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 Dying to Live

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: Dying to Live   Sat Sep 02, 2017 6:46 pm

Chapter 5

            In the summer at the end of his fourth year at university, Ari felt directionless. With degrees in Psychology and Journalism Ari was unsure where he was heading to next. Justine, who had now qualified as a teacher, had headed off home and was looking forward to an appointment in a local school. He was disappointed that Justine had not tried to say goodbye. He was unaware of the big changes that had occurred in her life filling her time with reflective study, new people, meetings and social activities. She had shared the changes in her life with most of her close friends but there was a fear barrier which somehow prevented her from letting Ari know. Her knowledge of his acerbic wit had cowed her into avoiding contacting him. It was only just recently that she was starting to deal with, what she called, ‘this sin of omission.’

            The first few weeks of his break from his studies Ari spent irritating his Gran for jobs to do around the big house. After tidying up the garden areas, trimming and mowing and getting blisters with every repetitive task, he decided to spruce up the house itself. Following a week and a half of scraping and sanding and then painting the outside of the house, he was beginning to reconnoitre the inside for places to begin painting. Marree was fearful that her neat domain would be in turmoil should he carry out his new found obsession. She was quite relieved when a university friend turned up in an old Ford sedan one warm Friday morning.

“Oh, hi I’m Reece... Is Ari here? I thought I’d drop around and say hello.”

“He certainly is. Come in for coffee,” she instructed Reece. “Ari is just cleaning up the paint brushes. I think now that the garage doors are painted there’s nothing left to paint- unless of course you stand still there any longer. Then I can’t guarantee that you’ll be safe from a fresh coat yourself. I’m Marree, Ari’s Grandmother,” she continued as she ushered Reece into the kitchen.

“Oh, thank you ... Marree.” He felt a bit uncomfortable calling the elderly lady by her first name. “I’m a friend of Ari. I don’t want to put you to any trouble Mrs... er... Marree.”

“It’s no trouble at all. It’s delightful to have a visitor for a change.” Marree was talking while she was fussing with the kettle and putting cookies on the table. “I’ll go fetch Ari. Take a seat,” she insisted as she left the room.

 

            A short time later all three of them had an enjoyable time over mugs of coffee and crisp cornflake cookies, sharing humorous tales in an effort to get a laugh at each other’s expense. Reece had started by saying Marree had offered him a new coat; which he then had to explain was ‘paint related’ because she looked confused. Stories of his Gran’s misadventures with Ari’s parents, and stories of the boys’ exploits at university created a light and happy mood. It wasn’t until Ari asked about Justine that things quietened down.

“Her life is pretty much filled up with church stuff now.”

“Who’s this?” piped up Marree, showing a sudden interest.

“A friend of Ari and mine; she was part of our group.” Reece replied to Marree’s question.

Ari looked at his Gran. “You’d like her Gran.” He’d said it as if he was thinking out loud and regretted it almost immediately. Now she would be asking him about her. But she didn’t. It was almost prescient of her. She detected the pain in him somehow. ‘Could she see the troubled swirling, grey cloud in his mind; the tight bands of steel that clasped his stomach when his memory revisited his times with her,’ he wondered. Reece too, somehow avoided zeroing in on his indirect admission of affection for Juzzy and redirected the conversation to the summer holiday. Reece invited Ari to hang out at his parents’ beach house on Phillip Island.

 

 

            The possibility of a change of scenery was a welcome reprieve. Not that Ari tired of his Gran’s company. It was just the opportunity to do something compatible with the holiday season. Within a few hours he managed to bundle sufficient clothes into a largish backpack and the two headed off.

Reece tried to teach Ari to surf but Ari eventually opted for a body board after being frustrated by his inability to keep his feet. They had the whole house to themselves and luxuriated in sleeping in, wandering to the local shops, enjoying the surf and feeding themselves when they were hungry. On about the fourth night, sitting out on the deck, enjoying the balmy early summer temperatures and watching the waves break into white luminescence in the moon light, Reece made a confession.

