Meeting old mates
You are getting well on in the thirties, and haven’t left off being a fool yet. You have been away in another colony or country for a year or so, and have now come back again. Most of your chums have gone away or got married, or, worse still, signed the pledge — settled down and got steady; and you feel lonely and desolate and left-behind enough for anything. While drifting aimlessly round town with an eye out for some chance acquaintance to have a knock round with, you run against an old chum whom you never dreamt of meeting, or whom you thought to be in some other part of the country — or perhaps you knock up against someone who knows the old chum in question, and he says:
“I suppose you know Tom Smith’s in Sydney?”
“Tom Smith! Why, I thought he was in Queensland! I haven’t seen him for more than three years. Where’s the old joker hanging out at all? Why, except you, there’s no one in Australia I’d sooner see than Tom Smith. Here I’ve been mooning round like an unemployed for three weeks, looking for someone to have a knock round with, and Tom in Sydney all the time. I wish I’d known before. Where’ll I run against him — where does he live?”
“Oh, he’s living at home.”
“But where’s his home? I was never there.”
“Oh, I’ll give you his address. . . . There, I think that’s it. I’m not sure about the number, but you’ll soon find out in that street — most of ’em’ll know Tom Smith.”
“Thanks! I rather think they will. I’m glad I met you. I’ll hunt Tom up to-day.”
So you put a few shillings in your pocket, tell your landlady that you’re going to visit an old aunt of yours or a sick friend, and mayn’t be home that night; and then you start out to hunt up Tom Smith and have at least one more good night, if you die for it.
* * * *
This is the first time you have seen Tom at home; you knew of his home and people in the old days, but only in a vague, indefinite sort of way. Tom has changed! He is stouter and older-looking; he seems solemn and settled down. You intended to give him a surprise and have a good old jolly laugh with him, but somehow things get suddenly damped at the beginning. He grins and grips your hand right enough, but there seems something wanting. You can’t help staring at him, and he seems to look at you in a strange, disappointing way; it doesn’t strike you that you also have changed, and perhaps more in his eyes than he in yours. He introduces you to his mother and sisters and brothers, and the rest of the family; or to his wife, as the case may be; and you have to suppress your feelings and be polite and talk common-place. You hate to be polite and talk common-place. You aren’t built that way — and Tom wasn’t either, in the old days. The wife (or the mother and sisters) receives you kindly, for Tom’s sake, and makes much of you; but they don’t know you yet. You want to get Tom outside, and have a yarn and a drink and a laugh with him — you are bursting to tell him all about yourself, and get him to tell you all about himself, and ask him if he remembers things; and you wonder if he is bursting the same way, and hope he is. The old lady and sisters (or the wife) bore you pretty soon, and you wonder if they bore Tom; you almost fancy, from his looks, that they do. You wonder whether Tom is coming out to-night, whether he wants to get out, and if he wants to and wants to get out by himself, whether he’ll be able to manage it; but you daren’t broach the subject, it wouldn’t be polite. You’ve got to be polite. Then you get worried by the thought that Tom is bursting to get out with you and only wants an excuse; is waiting, in fact, and hoping for you to ask him in an off-hand sort of way to come out for a stroll. But you’re not quite sure; and besides, if you were, you wouldn’t have the courage. By-and-bye you get tired of it all, thirsty, and want to get out in the open air. You get tired of saying, “Do you really, Mrs. Smith?” or “Do you think so, Miss Smith?” or “You were quite right, Mrs. Smith,” and “Well, I think so too, Mrs. Smith,” or, to the brother, “That’s just what I thought, Mr. Smith.” You don’t want to “talk pretty” to them, and listen to their wishy-washy nonsense; you want to get out and have a roaring spree with Tom, as you had in the old days; you want to make another night of it with your old mate, Tom Smith; and pretty soon you get the blues badly, and feel nearly smothered in there, and you’ve got to get out and have a beer anyway — Tom or no Tom; and you begin to feel wild with Tom himself; and at last you make a bold dash for it and chance Tom. You get up, look at your hat, and say: “Ah, well, I must be going, Tom; I’ve got to meet someone down the street at seven o’clock. Where’ll I meet you in town next week?”
