Seeing an Old Friend

“I don’t want you to go,” Sara says.

“Which tie,” I say, holding up the mauve one, enjoying my indifference while my wife frowns. She leans in the doorway, folding her arms, shaking her head.

“But you told me he left you when you went crazy,” she says as if this makes any difference. “When you tried to find him again, he gave you the wrong address.”

“I think the navy one.”

I fold the tie and put it in the suitcase. When the breeze drifts through the bedroom window, curtains sway into the room like sails, and the sun climbs the blue sky and black birds perch on power lines that hum when the air grows hot.

“You always go away and leave me to look after the kids. I don’t go anywhere.”

I close my eyes.

“I’ll be gone for a couple of days, sweetheart. Don’t stress.”

Sara slumps into the armchair and watches me pack. “You don’t talk about him. Were you close?”

And so I tell Sara about Grant and me growing up in a small rural town with orchards and fruit factories and poor people. Where the river runs with brown water.

“At high school we made a philosophy club that met every week. Grant, our teacher friend, David, and me met at lunch to discuss Wittgenstein and whether we could prove if a rhinoceros hid in the room.

“When teachers told Grant or me off, we quoted philosophers and poets back at them. We made the world’s worst punk band and on warm evenings we drank beer and whisky in secret. At parties, we drank until we threw up.

“In the summer, we swam in my backyard pool and practised music. Or noise as our folks called it. When Grant moved to Melbourne, I followed and we lived in a small, sad flat. We had neither friends nor money. He drove a Datsun and we passed time in front of a tiny black-and-white TV.

“We lived off noodles and for fun on Saturday nights, we smashed glasses on the kitchen floor. Sometimes I drank cask wine and listened to him strum his double bass like a magician.”

“Do what you want.”

Sara stomps down the creaking stairs. I think back to my days with Grant when I wallowed in poverty and lived a life of freedom and spontaneity. But everything Sara said happened, and my last experiences with Grant left me bitter.

I zip up the suitcase and press my fingertips to my forehead where the storm cloud of a headache lurks. Outside, the birds croon with the wind.

If I stay, I may hear the power lines, standing like crucifixes, crackle under the weight of the sun.

I stand at the door with my suitcase in my hand. Nearby, the toilet flushes, and Sara stomps out looking pouty and bothered. When I speak, I lower my voice. “Can you drive me to the airport?”

Before I board the plane, Sara turns her head away when I kiss her. But I forget about our fight while I wait in the lounge with my earbuds in. As I watch the tarmac, I listen to The Boys Next Door performing “Shivers”. Why does making myself feel sad feel so good? The wind blows clouds big as mountains across the sky.

Almost thirty years have passed since I saw Grant. The only glimpses I’ve had of him have been from clicking through photos his wife posted on social media. He’s always been aloof and free-thinking. Another reason why I loved him once, and why I need to see him.

Bad weather delays the plane trip. Soon, however, I’m on the train pushing the curtain aside. Images pass beyond the window as if they are a movie and the window a screen.

Grey twisted trees crawl like claws from the flat ground where yellow grass stirs in the breeze. Sometimes, a house set back from the tracks comes into view before flashing by. Then come the small towns that never change.

At lonely railway crossings men in Akubra hats wait in their utes, drumming their thumbs on the steering wheel. Warning bells and flashing red lights ring and pulse. The carriage sways and my stomach squirms as a stoned man yells into his phone. He says he’s going to kill some guy.

Sweat runs down my cheek and my heart races.

Like the other towns the train has passed through, this one is unchanged. Some of the new houses look much grander and more modern than those I saw in my youth. But so much is the same. And the kids don’t know they are living in the town’s memory.

I watch my haggard reflection drinking black coffee in the cafe window. Shadows fall as I pick up my phone. 4.58. Days are long but years fly by.

A long-haired guy who looks like Grant strolls outside the window, and I recall the last time I saw my old friend at a pub. He finally agreed to meet me once I stopped taking drugs. We didn’t laugh much that day. Something had died between us.

Can something stay important forever? I think so, but sometimes I wonder. And you can beat many things, but time always wins.

A scruffy blond guy I knew from school strolls in wearing a baseball cap. I hunch over, but I glimpse him. Someone named Ben. And that’s all he is … someone. He talks with the girl at the counter, who smiles.

Ben glimpses me, but his face is blank, and he lopes through the door with the takeaway coffee steaming in his hand. When I see he’s gone, I stand up and leave.

The man with the eyepatch still works behind the glass counter of the bong shop. While I browse, he asks me if I need help and I want to tell him that I bought stuff here when I was a kid. Punk T-shirts. Posters of rock bands. Postcards I never sent.

He sits with his arms crossed, staring at me and bouncing his leg. The threat of crime and violence still tinges this place. Like the smell of the candles burning incense.

As night falls, I stroll through the park where the rose bushes grow and where hobos once drank on benches. Sometimes, they picked fights with sober people and hallucinated.

Once, the cops picked Grant and me up here for vagrancy. We were nineteen years old. The cops must have come when someone heard us fighting over a girl. We were drunk, of course. Our hands still had spray paint on them.

The cops never noticed they had picked up vandals, not even when they spoke to us at the station. Yet they still gave us time to brood when they locked us in cells with big iron doors that slammed shut.

That was before I moved far away, and long before we focused on family and career. Our social networks grew smaller. With every passing year, our old lives seemed more alien, and I didn’t want to ruin my memories by trying to bring the past back.

Like the town, my room is humble and plain. Brown leaves curled up like dead spiders float on the surface of the swimming pool.

While the moon’s cold face glimmers, I wander the lonely streets. I pass empty bars with swirling disco lights. A gang of young men march towards me, swearing and yelling, and one of them smashes a bottle on the footpath. I don’t see it, but I hear it shatter. It sounds as if the world is breaking.

Of all the places I thought I might see Grant again, just about the last on my list would be his mother’s backyard in our old town. Smokers stop talking and glare at me. People stand in groups talking. Others sit on plastic chairs and inside the kitchen the younger group are mixing spirits.

People follow me with their eyes as if I’m a ghost from the dead and distant past, but I stand straight and hold my head high.

When I stand at the casket with its top half open, I peer down at Grant’s owlish face. I wave a fly from my eyes. Where are all his witticisms and jokes now?

Headstones pass in my mind’s eye. Dead flowers on graves, limp in neglected vases, and coats of dust over slabs. But once someone loved these dead souls.

I lurk uninvited, watching my old friend who never wanted to speak with me again. His mother wipes her eyes with a handkerchief, and an earnest frown wrinkles her face. She is trying to recognise me.

The guy who has come home to haunt the dead.

Jason Morgan lives in Sydney. Several of his poems have appeared in Quadrant in recent years.


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