The other night Cheeseboy came over for a cup of coffee and stayed for a couple of bottles of red wine. He got here at about 8.30, and left some time after 12.
It was impromptu and fun, and also very familiar – how many times have we done that? We sat on the back deck in our shorts on a balmy summer’s evening. We had a bottle of Heathcote Shiraz, then one from France, while we disposed of a wheel of Camembert between us and the conversation ranged over a multitude of topics, from the best barbecues to buy, to music in the 2000’s; from our memories of Berlin, to growing up a kid today; from women, to work, to money. We recalled our first memories of each other all those years ago – he’s more conservative, though still very much the same person; I’m less of the freewheeling larrikin.
He left and I slept and in the morning woke up wondering if it was such a good idea to drink so freely. I soothed myself with a customary bedside coffee, and absolved myself from the usual course of heavy reading. Instead I read a little novel I had picked up a couple of weeks ago.
It was easy, fun reading, but then something odd occurred. It’s a book set in Sydney around the turn of the sixties. Having lived in Sydney, and in the middle of Australian culture, it was at once both recognisable and unfamiliar. I knew the place names, could close my eyes and conjure them up, and recall my own memories in those places. And while I knew that Australia of 50 years was a very different place to now – barely cosmopolitan and pretty conservative – I have no personal experience of that. I’ve seen Oz change a lot, but lived very differently to what is described in the book.
There was a scene when the protagonist, a young woman from a good north shore family, goes to a ‘reffo’s’ home for lunch, where she is served salami and wine and all sorts of exotic delights the average Aussie back then was very suspicious of. I read it and felt a warm tingle – isn’t it great what the post-war migrants brought to Australia? And, this at least I am familiar with, having shared in a hundred meals or more similar – crusty bread, spicy meats, salad, antipasto, a good red slopped into a convenient glass. It brought back memories to me.
All of a sudden I felt quite emotional. What was this? I was bewildered. What the fuck? I lay there and paused in my reading, shocked by what had come over me. I felt moved somehow. But by what? Why?
I read on, and in another 10 pages had the same thing occur again.
The day went on, I did the usual variety of things. From time to time I pondered what had happened. By now I was in my usual state of cool dispassion. I had reverted to that scientific view of the world that usually comes first in me. For a long space of time I couldn’t twig to what had happened. It seemed without cause or precedent. Then it dawned on me abruptly, though in the nature of these things it was the realisation that was abrupt, not the knowledge, which had been there all along.
Reading the book I was reminded first and foremost of my aunt, and some of my mum. Both lived in Sydney at around, or just after, the period of the novel. My aunt lived for many years in the eastern suburbs, never married, was a dedicated drinker, and doted greatly on us, her nephew and niece. She died coming up to ten years ago.
My mum went to Sydney after a stint in Brisbane (where she met the Gibb brothers – before they were the Bee Gees – among other things). She met my dad, they got married, and some time after that I was born. She, of course, passed away last year.
So how do I explain this? I have vivid memories of my own, on top of the stories I heard growing up from both my aunt and my mum. I think reading this book and those scenes I could see them somewhere in that milieu. I remembered, if not downright realised, that they had lived lives too. They had gone through the things I did myself, and as real for them as it was for me, but just a generation before.
You read a book and you are absorbed into the pages. Though it might be set in a time long before now it always seems real – when well written – and current. In the end we’re all just characters living through different times. It was a little different with this book because I could identify more strongly than I would normally – both because of place, and because of that family connection. The truth is though that these stories are locked in a time. The characters in this book, even the youngest, would be 50 years older now if alive – with most of life now behind them. The author of this book is dead. As are both my aunt and my mum. And that was it I think. It seemed so real on the one hand, so vivid and true; and on the other I felt that unconscious despair of knowing the people I had loved, who had lived a life like this perhaps, were gone. It was a time past, and the realisation desperately poignant.
For the rest of the day my Sydney memories came back. Cheeseboy and I had touched on this some the night before, and perhaps that had been the trigger. I had mentioned in passing an elegant girl I had known more than 20 years ago when I was living in Sydney. Even at the time, I remember, I had sensed that she was different from most. I admired her. She was tall and slim and attractive without being absolutely beautiful. She had the self-possession few women have at that age, was articulate, intelligent, well-read, well brought up, and she was studying to become a pilot on the side. I was so impressed. I was young, pretty enough in my own way though still growing, ambitious and callow. Nothing ever really happened between us, but as I told Cheese about her the other night I felt that faint wistfulness I do every time the rare occasions I recall her. She was ‘my type’, was someone if I could go back and do more about.
That’s normal life though, isn’t it? We all have things we wish we had done differently. We realise things now we were oblivious to then; or wish we could go back and use the wisdom we have gained since to correct the errors we made when it was missing. Cheeseboy in his turn offered up a similar story. All of us have those stories. So do you.
It’s the sort of thing that has been on my mind though lately, and so when I read my book the next morning there was an overlay I think of what I knew of my aunt and of my mum – with what I knew of my life. For a moment that connection was too much.