‘Childhood friendship is a beautiful thing that slips away…’

He has a job at the petrol station a few days a week. Great to see you. And it is. But I feel sad when I drive off. We never see each other again.

Childhood friendship is a beautiful thing that slips away. And yet there it is alive again in a seashell you’ve kept, a pigeon’s green-blue feathers, the smell of cut grass, a lane you walk down again, an old face that reminds you of the one that was there before. Wham. There you go. With an old friend’s ageing face. Back down into a boy land.

His mum and dad were “deaf and dumb”. That was how we knew them. As a kid your insensitivity can be beautiful, just ploughing on, consumed in the ever-welcome idea of going where you want to go.

His older brother had the most wonderful pigeon coop. It was always a delight to watch the birds circle up and return home. The busy cooing; the sunlight shafts; the seed husks blown into the flustered air of the coop whenever you walked in.

His dad was like the other dads. Friendly enough; and scary enough to not want to get into trouble with him. His mum made us lunch and gave us biscuits while we filled the days with endless Monopoly and Battleship and lived on our bikes like wheeled centaurs. Cricket with a bat and a garbage bin for a wicket in the back lane. The trees of the park down by the main lights, easy to climb with a leg-up or a hand reaching down to help. The grey skin of the trees we wounded with our names. Vows to return in 10 years no matter what.

Visiting his house, there was no point knocking on the door. He told us to stamp our feet. His parents would hear through the vibrations of the floorboards. His mum would usually be the one to answer. She’d say his name like she was trying to form it into a sound, but it wasn’t right (“Bah-way”); then she’d make a cycling motion and hook her thumb in a certain direction. Okay, he was out, gone to the park!

All this was why his place was the best for our gang’s sleepovers. We could be as rowdy as we liked (at least in theory) as long as we did not make the floorboards vibrate. Once or twice we slipped out the bedroom window, up the street in our pyjamas, to the borderlands of risk, before rushing back from our dares.

Tony, who dreamt of playing at Wimbledon, whose father died when we were kids, who came so honourably to my own father’s funeral years later to offer condolences. Living now with his family a block from where we all grew up. Paul, who had the best tree house, turning up at my book launch, one of only seven people to make the effort during a hurricane hitting the coast, back from Soviet Russia, a reborn Communist preaching the workers’ revolution, brother.

And Barry, that moment at the service station, his hearing-aid seashell-white, as friendly as he ever was, slipping beyond my knowledge of his life as I drove away. Into the future; into our old days. Into the silence of my thoughts, equal parts loss and loyalty and infinite love for my first gang.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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