Norman Whitfield, the producing and arranging wunderkind, attributed the success of a hit record as much to the listening public as to the composers and multifarious media personnel. It’s us who decide whether it will sink or rise.
Taking Norman at his word, as a dedicated gramophile, it’s safe to say I can take some tiny credit for the crossover chart success of the gospel-based rhythm and blues, calling itself Soul, both in popular appeal and commercially. Like Norman, I was only too happy to give the fresh cream of it’s crop my stamp of approval . With millions of others, buying the records in droves, my listening was enriched and shaped by the deep pool of talent from the likes of Elvis to the Beach Boys being drawn upon to promote the message of freedom, choice and the main chance.
By the mid-60’s, the floodgates of this largely segregated pool were being thrown open to all and it all gushed out. ‘And the coloured girls went ‘Doo, doo doo, doo doo, doo doo doo… ’.. And the coloured boys went ‘A-wop bop-a loo-bop, a-wop bam-boom! Reigning the airways, I recognized it instantly-the big open sound, mostly sweet, suave, sizzling, often hard driving, always crisp, slick, sophisticated – and nakedly emotional. And always, without fail, there was the beat. Hard to beat.
With a Whole Lot o’ Soul
I wrote a soul song, but I couldn’t read music well enough so I don’t know exactly what it was. Every once in a while I’d be listening to the radio and I’d say, ‘I think I might have written that. ’
In it’s farthest flung outpost, Condobolin, central New South Wales,blasting out of my lounge room speakers, it got my party airborne. I was one of those early stereotypes.
At the same time, an ocean away, the better known of our family were belting it out, at the source. Motown-Detroit Soul- was pumping out back to back chart toppers as regularly as the assembly lines across town were manufacturing cars. Singers such as Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Edwin Starr put out songs for the record label at its peak that became anthems all over the world. Great Googamooga, That music really sent me.
Old man rhythm was in my shoes and right on time. I danced to it solo, hi-de-ho, cutting such a swell, togged out in my sharpest knitted outfit. It kicked, it turned, it curled my belly. All right! Flippin’ and a slippin’, I could really shake it up, shake ‘em down. With my built-in boogie woogie sense of natural rhythm, smooth n’ snappy demeanour, honeyed harmonies and clear country tinge, I rolled back the carpet, preparing for my big break.
Stand well back! I snapped my fingers, balled my fist and, betraying my time as a church singer, dropped to my knees. My electrifying moves-splanky spins, twirly whirlys, cartwheels, and splits- lifted me higher and higher, expanding the powerhouse male vocal act, The Temptations, from a quintet to a sextet-and reducing my stock of furniture to boot.
Crash! Bang! Wallop! More glasses and crockery destroyed than at a Greek wedding. For sheer danceability, no one could come close. It was too dicey. Anyone watching would stand aside. With a string of smash hits, this sixth blue-eyed Temptation brought a wild and wooly new dimension to the act. Mytown-Antipodean Soul at it’s best.
One of my housemates said to me ‘You are very talented. It’s only a matter of time before you are discovered.’ ‘I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, I will know how magnesium felt in 1816.’
As Common as Muck.
Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
Meanwhile, I remained unattached by choice. Not mine.
The big dry spell for Mr. Lonelyheart continued unabated. I had all kinds of rhythm. I just needed the girl to go with ‘em.
It looked like I had one for a moment. I hoped a pretty female colleague living with her parents shared the same instant and extreme attraction I felt for her.
I longed for the day when I could say to myself, ‘Tonight’s the night.Everything’s going to be all right.Time to disconnect the phone line and pull down the blind.’
‘It’s too early for me to say how I feel about you,’ she told me.
I had put the question to her, ‘Do you believe in love at first sight, or do I have to walk by again?’
‘How about dinner?’
‘I’ll never be busier.’
At long last she told me, You can see me after three.’
I counted immediately, ‘One,two,three’ and advanced towards her.
‘You’re jumping the gun a bit aren’t you,’she said.
In my haste I was coming on too strong.
After many times fruitlessly walking by her, I kept my hopes up she’d come around. Instead it was me who did so.
One evening she rang me up and said, ‘‘O.K. I agree to see you though it won’t come to anything.So if you’re feeling lonely, don’t be afraid, come around, there’s nobody home.’
I went over full of tumescent anticipation but the night had other plans for me. I rapped on the door,tapped on the window pane all to no avail. Sure enough, no one was home.
Just me and my shadow outside, all alone and feeling blue. Stood up, I waited ages outside on my feet.Coming to nothing, it turned out to be a one night stand.
I had had a perfectly wonderful evening… but that wasn’t it.
As things turned out she was a philosophy major who didn’t even know I existed – and worse … she could prove it.
With respect to the dearth of nubile women, those obscure objects of my desire, I stuck it out. There was no desire under the elms or splendour in the grass. My amorous activities were straight out of a German fairy tale-grimm. Saturday night was the loneliest night in the week. Feeling shy and isolated, I applied for a transfer to the city. For my sins I was posted instead to Tenterfield, another small sleepy provincial town.
Set in lush hilly country, it is perfect for bush walking. The local natural feature, Bald Rock is a massive water streaked dome 750 metres long and 500 metres wide, the largest exposed granite rock in the Southern Hemisphere. At close to 1300 metres above sea level, it feels like a remote ‘top of the world’ experience from the summit. Collections of granite archways, scattered boulders, ravines roping their way through the terrain and a pile of enormous smooth granite stones balancing strangely across each other, all awaited my exploration.
The rock served as a neutral ground for three of the first nations of the area:the Jukumbal,Bundgalung and Kamilaroi.An important trade route for these nations,meetings and trade took place without each trade having to journey through the other territories.The rock was considered a boundary positioned fairly between each country.
I could have challenged myself with with a short, but very steep climb up the face of the rock to the summit but I settled for the gentle 2.5km climb.
‘I’d like to take a group on an excursion around Bald Rock,’I told him. ‘I’d like to get the kids to consider how indigenous people adapted to life in that environment throughout history.’
‘I doubt I’d get approval for that.It would be extremely difficult.’
‘Nobody’s suggesting that the tribal people living there were noble,free from sin,or as Cook famously declared in his Endeavour journals, ‘far more happier than we Europeans’.
‘Brutish natives running around the bush with woomeras isn’t my idea of history.I’m afraid you can’t take any of our kids for granite.Some might go walkabout.If they did you’d be looking stupid.’
‘Then at least we’d have something in common,’I said to myself.
‘I see some of the children here have aboriginal ancestry,’I told him. ‘It wouldn’t look good for you if it got out you disallowed such a trip.’
‘You know what,it’s suddenly become less difficult.I think I can arrange it for you.’
Along with other like-minded curmudgeons, scratching their backsides, counting their superannuation, marking their time tidily to retirement , their starchy institutional received finite wisdom was for the newly inducted to stick to the books, be stern and to arouse fear and awe. They had diarrhea of the mouth but constipation of ideas.
‘The golden rule of teaching is to avoid personal interest in the rabble – these toey, good for nothing deadbeats and ning-nongs. Keep such sneaky, tail-dragging dregs at arm’s length. Always drink upstream from them. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.’
‘What if I want to be liked as a person?’
‘An admirable quality in a cocker spaniel but nothing these retards will respect in a teacher. What most need is a good hiding. It never does them any harm. Tanning their behind’s too good for them. A word to the wise. Step on them or woe betide you. This is no Summerhill. ’
‘A word to the wise isn’t necessary, ’I thought. ‘It’s them that need such advice about you. ’
‘Watch out, they can smell fear. They can eat you alive,’ these tough cookies prattled on gratingly, holding them down, turning them round, filling them up with their rules. ‘Remember, familiarity breeds contempt.’
‘Not to mention children.’
‘Being too close to these particular children distracts you from the job at hand.While you’re being pally with them,they’ll be making rude signs behind your back.
Secondly, don’t play wet nurse to them. It’s not on. ’‘Spare the rod and spoil the child, ’I thought, ‘blah, blah, blah. I’d heard it all before.
“Kids are different today.’ the deputy principal told me while doing his early morning rounds, ‘ We get little of the respect we gave at their age. They’ve got to learn to do what they’re told. In this little shop of horrors these customers have be put in their place.’
Aware of his reputation, a first offender sent to report to him for being out of uniform was shifting from foot to foot as nature called while he awaited being reprimanded.
‘‘Don’t go yellow pants on me,boy.Tie a knot in it, ’ said the deputy principal with an arch glance, as the boy started widdling down his strides, ‘I don’t bite children this early in the morning. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth all day. What’s your name, lad?’
‘Say ‘Sir’ when you answer a teacher.’
‘Sir Smith. ’
‘You have to address me as ‘Sir. ’ Are you nervous, Smith?’
‘Is this really your first time?’
‘No, I’ve been nervous lots of times. ’
‘How soon can you go home and get changed into your uniform ?’
‘I can’t tell. ’
‘You can tell me, I’m the deputy principal’.
‘What I mean is, I don’t know. ’
‘Well can’t you take a guess?’
‘Not for another two hours. ’
‘You can’t take a guess for another two hours?
‘No, what I’m saying is I can’t get changed until two hours time. My mum’s gone shopping.’
‘So why are you still standing here, Weary Willy? Get a permission note from the school secretary and go home. And while you’re at it get some shoes on.We can’t have you chewing your nails in class.’
’’One of the main tasks of the secretary was to sign pieces of paper.
She’d sign her own death warrant if it were handed it to her.
‘You must get tired of all this documentation,’ I said to her.
‘If I want your opinion, I’ll ask you to fill out the necessary forms’.
Play it again, Sam!’ the Deputy warned a boy of that name tuned into his blaring banned transistor radio, ‘and this’ll be your last encore.’
‘Where’s the fire?”he called to a boy running along the corridor. ‘Slow down.You know the rules.’
‘Are you wearing a hat, Jones?’ he called to another boy he spied down the corridor. ‘I collect hats. I have a large grab bag. Would you like me to add to it now or would you prefer to keep it at home. Jones whose hobby was ventriloquism took his hat off,held it up to his face while he threw his voice talking to himself, ‘I’ll go home while you stay here.I don’t want to be part of any collection.. I’ll go on ahead.’
‘You’re talking through your hat,Jones.Now roll those sleeves down. That’s a demerit.
‘You can’t stop me. It’s my right to bare arms. ’
‘Watch it! This isn’t the Bronx. You know the rules. And while you’re about it, do your top buttons up, we don’t want to see your wispy bum fluff! And don’t walk away while I’m speaking to you. I don’t want to talk to the back of your head. Now tuck that shirt in at once and look up at me. ’
‘I have to remind him constantly to keep his head up,’ he said as the boy departed. ’
‘He’s not very outgoing, is he?’
‘I told him that he was too introspective. He replied ‘What does that mean?’
I said ‘ If you don’t know what introspection is – you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. ’
But at least he’s less so than his hangdog brothers. When conversing with you, at least he’s looking at your feet instead of his own.
His brother only communicates with low,guttural sounds. I got fed up with this and told him one day, ‘You’ve got to make a renewed effort to stop those sounds and speak more clearly.’
‘How did he take that?’
He did stop but he took it very personally and angrily at first.He was plainly disgruntled.’
It sounds as if the boy might have Asperger Syndrome. He shows the typical signs-physical clumsiness,a lacking in nonverbal communication skills and understanding of others’ feelings.Moreover he has an intense focus on facts and hobbies, coupled with a penchant for rigidity and aversion to change.’
‘We should suggest he take up sport or artwork.’
I’ve already put that to him.He said, ‘You’ve’ already encouraged me to take up tennis and swimming, but painting is where I draw the line.’
‘Maybe if the brothers worked together on sharpening their wit, they could come up with a winning intellect. ’
‘Two half-wits don’t make a whole wit. Mr.Davis,I get this big feeling children today are becoming more chaotic and confused—or is it just me getting older.’
From what brief knowledge I have of you of you,’ I said to myself, ‘I’d say you’ve always been old.’
While passing a room with hellions horsing around, waiting for the teacher, he called out, ‘Cut it out you little piggies, times a’wasting. Stop squealing and clean up your mess.’
‘Sir,I can expl—-‘one boy tried to say.
