05 December 2008

Cycle taxi

She hailed me down, standing on King Edward Terrace outside the brand new National Portrait Gallery.

I’ve been watching the new building from close up over the past year, from the time when the site office was the only structure, and I’d park outside for the engineers to come out for their ride to the airport. Through the autumn and winter months as the walls rose and the site was so crowded with construction materials that it was a wonder anyone could move at all, and finally to the spring days as the landscapers moved in. On my final trip the engineer asked me to detour via the High Court so that he could check the appearance of the completed main entrance from a distance.

And now the building is open, a fresh part of Canberra’s permanent collection of grand national institutions. She was standing outside in the new drop off/pick up zone, a lady in the prime of her life (i.e. my age) and she must have been getting anxious about her taxi’s arrival.

But here I was. She got into the back seat, gave me directions for a nearby hotel, and commenced a phone call. I turned down the music and listened with one ear in case instructions to the cabbie emerged.

“I’ll hold the taxi at the hotel, collect my luggage, and go to the airport,” she was saying to someone on the other end. Fair enough. It would work out a lot cheaper and quicker than paying me off and waiting for another taxi in the rush hour.

She hung up. “Driver, can I ask you something? It might seem a little unusual.”

“Sure.” I’ve stopped at hotels on the way to the airport to pick up luggage before.

“Could we go via Joyville Crescent? It’s not far.”

I recalculated the route in my head. “We’ll collect your bags from the hotel first, yeah?”

We pulled up at the hotel, and I followed her into reception. Always happy to carry a lady’s bags, and I stowed them in the boot and moved off, crossing one of Canberra’s main avenues into a suburban street.

“I used to live here in the Sixties,” she said, “and I haven’t been back since, apart from a quick trip in 1974. I’d like to see if the house where I lived is still there.”

I looked around. Most of the buildings in this part of the city, close to the Parliamentary Triangle, were modern or post-modern blah. Slab sides and lots of exposed cement. But here and there some of the older houses settled comfortably in mature gardens.

Canberra itself isn’t that old. A lifetime ago and there was nothing here but a church and the cottages of the construction crews as they worked on what is now Old Parliament House. People used to talk of Canberra as “a good sheep station spoilt”, and the black and white photographs show open plains, with the few scattered gum trees outnumbering the lonely buildings.

“There’s my old school! Can we drive past it?”

Of course we could. My passenger gazed hungrily out at the brick buildings.

“It’s all changed. I don’t remember any of that.”

Canberra was a sleepy town for the first fifty years. Dirt roads, open fields, cows grazing on the slopes of Red Hill. Then in the Sixties the government departments were pulled in from their temporary homes in the state capitals, office buildings sprang up and the residential suburbs ballooned out, arterial roads following them in the freeway frenzy of the Seventies.

“I used to ride my bike along here.”

We turned into another avenue, leading up to the bushland slopes of a hill, a few older houses left, open nature strips unchanged for decades. The modern buildings faded out as we looked at the remaining houses of an earlier Canberra.

Together we swung right, past parkland.

“This is looking familiar now.”

We pedalled along the crescent, my bike a blue Malvern Star freewheeler, hers a girl’s model in pink, maybe a basket on the handlebars. I couldn’t see the details clearly, but she could, and her hair streamed out as we sped along, smiling happy on the afternoon ride home from school through the golden summer.

I looked at the street numbers. “There it is!”

We pulled into the driveway, putting feet down to steady ourselves as we looked at the white-painted house.

“Oh, it’s just the same. But smaller.”

A moment more, and then we swung our bikes around, leaning on the pedals as we gained speed past more houses and the small shopping strip.

Late Sixties construction, but no memories for my companion. A motel that had once been a space-age wonder in a bold new Canberra, but it had just been an empty lot before the freeway came through.

The dusty streets firmed out as we accelerated up the ramp, the stark outlines of the new Parliament House ahead. It, too was just a construction site when I arrived here as a public servant in 1986. The great angled legs of the flagpole were lying in the dust, and there were huge stacks of blue fibreglass concrete moulds.

Now, it’s a spectacular landmark, looking down the hill to the lake that defines Canberra. Long ago there were two grand new bridges spanning the miserable trickle of the droughtshrunken Molonglo River, but after they closed the floodgates of the Scrivener Dam, the band playing as the VIPs leaned over the side, the water level slowly rose, until one morning after flooding rains in the mountains, suddenly Lake Burley Griffin was there, muddy and raw.

It’s parkland and carefully tended foreshores now. The modern world came flooding back as we passed Russell Offices. Roadworks on the way into the airport, and I handed her my card along with a receipt for the fare.

“I’ll go back, take a few pictures, and put them up on my website.”

She smiled her thanks, but I’d enjoyed our bike ride through old Canberra every bit as much as she had.

More photographs at my Flickr page.

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