At the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Friday this week, I heard my name called. It was a friend who said, ‘It’s no good talking to us, you already know us.’ Thus encouraged, here’s my next report on the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge.
- Monday 26 April, in the sauna, when I came back from my shower, a chap was lying down on one of the benches, reading his phone. Though I said not to worry, I had plenty of room, he sat up at a notionally Covid-safe distance. I had my book in hand (Rabbit poetry journal, the Science issue). He said, ‘Time goes slowly in the sauna when you don’t read.’ I agreed. I didn’t bring a book last time I was here and spent the whole time willing the minute hand on the clock to speed up. ‘But is it safe for your phone?’ I asked. ‘Everyone says that, but I have to have something to read.’ We went back to our devices, then I realised that the glue in some books melts in the sauna heat, and showed him where a number of pages had come loose in my journal in only 10 minutes: ‘Phones might be OK, but not books.’
- Wednesday, in the sauna again, reading Rabbit again (I’m going a lot because it does wonders for a stiff neck). A chap came in and before he sat down poured water from a plastic bottle onto the coals. If people ask, I never object to this barbarism, but as far as I’m concerned the sauna is for dry heat and there’s a steam room two metres away for anyone who wants steam. I didn’t say anything, but got up immediately and left. The third person in the sauna laughed: I must have made my displeasure crystal clear. As I showered in the dressing room, I regretted not saying something, preferably something civil, but as I was putting my shoes on the situation was redeemed. I tuned in on two men who were chatting loudly. ‘So rude,’ one of them said, ‘reading a magazine in the sauna. Some people have no respect.’ He was the man who laughed, taking to the man with the bottle. As he walked past on his way back into the sauna, I asked, ‘Are you having a go at me?’ ‘Was that you?’ he asked – people look different with clothes on. ‘Not having a go, but you shouldn’t read in the sauna. There are too many memories.’ At least I think that’s what he said. Maybe it was ‘too many members’. For some reason this little exchange had me smiling all the way home.
- Wednesday evening, I had a call to say that a friend with Parkinson’s had had a fall and none of her friends who are on call could get to her place. A young man had helped her from the nature strip to her apartment and waited there until I arrived. He and I had a brief chat before he, his partner and their little white dog went on their way. Really, the chat was pretty transactional, but I’m including this encounter because it’s not right that acts of kindness to strangers should always go unrecorded. (My friend is fine, except for a badly scraped knee.)
- Thursday midday, we went to Observatory Hill to have lunch with the Granddaughter, and visited the extraordinary Tree of Life exhibition at the S H Ervin gallery while we were at it. As I was leaving, the volunteer at the cash register asked if I’d enjoyed the exhibition. I said yes, very much. That doesn’t really count as a conversation though, more of flesh-and-blood evaluation survey. A woman leaning heavily on a walking stick spoke to me from the doorway: ‘It’s spiritual!’ Not a term I would have used but she was describing something real. We exchanged a few more words and then I was back to grandfathering.
- Thursday, 5 to 1 at the Sydney Observatory – I know the time because we were waiting for the Time Ball to drop – another woman leaning on a walking stick, with whom we’d crossed paths in the museum, joined us. ‘That’s a powerful smell,’ she said. My sense of smell is feeble at best and I couldn’t smell a thing, but I said, ‘It could be the lavender.’
- Friday early afternoon, picking up some new lights for our kitchen, I said to the man behind the counter, ‘Now we’ll be able to see.’ ‘Always a good thing,’ he said. So I told him the story I’d just heard from Lily Brett on ABC Conversations – she had cataract surgery and suddenly could se how filthy her apartment was.
- Friday at our 4 o’clock session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I had a chat with a woman sitting beside me. My opening line was, ‘Do you know who we’re here to see?’ ‘No,’ she said, and we both laughed, then looked up our programs and remembered why we’d booked these tickets so long ago.
- Friday an hour or so later, as we were leaving the Carriageworks, I spoke to a security man with an impressive waxed moustache. ‘This must be a cushy job,’ I said. ‘Yep,’ he said. ‘It’s a writers’ festival. I don’t know what they’re paying me for.’ ‘Just wait,’ I said. ‘All these silver haired people will get rowdy when the sun goes down.’ At least I wish I’d said that.
- Lateish Saturday morning as we were arriving at Carriageworks for our second session of the day, a small family group with English accents were walking just behind us – a man, a woman and a child in a stroller. They the woman was saying they had great seats in Row CC. Given that we had seats in Row BB, which I had assumed meant way up the back, I turned around and asked her if she knew for sure that BB meant up the front. ‘Definitely,’ she said. They went on ahead of us, him reminding her several times in few seconds to keep left on the footpath.
- Saturday, just before 12.30, waiting in Row BB (second from the front – the Englishwoman was right) for the session to start, a man sitting in the front row a couple of metres from me turned around and we caught each other’s eye. we didn’t speak, but there was a definite friendly exchange. He did talk to the women sitting right behind him, and I fairly brazenly listened in. He was the partner of one of the speakers, down from the country, and pretty glad to be there. He and I exchanged friendly glances a couple of times during the conversation: I think he may have been glad to have at least that much contact with another man.
- Saturday, after that session, in the Festival bookshop, I had picked up a copy of Nardi Simpson’s book, Song of the Crocodile. A woman said to me, ‘I’ve got a hundred pages to go in that.’ And we chatted for a while about the session we had both just attended. You hear a talk differently depending on whether you’ve read the book or not. Both our book groups have read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip.
- Saturday, before the next session, I stepped out of the queue when it started moving because the Emerging Artist hadn’t come back from the toilet. The volunteer who was policing the queue asked if I had a problem. I explained, and all was good. Later, I asked her how long her shift was, and thanked her for volunteering and doing the work so cheerfully.
Running total is now 103. Posts on the Festival are coming soon.