In which I come to understand the significance of murdering one’s uncles, creating air-fuel bombs under mum’s clothesline, and the protective benefit of a broken bathroom door, while also dealing with barbiturate-soaked adults, firing weapons in the backyard, and the inevitable realisation that I will not ever play rugby union for Australia.
“Fuck, that stinks,” I muttered to myself as I walked along the curving bitumen path at the front of my new school, which was altogether incongruously located beside a brewery.
I had never been exposed to the odours of a giant brewery working at full tilt and I was struggling a little with the thick fermented yeast-tang in the air. I opened my eyes wider hoping they would somehow filter the noxious fumes that were overwhelming my nose.
Then I beheld the big naked man without a penis standing on a plinth in the shade cast by the towering brewery and my eyes opened even wider.
What a cool statue! I thought.
Sydney Boys High had nothing like this on its grounds. Even its magical drink machine paled beside this magnificent sculpture of the legendary Greek hunter, Meleager.
I had yet to discover just how cool this statue was, but when I did, I swelled with pride and awe.
The statue itself had somewhat prosaic origins. It was thought to be one of twelve figures, actually modern copies of ancient Greek sculptures, which had been brought to Australia from England for the Great International Exhibition of 1879-80, held at the Garden Palace in Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens. These statues later lined the arcade into Shakespeare Place in the Gardens, before being moved to the Mitchell Library in 1941 in case the Japanese started shelling Sydney. From there, the statue somehow found itself at Fort Street in 1946, and the only mystery is that no-one’s quite sure how the statue got to the school.
But Meleager himself had a hell of a story.
In Greek mythology, Meleager was the accursed son of King Oeneus of Calydon – except Meleager was really the son of the god, Ares, because his mother, Althaea, was a bit of a slut and had clearly taken her love to town, or Mount Olympus, as it were.
As a result of his paternal heritage, Meleager was regarded as second only to Hercules in terms of manly beautness, face-punching, and javelin-chucking.
He was also the youngest of the Argonauts who searched for the Golden Fleece, but Meleager is best known for his role in the hunting and killing of a very nasty boar unleashed upon his homeland by a righteously pissed-off goddess, Artemis, because Meleager’s fake father, King Oeneus, had failed to suck up to her by killing enough herd animals in her honour.
Anyway, as this giant razorback ran around the kingdom, voiding his piggy bowels, killing men, and ruining crops, the king made it known he needed some serious pig-hunters to sort this for him. A whole bunch of bad-arses showed up, one of whom was a woman named Atlanta. Now Atlanta was no simpering Greek virgin. Not only had she been raised by a she-bear on a barren Greek mountain, but she had actually been sent by Artemis herself – sort of like a secret agent bent on causing trouble for the disrespectful king. Which she then did, but in a most cunning and indirect fashion, worthy of a John Le Carre spy novel.
First, she caused Meleager to fall in love with her, much to the consternation of his existing wife. Then Atlanta helped him kill the boar, which upset a lot of the other hunters, who were all blokes and not at all keen on chicks who could feather a charging boar with arrows while they were accidentally stabbing each other with spears. Meleager finally nailed the pig with two javelins and then, to the overweening horror of his two uncles, he awarded the tusks and the hide to Atlanta. This was, apparently, not the done thing in ancient Greece, so the uncles protested, and a love-crazed Meleager promptly killed them both. This caused his mum, Althaea, to fetch from its hiding place a half-burned stick which the Fates had told her would be the death of her son should it ever be burned right to the end. Althaea had hidden the stick when the Fates had revealed this to her, but now that her batshit-crazy kid had started butchering his relatives because of some sweaty bear-raised bitch, she burned the rest of the stick and Meleager died screaming as he was incinerated from within.
Atlanta went on to root some bloke called Melanion who got into her pants by bribing her with golden apples, and one thing led to another and Zeus turned them both into lions. So shit ended relatively well for her.
The Honourable Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG, in his forward to Ron Horan’s book that marked the school’s sesquicentenary, Maroon and Silver, felt Meleager was there to remind the students of the “antiquity of human knowledge”. Which is entirely understandable given Justice Kirby’s lofty perspective on such things.
