Dad was short and stocky, with wavy black hair that he kept cut short. For quite a few years after he and Mum were married, he earned a living collecting bottles in a cart and reselling them to a glass company. Later, when he had four children to support, he also worked at the Homebush Brickyards, often doing double shifts of back-breaking slog. His asthma had exempted him from military service, but it didn't stop him smoking. He'd get out of bed before the sun came up, go into the bathroom and sit there puffing away on the toilet, coughing his lungs up. I'd wake to this terrifying sound every morning and wonder if he was going to die. I never did get used to it. Year after year during my school days and on into the time of my apprenticeship, when I also rose early, his coughing went on, its frightening intensity preventing me from ever accepting it as routine. After he'd finished with the bathroom the air was a pungent fog of beer-soaked body fumes and rancid tobacco.
He drove a 1939-model International flatbed truck to work. He'd start at six in the morning, finish around four in the afternoon, then drive back to Neutral Bay to drink at The Oaks with his mates. In those days the pubs closed at 6 PM and the after-work drinking session was known as the six o'clock swill. My father and his mates could easily down a dozen beers in an hour--and on paydays, whiskey chasers.
The Oaks was not the only pub my father drank at; his friends used to say you might find him in just about any pub between Crows Nest and Manly. But I knew for a fact that he went further afield than that. During the course of my early childhood, I waited with his cattle dog Bluey in his truck for hours outside pubs all over Sydney, usually just before or after one of our fishing expeditions. I'd look through the saloon doors, fascinated and repelled by the groups of men huddled at the bar, the waves of garbled talk and the sickly smell of hops and urine. I don't remember ever being angry or impatient--I'd learned from the start to occupy myself with daydreams and fantasies. The worst moment was always just before closing, when I'd start anticipating the state of mind my father would be in when the publican finally threw him out. He could drive no matter how much he drank, and never once dented his truck, let alone crashed it. This was long before breathalysers. He stopped drinking gradually as he got older, and died with his record unblemished.
He was good with his hands. They were hard and cracked--the thumbs agile, the fingers splayed, the nails worn down to the quicks. Yet he could feel a fish pick up a live prawn at the end of twenty yards of fishing line slanting through a strong tide. He used his index finger as a tool. He'd place the truck's carburetor on the kitchen table on sheets of newspaper and dismantle it, laying out its intricate parts in careful order. He'd replace the needles and the hairspring-loaded butterfly valve, clean and polish each component, and put it all back together. Distributors and black rubber octopus leads would sit in the oven drying out while Dad filed and set the spark-plugs. He could replace the big end of his truck's motor and reset the timing chains. He could make and mend fishing nets, sewing up the holes with fine twine tanned in wattle bark. He made chairs for the house and built the stables for his horse. He gardened too, and produced fresh vegetables daily for the table. His chickens ranged freely from the chookyard and pecked worms from the garden.
He'd bring home raw materials: leather from the tanneries at Botany, nails and wire from building sites, huge wooden reels used by the PMG for lead-cased cables, a half-side of sheep from the abattoirs at Homebush. He used the leather to mend our shoes. He'd cut the soles with a sharp fishing knife and hammer them on using a bootmaker's last he'd salvaged from the Narremburn tip.
One thing he couldn't do was write. He could sign his name and add up figures, but I never saw him write a sentence. He could read--I remember him reading the Sunday papers (he loved the comic strip Bluey & Curley) and paperback novels about cowboys and outlaws. But apart from those and Neville W. Cayley's What Bird Is That?--an eleventh birthday present to me from my mother, the first book I owned--the only books I ever saw around our house were Love Songs by Robbie Burns, the Bible (King James version), and a copy of the New South Wales Fisheries and Oyster Farms Act, 1935--bluntly labeled 'Regulations.' Dad's own father was illiterate--his family had been too poor to let him go to school and he'd started work at the age of ten. My father left school when he was twelve.
Dad worked at the brick kilns for a decade or more I suppose, loading burning bricks onto a huge wheelbarrow day after day, then pushing them out into the yards to the trucks. He continued to collect bottles and scrap metal on the side, and eventually managed to save enough money to set himself up as a contractor for a scrap metal and glass dealer. He'd go from pub to pub collecting the empties, then sell them back to the glass company. He'd bring home truckloads of odd bottles, unload them in the back yard, then smash and bin them according to colour: the green glass, the clear, and the brown. Once each forty-four gallon drum had been filled, he'd heave it from its platform down onto the truck.
Watering Dad's garden and feeding his chooks after school were responsibilities I shared with my brothers--John, who was born about a year after I was, and Richard, born about a year after John. There were long rows of vegetables--beans, potatoes, tomatoes--and pumpkin and choko vines climbing up over the roof of the fowl yard. All through my school years, the routine scarcely varied: I'd get home, tend Dad's vegetable garden and chooks if it was my turn, and then (after I'd started to collect them) feed and water my birds. I'd sit in my pigeon coop until Mum called us in for a bath about five. After that would come homework, then 'Tea Time" as we called it--a dark satanic ritual we held every evening. It was always tense. We'd sit around the kitchen table while our mother cooked and served what were always wholesome and well-cooked meals, often with vegetables straight from the garden. They were planned ahead for each week: Monday corned beef and cabbage with white sauce, Tuesday mutton chops with Mum's delicious mashed potatoes, Wednesday tripe with carrots and brussels sprouts. Chockos drenched in butter with salt and pepper were a favourite with Dad and me. We always had fish (smoked haddock or mullet and chips) on Fridays in deference to the Catholicism my father had given up to marry Mum. Throughout these meals we barely spoke.
Mum would call us to the table at around six-thirty or seven in the evening, after closing time at the pub. We'd sit around the table tentatively eating until Dad got home. He'd crash into the kitchen, brick dust still in his dark curls, beer fumes leaking from his mouth and armpits--a demon from the hell of bricks. He'd sit down heavily and say, his voice black and ironic, 'Well, what's this?' then look around the kitchen, spot a dish or pot that Mum hadn't had a chance to wash, and say 'Just look at this place, it looks like a brothel!' I didn't know what the word meant, but the way he spat it into the air with such relish told me that it was the last word in the world my mother wanted to hear.
I seldom saw my mother resting: she cleaned, washed, mended, waxed, knitted, sewed, polished, cooked, dusted (when she was taking it easy), and helped us for hours with our homework. She was very keen on sending us to Sunday School, though she never showed much interest in church. As soon as I could walk, she led me to a Presbyterian Sunday School at Neutral Bay that instilled, or tried to, a doctrine of salvation from eternal damnation through work. If you do the wrong thing, you're doomed, they'd say; even doing the right thing--working hard--is no guarantee, but at least it improves your chances. There's no joy in pleasure, only self-delusion and folly, and those who are happy in this world had better watch out, because there's eternal gloom ahead. My mother seemed to believe this too. She always did the right thing and always expected the worst.
Mum tried hard to help me master the art of spelling. She was (and is) an excellent speller and did her best to pass her talent on to me, especially when spelling bees were imminent. I, in turn, spent many more hours than I acknowledged trying to improve my performance. It was no use--I was dyslexic. But who'd heard of dyslexia in 1950? My mother thought I was lazy, I thought I was stupid. I knew the little rhyme about i before e except after c, but it made no difference, I couldn't apply it. This was one of many ways in which I confirmed the Ministers' view that the worst that could happen would probably do so.
Sometimes after our silent meal and just before dessert, Mum would give us a talking-to on good behaviour and manners. She always noticed the smallest details, then blew them up out of all proportion. Terrible things were in store for us if we strayed from the narrow path she lay down. This is the way we live, she'd say, and if you can't live by our rules, then go and live by your own rules and don't blame us for what happens. You reap what you sow, you made your bed so you lie in it, you have to take the bad with the good, you can like it or lump it--she'd talk on, but I felt immune to these sermons. Dad would mumble stuff about the garden never being watered right and ask who it was who kept feeding his chook food to the bloody pigeons.
By the time I finished primary school, I had a little sister. Perhaps because Richard had health problems and needed extra attention for his first few years, Jenny didn't come along until 1951, a six-year gap. She was dark-haired like me--a sign, I thought, of our affinity. Our brothers were both fair.
For a few years, while Dad was working at the brickyards, he and Mum would have huge arguments--usually on paydays, when Dad would come home stinking drunk. These arguments would happen at the table over dinner. My brothers, my sister, and I would sit there horrified and cringing while our father verbally assaulted our mother worse than if he had hit her. All of us at some point (I was usually first) would burst into tears, hut we were never allowed to leave the table during these one-sided fights. My mother rarely answered back. If she did, he would twist her response around and use it to hit back harder.
One night--this was when I was about fourteen--I felt I couldn't stand it any longer. Dad was drunker and even more abusive than usual, his words like hammer blows aimed at Mum's head. It was as if something snapped inside me. I reached across the table and grabbed a bottle of tomato sauce, then stood up and started screaming at him, waving it in the air. His laughter was a stream of black ridicule, scalding me, goading--so I threw the bottle, which missed his head by inches then smashed against the kitchen wall, tomato sauce splattering everywhere. Dad jumped up and started staggering towards me, and my mother--who could see what he intended--stood up too, to try to intervene. He pushed her out of the way, then he and I wrestled each other to the floor. This was the only time I ever had physical contact with my father. I hadn't realised how strong he was. Luckily, though, he was also drunk, so I was able to disentangle myself and stand up not too badly damaged. But then something else snapped. My mother--the object of my loyalty and affection--put her arms around my father and began to emphatically rebuke me. I still remember the shock. Suddenly I was the perpetrator of violence in the household, my father an innocent victim.
I was totally confused by what had happened. I ran out into the back yard, got on my bike, and rode at breakneck speed down the steep hill to Primrose Park. I didn't bother with the brakes until I hit the grassy bank at the bottom.
I went down to the shoreline and sat there crying until the moon came up. I decided to sleep under its nocturnal light (this was summer) rather than face the hell back home. When I woke the next morning, I discovered that a couple of ticks had found their way into the skin behind one of my ears. It was years before I saw anything in it.
My mother, so a family historian tells me, was the 'illegitimate' child (to use a term then common) of my adoptive grandfather's brother. She was certainly the child of Violet Verrills, my Granny. Vi, as she was called, said she was from Dundee but had in fact been raised in a Glasgow slum. According to my source, Ray Verrills, 'she was a Scottish immigrant with rather plain features, and it was soon apparent to everybody that her consuming ambition was to get herself a husband.' He says she was well acquainted with 'the facts of life' and that 'nothing she did in the sexual line was done in ignorance or without deliberate intention.' She went to work as a maid in the household of a wealthy builder (an English migrant) and became pregnant to his eldest son, who promptly fled to Queensland to escape his father's wrath and the consequences of his actions. My mother was born out of wedlock--but Vi, apparently undeterred, soon became pregnant again, this time to the second son, who did marry her, agreeing to raise his brother's daughter as his own. I knew none of this until quite recently. Neither did my mother.
