Meeting Old Mates by Henry Lawson
I. Tom Smith
You are getting well on in the thirties, and haven't left off
being a fool yet. You have been away in another colony or country
for a year or so, and have now come back again. Most of your chums
have gone away or got married, or, worse still, signed the pledge —
settled down and got steady; and you feel lonely and desolate and
left-behind enough for anything. While drifting aimlessly round town
with an eye out for some chance acquaintance to have a knock round
with, you run against an old chum whom you never dreamt of meeting,
or whom you thought to be in some other part of the country — or
perhaps you knock up against someone who knows the old chum in
question, and he says:
"I suppose you know Tom Smith's in Sydney?"
"Tom Smith! Why, I thought he was in Queensland! I haven't seen
him for more than three years. Where's the old joker hanging out at
all? Why, except you, there's no one in Australia I'd sooner see than
Tom Smith. Here I've been mooning round like an unemployed for three
weeks, looking for someone to have a knock round with, and Tom in
Sydney all the time. I wish I'd known before. Where'll I run against
him — where does he live?"
"Oh, he's living at home."
"But where's his home? I was never there."
"Oh, I'll give you his address. . . . There, I think that's it.
I'm not sure about the number, but you'll soon find out in that street
— most of 'em'll know Tom Smith."
"Thanks! I rather think they will. I'm glad I met you. I'll hunt
Tom up to-day."
So you put a few shillings in your pocket, tell your landlady that
you're going to visit an old aunt of yours or a sick friend, and
mayn't be home that night; and then you start out to hunt up Tom Smith
and have at least one more good night, if you die for it.
This is the first time you have seen Tom at home; you knew of his
home and people in the old days, but only in a vague, indefinite sort
of way. Tom has changed! He is stouter and older-looking; he seems
solemn and settled down. You intended to give him a surprise and have
a good old jolly laugh with him, but somehow things get suddenly
damped at the beginning. He grins and grips your hand right enough,
but there seems something wanting. You can't help staring at him, and
he seems to look at you in a strange, disappointing way; it doesn't
strike you that you also have changed, and perhaps more in his eyes
than he in yours. He introduces you to his mother and sisters and
brothers, and the rest of the family; or to his wife, as the case may
be; and you have to suppress your feelings and be polite and talk
common-place. You hate to be polite and talk common-place. You aren't
built that way — and Tom wasn't either, in the old days. The wife
(or the mother and sisters) receives you kindly, for Tom's sake, and
makes much of you; but they don't know you yet. You want to get Tom
outside, and have a yarn and a drink and a laugh with him — you are
bursting to tell him all about yourself, and get him to tell you all
about himself, and ask him if he remembers things; and you wonder if
he is bursting the same way, and hope he is. The old lady and sisters
(or the wife) bore you pretty soon, and you wonder if they bore Tom;
you almost fancy, from his looks, that they do. You wonder whether
Tom is coming out to-night, whether he wants to get out, and if he
wants to and wants to get out by himself, whether he'll be able to
manage it; but you daren't broach the subject, it wouldn't be polite.
You've got to be polite. Then you get worried by the thought that Tom
is bursting to get out with you and only wants an excuse; is waiting,
in fact, and hoping for you to ask him in an off-hand sort of way to
come out for a stroll. But you're not quite sure; and besides, if you
were, you wouldn't have the courage. By-and-bye you get tired of it
all, thirsty, and want to get out in the open air. You get tired of
saying, "Do you really, Mrs. Smith?" or "Do you think so, Miss Smith?"
or "You were quite right, Mrs. Smith," and "Well, I think so too, Mrs.
Smith," or, to the brother, "That's just what I thought, Mr. Smith."
