Back by popular request – an oldie but a goodie.
Dear Harry — more truth than fiction in this one, I’m afraid. Still miss the bugger.
by Edwina Shaw
I keep looking for Harry, expecting to see him loping along some West End street, his long arms swinging, keeping time with his giant strides. He’s always found me before, whenever I’ve returned, a sign of being home. But not this time and I’ve been back for years. The priest told me he’d gone, but I didn’t want to believe him. I was sure he was wrong and that one day I’d be driving along Vulture St. and there he’d be, calling out my name in his deep brown voice; come running and give me a hug.
The first time I met Harry was in the English Student’s common room in the early eighties when we were both studying at the University of Queensland. He was swilling red wine in the middle of the day, and entertaining his cronies with stories of his lustful adventures.
“So there I was at this brothel in the Valley – you know the one – and this prostitute, I’m telling ya mate, she really stunk! I mean it. Like she was rotting on the inside – odour of fermenting uterus. Disgusting! And I just couldn’t do it, you know, the smell was really off-putting. I’d had her before but what can I say, must’ve been a busy day. So I go down to the office to complain and get a better one and what do they do, the bastards? Throw me out! Don’t laugh, I mean it. A couple of the big meatheads they have there come running and chuck me down the stairs. Tell ya, I’m lucky I was so pissed or I might’ve hurt myself.
Anyway I drag myself home, walked all the way to West End, my wallet had disappeared, nothing in it anyway; knocked on my girlfriend’s door and what’d she do but chuck all my stuff at me through the window. So I just rolled up on it and slept right there on her steps. She didn’t let me in, nup, not even the next day when I had the worst killer hangover and could feel the bruises from the bouncers. What a bitch hey?”
And the cronies all laughed and agreed. All women were bitches and couldn’t be trusted.
That was Harry.
I sat with my back to them, my shoulders hunched to my ears in silent fury.
The next weekend he was in my bed.
One drunken lunch hour, over a cask of wine, the force that had so violently repelled me swung a hundred and eighty degrees to attraction. Drowned in alcohol soaked lust, I ended the afternoon by leaping into his arms and wrapping my legs around his waist. We sank into cheap wine and cigarette kisses under the sandstone arches.
I brought him home to my flat. He had the money, the alcohol, and the pot, I had the accommodation. He stayed for weeks, brought his suitcase full of stories and poems and let me read them as we lay together in bed smoking joints. I loved his long lean body next to my soft, small round one. I came up to his breastbone.
Harry’s father had only one limb, an arm. The other three were blown off in the Vietnam war when Harry was only a baby. It must have been hard growing up with a father with only one limb, scarred inside as well no doubt. Generational scars Harry carried with him.
But he had scars of his own, ropey, raw-meat burn scars all up one leg, a firebug’s legacy. He was a convicted arsonist, a sometime inmate of mental institutions, an alcoholic, a prize-winning playwright, and a poet. His words were hard and deep, beautiful in their brutality and bloody imagery. Their power could silence even the drunkest rabble at the Story Bridge Hotel poetry nights. When he read his dark eyes blazed and I imagined he was Dylan Thomas and I was his lover. Not his wife. Never his wife.
One day I came home from university and Harry had made an altar to me in the study. A sculpture of pure white tissues, a red ink stain in one corner, with a photo of a seven year old me in my communion dress in the middle. Even then, when I knew that he had seen inside me, the truth of who I was, I didn’t stop using him.
He loved me, I think, but I wasn’t even sure I liked him. I liked having him around. I liked the comfort of his body and the haze of his pot. I envied and admired his talent. I didn’t ever trust him. I didn’t ever really know him.
All I knew was that his suffering ran too close under his skin and I was afraid that if I didn’t protect myself his pain would rub off onto me. His suffering was raw. Mine was carefully bound up and tucked away. Safe.
