I am slowly, slowly, jogging downhill on West Perth’s Mount Street, when: *boom* - a lycra-clad guy on a bike swooshes past me.
The bottom third of the street, which runs at an alarming angle towards the CBD, is closed. The part where I used to live.
There are roadworks going on (still! Always!) and it seems like the job of one of the gang of highlighter-orange-clad workers is purely to remind cyclists to slow down, lest they crash into the mish-mash of signs and broken kerbing and ripped up asphalt at the bottom of the hill. Or a person, I suppose.
It’s my fourth lap. I’m running up as far as I can, then when I can’t run anymore I walk the rest of the way; take a sprint along the flat street at the top, then jog (slowly, slowly), back down to the old Kombi. It sits outside the red brick art deco block of flats that I lived on the top southwest corner of what seems a lifetime ago - but is really only a few short years. It’s one of the only remaining original buildings. But it, and its inhabitants, have a life of its own, from the communal cats (Jasper, who started visiting me around the time I met my husband, and bore a striking resemble to his childhood pet); to the informal barter system: whatever’s left inside the main door of the complex under the wooden letterboxes is fair game. When I moved in I found grey and blue sets of Ikea crockery there, and some cutlery. When I moved out I put them back exactly where I’d found them. Within a few hours, they’d disappeared.
It’s a curious place. There are residents who seem like permanent fixtures, who you meet at the same time on the same place of the staircase (no elevator), who smoke their cigarette at the same spot in the garden, whose bacon you can smell frying at the same time every Saturday. Then there are those of us who are transient: we are here after a crisis because a friend-of-a-friend knows it’s a place where you’re not locked into a long-term (really!) and where the rent can sort of really be paid whenever (and you’ll get a handwritten receipt later).
A place to take stock, get back on your feet.
More of a studio than an actual flat, the ‘bedroom’ was so tiny that the bed had to be put together from inside the room. One side of the bed touched the wall and I could fit a glass of water and a book between the bed frame and the other wall. The main room had white-painted brick walls and uneven floorboards with sticking-out nails that I kept nicking my stockings on and a window that didn’t quite close properly. It had no working oven and I never bothered to get a TV but it did have a view of the city.
And a bath. And it’s where I laid on the floor and cried till my tears ran dry; drank Scotch because that’s what I thought you did when you were all out of other ideas: also because I thought it was cool, and even though I never liked it anyway. It’s where I read way too many Elephant Journal articles and stared out the window at the skyscrapers and the river listening to Matt Corby and bought that ridiculously expensive Aesop hand wash even though I couldn’t afford it, just because it made me feel good. It’s where I said goodbye for good to the full-time corporate rat race: to the pretense and the politics, because all the pretending made me too tired. It’s where I started to glue together the scattered shreds of my life and heart. It’s where I decided you couldn’t carry all your wounds around with you, and where, almost immediately after declaring with ceremony (candles, obviously) and associated platitudes (Louise Hay, etc) that I ‘would learn to love again’, that I in fact, did, fall in love.
Because all of my worldly (and unworldly) possessions were on the other side of the country I furnished it with bits and pieces other people didn’t need, or were throwing away: a desk from one friend, a couch from another (the same one whose boyfriend put together the bed for me on a stinking hot summer’s day), two chests of drawers procured via Facebook from a house being cleaned out in Floreat which I later sold on Gumtree, to a Finnish guy .
So many people helped me move furniture, paint walls, fetch pizza, drill holes, that I can’t even remember who it was who helped me shift the glass-topped table up two flights of stairs.
These are the days of our lives.
There was no parking afforded to the building except for the Kombi owner-slash-building-manager Ken, and not having a laundry I’d spent plenty of time carrying a basket of dirty washing up and down the street to my car. Often on a Sunday night in the rain. These laps I’m running now, even in summer, should seem like nothing compared to that time –psychologically, and physically.
The bicycle-policing-roadworker looks over at me. He’d finished smoking his last cigarette at 8.07am and was back on the job.
‘You know what should be illegal?’ he says. ‘Middle-aged men in lycra.’
I laugh agreeably despite wholeheartedly believing the opposite: that anyone – but especially middle-aged men – could benefit from some time on a bike, both physically and mentally; and in spite of the fact that they really do give me the shits when I’m stuck behind them in traffic.
‘Slow down, mate,’ he says as another whizzes by, this time already suit-clad. Navy blue.
I push through four or five more rounds before I call time. Then thinking immediately ‘oh well I haven’t done very much’, which is actually absolute rubbish, because I’ve done 45 minutes of hills and sprints. Why do we (and I mean mostly women) do this? Minimise not just our big achievements, but the day-to-day goings-on that constitute the fabric of our very existence?
I think back to the time I was working four days a week (but we all know that 0.8 FTE just means you do a whole person’s job in four longer days, right?), teaching up to 15 fitness classes a week, and trying to run a small business. It strikes me as a good measure of personal progress that I feel far more fulfilled with what I do in a day now than I did then, when I felt like I was failing everywhere, all the time. It’s another good measure, despite that at least by Perth standards I’m ‘doing far less’ (translate: not running around like slavishly productivity or output-obsessed), my relationships seem to be better, and more genuine, than they ever have been.
Yet those sneaking doubts persist. I manage to neg the ‘haven’t done very much’ thought only because of the run I’d done the day before, and safety in the knowledge that I’m quietly, secretly on a marathon training plan that means my exercise for the next two months is pre-scheduled. And by safety, I mean I don’t have to make decisions about ‘what’s enough’, because I have ‘a plan’. I’m off the hook. I’m pretty sure you know what I mean.
I’m trying to learn Spanish. Why exactly I’m not sure, except that I want to go there again, hopefully more successfully last time when I was fired from my job nannying in Mallorca and immediately cut off from the family’s high-tech security system couldn’t even open the front gate to get out, leaving the cleaner, a sturdy woman in her late 50s called Marie Carmen, to help me hoist my luggage over the compound wall, so I could walk to the ferry to go back to Barcelona.
I finish the running and with my brain still spilling over with memories of those months living in that cold, cosy, apartment-that-saved-me, I walk to the coffee place under the building and do my daily Duolingo, skipping the bits that require me to speak out loud. Oddly for a place that has serviced apartments and is right next to Kings Park, it’s only guys in button-downs and chinos here today. In between clumsily licking the chocolate from the cappuccino off the side of my mouth and typing ‘El museo esta cerrado’ into the app, their conversation floats in and out.
‘What’s your end game?’ ‘What do you want out of this?’ ‘What can we do to make it work for you?’ They have short haircuts and hunched shoulders and the older they are the more notches on their belt they’ve had to let out. They are feigning that ‘I’m really interested in this meeting’ look. I know it well.
Now though, in my leggings and headband, I am invisible to them.
It feels like something out of Sliding Doors. A parallel universe that I opted out of. Not just in my work, but in my personal life too. Cutting down on the bullshit might mean crashing down to earth, but just temporarily. For me, it was the reality check I needed to start living the life I was meant to, and needed to, for my sanity and for my health. Not without some (mostly material, some social) tradeoffs, but unparalleled in its potential for liberation.
And though I’m familiar with this game, it’s not one I’m interested in playing anymore.