‘I’m the one talking here,Williams.This is not an open forum.You have no speaking part.It’s as disorderly here as Parliament House.Whatever the reason you’ve all been having quite a time of it with your silly billys but it’s time to stop.You’re so noisy,I can’t hear myself think.
Get to your chairs and put your hands on your heads.’
‘You didn’t say Simon says!’
‘If I hear so much as a peep out of any of you,you’re all on detention. Any takers?’
Directing his gaze to the group of boys playing cards in the corner he said, ‘You know by now that cards are forbidden at school.Put them away now.I’ll deal with you later.’
When one boy claiming he had been punched continued being unbearably noisy the deputy proceeded to march him outside after warning him, ‘ Are you going to come quietly,or do I have to use earplugs?’
To the boy who was sitting on the heater. he called, ‘Dooligan,the hooligan,still playing the hooligan? Are you looking for a cheap thrill? Get your bottom off that radiator! I can warm it up for you otherwise.’
To the boy who’d climbed high up on the window he warned, ‘Get down from there .‘You can get a pane in the neck from those old frames. And if you fall and break your legs, don’t come running to me.’
‘What do you call this classroom?’ I asked.
‘A vacant lot. We spend the first year of the lives of these kids, ’he told me, ‘teaching them to walk and talk and the remainder teaching them to sit down and shut up. ’
‘Come here, Tom Stevens, ’he called to one boy trying to avoid his gaze. ‘is it true you called Mr. Patterson a big fat constipated pig?’
‘That’s so not true. I don’t remember calling him a pig. ’
‘Now Master Stevens,would you kindly see if you can find Enzo Gattelari from your class in the playground.Ask him to report to me.’
Enzo Gattellari,’ I said when young Stevens went off.’Do I know him?
‘I don’t think he’s anyone you’d know. It’s possible, obviously, but I think it’s really unlikely.
‘With such an distinctly ethnic name I’d say he’d be hard to forget.’
‘Well, would you remember a boy just under six foot high, extremely well mannered?
‘ Oh, I think I do remember somebody like that.’
Well that’s not Enzo Gattellari.’
‘Enzo’s a short boy about this high whose hair marches in several directions at once, and he’s a real pest in his class.’
‘It’s great how smoothly things run here,’ he said to me.
While I was in his office, The deputy principal was informed his car’s duco had been scratched with a coin allegedly by a certain boy.
‘Do you think he’s guilty of that?’I asked.
‘Well, he certainly qualifies. ’
‘Would you like me to go and get him, ’I asked.
‘Don’t worry, he’ll keep. I’ll sort him out later . After school. When I finish with him he’ll never forget it. ’
‘He must have it in for you. When did his name first come to your attention?’
‘After he first enrolled he told one of the students, ‘The deputy principal is
a real pr—!’
You shouldn’t say such a thing about the head of school you belong to. ’
‘Let me rephrase that for you. I don’t belong here but I come. ’
‘Do you know who I am?’the student replied.
‘I am the deputy principal’s daughter if you want to know!’
‘ Do you know who I am?’ he replied.
‘ Good!’Whereupon he walked away from my little girl.He should be spanked in public. ’
Do all teachers feel that way about him?’
‘One of the ladies is actually dotty about this little charmer. I once heard her me-deep in conversation with another teacher say, ‘I just wish he was my kid for just one day!’
‘Did she ever get the chance to teach him? Did he become that teacher’s pet ?‘She was allocated his class for a second time but declined it point blank.After that first experience it was believed her ovaries tied themselves in a knot. ‘What did she have to say?’
‘She said to the Principal, ‘No way, not if you tied my tongue to your tailpipe, drove me naked across a field of broken glass and forced me to crawl over burning coals. No, no, no!’
‘Every collection of children has in it those who are well worth the sacrifice,Take this class,Please!’
‘Listen’, I said to him, ‘these kids might be a challenge but I’d like to do something with disadvantaged children, ’I told him.
How sweet!’ he said.
‘Sweetness is the least of it.Such students respond well to project based learning. To contextual learning relevant to their real life experiences.’
‘I know what I’d like to do with them-in private,’ he replied, stretching his fingers into a chokehold, ‘I’d spifflicate them.Knock their blocks off. I’ve got the perfect wrist to give their necks a twist. They’d find it most invigorating. ’
‘Just like shock therapy, ’I said. ‘There must be less violent ways of dealing with them.
‘Be careful what you wish for, clever clogs,’ said another windbag. ‘You might just get it. ’
‘Surely when it comes to moulding an ideal citizen this is where it’s at.’
‘In my experience whenever I thought I knew where it’s at, it turned out to be somewhere else.’
‘Disadvantaged children can become advantaged. I’ve got real feelings about that.’
‘Have you now.The Department of Education pays you to command, not for your feelings.’
When I met her husband I said to him, ‘Your wife sure is gifted.She has the gift of the gab.’
‘I don’t know about that.I haven’t spoken to her for years.I don’t want to interrupt her.’
Bashing my ear, one dowdy,brassy battle-axe who seemed not so much dressed as upholstered gabbled on hard: “Theories don’t always work out in practice.’
She had runs in her stockings,her slip was always showing, and she had more lipstick on her teeth than on her mouth. I’d never seen anyone put on so much makeup over their ‘character lines’. I was told she took it off with a chisel and that she has pigtails under her armpits.
She put on some cheap perfume but why did she have to marinade herself in it?
I said to her, ‘You’re a woman, right—?
She replied, ‘What gave it away, Mr Davis?’
I went on, ‘I’d like to ask your opinion, Don’t women generally have a more understanding, sympathetic attitude to children than men?’
‘I don’t doubt your sincerity but you can’t fill them with false hopes.. You can forget any fancy ideas they told you at uni about raising the horizons of these dopey dills, dumbclucks, dummies, dipsticks,drop kicks and drongos.There’s one born every minute. ’
‘It takes one to know one’, I thought. I said, ‘You left ‘dorks’, ‘dumbos’, ‘dunderheads’, dolts, dullards, dimwits and ‘dead weights’’ from your D list.’
‘I don’t know what makes them so lamebrained but it really works. ’
‘Whoop-de-doo. Maybe if you got off your high horse, you’d find out why. Morever, you’d feel less giddy and tending a bit more towards equality.’
I believe in equality. Equality for everybody. No matter how stupid they are or how superior I am to them .’
‘Do you genuinely believe you’re superior to the local people?’
’If you aren’t better than these folk,young man, who are you better than?’
This empty vessel could compress the most words into the smallest idea of any person I ever met.
‘Some are born to fail, others have it thrust upon them. That’s where we come in. ’
She was notorious for judging homework harshly. While she barked madly she marked badly.
‘She’s an outspoken woman, ’ I had been informed about her. My response was,‘Yes, but by whom?’
‘You have to excuse her.She’ll never have a bun in the coven.She’s an old maid.’
‘There are those who diplomatically call her ‘lady in waiting’.
“Others call her unloving. I’ve heard it be said she runs the whole gamut of the emotions, from A to B.’
‘Did she never fall in love?’
‘I’m told she stepped in it a few times.’
‘Whatever the case she gives sound advice.’
‘Sure. Ninety nine percent sound, one percent advice. Yakety yakety yak,’
She says the same thing over and over again. She has more repeats than Channel Nine. She should join the self help group for compulsive talkers. ’
‘On and on Anon. ’
‘The sooner the better. ’
‘I’m afraid I’ve lost my voice, she whispered one morning. My doctor says I’ve got laryngitis. I hope he will cure it quickly for my sake.’
‘I wonder if he can prolong it for all our sakes,’ I thought.
‘This blowhard was not only a big mouth but a big gasper, taking in short quick breaths of air whenever she expressed shock about others’ faults. That’s a lot of suction. One story about her was that a colleague sitting too close to her lost both contact lenses and a gold filling.
It was said she was so anally retentive she couldn’t sit down for fear of sucking up the furniture.”
One day the gasbag raved on regarding my values while I was praising a difficult boy’s progress with another teacher, ‘You want to know what I think?’
‘No but I bet you’re going to lay it on me anyway. ’
‘You’ll soon get all your ideals knocked out of you,Wonder Boy. Ideals don’t get you promotion. They don’t get a noisy class to shut up. Remember for every person wishing to teach, there are thirty not wanting to be taught.
Ideals don’t help these people get jobs which is all they want. Don’t you agree?’
‘If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong. You see I believe ideals are like stars in the sky. We can’t reach them, but how they profit us by their presence.’
‘Look here, young man, I understand your idealism, boring and predictable though it is. But I can tell you there has never been any kind of society which laid claim to any civilisation which was not in the last analysis based on natural order. There can be no freedom without it. ’
‘If you say so.’
‘I have to. There can be no survival without it. There can be no order without due deference paid to those exercising authority. Sheep without a sheepdog go wherever they want. We certainly have order in our curriculum and like the body civic are all the healthier for it. ’
‘I don’t necessarily disagree. Educators, principals have to be listened to and respected. I simply don’t see why order has to be synonymous with the hierarchy of birth. ’
‘Trying to raise the horizons of many of our lot is more trouble than it’s worth. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Some of these kissing cousins are barely recognizable as humans.’
‘Madam,they have no exclusive right.You are are no better a judge of your fellow human beings than you are a specimen of one,’I said under my breath.
I’m shocked you could say such a thing.’
‘You haven’t seen them all yet.’
‘We have to consider their family tree. When one I know looked at his he saw that a dog was using it. I’m sure we could find loopholes in their birth certificates. ’
‘I don’t know whether you’re religious or otherwise but everybody is here on earth for a reason.’
‘It may be that the whole purpose in life of these primitive lifeforms is simply to serve as a warning to others. Look at the bovine stupor of their sneering stares and their rotting gnashers. When they go to the dentist, it’s he who needs the anaesthetic. Now I know why some animals eat their young. Look at Jim ‘Mongo’ Lloyd. He was so ugly when he was born, the doctor slapped his mother. That’s when she started having morning sickness. She could only bear to breast feed her little gargoyle through a straw. Have you noticed his spectacularly flaring nostrils?’
‘That’s where his only flair is. He reminds me of a young Kenneth Williams.’
‘He’s living testimony to evolutionary design. Have you noticed how large his fingers are?’
And how poor his reading skills are? After he was tested recently it turned out he’s not dyslexic. He’s just really really stupid.He’s not just made a virtue out of it,he’s made it into a science. He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.’
‘He could become at least an ‘idiot savant if he were encouraged to use his head.’
‘All his head is good for is to keep his ears apart. When he worked after school at the local pet shop, customers always asked how big he’d grow to be. When asked if the store stocked any unusual animals, he always confused the words ‘exotic’ with ‘erotic’ which made for some very awkward conversations.
‘Maybe they’re not asking him the right questions.’
‘That dumb-bell wouldn’t know the answer to a doorbell if you didn’t give it to him. He’s so dense that light bends around him.He must get it from his father. He’s a flat-earther.’
‘You might check your facts there.The way I heard it,he’s a bulldozer operator.’
‘Jim’s the first in his family born without a tail.Good nutrition has given him some length of bone, but he’s not more than one generation from simian stock.People look at him and laugh or they run the other way. He went to a freak sideshow and they let him in for free. I urged him to increase his reading so as to widen his extent of his vocabulary. ’What did he say to that?’
‘How does Young Socrates score in intelligence quotient measurement?’
All he could get on his test was saliva. He had a brindle, tiger striped bull mastiff for a pet. What did he call the dog? Spot!When it died he was given an identical one. ’What am I going to do with two dead dogs?‘ he said, bemoaning his loss. Talking about ‘spot’, his father rented a boat and took him out fishing on a lake together. The fish were practically queuing to take the bait.
‘This is a terrific spot for fishing, ‘ said Jim. ‘How will we know where this spot is next time?’
‘I’ve thought of that, ‘ said Mr. Lloyd, ‘I’ve just put a mark on the side of the boat.’
‘Don’t be so silly, Dad,’ said Jim, ‘how do you know we will get this boat the next time?’
‘Didn’t his dad tell him how silly this logic was?’
Soon afterwards his father took him aside… and left him there.
‘Did Jim have any inkling this was coming?’
‘He had once asked his dad, ‘What would happen if we’re not able to look after Spot any more.’
