Romeo Lane and Juliet Terrace

October 25, 2021 at 8:28 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

She was known as Madame Brussels. Of course I loved the name; my favourite city. In my hometown on the other side of the world, I stood on the corner of Lonsdale Street in central Melbourne and looked for the laneway named after her.

Madame Brussels looms large in the history of Melbourne. She owned and ran some of the most expensive brothels in the city in the 19th century. There were dance halls, pubs, opium dens and many ‘houses of ill-repute’ crammed into the notorious Little Lon area, and their history still pokes through, if you know where to look.

17 Casselden Place, Melbourne (Little Lon)
Madame Brussels, Little Lon

I was on the hunt for Romeo Lane and Juliet Terrace, with Bilking Square in the middle. The red light district of Victorian era Melbourne, if you can’t tell by the names.

In this city we’ve been in the longest, strictest lockdown in Covid history: 265 days of hardcore restrictions. No shops or bars open, no movement more than 5km from home, a 9pm curfew. It’s been…challenging. There are only so many Kali chants, bass guitar lessons and black and white movies a woman can take before she decides to use her daily exercise hour to explore the back streets of her own city.

Though in all honesty, I could take a few more Tennessee Williams film adaptations.

‘Night of the Iguana’ (written by Tennessee Williams)
‘The Misfits’ (written by Arthur Miller)

Here’s the thing though: I couldn’t find Romeo Lane, Juliet Terrace or Bilking Square. I walked, I frowned, I retraced my steps. My search took me past two of my favourite bookstores, Paperback Bookshop and Hill of Content, but they were (of course) shut in lockdown, and I was on a mission.

I found where I thought Bilking Square should be. It looked familiar. When I realised why, I leaned against a red brick wall to take it all in. I was outside the very restaurant in which I’d met my publisher at Scribner last year to celebrate signing a contract for my debut novel. I’d worn red lipstick, a cinched waist 50s dress with full skirt, and black ballet flats. I think I was aiming for Ava Gardner, but landed more on the side of Lucille Ball, with inappropriate jokes about the plague and polyamory. When the waiter leaned in to place a linen napkin on my lap, I flinched. I ate tagliatelle with smoked fennel seeds and almost choked on them when my publisher said my book has ‘just the right amount of blood in the water.’ I proposed a champagne toast to the memory of my beautiful aunt Grace, whom the book will be dedicated to when published. She felt right there at the table with me.

Lord, what a day that was.

Turns out it used to be Romeo Lane, but had been renamed Crossley Street 150 years ago in an effort to cleanse the streets of their sordid Little Lon reputation. It didn’t matter though; I went home smiling.

Turns out my stories are written on Melbourne’s streets, too, if I remember to look.

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Maelstrom

December 31, 2020 at 5:03 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

Her name meant ‘nocturnal journey.’ I chose her for that reason from the clinic’s website. For my first appointment, I was concerned about running late so pulled on the first thing my fingers found. I got to the front gate. A tight and lime green ‘Getting Lucky in Kentucky’ t-shirt might not be the best first impression. I changed it. These things count, you know.

Those places are full of secret codes of behaviour, believe me. They won’t tell you what they are, but they’ll sure as hell notice when you break them.’

She had pale, fine hair and smiled often. I sat cross-legged on her couch and didn’t smile at all. My hand rested on my breastbone as though trying to push down the pressure that had been building in my ribcage.

In our third session, she leaned forward.

‘Did you know – ‘ I leaned forward too – ‘that uncertainty doesn’t seem to sit well with you?’

I did know. I sighed as I walked out of there. Who did it sit well with? I didn’t make another appointment.

A month later, Covid hit.

If there were ever a year to explore uncertainty, it’s 2020.

Like most of us, I’ve been limping towards December 31st. It’s been so grim for so long, and I am bone fucking tired. It was a year that started well, too, with publication contracts for both myself and my husband for our debut novels. But then 2020 tilted, everything skewed, and the unexpected came shooting straight at us.

I’m deeply grateful to have my health, my home and my husband. At this age, I’m surprised when I can still surprise myself, but I learned some things in 2020, and I’m grateful for them too. This little technophobe had a crash course in zoom and transferred 100% of her teaching online, to the amazement of everyone. I had it written into my wedding vows that I would not ask for husband for tech help, and lord, did I break that this year (thanks, baby). A global pandemic is a brutal background for the first year of marriage, but we turned to each other instead of against, and are closer than ever.

My husband’s custom-made maelstrom wedding ring

In a year that seemed never-ending, the importance of the Solstices and Equinoxes in marking time, and therefore opportunities for regeneration and renewal, were inestimable. My altar is the first place I go every morning, and the last at night. Through Nina Hagen I also found Kirtan, traditional Hindu devotional songs, which I’ve been singing all through lockdown (sorry, baby).

Salt and snakeskin blessing
Equinox altar

A huge hit of unexpected joy came in the form of another publication contract, though I’m not giving details until it’s all settled and signed. A teaser is that it allows me to write about my favourite place in the world, Brussels, as well as the setting of my novel, Iceland,, and my love of languages that has led me through a degree in Linguistics and fourteen years of language teaching. So excited to get to work!

Place du Petit Sablon, Brussels
Icelandic fortune telling cards from a Reykjavik flea market

One deeply painful lesson was that when my beloved Marley took unexpectedly sick and died in my hands five weeks ago, my own heart was able to still keep beating, though it broke into so many pieces. A life lived without a creature is not a life for me. Today we welcomed a three-legged rescue cat called Martha into our family, and her purring behind me right now is pure joy, though we all need time to adjust.

My magnificent Marlow

Lastly, trapped in Melbourne’s industrial west for eight months of lockdown, among petrochemical vats and noxious factories, I learned that I crave the forest. Green, green, so much hunger for green. I’ve been a city girl my whole life, but that may just be coming to a close. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that the unexpected is not necessarily the enemy.

The Dandenong Ranges, my childhood home

And I’ve read. Damn, have I read. Thanks to everyone whose books, stories, articles and recommendations have been shared and supported by the astounding literary community, and so made their way into my life. If you have any recommendations (including your own books) please let me know.

Here’s to 2021….time to close our eyes, and leap.

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