It was just an ordinary Sunday in May almost 30 years ago. No need to remember it particularly. Except it was the day I met Charlie.
I do recall I had woken up dusty, and late, that morning. So late in fact that it was almost afternoon. Breakfast (lunch?) wasn’t sitting too well with me; but rather than take the obvious option of a lazy afternoon on the couch, in front of the idiot box, or some hair of the dog with mates at a local watering hole, I decided I deserved to be punished for my sins.
It was a good move. Going for a run that is. Maybe I hadn’t overdone it last night as much as I thought. Getting out in the fresh air, and working up a sweat, seemed to be having the desired effect. Thankfully.
And then, of course, there was the view. In those days I was living at McMahons Point, on the northern foreshore of one of the greatest harbours in the world. So it was just a hop, skip and a jump to get myself onto the Big Coathanger, and a few short minutes later I found myself on Sydney's city fringes.
As I did so I idly reflected that things hadn’t worked out too badly for me since my parents transported five-sixths of our family from the nation’s second largest city to its largest just over 20 years earlier, in order that Dad could take up a job opportunity. Though the move was a lot tougher on my two adolescent sisters, both of whom were uprooted at a seminal time in their lives from a high school they loved, just walking distance from our home in Melbourne, it had hardly registered a blip on my six-year old radar.
It had meant leaving my brother, the oldest of the siblings, and then about to commence his final year at school, behind to complete his VCE (or Matriculation as it was then called) as a boarder. Truth be told, with ten years between us, we two boys didn’t have much in common back then, so even that disruption to daily life didn’t take too much getting used to for an independent self-absorbed youngster like me. No-one thought to explain then, and probably wouldn’t have, even if they had realised the significance, that he and I would never live together as brothers again.
Changes have consequences, sometimes unintended.
I hadn’t planned exactly where I was going to go on my run as I left home, but you didn’t need to be a tour guide to know that, after crossing the Bridge, winding your way through the Rocks, past Circular Quay – the public transport hub with its buses, ferries and incongruous elevated railway ‑ to the magnificent Opera House, and the picturesque Botanic Gardens beyond, was the preferred route on a sunny, windless autumn day like this.
By the time I arrived at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, on the eastern side of Farm Cove, I was feeling pretty gassed; meaning I was in no shape to fully appreciate the spectacular vista Mrs Mac used to take in daily from her hand carved rock bench all those years ago. Instead I decided to press on with one last sustained effort uphill along the path running aside Wooloomooloo Bay – past the Boy Charlton public swimming pool, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales – to the Domain, before calling a merciful halt to my exertions.
This part of the city is as historic as white settlement gets around here; or any part of the country for that matter. Which brings me to Charlie.
The Domain had been dedicated to public use for more than 150 years by the time I arrived there that Sunday afternoon, with my tail hanging between my legs. So it was no surprise to find rugby posts set up on the large, gently sloping paddock, most likely in readiness for the Public Service Rugby League Competition that was then an annual fixture. I headed to the nearest upright and leaned on it – ostensibly to stretch out the calves, but in reality to make sure I didn’t topple over, as that last incline had taken a lot more out of the tank than I intended.
It was only really then that I noticed the man seated on the grass nearby, with his back up against the other goalpost. At pretty much the same time he greeted me warmly.
I responded in kind, and took in my surrounds.
My neighbour was clearly of indigenous ancestry, although his skin was not as dark as some of the (relatively few) Aboriginal people I had seen to that point in my life. He had a proud bearing, and handsome features, and I estimated, subconsciously, that he was probably around 50 years old. He was dressed neatly in slacks and a long-sleeved shirt, with dark coloured runners on his feet. In fact, had this not been a Sunday, I could easily have imagined he was an office worker on his lunchbreak, taking in a few rays before returning to the daily grind in one or other of the buildings that towered above us a short distance away.
But what struck me more than any of those things was the man’s voice. Strong and confident. His diction concise. An educated voice that simply demanded attention and respect.
“What’s your name?”
The question caught me a little by surprise. Such familiarity amongst strangers was not something one was necessarily accustomed to in the big smoke.
“Geoff” I replied automatically.
His follow-up was quick, “With a G or a J?”
“That’s good. Don’t like Jeff with a J. Too American”.
I chuckled quietly. “I have to agree”.
There already seemed to be a rapport forming between the two of us, so I asked:
“And your name?”
“My friends call me Charlie”.
There was something about the way he delivered this line that made me feel it was a test of some kind, and one set not for the first time. As I pondered the correct response it seemed Charlie was reading my mind.
“So what do you want to call me Geoff?”
“I’ll call you Charlie if that’s OK with you Charlie”.
