Melbourne knowledge week
Melbourne Knowledge Week

Future stories: Waft

By Josefina Huq

I was born in the lap of this street. Before it was built and when the birds and trees were so plentiful they still had to compete. When I purred into existence I learned to climb, to hurt myself on vines, and eventually, window sills, all by myself.

When I got tired, real tired, I found a human and made him love me. I had noticed him with boxes and sweating and rushing to get his things up some stairs before somebody got angry at his van, parked on the thin curb. I sat patiently outside his doorstep for days, and watched his affection grow, for me and our street.

At first he would only smile in my direction, turn back to lock his door, and trudge down towards Blackwood Street without looking up from his phone. Then he started getting coffee from a little shop next door, and some days he stayed longer, if the short man was working the coffee machine.

He started smoking, and took in the smoke the same way he did with the street. I watched him breathing in deeply every time the café doors swung open and the smell of baked goods rolled past. Looking up to the neighbours hanging up washing on their tiny, wet balconies. He was also observing me, trying to get closer to him every time. When I got close enough he stroked the bridge of my nose with his index finger. It felt silly, and his finger smelt like burning, but I enjoyed the novelty of it.

 

——

 

I got a job at the research centre here, and an apartment down the road from it. I guess it all fell into place pretty nicely. Maybe the universe telling me to grow, or grow up. Not that I don’t take my work seriously. Sometimes I might take it too seriously. Usually, when I’m falling asleep, all I think about are the patients I’ve seen that day, or the ones that I’ll never see again.

But it’s changing here. Now I fall asleep next to a street cat, listening to the milkman dropping off crates outside my window for the café next door. And then I think of the café, and the people who work there, and suddenly I am awake again the next day, to the sounds of magpies.

 

——

 

Eventually he let me into his home, and gave me a name; Tyrone. It was only after he let the coffee man into our home, and they had sat on our couch together and spoken softly at each other, that I found out our street had my name as well.

But sometimes I am angry at my owner. Even though he feeds me and keeps me company, and really, he is only trying to protect me. If I think about it long enough, and stare hard enough out the window, I start to feel trapped. Only able to mock the birds from behind clouded glass – if they can even see me, when they make that awful sound.

 

——

 

It was a while before I realised I’d created this little nook for myself – and that I adored it. Once you slip through the front door, heading to work, you have no choice; you have to be present, planning, in-tune with the sound of bikes whizzing past you in narrow lanes and cars revving at your existence. Tyrone street is a small and brief refuge, that weird in-between-spot, where you feel, not exactly at home, but not thrown into the world yet.

I also met Dan here, and I guess I’m excited about that. Really excited.

I do everything on this street like he’s watching me. Smile to myself, try to balance walking along the edge of the curb. I think of him at the stupidest and slightest thing – when I hear the scraping of metal café chairs across pavement, or the magpies that cry and squawk, over at the gaudy apartments across from us.

 

——

 

I’m worried about the owner. I think this is anxiety, when he is very sweaty, and he pats me less, and sometimes I walk over his limbs, gently, as he is laying face down on the tiles of our lounge room.

He is smoking a lot, going to the café a lot, and he is always warm and slick and full of coffee. The smell of it has penetrated our house, leaked through his skin.

And now, sometimes the small coffee man sleeps here, and the owner forgets to feed me. He is mad with love and stress and it is starting to annoy me.

 

——

 

Everything at the hospital changed quickly. Some of my colleagues have said that we might be out of a job soon because of it. For now it’s a joke to them, but I’m not fully convinced that it will stay that way. Things like this, that rely on money, and time, and careful thinking, will not survive this city.

We still don’t know the full extent of it, but we know that it’s cured. And sure, there will be something to come into its place very soon, I just don’t know what will happen between now and then.

It helps to have Dan so close, even if I only catch him briefly after work, stretching to look at me over the coffee machine. Sometimes I come down from my building for a smoke, just to see him through the glass of the café doors, and breath out into our street.

 

——

 

I feel a change is coming. I’ve been here long enough to notice it. I see it in the way people move in the street, the sounds that dull and disappear over time. The owner is sensing it too, in very visible ways. The grip our street had on him is relaxing now and coming apart. He will be gone soon, like many others, and the street will survive for as long as it can.

And I will be here.

 

——

 

Some of my colleagues are still working as usual, up the road. Not me. Thankfully I got a contract out in some country town I’ve never even heard of. Dan is coming with me. It’s not like I could have stuck around anyway. The people still there will be gone soon. Places like that will run out of money. And then the year 2050 will roll around, and the centre will be gone. The building will still be there, but the signage will change. With all that room, maybe a multi-level nightclub, where you can smoke on every floor and pretend that people never used to die in it.

I sit on the curb for the last time, and decide to have my last cigarette. This time is really the last. The café door swings open and sad pop music streams out and over me. That will eventually close too, and if I ever walk down this street again it will hurt looking at it. I feel tender and heavy, and I almost wish I never made a home here.

And I can’t find Tyrone.

 

——

 

When the owner put out his smoke on the curb, our curb, I knew it would be the last time. I could have meowed out to him, but he would have tried to take me with them.

As I predicted, the people disappeared for awhile, around the same time the owner did. The street was mostly quiet again, and it felt like it was all mine, mine and the bird’s, for a bit.

But they came back, like humans always do. Because the buildings become other things. Things that are important become stale and small, and then important again later on.

In this case, I think the owner would like it now. Whatever work he was doing, that consumed him so completely, he could have done it again, in the same building, where I see doctors exactly like him taking smoke breaks against its walls.

I know he loved me, maybe still does, somewhere else. But maybe he didn’t understand this street the way I did. You can leave when things change. Or, you decide to stay, and listen to the magpies over and over again.

 

This story is part of the Future Stories project with RMIT’s non/fictionLab and creative writing program, which paired writing students with academics to produce creative responses to themes explored during Melbourne Knowledge Week 2019. Come along to Chorus of voices on Thursday 23 May, 10am to 11am to hear from the students and staff involved in the project.

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