Flying in from the Middle East, the Sydney air seemed crisp and moist, but the city itself, the buildings, the red-roofed suburban sprawl, exuded nostalgia. Twenty two years after the end of the Second World War, the city still seemed mesmerised by relief, quietly gripping an old- fashioned façade. Sitting in the train and heading out to my grandmother's place in Caringbah I had a glimpse of what looked like a preservation project for nineteenth century living; hundreds of semi-detached houses with their small, mostly concreted backyards, their outdoor dunnies, their washing on the line catching the soot and dust of the industrial world. The train passed through a few of these industrial zones, the stench of tanning almost smearing the vinyl train seats with my airline breakfast. All these impressions floated on the surface of the rattle and shake of the suburban train plying its course to the outer suburbs of this barely remembered place. Yathong Road had upgraded. Now a thin strip of the black stuff ran down the centre of the road, still leaving a wide stretch of clay and gravel on both sides vulnerable to the bucketing rain which would erode a thin sticky slush into the gutters and down the street. By now I had lost interest in the delight to be had in floating home-made boats in the rushing torrent, but the familiarity of the street and its memories provided comfort in those early days back in Australia. My short career in the news department at the ABC gave me my first encounter with the local girls. It didn't happen at work, they were all men in the news department, but the father of one of other camera assistants had a drama group. I was invited to join. I was offered the part of a camp Spanish dancer. Hmmm. "What's that?" "Oh." The word 'gay' was yet to be appropriated by Queer Culture for its own informal descriptive. I had no idea about any of it. There was a beautiful girl in the cast I fell in love with on sight. I first saw her and her spectacular long hair flowing over a most attractive bum from behind. Her face with its fine aquiline nose more than a match for her captivating rear end. She was probably a few years older than me and I was never able to articulate my crushing desire for her, inhibited by an even more crushing shyness, but she took me to some pubs where she said we could see and hear congregations of gays; I could learn to mimic the stereotypic mannerisms and so add conviction to the part. One such pub was in Kensington with its faux cave front inviting in the boisterous crowd of transvestites, female impersonators and hard-core queens; and a small coterie of cultural tourists. Fresh from many years sheltered in institutions, the gay culture was a considerable shock for me. It was a strange feeling to be looked at in the same way as I looked at women. This was the first time I'd realised the predatory messages which could be carried in a look, particularly if that look was unwelcome. My female friend seemed to cast a protective space around us so I was able to watch and listen; before long I picked up the special sibilance characteristic of the feminised gay man. His gesture took a little longer, but by the time the play was performed, in a small ABC studio just off William Street, I was confident the character had just the right amount of mince without it looking like a parody. When my time was up at Gore Hill, what I missed most of all was the easy opportunity to be with that fabulous woman in the theatre group again. Looking for another job didn't take long. Since I'd only quite recently left London with a bag full of Carnaby Street clothes, I dressed up and wandered into the 'In Shop for Men' in Hunter Street at the heart of the city immediately opposite Wynyard train station. My clothes were well out of date by then, but here in the colonies (my passport still identified me as a British Subject) they still looked reasonably sharp and the manager didn't hesitate to give a job to the fashionista before him. I started two days later. Getting to work was slightly quicker, but the daily journey still took way too long and I was keen to move out of Gran's house into somewhere closer to town. One of the salesmen at the shop lived in a boarding house on South Dowling Street and he'd drive his VW beetle into work every day; he told me there was a vacant room, so I moved into my first independent accommodation and out of the regular crowd of commuters on the platform at Caringbah. The house had seven or eight tenants including my friend, a Frenchman. We regularly ate together in the communal kitchen and slowly I learned a little about cooking food. I'd never had to cook a thing in my life so he gave me a good grounding in the fundamentals. Olive oil, fry the onions and garlic, add veg and meat and boil some rice. Once a week we'd go to a pet shop in Wentworth Avenue and buy a fillet steak; horse fillet. This turned out to be a cut of meat so tender and so tasty when fried in butter, I wondered why you had to get it in a pet shop. One of those quaint Anglo prejudices I supposed. You could eat cows but not horses. I couldn't follow the logic. You can ride a horse, true, but how does that mean you can't eat it? Dogs and cats get a similar, what I imagine is sentimental, consideration. The house was a world away from my sheltered existence out in old-world Anglo-Australia Caringbah. South Dowling Street was a very busy transit road from the city to the airport passing by the giant Resch's brewery just down the road. About a block away was the junction with Cleveland Street dense with shops and commercial activity a good deal of which was dominated by New Australians, mostly Italians, Greeks and Lebanese, so the place felt somewhat familiar to me, with its echoes of Beirut. The term 'New Australian' eventually fell to the less personal descriptive of Australia's broad social mix, 'Mulitcultural'. This new generic spontaneously included natives like me, those born here, and the descendants of the original inhabitants, the Aborigines. Across the road was Moore Park with its imposing Moreton Bay fig trees, sports fields and perennial dog walkers. On Saturdays in summer white flannelled enthusiasts would swing away at small red balls, the