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He was someone I once knew or so I thought. One of those familiar faces I thought I should be able to place.
What was he to me? An ex-colleague, the friend of a friend, someone from school? In appearance he's a more handsome version of me, around the same size and colouring. Possibly slimmer, it’s hard to tell sitting. Maybe younger? But not young enough to be one of my children’s friends. I just couldn’t remember.
I was very tired. I was returning from a series of art installations at Cockatoo Island, a converted industrial site, when at some point I realised he was sitting opposite. The taste of the mediocre coffee I had bought in a paper cup at the Quay, to fight off my weariness, was still in my mouth.
Cockatoo Island in the harbour was at one time a substantial shipyard, where medium sized cargo ships and naval vessels were built. A few pieces of the early twentieth century equipment remain, most of them originating in Scotland, the probable origin of the founding engineering expertise.
Cockatoo Island is now a heritage location and one of several venues for the 19th Biennale of Sydney. Like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, it can only be reached by ferry.
Throughout the day the sun had twinkled silver off the blue of the harbour. During a series of ferry rides the beautiful shoreline had passed by; often quite close. In most places the familiar angular sandstone boulders of the shore are overshadowed by gums and other flowering trees. A good deal of public parkland is backed by the thousands of modernist dark glass and steel or the traditional houses and apartments of the wealthy. In some areas manicured gardens extend below the large houses and mansions of the ultra-rich running down to the shoreline. Many of these accommodate swimming pools or boat houses and private jetties.
In every bay and inlet yachts bounced at their moorings. It’s all very nice.
I found myself enjoying the relaxing ride home, despite my earlier misadventures today. The occasional sail passed behind, returning to their mooring at the end of the day.
I remember appraising my craft as a temporary co-owner, for the price of a day ticket. She was an older ferry, a Lady class built in Newcastle 100 miles north of Sydney. I reckoned they must have been introduced around 1970, replacing older wooden ferries.
She’s too big for this run. Maybe it’s because of the closed wharf. There were only twenty or so commuters on the upper deck. A hundred or so rather worn seats were empty and I noticed that she needs a coat of paint. Patches of rust are showing through the dark green and cream of her superstructure. On the deck below she is redolent of marine diesel but up here, where I always sit, the breeze through the many opened windows brought in the freshness of the harbour and the eucalyptus of Sydney. She’s looking her age and must be close to retirement or yet another renovation.
This was my fifth ferry ride and vessel today - the last water transport leg of my outing before confronting that long up-hill walk to my car. Fives. Five ferries and maybe five kilometres walked or was it miles? And I turned fifty five this year. In a decade I too will reach retirement, if I’m not ‘renovated’, given an opportunity to pursue a new career elsewhere, in the next financial downturn.
How do you get an banker out of a tree? Cut the rope. Ha Ha!
I work for an investment bank in the City and regularly catch a ferry.
That’s why that fellow seems familiar. Of course! A fellow commuter.
Despite the many empty seats he had chosen one facing me. After I had noticed him he smiled and leant back expansively remarking that it had been a beautiful day, sunny and the temperature was just right. I agreed and we fell silent. Then he said that today was the first time he’d been on a ferry like this in years. "I'm a bit afraid of them - can't swim," he said.
Damn! ‘Then where do I know you from?’ I wondered.
Anyway, here he was and he was treating me like an old friend. Not that someone recognising me is unusual. Almost anyone, even someone with my limited public exposure as an investment banker, is used to acknowledgements from unremembered people who once sat or stood in an audience or attended the same meeting. But he seemed too familiar and so he had the advantage of me. It was profoundly unsettling.
I certainly couldn’t change seats. That would be incredibly rude. He must be a forgotten friend from somewhere. And a ferry is not like a bus or a train, it has its special risks. For example there are few convenient stops to hop off and wait for the next one. Short of jumping overboard there is no way to escape an abusive banker hater on a ferry.
