time will tell


So, the handsome, clever godson turned 21 last weekend.

A shocking head cold prevented me from joining the other old aunts in the old aunts’ corner of the party, so all I could do was snuffle good wishes down the phone.

What’s the coolest gift you’ve got so far? I asked the birthday boy.

I guess that would be the watch mum and dad gave me,” he replied.

Only the kind of expensive carbon-fibre chronograph you might just end up giving your right arm for in the wrong neighbourhood in the United States from whence he’d just returned as a uni exchange student.

But he sounded a teeny bit bemused

I’m not really a watch kind of guy myself, but it’s pretty nice,” he said.

I don’t know what, if anything, lives up to the expectations of turning 21 these days. Really, it’s been redundant as a coming of age since Gough Whitlam lowered the age for voting not long after ending conscription for 18-year-olds who were then still being sent to Vietnam to die.

And now that, thanks to the Abbott Government you’re unlikely to be able to afford to leave the parental home until age 35, the over-sized wooden key would just seem to add insult to injury.

Setting down the phone, I disappeared down a Codral-lined rabbit hole to the primordial past of my own 21st.

Back then I was captive in an all-female version of Lord of the Flies. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor in a flat above a butcher’s shop in western Sydney, living on a diet of alcohol, cigarettes, sausage and apple curry, No Doze and Nescafe.

And my parents gave me … a coffee table.

Not just any coffee table. A monstrous great cube of varnished pine with two shelves of grey smoked glass thick enough to protect a passing Pope.

What were mum and dad thinking – that it would be somehow civilising?

The coffee table survived several slovenly uni student households and was the only item of furniture salvaged from among the milk crates when I finally escaped on the pay packet of a suburban newspaper cadet journo.

From the wilds of Westmead it accompanied me into the inner city when I got my first metro newspaper job.

It proudly supported finger food at my engagement.

And, when we returned from South America married, it was joined by a fold-up-stuff-your-own-genuine-Argentinian-gaucho-leather-couch purchased in Buenos Aires with the very last of the travellers’ cheques.

It bore silent witness at a subsequent party when a former child actor called Nick Yardley – who starred as Snow in the 1947 film A Bush Christmas and worked briefly in a tannery before becoming a journalist – tore a strip off said couch, set fire to it proving – just as he’d insisted – it was indeed made of cardboard.

And when, almost seven years later and not long after the godson was born I split from his uncle there was no dispute when we divided the marital spoils.

Really, wouldn’t you like the coffee table? “Nope, that’s most definitely all yours,” he’d insisted.

Thus is became part of a new life and a new love.

Since then it’s moved cities and states, been there in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, as unlovely and inscrutable as ever.

And year on year, stolidly reminds me the greatest gift of being 21 is time.


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