If only I’d opened my eyes

This story is not a work of fiction – its what I remember to be true.  It first appeared in a charming little magazine called Morbid Curiosity under the title Visitor.  The original version used a fictional character to tie everything together.  I removed her and stated the whole truth. I’ve altered it slightly in other areas to more accurately reflect the sequence of events.  There  is some poetic licence.  But the key elements.  The friendship,  the visitation and the subsequent discovery are all true.

This is for Michelle.  I let you down.  I have no excuse.  I’m truly sorry.  You deserved better.

 

It took me fifteen years to work it all out but death does not scare me.  Pain does, but death certainly doesn’t.   Fifteen stumbling, fumbling years- where did the time go?  One day you’re just out of school with bugger all to look after, the next you’re approaching thirty five, greying, with the responsibility of family and the yoke of a fat mortgage forbidding you to ditch the soul destroying pastime that you call a job.  Funny that, you could die laughing.

My old mate, Chris would crack up.  He would say that I sold out and joined the other side.  I would agree, and then we would both have another beer.   Geez, I miss him.  I still wonder what happened exactly.  My mind gives the irritating itch a scratch occasionally, but never really provides any relief.  I guess it never will.

Chris and I were not always mates.  Ironically, throughout junior secondary school, I thought he was a mummy’s boy.  It was guitar that threw us together, in one of those awkward jam sessions where both players become painfully aware of their inadequacies.  Fortunately, we were both able to laugh about it and in doing so laid the foundation for our friendship.

It was not long before we discovered that we viewed the world from a skewed –almost Pythonesque- angle.  To the outsider we took nothing seriously.  Fun, couched in the form of rebellion, was the way to cope with a cock eyed world.  We bounced sarcasm and wit off each other like a kid belts a tennis ball against a wall.  I think we both were dealing with a heap of trouble below the surface and we’d chosen to deal with it in a very similar way.  Essentially we were pretty damn close to crazy.

Looking back, I can see that the trouble with Chris was that he thought himself indestructible.  He loved pushing things beyond the limits.  He drove around the streets like he was shooting for poll at the grand prix.  He’d deliberately provoke the tough guys in the mall to see what would happen. He drank beyond the point of rational thought to outdo anybody who was drinking with him.  He was a loose cannon and it was inevitable that he would slide into the drug culture.  It amazes me that I did not follow him.

I stuck with him while he charged head first into the drug world, but I was dismayed to see how quickly he progressed from soft to hard drugs.  It seemed to be a matter of weeks.  By the time he started using Heroin, he had teamed up with a low life middle aged junkie, Wayne, who may or may not have had serious crime connections.  This monumental dirt bag took on the role of tour guide to the “magical” world of mind altering substances and became the central element of Chris’ life.  So central in fact that they skipped town at a moment’s notice, leaving me and puzzlingly Chris’ girlfriend, Michelle, behind.  I didn’t understand that – I thought he lived for her.

Michelle and I were drawn together for a while.  My friends accused me of being a snake in the grass.  It wasn’t like that we just needed to grieve together.  That’s what we were doing.  We went out together a couple of times and then let it drop.  No big deal.  I still kept an eye out for her.  I felt obliged to do so.

We went for months without hearing from Chris.  Then, out of the blue he appeared on the doorstep at ten in the morning, his eyes were dancing with amusement and mischief.  “Come on mate, let’s go to the pub,” he half laughed.  It was the same old Chris setting the same old pace.  It was so great to see him; it took a while to recognize the apparent changes in his attitude.

The drugs were now ever present, bubbling away just below the surface of every TV show, all music, in fact just about everything- even Barney Bananas for Christs sake.  They had become his God and he had made it his mission to convert all of his friends to his chosen path with the zealotry of a seventh day adventist.  If you weren’t into drugs, you just weren’t in the game. He was unrelenting.  I am a stubborn bastard and kept throwing it back in his face.  He would laugh it off, but the joke was rapidly turning sour for both of us.

