Back at school, life went on with not much to distract me from the tedium of boarding house existence. The crushing banality of daily life was relieved only by my enthusiasm for the competitive life of sport so favoured by Public Schools. Inter-school competitions were at the heart of all the daily training rituals and considerable pride was invested in a victory over a traditional enemy. In the two winter terms we played hockey and rugby and in the summer, of course, cricket; and athletics for those of us who enjoyed both. But the sport drug palliated only so long as you were in the nets or ripping your lungs out running across frozen fields of mud and sharp sticks in the cross-country. There was always a need for some more portable means of killing the boredom of this narrow life. Unsurprisingly this turned out to be ‘girls’. BSC was an all-boys affair – nothing of a sexual nature ever happened amongst the boys I knew – and there was precious little chance of contact with those marvelous creatures you could occasionally see walking along in groups of three or four down in the town. Or on Sundays, on a bushy rhododendron walk which passed not far from a Catholic Girls boarding school. The rumours were everywhere about Catholic girls; the simple hearing of this totally unsubstantiated bit of slander was enough to make your eyes shine. They’d pass by, once again in unassailable groups of four or five as we, in our unassailable groups, watched them glide by. But the dreaming helped. Once a year there was a dance in one of the boarding houses to which girls were invited. Some of the girls were friends and relatives of local boys. That afternoon a few of us had gone on a run. It was summer and the ten mile run had been fantastic. With daylight lasting to about 9pm the dying of the light is a slow exquisite sensation. I put on a shirt and some naf ( ah- what did I know?) jacket thing I’d recently bought in the town for the occasion. I was in my sixteenth year. A group of us all walked in at once and quickly dispersed into marauding entrepreneurs. I found a lovely young girl at the drinks table and managed to strike up a conversation, probably the first conversation I’d ever had with a girl I didn’t know. She lived in the town, down near the gasometres. The railway crossed the road about fifty metres past her front door. Well naturally she didn’t tell me all this at the drinks table, but the dancing had been only vaguely interesting, the band OK, the night was over and I had her phone number. So I rang her up a few days later, didn’t want to frighten her, she was a quiet sort of girl. She invited me down for tea. Meet the family. A boy from ‘The College’. It’s a traditionally class-based society in England but because I was Australian I had some additional license to move about and I didn’t seem to be required to always respect givens - and what did I care she was a working man’s daughter? My grandfather was a fitter and turner. Anyway they made a big fuss over me, set up the living room they never used, the one with all their valuable trinkets and cups; the girl and I sat down on the couch as the father left the room, drawing the curtains and closing the door. There we were. There was a coal fire in the grate and I could hear the rest of the family whispering in the kitchen which was in practice their living room. The sweetness of her breasts filled my head; the exotic, delicate lace around the edge of her bra intoxicated this impressionable boy. Her lips sang with supple glee. But it all had to be so quiet and after a certain amount of kissing time I realised it wasn’t going to get any easier so I took my leave. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember her name. Or if I saw her again. But later at school there was a much more interesting relationship that developed with a girl whose name I do remember, although how I met her is lost in the fog. She was the girlfriend of a school mate who lived in town, a day boy. A nice guy, he was always friendly towards me and I liked his easy going character. Somewhere along the line I’d met her, maybe at one of those yearly dances and fallen in love. The consequence was a little bad blood between my day-boy friend and me. And quite recently, through the agency of email I’ve been in touch with some people from the old school days, and coincidentally one of them was this same fellow. But his name had changed. I thought I’d raise the girlfriend thing as a humorous memory, something we had in common. For some reason that didn’t go down well, and I had no reply. I thought to ask him what it was all about. And where is the lovely Leone now? It was all unflinchingly pure and appropriate. These considerations really did lighten the load of repetition so favoured by institutional life in general. Escape through fantasy, its relation to fact and reality in no way proportional to its ability to help pass the time. Kill time. Arrive at the timeless place. Love. And there were the French