From Griffith REVIEW Edition 21: Hidden Queensland
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Edwina Shaw
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Edwina Shaw's biography and other articles by this writer
There's a banging on the front door. So early on a Monday? Don't they know I'm a student? I roll over and clamp the pillow to my head but the pounding doesn't stop. I rub the sleep from my eyes and get up. Through the bubbled glass of the front door, I see dark shapes too big to be anyone I know. I edge the door open.
The police. Even though they're not in uniform, I know it's them. No necks, red faces. Slimy as hell.
I'm in big trouble.
‘Do two flamboyant homosexuals live here?'
Suddenly I'm wide awake. Oh no! Pete and Byron – my housemates. ‘Has there been an accident?'
Feeling sick, I clutch my nightie close around my throat.
‘We'll take that as a yes. Taringa CIB, here under the Health Act.' And they barge past me into the house. No need for a warrant. It's 1984, Brisbane. Homosexuality is illegal, and under the new Act the police don't need anything other than suspicion to do a search.
The house shakes on its stilts as they up-end the cane lounge chairs and haul the sarongs from the windows. This is serious, not just the usual kind of hassle I get because of my punk hairdo. They're looking for something, systematically tearing the place apart. What do they think we've got? We just muck around with dope, nothing heavy. Hugging my nightie tighter, I drift behind them as they storm from room to room like brown shirt troopers.
Thank God the boys are at work – they've been bashed by cops before. Pete's safe at Sportsgirl, teasing the hair of store dummies, and Byron's doing much the same above the shoulder pads of rich, old New Farm ladies. Still, I wish there was someone here to hold my hand: I feel like I'm eight, not eighteen. What are the police going to do to me once they get tired of destroying furniture?
In my room, they overturn the mattress and tear apart my pillow, sending feathers into the air like fake snow at a pantomime. Crossing my arms, I somehow find my voice. ‘What's going on? What am I supposed to have done anyway?' My voice is shakier than I want it to be. I wish I felt tougher, looked tougher. I wish I at least had a bra on. It's hard to be tough in your pyjamas.
They don't even look up, intent on destruction.
‘Got any communist literature?' the blond one asks.
That brings me back to the real world. These men aren't kids from high school, or anything like the handsome actors in the cop shows on TV. They're Queensland Vice Squad, Lewis's henchmen, corrupt to the core, bored shitless and looking for laughs at my expense. Wrenching the drawers from my dresser, they tip my undies and t-shirts into heaps on the floor. Whole shelves of books thud on to the carpet with one sweep of their ham-hock arms. It's like some bad movie except it's real. And I'm in it.
Down south, people call Queenslanders banana benders and think Joh's a harmless old fool. But up here we know he's no joke. I'm certainly not laughing now.
The police don't find anything, and that's making them angry. They trash the house, stomping over records and clothes and crockery as they rage from room to room, thumping, ripping, kicking. Byron's prized Gary Newman album cracks under a police boot. The Virgin Mary statue Pete got from his Gran is hurled against the wall so hard her head's knocked off.
That makes me angry.
‘Hey!' I shout, putting my hands on my hips to help control the shaking of my legs. ‘That stuff belongs to people. There's nothing here. Why don't you go now? You've got no right!' My voice squeaks and I feel the heat of a bright red blush in my cheeks.
‘Did ya hear that, fellas? She says we've got no right. We've got every bloody right. We're the police. You and your poofta mates have been breaking the law,' says the fat one who appears to be in charge.
I fold my arms back around myself to stop him glaring at my boobs. ‘What are we supposed to have done? We haven't hurt anyone.'
His hand comes thunking down on my shoulder.
‘I've had enough of your crap.'
‘Why don't you go, then?' I jut my chin, despite feeling all my strength oozing through my feet into the floorboards.
Dog's breath and spittle fly into my face as he shouts, ‘Shut up you smart-arsed little cow. Sit down and shut up or I won't need an excuse.' His too-tight tie is cutting off the blood-flow to his face so he looks like an inflamed pimple about to burst. Shoving me into the kitchen, he raises his fist in front of my nose – thumps me down into a chair. ‘Now just sit there and shut the fuck up!'
My heart's beating so hard it feels as if my ribs aren't strong enough to hold it in my chest anymore. I'm shit scared. It's just me, alone in the house with four huge, angry men, each of them strong enough to snap my neck. Who am I going to call for help? The police?
