Polar Bears in Sydney Harbour
The first time I went to Sydney, I went with my mother. One morning we climbed onto a bus full of people who said ports instead of suitcases and pronounced school as if there was a curl in it. The bus driver was wearing long white socks and short grey shorts and told us there was a convenience at the rear of the vehicle.
But, he added, it’s better to wait to use the Stationary Amenities provided at the Comfort Stops along the way.
I turned around to look up the aisle. The other passengers were pushing levers to make their seats go backwards or forwards, or stuffing magazines into the netting pocket on the back of the seat in front. I pictured myself at the end of the aisle, flying along the highway perched sideways on a convenience, and decided it was no place to toil over my latest edition of 100 Krazy Krosswords.
Think of yourself as a camel, my mother said.
The woman sitting in front of us was Italian. She turned around to lisp through the crack in the seats and I soon became mesmerised by the motion of the bus and her thick melodic whisperings. My mother apologised for her school girl Italian. I couldn’t catch all that was said, but I did hear the woman’s watery name:Marina.
Mi chiama Ethel, my mother said. My name is Ethel.
My head began to loll like a large flower too heavy for its stem and I had to I concentrate on keeping it in the centre of the slightly soiled tartan seat. The last thing I remember was the sun piercing into my scalp despite adjusting the stiff little curtain running along the window. My name is Ethel, I thought.
Towards evening I heard Ethel making noises in the back of her throat, which she did whenever I fidgeted in church or if something unpleasant came on TV. Her tortoise shell knitting needles were clicking away, having started on an in-between-seasons cardigan in quince coloured wool, small ply. Most of the other passengers had turned off their personal bus lights, but the one above our seats was still throwing down its sunny beam. Marina’s moustache swung silkily in the breeze of urgent conversation.
I woke up when the bus stopped and tried to stay awake by counting how many passengers were taking advantage of the stationary amenities. Ethel was standing outside in the blazing lights of a petrol station, sipping something from the thermos cup, watching the dark stretching out along the road. Red and yellow lights made a halo behind her hair. Moths darted in orbit around her head.
I don’t think Ethel had much sleep. The sleeves of her cardigan had taken shape by the time the red tiled rooves of Sydney flowed towards our bus windows. We said arrivederci to Marina who disappeared into a car with a bow-legged man and a pearly crucifix dangling from the rear-vision mirror.
I followed Ethel as she clutched onto our globite suitcases and stepped over a dark puddle threading its way to the gutter from a woman lying on the footpath. We stood together on the median strip. Double-decker buses whizzed either side. Ethel waved her gloved hand.
Taxi, she called in a voice I’d only heard go so high and loud for the final verse of Oh come all ye faithful.
Aunt Shirl wasn’t home when we arrived. At the back of the house there were gum trees as wide as an Adelaide street lunging up towards the sky, dropping leaves and flinging down dead branches and sticks. I crouched over a great sheath of bark and listened to the trees fizz above.
When I came back, the front door was wide open.
Aunt Shirl cried, Look at you! The coolness of her upper arms clung against me as she pressed a soft cheek onto my forehead. I noticed she had already put a glass of sherry in Ethel’s hand and had hung her knitting bag on the hallway dresser, next to grandpa’s sword.
My bed was very high and hard with starched sheets so tight, it was difficult to fit myself in between. A black and white photograph of grandpa in uniform hung at the end of the bed, staring off gravely to the left. I floated into some kind of sleep, listening to the tinkle of crystal glasses being carried past my room. During the night, the gum trees roared and for a moment I forgot where I was. I prised myself out bed and lifted up the curtains to look outside. All I could see was the dark. All I could hear was the wind seething up amongst the monstrous trees.
Next morning, when I came into the kitchen in my slippers, Ethel and Aunt Shirl stopped talking. It took a moment to adjust to the dimness of the room, with its confusing arrangement of taps and flames and pipes that seemed to trellis across the walls. Aunt Shirl had been up very early baking small heavy loaves of banana bread and the air was thick with sweet warm mustiness.
After breakfast, Aunt Shirl said I was allowed to explore under-the-house because that had been her favourite place as a child. I scraped open the door and waited there for what felt like several hours, wishing I’d thought to bring my 100 Krazy Krosswords. I stared up at the cracks of light and around at the various shapes of boxes, broken umbrellas and dusty gardening tools. I tried to imagine Ethel and my aunt playing down here as children and sat down for a moment on a rickety chair to listen to them moving above.
Of course, with the house the way it is… Aunt Shirl said.
Somebody turned on the shower. The water drummed like distant guns.
Ethel said we should hurry up and go out before the weather heated up. We waited for Aunt Shirl to reverse grandpa’s pride-and-joy Rover out onto the street. I perched in the back on the wide leather seats, watching the fake fruit on Aunt Shirl’s hat flop to one side every time we turned a corner. Her driving gloves gripped the wheel as if she was steering a great ship through the hilly, leafy streets.
I peered out at Sydney gushing past, as we purred steadily towards somewhere called Rozelle. All the houses were tall and squashed together, right on the street.
