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  • Geoff Cordner

Agent 86

Updated: May 12, 2021

One of the saddest aspects of Ben’s death – and there are many – is that we will never get to see what he might have done with all of the wonderful qualities and talents he had been blessed with. What career might he have chosen? Where might he have taken that vocation? When might he have married? How many children might he have had? How long might he have otherwise lived? How many other lives might he have touched and influenced along the way?

Back in early May 2020, as NSW emerged from its hard lockdown in response to the arrival of the Coronavirus crisis on Antipodean shores, I was contemplating this harsh reality, and it started me thinking about (a) what age Ben would be if he were here now, and (b) what I was doing at that same age.

Being as mathematically precise as I tend to be, of course I wanted to know exactly how my life and BenTime related to one another. I calculated that on the particular day I was conducting my analysis (11 May 2020) Ben, if he were here, would have been the exact age I had been on 20 January 1986.

What had I been doing on that day, more than 34 years earlier? I wondered idly. Perhaps, if he were still with us, Ben might have been doing something similar – or, more likely, something completely different altogether!

And then it hit me. Not only did I know exactly where I had been on 20 January 1986, but I had a permanent written record of it – a journal (more accurately, a loose collection of writing pads and notebooks) recording my first and only solo overseas trip. Within a short period of time thereafter I had extracted my precious memoirs from the cardboard box at the top of a cupboard, where they had been lying unread for more than 30 years. Having retained them through multiple relocations for well over three decades, without any clear reason or plan for doing so, I felt sudden enormous gratitude that they were available to me now, just when I felt the most urgent need to re-visit that period in my past.

As I placed the various writings in chronological order I was struck almost immediately by what seemed a mystifying coincidence - two of them in fact. Coincidences exaggerated in significance many times over given what had led me to this very moment.

The first of my journal entries was dated 15 October (1985), and the last 25 January (1986). That is to say, the first was written on the eve of what would become, 12 years later, Ben’s date of birth, whilst the last was penned on the eve of what would become, 33 years later, his date of death.

Even more curiously, these dates did not represent the commencement, or the conclusion of my journey. I had departed Australia at least a week before 15 October 1985, and I did not return until at least three weeks after 25 January 1986. (As you can see from the photo below I had actually written “26.1 Sunday” in preparation for my next entry all those years ago, but, for reasons which escape me now, I had never written another single word).

Mind blown, I went on to read the entirety of the journal over the following days and weeks –there was a lot to digest, you understand. Some of what I read (but not nearly as much as I might have expected) seemed immediately familiar. Some, although filed away in the darker recesses of my consciousness, was recognisable with the prompting of an earnest re‑reading. But much of it, to my surprise, was unrecalled, and written in such a personal and revelatory fashion that the experience was rendered almost voyeuristic in nature.

Perhaps as a result of the unanticipated, and almost unsettling nature of that experience, I chose not to share it with anyone – at least at that time.

Within a week of completing my review of that life-shaping journey, taken so very long ago, I received a text message, and an accompanying photograph, from Ben’s girlfriend, Laura. Following Ben’s death, Laura – already such a welcome part of our household – has become an absolutely crucial member of our extended family circle. During that period her messages, cards, impromptu visits, emotional honesty, and support have made a fundamental contribution to our ability to accept and, on occasions, embrace life after Ben.

This was the photo Laura shared with me on the morning of 3 June 2020.

For Laura, of course, Ben’s name, and the first initial of her own name, made the letters on this car’s registration plate especially noteworthy. But the number – 86 – was of no particular significance to her. I thanked her for the photo, and pointed out that in recent weeks I had been thinking a lot about (19)86 because it was that year during which I was the exact age Ben would be if he were still with us. Laura was pleased to hear that her random connection with an unknown motor vehicle held even greater meaning for me than she had at first thought. (Needless to say she and I were both a little gobsmacked when, just weeks later, another car ‑ this time rego no. BEN86S ‑ presented itself to her, yet again within a kilometre of her home).

But that was just the beginning.

