Forgetting Gareth

Scouts, Eraserhead, and the phantom friendships of youth


in First Person • Illustrated by Esther Lee


My all-boys high school seems more extraordinary to me the further away from it I have traveled in time. It was closer to Hogwarts than any real school should be. It had an assembly hall and a chapel and a music school and a gymnasium and a swimming pool and diving boards and a 20-plus-foot outdoor climbing wall and footy fields and rugby fields and hockey fields and soccer fields and tennis courts and a library and a small astronomical observatory. It had a large red brick quadrangle whose two-story walkways were lined with lockers and once there was a beehive or a wasps’ nest in the tree that banished us all from the open central area. Maybe someone threw a can of Coke at the nest to stir up the swarm? I can’t remember. It had rowing sheds down by the Yarra River where you could row all the way into the heart of Melbourne, Australia before school started for the day. The chaplains taught religious education in small portable buildings up a hill beside the music school and the chapel. When I think about it now, the cheapness of their lodgings might have signaled a subtle disrespect; at the time it gave them a slight monastic aura: like the cartoon guru on Sesame Street who taught pilgrims at the top of the mountain about All, Some, and None. The drama rooms that doubled as the hall for the school’s Scout troop: how embarrassing for such a wealthy school to resort to a dual-purpose space. There was also a military-style Cadet Unit with a Quartermaster’s Store and everything. 

Cadets, Scouts, & St John’s Ambulance 

In year 9 it was compulsory to do Cadets for the year. You would arrive at school in your khaki dress uniform on Thursdays and the school day finished early so you could spend several hours parading on the ovals being shouted at for poorly polished boots. You went on a treacherous bivouac camp and did a military tattoo and were placed under the strict martial authority of older boys, which was as bad as it sounds. Some kids kept going with Cadets. Of course they did. There was a teacher who I think was paid full-time to rule over these boy soldiers. He’d drive around the neighboring suburbs in a covered jeep with his goons to catch truant kids, smokers, loose ties and fallen socks. It feels like I’m making this up as I tell you about it. 

If you wanted to avoid compulsory Cadets, you participated in Scouts or St. John’s Ambulance, a first aid and emergency services not-for-profit. A lot of geeks, weirdos, alterna-kids, and potheads did Scouts. The other geeks and a lot of the Asian kids did St. John’s Ambulance. While Cadets spent all Thursday in their uniforms, some of us Scouts chose not to, because it made you a target for bullying. Being in Scouts was evidence that you were gay; being gay, at the time, was very bad. So, a lot of kids changed into their Scout uniforms at the end of class and were often late for the meeting opening. 


There are things you accept as perfectly normal because that’s the way the world is as you grow up in it. Well, you accept everything as perfectly normal because that’s the way the world is as you grow up in it, really. Religion and family life and gender roles and fashion and food and everything. But every now and then you notice Something in Particular. Like “bikies,” say. Outlaw motorcycle clubs are a fact of the universe. Until you interrogate them. Why exactly is it that there’s this one particular mode of transportation and hobby that has given rise to such a tight association with organized crime? There are no outlaw stamp-collecting societies, rollerblading gangs, or book clubs — at least not to the same degree of preponderance. But it somehow makes perfect sense that a certain percentage of those who enjoy traveling by two-wheeled, combustion-engine-powered vehicles will become intensely devoted to one another and embroiled in drugs, weapons, and prostitution. 

Scouting is peculiar when you look at it with fresh eyes. It has that fetishistic Victorian–Edwardian fixation on ritual: outdoorsy, military Freemasonry for children. Why do Cub Scouts use the names from The Jungle Book — Baloo, Akela, Raksha? That’s super odd, isn’t it? And whatever you do: do not cross the Circle. Rituals, special handshakes, complex uniforms with symbolic features, levels of badges and loops and cords; a deep, unquestioned commitment to the learning of many knots. All of it was invented basically yesterday, like Scientology or “Australian rules football,” yet imbued with the solemnity of something ancient.  


I joined Scouts in year 7. I was 11 years old, and I went on the three-day autumn hike, in a rucksack that my Mum helped me pack that was way too heavy and the methylated spirits for my Trangia camper stove spilled through everything and it rained and that first night was dark and lonely. It seemed to be a normal enough thing to have happened to you when you were 11. Another Scouts memory: I remember, maybe it was that first year, the boys were supposed to navigate to the campsite, depending on their 15-year-old patrol leaders. One patrol went way off track; it was late into the night by the time they finally made it into camp. It all seemed normal enough. 

Our patrol leader was Miles and I loved him. Not that I wanted to be with him, not like that. No, loved in the way that I wanted to be him, or at least I wanted him to like me. He had cool floppy, greasy hair and he always looked like his clothes were untucked. He pretended in his sneakers to ski slalom down this steep dirt hill near our patrol’s campsite at the five-day spring camp in the second half of the year. I was in charge of cooking dinner one of the nights of that spring Scout camp. It was sausage casserole and I added one tablespoon of flour instead of one teaspoon and the casserole was an inedible solid curried mass. 

