Creative Nonfiction

I was pretentious in my first year at Sydney University. I'm not ashamed to say it now. I used words that were too big and I didn't know the meaning of. I only read Herman Hesse, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Jack Kerouac. My wardrobe consisted of black skinny leg jeans, black t-shirts and Doc Martens. My efforts at expressing my individuality, my personality, lumped me into the 'arty-goth-emo crowd'. We complained about the status quo and talked like we knew something about politics and philosophy. In reality, we knew quite a bit more about fonts and formatting. We were great graphic designers and communications managers in the making, not social revolutionaries. Certainly not artists. There were worse things to be than pretentious.

I was a smoker. Back in the early 2010s in Sydney, we could smoke anywhere outside. It was easy to meet people that way. There were instant conversation starters, like borrowing a lighter or complaining about the weather. Smokers were infinitely more interesting than non-smokers. Smokers were slightly less conformist, less preachy than non-smokers. Sometimes, if your nicotine cravings or boredom thresholds aligned, you struck up casual friendships where you could carry a loose conversation on a particular topic as you drifted around the campus. 

That's how I met Andy, the mature age student.

We were in the quadrangle a neat green court framed by a beautiful old sandstone structure modelled on Cambridge or Oxford. It was inspiring, the uneven stone floors reminding you of thousands of great, and average, minds that had strolled around before you, the way voices echoed down long corridors. It was beautiful, with a gnarled, weary Jacaranda tree that bloomed in early summer, dropping its otherworldly purple flowers all over the perfectly manicured lawns. Even the gargoyles were handsome. It was a space that inspired and encouraged pretentious little minds like mine.

I was sitting on a ledge next to the grass, facing the Jacaranda tree. Andy was sitting on the same ledge, facing the corridor. He wore old blue jeans, a faded white button up shirt and a heavy navy coat. He was a smaller guy, lean and fit, as though he'd made a concerted effort to avoid middle age paunch but hadn't decided to take up marathon running either. He had a friendly face, bushy eyebrows and he'd spent a lot of time in the sun, enjoying himself. He had that kind of look. He wore thin framed, rectangle shaped glasses and had short dark grey hair. He must have been in his 50s. A leather shoulder bag rested at his feet. A pack of Dunhill Blue cigarettes sat on the ledge beside him with a zippo lighter on top. He smoked with great contemplation, billowy clouds emerging from his mouth into the cold morning air. He didn't look away or seem to give two shits about the frigid students who shot him angry glares, shuffling through his cigarette smoke pollution. 

We laughed at them. That's when he leaned over and asked me-

Actually, no. That's not how I met Andy, the mature age student. 

Andy was in both my ancient Greek language and ancient Greek art and architecture classes. Unlike the other mature age students, he didn't ask questions. He didn't draw attention to himself. He didn't need to announce that he was present. He didn't take notes in lectures. He came to tutorials and nodded on cue, but didn't contribute. He didn't hang around after to provide his opinions on the suggested reading. He got the memo that we didn't do that kind of thing, my generation. After class, he'd sit in the quad, smoking. Waiting, maybe, for his next class. Killing time, maybe. Loitering. Thinking or overthinking or underthinking.

One day after class, I was caught in a one sided exchange with Frank. Frank was in his late 30s and, after doing a degree in geology, decided he actually wanted to be an archaeologist. But he was probably going to end up being a lifelong student, on account of his pot habit, smoking at least one joint before class, and several more each night, and most definitely before starting on any kind of assessment, just to help with his perceived anxiety. He never turned anything in on time. He was always asking for extensions. But before he dropped out a few weeks later, he would do his best to catch me after class to ask me very specific questions about obscure things that had been discussed. Like I cared the same way he did, which I didn't. Frank rambled on and on eagerly, not unlike a puppy. Andy cast a glance at me as he walked past, seeming to ask I if I needed an exit strategy. I tapped at the earphone in my left ear that faced away from Frank. All good, chief. Andy smiled and gave me a small, subtle salute. 'Roger that,' he mouthed. That's when we first 'met'.

It was some three months later, maybe, at the third semester of our first year of uni, that morning in the quad, with us smoking on opposite sides of a ledge in the quad. It was grey and bleak day. I shivered under my jacket and scarf and wished I'd worn more layers, a beanie maybe. My fingers were stiff they held my cigarette. It was after a satisfyingly dry class on ancient Greek past participles. Just after we both laughed at the non-smokers who judged us. The first time we spoke.

