Eloise Hart: An Old Man’s Brush with Time
Welcome to our Young Writer in the City stories! The works in this series were written by young writers who sourced inspiration from Launceston’s prominent sites and buildings during their 2016 residency.
About Eloise Hart, 2016 Young Writer in the City
My name is Eloise Hart. I am 24 years old and I grew up on a quaint little farm just outside the township of Evandale. I recently completed my Bachelor of Arts degree where I did a double major in History and English Literature, and after working in a publishing house in Sydney for some time, I am now back home undertaking my Graduate Diploma of Teaching and Learning. I love creative writing and photography and have really enjoyed this experience to talk to some interesting people and learn some personal histories that have taken place in the area.
In An Old Man’s Brush with Time, a lonely old man is nostalgic for the past but is confronted with the fact that there is beauty in the present too.
An Old Man’s Brush with Time
By Eloise Hart
The beast we all fear is upon us.
In leisure it stalks us.
Moving forward. Forward. Forward.
Woman. Man. Child. Flora. Fauna.
No one can escape it; outrun it, outlive it.
It is eternal.
More powerful than the kings of old and even less forgiving.
It weakens steel, disintegrates iron and its footprint
pounds, pounds, pounds
stone into dust – mountain into hill – gushing river into trickling stream.
Nothing remains untouched by The Beast of Time.
We mould our lives to its scythe.
Sitting here in Civic Square I keep getting struck by time. It’s like an annoying yippity dog that chooses to bark incessantly just as my mind begins to wander… jolting me back into a horrid self-awareness that has me shifting gingerly on my bench seat. I feel the rigid timber slats underneath as I shuffle my weight, folding my long trench tighter against the slicing wind. To my bitter delight the last cacophony of dying bells soon tapers off, so generously granting us all a one hour reprieve from its persistent and positively pious countdown. A quiet sigh escapes my lips as I cast my eyes out into the empty square. Searching. Searching. Hopelessly. For what exactly, I’m not entirely sure; the flash of sapphire eyes? That shy, shadow-of-a-smile spotlighted against the backdrop of a crowd long since dispersed…? An ember of fading laughter as the sun slinks mockingly through the trees?
I am searching for moments that have long since run their path; reminders of past things or what-could-have-beens, and wonderings of where-the-hell-are-you-nows?
I shuffle off of my bench in a huff, the embodiment of the grumpy old man; knotted hands buried deep within my coat; body bent slightly; eyes staring blankly at the tomorrow that has so humourlessly arrived without me.
The sky has clouded over by the time I reach my nook at the café. Slowly unwinding the scarf about my neck, I nod to the fellow behind the counter, the only indication needed for him to bring over a pot of steaming black tea. He claps me on the shoulder as he sets it down and then trundles off, whistling blithely to some tune I’ve never heard. I don’t like the music here but what can I say? Old habits…
A gravelly sound passes my lips as I exhale. The Quadrant used to hum and buzz with the vibration of city workers ducking out for their lunch at this time of day. Rain or shine, it used to be that one could barely stop on the sidewalk to chat before a police officer would move you along for loitering and congesting the busy street. Even the street spruiker’s would struggle sustaining a crowd. Now, it looks forsaken as the wind pummels down upon its meagre inhabitants.
Settled, I squint passed the fog that’s begun to haze over my windowpane and watch them; those familiar strangers that flit, resolutely, past my quiet table.
Eyes cast downward, they walk like automated robots through the din. I see no spark – no glimmer – no light shining from their eyes. Just shells of used-to-be-humans, programmed into this latest version of Winterlife2016. Here they play their part, robotic cameos in the background. –Cue the middle-aged optometrist with her leopard print scarf wrapped high around her chin; she affixes her coat fast around her middle, seemingly preparing herself to march through the gale. –Cue the elderly couple in the matching purple parker’s; his frothy white hair swept back from his face as he takes the brunt of it; their hands clasped together as she pushes him forward, willing or not; the sacrificial human shield. –Cue the disinterested and oblivious teens milling about under cover; forcing those walking to skirt around them into the spitting rain. Then come their ‘woops’ of nonsensical excitement. “I caught a Jigglypuff!” One girl exclaims. “Your mum’s a Jigglypuff…” –Cue the bank clerk – the barista – the jeweller on their break… Eyes downcast, they walk. I see it all in a glance; a tableau of Winterlife2016.
Oh how I’d like to take each one aside and urge them to stop and simply take a moment, take a breath. Life is all about them if only they would look up and see!
But I don’t move. I stay seated and silent, hidden behind my table in the warm –and the world slips right past them. Spiralling onward while they stare, zombie-like at the pavement or the miniature screens of their phones.
Look up. Look up.
They seldom do.
