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.

Steeped in melancholy

I went to the city late yesterday to do some last-minute shopping and catch up for dinner with a friend. I sat in a pub with a beer in my hand, waiting for her before we had dinner at a Korean barbecue joint.

She offered to drive me home afterwards, and when I refused, she insisted. I sat in the passenger seat watching Melbourne pass by my window, and it struck me how long I’ve been looking out upon this town. I think it was the changes I observed that brought it to mind – old buildings demolished and built in their place, historic facades kept while the innards were gutted, and so on. Among it all, there was still much familiar.

As I looked out on the passing parade, the thought occurred to me: we’ve grown old together. You become a part of the city as much as the city becomes a part of you, and it seemed reassuring. What seemed strange was how much remained vivid to me. When I was young, I looked at older people and pretty well figured their memories must be in sepia, so vast the gap in time seemed.

The game is not so vast from my vantage now, and so much fresh in me – as if I might have stepped from that moment to this without interruption. But, it’s not as simple as that.

Looking out the passenger side window, I spotted an apartment building that looked familiar. Was it this, or one very similar, I wondered? It didn’t matter, it was in the area – and what I remembered was sharing a bathtub with a brunette about 2am on a weeknight, her name escapes me. She dropped me off in the city for work early the next morning, the one and only night I spent with her. I never saw her again.

Driving on, we passed through East St Kilda, close by the poky little flat in Crimea Street of the woman I first fell in love with. I spent the weekend there in 1988, close on after a work party the first time we got together. It was a wondrous, romantic weekend we spent most of in bed together, first in our underwear, and then without it. (Coincidentally, it was where I first discovered it was practically impossible to fuck in a bath). I remembered waiting for the tram late on Sunday that would take me home, and being filled with possibility. It was the first time my heart ever caught.

We drove through areas near where I’d lived at one time or another, and by places I’d shared moments drinking or eating, laughing or loving.

I wonder why I made no reference to this as we drove, but it never occurred to me. It’s rare for me to travel through such parts as a passenger, but as a passenger, you have a different perspective. I looked out upon it as if it was a theme park of my own memory. Why did I choose not to share any of it – until now? I don’t know.

I was in a receptive mood. For reasons unknown, I was struck hard by a bout of melancholia from mid-afternoon yesterday. It’s an internalised state that sensitises you to memory and nostalgia. You see in a different way; you feel more deeply.

Though the memories seemed so detailed, I struggled to understand how I’d travelled from those times to this. In keeping with my state of mind, I felt aware of everything I had lost along the journey. I’m not one for regret, but once or twice, I wondered if I had done something different how things might have turned out? And, momentarily, I yearned to be back in those times so that I could look out with those eyes and feel with that heart and have hope unfettered by reality.

In the end, it’s episodes like that which steel my resolve. It’s nice to have memories, but much more important to make new ones.

The things you remember, and the things you don’t

I was in bed reading last night, and the book changed scenes from London to Casablanca. Without thinking, my mind cast back to when I was there.

What surprised me most is how little detail I remembered of it. My experience of Casablanca was nothing like the romance of old movies, and there was no mystery to it, that much I remember. It has such a name that I felt I had to touch down there, but it’s a dull place – certainly in comparison to the rest of Morocco.

I remember the hotel, but not my room. I can recall visiting the vast and impressive mosque there, but none other of my tourist activities while there. I can’t even remember eating out, though normally that’s a highlight.

As I lay there reading my mind worked away at my memory: where did I go after? Was it Marrakech or Essaouira? And how did I travel – was it by bus or train?

I remember catching the train at least twice. The first time it felt like a suburban train travelling between cities and so crowded that I couldn’t find a seat. I stood near a door with my bags gathered around me, shoulder to shoulder with the locals. I think that was the train to Marrakech. And yes, it was, I remember now, recalling the taxi that picked me up and took me to the riad I would stay in. It was on the outskirts of the Marrakech souk – so big, so labrynthine, that it was easy to be lost within it. But delightful.

And so I remember the French woman who owned the riad – what was her name? We connected later through social media. She was attractive and elegant, very French. We flirted in a sophisticated way. Was it Catherine?

The other train was to Fes, which was my last stop in Morrocco. I had a compartment on that train and shared it for most of the journey with a couple of young Americans spending a year abroad working for the Peace Corps, I kid you not. They were very pleasant and innocent in that very particular way of good-hearted Americans. They were very earnest about doing good and open-hearted in discussing it.

Marrakech I loved, and I thought that Essaouira was great also, though very different. And Fes was interesting.

