The police came for me around six o’clock that night, two fresh-faced bounty hunters, embarrassed, I think, to be bringing in the Cabinet minister’s wife.
Correction: the former Cabinet minister. The Honourable John Brown, AO, Minister for Arts, Sport, Environment and Tourism, had resigned from the Hawke Cabinet. Regardless, he was interstate and unaware his wife was being escorted to the Balmain police station for questioning over an assault charge.
I, too, had recently resigned, having wound up my high-profile PR/marketing consultancy JMA in order to pitch myself at the precarious writing profession. I had run out of enthusiasm for the challenges. I had powered through the eighties at a ferocious pace but having recently eyeballed the Big Five-O and still coming to terms with the shock, I had run out of puff. Public relations is all about challenges; trying, against the odds, to promote the client’s cause. It is also about being amiable, being up for the schmooze.
I was over schmoozing. At any rate, who wants to be schmoozed by a geriatric? Time to let the younguns in, I figured.
I was taking turning fifty badly but I was a woman whose whole conditioning since birth had been centred around her femininity which she was taught meant being attractive, being intuitive, being able to call up a few womanly wiles now and then in order to get your way.
Most importantly, it meant being on the morning side of the mountain.
I had fought against these antediluvian attitudes for most of my life, being up there with the bra burners of the seventies, marching with the best of them for pro-choice, demanding equality, taking umbrage at every sexist slight but childhood is a condition from which an adult never recovers.
Deep down in my psyche I was the female my conditioning had made me. And female meant being pert. Until now, I had been reasonably pleased with my appearance, satisfied with the impression I could make on the world when I tarted up.
But fifty? Nah, it was time to level with myself.
Once I’d found alternative employment for my staff and kissed goodbye to the last of my protesting clients, I was out the door. In hindsight, JMA should have been sold off as a going concern but I was never one for business, I had simply loved the buzz of PR, but now I was passionate about a tale I wanted to tell.
Once I’d blown out my fifty candles and recognised the imperative of the years, I heard the word processor calling me from yonder fields.
I tended to dream in grandiose terms and was opting for the screenplay over the novel, already having decided I would not only write and edit the script, cast the leads and find the crew but I would also play Producer and go out into the big tough world of territories and pre-sales and raise the five or six million dollars my budget indicated was necessary to make the film.
The day before my arrest, I enjoyed creative hours at our Louisa Road home in Balmain walking my potential director, Clive Fleury, through my story, Sweet Surrender. Fleury was a Brit who had directed several of The Bill episodes. After Clive left I stayed in the zone, working frenetically for the rest of the day and through most of the night on various scenes, honing a particular favourite, one where my protagonist Miki Patrick, a much put-upon battler finds the courage to job a drunken fisherman who’s giving her Aboriginal friend Margie a hard time.
Miki sends the bloke flying across a jetty in Cooktown. He stumbles backwards against a pier, draws his fishing knife and lunges at her.
Miki is a wild thing by now. She’s adopted a karate position, eyeballing her antagonist and about to deck him but is clearly in trouble. It’s tense and ugly. Then, suddenly Bernie comes flying into view and head-butts the drunken swine in the belly before he can slice Miki’s face open. He stumbles and falls off the jetty into the water. The two friends stand at the edge of the jetty looking down at the floundering fool.
Fade to black.
Fade up on an impressive Victorian edifice, Balmain police station and courthouse.
It's April 1993.
The sun shines down on this once working-class village, a place where up to the late sixties women toiled to bring up parcels of kids in two-bedroom terraces while their men–– miners, wharfies, abattoir workers walked their greyhounds and took a cleansing ale in one of the two hundred corner pubs scattered around the narrow streets of Balmain and Rozelle. An influx of mendicant writers and other assorted dreamers had settled among the working class once the Whitlam era rolled in but throughout the village’s history, the cop shop and court house on Darling Street had loomed large over the proletariat.
It loomed extremely large this particular day as my lawyer and I walked around the corner and into view of the waiting mass of reporters and television cameras. The media and the police were here in numbers.
The magistrate was a woman every bit as feisty and famous as the telegenic lawyer and his client. Pat O’Shane had a reputation for upsetting the Establishment with her often-controversial decisions in favour of the underdog.
It was a sea of blue inside the courthouse. The local police were here to enjoy a victory; a get-square for the lack of contrition and/or respect I’d shown the night they booked me at the station.
The lawyer figured he carryied an ace up his sleeve which would wipe the smiles off a few faces.
‘How do you plead?’ Magistrate O’Shane asked.
‘Guilty, Your Honour,’ I replied.
There were people in the courthouse shocked by the guilty plea but there was no way I was denying the rap. I had been charged under the NSW Criminal Act. Assault and battery, I think they called it. All I know was, I was guilty of jobbing a bloke and as I told the court, I would do it again if similarly provoked.
The morning of the incident had started well enough. I was thrilled about how my film project was coming along. I was on a high. All through the previous day and night I had redrafted and redrafted the Miki and Margie fight scene with the redneck fisherman and was still thinking about the scene, living it, fine-tuning it. Mentally, I was up in Cooktown with Miki and Bernie but physically I was in Balmain, burning the toast as I prepared the family’s breakfast and running late for an important meeting in the city.
It was a meeting to discuss funding for the film project. I was swapping my writer’s hat for my producer hat today, abandoning the daggy tracksuit for a smart woollen pinstriped business suite, white shirt and black high heel boots. By now, the left hemisphere of my brain should have been in the ascendency over the right hemisphere in preparation for the meeting with the moneymen.
What was about to happen would show clearly that the right side wasn’t letting go.
The top floor of our townhouse led out to the garage. There was a roller door at the front of the garage and a back door into our hallway. With the roller door up and the hallway door open, I could stand in my bedroom and look out at Louisa Road, a gruellingly narrow thoroughfare with minimal street parking. I had just clipped on my wristwatch and was dabbing perfume in strategic areas when I saw a small grey Suzuki pull up in front of my driveway. A courier jumped out and ran across the road before I could ask him not to leave his vehicle there.
The telephone rang. ‘Can you get that, Jonny?’ I called out to my eldest son who was living with us while recovering from a serious spinal accident.
‘Mum,’ whimpered my daughter, Caitlin, when I took the phone, ‘I think it’s started.’
‘On my way, love!’
The ‘it’ my 23 year-old daughter was referring to was her labour and I had promised to be with her and encourage her to experience a drug-free labour if possible. It was her first baby and although we both knew about false labour pains there had also been talk of eclampsia, a condition I had never experienced but which I knew to be extremely serious and therefore, I was anxious for my daughter’s welfare. When my daughter said ‘it’ had started, I was always going to be there even though it meant foregoing this morning’s hard-won meeting with a potential backer for my film.
I hung up, grabbed my bag and ran out onto the street, looking up and down the narrow road for the jeep’s owner. I ran across to the house where I thought the man had gone, taking the steep steps down to the riverfront building three at a time in my tight skirt and boots. No sign of him. It was when I came panting back up the steps to the top of the street that I saw him leisurely sauntering up the road towards his blocking vehicle.
‘Can you hurry, please? I have to get out!’
There was no response. Instead, the young man came towards me, said nothing, got in his jeep and just sat there, digging around in a briefcase.
‘You parked across my driveway!’ I wailed, expecting him to be apologetic and move his vehicle. ‘There was room there for you to park,’ I said, pointing.
‘So I can’t get out, can I? You’ve blocked me in!’ I waited. He went on writing. My anxiety and my temper were rising. ‘Move the bloody thing!’ I finally yelled.
No response. He started filling in a manifest, checking off his parcels and paperwork then he turned his attention to his radio, surfing the stations! It was a deliberate macho blocking tactic, one to empower him over me, the begging female; a scenario as old as mankind. Had I been able to lift the vehicle up and throw it, I would have. He returned to his clipboard doodlings.
By now, I’m imagining my daughter prepped for delivery and thinking her mother has deserted her. I explode: ‘Move it, asshole!’
‘When you apologise,’ he mumbled, not bothering to look up from his writing.
Apologise? I should apologise to this bully? That was it; I went ballistic. ‘Move the fucking thing or I’ll fuckingwell move it for you!’ I bellowed and started lashing out at his Suzuki with my boot.
‘Apologise,’ he growled at me. ‘Or I’m not moving.’
