Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Enter the Flash of Lightning |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Enter the Flash of Lightning


Thus there was no fruitless speculation about my real identity as I streaked past in my green felt mask and black cape. Like Dracula, the Flash of Lightning made his appearance only after nightfall. In the hours between sunset and bedtime an imposing figure could be seen outlined against the stars. In less time than it took to pronounce his name in an awed whisper, he was gone, running down one side of the street and up the other, darting along driveways, clambering over back fences and making his inexorable progress from backyard to backyard. You would not have known, when this sinister avatar caught and slipped your startled gaze, that his mask and cape had been made by his mother.

Actually the Flash of Lightning’s cape was almost his undoing. It was fastened at his neck by two short lengths of rope tied in a bow. Flitting awkwardly homeward over our backyard fence one night, I got the rope tangled around the top of a paling. The result should have been death by strangulation. There was a frantic, wordless struggle in which the Flash of Lightning’s proverbial dignity was overwhelmed by a mortal urge to breathe. Just when it looked like curtains for the Flash of Lightning, the cape popped a seam and I dropped vertically into the choco patch.

But such failures were few. Generally the Flash of Lightning was a success. Other boys started appearing in masks and capes. Moments after the sun dropped they would come swooping towards me like fruit bats. Obviously everything was up to me. Standing around in mysterious attire, surrogates of the Flash of Lightning awaited their instructions. Meanwhile they announced their names. There was a Green Flash, a Black Flash and a Red Flash. Graham Truscott wanted to call himself the Flash of Thunder. I took pity on them all and gave them their assignments. These started off as harmless games of doorbell-ringing but became less cute with time. Throwing gravel on Mrs Branthwaite’s roof must have been agony for her, even though it was endlessly amusing to us. Films of Kristallnacht never fail to make me think of those brilliantly staged raids by the Flash of Lightning, in which a dozen handfuls of gravel would all land on Mrs Branthwaite’s tiles only seconds before the perpetrators, magically divested of capes and masks, were back at home sitting around the Kosi stove and helping their parents listen to Pick a Box. The difference between mischief and murder is no greater than what the law will allow. All we were allowed, thank God, was mischief — and in retrospect that looks bad enough.

What I had going, of course, was a gang. Only lack of opportunity saved us from outright delinquency. There was a limit to what destruction we could cause, but everything within that limit sooner or later got done. Overwhelming temptation was provided by a sudden increase in the number of building sites. The bottom half of the street, towards the park, had previously been vacant blocks. These were suddenly all built on at once by the Housing Commission. The plan was to provide a lot of new houses in a tearing hurry. People at the top of the street started sneering at the people at the bottom of the street before the people at the bottom of the street had even moved in. Adults were agreed that this sudden influx would lower the tone. By night, and even by day if conditions were favourable, the Flash of Lightning and his gang made sure that work on the building sites proceeded as slowly as possible.

It is remarkable how much damage a group of small boys can do to a building site if it is left unguarded. In loose moments I might pride myself on possessing a creative impulse but I don’t have to do too much introspection before being forced to admit that a destructive impulse is in there somewhere as well. Under my supervision, dumps of mixed lime were well seeded with bricks. A brick dropped from high up into soft lime makes a very satisfactory glurp. Studded with bricks like ice cream full of chipped chocolate, the lime quickly became unusable. We smashed tiles by the hundred. Porcelain lavatory bowls were reduced to their constituent molecules. Timber frames stood upright, waiting for brick walls to be formed around them. Using an umbrella as a parachute, the Flash of Lightning could jump from the top of one of these frames and land in a sandpit. Or the Flash of Lightning thought he could. The Flash of Lightning was lucky to land perfectly flat, so that he was merely winded instead of crippled for life.

