Lies, truths and other mysteries

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. Someone must have been telling lies about me too, for without having done anything wrong I was, one fine morning, subjected to my own ordeal. Maybe not the bureaucratic nightmare suffered by Joseph K, the hero of Kafka's The Trial, but a perplexing and disturbing petit-bourgeois trial nonetheless.

This is a story that has to start at the end. Here is the end. One Sunday morning I was sitting in a cafe in Sydney with my wife, Wenona, and our two young children. It was the usual mismatch of hope and reality: the image of a relaxing breakfast frayed by children emptying sugar sachets, poking cutlery at each other, harassing other tables. I watched them like a mangy guard-dog, too old for this.

Wenona looked over my shoulder and dropped her eyes, flushing.

"He's here."

I didn't need to ask who.

"Is he with anyone?"

She nodded again and said in a small voice: "Some guy."

I took a breath. "Do you want to go and say hello?" It had been fully five years.

Wenona shook her head and tried to study the menu. One of our children dropped a knife. I snapped: "Pick it up and stop playing with them!"

But Wenona's morning was already spoilt. We ate tensely, paying an unnatural attention to the children. Between us there was an evasion broken only by my occasional questioning look. Is he still here? She would lower her eyes damply.

Presently she said: "He's leaving."

"He's at the counter?"

"He's paying."

"Go on," I said. "Just say hello."

After five years, how hard could it be? Trusting me, Wenona got up from our table. I tended to the children, not daring to watch her.

She was back in seconds.

"That was the most horrible ..."

When Wenona cries, it is not a matter of liquid springing from glands. Her entire face crumples, her whole spirit weeps. It is awful. Some people have an infectious smile, an infectious laugh. Wenona has an infectious cry.

"What?" My vision blurring, I held her hand.

She shook her head.

"Just tell me what happened."

"I went up and said, ‘Hi'. He just looked away. I said, ‘It's nice to see you again.' He just ... grunted, ‘Sure.' And I came back. It was horrible."


IT'S NOT OFTEN I GET STIRRED by the chivalrous instinct, if such instinct exists. But I was fed up. Five years of silent accusation, now this.

Tom was outside the cafe with his friend, suiting up to get on to his motor scooter. Ten or fifteen people were milling for a table. Behind the glass, another sixty-odd provided our audience.

"Tom – what the fuck is wrong with you?"

I don't remember everything I said, verbatim, in the ten-minute conversation that followed, but I remember the first words: "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

And I remember his reply: "Five years ago you humiliated me at that dinner."

I asked him what on earth he was talking about. He said he didn't want to talk to me. I said he'd just left Wenona in tears. He said he didn't want to talk to me. I said she'd written to him, she'd phoned him, she'd visited his house, and he'd never offered any explanation. He said he didn't want to talk to me. I said he'd just left her in tears. He said he didn't want to talk to me. I said she'd done nothing but try to repair the friendship – apologise for whatever it was – so why was he being so hostile? He said he didn't want to talk to me.

Passive aggression is a wonderful tactic when you think about it. Tom was withdrawing into himself like a snail into his shell, saying he didn't want to talk to me. I, rising to the bait, grew hotter and hotter. To all the people watching us – bleary-eyed, wanting nothing more than a nice Sunday morning – I could sense that I was the one who appeared unhinged.

I kept saying that Wenona had offered him friendship, only friendship, and so had I. And he'd pissed all over it without giving us any reason. Summary judgement by hiding.

"I don't need to give you a reason," he said, drawn out at last by my repetition. "You are awful people. I've seen the way you treat people. You two are just awful people."

He said it with such wet-eyed conviction – awful, his brow creasing on the first syllable – that I had to pause. Awful? The way we treat people?

A stand-off in front of a cafe on a Sunday morning in front of a lot of people: our jury.

"What on earth are you talking about, Tom?"

"I don't want to talk to you."

"No, no, you tell me what you mean. Whatever we did, we only wanted you to give us a chance to say sorry."

Did I walk towards him? A belligerent prod in the chest? I suppose if this was a movie, and things had to be absolutely manifest, that is what I would have done: backed him into his motor scooter. But I'm sure we stood still, me trying to dig back to the human contact that had pre-dated this unalloyed hatred. No other word for it. Hatred.

"You're just awful people," he said.

