Each night, once a week, we would start out in a kitchen at about 6:30 PM. There was a big vat of soup over an industrial gas grill that had to be made up, stirred, and ladled out into thermoses. Sandwiches, hot food and sweets were unpacked from boxes donated by restaurants, take-out shops, airlines, and put into bags for us to carry. Fruit cordial was mixed with water. This all took about an hour. Then we piled into vans and drove them to rooming houses in the slums of Northern Melbourne. Here's what happened on one night, the latest.
The van pulled up at the first house, opposite the exhibition gardens. It was freezing. A man and woman were walking back and forth on our side of the street. He kept bending his knees, straight then bent again, and flapping his arms like in the old Chicken Tonight commercials. He seemed cold. The woman sat down on a step, under a shop's awning. Apart from them and us, there was nobody else around. We weren't far from the city centre.
The house itself obviously used to be something quite different. Before World War II it was a single residence of what could only have been a very wealthy family, overlooking parkland and only a short walk from the river. Now it had been subdivided, gutted, and crammed with low-income accommodation. The entryway and the corridor it opened onto were lit by a coachlight, which looked like it hasn't worked for some time. Ivy and petunias still shielded it from the street.
Inside, I knock on a door. "Soup van!" calls Kate, my partner.
Room One: A man opens the door I've just knocked on, then sits back down. He is half of a couple in their sixties, staring fixedly at a tiny TV in a room drowning in trash. The entire space was about six feet by twelve, which was typical of the rooms we visited. A shoebox, really.
Their bodies had been visibly worn down. An old Kambrook convection heater faced into a wall and blew hot air. We gave them three cups of vegetable soup, a cold sausage in batter, and some salad sandwiches. It wouldn't be so bad for them, I thought. There's always something to watch on TV.
Room Two: Almost immediately a man with a drooping, spotty face opened the door. He was large and heavyset, and walked with a shuffle, his legs shuffling under his skirt. He also wore a blouse, and an orange wig which hung down to his waist in long tangles.
"Hello Audrey," smiled Kate.
Sometimes John is Audrey. Sometimes John is John. Either of them will get very, very upset if mistaken for the other.
"How's it been with you?" I ask.
"Not very good," he sighs. His breasts seem to sag with affirmation. "I was attacked on my way home from the transgender club last night." He waits.
Kate gives a sympathetic cluck on cue.
"Well... raped would be a better word actually..." he continues, encouraged. I offer him a pie. He nods and takes it. We also give him a cup of soup, a chicken salad sandwich, and some cordial (raspberry, please).
In between these rooms I'm trying to describe were more closed doors than open, where we knocked but got no answer. "He's out on the town tonight," explained one neighbour. The corridors were narrow, just barely enough for two people to pass each other, and stair cases bent at three right angles just to climb a single floor. The steps, if they'd been any shorter or narrower, would have been unclimbable. The whole structure resembled a rabbit warren, and this made sense from an economic point of view.
Another room, this one bathed in a dim bluish fluorescent light. The occupant introduced himself as Damek. On one side of his room sat a bed. The sheets were stained half black. On the other, a sink with two taps set into the wall, holding unwashed cups and empty beer cans. Pizza boxes, clothes and more empty cans covered the floor in between. Another man sat on the bed, not saying anything. Taking Kate's hand in his, Damek introduced this other fellow as his drinking buddy.
"Eight beers he can drink," Damek said. He turned his shoulder back, indicating the man on the bed, and coincidentally pulling Kate closer. "You know how many?"
"Eight?" smiled my partner, genuinely I thought.
"Sixteen beers I can drink," Damek announced. He laughed, looking her in the eye.
"You've had a good feed tonight, too," I said, pointing at the pizza boxes.
"Do you know my name?" he said, ignoring me.
Kate nodded. "Damek?"
He picked up a cheque from Centrelink1 which had been sitting on the sink, presenting the payee's description for her to see. It confirmed we were indeed speaking with Damek. He put it back down on the sink, where it began to acquire a water stain in the corner.
"I have a good name!" he said. "Do you know where I come from? Which country?"
I fished out a plastic cup and began pouring some soup. He told me to pour another four, then asked what kind of sandwiches we had.
Meanwhile, a man wearing faded Adidas pants and no shirt had been emerging from the door next along. The reek of weed followed him like a cowed wife.
We finished giving Damek his soup, plus two salmon sandwiches (he didn't like chicken) and a packet containing cheese, dry crackers and a coffee sachet. Kate apologised and explained we still had many more people to go to, then extricated her hand and knelt to pick up her bags. Damek watched her head for a moment, then seemed to change his mind and went back to his room. As the door closed the other man, the drinking buddy, was staring at the sink.
Adidas man was watching us. He didn't seem to be in a good mood. "Ramona?" he said.
"No," I said, "she's with the other group tonight."
"The bitch" he mumbled with unsurprising venom, as if there were no word more true and accurate.
I looked at Kate but she wasn't looking back, just half-smiling at the man.
"Fucking bitch. You tell her she's a cunt". We gave him a cup of soup, a vegetable pastie, a salad sandwich, and a chiko roll.
"Cunt. Need cunt," we heard indistinctly as the door clicked shut.
Later, back in the van, I mentioned this last man to Ramona.
"That's Roland," she explained. "He has good days and bad days. He got a bit aggro with me last time, asking for more food than we had. I wouldn't give it to him. So he gave me a shove. That was a bad day." She paused, and I wondered what a shove looked like. "So I take the clients across the road now." She paused again. "He's a nice man. He's trying."
"When did that happen?" I asked.
"About three months ago," she said.
It was 11.30 PM by the time we finished up back at the kitchen, washing and cleaning out all our containers, pans, jugs.
. . .
Three months, one hundred days, 2,400 hours, 144,000 minutes. T. S. Eliot said, "In a minute there is time / for decisions and revisions / which a minute will reverse". Is this really true?
Having passed by 144,000 of these minute opportunities, it seemed a safe bet that in the next rough 360 until he became hungry again, things wouldn't change dramatically at Casa Roland, or anywhere else we'd ever been. In the store room next to the kitchen there were more boxes of food waiting. In hospitals somewhere in the city, there were wards of comatose patients, lost cases, hooked up to life support.
In the end, it did only take a minute to tell everyone goodbye, and maybe a minute more to get in my car, start it, and drive away.
1 Centrelink is the Australian Government's welfare agency. Standard payments for non-employed adults are $612.44 per fortnight.