An old school friend, Clive and I were just talking about Miles the other day and he recalled a memory of mine that I hadn’t held onto: years after graduating, I saw Miles in a shirt and tie, working in the bank. Clive said this robbed Miles of his mystique for us both. I had totally forgotten about seeing Miles in the bank. I am amazed that I had forgotten. No doubt I preferred 15-year-old Miles. I am a little bit frightened that I can so completely forget about seeing Miles in the bank — what else have I forgotten? 


Tom was a Venturer: the next level up from Scouts. He must’ve been about the same age as Miles, but I don’t remember him from year 7 or year 8 Scouts. Tom made an enormous impact on me in year 9. He was the kind of arty older boy who wore a trench coat and had black hair. He was smart and he took the time to talk to us younger kids and treated us seriously. I think it was he who told me about Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World. I had read George Orwell’s 1984 by that stage and I think it was Tom who explained to me how Brave New World depicted a future where the government totally controlled the population by pleasure instead of pain. Those conversations and the campfire on the final night were exciting in a giddy drunken way. I came back from that year 9 scout camp as if something had changed. The world had suddenly gotten younger and bigger. 

Tom played the role of Winston in a school production of 1984 that year — or the year after, maybe it was. I remember it was an amazingly committed performance. Even this year, visiting high school art exhibitions as a parent, I’ve been overwhelmed by the quality of the work on display. By the end of your school years, you are not just a budding artist, actor, writer, musician. You are doing it. There’s power in high school art and drama. It’s not a waiting room for the real thing.   


In those years, we talked a lot about movies, too. He told me about Eraserhead: the scariest movie he has ever seen. A movie about a nightmare, with constant noise and a man with tall hair and a freak baby wrapped in bandages that never stops crying and gets cut open in the end. We were on a night walk in the bush around the campsite, trudging through fallen eucalyptus bark, leaves, and branches by torchlight. The possibility of Eraserhead was more terrifying than the reality. An industrial black-and-white world filled with white noise and nightmare logic and giant sperm dropping from the ceiling. Mum wouldn’t let me go see Eraserhead at the Valhalla Cinema. I still have never seen Eraserhead on the big screen. 

A year or so later I began going to see movies with Clive at the Astor Theatre in St. Kilda. The Astor was a majestic Art Deco building with curving staircases to the first-floor circle, chandeliers, and luxurious bathrooms. The Astor always hosted double features. Clive’s mum always had the year-planner poster beside their toilet. I saw The Shining at the Astor, it was in a double feature with 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think. Even though The Shining is so very disturbing, it is one of those films I find strangely comforting. 

Years later, I watched Eraserhead on video and, at first, I was disappointed because it didn’t deliver the pure fear I hoped it would. I think I even hesitated to press play, unsure whether I was going to regret the experience. I have changed my expectations of horror movies over the years. Grueling, repulsively patient, and violent films deliver some of the most visceral horror experiences. They nauseate you. Watching them feels like your brain is breaking. They’re doing something brutal and primal to you. I don’t like those horror movies so much. The ones I love the most, and return to again and again, might still have gut-churning moments and effective jump scares, but they’re not the most psychosomatically terrifying. You might be strangely disappointed on first viewing if someone has talked them up too much. They get at you through atmosphere and ideas. They diffuse their spores through you, infiltrate roots into you. Eraserhead does that. 

Gareth and Trent 

There was a little gang of Venturers at the spring camp in year 9. And they were all the coolest geeks. There was Gareth, Trent, and Tom. I think they might’ve all had trench coats. They had us in stitches at the campfire on the last night. I remember a performance of “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” by Tom Lehrer and a song called ‘The morning stiffy’ that I don’t know if they made up or not. Hysterical. And I don’t know if the supervising teachers were whispering to one another about whether they should get the Venturers to tone it down, or if they were pissing themselves with laugher, too. One of the school chaplains was a Scout leader. These guys didn’t just have the potential to be funny one day in the future. It was a small stage, that Scout troop campfire, but it was a true stage. And they were true performers. They were hilarious. That’s how I remember it, anyway. 

But I barely remember Gareth. I can’t even quite picture Gareth. He was tall. Clive tells me he had slightly curly hair. But I can’t picture him very well at all. Did he have glasses? I think so. Clive is amazed by this, because, he reminded me, he and Gareth and I were all in a band together. My mind keeps blurring him together with another tall guy from school who I’m pretty sure isn’t Gareth. Clive can’t believe I remember Tom but I don’t remember Gareth, even though we were in a band together. 

Life Sucks and How Are You Today? 

