The ancient green and white tram
rattled its way along Glenferrie Road, the morning peak hour motor
traffic marking time as the tram paused at its pre-destined stops to
ingest its daily quota of grey suited commuters. As usual, it
shuddered to a halt at stop number 40 at exactly 7.59 a.m., a bare
four minutes after the time stated in the Official Timetable, and as
usual, Mr. Harold Thistlewaite was the first aboard.
"Good morning, Mr. Thistlewaite," greeted the green uniformed
conductor, tipping the polished peak of his Official Tramways hat.
He asked, again, as usual, "Read any good books lately, Mr.
Harold Thistlewaite gave a small chuckle, as he usually did and had
done so for the past twenty-five years at this time every Monday to
Friday morning. "A new one every day", he replied smilingly. The
same answer he had given for those 25 years... those 25 years of
commuting to his job in the city.
Of course, Mr. Thistlewaite would never refer to his "position" as
merely a "job". As Assistant Librarian, Non-Fiction, Grade 2, at the
State Library, he saw it more as a calling.. indeed, a noble
pursuit, a passion, a professional occupation. His superiors,
however, saw his passion as pedantic preciseness, and his noble
pursuit as pedestrian plodding... and his love of books as a
limitation to his elevation to higher administrative ranks.
With three years of tramway transportation remaining before the
government enforced retirement of those, who by the mere fault of
being born within a particular year, were deemed no longer capable
of fulfilling any useful function, and were thus evicted from the
womb of their place of employment, Mr. Thistlewaite was as far from
achieving a coveted Grade One posting as he was on the day he
re-joined the State Library directly from the de-mobbing barracks of
the 2nd Australian Imperial Forces.
He had been separated for seven years from his beloved books within
the State Library, fighting the forces of tyranny from his clerical
desk far behind the lines. Firstly in the wastes of the Middle East,
and then, following his secondment to the British Army (after a
particular English General expressed admiration for his meticulously
precise placement of papers upon his desk) from the darkened
basements of a blitzed London.
At the beginning he detested the separation from his books, but now
from the distance of time and with the dullness of routine, Mr.
Thistlewaite remembered those years as the time of his life.
As he took his usual place on the hard wooden tram seat, he mentally
reminisced upon those years.
At the age of thirty it had been a wrench to be plucked from the
bosom of the Reference Section. Although, in those early years there
was no conscription, the man from the War Office had been most
convincing in his arguments, and high in his praise for Harold's
research and analysis acumen. It had seemed to Harold to be his
patriotic call. He wondered now whether his decision was arrived at
through duty, or the desire to escape the cloistered life of
university, then the public service of the State Library or even,
dare he think it, to escape the smothering existence of his life at
home with his widowed mother. A life he still, to this day,
He precisely placed his briefcase on his lap, the edges equidistant
from the knees, exactly aligned along the knife-edge creases, and
nodded politely as a slim, long-legged blonde teenager sat down on
the seat opposite. Harold discreetly looked over his horn-rimmed
glasses at the girl; her long hair, beads, headband, colourful
flared pants and platform-soled shoes, and sighed... Melbourne,
circa 1971 was miles and years from Vienna, 1945.
Harold Thistlewaite closed his eyes as the tram stuttered, beginning
its slow progression into the city, and dreamt again of those
precious months in immediate-post-war Vienna.
Transferred to Allied-occupied Vienna after the retirement of Herr
Hitler's Third Reich, Captain H. J. Thistlewaite had wandered the
streets and laneways of the war-torn city on the Danube. He breathed
in the wondrous aromas of schnitzel and of pastries and blackmarket
coffees. He delighted in the sounds of music coming alive again from
the darkness of desperate battle, and watched the passing of
occupying Russian and American soldiers and young, healthy but
hungry and despairing Austrian freulins... He was falling in love
with Vienna--and Inge.
She was eighteen, and Harold loved her, bringing her the extra
rations he commandeered, and bringing her his heart.
Then suddenly he was whisked back to London and deposited on a
troop-ship homeward bound for Australia, his war over. He always
promised himself that one day he would return, but Mother, and the
old routine at the library, had him firmly in their grip. One day,
he thought...but the days went on.
The tram jerked to a stop, and with a start Harold Thistlewaite
realised he was in the city. He alighted from the car and crossed
Swanston Street to the Library to begin yet another quiet day
amongst the books.
The day passed as uneventfully as the
days before. At least until late in the afternoon when, as Harold
was gathering books from the reading tables to return to their
rightful Dewey designated homes on the shelves, his eyes fell upon a
brightly jacketed picture reference book.