But Tom says:
“Oh, dash it; you ain’t going yet. Stay to tea, Joe, stay to tea. It’ll be on the table in a minute. Sit down — sit down, man! Here, gimme your hat.”
And Tom’s sister, or wife, or mother comes in with an apron on and her hands all over flour, and says:
“Oh, you’re not going yet, Mr. Brown? Tea’ll be ready in a minute. Do stay for tea.” And if you make excuses, she cross-examines you about the time you’ve got to keep that appointment down the street, and tells you that their clock is twenty minutes fast, and that you have got plenty of time, and so you have to give in. But you are mightily encouraged by a winksome expression which you see, or fancy you see, on your side of Tom’s face; also by the fact of his having accidentally knocked his foot against your shins. So you stay.
One of the females tells you to “Sit there, Mr. Brown,” and you take your place at the table, and the polite business goes on. You’ve got to hold your knife and fork properly, and mind your p’s and q’s, and when she says, “Do you take milk and sugar, Mr. Brown?” you’ve got to say, “Yes, please, Miss Smith — thanks — that’s plenty.” And when they press you, as they will, to have more, you’ve got to keep on saying, “No, thanks, Mrs. Smith; no, thanks, Miss Smith; I really couldn’t; I’ve done very well, thank you; I had a very late dinner, and so on” — bother such tommy-rot. And you don’t seem to have any appetite, anyway. And you think of the days out on the track when you and Tom sat on your swags under a mulga at mid-day, and ate mutton and johnny-cake with clasp-knives, and drank by turns out of the old, battered, leaky billy.
And after tea you have to sit still while the precious minutes are wasted, and listen and sympathize, while all the time you are on the fidget to get out with Tom, and go down to a private bar where you know some girls.
And perhaps by-and-bye the old lady gets confidential, and seizes an opportunity to tell you what a good steady young fellow Tom is now that he never touches drink, and belongs to a temperance society (or the Y.M.C.A.), and never stays out of nights.
Consequently you feel worse than ever, and lonelier, and sorrier that you wasted your time coming. You are encouraged again by a glimpse of Tom putting on a clean collar and fixing himself up a bit; but when you are ready to go, and ask him if he’s coming a bit down the street with you, he says he thinks he will in such a disinterested, don’t-mind-if-I-do sort of tone, that he makes you mad.
At last, after promising to “drop in again, Mr. Brown, whenever you’re passing,” and to “don’t forget to call,” and thanking them for their assurance that they’ll “be always glad to see you,” and telling them that you’ve spent a very pleasant evening and enjoyed yourself, and are awfully sorry you couldn’t stay — you get away with Tom.
You don’t say much to each other till you get round the corner and down the street a bit, and then for a while your conversation is mostly common-place, such as, “Well, how have you been getting on all this time, Tom?” “Oh, all right. How have you been getting on?” and so on.
But presently, and perhaps just as you have made up your mind to chance the alleged temperance business and ask Tom in to have a drink, he throws a glance up and down the street, nudges your shoulder, says “Come on,” and disappears sideways into a pub.
* * * *
“What’s yours, Tom?” “What’s yours, Joe?” “The same for me.” “Well, here’s luck, old man.” “Here’s luck.” You take a drink, and look over your glass at Tom. Then the old smile spreads over his face, and it makes you glad — you could swear to Tom’s grin in a hundred years. Then something tickles him — your expression, perhaps, or a recollection of the past — and he sets down his glass on the bar and laughs. Then you laugh. Oh, there’s no smile like the smile that old mates favour each other with over the tops of their glasses when they meet again after years. It is eloquent, because of the memories that give it birth.
“Here’s another. Do you remember ——? Do you remember ——?” Oh, it all comes back again like a flash. Tom hasn’t changed a bit; just the same good-hearted, jolly idiot he always was. Old times back again! “It’s just like old times,” says Tom, after three or four more drinks.
