Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Milo the Magnificent |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Milo the Magnificent


My mother kept on assuring me that I would ‘shoot up’. She was not to know I was one of the kind that acquires altitude gradually, with no sudden alteration of the hormonal levels. My testosterone was on a drip feed. In the long run this saved me from anything more revolting than the odd pimple and left me slightly taller than average, but at the time it seemed like a disaster, especially considering that my self-consciousness about girls had abruptly attained new heights, mainly due to the influence of Milo Stefanos. Half the quarry had been sold off as a building block. A house had been built: palatial by our standards, since the garage was underneath, which effectively gave the place two storeys. The Stefanos family had moved in. Hard-working New Australians, they ran a milk bar down at Brighton, on Botany Bay. Their eldest son, Philip, was already a young man and had attained some renown as a tennis player. Even older than Gary, he was beyond my reach. But their second son, Milo, was my age. He was still in short pants like the rest of us, except that in his case the short pants bulged and pulsed as if he had a live rat stuffed down them. Milo was precocious in every sense.

By now Gary was giving most of his spare time to rebuilding the rusted wreck of a War Department 500cc side-valve BSA that was eventually to become his first motorbike. He had left Kogarah Intermediate High School after the Intermediate Certificate and become an apprentice fitter and turner. The balsa-aeroplane days were over. He even left Boys’ Brigade. I still visited him a lot and expanded my interest in aeroplanes to an interest in cars and motorbikes. I was buying and memorizing Flight, the Autocar and the Motorcycle every week. At that time they were still substantial publications. I acquired an immense theoretical knowledge. But it was gradually becoming clear to me that theoretical knowledge was not the same as practical capacity. Gary could strip and reassemble a gearbox. All I could do was hand him the spanners. His hands were covered with grease. Cutting oil, I noticed, looked rather like sperm, but opportunities for checking this comparison were growing fewer all the time. Finally it became clear that Gary nowadays preferred doing that sort of thing with girls. Sensitive to my jealousy, he was slow to tell me, but finally the news was too big to hold in. In part recompense for my loss, I was told details. But the girls were Gary’s age or older and it all happened somewhere else. There was no hope of joining in.

With Milo it was different. You could get in on all of his adventures, even the supreme one. Milo not only had access to everything, he enjoyed proving it. He had a lot in common with his compatriot Alcibiades. At the back of his garage were stacked hundreds of cartons of cigarettes — stock for the shop. Milo would appropriate the odd carton of Ardath or Craven ‘A’ to his own use. I thus started smoking at an early age, although it was some years before I dared do it in public. Milo smoked in public while he was still in those challenging short pants. Towards sunset he would appear at the front of the house, his crotch bulging softly in the twilight, and airily smoke a cigarette while combing his hair. Milo combed his hair constantly. Since he smoked constantly too, he spent a lot of time coughing quietly with his eyes screwed up. He looked like a small cloud preening itself. Gathering rapidly like the fast-falling Pacific night, Milo’s followers grouped around him. Some of us sat on the front fence. Others did handstands and standing long-jumps on the front strip. Still others rode their bicycles along a complicated route down one of the Margaret Street footpaths and up the other. The route just happened to pass the front of the Chappelows’ house, where the girls were gathered. It was rare for the girls actually to join us at that hour. Instead they pretended not to notice, the riders pretending not to notice them. Meanwhile Milo loaned out examples from his unparalleled collection of Carter Brown detective magazines. Carter Browns were famous for containing sex scenes. Pale by later standards, this was nevertheless unmistakably some kind of pornography. Erections were to be had while reading it.