But from where I stood, I saw a naked bloke without a dick, flanked by a skinny dog at his right leg and a severed boar’s head by his left. And when I discovered what a fabulous psychopath he was, and what kind of crazy shit he got up to, I just knew that Fort Street was where I needed to be getting my education on.
And it just got better the deeper I delved in the school’s rich history.
Sydney Boys High might have been old and laden with tradition, but Fort Street Boys High School predated it by 34 years and was the oldest government high school in Australia. Fort Street was order of magnitude more magisterial, soul-subduing, domineering, and awe-inspiring to a tubby bespectacled wog-boy still perturbed about the crazy cockless statue out the front of the school.
That absent penis aside, Fort Street had more pieteus, gravitas, and dignitus wafting about its dour halls, echoing corridors and cloistered quadrangles than the entire Roman senate in session.
It had put five entire Sixth Forms through their final exams before Sydney Boys High had even opened its doors, and boasted a list of alumni (or Fortians, as former students were known) that made me positively breathless when I beheld their names etched in gold upon the many merit boards scattered throughout the school.
Edmund Barton, Australia’s first prime minister was a Fortian. As was Douglas Mawson, The Lion of the Antarctic, and Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General who sacked the Whitlam government. Sir Garfield Barwick, the former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, and Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, former High Court judge and President of the United Nations General Assembly were both doubtlessly just as bedevilled by quadratic equations and the causes of the French Revolution as I was. And they were just a tiny sampling of the long list of politicians, sportsmen, statesmen, state premiers, attorney-generals, judges, barristers, university chancellors, surgeons, scientists, and eminently notable Australians who had walked Fort Street’s echoing hallways.
It even had a few giant palm trees out the front, near Meleager, so that the glory of the British Raj might be recalled botanically if required.
The school’s motto, derived from a speech by the Roman dictator, censor and consul, Appius Claudius Caecus, was suitably redolent with grandeur and exaltation. “Faber est suae quisque fortunae”, old Appius declared, and which translates as one of the most immutable self-evident truths ever articulated on humanity’s behalf: “Every man is the maker of his own fortune”.
To my impressionable mind, Fort Street’s stirring motto beat the shit out of Sydney Boys High School’s rather aimless Veritate et Virtute (Truth and Courage) – qualities which, while entirely admirable and eminently applicable when one was being interrogated by Black George, completely lacked the power of the declaration displayed on Fort Street’s stern maroon and silver crest.
The day I heard and understood Fort Street’s most puissant motto, it was as if a light went on in my head. It was a truly cathartic moment in my young life. It marked the beginning of the end of my belief in God, who, according to my mother, was the fellow responsible for what was, what is, and what was always going to be.
The older I got the less I was taken with her notions of Orthodox Christianity, its God, its manifold saints and martyrs, and the fact that we had to stand up in incense-choked churches for sermons that stretched for hours in the appropriately incomprehensible Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Eastern Orthodox church. But as a result, there was a certain…well, majesty and mysticism to the services. Quite unlike the heathen Catholics who conducted their comparatively short Masses in English, and who dared to sit in the presence of God. They were thus, in an Orthodox Christian’s eyes, as despicable as Freemasons, Tartars, Turks, and Jews.
So given her relationship with God, I could not even imagine what my mother would make of the motto, let alone the adulterous, bloodthirsty, uncle-slaying Meleager.
I resolved to remain silent about it all, shouldered my second new school bag in three months, and followed the driveway around to the front steps of the school.
Behind me the massive Tooth’s brewery continued exuding its impenetrable organic odours and towered over the school and surrounding landscape like some giant child’s grey concrete building block.
The building still stands on Taverner’s Hill, looming over Petersham and Leichhardt to this day, but now it is a self-storage facility painted an exciting bright orange colour, and is visible from space, presumably so that its customers will be able to find their way to their cached weaponry when the zombie apocalypse finally descends upon us.
As I trudged up the worn sandstone steps to the school office, I was half wishing it would begin right then so I wouldn’t have to be the most awful thing a kid could possibly be in a school – which was “new”.
And I was oh so very new.
