Synopsis for ‘The Silence Unseen’

Rags, a small town surf addict, is looking to protect himself from the threat of great whites cruising his favourite surf breaks. Others have stopped surfing, he cannot. Towns in the Northern Rivers are polarised as tempers flare and opposing groups clash over solutions to the shark threat. Local communities are in turmoil; bubbling cauldrons of unresolved tension.

A chance meeting in the local pub with Stevie, a feisty blonde blow-in, leads him into a romantic relationship that he sees as perfect. Too perfect perhaps. His street smart lover has a dark secret. Can their relationship survive when he discover the truth?

Rags’ world spirals downwards as he struggles to cope living with his cynical father, a man bereft of any emotional substance, and his own frustration trying to discover a shark shield that actually works. Add in a lowly paid job and a career-minded girlfriend and his life has speedbumps aplenty. Can Rags step off the rollercoaster ride he’s on and move towards a happier life in and out of the ocean?

[To purchase a full digital copy of ‘The Silence Unseen’ please contact the author, Paul FRANCIS at email psmallie@bigpond.com] Proceeds from all sales go to C.A.S.P.A. in Lismore NSW.

CLICK HERE FOR CHAPTER 1 AND 2 EXTRACTS: ‘The Silence Unseen’

FACING THE FEAR

He was sitting out on the Reef, motionless between the swells, looking around and trying to quell the apprehension in the pit of his stomach. On the surface the ocean was gifting him the occasional inviting wall to draw lines on. Small but sweet. Below, its palette was cut by a tone of icy green lending clear visibility to the bottom and to around 15 feet away from him. The day was clear of cloud and the water did not have that edge that ate through a wetsuit after an hour in the winter. There was no wind. When he thought about it what was the worry for God’s sake? Sure, he was alone, but every wave was his. This was not uncommon for Rags as he was often the first out after sunrise and might not see another surfer for an hour. But was he alone? Sitting there with his legs dangling below his board, he felt naked, protected only by the three mil of the Rip Curl steamer running to his ankles. Hah! What protection?

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Many surfers are territorial animals and Rags clearly fitted that category, surfing on his patch; a break local surfers called the Reef ─ Rehab Reef to a few cynical Point surfers. The half kilometre strip from the corner of Brahminy Point to the Boat Channel, he knew its moods well. Dredgy, low tide barrels transitioning to the more forgiving vertical walls offered up on the high tide. He was usually comfortable there. Not on this day.

The fear had been growing over the past few months like a creeping cancer infecting North Coast surfers in plague proportions. It was fear of the unknown or more correctly, the unseen. At this stage of the year ─ August 2015, Rags was not the only surfer who felt he was being stalked by sharks cruising out behind the break line. As he glanced across to the Point he guessed many of the 15 to 20 surfers on the outside peak were thinking the same. Perhaps they took comfort in the safety of numbers ─ a luxury he didn’t have. But it was a choice Rags had made, preferring the solitude and absence of competition for waves in his nook. Normally he loved the skewed odds. Multiple waves, one surfer. Such a winner he would have put money on it if he had any.

An inconsistent swell was dribbling through and the wait substantial. With the wave period up around two minutes rather than in seconds ─ it forced him to think

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rather than do. He took a few moments to reflect on why he surfed every day. Was it to fill up the emptiness he often felt or was it his spiritual sanctuary as he believed. That place away from the demands of the outside world where he could box up his issues and plan to act on them. But this day instead of concentrating on positioning himself in front of waves he was scanning the water in a 360 circle like a seagull protecting a chip. It was a predicament he could hardly ever recall being in. In the last 15 years since his days as a grommet he would have been lucky to have sighted ten sharks over that period. He hadn’t reached the stage where other people’s paranoia was keeping him out of the surf, but he was wary and looking for ideas and solutions to keep him out of harm’s way. Heading into the back end of winter, many surfers were running scared from the threat and had relegated themselves to onlookers.

The shark menace had been the topic of conversation in the village and the nearby town of Ballina for the past few months. Rags had lain awake at night and lost hours of sleep mulling over bloody scenarios he wouldn’t dare voice with his friends. It had been eight months of hell for local surfers ─ a number of attacks, one fatal, and countless near misses. But this day he’d had enough. It was time to face up. Others might choose to stay out of the water but he could not.

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Surfing was in his DNA and he knew he had to deal with it. Until this day, over the past eight months when he’d paddled out that sense of dread had disappeared. He couldn’t even explain this to himself. Uncomfortable on shore but relaxed in the water. Rags knew he was no braveheart so he put it down to bloody minded determination if just for an hour or two. But he sensed it was more than that. It was where he felt most at home and surfing defined his life. Brahminy Bay was hardly a hot bed of over-employment and his make-do window cleaning business was part time at best leaving him buckets of time to surf as he pleased. Many people couldn’t understand that obsession. ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling.’

Now the waves came at him in fits and starts. The tide had filled in over the line of rocky blobs that made up the Reef, flattening the ocean to a series of undulating blue hills. The wait would be annoying for some but it was in the water that he did his best thinking; his home life short circuited any chance of clarity of thought with its atmosphere of hostility generated by Jacko, his father. He was starting to think he had not kept up, maybe missed something. A few of his old high school cronies had relented and signed up for three or five year degree courses at the newly opened Southern Cross Uni in nearby Lismore. Maybe it was

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worth a look. The proliferation of large sharks on the north coast beaches was not the only thing nagging away at him as he chewed over his job prospects between sets. He had to admit that even some of the pro surfers in the town had it over him in the financial stakes – they had something tangible to offer their girlfriends if they went long term. He had zip.

Rags forced himself to stay out and catch as many waves as he could in just over an hour. Part of his psyche enjoyed the fitness routine of these mornings and in the past he had not been immune from furtive glances at his physique in the bathroom mirror. Lacking a vertical advantage, he had surfing to thank for boosting his upper body shape and his mother, Alison, for a chiselled cheek and jawline that platformed a classic Greek snozz. For all his physicality, there was a deeper side of his personality that he was still coming to terms with. He had none of the gruff bravado of his father. Jacko was a rough-nut fisherman well known around the Northern Rivers as a pragmatic, can-do hell man. His seed may have fallen further from the tree than he would have liked but the old man’s determination cut through to Rags in spades, complementing a sensitivity Jacko would never have.

This morning wave quantity was dictating the game rather than quality. Half an hour later he realized he was

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unconsciously trying to lessen the wait time between waves, pushing away the voices in his head, trying to stay busy. Finally the gods sent him a set just off to his right. Rags let the first one go and paddled hard towards the peak of the second. Experience told him it would be bigger. He slid into the hook easily, using his right arm to angle him sideways. He had speed immediately, rocketing to the bottom and carving a perfect arc to hit the curling lip in front of him. The little Thruster banked off the lip, the nose arcing around in the opposite direction up onto the foamball. A controlled snap off the froth brought him around onto the face again at speed. Ahead, the wave sat up in a solid wall stretching some 20 metres from its engine room. Taking the highline he shimmied a couple of times to generate speed along the face. This little gem was not going to give it to him easily. Further along he tucked up into the curl just enough to get a momentary cover up ─ nothing he could claim as a barrel but better quality than he’d had so far. He had gone far enough to see the wall dropping in height but a left was breaking towards him on the same wave. He unweighted the little 6 foot 4 and pulled a smooth turn off the bottom, timing it well enough to reo off the oncoming foam back down into the white water. That felt good and Rags lit up a wry grin. One wave was all it took.

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Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a surfer he recognized stop on the boardwalk. The guy gifted him a few silent handclaps. Was it for the wave or admiration for surfing alone; Rags was not sure. He kept at it taking off on anything he could paddle into, the occasional larger wave peeling off like a rifle shot, shutting down in sections that most surfers would never make. Then the high tide filled in the small swell and Rags thought that was it for the day. He kept scanning the water, glancing back and forth, looking for any dark flecks that cut the surface. Further out he saw two fins break the surface, side by side and disappear underwater as quickly as they’d appeared. Rags sat up like a meerkat. His body tensed with expectation. Then the pair surfaced again a little ways on. Aaah, dolphins! He knew their pattern and relaxed a little. But there was no use denying it; after surfing seven mornings straight, he’d reached the point where he too was spooked.

Yet he had seen nothing untoward out there. The size of the bait balls seemed to be reducing as winter died, if the presence of three or four diving gannets was any indication. But he’d compounded the situation by flicking off the end of most waves and checking his back. This was so not him and so not enjoyable. Enough was enough. A wave picked up height to his right, threatening to spit a small tube onto the sandbank in

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front of the Reef; he pulled into it, surfing in to the moat between the Reef and the rocky curve of the shoreline. As it petered out he was forced to paddle in over the flat water in the moat, casting a wary eye behind him in some vain hope of protection. As this fact settled on him it merely rubbed salt into the wound and he knew he’d hit the wall.

Zig zagging in and out the dog walkers on the boardwalk, he could see a flyer flapping on the windscreen of his van. Bloody J.W.’s he thought. Up close when he lifted it off with a wet hand, he smiled at the ‘frownie face’ drawn above the single line of copy.

‘Rags ─ Please don’t go in the water anymore, you’re scaring me.’

Bloody hell, his mother. Where had she come from? Alison may have been living in Ballina for six years but she often came up to walk the boardwalk in Brahminy or take an early morning coffee with an old girlfriend in the village. Rags had not seen her for a couple of weeks and made a note to drive into town to her cottage after he finished work. He knew his appearance might at least settle her down for a few days.

The shark sightings that were called in almost daily on triple 0 had reached alarming proportions along the beaches from Coffs Harbour north to Byron Bay. Everyone from the helicopter crews of the local air wing

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to fathers watching their fearless sons paddle out seemed to be caught up in the action. Sharks had always been unwelcome bedfellows for surfers. Now with the increasing numbers of larger sharks cruising through the line-ups and sitting behind surfers on the break line, it was an earie feeling and a strange game – Russian roulette with great whites.

Rags struggled out of his steamer and dragged on some jeans over his damp Speedos, stowing his board in the rear of the van. His back was turned away from the street but his ears pricked at the sound of flip flops on the road.

‘Hey Raggo!’ It was a voice he knew well. ‘You out there with all your friends this morning I see,’ Stretch said.

‘Was that a question or a statement, funny man? Which ones did you mean anyway ─ the two legged ones or the no legged ones?’

‘You just can’t keep away can you? Me, I’m gonna wait until all this dies down. Last thing I wanna be is main course for some poor starvin’ great white.’

‘Well buddy, with a body like yours you’d only be entrée I reckon. I mean look at your scrawny arse. Have you ever thought about working out ─ height isn’t everything you know.’

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‘Jealousy’s a curse hadn’t you heard? Next thing I’ll find out you’ve got penis envy.’

Rags shook his head. He would never win a slanging mate with his best friend nor have the last word either. Stretch changed tack.

‘Did you hear they cancelled the club rounds for the Bay Boardrider’s and the girl’s club the other day? Too many groms and up ’n coming little misses to protect I guess. Imagine the hoo hah if one of those kids got taken.’

‘Yeah we might see a bit of action from the state government if that went down. They’ve been dragging their heels since that body boarder in Ballina got towelled up. Did you know he’s still having surgery on his legs?’

‘It’s pretty bad mate. Did you ever see the footage of that touros board that had the back bitten out of it. This was on the same weekend the organisers stopped the Skullcandy contest for a day? I can’t believe he actually went back out again that afternoon on another board and left his brother to show the media the hole in the board.’

Stretch went on. ‘All these attacks are bad enough but it’s only us surfers talking about the other near misses. The media never says anything about them. No one’s doing a damn thing about it either.’

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‘That’s because no one knows what’s causing so many big sharks to come into our area. By the way are you going to the surfers meeting at the sports club tonight? Hasn’t been well publicised though, unless you’re an “inyerfacebook” addict.’

‘Aaah, I dunno Rags, I might. Have to see what’s going on at home.’

‘What? As if you’ve got such a packed program; you can’t pick up your Centrelink benefit after five y’know. That reminds me, some of us have to get to work, unlike your good self. Come along and find out if anyone’s going to do anything about the shark problem.’

‘Yeah maybe, I’ll say yah anyway.’ Stretch headed off down the boardwalk. Rags watched him lope away; he doubted Stretch ever ran anywhere. Such a laid back guy. Rags thought he almost didn’t fit the village anymore. It was going places but Stretch was not. Still, Rags enjoyed his biting wit and his easy going nature. These points were the best of Stretch. He’d missed out badly in the glamour stakes, inheriting a V shaped jaw from his father. It was constantly racked with stubble and gave way to a stick-like frame reminiscent of an emaciated alley cat. Even the way he walked told Rags that stress would never put Stretch in an early grave. How long his friend could go on living off Centrelink and sidestepping jobs they’d told him to try for was just another

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unanswered question in Rags’ life. After tonight plenty more would pop up like unwanted spam in his email Inbox.

The drive up the main street towards the lake and his first job gave him time to reflect on his morning in the ocean. It wasn’t ideal. Yes he had got waves ─ that was his bottom line but he had been off his game and it was useless to deny it now. The plethora of silent grey-suited denizens cruising close in along the northern coastal strip was off putting. As was all the negative talk from his mates in the surfing community. That was starting to annoy him. Twice in the previous few days, he had had to watch surfing mates stand on the boardwalk looking down at him on the Reef, ignoring his plea, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine’ and then turn away and walk back to their cars. Their actions just exacerbated the frenzy of the sick voices in his head, later ramping up the paranoia by telling him he was an idiot for surfing alone. They were doing his head in. Rags could only blame the sublime drug of the ocean waves that kept drawing him back. Long experience in the water told him surfing was in one way no different to heroin addiction; the more you surfed the more you needed it.

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THE SURFERS MEETING

The last rays of sunlight made a colourful exit over the mountains to the west of Ballina as Rags pulled his van in beside the cottage on a sprawling suburban block on the edge of town. It was just after 5:30 pm and he was sure that Robert, or the cuckold as Rags thought of him, would not be home from work at the car sales yard he owned. Alison stepped out of the house as Rags flicked the ignition off.

‘Hey Rags, so good to see you. C’mon give me a hug.’

Rags wrapped his arms around her. It wasn’t hard. Not an ounce of stomach bulge that blighted some women her age. Alison may have hit 50 a couple of years before but Rags thought she looked much younger. He had one waist-up colour photo of her from the ’70s stuck in his odds and sods drawer at Jacko’s. She was stunning then and still attractive now ─ her wavy blonde hair, a face unhindered with too many lines and sunny disposition just some of her features that had hooked the

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cuckold. The two of them sat down opposite each other at the kitchen table. Alison still had a grin from ear to ear.

‘Do you want to stay for dinner; I know Robert wouldn’t mind?’

‘Maybe some other time, I have to get to a meeting back in Brahminy at seven o’clock.’

‘Okay, well you know you’re always welcome here.’

‘Yeah, except not permanently though huh?’

‘Oh Rags, I’m so sorry. Y’know that’s a question I haven’t asked Robert since I moved in here years ago. Don’t worry I had the guilts for years about leaving you. Maybe he might be a little more disposed to the idea now. What about your father, how is he? Is he still fishing?’

‘Still fishing, but as ornery as ever. It’s been six years since you left and I’ve just about reached the end of my tolerance with him. We fight all the time now.’

Alison leant her head down onto her hands splayed under her chin.

‘That’s not good to hear. Is it the same old same old?’

‘I’m sure it is. I’ve felt for years that he wants you back…well have you back, but you know how stubborn he is. You’d have to go and apologise to him and I know why you won’t.’

