Hospital reading

When I discovered that I was going go be sent directly to the hospital the other day without the chance to get home first I asked Cheeseboy to pack a bag for me and bring it to the hospital. Grab a book from the side table I asked, hoping he’d grab the Clive James book of essays I’d just had delivered. He remembered everything else, but forgot that.

Fortunately, I’d downloaded a book to my iPad before journeying to the hospital in August, prior to my surgery. I never read it then, but it was waiting for me this time – and it’s a perfect book for an extended hospital stay (I’m still here).

One of the people who introduced me to reading was my spinster aunt. My grandfather, who had a great library, played a part, as did my mother to some extent – and also my own precocious curiosity.

Every birthday and Christmas I could expect at least one book, exquisitely wrapped, to be presented to me. She has her own bookshelves also filled with quality classics and contemporary fiction, as well as history. She was a learned reader and fierce intellect. I read many books from her shelves.

I remember one of the books I plucked from them was James Clavell’s rollicking Taipan. This must have been the late seventies/early eighties. I loved that book. It was a great read and a wonderful insight into the history and culture of the times – British colonial expansion into China in the 1850s, and the establishment of Hong Kong.

I was big into books then, as I have been ever since. At some point I was a member of the Book of the Month club – quite a thing, then – and ordered in hardbacks of other Clavell books. He was a big writer for a while. I loved King Rat, and then I got Shogun.

That’s the book I’m reading again now. I loved it then – for the grand adventure and the fantastic writing about traditional Japanese culture, which I was much impressed with. I don’t think I’ve read it since the mid-eighties, though I watched a surprisingly good mini-series staring Richard Chamberlain back in the day.

What I’m saying is that reading it again now brings back many memories – and that I’m finding it as enthralling an experience as I did the first time around. I’m ripping through it, which is just what I need.

I’m only about a third through, but it’s a long book. I find I have to ration myself reading, as you do sometimes with the best books. God knows why I must now, I’ve got nothing better to do – habit, probably. A book like this at a time like now is a godsend. Time in hospital is bleak and sometimes painful and often tedious. Anything that gets you through it is welcome.

Tomorrow I’ll be home, to the hot bath I crave and my own bed. The things you cherish when you don’t have them. And back to Rigby.

How we rolled

Walking back from the shops the other day, I spotted a couple of young teenage boy with a homemade Billy cart trying to get going on what is a pretty level road. It brought back memories.

I reckon it’s ages since I last saw a billy cart, but when I was a kid, they were all the rage. I remember mine very well, as it was pretty well a deluxe version – it even had a brake (more usually, you would break with the heels of your shoes).

I can’t remember, but judging by the construction, there must have been some adult involvement in constructing the thing. Outside the breaks, it was pretty typical of most billy-carts – old pram wheels, ideally smaller ones at the front, bolted onto a box in which you sat and connected to the front wheels via a length of timber sufficient to reach with knees half bent. There was a loop of cord connected to either end of the front axle to allow for steering, and, in my case, there was a hand lever brake on the right that, when applied, would fix a block of wood to the rear wheel.

Most of us had billy-carts then and would spend time fixing them up and racing them. There was a lot of kids in our street and so a fair bit of competition, but as I was bigger than most and had the primo billy-cart, I would win most. We lived in a culture de sac that had a good slope on it so that you could get a lot of speed up and momentum after the initial push-off. A sweeping turn to the right – maybe a 70-degree curve – would bring some riders to grief if they were going too quick. It made it really interesting, though.

That was back in the day when various prangs and accidents were part and parcel of growing up. I remember once riding a scooter down the footpath of the same street. I got to the end of the street to find a hole where the pavement should be and a block of bricks preventing any exit to the right. I crashed, and later on would proudly count about 30 odd different scrapes, bruises and cuts on me.

Another time, I remember, we were building a tree hut in the neighbour’s pine tree. Somehow we’d got an old door up the tree, which we planned to use as the floor. It hadn’t yet been fixed in place when I climbed on top of it, planning to put a few nails through it. Not to be. Before I could do anything, the door began to slide out from under me, taking me with it. We came crashing to the ground below with me basically surfing the door down. It was a crazy, surreal feeling, like a disaster unfolding in slow-motion, but pretty heady, too. I’m not sure if I somehow found myself under the door once we hit the ground. I can remember the ringing in my ears and a sore head – I was probably concussed – but I shook it off, and we went back to it. I was about 10 then.

Then there was another occasion, the same street, we were playing kick to kick with the footy. WE would do that plenty in the winter months. I was probably 10-12. On the corner was a big water tank behind a high, barbed wire fence. Someone kicked the ball into the enclosure, and I climbed the fence to retrieve it.

It was not unusual for mischievous boys like us to go where we weren’t meant to (there was the time we nearly burnt down my old school – another story), but this time it didn’t work out so well. Getting over the top of the barbed wire, I managed to snag my wrist on it. The skin tore as I freed myself. I retrieved the ball, kicked it back, then climbed back over the fence.

There was a fair bit of blood, but I was happy to continue until the father of one of my mates suggested I should get my parents to look at my injury. I don’t think they did much. Put a band-aid on it, probably. I was out kicking the footy anyway within 10 minutes.

I’ve still got the scar – about 15 mm long and jagged. I’m pretty certain I should have got stitches, but that was how we rolled then.

The things we keep

From what I can tell, there are many through the pandemic and the various states of lockdown who have taken the time to re-organise and reset their home. It’s a convenient occasion to do so, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a psychological reaction to the times. Locked in, uncertainty all about, and peril at the door, it seems natural that people would attempt to assert some order on their life, however, they can. There aren’t a lot of options, but the decision to spring clean is one of them. Out with the old, and what remains is re-sorted and classified.

I know of a few people who have done this, Donna foremost among them, and I’ve had several unusual conversations on the subject – that is, unusual if these were normal times, but quite standard these days.

I’ve certainly indulged in this, though it could easily be argued that it was long overdue in my case. I’ve got a lot of stuff generally and, while not a hoarder, am inclined to hang onto things.