He said,' What are you listening to?'

'Right now, Radiohead.'

'OK Computer?'

'Kid A actually.'

'Good album?'

'It is,' I replied.

'Is that the one... I read somewhere, recorded at the same time as Amnesiac?'

Surprised, I replied, 'Yes. They were recorded in the same session.'

'Is Amnesiac any good, or just... the clippings?'

'Actually it is good.'

'I also read somewhere, that Radiohead are like... the Pink Floyd of this generation. What do you think about that?'

I shrugged, unsure whether I was being baited. But he waited politely for my answer, standing there, smoking. He didn't give off a paternal vibe and nothing in his manner made me feel like I was being hit on. He was genuinely engaging me in a conversation about Radiohead. I shrugged away the feeling of being a kid invited to have a sip of wine with dinner.

I said, hopping over the ledge to stand on the same side as him, 'Well I think Radiohead is infinitely better.'

Andy smiled. 'Big call. Interesting opinion. I beg to differ.'

'Of course you do. Opinions are like arseholes,' I said, quoting a famous singer's quip on Twitter. 'Everyone's got one.'

He laughed out loud now, the sound booming down the corridors. People on the other side of the quad looked over. Oh look at the filthy smokers enjoying themselves, they sneered. 

Andy stubbed out his cigarette. 'Well, I don't know enough about Radiohead to really make a call. But what I've heard, I've liked. Have you listened to much Pink Floyd?'

'Of course.' I'd listened to everything by Pink Floyd. I was a pretentious, first year university student. I had spent years studying music. I was a nerd. 

'But, really listened?'

But really listened? 'No.' I had to admit.

'You a vegan?' 

What does that have to do with anything? 'Not a vegan,' I replied.

'There's a place that does a great burger around the corner. You look like you need a burger. You got time?'

I wasn't doing anything. Whatever. 

We made a deal over a burger and chips and an enormous milkshake that day. We'd both listen, really listen to Radiohead and Pink Floyd ('67-'85), and maybe then, between the two of us, we could have an informed opinion. Not just an opinion. 

The next time I saw him, Andy had a very large box containing a small, beat up record player and his vinyls. I lent him an iPod and some noise cancelling headphones. I bet he laughed watching me toddle awkwardly carrying that huge box towards the bus stop that day.  

We started to catch up after ancient Greek on a Thursday. We talked at length about what we were listening to. Just one album, one or two, just a song. We analysed, dissected tracks. Searched for meaning. Debated about effects and instrumentation. We lamented and meditated on poor Syd Barrett - what if he'd had another second chance, if he'd cleaned up and got his head straight. How different Pink Floyd would have been without their tragic muse. We wondered about what it would be like, to be a fly on the wall as Jonny Greenwood painstakingly teased out the artifice he yearned for from the machines in the recording studio. To see the looks on the other guys faces as they came to realised that, yes, that's it!

I spent long Sunday afternoons lying on the floor in my living room, letting the sound wash over me like sunlight. I liked Pink Floyd's excessively long, navel gazing and hazy earlier work. I preferred their instrumental tracks and jams, their space-rock pieces and rock-opera symphonic pieces to the more famous favourites. I came to see my familiar Radiohead in a new way, beyond the standard description of their departure from more conventional track into the vast, infinite world of electronica. I was stunned by their artistry, their soundscapes, their vignettes of emotions. Pink Floyd took me on journeys, told me long, confused parables. Radiohead immersed me in moments and feelings. Both presented variations on a theme of alienation. Universal, timeless. 

Andy had a way of making me talk about myself, which I tended not really to do. But I found myself telling him stories about my helicopter parents and the years I spent being shuttled between piano and violin lessons, band practice (I also played clarinet and saxophone), Tae Kwan do, Mandarin classes, mathematics tutorials and tennis. Exhausted by age 16. I had really enjoyed playing music, performing, and it felt ruined to me now. 

'Bum deal, kid.'

'All in all it's just another brick in the wall,' I shrugged. We laughed. 

I learned about Andy's life in snippets, about a childhood in the UK with less than ideal parents too. A job in radio in South Australia. Working as a tour manager for some pretty big Australian bands in the 80s. Moving into camera work and photography in the 90s and drifting back to the UK, then back here. It was an exciting life. A couple of marriages with interesting divorces. Some stories perhaps a little too elaborate to be true, a few too many famous names dropped, but well-told, well-practiced. He was a cool dude. He never moralised or lectured. In that way, he never came across as 'old'. Just experienced. 