This second son was John Verrills, who I still think of as Grandfather. When he married Vi, he sold his share in the family business, set himself up as a carpenter, and bought a house in Byrnes Avenue, Neutral Bay. My Granny took pride in the street name, whose misspelling she chose to ignore--she recited Robert Burns throughout her life as only a Scot could. It was here that my mother Betty was raised, along with John and Vi's other two children, Dorothy and John. When my parents married, the house they rented was four doors down from where my mother had grown up and where my grandparents still lived.
Vi spoke with a Scottish brogue softened by the middle-class Australian accent she'd picked up from the Verrills family, though she could certainly turn on the Scots when reciting Robbie Burns. She didn't actually go to church, but talked about it a lot and saw to it that Mum and Aunty Dorothy (who raised her own family in the house next door to Vi's) sent her grandchildren to Sunday School at 'the Presbyterian Kirk.' She loved the Queen of England and the Edinborough Tattoo, and used to insist her family join her to listen to the Queen's New Year message on the radio every year. So far as I could tell, this was the most important event on her calendar, even more important than Christmas or birthdays. My father would always refuse to go, preferring to head off fishing.
There was little love lost between Vi Verrills and the Adamsons. She described my father, Harry, to Ray Verrills--in what he calls 'inimitable, vituperative language'--as 'a thoroughly no-good, feckless type, a thief and a burglar.' She seemed to have it in for Dad's parents too--Henry Thomas Adamson and Sissy O'Carroll, my Fa-Fa and Granny. She spoke disparagingly of Sissy's drinking and I could feel the annoyance rising in her whenever she knew I'd been to see them. She'd promise that if I mowed her lawn, she'd let me listen to Brigadoon--her favourite--or South Pacific, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, or one of the records of marching music she collected along with every musical Hollywood produced. The chores I did in her garden were all designed to instill order: I'd mow the lawns, trim the hedges, dig out weeds, remove dead foliage, and generally make things neat and tidy. I liked her house, which was comfortable compared to ours, and used to sit in her darkened living room late in the afternoon before dinner, undergoing the education my lawn mowing efforts had earned me.
Both my grandfathers were craftsmen. Grandfather Verrills kept his carpentry tools meticulously in place in the garage he'd converted to a workshop: the beautifully sharp planes and files; the strange rasplike devices; the fine chisels made in Scotland, honed daily on an oilstone in a cedar case; the measuring instruments; the levels with little green eyes; the tapes that stretched out from an oval of brass then sprang back like flat metal tapeworms. My other grandfather, Fa-Fa, was a lamplighter in his younger days and worked for decades for the Shell Company as Mr Fixit and foreman of the yard, but I knew him mainly as a fisherman. We called him Fa-Fa because, as he and Sissy both used to quip, he was always far far up a river. I'd watch him weave and bind his nets and construct intricate crab hoops and snares with a seemingly infinite patience. He and Grandfather Verrills both taught me that to be a craftsman was to demonstrate care and cunning in everything you did--whether carving and planing wood, weaving nets, or building traps and snares.
The odours have followed me through the years: the French polish made from mixing turpentine, linseed oil, and the crushed wings of a special African beetle; the sawdust smell of sanding back, with the emery paper, wet and dry; the smell of the wood, the smell of the woodstain. And on the Lane Cove and Hawkesbury Rivers: the odour of nets tanning, the heady waft of a selection of gum barks and boiling tannin, the permeating smell of tar from the oyster racks at low tide.
At the time I was born and for the first decade or so of my life Sissy and Fa-Fa, lived at Artarmon, just near the Lane Cove River, about half an hour's bike ride from Neutral Bay. They rented a ramshackle weatherboard house on a huge block of land at the end of a street off the Pacific Highway. It was more like a farm than a suburban house: there were stables for Fa-Fa's horses (he had two), a chook run, a duck run, a pigeon coop, a vegetable garden that was loosely the domain of four peacocks, and a swarm of fifteen-to-twenty semi-feral cats that got into or crawled over everything in sight. There was a billygoat on a chain that got moved around like a living lawnmower and would eat (or try to) anything you gave it, including empty baked beans tins. There was a blue cattledog that was always barking and a gaggle of geese whose ringleader, a big fierce drake, would always hiss at humans and would attack any who were strangers. Under the house, Fa-Fa kept his fishing nets and rabbiting equipment, including his ferrets, whose cages consisted of long wooden half-crates that kept them cool in summer and warm in winter. I learned to be wary of ferrets after one bit my finger so deeply that the wound needed stitches.
It was here that I first encountered racing pigeons. Fa-Fa had a pair of blue-bars that won many races. He taught me how to handle them and showed me the mixture of wheat, pigeon peas, and rape seed they lived on. He had homing pigeons too, and kept one on his trawler in the days before refrigeration. When he was right up the river and had had a good haul, he'd let the bird fly from his boat so that when it arrived home, Sissy would know to order more ice for the fish. He'd sometimes give me pigeons to take home and let go, to see which ones would home, and eventually he let me keep some.
Fa-Fa was usually out and about--in the yard, under the house, or out on the river fishing--but Sissy always seemed to be in the kitchen. She had a fuel stove that was always burning, summer or winter, in which she made wonderful blackberry pies. She'd get me and any other grandchildren she had around the house to pick blackberries from the wild bushes at the bottom of the street. She had red hair and a temper to match, but was kind-natured and easy to confide in. She'd always give me a big long cuddle when I arrived. I'd kiss and cuddle her back, and because she was always covered in flour, I'd end up mottled with it too. I think I told Sissy more about my exploits growing up than I'd have dreamed of telling any other member of my family.
There was always drinking and music around Sissy and Fa-Fa. They'd sing Slim Dusty songs, or Irish folk songs like 'The Girl With the Black Velvet Band," or American blues or country and western tunes late into the night--Leadbelly's 'Goodnight Irene,' Hank Williams's 'Jambalaya,' or Dad's favourite, a Frankie Lane song called 'The Wayward Wind.' They were invariably accompanied, when they lived at Artarmon, by T.C., who for all I knew at the time may or may not have been a relative and may or may not have lived there. I didn't understand who he was or where he came from, but he always seemed to be there, drunk, singing, and playing the guitar. He was often involved in fishing trips too, and I remember him showing up and staying with Fa-Fa and Sissy after they'd moved--when I was about ten years old--to Mooney Mooney on the Hawkesbury River.
While writing this book, I discovered that T.C. was in fact my great-uncle, Sissy's brother. Because there was 'something wrong with him,' Sissy and her brothers and sisters (there were of five or six of them altogether) took it in turns to look after T.C., whom nonetheless wander off sometimes and live for a while on the streets. It must have been a lifelong pattern. A cousin told me recently that he once saw my great-grandmother setting T.C.'s clothes alight in the middle of the backyard, then de-lousing her naked son before letting him into the house; that was back in Ireland, before she brought her children--T.C., Sissy, and the rest--to Australia to start a new life.
Another frequent presence at the Artarmon house was Uncle Bill, Dad's younger brother. He was also a mysterious--even shadowy--figure to me. I sensed some sort of tension between him and my mother; they scarcely spoke to one another. He had red hair like Sissy and was always well-dressed when he went, as he often did, to the races at Harold Park. He often placed bets with the bookies there for Sissy, who listened to the races on the radio at home.
Dad and Uncle Bill had two sisters, Kathleen and Irene. Irene had black hair, several daughters, and a fondness for the bottle; Kathleen had blond hair and a daughter called Sandra. That was pretty much all I knew at the time, though I did get to know Kathleen a little better after Fa-Fa and Sissy moved to the Hawkesbury when I was ten years old, and much better later on, when I was in my forties. It was Aunty Kath who told me about Fa-Fa's days as a lamplighter. Fa-Fa's father--Grandfather Adamson, Aunty Kath called him--had been the first and last lamplighter in North Sydney; Fa-Fa often helped him out or did the job for him. They'd walk the streets late in the afternoon lighting the gas lamps, then go out again at dawn to turn them off.
It was Aunty Kath, too, who let slip the nickname Dad's fishing mates had given him--'Boosker; the name of a comic-book rodeo character--the name she and the Adamsons (including Fa-Fa) always called him from then on. My mother and the Verrills side of the family never did; they hated it and would insist on 'Harry.' I always looked forward to seeing Aunty Kath and Aunty Irene: wherever they went, things got volatile--anything could happen--and I was always on the lookout for excitement. But in fact I rarely did see them: Irene lived at Collaroy Plateau and was seldom in a condition to leave the house, and Kathleen lived at Doonside--rabbiting country--quite a hike to Artarmon. But I did see them sometimes, and they were part of the general background music of family patter--part of the atmosphere I grew up in--as far back as I can recall.
My earliest childhood is a mystery to me; I scarcely remember it. In Wards of the State I described it, borrowing a phrase from Bob Dylan, as 'a chain of flashing images.' The earliest image is that of a garden--my father's--the one my brothers and I used to water each day after school. Other memories are less precise, being mainly compounded of sunlight and water, throbbing waves of sound--cicadas in peppercorn trees--and the early morning atmosphere around the shores of Sydney Harbour.
Gradually, I suppose, I discovered that I lived in paradise. I loved the sounds and scents of the harbour and spent a lot of time there. I could walk down to Neutral Bay Wharf from one side of Military Road or go down the other through Cammeray Golf Links to Primrose Park. I'd walk along the shoreline of the upper reaches of Middle Harbour to Tunks Park, my route dotted with landmarks. At Castlecrag there's a crazy bridge that looks like a castle and the streets have names like Arthur, Merlin, and Falcon. North Sydney Park had a high red-brick chimney we called the Stink Pot, and down from that was an old overgrown estate called Fisher's Paradise.
The names of the beaches and rocky outcrops around where we lived were like lures: Chowder Bay, Chinaman's Beach, Clontarf, Inkerman's Wharf, Cliffton Gardens, Bantry Bay, the Powder Works, Quaker's Hat Bay. I'd turn them over in my mind and imagine the Quakers quaking at the sight of a school of tailor chopping into a school of whitebait, Mr Inkerman writing letters with a quill held in steady, ink-stained fingers, bombs being bolted together in the sheds out the back of the Powder Works, American sailors cooking up chowder with the hairtail they caught from the decks of their battleships moored off Chowder Bay and Clifton Gardens.