Early days, I spent a lot of time going through stuff. I threw out or gave away a fair bit from my kitchen and study, and even books, of which I still have boxes full of them. I sought to get rid of the containers in my study with bits and pieces spilling from them and spent a lot of time going through the various clippings I’d collected over the years and either tossing them in the bin or digitising them. All of this is ongoing, and there’s a permanent pile of stuff by my front door that I’ve either got to throw out (including DVDs and CDs) or stuff I’m waiting to get the proper storage for (my old photos).

The other day I came across another cache of stuff dating back to the late nineties, I reckon. It was interesting to go through it and a bit lame, too. There were a bunch of work emails I’d printed out, most of the type that people used to send (but no longer) of jokes or interesting stuff. I still chuckled at some, but to the bin, they went.

Then I came across a poem I’d printed out. I couldn’t recall doing it, and all these years later wondered what it was that inspired me? Was it a woman? Was it a simple appreciation for the poem? Or was it something else?

We do that, and me more than most – we squirrel things away. I guess most people don’t save poems, but I’m a sucker for good poetry. For many years, I had a party trick I’d trot out occasionally whereby I’d recite Byron’s poem, So We’ll Go No More a Roving from memory, line by line.

As it happens, the poem I came across the other day is another by Byron (who is a favourite, along with Donne and Marvell, Yeats, Rilke and some of the modernists like William Carlos Williams and Cummings).

As I’m about to toss this in the bin also, let me first record the poem here for posterity:

When We Two Parted

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow –
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.
They name thee before me,
A knell in mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well—
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.
In secret we met—
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?—
With silence and tears.

How many moments like these in our life, where we’re so moved to write something of it or read something meaningful and copy it out? And how many of them are forgotten? I’m grateful at least that for the last 20 years, almost those moments have been recorded here, more or less, even those now passed from mind.

It’s a beautiful poem.

Nothing is forever

I’m glad to have the day off, but Good Friday must be the most boring day of the year. In a way, it’s good in that it forces you to slow down and attend to the simple things. In celebration of that, I didn’t climb out of bed until nearly 10 am. Later, I’ll check on the footy perhaps, though I expect a dull match, or do some reading or watch a diverting movie. There’s always housework, and then there’s my writing – I have to get to that.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time I loved Easter. I recalled it yesterday as I took Rigby for his second walk of the day. This time, we went in the direction of the beach. It was a warm and sunny afternoon, and around the time, I thought, when once I would have been gearing up for a long Easter weekend away.

For many years, the extended family would gather at the property at Yarck at Easter to celebrate the relationship between us. It was a lazy, easy long weekend. If the weather was cool – and I always reckoned Easter marked the seasons’ turning – then the pot-bellied stove would be on non-stop. We would sit around, reading in recliners or playing board games at the dining table. There’d always be drinks come around 4 o’clock – beer and then wine; and often a glass of sherry over lunch. Dinner was an extravagant affair, with each family group responsible for separate days, and all of it washed down with the best wine.

There were occasional day-trips, and most years, we’d make it to the Mansfield fete on the Saturday. There’s a picture of me riding a camel there, and one year my sister bought a pet goose (which later disappeared).

On Easter Sunday, naturally, there would be an Easter egg hunt. In the early days, the young adults, like my sister and her husband, my step-sister and me, would take part. I won every year for some reason if winning is to be measured by the most Easter eggs collected. Later on, it was exclusively for the kids.

Orchestrating much of this, and exuding delight throughout, was my mother, who took an extraordinary pleasure in having her family around her. She was the life force that made Easter such a memorable occasion for all of us, for her delight would infect us. Beside her was her husband, my step-father, who found late in life the same pleasures as my mum took, and because of her. He would stand by watching, a smile on his face, urging and supporting.

For me, it was a serene period of rest and reflection. I would try to get away early on the Thursday before and drive the 130 kilometres (about 2 hours) to be there in time for dinner. In later years, I slept in the log cabin in the corner of the property. I loved that. I would retire to it late at night, coming down from the house and likely taking a piss in the bushes on the way. In the morning, I would have a coffee in bed reading before heading up to the rest of the family.

I would read a lot – maybe 2-3 books over the weekend – and would take the time to think about life. What I thought about, or who has passed from memory, though I do recall occasions when I’d be struck by a passing conjecture that I’d wonder at through the day.

There was always work to be done too, and tasks allocated – gardening perhaps, cleaning up the tennis court, or mending a fence, or chopping firewood – there was always that. But then we might spend an hour in the spa with a bottle of bubbles, or have a game of pool.

There’s so much in this I miss. I miss my mum and, just as much, I miss what she represented. I miss my step-dad, who I loved and felt loved by. I miss my step-sister, K, who I lost after my mum died and the family exploded. And I miss the meaning of all that, the love and affection, the casual joy, even the sense of tranquillity, which is entirely absent these days.

It was always a bit sad returning to Melbourne at the end of that. The property at Yarck was like a sanctuary for all of us. It was a place outside of the world in which we could be ourselves and together. It was much commented on how calming and restful it was just to walk in the door. I felt safe and happy and loved there, always, and I think it was the same for everyone.

On the drive back, I would follow the familiar road feeling relaxed by the weekend but already looking ahead to the week ahead and returning to regular life. Another year gone, but Easter would come again, and so too would Yarck – until one year it was no more, and nothing left of that life.

Looking back, it feels like the fall of an empire. When you’re in the middle of it, you can hardly imagine it ever ending. Then, afterwards, you realise that for every beginning, there is an ending, and though it endured for about 15 years, nothing is forever.

The official version

Referring back to yesterday’s post, back at the time, I started on a piece I never finished describing the event of my uncle’s death.

It’s been sitting on my computer’s hard drive all these years, and I thought maybe now is opportune to bring it out of the dark. I wrote it while it was still fresh in me – I have the feeling I actually wrote some of it on the plane, as is described, and that I may have made notes along the way. Here it is. It’s a bit rough around the edges because I abandoned it before giving it a polish, and there are gaps in it for the same reason. And I was not the writer then that I am now, though it’s surprising how the themes that recurr to me haven’t changed: we all have our themes. Read it, or not.