And so you make a night of it and get uproariously jolly. You get as “glorious” as Bobby Burns did in the part of Tam O’Shanter, and have a better “time” than any of the times you had in the old days. And you see Tom as nearly home in the morning as you dare, and he reckons he’ll get it hot from his people — which no doubt he will — and he explains that they are very particular up at home — church people, you know — and, of course, especially if he’s married, it’s understood between you that you’d better not call for him up at home after this — at least, not till things have cooled down a bit. It’s always the way. The friend of the husband always gets the blame in cases like this. But Tom fixes up a yarn to tell them, and you aren’t to “say anything different” in case you run against any of them. And he fixes up an appointment with you for next Saturday night, and he’ll get there if he gets divorced for it. But he might have to take the wife out shopping, or one of the girls somewhere; and if you see her with him you’ve got to lay low, and be careful, and wait — at another hour and place, perhaps, all of which is arranged — for if she sees you she’ll smell a rat at once, and he won’t be able to get off at all.
And so, as far as you and Tom are concerned, the “old times” have come back once more.
* * * *
But, of course (and we almost forgot it), you might chance to fall in love with one of Tom’s sisters, in which case there would be another and a totally different story to tell.
Things are going well with you. You have escaped from “the track,” so to speak, and are in a snug, comfortable little billet in the city. Well, while doing the block you run against an old mate of other days — very other days — call him Jack Ellis. Things have gone hard with Jack. He knows you at once, but makes no advance towards a greeting; he acts as though he thinks you might cut him — which, of course, if you are a true mate, you have not the slightest intention of doing. His coat is yellow and frayed, his hat is battered and green, his trousers “gone” in various places, his linen very cloudy, and his boots burst and innocent of polish. You try not to notice these things — or rather, not to seem to notice them — but you cannot help doing so, and you are afraid he’ll notice that you see these things, and put a wrong construction on it. How men will misunderstand each other! You greet him with more than the necessary enthusiasm. In your anxiety to set him at his ease and make him believe that nothing — not even money — can make a difference in your friendship, you over-act the business; and presently you are afraid that he’ll notice that too, and put a wrong construction on it. You wish that your collar was not so clean, nor your clothes so new. Had you known you would meet him, you would have put on some old clothes for the occasion.
You are both embarrassed, but it is you who feel ashamed — you are almost afraid to look at him lest he’ll think you are looking at his shabbiness. You ask him in to have a drink, but he doesn’t respond so heartily as you wish, as he did in the old days; he doesn’t like drinking with anybody when he isn’t “fixed,” as he calls it — when he can’t shout.
It didn’t matter in the old days who held the money so long as there was plenty of “stuff” in the camp. You think of the days when Jack stuck to you through thick and thin. You would like to give him money now, but he is so proud; he always was; he makes you mad with his beastly pride. There wasn’t any pride of that sort on the track or in the camp in those days; but times have changed — your lives have drifted too widely apart — you have taken different tracks since then; and Jack, without intending to, makes you feel that it is so.
You have a drink, but it isn’t a success; it falls flat, as far as Jack is concerned; he won’t have another; he doesn’t “feel on,” and presently he escapes under plea of an engagement, and promises to see you again.
And you wish that the time was come when no one could have more or less to spend than another.
* * * *
P.S. — I met an old mate of that description once, and so successfully persuaded him out of his beastly pride that he borrowed two pounds off me till Monday. I never got it back since, and I want it badly at the present time. In future I’ll leave old mates with their pride unimpaired.
Henry Lawson, On the Track, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 108-117
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)
fixed = fixed for money, flush with funds, have an adequate amount of cash
johnny-cake = a cake or flatbread made using cornmeal, salt, and water or milk
sign the pledge = give a formal promise to not consume alcoholic drinks (also rendered as “take the pledge”); someone who has “signed the pledge” is known as a teetotaler
tommy-rot = nonsense, foolishness
wishy-washy = soft, weak; irresolute, not decisive, not willing to act; lacking strength and determination; not having a firm opinion on a subject
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
ain’t (are not)
’em’ll (them will)
gimme (give me)
mayn’t (may not)