As soon as I was allowed--at some point between the ages of six and eight--I caught a tram and went to the Spit, a place my Uncle John had once taken me fishing. A few trips taught me that my fishing skills weren't too good. At first I put it down to the tackle I owned--just a couple of handlines and some hooks and sinkers--and asked my parents for a fishing rod for Christmas. They gave me one too. I took it down to the Spit and practiced casting for hours.
There were a couple of fishing boats based near the wharf that seemed to me to be the most wonderful things in the world--low-slung clinker-built half-cabin twenty-footers. The men who owned and fished from these boats were my first heroes. These weren't netboats like my Grandfather's, they were boats that went after kingfish--and caught them too, with thick cord lines and red and white feather lures. They'd leave just on dawn and be back around midday with boxes of big gleaming fish. They also made catches of snapper and mulloway, sleek, beautiful-looking fish with mauve-rainbow colours. I got to know these fishermen a little and they'd buy all the octopus I could catch for bait. These were the first men I'd encountered who were working at something I could imagine doing myself. They represented freedom.
I also fished around the wharves near Neutral Bay and at the end of a long jetty at Balmoral beach. I caught yellowtail, garfish, and leatherjacket with the other kids, though sometimes I'd get busted up by bonito that flashed in around the pylons and picked up my floating bait. I loved fishing in clear water because you could see the fish taking the bait--you felt like part of the system. Those were idyllic days, waking up before dawn, sneaking out and jumping onto the first tram at 4:30 AM, getting down to the wharf just on light, the calm flat water, the sun, the whole world depending on the strength of a single knot. Once at Balmoral I caught a seagull that picked up a baited hook and flew off, causing a dreadful racket, squawking loudly while a crowd gathered to watch as I pulled it in. I loved it there, especially in the late afternoon, when the light made everything seem more vibrant: the fig trees along the promenade, the little island with its concrete imitation Chinese bridge, the parrots that seemed like mobile components of the coral trees they perched in, the Indian Turtle Doves cooing and strutting in the gutters, the tankers moving slowly out through the Heads towards the Pacific Ocean, the sun going down through gathering storm clouds, the calm before a southerly buster.
The fish, too, were endless at Balmoral, but I was drawn back to the Spit where the catch was a bit harder. At the Spit there were big blue-nosed bream caught by a few old fellows who fished on the walk-way of the bridge. They dropped their baits and huge channel sinkers from a height of about twenty yards straight into a raging tide. This was difficult, specialised fishing. I tried to copy it but ended up with my line tangled, so I just sat and watched.
One morning one of the bream fishermen pulled me aside and spoke to me in a serious tone. He wanted to know how committed I was to catching a big bream. I don't remember what I said, but I must have been convincing because he told me that if I was prepared to follow his instructions, he would teach me how to fish. He made it very clear that this would not to be fun and games and would require a lot of patience.
He was probably in his fifties. Now that I'm in mine, his lessons come back to me often. He taught me about bait and how to tie a special knot called a snood, how to make the rigs with running sinkers that suit a swift tide, and how different rigs are needed as the tide slows down. He taught me to hunt the fish, to think about everything it was doing--to imitate the bait the bream were feeding on, keeping it floating above the bottom. If the baits weren't alive or the line didn't allow them to float flee, the fish would notice and stay away. He taught me that collecting bait was as important as fishing itself, and took me around the bays at low tide, turning over hundreds of rocks, peering into the muddy water looking for pink nippers or green nippers--or the black crabs, or red, or green--that hid in the flotsam. It took hours and involved not only catching the bait but keeping it alive.
He taught me that there were vegetarian fish like blackfish that ate green slimy weed or leafy green cabbage weed. He would arrange to meet me at an exact time in the early morning to catch a particular tide or in the evening to catch prawns, armed with a net and pressure light. After our first couple of weeks, he allowed me to fish beside him from the walkway of the bridge. He passed on his knowledge and his love of fishing in a quiet and special way. I don't think he ever told me his name.
School plunged me into misery, at least for the first three years of my attendance. I cried and threw tantrums that were met by a look in my mother's eyes just as stubborn as my own. We lived about a mile from Neutral Bay Primary School--the same primary school to which Vi had sent my mother and Aunty Dorothy and Uncle John. Mrs Harley, who had been my mother's kindergarten teacher, was to be mine too.
For the first couple of weeks of school, my mother walked me to and from the gates. I remember it being just the two of us, so she must have left my brothers with Granny. But after maybe a month, she arranged for me to walk home with an older boy who lived nearby--an arrangement that worked quite nicely. I knew the regular way home, the one I'd walked with my mother--up Ben Boyd Road and straight along Military Road, then down Short Lane into Byrnes Avenue--was probably quicker, but the ways I went with my new friend seemed more exciting. We had favourite stops, and the possibility of adventure, each time we walked home together. It became quite a long half-mile as our back-lane shortcuts grew increasingly involved.
One day, however, not long after our arrangement began, he wasn't waiting at the gate after school. This upset me more than I could account for, though I'm sure it hadn't occurred to him that I would be put out. He'd gone off earlier with some friends, I later discovered. I stood there for maybe half an hour formulating the rough outline of what I would do next, until finally a teacher asked me what I was doing. I told him that my friend had gone off without me and that I didn't think I could find my way home. He was a kind man and offered to walk some of the way with me until I knew where to go. He asked my address, but I said I couldn't remember the number of our house--which was probably true, as I had a serious problem with numbers. 'But you'll recognise it once you see it,' he assured me. After we'd walked about half the distance, he pressed me for the name of my street, and it was here that the trouble started. I told him I couldn't remember. We walked for another five minutes or so; I was beginning to have second thoughts, but realised I'd gone too far with this ploy to stop now. It was like being in limbo, and I wondered if it would lead to hell. I could sense my Virgil's attitude towards me changing, turning slowly to anger, as it gradually dawned on him that he would have to take me back to school to look up my address. He was silent as we trudged back.
Meanwhile my mother had rung the headmaster, who was about to inform the police and initiate a search. He called me into his office to try to make sense of my behaviour. I'm not sure that he did so, but when my mother turned up--furious--I could see that she made sense of it alright. She knew perfectly well that my actions were aimed directly at her.
Inevitably I did make friends at school. By my second year I was hanging around with a gang called (at my suggestion) the Black Hawks. We'd race around with our arms outstretched making noises like spitfire airplanes, dive-bombing kids playing marbles or hop-scotch or some other game we found sufficiently conformist to warrant attack. My best friend, Victor Pringle, wasn't a member of the Black Hawks, but we shared an interest in birds and an aversion to sports--a strong bond. He was a bright, gentle, fair-haired kid who was always near the top of the class. We used to build motorised model airplanes together (his Dad got us started) and fly them over the Cammeray football oval, or over the bowling green until the green keeper chased us off. They were flimsy balsa-wood constructions powered by methylated spirits.
I was also mates, but discreetly, with the class eccentric, Ray Morgan, who wore big thick glasses that looked as though they were carved from the bottom of milk bottles then painted over with lacquer. Ray was perhaps genuinely loopy. He kept snakes and once brought a python to school in his Globite. He used to take us to Tunks Park to collect the tiny Bent-wing bats clinging to the slippery sides of the stormwater drains: we'd walk for hundreds of yards through pitch-dark terrifying tunnels in danger of flash-flooding at any moment, then start randomly lighting matches; when we spotted a cluster of bats we'd scoop them off the wall with a shoebox. Ray used to feed them to his snakes.
I did save one: I put it in an empty Craven-A packet, wrapped it up, and gave it to my girlfriend Beverly as a practical joke. She opened it in class; I could only imagine her reaction as she did so, because girls were taught in a different building at our school, but I certainly knew about her anger when I talked to her over the fence at lunchtime. At age seven, we had our first big fight.
This was a big deal. Beverly's mother was my mother's best friend; they wanted us to be friends too. Beverly didn't talk to me for a while after I gave her the bat, but just after we'd finally patched things up, my mother handed me an invitation to Beverly's birthday party, clearly pleased I'd been invited and taking it for granted I'd be going. I did go too, but I resented what I saw as my mother's interference, so I took along another bat, this time flapping about in a shoebox wrapped in coloured paper, as a birthday present for Beverly. She screamed when she opened it--it was very dramatic. With her birthday party ruined and the guests sent home, Beverly retired to her bedroom, weeping. I was locked in mine for the weekend. My mother still considers this one of the worst things I have ever done.
I was Fascinated by animals and felt compelled to get close to them in whatever way I could: by hunting them, studying them, keeping them in cages, or imitating their behaviour. We lived only a short tram ride away from Taronga Park Zoo, which I loved. I often went there, at first through the front gates with my parents, then later by myself, sometimes through the gates but more often over over the fence near my favourite part, the quarantine area at Athol Bay, an eerie place where they kept strange animals for months sometimes before taking them into the main zoo. I'd discovered this place because it was just opposite the last tram stop; I'd get off there to go fishing (usually early in the morning) from a pier just around the cove.
My visits to the quarantine area were invariably nocturnal. Night after night I'd climb out my bedroom window after my mother had seen me to bed, then catch the tram down to Athol Bay and jump the fence. I'd sit there in the darkness surrounded by weird beasts making unnerving sounds. I got to know exotic creatures: cassowaries, zebras, lions, giraffes, ostriches, emus and reptiles I'd never seen before--salamanders and a Komodo Dragon.
One night, when I was ten or eleven, while climbing over a barbed-wire fence, I slipped and fell into one of the enclosures and found myself, when I got up, face to face with an angry cassowary. It had a deep, resonant, furious-sounding voice, and it hissed and drummed simultaneously. Booming and strutting, it headed towards me. I knew a lot about this bird from my bird book, where I had read about them disemboweling men in New Guinea when provoked. I felt disemboweled already as I stood there utterly still with the great black bird circling angrily around me, booming, hissing, and gurgling, around and around, its horn of a head fringed with iridescent blue feathers shivering in the moonlight--until finally, after what seemed like the longest hour of my life, it walked over to the other end of the cage and completely ignored me.
Most of the encounters I had with animals were not life-threatening--at least not for me. After school I'd often run straight down through the golf-links at Cammeray to a park where there was a sports oval. Around its edges there were lines of coral trees that would attract flocks of rainbow lorikeets. I was drawn to them: they were like flying feathery jewels--blue heads, green backs, red beaks, and orange breasts. I loved them and wanted to have some. This didn't seem unusual or wrong, since they were fairly common in pet shops. But I also wanted to hunt them and catch them for myself--in fact, this was as important to me as actually having a pair in a cage. Sometimes other boys shot them with slug guns and I'd pick up the injured birds and take them home, only to find them dead the next day. I wondered if there was a way to wing them, so that they were stunned but not critically injured. I tried various models of catapult and slingshot--some made from wooden branches, others from the steel wires used in laying bricks, with strips of rubber cut from the inner-tubes of bike tyres. I also tried out various projectiles, finally settling on small wads of paper mache with a lead sinker in the middle. These successfully stunned the birds and one out of three survived.
