Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Very Well: Alone |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Very Well: Alone


The last week of basic training was spent on bivouac at Singleton. The whole battalion camped out in the donga. Our company was instructed to storm and fortify the top of a mountain. My Pioneer platoon was ordered to dig a command post out of the virgin rock. Since there was no dynamite, we had to do it with picks and shovels. After six days the command post was three inches deep. If the battalion had been commanded by leprechauns it would have been an ideal headquarters. I didn’t care. I could still taste Lilith. Periodically there was a tremendous hullabaloo as a pair of RAAF Sabre jets went past below us. They were pretending to strafe the infantry who were fitfully shooting blanks at each other down in the valley.

Around the campfire at night I was the expert on sex. I was still a long way away from learning that the main difference between an adult and an adolescent is the ability to keep secrets. I betrayed Lilith dreadfully, even to the extent of telling them her real name. But everybody else was too drunk to notice. The mortar platoon kept us in fresh meat. Accidentally on purpose they blew a cow to smithereens. One moment it was grazing contentedly and the next it was spread all over the landscape. Every platoon got a smithereen each. We roasted it over the fire and washed it down with wine bought in bulk from a vineyard in the next valley. The wine was so raw that it left your tongue looking like a crocodile-skin handbag.

A fat soldier called Malouf had stolen my position as chief joker. He sang a hundred choruses of ‘Old King Cole’ and fainted into the fire. But in my new role of sex expert I had enough confidence to serve out my time. It was steep up that mountain. We slept under groundsheets rigged as pup tents. It was advisable to pitch your tent in close contact with the trunk of a stout tree, otherwise you could end up as part of an avalanche. With my feet sticking out of one end of the tent and my head out of the other I looked straight up at the stars. There were stars between the stars. The mountain air was unmixed, as in Dante’s Paradise: you could see to the edge of the universe. The Southern Cross was so brilliant that it dripped. You could have picked it out of the sky and hung it around a young nun’s neck. I had never felt more alive. From miles away below came the occasional snapping of dry sticks and what sounded like the muffled howl of a wombat being raped. It was Ronnie, Banzai-charging the sentries.

Buoyant with well-being, I returned to civilian life. Between the top of Margaret Street and our front gate my mother came to meet me. I knew that look, so my mental defence mechanisms were already going into action when she told me that Gary Meldrum had been killed the day before racing his motorbike at Mount Druitt. I learned the details later on. He had been leading a pack of AIS 7Rs when his telescopic front fork collapsed on a bend. The bike went up in the air with its throttle stuck open and when it came back down again he was lying underneath it. The chain cut his throat and he died instantly.

I walked my mother inside and made her a cup of tea. I didn’t feel anything at all except a sense that I was falling upwards from the past. It was all going away from me. I could feel a vacuum plucking at the back of my shirt. After the funeral service at Kogarah Presbyterian Church I cried noisily in the street but it was the kind of reflex that would have pleased the Sydney University Psychology Department, since it was unconnected with anything going on in my head. I began to suspect that I might have nothing in there except scar tissue, or else a couple of loose wires that should have been touching each other but weren’t.

Being a mother’s boy is a condition that can be fully cured only by saying goodbye to mother. Nevertheless I did not entirely revert. I was soon having my bed made for me again, but I managed to keep something of my new-found independence. Justifying callousness as necessary for survival, I did pretty much what I pleased. The rest of my university course was a steadily accelerating story of possibilities explored and studies neglected. Lilith and I were just friends again, alas. On the other hand she had spoiled me for little girls who, in the charming jargon of that time, did not come across. So I left Sally Vaughan in tears, went in search of something less complicated, and had my wishes granted often enough to ensure that the moment of real involvement in somebody else’s life went on being put off into the indeterminate future, whose outline looked as hazy as ever. All that I could be sure of was that some form of writing would play a part in it.

I went on to become literary editor of honi soit, with a page of my own to look after every week. Almost invariably I filled it with my own productions. Some of them were so pretentious that even today I can’t recall their tone without emitting an involuntary yell of anguish. But a certain fluency accrued from the sheer exercise, and inevitably a certain notoriety accrued along with it. There was a shimmering before my eyes. Narcissus was beginning the long process of getting his reflection in focus.

