On the Hills Bus, with 2CH blaring loudly from the speakers above every second seat, I look out the window at the national park. The M2 cuts through it, a long pale scar. I’ve never been on a Hills bus before, although I’ve seen people queuing for them at peak hour, lined up neatly in single file along the pavement outside the QVB. I’ve also seen the buses travelling over the Harbour Bridge, packed with commuters, and wondered what it would be like to have to stand in the aisle all the way to Dural.
Dural is one of those suburbs that unless you have lived in the Hills District, you probably haven’t heard of. When I say “Dural”, I might as be saying Dubrovnik. It’s possible that I too would be unsure of its location had I not lived in the area as a child.
“You Light up my Life” wails from the radio as the bus turns into Old Northern Road. We pass the Koala Park, with tour buses out the front and a couple of Japanese girls taking peace sign photographs in front of the entrance. Simon used to live across the road from the koala park. He tells me that strange shrieks would come from the park at night, rumoured to be the sound of the koalas’ frantic coupling.
The bus turns off and makes its way through suburban streets. All the houses are McMansions of various sizes. Cars with P plates in the driveways, everything neat. I’ve never been on these streets before and when the bus comes out the other side of the estate onto New Line Road, I realise why: all these houses were built in the years since I left the Hills District. They were in the area that, when we’d drive through it on the way to and from the city, used to be fields. I’d look across it, counting the cows dotted on the hills.
It’s a novelty to be in a bus on a road I’ve only ever been on as a passenger in a car. Not being a driver gives me a different perspective on travelling around Sydney. I sit and let it slide by the windows. For residents of this area, though, it would be impossible to rely on the bus service, which is designed only for commuters to and from the city.
The bus terminates at Round Corner, the central village area of Dural. As a child I enjoyed what I felt was the strangeness of “Round Corner” as a name. The corner itself is a dogleg where Kenthurst Road comes off Old Northern Road. In the corner is Dural Mall. The Mall isn’t a multi-storey Westfield kind of mall, it’s an L-shaped court lined with shops. Built in 1979, it is a compromise between the old way, of on-street shops, and the new way of enclosed shopping centres. The covered walkways give Dural Mall the visual appearance of a maze or a computer game.
Since I lived there the mall has been built upon, but its general shape has been retained. I follow the only other passenger who had stayed on the bus to the end, a young guy with long ratty hair and puffy sneakers, down into the end of the Mall. As I do this I catch sight of an old sign on the wall, in a gap between where the Mall used to end and a new building beside it. The signboard lists all the shops in as they used to be when I remembered it, all of which (besides the post office and fruit shop) are no longer there.
I regard this as a good omen for my project. I slip into the gap in between the buildings and examine the sign. The dark green, the signature colour of Dural Mall, triggers something in my memory, as do the shop names, La Pomme Bakery, The Shoe Tree. I like that it must have been left on the wall because no one thought it important enough to remove, and that it hides in a gap, tucked away, like it is the Mall’s own memory.
I love these details that remain through neglect, I have an eye for things that are weathered, old, almost hidden. When I visited Dural Mall as a child it was with great excitement. I liked the dank Franklins with high shelves (now an Aldi) and the gift shop from which I’d think about stealing pewter ornaments (now a butchery). When I got a bit older I was interested in the hippy clothes in the Recycled Clothing store, and I’d buy my first copies of Smash Hits from the newsagency. The old sign was on the wall of the once newsagency, now bottle shop.
I walked into the Mall and went to the Daily Delicious Bakery to gather my thoughts. Not the Bakers Delight or the Michel’s Patisserie (hell is a string of chain stores) but the former La Pomme. I was sad it was no longer La Pomme, with the big green apple on the sign. Apart from the location it was completely different, although it did have a fantastic sign out the front picturing everything they sell. I ordered a salad roll and a jam tart (I’d been thinking about a jam tart for weeks) and sat in the corner, reading the Hills Shire Times.
Having read all about Granny Plankers and the proposed Hills district train line from Epping to Rouse Hill, and listened to tradespeople ordering large amounts of pies, it was time to head over to the library.
Walking through the carpark, a version of me at eight years old walked alongside, with my sister and my mum, on our way back to the blue Telstar to load groceries into the boot. We would have stopped at La Pomme for our favourite treats: a Neenish tart for Fiona, a Vanilla Slice for me.
I’m in a stage of my life when I feel sad when I think about my childhood. Not because of any inherent sadness from that time, or wish that I was back there, but something to do with its distance. I’m living in a future that back then didn’t exist: the year 2000 was as far as my imagination stretched. I calculated the impossibly adult sounding age that I would be in 2000, hardly believing it would ever come. Now I am living on the other side of it, in the unknown.