‘ I’m afraid we’d just have to abandon him.’
‘Parents differ in the length of time in which they care for their children, don’t they.’
‘That’s just what Jim’s foster father told me yesterday.’
‘No wonder he hasn’t developed as he should have.’
‘What does his biological father do for a living?’
‘ ‘Father’ is a generous term to apply to him.He’s a house painter I believe.Jim used to help him out.’
‘Yeh,using lead based paints in enclosed spaces.We’re learning more now about what that can do to a kid’s brain.’
‘O. K., l might look dumb, l can’t help it, protested Jim after his teacher expressed despair at him, but—-‘
‘No buts about it.’
‘–God made me that way.’
‘You know, I had Jim down as having hidden depths.’
‘No. No. You’ve got that wrong.He really is shallow.’
‘He can’t help the way he looks.’
‘Being dumb is one thing, looking dumb is another. That really takes talent. ’
‘He can’t tie his own shoelaces without a team of helpers and a ten point plan.He wants to to become a pianist but can’t play Chopsticks without sheet music. He can’t count to 21 unless he’s naked. He’s got more problems than his maths book. His main one is knowing the right time to talk. It’s better for some one to think you’re dumb than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
‘How’s he doing in his grades?’
‘How do you fail year seven twice in a row, huh? You’ve got to try pretty hard to do that.’
I had mentioned this teacher to the boy who was in her class for three years running: ‘She taught me everything I know.’ he said, ‘ Nothing.’
‘Who’s ‘she’? The cat’s mother.You still have to speak respectfully of her.’
Which is more than the teacher did about him,She called him ‘The Black Hole’: ‘His brain’s an empty void in which anything that enters never appears again.’
‘His parents are not always around, I hear. ’I said to her.
‘His parents move a lot, but he always finds them. You know why are there so many unsolved crimes around here? There are no dental records and everyone has the same DNA. Their mothers needed tubal ligation. ’
‘You think there’s a problem with the local gene pool?’
‘The problem is there’s no lifeguard and no chlorine’.
‘It’s easy to make fun of people like that. ’
‘But it’s not. You really have to explain it to these inbreds. You have to translate it into Neanderthal. Have you noticed those foreheads? Their nuchal folds got too thickened.Their mental processes go so far and no further. If they were to think hard, they’d strain their brain. Not that they’re complete idiots, mind you, some parts are missing. You’ll recall we have two parts of the brain, ‘left’ and ‘right’. In their left side, there’s nothing right. In their right side, there’s nothing left. ’
‘That doesn’t mean they can’t exhibit common sense.’
‘You’d need a search warrant to find any of that.’
’‘Everyone including the less gifted has their own ambitions. ’
‘They aspire to nothing more than garbos or factory fodder. ’
‘If you expect the least in children that’s what you’ll get. Keep in mind that these are essential jobs that have to be done. Surely it occurs to them that these jobs they’ll do as adults require basic knowledge. ’
‘It rarely occurs to some of our kids that the day will come when they’ll know as little as their parents.’
‘All the more reason for them to pick up the right habits here. ’
‘The habits they’ve formed here follow them into their chosen jobs. Take one of our leavers from last year. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He has to write “L” and “R” on the bottom of his shoes. At school he could never stop whatever activity he was involved in at school at the right time. At woodwork this stumblebum kept whittling away at a knife handle til there was nothing left but a little stick the size of a match. When writing a composition he’d end up with his exercise book full.’
‘Did he finish the full term of his schooling?’
‘He left with a School Certificate but they caught up with him and made him bring it back.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘He went into hair dressing.He services Alfie Thompson. One day a customer with long mousy locks came into the barber shop and said, ‘I want to look like Elvis Presley. Ducktail style swept into a high pompadour at the front.’
Our hairdressing friend snipped here and snipped there til the guy was practically bald. Outraged, the victim protested, ‘But Elvis doesn’t look anything like that!’
‘Our tonsorial terror answered, ‘He would if he came here. ’
One of the bald iggle’s friends asked him,What do you call that haircut?’
‘Yul,’he answered mournfully.
‘The hairdresser lost his apprenticeship,I take it.’
‘His career prospects and a presentable C.V.’
‘What does he do for a living now.’
‘Telecommunications.He rings his father.’
‘In the city?’
‘Yes,the last time I went to Sydney he warned me before I left, ‘Watch out,there’s lots of idiots there.’
‘How do you know,’I asked him.
‘We keep in touch.’
‘Does he keep in touch with his old school?’
‘He still hangs around with the high school crowd – more specifically, girls. ‘I get older … and they stay the same,’he says.
‘He must be a good example of something or other.’
‘He already is.He’s a poster boy – for birth control.’
Then there was Don Jenkins who was given the nickname ‘Donkey’.A stutter marred much of his talking.You couldn’t sit him alone of course but whichever boy he was sat next to would lead to teasing.
‘He aw,he aw he aw,he always makes fun of me,’ was Don’s constant complaint.Not surprisingly he wasn’t very good at speaking up for himself.
His appearance didn’t help either. A snub nose and a jutting lower lip made him look like a bulldog.As the faultfinding teacher pointed out he was also short and fat and stoop-shouldered.In fact he was a dear ringer for young Winston Churchill who shared the same speech impediment.
There being no cure for stuttering, I encouraged him to do all sorts of things that one wouldn’t notice to get round the stuttering. I got him to do diction exercises and to substitute for words and phrases that I knew caused him difficulty. I told him that only practice and perseverance would help him, encouraging him to never submit to failure.
I got him to talk slowly and rehearse aloud to make sure he wouldn’t muff words or stumble over them, particularly words starting with ‘s.’ While walking on the street he repeated such sentences as, ‘The Spanish ships I cannot see since they are not in sight.” Over time he sought more opportunities to speak. All this helped him to lose the inhibition that had caused his stammering.
The habit of maintaining a good appearance through smart dress appearance was stressed at the school. The careers advisor used to say, ‘Don’t dress for the job you’ve got, dress for the job you want.’ I say he was a careers advisor – I later found out he was a mechanic dressed up as a careers advisor.
‘Those leaving our schools must be provided with the widest range of skills to prepare them for life and the labour market,’ I said.
Some of them dip their toes into the wide range of subjects here and think they have mastered them all even. They have themselves on. As I said to one boy preparing to go out into the wide world: ‘Greg, acting, cooking, football, writing, photography, music, painting; is there anything you can do?”
‘I’m told one of the kids leaving last year’s remedial class got a job as a proof reader. ’
‘That’s right. But not with the Sydney Morning Herald. After first proof reading for a sky writing company he’s now checking the treacly, cheeky messages on ‘Love Hearts’, those heart shaped lollies.
’Isn’t it our job to get them to think critically and to appreciate art and culture?’
‘Why try to teach them about art? It means no more to them than does a string of pearls to an ape. Beauty can only be inculcated in those who can appreciate it. For most of these bad seeds, their minds rarely raise above belt level. ’
‘Is that so?’I queried, taken aback by such a jaundiced viewpoint.
‘The boys only think of their stomach and what hangs from it. With them , there’s not being enough blood in their testosterone charged bodies to run penis and brain simultaneously. Does this tell you anything?’
‘It tells me you like the sound of your own voice, ’I thought. She must have been vaccinated with a record needle. ‘So what are we supposed to be doing?’I asked, ignoring this rambling turgid hogwash, not wanting the grass to grow under my feet. ‘What about the complaints from those who can’t stand school?’
‘ Just ignore this noise from the peanut gallery. ’
‘Do you talk to them? Have an honest dialogue with them?’
‘I have an honest monologue.I tell them,like my father told me what to do or else.’
‘How about asking about their reasons. Have you talked to Alfie Thompson who doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything?’
Alfie boasted the most stupefyingly stupid pudding basin haircut since Henry V disputed the field of Agincourt.
‘I have and didn’t get far. I asked him , ‘Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?’
He replied, ‘Miss, I don’t know and I don’t care’.
‘He does express his own views in a disputatious way,’I said.
‘He would argue with a signpost.He challenged my judgement saying ‘You really think I’m stupid, don’t you, Miss?’
‘I don’t think about it one way or the other. But if you want, give me a day or two and I’ll get back to you.’’
She asked Alfie, ‘Who is the stupid one,you, or me for putting up with you ?’
He told her, ‘Everyone knows you don’t put up with pillocks.’
‘Are you the oldest in your family?’
No, my mother and father are both much older. ’
‘I said, ‘ I don’t think I need a day or two — you’re even dumber than you think I think you are. Did the nurse happen to drop you on your head when you were an infant?’
‘Oh no, Miss, we couldn’t afford a nurse. My mother had to do it. ’
‘I hear that after he survived, she said he was ‘one in a million’.
‘That’s not how his father explains it. He says the boy was ‘won in a raffle’. ’
‘Mind you, he’s very dependable. You can always rely on him to let you down.’
Has Alfie been tested for Alexia?
‘Alexia is an acquired reading disorder of written language comprehension.Landing on his head may have led to brain damage affecting Alfie’s ability to read.’
‘Listen, he’s just like the others.Whatever the reason we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel of brains with most of them. ‘I’m sure there’s a good pool of whip smart children amongst those you see as rabble,’ I asked a cynical male teacher.
‘If there are, they’re like UFO’s. You keep hearing about them, but never see any. What can you expect with parents like theirs?’
‘Can you give me an example?’
‘I told one of the parents last week ‘It’s important at this stage your son has as many career options available. Why do you want him to learn a trade. ’
‘So later we can know what kind of work he’s out of. ’
‘I asked him if he knew about the recent health scare. ‘Do you know about Hepatitis B?’
He said, ‘We don’t need vitamins. ’
‘He filled out our required office enrolment application for his son and completed it all until he got to the last item. It asked for the name of ‘the nearest living relative.’
‘From here or from my house,’ he queried the school secretary.
‘Who should we notify in case of an accident?’ she replied.
He thought it over and then said, ‘Anybody in sight!’
At the bottom of the application where it said ‘Sign here,’ he put
‘People have to be prepared for such contingencies. Accidents will happen, ’said the secretary all the while signing a constant stream of paperwork.
‘Could you give me an example?’
‘Last week we had a boy break his arm at football.I was able to inform his mother immediately.I told her, ‘A coach is taking him to hospital.’
She replied, ‘Wouldn’t an ambulance be better?’
The secretary was always busily signing without close inspection permission notes, appointment reminders,messages to parents and staff,orders for supplies and notes from doctors and parents.
She’d have signed her own death warrant if it were handed it to her.
‘It’s only an accident this particular parent’s alive,’ ’continued the cynical chalkie, ‘depression drove him to putting his head in the oven. ’
‘How did he survive?’
‘It doesn’t work with electric ones. ’
‘So what do you see as the main aim of the school?’
‘What we’re on about much of the time is crowd control, keeping the common herd in order. I won’t say anything more about this. ’
‘Not much you won’t, ’I thought. Even the suits he wore had the same consistent speech pattern. He had a slight impediment in his speech. Every now and then he stopped to breathe.
‘If you can’t keep a close watch on them, you won’t last long. You know we had a first year out teacher here a few years ago like that’, he chuckled. ‘He was so cross eyed he couldn’t keep his pupils straight. ’
‘Nor could his wife keep him straight’added the head gossip listening in. ‘She found out he was seeing someone on the side.’
‘We’ve got to come down hard on disruptive brats.’
‘All human relations require the strictest discipline and direction,’said the cynic.’
‘Sermon over?’I asked, querying the wisdom of going so harsh: ‘Everyone has certain talent. We have to help students discover these and develop them. ’
‘Don’t you worry about that!’, another of these kibitzers declared waspishly: ‘Let them know who’s boss. It’s what we do. That’s the only way to command respect and to advance your career prospects. ’
‘Oh no don’t you start now’, I groaned to myself. The first thing this sourpuss did in the morning was to brush his teeth and sharpen his tongue.
And of course to smile: ‘I like to get it over with,’ he explained.
What he omitted in his routine was to mental floss his brain plaque.
He didn’t seem to have learned much at university. This was put down to him being a double major in both psychology and reverse psychology.
The pull-and-choke was a favourite way for him to punish students. He executed it by pulling the compulsory necktie up like a noose, until the errant boy’s face turned the school colours.