On 6 June 2020 Linda and I were enjoying some R&R in the Port Stephens area, as we regularly do, near one of the many beautiful ocean beaches in that vicinity. That particular day Linda had ridden her pushbike to a large shopping centre some distance away; the plan being for me to go and pick her up, along with the bike, when she had finished her various errands. Having received her call in the late afternoon, I got in the car and headed off to collect her, choosing at the last moment to do so via the beachfront – not, I must confess, the shortest route to my destination. Having arrived at the beach I stopped almost immediately, in order to put my phone on Bluetooth ‑ with the intention of making a call from the car to an old mate of mine who was dealing at that time with some quite serious health issues. Both of these minor detours undoubtedly contributed to a delay in my journey of a couple of minutes. As a result of which a vehicle I would never have otherwise seen ‑ having never encountered it before or since ‑ pulled out right in front of me as I departed the beachfront, and then proceeded to lead me from that location to the very carpark (12 kilometres away) where Linda was awaiting my arrival.

Any car bearing a BEN numberplate would have grabbed my attention. But during that particular week, following on from the events I have outlined above, there could probably have been no numberplate more significant for me than this one.

That night, whilst making dinner, Linda and I were listening to music. One of the songs we listened to that evening, one amongst our library of more than 2,000 – and a song I have heard many many times before – suddenly reminded me, on this night of all nights, of another tune from my distant past. After racking my brain for some minutes I realised the similar song I had been thinking of was “Thrill Thrill Thrill” by the Sacred Cows. Now don’t feel bad if the name of that song rings no bells for you. Thrill Thrill Thrill is possibly the only piece of rock music ever played on Get Smart – that being one of my very favourite TV shows as a youngster. As many of you will almost certainly recall, the main character featured in Get Smart was Maxwell Smart (played by Don Adams): otherwise known as Agent 86.

Following dinner that same night, and after much deliberation, we decided to watch a coming-of-age movie on Netflix called The Half Of It (rated only 6.9 on IMDb, but 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, in case you’re interested). The main character in the film is a female: Ellie Chu, played by Leah Lewis. However, the lead male character – Paul Munsky, played by Daniel Diemer – is a high school football (ie gridiron) player. Paul’s jersey number in the film is, you guessed it, 86.

The next morning, as I often do, I took a short walk to the beach to check out the surf conditions. As I reached the road that runs along the beachfront a car that had been driving past suddenly executed an unexpected U-turn immediately in front of me, forcing me to hold my ground so as not to collide with it. Its numberplate was SAR86T.

That afternoon Linda and I met with friends at a local pub for lunch. When I entered the bistro area to order our food the person standing immediately ahead of me in the queue was a young woman wearing an American-style sports top. The back of her shirt was emblazoned with “Brooklyn 86”.

Although I can’t point to another period over the past ten months where anything like this number of 86-related coincidences have occurred in such close proximity to one another, there have been more than enough to keep me believing something conspicuously inexplicable is going on.

It is said that anger is one of the early stages of grief for many who confront it. Thankfully perhaps, I don't recall this having been a particular feature of my own grief following Ben's death. But as most people who study and write about the subject appear to have concluded, these various stages of grief are not linear. We may experience them in random order, not at all, or in a circular, recurring fashion. In some cases people find themselves locked into one particular stage, and unable to emerge or progress from it.

As I have said, anger was not one of the emotions that Ben's death had provoked for me - at least not initially. However in December 2020, almost two years on, I experienced a reaction to something relatively mundane that occurred one afternoon, and it was as if a furious fog had descended upon me, the likes of which I can rarely recall having experienced in my entire life. I sensed almost immediately that my response was completely disproportionate to the events that had, seemingly, precipitated it - revolving principally around prolonged canine disobedience in a public place! But it felt like I could do absolutely nothing about the overwhelming nature of my emotions. It probably goes without saying that I was not thinking (consciously at least ) about Ben in that moment. I simply could not think about anything but my own anger, and what had led me to that state.

