I wrote this story some time ago. It has a certain verisimilitude and has pleased the select group who have seen it over the years. It is in memory of Rob Burton (14 September 1961 – 14 September 1989). He did not want memorials, but he still lives in my life, and it is because of that you have it here. And because of this. The story is honest and may challenge some readers.
See also poetry, written around the same time as Part 1 of this story and Remembering Neos, a project Rob and I shared.
When Snow Drifts Melt
To know that one does not write for the other — to know that writing compensates for nothing, that it is precisely where you are not—that is the beginning of writing. –Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse
— When you were born I was eighteen years old. I was two years old when they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Don’t you think our relationship is a touch bizarre?
— That’s crap, Colin. You’ve got to let go of all that.
I had known J when he was fourteen years old and I was his teacher, known that is as much as anyone can know a pupil in his class, which is hardly at all. I knew he was a serious child, a writer in the making. Him I knew hardly at all. Five years later we were neighbours in Glebe, each perhaps seeing in the other simpler times
J opens the door. He has just moved in, a year in America behind him. He will be a writer, is starting a course, will live alone not answerable to anyone for who he is what he does. He has been painting: the walls white, the furniture brown.
— Mr Smith!
— Hi, J. It seems we’re neighbours. Rosemary rang me from Wollongong and told me you were here. I’m living just around the corner.
— Really! Have you been transferred?
— Yes, to Simmons Street.
— That’s a good school isn’t it?
— So they say.
— Well… nice to see you. Would you like to come in? Sorry about the mess.
— What mess? You’re a model of neatness. You should see my place, books and boxes everywhere.
[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with a Year 12 girl.]
— Would you like some coffee?
[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with that spunky librarian.]
— Thanks, J.
[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with the milkman. “Had your cream this morning?” the class wit, Carcase, used to ask him.]
I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds I love only one… The way a nail is cut, a tooth broken slightly aslant, a lock of hair, a way of spreading the fingers while talking or smoking. (Roland Barthes)
Sometimes J finds Colin so young: always needing reassurance, needing to discuss the same thing over and over. Colin’s guilt and uncertainty surprise J and sadden him. J sits enfolded, his legs drawn up against his chest.
Simmons Street has not worked out. Colin’s energy is drained away. He is falling. He turns to J. They work together on a project they now share. They sit close. His shirt undone almost to the waist, J leans back. They do not touch. Colin walks to the newsagency where J works. He does not make it stands unseeing pavement threatening to swallow him shopfronts walls topped with spikes races for home back in his tower he leans against the glass wall staring not knowing where it will end rings the school sorry Colin Smith here can’t come in today
Language is a skin. I rub my language against the other. (Roland Barthes)
On such days of panic, on so many afternoons, he goes to J.
J is writing or waiting. He sits enfolded, his legs drawn up against his chest. Colin longs to reach down to rest his head against the young man’s body but he cannot.
— How’s the writing, J?
— Like to see some.
— I don’t have any at the moment.
J works too hard. Often looks tired. But there are J’s times of withdrawal, the silence, the seeming hostility. Colin reads tiredness then, maybe a strong need for privacy. After all J is young. He’ll come through.
September/ October 1983
J cannot sleep. Late at night he rings his friends. Long long talks. He opens a bottle of Johnnie Walker. Sits at his desk and checks the story he has been writing or the letters from America or the files he must go through. The words begin to blur. He unfolds his bed, takes off his clothes and tries to sleep. For an hour hours nights weeks months years he lies there suddenly awake. A siren down Glebe Point Road. And when you fuck when you come inside your lover’s body what then? He covers his ears. When finally he sleeps the garbage men begin throwing cans around just below his window. Another day. People trust J with their stories confidences problems responsibilities. Responsible. J is responsible. Everyone knows that. They’ve always known that. Just how much is he responsible—for? His parents? Their divorce? Gay mother and queer son. Never a child. Never. “Colin, I never had a childhood. I miss it so much.” Responsible. Silent. Hidden. He covers his ears. The blur of his nights and days wanting a fuck having a fuck not having a fuck staying at home sitting in the corners of bars or coffee shops seeming to listen. Now I am 22 I am in control but it is the tears days and nights of weeping. “Smile, J.” It is my lover, Cameron. A knock at the door. A note under the door. A bunch of red roses. Antidepressants dry you up, can’t even come, can’t even spit.
