Whenever I happened to hear the phrase ‘harbouring delusions’, a fleet of them would instantly make port inside my head. They were docked side by side and although the sky was clear, the wind was conspiring with the sea to toss them around like playthings. Amongst this teeming forest of vessels, a sloop bearing the name Law School in impressive gold lettering was taking on water. I braced for the shriek of splintering wood as Thinking I Had The Patience, Aged Five, To Become An Origami Master threatened to collide with a snub-nosed dinghy called Parental Infallibility. Meanwhile, Owning A House had loosed its moorings and was floating aimlessly across the harbour.
In this roiling catalogue of delusions, one vessel loomed larger than the rest. It was a magnificent craft, a schooner. Constructed from years of self-deception, buttressed by the finest arrogance and premium quality ignorance, she cost me a lot to make. There was something menacing about her, as if she had just made anchor after several marauding months at sea. She was alluring and she was devastating. Allusive and elusive. And however I positioned myself on the docks, I could never seem to make out her name.
I first met Lizzie at a going away party in a refurbished Queenslander in a leafy, quiet part of town. Well-tended gum trees lined the streets and, after a week of torrential rain, the clipped lawns had turned a brilliant shade of jungle green. Because of the rains, the temperature was cooler than usual for that part of summer— still hot, but not uncomfortably so.
Pleasantly tipsy on a Swedish strawberry-flavoured cider (that I overdid while in my teenage years and these days cannot even smell, let alone stomach, without gagging), I turned to the girl sitting next me and asked how she came to be there.
“Um. This is my going away party,” she said. Her tone was awkward but her eyes (greener than the clipped lawns) were twinkling.
“Oh my god, I am so-so-so sorry.” It was an overly-enthusiastic apology, made worse by my subsequent sheepish attempts at small talk. Taking her for a common-or-garden private school girl, I pulled out a volley of standard questions: Why was she going? Why Birmingham? Had she got all her things packed? It was only six months, right?
But Lizzie — like all the best people — simply did not do small talk.
Instead she hijacked the conversation, managing, by some strange witchcraft, to steer it off into a bizarre tangent. Inexplicably, I found myself laughing hysterically about ping pong shows in Phuket. The conversation became dirty, inappropriate, and utterly hilarious. I don’t know how long we talked but thoughts of fleeing to find my friends were soon abandoned. There is something uniquely thrilling about finding someone with a compatible sense of humour. I felt drunk, yet the bottle of Swedish cider was still sitting on the table, lukewarm and half-full.
A mutual friend pulled up a chair at our table.
“So you two have met? I can’t believe she’s leaving? Can you believe she’s leaving? I wish she wasn’t leaving. It’s such a shame.”
I remember agreeing, in between gasps of laughter, that it really was a shame that she was leaving. She was not the life of the party in the traditional sense, but there was something instantly likeable about Lizzie. Laughter coloured the spaces between every word she spoke. Each sentence was a private joke that I wanted to be a part of.
“Honestly, why are you going?” The question was sincere this time.
She paused, chewing this over. Then: “I just need to get away.”
And that, there, was my first warning.
I did not hear the full story until after she had returned from Birmingham and I had started seeking her out with an enthusiasm I could not seem to muster for anyone else. We were lying on her bed — fully clothed, not touching — when she told me about the girl. They had been at school together and were friends for years before Lizzie felt bold enough to reveal her feelings. There was a rejection, swift and mortifying. It was not long after this that she packed her things and took off for the UK.
“Sometimes women can give off mixed signals,” she looked at me, pointedly.
I was being tested.
“Yeah but sometimes people need time to figure this stuff out,” I chose my words carefully. “They’re not purposely misleading you; they’re just not ready.”
She did not respond to this. I was very aware of the warmth of her beside me. The silence stretched, tighter and tauter and my mouth was getting drier and drier and I was agonising over the small twist of my neck that would turn my face to hers. And just as I thought that maybe I would make that small twist, interrupt the in-out pattern of her breath, the excruciating silence was abruptly shattered: sudden laughter burst from her, like water breaching the banks of a creek. I let myself be swept up in it.
Our conversations would often end this way. We were like August beachgoers wetting our feet in a moment of mad bravery, then, reeling from the freezing shock of honesty, hastily retreating to the safe, sun-baked shore of the trivial.
Most Saturday nights we would make the pilgrimage to Heya Bar, a subterranean dive nestled in the heart of Brisbane’s clubbing district. Heya was a dimly-lit place that looked like a set from Blade Runner, if Blade Runner had been populated by hordes of former private schoolers. It was also the site of our most vicious, alcohol-fuelled row.
I remember letting a man put his coat around my shoulders, his hand on my leg.
I remember Lizzie making a loud comment.
I remember spilling out onto the pavement and rounding on each other.
I remember our friends watching.
And, most vividly, I remember the cottony wrongness of the lies that fell out of my mouth:
“I don’t see you like that.”
“We’re just friends.”
“You are delusional.”
I sucked this last, venomous word out of the wound of my own insecurities and spat it at her.