“Did you know Ari, I’ve become a Christian?”

“Really!” Ari answered warily. “When did that happen?”

“About two months ago, I went to church with Sissy and Jen.”

“Sissy and Jen! When did they start going to church?”

“It seems weird doesn’t it? They were invited by Juzzy about six months back, and well, to make a long story short, they became Christians. I guess for a while they asked me to go with them and I resisted; told them I didn’t want to be ‘saved’. But I sort of got lonely, what with those guys going to church stuff all the time and you being the ‘Phantom’... you know the ‘Ghost Who Walks’, almost impossible to find most of the time.”

“Very funny...” Ari half sneezed as he was caught off guard.

“Bless you.” Reece responded to the sneeze.

“Thank you your Holiness,” quipped Ari, and then threw an empty chip packet as an afterthought.

His friend ducked nonchalantly and continued, “Anyway, I eventually started going. Most of the services, and all that, were quite interesting. It’s all sort of geared for younger people, but after one service they had an after church meeting for students... lots of coffee, soft drinks, food and music and people sharing how they found Jesus.”

“I didn’t know he was lost.” Ari wisecracked. The chip packet came sailing back and hit him on the side of the head.

“Seriously, what some of those guys shared was pretty impressive. But they had one guy, at the end, who came from a bike gang. He said there is nothing you have done, or could do, that would stop God from loving you and wanting you in His family. He said his parents chucked him out, he did some terrible things and he abused himself and others. He hated himself. One day in desperation he called out ‘God help me’ and he said he wasn’t even sure if he believed in a God. That day he met a bikie pastor in a pub.”

“A bikie pastor in a pub? ... How unlikely is that?”

“That’s exactly what he said. The pastor explained that no matter what he had done Jesus would forgive him. He explained that Jesus forgave prostitutes, crooked tax collectors, thieves and even asked for forgiveness for the people who were killing Him. All it required, the bikie said, was for him to confess that he was sorry and believe and trust in Him. The biker said that’s what he did and that’s all we needed to do. Jesus had done the rest. So I did.”

“What happened? Did you see fireworks? Did you go all warm or feel transformed?”

“You’re having a go at me aren’t you?” Reece was irritated.

“I’m sorry...” Ari responded guiltily, “I’m a rotten piece of work aren’t I?”

“You wanna know what I felt?”

“Go on...”

“Nothing, really... just relief... finally knowing that there is purpose, there is reason and ... there is belonging.” He continued, “I guess until you want those things there’s no point in looking to God for answers.”

“So, was that it?”

“Well, we have spent some time praying for you. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No, I can use all the prayer I can get.” Ari was trying to be comical but his expression betrayed his lingering thoughts; ‘purpose, reason and belonging’ just about summed up what he was missing.

“Oh, by the way, Juzzy gave me her address and phone number to pass on to you. She’d like to hear from you. She still likes you, you know, despite the way you’ve treated her.”

Ari stared at him briefly then spoke in a muted tone, “I’ve just tried to stop her from making a big mistake.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean me. I know what I’m like, and I don’t like me. How can I ruin the life of someone like Juzzy? I’d be an embarrassment to her in no time.”

 

            Reece stopped and stared at him. He scowled a little, then spoke forcefully in a voice he was struggling to keep steady. “Ari, I consider you my friend, but I have to say sometimes you’re a self absorbed, self pitying prig. Why don’t you stop feeling sorry for yourself and let some other people into your life?”

Ari sat still for a moment transfixed on some point on the horizon. Reece began to think he had gone too far and was framing his apology when Ari exhaled. “Yeah, thanks.”

Reece went on, “At least keep in contact. Here, I’ll write my address and phone number on the back of Juzzy’s card. Maybe you can give me a call and drop in some time. I’m starting as an assistant pharmacist in Wattleton; that’s not far from where you live.” He leaned across and handed the card to Ari.