You don't want to "talk pretty" to them, and listen to their
wishy-washy nonsense; you want to get out and have a roaring spree
with Tom, as you had in the old days; you want to make another night
of it with your old mate, Tom Smith; and pretty soon you get the blues
badly, and feel nearly smothered in there, and you've got to get out
and have a beer anyway — Tom or no Tom; and you begin to feel wild
with Tom himself; and at last you make a bold dash for it and chance
Tom. You get up, look at your hat, and say: "Ah, well, I must be
going, Tom; I've got to meet someone down the street at seven o'clock.
Where'll I meet you in town next week?"
But Tom says:
"Oh, dash it; you ain't going yet. Stay to tea, Joe, stay to tea.
It'll be on the table in a minute. Sit down — sit down, man! Here,
gimme your hat."
And Tom's sister, or wife, or mother comes in with an apron on and
her hands all over flour, and says:
"Oh, you're not going yet, Mr. Brown? Tea'll be ready in a minute.
Do stay for tea." And if you make excuses, she cross-examines you
about the time you've got to keep that appointment down the street,
and tells you that their clock is twenty minutes fast, and that you
have got plenty of time, and so you have to give in. But you are
mightily encouraged by a winksome expression which you see, or fancy
you see, on your side of Tom's face; also by the fact of his having
accidentally knocked his foot against your shins. So you stay.
One of the females tells you to "Sit there, Mr. Brown," and you
take your place at the table, and the polite business goes on. You've
got to hold your knife and fork properly, and mind your p's and q's,
and when she says, "Do you take milk and sugar, Mr. Brown?" you've
got to say, "Yes, please, Miss Smith — thanks — that's plenty." And
when they press you, as they will, to have more, you've got to keep on
saying, "No, thanks, Mrs. Smith; no, thanks, Miss Smith; I really
couldn't; I've done very well, thank you; I had a very late dinner,
and so on" — bother such tommy-rot. And you don't seem to have any
appetite, anyway. And you think of the days out on the track when you
and Tom sat on your swags under a mulga at mid-day, and ate mutton and
johnny-cake with clasp-knives, and drank by turns out of the old,
battered, leaky billy.
And after tea you have to sit still while the precious minutes are
wasted, and listen and sympathize, while all the time you are on the
fidget to get out with Tom, and go down to a private bar where you
know some girls.
And perhaps by-and-bye the old lady gets confidential, and seizes
an opportunity to tell you what a good steady young fellow Tom is now
that he never touches drink, and belongs to a temperance society (or
the Y.M.C.A.), and never stays out of nights.
Consequently you feel worse than ever, and lonelier, and sorrier
that you wasted your time coming. You are encouraged again by a
glimpse of Tom putting on a clean collar and fixing himself up a bit;
but when you are ready to go, and ask him if he's coming a bit down
the street with you, he says he thinks he will in such a
disinterested, don't-mind-if-I-do sort of tone, that he makes you mad.
At last, after promising to "drop in again, Mr. Brown, whenever
you're passing," and to "don't forget to call," and thanking them for
their assurance that they'll "be always glad to see you," and telling
them that you've spent a very pleasant evening and enjoyed yourself,
and are awfully sorry you couldn't stay — you get away with Tom.
You don't say much to each other till you get round the corner and
down the street a bit, and then for a while your conversation is
mostly common-place, such as, "Well, how have you been getting on all
this time, Tom?" "Oh, all right. How have you been getting on?" and
But presently, and perhaps just as you have made up your mind to
chance the alleged temperance business and ask Tom in to have a drink,
he throws a glance up and down the street, nudges your shoulder, says
"Come on," and disappears sideways into a pub.
"What's yours, Tom?" "What's yours, Joe?" "The same for me."
"Well, here's luck, old man." "Here's luck." You take a drink, and
look over your glass at Tom. Then the old smile spreads over his face,
and it makes you glad — you could swear to Tom's grin in a hundred
years. Then something tickles him — your expression, perhaps, or a
recollection of the past — and he sets down his glass on the bar and
laughs. Then you laugh. Oh, there's no smile like the smile that old
mates favour each other with over the tops of their glasses when they
meet again after years. It is eloquent, because of the memories that
give it birth.
