I never met my mother until I sold enough paintings to go to Europe. When she met me, she said, you’re just like your father, which had so many edges on it I didn’t know where to look. I felt like saying, How would you know? How could she know anything about the man who raised me? She hadn’t seen him for more than twenty years. But I also wondered whether she might know him better than me, because she knew him when he was free.
When my dad was young he was a hippy dope smoker and an acidhead. It coloured his whole life a kind of purplegreen, but he didn’t go on about it. He was like the men who return from a war and do not speak of it, almost as if they are ashamed, yet everyone knows it was a big part of their lives, maybe the biggest part, and that when they are in the room with you, they are also somewhere else, because they have been in a war and have seen stuff that you would not believe, and it has changed them.
Maybe, yeah, it’s ridiculous to compare being a hippy with being in a war. That’s okay, because my dad was pretty ridiculous, but it’s not entirely stupid. Like a damaged veteran, he was a perpetual outsider, always shocked at the way the world went on. If you saw him in a shopping centre, you could see the sadness in his eyes as he watched the shoppers rushing and bitching and loading themselves up. He couldn’t really believe that people had let themselves in for this bullshit. He remembered when people were going to unwind all that hype. They were going to turn on, tune in and drop out. They were going to eat simple foods, wear simple clothes, live in simple houses, and have all the time in the world to love one another, walking barefoot on the grass.
Yeah, I know.
He mostly didn’t talk about it, but he had a few mementos of his youth, and sometimes he would get happy and share a few words. For instance, he had an old Stop the War poster from the Vietnam Moratorium days. I think he was proud not to have lost it or destroyed it in all the years since. He was seventeen in 1969. He went on marches and sit ins. He blew off his uni course while he was agitating in political collectives. They felt they had won something when the conservatives lost the ’72 election and the Whitlam government took Australian troops out of Vietnam. By the time I saw that poster he had it in a frame, but you could see all these tape marks and pinholes from the different ways he had had it up on a wall.
Another thing he had was a little clay pot from Nimbin, which he kept in the cupboard with his dinner plates. The story was that he had dug the clay himself and made the pot and built the kiln that it was fired in. It was the only piece he had, but it made me imagine that maybe somewhere hippy kids were eating off his hand-made crockery and someone was still baking pots in his kiln. But he never liked to say why he had left Nimbin.
He had a few other bits and pieces that he kept in a canvas shoulder bag, the kind that hippies used to buy in army surplus stores. I knew this bag of things meant something because he moved them just as they were from house to house, never putting anything else in the bag, never taking anything away. I saw the bag first time when I was about five, then later when we moved to Mudgee, then when we moved back to Glebe. When we moved to Leichhardt I knew where he kept it, because by that time I was a total snoop and I knew where he kept everything.
One day when he was out I opened the bag and spread out all the bits and pieces. A leather hairclip with a wooden pin. His star sign on a button. Rainbow cigarette papers. Timothy Leary’s The politics of ecstasy. Herman Hesse’s The glass bead game. Some drawings and drippy poems on folded scraps of paper. A photo of himself naked by a creek with bushranger hair and his wang hanging down. A roach clip. A box of Federal matches that had been mushed into a lump.
The matches were interesting, being all squished up like that. You couldn’t possibly open the box. It was all fused together. I made a little sketch. I was fifteen then, I sketched everything. It was how I thought. I piled up dad’s secret things and tried to imagine what they meant.
I was still sketching when dad got home. When I heard him coming, I shoved everything back in the bag, but I didn’t have time to put it away. He could tell I had been doing something. He wasn’t mad, just curious. He flicked through my sketchbook and asked me why I was drawing his stuff.
I said that bag of stuff was like a message in a bottle, except that when you pulled out the cork and unrolled the note, it was written in a foreign language. He fetched the bag and emptied it onto the table, shaking his head like he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Herman fucking Hesse,” he said, strangling The glass bead game in both hands. “You would not believe how deep and meaningful I used to find this novel. I used to sit reading this and feel that the secrets of the universe were sharing their pulse with me.”
He was silent for a while, poking through the bits of paper with their tripped-out poems and drawings. He laughed when he turned up the photo.
“What do you want to know?” he asked me.
“Tell me about the matches.”
“Ah, the matches.” He gathered his thoughts. “I’ll tell you.”
The matches were with me one night in a storm. I was with Jamie, my best friend. This was when I was about your age. Jamie and I were standing on a picnic table on the headland at Coffs Harbour, and the rain was pissing down. Thunder and lightning. Storming like crazy.
We were on the picnic table because it had a timber roof and we were trying to keep out of the rain. It wasn’t working. Roof wasn’t watertight, just meant to keep the sun off. The wind was whipping off the sea and blowing the rain in sideways. Water was streaming down my face. Hair was plastered over my eyes. Couldn’t see a thing except when the lightning flashed. Then I could see Jamie, crazy as crazy as crazy.
We were tripping. Jamie was really off the planet and finding it a little too amazing. He had three things to tell me, only it took him too long to tell me each one. He would get confused and have to start again.
