Category Archives: youth

By the way

Without any warning, the dentist in my little town got religious indigestion; overnight he shed his tatty cloak of atheism for the snug jacket of God. The speed of the dentist’s transformation was second only to his new found zeal for the conversion of our town’s somewhat generous supply of lost souls. It was not that he had a particularly compelling theology; he did not display a style of argument that subtly blended passion and reason into an irresistible confirmation of the existence of God; nor was it that the dentist was remotely articulate. He lacked even that capacity of that persistent kind of bore to wear away the steely armour of our adolescent disbelief into at least an appearance of acquiescence.  Yet, for all this, our dentist was effective in ways that no preacher had ever been.  Lowering us back into his chair, he would murmur, “Open wide.” Then, as almost an afterthought, he would add, like John the Baptist with a drill, “Oh, by the way, have you been saved?”

Eventually they took our dentist away.  He had started bursting into the pub and spoiling our fathers’ nights with loud admonishments on their evil ways, something they could abide in the church or the bedroom but not the bar.  It was a shame though; everyone agreed that once you said you were saved, that dentist had the touch of an angel.

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Filed under australia, humour, youth

Want

When I was still just a boy, I learned that to want is a weakness and to want too much is to give power to others.  Now I know that this is the history of the world but back then it was just another hot Saturday afternoon as I pushed my bike across the bed of a sandy creek and then rode up the dirt road towards Marinko’s house.  I passed the field where Marinko told us he had killed the kittens.  He had been about to dash their heads against a wall, as he’d done previously, when he decided instead to put the sightless, newborn cats in a hessian bag. Then he left the bag in the  middle of an empty tomato field to bake in the summer sun.  Each hour he would come back and make bets on which kitten would survive the longest. He was cruel, that boy, the cruellest boy in our town.

And, one day, in the fruit-packing shed at Marinko’s, I came to want the German greatcoat. I had seen it many times before, its black leather covered in stains, the tears where white undercloth showed through. It hung in a corner of the corrugated iron shed with the smell of rotting fruit and fertiliser.  On this particular day, Marinko pointed it out to me. “My Dad got it off a German during the war. It was an officer’s jacket”

“How did he get it?” I asked.

“He was a partisan in Yugoslavia,” Marinko said and then, seeing I was interested, he called to his father, “Hey, Dad, tell us where you got the jacket.”  Mr Vujkovic didn’t look up from the bunch of bananas he was de-handing with a knife.  He said something I didn’t understand and Marinko shrugged.  “He never tells you anything.  It’s true though; he was a partisan.”

Marinko’s father showed us only the top of his greying hair, head down, washing the hands of bananas and laying them in neat rows on the bench in front of him.  His white singlet was covered with the stains of banana plants, his black shorts smudged with mud. He never spoke to us and only pointed towards the house when we found him in the fields and asked about Marinko.

“Can I have a closer look?” I asked.  Marinko climbed onto the fruit-sorting table and unhooked the jacket with two hands.  We were only thirteen and he groaned with the weight. “It’s heavy; real leather.” Marinko handed the jacket to me and I held it clumsily, unable even to hold it upright in front of me.  I longed to put it on even knowing that it would not fit.  Marinko seemed to know what I was thinking.  “It’s too big for you,” he said as he took it back and he wasn’t able to resist smirking at me.  I hated him then, not because he was right, but because I felt something shift between us that made him powerful and me weak. 

Then summer came and the cicadas shrill ringing in the trees added a familiar accompaniment to the trembling landscape of greens and browns. I rode my bike past the shady rows of bananas on the Vukjovic plantation which sat on the edge of the dry river.  It was early afternoon and the fallow fields seemed to sway in the heat. I leaned my bike up against the wall of the fruit-packing shed and squinted into the darkness.  The Vukjovic home, a small rectangle of fibro and tin, adjoined the shed with a single door and I heard this open.

