Have you heard much about AIDS lately? It‘s a month before Christmas late 1980’s, I’m waiting in the cafe at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in North Sydney for my friend to arrive. He is already late. We hadn’t seen each other for sometime, catching up more often than not over the phone, long distance, his calls going on for hours, sometimes two or three. We covered a lot of ground over the line, politics and theatre his favourite subjects. Think Chekhov, Moliere and Bob Hawke…Australia’s Prime Minister at the time. My friend was a set designer, a very good one… and I the struggling director/artist or so I thought. We spoke a lot on the phone. He encouraged me to expand my skills, maybe writing would be good, he’d often suggest. I guess he felt I had a lot to say, maybe that’s why he suggested writing I remembered thinking.
It was a strange friendship thinking back, very much student/teacher with me being the student, as he would never see himself as anything else but the experienced professional. He was bold, melodramatic with a larger than life personality, crooked teeth, yet still possessed the simple values of a country boy who’d come to the big smoke. It’s been so long ago that I can’t even remember where we met but the one thing I’ve never forgotten was our last lunch together. You see what my friend neglected to tell me in all our long conversations on the phone was that he had HIV/AIDS, and was now in the final stage of the disease.
The noise of a bloke shouting interrupted my thoughts. The cafe was full of students, mostly arty types. Who was that making all that racket I thought…then my friend turned the corner yelling at people to, “MOVE OUT OF THE BLOODY WAY!” He held a wooden cane. He was frail, he was very angry, he was scared…and he was sick.
“Noel…luv…it’s me, over here!” he bellowed across the crowded cafe like some aunt you’d almost forgotten. “Get a table will’ya, over there.”
I was glad he told me it was him, as I wouldn’t have recognised the dying old man in front of me as my 34 year old friend. He was lifeless, hollowed faced, hopelessly thin. I stumble with shock at the sight of him, hitting my head on an overhead wooden beam, almost knocking myself out. The cafe staff put some blocks of ice in a tea towel which I put to my head and sat us both down at our table for lunch, away from the onlookers. I was always on a diet back then so I ordered chicken salad off the menu while my friend ordered a cheeseburger and beer battered chips. He toyed with his fork and then said…
“Well, you made an entrance hitting your head like that!”
“So did you,” I said, “shouting like that! Anyway it was cinematic, my entrance. Charlie Chaplin.”
“But, I recognised you, you didn’t recognise me. I could tell by the look on your face. You looked shocked. Do I look that bad old son?”
I said nothing, kept my head down, just picked at my food. He took a chip from his plate and with a glint in his eyes said…
“I have AIDS you know. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Do you know what that is? Well I have it! Say something.”
“I don’t know what to say. Yes, I know what it is! I guessed it was AIDS when I saw you. How are you doing?”
“How does it look like I’m doing? Christ I’m not havin’ fun I can tell you that. It’s been fucking tough,” he snapped at me, offering me a chip off his plate. He was testing me I remember thinking. Teasing me, checking to see what I knew about AIDS, checking to see how frightened I was of catching HIV by offering me food. Food he may have contaminated, just by his touch.
“Yes. It’s must be tough I imagine” I answered sheepishly, not wanting another outburst.
“No you can’t my friend, no you can’t imagine. Death should always be pain free, don’t you think? And you can’t catch it from sharing food…so have a chip.” He pushed his plate across the table and for a brief moment he started to cry, stopping when he caught my gaze.
“I know that,” I said…and ate a chip, sliding the plate back. He raised his eye brows.
“Good to see you. You look well. Very handsome,” he smiled, grabbing my hand as if he never wanted to let go.
We spent a good hour or so talking politics and Australian theatre that day. He was helping out on a student film at AFTRS, enjoying working on it. He was so sick I wondered what, if anything, he could be doing on the set. Could he be the set designer? I never asked him. We joked about people we had known, some we’d lost. He talked at great length about his overseas trip months earlier, how much he loved European art and culture. He gave advice on my career, reminding me that film is where the money is at, he warned not to stay working in theatre. When I hugged him goodbye I could almost feel his frail body crack under the strain of my affection. I never saw him again.
He died a couple of weeks after our lunch date. After his funeral I discovered that once he found out he had HIV he successfully secured credit with various banks, not telling any of them he was HIV positive of course! It was on a line of credit that he had travelled to Europe. He never intended to pay the money back to the banks, and of course he didn’t. Why should he?
Some years later the Australian AIDS Quilt was touring the country. The quilt is made up of the names of men and women who lost the fight against AIDS in those dark years, name after name sewn into fabric by friends, lovers and family members. Stitches of love, sorrow and pain. I remember standing by the quilt looking at the names of people of all races, young and old, that had passed away in the epidemic. AIDS does not discriminate, it doesn’t care if you’re gay or straight either, married or de facto. Thinking back, going to a funeral a week was a common occurrence in the late 80’s, you were friends with someone, then you were standing at their funeral.
For a while the world didn’t care, it was a gay disease after all! Why rush to find a cure? Rock Hudson, a high profile celebrity, dying of AIDS changed that. Eventually I found my friend’s name sewn in the quilt. I never forgot our lunch or his anger. How could I? Only those of us who lived through the AIDS epidemic will know exactly what I’m talking about when I say, “We Are The Lucky Ones.” Over time, I wrote a play based on my friend’s luminous personality, about friendship, about AIDS, about letting go. It’s called Dark Victory. Let this then my friend, let this be our victory against the dark. Hugs Noel xxx
The Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt Project – began in 1988 and provided a focus for the expression of community grief as the AIDS epidemic grew and was part of a worldwide movement to promote compassion, education and understanding about AIDS and its human toll. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney received the quilt in 2007.
Read extract of Dark Victory
Note: Dark Victory by Noel Anderson was a finalist in the Playtime Writing Competition, Midsumma Festival 2016. An extract of the script was performed on 21st January at Gasworks Theatre and Arts Park.
The True Story Series.
Checkout more work by Noel Anderson