So, like a living cliche of unrequited love, I decide to run away to a distant outback town of miners, dust and gold. I say it is for work so that you won’t know it is because of you. Probably you guess anyway. You tell me I will love it there. You sound excited but I can only notice that it is the first time you mention me and love in the same sentence. A few nights before I leave – this is summer, the nights are close and there’s the ring of crickets in the air –I drive my car far into the flat, moonlit wheat fields. I watch road trains sweep past me and am desperate for something I cannot name. My heart is swimming for you; I want to run or scream or cry. Instead, I turn around and drive home. David Crosby is on the radio and he pours harmonies into my blood. I am full of the things I cannot touch: the night, the music and love. I sing along “I just want to hold you; I don’t want to hold you down.” but I know this is not true, that I really feel the opposite. Then I am gone and the summer grows between us and our one night together, a night when I drunkenly kissed your laughing face, everything so brilliant and you out of focus so clearly. Months later you write me a letter to say you have met someone. You write, “He reminds me of you” and you do it without irony or cruelty, just the heedlessness of early love. You are right about one thing though: I do love that mining town and I marry this beautiful teacher there. I hear that you marry a policeman with a sense of humour. Now the teacher and the cop are gone and the years have swept us together again on this strange promontory. You send me an email out of the blue and when I reply you write, “I’d forgotten your dry sense of humour.” Oh you and your funny men, I think. But I can’t be bitter, not really. Instead I write you a story that I know will make you laugh. Then I press ENTER. I wait.
Category Archives: memory
After John died, I started to take the books from the shelves of his study and pack them into boxes. I didn’t know him that well but it made me sad somehow to touch the things he’d left behind, to start the process of emptying the world of another life. It got me thinking about all the books I’d read in my own time and then I wondered what the point of all that reading was. The more I thought about all those novels and poems and biographies, the less I could remember about them. Only bits of plot, a character here and there and, every now and again, a line of particular beauty. That’s not much for all those milliions of words, I thought. So many thousands of dollars and hours invested in books and now the words mostly gone, the scenes long faded and only a faint impression of the pleasure of it all remaining. That’s a bit like life, I guess; so many minutes and hours and days of precious existence, the detail mostly forgotten and in the end only the sense of it all lingering. That’s all that’s left, before memory itself ceases,just the suggestion of a life, left behind like the beautiful pools of a vanishing tide.
In the middle of the morning I make my way alone to a place called Chinaman’s Pool, not far from where I am staying for the holiday. About a hundred years ago, this permanent pool was the mainstay of the town’s water supply and Aboriginal people made money by carrying it in heavy buckets to a tank in the main street. The small stretch of water got its name from the large shoulder yokes, like those of the Chinese, which straddled the dark backs of the carriers.
I did not grow up in this area of the river but a couple of kilometres further east. There is no doubt that the shady white gums, the paperbark trees and the green, peaceful water are beautiful. But I feel I am in a strange place; that this is not my river but the river of the town kids. My part of the river was wider and scattered with small islands. We named each part and knew a story about every bank and stream.
It strikes me that this was always the way for the first people of this land. The river stretches more than 500 kilometres inland and each tribe called just a small part of it home. To the Ingaada people, here near the mouth of the river, it was Kow Win Wardo but just 70 kilometres away the wilder circumcised and scarred tribes had their own names.
Now they are all gone and the river is become one river but empty of their ancient songs and laughter.
Later, I take my kids to my part of the river. It is still flowing but shallow. Soon it will return to sand until the next cyclonic rain arrives. They wrestle and run after each other in the clear stream. “Are you watching, Dad?” they yell. I am watching. I watch the trees stretched like a familiar garland along the grassy banks unchanged in all this time. And there’s the crossing where we boys stripped off one night and swam with strange exhilaration and a kind of moonlight madness. That’s the island which we lit up with matches and watched disappear in a tall conflagration like a Viking funeral. And over there, a girl called Susan and I kissed and tried to make love but both of us too young and clumsy. Later she sent me a letter, “I miss you.” About a kilometre downstream we boys camped most weekends and carved our names on pieces of driftwood and whispered naïve dreams from our sleeping bags. We heard our words float up into the night sky with embers from the dying fire.
As I watch, three boys appear on the banks. They are riding bikes and they look at us as if we have spoiled something. I wish they would come down and talk to us, tell me what they are doing. I know they will tell me they are bored and that there is nothing to do in this town and one day we are all going to leave for the city. As I did before them and muttering the same old small town mantra. One of them says something and points east. They disappear. So many have disappeared now.
Suddenly my daughter is beside me and looking up at me intently. Maybe she can see something in my face that wasn’t there before. Anyway, it’s as if she has guessed what I am thinking. “Is it still the same as when you were a kid, Dad?” she asks. I wonder then if she will come back to this place one day and remember her brother and me in the gentle autumn sun, how the river stones glistened in the light and small birds whistled in hiding. And even as I wonder this I am struck by the certainty of it. She will remember me. And the river will remember me too and the Ingaada people and Susan and some naked boys laughing and all the voices lost to the sky.
“Well,” I say but smiling now, “the water changes but the river is always the same.”
There was a time when my grandmother was a vivacious and romantic young schoolteacher who loved the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and quoted the poetry of Tennyson. She was funny and mischievous well into old age. One day, says my father, he was courting my mother on the front veranda of my grandmother’s house. His fiancée’s younger sister, Janet, hovered around them and did her purposeful best to ensure that the young couple were not left alone. Finally, in a fit of frustrated amour, my father reached out and smacked the teenager’s leg. She raced tearfully and angrily into the house. A pause ensured and my grandmother’s voice came from inside, “Bobby, did you just hit Janet?”
