Ben.

This is the story about a friend of mine I have known intermittently since childhood. We went to the same high school and played in the same weekend, rugby league team when we were 15 years old. But we were never what you would call really close friends. Sometimes coincidentally and sometimes by design, we would cross each other’s paths every few years, at which points in time we would compare notes and bring each other up to scratch about our lives. Until the last few years, Ben would spring a surprise phone call on me every year or so. At the beginning of these calls, he would put on a dreadfully bad, foreign accent and pretend to be someone else. I never failed to recognise instantly that it was him.
Ben and I played for the same, local football team on Saturdays for two years straight – the Wentworthville Magpies. I was faster and more agile than Ben, whereas he was a little taller than myself albeit with a much heavier build. I was the captain and halfback of the team, while Ben was in the scrum. I got the glory and he got hard graft. Both of us loved Rugby League and had ambitions of playing at the highest levels. We dreamed of playing first grade for the Parramatta Eels. We both enjoyed playing this sport and the camaraderie that went along with it. I remember the end-of-season trip to Nelson Bay that our team went on, ostensibly chaperoned by our coach and manager. The end-of-season trips of Rugby League football teams are notorious for bad behaviour. We were underage, but spent almost all that long weekend in pubs, drinking beer nonstop. Times were different then and that sort of thing was more tolerated.
We were sitting around in a beer garden, listening to a live band and chatting to some girls, when one girl gestured to Ben and suddenly exclaimed, “That guy keeps giving me dirty looks!”
Ben had a low brow and quite deep-set eyes that made it look as though he had a permanent scowl.
I replied, “No, that’s not a dirty look. That’s just his natural look. He’s naturally dirty.”
Both the girl and everyone else around the table laughed for what seemed like ages. That little quip won me a dance and a kiss.
After high school, Ben and I lost contact. He belonged to a different circle of friends than I did, but we had a friend in common whom I saw regularly. I ended up sharing an inner city terrace with our common friend and a couple of girls when we were university students. So I would bump into Ben every now and then and we would reminisce about playing football.
Ben was studying to be a primary school teacher and I was on a high school teacher’s scholarship with the Department of Education of New South Wales. Ben stopped playing rugby league by the end of university, whereas I was playing A-grade for Bondi United and was invited to try out for the lowest grade of the Eastern Suburbs Roosters, a professional club.
Ben and I went our separate ways. Years later, I was a high school teacher in country New South Wales and had just traumatically ended  a long-term relationship. I decided to take some leave without pay and backpack around Europe for six months to clear my head. I heard that Ben was living in Denmark and had married a Danish girl. I wrote to him from Australia and suggested that we catch up while I was in Europe. The two weeks I ended up spending with Ben, his wife and their two beautiful, female, flatmates in their apartment in Copenhagen was great fun.
Copenhagen is a magnificent city, filled with old world charm. I remember a sense of space, low buildings, parks, bicycles and grey weather. I remember one of my first nights in the apartment, drinking wine and playing Scrabble with the three gorgeous blond Danes who regularly walked around the house in various stages of undress. The girls often played Scrabble to improve their already excellent English. Suddenly, they started speaking among themselves in Danish, giggling to one another in the process. The girls had noticed that all my Scrabble words seemed to be contained within the same theme. The words I kept spelling out on the board included love, sex and breast. There was little doubt about what was on my mind at the time.
Ben’s wife, Helen, and I got along very well. Ben would go to work and Helen would show me around Copenhagen all day long. Strange, funny things kept happening to us in the city that made for comic adventures. Silly things such as, for example, when Helen explained to me how there were very few black people in Denmark, as we descended some steps and walked into a bar full of black people. One time, Helen warned me that we were in a very tough neighbourhood and that I had better not even look sideways at anyone, as the people there were notorious for being mean and vicious. At that very instant, a very effeminate-looking man walked by carrying a vacuum cleaner and I suggested that we had better be careful lest someone cleaned us to death.
At another time, Helen took me to an important museum with a very serious ambiance and a room full of ancient Greek and Roman, marble statues. Most of the statues had been broken over time so that they had limbs missing, noses or ears snapped off and other kinds of damage. After studiously examining the statues for some time, I suggested to Helen that they seemed to have had a lot of disfigured and disabled people in those days. It was embarrassing, trying to hold her up from falling onto the ground with incapacitating laughter in front of a room full of serious museum-goers.