As a last resort, I say a Hail Mary under my breath, ‘Please Mary, don't let them find anything. I'll never even puff on a joint again. Please.' There shouldn't be anything for them to find. We scraped the bottom of the bag clean last night, and everything else is in well thought-out hiding spots. We know the drill. Queenslanders don't leave stuff lying around on coffee tables.
The young blond policeman with flared suit pants comes in like a triumphant hunter, waving a scrawny potted dope plant in his meaty hand.
Shit. Forgot about that.
‘Look what I found down the backyard,' he skites. ‘A bloody plantation.'
‘Oh come on,' I say, shock giving me back a voice. ‘It's only got three leaves.'
‘A plant is a plant,' says the porky one with the exploding face. ‘It's yours then, is it?'
‘Never seen it before in my life.' Thank God for cop shows. At least I know what to say.
It is mine, a pathetic attempt at growing my own. I keep it way down in the backyard by the old chook shed hidden between some overgrown tomato bushes, but the poor thing never gets a chance to get any bigger than a bonsai because Pete prunes it whenever the home supply runs out.
Now it's a plantation.
Blondie plonks the plant down in front of me on the table between the crusted pots, dishes and ashtrays. Suddenly I wish I'd never moved out of home. I want my mum.
My stomach churns in time with the frenetic rhythm of my heart. Thanks for nothing, Mary.
‘Aha! Lookie, lookie, what've we got here?' A man in a brown suit comes in rattling the Orchy bong like it's first prize in a cake wheel. ‘What's this, then?'
‘Suppose you've never seen that before either,' says Porky.
Oh my God. They must've found the hidey-hole under the back stairs. That stinky, oil-smeared orange juice container with a bit of garden hose sticking out the side means trouble. Big trouble. Combined with my scrawny plant, it's jail kind of trouble. I know about these things. The new laws. I've heard the bust horror stories.
I have to think fast. A rumour about a friend of a friend flashes into my brain. She ate her stash when she got busted and got off because there was no evidence. So, while Porky has his back turned and the others are still rampaging through the bedrooms and garden, I grab the plant and uproot it, shovel it like stringy noodles into my mouth. Coughing and spluttering on all that grassy fibre, I chew frantically and try to swallow, almost choking.
‘What the fuck!' Porky grabs me by the shoulders and shakes so hard my eyes rattle in my head. ‘You stupid little bitch.'
His right hand hovers striking distance from my cheek. I wince and turn away, waiting for the blow.
Blondie comes in, rattling a box of matches. ‘Jackpot!' he says.
Porky lowers his hand.
‘Look what I found. It was in that room out front.'
It's my room but I'm not even going to lift my head. A box of matches isn't illegal, not yet anyway, not even in Queensland.
I sit slumped in my chair like a first grader who's been caught cheating, feeling weak and stupid. I don't want the tears to come, but I can't stop them.
‘What's the matter with matches?' I ask, through the remains of stem stuck in my teeth, wiping my eyes with my sleeve.
‘You, shut up. You're in enough trouble as it is. She destroyed police evidence.' Porky nods at the empty pot plant and stringy green bits on the lino.
‘It's not matches,' says Blondie. ‘It's a potential bloody plantation.' He slides the Redhead lid open to reveal seeds. ‘Every one of these is a plant in the eyes of the law. You're in deep trouble.'
‘So shut the fuck up,' chimes in Porky.
My guts sink then rise to the back of my throat. Those seeds have been sitting at the back of my desk drawer for so long I'd forgotten they were there. They're so old they probably won't even sprout in cotton wool.
I'm not a criminal. I haven't hurt anyone or stolen or cheated or done anything bad. All I've done is have some fun. Like everyone else my age. I don't want to go to jail.
I don't want them to see me cry but there's no stopping the tears now. Not because I'm sad, but because I'm scared, and mostly because I'm angry. I want to yell and scream and fight these bastards who are wrecking my house and my life all in one terrible morning. Why don't they pick on someone their own size?
‘Okay everyone, let's get back to the station. We've got enough to put this one away,' says Porky, tucking his shirt-tail back into his pants. ‘I'm dying for a coffee.'
On their way out, they pick up my diary and photo album, treading a path over the mess they've made. Sweat collects under Porky's hand on my shoulder.
‘Can I get dressed?' I mumble.
