The times as they were

I don’t know what connects these, but in my mind, these two small things from yesterday appear linked.

I got a call in the morning from a friend who loves up near Byron Bay. He was in town and wanted to catch up for a beer later. We met at an earthy, excellent bar in Moorabbin called Grape and Grain, where we started on some boutique beers sitting on a couch in the corner.

Even before he shifted up there, he looked the part of an alternative, backwoods type. Tall and thin, with dark wavy hair that in the years since has grown longer and greyer, and a thick, greying beard that makes him look like a prophet from the Old Testament. He’s a good man, a good soul, sensitive and honest and passionate, even if a little absent-minded occasionally, a man too gentle in some ways, too idealistic and out of step with the striving, pragmatic world around us.

We talked about all the usual things, about politics and the deplorable state of world affairs, about his family and life up north and about what’s happening to me. Surprisingly, there was little about sport, but shared memories of times we would go out together on the prowl, surprised to find they were 20-25 years ago.

I recalled a night I nearly got in a fight with a guy at the Prince of Wales because he kept dancing into me. I was in a mood over a woman and happy to express myself verbally, at least. It was unlike me – I’ve always been pretty controlled – and there was another guy with us – what was his name? Stuey, that’s right – who convinced me otherwise. We recalled going to the Corner Hotel to watch Weddings, Parties, Anything and pinging coins at the stage, a bit of a ritual, and seeing Hunters and Collectors at the Palais.

One of our haunts back then was the Provincial Hotel in Brunswick street, where we made an unlikely pair trying to hook a date. Now and then, we’d get in conversation with a couple of girls, whereupon my mate would start talking about politics or the environment while I rolled my eyes at him: time and place, mate, and this aint it. That was him, though, committed in every fibre.

Once we dated a couple we met there – or somewhere – and ended up one night watching Shakespeare in the Park at the Botanical gardens – The Taming of the Shrew, I think. We spread a blanket and had a basket of wine and cheese and what not. I remember looking at the woman with my mate thinking, ‘he’s in’. But he wasn’t interested. He always wanted a relationship but wanted it to be right.

Eventually, he met someone, and they married and had beautiful twins, now grown up (they’re at uni in Melbourne now, and he was here to visit them). His wife turned out very different from him, and they divorced, and he remarried a lovely woman. He’s been up there about 18 years now and has found his groove.

So we were talking about the old days, happily recalling things we’d forgotten. He asked how I’d been going and offered the standard compliment about how well I’d done to survive. I told him how things had changed for me since and suggested that maybe I’d become a harder man since.

He responded straight off to that in a manner foreign to his usual way. “You always had something hard in you,” he said as if it was fact.

I was surprised at how emphatic he was. It made me wonder. Now, there are probably few people in the world who think better of me than my mate, so it wasn’t necessarily a negative judgment. It made me consider our relationship in a different light though, and particularly those memories. I was the organised, decisive one. I had a stronger personality. I was just a mate, though, and suddenly I’m wondering if he saw me as fierce. You just are, then you realise that others see you differently from how you see yourself.

It’s all perspective, and it’s all relative. Compared to him, I probably was hard, and maybe that informed his opinion, but it was not something I was conscious of being. Driving home later, it lingered in my mind as things like that do. But then he had followed up his comment by saying he actually thought I’d mellowed since.

Then last night I had the news on. One news report showed a medical expert talking about something. I glanced at her and thought she looked familiar. Then I saw her name and yep, I remembered her.

You forget a lot of things. Not altogether, maybe, but because they’re not essential or particularly vivid, they slip back into the part of the memory not easily accessed. ROM instead of RAM, for the geeks out there.

I had sex with this woman maybe 22 years ago. She was from Sydney visiting, and we used to have these long, fascinating conversations full of wordplay. That was something I was able to do then (and have little patience for now) that many women of a particular type would find alluring.

We had dinner and a bottle of wine at Pellegrini’s in the middle of winter before we crossed the road to where she was staying, the Windsor Hotel. She took her clothes off there and I remember her body – tall and slightly awkward, pale skin and full breasts and distinctly unshaven. And the other thing I remember was how disappointingly drab the room was for such a grand and famous hotel.

Here she was again, twenty-two years later, looking not much different and an expert so well esteemed that she was being quoted on TV.