I'd get the rainbow lorrikeets home and nurse them until they came to. They'd always bite my fingers. I sustained a few serious wounds, and some became badly infected; but still, it was contact, and that was what I wanted. It excited me. I wanted to somehow will myself into the bird's head, to tame it perhaps--though what I was really hoping for when I stared into each bird's eyes was some flicker of recognition, some sign of connection between us. I wanted the bird to recognise and accept me.
But as what? I don't think I ever discovered anything in the lorikeets' eyes except perhaps fear: what passed between us was mainly a powerful red beak lashing out at my hands. When I left them alone, they'd sit there sulking, which I took to be a sign of their intelligence. Other wild birds--say honeyeaters or bower birds--will bash themselves against the wire, but wild parrots remain calm, if not exactly friendly, when imprisoned. In my opinion this is because, having examined all possible means of escape and discovered that all are futile, they've decided to make the best of their cage.
I knew quite a lot about cages by the time I was bringing the lorikeets home. In fact, wherever I went I kept my eyes peeled for any raw materials that might be used to make one. I collected packing crates and had a fondness for the giant wooden reels my father brought home. After he'd taken the lead-cased copper wire for melting, I'd break up the reels and use the wood to build cages for my birds. I also had a passion for homing pigeons. My first were given to me by Fa-Fa, but I soon learned to catch road-peckers for myself and train them. I had other birds too, and they all needed to be housed. By the age of nine I'd built a pigeon coop large enough to stand in, made from corrugated iron and some huge pine crates I'd dragged home from the light industrial sites around Neutral Bay. It had a second storey and a landing ramp.
I felt I understood my pigeons. They were free to come and go as they pleased. The roof of the coop had a hatch that was always open, and every morning and afternoon I threw some of them into the air to get the others up and flying. They loved the home I'd built for them and even seemed to know me--they came to me when I called them. I often kept squeakers (baby pigeons) I'd pinched from their nests high in the gutters of blocks of flats and two-storey houses around Neutral Bay. I'd climb up drainpipes, stuff the squeakers into my shirt, and climb back down. I'd train these squeakers to home. Every afternoon after school and watering Dad's garden I'd let them out with the other birds and watch them soar up into the sky and circle around our house. It was wonderful to see them growing and flying alongside the others.
Sometimes, while I watched them, I'd see them as my representatives, high above Neutral Bay: symbols, if not of me, then of the freedom I wanted and felt I didn't have. At school, I felt like a lorikeet making the best of its cage, or like a bower bird sometimes, bashing myself against it.
My brothers and I sometimes went to the Southern Cross, a movie theatre at Neutral Bay where there was a Saturday matinee for kids. This matinee was a big event for people our age around Neutral Bay. This was before TV. Those who chose to could come dressed up as characters from the movies, and there were prizes for best costume: free admission for four, including sample bags of sweets. I'd dress Richard up as a red indian in his swimming costume and moccasins and a huge headdress made from hundreds of pigeon and chook feathers (my father slaughtered chooks once a fortnight) that wound around his head and hung all the way down his back. I'd daub his face and torso with red and white war paint and add a touch of authenticity by arming him with a real bow made of privet and real arrows carved from the black bamboo I'd stolen from a mansion at the bottom of Ben Boyd Road, down near the harbour. John and I would wrap a big beach towel around him to maximise the impact when Richard unveiled himself onstage. He always got a big reaction, and since audience response was the decider, we won four times--three more than was technically allowed for a single costume.
Like most boys of our generation, my brothers tended not to socialise much with girls. This was just one of many differences between us. At school, like them, I hung around mostly with other boys, but on holidays I was just as happy to play with our cousins--girls, every one. Aunty Irene's daughter Pam and her sisters were fairly wild; Aunty Dorothy's daughters, Judy and Maureen, were the exact opposite: well-behaved and top of the class. I got on well with all of them. John and Richard would go off to play football while I stayed at home with our cousins, drawing or playing with silkworms. I used to get them to unravel silk from the cocoons and wind it up until we had a huge useless ball made from hundreds of hours of worm-work. It was rumoured that if you saved enough silk, you'd magically make lots of money.
Judy and Maureen, like my best friend Victor Pringle, seemed to find schoolwork easy: they came top without even trying. I admired this but couldn't emulate it except in patches; I barely scraped through what was for me the recurring humiliation of exams. I was hopeless at maths. I managed (briefly) to memorise various tables, but could never do any form of division or multiplication. I remember crying over my homework, staring at what to me seemed incomprehensible glyphs. I was considered good at art, however, and often won places in school exhibitions. My drawings of birds were put up on noticeboards by the teachers. I was also good at English and often came top of the class in composition. The year I turned ten was my best year, when I was class captain for the final term. This was the year of Mr Roberts, the teacher who introduced me to poetry and what they called Nature Studies.
Mr Roberts is the only teacher whose name I remember from my years at school. He was a quiet but persistent man. He liked to use memory aids--for example, the name Roy G. Biv to remember the colours of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. This simple device appealed to me enormously, as did the notion of a name whose letters worked like a secret code. Mr Roberts would read poems to the class and go through them explaining what they meant and how poetry worked. 'The Highway Man' by Alfred Noyse was the first poem I loved. I learned it by heart and would recite it to the class. During the time Mr Roberts was my teacher I memorized other poems too: 'Kubla Khan' by Coleridge, 'The Raven' by Poe, and fifteen stanzas of Tennyson's 'The Revenge.' I was very good at memorising poems and was selected to represent the school reciting them on an ABC radio programme that came on just before The Argonauts every Friday afternoon. It featured a different child each week displaying a particular talent: playing an instrument, singing a song, reciting a poem.
Mr Roberts knew a bit about birds too, and was delighted when I undertook large-scale projects on them. One was on homing pigeons, but the one that was most admired was a study called 'The Art of Falconry.' I copied drawings of falcons from bird books, researched the art of falconry throughout history, and went into the Sydney Museum to use their stuffed falcons as models to draw from. I painted falcons, cut pictures of them from magazines, and made a huge falcon collage that Mr Roberts had framed and hung in the classroom.
Another large-scale undertaking was the project I did on numbats. I drew numbats and researched these beautiful creatures for an entire term. We had to recite our papers from memory and I can still recall the opening sentence of my numbat essay: 'Unique among animals is the harmless little numbat, whose earliest ancestors lived in the days of the mighty dinosaurs and even before the event of Man himself.'
I was impressed by this last bit, both the fact and its expression, though I remember questioning Mr Roberts about the convention of using a capital M for 'Man.' There was something about it that vaguely disturbed me. Mr Roberts was sympathetic, but assured me that by following the convention I would be less likely to distract the reader's attention from my subject--namely, the numbat.
Fa-Fa and Sissy moved to the Hawkesbury River when I was ten years old, when Fa-Fa, then in his early sixties, retired from the Shell Company. It still surprises me to think of Fa-Fa as anything other than a fisherman, but in fact by the time he retired from Shell he'd worked for them for roughly thirty years--first at the yards at Berrys Bay rolling out the drums (and passing the damaged ones on to Dad, who'd resell them for scrap), then as all-round Mr Fixit and foreman of the yard. He also caught and sold fish on the side, and when Shell gave him a handsome payout--enough for him to buy a house on the Hawkesbury and some boats--he was able to set himself for what proved to be nearly forty years of fishing.
Dad drove us all up in his truck to look at the house before Fa-Fa bought it. It was an old weatherboard place perched at the top of a steep rocky slope, on a long narrow double block that ran down to the water about halfway along Mooney Point. It had its own jetty and a wooden verandah that looked out over a spectacular sweep of the river. There was a rickety ladder that gave you access to the bottom part of the block, where the land just continued until it disappeared into the river. At low tide the mudflat was exposed for a couple of hours and thousands of tiny mud crabs would emerge from the holes pocking its surface, clicking their nippers in the sun. There was a huge mulberry tree that was laden with plump fruit, and persimmon and lemon trees. There were a couple of big sheds and three huge water tanks. There was no water, electricity, or sewerage, but for me this simply added to the mystery of the place. What I remember most about the first night we stayed there is Fa-Fa walking around setting up his tilly-lamps and lighting mosquito coils. He had a continually changing arsenal of lamps he'd adapted from found objects--kero tins or ginger beer jugs or other debris he'd managed to convert into something functional. Extremely functional. Fa-Fa's lamps would work in a gale if that's what he'd designed them to do.
We went up to the Hawkesbury, supposedly to celebrate, when the lights came on several years after they moved there. It was a red-letter day: they'd held out longer than anyone else in their street against electricity before Fa-Fa had finally given in to Sissy and paid for the pole to he sunk near the house. Even after that, Sissy never did quite get used to the place. 'Come to Mooney Mooney; she'd say, 'and go loony loony? But I loved it, even though it wasn't quite the same for me after the power was connected. During the years before electricity, I often stayed there for my school holidays and sometimes went up for the weekend. I'd catch the train from St Leonards, get out at Hawkesbury River station, then take a bus to Mooney Point.
This was when I became friends with my cousin Sandy--Sandra, Aunty Kath's daughter. My brothers preferred Neutral Bay, where they had their football club, and Jenny was still a toddler, so I was the only one of us there and had Sandy's full attention. She was going to school at Gosford and living with Sissy and Fa-Fa. Whenever I stayed there, she and I shared the big double bed she slept in on the verandah; overhung by an enormous white mosquito net, it looked like an Arabian tent. Sandy was fairly wild: it was often said that she could start an argument in an empty room. She made friends easily but could dump them just as quickly if they didn't comply with whatever she wanted.
If I came up on a weekend, Sandy and I would walk in to Brooklyn after tea on Saturday evening and go to the movies at the RSL Memorial Hall. This was the main attraction for young people on the river. We loved going no matter what was showing, and loved the walk too. It's several miles from Mooney to Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge. It was very exciting; sometimes we'd deliberately miss the bus home so we'd have to walk back in the dark. I remember nights with huge full moons reflected on the high tide, the river rushing out around the pylons of the bridge, the mangroves, as we crossed the little creek bridges, hunched in shadows full of mosquitoes and night-jars.