A Death in the Family (2003)

The plane headed to the Sunshine Coast. As we took off, I looked at my fellow travellers. Few were under fifty. Most were grey-haired, retirees heading for the sun, or executives looking for a break. Nearby sat a couple in their sixties, he in suit and tie, his wife dressed up in her Sunday best, reminders of another era when people dressed up to travel. Across the aisle sat a man about 60 in stylishly casual Lacoste gear. He read the Financial Review, and later, he opened a satchel and made notes: an executive not yet in holiday mood. Besides me, there sat a couple in their fifties, silver-haired and handsome, speaking in low tones and reading their magazines.

And then there was me. I was not off on an escapade to the sun. I knew that. I had felt rushed, cramming my travel arrangements into a few short hours until I was here, on my way. On the plane, I relaxed, my work was done for the moment, but I felt out of sync. I looked around in between reading my own magazine. I could not fail to notice the difference between myself and everyone else that travelled. I was younger by 10 years at least. Unlike the generation of people around me who had dressed for the holiday in a variety of fashionable and conservative clothes, I was in jeans. I wore red shoes. I was different, though. I was not on holiday. I was going to bury someone.

As we travelled through the air, I read. Later I too got out a pad and a pencil and began to make notes. I should have been at work. As we travelled through the air, the meeting I had organised should have been sitting. Like the man across from me, I had yet to divorce my life at home from the place I was heading for. In an hour or so, the plane would land, and a different reality takes hold. Now though, high above the land, I was in a kind of limbo, a no man’s land. I put my pencil down – I had been doodling. I closed my eyes, feeling tired, thinking about these things and wondering what would come.

Then we landed. We descended, low over the ocean, it seemed, the clouds low and all around us like fog. Then the plane bumped down on the wet tarmac. Outside, the rain fell. What I could see as I waited to alight was distant hills, green and shrouded in mist. Then I walked from the plane and into the terminal. There, waiting for me, was my father and my aunt. I felt like smiling.

The world changed today. That’s how I was going to begin this piece. It’s too grandiose, though, too pompous even, too impersonal. Still, it’s true. Each person is a world unto themselves. A unique world like no other. All these millions, billions, of worlds combine to create the great world we are all part of. It changes every day. It is added to, subtracted from, it never remains still. Such is life.

So it is, but for all those infinite changes, it becomes much more to us when one of those small worlds subtracted belongs to us. In the big scheme, it matters little perhaps, in our world though it is great.

Such thoughts flow through me in the days following. We – my father, Aunt, and I – attend to the necessary preparations, from the funeral to the wake. Speeches are written, ministers spoken to, beer and wine bought by the dozen. In between, we have lunch on rainy days at great hotels by the water. One night we meet with more family for a meal at a good restaurant where my father and I clash, as we ever have. In the evenings, we sit in my Aunt’s small courtyard with a cool beer and chat. Throughout it all and in the midst of this unreal time before the funeral, we remember.

There’s no telling what you will remember. Memories are unpredictable, random. Small things are sometimes recalled while great things overlooked. It’s different 

Among the memories recalled, I have my own. I remember once years before, when I was in my early twenties, how he described a pub in Cremorne as a ‘cunt farm’. It had taken me aback at the time and later led to some ribald smiles with a friend. This was his recommendation to us, the place we should go to, coming as it was from the harsh persona he occasionally adopted. There was a smile in his words, despite his crudity; they were not evidence of a crass mind, but rather, I think, an effort to connect with the nephew a generation younger than him, the nephew he loved. And perhaps in his words, there was a desire for the world he imagined I lived in – beer, women, good times. 

As if to counter-balance that memory, I recalled other moments. There is a photo of him asleep on the floor beside his infant son also asleep. He always loved children, and of all the things he wished for in life, they were always uppermost. That explained his love for me initially. I remember how I was the bartender on the night of his 21st birthday party at his parents home. I’m about eight, I think. I felt so chuffed to be given the responsibility and proud as all his long-haired friends were all so good to me, laughing and joking treating me, I thought, like almost an adult. Later my uncle married, and then once more before finally he had the children he dreamed of. 

From there, the story changes, a few years of stable suburban life, a shift from Sydney to Brisbane, and then separation and divorce. Far away in Melbourne, I heard all of this distantly, rarely seeing or speaking to him but for family events. I had known somehow that the divorce had been acrimonious, that, according to some, his ex-wife had turned the children against him. Living with my aunt, he was finally diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, no surprise after years of smoking and drinking. The end had come as it almost always does with cancer, ugly and undignified. 

Though I had my memories, I was at one remove. He was my uncle, not my brother. I had grown up with him distantly in my life rather than as a member of the household. I sat silently then as my father and my aunt spoke of their memories. I listened curiously to what I heard, watching as closely as I listened. This was something I rarely experienced. 

My father is not an ordinary person. I suppose many sons might say the same thing about their own dad with as much certainty. Perhaps that is how we all view our fathers. Still, I believe it to be true.

There has always been something intimidating about my father. I saw it myself but experienced it differently from how other people did. It was not some effect of physical being – he was of average height only, though always accounted as being handsome. It did not come by way of great charm or wit – he could get by but was no more accomplished than most intelligent people. In his presence, there was some hint of that mind that went deep, that intelligence that had allowed him to exploit his fundamental gifts. If anything, his presence was the product of all that and the unerring sense of self that left him with.

Travelling in with him from the airport, I had come to silently articulate the essence of his person: his will. More than any other person I had ever met, he was defined by his sheer will to win, succeed, and persist. It had defined much of my relationship with him. Our conversations over the years peppered with his exhortations of will and intent. As much as anything, I had come to know him by these things and had absorbed many of his lessons – though with a sceptical eye. The man the world saw, the monolith, was built upon this unwavering will. I had lived close to it and known it as a son does, with both love and a sense of rebellion. As he had climbed the corporate ladder year after year, others had received it differently. 

