A friend of mine said to me, not so long ago after we’d been reflecting on things we’d done in our lives, that my history would make interesting reading. I don’t know about that. All I can do is put it out there and let people make up their own minds. If nothing else, it’s a record for my kin and kindred of what their somewhat eccentric forebear was all about. Or maybe not; maybe writing down the story means something, maybe not. Maybe it’s important, maybe not. It is to me.
One of the hardest things about recalling distant events – and I am unquestionably some distance now from childhood – is recalling the sequence in which things happened. I can recollect snippets – my mother worried about the course of a war (It would have been Korea), my father reassuring her; watching from a parent’s shoulder as the young British queen swept around the Basin Reserve in her shiny black limousine; people excited, the same day, when a fellow countryman reached the top of the world’s highest mountain. The hullabaloo made about as much sense to me then as it does now. Somewhere back in those early days, there’s an incident involving a dog – a big collie – drawing blood when he took a bite of my leg. I don’t know why he did it; I don’t think I would have done anything nasty to him, because on the whole I like dogs. I’ve always liked them.
Funnily enough, though, a dog is a factor in the most vivid of my childhood traumas, running into a cement railing full tilt when I was five or six. They used to have a lot of these around where I lived, structures of concrete posts and rails that stuck out at intervals across the wide grass verges separating the fronts of properties from the footpath. Often we’d wander along these verges, using the rails as swings or gymnastic bars as we went by. On this occasion my companion was Margaret Smith, the baker’s daughter, my new (and I think first) girlfriend. It was late in the afternoon, almost dusk. We were holding hands. I’d turned around to check out a dog who’d barked at us as we went past. I hit the rail at forehead height, and went down like a ton of bricks.
My relationship with Margaret didn’t survive the impact, or my inert body or the blood pouring from my head-wound. She ran off, leaving me unconscious on the grass, and our liaison ended there. She apparently neglected to tell either of her parents, because some guy on a pushbike picked me up, wandering around aimlessly a couple of blocks from home, an hour or so later.
It was the first of a number of injuries I suffered throughout my childhood. I seemed to have a penchant for splitting my head open: there was the protruding nail, the recoiling-axe from-the-fruit-box, the tangled-skipping-rope-and-the-head-through –the-glass-door; the list goes on. I once sliced open my forefinger (to the bone) once on a broken mica insulator when me and a friend were turfing rocks onto house roofs.
The doozie, though, was when I set myself on fire. Dad always kept a couple of jerry cans of petrol in the shed, and ever since I’d been enthralled by lighting it on bits of rag, newspapers or in small tins, just to watch it burn. On the occasion that was ultimately to expunge my fascination, I’d put a largish tin – an old fruit can – into the ground and lit a quantity of petrol inside it. The problem arose when I went to put it out, which I attempted to do by smothering it with a slightly smaller tin.
To this day I haven’t worked out the precise physics of what happened next, but a circle of burning petrol erupted from the space between the two tins, catching me fair in the face, neck and shoulders. My younger brother – the only one home at the time – proved absolutely useless, running around the backyard like headless chook shrieking: “Me brother’s gonna die, me brother’s gonna die!” This might well have come to pass were it not for the intervention of one of the neighbours’ kids, a high school friend of one of my older brothers, who smothered the flames and rang Mum. She seemed to be there in an instant.
I don’t have much recollection of what happened for a while after that, except waking up in a bed in hospital with my face feeling like it was still on fire. For the next few days I drifted in and out of awareness, until the pain started to subside. For a while there was talk about skin grafts, but three weeks later I was released relatively unscathed.
I say “relatively”, because one effect of the burns was to turn the scars bright red whenever I became hot, embarrassed, angry, guilty or scared. My face, on such occasions, took on the appearance of a world map, with the British Commonwealth appropriately coloured. It made me shy around people, particularly girls, in whom I had already begun to develop a keen curiosity.
I was still a bit young to be crushed by feminine rejection, though. The scarlet flush gradually faded, and within a couple of years – when the egoism of advancing adolescence made such rejection critical to self-confidence – was almost indiscernible.
