The girl in the silk pyjamas

I remember, once upon a time, catching the overnight train from Melbourne to Sydney – the Spirit of Progress as I think it was called. I was pretty young then, and chose to travel by train for the pure romance of it. I was like that then, full of ideas and questions and romantic notions. A sleeper by train, I imagined, was something like the Orient Express – even if I was going to Sydney.

I remember the night so vividly, towards the tail end of winter I think, the train pulled up at Flinders Street platform one, and in my ear Sarah Brightman singing All I Ask of You, believe it or not.

I had a sleeper and once we were underway and after a quick exploration of the train I went back to it. I lay in my narrow berth with blind up so that I could observe the scenery passing by while I lay there reading. At about 10.30 I reckon I got restless. I pulled on a pair of tracky-dacks, a t-shirt, took my book and went along to the saloon car for a change of scene.

To my surprise it was almost empty. The only other person there was a woman of about my age, attractive in an intellectual way, with rich, tumbling red-brown hair like in the shampoo commercials. She was curled up in a corner reading a book, and what I remember was the very elegant cream silk pyjamas she wore.

I found my own seat and began to read, very aware of her. My book, I remember, was by Algernon Blackwood, and the story I was reading The Wendigo. Funny how you remember such things.

It seems so predictable in retrospect, and of course the mysterious girl and I were sitting across from each other in minutes, talking at first about our respective books, before moving on – very naturally – to more deep and meaningful stuff – what we wanted from life, what made us happy, what puzzled us, what moved us. It was very intimate, yet entirely without any self-consciousness, she in her silk pyjamas, and me in my track pants.

After about an hour and half we parted to go to our respective beds.

The train began to pull into the western suburbs of Sydney 7am the next day. I dressed, had some breakfast, packed my bag, and prepared to alight. The train rolled into Central station and there was my friend waiting to collect me.

It was only when I set foot on the platform that I understood the enormity of my error. It was like a gaping maw suddenly opened in me. What had I been thinking? I hadn’t even got the girls name. I didn’t know where she was or how I could find her. Suddenly I had to know. I couldn’t leave it like this.

I dropped my bags at my friends feet and raced up and down the platform searching for the mystery woman in the cream silk pyjamas. I was frantic, but I never found her.

It’s not really a story of what could have been, though it might appear so. I wish I had got her details. I remember in the days after I was full of remorse, as if I had let slip my great opportunity. I even tried to get her name from the passenger manifest.

In the time since what she has come to represent is a kind of ideal. I never knew her long enough for it to spoil. I think sometimes it was meant to be exactly what it was – a chance but perfect meeting, pure in its brevity. It opened me up and gave me an idea of what was possible. Maybe it spoiled me, but no regrets.


Old friends

I’m catching up with an old mate for drinks on Friday night. He’s a crazy bastard, a Dutchman with a great appetite for life, the sort of guy who’ll shout the whole bar drinks in a fit of European gusto. There’s a million stories about him out there, my favourite being the occasion he came home from a big night out only to find himself unable to get the front door open. Somehow he managed to climb in through a window, at which point he discovered it was the wrong house.

I used to catch up with him regularly when I lived in East St Kilda. The Local was our local, equidistant from where we lived. He’d call up at about 9pm on any random weeknight and ask if I fancied a brew. I don’t think I ever said no. The place has been done up since, but then it was a very eclectic bar popular with the tranny set. Had some very interesting conversations and encounters, all of them good natured. He was also there the night I was inadvertently picked up by a bloke (and his girlfriend) – but that’s another story.

So anyway he’s visiting from Singapore and wants to tear it up in the old fashioned way. He called me yesterday telling me it was starting today at lunchtime, before asking if was available Thursday for night at the AO, then the Stokehouse. No mate, I told him, Friday will do me. We’re meeting at the Arbory, and I’ll be the only non-Dutchie there.

There’s a bit of a re-union theme in general at the moment, and it’s welcome. I posted how my long-lost cousin contacted me at Christmas. Then yesterday I got in contact with an old work colleague.

I was on my way to work and passing a café saw someone inside I thought was someone I worked with 25 years ago. I didn’t have time to stop as the train was coming, but it got me thinking.

When I got into the office I did a google search on another person from that company I’d been friendly with. I worked at the place for near on 5 years – an eternity in my working history (speaking of: 2 years today at my current employer). I have very strong memories of that time, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been so long. In my mind’s eye they are all still youngish, yet of course they will have aged. It’s the company where I fell in love with the woman I thought I must marry, but never did. The woman I discovered, years later, had ended her own life. It’s a significant part of my past.

So anyway, up he pops. I clicked on the link and his LinkedIn profile opens, recognisably the same guy, now a senior manager at some agriculture company. That was his thing. He has a Masters in ag science, and back in the day spent half his time in the lab (where he met his wife to be, a lab assistant).

I sent him an email and soon enough we’re connected and exchanging messages as if not a day has passed. We have the same Christian name, and so we would address each other by the first letter of our surname – he was S, I was M. And so it was again yesterday.

