The Lazy Wind
Last winter I visited my hometown for the first time in 16 years. I was on a work trip, and stayed a week. White clouds scudded across the granite sky, but the rain never managed to fall. Growing up a lazy wind would blow off the plains every winter. People called it a lazy wind as it couldn’t be bothered going around you. A dozen years later the same wind poked at the edges of my coat trying to find a way in. By the second day my face felt raw.
One afternoon I skipped a seminar and hired a share bicycle. I put on my coat and rode from the city to my old neighbourhood. It didn’t seem as far it used to, and the hills were smaller than I remembered. The streets felt like they were filled with ghosts.
Someone had rendered and painted my old house. The building was wearing someone else’s clothes. The row of silver birches my father planted and watered stood white and naked, arms waving at the sky, but at least they were the same trees. I nosed the front wheel away from the driveway and into the past, the spokes spinning in directions I had travelled a thousand times.
As the light began to wane I found myself at my old best friend’s house. In high school I would roll up to his back fence and wait for him to come out so we could ride in together. He is the only person I have ever met who shared my first name. Because our name was so unusual we were both used to being asked about it. I think that’s why we became friends. As he was the popular and good looking one people added a diminutive to the end of his name, and I was left with the formal version. I guess it meant that we could be separated in conversations, but I envied him for that and for other reasons nonetheless.
He left town in Year 9 to live in the country. His mum had divorced so they moved back to family. I didn’t see him for a long time. We wrote the occasional letter, and I probably could have called more, but long distance conversations were expensive in those days, and when I did call him we would talk about things that were retreating into the past rather than becoming anything new. I rode my bike to school less and less as I got older, taking the bus or catching a lift with older friends who could drive. But I always noticed his old house when I passed by.
When we had both finished with school I wrote him a letter asking what he was going to do now he was free. I was feeling strong as I could choose what I wanted to do, and I didn’t have the imagination to realise that not everyone felt the same way. In the letter I asked him whether he ever regretted leaving town and going country, and if he wondered what his life could have been like if he’d stayed. Sometimes I have very little patience for my younger self. He didn’t reply to my letter, and I didn’t hear from him again.
I moved to a bigger city, earnt money, met people. After a while my hometown felt more like somewhere I once lived than home.
It’s one of those coincidences that would be predictable in a small town, but by chance I met my old friend in the mess that is the city where I live. I was sitting in a booth in a café I’d never been before when I heard someone say my name. I turned around and no one was looking in my direction. The café was busy with customers lined up to order and pay, the kitchen staff in the distance behind a stainless steel benchtop. Thin winter light filtered through the windows. It was noisy, chairs scraping the floor, conversations, children playing in the corner. I felt a moment of embarrassment for my reaction but no one noticed. Then my name cut through again. This time I stood up and looked around. My name is so unusual that it just couldn’t be a mistake. And then I saw him. Behind the counter at the back of the café, my old friend was working at a wide bench. Even though many years had passed, and he had changed, he was still unmistakeable. I watched him cutting pastry into triangles, rolling croissants. His fingers were all grace, caressing the dough into identical crescent seashells. Then he looked up.
He was older than his age. His face and body had thinned. Whereas in high school he captained the footy team, and his frame promised adult strength, he now looked scraped. His skin was grey and pale, hair long and thin, tied at the back. It was like seeing fruit left to wither on the branch.
I felt my balance swim as our eyes met. I reached down to steady myself on the tabletop and there he was, hand outstretched to shake mine. It was lightly dusted with flour, his whites bore finger marks where he had wiped his hands clean. I shook the hand in front of me. It was firm and dry and then I felt him drag me forward into an embrace. Off balance I pushed backwards, trying to reach for the edge of the table to rescue us, but before I could we were on the floor. Someone behind the counter laughed. I rolled onto my side and picked myself up.
He was still on the ground. An uneven smile split his face, and then he laughed and a bubble of laughter also escaped me. I reached down and in our second hand shake I helped him up, and we embraced again. People were smiling at us and someone started clapping. I sat down at the booth, but he stayed upright. He raised his arms above his head and addressed the café: Hi everyone. This is my place. I hope you are enjoying your lunch. This is my best friend from high school. I haven’t seen him in maybe 15 years, and here he is in my place! I’m sorry to disturb you all with our gymnastics. Have a great lunch and a great day!
He sat down. A smile flickered at the corner of his mouth and then he started.
Wow. Of all the gin joints of all the towns in the world and you walk into mine! What the fuck! How the fuck are you? I look like shit, but you look great! Where do you live? What do you do? What the fuck are you doing here?
There was a pause and we smiled at each other. Then he laughed and I joined him again. I felt a strange sense of unreality in seeing him. The colours in the room were stronger, the light brighter. I could see the motes of dust suspended in the beams of light that passed through the windows. Across the table was a palimpsest of the boy I once knew in the skin of a stranger. I only knew that this moment was real because the person was so different to what I imagined he would be. The differences told me I wasn’t dreaming.
I’m good mate. I’m good. I’m in the area for work. I live on the other side of the city.
He waved to his staff and two coffees appeared. I told him a few stories to sketch in detail. Studying. Working. My family. I called my office and took the afternoon. Outside the weather darkened and a squally change blew through, the wind and sudden rain whirling leaves and scattering them to plaster car wind screens and shop fronts. Shoppers huddled under awnings, a few hanging in the doorway of the café until it passed.