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‘Rags I just can’t. I can’t go through that pain and physical abuse again ─’ ‘Yeah yeah,’ Rags interjected, ‘I understand all that. It’s just hard. Like there’s no balance in the house. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells all the time.’

Silence hung awkwardly in the room for some moments. Rags looked at his mother for answers.

‘Okay, I understand. I know Robert wasn’t keen for you to move in here when I left your dad but I can ask him if you can move into the spare room. I’d love it. I miss having you around but I can’t go back to Brahminy and your dad.’

Alison shook her head in frustration. ‘Do you remember the number of times your father came home drunk from the pub? That was the worst part of it. The juice seems to bring out the agro side of him. I wanted to talk and spend some quality time with him but he wasn’t fit to take anywhere.’

‘Thanks for the offer, but better to leave it I reckon. The few times I’ve got together with the … um, Robert, I didn’t have much of a connection there. Not like you and I anyway. He’s a bit too slick for me. Maybe it’s all those deals he has to do at the yard.’

‘Oh Rags, you’re overreacting, don’t you think?’

‘Mum just leave it. Look I have to get back to Brahminy. There’s a surfers meeting I need to go to.’

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‘I’m really worried about all these shark attacks and sightings. Please, please can you just give it a break until summer comes and then reassess?’

‘I can’t do that. It’s my life at the moment, my saving grace. I can face just about anything through the day if I get a few good waves first thing in the morning.’

Alison rolled her eyes, pursed hers lips and flopped her hands flat onto the table. Rags could see from her look of resignation that she had realised she was not going to win this argument.

‘Look, I do try to be careful ─ if I see anything untoward I just paddle in now. I’ve started doing some research on the Net to see if anyone has come up with technology that might be better than the old shark repellent bombs. They’re impractical for us surfers anyway. Just trust me; I’m not doing foolish stuff despite what you think.’

Rags let it sink in but shot a look down at his watch. It was getting late.

‘Okay mum, I’ve really gotta go and get back to Brahminy.’

‘Before you go how are you off for spare cash at the moment?’

Rags gave her a rueful look, ‘If you’re asking am I getting enough work, well no, I could always use more. But I get by, y’know.’

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Alison fiddled with her handbag, found her purse and pulled out a 50 dollar note.

‘Here take this and put it towards something useful; it’s not much but I can spare you this at least.’ Rags knew it was useless to protest. She was his mother after all.

On the drive back to his village he wondered if anything concrete might come out of the meeting. Another surfer from the Brahminy Bay board riders club had told him there would be other interested parties at the meeting besides north coast surfers ─ people like the Mayor, a Detective Inspector from the police response group, lifeguards and a paramedic. Given that feelings were running deep within the surfing community, this would at least guarantee other points of view. Rags was late to the meeting, jogging through the track onto the oval from his father’s house. But he could hear the muted bubble of noise from the sports club well before he got to the steps of the club.

Synopsis for The Oxygen Thieves

Bashing the public service has long been a popular topic of conversation for Australians doing dinner parties. Every guest can dredge up their own unique experience of public sector incompetence as swiftly as they might regurgitate their favourite King Brown anecdote.

Paul Francis puts the blowtorch to a microcosm of the Queensland public service with a satirical tilt and a broad examination of the culture within two science laboratories between 1970 and 1999.

Riddled with time wasters, blighted by self-serving middle managers and tolerating the budding entrepreneurs, the two units nevertheless had a core of conscientious staff in sufficient numbers to counter the excesses of the former.

Take the ride and laugh out loud or curse in disgust at an insider’s view of the antics of a bizarre collection of jokesters, nerds, goodtime girls and shifty con men.

[To purchase a full digital copy of ‘The Oxygen Thieves’ please contact the author, Paul FRANCIS at email psmallie@bigpond.com] Proceeds from all sales go to C.A.S.P.A. in Lismore NSW.

CLICK HERE FOR CHAPTER 1 AND 2 EXTRACTS: ‘The Oxygen Thieves’

RASPUTIN PLAYS WOG BOY

In hindsight, Rasputin was the Godfather of pranksters that riddled the two laboratories. He was matched only by the two clown princes, Sarnt Major in the Food Lab and Norty Littleboy over in the Dairy Lab. It is probably worth noting that Norty had, over the years, set in place an atmosphere of uncertainty among staff in his lab. They constantly watched their backs as he flitted around behind them, his mere presence threatening the ‘gotcha’ from hell. A ‘gotcha’ was the colloquial term we used for a successful prank pulled on another staff member. More on the clown princes further into this book.

For sheer persistence Rasputin was hard to beat. He was a constant prankster and serial ‘cuffer’ to the body, a stocky guy whose grey overalls concealed enviable upper body strength. Add in a wiry black beard that accentuated his often wild-eyed glares, a voice to command a stadium’s attention and you had a force to be reckoned with. It was all a front of course, and you sensed that he felt his role was to inject as much humour and nonsense into our daily lives, no matter we might be in physical or mental pain afterwards. Loud, proud and in your face, Rasputin terrorised many a young lab technician or lowly ranked cadet who dared to cross the workshop entrance without first begging for mercy or permission to enter. His workshop was his empire and comprised two rooms set onto the side of the Food Lab at its far end – a good 35 metres away from the watchful eyes of the front office supervisor.

On the other hand, none were more multi-skilled than Rasputin who had some of the qualities of a good mechanical engineer. He was the lab’s go-to man if specialised equipment had to be built – generous of heart and with his time. When staff wanted a foreign order filled, in particular maintenance on their lawn mowers, he never failed to deliver but for all this he also had a few dirty old man tendencies. Not content to confine his pesky ways to the two labs, he frequently found a quiet space to collar a telephone, throw his voice and pull a gotcha on an unsuspecting member of the community – as in this incident with a colleague’s wife. Rajah, the colleague in question, and a Food Lab scientist was a man Rasputin respected but when the ‘gotcha’ guillotine dropped, nothing and no one was sacred. Rasputin already had form and some previous success at this type of caper but this episode was the pinnacle of his achievements in telephone buggery.

‘Izzata Kathy Gordon?’ Rasputin barked down the phone line to Rajah’s Holland Park number one morning from a quiet instrument room.

‘I ringin’ up ‘bout dee stova for sale,’ his mock Italian accent sat well with his Brylcreamed hairdo and dodgy half-grown beard. His grey overalls had been left unbuttoned to the waist, no doubt in the vain hope that a female technician might take leave of her senses.

Kathy, Rajah’s wife, was a bright outgoing lady with intellect and wit to match her husband’s but intelligence never got in the way of rat cunning and she was no match for the king of the ‘gotchas’ on this day.

Rajah, a quiet, introverted man was intelligent and supremely knowledgeable but also calculating and measured. He kept his cards close to his chest and could have passed for a Kim Philby-style spy of the Food Lab. He moved like the wind on its day off and communicated in muffled sound bites which frustrated the hell out of his subordinates. Sporty he was not, but he was well read enough to comment on any sport you named. The guy had the studious air of a university professor; that neglected body and unkempt greying locks plastered above a white beard all gave some substance to his air as a learned academic. Rasputin had an undeniable respect for the man, but all that was conveniently forgotten when he decided to go for his jugular.

In a heightened state of animation, Rasputin leaned forward in a chair, fully focussed on his alter-ego for the task – white Anglo Wog Boy.

Just spitting distance away in this small instrument room, their ears burning with obvious interest, stood Dr. Jekyll and Vacuum Head. A bigger pair of ne’er-do-wells you’d never find, except in prison. The two techs were using the Instron, a firmness measuring machine resembling a metallic scale model of the Twin Towers. We used it to measure fruit and vegetable firmness which varied substantially when these foods ripened and coloured up as they matured. Bored with the repetition, the pair started pulping overripe tomatoes to a death that resembled the climax of their own private snuff movie. The butt of such perverted humour was their supervisor, a graduate trying to produce a tomato maturity standard for commercial purposes. The penis-like probe of the pulsating Instron was producing a slurping sound that often accompanies ‘funny sex.’

There was some irony at play here, with the gathering of just these three together in the same room. If a vote were taken throughout the lab, Rasputin would undoubtedly have been accorded the title of pre-eminent court jester, but the other two were never shy in trying to get up the noses of other staff at every turn. Vacuum Head was an opportunistic prankster with the body of a Biafran and the mouth of a yawning Hippo. Wiry, cheeky and slovenly dressed, he was a serial pest with a propensity for incendiary-based ‘gotchas’ and he lived in a permanently deluded state. He moved around his own world at the speed of light believing it would get him swiftly to places before he left.

Dr. Jekyll, on the other hand was more measured, a superb mimic with an innate sense of the theatrical about him. His humour had a sardonic, sarcastic streak, making him perfect company for Vacuum Head who suffered from the same affliction. Sadly, the somewhat flawed Dr Jekyll seemed go through periods of pre-menstrual tension and was prone to bouts of sooking. Add in a three-way personality spilt and these foibles made him difficult to work with at times. But for all his faults he was quite adept at schmoozing the ladies. The pair quickly picked up on Rasputin’s faux Italian accent.

‘Duz it havva dah bigga space for dee coal?’ Rasputin waffled on to the woman on the other end of the phone line, warming to the task.

‘Aaah iz thatta roight?’

‘Mmmm, well canna you tella me what iz dah size ovva dah batterias itta dah takes?’

‘Good oh, I await ‘tilla you goa down-a-stairs enna check eh?’ Raspy sat back in the chair, grinning openly at both boys. It was common knowledge that Rajah’s wife was no small woman and a trip downstairs would try her patience.

By now, Dr Jekyll and Vacuum Head had well and truly ceased work. Ears pricked, each had a hand over his mouth, but it was not enough to stop vaporised spumes of spit speckling the Instron control panel as they doubled up in hysterics.

Moments later, Rasputin sat upright again. ‘Noa batterias eh? Dassa OK.’

‘But canna you tella me if it gotta dah wheels – I might wanta move itta outta dah side for dah Baah Bee Que.’

‘Daz OK, I waiter right here while a you goa down–a-stairs agen.’

At this point Vacuum Head, never one for self-control, had to remove himself to the corridor outside to let loose a bellyaching laugh, interspersed with the odd uncontrolled fart. It was often customary for the jokers of the lab to indulge in some synchronised head bashing against a wall if they couldn’t handle the humour. Vaco had met the poor unfortunate woman several times and thought Rasputin’s demands were hilarious but a trifle insensitive.

Many of Rasputtin’s ‘gotchas’ involved a degree of pain; he often confused torture with humour. The guy was born a thousand years too late and if you subscribe to the theory of reincarnation it is possible, in another life, he worked for Nero in Ancient Rome. You could imagine him prodding the last Christian with sword and dagger down the tunnel and into the ring, chuckling to himself while the lions pawed at the gate.

Rasputin’s raised eyebrows to the two boys suggested the lady was having a moment at the other end of the phone. Breathlessness had set in.

‘Iz orrite, jussa takka your time, lady.’

‘Noa wheels eh, iz OK, doan wurry I putta dem onna myself.’

‘All iz OK, soundez a good toa me.’

‘But iz OK to paya dah money een Lira – I jussa arrive from dee ole country alasta week.’

‘No problem, you jussa ringga your hubby,’ suggested Rasputin. A quick look at his watch would have told him he’d been stringing Rajah’s wife along for nearly half an hour. It seemed unimaginable but therein lies the difference between essentially nice but gullible people and those with a degree of rat cunning.

‘Canna you aska iffs he deeliva to Sandygate?’ he asked, selecting a suburb on the opposite side of the city from Holland Park.

The boys leaned on each other for support, smothering guffaws as if they were affected by a deadly viral strain emanating from the greasy Mothership Rasputin. By contrast the mad protagonist was so engrossed in his role of the badly spoken foreigner his tone was engagingly believable. Vacuum Head made a play for one of the ubiquitous Government towels hanging below the Instron, wiping his eyes of tears before offering it to the Doctor. The Instron, meanwhile, was thrusting another over-the-hill, ruby-coloured tomato to climax, adding to the farce like the soundtrack of a ‘spatter’ movie. In, out, in, out, up, down…Vacuum Head hit the stop button just as a viscous river of tomato pulp dribbled over the edge of the machine. Beanpole, their supervisor, would not have been impressed.

Over against the desk, a less than contrite Rasputin had one final joust at his prey.

‘Waiter jussa one minute, I givva you my numba. Then you canna tella me watta your hubby say.’

‘Iz 289 6999, doanna forget toa ringa me aback,’ Rasputin told her, hanging up the phone a second before letting out one of his trademark deafening haw, haw, haws.

Unable to contain themselves, Vacuum Head and Doctor Jekyll rolled around on the floor in orgiastic delight, legs bicycling above them, laughter bleeding out of them like brain cells from fresh road kill. Like all good public service pranksters they knew the number Rasputin had given the woman. It was the administrative section of the Wacol Nuthouse.

On the face of it, it may appear that Kathy, Rajah’s wife, was the butt of Rasputin’s ‘sting’ but this was not the case. It was always about taking another staff member down. Rasputin was clever enough to calculate that word would get out around the lab and Rajah would look like a goose, purely because of his marriage to Kathy. Perhaps Rajah’s biggest mistake was a careless word to someone in the Food Lab that he was advertising a stove for sale. Eventually it became common knowledge that if you had something to sell through the papers you never told a soul in the lab.

Over thirty years later in an interesting postscript to the prank, Rajah would collar Vacuum Head at a large gathering of past and present staff from the two laboratories and accuse him of the vile deed.

THE EARLY YEARS

I’d already worked over three years in another chemistry lab  when I slunk self-consciously into Lunk’s front office at Hamilton for that life-changing interview with him, a faceless graduate and Blakie, one of the lab physiologists. In a wrist-length shirt, starched white collar and pencil-thin black tie, I was a picture of frightened innocence. All that unnecessary faff; I wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all myself. Those three years in a commercial lab at a fertiliser factory had been my private hell. I felt beaten down at twenty by the insatiable demands of the private sector, an insensitive brute of a factory manager and a head chemist who knew as much about communication as I did about my first girlfriend. As I stepped forward into the Director’s office, I knew nothing and it would not be long before they knew it too. Saturated green that was me, all virginal innocence like Lang Park at season’s start, before it was lacerated and tagged by my boyhood footie heroes.

But I could smell freedom, even then. It dripped lazily out into the corridor from each section as I was given the grand tour. Any opportunist could have sniffed the potential – which was lucky as I had an OP 1 in opportunism and not much else. Why did they pick me? It surely ranks as one of the great minor blunders of the modern age, right up there with the flymo and the square yo-yo. Was that Sibelius I saw hastily shoving a dog-eared copy of Playboy into a drawer of pipettes and burettes as Lunk stood in the doorway droning in his signature monotone, ‘And this is the Chem lab’.

He was a curious character, old Lunk, the Food Lab’s Director in 1970. The consummate public servant; I guessed he must have been around fifty, not old by anyone’s standard. But he gave off an aura of old stained furniture, worn Axminster carpets and dark rooms in your Grandparent’s home. With his singlet silhouetted under his pressed shirt, polished leather pumps and his stiff-backed correctness, he was surely from another era. His distinctive paddling duck walk was suggestive of someone who never played sport. Short in stature, solid and well fed, his body language, as he plodded down the middle of the corridor like a battery-powered plastic toy, gave the impression that ‘none shall pass’. He would later prove himself a pitiable, miserly, two-faced human being with the self-serving agenda of an image-conscious autocrat continually repositioning himself for promotion – the first of many to use the Food Lab and its neighbour, the Dairy Lab as temporary rungs on the hierarchical ladder. Further down the back of the lab, other strange-looking and colourless characters were busy fixing watches and stifling animated discussions on Radish’s chances in the third. Their slip was already showing.

