We first see our son sitting on the grass, reading near the Hyde Park fountain, the one with Apollo on top, Diana and Theseus and Aristaeus in the pool below. He arrived before us, so we approach him from a distance through the cathedral of fig trees.
His mother cooees and he stands up for a hug, her first, then me. He has changed; seems taller, leaner, a bit harder. Those same blue eyes are now accentuated by the tanning of his face after two years on the road in South America. His head is shaved on the sides and he has stringy hair long on top, a sort of dreadlocked mohawk. He looks like a character from Avatar, or an escaped minor god from the fountain.
He hadn’t told us he was back in the country. He’d wanted to surprise us, but we found out through a panicky friend when he’d asked to stay at her place in Sydney, then disappeared. We go looking for food and coffee. He tells us he’s a vegetarian now, and interested in anarchism. He’s been reading Malatesta, a book given to him by some travellers he met in Colombia.
He is wearing brown corduroy pants and a grey T-shirt showing lighthouses of America, bought for a dollar each in Bogotá. His feet are shod with second-hand Colombian army boots, the leather worn down to the steel caps on the toes. ‘Is that from kicking lefties’ heads in jail,’ I say.
We walk to Martin Place, find some vegetarian food, then take it back to the café on the edge of the park to talk and eat. ‘I haven’t seen a television or read a newspaper for two years, so I’ve got a few gaps. Fill me in on what’s been going on here.’ What to say? Most of it (the Australian politics in particular) seems like utter trivia. ‘So what happened to Rudd?’
‘He got a rough deal.’
It sounds so hackneyed when I try to summarise it. The global financial crisis, sub-prime mortgages, spending our way out of it. ‘New school buildings—they’re everywhere. Your old primary school has a new hall, so does Rosary, and the Murdoch press ran a huge campaign against him for wasteful spending. Then there was the messed-up home insulation scheme, and propaganda from the big mining companies so they didn’t have to pay more tax, and his own party didn’t like his style any more …’
‘And the woman, what’s she like?’
‘Okay. Much the same, really.’
The coffee is inky-black and good. ‘I haven’t had coffee like this in a long time.’ We wash down the rice balls and nori rolls as ibises scout the park.
‘And Obama turned out to be no good?’
‘That’s not right. He was left so many problems. They’re broke. Been spending more than they make for years, and the cost of the Iraq war—a trillion. And he’s trying to run a country where people think they’re having their freedom taken away from them by introducing a public health scheme.’
I look into his familiar blue eyes (forgotten until today) and he says, ‘Did you know the Americans have robot planes they control from game screens? They sit in lounge chairs in these dens and they have a joystick and a screen and they kill real people. And these dens are behind game parlours where kids can come and play and they pick the best ones with the highest scores and give them a job in the killing room.’
‘I haven’t heard that about the game parlours, but I have seen pictures of the dens where they control the drones. Disgusting. Leather chairs with built-in drink holders.’
He goes on to tell us about the Realpolitik of Venezuela and Colombia—the violence and machismo, the double-dealing, the military on the streets, the good and bad of socialism. His love for the people he met and his way of life there, surviving on a minimum of money, busking, making things to sell so he could eat, and how the unregulated system works because everyone needs to do it. He made chocolates by hand to sell on the streets of Bogotá, but he doesn’t like his chances of doing it here. Who would buy one in this park from an unlicensed seller with a cardboard tray?
We missed his nineteenth and twentieth birthdays, though we used Skype a few times—beautiful in its way, but paradoxically distancing, with his moon-shot voice and his image breaking into a pixelated jumble, or frozen to an old photograph eaten by rain and termites.
We walk through the Domain and the Botanic Gardens, past the trees hung with bats. An old dragon tree stands out against the sky like a Dr Seuss cartoon. The bats smell musty and so does he, not choosing to wash every day. Down at the quay he says, ‘Let’s get out of all these tourists,’ so we catch the train to Newtown where he’s staying for a few nights in a student house.