Although he was not looking at me now, it seemed I had passed Charlie’s test.
“I’d like that Geoff”.
I soon realised that, although looking away, Charlie was not ignoring me but, rather, keenly observing and assessing a group of a dozen or more heavy-set sporty types practising some rugby drills on the field in front of us. As we watched them go through their paces Charlie and I started to find out a little bit more about one another.
In answer to his question concerning my chosen occupation I confessed I was a lawyer, and that I worked on the 17th floor of the building in Macquarie Street that we were looking almost directly towards at that very moment.
Charlie confided, with disarming honesty, that he had been taken to Adelaide as a young boy, away from his family, as part of what he called ‘the Assimilation Policy’.
“Do you know what that is Geoff?”
“I think so”.
He was not going to let me off that easily.
“What do you think it is?”
“I think it was an attempt to turn Aboriginal children into white people by cutting them off from their heritage and their culture”.
Even as I heard those words come out of my mouth I worried about how they would be received. I need not have been.
“That’s right. By separating them from their families”. He adds, with the first hint of anger I have heard in his voice to this point, “What burns me up Geoff is the way they took us away from our homes and our culture, and tried to make us accept what was false and alien to everything we believed”.
Changes have consequences.
“And this was by legislation”. The last word emerges as a bitter combination of disbelief and disdain.
Charlie goes on to tell me proudly about his qualification to study as an accountant in the late 1950’s – a time when very few of his people pursued any form of tertiary education – as well as the story of Don Dunstan, the future South Australian Premier, representing him in Court on a speeding charge in 1959, when he was fined 22 pounds. It is apparent as Charlie speaks almost reverentially about Dunstan how much respect he has for him.
“I was too young to really appreciate him when he was in office, but from what I’ve read and heard he was obviously a great man”, I say.
“He was a great man”. Charlie stresses the word great more than I have, to emphasise the point. “He is a great man. He’s not dead yet after all. He brought in the anti-discrimination legislation”.
It is only now, today, as I look back at Don Dunstan’s record online, nearly 30 years after my conversation with Charlie, and more than 20 years after Dunstan’s death, that I fully appreciate what an extraordinary leader he was. A man who stood by, and spoke for those who could not speak for themselves, or whose voices were not heard when they did speak. A man who championed important causes, and who altered the very fabric of the society in which he lived and governed.
A great man indeed.
It seems that, notwithstanding Dunstan’s efforts at all levels of government, including the introduction of the Aboriginal Affairs Bill in 1962 to improve the lot of indigenous Australians, racism remained rife in South Australia, leading to Charlie making a move to Sydney in 1965.
Changes have consequences.
There is heavy sadness in Charlie’s voice as he talks about the discrimination he encountered in Adelaide. It is hard to listen to. But my discomfort is a mere drop in the ocean of Charlie’s hurt.
“Can you remember a time in your life when you were really happy Charlie?”
“From about 15 to 20 I was happy I reckon”.
“When you were studying?”
“Did you ever practise accounting?”
Charlie sighs. There is a long pause. Almost as if he is deciding whether to take a new, even more painful turn on our journey down Memory Lane.
“My aunt died”.
I am unsure what to say, so I say nothing.
“She was the only person who ever really loved me. And looked after me. She was a great lady”.
There is another pause. The rugby players are winding down their training session it seems. I am still uncertain about where to take the conversation from here. My attempt to have Charlie discuss some more positive aspect of his life has led us to an even darker place it seems.
“What have you done these past 25 years in Sydney then?”
I know I am treading on dangerous ground here, but I have already made a decision somewhere in the depths of my consciousness that I want to know more; I need to know more. Not just that, but I can’t bring myself to leave him under the cloud that has descended.
He knows the answer will shock me. It is clearly intended to. It’s not that he wants to hurt or punish me I don’t think, but it seems we have reached a point in our relationship where the truth is expected. Required.
It is only now that he grabs a brown paper bag with a bottle inside it, which has been sitting on the ground next to him, obscured from my view by his body, and holds it aloft. It is an act of defiance almost. As if he is saying to me, and to the world at large:
That’s right, this is me. This is who I am.
He returns the bottle to its position, nestled alongside him, without taking a sip.
“My aunt never drank. Not like my mother. She was a chronic drunk. After my aunt died I just lost it. I got on the piss, and that was the end of me”.
Charlie can see the impact this turn in the conversation is having. One of the rugby players is making a beeline directly towards us. Charlie decides to lighten the mood.
“How do you get 17 Irishman on your roof?”
“Tell them the drinks are on the house”.
