The man gulped air like a fish thrown onto the deck of a boat. Which was ironic, given that he felt as if he was breathing water. A humid summer day in Melbourne. The air was so thick he wished for gills. He had been here less than a week and this was the second time the weather had caught him off guard.
His face, arms and the back of his neck were salmon pink with sunburn after wandering around the city the day before. The straps of his small backpack made his t-shirt feel like sand-paper on his shoulders. The damp air had deceived him. The clear heat of the summers in his own country did less damage than the radiation that scorched your skin here. In the soupy atmosphere, he had burned before the heat had offered any warning.
Today was worse. Walking around with the backpack, sweat clung to his back and armpits as the oppressive humidity filled the air like a fog. Walking down Swanston Street, he listened to snatches of conversation from the people he passed, trying to pick up English phrases, but the language was as difficult to understand as the air was to breathe. The man felt he was wading sluggishly through both. It seemed Australians did not speak the kind of English he had learned in his classes back home. They used phrases he had never heard: ‘As full as a boot’; ‘A face like a dropped pie’; ‘I’ve got to hit the frog and toad’; ‘As useful as an arsehole on your elbow’. He did not understand these phrases.
Also, his teacher had spoken with an American accent, teaching her students to speak in the same way which, combined with the man’s own accent, was apparently making it hard for anyone here to understand him. Even though he and the Australians were speaking the same language, they were each making very different sounds. And then there were so many other nationalities here, with different accents of their own, some of whom had English only marginally better than his. And Australians spoke too quickly for him. He had to keep asking people to repeat themselves, which made conversation a strain.
Without fluency, his language was crude and mechanical and now, unaccustomed as he was to this smothering weather, he knew he looked out of place, as well as sounding it. A sunburnt, sweating, awkward, clumsy-tongued foreigner. To those who didn’t know him, he seemed a very different person to the man he actually was. It was exhausting, trying to be himself in this other place. This environment made him someone else.
‘Strewth!’ he exclaimed, wiping his forehead as he gazed up at the unrelenting blue of the sky.
His sister, who watched a lot of Australian soap operas, had told him that if he wanted to speak like an Australian, he had to learn to swear like one. He wasn’t sure the list of swear words she had given him was that accurate . . . or up to date. But they were easy to pronounce and he was fond of swearing, and he thought they were improving his Australian accent, so he had made a conscious effort to use them whenever he could.
‘Bugger!’ he muttered, shifting the straps on his shoulders before he started walking again.
He had forgotten how sore sunburn could be. And it was starting to itch like crazy. He had not put sun-cream on yesterday – he hated the stuff and hardly ever used it at home. His sister had told him Australian sun was different. Something about the hole in the ozone layer. The UV rays were stronger. She had warned him not to be macho and stubborn and to wear the bloody sun-cream. Well, now he was burnt. ‘Dumb as a box of rocks’, as the Australians said . . . according to the soaps. He could imagine the self-righteous cow folding her arms and jutting her chin out in satisfaction. He rubbed the back of his neck and winced at the warm sting of it. He’d put the bloody stuff on today, all right. Pain was a great persuader.
He caught a few people smiling at his glowing pink skin and scowled to himself. Yes, yes, he had been caught out. What of it? Let them try living through one of the winters at home and see how they fared. He remembered a time when an Aussie immigrant he knew was out in sub-zero temperatures, working on his car. The idiot had put a bolt between his lips to hold it while he went to undo a second one. And then was shocked to find the bolt had frozen to his lips. He had quickly stopped the Aussie from trying to pull it free, telling him to take a drink from his mug of coffee instead, to warm the freezing metal. Pulling the bolt free would have torn the skin off his lips.
The man shook his head at the memory as he came to another cross-roads of wide streets – they were all wide streets around here; if there was one thing this country wasn’t lacking, it was space. Looking across the junction, he saw the state library on the opposite corner. People in brightly-coloured clothes sat out on the grass at the front and skateboarders practised their moves along benches and kerbs on the wide pavement. To his left, he saw a building that look like it had a roof built out of plastic frogs.
‘Bloody hell!’ he muttered.
That was another thing here; the colours. People seemed to be able tolerate the most garish colours in the most prominent places. The television in the mornings was filled with images coloured like children’s toys. Was that an effect of the sun too? Did it dazzle their eyes so much, they could only see in primary hues? Or was his own judgement ‘coloured’ by the light back home? Could an entire nation’s taste be influenced by its weather? He supposed it could. Compared to the muted tones he was used to at home, this place looked like a crèche, but then there were some who might find his home town a depressing place. He often did. It was one of the reasons he had accepted the job with the mining company here.
Walking into the library, up the steps and past the pillars that towered over its entrance, he was awestruck by its scale. This was not a palace or a corporation headquarters but a place for holding books and information, a place people could just wander into and use. And yet it was a majestic place. Instead of one great hall to impress visitors and then, as you might expect, a collection of smaller, more utilitarian rooms, the place seemed to consist of one spacious, individually designed room after another. An architect’s showcase.
‘Crikey!’ he gasped in his thick accent.
The air was cooler and clearer here and the man breathed easier, strolling slowly, his head turning from one side to the other constantly as he took it all in. And the books, of course. This was not a borrowing library, but still, there was plenty of space to sit and read, there were plenty of computers to use. This place seemed created to remind him that reading was a chance to share in the thoughts of others, but at his own speed. He did not have to be hurried by the pace of someone else’s speech.
He walked through a gallery space that looked like it had been transported from one of the great old galleries of Europe and transplanted here. In a smaller chamber off to one side, he was surprised to find an exhibition of illustrations from children’s books. Moving from one to the next, he was more touched by them than the grander oil paintings in the room beyond. Simple, but nuanced; bold, but delicate, they were so like the pictures in the books he had grown up with. Sitting here, surrounded by these images from Australian children’s books, he felt strangely at home. A tension dissolved out of him and, without thinking, he sat down on a bench to let the moment take effect.
Why had he never learned how to draw? Why was it not taught as a language in schools? Everyone understood pictures. He had enjoyed it when he was a child, but he had not kept it up as he got older. Looking at these pictures, he regretted that decision, if it had been a decision at all.
‘You little rippers!’ he murmured, with a faint smile.
After nearly fifteen minutes of just sitting there, enjoying the lightness of the room, he moved on and found the yawning space at the centre of the library, beneath the giant dome. Walking in, he tilted his head back, his neck straining to let him take in the full view above. The sky was an aching, intense blue framed within the panes of glass. My God, that blue! How had he not noticed it before? Was this what it took to for him to truly see it? Did it have to be framed like this, like a piece of artwork? At this moment, at home, the winter sky would most likely be overcast or a pale blue at best, but this colour was like a force of nature, holding onto his eyes. What a blue!
After leaving the library, he found a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Sitting down, he took his notebook and pen from his bag. When the waitress came over, he ordered some noodles, pointing to the menu when the waitress failed to understand the words spoken in his strong accent. When he was about to ask her another question and realized he didn’t know the right words, he opened his notebook and drew a very rough paintbrush and pallet.
‘Oh, art supplies!’ she exclaimed with a smile, nodding and taking the pen from his hand. ‘Yes, there’s a shop nearby. Here, I’ll draw you some directions . . .’