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Of Life and Death

A short story by John Lord based on a real life event.

I was 15 years young when death introduced itself. Just a kid enjoying the innocence of my youth whilst at the same time awakening to an adult world of which I knew little. School holidays were filled with the laziness of time. One day meandered into another without consideration for the monotony of it all. Life was filled with the lethargy of daily habit. I loved the Yarra River, its environs, and all its dangerous ambiguities.

My father would leave for work with his inevitable command to look after myself and be home in time for dinner. My mother would duplicate his order with the threat of a spanking if I was late. All in jest of course but she did remind me to be careful of the river.

‘’We had a thunder-storm during the night’’ she said.

The river was where I went every day. It was where I observed, dreamed, fantasied and questioned. I decided on an early start and as I mounted my bike and zigzagged through the back streets of Northcote to Yarra Bend Park the dank oppressive humidity of the aftermath of the storm hit me. It had been one of the hottest summers on record. A summer that had shortened the tempers of parents. Most of whom would be glad to see their kids back at school.

Yarra Park, or the bend, as we called it, was situated of Heidelberg Road and was a popular picnic spot with a large boat house that hired out row boats and canoes. It also had a café that looked down on a picturesque landscape with large open areas and ample shade from the huge trees that frequented its environs. The approach was via a steep incline that led to the river. Kids and teenagers favored the opposite bank which was accessed via a footbridge. It was where the swing rope hung from a large willow tree. It was also the deepest part of river which gave those using the rope a greater feeling of adventure as they descended from the rock ledge.

I stood at the top of the decent and looked down on the flowing waters which were covered by morning mist creating an exquisitely eerie scene. It would not be long before the suns lust had its way and the mist would disperse revealing yet another day worthy of its authority. The sun had also had its way with the river banks on which the grass had been reduced to the blondness of my mate Billy Glovers hair.

I stood holding my bike in awesome wonder of the picture before me. At the magnificent grace of my beloved river whose clarity and color would in later years be soiled by industry and progress.

My reverie was broken by the presence of Billy Glover’s voice.
‘’Shit Jack Ward are you dreaming or something’’
‘’Yeah I was in a way Billy. I was thinking about how picturesque it is here. Peace and tranquillity set things free. What do you think?’’
‘’You’re a bloody nut case. That’s what I think. Let’s hit the water. And stop using those big words will yeah’’
We crossed the footbridge which spoke its own creaky language along the way and headed for our favorite spot. After observing the rivers current built up from the storm we were in no hurry to hit the water and decided to wait. It would probably slow down by mid-afternoon.
‘’She’s a bit quick yet’’ said Billy.
‘’Yeah, looks like she woke up in a bad mood’’

We engaged in the idle gossip of youth. About girls and cricket and immature scandal about anything true or imagined. We shared some biscuits, sat and gazed into the river below in no hurry to do anything.

Although it was a popular swimming hole and picnic area, the river was also dangerous. There were places in the middle that were shallow and on the far side a sandy bank gave safety for families with children. The deepest area was where we rope jumped. It was just around the bend and when the river was up the current quickened as it hit the turn. After rain the river became unpredictable. Jumping from the rope was considered safe because it had a deep flat rock bottom but either side was infected with snags that drank from the rivers waters.

We decided to sunbathe and stripped of our shorts and lay on our towels in our speedos. The girls called them dick stickers and continuously mocked us about them.
Familiar voices broke our reverie. My girlfriend Patty Richards and her friend Joanne Jackson arrived full of the chatter of girlish femininity. When I say girlfriend I don’t mean like seriously. It was just that we seemed to be together more often than not that people assumed that we were close. Well we were but no more than as just friends.

More kids arrived and soon our spot was alive with incessant chatter and the noise of youth. The sun had its way and broke through the low cloud. Quickly driving us to the shade of the willows. Lunchtime arrived and the four of us walked to the café to buy the mandatory pie and sauce.

About 2pm the McDonald twins arrived. They were by far the best looking boys in school, identical but that was about as far as it went. Donald, or Donny as we called him was brash, a show off and thought every girl at school was after him. I had to admit it though, he was good at sport. Danny on the other hand was studious with a love for books, theatre and the arts. Not a popular combination for Australian boys in the sixties. At 17 this would be their final school year.

Donny was always teasing Danny about his artistic pursuits and at times I wondered why Danny didn’t just hang one on him. But he did have a way with words that would put Donny in his place.

More often than not the group I mixed with copped his abuse when he couldn’t get Danny angry. Danny would often bring his sketch pad and draw small portraits of us or read from a book he always bought with him. He knew my love of words and reading and often he would loan them to me and then we would critique them together. Sometimes he would hire a canoe and take me and Patty further up the river, find a quiet spot and read poetry.
One day when we were alone he said something to me that took me years to fathom out.
“The best friends are the ones that make everyone else question your sexuality.”
He was of course talking about the intimacy of relationships and how close they could be. How they might mistakenly brand people.
I looked at them as they walked toward us. It was obvious they were having an argument.
‘’Why don’t you ever have a go you weak prick’’
‘’I’m just not interested Donny. Danny said.
‘’Yah just a squib Danny. Always have been’’
‘’Have it your own way then’’
After a while it became apparent that Donny was referring to Danny’s refusal to compete in the underwater breath holding completion that had evolved over time amongst the boys. Donny of course held the record of just over two minutes. I was second at one minute fifty seconds.
‘’What about you Jack. Want to take me on’’
I would normally have accepted the challenge but the current was to strong.
‘’Nah Donny the currents to strong’’
‘’Gutless wonder’’ Came the reply but I let it pass through to the keeper.
Donny’s mocking of Danny continued for some time and when Donny called him a poofter Danny lost it.
‘’IÍI take you on then’’
‘’Doesn’t matter Danny. I was only joking’’ said Donny.
And before anyone could stop him Donny was standing on the edge of the ledge.
‘’Time me’’ he said and jumped in.
Thirty seconds passed before he surfaced struggling against the current. He climbed the bank, his torso heaving, and asked for the time.
‘’ IÍI have another go’’
‘’Please Danny you don’t have to’’ I shouted and others pleaded with him not too.
‘’No I’ve had enough of the prick’’
I reached out to stop him but he was too quick and jumped in again. I looked at my watch forty-five seconds had passed and I could feel panic rising in me. Then he appeared obviously weakened by the struggle against the rivers flow. My heart skipped a beat.
I ran down the path below the cliff and helped him out of the water.
‘’What was the time?’’
‘’Who cares’’ I answered adding. ‘’Don’t let him get at you Danny.
‘’No I can do it. One more try’’
Things settled down a little but I could see that Danny was still agitated. Donny sat nearby with a sarcastic mocking grin on his face.
‘’Go on have another go yah gutless wonder’’
‘’Okay I will’’

