Joe Bennett: These are the days of our lives ...
OPINION: From my basement study I heard a familiar sequence: a bark from the lounge upstairs, the double thud of the dog door swinging open and back, then a frantic whimper of greeting.
"Can I help you?" I said, emerging from the basement. The visitor, preoccupied by the squirming, whimpering dog, looked around for the source of the voice.
"Down here," I said. He was about my age, but better preserved and better dressed.
"I'm looking for Joe Bennett."
"You've found him," I said, coming up the path. The man cocked his head, taking in my belly, my baldness, my ravaged face. "Really?"
He proffered his hand and said his name.
"Well, bloody hell," I said. His surname was the most impressively impenetrable I've known: Polish in origin, just nine letters long, but those letters include 3 y's, 2 z's and no vowels. And I know so because I was secretary of the university sports club that we both belonged to and I had to write the minutes.
Now it was my turn to look him up and down, to try to square the twenty-year-old that I remembered with this dapper man in front of me. Either memory had enlarged him or time had shrunk him. For I remembered him as more of a bruiser, stern of mien and broad of jaw, someone I was pleased to be on the same rugby team as.
"You're looking well," I said, and I meant it. He could have passed for 50. I offered him beer, coffee, lunch, but his wife, he said, was waiting in the car at the bottom of the drive. They had to be at the airport in half an hour for a flight to Perth. He'd just heard I lived around here and dropped in to say hi.
"Well hi," I said. And then, after an interlude of 40 years, there was a pause. Either it was hard to know where to start or there was actually nothing to say.
"I used to be scared of you," I said, and he laughed in a way that reminded me why I used to be scared of him. I told him I'd been grateful we were on the same rugby team.
He laughed again and mentioned an unforgettable rugby match we'd played in. I'd forgotten it. I mentioned a different one. He'd forgotten it.
"Didn't you study law?" I said. He had, and he'd gone on to be a lawyer, not the wigged m'ludding sort, but the corporate sort, in the sleek glass offices of global energy companies. And clearly it had been lucrative because he's retired already at the age of 60. This Australasian holiday was his retirement gift to himself, a long-awaited pleasure. Ahead of him when he gets back home lie maybe 30 years with no necessity to work. I wanted to know how that felt but didn't ask.
He'd fathered two children, both now nearing 30, the girl doing well, the boy a bit of slow-starter.
"How about you?" he said. I shrugged and gave him a summary of 40 years in a few simple sentences. And though the words I said were factual they somehow failed to bring the glass down on the fizzing wasp of truth.
"Any kids?" he said.
At the bottom of the drive his wife and my dog conducted a brief but passionate affair, while Paul and I shook hands, made vague promises of future contact, and said goodbye, most probably for ever. And I went back up to the house thinking thoughts. Trite ones for the most part, truisms you hear when young and never quite believe. Like how fast time passes. And more particularly how it accelerates to a blur, so that you can no longer remember who you met last week but you can still spell an impossible surname from 40 years ago. And also how we summarise a life with just two facts – how you made a living and whether you reproduced. The rest, the love and misery, the fear and laughter, is fiddle-de dee.
And then there's the narrowing. When he and I last spoke in 1979 the future was as wide as a map of the world. Any road could be taken, and any road off that. The possibilities, the choices, were limitless and dizzying. They aren't any more.
For to take any road is to spurn all the others, and the further you go down that road the fewer the intersections, and the harder it becomes to turn the wheel, to wrench yourself off the single narrowing lane that spears at ever-growing speed towards a blank horizon, till it becomes the only thing you've got.
"Come on, dog," I said, "lunch." And the dog, who doesn't do thoughts, wagged his tail.
- The Dominion Post