The need to be approved of aided my progress, if progress it was. I never stopped admiring the talent of Spencer and Keith Cameron, but gradually at first, and then quicker all the time, my own activities took a different course. The desire to amuse overcame the desire to shock. By my second year I was already writing a good proportion of the Revue, and by my third year I was writing almost half of it. Against my will but according to my instincts, I recognized that when I mimicked Spencer’s mannerisms I made no connection with the audience, and that when what I wrote was my own idea, the audience laughed. I tried to hold them in contempt for that, but could not quite succeed. So I tried to hold myself in contempt instead, but could not quite succeed at that either. It was already occurring to me that in these matters practice might be wiser than theory.

If only everything had been clearer. If I had read Sartre at that stage I might have learned that the obligation to create one’s life from day to day was an inescapable responsibility. Luckily I read Camus instead. Here was my first mature literary enthusiasm: instead of merely having my prejudices confirmed, I was disabused of them. Camus offered consolation by telling you that yours was not the only personality which felt as if it was lying around in pieces — every life felt like that from the inside. More importantly, he offered a moral vision that went beyond the self. ‘Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.’ I looked at a sentence like that until my eyes grew tired. It wasn’t poetry. So why was it so poetic? How did he do it? And where could I buy a coat like his? I tilted my head to the same angle, practised lighting a Disque Bleu so that the flame atmospherically lit the lower half of my face and planned to die in a car crash.

The immature enthusiasms continued along with the mature ones. I went crazy for Ezra Pound. I unhesitatingly incorporated the manic self-confidence of his critical manner into my own prose. Since my ignorance far outstripped even his, I was lucky not to fall further under his spell. Once again instinct was wiser than thought. Even when I was drunk with awe at the sheer incomprehensibility of the Cantos, I was simultaneously delighting in the clear, strong, sane talent of MacNeice. When I came to read Yeats I soon saw what real grandeur was, and realized that Pound’s grandiloquence was not it.

The Great Gatsby helped teach me what a real prose style was like. I read it over and over. Even at that early stage I could see that if it came to a choice between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I would take Fitzgerald — not just because his cadences were more seductive, but because he was less sentimental. I never let it come to the choice, preferring to admire them both. I went mad on the Americans generally. E. E. Cummings made me drunk. Mencken’s sceptical high spirits seemed to me the very tones of ebullient sanity. It went without saying that there was no question of being interested in Australian culture as such. Nobody had given it a thought in the last twenty years.

Having finished reading Keith Cameron’s library, I started reading the university library, which was named after someone called Fisher. In those days Fisher Library was housed in a building which looked like the little brother of Milan Cathedral and formed part of the Quad. But even when I was wearing a groove up and down the library stairs I was always careful not to read anything on the course. If the syllabus said Beaumont and Fletcher, I read Mencken and Nathan. If it said Webster and Ford, I read Auden and Isherwood. Life would have been so much simpler had I done what I was asked that today I never stop wondering why I didn’t. Two or three of the English lecturers were of world class. I assiduously contrived never to learn anything about Old English. I faked my way through that part of the course by memorizing the cribs. It was only my ability to conjure a fluent essay out of thin air that got me admitted to the third year of the honours school. That, and the incidental benefit of reading Shakespeare morning, noon and night. There, for once, I got the horse before the cart.

Psychology I gave up at the end of the second year, just before it gave up me. When it came to statistical analysis, I was helpless. A deep spiritual aversion to the whole subject might also have had something to do with it. Not even Freud appealed. I could see the poetic fecundity of his imagination, but as an actor in a real-life Oedipus play I felt free to question his teleological sophistry. Undoubtedly, my father having mysteriously been killed, I had inherited exclusive rights to my mother’s favours. But to suggest that either of the two survivors had in any way desired such an outcome was patently ludicrous. I got through the psychology examinations on a ‘post’ — i.e., a viva voce after having written a borderline paper. I would not have been granted even the ‘post’ if it had not been for my clinical case study. During the course of the year we had to assemble an elaborate case study of some real person. My clinical study was little Toni Turrell, sexy Shirley’s sister. Five minutes into the Wechsler-Bellevue intelligence test I realized that little Toni was a hopeless moron who would yield up the same personality profile as a block of wood. So I excused her from any further tests and cooked up the whole thing. It was, if I may say so, a brilliantly convincing job. ‘Toni: A Case Study’ was my first attempt at a full-length fictional work. (This book is the second.)

