Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Eros and the Angel |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Eros and the Angel


It was love, of course. Gary was older than I was, sure of himself, capable at everything he tackled. I suppose my sexuality would have awoken by itself but he was certainly in on the beginning of it, although by the time I was getting passionate about him he was getting passionate about girls. Having already started masturbating without knowing even vaguely what I was at, I was delighted to discover that someone else did it and even got visible results. While I was still coming nothing but air Gary was able to conjure a whole vichyssoise into being. It probably never occurred to him that our mutual masturbation sessions were looked forward to by me, and looked back on afterwards, with a romantic, jealous fervour that could keep me awake for hours. Neil did his best to keep us apart out of what seemed to me sheer spite. I grew to hate Neil.

I don’t think Gary was in any way homosexual or even bisexual. He was just bung full of juice, and attracted by the idea of initiating me in the ways of sex, which he was able to find out about at a precocious rate, since girls found him very attractive. After a day of battles with willow bows and reed arrows in the bush and swamp on the far side of the park, Gary would be the one who spotted the pairs of lovers parking their cars and heading for the ferns, wherein they would disappear by the simple expedient of lying down. Gary was the one who had a name for what they were up to. Neil was the one who made the mistake of firing an arrow. Reed arrows were dry, brittle and weightless until we tipped them with a piece of copper wire driven into the capillary left by the missing pith. Having no tail, the arrows lacked accuracy, but they could go a surprisingly long way if the bow was any good. Neil had spent a long time selecting his bow. It was strung so taut that it played a note when he plucked it. We were observing a distant area of ferns into which a courting couple had vanished some time before. In a low voice, Gary was imparting the unbelievable information that they were playing with each other in order to have babies. It was a fascinating speech until interrupted by a soft twang.

It would have been bad enough if the man had stood up with one hand holding the arrow and the other holding his behind. Unfortunately it was the woman. The man was running towards us, buckling his belt. We lost him by ducking into the swamp. Even then Neil’s insane giggle might well have given us away. Apart from Kenny Mears, Neil was the first example I ever encountered of someone who lacked any idea of a given action having necessary consequences. If he felt like hitting you with an axe, he hit you with an axe. Once Gary and I built a tepee in the backyard. Craig sat inside it pretending to be an Indian, an impression he reinforced by preparing himself a light snack of worms and woodlice. The rest of us danced around the tent pretending to be other Indians attacking. Neil had a garden stake for a spear. He hurled it full force at the tent. Craig came screaming out of the tent with the garden stake sticking straight out of his kidneys. It often happened that way. Neil would have a brainwave and shortly afterwards you would hear the sirens.

My erection-consciousness was exacerbated by Gary, who harped on the words ‘big’ and ‘fat’ until they became automatically funny. Whenever anybody used either of these words in conversation, Gary would smile at me and I would snicker uncontrollably. Similarly uncontrollable was my virile organ, which chose the most inconvenient moments to expand. For some reason riding on the top deck of the trolleybus led to a spontaneous show of strength. On the lower deck it didn’t happen. I rode on the lower deck whenever possible, but sometimes I was forced upstairs, where my short trousers had a lot to cope with from the moment I sat down. Placed casually across my lap and held down with one negligent arm, my Globite school case kept things covered until we got to Kogarah station, but getting off the bus was a problem. If the bus terminated at Kogarah I could wait until everybody else had alighted, but if it was going on to Rockdale then I had to disembark come what might. There was a choice of carrying my school case unnaturally in front of me or else hopping along doubled over. At school there was the desk to hide under. As far as I could tell, nobody else at Hurstville had the same problem. It wasn’t until I got to high school that cock-consciousness spread to fill the whole day.

