Flinders Lane — the heart of the garment district in Melbourne.
My mum loved to walk me down this intriguing strip of shops and tiny factories.
We’d get off the tram at the top of Collins Street and walk down the hill which felt like a mountain when it was time to head for home.
Everything about being in The City meant unbounded excitement and fatigued legs — when I was a boy.
The narrow streets like Flinders Lane and Little Collins Street and Little Bourke, were the tradesman’s entrances for the grander boulevards — Collins Street being the grandest.
I wasn’t sightseeing or reliving old memories of childhood; this was business.
During the quiet moments between battles, I daydreamed about my young life, my mother and my childhood friends — it helped to keep me going, but today I needed to fulfil a promise and outfit myself for a new life.
“How can I help you today, sir?” said the old man. I wondered if he sometimes forgot and went out in the street with his cloth tape-measure still around his neck.
“Yes. I think you can,” I said.
There was a considerable difference in our heights. He wore a waistcoat and collar and tie — precisely as I expected. The waistcoat and his pants were pinstriped. His shoes were old, expensive and perfectly polished.
His face was tired and old, but there was a light in his eyes. I once knew an old dog who looked at me the same way — worn out but bright and alive inside.
“I need a dinner suit, but before we get to that, I wanted you to know that I knew your son, Mr Ziegler. Thomas was my friend.”
The old man froze, like a clock that needed winding. I worried that he might suddenly crumple into a heap.
“You knew my son?” he said. It sounded like he was speaking to me from far away.
“Yes, sir. We were in the Second Twelfth together. I was with him when he was awarded the DCM. After Kokoda, they split us up. He was in hospital and they sent me to North Africa. I saw him the day before he died. I was back home on leave and got off the ship in Brisbane so that I could visit him.”
“Were you with him when he died?”
“No, sir. I went back the next day but he had died in the night. It was sudden and quick. He would not have suffered.” I didn’t know if this was true, but it is always the question that relatives ask — did he suffer?
I’ve had three of these conversations since I came home. It hurts in a way that is difficult to describe — a massive headache that lasts all day followed by wishing I had better words — wishing there were words that conveyed how I felt.
“You were friends?”
“Yes, sir. We were.” My voice almost failed me. I’ve cried enough tears, but always in private—no need to make this father feel worse.
Have you noticed that there isn’t a word for a parent who has lost a child?
You are orphaned if you have lost your parents, widowed if your spouse dies, but there is no word for a father who is grieving for a son. Maybe the people who make up words thought that it was too terrible to contemplate, so they left the inexorable grief unnamed.
“We made a pact. If something happened to one of us, the other one would visit their parents and offer some comfort.” I knew the idea of comfort was ridiculous, but I said it anyway.
The old man looked at me for a moment. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Was he a good comrade?” I was expecting him to ask was he a good soldier — a father’s question.
“He saved my life at least twice and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have a DCM. He charged off across open ground and I had to follow him. He was that sort of bloke. You wanted to follow him — be with him. It’s not that he wasn’t scared, he was. It’s just that he never let the fear control him. In truth — I loved him and it broke my heart when he died. I became someone else after that — cold hearted, intent on revenge. I’m not proud of that time in my life. I don’t think Tom would have approved. He wasn’t like that. He was fighting for his country. He didn’t hate anyone. I’ve tried to live up to him since I got de-mobbed.”
“Wars do terrible things to the men who fight them. Don’t let your experiences define you, young man. If Thomas liked you, you must be a good person.”
We stood there for a while before Mr Ziegler offered me coffee.
We sat and sipped out of old cups, and I answered all his questions.
As our conversation continued, the old man visibly became straighter and more alive. As though I had brought some of his dead son with me into the showroom.
“So, what do you need me to make for you?” he said.
I looked around at the tailor’s dummies lining the walls and pointed to the tux which sat between the marked-up suit jackets, ready for their customers to be given another fitting.
“Something special on the horizon?” said the old man taking the tape measure from around his neck, as he must have done countless times. A clear sign that he was in work mode.
I stood up without being asked. He measured all the parts of me that were needed, and I stood as awkwardly as every man who ever had another man run his hand up his inside leg.
“Do you dress to the right or the left?” he asked.
His question took me by surprise, but I knew what he meant. The creator had given me enough down there to create a problem for a tailor.
“Right — usually.”
I imagined my wife’s reaction when I tell her I had to answer that question.
I don’t like to think of HIM being restricted to only one side.
I know that she will put her hand on me and look lovingly into my eyes and I will have no choice but to take her then and there — so I had better not mention it until we have some privacy.
“How much will the Tux cost?” I said.
“No need to worry about that just yet,” said the old man, busy writing measurements in a tattered black notebook.
“Tom always said you were the best tailor in Melbourne,” I said.
“Only Melbourne?” said the old man and I laughed.
“Maybe he said Australia and I misheard,” I said with a smile.
“Cuffs?” said the old tailor who was in full flight.