Mr Vukjovic came out, paused for a moment and stared at me.  “Is Marinko home?” I asked.  He said nothing and moved toward bunches of bananas lying on their backs on a rusting trailer. I stepped into the shade and gradually my eyes adjusted to the light.  I asked him again, “Is Marinko here?”  Mr Vukjovic lifted a bunch of bananas onto his shoulders and then onto the bench.  He picked up a short knife stained black with banana juice.  “No,” he said. His voice was thick and guttural. We had had this conversation before and it never went any further.  Each time I would get on my bike and ride away.  But now my eyes briefly sought out the German greatcoat.  Mirenko’s father noticed this and he put down the knife and handed the jacket to me.

I stood there holding it and feeling him watch me.  “Germans,” he said.  “We come out of the hills like this.” He made the sound of a machine gun and waved the imaginary weapon backwards and forwards. Then he laughed and I smiled back still holding the coat uncertainly.  “Did you kill this German,” I asked.

Mr Vukjovic dropped his arms and his smile disappeared.  “He was dead already,” he said and then he added, “But I made sure anyway,” He lifted his head and dashed an upraised thumb across the white stubble of his neck. Then he looked down at me with his arms by his side.

I heard him say something under his breath.  When I didn’t reply he appeared to grow angry. “Do you want the jacket, boy?” I nodded. “Then you take the jacket,” he said abruptly.  He motioned me away with his arm. 

“Can I really?” I asked.

“You take it.  I won’t shoot you.” But he didn’t smile when he said this.

“Thanks,” I said quietly, feeling confused like I sometimes did when my Grandfather made a joke that was like some kind of trap.

I walked towards my bike, the coat dragging on the ground.  Marinko’s father followed me and stood by me as I tried hopelessly to fold the greatcoat, tried to place it on my handlebars knowing that it would not stay there. It fell and I picked it up, refolding it into a clumsy parcel.  Somehow I managed to gain my seat and went a few metres before falling sidewards against the packing shed wall and then the hard earth.

Marinko’s father stood beside me and said nothing as I rubbed a scratch on my leg made by the bike pedal. “You put the coat on,” he said and pulled me to my feet with one arm. I said nothing now as he jerked the army jacket roughly over my arms and shoulders like a cape. The weight made me hunch forward.  Mr Vukjovic picked up my bike, put an arm around my waist and lifted me onto the seat.  “Go,” he said.  “Go.”  But part of the jacket had fallen over the back wheel making the pedals harder to push.  I felt the man’s hand on my shoulder and knew that this was all that kept me balanced.  Then the front wheel twisted in the sand and I fell.  Again Mirenko’s father pulled me to my feet, placed me on the seat and pushed me forward.

When I fell once more, he turned me over roughly on the ground and pulled the greatcoat from my back.  Then he walked into the shed and I could hear him dropping the hands of bananas into the water of the cleaning trough.  I was crying silently, pushing my bike to the harder edge of the dirt track that led away from the house. I felt the sun’s heat on my neck; saw that I was covered in dust and that my tears had made strange patterns on my arms where I’d wiped my eyes.

A few weeks later I waited for an excuse, some small provocation, and then, without warning, I punched Marinko Vukjovic as hard as I could in the face.  Blood spurted from his nose and water sprang to his eyes. He was in pain but he was also hurt; he thought I was his friend.  “Why?” was all he said and then with sudden anger, he screamed at me “Why, you little bastard?” Other boys pulled us apart but I had finished. I walked away, my hands in my pockets to stop them from shaking. I never hit any one again in my life and I learned not to want things.

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Filed under australia, friends, life, youth

To a game

I didn’t know my neighbours well so I was kind of surprised when they offered to give me a lift to the garage where my car was waiting to be picked up.  This was on a Saturday morning and they could do it after dropping their son off at his hockey game.  I climbed in the back with him, a 13 year old kid called Luke.  His dad, Neil, was already in the car and he had his ipod running through the speakers.  It was Wilco singing Heavy Metal Drummer.  They were talking about the song when I climbed in and Neil introduced us.  “Hi,” said Luke but he seemed pretty shy and a little anxious.

 

Then the door was opening and his mum, Paula, was getting in.  She smelled nice and her hair was still a bit wet from washing.  She said, “Oh, I see everyone is waiting for me, as usual.” But it wasn’t quite light-hearted and no one said anything.  Neil put the car in reverse but his wife, looking over her shoulder down both sides of the street said, “Wait, there’s something coming.” A car passed and then she said, “OK, you can go now.” And then she got some lipstick out of her bag just after she reached over and turned down the music.