This was the start of the second of three school terms. Going by what I knew from Sydney Boys High, friendships had already been forged, enmities had already been established, and cliques had already been created.
Being the new kid at school was fraught with all kinds of peril. This much I knew.
There were several challenges ahead of me and all of them seemed to devolve to just one thing – fitting in. I think the fact that my parents, after almost 30 years of being in Australia, still didn’t fit in socially, had a lot to do with my burning desire to do the absolute opposite. It’s hard work being a ‘Boris’ in a world of Johns, Steves, Michaels, Bretts and Daves, but pig-headed stubbornness had always been one of my finest qualities. Besides, it’s not like there were any options for me in this area. The changing or the Australianising of my name was not a subject that could even be broached with my parents. I’d seen what my old man could do with a concreting shovel.
Certainly my assimilation could have been helped along if I also wasn’t bespectacled, chubby, and possessed of far too much thick and entirely unruly hair, which my mum thought was adorable, but which made me cross-eyed with despair.
I would simply have to work with what I had.
And on this day, this seminal first day, what was most important was not getting seven shades of shit kicked out of myself while finding and making a decent set of mates, preferably some very cool ones.
My mother and I had repeated the school uniform buying experience at Gretz Brudderz’ familiar Broadway store, and Sydney Boys High discordant blue shirt and brown blazer combo had been replaced by Fort Street’s far more splendid white shirt and maroon blazer blend. But my pants remained shapeless, scratchy grey bags that chafed my inner thighs like salty nettles and made me walk like I had shit my pants.
Happily, there were almost no students around to behold my waddling ascent to the office. At this time of morning, on the first day of Term Two, they were all making schoolboy noises in the various playgrounds and quadrangles behind the imposing main building. Here, at the front of the school was only me, my brutalised thighs, and a bunch of teachers walking along the broad stone verandahs that ran across the front of all three floors of the building. Not one of them was paying me the slightest bit of attention, intent as they were on whatever it is teachers do on the first day of term.
The letter my family had received confirming my enrollment was in my blazer pocket and, among a host of other demands, it insisted that I present myself at the office upon arrival at school.
And here I was. I walked into the building between two yellow wooden doors. In front of me rose a staircase. To my immediate left was the deputy principal’s office, ahead and to my right was the headmaster’s den, and immediately to my right was a counter behind which fussed a brace of middle-aged ladies. Being gifted, I quickly understood this to be ‘the office’, plonked my bag on the counter and said, “Excuse me…”, whereupon two things immediately happened.
Firstly, a veiny, liver-spotted hand reached around from behind me, grabbed my bag and sent it flying across the room. Second, my ear was seized by what could only have been a serrated lobster claw and I was spun around to confront Mr Barraclough, the bespectacled and balding deputy headmaster. Only I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that my left ear was going to be peeled off the side of my skull any second now, hot gouts of skull-blood would flood the earth, and it hurt so much I couldn’t see out of one of my eyes.
“You will not put your bag on the counter, boy!” Mr Barraclough explained, twisting my ear like a stove knob. “How many times have you been told?”
“Never, sir!” I squealed. “I’ve never been told that, sir!”
“That’s a lie,” Mr Barraclough observed. “At the last assembly I made a point of telling the whole school that bags are not to be brought into the office and they are most certainly not to be placed on the counter.”
“I wasn’t at the last assembly, sir!” I whined, my face screwed up in agony. I was up on tip-toes and in so much pain my arms were making spastic arcs by my side. Mr Barraclough’s grip was unrelenting.
“And why were you not at the last assembly, boy?” he asked. “Are you too special to attend school assemblies?”
“No, sir!” I yelped. “I’m new, sir!”
He let go of my ear and I slumped a little, my hand going up to the side of my head, which seemed to be on fire.
“What’s your name?”
“Boris Mihailovic, sir.”
“The new enrollment from Sydney Boys High?”
He looked me over, his face expressionless.
“Get your timetable from the ladies, Makalalavak. Do not be late to class. And do not put your bag on the counter or bring it in here again.”
“Yes, sir,” I said to his spine as he walked back into his office.