In the car with him and in the days after, while we waited to bury his brother, I had sensed something different in my father. Had that famous will wavered a little? Is that what I had sensed? No, not really – the will remained, it was not so easily dismissed. What I had sensed, though, was doubt. Grief and doubt. The natural grief of a man who has come to bury his baby brother; and doubt, as if for the first time he had questioned his actions, his feelings and attitude to the same brother now departed. 

Doubtless, it was natural, but it was new to me. I don’t think I had ever seen my father doubt anything. I don’t know if he ever considered the possibility – he was different from other fathers, other men. In those days, he seemed morose and quiet, his emotions checked, but barely at times. 

In many ways, he was as he ever was, industrious and active, making sure all the preparations for the funeral went to plan. His eyes had the same intelligence, his movements the same direct expression of his will. It was when he stopped, he changed. In those moments, he appeared weathered. The hard outer shell had been breached, and exposed was the softer stone beneath, unprotected now, raw to the elements, visible to the eye. Somewhere deeper inside him was that hardcore that drove him forward, the essential him, that part of him that would forever lead him on – but for now, it came second.

We piled into separate cars and started the short drive to the funeral parlour. It had been intended that we drive in convoy so that the out of towners amongst us not get lost. The inevitable occurred, though, when the car in front of us got the green light we missed. We sat in the car, and as the light changed back from red to green, we edged forward, unsure of the way and in our collective mind trying to piece together the fragmentary directions we had received. Too late, we realised, just as we passed it, that the turn off we needed was on our left. We drove on, unable to turn around on the motorway until we reached the next exit. Returning to the motorway we turned right and, after a few turns, found ourselves at the funeral parlour. We were late. Outside, a crowd gathered, murmuring to each other and waiting to be called in. My father and my aunt stood amongst them, their eyes to the road. At our arrival, the word was given: we could enter.

The chapel was modern, though, in truth, I have little experience of these places. It had a high vaulted ceiling, like a modernist church, bland brown brick walls and a pew and benches constructed from a polished honey-coloured wood. Behind the pew, there was the coffin resting on a metal stand.

The crowd filtered in. Feet scuffed the hard floor. The soft murmur reverberated off the brick walls and beneath the high ceiling. We, the family, sat in the first row. And the service began.

It began conventionally, with a man who had never met my uncle standing before us extolling his many virtues. He had been well briefed. I listened, interested but unmoved. They were words unconnected at that moment with the man I had known. They described a life in its bare facts, interspersed with the odd anecdote. Behind him, as he spoke, a video screen displayed slides from my uncle’s life, one after the other. My eyes were drawn to this and stayed there. I heard the words, but the stories I felt were in the photos and memories inspired by them. With a jolt, I saw myself in several of them. In one, I was young, tall and gangly, innocent in another more knowing. Some of the words spoken registered to me then: he had loved his family. Yes, that was true. It was more than conventional words, but the truth. He had loved me, truly, had been proud of me, I had heard, and that struck me. I felt emotion swell in me until I felt I would choke with it. For all I had thought of him, I knew he had been pure in this: he had loved without qualification.

My father stood then to give the eulogy. He stood for a moment without speaking. This was characteristic of him: he was a man who chose his words carefully. It was more than that, though. As I watched, I saw as he tried to marshall his emotions. He looked down at his notes and then up at us. His eyes were wide open. He began to speak.

He spoke of growing up, of how Paul, his brother, had come late into the family. He described Paul as a child – one of the pictures had shown him then, a smiling, good looking boy with dark curly hair. Though my father didn’t mention it, my uncle had idolised my father. Coming late into the family, he had been a boy still when my father had become a man. He had seen perhaps the charisma and talent in my father that others had spoken of. He grew up wanting to be like my Dad, using him as the measuring stick he could never reach. He was a different person, soft and gentle, pliant and hopeful.

As my father spoke, he paused a couple of times. Each time it was to compose himself, to stave off the tears that welled in him. Here he stood, eulogising his baby brother, dead before his time. It was when my father came to speak of my uncle’s family that he faltered and then failed. His red-rimmed eyes bled tears. He shook his head, tried to go on, but could not. I’m sorry, he muttered and stood down. Silence engulfed the chapel. And as I watched my father, bent under his grief, I felt something break in me.

It is hard to explain exactly what was happening at that moment. I cried for my uncle, but I cried for my father also. I had never seen him like that. Never. Like my uncle, I had always looked up to my father. I admired his strength and control. As a man, I believed in it and tried to emulate it myself. Now, as I watched my father split in two and all inside revealed, I felt as if I was witnessing something fantastic and unknown. And in his breakdown, I felt my own undoing. I cried at his grief. On the one hand, I saw in his tears permission to shed my own; and I cried for him and his sorrow.

The service ended. We stood, and outside the chapel spoke to the visitors like hosts and invited them back to my aunts if they so desired. My tears had dried, but I felt my eyes swollen by them. I was embarrassed, but people were gentle with me and understanding. I was grateful to them.

The mourners piled into the small rear courtyard of my Aunt’s home. Tropical foliage ringed the space, and overhead the sky brooded forebodingly. That was distant though, here and now in that small space the family, the friends, the odd acquaintance gathered all in their best funeral clothes, they talked until the air was full of it, a social babble; occasionally amid it a laugh could be heard: the deed was done.

Like most funerals, people who had not seen each other since the last funeral met and exclaimed at the time that had passed. More than once, I was pulled up. Is that really, H? Haven’t you grown? Then with a laugh: the last time I saw you, you were so high, indicating somewhere around my shoulder. I smile and laugh along; for a few moments, I linger agreeably before moving on. I do this throughout the crowd, the unofficial family representative doing the necessary glad-handing. 