"What the hell are you talking about?" I gasped. I felt I was sounding guilty in the eyes of the pretending-not-to-be-transfixed tribunal of breakfasters.

Tom circled around his motor scooter, helmet in hand. He wasn't going to burn off in a blaze of exhaust. Perhaps he wasn't in a fit state to ride. Instead, he and his friend were going to go for a walk together, talk it through. "You beat up teenagers," he said, a touch melodramatic in the delivery. "Oh yes, you showed your true colours that day."

I couldn't help it: I laughed.

Aha – this was all a joke and now he was giving the punchline. He was pulling my leg, surely? Beating up teenagers? He was there. He had been there.

As he backed away, crossing the road with his friend, there was a malevolent victory in his eye. He'd landed the killer blow. My true colours. Left me spluttering incredulously on the pavement.

I went back into the cafe. Wenona had already paid. We went home.


LIFE IS FULL OF ACTS THAT EARN THEIR MEANING LATER, when their consequences come out from hiding. Yet this nasty unmeant fallout – even if irrational, unpredictable, mercurial – rested on a known trigger. We knew what the initial act was. We never knew what the consequences would be, but we knew what we did.

In our story, the logic is reversed. The consequences, all unintended, were crystal clear: the vitriolic end to a cherished friendship. But what was the act? What had we done? What the hell had we done?

Onwards, backwards. Five years earlier, after the fateful dinner, Wenona went into a desperate paranoid spin. First, he would-n't return her calls. She persisted, making excuses for him. He must have gone away. He must be sick. Was he having some kind of episode? His phone might not be working. When it became obvious that he was deciding not to speak to her, she emailed him and wrote him letters: old-fashioned ones, real pen on paper, sent through the post office. When that failed – no response, nothing – she travelled further back in technological time and paid him a visit. She returned in tears: he'd hidden in his house when she knocked.

She contacted his mother and asked her to intercede. Tom's mother disclosed, in an off-hand way, that Tom felt we had wronged him. We couldn't take it seriously. Whatever it was, it couldn't have been enough for an absolute excision of two friends. Could it?

It was a time for revision, for reading signs. What were we to Tom? Were we as good friends as we'd believed? He was Wenona's friend first, then mine too. She and he had met through work, and grown close during a project lasting several months. When I was hospitalised for open-heart surgery, Tom was a great friend and counsel to Wenona, and I was grateful for his kindness. The three of us had dinners at each other's houses, and he and Wenona had much in common – cooking, their work, gardening, films; in some ways he complemented me, filling in some of the gaps in her life that I couldn't. As friends do.

He came with us on holidays to France. We met in Paris, drove south through the Loire to the Dordogne and shared a farmhouse for two weeks. We went kayaking and ate cheese and duck, took drives and drank wine. It was an extremely happy time for all of us, or so it seemed, because later we felt that we must have missed some clue.

Two footnotes to that French holiday cropped up later. One was that Wenona had just fallen pregnant. But we didn't know it at the time, and nor obviously did Tom, so its meaning – if it had any – remained unclear. The other was that when we returned to Australia, Tom apologised to Wenona for "having been so grumpy all holiday". Grumpy? We'd never noticed. There was no need for him to apologise.


FALLINGS-OUT BETWEEN FRIENDS, OU WOULD THINK, need the toxicity that only strong emotion can supply. But there had never been a sign of the romantic toxin – or not one that was anywhere near avowal or dangerous fluorescence. Perhaps their friendship might have taken that trajectory, given time. But we interrogated the past tirelessly, from every angle, and unless we had been completely blind (which is, of course, self-evidently possible), unless romance was written in some deep, deep code that only Tom could decipher (also possible), disappointed love had not been the cause of the breach.

He had to be taken at face value: the humiliation, the dinner party.

It was January 2002. Wenona and Tom had been talking about his singledom and what they'd do to fix it. It was always lighthearted: we had the sense that Tom did all right with women, and wasn't desperate. But he was open to offers, and I had a single friend, Catherine, who we wanted to invite. With another couple, a dinner for six was arranged. Tom and Wenona were quite excited about it and discussed menus, wines and so on. Then, the day of the dinner party, Tom asked that Catherine not be seated to his left.

"Why's that?" Wenona said.

"Because of my eye."

"Your eye?"

"My bad eye."