girls. Their mother was a teacher at school and we were naturally introduced to her daughters through the school’s activities. I seem to recall being invited to tea over there too. Both as lovely as each other, in a gem-like way, but the older one, more academic, more sophisticated, darker, vanished to my gaze when the younger, blonder, buxom sex-kitten sister, walked in the room. She had my number. I’ve always liked the Marilyn Monroe type. Perhaps since then. Of course I had nothing to do with her. There were faster, more talented lads on the case. I wondered, from afar. Coincidentally this same girl is now married to one of my old school housemates, who at the time, if I remember correctly, was going out with the older sister. I thought this was rather a nice story too, so in an email I said to this old school friend that he should say hello to her from me and tell her that sometimes I used to dream about her…or something. Once again my attempts to communicate by providing lightly spun versions of old stories excited absolutely nothing at all by way of response. Maybe Englishmen don’t like to talk about their women. Or I’m just a too personal and rather vulgar Australian. When I eventually went home to Beirut for my holidays, the social scene heated up and the move signaled the beginning of my first serious relationship with a young woman. There were parties every weekend with crowds of English-speaking kids, a few Turks, the occasional Lebanese. My first girlfriend had an absent English father, away in a tuberculosis sanatorium somewhere and a scary Armenian mother. My slender girl shared a bedroom with her three brothers; the oldest thought he was straight out of West Side Story, complete with knives and hard core bravado. I never saw him do much dancing. His mate, Sam the Turk, was a bit flash with a razor, showing me a number of ways to hold the lethal weapon so as not to inflict too deep a wound. I managed to negotiate an entirely trouble free passage through the fantasy posturings of these self- aggrandised tough guys. I hung out with the girls. We lived a good way out of the city in a new development of apartment buildings, someway up into the hills, so it was a little cooler in the summer time. But hardly any birds in the few trees left standing. Small birds were something of a delicacy for the locals and over the years it seemed they’d eaten just about all of them. You’d see the shooters out with their rifles, game bag slung over a shoulder, trawling the rocky landscape for the remaining one or two. Most of them were down in the markets, dead ones – twenty or so hanging on a string, a suite of sparrows. I tried one in a restaurant once. It was so small, the head came with it; I was told the head was the best part, you just crunched through the skull and eyes and brain. Actually it didn’t taste too bad; but eating them reminded me of the Easter Island tragedy where the people chopped down all the trees for their cultural activities and depleted all their resources. In the end I believe they finished up eating each other. The Middle East looks like an environment also suffering from an excess of resource depletion, probably a couple of thousand years of abuse by man and goat, another mindlessly voracious consumer. Every day the sun shone in a blue sky untroubled by clouds; relentless sunny weather. After a month of holidaying in Beirut I was often glad to get back to England for the rain and the sheer unpredictability of the skies. Public transport was brilliant in Lebanon. They had the usual buses and taxis but also a special type of shared car arrangement called a service. These, mostly elderly Mercedes sedans, plied particular routes. They were allowed five passengers, two in the front and three in the back. They’d stop anywhere along the route to drop off or pick up and there was a flat fee. You did have to know the routes to take full advantage of this practical system but then you could get around, doing quite large distances for very little money, as I was to find out when I had to make regular trips up to a city called Zahlé, in the Bekaa Valley, to the hospital there, to visit my mum and dad and small sisters banged about and recuperating after a car smash. We’d been in Lebanon only about a year or so and I was back for the long summer holidays. Two months of fun, club sandwiches, chawarma, hommus, falafel, beach life and if I was lucky, sex. My parent’s social life centered around the St George Club right on the water next to one of the city’s ritzier hotels, where large numbers of seriously wealthy people lay about all day cultivating tans, looking at each other’s gold chains, skiing from the hotel’s pontoon. We used to go over there occasionally to do some skiing, but mostly we just dived from the diving board on the Club’s deck and swam about in the Mediterranean Sea. Sad to say the blue beauty of that sea, in that small bay, had been sorely compromised by an overloaded and obviously ineffective sewerage