I met Bill Leak just the once. It was at a dinner party; my old boss was heading back overseas after a wonderful term of service in Australia. He was having a feast a Spanish restaurant in the city. Officially his Editorial Assistant, I preferred to call myself his ‘Girl Friday’. It sounded very ‘naughty secretary’, and was a conscious snub to the feminist left (for whom I always seek new ways to irritate). I arrived first, of course, to make sure all was well with the booking, and to take care of any early arrivals.
Decked to the nines as usual, manoeuvring my way into the private dining room in my pencil skirt and teetering heels, quietly fretting over whether my lipstick was bleeding, I met the first guest. A journalist and commentator, with a charming smile and open demeanour. As we went through the usual small talk, another guest walked through the door. He was a tall, wiry man, with short silver hair and a startlingly handsome face. He carried himself with an air of someone perpetually searching; be it for coffee, company, or perhaps something more ethereal. But what struck me were his anxious eyes. This was a man with many secrets.
“Am I in the right place?” he queried.
“The farewell dinner?” I replied.
“Yes!” he replied, relief flooding his somewhat-weathered face. “Hi,” he continued, extending his hand. “I’m Bill.”
“Bill,” I thought to myself. I quickly ran over the guest list in my head – I knew who this was.
“Bill Leak?” I replied, my voice embarrassingly high. “Hel – hello! So nice to meet you! I’m Daisy…the Girl Friday.”
“’The Girl Friday?’” he repeated, his face amused and pleased. “What a wonderful way to introduce yourself!”
I laughed, nobody had ever had that reaction to my unofficial title before. I usually got looks of bewilderment at best.
I very much knew of Bill Leak. I had included him on group emails, put him on guest lists, and of course, had heard about that particular cartoon. He seemed a man of great prestige, intellect, and daring, all of which he was, but not in the way I expected. I had anticipated a rather wizened, perhaps balding man of about seventy, a recluse with an air of cynicism. This was a gentleman, whose handsome face and unstudied smile left me strangely weak. This was Bill Leak. And I was pleased.
“Won’t you sit down? I offered.
“Thank you,” he replied. He sat next to me, and I couldn’t help but stare. There was a presence about this man, a sharp wit and effortless charisma. But above all, there was kindness. I could tell by the generosity with which he gave of his energy. There was nothing pretentious, nothing fabricated. The easy charm created conversations as easily as a snuffed candle created smoke. He was an artist, after all, genuinely interested in everything humanity had to offer. Always interested, always observing. And always thinking. I could see it in his eyes, still anxious, but less so now.
We talked all night. Islam, immigration, feminism, feminism again, the Liberal Party, much about Donald Trump, once more, my anger at third-wave feminists for neglecting the truly needy in countries under Islamic rule. All our views were shared commodities, there was not a topic we disagreed on. In the hours I knew him, I realised he was unique. A precious intellect, and an earnestness in everything he said and did.
I brought up the cartoon. I could tell it was always burning the back of his brain. And I was curious.
“You know, Bill,” I said, late into the evening. Neither one of us had been drinking, this conversation was unclouded. “I cannot, for the life me, work out why people had that reaction to your cartoon.”
Simple words, but he could sense my despair and confusion behind them. He paused. “I can, Daisy,” he began. He did not shy away. This experience was such that it shrouded his every moment. “Have you ever heard of a Freudian theory called ‘negation’?”
I said I hadn’t. He continued. “Freud uses the example of a mother who does not really love her child. Her outward behaviour would be to shower the child with love, praise, presents, and endless affection. But it’s all a lie; an act to cover up what her total disconnect with her child. She is compensating, masking her indifference as best she can, not just from other people, but herself.”
“So you mean,” I continued as his voice trailed off, “that those who were outraged, who became histrionic, who damned you to hell and back, actually knew you were telling the truth?”
“Yes,” he nodded slowly. “Not only that, they were aware of their own bigotry. And it scared them. So, as those sorts of people inevitably do, they lashed out. And I copped the full weight of their hatefulness.”
I was stunned. This was my theory of the noisy, hypocritical, regressive left; that their emphatic insistence on tolerance, empathy, and diversity was all a sham. That actually, given their blind intolerance of anyone with a different opinion, all the very worst bigots, homophobes, racists, misogynists, and every other label they had so unjustly ascribed to Bill, were on the left.
Bill, an artist who had suffered so incredibly, would be more aware than anyone of the human condition; its excesses, its beauty, but above all, it’s failures. That was how he could so perfectly capture a feeling, a frustration, a truth that needed to be told, with just a few strokes of his brush. And most importantly, he dared to tell it. He was unique in his courage. And I was besotted.
He had to leave early. He hugged me, that smile etched into his face. “Daisy, so, so wonderful to meet you,” he said. ‘You’ll go far, my girl.”
And with that, he was gone. My disappointment to see him leave surprised me. From that encounter, just a few hours long, I was somehow changed. To spend time with Bill Leak, however painfully brief, was to encounter something you do not find anywhere else. And you are blessed to have known it.
A couple of months later was Bill’s book launch. I had been very much anticipating it in the weeks leading up. I was late. I could only stay for about forty-five minutes. The room was packed, and all were buzzing. I thought to myself that Bill must be the most popular man in Sydney, at least among conservatives
I saw Bill from a distance, he seemed to be checking his phone. I could have gone to him, congratulated him, told him how overjoyed I was he’d done it. He’d won. But the crowd closed too quickly. I was nervous about staying too long, so I let the opening slip.
The speeches started. Shifting from foot to foot, I waited for Bill’s, checking the time every two minutes or so. Bill finally began; he joked, we all laughed. I was amazed he could still laugh like that. Bill was a pioneer for me; silly little me, who has suffered a fraction of the harassment he has but who shamefully cries with frustration when it happens.
Time was up. I scurried towards the elevator, hoping the clip clop of my most immobile heels wouldn’t interrupt the great man. I took one last look at Bill as the elevator doors closed. His face disappeared.
Friday. Lunchtime. I was chatting animatedly with a friend on my lunchbreak, glowing with pride over a TV appearance a few nights prior, purring with self-satisfaction. My phone dinged; without drawing breath, I instinctively reached for it.
“Oh my God. Bill Leak is dead,” read the text.
“What?!” I exclaimed, my voice little more than a squeak.
“What’s wrong?” said my friend, instantly worried. I said nothing, just showed him my phone screen. His face paled.
The noise of the food court dulled. All I could hear was the vacuum of quiet shock; the kind that only comes with catastrophe. My face grew hot. Tears pricked the back of my eyes. I blinked them away; not here. I tried to go back to work. I couldn’t concentrate. Instead I put on my sunglasses and walked the CBD. Tears were falling down my cheeks, barely masked by the dark lenses. It was only then I realised the profound effect this good, kind, courageous soul had had on me. He should have been a big part of my life; a mentor, a guide.
I will always regret that moment I left the launch.
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