Maybe that’s what my mate meant. I had dozens of episodes like this. Fleeting encounters, flirtatious at the edges but basically sexual in nature. It was mutual, but it was easy for me because I could compartmentalise so well. I reckon I had 10-12 years like this and I’d probably have this type of experience 6-8 times every year, maybe more, in between having more considered relationships.

What can I say? I enjoyed it. Mostly.

My friend was always and remains an idealist, through and through. We connected on that level because we had similar interests and beliefs. I was an idealist, too, as I am now, but I wasn’t as innocent as him, and where he wore it on his sleeve at all times, I would pack it away when it wasn’t relevant.

Either way, I was always direct. Truth be told, I enjoyed the grit of reality and that burgeoning sense of self in earthly desires. I had a mind, but I had a body too.


I was innocent once

Most nights these days seem full of dreams or chasing down odd memories half asleep, triggered by who knows what, but leading down some strange or long forgotten byways. The night before last, I found myself down one of those rabbit holes, recalling a particular time of my life – a briefish period when I resided in Sydney when I was about 19.

I don’t know where the memories came from, or why they came at all, but there they were, fresh to me, as if I could close my eyes and see, could feel the sun on my skin – for most of these memories seem to come from under bright sunshine.

Which was the first memory? I’m not sure. Perhaps it was the utterly random recollection of a friend of my uncles, Noel Gulliver his name was. In my mind, he seems a prototypical Australian, though not of the ocker variety. He was open and friendly, easy with everything he did, confident in himself. He was the type that people instinctively trust, the sort of man other men want to become mates with, and women are drawn to. He was a smart guy, had lived and worked in London (I think) at some stage, and had acquired a lovely English wife, Jane. She almost epitomised the English rose type, blonde and fair skinned and a delightful person. They had returned to Sydney to live – he was from Melbourne originally – with handsome twin boys (Tom and ?), with snowy blonde hair. It’s funny the things you remember – I’m pretty sure he worked with Schenker.

He was my uncle’s childhood friend, but after settling back in Sydney had become more friendly with my aunt (with whom I was staying). He also knew and respected my dad – my father was the type you would respect for his intelligence and more general gravitas. In fact, my father became a topic of conversation in those days, through me. I don’t recall it, but I probably still had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about him back then, and clearly, it was visible. There were barbecues and drinks and social interactions, and they were light-hearted and fun, but I can recall at least once Noel taking me aside to talk to me about my dad. I can’t remember what was said, but the gist was to let it go. He was a good man, and they were good people.

I remember other parties and the like, trailing in on the wake of my aunt, who was a social creature well-liked by many. There was one party I remember at a house in Balmain on a brilliant, blue-skied day. We’d got there on the ferry, and I remember among the exotic offerings was Chinese hundred-year-old eggs – I was at a naïve age when I thought at first that the strange-looking eggs were actually a hundred years old. There are moments of that party that are vivid to me, though they probably only amount to half a minute, when I think we were near to the last to leave, 5-6 hours later. I do recall a very slinky, sexy woman a few years older than me I had the hots for.

I remembered a night at a restaurant in Paddington, or perhaps Darlinghurst, and though I don’t recall spending new years in Sydney, think it was new year’s eve and a set menu. There was another of my aunt’s friends, Young Jack, as he was called, who I’d first met years before and become enamoured by. He was a smallish man, highly educated and very smart, but with a wicked, irreverent sense of humour – a bit bolshie. He lived in a Paddington terrace house with his wife, Doris, but spent much of his time at the local pub, The Grand National. That’s where I’d first met him back in the seventies, WSC on the TV in the corner. We became quite close until an imagined slight divided us.

There were others, of course, names and places, moments in the sun, stimulating conversations and laughter and a cosmopolitan world that was exhilarating to the curious young man I was.

I lay in bed. I tried to picture myself as I was then, tall and loose-limbed, innocent but keen. At that age, you look out upon the world and have a robust sense of self – all the things you’ll do, the adventures you’ll experience, even the women you’ll fuck – but generally, you’re incapable of seeing yourself as others do. I think now my inexperience may have been seen fondly, and if sometimes I overreached myself, it was tolerated. I don’t know if I was particularly confident – I think I wasn’t – but I was striving and curious. I had a good heart, and for all my innocence, was smart. I think I was probably viewed as a kid with promise.

