Siren Songs

Image: zen Sutherland.
Image: zen Sutherland.

I live about a block and a half from a fire station. Because we’re on a relatively busy road (not the main drag, but a street many people take to avoid it), we also get a lot of other emergency vehicles going past on the way to events elsewhere in the Inner North.

The sirens are nowhere near constant, but they aren’t entirely irregular either. They don’t wake me up when they go off at night, and they’re almost always still novel, and kind of reassuring, even after living in this house for almost 2 years. I don’t know any people who drive them, and I can’t quite tell which sound belongs to which vehicle from which service (although I am getting better at picking it). Yet strangely, they feel like home now.

Where I am currently living is as close to city living as I have ever been. I’m about to get even closer, moving into a flat closer to the CBD and the main thoroughfare in a matter of weeks.

As time ticks away to my move, I begin to wonder: am I a city person now?

I don’t think I am. I still crave being able to look up and see the stars without the glare of millions of streetlights. I still find comfort in the green paddocks that separate Canberra’s haphazard patchwork of suburbs, and I don’t mind that the middle of town doesn’t seem to have any buildings higher than about ten storeys.

But then I hear the sirens. I hear the rumbling of cars going down the avenue out the front of my house. I see the planes humming as they come into the airport. I hear the fireworks from the lake. I wander the streets and find little nooks and alleyways I hadn’t noticed before. I hear my heels clop on Civic’s tiles; I feel the cobblestones of Manuka’s back streets through the thin soles of my flats. I wander into familiar pubs and don’t see a single face I know beyond the bar staff. I taste new things. I hear new things. I read and talk and find places to hide from those whose opinions I find distasteful. I find new people when I cannot find a place to hide. I have discovered so much here, and I have found so much of myself in its grey and in its colour.

But Canberra is a safe city. Its enclaves and cliques, once infiltrated, are warm and comfortable and safe. I want to foster what I have here, but I don’t want to put down roots.

Not yet.

I want to hear more sirens. I want to hear the way the police come to your aid in other countries, the sound of panic in so many languages. I want to listen to hear if the sound of car wheels on asphalt is different in other climates, on different kinds of road.

When I go Home to visit my family, I notice the silence left by the lack of sirens. I wasn’t in this house when my parents lived on acreage, so I can’t compare that silence with the quiet they still have now they live in town. There, the only real noise is the screaming matches the neighbours engage in on a semi-regular basis, but even that can be blocked out with their fancy new roller shutters. It seems strange to be locked in by an invention made for the city in a town of just over 30,000 people.

The quiet of Home doesn’t help me sleep. I miss the drone of occasional traffic. The silence unnerves me now. It reminds me of how I want to run. It makes me want to run back to my City With The Man-Made Lake.

But I’m here now. So why am I thinking of running again, but to somewhere even grander?

I wonder if a bigger city would lull me into the land of slumber better than where I am now. More trains, more cars, more planes, more sirens. Would it be my lullaby, or the soundtrack to newfound insomnia?

I wonder when I’ll find out. I wonder how long I’ll live with it.

I know I will come back here eventually. Back to where the occasional sirens mark my safety. I will always come back to this city I have come to love.

But right now I want to chase the engine to the fire, so that I can throw my soul in and send it flying with the embers, up into the night.

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