He was a wimp. If anyone did that to my car I’d have jumped out and decked him or her. So would Miki, my feisty protagonist. This guy simply sat there while a five foot two inch middle-aged woman went to town on his vehicle, kicking it in frustration.
‘I’ll call the cops. You’ll move it, buddy!’ I raced inside and took the phone in my bedroom. I had the number of the Balmain police station punched in when I looked out and saw that my invalid son, Jonny, having heard the commotion, had run upstairs.
‘Come on, mate,’ said my very reasonable twenty-six-year-old son. ‘She’s asking you to move it so she can get out. There’s an emergency.’
The courier, out of his vehicle now and inspecting the dints, lunged at Jon, shoving him hard and sending him flying backwards against the garage wall.
‘My god, stop it! Stop it!’
I dropped the phone and ran to my child’s aid. He was carrying a payload of metal pins in his back to protect his damaged spine. I ran at the courier as he climbed back in his vehicle, grabbing a handful of T-shirt. As he turned around to fend me off, I threw a punch at his jaw. It was instinctive. The courier took umbrage. Two policemen knocked on my door that evening and escorted me to the Balmain station.
My lawyer came up with a piece of archaic case law proving it is permissible for a citizen to take any action deemed necessary to save a life. I’d had three at stake: my son’s, my daughter’s and that of my unborn grandchild. Case dismissed. Guilty but exonerated. All charges dismissed, the magistrate in her summing up, giving a right royal pay out to the plaintiff and to the police officers who had charged me.
I can’t remember what I said to the bombardment of waiting media when I left the courthouse in company with Jonny and Caitlin, both of whom had been called by the defence to give evidence.
The Balmain police had designated a rookie to testify against me and she had been way out of her league. Why Chief Constable Isles, the officer who had interrogated and booked me did not take the stand I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to distance himself from the embarrassment of this case; a fit young man charging a middle-aged woman for having jobbed him. Maybe the female prosecutor running the State’s case thought a young female officer would be more effective in the witness box.
Not in the eyes of Magistrate O’Shane. And by the time my lawyer had finished grilling her, the young cop was looking dejected, walking down the aisle where her colleagues had already begun to rise and walk out. It hadn’t gone the way the boys in blue had expected.
Post-trial, I was able to ponder the nature of prejudice and its place in our police force in those days. Back in the mid-seventies I had tasted a little of it when Christopher, my second son, had sustained a gash to his head during a primary school sports event and I had rushed him to Emergency at Parramatta Hospital. Husband, John, was the candidate for the federal seat of Parramatta at the time and well known in the district. I came with form as a noisy feminist who, since 1972 had been making regular appearances as an opinionated panellist on the Mike Walsh/Ray Martin Midday Shows.
On this particular afternoon in Parramatta I had parked the car and rushed a bleeding Christopher and my preschooler, Julian, into Emergency.
By the time his wounds were sutured and a tetanus shot was administered, there was a parking ticket tucked under the car’s wipers. Fair enough, but I figured I had a case for leniency. We were directly out front of the Parramatta police station, it being across from the hospital in those days, so I went in and made a presentation, suggesting the fine might reasonably be waived due to the fact I’d been unable to leave my bleeding child in Emergency. I was taken into the backroom and introduced to two big detectives where I morphed from a concerned mum into a subversive threat to the State.
‘We know who you are, Mrs Brown,’ one of the detectives said.
‘It’s not Mrs Brown. It’s Jan Murray,’ I corrected. Three years previous to this, after winning the inaugural Lovely Motherhood Quest, I had changed my name back to my own name by deed poll, causing a degree of angst among conservatives who believed a married woman had no right to her own name. ‘But you know who I am, do you? Who am I, then?’ I was interested to know.
‘You’re a communist,’ said the first detective.
‘Yeah. You’re a commo, Mrs Brown!’ the other one echoed.
Well there you go, I thought. No luck here. I gathered my kids and left. I had a revolution to fight, apparently.
It was the same biased attitude which greeted me when I was taken to the Balmain police station on the night of the courier fracas. The burly Constable Isles took charge of the interview but only after I’d been held there for an hour and forty minutes in a small, windowless room. Jonny had come with me to the station and was insisting they take down his statement as well as mine but the police were refusing to interview him.
That seemed a travesty of justice. My son had been a witness. What’s more, he had been a victim of the fracas as surely as the courier but there was a strong feeling in the room that a hysterical female had wronged the courier. In court, I would take umbrage when the prosecutor, a woman, used the word ‘hysterical’ to describe my behaviour, pointing out hysteria was a demeaning and discredited nineteenth-century sexist notion and had nothing to do with the feelings I had experienced as a result of the courier’s unreasonably obstructive behaviour.
‘We’ve found several unpaid parking fines.’ said Chief Constable Isles by way of introduction as he came into the room. ‘There’s a warrant out for one of them.’ He was holding up a computer printout as though it were an executioner’s edict.
‘Let me see it, please,’ I said.
On a closer inspection, I was able to point out that only one of the Janice Murrays listed actually referred to me. It was the one with the warrant attached to it. The infringement notice and warrant certainly matched my registration number and car description. I owned a red Honda Prelude.
There was, however, a slight discrepancy needed to be pointed out to Officer Isles. According to the printout, the said Honda Prelude belonged to a twenty-year-old Jan Murray who lived in Wellington, over the Great Dividing Range, and the offence had occurred there! Neither my car nor I had ever been in Wellington. My car was new when I bought it. It had never been out of my possession, stolen or borrowed. And clearly, I was not twenty years old.
‘I’ll go to the Magistrate’s Court tomorrow and get to the bottom of this,’ I assured Isles before he launched into his questioning about me jobbing the courier and dinting the Suzuki. ‘And my son will give his statement to the magistrate while we’re there.’ I knew my rights.
The whole gist of the Isles grilling was to suggest I apologise for hitting the man and agree to pay his damages. Isles seemed to have it on good authority Trevor, as he was calling the plaintiff, would then drop the charges. To Constable Clod’s amazement, I refused. I believed there was a principle at stake. You might not agree with me, but I figured young Trev had deserved what he got.
Not in Isles’ books. Isles was a man who revered his Kingswood more than the principles of common decency. The burly cop couldn’t comprehend I was not remorseful about damaging a bloke’s car. A man’s car is sacrosanct. I was duly charged and allowed to go home to await my day in court.
The Daily Telegraph’s front page headline the morning after the court case read: The Day Jan Kick-started Trevor’s Car. On reflection, I believe I was so high on my script project the day I lashed out at poor old Trevor and his Suzuki that I was living a somewhat delusional life, living through my characters, living inside another’s head. But I’m not resiling from my actions or looking for excuses because I realise if it happened tomorrow I would do it again.
Whether through good management or good fortune, the Murray Brown family life resumed a more regular pattern, characterised by various adult children leaving the nest, a father coming to grips with life after politics and a mother who kept out of trouble.
But there would come a time, three years on from my manic courier incident, when trouble would catch up with us in a big way.
None of us ever knows when madness will strike them. I mean real madness; not just the kind which has you jobbing a stubborn courier but the kind which gets you scheduled under the Mental Health Act and locked in a padded cell.
I wasn’t expecting it when it hit me three years later, on an ordinary weekday morning, with the force of an Exocet missile.
It was 11 April 1995. There was no warning. Had I not bought that glossy fashion magazine and flipped to the back pages where the social butterflies strutted their stuff, I might not have slipped into madness. But I had a date with Fate. My life was about to change dramatically.
One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,
One Moment of the Well of Life to taste –
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing – Oh, make haste!
I had always been an impressionable kind of kid. A lot went on inside my head which had nothing to do with what was going on around me. A slippery self-image, maybe? Walter Mitty, said my poor mother when things got too out of hand. It was teatime, at least that’s what we called dinner in Merrylands, and I was nowhere to be seen. My frantic mother and her neighbourhood cohorts were out on this darkening night looking for a ten year old who ought to have been safely indoors but was God knows where at this moment.
‘Janice? Jaaaaaaneeess?’ went the cry up and down our street but young Janice (rhymes with cerise) was otherwise occupied. She was in her own little world, oblivious to their calls.
I was way up the back of our quarter acre property, in the fowl yard behind the big mulberry tree. I had built a campfire and was squatting on my haunches with my fork in hand American style, scooping baked beans off an old enamel plate and howdy doin’ to myself in the dark. I had come home from a Saturday matinee of cowboys and Indians with a compulsion to be the dude who rode in on his horse, shot up the town then rode off into the sunset. While the posse was out looking for me, I was hunkered down with the chooks and planning to take Merrylands single-handed.