During the day, if we were on holidays from school, we'd climb the mulberry tree in the yard and fill billycans with the fruit, then take it into the kitchen, where Sissy would turn it into mulberry pies. We'd row out onto the river in the skiff, often getting stuck on the mudflats and continuing our explorations on foot, covered from top to bottom in mud, baked by the sun, our feet cut by oysters. We liked to tease the huge mud crabs that Fa-Fa kept alive in the bath until he had an even dozen. He'd take them down to the Anglers Rest and raffle them; he and Dad often raffled their catch in pubs. Most people did this for a cause or club, but Dad and Fa-Fa did it for themselves. Nobody seemed to mind. After they'd raffled off a box of fish at Brooklyn, they'd catch the train down to St Leonards (if it was a Friday) and sell the remaining crabs or fish in the pub next to the station.
I was always keen to go with them when they set out the nets. Fa-Fa's trawler was an old wooden boat with a diesel motor, held together by green paint and his will. Painted on one side was the name Sissy (Fa-Fa's choice) and on the other the name Dark Star, painted in a drunken moment by T.C., who didn't realise Fa-Fa had already started on the other side. Sandy and I called it Sissy's Star. It was a prawn trawler, but Fa-Fa used it as a fishing boat; he stored his catch on it and slept on board and used it to tow his other boats up and down the river. He also had a skiff and an aluminium punt that served as his nethoat. I'd curl up in the cabin of Sissy's Star and half-sleep, half-daydream. I'd think about having a boat like this myself one day and spending my life on the river, but knew I'd have to save for years or get a big payout like Fa-Fa to have any hope. My dream seemed distant and unreal--but the boat around me didn't. It felt like being in the chamber of a big green heart as the engine slowly pumped away and I breathed in the salty fumes of diesel oil and the pungent odour of jewfish.
When they went out together, Fa-Fa and Dad would net off whole bays and splash the bream and mullet into the mesh. This was called splash meshing--it was poaching in the eyes of the law, but in Fa-Fa's eyes, if you lived on a river and worked it, you owned it and could do what you liked. It was always spectacular on the Hawkesbury: the wild teal fluttering along the shore with their wings just hitting the surface of the water, the echo of owl and curlew sounds haunting the dark escarpments, and the stars above and around us, much brighter than they seemed at Neutral Bay, set in an indigo dome.
After Fa-Fa had set the net, he'd hit the surface of the river with an oar so that it made a crisp, loud, cracking noise that spooked the fish. I used to watch in amazement as they panicked and zig-zagged through the tide, the phosphorous in the water outlining each and every individual in the school--you'd see them shooting out from the shoreline, dozens of them, into the net that hung like a wall of fire across the mouth of the bay. It was like having x-ray vision. Fa-Fa would sometimes let me hold the corkline so that I could feel the mullet hitting the net--and feel the thrill that went with it too, one that I've never forgotten. Those nights were some of the most exciting of my life.
I was eleven when Fa-Fa let me work with him on his trawler during my school holidays. I felt very privileged about this because everybody knew he preferred to work alone. One particular day has remained stuck in my head ever since.
We left his wobbly old jetty before dawn. It had been raining heavily for days and the river had turned orange. It was a good time to fish downstream. The biggest jewfish were in the bay between Juno Point and Eleanor Bluffs, where river water hits ocean tide, snatching mullet washed down towards the ocean. The water was so dark that day they fed as if it were night. We were going to fish there, but first we had to catch live bait. Fa-Fa knew the bait grounds at Cowan Creek. The water in places like Jerusalem Bay was dear, washed by powerful tides and time spent lying in the deep valley.
A fine mist hung over the surface of the bay, wisps of it curled around our stern. I looked into the water, where big mushroom-shaped jellyfish floated by like parachutes in an upside-down sky. Fa-Fa called them Portuguese Man-O-Wars. I looked at them again: reddish galleons adrift in the tide. We chugged up into the bay and over to the sandflats, the mist clearing as we cut the motor. Fa-Fa pulled in the net boat and we climbed on board. Whipbirds cracked around us, their calls ricocheting from huge slabs of sandstone. We rowed slowly towards the shore, where the yellowtail would be starting to feed. Then we both saw a man float up, one hand cutting the surface like a small pink fin. All he had on was a tee-shirt and a pair of shorts.
Something was wrong: I noticed the unnatural stiffness of his body. This was a dead man, the first I'd seen. Fa-Fa checked my reaction. I looked to him for what to do next, but he was calm and told me, yes, he is dead, an oyster farmer or fisherman. He seemed to know there had been no foul play--he said 'drowned' in a tone of acceptance. He pulled our skiff over to the body, then touched it. It moved slowly like a waterlogged stump. The water was shallow and the sun was not yet warm; there didn't seem to be any smell. I wondered how long he'd been there. Fa-Fa held up the jutting arm and the body rolled towards us, almost touching the bottom.
Fa-Fa jumped out and carefully turned the man a bit more, saying calmly, 'Look.' Underneath, hundreds of prawns had gathered--hundreds--all clinging, feeding, and swarming. The water was coloured by their translucent mass, a green shadow. He said, 'The net; pointing to a prawn-landing net in the belly of our skiff next to the gaff hook. I handed it over to him. He started scooping under the body, catching dozens of prawns with each scoop. He gestured to the fish boxes in the stern. I pulled them apart and set one up. Fa-Fa went about the grim job slowly, carefully, without words, scooping and turning the handle, filling the box. The prawns jumped around in it until their own weight sorted them out and they lay in layers, with only the top flicking. The odd prawn jumped back into the belly of the boat or back into the water while Fa-Fa scooped and carefully turned, scooped and turned. He treated the body with a stern respect, similar to the respect I'd seen in his arms and hands when handling a big jewfish, holding the ninety-pound creature gently so as not to bruise the flesh, with a care not to damage the look of the beautiful shining kill. He handled those rare old fish like babies, packing them in ice, patting the golden flanks, staring down at them with reverence. He moved about this corpse with the same respect, took the same fierce care.
We rowed back slowly, weighed down by the prawns. When we reached the side of the trawler, Fa-Fa hauled the box up with an old winch and swung it onto the deck. We headed off towards Brooklyn. He took the prawns to the Co-op first, then walked over to the police station to tell them what we'd found.
After my year with Mr Roberts, things took a downward turn at school. I don't remember the name of the man who taught me in my last year of primary school, but he did make an impact. My dreams of being a professional fisherman were, I realised, just that: the money involved and the difficulties of getting a license put them permanently on hold. On the other hand, learning about birds cost nothing and didn't need a permit. My mother had saved up to buy me Neville W. Cayley's What Bird Is That? for my eleventh birthday and, after spending many hours closely studying its pages, I'd decided that Neville Cayley was my hero; I dreamed of writing a bird book just like his. If that meant becoming an 'ornithologist'--well, that's what I'd do. My teacher pointed out, however--none too tactfully--my unarguable deficiencies in spelling and maths, and told me to forget my ambition.
I couldn't. In fact, my teacher's blunt discouragement probably made me more determined. I also became more focussed: no matter how many fascinating pages I found in What Bird Is That?--and I found a great many--I kept coming back to the same one. I became obsessed by the Paradise Riflebird, Ptiloris magnificus. My drawings of falcons and eagles all began turning into drawings of this bird, which I considered extraordinary both in appearance (based on what I saw in the book) and name. Judging by the illustration, it was a plump-bodied bird that seemed to be dressed for a bail at the palace: it had a little cap of iridescent green feathers and an elegant chocolate-coloured mask that ran from its long, curved beak, over its eyes, then disappeared over its shoulders. Its neck feathers were iridescent turquoise edged by what looked like a rope of pearls, and its breast-plate--beaten copper--almost glinted in the painter's spotlight. It wore a skirt of shaggy feathers like strands of hanging silk, and looked, compared to its relatives, huge. I wanted to find out more.
I'd never been to a library--it wasn't something our family did--but summoned up the courage to cross the Bridge and go into the Mitchell. I found anything to do with officialdom or authority terrifying and was shy anyway, so I suppose you might say I slunk through the doors. I sidled over to the shelves and flicked furtively through some pages. Town planning, I looked around. Thousands of books, and every one possibly about town planning. I realised I'd need help. My first tentative approach to a librarian was rebuffed, but my second was wildly successful: I was invited to sit at a desk and offered a feast of first editions. I no longer remember what they were, but some of them contained illustrations by John Gould. I sat there for hours, mesmerised, taking notes, and went back several times over the next few weeks. On a hunch, I also went to the Museum of Natural History. I knew they had stuffed falcons--and sure enough, they had a stuffed Riflebird too. It was much smaller than I'd imagined from my book, but still, it was magnificent. I sketched it, not from life perhaps, but the nearest I could get to at the time.
I eventually discovered that Taronga Park Zoo had a real live Riflebird tucked away among cages I hadn't been to for a while. Thrilled by this discovery, and thinking that my teacher couldn't possibly be right (what did spelling or maths have to do with it when there was practical wisdom to be had?), I asked some of the keepers for what would now be called work experience--the chance to clean out the bird cages maybe, one day a week. But they told me that in order to do such a job, I'd need at least a leaving certificate. It was starting to sound like a plot. I began to do a lot of brooding.
My birds were my obsession and my release. I'd wake up at about five in the morning, go down to my pigeon coop and, if I wasn't going fishing, sit staring at my birds, leaving only when I had to go to school. As soon as I could, I'd resume this activity. My pigeon coop was a refuge, a place where I could be in peace surrounded by burbling and cooing. I knew each bird individually, having caught and trained them myself, and was almost confiding in them as I sat there, fuming.
I felt closer to my cats and pigeons than I did to any human. I often brought home half-feral cats that seldom stayed longer than a week, though two became much-loved pets. One was a black-and-white stray I called Henry (probably after Fa-Fa) who slept in my bed and followed me a round the yard; the other was a female tabbie whose kittens Dad drowned one day while I was at school. I was traumatised by this, as was the tabbie; I became very protective of her and tried to keep her company as much as I could during the weeks in which she cried and searched for her kittens. Dad had given me the chance to find homes for them, but no one I'd asked had wanted them. Dad probably had visions of Fa-Fa's swarm at Artarmon. I did too: I loved the idea of lots of cats and was secretly hoping I wouldn't find homes. Still, I hated Dad for drowning them. It didn't seem inevitable, whereas when Henry killed a few of my birds I could accept that because it was his nature.
I was always having to keep Henry away from my birds. He stalked the finches, but couldn't get at them because of their canary-wire-fronted cages. The pigeons were sitting ducks until they learned to mingle with Dad's chooks, a strategy that earned them the protection of a fierce Rhode-Island Red rooster. The rooster protected its hens, not the pigeons, but the result was the same: it would rush at Henry with its hackles raised and peck him savagely on the nose.
