She walks in beauty
It’s another scorching December day in Sydney. I’m hurrying down Oxford Street hoping to catch the 480 bus which will take me up to the Surry Hills end of town where I’ve arranged to meet a friend for coffee. I lower my sunglasses and strain to see if I can catch a glimpse of the bus further up the street that’s clogged with vehicles of every description. The city takes on the appearance of a steady moving tide of people that ebbs and flows its way across the urban terrain.
The Christmas school holidays are in full swing and the city is in the grip of summer madness, with families, holiday makers and the usual surge of overseas visitors flooding into the sparkling metropolis, eager to take advantage of this coastal playground.
The sun’s light is hard and brutal today and I pull my sun hat down over my face, remembering the eye specialist warning me to protect my eyes and the dermatologist searching the contours of my body every year now, like a mine sweeper looking for an enemy target. But there’s no escape. We live in times of constant surveillance, I think, as I wait uneasily under the burning sun watching life unfold around me – and, in turn, the watchful eyes of CCT cameras record my every move.
I’m in a troubled state of mind today as no doubt many others around me are, having watched images beamed up from Melbourne overnight. There’s been another incident involving a vehicle being driven into a crowd of pedestrians. A man with serious mental issues has mowed down unsuspecting shoppers including young children in the Bourke Street Mall and there are deaths. I have a son in Melbourne who walks through this area most days and I think of him and hold his image in my mind, thinking about what it must feel like to never see your child’s face again. The random finality of such killings is breathtaking and difficult to comprehend.
My bus arrives and I step up into that intimate space which I’m to share with an assortment of strangers. I swipe my card and decide on a seat half-way down the aisle, as the front seats are filling quickly with elderly people and mothers hauling huge baby carriages. Some of us exchange brief looks, while others eagerly plug into iphones and begin the endless task of scrolling through screens, indifferent to the world around them. Still others, including myself, slip silently into an investigative mode, watching others. What they’re wearing, how they do their hair, what shoes they wear. And dropping in on the odd conversation. I’ve discovered over the years that public transport is an untapped pleasure, and certainly one of the few ways of observing others at close range with very little chance of being detected.
It’s while I’m sitting quietly observant that a young woman comes into my view as she enters at a stop on Crown Street and slides effortlessly into one of the front inward-facing seats. She’s wearing loose-fitting satin pants which accentuate the smooth outlines of her youthful body. As I age, I’m more aware of the attractiveness of youth, and realise how easy it is to forget that I was once like this young woman who goes about her life unconsciously absorbed in it, trusting that it stretches endlessly ahead.
Save for the occasional swaying of the bus I sit motionless, completely absorbed in surveying the woman’s striking appearance. Full sensuous lips, dark almond-shaped eyes quietly reflective, flawless smooth skin and graceful slender limbs sturdy and as yet untouched by the journey of time. I’m completely in awe of her beauty and noble appearance – secretly relieved I’ve kept my sunglasses on and can conceal my covert activity. Perhaps she senses that I’m watching her, I think, and quietly look away, suddenly aware that she might find me rude. I’m not sure I should be doing what might be considered ‘perving’, but the city invites us in a way to take part in this kind of activity. It’s what the 19th century Parisian poet and essayist, Charles Baudelaire, describes as ‘the pleasure of being in the crowd’.*
It slowly dawns on me that this exotic beauty on the 480 bus reminds me of another beauty I once found myself in the presence of when I was visiting Berlin. I’d entered a large room in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum lit by a single spotlight which fell on one object only. Mounted on a pedestal in the centre was a bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen and royal wife of Akhenaten, ruler of Egypt during the 18th Dynasty around 1340 BC.
Coming face to face with this young woman on the bus transports me back momentarily to that day when I found myself confronted by a face so full of radiance, splendour and life that I felt I could have spoken to Nefertiti and she would have smiled at me and replied.
All too soon my destination outside the café in Surry Hills looms up ahead of me. I gather my things and edge my way through the bus to the doors which will allow me to step back out into the bright sunlight and the roar of traffic but not before I steal another private moment, glancing at the young Nefertiti lookalike. I must check up on Byron when I get home and see what he has to say about beauty, its many forms, the power it can wield over us, and how our destinies are shaped by it.
She Walks in Beauty
*Benjamin, Walter. “The Flaneur”, p 11, trans. Harry Zohn, London: NLB, 1973: pp. 35-66.
Nefertiti image from Manchester Museum exhibition