Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Saying Goodbye to Friends

I think that I have probably wept more times this year than any other time since my childhood.  
When our lovely daughter married her Anglo-Italian Leo underneath the trees at  Mt Glorious last month, it was tears of happiness and tears of pride.  
Sadly however, apart from that joyous exception, most of the tears have been of sorrow.  They have been for people I have known and loved and who have meant much in my life. 

I shed tears for John, who passed away three days into the new year.  He was Best Man at our wedding forty years ago, and before that he had been a punting companion of mine during good days and bad days at Randwick Racecourse and afterwards a drinking mate at the Racecourse Hotel where we sometimes celebrated but mostly drowned our sorrows.  I ran with John in the first ever City to Surf race in 1971. He beat me by a good margin and never let me forget the few people I ran past as we shuffled together across the busy finish line so that I could register a time closer to his.  
John was a lawyer and was one of many people who have influenced my life.  He was a highly ethical and moral man, who spent many years later in his career as a highly regarded and compassionate magistrate.  Even now, there are times when I am forming an opinion on something or passing judgement on someone I say to myself, “What would John think about this?” 

I cried for my beloved Aunt Doreen who we lost in March, three months short of her 95th birthday.  For many years she had been a second mother to me.  She touched all who knew her with her laughing eyes and her cheeky smile.  It was always, “Ey-up Mike, how are you?” The last time we saw her was in her nursing home in Leicestershire where we sat for an hour singing the songs of the Second War.  She knew every word, and never missed a beat.

I wept for people whom I have never met whose passing has made us all grieve – the lost airline passengers, Phillip Hughes, the Martin Place hostages and the desperate and distressing deaths in Cairns last week followed by the meaningless and abominable murder of schoolchildren in Pakistan. 