Ethel and I waited on the footpath while Aunt Shirl spent some minutes backwardsing and forwardsing the car into a no standing zone. When she finally got out, she straightened her hat, and checked the alignment of her front and back wheels in relation to the gutter. She took my hand and held it so lightly it felt the same as dipping my fingers into a perfectly warm bath.
We followed Ethel along a metal fence with poles and a curve of lawn, past people sitting in the shade of trees, along a sandstone verandah and in through a door.
Ethel clipped towards a nest of blue sheets. She stood beside the bed and lifted her hands to her face, her knitting bag dangling from her arm. I watched as she bent down and spoke into the tiny beak of a man’s face.
Father, she said. When he showed no sign of hearing, she clasped her hands together and looked across at Aunt Shirl and me. Our father, she said, and I waited for her to continue with the familiar words who art in heaven, but somebody had begun coughing loudly behind the adjoining curtain.
We stayed there for some time, Ethel with her hands clasped and Aunt Shirl opening and shutting the little chest of bedside drawers. Just as we were leaving, the man in the bed sat up and let out a squeak, Watch out for the enemy subs in the harbour.
I stopped and tried to think of what to say, but Ethel and Aunt Shirl had already left.
What a stinker, said Ethel as we waited on the footpath for Aunt Shirl to ease out safely from the curb. A man in pyjamas rattled past us, wheeling his drip from a stand, cigarette hanging from his lip.
Looks like you could do with some cheering up, said Aunt Shirl. She handed Ethel a two dollar note. Go on. Treat yourselves to a ferry ride to Taronga Park.
Ethel and I stood together in the bright of Circular Quay watching the ferries pitch against the wharf. She took off her white cotton gloves to squeeze sun cream onto my face, and rubbed at my cheeks as if scrubbing away a toothpaste stain. Behind her, the harbour glittered and was full of dark moving shapes.
After we’d crossed the gangplank, Ethel sat down to consider the shoulder of her cardigan. I stood up all the way watching the froth at the back of the ferry.
It’s the humidity. I’d forgotten it, I heard her say to a woman who was fanning herself with a Readers Digest.
Not bad weather if you’re a fish, laughed the woman, but Ethel was too busy counting up her purl and plain, plain and purl.
At Taronga Park Zoo, Ethel was appalled at the price. Eventually she handed over the money to the woman behind the grille, saying But we won’t be swindled out of the price of a map.
We stood in the sun, squinting at a board which said You are here. At Ethel’s suggestion, we chose two animals each. I chose the otters and the elephant. She chose the toucan and the polar bears.
The zoo had sudden hills and a complex network of baking asphalt paths.
If we keep the harbour to our left, Ethel said.
I felt dizzy in the rising heat and had to drink rusty water from a tap.
At last we tracked down the otters and I watched them frolicking in a soupy pond. Ethel waited under a tree, fanning away the descending flies. Aunt Shirl had packed some tomato and chutney banana bread sandwiches, which had turned up their corners in the greaseproof heat. I chewed through the bread but my tomato shot out onto the ground. Ethel took out her knitting to start on the neck, but put it away again declaring it was too hot to knit.
I’m not so sure about the elephant, she said. We’ve already smelt it so you won’t mind if we don’t see it, will you?
I watched some children running past with ice-cream dribbling down their hands.
And I’ll give up my toucan, she said. She brushed down the back of her skirt and marched off. The polar bears are on the way to the gate.
I leapt up and followed her, leaving my wheel of tomato to the gathering ants.
Ethel was walking faster than was sensible in the midday heat. Her knitting bag swung wildly on her arm. Every now and then she stopped to frown at me panting behind.
As she strode up a steep path, I saw with relief, there was water running in a steady stream along a drain. I sloshed in it a little, wetting my sandals and flicking it up on the backs of my legs. How lucky there was a man standing further up the path with a hose, causing a white hiss of water to run on down towards me.
As Ethel passed him, he said something to her. She looked at him in surprise, and kept walking. He called out again. I saw her stop. She turned to me and waved her hands.
Go back, she screeched in the kind of voice she’d never use in church.
I was too busy stamping in the water to care, making it spray up onto the front of my dress, onto my arms and sweating face.
Watch out girlie, the man with the hose shouted.
I bent down and ran my hands in the water. There were threads in it, a swirling blackness and a sort of thickness, like veins of fine wool.
I found her crying at the polar bear cage.
I knew we should never have come, she said.
Polar bears, said the sign. Winston and Fifi. There was a map of where they came from in the Arctic, marked with a dot. I looked down at a man who was standing where Winston and Fifi were meant to be. He was hosing along the walls and the floor. Another man came out with a broom. A pinkish rainbow fanned up above them in the sun.
At the ferry gate, my mother stood sniffing and blinking at the blinding harbour, at the boats and ferries carrying people back and forth. I stared down at the water, imagining I could see the submarine-sized shape of Winston swimming away.
Back at Aunt Shirl’s, we saw it on the news.
You see, there were usually two polar bears at Taronga Park Zoo sharing a cage painted ice-floe blue. According to the hose-man, it was the heat that drove Winston to bite off Fifi’s head.
A version of this story was published in the anthology Painted Words (Wakefield Press, 1999) and was written in response to Dorrit Black’s painting ‘The Bridge’ c.1930.