Barry, fifty-six, likes to tell people he works in advertising and finance, in that he delivers pamphlets and cleans banks. Bruno, fifty-nine, is a TAFE creative writing teacher. They met ten years ago through a creative writing class Bruno taught.

Barry Garner: a white, grey-haired, older man in a maroon cardigan sits at a picnic table at a park surrounded by green lawn.

Barry Garner

When I was forty-two years old, I enrolled in a creative writing course at St Albans TAFE. At the time I was working six days a week at the Lost Dogs Home, driving an animal ambulance. I hadn’t been in a classroom since I was fifteen. I walked in, and there was this little ball of enthusiasm at the front. Bruno was very different from the men who taught me in secondary school and the men I worked with over the years—he had a gentleness I had never seen in a man.

There’s something about being in a writing class that supercharges the getting-to-know-you process. I reckon two writing classes are about the equivalent to fifteen first dates. You get all the bull and shadowboxing out of the way pretty quick.

It was a bit of a problem when I kept on re-enrolling. It got to the point where Bruno said, ‘You are not to enroll anymore, go away!’ By that stage we were such good friends he could say that. But he sat me down and said, ‘Look, you’re at the point now where you can start motivating yourself.’

I was diagnosed with bipolar in 1991 just after the death of my grandmother. She had lived with me for the last ten years of her life because I was a single parent. When she died, I took it pretty hard and got depressed. It sort of went on and on and there was something not quite right. I’ve always had it, but it just wasn’t given a label—back then people called it bad nerves. I’d had a breakdown at eighteen. I’d been prescribed some Valium, took an overdose and went to the hospital. That was a very bad experience. In those days they said, ‘You’re an idiot, man up.’

One day Bruno rang to ask me to speak to his writing class in Sunbury, and I was in the middle of a very bad episode. I said, ‘Aw mate, I can’t write anything, I can’t think about anything except being depressed.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you write about it?’ That night, I sat down and wrote a poem about manic depression. I turned up to class and read it.

Caz was sitting in the room. She has bipolar, too. She got my address off Bruno and wrote to me, so I wrote back, and this went on for a couple of months. We fell in love swapping letters.

Eventually we met up at uni on a Sunday afternoon. When she turned up, I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I just wanted to kiss her once, because as soon as I opened my mouth I knew I’d stuff it up. So I threw my arms around her and gave her this great big kiss—I don’t know who got the biggest surprise! I have never in my life kissed a woman on the first date. I think that was because we had exchanged those letters.

When we got married, Bruno gave Caz away, because her family live in England. It was the first time I have ever seen him stuck for words. When the reverend got to the part where he said, ‘And who gives this woman away to be married?’ Bruno just stood there! I’m looking at him saying, ‘Well, come on big fella!’ and he goes, ‘I…I… I do!’

He’s part of the family. I’ve been hospitalised a couple of times. The first person to visit me in hospital is Caz. The second is Bruno. Bruno is not a psychiatrist, but he’s taught me little things to help me get through. He’s taught me to always dangle a carrot, always have something on the horizon that you’re working towards, even if you feel like you can’t do it now. In recent years it’s been helping me get my book, Haloes in the Windscreen, published.

I’m a firm believer that if you feel strongly about someone, you should let them know. My father died when I was thirteen, and he never said to me ‘I love you’. So I spent a lot of years wondering if he did. I carried that around like a little secret envelope. And Bruno opened up the envelope and put a stamp on it.

Bruno Lettieri: an older, grey-haired man in a grey suit coat over a blue shirt, paired with jeans, holding a phone in his hand. Photo taken against the backdrop of the Salesian College interior.Bruno Lettieri

Barry was in the first creative writing class I taught. He wrote me a letter a few weeks in. He started with ‘Dear Professor.’ It takes the piss out of me, but it’s very endearing because I work in a uni where every second person is a professor, I’m just the TAFE literacy teacher.

He kept re-enrolling for the course. It got to the point where I said, ‘You could have got a degree by now with the amount of times you’ve re-enrolled!’ So I’d get Barry along to talk to my new students about how writing can provide a wonderful telescope to your own world.

People always loved his stuff. I have taken him to people training to be integration aids, the lowest level ESL classes, the naughtiest VCAL kids—and Barry talks to them all. It’s the unaffectedness of his voice, a voice that doesn’t attempt to overly embellish or pump the world up. Here is this person who left Collingwood Tech at fourteen years and nine months—they didn’t even know
he had gone because he was wagging so much—and he’s speaking alongside the great John Marsden, Raimond Gaita and Hannie Rayson.

My teaching style is quite personal, so I think I must have mentioned the wordlessness of my father. Something must have touched Barry. My father was an Italian peasant, an uneducated man who wasn’t touched by great literature, but he had a tendency to cry. My mother would always go, ‘Oh look at him, pissio occhio—pissing his eyes.’

I didn’t like having to visit Barry in a psychiatric ward. I didn’t know what to say to someone in the deep abyss, but you soon realise that you are better at it than you think you are. Mind you, if someone just cuts their finger, I go ‘eeegh!’ I don’t pretend to be terribly brave, but it would be pretty awful to be fifty-nine and say that I’ve shirked others’ stories of deep pain.

Twelve years ago, when I invited Barry to speak to another new class, he was down, but I asked him to come in and tell us what that was like. He read a poem he wrote called ‘The Ride’ which was about hanging on because you’re about to go into this steep descent. Carolyn was in the class. She was so moved she had to leave the room. I don’t think she’d heard a man speak so sensitively about a condition she also lives with. Like all great attractions, it was something you don’t realise at the time.

I gave Carolyn away at Barry’s wedding a year later. She was about a foot and a half taller than me, looking stunning in her dress. Barry and I aren’t that much different in age, but at times there is a fatherly feeling I have for him. We have lived through each other’s major calamities and joys. I cried on his shoulder when my marriage went belly-up. Barry is instinctively the man I go and sit with when I’m broken-hearted. Great friendship is about the shortcuts and the coded language referring to moments that you don’t need to explain.

We are both sooks. We will cry at the same bits of stories. We’ll sing together the same daggy songs. We are proof of an emotional literacy between men. I have all of Barry’s letters in black scrapbooks. I’m turning sixty this year, and he has already appointed himself as my speechmaker. He might bury me too, if I were to die. You know how we all balk at that kind of thing? I think he would know exactly what to say.

Alice Pung

(Previously published in Platform 16, 2014.)

Photos by Amanda Piper.

Twilight School patron Alice Pung is an award-winning writer, journalist and essayist. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter and Laurinda. Her work has been featured in Good Weekend, The Age and The Australian among other anthologies and publications.

Barry Garner, author of Haloes in the Windscreen and Heroes and Daydreams, is a writer, blogger and poet who has been published in The Age, Platform and Eureka Street. He will be joining Dianne Lee and Donna Melia in discussion during the Twilight School’s Three Personal Perspectives mental health forum on Wednesday August 17.

Bruno Lettieri, a literacy teacher, public speaker, and event organiser extraordinaire, is the heart and soul of the Twilight School. You can find him furthering his passions of community outreach, discussion, literacy and education at every last Twilight School event.