My father has recovered, is his familiar self, but even on his best days, this is not his thing. Today with his brother buried, he responds as he meets with the distant family he can remember from his childhood, he recalls shared memories and moments for decades ago, and every so often, he joins in the laughter; occasionally, there is a twinkle in his eye, but there is something still in him. My Aunt is different. She hustles around to make sure everything is ticking over as it should, a drink in her hand. Soon enough, she finds herself recalling old times also. Happily, that leaves me to flit through the crowd filling drinks and sharing their memories. For me, it is easy, but it also a distraction.

As the evening closes in, the crowd thins. Left are about a dozen, family mostly, some of whom have flown up for the occasion. By now, most are seated, a glass of wine in their hand, a gin and tonic, a beer. The conversation is quieter, the reminiscing continues, but now it is mostly about my uncle. I sit watching, silent mostly, listening in to memories I had heard before and others new to me; I have my own memories. Mostly the conversation is fond, though tinged with sadness. Occasionally it becomes more.

It is my father who seems at the centre of this with my Aunt butting in. My fathers’ syntax is familiar to me. I had forgotten, but I remember as he speaks, thinking this is a part of him. This is what I might remember when he is gone. “No, no, no…” he says even if agreeing with you, wresting the conversation back within his control. Looking on, I observe the respect with which he seems to be accorded within the family, and not just for his loss. I think back to the stories I have been told, of how he was the golden-haired boy, even if a bit wild, the prodigy who was always going to go far. It seemed an accepted truth, a destiny foretold and fulfilled, the man in the family who has gone the furthest of anyone.

Then his eyes glisten again. His words come slowly, precisely, but hard as if going by an obstacle. Someone tries to ease his way, but he continues, hastening, unwilling for any concession: this too is familiar. 

The scandal of the day is that none of my uncle’s children attended the funeral,l despite calls and coercion. They are young still and in the grip of their mother, generally agreed to be an ‘evil cow’. She claims they don’t want to come. I doubt that, but even so, I think it’s wrong. They should be there. Their mother should insist. 

Though my father does not say it, it was the thought that his brother had been abandoned and betrayed by his family that had broken him. In a way, it had been an act lower than he could comprehend. I think he saw it as the ultimate insult, as if my uncle could see and know how lowly he was regarded. What he looked upon bitterly and sorrowfully I was more sanguine and cynical about. It was disgusting that his children were not there, but I believed that they would come to regret it in years to come.

No-one adds anything. No-one can disagree, but nor do they want to speak of it. Then everyone is gone, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, exchanging consoling words and fond memories. In the dark, the cicadas ring loudly. We sit exhausted in the yard, a bottle open before us, and the conversation goes on into the night. Tomorrow we return to our lives, we go on; for now, it is all about my uncle.

Layers and layers

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, or if it’s a condition of my circumstances, or simply the fact that I’ve been around a while now and there’s a lot behind me, but more and more frequently I find myself pausing to recall things from long ago. On occasion, it seems the memories come to me randomly, without seeming cause.

I was reading a book in bed one night recently, and the memory came to me sitting in a bus in Turkey listening to Nick Drake on my iPod as the bus curled between woody hills on the way to Bodrum or Marmaris, one or the other, and it was like I was there again. You can see it, though it’s gone, and remember what you felt at such a time – anticipation, curiosity, a content tinged with melancholy. Surely all this means something?

A few weeks back, I wrote about my uncle. In the lead-up to that, I’d been reminiscing with a friend on the phone. We went to school together, and our journeys since have intertwined, though he lives in Sydney. We share many memories and often prod each other with recollections “hey, do you remember when…”

In that conversation, he recalled my aunties 50th birthday in the early nineties. She lived in Sydney, and the party was held at the plush home of a lifelong friend somewhere in the eastern suburbs. It’s funny the things you remember. I recalled getting my hair cut the afternoon before the party at a barber in Gordon. And I remember wearing an orange Country Road shirt to the party. I had forgotten, but my friend remembered how I gifted my aunt a walking stick for her birthday, as a joke – the jokes on me, these days. I have dim memories of the party itself, though I remember I was drawn to the host’s daughters, one dark and mysterious and vaguely provocative, and the other more conservative and shy.

After I hung up the phone to him, the residue of that memory remained with me and set off others. There was a particular memory that teased at me, so that I returned to the very early days of this blog, even though the memory pre-dated the start of this by a year. I think I just wanted to go back. It explains why I bother to write these things down. I want them recorded, aware that it’s self-indulgent and that it will mean very little once I’m gone. I’m still here, though, and I want these things captured, and so this blog becomes more than just a record of things happening – the stray thoughts and happenings, the hapless conjectures and ruminations. It becomes an aide-memoire.

It was my uncle I was thinking of. He died not long after his 50th birthday from lung cancer in the early 2000s. He was living with my aunt then, his elder sister, who had moved to the Sunshine Coast when she retired. He was a lovely man, my uncle, and I can still recall his gruff voice on the phone and his oddly emphatic ways. His life, or so it seemed to me, always hoping for more but ending up with very little, living in the shadows.

My father called when my uncle died and demanded that I go up and join them for the funeral. I thought nothing of it as I wanted to be there – I believed that I should be – but it stands out now as odd that he never made the same demand of my sister.

In the days before the funeral, the family gathered. There was a balmy night we all went out for dinner, sitting in the fading light as it became dark. My dad and I clashed. It was not unusual, and not unusually others had to step in. We were like the old bull and the young bull, always. I think he resented that I wouldn’t do what he said, let alone agree with him, and thought I was irresponsible and headstrong and probably disrespectful as well. I resented the fact he thought he could – or should – control me.

The funeral was a sad thing. No more than 20 people turned up, and my uncle’s children weren’t among them. My dad gave a eulogy for his baby brother, and, for me, it was a startling moment. Partway through, he broke down. He tried to continue through the tears and then waved it off, unable to go on. I had never seen my father like that – never in tears, never even vulnerable. He was always a man so much in control and hard with it. It was the first time I’d ever seen him unable to complete something, and it came as a revelation.

The wake was back at my aunt’s small unit, in the courtyard behind. Back there, my dad reverted to type, stiff and with something withheld, while I, much more socially adept (thanks to my mum), flitted between the family I didn’t know as if I was the host. The wine flowed, stories were told.

