Out of the past


Lying in bed this morning before 7, I saw a flash of light coming from the living room. It took me a moment to realise it was my iPad lighting up as it received a notification.

I got up about 20 minutes later and, checking my phone, found I’d received a Facebook friend request. I didn’t recognise the name at first, and I thought it was probably one of those random invitations you’ll receive every so often. Then it dawned on me that the person had the same name as someone I knew back at high school, thirty years ago. I clicked on the profile and studied it for evidence.

It didn’t give away much. The only school listed on his profile was not the private school we shared – but then I remembered that he left after about year 9. The school he listed was in much as the same area. There were no photos of his younger self, but I thought I could recognise the boy I knew in the smiling face on the screen.

I remembered him as a big kid with a mop of blonde hair. In his photos, he was burly and had the same open face, though probably looking a few years older than me (I can pass for 40). In all the years since I’ve barely thought of him, but in some strange way I recently had a random recollection of a moment we shared together – sitting on a bus heading to ice skating in Ringwood, ELO and the Sweet playing on the radio, and him showing me the yachting magazine he was looking at. He was into sailing.

I didn’t immediately accept his invitation. I thought about it first. All this time and I wondered what we’d have to say, and if it was still relevant that we know each other. And it set off a train of thought, much as trivial incidents like this often do.

I imagined having a conversation with him and explaining my life in the time since we last saw each other. I could tell him of adventures and the things I’d strived to achieve and there was plenty of colour and movement, but I felt at that moment that I came up short. I could see that he was married with children and I struggled in my mind to explain why I wasn’t as well.

I got myself ready for work with this thought in the back of my mind. I showered and put my suit on and prepared myself for another day in the office wondering, as I have many times before, what it’s all about? To all of this, there are no clearly defined answers. There may not be answers at all. We each go our own way, in while there’s often intent there is also much that is fluke and chance. With almost every choice we make, there’s an opportunity cost. Sometimes it only becomes evident long after the fact.

Before I walked out the door, I accepted his invitation. I was curious, naturally, and I have a general attitude that it’s better to do something than nothing. But courtesy played a big part, also – it would be churlish to refuse the invitation. I think I knew from the start I would click accept, but it didn’t take long for me to think twice about it.

It became clear that in the years since we knew each other that we’d diverged in other ways besides our families. We’d both been good private schoolboys, and though I was rebellious, I think it sat better with me than it did him. I didn’t like being told what to do and think, and chafed against the structure and regulation – yet I was also a curious child who enjoyed learning, and was sporadically good at it.

I don’t think he was as curious, nor as generally interested as I was (nor as rebellious). I think he had his eyes on other things for which a private school education was unnecessary. He was always more knockabout and, I suspect the technical school he ended up attending was a much better fit for him.

Most of the differences between us seemed unimportant except in the sense that we might not have much to share in common besides memories. What cruelled me though was to see some of the things he’d posted and shared in his news feed, up to and including from the notorious Fraser Anning.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m liberal and progressive. I believe in a fair go for everyone. I don’t discriminate by any measure. It’s not that I’m a great bleeding heart, it just seems to me stupid and unnecessary. I tend to think bigotry reveals much more about the bigot than the victim of it.

I tend to be disparaging of those who have such a mindset, which I see as weak. It frustrates me no end the simple-minded mentality that leads people into unconsidered thought and action – much easier to be handed an opinion than form one of your own. Most of those ‘opinions’ are broad and unsophisticated, the product of insecurity and fear.

It’s an infection that has spread throughout the community and which is fanned by corrupt governments worldwide who have no interest in ethics or truth. It’s all about power, and by any means. In the era of fake news and viral social media and a sloppy, often uncritical media, the bulwark against ignorance is knowledge and education, integrity and critical thinking (a skillset much in decline).

Reading his comments, it’s easy to see in him one of the quiet Australians Morrison lauds. And in his eyes, I’m probably an elite, but certainly an inner-city, latte-sipping leftie. Such is the world we live in.

It pained me to read much of what he posted – in the end, I snoozed him – but I didn’t want to judge him by that. We fall into traps of stereotyping people. We tar them with a broad brush. Certainly, I do.

I’m aware of it, but the shorthand is simpler when you generalise. It’s easier too when the stereotypes are others, not your own. It’s more complicated when faced with someone you know.