THE BLOND ONE AND THE OTHERS NOD, so reluctantly Porky grunts and lets me go. ‘No funny business, you.' He stands outside the half-open door while I change into the straightest outfit I can find, the button-up white shirt I bought for a job interview and a plain navy skirt. Dragging a brush through my knots, I pull my hair into a ponytail, wipe off old mascara that's leaked into long tears on my cheeks, and paint on my palest lipstick. When I finish, I look as straight as an old maid schoolteacher.
‘You're not going to a bloody party,' he yells. ‘Get a move on.'
I think about climbing out my window and dropping the six feet to the ground, running and hiding, but it all seems too hard. My legs are barely able to hold me. I don't have the strength to run. I feel like I'm a battery-operated toy just before the battery finally dies.
Outside, the police cars are unmarked but it wouldn't bother me if we drove away with sirens blaring. I don't care if the neighbours see me. I want to wave to a crowd, like a soldier going off to war. But there's no one to wave back.
Porky shoves me into the back seat, then gets behind the wheel and speeds off down the road towards Taringa Police station.
Twisting his neck around from the front seat, Blondie asks: ‘So you're a student, hey?'
I don't answer.
‘I'm a student too, doing law part-time.'
‘Hmmph.' It's too late to be friends now.
‘So, what do you study? Let me guess, art or music or something like that?'
‘What'll that make you?'
I shrug. ‘Maybe a teacher?'
‘Don't reckon you'll be a teacher now. Not after you've been busted.'
I stare out the window as Brisbane Boys' College floats by, the boys in their silly boater hats and striped ties strolling through a day so different to mine.
‘Should've thought of that before you started smoking that shit, hey?'
I don't answer. What does he want me to say?
He turns away. ‘How about a Hungry Jack's breakfast?'
I can't believe it. My whole life is going down the toilet and these bastards are stopping for burgers and fries.
The smell of greasy takeaway makes my stomach rise burning into my throat. I need a cigarette. So much for giving up. I'll probably be smoking White Ox, prison issue, by the end of the week.
As soon as we get into their office, I ask to use their phone. I've seen enough police dramas to know I'm entitled to that. And a lawyer too. I ring the student legal service but they're too busy to be bothered with just another bust, with someone else who's fucked up.
‘Don't say anything,' says the girl. ‘Don't answer any questions.'
That's my phone call gone and no cavalry to the rescue. I could've rung Mum. She would've come. The blond policeman lets me have one of his cigarettes, and another and another, until Porky finishes his fries and is ready to get me to talk.
He throws an ounce of heads into my lap and says that I can keep it if I tell him the names of my dealers. He asks me about the layout of the house, trying to trick me into answering other questions. But I don't tell him anything. I don't dob. That's the worst thing anyone can ever do.
As he questions me, he flicks through my diary and to the amusement of the whole office he reads out some of the pages. He starts calling me Becky-Boo, the secret name my boyfriend used to call me, the name only he was allowed to use. Not even Pete knows about it. I shrink into the chair, willing myself to evaporate.
‘That's enough, hey Reg,' says Blondie. ‘We'd better get Becky-Boo here into lock-up, they might be able to squeeze her case in today.'
On the way to the lock-up along Coronation Drive, the river winding slow, brown and oblivious, I rest my forehead against the cool of the trembling window and close my eyes, wishing the day over and the police gone. Wishing I'd never crawled out of bed at all.
CAGE DOORS CLANG SHUT AS THEY PUSH ME into the only holding cell. Down and outs and crims check me over from their seats on the bench rimming three sides. I huddle in a corner, wishing I could meld into the damp of the brick wall, or scuttle under the bars like the cockroaches.
‘What ya in for, love?' says one old fella with long greasy hair who reminds me of Catweazel.
‘Busted,' I say.
The tattooed men nod and clamp their lips in sympathy.
‘Bloody stupid what they done with them new laws, filling the lock-up with kids who smoke a few joints.'
A guard comes in and calls my name. I'm lucky. They're going to hear my case right away.
‘See ya later, love. Good luck.' Catweazel waves his withered arms after me.
I have to pee, so the guard leads me to a steel toilet with no seat and turns his back while I try to relax enough to release my bladder. When I'm done, he herds me into a small room where a Legal Aid lawyer is waiting. He looks tired, like it's been a long day of hopeless cases and I'm just another one. Sighing, he goes through my statement and frowns as I tell him my side of the story and all that's happened.
