Nine Years Later

It’s just past eight in the evening on 21 June 2013 and Benno May grumpily unpacks his suitcase. He returned that morning from one of his employer’s interminable business trips to Tokyo. It’s not that Benno dislikes Tokyo, although he does find it sterile and lacking in the graceful charm that practically oozes in much of Japan. Sixteen-hour-shifts in the company of co-workers who are in an increasing state of inebriation as the day wears on merely test Benno’s patience. Nor does Benno dislike his job, despite “compliance officer at the Australian division of a Japanese bank” not exactly topping the list of dream careers he composed as a ten-year-old schoolboy at his rural New South Wales school. What it lacks in excitement is compensated by a comfortable income and stable employment. Benno has always been the practical sort and being able to pay rent for his 735-square-foot flat on the upper storey of a federation house in the northern Sydney suburbs holds more charm for him than any youthful sense of adventure. He is especially fond of his balcony with its original wrought-iron balustrades

Benno’s somewhat tetchy mood isn’t the result of a ten-hour flight from Haneda or anything related to his job. His job is far too sensible to inspire more than lukewarm acceptance of the adult’s fate. Two weeks prior, just before leaving for Tokyo, he received an early morning telephone call from the joy of his youth and the bane of his existence, Arne Fält. Imagine it, if you will – the 28-year-old Benno is shirtless and wearing a pair of old linen shorts – undyed. He sleeps on his side, his mouth slightly agape. This scene of somnial bliss is shattered by the daemonic chiming of the other bane of his existence, his Samsung smartphone. “Benno, mate! So glad to talk to you”. “Arne, you bloody bastard”! Benno groggily interjects before checking his clock, “It’s 3:42 in the morning”. “Right, anyway, I’m moving back to Australia on the 22nd of this month”. “Bloody hell, when did this come about” he exclaims, sitting up with an unexpected burst of energy. “Oh, last month, I put in for an IT position in Sydney and they hired me” Arne responds chirpily. Benno gets up and briefly looks for an axe with which to beat sense into Arne’s thick head, or at very least split his skull open before realising that, Arne still being in Stockholm, this would not exactly be effective.  At this point Benno doesn’t know what irks him most, Arne’s timing or his nauseatingly chirpy tone.  “Where are you going to live”? Benno asks, suspicious that he will probably not be able to return to sleep. “Well, you have a bed, don’t you” Arne chimes.

Benno and Arne have known each other since they were both ten. Arne’s parents, veterinarians both, from Dalarna, decided to leave the bucolic tedium of provincial Sweden behind in exchange for the bucolic tedium, spiders and snakes of provincial New South Wales. Of all the places in the world they could choose; they chose the town of Canary – population 257 – in Cowrashire.  In a way, this strange turn of events endeared the disgustingly cheerful Arne to the slightly dour, taciturn Benno. After all, when he was six months old his mother, a haematologist, left Germany and her family behind. She argued that brown snakes and funnel web spiders were not nearly as deadly as her relatives. The limited experience Benno had with them convinced him that his mother was probably correct. He never knew his father, a Canadian student who read medicine with his mother. Apparently taking care of a child was too great a burden on him for a relationship of several months.

Their teacher, a stout middle-aged brunette named Ms Patterson who was destined to resemble Dame Edna sans the naturally violet hair in her retirement, noted the change in Benno’s demeanour since he was asked to sit with Arne. His became lighter, less sullen. “Joyful” might not be the correct word to describe him, post-Arne, but he was certainly happier. Arne, for his part, was naturally predisposed to good humour and meeting a friend on the first day did little to make his cheer more palatable. It was, as Ms Patterson was to recall some six years later, as if they were a couple before they knew it.

Benno looks at his watch: 8:27. He puts his empty suitcase in the box room alongside the brooms, mops, buckets, various cleaning supplies and vacuum cleaner. “Tomorrow, then” he says to himself quietly. He’s no longer quite as curmudgeonly. Benno closes the door and walks into his sitting room, half-collapsing on his small couch. Benno has always hated uncertainty – and he was without doubt trapped in that most vile of states. Nine years have passed since Arne left Australia, ten years since they were caught together in a compromising position among some gum trees a couple miles outside Canary. Benno couldn’t entirely fault Arne’s decision to return to Sweden, although he did find his remark “Australia, 20,000,000 people, 450,000,000 kangaroos” a tad flippant. After all, wasn’t Benno one of those 20,000,000 people? And didn’t kangaroos mean something? Still, underneath is optimistic mask, Benno knew better than anyone that Arne felt insecure and doubted his parents’ decision to leave. Arne’s was a fortunate childhood, a golden time from birth. He didn’t quite dislike Australia – far from it, he had become Australian in most ways, but something in him needed to be placated – questions had to be answered. The glowing embers of contempt that some of their ostensible mates showed them after their relationship had been turned into the topic of small-town intrigue merely gave this new impetus. Benno didn’t suffer from this. He had no half-remembered life elsewhere, merely a birth certificate in a foreign language and the legal right to claim a second passport – not that he had the desire to, his Australian sufficed.

