Old bones

The Secretary, in a well-considered manner, grabs a knife and stabs efficiently at an entirely innocent map: “We shall go here. Now”; the edict comes down. The paper tears into a tiny fold, its edges frayed and flapping, and for a moment I think she means Punchbowl. Summoning the courage to tell her we have already been there and her head must be leaking, I realise its the fold – its swallowed Campsie whole.

Like a flap of skin jammed beneath meaty thighs and sticky with the sweat of close proximity, Campsie is tucked conspiratorially between Belmore and Ashbury, Clemton Park and Harcourt (the suburb that died).

Strange streets that seem banished from my map are flighty creatures that wriggle and stop without warning. Lead skies shroud a greyed-out afternoon, while the screech of the Holden’s fan-belt makes my eyelid tick impatiently and I begin to wonder if this inner western shadow actually exists.

The internet says it does, though every What to do in Campsie inquiry directs the viewer to a skeletal line-up of Korean BBQ joints, chicken shops and Cake World. Apparently this little slice of suburban life also features heavily on the National Public Toilet Map.

8

The heart of Campsie looks like an Asian strip mall, albeit under temperate skies without the tiniest dash of humidity. It lacks, however, the notorious smell and sound of the subcontinent, a place that guzzles expectation before burping languorously and leaving an aftertaste of exotic chaos that will never be fully digested.

Here, life is more prosaic. Beamish Street chunters through the middle, a teeming mess of life: I can just imagine the ad hoardings glistening like gems in bright sun, but today the asphalt absorbs light in gloomy resignation:

IMG_5218IMG_5215

Cheap phone joints bawl and titter, knock-off shops pander to the plastic senses and signs talk in tongues, cursive updrafts of Hindi and Arabic shouted down by rapid-fire Hanzi and the Altaic Korean script. They brag of bibimap and kimchi, toum, black cumin and MSG:

IMG_5201

IMG_5171IMG_5169

As if compensating for the ominous lack of bright light, savage hits of fluorescent colour spark on the back of my retinas with gaudy promises of brooms and plastic blooms,

IMG_5224IMG_5233

a pink-stripped butcher and Snow Monkey, of which I have nothing to report as I have no idea what it is, though Weekend Notes exclaim it is a ‘thing to do’ in Campsie:

IMG_5225IMG_5209

Warming pink aside, in a floodlit mall gilded in concrete and pebble-dash, knecking teens emit warning pulses of “WTF do you want?” Contemptuous eyes and lip-locked mouths snarl a warning: “This is our piss-stained stairwell”.

And from a rough-as-guts pub, garish bastion of the corner, a clutch of greased mechanics drink with a crew of council workers. They stare menacingly at our snail’s pace along the street.

Their corner, their fight, right? Swill-time has started early and they are ready to brawl.

IMG_5189

We seek sanctuary in Denoy’s, a barber’s shop from the past that has a new lease on life. Repurposed as an old timers’ card palace, Denoy’s is flooded with jocular warmth and filled with the scent of cardamom and coffee and unfiltered cigs.

IMG_5194

A grey-haired grandfather strolls over; “Please, you come in, see for yourselves? You wanna play cards? You wanna coffee?” I ask how the men know each other and he replies,

“As you get older you fight with your wife. This place here? It gives us something to do, some place to be. We play cards, we drink coffee, we smoke. It’s good, you know?”

There are cosy pockets of the past here, jostled between the pings of a non-stop-can’t-put-it-down-must-have-it consumerism. Denoy’s is just the first hint. Across the road, Wally & Ossie’s pizza joint warbles a siren song of foot-long garlic bread and Chianti from the ’70s.

IMG_5186

And Bruno and Marian’s is a picture of retro cool, flecked with nostalgia,

IMG_5202IMG_5203

its window pane a living memory.

IMG_5204

A sign for Homy Ped shoes – the hoof of choice for an aging generation – age-spot creams, the Gentle Dentist and an eyebrow wax that promises immediate youthful rejuvenation are further indication.

IMG_5185

There is a sense of temporal mutation here, a stubborn past captured in sepia that can’t be outshone by the bawdy neon of now. An Asian butchers looks suspiciously as though it is sited in what was once the undertakers:

IMG_5232

while directly behind a young girl playing an ocarina in the shadow of the war memorial on Anglo Road, two blokes tweak the sound system on their souped-up Suby, mids and tweeters squabbling for supremacy of a track entitled Take Yo Bitch.

IMG_5234IMG_5235

Even the pub’s logo is reminiscent of dentures:

IMG_5190

Campsie’s old bones poke through tears in its new skin, a sharp jab, a knocked knee, a dislocation in time that cheapen a rapidly applied slick of external varnish.