When I officially walked through the door into Club Snooze two weeks later, the weight of years of pain and pressure of my previous job lifted off me like Icarus rising up out of hell. I knew this job was going to be fun when the first person I met at the door to my section was a long legged, brown-haired goddess with a figure like a three minute egg timer. Jude, as I was to discover, was our ray of sunshine who carried her aura around like Tinkerbelle leaking happy glitter in a body suggestive of an untapped sexual heaven. Others had already melted in her orbit and their carcasses were scattered in festering piles of slobbering fecundity in a few corners of my section. Don’t get me wrong, she was not the only interesting girl in the place but she was the only woman. Jude would be one of the few female techs I would see in fifteen years of lab work to sass up a featureless, starched white nurse’s dress into a ballet dancer’s alluring tutu, completing the image with her uncanny ability to pirouette on her pins and float out of the room trailing Fonteyn vapours. Okay, perhaps the breathlessness was mine. After the factory slags and made-up office Barbie dolls at my previous lab job, I knew I was in the candy store and I had not even walked over to the bigger Dairy Lab or Club Cruise as it should have been named, a careless leg glance across the way.

I went back there to Hamilton, almost exactly forty years after I signed on in 1970. Unfortunately the fond memories of bygone days were deadened by the sounds of silence blaring at me as I walked across the deserted bitumen parking lot between the two labs. Weeds sprouted in the widening cracks of the tar, bristles on an unkempt face that the old Kingswoods, Zephyrs and Anglias kept shaven back in the halcyon days of unruly lawlessness. Peeking through dusty windows on the ground floor of my old lab, I noticed gaping holes in the walls where some benches had been taken. They took the people too. In places, insulation hung beardlike from the ceiling and PVC piping littered the floors, afterthoughts of some curtailed grand refurbishment. That they’d stripped the place of its ovens, balances, vacuum centrifuges, gas chromatographs and glassware is understandable; but to partially dismember the skin and bones, leaving the sense of a building site paused at smoko merely rubbed salt in a wound many of the final evictees still smart from. Across the strip of tar, the Dairy Lab was one step behind – boxes packed with equipment, furniture moved around and staff contemplating a major move across the river. Game over.

Now, two years later and I’m told the Multiplex wrecking ball has razed both labs to the ground – ground far too valuable to miss an opportunity to add yet another featureless block of apartments to the flood-prone edge of the Brisbane River.

It is difficult not to look back with fondness at the often bizarre, always hilarious, occasionally productive times that we as a group of scientists and technicians enjoyed in the twenty years from 1970 to 1990. An outsider reading this would surely come to the conclusion that both labs should have had a broom put through them earlier than 1990 or at worst been closed down in the same year as the new Goss Labor government’s razor gang set about rationalising the Queensland public service. This is a simplistic view however, as for every research trial that proved to be of little value previous to this, there were just as many innovative research programs and brilliant scientific discoveries.

Nothing is forever. Change is inevitable as any fool knows. While the two labs may have been long overdue for a cold hard look in the mirror of self-examination by 1990, seven years down the track found an angry cloud of polarisation hanging over the buildings. A number of Dairy Lab staff had voiced the opinion that some change was warranted while the remainder railed against the upheaval to the status quo, predominantly for the reasons detailed below. The rub for the Food Lab was not merely the threat of a brave new world after 1990 but the rumours that began to surface that they were to be absorbed into the larger laboratory – a process that had already commenced in 1985 with the transfer of several staff from the Food Tech section.

There’s no doubting the political agenda of the public sector management committee of the new government; they’d had a gutful of the Primary Industries Department. It was seen as the long-term sacred cow of the former Bjelke-Petersen Liberal-Country party government – time to trim some of the fat from it and rebrand the heart and soul.

What I have discovered is that in the upheaval of the workplace throughout both labs, which commenced in early 1990, staff were not resistant to change. Only the size, the heavy-handed manner of implementation, and the constant changes of direction were in dispute. Considering the shattering consequences for the Food Lab in 1999 and later the Dairy Lab, one might wonder at the stupidity of self-serving business managers and Labor bureaucrats who systematically destroyed two valuable scientific groups after 1990. Both labs are lasting memories of a multitude of temporary restructures in the 1990s and beyond, foisted on them by these people. They who shamelessly tried to ignite their own rising stars with an imprint in the shortest possible time before bailing sideways or worse, ladder-climbing to a higher-paid position with more perceived prestige. This is a tale of two radically different eras which saw so many fun-loving but essentially committed workers become bitter and disillusioned with a system that failed them abysmally. It is the sharp dichotomy of these two periods that fascinates me, and as a staffer who departed well before the bloodletting started in 1990 had no concept of the extent of the upheaval until 2010.

Before looking at the pathway that led to this regrettable outcome, allow me to set the scene with some background information on both laboratories – not forgetting, of course, the cast of thousands that made these two institutions a truly unforgettable place to work.

Both labs enjoyed the luxury of suburban isolation; so what did this really mean? Practically speaking, siting the two labs within spitting distance of the riverside wharfs in Hamilton rendered any day-to-day observation of the questionable antics of some staff virtually impossible. Visits from Branch Directors and Director-Generals in the city centre were few and far between and usually signalled in advance – most of their directives seemed to come via the telephone or memos in the mail. From that viewpoint, our head office may as well have been on the dark side of the moon for all its effectiveness. For clarification purposes the reader should note that both labs had overall managers, termed Directors, while in city head offices there were also Branch Directors in administrative and policy implementation roles. So we were a protected species where rules were few, compared to others in the Horticulture and Dairy Branches working right under the noses of the hierarchy.

Compared to the Food Lab’s look of a characterless WWII single-level barracks, the double-storeyed Dairy laboratory was no less functional in design but looked imposing and at least had a splash of colour in the blue panels supporting the windows. The scientists in the top floors looked down on us, their peers, across the bitumen parking lot – and we looked at them as sleazy neighbour’s perving through our bedroom windows in the hope of catching a titillating morsel of flesh. The bigger lab had around fourteen rooms of varying sizes on its top floor but aside from a tea room, two offices and the library, the rest were all research facilities or parts of – microbiology, bacteriology and chem labs, pesticide and biochemistry sections grabbing the largest floor space. In contrast, the ground level rooms were a hodgepodge of plant and cold rooms, taste panel booths, toilets and front office. The remainder were laboratory sections for short term analytical work usually carried out on a daily basis for the milk producers in the State.

Simplifying this, the downstairs labs took on the routine day-to- day work on a fee-for-service basis while the upstairs research group looked at long-term, in-depth studies ranging from accelerated cheese ripening to development of test kits for identifying diseases such as mastitis in dairy cattle.

All of the lab sections in both buildings, whether involved in bench work or processing, suffered from the same ailment. Space was at a premium everywhere you looked. Benches stacked with fragile glassware and all manner of machines cut down the floor space. Instruments, stools and boxes stacked against walls added to the claustrophobic clutter that was our workspace. Thankfully my resume omitted to document the staggering number of beakers, measuring cylinders and burettes I’d smashed working in the six foot square that was my previous lab space. Despite the marginally bigger space of the Food Lab’s sections, I seemed to still to score at better than a beaker a minute.

Space was never an issue for the Dairy Lab’s pilot plant. The plant was the testing ground for a colourful melange of cheese types, yoghurts, cremas and flavoured milks, many of these concocted at the behest of the milk producers. Set in a vast, airy room at the far end of the building, the place sparkled with stainless steel vats, piping, buckets and its fair share of crazies who would slip you a slice of chilli cheese or turn an industrial water hose on you if they thought it would lighten up their day.

One of the conundrums that surfaced as I bedded myself in to the operation of the Food Lab in the early years had some commonality in the Dairy Lab. It came to light that there was some degree of professional jealousy between the upstairs research graduates and those in the downstairs analytical areas of the latter. More detail on this will arise in the subculture chapters. Across the way in the Food Lab, professional respect was often strained between individuals as few graduates in the 1970s working in its five main sections bothered to combine on research programs. That lack of respect seemed to arise in part from an ignorance of real knowledge about the nature of research going on in other areas.

Of the five major groups in the Food Lab, the Food Technology section came to be known to some irreverent folk as ‘The Potato Mashers’ with their predilection for processing any fruit or vegetable to the point of unrecognizability. Bananas, their skins blackened from age and texture the consistency of gloop evoked memories of Heinz baby food in their incessant taste panels. Their charter was mainly concerned with development of processing techniques in canning, packaging, roasting and freezing of a wide range of fruit, nuts, coffee and vegetables. Added to this, a long standing commitment to assist the Queensland wine industry in the Stanthorpe area by a combination of wine-making trials and on the ground advice lifted the profile of this group.

The Chem lab, probably the smuggest unit in the place, morphed into ‘Radio and TV land’ in time purely because no one else in the lab knew the reason they were fiddling around with computer chips and hand-made circuit boards. Originally the section was set up to undertake seminal scientific chemical research such as synthesising specific chemicals and examination of the structure of things like oleo resin in ginger. The focus changed around 1980 to construction of computer-driven data-measuring devices for industry by one team, and a statistical analytical hub driven by one graduate we will call the Brainiac. Laconic and immensely pragmatic, he could analyse data so efficiently and rapidly he could have been tagged Windows Noah. The Brainac cared nought for fashion, sporting the typical public service garb of shorts, long socks and featureless shirts – another lacking the body to fill out the ‘body’ shirts that he and others fell in love with at the time. With a mathematical intelligence bordering on genius, I wondered what his other passions were. Sadly, like the rest of us good-time boys in the Food Lab, they were the usual – footie, racing, board games and Fourex beer.

The third area, Physiology, passed under the banner of ‘Friviolity’. Certainly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was more frivolous behaviour perpetrated within the confines of the Physiology section and on the loading dock outside, as will be revealed. I put this indisputable fact down to one unruly graduate and a plethora of technicians known as the Ratpack, who materialised as if by magic at any sign of light relief. Most of the trials run in this lawless area were fruit and vegetable storage and ripening projects peppered with interminable taste panels of the product.

The fourth group, Extension Services, escaped any deprecatory tag probably because the Ratpack, who doled out the less than complimentary section titles, couldn’t find anything but respect for the little group. The technician’s Ratpack was a group of willing but underemployed smart-arses like me, who used their surfeit of spare time to create as much mischief as they could without being detected by any level of authority. Extension Services had a roving commission which often saw them out of the lab advising growers on post-harvest problems, and liaising with the packaging industry. But the group also ran their own in-house trials in areas like development of maturity standards for fruit and vegetables.

No, I haven’t lost count – the Microbiology section smack in the middle of the Food Lab was never tagged – but probably should have been the Dead Zone, it was graveyard silent. In later years, after all the female microbiologists had left in disgust, it seemed to most of us that no one lived in there and not a lot went on.

Hans Zonit, a graduate Physiologist, in a goodly dose of his acerbic wit, summed up the whole laboratory in that era, adding a swipe at the Micro lab as well, ‘That place was unreal,’ he told me, ‘You had thirty-three workers and two dead people.’

Modesty forces me to leave that one alone.

Perhaps lawlessness is a trifle harsh but as you read on you may think that, on occasions, there’s an element of truth to it. Were the labs essentially just two giant social clubs peppered with the odd brilliant scientist and a few competent technicians or a boatload of nutty professors who went missing in action? As some say, there’s a fine line between craziness and genius.

The distance from the city of the two labs was a double-edged sword in many ways. True, the uptown powerbrokers paid precious few visits to either lab and in the case of the Food Lab gave them no direction and precious little operating capital. Up until the early 1980s, any vision for practical application of research was, in the main, non-existent. It was an inward thinking culture in the smaller lab and only marginally better in the larger Dairy Lab. Left to their own devices the two labs meandered on in an often ad hoc approach to research, where time constraints to complete programs were almost irrelevant unless driven by one or two motivated scientists with ambition to publish ground-breaking work of national or international interest.

The saving grace for the Dairy Lab for the most part was the analytical section’s daily regulatory work for the Dairy industry. The poor relation in prestige to the upstairs research areas of microbiology, chemistry, bacteriology and biochemistry, it had a relevant function to industry until the late 1980s when the larger dairy monopolies such as Paul’s and Norco staffed their own analytical labs.

Industry applicability of most research work was ignored. It was research for science’s sake. Direct information extension, that feeding of research results back into industry, was absent in both establishments with little or no interface between the Dairy Lab and its extension branch, Dairy Field Services further up the river at Breakfast Creek. The Food Lab scientists were quite derelict in their duties, save for one lone hand curiously named Woppo, until the arrival of Beanpole in 1981. The two then formed the Extension Services section within the lab.

Coming in as a fresh face from a country outstation, many of those flaws in the system stuck out like Dolly Parton’s chest to the new extension officer, Beanpole. Cool, confident, focussed and driven, Beanpole was all of that and more but radiated the easy nonchalance of a gifted man. Even his walk was a study in nonchalance, swaying imperceptibly from side to side on lanky pins and moving down the corridor at the speed of the Queen Mary about to dock. He was the constant danger to architraves that I was not. Strangely, like his brother in arms in the Extension area, the supremely relaxed Woppo, Beanpole fitted in easily with the sports-mad, uncontrollable circus that was the Ratpack. Time would prove him to be an unselfish worker for the greater good of the fruit and vegetable industry.

His partner, on the other hand, was a shy introverted older man who kept his own counsel, occasionally dealing out a pearl of wisdom in staff meetings where others waffled on for hours. The Wop, as he was also known, was blessed with that rare combination of intelligence and practicality buttressed by a sense of humour a sun-baked stick in the Mallee would be hard pressed to beat.

Each research group was a fragment of its whole laboratory, a clique if you like, and it was unlikely that many graduates in the Food Lab had any idea of the work programs being conducted in other sections except from a cursory look through an annual report. By contrast, bright lights in the other lab attempted to jog their peers out of their comfort zone by choosing one graduate a month to elaborate on their research progress at Monday morning meetings. Still, much of the work was carried out in isolation, not only between internal sections, but with a lack of vision and leadership from the absent ‘hollow men’ in the city head office who ignored the necessity for linkages between the labs and regional or industry workers.

Beanpole lamented down the track that by 1984 the Food Lab had done almost 20 years of research into post-harvest mango problems such as storage, controlled atmosphere transport and heat disinfestation, but little of this information was being used because there had been no target in mind. Again it was research for research’s sake and he strongly believed it was next to useless to the outside world. Surely an integrated planning approach with input from all parties – scientists, industry figures, funding sources, transport companies and most importantly, growers – is a more effective way to resolve post-harvest problems and spend precious dollars wisely. Thankfully in the post 1990 era this approach has changed for the better.

These days they call it strategic planning but there was a distinct lack of it back then. Our controllers in head office engendered a culture of obedience by fear with their strict adherence to the rulebook. The inflexible attitudes of many of them with regard to extra study, budgetary increases and trips to overseas or interstate conferences built an ‘Us and Them’ wall that few could penetrate. With a lack of clear vision set for the Food Lab, in twenty years or more no strategic planning was undertaken until after 1984.

