Updated: Apr 30, 2020
Charlie Johnson turned the radio off. The midday bulletin he'd just been listening to had announced more of the same bad news that the Sunday breakfast TV shows had been delivering three hours earlier, and that his social media accounts seemed to be feeding him 24/7. The number of Covid-19 cases in Australia had just passed the 5,500 mark, with sadly now 30 deaths recorded;
A number of stricken cruise ships docked at, or moored off, the ports of Sydney and Fremantle on opposite sides of the Australian continent were causing headaches to the State Premiers of New South Wales and Western Australia. Seemingly this strange new virus, which had utterly upended the country, and indeed the whole world, in the past few weeks, becoming a global pandemic, was striking down crew members and passengers alike, afloat and unwelcome, in port or just offshore at sea in the Pacific and Indian Oceans respectively, and had become something of a political hot potato, with the potential to become full blown Diplomatic Incidents, the news reader had said.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, the picture was looking even grimmer. New York City appeared to be experiencing a major crisis, with ominous signs that the USA as a whole, seemingly ill-prepared for the virus, could be heading towards disaster. In Europe things weren't looking much better, with dire statistics and images of suffering coming from many of the European Union nations, and in his native land, the UK, which astonishingly had just been taken out of the EU by the Tory Government 9 weeks earlier, the situation was not looking at all good either.
Charlie's thoughts turned to his Dad, approaching 90 and experiencing mandated quarantine back in his home village in Sussex, and to his sister and her two children, both young adults now, living 40 miles away from Dad in neighbouring Surrey. For the first time in a long time the distance between Australia and Great Britain suddenly seemed real.
In the 32 years that he'd been living on the opposite side of the planet from where he grew up, it'd always mentally just been a day away, if flying on a direct route, or perhaps a day and a half or even two, maximum, if flying on a cheaper airfare, with unavoidable stops built in.
But that was back then, before the world had changed so extraordinarily a month ago.
Now, there didn't appear to be any flights flying at all between Australia and the UK, nor indeed between Australia and anywhere else. the country had sealed itself in hermetically, like an Antipodean North Korea, and even domestic travel between the States and Territories of the island continent was now prohibited. Who could say when such restrictions would be lifted, and when things might get back to some semblance of normality?
Charlie though back to just 4 weeks ago, when he and a friend had attended Elton John's triumphant final Australian concert in a packed football stadium, and also to the week before that, when he'd been a marshal at the massive effervescent and rainbow-infused annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. It had had 12,500 participants, and there’d been hundreds of thousands of cheering and waving spectators in the crowd lining the Parade route, whom he and his fellow marshals had waved back to as they made up the final entry in the Parade, heading up Oxford Street to the Showgrounds, where he'd partied the night away on a packed, heaving, sweaty dance floor.
It was surreal to think that following the rules laid down in the Federal Government's latest 'Social Distancing' law, brought in just 3 days ago, there were now fines of over $1,000 being imposed for mixing with more than one other person in public, and threats of jail time even.
It was as if humanity had suddenly found itself in a prolonged episode of The Twilight Zone, with no end in sight, and multiple screen writers running amok. Perhaps, Charlie thought to himself, now was finally time to settle down and try and write.
He'd been threatening to write for ages. Heck, 16 years before, in the very back yard in which he was now sitting enjoying his second cuppa of the day, he'd rashly hosted a "Charlie's Off to Europe to Write a Book" party, and a memorable party it had been too. Over 100 friends had turned up, packing his little house to the gunnels, and then, a year or so later, that meant there were 100 or so people asking how the book had gone, and when would they be able to read it?
And of course they hadn't. It had never got written, although the trip about which the book was going to have been written most definitely did take place. He could recall some of the statistics: 30,000+ kilometres travelled around the Atlantic coastline of Europe, from Arkhangelsk on the shores of the White Sea, up in Russia's Arctic Circle, right down to Gibraltar, at the point where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean; 16,000 photographs taken; 7 months of travelling; 26 borders crossed, 4 encounters with the police, one funeral attended, one passport ruined in a washing machine and so much more.
Perhaps it might even wind up getting written now, during the pandemic, but not straight away. There was plenty of other material that Charlie wanted to get down on paper, or rather on his laptop, before reaching the adventures of 2004. There were four and a half decades of his life before that memorable year that were itching to come out and be explored.
