The Statues of Melbourne
Of course I remember the morning when the statues appeared. You don’t forget a thing like that. Everyone remembers that it was October 18th. But what you don’t know, unless you were there, is that it was a beautiful Spring day: one of those mornings when you see the sunlight streaming in between the curtains and you just want to jump out of bed. And at the time I was seventeen, so it took a lot to get me out of bed.
I remember the papers didn’t have any warning of what had happened. The statues must have appeared after they were printed. It was a school-day, so I left the house early with my sister Kate. We had no idea what we would find.
As soon as we were outside we saw a crowd at the end of the street - all our neighbours were there. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but I knew it must be something important to get everyone gathered in the road like that. My first thought was that it was an accident. Maybe somebody was dead. I’d never seen a body before, so Kate and I hurried over to check it out.
Well, it wasn’t a dead body, it was my first statue. It was of an old man dressed in a singlet and shorts, grinning like he thought we were all a big joke. He looked Greek or Italian or something, like one of those guys who are always trimming their roses and probably have a dozen grandchildren. The statue was made of a pale smooth stone, and was very realistic. You could see all the individual hairs and everything, though his eyes had no pupils, which was pretty creepy. Anyway, the statue was standing in the sunshine at the corner of Field Street and Banool, and it sure as Hell hadn’t been there the day before. It had sprung up like a mushroom overnight.
The neighbours were hanging back a bit, like they thought the statue might come to life and grab at them. I’ve never been the type to hold back though, so I went up and prodded it. It felt rougher than it looked and was still cold from the night air. I gave it a push, but it was really firmly anchored to the ground.
That was when I realised why everybody was so freaked out. The neighbours had been obscuring it, but there was another statue on the opposite corner of the road. That one was of a little boy. Further up the street I could see more statues, each with its own gawking crowd. They were all just of normal looking people; all life-sized and all made of the same grey stone. It was like they had been frozen by that Greek snake lady.
“Hey, Ben, do you think it was aliens?” asked Kate.
“Nah,” I said. “It’s not aliens’ style.”
Actually, I don’t remember exactly what I thought then, back before we realised the scale of the thing. I think I assumed it was some kind of underground art movement - guerrilla sculpture, you know?
We stood around chatting to people for a few minutes, then we kept on towards school. What else could we do? The statues were interesting, but they didn’t actually do anything. Most of the neighbours started drifting away as well, back into their houses or off to work. A couple of people took it really badly though. I particularly remember passing one girl who was sitting on the pavement with her back against a fence and crying, so that her makeup was smudged around her eyes. We hurried on. I kind of knew how she felt. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time it was so strange. You felt like you had to laugh or cry, just to acknowledge it.
We must have walked past dozens more statues before we got to school. Mostly they stood on street corners, but some were out in the middle of the pavement. There were none in the roads or in people’s yards: they kept themselves out of private areas. The school was full of them though. There were ten of them on the oval, which was a real pain for cricket practice.
As you’d expect, everyone was talking about it. It turned out that the statues were all over the suburbs – everybody had seen them. There were lots of rumours going around. Instead of first period, we were called into a special assembly in the hall, where the principal told us not to worry. He said that the whole of Melbourne was “afflicted”, but that we should act normally and avoid touching the things. “Keep calm and carry on,” he said, although he seemed less calm than anyone else in the room.
Of course, nobody paid any attention to the ‘no touching’ rule. Lots of the bigger guys competed to try and push the statues over or break them, but none of them would budge. Then at lunch we discovered this incredible beauty behind the gym. She had her little stone hands on her little stone hips, and was leaning forward just enough to give us a peek of her little stone boobs. We all took pictures of ourselves posing with her; and yes, if I had known about the doubles then I probably wouldn’t have uploaded those pics, but it was the first day. We didn’t know any better.
When I got home I asked my dad what he thought about the statues. He just shrugged and said “bloody government,” then turned on the telly. Mum liked them, though. “It’s like living in a Roman villa,” she said.
The statues were still there the next morning, and they already seemed part of the neighbourhood. Birds sat on their heads, and the dogs on their morning walks peed on their legs. Most people ignored them, like it was impolite to acknowledge that they were still around.
That day I must have been one of the first to realise about the doubles, which I’ve always been proud of. In fact, I reckon if I had gone straight to the authorities, it would have been me on the news that night. At the time I didn’t even think about it. I suppose it doesn’t matter now.
It happened because it was Saturday, and I had an away game at Caulfield. Dad dropped me off outside the school. On the way to the oval I passed the playground. There, standing beneath the monkey bars, was a statue of Kate. I tell you, it wasn’t pleasant seeing her with those dead eyes, but other than that she looked just like life. She was pulling one those stupid faces, like she does in front of the mirror. The detail was amazing: there was even the little sewn-up tear in the bottom of her dress. I checked. It was a pretty crazy sight, so I took a photo with my phone and texted it to her.
