Do we draw borders around love? Do we take a great land and make it little with our littleness? I know that I have at different times of my life.
Take the time when I was 19. I went for a trip inland with my brother in law Jake who was a sales rep for some mine supplier. Home from university, I jumped at the chance to see the gold boom for myself. The two of us spent three days at Mount Gamble and on the third night I found myself at the pub drinking with a group of miners who I’d got to know a bit through Jake.
One of them, Petey, was about my own age, a farmer’s son who was looking to make a quick buck. We got on almost straight away and he shielded me a bit from some of the barbed remarks that came my way for my neat clothes and way of talking. I hardly even swore in those days. Everyone drank a lot of beer and smoked. Some played darts; some spilled on to the wide streets of Mount Gamble and talked and argued.
The smoking became a bit of a joke between Petey and me. He asked me why I didn’t smoke; I told him I had given up. I don’t know why I said that. I had never smoked, couldn’t stand the thought of it. Maybe I just wanted to fit in with these rough men and their easy confidence and their eyes that looked right into you. But at least I drank beer and by midnight I was drunk.
I liked to think of myself as a writer in those days and somehow Petey ended up in my room reading a scrapbook of poetry I carried around with me everywhere. I could tell he’d probably never read a poem before but he was doing it for me and because he was drunk.
I took off my shoes and stretched out on my bed. I noticed cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling. The bare light bulb hanging in the centre of the room threw a shadow around the upper half of the tin walls. There was a calendar with a picture of a creek with Gum trees around it. Underneath the picture it said “Kelvin’s Meat Supplies.” But I was finding it hard to focus and the letters started to dance.
I glanced up at Petey who was now looking out of the window into the darkness as if he was thinking. “What are you doing?” I asked. Petey looked down at me over his shoulder. “I can’t read anymore, mate. Actually I feel fucked.”
“Half your luck,” I said. I’d meant it as a joke but somehow the words hung heavy between us. Petey stood up. “I’m gonna hit the road, man.” But he just stood there still looking out of the window. And then he glanced at me again and added, “Unless you want me to stay.”
I sat up on my elbows. A generator that had been humming outside suddenly stopped with a loud click. “Nah, I’ve had enough to drink, Petey.”
“Yeah, right,” he said but there was a touch of antagonism in his tone that I hadn’t heard before. He looked at me. “Do you do anything other than write?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. It was funny because just at that moment, the way he said it, I felt like he knew I’d never smoked. And that it somehow mattered.
“Doesn’t worry about it, mate. I’m pissed.” Then he moved suddenly towards the door. “I’m off, mate.”
I was still leaning on my elbows. I heard his steel capped boots walking down the wooden passage. Then the generator clicked on again. I stood up and looked at my scrapbook open to some poem about love. I was 19 and I didn’t have a clue about love really.
Suddenly Petey was at the door again. He was leaning against the doorframe and he was smoking. Before I could speak he said, “I hate bullshit, mate; I fuckin’ hate it.”
“So do I, Petey,” I said but the words were lame and they just fell on the floor between us.
“No, mate, I really fuckin’ hate it, you know?” He straightened himself up like he’d made up his mind to say something but it just made him look like a kid somehow. Maybe he felt the same because he smiled and his voice was kind of sheepish and firm and slow at the same time. “And so I came back to tell you that I like you and I didn’t want another drink just now. That wasn’t what I was saying, OK?”
I felt stupid just standing there. Petey was looking right into my eyes now. “Do you get it, mate? I can’t stand bullshit and I didn’t want to end the night with bullshit and all that unsaid crap and lies.” Then something made him laugh and I think it was embarrassment. I laughed too.
“You should write, Petey.”
“And you should smoke.” He reached out his hand to me. “Now I really am off,” he said. Then we shook hands and though he didn’t avert his eyes I could see a faint blush spreading across his neck.
“I like you too, Petey,” I said. “Now fuck off and let me get some sleep.”
The next day I went back to the coast. I never saw Petey again. And a few days after the trip inland I started smoking.