Over the past week as I’ve been recording vocals in the studio for my upcoming album, I’ve been reminiscing over some old documents and photos to try and get back into the same mindframe I was in when I originally wrote the songs.
Yesterday which searching through my archive, I happened to stumble across one particular document – a short story I wrote in early 2008 – which I had completely forgotten about. I had written it as a competition entry for a Brisbane City Council publication, where applicants were asked to write a story relating to the city of Brisbane. The winners would have their stories published in a book, and would also receive a substantial amount of prizemoney, which was my main motivating factor as I was preparing to embark on an amazing overseas adventure and could have done with a little extra cash to help subsidise my travels.
For about two weeks I slaved over the computer screen writing and workshopping my story, entitled I Don’t Smoke. I had previously written and recorded a song using the same title, based on a rather unforeseen and disheartening experience I had when I first moved to Brisbane in 2005. My story was an extension of this song, detailing what happened on that day. It consists of two parts written from my own perspective, which is factual, as well as a part in the middle written from the perspective of another man, which is not entirely factual, but based as much on the truth as I could pick up from my actual interactions with this guy on the day.
You can listen to the song below, and if you enjoy it, then feel free to head over to iTunes and check out the other five songs from my 2007 EP, Comfort Zone 🙂
Unfortunately I didn’t win the prize, and on hearing this news, I filed the story away without any further thought. But now that it’s resurfaced I thought I’d share it here on my blog, in case anybody is interested in giving it a read and finding out the meaning behind my song.
I hope you like the song & the story – and also, if you haven’t yet, then please “like” my music page on Facebook to keep in the loop about the new album and its release date!
* * * *
I Don’t Smoke
As the train rumbles through the tunnel on its way to Central Station, I sit in the dark carriage alongside thirty or forty strangers and contemplate the marvel of public transport. Only fifteen minutes ago I conveniently caught the 1:19 from Indooroopilly on my second ever train journey to the city. Previously I had opted to drive, but the thought of weaving my way through the urban traffic and paying my hard earned cash for a parking spot didn’t resound well with me today.
It was an infrequent occurrence for me – or most people I knew for that matter – to catch public transport during my 20 years growing up in North Queensland. While life in the outskirts of Townsville did see me catch the bus every day to school, this was by no means similar to the prospect of public transport here in the big city. For starters, everyone on the school bus knew each other, and you could almost guarantee that on any particular day, you’d see the same people sitting in the same seats, engaged in the same adolescent conversation with the same friends. We had fun, we had arguments, we had best mates and some of us had worst enemies, but all in all, our youthful experience on the school bus remained a consistent form of social gathering throughout our years. Those were the days!
Yet here I am today four years later, the big city of Brisbane about to open up to me as soon as the businessman in the suit and tie presses the flashing train door button. Behind him, a frustrated mother pushing a stroller complete with crying baby yearns to leave the enclosed carriage, out to an environment where the hustle of city folk drowns out the sound of her infant’s sobs. I notice the affectionate couple sitting opposite me as they raise from their seats, hand in hand, presumably to find the nearest of many flourishing gardens where they can spend a romantic afternoon together strolling the footpaths. Remaining seated on the other side of the carriage, cheerful parents of ethnic descent remind their mischievous children that they still have one more station to go before they can depart. And as I stand up to exit the train myself, a lone, unshaven figure wearing a scruffy shirt and jeans catches my eye, as he also prepares to disembark at this busy and boisterous central destination.
I have not long ventured to this South-Eastern metropolis from the comfort of my home town with the prospect of beginning a new life in a new place. I had travelled to many Australian cities throughout my youth, but for some reason Brisbane resonated with me as the place that I wanted to be. It was big, yet small enough to see it as a kindred community. Busy, yet relaxed enough to warrant a smile from the passing locals as you walk down the street. I found it to be amazingly lush and green, with a surprising amount of trees still adorning the hilly suburbs despite the impending drought. Brisbane reminded me of home in so many ways, so it was natural that my life progression saw me relocate here.
The one thing that I missed about Townsville, however, was the fact that – just like on the school bus – anywhere I went, I would see somebody who I knew. Whether I walked into a shopping centre, drove down the highway, stopped by the Strand for a swim at the Rock Pool or had a quick snack at the university refectory, I would constantly run into a known face. Familiarity was abundant in my hometown of 145,000, but here in my unexplored locale of almost 15 times that population, everyone and everything is new to me.
As quick as a flash the businessman and young mother hastily make their way outside the carriage doors, and I feel as though I’m being pressured by those behind me to make a similarly hurried exit. This is only my second time here at Central station so I look around and try to judge which direction I should walk to lead me out of here. My mind floods with this newfound stimulation… escalators, stairways, trains coming and going, newsagents, public announcements and people everywhere!