He smiled wryly as he recalled that the day's date -April 5th 2020- was exactly 30 years to the day since a major change had occurred in his life, even if the other participants involved in that evening back on April 5th 1990 probably didn't remember the date, although he was sure they’d remembered the night. In fact, Charlie had actually tried to start his writing a few days earlier during the week - on April 1st, April Fool's day, no less- and he was going to have used that date, the one 30 years earlier, as the starting point for his narrative.
He'd sat down and written a couple of pages and then had rashly sent them off to an eclectic assortment of Facebook friends, far and wide, in a large group message, asking for feedback, which had sown confusion amongst its recipients, and had made him realise that that was not the way to go about this thing.
If Charlie wanted to write, he'd do so, without feedback beforehand, and he'd attempt to get out what he wanted to say in the form of a blog. And it would have to start right at the very beginning. The response that he'd received from those friends who'd not been entirely confused by the mass message had actually been quite positive. One comment, however, which read "Mate, if you're trying your hand at soft gay porn, then I'm afraid I'm the wrong demographic!" had not only made him laugh, but also made him realise that that definitely wasn't what he was aiming to do, and that this was indeed a very useful piece of feedback.
He decided he'd include those pages though, to kick off his blog, by way of marking a future half way point through the narrative, with just over 30 years of Charlie's story to occur before that night, and 30 years (and hopefully a lot more!) to come after. And then after that he'd go right where it all began, in another of the planet's seven continents, one not yet mentioned.
Thus it was that Charlie sat at his laptop and typed the first entry of The Charlie Johnson Chronicles ...
“Charlie Johnson wasn’t expecting this particular Thursday evening in early April 1990 to change his life. It’d been a normal enough day at work. The travel wholesale company where he worked in central Sydney as the Marketing Manager was going great guns. That year’s brochures, which he’d helped to produce, and then launch to the travel trade, were all out on the market, sales were going well, and it was only a matter of weeks until he was due to fly off to Southern Africa on an amazing 4 week business trip, combined with a bit of pleasure, and the prospect excited him greatly.
Admittedly the idea of that evening’s liaison at the Newtown Hotel excited him quite a bit too. The personal ad in Sydney’s gay magazine, the Sydney Star observer, or SSO, which hadn’t had a picture, had said only that “Tommy, horny, blond, 6ft, 27, good looking, from Country New South Wales, 6 inch chopper”, was looking to meet a “likeminded hot Single Sydney Guy, 25-35, no strings attached, able to host”.
At thirty one and a half, Charlie definitely fitted Tommy’s required age demographic, plus he was certainly single, and for the better part of two years now he had been Sydney-based. He wasn’t sure if he’d call himself hot, but he was definitely horny, and he reckoned he’d earned the chance to hook up with a well endowed Aussie farm hand, if indeed, as he’d been fantasizing, that was Tommy’s profession. Charlie hadn’t mentioned anything about perhaps bringing home an overnight guest to his two housemates, but that was a bridge that could be crossed over breakfast tomorrow, if it got that far.
In 1990, the personal ads in the gay mags lacked the immediacy of the plethora of gay apps available to horny guys in 2020 on their mobile phones. Indeed no one then had even heard of a mobile phone or an app, and presumably the future founders of Grindr, Mr X, Manhunt, Scruff, Gaydar et al were still in diapers. The procedure Charlie had gone through to make contact with Tommy and his 6 inch chopper had been lengthy. There was that word again. It was a worry how thoughts of length seemed to be fixating him that afternoon!
The initial step had been to have spotted Tommy’s ad in the back pages of the SSO in the first place, which would have cost Tommy $2.50 to place; secondly he’d had to write a reply to Tommy, max 50 words, expressing interest, curiosity and perhaps a tad too much lust, via a postbox at the SSO, enclosing a $1 cheque; He’d then had to wait for about a week, before getting a letter back from Tommy, forwarded by the SSO, proposing a meet up at the Newtown on the appointed date, at 6.30 pm, and also expressing, it had to be said, interest, curiosity and lust too. There’d been no phone contact, and indeed Charlie didn’t really have a phone number he could’ve given, or wanted to give, be it at work or in the shared house, and none had been provided at Tommy’s end.
It was only a short bus ride from work to Newtown, Sydney’s hippest suburb, and the Newtown Hotel held, and indeed still holds, a prominent position in the centre of the King Street shopping, wining and dining strip. Charlie would’ve stared with incredulity if anyone had told him that evening that in 7 years time he’d be managing a busy travel agency about 150 metres up the road from the Newtown Hotel, as indeed he would’ve if they’d told him that in just 4 months time Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait, and that that event would completely upend his professional life, but that is a story for a future chapter.