Ari tried to imagine hair-brained Reece doling out drugs and shook his head, “They trust you with prescriptions?”

Reece grinned and then he hurled a pillow from one of the cane deck chairs at his friend, satisfied by a direct hit to the face. A flurry of flying pillows followed.



 

Chapter 6



            It was months later in the new year when Justine contacted Ari. She told him that she was teaching at a church school—would he come and visit? Would he visit her? Of course he would; he needed to see her again and be refreshed by her genuineness. In a way he thought of it as a release from having to make the first move himself. After all he’d, for some idiosyncratic reason, rejected her. Since then he had been regretting his pride and ‘self absorption’. So, there he was early one morning, driving in his Gran’s car, following the directions to her home that Juzzy had given. Strangely, it wasn’t that far from where Ari lived, and he mused on the thought that she had been close by all the time. They drove to the school together. The car pulled into a small, almost country like, school setting. In some ways the school appeared idyllic. They were having some sort of open community day in which people could come in and watch classroom programs. Justine introduced him to her class, her colleagues who were friendly and included a male teacher, Chip, who flirted quite openly with her.



            He churned inside... he thought now that maybe, somehow, they were meant to be together. They had a long talk at a Chinese restaurant that evening and renewed their friendly familiarity with each other.



“So where do we go from here,” he finally asked and looked into her eyes.



“I want you to come to church, to see for yourself that we’re not weirdos.”



“And?” Ari looked at her questioningly, “then I become a card carrying member. Is that what you want?” He couldn’t understand it but he always seemed to torture Juzzy with his words.



“Don’t make it harder for me Ari. I like you a lot, probably too much because unless we agree on this, all we can be is friends. And I know that sounds like an ultimatum, it isn’t; it’s just the way it has to be. It may sound corny but you’ve been the subject of a lot of prayer.”



            So, she now confirmed that she had stepped on to this journey of faith for good. Even though she had ‘affection’ for him, she wouldn’t compromise her beliefs by going any further in their relationship.



As Ari looked at her and felt his rebellious spirit rise within, he fought the desire to make some cutting remark, to injure her with a snide remark. He clenched his jaw and remained silent.



Seeing the battle he was having with his emotions Justine said, “This is as much for your happiness as mine since we’re going in opposite directions. Soon we would both be frustrated by our different priorities.”



“My happiness?” he looked at her. At the moment he couldn’t imagine being happy apart from her. 



Justine promised to pray for him and encouraged him to keep searching.



She was beautiful. It was excruciating for him to just walk away again, and silently he blamed God for ruining everything. He left disillusioned.



                                    -------------------------------------------



 



            With the help of his dad’s money Ari took on drifting from one course to another. Science, psychology, political science and philosophy were all morsels on his aimless meandering; but he purposely avoided anything to do with Particle Physics. Eventually, responding to a mentor’s urgings to take control of his life, Ari thrust himself into studying Philosophy. He also started writing a youth perspective on politics in a series of letters to the editor. This resulted in a media appearance and a regular column as a newspaper commentator on Youth affairs. He was given liberty to express his outspoken views on science, politics and social issues, though he steered clear of addressing ‘religion’ in his brief essays. With writing and the prospect of a journalism career, by winter of that following year, he dropped his further studies. His mentor, Professor Arthur Hargreaves, encouraged him to complete the Philosophy degree and to not become enchanted by the facile world of the media. However, Ari was enamoured by the kudos and descriptions of his analyses as ‘young genius’, and he talked himself up in the same way political parties generated their propaganda. He called it ‘self spin’. Along with the job came a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. He moved into a nice flat, that he could barely afford and tried to enjoy the coffee shops and concerts and amusements of city life.



            His positive self speak began to wear off as he became pressured by the editors to toe the line about science and not be too controversial.