Ahead of me I see the businessman already halfway up one of the escalators trying to push his way through the crowd blocking his path, so using him as a guide I leave the platform level and follow him up. By the time I’ve reached the top, he’s already shown his ticket to the inspector and is well on his way to God knows which office building. I somehow doubt that he’d be the kind of local to greet you with a smile as you walked past him, but I remember that I’m in the city now and I really shouldn’t expect people to go out of their way to show hospitality.
Fumbling to get my ticket out of my wallet, I question my next move and instinctively head south towards the Edward Street exit of the station.
I really had no specific reason to come into town today. There are a few minor things that I’d like to accomplish, such as a spot of shopping to help me settle into my new house, and I’d also like to stop by a café or snack bar for some lunch, but my journey is mostly being carried out with an exploratory sense in mind. I just want to breathe the air of the city and marvel at its architecture, its functionality and its people. I’ve barely even left the train station and already I have taken in so much around me, lost in my own thoughts of the amazing place that I am experiencing.
“Excuse me bud,” I hear behind me.
Ignoring the request for communication, I carry on walking towards the congested pedestrian crossing.
“Hey, excuse me,” the voice continues.
The monotony of his expression brings to mind the thought of delinquency. I ask myself, who is this strange person trying to talk to me and what does he want? I subtly turn my head to investigate and out of the corner of my eye I see the same man who I saw on the train – that lone, unshaven figure who judging by his messy attire clearly has no respect for his self-appearance. Still, I carry on walking.
His voice persists, my ears once more picking up on his call for attention. This time I can almost hear a sense of desperation as he moves closer to ensure his call doesn’t go unnoticed this time around. “Sorry buddy… excuse me.”
I know what he’s after. Money. No – cigarettes. I can intuitively tell by the tone of his voice and the way he looks that he’s trying to beg me for something I have no intention of giving him. I’d been in a similar situation quite some time ago back at home, when I was confronted by an inebriated and obviously impoverished man of the streets, asking me for money to help restock his bodies deprived supply of nicotine. When I refused, he swore and cursed at me and unsuccessfully gave chase, before realizing that begging wasn’t going to get him anywhere.
Don’t get me wrong, I felt sorry for the guy and guilty for refusing to help him out, but I had no cigarettes and I definitely wasn’t going to give him any money, knowing it would be spent on toxins that would only serve to drag him further and further into a state of misery.
With this in mind, I prepare to deal with the voice that now harasses me. You’re talking to the wrong person, I think to myself as I obnoxiously turn around to ask what his problem is. I don’t smoke.
* * * *
I don’t want to be here. I have no idea where I am, and I have no idea where I’m supposed to be going. This place scares the living daylights out of me. It’s so huge and the people are plain arrogant. Why would anybody want to live here? I just want the day to be over so I can go back home and lock myself in my room. And cry.
I live in a town called Toowoomba, about 150 kilometres from where I fatefully walk at this moment. Toowoomba is such a great place to live, and I will be eternally grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to grow up there. It’s quiet, laid back, very country-oriented, full of amazing people, and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
I grew up on a property just outside Toowoomba, where I was given fantastic exposure to so many aspects of life that city folk just don’t get to experience. Our parents were country right to the core, Mum and Dad both grew up in the outback, first meeting in high school and have been together ever since. They moved to the farm in Toowoomba just before I was born, and as the first of three offspring to country parents, I was raised the typical country way as a damn hard worker and an even harder partier! My brothers and I all learnt at a young age how to drive, how to saddle and ride a horse, how to tend to our crops, fence, plumb, fix just about anything that breaks… and most importantly, how to drink beer like a man.
Unfortunately though, the financial gain of farming life had become more and more difficult to achieve as years passed, and two years ago my parents sold the farm and moved closer to Brisbane to take up other ventures. I loved Toowoomba too much to want to leave, so I decided to stay here and take a course in agricultural studies. Although I visit my parents regularly, I hate the traffic and yearn for them leave the enclosed space they are living in, back out to the environment on the land where I know they are most happy.
My childhood was constantly full of activity; I was always right into my sport and I made the A-grade in the local rugby league team. One of the proudest moments of my life was the time we won the grand final, it was a home game and I remember my father was there at the sidelines cheering me on as I scored the winning try with only six minutes left in the game! After the game ended and we were handed the trophy, the team did a victory lap around the field carrying me on their shoulders as I held the “holy grail” high up in the air. The photo that Dad captured of that moment took pride of place in the pool room, every time a mate of his would come over he’d proudly show it off to them and boast about how great a footy player I was. Those were the days!
Yet here I am today four years later, the big city of Brisbane surrounding me as I try to work my way through this confusing metropolis that so many people seem to love. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home later tonight is go straight to my photo that Dad was so proud of and just hold it. And cry.