Now, all these years later, and those memories and that experience compacted by many more years of experience and adventure and it’s a rich tale, but all of it contributed to a sense of loss – for these nocturnal reveries are not pleasant reflections. They go to highlight the pointlessness of much I feel now. That’s my challenge. I used to read all the existential authors, not long after the time I wrote of above. I absorbed Sartre and Camus and compared myself to the Steppenwolf, but I’ve never suffered the sense of existential futility as I do now. I struggle to understand the point of what I strive for if it is only to survive on a physical plane. I need something in myself, and my memories remind me that once I had a vivid life, and for many years, and for much of it I felt as if it was leading somewhere. But now I have arrived and found nothing, not even the old reliable sense of vivid experience.

I know this sounds bleak, but I record it because it needs to be recorded. This is the truth, now. But right at this moment, all I feel is ambivalence. I know it’s not fatal because, despite my grim words, I have hope it can change. I know, mathematically, that’s true. The question is not so much how it can change, but to what? What now will fill me, as I was filled before?

There’s a second part to this, but you’ll have to wait till tomorrow.

50 years ago today

It’s the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and there’s been a heap of news and stories, and great doco’s on leading into it. I’ve been right into it because it’s a fascinating and heroic story, no matter what anyone else tells you.

It reminds me how old I am too, for I can actually remember watching the first walk on the moon on TV.

I was just a small boy at that point, not long turned five. I can’t remember if I was in prep or grade one, but I recall sitting in class with a TV being wheeled in and the teacher fussing around before on the small black and white screen came the blurry shots of Neil Armstrong bouncing around on the surface of the moon.

I don’t remember what I thought of it then, but I’ve never forgotten it. I can still see it now in my mind. I was a cute kid then with all of life ahead of me, and now I’m a grizzled adult with a lot of stories to tell, and it seems both a lifetime away, but also fresh and memorable.

I wish my mum were still around to ask her about this time, but I think that often these days. I’m at the age now when I look back with curiosity and want to know what it was like back then on the ground when these things happened. What did it feel like? What did you think?

But then, I guess, they’re the questions I might get asked someday.

When I was just a boy

I was reading last night a book in which ex-AFL players described the first time they picked up a football. There were some colourful stories. Many had come from the bush and told how they’d played imaginary games among the cattle, or used a silo to practice their high marking. Some, pre-1950, had come from disadvantaged circumstances and described how they had scrabbled to play the game, many of them using a makeshift, handmade ball, rather than the real thing. More recently – from about my vintage on – the stories became more familiar to me. They spoke of the footballs coloured in club colours – I remember so well – and kicking in the street.

It got me remembering when I was just a kid and enraptured with the game. I had forgotten but now recalled, how on twilit evenings I would go out into the backyard with my footy and by myself would imagine whole games, inclusive of commentary.

We lived in a developing suburb. The back fence was wire and beyond it was paddock in which horses would occasionally graze. There were a lot of kids in the street – five to one side, about ten to the other (with more to come), and a few over the road. It made for competitive games of street cricket and occasionally untidy sessions kicking the footy too and fro on the road. There were three of us who were the eldest who set the agenda, with everyone else following. That was still to come though, I think, when I started kicking a ball around the backyard.

There was a copse of straggly gum trees in the backyard, and a pool against a side fence. These presented constraints on the playing field, but occasionally would represent imagined opposition. Taking the ball, I would run with it in the yard, baulking trees as if they were lunging opposition players, or steering the ball between them as if they were goal posts. Up and down I went, commentating aloud “…and H takes the ball and dodges around one player, then another, he kicks for goal…and it’s a goal. Great play, H!” To which I would add in some crowd noise.

I ran to exhaustion, the fantasy game consuming my imagination, kicking little chip kicks or handballing, blind-turning past invisible opponents and bouncing the ball until it got too dark to play.

It was a fond experience recalling that last night. I’ve seen kids do similar, totally enraptured by the fantasy, and it always warms the heart. I imagined what I would have thought had I seen myself play back then. It seemed a thing of blissful innocence. Briefly, I wondered what my parents must have made of it peering out the back window at my strange antics. I imagine there was both affection and humour in the sight.

I was about eight then, cute as a button. And that was me – not the person looking on, not the parent watching, that was me, in that small body, full of dreams and fantasies, imagining a world I was to come into one day, imagining myself – as small boys do – as the star of some fantastic scenario. It seems awfully sweet.