In the moment, and for a long time afterwards, I believed what I had said. I stopped seeking her out at parties, I muted her on social media and in conversations I demoted her to a “phase”. I kept my face blank when she looked at me with a polite smile that no longer reached all the way to her green eyes. I ignored the hollow feeling that started to gnaw at the pit of my stomach.
It was precarious, this scaffold of lies that I had erected. But it did not collapse on me until much later — after Lizzie had boarded a one-way flight to Melbourne.
She left for Melbourne as simply as she had left for Birmingham two years previously. She must have looked faintly comical, a small woman dragging a gargantuan suitcase, neatly packed with everything she owned, through the streets of that old, distinguished Victorian city (so unlike Brisbane where successive state governments had gutted the streets of trams and pulled down the pre-war shopfronts). But Lizzie was determined.
Within a month she had signed a lease for a terrace house in the heart of Brunswick. In a nod to its yellow facade, Lizzie christened her new home ‘The Banana Stand’. It was what a real estate agent would typically describe as a ‘character home’: slightly rundown with cracks in the walls and a bizarre rainbow-tiled feature wall in the bathroom. It had an outhouse instead of an indoor toilet, and during the biting Melbourne winters Lizzie would carefully monitor her liquid consumption to avoid freezing nocturnal loo breaks.
She loved it there. Inside this banana-yellow sanctuary, my lies could no longer find a purchase. She found a housemate. She started a new course. She got a job. She learned the intricate Melbourne tram system by rote. She stopped recharging her MyKi card and joined Melbourne’s vast criminal underbelly of tram fare evaders. She started shopping at a Mediterranean wholesaler, developing a taste for cured meats and cheap Italian wine. She discovered a snug corner bar a couple of streets over and made it her local. She found friends who adored her. She even started dating. She came to understand that of the two of us, the delusional one was me.
Lizzie was far ahead of me in this. It took an extra year of that gnawing hollow feeling, of not being able to look women in the eyes, of sifting through the myths I had told myself about who I was and who I could love, before I eventually reached the same conclusion. By which time I feared I was far too late.
My grandfather used to own a schooner named the Booya. She was a striking, three-masted creature that began life in a Dutch shipyard in 1917. She skirted between Europe’s ports for several years before a British company took her down to the Pacific. The tropics agreed with the Booya. Jobs shipping freight around the coast of Australia were punctuated by a glamorous turn as a radio communications vessel during the Second World War. By the time my grandfather got hold of her and converted her into a prawn trawler, the Booya was a certified grande dame of the high seas.
Christmas Eve, 1974 found the Booya floating in the warm waters of Fort Hill Wharf, Darwin. Thick clouds had rolled in over her masts, grey harbingers of an approaching cyclone. A radio broadcast had said the storm posed little threat to Darwin. A state away in the Port of Townsville, my grandfather’s office was a flurry of telegrams and ringing telephones. Known around the docks for his composure in a crisis, my grandfather was not a man prone to hysteria but something in the set of his jaw said he was anxious for the Booya and her crew.
Seafaring lore suggests that in the event of a cyclone vessels should try to find safe anchorage at sea. The captain decided the Booya’s best chance was to weather the storm rather than leave her exposed in the harbour. With four crew members and one guest aboard, they steered the ship towards open water sometime around 8pm.
This was the last anyone saw of the Booya for 29 years.
Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin and claimed 71 lives. Five of those souls were on board the Booya. Their deaths haunted my grandfather for years. They eventually found the wreckage; divers discovered the Booya slumbering in the depths of Darwin Harbour in 2003. But they never found the bodies.
I first heard this tale when I was very small. Even as a child, I was struck by the courage of the crew, by their reluctance to condemn the Booya to certain destruction. Better, they determined, to risk the wrath of Cyclone Tracy than to do nothing. Better to act than to spend forever wondering if that distinguished old dame might have made it.
I had not talked to Lizzie for almost a year when I finally decided to call her. It was a balmy Brisbane night, not unlike the one on which we had first met. As the phone rang, possibilities ran riot through my head. Did she hate me? Had she assembled a harem of interstate lovers in the intervening year? Would we still share a sense of humour?
There was a click and the dial tone gave way to her voice. Warm and confused and sardonic and guarded, the sound of her was more terrifying than I remembered or was prepared for. It was like a stinging slap in the face, to be terrified like that. I was so full of fear I no longer felt hollow.
So I angled my scared, solid self into the storm and I told Lizzie the truth: that I loved her.
I can name that elusive delusion now. She still has a berth in the harbour but she seems smaller these days, more subdued. All the menace has been exorcised from her, like a sail deflating in the wake of a squall.
She has been usurped by another, distinctly less metaphorical, lady. This one is certainly marauding, especially if she does not get to the Mediterranean wholesaler in time to purchase several hundred grams of sopressa before they close at 5pm. She has little sympathy for delusions and she keeps a weathered eye on mine. But she also has an immense capacity for forgiveness, a cargo hold full of it. She does not like being in a long-distance relationship but endures it fairly uncomplainingly. She calls me most nights. She tells me about the year we did not talk. And although I cannot see her face, each time she makes me laugh I can tell that her green eyes are twinkling.