Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Valley of the Killer Snakes |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Valley of the Killer Snakes


Such incidents must have been hell on my mother’s nerves. I would have been enough of a handful even in normal circumstances but the sweat of looking after me was made worse by her uncertainty about what was happening to my father. She got some news of him when he was in Changi but after he was moved to Japan there was not much to go on. The mail from Kobe, when there was any, was so censored it looked like shredded lettuce. During the last part of the war she wasn’t even certain that he was alive. In those circumstances it couldn’t have been much help to her, having the kind of son who goes off and gets half-eaten by a dog.

Lesser catastrophes were no doubt just as wearing, since they happened all the time. My collection of marbles consisted mainly of priceless connie agates handed down by Grandpa. Ocean crystals, iced roses and butterflies in amber, they tumbled from their draw-string bag like a Byzantine avalanche. I took them out and lost the lot to a local thug called Mick Roach. Years older than I, Mick dated up clay-dabs against my connies. A clay-dab, as its name suggests, could be dissolved in water or squeezed flat with a thumb. Mick used steelies for taws. Steelies were ball bearings an inch in diameter. They blasted my defenceless cannon-fodder from the ring. On top of his superior artillery, Mick could actually play marbles, whereas I had no idea of what I was doing, otherwise I would not have allowed him to readjust the size of the ring for each go. When it was his turn, the ring was about four inches in diameter. When it was my turn, the Arunta tribe could have held a corroboree around its circumference.

I lurched home in tears, trailing an empty bag. My mother went berserk. She tried to shame Mick’s parents into giving my marbles back, but Mick’s father talked some confident nonsense about a fair fight. ‘If your father was here,’ said my mother with a strangely shaking voice, ‘there’d be a fair fight.’ I wish I could say that I shared her anger, but I think I was just embarrassed about the fuss. I wanted my mistakes forgotten, not faced up to — the foundations of a bad habit.

Quite apart from moral disasters, there was the question of my physical safety. Even after Bluey’s demise, there was still good reason to believe that I would do myself an injury if left unsupervised. I had a terrifying gift for carving myself up. Running around barefoot, I would go out of my way to jump on a broken bottle. Gashes caused by rusty corrugated iron were treated with Acriflavine, an antiseptic that turned the surrounding skin variously blue and yellow, so that I looked half ancient Briton, half Inca. The only asphalt road in the area led down to the railway line at about the same angle as a door-wedge. It might not sound a very perilous incline, but I was able to prove empirically that it was more than steep enough for a small boy on a tricycle to attain terminal velocity. The pedals became a vicious blur. There was no hope of getting my feet back on them. It was apparent that I would arrive at the bottom of the hill just in time to be flung onto the line in the path of a train even then looming out of the cutting. Hearing my screams, my mother came after me like the back half of Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise, if you can imagine Achilles in drag and the tortoise screaming its head off while balanced on a shaking bicycle seat with its legs stuck out. She caught up with me at the last moment. It was part of the pattern. I always survived, but only after scaring her to death.

And then there were Australia’s natural wonders. Jannali was not quite the bush proper, but it was certainly an outer suburb. You could walk over the next hill and be back in the sort of country that the convicts used to die in when they ran away. Not that they would necessarily have died of hunger. There is plenty for you to eat. Unfortunately there is also plenty that wants to eat you.

By now I have grown used to the benevolence of the English countryside, where there are no natural hazards beyond the odd clump of poison ivy, a few varieties of inimical mushroom and half a dozen adders all of which wear number plates and have exclusive contracts with BBC television. Walking at ease in such an Augustan context, it is sometimes difficult to remember what it was like to inhabit a land crawling with danger. I have already mentioned the bull-ants. There were also snakes. Walking to school bare-footed along dirt paths lined with banksias and waratahs, I was always expecting to meet one of the snakes portrayed in the gaudily detailed charts which were hung up in the railway station and the post office. Luckily the only snakes I ever encountered were harmless civilians: the filing clerks and secretaries of the serpentine world. But Uncle Vic caught a full-sized fighting snake right outside our front gate. It was a black snake — one step worse than a brown snake. A black snake can kill an adult if it is big enough. This one was big enough. Uncle Vic pinned it to the ground in the middle but both ends of it went on trying to get at him.