Maybe he was among the attendees at Cockatoo Island? So I told him the purpose of my day, the Bank might become patron in 2016.
As soon as I mentioned the island’s name he lent forward offered a ribald joke. “What’s the difference between a cockatoo and a swallow?”
“Go on,” I said smiling, even though I’d heard it before.
“A swallow won’t get your woman pregnant.” I tried to give a half-hearted laugh. It caught in my throat. The ‘your woman’ in place of ‘a girl’ was an alarming variation. I felt a premonition.
It was April Fools’ Day.
We fell back into silence until I felt, uncomfortably, that he might think that his joke had offended me, that I was a prude.
So I began to say what I had thought of the exhibition this time.
I was disappointed. I reckoned the Biennale was better two years ago when the highlights had included a performance art installation in which a woman sat cutting indefinitely with tiny scissors, making a tent for herself from intricately manicured origami.
In 2012 it had also included a marvellous light installation like water reads in the wartime tunnels that pass through the island’s massive sandstone promontory.
This time there was a fraction of the number of works and installations. It was a shadow of its former self. And the main performance piece was less subtle. It involved several women in black leotards and pants pulling ropes over pullies in a sort of gym.
He made a politically incorrect comment about some of the positions they had adopted then remarked on how many attractive women were in attendance as viewers and how many of them had enthusiastically participated in the interactive installation involving assorted machines that shook or moved sculptural constructions.
So he had been there.
I must have seen him looking at an exhibit or participating in one of the interactive performance pieces. So that explains it.
I had noticed the women too. But his evident libidinous bent gave him an unsettling air of sexual assertiveness. Something about his eyebrows as he leaned towards me so that his comments would not be overheard made him seem suddenly Pan-like. And he smelled vaguely of the countryside, perhaps of goat, as if he was a satyr sent to contribute to my April Fools’ Day misadventures.
Obviously my day wasn’t over yet.
To mask my unease, I changed the subject and began telling him about my disastrous April Fools’ Day morning.
I humorously claimed that although the jokes against me were supposed to end at midday this trickster was obviously using coordinated universal time. With Daylight Saving, midday was not ‘til an hour before midnight in Sydney. The trickster was obviously the Universe itself, fate.
“The tricks began when my failed alarm caused me to drive to the ferry this morning to save time,” I told him, “only to find that the wharf that I usually use had closed for maintenance last weekend.”
Then, to make the story more interesting, I added a few extra tricks of fate from the recent past: how I had run out of petrol, well nearly, it did beep; the illegal parking fine of $101, from the other day; the gouge made by the jagged cliff wall down the side of my car, not even this car; before returning to reality.
“After driving to the next wharf, I had a long walk down the steep hill from the nearest legal parking spot,” I told him truthfully.
“Eventually I arrived at Circular Quay and rushed to catch the connecting ferry - only to jump onto the wrong one.”
“This required a complete round trip to Sydney's Darling Harbour via half a dozen stops, none of which provided a convenient escape from a ferry periodically packed with bemused tourists, overweight pleasure seekers and small children. It took an hour to get back to the Quay.”
I explained that as I was re-approaching the Quay, the timetable in my phone indicated just four minutes to get to the next ferry. I was hoping it would leave from the same wharf. If I missed it I would have another long wait.
“To my horror I could see our ferry heading for a wharf at the other end of the Quay,” I was getting into the drama now.
“So I positioned myself right at the rail and stood waiting, like a sprinter on the blocks, as the gangplank was put in place. I was first off and dashing up the wharf. Through the turnstiles quickly. Then running at full tilt along the Quayside: weaving through the hordes of tourists wandering about like Brown’s Cows; avoiding mothers pushing prams across my path; through lunchtime crowds gathering around didgeridoo players; a juggler; a helmet wearing rap dancer spinning on his head; assorted tumblers; flame throwers; street artists; and sundry buskers.”