At school there were friendships and crushes, but nothing physical except the usual business of walking around arm in arm. At home there was rampant sexuality, most of it centred on Gary. But if I was queer for him, it was the outward expression of an inward yearning for the feminine. My dreams were all of girls, even if I didn’t, at that stage, connect what I dreamed of doing to them — I remember fantasies of being pressed against them very tightly — with what I actually did in Gary’s company. Not long after the war, when I was just starting at Kogarah Primary, my mother took me for a week’s holiday at Katoomba. The hotel was called the Sans Souci — the same name, confusingly, as a suburb just near Kogarah, on the George’s River. But Katoomba was a long way away, in the Blue Mountains, surrounded by famous tourist attractions like the Scenic Railway, the Three Sisters, the Everglades gardens at Leura and the Jenolan caves. Another husbandless mother staying at the hotel had a daughter my age who wore lace dresses. I christened her Lacy Skirts, after Gary’s best guinea pig.

Lacy Skirts was my first case of the visione amorosa. I lurked for hours near her staircase just to get a glimpse of her. Somehow I managed to get to know her and we played chasings around the hotel. Rarely touching her, I had such an awareness of her physical existence that my chest hurt every time I looked at her. I never spoke of my feelings and so never found out what she felt for me, but I can remember clearly (probably because the vision was to keep recurring, each time with a different object, for many years to come) that my obsession was as transforming and exalting as whatever passed through the heart of Augustine Meaulnes in the brief time he spent with Yvonne de Galais. A picture of Lacy Skirts is no longer in my head, but my adoration for her is still the central memory of that holiday — a fair measure of intensity, since a lot else happened. I got earache on the bus to Jenolan as it wound around the mountains. Touring the limestone caves, I was in frightful pain, and was already crying when I ran off into the bush to pee. Running back to the bus again, I tripped over in full sight of everybody and fell into a patch of giant stinging nettles. Pelion was piled on Ossa. Happening one on top of the other, the earache and the nettles constituted an almost biblical attack on one’s equilibrium. Job wouldn’t have stood for it. But concentrate as I might, I can’t recall the pain, whereas when I think of Lacy Skirts, even though I can’t bring back her face, I can recall exactly the sensation of beatitude. We forget the shape of the light but remain dazzled for ever.

My next amorous vision was the Pocket Venus. Again we were on holiday, this time at a resort on the Hawkesbury River called Una Voce, which was pronounced Ewna Vose even by its proprietors. Being by then almost eleven years old, I was better able to stay out of my mother’s hair. If there were any patches of giant nettles, I managed to walk around them, instead of falling in. It was my mother who gave my vision its name. We were having lunch in the dining room on our first day in residence when a small adolescent girl walked in. She had on a soft pale pink blouse, white shorts and gold sandals laced up the calf, in the manner of a miniaturized, tennis-playing Greek goddess. Sitting there in my short trousers with my feet nowhere near touching the floor, I instantly realized that my lack of years was an irreversible tragedy. There seemed no hope of making her aware that I was alive. I lurked in the corridors waiting for an opportunity to walk suddenly past her. There was, of course, no question of actually addressing her in words. As I remember it, my plan was to attract her attention by the intensity of my walk. The idea was to look so lost in thought that she would be unable to resist asking what the thought was Alas, she resisted successfully for days on end, despite the fact that she was unable to travel far in any direction without having her path abruptly crossed by a short, swiftly moving philosopher.

When I wasn’t hanging around the corridors I was immersed in the swimming pool, waiting for her to appear so that she could be impressed by my ability to swim across and back underwater. Since the pool was no bigger than a sheep dip this was scarcely a great feat, but with the exception of the Pocket Venus everyone sitting around the pool was ready to agree, when prompted, that I had the amphibian properties of a platypus. The Pocket Venus was never there to agree about anything. On the day she finally showed up, she was wearing a light blue satin one-piece costume and looked more beautiful than the mind could bear. Desperate for recognition, I took a deep breath and went into my act. The stress of the moment, however, caused me to take this deep breath under the surface instead of above it. Having travelled about a yard, I emerged with my hair in my eyes and my lungs full of water. Exercising heroic self-control, I did not cough or splutter, but managed a terrible half smile which was meant to indicate that I had just thought of something important enough to warrant interrupting an otherwise inevitably successful assault on the world swimming record. When my vision cleared, the Pocket Venus was no longer there. She had changed her mind and gone back up to the guest house. Such moments should have been educational but unfortunately there is nothing to indicate that self-consciousness can be lessened by proof of the world’s indifference.