The next step up from the black snake is the tiger snake. It was statistically likely that at least a few tiger snakes were in our district, probably holed up in some shack and sending their girlfriends out to buy liquor. Over and above the tiger snake, so to speak, is the taipan. Luckily ours was not taipan country. Indeed at that time the taipan was not yet famous anywhere. Up in Queensland, in the sugar-cane belt, the taipan was soon to begin making headlines and getting its photograph in Pix. Tiger snakes and black snakes can’t compete with taipans, but they are bad enough. Brown snakes are pretty bad. Allegedly harmless snakes don’t look very benevolent either. I used to think about all this a lot on the way to or from school. Whether to run fast or tiptoe silently was a constant dilemma, which I tried to solve by doing both at once.

I also thought about spiders. Two of the worst Australian spiders are the funnel-web and the trap-door. One is even more lethal than the other but I can’t remember which. It doesn’t matter, because either can put a child in peril of its life. The funnel-web is a ping-pong ball in a fox-fur. It inhabits a miniature missile silo in the ground, from which it emerges in a savage arc, ready to sink its mandibles into anything that breathes. The trap-door spider is really a funnel-web plus cunning, since it conceals the mouth of its silo with a tiny coal-hole door. Both kinds of spider can leap an incredible distance. A woodpile might contain hundreds of each kind. If you even suspected the presence of either species in your garden you were supposed to report immediately to the responsible authorities. After the war an English immigrant lady became famous when she was discovered gaily swatting funnel-webs with a broom as they came flying at her in squadrons. Any one of them, if it had got close enough even to spit at her, would have put her in bed for a year.

I somehow managed to avoid meeting trap-door spiders or funnel-webs. Quite often I came face to face with a harmless relative, which Aunt Dot called a tarantula and I called a triantelope. Actually it was just a common garden spider called the huntsman, whose idea of a big thrill was to suck a wasp. The huntsman wove big vertical webs which I used regularly to walk into when heading tentatively down the back path to the lavatory after dark. Getting mixed up in the web, to which I knew the triantelope must be at some point attached, was a frightening sensation which I attempted to forestall by inching forward very slowly, with one hand held out. It didn’t help.

But the real horror among spiders was more likely to be encountered in the lavatory itself. This was the red-back. The red-back is mainly black, with a scarlet stripe down where its spine would be if it were a vertebrate. Looking like a neatly rigged and painted single-seater that might once have been flown by von Richthofen, the red-back had enough poison in it to immobilize a horse. It had the awkward habit, in unsewered areas like ours, of lurking under the lavatory seat. If a red-back bit you on the behind you were left with the problem of where to put the tourniquet and not long to think about it. Nor could you ask anyone to suck out the poison, unless you knew them very well indeed. I saw plenty of red-backs and actually got bitten by one, luckily not on the behind. I think it was a red-back. Certainly I told my mother it was. Once again the site of the wound was my right foot, which by this time must have been looking as if it belonged to Philoctetes. My mother knelt, sucked and spat. We were both frightened but she was not too frightened to act. She must have been getting tired, however, of being both father and mother.

After the first atomic bomb there was a general feeling that Japan had surrendered. The street was decorated with bunting. Strings of all the Allied flags were hung up between the flame trees. The Japanese missed their cue and all the bunting had to be taken in. Finally the Japanese saw the point and all the bunting was taken out again. Everybody was in ecstasies except my mother, who still had no news. Then an official telegram came to say that he was all right. Letters from my father arrived. They were in touch with each other and must have been very happy. The Americans, with typical generosity, arranged that all the Australian POWs in Japan should be flown home instead of having to wait for ships. My mother started counting the days. Then a telegram arrived saying that my father’s plane had been caught in a typhoon and had crashed in Manila Bay with the loss of everyone aboard.

Up until that day, all the grief and worry that I had ever seen my mother give way to had been tempered for my ears. But now she could not help herself. At the age of five I was seeing the full force of human despair. There were no sedatives to be had. It was several days before she could control herself. I understood nothing beyond the fact that I could not help. I think that I was marked for life. I know now that until very recent years I was never quite all there — that I was play-acting instead of living and that nothing except my own unrelenting fever of self-consciousness seemed quite real. Eventually, in my middle thirties, I got a grip on myself. But there can be no doubt that I had a tiresomely protracted adolescence, wasting a lot of other people’s time, patience and love.

I suppose it is just another sign of weakness to blame everything on that one moment, but it would be equally dishonest if I failed to record its piercing vividness.

