We’re just about to move out of a flat we have occupied for nearly eight years. One attraction in coming here was that it was approximately twice the size of the Manly flat we’d been living in, but initially we were hesitant. I do like Manly; I’ve always considered it a place where my soul mysteriously expands, and this was long before the beachside suburb tarted itself up in the gentrifying push of the last fifteen years. In fact I liked it better when it was seedier, more like Coney Island than Brighton. Having finally managed to land there, I was reluctant to leave. But when we went to look at the flat on offer, we were blown away by the view. I said to my husband, ‘We would never be able to afford such a view. This is an amazing opportunity.’
The flat was on the top of a cliff overlooking North Harbour and the ocean beyond. The view was certainly spectacular. We could see the Manly ferry cruising into the wharf and minutes later chugging on the return journey, out towards the Heads and on to Circular Quay. We could see the boats moored near Forty Baskets and the wooded parkland leading to the Spit. To the north we could see as far Allambie Heights, to the south further up the hill towards Clontarf.
All this for nothing, for having once done a favour for a friend.
Although I hadn’t been back in the country long, and was in Sydney for the first time since the 1960s, I’d quickly picked up the Sydneysider’s infatuation with water views. Given their beauty that isn’t surprising. What has been is my response to actually living with one.
I never stopped delighting in the ferry and often found myself waving to it as it made its way into Manly and took off again to the city. And at night the lights on all the houses and cars could be exciting. I could be mesmerised too by the way the colours altered throughout the day, particularly just before dusk when they deepen dramatically before plunging in a last gasp to black. I would watch the bus coming down Woodland Street and turn into Bungaloe Avenue, and saw the traffic lights change as far away as the Sydney Road intersection. It was fun too tracking the tiny cars on the hills on White Street, the ones climbing towards Seaforth and others in the opposite direction to Manly.
Below us is a spreading jacaranda tree whose leaves and purple flowers rarely failed to lift my spirits, especially when the distant shoreline was shrouded in fog; and the bird life was comforting – magpies and mynas mostly but the kookaburras took up residence on certain branches to warn us of the rain, and every once in a while an owl would whizz past, so close to the window it seemed it would injure its wing on the glass. And if I was up early enough, the sunrise was like a curtain lifting on a stage.
But truth be told, it wasn’t long before I began to get bored. I think the trouble was that there was just too much of it, too great an expanse, and far too much of it was too remote, just too far away. There was a certain lack of intimacy, and what there was inclined to the obscene. For one thing there were all those pools, a turquoise chain of them stretching from yard to yard, curiously locking in the landscape. I never saw anyone swim in them. On very hot days I sometimes saw my neighbours’ teenagers taking a dip, but other than that they never went in, and they were the only ones I did see. It was all about real estate and enhancing the capital value of the home. It was depressing. Visitors were amazed by our view, all they saw was our view, and congratulated us on it, but I was a tad resentful that it captured so much of their attention there was hardly any room for us.
Gradually, I learned to crop the picture. I let some of the blinds down in order to frame what was left. That way I was able to familiarise myself with separate facets of the view and so would come to appreciate the whole of it more. I observed the man in a house down the cliff a bit peer at the scene through his telescope. I saw the rare kayaker on North Harbour. By varying the height of a blind I could even excise the ugly building on top of the hill at Fairlight. All of this gave me a certain sense of power. I wasn’t at the mercy of the view but, rather, it was entirely at mine.
Another thing to remark on was the silence. Apart from the kookaburras and the morning trills of the magpies there wasn’t much sound. Now and then the ferry would hoot its foghorn. We once heard a shotgun fire. And of course there was the constant hum of traffic the few blocks away on Sydney Road. Yet the silence was at one and the same time comforting yet disturbing – it all had to do with that curious lack of intimacy. I remember reading once, although I wouldn’t be able to source it, that in Aboriginal culture it isn’t the long view, or the close-up, but the middle distance that’s important. What can be observed clearly in front of you, though far enough away not to let you intrude. I think there might be something in that, even for a city person.
I understand that the person moving in here after us is disappointed that there isn’t a balcony. That’s another thing about Sydneysider flat dwellers – they all prize balconies. A place to put their barbecues and be whipped silly by the winds, but the value goes up with a balcony. It’s the economy, stupid, and Sydney’s is so much about real estate. As for me, I’m pleased to be returning to the Manly flat, where once again I’ll be in the thick of it and be lulled to sleep by the surf. Vale the view.