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Sunday, 12 August 2018

A short trip to the nation’s capital

Exactly a week ago the countryside on both sides of the highway on the way down was dry and brown. Fenced paddocks with sheep grazing on dry grass were interspersed with stretches of forest and other paddocks where no animals stood. We stopped at Berrima and ate baked goods and chutney with knives and forks off paper plates in a cafe. As we drove south, traffic buzzed past in the fast lane, overtaking my Toyota. Crossing rivers on bridges you could see down to the flow in the riverbed and the trees on the valley sides.

Once we arrived in the capital, heading to the hotel on the campus was tricky. The location-finder app was sometimes accurate but identifying the right road ended up being a hit-and-miss affair. I parked the car in a carpark at the rear of what turned out to be the hotel. My travelling companion asked a man standing there next to his car if this was the right place and he nodded and pointed with his hand, but walking around to the front of the building there was no visible entrance. I used my phone to look up the hotel’s telephone number, and gave them a call. “It’s just a bit further down,” the woman who answered the phone told me, so we went along the road and eventually hit on the doorway. We walked back to the car, drove it to the right carpark, and checked in.

The floor of the lobby was made from a black aggregate inlaid with brass strips, some of which were organised out of straight lines in stylised designs to depict native fauna. There was a kangaroo, a crane, a sugar glider, a turtle, a goanna, a fish, and a yabbie. The building had been opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1954, and its wings were constructed around a central courtyard where, as we walked to our staircase, ducks fed on grass seeds. There was a water-filled pool alongside the low-rise section that housed the lobby and the library.

The bathroom in my suite had a heated, faun-coloured terrazzo floor and a room temperature that was higher than it was in the bedroom. We put away our suitcases and then got in the car to drive to the city centre to find some food to eat. I had the hang of the streets by this time, and getting to Civic was easy enough. I drove down a small side street looking for a parking spot but my travelling companion wanted to park at street level, not underground, so I looped back and found the right entrance. I took a ticket from the machine at the boom gate and backed the car into a bay, then we walked to the shopping precinct.

In a large open plaza a woman with a keyboard and a microphone connected to an amplifier was singing. Next to her, standing by tables laden with food, a few men were handing out their bounty to homeless people. In front of the tables, chairs had been set up on the pavement and men and women sat in them. One or two were eating what looked like sausages with bread. The smell of barbequed meat hung in the cold winter air.

We got a table in a restaurant and ordered a lot of food. A middle-aged couple sat down at the table next to ours. They were dressed in comfortable clothes that you would wear at home on the weekend. The way people dressed at the shopping centre reminded me of Penrith.

My meal was chicken with a curry sauce, peanuts, dried fish, sambal and rice. I had a sweet coffee with it that came in a glass mug. After we had finished eating I paid using EFTPOS but the paywave function on the transaction device was not enabled, so the clerk had to insert my debit card into it. I punched in my PIN and pressed the ‘Enter’ key and left the building.

We walked back to the car and a homeless man who was sitting next to the machines that takes your payment for the parking showed me where to insert the parking ticket into the machine. It was a $2 fee and I paid with a $5 note, then gave the change to the homeless man. He had a piece of clothing spread out on the pavement in front of him. The cloth was coloured grey and was folded into a neat square. We got in the car and drove to the exit where a boom gate rested across the carriageway. I tried inserting the prepaid ticket in the machine but it refused to go in. Again and again, the display told me to reinsert the ticket and after a dozen attempts the ticket was finally accepted. I imagined the driver behind me getting more and more irritated by my car with its NSW numberplates.

Back at the hotel, I lay down on the bed in my suite and scrolled through Twitter. We went for a walk a bit later on and passed a tree with a possum in it that made a small sound with its mouth, making me look up. In another tree a brightly coloured parrot with red feathers landed among the foliage. A brazen magpie stood on the grass as we walked past. Near the university’s library I took photos of the building. It had been named after a famous conservative prime minister and was constructed in the Modernist style. It had elaborate 1960s copper sculptures affixed to the façade on its front. The campus resembled a park.

On the way to dinner, after parking the car there was a young man dressed in a sloppy joe and board shorts walking barefoot on the street carrying a paper bag that presumably contained food. In the restaurant the young man at the table next to ours wore tan slacks and a grey T-shirt. After we had eaten our food, I paid using EFTPOS and once again the paywave function on the equipment was not enabled. As I approached the cashier, I asked her if I could buy two bottles of Tsingtao and she said it was ok. She gave me a white plastic bag to carry them in.

