I arrive at the airport and check myself in. In a strange and marvellous plan the airline aims to improve its customer service by removing all contact with their staff. I suppose I could just shout at myself when my booking can’t be found, or ask to see my own supervisor to sort out any problems. But thankfully all goes smoothly. I recommend myself for a pay rise and go to find a coffee. The sparrows, which used to look down on the passenger queues, have shifted their disdain from the departure lounge to the coffee bar. Over double shot skinny mocha lattes they cast a critical eye over the passing hoards. To their chuckles I order my own coffee and feel thankful that I did not order a cappuccino. A mother struggles with three small children. The first is crying the inconsolable sobs of a child who has just realised that her beloved cuddly rhino has been left at home. In an unrelated trauma the second child is about to punch the third. In a few hours these kids will be glad that their mother has only been given plastic cutlery. I pray that they are not on my flight. There are no atheists in the departure lounge.
To avoid the possibility of having to give evidence in a murder trial I wander around the shops. Surely this must be the nadir of western civilisation. A place where the only way you can pass the time is to go shopping for things that you don’t need. Things that you will have to carry for the next however many hours in slowly disintegrating hand luggage, before throwing them in a bin or, at best, at the back of a cupboard, never to be seen again. Airport shopping is a sign of a culture in terminal decline. I read four pages of my book and realise that it is unimaginably dull. My spirits sag. I consider going shopping.
The call to board the plane comes as a relief and at the door of the plane I am finally spoken to by a member of the airline staff. “Down on the left, sir” – ah, the joy of human contact. People struggle to put grand pianos, entire V6 engine blocks and other things manifestly larger than the maximum size of cabin baggage into the overhead lockers. I help an old lady safely stow a fridge / freezer. She tells me it’s for her daughter. Ah, that’s all right then.
My seat is the outside of a double, an aisle seat thankfully. The window seat is occupied by a solid looking man with dark hair and a darker expression. I say “hello” and he turns to look at me with a practised glacial slowness which seems to be intended to unsettle. It works. He looks at me in a way that suggests he only just recognises me as a human being, and that any further attempt at conversation will result in my death. I realise that I may be in for a long flight.
Whoever said it is better to travel than to arrive never sat in economy on a Sunday afternoon. I flick through the channels on the seat back TV and pass an hour until some food arrives. My sullen travel companion does not get the meal of his choice, and I can feel the seat shaking. I steal a glance at his tray table and notice that he has arranged his knife and fork in what would be best described as “attack posture”. With one sweet single motion he could pick both of them up with his left hand and sink then into the middle of my chest. I try to eat my peas with a fork, but without moving my arms at the shoulders. Why do they serve one of the world’s only spherical foods on planes where there is no room for the acrobatics needed to get the damn things into your mouth? For all the enjoyment to be had from airplane food they may as well just puree the stuff and just give you a straw. “Not one of your most enjoyable offerings” Mr. Grumpy says to the hostess. I can see discomfort in her eyes. She also seems to be putting on a Kevlar flak jacket.
In a rare moment of humour the pilot welcomes us to Perth after “what I can only describe as an excellent landing”. We are warned to check that the bags in the overhead lockers have not moved. A young man with tatts and a high visibility waistcoat ignores the advice and is almost killed by an anvil. My silent travelling companion reaches for his strangely triangular bag. I suspect it may be a bespoke bag for carrying horses’ heads.
I meet up with my work colleague at the baggage carousel. His bag looks like the kind of case that contains nuclear devices in spy movies – metallic silver, tough and probably ticking. Although the rainbow strip strap around it makes it look less than sinister. My bag looks identical to everybody else’s. I immediately grasp the value of travelling with a bag disguised as a thermonuclear weapon – nobody is keen to steal it from the carousel! After a few false starts I finally collect my bag, and with a genuine sense of relief I head for the hotel. This is my second trip to Perth. The second time I have been here for work, and the second time that I have noticed how bright the light is here. My hotel is opposite the convention centre which is hosting an international conference on corrosion. Over dinner I hear talk of oxidation and reduction and sacrificial anodes. Galvanised by this conversation I go for a walk. The city skyline here is almost uniformly modern, shiny and reflective. A few older buildings are scattered in the mix, mostly dwarfed by their neighbours, the only curves in an ocean of straight lines. The atmosphere is young, possibly adolescent, but clearly energetic. It feels a bit like visiting your teenage brother and meeting all his mates for a night out. It’s a real contrast to Melbourne which seems more sedate, less ambitious, less self consciously rich. If Perth is your adolescent brother, Melbourne is your slightly middle aged aunt. Albeit an aunt that has connections to organised crime and likes motor sport, but an aunt none the less.