One of my pigeons became a pet--a henbird I called Bluey because she was a blue-bar. She had a broken wing when Fa-Fa gave her to me, but I nursed her for four weeks until she came good. I fed her on mixtures of rape-seed and Farax, a baby food popular in the 1950s. Bluey would sit on my shoulder as I walked around our block and would sometimes even stay there while I rode my bike, if I went slowly and kept away from traffic. I had her for maybe two or three years, until one day she was torn from the sky and killed by a sea-eagle. It nearly broke my heart, but I didn't feel any hate towards the eagle. Falcons and hawks are often the 'enemy' to pigeon fanciers, but they weren't to me--though a glimmer of guilt still hovers, perhaps in memory of Bluey, whenever I see a harrier or eagle swoop down from the Hawkesbury sky to snatch up some fish or small bird. I notice the elegant circle and dive, the savage beauty of the kill.
I'd sit there in the half-light of morning or evening and dream about one day owning a falcon--training one too. The fact that falcons and pigeons and cats were enemies didn't worry me. That was the way things were in the natural world, and it seemed pure compared to the hypocrisies of humans. Falcons killed pigeons in order to survive. Cats killed both because it was in their blood. There was no third party, no good manners, no god involved--no reasoning or theology. Nature was blunt and honest.
Towards the end of primary school, I started spending more time with my cousin Ray--leading him astray, my mother still insists. He was Judy and Maureen's brother; they lived just three doors away, right next to Granny and Grandfather Verrills. Ray and I both loved contraptions and inventions and would often take simple hobbies and turn them into something more serious and elaborate. Our first telecommunications device consisted of a length of cotton attached to two matchboxes, but we'd soon graduated to much longer lengths of fishing line strung between our bedroom windows from the telegraph poles along our street, tin cans at either end keeping us in constant contact.
Sometimes mine were pretend or imaginary elaborations that would somehow, miraculously, become real. I put together a crystal radio set, for example, out of bits and pieces of wiring and circuitry I didn't understand--just bunged them together with glue, put them inside an old bakelite shell, and told Ray it was a radio transmitter, that I'd re-wired the whole thing so that it would broadcast, if only we had a huge (impossible to build due to financial restrictions) transmitting tower. But I was saving, I told him, and one day we'd go to air. Ray soon figured out that this wasn't so, but by then he'd become so interested in the possibilities of crystal radio sets that he'd learned how to make one himself. You could send and receive simultaneously on the set Ray built; you could listen to three radio stations at once, no problem.
I also built a model plane I passed off as a Tiger Moth, pretending it could fly by virtue of its counterfeit engine. I made it out of balsa wood using the know-how I'd acquired from Victor Pringle's father and a discarded motor I'd found at Tunks Park: it had a blown cylinder, but I glued the loose bits down so that it looked okay and showed it to friends to admire, telling them I hadn't gotten around to flying it yet, that there were more models in production and that flying would come later. One day Fa-Fa, having asked about the plane, slipped me ten quid and told me not to breathe a word to my parents, just go and buy an engine. Ten quid was a fortune. I made the trip to Hobbyco the next chance I got.
Ray and I decided that the new engine deserved new housing. We set about carving an even better Tiger Moth from balsa wood, its wings a sturdy honeycomb of struts covered by thin paper. We drenched this paper in a substance called dope; as it dried, it made the paper shrink so that the whole structure was tight as a drum. Inside its brand new fuselage, carefully painted with intricate designs, the tiny one-cylinder engine, fuelled by pure alcohol, sounded like a loud, mechanical cicada circling angrily around us at the end of its piece of string. Once, when Ray crashed it, I punched him. He retaliated promptly and we rolled around the park, pummelling one another until we were both totally exhausted.
Towards the end of primary school, maybe just after starting high school, Ray and I started a newspaper, The Byrnes Avenue Times. It was a single-sided sheet of paper for its first three issues; its last two were double-sided. We used a crude mono-type press with letter-blocks made from hard rubber; a single page took days to set. The first issue was mainly headlines and an announcement of intent: 'To tell the Truth no matter how painful the Truth might be.'
We went to all the local shops and asked them if they'd be interested in advertising with us. None of them accepted. We thought about various alternative approaches--bribery, barter, a protection racket--and decided on a combination. We made thorough nuisances of ourselves at the fruit shop, the fish-and-chip shop, and the grocer, and did manage a deal with the fruit shop: they'd give us their 'specks' in exchange for an endorsement saying 'Joe's Fruit is Fresher.' This is how I discovered mangoes. A lady from Neutral Bay had ordered some, but forgotten to collect them or changed her mind; they were our payoff from Joe's Fruit.
We picked them up from Joe's on the way to school one Monday. I had no idea how to eat a mango, I'd never seen one. This one was over-ripe. I had no knife, so I simply poked my index finger determinedly through the skin. The sweet sickly exotic flesh oozed out all over my hands, forearms, shirtfront, trousers--I was soon a sticky, pulp-spattered mess, but a delighted mess as I tasted this amazing revelation. We generally went to school hungry in those days. Mum always served breakfast--usually porridge, or cornflakes and milk in summer--but never anything like this beautiful-smelling, sweet-tasting, miraculous ovoid feast. Ray was hoeing into his mango just as enthusiastically as I was, the juice running down his chin and shirtfront. Neither of us had handkerchiefs, so we cleaned up under somebody's garden hose before going into school.
The next day we thought we'd have another go at the fish-and-chip shop. If they didn't give us their scraps, we said--the half-broken chips and fragments of batter that had fallen off fried fish fillets--we'd expose their shop in our 'Food Review' as a dodgy greaseball. They must have liked this approach, because they did give us scraps and even a few whole chips. We then approached the grocer for broken biscuits, and so on, and were so successful that our second issue consisted entirely of ads and endorsements--a few words each, surrounded by thick black rules.
It wasn't until the fifth issue of The Byrnes Avenue Times--which I think came out early in the year I started high school--that Ray and I got our big scoop. Mr Breen, Ray's next door neighbour, fell while cutting his hedge in the front garden. Ray was an eyewitness. He raced around to my place immediately and we set about preparing the headline: Mr Breen Crashes to Earth, something along those lines. Then Beverly came rushing into my bedroom, crying. Mr Breen, she told us, had been taken away in an ambulance; he'd had a heart attack and they couldn't revive him; he was dead.
We were solemn and serious for a moment. We knew we had to print the news no matter what, but in 1950 in Neutral Bay, nobody spoke about death. It was as if it didn't happen--especially not in front of young people. Long before Mr Breen's death I'd done a school project on the Flying Doctor service that had involved surveying my friends and classmates: had any of them seen a dead body? None had. I was fascinated; hundreds people all around Neutral Bay, if my schoolmates were anything to go by, had never seen a dead body, never directly confronted death.
The next day we composed the headline for our fifth issue: MR BREEN DROPS DEAD IN FRONT YARD. It took up so much space that the story itself was only two sentences long. We doubled our normal print run, since we expected a lot of interest; the pages were hung up to dry on a fishing line strung across my bedroom. When the first run dried, Ray went off to drop them into letterboxes along Byrnes Avenue, onto shop counters, and under the front doors of our advertisers, while I waited for the next runs to dry so I could fold them. We printed the entire edition of thirty copies over a single weekend; by teatime on Sunday, about 7:30 PM, The Byrnes Avenue Times Number 5 was on the streets.
When we got home from school the following afternoon, all hell broke loose. It was an outrage, my mother told me; we were cruel, heartless, ill-mannered, and had probably broken the law! I was stunned to realise how deeply she was upset. Granny Verrills was too: she was stern and unforgiving for weeks. Ray and I were told to apologise to Mrs Breen. We went to see her, standing there with our mothers watching as she sobbed and accepted our apology. Our newspaper days were over, we were told. The other kids in the street were all warned to keep away from us and we weren't allowed out for a fortnight. My mother was angry for years about my 'death letter to the street.'
Another accomplice of mine at the time was someone I'll call Rick the Trick, an apprentice jockey who'd already, at the age of seventeen, been disbarred for fixing a race. He lived in Byrnes Avenue, just down from our place. We had birds in common: Rick had racing pigeons and was a paid-up member of a pigeon-racing club at Mosman. He knew a few boys who'd been in reform school, and was very proud of the fact that one of his older mates had been acquainted with the famous fence Tilly Divine. Rick was interested in breeding birds like canaries and African love birds and selling them to pet shops. He used to say 'How can anyone own a bird? They're part of nature. If anyone owns them, it's God, if He exists.' He'd say things like that. I was impressed. It made the kind of sense I wanted to hear.
Rick taught me how to trap wild finches. He knew how to make intricate traps that incorporated weight-measuring scales; when a double-bar or zebra finch landed on a little platform, the scales would gradually fall until the bird was lowered into a part of the trap it couldn't escape from. Rick would place a male finch in the cage and some millet seeds on the trapdoor, then set the cage in a clearing in the bush where he knew finches lived. We'd pedal out to Epping Forest on our bikes to set these traps, generally catching a dozen or more finches on each trip, then selling them to the pet shop in Crows Nest.
We were soon stealing breeding canaries from breeders' aviaries. Roller canaries and African love birds were worth quite a lot of money and the pet shops would buy them from us, no questions asked, for cash. I thought I might set myself up as a breeder and when I turned fifteen and had failed at school (as I surely would), could go into business from my own back yard. I was still drawing birds and had started keeping notebooks about them; I'd jot down notes about the birds I spotted wherever I went. I had long lists of the species I'd seen; each time I saw one that wasn't on my list, I'd enter it into my log and note the time and place.
One night I went with Rick while he raided a breeder's aviary in Mosman. I was supposed to keep watch while he stole the African love birds, but there was a shed in the back yard that warranted further investigation, and when I broke into it I discovered a pair of binoculars and a Zeiss camera: birdwatching equipment. I stuffed them into one of the sugar bags we used for carrying the birds. These bags let the bird breathe because of the loose weave, but quietened them down because they were dark inside. When we arrived back at Rick's and he opened my bag and found the camera and binoculars, he seemed angry I'd stolen them. He said they could bring us undone.
High school was confusing and disheartening. My marks weren't good enough to get me into North Sydney Boys High, where most of my friends went, so I was sent to Crows Nest Technical High School instead. Apart from the fact that I was channelling most of my energy into my adventures with Rick, I didn't like being surrounded by strangers and having a different teacher for every subject, and gradually slid behind, especially in maths. I bluffed for the first few months--though I knew it wouldn't work forever--by copying and getting help from Ray.