I think it was the next year that my aunt got sick with cancer also. This time I travelled up alone. I was her executor and had power of attorney. I don’t remember much of that visit, but what I remember is driving her tiny car into the car park of the regional hospital she’d been admitted to. It was a warm day, and I delayed a moment sitting in the car to listen to Makybe Diva win the Melbourne Cup (I’d backed it) before entering the hospital to visit my dying aunt.

She died about two months later. By then, she was in Melbourne, in a hospice, close to family. My memories of that are vague – my friend remembered much more. I remember I was in Fiji when we heard she had become critical. By the time I returned, she had passed away. I remember nothing at all about the funeral, nor afterwards. I remember visiting a doctor a few days later and being told I had contracted malaria, and I remember the fevered dreams that had led me to his office.

It’s funny the things you remember, and the things you forget. Is there any rhyme or reason for it? Is there a meaning?

These are scattered memories, but many of these moments are vivid to me. Some might well have been in the last year they’re so fresh. But you look back, and regardless of how vivid, you see them in a different light. These things happened. You were there, and it unfolded, but now you look back, and it’s done, and from these moments, other moments, unimagined at the time, sprung forth. And they too are history, as is everything leading up to this moment, now, as I type these words.

You see it all, the people who have gone, remember what you thought and felt and how you reflect on it now, like refracting mirrors. It must mean something? All this must count for something? How can it not? But then, you know it doesn’t. These are random moments and episodes in a universe of random moments and episodes. They just happen. You know there is no meaning, only that which you give to it all these years after. And when I’m gone…

What is the weight of living life? Each of us carries forward a lifetime of moments. They’re rich and diverse and magical in their variety. We share them, even with people who have gone – how vividly I recall living with my aunt in her Watsons Bay apartment when I was just out of my teens – the sunshine and the harbour and the cold drinks at night and the croissants on a Sunday morning. But it is long since gone, and she dead near 20 years.

Most of this is lost, ultimately. All the stories, all the memories, every poignant moment, each seminal decision, all the hope and fear, all the dreams and possibilities, terminated.

It sounds bleak, but it’s just a statement of fact – or fact as I know it. It feels such a foreign reality, though I suspect we all know it. What I remember is probably quite different from what my father remembers, for example, and I know that I remember different parts to what my friend does. All of it, abruptly, recalls Slaughterhouse-Five in my memory – yes, that is how the synapse zing – but specifically, the wisdom that “All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.”

I made an oblique reference to that yesterday, but all it proves, really, is that I overthink everything – but it’s true, when you’re like that, you can hardly imagine being any other way, and wanting to. I’m the type to wonder at the fantastic nature of life, of which this is a part. Whether it means anything or not, surely it’s incredible? And that may explain my need to explain it, futile as it is, and record it because I was here.

But then, there is another quote from Slaughterhouse-Five that is more comforting and gives a different perspective:

“…when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

I sit here writing about people who have gone, fully conscious of the weight of it all, and knowing – most likely – that one day I will be gone too, and someone else may write of me in the same way. I’ll be past caring, but at least, I expect, some of my words will live on, and perhaps these words, always exist.

The old school days

By chance, I discovered today that one of my secondary school teachers had died late last year. I’m sure other teachers have passed on since, and the law of averages suggests that one or two of my school mates will also have. The thing is, a lot of them I could hardly remember now, but this teacher – whose name I won’t give – is easily remembered because she was passionate and slightly eccentric and very caring beneath a gruff exterior. She was always Ms to us, and I think school and teaching was her life.

I talked to a friend the other day who told me he’d been to a performance of The Merry Widow over the weekend. We did that at school, I said. Are you sure he responded sceptically? I wasn’t – in fact, I think it was HMS Pinafore I was thinking of – but it brought back memories of the progressive school I had attended, where we would put on musicals and stage ambitious dramas. Seems odd to think now, but I became involved in that.

Like so many things, it’s hard to believe it’s so long ago. It was a private school in the leafy outer suburbs of Melbourne. We lived in Lower Plenty at the time, and I would catch a bus to Eltham every morning, sharing it with the CLC girls, before catching another bus from Eltham to school. It was a modern, progressive school with cool teachers and a mod attitude. It had a broad curriculum, but the focus, it seems to me, was on the arts and physical development, including but not limited to sports.

A lot of that time remains very clear to me. I can close my eyes and see so much and recall so many moments that it feels almost true that time as we suppose it doesn’t exist – everything is always happening, and always will.

In Form 1, as it was called then, there was a competition across the school to create an artistic representation of the new sports and community centre being built on-site. Every class would submit an entry, but first, the class submission had to be selected. I can remember being set the task and sitting there drawing up my entry – a face-on view of a couple of swimmers with the lane rope between them, stylistically represented. I can recall the teacher looking over my shoulder and commenting, pointing at something I’d drawn.

I had a close relationship with that teacher. She strong-willed and smart, and even as a 12-year old I thought her pretty sexy (though, fair to say, I cottoned onto women a couple of years quicker than my contemporaries). I guess I was her favourite too, for reasons I don’t know. I could draw okay, but I wasn’t a great artist. Perhaps it was that I was imaginative and sensitive. And I was a cute kid.

We were given class time to formally prepare the submission. I had a couple of kids assist me. We painted it onto a board about 4-foot square, and, with every other class submission, it was put on display afterwards. Looking back, I can say the execution lacked something, but it was one of the more interesting designs. Come the end of the year, the whole school gathered and sitting on the lawns, the principal announced the winners. To my great shock, my entry came third, and I can still remember the light-headed feeling I had as I stood and marched across to collect the prize. As if I was an automaton. My mum was so proud!

I had my first kiss at that school and my first lust, if not love. I can recall being kicked out of a rehearsal for some drama production because I was mucking up. I recall moments on the sporting field kicking the winning goal or crunching someone (though I was undersized back then). And the teachers, some of who I was very fond of, and others I did battle with. I look so innocent when you look at photos of me then, but there was something stubborn in me.