One day Colin Smith does not go to Simmons Street. He does not ever go again. He moves out of the tower with the cold glass overlooking the bay and goes to a house of strangers a house of despair. Yet for the moment it seems warmer. In time the pavement will cease to be a pit of fire.
But J is in hospital.
J and I cut up this story, rearrange it on the floor in my room in Royce Street. He takes the revised paragraphs and returns them with comments:
Para 13 is very powerful and effective but labours the point. I suggest conflating paras 12 and 13 and editing each of them down. The same effect of what it is like to be falling could be captured with a tighter approach. ‘There is death there is sleep…’ Overwritten I think. The single visit works more effectively as a turning point: something the story needs here. More than one visit may be the reality but it is unnecessarily confusing–documentary not fiction. Thus you will need to rewrite 18 and 29 so that Colin’s and J’s rapprochment is the result/conclusion of J’s visit to hospital. The story could then end with # 23-25, omitting # 19-22, just a suggestion.
And it is done.
— It’s your story Colin. Do what you like with it.
— Does it remind you of Charles Ryder and Sebastian?
— God forbid.
— Is it too clinical?
— Does it stray into sentimentality or mawkishness?
To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished… (Roland Barthes)
— You don’t know much about love do you?And I take Colin in my arms, gently run my fingers down Colin’s arm, brush his face.
J’s body is so brown. Shirtless, nipples standing out. My fingers trace their outline, come to rest.
Faces touching, they know how far they have fallen, and why. And they are comforted. In that moment
a dark man is swept away by rising waters a young woman finds her man dead on the bathroom floor the needle still in his arm a child starves pain wrenches the last spark of life from an old woman a child is born a mad president cracks jokes about the bomb a lone adolescent masturbates a poem is written a curse pronounced leaves fall and snowdrifts melt on distant mountains a burst of fire shoots from the sun a man turns from studying the stockmarket the racing form the stars orders another schooner for everything there is a season and
September 5 1989
— Well look who it is!
I have not seen J for some months, not since a few weeks before my birthday party. He had not come to the party. He is in the Darlinghurst Bookshop.
— This looks interesting Colin. You should read it. He is holding a copy of Surprising Myself by Christopher Bram. J likes to keep up with new gay writing. Later I would read it looking for clues. It has a happy ending, with a central character in a relationship with someone he calls “Boy”. At one stage, before the happy ending–and J likes gay books to have happy endings as a political statement–this central character considers killing himself:
“Petty, selfish, stupid? But none of the names seemed to contain the hatred I was feeling for myself. Hatred spread into my life, until there was nothing worth saving.”
Nothing surprising about running into J. We often meet like this by accident. So we have coffee at the Green Park Diner and then he comes with me to the decaying terrace in Paddington which is looking better than the last time he’d seen it. The talk is of birthdays and I comment that his is next week on the 14th and he repeats so formally yes it’s on the 14th and I think nothing more about it.
— I’ve been seeing your ex-friend lately
— What, Boy? Not ex-friend: we just don’t see each other any more.
J and Luke had broken up a few months before. I had fragments of the story from both sides.
— I hurt him, Colin.
J is sitting at the top of the stairs, his back resting on the bedroom doorpost, smiling. He wears black. Always that air of formality.
— How are you REALLY, J.
Code for asking about his Depression.
— Not very well.
He often said that. I knew there was nothing to say. But I look at him and say
— You know I would have given my head to see you well.
— I know that Colin.
— I must have been a real nuisance, J.
— No you weren’t.
— But if back then I’d been in the frame of mind I am now it would have been a lot easier for both of us. Coming out has made me less neurotic! Did I ever thank you for that?
— Colin you need to remember I was playing the Virgin Queen.
— You don’t understand how I hurt him. You know what Luke’s like. Really in touch with himself, fun, but also maddeningly irresponsible.
— That’s true, but I like him.