The book was about the size of the Britannica Atlas (what, in some
circles of Melbourne society, would be called a "coffee table
book"). He scanned the title; "Scenes of the World, a Photographic
Guide for Travellers". Strange, he thought, he was sure he had never
seen it before and yet Harold in his mental card index knew every
book, every tome, that lived within the shelves assigned to his
care. Yes, there were thousands. And if he didn't know each of them
intimately, he had at least a nodding acquaintance.
Harold checked the decimal code on the binding and carried the book
to its supposed slot on the shelf. But there was no slot into which
to slide it home. Impossible, he thought... every book in the
reference section had its perch, its rightful place. If a book had
wandered to the reading tables, there would be a vacant space to
which it could come home. He checked along the row - no, they were
all in proper order... all aligned shoulder to shoulder, as they
rightfully should be.
Harold caressingly opened the cover and carefully turned the first
few pages. The photographs were stunning... the images leaping from
the glossy pages to assault Harold with their beauty, their
grandeur, their... reality.
He quickly shut the cover, lest he be drawn into them and away from
the important task at hand of returning the many other books to
their stacked shelf homes for the night, for it was nearly closing
time. Without even thinking of the consequences, Harold carried the
"Scenes of the World" to the small cramped staff room behind the
Everyman's Encyclopedia shelf and fitted it carefully into his
"Reference books (as he, himself, had told many readers) cannot be
borrowed. They must remain within the library." The words echoed
within his mind as for the first time in his life, Harold
Thistlewaite deliberately set out to break a rule. He was taking a
"Good morning, Mr. Thistlewaite,"
greeted the conductor as Harold boarded the tram the next foggy
Melbourne morning. "Read any good books lately?"
Harold began to answer automatically, "A new one every -" when he
suddenly stopped short with the realisation that his briefcase still
held in its embrace the homeless book from yesterday's clearing
He abruptly pushed past a standing commuter and collapsed into his
usual place on the bench seat. His hands trembled as he fumbled with
the latches and then, with a sigh, he eased the kidnapped book from
the confines of his briefcase. Harold placed the case beneath the
seat and, balancing the book upon his lap, he turned to the opening
The tram jerkily began its journey in and out of the swirling fog
towards the city as Harold began to peruse the pictures in the first
section: "West Coast U.S.A." He was absorbed in the captions and
small story-line paragraphs when he sensed, with that innate ability
of the long term commuter, a change to the rhythm of the steel
wheels on the track and a not-quite-right turning.
He glanced up from the book, into the eyes of the same young hippy
girl of yesterday's tram. No, he thought, it wasn't the same girl,
just the same strange mode of dress. She smiled as she stood to
alight at the stop, "Have a nice day."
What a strange thing to say, thought Harold and the accent -
American? He watched from the window as she stepped from the tram.
With horror, he realised she was stepping from the wrong side of the
tram. The traffic... the cars... she had better be careful! Then,
through the misty veil of the swirling fog, he became dimly aware
that the vehicles, too, were on the wrong side of the road. And they
weren't the compact Holdens and British Leylands of Melbourne. They
were larger... they were Chevrolets and Plymouths. They were... they
were American automobiles.
The fog cleared as the tram re-commenced its journey and a somewhat
disorientated Harold Thistlewaite stared from the window at the
passing parade of San Francisco, U.S.A.
He realised from his picture book reading that the streetcar was
making its way over Nob Hill and along Jackson Street. It passed the
cable car barn, then skirted the edges of Chinatown as it turned
onto Powell Street for the run down past Union Square to the
turntable at the junction with Market Street. Harold Thistlewaite,
Assistant Librarian Grade Two, was riding San Francisco’s Hyde Park
Line cable car.
The car halted at the end of the line, a bell clanged and Harold
closed the book upon his knees, returned it to his briefcase, and
alighted from the tram. He crossed Swanston Street to his job at
Melbourne's State Library.
The books behaved themselves, the day
passed as uneventfully as the many before. All found their rightful
places as the Library closed its doors and Harold made his way home
to Mother for yet another long night.
The grey suited commuters at stop No.
40 surreptitiously stared over the tops of their morning newspapers
as Harold Thistlewaite hurried down the street for the first time in
tram transportation memory, two minutes late! Although passenger
protocol called for Harold to join the end of the queue, deference
was made to this legend of punctual passengers. So Harold, as usual,
was permitted to be the first to board the tram when it eased to a
halt in front of the A.M. peak-hour herd.
Harold found his usual seat without even acknowledging the
conductor's greeting and immediately withdrew "Scenes of the World"
from his briefcase. The briefcase he allowed to unceremoniously drop
to the pitch-coated floor. He hungrily turned the pages of the book
and commenced to browse the images of: "The Mysterious East. A Visit
to Hong Kong". The tram shuddered as it click-clacked its rail-bound
path along Glenferrie Road.