I haven’t seen this guy since we were both about 14. I don’t know him, clearly. And clearly, life has taken us in different directions. I looked at the smiling face in the profile, though. I remembered the generous, kindly kid he was. And though I disagree with what I see, I must acknowledge an inconvenient truth I’m fully aware of – that many of those I profess to despise are actually warm-hearted, otherwise decent people. It’s the paradox that’s hard to resolve when you view only along pure, ideological lines.

There’s little nuance in social media, and I shouldn’t judge too soon, if at all. I don’t want to be one of those people, particularly when I profess the desire to give everyone a fair go.

I don’t know what happens now. Perhaps I’ll tentatively reach out to him. Perhaps he’ll reach out to me.

No more barriers


I’m a firm believer that a lot of good physical health is the result of a healthy mind and attitude. If you feel good in yourself a lot of the aches and pains go away; when you don’t, they can cripple you.

That’s a part of the challenge this time of year. Christmas is a pretty stark checkpoint of where you’re at.

Nothing is ever set in stone. Just because things are bad now, it doesn’t mean that they’ll stay that way. Still, Christmas was a bracing reminder of all I don’t have. For the first time in my life, I reckon, I felt like a loser.

On bare facts, it’s hard to argue against that. I’ve got no money, no family, I live in a small box, I’m getting older and (currently) feeling it, and – worst of all – I’m uncertain of what I want. I felt embarrassed at the thought. Funnily, I actually stopped to think how other people may view me. My friends are generous, even complimentary, but I reckon a few of them must look upon me with sorrow in their heart. It’s only my pride that has stood against that.

My instinct, in situations like that, is to withdraw into the fortress inside myself. I become aware of how much I need the support of my friends, but because I don’t want to be needy, I reject it. Needless to say, I don’t want anyone’s pity either, and so I choose to avoid circumstances where I may feel it – that is, I’m tempted to withdraw socially.

This instinct to batten down the hatches is purely for self-preservation, and in some form was instrumental in surviving the harsh times. I endure. No matter that I feel it again now, it goes directly against what I believe my best interests are. To go forward, I can’t withdraw back into my shell.

None of this is easy. I have to go against instinct, and that becomes a matter of will. But then it gets sort of funny.

I met the woman on Boxing Day. We went to a movie and drinks after. With her was a guest visiting from England. I found myself slipping into a fluent and social persona. None of it was phony, but it felt incongruous. I don’t know how many times I wonder at how easy I appear when inside it feels all hard. I think a lot of it is training. I grew up in a social household and, my mother was an expert hostess, and somebody that everyone generally liked. All that eluded my sister, but a fair bit stuck to me, if only as technique. I know how to play a crowd, how to make someone feel welcome, and I revert to that when I don’t feel it myself.

In that regard, I’m either on or off, really, and when I’m on, it comes naturally. I smile, I joke, I ask questions and make comments, and feel pretty much in control. It bewilders me sometimes, how can I be these two things? How can I be so cool when inside, often, I’m full of doubt? Yet it happens so often these days.

I was aware, sitting in the rooftop bar at QT that I was appraising this woman, who was probably doing the same of me. I came away unconvinced. That’s gutfeel, mostly, and generally, that’s been good enough for me in the past. I’m trying to be more generous these days, like everyone’s always told me to be.

There were a couple of things. She’s a smart woman, an entrepreneur who’s done a bit the past and has a new venture going now. All power to her, but somehow I wasn’t convinced, and probably because I don’t think she is. There’s nothing wrong with that. To doubt is human, and necessary often, and it doesn’t preclude success. But, I wondered, if she saw in me another lost soul she could join up with.

I think she likes me for who I am, but I sense there may be some opportunism as part of that. I’m not as pragmatic as that. I feel, or I don’t. Again, I’m urged to be more flexible, but… In any case, I don’t want to be a choice made by opportunity.

There’s a test for that, which we haven’t got to yet. Here I am talking about how I’m portraying one thing when I feel another, but these days when I open up, I open up properly. That wasn’t the case before. I was very traditional masculine, keeping it to myself. I’m much less diffident these days knowing that keeping it bottled up inside wasn’t doing me much good.

