A couple of suburban boys


My first part-time job was in the deli section of Coles in Balaclava. But by 1976, I was looking for something more exciting. When I heard that the new McDonalds in St Kilda was looking for casual staff, I immediately applied. My friend Sharmaine joined me in working there, and for a while it was fun. 

One Saturday night, our shift finished at seven and it was already getting dark outside. We weren’t looking forward to walking home. 

‘There’s no dance on tonight, is there?’ I asked.

‘None we can get a lift to. Everyone’s already gone out. This’ll be one boring Saturday night!’ Sharmaine said.

We were just about to cross the Esplanade when we heard a couple of guys call from an ancient two-tone Holden. 

‘Where ya girls off to?’ the driver hollered.

Windows wound down, elbow leaning out the window, the driver looked us up and down. It wasn’t the most original pick up line, but our feet were sore and we were bored. A lift was appealing and we felt safe enough together. We casually walked over to the car and saw two young guys, probably only about two years older than we were. They were as nervous as alley cats hanging out in the wrong neighbourhood. They clearly didn’t come from St Kilda.

‘You girls doin’ anythin’ tonight? You wanna go out somewhere?’ the driver stammered as we approached. He had shoulder length mouse-brown hair and wore a checked flannel shirt. Not my type, I thought, but what was there to lose?

’Nothing planned so far,’ Sharmaine answered.

‘Why don’t you girls jump in and we’ll go for a ride. Wherever you want,’ he added quickly.

‘My dad won’t let me go out with boys unless he’s met them,’ I said. ‘But if you drive me home and say hello to him, I’m sure I can come.’

‘Sure, jump in. I’m Steve and this here is Glen.’

‘Hi,’ we said, giggling as we scrambled into the back seat.

We drove to my place first. I opened the door and invited the boys in.

‘Papa, this is my friend Steve,’ I said.

They shook hands. I was hoping Steve’s handshake was firm because my father judged a person’s character by their handshake. It looked as if he had passed muster.

‘We ran into these boys from school coming back from work,’ I lied. 

’And we’d like to go to a dance. They’ll bring us back by midnight.’

‘Won’t you Steve? Just nod will ya, I just told him we were friends from way back,’ I said turning to Steve. He nodded dutifully.

‘Sharmaine’s dad already said she could go and he is very strict about who she goes out with. Please Papa.’

‘Not a stroke after midnight,’ he said. ‘I’ll wait up for you.’

‘You’re the best!’ I said and kissed him on the cheek. 

This was one of the few advantages of having a father who could not speak English. I could pull the wool over his eyes.

We had persuaded one parent, now it was Mr Keogh’s turn. To my surprise, Sharmaine talked her dad around quite easily and we were ready for a night on the town.

‘Where d’ya wanna go?’ Glen asked. They were from the outer suburbs and completely out of their depth. 

‘Let’s go to the Outpost Inn,’ I suggested. 

It was my favourite place to go. The Outpost Inn was a basement folk venue at the top end of Collins Street. It was a cool place to hang out and listen to various folk singers. There were three or four windowless underground rooms, painted black with a small makeshift stage at one end and couches or cushions strewn around the room. There was always more than one artist performing and you could wander from room to room to listen to whoever took your fancy. Someone was always smoking a joint and the atmosphere was quite mellow. It was the coolest place to be on a Saturday night, if you were into that scene. 

The Outpost Inn was run by a crazy Russian called Stefan. He was an imposing figure with a full beard and a shock of black hair. He had a striking resemblance to photos of Rasputin. I always felt safe because I knew Stefan could sort out any problem. He wasn’t the kind of person anyone would willingly take on. It seemed like a great place to take a couple of suburban boys. 

Within the first twenty minutes we realised the boys had the completely wrong impression of the venue. It was clearly the first time they had witnessed an alternative scene.

‘Check out the black walls, Glen,’ said Steve, nudging him with his elbow. 

‘Smell that will ya,’ was Glen’s reply. ‘You reckon it’s what I think it is? We’ve scored us some wild chicks, man. Which one do you want?’

Sharmaine and I glanced at one another. This had been a BAD idea. 

‘Just going to the bathroom,’ Sharmaine said and pulled at my sleeve. We quickly made our way to the toilets out the back. 

‘I don’t think this was a good idea,’  Sharmaine said. ‘They think we’re the kind of girls who will go all the way with them. I know that’s what they think. Glen keeps staring at my boobs.’

I had the same impression. ‘You know, we could just leave them here,’ I said, ‘C’mon, I know a back way out.’

And that’s what we did. We we left them standing there waiting for us to return. We fled like spooked cats, laughing until we cried, running all the way down Collins Street, without stopping. When we reached Swanston Street, we doubled over laughing, caught our breath, and waited for a number 67 tram to take us home safely.

Easter Eggs

My father gave me a box of Easter eggs every Easter Sunday. He chose them carefully for their appeal and elegance. The boxes were usually silk lined and contained one large egg and occasionally some smaller eggs surrounding it. I loved receiving these eggs, but I never ate a single one.

‘The chocolate is there to be eaten,’ my father said each year.

‘They are too perfect, Papa. If I ate the eggs, all their beauty would be lost. This way I can look at the eggs and enjoy your gift for the longest time,’ I replied.  

My father just shook his head as my eyes feasted on the eggs in the box before I finally took them to my bedroom to be placed on top of my wardrobe with all the other eggs from previous years. The eggs faced into the room and whenever I got dressed, I looked up at the row of stunning boxes and the eggs they contained.