Anthropology also moved to a natural demise at the end of the second year. It was only a two-year subject anyway. Having absorbed the contents of Frigging Around in Fiji and regurgitated them at the appropriate moment, I was rewarded with the minimum pass. Education I, which I sat in my second year, I failed outright. I can see now that this result was an instinctively correct estimate of the subject’s importance, but at the time it fitted in with a familiar pattern. Since my mind, or at any rate my heart, was already on some other path, I was not as worried as I might have been about the growing evidence that my attention was wandering from my work. But for my mother the whole meandering dereliction was all too disturbingly recognizable, especially now that I was more often arriving home early the next morning instead of late that night, and then late the next night instead of in the early morning.

Between my second and third years I tried to recoup my position in the parental eye by getting a job in the long vacation. I was accepted as a trainee bus conductor. The buses were green Leyland diesels operating out of Tempe depot. The easy routes went overland to places like Bexley and Drummoyne. The difficult routes went through the city. I found the job fiercely demanding even on a short route with a total of about two dozen passengers. I pulled the wrong tickets, forgot the change and wrote up my log at the end of each trip in a way that drew hollow laughter from the inspectors. The inspectors were called Kellies, after Ned Kelly, and were likely to swoop at any time. A conductor with twenty years’ service could be dismissed if a Kelly caught him accepting money without pulling a ticket. If a hurrying passenger pressed the fare into your hand as he leapt out of the back door, it was wise to tear a ticket and throw it out after him. There might be a plainclothes Kelly following in an unmarked car.

Days of fatigue and panic taught me all over again that I am very bad at what I am not good at. We worked a split shift with four hours off in the middle of the day. Effectively this meant that we were on the job twelve hours a day, since there was nothing else to do with the four hours off except hang around the depot. I got so tired I used to sleep the whole four hours on a bench in the billiard room. Once I conked out with a lighted Rothmans in my hand. I dreamed of a bushfire burning down Jannali school with Miss Turnbull still inside it. I woke to face a cloud of smoke. The whole front of my shirt had burned away. The billiard room was full of conductors and drivers who had been placing bets on when I would wake up. The white nylon singlet I had been wearing under the shirt was scorched the colour of strong tea.

I lasted about three weeks all told, which meant that I hardly got past probation. The routes through town were more than the mind could stand even in the off-peak hours. In peak hours the scene was Dantesque. All the buses from our depot and every other depot would be crawling nose to tail through town while the entire working population of Sydney fought to get aboard. It was hot that summer: 100°F every day. Inside the bus it was 30° hotter still. Hammering up Pitt Street in the solid traffic at about ten miles an hour, the bus was like the Black Hole of Calcutta on wheels. It was so jammed inside that my feet weren’t touching the floor. I couldn’t blink the sweat out of my eyes. There was no hope of collecting any fares. At each stop it was all I could do to reach the bell-push that signalled the driver to close the automatic doors and get going. I had no way of telling whether anybody had managed to get off or on. My one object was to get that bus up Pitt Street. Passengers fainted and just hung there — there was nowhere for them to fall. The air tasted as if it had just been squirted out of the safety valve of a pressure cooker full of cabbage. In those circumstances I was scarcely to blame. I didn’t even know where we were, but I guessed we were at the stop just before Market Street. I pressed the bell, the doors puffed closed, and the bus surged forward. There were shouts and yells from down the back, but I thought they were the angry cries of passengers who had not got on. Too slowly I realized that they were emanating from within the bus. The back set of automatic doors had closed around an old lady’s neck as she was getting on. Her head, wearing a black veiled hat decorated with wax fruit, was inside the bus. The rest of her, carrying a shopping bag with each hand, was outside. I knew none of this at the time. When I at last cottoned on to the fact that something untoward was happening and signalled the driver to stop, he crashed to a halt and opened the automatic doors, whereupon the woman dropped to the road. She was very nice about it. Perhaps the experience had temporarily dislocated her mind. Anyway, she apologized to me for causing so much trouble. Unfortunately the car just behind turned out to be full of Kellies. Since it would have made headlines if a university student had been thrown off the buses for half-guillotining a woman of advanced years, I was given the opportunity to leave quietly. Once again this failed to coincide with my own plans only in the sense that I had already resigned. In fact I had made my decision at about the same time as the old lady hit the ground.