As a country family, we were right into our cars. We had heaps of rustbuckets out the back that we used to drive around as kids, and we even made a track through the back of the property that we’d circle over and over again. We’d race each other, we’d do time trials to see who could maneuver the track the quickest, we’d make modifications to our cars to try and give them that extra bit of speed or traction, and every now and then one of us would lose control and crash. It was a pretty harrowing experience, to crash, and more often than not it would result in a serious injury and a huge mess to clean up. I was in hospital once for two weeks after I mistakenly navigated my way into a tree. I lost consciousness straight away, broke my collarbone and ruptured my spleen. It was an experience I never want to have to go through again, yet it didn’t at all deter me from my passion, and I was out driving again as soon as my broken bones had healed.
Of all the cars that we owned, our pride and joy was a 1976 eight cylinder LX Torana that Dad had picked up for cheap at an auction when I was 15. It needed quite a bit of work done to it, but as the years progressed we slowly but surely turned the old bomb into a driver’s masterpiece. We painted it “Valencia orange,” overhauled the engine, added a mean-sounding dual three inch exhaust and reupholstered the entire interior. It became an unquestionable goal of Dad’s to get the car roadworthied and driving like a dream, and I’ll never forget the day he picked up the license plates from the transport office – his level of pride only ever equaled by my conquering try on the football field.
Mum never shared the passion that we boys did with our cars, and especially since my accident she always erred on the side of caution every time we took our cars for a drive. The wide, open country roads were perfect for the Torana, and Dad used to take us out for a spin most weekends, much to Mum’s disapproval. Sometimes we totally lost track of the time as we were out there enjoying the freedom of the road – I remember one day after telling Mum we’ll only be gone for an hour, we got all the way out to Roma before realizing we had better turn back! She was so worried she’d even called the police to find out if there were any reports of a crashed Torana. Poor Mum. I guess being a teenager I never understood why she was so worried about us. “Cars are our way of life,” I kept telling her, “you just have to get used to it.”
Two weeks ago I got a phone call from Dad asking me if I wanted to join him on Sunday for a trip down to the Gold Coast to burn some fuel and visit a few of his mates. I hadn’t been out driving with Dad in months so I would have loved to go with him, but unfortunately I had to decline the offer as I already had other plans. However I was free on the Saturday of the next weekend so we made a date to do something then.
Oh, how I wish I could turn back time.
It was late on the Sunday after I had returned home from a night out with my friends, that I received a devastating phone call from my mother. Earlier that evening, she was informed by a police officer that her husband – my father – had been tragically killed in an accident. The car he was driving – his Torana – had careened across to the other side of the road and hit a tree.
I should have been there with him. I should have accepted his invitation to go driving with him that day instead of selfishly opting to spend it with my own mates instead. If I was there with him I would have at least been given the opportunity to spend our last precious moments together. If I was there with him, maybe circumstances would have been different and he would not have undergone the misfortune of this catastrophic end to his life. Maybe I could have driven the car instead? Maybe I could have picked up on a looming disaster and averted the crash before it happened? So many maybes and so many what-ifs, but nothing now will change the fact that what has happened, has happened. Nothing, except the mind-altering chemical high obtained from the drink…
As soon as I hung up the phone after talking to Mum I burst into tears, and I don’t even remember the last time I cried. We were always taught as kids to “be a man” and deny any sadness or pain we were feeling, so to all of a sudden start crying like this must have meant I was taking a huge step down the path of weakness. My only option was to open my bottle of bourbon, that incidentally had been given to me by my father for my 23rd birthday, and drink until I couldn’t feel the pain any more.
I’ve always had a liking for alcohol; many people have told me on many different occasions that perhaps I drink too much of it. But I can’t help myself, it becomes an addiction and after the third or fourth drink you feel so relaxed and uninhibited. It’s always been my way to deal with stress, Dad always taught me that if things were getting down, a nice cold draught beer or shot of whiskey would pull me back up again. Unfortunately sometimes I took that advice a little to the extreme, finding myself at a point of no return where I make decisions that I live to regret.
Over the past week I haven’t shown up to any of my work or study commitments and my friends have all been worried about me. I haven’t seen mum at all, and since that dreaded phone call I have spoken to her only once, where she despondently gave me the information on today’s proceedings. I just can’t bear to see her in the horrible state that she’s in, nor can I bear for her to see me like this. Within the next hour now I will have to face my fears and confront my family for the first time since we heard the news.
Today is the Saturday that Dad and I had intended to spend together. Instead, here I am at the train station in the centre of Brisbane. I have never experienced such a range of withdrawn emotions before in my life – I am exhausted, I am angry, I am confused, I am lost, I am distressed, and I am sick… menacingly sick, from drowning my sorrows like I have never drowned them before. I have no idea where I’m going, I have things to do, and I only have an hour of time before I have to be at my destination, all of which I know is somewhere in this huge bewildering city.
