The café was quiet, the yellow-brick courtyard reflecting the afternoon sun onto the palms and vines that surrounded the two men. Chris looked at ‘Tom’. He was in his late twenties, with a thick brown beard, and casually dressed. His hair was cut shorter than Chris’ mop, and there were more lines around his blue eyes, but the resemblance was undeniable.
‘Your coffee’s getting cold man,’ said Tom.
‘You’re… You’re really me.’
Tom shrugged, almost apologetically.
‘Not a clue, I just woke up on the wrong day. Probably happens all the time.’
Chris lit a cigarette shakily. He took a deep breath then leaned it on the ashtray, forgotten. ‘Why Tom?’
‘I like that name, and I thought it might be … indiscreet, to have two Chris Masons running around.’
‘But you didn’t see a problem with asking yourself out for a coffee?’
‘I was curious. Besides, Dr Who gets away with it all the time.’
That made Chris blink. ‘Any advice?’ He asked.
Tom sipped his bottle of Carlton thoughtfully. ‘Yeah. At a house party in London, maybe three years from now, these two cute Eastern Europeans are going to ask if you want to check out the roof. Go with them. You spent the night talking to some hippy idiot about the future of wind farming and some other jerk got a sex sandwich.’
‘I know right, you oblivious twit.’
‘No, I mean really, that’s all you’ve got?’
‘What do you want?’ Tom’s eyes rolled back in his head. ‘Be on the grassy knoll at midnight or the day is lost.’ He hissed in a stage whisper, arms out like Frankenstein’s monster. ‘This isn’t a comic book. Most of the mistakes I’ve made involved common sense losing out to good clean fun. Take it easy on yourself you know? Life’s as kind as you let it be … And maybe don’t move in with anyone named Greg. That does not go well for us.’
‘Life’s as…’ Chris frowned. ‘Man, is that from Bukowski?’
Tom grinned. ‘Sorry, I thought we picked him up next year.’
Chris pushed his hair out of his eyes and sighed. He reached for his cigarette but found it burned down to the filter, leaving a tube of ash and a dirty crescent scar on the table.
‘Fine, can you at least tell me who wins the footy this year?’
‘I’ve watched as many games as you have.’
‘So you’re totally useless.’
‘Sorry I didn’t think to print off the last ten years of sport statistics before I went to bed.’ Tom waved to the waitress and ordered another beer. ‘You’re good to cover these right? My bank account doesn’t exist yet.’
‘Christ…’ muttered Chris. ‘And what’s with the Ned Kelly impression? Are we one of those twats that grows a beard to hide the fact they have no jaw…’ Chris paused wide-eyed. ‘Do we have a double chin? How many chins are you hiding?’ He pointed an accusing finger in Tom’s face. ‘On a scale of none to ten how many chins do we have?’
Tom slapped Chris’ hand away, coffee cups rattling in their saucers. ‘Stop that you idiot, we have the regular number of chins,’ he said, pointing his own digit in Chris’s face until he leant back.
Tom pushed his fingers through his hair and sighed. ‘I may not be headed to the Olympics any time soon but no one would call me fat, and anybody that can grow a beard by their mid-twenties grows a beard, only dudes in shoe gaze bands want to look like bloody Bowie.’
‘Oh so now we don’t like Bowie,’ scoffed Chris, arms crossed.
‘Of course we still like… Christ.’ Tom moved his chair back under the table with a scowl. Chris withered a nearby palm. ‘Did you really think we’d get about in those winkle-pickers forever? You can barely walk in those things, and I remember those jeans you’re wearing. I know you have to lie on the floor to get them off. We change, what do you care if I’ve got a beard now?’
‘Tony doesn’t have a beard; and they’re not winkle-pickers,’ muttered Chris.
‘I haven’t seen brother dearest’s face in years.’
‘Dad doesn’t have a beard.’
‘Dad’s in the army, the moment he quits he grows a neck protector that’d make Jeremiah Johnson cry his little hermit heart out.’ Tom went quiet. ‘When him and mum call it quits he gets pretty hairy in general.’
Chris looked up. ‘When they what?’
‘About six months after we move from Sydney,’ Tom said softly. ‘Once they retire...’ He shrugged.
‘I thought that—’
‘You don’t think that. I didn’t. The more time they spend together, the more they realise just how much they can’t stand each other. Search your heart blah blah.’ Tom wiped some spilled beer from the table with a napkin and drank from what was left in the bottle.
Chris reached over and picked up the cigarettes. He stuck one in the corner of his mouth and then flicked the packet at Tom, who deftly snatched it from the air.
‘They’re happier now,’ said Tom finally, ‘they—’
‘Why the fuck are you here?’ Asked Chris.
‘Don’t get sulky boss. Did you know you look like you’re about to cry whenever you get all sulky?’
‘I do not! I’m not sulky!’ Chris felt his face grow warm.
‘Look.’ Tom flicked away his spent butt and started scratching his face. ‘I don’t find this anymore comfortable than you, but you don’t see me crying about it.’
‘Seriously, what the fuck are you doing here?’ Chris resisted the overwhelming urge to shout. ‘You’re not going to make us rich, you haven’t told me anything useful, so why bother? Did you just come here to scab a beer and hassle me?’
Tom leant back in his seat and took in the younger man’s fresh, if agitated, features. He found he couldn’t remember being that smooth and clean.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said sincerely, ‘I didn’t look you up just to fuck with your day. I just can’t change you. Life is a chain of events. Taking out a link or two doesn’t free you from the past - you just fill the gap with something similar. All I can say is relax, it’s not all bad. But I’ve been selling myself that line for years and it’s only after a lot of time and ugly mornings that you’re going to buy it. “Do this”, “Don’t do that”, all that’s just symptomatic.’ Tom smiled sadly. ‘I only wanted to see ...’ He held up his hands. ‘Call it a nostalgia visit.’
Chris opened his mouth to argue and then laughed. ‘What a load of horse shit.’ He picked up Tom’s beer. Finding it empty he tipped it over then put it back down. ‘At least tell me that I don’t grow back hair.’
‘Yeah, but only little ones, and your girlfriend plucks them for you.’
Tom snorted. ‘That’s exactly what I said.’