Once when angry with a boy, he banged two dusters together and under the cover of the dustcloud pulled the boy’s ear.’
‘Did you have words with him?’
‘I have words for him that do not come from children’s books.’
‘Don’t be too harsh on him. His parents got divorced recently.They had a custody fight over him.’
‘What was the decision of the court?’
‘No one showed up.’
‘I take it you believe in using the cane.’
‘Of course,but only between consenting adults.’
He brought up the case of a boy in my class he said had been regularly looking for trouble: ‘The last time I saw something like this ill bred dingbat, it was swinging off a tree branch at the zoo and eating a banana. I asked him the other day, ‘ Are you always such a nincompoop or is today a special occasion? I had given the class an oral test where I asked them how they spelled ‘farm’? Do you know what he came up with?
‘It’s not such a long word. ’
‘I said, that’s wrong, Peter. ’
He replied ‘Maybe it’s wrong, but you did ask me how I spell it!’
‘Another boy, a dyslexic, spelt it I-E-I-E-O. Spelling’s certainly not their gift. ’
‘You’ve got to have have a knack for spelling.It’s like tightrope walking and bagpipe playing.You either have it or you don’t.’
The same goes for numeracy which Peter feels confident in.He was in the playground one lunch time with a mate with a bag of doughnuts in his hand.Needless to say his mate wanted a taste.
Peter said to him to test him out: ‘If you can guess how many doughnuts are in my bag, you can have them both.’
‘Surely he’ll improve as he gets to senior years. ’
‘I’m not so sure. His brother in fifth year history just can’t spell Armageddon. ’
‘It’s not the end of the world. ’
‘It’s the end of the boy ever going on to further studies. He doesn’t try hard enough. He drops some real clangers. His teacher asked him,’ ‘What does surrender mean?’
He answered: ‘I give up!’”
‘It’s the end of my rope with Peter. You tell him something,he sticks his fingers in his ears. Worse still he refuses point blank to shut his big fat mouth in class. I tell him that’s enough of that but he forgets straightaway. He’s got a mind like a sieve. He always finds himself lost in thought; it’s unfamiliar territory. I told him,‘ Don’t let your mind wander — it’s too little to be let out alone.’
He said once in the middle of a lesson, You know Sir, I’ve been thinking’.
I replied, ‘Now you’re boasting.’ So now he’s gone as far as pushing me against the blackboard when I tried to clip him on the ear.
“Don’t you even lay a pinkie on me!” threatened the poor boy. It’s beyond me. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear, but then again he doesn’t know the meaning of most words. If he’d push me away like that, what wouldn’t he do? Crack a mental too big to handle? Or turn on the waterworks to gain sympathy? What am I to do?’
‘Blow your nose and dry your eyes, ’I thought.
‘I’ve had it up to here with him. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never witnessed such a flagrant contempt for decent behaviour. He won’t do a scrap of work. He cheats.
I asked him last month, ‘Why is your composition on ‘My Mother’ exactly the same as your brother’s. Did you copy his?’
‘He came back, ‘No Sir, it’s the same mother!’
I asked him, ‘As a small boy was your mother very strict with you?’
‘I’ll have you know my mother was never a small boy. ’
‘This boy is narky, snarky, truculent and violent. ’
‘He’s usually like that after you’ve blown a whistle in his ear. Maybe you’re going too rough on him. ’
‘You can’t talk like that. Do you want me to accept you as you are or do you want me to like you?’
‘You’ve been on his back ever since I’ve been here. You might try giving him a word of praise now and then. ’
‘He tries so hard for one thing. ’
‘That he does. He’s very trying. ’
‘So he makes mistakes. You can’t keep holding that over his head. You’ve got him so rattled he can’t think straight. How about giving him a break?’
‘What kind, his arm or his leg?’
‘Isn’t it time you eased up a bit?’
‘He doesn’t respond when I do. I have to keep hammering away at him. I’ve told him repeatedly to start acting his age. ’
Weren’t you ever a child?’I asked him. ’Didn’t you ever goof around?’
‘When I was half his age, if I had done half the things he gets up to, my father would have had the skin off me. I’ve a good mind to do the same. He’s a bad apple. Rotten to the core. ’
‘You’re full of vinegar, aren’t you. ’ Mr. Muckety Muck looked as though he’d been weaned on a pickle.
‘I do what I can. It’s hard work being a mean bastard. ’
‘When did you become such a bastard?’
‘A long time ago.You just never noticed.’
‘I can’t help admiring how effortlessly you do it. ’
‘Almost as if it comes naturally, ’I said to myself.
‘I must admit,the man who can better me in this area is yet to be born . ’
‘And modest too—-‘
‘Modesty’s my middle name. ’
‘—-with much to be modest about.
‘Aren’t you something!
We.don’t deserve you.’
‘Don’t I know it!’
‘That’s a relief.’
’Would you call me egotistical?’
‘No. Not to your face.’
’Totally wrapped up in himself, he made a pretty small package.
‘I’d say you’re rather self centred. ’
‘People say I’m egocentric, but enough about them. ’
‘What do you think is your worst quality?”
“I’m probably too honest.”
‘That’s not a bad thing,’I said. ‘Being honest is a good quality.”
‘I don’t care about what you think!’
‘There you go,surely you realise even you have glaring faults. ’
‘I have my faults, but being wrong generally isn’t one of them. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but you can draw your own conclusions.For me it’s got to be the best or it’s nothing at all.’
‘So you never make mistakes.’
‘I thought I did once-but I was wrong. ’
‘What about when you—–’
‘Come on, out with it. I have many fine qualities but being a mind reader is not one of them. ’
‘All right, you asked for it. What about when you couldn’t be bothered helping Roger Jones understand the poem you set his class. You told him and correct me if I’m wrong, ‘I’m busy now. Can I ignore you some other time?’
‘If he doesn’t listen carefully to my outline to the whole class, that’s his lookout. ’
‘You don’t like to express regret for what you’d see as those odd occasions when you are at fault.’
‘I never apologise.I’m sorry but that’s the way I am.’
‘What about that distracted boy you caned. You’d forgotten about his father’s recent death. He lost the benefit of a father figure.’
‘Do you have a spare tissue I could use?’
‘Don’t you ever think about other people?’
‘I do. I think about what other people are thinking about me. ’
‘Were you born the mental giant I see before me or did you train to become one?’
I must admit I had to work hard to get where I am. When I started high school I was the intellectual equivalent of a five stone milksop. I would go to the beach and people would kick copies of Shakespeare in my face.
‘So you do give credit to the important role of nurture in our upbringing, I said. ‘Now think about this. A lot of these kids’ problems derives from their home life, ’I said. ‘Some have only one parent. How do we know when they have parents who are a couple?’
‘Their ute has spit stains on both sides.’
‘How do we know when they have parents who are not ?
‘That’s when the stain is yellow and only on one side as explained to me by one mother taken to slumming it: ‘My estranged husband-and might I add strange- started pissing with the door open. No modesty, no decorum. Pissing with the door open. Do you have any idea how disgusting that is when you’re trying to drive?’
‘Children growing up must miss out on so much when their father is absent.They need a forceful father about whom the mum can warn ‘Wait until your dad gets home’.
‘That mother I just mentioned can only say ‘Wait until your dad gets home, we’ll have a chat introduce you and see if he’ll start paying maintenance’”.
Once when taking a group of boys for football this pedagogic proponent of physical and mental perfection exhorted them: ‘Now boys enjoy this time. This is the best your bodies are going to be. Get as fit as you can. You can do things now you’ll never be able to do again.
I remember thinking at the time, ‘I don’t think he should ever be in the shower with them. ’
You have to more understanding of Alfie Thompson,’I told him. ‘He’s a late developer.’
“Not from my point of view.’
‘Did you know he’s from a dysfunctional home? ’ I pointed out to him.
‘Just look at his parents.Two wrongs don’t make a right.’
Not long after ths teacher had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. It was found his ego had spread throughout his entire body.
Alfie’s father,Norm, invited me to his house to have some drinks and I informed the deputy principal.
‘Watch your step, ’he advised. ‘If you go looking for trouble, you may well find it. He’s known to bare his fangs.Keep a safe distance.No sudden moves. The last teacher who went out there, we never saw again. If you’re not back tomorrow, we’ll send out a search party. ’
‘The following work day, I reported back to the head of department.
‘You’re back in one piece, I’m glad to see. Tell me all about their lives and their relationships. I am curious. Yellow. ’
‘I don’t want to go into all the sordid details, Bill. ’
‘Well could you go into a few juicy, sordid details?’
‘I found three of their children , still in their pajamas,outside the caravan playing in the mud, with empty food boxes and wrappers strewn all around the front yard.I knocked on their door and the mother, Carlotta, her hair up in rollers, invited me in.
She was a good sort five kids and many heartaches ago, but bad food and cigarettes were winning the war against her looks.
She was carrying her third child, an eight year old, a lazy little blighter, while an infant in a bassinet was crying.
‘Is that your baby?’ I asked.
‘No, mine is in the fridge. That one is a screaming decoy.’
I introduced myself, adding ‘I’m from the local high school.’
She said, ‘Congratulations! You’re the teacher.’
I replied, ‘That I am. Just as well. You just let me in.’
‘Would you like a drink,Mr.Davis?’
‘Just a glass of water-with ice cubes.’
‘I’m afraid there are none.Would you believe I’ve lost the recipe.’
‘What did you ascertain then?’ asked Bill, the head, ‘Give me all the inside dirt.’
‘Well there’s plenty of that. Where do you want me to start?’
‘What about their origins?’
‘That’s the first thing I enquired about.’ I asked Carlotta, ‘Did you grow up here?’
She replied, ‘Yes Mister, of course. Growing up’s the only thing there is to do round here.’
Did you always want to be the lady of the house?’
In my teens I told my mother I wanted to be an actress.I told her, ‘I want to cry real tears,to scowl and seethe.I want to show real emotion for someone I really don’t care for.’
She said, ‘Then become a housewife.’
‘Mother wanted me to be married all in white.All virginal.I don’t think a woman should be a virgin when she gets married.I think she should have had at least one other disappointing experience.’
‘Norm’s not very gallant,I take it.’
I wish men were more romantic like in the old days.They’d bring a woman a rose.’
‘A rose being the perfect symbol of romance.’
‘It dies after a few days.It’s pretty petals fall out and all you’re left with is the ugly prickly thing.’
‘Where did you and Alfie’s father meet?’
‘At one of his family reunions. That’s where Norm met all the lady friends he dated,’ she said with a giggle.
‘I suppose he had some sweet talking words when he came onto you?’
‘I remember them and mine in reply clearly.He said: ‘That’s a very unusual fragrance.I never smelled that before.What do you call it?’
‘Was it a favourable start?’
‘That one night stand had terrible consequences.My husband and I have subsequently been married fifteen years.You haven’t seen him anywhere have you?
‘ Oh thank God for that.’
’‘What about their working life?’ asked Bill.
‘They’re in the iron and steel industry. He goes out to steal while she stays home and does the ironing.’
‘What were the children up to?’
‘They were in the corner glued to the black box, even though their maternal grandmother had been dead some time.’
‘What about their culture? he asked. ‘What have they got in the way of books and paintings?
‘It’s easy to measure. Their TV set is wider than their book shelf. Both books have been coloured in. I asked Norm Thompson, ‘What was the biggest book you ever read?’
‘When I was little we had one book, the phone book. It filled a much needed gap on the shelf. It wasn’t such a great read. It has lots of characters but at the end I couldn’t even say their names. They were mostly Polish.’
‘What did you and Dad do for entertainment before TV came along?’Alfie asked his mother.’I’ve asked all of my eight brothers and sisters and none of them seem to know.’
‘You’ll have to ask your father,’Carlotta replied.
‘Do they go to the picture theatre?’ asked Bill. ‘What do they go to see?’’
‘I asked the father about that. I said, ‘Did you go to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf last week?’
He replied, ‘You know, I go to the flicks to be entertained. I don’t want to see films about domestic violence, abuse and alcoholism… I can get all that at home. ’
So the husband and wife have their issues. ’
Twenty feet from his wife, in compliance with the court order,Norm told me,‘We get on like a house on fire; we both feel trapped and are slowly suffocating to death.’
