You make your first true friends at school. These aren’t the offspring of family friends, who you’re stuck with at barbeques and christenings and unless you go to some kind of Vegan iPhone Academy in Byron Bay, your parents aren’t there hovering above during lunchbreaks, guiding you away from ‘undesirables’, with lice and pockets full of rocks. The friends you make in school are friends entirely your own, friends you decide upon alone. And when I was six years old I made the very conscious decision to exclusively make friends with money.
Sure, in retrospect, it was probably coincidence that all my first friends came from large properties on the outskirts of my home town, all from farming families, the sons of sons of men with cattle and cotton. Logistically speaking, as a ‘townie’, it would be a nightmare to maintain these friendships, their homes down narrow dirt tracks, often an hour down the highway. But I fell in and stayed in. They were neatly-dressed and clever and good at sport. They would all evolve, somehow within weeks of starting school, into very popular students and I felt popular by proximity, which was more than close enough. They liked me because I was ‘funny’, which is primary school boy code for ‘very, very mean’. I felt wanted, an integral stitch that completed the circle, an anti-Groucho, willingly part of a club that would have someone like me as a member.
Mum referred to out-of-towners and their ilk as “Tories”, a kind-of derogatory regional Queensland slang term for the wealthy, deriving, strangely enough, from the conservative Tory party in the UK. Up until the time came for me to start school, Mum’s association with Tories had been the exchanging of pleasantries at the supermarket or arguing over the price of a bunt cake at the Anglican fete, perhaps the occasional eye roll when she’d catch them at the local agricultural show, all RM Williams boots and sleeveless cotton blouses and a single string of pearls, a uniform set in polished stone long ago.
There was never any real talk of money or class among the Tories, or at least I never heard, be it from child or parent, what anything was worth. There was something sinister in the not-saying or the not needing to say. An implied superiority, not built on a foundation of throwing money about or slyly mentioning the cost of the tennis court, but just in the living. It was the tidier shoes, the television curfew, the subscription to The Australian Financial Review and the impossibly plump skin, somehow existing beyond oil or blemish – better stock, better breeding. They knew and they knew I knew and I knew they knew I knew. What would be the benefit in the saying? Most notable were the brag bumper stickers - “My Child Attends Toowoomba Grammar School” - or, for the subtle, somewhat coded ‘TGS Rowing 1998’.
Their homes were never anything remarkable, but I was transfixed by how clean everything was. Linen was stacked in the cupboard by colour and purpose, leather boots were perfectly lined by the door as if the subject of a homey watercolour you’d buy at some slack-jaw town’s visitor information centre. Lounges and dining rooms (they were separate rooms in some homes!) all looked to be styled out of a page of Country Living. I knew this, because every one of these homes would have a copy of Country Living on the coffee table and I’d wake at dawn to thumb through the magazine and marvel. A bunch of old dry sticks, bundled and tied together with yarn, as a centrepiece? These people were bold enough to employ the literal definition of a faggot as table dressing. I tried doing a similar thing at our house once, pacing around the yard looking for twigs and discoloured bark to arrange in a vase, but it just ended up looking like I’d been swindled out of a bunch of flowers at a petrol station.
My best Tory friend was named Tom, a boy with permanently blushed cheeks and Kennedy hair. Of all my friends, everyone would refer to Tom as their ‘best friend’. And why not? He was an all-rounder, whip-smart, polite, comfortable, happy. I wasn’t in love with Tom as much as I wanted to be him, Single White Female style. When I was 10 years old and exposed to chat rooms for the first time, my chatroom ‘girlfriend’ asked me to send a letter with a photo of myself. Shy, with big ears and an orthodontic plate, I put a photo of dear old Tom in an envelope. Luckily for us all, this was in the great Taggart ‘stamp drought’ of 1999 and the photo was never sent to what was probably 100% a convicted child molester.
Tom and I bonded over comedy, mostly. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Billy Madison, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Happy Gilmore – you know, the classics. Tom’s parents were obviously finger-on-the-pulse types, real culture vultures, because while he was banned from watching and talking about The Simpsons - “too immoral” - he was permitted to watch South Park. It was broadcast on SBS after all and the flatulent Terrence and Philip characters were French Canadian. I would often dazzle and impress Tom with my latest South Park swag – my ‘Oh My God, They Killed Kenny’ backpack or perhaps my trucker new cap, depicting Cartman vomiting green bile all over the rim.