The lawyer shuffles his papers and says he'll do his best, try to make some sort of a case out of it, but really it all depends on the judge, and he's not exactly known for his leniency in drug cases.
The courtroom isn't like the ones on TV. It's small and white with laminated desks and one old man sitting up the front looking grumpy. The seats behind me are full of people waiting their turn, faces pinched and anxious.
My Legal Aid guy stands up and pleads my case. He asks for leniency, keeps on saying that I want to be a teacher, that I'm a straight A student with a first offence. The judge listens and nods and looks at the bong and the matchbox full of seeds, then he peers over his glasses and asks me to stand.
‘What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?'
‘I'm sorry, Your Honor. I'll never do it again.'
I've learnt my lesson. About keeping my mouth shut, that is. Not about the dope. All I want is a joint to smoke the horror of the day away. It's the only thing that will make me feel better. I hang my head.
The judge clears his throat. He says that because of my possible teaching career, and that as it's a first offence, he'll only give me two years' probation and a compulsory psychiatric examination with a state doctor.
I look up at the judge and smile. Just a little.
No jail. I should feel like dancing a jig, but I don't. I just want to get out of here.
On my way out of the courtroom, I thank the Legal Aid guy who nods back in a sad sort of way and goes to fight his next case. I sign some papers, promise to turn up at the probation office in a couple of days, and they let me go. A uniformed policeman opens the doors and lets me walk straight out, a free woman.
I WALK AND WALK, THEN BREAK INTO A RUN down Roma Street into the city. I wonder if people can tell that I've changed, that I'm now a criminal, if my walk and the set of my jaw give me away. Do I look as hard as I feel? I think about getting a tattoo.
By the time I reach Sportsgirl, my leg muscles are quivering and I'm gasping for breath. Pete takes the pins from his mouth and gives me a kiss, asks me what's wrong and hugs me as I burst into tears. He buys cigarettes and I chain-smoke each one right down to the filter as I tell him the whole story. It feels good to tell it, to make it real and not just a bad and lonely dream.
Pete sends me to the ladies' lounge at the Carlton Hotel to wait until he finishes work. I sit in a deep leather armchair in the elegant lounge with velvet-patterned wallpaper and chandeliers, and order whiskies that come with individual cut crystal jugs of water. I smoke and scribble poetry on to the back of coasters and wonder whether the old ladies wearing stockings and gloves sitting around me can tell they're in the presence of someone who's just got out of jail.
Pete and Byron turn up after work and we move around to the public bar full of punks and rockers. It's as smoky and loud as the ladies' lounge is genteel. We put angry songs of revenge on the jukebox and dance; score and stumble down to the gardens to our hidey-hole in the bamboo to smoke joints and forget everything else. I don't want to go home to the mess, so we head to The Beat, and dance the bad moon day into morning.
A YEAR LATER, I'M LIVING BY MYSELF IN A FLAT around the corner from the old share place. Pete's moved to Sydney to seek his fortune and Byron's living with his sugar-daddy in Paddington. I'm still studying so I rent this bed-sit where I try to make up for lost time and failed subjects. I was officially declared sane at my psychiatric examination and see my probation officer once a month.
Whenever I want to go to Sydney to visit Pete, I have to get signed permission to leave the state. The probation officers I see in Sydney laugh at my record sheet like it's another bad Queensland joke. I laugh too. But really it's not that funny. It's my life.
I still smoke bongs. Dope is a comfort, a smoky force field against reality. Being busted was never going to make me stop.
One night, there's a knock at the door. It's late, I'm in my nightie. I answer it anyway. A big blond guy in a crumpled suit with flared pants is standing on my front step. The top button of his shirt undone and his tie is shoved into his pocket. He stinks of beer and is holding a book with a paisley cover that looks familiar. Something about him is familiar too. Then it clicks. It's Blondie, one of the bastards who busted me.
‘Hello. Becky-Boo. I've been looking for you. Thought you might be wanting this.' And he hands the book over to me. My diary. Back from its year of captivity with the Taringa CIB. ‘Pretty good read,' he says. ‘We all had a good laugh.'
‘Thanks.'‘So ... Boo ... Don't suppose you'd like to invite me in for a drink?' he puts his arm up and leans on the doorframe, edging his foot on to the carpet and peering over my shoulder into the flat. ‘Or a smoke perhaps?' ♦