Letter to my oldest friend…

My earliest memories of us are centered around photographs. You are unbelievably gorgeous, petite, perfectly proportioned, like a doll — your long blonde hair hangs in ringlets, which your mother painstakingly created with rag strips. Your brother is in a singlet and pajama pants, blond too and grinning at the camera, chin up, you are in the middle, looking like a child model who has just dropped by, and I am on the other side of you, a year younger than you yet bigger, more boyish and with dark hair. We’re sitting in front of an oil heater that was built into the wall of your suburban bungalow. The heater is on, so it must be colder weather.

In summer photos we’re in the pool at my house, playing with our dogs, or in autumn we’re playing in your backyard while your dad rakes the leaves into a huge pile that he then burns. We run in the smoke, and our clothes and hair smells of burned leaves and campfire. There was a creek that ran down the side of your house. We’d build bridges, play in the mud, get cold and damp and dirty as we created worlds for our plastic toy people. The smell of damp afternoon and wet leaves would quietly gather around us, and then your mother would call us in for a warm drink and a snack she’d made. There were no packet biscuits at your home in Wahroonga.

Your bedroom was the farthest corner of the house from the living room, so you had time to hide your toys or games if you heard your brothers coming, or your parents, and it was the largest bedroom (it had been the master bedroom before your parents built their “parents retreat” upstairs), and it had windows on two walls, which really impressed me, because your white metal bed frame, with its curves and ceramic pictures embedded in the design was out from the wall, with a lace-curtained window behind it, and this seemed like the most sophisticated and luxurious arrangement of furniture, rather than having all the furniture crammed against the walls as our house did, making space in the center of every room for adults, doing whatever it was that adults did.

Your bedroom was an oasis. It said you were valued. You were not an afterthought. Not sidelined in your own home. You were a girl’s girl, you had crushes on boys when I was still totally uncomfortable with the concept. You had an album cover from a singer who held a red carnation, Mark Holden. You were besotted and slept with the album cover under your pillow. More than three decades later, when I return to visit Australia, he’s a judge on Australian Idol.

There were times during our childhood when I’d gravitate to your brother, just 6 months younger than me, to play safaris or Lego, and leave you on your own, during what was meant to be “our” playdate. I really didn’t want to play dolls, didn’t want to make Han Solo and Princess Leia kiss (well, maybe once or twice, but not in some extended romantic scene). I was a tomboy. I remember this upsetting you sometimes, and I remember being torn between the Matchbox lion going around and around in the Ranger’s truck when the wheels went around, and making clothes for our dolls out of scraps of old fabric from your mum’s sewing basket. Sometimes, we were avant-garde fashion designers.

One summer I recall a free-ranging day at the beach with your family, without the intensity of my own family being there. We played cricket on the beach with your brothers and other kids, some of your cousins perhaps. It felt like the ultimate freedom. When I was returned home that night my mother was really upset that I’d gotten sunburnt, for the first time ever it seemed, and she was angry that your parents didn’t put suncream on us often enough. I heard her diatribe, but I doubt your folks ever did.

My mum would take the two of us skiing each year, firstly to Smiggin Holes, the baby slopes which had a hotel with big bunk beds where three different families all vacationed together. As an only child, with my closest relatives a plane trip away, this was such a thrill for me. One of the boys from the other family fell off the bunk bed — there was a dramatic night of parental involvement, but he was fine. Not to be outdone, I ran along the corridor and jumped up to whack the EXIT sign, which hung from the ceiling, and it fell and hit me on the head. I needed stitches; I still have a tiny scar, which looks like just another wrinkle on my forehead these days.

Then later in our skiing lives, we’d stay at the fancy hotel that my dad’s boss owned, where we could vacation for very little money, although my dad never came with us. You and I went to ski school, ate creamy soup and hot bread for lunch by the fireplace in the hotel, then skied all over the Perisher Resort in the afternoon. We felt like royalty, in our loud 1980s ski outfits, with our rental gear, making turns and racing each other and catching the chairlifts. Eating in the hotel restaurant every night, with candlesticks and pepper grinders, we felt we were so grown up.

One summer when we were nine or 10, our families rented a beach house together at Noosa. I remember a long, boring drive north on the Pacific Highway listening to E.L.O. and Elton John’s “2 Low 4 Zero” on cassette tapes. Dad drove, one of the few holidays that he came with us, and the mood in the car hovered between tense and boring; or perhaps I just got bored with the constant tension caused by my parents. When we arrived, your family was already there. It had all been worth it. We spent the week ganging up on your youngest brother. This was exotic, mischievous, verboten; we kids could go off by ourselves, down to the beach, for walks, to play. I’d rarely known such freedoms. There is a photo of you and I putting on a show for the adults, dressed up and wearing makeup and pulling faces. I see my dad in the background, with a tan and a long suffering expression.