Having known Tom for two years, and spent countless hours with him without having noticed any "bad eye", Wenona thought he was joking. Later, anguished, she wondered whether she'd laughed in disbelief. What bad eye? Tom loved to joke, and perhaps he was alluding to the doctor in Murder at Moorstone Manor in the Michael Palin series Ripping Yarns, who blames his romantic failures on "this dashed false lip". Of course, the joke is that there's no false lip – it's all in his head.

But Tom wasn't joking. He explained to Wenona that he couldn't move his eye, due to an injury, and didn't want his blind date to be sitting on his blind side. Fine. He'd sit across the table from her.

The dinner party did not go well. Catherine, a vivacious, intelligent and winsome woman, showed more than polite interest in Tom, but he replied with awkward monosyllables. Rebuffing her efforts, he looked as if he wished he were anywhere else. At the end of the night, hoping something could be salvaged, I suggested that Tom drive her home. He did. The next day when he spoke with Wenona on the phone, he said when he'd dropped Catherine off he'd nearly run over her. A disastrous end to a disastrous night, they agreed, ironically hyperbolic. A blind date that didn't work out? A few moments' awkwardness? Something had been wrong – he wasn't himself – but this was a disaster in a tea cup, surely?

Wenona never heard from Tom again. He didn't speak to either of us for five years.


WHEN, FIVE YEARS LATER, HE CALLED US awful people who treated others badly, it was the plural that outraged me. Do I treat others badly? I can get to that. But Wenona had done nothing to him. Nothing but offer wholehearted, loving friendship. She has always been an acutely sensitive and generous friend – and particularly to Tom, whose confidences she valued highly. In good faith, with his eager acquiescence, she'd set him up with someone and it hadn't worked out. So what? She hadn't noticed his "bad eye". So what? She might even have let out a momentary spurt of disbelieving laughter when he first mentioned it, but that was only her embarrassment at not having registered. She'd never mock him for something like that – something so inconsequential. If she had, unwittingly, she would have been lightning-quick to apologise. Tom was thirty-six years old. Could an injured eye blot out an entire friendship?

She'd done nothing. As for me – that was another question. Am I a bad person? Do I treat people horribly? Tom's vehemence threw me into an introspective trough. Am I bad? Tom believed it. And I, for all the time we were friends, trusted his judgement. So either Tom is right and I am bad, or Tom is wrong and I was always wrong about him.

Aside from the usual collateral damage of my profession – journalism, like heavy industry, produces some nasty by-products – I couldn't think of much. There would be people who hate me for what I've written. I've received threats. As a journalist, you make enemies even when you are only doing your job. Often you don't even know who they are. Sometimes you aggravate wounds through carelessness. I'm guilty of all of that.

Likewise, as a novelist I have flapped fictitious butterfly wings that ended up giving real people – including myself – a bad case of flu. The only other falling-out with a friend I can think of was when Phillip stopped speaking to me after my first novel was published because he believed (mistakenly) that I'd based a character on him. Another friend, on whom I had based a character, suffered terrible interrogations from his family who believed everything they read. I am not proud of this, and wish it were otherwise. But is it terrible treatment of people?


AFTER TOM'S ACCUSATION, I WENT BACK OVER my moral life – a day of judgement, in its way. And quite honestly, aside from cowardly dumping my first serious girlfriend, the worst thing I've done was in Year Eight when, as part of a group persecuting (for no good reason) a boy called Andrew Blamey on a school camp, I went to his bunk bed, poured a glass of water on to the bottom sheet, and called everyone's attention to it. "Blamey's wet his bed!" When he went into the hut, into an ambush of cruel hilarity, I stayed outside on the veranda, savouring my little victory. There were steps behind me. Before I could turn, Blamey took a swing into the back of my jaw and loosened a tooth. I deserved no less. I deserved more. But if I die today, I will swear before the unspooling film of my life that I've treated no one worse than I treated him that day.

But I have inherited what might be called a Presbyterian tendency to self-interrogation, and I took Tom's accusation to heart. Perhaps I am an awful person through sheer insensitivity. Perhaps my inability to see how awful I am is itself the clearest evidence of my culpability.

And, as he said, I beat up teenagers. Tom wasn't referring to Andrew.

My true colours? Here they are.

Soon after we came back from France, Tom, Wenona and I went to a Sydney Swans match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It must have been August 2001. AFL was another passion Tom and Wenona shared.

