Books: Unreliable Memoirs — That He Should Leave His House |
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Unreliable Memoirs — That He Should Leave His House


The voyage was too tedious to be described in detail. Apart from the one occasion that I stepped over the border into Queensland, it was the first time I had ever been outside the confines of NSW. But the sense of adventure was nullified by the living conditions on the ship. Even a luxury liner is really just a bad play surrounded by water. It is a means of inducing hatred for your fellow men by trapping you in a confined space with too few of them to provide variety and too many to allow solitude. The Bretagne was all that and less. Every acceptable girl on the ship was being laid by a crew member before the ship was out of the Heads. This was a replacement crew who had all been flown out from the Persian Gulf. The previous crew had walked off the ship at Melbourne after one of the officers had shot an albatross.

With my two footballing companions I inhabited a phone-booth-sized cabinette on Deck Z, many feet below the waterline. One wall was curved. It was part of the propeller-shaft housing. If one of us wanted to get dressed the other two had to go back to bed. After we cleared the Barrier Reef we ran into a gale and spent a day heeled over at about twenty degrees from the vertical. One of the footballers chucked into the washbasin. The contents of his stomach, which had included two helpings of rhubarb crumble and custard, congealed in the basin. When the ship righted itself the surface of the solidified chunder remained at an angle, not to be removed until we docked in Singapore.

In Singapore we went by trishaw to Raffles, where I grandly ordered a round of lager for the three of us. The bill came to £47 — nearly all the money I had. What little cash was left over I spent on a taxi to Changi. The jail was full of Chinese pirates. They were guarded by Gurkhas. The Gurkha warrant officer showed me around. In this place the Japanese commandant had deliberately withheld supplies of rice polishings while the POWs wasted away from vitamin deficiency. In this place my father had weighed as much as I had when I was ten years old. I tried to imagine him having the dead flesh cleaned out of his ulcers with a heated teaspoon. I could not. It was all gone. He was gone. In Changi I realized that I would never find my father as he had been. It was no use looking. One day, in my imagination, he would return of his own accord.

On the way out of Singapore harbour the captain misunderstood the pilot. The ship went the wrong side of a buoy, hit a sandbar and turned towards the wharves. The anchors were dropped and the brakes were applied to the chains, but the ship’s momentum was not easily checked. The links of the chains glowed cherry red. When they were hosed down the water was instantly transformed into geysers of steam. On the dock the stevedores in black shorts and flat conical hats looked up to see a 29,000-ton liner coming straight at them. They headed for the tall bamboo. The ship stopped just in time. A diver went down to check the damage. He surfaced to announce that one of the propeller shafts had a kink in it. Guess which one.

At reduced speed the ship limped across the Indian ocean. The Greek entertainments officer entertained us by organizing Greek dancing displays, in which the prettier girl passengers showed us the skills they had learned from the crew during the day. The skills they had learned from the crew during the night we were left to imagine. Greek dancing consists of a man holding up a handkerchief, striking a masculine attitude and performing some extremely boring steps until a girl grabs hold of the other end of the handkerchief and performs some steps even more boring than his. Then a lot of other girls hold hands with each other and perform some steps which make everything you have previously seen look comparatively exciting. I would much rather have done lifeboat drill, but all the lifeboats had long ago been painted into position so that not even dynamite could possibly have released them. This was an additional factor to be considered when you tried to imagine — or rather tried not to imagine — the number of sharks who were following in our wake, passionate for leftover baklava.

For some reason the swimming pool, just when we needed it, was emptied, never to be filled again with anything except beer cans thrown into it by the circles of formation drinkers who sat cross-legged on the deck chanting, ‘Who took the cookie from the cookie jar?’ Then the ship stopped altogether. The temperature was roughly that of the surface of the sun, which didn’t look very far away. Praying for release at the ship’s rail, I watched a turtle go past on its way to the Red Sea. That was where we were supposed to be going, but we weren’t. That night, as every other night, the film was The Naked Jungle, in which Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker battle the killer ants of South America. The next day there was Greek dancing. The day after that, the ship moved.

Aden was a revelation. Until then my belief in God’s indifference had been theoretical. In the Crater of Aden there were things on show that might have made Christ throw in the towel. Certainly there were wounds he would not have kissed. Beggars whose faces had been licked off by camels proffered children whose bones had been deliberately broken at birth. Catatonic with culture shock, the passengers of the good ship Bretagne bought transistor radios and binoculars. With the radios they could drown out the hum of flies and with the binoculars they could look somewhere else.

The Suez Canal still featured some wrecks from 1956. Lacking the cash to join an expedition to Cairo, I stayed on the ship as it crawled through to Port Said. Nasser’s MiGs went by, up above the heat. I was down inside it. Port Said was like Coles or Woolworths, without the variety. Three products were on sale, all of them cranked out by a factory on the edge of town. They sold fake leather whips, fake leather wallets and fake leather television pouffes. The fake leather was made of compressed paper. The passengers of the Bretagne emptied the shops, which filled up again just behind them. Nasser’s police were omnipresent, making sure nobody got hurt. Nobody was going to interfere with you as you purchased the wherewithal for whipping yourself and counting your money while watching television. You were safer than in St Mary’s Cathedral. The only danger was of being driven mad by Nasser’s charismatic gaze. His portrait was everywhere.