The library is much smaller than I have remembered it. I feel like laughing as I walk along the path through the tall Ironbarks that surround the library, because it looks almost toy size, compared to the one in my imagination. My memories of it have merged the library building and the taller building adjacent to it, a gym which I have never entered. This feeling of smallness is a strange one. I feel like a giant girl, big legs in black stockings, wearing a red dress, my black hair a cloak, on a secret mission.
The first thing I realise is that the library is the perfect place to take notes. I’ve been the recipient of plenty of odd looks in the past when I’ve been taking notes in unexpected places, but here there is nothing more normal than to sit at a desk, get out my Spirax and my pencil and start to write.
The “angled ceiling” of my memory below is incorrect, but I remembered the exposed bricks of the interior correctly. Although refurbished in 1998, according to a plaque near the entrance, the library building retains its 70s design. High windows stretch the lengths of the two long walls, giving the library the feeling of being a kind of treehouse, as the windows look into the branches of the trees outside. As a child this had seemed magical to me.
Dural Library is peaceful. As I sit at one of the desks in the Adult non-fiction section, I watch people entering and leaving. No one’s doing work at the desks besides me, perhaps because this is a part of Sydney where most people have enough space to work at home. The Hills District is of course famous for its vast McMansions, although the Dural/Kenthurst area still has a lot of older houses, built in the 60s or 70s, on five acre blocks of land. We lived on one of these 5 acre blocks, in a long, thin house built in the 1970s. This house, a castle in my imagination, has the same toy appearance to me the few times my mother and I have driven out to see “what they’ve done to it”. The library and this house must have been built at around the same time.
As I sit writing, a little girl wearing a silver puffy jacket, her hair in a pineapple ponytail on top of her head, approaches the loans desk.
“Do you have a book about how to build the pyramids?”
The librarian, a woman with a rich accent I can’t identify, though I can tell it is European, enjoys this request. She takes the girl over to the Ancient History section, near where I am sitting. She gets out a number of different books that have information about the pyramids and spreads them out on the nearby desk.
“I don’t know if it explains how they are made,” she says, pointing at one of the open pages, “it’s something to do with these blocks. It would be easier to say how to make an igloo…”
The girl’s family have come to join her, her mum, a couple of sisters, and a brother, who is wearing a primary coloured cap with a propeller on the top, still slowly turning from his latest movements. All of them look seriously at the books the librarian has selected. The girl chooses a couple of the books to borrow and the family soon leave, on their way home to build a pyramid.
The library gets quiet again. I can hear the hush of the air conditioning unit and the conversations of the librarians behind the desk. The librarian who was so happy to help the little girl is not impressed with the man who has forgotten his card and then forgotten his password to log on to the computer. She clicks her tongue and sighs at him. Librarian disapproval is powerful; he looks chastened.
He is hoping to use one of the computers that are lined up in a row along one wall. I go exploring this section of the library and look over the shoulder of the man who is searching through a woman’s photos on Facebook, happy pictures of a group of people camping. Smiling faces fill the screen and I look away. The happy snaps of strangers make me feel miserable. I resist trying to imagine what he is thinking as he looks at them.
In the corner is a lounge area with a magazine rack, in roughly the same spot it was in my memory story. I sit here for a while, copying down a cake recipe from a Woman’s Weekly book of baking. The cake has whole pears embedded in it, their stalks poking out the top, which strikes me as weird enough to consider making. It is like they are entombed in there, or growing in there, depending on your perspective. Next to me is a coffee machine, a fixture I have noticed in Marrickville Library also, although I’ve never seen anyone use it. I look at the options but none re very appealing. I imagine the crunching noise of the machine filling the quiet library, and imagine how self conscious I would feel, hoping that my cringing would serve to muffle the sound of it. I would have bought one, though, if I was more of a coffee drinker. One of the things that people complain about concerning the changes in libraries, especially university libraries, is the getting rid of books to put in more computers and cafes. The vestiges of that were here, with the coffee machine and the computers, but from all the evidence I saw, people were still interested in books.
A woman at the counter, one of the many older women who have been coming in with their empty canvas bags ready to load up on novels, asks the librarian to look up some books for her. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? On loan. The Poisonwood Bible? On loan. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow” On loan. I want to tell her she needs to go for something more obscure. Finally one of the books on her list is on the shelf, and the librarian goes in search of it.
I’ve browsed all the sections in the library, the green spines of the gardening section, the ring bound volumes in the local history folder, the bright, sparkly young adult books. The children’s section is different to what I remember: I borrowed classics there but these days it’s mostly the current YA and children’s fiction. Across from the children’s shelves there’s a mural of a tree with native birds in it. A couple of little girls are sitting below it, gossiping. The older girl cries out “I can see your nappy!” to clinch the argument she is having with her sister. Their mum, a harried woman with a white jumpsuited baby strapped to her front, shushes them.
