“The world was on fire, no one could save me but you– Chris Isaak
It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do
I’d never dreamed that I’d love somebody like you
And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you.”
When Alison left me I was gutted. To say that I wasn’t expecting to be dropped when I called her on Christmas Day 1997 would be an understatement. Of all the things that she could have said to me that day, “we are breaking up” was the last thing that I ever expected to hear from her. Only a week earlier she had handed me a letter, as would happen often, – the mail sometimes not fast enough to beat our travelling back and forth to see each other – saying:
I couldn’t have imagined a better ending to my year than being with you than if I had written it myself. You are the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life. Now stop reading, put down this letter and fuck me as hard as you ever have!”
Alison’s change of heart was so unexpected I felt as though I had been hit by a train. I sat there holding that phone, in the midst of my family Christmas, seeing my life ending in front of me. I simply couldn’t process what I was hearing. And while her explanation of why she was inexplicably breaking up with me may have made sense to her, it truly broke my heart in every possible way.
In my mind, every appeal to logic and love should have been enough to convince her that this was simply unnecessary and so very wrong. We loved each other, were were so happy, we were meant to be together. I was prepared to give up everything to be with her. How could she not see that? What had happened? What had I done that you could become so cold so fast?
I didn’t sleep that night or for many days after. Running through endless arguments in my head in hope that I could convince her to change her mind. But all I kept hearing in response were the words she said again and again that day, “I’ve made this decision.” They would be the last words I heard from Alison for the next 25 years. If she had just called once in that time telling me to come back I would have dropped everything I was doing, run to the airport, and gone straight to her.
“I’ll be there in 24 hours.” But the call never came.
What made the loss even more crushing was that, after months of harassing everyone that I could think of for a transfer to Sydney so that I could be with Alison, it was finally granted just a few weeks later. I would now be living a fifteen-minute drive from her flat and not our current three hours. We could have spent every night together for the next three years. She could have moved out of her flat and lived with me rent free!
But the suddenness of the breakup caused me to wonder what she hadn’t said. I wanted her to be telling me the truth about her career goals and how she didn’t want me “waiting for her”, but I was terrified that she was using that as a smoke screen for some other reason. If I tested the waters and let her know I was close and told her that I still loved her, and she rejected me again then I think that I would have been done. I didn’t have drink or drugs to turn to – that was never me – I just had pain.
And thus begun a very dark period for me. I wanted to be able to walk up to Alison’s door and surprise her with my news, hoping that we would be reunited, but I couldn’t be the one to make the first move. Rejection at that point or worse, seeing her in the company of another man, was my constant nightmare. I didn’t want to turn over that rock and find something that would, more or less, kill me.
So I didn’t. I moved to Rose Bay in Sydney, just over the hill from Alison’s flat, and avoided Randwick for the next two years. I didn’t even go to the Sydney Cricket Ground – the scene of or first date – to see my team play, for fear that I might bump into her and be accused of stalking.
The one lucky break I did have was that when I left Canberra my army reserve posting wasn’t automatically transferred to Brigade HQ in Randwick, the closest unit, where Alison also paraded. No, for my sins, I was sent back to Bardia Barracks in southern Sydney to earn my Captaincy. When it rains it pours.
I say “sent back” with good reason. Since the first day of my army life I’d been returning to Bardia with increasing frequency and less excitement for training and misery. In the late 90s there weren’t too many more clapped out facilities in the army inventory than Ingleburn’s Bardia Barracks and Heraklion Lines, just across the road. I know that people rightly complain about some of the 3rd world faculties at Singleton and such places but those particular areas were only meant as glorified camp grounds for reserve units coming from and going to the field. Ingleburn was meant to be a barracks.
The problem with Ingleburn, on the whole, was that it had been built in the 1940s as the army ramped up its recruitment for the Second World War and nothing had changed since. The entire place was falling apart and barely functional. I suspect that the only reason that the reserve put up with being given the place was a) it was close to Sydney and b) no regular army soldier would be seen dead in the place.
I rag on the regulars, not as part of any healthy rivalry, but to point out that fact that they despised the reserve and made no secret of it. And the lower they were in rank the more they hated us.
I not trying to intimate that the reserve came anywhere near the regulars in terms of professionalism, fitness or discipline but the history of the Australia Army clearly showed that in times of war it was conscripted civilians and the reserve who answered the call and paid the ultimate sacrifice. Which meant that the regular army wasn’t that special as, in reality, anyone could be a soldier. All the regulars had over us was that soldiering was their ONLY profession. A high school drop out working full time at McDonalds would always be better at flipping burgers than the weekend shift,
But the main problem for me in being sent to Bardia again was that this would be the third year out of the last six that I had had to spend all my time in that dump. I believe that the Government sold the land, a few years ago, and made a pile of money in the over inflated Australian property market. Perhaps that is what they had been holding out for all those long decades and why they put so little money into maintain that place. They knew that the whole place was going to bulldozed into the ground one day.
The one saving grace this time around was now I was an officer, not a cadet. Which meant that, despite my low rank, I was now considered one of them and at least better than most of the army. People had to salute me, say yes sir and, most importantly, leave me alone. All I had to do was turn up to training and not fall asleep and I was treated like a human being. I was so glad not to be a “other rank” anymore.
Captain’s training mostly consisted of repeating all of the things we’d done on Lieutenant’s training five years earlier over and over again. Mostly administration, military law and endless TEWTs. A TEWT is a Tactical Exercise Without Troops. Imagine being dragged out to some windswept hillside in the worst weather an Australian summer or winter can through at you, without shelter, and having to think about how to defend that hill from some imaginary enemy coming toward you or attack the same imaginary enemy on the next hill every second weekend for an entire year. That was weekends for most of 1998.
If there was any redeeming feature of that twelve months at Bardia it was the mess life. As much as I rag on Ingleburn’s crumbling facilities – and they were literally crumbling – there was always cheap beer to be had at the end of each day. And I mean, very cheap beer and at the end of every day. You were not expected to drink yourself into oblivion every night – we weren’t in navy – but having a few beers at the end of each day definitely took the edge off and those that did bonded closer than those that didn’t. During that course I made good friends in Colin Chadbolt – one of my friend Tom Sommer’s mates from Armor Corp – and Dave Handley – if that was his real name. I only question his bona fides because late one drunken evening Dave let us know that he worked for one of Australia’s rather underwhelming intelligence agencies. I didn’t have cause to doubt him – he seemed legit – and our friendship saved my hide more than once over the next twenty years.
So it was with much relief that I finally passed Captain’s school at the end of ’98 and prayed that they would never send be back to Bardia Barracks again. I never did go back there because the last twelve months had taken their toll on me and I was sick of my life, which included the army. So without a second thought, I collected my promotion and my pay and promptly resigned my commission.
I had made Captain, no one could take that away from me.