That put a temporary end to my share in the marauding. But if we had all gone out every night and worked until dawn taking apart everything that had been put together, transformation would still have been inevitable. The district was changing. The poultry farm was sold up and subdivided into blocks of building land. Irene Street was extended through it, to join up with a new road called Madrers Avenue, so that there were now two ways up to Rocky Point Road. This must have happened in fits and starts over the course of years, but I remember it as a surge of innovation. Concrete kerbing was laid down, so that everybody’s front strip had two edges to be kept sharply defined instead of one. Most sensational change of all, the sewer came. Vast trenches were dug in which pipes were laid. My mother boldly proposed that one of the miraculous new devices should be installed not only in the outside lavatory but in the bathroom itself. The very notion spelled doom for the dunny man.

Ever since I could remember, the dunny man had come running down the driveway once a week. From inside the house, we could hear his running footsteps. Then we could hear the rattle and thump as he lifted the lavatory, took out the full pan, clipped on a special lid and set down an empty pan in its place. After more rattling and banging, there was an audible intake of breath as he hefted the full pan onto his shoulder. Then the footsteps went back along the driveway, slower this time but still running. From outside in the street there was rattling, banging and shouting as the full pan was loaded onto the dunny cart along with all the other full pans. I often watched the dunny cart from the front window. As it slowly made its noisome way down the street, the dunny men ran to and from it with awesome expertise. They wore shorts, sandshoes and nothing else except a suntan suspiciously deep on the forearms. Such occasional glimpses were all one was allowed by one’s parents and all that was encouraged even by the dunny men themselves. They preferred to work in nobody’s company except their own. They were a band apart.

Years went by without those running footsteps being acknowledged by any other means except a bottle of beer left standing in the lavatory on the closest visiting day to Christmas Day. Otherwise it seemed generally agreed that the lavatory pan was changed by magic. From day to day it got fuller and fuller, generating maggots by about the third day. To combat the smell, honeysuckle was grown on a trellis outside the lavatory door, in the same way that the European nobility had recourse to perfume when they travelled by galley. The maggots came from blowflies and more blowflies came from the maggots. Blowflies were called blowies. The Australian climate, especially on the eastern seaboard in the latitude of Sydney, was specifically designed to accommodate them. The blowies’ idea of a good time was to hang around the dunny waiting for the seat to be lifted. They were then faced with the challenge of getting through the hole before it was blocked by the descending behind of the prospective occupant. There was no time for any fancy flying. Whether parked on the wall or stacked around in a holding pattern near the ceiling, every blowie was geared up to make either a vertical dive from high altitude or a death-defying low-level run through the rapidly decreasing airspace between the seat and your descending arse. The moment the seat came up, suddenly it was Pearl Harbor.

Once inside, enclosed under a dark sky, the blowies set about dumping their eggs. The memory of the results has always, in my mind, given extra vividness to Shakespeare’s line about life in excrements. God knows what would have happened if ever the dunny men had gone on strike. Even as things were, by the end of the week the contents of the pan would be getting too close for comfort. Luckily the dunny man was a model of probity. Never putting a foot wrong, he carried out his Sisyphean task in loyal silence. Only when he was about to leave our lives for ever did his concentration slip. Perhaps he foresaw that one day the sewer would come to everywhere in the world. Perhaps, in order to ward off these grim thoughts, he partook of his Christmas beer while still engaged in the task. Because it was on that day — the day before Christmas Eve — that the dunny man made his solitary mistake.

My mother and I were having breakfast. I heard the dunny man’s footsteps thumping along the driveway, with a silent pause as he hurdled my bicycle, which in my habitual carelessness I had left lying there. I heard the usual thumps, bangs and heaves. I could picture the brimming pan, secured with the special clipped lid, hoisted high on his shoulder while he held my mother’s gift bottle of beer in his other, appreciative hand. Then the footsteps started running back the other way. Whether he forgot about my bicycle, or simply mistimed his jump, there was no way of telling. Suddenly there was the noise of ... well, it was mainly the noise of a dunny man running full tilt into a bicycle. The uproar was made especially ominous by the additional noise — tiny but significant in context — of a clipped lid springing off.

