You need to be a certain age to remember the dope droughts of Christmas seasons past, when the business of scoring a bag of late-December weed was a strenuous exercise involving many miles and a lot more phone calls. “No, Doug’s not back yet from Mullum’,” some hippie chick would tell you, “but he should be bringing back a pound at least.”
Ah, the pound that never came! For some reason, possibly owing to outdoor cultivation and the cannabis plant’s three-month life cycle, the summer dope dry was indelibly inscribed on each year’s calendar. It was during one such famine in, oh, 1974 or thereabouts that an old school friend stopped by the shared hovel the Professor at that point called home. The bad news, he said, was that there was no grass, hash, hash oil, putty hash, buddha, compressed or shake, not even stems and seeds, so bugger love and money.
But not to worry, he continued, a medical student mate in Carlton had come across a little smack, which he had kindly shared. Roll it into a joint and it would do until the green stuff was once again in plentiful supply. Indeed, the way he described it, there could be no more pleasant experience than studying the pressed tin ceiling from an unswept floor "once you've brought up your lunch getting used to it."
There is no need to recount the end to this story, Billabong visitors being an intelligent lot. Suffice to say that over the next 15 years the Professor became a polished hand at delivering eulogies, which is quite the art. There you are at the lectern, dead cobber stretched out before you in a pine box, and his mom staring from the front pew with that peculiar eye. They all had it, all the grieving mums, the look that said, ‘Why didn’t you stop him? Why didn’t you do something?’ Instead,rather than make a show of squirming, you would vamp and try to recall the sunbeams in a life gone dark – the day you snagged your first trout with his borrowed rod, for instance, and how good it tasted – and babble on with pap and crap until it was time for the organ music to kick back in. After that, off to the cemetery and more cold burns from a mother’s eyes. Did you help him score, they wanted to know? It was the question that could never be asked out loud, not with any hope of a truthful answer.
We all move on, except the dead, and it is now a matter of no consequence at the Billabong if dope is plentiful or scarce, which judging from press reports, it never is these days. Prohibition and the price-maintenance scheme it has established for marijuana and other contraband have seen cultivation move indoors, wholesalers become more efficient. It is the wonderfully amoral thing about supply and demand: someone will always lend a hand to help the former match the latter.
What brings these thoughts to mind, apart from the looming anniversary of another close friend’s long ago and premature departure, is the public anguish of a mum whose life also was wrecked by heroin, Mrs Kim Nguyen. As most will recall, her son was hanged in Singapore, and that tragedy is now the subject of a tele-movie she does not want to see screened. You have to feel for her. Anyone who has raised a child knows that visions of losing him or her make for the worst nightmares, the ones when you wake up with a scream on your lips. Her boy, Van, should be alive and going grey by now, maybe even a grandfather and, if he made the transition to life in a respectable cardigan, worried about his own progeny falling in with the wrong crowd.
But he’s dead, just like the Professor’s mates who used the same wares that earned Van Nguyen a long drop and a short rope. It must be hard for Mrs Nguyen, this wait to see her life’s greatest tragedy played out on the screens in a million homes, but her loss could be no greater than that of the mums whose accusatory gaze the Professor has tried with no great success to forget.
A few years ago at a school reunion, another survivor of those irresponsible years happened to mention that he had bumped into a mutual friend’s mother, now in her seventies. She seemed anxious to talk, so he accepted the invitation to stop by for a cuppa. It was after the chit-chat that she took him upstairs to our late mate’s former room, a shrine both to love and reckless stupidity, which was dusted but otherwise untouched some three and half decades after he was found dead in Elwood. What hit him hardest was the Pelaco Brothers poster on the wall and thoughts of what went on in the lane behind the Kingston Hotel, where they used to play. That, and the fact she was still crying when he made his apologies and left.
Mrs Nguyen’s anguish must be just as bitter right now, but given the actions and mercenary choices made be her son and the others of his ilk who brought down the curtains on so many of their customers, few would contest which mother deserves the greater sympathy.