Some of this was true. I had run through the audience free spaces in front of a couple of buskers, including the didgeridoo players; there was a helmet wearing guy spinning on his head; the prams are a hazard for runners; and ‘Brown’s Cows’ tourists are always at the Quay. The other hazards were imagined but are there from time to time.
I reached the other wharf. Oh No! The ferry was already pulling out. ‘Cockatoo Island’ I cried despairingly, bending at the waist panting. ‘Not yet. Fifteen minutes on Side B’ replied the staff guy, smiling at my unnecessary exertions. I could easily have strolled and taken in the scene.
“That’s when I discovered the source of mistake my last time. The timetable in my phone had not updated,” I told him.
He just sat there smiling enigmatically, as if he had known me all my life and was used to these dramatisations; as if he had no need to hold up his side of the conversation.
But I must say that I was pleased with my re-telling. Maybe I’ll write it up with a little more imaginative detail. I could make the car catch fire. I could run blindly onto the wharf and fall in where the pontoon was last week. So I went on with my story.
“Finally I got to the exhibition but I had missed riding the Island train that was a key interactive performance.” I was now in full storytelling mode and coloured in my voice in disappointment.
“But I did see the little train at a distance. So like the fox and the sour grapes I decided it was trivial rubbish anyway,” I laughed.
I went on to express my general disappointment that so many of the works on the Island were video installations, each requiring half an hour or more to make sense of them. Worse, after watching for some time, several of them did not seem to warrant or deserve the investment.
“Who wants to see and hear ill-informed Japanese nuclear protesters?” I demanded.
To my surprise he responded warmly and seemed to change entirely. He made no more rakish references to women or to the various ambiguous exhibits on the Island. Instead he became philosophical.
“Fiction surrounds us,” he said. “We love it more than the truth. We like our facts wrapped in the sugar coating of imaginative speculation, interpretation and dramatisation.”
Was he getting at me for adding some amusing details to my April Fools’ Day story?
“How can we discover the few actual facts that are hidden among the vast outpourings of human imagination and creative invention, for example our little lies and creative fictions?” he asked. "A few factual needles in haystacks of imaginative nonsense."
Now I was sure he was doubting some of my claims about my day. He was subtly accusing me of ‘gilding the lily’ or outright lying. The bastard!
Suddenly I knew where I’d seen him! A moment of revelation. My recent coffee rose in my gorge.
He’s a friend of the woman in my life. I’ve seen him in her vicinity at openings and other events, walking off as I approached.
That’s him! He's that mystery man in her Facebook photo album.
I immediately feared the worst. Perhaps he’s here gloating, confirming that this April Fool is no rival when it comes to women.
Maybe this is a final trick by the Universe to round off this day of misadventures?
Why was he here? Had he followed me from the Island and now he was amusing himself at my expense like half those artists on the Island.
"Is that why he told that joke?" I thought, tensing at the idea.
He was still talking: "The industrial detritus from real shipbuilding contrasts starkly with the creative, imaginative outpourings of these thirty-something year old ‘Gen-Ys’".
“The machinery is left over from a real, practical world where an untested imaginative flourish, of the sort that is the artist’s stock and trade, would have cost lives in addition to money and cargo,” he was saying.
“But the shipbuilders were imaginative too,” I objected, my anger rising. “In those days no two ships were the same. The marine architects and engineers had to respond imaginatively to the client’s brief as well as advancing technology. In fact, technology only advances as a result of imagination. It’s fundamental to innovation.”
“My point is that imagination of that practical kind has to be constrained by the so called laws of nature. And it has to obey the rules of the marketplace. It’s no use imagining a ship that will rise out of the water on foils in 1918 if there are no engines sufficiently powerful to propel it and no commercial materials strong and light enough to do the job or the additional speed is not yet cost effective in a less time constrained market.”
Why was this 'friend' of my woman daring to lecture me about ship building? He really is a know-it-all prick!
“I’m well aware of that,” I replied angrily.
“I understand commercial reality better than most and I’m no stranger to shipbuilding. I’ve been involved in analysing and financing it."
