‘Shall we go to the airport for coffee?’
Many of our peers had already headed to the Gold Coast for schoolies. I, however, wasn’t one for lying paralytic in a pool of my own puke, and the prospect of getting laid didn’t do it for me either. I could have simply stayed in, had a nice meal with the family and turned in early, but the last day of school warranted some form of celebration. So I called Rex with my suggestion, which he excitedly accepted.
The international terminal at Brisbane Airport was a long way to go just for coffee, and an unconventional location at that, but it was such quirkiness that brought Rex and I together. We sat next to each other on our first day at high school in the early eighties, and by lunch we’d discovered a mutual appreciation of The Kenny Everett Video Show and Australia, You’re Standing In It. We often amused ourselves by re-enacting sketches from these and other TV shows. It was unmistakably juvenile but bloody funny, and in an often-intimidating environment of burgeoning testosterone and coltish machismo those were welcome, effervescent moments.
Other friends came and went like supporting actors in a stage play, but Rex remained the key protagonist in my high-school life. He had mesmeric blue eyes, pools of intensity and knowing that flickered with playful deviltry. Puberty dealt him a broad set of shoulders and sculpted jawline, and his thick mane of auburn hair would glisten in the sunlight. I didn’t fare so well: my face, beset with acne, was an oily page of Braille, and my mop of dark hair was governed by a recalcitrant cow’s lick. But Rex never held any of that against me.
We both studied Japanese. Rex demonstrated a linguistic prowess, wielding complex conjugations and sentence structures like an Olympic fencer a sword. Although my marks were above average I had to work hard at it, but Japanese was never a chore. I relished the differences to English, like the logographic script and liberal use of honorifics. Our textbook was peppered with exotic images like a monk ringing a temple bell on a misty morning or a gloved station attendant pushing commuters into a packed peak-hour train. Our favourite was of an ordinary-looking café with the dubious name Coffee & Peeping. It all fuelled a growing appetite for the language and culture, and I dreamt of visiting Japan one day.
Rex and I developed a predilection for Hi-NRG Europop, which proliferated in the charts. On the days we walked down to Central after school we’d take a detour to Dance Cellar on Edward Street. We adored sifting through the treasure trove of records and cassettes, fossicking for the latest twelve-inches. It served as a veritable education in a genre that was never cool at school. Rock ruled the airwaves and was the acceptable currency among men and boys, so it was wise not to be loquacious about drum machines and synths. Rex and I did wonder, though, if there weren’t more than a few closet hi-energists among our peers.
My parents had long hoped that my taste in music was a mere phase. On our way to The Shingle Inn for lunch one day, Mum and I walked past Dance Cellar as it blasted out Stacey Q’s Two of Hearts. I scrutinised her face for any hint of the euphoria I felt but she just scrunched up her nose, as if she’d inhaled something fetid. ‘Awful noise,’ she declared.
The night Rex and I drove out to the airport for coffee I’d told my parents we were off into town for a Japanese meal. I didn’t like lying to them, especially as it involved using their car, but something told me they wouldn’t get the airport idea. That their son listened to the likes of Wa Wa Nee was absurd enough.
Rex and I had never been abroad and only visited the international terminal on rare occasions to see family off and welcome them home. It was an underwhelming utilitarian structure reminiscent of an aircraft hangar. With no aerobridges, no travelators and no undercover car parking, it was probably the Best & Less of Australian airports.
Passengers were checking in for the last flight of the evening when Rex and I entered the terminal. We made a beeline for the café, ordered two coffees and grabbed a table facing the departures gate. People clutched their boarding passes, which Rex likened to the golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and we wished we were among the lucky few to be spirited through the gate and onto foreign delectations.
‘Have you decided which Japanese subjects you’re doing yet?’ I asked. We’d both been offered places at the University of Queensland - Rex in a combined Law/Arts degree and I in an Arts degree - but were yet to enroll in select subjects. ‘Make sure you do JA125: Japanese Popular Culture - it sounds brilliant.’
Rex raised his coffee mug as if to hide behind it. Those blue eyes sparkled over the rim and I could tell he was smiling coyly.
‘Actually,’ he ventured, ‘I’ve decided to do Russian instead of Japanese.’
‘Russian?’ It came out a little too incredulously. ‘Why?’
Rex put down his coffee and looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘I don’t know, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about. It’s such a sexy, brooding language. And I’d love to go to Leningrad.’
The Soviet Union was never on my radar, and I never twigged it was on Rex’s, but I had no doubt that he would master Russian with all the skill and flair of a Soviet gymnast.
‘Well then,’ I said after a protracted pause. ‘Leningrad for you and Japan for me. Now we just need to act on these things.’
We clinked mugs and watched more of the chosen few disappear through the departures gate.