Most sensationally of all, Milo had access to Laurel Smithers. Laurel lived in what used to be the house inhabited by the poultry farmers. Now that the poultry farm was gone and all the land built over, the old farmhouse on the hill was the only truly ramshackle house in the district. In effect that meant that it was the only building for miles which had any aesthetic interest at all, but since there was nobody within the same radius who had any notion of what aesthetic interest might happen to be, the house was universally regarded as a blot on the landscape. It had weatherboard walls and a corrugated-iron roof, upon which, after dark, the missiles of the Flash of Lightning and his masked companions would often rain. Quailing under this bombardment, the poultry farmers, their occupation gone, either died off or moved out, or a mixture of both. The Smithers family moved in. Mr Smithers spent most of the day husbanding his energy, while Mrs Smithers pottered about busying herself with light household tasks, such as breaking stones with a sledgehammer or forging new springs for the Model ‘A’ Ford museum piece they called a car. Laurel was their daughter. She was Allowed to Run Wild. Yacking over the back fence, our mothers were agreed, and went on agreeing, that Laurel would surely Get Into Trouble. They had the right idea, but were using the wrong tense. Laurel was already seizing every opportunity to be sexually interfered with by Milo. Indeed interference could go no further. They were at it continually. The only reason the adults didn’t tumble straight away was that Laurel was already well embarked on her teens, whereas Milo was only just turning twelve. They comforted themselves with the thought that Milo would not know how. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did Milo know how, he was giving lessons.

The word in use was ‘root’. Milo used to root Laurel standing up in the back of the garage. He also used to root her lying down in the back of the garage. On special occasions we were all invited to watch. One by one and two by two, half the boys in the district would make their way to Milo’s garage on a Saturday afternoon. Inside the garage the atmosphere was tense, mainly because about fifty pairs of lungs were breathing it. Lost in admiration, envy and cigarette smoke, we all watched Milo perform. It was hard to say what Laurel was getting out of it. If she was standing up she looked at us over Milo’s heaving shoulders as if we were strangers she was encountering in the street. If she was lying down she looked at the ceiling as if engaged in a long-term entomological study of the spiders inhabiting the rafters. The only evidence that she was not indifferent to the whole process was the way she kept coming back for more.

On very special occasions the rest of us were invited to join in. This only happened when Laurel was ‘in the right mood’. If it turned out, after an hour or two of being pounded by Milo, that Laurel was in the right mood, everyone queued up and took a turn. The queue shuffled forward quite rapidly since Laurel would allow even the most fervent admirer only a few seconds inside the sanctum which she had otherwise dedicated to Milo in perpetuity. Only once did I dare join the queue. It was a complete fiasco. The erection which in other circumstances I had so much trouble getting rid of failed to materialize. It was an early instance of First Night Failure, made worse by the fact that it was happening in the early afternoon, when everyone could see — or would have seen, if I had not been so careful to unveil the timorous article only during my last step forward and to rehouse it as soon as I stepped back. Nor was my recalcitrant organ content with merely not inflating. It shrivelled up the way it did after I had been swimming. Laurel was too aphasic to be openly contemptuous. Standing on tiptoe, I pretended to push myself inside her, copying the grunting noises I had heard from Milo and some of the others. It is even possible that Laurel was fooled. I, however, was not.

The incident was just one more piece of evidence bolstering the case for my physical abnormality. When in a state of excitement I could just about convince myself that I was sufficiently well endowed. But to detumesce was the same as to disappear. Other boys seemed to be the same length ‘on the slack’ as they were when erect, the only difference being that the thing hung down like a length of hose instead of climbing like an extension ladder. Milo, needless to say, was a case in point. On the rare occasions when his uncircumcised tonk was hanging limp, it was still as thick as a third thigh. At full stretch, it was the size of a Japanese midget submarine.

As bad luck would have it, Laurel from then on confined her favours to Milo exclusively, so I never got a second chance. But I still had good reason to be grateful to Milo, since it was in his company that I first came up with something more substantial than a sharp pain and a puff of air. As a masturbator Milo was if anything even more impressive than as a lover. Smoking casually with one hand, he employed the other to stimulate himself, his only problem being how to choose the most satisfactory grip. If he held the near end there was apparently a certain loss of sensitivity, so that the process might occupy a minute or even more. If he held the far end he could get results in a matter of seconds, but his arm would be at full stretch. There was no mistaking the moment when Milo was on the point of unburdening himself. You could practically hear the stuff coming. He could have put out a fire with it. With due allowance for scale, I was matching him stroke for stroke one day when suddenly I produced something. It was the only clear-cut sign of puberty I was ever to be vouchsafed. My pride knew no bounds. Even Milo was impressed — a generous reaction, since the stuff was all over one of his best Carter Browns. But the change of status might as well have been metaphysical for all the difference it made to the size of my dick when dormant. At school this problem aggravated all my other problems. After our PT sessions I lingered elaborately in the changing room so that I could duck into the communal shower after everybody else had come out. If I could manage a semi-erection everything was all right. I didn’t mind joining in the towel-flicking if I had something to show. Unfortunately a semi-erection is no more easily achieved by will than a full-sized version. So I had to do a great deal of loitering.

