by Dave Cornford
Mark never liked The Joshua Tree as much as I did.
Which is strange, because whenever I hear any part of it now – the searing guitar, the aural open space that screams of the visions of America that birthed it – I experience this pungent evocation of the life I lived, of being with him, in his terrace house, twenty odd years ago.
I’m lying on my back on the brown shag pile in his lounge room – it could be any Friday night in 1987 or 1988. We’ve eaten enough BBQed cow to sink a ship, and by now we could both really cook. And when I think of the quantity and quality of red wine we drank that year, I shudder. It was all part of a two year period of excess fuelled by yuppy salaries and frequent reckless visits to the Hunter Valley, collecting cases of “Hermitage” I can still taste, but no longer afford.
We’re lying on that crappy tragic carpet between two of the best speakers money can buy, driven by a chunky amp and a CD player that cost more than our first cars. There is no better place to listen again and again to the astonishing music that seeped out, filling the room and blasting the walls off their foundations. They use open space as a fourth instrument, and it’s easy to drift away and soar over the nameless streets of the landscape that inspired the visual language of the album, and much of its music.
It’s usually when I hit the repeat button to play the whole thing again that Mark drifts off to do something else, even though it’s his place. We’d shared a flat before he bought this place, so there was no sense of him being in charge of the music, food or anything else.
* * *
I’m still lying on the same floor, but I’m not floating and soaring on the edge of some searing sonic assault – you don’t float at forty-eight, you wallow. The carpet is now thread-bare in the middle, mucky beige rather than brown, and only still shaggy at the edges or under the lounge. Sometimes I move the lounge to find a soft and comforting spot to collapse on.
There must be a good reason why I’m living alone at his place, which is now one of his investment properties, while he lives it up in his minor palace on the North Shore. There must be a reason I have no job and no money, and feel like this city has swallowed me up and crapped me out like a sad turd on the lino.
* * *
I was always a step or two behind Mark as he raced ahead, made better choices than me.
It was certainly dumb luck that scored him the job in investment banking when we left uni. I had slightly better marks and the job I got in finance was solid, a “better” prospect. But things changed so fast, and soon the tiny bit of experience he had was in big demand, and after a couple of years he was earning double what I was. I rationalised it at the time that he could lose that job at any time, which of course happened once or twice, but each time he seemed to land on his feet two further steps up the ladder.
It’s not that I wasn’t doing well, just not as obscenely well as he was.
The big mistake I made was not buying a place soon after he did. We’d worked through what was happening in the share market really carefully, and I had my deposit-sized wad off-market when the ’87 crash hit. By the time we stopped celebrating our cleverness, drinking to our success frequently, the smart money that left the sharemarket was pouring into residential and driving the prices through the roof. I got in, but with heaps more debt than if I’d got in eighteen months earlier.
So where were we? Mark had a better house, less debt, and was earning heaps more. Plain dumb luck.
I didn’t feel like it was a contest at the time, but when I met Emma I think I subconsciously felt I was about to get one up on him. Not sure if it was that or something else that blinded me to what everyone else saw in her. Or claimed to have seen, in hindsight.
Everything was fine for a while after the wedding. She was teaching in her first posting, I was working, we were doing up the house. It never seemed strange to me that she wanted to change everything about the house. It was forty years old and tired. There was an obsession there, though, that I didn’t pick. She had to change it so it didn’t look like the house it was when I bought it, before I met her. Not that we clashed over how we renovated or redecorated, but then I was being pretty easy going about it all.
We’d talked about kids, and she said she wanted “none or five”. I never quite got what she meant, but when she fell pregnant unexpectedly, it all became clear. She had lost control of her body, her life, her future, her choices.
The first thing she did was successfully apply for a promotion, without telling the school she was pregnant. At four months she’d taken on extra work and pressure, with heaps of “department” work on top of teaching. The renovations had finally finished, which was just as well.
The arrival of the baby should have been the happiest time of my life. As I held Will in my arms, I was so proud I wanted to burst. I looked across at Emma and she was looking back at me like I had just eaten the baby. Her bitterness hit me like a train, and was all the more intense because I was ready to embark on this fantastic shared journey of parenthood. It was a miracle I didn’t hit something during the drive home from the hospital that day, and I spent that night feeling very much alone, as I have every night since.
