Falling or jumping…?

I shouldn’t be on the computer after the night I’ve had and the beers that went with it! But I just glimpsed the date, and it’s the birthday of perhaps my oldest friend. The kind of old friend you barely ever see anymore… I think he’s working underground in a mine in Western Australia right now. He’s the charming kind of luddite you rarely meet anymore, a 25- sorry, 26-year-old who not long caved into getting a mobile. I don’t think he’ll ever read this, but regardless, I offer my most whole-hearted birthday wishes, Turvey. Anyway. Thinking of him I remembered a random little bit of writing I did a few years ago. I was still at uni in Brisbane then, so it must be quite a while ago!

It is late. The house, the street, the world is asleep – but not me. It is a Sunday night in September. Summer is on the air. Sleep would be an affront.

It is an iridescent, incandescent night. The week’s rains have cleared, all is wet and clean. The night skies, yesterday bleached blank, are now dark blankets. Picnic blankets, crumbed with stars. Blankets to kick off luxuriously, along with sheets and doonas: this is a night to feel on your bare skin.

Soon the nights will drone with electric fans. They will slice the nights lazily, like knives through soft fruit, crescent moons of peach flesh falling away with the hours. Long after children are put to bed, the nights will crackle with conversation and insects. Brown beer bottles will clink. Bats will rustle in fruit trees, possums will hiss and fight. Late night heels will jazz home from bars, giggling at keys that won’t find keyholes.

Soon the nights will be heavy and intoxicating. A singular, unsubtle perfume of humidity, jasmine, frangipani, sweat. With base notes of rotting wood and possum piss. Pool chlorine. Overpowering the smells of cooking and car exhaust. But for now, there is only a hint of all this in the air. A whisper, gossiping on your skin, in your pores.

Yes, hear it, smell it, feel it on your skin: summer is almost here. And with that promise, writers all through the streets of this city, this overgrown town, are sharpening pencils. Are turning blank pages to find just the right one. Are shyly meeting the gaze of winking luminescent computer screens, fingers tapping like cicadas. Beneath eaves creaking with past humid nights, above blankets spread over dewy lawns, on verandahs and in unmade beds: they are coming alive. Because with the hint of summer comes the memory of when all possibility was only hinted at. Loves, past and fresh, tumble back on the turn of a breeze. Great loves, which can only be true and tested and tarnished by the summers of this place.

I have no great love, no paramour. At least, not one that has matured into a story worthy of a night like this, not yet. I have something better. I have Craig. Craig has never been in this house, but I think he would like it. He would find the balcony an excellent size for afternoon beers. He would smile at the neighbourhood kids riding skateboards crosslegged down the hill. He would slide down the bannister when no one was looking. He would keep a cricket bat handy for possums who like to investigate open doors.

Craig is intertwined in this city for me.

He is at uni, in lecture halls where he would waltz in at random, forty-five minutes past the hour, and sit front row. I studied business, he engineering. His arrival prompted confusion from me, the lecturer, the students…

“Are you incredibly late, or incredibly early?” asked my bemused advertising lecturer. Craig just looked up with his signature expression of high amusement and not-giving-a-shit, and shrugged.

He is holding up bars in a roll call of drinking establishments. Nursing jugs of beer, hangovers, experiments in facial hair, broken hearts. “At the library” as we and our mothers refer to it.

He is in the botanic gardens, sprawled on the crunchy grass with an apple in his hand and the sun in his eyes. Mostly, he is in the duck pond. These days it is empty, a rusty chocolate crust where the lilypads once lapped. When busloads of kids from far-flung towns shrieked on school excursions. Some threw sandwich crusts to the ducks, some snuck off for a smoke, and one walked an unsuccessful tightrope on the pond’s edge.

I’m still not sure whether he fell or jumped. There could have been a lightning grin as he windmilled backward. There could have been a split-second bow to his devoted audience as Mrs Davidson pulled him out by his collar. All I remember for sure, though, is the farty squelch of mud in his shoes as we toured old Parliament House that afternoon.

But Craig really belongs in a town far from here, where the nights hiss and hum in their own way. Where we were born six months apart, and I spent twelve years chasing after him.

I have faded, photograph-sized memories of that time. Naked in paddling pools, eating mud after a rainy morning, painted Brave faces grinning gap-toothed from bed sheet teepees. Chasing footballs, tennis balls, his dog Zach, trophies, buses, fortune, glory, one-dollar drinks.

I sat behind him at school. His shoes were perpetually scuffed, his shirts perpetually lacking in buttons, and he ruled regardless.

Our most famous moment in family folklore was the day we just call “the haircut”. I was about 4 or 5, and mum had been trying to grow out my hair. It had finally become a respectable kind of ponytail, and Craig recognised a target when he saw one. It wasn’t easy, but I sat upon a dresser in front of a mirror while he stole his mother’s dressmaking scissors and played stylist, and his toddler brother Scotty looked on in awe. When we presented our handiwork to the parentals, proud as punch, mum was aghast. And with the automatic thinking of small children in trouble, simultaneously we knew what to say. And despite the fact he could barely sit upright, let alone manipulate scissors, we presented a united front. “Scotty did it.”

But now, the CD has ended, the spell is broken, the writer does need a blanket after all. The real Craig is asleep, oblivious, in a wooden house three suburbs from here. He has probably had a few beers. Perhaps there is a girl next to him, glossy dark hair fanned across his pillow. Perhaps he is alone, frantically typing an assignment due eight hours from now, regretting that session at the RE. No – Craig never regrets.

One day, for all appearances, he will grow up.

One day he will throw a child in the air and then catch him; will clip a helmet under a milky chin and guide a bicycle down a quiet street; will gently let the bike seat leave the palm of his hand.

One day he will take a child to feed the ducks and just for a second, he will teeter on the edge of the pond.

And passers-by will never be quite sure whether he fell or jumped.

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