My father, still annoyed but also a little embarrassed answered curtly, “Yes, I did!”
There was another pause and then my grandmother’s voice, calmly and emphatically, returned with, “Good.”
When my mother was a teenager, my grandmother would take great delight in foraging through rubbish bins while they waited for the bus, much to the mortification of her daughter. Then she would giggle about it all the way home.
Once, when I was just a small boy, she found me laughing at something on the television, something suspiciously like sexual innuendo. “And what are you laughing about, young man?” asked my Grandmother. I explained in my confused, uncertain way. She looked at me sternly and then said with mock disdain, “I believe, sir, that you have a polluted mind!” But I heard her loudly guffaw seconds later.
By the time she was sixty, however, she had become completely and painfully crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Letters to my mother were written over many days as it became increasingly difficult to hold her pen and her mind began to wander. One day she wrote, “Now that the years have past, there is something that I need to tell you, something I should have told you many years ago. Now that you are a woman you will understand and there is no need for this secret to exist between us anymore.” My mother turned the page with a sense of dread and expectation. What she found was a new date and a new set of agonisingly etched lines that began, “I can’t remember what I was writing about before. The weather here has been delightful lately although not good for the garden…”
Despite my mother’s elaborate and extended entreaties, no further information was ever forthcoming and the secret, whatever it was, has long ago gone with my grandmother to the grave. I don’t know about the afterlife, what it looks like or where it is, but I suspect that there is someone there reciting poetry and chuckling.
I sure did all the dumb things for Colette. From this distance it seems such a beautiful name for first love but I didn’t love her then for posterity. Thirteen was I and sitting on a summers evening verandah seeing her image ranged across the Southern Cross and recalling every soft word, the faint English lilt of it, the pale fingers around a pencil. Colette. Whose fingers were never to touch mine or voice to say my name. Me; too desperate in my dumbness and struggling to find the secret of the older boys, their easy leering smiles and knowing winks. Me; too young for this secret but old enough to know that I did not know. Sometimes when Colette looked at me I felt she was willing me to grow up, to grow me into this knowledge that I could not learn. But how did she know it, I wondered, she who was no older than me. How many nights looking at that bruised sky and searching for the secret that would not come? Too many. So I learned to make people laugh instead and I grew it into a little web and a little shell too. And sometimes I would see her smile, from a distance, but definitely smiling at the jokes that grew for her at night from my helpless heart. Colette smiled. Did I grow slightly older at those moments or did she grow slightly younger? It doesn’t matter; you can’t make people laugh forever. She found an older boy and then her family left town. The last time I saw her she was 17. She gave me this quizzical look as if to say, “So you’ve finally grown up.” But I hadn’t grown up; I’d just grown taller. In my confusion I dug into my pocket for a joke and I poured it from my mouth into her open ears, so gently like a gift. I like to think she is out there somewhere in the big world and that she keeps it still.
In those days classrooms were mostly quiet. In the still, hot days of February we would sit with sweaty hands pushing our slippery pens across paper that stuck to our arms. Outside the cicadas kept up a ringing chorus, above us the ceiling fans swished impotently at the hot air. You could hear someone walk along the verandah occasionally; sometimes a squeaky desk would open and close, or someone whisper.
Then the bell went. We waited and Mr Bee lifted his head and said without expression, “Put your things away neatly and then you can go.” Then he went back to his marking but not before saying to me, “You can stay for a few minutes. Bring your work out to my table.”
I stood by his desk while the others left. Outside I could see Mr Mac’ dismissing a class from physical fitness. He was throwing a cricket ball from hand to hand while he talked. We all liked Mr Mac’ even though he was tough. His warm up was simple. “Everyone run around the goal post and last one back gets the bat.” When he trained the boys for hockey he taught us how to protect our privates. “You have to take care of the family jewels, boys,” he said. And he let us laugh that a teacher would even allude to our balls. It made us feel grown up even though we were only twelve.
But Mr Bee was different. He arrived in our town over Christmas when it swam in the heated air. The dusty buildings, the bush and ocean floated drunkenly, distorting abstractly under empty Australian skies. He was only young but he seemed dull like our fathers. His hair was stuck back with some kind of oil; his old-fashioned glasses black-rimmed and large. When he was on playground duty Mr Bee found a tree and stood under it sipping a mug of tea. We avoided him like kids do when they know that an adult is slightly afraid of them.
I watched Mr Bee’s hands move and noticed his watch. 10.35. If he let me out now I would still get fifteen minutes of recess. Up close, you could see the sweat on Mr Bee’s forehead glow. He kept touching his glasses against his nose even though they hadn’t moved. I could tell he hated our town, that he would be gone by next Christmas like so many teachers before him.
Finally he said, “You can go.” I walked to the sliding door and opened it. The noise of children wafted into the room with the smell of fruit and sandwiches. Mr Bee looked at me from his desk. “Do your fly up,” he said. Then he added, “And make sure you don’t tell anyone, alright?”
I made my way down the verandah past the staff room. Mr Mac’ came around the corner and bumped me against the wall. “Whoa!” he said. “You OK, feller?” Then he brushed past me and opened the staffroom door. For a moment I heard grown-ups talking and the clink of plates and cups. Mr Mac’ slammed the door quickly but I heard him say “Bloody kids!” and some ladies laugh.
“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.