Getting up, not just waking up, but hauling arse out of bed and into the world at 4am, is how you get the measure of a place. 4am catches the world unaware, with its pants round its ankles, so to speak.
When you close the front door behind you at 4am, the earth smells like it’s supposed to. The smell of a world untainted by the movements and disruptions of its human occupants. Cars haven’t started, garbage is undisturbed. The oceans and the winds are lying in wait. There are no wafts of perfume to jolt you into a different time and place, no rousing Arabica bean whiffs to distract you. No one is cooking, no one is cutting grass, no one is hosing anything down, painting, raising dust. The earth is settled and innocent of human occupation.
In England you smell rain on tarmac, well-kept rose bushes, smoke from 300 years of industry faintly lingers. In Australia you smell eucalyptus, it doesn’t matter what town or city you’re in, always the gum trees of that vast green and red land that hit your nostrils. Maybe it’s my foreign nose, maybe native Australians don’t smell it, but I do, and I get that feeling of excitement of the first time I smelt that camphorous, far away smell of the other side of the world. In the tropics it’s too early for the exotic blooms to flower, too early for the joyous smell of coconut, real or synthetic, that universally agreed upon smell of tropical holidays. Instead 4am smells simply of warmth and the constant threat of precipitation. A divine smell.
4am quiets the noisiest metropolis. 3am is still filled with revelers, squeezing the last glimmer of fun, from the last sip of their last drink, their last conversation now mumbled rather than shouted. And 5am is an acceptable, yet undoubtedly harsh, time to get up and start the various engines of our lives. But not 4am. The sound of a distant rumbling of a car maybe, the chance of a siren. Even the most irksome of pied currawongs has the good grace to wait until 4.45. Fuckers. 4am is just for you and your insanely amplified aural attacks on the peace.
4am feels like one, or all, of the nine circles of hell to the insomniac. When the realisation that another night will have to be consigned to the dung heap of lost sleep, lost recuperation, lost youth. To the insomniac parent, 4am is the whole damn inferno. And you wonder for the millionth time if you will make it through another day without committing a felony.
4am is for fretting over the conversation you must have at work that will make everyone involved uncomfortable, make your armpits sweat, and make you question your life choices, your ability and your self-worth. It’s for forming the words of the emotionally jarring discussion you need to have with your partner that you know will cause a row. So maybe you won’t bother, as he won’t change and then you’ll have had a row for nothing. It’s for remembering the shitty book week costume you forgot to make, the shitty library book you didn’t return, birthday cards you didn’t send for international family members who you know won’t truly appreciate an e-card, no matter how hilarious and thoughtfully chosen it is. It’s for thinking about cancer and whether any of your moles have changed, and whether any of them have a deep itch or achy feeling, and what age are you supposed to start having mammograms, is it 40 or 50? I think 40 is colonoscopy and 50 is mammogram. I’ll google it tomorrow.. It’s for remembering every bad, mean, awkward, embarrassing, drunk, stupid, crawl into a hole and bury me for fuck sake until every one of us is dead thing you’ve ever done in your whole entire life.
4am is for getting in the car to go to Heathrow because your dad is mental and has decided that the only way to get round the M25 in ‘good time’ and without ‘hitting traffic’ is to roll 4 sleeping children out of their beds and essentially add a good 4 hours on to an already long and arduous day that will result in being on holiday. I remember that feeling of slight nausea from being dragged from our slumber so well. And it wasn’t until the nausea subsided, somewhere around the Dartford tunnel, just as the sun was peeping up through the estuary grime, that we got excited to be jetting off. That was a lifetime ago, another life, another person, another hemisphere. And here in Australia, such is life, our holidays start at 4am too. My husband has inherited his father in law’s propensity for bundling people into cars at unconscionable hours, in order to ‘get out of Sydney’, so we can ‘make it to Taree for breakfast’. Because apparently making it to Taree for breakfast is a thing.
And so we drive. With car lights blue, streets bathed in the orange glow of our modernity that will never sleep, hearing only the dreams, worries and fears of those still in their beds, the smell of gums trees reminding us how far we’ve come. And it’s only 4am.