Every night there was a social in the ballroom. Wallflower was an insufficient word to describe me. I was a wallshadow, a wallstain. In order to conceal my short trousers I stood behind things. Boys only a few years older than I were dancing with her — actually touching her. But those few years were an unbridgeable chasm. On the far side of the abyss lay long trousers, an Adam’s apple, depth of voice and tallness of stature. On the near side lay bare knees, a piping treble, sweaty hands and a head that stuck out at the back. For months that grew into years I was to spend a good part of every day checking my profile with two mirrors, hoping to find my chin sticking out more and the back of my head sticking out less. I envied boys with no backs to their heads. Even today I envy James Garner. At all costs I had to minimize the number of occasions on which the Pocket Venus could see my head from the side. I modified my approach in the corridors so that my head was always pointing straight at her even when my body was in profile. I was lucky not to walk out of a window, instead of merely into a waiter carrying a tray of custards and junkets. Even then she didn’t notice me.

She finally noticed me on the second last day of the holiday. It was in the ping-pong room — a context in which noticing me was hard to avoid, since I had developed a style of play so elaborately baroque that I must have looked like one of those Russian girl gymnasts who dance with a ribbon. Every stroke of the bat was counterbalanced with an upflung pose from the other hand. The general effect, I later realized, must have been more comic than impressive: mere virtuosity, however precocious, could not have attracted such crowds. On the other hand it was impossible to imagine the Pocket Venus being cruel. It must have been kindness that led her to pick up a bat and ask if she could play. She was bad enough at it to make us an even match. We played half that day and all the next morning. I talked endlessly, trying to fascinate her. At least twenty years were to go by before I began realizing that there is no point in such efforts — what women like about us is seldom something we are conscious of and anyway people don’t want to be charmed, they want to charm. I probably couldn’t have managed things worse, but for a wonder she seemed to like my company, despite my never falling silent except when we touched (it was permissible to brush against her slightly when changing ends) or when she bent over to pick up the ball. When she did that I caught such glimpses of the lace edges of her panties under her shorts that I was drained of all motion. Suddenly I was a dead mackerel. She would straighten up with the ball in her hand and find herself confronted with someone who looked as if he had been zapped with a death ray or injected with cement.

Reality dispelled the dream only to the extent of revealing my light of love to be a nice, ordinary girl. I fell more in love than ever and could hardly breathe for grief when the boat took me and my mother away and left the Pocket Venus behind. The Hawkesbury had flooded during our stay and was by then almost up to the front porch of the guest house, so she was only a few feet away from me as we waved goodbye. Dropping away on the fast-flowing muddy current — the whole flux dotted thickly for miles with countless oranges from the ruined orchards — I looked back on her as she grew smaller, already embarked on the rearward voyage that would take the details of her inexpressibly sweet face beyond the reach of my memory.

No, there was never any real question about which sex I would love when the time came. But not for years would the time come, and in the meanwhile I was as queer as a coot. For most of my two-year stretch at Hurstville I led a double life. At home there were vividly physical encounters with Gary, involving a good deal of mutual masturbation, which must have been a lot more interesting for me than for him, since he had something you could get a grip on, and which produced tangible results. At school I formed crushes on the other boys. In an English public school such passionate attachments would presumably have led to buggery, rape, torture and perhaps death, but in a Sydney day school there was not much that could happen. Nevertheless the emotions were real, although it was often embarrassing to discover that they were not reciprocated in equal strength, or indeed at all. I was far keener on walking with my arm around Carnaby, for example, than he was on walking with his arm around me. But at least he took me home to show me his Dinky Toys, of which he had an amazing collection. There were avowals of inseparable companionship. I did the avowing and he nodded, or at any rate didn’t shake his head.

