Northbound on the Noarlunga Line

This piece was awarded third place in the Feminartsy Memoir Prize 2018.

On a Wednesday evening in late summer I take the train into the city, setting forth from my far-flung seaside suburb to meet an old friend for dinner. My carriage is mostly empty, and I lean my bike against the yellow railing by the window and stay standing, hooking my fingers through a loop of leather above my head. My endometriosis is flaring up tonight and I almost cancelled, but talked myself out of it. I know I can manage this, despite the tight shafts of pain stretching down my abdomen, the thrumming in my back, the urge to curl up and be still. I am trying to be resilient, to reach outward when I’m not doing well rather than folding in.

The chime sounds, doors close and away the train sweeps, slipping first past beaches and reserves and housing developments. I am living further from the city than I ever have, making my home in the outer suburbs. The train journey is under an hour and doesn’t feel long to me, but it’s enough of a barrier that my days have become largely localised. I don’t roam as I once did, pedalling wherever I needed to go, swerving through streets and along arteries to run errands, see friends, get to work. Instead, in Christies Beach I amble, first in the morning down the potholed laneway to the beach, sometimes along the Esplanade to the coffee shop, or up the hill to my sister’s place. Mostly, instead of meeting people back in town, I ask them to visit me here. The best ones do, and we walk along the cliffs by the water, gravel crunching underfoot. On calm days we might see a dolphin or two, and I feel so joyful that the place I’ve chosen to shrink my aperture is here.

As well though, I venture further afield than before, driving by necessity. I drive to appointments and through rolling farmland to work, skirting between trucks on the highway. Less than half an hour from my home I am in the country, and my days there are spent tending crops and picking vegetables, accumulating dust in the creases that radiate from my eyes when up I squint into blazing light.

On warm evenings after work I plunge into the ocean, my clay-caked and sweat-grimed farm clothes loosening from my form in the wet. On my back I float, toes and palms up, listening to beach chatter muted by water and the click of small darting fish. In these moments I am cooled and calmed, and reflect again with gladness that all this can be had just within Adelaide’s sprawling grasp.

As I bob in the water I think of a recent conversation with an old housemate, perched around the dining table in a friend’s apartment. She was describing her living situation, to me almost indistinguishable from the one we shared five years ago. A rambling four-bed house on the tramline, cheap rent, shared meals, domestic politics. When I told her where I live now, she made no effort to hide her incredulous shudder.

Christies?’ She repeated, and I bristled and burned. My temper leapt in defence of my working class adopted neighbourhood, its street trees snapped in half as saplings, noisy Commodores rumbling through the night and piles of discarded old clothes and chip packets in the alleys. It’s there we’ve managed to buy a place, my partner and me; three blocks from the shore and we can’t believe our good fortune. We walk past empty shop fronts on the main street and wait for them to reopen anew. We learn our neighbours’ names, make a map of fruit trees overhanging fences, jerk our dogs on their leads away from chicken bones peppered along the gutters. I think it’s a fine and honest place to make a home.

It’s not really about Christies, though. The exchange with this friend caused me discomfort because I know I have changed just as much as my living situation has. In small and large ways I am beholden now to pain and to fatigue and I arrange my life accordingly, early bedtimes and morning stretches, one glass of wine at most. Now journeying through the flat west and into the city on gently rocking rails, I feel that I’m revisiting a former existence. I feel grown up and melancholic thinking that the me of these inner suburbs, gilded as they are by evening glow, just might not recognise the me that is making this return; this incursion. I lived more lightly then, hopping easily between beds and households and bicycle-filled warehouses. But I was lonelier too, more desperate for the meaning that I now draw from my quieter life in the south.

Along the line, halfway to town, is Seacliff, where I moved alone at sixteen. Here I had my first stabbing tries at a vegetable garden, and often ate hot chips and hard cider for dinner on the stack of soft mattresses that functioned as my couch. Seacliff station sits at the top of a steep hill that glides you down to the ocean like a slippery dip, ending in a roundabout before tumbling into the dunes. At night in my memory the beach is lit only by the moon, the sand squeaking and damp and the water a dark shimmering unknown. Now, as my train approaches, I glance down the road to a lowering sun, and shift my weight on my feet and wonder how ten years can pass and a place can still be itself without you in it.

After Brighton we turn inland, and drift on past choked roads, traffic waiting for our passage, onward in the shade of sweeping gums. We pass strip malls and factories before lurching into the leafy enclave of the inner southwest. Here in Goodwood I lived with two friends, brothers, as I finished my degree and they navigated their father’s slow dying. I think of them as we pull in at Goodwood station, and I glimpse the narrow underpass that the three of us would wander through, making our way together to the farmer’s market on Sundays.

Three stops to go, then two. In Mile End I grew gregarious and tough. I would ride my bike everywhere, sometimes fifty kilometres a day, my wide-eyed energy for challenge yet to be cut down by chronic pain. My Mile End was a place of bare feet on uneven slate, of squashed beer cans spilling from milk crates, of one-night lovers and muscly limbs. I duck my head to gape from the train window at the wide streets I used to know, the squat houses on quarter acre blocks where friends of mine still live. The light is shifting now, setting tiled roofs aglow. I remember the old Greek lady who used to walk past our house with her rattling wire shopping trolley, sky fading to pink as we drank our beers on the porch. She’d gesture to her wares, instant coffee jars filled with pickled olives, and hold up five stubby fingers. We always obliged, coins pilfered from dusty corners.

The train slows to a crawl as we near Adelaide station. I move to the other side of the carriage and kneel on a seat under the window, looking past the scribbled tags etched into the glass. The sprawling West Terrace Cemetery signals that we’re nearly there. 150 thousand burials here, I’m told. I used to take the bike lane right through it, getting to know certain cracked headstones, the faded plastic flowers in their dusty cups. In summer at sunset the cemetery’s palm trees would be silhouetted against a blazing sky, puddles of heat forming on the asphalt ahead.

Out of the train and through the ticket gate, I push my bike up the station’s underground slope and into the bright thronging city. I know its flat, rectilinear streets too well; know which intersections to avoid, where friends have been hit by cars, which alleys can be cleanly cut through and for which I’ll need to get off and walk. It’s festival season, and the usually quiet footpaths and parklands are humming with music and light. On my way to tonight’s curry house on the other side of the city, I cross paths with a friend leading a group bike ride, he and his clustered cohort adorned with glitter.

‘Come for a drink at the garden?’

‘Can’t, I’m meeting someone for dinner. Come visit me soon, please.’

I pound on the pedals and I’m away, almost forgetting the pain in my abdomen, feeling strong and light, some former version of myself. My friend is waiting for me on a bench. He moved away years ago but he’s known me through all of this, my circling through the inner suburbs and lately shooting out, away. We embrace, enquire after each other, and for a moment all my past selves assemble, stacking through space like a deck of cards, landing at my back with a whoosh.

Image credit: Osman Rana

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Phoebe Paterson de Heer is a writer and farm hand living and working on Kaurna land in South Australia. She is a 2018 Carclew Fellow and a former nonfiction editor for Voiceworks.

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