While we were sitting down. Mrs. Thompson shouted from the bedroom, ‘Norm,Is that you I hear spittin’ in the vase on the mantel piece ?’
‘No,’ said himself, throwing back a whisky, ‘but I’m getting’ closer all the time.’
‘Norm is burning with passion for me,’joked Carlotta when she entered the living room.’What turns you on the most, my pretty face, my voluptuous torso or my firm buttocks?
Norm briefly looked her up and down and replied: ‘Your sense of humour.’
‘How did I end up hitched to you?
‘You love it.Strange smells,unfamiliar hands,the possibility of blood.’
‘Any interesting artwork in the house?’asked Bill.
‘They’ve three ceramic ducks on the lounge room wall. ’
‘Are they antiques?’
They are now. His dad uses them for target practice with his air rifle.’
‘Does he shoot accurately ?’
‘He’s a crack shot. Whenever his wife makes a crack, he has a shot. ’
As she came into the room Carlotta asked him, ‘Did you miss me?’
‘With every slug so far.’
Norm wasn’t what you’d call a handsome man.He was short in height, narrow shouldered, pot bellied with an unchiselled jawline, a recessed chin, a lazy eye and a bloated, asymmetrical face with sporadic facial hair.
Once he had a terrible accident and the police came to inform Carlotta, ‘‘I’m sorry,Mrs.Thompson,it looks like your husband got hit by a truck,’
‘I’m aware of that Officer but he does have his good points.’
‘The hospital wants you to inform them of his blood group.’
Wanting to teach Norm a lesson,she gave them a wrong one.
For him it was a painful experience of rejection.
While downing his drinks one of Norm’s daughters came by and held his hand.
‘What a beautiful child you have.Are you sure you’re the father?’I said jokingly.I didn’t realise there could be some doubt about it.
‘What about the boy’s home life? What social life does he have?’
‘Hardly any worth talking about. It’s not surprising the boy’s giving us a bad time. His dad’s out of work and his mother’s no bargain either. She’s on the bottle. ’
‘She’s a hard drinker?’
‘She finds it easy. She can drink her husband under the table. ’
‘ I hate you when you drink.’ Alfie’s father said to her.
‘Good, ’cause I hate you when I’m not drinking.’
‘How long has she been drinking?’
‘With Alfie since conception. He was pickled in the womb. ’
‘I hope they don’t drink in front of the children. ’
‘She and Alfie drink milk together after school. His is homogenized. Hers is loaded. ’
‘I hear they live in front of the telly, surrounded by empties. They’re real alcos. ’
‘They call themselves ‘collectors’. It sounds more dignified . Which is more than I can describe their music. Their friends come round for drinking sessions, listening to Chad Morgan. ’
‘There’s no accounting for taste, is there.You’ve got to have smelt a lot of horse manure before you can sing like that. I don’t like the ‘Sheik From Scrubby Creek’, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for those boozers who sing such country music, denigrate means ‘put down’. They’re like their bottles of beer. Empty from the neck up. ’
‘Each to his or her own.’
‘Some people think ‘The Sheik’ is a substitute for Hank Williams but we who’ve studied musical appreciation know better.We don’t think of him at all.’
I asked Carlotta ‘Do you like Billy Holliday?’
‘She replied, “I love him.”
‘What about Joan Sutherland?’
‘She’s the best in the country-and in the city.’
‘You’re right,’ said Bill. ‘ Each person is entitled to their own preferences.’
‘Their taste’s their business but the mother minds her own in the kitchen. She can’t feed anyone much past herself, except their baby girl who has jaundice. ’
‘I wasn’t aware they have a baby. What’s her name?’
‘Because she’s small, oval and yellowish, they named her Melanie.
‘Does she take after her mother?’
‘Not physically.Carlotta’s from Queensland.She’s shaped like a pineapple.’
‘Are the other children hale and hearty?’
‘Not Theo. Mrs. Thompson told me he was autistic, and I thought she said artistic. So I said, ‘Oh great. I’d like to see some of the things he’s done. She showed me one of his drawings from art class.’
It looked like something straight out of a Whitney Darrow Junior cartoon.
‘Where did he pick up this interest in art?’
‘He visited the State Art Gallery with a group of other children.’
‘You have to see him dance. Growing up with so many family members. That’s how he learned to dance – waiting for the bathroom. ’
‘Does Theo take part in games?’
‘Mrs Thompson told me she would always say to him, ‘Why are you always playing alone?’
‘He would reply, ‘I’m not playing, Mum. I’m serious. ’
‘He must have tried some games.’
‘He played hide and seek; they wouldn’t even look for him. He played Monopoly with his father. Whenever the boy landed in ‘Jail’ the father dobbed him in to the police to add a touch of realism. ’
‘What about their home. Is it organized for the children’s welfare?’’
‘Their static caravan still has the “WIDE LOAD” sign on the back. It’s got wheels on it while outside near the tacky pink flamingos and gnomes there are several cars without.
Once they cut the grass and came across one of the earliest Holdens.
Their truck has curtains while the house has none.
They approached the bank to borrow funds.
‘I’m afraid the loan arranger is out at present,’Carlotta was told.
That’s all right,’she replied, ‘I’ll see Tonto.’
The Manager asked her, ‘What do you need the finance for”
‘It’s for a home improvement.’
The bank offered them a thousand dollars to move out of the neighbourhood.
Carlotta’s trailer home has got stained glass windows. It’s from all their homing pigeons.
When I arrived Alfie’s father was holding one up to a blackberry bush , and moving it around while the bird ate berries right off the branch.’
‘Wouldn’t you save a lot of time if you just let go of the bird and let it feed by itself,’I put it to him.
Mr. Thompson turned around slowly and responded, “What’s time to a pigeon?’
I said to him, ‘ Don’t you worry about them not returning?’
‘You can never lose one, ’he said, ‘if your homing pigeon doesn’t come back, what you’ve lost is a pigeon.’
‘Not that he ever loses any,’said Carlotta, ‘he has trained eight of those returning to land on his shoulders. ’
‘What a ledge!’ I said. ‘Could he tell me how he does it?’
‘You should talk to him sometime.I don’t.’
‘How about the interior of their dwelling? asked the deputy. ’
‘Inside it’s quite a mess. ‘Hey! Leave the door open will ya?’ called Alfie’s mother to her husband as he brought me inside, ‘The flies haven’t been out all day. ’
He began stalking around with a fly swatter.
‘Killed any?” she asked after a few minutes.
‘Yes, three males, two females, ’ he replied.
Intrigued, she asked. “How can you tell them apart?’
He responded, ‘three were on a beer can, two were on the phone. ’
‘Don’t these flies end up in all kinds of unwanted places?’
‘As long as they’re around food,the flies want to be there. If they end up baked in a cake and palmed off on the unwary, they die happy.’
While I was drinking the beer Carlotta offered me,one of the kids yelled out, ‘The garbageman’s here,Mum.’
‘Tell him we’ve got enough for the time being.’
‘Does Carlotta like to cook?’
‘How could anyone cook in such a mess. Dishes filled the sink, breakfast food was spilled on the counter, the fridge door was open wide, dog food was spilled on the floor, a broken glass lay under the table, and a large pile of sand was spread by the back door. She hates cooking. She thinks it’s a city in China. They eat out a lot. When she calls the kids for dinner they run to the car. She said, ‘Our children are spoiled,’to which her husband replied, ’All kids smell that way. ’
She hates housework even more.Her boast is, ‘ My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance. She argues, ‘There’s no real need to do housework – after five years it doesn’t get any worse.
When Norm asked her where she wanted to go for their anniversary, she said, “Somewhere I haven’t been in a long time!” So he suggested the kitchen. When he asked her if there were any Jatz crackers, she replied, ‘Can’t you lift up the lounge cushions by yourself ?’
She says, ‘There’s no real need to do housework – after five years it doesn’t get any worse’. For her birthday he wanted to get her something she needs. ’
‘And did he?’
‘He worked out it’s not so easy wrapping a bath. ’
‘What about their bathroom?’
‘Miles of toilet paper lay in a heap and toothpaste had been smeared over the mirror and walls.’
Bill said, ‘the husband must share a very common male fantasy.’
‘What’s that,’I asked.
‘ To have two women at the same time.One who can cook and one who can clean.’
‘There’s a commonly held notion of the wife most pleasing to men. One who is devoted to housekeeping’said Bill.
‘Carlotta obviously doesn’t buy it.’
‘That’s just the image promoted by advertisers. The woman who has her arms in a man’s sink will sink in the man’s arms. However no man is going to be turned on by a woman who’s just waxed the lino. He’s not going to say ‘The floor’s so shiny. Let me take you on it, you spunky temptress. ’
How does she herself justify her unwillingness to keep a tidy house?’
‘My feeling about housework is, ’she argues, ‘ if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the fridge door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should I? After the first five years the dirt doesn’t get any worse. Who on earth would want to do housework? You make the beds, you wash the dishes and one week later you have to start all over again.I always end up with odd pairs of dish washing gloves.The ones I’ve got now are both ‘lefts’ which, on the one hand, is great, but on the other, it’s just not right.As for cleaning the floor, it’s too much trouble. ’
‘Has this draggle tailed dame never heard of a vacuum cleaner?’
‘They have one. They just couldn’t be bothered using it. I saw it poked away in the corner gathering dust. When Alfie’s mother asked the father : ‘What’s on the TV?” he replied, “Dust!” She sees dust as a protective coating for what passes as their ‘furniture’.
At their home, “dust” is a noun, not a verb.
‘Where does all this dust come from?’ said Alfie’s dad, groaning, tip toeing over the broken bottles and peanut shells.
‘You’d be surprised. Did you know that Over an hour each and every man, woman and child sheds almost a million scales of skin. Over a three day period we shed one total layer of skin. ’
‘You’re making that up aren’t you. ’
‘This is fact, not made up. The dust that collects on your table, TV, windowsills, shelves and on those picture frames that are so hard to get clean is made mostly from dander, dead human skin cells? Your house is filled with former bits of yourself. How do you feel about that?’
‘I’m a little grossed out. ’
‘You might think about that if ever you get around to feather dusting your house. You’re not. you’re just moving your family around. ’
‘Let’s just the matter rest, ’ said Norm.
‘It doesn’t just rest. There’s more than meets the eye : Your house is also filled with trillions of microscopic life forms called dust mites that eat your old dead skin. Egg shaped striped little eight legged critters crawling around. ’
‘Mother’s little helpers,’ said Carlotta. ‘They keep me calm, get my dander down. ’
‘Just ignore the mess here, Al, ’said her hubby.
‘It’s not much skin off my nose. You know the funny thing about housework. People only notice when a housewife doesn’t do it.’
‘Some women never do it and never notice it.’
‘Carlotta actually distinguishes between housework and housekeeping.She said, ‘I am a marvellous housekeeper.When I divorced my previous husband I kept his house.’
‘It doesn’t sound like Norm does much handiwork around the place either,’ said the deputy.
‘He’s a divorcé, she’s a divorcée, so actually very little separates them. While I was there he brought in one of those mobiles you have to assemble yourself. Carlotta shouted at him, “Will you be putting that up yourself?”
He replied, “No, you galah,. I’ll be putting it up in the living room.. She shouted to him about the glue trap, ‘Hey you big lug, what about the fly paper. It’s not gonna hang itself.Now come and sit down while I put the bandage on.’
His back was badly burnt.He had stood in for the ironing board when it broke, bending over and allowing Carlotta to finish the job.
She told me.’I made sure he didn’t get out of it. My husband, he’s a wonderful man, a regular do-it-yourselfer,” . ‘I say, ‘Sweety Pie, help me.’
He says, ‘Well if you’re so smart do it yourself.’
That’s when I started excavating by myself to gain access to our underground water.When he came to inspect the finished job I gave him the shaft.I pushed him down it giving him twenty four hours to reflect on his attitude.’
‘It sounds like a day well spent,’
‘He has himself on.He told me once he was a handyman. I said ‘In what way are you handy?’
He replied, ‘I live here. ’’
I suppose people ask you , ‘What did you see in him when he proposed?’