After I put the book down I wondered at the context of it. I can barely recall the first ever AFL game I attended, against Melbourne I think at the MCG. My memory is impressionistic, of colours and movement and unexpected noise. Later we became members and we – my father and me – would go to every home game at Windy Hill, and quite a few of the away games. I remember so much still of that, which went on for about a dozen years together, right from searching for a parking spot to the kids selling the footy record outside the ground and the radio afterwards on the way home the Captain and the Major mainly, with Jack Dyer in his irascible way commenting on the game and giving his ratings of the players.

Then there is the game itself. Most of my memories seem to be against Richmond for some reason, even when very small – I was sitting in the stand above the day of the infamous Windy Hill brawl. And I remember a game against North Melbourne when they were at their peak, and we stormed home with the stand thrumming with feet beating against the wooden floor and the chant going up “Ess-en-don…Ess-end-don…” and for a kid, it was absolutely intoxicating. I remember a headline in the paper the next day, or the following week’s record, “Essendon burst North’s bubble.” I remember Ken Roberts kicking the ball over his head for a goal from the point post and Alan Noonan – my favourite player – muscled and tanned, his skin gleaming with oil, a big moustache in a handsome face playing forward for Essendon.

That went on for years. Players came and went, the memories shifted and updated, and though it was full in me as a boy and the memories vivid I had little conception of the broader game until 1977, the year the grand final was first telecast live. Till then the finals had largely past me by. I might hear a game on a radio, and once the next door neighbours took me to a final (Richmond vs. North Melbourne) at VFL Park, but we were more likely to be riding our bikes somewhere.

That changed in 1977 when North Melbourne took on Collingwood and I watched the game with my best mate in our lounge room. Peter Woody was a Collingwood supporter, but I hated them even then. At ¾ time in that game, it looked like the Maggies would break the drought, but then the Kangaroos, inspired by Barassi, stormed back. It was only a late goal by Twiggy Dunne – I can see it now – that ultimately allowed Collingwood to draw the match. And so the next week Peter Woody and I sat where we had the week before and watched the replay, and the Kangaroos win it easily. From that moment on, I understood the game in a broader context – not just moments, but the meaning of it.

Family split

These days I dream every night and mostly in vivid detail, more than at any other stage of my life. I’ve given up thinking anything much of it. Occasionally I might dwell briefly on a dream, surprised more about the unexpected faces featuring in it than any deeper meaning. But then, as dreams go, they’re gone.

Last night though I dreamt of my step-sister and I woke up this morning feeling sad.

I was very close to my step-sister. When my mum married a second time we became an extended family. She was about 17 then and crushed on me for a while, which is probably not unusual in the circumstances. She wanted nothing more than to be part of a family again and she loved my mum, and as part of the package she gained a cool older brother.

As it turned out we hit it off naturally anyway. She was an attractive, intelligent, bubbly personality. Everyone loved her because she was so easy and natural with them. I don’t think she ever stopped crushing on me completely, but in return I grew very fond of her. (Even after she married I often felt as if she felt more in tune with me than with her husband). The truth of it is that in the extended family we were the two closest siblings, even though our relationship was purely by marriage. Certainly I was much closer to her in nature, in attitude, in personality, than I was with my own natural born sister. For many years we shared good times.

That all changed in the aftermath of mum’s death. The family split in two along bloodlines and her side of the family chose to challenge mum’s will. From principle as much as anything else, we resisted. The fall-out was that our relationship ended, even after a settlement had been reached.

I was sad at that but at the same time the dispute had soured me of families for a while. I accepted our break as a consequence of that.

In the years since we’ve had no direct contact. She made a late night call to me a few years ago that I didn’t notice till the day after. Last year I was surprised to find her following me on Facebook, and eventually I sent her a message hoping to repair the relationship. She never responded.

Catching up with my cousins lately I got some news of her. They’re still friends with her on Facebook and until recently, my Aunt told me, she had been sending birthday cards up. I knew she had split from her husband a few years back. They told me she had taken up with an older man in Queensland, where she lives. They told me she’d just returned from a visit to Melbourne.