crack of willow and ball and fragments of applause sometimes floating over the clatter and hum of traffic into my attic room. One floor down in a more expansive room, lived a young woman who worked for one of the airlines. She was a hostess and a very friendly girl. She had an alarm clock which activated a radio station to wake you up. Incredible. I remember being well impressed with this innovation. The woman herself was pretty impressive too, and she took me into her bed with a minimum of fuss. It soon became apparent she liked the company of gay men; she called herself a 'faghag'. A new expression for me, but she and I would go to pubs where the entertainment was provided by drag queens. The animation of these performers was exhilarating, not to mention the extravagance of their costumes, the whole impression accelerated by contrast with the perfectly ordinary Darlinghurst pub décor. In one bar you'd have the regular clientele of diggers and their schooners, tiled walls, football team photos and next door in a sort of annexe bar would be the boa feathered extravaganza, tightly squeezed in and pulsing with coloured lights and campery. The annexe scene eventually overrode the old diggers spilling out into the entire pub as the gay scene hit its stride and marched out, all conquering, across the Darlinghurst landscape, spreading its colours up to William Street where eventually it would celebrate gay pride with an annual Parade, attracting enthusiasts from across the planet and televised live on the ABC. My contact with gay men was frequent enough, thanks to my South Dowling Street hostess, that I finally encountered an approach from a particularly ambitious predator wanting to convert me to the gayside. Aside from a rather limp attempt by a floor manager at the ABC to induce me into his bed - maybe he saw me playing the Spanish dancer and thought I was ripe for plucking - there'd been no real pressure on me to try out homosexuality. But finally the persistence of the message was getting to me and I thought I should maybe try it out, maybe I was in denial, maybe I really was gay. I accepted an invitation from a man who was probably in his mid-thirties to dinner at his house in Paddington; I would have been twenty, maybe twenty one. I knocked on the door. He appeared, resplendent in a gold and black kaftan; sweeping into the lounge room decorated to within a fraction of excess he invited me to sit in a couch so deeply stuffed I thought I'd never get out of it. We dined on quince… no, but there were three courses, complete with wines and crystal glasses oh so fine. When the eating and drinking ended he invited me upstairs to a sumptuous boudoir where he languidly lay across his big brass bed. As I approached the bed I was overcome with a sensation at once familiar and bizarre. It'd happened once before when I lived in the Congo. I was with my mother down at the Post Office picking up our mail, no delivery service there; I was sitting next to her in our little Fiat parked in the shade as she opened a telegram from Australia. As she read she began to sob and cry "No, no, oh no!" I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but a maniacal charge of grinning energy from my solar plexus threatened to rise up and overcome me; sensing its total inappropriateness I struggled, profoundly embarrassed, to suppress the evil grin. In the event it was the news of the death of my crop-dusting Uncle Ron. Here in Paddington, no death appeared to be involved, but the same manic grin began to rise in my chest. Not being in the presence of my mother's evident grief allowed me to let this thing have its way; as it hit the surface I began to laugh, and laugh. The bizarre moment gave me the space to say to him, when I was eventually able to draw breath that this was probably not for me; I thanked him for the lovely dinner and left. The experience settled any doubt that my sexual preference was for the other. Some deeper part of the self seems to have what is perhaps a kind of omniscience; when the situation requires protection it can unleash a response, affording some space in which its less than percipient conscious client can shelter from a passing storm. Meanwhile life rolled on at the In Shop, but my interest in the clothes I was selling began to pale; much like my enthusiasm for the business of flattering people into buying more than they intended. The salespeople were given the usual discount on the merchandise and encouraged to wear the clothes by way of promoting them to the punters. I started to smell a rat when I realised a good deal of the not spectacular wage was going back to the owners of the shop. Down the road one lunch time I found a uniform shop with a plain white cotton jacket, a doctor's coat, unlined and ordinary, but I liked it: it had good pockets. I took to wearing it every day, like the uniform it was. The occasional customer would want to know where they could get one and, ever the obliging salesman, I'd tell them, although there was nothing in it for the In Shop. The manager disapproved of this cheapo jacket and its promotion, but this being a free country, had no real grounds to complain. Yet. This same manager had a girlfriend who'd come in occasionally to pick him up after work and while she waited for him to finish off his business I'd talk to her, keep her entertained. We struck up a bit of a friendship and one day she invited me back to her place for some more intimate entertainment. The boss wasn't supposed to find out about this; I think she was just playing with the hired help. I didn't mind, she was enjoyable, she had a comfortable flat somewhere in Edgecliffe and I was hungry to learn and to explore the needs of women. The liaison went on for a while and the guy either didn't mind or didn't know. Around this time a cousin of mine who lived in Mildura invited me to his wedding. I had no way of getting there and so I asked my boss if I could borrow his VW to drive there. Just for the weekend. He generously agreed, maybe pleased to get rid of me for a while. That night we all went to a party. Around 2am I realised I was going to have to get a move on or miss the ceremony. Someone handed me a small blue pill and said this would