I answer, ‘He has everything I ever wanted.’
They reply, ‘You didn’t ask for much,did you?
‘So he’s not too into the area of self improvement,’I said.
‘He once offered me money to take a course in etiquette. He said, ‘Take this and buy some manners.’
‘What,’I said, ‘and waste it on you.’
‘Did you ever consider divorce?’
‘Divorce, never. Murder sometimes, but never divorce.’
‘There’s a reason for everything,I guess.’
‘Before I met him, I drank and swore without reason… now I have a reason.’
‘I was told they’re simple couple,’ said Bill.
‘The father’s a simple man. The mother’s a simple woman. ’
‘You see the result when the kids stand in front of you- simpletons.
I was told they’re a fastidious couple. ’
‘They are. He’s fast and she’s hideous. ’
‘Yet somehow they’re still together. ’
Yes, still somehow, although they had a little separation last year. He told her he needed more space. So she locked him out of the house. ’
‘Doesn’t this suggest they’re incompatible?’
‘This is where Carlotta calls the shots. As long as he brings home income,she’s pattable.’
What has he have to say about this?
He told her, ‘Once I married someone who was beautiful, and young, and gay, and free. Whatever happened to her?
‘You divorced her and married me.’
‘How has all this affected the boy?’
‘ With everything scattered from here to breakfast this slovenliness has a deleterious effect on this boy. Everybody’s bitten, tossed him round and misused him. Ripped him up and abused him. ’
‘What kind of things did they do to him?’
‘It wasn’t exactly swaddling clothes his mother wrapped him in as an infant. She denied it would harm him. She said she thought the plastic bag would keep him fresh. ’
‘And the father?’
‘He didn’t pay close attention. He was easily distracted. Once he threw him up in the air only to go answer the phone. ’
‘That’s truly shocking. ’
‘When he took his first step, his father tripped him!’
‘That’s hardly an auspicious beginning. ’
‘They showed him the wrong way. Denied him toys as a toddler. When they played hide-and-seek, they wouldn’t even look for him.
When they played it in the bush he spent hours in vain trying to find his parents.The police had to break it to him, ‘We’re sorry, son.There’s just too many places here they can hide.’
‘When he was a small child Alfie had an excess of wax in his ears. His father didn’t take him to the doctor, he used him as a night light.’
Once his father locked him in the boot of his old car and tried to sell it for scrap. He once told him, ‘If I promise to miss you, will you go away?’
Why, if he hadn’t been born a boy, he’d have had nothing to play with. Then when they gave him toys as a small child, they were the wrong ones. ’
‘What, toy guns and soldiers? Don’t all boys get them?’
‘That would have been kind of them. They gave him an electric radio– . ’
‘So what’s wrong with that?’
‘–as a bath toy?!’
And what did they do when his bathwater was too hot?
‘They put more cool water in?’
‘They put on a pair of rubber gloves.’
‘Did they give him any sporting items or pets?
‘One birthday they gave him a bat.The first day he played with it it flew away.’
‘Do they ever take him out to places that will open his horizons. To museums, theatres, the zoo, places like that. ’
‘They take him everywhere – but he keeps finding his way back. ’
‘What about the great outdoors?’
‘He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.’
‘I’m told he said to his father once, ‘Daddy, will you take me to the zoo?’ His father answered, ‘If the zoo wants you, let them come and get you. ’
‘He must have spent time at the annual show. ’
‘He tried bobbing for apples there. At home he burnt his face. He tried bobbing for chips. ’
His mother told her husband, ‘Don’t you think you’re being unfair to your son?’
“I really don’t know which kid I’m supposedly being unfair to, Theo, Aaron, or the stupid, ugly one?’
He took aside one of his boys and asked him, ‘Denephew,do you think I’m a bad father?’
‘My name is Albert.’
‘Which one were they actually referring to?’
‘The anonymous one.They took a long while to name one of the boys because of Norm’s indecision.
Carlotta said ‘I was like, ‘Hurry up!’man.What’s wrong with Tom,Dick or Harry? I didn’t want my sons to grow up to be one of these kids you hear about on the news where it says, ‘The sixteen year old defendant, who hasn’t been named’.’
‘Does his father hit Alfie?’
‘Just the once. With his Holden ute. ’
‘He rushed him off to casualty?’
‘He wrote for an ambulance. ’
‘What did Alfie do?’
‘He told his mother. He told her it wasn’t the first time he’d done that. He threatened to pack his bag. ’
‘What did she say?’
She told him, ‘Don’t be so hasty. Give your father another chance. ’
‘What did Jim’s father say?’
He said, ‘I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.’
‘I know it’s out there.’
‘It’s out there alright, and if you catch it, see a doctor and get rid of it.’
The boy said, ‘I want to go to a private school to prepare for uni. ’‘And where would thatn happen to be?’
‘I’m not going to tell you. That’s private. ’
‘It turned out to be a single sex school’
How did he get on there?’
‘He didn’t really fit in.I think it’s because he’s male.’
‘He’s the kind of kid who runs away from home. ’
‘He threatened his junk parents he’d do just that . ’
‘How did they respond?’
His mother told him, ‘On your mark!’
‘He’s hyperactive, isn’t he. ’
‘At times she fits him into a harness and ties him to the Hills Hoist. He runs around in circles until exhausted. ’
‘That’s why he has such a strong sense of rejection. ’
‘ Even his yo yo won’t come back to him. ’
‘The boy must have harboured strong resentment about all this. ’
One afternoon when he was four years old, his father came back to their house-the one Carlotta had been granted in her divorce settlement.He found Alfie in the living room in front of a roaring fire. That made him very hopping mad. ’
‘Angry about his past bad treatment of his son ? Angry that he’d never fully appreciated his talents?’
‘That’s not why he was angry. They didn’t have a fireplace. ’
Perhaps the boy needed medical treatment?’
He was referred to a child psychiatrist but the kid couldn’t help him much, ’I said.
‘That’s not surprising.They often can’t do anything.One parent who took his child to one told the doctor, ‘People think there’s something wrong with my Kevin.They won’t talk to him,’ upon which the psychiatrist called out, ‘Next please!’’’
‘They’re a waste of time.Anyone who goes to one needs to have his or her head examined.’
‘A good psychiatrist should understand such clear signs of childhood neurosis and psychosis.Can you define simply these behavioural disorders and the role of the shrink?’
‘A neurotic child is one who builds a castle in the air; a psychotic child is one who burns it down ; a psychiatrist is the one who collects the insurance.’
‘What advice should the father have given his son?’
‘Not to believe the description on the box – Safety Matches’.
‘What kind of advice did he give him?’
‘The wrong advice about being independent. He advised him ‘Remember, my son, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.’
The wrong advice about unknown people: ‘Never take sweets from a stranger unless he offers you a ride.
’The wrong advice about moving upwards. Alfie asked his father, ‘How can I get my kite in the air?’ He told him to run off a cliff.
The wrong advice about moving ahead. His father told him to start at the bottom. ’
‘Sure, his father hasn’t gone any higher, but surely that’s a good starting point for his son. ’
‘He was teaching him to swim. ’
‘What technique did he choose?’
‘He taught him to swim with his hands tied. ’
‘That must have been very strenuous?’
‘It was. Especially when the anchor got caught on the bottom.
‘With a father like that that boy’s got lots of pluck for sure.’
‘He doesn’t know the meaning of fear… but then again, he doesn’t know the meaning of most words.’
Look, this boy’s been left to swim or sink. He knew that when his father took him fishing. As he was swimming back to shore he realised he’d succeed or fail according to his own efforts. ’
‘Just when he thought it was safe to go back in the water.He must have been at his wits’ end making it to land .’
‘He didn’t have far to go then.’
‘What’s Alfie doing in there?’asked his mother, arriving at the scene.
‘Dog paddle, ’answered the father.
‘I could have drowned, ’Jim told his father after he threw him a rope-both ends.
‘I knew the nearer you were to drowning, the greater would be your pleasure at reaching shore. You’ve got to be cruel to be kind.’
‘In the right measure,Dad.You’ve got to control yourself.’
‘Whatever the case may be, life goes on happening, ’his father advised him.‘We can’t control it, we can only swim in it. ’
‘So what happens when you can’t swim?’Bill asked me.
‘You get water on the brain and can’t think straight. ’
‘Alfie’s dad obviously can’t himself. He doesn’t sound like the full quid. ’
‘You can say that. When Norm took Alfie hunting he gave him a three minute start.After bagging a Big Red,he put the kangaroo in the front passenger seat and tied his son to the front bumper bar.’
‘The father has got a lot of growing up to do.In fact he told me that when I came across him in his cubbyhouse.
When I arrived there he was working feverishly to unlock the driver’s side door of his ute. As I watched from the passenger side, I instinctively tried the door handle and discovered that it was unlocked.
‘Hey, ‘ I announced to him, ‘It’s open.’
His reply: ‘I know. I already did that side.’
‘I sometimes lock my keys in the car, ’I said to assure him he wasn’t alone in such daffiness.
‘ I did that last week. I couldn’t find a coathanger. It took me an hour to get the wife out. ’
You want to be careful never to lock your dog in the car on a hot day.’
‘I always make sure I leave grandma and one of the toddlers with Bluey’
‘So does the son still hold things against the dad?’
‘You might say that. When his dad told him about the birds and bees, he told his dad about the milkman and his mother.
When his dad told him, ‘Someday, you’ll have kids of your own.’ he replied, “So will you.’
Having salted away his newspaper boy earnings for a slug gun,he gave his father a pullover for his birthday-with a bull’s eye on it.
When kids come up and say to him, ‘My dad can beat yours, he replies, ‘Yeah, when?’
‘Alfie’s father probably didn’t get much of an education himself. ’
‘I asked him about that. He replied, ‘School? What fun I had that day. ’
When Alfie asked him to get him an encyclopedia,he replied, ‘Walk to school like your mates!
‘ Alfie must have shed many a tear over the way his father treated him?’
‘The only time he really cried is when his dad sat him down and told him that he was not adopted.’
‘Alfie’s getting very emotional,’ Norm said to Carlotta. ‘and he’s still acting really stupidly.Let’s face it,he’s getting worse.
‘He has his good days and his bad days.’
‘Why does he act so erratically? So uncaringly? Where does he get this behaviour?’
‘I wish I knew.’
‘The poor lad,’ ’I said to Bill, ‘Alfie’s only thirteen.’
‘Yes, the last scrapings of a litter of ten. Tough! What do you expect us to do? Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him?’
‘We should try to understand why he’s making a nuisance of himself. Being part of a sprawling Catholic family might suggest he’s craving attention. ’
‘They’re not tykes.They’re just careless.’
‘I was told she goes to church.’
‘Having sowed all her wild oats she goes to prays for a crop failure.’
‘So she’s known as a good time girl.’
She once got a phone call in which the caller said, ‘I can’t forget the last time we did it.I’m getting excited just thinking about it.’
She replied, ‘Who is this ?!’
‘She must have some firm ideas about men by now?’
‘She says all men are the same-after the first five.’
‘Does she believe in birth control?’
‘She thought until informed otherwise it was about giving birth slowly.She took the pill to start with although it didn’t work for her. She told her doctor before Alfie’s birth, the first, ‘Doctor, I’ve forgotten to take my contradictory pills! Can you issue me a new subscription ?’
‘The doctor said: ‘Are you ignorant?’
She replied: ‘Yes, three months.
’‘Was Mr. Thompson happy to hear the news?’
‘She broke it to him like this, ‘Congratulations! You’re about to become a husband. ’
‘Do you think they followed their hearts in having Alfie?’
‘He wanted to have a baby for about five years, but she wanted one forever.’
‘They’re not good at family planning, I take it. ’
‘They’re just plain reckless spitting kids out. The boy’s an accident. A changeling in every sense. ’
‘His mother got so mad when he broke a cup she couldn’t remember his name. ‘Come here, Alfie, er, Theo, er, Lou, er, Dana… what is your name, boy? And don’t lie to me, because you live here, and I’ll find out who you are.’
‘I’m Alfie, ’he said. ‘I really don’t care what you call me unless it’s late for dinner. ’
It had taken Alfie eight years to find out his proper name. He had always believed it to be ‘Shut up’.