Yes, this was me, age about 12 – school photo

A science teacher saw me as his nemesis somehow – I was smart and would blitz tests and then do poorly with my homework because I couldn’t be arsed. One day I finished a test early, and from my back pocket, took out a fold-out comb and began combing my hair. He hated that.

Then there was the famous encounter with my English teacher when I was about 14. I’m sure I’ve told the story before. We’re studying the Greek plays and having a class discussion. I don’t remember exactly how it plays out, but once I recall the feeling, almost as if my body is taken over by something else – a will of its own. I must have said something he disagreed with, or perhaps it was someone else, and I can feel it in me, let it go, let it go, but even as I’m thinking it, I open my mouth and suggest that there are no wrong answers, surely? Are we supposed to leave here knowing Sophocles backwards – or is the point of this to learn how to think and analyse for ourselves?

It seems a precocious answer, but it’s true, though I may not have put it as succinctly as that. He objected, in any case. Perhaps I put him to shame. Backwards and forwards, we went until he suggested that perhaps if I was so sure of myself, I could take my English classes alone. Of course, that’s what I then did until my attendance was demanded…

An economics teacher I quite liked made a statement one day about how there was a student in his class who had never asked a question, and I knew it was me. I didn’t care, and I made up my mind then that I’d finish the year without asking a question. One on one, we would talk, and I remember him lending me E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful to read.

And the maths in his own world of formulas and equations. I hated maths. One day, bored with it all, I packed up my stuff while he was writing on the blackboard and climbed out the window next to me, and walked home.

If there was any pattern then, I was rebellious and refused to be constrained or told what to do or how to think. I was a good kid, polite and well mannered and kind, but I had this thing. I was one of the smart kids, but I was also a poor student. I would wag school occasionally and skip classes and was more likely to be found kicking a football around somewhere than studying in our study periods.

Lot’s of other stories.

As it happens, there’s a school reunion this year. I’ve never been to one. Never been much interested and will likely skip this one, too. I’m curious also to see some of my old friends from school. I would bump into the odd one or two once upon a time, but I reckon it’s been 15 years since I last saw anyone from those days.

Closed doors

Speaking of pivotal moments, the dream the other day had me recollecting a moment when I was about 22, long forgotten.

I was unemployed and for a brief period living with my grandmother in Niddrie. I got a call from my uncle, living in Sydney. He had a job for me if I was interested. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how interested I was in the position, which sounded pretty basic. I was interested in a break from the routine, and a trip to Sydney, where I had friends and family sounded pretty good.

My uncle was a sales rep in the paper industry. For many years he worked for Wiggins Teape, if I remember right. He knew everything about paper and get him started, he could bore you for hours. He was also a very decent, sensitive and caring man who took his duties as an uncle seriously.

So I went up to Sydney and stayed with my aunt in Watsons Bay and caught up with my friends and re-visited old haunts. In the middle of it, my uncle took me along to the place where the job was. It was a paper manufacturer of some description, and the salient thing I remember of that visit was one of the tasks they showed me that would be part of the job. You know how you get notepads held together with the red elasticised adhesive. Well, my job would be to apply that in liquid form, like goo, to dozens of these pads held in a brace. When it dried, the notepads would be separated and off they would go.

I didn’t take the job. I don’t know if I ever took the prospect seriously, but I’d like to think I did. I was horrified at the mundane nature of the work, though with hindsight I’m sure I would have progressed quickly off the shop floor. Did I have reservations about living in Sydney? I knew it well and liked it, and had the right job been on offer I’d have probably accepted it.

I don’t know what my uncle thought. These years later, I feel as if I let him down. I spent about a week in Sydney before coming back to Melbourne. I got a job soon after and it was a much better job than Sydney, so it worked out well in that regard.

It’s a bit of a sliding door moment, though. What if I had taken the job on offer – as everyone urged and expected me to do? (I remember my dad telling me off for wasting everyone’s time). Who knows what would have happened with my career? I was always going to end up a white-collar worker, but I expect those opportunities would’ve come.

As for the rest of it – settling in Sydney, meeting different people, maybe settling down properly with the love of my life – as I thought might happen in Melbourne a couple of times, but never did. What would my life be now? How much else would have changed? What connections might have been which never happened? What destinies would’ve changed? If the dominoes had tilted in another direction, what would the consequences be?

I’ll never know, though there may be a version of me out there in the multiverse who lived that life. I’m damned sure that there must be a wiser version of me somewhere.

As always, what could’ve happened but never did doesn’t really matter. It’s an interesting speculation, nonetheless.

You can’t go back

I had an awful dream about spiders last night I woke to at around 2am. I was wide awake and, unusual for me, sleep was slow to come. As I lay there, a very random memory came to me of a time in 1998 when I tumbled into a bed in a Munich hotel, overcome with jet lag. I’m not sure if it was the same day or next, but I recalled the dinner I went to with my step-father, who was there on business, and his colleagues, about eight of them. It was a typically German meal, platters of meat and steins of beer and wine, and all were merry, including me.

For the next few weeks, I travelled through Germany and Austria with F, my step-father, before he left for home and I continued my journey.

It’s the nature of memories that they often seem to come unprompted, randomly as such, so that it shouldn’t ever be too much of a surprise. What was unexpected was the reflex thought that came to me as I remembered: if I could, I would go back to that moment to start afresh.

Does anyone else ever speculate on such things? Do you ever pick out a moment and think I’d go back to that point and start again from then? It crosses my mind rarely, but that it comes to me at all is probably indicative of something else.

I pondered it as I lay in bed last night, wide awake. Why that moment, I wondered? I had many good years after that – it’s not as if everything went wrong from that point. It didn’t. Life was good, but that was the earliest I could go back without losing something vital in so doing.

In the dark, I remembered all that led to that trip away. I worked at Shell then, and one of my colleagues through his cricket club had a fundraiser in which you had to nominate the leading vote winner from each team for what must have been the 1997 Brownlow medal. The winner was the person who totalled the most votes from his nominees.