As for my mother, I don’t presume even to guess at what she felt. The best I can say is that at least they got the chance of writing a few words to one another before the end. In one respect they were like Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam in the last chapters of Hope against Hope — torn apart in mid-word without even the chance to say goodbye. But in another way they were not. My father had taken up arms out of his own free will. In Europe, millions of women and children had been killed for no better reason than some ideological fantasy. My father was a free human being. So was my mother. What happened to them, terrible though it was, belongs in the category of what Nadezhda Mandelstam, elsewhere in that same great book, calls the privilege of ordinary heartbreaks. Slowly, in those years, the world was becoming aware that things had been happening which threw the whole value of human existence into doubt. But my father’s death was not one of them. It was just bad luck. I have disliked luck ever since — an aversion only increased by the fact that I have always been inordinately lucky.

Grandpa’s death was easier for me to deal with. Everybody was ready for it. Grief was kept in bounds. There was no way of pinpointing the moment when he passed to the beyond. In his dark bedroom he merely turned into a slightly more immobile version of what he had already been for years. It was time to open the windows and let in the light. I was encouraged to take a look at the corpse — a wise decision, since it immediately became clear to me that there are more terrible things than dying a natural death. The old man merely looked as if he had been bored out of existence. Perhaps I got it all wrong then and have still got it all wrong now. Perhaps he died in a redemptive ecstasy after being vouchsafed a revelation of the ineffable. But I doubt it. I think he just croaked.

Ray was harder to be blasé about. We hadn’t played Giant Steps for a long time. Eventually he was too weak to stand. He was taken away to the military hospital at Yaralla, where over the next few years he gradually wasted to nothing. He used to smile at me through the mirror mounted over his face as he lay in the iron lung. The smile took an age to arrive and another age to go away. It was like watching sand dry in the sun. I can remember being scolded for not caring enough. I think it was Aunt Dot who did the scolding. The unremitting gradualness of it all must have been hard for her to take. People’s emotions are no less real just because they carry on a lot. Aunt Dot could do the mad scene from Lucia when her lemon-meringue pie collapsed. But there is no reason to believe that she felt her bereavement any the less for feeling little things too much. She was, and is, a good woman who would have mothered me if she had been called upon. Mothering, however, wasn’t what I was short of.

My mother decided it was time to go back to our house at No. 6 Margaret Street, Kogarah, a place I couldn’t remember having seen. There was nothing to keep us in Jannali, where losses appeared to be accumulating steadily. Changing schools was certainly no great wrench. There were no playmates I would particularly miss, except perhaps the unspeakable Ron. I was taken to a party that year where there was a present for every child except me. It turned out that my present, a box of soldiers, had been mislaid. The mistake was quickly rectified. But it took all afternoon and half the night to coax me down from my tree. Definitely time for a change of scene.

Besides, Kogarah was more of a built-up area, and therefore, my mother reasoned, safer. It would even have the sewer on soon — an unheard-of luxury. The only problem was to get the tenants out. They had promised to move when asked, but by now there was a housing shortage and they didn’t want to go. My mother, however, had lost too much. She wouldn’t stand for losing her house as well. It had cost her and my father everything they had ever earned. She was firm about not letting the tenants break their agreement. Out they went and in we moved.

Even in my memory the house is small. Early on there were a lounge, two bedrooms, a kitchen-dining room, a bathroom and a back veranda, with laundry and lavatory built into the back wall. Later we had the back veranda enclosed with fibro and Cooper louvres so that it could count as a room too. Between the front fence and the paved street there was a concrete footpath and a piece of lawn, known as the front strip, which included a box-gum tree big enough for a child to swing upside down from and drop on its head. Every household mowed its own front strip. It was to be a constant source of shame to my mother that our piece of front strip was never as finely mown or sharply edged as the front strips of the next-door neighbours.

From the front fence to the house was the front lawn. There was a car’s width of lawn down the right side of the house, leading in almost every case but ours to a garage. This was called the driveway whether you had a car or not. On the other side of the house was a much narrower passage between house and fence, just wide enough to walk through. Behind the house was a backyard. Most of this, in our case, was lawn: a mixture of buffalo grass, couch and tenacious crops of paspalum. There were passion-fruit vines growing on the fence where the garage should have been. In the opposite back corner was a peach tree, in which over the years I made various attempts, all unsuccessful, to build a tree house. There were patches of vegetable garden along all three edges of the backyard. These were devoted to the growing of the kind of vegetables I always refused to eat — chocos, beetroot, rhubarb and so on. Or is rhubarb a fruit? Despite my mother’s imprecations, I could never see the point of the choco. Whatever you do with it, it’s still nothing. It looks like an albino avocado and tastes like cellophane. Its only advantage lies in its cheapness. You can’t stop chocos growing. It takes a flamethrower to keep them down.