It was an eternal anxiety. In a class full of cock-watchers, I had to keep something between my shrinking twig and a hundred prying eyes, all the while contriving the deception so that it never seemed deliberate. Emerging from the shower with a towel draped casually around me, I had to put on my underpants before I took off the towel, but make it look as if I was taking off the towel before I put on my underpants. The result was a Gypsy Rose Lee routine of extraordinary subtlety. I calculated the sight lines and the lighting like Max Reinhardt or the Black Theatre of Prague. Either I was never spotted, or what I had down there looked less underprivileged than I thought. According to Hemingway, when Scott Fitzgerald proclaimed himself worried about the size of his tool (and we have only Hemingway’s hopelessly unreliable word that this ever happened) the tall writer told the short writer that anybody’s prong looks small when the owner looks down on it. On behalf of my younger self I would like to agree, but at the time I spent many an anxious hour in front of my bedroom mirror and there could be no doubt that my tossle looked the same from the side as it did from on top — i.e., like a shy silkworm.

As self-consciousness approached its dizzy peak, I spent so much of my spare time checking up on myself in mirrors that there was hardly any left over for little matters like homework. A dressing table, strangely enough, was among the few pieces of furniture in my room, which by now was a small library of books about aircraft, cars, motorcycles and war. The table beside my bed, which had previously housed my laboratory — which is to say, the collection of malodorous junk I had brought back from the dump — was now stacked with carefully filed and cross-referenced technical magazines. The cupboard off which we had all once dived onto the bed was now mainly a bookcase, in which such titles as The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky took pride of place. On the walls, which my mother had tolerantly always allowed me to decorate as I pleased, coloured tracings of Disney characters had been joined by elaborate cut-away drawings of aircraft, so that you had a Dornier Do. 17 unloading its bombs on Donald Duck. The room was like the cell of a machine-mad monk. The only human touch was the half-length portrait on one wall, which turned out on closer examination to be the dressing-table mirror containing my reflection. Almost always the reflection was in profile, as I held up a hand mirror at an angle in front of me in order to see what I looked like from the side. Why did the back of my head stick out so far? Why did my jaw stick out so little? As all the boys around me started turning into men, I began to wonder if perhaps I was not doomed to look boyish for ever.

Even at its best, Sydney Tech was simply a waste of time. But even at its worst, it mainly just got me down, rather than driving me to despair. Had it been a boarding school I would probably have been in real trouble. As things were, most of my agonies were self-inflicted through an excess of inward-turned imagination. Unfortunately misery is not relative. For some reason the school prided itself on its achievements in rugby union. It always finished high in the CHS competitions and occasionally fielded a team which could lick the best of the GPS teams, although Sydney High always remained the unbeatable enemy. For most of my school career I was obliged to play House football, which was a joke. The very idea of dividing the school into houses was another joke. I was a member of Williams House. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that no building existed which could be described as Williams House or even Williams Hut. In fact Williams House consisted exclusively of the yellow singlets its members wore during athletics competitions. Dyed at home by mothers commanding various techniques and materials, the singlets covered the range of all possible yellows from fresh butter to old urine. Wearing mine, I came third in the heats and second last in the finals. Once I had been a fast runner, but that was before I started to shrink.

House football took place in a park only a few miles’ brisk march from the school. As a cold wind whipped across the grass, the two teams would position themselves in expectation of the opening whistle. The start of each half was the only time when the eye could detect even an approximation of positional sense. The moment the whistle blew, thirty small boys would gather around the ball, forming a compact, writhing, many-legged mound which during the course of what seemed like hours would transfer itself at random to different parts of the field. I was somewhere in the middle, praying it would end.

