The photo arrived with that ‘ding’ peculiar to Facebook Messenger. At 8 o’clock on a Friday night the sound announced, amongst other things, that I am now of a ‘certain age’ whereby pictures of me, and my contemporaries, turn up in archives. Or at least in the bottom drawer of abandoned desks.
A colleague had been cleaning up at the ABC’s Mt Gambier office when he found the photo, snapped 25 years ago, at some long-forgotten function. He said he thought I might like to see it, though I suspect there was an element of schadenfreude to it all. The picture proves, beyond doubt, there’s no Dorian Grey-like enchanted portrait growing old and gnarly in my attic. Time has clearly had its way with me, as it does us all.
Still the glass is always half full. I feel the image bears a vague resemblance to a (vastly) less hot version of Mark Wahlberg. My cousin, Caroline, who features later in this story, has a much more unromantic cast of mind. “Nah”, she said, “ I’m getting an awful Curiosity Show vibe out of it… it’s that hideous goatee!” Ouch.
All photos have a story, even if it is just the inevitable tale of lost youth and bad facial hair. But in this case, there’s much more to see than a much younger me.
I see a story of love, and of loss, and of the chance encounters that intertwine our lives unexpectedly with those of others.
While I have absolutely no recollection of the photo, the road trip down to Mt Gambier all those years ago is one of my clearest memories.
There were three of us in the car that day – Sarah Martinelli, John Thompson Mills and me. Working for the national broadcaster was still new and exciting to us. None of us had turned 30 yet and so, naturally, there wasn’t much we didn’t know.
I knew that boy. We had buried him. He was ours.
I remember Sarah and John squabbling over who was going to sit where, culminating in one trying to hip and shoulder the other out of the front seat. The reward was an almighty crack across the back of the head. I remember the noise it made. I expect so can John. It was his head. I remember us laughing most of the journey until, apparently, we ran over a magpie. Thankfully I don’t remember that.
Sarah was one of the bravest people I’ve met. She fought illness every day, not with some Jane Austenesque “quiet dignity”, but with raucous, squawking, rude humour. I see her in the photo.
The Mt Gambier trip also has memories of, and for, other ABC colleagues – a young journalist named Chris McLoughlin. It was the first time he and Sarah met. Years later they would marry – Chris’s quiet, unflappable nature the perfect foil to Sarah’s altogether less quiet one.
It was the first time Chris and I met too, though I was never in the running for the future wife stakes. The heart wants what it wants, I guess.
As we talked, I was happily surprised to find Chris knew of Sanderston, a flyspeck of place on the edge of the eastern Mt Lofty Ranges. It’s where my family is from.
Then I found out why Chris knew of Sanderston. He told me he’d recently visited the grave of a young friend who’d been killed a few months beforehand. The pair worked together at the grungy old Green Dragon Hotel on South Terrace.
I knew that boy. We had buried him. He was ours. A few days before Christmas, 1992, my cousin, Adam, had set off with a couple of mates for a bike ride in the Adelaide Hills. It started out sunny, but as they came down Greenhill road it rained, and Adam’s pushbike slipped into the path of a car coming up the hill. I still remember thinking, when I heard the news, that it couldn’t be true because that sort of thing happened to other families – not to lucky us.
For some reason Adam’s death brought with it a whole series of strange coincidences. I’m reminded of them when I look at the photo.
Both Ads and his sister, Caroline, were adopted. In Adam’s case it’s a common tale of the early 70s. His birth mother was unmarried, teenaged, and catholic. Even 50 years later there’s no mistaking the heat of shame radiated by those words, generated not by the individual facts, but by the attitudes of the time. The baby was put up for adoption, which is how Adam, with his big blue eyes and curls, came to be in a family largely unburdened by such beauty.
We got to spend all his life with him. Around the time Adam died his birth mother made contact. She wanted to be a part of him too. My aunt told me all of this – the woman’s name, the circumstances, and that she lived around Port Pirie where I was then working.
Early in the new year, as we began to put that sad Christmas behind us, I was driving with another ABC colleague – off to the main street to get some lunch. She didn’t notice the people waving in a car that went past us.
“Those people just waved and smiled at you” I said.
“What sort of car was it”, she asked.
When I told her she replied, “oh that’s ……”
It was the woman who’d given birth to Adam.
Even now, all these years later, when I think of that moment I can’t quite shake the feeling of being some shabby voyeur. This complete stranger just innocently drove by, yet I barged in knowing her most personal story – and the sadness and regret that was about to come to her.
It’s odd how these chance encounters and fleeting moments strike so deeply into our memories. Perhaps it’s because we expect them to be ephemeral, only to find they are nothing of the sort.
All of this is packed tight into a snapshot, taken long ago, of a smooth-skinned kid.
I’m always a little in awe when a simple photo carries such a heavy load. I’m not sure how they do it, but somehow, they do.
Simon Royal is a journalist with the ABC in Adelaide.