Why do I tell you this? Do I want you to read books about people who drop out, make their own choices, live their own way? Not really. Responsibility has its own merits. And often these ghosts are mistaken for prophets. My people are different. Some are benign. Christopher McCandless, turning his back on work, money, house, wife, kids, retirement, setting out into the Alaskan wilderness. But in the end he starved to death. Or more malignant? Ted Kaczynski, (the ‘Unabomber’) who, again, lived in the wilderness, this time making bombs to send to airlines and academics.
This leads me back to the street I lived along as a child. Lanark Avenue, Gleneagles. Working class. Fathers drove trucks, or fixed them, or paid the accounts for new tyres. Mothers stuck to mothering, although in the nineteen-seventies most of them found some sort of job that allowed the family a trip to Bali or the Gold Coast every second summer. The homes were cheap, but reliable. Stumps, overlaid with frames, and onto this, asbestos sheeting that let in the heat. A tin roof when it rained. At the time this was the Australian Dream, although now, since we’ve all made money, the Nightmare. So the homes are knocked down and replaced with eight units. Enough room to eat, sleep and die in the same area that I used to fix my bike, and jump it on ramps.
The Orrs, living a simple life of Rockford Files and Strawberry Pops. Welcome Back, Kotter. We used to sing along. ‘Your dreams are your ticket out’. Which was true of everyone in Gleneagles. Because now the homes have all gone, the units metastasised the length of Lanark Avenue (and beyond), the sixties parents moved out. A suburb of Kotters, gone, but always drawn back to a place that somehow represents lost things.
Except one. George X. Since he’s still alive, I’ll try and respect his privacy, because this is what he’s spent his life trying to have, keep, preserve – I’m not sure which word. He and his brother (I’ll call him Rodney, but he wasn’t) and his mum (Trish, but she wasn’t) lived next door to us. I’m not sure where the husband/father was. Probably dead. Men drunk heavily, smoked a lot and didn’t worry about salads in those days. See, again, the orthodoxy. Now we’re all meant to be at gym, watching ourselves in the mirror. Anyway, George and Rodney had law degrees, and Rodney left home and did well for himself, but George stayed at home, looked after his mum, practised a bit, lost interest, grew a giant Catweasel beard and got around the neighbourhood in old work shirts, shorts and thongs. This, to my sister and I, was very exciting. While most men left for work in the ‘TRUSCOTT STEEL FABRICATIONS’ shirts every morning, George wandered down to Economy Meats in some cruddy clothes he’d (probably) bought at Vinnies (Trish volunteered at the OG Road shop).
George was always smoking; he had yellow-tipped fingers. A soft voice, thought-out words, generous eyes. Educated. Most of us were drongos, so it was interesting when he started talking about writers, and ideas. God, what were they? Australian society then, and now, runs on a hi-octane mixture of apathy and sport, imported culture and rib-eye, plenty of it. Here was something entirely different. The family had originally come from England, so there was the accent, too. Like aliens had landed on our Teflon planet and tried to corrupt up with this strange thing called civilisation.
But Gleneagles was having none of that. Barbecues were lit, lawns mowed, and books thrown in the back of linen presses.
So that’s how it was, for years and years. George and his mum. Then we all grew up, left home, got married and had our own children in suburbs that were eerily reminiscent of Gleneagles. Yes, the building materials had improved, but not much else. Jimmy Garner was replaced by Rake, Ted Mulry by Justin Bieber, but apart from that, someone had just hit replay.
But not George. He’d dug in his heels. Time could just fuck off. Trish died, and he let the house go. The soil sunk, the spine broke, and the place settled into two halves. But he didn’t care. As the Tuscan townhouses grew up around him, he refused to water the long-dead lawn, or trim the hedges, these rampant bikini lines of good intent that hadn’t felt steel since The Music Man. Nothing. Weeds took over the yard, and every time I went past (for old time sake) I saw this house slowly floundering. I saw the old curtains, shredded and blowing in the breeze, destroyed (I guess) by the cats that Trish had never neutered (millions of them, flitting around the house like horny ghosts).
Sometimes you’d see, or do see, George, grey hair down to his knees, walking the streets of Gleneagles. Is that him? Is he still alive? He never learned how to drive, so he rides a bike from several lifetimes ago. He hangs his groceries on the handles and pedals home. Like, leave me alone, I have nothing to say, go away.
Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. Maybe his house is modern, maybe he has a woman, children, hidden away, never seen. But I doubt it. My vision is George sitting in his lounge room at night (there’s always a single globe burning), living this sort of Boo Radley existence, reading a book from his mum’s old charity shop, listening to his transistor radio, happy to be apart from, but involved with, the world. See, that’s the thing. You don’t have to make a lot of noise to be a player, you just have to keep breathing. That’s what we don’t get today. That’s why social media is shit. Happy is the heart and the home and a plentiful supply of honey (and a lifetime of memories, kept in an old shoebox).
I have no doubt George is happy. I don’t know what happened to Rodney, but if he’s dead, he’s still sitting in there, with his brother, of a night, reading Proust.
Then this happened: I was riding my bike down Lanark Avenue a few months back. I’d stopped to read a small sign saying the council was about to knock down the basketball stadium to build more townhouses. Fuck the council. Then George rides past. I go to say something, but it’s been thirty years. Will he remember me? Should I even speak to him? Thing being, he’s settled into his history, like an old elephant awaiting the end. A few seconds, and he’d cycled past, down the road, disappearing into his jungle. Then I thought, Jesus, I should’ve at least said hello. Told him who I was. He would’ve remembered, surely? He would’ve invited me back to his place, walked me through the debris, made me a cup of tea, asked what I’d been up to for most of a lifetime. I was shitty with myself for not speaking. But, somehow, I knew I’d done the right thing. Life lasted, and settled, and became the property of the people who’d lived it. Now it was just weeds, and cats, and talkback. I had no business invading this small, resource-rich territory. Had I? Did I? Can you tell me?
I often return to Lanark Avenue, and see George, still walking, in some short-sleeved shirt our fathers wore in the seventies. I often walk past him, and wonder if I should say hello. And soon, I guess, he’ll be gone, and they’ll come and knock his house down, and I’ll always regret having stayed silent. But there’s always the same voice, telling me. For god sake, Orr, just leave the man alone.