We plan to catch up for a beer.

In my mind this rash of reunions somehow aligns with my current plans, though it’s purely coincidental. It’s taking me back to a time that pre-dates my dark ages, reclaiming it as a legitimate aspect of my past. I had a life before, and it was pretty normal. Moving past the difficult times and the long trail of consequences is necessary if I am to have a normal life again. And anyway, there’s nostalgic pleasure in the contact.


I had a minor accident on Friday that left me with a sore wrist. When I woke on Saturday it was worse again. After struggling to shower and dress one handed I went to the doc’s, who thought it might be broken and referred me to get an x-ray. I was dubious about that, but after wrenching it again this morning took myself off to the nearest bulk-billing imaging unit.

It’s a sunny day and it turns out the nearest is in Bridge Road. I caught a tram there sharing the ride with a young family with grandparents in tow off to the Australian Open, and a bunch of elderly citizens with straw hats and AO t-shirts off to the same destination. All were enthused by it, and a great day for it is too.

I got off in Bridge Road and glanced about as I made my way to the imaging place. Bridge Road used to be my back-yard just about for around 3 years. I’d traverse the length of it heading into the city on the tram. At other times I’d stop off to check out the different shops and cafes, or cutting through on the way to the MCG. I knew it so well and I was filled with a nostalgic sense of familiarity, despite so much having changed.

On the tram ride back I leaned against one of the cushioned buffers looking out the window at the passing parade. The sunshine was a blinding white, but the temperature very pleasant – it hits 38 and 39 degrees the next two days. As we passed Hoddle Street I saw a slender woman performing on the road with a hula hoop in front of the traffic stopped at the lights. What’s that about I wondered? I imagined there was some angle, but couldn’t work out how it might work. But then we trundled on and she was lost to sight.

We progressed towards the city, past the Fitzroy and Treasury gardens, stopping and starting, people getting on and off, all manner of them.

One of my fellow commuters was an old woman in yoga gear. She had a couple of big bags by her feet, and was eating from a bowl of what looked like porridge. A couple of Chinese tourists wandered onboard, and an elderly Italian couple straight out of my youth.

I love trams. And I love Melbourne. I love this burgeoning life.

Doing and being

These last few weeks have given me a good insight into the difference between doing and being.

What you do is generally a function of who you are – your being. That’s the natural way of things as it was – with exceptions – for me.

I say exceptions because few of us are one seamless, uncomplicated being. We each contain contradictions and flaws. We have issues and hang-ups, but what generally it means that who we are at a certain point is given expression through our actions.

That was true of me in large part, except that there was a significant swathe of my being I kept separate from the world. That part of me rarely expressed itself in my words or actions. Instead the persona that was true for the other 80% of me was given 100% coverage. I might think something, I might feel something, something might be true of me in that moment, but I kept it close to me. To the outside world there was no difference in my demeanour, and over the course of many years it became established and habitual.

I’m now trying to break that habit. I want to give true expression of that self, but it’s hard work because it is not natural.

My solution has been to act in that way. That means doing things which I think give expression to that side of me. It’s not real though, certainly not a true expression of that being because I am forcing something that might otherwise flow naturally. I am given some satisfaction by these acts, and in fact have felt moments of liberation. It is only embodied in those random actions though. I am confused and lost when I am not doing something because I have no achieved that openness of being.

I don’t know that I have many options if this is what I want. I think if I do these things often enough it will start to become real, and there is some merit in that if only because I am normalising something which till now I’ve kept secret. The problem with that is that there is a limit to what I can do. I can’t go about telling everyone my story, nor do I want to. But if not that, then what?

The idea is that by doing this that suppressed part of my being emerges. Ideally, with time, it blends into a whole – not 80% this and 20% that, but rather an honest 100% with degrees of perspective and natural bias one way or another as the situation dictates. It should flow, but that is some way off.

This is not about changing who I am, it’s about allowing myself to express authentically all the time. I’m not about to become less driven or competitive. There will be times when I come on strong. I recognise that it’s okay to be glib, to go the one liner, but not when something authentic or real is expected or needed – no more deflections. I wish to express the sensitive side of myself more often, be honest with people and open. I don’t really get hung-up on status or anything like that, but I felt shame at what happened with me and was proud enough to keep it hidden.

It might take a while this, but I think it will come in increments. At the end of it I should be a whole being, an everything I do will be an expression of that.

What I’m reading now

It’s not often I get to say this, but I’ve read some pretty decent books in recent times. These days I read as much non-fiction as fiction, but with Christmas holidays and the beach fiction became the more natural option.

I’ve just finished John Le Carre’s latest, A Legacy of Spies. It’s another excellent book, and it’s my personal opinion he’s one of the best novelists writing in the English language, regardless of genre. Once more this is a vivid, expertly crafted piece of prose, featuring characters we’ve become familiar with over many years now. My only reservation is that it had a relatively lame ending – rather than reaching a pitch it petered out a little too simply.

