The neighbourhood I recognise as Parkville is a diminutive grid of Filigree-style Victorian terraces, tucked discreetly behind Royal Parade opposite the western edge of the University of Melbourne. Trams shuttle constantly up and down this long parkway, lined with tall trees, that connects Melbourne’s business district to its northern suburbs. As rain threatened one Tuesday evening this winter, I found myself wandering these streets I hadn’t set foot on for years.
I was in the midst of a short, somewhat aimless, visit from out of the country and had twenty minutes to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. She lived with her husband and their three-year-old son in a small apartment that was a prize for performing some ambiguous pastoral care function at one of the plush residential colleges, or glorified dorms, which sprawl across the University side of the parade. This row of sandstone piles and their brutalist additions begins on Royal Parade and stretches in a crescent around the corner to overlook the huge Melbourne General Cemetery—a 110-acre necropolis that is the last home of some 300,000 souls. It’s not inaccurate to say that more people live under the ground than above it in Parkville.
I’d found returning to Melbourne, after an absence of seven busy and mostly happy years, to be exhilarating, strangely tiring and a little poignant, although I am aware of a tendency to ascribe poignancy to otherwise banal occurrences that are in fact rather quickly forgotten. It is my experience that when I move—and I have done so several times, uprooted to cities and towns I’ve never before visited and where I know no one—the place I have just left lives on intensely inside me for a short time. It then suddenly ceases to exist, like a draft of smoke that stings your eyes before dispersing into the air. Being faced with incontrovertible evidence of time continuing to move forward in a location where I am no longer physically present is always oddly confronting, a reminder of my own solipsism and lack of perspective. Melbourne, for reasons to do with youth and impressionability, has lived on longer than almost everywhere in my heart.
With regional New Zealand as my current point of reference, almost from stepping onto the concourse at Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne seemed improbably dynamic and busy, its public spaces shiny and bustling. The people I encountered were extroverted, if a little brusque and on the make. In the first few minutes of my arrival an insistent gentleman in a stained black blazer almost conned me into catching an exorbitantly-priced limo into the city, something that would likely never have happened a few years ago, when I still dressed like a student. The next day a DeGraves Lane barber delivered a detailed, if entirely unsolicited, lecture on the need to maintain and develop a regular exfoliation regime, while scraping a straight razor across my neck.
On the surface, a lot about the place seemed to have changed. Most of the restaurants, bars, and lunch spots I could remember frequenting either no longer existed or had morphed to be almost unrecognisable as their former incarnations. The cumulative effect of these alterations in the urban landscape, individually inconsequential and likely ignored by those who walk, drive and glide through it on bicycles and trams every day, brought to mind various clichés about cities embodying capitalism’s signature cycle of creative destruction. Indeed, if everything solid hadn’t exactly melted into air, every business that could conceivably be serving more customers and making more money now appeared to be doing so. But Melbourne remained comfortingly intimate and unchanging in many places and scenes—bantering school children breaking the pompous hush of the NGV and the State Library; office workers reading aloud a Herald Sun quiz at a café in East Brunswick, a Hebrew School girl offering me her phone when I was lost on the tram trying to find my aunt’s home in South Caulfield.
Increasingly dwarfed by the gleaming towers of the University and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Parkville had changed, but not a great deal. Its houses—and there are so few of them they are practically individually memorisable—have quaint names like ‘Beaconsfield Terrace’ engraved atop their facades. They are imbued with a cosy domesticity belying the fact no one ever seems to be home. To be sure, the Parkville of 2017 was slightly sleeker and less practical than it had been in the ‘old’ days. The bare, beer-crusted floorboards of Naughton’s pub were now softly carpeted in its new identity as a bistro/boutique hotel, while enterprising persons had transformed the Cypriot Milk-Bar—faded rolled-oats advertisement on its gable end, trays of cling-wrap-covered cold cuts, ancient coffee machine, delicious tabbouleh—into a fashionable-looking eatery. The Post-Office seemed permanently shut. Parkville, however, has always seemed to dwell largely outside of ordinary time and, to an extent place, having existed for decades before I ever got there as a sleepy, overlooked bourgeois enclave sandwiched between once-gritty Carlton and Flemington. Walking the streets, I felt that this character was fundamentally impermeable.
Before long, I came to a pair of brick townhouses on the end of a small row. Their stucco-covered facades were largely un-decorative, save for wrought-iron balconies with Victorian latticework. I had lived briefly in both properties: one, on the inside of the block, for an alternatively boozy and studious year, the other, larger, residence, for a trying six month stop-gap a while later. The well-tended row sat on the southern edge of the neighbourhood, opposite University High School, renowned as a meritocratic incubator for some of the city’s brightest and most aspirational teens. For years, nearby Ormond College had let out the two houses as a slightly unfashionable residence for older, non-resident students. Not too long ago, I’d heard the college had sold the properties for a tidy sum. Demand to rent them had apparently been slackening for some time, with more students preferring livelier precincts and it being a ten minute walk to access the vats of lasagne, wilting salad and arrayed Sara Lee cakes that constituted the meal plan. I walked down the alley past the back courtyard—in our day, a cigarette-butt strewn concrete pad with a couple of picnic tables on it, putatively protected from intruders by a wire cage (ugly, yet never sturdy enough to prevent us and our neighbours from being robbed). This caged yard, I saw, had been replaced by a handsome patio, replete with what looked to be a built-in pizza oven. A light was on upstairs and classical music (I thought I detected Glen Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations) tinkled from an open window.
Not wanting to be taken for a prowler, I quickly returned to the corner and stood there for a self-consciously contemplative moment. Into my head popped the memory of kicking a football with some friends in the middle of the road on this empty corner. We were semi-drunk in the late-afternoon sun, following a long, well-lubricated barbecue. It was the dregs of the last day of the semester, everyone getting ready to go home for the summer. The baking midday heat had begun to cool as evening closed in and the mood was one of hedonism mixed with listlessness and mild disappointment as we contemplated the complicated business of packing up rooms and returning to jobs or otherwise dull regimes.
Standing there looking at the patch of heavy sky poking between the tops of the houses, I was struck by the revelation that so much had remained unwritten for me at that point. At the time, I’d had little to no clue of this infinite possibility, being absorbed by trivial worries and deadlines. Then and for long after, I’d always believed something essential to be missing from my life, an affinity for excitement and true connection I assumed other people effortlessly possessed. This moment of self-indulgent introspection didn’t last long, for right then it began to rain, not the picturesque rain that falls on people in movies and R&B videos, but one of those freezing spurts that turns clothes instantly sodden, drips down the back of necks and into ears, seeps into the soles of shoes, giving the lie to earnest manufacturer promises of waterproofness. I threw my coat over my head and began running for the shelter of the awnings on Royal Parade. All precious thoughts were washed away in the gathering storm.