Strange birds

When I was about 21 I started a job at the NAB working in international operations, or IOV as it was called. I worked through the department learning all facets of international trade, documentation, currency trading and management, and so on. Joining me were a bunch of similar people, all of us pushed through the sausage machine with some falling by the wayside, and others in a continuous loop joining us. There was little to tell us apart. About 80% were male, pretty well everyone was in the 20-23 age bracket, in my recollection most of us were playful, competitive, spirited and keen to party. I know I was filled with the sense that the world was at my feet, and I acted accordingly. I enjoyed learning the ropes, and felt as if I was poised on the verge of a glittering career. I enjoyed the camaraderie too, the playful and occasionally silly interactions and, with so many males crammed together, the testosterone driven competition – in which I felt I had a natural advantage.

For the most part I enjoyed the extremes of banking life back in the mid-eighties, hard work and demanding deadlines followed – and occasionally interrupted by – hard living. One of the managers there held the record for drinking 15 pots in an hour lunchtime back when he was in a similar role to me. Three days out of five we would have a beer over lunch, and the regular Friday night drinks in the office would often spill over into something more when someone would place a wad of cash on the bar. Through the week it was not uncommon to have a drink or three after work (Tomasetti’s was our local), and a couple of us would occasionally be out for so long that we might get an hour of sleep before turning up at work bleary eyed for another day of work. You smiled, weary, a little worse for wear, but feeling like superman really, and as if you were in the middle of a great and luridly coloured adventure.

I remember too there was rivalry, and occasionally hostility, between the hard-bitten veterans of the department – the supervisors, all pretty well chain smoking drunks – and us young’uns. There was a distinct gap between us, between what we saw as rough-edged bogans with little life outside of work, and us, ambitious all and young. For some reason many of us had a private school background and wore our two button suits and silk ties as proof of our superior style – even if we got down and dirty ourselves too regularly. These days that old guard has just about died out, but back then there were plenty still stuck in the corners of different businesses just like the bank. It was no surprise that often they looked upon we precocious wannabe’s with disdain. You could earn their respect by knowing your stuff, or having the balls to occasionally challenge them, or if you made them laugh. If you didn’t you copped it bad – I remember one Friday night one of my colleagues was quietly set upon in the men’s toilet. I was ok generally, good at my job, a little cocky and smart mouthed probably, which gained their approval. All but one (Ian Wotherspoon?) who for some reason took a instant dislike to me – maybe it was my mouth. In any case he would take every opportunity to have a go at me, to which I would always respond in kind, enjoying it in a way. I saw him – in that cocky adolescent way (which I still was really, a colt) – as an embittered and ugly old man (though he was probably no more than 30). Most of us would look out for each other, and if trouble arose would stand together.

Then there were the women, of course. This was a time when there was no such thing as a personal computer, and each section had a typist, every one of whom was a woman – or girl really, with none of them any older than us. Naturally there was a lot of byplay and flirtation, and often on a Friday night, much more. I never got with a typist though I was friendly with plenty. Instead I got involved with some of the women I worked with directly, or in other areas altogether. There were regular, free spirited functions, and I remember once a mid year Christmas party at a rowing club on the banks of the Yarra where many of us had a nominated CPT – Christmas party target. Mine was a curly haired woman from currency trading with the largest breasts on the floor – we called her big tits Rowney, in that very sophisticated way that lads have. Though I was junior to her I later discovered, much to my surprise, that I was her CPT. Sadly we never got together – instead I found myself spending the weekend with another and gradually falling in love – but that’s another story.

I made many friends and acquaintances through that time, some of whom I still see occasionally and would consider second tier friends. There was one guy though with who I formed a very strong friendship, and for many years to come – Dave Mc. He was a bit different, tall, about my height, but lean, he played tennis every weekend, and occasionally basketball, and though he would binge occasionally like the rest of us he would more likely abstain because of his sport. He had a very Scottish way to him, though he was very Australian – he was famously tight with his money, and had something austere and spare in his personality. I wouldn’t say he had a strong personality, but it was fixed, and, as I came to observe, occasionally intimidating. While there was plenty light-hearted about him – I remember singing old Police songs (Roxanne) with him at our facing desks at work – he was also one of those personalities that measure, weigh, and ultimately judge. I measured up obviously, but to those who didn’t he never cared much if they knew it or not. He could be quite confronting and aggressive, not caring what people thought of him. We were different, but somehow we trusted each other and clicked.

The reason I take the time to describe him today is because one day he dropped out altogether, and yesterday we bumped into each other.

In the years after we started working together our careers went off in different directions, but we still maintained a friendship, going out for drinks or dinner, to the footy, or off skiing. I remember he had a very attractive girlfriend he’d been with for years (Debbie?). One day she broke up with him, much to his shock. I remember the two of us discussing it on a trip back from Mt Buller. I can picture it still, one of those bright winters days with the sky blue but outside the cold like chilled steel against your skin; and the road straight heading down from the hills and heading towards others in the distance where the road curled. He was driving. He spoke to me of it as he watched the road ahead. He had always expected to marry her, to have children with her and live that life. She probably knew it too, but he had never really said anything to her, and in his spare way had never bothered to tell her what he felt for her. He was never a man of strong emotions, and it would never have occurred to him to actually tell her what he felt. Except on this day, unusually, he opened to me. I listened and I realised why she had left him – a smart (she had a masters in physio or something), attractive, vibrant woman wanted more than a childhood sweetheart of limited ambition who never said anything. It might have been different had he told her something of what he felt and what he wished for, but he never did. Perhaps he never really knew. I didn’t say that, but I remember suggesting to him that next time he should be more expressive.

By now I was his best friend, and he was the equal of any of mine. In time he met an English backpacker who wanted to stay in Oz and they married – I was best man at the registry office. Our friendship continued, flourishing almost as Nat, his wife, was such a friendly, engaging character who adored me, and others. Then a frew years later they split. By this time I probably had as much to do with her as I did him, mainly because of her greater energy. Gradually Dave backed himself out of the picture until he wasn’t there at all. In the years after one or another of our extended group would bump into him, an announcement which was akin to a yeti sighting. The amazing thing was that he had cut ties with every one of us, childhood friends as well. Every time I met him he would be friendly, we would chat, I would suggest we should catch up, and never once did it happen. I always wondered if he was so embarassed/ashamed at having failed with Nat that he couldn’t face us. He always was different.

So again yesterday we met in a Hawthorn street not far from where I used to live and chatted for 10 minutes. He looked little different, except he seemed smaller than before. He was in a suit, his balding head shaved as it had been when I knew him then. His career had come along, I knew that, but almost by accident. I always remember how insistent he was that he didn’t want the pressure of leadership, whereas I always sought it. Yesterday he told he had just started at a new job for the same money as the last, but better because he no longer had anyone beneath him. We spoke about getting old and the variety of our ailments, and caught up on some of the news as people walked by us in the street. I sensed without asking that he had not married, and recalled how little interest he’d had in the things that motivated so many of us – namely women, and sex. I can recall how he would jokingly complain how Nat always wanted to have sex he had no inclination to.

So we parted, let’s catch up, sure. both of us knowing it wouldn’t happen. He’s a strange bird, but I guess I am to. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Seems a million miles away from those halcyon days at the NAB.


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