Before that I read a book called The Force, by Don Winslow. This is a very gritty, seemingly authentic crime novel set in NYC. It’s told in the first person by a corrupt cop forced into betraying his colleagues. He’s a strong character with a distinctive voice, and this another expertly written novel. Of its type it’s one of the best.

I’m currently reading Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. I’m only halfway through but it’s an interesting read, and very different from the preceding reads. I also read a book by Stanislaw Lem, and another, Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekback that was very good.

In terms of non-fiction I’ve got a bunch of books stacked up to read – The Elegant Universe, by Brian Green, and Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark – a highly rated book about the origins of WW1. I feel like I’ve read a lot about that lately, which is why I’ve hesitated to read it yet.

One of the very good books I’ve read in the last eighteen months is Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer (I’ve also read the sequel, which is eerie, but not as good). The reason I bring this up is that it’s been made into a film starring Natalie Portman, coming out in a month or so. If it’s as good as the book it will be well worth watching.


I think one of the things I crave most is having someone close to me I can talk with about my writing – and not just talk in a general sense. I want to speak about what I’m writing and what I’m trying to write; about what’s in my mind, what my goal is. I want to investigate it with them, to get another perspective and to hear the questions that otherwise I wouldn’t think of. I want to share, but I also want the insight that comes from another set of eyes, a different set of experiences and, ideally, another gender.

I feel this most keenly right now as I wrestle with chapter one. The conversations I might have with another are instead entirely internal, and less satisfactory for being so. It’s a closed circuit. I expect I’ll get there in the end, but it’s harder work than it need be.

I would love to share it too. You feel as if you are embarking on a great journey, and how nice is it to have someone wave you bon voyage, and to whom you can exchange missives and postcards along the way.

I know all this now because I am much more sensitive to my needs. It’s like I’ve cracked open a door that has been welded shut: through it come walking the most unexpected revelations. It feels uncomfortable. I am vulnerable like I can’t remember when. There’s the illusion of fragility too, but it is but an illusion. Discomfitting as it is I welcome it. I will adjust and acclimatise and by the end of it – I hope – I will be the enlightened, open soul I hope to be, and at peace with it. I am, I wonder, woke – or at least, waking.

Dark times

Saw a really great movie last night. Won tickets to a preview screening of Darkest Hour in Hawthorn. Met up with Donna, predictably late, and sat down in the plush cinema to watch a movie much lauded for Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill.

Like the rest, I can’t fault Oldman’s performance, which is as enthralling and convincing as the movie is as a whole. Ben Mendelsohn is also excellent playing King George. Every time I see Mendelsohn he looks like he’s coming off a big night, but in this he’s regal playing a upright and slightly diffident king, complete with proper posh accent and slight stutter.

This movie plays like a thriller. There’s no secret how things turn out, but as we discover it was a close run thing. It’s a dire moment of history. The Allied forces have been utterly devastated by the blitzkrieg and it looks almost certain that 300,000 English troops – their whole army – will be lost. Without them England is virtually defenceless if not for the channel separating them from the mainland. In the face of this the clamour to negotiate for peace becomes more insistent, to the point almost of overwhelming the stalwart Churchill, who is otherwise determine to defy Hitler, and everything he stands for. The pressure is immense, and on Churchill’s response hinges history.

It appears from this distance that if not for a fortuitous sequence of circumstances then Hitler may well have conquered Europe whole, with no-one left to stand against him. Had Halifax been installed as PM instead of Hitler then certainly England would have surrendered in all but name. Had Churchill not defied the will of his war cabinet then the result would have been the same. Even so, if the so-called miracle of Dunkirk not eventuated then England would have been left a toothless, and largely defenceless entity.

There are few better candidates for history’s man of the moment than Winston Churchill. It’s certain that had he not come to power then world history would be very different today.

All of this plays out in your mind as you watch the events unfold in virtual real time, the clock ticking, machinations back and forwards, soul searching and hard choices. It is absolutely riveting, particularly for a history buff like me. The tone is not triumphant, but it still manages to be rousing. I watched at times feeling incredibly moved, a lump in my throat and my eyes moist.

The question I had in my mind, and which Donna echoed afterwards, was what would I have chosen in the same circumstances – sue for peace hoping to save the lives of all those men; or defy the Nazi’s and risk not just the lives of those me, but the very existence of England? This is the dilemma they wrestled with in those dark days, even Churchill at his lowest ebb. We know how it worked out, but they did not have the benefit of history to inform them.

I think I’d have stood by Churchill, if for no other reason that I’m by nature stubborn and defiant and hate giving way. The broader point, made by Churchill, is that it had been the appeasement of Hitler that had led to this state of affairs. Hitler was not a man to be trusted, he would always want more, and now was the time to stand up to him. A so-called peace would cripple England, and would not be the end of it. Now was the time to stand-up to the bully.

The rest is history – literally – as they say. I recommend this movie unreservedly. Donna reckons it’s one of the best movies she’s ever seen. For me, I can of few that stirred me so much – though it highlights the utter deficit in leadership we suffer from today. Oh, but for someone as courageous and tue as Churchill today!