treatment system which spewed foul, incompletely digested material into the bay from a large pipe outlet about half way between the St George Hotel and the Club. This didn’t stop us from swimming there. You just had to keep a weather eye open and swim around it. I loved the density of the Beirut, congested crowds of busy people, raucous music blasting from just about every shop, each with its favourite Arabic pop music, all ground in with a blend of car engines and the middle-eastern driver’s love affair with the horn. The air carried not only the tangling, delightful confusion of all those sounds, but also crammed in the heady aromas of coffee and spices from the many food stalls and restaurants, not to mention the rather less pleasant fumes spewed out by all the buses, taxis, cars and motorbikes. In my eighteenth year and keen to spend time with my delicious Armenian/English girlfriend I’d got up one morning ready to catch a service into the city. We’d planned to go to one of the many private beaches just south of the city. Mum was cooking breakfast and announced we were all going on a picnic to Baalbek, a Phoenician ruin a few hours drive out of Beirut. I’d never been there, but the prospect of a day surrounded by little sisters and a bunch of people I didn’t know came a distant second to my own plans for the day. I explained this to mum, but she was adamant that I should come. We argued heatedly until dad intervened. I stomped off into my room and thought about it. She had accused me of being selfish – as if she didn’t realise this was behaviour entirely synonymous with adolescence, but the argument hit a soft spot of loyalty and I resolved to surrender and go with them. I strolled into the bathroom to comb my hair, and as I looked in the mirror, a voice, quite loud and quite distinct said, in my head, “It’s now or never”. The voice surprised me; I’d never noticed voices in my head saying things I wasn’t thinking. As I walked through the apartment on my way to the front door I noticed they’d all gone. When I got outside, I could see the VX490 about a hundred yards down the road and disappearing around a corner. My dad must have persuaded her to let me go. I had a great day with my girlfriend and got home in the evening around seven. Five am next day the phone rang and someone from the airport wanted to know where dad was. He was scheduled to fly. I checked their bedroom, nobody home. Unconcerned, I went back to bed. Later in the morning the phone rang again and this time I became concerned. They’d had a car crash on their way back from Baalbek and they were all in Zahlé hospital; including one of dad’s friends who’d been riding in the front passenger seat. I had to go into the city to find a way of getting to the place, and fortunately, a service route ran out that way. I had very little money, usually relying on daily parental handouts for transport and food so this very cheap public system meant I was able to visit my injured family. The city was over the mountains and into the fertile Bekaa Valley and its only hospital was serviced by nuns who shuffled around the whitewashed corridors in their black habits and weird hats, administering as best they could in a place evidently far from a state-of-the-art medical facility. The little girls had not been injured; they’d been in the back seat asleep. Dad had some broken bones, a bit of facial bruising. The dog which they’d had with them, an English Corgi, had vanished. Somebody said the locals might consider the dog a delicacy. Yum yum. That could have been the only vaguely positive outcome of the accident. The serious bad news was that my mother had a broken neck. She was stretched out in traction, hair shaved to allow the calipers undisturbed access to her skull. She was conscious but groggy, and was having trouble breathing. She was an incomplete quadriplegic, she had tiny movements in her hands which every time I visited seemed to improve a little. I’d visit every two or three days. On the tenth day, just as I arrived, the nurses were bustling about with greater purpose than usual and evidently my mother was having some kind of crisis. They’d medicated her which seemed to ease her breathing and as I bent over to kiss her, she asked me to put my head on her chest and listen. Each breath was a terrible effort for her, dragging in the oxygen she needed, rasping and rattling. The pit of my stomach dropped out. I felt desperately sad for her, fighting so hard for every breath. I turned to the cupboard in the room for distraction and found, among a pile of personal effects, a small gold trinket, a finely sculpted Capricorn goat with fish’s tail on a box chain; she was born in early January. Instinctively I picked it up and put it in my pocket. The girls had already been farmed out to some people in Beirut, so I said goodbye to dad, and went home. She died later on that day, exhausted from the struggle to breathe. She’d needed a hospital with some sort of breathing machine, but