 



            He joined the new republican political party under McLeish, the charismatic television lawyer who had used Ari’s skills previously as a speech writer. Thomas knew what Ari was capable of and because he valued his media status, he had soon talked him into quitting his job and taking on a youth issues advisory role, as well as writing speeches for the high profile leader. It was certainly a more lucrative job and tapped into his skills as a communicator.



He shared an office area with a number of young high fliers. Chen was a serious Eurasian researcher who provided a constant challenge for him to make her smile.



Gail, in liaison personnel, working for the press secretary, laughed a lot at his weird sense of the ridiculous and was a good friend to him. She was always checking to see what he had eaten for meals at home, and sometimes dragged him off to some healthy lunch. He quite liked Gail, her soft brown eyes, boyish haircut and healthy complexion complemented her easy-going nature. She was very tactile, touching an arm to get attention or putting a hand on his shoulder when she was reading a speech draft of his. All of which he found warm and friendly, but others misconstrued.



Devon and Howie were part of the party machine, involved with fundraising and lobbying support. They were two sincere and dedicated workers. He couldn’t help feeling they were deluded and saw Thomas McLeish through rose coloured glasses. They believed their boss would eventually lead the country and bring change for the better. Ari didn’t say so, but he thought Thomas was predominantly image and of little substance. The two loyal members were closest to being friends to him. They occasionally went to a football game on the weekend and always talked sport, both things being recently acquired interests for Ari. He was the least serious of the younger brigade. His antics around the office were tolerated because of his favoured status but his efforts at humour knew no bounds. Sometimes he altered office notices with quirky puns. At other times satirical cartoon drawings appeared.



            As the year wore on things became frenetic. Everyone was gearing up for the coming election. There were ‘position papers’ to formalise, media statements and interview response plans. They continuously honed innocuous, generic statements that showed broad vision but didn’t say anything specific. Policy speeches were constantly rehashed to appeal to popular sentiment while appearing conservative and achievable. Much of the campaign was centred on Thomas McLeish and his media charisma.



            Election night was a rush for Ari. He watched on the TV monitors as Thomas delivered the speech Ari had composed almost single handed. He had passed it on to one of Thomas’ chief advisors who sought to tweak the speech’s content and claim some credit for it. But everyone knew it was Ari’s creation. It was an understated, warm and considered speech, moderated with humility but intimating quiet strength. At the various election media events the commentators were quick to recognise strong support for the fledgling party. There were loud cheers when they gained their fourth seat in parliament, and a cacophony of increasing madness when the fifth, sixth and seventh seats were won. By nine pm Ari was furiously writing a modest acceptance of the will of the people for their party to hold the balance of power. There were handshakes, hugs and kisses all round as Thomas delivered the speech to flashing cameras, a bank of microphones and to TV cameras placed strategically around him.



              “Our party, representing middle Australia and the rights of the common citizen has now an onerous duty. We must forge a link with the major party that will heed most our desire for equity in education, that will institute a more generous medical scheme and that will support working Australians and help us develop a robust economy. This approach will maximise our ingenuity and employ our workers. We will not negotiate away our right to defend our principles. We will promote and vote for the policies that gained us this privileged position. We will act as the conscience of Australia for good government. I thank the electorate for having the courage to support a party that wants to make a difference—a party that wants to put integrity back into politics...” Ari shuddered. Did he write that? Someone had thought his version too cynical... “put integrity into politics”  and had modified it with ‘back’.



He listened as McLeish was thanking his key party members. When he heard the words ‘Ari James’, Ari glowed with pride. The election had brought a stunning stalemate of seats and the Republicans, who were surprisingly the largest of the minor parties, would have to forge a coalition with a major party, or, at a minimum, construct a working understanding, to form government. Now he would be a confidante to the leader of this invigorated Republican Party.