I don’t go around advertising things, but the door isn’t locked anymore, and if anyone knocks on it I’ll open it. Once that happens I’m pretty raw with it, or so I reckon.

I’ve opened up to her before, though on limited occasions. She’s told me some of her story, but we haven’t really sat down to have a long and intimate conversation. The test for me is how authentic will she be then. I’m at the stage of my life I’m not interested in the form of things, I want to get at the heart of them. I suspect there’s a lot of stuff in her. I want to hear it real. If it means she has to break some of those barriers, then good. I’m not interested unless it’s all on the table, then I’ll know. And I’ll know not because of what’s on the table, but how it got there.

I don’t think this will eventuate in anything much, but I have to let it play out. This is one way forward that may mean Christmas next year is a different story.

The underground river


I go round and round in circles searching for explanations and analysing the ‘facts’ because I’m someone who can’t ever desist from trying to know. It’s like an engine in me that drives me this need to understand and, once followed, to categorise and file away. The problem in recent times is that understanding is fleeting, or conflicting versions of it exist.

The confusing thing is, as I reflect that I don’t think any of the conflicting versions are wrong as such. They are true as long as they are current, then another perspective opens up, more ‘facts’ come to light. I never stop in this search, as these pages very well attest, and perhaps this today is yet another version of that – except this time I propose that the many conjectures I posit, the analysis I embark on, are actually addressing the symptoms, not the cause.

For example, I say that I don’t have the burning desire that I had once, though often times my behaviour contradicts that. The explanation I have for that is that having experienced hard times that my perspective has shifted. I just don’t have the hunger, and my justification (for I find it hard to swallow that I might not go as hard as it as I used to) is that I am older, I’ve done that, and I have other priorities.

The real reason is that it isn’t in me anymore. And why? Because I’m sad all the way through.

I made reference the other day to an underground river of sorrow, and it feels a bit like that – hidden away from view. In the last week or so – and I don’t know why – it feels as if I’ve broken into a subterranean cavern and caught sight of the river flowing there.

This is the crux of everything. I’m sad all the time even when I’m happy, and sometimes the sorrow is so deep that I can find it difficult to manage. At it’s worse, I feel as if all energy, even will, has been leached from me. It’s like I’m trying to run with an elastic band dragging me back.

I was a stoic long before any of the shit engulfed me, but in the time since it was that which allowed me to keep going. That became a mantra of sorts – plough through, keep applying yourself. And even when it feels crippling, I rouse myself to get up because I don’t want to succumb to it. It makes for hard work sometimes, like heading into the face of a gale. It was the standard I set, though, reinforced by habit. I was afraid that if I gave way, I might never be able to get up again, but if I appear grim sometimes, that’s why.

I’m not stupid. I know I have issues. It was about two years ago I figured I wasn’t going to survive without opening up about my experiences. I began to share the dark secrets – the shame – of being helpless and homeless. It was a liberating experience and good for me and, though I don’t speak of it a lot, something I continue to do. I’ve owned it.

All I’ve owned though is what happened, not how it left me. Very typically when people ask me about it, I shrug my shoulders and say it’s just something that happened to me. And it’s true. It was like a bad accident that left me debilitated, but – I thought – I had survived and got over it. It was not something that defined me. It was not something I sought sympathy for. I was strong enough to have survived it, and that was that. It was very much in line with the stoical philosophy.

But sometimes stoicism doesn’t cut it. It keeps you from going where you need to go – in this case, into the depths of my sorrow. I sometimes wondered if I was suffering from some sort of PTSD, but I never considered – or was willing to consider – that I might be just fucking sad.

But everything comes from that, I think. I survived, battered and bruised, have lived on to fight and try and reclaim some part of the life I had. And I have focused on that, the scrap to make a better life for myself. But there are things I can never get back, and that’s the source of my great sorrow.

I don’t care I had it tough. I’m still here. The challenges ahead just make me grit my teeth. What I can’t get over is the hole in the middle me knowing what I have lost forever.

I lost all I had materially, but that’s the least of it. It means what would have been easy will now likely be hard, but I’ll get on with it. What I can’t get over is the loss of my mother, and with her, basically my whole family unit. I miss that love and affection and feeling a part of something good. The circumstances break my heart, even now.