Most fondly I remember sleepovers at his house, arranged maybe once or twice a year for his birthday or when my parents went out of town. We would ride out to his place after school on the bus, collected at the gate by his mother in a dust-flecked 4WD, which just appeared, like it had been traversing an African savanna. We’d spent the afternoons sitting with the sheep or racing each other on bikes along the dam wall. At night we’d sleep on the veranda, closed-in from mozzies, nothing to hear but the breeze and the faint bark of a working kelpie. It was Little House and I was a pre-pubescent, male, less-worldly Laura Ingalls Wilder. And yet, every so often, it would become painfully apparent that none of this was really mine. It was a visitor and Albert Ingalls at most.
As I became more and more aware I was not like my friends, I grew anxious about bringing them home. What would they notice? Could I throw blankets over the busted, broken lounge set and pretend we were painting? Would they assume the rotting rockmelon sitting in a birdcage atop a pile of empty boxes out on the patio was not mere gross clutter but groundbreaking, outsider art? And what of the freshly laid turd the dog had dropped like a precious parcel near the front door, what of that? For my tenth birthday I decided it was best if we outsourced and held the party at my favourite cafe – The Cosy Corner. The Cosy Corner sat at the end of a trio of shops, including the town florist (I hope you like gerberas and remember, it’s the nineties, so you do) and a sports shop-come-museum for intricately carved emu eggs called The Unique Egg, the town’s one true tourist stop if you don’t count the scene of the much-publicised ‘race riot’. The cafe served my favourite meal in town – chicken curry crepes. They were soft and buttery and tangy and absolutely straight from the freezer into the microwave. Think of the best meal you’ve ever had in hospital and it was almost as good. We all gathered at 4 o’clock for a crepe and perhaps a Fanta Spider. There must have been almost 10 of us around the table - my five Tory friends, a few humble townsfolk from my school and some stragglers from the Catholic School down the road. I looked around the group, at my mother near the head of the table, still dressed in her clothes from work, name badge still on. Something was happening. I felt sick, but not from the chicken curry crepes, they weren’t even defrosting. I was worrying – not about my daggy shoes or my Math homework or forgetting to tape my favourite show, Xena: Warrior Princess. I was worrying about money.
Mum’s a teacher. I know. Teachers don’t make a lot of money. I know. And what does Dad do? He’s a farmer. No he’s not. But he works on a farm. He doesn’t own the farm does he? No. So he’s a farmhand? I guess. Do they make a lot of money? Probably not. Tom’s father owns a farm. I know. Tom’s going to boarding school next year. I know. So are all your school friends. I know. Are you going with them? No. We can’t afford it.
I stood and addressed the table, stern, authoritarian, Joan Ferguson from Prisoner. “Now don’t go ordering just anything off the menu because we can’t afford it”. Of course Mum heard. My friend Candy would have heard and she lived in Dirranbandi. “Don’t be stupid,” Mum said, “they can order whatever they like.” I never considered she might be humiliated or hurt. I mean, I was doing her a favour. In my mind I’d just saved the family from crippling debt brought on by the overindulgence of crepes. “Why did you do that?” she asked on the drive home. “I was helping,” I explained. “But it’s true” I moaned, “we can’t afford it, we’re not rich”. Mum shook her head and launched into her usual Tyne Daly-For-Tony monologue. True, she said, we were not rich, nor were we poor. Then she’d give examples of poor people, which I will omit here, for the sake of her good reputation. Then she would reassure me that she had “money in places you don’t even know about” and I would dramatically sigh at the thought of Mum trying to position herself as some kind of Christopher Skase character, with hidden bank accounts on the other side of the world. She couldn’t even figure out the pay TV remote, how was I meant to believe that?
I’m not sure why Mum became a focal point of this early identity crisis, but she was dragged in by her sensible homypeds and a war raged on around her. It’s hard to imagine she enjoyed it. Mum, unlike me, had lived an entire life free of pretention. She never feigned interest in things which bored her, she never altered her voice depending on the company, never name-dropped or sought a ladder to status climb. Her happiness in her own skin, her own life was unnerving to me. I saw her contentment as a lack of trying and a personal affront to my own, desperate, bloody-kneed trying. It was part of this fierce, early Ayn Randian world view that I came to understand the only way we’d (I’d) be genuinely happy is if we pulled ourselves up out of this squalor (living in a nice brick house in town) and lived our best lives (on a property with upturned collars and horses and we might work out what polo is at some stage). We must try, but we must try while no-one is looking and we mustn’t ever appear to be trying because there is nothing sadder than seeing someone try, so we must try to keep our trying beneath the surface, boiling steady, and eventually, when the moment is right, we would rise up the ranks, buoyant like cooked gnocchi, successfully breaking into their raffia-hat clique. It sounds completely exhausting and I’m sure would have been, had the family gone along with it. They might not have even been listening to the plan. If it was Saturday night, they could have been watching The Bill. What I was offered was an opportunity to stay with the Tories, by way of a boarding school education. Mum sat me down at the kitchen table one afternoon and we ran through the options. We could pull the money together, she said. Or there were scholarships, I could try for one of those. Or I could stay in St George, sleep in my own bed at night, make new friends. Her offer was genuine, I knew it. But I also knew the selfishness it would take to accept it, the sacrifices she would make to pay for just one semester’s tuition. I knew it, understood it and aside from all of that, I couldn’t leave her. I was 10 years old.