But then the book referenced Izmir and that’s another place I’ve been, though the memory was muddled in my mind. Was that the place where storks roost upon the tops of old Roman columns? I recalled sitting outdoors at a bar there, drinking an Efes, or perhaps a Raki, and looking upon the grand storks sitting in their nests. But is that Izmir, or have I mixed it up with some other Turkish city?

It’s funny how your memories are scattered. Some things are vivid, many more vaguely recalled, and much else – no doubt – almost completely forgotten. When I travel I always think to myself I should take a photo of my hotel room, though mostly they’re pretty ordinary. It’s a way of anchoring my memory in place though, I think afterwards. It’s funny how few hotel rooms I can remember – only the very good, and the very bad.

I’ll never get back to most of those places. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but it feels a strange thought. And I wonder – what places will I get back to?

Days of grace

I’m about to be sentimental. That’s fair warning for those of you who’d rather not read such things. I understand, and you go with my blessing.

For the rest of you, well, Christmas is coming up, which is just about the most sentimental time of year for most people. It is for me also, but more so in memory than practice these days. I’ve come to terms with that, and though I’d wish it different, I can go another year without the true embrace of Christmas with loved ones.

What’s in my mind at the moment is the period after Christmas. For some reason, the last few days I’ve got it in my head days of yore when post-Christmas celebrations my mum and my step-father would head up the bush to the property they had at Yarck. A few times I’d join them, though generally for no more than a week. I’m yearning to do it again but, of course, cannot.

I’ve said it before, how times can be defined by the everyday things you do and think no more of. Your life forms a loose pattern, marked by regular milestones and activities, and the people around you. You’re hardly conscious of it at the time because it’s all so normal – this is your life. You only really understand it when it changes, or goes altogether – when the times shift.

So it was for me. I reckon for about a period of 16 very good years the structure of life around me was great. I lived well and had good friends, but, most importantly, I was a part of an extended family group. My mum had married again in 1990 and with it came another family.

I wasn’t sympatico with all in the other half, but then I wasn’t sympatico with all my in my half either. Never mind, because the rest made up for it.

I’d always been close to my mum, and now that she’s gone, I miss her dearly. I miss her most around times like Christmas when she was in her element. She took a child-like pleasure in the festivities and the joy of family around her that was infectious. This was a time of celebration, and no-one knew how to celebrate better than my mum.

I grew to adore her new husband too, my step-father, who accepted me as if I was born to him. In certain ways, we were different, but in so many other ways, we were in tune with each other. I had great times with him, and with the family in general, too numerous to recount now. I miss him also.

Also part of the package came a step-sister who I became very close to – much closer than I was with my own sister. She was modern and vivacious, and we were very much on the same wavelength.

One of the abiding features of our life as a family was the time we’d spend at Yarck. The property there nestled between the hills on the road to Mansfield. The house was cosy and comfortable. There was a pool out back and an in-ground spa and a tennis court as well. Later on, they built a log cabin, which is where I would sleep.

Mum always said that it was enough to turn into the driveway to feel totally relaxed. I’m generally sceptical of such remarks, but I felt this too. It was a place of comfort and tranquillity. It was somewhere were you dropped all pretence, and where many of the concerns that dogged you back in the city seemed irrelevant. It was a haven for all of us.

For probably a dozen years we all as an extended family would make our way there for Easter. It was a ritual we all craved. There we would eat well – we always ate well – and drink bubbles in the spa and drive up to Mansfield for the fete, or sit around the fire reading.

Otherwise, Mum and Fred would be there once a month probably, and I’d probably join them for the odd weekend two or three times a year. Then there was Christmas.

Generally, they spent a month there after Christmas. A few times, I joined them, but never for that long. I remember the sun blazing down in a perfect blue sky and swimming for hours on end in the kidney-shaped pool or reading on a banana lounge in the shade. We lived a civilised life, and there was always a G&T from about 4.30 in the afternoon, and a bottle of wine or two with dinner.

I always took a bag of books with me and would progressively work my way through it. We slept late most days. Sometimes we’d go for a drive, but mostly stayed at the property, and occasionally would drive the winding track up into the hills, were the kangaroos bounded and the smell of wattle was in the air.

There was work to be done as well – fixing a fence or mowing the lawn. Mum would work in the garden, and there was always firewood to be chopped. But then we’d break it up with a cold beer, and maybe fire up the BBQ.

The point I’m making is that it was a life away from life. The place wrapped itself around you, and you shared it with people you loved, and who loved you.