While my mother sat there with her hands over her eyes I raced out through the fly-screen door and took a look down the driveway. The dunny man, overwhelmed by the magnitude of his tragedy, had not yet risen to his feet. Needless to say, the contents of the pan had been fully divulged. All the stuff had come out. But what was really remarkable was the way none of it had missed him. Already you could hear a gravid hum in the air. Millions of flies were on their way towards us. They were coming from all over Australia. For them, it was a Durbar, a moot, a gathering of the clans. For us, it was the end of an era.

Once the new lavatories were installed, the bathroom became the centre of all ablutions. I no longer took a book to the outside lavatory and sat absorbed, the door thrown open to admit light. Just as well, because towards the end of the unsewered epoch I was caught in that position by Valma Chappelow, the girl from across the road. She was older than I was too, which made it worse. She came pounding around the corner of the house on her way to borrow something that her scatter-brained mother had forgotten to buy when out shopping — bread, butter, milk, meat or some other frippery like that. Valma got a good look at me sitting there with my pants around my ankles. She made sure everybody in the district got to hear about it. She told her pen-pals. Years later at a party in Caringbah, more than twenty miles away by train, I met a stranger who knew all about it. If I went to live in the Outer Hebrides I would probably find the inhabitants all giggling behind their hands.

But the district didn’t change as much as it stayed the same. As I grew older, my picture of where I lived grew wider and more complicated. The expanding of one’s vision is usually enough in itself to generate a feeling that everything is falling apart. Nevertheless one had a sense of constancy even at the time, and looking back on it I can see that my whole childhood was remarkable for the amount of entertainment permanently on flow. All you had to do was turn the tap and bend your pursed lips to the bubbler.

Admittedly some of the local adults were terrifying. Gail Thorpe’s husband Wally was a pastry cook whose business had failed. His principal means of revenge was to browbeat his wife, who went away for electric-convulsion therapy every year or so. The only result of the treatment was to alter the position of her nervous smile, so that instead of being on the front of her face it ended up under one ear. By the time it drifted around to the front again she was ready for another course of treatment. Wally also tormented his children in various ways. He would go on tickling his younger daughter, Carmel, long after the desperately sobbing child had begged him to stop. Watching these performances, I woke up early to the reality of human evil. News of mass political atrocity has always saddened me but never come as a surprise. The only time I tried to interfere with one of Wally Thorpe’s divertissements, he swore at me for ten minutes on end at the top of his voice. I went home stunned. My mother did her best to tell him off but it was clear that at such moments she sorely felt her loneliness. That night was one of the few times I ever heard her say, ‘I wish your father had come home.’

The Goodhews were likewise a bit of a pain. They were so protective about their sons, Darryl and Des, that they would trail them about, checking up on what was going on. This could be awkward when what was going on was a full-scale battle involving the throwing of stones and bits of fibro. These battles usually took place up in the quarry, with the defenders occupying foxholes in the heights and the attackers moving up through the lowlands from one clump of lantana to another. Very properly concerned about their children losing an eye, the Goodhew parents would invariably show up just in time to see one of their little darlings sconed by a rock or sliced open by a whizzing piece of fibro. The fuss would take weeks to die down. According to Mr and Mrs Goodhew, their children were being led astray by the local toughs. In fact their own progeny were the worst of the lot. Darryl Goodhew could look wonderfully innocent when his parents were around, but he was a dead shot when they weren’t looking. He once knocked Beverley Hindmarsh off her dinkey at an incredible range. The missile was a lump of sandstone. He was sharing a foxhole with me at the top of the quarry. It was the best foxhole: you had to crawl through a lantana tunnel to get to it. Halfway down Margaret Street, Beverley was a dot on the horizon when Darryl launched the rock. It was a long time on its way. I had lost sight of it long before she abruptly stopped pedalling and crashed sideways with awful finality. Darryl immediately ran towards the scene of the crime with a look of concern. His air of innocence was so persuasive that Beverley’s parents never thought of blaming him. They would have blamed me if I had been stupid enough to emerge from the lantanas. I was already established as Beverley’s persecutor, having pinched her bottom one day with a metal reinforcing clip stolen from a building site. It was meant to be a joke, but it took a piece out of her pointed behind. I got belted for that, and if I surfaced now I would get belted again. Besides, Darryl would undoubtedly have pointed the finger at me. So I stayed up there until the stars came out. Beverley suffered nothing more severe than shock and a badly bruised infantile bud. When you consider that the stone might just as easily have removed an eyeball, you can see that we must have had a guardian angel.