I cried for Bob and his lovely Pauline and their fine children, Alexandra and Jeremy. 
And it is my friend Bob about whom I would like to share some memories now. 
I was one of a number of his family and friends who spoke at his service yesterday.  I said then, that when thinking about what to say it was most important that I get it right.  I must not be disrespectful, but neither should I gild the lily and get all flowery – he would not appreciate that.
What is it, I have asked myself, that makes one friendship endure out of so many others that do not? I spent ten years or more at sea, and sailed with many good men.  There were shipmates who I have remembered with fondness and who I hope, if ever they have done the same, have thought kindly of me in return. But it was only Bob, who nearly fifty years later was still a friend.  I’m sure it had much to do with Bob’s communication skills – for one thing, he was a far better Christmas Carder than anyone else I know.
We met when we were both in our early twenties – junior marine engineers on SS Francis Drake, a 7,500 ton Australian passenger ship sailing between the east coast of Australia and the Far East.  Bob had previously been with P&O and was ever there to remind us less we forget, that British officers knew a thing or two about maritime traditions and decorum.  He had migrated to Australia a year or two earlier and had already been with the company for six months or so when we met.  For Bob, Francis Drake was something less than he had been used to; for me, after the scruffy tramp ships I had previously served on, it was a step up.  
We became good friends.  We shared a great interest in the music of the day, Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker.  We enjoyed the social responsibilities imposed upon us as officers and gentlemen aboard a ship carrying 130 paying passengers, quite a few of whom (particularly those of the opposite sex), were always appreciative of our advice and knowledge of seafaring protocol – it wasn’t just the shiny white uniforms.  
We enjoyed our times ashore whenever we had the chance for tourist-like activities.  There was a time in Tokyo when we rented a car and set out to drive to Mt Fuji.  It’s far too long a story to tell now, but we spent several hours driving around on unsealed roads, and climbing along poorly marked tracks before we eventually found the top of the mountain - having completely somehow managed to miss the four-lane highway which led all the way to a huge car park and restaurant at the summit.  Of course in place of a GPS, we had nothing better than an old map with Japanese characters.
He was always Bob, never Robert – yet for some reason he was one of the few people who only ever  called me Michael, never Mike – and I never objected to it.  
While at sea he was a refrigeration and air-conditioning engineer.  His white engine room boiler suit was never anything but spotlessly clean.  Of course as a reefer, he didn’t have to spend time messing about with boiler feed pumps and oily water separators, but I think even if he had, he would have managed to avoid any oil stains or grease.  
His fascination for cleanliness and hygiene might have been a warning to me when a few years later after our seafaring days were over, we shared a house with three or four other fellows in Sydney’s northern suburb of Artarmon.  Mutt House we called it (it was in Muttama Road), and it was a remarkable place to be in the summer of 1970.  The kitchen was always clean, the fridge well organised, and woe betide anyone who left dirty dishes in the sink, or left the bathroom in a state.  
We played golf at Chatswood Golf Club (well we called it golf); drank at The Strata in Cremorne and The Great Northern Hotel (where Barry got us thrown out for wearing his kaftan in the pool room – actually it wasn’t so much the wearing of the kaftan, as much as the way we responded to the comments from the boys in the navy singlets and thongs); we saw Reg Livermore in Hair at the Metro Theatre in Kings Cross; Tom Jones and Jose Feliciano at the Silver Spade Room at the Chevron and sat on the floor watching Barry and Inga acting out a complete performance of Jesus Christ Superstar as the original cast recording played on the turntable.
Bob wasn’t the most patient of golfers.  There was a day when Barry, Bob, Paul and myself played at Chatswood.  It was an unsatisfying round for Bob, which reached its height of frustration as we hit off from the 14th tee which happens to be right in front of the clubhouse alongside the outside bar.  Bob’s tee shot, went right – a long way right. It hit a rubbish bin about ten foot from the tee, and flew back toward the bar, coming to rest at the feet of the startled drinkers.  With a mild harrumph and a couple of expletives, Bob announced that that was enough for him.  He picked up his clubs and with all the dignity and poise of a professional sportsman, he walked into the car park, loaded his bags into his car and drove off.  Which was fine and understandable, except that this left the rest of us without transport.  We finished our round and walked home.
Bob was also a fine sailor.  Having grown up in Plymouth where he had spent a lot of time messing about in boats. He handled a boat well.  We frequently rented a 17 foot O’Day Daysailer for a couple of hours from Balmoral Beach from where we could spend an enjoyable afternoon on the waters of  Middle Harbour.  One day Bob wasn’t able to sail, so another friend, Stu and I decided we were experienced enough to take the boat out on our own.  After an hour of sailing we were hit by a southerly gust and Stu fell overboard.  I was utterly unable to turn the boat around and eventually had to call for assistance as the boat floated off one way and Stu, yelling and swearing at me drifted in the opposite direction.  We got over it, but never went out sailing without Bob again.
We all lived like gypsy vagrants in those days sharing houses or flats in Cremorne, Mosman and Northbridge – sometimes for no more than three or four months at a time.  We even worked as taxicab drivers for a while – and that was a lot of fun.
Later in 1973 Bob and I embarked on a European expedition in response to an opportunity for work in a Swiss ski resort.  I had been living in England for a few months having recently met the young lady, who would become (and is) my beloved wife of 40 years. I had bought a beautiful 1963 three litre Rover – roomy and stately – and we travelled through Europe, from Denmark, through East Germany and eventually via North Italy into Switzerland. It was one of the coldest winters on record and was a time when much of Europe was suffering from the Oil Crisis which frequently restricted our access to fuel.  We had a lot of engine trouble with the car as a result of the cold; we repeatedly found ourselves lost, particularly in East Germany, where the road often changed dramatically and without warning from a four lane autobahn to a ploughed field, but we had fun.  Bob was a perfect travelling companion and we shared a lot of laughs.  For some reason we started calling each other Carruthers and Saunders and effecting toffee-nosed upper class British military accents.  “I say Carruthers, jolly close call that, what – stiff upper lip eh?  Another gin?”  I’m sorry, but you had to be there! 
Surprisingly, when we got to Saas Fee, there was little or no snow and we were asked to come back in two weeks, but we’d had enough.  I wanted to get back to my Pauline in England, and Bob had met another Pauline in Sydney who he was quite keen to see again.  So we left and Bob returned to Australia, thoughtlessly leaving his ski boots in the back of the car.  He never saw them again – something which he reminded me of numerous times in subsequent years. (I have written previously on our escapade in Europe in a posting I called, A Cold Winter in Europe - 1973)
Although I had originally intended staying just a year, maybe two in England, we lived there for nine more years and it wasn’t until ten or eleven years later that I saw Bob again.  Pauline and I returned to Australia with our young family and bought a home in North Epping, around the corner from Bob and Pauline.  It was wonderful to renew the friendship and for nearly thirty years or so we enjoyed many wonderful moments at barbecues, at birthday dinners with our friends, John (the magistrate) and his lovely wife Pam, who has known Bob even longer than I have, and of course the many New Years’ Eves Fireworks on Garden Island thanks to Bob’s access to tickets through his job at Defence.  
Who could have known that less than a year after sitting alongside Bob and Pauline at John’s funeral service in January, we would be saying goodbye to another dear friend today.
We enjoyed, and happily shared, his taste in boutique beers – I don’t believe I ever saw a can of VB in his hand.  I will miss his modest air of tolerance towards those of us with a more left-leaning approach to politics and above all I will miss his gentle and self-effacing sense of humour.
The last time I saw him was at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney a few weeks ago.  As we were leaving his room on our way back to the airport and our flight home, he looked at my wife with a sparkle in his eye and a roguish smile and said, “I’ll miss you.”  Then he turned to me and said, “Carry on, Carruthers.

We’ll miss you Bob – thanks for being our friend.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

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