While many programs carried out in the Food Lab in the decade from 1970 were arguably of some benefit in a pure scientific vein, the results were left gathering dust in annual reports or on library shelves. There is some consensus, post 2000, that some of this data is now being picked up by industry since its recent transference to digital computer files where it’s more accessible. A long-serving staffer cited instances where pieces of this information was used in the post 2000 era to produce better tomato quality standards and the development of different tomato varieties for processing and fresh markets. Similarly, other varieties have been recently cloned for niche markets such as the discerning restaurant trade. He pointed out that a similar pattern has emerged for the plethora of locally produced potato crisps that have used production techniques developed in the Food Lab in the 1970s. Point taken, but one wonders at the lack of an interface that might have allowed more effective promotion of the best of that information earlier than post 2000.

Plenty might argue otherwise, citing positions of authority and superior knowledge, but in my observation along with other ‘bloody cadets’ as two graduates termed the junior staff, an inordinate number of two bob trials were green lighted in the 1970s that should have been rejected on the basis of poor structure or at the very least for their ignorance of industry needs. Only the forced air cooling trials by the laconic and intuitive Woppo and wine research for the local industry by the redoubtable Fortescue-Battersby could be truthfully be said to have a major impact on new directions in fruit management, transportation and wine production. The former led to major carton redesign and pallet stacking for fruit and vegetable goods which maintained product quality in its transportation to distant markets.

Not until the injection of capital from the outside body ACIAR [Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research] in 1984 did the wheel turn for the Food Lab where previously miserly budget allocations had had a detrimental effect on the nature and quality of many trials carried out. I often wonder in hindsight if our supervisors could have tried a more outward thinking approach to raising funds than the myopic acceptance of their meagre departmental purse every July. Certainly in the early years, both the William Street patriarchs in Primary Industries and the ineffectual Lunk as Food Lab Director at the time would have scuttled attempts to exhort funds from outside bodies – as a number of far-sighted Dairy Lab graduates did. Building empires are all about control and to relinquish this is an anathema to such men. This fact is another essential difference in approach between private enterprise and an inward-thinking public service. While much good research and day- to-day analytical work was done over that twenty-two year period until about 1992, many people worked well below their full potential, others did no work, some carried out unsanctioned work and still another group of opportunists efficiently completed their work and went off filling in the gaps with their own agendas.

As one well-respected, hardworking graduate volunteered, ‘80% of public servants are good, conscientious workers, it’s just that the other 20% are so bad they’re noticed.’

That is a reasonable observation if somewhat of a black and white view; my own view down at the tech level was that there were more shades of grey on display. Perhaps this may be coloured by the fact that I myself was guilty on most counts especially the last.

On a technical level, the powerbrokers up in their grand offices in William Street and then subsequently George Street were bureaucrats concerned with pre-harvest horticultural issues. We, in the Food Lab, were patently a post-harvest research group concerned with matters of researching ways to get fruit and vegetables to long-distant markets in the best possible condition – not with configuring systems for killing off pests or increasing crop production where high wastage was a naturally accepted phenomenon. In hindsight, perhaps it may have been more worthwhile for our researchers to discover subtle methods for killing off the pests in the uptown hierarchy.

True characters are infinitely more interesting in the workplace than the work. Never more so in this case where both labs, over time, had staff in the hundreds. That said, at the risk of shoving a dried out old sponge full of regurgitated technocrap into the multilayered sandwich that is these people’s story, it would be remiss of me not to give some sense of the major scientific achievements of both labs in the crazy years up to 1990. To not do so would be disrespectful to the core of scientists and techs who worked honestly and often brilliantly to establish some level of scientific credibility.

Of course there were the occasional exceptions where research did have direct industry application. Rajah and his team of the Social Director and a tech with the uncommon name of Jones designed and built the MaxTen system, a device which monitors and controls oxygen levels down to 2% in standard shipping containers. Mitsubishi provided funding, eventually buying the patent from the Queensland government and commercialised the system, building over 5000 machines used in containers worldwide. Quite a bonanza for one section of industry.

Similarly the ramifications for the fruit and vegetable food chain with a new carton design and unique technology for forced air cooling of farm product were enormous. The Food Lab’s reflective scientist, Woppo, had battled resistance from COD [Fruit marketing committee] in Rocklea but after many years of perseverance got the project completed and subsequently produced a book on the ground-breaking research. This book is still an industry bible.

Another scientist who defied the trend of consigning research to a library pigeonhole was the serious-minded Ric Krackanuttie. His enigmatic, introverted demeanour meant he was rarely given to gratuitous displays of passion – he left that to others while he put his head down and butt skyward working to make a difference for industry with his research. His varietal assessments and packaging trials on macadamia nuts for the powerful Macadamia Society may not have been rocket science but they did exactly the job the Society requested.

Second best was an anathema to Krackanuttie. His frustration at the lack of resources and low budgets on offer in the Food Lab made him another escapee from the building in the 1980s, rising up the academic ranks to an Associate Professorship and departmental head at Gatton Agricultural College.

Over the bitumen border in the Dairy Lab, Mossie’s development of the pressure powered cream dispenser for the Big Pineapple on the Sunny Coast cannot be understated nor can the contribution of the volcanic BK and his team in designing a range of test kits for detection of diseases such as mastitis and his awareness of the need to protect intellectual property. Likewise another of the lab’s senior chemists, the hard working Dr Deeth was a well-respected figure in industry for his research work. But for sheer bloody mindedness and contempt for public service rules none of these scientists beat the efforts of the Goose whose star rose to giddy heights and burst into a flaming fireball when he departed Primary Industries to go on to even bigger achievements in the worldwide seafood industry. A little unkempt, shaggy haired and sporting an apparent nonchalant manner, Goose was little concerned with image but only with results and he attacked his tasks in seafood research with a passion rarely seen in the service. He made his own rules and the smell of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’ was all over him. The ebullient, bearded Goose worked side by side with the seafood industry looking at storage and transport techniques for tuna exports and developing live prawn shipments to Japan.

Every workplace has its loose cannon and Goose bent the rules and cut corners, managing to fly under the radar of anyone in authority uptown but he exasperated his immediate bosses. It was not uncommon for him to accumulate a thousand dollars in petty cash dockets in a wad in his pocket, submitting them all in one go. He ran too fast and flew too high for the pedestrian powerbrokers up in head office, taking into private industry the knowledge to patent ‘spear and stun’ fishing equipment before the controllers realised he was gone. Stealth makes wealth it seems.

In the practical sense, rules were few and far between compared to the regimented workplace I had left in private enterprise in 1970. The departmental clerks and uptown Directors probably had a public service rulebook the thickness of a Karri tree hidden away in a filing cabinet but it was ineffective down at our level in the ’burbs. One Food Lab Director admitted that his lab was like a big club with only one clear rule but everyone had to adhere to it. You did have to front up and sign in, preferably before 9 am and definitely no later but that was about the extent of it. After that, the front office clerk would emerge like a Swiss train departing promptly from his office to rule the dreaded ‘red line’ under the last signee.

Bundy clocks were for untrustworthy blue collar workers in factories; we were professional officers and it would have been beneath us to use a Bundy. Out there in the private sector, if your card was punched in past the starting time you were severely reprimanded or sacked, usually by an overbearing, beer-gutted factory manager. In the public service, if you were red carded three times you received a please explain from the Director. In theory, anyone on their 6 months’ probation could be sacked but that would have required a Royal Commission and more than likely they just got a rap over the knuckles as did permanent staff. In the smaller Food Lab around 9 am, it was not uncommon to see three or four hung-over techs and cadets scrabbling to sign in on time while some supposedly responsible graduates would roll in later in the morning on the basis of working back the previous night. The reality was somewhat different in the Dairy Lab where one might safely assume the much higher staff numbers would be the main problem come sign on time. Not so.

The Dairy lab was blighted by Deadwood, a bearish figure of a man with a head of hair resembling dyed steel wool. He embodied all that was wrong with the public service – he was inefficient, unmotivated and had the social skills of a sleepy Koala. He seemed to believe that procrastination would be his pathway to perfection. An obsessive-compulsive, he could lock his car and walk ten steps away, scratch his head in bewilderment, walk back, unlock and relock the car, then repeat the process twice more to be sure. To watch him wash his hands was like watching ‘Slasher’ Mackay batting his way to another three hour 50. Since his father was a devout minister and he, himself a believer, perhaps he was thinking that cleanliness is next to godliness. Deadwood had a handshake that felt like you were caressing a dead fish on the spoil; after the first time I shook hands with him I just gave him a wave. Unbelievable as it sounds Deadwood had a science degree in chemistry which may have made more than one graduate in the lab believe their piece of paper was not what it was cracked up to be. Lock in Crazy No. 1.

Tabulating statistics from an instrument is an exacting task, signing the time book is not. Imagine the circus at the front desk around 8.57 am with Deadwood poised, pen in hand, over the time book. Latecomers struggling to get in under the sign-on time would be seething in frustration as the Mr Bean of their lab stood rooted to the spot, his eyes on the wall clock waiting for the second hand to kiss the 12 – no unholy minute for him. Conscience clear, he could sign on at exactly 8.58 am. If you were close enough and not yelling at him, you could hear his brain ticking over in perfect synchronisation with the second hand on the wall clock. Pity the remaining ten punters behind him who would have to initiate a flurry of scribbles in less than two minutes as the Director or the clerk hovered like the Grim Reaper to one side. If all of that fact sounds absurd, don’t think that was the end of the nonsense. Later in the day at around 4.55 pm the lower corridors of the Dairy Lab would fill with staff queuing for the quick five o’clock exit via the same time book ritual.

The government got rid of ‘red line’ fever right across the Queensland public service in about 1976 with the introduction of flexi-time. For the uninitiated, flexi-time forms were a multi- columned, day-sectioned, fortnightly time sheet where pre-lunch and post-lunch work times were written separately. They allowed for enough extra work to be accumulated over the two week period so staff could take an afternoon or morning off. In principle, a very fair and workable system but in the hands of an ‘oxygen thief’, it bordered on lunacy. ‘Oxygen thieves’ were the worst of the workforce – public servants who breathed and fed on the system but contributed little real work.

For many the advent of flexi-time was snouts in the time trough; rorting was rampant and memory suggests to me that you fell into one of three camps – those fudgers who added fifteen minutes here or half an hour there to their time sheet, or worse, a whole pub session hidden in the post-lunch time slot. There were those few, like Sibelius, a respected but conservative tech in the Food Lab, and Deadwood whose principles could not be compromised and wrote clean. The last group, which sadly included myself, were the most pitiable. These were the trouble makers and the bone lazy [I was a member of both categories] who never filled in a day until the last Friday of the fortnight where every day would be filled in the same – 9 am to 12.30pm/1.15 pm to 5 pm.

Synopsis for ‘Til Death Do Us Party’

A revealing insight into the combined memories of a group of BrisVegas party animals sharing a 9 room mansion in suburban Brisbane in the early 1970’s.

Here was a post-pubescent college of advanced education for wild women and young boys studying for a career in the alcohol industry while fighting terminal addiction to the tub-thumping riffs of the Stones, Jethro Tull and Thorpie and the Aztecs.

Paul Francis shows his robust humour and idiosyncratic expression coupled with an interesting angle to create seemingly detached observations of a period of this group’s shared experiences that he obviously cherishes.

[To purchase a full digital copy of ‘The Silence Unseen’ please contact the author, Paul FRANCIS at email psmallie@bigpond.com] Proceeds from all sales go to C.A.S.P.A. in Lismore NSW.

CLICK HERE FOR INTRO CHAPTER ``35 Years On``: ‘Til Death Do Us Party’

THE PLAYERS

At this point there is some benefit to be derived from an outing of the usual suspects, if only to establish the dynamic driving the shiftless direction of the group. Hardly The Magnificent Seven, we were probably closer to the Seven Dwarfs. Not only would it be proven that we never achieved anything, but we took a shot at many things, including the chandeliers in the lounge room. Add to this the fact that we produced nothing remotely resembling a community service for anyone and only inflicted pain on ourselves. Opinion is divided: much of the blame has been unfairly sheeted home to Poofter Scott and his influence, but in reality this is far from the truth. Seven quite different individuals living together will always tweak their housemate’s personalities and lifestyles to some extent. Not forgetting the dubious influence of our close-knit group of friends whose aberrant antics should not be understated. Some of these larger-than-life outsiders deserve the full-frontal blowtorch on their character as their sins are worthy, and so are also included here to give a better perspective of this era.

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POOFTER SCOTT

Groups spawn leaders. They float to the surface to rear their ugly heads out of the morass of indecision, chaos and the indifference of the rest. Poofter Scott was a reluctant leader. On reflection, he got the leader’s mantle by default; a reward for years of misspent youth morphing into the dissolution of one too many road trips with his rock band. Experience counted. We had none; he had more than enough. He was in.

Opinionated but intelligent, humorous but not humble, and undeniably cynical, especially towards those affecting pretences. A man whose flat generalisations on the meaning of life brooked no argument. We knew it was fruitless pursuing a certain line of argument when, after railroading his viewpoint through, we would get the curt one-liner, ‘I rest my case,’ and that would end the discussion forever.

He had us over the gun with experience as well. Or was it only that he was one step ahead? Leaders have presence, be it with physical stature or perhaps an aura of inner strength. The Poof was that rare conundrum; his physical state was obvious with a huge, lilywhite hairless chest that he could inflate like a condom at the drop of a party. His blazing red hair, the texture of steel wool, tickled his shoulder blades and with a frame nearly topping 2 metres he towered over many. The man had presence. Physically that was it, though, as he had neither the physique of a Kangaroo fullback or even a kangaroo. The puzzle being his lack of any interest in any sport, bar man’s favourite, and in this discipline he was way ahead of most of us. He flaunted his bodily regularly, affecting variations of Charles Atlas whenever the rest of we mortals skited about our footie prowess or the like. For all of this, I never saw him belt a tennis ball or even sprint around an oval. Indeed, with the legs of a high jumper he walked an exaggerated gait that a few of us, including the odd short-arsed girlfriend, struggled to keep up with. Although well educated, he often preferred street smart to get by and his plethora of one-liners smacked of this and canny observation.

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Part insomniac, part couch potato, late night B & W movies were his passion. Here was the vault of horror and period pieces where he gleaned such classics as,

‘You’ve got to get it with your own hands, Daubney Carshott’, that he trotted out at any hint of masturbatory conversation. Or the smartarse but wistful,

‘Oh, won’t you join me in a Pilsener?’ another classic icebreaker from the good ship ‘Rejection’ to be recycled from party to nightclub back to party again. His shortcomings were well hidden and cocooned behind a bravado that ridiculed the stereotypes of bronzed Aussie surfers, footie fanatics and bubblegum music. Strength in sarcasm, if one has not strength or interest in these mindless pursuits.

‘Another wasted afternoon at the Hoof Test, eh Noise,’ he would banter as we philistines made our way over to Lang Park to vegetate in the outer and eat warmed-over meat pies.

He confessed that he hated the ‘Big Yellow Thing in the Sky’, so why venture out in it? With that deadly combination of carrot-stained hair and scaly porcelain skin, he had a point. Better to creep around inside and suffer 60 watts of Edistan[sic] than 54 trillion watts from the fryball outside. Interesting rationale from a man who got value for money from soap powder by using both sides of the sheets before reluctantly stuffing them into our undersized top loader to clean.

