At the main intersection in Bexley North, traffic snarls by, lurching towards or away from the M5 on-ramp on the far side of the Wolli Creek valley. On one side of the intersection are shops, built in the 1930s, when the East Hills railway station opened and the suburb with its rows of red-brick houses came into being. On the other side is the Bexley North Hotel, a supermarket, and a row of shops with a wide carpark in front of them, hidden behind a screen of trees, lawn, and overgrown garden beds. This, a sign indicates, is Nairn Gardens.
I wasn’t paying Nairn Gardens particular attention, apart from noticing it had a substantial sign for a small, nondescript park, but as I continued on the path through the gardens, something else caught my eye. A round bronze plaque with a colourful insignia on it, on the side of a concrete structure that enclosed a row of benches. From this, I learnt that the Gardens had, in 1966, won second prize in the Sydney Morning Herald Garden Competition. I looked up, across the overgrown rockeries, a tangle of rosemary, foxtail grass, and tall conifers leaning askew, and tried to imagine the prizewinning garden hidden somewhere within it.
In 1966, it was described by the judges thus: “Much thought has been given here, with a rather difficult terrain, to produce a delightful effect which will improve even further as some of the subjects mature”, and further, “Several young poplars form an attractive background to an Olympic torch fountain, while an outstanding soulangiana magnolia and crotalaria added their charm. A well designed rock garden, with rosemary, hebes, dwarf conifers, nandinas, goldfussia, diosmas, mesembryanthemums, sedums, and alpines, gave a great permanency to the display.”
The rocks were still there, in terraced rows leading down from street level, and the rosemary and the conifers had matured into unruliness. Essentially, though, the winning garden had disappeared, apart from the plaques that commemorated the prize. It felt something like coming across a trophy in an op shop, engraved with a name and achievement, but disconnected from its champion.
The fountain had been installed with great fanfare in 1964, in commemoration of Bexley North’s Olympic medallist, the swimmer Robert Windle, who had won gold in that year’s Tokyo Olympics. The fountain had a prominent position on the corner, instantly noticeable to anyone passing by, whose attention would have been captured by the sight of a giant metal tulip, with a curtain of water cascading down from its stem, rising up out of a concrete dome into which slabs of stone were set. I like to imagine that when, in August 1980, The Cure played at the Bexley North Hotel, Robert Smith might have wandered across the carpark to contemplate the fountain’s lonely prominence on the corner.
Vanished fountain, unruly garden, the mesembryanthemums long gone. In 1995, the fountain was removed, and replaced by lawn and a row of flagpoles, and the garden’s flowers were replaced by hardier species. I sit on one of the benches and look over a palm tree in a hexagonal concrete planter, set in the cusp of the park benches as an object of contemplation. The wind blows big dry leaves from the plane trees and wisps of trash across the lawn and the path. Occasionally someone comes past, carrying a bunch of Mother’s Day flowers or a bag of shopping back to the carpark. The sky is a bright blue, with big mottled stripes of clouds cutting across it. I sit on the bench in the late-afternoon sun and watch them move and disperse, slowly changing into different shapes altogether.
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.