How does she manage to look after such a large number of children?’
‘They have had to employ women to look after them.They ended up getting a live-in nanny, because the the dead one wasn’t working out.’
‘How many brothers and sisters do you have, ’I had already asked Alfie.
‘Eleven that we know of, but one has learning difficulties so he doesn’t count. As for Martha, she got sucked into the sand box. ’
‘The sand box?’
‘It was a quicksand box. And Dana is an older sister from the mother’s milkman liason.’
‘Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free.’
‘His perk was a piece of crumpet.’
‘What did he have to say for himself about cuckolding Carlotta’s husband?’
‘He told her, ‘I’ve known and respected your husband for many years.What’s good enough for Norm is good enough for me.’
‘So Dana’s a sister from another mister, a half sister?’
‘You could say that, though she prefers the term ‘hermaphrodite’.
’Did the milkman commit to supporting his child born out of wedlock?’
‘No way.You don’t know Wombat.’
‘He’s got short legs and strong muscles?’
‘No.He eats,roots and leaves.’
‘He won’t commit to a woman.’
’He wants his hands on a woman but doesn’t want a woman on his hands.’
‘In such a small community,having an illegitimate baby must have changed so much for him, I imagine.’
‘It sure did.For instance his name,his job,address and phone number.’
‘Some of Carlotta’s offspring have virtue names,’ I gather.
Yes.she has this Victorian notion that if you name a kid after a virtue,they might live up to it.’
‘Do you think it works.’
‘What do you think? There’s Victor who always gets beaten up in fights.There’s Charity who won’t even share her dolls with her sisters.And there’s Hope who’s always down in the dumps.’
‘I notice most of their children’s names end with vowels. ’
‘That’s so when they shout at them the names will carry. ’ All except Denephew, Kay,Charity and Aaron .
‘Denephew?That’s an usual name. ’
‘The father had shot through for a while when they were born, so it fell to their uncle to name him and his twin. So without any ado he saw them as Denise and Denephew. ’
‘Why had the father left?’
‘He was in the doghouse with his family, including their late dog.When Carlotta found out he had been having an affair she served him up a baked brace of his best racing pigeons. One day he got out of bed to find his blue heeler barking at the front door. He thought at first the dog wanted to go out. As it turned out Bluey wanted him, his master, to leave. ’
‘Another experience of rejection.That must have been humiliating’.
‘It wasn’t the first time.The previous occasion Carlotta had rushed home from town and exclaimed to him, ‘Pack your bags, my uncle left me fifty grand in his will.’
Mr.Thompson excitedly asked, “Should I pack clothes for cold or warm weather?’
Carlotta said, ‘Pack ’em all, you’re leaving.’
The previous occasion.it had been raining for four days without stopping. Mr.Thompson was so depressed. standing and looking through the window. Carlotta said,‘ If the rain doesn’t stop tomorrow, I’ll have to let him in.’
‘You referred to the dog as ‘late’.’
‘Yes, he died recently.Little Denephew took it very badly.Mr.Thompson sat him down to explain to his six year old the meaning of death. He failed to allay his son’s concerns. His account was inadequate. The child couldn’t get his head around this mystery and wept inconsolably.’When you get to that age it just happens,’ said the dad.’
‘How old was he,Dad ?’
‘And Kay and Aaron, what’s the story with them?’
‘They say they gave her the name Kay, K-a-y, but they call her K for short. They gave Aaron that name as it was the first in the Baby Name Book. How lazy can you get?’
‘Maybe they just like the name. ’
‘They’re bone lazy. All of them. They’ve got no push. When Alfie leaves the house in the morning, he finds out which way the wind is blowing and goes in that direction. That’s why he’s often so late to school or absent. That’s when we call him the Missing Link. ’
‘He was born under a bad sign according to his mother. Having noted a picture of the signs of the zodiac on the wall, I asked her ‘What sign was Alfie born under ?’
‘Under the ‘No Parking’ sign outside the local hospital. His old man didn’t quite manage to get me there on time. Typical!’
‘How does the father relate to Alfie ?’
‘Like the mother said, he was there when Alfie was born. ’
‘He should have been there when he was conceived. ’
‘According to gossip the mother told a friend, ‘I think my old man might be cheatin’ on me. I ain’t even sure the kid’s his. In any case he tried to become more responsible after that. When his wife cried, ‘My waters have broken’, he asked, ‘Shall I call for the plumber?’
It was him who rang for the ambulance. The hospital asked him, What’s the nature of your emergency?’
‘My wife’s contractions are only two minutes apart. ’
‘Is this her first child?’asked the despatcher. ’
‘No, haven’t I already made that clear. I’m her husband. ’
‘We’ll send someone right away to pick her up .Now just be calm and tell us how to get there.”
After a long pause he said, ‘Don’t you still have that little van with stripes along the sides and checkerboard squares?’
‘ Where do you live,Sir?’
‘At the end of Eucalyptus Drive. ‘
‘Can you spell that for me? ‘
‘How about if I drag her over to Emu Street and you pick her up there?’
‘Was Alfie’s father happy with the newborn?’
‘He was. When the doctor came out of the delivery room, he asked, ‘Mr. Thompson, did you want a girl or a boy?’
‘No word of a lie, I want a boy, ’he replied.
I’m sorry and I don’t want you to be disappointed but it’s a girl. Do you want me to put it back. ’
‘That’s alright, a girl was my second choice. ’
‘Is this your first experience of presence at a birth,Mr.Thompson?’asked the aging doctor.
‘I was born here myself,Doctor.Thirty five years ago.’
‘I did my internship here then.I thought you looked familiar.’
‘What did Norm do after the birth of that daughter?’
‘After studying for his blood test, he gave it for the first time. ’
‘What did that prove?’
‘It proved he wasn’t the father. ’
‘Maybe he wasn’t the father of some of the others. ’
‘That’s true in the case of Albert, their last effort. When their Willy was a little baby, Alfie’s father took him riding in his pram. Later he came back with a different baby in a different pram. ’
‘What did the mother say?’
‘She said nothing. It was a better pram. ’
‘A better pram?’
‘Yes, and the baby he brought home was a little ‘kind’ so the mother took up learning German. ’
‘So she’d understand the baby. ’
‘Ja, you’ve got it. Now she calls Albert her ‘ little Einstein’’
‘The parents must have done something right. So he’s the smart one in the family?’
‘No, he’s the one who smokes a pipe and talks with an accent. ’
‘How does he get on with this family he ended up in?’
‘They have difficulty understanding him. And he can be a little too smart for his father’s liking. ‘One day you’ll have children of your own, ’Mr. Thompson advised him. ’
‘So vill you, Papa. ’
‘So Mr. Thompson is actually his stepfather?’
‘He is but prefers to call himself his faux pa.
‘Who is the eldest of this progeny?’
‘Maurice is.He’s a son from Norm’s previous marriage, a young man now of twenty years.’
‘What’s his story?’
‘He married a local widow. His father married her grown up daughter,Carlotta.This made his father his son-in-law.This made his step daughter his step mother for she was his father’s wife.Maurice soon became a father who became his own father’s brother-in law and his own uncle.It made the baby brother to the widow’s grown up daughter,his own step mother.Carlotta then had a baby boy,Theo,the first of her very own brood, so he became Maurice’s grandson for he was Maurice’s daughter’s son.Maurice’s wife is now his mother’s mother and his grandmother too,As the husband of his grandmother,he is his own grandfather.Is that clear?’
‘Perfectly.Baby arrivals have been a highlight of this family’s timeline. ’
‘It has been very eventful. When Carlotta first went into labour , it was in the middle of the night. That was before the electricity was connected.
The local doctor was there in attendance. What d’ya want me to do, Doctor?
‘Hold the torch high, Mr. Thompson, so I can see what I’m doing. ’
‘Here it comes!” the doctor delivered the child and held it up for the proud father to see.
‘Mr. Thompson, you’re the proud father of a fine strapping boy. ’
‘Saints be praised, I… ’
Before he could finish the doctor interrupted, ‘Wait a minute. Hold the torch. I think there’s another one to come. ’ Soon the doctor delivered the next child. ‘You’ve a full set now. A beautiful baby daughter. ’
‘Thanks be to… ’
Again the Doctor cut in, ‘Hold the torch, Mr. Thompson, Don’t put it down yet!It seems there’s another on the way. ’ Soon the doctor delivered a third child. He held up the baby for the father’s inspection.
‘Doctor, ’ asked Mr. Thompson, ‘Do you think it’s the light that’s attracting them?’
‘So somehow this large family has steadily grown where all live together. ’
‘Even the dog is considered part of the family. He looks like the father but really takes after the mailman. ’
‘There can’t be that much privacy living in a caravan. ’
‘The father, the mother and all the children sleep in the one bed.Alfie won’t know what it’s like to sleep alone until he reaches maturity. ’
‘In one bed. I’m surprised Alfie’s grandparents don’t sleep with them. ’
‘Oh they did which meant some awkward manoeuvring. The half blind paternal grandfather had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He told Alfie’s father, ‘ Listen, I’ve got a problem. ’
‘Of course you have a problem, ’his son replied, ‘you live here, don’t you. ’
Another night it was Carlotta who had to go but tripped on the leg of the bed moaning. Alfie’s father said to her,’ You sound just like your mother.’
And his son had a big problem with him. He’d always been told he had his father’s eyes. ’
‘He even has his mother’s ears-and my sympathy. ’
‘What happened to this grand mother?’
‘She was beaten to death by the grandad. Not as in, with a stick – she just died first.
So when she she died, so this oversized brood made her get up. They scattered her remains over the garden, which was horrible because she hadn’t been cremated. ’
‘And the grandfather. I haven’t heard of him. ’
‘He disappeared after the door knock appeal. There was a man collecting for the Old Folks’ home. ’
‘And the maternal grandfather?’
‘He died in his rocking chair. Alfie didn’t realise the whole thing would keel over if he climbed over the back of it. ’
‘So your visit was very instructive,Allan.You found out first hand how relations between parents can sour over time.’
Before I left their house I said to Carlotta, ‘
‘Hello,I must be going.I’m glad I came.Thank you so much for your hospitality. Before I go I just want to say goodbye to your husband.’
‘You found out the problems that arise when many people have large families,’said the head of department.
‘This large brood makes up for your lack of one, Bill. It’s nature’s way of balancing the population. ’
‘My wife and I can’t have what do you call those things—babies. I don’t like children.’
‘So I’ve noticed. ’ I realised the only people who are always sure about the proper way to raise children are those who’ve never had any. ’
‘My wife said ‘Bill, I’d love to have children. ’ Now I’ll be honest, I don’t. Do I want to go through it all again? The lifting, the carrying, the mopping up of the spillages? The slippity slop. The all night screeching. And that’s just when you’re making love. ’
‘What seems to be the problem? Does your wife have a tilt inside?’
‘She is inconceivable, unbearable and impregnable. ’
‘Has she raised the possibility of adoption?’
‘Many times but I point out she’s too old to be adopted. ’
‘Don’t you want someone to carry on your name?’
‘I wouldn’t like the disappointment kids inevitably bring.You know when they’re are born they can still be perfect.Their dads haven’t made any mistakes yet.And then the kids grow up to be like—them.’
‘Wouldn’t you like a teenage son to go fishing with?’
‘Do you know the definition of a teenager? God’s punishment for enjoying a tumble.A pleasure that is momentary,a position that is ridiculous,an expense that is damnable.Then the kids go off to uni and you have to think about excessive drinking, throwing up, things being broken, wild sex and sleeping in til noon. ’
‘That’s when you have to worry. ’
‘That’s when you have to worry they might be doing the same thing. ’
‘They say children are a great comfort in your old age…’
‘ and they help you reach it faster too. They’re a fate worse than death.Look, I wouldn’t waste a heartbeat on what’s his name. ’
‘There you go. You forgot who we’re talking about. You mean Alfie Thompson. ’
‘I’m sometimes called too vague by you know who, but whichever kid we’re talking about, take care. You’re too soft, like an old mother hen. This isn’t a charity.We’re not social workers. We’re not here to hold hands and mummy them. His own parents even asked him to run away from home. If he’s been abandoned by them, what can we do about it?’