You had a sleepover birthday, but I fell asleep while everyone else was playing games, eating sweets, and having pre-teen fun. Your school friends wanted to put my hand in warm water to see if it made me wet the bed, but you wouldn’t let them. I didn’t know any of them except through you, and you were protective of me.

My family started to rent the same holiday apartment at Avoca beach each summer, and you’d come for a visit each year. We were teenagers by now, I was into windsurfing and I’d hoard my $20 notes to get an hour’s lesson every few days. We’d walk to the bakery first thing in the morning, to get bread for the day with enough cash to treat ourselves to a finger bun or raisin snail which we’d scoff, hot and soft and yeasty in our mouths, before we got home. We’d paw over the program for the old-fashioned cinema and nag my mum to take us to see the latest movies, except the only film I can remember seeing was “An American Werewolf in London” which I fled after about 20 minutes, but which still gave me nightmares for years.

For my fifteenth birthday my mother threw a dinner party for all my girl friends. We thought we were terribly sophisticated. Everyone dressed up in their version of the fashion of the day — long skirts with oversized pleats, boxy tops, backcombed fringes on our hair, big dangly clip on earrings. Your hair was in a Lady Di cut — broad “flicks” framing your heart shaped face, your cowlick making the style really work, where it looked so derivative on others. I still wore plaits at this time; don’t ask me why.

Your year 11 formal was a boat cruise on the harbor. You took me, a year 10 from another school, as your ‘date‘ — my hair had been cut short again, like when we were little. I dressed in one of my mum’s dresses and added some clip on earrings, while you’d planned your dress, shoes, hair and accessories for weeks.

I knew you had a good friend from your co-ed school with two first names, Andrew and James, but in my naiveté I didn’t realize that the amount of time you spent talking about him indicated that you liked him more than just as a friend. He was tall, blond and good looking in a slightly goofy way. 

Later that night, he and I went upstairs and on a dark, outside deck, with the noise of the party inside, and the lights of the harbor buildings all around us, we kissed. You heard about it within minutes — someone had seen and reported this scandal back to everyone — and you were devastated. To say you were upset with me is an understatement. I was naive, then mortified, then shamed, confused and embarrassed.

In short, I was not a great friend.

Around this time, when you were 17 and I was just 16, we were also sneaking out to go to nightclubs in North Sydney. We rarely crossed the bridge into the “city”, although it wasn’t long before you were frequenting a very fashionable club called “Rogues” that my dad also had a membership key-chain for.

I do remember us dancing to “Free Nelson Mandela” by The Special AKA in the 1980s at the Cuckoo’s Nest. NSW had paper drivers’ licenses back then, without photos — it was ridiculously easy to forge one. The bouncers usually just asked your star sign as they held the license ID; if you knew some key details of the person you were pretending to be, there was no barrier to entry. I am sure they knew we were under age, they were just covering themselves. Sometimes we’d both get fake ID, but when you finally turned 18 you’d just lend me yours and I knew every detail of your life. Your birthday and zodiac sign, your address, your middle name.

After we left school, our lives continued to diverge, but we kept in touch. You invited me to have dinner at the flat you shared with a friend, you showed me pictures of the European holiday you’d been on together, hauling huge suitcases around. It seemed so exotic and romantic, compared with my bargain-basement backpacking adventures, complete with amoebic dysentery and failed romances.

There was a boy who loved you. A few short-term boyfriends later, you realized the value of this one guy, who’d been smitten with you for years. I remember going to big group events — dinners or drinks you’d include me in — at North Sydney bars, with a bunch of suburban boys and the one who loved you, and some of your girlfriends. You were always so socially adept in these situations, perhaps from going to a co-ed school, or from having brothers, or from being a year older but many years more mature than I was. Or a combination of all these.

Always uncomfortable, I usually ate or drank too much, as I struggled to chat with the suburban sophisticates. You all worked in office jobs and wore nice clothes, while I was a cadet journalist earning a union-negotiated wage and living in an inner-city share house, surviving on happy hour draught beers and playing pool in pubs heated by logs in a 40-gallon drum in my spare time.

Various jobs, birthdays, Christmas catch ups, and a new millennium.  Then its your wedding day and we’re getting ready in your childhood home for the ceremony and celebrations to come.

So many important moments happened, for you and me, under this roof. I remember helping pin your suspenders and stockings together that morning in your brother’s bedroom and thinking to myself how your new husband, this besotted boy-turned-man, would be unclipping them later that night. I was so thrilled to be bridesmaid, I loved my palest pink, figure skimming, layered silk, floor-length gown. I didn’t need any kind of shape wear to make it work back then. I was tall, dark haired and athletic in build, you were petite, blonde, and slimly curvaceous.

There was a nerve-racking ceremony, formal wedding photos in the rain, a big reception complete with a farewell circle. You left via water taxi. You’d planned and executed the wedding so beautifully, you’d smiled graciously without, you had something thoughtful and meaningful to say to each guest. I was in awe of your grace, your simple, unassuming style, your humility while you were the center of attention.

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