It is around 7.30am when a persistent ringing wakes me. It is true one can be roused from deep sleep so disorientated that real situations appear, for a few seconds, hyper-imagined. There was ringing, and it was indeed the phone, but I leapt out of bed convinced it was a fire truck.
My first instinct is to grab some clothes before rushing to the nearest window where I’ve always been meaning to attach a strong nylon cord to the sturdy bars for a quick emergency evacuation. As is always the case, reality establishes itself within moments and on picking up I discover it is my friend Barney on the other end.
“Meet me at the mall,” he says, more command than invite, adding, “at Gloria Jeans.” “But they’re never open before nine,” I remind him, wanting to go back to bed because, in truth, I’ve had only four hours’ sleep after sitting up from midnight for three-plus hours watching India’s Twenty20 game in Sri Lanka of which the less said the better. Barney, meanwhile is saying, “I have the kind of news that’s not meant for relaying over the phone.”
So at nine I’m seated at our usual table. There’s only one other person there — someone with an even greater urge for coffee this morning than me, I think. The table is at such an awkward angle that he is only visible in profile but I can tell he’s deeply engrossed in the Sydney Morning Herald. Fifteen minutes pass, no sign of Barney. I have, of course, put our order on hold.
After 20 minutes as I decide to take a cautious perambulation to see if this is not one of Barney’s pranks (for I’m not in the mood for pranks this under-slept morning) when the solitary person at the table lowers the paper.
Just like my waking moment, it takes a few seconds to realise it is Barney for he’s changed his appearance. Gone are the clean shaved cheeks. In its place is a tufty beard, plenty of salt with a diminishing dash of pepper.
“Psst,” he says, to gain my attention before quickly raising the paper.
I go over and he whispers, “Place the order for both of us, please.”
“What’s up? Have you been put on a hit list or something?” I enquire when the coffees arrive.
“Worse,” he intones, “The unexpected has gone and happened.” “And what’s that?” I ask, for I know he wants me to raise the question and give him the floor.
“I’ve just heard from Regus.”
At first the name doesn’t ring a bell and, being brought up on novels of Le Carre, I imagine this to be a secret contact, someone with whom Barney perhaps has been engaged in some clandestine proceedings. I needn’t have bothered for the penny dropped almost immediately.
“The short story competition?” I ask, and Barney quickly corrects me saying, “No, the Bush Poetry one.” Bush poetry, for readers, is an Australian art form.
Barney lets out a groan before whispering, “They’ve gone and put my poem on a short list.”
“Isn’t that something to be thrilled about?”
“I am thrilled, don’t get me wrong,” he retorts, “But can you see where all this is going? The bigger picture? There’s going to be no sense of privacy after this! Which explains the beard incidentally.”
I struggle to keep a straight face.
But the next time we meet, a week later, Barney’s progressed even further, wearing dark RayBans late in the evening in a bid to appear incognito.
Ryan, our mutual friend, who’s also heard of the shortlisted poem, asks him if perhaps he’s not taking things too far.
Barney shakes his head vehemently before imparting this wisdom: “You know how it is, mate. A celebrity’s a person who works hard all his life to become well known then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognised.”
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.