My friendships had a use-by-date, souring with the ticking of a clock. I was angry at the Tories, I felt abandoned. I was always on the outside looking-in, but soon they would pack their bags for Toowoomba and Brisbane and I wouldn’t even have anything to look in at. And the anger presented itself in strange and exciting new scenarios. After one sleepover at my friend Sam’s house, I arrived home teary, sleepless, telling Mum I’d woken in the middle of the night to the sound of Sam’s mum and a group of her friends talking on the patio. And to this day I vividly recall waking on the floor in Sam’s room and peaking out at them, all gathered around an outdoor setting beneath a mast of fairy lights. Then the memory of it gets hazy, Stereophonic Festival-grade haze. But the version that I told Mum was that, as I’d awoken, a fact entirely unknown to the group outside, conversation had somehow moved to my family and in particular, Mum and in another particular, Mum’s weight. “They just were saying you were fat and laughing about it and all this stuff”, I’d told her, through a mess of those jet-stream jacuzzi tears, usually only triggered by the death of an animal or the Robin Williams’ Werner syndrome drama Jack. They were tears for her, for being spoken of in such a vicious manner and tears for me for having heard it and I hope my conscience was crying too in knowing that it was all too fortunate and coincidental and I probably didn’t hear anything of the sort and was fabricating the whole cruel tale. Perhaps the reasoning behind the lie was that I felt rejected by them, at war with them and I wanted mum to feel that way too. I still demand it of her, I still desire for us to be bonded in our hatred of someone or something, whether it’s who I perceive to be the villains on a reality cooking show or a writer she’s never heard of who was mean to me on a date. Or perhaps I did it because I was gay and I wanted to create DRAMA and Real Housewives was still 10 years away. All I know is that I carried that lie through school and university and Mum would bring it up from time-to-time and I would quickly change the topic, feeling a little pang of guilt deep in my gut as I pondered the needlessness of it all. Who is to say what really happened, who did or did not call who fat, who loved attention and who thought their insatiable appetite for gossip was victimless?
At the birth of the new millennium, the Tories fixed their straw hats and left for boarding school. After all that build-up and hysteria, Y2K had left the computer alone but stolen my friends. They promised to keep in touch, but the letter-writing was mostly one-sided and dried up altogether a few weeks into the first term. Soon the only memory of them in town was their parents. I’d occasionally pass one in the supermarket during their weekly grocery-run. Some would offer polite chit-chat, a fleeting smile, a nod; others, nothing at all. I wondered for a long time if they were relieved to be rid of me, but perhaps ‘relief’ is too strong an emotion, wildly inflating the impression I made on their lives. Even so, it must have brought some comfort at least that the chapter was over. Though their sons were now several hundred kilometres from home, the parental grip was tighter than ever. At boarding school the children would study and eat and play cricket and take ecstasy with a set more acceptable. They’d still choose their own friends, of course, but the pool of new mates had been downgraded from ‘Olympic’ to ‘paddling’. That’s a metaphor, excuse me. The actual pools at boarding schools are, obviously, fucking enormous.
I started Grade Six and started again, making new friends and the same mistakes. I grew taller, not wiser. I didn’t look back all that often. Children are so wild and resilient. What happens? It’s like we lose practice of picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off. The stakes get higher, but we get weaker. We lose sight of our futures because we’re already living them, we become introspective and sitting in the dirt doesn’t seem all that bad. I think about that time more now than I ever did then. I’m on my phone before bed, flicking through social media profiles, trying to find old friends in faces as broad and tired as mine. And I’m stuck wondering what my life would be if, while sitting at the kitchen table with mum all those years ago, I’d made a different decision. I doubt it would have made me happy. One of the pure joys of adulthood is finally reaching all those assured, happy-making milestones – coming out, getting a place of your own, finding a boyfriend, finding a decent job – and emerging the same clueless piece of shit you always were.