My oldest friend is named John Baikie Wanklyn. Johnny calls me Doff and I call him Johnny, and sometimes, Wank. We have been friends since the summer of 1950. We first met outside the front of his father’s shop, the Leeton Furnishing Company. At least that’s how I remember it: I was playing with something inconsequential, a little stick, perhaps a toy car too, on the concrete paving. An area of dark and pleasant shade thrown by the large verandah. I became aware I was no longer alone.
Did Wank walk up and say hello? Or did I wander along and join him? I don’t know. I was playing alone and then I was no longer alone. My mind holds the scene like a dream. And like a dream there are no borders to the image: my mind sees the cracks in the concrete where my fine stick ploughs and throws up a narrow furrow of dust. There is the deep shade and beyond the shade the great heat. I know that heat in my skin. Whenever I leave the coast in summer and move inland that dry heat greets me and welcomes me home.
An additional element in the scene is our smallness in the world. The shaded area would be about five metres by, say, about twelve metres. That area encompasses two fine figures of children of four years, the margins seeming distant from us as we play. One of us asks the second his name. The second asks the same question of the first.
‘It’s my birthday next week,’ says one.
‘It’s mine the week after. I’ll be four.’
The two resume playing until a parent calls one of the children. That child and his parents and elder sibling are going to visit the Harrises. The other child – this feels like me – goes home and finds his parents are taking him visiting too. He is cleaned up and taken along. And discovers he is at the Harrises where he plays with the Harris girls and another visitor, the new boy from the Leeton Furnishing Company. The three families drive down to the river and picnic there. The Murrumbidgee is the great fact of life in the area; it shapes our Huckleberry years.
The dimension of time has a distinct character: we meet in January of 1950; we part in June of 1955. In the course of those spacious years a pavement is laid in our lives. He is Johnny, I am Doff, we are friends. In that space we accumulate experiences together that fade in detail but burn in memory, in their texture, in their felt quality, in their great mass. By the time of our parting those few years account for more than half of our lives.
We shared enough for it to remain enough. Enough for Wank to refer – thirty years later – in conversation with a friend, to his ‘brother.’
The friend, confused, says ‘Who’s this brother Howard you speak of, John? I thought your parents only had the two children, you and Julieanne…’
‘That’s true. They did. But Howard Goldenberg is the closest I’ll come in this life to having a brother.’
One night in 2014 a bad dream disturbed my sleep: John Wanklyn had died. I awoke crying aloud, ‘Wank is dead!’ I wept: I’d never see him again. A moment later I was smiling. Of course I’d see Wank again; Annette and I were to drive to Albury to visit John and Christie next weekend.
Am I Wank’s best friend? Is he mine? We have never spoken on the matter. I know I’ve never addressed it. There is no need. The questions have no weight. They would be as strange to us as to blush or nudge-nudge at the word Wank. Neither of us has ever had a friend like the other. There can be but one first friend.
Jewish education called us from Melbourne and tore our family from Leeton. The tearing was painful for me. I saw before me a great gulf open. I kissed my friend goodbye. Wank looked at me, confused by an unexpected act.
We wrote to each other, signing our letters, ‘Your old school chum, Wank’, ‘Your old school chum, Doff.’ We managed to see each other a couple of times a year, inserting the other into lives that were changing fast. The visits continued until my barmitzvah.
Johnny and his parents came to Melbourne for the celebrations. He had never been in a synagogue. I saw my friend holding the unaccustomed cap, I saw the strangeness to him of prayers in Hebrew, I saw the strangeness of Melbourne Howard to Leeton John. I saw it and I felt it all painfully.
Years passed without further visits. Through the letters that our mothers wrote I knew the events of Wank’s life and he knew about mine. The two women loved each other. Their letters, always in blue ink and lovely copperplate, continued into old age until one declared her handwriting no longer ‘respectable.’
In 1967 a phone call came from Wank in Sydney where he was studying Pharmacy. As I was not at home, Johnny left a number. I was in residence at Queen Victoria Hospital in my fifth year of Medicine. Mum rang and gave me Wank’s number. But I misplaced it. I thought of it from time to time. And the years passed.
The Jewish Sabbath doesn’t finish until nightfall on Saturday. It was eight o’clock on a Saturday night in the ‘nineties when Annette and I left Melbourne for the drive to Albury. It was midnight as we reached the border at Wodonga. I drove slowly, my eyes searching for something needed. There it was, black, silent, broad, gleaming in the moonlight – the Murray. It wasn’t the Murrumbidgee, river of Leeton days, but the river knew me and I knew it. We drove the few remaining minutes through quiet streets, turning left as directed at the Siamese restaurant. One turn to the right then we parked, got out and knocked. A giant – he’d have filled his father’s verandah shade outside the Leeton Furnishing Company – emerged from the house. He swept me into his arms and kissed me. Later we sat, Wank and Chrissie and Annette and I, speaking softly for children asleep. Wank said, ‘I kiss my boys and I just knew it would feel right to kiss you too, Doff.’
It was a hot summer’s day. A boy was playing alone and was no longer alone. Neither boy has been alone since.