the doctors were afraid to move her and damage her spine even further. My father never recovered from his loss. To my eyes, he and his wife loved each other deeply, even depended on each other, having to conjure up family culture in far away places without the benefit of any extended family. I wasn’t at home a good deal of the time but I remember only one occasion when I heard them fighting. We’d just arrived in the Congo and they’d been out to a party. I woke up when their raised voices squabbled about some flirting my father was accused of. He kept telling her to stop, but mum was into her stride and kept up her attack. He threatened her with a cold bath if she didn’t shut up. I heard the bath running. She didn’t shut up until he dropped her in the bath – the water saturating her clothed body must have sobered her up and the house fell quiet again. Next day it was as if nothing had happened. I have many memories of loving between them, dancing, affectionately holding hands, playing games…water skiing. The man was crushed by the death of his wife. Something inside him died too. As the driver of the car which had caused her injury I think he felt guilty. He put on a brave face for a while, especially the day of a memorial service at the St George Club where he and I and the girls stood together in line while a long queue of people filed past offering their condolences. It was all a bit of mystery to me. The death of my mother didn’t seem to register on my emotional being and I couldn’t understand why people behaved as though I would be upset. A few days earlier I had experienced a stab of grief when I’d had to tell my very young sisters the bad news. They were both still with the people who’d looked after them since the accident a couple of weeks earlier. I was ushered into a bedroom and the two small creatures looked up at me, their innocence like a shield. I had to cut through the shield and deliver a fateful blow. My grief was for the living though, those poor little girls without their mother. Even then, after saying in simple direct words “Our mother has died”, Janine, the younger girl, looked up at me with her saucer eyes and said “Who died?” That cruel parry broke my heart and I wept. The holidays ended and I went back to school. Just in time really because I’d borrowed a car from one of dad’s friends to go to a party and on the way some road works confused me and I hit a concrete road divider at speed, buckling one of the front wheels of this very smart little Alpha. There were no repercussions. Perhaps the death of a mother gave a kid a bit of extra forgiveness. My father had to get on with his life, an altogether more difficult task than going back to school for the final year. He had to find a way to do his job which involved a considerable amount of time away from Beirut, and look after his two daughters. Next holiday when I returned to Beirut, he had a girlfriend. A German woman who I think was ground staff for the German airline Lufthansa. She was a fiery redhead. Slightly taller than dad and ten or twelve years younger, she was as argumentative as he was. But she had a daughter who fitted between his two in age and size. Aside from her blond hair the three of them really did look like sisters. All dressed in the same clothes might have helped build the idea; they wanted a coherent family group, but the relationship between my father and his solution to the childcare problem was far from happy. Maybe she realised that’s what he wanted her for and resented it. But dad was committed to going on with it so I encouraged him, convincing him that for my part I was happy for him to be with her; the girls certainly needed looking after. The unhappy couple married shortly afterwards, while I was at school. I had little affection for the woman and argued with her as much as I was inclined. Since most of the time I was at school, what did it matter? In July 1966 I left school for the last time. The summer was rich and green, with marquees on the lawn and speeches and oaths of loyalty to ‘ye olde school’ and fantastic exhilaration and every path walked, every door opened and closed, every goodbye shining, surrounded by a sense of completion, and an end to drudgery and coerced living. I just walked out and left it all behind. I’d recently bought a new ten speed bicycle; I left it in the bike sheds. All my uniforms, the flash red and blue stripy jacket that was a signifier of cricket colours, I left them behind. In 1971 I passed through England on my way back to Australia and called on the schoolmate who’d invited me back to his house on several occasions. His mother told me she’d had the bag with all my stuff in it for years and only quite recently had disposed of it. It occurs to me occasionally how I might, on a sunny afternoon in winter going out to lunch on the river, wear the stripy jacket with the fine BSC embroidered crest. Would it still fit? Probably. And the Latin mottoes on the crest? Verbum Dei and Soli Deo Gloria. I’m not sure a card carrying agnostic could support such proclamations without a Mona Lisa smile. Flying into Beirut from London that last time was also a little bit scary. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. Dad was still trying hard to recover, and for the first time I can recall, we sat together on the verandah of the sixth floor apartment we’d moved into after the accident, and talked. All through the night on one occasion looking past a couple of tall buildings to the sea, drinking beer, philosophising, and considering the possibilities for my future life. This was when he outlined his idea for me. Join a large company and work your way to the top. Like I’d done at two successive schools. He gave me the choice of either returning to England or going back to Australia, after six months off in Beirut for good behaviour- I’d got a couple of “A” levels, in English and French. In spite of spending most of my time in the Art Hut, I failed Art. Those were the only three subjects I did for the last year. In this time-off period I gave scant further consideration to my future, but began to contemplate my past. I started to think about my mother’s death and the part I’d played in it. It wasn’t long before the curdling force of guilt began to bubble into my waking hours. The nagging sensations it produced inspired me to write a series of poems. Like everything else I had and owned from that time, the poems didn’t survive, but the theme was not in the least unusual for survivors. I had no notion of this at the time, but over the years you hear and read about so many people who survive accidents, wars, bombings; and their struggle with the existential reality of being. Why me? It seems the human psyche is hard-wired to ask this same tired old question, regardless of whether you’re the victim or the survivor. In this instance I knew why me. I had decided to pursue my own selfish interests. The fact that I’d changed my mind and had been prepared to go with them didn’t make any difference to the inner conflict. Somehow I knew that if I’d been with them in the car, the accident would never have happened. Dad would have been a bit pissed after a day of picnic, not drunk, he was never drunk, a professional drinker he knew how to remain sober even though he was drinking solidly. Not an unusual skill. But they’d not been to Baalbek before and returning in the dark, he took the wrong road. I knew that if I’d been with them I’d have remembered the correct way home and they wouldn’t have been on that road and forced off the thin strip of bitumen by an oncoming truck into a concrete culvert. The fantasy took a twist when I worked out a darker conclusion. Had I been in the car, the death would have been mine. One of the poems tortured me with idea that my death would have been preferable for everyone concerned. Sure my family would have been upset, but the death of an eighteen-year-old with no dependents would have been far less damaging all round. My mother’s death effectively killed her father when the news eventually made it to Warren, and my sisters’ years of growing up would not have been plagued by the misfortune which came down on them like poisoned rain. So I wrote a bunch of poems and that seemed to be the end of it. Feelings of guilt subsided eventually into the unconscious. I decided I’d had enough of England for the moment and instead chose migration to Australia, the land of my birth, the land of my cultural identity; my own dreaming place. The fact that I knew no one in the country except a few relatives didn’t concern me; I’d had plenty of practice moving to countries where I was completely unknown, but I had a reservoir of memories of the Australian place; those memories drew me back. Dad had a mate who had a friend who lived in the house that Jack built before he married Cin…no. Anyway this mate of my dad’s mate worked for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Sydney. He was a cameraman in the news department at Gore Hill. I contacted him when I arrived and he organised a job for me at the ABC in Gore Hill, a temporary auxiliary position. In the news department. I was a driver, camera carrier, sometimes set the camera up, take the exposed film to the lab, load the film into the camera, drive the car. The job title was Cinecamera Assistant (temporary auxiliary). But I did move in the company of genuine cinematographic talent, drop a name or two, John Seale was the gun apprentice, he got to shoot stuff with a small movie camera, Bolex I think. Second unit news crew too, hands on with the Arriflex. He did important stuff. Don McAlpine, a gentleman, also destined for the Hollywood Role, so did he. I drove a unit car. Until management fired me. I supported the decision; it brought an end to nearly three hours of commuting a day. All that and some more lay ahead as I stepped off the plane into a Sydney summer. It was January 1967.
No Man’s Land
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