Books: Unreliable Memoirs — A Prong in Peril |
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Unreliable Memoirs — A Prong in Peril


Thus I served out my remaining years at school — as a clown. It never made me especially popular, but at least I avoided unpopularity. At the end of each school year it was a bespectacled owl called Schratah who got tied to the flagpole and pelted with cream cakes. The most I can say for myself is that I didn’t throw any of the cakes. But I can’t pretend that I wasn’t glad somebody else was being picked on instead of me. I would have found victimization hard to bear. Why Schratah didn’t commit suicide was a constant mystery to me. It wasn’t, after all, that they hated him for being Jewish and a foreigner. They hated him for himself.

Never shooting up with the suddenness I had been promised, I never stopped gradually growing either, until eventually it dawned on me that I was as tall as everyone else, with the necessary exception of the athletic heroes. Still checking up in the mirror, I came to realize that my neck was now if anything thicker than my head, although the back of my skull still protruded instead of sloping forward like Superman’s. There had also been a mildly encouraging improvement in the behaviour of my tool. After prolonged immersion it still shrivelled up to the size of a jellybean, but otherwise — although I was in no danger of standing on the end of it — it was at least visible. Indeed nowadays it seemed always to be in one of two conditions: erect and semi-erect. The Smithers family had moved hurriedly away, amid rumours that Milo had finally and irrevocably Got Laurel Into Trouble. It didn’t occur to me, or probably even to Milo, that such things could be attempted with any other girl except her. Ordinary girls could be kissed and fiddled with but there was no question of Going All The Way. Australia was still one of the most strictly moralistic societies in the Western world. As a natural corollary, rape was endemic. Every day and ten times on Sundays, the tabloid newspapers carried stories of young men being sentenced to life imprisonment for rape. Most of them seemed to deserve it, but sometimes you wondered. I was especially impressed by the front-page stories about a young photographer who had taken twelve models down into the National Park near Heathcote and raped them all. Apparently he rendered them helpless with a roll of Elastoplast, releasing them one at a time from bondage in order to slake his fell desires. It occurred to me that either the young man or the Elastoplast must have had magic properties. But if the same thing ever occurred to the judge and jury, there was no hint of it. The rapist was taken to Goulbourn jail and locked up to begin paying the slow price of his depravity. He’s probably still there now.

Margaret, in the next street, would let me kiss her. Her mouth seemed to be always full of water and she had a way of bumping your teeth with hers, so that you were spitting chips of enamel afterwards, but she felt round and warm to hold, if you didn’t mind the dribble. Jan, across the street, was pointedly eager to be kissed and even mildly interfered with, but her eyes crossed so badly that you kept wondering if she had seen something in the distance — a police car, for example. Shirley, down the street, was the most exciting of the local girls. At spin-the-bottle parties she was the number-one target. She had a fully developed figure and a marvellous hot, yielding mouth. I spent half an hour kissing her one night, pinning her against the wall in the driveway of her house. I had to go home in a running crouch, like a black-tracker. Shirley was so passionate that she might have cooperated if one of us had seriously tried to seduce her. But nobody our age had the nerve. It was an older boy from another district who had the privilege of taking Shirley’s virginity, which must have felt as clean and crisp as the first bite of a sweet apple. His name was Barry Tate. Sensationally in command of his own car — a black Hillman Minx — he came booming down the street each evening after another easy day’s work doing whatever it was he did. He had a concave chest and a rich, multi-coloured collection of pimples, but there was no getting past the fact that he also had his own car. He would take Shirley away in it to park down among the dunes at Doll’s Point or Ramsgate. Somewhere out there, a long way beyond our envious reach, she must have yielded him her all.

Apart from Boys’ Brigade, in which I became a less and less prominent participant, my church activities took up a steadily greater proportion of my spare time, principally because there were girls involved. I had one case of the amorous vision after another. Once I had graduated into long trousers, I even felt it possible to translate such adoration into real acquaintanceship. Christine Ballantine, alas, was beyond my hopes. She was almost beyond even my dreams. Short in the leg but unbelievably lovely in the face, she looked like the top half of a Botticelli angel. I burned tunnels in the air adoring her from afar. I even slogged through church twice in an evening, just to look at her as she sat in the choir. This was no mean tribute to her beauty, since the second sitting of church included a full-scale sermon from the Rev. C. Cummings Campbell. Quoting liberally from A Man Called Peter and various religious savants with three names each, the Rev. Campbell would unload from the pulpit a seemingly fathomless cargo of clichés. Meanwhile I drank in Christine’s beauty, its every movement of lip and eyelid more pleasing to God than anything the Rev. Campbell would ever say.