Others, according to him, were not so resolute.  Michelle, for one succumbed.  I didn’t blame her if it was true – he was a persuasive charmer and she loved him.  No contest.   That was when I cried enough and walked away.  I could tolerate him ruining his own life, but not hers.  We still moved in the same loose circles, but I had the shutters up when we inevitably met.  Once I lock somebody out I throw away the key.  He did not seem to care overly.  We slid into different lives with similar but fundamentally different value systems.  I pretended to myself that it did not matter.  My circle of acquaintances was large and somebody was always looking to party.  I threw myself into a booze soaked half –life – an accident waiting to happen.  The irony was totally lost on me.

During this period I got involved with a girl from Melbourne; I was vulnerable and put way too much store in the relationship.   She gave me the flick and I was left to lick my wounds.

I don’t think I’ve ever been lower.  I contemplated chucking my job in at the Bank and playing guitar ten hours a day, I considered applying for an Interstate transfer, but did not have the guts to take either course of action.  I just tried to wash all of my troubles away with as much grog as my stomach could handle.  As a result, I started to take my frustrations out on anybody who was unfortunate enough to be near me.  I could see the nasty twisted thing I was becoming, but was incapable of stopping.

I needed a circuit breaker badly.  When the bank offered me a week long service course in Melbourne, I took it with both hands.

It doesn’t matter where you go you take your baggage with you.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only country bumpkin on the course.  There were quite a few others.  Inevitably we hung out together in pubs after work hours.  It started off OK, but by Wednesday evening, I was finding this pleasant bunch of well meaning people tiresome and their modest hopes and dreams depressing.  I wondered if any of them had seen what I’d seen, or watched the deals made that I had.  I thought not.

By Thursday evening, I’d had enough and deliberately set out to provoke them. I mocked their safe middle class values and ridiculed their modest ambitions for advancement.  Not surprisingly, they deserted me.  It’s a pity one of the guy’s didn’t give me a hiding – it’s what I deserved.

Undaunted, I drank a few more pots before grabbing a six pack and heading for my third floor motel room.  The air conditioning was not coping with one of those hot sticky nights that Melbourne manages to conjure up five or so times every summer. I opened the window to let some air in and flicked on the TV.  The Aussies were getting annihilated by whoever the West Indies had bowling fast for them back then.  I cracked a can and half watched the carnage.  My mind wandered back to the performance I had put on earlier and I wondered what I was trying to prove.  “Grow up,” I whispered as I opened another can and took a hefty swig.

I turned the TV off and listened to the noises of a restless sweltering city while I wrestled with my self pity.  It was time to stop farting about and get on with things.  One way or another I had to come to terms with Chris.  It required plain speaking, but good friends should be able to speak and remain friends.  I vowed to catch up with him and sort things out.
I eyed the remainder of my beer and shrugged.  It was time to recognize when I’d had enough.  It was also time for bed.  I shut the window, preferring the heat to the babble from outside.  I crawled into bed and remarkably fell asleep.

I don’t know when I awoke.  When I did I was keenly aware of a presence in the room – the same as I am now aware of my kids wandering into my room when they want to go to the loo at night.  I don’t hear them, I sense that they’re there willing me to wake.  This feeling was the same.

I don’t  mind admitting that I was scared. My first thought was “burglar.”  If he was watching me, I did not stand a chance of confronting him. I would be set upon before I got out of bed, so I acted shamefully and kept my eyes shut, pretending that I remained asleep.  My ears strained to catch any sound, but apart from my own breathing, I heard nothing.  The sense of being watched remained.

After what seemed eons – probably only minutes – I heard a sound which I can only like to cellophane being scrunched up.  It seemed to come from all directions. My mind searched for an explanation and seized upon the newspaper that was in the room. Surely a breeze from an open window was rustling the pages.  Then I remembered shutting the window before going to bed.  Somehow, I knew that whoever was there was trying to wake me up.  I played dead, wondering why they just didn’t shake me and get it over with.  Without warning the sounds ceased.  As soon as they did the sense of the watching presence went as well.  I lay on my bed scared witless; listening for the slightest hint that something was still there.

