For Laura, because sometimes it takes an eternity to find the right story to tell…
I have been a Sydneysider my whole life. Since the days after the world war and the submarines in the harbour to now, I’ve called this beautiful city home. Every day that I woke up when I was young, I always looked out from the dusty, dirty windows of my house in Pyrmont towards the city. Everything: the beautiful, bubbling harbour, the majestic presence of the harbour bridge and the hustle and bustle of the city made me love God every day for the place he had put me in.
But the one time when things really came alive in Sydney was New Year’s Eve. Every year, millions of people for one night would come down to the harbourside to watch the amazing fireworks. A general sense of love enveloped the huge harbour, from one end to the other. People would play cricket in the narrow streets, and set up camps by the harbourside for that one view of the bridge days before. Strangers would meet one another, not with apprehension or nervousness, but with a sense of comradery. Even the plods would smile on New Year’s Eve in Sydney.
Tonight, Sydney prepares for another new years. I can feel the excitement in my bones, that sense of apprehension only delights me more. I may be an old lady, but this lady sure knows how to celebrate, especially when it’s new years. But tonight, for me personally, this new years is particularly special. Not because all my children and grandchildren are here with me, and not because it’s the start of a new millennium.
Tonight, at midnight, when the fireworks fill the sky, the word “Eternity” will light up on the harbour bridge. Seeing that will make me beam with pride, beyond any new years I had experienced before.
Ellen, my youngest grandchild (she’s only eight), comes up to me. She loves it when patterns come up on the harbour bridge, this is the first time she’s staying up until midnight to watch the fireworks. Usually she went to bed after the ones at 9:30, but tonight she’s going all the way.
“Why will eternity be written on the bridge?” she asks me.
I smile. I always loved the chance to tell a story, and her eyes suggested she was dying to know the origins behind the word.
“Everyone knows that story” I said presumptuously, hoping she’d want to know more.
“I don’t! Tell me, tell me please!” she said, her red frizzy hair bouncing up and down. It was adorable to look at.
I smiled. “Well, back when I was young, before I had had your father or your aunties, I worked in news”
“Like on the TV?” chirps Ellen.
“Yes, but I wrote for newspapers. You know, like the ones your grandad Henry reads every day when you come to visit. This was very long ago, when I was about 20. So 1953, I think—“
“What about the word?!” asks Ellen.
I stop, forgetting I was dealing with an eight year old, and so continue.
“So one day, while I was walking to work across the old metal bridge in Darling Harbour, I saw this beautiful copperplate writing on the ground—“
“What’s copperplate? Is it a metal?” asks Ellen inquisitively.
“No darling. It’s a writing style. Like when you look on a word document and you can choose how you want the words to look. Understand?”
“Yeah” said Ellen, with a blank expression. She didn’t understand what I meant.
But I continue. “But this word was only written in chalk, the same that you use to write on a blackboard, and it said ‘eternity’. I had never seen it before. I asked my boss about it at work that day, and he had no idea”
“So who wrote it?” asks Ellen.
“I didn’t know, darling” I said, calming her. “I looked around, and saw that it was written everywhere. I looked into it, as I was a young reporter, but I gave up when I found no trace of the person who had written such beautiful writing. It was something that bugged me, and for over fourteen years in the heart of Sydney, everywhere I went, this word was written on the pavement. Everywhere!”
I pause. I am surprised how into the story Ellen is. Usually kids by this time had lost interest and decided to go play with their action figure toys. But Ellen, she’s just staring at me, waiting for my next words.
“Then one day”, I continued, “A particularly rainy day in 1967, I saw the faint outlines of ‘eternity’ on the same pavement I walked past every day. I saw it. I acknowledged it. Then, the following morning, no ‘eternity’ chalk writing was there. It was nowhere to be seen. And I never saw it again”
From here it seemed Ellen’s heart had sunk. “What, never again?” she said.
“No. I wondered why the writing stopped. I missed it. Not just the fact it was everywhere, or how beautiful it was, but the word. It just made me feel hopeful. Inspired. I just kept saying it to myself, over and over again. Eternity, eternity—“
“Eternity, eternity!” shouts Ellen happily. I laugh. “Not so loud dear” I said, relaxing her. I saw that my son had looked away from the view of the bridge and gave me an ‘is-she-annoying-you’ look. I smiled back, hopefully reassuring him it was okay.
“So you’ve never seen the word again?” asks Ellen.
“No. Once more. When they opened up Town Hall Square a few years later… you know where Dad works? Well one day I was walking the same route to my work; and there it was, on the brand new pavement. Except this time, it was metal, engraved into the ground so no rain could wash it away. So obviously I wasn’t the only person who noticed the writing”
Ellen’s heart rose. “Is it still there?” she asks.
“Yes. It still is. Later that day, I met your grandfather for the first time” I smiled, closing my eyes and thinking back to that day. All I could think of was the sound of the Volkswagen beetles, the smell of cigarette smoke, and how worried I was that I was too fat. But there Henry was, in the coffee shop as a barista, looking so handsome—
“Did they find who wrote the word?” asks Ellen. I opened my eyes. She clearly just wanted to know who it was, and didn’t want to be left with a sense of mystery. Disappointing.
“Yes they did” I said. “He was a soldier, a man who drank too much, just like Uncle Ed over there [Ellen giggled at the thought of ‘adult things’], and then afterwards he became a priest. The writing stopped because he died. He was just an ordinary man”
“Oh…” Ellen’s heart sank again, almost at the total anti-climax of the story. “And that’s it?” she asks.
“That’s it” I smile.
Ellen gets up rather gingerly, almost disappointed with the story, and turns to go speak to Daddy.
“Ellen?” I call. She turns around, and I gesture her to come close.
“His name was Arthur, but no one in Sydney calls him that” I wink at her.
“What do they call him?” asks Ellen.
“Mr Eternity. So that’s what I want you to call him too okay?” I smile. “Now off you go to Dad”
It’s nearly midnight now. Ellen has fallen asleep in Dad’s arms. I knew it was a stretch for her to make it to midnight, but I know in a few years she’ll be joining the millions of other people partying the night away. As for oldies like me, soon we’ll be joining the millions of others hitting the hay.
“It’s 11:59 guys!” calls my son. Everyone lifts up their glasses in celebration, and we all get into position to watch the harbour bridge. Everyone is clamouring to find a spot.
Henry comes up behind me and holds my hand, surrounded by our family.
“What were you talking to Ellen about tonight?” he asks. “She couldn’t get away from you!”
“Just telling her about the eternity man” I reply, “and how we met near the memorial in Town Hall Square. So long ago—”
“In that coffee shop?” laughs Henry; “I remember that day like yesterday”
A massive boom flies across the harbour as the first fireworks explode. I can hear the screaming and roaring of the crowd, like every year gone by. As the smoke from the fireworks billows across the harbour, I see it through the clouds.
There, strewn across the harbour bridge, was ‘eternity’ in its beautiful writing. I feel Henry’s chin on my head as he cuddles me from behind. How blessed I am, in this city, on this night, to be with my eternity man!