Emma went straight back to work, and the only person who had to make adjustments for that seemed to be me. I had to leave work early to pick Will up from day care, or go in late to drop him off, or take days off when he was sick. At first this seemed fine to me, and I loved being involved, wearing the badge of “father”. But it was always me, and whatever I did was inadequate, or incomplete. After a few months, I realised that I was effectively Emma’s au pair. There was certainly no sense in which I was her husband.
It was at this stage that Mark and I started to drift apart. I doubt we’d have talked about this when we were closer, but certainly we couldn’t now. He was travelling overseas frequently, and I was constantly under pressure to be home to “pull my weight” so that even when he was in town lunch was hard to organise, and after-work drinks impossible. He’d bought another place, across the harbour, and the brown shag-pile was subjected to its first lot of tenants.
The joy of Will’s blossoming personality kept me going over the first six months. Every time I tried to discuss the apparent death spiral of our marriage, all I got was a torrent of abuse. Then I started to cop it over how much I was (or wasn’t) earning. I asked her which salary she thought was paying for the leases on the near-new cars we were driving, and which account the mortgage was being paid from. Defeated by facts, the abuse ramped up to a new level. Her involvement with Will dropped in proportion.
I managed to get her to one marriage counselling session, in which she announced to the counsellor, and to me, that she saw no chance of reconciliation, but that we’d have to live in the same house and co-parent Will, as we couldn’t afford to do otherwise.
The bed in the spare room cradled me that night. Not that the room was spare, it had been mine for months. Sleep didn’t come, nor did solace from anything I tried to listen to. In the game of life, I had just landed on a very long snake, and felt the vertigo of a huge fall about to hit. I stared at the cracks in the ceiling for hours. The paint we’d put on a few years earlier was peeling back to show the nasty pale puce colour underneath. The truth seemed to be peering out from behind the veil of fashionable off-white.
Lawyers and bitter disputes followed. I became the villain because I wasn’t willing to be reasonable – which in Emma’s frame of reference meant agreeing to be her slave and Will’s live-in carer, while earning money to keep the house.
Even her lawyer saw through her in the end, but still, the house was sold, with bad market timing of course. She moved into her mum’s house, while relegating her mum to the granny flat that, conveniently, had recently been vacated by Emma’s now late grandfather. I ended up only seeing Will every second weekend, and Emma’s mum ended up looking after the poor little guy. Emma took every opportunity to poison his view of me, to taint his memory of me, and make every handover traumatic.
After a few months, for Will’s sake, I gave up seeing him regularly. I retreated to the place I was renting, and apart from work, hardly saw anyone. Especially not Mark.
I threw myself into work, having landed a new the job that had a salary that approached what I was pulling in my twenties, in relative terms. The money I got from the sale of the house was doing fine on the market, boosted with some gearing, and there was a glimmer of hope for the next phase of my life.
These few years of grind came to an abrupt halt. Someone turned the music off at work, and I ended up without a seat. New contracts meant redundancy payments weren’t as generous as they used to be, and I’d only been there a few years anyway. The GFC was starting, and there was no work around. Temporary setback, I thought.
Travelling overseas to get away from the “no job” situation seemed like a good idea at the time, but being out of contact while a margin loan goes to custard is not a recipe for financial security. It’s a recipe for living in your former best mate’s terrace, skint, and barely able to pay the charity rent he’s charging.
Without it I’d be on the streets or at Mum’s.
And he knows it.
* * *
Every night is the same. A crappy meal, a few glasses of red wine from a cheap cask. I imagine how a wine critic would review this sludge: “Like licking carpet.”
I’m lying on my back on that same floor, drifting in and out, weighed down by regret and bitterness. The little iPod speakers I found in a cupboard here can’t do it justice, but U2 are in there, and the music is escaping, as if through pinholes, and whisping around the room.
But it only brings back the memory of flight, a real, tantalising memory, but now it’s just a cheap hopeless copy of something that wasn’t worth that much in the first place.
The last thirty years of my life have been trodden into this carpet with the years of other people’s grime no vacuum cleaner could hope to move. All that time spent chasing Mark, chasing money, chasing the wind.
It is only Mark’s ghost that leaves the room when I hit repeat play for the second time.
* * *
“I want to tear down the walls, that hold me inside . . . . . “
* * *
Threadbare is one of the eleven stories in Cracks in the Ceiling – Tales of Turbulent Times. It’s available for kindle and kindle apps for iPad, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Mac and PC, and in paperback, at amazon and amazon uk