 



            The celebration party went on long into the late spring night. Amongst the crowds were many attractive women, most wearing 'Vote One McLeish’, and many upwardly mobile businessmen. Since he was associated with such newly established, high profile public figures a number of these good looking females and well to do males introduced themselves to Ari. They hugged him and backslapped in celebration of the win. There was something empty and superficial about the whole thing and, although Ari thought he should be enjoying all the attention and embracing it, he knew it was about celebrity and social standing—the things he had detested about his mother’s circle of ‘friends’.



            Withdrawing slightly and having a quiet coffee, he noticed a striking brunette standing back and observing the celebrations. She had a camera in her hand and occasionally took a snap. After a short while she noticed Ari staring at her. She came over and sat down.



“Hi, I’m Collette Downs.” She proffered her hand and gave a soft handshake.



“I’m Ari James,” he returned.



“I know. Young whiz speech writer to the rising star politician,” she smiled appealingly.



“You’re not wearing a party sticker... not a fan?”



“Oh, I’m a fan all right, but newspaper policy insists reporters appear totally impartial, unaffiliated, and neutral and any other synonyms you can think of.”



Ari smiled at her candour and play with words, wondering if it was for his benefit. At least she didn’t gush, and she exhibited evident intelligence.



“What are you grinning at?”



“Your loquacity intrigues me. So you’re with the press? A reporter... Do you have a column?”



She tilted her head attractively with a slight questioning squint of her large brown eyes, “Nothing quite so grand, Mr Curious.” She smiled again with practised charm. “I’m just a cub photographer trying to get some worthwhile snaps.” Collette held up her Nikon that had been down by her side. “I usually keep it out of sight until I see something worth taking. I prefer realism to posed shots... you know all those plastic smiles.”



Ari nodded. He was warming to this attractive girl and her off-beat sense of humour.



 



“Can I get you a cup of coffee?” Ari asked trying to show some hospitality.



Collette leaned over and touched his hand. “Hold that thought, I’ll take you up on that tomorrow if you like.”



Ari raised his eyebrows, surprised by her forthright attitude. Returning her smile he accepted the invitation, “Tomorrow should be fine. I think I’ll just need to draft a few general media responses for Thomas tonight and see what he thinks, but he probably won’t call the team together till Monday.”



“Do you have to get his permission for a coffee?” she teased.



“Funny.” He screwed up his face in mock derision. “I’m just letting you know I’m an important man with responsibilities.”



“I’m impressed, and you’ll have coffee with little old me?”



“Yep.”



“Great, do you have a favourite place?” She tilted her head coyly.



“Brewsters…do you know it?”



“By the river,” she nodded, “Okay, see you there about eleven.” She stood and left, and then managed to take a few photographs of Thomas and his deputy, Dan Jones, laughing hilariously at some joke. Ari could almost imagine the headline – A Lot To Be Happy About or A Pleasing Result - something witty maybe –This Party’s No Joke. He felt good about being sought out by the dark haired beauty. He knew it was stroking his ego, but he felt it could do with some boosting.



 



            Sunday was warm and breezy. Ari sat el-fresco, beneath a large umbrella with a view of the river. Collette fluttered in like a leaf in autumn. Her summery dress, mainly white with an indeterminate print pattern of arty scribbles, flared a little in the wind. She almost danced up the few steps to his table before sitting down.



“What a lovely spot. What’s the coffee like?”



“We’ll order some and you tell me.”



She picked up the menu and started listing some of the possible treats she might sample.



“Black forest.... mmm cheesecake, fudge, and lemon meringue oh yum. That torte sounds good. I might try that. You know, I looked up that word last night.”



Ari looked blankly at her, choosing not to voice the expected question.



“So you think I talk a lot.”



“Oh...” Ari couldn’t help grinning because she had already engaged in a running commentary of the menu, in alphabetical order too! “You mean ‘loquacious’.”



“”Uh huh, how can you say that about someone you hardly know? It could be incredibly insulting if I were thin skinned. I could just get up and walk away, and never come back.”



