Summer Shirts

Dedicated to Patrick, Rowen, Andy, and Mum.

“…Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light…”
— Excerpt from Elegy for Jane, Theodore Roethke (1953).

“They get greedy, the people zese days so greedy”.

I fondle the velvet ear of Noushka, the old Dachshund who drapes herself across our laps while Mas explains the rules of “the only good game show on the televee”.

“He vas on fifty souzand! Now he want seventy fi’…”. She falls asleep briefly, and I help her to her fist full of technicolour meds before she retires once again. It’s pronounced ‘Mahs’, like how an Australian pronounces the planet.

She no longer has a Hungarian accent, but today she’s had some invasive dental surgery. And that is why I’m down here cooking soup and retrieving things from high shelves.

I pretend to know her age every birthday, but the truth is that I never committed it to memory the same way you repeat a girlfriend’s parents’ names in your head while they ask you what it is that you do. I work most of it out in my head, using the last digits of Mum’s Crikey subscription password to remind me that it was 1933 when she was born. The rest is easy — two days after my own birthday in the month of March.

She and her parents escaped Budapest before the official outbreak of the Second World War to scope Australia out for the rest of the family, of whom all bar two were subsequently never heard from again. A second cousin of hers, Mary, survived Auschwitz to roll her sleeves high and show us kids her ‘boyfriend’s telephone number’, a branded farm animal joking about the abattoir. Perhaps she’d really found love in a sea of hair and blood and fleas, but she knew that we knew what those tattoos meant.

Mas ran a practice for handicapped children who would fondly refer to her as Dr. Jellybean. She (with Pas) fattened Louisa the Bluetongue Lizard, who lived in their driveway drainpipe in Burradoo until she fell bloated with babies and disappeared. Their attention went back to the hungry currawongs on the back porch, and Priscilla the possum, who unlike Louisa would very proudly parade her ring-tailed pup around on her back as the evenings closed in and the old couple emerged with apples and admiration for them both. Mas was never tattooed, her parents, just like that Lizard, pre-emptively delivered their young from the unknown to come.

So much life packed so inconsequentially into withering frames. The T.V. flickers after she’s been tucked in and the dog’s waddled off to her basket, telling story after story….

She’s cancelled her quartet practise tomorrow, she says she’s too sick to play violin this week. There is so much of her still left to make its mark, to unravel sublime, to reincarnate as future generations; photo albums and summer shirts of my hunchbacked grandpa that I awkwardly thread my frame through every time she insists I try one on.

I once came across an adage along the lines of, “everybody has a story in them, and for most people that is where it should stay.” Mas isn’t most people.

* * * * *

My hands are full as my housemate lets me in the door at home. My phone rings before I can say thanks, man. It’s Andy. Brenton’s hanged himself last night, he says. He’d swung from the ceiling as I’d sat on a couch with my grandmother and a farting dachshund.

I press for more through gasps.

He did it at home, that rave cave high above the jungle on Elizabeth Street, Sydney. I had danced there. I’d got wasted there. I’d run into the most beautiful woman in the world there once and then again. I’d cried there and I’d played music there and I’d laughed and lived years in days there.

I drive to the most beautiful woman in the world’s apartment, we drink wine and we smoke dope. I can’t get the image of the tears that rolled down his cheeks as we walked out of the Kurt Vile gig in Hyde Park out of my head. He has walked out of my gig before it ended, and those tears are mine now, and I want to slap his corpse.

We play some music, loud, I well up on her lap, draped as the dachshund, until the track builds to a stomping climax and I’m laughing wet-nosed at the way he flailed singing in tongues possessed or possessing the psychedelic filth we sweated beer through at King Gizzard (before they’d Made It, he’d remind me).

We’d decided to keep going to gigs together, Brenton and I, though I bailed on the last one a couple weeks ago because it was raining, and mostly because I had got a bit too stoned. I hadn’t spoken to him since besides a half-baked plan to have a beer lost to the expectation that it didn’t matter because I’d run into him soon anyway.

So we’d taken toddler’s steps towards next year’s Tropfest: I thought he had plans with Andy, with his mates I do not know, and with his camera — I did, I still do.

Suicide kills more young Australians than the roads.

Brenton mustn’t have seen through the black cloud enough road worth sculpting viable. I understand, and I’m not angry. He just didn’t know what I know, because he was he and I am I; we knew each other’s black clouds separately, as melancholy male friends acknowledge at an arm’s length and then acknowledge in eulogies.

To have simply put it to him, ‘are you okay’, is all a man may need hear from the bottom of his well. It ought not require persistence or a yell, this Australian masculine melodrama is as hollow as it is intoxicating, that he knew.

Those three words cannot be far a leap to bridge the gap between his face and those unseen ripples kissing violent in the dark. He’d probably have said “Good man, pretty drunk, turn this one up!”

The people these days, they are not all greedy. Dissatisfaction with what one has is not a yearning for more, not when what is, is unbearable. Brenton will wake to a world surrounded by every rock and blues hero he so duly bade farewell upon the monthly passing of once-greats, those that only the Brentons of today’s world would raise a glass to. It was Brenton who’d remembered the anniversary of every music and film great.

He was twenty-nine, and he was the kind of bloke you’d want your kids to borrow records from.

He’ll not grow old enough to have to be driven home after dental appointments, that is true. But the half century between now and then … there is no silver lining to youth suicide. There is no poetic justice at the bottom of a rope. There is only life, until there is none, and then the hole you leave your friends, family, lovers, housemates, acquaintances, the bloke at the liquor shop and the lady at the bus stop.

Never more than the last 24 hours have I spent weighing life and death against each other so meaninglessly, my grief seems tacky, unwarranted. His family, his old mates. What are they to do?

Vale Brenton Douglas, you made an adult I barely knew in half the time, and now the scattered friends you made along the way are left to meet and drink in the Camperdown sun, and celebrate the life you had, and fend away imaginings of all that was to come.

Tomorrow morning the same sun will rise on Mas and the parents of my dead mate. I search for meaning without realising that searching is all there is, before understanding the closest thing to truth I have ever struck: Brenton created meaning through the deaths of dead stars; my Grandmother, unlike he, grew to know better, and as a result will be one amongst them all.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 10.44.04 am
Brenton – this is how he looked sometimes.

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