I have dinner with a breezy view of the Swan River, with gulls and loud music for company. I like the gulls, but the other I can do without. I don’t think you can tell how important a river is to a city until you watch it from above. Then you can see how the river and city work with each other. Do they fight? Do they blend?
The next night I walk up to Kings Park, which overlooks the city and attracts crowds on early summer evenings. I arrive just in time to see my chosen restaurant close. Ah. An avenue of smooth trees leads toward statues remembering past wars and hoping for lasting peace. Towards monuments remembering modern violence and rejecting the ignorance of intolerance, the casual brutality of the hidden bomb. Queen Victoria, World Wars and Bali side by side in a green space full of families and their often laughing voices. From inside the Bali monument you can look down on the city as the sun sets. Bright and shiny, modern and clean. I can’t help but be struck by how far we have come. As I turn to walk away, the walls around me remind me of how far we have yet to go.On low growing plants Red Wattlebirds probe the robust red flowers - the colour and form a clue that the plants are pollinated by birds, the lack of scent another pointer. The wattle bird seems to show its reptile heritage more than most – the pattern on the wings, or the empty look in their eyes. Rainbow Lorikeets, an introduction from the east coast, flash between the trees with rapid blurring wing beats. Glossy black Ravens hop and skip on the grass, moving from picnic to picnic in search of food. A crumb here, a crust there. Some people throw food to the birds, some throw food at the birds. Kids. Family. Food. I don’t have these with me tonight. I head back down the hill.
Cutting a zig zag path down the hill is a set of steps called Jacob’s Ladder. It seems to be popular with runners who are sweating up and down the many dozen steps from top to bottom. Some pause half way, some don’t get that far. One carries a 20 kg weight in his arms. This seems a commitment beyond the call of duty, but he seems to carry the load with pride. The top of the steps is all serenity and memory, the bottom a tangle of roads and underpasses. There are brief glimpses of water on the way down – lakes and wetlands on the other side of the road. The path back to the hotel leads through dusty under bridges and over roads still busy with traffic. A group proudly wearing their Corrosion Conference name tags walks in the other direction. They seem to be happy, they seem to be getting ready for a big night – clearly ‘rust never sleeps’.
The next day I visit the wetlands by the roads. Back through the dark underspaces of bridges and footpaths. A magpie lark harasses a raven with a vigour which belies its size. Car noises echo from the bridge piles and an old man settles down for the night. The footpath becomes a bike lane and the sharp single ring of a bell signals the approach of another rider. It’s a shared pathway, but I feel out of place. I’m glad to get off the track and start walking around the lake.
The lake seems almost unnaturally green. Not green in a toxic sludge kind of way, but green in a life bursting, sustaining kind of way. In the quieter moments you can almost hear photosynthesis underway. The tearing of water molecules, the melding of hydrogen and public enemy number one, carbon dioxide. The place fizzes with oxygen and life. Down in the pond’s deeper depths you can imagine coal forming, slow and steady. Dragonflies flash past, and pause fleetingly on mud, marsh or stem tops. The whole place seems a counterfeit of the carboniferous.
The pond edge is thick with the movement of small fish. Slivers of life preyed upon by snake birds and grebes. One long necked, one short and stumpy. The grebe dives and swims, pushed by leaf feet and silvered by the air trapped in its feathers. When it reappears it shakes with a surprising violence that dimples the surface and scatters the clinging water. A night heron waits, primed in ambush for the unwary or the unlucky. Perched low to the water it waits and waits and waits. I move closer and for once it stays still. A bike rider in flame orange seems to upset it, and it walks deeper into its bank side bush. I never see it catch a fish.
The pond seems old, gentle and connected. I walk back towards my hotel, through streets that seem to be none of these. For all the bright modernity about me, it’s this little piece of the past that I will remember about Perth this time.