It is a winter’s morning in Sydney, and Central Station is a hive of activity.
The sandstone arches of this grand Victorian building drip with rain and scowl to the wind. The street is busy, with shoes scurrying by. People in suits, jeans, raincoats and rags are frantically seeking shelter from the sky.
Phones are ringing, horns are honking, people are talking – but if you listen past the noise, you may hear a guitar, screaming above the void. The source of this lonely song is Michael, who, for a dollar or a cigarette, plays the soundtrack of the morning commute.
I approach Michael like an abused bulldog, not knowing whether he will wince or bite. But he is kind, civil and welcoming when I ask about his life.
“I grew up in South Australia,” he says in his raspy voice, “and I was brought up in an orphanage. Before this, I lived with my mother, and she was an abusive bitch, she was a fucking demon. I hated her guts, and I found her dead in the bathtub when I was nine and a half years old.”
Michael is a 56-year-old homeless man who lives on the streets of Sydney. His thin, long brown hair droops over his dark, beady eyes; they are fixed upon his guitar, which he admires like a lover.
Tired wrinkles line his hollow, sunken face, hiding the handsome complexion of his long-forgotten youth. Gold rings, scars and tattoos decorate his bony hands.
“What’s that on your arm?” I ask. “It’s a man in a boat, rowing into a storm, fighting a dragon, making it through the storm and coming out as a crane – freedom, when I’m dead, probably.”
At his side sit two sheepdogs, Jolie and Zoro, his only companions through the deafening silence of the night.
Between spells at the orphanage, Michael had three sets of foster parents. The first set, he says, abused him; the second just wanted the money that came with fostering.
“They wouldn’t take me to their relatives or anywhere, and when they went out, they locked me out of the house.”
With his third set of parents he lived on a sheep farm, until the drought came.
“By the time I left, you could walk into the dams and pick a fish up by hand.”
Michael returned to the orphanage a third time, lasted a week, and has lived on the streets since the age of 13.
From then on he led a life of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. From the orphanage, he drifted up the east coast of New South Wales, surfing, and at 18 was living in “the squats at Kings Cross [Sydney’s red-light district], back in the punk and skinhead days”.
He did time: three years for selling drugs – crystal, pot and heroin.
“I used to work up at the pool room, selling drugs, paying off the cops – wads of fucking money. The people I’ve met you wouldn’t believe.”
“Like who?” I ask.
“Bon Scott [the late ACDC singer] used to live up the road from me in Manly. My mate came over one day …”
He explained how the friend introduced him to Scott, how they became friends, how they spent late nights drinking beer and smoking cigarettes – and, finally, how he said goodbye to his dear old friend.
Michael had a wife named Jodie Lee “who was the only person in the world who has ever loved me”.
When Jodie died of a heroin overdose, Michael, burning with anguish, attempted to kill himself.
“My dogs were given to me as a present because I was going to neck myself – you know, I got no family, I got no nobody. I’ve got to fend for myself and it’s fucking hard, mate.”
Today, Michael begs and plays through the day and night. The same tired routine follows him hour after hour.
He has no way of escaping this terrible existence. No hope and no purpose, but he’ll still be there, early in the morning, at Central Station, playing a solemn melody for anyone who cares.