One of the ladies approached the counter, just as I was turning and rubbing my violated ear.
“Are your parents not here with you, young man?”
I shook my head.
“Spell your name, please,” she said, holding a pen over some official-looking documents.
I duly spelled my name.
“Mikayavuch?” she pronounced.
I agreed. I was very used to people mispronouncing my name. It had been happening since the beginning of time. It happens to this day. I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now. It’s not a particularly difficult surname, but it simply defeats people – even ones who have gone to university and now teach children to read and write. A few years later, when my testicles had dropped a little further and I was approaching my adult growth and strength, I was not as agreeable as I was in those early years. It was not unheard of for me to sit in antagonistic silence, glaring at the teacher at the front of the room, as he or she repeatedly kept singing out a name that didn’t sound remotely like mine.
“Why won’t you bloody well answer when I call your name?” one exasperated science teacher finally yelled at me.
“Because that’s not my bloody name!” I yelled back.
But exchanges like that were still some years off.
The office lady duly made notations on several bits of paper, handed me a sheet with my name and class number on it, and told me how to find my roll-call class and to present the paper to Miss Everingham . Conveniently, the classroom was in the main building and on the same ground floor level as the office so I found it without any problems. Sadly, Miss Everingham, my roll-call (and English teacher) was about 2000-years-old, so my hopes of nursing painful erections in the presence of another Miss Peachy were dashed.
And that was pretty much how my first day went – happy, sad, happy, sad, happy, sad.
I was very, very happy that my father had not brought me to school because I knew his reverse gear had ceased to work and he would have had to drive through the classrooms to get out of the place. But I was very sad and rather worried I had run afoul of the deputy headmaster before the nine am bell, and who now knew me as a bag-toting smartarse with an unforgettable surname. I was happy that there was actually a kid I knew at Fort Street because I had gone to Glebe Public School with him and we kinda looked surprised to see each other. But I was sad because he wasn’t remotely cool and it looked like I was going to have to befriend him nonetheless, and thus fall into the abyss of uncool to languish there forever. I was happy there were many more and varied wogs at Fort Street than there were at Sydney Boys High, but I was sad (and a little terrified) at how vehemently anti-wog many of the Australian students were given the number of times I had “wog cunt” hissed at me during my first day.
I was very happy the whole unpleasant welcoming ritual was pretty much over and done with by Term Two, and very sad that a few Second Formers identified me as a new kid and managed to shove me down a flight of stairs, and empty my bag off the second floor of the main building and into the quadrangle below.
So that afternoon, as I lamed my short way home, with my inner thighs positively scorched by the endless sanding of my polyester-blend school pants and my elbows and knees aching from my less-then-graceful landing at the bottom of the stairs, I was not entirely displeased with my new school.
I was also not entirely displeased with my new living arrangements.
My parents had found a relatively nice house to rent, in a leafy street that ran parallel to Parramatta Road almost opposite to where Fort Street was situated. If a crow was to fly from the front office of the school to my bedroom in Albert Street, its flapping wings would have to cover approximately 350 metres. So it was close to the school, had a fully loaded Italian Delicatessen on the corner, and the buses on Parramatta Road were frequent runners, so getting into the city was quite easy.
All things considered, it would have been churlish for me to pretend to be unhappy with the result.
My immediate family had also expanded in the move. My gregarious, music-loving aunt had moved in with us, as had her de-facto partner – a very kind, good-natured and gentle prescription-barbiturate-and-beer-addict called Leon. My aunt had forsaken her bar-maid gig and taken a job as a taxi-driver, which is where she had met Leon, who was also a taxi driver. And we all liked Leon – well, my father was pretty much indifferent to him since he hardly ever saw him – but my mum liked him and so did I. Leon liked us all as well, but he liked barbiturates and beer a lot more. And after a long shift on the road he liked nothing more than to sit down at our kitchen table, light up a cigarette, swallow a few red pills and then steadily drink his way through about four long-necked bottles of Resch’s Dinner Ale (known as DA), until he was so stupendously munted it looked like he’d just done a horse-syringe full of Thai heroin and bleach. We all knew it was time for Leon to go to bed when his cigarette ash was the length of a fresh cigarette, his eyes were greasy red slits, he was listing heavily off the kitchen chair, and mumbling something about “Glergh”, “Flengshig”, and “Shashkarabashgh” – which my youthful imagination decided might have been ex-wives who had driven him to this extreme. Somehow, Leon managed to avoid being completely fried whenever my father was around, and so the old man was never overly concerned about Leon, figuring there wasn’t much of a problem with a bloke who would sit quietly and have a few beers now and again. My father was very much a live and let live until you fuck with me kinda man. And he was, for the most part, perfectly reasonable about most things. Including Leon, who even at his most baked, was entirely benign. The greatest danger was that he might burn the house down with one of his un-tended cigarettes, but then he always used an ashtray.