Charlie laughs hoarsely at his own joke, and I can’t help but smile. His laughter sets off a mild coughing fit, at which point our rugby player arrives.
“Do you play rugby?” The question is delivered to me. And this one also feels like a test.
I hesitate, for two reasons. Firstly, because the upcoming season will be the first in almost twenty that I will not be playing the foreign game I reluctantly adopted as my chosen winter sport in order to fit in with my Sydney schoolmates as a youngster. And secondly, because the rest of old mate’s hulking comrades are standing in a group about 50 metres away looking expectantly in our direction.
After due consideration, I answer in the affirmative. Principally because:
1. I have played the game at a reasonably high level over the past eight years or so;
2. I have been observing the skills of the group as Charlie and I converse, and they appear modest;
3. Old mate is speaking to me in an American accent, and that intrigues me.
“Would you like to come play some 7-a-side with us? We’re one short”. Still I hesitate. Although I have regained my breath since my conversation with Charlie began, I am still distinctly hung over. And some of these guys are seriously big units.
“I don’t have any boots”. I point this out somewhat lamely, as I have already noticed many of the other players are not wearing proper boots either.
Suddenly Charlie chimes in: “Go on Geoff. Get in there. Show these Yanks how it's done”. This encouragement is delivered in a semi-humorous fashion, but as I turn to Charlie he gives me a steely glint, and gestures with his head for me to join in. I relent.
As it turns out, there was nothing to have worried about. The other players are all members of the US Navy, and are preparing for an upcoming tournament it seems; but they have had relatively limited exposure to the code of rugby union to date. The pick-up match is played in good spirits across half the field ‑ the half nearest Charlie, who is completely unmoved, even when the play comes within metres of his position. And although it is theoretically a game of tackle rather than touch, there are few enough of us involved, the day is hot enough, and we are all sufficiently weary, that full-on contact is a comparatively rare event.
Don’t tell Charlie though, because he is barracking like it is the Wallabies taking on England in the World Cup Final. And as far as he is concerned I am the only player wearing gold. Every tackle, pass and run I make is greeted with raucous approbation from the sideline. It’s comical in a sense, but it touches me deeply too. This man I have just met is cheering me on like I am his own flesh and blood. Or at least a new young friend.
And I am.
When the game concludes, after 30 or 40 minutes, by which time I am well and truly cooked, I return to Charlie’s post, and begin a few warmdown stretches.
Just in time for him to catch me off–guard with another question.
“Do you know Nick Farr-Jones?”
Most men my age, particularly in this part of the country, know exactly who the captain of our national rugby union team is. We are the reigning World Champions after all. As it turns out, the two of us have quite a bit in common – viz we are of a similar age, both attended private schools in Sydney (where we both failed to make our school's First XV), both studied law, and were, at the time of my conversation with Charlie, both members of the same posh city men’s club.
But Charlie doesn’t need to know all that.
“Yeah, I do. Well at least I know who he is. We’ve played club rugby against each other a few times actually”.
“I met him a while ago. You remind me of him a bit you know”.
“Yeah? How’s that?”
“I was sitting outside St Margaret’s Hospital, and he walked past. I recognised him so I said, ‘Gidday Nick’. He stopped and talked to me for a while. Then he said, ‘I’ve got to go in and see my wife. She’s in there. We’ve just had our first baby, a little girl. But I’ll come back’. And he did. He made enough time to come back and talk to an old drunk”.
The story moves me. As so many things Charlie says to me do. I wrestle with my own thoughts. How can I help this man? Surely he deserves more than this? But what can I do? I have left home in just the clothes I am wearing. No wallet. No mobile phone in those days. I wonder, even now, would I have offered him some money if I had it. If I had, would he have accepted it? If he had, would it have made a difference?
My thoughts are interrupted by another tough question from Charlie.
“What are you doing sitting here talking to me all this time?”
The answer is formulating in my mind even before the question is complete.
“I’m not talking to you out of pity Charlie. I’m not talking to you because I feel sorry for you. Although I am sorry, very sorry, for what you’ve gone through – things no-one should ever go through. And it’s not because I need to feel like a good Samaritan. I’m talking to you because you’re a fascinating articulate man. I’m interested to hear what you have to say about what’s going on in the world, and how you came to be where you are. You strike me as someone who has a lot to offer anyone who will listen to you”.
At this point I look up in the direction of State Parliament House, sitting barely a hundred metres away from us at the other end of the Domain. If only people in that place could see and hear from someone like Charlie, surely it would change the way they thought about our indigenous people. But unfortunately it seems there are not enough Don Dunstans to go around.
Again, it’s like Charlie is reading my mind.
“Don’t you become a politician”, he barks at me.