I sit down at my desk again and listen to the librarians talking. “Yesterday,” one of them says, “I came home to find a parcel on my doorstep”. I imagine her walking up the path to her door in the dark and seeing it there, an unexpected shape. Of course I pictured it being a book, but I was wrong.
“She sends me yams, they’re not commercially available in Australia.” Apparently they are good, very good, either steamed or roasted.
The yam discussion is interrupted by two teenagers, a boy and a girl, entering the library. They walk in and wander around the shelves, looking for something. The girl receives a lot of messages, the iPhone ding-ding keeps ringing out like someone very impatient is waiting to be served.
What could they be looking for?
The boy approaches the counter.
“Do you have any books on Ancient Egypt?” he asks.
“You’re not going to build a pyramid?” the librarian asks. The boy looks confused but takes it in good humour. The librarian waits a moment before explaining about the little girl’s request an hour earlier.
She returns to the Ancient Egypt section with the couple in tow. I feel proud that I have chosen to situate myself in such an important area of the library. The boy and girl look through the books for whatever particular information they’re after, slipping between talking about this and carrying on a conversation about their friends, the kind that is cryptic to any outsider, peppered with the kind of nicknames that make you picture the worst.
They choose the most useful book and negotiate sharing of it: she’ll have it until the weekend, and then he’ll take it. I try hard to overhear it, but can’t determine which aspect of Ancient Egypt they are interested in.
I’ve been in the library for almost two hours now. If I wanted to I could stay there all day. This is one of the things I love about libraries, that no matter who you are you can come and spend as much time as you want in there, and no one will tell you to leave until closing time. You don’t have to have any money or even be doing anything particular besides keeping quiet. During my hours in there I got up and browsed the books, moved between the desks and the lounges, and never once was the focus of any particular attention. Me, ever the observer, likes this kind of quiet place where I’m under no particular scrutiny.
Back at the couches I flip through today’s Sydney Morning Herald, reading the obituary for Bob Gould, who died a few weeks ago. Goulds, his huge and chaotic bookstore on King Street, is a type of library in itself, in fact it’s probably more of a library than a lot of public ones, in the sense of a library being a collection of books. Public libraries weed their collections regularly, but the only way a book leaves Goulds is if you buy it, or maybe steal it, as I’m sure many are tempted to. (But really, would you?)
I felt sad about his death because he was such a Sydney character, although I will never forget my anger at him telling me I was a “lovely plump girl” during my very brief stint working at Pulp Books, my friend’s bookstore which was across the road from Goulds. This perhaps was my only real interaction with the man, apart from buying the odd book from him.
As I think through all this, I notice a man enter the library. I get the feeling he isn’t the kind of person who frequents libraries. It isn’t anything about his appearance, his monogrammed shirt, work trousers and no nonsense haircut, but more his behaviour. He steps inside, looks around and goes over to the computer area where the man had been doing the facebook stalking. He stares intently at the computers for about ten seconds. Then he turns around and walks back outside. I watched him get into a red Barina and reverse out of the parking spot, and then drive away. I know how he feels – sometimes you really don’t feel like asking how something works.
I can hear blasts of the whistle from the gym next door, adjudicating a basketball game. It cuts through the ever present hum of the air conditioning. The librarians are straightening the cookbooks, a display of which they have set up on a tiered shelf near the DVD section. Perhaps rather than cookery they should do an Ancient Egypt display. I get up and fiddle with the computer catalogue, trying to decide what to look up. It’s a clunky catalogue with overly big square icons on the screen for each menu item. You have to press the F buttons to access the different types of searches. I’ve always been a bit wary of the F buttons, they do things I don’t quite understand.
The last time I came here there was a card catalogue and books were checked out at the desk, the date due stamped on the slip on the back page. I wonder if any of the books that were in the library then are still on the shelf – no by the looks of things. These days you check out books at a tall grey machine, although many people still choose to go to the desk. I can hear the barcode scanning blips every now and again, a noise that’s now so commonplace that it’s barely noticeable. But, have you ever stood in the supermarket and just listened?
The afternoon turns sunny and I decide it is time to leave the library. I leave as unnoticed as I had arrived. The librarian at the desk fiddles with a small guillotine, and doesn’t look up as I pass. Outside I pause and look around. A few hundred metres from where I stand, on the other side of a fence, a new McMansion is being constructed. Workmen swarm all over the construction, putting in the windows.
I start back along the path to the bus stop on Old Northern Road. I am early and sit waiting as the schoolgirl beside me spritzes her neck with vanilla perfume and reapplies black eyeliner. A bank of dark clouds moves across the sky. Although it is still sunny, fat raindrops fall and explode against the surface of the road. I watch them, in love with the feeling of being deep within the suburbs, in the kind of place that no one would call special, unless you are there in that moment, with the sun and the rain and the sickly smell of vanilla, living both in the memory of it and how it is now.