He ran to the cliffs edge, hesitated and jumped.

We all stood peering down into the swirling waters waiting for Danny to surface. An eternity seemed to pass. I looked at my watch. He had been under for two minutes knew it wasn’t possible for him to stay down that long. Donny gave me a look of confirmation.
‘’Billy’’ I said. ‘’Go down to the bank. Ten yards downstream. Patty go to the café and ring the police. I’m going in’’

I dived from the rocks and hit the water clumsily. I figured that if Danny had been caught by the current he could be wedged in the snags of the trees to where I had sent Billy. I drove down in the darkness groping my way around, pulling feeling and tugging at anything I felt. Finding nothing I came to the surface for air and Billy frightened the shit out of me when he tapped me on the shoulder.

Knowing that he had pushed Danny to far Donny had also dived in and was frantically searching for his brother. The three of us went up and down a dozen times but we couldn’t trace Danny. Then I saw his head bobbing up and down on the other side of a large branch.

‘’There’’ I yelled, over there.’’

We swan to the branch. His right leg was caught in a fork of the tree. I straightened his leg and set it free.

I will never forget the weight of death as we dragged him onto the shore. We tried what we knew of resuscitation but he was gone. Patty returned with the park ranger who had contacted the police and rung the ambulance. The events that followed remain somewhat of a blur to me. Lost in the haze of consequence that results from misadventure and malicious words of jealousy. I remember Patty’s scream at the sight of Danny’s body and Donny’s uncontrollable emotional outburst. Thick headed irrational belligerent stirrer he may have been but without love for his brother he was not. I could attest to that by observation of other times.

It was only as I lay sleepless in my bed that night that the fragility of life began talking to me. Donny and Danny always argued and Donny was always the instigator but it didn’t mean they didn’t love one another. I thought about how unwise words could change the course of one’s life. Is life just a poem we write ourselves I thought as I tossed and turned in confusion?

The funeral came and went and the most popular kid in school was laid to rest. It was the first funeral I had ever attended and death spoke to me yet again. This time in its wider consequences. The sorrow of those consigned to a living death with only memories to complicate or comfort them.

As I grew older death visited me in its normality with the passing of my parents and relations and I thought more and more about it. It became less shadowy and I concluded that it was not the mystery it was made out to be. It was simply the reverse of that other mystery we call birth and life is more about the quality of it rather than the length of it. I reckoned that the knowledge that the one and only life we live is so short, should make it all the more precious.

The Vietnam War taught me of another death. Only the dead know the end of war and I experienced the unnecessary futile horrific stench of it.

Now in my latter years I have concluded that in the cycle of life people we care about are taken from us too soon. We struggle to come to terms with the why of it and there is no answer. It is only by the way we conduct our living that we salute the legacy they leave behind.

I became a writer in my adult life and had a number of successful novels published. By far the most popular was titled ‘’Of Life and Death’’

Postscript:

A few days after Danny’s passing, early on a Saturday morning I went back to the river. As was its custom the heat had also risen with me. I walked across the talking bridge. I could make out someone at the willow tree. It was Donny. When I was within a few yards I could hear him whimpering. On the tree freshly etched with the knife Donny held was Danny’s name and the letters RIP. I softly called his name and when he turned tears were streaming down his grief-stricken face.
‘’Do you hate me’’
‘’No I don’t. I uttered softly as I too began to cry.
‘’Would you be my friend?’’ I asked in a voice I hoped carried the compassion of loss I felt for him.
‘’Why?’’
‘’Because I think Danny would have liked it. Sometimes we need a friend to save us from ourselves. We both do’’

Together we caved each other’s names on the tree. As more kids turned up they did likewise until there were about fifty names on its trunk. We remained good friends and stayed in touch even when he married and moved to the USA. On the 28th of March 1972 Donny died while trying to save a teenage boy who had gotten into difficulty in the Colorado River. It was the same day Danny had drowned at Yarra Bend.

“Having a true friend requires the experience of their pain as well as their joy”.

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5 comments

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  1. Peter Ball

    well said – excellent story

  2. Sandi

    Beautifully Penned..With a tear and a smile I Thank you..

  3. philgorman2014

    Cuel, wounding words are sharp weapons. Casual, careless bullying taunts are blunt, crushing instruments.

  4. DMW

    A very moving piece.

  5. Annie B

    A beautifully told story John …. thank you.

    ……….

    Phil … you are so right – the cruelty of words can be shattering – and last a very long time.

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