I was in no state to drive here today, so I hitchhiked a lift into Ipswich this morning where I caught the train here to the city, carrying little more than the clothes on my back, some money, and a sheet of paper with the address of the church I had to find. I’ve never liked the idea of public transport; you’re always stuck in an enclosed environment full of strangers. Everybody tries to keep to themselves, yet I feel as though they judge others around them based on their appearance, or by eavesdropping into conversations.
I try not to take any notice, but I know that people are looking at me strangely. That’s the thing with us country boys – we never make friends in the city purely because of the way we dress. Just because I don’t match their own standards, people clearly assume I’m here to cause some kind of trouble. City folk think anybody who wears a flannelette shirt and jeans must be some kind of inebriated cowboy, and although I’m definitely not out to cause trouble, perhaps the look of fatigue on my face and my bloodshot eyes gives away the fact that I’m not going through easy times. But I really don’t care, I don’t particularly want to talk to anybody nor do I care what they think about me.
Getting out of the train is a nightmare; hordes of people were pushing themselves past me into the train as I was trying to walk out. Can’t they just show some patience and wait for everyone to leave first before they disrespectfully shove their way on board? I look around and follow a group of people from my carriage who have made their way over to the escalators. There’s a guy in a suit carrying a briefcase who’s trying to force his way through the people standing on the escalator, and I think to myself that if I have to deal with people like him during my stay in the city, I’ll probably end up driving myself even more insane that what I already am. But reality kicks in and I realize I need to get myself organized.
As I leave the train station and walk out into the streets, I pull out the address of the church I need to find and figure my only hope is to ask one of the locals for directions. It makes it even more difficult because there are a few things I need to do before I get to the church, and I don’t have much time left at all. Everyone is moving so quickly, I don’t know who to ask. I contemplated asking the ticket inspector but he seemed too busy dealing with the swarm of faces walking towards him all showing their little white slips of paper.
Outside the station now, I see a man ahead of me who I vaguely noticed staring at me back in the carriage, and call out to him, “Excuse me bud.”
I try again, a little louder this time, “Hey, excuse me.”
Still nothing. All I want is to ask a simple question in my time of need and he can’t even show the decency to turn around and acknowledge my existence! I’m really getting desperate for some kind of good luck now – not only has my father died, but I’m in a horrible state myself, I’m about to face my worst fears in front of my family who I haven’t seen in weeks and now I’m being ignored by the one person I chose to ask for assistance. Again, reality kicks in and I remember that I’m in the city now and I really shouldn’t expect people to go out of their way to show hospitality.
I try one final time, this time with a genuine sense of urgency in my voice, “Sorry buddy… excuse me.”
* * * *
“Yes?” I impolitely reply, half expecting the subsequent conversation with my newfound vagabond friend to consist of some kind of sob story, followed by a request for my services, followed by a just-as-impolite “No” answer on my behalf.
“Oh sorry to bother you mate,” he began, “but I was just wondering if you could point me towards the nearest florist?”
My attitude instantly softened as I came down from my pedestal. I wasn’t sure of the location of any florists in the city but I suggest that he maybe try out a department store, and I pointed him towards MacArthur Central on Queen Street where I knew there was such a retailer. He half-heartedly thanked me for the help, but my curiosity quickly gets the better of me and I ask him what the flowers are for.
“My dad died in a car accident the other day,” he revealed. “I don’t know my way around Brisbane and I need to buy flowers before I head to the funeral.”
As I walk alongside him during the moments before his final goodbye to his father, I listen to his story and surreptitiously hang my head in shame. Never again will I let my own judgment come into play before hearing one’s story. Such a valuable lesson I learnt today, and I would not have been given the opportunity to learn it in such a moving way if it were not for that fact that I don’t smoke.
I Don’t Smoke
Stuck behind an unseen wall
Distinguishing nothing at all
Outside the boundaries of my barrier
Who knows who could be a carrier
Of a social disregard
Cause I feel as though it’s hard to deal with
Slam right through my unseen wall
But still I leave unseen your call
Persevere with your attempting
To steer me from my venting
Of your social disregard
That I feel is oh so hard to deal with
Sorry for not obliging, these streets are a joke
Recurring expectance, I don’t smoke
Getting to know you, now I sadly revoke
My misdirectness, you don’t smoke
A tragic scene you soon unfold
A wasted dream is all you hold
Of all the things in life you’d rather
Had surrendered but your father
Who died alone and cold
By the tree beside the road
To think behind my unseen wall
Had I left unseen your call
You’d have walked the streets for hours
For a place to buy some flowers
For the funeral this afternoon
With an added sense of lonesome gloom
Were you lost inside, indignified, the world’s ignoring
With foolish pride I stepped outside to hear your story
To be blown away with what you say, anticipating
You to provoke me for a smoke, so irritating
I don’t smoke. You don’t smoke. We don’t smoke.