"But it’s a ‘rust industry’ in much of the developed world. Commercial ships are now among the biggest structures built. They are constructed in huge pieces, often on a production line in enormous yards, mostly in Asia. In the world of commercial shipbuilding we now have modern super tankers, container ships, cruise ships, huge aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines that are larger than that entire island.”
“I don’t want to argue about ships,” he said in a conciliatory tone.
Instead, he reverted to his argument about imagination trumping reality.
“What appeals more to us as humans: the wonderful flights of imagination of storytelling in literature, music and art; or strictly factual commercial shipbuilding as you might see in a technical manual or textbook? You won’t see too many of those in your local library or on the best seller list.”
"For example, many of the large modern ships you mentioned are over four times bigger than the, for them, almost unimaginably huge Ark envisioned by the writers of Bible. Yet that's a story so compelling to us humans that it's repeated again in Koran and again in our own time at the movies. We really don't care about the size of the boat or the source and supply of gopherwood or the logistics of its construction. It's the imaginative back-story: the family history and community conflicts; the divine intervention; the retelling of the already tried and true Sumerian flood myth; the animals two-by-two; and the happy ending; that appeals to us."
I had to admit that he had a point. I was now, against my better judgement, nodding in agreement, so he pressed on with his thesis:
“Most of us are much more attracted to storytelling than a completely factual technical description of a ship. The human imagination can have us flying to distant universes or living with mythical creatures or becoming those creatures seen from their point of view. Characters can suffer imaginative ills or joys or transformations."
"Readers can become immersed in tales of love and sickness and family struggles or be carried away by tales if intrigue and espionage or sexual fantasy. Biographers can make their subject a virtual saint or a deeply flawed and complex character. There can be gods and fairies and angels and reincarnations and ghosts and spirits of the ancestors. The dead can be raised. There can be mystical cures and miracles and the influence of the planets and stars. All unconstrained by actual reality or truth or verifiable facts."
Now I found myself reluctantly supporting his argument.
“You certainly have a point,” I agreed, thinking about my own recent creative elaborations.
"But imaginative freedom is important. We all need to daydream sometimes. Some children need invisible friends and it’s nice when they still believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny and when they are delighted by a bedtime story. Most of us need to escape into novels or TV soaps or the movies or just to squirm at ghost-tales and other horrors. We all love urban myths that spread like viruses and re-emerge decades later having supposedly just occurred.”
“The only harm is when people start to genuinely believe in their own fantasy. At its worst that’s psychosis."
"You know the difference from neurosis? The neurotic fears there may be a dangerous animal outside at night. The psychotic has seen the tiger, or the dragon or the fearsome god out there,” I added, to show that I knew a few things too.
“Being intellectually or emotionally crippled by coming to believe in one’s own fantasies is not the only harm,” he replied.
“Think about all those competing and contradictory strands of religion people have come to believe in and are prepared to die for. And the political dogmas that drive people to mass murder, like in Cambodia. These are scribblers’ fantasies, some ancient and some new, that have somehow come to be dressed in the cloak of truth.”
“For me," he continued, "Cockatoo Island is a wonderful illustration of the contrast between the highly attractive, but ultimately trivial and inconsequential realm of the unfettered imagination, set against the stark practical world of real manufacturing; making something that actually worked and had a practical worldly use."
“There we have a bunch of artists who are largely dependent on society and market economics, wanting to be regarded as serious professionals yet at the same time wanting to freely express themselves."
"But the kind of artistic freedom they desire is only available to the independently wealthy. And of course dilatants who make art for their own amusement or passion and don't care about using it to make a living. Like you mucking about with your brushes and oils.”
My god! How does he know about my secret hobby? I felt dreadful chill race through my body.
She’s been telling him about me and mocking me! It’s true, he is her lover!
If he’d noticed my sudden loss of colour it didn’t stop him talking. Did he never stop?