I can still recollect the smell of burning wool from my school jumper that day. Mum wasn’t around because she’d started working a couple of months earlier, in the office of the small whitegoods repair business Dad and his partner owned. My three older brothers were likewise otherwise occupied; their focus was on teenage stuff: girls, cars and music. Keeping an eye on me wasn’t on the program, except to ensure I put the spuds, pumpkin and thrice-weekly leg of mutton into the oven, set the table and look after my younger brother.
I don’t think having my parents or older brothers around would have made much difference to the extent of my injuries, anyway; the neighbour’s intervention had been swift. But the event taught me something that shifted the focus of my life: that I couldn’t – and shouldn’t – rely on my family to do look after me. I had to look after myself.
The neighbourhood we lived in was pretty typical of urban working class New Zealand in the 1950’s and ‘Sixties. The gasworks was just down the street, a blackened landscape of massive coal heaps and the pipe-bound refinery. There were two massive expandable gas tanks in among the coal-heaps.
For the neighbourhood kids, the “Gasworks” was the heartland of their territory, along with the “Flax Hill” that adjoined it. The neighbourhood kids held mock battles there, walked expertly the length of the high brick-topped wall; floated among the piles on makeshift rafts when the rain pooled into shallow lakes between the coal heaps.
It was to this blackened landscape that I increasingly turned, blending into the company of my peers. We saw ourselves as members of an exclusive brotherhood, although in reality it had quite fluid borders, with some people coming and going on a casual basis. When the movie West Side Story came out, we morphed into a gang, but more for the costume and choreography than anything else. Our most serious crimes were a bit of shoplifting (organising ‘raids’ on the local milk bar), a bit of minor vandalism (breaking windows in a local deserted warehouse) and back-chatting the local police sergeant (a big burly bloke who packed six of us into his baby Austin, drove us to the local police station and rang our parents to come and pick us up).
It was like that until I was fifteen, when my parents made what I still consider a ill-conceived decision to move to a satellite town about fifty k’s from the city. Public transport to this new location was patchy at best. Gradually the connection with the old neighbourhood frayed, until by the time I left high school, when people went their different ways, the suburb became just a memory.
When I go back there, which isn’t very often, the ‘hood seems smaller and slightly seedier. I’m not sure whether that’s because it’s actually changed or whether, as a kid growing up there, I just didn’t see it.
Risks were a part of everyday life for kids in our kind of environment; but we learned early how to assess them, and most of us got through our childhood with nothing more than a few scars and broken bones. These injuries you could wear like badges of honour: a long scar along a forefinger from a broken insulator you were trying to toss onto a neighbourhood roof, a small indentation in your forehead where you tripped and fell onto a rock; a couple of ridges on kneecaps from a sports injury. But for all the close calls like these, I believe I was only once in real danger of losing my life, although it didn’t seem that way at the time.
My older brother, the youngest of my three senior siblings, was something of (and later became) an engineer. Like our father, he had a penchant for anything mechanical, electrical or structural. On the basis of the same kind of inventive reasoning that had inspired his numerous other oddball ventures – an electric Billy cart, a trailer to fit same, a side-by-side tandem bike, to name a few – he decided to dig a structurally supported well in the backyard. This wasn’t an altogether unrealistic aim, since the water table lay only a metre and a half beneath the surface of our sandy yard.
I can place this event definitively in the school holidays, because it was the only time we kids were likely to be around home for days at a time without our parents, both of whom were working. We began digging early, about ten in the morning. As we descended, my brother, his friend and I took shifts in the hole, bucketing soil to the surface via an impressive block and tackle my brother had rigged up over the aperture. The soil was easy to shift. The sand beneath our yard wasn’t the kind you’d find on the beach; the house had been built on cleared and drained estuarine wetland, compressed silt that was firm enough to stay in place unless it got wet. Cutting into it was like cutting into chalk. Once we got a metre or so down, my brother started setting palings into place, hammering them in place so they formed a self-supporting frame. He also produced an old wooden painter’s ladder, which when anchored against the wall provided easy access to the pit.