The university engine whirred into life at the end of January. I hadn’t seen Rex since the airport; he spent most of the Christmas holidays down at Byron with his family. We met up at the Main Refectory for lunch on the first day of classes. He said little about his time at Byron, preferring to tell me all about the Russian lecture he’d just attended. His eyes dazzled with ebullience as he shared his initial observations of the language and of his classmates. He was less enthusiastic about the law lecture he’d attended earlier, in particular about the law students. ‘All Country Road and gold scrunchies,’ he sneered.
We saw each other for lunch every Monday at the refectory. But as the weeks progressed I became aware of a different dynamic between us. High school provided physical proximity and common denominators like Japanese, but now as our paths diverged it seemed we had less to talk about. Academic anecdotes sometimes bordered on the perfunctory, and even though we still talked animatedly about the popular-cultural, like Lisa Bonet’s controversial sex scene in Angel Heart or the release of the sublime Introspective by the Pet Shop Boys, awkward silences began to creep into our conversations.
Then one Monday, Rex didn’t turn up. When I called him that evening he made no apology. ‘Just went to Russian today,’ he said through a yawn. ‘Couldn’t face Torts.’
I invited him to come with me to Expo, which had recently opened with much fanfare on Southbank. ‘Oh please,’ he groaned down the phone. ‘Brisbane - River City, Expo City, World City.’
So I went alone.
Our first exams took place in June and results were published in The Courier Mail in July. Over thousands of breakfast tables people pored through the pages of grades enquiring into the fate of family, friends, neighbours and enemies. I was thrilled with my results and was thus spared any public embarrassment. Rex had predictably excelled at Russian, but his law grades reflected a festering disinterest in the subject. It was weird seeing results so low for someone so bright.
Soon after the new semester began I was invited to meet with the Head of Department. She informed me that I’d made the shortlist for a yearlong scholarship to a university in Osaka. The Japanese Embassy in Canberra would make the final decision and applicants would be notified in writing in December. I was jubilant, and all the way home I luxuriated in daydreams of campus life in Japan.
Mum was watching TV when I arrived home. She was happy to hear my news, but I knew she wouldn’t be looking forward to the long absence were I to go. No one in the family had ever spent such time abroad. I felt a pang of guilt as she went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I lived in such a supportive nest, yet I desperately wanted to fly.
‘I saw Rex at Shoppingtown this morning,’ she shouted from the kitchen.
‘Really?’ Our Monday lunches had petered out and I hadn’t heard from him in a while. ‘What did he have to say?’
‘I didn’t speak to him. I must say he looked very scruffy. And the girl he was with didn’t look much better.’
I often wondered about Rex’s uni friends. I never asked and he never told, so I hadn’t a clue if this girl was simply a friend or something more. I’d never seen Rex as a sexual being, but only because we never spoke of sex. Weren’t teenage buddies supposed to talk about fucking ad infinitum? As the credits rolled on Days of Our Lives, I acknowledged for the first time the dysfunctional nature of our friendship. To hear of this scruffy-looking girl opened a sluice of emotions I’d been harbouring. I was jealous of his fraternising and resented that he rarely called me.
One September afternoon I found myself thinking about Rex, remembering our more halcyon times. I called him on impulse, just to hear his voice.
‘Hi, it’s me.’
‘Oh my God!’ he gushed. ‘Have you been watching the Olympics?’
The Seoul games were taking place and Rex said he’d been eschewing lectures in favour of watching the diving. I could tell he was keen to get back to the live coverage of the Men’s 10m Platform.
‘Well listen,’ I said. ‘Let’s do a refectory lunch once it’s all over.’
‘Cool, ok,’ he replied breezily.
The line went dead in my ear. I put the phone down, sat quietly for a minute, then went out to uni.
An air of calm had descended upon campus in the wake of the bustle and mania of November exams. I’d just returned a book to the Undergrad Library and was cutting across the Great Court towards the bus stop when I paused. Fancying a cool drink, I about-turned and headed for the Main Refectory, hoping it hadn’t yet closed for the holidays.
A small gathering of students were eating food around one of the outside tables, so I was in luck. I purchased a chocolate Breaka and found a table set back from the group. They were a grungy amalgam of flannel, flea market, piercings and hair dye. One of them was staring at me with an unsettling Mona-Lisa smile. He had a shaved head and looked gaunt, like a skull with stubble, then I realised it was Rex. I froze for a second, and found myself contriving a convivial smile. He didn’t take his eyes off me as I walked over and perched on the end of the bench next to him.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Enjoy the rest of the Olympics?’
‘Brilliant,’ he replied indifferently. His blue eyes were drained of their magic.
The girl next to Rex wore a flowing purple dress and black boots, and was arguing for the imperativeness of radical student groups. I wondered if she was the girl Mum saw at Shoppingtown. Rex took one of her cigarettes and lit it.
