Category Archives: friends

Want

When I was still just a boy, I learned that to want is a weakness and to want too much is to give power to others.  Now I know that this is the history of the world but back then it was just another hot Saturday afternoon as I pushed my bike across the bed of a sandy creek and then rode up the dirt road towards Marinko’s house.  I passed the field where Marinko told us he had killed the kittens.  He had been about to dash their heads against a wall, as he’d done previously, when he decided instead to put the sightless, newborn cats in a hessian bag. Then he left the bag in the  middle of an empty tomato field to bake in the summer sun.  Each hour he would come back and make bets on which kitten would survive the longest. He was cruel, that boy, the cruellest boy in our town.

And, one day, in the fruit-packing shed at Marinko’s, I came to want the German greatcoat. I had seen it many times before, its black leather covered in stains, the tears where white undercloth showed through. It hung in a corner of the corrugated iron shed with the smell of rotting fruit and fertiliser.  On this particular day, Marinko pointed it out to me. “My Dad got it off a German during the war. It was an officer’s jacket”

“How did he get it?” I asked.

“He was a partisan in Yugoslavia,” Marinko said and then, seeing I was interested, he called to his father, “Hey, Dad, tell us where you got the jacket.”  Mr Vujkovic didn’t look up from the bunch of bananas he was de-handing with a knife.  He said something I didn’t understand and Marinko shrugged.  “He never tells you anything.  It’s true though; he was a partisan.”

Marinko’s father showed us only the top of his greying hair, head down, washing the hands of bananas and laying them in neat rows on the bench in front of him.  His white singlet was covered with the stains of banana plants, his black shorts smudged with mud. He never spoke to us and only pointed towards the house when we found him in the fields and asked about Marinko.

“Can I have a closer look?” I asked.  Marinko climbed onto the fruit-sorting table and unhooked the jacket with two hands.  We were only thirteen and he groaned with the weight. “It’s heavy; real leather.” Marinko handed the jacket to me and I held it clumsily, unable even to hold it upright in front of me.  I longed to put it on even knowing that it would not fit.  Marinko seemed to know what I was thinking.  “It’s too big for you,” he said as he took it back and he wasn’t able to resist smirking at me.  I hated him then, not because he was right, but because I felt something shift between us that made him powerful and me weak. 

Then summer came and the cicadas shrill ringing in the trees added a familiar accompaniment to the trembling landscape of greens and browns. I rode my bike past the shady rows of bananas on the Vukjovic plantation which sat on the edge of the dry river.  It was early afternoon and the fallow fields seemed to sway in the heat. I leaned my bike up against the wall of the fruit-packing shed and squinted into the darkness.  The Vukjovic home, a small rectangle of fibro and tin, adjoined the shed with a single door and I heard this open.

Mr Vukjovic came out, paused for a moment and stared at me.  “Is Marinko home?” I asked.  He said nothing and moved toward bunches of bananas lying on their backs on a rusting trailer. I stepped into the shade and gradually my eyes adjusted to the light.  I asked him again, “Is Marinko here?”  Mr Vukjovic lifted a bunch of bananas onto his shoulders and then onto the bench.  He picked up a short knife stained black with banana juice.  “No,” he said. His voice was thick and guttural. We had had this conversation before and it never went any further.  Each time I would get on my bike and ride away.  But now my eyes briefly sought out the German greatcoat.  Mirenko’s father noticed this and he put down the knife and handed the jacket to me.

I stood there holding it and feeling him watch me.  “Germans,” he said.  “We come out of the hills like this.” He made the sound of a machine gun and waved the imaginary weapon backwards and forwards. Then he laughed and I smiled back still holding the coat uncertainly.  “Did you kill this German,” I asked.

Mr Vukjovic dropped his arms and his smile disappeared.  “He was dead already,” he said and then he added, “But I made sure anyway,” He lifted his head and dashed an upraised thumb across the white stubble of his neck. Then he looked down at me with his arms by his side.

I heard him say something under his breath.  When I didn’t reply he appeared to grow angry. “Do you want the jacket, boy?” I nodded. “Then you take the jacket,” he said abruptly.  He motioned me away with his arm. 

“Can I really?” I asked.

“You take it.  I won’t shoot you.” But he didn’t smile when he said this.

“Thanks,” I said quietly, feeling confused like I sometimes did when my Grandfather made a joke that was like some kind of trap.

I walked towards my bike, the coat dragging on the ground.  Marinko’s father followed me and stood by me as I tried hopelessly to fold the greatcoat, tried to place it on my handlebars knowing that it would not stay there. It fell and I picked it up, refolding it into a clumsy parcel.  Somehow I managed to gain my seat and went a few metres before falling sidewards against the packing shed wall and then the hard earth.