Poor old Merrylands: its only fault was in being an Australian suburb typical of the era, in an era that sucked. The fifties, at least the fifties I recall, were mind-numbingly boring, parochial, hypocritical, chauvinistic, intolerant, ignorant and self-satisfied. Oppression and hypocrisy were everywhere you looked but the trouble was no one was looking too hard. Except for Jimmy, me and Marlon, rebellion against the status quo was still a good decade or more away.
‘What are you rebelling against?’ they ask Brando in The Wild One.
He raises a laconic eyebrow, ‘Whataya got?’
Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean were my young heart’s idols, my lodestars. But rebel? Me? There was nothing to rebel against in Merrylands. With a moniker like that, how could there be? Merrylands: the Land of Merriment? You’d like to think the civic fathers were being facetious but I am sure they were in deadly earnest the day they named our town. With nothing in those merry lands to rebel against, what was there for a little drama queen to do but settle for chronic impudence, insufferable arrogance and brooding alienation. I was a bugger of a kid but there was so much love swirling around me that my attempts at being objectionable mostly went unnoticed. A rebel without applause.
The demographic back then, before migration coloured the landscape, was Anglo-Celtic. The prevailing ethic was a 40-hour working week and the guiding principle in our narrow lives was conformity. The post-war period was a time when God, the Queen and Mr Menzies, in that immutable order, ruled our dull dry continent. The outer western suburbs of Sydney were where the hard-working working classes built their deadly fibro houses; a garage down the side, four solid fences and brittle, fading Holland blinds at the front windows to protect the privacy of the nuclear family. Venetian blinds were for the rich; a status symbol and a novelty in Merrylands.
The wildest thing I could do as a kid was to jump on the secondhand Malvern Star my father had gussied up for me and ride flat out to Guildford, the next suburb south on the railway line, and walk along the big silver water pipes which rolled for miles up and over barren terrain, oozing out across the land like grotesque biology specimens, giant intestines. They led nowhere, those monster-sized silver pipes but then neither did anything else in Merrylands.
Mid-way between the mountains and the sea, Merrylands lacked the woodfire cosiness of the Blue Mountains and was rarely blessed by the Pacific Ocean breezes favouring the coastal suburbs. Dead car chassis littered this no-man’s-land at the side of two-bedroom fibros, guarded by ferocious blue cattle dogs. The backyard, with its boat or caravan, part-built, part-rotting away, carried the payload of the suburban dream. The backyard also carried the clothesline and props, a unique feature of the suburban backyard.
Our clothesline was a beautiful thing. Truly. I recall it with fondness. Ours was four rows of slack wire connected at either end to wooden cross-arms which could be tilted up and down. The lines ran parallel with the paling fence, starting near the back veranda and stopping just short of the chook yard up the back. Then there were the props. Made from the trunks of spindly gums, the forked end of the clothes prop was hooked into the wire line, groaning under the weight of wet washing, and then hoisted up and secured by digging the base of the prop into the lawn. Imagine having to raise and set your tackle at just the right angle on a blustery, freezing winter morning with all those wet sheets slapping you in the face. And prior to that there was the tyranny of the scrubbing-board and the big old copper; the boiling whites having to be lifted out with a copper stick and wrung by hand?
If you were lucky, as my mother was, you had a manual wringer sitting between your double cement basins. After lifting the boiled sheets out of the copper and over into one tub you summoned enough strength to turn the wringer, feeding the big sheets through and letting them drop into the clean water tub. You pummelled the sheets for all they were worth to get out the dirty suds, pulled out the plug, then rolled the water-heavy sheets back through the wringer into the other tub of fresh water for more pummelling. Finally, you pushed the twice-wrung sheets through the wringer again, only this time they were in for a Blue-O rinse. Blue-O was a knob of chalky dark blue stuff, about the size of a cotton reel, wrapped in muslin cloth. It dissolved in the water and was supposed to enhance the whiteness of white things. Whiteness was all. It was the measure of the housewife.
Once whiter than white and able to stand up to the most vigorous scrutiny of your peers, you transferred your sheets to cane baskets, lugged them out to the clothesline and hung them out with wooden dolly pegs, then set your lines with the props. High-order drudgery.
Come Monday morning, as our freshly washed sheets were hung out and the heavy lines propped up, I used to imagine they were the masts and sails of the tall ships in my storybooks. Jason and the Argonauts,The Search for the Golden Hind,The Adventures of Sir Francis Drake, the Euro-centric culture we tiny antipodeans were reared on. And no wonder I imagined Mum’s rows of flapping sheets as armadas of galleons sailing gloriously to windward and on to victory. Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves. No stories telling of native populations ravaged and displaced along the way by dear old Britannia every infiltrated our tightly managed imaginations.
Eventually the clothes prop was replaced by that other icon of the fifties, the Hills Hoist, but until such sophistication arrived, the clothes prop man, trotting his horse and cart down our street as he called out his wares, ‘Clothes props, clothes props for sale,’ would be a great source of delight for kids like me waiting by the side of the road with our cubes of sugar and carrots for old Dobbin.
The milkman also delivered his wares from the back of a horse and cart and families would put a lidded saucepan and a few coins on the front step of their fibro houses for the early morning delivery. Never one to sleep more than a few hours a night, even as a child, I would often be out the front at dawn, waiting for the clip clop of our milko’s cart. I loved the way the steam came off the horse’s back and filled up the cold morning. Jed, the benign old Clydesdale, would pull up and just stand in the middle of the quiet street, obedient and patient but noble because this was his calling. As he exhaled, foggy bursts of steam would hiss out of his nostrils and into the winter morning like a locomotive starting up.
We patted Jed and held our faces to his warm sweaty cheek while Milko did his pouring and running. Slobbering nostrils and pungent smells is what I recall most, Jed’s, not the milkman’s. Milko and I would chat about all kinds of things while he poured his un-pasteurised milk into the Murray’s aluminium saucepan. The instant Milko turned off his brass tap, Jed would stamp his hoof, impatient to be clip-clopping further down the street. There was always tomorrow. At eight, you can believe it.
Another source of enjoyment was clay; clay beneath my feet, under my fingernails, on my clothes and in my hair. Clay everywhere. In fact, according to legend as handed down by my mother, a woman anxious to find merit in Merrylands, our clay-bound suburb was only surpassed by some place outside Paris as the largest brick and tile producing area in the world. If ever Mum’s life teetered on the ordinary, she could reach for something French as her frame of reference. She had learnt French at school and few others in Merrylands, she suspected, could boast the same.
Clay was the stuff of our childhood fun but clay was my father’s nightmare, always thwarting his best efforts to get a vegetable garden going and to maintain a tidy front and back lawn. There were no car chassis, rotting boats or dilapidated caravans in George Murray’s yard. Not a blue cattle dog in sight, either. Dad was meticulous around the house, the house he’d built with his own hands. Ours was a James Hardy kit home. I was four years old when it was being built. I loved to hang around Dad, watching him cut the big fibro cement sheets to size. He would draw his measurements onto the sheet then score a line into it and then, with huge fibro cutters, slice through the line. This sort of thing left a mess of fine white dust behind. Killer dust. But was anyone telling us that? These were houses for the working classes and there were big bucks to be made from servicing the post-war demand for the much-touted picket fence lifestyle.
And in Merrylands, we should have been building in brick, given the abundance of clay the district boasted and supplied to the world. Clay brick-pits left bottomless wells all over Merrylands. Generations of local kids had used them as recreational ponds, sailing their knocked-up corrugated-iron canoes on the treacherous water holes. Dad had a whole raft of such stories about his boyhood exploits at these water holes. Unlike him, I have only one story and, sadly, it’s one too many.
It was a school holiday morning. I was eight or nine years old. Back then, there wasn’t the level of parental supervision given to today’s children, nor, it seems, did local councils take much interest in public safety issues. I might or might not have had permission to be there, probably didn’t. But my friends and I, neighbourhood boys, were having fun playing at one of the deep treacherous dams. We were fashioning ramps at the edge of the water hole from the slippery clay; the idea being to launch our makeshift boats as far out into the dam as possible, past the bulrushes, and watch them float and bob around.
There were two brothers among us. Kenny, the younger of the two, was a beautiful impish little five year old with a mop of blond curls and a line of patter which always got a laugh. His boat, that day, was a matchbox schooner, square-rigged. He’d had fun making it and was bubbling over with excitement at the thought of sailing it out to sea.
