Monthly Archives: July 2007

A body in the Potomac River

gpc_work_large_285.jpgThe other night the phone rings and a voice says, “Do you know who this is?” and I say, “Yes, it’s Dan, isn’t it?” 

The voice is still the same even twenty years after Dan and his girlfriend, Rachael, and I hung out together.  He was smart but reserved.  My sister told me once that Dan could do anything – he was dux of his school, did commerce at university, and was a natural horse rider.  We drank wine and discussed philosophy and were proud of our intellects, Rachel and I passionate and embarrassing and Dan just calm and smiling. 

He had a smile that was so deeply beautiful that it could make you stop talking. 

Anyway, then he went to Europe and America and when he came back people said he was mad.  I didn’t believe it; thought he had always been mildly eccentric and perhaps travel had just accentuated this.  I rang him and he came to visit me and we got drunk.  I was relieved that he seemed just the same as ever. 

Then, late into the night he says to me, “Did you hear about that plane crash in Washington D.C. a couple of years ago?”  Sure, I remembered; iced wings in winter, most everyone died in the freezing river. “The FBI and CIA tried to blame me for that,” he says.  I look at him and wait for the punch line but there is none. “What are you talking about?” I ask.   

“The FBI chased my friends and me all across America trying to blame us for that crash.”   

And he has gone; I know I have lost Dan just as sure as if he too had gone down into the icy Potomac River.  The next time we meet he is worse, keeps going off into strange reveries and when he returns to me just smiles like we have both shared some wonderful secret.  He looks and sounds like Dan but he is like no one I know. 

Later he is diagnosed with some form of mental illness and moves into a home for people like him.  He never works or loves or travels again.  He finds God and probably talks to him personally.  I go north and never hear from him or try to contact him. 

Now here is his voice on the phone.  I want to ask him, “Are you still mad?” but I don’t have to; he has that way of talking like he is a ghost, like he is the memory of himself.  It is like talking to the dead.   

My stomach is churning for the Dan I loved and who went away.  And I am sick with the guilt of not loving this sick stranger who looks like someone I knew. 

He wants to catch up, have a drink.  Sure, I say, give me your number and he does.  “I’ll call you,” I lie. I have no pen, no paper.  I just stand there listening to a memory of a boy called Dan who was and then was not. 

When I hang up, my daughter asks, “Who was that?” 

“No-one,” I tell her.

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Filed under cowardice, fear, friends, life, loss, memory, Men, mental illness, self

Sexual Conundrum #51

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Is it dangerous to have oral sex with someone who minces their words?  What about someone who stutters?

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Mother and child

gum-tree.jpgYou have to look a long way back now and into a place where you have not been before.  Can you do that?  If you can’t then you will not understand this story. You must start in the hot air high above my vast land. Look closely now. 

Can you see a gum tree by the dry creek bed, her pale green leaves of eucalyptus rising above the dusty greys and browns of the scrub and dead grass?  The red earth is baking in the sun and the world is shimmering in the late summer afternoon.  Listen and you can hear Butcher Birds with their strange lonesome call like a beautiful warning. 

Now look beneath that gum tree and you can see a young lady sitting in the shade by the tree’s ghost-white trunk.  She is twenty-two years old and beautiful with long dark hair and olive skin.  She is holding a three-month-old baby with golden hair that will one day turn brown.  She is talking to him softly but you can’t hear what she is saying.  Those words have long gone now like some whispered secret. 

That young woman is my mother and she is holding me.  We are lost in the bush two hundred miles from home.  Nearby, on a dirt track, you can see an old Chevy with its bonnet up.  It has a busted fuel pump.  My father is wandering with a water bottle down a track looking for the homestead that he wrongly thinks is in that direction. 

They have been married for just over a year and the young mechanic has decided to go into business for himself.  When the boss of Wundong Station says he needs his vehicles and machinery fixed my father leaps at the chance.  A week’s work on that sheep station will bring in more than a month’s salary at his old job.  He and my mother head east through bush that they do not yet know is cruelly indifferent to them. 

When the fuel pump goes they are already on the wrong track and heading nowhere.  For a while my mother cradles me and a tin of fuel that my father has hooked up with a rubber tube direct to the motor.  But the road is too rough; the baby is too difficult to balance.  They stop by the creek and sit under the trees that faintly rustle in the warm breeze. 

My father walks off to look for help.  He takes a water bottle but a few hours later it is empty and he is coughing up blood.  He does not know that the station boss and two Aboriginal stockmen have already found his family and are driving them back to the homestead.  When they finally find the young mechanic he is almost faint with dehydration. 

Old man Kempsey, thinking he is being kind, fills my father up with beer and my father spews it over the station veranda.  Then they lie him in a cold bath for hours until he can stand again. 

This all happened a long time ago and old man Kempsey and the two Aboriginal stockmen are dead now.  Only that tree remembers that young woman and her baby; how the mother talked her lost words and the child gazed with trust into her eyes and then into the trembling, dappling leaves.  He smelled the great clean earth of that country and kicked his naked legs into the country’s warm breath.   

And that is how this country became his country and the Butcher Birds came to sing his song and how the whole hot land entered into his blood and became his mother.

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Filed under australia, life, mother, self

On the shore

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This place is called The Bluff.  It is famous amongst surfers but for a long time the select few who knew about it kept it a secret.  Then one day some national magazine published a story about The Bluff and now they come here from all over the world, mostly in winter when storms from the Indian Ocean build a swell that you can ride.