Like most bands, we toyed around with a bunch of different names, but the most memorable one was the painfully self-conscious Life Sucks and How Are You Today? With the passing of time this name is ironic in how cartoonishly it manifests the ’90s indie band name sensibility — just like Hey, That’s My Bike from Reality Bites and Touch Me I’m Dick from Singles. I remembered Ethan Hawke’s character from Reality Bites was so beautiful and cool. I remember them all being so clever and ironic. They even discuss the meaning of irony in the film. How clever and ironic! Watching it later, it is a cool film, but it’s also an embarrassing time capsule. Ethan Hawk’s character is just Bad News. He’s a jerk. Winona should’ve stayed with Ben Stiller. 

Life Sucks and How Are You Today? only had one gig and that was one of the worst nights of my life up to that point. We only did covers: “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” I can’t remember what else. We weren’t together very long. I remember during one rehearsal we ended up watching the entirety of Reservoir Dogs, so I don’t know how much time we gave to rehearsing. Clive tells me that Gareth was a really good musician, that he went on to study music at uni. 

We played an all-ages gig in a small hall underneath the Town Hall. I spent a lot of time figuring out my wardrobe; a lot of time imagining my stage banter and theatrics. But it was terrible. At least I think it was. I need to ask others who were there. I guess my parents and my brother came. I can’t remember, I’d have to ask them. As far as I could tell, hardly anyone was watching us or listening to us. They were just buzzing around and talking to one another. Probably anyone who was watching us was laughing at us. I don’t know if we had foldback speakers, I definitely couldn’t hear myself clearly, didn’t know if everyone else could hear me, didn’t know if I was singing on key. My first attempt at stage banter fell flat and I lost heart. My practiced moves and stomps and folding over double to scream into the microphone on the chorus of “Heart-Shaped Box” felt wooden. I disappeared as soon as our three-song set was over, mortified. I wonder how Gareth feels about this, now?  

Forgetting Gareth 

I feel awful that I barely remember Gareth. It’s a lose–lose situation. How terrible if he remembers clearly and fondly our time together in high school, at Scout camp, in our band — and I barely remember him at all. How shameful, reckless, murderous. The subconscious nature of it makes it unbearably tragic. You are not consciously erasing someone from your memory; you simply don’t think about them until they vanish. It is one thing for people on the margins of your life to slowly fade: those names dropped in conversation with old friends, faces in class photos, workmates from casual jobs at Subway or McDonald’s. But for friends to become phantoms? The pathetic possibility that you might simply not make enough of an impression on another human being for them to remember you. It’s awful that someone might hate you, like I hated some of those who bullied me at school, that you might live on into their adulthood and old age as a demon. It’s a different kind of awful that someone might not think about you at all. 

If Gareth has remembered me fondly after all these years, how dare I forget him? And if he has forgotten me, too? A lacuna in the mind of Gareth. 

The Film Critic 

Decades later, I came across a retrospective of The Lion King by a film critic who took the movie to task for its unquestioning endorsement of hereditary power. Perhaps I’d come across this blog post because I’d already encountered his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes? Either way, I came to admire his work. I eventually discovered a community radio show he did with several others and binge-listened, often adding things to my To Watch list. I listened to that podcast for years, followed this critic on Twitter, read his blog. And then one day he posted a photo of himself in just such a way that my memory was jogged. Could it be? Other things the critic had said on the podcast over the years suddenly took on new significance. Was it? I did some digging, contacted the Old Boys’ Association for some corroborating evidence, because I couldn’t remember surnames. Some kids in an all-boys school are nothing but their surname. That’s usually not the case for arty kids in trench coats. 

It turned out it was him. I emailed him and we had a nice back-and-forth. Tom, that is, not Gareth. But he mentioned Gareth. He didn’t remember the Tom Lehrer songs: I guess they didn’t make an impression. I thanked him for the impact he had on me in year 9; and yes, we are both still recommending Eraserhead to people.  

They Live 

This year I finally got to see John Carpenter’s They Live on Binge: a slow B-movie with a soundtrack like something from an ’80s porn movie and a famous six-minute fight sequence in an alley. They Live is about aliens disguised in human form who control the human race through subliminal messaging (CONFORM, BUY, OBEY, CONSUME, SUBMIT). You can only unmask the aliens’ skeletal faces and mind-control advertising if you wear special sunglasses. It had been on my To Watch list since high school. I told Tom about it over DM because I was absolutely positive it was he who told me about it in the first place. I was pleased with myself and eager to thank him for yet another recommendation from long ago. 

He said it was nice to hear from me and he hoped I was well but that it wasn’t he who recommended it to me because he hadn’t seen it but he really should get around to it sometime.•


Michael James has published in Overland Journal, époque e-zine, The Suburban Review, and Belle Ombre, and produced several podcasts, including Australia’s only rollerblading podcast — Mad Beef Rollerblading Podcast. He is currently seeking publication for his novel on the rise, fall and rebirth of rollerblading (inline skating). Michael loves cooking; is a passionate reader of fiction and non-fiction; and although in his forties, is still learning new tricks in the halfpipe on his rollerblades.