And when Leon was straight, which was half the time, he was a great-humoured, well-groomed bloke who cooked a mean Weiner Schnitzel. And my old man liked a good schnitzel.
And so we were now all one medium-sized, basically dysfunctional, but getting-on-with-it family.
The house itself was a bit of a structural hodge-podge. It had three small bedrooms, a lounge room, a tiny bathroom and toilet you could only access via the lounge room – an issue that stressed out many a guest who would be confronted by the sight of my father, disheveled and ominous, emerging from his bedroom at a quarter to nine each evening, an hour before he commenced his night shift, and shambling ponderously through the living room to commence his noisy ablutions in the adjoining toilet. He would ignore any and all greetings, and mum or I would find ourselves explaining to guests that dad simply did not speak to a living soul until he had washed the sleep-mank from himself.
There was also a small kitchen, an adjoining dining area and a strange little room which was clearly some kind of bodgied-up lean-to that had been tacked onto the side of the main house. It had a window, but that window only looked into the living room. As a result, it was certainly dark enough to serve as a good TV chamber.
Out the back was a minuscule backyard made out of dirt and broken concrete, and a rickety old garage made out of sheets of plasterboard and asbestos, which opened up on a laneway.
It certainly lacked the homey homogeneity of Glebe, but it was, nonetheless, a house with a yard and a garage, and in my young eyes, miles better than a flat in Woollarah.
My father seemed to agree. He now had a man-cave again, and resumed the mild form of hoarding he had always engaged in, filling it with all sorts of timber, metal, drums of flammable liquid, tools, grinders and garagey esoterica. He also resumed making the odd bit of frightful furniture from various off-cuts he’d found in his wanderings and insisting my mother find a place in the house for it. He was particularly proud of a decorative occasional table he had created utilising the bottom of a lamp stand, a chair leg and the top off a cable spool, which he had sanded back and covered in something resembling wallpaper made from vinyl.
I made the mistake of asking what it was when he showed it to me.
“Iz teybull,” he intoned, looking at me as if I had become freshly retarded. “Vot you tinking iz?”
I honestly thought he had, for reasons I was not privy to, made a dumbbell out of wood, but instead I just agreed it was a truly fabulous table.
However, I was now at an age where the flammable contents of his garage interested me greatly. As did war, firearms, and playing with toy soldiers. My father, being Serbian, an old soldier and an avid hunter of foxes, feral pigs and kangaroos, had ensured he was armed to the teeth with a vast range of firearms. One of his best mates was a gunsmith, and while I was growing up, I had spent many a Saturday morning at Mick Smith’s famous gun-shop, across the road from Central Station, fondling guns with my father.
So when my 12th birthday rolled around, which was about halfway through the school year, I was given a high-powered air rifle. The gift was immediately followed by a very comprehensive lecture about gun safety at the behest of my mother, who viewed firearms with a great deal of horror, but didn’t actually have any choice about being surrounded by them. If the old man felt he had to have an entire wardrobe full of guns and ammo, then the old man was certainly going to have an entire wardrobe full of guns and ammo. It was not a subject he would enter into any discussions about. Guns were tools to my father. They were neither to be feared or venerated. They were just meant to be kept in good nick and used.
So when he decided it was time for his short-sighted son to have a gun, there was no question of entertaining my mum’s opinion on the subject. It was just a matter of him buying the gun and having her wrap it.