Marinko’s father stood beside me and said nothing as I rubbed a scratch on my leg made by the bike pedal. “You put the coat on,” he said and pulled me to my feet with one arm. I said nothing now as he jerked the army jacket roughly over my arms and shoulders like a cape. The weight made me hunch forward.  Mr Vukjovic picked up my bike, put an arm around my waist and lifted me onto the seat.  “Go,” he said.  “Go.”  But part of the jacket had fallen over the back wheel making the pedals harder to push.  I felt the man’s hand on my shoulder and knew that this was all that kept me balanced.  Then the front wheel twisted in the sand and I fell.  Again Mirenko’s father pulled me to my feet, placed me on the seat and pushed me forward.

When I fell once more, he turned me over roughly on the ground and pulled the greatcoat from my back.  Then he walked into the shed and I could hear him dropping the hands of bananas into the water of the cleaning trough.  I was crying silently, pushing my bike to the harder edge of the dirt track that led away from the house. I felt the sun’s heat on my neck; saw that I was covered in dust and that my tears had made strange patterns on my arms where I’d wiped my eyes.

A few weeks later I waited for an excuse, some small provocation, and then, without warning, I punched Marinko Vukjovic as hard as I could in the face.  Blood spurted from his nose and water sprang to his eyes. He was in pain but he was also hurt; he thought I was his friend.  “Why?” was all he said and then with sudden anger, he screamed at me “Why, you little bastard?” Other boys pulled us apart but I had finished. I walked away, my hands in my pockets to stop them from shaking. I never hit any one again in my life and I learned not to want things.

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Filed under australia, friends, life, youth

The invisible lie

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“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.

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Filed under art, friends, life, memory, Men, poetry, Writers, writing, youth

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

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

How boys say goodbye

lovelives.jpgThis thing happened a long time ago; it was just a few minutes in thousands and thousands of minutes and most of them forgotten.  But I will tell you this thing anyway. 

One day, in the middle of another Saturday morning I began whittling away at a piece of soft wood that some bygone flood of the river had deposited in the branches of a white gum tree.  We called it smoke wood because we cut twigs of it into cigarettes, sucking through its porous fibre, choking back coughs and turning gray.   

We were fifteen years old. Camping on the banks of our river was part of our small-town tradition.  We carried knives, made bows, built fires and stole fruit from the plantations. At night we lay in our sleeping bags telling naïve stories of our future and giving timid intimations of love’s first rustlings. 

This day Bandy and I were camping out over night.   

The smoke wood that I was whittling was bent in the middle so I cut it in half and began creating equally spaced rings around its girth.  Then, between each ring I carved a series of patterns: a Maltese Cross, checks, stripes, circles and stars.  Then I shaved one end into a point like an arrowhead.   

I didn’t even notice Ricky walk into the campsite.  Two years younger than us, he’d grown up close to Bandy and me but high school saw us drift apart.  He stayed on the edges of our lives though, like an unwanted memory of the children we had been. 

Ricky threw some leaves on the fire, which sent pale smoke slowly into the breathless summer air.  Bandy was in the branches of a tree carving FUCK into its thick trunk for posterity. 

“Whatcha doing?” asked Ricky. 

“Nothing. Just mucking around with my knife,” I answered.

“That the same one you got for Christmas last year?”  I was surprised that he remembered.  It was a reminder that we had once been close. We held each other’s secrets.

“Yeah,” I said. I looked at him and noticed he was growing up.  His voice had broken too.He pointed to the discarded, bent smoke wood.  “You don’t still smoke that shit, do ya?”

“Nah,” I said, lying.

“I can get real smokes from my sister’s boyfriend these days,” Ricky went on.  “Lets me have as many as I like.” I felt a strange rush of resentment flood through my body.  “Who gives a fuck?” I answered sticking the carved wood into the ground next to me.

“Not you, that’s for sure.”  His remark struck home and it was so quick and pointed that it took me by surprise.  The last sex I’d had was with him; the last he’d had was with some girl at a drunken party when he was still just twelve.

We sat in silence now, the smoke hovering around us.  “What’s that?” Ricky asked, looking at my carving. I stared into the fire. 

“Nothing.  Just some shit I was doing.”

He was silent again and I could feel him looking at the whittling that I had spent over an hour carefully producing.  “It’s pretty good,” he said.

“It’s nothing.” I said.

“You gonna keep it?”

No. I told you, it’s nothing.”

“Then I’ll chuck it in the fire,” he said and out of the corner of my eye I saw his hand dart towards the carving.  Instinctively, I did the same and pulled it sharply, desperately from his grip.  He smirked.  “So you do like it, eh?  So you are proud of it then.”

I felt my face redden. I looked at him but words wouldn’t come.

Ricky stood up.  “See ya, Bandy,” he called up into the tree.  Bandy grunted.

I watched Ricky climb up the bank of tall grass and disappear.  I started whittling again but somehow shame welled up in my throat like vomit. 

As I said, this was all years ago.  Yesterday I bumped into Ricky for the first time since we were boys. We shook hands, the same hands that had once clutched a piece of carved wood in a smoky haze of mutual defiance and anger at the receding face of love. 