True to expectation, when we’d dug down a metre and a half, the bottom of the hole began to fill with water. The puddle spread, until it was about ankle deep, at which point it stopped rising. But the water continued eating into the adjoining walls, which slumped into the mud once they became sodden. My brother solved these problems in one fell swoop, quickly conjuring up a wooden platform to sit above the puddle. More slats were added to the lower walls to reinforce them. The end result looked more like a mineshaft than hole, a boxed cavity about sixty centimetres square, replete with a wooden ladder and a plastic bucket suspended on a rope from a tripod above.
That should have been it. I’d gone along with digging the hole because I was essentially the junior partner in an interesting venture, and when the hole was finished I shared the exhilaration of success with my brother and his mate; but once or twice when I’d been down the hole I’d heard the whisper of sand moving behind the walls of the shaft, and I was secretly relieved that I wouldn’t have to go back down.
So I don’t know what possessed me, when my brother suggested running a tunnel off the main shaft, to agree that it was a good idea. Perhaps it was my brother’s preparations for this new project that impressed me: he’d made up a series of lights, connected by extension cords of various sizes that could be fed into the tunnel as the excavation progressed, and he’d already assembled an extra stock of pre-cut slats and braces that could be used to shore up the walls and ceiling every thirty centimetres or so. He’d even made up a thin metal rod that could be hammered down from the surface at intervals to provide ventilation.
Having secured my concurrence, he filled me in a few more details. He reckoned it would be good idea if we worked towards the house – a distance of some twelve metres – and came up under our older brothers’ bedroom. He made a point of telling me not to tell our parents about it. With dusk coming on, we concealed the hole with a suitably inconspicuous cover of planks and old canvas. My brother maintained a fierce support of the project across the narrow strip of carpet between our beds, and by morning I’d somehow agreed to work as the first shift in the tunnel.
My brother assembled the necessary tools: a truncated hoe, a trowel, a torch and a plastic bucket, this last attached to a rope that went all the way back to the surface. These were on hand when we gathered around the hole next morning. The idea, my brother said, was for the tunnel to be the same dimensions as the shaft, with the tunnel floor about half a metre above the platform at the shaft’s base. I started digging enthusiastically, dropping the sand into the bucket and tugging on the rope, re-filling it as quickly as my brother and his accomplice upstairs could return it.
When, after inserting a couple of supports, I began crawling further into the tunnel, the job started to get more tedious. The air was dusty and close, clogging my nostrils; small pellets of debris kept flicking up from the hoe into my eyes as I chipped away at the soil a couple of hands’ lengths in front of my face. The awkward reverse shuffle, belly down along the tunnel to the shaft, became increasingly laborious as the dig extended and a string of hot, swinging lights were strung a few centimetres overhead.
By the end of the first shift, I’d extended the tunnel about two metres. My brother’s mate, a big kid, reckoned he was claustrophobic and balked at going into the tunnel, which left my brother with no choice but to take a shift himself. He took a long-handled shovel and rake down with him and worked at a distance from the face, chipping at the soil with the tip of the shovel then scraping it back down the tunnel to the shaft, where he loaded it into the bucket and hoisted to the surface. He only lasted an hour or so, and extended the tunnel by less than a metre, a fact I learned when I reluctantly took on a further shift. I was filthy, hot and tired, and my determination to make good progress was spurred by a healthy mix of fear and resentment. By mid-afternoon, when I finally emerged, the tunnel was over six metres long.
Dad came around the corner of the house just as I got to the surface. He’d come home early – I still don’t know why – and summed up the situation immediately, his eyes shifting quickly from his guilty-looking, filthy offspring to the derrick and the piles of dark sand spread across the lawn. There are many ways of demonstrating anger, and his was of the ‘steely determination’ kind: he came over, looked down the shaft, then descended the ladder and peered into the tunnel. When he climbed back out, he stood brushing the dirt of his hands and shaking his head for a moment, then delivered a sharp, perfunctory lecture about what happens to anyone entombed when such a tunnel collapses, which he reckoned was on the cards. It wasn’t a time for saying anything in response, just shut up and wait until it was over.