Other boys in the class might have been more forthcoming but I was interested only in the optimates. In my fancy, we were a band of brothers — the Boys in the Back Desks. On the last day of school our class, 6A1, had to provide two teams for a Softball tournament against the regular sixth class, called 6A. There was a first team and a second team. Despite my position as class captain, I somehow ended up in the second team along with all the duds in weird sandals, while the optimates headed off together over the horizon, never to be seen again as a group. I was so disappointed I couldn’t even cry. For days afterwards I turned the disaster over and over in my mind, trying to think of how I might have managed things differently. I even told my mother about it. Her advice was to forget it, since the day would come when I would look back on it and laugh. She was only half right. The day eventually came when I could look back on it without howling in anguish, but closer to equanimity than that I never came. Far bigger things have gone wrong for me since, but nothing has ever seemed so unfair. I can see why it hurt then. What is hard to see is why it should still hurt now.

Behind this apparent disaster lay a real disaster, unappreciated by me at the time. My marks had won me a bursary to Sydney Boys’ High School. If I had gone there I might have been educated in some of the ways of a gentleman. I suppose that was not much of a loss. More to be regretted was that I might have been educated in some of the ways of Latin, Greek, English literature, or indeed anything. That Sydney High School counted as one of the so-called Great Public Schools was a side issue. The central point to notice was that its academic standards were unquestionable. The same could not be said of Sydney Technical High School. Unlike Sydney High, which was well situated near Moore Park, Sydney Tech was a tumbledown collection of old buildings in Paddington, a district which was still fifteen years from being rediscovered by the conservationists, and which was at that time still largely inhabited by prostitutes too jaded for the brighter lights around the docks. Nor was it GPS. Instead it was CHS, or Combined High Schools — a difference its representatives spent a lot of time saying didn’t matter. Nor would it have mattered, if Sydney Tech had truly been able to claim any special distinction. As it was, however, those parents who sent their boys there under the impression that they would receive outstanding instruction in mathematics and the sciences were being hoodwinked. Sydney Tech might have been a good school before my time there. For all I know it has been a good school again since I left. But while I was in attendance it was mediocre at best.

But my wanting to go there wasn’t the place’s fault — apart, that is, from the fact that Carnaby was on the way there too. Elstub was bound for Sydney High, naturally enough: he knew what he wanted and his father knew that that was the best place to get it. Lunn was bound for Sydney Grammar — another suitable choice. Carnaby had a marked gift for mathematics, so Sydney Tech made some kind of sense for him. But it made no sense for me to choose Sydney Tech just because Carnaby was going there. As so often happens, however, the irrational motives were the decisive ones. The rational motive — that I thought I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer — I could have been talked out of if it had been properly explained to me that Sydney High produced more of those than Sydney Tech did. But the urge to follow Carnaby was proof even against my mother’s distress, which was understandably torrential. The news that Sydney Tech had a squadron of air cadets put the matter beyond question, as far as I was concerned. I imagined myself at the controls of a Mustang taking off from the school playground.

My mother wanted me to have all the prestige that Sydney High would undoubtedly bring. She didn’t want to have to go around hoarsely insisting that Sydney Tech was really something rather marvellous. With Sydney High there was nothing to insist about. Everyone knew that Sydney High was as good as you could get. And Sydney High, which people fought to get their sons into, had asked me to enrol! How could I not? She didn’t get it. For months she kept on and for months I fought back. She was right, of course, but it didn’t help. I owed it to her as a reward for all her work. It would have been better if I had given in. It would have been better still if the means had existed to make me do the right thing no matter how determined I was on doing the wrong. But on her own she was no match for me. I just wore her down.