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Best of 2010: Commission flats fable

Commission flats

First published in Eureka Street on 5 October 2010.

We were going out for the night. Friends were waiting for us at a pub nearby where musicians sing about love lost and nine-to-fivers solve the problems of the world.

Our windows were thrown open against the fading heat of the day. All evening, over the drone of the television, we'd heard the voice of an enraged man matched by the rough tone of a woman. We exchanged uncomfortable glances during the ad breaks. We had heard this sound before. It came from the commission flats.

As we left our house and pulled our front door closed, there they were, in the middle of the road. She was crying. He was yelling. He rippled with rage. A pram rolled slowly towards the gutter. Cars slowed down to watch.

He had the emaciated cheeks of an addict. She was smaller than him, toothless and aged beyond her years. As we closed our gate he struck her. She fell on the bitumen, lit by the headlight of a passing car.

'Call the police,' I said in a low voice to my partner. He ignored me, rushing to the woman. The car sped off, dodging the pram that was still in the middle of the road.

'You fuckin touch her and I'll belt you too,' the man yelled to my partner.

'Come inside,' I hissed, dialling triple 0. 'Leave them. They know where we live.'

We locked our front door as the yelling heightened, and waited for the flash of blue and red.

I have passed that man and woman many times in the three years since. Sometimes she sits out the front of the supermarket begging for money from locals carrying tubs of olives and Maggie Beer's verjuice. Her voice is soft, not aggressive like when she fights. And in daylight her face looks younger. She's probably younger than me.

I hear their fights regularly but we no longer call the police. I've watched her leave him and return, and have another child. His car got stolen: a beaten-up Commodore. I listened to him rant all afternoon. I watched him call the police on the pay phone out the front of the flats.

I wondered what it felt like to lose something when you had so few possessions to lose. His frustration echoed through the street for days. We all averted our eyes, closed our curtains, turned up the volume on our televisions.

'I wish someone would steal my car,' my boyfriend said. 'Then I'd get the bloody insurance.'

One night I came home and there was a paramedic's van in front of our house. As it turned around and drove off, I recognised her face through its rear window. I don't want to know, I thought, closing my front door behind me.

But when Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generation I looked up to their empty window. I wondered if they'd watched it and what it meant to them.

Late last year I got a call from my partner as I left work. 'Our house caught fire. There's a letter here from the fire brigade.'

It sounds worse than it was. A dilapidated shed that stands next to our house had caught alight earlier in the day. Luckily someone had seen the smoke and called triple 0.

Who made that call? I wondered, looking around the street. They had saved our house and everything in it.

As my partner stood on the footpath in front of our house, the man from the flats came over to him.

'Your house caught on fire,' he said. 'Is everything okay?'

'Yeah,' my partner replied. 'The fire brigade got here in time.'

'Yeah. I saw the smoke and called the cops. They got here pretty quick, luckily.'

I didn't know what to buy him to say thanks. Flowers seemed wrong and wine seemed bourgeois. I settled on chocolate biscuits in a pretty Christmas-themed tin.

I was reluctant to cross the threshold of the flats. I'd never been in there and although I knew which was their window, I wasn't sure where their door would be. I spotted him straight away, through the entrance.

'Hi,' I said nervously, holding the tin.


I passed him the tin without introducing myself, making eye contact for the first time in three years.

'I'm from across the road,' I stammered. 'I just wanted to say thanks. If you hadn't called the fire brigade our house would have gone up.'

'No worries darlin',' he said, his face gentle. 'You don't want to lose your home.'

In the naked light of the stairwell, we shook our heads at the sentiment; a slow, contemplative head shake, perfectly in time.

Virginia MillenVirginia Millen is a Melbourne writer and an assistant editor at Hardie Grant magazines.

Topic tags: Virginia Millen, National Apology, Indigenous, Aboriginal, first australians, commission flats



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