Four years of corridor conversations, banter over beers and burgers, the better part of an annual salary on cigarettes and wine and the occasional gig. We got through our degrees. We read a lot of ancient Greek. Read Socratic dialogues in their original form, tried our hand at Homer. Learned a lot about classical art and architecture. The influence of the orient on Greek art, the influence of Greek art on Indian art, and so on. Spent long winters in our professor's office under the bell tower in the quad on velvet couches among stacks of yellowing paper and dog eared, leather bound tomes, being spoken to in hushed tones about the inaccessible beauty of the Greek tragic Chorus. Not once did Andy and I talk about what we were 'going to do' with all that knowledge.

A day before graduation we sat outside in the cold again on metal chairs at a metal table, in the shadow of the cafeteria building, smoking. Andy seemed tired. We drank hot coffee. 

'So what now, kid?' he asked me.

I laughed at him. 'I'm sure Radiohead will release something else in the next couple of years. There are other bands too, I'll need to introduce you to Muse.'

He shot me an amused look.

I shrugged. 'I dunno. Maybe I'll write.'

'Not what do you wanna do- what do you want to be?'

'I know what I don't want to be.'

'I guess that's a start.'

A big deep breath. I wasn't good at talking serious about myself. 'Ordinary. I don't want to be ordinary. Normal. Boring.'

He looked off into the distance. 'You still think about things as all or nothing.'

I opened my mouth to protest.

'You think you're gonna end up with either this incredible, exciting life or this boring, mundane life, right?'

'Seems that way from what I've seen.'

He smiled at someone walking past and waved at them casually. 'What you've seen, at the tender age of 22 or whatever you are. You come up with that from all that at mid-century beatnik literature you're into?'

I felt he wasn't really speaking to me anymore. While his words seemed harsh, his tone was gentle, conversational. He had a way of breaking things down like that. Direct, but soft. 

'If it was your parents, they were wrong. Don't blame them though, they probably had their own stuff going on. And while I'm on the topic, you're wrong too - about what you're good at and what you love being ruined already. Nothing's ever ruined. It's never too late.' He thought a moment and went quiet. He seemed to hang on that part, unsure whether he was right. 

'Yeah, look at you. Fifty something. Practically a fossil - and just finished a degree. Okay, boss, so what's the secret to a non-ordinary life?'

'What's gonna mess you up is the idea you have in your head about how it's meant to be.' 


He ignored my mocking tone. 'You're probably going to end up having a pretty normal life. You'll get a job. You might move to another city or country or stay here. Get married or a long term relationship or not, maybe single for life. You might have kids or a dog. Live in an apartment or a house. A mortgage. So normal. You'll get to a point in your life where you'll question every decision you've made. That's normal. You'll have sleepless nights. You'll be sad. You'll treat people badly. You won't listen. You'll be stubborn. You'll worry about dying, the ones you love dying. That's normal. There's a lot to be said about how rubbish a normal life is.'

'I take it back, we should never have started listening to Radiohead.'

He looked right at me. 'Be more concerned about living a meaningless life, kid. It doesn't have to be perfect. But it has to have meaning.' 

I had no witty remarks for him. No sarcasm. No vengeance. 

Someone walked outside from the coffee shop. Music drifted out from inside. Radiohead's Creep. Thom Yorke wailed, 'What the hell am I doing here, I don't belong here'. We smiled at the irony. 

As though answering Thom directly, Andy said 'I never finished high school. I always wondered what'd be like to be a university student, with all that free time, all that entitlement. Always wanted to fill my time talking to kids about music. Learning ancient Greek.'


'To be honest, though, I'm disappointed. You're all a bit lame. Way too serious. I should've gone to university back in the day when you could more easily score acid. '

I laughed at him. 'What are you really doing here?'

He sighed. 'It's true. I always wanted to go to university. I find ancient Greece interesting. Not so much now I've spent four years with it. But,' he paused and stubbed out what was left of his cigarette. He shifted forward in his seat, leant on the table, eyes looking far away. 'At the time, when I was your age, other stuff came up. I had this idea in my head of how it was supposed to be. I spent the better part of 50 years trying not to be boring or ordinary or normal.'

I watched the regret in him, rising slowly and threatening to drown him.

'I had a son with my second wife in the UK. I thought I wasn't ready to be that guy yet, that dad. I wasn't around. When I was around, I wasn't too.' He shook his head. 'Anyway, my son really liked OK Computer. Listened to it on repeat till I left. And now... We don't really talk much anymore.'