People die, and I accept that. I miss mum, but we all suffer such loss. It’s the acrimony that followed her death I find hard to swallow, and the fallout of it that fractured a once-close family into fragments.

It seems so tragic and unnecessary to me, and even now, I feel lost. It hurts, and for the first time, I can admit that. It’s Christmastime, and it’s this time of year I feel it worst because it was this time of year that was generally happiest.

This year, like in recent years, I’ll be alone. I have invitations for Christmas day, but I’ll decline them. It’ll be pleasant enough. It’s not what I’ll do that makes it hard. What grieves me is what I’ll miss out on again – love and laughter and trust and affection and a sense of being part of something bigger than me. A family. It’s terrible what happened and one day I’ll get over it, but I guess the first part of that is accepting it.

So here I am. I’m sad, and I want to cry. I’m not the grim, stoical figure you see. That’s just on the inside. On the inside, I’m tender and want to be loved just like everybody else. I’m not as tough as you think, and it’s time you knew that. I’m sad, but now I know it.

I can’t claim back what has been lost. I think I just have to find it again for myself.

The marvellous Clive James


Very sad, though not surprised, to hear of the death of Clive James overnight. I thought he was marvellous.

It was a scruffy package, but what an incisive mind he had, matched with a wonderful way with words. He was a great communicator. Engaging as a personality, he had that rare ability to make high art and concepts approachable to the guy in the street. It was as if he shared with us his distinctive view of things, allowing us to share in the wonder he felt.

He was a great mind, but he was just as good with the everyday muck that is our media, seeing the absurdity in it and presenting back to us in such a way that we could all see it too. He was such a genial, affable character, the sort you can directly relate to because he wore his flaws so openly, and took such open visceral pleasure in popular culture, and the things that were common to us. I’d have loved to have met him*. I couldn’t imagine better company for a night out on the town – erudite, witty, intelligent and earthy.

For me, and probably for many thousands of others, I felt a connection to him merely by his presence through so many years of my life. He was always there, on TV, a beaming, bright presence sitting back in a lounge chair with a laugh in his voice as he colourfully highlighted some absurdity. And if he wasn’t there on TV, he was in the media commenting on this or that. Then there were his books. I started off with his Unreliable Memoirs many years ago, but I loved his essays also, which I think greatly underrated. Then there’s his Cultural Amnesia, both highly learned and entertaining, a great read. Even his poetry, some of which is sublime.

As an Australian, there’s another layer of connection. Though he lived in London throughout his adult life, there was something ineffably Australian about him – the irreverence perhaps, the larrikin tilting at windmills. He remained a proud Aussie throughout his life, and I was proud to have him as one of ours.

For me, there’s one final link – he’s the generation of my father. My dad had his 79th birthday a couple of weeks ago (I had lunch with him last week), a year younger than James. The world that James recalls in his memoirs is the world of my father (and mother, too). It’s a generation slowly thinning and, regardless of the disdain epitomised by the insult ‘hey, boomer’, there are many great members of it – and it’s a world slipping away. James would have a comment on that, though I suspect he would shrug his shoulders, accepting that’s the way of things and it’s somebody else’s turn now.

I’m sorry I’ll never see his jovial dial on TV anymore, or his amused voice. I’ll miss him as a character and icon, another one gone, and sad that nothing more will flow from that grand mind of his to share in.

*P.S. When I was in London a few years ago I imagined I would bump into Clive James and he would invite me back to his place where he’d have fascinating conversations over a bottle of red – that’s how much he meant to me. I knew by then that he would never return to Australia, which seemed desperately sad because he could no longer travel. Unfortunately, that encounter never happened, and never will now.

P.P.S. Not that many will know him necessarily, but another member of the fraternity coming out of English universities of the sixties died not long after James: Jonathan Miller. He had many successes, but I’ll always remember him for a fascinating series called The Body in Question. He was mates with Dudley and Moore as well if I remember right.

Running the race


The truth is that I’ve been in such an existential fog these last few years that I’m continually defining and redefining what I feel and what I want. Even what I mean. And it changes all the time because I change, and because for all my peering I can’t see clearly. I’m in a state of flux according to mood and circumstance, but whereas once I was firmly rooted in a sense of self, much of what I do and feel these days feels precarious. I can’t help but search for purpose or meaning regardless, that – at least – is a part of who I am, but there is little constancy in what I find. One day I think this. The next day the opposite. I proclaim what I want, what I need even, but the conviction waxes and wanes. It’s fortunate that I remain pragmatically competent. Otherwise I’d be totally lost.