“You must tellink him not be styoopit!”she wailed when I unwrapped the weapon.
It was oiled, smelled like menace, and felt quite heavy. It was a real gun – albeit powered by air – and could drop a magpie at 30 metres, shatter a street-light at 20 metres, and also possibly enter some unsuspecting child’s eye, burrow deep into its brain, and cause all sorts of unpleasant issues.
I knew all this even before I was sighting down its gleaming barrel in glee. I also realised how the American Indians felt when they stole their first flintlock off the corpse of some settler.
My father looked a bit like a smiling thundercloud as he beheld my gun-toting happiness. My mother just looked appalled.
“Lissenink,” he said sternly. “Never be styoopit vid gun. Never pointink gun et enivun. Allveys trit gun layk iz loadink; allveys checkink end checkink. Never shootink et enytink you ken not bi see. End allveys kip gun klin. Understend?”
“Understend?” he said again, but this time his voice was deep with the seriousness of his question. It was obvious I was to fully grasp how serious all this gun business was, I was to grasp it now, and I was to leave my father convinced that I had grasped it.
“Yes,” I murmured with all the sincerity I could muster. “I understand.”
And I did understand. But two years later, when I was fourteen and my father had taken me on my first hunting trip, I must have forgotten the bit about making sure my gun was unloaded and blithely walked into camp with an un-cracked double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun. For which cardinal sin my old man immediately grabbed an ammunition belt and beat me like a braying mule. Thankfully the gun-belt was devoid of ammunition at the time, so the scarring was not permanent.
Little did I know, but I was 24 hours away from another serious beating which had nothing at all to do with the air rifle I had just been given. Well, maybe just a little, but the gun was only indirectly involved.
The next afternoon after school, I began working on my marksmanship. I lay in the doorway of the kitchen and began plinking away at cans I had placed at the bottom of the back fence. Leon was seated above me at the kitchen table, chain-smoking, sipping his DA, and rocking gently to some inner barbiturate beat. Now and again he’d compliment me on a good shot and then, to make my re-loading process smoother, he pulled some slugs out of the box and lined them up on the edge of the table for me. I was very grateful for his kindness. He might have been a reeling drug-addict, but he was also a great-hearted bloke.
Then, as usual, after his fourth bottle of DA, it all once again got too much for Leon and he started listing and speaking in tongues. I put down my gun, stubbed out his durrie and helped him to the room he shared with my aunt.
I had just eased him onto the bed, when it occurred to me that I could, now that I had a gun, actually re-create a dead-set battle scene in my backyard, just like I had seen on television. I think what tripped my imagination was that carting Leon off to sleep reminded me of a soldier helping a wounded comrade off the battlefield.
I grinned inwardly, and one thought led to another, and by the time I was back at my firing position, my mind had conjured up how I would go about re-enacting, in miniature and under the Hills Hoist, the German advance into Poland.
Mum was making dinner in the kitchen, Leon was in a drug coma, my aunt was driving a taxi somewhere, and my father was still sleeping. Conditions were perfect. I grabbed my box of toy soldiers and headed into the backyard for Operation Boom.
I got a small garden spade out of the garage and quickly began to excavate a hole beside the clothesline, and soon had a pit about 30 centimeters deep and about 60 centimeters in diameter. I arranged all my soldiers around the hole in what I imagined to be good battle order, and added a few toy tanks for extra realism and carnage. Then I went back to the doorway, fired off a few rounds and watched with glee as little geysers of dirt spurted up amid my troops. I even managed to hit a few of them – they were much smaller than the tin cans I was popping, so I was struggling to get my eye in. Nonetheless, the effect was great. When a slug hit one of the metal cars it left a most satisfying ding in its body.
And then it was time to bring in the heavy artillery.
I went back out and reset the soldiers and vehicles. I could see mum through the kitchen window, pottering about making dinner. I was hoping she wasn’t going to come out and pull the few bits of laundry off the clothesline just yet – I knew full well that what I was about to do was not within her definition of “pleyink”, but I would not be swayed. Operation Boom was go.