The punishment was severe. My brother got a harder time than me; being three years older, he was apparently expected to be “old enough to know better.” We were ordered to remove the entire infrastructure immediately – the derrick, the lights, the paling walls – and fill in the excavation, or at least as much of it as we could do in safety. He ordered us not to go back into the tunnel, just to fill in what we could from the entrance and leave it. We set to work immediately, shovelling and raking as much dirt from the lawn as we could back into the hole. It started raining, which turned the sand into a muddy slush, making the job especially difficult. The work continued well after dark under the light from the shed, with our father regularly checking on progress. Our mother stayed well away; there was no mention of the lamb roast we were missing out on. We were black with soil, soaked to the skin and completely exhausted when we finished. We waited in the rain until Dad came out to inspect the job. He took his time doing it then ordered us to mound the remaining soil – there seemed to be a lot of it – over the shaft entrance. He reckoned the soil would drop once it compacted. His final word on the matter was that we were never to do it again; it was too dangerous.
He proved right in this. It rained steadily the next day. The soil above the shaft subsided substantially, as did the lawn above the tunnel when the unfilled section of the roof collapsed. A few weeks later, a couple of neighbourhood kids died when a shelter they were digging in the nearby sand-hills caved in.
Then came self-awareness. Suddenly we wanted to be cool. There was West Side Story, Steve McQueen and the Marlboro Man: habits were formed that I don’t doubt have later killed some of us. Some of us became surfies, some of us just picked up the talk.
Above all, there were women, a mysterious sub-species that my peers and I only dimly understood. We knew we were supposed to desire them, and some of us did so fervently. I must admit I was part of this cult of worship: they could be unquestionably beautiful, and undeniably attractive, but also sources of great power: a rejection by one approached could be crushing, especially if it became public.
Weekend dances were the apex of this political minefield. Most of the night spent in segregation, the males checking out the band or fooling around, the girls on the other side of the hall, aloof and demure. A common failing was waiting too long – usually till somewhere late in the band’s final bracket – to make an approach, only to be cut off by another kid when you were halfway across the floor.
If you made it, there was still the prospect of rejection in front of the girl’s friends and a humiliating retreat to smirking friends. I had the added disadvantage of my scars; as soon as I blushed, my face became a patchwork of red and white flesh. Even if I got away with it while the lights were low, when the dance ended and the lights went on I sometimes saw a look of shock on the faces of my partner, as if she’d woken up in a horror movie.
Likewise the girls in my immediate neighbourhood. During primary school I’d had a few infatuations (including one with my teacher) and explored some of these to the kissing stage. But the neighbourhood girls were either too hero-driven or too focused on older guys to be realistic prospects, except for a few who my peers regarded as ‘scags’, and to whom they ascribed a selection of venereal diseases sufficient to deter even the most lustful adolescent. To make matters worse, the area’s high schools were segregated, both by sex and religion, so there was a limit to how much interaction a young person could have anyway. Combined with the fact I had no sisters to act as conduits to other women, so it was a pretty lean time for a lusting adolescent.
For all this, I had a pretty good idea of what ought to happen when you “scored” with a girl. My three older brothers talked about it a lot, and there were times when my friends and I successfully spied on them using a crude but effective periscope made from shaving mirrors and cardboard. Sometimes our chuckles gave us away, but not before we’d picked up a few more clues to help us find the Holy Grail. From these and other snippets, my peers and I were able to stitch together a rough picture of the process we would have to go through. Still, the leap from theory into practice seemed unbridgeable.
Then I discovered folk music. The “Folk Boom” was in full swing. I happened to have a guitar and a pretty good voice, and I’d picked up a few suitable songs from my older brothers, so I got together with one of the neighbour’s kids and set up a folk duo and started playing at various local venues, birthday parties or neighbourhood church functions. I had no more interest in organised religion then than I do now; but the girls loved it.