Otherwise the adults left us pretty much alone. On the weekends we made our big expeditions to the pictures, the swamp or the dump. In the afternoons and evenings after school we played in the street. We played cock-a-lorum from one side of the street to the other. We played a game with half a dozen sticks spaced out along the front strip and you were allowed to take only one step between every two sticks. You kept moving the sticks further and further apart until nobody was left in except some visiting kid built like a praying mantis. You had to do as many chin-ups as you could on the box tree. There were complicated bike races around the block. The older boys did a lot of elaborate riding up and down in front of the girls, who used to sit in line on the Chappelows’ front fence. Warren Hartigan could sit on his bicycle backwards and ride past very slowly. They stopped giggling when he did that. Graham Truscott should never have tried it. A spoke from one of the wheels went right through his calf.

We played hidings and countries. In countries you threw a tennis ball in the air and ran, calling out the name of a country. Each player had the name of a country. If your country was called, you tried to catch the ball before it bounced, whereupon you could throw it up again and call out somebody else’s country. If you only caught it on the bounce, you had to ... Forget it. The rules went on and on. All that mattered was to throw the ball high. Greg Brennan could put it into orbit. He lived next door but one. Nobody lived very far away. We played on and on through the hot afternoon into the brief dusk and the sudden nightfall. Towards sunset the adults would appear on the front porches and start watering the lawn. They would tune the nozzles to a fine spray, which would drift in the air at the first breath of the summer wind that came every night. Usually it was a nor’easter. Sometimes it was the Southerly Buster. The Christmas beetles and cowboy beetles held jamborees around the street lights, battering themselves against the white enamel reflectors and falling into the street. They lay on their backs with their legs struggling. When you picked them up they pulsed with the frustrated strength of their clenched wing muscles.

Before there was the refrigerator there was the ice-chest. A block of ice was loaded into it every couple of days. If you left a bottle of lemonade on top of the block of ice the bottle would sink in and get deliciously cold. We weren’t rich but we had meat three times a day, even if it had to be rabbit. Before myxomatosis was introduced, the Australian rabbit was a lightly built racing model that made excellent food. Only in a protein-rich country like Australia could such a marvellous beast be looked down on. Leftover rabbit legs could be put in the ice-chest after dinner and eaten for breakfast next day. Surrounded with cold white fat, they looked like maps of Greenland and tasted like a dryad’s inner thigh.

When the watermelon man came there was more melon than anyone could eat. You scooped the lines of black seeds out with your crooked finger and bit a face-sized piece out of the cool, crisp, red, sweet slice. Chomping away until your ears were full of sugar. Slurping and snarling until there was hardly a trace of pink left on the white lining of the rind. There was a kind of drink-on-a-stick called the Skybomber — a tetrahedron of deep green, lime-flavoured water frozen so hard that its surface had no grain. You had to suck it for half an hour before it gave in and became friable. Then whole layers of it would come away sweetly and easily in your numb mouth, as if the molecules had been arranged in strata, like graphite. Every time I see that shade of green I think immediately of Skybombers.

I’m sure it was aesthetically justifiable for Proust to concentrate on his piece of cake, but in fact almost anything can take you back. There is a rhapsodic stretch about ice cream in La Prisonnière that proves the point exactly. He imagines his tongue shaping the ice creams of long ago, and suddenly all the past comes rushing back with authentically uncontrolled force. Elsewhere in the novel he keeps his memory on a tight rein. Herzen was closer to the truth when he said that every memory calls up a dozen others. The real miracle of Proust is the discipline with which he stemmed the flow. Everything is a madeleine.