Thursday, February 18, 2010

Arboreal Interior Design

I got a rather unusual phone call from my friend while staying with my parents in Brisbane last year. It was unusual because of how calm and collected he was. His girlfriend had gone on one of her regular trips overseas, this one being longer than most. Normally when this happened I would receive an anxious phone call from him asking what I was doing that weekend. A lot of people find being alone quite boring, and will dredge the depths of their phonebook in search of someone to talk to. My friend Toby on the other hand, seemed to become seized with an anxiety that came on as soon as his girlfriend's plane lifted off the tarmac. So naturally, when he asked me to come over and hang out "whenever" in a laconic, calm voice I began to wonder if he'd finally caved in to medication.
It's funny though, you wouldn't have picked him as that sort of guy. He was a graphic designer, and looked the part completely: wardrobe full of t-shirts with ironic slogans, skinny-leg jeans, perpetual 5 o'clock shadow and thick rimmed glasses. In public he radiated an almost smug self-confidence but as I said, this is something he could not sustain while he was alone.
I met him at uni, when he was in his second year and I was in the final year of my degree. Before that we'd been at high school together, but being two years his senior we travelled in quite different circles. We ran into each other at the bar after class, and after the initial "hey-I-know-you-from-somewhere" we struck up a lengthy conversation. We clicked pretty well, and his flat in Petersham became a regular haunt of mine. It was a cosy little place in a typical red-brick 70s apartment block, on a typical tree-lined Inner-Western Sydney avenue. It had been a complete bargain; the rent was under three hundred dollars, in an area in which property prices were skyrocketing.
Toby claimed that when his girlfriend left the place had an "oppressive" quality to it. Given that I lived with my family on a housing estate outside Blacktown, I had little cause for sympathy.
Besides that, I've never really had a problem with being alone. I used to envy those with flourishing social lives, whose facebook page would always have a visual account of their exploits. But eventually it came clear that they sought to cultivate their social lives with a zeal that bordered on desperation. It seemed that being surrounded by legions of boring acquaintances was a small price to pay for being able to say that they Did Something On Friday Night.
I fell prey to this way of thinking, but eventually I grew up and cut my more freewheeling social networking back to a tight-knit group of friends.
I work as a freelance translator, so my social life has always been subject to a certain degree of ebb and flow. A lot of the time I work from home, but sometimes I've picked up a regular job at a business that's seeking to expand into South America. Once I worked for a company that marketed cleaning products, and it was here that I had one of the most eventful social lives. The boss was one of the most anal people I've ever met, and hired a squad of ten janitors, all Indians.
He would make them clean the whole office at hourly intervals, and personally drilled them until they did it to his meticulous standards. Feeling sorry for the poor guys, I would chat to them during my lunch breaks. Eventually I ended up going drinking with them regularly. We would start out at a dingy RSL outside the business park, and then wind up out the back of a restaurant someone's uncle owned with a case of Extra Dry.

I stood outside my friend's house. After a week in Brisbane I could feel the late autumn air acutely. Toby's street was lined with London Plane trees, giving one the ability to suspend their disbelief and pretend that Australia had a proper autumn instead of a warmer version of winter.
The huge rust coloured leaves crunched under my feet as I made my way up to the amber tinted glass of the stairway door. A noise in the distance began to permeate the still April air; running water. Not like someone had left the shower on or the bath running, but a mighty roaring deluge that got progressively louder as I climbed the stairs. My friend's flat was at the top, and the final flight of stairs were slick with water. His door was slightly ajar, and I stepped in, curious as to what I might find.
"Toby?" I called out. I stepped forward and found myself knee deep in rapidly flowing water. I took in my surroundings. A vast body of water flowed through the middle of his flat, like he'd somehow managed to alter the course of the Rhine. The walls of the flat had become two huge canyon walls covered in moss. The couch sat on a sandbank in the river, one side sunk slightly into the silt. The TV sat opposite it, and despite all possible odds, was switched on.
"Sam!" came a voice from the shore. He was seated on the sandy river bank, a grove of pine trees behind him.
"Toby!" I cried, splashing over to him. His designer stubble had become a full grown beard, and his expensive jeans and casual jacket were filthy and tattered. My socks were drenched, but my sense of humour was still intact.
"I quite like what you've done with the place"
He grinned "Thanks". Despite his dishevelled experience, he was a picture of calm.
"C'mon, I've got dinner on"
He led me through the grove of pine trees. He had set the kitchen up in a clearing, the stove leaning up against the trunk of one of the trees. The kitchen light hung down from the ceiling high above, the incandescent glow seeping eerily through the canopy. He ladled some minestrone into my bowl and we waded out to the loungeroom. After watching a couple of DVDs, I began to feel sleepy.
"Where have you got your bed set up?" I wondered. He pointed up. High above was his bed, perched on a slab of rock protruding from the mossy cliff face.
"Goodnight" he said, and began the arduous climb.
I wandered back to the kitchen, and fell asleep on a bed of pine needles

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