Back at the hotel, I asked the desk clerk if there was a bottle opener in my suite and he said there was not. I asked if I could borrow a bottle opener but he wasn’t able to find one in the lobby. But he walked with me to the café, unlocked the door in the dark, and showed me where a bottle opener was attached to a wall behind the counter. I opened the two bottles and he gave me a serviette to clean up foam that had come out of one of the bottles as I opened it.

In the morning, we left our suites and went to the café in the hotel for breakfast and chose the more expensive option, rather than the Continental breakfast. I spooned eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon and cocktail sausages onto my plate. The bacon was dry and hard and it had a sour taste as though it had been cooked just before the expiry date had been reached.

It was raining and after breakfast I moved the car to another carpark to avoid getting fined. We checked out and sat down in the hotel’s library at the end of a hallway that had lithographs made in the 19th century showing different Australian cities from a vantage point located in the air above streets and buildings. The library had a smell like a second-hand bookshop. A middle-aged man sat reading at a table near the back of the room. The books on the shelves were all out of date, with some published in the 1950s. Each book had a number printed on a label affixed to its spine. A card catalogue stood against the wall of the room near the door. The books were catalogued and in order but I guessed no-one ever read them.

Later, we went to a small café on the campus near the hotel and drank coffees. I ate a sandwich that had salad and a slice of cheese in it. The sandwich was packaged in a triangular transparent plastic box with a description of the contents written along with the price in black felt marker on its long side. We went back to the hotel to use the toilets in the lobby and then returned to the café where my companion ate half of a tuna-and-salad sandwich. We got in the car and made our way to the city and I dropped off my companion at the office where she had her appointment arranged.

Then I drove to Braddon, the suburb in which we had had dinner the previous night. As I drove north along the street, a car pulled out of a parking bay and I immediately manoeuvred the car so that I could back it into the vacant space. The spot was right outside a carwash which had a commercial radio station blaring noise into the street. I paid the parking fee with my credit card and it cost $5.40 for two hours.

In the café I entered, I ordered a flat white and sat down at a table, using Twitter for a while. Then I got a book from the shelf at the back of the room and started reading it. It had been published about 20 years earlier and had been written by a food critic. I marvelled at how dull it was, then reminded myself that the man was still employed producing restaurant reviews for a leading Australian daily newspaper. I read one piece about a Roman offal restaurant, and another one about the craze of celebrity chefs. The stories had dated badly.

My companion called me on my mobile and I answered, then left the café and walked to the car. I drove it to the office building she had been in and picked her up, then we headed north out of the city, stopping at a service station on the outskirts of town to put petrol in the tank. The clerk behind the counter was a huge Islander woman with a tattoo on her arm. She asked me in a high-pitched voice if I had a Woolworths card and I said, “No” then paid using EFTPOS. The transaction machine had the paywave function this time and I used it but when it made its sound to indicate that the transaction had been successful it was different from the normal, sweet tone that machines in Sydney use. It was a flat, metallic “Beep.”

On the road, we drove past Lake George and saw the shadows of clouds interspersed with patches of sunlight on the lake bottom where sheep had been grazing when we had arrived the day before. Now, the sky was thick with clouds coloured grey and white. Further north, a large cloud had a stream of rain like a curtain of mist leaving its bottom and falling onto hills stretched out in the countryside. When we arrived at that location, the blue sky was reflected in patches of moisture that had been left on the roadway, but it was clear the drought would continue. Driving in the left lane the whole way back, I toyed with the audible lines marked on the road. We talked about humans becoming extinct.

At the highway exit leading to Exeter we stopped at a service centre and I ate the other half of the tuna-and-salad sandwich that had travelled with us in the car boot, then used the toilet. We bought coffees at Macca’s. On the return journey, we drove past a dozen or so carcasses of dead kangaroos that lay on the road’s shoulder. There were also a couple of dead wombats. As we neared the city, the pristine bush, with its brown grass and olive scrub and low escarpments of ochre dirt were replaced by grassy verges where rubbish had been thrown heedlessly out of cars entering Leviathan.

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