Approaches became more strategic, with clear sexual goals. There was a plethora of petting, some of it definitely in the heavy category: my friends and I shared exaggerated descriptions of ‘how far we’d got’. There was even a ritual of sniffing fingers, which I have to say I never got into.
The thing that would get the girls’ effluvia going, we believed, was a strong self-image, and all the young adolescent males I knew set about building one. For me the model was Steve McQueen, the Marlboro Man and Paul Hogan’s Winfields, setting up destructive habits that were to follow me for a significant part of my life. [The messages are more subtle now, but hasn’t anyone noticed, in almost every Hollywood movie, a hero or a secondary character lighting a cigarette?]
I had a close call with one girl, a groupie, but was interrupted, almost at the point of consummation, by my mother, who’d returned unexpectedly from work. In true Presbyterian style (or maybe Methodist; my mother changed denominations regularly) she gave an initial gasp and beat an indignant retreat. Nothing more was said of the matter, but her silent disapproval was far more brutal than any words. I never saw the girl again.
After what seemed like an interminable period of chastity, the moment finally arrived: with my first steady girlfriend, on a family holiday at a beach up the east coast, pheromones running high. The event, which was consummated in a clearing of long grass, was in every significant way an anti-climax. Just as I was pulling down her knickers, it started to rain; a few drops at first then a clap of thunder and a full cloudburst. Never mind the ‘coupling dogs’ phenomenon; there’s nothing to dampen sexual ardour like a good dose of cold water. Nothing, that is, except premature ejaculation, which shortly followed. When the rain stopped, as quickly and abruptly as it started, I was attacked by swarms of mosquitos and sandflies, dense clouds of them, descending on my exposed buttocks.
It wasn’t a great start, but it broke the ice. After that we practised regularly, both at her house – excitement heightened by the thrill of running the gauntlet of her mother’s bedroom doorway – or anywhere else available. It was unquestionably my rampant lust that shaped our encounters; but the sex was habitual and unfulfilling, and the relationship went on far longer than it should have. It eventually collapsed when I got into trouble for a brief encounter initiated, I can honestly say, by compassion; the person in question was the previous girlfriend of a flatmate, jilted when he left to go overseas.
The significance of this encounter, apart from activating the process of separation, was that I experienced my first joint orgasm, another Holy Grail along the way to divine enlightenment. Not only did this dismiss the spectre of inadequacy that had dogged my earlier path, but it gave me a yardstick against which to measure the quality of sexual performance.
Having understood the advantages of satisfying sex, I worked to understand the forces that facilitated it. Youthful lust notwithstanding, I’d always been a romantic, and it seemed to me that sex worked best when it was part of something bigger and more meaningful. I fall for people before I have sex with them, and with a couple of forgettable exceptions, I’ve not had ‘casual sex’ since. Nor have I desired to do so; I’m a monogamist, albeit a serial one.
I think I’ve now got beyond the risk period of sexual misadventure. I know myself well enough now to know that I’m attracted to women with troubles, and know that I have to be vigilant within their orbits. It’s not always easy, because there seem to be so many of them.
The later days of my schooling and the greater part of the university years that followed are something of a blur, in the way that details of periods of extended boredom and mediocrity are a blur. My parents’ move to a satellite area quite a distance from my childhood stomping ground put an end, not only to my interactions with the local girls, but to my entire peer network. My parents worked 8 till 6 five days a week, and had no interest in transporting me back and forth to social functions outside these hours. Public transport to where we now resided – ironically, on the verge of the nation’s main highway – was non-existent, and even to the nearest train station, some five kilometres away, was sporadic. The trains themselves weren’t much better: infrequent, slow and unreliable, with services shut from 11.30 pm on Saturdays. Most of the time my mates, now into their teenage years, didn’t hit the streets until 10, and the serious parties didn’t start till around 11, so I found myself gradually excluded from the circle of gossip and shared experience that made up the circle of friends.