I thought about her on the drive back from lunch. A lot of that time feels wrong and nothing will change that because a lot of that time was wrong. Looking back it was an ugly and terribly difficult time of my life. Not only had my mum just died and a conflict erupted over her will, but I was also broke and unemployed and almost certainly suffering from depression. I was a mess.

I understood the rupture between us at that time, but always felt as if I had more reason to be aggrieved than her. I would have accepted whatever was in mum’s will and all I was doing was defending her final wishes. It was my step-sister and her family who were challenging it.

We lost contact and she deleted me as a friend on Facebook. I understood that, but she also unfriended Donna, who had nothing to do with this. They were friendly and got on well, though Donna first and foremost was my friend. Once more, I can only presume it was that relationship that my step-sister could no longer abide. She became collateral damage and I never really understood why.

So now I’m dreaming about her and what I feel is affection and sorrow. We had a deep connection. I loved her, and she me. After losing my mother that was he next biggest loss I suffered, and they came as a double whammy. Clearly I’ve never got over that loss completely.

I’m tempted to let it go and accept it as one of the unfortunate mischances that occur in life. Sad, but there it is.

It’s an interesting case for me. I’ve never really been someone who’ll let fate dictate my life. That’s just not my nature. Common sense tells me to let it go, but I wonder how that will leave me feeling. No matter everything that’s happened to me I’ve never lost my sense of hope. Part of that is the belief that it’s better to do something than nothing. You have to try. It seems to me that if I let it slide then it’s an acceptance that there are no happy endings. As they say though, for all my grumpiness, I always vote life.

When I nearly caught the Easter bunny

Here’s a fun Easter tale.

Way back when I was in about grade one at school – say six years old – I was sitting in class on what was probably the Thursday before Easter. This was at Thornbury PS, which was a combination of old brick buildings and the old portable classrooms. Our classroom was in one of the wings of the brick building and I was sitting in about the middle of the room when I glanced across to the windows on the left hand side of the room and unexpectedly saw a pair of bunny ears cross from left to right.

In hindsight I know that someone – probably a teacher – had dressed up in a rabbit outfit, no doubt for a bit of festive fun with us. We were elevated far enough off the ground that all that was visible was the ears. All this I recognise in retrospect. At the time all I knew that this was a momentous moment which I heralded by shouting out “The Easter bunny!”

Without a second thought I left my desk and piled out of the room in search of the Easter bunny – followed by the rest of the class.

We found the bunny and pursued him across the playground calling after him at the top of our voice. He was more hare than bunny as he high-tailed away from us, surprised to have so many young, screaming children after him. We must have come as a shock to the teacher inside the suit. They’d probably planned a more civilised celebration, but my intervention had foiled that.

The bunny got away from us in the end and in all the years since I’ve pictured that teacher, the head of the bunny under his arm, wiping the sweat from his face as he explained with a laugh about how twenty six year olds nearly caught him up.

Old Easter

Easter didn’t feel much like Easter this year, maybe because I was already on hols. And maybe because it came later than usual.

It was pretty mellow in my household, with a bunch of hot cross buns but no chocky. I caught up for coffee, went to the farmer’s market, did some cooking, watched the footy. On Saturday night I went out for dinner at the Cheeses. On Sunday I went out for a deeply indulgent lunch. Monday I took it easy.

It used to be that I’d spend Easter with the extended family down at Yarck, where we had a property. More often than not I’d stay in the log cabin separate to the house. The days we’d spend reading in front of the pot-bellied stove or going on short trips to places like Mansfield. In the evening we’d eat well and crack a few bottles of red wine. Occasionally we’d sit down and play a board game or two, something I would always pull a face at but secretly enjoyed.

We did that for about 15 years, long enough that it became a ritual you couldn’t imagine ending. It did though. My step-father, Fred, who I loved, sold the property when he got ill with cancer in 2007. He died that year and a few years later, in 2012, so did my mum. Her death basically decimated the family group. There were about 14 of us, including kids, who would share Easter together. Three of that number are now dead, I don’t see my sister, and the rest (bar my sister’s kids) I lost in the fall-out over mum’s will.

It’s been long enough that I don’t feel the absence of that occasion, though if ever I reflect on it that occasion it seems a golden, happy time. It was a warm and affectionate occasion. It was a cosy sanctuary away from the city and, sadly, there are some I was really close to I’ve now lost forever, and not just the dead.