The tram swayed and rocked and Harold looked up angrily as the old
amah bumped his elbow with her bundle as she fell into the seat
beside him. He looked at her wrinkled Chinese face and suddenly
realised that the tram was overflowing with chattering Asians. He
heard scuffling and clattering coming from above him and he knew he
was on the lower deck of a Hong Kong double deck tram... just like
the ones captured within the photographic colour plates of the open
book on his lap.
His excited tourist eyes surveyed the passing streetscape as the
tram rattled along the roadway through the old waterfront precincts
towards Wanchai. He watched the bustle of stunt-riding bicyclists
weaving their way through the maze of honking taxis. He watched the
flashing Chinese characters arrayed higgledy piggledy on the sides,
the fronts, the awnings and tops of buildings in their bright neon
He watched, fascinated, as the tram clattered past electrical
equipment shops plastered with English signs for brand names that he
knew were made here in the far flung British colony for the Japanese
conglomerates that exported them to even the floors of Myers
Emporium, where the Sonys and Panasonics gobbled up the display
stand space where once had stood the AWAs and Kreislers.
The tram continued past tailoring shops promising three piece suits,
measured, hand-made, tailored and fitted in two hours. Past shops
that were distinctly Chinese, but whose function was, to Harold's
western mind, as mysterious as the circumstances that had deposited
him amongst the cacophony of the double decker tram in Hong Kong.
He turned from the window at the insistent tapping on his shoulder
and the urgent voice of the green-uniformed conductor, "Mr.
Thistlewaite, Mr. Thistlewaite, this is your stop. This is Swanston
Street, sir. The Library is across the road, sir."
Harold grunted as he bent down to retrieve the book that had slipped
from his lap when the tram had halted and lay closed beside his
briefcase on the floor. He slowly climbed down from the running
board and trudged across to his employment prison, watched anxiously
by the Official Tramways conductor and his herded flock of commuter
Assistant Librarian Thistlewaite
found that this particular day was not like the many before. Oh, he
dusted the spines on the shelves in his usual functional manner ..
he answered inquiries as precisely and as properly as his
custodianship directed, but there were small uneven bumps to the
normal flow of the Library's day.
He found that he had inadvertently directed one inquiring reader to
the Guinness Book of Records, when asked about a reference source
for Henry VIII and his wives.
He found to his horror that he had managed to rearrange the
individual volumes of the Greater Oxford Dictionary in such a manner
that the gold embossed letters on the leather bound spines now spelt
out a particularly offensive word. This caused a spinster researcher
to timidly lodge an embarrassing complaint with the Section Head.
And for the life of him, he found it impossible to understand how he
could have placed Bicknell's "Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of
England" next to Mallory's "Eroticism in Eastern Art".
At the end of this particularly unusual day, he simply left the
gathered books unevenly stacked on the trolley where they would
spend an uncomfortable night away from the warm embraces of their
brothers upon the shelves, and left for home and Mother.
"Wait a minute, George," the
conductor called to the tram driver. "Here he comes now."
Harold Thistlewaite, tie askew, suit coat undone and flapping behind
him like the cape of a comic book super hero, ran down Glenferrie
Road to the waiting green and white tram.
He breathlessly clambered aboard, unceremoniously brushed past the
conductor, and pushed his way into a seat, any seat. He hurriedly
extracted the photographic guide for travellers and, to the quirky
jolts of tramway travel, thumbed his way to the next photo journal
chapter: "Europe". He flipped the pages and, from the glossy plates,
images of the civilised and sophisticated city, Wien; his
beloved Vienna, filled his mind, and tears filled his eyes.
He blinked startlingly at the guttural "Guten Morgen", as the
blue-uniformed conductor strode down the aisle of the quiet
rubber-wheeled Austrian tram.
Harold watched from the panoramic window as the modern orange tram
effortlessly rolled along Mariahifer Strasse. He watched happy
couples strolling along the pavement. He felt his mouth watering as
he passed a Konditorei - a confectioner's shop - where Viennese
pastries lay invitingly on paper doilies in the window displays. Was
this the shop of the famous Demel Sisters? No, he checked the book,
that was in Kohlmarket.
He looked again at the book still open on his lap and, as the tram
moved along Karntner Strasse, towards the intersection with the Ring
and the State Opera House, Harold Thistlewaite did something he had
never before even contemplated - he tore a page from a library book.
Holding the torn out page from "Scenes of the World" in his hand, he
left the closed book on the seat as he alighted at the next stop
and, once again, walked the streets of Vienna.
Harold Thistlewaite had returned.