"Here's another. Do you remember ——? Do you remember ——?"
Oh, it all comes back again like a flash. Tom hasn't changed a bit;
just the same good-hearted, jolly idiot he always was. Old times back
again! "It's just like old times," says Tom, after three or four more
And so you make a night of it and get uproariously jolly. You get
as "glorious" as Bobby Burns did in the part of Tam O'Shanter, and
have a better "time" than any of the times you had in the old days.
And you see Tom as nearly home in the morning as you dare, and he
reckons he'll get it hot from his people — which no doubt he will —
and he explains that they are very particular up at home — church
people, you know — and, of course, especially if he's married, it's
understood between you that you'd better not call for him up at home
after this — at least, not till things have cooled down a bit. It's
always the way. The friend of the husband always gets the blame in
cases like this. But Tom fixes up a yarn to tell them, and you aren't
to "say anything different" in case you run against any of them. And
he fixes up an appointment with you for next Saturday night, and he'll
get there if he gets divorced for it. But he MIGHT have to take the
wife out shopping, or one of the girls somewhere; and if you see her
with him you've got to lay low, and be careful, and wait — at another
hour and place, perhaps, all of which is arranged — for if she sees
you she'll smell a rat at once, and he won't be able to get off at
And so, as far as you and Tom are concerned, the "old times" have
come back once more.
But, of course (and we almost forgot it), you might chance to fall
in love with one of Tom's sisters, in which case there would be
another and a totally different story to tell.
II. Jack Ellis
Things are going well with you. You have escaped from "the track",
so to speak, and are in a snug, comfortable little billet in the city.
Well, while doing the block you run against an old mate of other days
— VERY other days — call him Jack Ellis. Things have gone hard with
Jack. He knows you at once, but makes no advance towards a greeting;
he acts as though he thinks you might cut him — which, of course, if
you are a true mate, you have not the slightest intention of doing.
His coat is yellow and frayed, his hat is battered and green, his
trousers "gone" in various places, his linen very cloudy, and his boots
burst and innocent of polish. You try not to notice these things —
or rather, not to seem to notice them — but you cannot help doing so,
and you are afraid he'll notice that you see these things, and put a
wrong construction on it. How men will misunderstand each other! You
greet him with more than the necessary enthusiasm. In your anxiety to
set him at his ease and make him believe that nothing — not even money
— can make a difference in your friendship, you over-act the
business; and presently you are afraid that he'll notice that too,
and put a wrong construction on it. You wish that your collar was
not so clean, nor your clothes so new. Had you known you would meet
him, you would have put on some old clothes for the occasion.
You are both embarrassed, but it is YOU who feel ashamed — you
are almost afraid to look at him lest he'll think you are looking at
his shabbiness. You ask him in to have a drink, but he doesn't
respond so heartily as you wish, as he did in the old days; he doesn't
like drinking with anybody when he isn't "fixed", as he calls it —
when he can't shout.
It didn't matter in the old days who held the money so long as
there was plenty of "stuff" in the camp. You think of the days when
Jack stuck to you through thick and thin. You would like to give him
money now, but he is so proud; he always was; he makes you mad with
his beastly pride. There wasn't any pride of that sort on the track or
in the camp in those days; but times have changed — your lives have
drifted too widely apart — you have taken different tracks since
then; and Jack, without intending to, makes you feel that it is so.
You have a drink, but it isn't a success; it falls flat, as far as
Jack is concerned; he won't have another; he doesn't "feel on", and
presently he escapes under plea of an engagement, and promises to see
And you wish that the time was come when no one could have more or
less to spend than another.
P.S. — I met an old mate of that description once, and so
successfully persuaded him out of his beastly pride that he borrowed
two pounds off me till Monday. I never got it back since, and I want
it badly at the present time. In future I'll leave old mates with
their pride unimpaired.