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.
The arrow points towards the underground passage, urging me to “Keep on Walking”. Ahead of me is a white-walled tunnel, its curved ceiling and unadorned walls making it more resemble one of the hallways from Star Wars than a pedestrian underpass. There are no advertisements on the walls, no graffiti, just a string of round, black ventilation grilles that look like portholes, and two stripes of fluorescent lights along the ceiling.
This is one of my favourite Sydney tunnels. Its starkness is a respite from the visual clutter of the city, as if I’ve slipped into a connecting piece between the present and the past, or some other kind of Sydney. Even at peak hour it’s not a busy thoroughfare. More often that not I walk through it alone, expecting a band of Stormtroopers to come marching out from exit midway along it. But the only action is the few pedestrians heading between Museum train station and the office buildings above.
The Star Wars connection is not as much of a stretch as it could be: the underpass was built in the late 1970s, around the same time as the film was in cinemas. It was part of the Hyde Park Square development of two office towers and an underground arcade and sunken plaza, all connected to Museum station by the tunnel.
I reach the end of the tunnel and it widens out into a shopping arcade. On one side is one of the few remaining ceramic murals by Vladimir Tichy. It is a long wall of textured, bark-like tiles, with sets of vertical bars made from glazed, white bricks, which look like spears of bamboo, or stalactites on the roof of a cave. On one panel is the marker’s mark, carved in relief into the clay: Designed by V. Tichy, 1977.
Tichy is a ceramic sculptor who came to Australia in 1968 from what was then Czechoslavakia. He set up a studio in Parramatta, from where he produced many large-scale ceramic murals for public and office buildings, RSLs, and civic centres. There were once many Tichy murals in the city, but now the only other ones are in the lobby of Macleay College on Foveux Street, and at the entrance to Newton’s Pharmacy on York Street. The rest have been destroyed as 70s buildings are renovated or demolished.
Beyond the mural is the square itself, a sunken plaza between the two buildings. Designed for office workers’ lunches it had clusters of chairs and tables and a big, curved concrete bench you could either side on the inside or outside of. Now most of the square is taken up by a childcare centre, with soft artificial grass and a sandpit.
Once I reach the square I turn back towards the bright, white tunnel. It hadn’t always been so stark. In the 1982 book Subterranean Sydney by Brian and Barbara Kennedy it is described:
A new sixty-five metre tunnel under Elizabeth Street was opened in 1978 to take pedestrians from the complex to Museum Station. The new tunnel was given a modern-art atmosphere with wide bands of colour. The smooth lining of the tunnel was made of a specially toughened material and was said to be vandal proof.
At first, the white paint seemed to cover the wall panels so well that there was no hint of what colour it must have been before. The white paint extended tightly into the cracks, from floor to ceiling. I stood up close to it, scrutinising its surface, looking for the tiniest flake or chip to reveal the layer behind it. The surface was slightly rough, but uniformly off-white: it gave nothing away. I stepped back and looked around the tunnel, towards the side exit. Here a metal arrow on a pillar gestured obscurely to the right, devoid of any other guiding information.
I looked back to the white walls of the tunnel and saw something I had not yet noticed. Just visible was a slight change in texture, in the shape of a diagonal line. I followed it with my eyes. Near the curve of the ceiling another line intersected it at right angles. Then another line intersected that. I walked slowly along the tunnel, my eyes on the lines, and they came into life, diagonal stripes and squares. All of a sudden I notice a line of scraped marks at the bottom of one of the panels, which revealed slivers of bright green underneath the white coating. The next panel was scraped too, revealing yellow.
As I stood in the white tunnel it flooded into colour in my mind’s eye. Diagonal bands of green and yellow came into bloom. I felt a transformation come over me, too, as if I could, in that moment, see through time. Opening my notebook, I quickly sketched out the lines and shapes.