Geelong 1979, Melbourne 1982
Whatever happened to you, Tom McDonald? Did you ever come back? Did you keep writing?
I’d changed high schools over the summer of 1975-76. Freedom from the Christian Brothers and the Catholic college on the hill. But freedom with a price. Classrooms full of strangers.
Tom, and Bill, took me under their wings. Tom, a little on the edge of things. Bill, more careful with life. I still keep in touch with Bill. Once or twice a year. A phonecall, a visit. Music on Bill’s stereo. We all liked Van Morrison.
But, Tom, what happened to you? And where are you now?
You were playing Wavelength, the album, one afternoon in Geelong. About 1979. Sunlight in the share-house loungeroom. A comfy couch or two. And the album cover propped up against a vase or a lamp or a pot plant.
Van Morrison there in the room with us. Sitting on a stool. White pants. Dark T-shirt. Cigarette almost at his lips. You were probably smoking too, Tom. Van Morrison, the bard from Belfast, singing while we were talking. Van Morrison, the moondancing minstrel, the Irish troubadour, singing about Kingdom Hall, singing about Venice USA, about Santa Fe, singing about checkin’ it out, takin’ it further, singing about Natalia, Natalia, Natalia…
And, Tom, we were talking about our poems and our stories, and about Flann O’Brien the Irish satirist you were studying at uni, and about Samuel Beckett, the Irish genius playwright we’d studied at school. We were talking and Van was singing. Tom, maybe you talked about your family, whom I’d never met. And maybe about your father, your distant, distant father.
And Van was singing about beautiful obsessions and wavelengths and finding a purpose and carrying on and lost dreams and found dreams and oh mama oh mama oh mama oh mama…
Then I moved to the big smoke, to Melbourne, to St Kilda. We must have kept in touch because I knew you were just up the road, on the other side of the junction. In a two-storey building. White. 1940s maybe.
I wasn’t expecting broken windows. Doors hanging off hinges. Holes in the carpet, in the walls.
You had a mattress on a floor. Some blankets. Some clothes.
I didn’t know whether, or how, to ask how you came to be living here.
“I’ve got a story,” you said, pulling pages from a pocket. Hand-written. Ten or more. “Can you type it for me? And send it to The Age short story competition?”
I took the pages. Leaves from a tree.
“I haven’t got a typewriter. And I’m going away.”
“My dad lives there. He bought me a plane ticket.”
The distant, distant father.
I was having trouble joining the dots. A man in a squat. Heading overseas.
“And can you give me a lift?”
“To the airport!” We laughed.
Oh, bells were ringing down at the Kingdom Hall, a choir was singing down at the Kingdom Hall Hey liley liley liley, Hey liley liley low…
A few days later I pick up Tom and we head along the Tullamarine Freeway. As we neared the airport Tom reminded me about his story. “You’ll type it up for me, mate?”
“Yes, Tom, of course I will.”
And then he was gone. A handshake in the car, a smile through the passenger window, a wave from the footpath.
I typed up Tom’s story. More Flann O’Brien than Samuel Beckett. Typed it on my manual Olivetti Lettera 32.
I bought a second-hand copy of Wavelength. A second-hand cassette too.
Some nights driving back from visiting the family in Geelong I’d miss exits and turn-offs and take extended detours so I could keep listening to Van Morrison singing about Natalia and Santa Fe and Beautiful Obsession and, especially, the finale of Take It Where You Find It, the song about lost dreams and found dreams, the song about change, change, change, change come over until I see my shining light I see my light I see my shining light…
I still have the record and the cassette of Wavelength. And I have had, on the wall of my study for many years, a Rolling Stone review of Wavelength, by one Lester Bangs. He liked Van Morrison, but he didn’t care much for Wavelength. I liked Bangs’ writing, though I didn’t agree with him this time: Ever since Moondance, Van Morrison has staked his claim to the rare title “poet”, mostly on the basis of what amounts to a bunch of autumn leaves. Look at those records lying there, the best as good as the worst and all of ‘em slowly turning brown. You wanna kick ‘em just like a pile of crumbly leaves? Well, go ahead and do it….Wavelength is a very nice record. I’m sure all the people at Warner Bros are pleased with it. Ditto the DJs. It probably would also be really groovy for somebody’s idea of a wine-and-joints, Renaissance fair garden party. It makes a lovely sound, but breaks no rules. Rigid….
It was the illustration accompanying the review, not the review itself that I really liked. It depicted Van Morrison as Beethoven, with fountain pen in his right hand, pages at the ready and autumn leaves everywhere.
As an aspiring writer, the image was romantic, for sure. Dreamy, unrealistic, probably. But it seemed to capture the creativity of writing and Morrison’s dedication to the muse.
As for Tom, I give Bill a call at his home in Geelong and let him tell his story before I tell mine.
“I haven’t seen Tom for decades. I was walking along a street in St Kilda and a man waved to me, from the balcony of a run-down house. I realised it was Tom, and waved up at him.”
Whatever happened to you, Tom McDonald? Did you keep writing? Did you ever come back?