The first thing was, he felt guilty. He felt guilty because of his parents, because they didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. Fair enough. We were supposed to be on a school excursion to Broken Hill.
The second thing was he really needed me to roll him a cigarette because he needed a cigarette and he couldn’t roll one because his hands weren’t working and could I roll him a cigarette because I rolled the best cigarettes and so on. I had to keep saying it was too wet to roll a cigarette. Sometime I somehow rolled him a cigarette, but of course we couldn’t light it.
The second thing, no, the third thing was that he was feeling guilty because he had been mean to Susan because he had a crush on her and wasn’t prepared to admit it.
The third thing, no, the first thing, was that he was really, really cold. Every time he said that I said we could go inside, because we could go inside, if we walked back to the house where we were staying. But then he would say
that the thing was that he was tripping, that he felt really really strange and he couldn’t go back inside with Thommo and Tracy and Davo while he felt like this because he felt too weird because they weren’t really his real friends like I was his real friend.
Round about here he would try to recap and realise that he couldn’t remember the three things. Cigarette. Parents. Susan. Feeling really weird. Not his real friends. Cold. Guilty. Every now and then a new thought would occur to him, and his count would get weirded out some more, and he would start again.
I was laughing. My jaw was tight. I had one arm wrapped around a pole, clasping its slippery wood to me to stop from blowing away, and I had my left hand rammed into my pocket, rammed in cold and clenched around the matches.
I didn’t mind that Jamie was going crazy, although it was a little boring, hearing him going over the same shit over and over again. I was tripping off my brain myself, everything covered in purple lace, breathing in and out, hissing and wailing like snakes. It was hard to know what was actually going on. It was hard to know how strange it was to be standing on a picnic table in a full-on fucking hurricane. It seemed pretty much like a hurricane. In the lightning flashes, I could see bits of tree flying away, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t hallucinating that.
I was pretty sure that we would be more comfortable back in the house with Thommo and the gang, and I even wondered whether they would be worried about us. My feet were bare, and water was streaming over them, and I was sure that I was getting cold, only I couldn’t feel it. I could never feel the heat or the cold when I was tripping — I really had to think about it. I even doubted Jamie when he said he was cold — I mean I doubted that he was really feeling cold, it was just a symptom of whatever was bothering him.
We were there a long time. I couldn’t get him to move. There was something he had to say, and he knew he had to say it, but I don’t think he knew what it was, so he kept circling around. I wished I could help him. I reminded him that I had indeed rolled him a cigarette — it was that pulpy wet thing between his fingers. How we laughed about that! He asked me to try again. I said it was too wet. I had to shout. We were out there in the dark, shouting at each other to be heard over the storm.
“This is my first trip,” he said.
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, that’s one of the three things I had to tell you. I’m feeling guilty because this is my first trip.”
That made no sense. Jamie had introduced me to acid. He bought me my first trip and babysat me through it.
It took me a long time to get it, what with the storm, and the three things, and us both totally wacked, but eventually I realised that he was telling me that I had been his acid guinea pig. He had wanted to see what acid did to someone else before he took some, because he was scared. After watching me, he was still scared, but I was raring to go again. In the next few weeks, I became a total acidhead, and he still hadn’t dropped one. So, when we shot through to Coffs with Thommo and everyone was going tripping, he just had to act cool and join in. But it was too much for him. He felt guilty. He had to tell me.
I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. What was he guilty about? I didn’t really care whether he had a trip before me or not. I liked tripping. But then it started to sink in that Jamie was saying that he had tricked me. It was a kind of betrayal. He thought so, maybe I should think so.
We stayed out in the rain until the storm had passed over. As the weather calmed down, so did Jamie, and we went back to the house. It felt weird getting back with the group. We could not explain, and the quiet without the storm was wrong. I felt empty and not real. I pulled myself out of my wet clothes and curled up on the floor. As the dawn broke, I willed myself to go to sleep.
A couple of weeks later I found the matchbox in my jeans. It had dried out just like that, like some fossil coprolith. It was silent and enigmatic, but I could feel how much had been squeezed into it, so I have always kept it.
Jamie never really got used to tripping. A few years later he was working as a kitchenhand. Then he got a job with Readers Digest, which was just awful. Jamie wanted to be a writer. He ended up running mail order for canned books. Last time I saw him, he had emphysema. Too much smoking.
That’s what my Dad’s stories were like — people blowing their minds and then wandering around shellshocked for the rest of their lives. The crushed matchbox was just one shrapnel souvenir from the great Aquarian revolution of his youth. He wasn’t so different from Jamie. He wanted to lead a movement; he ended up managing environmental services for Botany Council.
I really loved my Dad. He brought me up. I guess that’s why I’m kind of hopeless at business. He encouraged me. I’m a second-generation jihadi for peace and love.
I kept the bag when he died. I took it up to Coffs. I had no way of knowing exactly where he and Jamie had their stupid night in the storm, but I went out to a park by the water and built a little pyre with the matchbox down the bottom. I made a few sketches. Then I lit it up. That matchbox was hard to light, but when it burned, it burned fierce, like a little heart. It still had everything in it.
[Extracted from The Story of the Picture, a novel.]