For now, Charlie has arrived half an hour early, just on 6pm, while the pub’s predominantly straight daytime trade is morphing into its evening gay clientele, and has found himself a stool in a strategic spot where he can keep his eyes on both entrances and the loos, a trick he’d learnt during his ‘Gay on Wednesdays’ years in London, which too are a story for a different future chapter.
Tommy hadn’t said he was going to be wearing a carnation, or a hat, or indeed much information about his appearance at all, other than “I’ll recognize you, mate, and you’ll recognize me, and we’ll go from there, yeah?” Yeah. Kinda. Apart from his blond hair, the only other anatomical feature that Charlie was well aware of was unlikely to be immediately obvious, unless Tommy sailed in, proudly tented, denim bulging, in which case Charlie’s might not be the only pair of eyes focused on a tall blond country bumpkin that early Thursday evening in the ‘Newt’.
Charlie had left his work clothes in his little room at the office before he’d set off for Newtown, and was dressed in jeans, teeshirt and sneakers. He realized that apart from his height (5’9), his hair colour (brown), and his eye colour (blue), he hadn’t given much of a description of himself to Tommy, but presumably they would indeed recognize each other and “go from there, yeah?”. Yeah.
From 6 til 6.30 very few people actually came into the pub, and of those that did, none remotely fitted Tommy’s description. From 6.30, the appointed meeting hour, until 7 pm, traffic increased, and Charlie had his eyes on both doors. There was one blond fellow, with a friend, who appeared to both be locals, and they took a seat at a table, chatting amiably, but beyond that no one else fitted the bill.
Come 7pm, and the second schooner of Victoria Bitter, Charlie was wondering if he’d either missed Tommy, or perhaps Tommy had spotted him through the window and decided ‘no’ and walked on down King Street, or, third option, he hadn’t bothered to show up at all. The pub was filling, there was laughter, the clinking of glasses, and some decent background music was playing. Thursday is pay day in Sydney, and also the night that new movies are released, and it’s a popular night for a drink, even with one more day of the working week remaining on Friday.
Of course Tommy could’ve been delayed, and the plane, the train, the bus or the car bringing him to the big city from Woop Woop might’ve broken down, but it seemed unlikely. By 7.30, and the 3rd schooner of VB, Charlie’s thoughts towards Tommy were turning dark. Even if a drop dead gorgeous 6ft tall blond stud muffin sidled up to him and said ‘Sorry I’m late, mate. Good to see ya. I’m Tommy’, he would probably have replied ‘Get lost’. But such thoughts were purely academic because in the event there was no Tommy, nor his chopper.
Just the day before, Charlie had seen an advert on the side of a bus, and then later that evening on the TV, announcing the fact that this very day, Thursday April 5th 1990, the much-touted Sean Connery movie ‘The Hunt for Red October’ was opening in cinemas Australia-wide, a fact and date which Charlie had been able to verify in his kitchen via Google exactly thirty years later, to the day.
A quick perusal of the cinema ads in the daily newspaper lying on the bar showed that there was an 8.00 showing at the main cinema on George street in the city centre, about a 20 minute bus ride away, and thus it was that Charlie downed his beer, exited the pub, and managed to catch a bus almost immediately, which transported him cinematically to the Arctic wastes of Murmansk, which is where the fictitious Soviet nuclear submarine Red October was based. If someone had told Charlie that 14 years later he’d be up in Murmansk, trying to write a book, once again he’d have given that person a strange look, but such adventures are yet again for another chapter.
Suffice to say that Charlie enjoyed the movie, and at 10.00 when it ended he should probably have headed home, but, damn it, he was still horny and smarting from being stood up by Tommy and frankly he wasn’t quite ready to admit defeat yet, even though it was a workday the next day. A late night had been planned, and a late night might yet be had.
It was only about a 15 minute walk from the cinema complex via Bathurst street and a cut across Hyde Park to Oxford Street, Sydney’s gay ‘golden mile’, and it didn’t take him long to reach the Midnight Shift, then the most popular gay bar and nightclub in town. Stepping inside he climbed the 20 or stairs that led up to the club, and happened to glance back down at the entrance, and that was the moment that their eyes locked. But no, it wasn't Tommy.
TO BE CONTINUED.”
That was the ‘teaser’ Charlie had sent out to friends on April 1st, the one that had elicited the soft porn comment. But it’s not going to be continued , at least not until the narrative catches up with the preceding 31 years that came before it. For now, Charlie decided, it was time to go right back to the beginning. Back to Africa.
TO BE CONTINUED.