Monthly Archives: January 2008

A prelude to career obscurity

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We were smart young men in suits.  We were so young that we loved our suits and our array of bright ties which we would parade each day as we strode down the pathways to our bright futures.   

Our boss, James Black, had more expensive suits and his ties were Italian, something to which we could only aspire.  But aspire we did and when we got together over a few drinks we planned systemic improvements for a new industry order that, it has to be said, had us firmly at its centre.  And our boss was our model; immaculately dressed and groomed, articulate and witty, warm yet demanding and a master of political gamesmanship.  Eventually he would become the CEO of the State’s biggest employer.  We could call him James but not Jim and never, never Blacky, not even behind his back.   

Pat, on the other hand, was never really made for a suit.  Or maybe a suit had never been made that could quite conform to his loping, angular dimensions.  His tie hung erratically and too short; the back of his shirt hung loosely and disconsolately around his backside.  Even first thing in the morning he looked like an extra from a Diehard movie. 

Pat was a sloppy and amiable in everything he did. But when he drank, he drank to get drunk and in this he was invariably successful even by his own exacting standards.  At Friday night drinks he would slur the spoken language to within an inch of its life before lurching out into the late-night streets, his clothing struggling loyally and valiantly to keep up with its demented master. 

One night I sat down strategically next to James Black at a Christmas function.  At last I would have the opportunity to impress the great man with my subtle banter, my succinct but deeply wise observations. I had barely said hello, however, when, to my horror, Pat suddenly appeared and sat down opposite us at the same table.  And Pat had been doing justice to the pre-dinner drinks; in fact he had found them all guilty and personally dispatched as many as possible.  “Howdy, Blacky,” he hiccupped as he eased himself into his chair a little unsteadily. 

I cringed but James Black was an affable man, a man of the people. “How are you, Pat?” was all he said.  Maybe things will be all right, I thought. I mentally rehearsed a suitably impressive entree into conversation but just as it was about to escape my lips, Pat’s voice slurred across the table.  “Jimbo, can I ask you a personal question?” 

It seemed to me that there was a sudden shift in temperature and an almost imperceptible straightening of James Black’s back. “I think that would be alright, Pat.” Pat leant forward confidentially, knocking water into James Black’s prawn cocktail.  “Sorry, mate,” he said hurriedly, obviously keen to get to the main game. 

And then, in a hushed tone barely audible except to the fifty or so people around us he asked, “Blacky, if you woke up in the woods with your pants around your ankles and a used condom up your arse, would you tell anyone?” 

James Black had all the air of a man trapped and out of his depth and not at all used to the sensation.  Almost helplessly, and with a forced smile, he muttered, “Well, no, Pat, I probably wouldn’t.” 

Pat’s eyes glinted and he wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth.  “Great!” he guffawed.  “Do you want to go camping this weekend?” 

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Filed under drinking, drunk, humour, Men, work

Two summers with my cousin

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Colin turns the page of the old photograph album and suddenly there is Louise smiling at me again from twenty years ago.  I remember that party.  In the background my younger sister is standing with my girlfriend of that time and they are watching Louise and the man with the camera with amusement. Louise’s boyfriend, Mike, is there, too; partly obscured and looking at something out of shot.  Everyone is laughing.

“Hell,” I say. “She was really beautiful, wasn’t she.”

“We all were,” Colin looks at me closely and adds,  “What ever happened to your cousin Louise?”

I can feel him looking at me. 

“Oh, she’s married with a kid.  I saw her about three years ago when I was at a conference in Adelaide.”

I have known Colin since we were both twelve. “You and her were pretty close for cousins,” he says with forced nonchalance.  I look up. So this is what he wants to know after all this time.

I look at the photograph. “Yeah,” I say. “You know, Colin, I think I was secretly in love with Louise for a while.”

Colin snorts but not unkindly.  “Shit, mate, everyone thought you were in love with each other.”

The years blur.  I am sitting in the kitchen of my home with my fourteen-year-old cousin.  I am sixteen.  It is after midnight and we are the only ones awake.  We are talking about life and love and music and dreams. We talk like this at every chance we get. She is on holidays with us from the other side of Australia.  When she leaves I go to my bedroom and lie there feeling this deep hollowness grow inside me and it is the first time that I miss someone.  For a while we send each other clever, sentimental letters and then we stop.

Four years later we are both back in the little town.  I am home from completing university; she is about to start her studies in Adelaide.  I have become witty and cynical; she even more gentle and idealistic than before.  But something deeper has also changed.  We still hang out but now we clash. I hate her faith in everything; she is hurt by my careless dismissal of everything she cares about. One night we are playing pool in the local hotel.  She walks up to me and looks me in the eyes saying softly so only we can hear, “Why do I hate you when I’m sober and love you when I’m drunk?” 

There will be many little moments like this over that brief summer.  I remember the tiniest things.  Like watching movies at the Drive In, six of us packed into Colin’s car, she in the front and me in the back.  I say, “Can you move your head a bit, Louise, so I can see?”