I didn’t ever love him, or didn’t think I did. Not until now when I miss him and realise that his presence in my life was no accident, find myself still waiting to find him again.
Harry brought out the worst in people. I was cold and hard with him and drank and smoked even more than usual. His best friend, Phil, a pale, vapid fellow with glasses, did whatever Harry told him to.
One night, Harry dragged Phil along to the house of a girl he’d met in the psych ward and Phil tried to have his way with her on the lino. She called the police and had him up on rape charges. Harry came home and told me all about it as if it was the biggest joke ever. We made a shrine to Phil, the white rabbit, and laughed. Phil went right downhill after that. He talked about lying his legs across the railway tracks in front of a train because he didn’t think they’d put a cripple in jail. Harry thought it was funny.
After my student allowance finally came through after many penniless months, I went to Sydney to celebrate with friends for a couple of weeks. When I returned I discovered that Harry had been sleeping with another girl in my bed. By way of an apology he told me he’d read my diary and knew I didn’t love him so thought it couldn’t hurt me. It didn’t really. I hadn’t expected anything different.
I threw him out. I didn’t need his money anymore, anyway.
Harry kept trying to come back to me. One late night he arrived straight from a brawl at the pub, battered and bruised and incoherent, but with a huge bag of pot. So I let him in. I bathed his wounds and smoked his dope then closed my bedroom door and made him sleep on the carpet in the lounge room. He even wanted to stay there. I said he could. Till the pot ran out.
I didn’t want to let that bleeding soul under my skin. I wasn’t taking that risk, especially not with Harry.
Not long after that I escaped Brisbane for good, or so I thought, escaped to Sydney, joining the mass exodus of the eighties and the Joh years. Away from Brisbane, I never thought of Harry, or only the occasional passing thought as to whether he’d ended up in the gutter yet. That’s the future I’d always predicted for him with a hard laugh.
Five years later I returned, and there he was loping down Vulture Street looking exactly the same.
“Hey Harry!” I called, and he came running. I took him home, drank his wine, smoked his dope, tore off his clothes and used him up. Just as I had always done. But this time in the morning when I looked back at him still lying in bed as I got ready for work he looked sad; like he finally understood what I’d done and for the first time I felt guilty. I turned my back and left him. Without a word.
It was another three years till I saw him again. I was back from living and working overseas, back home in West End, a baby girl in my arms and a wedding ring on my finger. I was at a rally in Musgrave Park campaigning for some cause or other as Harry and I had always done.
He’d been justly infamous for his protest rally antics in the Joh anti-march era. He would don a tie, bluster through the front line ferals and International Socialists, get into the government building without a second look from the police, and wreak havoc with paint bombs.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, that of all the thousands of people at the rally, I found myself standing next to Harry.
He looked worse; grey and jaded, and I could feel the sadness running close to the surface of his cheerful greeting. It felt good to see him and with the glow of my new motherhood I was kind to him; I think. Though I couldn’t resist flashing my wedding ring in his face and flaunting the beautiful baby at my breast.
“Can I have some of that?” he asked.
And I realised that that was all Harry had ever wanted, some soft mother love. And all I’d ever given him was hard, bitchy Mummy; putting him in the corner. I touched his hand to say goodbye and felt the tie that bound us, but I was wary and didn’t offer my number. I didn’t want him turning up on my doorstep late one night. I knew he was using. I didn’t want any of that near me, not anymore. He was wearing his track-marks like a badge of honour.
Then, a year later, I was taking my toddler to the local park, and well known beat, when I ran into a mutual friend, a priest we’d met in our uni days. He told me Harry was dead. That he’d overdosed a few months earlier. That he was gone.
I accepted it at first, but then I wasn’t so sure. Can you believe a priest? Can you believe a priest visiting a beat in broad daylight?
So I hope. Hope that one day I’ll be driving down Vulture Street or Boundary Street and spot those slow loping strides from a distance.
“Harry!” I’ll call. “Harry, come running.”