He’s been back in the country for longer than we knew, living near Newcastle. At Corelli’s Café he tells us how he borrowed a bike and went camping on a bush trail for two days, riding under the powerlines on the access tracks into the forest. On the second day, he met another cyclist coming the opposite way. It turned out he was from Spain and our son (now fluent in Spanish) surprised the traveller by asking him in his own tongue what he thought of Australia. ‘State control like America with British punctuality.’ Our son’s heart sank. ‘That’s how I find it too, coming back.’
And what do I think about it? Heavily regulated, impatient, food-obsessed. A brashness from American media layered on top of English reserve and the old Aboriginal wound, tempered with new Asian and Middle Eastern influences still working themselves out. Citified children wrapped in cotton-wool, living in more and more virtual worlds; silently segregated communities; gated apartment blocks. Somewhere, the traditional self-deprecating humour and outgoing lack of respect like an echo underneath a crumbling, boarded-up pub, bought by developers and soon to be bulldozed.
But I don’t say any of this. Just ‘It’s true. It’s getting more rule-bound here every day. And people get angry really fast if things don’t go to plan—but when they do go really wrong, I still think Australians are ready to help each other.’
‘Yeah? I was on the beach at Newcastle and I accidently asked something in Spanish because I’d forgotten the English, and these guys told me to go back where I came from. It was pretty funny, really.’
He’s hungry again so we order more food—chilli beans and roast vegetable salad. I tell him, ‘I’m thinking of going vego too.’
I used to run a line with myself that it was acceptable to eat a small amount of meat because it was ‘natural’ for creatures to eat each other, even though we are all sentient beings. And yes, although we are the type of sentient creature that has other choices, if we were aware, and honoured the creature we ate, it was okay. But all that depended on someone, somewhere else, doing the killing. Lately the thought of the process has haunted me more and more at table, the industrial lives of so many animals—and the increasing discovery of other species’ sophistications that we had assumed to be ours alone: tool use, language, deep family bonds …
‘Just do it!’ he says.
‘I’ll give it a try.’
Up King Street we look through retro shops—chairs, record players, dining tables, lounges and curtains that were simply the furnishings and fabrics of our (now collectable) childhoods. How quickly your own life becomes nostalgia if you let it. We walk back to Waterloo, where we are staying in the apartment of the friend who tipped us off. Just talking quietly, getting to know each other again. The night after we discovered he was back, his mother lost her voice with a throat infection. He jaywalks the intersections while she harries him in a hoarse whisper. He tells her not to be afraid, that bad things happen because fear attracts them. They argue quietly under the trees, mother and son, and I say ‘Yes, but you need some wisdom …’
Our friend buzzes us into the white tiled foyer and we go up six floors to her one-bedroom flat. We are sleeping on a fold-down couch in the lounge so we all go out on the small balcony to talk. We look over the lawns in the quadrangle to the thousand other flats. Only three balconies have plants, the others are bare except for barbecues, satellite dishes, some desultory Christmas lights. A lone currawong tries out its call from the top of a cooling tower.
Our son raises one leg of his corduroy shorts and shows us a blue, finely inked tattoo of a wire bicycle above his knee. Next to his left ankle is a triangle of solid indigo. ‘My rough play button,’ he says. Apart from these, there are no new tattoos or scars.
Sipping tea and eating carrot cake, he fills in a few more gaps.
‘One night I was on the street late in Bogotá and these four guys came towards me. I could tell it was trouble, so I crossed to the other side of the road, but another two guys jumped out from a corner and suddenly I had two knives against my neck. I told them I only had one mil—that’s about fifty cents. They searched me and that’s all they found. I told them I wasn’t worth robbing. Why not rob the rich instead? But they took it anyway and walked off.
‘Then some cops came past on motorbikes. It was straight after it happened, so I pointed out the guys and they chased them down and aimed guns at them. They made them strip and lie down in the street. I wanted revenge so I said they stole fifty mil, but the cops searched them and all they had was my lousy one mil. So I only got my fifty cents back. Six guys and only one mil between them!’
