Two bridges – the road to Willy

There is a light smatter of rain on Saturday morning. I ripped a hole in my wetsuit last week and need to collect the new one from the Post Office. The doors are still locked at ten past nine. Eventually, one of the elderly Vietnamese counter staff grudgingly admits the half dozen or so people who stand despondently on the footpath. Gone are the days of Kevin and Basil, the jovial pair who ran the Post Office along a line of least resistance, breaking various mail regulations, amiably allowing customers to peek into their parcels before signing, news of which might also be shared among the waiting customers. The new owner, Jimmy, darts around behind the counter in an entrepreneurial manner, deftly cutting short inquiries and at the same time, barking orders to his parents who he has installed to deal with the customers, and who adhere rigorously and humourlessly to procedure. The wetsuit has arrived and I head west toward Williamstown beach.

The Western Ring Road is a grey ribbon draped across the industrial landscape at the western edge of the city.  On the eastern side of the bridge is a white ferris wheel, a ludicrous imitation of the London Eye, and a bizarre, gleaming white plastic structure which sits somewhere between a circus tent and Camelot.  It has four, conical apices with little mediaeval-style flags snatched up by the prevailing westerly wind. But as the freeway ascends to meet the Bolte Bridge, all that is visible are apices of cranes and power pylons emerging from the docks below like spars in a remnant iron forest, the understorey untidily crammed, stacked and crowded with paraphernalia, a giant’s toy box of rectangular containers and cylindrical storage tanks. Red, yellow, blue, white.  From a distance, there is an air of bright efficiency and gaiety to this most utilitarian of landscapes, belying its grim business and hard underbelly; most recently, the bitter dispute between the Maritime Union of Australia and the Patrick Corporation in 1998; a Royal Commission into organised crime in the early 1980s. Murk and shadow. Massive cranes for loading and unloading shipping containers, mostly painted the distinctive and now iconic red of Patricks, straddle the docks; impossibly ludicrous, stilted Meccano giraffes wanting to bolt away at any sudden disturbance, lurching above the clutter of containers  stacked and crammed untidily along the wharves.

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It’s a far cry from 1926.  Fifty years after the incorporation of the Melbourne Harbour Trust, a Jubilee bonus of one sovereign for each year, or part year, of continuous service was paid to port employees, retiring employees and to the widows of any employees who had died that year.  Those on sick leave were visited at home to receive the letter of greeting from the Commissioners.  The sovereigns were specially minted for the occasion and are uniquely dated 1926.  Total cost to the Harbour Trust was £7,594 in one of the best trading years since the outbreak of World War 1.

The river gleams in the bright morning sun.   Docklands.  The Land of the Docks.  A land you can see but can’t go to.   Presiding over it all, the Bolte is a bridge of bland, impersonal concrete bearing the name of the conservative Premier with a reputation for infrastructure, including the building of the West Gate Bridge, and rusted in as leader of the State government for seventeen years.  The Bolte Bridge is part of a freeway; a bridge with no pedestrian access bridge; a bridge that people can only drive across.  Fuck you Kennett-era architecture.   Bolte himself supported capital punishment – death by hanging in Victoria – and in spite of building two universities, was party to massive cuts to postgraduate programs in the late 1960s after refusing to match Commonwealth higher education funding.  Makes you wonder what sort of savings these measures were intended to invoke, since fee-free education would not come into play until after the election of the Whitlam government in 1972.

Then the phone rings and distracted, I nearly miss the turn off to the West Gate Bridge.

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At Williamstown, the sea is opaque green and choppy but when the sun comes out, suddenly it’s blue and sparkling. Still, no pool end piled with drink bottles and kickboards; no black line. Instead, the pitch and swell of open water. Uncertainty.  Tim and Richard get out of their car at the same time as I’m sorting out towels, keys, drink bottle and other bits and pieces. We wave and meet down on the sand a few minutes later. Lexi and Mary have also arrived and another swimmer, Mike is standing on the sand with an air of expectation, hands on hips, taking in the scene. Towels are spread out on the sand and we wriggle into our wetsuits on the beach, snap on caps and goggles and wade into the water. At waist level, Tim dips up and down to acclimatise, while the rest of us suck in our breath as cold water seeps through spine-length zippers. Then we dive under and make a start.

Under water, the sounds of the terrestrial world are blocked out and replaced, by what? The submerged world is not exactly silent; rather, sounds are sealed in some internal, amphibious compartment. Thoughts are audible through breath and even when the water is reasonably clear, I hear rather than see. Watery exhaled breath, languidly cast, then the barely audible gasp of inhalation.  There are other unexpected silences too: trails of tiny bubbles which appear and disappear with each stroke evaporate noiselessly beneath the surface; one of the others swims past, wraith-like, a sleek black arm appearing suddenly at the periphery of vision then pale feet kicking into the green, masked by effervescence. Breaking the surface every few strokes to sight the fluorescent orange ball tied to Tim’s leg is awkward and caught in the trough of a strong swell, it’s difficult to keep up a rhythmic stroke after gulping a mouthful of air and the shock of bright sunlight. Then, amphibious and sound-sealed again in the thick, green wate, clouds of bubbles magically form and disperse as hands plunge forward and with each breath out.