And it had been more than four years since Benno and Arne had seen each other. After finishing their mandatory education, Benno and Arne followed different paths. Benno spent five years at the University of Sydney’s School of Business; Arne flew to Stockholm to read Information Technology at KTH.  Benno spent his holidays working internships, paid and otherwise. Frivolity was not in his nature. The quiet, diligent young man made a good impression on the management of Mizuho Bank. He was reliable, made few mistakes and learnt quickly. Most importantly, he asked only the most relevant questions and never more than once. The employers similarly took to him quickly. He never created more work for them and did what they asked him to do with no argument. At the same time, he seemingly lacked ambition and could be relied upon not to step on any toes or make anyone lose face by seeking to rise too quickly. When Saul Stonebridge, the former head of compliance at that particular branch chose to spend more time with his grandchildren, the automatic promotion of all others based on seniority meant that a new position would open up a few months after Benno was set to complete his studies. The management were chuffed. They could be spared the arduous task of sifting through the semi-literate rabble in order to find a candidate who might, potentially, not prove overly embarrassing. Benno was simply happy to not have to endure the tribulations of a job search. Arne did just as well. The charming young lad built a good name for himself in Stockholm and proved his mettle at London and Tel Aviv internships. They both made it in their way.

Benno telephoned Arne from Tokyo one night. The Japanese summer heat was murderous. In that sea of 38 million souls, in that jungle of concrete, glass and steel there was no respite in places not blessed with air conditioning.  Benno hadn’t been sensible and rejected Arne’s brash incursion. Time didn’t seem to matter – nor could Benno see much reason to try dating. The rhythms of his life fell into a comforting regularity. Each morning he woke up, showered, shaved, dressed correctly and walked to Roseville Station and took a Sydney Train across the Harbour Bridge to Wynyard Station. He invariably had a sensible lunch. If he didn’t bring it with him, he’d simply rush to the Vietnamese deli and order a banh mi. “Arne, you bloody bastard, why are you coming back to Australia”? Benno himself couldn’t entirely understand why. Arne was keen on leaving, even if that meant leaving Benno behind. “Because I have no life here” was his reply. Unable to resist, Benno twisted the knife a little. “So 23,000,000 people and 450,000,000 kangaroos are suddenly not so bad”? His snarky tone was intended to be the salt that the knife dragged into the wound. Arne hurt him. Even if he didn’t say it, Benno felt betrayed by Arne’s flippancy. Understanding the motivations of a departure and avoiding feelings of abandonment are two separate matters. There was a pause on the Swedish end of the conversation, a deafening silence only punctured after what seemed to be the intermission at the end of the first half of the second eternity by a sigh of resignation. “I was wrong, Benno. I was selfish. I am selfish. I don’t know what more to say. I only thought about myself then. No, you don’t need to say it. You don’t need to turn your words into weapons. I only thought about myself when I decided to return to NSW. It’s just…” Arne paused, the silence returned. Benno couldn’t take this. “You were right. I have room”.

After Benno completed his studies he had a few months, and his landlords were happy to continue collecting rent despite his absence. He decided to spend those months in Europe; forgoing the purgatorial family visits that comprised the so-called “European holidays” he had been on before. Arne sub-leased a tiny flat in Gamla Stan – Stockholm’s old town then. Benno was concerned. How would their reunion go? What could he expect of it? Over four years at passed since they saw each other. They still spoke regularly and exchanged hampers each Christmas, even sending each other small gifts on each other’s birthdays. Benno still had two Dalarna horses, hand-blown vases, Oscarian lithographs of Swedish cities and various small trinkets from various provinces. Benno could see the stuffed marsupials and pieces of Aboriginal art – authentic of course, he had sent Arne whenever they talked on Skype. When Benno saw Arne waiting for him at the arrivals hall at Arlanda, it was as if they had never been apart at all. Arne made time for him. They spent New Year’s in Stockholm, bundled up on Djurgårdsbron, to watch the fireworks. It was the coldest New Year’s Benno could remember. A Scandinavian winter night is notably cooler than that of an Australian summer. Arne called in a favour and took Benno to Norrland, to stay at a co-worker’s cabin in the woods – to see the Northern Lights in splendid isolation. Benno could never forget that – the unearthly sounds, the slightly sulphuric smell.  There was not a soul to see, but he had never felt less lonely – and had never felt so insignificant. Those months in Scandinavia became a blur. Returning to Australia felt almost a burden on him, a sense that Benno never imagined he was capable of having. And yet, it was there.

Benno was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness when his flight landed at Kingsford Smith. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months turned into years. Twice each year he went to Tokyo for two weeks. Sometimes, he went on holiday elsewhere in Japan. A few months after returning from Scandinavia, his mother left Canary for Perth with her new boyfriend, Bruce. Not that it really mattered all that much. Benno and Bruce could never stand each other’s presence and Bruce, as much as possible, made Benno’s visits as unpleasant as possible in order to discourage needless contact. After several increasingly tense visits, Benno’s mother decided that long weekends in Sydney would be preferable to seeing the two men in her life glowering in murderous silence; steadfastly refusing eye contact lest looks result in extended incarceration. Benno still went to Canary on occasion to visit Anna, the owner of the post office and only coffee shop in town. Anna was the type of person who had seen more than her share of disappointment and treachery. Anna was in equal measures mercy and moxie. When Benno and Arne were met with hard glances and the occasional jeer, she took them under her wings and nurtured them.

The infernal Samsung sings and vibrates. Benno grudgingly separates himself from his bed. This was a hardship. The clock reads 7:30 – there was time enough for breakfast, a shave and a shower. With luck, he could pop in at the corner coffee shop for a flat white to drink on the way to Mascot – across the Harbour Bridge. At the arrivals hall, Benno glances up – Arne’s Cathay Pacific connecting flight arrived on time. Benno haphazardly bins his now-empty coffee cup at the exact moment that Arne walks up to him, as if they had seen each other the day before.

 

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