His mother and our friend are making a celebratory meal for him and they send us off to buy some wine. We walk up Bourke Street and find a wine shop but decide to keep walking. We take the footbridge over South Dowling Street and the Eastern Distributor, then make our way up through the gum trees at the back of the Moore Park golf course to a high hill where we sit looking at the city skyline. Behind us, men stand in an open-fronted building, driving little white balls into an artificial green paddock. ‘Strange species, aren’t we?’ I say.
‘So, how are you?’ he asks.
‘I’m okay. I like my work, but I’m slowly getting to the point where I want to do something different with my life. I want to maybe go and do something useful somewhere else in the world—like volunteer to teach in Cambodia, or even here—Aboriginal literacy—there’s lots of things I could do. I’m relatively happy, but I feel like I need to connect more directly to people.’ We talk about plans and ideals and commitments and what’s stopping me, and I give him some more details about things he’s missed: his sister’s break-up with her boyfriend, the last days of our family dog, the death of my father.
A man with a blue singlet, and tattoos on his huge deltoid muscles, runs up the steep hill we are sitting on, then walks back slowly to the oval below. He repeats the procedure a dozen times. ‘He looks like a bouncer—I wouldn’t want him chasing me.’
‘You’d be the last person I know who’d get into a fight, Dad.’
‘I don’t know. Sometimes bad stuff just happens.’
‘I think nothing happens by chance. I learnt that on the farm in San Augustín. The community leader there told me that bad things happen because you need to learn a lesson from them. It’s about energy. If you’re full of positive energy and you share that with everyone then nothing bad will come to you. I really believe that.’
‘I don’t know. It sounds like it presupposes that the universe has some kind of force or deity deciding if you need to learn a lesson or not, or if your energy is positive enough. I think it’s more random than that. If there is some kind of controlling justice in the universe, then why did a good, kind man like your pop have such a tortured death?’
‘Was it bad?’
‘Yes. I’m not going to lie to you. He had twenty days in hell. He was demented. He tore out the drips. Didn’t recognise anyone. Didn’t drink or eat. He’d signed papers that he couldn’t be force-fed or artificially kept alive. Maybe somewhere deep down he knew if he kept tearing out the drips he could die. It was his only way out of the mental pain.’
As we’ve been talking the sun has slowly gone down behind the city. In the twilight we walk back through the trees towards Bourke Street, passing people exercising their dogs, jogging, shopping, at least half of them talking on mobile phones at the same time. I tell him, ‘There’s a lot more conversation on the street now than when I was a boy, but most of it is one-ended.’ We listen as we carry two bottles of Grenache back to the flat:
‘… it’s in the red bag near the washing machine …’
‘… I’ve had enough of your lies …’
‘… yeah, five ninety-nine each …’
‘… no, I said the city end …’
‘… so I told her if you don’t do something about it now, you never will …’
‘… the fat ones or the skinny ones …’
‘… and they were doing it in the lounge when I came in …’
Back at the apartment I turn on the television, which has surprisingly snowy reception for such a new building. Maybe something is wrong with the rooftop aerial or maybe it’s the thousands of metal railings creating a Faraday cage. ‘Do we have to?’ he says. ‘I haven’t watched TV for two years. It’s not good for you.’
‘I just want to watch the news.’
Through the electronic snow the prime minister announces that the search for more bodies from the Christmas Island boat disaster has been called off. Under the fuzzy red dye she says, ‘There is no expectation of finding any survivors or, tragically, dead bodies.’
Perhaps they will wash up in ones and twos between the rocks of the island in the next days and weeks. Perhaps they have literally been swallowed by the sea and its creatures. There will be families in Iraq who will never know, who will have a gap in their hearts that simply grows wider with the years, as wide as the Indian Ocean. I turn the television off.
His sister arrives, having come up from Adelaide for Christmas like us. After dinner they head off together into the night, back towards his place. ‘Don’t walk through Redfern!’ our friend calls after them, but they just turn their heads and laugh.
© Mike Ladd