Kenny moved off from us a little way, to a vantage point between the bullrushes. He had fashioned his launching ramp, now he lay on his belly in the slimy clay to give his boat an extra shove to send it out clear of the reeds. While the tiny boat bobbed up and down on the surface little Kenny slithered silently below into the fathomless depths and was never seen again.
Wet clay, as well as being potentially lethal, in other circumstances afforded us kids a lot of fun as we dammed up teaming gutters, diverted and teased the run-off all the way down our street after summer storms. It was the way of all the neighbourhood kids to run out into the street after the hail and rain had stopped and start inventing our wild and muddy canals with the wet clay, the girls competing with the boys to make the best tunnels and streams to carry our matchbox and cigarette packet boats.
But, inevitably, the fun clay turns to hard, dry unfunny clay, defying the best efforts of the luckless gardener who watches in vain for his garden beds to flourish. The land becomes a lunar surface, a claypan on which the sun beats down day after day. In the middle of summer huge cracks would open up in the earth’s surface in our backyards. Wide enough gaps for us to drop pieces of our Meccano sets down into the dark crevices and imagine some kid in China copping it on the head.
Merrylands in summer was a landscape where oily rainbow mirages shimmered across asphalt roads off in the distance, where sticky paspalum paddocks turned tinderbox brittle and crackled beneath our feet on our way to where we scaled paling fences and collected splinters in our bums while reaching our modest destinations. Paling fences are my madeleines. I can call up old faces and incidents at will just by gazing long enough at the bleached and splintery greyness of a Merrylands paling fence. Images of the fifties flicker across the uneven timbers as though a Peter Bogdanovic had captured and presented them for my personal pleasure.
Those high dividers not only performed their primary purpose of barricading and isolating nuclear families from each other, they were there to snare the wind-blown pages of faded Truths.Tabloid drivel such as the Truth, a scurrilous Sunday rag on which our sex-starved nation got its rocks off,preserved our popular histories until the torrential rains came, washing away stories of first-grade footballers called Bobby Lulham, thallium-poisoned by a lover who just happened to be his mother-in-law; and other stories such as that of a young tram conductress called Joan Murray who had an illegitimate baby.
Needless to say, Truth was always well hidden from me but I managed to pour over its saucy pages up in the chook yard behind the mulberry tree, aghast but thrilled at what adults got up to. Sex has a way of seeping out from society’s steamy crevices, even one as repressive as the fifties. The stickiness and smells are too universal to be constrained by respectability and the people who ran Truth knew this.
The heat was the killer in Merrylands: the hot westerlies and parched summers. The municipal baths in the next town was the only facility offering a temporary respite. If we were pocket-money rich enough we could walk a hot mile to catch a packed train to Granville station and then trudge another blistering half-mile to the overcrowded municipal baths where we would risk eye, ear and throat infections to cool off. And show off. The pool was where we paraded and flirted with the boys once we reached adolescence. It was at the Granville pool I first met Crocodile Dundee.
Every Friday afternoon in summer during school term the teenage slobs who weren’t prepared to run to little purpose around an athletics track took the saner option and attended Granville pool for swimming. For getting wet, at least. Tanned and very terrific-looking, the young blond spunk patrolling the pool, struttingly conscious of his lithe physique and his awesome responsibility for keeping a pool full of frisky Parramatta Home Science schoolgirls in check, was Paul Hogan. When the whistle blew for us to leave the pool at the end of the day there would be a rush to change back into uniform, buy sweets from the kiosk and then line up for the bus. My refreshment of choice was always a large block of honeycomb toffee which came wrapped in clear cellophane paper and went dark and gooey when you sucked it. I would walk past the handsome pool attendant, coquettishly licking my golden confectionery. That was his cue to pull my wet pigtails and, as I turned to confront him in mock indignation, nab my precious honeycomb.
Many years later I would relate all this to the erstwhile pool attendant who, by 1985, would be bathing in the glory of his finest hour. The blond, spunky Hoges, tanned and very terrific-looking, and still so struttingly conscious of his lithe physique, would have the awesome responsibility for selling Australia to the world. The larrikin Aussie ex-pool attendant and ex-Harbour Bridge painter would be exhorting people worldwide to throw a shrimp on the barbie in the land of wonder, the land down under. It would be a brilliantly successful international tourism campaign initiated by my spouse, John Brown, as Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, and produced by the idiosyncratic Mo and Jo of the equally idiosyncratic Mojo Advertising Agency. The "Shrimp on the Barbie" campaign would send the hometown boy, Hoges, into orbit, his new stellar status assuring Crocodile Dundee, the movie, a dramatic landing on Planet Earth a year later. But in the Merrylands of my childhood this excitement was still waiting somewhere in a galaxy far, far away.
My companion throughout most of my Merrylands years was Pamela Brown. We were inseparable. Much of our time together as little girls consisted of activities related to the cubbyhouse club we ran. Keeping minutes of our meetings and making suggestions for activities were my responsibility; I was the literate one. Pam, the numerate one, diligently recorded incomings and outgoings such as the cost of ice creams, Saturday matinee tickets, Jughead and Blondie comic books. Our club journal was kept under the mash and shell grit in the big iron feed bins in our chook yard. There was an air of mystery and a sense of importance in everything Pam and I did. The other neighbourhood kids, all boys, knew it and were irked by our sense of ritual and secrecy.
‘Tu wit, tu wu?’
‘Tu wu, tu wit!’
This was how Pam and I communicated between our two houses in pre-phone days. Our written correspondence, notes passed between us in class, was coded with numbers substituted for the alphabet. We were serious about maintaining confidentiality.
When seven-year-old sweet Licia O’Leary came to live in our street, Pam wasn’t as keen as I was to admit her to our club. But Licia fascinated me, I wanted her in. She was different, weird and beautiful in a pale-skinned, auburn-haired Irish kind of way. Her single mother was a better than average drinker and Licia seemed very grown up and wise. She was even more interested in secret societies than Pam or me and she created them in much more vivid detail. There was a sleep-out in Licia’s backyard, a dark green weatherboard shack she had draped with exotic shawls, feather boas and old hats her mother had given her. Once Pam had been won over, the three of us established this flamboyant venue as our new club headquarters.
Licia knew things we didn’t. Her head was brimming with good ideas. Under her reign we established a biology and botany club and filled books with drawings of dissected insects and leaves after we’d carefully scraped all the green matter to reveal the amazing gossamer network of veins.
One day, on our way home from school, the horse in the paddock opposite Licia’s home was sporting a huge dangling penis. This was all Licia needed to convene an extraordinary meeting of our biology club. We discussed that frightening phenomenon of nature in hushed and secret tones for days with Licia setting up rosters for us to make covert forays into the paddock to obtain more detailed information. As the artist-in-residence, it fell to me to sketch the fearsome extension for our club records. But somehow, after a while, Licia seemed to drift away and it was mostly just Pam and I once more. Pam was the pretty one. She looked like Natalie Wood must have looked as a little girl. Our limbs were tanned and our noses only mildly freckled, remarkable considering the way we courted the sun, blissfully unaware of its tyranny. We ran barefoot and could play as roughly as the boys before we became conscious of ourselves as girls and as people whose lives would soon be on a different trajectory from those of our playmates.
After-school trips on the train to Granville, to get my mother’s medical prescriptions made up, were adventures. The Lodge Dispensary was a magic cave of exotic glass vials and sinister odours; a place befitting the mystery surrounding those illnesses grown-ups whispered about in front of small children. The Granville pharmacist would slide back a wooden panel in the wall when Pam and I entered and I’d stand on tiptoes and present the doctor’s script. There was a long bench with wall charts and advertisements stuck on the wall opposite and while the pharmacist weighed and mixed his potions, I’d sit there, legs swinging, and study them. I don’t know if Pam was affected in the same way I was by the Dr McKenzie’s Menthoids poster. Because I didn’t recognise what it was I was experiencing, unable to give it a name, I had no way to communicate the titillating sensation to anyone; not even my best friend. The advertisement, one which also appeared in the pages of the Women’s Weekly at the time, showed the silhouetted forms of a naked man and woman. The seated man had the limp body of the woman draped across his lap. This seems to my mind now, such an obtuse signifier for pills boasting relief from the symptoms of constipation or whatever ‘menthoids’ were supposed to cure.