— So do I, a lot. But he needs to grow up and that’s the point. My need was the opposite: do you see what I mean? With him I could do all sorts of silly things I needed to do…. Dancing down the back lanes of Darlinghurst doing Barbra Streisand impersonations. It was great! I’d never done things like that, but now I’m afraid I held him back, so I had to let him go.
— I’m sure Luke enjoyed every minute of it.
At the door.
— You’ll see Boy before I do. Tell him hullo from me and that I still like him.
We walk down Oxford Street together. It is strange, as if J does not want to let me go. We have been talking for two and a half hours, more than we’ve talked in years. He seems so open, he who is so often closed off.
— Are you going all the way to Chinatown with me?
— No, I’ll cross here and get something to eat at Raquel’s.
— OK, J. See you. It’s been good. Laid quite a few ghosts.
— Yes, it has been good.
And he crosses when the lights change on the corner of Crown and Oxford, looks back once, and is gone.
September 14 1989
— I miss that man so much.
— I know that Luke.
— I don’t know what to do about his birthday. I phoned but there was no answer. He doesn’t want to see me. It makes me so angry.
— Listen, Luke, he told me to tell you he still likes you. Take it from me, when he’s like this you just have to wait.
Luke cries publicly, there in the Unicorn Bar at 10 pm. Not something he would normally do. Later at the Oxford, trying to be wise I say something like breaking up is a bit like a death and you grieve and…
September 19 1989
I am in the Albury with friends, the usual cocktail hour chat after a day’s work. A cry from the other side of the long bar. It is Luke. Wearing his long white coat. When I go over to him I see his face red and swollen, tears streaming.
— Colin, where have you been? I’ve been trying to find you all day. I have something to tell you.
— What’s wrong, Luke. Tell me.
For a while he just cries unable to talk.
— Tell me.
— It’s going to hurt you.
— Tell me.
A dozen possibilities but not this one.
— J is dead.
— Tell me it’s not true Colin. He’s just run away…
I ring J’s father in Wollongong immediately. “Yes, Colin, J has passed away. He rang me on Father’s Day and said he was going to Melbourne. He obviously did not intend to go. He hired a car and…”
Apparently he died on his birthday.
— It’s true.
September/ October 1989
We hold each other. Luke spends days sleeping in my room. I light seven candles in St Mary’s Cathedral.
We tell each other stories:
did I tell you when he
he told me that Colin
is there anything that bugger didn’t tell you about me?
Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” has never seemed so good.
Luke, I have lost one friend–please, I don’t want to lose two. Luke outside my door at 4 am having spent the last 36 hours in Centennial Park. He is scrabbling in the little suitcase with purple locks. He carries it everywhere. I saw J carrying it when I first saw him again in 1987.
Did you know J was bashed last year?
Yes, he told me.
So much hate.
You know he told me a year ago he didn’t think he was going to win.
The most he could hope for was to live with it.
So much love.
When the Reverend Fred Nile and his fundamentalists march into Oxford Street set on a bit of cleansing I am out there with the crowd. I wear my Mardi Gras T-shirt with additions:
Sept. 1961-Sept. 1989
‘Gone where fierce indignation
can lacerate his heart no more.’
AND FOR LUKE
WHO LOVED HIM
Fred has his thousand, harmless-looking folk pushing strollers, mingled love and fear on their faces as they march up Oxford Street.
But we have five, ten thousand voices chanting NO MORE GUILT! NO MORE GUILT!
And my voice is the voice of three, a trinity of love grief and anger, and in me sing J and Luke and I:
We shall all be free
We shall all be free
We shall all be free some day
And it’s deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall all be free someday.
And I see his face, a touch side-on, the slightly crooked nose and shy smile, eyes so often fearful, the bursts of anger, the incredible gentleness and my tears choke my singing and a gay man hugs me and says So you’re human after all…
J hated gay stories with tragic endings.
The title of the story When Snow Drifts Melt is borrowed from a poem by a friend of “J” and me, Richard James Allen (The Way Out at Last, Sydney, Hale & Iremonger, 1986). Here it is:
do not speak
i lose your words
somewhere inside my head
the lines are down
the roads blocked
it is winter
a few may be found
when the snow drifts melt
the rest may never be found
trying to cross frozen
& absorbed in
gallons of silence
That October day in 1989 in Oxford Street