But there was worse to come. On days when a Grade football team had a bye, its members would be brought to our park so that they could practise dodging tackles. They ran down the field while we tried to tackle them. It went without saying that they were bigger, faster and more skilful than we were. The real nightmare was when the First Grade side turned up. The star of First Grade was Reg Gasnier, already tipped as the brightest schoolboy rugby prospect in years. Indeed he toured England the following year with the Australian Rugby League side. Merely to watch Gasnier run was to die a little. He was all knees and elbows. His feet scythed outwards as he ran, like Boadicea’s hubcaps. There seemed no way of tackling him without sustaining a compound fracture. Up and down the field he steamed while we ran at him from different angles, only to bounce off, fall stunned, or miss completely as he sidestepped. He was beautiful to watch if you weren’t among the prospective victims. The way he shifted his weight in one direction while swerving in the other was a kind of poetry. Regrettably it was also very painful if experienced at close quarters. I can well remember the first time I was deputed to tackle Gasnier. He was three times as heavy as I was, although, density having the relationship it does to dimensions, he was of course only twice as high. There were only a couple of hundred people watching. Gasnier appeared out of the distance like an express train moving unhampered by rails. I ran at him on a despairing collision course. Casually he put his hand in my face. My head stopped while the rest of me kept going, so that I spent a certain amount of time supine in midair before falling deftly on my back. While I was being resuscitated on the sidelines, Gasnier kindly materialized in my blurred vision and explained that the thing to do was keep my head low so that he could not palm me off. The next time I tackled him I kept my head low. Sidestepping with uncanny ease, he put his hand on the back of my head and pushed my face into the ground. So much for the friendly advice. When they picked me up, or rather pulled me out, there was an impression of my face in the turf that you could have made a plaster cast from. It would have looked disappointed but resigned.

None of this would have mattered if I could have kept up with the swimmers. Swimming had, after all, always been my best thing. The hours and days spent in the creek and the Dom with the Meldrums had paid off in a certain fluency of style. When I was twelve years old I used to hold my own in races across the creek against a local boy who subsequently was to take the silver medal for the hundred metres freestyle at the Melbourne Olympics. At the time when I could keep up with him we were the same size. By the time of the Olympics he was six feet three inches tall and could close his hand around the grips of two tennis rackets. But it wasn’t just a matter of height. There was the question of attitude. I simply found excuses never to start training. After Mr Meldrum’s death, and with Gary playing a less important part in my life, I felt able to attend Ramsgate Baths on the weekends. Ramsgate Baths was a set of tiled pools fed by seawater from Botany Bay. Since the water was confined and remained unchanged for days on end, Mr Meldrum had frowned on Ramsgate Baths as unhealthy. He was, of course, absolutely right. The water in each pool would be green on the first day, orange on the second day and saffron the third. The whole place was one vast urinal. But there were diving boards, sands pits and giggling swarms of girls wearing Speedo swimming costumes. The Speedo was a thin, dark-blue cotton one-piece affair whose shoulder straps some of the girls tied together behind with a ribbon so as to tauten the fabric over their pretty bosoms. On a correctly formed pubescent girl a Speedo looked wonderful, even when it was dry. When it was wet, it was an incitement to riot.

At Ramsgate Baths, weekend after weekend, year after year, I would show off with the clown diving troupe, dive-bomb near the edge of the pool to drench the girls, do mildly difficult acrobatic tricks, smoke and comb my hair, There were a whole bunch of us who wasted all our time in this fashion. We were masters of the flat racing dive and the quick, flashy fifty-five yards. Any one of us would have sunk like a rock had he attempted a second lap, but we could all do an impressive tumble turn. When the whistle blew for races and the real swimmers appeared in their tracksuits, we repaired to the sandpit, there to tell what we imagined were dirty jokes and share a fanatically casual cigarette with the more daring girls. Erections were either hidden or flaunted, depending on one’s reputation for effrontery. I hid mine, either by draping a towel over my trunks as additional camouflage or just lying prone in the sand until the embarrassing acquisition went away. Sometimes this took a whole afternoon, but there was certainly nothing better to do. Falling for — not just perving on, but actually and rackingly falling for — a pretty girl in a Speedo certainly beat any thrills that were being experienced by the poor bastards who were swimming themselves to jelly in the heats and semi-finals. So, at any rate, I supposed. Every few minutes you could hear the spectators roar as they goaded some half-wit onward to evanescent glory. Meanwhile I concentrated on the eternal values of the way a girl’s nipples hardened against her will behind their veils of blue cotton, or the way the sweet skin of her thigh near the groin might be the vellum mounting for a single black hair like the escaped mainspring of a pygmy timepiece.