I guess it was pretty dumb of me. When I got home after the game (we won), Kate was crying and mum was furious.
“What were you thinking!” she said. “Can’t you see what a horrible shock that would be for her?”
Mum didn’t like the statues after that. She closed the living room curtains so we couldn’t see the old man and the boy at the end of the street. I went up to Kate’s room to apologise.
“It’s OK Kateorade,” I said to her. “It didn’t even look that much like you. I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything”.
Kate calmed down that night, when she found out that she wasn’t the only one with a statue. On the evening news they explained that dozens of real people had been identified around the city. Someone had even come across the Premier, dressed in his pyjamas, on a street in Essendon. The media was already speculating that there was a statue for every person in Melbourne.
The next couple of days were chaos. I reckon close to half the city must have pulled a sickie on Monday. I know mum did. Everyone was prowling the streets in their cars, looking for statues of themselves and their family. It was like the day before hard rubbish collection – strange cars rolling slowly down the road, their drivers peering out at the nature-strips.
The rumour at school was that if you looked at your statue, you would die and it would live life in your place. It would look exactly the same as you, but without pupils. One joker put in cloudy contact lenses and scared the Year Sevens half to death. It was all crap of course. Nobody died, although mum did forbid Kate from going to look at her own statue for a few days.
At first the government tried to ban people from statue searching. When that didn’t work they gave in and started helping instead. Statues were photographed and put up online so people could search from home. But that didn’t last long. I remember there was one guy whose statue showed him hitting his wife with a belt. The photo was uploaded and it went viral, so of course he became famous. He sued the government and they had to take down the search-engine.
That was the thing about the statues. They didn’t always show you in your best light. Some of them were pretty unpleasant, and some were just weird. There was one of a really old woman in Carlton Gardens, but she was doing a one-armed handstand like a gymnast. I guess she must have felt young inside. Sometimes couples found their statues carved together out of a single block of stone; more usually they would be at opposite ends of town. Some statues were smiling, others were crying. There wasn’t any pattern that people understood, but I reckon everyone who looked at their own statue recognised something in the pose, even if they didn’t like it.
Legally everyone owned their own image, and a lot of people tried to demolish themselves, but the statues were too tough to even scratch. Pretty soon everyone just accepted them. Actually, we got to like them. There was always one nearby to watch out for you, and you felt safer on the streets at night. When the first winter rolled around, people knitted beanies and sweaters for them, and the councils made sure that the statues were cleaned of graffiti and birdcrap regularly.
Gradually, all my friends found their own statues. So did mum and dad – she was reading a book on St Kilda road, he was sitting in a tiny street in Eltham.
I couldn’t find mine. I pretended that I didn’t care, but it worried me. What did it mean if I didn’t have a statue? Was I not really a part of Melbourne? I know it’s stupid, but on rainy nights I would get choked up, imagining my statue alone and uncared for in an overgrown vacant lot. Sometimes I thought I glimpsed myself down grimy alleys, but when I ran to double-check it was always an unfamiliar face carved in the stone.
That’s the way it was, until one day about three years after the statues came. I was sitting on the lawns outside the State Library watching the world go by, and I noticed that this girl kept looking at me. She was my age, tall, with scruffy blonde hair and those messy clothes that Arts students like. I’m not a bad looking guy, so I’m used to being checked out, but she was really staring. When I gave her a smile, she came over to sit next to me.
“I’ve been looking for you since I was sixteen,” she said.
It sounded like the world’s corniest pick-up line, but she seemed serious.
“Do you want to know where your statue is?”
You know that feeling when your stomach tightens up and all the spit in your mouth suddenly isn’t there anymore? Yeah.
“Show me,” I said.
She took me to an apartment block in Prahran. It was a quiet place, with a little driveway that opened up into a courtyard between the buildings. There was a big old plane tree in the middle of the courtyard with a circular bench around it. There I was, on the bench, carved in stone. Sitting beside me with her knees drawn up beneath her, was Ashleigh.
We looked three years younger of course, but it was definitely us. Ashleigh’s statue was resting its head against my shoulder, her fingers just barely touching my knee. My statue had this little smile on its face, like it knew a secret that it wasn’t going to tell anyone. I’d been told that it was disturbing, coming face to face with yourself for the first time, but right then I felt as light as air. It was like a part of me that had been missing was now back, even if I hadn’t realised it was lost until that moment.
“What do you think it means?” I asked Ashleigh.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I think we should get a coffee, don’t you?”