Somehow, this is what I crave this year. Fred died in 2007, and mum a few years later, and that time – which felt eternal – conclusively ended. Now, there’s nothing more I would rather than to pack up the car with Rigby beside me and spend 2-3 weeks doing fuck-all in that magical place.

Like I said, it’s sentimental. How I miss it. How I miss all of it, particularly now.


For a couple of years, I went to school in Sydney after my dad got a transfer there with his job. I started in term two, which was in Year 10 for me. School was a bit different, both in terms of curriculum, and culturally – I was known as the kid from Melbourne and stirred, generally, for being a supporter of ‘aerial ping-pong’.

I settled in pretty quick though and made friends, one of whom remains one of my best mates now. I did English, Maths, Physics, Art and History.

I liked History and was good at it. I still like it. (In the history exam that year we had a selection of five topics from which we had to write three essays. I finished my essays early, and rather than sit around and wait decided to write the other two essays as well).

The following year (I think – Year 11) we studied the Russian revolution, which I found fascinating. Our teacher was Mr Wolfers, in retrospect probably not much more than a dozen years older than his students. In memory, he’s short and plump, though very much an enthusiast.

We went way back into the 19th century to learn about the Tsars and serfdom and the origins of the discontent that led to the revolution. We covered, naturally, the events of 1905, the coming war, and then the revolution itself, the government of Kerensky initially, before the Bolsheviks seized power.

Perhaps not much has changed, but my sympathies were very much with the Russian people – historically docile, downtrodden and mistreated, finally rearing up.

In our class discussion, Mr Wolfers touched upon a famous book written about the Bolshevik revolution in St Petersburg – Ten Days that Shook the World, by John Reed. Later I would read it, and it’s a vivid and exciting account of the Bolsheviks coming to power.

John Reed was an American journalist and communist. He’s not someone much remembered today, though you might be able to picture him as the protagonist as played by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds.

Last Friday I was subdued and weary after a long night at the vet and disinclined to exertion of any kind. I allowed myself to lay on the couch, from where I watched Reds – and all these memories came back to me.

It’s a good movie, directed by and starring Beatty, a famous progressive. It’s a movie that had to be made because Reed was such a fascinating character, and seminal in the telling of the Russian revolution.

It’s also a very long movie and as I watched I set about editing it in my mind. It’s all interesting, but the real guts of the story is when he heads to Russia with his wife, Louise Bryant. And so, I thought, I would cut the first hour in half, lose a couple of plot threads, and tighten up the others.

The movie was made in 1981, a year after I studied under Mr Wolfers. I didn’t watch it then, nor for many years after. I don’t remember when I did, but I’m sure I would have watched with studious attention.

I tried to remember my 1981. It was my final year of school, back in Melbourne. I was a defiant student at school, for whatever reason, though generally bright. The things I recalled were mostly sporting.

I remember one Saturday afternoon laying in a bath listening to the radio as my footy team kicked 4 goals in the last 5 minutes to win a famous victory against our arch-rival Carlton, at their home ground (we won 15 in a row that year playing thrilling football).

I remember waking up to the news of the so-called miracle at Headingly when on the back of some Botham heroics England had scraped an incredible victory against the Aussies. I was devastated and depressed for days.

I remember kicking the footy around on one of the school ovals when I should have been in class; and poring over The Age in the study room, which I would read from front to back every day. I remember another occasion when I stood up and argued a point with my English teacher and was banished from class; and another time, bored, how I climbed out an open window mid-class while the maths teacher was writing on the blackboard, and headed home.

I was way into girls, as you are at that age, but I can’t recall any particular crush I had. Realistically, I probably wanted to get in the pants of all of them.

Strangely, it was only later that I remembered that 1981 was also the year my parents separated. I went with my mum – my dad hadn’t uttered a word, or even acknowledged me, for months, so it was an easy decision. We moved into a brick unit in Main Road, Eltham. My dad started speaking to me again.

And thus, that’s how memory associate things.

Where you find meaning

One of the salient aspects of lockdown is how everything slows down. You’re contained within a location and constrained from meeting others face to face. Every movement is small – from bedroom to study to kitchen; from home to shops, or the circuit in which you exercise or walk the dog. Your window on the world is literally your front window, or those brief occasions you get out, or via the TV screen. Routines barely waver because there’s nothing to disrupt them. External distraction is barely a thing.

In this world we have, it seems, and by necessity, become much more internalised. I was discussing this with someone the other day and we agreed that it’s not necessarily a bad thing and, in smaller doses, perhaps even a necessary thing. In times before we were sadly lacking in this. It’s been welcome to return to ourselves and to the smaller movements of domestic and family life. The problem is, there’s little balance. Hopefully, in times to come, there’ll be a healthy balance between being in the world and feeling it.