 

There was silence for a while and then she said over her shoulder to Luke, “Have you got everything, Lukey?” 

 

“Yep,” he said but she went through a list of stuff anyway; shin pads, mouth guard, water. Then she said to Neil, “Why are you going this way?” There was a pause and I heard her husband say, “Because it will take longer” but he said it more like a question.  If she noticed this, his wife didn’t acknowledge it.  “It’s just that there is a quicker way,” she said.

 

“Well, this is the way we usually go, isn’t it, Luke?” Luke nodded but he didn’t say anything.  We drove on for a few minutes and then I asked, “Do you like Hockey, Luke?”  He nodded again and his mother said “He loves it, don’t you, Lukey?” but before he could answer she went on, “The coach says he has to concentrate staying forward of the ball.” She turned again to Neil.  “Do you help him out with this stuff?”

 

“Sure,” Neil answered.

 

Then Paula turned to me as if I had asked a question, “Neil objects to all this sport on Saturday.  He thinks the kids are organised enough during the week. But I think it’s good for Luke; that’s what I did every weekend with my parents.”  Then she turned back adding, “Netball.”

 

Neil said over his shoulder, “I grew up in the country and lived out of town.  No organised sports there; we just played all day and swam and stuff.”

 

“It’s just what you’re used to, I suppose,” Paula said. “Being organised never hurt me.”

“And being free never hurt me,” I heard Neil say but this went unremarked and soon we were pulling into the hockey field. There were parents and kids everywhere. Neil pulled up near the change rooms and Paula said, “Are we parking here?”

 

There was another pause and Neil said, “Why?”

 

“Nothing, it’s just not very close to the game.” But she opened the door saying, “Not to worry.  Dad always parks in funny places, doesn’t he, Lukey.” Luke climbed out and Paula said, “I love you, darling.  Have a great game.” And she kissed him on the forehead.

 

Neil called out, “See you soon, Luke.”

 

I watched Luke run across the field that was split down the middle by a big white line. I could see his coach waiting to tell him what to do.

 

 

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Filed under boys, life, Marriage, Men, youth

And all the voices lost

In the middle of the morning I make my way alone to a place called Chinaman’s Pool, not far from where I am staying for the holiday.  About a hundred years ago, this permanent pool was the mainstay of the town’s water supply and Aboriginal people made money by carrying it in heavy buckets to a tank in the main street.  The small stretch of water got its name from the large shoulder yokes, like those of the Chinese, which straddled the dark backs of the carriers.

 

I did not grow up in this area of the river but a couple of kilometres further east.  There is no doubt that the shady white gums, the paperbark trees and the green, peaceful water are beautiful.  But I feel I am in a strange place; that this is not my river but the river of the town kids.  My part of the river was wider and scattered with small islands.  We named each part and knew a story about every bank and stream.

 

It strikes me that this was always the way for the first people of this land.  The river stretches more than 500 kilometres inland and each tribe called just a small part of it home.  To the Ingaada people, here near the mouth of the river, it was Kow Win Wardo but just 70 kilometres away the wilder circumcised and scarred tribes had their own names.

 

Now they are all gone and the river is become one river but empty of their ancient songs and laughter.

 

Later, I take my kids to my part of the river.  It is still flowing but shallow.  Soon it will return to sand until the next cyclonic rain arrives.  They wrestle and run after each other in the clear stream.  “Are you watching, Dad?” they yell.  I am watching.  I watch the trees stretched like a familiar garland along the grassy banks unchanged in all this time.  And there’s the crossing where we boys stripped off one night and swam with strange exhilaration and a kind of moonlight madness.  That’s the island which we lit up with matches and watched disappear in a tall conflagration like a Viking funeral.  And over there, a girl called Susan and I kissed and tried to make love but both of us too young and clumsy.  Later she sent me a letter, “I miss you.” About a kilometre downstream we boys camped most weekends and carved our names on pieces of driftwood and whispered naïve dreams from our sleeping bags. We heard our words float up into the night sky with embers from the dying fire.