What I got from the advertisement was a strange and mildly pleasant sensation as I tried to figure out what it actually was the pair were doing. I was sexually ignorant but not so dumb I didn’t connect the tingles to those I’d felt when I’d studied the horse in the paddock across the road from Licia O’Grady’s house. In hindsight, I realise the more interesting thing about my girlish observations wasn’t so much that they were obviously an early wake-up call to my libido but that I never, for one moment, thought the woman in the ad was Dr McKenzie. It was the fifties. Why would I?
One part of my life which didn’t include Pam was poultry duty. I loved my chooks and tended them after school each day, cleaning out the henhouse, setting the broody hens, waking at dawn to watch her chicks hatch, keeping food and water up to my flock, white-washing the henhouse, collecting the eggs, scraping the chook poo off the lawn after the chooks had escaped and shooing the roosters off the backs of the poor hens as they bit their necks and fluttered their wings, madly. I still harbour sentimental feelings about hens clucking around the backdoor, shell grit under my feet, warm eggs to be gathered from among sticky straw and waking to the sounds of a proud rooster alerting the neighbourhood to a new dawn.
Once, when I was nine and Pam had shot well past me in height, my tease of a father told me with a perfectly straight face, that if I went up to the chook yard and stood in fowl manure in my bare feet I would grow an inch taller for every ten minutes I stood in the stuff. I believed him. We called my father Nature Boy. At the first sign of a headache or a cold, Dad would take a fresh warm egg from under a chook, crack it and swallow it whole then swear he was cured. He revered his chooks, even unto their droppings. Dried chook poo was his favourite veggie garden fertiliser. Dad grew whopping big tomatoes and passionfruit vines so I had no reason to doubt his advice. You don’t at nine.
The light drizzle coming down on the day I decided to give it a try didn’t deter me either. This little short-arse was on a mission to gain height. Without telling anyone this was the day it was going to happen, the day I was going to grow three inches and catch up with Pam, I went up to the hen house in my bare feet. I stepped gingerly over the broken bits of china and glass littering the wired-off area up the back of our long property known in the local idiom as the chook yard. These bits of china and glass were one of our precious club mysteries. They were from an earlier age than the Murray occupation and Pam and I fossicked for them with enthusiasm, mounting the prettiest of them in shoeboxes lined with cotton wool. But on this day, I wasn’t gathering archaeological material. I was gathering chook shit, great dollops of the black, white and yellow-speckled stuff.
With enough fertiliser to grow a market garden, I went behind our gigantic mulberry tree, the home of my tree house and the source of the leaves I fed to my silkworms. Once positioned, I slopped the poo stuff under and over my feet. And yes, I’ll admit, a little on my nine-year-old breasts. Going for boobs. I’d only recently become aware of the incredible things on older girls and why not? Why not get a break on Pam in the boob department while I’m at it?
It’s against myself I know, but I admit to revelling in the pong and the creamy sensation of all that cold chook dung turning warm on my body. I revelled in it for 30 glorious minutes by my new birthday wristwatch as the slimy matter oozed between my toes and dripped down my chest. History records the exercise failed to add the desired inches to my height but I was precocious in acquiring boobs. They sprouted the following year and just kept growing.
When the details of my messy quest leaked out, via a back fence neighbour who had witnessed the event, it would give my family cause to laugh for years to come. I’ve never begrudged them their guffaws. God knows, I owed them a little light relief. I was hard-going most of the time. ‘Headstrong and moody’ was the gist of my mother’s laments. ‘Only a phase. She’ll grow out of it,’ was Dad’s more optimistic take.
Dad and I were good pals. In particular, we enjoyed a special bond over the chooks. They were our chooks, his and mine. We killed them together on Saturday afternoons. Dad had a large slab of hardwood, a piece of four-by-two, into which he had hammered a couple of big nails. He would pin the chook’s neck between the nails then bring down the axe.
But at least we had hypnotised it prior to the execution so it didn’t feel anything. It was my job to catch the bird as it ran off, headless, and bring it back to Dad who would hang it on the clothesline by its feet to bleed it. Then we would gut it and stick it in the copper. The gutting process fascinated me, particularly the grizzly craw, a crimpy organ holding the digested mash and scraps I’d fed the chook the day before. It was important to take care not to rupture the greenish yellow craw or else the flesh would turn sour and be inedible, according to Dad who was the expert.
After the guts were removed it was my job to wrap them in newspaper and carry them up to the incinerator. We kept the giblets for soup, for Saturday night’s tea, the feet, neck and other sloppy bits I don’t care to think about today. Dad would spend ages chopping up veggies and throwing them in with his beloved giblets. I think it was the bonus thing which appealed to him about giblets. You got your baked chook for your Sunday roast but you also had a good nourishing family meal for Saturday night. Dad would slow-simmer his giblets all afternoon with barley, onions, celery, carrots, parsnip, turnips and a generous shake of pepper and salt. When the broth went into the bowls he would add a good dollop of butter and some chopped parsley fresh from his garden. Dipping our thick slices of toast made from a loaf Dad had baked during the afternoon was a delicious added thrill. I avoided the turnips but loved sucking the gelatinous bits off the claws.
We hypnotised our fowls before executing them. Dad taught me that you must kill your bird humanely. After you caught it you tucked its head in under one wing and then, holding it firmly at the thickest part of its body, you twirled it vigorously, around and around in a large arc in a clock-wise motion. Seven times. Getting faster as you got nearer the seventh twirl. It was a highly prescribed ritual. Always clockwise and always seven turns. What is it about the number seven? Seven deadly sins, the seven seas, seventh heaven, the seventh son of the seventh son, seven wonders of the world, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the dance of the seven veils, Seven Brides for Severn Brothers, seven-up, seven days in the week, the seven-year itch. The chook, once released from its seven twirls routine, was hypnotised and went to the guillotine unconcerned about its mortality.
Warren Pemberton and I would sometimes have fun with the chooks. By hypnotising a whole fowl yard we could have the birds bumping into each other for ages until the effects began to wear off and they would go under the mulberry tree to sulk. Even chooks hate to be made look that foolish.
I had a pet rooster called Geraldine when I was seven. I dressed Geraldine in my dolls’ clothes and old knitted baby clothes which had been my younger sister Carolyn’s. Dressed to the hilt, Geraldine would be trotted around in my little cane woven dolls’ pram and made to behave in the way little mothers made their dollies behave. I did this by employing the hypnosis trick otherwise Geraldine would have been out of that pram as fast as the layette he was wearing would allow him.
One weekend of dark memory Dad had gone ahead with the Saturday chook preparations without me because I was spending the afternoon sulking in my bedroom over some alleged injustice. Come Sunday morning after Sunday school I rushed in sporting a raft of Jesus cards and yelling for my baked dinner as usual. But this is where I need to explain the significance of the Jesus cards and Sunday school. Mum’s domain.
Carolyn, four and a half years younger than me, loved Sunday school and loved her Sunday School clothes. I resented having to tog up in mine. We each had special dresses made by Mum and wore them with ourbest patent leather black shoes and very special Sunday school hats. The hats were of pale golden straw with tulle, wrapped around the crown and pulled down through the brim to be tied under our chins in a bow. Garlands of tiny artificial flowers were pinned to the tulle at the side of the crown. Pam’s mother, Rita, and her aunty Lorna were milliners so I guess our hats were pretty special. I loathed mine. I resented it almost as much as I resented having to pack up my Meccano or park my bike and get dressed for stupid Sunday school. But it was a routine. It had to be endured in order to gain the heavenly rewards of the baked dinner later in the day.
In fine weather we’d sit in small circular groups, according to age, under a large peppercorn tree on the lawns of St Anne’s Church of England and colour in holy pictures and sing hymns. My learning about Jesus had a strong element of bribery attached to it. The teacher had a shoebox full of coloured cards a little larger than postage stamps. They depicted tracts from the bible. She would give her pupils a card as reward for their piety; for being able to recite a biblical quote allotted to them the week before. Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not for such is the kingdom of Heaven.
What my teacher didn’t realise was, in the Murray household, these cards were used not so much as parables of righteousness, but as ration coupons. I could exchange a card for one of my mother’s spectacular baked spuds. Mum made scrumptious baked potatoes every Sunday. They took the prize. She parboiled them first then dried them and roughed them up, making them all floury with a tea towel, and then she would score them with a fork and salt them. Basting them with the lovely hot chicken fat throughout the roasting period meant flavours seeped into them and their skins turned golden crisp and remained like that right up till the last mouthful.
