Set in the early 1970s, a suburban town in New South Wales, Australia.
Ilost someone recently. One just a few weeks ago. We scattered him at sea. His brother did the scattering, and the wind was wrong. Damn, I was meant to get my coat from the dry cleaners before I left Los Angeles. It wasn’t a lot of dust but somehow some water was added. A smear on my coat is all my friend is now. All he was…. Sorry old friend for washing you off, but, there seemed little choice.
As I look down from the railway pedestrian overpass at the shops I see myself a few years ago. Different but it’s always the same. I’m up here, YET it’s so real that I’m down there.
I remember that day, that moment. I remember thinking, knowing, that I knew this place so well. I thought I still did. I told myself that the bricks and mortar are the same. Just different faces, but somehow, I have no connection. I want to: It would make me feel secure. Maybe.
Lindfield station shops. Not that unusual a place. Red brick double story affair running along the road that parallels the train line. I’ve just left the car park behind them and made the side street, the artery off to the eastern side of Lindfield – East Lindfield. It’s where I lived through most of my school years, where mum lived to her dying day which is why I was there that moment I remember.
I needed to mention it was East Lindfield because I don’t want to be thought of as coming from West Lindfield. I’m sure it’s nice, but it isn’t East Lindfield. We have much more nature reserve than they do. They have the highway that parallels the train-line pretty much all along the North Shore of Sydney, which oddly doesn’t go near the shore of the ocean. Those are the northern beaches. They’re quite different. My family never went to the northern beaches.
Every school day and many weekend days for all those years I would be coming and going from the station. Lindfield had everything a youngest could want. Well just about. It was the transport hub from bus to train and back again to school and to liberty – mostly to the city cinemas for me – and there was the milk bar and fish ‘n’ chips, cake shop, green grocer to name a few. Just a row of shops one block long, well, there was a little alley halfway along and the two pharmacies glared at each other across it. It meant a lot which pharmacy you went to. It said something about you. I don’t know what.
I was sick a lot as a kid. So the pharmacy was a regular visit. The one mum went to was fine, but the other one had the pay phone, so whenever I needed to use it I felt I was being glared at by both pharmacies. It was a pay phone. I paid.
There was a phone booth across the street at the bottom of the pedestrian ramp that went over the train line, so well positioned for people to stream down and straight into the booth. The train would go and then came the torrent by groups; fast moving school kids, office commuters, elderly and finally the malingering trouble-making school kids, the rat bags with “problems”. We didn’t understand problems at school. I guess parents did. You look back later at that.
People glanced around as they came down at who else maybe a “Caller”. Or should it be “boother”? Paces would quicken but on inclines it can be harder for many and then there are those blocked by the flow like a race horse against the rail. They can’t sprint to the head and get to the booth by the nose. So, they’d have to wait. Wait while spouses and parents were called for rides. Wait while those same mentioned would indulge in meaningless conversations that would be repeated in person anyway.
If it was raining that would have to be discussed as well. And the unlucky “also rans” would have to wait; wait in the rain as there was no cover. They’d wait their turn to have the same discussions and make the others wait longer. The dog chased the cat, who chased the mouse…. And then they’d hurry off across the street to cover – the broad metal awning canter levered out over the footpath – and to this shop or that shop or to their appointed rendezvous.
Unless it was late I preferred the bus. It was there, on the train station and the third rail car from the front that the real excitement was. The girls. Then there was the endless plotting and working up courage to say something. Waiting for that one moment to catch them out of their gaggle.
There was a girl, Helen, younger by several years than me so just an annoyance. Her mother was a friend of my mother’s. They taught together. Helen had a friend, Dimiti, and both would torture me endlessly, determined to interfere with any success I may have with the objects of my lust. Constantly giggling and pointing and trying to be smart. Dimiti was particularly annoying and had two sisters around my hunting group who were gorgeous and definitely bad girls, the ones drifting last from the train, the skirts always slightly higher than their classmates’ and hanging with the “troubled” of my class. Three blonde honeys.
I longed to revenge Helen and Dimiti’s harassment. I formulated an ingenious plan. Come the end of term, I would leave the tiresome duo anonymous flowers from a secret admirer. The plan was so evil and yet so easy as the greengrocer at the station, one of the shops in that red brick row, sold flowers. Carnations: Red or white.
But I was foiled by my mother who thought the flowers I brought home at first must be for her. This was going to get expensive. Time was of the essence. My school broke for holiday a little ahead of where my mother taught. A daylight raid, no cover of darkness. I decided to dress quite strangely, with a bush hat camouflaged with spare flowers and a purple cheese cloth shirt I got God knows where, but it’d never be identified with me.
Flowers protruding from my backpack, dressed to the nines and with a friend, who was just home from the navy and who had no idea what he was getting into for support, I set off up the great hill we lived in the shadow of. Remember I mentioned the nature reserve? The north shore is hilly.
The climb was the issue as the road was exposed. Once at the top, the streets had trees, pavements, low fences – that achieve exactly what? – with low slung houses set back. It all meant residents and drivers would have little chance to observe us, but the houses on the high side of the hill we’d first have to climb had commanding views of maneuvering flower power types – yes my naval friend was required to wear the hat disguise as well. His wasn’t as fancy.
There were some Catholic girls from the bus just around the corner from my house, upside, and they were also on holiday. After that we had a clear run for a while which would help make us anonymous. We watched the Catholic house with care before breaking cover and hurrying by.
First we dropped the bunch for Helen, then onto the true provocateur where the real mischief would happen: Dimiti. Those elder sisters would inflict my revenge upon her with endless teasing. They seemed the type.