Reaching into my breast pocket I pull out my pocket watch. I almost smile at the irony of carrying around time on a leash. Years of adventure and mischief tarnish the glass but there you remain, ever an accomplice. My eyes have bleached you but still, there you remain, a faded piece of the puzzle that is my jumbled mind.
I remember meeting you on a windswept day not unlike this one. It was the late 1950’s and back then I had worked for a company that delivered telegrams. I would spend my days riding through the streets of Launceston delivering news and dallying about in the music store before carrying the daily weather report to the 7 LA news station upstairs. It was a good job in the summertime but winter could be bitter and unforgiving.
It was struggle enough to make it forward through the gale on many occasions but the rain that day was a trial of a different sort. The pinpricks assaulted me like darts; slicing into my concentration – my conviction, bleeding it steadily onto the asphalt. Hands numb and head pounding I took my first spill in my two years; hooking my wheel into a tram line and managing to continue forward even when the bike had become motionless behind me. You had the misfortune of being in my trajectory. I like to think that I can still hear that thud mingled with your startled yelp as we went down in a tangle. And oh, your face!
I hope I never forget that face.
You looked at me so vehemently that I thought you might slap me. I almost wish you had; it would have made for a better story. Instead you internalised your admonishment, made sure that I could stand, and then you walked away. I hadn’t realise it then but that would be the last time I’d watch you walk away without my heart aching.
It wasn’t until I recognised you in church sometime after that we spoke. Quick tongued – quick witted – quick to put me in my place; you bewitched me. You didn’t think much of me at first but for once, uncharacteristically, time was on my side and my affection eventually wore you down.
The clattering of plates brings me back from my revere and I am abruptly transported back onto my chair in the little café.
I wipe my bleary eyes as I notice people adorned in scarves and puffy coats setting up market stalls and food trucks outside of my window. One gangly teen hangs fairy lights from a tree. The day seems to be onto its third season as I catch a cheeky glimpse of the declining sun. Twilight.
Reality slides down my throat, tepid and bland. I place my empty cup on the table. The last bus of the day would be safely nestled in its garage by now. I can feel my ears tinge pink, a reaction I thought my body was passed. Upside down and one by one, the chairs around me are placed on the tables. Unsteadily, I stand to pay my bill and then walk out into the rapidly crowding space.
The clouds from earlier have drawn to the edge of the sky, clearing a stage for the crescent moon and a chorus of stars. That despondent stretch of concrete from earlier is no more. I take in its metamorphosis, aghast. Young men huddle together drinking and laughing under an umbrella in the dark. Little gremlins dash to and fro around the old fountain, inflatable beacons tethered to their wrists. Somewhere near the road a band plays an upbeat jingle, assembling a polite crowd that unconsciously blocks the exit. To my right, a young lady with racoon eyes looks up from her phone and winks at me… just as I notice a man around my age trying to coerce a mother of two into doing the foxtrot. The sounds of merriment assault me as I wind my way, disoriented through the mob.
One of the Wood’s family stands outside the front of Gourlay’s Sweet Shop offering a smile and squares of too-familiar fudge on an outstretched tray. A riot of colour and sugary sweetness embraces her as a backdrop. She has her grandmother’s face. Reflexively, I search the shelves behind her for Jockey Caps and the ever-indulgent Penny Bags that I recall so fondly from my youth. Catching the girls eye as I pass, I nod; the nostalgic stranger.
All around, the vibrancy of life dances.
Unsure of where I fit into it all, I follow my feet around the bend. The mouth of the alley envelopes me, like an old friend who has changed almost beyond recognition. The vision of you in a summer dress flickers before me. I have fond memories of this place. I remember when we used to meet at the Deli by the other end… Ingles Grocer perhaps it was called? I’d order us two of the best ham rolls ever made and a drink to share from the milk bar that would come out in those wax coated square containers with the metal clips. The shadows would beckon to us and there we’d lose ourselves until it was time to scurry back off to work, or you back to the school yard to pick up the kids.
Dicky White’s used to be dark and mysterious; a shadowy concoction of intimacy and magic.
Now a different magic has wound its way in multi-coloured fairy lights across the open crown. Artwork hangs from the bricks and gaudy plastic walls jut out at intervals. A few young families wind their way through. The kid’s bright eyes reflect their easy enchantment as they bounce on the balls of their feet.
It all feels somewhat artificial for my tastes but its cheery none the less and with nowhere to go, I am content to drift here.
I close my eyes and I can see it all; how it used to be – how our story stretched and arched and painted a mural across this city – across time.
Time; it devours us all and yet it is all we have.
I take one more moment before I open my eyes and look up – look up and take in the world that continues to spiral out from under me. And I listen; to the laughter – the shouts – the sounds of people living. The ghost of a smile creeps across my face.