I’m of the type that I think if I can figure things out, then I’ll be right. I like information. I like to understand things. If I lack for information or understanding, I go searching for it, even though little of it seems to add to my knowledge. The search is a meaning in itself. But then it needs to come to a point also. If this is the case, then what can I do? But it shifts all the time because that tenuous part inside me shifts all the time.

I’m a writer, and I can’t help but by thinking in metaphors often. I have a new one.

I feel like a former athlete who back in the day was top notch before injury struck. I’m over the injury now and to my surprise find I can run just as quick as I did before. I still like the sense of running fast. I even enjoy the odd competitive outing. I like the adrenalin, and proving I’ve still got it.

What I’ve lost is any joy or interest in the hard work that goes with it, the training and diet, etc. The idea of being organised into competitive events is anathema to me. I don’t mind racing, but on my terms, my whim almost. The joy I take is in the experience, not the outcome. I don’t have the appetite for anything else.

What complicates it is that I still like to win. I can choose to compete less, but when I do I expect to come out in front. In the meantime, I watch others, cocky with their achievements, but never as quick as me, take the kudos that were mine once.

When I choose to extend myself, they get their noses out of joint, but I enjoy reminding them of what’s what. It doesn’t mean anything, though. It’s an indulgence. Ego. It adds up to nothing because while I show up occasionally, they’re busy racing on the circuit.

This is the truth of my professional situation, at least. Sometimes I think I want to compete at a higher level, but I know it in my stomach it’s not something I can apply myself to. I’m lucky I’m still quick. I have small wins, I find a measure of respect, but I shirk the big races because I don’t think I want what victory brings me. But I still want to win.

There’s something frail in me these days which upsets mightily that macho sense of self. It’s new to me. I’ve always been sensitive, but I was always robust (and, you know, most people who know me would claim I still am – they just don’t know the full picture). I was brought up to take challenges head-on. I never shirked anything. That made me hard and strong and honed my skills. I’m not that man now, or hardly. I understand in a way, and wonder even if it might not be for the best – but it’s a hard thing to concede.

I was browsing Twitter last night and encountered the latest faux outrage about something someone has said or done. As always, the reaction is totally disproportionate to the incident, and the tone and language violent and over the top. I’ve seen this so many times, but last night I quietly went about unfollowing people I couldn’t abide anymore, while something fell away in me. My grip on things then was very tenuous. I felt emotional. It upset me that I was so upset. This is who I’ve become now, though. Imagine that.

Then a movie came on an I started watching that, an old classic from the forties: A Matter of Life and Death. It’s a Michael Powell movie and very well crafted and entertaining, but what really got to me was the humanity of it. This was made just after WW2, and maybe some of the euphoria of victory infected it a little, but it was a horrible event – and yet here was a movie positive and hopeful and full of simple wisdom and belief in common people. It served as an antidote to what I’d been feeling, but I also wondered why we’re not like that anymore? What have we lost, and can it be regained? And I thought, next book I write, let’s make it positive.

That’s the state of the nation today.

A safe place


I was shocked at the depth of my feeling yesterday. For the first time in my life, I felt despairing.

Sometimes you don’t always feel the full force of things until you name them. I think it’s great that people can be so more open about the state of their mental health these days, but I sometimes wonder if by saying it that you open yourself up to all its consequences. I’ve observed this a lot.

You see it in infants and kids who have minor mishaps and look to their parents. Generally, they’ll start bawling when a parent makes a fuss over them, almost as if they’ve been excused to feel sorry for themselves. Then some parents spare them a glance and play it down, “you’re alright mate”, and distress then is invariably muted. I’m sure we become conditioned by these experiences, and it informs our behaviour.

By nature, I was and remain very much in the stoic camp. That’s a very Australian way, or at least it used to be. There’s a lot of risks that comes with that – bottling up emotions, losing touch with the inner self, being closed off to others. The danger is by never expressing distress, or even owning up to it, that it causes critical damage. We’ve come a long way, though.