Fair to say, I’ve always had strong internalised tides. I used to think that I felt things through my skin, even as I led a pretty robust lifestyle. I was always aware or was most of the time. I thought and pondered, I considered and contemplated, and I could feel it in my stomach as something tenuous but precious. This situation has only accentuated this tendency.

I’m sure a lot of people find themselves reflecting in times like these. I have too, though without particular intent. It’s a bit different for me because while many others have become more conscious of their family around them, I have become conscious of how little family I have. It’s something I’ve become accustomed to over recent years and so I don’t miss in any practical way what I don’t have. There have always been occasional pangs when I feel the absence, and that still happens, but no deeper or more frequent than before. I have grown more detached from it if anything, but the context feels different – more historical almost.

One of the constant reminders is the constantly changing photos on my bedside smart device, as I’ve written before. It seems to me that every week a different photo catches my eye and slowly insinuates its way into my thoughts. Almost all of them are family photos and from family occasions. I walk around while at the back of my mind I carry the image from the picture. For the most part, the occasion is lost to memory – dinners at random memories say, though others I remember, such as when I became godfather to my nephew. It feels strange to me and often quite distant. I wonder sometimes, was that really us? Was that really me? I can recognise myself, but looking back I look different from what I remember. The space of time – up to 30 years – has given me an entirely new perspective, but at the same time, it feels as if I’ve carried a story all this time which has grown and shifted over time until it bears little relationship from how it started. It feels as if that would forever have been the case if I hadn’t set eyes on these old pictures again. In a way, it feels like a reset. It feels as if what I see with my eyes is truer than the memory.

That’s a funny feeling – almost as if you have to review all that you’ve taken for granted. And, yes, I know, some of that will be false or exaggerated. It’s natural to feel more sentimental now, say when you set eyes on people no longer with us. But it also causes you to re-balance the things that have important in your life.

This weeks photo was taken at some indeterminate restaurant sometime in the early to mid-nineties. There are six of us at the table and, as I glanced at it, I realised that three have since passed away. It’s an incongruous thought when you peer at healthy faces with beaming smiles. It’s a moment caught, which is one of the things about photos obviously – they don’t change, while the people in them do.

I’m sitting at the table at the end nearest the camera. I’m wearing a jacket that looks pale in the photographic exposure. I remember the jacket well when I look at the photo – an oatmeal coloured linen jacket that was a favourite for many years. I have a cocky smile on my face, leaning forward slightly, handsome and dashing – like a Spitfire pilot out on the town. I look so certain of myself.

Opposite me is my step-sister. I’ve noticed in these photos that she’s always close to me. She had a thing for me when my mum met her dad and thereafter we were close. That was the case for many years, a dear person to me until mum died and everything went. In the photo, she’s good looking and a little plump, as she was in the early days. Later she loses the baby fat and blossoms into an attractive and intelligent woman. I miss her.

My sister is there, as is her husband. They’ll part about 15-20 years after this, and he’ll abscond to England to live with a woman he met through Facebook. Very modern. Very tawdry. Later he’ll die over there from a massive heart attack. It’s a shock, but not altogether a surprise – he had unhealthy habits and a tendency to binge. And there he is, locked away in an old photo.

Also there, as in most of these photos, are my mum and her husband, my step-father, both dearly loved. They’re smiling, as always. For mum, there was nothing better than being with the people she loved most.

I caught sight of that photo on rotation last night. I leaned in to study it more closely. As often, I felt a sense of wonder and a vague melancholy.

I wonder: what was my life then? What did I think? What did I expect? What restaurant was that? What did I order? Who was I? And: how is that me?

I went away from it and I thought, that photo will continue rotating, and with others, even when I’m not there to see it. Even after I’m gone as long as someone plugs it in. It’s a fragment of memory that’s broken off and lives on in cyberspace. It’s me that gives it context – without me, it’s just a photo of a bunch of unknown people having dinner together. There’s no history. No meaning. But looking at it again there’s a historical perspective I didn’t have before, and from it erupting other moments and possibilities and revisionist conjectures. But only in me. I give the photo meaning. I suspect that’s true of much of life: we give it meaning.

That may be a realisation many are now experiencing in this lockdown. It seems a simple and obvious thing, but those are the things we forget or take for granted. I only have photos, but I reckon lots of others with family around them are feeling a lot more present without the distractions of former times. You don’t want to lose that or let it drift out of shape.