Between the words ‘I’ve got some bad news’ and those that follow lies an interminable space. Time stretches. The mind focuses. The body tenses.
Then J said the words, ‘M died.’
It was a death both expected and unexpected. Others shrugged at the news.
M keeps flicking the lighter, but the joint won’t light. In the coldness of East Perth – the roads silent and empty – the bucket of glue sits on the pavement where M has placed it. Over the rise of the road, as if in slow motion, emerge the lights of a police car.
‘Cops, cops’ I say.
In an instant, the joint is back in the shoulder pocket of the green jacket M wears. The pocket houses another ten joints.
But the police are onto us. They’re out of the car, towering over M.
Around this time, the WA police have been bashing youth in the lockup.
‘What are you doing?’ says one cop.
‘Putting up posters.’ M looks the policeman in the eye.
‘Oh, sorry, we didn’t know.’ M’s voice is steady. ‘We won’t do it again.’
We light the joint later, when we’re at home.
In the Perth days, M resembled a mop: he was just a stick with a ball of curly hair. Already he was prone to unusual dress. He loved purples and yellows. He wore mauve overalls and purple Chuck Taylor converses. He was striking. Original.
There was a time, shortly after I met him in Melbourne, that M started having fits. He would collapse, his eyes would roll back in his head and his hips would begin thrusting forward. He would bite his tongue. Nobody knew what caused them and then, after a few months, they disappeared.
For some time M cultivated a love of what he called ‘sectariana’, the obscure publications of the tiny left groups. The tinier the group, the more internecine its differences with the others, the more it interested him.
Interestingly, M was one of the most open activists I knew. Everyone talked to him. Everyone respected him. He had learned the lesson of avoiding sectarianism well.
M told my sister once that his earliest memory was of his father throwing him in the rear of the car with the iron bar he’d just used to beat him.
When I arrived in Perth, I was nineteen. M was sixteen or seventeen, but he had lived away from home for several years. For those six months, I followed him and tried to emulate him.
M had a fertile, flexible mind. He was filled with ideas and initiatives. We should organise this speak out, that public meeting, another rally. He had the ability to make you see things from a new perspective, as if he were turning on a light in your head. In small left groups, where routine is an ever-present danger, such restless creativity is all-too-rare.
He bought Dr. Pat rollies and Malboro tailoreds. I did too.
As we walk along Beaufort St one night, M suddenly leaps up as if he’s been stung. In the back of a van, I see two shadows sitting with air rifles in their hands. There’s the sound of a bullet hitting something nearby; we’re exposed. But the van drives on when the lights change.
There are times when Perth seems like the Wild West.
M and I choose to swallow our speed. S wants to jack his. S is twenty-six and seems a generation older. I leave the room, because I can’t watch, but M stays. He’s fascinated.
We hit the road in an old 1970s Holden, windows open. Colours intensify. The trees are cut in sharp outline. The world is alive, filled with a preciously unseen immanence.
This is Perth. There’s nothing to do but drive. We head north, to Lancelin. But we don’t make it. It’s too far.
We stop at one of those endless beaches and as the moon descends over the water, the sun rises behind us. For a moment it seems like they’re facing each other, two celestial globes hovering in the sky.
I’ll jack it next time, M says.
One day, when he was selling our group’s paper on the street, M is hit with a slingshot behind the ear. He bleeds profusely. He grimaces. Somehow, it was always M who was shot.
The house was at 15 Roy St, Mt Lawley. The tin roof heated the place unbearably in summer. The walls offered no protection from the cold in winter. There was a cockroach problem.
Everyone knew that at any night, you would be welcomed at Roy St. There you could smoke bongs, play cards and, most of all, talk about politics. The place was constantly filled.
F had escaped Chile in 1988 after student unrest. He was in his late twenties. When he moved out, he kept his key, and would return almost every night. Sometime we would arrive home and F had been there alone. The house would smell of bongs.
Despite our revolutionary convictions, we were members of various environmental and charity groups. Each month, the letters arrived, addressed to Mr. Roy Soviet.
M moved to Wollongong. I think he fell in love. But the relationship didn’t last. He began earning money doing sex work. He called me some time later. ‘I’m HIV positive.’ He stopped being active and his membership of the socialist group lapsed.
This seemed inconceivable to me. I had assumed we would both always be members of the organisation. For some years it had been our life. In our minds, it was the only meaningful activity. It excited us. It inspired us. It obsessed us. His departure was the first little nibble at the edges of my certainties.
After he left, M worked in drug-users groups. He was always an activist, always ‘political’. I asked him years after he left our socialist group his opinion of it. His answer was unlike anything I’d heard. Certainly not a critique: what it was, I can’t quite remember.
M loved drugs. He loved drugs. When I visit him in Redfern some time later, he and E have been up for days. E sometimes falls down in the corridor and sleeps for days. The previous week, she started talking to the mould in the shower. It was an alien god. She begged it not to take them away.
M had grown up in Footscray. Over the years I would drop him off at his mother’s place. Like M, his mother was wonderful, warm.
M threw himself into the rave scene. It was his community, though I don’t think he ever thought it would change the world. He had read too much Marx for that, I think. But it was a haven. It was filled with his people.
My memory is fragmentary, but I think M helped organise the first rave in Perth, in a warehouse in Fremantle. I was there, but I only remember the young woman who wore bright red shoes. We talked for hours. On the train back in the morning, she sat away from my friends and me. Those shoes seemed so red.
On the walls of that town in Redfern, someone has painted life-sized Dr Seuss cartoons. I find them wonderful.
‘They’re a bit too intense when you’re wasted,’ says M.
Not too long ago, M called me up on a Sunday morning. ‘J and I are in trouble. Can you lend us $300 dollars?’ When I arrived at the State Library, M was sitting on one of the wooden seats. His face was dry, weathered like parchment. His belly bulged over his belt. He didn’t have his false teeth in, and for a moment I couldn’t recognise him. Who was this fifty-year old man? The bone-thin mop was gone.
He was not fifty. He was in his early thirties.
I knew what the money was for. I didn’t need to ask. Speed had given way to smack, by this time. I’d seen it plenty of times.
He promised to give it back to me the following day.
I chased the money in a perfunctory way for a couple of weeks. I didn’t care about it. I was hurt by the lie.
This is not a memoir about how drugs ruin lives.
This is a memoir about someone of extraordinary vitality.
When M died, he was in his thirties, living with his mother. She came home from work and found him collapsed on the couch. Heart failure, I’ve been told.
M’s mother didn’t want a funeral.
It was only when there was no funeral that I realised their importance. There was an absence. There still is an absence.
M and I are walking through the park in Mt Lawley. There are Morton Bay fig trees along one edge, their roots reaching out like ancient splayed hands. We have been talking about politics. M looks up and says with wonder, ‘I was on acid in this park once. I looked up and the sky split in two, and half of it descended towards me. Then it retreated and the other half descended.’
I look up and see stars, brilliant against the blackness. I can still see them now.
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