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Watching A Stranger Die

This wasn’t the first thing I published, but the first I was paid for. Thanks to Carmel Bird, Fine Line 1987


I am looking at a photograph called Haymarket Newsagency, by David Moore, circa 1948. I was then circa two years old. But I feel I know this scene. A man is looking out of an upstairs window, a man in overalls and cap. The windows fold inwards, as in France. The bright early sun lights up the facade and illuminates the man, a white figure in a dark window space. The cap shades his eyes.

The other windows are closed dark rectangles in a wall of brick, the bricks worked into relief, a pattern of columns topped by shallow arches and rising suns. A slate roof slips out behind pediments and gables. A decorative motif adorns the roofline, scrolls and tendrils set amongst the bricks.

It looks a fine building above the verandah. Old but elegant. Painted along the front of the verandah is Newsagent Stationer Bookseller, and the shade provided barely covers the shop window, the morning sun is that low.

It must be morning because a man is standing outside the shop, on the corner of a lane, in a two tone cardigan, dark trousers and very shiny shoes. His hair is combed and slicked back from a wide part.

It is a new day and he is all spruced up. He is looking sideways up the street, as if waiting for somebody. In fact he is leaning against the corner of the shop. Yes, he is waiting for somebody to come, or for something to happen.

Another fellow is coming down the lane behind him, casting a long shadow and carrying a small square case. He wears a suit coat and a wide brimmed hat. He is looking at the roadway, itself marked by tyre tracks. Otherwise the lane is featureless, bound by warehouses or narrow brick factories.

This fellow with the hat bears a certain sad determination, his head down and his fists clenched, as if all he owns is crammed into that small case and he doesn’t even have anywhere to live, having just left a very cheap private hotel located further up the lane. In silence.

On the road itself a truck passes loaded with boxes or crates. A fourth man in a black hat and white shirt, head down, waits for it to pass. The men in hats are looking down but the figure at the upstairs window stares at me, straight and direct across the road and across all these years.

The front of the Newsagent’s is lined with posters. The Mirror announces Darby Munro in Court, the Telegraph shouts Man Found Battered to Death, the Women’s Weekly promises 3,000 Pounds in Prizes!

This is 1948, the war is over and a new era beginning. Men are looking for work. The next generation is being born. I am two years old but I know these men. They visited my father to play euchre at the kitchen table. They joked with my grandfather as they placed their bets. They are men without women, who live alone and wait on corners for a mate who can get you a day’s work at the railsheds or the showgrounds. They always look scrubbed and spruced in the morning, but they come from the past and their best days are found by looking back.

There are no sounds in this photograph, but a truck passes and I know a train whistled somewhere close by. Or a ferry on the harbour blew its departure, and I can hear an echo of the footsteps rising towards me from the lane.

And it’s nearly forty years ago now and all four are probably dead, strangers who passed by without really being known, their strangeness preserved in tones of black and grey and silver. The building might have survived, or it might have been replaced by a convention centre or new offices for a computer company, and the century old bricks might now pave a barbecue patio behind an expensive town house.

IMAGE: Haymarket Newsagency by David Moore, 1948

David Moore (1927 - 2003) was a great Australian photographer whose work is featured here