The widest of these vegetable patches lay parallel to the back fence, beyond which was a poultry farm inhabited by thousands of chooks all synchronized to wake you up at dawn. Later on the farm became a housing estate. Whatever lay beyond the back fence, I was always tunnelling towards it. The back patch was the site of my unflagging efforts to get back to the womb by digging into the earth. I started this at quite an early age, attaining more proficiency as time went on. My early burrows were simple dugouts roofed over with box tops, after which the earth was heaped back on. There was just room for me. I would persuade my mother to cover up the entrance and leave me down there all afternoon. It didn’t matter if the thing collapsed — it was only a few inches of dirt. Older children had been known to try the same trick in sand dunes, with fatal results. She probably reasoned that it was better to let me indulge these fantasies where she could keep an eye on me.

Over the next few years, the back patch started looking like the Ypres Salient. I would dig complicated networks of trenches, roof them over, and continued tunnelling from inside, honeycombing the clay all the way down to the water table. Other boys in the street were fascinated. It became known that I was taking my Donald Duck comics down there and reading them by torchlight. They, too, turned up with armfuls of comics. Suddenly I had friends. I had stumbled on one of the secrets of leadership — start something, then let people know you are doing them a favour by bringing them in on it. Candidates for my tunnel club had to go through a probationary period of hovering on the outskirts. It was like being put up for the Garrick. Finally half the small boys in the district were spending the whole weekend somewhere under our backyard. Similar scenes must have occurred on the night of the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. I overdid it when I started letting the little kids down there. Little kids, I should have known, ruin things. Geoffrey Teichmann was only about four years old. Crawling somewhere down around Level 7 leading off Shaft 4, he brushed against one of the fruit-case slats I used for pit-props. The whole system fell on him. Parents arrived from everywhere to dig the little twerp out. That was the end of that.

But my new-found acceptability was strictly a local phenomenon. School was still a nightmare. I went to Kogarah Infants’ School and then to Kogarah Primary. They were both in the same place, near Kogarah station, more than a mile away on the trolleybus. The fare was a penny. The trolleybus went down Rocky Point Road, through a shopping centre called the Bundy, then turned left to cut across Prince’s Highway and climb over the hill to the station, where it either turned around at the Loop or went on to Rockdale. There were shops at the Loop, including Parry’s Milk Bar, the centre of local nightlife for years to come. Being bought a fruit sundae in Parry’s late at night was pretty well the most luxurious thing that could happen to you.

Two minutes’ walk up the hill from the Loop was the school. I could make that two minutes last an hour — sometimes a whole day. If it had not been for another boy called McGowan, I would have been cast as the school’s problem child. Luckily McGowan was so disturbed that I seemed unobtrusive by comparison. A ginger shambles, McGowan wore glasses with one lens covered up by brown sticky paper, presumably to correct a fault of vision. He screamed without provocation, frothed at the mouth, bit pieces out of other children and kicked teachers in the stomach. In the playground he would run at the supervising teacher while her back was turned, so that he would be going at full speed when she wheeled at the sound of his running footsteps. He was thus able to get plenty of force behind the kick. The teacher would be taken away on a stretcher. Eventually there were no longer any members of the staff willing to take on the job of supervising any classroom or playground with McGowan in it, so he was removed. That left me looking more conspicuous.

The only thing I liked about school was skipping around in circles until the music stopped, then lying down on the floor for Quiet Time. I was very good at Quiet Time. Otherwise it was all a bit hopeless. I piddled on the floor when it was my turn to sing. Conversely, I got caught drinking my daily bottle of milk in the lavatory. For some reason this was regarded as a fearful crime. My mother used to pick me up after school. One day we missed each other and I went home alone on the bus. Meanwhile my mother was going frantic at the school. There were mutual tears that night. Next day when I answered my name at the morning assembly roll-call, the headmistress said, ‘Ah yes, that’s the little boy who ran away from his mother.’ Thanks a lot, witch. I kacked my pants on the spot.

The whole secret of kacking your pants, incidentally, is to produce a rock-solid blob which will slide down your leg in one piece and can be rolled away into hiding at the point of the toe. That way, your moment of shame can be kept to the proportions of a strictly local disaster. But if you let go with anything soft, it takes two teachers to clean you up and the whole affair attracts nationwide publicity. You get people interviewing you.