30 short, tentative steps.
I came back by accident, took a peculiar shortcut, and found myself in a familiar hospital courtyard of bleached concrete. Infinite rows of windows peer down from a sandy brick façade; a stern assembly of quiet observers. Pungent bile rises in my stomach. Waves of nausea descend and my vision becomes smeared. I have not been back here in years. The last time it was early evening. I left my mother’s hospital room to discuss the doctor’s latest incomprehensible remarks on the phone. I can no longer remember who with. I padded through the ward to a small corner alcove where two auburn leather armchairs sat beside a large aquarium. A printed pastoral still life hung on the wall. These spaces were dotted throughout the building — interludes for staff or visitors. A stale mimicry of domestic interiors to signify here, you may sit here and pretend you are comfortable. I would sit, my body contorted into the recess, trying to hide my tense murmured conversations from the ceaseless procession of hospital staff. They say humans are biologically hardwired to fear the night, but I longed to slip back into the ultramarine darkness of the twilight outside, afraid of the unflinching beige glare of these brightly lit corridors.
Paved terrain that changes with every step. Neat, tessellated cobblestones worn smooth by countless pedestrians. Asphalt strewn with gravel from nearby construction sites. I wander across the heaving street in a daze, my feet stumbling through space.
In the months before her death and the strange murky days afterwards, I developed a fixation. By chance, I had learned that when using Google Street View you could change the date of your panoramic trajectory. I’m sure this has many practical uses but I’m also certain some melancholic staff member at Google wanted to reside in the past as much as I do I found my family home and suddenly the most prosaic view of a green corrugated fence. The spindly branches of a plane tree and stony gutter are imbued with reverent significance. I would zoom in deeper and deeper into 2007 until the world reduced itself to a muddle of pixels. It was as if, if I could look close enough, I might scramble onto the silvery ledge of my laptop and fall through the screen’s opalescent window.
Waiting at a traffic light.
The Microbiological Diagnostic Unit where my mother used to work as an epidemiologist has moved now. It is now 160 meters from the Peter MacCallum Centre, which is approximately 209 footsteps but only 4 clicks of the mouse in Google Street View. The Unit is now housed in the Peter Doherty Institute, a tall building shingled in bronze metallic sheets. This is not the location I remember. Melbourne University’s Old Microbiology Building [B184] had a nondescript, muddy exterior and carpeted green corridors. On curriculum days when I was a child, she would bring me with her here. I remember bringing battered Scholastic books and at lunch we would sit on the North Lawn and get grass stains on our legs and crumbs on our jumpers.
Frantic steps when crossing the road a little too late.
In the last year, I have intermittently passed through Parkville to run various errands: down Tin Alley, through the Elizabeth Street Hospital Precinct and down Capel Street to my studio. It seems a mundane perambulation, but it is this route where I feel most bereft of time. The chasm of the past opens itself up here. The Microbiology Building always brings me to a halt. In this shady alcove, I can look through the windows and see people moving about inside. I imagine her old laboratory, university logo peeling off its door. I picture the undulating bloom of bacteria on Petri dishes. I picture hefty PC screens, a mouse clicking through databases and grey desaturated electron-microscopies. I imagine the hands of my mother’s radiologist manoeuvring the icy plastic mechanisms of the PET Scanner. I wonder where the pathologists who biopsied her tumours worked. I wonder what happened to the tissue afterwards, where they disposed of this fragment of beloved flesh.
Glossy lacquered white surfaces, cold on my palms and astoundingly clean: the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre has an aloof spaceship interior. We had not seen one another for weeks, restrictions decreed we could not touch. We sit on a plum-coloured couch, our latex-gloved hands by our sides. I watch them wheel her away for another scan. I can’t bear the look in her eyes above her starchy blue mask. I fight the urge to throw my arms around her, to nuzzle my nose into the warm jaundiced skin of her neck.
It is winter now. I lie between frigid sheets, my room suffused in the tangerine glow of streetlights outside. Sometimes before drifting to sleep, I can still smell the metallic scent of disinfectant, the sweet, cloying scent of illness. A thought burrows into my mind each night like an insistent earthworm: I want to go home. The cadence of my mother’s voice is no more, nor her pink fingertips that were often dry to the touch. We will not fall asleep together whispering. We will never wave to one another out of car windows with goofy smiles. Families speak amongst themselves in secret languages, a vernacular learned through generations: maxims and aphorisms half-forgotten, wilful mispronunciations. Ours is a grammar of silly intimacies; of jokes that last a lifetime.