 

As I watch, three boys appear on the banks.  They are riding bikes and they look at us as if we have spoiled something.  I wish they would come down and talk to us, tell me what they are doing.  I know they will tell me they are bored and that there is nothing to do in this town and one day we are all going to leave for the city. As I did before them and muttering the same old small town mantra. One of them says something and points east.  They disappear. So many have disappeared now.

 

Suddenly my daughter is beside me and looking up at me intently.  Maybe she can see something in my face that wasn’t there before.  Anyway, it’s as if she has guessed what I am thinking. “Is it still the same as when you were a kid, Dad?” she asks. I wonder then if she will come back to this place one day and remember her brother and me in the gentle autumn sun, how the river stones glistened in the light and small birds whistled in hiding. And even as I wonder this I am struck by the certainty of it. She will remember me. And the river will remember me too and the Ingaada people and Susan and some naked boys laughing and all the voices lost to the sky.

 

“Well,” I say but smiling now, “the water changes but the river is always the same.”

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Filed under australia, life, loss, memory, youth

Class Management 101

A teacher I knew told how he always had trouble with a particular class of 14 year olds when he came to explain the joys of human reproduction.  Inevitably, the boys, in particular, would snigger and whisper during his lesson and no admonishment or threat on his part seemed to affect the mature reflection he desired.  Then, one day, he found the solution without really trying.  Turning suddenly from the blackboard, he bore down on a hapless boy caught giggling to the student next to him.  At the top of his voice the teacher commanded, “You, son!  What’s a penis?” Apparently the remainder of the lesson assumed an unusual gravitas both profound and undisturbed.

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Filed under humour, life, sex, youth

Holidays

I swear I didn’t raise my kids differently; they just turned out nothing like each other.  Maybe it’s a gender thing. 

Anyway, I’ve decided to take them to Bali this year, their first overseas holiday.  We are looking through the brochures together.  There are photographs of our hotel, jungle adventures and palm trees.  The mood of excitement is palpable and my eleven year old daughter exclaims, “Wow, Dad – elephants!”

Barely have the words passed her lips than my 13 year old son, in tones equally ecstatic, cries, “Wow, Dad – cable TV!”

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Last laugh

grandmother.gifThere was a time when my grandmother was a vivacious and romantic young schoolteacher who loved the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and quoted the poetry of Tennyson. She was funny and mischievous well into old age.  One day, says my father, he was courting my mother on the front veranda of my grandmother’s house.  His fiancée’s younger sister, Janet, hovered around them and did her purposeful best to ensure that the young couple were not left alone.  Finally, in a fit of frustrated amour, my father reached out and smacked the teenager’s leg.  She raced tearfully and angrily into the house.  A pause ensured and my grandmother’s voice came from inside, “Bobby, did you just hit Janet?”

My father, still annoyed but also a little embarrassed answered curtly, “Yes, I did!”

There was another pause and then my grandmother’s voice, calmly and emphatically, returned with, “Good.”

When my mother was a teenager, my grandmother would take great delight in foraging through rubbish bins while they waited for the bus, much to the mortification of her daughter.  Then she would giggle about it all the way home.

Once, when I was just a small boy, she found me laughing at something on the television, something suspiciously like sexual innuendo.  “And what are you laughing about, young man?” asked my Grandmother.  I explained in my confused, uncertain way.  She looked at me sternly and then said with mock disdain, “I believe, sir, that you have a polluted mind!” But I heard her loudly guffaw seconds later.

By the time she was sixty, however, she had become completely and painfully crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Letters to my mother were written over many days as it became increasingly difficult to hold her pen and her mind began to wander.  One day she wrote, “Now that the years have past, there is something that I need to tell you, something I should have told you many years ago. Now that you are a woman you will understand and there is no need for this secret to exist between us anymore.”  My mother turned the page with a sense of dread and expectation.  What she found was a new date and a new set of agonisingly etched lines that began, “I can’t remember what I was writing about before.  The weather here has been delightful lately although not good for the garden…” 

Despite my mother’s elaborate and extended entreaties, no further information was ever forthcoming and the secret, whatever it was, has long ago gone with my grandmother to the grave.  I don’t know about the afterlife, what it looks like or where it is, but I suspect that there is someone there reciting poetry and chuckling.

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Filed under humour, memory, poetry, youth