Wenona was pregnant, and Tom was thrilled – already taking on the prospective godfatherly role. We sat on the Hill, and the Swans crashed. Every time the three of us went to a Swans game, I think, they lost. On the seats directly in front of us were four teenage boys, about sixteen or seventeen. They wore board shorts and were bare-chested, their torsos painted red and white. They wore Swans flags wrapped around their heads.

They were only a little worse than the typical obnoxious underage drinker. They stood on their seats, blocking us, and shouted abuse at players and other fans. To a bearded man they yelled out: "Hey, Jesus!" To old people they shouted abuse about wheelchairs. In conversation with each other, they shared gleeful ridicule of some unfortunate so-and-so they'd embarrassed at a party.

In short, they were about as repulsive as myself at the age when I picked on Andrew Blamey. Whenever I see revolting teenage boys, I remember a shameful side of myself I am relieved to have left behind.

Something else came into play. Later, a friend told me that this is what comes over young men when they first have children, or during a first pregnancy. They become wildly over-protective. Wenona was getting sick of these guys and their obnoxious behaviour, and said something. The one in front of me turned around and sneered at her.

I sat, not so much enraged as wondering what would happen if I punched him. Would it shut him up? What if I took a swing like Andrew Blamey took at me, and dislodged a back tooth? What would it feel like? It was twenty years since I'd been in a fistfight. What did that feel like again?

Coolly detached, I tried to "pre-live" what I was about to do. I wasn't burning, I didn't lose my temper, but a moment arrived when I could see no reason not to give it an exploratory test. My act was entirely and literally premeditated.

After the boys had shouted more expletive garbage at another fan, I leaned forward and put the one in front of me in a headlock. It lasted all of five, maybe eight seconds. I growled something like, "Shut the fuck up." As he pulled away, one of my fingernails scratched on his neck.

It all happened very quickly. The first to react was the boy. Rather than flare up at me, he whimpered: "I'm only seventeen and you're a man! Why don't you go and pick on that baby over there!"

"Shut up and watch the game," I said.

We moved somewhere else. I told a policeman what I'd done, said we were moving, and asked him to speak to the boys. As we found our new places, I began to sense Wenona's shock. She wasn't angry with me. She was giggling in a stunned kind of way: "What came over you? I've never seen you do anything like that before!"

I couldn't quite believe it myself. If there was some awkwardness between Wenona and me, it was Tom who defused it. He laughed it off, saying if I hadn't done something, he would have. He said he'd been on the point of losing his temper lots of times. He lightened the mood. He made a joke of it. These things happen. Put it down to hormones. While Wenona and I were both in a bemused kind of daze, Tom was the one who made us laugh about it.

These are my true colours, how I beat up teenagers.


WENONA AND I HAVE DEVOTED TOO MANY HOURS to speculating on why Tom cut us out of his life. She went through anger, grief, denial, the whole palette of emotions, and finally gave up on him. I was the optimist, the normaliser. I always thought we'd meet him in the street somewhere, patch it up and become friends again. Never mention it. Let sleeping dogs lie. Wenona found it hard to forgive; I was willing to bury it, whatever it is, and get our friendship back on track.

But now I see it's not in our hands. For five years, Tom boiled with hatred for us – terrible people who betrayed and humiliated him. Time has not diluted his fury, but concentrated it into bile, too bitter for him to put into words.

Kafka's The Trial is open to many interpretations. Like all great art, it has as many different subjects as it has readers.

For me, now, The Trial is about life's open-endedness. Joseph K never finds out what he has done. As the story goes on, his inquiry peters out, is overtaken by the business of survival. What has he done? It becomes irrelevant because it is insoluble. Life has its mysteries. Some problems are akin to tracking from the edge of a circle to its centre: there is a known destination. Others, however, are more like leaving the centre to find the circumference. There are infinite endpoints, all the way around the rim of possibility, and we have to live wherever we land. We can't waste our lives wondering about every other place.

This is how I feel about Tom now. We may have to reconcile ourselves, permanently and regretfully: we don't know, and won't ever know, what we did. Our task is to find a way to fit this open question inside us. Even with the irritation of a question-mark sitting in our stomachs – a hook and a dot, like a foreign body – we go on.

I hope Tom can too.  ♦

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