Delivery was simple. It wasn’t a neighborhood of high fences and locked gates. Hence the driveway gates were mostly rusted open. Delivery would be right to the front door.
An aunt in Melbourne had a set up like that. Rather than walk along the drive to the street and turn left, I’d cut across the lawn and simply step over. She found that very annoying when she found out. My mother thought it strange too. My father had no opinion as he was dead by then. Or maybe not, maybe it was before his death that I was first sent next door and to milk bars… if he wasn’t already dead he was soon to be and if not he was probably asleep after the long drive to the aunt’s.
Thinking now, it was maybe that I took the dog as well and we both just stepped over. He was a large dog. My elder brother would take the driveway but I thought the dog enjoyed the very small challenge of the pointless fence.
Obstacles affect us so disproportionately. After the battle of Waterloo the French army was fleeing; there was a bridge, spanning a river, over which they had advanced. Napoleon’s bodyguards took 2 hours to force a path through the terrified retreating soldiers for the emperor’s carriage. About 45,000 men were trying to cross it in panic.
There was no other way across. Normal people, likes soldiers, back then didn’t read or write or, most importantly at that moment: swim. It was the crush of the bridge, or drown.
Down the road from the battlefield came one of Napoleon’s Guard units, elite veteran units of the French army, who had fought the rear-guard action. Their commander saw the hopeless situation at the bridge and knew the British and Prussian cavalry would surely soon swoop in for the kill. He turned his men, still in tactical formation off the road and marched them toward the river. It was no small maneuver. The rank and file would surely drown. A suicide march, but perhaps more merciful than being blasted by British field artillery as the other guards had been. Only a disciplined force would follow into either doom. Closer and closer and still their formations held. At the very bank their formations broke and in they leapt, reassured by the fact their officers were still dry as they rode through the 3 feet of water. Across they forged, to safety on the far side.
If it had been called a creek and there just been a ford, Napoleon’s army may have waded swiftly across like the guards – and changed history? But it is called whatever “River”, not whatever “Creek” and there was a bridge.
I doubt my friend and I talked of such things as we made our way tree to tree all the way to the young shrew’s abode. I would have already been tasting the sweet revenge. Alas there must be knowledge of the revenge, a cognizance of her suffering. As I left the flowers on the doorstep I realized that was the flaw of the plan. How would I luxuriate in her experiencing my revenge? I was no fly on the wall. I could only imagine.
The retreat was happy enough but I knew inside I had not accomplished the job. A colorful, but flawed plan. A waste of the cost of 2, well, 4 bunches of carnations.
Then it really went wrong. My mother came home a few days later with news; news of how her friend had been teasing Helen, but that meant little. It took longer for word to filter through of Dimiti’s – the shrew’s – torture: But alas it wasn’t.
Dimiti’s sisters had not put the hot pokers of female words to her. No torment. They had been thrilled for her. Told you they were no good, easy floozies. Apparently the shrew had been delighted. It turns out that she had problems at home. A drunken father. I was told later he’d come home drunk late at night, waking her to tell her she had been a mistake. An unwanted mistake. Not that I wished it on her but back then it seemed reasonable that a drunk asshole would do that and only that. Now it seems sanitized. Doesn’t it? Or am I now too jaded?
What a cockup. Of course the sisters did tell friends and one way or the other at the end of the next term you could sense the tension mounting. Would the anonymous florist strike again? Who was it?
To cover the tracks the delivery list expanded and to include girls I never spoke to. So it went every holiday with an ever-increasing list of girls and a couple more friends in tow – indeed when we got motorized we’d visit my friends bus routes. It got a little expensive on carnations. But even though we would have been seen, even by some of the girls themselves, they were more interested in not being seen than identifying us and so the secret held.
I ended up dating Dimiti’s elder sister for a little while and on a birthday or something I duly brought carnations. None of the three sisters twigged. Did I mention they were blondes? Fairly, she’d have known they were green grocer flowers so it didn’t give a huge clue.
As I stood on the intersection across from the station, across from the bus and the school kids waiting, engaged in their version of the immortal dance, I wondered about all those girls. What did they do, and with whom?
I stood there for what seemed a long time, I didn’t want to turn around because other thoughts came. I didn’t want to confront those, even acknowledge them. Behind me were the shops and the apartment. The type of dwellings whose windows must have rattled with the trains and who have seemingly vastly over engineered stairs to the little alley that divided the shop structure from the car park. Nothing pretty there. The stairs and clothes lines and trash cans. The slums of East Lindfield. Well, there were others on the highway side – West Lindfield – but they were offices mostly above the shops. Gold lettered names of suburban accountants and lawyers and massage parlors. That was – is? – West Lindfield for you. The highway side.
I still don’t want to come to those apartments. From flowers to Waterloo. Anything but them. Oddly, I’ve never been inside them.
After my father died my mother met another man. Widows do, one hopes, find happiness. This was a rushed affair. At Christmas my mother had been dating another man. I had barely met him. He picked her up in a vintage Rolls Royce. Probably a gallon a mile job and while looking impressive most likely not that expensive, but I wouldn’t have known that then. She had wondered how I’d take her getting serious with him?
I don’t think she saw him again so my answer never really mattered. I didn’t know him. She’d only seen him a few times. I think I was quite surprised by the conversation. I remember she was nervous. I felt I shouldn’t ask too much but a gentle inquiry as to what he did lead to an answer that he had a factory but she didn’t know what it made. I think I was quite surprised by the answer.
I was seventeen and entering my final year. What I really wanted was a quiet year. Just get through school.
(to be continued..)
Picture courtesy Wikipedia.