"My head hurts, my feet stink, and I don't love Jesus ..." - Jimmy Buffett
I'm at a party where almost everyone seems to be talking about careers or children. They're nice people: considerate, friendly, law-abiding and unfailingly positive. No one smokes, swears, argues, spills things or falls down; no one roars with laughter (or fury); no one shouts across the room or interrupts or goes the grope. Hardly anyone laughs when I tell John Belushi's favourite joke. ("Eve 'tempts' Adam, then crouches by the sea and washes herself. 'You bloody idiot!' booms a voice from the clouds. 'Now all the fish are gunna smell like that!' ")
Later, lurking in the bathroom, it occurs to me that, apart from being the oldest person at the party, I may also be the most childish. Completely sober, despite hours of drinking, I stare into the mirror. In the cold LED light, the skin around my eyes and cheeks could be a satellite image of Queensland's Channel Country in drought. Rising defiantly among the parched, twisting creek beds, my nose is an enduring mountain range, mottled and scarred by time and sun-cancer excisions.
Liver spots romp across my brow, which now (holy shit!) seems to extend almost halfway up my skull before meeting a low crest of hair, so bent and tortured it's like something clinging to an Icelandic hillside. My eyes appear startled ... a lingering reaction to the hairline situation, which gets me every time. They're a bit reptilian at the corners, and fuzzy around the iris, but otherwise the same blue/green orbs that first opened upon this world in the dawn hours of August 15, 1951.
I rejoin the party and do my best to engage with people. But invariably, after a few mildly promising exchanges, I find myself with nothing to say. Even if something comes to mind I seem to lack the energy, or the will, to put it into words. So I stand holding my drink and trying to look as though I might join in at any moment. After a while I go out into the yard and light a cigarette.
A warm wind sweeps the garden. I haven't lived in this part of Brisbane for almost 20 years, yet everything remains familiar: the park further down the hill where I used to take my gangly son for soccer training; the burnt-out skeleton of a roller-skating rink (still standing for some reason) where my pre-teen daughter and her girlfriends circulated in anxious pursuit of one another's love and approval; the smell of the river and eucalyptus; the procession of inbound aircraft - blinkblink ... blinkblink - sinking silently beyond the city.
Most of the guests at the party tonight are in their 30s or 40s. They're much better behaved than my generation (or at least my friends) at the same age, and a lot more focused in their ambitions and goals, yet I can't shake an oddly wearying sense of repetition, as though everything I see and hear is a rebadged version of my own life two or three decades earlier. I was married then, with a younger man's complacency over a future whose dimensions seemed boundless.
Fixed in our own era, me and my jaunty boomer mates failed to notice - even as it was happening - that our time had, in American author E.L. Doctorow's daunting phrase, "rolled down behind the planetary horizon". We are now being replaced by the custodians of a safer, healthier, better adjusted and infinitely duller slice of time. Children are venerated, careers paramount, fashion (in thought and style) rules as never before, and the natural world is visited only with a guide and a permit.
In my 60th year, clinging to a lifetime of bad habits, I head back upstairs to the party where everything is the same and yet different. I accept another drink. "I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead," boasts the ubiquitous Jimmy Buffett. It has suited me to live by such bold credos, and it would be poor form to abandon them just because I'm under the horizon and hell-bent towards the End Zone.
Death grows. Thirty years ago, when I thought of it at all, death seemed formless, fathomless, unimaginable. It wasn't an entity or a thing, just some sort of void that claimed you. But now I find myself imagining death as a lurking petty official. Perhaps a parking inspector ("Time's up!"), or a cop ("Cease and desist!"), or even one of those municipal signs on which unwanted things are ruled out of existence by a crude red line. In the home straight, death becomes the ultimate bureaucrat: it wants you to fear it, to plead and pray and grovel and maybe offer a bribe in return for a little more time.
But not everyone is prepared to dicker with death. "Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body," wrote gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (whose remains have since been fired into the sky from a cannon), "but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, 'Wow! What a ride!'"
Indeed. And that seems to be pretty much where I find myself after six decades. Not entirely used up and worn out, yet somehow aware - in a way that I wasn't a few years ago - that time is, um, compressing. I am, after all, a lifetime smoker and drinker (moderate now, but a classic binger in the wild old days), with an inclination towards social indulgences and small, invigorating bursts of danger.
I've been knocked down, locked up, shot, bitten, kicked and almost drowned, yet remain strangely robust and largely intact, apart from half a thumb (sawmill accident) and most of my once well-rounded bum (sliced off by a surgeon in pursuit of burrowing cysts). After all these years, I'm still ego-driven, argumentative and given to the sort of reckless impulses that can kill.
Not long ago I challenged a smug non-smoker to a walking race up a steep hill near my home. When he declined - "That's so silly!" - I upped the ante and offered to smoke during the race to compensate for his slightly flabby midriff.
Waiting for him at the top, I couldn't resist lighting another fag off the one I'd sucked to the filter while climbing. Not because I wanted it, or normally chain smoke, but because ... well, because I'm a showy arsehole and a prime candidate for sudden death.
I know these things, yet cannot or will not change. I don't want to stay alive just to keep breathing. I don't want to wear soft clothing, or creep about clutching at my partner's arm with a trembling claw, or worry about all the things that might reduce my "quality of life". And so, statistically, five or 10 years should see me out. If I live to 80, it'll be like an extended version of the uphill walking race: a triumph of dumb optimism over pudgy common sense.