I had nothing at that moment, and for a few, long moments. For all my pretentiousness, my reading, my music listening, my ideas, as cynical as I was, how bleak I felt about the future, how angry about my lost childhood, and as much as I knew it wasn't my job or place or problem, I didn't want Andy to feel sad. He meant something to me. He was my friend.

'Well,' I said finally, 'at least you can hold a pretty good conversation about Radiohead now... Something to talk about. With him.'

Andy shook his head. 'One second chance at a time, kid. Thanks, though.'

We smiled at each other. I held up my coffee cup to him in a salute. We clinked cups. 

'Just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year,' I quoted.

We laughed, then we started coughing and laughing. First year students glared at us, the two smokers over in the corner having a good time. 

We composed ourselves. 

'Well that was heavy, what with all the life advice.' I said with a heavy exhalation. 'Should I expect an invoice in the mail?'

'Get a job that'll pay you enough to afford it, kid,' he replied.

August 12, 2020 04:51

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Yolanda Wu
03:39 Aug 23, 2020

I loved the story right from the beginning, the description and the voice of the character was so well-written. Right from the first paragraph, I could picture the paragraph so clearly! Also the fact that it's set in Australia which makes it feel really familiar and close to home. I'm Australian btw. Amazing work!


Vanessa Marczan
11:08 Aug 23, 2020

Thank you Yolanda, I'm so glad you enjoyed the story, and so pleased the tone came through. I went to Sydney University, and still live in Sydney too so I've been setting most of my stories in places that I am familiar with too. Thanks again


Yolanda Wu
11:17 Aug 23, 2020

Yeah, I kind of suspected you're Australian too. I'm from Melbourne by the way, so not too far from Sydney.


Vanessa Marczan
21:25 Aug 23, 2020

Sweet :) I was born in Melbourne. Hope you are doing okay under the lockdown!


Yolanda Wu
22:00 Aug 23, 2020

Yeah, well we're getting by with just staying at home.


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Velma Darnell
13:11 Aug 22, 2020

That's a great story, Vanessa. I enjoyed reading it, and the sentences sound so well-thought! I also loved the characters and the dialogues. You've done an amazing job here :) p.s. I was wondering if you could check out my story "Hi, darling" when you have time and tell me what you think? Thanks!


Vanessa Marczan
21:55 Aug 22, 2020

Thanks Velma, that's really kind of you :) I will read your story now!


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Keerththan 😀
15:35 Aug 20, 2020

The character building was wonderful. Loved it. Wonderful story. Well written, Vanessa. Great job. Would you mind reading my new story "Secrets don't remain buried?"


Vanessa Marczan
22:38 Aug 21, 2020

thank you! I have read your story too and left you my thoughts


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Charles Stucker
06:17 Aug 20, 2020

"Andy cast a glance at me as he walked past, seeming to ask I if I needed an exit strategy." ask if I - you have an extra I before if. "To see the looks on the other guys faces as they came to realised that, yes, that's it!" realise (or realize depending on location) and guys' faces This is a relatively philosophical piece about discovering who you are/want to be. The scene structure is consistent and the end fitting, but the beginning is slow. Move, "That's how I met Andy, teh mature age student" out and toward the front. And change i...


Vanessa Marczan
07:38 Aug 20, 2020

Thanks Charles for your feedback, I am glad the sentiment(s) came through clearly and appreciate the pointers on the beginning. Regarding a title, I did go with a musical theme, Us and Them is the title of a song by Pink Floyd. The sentiment of the song resonates with their relationship too i feel. I am glad I was on the right track with picking something musical. Thanks again for taking time to write such kind and helpful words


Charles Stucker
08:50 Aug 20, 2020

I had no idea about Us and Them. I really was more an Eagles fan myself. But yeah, that is a good title choice.


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This story reminds me that back in the day I discovered that OK Computer matches along with The Wizard of Oz just as well as Dark Side of the Moon. Great piece!


Vanessa Marczan
07:39 Aug 20, 2020

thank you Josh! One day I am going to sit down and test this, it has been on my bucket list for years now, I am such a geek. Thanks for reading xx


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Keri Dyck
17:16 Aug 13, 2020

Your characters are always so fleshed out! I really enjoy your stories.


Vanessa Marczan
21:36 Aug 13, 2020

Thanks Keri - you are very kind 🙏


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