‘His mother didn’t always drink, ’I said.
‘Alcos all start some time or other. Meanwhile her son’s got into some real bad company. ’
‘Was that before or after he got into yours?’ I thought to myself. ’
‘He’s a lost cause. The ‘crummy-childhood’ theory,that everything can be blamed in a Freudian fashion on a bad upbringing, just doesn’t hold water.’
‘You mean if it’s not one thing, It’s his mother.’
‘That’s it.You could put him in a penthouse apartment and it wouldn’t make any difference to his behaviour. ’
‘Don’t bang on with your Victorian values. Do we tell him to go and get better parents? Remember Moses too was a basket case.There’s plenty of productive people in the world who grow up with useless parents,a day short and a dollar late for this role.Being a parent doesn’t come with a book of instructions ’
‘I’ve written a stinging letter to his parents complaining of his lack of respect and talkativeness. ’
‘Look who’s talking!’ I thought, ‘You could talk the bark off trees. ’
‘I’ve an idea this will break him of his habit. ’
‘Good for you’, I said to myself. ’Let me know if it works. With all due disrespect, I could try it out on you. ’
‘As representatives of the state’, I said to him, ‘it’s our responsibility to teach him to read and write and to salvage his his potential to act responsibly. ’
‘All I can say to you is to keep to yourself. It’ll go a lot easier for you. ’
‘Shouldn’t we try and win the approval of all our students?I suggested.
‘Don’t make me laugh. You can’t please everyone. If you want applause, Wonder Boy, you might instead consider joining the circus. ’
‘Anything you say’, was all I could come back with. I felt we’d never hear the end of it. These dotards couldn’t seem to give their jaw a rest. Their belly aching took on something of a tired air.
‘What made you join the teaching service ?’ I asked.
‘Teacher oppression. I’d witnessed far too many cases of them putting down kids in the small town I grew up in.’
‘And you wanted to stamp it out from the inside?
– No, I wanted to be a part of it.
I brought my feelings to the attention of a less hardline teacher, circling jobs advertised in the classified section of the newspaper . All jobs other than teaching. I expressed my displeasure about one dragon in particular who blew hot and cold about her approach to treatment of children.
‘You never know her thinking from one day to the next. She can be nice as pie and then very insulting. ’
‘If you can’t say something positive about a person, go ahead. ’
‘When I pointed out her contradictions, she said to me in a rude manner, ‘And who might you be to tell me how I should think?’
‘She’s not erratic, you know. You can depend on her to be perfectly rude all the time. ’
‘You’ll understand them better one day. They are older and wiser than you. ’
‘At least you’re half right, ’I came back. ‘So is there any way us young chalkies can get our ideas through to them?’
‘There’s only one, you know. Drop them in the suggestion box. ’
‘Well bless your cotton socks. Why didn’t I think of that?’
These martinets epitomized the constraining social climate in Australia at that time, dominated by the views of moralising authoritarians, calcified conservatives and ‘wowsers’. In one infamous incident, the NSW Special Branch of the Police raided Bob Gould’s bookshop confiscating posters of Michelangelo’s David!
‘They call this the so-called permissive ’60s, ’, he told me, ‘but it’s just not so. As C. J. Dennis said, these pious puritans mistake this world for a penitentiary and themselves for warders.One prudish priest warned of a new Sodom and Glocommora [sic]. These bluenoses find the naked body repulsive. ’
‘If something about the human body disgusts them, the fault surely lies with the manufacturer. ’
They fear that one kind of pleasure will lead to another.’
‘Some fear sex will lead to dancing.’
‘The reality is that the search for pleasure – and prohibited pleasure at that – is a primary preoccupation for most people a good deal of the time, even for those trying to hide from it. ’
‘Something inside they always deny. This desire for the taboo comes out, I recall in Stendahl’s novella ‘The Cenci’. A princess sipping an ice on the evening of a hot day exclaims, ‘What a pity it’s not a sin!’
‘Did you hear of the man tired of gazing at his own navel? He went to see a belly dancer. ’
‘The wowsers are always grinching and quibbling about everybody else who does not agree with them..They give their opinions as if the were handed down from the Mount. They have this haunting fear that someone, somewhere may live,love,laugh and be happy. They will interfere with the pleasures and enjoyments of others, thinking that they alone have the right conception of right conduct.’
‘And a monopoly of the narrow way to paradise’, I added.
‘They denounce every earthly pleasure as the mark of Cain, moan about everything that makes life pleasant. ’
‘If it feels good – stop. ’
‘That’s where the censor comes in. The Vice Squad tried to interdict publishing of a cartoon by student newspapers ‘Lot’s Wife’ and Farrago’. Improvements in technology mean that publishers can slip in images or text at the last minute. The Squad managed to get to the publishing machines to try and erase the cartoon of a half moon breast. They smudged the nipples. ’
‘That’s so bizarre. Breasts without nipples are pointless. What about the censoring of books?’’
‘This includes books above all. The censor knows more than he thinks you ought to. If a young man seeks knowledge of sexual matters he has to traipse up here to the CBD to watch European films, and if particularly desperate during a tiresome evening might even be forced to turn to literature. ’
‘What books are we looking at here, Bob? ‘The list of books that we cannot sell legally in Australia includes not just D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Another Country by James Baldwin, short stories by Ernest Hemingway. The Kama Sutra, that famed carnival of desire and mayhem is, along with The Perfumed Garden and Venus in Furs, considered licentious and filthy, the very gateway to damnation. ’
‘I had to adjourn reading Lolita for four more years until she turned 18. What about other books with sexual content?’
‘ As for anything that contains sexual references, the situation is equally laughable. ‘If aliens from space were to arrive here now and read our literature, they would not have any clue about how human beings are reproduced’.
‘No wonder our population is going down, ’I said.
‘It used to be much worse, of course. All one of my grandmother’s friends living in the bush was ever told on marrying was ‘the man goes on top and the woman underneath. ’ For several months she and her husband slept in bunk beds.’
Panting for things to be different, a twist of life’s kaleidoscope, I asked the oldest question in the world: ‘Is this all there is?’
You and the night and the music.
In the cool, cool, cool of the evening the scene was set for a perfect romance. Would it turn out right? The earmarks for success were at hand. Well, almost all. The bachelor pad come launching pad. The soft lights. The candle lit table. The dish of paella I had carefully laid on to get the juices flowing. Procuring seafood in a bush town was not easy at that time. I poured both broth and my heart into the dish, lavishing care and great expertise on the cooking. A fine wine recommended by Andre Simon would rinse this meal down. A vase was ready to accommodate the dozen long stemmed roses. These were in a bouquet, ready to greet her with . The background music to set this seductive mood was arranged by a quietly spoken middle-aged gentleman whose own name derived from the Latin for ‘by love’. This lounge legend’s lush orchestrations with predominance of richly emotive strings provided the gentle sensual touch I was looking for.
Supporting vocals for a variety of popular Latin standards came from a young crooner who was seemingly to discover the fountain of youth. In his soft smooth Spanish, he warbled such popular classics as ‘Amor, amor, amor” (love, love, love), ‘Quien Sera (sway), ‘Me lo dijo Adela’, ‘Solamente una vez”, ‘Te quiero Dijiste’, ‘quizas, quizas, quizas, (perhaps, perhaps, perhaps).
This serenade worked like a dream, my feet loosening from their moorings, creating a transport of passion to sun kissed Caribbean coral sands, gentle waves lapping onto the shore. There to my dreamboat: a rose in her hair, a gleam in her eyes, love in her heart for me,snuggling her head on my chest. Introduced to her by Xavier Cugat, I had long seen myself like a real natch’l man, dressed up mighty sporty, high stepping, hop skipping, beating my feet til my feet were beat, getting hip to the ‘Shorty George.’ It was the dance to do.
It could lead to other things.
Now here we were in a hammock strung between palm trees
whispering “yo te quiero”, a warm and balmy breeze ruffling the fruity air, conveying the smell of ripe papaya.
Like the doves overhead, we swayed, billed and coo’d, romping round and round in this afternoon delight. Looking forward to tearing it up in the colourful ring a ding ding of the Carnival. And afterwards, holding hands gone midnight, the stars playing overhead, on that cool amble along the promenade, lit by that orb of romance on which some of our own had walked. Racing to the raft on our haloed moonlight swim.. Back to our palm frond thatched cabana, tremors down my thighbone. In like Flynn. Out of sight.
Wasn’t it marvellous merely to be young on such a night as this?
But would we be one after the night and the music were done? There as our inhibitions vanished, so too did my reverie. It was just my imagination playin’tricks on me, runnin’ away with me.I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.
Mind you, it was kinda romantic. In the same way that these two Englishmen Norrie Paramor and Cliff Richard were kinda Latin, hence the name of one of their albums. In my setting the stage for a sultry swoon, this swain was short on one requisite. The senorita.
For their part, Norrie and Cliff gave a convincingly authentic interpretation of Latin music. Norrie had wished me all the best :
so I decided Lover Boy would just have to bide his time until ‘la vera cosa’, the real thing, came along.
Restless Yearning Oh-so-Hungry Burning.
Money in my pocket but I just can’t get no love
Money in my pocket but I just can’t get no love
I’m praying for
A girl to be my own.
Having taken on mythic proportions for me, Europe beckoned with its liberal signals, those of greater artistic freedoms, those of young people taking political actions aimed at bringing about greater bottom up, bottoms up, participation in society. To spike the endless war. Roll on, peace. A just and lasting one.
In May 1968 that watershed month, a student rebellion in Paris ignited a general strike by French workers, the largest in that country’s history, putting back on the agenda the possibility of a workers’ revolution in an advanced industrial country. The wave of French students and workers broke into the limelight with three weeks of protests, sweeping the country, seizing my attention . It began when university students in Paris, that political workshop of the world, occupied the area of the Sorbonne and Nanterre universities in response to a dispute over visiting rights to a female students’ dormitory.
I too felt lured by such bevies of young freespirited beauvoirs, as capable of choice as men, seeing them right for approaching them as equals. From Warsaw to Ostend my Euro vision was of following their trail laid end to end.I hoped we’d all be playing the same tunes on our libidos. Oh, to be in Europe! Have fun will travel. I craved lots of dionysian rewards playing the field. I hoped George Lazenby had left some for little old me as he got round. While ruling out the tiresomely traditional courtship, the safe, proper marriage, I too longed for that somebody special.More than a mild flirtation or a brief encounter- the perfect leading lady. To reach the shelter of her arms and to win her hand. I would set my cap for the profound lifetime love as well as the shallow half hour dalliances. Much as I loved to be close to my family, I couldn’t stick out the Bush any longer. The bench of bush babes was not so deep. I wanted out. To abandon the Kingdom Come of postponed pleasure and catch hold of the living, transient world.
I felt the extreme excitement at possibility that is the hallmark of youth.
Europe was for me. The centre of things. Just the place to be for one craving jubilation and revelation. Summertime might see a love-in there.
Ready to take it on, this singleton from the north of Singleton, couldn’t wait to get there quick enough. Chercher la femme. Having established my credentials, a journeyman with a Teacher’s Certificate, I had the requisite mealticket to fall back on when needed.
My whole life before me, intent on sucking the marrow out of it, I tendered my resignation, picked up stumps and headed off, determined to make the most of myself, hoping that the romance of the wide open road would lead lovelorn me to another kind, crossing my fingers that the Summer of Love would be an Indian one.
Worried that I might be left out of the permissive society, I was afraid for my eyes. I feared they’d be on their last legs.
The hard part was leaving my family behind as they saw me off.
‘Hooroo, Allan, said Dad. ‘Happy hunting. Go well. Go for your life. ’
‘Godspeed, darling’, said Mum. ‘‘Keep well rugged up.Button up your overcoat when the wind is free. Don’t catch your death. Take good care of yourself. Come home soon. I worry ’bout you, when you’re gone. We’ll always be here for you, come what may.’
‘Don’t fret, Mum. I’ll be back before you know it. ’
‘If you need us call us no matter where you are. No matter how far.
A line a week to us if you can. ’
‘Watch for the mail, I’ll never fail . I’m not going away to stay. Cheerio, here I go, on my way. Wish me luck, as you wave me goodbye.’