Immediately after the conclusion to these events I was returning home on foot with our dog, Zali, via a laneway that runs through a part of our neighbourhood with which I am not especially familiar. As my anger, which had already lasted many minutes, continued to threaten to boil over in some completely unpredictable fashion, I made the spontaneous, and odd decision to exit the laneway, before its conclusion, down a side-street. Within metres I was confronted by the motor vehicle depicted below.

Almost instantly I realised this was the circuit-breaker I so desperately needed to regain my composure. And not just because of the number 86. Although I am no faithful adherent of the ancient practice of yoga, I know enough to understand it is intended to aid us in uniting mind and body, and achieving harmony with the world around us. Accurate or otherwise, given that understanding of what the term means, it is hard to imagine another 4-letter word (except perhaps CALM?) that would have had a greater effect on me at that moment in time than YOGA, particularly when coupled with my now, seemingly, magic number. Almost immediately my anger receded, replaced instead with a sense of stunned gratitude about what had just occurred.

And there have been a number of other similar head-scratching moments this past year.

Like the letter (dated 6 February 1986, and therefore well more than 34 years old) which my sister Julie ‑ who was then in the process of cleaning out our mother’s house, in preparation for its upcoming sale – discovered amongst Mum’s things. The letter was apparently written by me to my parents during the closing weeks of the overseas trip I have referred to above. I have to say I have no recollection of writing it; indeed it is not even clear that I actually finished, or posted it. But what does seem clear – or the very opposite, depending on how you look at these things ‑ is that when Julie discovered the letter, Ben, if he were still with us, would have been virtually the exact age to the day that I had been when it was written.

Or the Jaguar motor vehicle, registration number BEE86C (BEE C = BC = Ben Cordner?), that swerved across two lanes of traffic directly in front of my car on Mona Vale Road, at Pymble, requiring me to apply my brakes suddenly, just as I was considering how we might appropriately recognise the second anniversary of Ben’s death (assuming, optimistically, the COVID crisis had by then become a thing of the past).

Did you know the biggest movie release of 1986 was Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis? It was a wildly successful action film featuring relatively young acting superstars at the top of their games, whose characters all survived its conclusion – just the sort of movie one might have thought was ripe for a Part 2. Only it has never had one. Until now. That is to say, the film released in the months following my 23rd birthday will finally premiere its sequel almost 35 years later, in what would have been Ben’s 24th year.

Not long before 1986 concluded I was given the honour of performing the role of Best Man at the wedding of an, even then, old friend, Simon, and his bride, Fiona. (Coincidentally Simon has reminded me for many years of Matthew Broderick, the actor who played the main character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – in my opinion one of the very best films released in … 1986). Although Linda and I don’t see Simon and Fiona more than a couple of times a year, we did get together for a few days quite recently – a date suggested by Simon in order to dovetail with a golf trip he was taking that same week. During our time together the four of us spoke for the first time in many many years about the wedding itself, including recollections of an awkward conversation I had had over dinner with the bride’s sister! Some weeks later, as I was putting this piece together, I sent Simon a text message asking him to confirm the date of his wedding. I think I knew, even before he sent me his response, what it would reveal – as indeed it did. That on the very day we had recently been discussing the details of that wedding, which took place all those years before, Ben, if he were here, would have been, to the day, the exact age I was on the wedding day.

And to return to car number plates for just a moment – these being, in all probability, the most common means by which most of us come into contact with 2-digit numbers in any given day – I feel obliged to include amongst this litany of bizarre experiences one other incident that occurred just a few short weeks ago. That morning I had visited Tim and Ben’s old school to discuss with the staff there a way in which we as a family, in Ben’s honour, might be able to contribute to an important project that is currently being undertaken to provide ongoing emotional support to students who require it. On the way home, with my mind, understandably, full of thoughts of Ben, and his legacy, I spotted a delivery van being unloaded in the relatively small suburban street down which I was driving. Its numberplate contained the number 86. No big deal; although it did, as always, make me smile inwardly just a little. But by the time I had driven no more than a further 100 metres, passing along the way, as I did so, the six vehicles parked on the left hand side of the street over that distance, I was genuinely shaking my head in amazement. Because three of those six vehicles (ie in addition to the delivery van that had first grabbed my attention) were also displaying the number 86 on their rego plates.

