September 2017

Back to Issue 2

When You See a Stranger

By Maria Griffin

3.45pm. Walking home from school with my 8-year-old daughter, she asks me this question: When you see a stranger, why don’t you see them again?

          Quickly, I filter some approaches to answering her question. I consider the word stranger. We are all strangers at first.  Most of us remain that way. A few people morph into something else over time, become colleagues or acquaintances. Less often, far more precious, a stranger can become a friend.

          For my daughter’s sake, I settle on a practical approach. I explain that we live in a city of four and a half million people. For her benefit I add, that is a lot of people. We can’t know or remember so many people, so we see strangers everywhere. We will never cross paths with most of them again, or never remember them if we do. Some will cross our paths again, and we might even get to know them. I remind her that when she started school all the other kids were strangers. But you have lots of friends there now.  

          3am. I’m lying awake again.

          Too alert to sleep, I try in vain to relax into sleep. I soften my jaw and my eyes; I count slowly backwards from 100, I try not to think too hard about anything. The thing I try hardest not to think about is the word insomnia. I used to have insomnia; I don’t have it now.  I’m just having a sleepless night. I won’t think about the possibility that I might not be able to sleep again tomorrow night, or the night after that.

          In the dark, my senses are heightened; I’m listening for the faintest noise to break up the silence. The night slowly labours on, hours passing from one to the next without any perceptible change. A floorboard cracks, contracting in the cold winter air. A deep rumble fills the sky as a jet passes overhead. My thoughts drift. I think about my daughter’s question: When you see a stranger, why don’t you see them again?

         In our lifetime, our paths cross the paths of millions of strangers. We are in the same tutorial at university, work in the same building, go to the same gym. We ride crammed too closely together in a peak hour train; we pass each other on the street in Ballarat, Melbourne, Hong Kong, London, San Francisco. We sit next to one another on an international flight for 18 hours, folding ourselves into uncomfortable positions to avoid the awful awkwardness of accidentally touching, see one another again in the glaring lights of the queue at Border Control, then go our separate ways, across the world.

          As you enter a store, someone else walks out. You meet their eyes, or don’t. You never see one another again, or maybe you walk right past them again only three months later – you’ll never know. 

          Another rumble in the sky becomes louder, reaching a crescendo as a jet passes above. As it heads for Melbourne Airport, hundreds of people inside it are waking, yawning, and peering, bleary eyed, out their windows at the lights of Melbourne spread out below them. The rumble fades, and silence takes over again.

          Listening intently in the dark, I realise that even silence has layers, and that underneath what I thought was an absence of sound, there is a gentle, unbroken droning, almost imperceptible unless you have nothing else to focus on. It’s the sound of traffic flowing over the nearby Westgate Bridge. It’s the hum of the city. I like it. It tells me that even at 3am, I’m not the only person awake.

          From the top of the Westgate Bridge at night, Melbourne is a mass of lights spread in every direction. I wonder about the ratio of people to lights. I imagine each light, moving or still, represents one person, awake or sleeping.

          In the Wim Wenders film, The Wings of Desire, Berlin is pictured as a sprawling metropolis spread out below angels who dwell above the city. These beings can hear the thoughts of humans, and listen in as they patrol Berlin unseen, travelling on crowded city trains and passing through high-rise apartment buildings. They listen with compassion to the worried and anxious: a woman on a train, a man in his living room, another man about to jump from a balcony. Each person is defeated, tired, worried, perplexed by the behaviour of loved ones, vulnerable, lonely, alone. The sprawling metropolis we saw in the opening shot is a macrocosm; it’s formed from a multitude of thinking, feeling, loving, suffering individuals, their thoughts creating a cacophony of voices that rises into the skies above Berlin.

          I imagine Melbourne now, that mass of lights below the Westgate. 4.5 million people, sleeping, watching TV, dancing, hailing taxis, buying kebabs from street vendors, working shift work, driving home along darkened streets. Statistics on sleeplessness suggest there are also many others like me, lying awake, listening to the stillness and thinking.

          My attention shifts back to the present. I’m still awake; the night is still plodding slowly onward. Maybe another hour has passed; maybe it’s only been minutes.  I know to avoid looking at the glaring red numbers on the digital clock that will tell me how long I’ve been awake, and how much time is still to pass until it’s time to get up.

          Inside this big old weatherboard house, in the stillness of night, every sound is magnified. I hear my daughter in the next room shift restlessly in her sleep. Rain begins to fall softly, pattering on the tin roof. I hear the soft swish of cars on the Westgate Bridge. In the midst of such storybook calm, it is ludicrous to be lying here, tense and alert, and unable to sleep.

          Everyone we meet on our path through life is a stranger to us at first. My own child was a stranger to me when she arrived. When the midwife slapped her, face down, onto my naked stomach, it was a shock, regardless of the fact that I’d been exerting myself for the last nine hours to get her out. I didn’t understand what this squashed, red, wet, creature was. Lying naked on my back, delirious from the gas, the exhaustion, and shock, my brain processed the sensory information around me as though it was a dream. Time slowed down. A little creature lay on me, its mouth moving silently, its tongue coming in and out as if carefully testing the air, its pupils moving back and forth in little slits that were its eyes. I couldn’t quite work out what it was, but I reasoned that, with that slowly moving tongue and those eyes, it was some kind of lizard.

          But strangers can become friends.

          Once I woke suddenly, overwhelmed with fear or claustrophobia, from a dream where I was closed in by rows of identical brick houses with shiny, dark triangular roofs. Millions of people living in close quarters around me. I tried to convey to my partner the sense I woke up with, of being overwhelmed by all the houses, people, and rooftops. Particularly by all the rooftops. Later, I recalled a series of photos of shiny suburban rooftops by artist Bill Henson, seen years earlier. In my dream, Henson’s rooftops were multiplying, and identical houses were piling up on each other, in a dark, oppressive, suburban landscape.

          Usually, when awake, I like living in the city, and am not bothered by having so many strangers around me. Insomnia is especially lonely in the country, where you could be the only person awake for miles.

          In the country, strangers are conspicuous.

          My thoughts drift to another view of Melbourne at night. Driving to Melbourne along the Western Freeway, there is a point on the Pentland hills where the city is first visible. As you reach the top of the hill, a line of twinkling lights spans the horizon.

          When I was a kid, I found comfort in that view, because I knew that miles away, across the dark, empty paddocks, inside those lights there are always people awake and things happening; feelings, thoughts, conversations, life. When I was a kid, I would stare through the back window of the car at those lights as we left them behind us.

          If each light seen from the Westgate represents one person, waking or sleeping, then that line of lights seen from the Pentlands is my favourite way to envision what 4.5 million strangers looks like. Amongst the 4.5 million lights that span the horizon, I imagine a small cluster, representing the people I know, and then an even smaller smattering of others. Those are the people I am yet to meet, presently strangers, who might become friends.

          5.20am. I hear the first train rattle through the suburb. The sky is beginning to lighten. Soon I’ll rise, there’s no point trying to sleep any more. The unbroken hum of traffic on the Westgate is increasing in volume. It’s the sound of thoughts filling the air as millions of people wake. It’s a discordant cacophony of thoughts, gently rising above the Westgate Bridge and floating up, into the sky over Port Phillip Bay.