“Yes, please. Are they in fashion?” I said.
“Who cares? This is formal wear. You want to look your best. You are tall and well built and cuffs say you know where you are going.”
I wonder how many times he had told a customer that. I chose to think that it was only for me.
“I’m not looking for any special favours, Mr Ziegler,” I said, and I meant it. My budget was tight, but I was not going to abuse my friendship with Tom.
“Let’s see if you like the suit before we talk about money. Can you come back in a week and I’ll have a mock up for you to try on.”
Without a disparaging word, he inquired if I would want a new ‘everyday’ suit.
The one I was wearing was my Sunday best — my best friend’s father deserved the courtesy of the best appearance I had to offer. I bought the suit before the war, and I guess his expert eye could spot a not very expensive ‘off the rack’.
“I do, but my budget won’t stretch that far just yet.”
“You let me worry about that,” he said, and I knew it was going to be a battle to get him to take my money.
“A few shillings a month will do me fine. You can pay them off, I’m in no hurry. I’ll show you some fabrics when you come back for a second fitting,” he said.
I was standing on a small, well-worn box. I guessed that it made it easier for him to work on cuffs without having to kneel on the floor.
“I was wondering….” he said.
“Will you be carrying?”
This was the second question that took me by surprise.
In the Army, all our weapons were on belts or carried in our hands. On civi street, the rules were different, so the question was a reasonable one.
“Not while wearing a Tux, no. But the everyday suit might need to accomodate a revolver, possibly a 38, in a holster, under my arm.”
He nodded as though this was a question and answer that he engaged in regularly. I expected him to ask if I was right or left-handed — he didn’t. I’d been holding my cup in my right hand.
I climbed down off the box, and I shook his hand — we held onto each other for longer than men usually do. He looked me in the eye, and I had to turn away. I don’t do well with direct eye contact at the best of times, and this old man’s eyes were telling me things that were hard to bear.
I dropped into Young and Jackson’s before catching the tram for home. I drank a bit too much, and I must have looked a bit unsteady because the tram conductor put out his hand to steady me when I got on the tram.
It was packed solid with commuters, so the conductor and I were stuck in the doorway. At the next stop, he would jump off and go to the next door and repeat his call for ‘fares please’.
As it turned out, he stayed for three stops.
“Rough day mate?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said and tried not to breathe on him.
“Were you in the army mate?”
“Yeah. How did you know it was the Army? I’m handsome enough to have been a flyboy,” I said.
Do you know that feeling you get when you’ve had just enough beer to make you feel good, but your mouth takes on a life of its own and you can hear what you are saying several seconds after you say it? Well, that’s how I was. Not drunk, but not sober either.
“You’ve got that look in your eyes. Not quite here but not back there either.”
“You too, if it comes to that,” I said.
“Have a rough time?”
“About as bad as most, but I made it back. A lot of poor buggers didn’t. That’s where I was today. Buying a suit from the dad of my best mate. He asked me lots of questions and I had answers for some of them, but I made up a lot shit as well. Needed a few pints afterwards. Don’t usually get drunk during the day. Doesn’t end well if you let it take over.”
I realised I was doing all the talking, so I shut up.
“What about you Connie? Where did you end up?” I said.
The conductor looked at me.
“All over, but Tobruk was the worst.”
“A fellow ‘Rat’. Good on ya Digger.”
“You too mate. Go gently now,” he said as he jumped off before the tram stopped and climbed back on the through the back door.
I could hear his voice, fares, please.
Without our soldier’s uniform, we both look like ordinary blokes — but we aren’t — not ordinary anymore, but there’s always hope.
By the time the tram reached my stop, the crowd had thinned out, and I got a seat for the last ten minutes or so. I’d sobered up enough to get off the tram unassisted.
I looked back as the tram pulled away, and the conductor gave me a wave.
I burst into quiet tears.
An old lady with a shopping basket looked at me then looked away.
I walked quickly with my eyes down, the tears cold on my cheeks.
There was a chance that someday the tears would stop, but for now the well-rehearsed, “Just a bit of hay fever,” would get me by. The old lady and her shopping smiled at me, “It gets me that way too son, sometimes” she said and I’m not entirely sure she was talking about sinus trouble.
I hurried past the school grounds without seeing any children. The caretaker was enjoying the late afternoon silence while emptying rubbish bins.
I heard the whistle blow to end the afternoon shift for the workers at the carpet factory.
You didn’t need a watch if you lived anywhere near a church or a factory.
I knew that my wife would be waiting for me, and I looked forward to the familiar aromas of her cooking as I opened our front door.
She’d ask me about my day, and I would tell everything except about the tears.
We’d sit by the fire, and I’d tell her about the old man and his son.
I’d save the story about, ‘which way do you dress’ until it was time for bed.
We’d hold each other tightly as we shut out the horrors and the anxiety of the past.
The promise of tomorrow could wait until the morning.
Our time would be now, and we would have every minute of it.