The windows of our one bedroom flat open to both the south and north. In the early hours of the morning after a hot summer day I hear the cords rattle against the blinds, like rigging slapping the mast of a yacht. Then I hear the rustle of the scout breeze, the warm air that’s travelled ahead, and feel it wash over me. It’s pushed north by the Southerly behind it, which comes roaring through a few minutes later. I pull up the blinds and the rooms fill with newly chilled air. Loose notes fly off the desk, calendar pages turn, and the corkboard tumbles off the shelf onto the floor. Suddenly this six story apartment block feels like a small boat on an open ocean.
Recently I was reading Elaine Bunting’s description of the mental map of sounds you develop while living on a yacht. “…a change in the usual symphony of noises can tell you when something is wrong. No matter how deep your sleep off watch, the slightest new sound or change of frequency will wake you instantly.” 1 Even though I don’t live on a yacht I can relate. Our kitchen is so small, just a bench and sink in a pantry space off the lounge, it’s like a galley. In fact the whole apartment is so small that, what with the wind blasting a gale around the balcony and the sounds of the suburb marking the hours like a ship’s bell; it does sometimes feel like we’re living on a boat.
Some mornings I wake up to the blast of a fog horn. I know instantly that it’s the cruise ship season and that there is thick mist on the harbour. Once a week I’m woken by the bells of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral ringing in parishioners, and I know instantly that it’s Sunday. But my usual morning wake up call is via the flock of resident lorikeets that begin to screech for their breakfast in the neighbour’s eucalypts as soon as the sun comes up, and I know instantly that I’m not going to get anymore sleep. Luckily there are also the delicate curlicues of currawongs, and on cloudy days, the ‘aaaahhh, aaaaghhh, aaaarghh’ of a raven, to round off the symphony of sound that brings me back to consciousness most days.
During the day I’m very much surrounded by land sounds. There’s a lot of foot traffic outside the south windows. As I sit at my desk typing I’m often privy to the traumas of passers by, usually expressed through loud conversations on their mobile phones, or as a desperate soap opera conducted by yelling back and forth across the road. This is the soundtrack of poverty and drug addiction in a sometimes sad and desperate suburb. I don’t usually hear the whole conversation though, thanks to the constancy of traffic and the roar of the bus as it pulls to a stop. And luckily there is also the squeal of children in the school across the road signalling that it’s time to put on the kettle or eat lunch. Most afternoons I also hear the clip, clop, clip, clop of the mounted police horses as they make their dignified way up the street. An hour later I hear the same ambling gait echoing down our back lane. I once read complaining letters in the local paper that the police were not cleaning up after their horses. According to the Daily Telegraph, who also got into the act, a police spokeswoman said, “The waste from horses is often sought by members of the public for their gardens.” 2 I should leave my desk more often to avail myself of this free local produce for my pot plants and so indulge my sense of smell as well as sound.
In the evenings, as I prepare dinner in the galley, all the cool little bars on our street are open and there is a lively buzz in the air. And as I’m trying to fall asleep I know it’s midnight when the closing time laughter and shouting spills out onto the street as patrons walk to the station or stand chatting while waiting for an Uber. If I’m still lying awake in the early hours of the morning, listening to the creaky squeak of a fruit bat flying by, I’ll hear the first train horn on the railway line and know instantly that it’s four-thirty am. I can try to get a few hours of sleep or I can get up and enjoy the unusual silence emanating from the street.
Like the ship’s bells that regulate routine at sea, these are the sounds of my suburb that whirl around me wind-like, night and day, anchoring my sleeping and waking hours with the knowledge of exactly where I am and what time it is. So I don’t need a watch but I have invested in a pair of ear plugs thanks to the advice in Elaine Bunting’s article. “Being attuned to changes in sounds is such a useful skill that many skippers sailing on long passages offshore forbid crew to listen to music on earphones while on watch. …That said, you can’t visit any length on board a crewed yacht without stashing away some good earplugs in your wash bag. These are among the best value bits of nautical equipment you will ever buy. There are times when their magical ability to extinguish a cacophony of noise, especially the man made ones, is absolutely priceless.” 3
Images via Wikimedia Commons: 1. Sailing Boat, Evening Effect by Claude Monet; 2. Container Garden by saskia; 3. Peacemaker ship’s bell by Doug Coldwell;