I am here for the day with my kids.  I am on holiday.  It is rugged and empty this land of mine.  I grew up a hundred miles from here.

 

Once there was a great battle out to sea and Australia’s mightiest warship was sunk with no survivors.  The Germans came ashore here in lifeboats; they camped in the caves on the beach.  When I was a boy, my friend’s grandfather told me how men from our town got in trucks and headed for the spot over rough bush tracks.  They brought the local policeman and some guns but when they arrived the Germans were glad to see them. “They only had one Luger and they’d shot a sheep to eat,” he told me.

 

From the top of The Bluff I can see my kids far below me playing on the beach.  There is a wind blowing from the desert behind me and the smell of the bush like the smell of youth.  I think of all my cares.  I think of my life in the big city a thousand miles from here.

 

I watch the surfers.  They wait for the swell to rise then they throw themselves and their boards into the sea through a narrow gap in the rocks.  It is the only way to get past the sharp and acned shelves that line the cliffs.  Then they head out to where the perfect waves roll all the way from India.

 

Beyond the break, some of them are resting on their boards.  They are watching the beach and cliffs through salty eyes.  Surfers know that this is life made perfect.  They can see me high on this rock, tied to the shore, fastened to my million little worries.

 

“You are spoiling this place,” I tell myself.  I stand up and start the hazardous descent to my obligations.

I know some of the surfers will be watching me.  Maybe they understand. Maybe they understand better than anyone.

 

Surfers know they have to come back to shore.

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Filed under australia, life, self, surfers

Do never conspire against love

fool.gifI do not know if the world has lied
I have lied
I do not know if the world has conspired against love
I have conspired against love
(Leonard Cohen) 

So I will tell you this: when I was sixteen I was dumb, really dumb.  And I lied and I was treacherous too.  But mostly I was dumb.  It’s true that when I fell in love I became even dumber but really, it would be a bit unfair to blame everything on love.

 

And who was she, this girl that stole my naïve heart?  Her name was Katie and she was skinny and pretty and vain and frivolous and a little bit cruel and when I heard her voice on the phone line something inside me would try to fly away.  If she touched me on the arm, I would forget what I was saying even though I had practiced it for days.

 

Now there was this other girl called Deb.  When you first met her you didn’t think much about her looks but you sure remembered what she said.  Deb was smart.  She showed me a book of poems by Leonard Cohen; she had a poster of Che Guevara on her wall and said she wanted to be the first female prime minister of Australia.  When she touched my arm she left her hand there and looked straight at me until I turned away.

 

One day Deb rang to ask me to go with her to the school graduation dance.  “I don’t think I’ll go,” I lied and I knew as I said it that it was not even a clever lie.  You see, dear reader, I knew that Katie liked me, I knew I could make her laugh, I hoped I could make her love me.  I waited for her call and it came.  Then I didn’t care about the lie, I pretended to myself that I could somehow hide on the night and Deb wouldn’t realise that I was there.  OK, so I told you I was dumb.

 

I had never heard of Karma but it was waiting for me big time all those years ago.  I was in high spirits as I dressed for the night.  Even the fact that a wart that had been burned off my palm had turned into a large blood blister did not dampen my starry visions of Katie in my arms beneath the mirrored disco ball.  I covered the blue black lump with plaster and practised ways to hide it.

 

The evening started with the presentation of awards and certificates.  I noted that Deb was way up the front so I placed myself well at the back.  So far so good.  That is until the Principal announced that Deb and I would share that year’s prize for literature, her for an essay on revolution, me for a thinly veiled ode to Katie.  Together we walked up to the podium, the liar and the girl who came to her graduation alone.

 

If I hated myself for a minute, it passed as I considered how the award must only lift my estimation in the eyes of Katie.  But the gods knew my shallow heart and they had not finished with me yet.

 

We all made our way to the dance hall and soon I was dancing with Katie.  Of course, it wasn’t as if I really held her in my arms.  Everyone just sort of faced their partner and waved around a lot and sweated to the music.  Sometimes we’d yell to each other stuff like, “This is a great song, isn’t it!”  But, folks, let me tell you, I was in Heaven.

 

Then the DJ put on a song by Slade called Get Down and Get With It and we all got down and got with it.  I could see that Katie was excited, her eyes blazed and she was looking at me differently.  This could be our song, I thought as we stomped our feet and shook our heads.  And then the singer yelled to us those immortal words:

Everybody raise both of your hands in the air
Everybody, everybody
I said clap your hands
Everybody clap your hands
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Ma ma ma ma
Everybody clap your hands ma ma ma…
 

And, my brother, let me tell you that we did clap our hands and I did very much forget about my blister and I clapped and clapped and this blood did spurt across the dance floor and struck Katie across the cheek and splattered across my new shirt and she thought I’d been shot and I wished I had.  And then her friends told her about her bloodied face and she rushed off with expressions not redolent of deep undying love and my hopeless words ringing across the room, “But it’s only blood from my wart!”

 

Let us draw the curtain there, dear reader.  Soon after this night of farce and ignominy I ran away to College.  Then one day Deb sent me a letter and it was clever and smart and friendly and I knew what I had missed and I never answered it.  And Katie?   She hooked up with an older guy who she ended up marrying and I wrote her lots of letters and she never replied. 

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Filed under humour, life, loss, Love, memory, school, youth