Together with his tacit leadership role around The House, he brought with this his unfortunate title of Poofter Scott. It is true that the Housemates never bothered much with it, but his constant drinking buddy, Throat, had lampooned him with the tag at work some years before. Doubtless it would seem to be a hangover from days where longhaired muses were christened as poofters merely because they were different. In truth the reality was not too dissimilar, as Throat and the Fixer recounted: ‘It came about when he started buying those bottles of cider occasionally, an’ he wouldn’t drink piss with us.’

‘We told him only poofters drank that stuff, so it sort of stuck then.’ But gay, he certainly was not.

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THE HOG

Things were quite different for the Hog. This sticklike, nude-nutted, ugly duckling came to us from the farming fringes of Mitchelton – at the time, Yokely Dokily land and the Grand Canyon of BrisVegas. He had already been christened with his name, years before in high school, by his undernourished mate, the simpleton Noise. It had no subliminal meaning and was merely a contraction of his surname. While some of us had an image of sorts, but no style, the Hog had neither. He had a VW beetle, a car not fit for cruising or screwing. His scrawny mate, the Fridge Magnet, assured me that he, himself, had once jammed his foot in the glovebox while trying to hoist his girlfriend over into the back seat, with his penis of course. Still, here was a car to fit the man, compact, practical and economical. The man who kept a 5-pound note in his desk drawer for years, never to be spent, along with the odd shilling tied up in the corner of an old hankie. Like many in our group, life had yet to extract its inexorable appropriation of his body, but still the Hog impressed no one with his clean-cut Germanic look. He was, when he joined us, a physical walk-up start for the Hitler Youth Movement. Lean and wiry, a crew-cut blond whose slight tan gave the impression he could have raced through five sets of tennis barely raising a sweat. All that would change in the blink of his mother’s eyes as the selective influence of Poofter Scott and others kicked in. Where Poofter Scott, Throat, Pommie Tim and Death to name but a few, affected the look of the great unwashed, the Hog, with his Aryan youthfulness, was in need of a serious makeover. In two short years he would progress from a clean, green ‘wannabe’ to a real identity soaking up the newfound treats along the way; and let there be no doubt, he was up for it. On the positive side, the Hog proved a quick learner. Blessed with that rare trait to observe like a wallflower and kick in the filter between his brain and mouth, he analysed, aped and memorised his lines. But the process was not swift and mistakes were made. He too ripped off a number of useless one-liners from

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old movies that he trotted out at parties when he dried up or wanted to make a move on a girl.

‘There’s only two things a woman understands; one’s a slap in the face and the other’s a slug from a 45.’ This Bogart special was one lesson in excess he thought would impress some cutsie carrying the peeled peaches on her chest at one party.

‘My God, but you’re beautiful,’ was another that could have worked a treat for him at any party but he could never keep the sleazy snigger from his voice, nor his eyes raised above the woman’s chest. The Hog soon eschewed the crew-cut, grew golden curls under his purple felt hat and espoused the ‘Peace is Love’ credo long enough to ingratiate himself with a surfeit of blonde bimbos. But in truth, he had his own demons to exorcise. Escaping the shackles of his upwardly mobile working class parents, he managed to bail just in time. It had been a lifetime drudge of study and work with precious few women to pierce the bubble, which cocooned this only child. The House on the hill would be his salvation.

THE FRIDGE MAGNET

The Hog’s close friend, the freckle-faced Fridge Magnet, would end up down an entirely different path in spite of the sordid influence of the other players he had chosen to live with. Small in stature and in desperate need of a good feed, he was a trifle shy. Behind his wire-rimmed specs, he was the original classroom nerd who had the clothes to match, all shorts, long socks and sleeveless pullovers. This guy was no stylemeister with his public service get-out, but thankfully he spared us the thin black tie. The other half of the Crew-Cut Kids, he was the closest we ever came to having a thinking person in The House. Others had far more formidable brains, but these were put to use for hedonistic pursuits only. Fridgey had no obvious physical attributes save his flashing smile and the 350ccs of throbbing Kawasaki between his legs. Nevertheless that’s bankable credit to most red-blooded young women.

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Even after we convinced him to grow his hair longer, it always reminded us of a chook’s tail. His confidence was down after two frustrating years at Queensland Uni, so when he joined us, he was a little like the adverts for some second-hand cars.

‘Needs Work.’

And did he need work. He had some serious pick and shovel work to do in that sacred area closest to our hearts – rock and blues music. Mr Blues quizzed him about his musical tastes and he blithely mentioned that, yes, he loved music, especially that of The Seekers, Johnny Farnham and Russell Morris. We cringed. Clearly he was in bad shape, but he had at least arrived at the right place in time for redemption.

The Fridge Magnet’s role, imitating the Maharishi in a lotus position on the summit of the bar fridge, was a masterstroke. At first we thought, ‘He must be deep.’ In fact, it was literally his own private observatory. He could watch but avoid participation until he so desired. The Fridge Magnet was in a class of his own: introspective but eloquent when he spoke, and his leanings toward the sanctity of Mother Earth and conservation issues in general gained our respect. Unfortunately though, he had come up short with the girlfriend’s mother.

‘Her mother hated me anyway. My eyes were too close together and my fingers weren’t long enough.’

This supposed downside of the Fridge Magnet’s character was lost on us. Then again, mothers do get a bit thingy when you’re screwing their daughter, I suppose. Fridge Magnet was the thinking man’s party animal, and indulgence to excess was not high on his calendar. Not for him the torture of the morning after when the jackhammer from hell drilled further holes into our heads and stomachs churned with vile bile. He knew by observation we would always end up like dead maggots scattered on the lounge room floor craving only water for our swollen tongues and filled with the jockstrap taste of self-loathing. So he chose sex instead.

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GG

Undoubtedly the nicest of our group was the silky tongued but horribly hairy GG. Set close to the ground like an orangutan and with the perpetual smile of its cousin, the ape, here was a monkey with mischief as his middle name. That he was also a two-pot screamer made him the party animal from hell. Built like a second-row forward in a Rugby code, that alone should have guaranteed him some sort of derogatory nickname but somehow he escaped any tag at all. Everyone knew him by his surname so it seems fitting to protect his anonymity with the simple contraction of that, GG. He was generous to a fault and one of those rare individuals who never uttered an unkind word to anyone.

Unfortunately, black tufts of hair sprouting from his shoulders were a fitting match to the black bush on an arsehole that a hooker would have killed for. Though he was my big brother and I idolised him like a God, this ‘no-go’ area of his body I did not envy. If ever there was any doubt that clothes masketh the man, here was living proof that some people should always keep their clothes on. Certainly he was the only one among us who knew which direction the thin end of a tie should go, and that a suit coat is always more stylish than an Afghan coat. However, we, the smug six, pitied him his day job behind the bars at ‘Which Bank’. No t-shirt, jeans and runners for him. Glib tongued and obliging by day, he was just another wolf in sheep’s clothing, coming out on party nights to fully showcase his advanced schizophrenia. Always the first to form a conga line or go the drunken grope on a bloke, he excelled at charades and dress-ups, prancing around on a broomstick or shaking it like an AK-47. The happy elf in the body of a golliwog who had had his hair ironed. He had pretensions as a cook but he was soon exposed as a charlatan, having the expansive repertoire of only one recipe. It was his job to put together a Spaghetti Bolognese for Saturday nights but since he could not do meat well and his gravy was close to the colour of sump oil, we relegated him to potato masher for all meat and three veg meals.

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‘You’re not qualified and you lied’, I remember Poofter Scott dumping on him one night as we plated up an exquisite mix of mashed pratties and pork bangers on a verjus gravox.

MR BLUES

Credibility was not an issue with the mutton-chopped Mr Blues, a somewhat emaciated muso from Maryborough. He seemed a cardboard cutout from any heavy rock band of the early ‘70s, but this merely served to give him some serious cred. He was recommended to us by a highly suspect associate of Poofter Scott’s. We gave him a corner bedroom out of the way; he just looked so bad, no one wanted to room with him. His droopy moustache gave the lie to his libido and the dark, cascading waves that his hair fell in hid most of his face and the hint of mutton chops. Those wavy locks and Steelo facial hair camouflaged a pair of slanty eyes and a chin that dropped away like an elevator in free fall. He was our benchmark for seediness and you could picture him in a spaghetti western, titled perhaps, Unshaven. The forest of follicles could not hide the cacophonous belly laugh, though. It rose from the bowels of his stomach, or possibly just his bowels, infecting those around him with an all-embracing spontaneity. Blues exuded an aura of steely toughness, but without the usual aggression one often finds and we quickly realised he was the perfect foil for the more extroverted of the housemates. Unfortunately his inner strength was not tough enough to withstand the many hangovers he chalked up. His body always seemed in damage control to me. Over the years he lost countless hours of sleep hanging around the bar fridge at three in the morning. Here, he would try in vain to pacify the dehydrated alien who had opened up a drum school in his head. Too much cold water was never enough.

Out of party mode though, he was deliberate and meticulous in everything he did. Mr Blues was not so much an instigator but a willing supporter; the ‘Go-to Man’ if you needed the numbers to split a dozen beers or for a game of Bushman’s Circle.

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Mr Blues was also, with Poofter Scott, our musical authority and beware the simple fools who questioned their worth. He could talk the talk and parrot the riffs of BB King and the lead breaks of Clapton on his steel stringed Maton. We were in awe of his record collection; an eclectic cache of the blues from Mayall to Muddy Waters with a goodly dose of Cream thrown in. He was mad for the blues and would play air guitar fingerstyle, simultaneously mouthing the ‘doot doot doo’ of a lead break in shrilled harmony, truly a sight for lovers of the weird. So passionate was he for his music that Bubblegum, Pop and Disco were banned from The House. He and Poofter Scott ushered in TV spitting competitions where housemates could vent their disgust at the mosquito weight music of Happening 70 and Sounds Unlimited. On the home front, more than one Bee Gees record or $4.99 special met a holocaust-like fate as triangular sections were sawn from them to be readied for a very different gas chamber, the ever-smelly bathroom toilet. In short, Mr Blues was the thinking man’s larrikin.

NOISE

And so to Noise. What of him? Noise was infected at birth with a terminal case of Small Man Syndrome. Complex, obsessive, driven, extroverted, all of the above. We could have forgiven him these but for the fact that he was loud. But he spoke for the group and led from the front, forever coveting Poofter Scott’s leadership role. Luckily for the rest of the party animals, they had enough sense to not always follow. Noise was a tryhard, into everything, anything and anyone. A ‘would be if he could be’ ladies man with no idea and no lines. By the time he and The Poof moved into their first flat, Noise had only just managed to lose the anal habit of a pressed handkerchief stuffed into his shirt pocket. In true try-hard style, his pick-up approach was persistence not panache. He mistakenly thought that if you inflicted yourself on a woman they would be instantly grateful for at least being asked. Living with that ex-muso, Poofter Scott, for the previous two years had taught him only one thing, molls gravitate to musos.

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Anyone else could die wondering in the ‘70s, waiting for a woman to hit on them, not to mention the agony of swollen balls.

Physically he had little to offer them anyway. Neither short nor tall, muscular nor flabby, his mother had nagged him for years that his weak chest was the reason he was always feeling poorly. She had given him her nose, the size and shape of a wedge-tailed eagle’s beak, but as luck would have it, a touch footie mate rearranged it with his elbow. Now closer to a reindeer’s snoz, in less than 20 years it would begin to glow in the dark from alcohol abuse. Like the rest of us, Noise was searching for an identity; fingering the pie and sometimes just fingering. While he searched in vain, Poofter Scott, who would often wince and shake his head when the boy sang loudly off key, stepped in and christened him Noise.

Most of us cruised the good times, frequently in an alcoholic haze, but Noise, even then, was a driven man. Not the quiet achiever like his school buddy Hog, Noise was never shy to ‘claim it’. Whether stumbling onto the chords to ‘Fire and Rain’ or jagging a couplet for a tear-jerking piece of prose about some unrequited love, he just had to put it out there for all to see. Noise, no doubt, had passion but it was blended with a naive observation of life. He had none of the sardonic wit of Poofter Scott or the Hog’s biting sarcasm to inject into others, let alone into his writings. Because he was also loud and frequently spat out the first ill-considered thoughts that came into his head, this made him cannon fodder for those two self-appointed, sneering thought police, The Poof and the Hog. Enigmatic in the extreme, we watched in horror at times as Noise flew nude through the drafty spaces from bathroom to his bedroom shoving tissues under his armpits to dry himself. Occasionally he would leap out of the recesses of the darkened bar room in front of you, the nude psychopathic Mr Puniverse striking an Atlas-like pose; a fearsome sight for any hangover victims from the night before who would be staggering head in hand to the bar fridge for the cold water. His defining moment came after one prolonged party when he appeared in the lounge room at first light. Imagine the St. Valentine’s Day massacre without blood.

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Bodies were slumped over other bodies, others intertwined for warmth around an empty flagon and all around a sense of the pure pain of overindulgence. The sounds of moaning and frequent groans meant these party animals could not have even scratched themselves. Enter Noise from his black cave beside the laundry alcove.

‘Hey look what I can do, maties,’ skited Noise, as he walked bollock naked slowly through the crowded lounge carefully balancing a towel over his erect penis. A ‘piss horn’ is the correct term, I believe.

His philosophy that it was OK to be a little bit bad if you balanced your excesses with the pursuit of purity. This did not wash with the others, especially in the dubious realm of health foods, which in the early ‘70s had started to make inroads into the diets of mainstream Australians. Noise was a convert of sorts himself and had evangelical pretensions about the benefit of the stuff for the group.

‘You’re so full of bullshit Noise; you stuff all that museli and Vogel’s bread into you and tonight you’ll just get pissed again like the rest of us,’ sermonised Poofter Scott, the conscience of us all.

‘Get him a T-shirt with ‘‘H’’ on it’, was the cry that went up whenever hypocrisy reigned. Despite being cast in the role of flogging horse by others, Noise was nothing if not resilient. As a kid he had developed a mental toughness to survive turbulent years of a broken home. In The House he discovered that the grass really was greener on the other side; the claustrophobia of a fractured family life was fading. Wounds were healing from where laughter could not escape.

JUNIOR NOISE

So if you are crunching the numbers up to this point, you are down to me. Who am I? Time for me to come clean. I get the number seven jersey though in truth I moved in to The House before big brother GG, who was, in reality, last man in. At the time I mistakenly believed a number of the boys in The House had

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branded me Junior Noise, probably with some merit. I did have a penchant for thrashing guitars and mouthing off as I bottomed out from boredom. But no, it was Poofter Scott alone who gave me the mantle. The guy never baptised you with a nickname behind your back; he was straight up about it. Straight to your face but with tacit support from others. He put it about that when I applied myself I could generate almost as much volume as the redoubtable Noise.

‘Hang on matie, that’s a bit harsh don’t yah think?’ I asked him once.

‘You obviously don’t remember last night, do you?’ The Poof hit back. ‘You were over there on the love seat thrashing the hell out of the Emperor and tryin’ to sing “Oooh, baby baby, it’s a wild world”.

And you were pissed as well.’

Well I was certainly pissed off. Hell, I could not even make the full title. What did I read into ‘Junior Noise’? Did he mean loud, but not obnoxiously loud like the real Noise? I could hardly deny the truth, and the comparison was underpinned by the direct correlation between the demon drink and decibel strength. Any other time I could have been tagged ‘Junior Silence’ as I was more of an observer than a raving space cadet. No doubt I had a few things in common with Noise other than the mundane fact that we were both about the build of an underfed whippet with a bad hairdresser and no magnetic features to attract a wanton female. He had escaped the stifling atmosphere of the very same lab job I was now resident in. The two of us were naïve in the extreme; we had achieved nothing, gone nowhere and had no idea of peace of mind, real love or future goals. Once we had identified this, we wallowed happily in our own and each other’s mistaken depression, usually around the bar at 5pm. After all, I seemed to have gravitated from the frying pan of envy to the fires of jealousy moving from my cousin’s house at Kangaroo Point to the feast of egos at Hamilton. It was a bit intimidating at times so I often chose to remain mute, hoping my naivety would not be obvious. They all seemed so confident.

