From Water Under the Bridge (1977)

Having seen the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, gone abroad and become a successful actor, Neil Atkins returns in 1973 for the opening of the Sydney Opera House:

When the big 747 began its descent over North Head the first-class passengers on the port side had a magnificent view of the harbor and the first thing Neil spotted was a glinting pearl on the edge of Circular Quay, even at such a distance the nacre sails seemed to be blowing across the bay.

“Look, you can see the Opera House.” He pointed.

But Prudence looked the wrong way, in a second it was gone and they were over some suburbs, she was blinking downwards, perplexed.

“No, you missed it,” he said.

And Susan was fiddling with the nauseating bag she had bought in Nandi, Fiji, in the duty-free shop. None of them had had much sleep on the long hop from Honolulu, their tongues felt sandy.

“– return your seats to the upright position and kindly observe the no smoking sign,” the impersonal voice said on the speaker.

“I hope there won’t be an avalanche of press,” Prue said. She hated the press, she always came out “terribly” in the pictures. But she had given up a promising career in British films when she married Neil, he imagined she sometimes felt resentful.

But of course the press would be there because Finch was on the plane and Finch was the star of the picture they’d come out to make, Neil was very second-fiddle to Finch.

They could pick out streets now, some unlovely suburb, outlying Mascot probably, and he felt a jab of recognition at Victorian houses with curving tin overhangs.

Twenty-three years and two months. He was washed with nostalgia and terror. He jabbed his pipe in his mouth.

“You can’t light that now.”

I know.”

Prudence had never wanted to come, she’d wanted him to take the Disney thing, but he’d said he wanted to see Aussie just once more. There were people from the past.

Mr. Atkins? Welcome home. I’m thingummy from De Laurentiis-Cinesound. Have a good trip? Might I have your passports, get you through immigration in a jiffy. Wonder if we might just get a couple of pictures. This your first trip home? Twenty-three, eh? You are a stranger.

Click. Flash.

One bored reporter (twenty around Finch). “Um, do you consider yourself a deserter?”

“No. Surprised if I’d been missed.”

“Um, how’s it feel to be home?”

“Home is London. This is back. It’s fine to be back.”

You’re no star, said the reporter’s look.

Would have been sucking at the breast about the time Neil had left.

Outside, the peppery smell of eucalyptus and hard sunlight, Australia.

And everything coming back in a rush, streaming past the limousine windows, flowing over him, little brick suburban houses, paling fences, pubs on the corners, doors open to the dark coolnesses, and men in shirtsleeves, KB lager, Resch’s Pilsener, Toohey’s ale, Kinkara tea, the clock tower on Central Station, and tiled Mark Foy’s flowing past him, the past was vestigial, the present alarming in steel and towering glass, they flew through whole blocks as foreign to him as Oslo. BOAC, PAN AM, IBM and past old Woolloomooloo where there was now a throughway to the Cross, suddenly burst into Macleay Street, eerily preserved, the Art Deco of the Macleay Regis Apartments and for a cruel second he caught in a flash Rockwall Crescent, one side torn down but Shasta’s house still there, his old gate, a cat stalking past.

“And this,” the driver says, “is our El Alamein fountain.” The fountain rather ugly, a dandelion puff, and Prudence says in an undertone, “Already I don’t like it. What common buildings and so American looking.”

But they are puffed up, importance is bestowed on him at the Town House and there through the windows is the harbor with the Saturday regatta, spinnakers of all colors, butterflies against the sea blue and white blue of sky, grim old Fort Pinchgut still stood. They couldn’t ruin everything with plexiglass horror. Below him were enclaves of white Edwardian houses.

“No peace,” Prudence was sighing, “for the exhausted traveller, they’re not going to give us a moment to lay down our heads,” as the telephone rang.

And there was a small sheaf of messages. One said would he call Maggie McGhee at the Australian Womens Weekly. Another said would he at his convenience telephone Lady Rippon.

Who in hell was Lady Rippon?

–Sumner Locke Elliott, Australian, 1917-1991

Cartoon for Sydney Morning Herald by George Molnar (1910-1998) of El Alamein Fountain, Fitzroy Gardens, Kings Cross, designed by Woodward & Taranto, 1962. (National Library of Australia)

Cartoon for Sydney Morning Herald by George Molnar (1910-1998) of
El Alamein Fountain, Fitzroy Gardens, Kings Cross, designed by Woodward & Taranto, 1962. (National Library of Australia)