When I finished my story there was a pause, and I expected it was his turn to fill in the gaps since the last letter.
Mate what you see is what you get.
What do you mean?
I mean look at me. What do you think has happened to me? Or to be more accurate, what do you think I’ve done to myself?
I looked at his face closely. It looked as if the collagen and fat had been stripped away, leaving bones painted with skin. His eyes were near translucent, the iris and sclera almost indistinguishable, the eyeball bulging slightly as there wasn’t any fat under the lid to support its weight. His body was equally thin, and the skin on his arms, while clean and unblemished, looked thicker, almost leathery. I waited a moment before I spoke.
Is it drugs?
What you see is a heroin survivor, currently four months clean, although to be fair, before my last indiscretion I managed to stay sober for 13 months and three days.
So you think you’re good, you’re ok now? With these long breaks?
He smiled again, although this time it looked like he was arranging his flesh into a pattern rather than actually expressing happiness.
No one beats heroin. You just go on holidays for a while.
Then he told me his story. Left school after graduating Year 12. Became an apprentice pastry chef in the city. Scratched out his addiction towards the end of that. Did well enough as a chef for years to hide it, until it metastasized like a storm cell that poured out cold rain on his life until he asked for help. And then, in small steps, he was able to build things. The café was three years old. It was the only coffee shop in the strip. He had great staff that he could trust, and in those three years he had fallen back onto heroin four times, and only for a week or so each time.
When he finished he shrugged his shoulders. Then he said:
I feel like maybe I matter now.
The café was quieter now the lunch rush was over. The sun had broken through after the band of rain. Outside the wintry sun shone on the wet bitumen, illuminating it silver. There was a stillness in the room, and for an instant the air felt as if it was waiting to be breathed. There was one thing I wanted to know.
Mate, I want to say something, and I want you to be honest. You remember that last letter I sent you? Well it’s been bothering me for a long time, all this time. I asked you something in the letter, and I think maybe I shouldn’t have. I meant what I wrote at the time, but if I could change things I wouldn’t have written it.
You mean when you asked if I ever regretted moving to the country, and if I wondered what things could have been like if I stayed? What I missed out on? What could have been?
He leaned forward, outstretched his hands, and enveloped mine in his. His skin was dry, dusty, warm. I looked down. My eyes felt hot. I clenched my teeth.
We were kids. Kids talk shit. But of course I wondered, and of course I wanted to stay. And when you sent me that letter I was about to leave to start my apprenticeship. I wanted to go to uni, but we didn’t have the money for me to study away from home so I had to do something. Why I ended up like I am can be traced to more than just going country, or getting an apprenticeship, or any one individual thing. I mean for years I would start work at three in the morning, and finish at lunch. If you do that the only people you meet are just like you, and you go strange. You just want to come across someone normal, but you can’t, you’re asleep.
So there was forgiveness. He’d let me off my own hook. I wiped my eyes and smiled, but there was still a hollowness in my chest.
We talked for a bit longer, and promised to keep in touch. I would like to say that we were able to build upon what happened in his café, but I never saw him again. After a few days I called him and left a message, and then made another attempt a week or so after that. I missed a call from him during the night when I’d turned my mobile off, but when I called him back no one answered.
After a month I drove out to his café. It was dark inside and a few envelopes had been pushed through the slot to lie scattered and unopened on the floor. Winter leaves had gathered in the corners of doorframe, fragile and brown, their skeletons exposed. A legal eviction notice was stuck onto the glass from the inside. But the furniture and fittings were unchanged, and the booth where we sat was empty, visible in the dim.
It took me a while to find out what happened. I started with the estate agent who was managing the lease on the café, and from there I made up a lie about some rented equipment so that I could get the number of one of his staff members. It turns out he’d died ten days after I saw him. He had overdosed alone in his flat. He was found the next day by two of his employees who were worried when he didn’t show up to open the cafe. He was right, he had chosen good people.
When I rode away from his old house on the share bicycle I took the same backstreet route that we used to take to school. The afternoon had almost disappeared when I passed my alma mater. There were a few cars in the car park, but no students. In the passing years the school had grown, and modern buildings, sweeping curves and glass, had supplanted the besser block classrooms that I remembered. I couldn’t recognise the spots where I used to sit at lunch time, or line up before classes started. I rode into the city, checked the bike, and walked back to the hotel, the lazy wind pushing me through the doors.
When I finished the work trip in my hometown I boarded an aeroplane at the medium sized airport that matched the size of the town. It was a late flight, and as they had all week, the clouds blotted out the sky. Looking out of the plane all I could see was the strips of light that illuminated the runway into the distance. Everything else was blackness. As we taxied onto the runway drops of rain spattered the thick window pane. The drops grew larger, ran down the surface, to pool at the bottom, only to be replaced by others. The plane took off regardless, the ghosts of the past in its trail. As the lights of my hometown disappeared behind me I thought of my namesake, his back fence, the paths we took to and from school, and the paths that led elsewhere. The friends you have when you are young aren’t like the friends you have when you are older. They are there when you are starting to understand who you may be in the future, and so they are part of what you become.
They always matter.
Martin Toman is a writer of contemporary fiction who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He studied at Australian Nation University and the University of Canberra before becoming a teacher of English Literature. Martin has been published online and in print, and recently in publications such as Across the Margin, Fresh Ink and Literally Stories.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.