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Poofter Scott and the Hog with their poppy-cutting, acerbic sarcasm; Mr Blues, who knew what real music was and had even played it on stage. Even The Fridge Magnet could intellectualise ad nauseum about polluted waterways and nuclear waste spills while Noise, well he was just plain weird, with all that tear-jerking poetry pinned up on his walls.

And what about my big bad brother? I loved him dearly but he was a spotlight hog at parties, a real two-pot screamer, who was right out there like he was born for it. Me, I tried to decorate the lounge room wall, reflecting some brooding inner beauty in the vain hope of attracting some sensitive but wild female. Black was my colour, dark was my aura, and ‘bored’ was my battle-cry. Looking back, my tattered old black-and-white Collingwood jumper did not cut the mustard either. In an era of psychedelic overload I can see now that black was decidedly retro; either that or I was thirty years ahead of my time.

How would the others have seen me in those frenetic times? Small, depressive, bored, a black-haired golliwog among the bears? Try as I might, I could not cultivate my beard or moustache to match the undergrowth of Poofter Scott, Mr Blues or even the Fridge Magnet with his unkempt pretendy fuzz. The hairs hung off my face– patchy, pathetic, stick-on seconds from a bankrupt theatre group, as if each morning I’d surfaced from the bathroom after three rounds with Norman Gunston’s razor.

‘What happened to me?’ I asked my bro one day, ‘I can’t grow anything and you’re as hairy as Noise’s arse.’

Not only did he have a chest where I had none, but it had breasts as well. Two sagging, fleshy mutants that sported a jungle of hairy, little black, tufted sprouts. Try as I might, I could not seem to make it, and where others looked to be going places or doing interesting things, I just messed up. Call me a serial pessimist but that’s how I saw it. I can remember sitting at the bar one afternoon after work with Noise, as we often did. Noise and I were sharing the dregs of a Jim Beam bottle and I sat hunched over my bourbon and coke with my head in my hands.

‘I feel as if I’m half empty like this bourbon and coke,’ I moaned to Noise, who was my confidant at various times in The

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House. ‘What’s the point of trying anything anyway?’ more to myself than to him. ‘I’m never goin’ to be good at anything.’ I knew I was in a low biorhythm but I could not help myself. I was used to that subterranean space and often hid out there.

‘No! Look, what you should be saying is that you’re half full,’ Noise retorted. ‘How can you possibly say that you’re no good at anything until you’ve tried?’ Noise expanded for me. ‘What you need is a good woman or, better still, a bad one.’

Noise kept on and on; like most people, he was good at handing out free advice. I could never figure out how someone who pinned up such depressing poetry on his walls could be so positive in the flesh. Little did he know that his best mate, the Hog, told all of us at a secret boys’ meeting when Noise was away, that he, Noise, was excellent at giving advice.

‘He means well, but let’s face it, he’s all good intention but basically fuckin’ useless.’

So why should I take Noise’s advice? I quite liked looking at the world from a cynic’s point of view anyway. In a nice touch of prescience, the Hog added, ‘Look, whatever he says, just do the opposite and you’ll be fine.’

OTHER PLAYERS

Aside from the core group of seven bad apples, various neophytes and hangers-on drifted in and out of the group. These freeloaders to a good time were the usual mixed bag. Few had real names and even fewer appeared to have homes to go to. They spent inordinate amounts of time at The House and drank disproportionate amounts of alcohol, as they became fixtures and feeders. Luckily we had the latter covered, for we had discovered the perfect dish for these malingerers, as you will soon see.

With names like Throat, the Whale, Mrs Jones, The Fixer, Death, Sandy, The Coach, Handbag of Throat and Pommie Tim – not to be confused with Sliding Tim – they were the packet mash of the instant party; just add alcohol.

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THE FIXER

Typically, The Fixer could have been the forerunner of Tarantino’s ‘The Wolf’, a character from the film Pulp Fiction, were it not for his penchant for making a mess rather than cleaning it up. He was all chest and beefy arms, built close to the ground and the only one among us endowed with real muscles. Sumo squat, his stumpy legs gave him this low centre of gravity, insuring he was the type of bloke that if you pushed against him, only your body would move. Short he may have been, but the Fixer was never short of ideas to add incident to our parties – though he WAS a few chromosomes short of a cobra. He had radar that could scan an empty room, notice a missing couple or an unattended drink, and like all serial offenders, he saw his role as the party policeman. Complainers in particular had to be punished or fixed, especially that anal housewife Noise, who was always whingeing and moaning over piles of unwashed dishes or maggots munching on the beer-stained carpet, the vacuum cleaner remaining idle in a cupboard. Subtlety, finesse and fair play were not words he had read in his ‘Phantom’ comics, and those sex perverts who snuck off in tandem to a deserted room had to be done down, preferably by roping up the doorknob or, better still, with a personal visit from him.

‘Oops, sorry, wrong room.’

No doubt the Fixer would have argued that all justice for the guilty was deserved. Others would argue that his mumbling voice was punishment enough. After all, it would be they who always delegated down to him the onerous task of humping the standard five-gallon keg up the 65 stairs to The House.

‘I was the strongest bloke at the time, so I got the job,’ the Fixer wailed to friends’ years later.

One can smell the stench of precious self-righteousness as I recall the number of times he purposely dropped the silver keg on the ground in disgust. Once, heaving it, exhausted, through the kitchen, he did his bottle at the lot of us and bounced the keg off the floor.

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None of us were concerned in the least about him or the dent in the lino. The sacrilegious treatment of fine ale was the issue, and blame and counter-blame spewed forth much in the manner of the froth and spume of the first few beers pulled.

THROAT

Throat was as slick as sump oil, with hair to match. His short, perfectly coiffured wave with its falling forelock smacked of Californian Poppy, but this was never proven. Even his finely manicured moustache added to an all-round aura of classy cool the rest of us would never have. That he slunk around with the grace of a thirsty panther only enhanced this hint of the Thin White Duke, however superficial, with the devil ale as his Achilles heel. The group looked upon Throat as the Horn of Plenty, in many ways, as he never allowed the supply of XXXX to dip into the red zone. His blue GTS Monaro took us to places we should never have gone and at speeds we never needed to go. The ‘Boot Bar’, as the rear trunk was affectionately known, had the obligatory beer-filled esky in it but even that became superfluous over time. Rust from spillage eventually won the day and so the trunk itself became a ready made chilly bin. Not surprisingly, by the time the blue beast was sold, the boot had become a good place to view the road below.

Throat had achieved mythical status, and thus his nickname, down at the Plant with the ability of his less smelly orifice. A mere half-litre of Coca Cola at smoko allowed him to burp ‘Beer Breakfast of Champions’ sans pause, like a young frog on heat. His timing was immaculate, his sense of theatre exquisite, and many an old storeman at the Plant choked on their tea as the burps reverberated from the hot tin roof, shattering their idle chat or leaving them gagging on a dunked Scotch Finger. The visual impact was striking and magnified in the extreme as he usually stood arms akimbo and legs astride in the centre of the Plant store, arching his back and projecting upwards; the Pavorotti of the purile. We of the under-twenties waited in hope that he might just throw up.

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The finale to end all finales, like a fart that is followed through. He had always managed the former without much help from anyone on most weekends.

POMMIE TIM

Within our group, the nutters outnumbered the normal, and somewhere in between was Pommie Tim, the forerunner to the ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ or SNAG. Tim added his own brand of refinement without being refined. Don’t get me wrong, he was still an anomaly with a speech impediment; he had a plum in his mouth instead of a tongue and a filthy little mind he kept well camouflaged until party time.

Tall, thin, pale and goggle-eyed, he looked to be straight off the commune at Nimbin. He always seemed to need a good feed, and the suspicion was that he lived on brown rice and carrot juice for a time. Tim hid in his books, spent time thinking about life over a quiet beer, and for him reflection was not an apparition he had run into in the bathroom. While the rest of us courted chaos, Tim chose Karma. He had been searching for some deeper meaning to life long before the rest of us had even thought to look. But in the end he was, at heart, a ‘people’ person who espoused his considered views of love and peace in thoughtful asides to us. He radiated calm since he was mostly seated or horizontal, and he was cool without the ice. Sort of left-field cool.

Tim lived in the moment long before it was the upwardly mobile’s party cliche. It was as if he had lifted out his favourite bits of Eastern philosophy, Zen and Karma, added in a few drops of his distinctive love balm and distilled them all down to the bare essentials to rub over us. Looking back though, cynics would say it was merely the dope. Noise had offered a comment about Pommie Tim’s headspace to Throat one afternoon around the bar saying that he thought, ‘Tim’s a bit deeper than the rest of us, don’t you think?’

Throat did not have to ponder the question for any length of time. ‘That wouldn’t be hard now would it?’

18

Along with his male peers, Pommie Tim loved women and was obsessed with them. Perhaps ‘Dr.Tim’ would have been a better pseudonym for someone with such a silky bedside manner. He could chat all night to women and probably preferred their company to ours, but we were never quite sure he could ‘chat up’ women. Strangely, he never seemed to have a girlfriend in this period but he did have fantasies. The ‘Little Red-Haired Girl’ who lived next door to his early settlers-style flat in Clayfield was a definite ‘Clayton’s Girlfriend.’ His big chance with her came when his heartless mates left him all alone in the rush home for family Christmas’ in ’71. His sad, soulful green eyes and patented hang-dog look were enough for her to invite him to her own family Christmas next door. Another case where the Big Bad Wolf met Little Red-Haired Riding Hood over food and got lucky. She moved soon after to another suburb, her father not keen on the ‘Child Bride’ career path.

Considering the competition in our group of non-achievers for the ‘Gold Medal – Unsupervised Relaxation’, there was no doubt Pommie Tim had a stranglehold on it. He was about as laid back as a bent jockey in the Melbourne Cup and never happier than when he had his gaunt, grasshopper frame stretched out in a deckchair. Norm would have been proud of him.

So this was our crew. A colourful salad of tossers, rather than a colourful tossed salad – irascible, opinionated, anal, but without the urge. Bored, creative, rebellious, lustful pranksters let off the leash, and always noisy. Only the surrounding girlfriends added any degree of respectability to the male group, but everything is relative, is it not?

19

35 YEARS ON

It came out of nowhere, in the morning post. He had nipped home before lunch to ferret around in his garage for the chainsaw; as he stepped over the piles of old wood offcuts, dried paint cans and a million rusted nails and bolts cluttering up the garage, the nightmare of unfulfilled promises about neglected household jobs surfaced once again. Work, marriage, responsibilities, kids, roles, life ─ it all got a bit depressing at times, and this little cameo from the past only reinforced his disquiet. A pair of old, coloured snapshots, square format, most likely a couple of the first ever Polaroids, arrived neatly slotted into a CD ‘post pak’. A little scuffed at the edges, but the vibrancy of the colours had held fast considering the age of the pictures. I

‘Why did he send these to me?’ Noise thought aloud. ‘As if I need reminding how simple life used to be.’

Staring deep into the small photos and trying to pinpoint the detail of the moments only raised the spectre of lost freedoms and simple pleasures. He sat down with a tired thump on top of a brace of ready-mix cement bags, typical of the creeping clutter marching unchecked into his two car-park spaces. Weren’t you supposed to have it all worked out by the time you fell off the precipice of fifty? A small flash of nerve endings arcing across vacant space in his brain told him that he had quite obviously lived his life in reverse.

‘Bloody hell, none of us worked this hard in the ‘70s, now look at us – me especially. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. What IS going on?’ he thought despairingly.

20

Too stupid to do it back then and bank some quiet time away for now. Not too long ago he realised he had been comprehensively and unwittingly sucked into the sea change that cretinous politicians such as Howard and Costello had wrought over Australia. Work, work, work…work harder. We must be competitive if we are to succeed. Succeed at what? He mused on it. Do I really need more cast-off junk cluttering up my garage to make space for a plasma-screen Teev or a double-tiered, fan-forced oven? What I really need, he decided is not more choice of things to buy, but choice to spend time. Lately they had told his aging group, the Boomers, to forget about retirement and work on. What they had not told him was how he could buy some time to stand still and watch the world go past instead of driving a bus to make the world go faster.

‘Orstraylya can’t afford tew sueport an aging popewlatshun enymooah.’

Pension? What pension! A new edict to usher in the ‘Noughties’. Work is the new retirement. It sounded like the title to another boring Ben Lee track. He glanced at the pictures cupped in his grass-stained palm. As he went to check the rear for a clue to the date, the second print slipped from his hand spiraling downwards and under the slit between the mower and the concrete flooring.

‘Fuck it, you’re such a useless prick!’ he breathed out the words with some resignation. ‘Bloody well stay there then,’ his weariness unable to stop the frustration.

Turning back to the first of the mini prints, he afforded a wry smile at the two girls staring out at him with some confidence. By contrast, the long-haired coterie of boys book-ending them were turned inward, appraising the shapely duo, almost oblivious to the camera. Inchy looked out at him innocently, smiling the smile of the girl next door, her platinum blonde Dusty Springfield hairdo and painted face reminding him of her Barbie doll features. It suddenly occurred to him that he had probably seen her naked in bed more times than he had ever seen her unmade face or sporting her natural mousy brown hair. How ironic now to remember her soft, husky voice with affection when once it was just another of her imperfections. Not too bright, Inchy, she had not asked much of him but he gave her less as time went on.

On the opposite side, Poofter Scott’s inflatable chest nudged his girlfriend Judy’s shoulder while she tossed a fresh-faced laugh back to the photographer, her head slightly angled and her chin tilted like a snooty French waiter in a brasserie. Noise wondered if the photographer had balanced himself and the sender, his long- time mate, the Hog, on the opposite side to The Poof.

21

But no, we never posed anything in those days unless it was affected to take the piss out of some poor unfortunate. It was merely a happy snap for happy times.

Noise chewed it over, changing down a gear into mindrift. Work could wait a few more minutes, he thought. Christ, it had to be over thirty years. He wondered if his good friend had sent him a wake-up call. After all, his mate’s recent split with his wife, amicable or not, would have cut deep, forcing him to reflect not only on his uncertain future but also on the past ─ the old past before the new past. Sorting out photo albums with his estranged wife may have been trigger enough to send his soul mate, Noise, a memory of better days. Both men knew exactly how the other would perceive it. They thought alike in so many ways and had a similar finely honed sense of the cynical and satirical, traits they had polished since the days in the old Hamilton house. In truth it was not an impulse gift like the CDs and books they often sent each other, but a comment on the simplicity of the past that the future had stolen. Noise closed his eyes and peered into inner black, watching the outlines of assorted images from The House crystallise and then vaporise in ghostly slo-mo.

‘Aah haad a house in Arfrika,’ he said it loud enough to feel it bounce back off the garage walls. Well not Africa actually, he chuckled at the absurdity, but Hamilton in BrisVegas. He had always wanted to say that, out loud and with the accent; his private dig at the saccharine film ‘Out of Africa’ and the celebrated Ms Streep. He had often found Streepie a little tedious at times despite her fine array of ‘Gongs’ for performances nonpareil. Not that The House, as we liked to call it, was his alone; he had had to suffer the faded, once glorious, old nine-room mansion with five other libido-laden reprobates who mutated to six as time passed. Images of tortured times stuck in his back room with guitar, pen and paper came flooding back.

