The year I turned 23 I met a man through friends. A short man relative to my father but a man who impressed me with his sense of humour and his decision to leave the Catholic Church years earlier, much as I had done.
From our first meeting at a dinner party in Glen Waverly where a friend served pate as first course and this man advised her on what she might have done to improve the flavour – he knew about cooking – this man showed me the pleasure of smoking cigars.
Not that I smoked pipes, cigars or cigarettes, not then, not until I decided, modelling myself on him months later, that it was cool to smoke cigarettes and a good way to keep other cravings at bay.
In the first week of that meeting we spent every night together curled up in his bed in the front room of his Fermanagh Road share house in Camberwell. His three-level bookshelf housed several books familiar to me, mostly novels but tucked away in a corner was Kinsey’s report on the sexual habits of people.
This man knew things I did not know. He was smart, even though he had decided to ditch university and his law degree after only one year and was fast on his way to becoming what he called a ‘career public servant’. Not that he wanted to become the top public servant, Prime minister of Australia – politics troubled him – but he could well become a ministerial advisor to some dignitary and that way forge his career as a person whose advice was essential to others.
He mocked my choice of career. ‘Social workers,’ he told me on our first meeting, ‘are ‘mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others.’ I did not take offence. His was a stereotypical view but so well worded it made me laugh.
On the third day after we spent the night together, we decided yet again I should rock up at his place after work, only this time I promised to bring fish which he would cook for us and his three house mates.
I chose flake, as the only fish whose name I knew. He was unimpressed. There were so many preferable varieties to choose from, but we were fast falling in love and in those early days he would forgive me anything. And I him.
He needed help to unload the car, he told me, after I had unloaded my fish onto the kitchen bench. I followed him back out the front door and watched as he dragged out a pile of suits.
‘I won them,’ he said. ‘Five suits, five ties, five shirts and they threw in five pairs of socks to match. Only trouble I had to choose them then and there.’ Together we carried in the remaining loot. The man was colour blind and therefore relied on others to help with matching colours, fabrics, and tones.
I wished I’d been there to help him choose. ‘She did a good job,’ I said praising the efforts of the person who helped him collect his winnings, the young woman at the men’s clothes store where he chose the winning ticket.
‘I put my name into a barrel,’ he said ‘during my lunch break and they pulled it out that afternoon. They rang to let me know and I had to collect it straight away otherwise they’d reach for the next person.’ Within ten minutes my friend was the owner of five new suits, ties, shirts and socks. All in greens and browns and a few in grey and navy.
I’d have chosen differently but what the heck. I saw it as a sign. This man was lucky. And his luck reinforced months later after I moved with him to live in Canberra where he had taken up a new position seconded by the Commonwealth to work on the Queen’s Birthday honours list, encouraged me to stick by him.
On Cup Day Eve in Canberra, we went to one of his work functions and there he won one of several sweeps held in honour of the horse race. A platter of sausages and beef. The prize meant little to me and was something of a problem given we knew almost no one there with whom to share it, beyond his few work colleagues. We gave the meat to them.
We had a dry run luck-wise then for several years past our marriage and the birth of three daughters into the late 1980s while he continued to work for the Commonwealth Government, which he was soon to leave to finalise his career in law with a return to university.
As a final tribune to his public service colleagues, he won the annual football lottery they held each year. Each member in his team put in $100.00 and at the end of the season the person who guessed the most wins took the lot. Some two thousand dollars. It was his most significant win to date and proved once more that, despite all the ups and downs with this man, good fortune followed us wherever we went.
I say this in the material sense. Beyond the material, misfortunes have followed us, too, even as we made our way into a life of modicum success.
But the man who was thrice lucky never saw himself so. His aspirations rose higher than winning the football pools or horse racing triumphs at a local hall in Belconnen to some sense of greater wealth which has long evaded him.
‘We’ll wind up in a caravan park in Rosebud;’ he said. His greatest fear, much as I have promised repeatedly this will not happen.
No signs of this, and yet the long shadow of childhood poverty follows him wherever he goes, much as it follows me.
How fast we forget the essence of actual poverty. To think of the starving, those in war torn countries or the indigenous, is to take a path, sobering in its austerity, enough to stop us complaining.
How easy it is to bypass the luck of a life. When he was 21 this young man’s name was not drawn from the barrel of marbles used to decide who should go to Vietnam to fight. If it had he told me, he’d have become a conscientious objector and hidden from the authorities. But he was spared. This young man was lucky indeed. Not only five suits, shirts, ties and socks, but a reprieve from going to war.