In my youth I wanted to play the guitar and sing folk songs. I was not talented in either field. But I tried. My voice was weak and I could not carry a tune. I could never work out a new chord on the guitar by myself. I could never work out how to play a particular note or sequence of notes. I could only learn the basic chords by rote and even then I couldn't make them sound authentic. But in time I learnt the popular chords and got by. I was keen.
In the 60’s the National Bank had three branches in London. One was a normal Branch Office like any branch office in Australia but the other two dealt with transfers of money and had reasonably large staff numbers. Employees of the Bank could apply for a move to London just like any other branch. You had to pay your own way but once there you were paid in Australian Money. I thought that the Bank would be overwhelmed with requests, but in fact it was relatively easy to get there. It wasn't as if every staff member wanted to go to London for a year or two, only some wanted to go. A number of mostly males went and usually made life long friends whilst there.
I had an aquaintance who worked at the Bank who had done two stints in London. His name was Gordon and he had Scottish relatives in London. He was a sociable bloke who had made plenty of friends while there. In conversation I had asked what he was doing the next weekend and in passing he told me he was having a barbecue and he had invited some people he knew in London. He was having a small reunion of London friends at his house and there was going to be a singsong.
He had previously told me he was quite popular at parties in London because he could play country and western songs and could sing quite well.
I pricked up my ears and asked if I could bring my guitar and maybe learn something. He said yes. He might have felt sorry for me.
I had got to know him because I was a customer of the Bank and I knew he played the guitar. Even though I had not been to London I was keen to attend. I knew how pleasurable it could be to contribute music in a group.
The BBQ went off normally. There were the usual mixture of wives and kids. Steak and sausages. Hamburgers. After eating was over Gordon announced it was time to get the guitars out for a singsong. I was one of the first to get my guitar. But there was one bloke already assembled and sitting there with his guitar when I arrived with mine. He also had a mouth organ and was tuning up his mouth organ to his guitar. Or strictly speaking the other way around. I did the same. He was dressed in a suit and tie. After all he was a Banker. He had met Gordon in London several years earlier. He told me that he missed the camaraderie of London and had been looking forward to this day since he had heard it was going to happen. If I was keen then he was very keen. He was excited. He said how much he loved this type of thing. His face showed how pleasurable he felt. Slowly men came to the playing area until there were about six of us sitting there. All waiting with expectation for Gordon to come. Finally Gordon emerged from his house carrying his guitar and walked towards the group with guitars. Other people were standing or sitting gathered round waiting to sing.
However before Gordon could make the circle a woman who turned out to be my new friend's wife came towards us holding out both hands. She was holding up one hand as if to say stop. The other was held out as if she wanted something. She walked up to my keen friend, still holding out her hand and asked for his keys.
At this point he did something decidedly surprising. Shocking even. He simply broke down and cried. He expressed a low moan as if he was in great pain. He crumpled up into a foetal position and put his head down between his legs. He assumed the position you are told to do on planes when danger comes. He kept shaking his head while staring at the ground. He groaned a low moan - what do you want now – he cried - while still looking down and shaking his head from side to side. He looked totally defeated. He even put his hands over his head to hold it down between his legs. He seemed to be sobbing.
His wife was a bit taken aback – I want to put the children in the car so we can go home – she said. He didnt say anything but continued groaning and shaking his head between his knees for several seconds. She said – you dont have to come home – you can wait – someone else can bring you home. And she looked pointedly at me. He looked at her pleadingly and suddenly went silent. He didn't say another word. But he looked her straight in the face. He drew in a big breath.
He then stood up and without a word silently walked to his car carrying his guitar and his mouth organ. He did not say another word. She followed.
She was smiling in an embarrassed way - as if to say – I apologise – he is often like this. She followed him to the car her children trailing behind.
Some others smiled in sympathy. Women mostly.
I felt the mans pain. It was a seminal moment. I was one human being recognising another's pain. Misery even. I understood completely how he felt.
The next time I saw Gordon I asked if he had seen his friend again. Gordon simply said that his friend and his wife had separated and gave no other explanation. Gordon was a notoriously conservative Presbyterian when it came to social issues. I did not ask for more information.
But I had witnessed a definite tipping point.