I won. In fact, I got every club right and won $500. A little while later the same guy came up to me and said they wanted the opportunity to get some money back out of me. For $50, I could enter their last man standing raffle. Well, I couldn’t say no, and so I paid up and a few weeks later was standing in the clubrooms with a couple of hundred other guys somewhere around Essendon on a Saturday afternoon as the raffle commenced.

A last man standing raffle is virtually a reverse raffle – rather than the first ticket out of the barrel winning, it’s the last ticket. It makes for a much more exciting experience.

They had sold 300 tickets, and by the time they had got down to the last thirty-odd tickets, I knew I was going to win. The count continued, and with every ticket pulled out, another candidate was knocked out. Down to five, four, three, two tickets, and I’ve still got my ticket in my hand. With two tickets remaining, there was a pause, and the other remaining competitor suggested we should split the difference – $2,250 each. I never even considered it. I’ve always gone for broke. Besides, I knew I would win it – and that’s how it worked out. Next ticket out was his and I went home with a thick envelope full of $50 notes adding up to $3000.

Combined, this was my seed money for a European trip. I did all my planning, figured out what I wanted to see and do, places I would stay. As it happened, my stepfather would be there at the same time, and that was a bonus. I loved him, and it was a great chance for us to bond further travelling around. Plus, he would pick up some of the costs, and had a car there.

It’s all ancient history now. I came back eventually after a great holiday and resumed my life. All my family was alive still, and my dear friends were there. True, my career hadn’t reached the heights it would in years to come, but there’s no reason to think I couldn’t do the same the second time around, and more efficiently. And maybe I’d avoid the pitfalls that ultimately caught me in years to come – though nothing would prevent the premature demise of my mum and step-father.

Is that the time I’d go back to?

And then I thought, perhaps not. When then? My mind went back, trying to pick out the exact moment. Was it 1990? Or 1991? I had an ordinary job, but I was in love. I was handsome and bright and full of life. I had no idea of what might come from this, though I had high hopes – the truth was that though I went well, there was a tragedy in the future also. Tragedy, I’ve thought for years, I could’ve prevented.

I loved B, but our relationship was tumultuous. Eventually it ended, though it took me years to get over it. I learned maybe 9 years later, long after I had last seen her, that she had killed herself some time after.

You can’t help but wonder. We spoke of marriage once. She was happy. Her eyes shone with possibility. She was like a girl in her joys. It could have worked. And if I’d made it work, had I been more patient and less self-absorbed, had I kept trying, then perhaps we might have stayed together, and perhaps she would be alive still today.

She didn’t kill herself because of me (at least, I doubt it), but by going back then I might be able to change the course of history, even if she and I never lived happily ever after. That was not the point. She was dead. She is dead, and all that was in her. If I could change one thing that could change that fact then it would be worthwhile, even if I never saw her again.

That would be enough. If I had the wish granted, that’s when I would go back – how could I choose any other moment?

These are the thoughts that went through my mind as I lay there. You can’t go back. It’s a fantasy. Maybe that’s the lesson we learn: make it count the first time, and make sure of it.

As the sun sets

I drove across town yesterday to have lunch with my dad. He’s about an hour’s drive away from me but living in the general area where I grew up. It was a bright, warm day and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to travel all that way to see him – especially as I was so busy with work. But then, I hadn’t seen him since before Covid struck.

I made it to his place and met his dog and was shown around the comfortable home he’d made for himself. We set out for lunch, and I asked if it was okay if he could drive us. I had messages I had to attend to from work because it never goes away.

Originally we were going to have lunch at the Lower Plenty Hotel. I grew up in Lower Plenty and remember the hotel just off the golf course, though apparently it was torn down and something new built in its place. In the end, we went somewhere closer – a cafe in Were St, Montmorency.

A couple of years after mum left dad, and after I left school, she bought a unit in Rattray Road in Monty. I’m not sure now how long we lived there, but there was many a day I would walk down the road to the Were Street shops, and dozens of times I caught a train from the station. (When I was younger, and when my parents were still together, I remember creeping out of the house in the middle of the night and walking to Were st. Together, Peter Woody and I broke into the Reece plumbing store there, just for the fun of it – we took nothing – not knowing that there was a security guard on duty patrolling the premises. We eluded him by the skin of our teeth. I was about 15 then. There was also a cinema in the street early days, and we saw the original Rocky there when it came out.)

Yesterday we sat in the sun and had a light lunch catching up on things. His poodle, Henry, had come along, too.

I mentioned not long ago how disturbing I found my father aging. It seems odd that it’s not something I ever thought about much before, but it comes to mind regularly now. He walks with a cane, has various ailments that need managing, and is not nearly the energetic man he once was. As we were sitting there at one stage, he actually said: “getting old is hard”.

Besides everything else, he spoke of balance issues, which seem to be a common talking point in his group of elderly friends. He made reference at one stage at how he had fallen down and how it was a regular occurrence.

I find it depressing and not a little daunting. As we drove back to his place, I even thought: he drives like an old man now. He still has all his faculties and retains a certain sharpness, but he drives slowly and deliberately.

This is not uncommon in elderly people, as I’m sure we all know. I’ve always thought it was a sign of conservatism and perhaps a certain fear, but I had never thought about it in any depth until yesterday. I would never have believed that my aggressive father would become this, but I wondered if it was because he was now aware of his vulnerability.

When you’re young, you feel strong and certain, or a lot of us do – and never more true than for my father. But he is frail. He has proof of his decline, and clearly, it’s in his mind. The realisation that he will die one day, and sooner than before, is probably in his mind. He’s vulnerable. Anything could happen at any time. Why risk it on the roads? And at least that’s something controllable – so he takes it slow, just to be sure.

This is my speculation – we didn’t discuss it. I left him feeling uneasy, for him, and for me too. If this is his journey, then as his son, I’m probably on the same path. It’s a powerful motivator to remain healthy.

I know that if I ever reach a stage of physical decrepitude or mental incompetence, then I’d rather exit the stage.