The same sort of dichotomy prevailed at school. The school swimming team trained hard at North Sydney Olympic Pool. The rest of us went by toast-rack tram to Rushcutter’s Bay, Redleaf Pool, Bronte or Coogee. The first two were small net enclosures in Sydney Harbour: they offered little except weeds around your legs and the constant challenge of dodging jelly-blubbers. But Bronte and Coogee pools were both beside ocean beaches, so that after the regulation hour of splashing around to no purpose and/or practising for the Bronze Medallion you could change back into uniform, have your name ticked off the roll, rush down to the dressing rooms on the beach, change back into trunks and head for the surf. The first pair of flippers made their appearance in those years. I had a big pair of green adjustables with straps that hurt — a characteristically bad buy — but I could catch waves with them well enough. Afraid of sharks but pleased to be at one with the elements, I surfed until I was exhausted. There were half a dozen of us, wastrels all, who thus used to consume the spare hours of every Wednesday afternoon after compulsory swimming — the beauty of our activities being, needless to say, that they were not compulsory. Frank Griffiths was our master spirit. Like Milo he was something of a lurk-man, but he had the additional quality of humour. In class he used to charm his way out of trouble. I began to see that there were advantages to playing the fool. In the surf he was completely at home. His skin was as slick as a duck’s feathers. Broad-shouldered and long-legged, he could have been a competition swimmer if he had wanted to. But he didn’t want to, any more than the rest of us.

For one thing, it was too much like work. For another, even if you did the work there was no guarantee of success. The best swimmer in our school was Peter Case. He trained about a hundred miles a day. He had gills. Every year from first year through to fifth he was champion. But he never finished higher than fourth in the CHS carnival. One year I watched him at North Sydney Olympic pool. He was in the same 440 race as Ion Henricks, who was then at Fort Street, and already well on the way to his Olympic gold. Henricks won by almost a length of the pool. Case was impressive to watch but you could see the strain. Henricks seemed to expend no effort whatsoever. He glided frictionless, as if salt water were interstellar space. Each arm was perfectly relaxed as it reached forward over the water, stiffening only when it became immersed. Each of his lazily waving feet seemed a third long section of the leg to which it was so loosely attached. The bow wave in front of his nose curved downwards on its way back, leaving a trough of air in which he occasionally breathed. He annihilated distance at a rate of about twenty strokes to the lap and tumble-turned like a porpoise running between wickets. He swam as if dreaming. It was clear that he had been born to swim. There was no point in even trying to compete. Contrary to the pious belief, where sports are concerned the important thing is not to have taken part, but to have won.

Nevertheless Case and his fellow swimmers, together with all the other star athletes, formed an elite within the school no matter how mediocre their performances outside it. If Case was worshipped, you can imagine what happened when John Konrads arrived. Even in his first year he was already nearly six feet tall. Still only eleven years old, he broke the school senior 880 record at his first carnival. He would have won every other senior event if he had been allowed to compete, but the 880 was the only one he was allowed to enter, and then only because there was no race at that distance in his age group. Upon being lapped for the second time, Case — then in his fifth and final year — retired with a broken heart and headed for the showers, the only healthy man I have ever seen limping with both legs. Not long afterwards Konrads went on to capture a sheaf of world records and become recognized as the greatest male swimmer on Earth. I am pleased to report, however, jumping ahead a bit, that in my last year at Sydney Tech I was privileged, in my capacity as prefect, to book him for running in the playground.