Because of the large class sizes, nobody noticed how little I was learning--except, of course, me. By the time the half-yearly exams started looming, I'd become so worried about my likely results that I was having trouble sleeping. I'd lie in bed in the early hours of the morning imagining how my mother would react when she saw my half-yearly report, and started waking up in the mornings with the headaches that have plagued me ever since. I'd daydream about burning down the school. I'd picture myself climbing in under the foundations and sitting there in the clammy dark, calculating details: how much kerosene it would take, how many loads of half-empty drums I'd have to carry there on my bike. I decided I'd strike the day I finished my exams, before they had a chance to mark them.
It was a totally different plan, however, that I acted on in about May that year. I remained obsessed by Ptilorus magnificus, but knew that if I failed my exams, as I surely would, I'd have next to no chance of ever getting my leaving certificate, of ever becoming an ornithologist, of ever getting closer to this incredible bird and others like it. Riflebirds were rare, not like road-peckers--I couldn't just go out and get one. Unless, of course, I stole the one they had at Taronga Park Zoo.
There was something I found appealing about the idea of committing a criminal act. It would be like a bank robbery, possibly national news--certainly local headlines--so I'd have to cover my tracks. I'd also have to be well-prepared. The nest of Ptilorus magnificus, I read in What Bird is That?, consisted of a 'shallow bowl of vine-tendrils and dead leaves, lined with fine stems and twigs and ornamented around the rim with portions of snake-skins.' I would have to make one. I'd also learned at the library that they wouldn't survive in captivity without a humid atmosphere; I'd have to provide that too. I bought some snake-skins from Ray Morgan and used them to line the nest I made with stuff scavenged from Primrose and Tunks Parks. As for the humidity--well, that year, Sunbeam had introduced a wonderful new frypan with a thermostat, the first of its kind, and I'd seen one through the kitchen window of one of the fiats whose drainpipes I scaled in search of squeakers. I calculated that six of them under a false floor, together with a drip arrangement made from a hose, should do the trick.
This particular block of flats--a fairly new one--turned out to be harbouring three of them, a bonanza! No one in the entire block seemed to be at home during the day; it was easy to climb up and help myself. I made do with just those three in the end. I rigged the hose so that it dripped into the frypans through tiny holes made with a nail and laid them out in a cage inside my pigeon coop--a cage within a cage, invisible from outside. It had a false floor that I'd levelled using Dad's tools and covered with straw from the stables.
It worked. It wasn't easy: it took more than a fortnight of trial and error. But finally I had just the steamy, subtropical atmosphere I wanted--the kind a Riflebird might survive in. The last touches were the mangoes and white mice. Riflebirds eat mainly insects, native fruits, and berries (hence the mangoes) but sometimes, in captivity, go off these and, so my bird book told me, prefer 'to kill mice and small birds and eat only the brains.'
I already knew the zoo as well as my own back yard, but decided to take a closer look at the Riflebird's cage. It turned out to be more strongly fortified than most at Taronga--glass (to keep in the humidity) reinforced with wire mesh. I realised I'd need tools: a hammer to smash the glass and some wirecutters and tin-snips to deal with the wire mesh. I also took a small crowbar. I put the tools in my fishing basket, tied it to my bike, and strapped a fishing rod alongside. This was camouflage: if you were out late at night and the cops asked you what you were doing, fishing was okay--it was a normal, healthy pursuit for a boy, especially around Taronga, which is surrounded by some of Sydney Harbour's best and most popular fishing spots. The afternoon before, I'd stashed a cockatoo cage wrapped in hessian in some bushes near the zoo so I wouldn't have to carry it through the streets at night, which would have looked suspicious. If all went according to plan, I'd be leaving the zoo just on dawn and be going home in daylight.
I arrived at the zoo about two in the morning and went down the back towards the quarantine area, where I knew I could climb the fence. I threw the tools and cockatoo cage over first, then followed. I knew there was a night watchman who patrolled every two hours, so I waited by the cages where the Riflebird was kept until he'd passed by on his round, then set to work. I didn't want to traumatise the bird (or draw attention to myself) by making a lot of noise, so I used the hessian to muffle the hefty whack I delivered to the glass with the hammer. But the glass barely registered the assault--it cracked a little and buckled slightly--and I panicked. I threw the hessian away and began hurling blow after blow at the glass, and after half an hour or more of furious bashing, did finally make enough of a hole to get at the mesh. But as soon as I felt the resistance it offered, I knew that my tin-snips stood no chance. Nothing short of bolt cutters would be likely to have an effect. There was nothing to do but clear out.
I went back over the fence and wiped my fingerprints off the tools with my tee-shirt, then hid them under some bushes. I hadn't given up. A couple of days later, I went back to the zoo in daylight to see what they'd done about the cage. It was surrounded by a kind of barrier, like the crime scene it was--empty. I was devastated, thinking they'd moved the bird to protect it from theft. It was probably in far north Queensland by now. But as I was leaving, via my access point down near the quarantine section, I heard the unmistakeable 'Ya-a-s-s' sound--'two sharp whistles' followed by 'harsh rasping notes,' as described by Neville W. Cayley--coming from one of the sheds. They'd moved it to protect it, not from theft, but from louts and vandals. The quarantine area wasn't known or easily accessible to the public and was therefore low security. My plan was back in action.
The following night, I took the cockatoo cage in, wrapped in its hessian cowl. I'd seen where the keys to the sheds were kept on previous expeditions, though I'd never before had a reason to use them. I couldn't believe my luck. I found the Riflebird without too much trouble in a hospital section in one of the sheds, where it was probably meant to recover from the trauma caused by my attack. It was in a special cage designed for easy veterinary access: it slid out on a little tray, right into my grateful arms. The cage fitted snugly into the cockatoo cage. As the sun came up, I was lugging it home. The Riflebird was mine.
I didn't tell Ray or Rick about the Riflebird. Ray wasn't all that interested in birds, and Rick would have seen it in terms of its cash value, not as a creature you'd want to study. Besides, he'd probably go off his brain if I told him I'd stolen it from the zoo, and the fewer who knew the better. I decided to keep it to myself.
The house my parents rented at Neutral Bay was behind a shopfront. Recently this had been used as a factory of some kind--I seem to remember copper coils and valves--but the owner had died suddenly and the factory had been shut down. Nevertheless, the power was still connected. The electric frypans were plugged into a long extension cord that ran from the Riflebird's cage inside my pigeon coop, down the side of the house, in through the factory door, to a socket in a no-longer-locked brick storeroom. It all worked beautifully, though at first the Riflebird wouldn't eat. I had to feed it with syringes I'd salvaged from the local doctor's rubbish. I gave it mixtures of fruit and crushed insects and after about a week it started eating mangoes on its own.
By now I had lots of birds: homing pigeons and racing pigeons, budgerigars, various kinds of finch (double-bar, zebra, firetail and Gouldian Painted Finches), quails, turtle-doves, cockatiels--some of them birds I'd stolen with Rick--and a kookaburra called Jack. I'd raised Jack from when he was a chick. He seemed to think I was his mother. I loved the idea of having the largest kingfisher in the world as a pet. lack would sit on my shoulder and follow me round the yard as I released my pigeons and hosed Dad's vegetable garden. One afternoon about two weeks after I'd brought the Riflebird home, he flew into the yard next door, where Mrs Bane lived--a cranky old lady who didn't like us. I jumped the fence and started calling Jack, who was perched in a frangipani tree, but Mrs Bane was outside in an instant, screaming at me to get off her garden. She looked completely baffled when Jack flew straight from the tree onto my shoulder.
The next day when I came home, there was a grim committee waiting for me. Mrs Bane had called the RSPCA and told them that I had a kookaburra with clipped wings. The RSPCA had come to investigate while I was out. My mother had invited them in and told them they were free to look around. When they searched through the cages and found the Paradise Riflebird, they rang the police, who also turned up to investigate. But they were less interested in the 'exotic bird' than in the canaries and African love birds; Rick and I had stolen them from a bloke who turned out to be a Mosman Councillor; he'd been pressuring the local detectives to find them. When the police asked my mother where I'd obtained them, she told them what she assumed to be true--that I'd caught them at Primrose Park.
By the time I got home, the police knew otherwise. A keeper from Taronga Park Zoo had been called in and had identified their stolen Ptilorus magnificus and the police were fairly confident they'd found the Councillor's missing love birds. They took me to North Sydney Police Station, where some detectives asked me questions. I told them I wanted to make a full confession--and did, too: I gave them all the details, as one of them typed it up, about how I stole the Riflebird, as well as all the others, and spilled the beans on Rick.
This was the first of a series of confessions I felt compelled to make to various detectives over the next decade of my life. There was something very satisfying about it, and I remember signing the finished document with some pride, not because of the facts it related but because--with the assistance of the police, who had added the embellishments of their own unique jargon--I'd produced an official-looking document that would be read and taken seriously in court.
It was two weeks before my case was heard. I spent them in the Yasma shelter for delinquent boys under the age of twelve. This was the first time I had been taken from my parents and placed in an institution, but I remember very little of it beyond neat lawns and concrete yards and a stretch of utter darkness in my head. There was a dormitory too, but this is hazy. My mother and father came with me when I was finally taken to court, where I was charged with break, enter, and steal--not just for the birds, but also for the camera and binoculars they'd found at Rick's place (he and I agreed they'd been taken by me) and a number of other items I knew nothing about but took the blame for.
Because of Rick's age, he was regarded as having led me astray. My mother insists it was the other way around, though when the magistrate at my hearing asked me whether I had anything to say, I told him: 'How can anyone steal a bird, Your Honour? They belong to God.' His Honour stared at me stony-faced before frightening the life out of me by giving me a six-month sentence to Mittagong Boys Home. It was through a kind of haze that I heard him tell me that my sentence was suspended provided I accept a bond to be of good behaviour for eighteen months.
I went back to school, but my heart wasn't in it, and my mind wasn't on homework. I started hanging out at my former school, Neutral Bay Primary, at night and on weekends, looking for squeakers. I knew the buildings well; I climbed the drainpipes and walked across the slate roof looking for pigeons, stuffing the squeakers into my jumper and taking them home to my coop. On one of these raids, I climbed onto a ledge and got into the school through a window with a broken latch, then walked down a corridor, idly exploring. I came to the staff room, where there was a gestetner copier sitting on a bench. I'd seen it before, when I'd helped print the school newsletter; one of the teachers had shown me how to work it. But this time I saw it in a different light: this was exactly what was needed, I thought, for relaunching The Byrnes Avenue Times.