“I don’t think that’s likely Charlie. I don’t like what seems to happen to people who get too much power. Power corrupts they say”. And before I can add the second half of the adage Charlie comes in over the top.
“And absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
After a brief reflective pause he continues. “I mean look at that place over there. That ivory tower they built for themselves. How do you expect them to be in touch with the ordinary person, and the unemployed, when they live and work in a place like that? My God”.
I am surprised to hear Charlie use that phrase, and he seems almost surprised himself.
“My God. I say my God – I do. I probably shouldn’t. He’s not my God. But there’s somebody up there I reckon”.
Is there? I wonder. I wondered as the sun sank in front of us on that mild May afternoon all those years ago, and I wonder today. Because if there was, and he, she or it is an interventionist benevolent type, then surely the Charlies of this world wouldn’t be where they are.
“If you could have your time over again Charlie, where would you have spent it? In a city like this, or Adelaide? Or with your family and your people?” As I ask the question, yet again I wonder if I have embarrassed myself. The answer seems all-to-obvious. But nothing about Charlie is obvious.
“I can’t say. I’ve never been back to my home. I’ve never been to the Northern Territory”. There is a long pause. “I’ve lived all my life with what you might call an identity crisis. I don’t know who I am. Look at the palms of my hands”. He holds up his hands and shows them to me. “They’re whiter than yours. Turn them over, and yes we’re different. But I’m not black. I’m a half caste. I don’t know where I belong”.
The temperature is beginning to drop quickly as the sun descends behind the skyscrapers. As the sky darkens, the mood of our dialogue has begun, once again, to do the same. Difficult questions have difficult answers. So why, oh why do I ask the next one?
“So what does the future hold for you Charlie?”
Deep down I know why. I ask it not just to make conversation, to fill the gap, but because I genuinely want to know. I now care about what happens to this man, who I have only met today for the first time, and who, as it turns out, I will never see again.
“Nothing Geoffrey. Nothing at all. I’ve got pains in here [pointing to his stomach] that’ll kill me before Christmas. Or I might go to Parramatta and buy myself a little Beretta, and stick it in here [extending his right forefinger towards his open mouth]. I mean I just don’t care anymore Geoff. I’ve got nothing to live for. No-one cares about me. I’ve got no-one. My family are all dead. I’ve never had a child. I’m virtually impotent now because of this stuff”. He holds the bottle aloft once again.
I shiver involuntarily. As much at the chill I feel from Charlie’s confessional as from the touch of the early evening air on my sweaty skin. And I know, now, the moment has arrived for me to make a difference. The moment when I make an offer, or a suggestion, provide a solution, or a commitment, that might change the course of a man’s life.
But I do nothing, and I say nothing.
Yet again Charlie senses exactly what is happening in my head. Only he decides it is time for him to solve my predicament, rather than the reverse. He has been down this road before after all. Many times probably.
“It doesn’t matter to me what you think of me Geoffrey. It really doesn’t. But I appreciate the time that you’ve given me, and the fact that you’ve listened to what I’ve had to say. You’re a better man than most of these bastards”. He gestures towards the city. “I guess I could be wrong”.
Involuntarily I laugh out aloud. Charlie thinks it is because he has used the word “bastards”. And I suddenly realise that, despite the strength of his opinions, and the range and importance of the subjects we have canvassed over the course of the past couple of hours, this is the first time he has used anything approaching a profanity.
“I wasn’t laughing because you called them bastards. I was laughing because you said you could be wrong. About me being better than them. I think the jury’s still out on that”.
“Well you’re the lawyer”.
I look at Charlie with admiration. He is a clever, funny, compelling companion. The kind the world needs more of. But we both now know our time is almost up.
“Just one more thing I need from you before you go” he says. I know he knows I have no money with me. And I know, in any event, that is not what he has in mind.
“Give me a smile”.
He has caught me by surprise once more. But I oblige, happily. It is the least, the very least I can do.
“That’s better. Now, can I have your teeth?”
He laughs. That hoarse full-bodied laugh that I have heard a number of times through the course of the afternoon.
I laugh too, then turn and set off for home, jogging my way up the hill towards Macquarie Street. As I depart Charlie is still exactly where he was when I first laid eyes on him hours before, leaning up against the goalpost. When I reach the top of the slope, and just before I run out of sight, I turn to acknowledge him for a final time. Charlie is still sitting where I left him, but his head is now turned skywards, and the bottle in the brown paper bag is held to his lips. As a result of which he does not see me wave.
I know right then that our meeting has not changed Charlie’s life one iota, though I wish to this day that it could have; that I could have.
But I am pretty sure he has changed mine.