Ari just laughed, because she talked so much, and he recognised that she did it purposely as a tongue in cheek emphasis to magnify her feigned indignity.



            A waitress came and took their orders, and then they spent a good hour in leisurely conversation talking about themselves and their jobs and where the country was heading. Ari kept any personal knowledge about possible alliances to himself but spoke generally of the refreshing change of having a political climate where things wouldn’t be so predictable.



 



            She gave him a little peck on the cheek as she left and then twirled around with a cheeky grin, “I enjoyed this; why don’t we meet again next Sunday?”



“Sure,” Ari was hoping that it would be sooner. “Same time, same place?”



“Uh huh, see you then.” Collette swayed away along the paved walkway by the river. Ari watched her rhythmic walk into the distance until she disappeared into the crowd of Sunday strollers.



 



            It was a hectic week of political manoeuvring with the jubilant Republicans finally siding with the socialist oriented Labor Party. There was an unusual state of affairs with no guaranteed stability in the federal government and the possibility that the Governor General may dissolve both Houses of Parliament should the coalition become unworkable. Ari was particularly busy with some other speech writers conveying a conservative, responsible approach from the minor government party. Thomas McLeish, the Republican leader, became Deputy PM and was given the ‘Defence’ portfolio. Ari and some very inexperienced staff members were swept into the political maelstrom of media releases and multiple interview spots on a variety of current affairs shows. Briefings with advisors had the wordsmiths reviewing key policy ideas and trying to draft simple statements, without clichés, for McLeish to focus on.



            At one press conference Ari saw Collette taking her unusual real life photos. Her camera was flashing at small groups meeting conspiratorially away from all the attention, and then it captured two MPs in a heated discussion. He caught her eye and gave a little wave. The glamorous, dark haired photographer grinned and took a mock shot of him. She made her way over and sidled up to Ari.



“Hello gorgeous, we have to stop meeting like this.”



“Hi Collette, it’s good to see you. Maybe we can have dinner.” The moment Ari said it he felt as if he was gushing.



“Maybe,” she winked with a hint of encouragement. She quickly returned to her work gaining access to groups with her winning smile.



            They had an enjoyable coffee at Brewsters the next Sunday and walked along the river together before saying good bye. Back at his flat he reflected on where his life was heading. Did he really enjoy the synthetic world of media images and social climbing? Was Collette the sort of girl you could have a deep, meaningful relationship with, or was she just fun? The swirl of thoughts unsettled him and he turned on the TV and watched the football as a distraction.



 



            One afternoon the following week Ari was stuck in a staff meeting, with McLeish and Jones laying down the law on any statements made to the press. Several prescribed party quotes were outlined with ‘we’re formalising our policy on that issue’ being the preferred option for topics deviating from those identified as being key policy areas, while ‘no comment’ was the option for anything related to confidential discussions with the other coalition party. The two leaders were part of the government cabinet, and a number of proposed legislations were discussed to consolidate the party line and clarify any amendments that might be submitted. Ari already saw that much of the vaunted ideals put forward to the public were being eroded by the pragmatism of being in power.



            Dinner at an exclusive piano lounge with the lovely Collette began to sour when she kept quizzing him about Thomas McLeish and asking him what it was like to work with such a charismatic leader. The attractive photographer, whose friendship had started to show promise, stunned Ari when she asked to be introduced to Thomas McLeish.



“Why? He doesn’t do media shots or personal interviews with just anyone.” Ari responded, realising he was denigrating her standing with the comment.



“I don’t want to meet him professionally. He’s the second most powerful man in the country. I just want to meet him ‘socially’.” She smiled coquettishly.



Ari felt sickened. Was this what she saw in him? Was he just a conduit to meeting a handsome powerbroker?



“He is married.” Ari stated bluntly.



Collette grinned cheekily, “I know.” It didn’t seem to matter to her. Ari got up and walked out.



“Ari...”



He ignored her call.
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