Rocks appear and disappear over the sea floor and alternately, patches of current-rippled sand. Swimming about a hundred metres to the first buoy is fine. Same to the second boy, about two hundred and fifty metres away. Swimming back, Lexi, Mary and I do a half-lap, meeting the guys on their return, then complete an entire lap non stop. Next, we swim to a rocky point about two or three hundred metres from the second buoy and in shallow water, drift over a reef crusted in coralline algae and bunches of ochre seaweed ribbons moving ghost-like in the current, blurred in the yellow-green water. Maroon starfish are clamped on the rocks and we are careful not to scrape the sea floor with our hands in case of disturbing a stingray. All the way back to the first buoy and then to the shore, is about two kilometres all up. By this time it’s easy. Everyone staggers out of the water, pleased and elated by the swim. A couple of us rinse off under the cold shower around the side of the surf lifesaving club and rejoin the others on the sand. Faris, a Jordanian, hands some dates around, their dull sweetness and pasty texture perfect after the salty water. I walk back over the sand and across the road to the car, barefoot. The bitumen is still only slightly warm, without the hot, stickiness of summer when fragments of tar cling to the soles of your feet.

It’s a perfect spring day and on the way home I detour through Williamstown and on the spur of the moment, buy some scallops and potato cakes at a fish and chip shop on the Strand opposite the pier. At the edge of the water, the sun is just warm enough to sit in but not too hot. To my right is the Hobsons Bay Yacht Club and further along the shore to my left, is the Williamstown Sailing Club. The backdrop is the city skyline, the Port Melbourne docks and incongruously, an enormous cruise ship which throws it all out of balance, its bulky squarish shape awkward and out of place alongside the slim skyscrapers and the numerous small fishing boats moored just off shore between the yacht club and the sailing club. As soon as the food is unwrapped, seagulls cluster around. They keep their distance but are collectively staring me down. Gradually, they draw closer. Then, menacingly a swan appears, confidently pushing the gulls aside and staring unnervingly at me with insouciance. Eventually it glides off when the last potato cake is eaten.

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The yacht club gate is fenced off by rendered brick, wrought iron and gold lettering beyond which is a copse of masts. The sailing club is a restored weatherboard building, with its name painted heritage style in green along the top of the clubhouse just below the roofline. Back along the Strand toward the West Gate Bridge, almost all the old houses have been replaced by featureless modern designs, blank windows masked by blinds to shut out the world. A couple of pretty Victorians still remain, built by ship’s captains or marine merchants fifty or so years after Williamstown was settled in 1835. Gold rush era neoclassicals and graceful Georgians, some restored and elegant, others shabby, mix with newer featureless 1970s houses and shops in the main shopping street and along waterfront back toward Gellibrand Point. Dishevelled pubs with cool cellars where cadavers were stored and autopsies peformed, before the morgue was built by convicts in the early days of settlement, mix with abandoned warehouses from a later, prosperous era. The Hobsons Bay Hotel; the Rose; Port Phillip Wool Processing Pty Ltd .

The Williamstown morgue is a square, bluestone building with a shiny new corrugated iron roof, out of place among the abandoned, tin sheds formerly Port of Melbourne Authority workshops where tugboats were repaired.  It sits behind a barbed wire and chain mesh fence close to the road leading down to Ann Street Pier. The arched, once-barred windows have been boarded over with planks nailed haphazardly over rusting chicken wire to prevent vandalism.  Originally built at Gem Pier, detritus from autopsies were carried away by the tide and bodies were hung from the ceiling, away from rats.

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The West Gate Bridge is always in the background. From Ann Street Pier and Waterfont Pier, the low slung arch seems equally a part of Hobsons Bay as of the docks. Waterfont Pier is buzzing with people on excursion from other suburbs and other parts of the world. There is the quiet clang of a ferry bell as it approaches the pier and across the water, some kind of machinery is buzzing. Occasionally there is the crunch of sandals and and stroller wheels on the gravel footpath and chatter of sightseers. The smell of grilled steaks and fried fish from nearby restaurants wafts past. The HMAS Castlemaine is moored at the end of the pier. It’s open to visitors, provided they can run the gauntlet of bossy, middle-aged men with a passion for naval ships. One shanghais two Indian women who hand their money over to have a look on board. He mistakes their politeness for interest. No doubt, he says, you learned about all this at school. They look even more perplexed but acquiesce, no doubt thinking that this is the best option.

On the way home, approaching the bridge, I am aware of a small buzz of excitement, a feeling no doubt unique to my generation who can still remember its inception and later, it’s collapse.  Its construction started in 1970, to link the sprawling leafy suburbs of the east with their bleak western counterparts. It would effortlessly span the grey-brown Yarra River and its backwaters dank with chemical waste, in a single, broad arc. When it collapsed half way through construction, concrete and steel debris and mutilated bodies were dumped in the sludge under the broken western span.  Already forced to witness the realities of the Vietnam war when moratorium marches clogged Bourke Street, and confront the ugliness of illegal abortion when the Wainer years played out on black and white televisions each evening, Melbourne was brutally shocked when the grand project proved only as good as the smokescreen that concealed its deadly flaws.

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From that moment, the bridge was linked forever to shame. Firstly, in caddish fashion, the Bolte government imposed a toll, hitting hard the working class commuters from the west. But only recently were grim mesh barriers erected to curtail suicides of desperately saddened human beings whose last eye contact was made through a grimy windscreen with a commuter stuck in a traffic jam. Or in one instance, the murder of a baby flung over the railings by her father in a deranged act of marital revenge.  But then there is the moment when, ascending, the span curves at its summit and the road disappears. All that is visible beyond the curvature of the bitumen and white lines, is the sky.

The Australian environment is unpredictable. Disasters transform landscapes and communities suddenly and with unimaginable force. One summer night we are watching the tennis on television and wake in the morning to hear reported on the news, that five hundred houses have burnt to the ground in suburban Canberra; we hang out our pillowcases on Christmas Eve and by morning, a cyclone has flattened Darwin. Towns are swept away in minutes by floods, in malevolent storms which strike during a decade of drought. But there is a nobility about bridges and they don’t collapse.

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