We laughed constantly during our daily excursions that fortnight and enjoyed each other’s company tremendously. I could feel a strong, mutual attraction developing between us, but realised that it was the wrong place and the wrong time for anything to happen. It was obvious that Helen felt attracted to me in the same way. It was similarly obvious that I had developed a desperate crush on her, but I remained strong. I do not know if Ben ever suspected anything, but from the furtive glances I noticed from him at times, I felt sure that he knew of his wife’s feelings towards me. Helen and I had an emotional goodbye at the railway station when I left Copenhagen. She stood on the platform next to the train and hung on to my hand, through the train window, until the very last second, when it was pulled from her grasp by the forward movement of the train.
I caught up once again with Ben and Helen a year later, after they moved from Copenhagen to Sydney. I was back at my old job working as a teacher in the Western Suburbs of Sydney and the couple were living in the inner city. Thankfully, the feelings between Helen and me had cooled down and dissipated. The three of us saw each other regularly at dinners and parties for a short while. I went to a fantastic Joni Mitchell concert with Ben. We both loved Joni Mitchell and her evocative love songs. For some reason, we never discussed either Helen or those two weeks we had all spent together in Copenhagen.
We lost contact for a few years when I moved to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. I heard that Ben and Helen had broken up. Helen was a very beautiful, sexy woman. She regularly had a lot of male admirers and found it very difficult to resist temptation.
The next time I saw Ben, he was in a bad place. He seemed lost and unhappy. Ben had recently been involved in a physical altercation with his father. There had always been tension between the two of them. Ben had put on too much weight and was similarly smoking and drinking on the heavy side. It was right about this time that Ben developed an interest in Tai Chi, something that was to become a very large part of his life. Ben later proceeded to study with masters in China, India and Nepal and taught Tai Chi on the north coast of New South Wales.
Ben’s life seemed to start taking a turn for the better a few years later. He was promoted to Assistant Principal at a small, primary school nearby to where he lived. He was also in a relationship with a beautiful woman. Ben was heavily into Tai Chi and told me that he had become more spiritual, which had made him happier. I too was doing well. I received promotions in my teaching career and rode the stock market boom for the six years after 2001. I was also reaping the rewards that came from some good property investments I had made, so I was very cashed up at the time. I stayed for a few days at Ben’s cute little house on stilts at Golden Beach. I got the uneasy feeling, however, that something was still not quite right. Despite his outward success, Ben often seemed restless and unsatisfied. I had a nagging feeling that at some level, he was somehow envious of me, while concurrently disapproving of my wealth and lifestyle. Ben had put on even more weight.
A considerable time later, I was surprised to receive an email from Ben telling me that he had quit his job, was selling his house and emigrating to northern India to teach English and study Tai Chi. I wished Ben all the best and hoped that he would be happy. The lifestyle experiment in India, however, did not last long. Ben was soon back on the North Coast, this time trying to establish a photography business. He sent me his portfolio of images which were good, but I simply did not buy photographs as I always preferred paintings. Ben seemed annoyed that I did not purchase any of his works and I had no further contact with him. The annual phone calls stopped occurring.
Ben and I lost contact completely for many years. I moved from one location to another several times as I progressed in my career towards becoming a school principal. I recently stopped working, started spending part of each year on the beautiful island of Malta, near the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, and had my first book published. Completely out of the blue, Helen contacted me through the social media platform, Facebook. She had come across my book on the internet and decided to catch up. Helen also asked me if I had heard the news about Ben. I told her that I had not.
Helen told me that Ben had grown increasingly more reclusive as he grew older. He became an angry, unhappy man. He isolated himself in a small, A-frame house in the hills somewhere on the North Coast. She told me that Ben’s house was overrun with garbage; he had long, grey, unkempt hair and had stopped taking care of his personal appearance and hygiene. Ben had become morbidly obese. He was not a tall man at just over 5 feet 7 inches, but he weighed around two hundred kilos when his heart gave out. Ben died all alone in his house of a heart attack. He had not even reached 50 years of age. His body was not found until weeks after his death.
Helen told me that towards the end of his life, Ben had shunned all human contact, including that with his family. He had actively pushed away all who tried to befriend or help him. Ben must have made one last attempt at social life just before his death by signing up to Facebook. I know this because I looked him up on that platform after I heard the news of his death and ended up finding his page. Ben had a sum total of three Facebook friends.
Lots of questions.
Helen told me that Ben’s sister had gathered some people together, who seemed to be important, in some way or another, throughout Ben’s happier days. Helen, Ben’s sister and these people all participated in a wake to remember him by. These major and minor characters in Ben’s life sat around in a circle and each of them narrated a funny story about him. I wish I knew about that gathering. I would have told the story about the girl from the football trip, when I joked that Ben was “naturally dirty.” I would also have thanked Ben for indirectly giving me the opportunity of receiving that kiss.

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