I can do all sorts of fancy Mediterranean-type things with my spuds today. I can massage them with the finest cold-pressed virgin olive oil, smear them with lemon juice and rub in the rosemary, dice them, slice them, wedge them, flatten them and grease them up; all skin and spiky edges ready to turn crisp. They are okay but they’re not scrumptious. Not my mother’s spuds. Even when I follow her parboiling routine they just do not present as hers did.
So, that was the deal, the bribe; for every religious card I could produce for Mum when I got home from Sunday school I would receive one of these little humdingers. Being a glutton, I took to the swap scheme with all the earnestness of the holy martyrs, reciting verse after verse for my teacher each week, going the extra mile, flooring her with my ability to throw off four or five quotes, word perfect. Scripture verses traded for scrumptious spuds. Some of those biblical quotes of my childhood are hot-wired in my adult brain and I still get ecclesiastical flashbacks if the baked potato I’m eating happens to be crisp and lovely.
When the meal arrived this particular Sunday, the day after I’d missed out on the kill because I had been sent to my room in a sulk, my plate was lowered in front of me and I noticed my mother give my father a certain look. It was a ‘Say nothing, George’ look so Dad got on with his meal with only a dozen or so grinning references to the special tastiness of the bird. We devoured the whole fowl and licked our fingers when we finished. Dad was right, this chook had been particularly tasty. Perhaps it was a little tougher than the usual Sunday chicken but it had a richer, gamier flavour. It would take me a long time to forgive my father for serving Geraldine up to me that way.
If childhood is a condition from which the adult never recovers, I acknowledge that mine was a benign condition. Dad was a torment and Mum could be a pain in the bum with her prudishness but it was a good childhood by any measure. If it’s true we pluck a ticket on our way down the birth canal then I struck the jackpot. I would grow up cosseted by love. I had two well-meaning parents, an adorable little sister and a pantheon of uncles, aunts and cousins. Nothing much was ever asked of me other than that I was content. Contentment was all in the working-class home where I grew up and out; that and chastity, of course. Virgo intacto. Your reputation is the most precious thing you have, said Mum, over and over and over. Hard to keep, and oh so easy to lose young lady, she would emphasise, hinting that your virginity was like money in the bank for a man. Once he took it out, he lost interest. So, my virginity was his, my future husband’s, a stranger out there somewhere who was depending on me to keep my legs together until he arrived on the scene to spread them and claim his capital with interest.
While my mother didn’t put is so crudely, I understood it was a case of God help the girl who squandered this precious dowry. That girl was out in the cold! What I didn’t understand is what was the boy going to be doing in the run-up to earning all I had to give him?
I was being groomed for wifehood was all I needed to know for the present. I’d been indentured from birth to be a good daughter until the day I completed my apprenticeship and left the parental home behind to set up and settle down in the marital one of my own making. I would then be a full-time wife and mother. This was the natural order of things. This was Australia in the early post-war period, the wasteland of my generation’s childhood.
‘I’m de’f in one year, en I can’t hear out ‘n de udder’
Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus
A couple of young housewives were nattering at a bus stop, lamenting the trials and tribulations of motherhood.
‘The product of poor wartime rubber, this one!’ laughed my mother, looking down at me and shaking her head.
Her friend laughed.
I heard all I needed to hear. Selective hearing, my mother called it. The rubber on the landing strip had obviously been crook and caused the stork to swerve, thus delivering me to the wrong mother. Here was the proof my five year old ears needed to hear in order to confirm my adopted status. Why else was my mother so mean to me? Why else was it no one understood me? I let the insult fester in my kiddie brain and would not get the joke about French letters till I was a married woman.
She had been joking, of course, my mum. Pictures of me as a baby show an infant dolled up to the nines in lovingly handknitted layettes and shawls, cradled by a young woman unable to hide her maternal joy. But you can see from this episode I enjoyed feeling like an outsider. Not all the time, just most of it.
I was nearly seven years old, and a diligent student attending Merrylands Infants School. My teacher for the past two years had been Miss McDowell. I adored her. I tried to please her. And yet, constantly I copped grief for my poor attitude. Apparently, I exhibited insubordination and for a six year old, that was a heavy rap. One day we were standing up reciting our morning hymn.
‘Our Father who art in Heaven/Hallowed be Thy name/Thy Kingdom come …’
Miss McDowell was passing my desk. She stopped.
‘Begin again, Second Class, please. “Our Father …”,’ said Miss McDowell, her ear up to my mouth by now.
‘Our Father who art in Devon/Harold be Thy name … ,’ I chorused.
Next thing I knew, I was being marched up to the head mistress’s office by Miss McDowell to meet the visiting school doctor and his tuning fork.
‘Deaf,’ they told my mother when they called her up to the school.
Significantly hearing impaired, if you want today’s more politically correct terms. Miss McDowell, a sainted soul, kindness itself to us wee ones, was beside herself with remorse. She should have realised it, she told Mum. Deaf accounted for all the times I had turned my back on her while she was still speaking to me. It accounted for all the times I had appeared to ignore her, to shrug a shoulder and walk off, and all the times I gave vague or silly answers to class questions she knew I should have known.
It wasn’t poor attitude. It wasn’t insubordination. It was Deafness! Oh, the pity of it all, they cried. Poor little Jan!
After further investigation, it appeared I had been augmenting my defective hearing with lip-reading in order to get by. Hence my difficulty in perceiving what was being said to me if the teacher’s face was turned away while she was speaking. Think about peripatetic teachers walking up an aisle of desks, their backs turned as they speak, concluding by turning on you with a demanding question.
Miss McDowell marvelled to my mother about how well I covered my tracks, obviously unwilling to admit I couldn’t hear and adopting an uppity couldn’t-care-less attitude or creating a diverting drama to cover my embarrassment.
Miss McDowell was now in awe of my ability to fudge. But why was she telling my mother I was a ‘bore nactress’? I was devastated to think my adored teacher could insult me in this way. A bore nactress? What did that mean? I was smitten with love for her yet she accused me of being a bore of some kind? It sounded like something deserving of punishment. I carried her words in my heart for a long time until I finally twigged, accepted that my disability made me special. And loved my kindergarten teacher for having spotted the drama queen in me.
Looking back, the odd thing is that once having identified my disability, not a thing was done in the course of my education to accommodate it. I travelled up through my school years carrying form but no report on my impairment. With every new class I entered, I had a teacher who let me know she knew about my poor attitude to authority. There was never a consideration from my educators for its possible root cause.
I would be a mature-age student in third year politics at Macquarie University before someone thought to offer me a learning aid to assist me with my hearing loss. I was assigned a person to sit alongside me during lectures to repeat for me if I missed the lecturer’s words or student exchanges. I had difficulty taking notes while a lecturer was speaking. I could do one or the other, write or listen, but my need to read lips made it impossible to do both simultaneously. Hearing aids, of which I gathered plenty at great expense over the years, have never been the answer.
Hearing aids don’t have selective hearing. They make every sound in the room, and beyond, compete with each other so the words of the tutor have to compete with a chair scraping on the floor or a truck roaring past outside the window. And get close to electronic devices while wearing a hearing aid and the thing whistles and screeches like a banshee. No thanks. I stick to reading lips. It’s just that Australians tend not to move theirs all that much.
In high school, I excelled in subjects such as history, English and biology where I could go home and read up on what I’d missed in class. I shone at book learning. Just me and the printed word. No static, no interference on the line. Subjects such as mathematics caught me out, however. Too often, the teacher’s back would be to the class while she was writing on the blackboard. Result: I have no concept of mathematics at all. Some have joked this is why I finished up with five children; I couldn’t count.
Sometimes, being deaf has thrown up funny situations; funny for others, that is, but mortifying for me. My deaf gaffs. When I was six I took out first prize in the Merrylands School of Arts Fancy Dress Ball, winning Most Original Boy. Earlier that month I had been sent to live with Mum’s younger sister, Eileen when my mother was hospitalised for complications from the peritonitis she had suffered during her pregnancy with my sister. As small children, Carolyn and I were to spend long periods farmed out to extended family members due to Mum’s chronic illnesses.
In the spirit of ‘This’ll cheer the poor little thing up’, Eileen entered me in the Merrylands School of Arts Fancy Dress Ball along with my cousins.