I was inspired. We could rename the paper and expand our print run with a machine like this; we could strike back at the prudery of parents. We could do a big expose on the hypocrisy of Byrnes Avenue--and an in-depth story on Death that spelled out in gruesome detail just what happened to the bodies of your neighbours after they were buried. I raced back to Byrnes Avenue, straight to Ray's house. We had to have the gestetner, I told him. We had to go back there and get it. He seemed a bit doubtful and muttered stuff about its weight, the problem of getting it home, and the killer--where would we put it? Our mothers would spot it straight away; even if they didn't, they'd know about it once it got going. I let these objections wash over me while I continued talking up the idea, listing the names of businesses that might be prepared to advertise if the newspaper look professional enough and provided we could offer the large print runs gestetners could produce.
Ray and I both had paper runs for the local community newspaper. It was given away free. We knew it worked on advertising and that what attracted advertisers was distribution; we were already being paid to do the rounds of local letterboxes, so that was the first step taken care of. Then I hit on a solution to the problem of where to put the gestetner. There was a locked shed in our backyard that belonged to the empty shop; Ray and I both had access to it; we'd found a way in through the skylight. The windows had been painted over and it was impossible for even mothers to see inside. Once you were in there you could open the back door, which had an internal lock.
This place had a special hold on my imagination. Years ago, it had been a secret hangar for the Black Hawks, even though none of us had been inside. In those days the shopfront was occupied by a man with a strange-sounding name who rarely spoke and, when he did, had a thick foreign accent; even then, the windows of the shed were painted over in matte black and the shed itself was always locked. It was a mysterious, alluring zone as far back as I recall. I decided it would be the perfect headquarters for our publishing venture--and even called it that out loud, enjoying the sound of the word: 'Headquarters.' We'd take the gestetner in there at night. But how would we get it from the school to the shed? By billycart, how else? We still had our racing billycarts: low-slung hard wood frames and wooden axles borne on wheels made from big ball-bearing bushes we'd swiped from this very shed.
It took a week to talk Ray into helping. We'd go to the school late on Sunday afternoon so we could check things out while pretending to race our billycarts up and down the street outside. Then, after dark, I'd scale the drainpipe, get into the staff room through the broken-latched window, come down the stairs, and let Ray in through the front door. He'd be waiting with our billycarts behind the toilets.
Everything went as planned. The following Sunday evening, just after dark, we were inside Neutral Bay Primary School, with the front doors shut behind us. It was eerie being inside those dark school corridors, passing by our old classrooms and climbing the still-familiar stairs to the staff room, haunted by ghosts. I'd brought along a small torch that we were careful not to shine above window level. The gestetner was on a table; it took both of us to slide it off. We carried it into the hallway and put it on the floor. While we're here, I suggested, why not look for other stuff we might need--reams of paper, a typewriter, ink? This is how my plans always work: I aim for the main symbolic components, then fill in the details as I go.
I could see by the look on Ray's face that I'd lost him. 'Let's leave it,' he said, 'let's just go before we get caught.' I was suddenly furious. I told him he should have the guts to help me finish what I'd started, that I was going to drag the gestetner out of there no matter what. I was determined to get it to Headquarters. I may have let him think I was about to hit him; it wouldn't have been the first time. In the end he helped me.
We wrestled the machine downstairs and onto my billycart, then went clattering out through the school gates and rattling down the road. We both noticed a woman staring at us from a balcony over the sandwich shop opposite, but she didn't seem too worried--she just went back inside and pulled her blinds. We, too, were preoccupied. We had to stop at every kerb and take the gestetner off, then put it back on again, as we trundled the few blocks home.
When we got to my place, Ray refused to come inside. He decided he'd had enough. I must have made a bit of a racket trying to wrestle the gestetner into place my self, because my mother called out to ask what I was doing--I told her I was looking after squeakers--but I did finally get it into the shed and mounted on its bench.
The next day Ray wouldn't talk to me at school. I ran home after classes and got my hosing duties out of the way and when the coast was clear, climbed into Headquarters through the skylight. It was a dramatic moment, or I told myself it should be, as I raised the hessian bags to reveal the gestetner--a machine, I thought, that could change the world, if I only I knew how to make it work. I knew how to operate the machine--I'd need a typewriter, stencils, ink, paper and probably lots of other stuff I hadn't yet considered--but that was just the mechanics. I'd also need to be able to write like a journalist, sell advertising space like a salesman, manage the distribution, and so on. Maybe I could co-opt Rick; maybe we could create some kind of pigeon club newsletter for the pigeon-fancying residents of Neutral Bay. I vaguely remembered seeing a Racing Pigeon News on his kitchen bench when he showed me his prize-winning birds. Lots of possibilities raced through my mind, but they all evaporated just as quickly, like pipe-dreams I didn't have the means to realise. Without Ray, I felt flustered and overwhelmed.
I sat there in the semi-darkness staring at stolen goods: that's what my printing press was so far as the residents of Neutral Bay were concerned. Maybe Ray was right; maybe his vote of no-confidence meant something. I thought of my good behaviour bond, about the fact that I'd involved my cousin, not in some wonderful escapade and not in some crusade that would expose the hypocrisy of our death-fearing parents and neighbours, but in the possibility of facing criminal charges of break, enter, and steal.
A few days later the police came to school. I was called to the Headmaster's office. The detective I was introduced to already knew me; I knew him too. He was the hard man in charge of cleaning up juvenile delinquency around the Northern Beaches. We knew him as Rockhopper; he didn't seem to like me. The Headmaster said there was an eyewitness who'd seen me and another boy carrying something away from the school last Sunday evening. They knew who the other boy was too. Their witness could identify us both.
I took Rockhopper by surprise and confessed. The Headmaster seemed almost impressed by my ability to face my crime squarely, but started to grow agitated when I corrected the detective, explaining that I didn't actually 'break and enter,' I just climbed in through an available window. The Headmaster accused me of 'impudence and outright rudeness.'
It was all over; I'd broken my bond. I decided I didn't care. I put the consequences out of my mind and focussed my attention on my narrative abilities, delivering a detailed confession to Rockhopper and his partner down at North Sydney Police Station, my second such document in less than six months. My mother seemed to be more upset about my influence on Ray than about the crime I'd committed, and didn't seem at all sympathetic to my 'desperate need' for a gestetner. But because he'd never been in trouble before and his father could afford a solicitor, and because I was happy to take the blame, Ray was let off with a caution. I was charged and locked up.
I remember my second period of remand much more vividly than the first. I was held at Albion Street Boys' Shelter for a month--probably the most Dickensian of all the institutions I've experienced over the course of my life. The building was over a hundred years old and had never been renovated except by the hundreds of coats of paint applied, and continually reapplied, by inmates. The cells used for solitary confinment were below street level and were frequently occupied. The toilets were apalling: no matter how many gallons of phenyle they splashed randomly about, the ablution facilities stank of over a century of stressed boys' urine, now infused through the coarse concrete floors and the turptentine beams scarred with years of obscene graffiti.
The job I was given had been handed down over generations: scraping mouldy paint from the pungent walls of the dormitory with a blunt scraper. Because, of the rising damp, the paint began peeling off almost as soon as it was applied; it was then scraped back and repainted, and so on. This meant that the inmates always had something to do, though the task was made more difficult by the dimness of the place, into which no sunlight ever seeped. The only light came from weak lightbulbs encased in cages of thick wire mesh. The Child Welfare Officers were brutish and strict.
In the dormitory the beds were so close you'd bruise your knees or shins just about every morning when the bell rang. You had to jump up and stand by the foot of your bed, and any boy who was slow getting up got a clip around the ears to hurry him along. There was no educational activity of any sort and our exercise consisted of marching back and forth in the small cobbled yard. Many of the boys were psychotic, with a twisted hatred of everyone and everything. Some were Wards of the State and had no families at all, others were abused children who had become so institutionalised they'd hack at their wrists if there was so much as a rumour of them being released.
I was treated with contempt by most of them. I didn't understand why until a boy I befriended towards the end of my time there told me that the others despised me because of the way I spoke. When I asked him what he meant, he elaborated: I talked like a queer. This came as a bit of a shock. Years later I realised that it was the sibilance of my voice they found fishy, and the way I flapped about like a bird and perched rather than sat or stood, but at the time I took it to be a class thing and blamed my northside upbringing--the Verrills influence. I'd never given much thought before to the sounds or body language that came naturally to me, but the others certainly noticed.
A few days after being taken to the Shelter I was involved in a fight; when it looked like I might be a match for the boy who had punched me first, his friend stepped in and I ended up being bashed and kicked in a corner by the two of them. The officers let this continue for ten minutes or so before breaking it up and throwing us all into solitary for twenty-four hours on bread and water. This wasn't long enough for me to understand the cruelty involved in solitary confinement. In fact, on this particular occasion, I liked it. The worst thing about Albion Street was that there was absolutely no place to hide; at least when I was in solitary I had privacy. I was left alone.
When I appeared before the magistrate--the same one as last time--he invoked the terms of my bond and gave me the maximum possible sentence: eighteen months. Two days later, my mother came to visit me to tell me that the following day I was to be transferred to Mount Penang Training School for Boys. I was going to find out the hard way, she said, the meaning of my crimes. I was ashamed to have her see me in Albion Street and couldn't wait for the visit to end.
The next morning I was on my way to Gosford, but not before I'd been subjected to a routine dose of public humiliation. I felt extremely conspicuous and embarrassed walking through Central Station with my right wrist handcuffed--like I was some sort of crim--to the left wrist of a Child Welfare Officer. He was a broken sort of man who wasn't as hard as the ones at Albion Street. He took the handcuffs off once we were on the train and I promised him not to attempt an escape. He told me I seemed different to the usual sorts of boys he escorted. We were travelling on a steam train and as we headed down the line from Mount Ku-ring-gai I stuck my head out the window to take a look at the Hawkesbury River. A piece of cinder got lodged in my eye; I pulled back quickly, but had tears streaming down my cheek for the rest of the trip, as the tiny piece of cinder scratched and scratched at the surface of my eyeball. The Welfare man tried to comfort me by offering me one of his cheese sandwiches. He kept on saying, in his broken way: 'It's for the best son, it's for the best.'
Robert Adamson was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1943 and grew up in Neutral Bay and on the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales. From 1970 to 1985 he edited New Poetry magazine, and in 1988, with Juno Gemes, he established Paper Bark Press. His latest publications are Mulberry Leaves: Selected Poems (Paper Bark Press) and Reading The River (Bloodaxe). His autobiography, from which this piece has been excerpted, will be published in 2004 by Text Publishing (Melbourne).