The other side of it is to feel victimised. I think it’s healthy to voice how you feel, but equally, I think there are times when you have to make a stand against it. The danger is losing the sense of agency in your own life. By putting your emotions in the spotlight, there’s the risk of magnifying them.

Look, I’m no expert so take what I say with a grain of salt. I know there have been occasions over the last 18 months when I’ve struggled and felt as if I couldn’t face the world. There were occasions I opted out, and that was good because it took the pressure off me. Sometimes you know putting yourself in that spot is going to make things worse and it’s sensible to take a step back.

There have been other occasions though when I’ve felt just as bad but knew I had to front up. Sometimes you need to do it to prove it to yourself. You know that if you step away now, then it’ll be harder the next time not to. Sometimes you need to make a stand. It’s not always possible, but sometimes – I think – you have to grind through it. And though it’s hard afterwards, you find your depths. Sometimes you have to fight it, not give way.

This is what I believe, and it’s true of me, but I’m sure everyone is different. All of us are made differently and have different experiences. In my case, it’s years of conditioning and a bloody-minded attitude that makes me think twice – but today I’m able to admit to frailty I would’ve been too ashamed to only a few years ago. I think that’s the healthy balance – a pragmatic acceptance of what it is.

Up till recently, I believed my ‘issues’ were personal, and so I had to address them at a personal level. It’s only in the last few weeks that I came to think that a large part of my issues was symptomatic of the times. I’m disaffected and alienated from the world about me in many attributes, and while there’s a personal element to it, it’s also becoming quite common. What I feel is felt by many others.

Knowing that changed a lot. Writing it out as I attempted to yesterday (very inarticulately) made it very real. As I wrote, I felt the sentiment infect me. The more I wrote the worse I felt. Afterwards, I felt morose. Here was true existential anxiety.

The problem is that I feel powerless in the face of these forces. I will analyse and resist and set out plans of action to address the issues that impact upon my intimate self. I’m diligent with that, driven even, unwilling to concede. But what can I do about climate change? How can I overcome corruption and apathy?

What upsets me most is not the cause of these things, most of which I can do nothing about – it’s the symptoms of it, which I feel with equal powerlessness.

The world is in the grip of a series of catastrophic trends. In a healthy society, you would expect there would be the force and will to combat them – and maybe once upon a time there was. But not now. That’s what demoralises me. To my disgust and sorrow, I’ve come to believe that nothing will happen. Why would it? What’s going to change? Who is it to drive change? Who?

In any case, I fear it’s too late now. There’s a sense of hopelessness mixed in with disgust. It’s undone me.

As I reflect, the critical moment came after the federal election in May. I approached it with such anticipation. Here was the moment I was waiting for, an enlightened government. There was reason to believe that things would improve. Instead, the same shonky politicians were returned, and it was not just disappointment I felt, but a bitter betrayal. The betrayal was as much by my fellow Australians as it was by the politicians. I lost belief at that point, and it’s all been downhill since then.

I’m fine today. You get through. These are the facts, after all. I have to deal with them. But I understand now why people turn to drink – to drown out the disappointment. I’m not about to do that, but I need something to comfort me to endure this.

I’ve always been wary of such distractions. I wanted to know the truth and confront it. I felt like a warrior. I would look upon my friends with families and be happy for them, but I also observed how it turned them inward. That’s natural, after all, your prime concern and priority are your loved ones. Single people like me could afford to be cultural warriors.

But then there’s lifestyle with a capital L. Lifestyle is the opium of our times. I’ve succumbed to it myself. We’re a society that consumes things at a rate never seen before – consumer goods and gadgets, social media, big occasion TV, and so on. We set out schedules by what we can consume and enjoy.

It’s very seductive, but the Game of Thrones isn’t real life. Lifestyle insulates us from reality, and maybe that’s a big reason the world is as it is now. Everything got too easy and comfortable.

That’s what I need, though: ease and comfort. Indulgence even. I don’t think I can ever give away the cultural warrior stuff, and don’t think I want to – it’s a kind of brain death. I’m strung out and exhausted, though. I need to be loved and supported. I need to re-integrate myself into the community. And I need to heal inside and start to hope again. I need something, somewhere, someone I can go to and feel safe, and I haven’t had that for a long, long time.

The times as they were


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I say? I enjoyed it. Mostly.

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

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