I don’t quite know what he was saying after that.
It was something to do with some artists objecting to the founding sponsor of the Biennale and biting the hand that fed them.
My mind was elsewhere.
I was vividly imagining them together in the back of a car; in a park; against a wall behind some shrubs; in a cheap hotel room.
I could picture her naked body entwined with his, writhing, sweating, sliding.
I could smell her - them! Or was it just the smell of the shore blending with and the flowery perfumes of the nearby gardens?
Maybe they meet at lunchtime; or when she's gone 'to have a drink with the girls'; or overnight when her job demands she travel.
How long might it have been going on I wondered? When had I first noticed her change towards me?
My anger collapsed to despair, then resignation.
"Well that’s that," I thought. "It's to break up! I'm not going to fight this time. I need to leave them together and find someone else."
Hang on. Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself? What proof do I have that they are actually lovers? Maybe they just like to talk.
But now what was happening?
He had stretched back in his seat looking smug. And there was something odd about the way he was holding his arms across his chest. He was looking down at his left wrist, pretending to examine his watch.
But he was holding his hands together, palm to palm. And his fingertips were tapping his wrists! He was imitating a beast with two backs - Soixante neuf style!
"A swallow won’t get your woman pregnant!" He had said.
The ferry was gliding silently now, on its run into the wharf.
In the bay the wash from the ferry smacked and sucked voluptuously at the hulls of the boats on their moorings, sending them rocking. As I watched his hands my vision of them together became more vivid. More explicit.
Suddenly a seagull screamed. The squawking became guttural as more and more gulls fought over some desired prize. He dropped his hands to this thighs and his body jerked with each new cry in apparent surprise.
He had said he was afraid of ferries, and of drowning, but the way he was reacting to the everyday sounds was unnatural.
These were not the twitchings of fear. He was obviously mimicking, flaunting their wild, uninhibited, copulations.
The seagull's squawks rose in intensity. Rising waves of passion. I imagined her crying out.
His hands were rubbing his thighs. His knuckles were white. Now she was pleasuring him.
The engines rumbled full astern and the water churned heavily as we neared the wharf. His body tensed. He made a little yelp then sighed deeply and fell back as the noise and vibration abated.
Was this another April Fools' Day trick on me? Am I Othello to his Iago? Then she must be Desdemona. 'It’s a fantasy within a fantasy within...'
I snapped out of my trance.
Now he was sitting calmly, a faint dew of perspiration on his brow, looking expectant.
He was obviously waiting for my response to what he'd been saying before the seagull's cry.
“You seem to have drifted away from your original argument,” I claimed, to cover the fact that I hadn't been listening to him since he revealed he knew about my secret hobby.
“What happened to finding factual needles in imaginative haystacks?”
“But don’t you see?” he said. “The artists allowed a story with lots of imaginative straw and very few needles of fact to seduce them. The creative story was a lot more interesting and attractive that spending the time and effort to uncover the boring facts.”
As I prepared to disembark he leant forward again and stared intently at me to make his final point.
He was smiling again. “The only way to find those needles in life is to examine each straw carefully to see if it is needle-like or straw-like.
“Sadly the alternative is much more fun. Just bounce into the haystack of comfortable straw - popular culture stories and myths - like alternative medicine and astrology - and your wild imaginings - and hope you don’t end up with a sharp needle of a fact somewhere where it hurts.”
All the tricks April Fools Day had played on me had made me desperately weary.
I may even have nodded off for a second, because I remember giving a start when I realised that the other passengers had begun to disembark.
I quickly collected my things: my camera and my carry-bag of paints and brushes from the art supplies shop.
When I looked up he was gone, nowhere to be seen.
Author’s Note: I am not he. I am no longer fifty anything and have never worked for a bank. But I did have an interesting April Fools’ Day and the Biennale and some of the ferry adventures are real.
The first version of this story appeared on my website on 2nd April. It has been altered since after helpful suggestions from a number of friends.
20th June 2014