I reckon these intros are gonna get shorter and shorter until they’re just: Here! Have at it!
Ben arrived in year two, but our friendship wasn’t immediate. Not that there was any animosity … Okay, there was some animosity. We did fight on opposite sides of the Great Cat and Dog War. We divided ourselves by allegiance to certain household pets (because year two) and fought over the out-of-bounds territory between hedges and a school fence. However many lunchtimes it lasted, and whatever injuries were sustained, I distinctly remember the looming threat of detentions inspiring the conflict’s swift resolution. It was like nothing my class had ever seen. Ben was the leader of the Cats and probably the instigator of the whole thing, if not the escalator.
We became friends towards the end of primary school, after a series of departures left me adrift without any friends. Ben was the guy who whispered jokes in assembly that cracked up everybody in his orbit, but I was never close enough to hear what was so funny. Until we were assigned to the same English group. The brightest kids were plucked from each class to be extended, challenged … Ben was in the back row, looking up sex in the thesaurus and losing it over slap and tickle. Notoriously well-behaved up until this point, I yearned to be the kind of kid who laughed about slap and tickle in a classroom. I wanted to be his friend.
I don’t know whether I sat beside him before somebody else could or if he was moved beside me in the hope that my studiousness would rub off on him, even though there isn’t a documented case in human history where the opposite hasn’t occurred. Whether it was my drive or an accident, what’s important is, we sat together I made an impression. We sat together again. And again. I had usurped his regular desk-mate. He wanted to sit next to me. And it felt amazing to be wanted.
I would say we became friends then. I’m not sure when he would say we became friends, if ever. He cultivated a certain precariousness in his friendships. People in his orbit were afraid of being cast aside at any moment. I wasn’t old enough to know it then, but with hindsight, it’s plain as day. When I made the transition from English group friend to lunchtime friend, the two others he regularly sat with were defensive. They would snipe, and often, dig the heels of their school shoes into my shins until they bled. For fun. I was so worried I would say or do anything to lose Ben’s favour, that I didn’t see they were worried too. They were keeping me at bay. I don’t know whether it was my daftness or Ben’s allure, but I endured the bleeding shins game until it stopped.
Our friendship continued into high school. Ben was a planet, we were his moons. He collected more. He dictated what we spoke about and for how long. He was a natural storyteller. He never stumbled or stammered, and there was no exhausting the stories he could share about the friends he hung out with outside of school. When he was absent, everything still revolved around him. We would end up talking about him. One lunch, somebody floated the idea that maybe those friends he hung out with outside of school didn’t exist. One of his stories was eerily similar to a recent TV plotline. We planned to confront him, and possibly negotiate a more equal group dynamic. He had taken to excommunicating people who annoyed him at this point.
I was the last to arrive at school the following morning. My greetings were ignored by everyone. I tried to insert myself into the conversation, and after a few failed attempts, I realised what had happened. They had confessed our discussions the previous day. They laid the blame solely at my feet. I was banished.
Ben let me back into the fold eventually. I don’t know whether I grovelled or if he got bored.
As his exploration of alcohol and other substances intensified, I was pushed to the fringes. I was the guy who wondered aloud if things were getting out of hand … Nobody likes that guy at the best of times, but given the precarious nature of Ben’s friendship, others worked hard to make sure he didn’t like that guy. There was one hanger-on who operated like pull-string doll – tug a limb and he’d say, “William doesn’t understand you.”
I was watching people dismiss a downward spiral as a Super Happy Fun Slide, because he was closer to them when he was inebriated. He had grown guarded, or perhaps, I’d grown to notice he was guarded. He only spoke candidly when he was under the influence. I mostly missed out on him in that state. Occasionally, he would change his instant messenger username from benji to bentji … I did wonder if it was performance, a way to make us believe he was wilder than he was.
The last time we spoke was online. It was the middle of the January before year eleven.
look, the only people ive ever told about my dirty secrets are people who like to drink! so the ritual has always been we do shots together and then i dish the dirt
but itll obviously have to be different with you, ok?
youre my good friend
as in my good friend who’s good
It was notable because after our most tumultuous year of friendship, he had admitted we were friends. Good friends. A short time later,
anyway, i have to go now
And he was gone.
The memoir project was written with generous support from Create NSW, City of Sydney and City of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this, you’ll probably like The Sidekicks.