“We never do anything with my friends, it’s always yours,” she said.
It was true. In fact I had not realised until this moment that Penny had friends. She’d appeared at the educational institution where I worked without any visible attachments and in the months we’d been seeing each other, none had been forthcoming. If that sounds just a bit defensive, it is. Truth be told, I’d never even thought about Penny’s social network, or even whether she had one. A lesbian sister training to be a wool classer and a dentist Father somewhere in rural Victoria constituted my entire knowledge of her connections. Which says something accurate and deeply mortifying about my contribution to our relationship. A guilty plea is tendered; Penny was only my second proper girlfriend and I knew absolutely fuck-all about relationships, even less about myself. And I was aware of neither of these facts. This, you will agree, is not a recipe for extended bliss.
So, trying (and conspicuously failing) to sound generous, I agreed that of course we should see people who Penny called friends. “Good,” she said, “There’s a party next Saturday in Research.”
Here comes my second strike.
Anyone with a grain of friendly curiosity—let alone empathy— would have warmed up to the party by asking about the people and their connections to their partner. A few minutes of research on the way to Research, for example, would have been an excellent investment. Nup. Not Mr Shutdown. It is possible that I was a trifle nervous about meeting a whole bunch of new people; it was never—and is still far from—a favourite activity. But, as I reflect on this lapse of sensitivity and its accompanying ignorance of even the most basic skills of human communication, mostly I feel sad that my limitations must have brought disappointment to another confused soul just trying to work it all out for herself anyway.
Pumping up the volume is a very effective way to stymie conversation. A recent vinyl-to-cassette-transfer—Eric Clapton’s Behind The Sun—was inserted into the player in my weather-beaten Ford Meteor, and “She’s Waiting” boomed into the cool interior of the car.
She’s been waiting for another love,
Someone that she can show into her heart.
And when she finally finds a stronger love,
Your whole world’s gonna fall apart.
Well, I can’t say that my world fell apart, but everything else was eerily prophetic. Not that I knew it then, of course, I was too busy grumping about the winding bush-lined roads that all looked the same in the gathering autumn dusk.
Just as I was wondering whether we could admit failure and go home, a haphazard cluster of autos lining the narrow dirt-edged street suggested that we had, in fact, arrived. Edging the Meteor onto a relatively level bit of dirt, we grabbed the wine and wandered up the drive towards a ramshackle mud-brick cottage, passing a shiny new Porsche and an old Holden station wagon on the way. The Porsche made me nervous. Ostentatious wealth and I were not close mates.
Penny’s hand was actually raised to knock on the front door when the evening was shattered by a bellowing klaxon sounding nearby. Instantly the door flew open and a small man wearing a thin blonde moustache and a brightly coloured short-sleeved shirt rushed past, making a beeline for the Porsche. Over his shoulder he threw us a passing explanation. “It’s the alarm… It’s very sensitive. Must be the wind.” Penny and I shrugged at each other and went inside.
I remember very little about the party, other than the hostess being friendly but distracted and the explosion of the car alarm every half-hour or so, each horn outburst prompting a driveway dash from the owner. My theory was that he needed to see and touch the car every few minutes to remind himself that it was his, all his. But I did not share this theory with Penny; she was on the couch talking to an ER nurse while I’d drifted off to another corner where I sat watching a music video show on the TV, probably Rage or its 1985 equivalent. That was in all likelihood my third strike, but I didn’t have a clue. My attention was caught by a simple but compelling video that cut through the Phil Collins and Whitney Houston like an E-string garotte. A bearded bloke with a hat and an electric guitar, belting out the words while a stupendous six-string jangle grated out of a small, overloaded amp.
I keep my nose clean, I keep my speech plain
I keep my promises, she twists the knife again
Self-righteous venom from the position of victim. Spurts of anger, jolts of spite.
Never leaves me my dignity
Makes a dunce of me in mixed company
No bygone, can be a bygone
She throws the spanner in, she puts the screws on
Comrade in suffering, self-pitying man, basted in exultant bile.
Just when the scar heals, just when the grip unbends
When her mind reels, she twists the knife again
It is all down to her. I’m innocent and all this anger is the indignation of the wronged. How sweet the air on the high moral ground, and how limited the view.
In the middle of a kiss, she twists the knife again
When I get up off my knees, she twists the knife again
When I think I’m off the hook, she gets me
She twists the knife again, she twists the knife again
Nothing of the rest of the evening sticks in my mind, just as little of the relationship with Penny can be recalled with pride. But I formed a new bond with Richard Thompson that night. The album, Across A Crowded Room, was soon added to the collection and what a fine set of miserable songs it is. “Ghosts in the wind”, “Walking through a wasted land”, “Love in a faithless country”, and the utterly mesmeric opener, “When the spell is broken” with its potent refrain, “can’t cry if you don’t know how”. Thompson’s rich baritone was never stronger in its wounded misogyny than on this 1985 opus, nor was his guitar more penetrative and stinging. The depression soars, the wounds glisten under melodic gauze, even the humour has sharp teeth, whether directed outwards (“Little blue number”) or at himself (“You don’t say”).
To this day I can thoroughly enjoy Across A Crowded Room for its simmering resentment, sullen passion, and dark humour; though I wouldn’t want to be Richard, not even for his song-writing craft and guitar-playing magnificence. Nor do I wish the relationship had lasted; it was deeply flawed, and needed to die. But if I ever bumped into Penny, I’d say “Sorry.”
Sorry I was such a steel-plated golem, that I was so clueless about my ignorance, that my utter lack of self-awareness left you carrying much more than your share of responsibility for the painful fade-out of our relationship. Sorry for twisting the knife to deflect from my own pain. We’re never off the hook for our behaviours—the decisions we make or don’t make; speaking or staying silent, these choices define us—but maybe being more forgiving of ourselves might be a start. Opening up won’t earn a single penny, let alone a Porsche, but neither can an unclenched hand hold a knife.
FOOTNOTE: A FIFTY YEAR CAREER IN 120 WORDS
Richard Thompson was an eighteen year-old guitar prodigy when he joined Fairport Convention in 1967. He departed after the Full House album in 1971, beginning a solo career with Henry The Human Fly, on which Linda Peters sang. They married and released a clutch of highly regarded albums culminating in 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights, before the relationship collapsed leaving Richard solo again. Since, Thompson has produced more than sixteen albums under his own name along with innumerable guest appearances with artists as diverse as Crowded House and Nick Drake. His album Still, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, was released in 2015. RT appeared previously at Vinyl Connection in August 2013, as part of Back Live.