I started going from my hole to the garage and emptying every flammable liquid my father had into the hole I had dug. I knew I had to act quickly because a) the ground was soaking the mixture up, and b) mum might just stick her head out the door and ask me why I was running to and from the garage like an excited yo-yo. And that would be entirely counter-productive to the success of Operation Boom.
So into my hole went normal petrol, diesel petrol, methylated spirits, kerosene, mineral turpentine and something labelled “Prepsol” which was, like the other liquids, labelled “Highly Flammable”. I then added stuff that was marked just “Flammable”, like fly spray and wood varnish.
And then I threw a match into it.
In retrospect, I should have named Operation Boom Operation Whoomp, because that was the sound I heard a nanosecond before a blinding flash of heat threw me onto my back.
I blinked my eyes. I could see blue sky and the slowly rotating clothesline above me. A burning towel hove into view as the Hills Hoist oscillated. Then another burning towel appeared. Then I heard screaming. All I could smell was some entirely alien scorched chemical odour, underpinned by the stink of petrol. The screaming got louder and I realised it was my mum yelling for God. It sounded pretty manic. I felt arms under my back as I was levered into a sitting position.
“Oy Bozhe, oy Bozhe, oy Bozhe…” I could hear her repeating over and over.
In times of crisis, conflict, or child-criminality, English always and instantly deserted my parents. Mum usually addressed God, like she was doing now. My father swore. But he swore like only a former Serbian officer could swear. And this is swearing on a scale and intensity English-speakers simply cannot comprehend. It is light-years away in terms of sheer, unalloyed offensiveness than anything any Australian could ever come up with. Only the Greeks and feral Romanian peasants can compete in terms of creative verbal vilification. But among Serbs, my father was a master.
And Operation Boom, from what I could see by the burning clothes, the shattered kitchen window, and my mother’s wailing, was bound to wake him and provide us all with a display which would doubtlessly set entirely new parameters of cussing.
The mini-nuke I had set off was, in purely objective terms, highly successful. My soldiers and their tanks were all dead. But so were my eyebrows and all the hair I had at the front of my head. Looking in the mirror much later, I saw that what was once hair had been reduced to this frizzled, shrunken shit that looked a lot like dirty steel wool and smelled like burnt happiness. My face itself felt hot, but it had only been mildly seared by the flaming mushroom cloud. Most of the damage was to the burning laundry on the line and the smashed kitchen window – actually caused by a potato that had gone flying from my mum’s hand when she saw her son’s head engulfed by a pillar of flame.
I got unsteadily to my feet, helped by a mother who could not stop asking me if I was alright in between her running commentary to God.
“I’m alright, mum,” I said, feeling my new haircut with a smelly hand.
And then my father appeared in the back door. It was late afternoon, so prior to the explosion he would have been deep in REM sleep. Waking him from his slumber was never a good thing and was only ever done if it was believed the world was about to end, the police were inadequate to the task at hand, or Germany suddenly re-unified.
I’m not quite sure which category my pyrotechnics came under, but the issue was that he was awake and from the look on his sleep-puffed features, it was unlikely he would just go back to bed.
It appeared that my time upon this earth was to be measured in the period it took him to get from the back door to where he was going to kill me under the clothesline.
“I’m sorry, “I whined.
At times like this, it was always best to instantly admit guilt with unremitting sincerity, apologise with messianic zeal, and pray my mother was committed to keeping her offspring alive by getting in my old man’s way until I could affect an escape and wait until the hurricane of fatherly vengeance had blown itself out.
He came off the back step like an avalanche and went straight for me. He was too pissed-off to speak, and I could see his eyes darting about in search of a suitable item to flog me with. On the few occasions my old man gave it to me, he never hit me with his hand. He would always use a belt, a stick, a towel, or even a plastic laundry basket, as he did this one time when I helpfully took the edges and most of the blades off a few of his prized skinning knives with his bench-grinder.
I feinted left as he came at me, rumbling: “Dodji ovamo, soontze ti yebem!1” then dodged right, as mum interposed herself between us. She was pleading: “No, no, no, no…” as I went around them like a footy player at a grand final and headed for the house.