We missed out on Tangiers because of the pressing urgency to keep a date with the dry dock in Southampton. But we did have half a day in Athens. On the Acropolis I watched one of my compatriots carve his name into the Parthenon and heard another ask where the camels were. The girl passengers raced into town to buy hats with pom-poms and handkerchiefs for Greek dancing. But I felt no less ignorant than my compatriots. The stone drapery on the caryatids seemed to give off its own illumination, as if the bright sun penetrated the surface before being reflected. It infuriated me that I couldn’t read the inscriptions. Their clear, clean look only increased my suspicion that the real secrets of the tragedies and the Platonic dialogues, which I had thought I knew something about, lay in the sound of the language, and that until I could read that I would know nothing. I was right about that, but confirmation lay far in the future. Now there was nothing to do except return to Piraeus and commit myself into the hands of the sons of Pericles for the last leg of the voyage. I don’t suppose the lump of rock outside the harbour would have looked any more significant if I had known that its name was Salamis.

The Bretagne wasn’t much of a ship. On her next voyage back to Australia she hit the bottom of the harbour again, this time in Piraeus. She caught fire and burned out. There was nothing left but the hulk, which had to be blown up. But her job was done. She had got me to England. In the Bay of Biscay on our last afternoon at sea she ran before the gale, clumsily hurdling the enormous swell. By midnight she was in the Channel. Undetected from the bridge, I crouched out on deck in the prow, waiting to see the lights of Southampton. They materialized about an hour before dawn. They were just coloured lights and it was very cold. I had never been so cold. White stuff was falling out of the sky. At first I thought it was manna. The ship ground to a halt and waited for morning. It shook gently on the vibration of the girl passengers saying farewell to the crew. I went back down to Deck Z, lay on my bunk and wondered what would happen next.

What happened next is another story. This story I had better break off while I still have your patience, if I do. The longer I have stayed in England, the more numerous and powerful my memories of Sydney have grown. There is nothing like staying away for bringing it with you. I have done my best to tell the truth about what it was like, yet I am well aware that in the matter of my own feelings I have not come near meeting my aim. My ideal of autobiography has been set by Alfieri, whose description of a duel he once fought in Hyde Park is mainly concerned with how he ran backwards to safety. Perhaps because I am not even yet sufficiently at peace with myself, I have not been able to meet those standards of honesty. Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.

By the time this book is published I will be forty years old. When I left Sydney I boasted that I would be gone for five years. I was to be gone three times that and more. During that time most of those who came away have gone back. Before Gough Whitlam came to power, having to return felt like defeat. Afterwards it felt like the natural thing to do. Suddenly Australia began offering its artists all the recognition they had previously been denied. It took a kind of perversity to refuse the lure. Perhaps I did the wrong thing. Eventually fear plays a part: when you are too long gone, to return even for a month feels like time travel. So you try to forget. But the memories keep on coming. I have tried to keep them under control. I hope I have not overdone it, and killed the flavour. Because Sydney is so real in my recollection that I can taste it.

It tastes like happiness. I have never ceased to feel orphaned, but nor have I ever felt less than lucky — a lucky member of a lucky generation. In this century of all centuries we have been allowed to grow up and grow old in peace. There is a Buster Keaton film in which he is standing around innocently when the facade of a house falls on him. An open window in the facade passes over his body, so that he is left untouched.

I can see the Fun Doctor juggling for us at Kogarah Infants’ School. One of the balls hits the floor with a thud. Then what looks like the same ball lands on his head. I can hear the squeak that the mica window panels of the Kosi stove made when I scorched them with the red-hot poker. When Jeanette Elphick came back on a visit from Hollywood they drove her around town in a blue Customline with her new name painted in huge yellow letters along the side: VICTORIA SHAW. On Empire Night when we threw pieces of fibro into the bonfire they cracked like rifle shots. Every evening for weeks before Empire Night I used to lay my fireworks out on the lounge-room carpet, which became impregnated with the smell of gunpowder. Peter Moulton kept his fireworks in a Weetabix carton. On the night, a spark from the fire drifted into the carton and the whole lot went up. A rocket chased Gail Thorpe, who was only just back from therapy. She must have thought it was all part of the treatment.

At the Legacy Party in Clifton Gardens I got a No. 4 Meccano set. On hot nights before the nor’easter came you changed into your cossie and ran under the sprinkler. At Sans Souci baths I dive-bombed a jelly blubber for a dare. If you rubbed sand into the sting it hurt less. Bindies in the front lawn made you limp to the steps of the porch and bend over to pick them out. Sandfly bites needed Calamine lotion that dried to a milky crust. From Rose Bay at night you could hear the lions making love in Taronga Park. If the shark bell rang and you missed the wave, you were left out there alone beyond the third line of breakers. Every shadow had teeth. Treading water in frantic silence, you felt afraid enough to run Christ-like for the shore.

At the Harvest Festivals in church the area behind the pulpit was piled high with tins of IXL fruit for the old-age pensioners. We had collected the tinned fruit from door to door. Most of it came from old-age pensioners. Some of them must have got their own stuff back. Others were less lucky. Hunting for cicadas in the peppercorns and the willows, you were always in search of the legendary black prince, but invariably he turned out to be a redeye. The ordinary cicada was called a pisser because he squirted mud at you. The most beautiful cicada was the yellow Monday. He was as yellow as a canary and transparent as crystal. When he lifted his wings in the sunlight the membranes were like the deltas of little rivers. The sun shone straight through him. It shone straight through all of us.

It shone straight through everything, and I suppose it still does. As I begin this last paragraph, outside my window a misty afternoon drizzle gently but inexorably soaks the City of London. Down there in the street I can see umbrellas commiserating with each other. In Sydney Harbour, twelve thousand miles away and ten hours from now, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back. All in, the whippy’s taken. Pulsing like a beacon through the days and nights, the birthplace of the fortunate sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will, until even the last of us come home.