My friends couldn’t understand why I didn’t eat them. Every time they came over, they’d look longingly at the chocolate eggs, but I never relented.

‘You wouldn’t even miss it if one wasn’t there,’ my friend Stephen chided.

‘Can’t we just share one?’ Necef chimed in.

‘No! I love looking at those beautiful eggs,’ I said firmly.

One late spring afternoon I decided to clean my room thoroughly. I tidied, swept, and dusted. I climbed onto a chair to take down the boxes of eggs. To my horror, all that was left of the eggs was the coloured foil, neatly arranged to make it look as if the eggs were still there. I cried tears of rage, frustration, and utter betrayal. I knew who the culprits were.  

The following day, I approached my friends with righteous anger.

‘You ate all the chocolate. How could you!’ I cried.

‘What are you talking about?’ replied Necef and for a moment I doubted myself.

‘The Easter eggs on top of my wardrobe,’ I said. ‘It had to be you!’

Necef and Stephen looked at each other and began to laugh.

‘Oh, those eggs,’ Stephen said. ‘We ate those about six months ago and you are angry about it now?’

I was hurt that they had betrayed my trust, but I could see the funny side too. They knew I wouldn’t look too closely and that they’d get away with it.

That night, I complained about my friends to my father as I cleared away the cheerless, empty boxes.

‘So will you eat the chocolates next year?’ my father asked.

I shook my head. ‘No, Papa. You should know I need their charm to last all year.’

Gosling Creek Reserve

“The path reveals itself once you start walking.”
― Abhijit Naskar, Aşkanjali: The Sufi Sermon

The grass is long after all the rain. In parts of the reserve, it reaches past my shoulder. Rivulets of water course down the slopes to form boggy marshland and the creek runs fast and free to pool in a small pond. These are the things I forgot to mention when I invited my friend, Penny, for a walk with her two dogs. I have sensible walking boots; she wears flat slip-ons. Our dogs run wild while we jump across puddles or find grass tufts that take our weight as we cross the great wet expanse. Her shoes squelch and slide, but we make it across the worst of it with our balance intact.

Birds twitter in treetops and we hear a stream burbling not too far from us. As we approach a small bridge, the type you would find depicted in a Monet but without any of the charm, water rushes past us as if in a hurry to make it downstream. One of her dogs leaps in and lets the deluge wash over him. We can’t help but be swept along with his exuberance. After a while, he joins us on the path shaking the water off his loose skin, seemingly in both directions at once with a whip-flick motion that drenches us as he runs past. We laugh at his joie de vivre and watch the dogs bound through the high grass.

As we reach a well-trodden path around a pond, we hear a chorus of frogs in the tall reeds. Looking closer, we see a mother duck with five tiny ducklings drift towards the foliage for protection. The dogs haven’t noticed them. They are much more interested in a larger version waddling on the path ahead of us and make a half-hearted attempt to run after it. The duck launches itself into the pond and elegantly glides away. None of the dogs have an appetite for a serious chase, especially one that involves the effort of swimming. They are already running zigzag, following a new smell that has caught their attention.

On the other side of the pond is a park bench. We head towards it for a rest. The bench is dedicated to the memory of a girl called Mel, the same age as my daughter. She would have been 25 when she died. I think of her family and friends and the unspeakable loss they must continue to endure. My heart breaks for these nameless strangers. I wonder how this young woman died and why the seat was erected here. I can’t help but imagine various scenarios and fill the gaps with conjecture, but I will never know her true story.

We take a seat, but the dogs start barking and beseech us to keep moving. After a couple of minutes, we give in to their demands and begin our walk back. I decide that the asphalt track does have its merits, especially as we feel the first drops of rain, first on our arms and later, on our shoulders. Tree roots have cracked open the surface of the path and we tread carefully to avoid tripping on fissures and craters. At the same time, I’m glad nature is winning the battle here, and consider it likely that the trees will outlast the asphalt.

The path is suddenly steeper. We see hemlock growing up to two metres and it has invaded large tracts of the grassland. The plant is highly toxic and there is no antidote to hemlock poisoning. We call the dogs and make sure we don’t brush against it. This section of the reserve looks neglected, and we are aware that there may be snakes in the weedy vegetation. Best move on swiftly.

A galah flies across our path while a magpie struts in the next field, head bobbing forward and back until it sees our dogs. Begrudgingly, it flies to the nearest branch and keeps a wary eye on these bumbling, ground-sniffing predators. The birds, as ever, win against these domesticated, well-fed, and pampered dogs.

We reach a plateau where large fallen limbs of tress are neatly placed along the verge of the path. No doubt a storm has raged here not long ago. Some of the branches are horizontal while others lean precariously on the trunk of a tree. In time they will offer shelter to ground dwelling creatures and their sacrifice will not be in vain. Further, there are trees with protruding branches at crazy angles that remind me of some Halloween prank. They look almost human with one or two additional limbs waving in the wind. We marvel at their shapes and pick up our pace. We can feel the steady drops of rain on our faces now and head for the car.

The dogs have one final crazy dash across a field. They sprint in circles just as though they were running on an invisible racetrack. We call and they return, tongues to one side, panting and spent, content to go home. We laugh at their antics and know we must come again soon. At the carpark, we say our goodbyes and stomp to remove the mud from our shoes.

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