Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beggars of Carlton

Spring in Melbourne. At dusk the restaurant tables on the pavements are crowded with joyful customers tucking into the famous dishes of Lygon Street, Carlton. The air is warm with the aroma of coffee and Italian cooking. The bookshops are doing a steady trade. Cabs cruise and swoop. Professional beggars are drifting out of the shadows, quietly targeting their prey.

I have spent the past two hours enjoying the festivities of a book launch among the crammed shelves of Readings Bookshop where I have been launching Helen Heritage’s novel. Dotted among the fans and family are the free-loaders who are there for the drinks and nibbles. One of them cruises among about with his skate-board under his arm, snaffling the canap├ęs, doing a circuit, coming back for more. There is a small irony in the title of the novel I am launching: Borrowed Landscape. But among the chatter and goodwill there seems to be space for the man with the skate-board and his ilk.

When I emerge from the bookshop, the street is buzzing and twinkling and clattering with a kind of anticipation of good things to come in the night. Somebody is playing a harmonica, but softly, underneath the jostling music of the crowd. I look up and down the street, searching for a likely place to hail a cab. It would be nice to have a cup of coffee outside Tiamo, but no, I must hurry home.

So there I am at the traffic lights on the corner, scanning four ways for a cab, my right arm in the air, when somebody steps in front of me, and says softly but firmly: ‘Carmel’. Quickly I take in the shape and detail of the man – he is not young, is unshaven, he is dressed in greasy tatters, a broken backpack over his left shoulder. I have never seen him before. He’s one of the beggars, and has emerged from the shadows to ask for ‘six dollars to get a room for the night’.

Just then a cab pulls up for me and I grab the door. As we sweep off down the street, the image of the beggar stays with me and I realise he must have picked my name from the book launch. As I said, professional beggars.