Loss on Hope

22 September 2016 Katherine Smyrk

Loss on Hope

Hope Street, Brunswick, runs straight as an arrow from Sydney Road, over Melville Road, to right before the freeway that takes people to Melbourne’s airport. It diverts from its path only to bulge around minor suburban roundabouts. On its east end, there is a Turkish restaurant with coloured bulbs that flash at night, where you can get a kebab until 5am. If you eat in, there is unlimited flat bread. At the west end, there is a dead end looking over the vast concrete drain that feeds into Moonee Ponds Creek. The Hope Street bus line used to run on weekdays from 9am until 2.30pm, mostly used by seniors going to Sydney Road to do their shopping. The route was shut down due to low passenger numbers.

It’s a terrible street to ride a bike down, or even drive, because it is so narrow. Cars have to leapfrog politely to get around each other. Progress is slow.

It was in an alleyway off Hope Street that, in September 2012, Jill Meagher was abducted. And murdered.

***

The streets that cross and weave between Albion Street and Brunswick Road, between Sydney and Melville Road, don’t look like much. There are a lot of concrete streets full of squat, quiet houses and patches of Stringybark trees. The charred chimneys of the old brickworks reach up into the skyline. But after flitting from one house to another when I first moved to Melbourne’s north, the area cupped between those streets has become my neighbourhood. A little pocket of familiar in a big, sprawling city. Hope Street runs like a vein through the middle of it.

My sister used to live in a ramshackle house 20 metres from Hope Street. I remember how much I liked the name when she first moved in. My partner lives there now. My house is a kilometre away. On the weekends I run to the oval that abuts Hope Street – the home ground of the Brunswick Junior Football League – and pad in slow determined laps around the muddy field. In the small, pretty park that runs off the oval I threw my partner a surprise 30th birthday party.

On Sundays I ride my bike up Hope Street, turn into the back carpark at Russel’s fruit and veg shop, load up green bags with fresh produce and teeter home with it all squashed into my bike basket.

At the nearby supermarket, I am almost guaranteed to bump into someone I know. Likewise at the trendy cafe that has made the courageous journey here from the hipper arterial roads. I have come to recognise the pets (and their owners) at the dog park, socialising and enjoying the evening light at the cool end of the day.

***

When Jill Meagher was murdered, a collective gasp rippled through Melbourne – and much farther. For those living nearby it was like a thump in the chest. With panic we recounted stories of going to the very bar she had been at that night. Of walking, tipsy and reckless, along that exact street at 3am. With horror we watched the CCTV footage on the news of Adrian Bayley talking to her outside a formalwear shop. With heartbreak we yelled pointlessly at the TV for her to run. Women everywhere thought of the countless times they had been in that position: head down, hands in pockets, heart racing, not making eye contact but remaining polite with the man who was standing too close, looking at her strangely, giving her the creeps. Women everywhere thought about how they had not run and, that time, had gotten home safely.

More than 30,000 people poured themselves onto Sydney Road the week after Jill Meagher’s death and resolutely marched. It was a cool day, the sun dipping in and out from behind the clouds. Some people held signs and photographs, but there was no chanting or yelling. As the mass of people walked – tears tracking down cheeks, friends clutching each other – it had the wrought air of a funeral march. Grief was thick in the air. Not just for the woman who had been lost this time, who so few of us knew, but for the blow to a community – not just my community, but that of the wider city, of the state, of the whole country. For the feeling of safety that had been yanked out of our hands. For the reminder that surrounding our bright suburban streets are darker ones; that our friendly community ovals and parks can be sinister; that the men we pass every day might one day do us harm.

After that, everyone always wanted to drop me home – a five-minute walk from work. I would be engulfed by concern and admonishments and persistent lift offers until I had no choice but to give in. And it was infectious. Soon I started putting my most jagged key in between my clenched fingers as I walked back from the pub. I would run with headphones in to discourage approach from strangers but with no music playing so I could hear if someone was coming up behind me. I would wait until the absolute last second for my tram to pull up at the stop and then would leap out the doors, giving predators no time to follow. If a man did get off the tram after me I dawdled in a ridiculously obvious fashion to make sure he wouldn’t be walking behind me. I felt old with worry, bent with distrust, wrinkled with fear. We all did.

***

Four years have now passed. Bar Etiquette, where Jill Meagher drank her last drink, is closed. The formalwear shop is still there, the dresses in the window display sparkling and frothing like desserts. The Hope Street bus line has started up again, after a surge of community outrage. New houses are being built. By the dodgy bit along the train line an eight-star energy-rated apartment block has popped up, the flats snapped up by buyers eager to put down roots in the inner-city while they can still afford it. There is a trendy cafe underneath where you can get a delicious vegetarian breakfast and sit in a sun-filled window, the glass vibrating gently as the trains wail past.

I still go up, across or right by Hope Street multiple times a week. When I’m walking home alone or riding down a dark street it is still hard to forget Jill Meagher and what happened to her. I still have my most jagged key on my key ring, even though the door it opened has long had its locks changed. When Jill Meagher’s name is said people still make an involuntary sound of distress, and think of that one photo of her that circulated so widely: half smiling with red lips, looking out above the camera. Women are still being killed – by their partners, by family members, by strangers.

On some days – when men in passing cars shout violent things out their windows, when clouds hang over the neighbourhood all low and dirty, when I pass by the apartment block where Jill Meagher lived and see how close she was to making it home – the optimism behind Hope Street’s name feels all wrong. The sanguine feelings I’m normally able to conjure just feel completely worn through.

But then. A Sunday. The avocados at Russel’s are on special. A checkout operator and customer burst into friendly laughter. Outside, the sounds of a footy siren and exultant cheering drift above the noise of the traffic. And, over a wooden fence, the soft, bright scent of jasmine wafts through the air.

» Katherine Smyrk is the deputy editor of The Big Issue.

This article first appeared in Ed#520 of The Big Issue.

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