Yesterday 12 September was R U OK? Day here in Oz. Question Time in Parliament opened with both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition speaking in support. The idea of the day is to realise that the simple question “Are you OK?” could lead to a conversation that may help someone labouring under depression, may even save a life. Scott Morrison said that he had been at school with Gavin Larkin, the founder of R U OK? He could also have added that the school captain in his year later went on to commit suicide, very much related to the experience of homophobia. I taught the brother of that school captain; he now lives in California.
Scott Morrison actually spoke well yesterday, I thought.
Coincidentally my reading the last two days — I finished it yesterday — has been Train Man by Andrew Mulligan, London, Chatto & Windus 2019. (Hot off the shelf; Wollongong Library’s acquisition date is 21 August!) This Guardian review gives you a good idea of what the book is about. I borrowed it totally at random, and am very glad I did. I love it when a random book turns out to be a treasure — and how apposite to have been reading it on R U OK? Day! Andrew Mulligan has rendered the central character’s internal voices in a way that was a touch discomforting, simply because it is so close to the way my own internal dialogues play out. I was reminded too, in a way, of Marcel Proust — though Train Man is just 313 pages! But that could explain why it gets mixed reviews on goodreads.
In a note at the end Andrew Mulligan reveals the kernel of the character is “an old friend who killed himself years ago on a railway line.” And tomorrow, the 14th September, is a significant date in my memory, and still at times in my internal dialogues. Thirty years ago I was living in Paddington and not all was well. I was living here.
Living not far away was an old Wollongong friend, indeed a decade or more earlier an ex-student. Sadly, on 14 September 1989 he took his own life. I was deeply affected, and even more so were his family in Wollongong and his former partner. Again, homophobia had a role.
In the midst of it all, as therapy really — and indeed at the time I was undergoing therapy with the wonderful Cedric Bullard — I committed the whole thing to writing, as fiction, but not a thing in it didn’t happen pretty much as I told it. You can find the whole thing here. This is the 1989 section.
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…