This isn't going to last.
He's a nice-enough boy, befriending me as I started at my new infants school a few weeks back, even inviting me over for a sleepover, but we won't stay pals. I know this in my rapidly stretching bones but I'm not sure he's aware of it.
I'm not sure he ever came to terms with our decoupling, even when it became obvious we were done, even years later, by the time we were passing each other in the corridors of senior school, near-men at a loss for what to say to each other; some hurt on his side, some shame on mine.
I'll never tell him straight, either. I'll just drift away, fall in with another group.
The two boys I'll hook up with, for life, as it turns out, live in this same neighbourhood, a park, an adversarial Dobermann and a couple of mulberry trees over from my own. I don't know it very well yet, but its modest brick veneers, its network of steep roads, its swooping magpies, its gums and jacarandas will eventually become as familiar to me as the infectious laugh of the lad who lives at the top of the precinct's looping drive and the mischievous glint of his bookend who lives at the bottom.
Forty years on, these characteristics are still distinctive, in those two friends, at least, not the neighbourhood.
Its decline has been sad and shocking, a patch of town, a slice of house-proud, middle-class Australia, that went the other way.
On my most recent visit, I was Marty McFly returning to an alternative timeline. My downwardly mobile stomping ground wasn't quite as anarchic as his warped, crime-ridden Lyon Estates but not far off. A mattress in a front yard, a car on blocks, windows furnished with bed sheets and flags; a through-road of ambition now a cul-de-sac of good enough.
At this moment, though, the families around here are doing well, still years from the diaspora which will re-engineer everything (the really clever ones migrating to Sydney or up the coast). Mining, farming, small-town commerce, education; all tenets of our decent, if not grandiose, existence. A solid launching pad.
The Commodore 64 in front of me is one shiny new product of this fortunate pact with the fates.
It's also the reason I know this kid and I will never make it.
He insists the computer "game" we're "playing" is fun and exciting but as far as I can deduce, it's a sneaky form of home schooling foisted on us - on a Saturday, no less - by his parents (I knew they were weird, far too forthcoming with praise and affection) and appears to involve something dangerously close to maths.
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What I'm watching, I'm assured, is a duel between two humanoids. One of them will be shot and fall to the ground. Sounds good and if it were true, I'd be on board, guns blazing. Unfortunately, all I can see are two green polygons at either side of the screen and a couple of squiggles hovering between them. They may be moving, I can't tell. There's no discharging of weapons, as such, but feverish tapping at the keyboard courtesy of my engrossed companion.
He's writing code and by doing so will mastermind the outcome of the game. The code is 'BASIC', the ubiquitous computer language of the 1980s. It, along with acne, unrequited love, technical drawing and algebra, would be inflicted on me in years 8 to 10.
He suggests I have a go. I respectfully decline.
As my gaze moves between the macramé owl on the wall and the alleged "action" on the bulbous monitor below it, the scrolling commands go something like this ...
] 210 PRINT "SHOOT"
] 220 IF Y = CQ THEN 230
] 230 INPUT GUEST'S EYES GLAZING OVER
] 240 DATA GUEST DESTINED FOR USELESS ARTS DEGREE
] 250 GO TO SUCCESSFUL GAMING CAREER
I don't know if that's true. I don't know if my friend did enter the gaming industry. I wouldn't be surprised if he had; he was bright, technologically inclined and, evidently, the earliest of adopters. Again, it's to my shame I've no idea what became of him.
It is true I earned an arts degree. I'd be quite happy and proud if my own children went on to do the same (I suspect their brains are plugged with more of my late-on-the-uptake grey matter than that of their sharper mother's) we'll just have to rob a bank to afford it. Fair enough, though, an appreciation of history, performance and literature really should be confined to the most well-heeled of society. They'll put it to better use than the rest of us.
Unlike their Luddite father, whether the children actually get off the computer long enough to attend university is unlikely because the gaming world appears to have swallowed them whole. It used to be Minecraft, now it's something called Roblox (stupid me, I thought they were saying "roadblocks", they need that arts degree more than I realised), an online, multiplayer universe facilitating 3D immersion, interaction and familial dissociation.
For those of us who eschewed that era of nascent computer domination for such superior pursuits as bird-watching, bike riding and the general development of muscles and hand-eye coordination, the joke really is on us. According to PwC, Australians spent $3.41 billion on video gaming and esports (whatever they are) in 2020 and are predicted to be spending $5 billion on the sector by 2025. The figures eclipse spending on streaming services.
As semi-responsible parents, we try to limit the kids' exposure to devices. Anything less than addiction would be nice, yet in a truly post, post-modern move, our children are not only spending time and money on gaming and streaming, they've discovered a way to combine the two. They revealed the other day how they're now playing the Roblox Squid Game, a riff on the crazy-popular Netflix series where innocent schoolyard competitions of Korean childhood have been co-opted into a jailhouse bloodbath.
I'll never look at a Crunchie the same again.
We're all guilty of being hindsight heroes, but sometimes, looking back, we can pinpoint the precise moment it became clear things were going to change, forever.
My moment of clarity came while sitting at that computer with that clever, unappealing boy, knowing people like him were going to leave people like me behind (not the other way around).
I think they call it the game of life.
- B. R. Doherty is a regular columnist.