Little Sandra McDougall I actually managed to touch. She was a tiny, sweet-looking blonde with a deep, grating voice like Mr Chifley, the late lamented leader of the Labor Party. The standard heavy teasing informed her of my love. With shyness on my side and understandable reluctance on hers, we got to the hand-holding stage. Unfortunately my sinuses, not yet cured at that time, ruined everything. No sooner had I picked up her white-gloved hand than I had to put it down again in order to blow my nose in whatever section of my sodden handkerchief had been used least. Behind the veil depending from her frangipani-bedecked hat, her large blue eyes would shut in what I hoped was modest sympathy, but suspected to be disgust. Eventually she took to tapping her foot while I honked and hooted. Finally she turned away.

But later on, with my health improved, the end of school approaching and some recognizable version of late adolescence approaching along with it, I began to find some of the older girls not entirely averse to being fumbled with. This was a revelation. That a mad girl like Laurel might do everything made it seem more likely, not less, that ordinary well-brought-up girls would do nothing. And yet here they were, letting you put your hand on their breasts or even — in advanced cases — between their thighs. It was a kind of warfare, with no-go areas and free-fire zones. Breast fondling could go on for some time, but when it noticeably led to a deeper stage of heavy breathing then it had to stop. Thigh stroking could go on for only a short time at one go, although the hand was allowed back again at a decent interval after removal. A really determined assault might have burst through all these conventions but I would probably have been scared to death if they had suddenly ceased to be operative. Carol Pascoe, for example, didn’t seem to know the rules. There was always a race to take her home after Fellowship meetings or socials. A few times I won it, usually by booking her up a week in advance. She had no inclination to remove the exploratory hand or even, as I was stunned to discover, the exploratory finger, which could work its will unchecked until numbness set in, leaving you with the disturbing sensation of having only nine fingers left. Meanwhile Carol would be bumping and grinding with her mouth open and her eyes closed. It was vaguely frightening, although one of course pretended otherwise. A dozen of us, comparing notes, loudly agreed that Carol was the Best to Take Home. Reg Hook showed us the condom that he planned to use on her. He had a detailed plan to dispel what was left of her innocence. As Reg later recounted it, the plan — involving himself, Carol, a blanket and a Doll’s Point sand dune at midnight — unfolded with ridiculous ease. In a trice Carol was lying there, sobbing with need. Unfortunately Reg was under the impression that you had to unroll the condom before putting it on. Since the rest of us would have done the same in his place, we were hardly in a position to point out his mistake.

Eventually a Scottish immigrant boy called Dorber gave Carol what she wanted. Thick of accent, repellent of epidermis and wise in the ways of the Glasgow slums, Dorber was an unlikely member of Fellowship or indeed of any organization more benign than the Parachute Regiment. But then he was not in search of religious instruction. He was out to use what we had been wasting. Our idea of the successful climax to an exciting evening was to limp home with a throbbing crotch and a finger smelling like a fishing smack. Dorber’s ambitions were less oblique. He wanted everything, and in several cases, to our flabbergasted disapproval, got it. Still, at least I had some tangible evidence that I was normally endowed. The only problem was to find the opportunity, courage and purpose which would allow of the endowment being put to use. The problem was almost solved for ever during a fortnight away at a National Fitness camp somewhere up in the bush. I attended this camp as part of a Sydney Tech contingent which included Griffiths and others among the freaks and wastrels. I never bothered to find out at the time precisely what National Fitness was or what aims it was supposed to pursue, but in retrospect I can see that it was a reasonably benevolent outfit promoting the concept of mens sana in corpore sano on what it imagined to be an international scale. The camp, constructed along military lines, consisted of weatherboard huts scattered through the bush and linked up with winding paths. There were several hundred boys present, including a hefty representation from Nauru Island. So black they looked blue, these were some of the best-looking boys in creation. The one to whom all the others deferred, although never with servility, was Detudame, son of the Chief of Nauru.