Swinging from the same rung of the creative ladder, the rest of us in The House were also trying to prove we too could do screenplays, write like Steinbeck and act as only Richard Burton could. Ok, Ok so we only wrote a few corny, love-suck poems and even less classic pop ‘toons.’ Any pretensions to greater musical glory and the precocious culprit would be kneecapped back to reality by the House toe-cutters, Poofter Scott and Mr Blues. They dealt with Noise quite often when he thought he was Cat Stevens or Muddy Waters. But he never took any notice of them anyway. He was tone deaf, just plain deaf, single-celled, silly as a wheel and confident, a lethal combination by any measure, and he would merely hide in his cavern if he had the shits, to plunk away and sing with passion if not melody.

22

As he stood transfixed in his garage, wallowing momentarily in the past, Noise remembered one defining musical moment with The Poof that sent him spinning into a stiff reality check.

‘Once he’d taught me a few chords I was always going to sing and write anyway but he’d always find me wherever I hid.’ Noise recalled fondly.

‘Look Noise, let’s face it. You can’t sing to save yourself and your timing’s off, bit like you actually,’ The Poof told him once outside his room. According to Noise, Poofter Scott’s leering smirk shone like a warped keyboard caught full frontal by the light spill from his room. Seated on his bed in the room they called the Servant’s Quarters, Noise remembered the light dimming as The Poof closed Noise’s bedroom door with unfeeling grace.

In his messy garage, time had frozen for the moment and even the sounds of the street were gone. Noise used the false hiatus to reflect a little deeper on that incident with The Poof. He knew that while sarcastic humour was an integral part of life in The House and The Poof a master at it, the general vibe in the place was more creative comedy laced with slapstick and frequent mimicry. It was great value, Noise thought. The House was only a 20% commitment from his meagre pay packet of around 60 dollars but a full-on sponge for whatever was left to deposit in the Bank of Hamilton Hellraisers. And bank it we did. Six other mentally challenged flatmates and various hangers-on would have sat the same exam and produced the very same maths as testament.

Consider the breakdown. Ten dollars rent each to the landlord below us, ten dollars each as lip service to the pretence of sustenance from the supermarket and a few measly cents for gasoline. A fool, and there were plenty of those around, could easily finger-count the difference at around forty dollars for liquid refreshment for the more profligate in the group. More than adequate, at least for the weekends.

‘I’ve always blamed that friend of yours, Poofter Scott wasn’t it, for making you drink all that alcohol,’ Noise’s mother piously pronounced to him for years after the days of The House.

It is true that some of our parents were mystified at the conundrum. Seven sons, so little salary but so much alcohol. Rooms of empty XXXX tallies. Ledges below the ceilings stacked with spirit bottles like dead marines from Confederate pubs, long since defeated and marching in single file from bar room and dining room to a toothy gap above the oversized lounge room.

Despite the surprise jab to his memory, the polaroids posed more questions than answers. Since he had reached 50, he had gone back

23

there often, his mind wandering off the road of complication to sit in simplicity’s garden and reflect. Mmmm, the ‘70s, he thought. That time when red wine was an unpretentious claret and not Grenache Mourvedre. When friends used to hang together and not have to book an appointment, and where his worldly wealth was less than the current stockpiles of junk languishing dust-ridden and dying in his and his friends’ garages. Love was alive and passionate, a symptom of our youthful exuberance, no doubt. At times one- dimensional and primal, at odds with the multi-layered complexity of old age routine.

We loved and were exposed but some of us exposed ourselves, opened up, bare for a love to see, sensing that we would have more if we did. Nothing was hidden, as it now is. As my brother GG told me once when we were discussing those rare people who fall so hopelessly in love,

‘What did I think of him, the Fridge Magnet?’ replied GG to Noise’s question after the Fridge Magnet had moved out.

‘Well he was just this weird little scientist who used to lock himself in his bedroom with Mags and they’d go at it like rattlesnakes.’

Going back there sometimes as he did helped Noise apply some sense of perspective to our headlong rush to succeed in that spotlight of recognition we all crave. Did we learn much from a few short years thumbing our noses at the suits, the bosses and the establishment? Not too much, he ventured, but at least an awareness not to take life too seriously – a fault commonly observed among those we routinely dismissed from the weekly party list. Where did he cross over that line between sloth and speed? Was it that point where he felt the need for greed? On reflection it seems there was no extended period of balance, no transition zone, just a flip into the netherworld of acquisition, position and Frequent Flyer points. Another cruel trick of life foisted on the unwary who, like himself, at the time were just not looking.

Where was the point in time that would define that inexorable slip? Cannot be only a state of mind; somewhere he knew he had tripped and like many others, fallen over the edge.

Somewhere in the gap between dreamland and nodding off totally, Noise heard a raucous squawk jolt him awake and his senses struggled to gauge its origin.

‘Hey, whaddya doin’ down there mate, havin’ a rest between jobs?’ screeched his retired neighbour, strolling the street above him with his two rotweilers in tow.

Noise waved him away and turned his attention to the second photo. He could barely make out the faded biro jottings on the rear

24

that told him ‘GG partying, circa 73’. His dirty fingers flipped the print over.

‘My God, Bloody hell!’ he mouthed softly under his breath.

The picture had deteriorated over the years more than the other and while the colour quality was poor the image was still obvious. It occurred to him that the poor quality matched the content perfectly. Was it a woman or a guy with not unattractive breasts? Considering the absence of almost any clothing, it was still hard to decide. His old housemate, GG, jumped out at him, arms akimbo, dancing on one leg like an escaped con celebrating freedom. It was a picture of tastelessness in the extreme; a classic example of ‘GG – This is your Life’ rather than ‘Life be in It’. The baby he was so obviously carrying would surely be born as soon as the dancing stopped. This was confirmed by the realisation that GG had chosen the one-legged breech position to give birth and was practising up a storm. Noise could see he had an obvious problem of gas as well and that it was not labour pains but ecstasy that showed on his hairy face. Here was the mother of all fathers and even his flesh-coloured jockettes covering the birth canal were tastelessly decorated with stylised spermatozoa.

‘Wonder which party this was?’ Noise mused aloud.

Noise thought about it over a cold Tooheys on his back deck, having decided at this point that work and he would part company, at least for the remainder of the day. The pictures the Hog had sent him were a visual metaphor to contrast with today’s times. No doubt about it. How long had he known his friend? Mentally it was an easy calculation. Everything related back to day one of high school in early ’63. That was his marker buoy. The day the two of them should have grown up but did not. The day that Noise’s Grade 8 teacher, passing by the two of them in his slick blue Zephyr Six, asked Noise,

‘Hey, how’d they find a pair of long pants short enough for you, pal?’

Then add on another year for primary school and you had it. Forty-four years. Double life if you were a serial killer. Clearly they both were serial somethings, having seriously offended many women along the path into the 21st century. Never one to dwell on the past for too long and far too preoccupied with living in the future, Noise had struggled for years to live in that space where dreams are refused entry – the present. Today the past had caught up with him. A mottled speckling of watery pimples had replaced the sheen of fog on his stubbie and he remembered with affection the extremes the old group employed to keep a dozen XXXX chilled to perfection.

25

He and the Hog had moved in to the Hamilton house with their best friends alongside. Noise with The Poof, and the Hog urging the Fridge Magnet to stop playing tennis and try women. At the end of it all, none of them had learnt anything of substance about the opposite sex and less about substance abuse. Ironically, so little effort in one direction produced adequate fleshy fruit while so much commitment in the other produced only dead brain cells.

Both men, like many, would assert that having successfully crested fifty without self-destructing, neither had discovered enough about the inner workings of the female brain to seriously challenge Casanova. As he eased himself forward on the deckchair, Noise scrolled through the various girlfriends, wives and lovers he could remember that the two of them had spent quality time with. OK, only time then. Soon it became obvious where they had erred. Noise, for all his clumsy attempts had really only made it down the female alphabet as far as the J’s, having stumbled over a couple of ball-busting D’s on the way. His more subdued and private mate had languished in the L’s and down on the M’s, literally, and there were plenty of them before finally coming to grief on the Reef of S.

‘I remember the first girl I went out with just after we moved in to The House,’ he would recount to Noise on a later visit.

‘Her name was Monica, I’m pretty sure, and her boyfriend was living out of town at the time so I just jumped in, so to speak.’

‘But when he moved back to Brisbane, the bitch dumped me! That’s gratitude for you.’

Considering the number of full-blown parties the housemates were involved in or were invited to, it struck Noise that all of them had no valid excuses for the yawning gaps between girlfriends. True, many wild nights were spontaneous and only involved the boys and the peripheral group. Hardly a recipe for new romance, suggested hindsight.

‘How stupid were we,’ Noise sat up, thirty-five years too late for lateral thought, ‘all those women friends an’ we never hit them up to bring their workmates along.’

But it was more complex than this, and other factors combined to foster the frequent droughts. Laziness and lack of motivation crept in often. At the outset, Poofter Scott and Mr Blues, before he found his soul mate, Sandy, had little inclination to head out trolling the city nightspots for women. They put it about to the rest of us that it was beneath ex-musicians to beg and that girls would have to come to them, as in the halcyon days of their bands.

26

Noise stretched out with a groan on the deckchair, bending the plastic back past the manufacturer’s specifications. He sniffed at the breeze ruffling the spray of palm fronds on the cocos in the next street. Pink-breasted galahs pecked like pigs at the yellow berries hanging in a pendulum from the centre of the trees.

‘Surf’ll be buggered with that nor-easter,’ he decided, contemplating a second beer.

For a man who his friends accused of living in the promise of the future, he knew he had a grip on one facet of the present. Never before had he felt such a bond with the earth. Once, only the ocean had mattered, but now his senses were finally awoken to the play of the wind on land and sea, the perfume, colour and twisted shapes of the flowers on shrubs he tended. Even the rain bothered him little now; it scared away all human presence and gave him time to think. He had discovered the beauty and fragility of the insect and animal underworld, hidden between plants, under crevices and obscured by the refraction of light into a turquoise ocean. As time had gone on, the maligned ones, the spiders, sharks, scorpions, snakes of all manner and dogs of questionable disposition merely fascinated him where once he would have shrunk back in fear at the sight. The sight of the empty beer bottle sitting in a watery pool of its own doing, brought him back to earth.

‘He’ll ring me for sure, I just know it, probably ask me if I’ve got any pics like these,’ he glanced back at the two tiny mirrors of their past glinting on the slatted table. ‘Either that or he’ll try an’ talk me into travelling somewhere with him.’

A very private man his friend may be, but Noise could second-guess him much better now they were into their fifties. For years it had been the opposite and the gardener knew that he, himself, was as readable as a children’s story. Still, his long-time friend had got him thinking. What tangible relics, other than comical vignettes buried deep in his brain, did he have from his misspent youth with the rest of the crew? He racked his brain, swigging from the neck of another early beer. Certainly there were no photos in shoeboxes, no engraved pewter mugs for services rendered to the A.H.A, no favourite books concealing obtuse birthday scribble by Poofter Scott or a girlfriend and luckily no 35-year-old daughter with the brain of Inchy and the body of Fender Bender to haunt him. Only in his cherished record collection of 33 1/3’s lay cryptic clues to lost nights of orgiastic ritual in The House.

‘Hold on a sec, there is something. God, where would they be?’ Noise had never been a hoarder in the ‘70s, but in the last 20 years he was as guilty as sin. But these?

27

No, these were too close to his heart; he would never have binned that lot. A wild hunch took him back through his empty home to an alcove in his bedroom that he had commandeered for personal trivia and black-and-white photos he could not bring himself to part with. Rummaging around in the boxes behind a barricade of surfboards in his bedroom, the gardener knew his wife would be peeved. His size 9 work boots scuffed the carpet in dark streaks joining the flecks of wax that occasionally fell from the boards. Later he would try to shift the blame to his distant friend; undoubtedly it was all his doing.

‘Bloody photos, I’d still be at work if it weren’t for them.’

The thought rattled his brain annoyingly. Finally he found them under a stack of old ‘Surfers Journals’ that a skein of spider’s webs had draped a sticky grey beard over. Any elation at the find was dampened at the sight of the rubbish tip of his past, strewn randomly behind him.

‘Ah, stuff it,’ he thought, ‘it’ll be another hour before she’s home.’

On his way back to the sanctity of the deck he side-footed most of the recent memorabilia of fiftieth birthday cards, travel junk and unravelled firecrackers into a messy vomitano of plastic and paper. He would sort it later when he heard her car bounce over the metal grate in the driveway. Both hessian-covered books showed speckled signs of lost arguments with coffee cups and a charcoal, crescent- shaped burn close to the spine of one reminded him of his six-month Marlboro habit. He had not opened either of the notebooks for at least twenty years, probably before they moved south, leaving BrisVegas for the south coast. The contents of ‘Poems’ fell from the spine into his lap as he turned the cover. Noise looked down at the scribble; most of it written so quickly it had needed a re-write, probably the next day, he guessed. It was all innocence and angst, longhand snippets of verse from coffee-fuelled nights in the ‘70s. Two dog-eared notebooks and nearly a hundred record albums in a cabinet in his lounge; all he had left of another life. Compared to his present manic existence the simplicity of this past life almost made him laugh. In a moment the sense of it all became apparent to him. He could fashion an unfinished jigsaw of The House just from these two books and his records. Not enough to gawk at the complete multi-coloured panorama of the times, but little scenic windows akin to snapshots at a peep show in the Cross.

A bad feeling settled over him as he pushed the wad of pages back into the book of poems and set it aside momentarily to open up the one titled Music Book. Small splotches of chocolate-brown coffee stains dotted the cover like a cascade of brown tears.

28

Most of the pieces were outpourings of grief over unrequited loves or the ashes of recent stormy relationships where the girl had cut his heart out with her viper’s tongue, impaled his crotch on the top of a broken wine bottle and stuffed his pea-brain in a jar of formalin for future scientists to ogle over a prime specimen of insensitive, unintelligent, oversexed manhood.

‘Did I really put this stuff up on the walls of the cave? What the bloody hell was I thinking?’ he lashed himself unmercifully. He read on.

Love is………….?

Love is harder the older,

Love is foolish the younger.

Love is suspicious the later,

Love is blind the earlier.

Love is compound the further,

Love is simple the sooner.

Love brings you roses in daylight,

Love leaves last letters in twilight.

Love is white laces on June brides,

Love’s lost its faces for slow fires.

Love is a beautiful truth.

A low moan of disgust filtered through his clenched teeth and he covered his face with his dirt-stained hands, rubbing up and down as if to erase the foolishness of youth but merely cleaning his hands on his face. The poetry in the first book was bad enough he decided, but it got worse as he leafed through ‘Music Book’. One particularly lengthy piece had him racking his brains trying to discover the trigger for yet another love’s lost, bring me down again, cheatin’ heart, slit the wrists, C & W special. Let me enlighten you with the first few lines.

Annie Reed was a friend of mine,

somewhere back along the line

Love we had was just devine

Love like that never seems to stand the stress and strain of time

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So I took off and hit the road

with my sadder songs and high school hopes

At 17 you never know

Of single rooms, small town minds, drift along, time on tide.

