“The cruellest lies are often told in silence.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
I didn’t recognise the voice on the car radio but I knew the name of Tom Maver immediately. I hadn’t seen him since I was twenty. I don’t remember what he was studying in those days; just that he was a university friend of my younger sister. Tom smoked a lot of dope, wrote poetry in the style of Leonard Cohen and was a smiling, lazy drunk who enjoyed intellectual pursuits.
Even though he was just eighteen I liked him pretty much straight away. We both wrote poetry, had both grown up in the country where we felt somehow on the periphery of our little towns. On Thursday nights he would come down to the Stoned Crow Winehouse with my sister, her flat-mate, Robynn and me to drink dry cider. We sat at the wooden tables bedecked in youth and conceit and cleverness. This lasted for about a year. Then my sister and her friend dropped out and went home and I lost touch with Tom. I sometimes wondered where he ended up and years later someone told me that he’d left the state and had become successful in politics.
Now here he was on the radio and sounding every bit the politician. He was evasive, edgy like a thief being interrogated. Everything he said was false but the journalists didn’t mind; it’s a game and everyone knows the rules. Tom was engaged in a verbal dance around the truth. I wondered how the idealistic boy I had known had grown into this man.
On a whim I sent him an email when I got back to my office. I was amazed when the phone rang less than an hour later. “I’ve often wondered where you were,” he said. He asked after my sister; I congratulated him on his success. There was a pause at his end and he said, “Well, you know, you are partly responsible for that.” I couldn’t think what he might be talking about. Had I said something profound in one of my cider-inspired moments? It was strange but I didn’t really want to be responsible for him being the man he’d become; I’d kind of liked him as he was. I could feel some tension in his voice when he said, “Do you remember that night at The Stoned Crow when the girls challenged us to write a poem there and then?”
I did remember. It was summer and there were candles on the table. A guy on stage was doing an acoustic set and the place was mostly empty. Tom and I scribbled away for about fifteen minutes and then presented two poems to my sister and Robynn. But I cheated. While I gave every appearance of catching words from the air, I only regurgitated a poem I had been working on for weeks and had easily memorised. When I read Tom’s verse I was humbled. Unlike mine, his poem was alive with startling images and an unrelenting truth. He read mine and smiled ambiguously across the table at me. I felt then that he knew of my deceit but I just winked back and the night disappeared and so did we all.
Now all these years later Tom was asking, “Do you remember the poem you wrote?” I told him I didn’t remember the words but that his own poem had impressed me. He laughed, almost incredulously. “Really?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why do you sound so surprised?”
“When I went back to my room at the university that night,” Tom explained, “I thought a lot about your poem, how you knocked it out so quickly, how it still managed to say so much. I got out all my own poems and I realised I was never going to be a poet, that I’d never be as good as you. I burned the lot and I haven’t written another one since.”
“There was no need to do that,” I replied weakly. Then I added, “You could have been great, Tom.”
“No,” said Tom. “That was all just vanity. I decided that night to straighten out and do something with my life.” He laughed. “And this is it!”
We talked a bit longer and the more we talked the less I liked him. He had grown into someone I didn’t know, a bullshit artist.
When I hung up, I thought about Tom’s poems, all of them forever gone to the world, and how he’d given up his truth for the semblance of truth. And how it all started with a drunken lie I told in silence.