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Friday, July 8, 2011

73. Autobiography: Down the Drain

The gullet trap at the back of our house smells. It is like the open earth drain that runs down Dorset Street, Pascoe Vale, where my aunt and uncle live. Or like some of the lockers at the Brunswick Baths after someone has left wet bathers or a wet towel for a couple of weeks. The odour is stale, pungent, insidious.

The oval at McDonalds Reserve smells like that too.

(It no longer exists, but it was a huge, open stormwater drain, perhaps ten metres wide and more than a metre deep. The drain ran in a north/south direction, emerging from its subterranean course at Bell Street. It was open for a distance of perhaps two hundred and fifty metres, then disappeared under the walls of Pentridge. There were many such drains around Melbourne in the 1940s and 1950s, but they have gradually been replaced by underground drains. The McDonalds’ Reserve drain usually carried only a trickle of water, except after a heavy downpour. Some twenty metres outside the bluestone wall of Pentridge, the drain went underground. While the exposed section was paved with bluestone, the underground section was concrete – concrete base, concrete walls, concrete roof. The drain swept in a wide arc under the Pentridge “farm”, and eventually emerged – perhaps 500 metres away – and discharged its contents into the Merri Creek.)

How many times have I sat on the rocks beside this drain, too afraid to enter, waiting for my more adventurous friends. Once I ventured into darkness, but only briefly. I preferred to return to the rectangle of light behind me than to go on into the darkness that lay before me.

What is it that enables some kids to explore cliffs and water holes, old houses and drains, while others sit outside, afraid to enter, afraid to climb, afraid to venture in?

Graeme and Peter Scarlett – the twins –and Eric Wardley had not only entered the drain, and stayed inside; they had emerged from the other end. They had travelled its length, in the darkness, without torches, and had emerged, triumphant, from beneath the threateningly high back wall of Pentridge, emerged onto the banks of the foul smelling Merri Creek.

Eddie Fennel, too. I remember Eddie Fennell. Sometimes I wonder what path his life has taken. In Miss Corrie’s class, I always sat in Row 1, with the bright children. Eddie sat at the very back of Row 6. Eddie was probably backward; he was certainly slow at his school work. Our seating in the class was determined on how well we performed on the monthly tests.

For the whole of my grade 6 year, the back row seat was occupied by Marion Davis, and by either Jacqueline Callaghan or a slight girl with whitish hair named Louise. These three invariably topped the tests. We would be tested on spelling, punctuation, dictation, arithmetic, mental arithmetic, composition, reading aloud … For most of the year I sat in Row 1. I spent a month in the first seat of Row 2, sitting next to Coral Williams.

The tests gave Miss Corrie the information she needed. We were seated according to our relative position in the mark hierarchy of the class. It stared with Marion Davis, in the No. 1 seat at the back of Row 1, UP Row 1, down Row 2, up 3, down 4, up 5, down 6 – to Eddie Fennell and Katrina Kurley. Most of the ones who sat in between have been lost to my memory, although a few remain there: Ian Cann, who broke my front tooth when he pushed my head down onto the drinking tap; Eric Wardley; Graeme and Peter Scarlett, who were to remain friends through school and beyond; Graeme Foo, who was “top boy” in our grade 6, and who went on to Coburg High, and from there became a motor mechanic; Laurie Ferguson, who was the son of a bookmaker; Coral Williams, who became a school teacher; Marion Hall, Rosalyn Blencowe, Joan Jenkins…

I wonder what became of the rest of Miss Corrie’s Grade 6 class of 1954. how many are living, dead, happy, mad? How many have had ulcers, cancer, heart attacks? How many beat their wives and children? How many murderers, playrights, plumbers, nuns, accountants, PhDs in Chemistry?

Eric Wardley is dead now, and so is Eddie Fennell. Eddie’s sister told me of his death at the 150th anniversary reunion of Coburg 484, in 2003. The Scarletts are alive. Marion Davis went into teaching, as did Coral Williams.
I recall one day when I had just moved from the Little School, on the south side of Bell Street, to the Big School. I was in Grade 3; Miss Browning was my teacher. I had found thruppence, maybe sixpence, in the sawdust and rubbish swept up outside Moran and Cato’s. I saw it shining there, in the dust, and claimed it as mine.
I found six pence
Jolly, jolly sixpence
I found sixpence
To last me all my life
I’ve got twopence to spend
And twopence to lend
And twopence to take home to my wife…

Foolishly, I told my school friends of my find.
“Whered’ya find it?” asked Eddie Fennell.
“Outside Moran and Cato’s,” I said, too na├»ve to see what was coming.
“That’s mine,” he told me. “I lost it there last night.”
“True dinks?” I asked. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not.
“Yeah!” he said, firmly. “You’d better give it to me.” His voice was menacing.
I gave Eddie Fennell the coin.

Eddie Fennell had been down that drain. He was afraid. I ventured maybe twenty metres, then turned back.

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