Arncliffe Walk

In about half an hour the citywide lockdown will be announced, but for now, I sit at the edge of the water, watching its surface sparkle in the sunlight. Not so long ago, to sit here would be to watch the steady comings and goings of international flights from the airport. The international terminal is close by, just on the other side of the water. I can see its multi-storey carparks and the belt of highway that skirts its perimeter. But only one cargo plane departs the whole time I’m sitting there, and the sky belongs to the clouds.

Oyster shells cluster on the rocks at the river’s edge. Goolay’​yari/Cooks River, re-routed when the airport expanded, to a different, artificial shape, straightened out, but still the same flow of water. The wooden ramp I am sitting at the end of leads up to the rowing club, and I walk up and around to the front of the building. On the facade is a tiled mural of rowers, made by the artist Vladimir Tichy at his Studio Tichy in 1978, the same year the club opened. A gold boat, four rowers, the coxswain at the stern, calling out, his voice indicated by a gold fan-shaped speech bubble. In the last few weeks I’ve been writing an article about Tichy’s remaining ceramic murals, and this had been one I was yet to visit.

In the streets around here new apartment blocks have been constructed in the last five years, replacing the houses I had come to know from the taxi ride to or from the airport. The taxi route would dogleg through these back streets to go between the Princes Highway and Airport Drive, and I’d make a point to look for the pale yellow fibro house on the corner. One early morning, from the taxi window, I’d seen a man sitting on the front step of this house, holding a steaming mug of coffee in one hand, and patting a ginger cat with the other. I took that image of the man and his cat up into the sky with me, and call it to mind now even though there is an apartment block there instead.

Rather than go towards the airport I turn in the other direction. On one side of the road are houses, the other apartment blocks, like the road is the line between the past and future. On the apartment side there’s one house left, boarded up, fenced off, caught on the wrong side of time.

The roar of the highway grows stronger the closer I come to it. I turn onto it, the stretch leading up the hill from Wolli Creek to Arncliffe. Service stations, mechanics, car yards, and the headquarters of Golf NSW, a high bunker of a building with long mirrored windows and an impenetrable facade.

Steps beside it lead up to a little park, noisy from the traffic but enclosed by trees. A forlorn bubbler and a plastic ride-on horse are striped by the long shadows cast by the branches. I sit on the bench beside the horse, facing Golf NSW, imagining how all the office mugs would be novelty mugs featuring golf jokes, of the kind I usually skim my eyes over immediately when I see them in the op shop.

Back down beside the highway I continue walking, past a couple of houses high up above the level of the road, and then more factories. On the sheepskin upholstery business the painted signs are fading. Whenever I pass by I look for this building, as if it has something to reveal to me. The sun has bleached its signage to the point where the lettering and cartoon boots and car seats have taken on an abstract quality, their red and yellow outlines making awkward shapes against their backgrounds. On the roll-a-door is a giant painted 78 like two stray numbers from a lettering book, black with yellow drop-shadows. A real estate sign announces the building to have been leased, but it has been that way for months, now.

Across the road, cars surge up out from the motorway tunnel before stopping at the lights. The sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, turning the light from dull to bright, like it can’t decide which is the right mood. I’ve checked the news on my phone by now and I know lockdown’s been declared, starting in four hours’ time. I start back down the hill on the other side, looking over it all again – sheepskin warehouse, the high-set houses, the golf compound. At the base of the hill I stand waiting for the lights to change, standing by a recently-set panel of concrete, paler than the others. Written into it: Bidjigal Land, this place.

12 Comments on “Arncliffe Walk”

  1. Thanks Vanessa. When I lived in Sydney, I was bothered that as the city changed, it so often rubbed out its own story, as if the previous decades no longer mattered. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it should be retained, but the perennial pursuit of the next shiny thing is also not a worthy ideal. Your capturing these stories is appreciated.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thank you Gary, I’m glad I can record some of these places before they change: it sometimes surprises me what sticks around and what disappears.

  2. Pamela Shepherd says:

    So enjoyed this read Vanessa…it has me wanting to apply my new-found chalk pastels to your observations….so visually strong and well backed by the photos. There is much pathos in those observations…those images.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thank you Pam and enjoy working with those chalk pastels! The sky was my friend when I was taking those photos, dramatic sun/stormcloud combinations.

  3. Colin Bisset says:

    A wistful place it is, indeed…

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Colin, it felt to be a slightly strange time to go walking along the highway with lockdown on the way…

  4. Andrew Burns says:

    Evocative as always, Vanessa. I think the “speech bubble” represents a megaphone?

  5. Lord Fry says:

    Arncliffe is one of my favourite suburbs, It feels like the Inner West before it became too trendy. I love the very old houses, the dramatic landscape and the diverse community. I too like seeing the planes come and go. I often take myself to the bakery near the station for a bahn mi and sit in Arncliffe Park, but I really need to walk around on the Cooks River side. I even have a fondness for Wolli Creek.

    I can’t wait to read your essay on the Tichy murals. I believe that their was a Tichy in Bankstown, its been removed so I can’t check but I do have a picture of it.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Ash – yes it’s certainly an atmospheric place and your description makes me want to go back for another wander! The Tichy article will come out in August – there’s still a mural of his in the Bankstown Town Hall but I know the one you mean – it was at 351 Chapel Rd, demolished 2017/8. Good to hear you have a photo of it.

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