I wonder how long it will be before they are encased in a tougher skin, a skin that refuses to let them jut out to escape their wives or get a perm beneath the tinsel? It will be a sadder day when this jangle of bones is retired at last.

K-O’d

The soft cadence of the names that spill from the buildings in Punchbowl are lulling, Alafrah, Mervat, Baalbeck, Dounya, Sallam and Safadi, Akkaaoui, Kheir, Al-Nour, Alsati, Hamze, Khassoum & Moujalli.

This lilting vernacular weaves a cocoon of exoticism, evoking far-flung lands rich in  Byzantine and Assyrian glory, an other-worldly intrigue, of a people swathed in fabric, the scent of wooded spice, jasmine, cedar and pine on their skin.

In reality this weary suburb lacks the ornate promise of this rich ancestry. The roads spill with snarling traffic yet the shops are empty. The surge of noise that catapults around the corners is the grinding screech of movement, trucks, buses, low-slung WRXs and souped-up trolleys trailing angst and piloted by surly teens. The swarm of sound is only tamed by suburban streets that swallow it whole, choking it down into bellies aching with interference.

The air is soupy, a mix of bitter coffee, tar, rose water, cement and heavy pollution. It is a sickening mix and we retreat into the backstreets for a different perspective.

Here, life takes a laid-back approach. A bare-metal car snoozes peacefully beneath a tarp, heavy sun shutters droop contentedly and paint pots line up excitedly at the prospect of a little home improvement:

Beneath a stately power pylon, all gangly limbs and proud purpose, Arabic inscribed Christmas decorations either linger a little too long or are a touch presumptuous, and the beautiful face of the local independent stares confidently out of a green-hued placard calling for True Blue representation. The streets are tired but wide, threadbare lawns are kept shorn and windows sparkle, eyes peeping out at the world from behind every twitching lace curtain. This is the partially covered face of the proud Lebanese community that calls Punchbowl its own.

Soon though, the cool, garlicky calm of Jasmin 1 hauls us in from the sticky asphalt. The walls are alive with frenetic frescoes and gilt-edged back-lit inverted domes, a psychedelic renovation in honour of a Mediterranean homeland thick with Cedar trees, crumbling antiquity and camels, though everything else has a clean simplicity.

Frankly, Michelangelo could have had a go and I would still be here for the toum not the art. This rich, silky, pungent garlic sauce is not only incredible it is free, which spins the Secretary into another dimension. She orders more immediately and continues her frenzied flat bread jabbing.

We order up big. Crisp, vinegary pickles entertain the Tin Lid for a while, but he is soon more intrigued by the woman behind us who is wearing a burqa and her little girl, peeking out curiously from the cool depths of her hijab. They seem as intrigued by his flaxen locks and petrol blue eyes and the kids are soon flicking fatoush at each other, shrieking with laughter. The slightly-smoked baba ganoush is lapped up with hot bread and salty-sweet salad and charred chicken caked in garlic and spice has an earthy glory that sates us.

Picking coffee grounds from my teeth as we leave, in the chintzy depths of a tat shop I unearth a plaster cast Ned Kelly umbrella stand and a full-size BPA-free American Indian, while the Secretary has stopped to peruse the McDonalds halal menu. Then there is Fadi’s, a beauty salon with a curiously confused message. Splashed across the front of the glass windows and doors is an image of sublime Nordic beauty, a perfection of blonde-ness with no hint of the cultural norm that exists here.

I cannot understand why this paragon of waxen beauty would be something the community might covet. Certainly it is a striking image, a visceral beauty-slap, but it is far removed from the cloaked, cloistered faces I see here.

On the door the sign reads:

Private Room for Scarved Women Available

Beneath the scarves and pins and rules, behind closed doors and in private rooms there is a different life, an untrammeled existence in which blonde beauty might be the norm. It is a life I am sad I am not privy to.

We are warned not to drive down Telopea Street. From a distance this run-of-the-mill street has all the trimmings of suburbia, from Hills hoists flying stained singlets and scabby verges, to the car wreck plastered with neon removal notices, devoid of dignity and wheels. Mature trees provide some shade but the whole place has a sunburnt look, gardens abandoned for the cool of the air-con inside. We slink a little closer. Still suburban. Not quite ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt’, but unremarkable none the same.

But then the secretary goes quiet. Strangely quiet. She whispers words to me, plucked from chilling media reports; random killing; stabbed to death because he went to the wrong house on his way to a birthday party; synonymous with gangs, shootings and dawn raids; Moustapha Dib; “what the fuck you looking at?” “I just clicked. Fucking Asian deserved it”; Edward Lee; RIP.

We drive away without a backward glance, eyes on the similarly unremarkable road ahead of us.