Dad’s eldest brother, Alec, being a local Merrylands butcher, was called on to contribute the costuming, a butcher’s apron and some of the blunter tools of his trade. My aunty was mother to an all-boy family and no doubt her imagination was prescribed by this fact. Earlier in the week she had taken me to Bill the Barber on Merrylands Road, exasperated with my long knotty hair and probably well over all the whingeing I did when she tried brushing and plaiting it. Bill agreed with her that it was a waste of time going through the drama every day.
So, the long and the short of it was that the whole thick, glossy twelve flaxen inches of plaits which my darling mummy had so lovingly nurtured finished on the floor. Still with their tartan ribbons tied to the ends. I now sported a boy’s haircut, short back and sides, the only one in Bill the Barber’s repertoire.
Come the night of the fancy dress ball I was looking like a smart little butcher’s apprentice, my sharpening steel, almost as tall as me, swinging by my side and my blue and white striped butcher’s apron which kept tripping me up, showing signs of slaughter, creatively smeared with dark red tomato sauce. The MC for the night was comedian, Buster Noble, complete with big red nose and clown costume. After a riff of jokes which had the hall in stitches but left me mostly untouched because he wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to read his lips, Buster kicked off the judging by asking the boys to enter a ring in the centre of the hall and walk in time to the music.
The judges were the popular entertainment couple Dawn Lake and Bobby Limb. Not having heard the call but standing near someone who took me for a boy, I was given a shove in the direction of the parade. I hastily joined in and not until Eileen looked up from her fruit punch and saw her niece perambulating in the boys’ division was the error detected. Eileen must have decided to let it play that way because I took out first prize.
This was only one of my many embarrassing gaffs over the years. Fast forward to 1982. The scene was Fernleigh Castle, a sumptuous pile of crenulated sandstone rock in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, owned by lawyer and Olympic water polo champion Peter Montgomery. It was Sunday night and Monty had phoned a few mates to invite us to an impromptu meal at his home.
‘Nothing flash,’ he said as he hung up.
An hour later we were sitting at table in his baronial hall, an eclectic bunch of diners thrown together in the full gothic splendour of Fernleigh Castle, dining on Sydney rock oysters and baked meats, all served from silver platters by a petite Chinese staff person. My fellow guests, including International Olympic Games supremo John Coates, who at that time was simply a suburban lawyer, seemed as chuffed as me to have been called away from a Sunday evening fridge forage at short notice to partake of the excellence of our friend’s table.
‘Great, Pete, this nosh-up,’ I said as I quaffed another goblet of mine host’s Grange Hermitage and smiled at the woman across from me.
‘It sure beats shoving your four-day-old son in the oven,’ she cooed as she stabbed a hunk of delicate pink lamb and brought it to her lips.
Hello? What did she say? The evening had just turned ugly. There was more than a touch of the Addams Family about this occasion and it wasn’t simply the giant candelabras on the table or the far-flung cobwebbed corners of the quirky sandstone dinning hall. I followed the woman into the bathroom soon after in order to confront her.
‘Why would you put your four-day-old son in the oven?’ I exclaimed, horror and disbelief dripping from my words.
‘My what?’ replied Victoria Rubensohn, arts lawyer and daughter of the late Sim Rubensohn, the creator of Labor’s 1972 ‘It’s Time’ campaign. I had only just met her this evening but I was ready to report her to the authorities.
‘Your four day old son! You said you put him in the oven! What gives, lady?’
The woman became my friend that night. As I learnt, she too suffered a hearing impairment and understood the reason for my confusion.
Laughing kindly, she explained it was a four-day-old lasagne, which she had been ready to shove in her oven before Monty’s invitation arrived. Victoria graciously let me off the hook and sometime after midnight as we stood together, wind in our hair, high up in the eerie turrets overlooking the magnificence of Sydney Harbour and sipping Monty’s Dom Perignon from cracked coffee mugs, we exchanged business cards. Well, Victoria had a business card. As a full-time mother and political handbag, I only had the torn corner of an envelope on which to write my home number.
A year later, with the help of Mojo Advertising, Victoria Rubensohn and I would work together to produce and promote a deafness awareness campaign. I was able to convince high-profile people to go public for the first time on their hearing disabilities. They were all people whose jobs depended on good communication skills and yet they were each handicapped by deafness to varying degrees. Heavy metal band leader Angry Anderson, iconic comedian Graham Bond, Cabinet minister Bill Hayden and future Prime Minister of Australia John Howard were among those featured in our posters and television ads.
The television presentation started with a snowy screen - all snowy blurred images. Then Graham Bond in his Aunty Jack role and in Aunty Jack’s inimitable style broke through the interference, commanding the viewer not to adjust the channel or ‘I’ll rip your bloody arms awff!’ Aunty Jack then pointed out that the visual distortion was comparable to the auditory confusion people with a hearing impairment put up with every day.
Our community service ad was effective in ramming its message home and as an appeal for a better understanding of the hearing-impaired person’s plight. The campaign won a prestigious advertising industry award for Mojo the following year.
My early discovery of Charles Darwin’s Passage of the Beagle happened as a result of my hearing impairment, a teacher’s instruction which went haywire. The intricacies of the Dewey Decimal system were familiar to me because since the age of eight I had voluntarily undertaken library duties during lunch hours. I had a fascination for stamping dates on the inside page of a borrower’s choice and recording the names of late returnees in a special exercise book. Our library teacher would reward my diligence by allowing me to collect and keep any of the dog-eared volumes I fancied which the school was jettisoning. By inviting me to scavenge the throwaway books, the librarian enabled me to expand my home library significantly.
New books rarely made it into the Murray household except as birthday or Christmas gifts or the occasional hand-me-down from Dad’s employer’s kids. But however they made their way in, Mum was ever-present in a censorship role, monitoring every publication. The school‘s rejects, however, came ready censored by the State so Mum approved of them, sight unseen. Anne of Green Gables, the What Katie Did series and the full set of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Fabulous Five books sat comfortably alongside her own purchases such as Little Sambo, Biggles and Coles Rainbow Book.
Mum would never have sanctioned my reading of something as subversive as Charles Darwin with his ungodly claims. From the moment I headed towards the .800s on our municipal library shelves this particular afternoon on my way home from school and retrieved Darwin, I knew he was one for the chook yard. Our huge spreading mulberry tree would give the protection I needed. If Mum called out to me while I was up the mulberry tree in my tree house working my way towards enlightenment there was always the reasonable doubt her deaf daughter hadn’t heard her calling. My impairment often bought me time.
This day, I took Darwin home and hid him in the feed bin in the chook yard then later, climbed the mulberry tree with him. Not to put too fine a point on it the Passage of the Beagle and Origin of the Species hit my ten-year-old mind with all the power and luminosity of a lightning rod striking the dark recesses of Sunday school absurdity.
Darwinian revelations put paid forever to Mum’s Christian teachings canonising the Maker’s six day working week. The composition I turned into my teacher Mrs Plater at the end of the week was all about the cunningness of the wee moth which had clung to the stone walls of buildings in the English Midlands for centuries, mutating from creamy white to sooty black to protect itself from predators once the nineteenth-century industrial juggernaut began turning its habitat from pristine to putrid. The moth who had the sense to adapt was obviously the brightest of the bunch and by being able to stay alive longer was able to propagate other clever little moths like itself. This survival of the fittest was at the expense of the dumb ones which failed to catch on. They got picked off by the birds, and therefore weren’t around when bedtime came to Birmingham.
I thrilled to this new learning and wrote a brilliant composition on the lives of insects in a Darwinian world order. The only problem was Mrs Plater had no idea why I was presenting her with my treatise on the tawny moth. Apparently, she had set the class to studying the deeds of eighteenth-century Frenchmen. Revolution, not Evolution.
Another really bad ear day: Mrs Plater was doing morning roll call. When my name was called out and I parroted, ‘Present, Mrs Plater,’ the woman took time out to berate me for having let down the class attendance record that week by being absent for the previous two days. Because of me, our class would not take out the attendance gong for the month. This, despite the fact I had handed in my mother’s note about my infected eardrums.
Because she had been walking up and down the rows of desks as she poured out her Bad Jan Murray vitriol, I was having trouble catching her words. When she strode up and stopped in front of my desk, glowering down on me and demanding an answer to a question I hadn’t heard, my vacant look and shoulder shrug must have been too much for her to tolerate. From out of nowhere, I copped a green plastic ruler hard across the side of my face; hard enough that the thing snapped in two.