I was grateful to get accredited to university, and launched into my studies with some gusto; but this enthusiasm soon petered out, because I had no idea where my academic passion might lie, or if I possessed such a passion at all. I’d harboured an inclination to be a vet, but it certainly wasn’t a ‘calling’. The buzz went out of it when Harvey, the rat I’d been using as part of my behavioural psychology testing and become quite fond of, turned up, disembowelled and spread-eagled, in a tray of formaldehyde in the Zoology lab.
So I opted for Social Science instead, which, while it didn’t have great employment prospects, at least offered opportunities for meaningful conversation. The Vietnam War was far from over, but the argument over its justification was already gathering pace, and there was a mounting excitement – and a determination – among the student body to bring the matter to a head. The speakers at the lunchtime rallies on the lawns of the campus spoke with moral authority and impeccable logic. Most of us had seen the images of napalm and atrocity – and we didn’t need much convincing.
It wasn’t hard to slot into the ‘radical culture’ of the university. The Sociology Department was notorious for its left-wing leanings, as were the other departments – Geography, Anthropology, Psychology – that clustered around it. Impassioned oratory – for which I discovered I had a bit of a gift – was listened to and applauded, as long as its essential elements were anti-establishment and anti-war. I wasn’t an overly conscientious student, but I absorbed enough from the writings of the great sociologists, the dynamics of economic history and the pointers of behavioural science to form a strong conviction that there was a lot wrong with the way we lived (‘we’ being those in the western liberal democracies as well as those elsewhere living under the yoke of poverty and oppression) and that it needed fixing.
I donned the livery of the Left – faded jeans, army surplus shirt and jacket, Black Panther emblem on my dilly-bag, a few conspicuous badges – and began a crusade against injustice. What that meant to me wasn’t exactly clear in the detail; my guide was the writings of Marx and Fromm and Max Weber, with a bit of Tolstoy and Tolkein thrown in. I attended a meeting of one of the radical far left parties – the Socialist Alliance, I think it was – but I left as soon as I became aware of someone taking pictures at the back of the room. This was New Zealand in the early 1970’s; subsequent revelations concerning the number of files maintained on individuals during that era have convinced me I was right to be cautious.
The “Draft” had begun during my first year at Uni. As I progressed through my degree it became increasingly pervasive; the draft age fell, I got older, and the size of each draft, determined by a lottery of birthdates, grew larger. Like a bomb-pattern in some bizarre war movie, the numbers for selection fell closer and closer to my birthday. A few weeks after I’d finished my degree (and was therefore eligible for immediate enlistment), I had a near miss when a call-up number fell a day before my date of birth.
It was time for a holiday, and I took one. In those days, there were no passports or visas needed to go to Australia from New Zealand, so I packed a bag, put my faith in a limited offer of stay from a friend of a friend, and boarded a flight to Sydney.
I can’t say it was just the draft that pushed me over the line; there were several other ‘push’ factors in the mix, too: the brief, torrid affair with a close friend of my soon-to-be fiancée, which I think I’ve alluded to earlier in this story; dissatisfaction with the political landscape in my home country; a general sense of disconnectedness and lack of direction; lingering anomie.
The metamorphosis began as soon as I stepped out of the plane.
“You leave the engine running for a while?” I asked the flight attendant.
She looked at me oddly, then grinned. “That’s the air temperature, sir. Welcome to Sydney.”
Indeed. It was a warm, summery Sunday afternoon, and I wanted to see the beach. I took a bus to Coogee, not Bondi as most New Zealanders do; I’d come to get away from the familiar, not fall back into it. It was a decision which, like the decision to ‘cross the ditch’ itself, was to profoundly change my life.
There are times in your life when, just for an instant, you feel like you’ve stepped into somebody’s painting. Coogee beach that afternoon was like that: a rainbow of clear blue sky, deep blue-green ribbons of ocean; Persil-white surf, shimmering sand. And on it – oh, god, the bodies! I’d never imagined such a plethora of exposed female flesh, seen so much of so many beautiful women. My heart soared: this is where I would make a new start. Everything sang the same tune, in perfect unison: stay.
And I did.
Categories: Sample Chapters