Friday, March 19, 2010


In the fortnight before he collided with a truck and died, Jim Patts spent his time riding about on his new motorcycle, showing himself and his bike off.

Those early days of 1974 were sticky and humid. Regardless, Jim wore his leather jacket, keeping it open at the chest so the breeze would cool him and show his muscles. The older man at the pub, who insisted on selling the jacket to him for his “safety”, had bought it off a “Yank. In Sydney. Just after the War.” Jim practiced wearing it in front of his wardrobe mirror, along with blue jeans and black army boots.

The motorcycle was a 1965 450cc Honda. Which is to say, it was a big bike. It made Jim feel respected. With the clothes, while riding or standing beside his bike, he felt he became someone. But it wasn't that he simply posed. It was not mere appearances, for the appearance was based on reality: on what it felt like to ride a bike and, by throwing all his passion and identity into that, on what it meant, the feeling and meaning tied up in one.

On the day Jim collided with the truck, he had ridden a winding road through sand dunes by the coast, one of many near his town. He woke that morning from a bad sleep. The bike was bought with the tiny inheritance his mother left after dying three months before. Jim woke twice in the night thinking out of habit that she was still in the next room. The shock was as usual slight but painful when he realised his mistake. Then he woke again, agitated, afraid of her presence, and of his father's - afraid of the presence of the dead. Because of the Death they brought with them? He felt guilty. The same kind of guilt as when he found he couldn't touch his mother's cold body. He didn’t understand that it wasn’t fear, or a betrayal, of his mother, so much as horror at the thing that had overtaken her. And was that just death, or something more? Some kind of loss more absolute than death? What could that be? He had been brooding lately: what was the use of all Mum’s suffering? Six months before the end she had escaped the old man and his twenty years of punches and insults. Just as Jim felt his shoulders straighten and his hands become strong – no more helpless watching - cancer left the old man too weak to hurt her. Then killed him. Jim had thought she could live some kind of life after that, and now he wondered: what was the use of it all? He was determined at least that he would live, despite the fear that he, too, was doomed. As dawn emerged he was dressed and ready to ride.

Years ago Jim's father shot an old dog Jim had adopted, because it was “useless”. “Working dogs are useful; that shit’s good for nothing!” The action and its words seemed like a warning to Jim from the world. Other men and their sons said the same with their eyes and their tone of voice when they questioned him, as though demanding that he justify himself. Recently at the pub he replied proudly: “I ride! That's what I do!” The others snorted, “What's the use of that?” and “What's that any good for?”

Jim was in motion now, through grassy dunes on a sealed road. The first corner was strewn with gravel. He braked clumsily at the apex and dropped a gear, moving off again with a wobble. The next corner felt graceful by comparison, and this improved corner after sweeping corner. Jim realised that if he dropped his elbow and pushed the handlebars in his direction of travel, while being smooth with the throttle, he could glide through corners with effortless speed. In harmony with them. It seemed like a miracle, a little frightening, that the bike should lean, not fall, and everything should hold together. These last few days he had become good at this. But it was not the sort of goodness that serves a use. What Jim knew at this moment was not a thought but a direct experience: the gloom had gone, and in the stream of motion he felt connected with something absolutely real. Grace? Beauty? Jim didn't have those words but he felt the reality. If he was the sort to reflect on such things, he might have added that it was a reality which mere usefulness could never approach. This was real living, with no purpose served, no justification needed. Even death, which could end it, could not erase the fact that this reality had been manifest in this moment. Real living had happened.

A broad feeling, not yet translated into words, had come over Jim.  It was a reply to all those men and to the world in all its hardness. In the moment before Jim Patts collided with a truck and died, he became utterly useless.