keep me awake for the drive. It was a purple heart. I'd heard of the drug back in England; some of the older boys in the house had boasted about going up to London and scoring some purple hearts at a party. Sydney to Mildura is a long drive so I decided to take the amphetamine pill to keep me awake through the night. About the time I got to Wagga, day was breaking, but the pill was wearing out and I'd started to fall asleep. I'd wake up, shake my head and drive on. But the cumulative effect of the drug had turned my lack of sleep into a tsunami which finally swamped me at the wheel. I heard the siren klaxon of a ship, or so I thought and just woke up in time to see I was on the wrong side of the road and heading straight for a semi-trailer. The truckie had his hand full on the horn which woke me up. "Jesus, I'd better stop and drink some coffee!" By now I was in the city limits of Wagga and had slowed down, getting ready to stop at the first service station. Shaking my head to stay awake I noticed the pink dawn sky broken by a line of decorative trees along the side of the road. Some clouds on the horizon looked like rain. Next moment I was looking up at the sky, no trees to be seen and I remember hearing a crash as I woke up leaning on the steering wheel. The car had left the road and climbed up one of the trees pushing it over at about forty five degrees lifting the nose of the VW to the sky. I scrambled out and sat on the curb, still stunned. As I reached into my shirt pocket for a cigarette a searing pain went through my arm. Looking down I could see it was in bad shape. Both bones had been snapped right through, one of them had broken the skin and was poking out, jagged and bloody. Ouch. Must have broken it on the steering wheel. Some people passing by stopped and gave me a shot of brandy before driving me in to Wagga Base Hospital. The Wagga council sent me a bill for their tree. I didn't make it to the wedding. My boss wasn't much impressed with his bent car either. When I eventually got back to work things had soured somewhat between the boss and me. I had no trouble working that one out; he'd finally taken exception to my affair with his girlfriend - wrecking his car might have contributed, but the white doctor's jacket was the face-saving excuse for him to have a go. I came in one day with the thing on and he said either I take it off or I was fired. I thanked him for his indulgence, turned on my heel and walked out. That was the end of my career in selling. Just before getting fired I'd moved from South Dowling Street and found similar boarding house accommodation in King's Cross. The very hub of night life in Sydney. Victoria Street ran down towards the harbour, lined with huge plane trees and four storied historically significant housing, later to be the focus of a major campaign by the BLF, a militant union, raging against unfettered development of the area. A local newspaper publisher was murdered in the melee. It was a quiet, leafy road at the time, full of gentle shade and working class long-term residents; my place was almost at the end of the road and backed onto a steep drop into Woolloomooloo and the dock area. My room was once again at the top of the house and from the little window I could survey the entire central city profile, its southern border skirted by a large park peppered with monumental Moreton Bay fig trees. Those same trees and their occupants were later to be a source of entertainment and distraction through some very long nights as I lay confined in Sydney Hospital's neurosurgical ward. I walked to work in the morning down a long flight of stairs into Woolloomooloo and up through the Domain into the city. The Domain was a popular spot on Sundays when large crowds would gather to hear whoever was inclined to bring their soap box and proclaim a point of view to the world, much in the tradition of London's Hyde Park corner. The caretaker of the boarding house was a lovely little woman who lived in the ground-floor flat. She was…elderly, and small, and she'd sit in her place with the door open and there seemed to be an open invitation to the tenants to drop in and say hello. I got to know her quite well and would chat and have cups of tea with her. Living in the Cross was a fun place to be and gave me easy access to the inner city life of cheap restaurants, dance clubs and good crowds of friendly people. I needed another job and a bar I'd been going to looked like a cool place to work; the barmaids wore diaphanous Indian cotton shirts, by special requirement of the owner. The place's cachet was that it had no name and signage out the front, just a blacked out wall, collaged with posters for various entertainments around the traps. The owner himself usually stood at the door and needed to know who you were before he'd let you in. He took pride in knowing the names of all his customers. I met a new crowd of people through the bar and eventually decided to move out of the room in Victoria Street to be a bit closer to the bar for work. Unfortunately the caretaker took this decision rather personally. I was never able to work out how or why she reacted so badly to my leaving. She railed long and hard at me and in a moment of pitched emotional attack accused me of selfishness. This reminded me of my mother's point of view the last time I'd spoken to her before her accident, but I was bewildered as to how this person, whom I'd only known for a few months, could take such a position - I wasn't breaking any lease arrangements as there weren't any. A mystery at the time, but later I understood she had appropriated me, somehow, into her probably lonely private life, and I'd let her down by going away. This experience proved to be an early lesson in the dangerous implications of my own unconscious mother projections and their powerful effects on female emotional attachments; at the time I thought she was just a little old mad lady. I moved into a renovated three bedroom house in Riley Street with a couple of dudes I'd met in the bar who were making their way as actors. Nice work if you can get it I thought and decided to have a go. My new career path had begun.
No Man’s Land
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