Tales of One City

7 April 2017 Arnold Zable

Tales of One City

Photograph by istock

I’m a traveller in my own city. Lying low for the summer. Moving about. Setting the sail for future journeys. Future stories. Staying local.

After all these years, there are places in the city I’ve rarely been to, or been to and forgotten. Take Altona Beach. A Sunday, mid-January. Drove the gauntlet of the industrial backlands to get there. Nothing to lift your nose up at. After all, that’s where the work that keeps the city lubricated goes on, unabated. A place we rely on, take for granted. It has its own kind of hard-edged beauty, like the craggy face of an ageing stockman.
But once through, and out onto the Esplanade, there it is – a stretch of wide sandy beach, the old bluestone homestead back of the foreshore. Cafes in the village. Melissa’s for coffee. The sun ablaze, mercury hitting 40, but the wind blowing, and a cool change coming, the temperature dropping 10 degrees in minutes. Around the neighbourhood, swathes of old houses now gone, many replaced by glass concrete boxes.

Never mind. The sky is clear and infinite, and the tide is out, the pier long, straight and narrow, and at the end the fishing lines are dangling, though so far today the fish aren’t biting. A lone duck floats on wind-blown waters, bobbing up and down, like it can’t move, like it’s stranded.

It’s still there as I turn towards the beach, the wide-angle view of Norfolk palms, and the western suburbs folks out in the shallows, weaving and ducking, or stretched out on the sand, sunning – a vista of space on a summer day, a haven for travellers in their own city.

Altona. 2017, the new year just weeks in motion. There’s a big story brewing – the imminent closure of the Toyota factory, the staff summoned to a meeting at 4.15pm, on the last afternoon in January. Informed of the date: Tuesday 3 October, a day of massive job losses. Sorry mate. That’s the way it is. Got to think of shareholders. Australian dollar too strong. Labour costs too high. Making cars has become unviable. Got to bow to market forces. Move offshore. Consolidate operations.

Imagine that final day: the first week in the second month of spring, summer within striking distance, our hero, a long-time Toyota worker, clocking off for the last time, walking out on the familiar path to an uncertain future. This is what stories are about, walking in the shoes of others, putting flesh on the bleached bones of public policy, the skeleton.

I return weeks later, on a humid Sunday. Make my way past fields of yellowing grassland and wild thistles. The city can be glimpsed on the horizon, a huddle of high-rises defining the skyline. Clouds hang low over windowless warehouses, transport depots stacked with shipping containers, refineries, hazardous sites, entry forbidden. Signs warning: “Do not dig. High pressure buried pipelines.”

I move past the Memorial Park, white crucifixes lining the rises. Draw up at Toyota’s. It’s the day of rest, eerily quiet, bar the intermittent swish of traffic and security patrols, a truck bearing new cars labouring onto the roadway.

The plant is vast – the works stretch over many hectares: compounds housing assembly lines, concrete cylindrical water tanks, reception centres. Ringed by barbed-wire cyclone fences. Screened from Grieves Parade by a swathe of eucalypts, native shrubs and grasses.

On the morrow, the workers will return, in their thousands, as they have for up to half a century. Entering a world unto itself, a sprawling gated community, making their way through the turnstiles in hi-vis jackets. Dispelling the silence with banter and camaraderie. Switching on the lights, revving up the machinery, getting the place humming, day and night shifts back in action.

I circle the perimeter, a madman casing the joint for a story. Splayed on the pavement is a dead pigeon, perhaps a harbinger of a jobless future.

I can’t fathom it. Would have taken years to construct all this, to get it to its prime, a haven for expertise: engineers, mechanics, designers, managers, assembly-line maestros. Networks of suppliers. Immigrants and old timers, who’ve worked alongside each other for decades, secure in their jobs. Living with purpose. Putting food on the table.

On this deserted Sunday, I can imagine the ruins of the future, overgrown with shrubs and wild grasses, rusted debris under piles of rubble, picked over by archaeologists, trying to figure out the mystery: Who lived and worked here? What sort of civilisation created such places? Why were the works disbanded?

Or, perhaps by then, it’ll all be covered by rising seas, sunk deep into the ocean, the pier long gone, the seaside village buried… But that is another story, for a far distant traveller, moving about their own city.

» Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer and novelist. His most recent novel is The Fighter.

This article first appeared in Ed#534 of The Big Issue.