I retrospect, I should have gone over the back fence, but you’ll remember I was never the most athletic of kids. And because I knew I was in serious shit, I was terrified and unable to think clearly. I ran straight to the bathroom, locked the door and jumped into the bath-tub, where I cowered like unset jelly and awaited my doom.
It was not long in coming and I heard its approach. It was like a roiling, irresistible tsunami of dire Serbian swearing, barely muffled by the thick wooden door between me and it.
That door suddenly came off its hinges and landed partly on top of the bathtub rim and partly on me. I remember having one of those strange out-of-place thoughts that now visitors would be able to see as well as hear my father washing his shit in the evenings before he went to work.
- “Come here, fuck the sun that shines on you!”
As it turned out, the broken door slamming onto the bathtub and ending up on top of me was a good thing, because the old man was unable to beat me with the water heater he had also just broken off its mounts. But he did try.
We had one of those old fashioned gas water heaters that worked off a pilot flame. They looked a bit like limbless robots to me and I was always vaguely concerned about naked flames, leaking gas, and splashing all being in close proximity to each other. But they did provide endless hot water and it’s not like we had the kind of money it would take to upgrade to something that wasn’t a potential bomb.
The smashed door had torn the gas heater off the wall as it went hurtling into the narrow bathroom and my father simply wrenched it completely off and dropped it with a crash straight on top of the door which I was hiding under. It scared me far more than it hurt me, as did the sudden geyser of water and hiss of gas. And that was a good thing too, because the old man then had to rush outside and turn off the gas and the water at the main before his fit of rage caused even more damage than it had already done. I think we were all of the view that one explosion that day was more than enough.
The next day I went to school singed, bruised and very chastened.
My two relatively new mates, Sanjay and Ian, were very concerned. Everyone else just pointed and laughed.
“What happened to you?” Ian asked me in his perfectly enunciated Indian-accented English.
“You look terrible,” Sanjay agreed. He was Indian as well, had a brain the size of a planet and had gone to Glebe Public School with me.
Being Indian, he had naturally gravitated to Ian when he came to Fort Street, and the two of them made for an interesting sight when they stood side by side. Ian was tall and lean, like a fence post. His uniform swallowed him and made him look skinnier than he actually was.
Sanjay was short, tubby, and bespectacled. And somehow managed to look distinguished at the age of 12.
I kinda fit in the middle of them physically. I was also running to fat and had glasses, but I was shorter than Ian and taller than Sanjay.
And I was dumber than either of them.
In fact, I was dumber than half the boys in First Form. Of course, I was smarter than the other half, but that was hardly comforting. I had come from a school where I was right at the top of the smartness pyramid – with only Sanjay to compete with. You’ll recall Fort Street and Sydney Boys High were so-called “selective schools” where you could only be enrolled if you were deemed to be “gifted” and “smart” by people who measured that kinda stuff. And when you assembled all these allegedly smart and gifted boys in one place, a funny thing happened. They discovered, quite quickly, that some of them were a good deal more smart and gifted than others – which left people who initially believed themselves to be smart and gifted (because they were told they were and were therefore sent to a special school as a reward) feeling like they weren’t at all as smart as they were told they were.
I arrived at Fort Street (and Sydney Boys High) thinking quite highly of myself in terms of being bright. It didn’t take very long at all for me to realise how smart I wasn’t. There were some truly and frightfully bright boys at those schools – and I was not one of them.
But Ian and Sanjay were.
The corollary of this was that they were also two of the uncoolest kids in the whole school – and possibly the planet. Now while I had a driving need to be cool, I was also the new kid, and as such, my most pressing need was survival. Cool could wait. So when Ian and Sanjay extended me the hand of friendship, I took it eagerly and genuinely.
And they were genuinely concerned by my newly frazzled and partially baked appearance.
“I had a bit of an accident,” I mumbled.
What was I supposed to say to them? I was shooting my toy soldiers with my new gun, then upped the ante by creating a grouse fire-explosion which burned my mum’s laundry and my head, for which the old man then beat me with a door and a water heater?
Thankfully, any further questioning was interrupted by the bell that signalled the start of the school day, which on this day, began with Mathematics.
PART B WILL BE UP SOON…
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