‘So what you up to?’ I asked him.
He took a long drag and exhaled over my head. ‘We’ve just picked up our marked Russian assignments.’
‘Exams go ok?’
‘The Russians ones, yeah. Didn’t bother turning up for the law ones. Yourself?’
Rex nodded and, forsaking any introductions, turned his attention back to the group. Talk turned to the possible eviction of independent radio station 4ZZZ from their on-campus premises by the right-wing student union executive. The vernacular was alien to me, words like fascist and subversive. Rex interjected confidently with informed opinions as I watched on in awkward silence.
‘Bunch of cunts,’ spat the girl in purple. ‘They’re asking for trouble if they try to shut it down.’
Rex extinguished his cigarette. ‘Cunt,’ he purred, as if promoting fabric softener on a TV ad, ‘which comes from the Latin cunnus meaning cunt.’
Everyone laughed. It was the first time since school I’d witnessed Rex interact in a group context and it wasn’t surprising that he had endeared himself to a new set of friends. There was no jealousy or anger as I sat there watching him engage the table.
‘Listen,’ I said quietly, tapping Rex on the shoulder. ‘I’m going to head off. I’m pretty tired, actually.’
He mustered a feeble smile. ‘Cool, ok.’
I stood up, smiled politely and said goodbye to his friends. The girl in purple considered me for the first time with a sagacious glance, and I had the disconcerting realisation she knew exactly who I was and everything about me. Walking away swiftly, I hoped a letter from the Japanese Embassy would come soon.
One morning in December I awoke late to find that Mum had gone to the shops and left a letter on the floor outside my bedroom door. I picked it up and a wave of prickly heat coursed through me as I scanned my name and address. This was it; after all this time it came down to this moment. I sat on the bed, took out the crisp folded sheet and began reading.
I’m sitting in the airport café. Would you believe at the very table we shared a year ago? I’ve just said goodbye to a friend who’s moving overseas. It made me think about you, about me. About us. So I decided to document my thoughts. To you. I could make it quick and succinct but I respect you more than that. And if I wrote an epistle I’d risk not achieving any coherency. So I’m going to leave it to spontaneity and see what evolves.
I think you hit the nail on the head the other week at the refectory with your parting words: “I’m pretty tired, actually.” We’ve both been guilty of keeping up the pretence of friendship and you’ll agree it’s been undignified and draining. I can’t actually pinpoint the moment of stagnation, but I can recall some conversations where we both struggled, when the rot had well and truly set in. I think of the things that made us laugh once, the things we had in common. But Mel & Kim is hardly solid bedrock on which to build a meaningful friendship, is it?
I know my inconsideration pissed you off, like the way I never called you. I’m crap when it comes to instigating phone calls - I’m accused of that often. Subconsciously, though, perhaps I was hoping you’d take the hint. Actions, or inactions, speak louder than words, don’t they say?
I’ve just seen there’s a flight to Japan in a few hours. You’ll get that scholarship, you know. I can picture you at the departures gate, waving goodbye to the family, your eyes brimming with excitement at the prospect of the adventure ahead. Or are you running from something?
Anyway, while you’re still here I realise we’re bound to run into each other. It’s inevitable in an international backwater like Brisbane. But at least we’ll be able to look each other in the eye and know where we stand for a change. So let’s just leave it at that. I’m tired of the charade now. I know you are too, and that deep down you wish you’d had the guts to end it sooner. “We just need to act on these things,” you said to me across this table, do you remember? Your advice. My action. Into words.
The letter from the Japanese Embassy arrived a few days after Rex’s with the news that I’d won the scholarship and was to leave for Osaka in a month. It was hard not to dwell on Rex’s letter in the time leading up to my departure. I reread his missive countless times, digesting the nuances and reading between the lines. My initial relief was tempered by a gnawing sensation of cowardice and shame; it was a kick in the guts to hear I didn’t actually have any. I dreaded running into him before I left and fortunately it never happened. We needed this time apart, and for the time being there was nothing more to say to each other. The paradox, though, was that I really missed him.
On a sultry evening in January my parents and I left for Brisbane Airport. Mum kept looking at her watch anxiously each time we stopped at traffic lights, but I assured her there was plenty of time. At one point I thought I saw her wipe away a tear. As we turned onto Kingsford Smith Drive I looked behind at the twinkling lights of the city. The beacons on the Mt Coot-tha transmitter towers winked at me in the distance, and I clutched my ticket and passport a little tighter. Rick Astley’s new song Take Me to Your Heart came on the radio.
‘Could you turn that up, please?’
Mum shot me a withering look, then obliged. It made me smile. Rex, like Rick Astley, was more than a mere phase.
© Timothy Collard 2012