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Friday, July 8, 2011

74. Autobiography: The Drains 2

I started teaching in 1965. In my second – perhaps third – year of teaching I came across the Stephen Spender poem: My parents kept me from children who were rough. The poem resonated with me; I had that frisson of recognition, that Eureka experience. The boy in the poem was me.

My parents kept me from children who were rough. They rarely allowed me to play in the streets of Coburg. Ours was a rough area. The boys in the streets around our place were tough. I spent my days in our back yard or indoors, playing my solitary games, and envisioning achievements: being the first man to walk on the moon. I built intricate road systems around the tomato and the rhubarb bushes, for my Dinky cars.

I knew from an early age the superiority of the rough boys. Eddie Fennell had done me out of sixpence. The Scarletts had made it through the drain, while I sat by the entrance, paralysed by questions: What if?

What if there were a sudden storm, and a wall of water surged through the drain? What if I caught polio myelitis? I knew that term almost as soon as I could walk: polio myelitism. They were words my parents pronounced very carefully, always according that disease respect, giving it its full title.

“Never play in gutters – you could catch polio myelitis.”

Two diseases held me in awe as a child: polio and whooping cough. My parents dreaded both. There had been a polio epidemic a few years before; it had claimed the lives of many children, and left others – like the writer, Alan Marshall – permanently crippled. My parents had already experienced the pain of child death on two occasions; their fear was powerful, gargantuan.

Polio and whooping cough were high on the list of my childhood fears, up there with the Boogeyman, who lurked behind trees in the dark of night, and Ching-Chong Chinaman, and the old woman who pushed a pram around the streets of Coburg and Moreland, collecting treasures from other people’s garbage bins. All threatened, though in a vague, undefined way. But I was full of fears. I knew nothing of the character of polio myelitis, its cuases, its consequences – I simply knew it was to be feared. The smell of the drain was sufficient to tell me that here lay danger, that this place was alive with disease and with germs.

There were rats there, too – long, sleek, ugly rats that lived on the offal and waste that was carried in the slimy waters.

Another danger lurked in the drain, a threat more potent than the rats, or the smell or the potential disease. The underground portion of the drain ran beneath Pentridge, the high walled prison that housed the worst of Victoria’s criminals. The back portion of the jail contained the farm area and acres or uncultivated land. What if some prisoner were to hide in the paddock? What if there were a manhole or grill into the drain? What if some prisoner had found it, and was hiding there, in the drain, waiting for night?
The walls of Pentridge were a stone’s throw from the low cyclone wire fence that ran along the back of the school playground. During little play and big play small knots of children would stand along the fence line, under spreading peppercorn trees, and gaze across the road at the bluestone walls, wondering what they held.

There were stories, whispered in the shelter sheds and the boys’ dunnies, or out under the peppercorns, that the drain was a secret escape route. To our boyish minds, it seemed very possible that such a thing could happen – indeed, had happened. These imaginings were fuelled by a film of those times: The Third Man, with its haunting theme music, its narrow, ill-lit streets, and its pies carrying out their work beneath the city, in its sewers and drains.

But none of the “What ifs” was the real cause of my lack of adventure. What compelled me to sit outside while others ventured in, and through, was the sure knowledge that my mother would not want me to go there, would not approve of my entering that foul smelling drain.

How many drains did I avoid as a child?

I was wandering home from school one day. My route took me past the Coburg Railway station. Beside the path was a stand of shiny leafed, gnarled and stunted trees. I was later to learn how you could fold the almost round leaves in two, then blow through one end, to produce a high-pitched, buzzing sound. Among the trees I saw someone squatting; a bare bottom was clearly visible. It was a child, someone around my own age I guessed. He – or more intriguingly, she – was squatting to do a poo. (That is what I would have called it then; the word “shit” was not yet part of my vocabulary).

The body moved uneasily at my foot tread, waddling a little deeper into the undergrowth and the dark shade. I was drawn by curiosity, by the faint pull of an undefined sexual inquisitiveness. But the censor in me won out, the mental embodiment of all of the “Do nots” and “Should nots” of my nine or ten years. I did not find out whether it was a boy or girl. I walked on, out of the bushes, embarrassed and a little guilty. I walked down the underpass, along beside the railway line, down Loch Street, and around the corner to my house in Reynard Street, Coburg, there to play with my dinky toys, and dwell in my mind on what I had seen, and wonder about what I had not seen.

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