It’s always daunting going back to Sydney to catch up with my mother. Partly because I came so unstuck in that town but also because our relationship was so hostile for years. We’ve always been close even though we don’t spend much time together. We care deeply for each other but we were never able to express it. Now she’s almost seventy and I’m in my thirties, we’re finally starting to enjoy each other’s company.
I have a love hate relationship with Sydney. It’s the place where I spent most of my twenties; an emotional minefield of self-discovery. It’s the place where I threw myself into subcultures and sharehouses, wiped myself out and almost never came back. I didn’t have much self-esteem back then. I didn’t have a clue what to do with my life – the future scared the shit out of me. Everyone I knew was busy playing the tortured soul or the social misfit. It was a time of soaring highs and abysmal lows – the freedom of youth punctuated with addiction, chronic anxiety and depression.
My mother spent years battling the grog. She got mixed up with blokes who put her down and kicked her round. She was kind and sensitive but it was hard to tell after all those years of alcoholism and domestic violence. I have few sober memories of my mother. She always had a drink in one hand and a smoke in the other, trembling like crazy, trying to calm down. She spent most of my childhood tucked away at home, drinking the days away, wishing life were different. She had very few friends aside from the odd drinking buddy and little contact with anyone else. Most of the time she was full of hostility for the world. When she drank she seemed possessed – her personality changed. I could hardly recognise her.
I knew she was a good person deep down; full of compassion, creativity, potential. She was highly intelligent, deeply thoughtful. She was a great writer with a vivid imagination. I thought she was beautiful – even when she was hungover and depressed. But the world trampled all over her and she never got back up.
We were close when I was a kid. I spent more time with her than anyone. I was a ‘mummy’s boy.’ We did the shopping together and went for long walks to fancy neighbourhoods with the kind of homes we could only dream of living in. We talked about running away but we never did. We spent most of the time stuck in the house. I wagged school and sat by her feet drawing pictures while she drank beer and sang along to the radio. She’d tell me things I probably shouldn’t have heard at that age, and rant and rave about the injustice of the world. Then she’d pass out in her chair like a rag doll.
We had shocking fights too. I ran off in the supermarket, and threw a mug of cold coffee at her. I called her every foul name under the sun and told her I hated her guts. She’d leave the house and tell me she was never coming back. She’d get on the phone and say she was calling welfare to take me away. It took me years to realise she was just pretending; there was no one on the other end of the line.
I only wanted the best for her. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to find a decent bloke with a good job and a nice home, someone who treated her right. I wanted her to get sober because I liked who she was in those rare moments when she had nothing to drink and all those lovely qualities came shining through.
We were quite estranged when I left home. There were often phone calls – angry calls late at night; one bizarre rant after another, sobs and senseless words, going over the past like a broken record. I listened patiently. I encouraged her. I tried to boost her self-esteem but nothing worked. I knew she was treading water but I didn’t have much energy left. I was too messed up with my own addictions by then – lost in my own little world.
Going back to Sydney is special in more ways than one. I was scared to return for a long time – scared of running into old faces, scared of old memories coming back to haunt me. I didn’t want to be reminded how messed up I was. But I had to make peace with the place – I had to make peace with her.
That town affected me like no other. It lifted me up and dumped me on my arse. It’s a beautiful place though. It feels so vast and vibrant and connected to the world. You can sit on a bus and soak up the languages of people from across the globe. I love the landscape; the harbour, the pristine beaches, the rolling hills. I love the dilapidated inner city terraces, the secret alleys my friends and I used to explore on sleepless nights. I love the street life. It can be sad and distressing but it’s gritty and real and colourful. I love spending time in Sydney – now I’m a different person.
Things are different with my mother as well. She’s a mature-aged woman. She is sober, she has found peace. We’re both more level-headed, optimistic, we’re both more ‘in the world’. We’ve let go of a lot of negativity and worked through the painful emotions that divided us. We’ve wiped the slate clean. We’re making up for lost time.
There’s a mutual trust, a respect. We’re friends, I guess. We meet for lunch, go for a ferry ride on the harbour or a stroll along the beach. After all those years cooped up with anxiety, we just wanna get out there and live.
It’s a relief to see we’re both in a good place; we’re both still on track. It feels like we’re connected, we can communicate, we finally ‘get each other’. That feeling is always there, even though we live a thousand miles apart.
On my last night in Sydney we did something neither of us had done before – we went to a show at the opera house. It was a balmy night and mum had spent the entire day shopping for a new outfit. She was full of beans, like a kid going to meet her favourite celebrity. She hopped off the bus at Circular Quay in a pair of sassy heels, shiny gold pants and a classy top. She was a little unsteady on her feet but she looked great – the best I’d ever seen.
It was a buzz for both of us – walking along the harbour past mobs of well-heeled theatre-goers, dressed up to the nines. It was a world away from what we once knew. We probably felt a little out of our depth, but we didn’t show it. We put our insecurities aside and joined a table of eight strangers in the audience. The show was a hoot – an all-male cabaret that rocked our world with song and dance, circus and acrobatics. We were both in stitches, clapping and cheering. The atmosphere was electric – guys in tight pants and tattoos, spinning hoola-hoops and dangling from ropes off the ceiling. It was crude, fun and fabulous. We were a little disappointed when it was over, but Mum was keen to pop outside for a smoke.
The harbour was more stunning than ever under the cover of darkness. The ferries glided silently into the dock, lights shimmered on the water’s surface. The harbour bridge was auspicious in the background. It was a beauty I’d hardly noticed when I lived there. We finished off the night at a fancy seafood restaurant. It started raining and we had to duck inside but it was refreshing after all the humidity.
We sat at the table laughing like two old friends reading over the menu, patting ourselves dry. We splashed out on meals that were over thirty bucks and a flute of classy champagne. The waiter forgot our side plates and napkins and the food was pretty ordinary – mostly rice and pasta with barely any prawns or calamari in sight. It didn’t dampen our spirits though. We were more than a hundred bucks out of pocket but we were still on top of the world.
James May is a widely published freelance and creative writer. His work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. He also has professional writing and editing experience in various community sectors such as mental health, drug and alcohol and HIV/AIDS.
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