I still remember the colour, size and feel of that green plastic ruler. I can still see the black markings of inches on its smooth, dark greenness. And I will never forget the sound it made as it snapped. And the way my head jerked and my eyes watered. And the sudden intake of a collective breath from my classmates. The fragments of green plastic ruler were retrieved. I was ordered to apologise.
I stood my ground. I knew I was in the right and she was in the wrong. I wasn’t the bully. Words such as ‘intransigence’ and ‘insubordination’ were thrown at me as Mrs Plater frogmarched me to the back wall of the classroom and pushed me against it. ‘Stay there!’ she yelled. Then she strode up to her desk, retrieved something from the drawer and returned to where I stood, glaring at her. She grabbed both my plaits and held them high above my head and, by the end of my ribbons, pinned me to the wall with drawing tacks. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! She hammered them in with the back of her chalk duster.
‘You’re there till you apologise, young lady!’ she fumed, stomping back up the aisle between rows of stunned students. ‘Until she says sorry,’ she said as she sat looking around the room at a class of dumfounded students.
Yeah, good luck. You’ll get no apology from me. I’ll sulk and steam with resentment for as long as it takes. Bring it on! My back was up and there would be no retreat, no surrender.
Given that I was in pain from a suppurating eardrum, that it was agony to swallow because of the swollen glands in my throat, and that I was desperately tired from continuous lack of sleep, the punishment seemed not to fit the crime, but I stood my ground and Plater stood hers. She couldn’t break me. Not through two periods of history or English; my favourites. I remained pinned to the back wall until finally the bell rang and she was forced to release me.
Mum was horrified when she eventually coaxed the truth from her surly daughter that night. What Dot Murray was going to say and do when she got hold of ‘that woman’ was something which filled me with glee. But it never came to pass.
My anxiety-ridden, semi-invalid mother did momentarily overcome her ‘wonky nerves’ long enough to summon up the courage to visit the school the next day to confront Mrs Plater on her daughter’s behalf but my tormentor turned the tables, giving comfort to my trembling, hyperventilating, falling-apart mother by way of a chair, a cup of tea and a chat which, I later learnt, was all about their shared burden of having guardianship over one so intractable as me. That was the first and last time I allowed Mum to take to the streets to defend my civil liberties.
My sixth class teacher, Miss Sinclair, was no more sympathetic than Mrs Plater had been. This elderly harridan, the headmistress of Parramatta West Primary School, took our class of eleven year olds for maths. Miss Sinclair was a tall Scottish spinster of fearsomely gaunt proportions with thin, badly permed hair.
With her back to the class, Miss Sinclair had been scribbling away at the blackboard for several minutes, giving a running commentary on her calculations in a heavy Scottish brogue. Accents present a secondary problem for the hearing-impaired. I had no idea what she was saying. I’d been gazing out the window and up at the sky, honing the ability I had to push cloud masses into interesting shapes.
I was unaware there was silence in the room.
I turned, and saw the class was looking at me. Without warning, the Loch Ness monster, she with the eyes in the back of her head, spun around and hurled her wooden blackboard duster at me. It ricocheted off the desk but she had my attention now.
‘Well?’ hissed Miss Sinclair, bristling.
‘Well what?’ I replied, shrugging my shoulders.
Miss Sinclair banged on the blackboard so fiercely the whole class came to attention. ‘D’yee nae ken a thung, you stoopid gel?’
I had two options: I could be intimidated or I could be indifferent. I chose indifference.
Through the air came the chalk, hitting me fair in the face. In the spirit of Schadenfreude, the class laughed loudly. Seething with resentment, I walked out of the classroom and just kept walking until I was home and under the house hugging Scampy, my mongrel wire-haired terrier waif. It was a safe place from which to put a curse on the whole world.
Deaf and dumb: That association of ideas still riles me. It’s a notion hearing impaired people live with daily. It was there, behind all the angry teachers’ frustrations and, I believe it’s still lurking somewhere among the political correctness today. Ask to repeat what was said once and it’s okay. Even a second time. But ask a third time and watch the impatience or the patronising. Or misinterpret a word said at the other end of the dinner table and see the embarrassed host trying to work with your quirky contribution and point it back in the direction of the prevailing conversation.
Start talking over the top of another person because you hadn’t twigged she was still talking. You cop a withering look and die a little death. Ask a question at a meeting that’s already been addressed by the delegate at the lectern. Your gaff will be worth a laugh around the coffee urn during the break.
Zone out of the conversation at a party because the effort to tune in is making your head hurt. ‘Hello? Are you still with us Vera Vague?’ says the kind friend who feels she must bring you back into the conversation and thinks she looks cool being this offensive. The problems associated with partial hearing loss don’t rate with those endured by the profoundly deaf person but accumulatively, it starts to wear you down, to a point where being antisocial looks like a good option. I no longer climb under the house but I still retreat, just as I did as a child.
They weren’t to blame but the way my parents treated my chronic ear infections was a recipe for disaster. We were in a post-war climate where penicillin was a novelty. Mum, who sprouted more theories than a Pugwash Conference, had a theory about the relatively new wonder drug. No child of hers would be given penicillin. It was addictive.
When my ear infections caused untold misery for me during the middle of the night, Mum would concoct her own remedy; the ‘hot salt in the sock’ treatment. When I woke crying at night with the pain of it all, one of Dad’s woollen socks would be filled with course salt and then put in the oven to heat up.
The throbbing of an earache is a cruel thing and I’m able to testify that a woolly sock full of hot salt pressed against the tender organ gives little relief. Nor does the hot sock or its alternative, the hot water bottle, improve the state of the skin at the site. I would go to school the next day not only with an ear ache worse than the one I’d had the day before, a whole colony of bacteria rejoicing at the previous night’s incubating aid, but with a burnt cheek and ear lobe to boot.
The accompanying treatment to Mum’s ‘remedy’ was to pour a heated spoonful of peroxide into the now traumatised ear to ‘break up the wax’ and then, after the fizzing of the peroxide subsided, to drop in a spoonful of warm glycerine. These moments were fraught with fear that the spoon she’d just heated would be too hot and the goo going in my ear would burn. But this rarely happened because Mum would stick her finger into test it! Bacteria? Bring it on!
Wads of cotton wool were jammed into my ears to prevent the glycerine running out. I always had runny wax and sticky glycerine dripping down the side of my face and matting up my hair on earache days.
I’ve undergone many audiograms to test the degree of my hearing impairment. I register as having around an 80 percent hearing loss with significant interference, that is, a constant noise confusing the sounds.
Significantly, my right ear is far worse than my left. It was my right ear mostly infected during my childhood. The shape of the graph in my most recent audiogram surprised the audiometrist. Apparently, it went off in an odd direction, indicating an inherited deformity or an early trauma rather than a gradual decline more common in hearing loss. Yes, I’ve always been hard of hearing, I told him. No, no one else in my family was deaf. And no, I had never suffered a head injury.
I kept quite about the sock business. It just sounded too bizarre in the context of the man’s state-of-the-art hearing clinic.
In the mid-eighties I was appointed to the Board of the Australian Closed Captioning Centre. Paul Keating was the Federal treasurer. The Board had made little progress in lobbying the Government for funds to initiate closed captioning for television programs.
‘So?’ I questioned Paul after having put him through a low volume stint of television one day when he and his family were visiting our home for a barbecue. It was a news item the off-duty Treasurer needed to hear. ‘Tough, isn’t it?’ I said as I kept my finger on the volume knob. ‘But that’s as good as it gets for a million Australians.’ Closed captioning got its kick-start money, pronto.
One last deaf gaff: It was a cold winter’s evening in the eighties. John and I had been invited to a formal dinner at the home of the American consul.
Perhaps it was a Fourth of July celebration.
The US residence was an elegant pile on the cliffs of Darling Point, Sydney, overlooking the harbour.
Our Commonwealth car pulled up out front; we ascend the steps of the mansion and were met at the door by the consul.
Over his shoulder, I spied a gathering of the usual suspects being waited on by men and women wearing black pants and skirts, and white shirts.
We were still at the front door, engaging in the usual pleasantries with our host when a woman in a black skirt and white blouse came up behind the consul.
The consul said something to me which I didn’t catch because I was looking at the woman who had put her hand out towards me.
‘Thank you.’ I said as I removed my coat and handed it to this smiling staff person.
‘My wife, Beryl,’ said the consul.
I wanted to die!