Now of course I do appreciate that all of the numberplates I have written about here were affixed to motor vehicles driven and parked by human beings who have almost certainly never met Ben, or me, or Laura, or anyone else connected with this whole crazy saga, and who know nothing, and possibly care even less about The Beniverse. But it is the fact that those of us who are a part of The Beniverse, and attuned to it, seem to find ourselves drawn to the places where, and at the times when, these remarkable and powerful coincidences can occur.

Which perhaps helps to explain how I came to drive past the car pictured at the top of this article at the very time that I was debating in my own head whether my experiences with the number 86, and relating to the year 1986, had accumulated enough substance to warrant sharing them.

Confirmation bias is defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values”. (Or, as Paul Simon expressed so beautifully in The Boxer: “A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest”). People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, and ignore contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence so as to support their existing attitudes. The effect is said to be strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

I am honest enough to admit I am a prime candidate for confirmation bias. Which is why, no doubt, since early June 2020, I have been predisposed to see the number 86 all around me even though, logically, it cannot be present any more often now than it always was.

Believe it or not there are four other numbers that also seem to be significantly overrepresented in my immediate environment, no matter where I go. One is 88 – which resembles two infinity symbols, standing vertically rather than horizontally, and was a number Linda and I independently adopted after Ben’s death as being somehow symbolic of his presence. Another is 97 – 1997 being the year of Ben’s birth. The third is 66. 1966 is Linda’s year of birth, but why that should impose itself upon me as regularly as it does in the context of thinking about Ben I am uncertain. And the fourth number that has appeared around me constantly in recent times, and for which I could also provide no explanation at all until a short time ago, is 98.

I had wondered for some time whether I see 98 as often as I do because it is the 2-digit number that appears on the registration plate of my own motor vehicle. Perhaps. But very recently, as I was walking down my driveway, approaching my car from the rear, I observed something I had never noticed before. Which is that if you turn 98 upside down:

You get 86.

The year 1986 was a watershed time for me without a doubt. When that year began I was dancing like no-one was watching at the Junkanoo festival in Nassau, in the Bahamas, without a care in the world. By the time it concluded I was an admitted solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, just days away from commencing my first (and, as it turns out, my last) full-time job as a lawyer.

In between I had seen two of my siblings marry – weddings separated by the marriage of another of my close mates, Clayton, to his fiancee, Kellie; a couple with whom Linda and I now share an anniversary, albeit seven years apart, and with whom we still regularly catch up.

I had completed my course requirements for a Bachelor of Laws, attended graduation at the University of New South Wales, and undertaken the solicitors’ pre-admission course at the College of Law – where I seemingly managed to pack in all of the socialising I should have been doing through five years of Uni into five short months. Whilst at the College I acquired a number of new friends, and cemented relationships with quite a few old ones. One of those new friends, Chris, would meet, and go on to marry one of my very favourite UNSW classmates, Margaret. Like Linda and I, Chris and Margaret’s marriage would produce, in time, two exceptional young men, both born during the last five years of the second millennium. Tragically however, barely six weeks after Ben’s funeral, Chris would find himself dealing with such serious mental health-related challenges in his own life that he would feel compelled to end it. He is sorely missed by many.

During 1986 I played First Grade rugby at Warringah Rugby Club with and against a host of Wallabies, and many other champion players and great blokes, and under the coaching of Rod Macqueen – who would go on in subsequent years to become our country’s most successful national coach of all time. I also renewed my relationship with the game of cricket after a hiatus of six years; a relationship that has stood the stern test of time ever since. Both sports, I can say today without a shadow of a doubt, have delivered to me throughout the years many of the most memorable experiences, and the most important and enduring friendships, of my life.

1986 was a year that shaped me in so many ways – principally by virtue of all the wonderful opportunities and advantages that my very fortunate life had afforded me to that point. And although those opportunities and advantages, and the life experiences they bring, are now, forever, denied to Ben, I will continue to reflect, proudly, on the person he was when we lost him, and the man he would undoubtedly have become.


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