LAST week, Brian's nieces came to visit me, women in
their late 30s, wanting to know about their uncle. Brian was gay and,
as a consequence, not much discussed in the family. And there were rumours
about the circumstances of his death.
I forget in which of Woody Allen's Manhattan movies it occurs, but the scene remains vivid. Woody leaves his oncologist's office so elated with the good news that he doesn't have cancer that he starts to caper down Fifth Avenue, rapturously embracing the life he'd expected to lose. Life is important to Woody, who tells us that although he accepts the fact of death, he doesn't want to be there when it happens.
Brian, a film-maker, had an Allen-style epiphany, ringing
me to say that he wasn't terminal after all. In fact, it wasn't even cancer.
You knew that as soon as he hung up he, too, would go dancing through
the streets of Melbourne.
Between the reprieve from cancer and the coronary, he'd reiterated his determination to sell his worldly goods and spend the rest of his life travelling. A few years earlier he'd asked me to sign up so that we could retrace the steps we'd taken over the decades. A year in India, another in Egypt, a couple in Italy and in Greece. But I was addicted to buzzing around the country like a Morteined blowie and declined the invitation. In a quiet moment, thinking about Brian's solitary wanderings, I said, ``Aren't you afraid of dying in a hospital in a foreign country?'' To which he replied, with characteristic wisdom: ``Every hospital is in a foreign country.'' And so he died in the foreign country of a famous Melbourne hospital, as familiar to both of us as the Shrine, Young & Jackson's and the Exhibition buildings.
Brian sometimes joked about kicking the bucket in Venice, finishing up on the cemetery island, close to famous expatriates such as Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Ezra Pound. ``I'm looking forward to impersonating Dirk Bogarde in Visconti's Death in Venice,'' he'd say, ``sitting on the beach at the Lido, gazing with impotent approval on youthful beauty.''
I've been thinking about Brian a lot since the visit of his nieces. I was 15 years old when we met and our friendship would last for 40 years. Oh, it got a bit rocky from time to time as we'd argue over everything from politics to Scrabble scores. But any doubts as to his central importance in my life disappeared when he did. His sudden departure was so profoundly shocking that, again and again, I'd forget that he was dead. Or I'd see him, larger than life. I was on air at the ABC one night when, looking up, I saw him on the other side of the glass wall, standing in the control room with my producers. He wasn't some fleeting, ghostly apparition but solid and substantial. For a long moment I was lost for words and, later, found it hard to explain the sudden silence.
Before his death, another friend, Nugget Coombs, told me how lonely it was to linger on. All of Nugget's contemporaries had gone to God. ``Fortunately their secretaries survive -- because they were all 20 years younger,'' Nugget would say, ``but to reach my age is a lonely, lonely business.''
To lose a friend of any age is a lonely business. Brian and I had gigabytes of shared memory, a vast database of experiences, misadventures, anecdotes. We'd made films together, fought together, travelled together, philosophised together. He'd become a member of my family, as much an uncle to my daughters as he was to the women who visited me last week. There were times when the friendship, like a marriage, seemed to have gone on too long, when it was running out of energy or relevance, but then it would come back, as strong as ever.
Like all old friends, Brian and I talked in shorthand. A word, a phrase, was code for this anecdote or that experience. With his death all that shared memory, the shared culture, the shared experience of time itself, evaporated. It's not only the present and the future you're denied by the death of a friend -- it's more the richness of the past. It's the loss of yesterday as much as the loss of tomorrow that constitutes grief.
Shortly before his death, Manning Clark told me he had a ``shy hope of an afterlife''. Brian had no such hope. To him, like me, death is death and you return to exactly the same state of nothingness as in the eternity before birth. Like me, he used life's brevity, he used his heightened sense of mortality to intensify his considerable delight in existence. So when that fuse blew in his chest, when the light in his skull went out, I, too, felt the darkness.
Brian no longer materialises in the control room and it's a long time since I last thought I glimpsed him in a crowd. Yet he has a strange habit of turning up in my dreams, where we pick up on the arguments we were having 10, 20, 30 years ago. I find myself saying to Patrice, ``Brian would have liked that.'' And sometimes it's Patrice who makes the observation -- she loved him too -- whether in response to a piece of prose or music. Or a sequence in a film.
My other lifelong friendship is with Barry Jones. As with Brian, we share almost too many memories and, as we get older, wonder which of us will be standing at the other's graveside mumbling words of valediction. Given Barry's energies and, it would seem, indomitable health, I expect he'll long outlive me. In fact, I'd forgive him the inevitable Schadenfreude when he hears the bad news about yours truly. But as Nugget discovered, and as I learned in relation to Brian, outliving friends is a mixed blessing.
A friend is someone with whom you may think aloud. As the 17th-century proverb puts it, there is no better looking glass than an old friend. So when that mirror in which you see yourself is broken, when you no longer have that person with whom you were able to think aloud, that death is your death.