In hotel bars the talk was cheap

of two-up schools and football teams

but a man can’t live on drinks alone etc etc etc

‘Deep, so bloody deep!’ Noise murmured to himself, wondering which old flame had sparked such rubbish. He let out such a false guttural laugh it degenerated into an asthmatic, choking cough that took a few minutes to subside. The banality of the words in the song were pathetic. Song?

‘Jeez, I must ‘av actually played this to people, it’s got chords in it.’ The mere thought of it spurred him into action.

Tonight he would ring his mate, the Hog, and find out if he could shed some light on where and when he might have inflicted these little gems on his friends. No wonder he only had one friend who had remained in contact with him when The House broke up. Or was it the other way around?

It was all starting to overwhelm Noise, these memories of the ‘70s. As much as there was a morbid fascination in dredging up the consciences of a bygone era, it was proving to be an exhausting indulgence. His mind was spinning a mess of unrelated images around, trying to expand on the sharp and reject the fuzzy, but the beer had temporarily fried his brain.

As his head flopped forward onto his chest and he bit his tongue he knew his body had gone out in sympathy with his brain. Nothing more to do but call time-out. Thinking back was exhausting work and he needed a rest. His house would be empty for at least another hour before the two locusts came home from school to savage the pantry. Sleep came quickly on the back of the early beers.

SHORT STORIES

NASHVILLE GOLD

Going to Nashville, heh? City of rhinestone cowboys and diddly-lang-dang-dang twangin’ musos… Well that much is true but Nashville is so much more. Not what you’d call a nice city, but an interesting city with attitude. Here’s a few must see places.

If you aren’t going to Music City for the music, fast forward to the real estate pages. Firstly take a smartphone and get a US Sim card so you can download UBER or LYFT apps otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of the MTA bus system. Fall in Nashville is beautiful. Liquid amber leaves and others turn to bright reds, yellows and tawny colours, but the city can be bitterly cold in November so you might want to flick the buses.

Looking at the music venues first, avoid the honky tonks and ‘Speakys’ on the Broadway strip ─ unless you love banal country music and loud rock ‘n roll. Try Bourbon Street Blues bar up in Printer’s Alley. Great blues and rock music with a little soul. Quality music, shit food. Yes, I ate there. Our cafes in Lennox do it better. Sorry! Down on 2nd Av at 112, BB King’s Blues bar is similar but larger. I’d rate this place. Good music and the meals looked more than edible. The Ryman Auditorium has regular concerts with top musicians from all genres. Framed posters show top artists who have played there – icons such as Springsteen, Jack White, Emmy Lou Harris and Brian Setzer to name a few. Tour it to get a sense of the history of the Ryman and if you’ve got pretensions like me you can cut a record in the recording studio with a qualified young sound engineer. Record a cover or your originals – guitar included. Jammers can Uber out to Papa Turney’s in Hermitage if you really want to jam with excellent local rock and blues musos.

Stepping away from six strings for a moment, when you need to eat go stand in a queue for 1 ½ hours at Hattie B’s. You don’t queue? You will if you like perfectly cooked hot southern fried chicken in a light crunchy batter served with greens and fries. Was it worth it? Hell yeah! Sick of burgers on the strip, try Dunn Bros. fresh food up on 4th Av. Great coffee too. Down in SoBro [South of Broadway] the City Winery has music most nights in three separate rooms where highly rated musicians often do impromptu jams. Top quality wine and brilliant food in sophisticated settings. H.G. Hill Deli and Market up on Union Street has excellent fresh takeaways, wine and cheeses. Best bookshop is Barnes and Noble in Vanderbilt Uni but sadly no bargains there. Two offbeat record and CD outlets stocked with bargains are The Great Escape and Fanny’s music, an eclectic gem on the east side with books, CD’s and alternative clothing.

Finally, ignore these at your peril. The Musician’s Hall of Fame is gold dust to any music aficionado with interactive displays, film clips and memorabilia to blow your mind. Johnny Cash museum is also a must. I was never a fan and almost did not go. An hour and half later I could have been an advocate for the man. Listening to singers like Debbie Harry and Linda Rondstadt cover Johnny’s songs will rip your heart and soul out. So yeah, Nashville, dirty little town with a big mouth where trouble is always just a sniff away but hell, you just have to go and dirty down.

HOSPITALS

I felt sick from just reading the story this author had written about his week’s stay in a major Brisbane hospital after a tumour removal. Not just sick from knowing I could never write like that but nauseous to the point I wanted to stop reading before I threw up. Why? It’s just words. You can look away, out the window to somewhere else to break the spell or snap the book shut. And then I got it. The past came surging back. It was the way I’d always felt too. I’d just never thought about it too much – probably just wanted to escape the memories as much as I’d always just wanted to run back out the doors of Emergency or some cancer ward where patients had that mouth gape that made you stare a second longer than was tactful. Those cold hard lights in the corridors, walls the colour of green puke or yellow vomit, the sparseness of it all; designed from the gulags. Where were the uplifting pictures? The Arctic chill of the wards and worse, the hypothermic impact of theatre where everything metal screamed ice, chill, horror, clinical unfeelingness or for the unhinged mind, Lecter’s kitchen. That was the irony of it all for me. In a place where the sick, the frightened, the disorientated craved mental and bodily warmth there was only the frigid breath of the air con, the clash of metal trolleys, the squawking nest of nurses further up the hall in the central missionary position and the distant nee naw of incoming ambulai. Whether visitor or patient, at times the wards reeked of a back room holding pen in a war zone hospital – a cacophony of noises in a secret sound competition.

I had a reputation of course. Prone to passing out unconscious on the polished floors of Cas or fainting unceremoniously in front of a friend or family member in a more credible type of pitiable state than myself. I could have been excused if there was some sense of transposing myself with the tube infested patient but it was not that. I didn’t like the smells for a start; it was all disinfectant, vegetative vapours from a dinner plate infested with broiled broccoli and Gravox slathered pork slivers and the acrid reek of the piss bottle hanging off the bed frame. Perhaps it is the mirror of one’s own mortality thrust in your face like the swarming suffocation of a Jaipur beggar. It could be the utter helplessness that sends me weak in the knees at the sight of a lover or friend connected up to even the simple drainpipe of a catheter or saline drip. I have to sit down. I turn away in a cold sweat from darkened rooms I pass where the patient is merely a head bookending a sand hill of blanked out sheets lost in the gloom of some netherworld. Where’s the warmth, where’s the music, what no pictures?

This is all before even mentioning the ignominy of coming under the care of a therapist, doctor or a nurse who is or once was your lover and now can see that you were not only an inept one but now part of the underclass. You are sick and feel like death; they are lit up like a lantern – breezy, jocular and dismissive if you have been stupid enough to have had an avoidable accident, such as decapitating every finger on yours hands by using the lawn mower as a hedger.

Then there are those who insist on ‘show and tell.’ Is the price of your visit that you must embolden their psyche with sympathy enough to become a part of their suffering? If so, you may be humouring the scarified remains of their surgical excellence or you could just be the tethered goat – comedic fodder for a good old belly laugh at your revulsion and fright at the sight of their angry, engorged knee sutures or distended lower intestine from which a monkey might birth at any moment. As if these speed bumps in the wards were not enough, one wonders at the emotional depth of the average nurse. Saint or sinner? Why are they so immune from the gore and the noxious leaks from the human body when I am not? All that overzealous warmth. Is it real or simply a supreme act of professional pragmatism. Whatever the truth it’s quite possibly the only uplifting part of a horizontal stay in hospital.

Never much of a pill taker myself, I recoil at the amount of ‘drugs to go’ that I’ve seen given to discharged family members or friends. Could it be this is the medical profession’s way of making sure you don’t return any time soon? After all empty beds are precious. Oxycodone, Ketamine, Endone – they all smack [excuse the pun] of serious level opiates or other narcotics designed to wipe out any semblance of pain but beware the hit from left field giving you a hacking cough or a fog of hazy lethargy sending you to the couch and Dr Phil. Bring on Dr. Kevorkian.

SURVIVING IN THE CITY

I first notice Hathwyn when we step through the front door of my daughter, Nicole’s rented digs. Hath is the unemployed son of the owners of the house. They are away working in Melbourne. Great for Hath as he takes all of Nicole’s rent but to his annoyance his parents have relegated him to a small cave that butts up to Nicole’s spacious front bedroom.

What I see is only half of the man though; not half man, half beast I hasten to add. It is simply that Hath is stretched so far out on a reclining chair that he is all legs ── basketball legs as it turns out. His is a headless body, well momentarily at least, the doorway out of the long alcove we enter through has decapitated his torso. In the end it doesn’t matter, his head was never there anyway. It seemed his tree trunk legs are supported on a black poof but on closer inspection I see they lie on the recliner’s extension and hang off the edge like a fleshy crane with two booms. Size 11 gym boots sport the usual coloured commas and bunting and then it is all ape’s hair up to the satin basketball pants complete with post box red stripes and edging. You’d never call them shorts with that sort of length. A silver satin singlet with more tasteless red edging that surrounds a crumpled number 6 completes the pinnacle of sports elegance.

‘Hi Hathwyn,’ Nicole says, ‘this is my Dad, Paul.’
Her flatmate briefly acknowledges me with a grunt and a cursory once over. Why would he bother with more; he is a picture of concentration, eyes flicking between the TV screen and the lap-top keys.

To be fair, he may have acknowledged us better if his ears were not clogged with oversized earphones that give some credibility to the look of a co-pilot dealing with take-off instructions from tower. On the screen though, Man United is playing Man City. Only it isn’t Man United and City, it is cartoon Man United and City. The ball moves at Hath’s command from the keyboard accelerating through the air from one end of the field to the other rather like a brown peach pip fired from an Uzi. The animated players move in jerky leaps that makes them look like ice freaks searching for the man. Hathwyn, as befitting his bulk, is a lumpy 6 foot 2; a man who is not the quiet retiring type. We have distracted him momentarily and he loses concentration.

‘Aaaaaah shit,’ he cries, at a serious decibel level, when his centre forward’s 20m strike from outside the box is tipped over the bar by Mr. Generic in goal. In my younger days I looked forward to The Big Match on SBS every Monday, memorising the names of many Premier League players. Hath doesn’t bother with such trivia and selects his players with a click on a list in the sidebar of the screen. I recognise the names of current players so for a moment a sliver of reality has crept in.

Sprawled across from Hathwyn on a matching 3 seater black leather suite is a sheepskin rug, except it’s not a rug. Hathwyn’s cat is a white furball of flabby fluff. Save for a pair of liquid onyx-like eyes it appears headless. Stretched out, the animal is so big I begin to doubt it’s a cat – it could be an African Crested rat. These predators kill their prey with their poisonous fur. It acknowledges my presence with the usual bored disinterest that cats have. It couldn’t chase its own shadow so I imagine the lorikeets chirping in the Grevillea trees near the front door are safe. Next morning though I discover that it does chase the sun when I come across a squashed piece of hairy, white roadkill lolling in a sunbeam that has pierced the glass of French doors to the back balcony.
Nicole’s front room has a bay window to the street. The bench seat under it doubles as Nicole’s bookshelf where neatness is fighting a losing battle with her dirty washing. She sees me staring.

‘If you think that’s bad, Dad, have a look at Hathwyn’s room when you walk past it,’ she whispers. Later, when I steal a furtive glance there seems to be no floor. Clothes are strewn across it, the sheets hang off the side of the bed and empty, super-sized chip packets look like a section of a rubbish tip.

Nicole’s room is the pick of bedrooms in the renovated Queenslander, spacious and cooled with the only air con unit in the place. Another set of frosted French doors lead into a communal bathroom that I’m told Hathwyn spends little time in. Hathwyn’s cave is smack in the middle of the house. Most caves are cool, not this dark cell.

‘It’s a bloody sauna in there,’ Hath whinges to me later in the kitchen, ‘I had to give up my room when Nicole moved in.’

‘That’s a big cook-up you’ve got going there Hathwyn,’ I say, eyeing off a frypan with ten sausages swimming in a vat of vegie oil.

‘Yeah I need that many ‘cause I’m in training.’ I cover my mouth to stifle the obvious.

‘I’m about to start comp basketball.’ It must be a new approach to sports nutrition, I think.

I hang around, musing over his cooking approach which is a throwback to my own days of share housing with other 25 yr old ferals. Tomato and mustard bottles stand at attention hovering over 8 fully buttered slabs of sliced brown bread — his only sop to a healthy diet. It all becomes clear when I spot an open waffle maker cranked to maximum heat at one side of the bread matrix. The man is methodical and practiced in toastie construction and in a few minutes he has a pile of four toasties heaped on a plate that’s bound for the TV room once more – vegetables not included.

Later, as Nicole and I head out to dinner, Hath has switched to a Dungeons and Dragons epic where the frenetic onscreen action and dancing fingers of master game boy precludes any chance of conversation. Still, Nicole and I say our goodbyes to Hath. Just as I think they are wasted words we are blessed with another grunt. The next morning as Nicole and I head out to a market, Hathwyn is still in bed.

‘Well he’s always up by lunchtime,’ Nicole tells me.

A few days later I stroll in through the front door at Nicole’s; the view is familiar. It could almost be a re-run of a The Big Bang Theory episode. Same headless body on view, same fighter pilot twisting and turning the game boy controller in time with whatever is blasting out of the headphones. Only his clothes tell me he has moved from this position since I last saw him. I wave, he nods. Was there a connection there? Earth to Hath, earth to Hath! I wonder if he’s like Sheldon [The Big Bang Theory] and refuses to let other people sit on his leather chair. Hathwyn is quite the sportsman and has moved on to basketball. I feel quite overwhelmed looking at the size of his TV screen; luckily he’ll never see mine — a postage stamp by comparison. Size matters. One thing has changed in the lounge area. The roadkill has been replaced by a human; a friend of Hath’s who is slightly less animated but no threat to Metallica. The coffee table between them sports an empty Uber eats bag, a couple of empty chip cartons and a family sized Coke bottle suggesting they’ve been here for some time. By mid-afternoon the TV has been turned to real time television. The AFL qualifers for finals berths is underway. Nicole is, as usual, hiding in her room watching Netflix movies on her laptop.

We gravitate to the kitchen to prep up for a pasta meal she and I will cook. The noise level in the lounge room is solid, possibly helped along by a couple of cans of a spirit mix I don’t recognize. Nicole and I move out to their rear deck where the noise from the boys is lower. The meal can wait. We are in no hurry and chat away over a glass of wine. Chardonnay of course, if I’m honest, a fact that immediately tags me a righteous, cynical hypocrite. Eventually around dusk we return to the kitchen to prepare a freshly cooked chorizo and spinach pasta. The noise level inside bubbles along at about the level of music from a rapper’s car radio but punctuated by frequent screeches of amazement at a high point in the game. Live AFL games play out over two hours or more and I can tell from a change in the commentary that a second game is underway. The two boys don’t move, couch potatoing it until the game nears the end. We guess there’ll be more gaming after the footy so Nicole and I wash up.

‘What’s that in the oven,’ I ask her, ‘we didn’t use that did we?’

Through the glass we spot six glistening meat pies browning off on the middle shelf. The number seems a little short considering the size of the two footy fanatics. I stifle an unfair chuckle while Nicole points an accusing finger at me. Perhaps vegetables are coming with them but then again. I take a last peek around the corner and Hathwyn is flipping an oversized bottle of tomato sauce, the kind Walmart do well, from hand to hand. The irony of it all is that the way life is I will probably die younger than him despite trying to cook healthy food rather than eat processed food.

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