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Filed under boys, friends, life, loss, memory, sex, youth

Down the gunbarrel

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In two days time I leave Perth on my motorbike to attempt again the trip to Uluru , that great red rock at the heart of Australia.  You cannot know how beautiful that sight is until you see it rise out of the red interior, grand and indifferent like death; bright and sacred like life.  To get there my friend and I will travel northeast for 900 kilometres to the small town that is the beginning of the Gunbarrel Highway. We will follow this until it becomes the Great Central Road. We will follow those ragged dusty serpents 1400 kilometres East across the Gibson Desert, through the Ngaanyatjarra lands past Warakurna and into the Northern Territory. 

A year ago I lay in the dust of an empty road, 800 kilometres from home and just 100 from the Gunbarrel Highway which we’d dreamed together for three years and smelt and lived and tasted.  They flew me home with my gashes and fractures; my friend turned around and rode back alone along the way we’d come together. Without bitterness or reproach.  Like a friend. 

As I nursed my injuries, I looked for things to do.  I became bored and I started this blog.  Now I only have some scars to remind me of that time.  In two days I will leave this virtual world for one so ancient you cannot imagine it even if you could build time like a mountain with your hands.  Maybe some black men can imagine this oldness; maybe their grandfathers and grandmothers could remember my country as a child.   

And me, well, in a few days I’ll  “see the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended/And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.” (A.B. Paterson) Will I return to this blog?  I don’t know.  It seems somehow fitting to stop here at the point of starting again.  Just as I started at the place I stopped. 

Will we succeed this time? I don’t know but I will tell you this: in that tiny moment before the accident, as I flew unknowing and singing at 90 kph through the silent land, I was that rarest of things.  I was happy.

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Filed under australia, friends, Gunbarrel, life, motorbikes, self

A broken shell

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A couple of years ago, a friend and I spent five days camping on these isolated cliffs about a thousand kilometres from where we live. We spent the time fishing and swimming and sitting in this big cave on the beach.  Each sunset we’d drink beers in our cave.  Then I’d cook tea on the gas stove, we’d eat and finish the day with wine.  One night a small kangaroo came into the campsite and we fed it lettuce from our hands.

 

Steve and I had been friends for more than 20 years.  We had worked together, lived together for two years and travelled to Europe and Asia.  Now he was getting scared of things, talked too much about doctors and specialists, anxiety attacks.  When we fished he would no longer come to the cliffs with me but prefer the beach even when he knew the chances of catching something were less. 

When I climbed down the short rocky cliff face into the cave, he went down a sandy path and then walked around from the beach.  It was sad to watch because he is not old or unfit.  He’s just become scared of stuff, unnameable, ill defined but real like a toothache.  I made a promise to myself never to get scared like that but I also knew that sometimes you don’t have a choice.  Sometimes life breaks you and there is nothing you can do about it.

 

On the last day we went out to the end of a rocky point to watch the surfers.  I climbed to the top of the tall scythe of rocky cliff that pointed out to sea. On the way I frightened some kangaroos escaping the mid-morning heat under some low trees.  Then we packed up and headed south again.  We’d promised ourselves to stop at beach we’d spotted on the way in a few days before, just on the off chance that the fishing might be good.  But the water was shallow and the bottom mainly rocks and reef.

 

The tide was coming in and waves were pushing up under the low cliffs we were standing on.  Broken coral, rocks and shells were being bustled up and back by the surging water.  I walked a few metres then stopped when something dark caught my eyes in the sand below.  A cowrie shell, still intact was sitting shimmering in a momentary lull in the tide’s relentless attack on the cliff. 

I found a point midway down the cliff where I could get enough footing to launch myself safely into the water below.  But the shell had disappeared already.  Under the cliff there was a narrow strip of sand where all the detritus of the reef was being tumbled together, broken and scratched.  I searched for the shell for about five minutes and had nearly given up when I found it resting high and dry under a low ledge.

 

I held it in my hand.  It was old and its colours had run together like wet paint, blacks and greys and white.  A few dots of the original pattern still clung to the bottom edges.  One side had been scratched of any pattern at all.  That shell was a survivor though.  The air was hot and the sea raced up around my legs filling my shoes with sand.  Except for swimming, I had not bathed for 5 days.  I was brown, my hair stiff with salt.  There was salt too on my lips and in my mouth.  I held the shell.  I looked for Steve but the cliff top was empty.  I stared down at the shell then out to sea again.

 

The shape of the cowrie in my hand started to become the only sensation.  Then gradually I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be; this moment, this piece of the earth, this age, this friend, this me. And the shell was sent there to remind me that I was alive.  And there was nothing to be scared of.  I felt happy.

 

When I climbed back up my friend handed me a pile of shells he had found further along the beach.  I noticed his hand shake slightly. 

“Did you find anything down there?” he asked.

 

I slipped the shell in my pocket.  There are some things men don’t talk to each other about.  “Nah, nothing, mate.  Just broken stuff.”

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Filed under australia, fear, friends, life, loss, Men