When I finally scraped together enough courage to open my eyes, the digital display on the clock radio told me that there was little point remaining in bed.  I got up and conducted a thorough inspection of my room.  All windows were still closed, my door was still locked and nothing had been disturbed.  I could not fathom it and half convinced myself that I had been dreaming.

Morning light gives power to the rational mind.  By the time I arrived at my course, I had locked the whole affair away in a cupboard in my mind labelled “Remembered Dreams.”

The day was a long one, as days tend to be when you’ve alienated most of the people that you work with.  The day finished eventually and I headed home to Geelong.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until I called upon my parents the next morning.

My mother greeted me and asked if I was OK. She seemed very concerned.

Yeah, no worries,” I answered amused at her manner.

“You haven’t heard then?” Her voice sounded strained.

A tingle of fear scampered up my spine. “What?”

She looked at me and swallowed hard.  “Your mate Chris was killed on Thursday night,” it’s all in the Addy I’ll get it for you.”  She rushed out of the room in search of the newspaper leaving me alone with the news.

So Chris, the indestructible was dead.  My mind refused to accept the fact.  When Mum gave me the paper, I read the article over and over trying to get the story right in my head.  Chris, dead in a motorbike accident? It didn’t make sense. Eventually, I just gave up and walked out.

There was no chance of resolving things, no chance of reclaiming what was a great friendship.  Chris had self destructed as he was always going to in a way that was probably better than some of the alternatives he was bound for.

I didn’t cope at all well.   Remarkably I didn’t hit the booze – I saw nobody all weekend  I didn’t cry  I didn’t know how.   Somehow I managed to get to the funeral and sat at the back.  I was just a bit player in a cheap tragedy, watching but not participating.  They played “Because I love you” by the Masters Apprentices.   The chorus says “Do what you want to do be what you want to be.”  I smiled when it came on it was pure Chris.

Michelle kept herself together until they got to the cemetery.  When the casket was lowered into the ground, she broke down.  I stood at the back, feeling her pain but unable to approach her.  She was ushered into the mourner’s car and was driven away.  I never saw her again.  I was a cold bastard.  I’ve never forgiven myself for that.

Life went on.

I was angrier than I’d ever been and twice as self destructive.

Inevitably, I met one of Michelle’s school friends at a party.  She wanted to talk about Chris.  I couldn’t think of anything worse but she was insistent and I had a drink in my hand so things were tolerable.

The talk went around in circles.  I sensed she was digging for something and I wasn’t giving anything. Then she said it.  “I saw Chris a couple of weeks before he died and he said it was time that he patched things up with you – did he catch up?”

I grabbed her arm. “He said what?”

She repeated herself.  My mind went back to that Motel room.  I remembered the presence in the room and how I had kept my coward’s eyes shut.  My throat worked convulsively and I shook my head in bewilderment.

“Are you going to cry Hodge?”

I shook my head and blinked back some tears. I looked at her and took a punt.  “No, but something happened the night he died.  I can’t get my head around it.”

“What do you mean.”

“I think I sensed him.”

Her eyes widened.  “Michelle swears Chris visited her that night.”

That was enough for me.  I made a feeble excuse and left.  She didn’t follow me, thank God.
I walked home with tears streaming down my cheeks, cursing my cowardice and wanting my time over again.  I tortured myself with crazy notions and sad regrets…if only I’d opened my bloody eyes.

It has been fifteen years.  I feel a lot older and am hopefully a little wiser.  I still curse my lack of courage.  As it is I can only guess what happened.  Most of the time I like to believe that Chris tried to say goodbye.  For a long time I dismissed the idea as fanciful, but something inexplicable did happen and no matter how I suppress the idea it keeps bobbing up insisting that it was him.

Middle age approaches at the speed of light and I am now painfully aware of my own mortality.  I know I will see Chris again.  I’m in no hurry to do so, but I’m not stewing over it either.  I bet when we do meet, he gives me a razzing for not opening my eyes.  Then we’ll both laugh and have the equivalent of a beer.

Whatever it is.

Wherever we are.

)

For what it’s worth I still miss him.    Thoughts of him come randomly at odd times.  They sneak up uninvited and either make me laugh or feel sad.   Thats’ the way he was 🙂

 

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