Nowadays, Detudame is chief himself. I saw him on television recently and was pleased to note that he had acquired a weight problem closely resembling my own. At the time I am talking about he was already pretty bulky, but it was all dark muscle, subtly catching tangential light like polished hardwood. His retinue called him Det for short. Within minutes we all did. He had Napoleonic charisma combined with infinite charm. Through the black and white crowd that surrounded him at all times I snatched glimpses from a distance, awed by the amusement that spontaneously came into being around him and which he could silence with a frown. He and the Nauruans played a strip-tease game in which the object was to keep your clothes while all around you were losing theirs. While he was doing the same to you, you whipped your hands suddenly from behind your back and confronted your opponent with any one of three symbols: scissors, paper, rock. Scissors cut paper but broke on rock. Paper covered rock but was cut by scissors. If you lost, you had to remove an article of clothing, even if it was the last thing you had on. When Det lost — which he seldom did, being a mind-reader — he stripped just as willingly as his subjects. But on the one occasion when he was forced down as far as his underpants, he insisted on going behind a bush. While his entourage rolled around in hysterics, all we saw was the royal Y-fronts being waved in the air. Thus the future monarch’s dignity was preserved. It will be apparent that I am talking about the kind of brother I would have liked to have, and I suppose miss even now.

This is a generous appreciation on my part, considering that Det and his friends brought me to the edge of catastrophe. One night we were playing Hunt the Lantern. I forget the rules. Probably I have repressed them. The relevant facts are simple. I was fleeing at full tilt through the pitch dark on a zigzag path between the gum trees. Det and a couple of his more carnivorous-looking pals were after me. Equipped with excellent night vision and the ability to run silently even over dead leaves, they were bad dreams straight out of lames Fenimore Cooper. Suddenly I heard Det’s voice shouting at me to look out. I thought it was a ruse and crammed on more speed. With stunning abruptness some kind of silent landmine blew me straight up in the air. The stars raced past my eyes in parallel streaks, like the tips of porcupine quills. I landed sitting down, having performed the best part of a double forward somersault in the piked, or wrecked, position. Det and his friends arrived, vaulting unerringly over the barbed-wire fence that I had just tried to run through.

The fence had had three strands. The top strand had caused a certain amount of damage across my lower chest. The bottom strand had torn a few holes in my upper shins and knees. The middle strand had apparently done nothing more than tear my khaki shorts across the crotch. When they got me to the first-aid centre it was soon agreed that the shock was a worse threat than the cuts. The cuts were treated with the mandatory daubing of Acriflavine, tufts of cotton wool being left on the wounds so that scabs would form neatly under the gauze bandages. The shock was treated by wrapping me in a blanket and leaving me there to spend the night. When everyone was gone I reached up, switched the light back on and snuck a look under my shorts. I had discouraged all attempts to remove them, but it couldn’t be denied that a dull ache was emanating from that area. What I had felt, however, paled beside what I now saw. My tonk was sliced open on one side to what looked like a mortal depth. It was as if the captain of the Titanic, a few minutes after the encounter with the iceberg, had been lowered by the heels and given a sudden underwater close-up of the trouble he was in. The wound wasn’t bleeding. It was just gaping. Hurriedly I covered it up again and stared at the ceiling, simultaneously pretending I hadn’t seen what I had seen and wondering desperately what to do.

I chose to do nothing. In the event this proved to be the right decision, but it was prompted by nothing except cowardice. The mere thought of a doctor putting stitches in my tossle made me cross and uncross my legs very rapidly — or would have done, had I dared move them. So for days on end I kept my secret, snatching a look at the disaster area as often as I could. It was inspiring to see how quickly the antibodies rallied to the task. It was like a speeded-up film. Rapidly the whole area turned bright white, then pink. The gash itself, after first filling up with dark blood, tightened into a crisp scab that clicked satisfactorily when I tapped it with a fingernail. Before the remaining week of camp was over, it was obvious that my much-abused saveloy was out of danger. Even at this time, this was a relief. Looking back, I almost faint at the sheer range of implication. Another quarter of an inch on those barbs and my subsequent love life would have consisted entirely of bad scenes from The Sun Also Rises.