Upstairs bedroom, posh Terrace House, South Yarra, November, 1983
We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride
We used to walk back to his house from South Yarra Station with our vinyl school bags slung over our shoulders. When we got to the top of the hill on the Domain Road corner, we’d turn onto Punt Road and head down towards the Yarra. But we never went all the way down to the river. Instead, we’d cut through a jasmine filled blue-stone laneway to the renovated Victorian terrace his parents had recently upgraded to from their old place in suburban Beaumaris.
At his new joint we’d dump the bags in the hall, grab a frozen Poppa juice from the fridge and thump up the stairs to his room. The week before, I had used my frozen Poppa to numb his ear lobe before pushing a needle through it as he sat gripping his knees on the edge of the bath. Pushing a needle through skin was much tougher than I had thought. Afterwards, I gave him one of my own silver studs to push through the bloody hole and we sat on the bathroom floor sucking our split open Poppas.
This week, we go straight to his room. He pulls the blinds. I flop back on his bed. He flips through the pile to choose a record to put on. I untie the school jumper around my waist. Sometimes we listen to Bob Dylan, other times Dire Straits, Neil Young, or The Stones. He has a great collection. He plays guitar and has a weekend job in a second hand record shop off Toorak Road. He introduces me to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska in his darkened room on hot afternoons like this as we lie pashing and fumbling in our unbuttoned school uniforms listening to tales of poor old copper Joe Roberts chasing his crim brother Frankie down the highway, and them taking it in turns to dance with Maria in better days. They tell us there is another world out there.
For my 17th birthday he gives me my own double album copy of The River, and today this is what he puts on. As we listen to how poor old Mary got pregnant, he is fumbling for something in his Velcro surf wallet on the side table. I lean back on my elbows and watch him as bites his lip with concentration getting himself sorted so we don’t meet the same fate. We have other plans. Get through HSC. Art school. Bands. The world.
I don’t remember all that much about what it is actually like. I know that I want it to happen. That after all this time together I am kind of aching for it. That he is gentle. That it doesn’t take long. That it hurts a bit. That I like the way it feels to do that with someone. That we still have our school uniforms half on. That just as we are finishing, his Mum scares the shit out of us by banging on the barricaded door and yelling “What are you doing in there? Come downstairs! Your chops are ready”.
The needle reaches the empty scratchy bit when the track is done. He asks me if I am OK and I say I am. We button ourselves up and he lifts the arm off the record. He hides the evidence in an empty chip packet. We straighten ourselves up, have a quick ferocious pash as he unsecures the door, and descend to the kitchen where his mum and dad and sister are already seated around the table. His sister, a year or so younger, smirks, and I avoid looking at her. He doesn’t look at me either, but he finds my leg with his foot under the table. The River is still playing in my head, as his mum, an English teacher talks about Fifth Form books. As I raise my knife and fork to address the chops, his dad lets out a ripper fart, smiles without looking up from scooping peas, and chimes cheerfully “Better out than in”.
Later, back up in his room, before he walks me back to the station to catch the train back to my place, I tell him I’m bleeding a bit, and he borrows a pair of undies off his sister for me. I look down the hall and see her poke her head out of her doorway, nod graciously without saying anything, and then pass out a scrunched-up pair of undies which he stuffs in his fist like contraband.
On the red rattler home, I gaze out into the black night thinking of his blue school shirt open and his hairless bare chest next to mine. Of the way he held me. Of the feeling of wanting and giving. Of finally losing it. Of pleasure and discomfort and undies and Bruce Springsteen records. Of course, on that train ride home I think I will love him forever. I don’t know it yet but it won’t be long before I’m more interested in older boys. Outside my station, my big brother is waiting in Dad’s V8 yellow Holden station wagon to take me home.
That year or two of laying in the dark on top of that boy’s ruffled doona, I heard albums that remain to this day some of my favourite music. My tastes have changed, diversified, but I still have my treasured double album copy of The River. Sometimes I play it on my crap old turntable on Saturday afternoons. We broke up about six months after all this, and we only did some of what we hoped and dreamed and said we’d do. But even in our 50s, although we don’t see each other much, we still catch up from time to time, and every now and then he sends me a song to listen to.