Am I afraid of dying? Instinctively, of course. If death hurls itself at me in the form of a runaway truck, or whatever, I'll scrabble to survive as avidly as any cockroach, because that's what we do. But in theory the idea of going to sleep forever doesn't sound too bad. (Being an uncomplicated infidel, notions of an afterlife haven't made the slightest impression on me.) What jars is the idea of missing out on my daily share of the wonderful here and now: all life forms, every rock, wave, bough and molecule of this big brown ball, and all manifestations of the senses that nourish us through the appalling mystery of what the hell we're doing on it.
Jesus, that's a lot. ("Gimme my share!" squawks a voice in my head. "Not allowed," drones the petty official. "You are dead.") When I am dead, of course, I won't be missing a damn thing. And if I'm lucky enough to die in my sleep - or from the effects of something taken to induce death (back right off, wowsers!) - it may even be possible to avoid the sort of last-gasp stocktakes and teeth gnashing that rarely do us much credit.
Among the worst ways to go, it seems to me, would be in some sort of drawn-out struggle where survival hovers just beyond reach. I had a taste of this at 14, losing my board in dangerous surf and being dragged out by a rip. It was a remote, ugly place where the white water extended hundreds of metres from the shore, and the air was full of wind-whipped spume. Every so often, when I stopped swimming to check my progress, I could see a solitary white dog chasing foam on the beach.
It was the only living thing in sight, and as it receded a horrible loneliness spread through me. I don't remember any thoughts, only the dog, and the floppiness of my arms, and that feeling of shifting apart from everything.
When I couldn't see the dog any more, I stopped swimming and lay on my back for what seemed a long time. Perhaps I blubbered a bit, or swore, or said things like "Oh, God!" and "Mummy, Mummy!" - all likely but beyond recall. My next memory is of touching a sandbank with a foot. It dawned on me then that the dog was gone because the rip had dragged me far to the north, and that by stopping swimming I'd drifted free of it and washed ashore. I crawled up the beach, threw up, then lay on the warm sand until the loneliness went away. But it left its mark.
A couple of years ago - while cruising the Queensland coast with my partner, Leisa Scott, and our dog, Lucky - I had a mild recurrence of the same anxiety at the prospect of putting to sea during a heavy blow. Figuring I might not be lucky twice, I stayed at anchor until the peculiar sense of aloneness passed.
In its many forms, loneliness seems to be death's sidekick. My father was so alienated in the end he opted to go even before the petty official served notice. He was old - 56 when I was born; 93 at the end - but there was nothing specific wrong with him. He'd just had enough of being him, and used his formidable will to escape. He was a relentless conspiracy theorist, rendered more and more crazy by what he experienced in the Battle of the Somme and other dark places.
Lucky me: his was the only human death I've witnessed. He summoned family members to his nursing home one evening, chatted briefly, then gave a sigh that became a soft whooshing sound, as though air from the open window was being drawn through him. When the sound ended, he was dead.
My father was hell to live with, yet unfailingly brave in his long and solitary campaign against The Conspirators, and in death. His mania turned our family into gypsies, always moving on through the backblocks of New Zealand to escape the consequences of his volatility. As soon as we could, my brother and I fled to Australia and became surf bums.
In the early '70s, when the Summer of Love had flowered and gone rapidly to seed, I found a refuge in journalism. In my naivety I didn't realise the Melbourne Truth was then the maddest, most irresponsible member of the wild and dysfunctional family of Oz tabloids. One of my first assignments, during a strike by nurses at a psychiatric hospital, was to spend a week (posing as a volunteer) in charge of one of the wards, where a dwarf known as Boing-Boing kept springing onto my back and trying to strangle me while screaming, "Let me go! Let me go!"
With other bell-bottomed Truth reporters, I tore about in my rusty MGB, smoking huge joints while Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon pounded from the stereo and our luxuriant tresses whipped and snapped above us like kelp in a current. And that was on the job.
Back then, dying young seemed almost an occupational hazard ... not just for tabloid hacks, but among musicians, actors, show-biz types and all the other frenzied players whose sudden ends we routinely recorded on our battered Underwoods and Olivettis. It was a gloriously fraternal and reckless era with at least one long-term consequence: a lot of those who survived were no longer capable of taking life, or death, altogether seriously.
Back at the party where this story began, a young man in a Lycra suit is telling me about his fitness regimen. Seemingly unaware that only inertia is holding me in place, he describes the various physical disciplines he uses to firm and "flatter" different parts of him, and the complex diet that soothes yet invigorates his vital organs. He rarely has time for socialising, and only dropped in here tonight because it's on his cycling route, which he also describes in astonishing detail.
In fact, he finally concludes, draining his water, he has a big run in the morning and had better get home for some sleep. Keen for another smoke, I accompany him to the front gate. "So if I ever need a new heart, or a fresh kidney," I say as he saddles up, "I'll know where to find you."
"You know, for a transplant. All us oldies are doing it. We befriend athletic types, learn their habits, then run them down in trucks and take their organs."
He eyes me and my cigarette distastefully. "That's just not funny," he says, and pumps off into the night.
Maybe it isn't, I tell myself, but how the hell would he know? Why is the world suddenly so full of people who can't tell the difference between talking and saying something? And why is everybody so ritualistically positive? Don't they know that in a few short years they're all going to f...ing die!
Mildly overcome, I settle on a seat in the garden and watch a big bank of cloud edge across the moon. The air cools a degree or two, and the wind shifts direction and freshens. "Southerly change," I say aloud. The noting of weather patterns is a habit common among lovers of the sea (and other bores), although it occurs to me that talking to yourself about it is a bit senior.
But who cares: senior is what I am. I don't want to dye my hair, or buy another sports car, or form some hideous garage band. I just want to live until I die, like the song says. What's starting to filter through, though, is that the world we're accustomed to actually dies before we do. In undertaker-speak, it precedes us. The real pathos of ageing isn't the inevitability of death, but the long, slow shuffle into an alien landscape.