your classism now, Col. That’s what you are, too. You’re a country girl and you now live in the western suburbs.”

“Do you want some help carrying things?” he’d asked in a strong accent that sounded like it came from somewhere in eastern Europe.

“Gidday Bojan,” she replied. “No, thanks. There’s not much here.”

“Oh, well. If you need anything, just ask. I’m in No. 9” he’d replied, waving as he returned inside.

 “This does seem a friendly community,” she’d thought, her mind going back to when she first arrived in Sydney. “The squat community felt like family at first - maybe a dysfunctional one, but we stuck together. After a while, though, the drug overdoses, the drunken brawls, all the drama got too much. The ‘burbs should be more peaceful, even if boring,” She’d given a small sigh as she’d shouldered her gear and taken it upstairs to her flat.

This morning Bojan was a different person.

“I’ve fucking told you too many times already!” he shouted at ‘A man', who was stepping into his car parked in the driveway. Gathering himself together, Bojan added a little more calmly, “Please! Just stop parking in front of my garage. I’m going to be late for my game of golf because of you.”

With a malevolent sneer, ‘A man' loudly reversed his car away while Bojan stowed his golf clubs, soon taking off in his dual cab ute.

Col went back inside, feeling like she’d come back down to earth. “It’s not all roses and sunshine here, either”, she thought. “Sure, ‘A man' is an inconsiderate prick, but they’re everywhere. The trick," Col added to herself, "is to not expect anything decent from them, not get set up for disappointment and anger.”

There was no point going back to bed. Col ate her breakfast, put on her trackies and sneakers, and left for a workout in the park. She’d only been running for five minutes when she answered a call from her girlfriend.

“Hi, Trish. Long time no see,” Col answered. “Haven’t been able to raise you since I moved. Your phone always goes to voicemail. Wotcha doin’?”

“I’m about to go catch a movie and have lunch in Newtown with Jenny,” Trish replied in a distant voice.

“What’s up? Have you been avoiding me?” Col asked bluntly, with mixed feelings of fear and irritation.

“I’ve been meaning to talk with you but put it off because you were moving.”

“Oh, yeah?” Col asked on the defensive, nervously picking up a threatening undercurrent in Trish’s voice.

“Look, my move wasn’t such a big thing,” Col continued. “Just a couple of suitcases and boxes of household stuff. It didn’t even fill the rental car. But it would have been good if you’d, kind of, even expressed a little interest in helping me move or just come over. My new home is important to me.” Col became aware that moving to Wiley Park felt a bit like coming home after being in exile in the city.

“Yeah,” Trish replied shortly, before moving on to what she’d rung about.

“The thing is, Col, I just don’t feel as connected with you like before,” Trish began. “You’re changing and I don’t feel we have much in common any more. Your move out west into a suburban life isn’t really my thing. None of my friends live out your way and I want to be near people like me. Besides, I wouldn’t feel that safe catching a train to visit you at night. You hear such awful stories.”

“You shouldn’t listen to those kinds of stories, Trish. They’re just rumour and stereotypes.” Col looked for a way to convince her otherwise. “I looked up the crime statistics online before I decided to move here. There are more assaults reported in Erskineville than Wiley Park, and they both have about the same numbers of sexual assault and robberies. The only thing against Wiley Park is violence in the home, where there are a lot more reports of domestic violence than in Erskineville, but weshouldn’t have to worry about that.”

“It’s no use, Col,” Trish replied quickly, shutting off further discussion. “It’s just not working for me any more. I’ve got nothing against you, believe me,” she quickly added, "but just not the one for me.”

After a long silence, Col gave up.

“OK, Trish,” she said briskly, holding back her anger. “I get the message. I’ll text you later about when I can come around and pick up my stuff.”

Col couldn’t say anything more without exploding. She was hurt that Trish had broken it off over the phone, hadn’t had the decency to meet her face-to-face. Yet, under her anger there was a small voice saying that Trish was right. She was becoming a different woman. She wanted a different life, a richer life. She wanted to mix with different people, to settle into this vibrant multicultural environment.

Col zipped her phone back into her bum bag and took off again, feet thumping hard on the concrete path that wound through the park. Trees and bushes flew past in green & brown streaks at the corner of her vision. Whirling thoughts—Trish, the new home, the new job—all receded. She was locked out of her feelings. All she was aware of was her breathing, keeping it even and in time with her steps, pushing her pace to the limit.

Slowly the madness lifted and she saw she was approaching the outdoor gym in the middle of the park. She ran in to sit on the rowing machine and began pulling the levers vigorously. She was surprised to realise she was beginning to feel better already.

“Am I so shallow that I can move on so quickly?” Col thought. “I did fall hard for her when we met at Carol’s party six months ago. But the spark had begun to fizzle when I got the job at the post office.”

‘Roselands!’ Trish had exclaimed in semi-mock horror at the news of her job. “Why on earth would you want to work in the heart of boganville?”

Col had reacted. “Not everyone wants to work with the cafe latte crowd of Erko,” she’d said shortly, immediately regretting her dig at Trish and her friends. She’d wondered if she was being over-sensitive.

Now she regretted not saying more, realising that Trish’s behaviour had been just like some of their Inner West friends - a circle that Col had begun to tire of. They seemed so caught up in following what was fashionable, meeting at the latest trendy bar or restaurant, seeing and being seen at the latest ‘in’ movie. She’d just been blind to it in Trish, that is until Wiley Park intruded upon their lives. It was like Col had found a new lover, someone intriguing, someone she wanted to get to know more. And the more she knew Wiley Park, the more it felt just right for her.

“Excuse me,” a gentle voice intruded into her thoughts. “Do you mind if I have a turn on your machine? I need to get home and would like to use it before I go.”

Col looked up to see a woman about her own age dressed in grey gym pants and a hoodie. She was slim and shorter than Col , and her face was framed by an electric blue scarf that accentuated her smooth olive skin, warm brown eyes and a wide smile that flashed perfectly formed white teeth.

“Oh, yeah. Sure.” Col jumped up to let her take her place.

But she didn’t want to leave.

Swallowing hard, Col said to the woman, “Um. My name’s Col. I’ve just moved in around the corner.”

“Hello,” she returned, without any shyness. “I’m Maryam. My home’s nearby, too, but I’ve lived here for years.” With a laugh, she went on. “Too many Lebs like me around here, but the place grows on you. This park is fantastic, don’t you think? I come here nearly every day to work out. Doesn’t cost anything so it must be good,” and flashed her smile again.

Col’s heart lifted. She definitely wanted to return tomorrow.

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