“Absolutely!” she laughs.

“Louise, can I have a lick of your ice-cream?

“Absolutely!”

“Can I have a kiss, Louise?”

She turns awkwardly in her seat and leans her cheek towards me.  “Absolutely” Now her tone is mockingly seductive.  For the first and only time I kiss her.  I do it quickly and everyone laughs.

But mostly we annoy each other and eventually become overly tender to the most innocent comments of the other.  On the day she is to leave we are sitting in my car and trying to find the words for goodbye. We are not being very successful and our jokes fall flat.  I desperately want her to leave and yet I can’t bear the thought of it. But I do not show this.

“Say hello to your mum and dad for me,” I say. Then I mention her little sister, “And tell Pippa not to grow…” I stop quickly but it is too late.  The colour rushes to Louise’s face, so sensitive has she become to even my silences.  There are tears in her eyes.  Her voice is soaked with anger and hurt, “Tell her not to grow up like me! That’s what you were going to say, weren’t you?”  I sit there mutely, staring ahead and feeling suddenly like I will throw up, like I have just killed some animal.  “Weren’t you?” Louise chokes into silence, opens the car door and rushes away into a life that is mostly a mystery to me.

The album of photographs is still lying there.  I want to ask Colin, “Do you really think she loved me?” But he turns the page and says, “Any chance of another tea, mate? This one’s gone cold.”

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Filed under australia, friends, life, loss, Love, memory, self, youth

Isn’t that called water?

icecube_50.gificecube_50.gificecube_50.gifIt’s a very hot day; I’m going to a barbecue at a friend’s place.  He has asked me to bring some ice to keep the drinks cold.  I pull into the drive-in liquor store.  

The young guy who works there saunters over to my car window.  He bends down. 

“What can I do for you, Mate?”

“Do you sell ice?” I ask.

“Yep,” he says.

“Well, I’ll have two bags of ice, please.”

 He looks at me, sweat brimming around his eyebgrows, “Sorry, Mate, we do have ice but it’s not frozen.”

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Snake

unhappy.jpgHave you noticed how, even in marriage, love sometimes appears?

I was standing in my shed one day (this was years ago now) and thinking how different it was to other men’s sheds.  No well organised pursuits of the masculine type here; just junk and memories and boxes for both.  I was disappointed in myself like my wife had become disappointed in me.  This is an emotion more killing than hate. But that is another story.

So anyway, my wife comes out and I hear her calling to the cat.  “Here, Beautiful.  Come to mummy.”  I hated her doing that, talking to the cat like it was a child.  Or the child we had decided not to have.  Maybe it was guilt. Even though we had both decided not to have children, more and more often I felt I was depriving her of something.  Now that something was mutating into a grotesque imitation of motherhood with the cat as its object.

The cat comes half way across the yard then stops, looks at her, sits and licks its tail like it will not play this game.  My wife notices me in the doorway and says. “In your shed, eh?” I feel like the cat; I don’t comment.

“Better watch where you walk today,” I say. “I think I saw a snake in the grass by the fence.”  She doesn’t even look in that direction but bends to straighten a pot plant.  “Well, did you actually see one or did you just think you saw one?”

Suddenly I’m not sure.  I wish I hadn’t said anything. And I know there will be a supplementary question just to confirm my unreliability.  Sure enough, she adds quickly, “I mean, what colour was it? How long?”

“I don’t know,” I answer, “ I just got a glimpse.”  I sound stupid even to myself. She has already moved on though.  “Did you remember Roger and Jan are coming over for a drink tonight?”

“Yep,” I lie.  I have already stopped listening to her plans; it is my quiet revolt against my lack of involvement in them.  But I am glad that people are coming over, and not even worried that I am happy that it will give me a chance to get drunk.

Roger and Jan arrive at around six.  I worked with him ten years before up North but I don’t know her so well.  It doesn’t matter; it’s easy company and there is plenty of wine.  We sit in the back yard and their two kids watch a video inside.

About ten o’clock we are all drunk and Jan says, “How come you guys didn’t have kids?” Roger groans, “Shit, Jan, none of your business.”

My wife looks at me and for a fraction of a second I see panic in her eyes.  “We decided to be happy instead, didn’t we, Kid?” I laugh.  I put my hand on her knee.  “Oh yeah,” she says, “You know, travel, stay in expensive hotels, wipe our own bums.”

Roger sits hunched over in his seat stroking the cat. He snorts. “Sounds like a good plan to me.”  The conversation moves on and the kids come out and say they have nothing to do. They start to explore the barely lit edges of the lawn and garden.  My wife says, “Tell them to be careful, we saw a snake in the grass today, didn’t we, Hon.” I nod and Jan calls the kids back.

And that’s when it hits me that I love my wife.  Later, while she is saying goodbye to Roger and Jan, I have one more glass of wine and a cigarette.  I watch moths banging at the yellow light bulb.

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Filed under australia, drinking, friends, life, Love, Marriage, snakes