It was a winter Tuesday afternoon with no sun, and the air was ice-cold under a steel sky.
I stood on cold concrete staring up at the whirling, swooping amusement park rides. Shrieks and yelps rose and fell, like the ride operator was twirling a volume button. The place seemed smaller inside than it had looked from the street, but that might have been because the entire block was penned by a giant lattice, rising and falling like a suburban picket fence built on a castle-scale. That, of course, was the white-painted timber scaffolding for the roller-coaster, a live relic from the early twentieth century.
I stood and gazed as the boys went around again and thought about once when I had stood on the same spot on a sunny spring afternoon, queueing to sail through the river caves with a girl in my arms and her younger brother in the back seat, a kind of idiot chaperone whose presence had been ordered by their mother. The memory I kept was like a postcard, a static picture full of yellowing light. I had had a bunch of free tickets that day, and we – me and the girl and her brother – had stayed on the roller coaster fifteen times in a row. Later we rode the ghost train; built for exactly the same reason as the river caves. Afterwards, we rode home to the other side of the city on a train full of Richmond fans jubilant about winning a semi-final. If you had been a train-riding fortune-teller that day and said their team would kick 25 goals in the grand final they would have been in raptures – until you told them that Carlton would kick 27. Then they'd call you a drunken fool, but you would have been right.
But that was decades ago. Now I had my own teenagers, and on the many occasions we had driven past the lunatic entrance to the place, I had promised I'd take them. Finally on this bleak July Tuesday we had walked into the carnival's open mouth, and it seemed I had closed a circuit in some spiral timeline. The boys were the age that I was then, and that made it uncanny.
I followed the wave of shouting and laughter around, and even went on some the rides just to remember what it felt like to make myself feel ill voluntarily. At some point in the grey afternoon the surge of noise had given way to an eerie quiet when someone announced that they were starting another lockdown – tomorrow.
We fell out the gates past the old clanking turnstiles under brittle, cold darkness just before six o'clock, and walked the half-moon path around the old palm tree gardens to Acland Street. Post-war European migrants made Acland Street what it was, a strip of lit-up shops and cafes and european cake shops within a short walk of the sea, and elements remain. We went into one of the cake shops – Monarch – and the boys gorged on cream cakes. Since 1934, it said. A depression, a world war, post-war emigration to St Kilda and their grandchildren running the shop now. Or not. Then we did what generations have done, worked the the cream cakes off by walking out onto the pier past the kiosk. Silent out here in the blackness, except for distant traffic on Beaconsfield Parade and, closer, the menacing slap of seawater against the piles. You wouldn't want to fall off in winter but it would have happened over the years. Thomas took the car keys from my coat pocket and did that exasperating teasing trick of throwing them up over the edge and catching them at the last minute. Maniacal laughter.