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Memoir

Playing with fire

"NOTHING MUCH" WAS the usual reply when asked what was going on. Nothing much went on in the summer of my twelfth year, the twentieth year of drought in our valley across the Great Dividing Range, which our geography teacher said did not divide anything and by standards of the world was not that great.

School broke up, which meant there really was nothing much to do. Both Mum and Dad worked at a couple of jobs and so we didn't go away until the last week of the holidays. It was so hot that even Mrs Phelan, who disapproved of bad language, agreed when Mr Hooper said "bloody hot". I had been hit for using that adjective – correctly, I thought – to describe Custer's last stand as a "bloody mess". But I was a smarty-pants, too big for my boots, and had to watch myself.

Watermelon. Carols by kerosene light while farmers and miners and meatworkers watched their flock, or the films at the Broadway Theatre, by night. Nothing much different from other bush kids. Except in my twelfth summer I had my first kiss and it nearly burnt down the town.

 

RONNY WAS BIGGER and a bit older than me and had no freckles. He was advanced for his age. This wasn't a compliment in Bilo where any advance was considered dangerous. He was from out Valentine Plains way, and could drive since he was fourteen. Rumour was he had "lost it" with Denise. What had been lost, I discovered later, was his virginity and her cherry. Behind the shelter shed at school. When I went there hoping to find it for him, there was no sign of it.

His father didn't come into town but Ronny and his mother, Ailsa, worked at the Broadway Theatre, canvas seats downstairs and velvet lounge above. She sold the tickets from the box out front – a space she completely filled. He tore them. I helped at the Candy Bar and watched the films.

We saw everything, on screen and off. Mostly we sat up the back and not down the front in the canvas with a "certain element". Ailsa often patrolled the aisles with a torch. She would whisper harshly: "I have a torch and I know how to use it." Mainly it was shone in faces to stop two-fingered whistling and stamping.

Once, though, the behaviour revealed by the torch was so bad the film was stopped, the lights turned up and Polar, who we all feared and admired, was prodded with it and forced up the aisle and out. He went with applause from the lairs holding one finger victoriously above his head. Up another aisle, Denise left in tears, adjusting her frock. Ronny told me later that Polar had "got a bit" and Denise was the "town bike". As the lights were dimmed again, we went back to Fort Apache.

On these hot nights, the huge sides of the cinema were opened and fans whirred. My mother sometimes sat in the back row. Dad stayed in the pub next door. Mum loved the pictures but often fell asleep. She had a condition – "sheer tiredness" – which had other symptoms, but sherry and a cry seemed to cure. Mum went to the pictures for a good laugh and a good cry. It amazed me how they happened together. But only ever in the dark. Like Polar and Denise, some things could only happen in the dark.

 

MY FIRST KISS and crying and laughing at the same time happened at the peak of summer, in full noon light.

Ronny wore his shirt collar done up without a tie when he was tearing tickets, but one day after seeing a movie with Sal Mineo, he started undoing his button and wearing his collar up until his mother ticked him off for being a lair and two bob lout.

To my twelve-year-old eyes, Ronny was good at everything. He was my sun, my moon and my stars. Well ... at least my light by night. When Ailsa could not be bothered to drive me home, she dropped me at their drive and Ronny would walk me the last mile home. We covered the dark path recounting that night's picture, acting out the good bits – mainly the funny bits.

If Dad came for me and took me home early, the walk the next night was lit by bits of the picture I had missed.

I loved Westerns. I always played Sioux or Cheyenne because I was very good at dying. But by the time I was twelve, Ronny stopped killing me and I stopped dying. One day I came with my bow and arrow and lipstick on my nose and waited at the fence but his mother told me to get home because Ronny was working out at the farm, helping his father with the branding.

Talk with Ronny only happened on the dark walk. By day, he treated me with indifference, even contempt. Though he did stop his friends throwing rocks at me in the pool because I had white skin and my broken teeth inspired Denise to call me a shark. With more wit, she could have dubbed me a dugong, in my baggy second-hand togs.

One night as we walked the dirt road home, there was silence between us. As we got to the rise and the track from which the yellow glow of the veranda lamp made it okay for me to run along by myself. He stopped. We stood in silence. Wordless. Nothing to report. Something was meant to happen. It didn't. He didn't twist his foot in the dirt, like kids do in movies when silence expresses deep unspoken urges. It was a little hole in which the nothing happening was the remarkable thing. I turned at the veranda and waved. He was not there. I turned the yellow lamp, speckled with mosquitoes and insects, off and after a moment looked back. He was there. Barely visible.

I went back and asked what was up. And for the first time he hurt me. He snorted back: "Brownie, you know nothing." He was right.

I knew that Ailsa had deemed that night's picture unsuitable. Even Ronny was not allowed to see it. The poster had caused a sensation and had been taken down. It featured prominent bosoms on a red-haired slut and a cruel, lusty, black-eyed hero who looked like he was a bad element. Passion and something never seen before were on a screen near us. The obscene promise was so threatening that Ronny was told to wait in the car across the road and on his honour not to get out of the car or he would suffer the consequences.

The vagueness of the dire warnings made them so dreadful and so tantalising. Ronny knew that Aub, the projectionist, always came out for a smoke on the landing just a reach from the fire escape after the picture started. At that moment Ronny ran up the fire stairs, that no one used because they were so wonky and you might do yourself an injury. He reached across and Aub, who had tattoos and a lick of the tar, hooked him into the theatre. Ronny took a drag on Aub's rollie and disappeared into the projection booth.

I sat outside watching the façade. It was painted like a wedding cake, white with pink and blue trim and bits of gold. Light bulbs flickered, but not all of them worked, two Doric columns held up the sign that Aub, who was a bit artistic when he wasn't on the turps, had painted. Behind the façade Ronny was seeing what had never been shown on that screen before. I was outside banished to the car in the vomiting heat, listening to the drunks at the bottom pub sing Running Bear Loved Little White Dove adding their inane chant, "in the raw".

What Ronny saw that night rendered him silent, and lingering in the darkness on the slight rise beyond the reach of my veranda light. And he was right. I knew nothing, but he did. Now he knew something.

AFTER THAT I noticed that his mates started calling him Ron. The silence between us grew with his height and the white fuzz on his cheeks. He didn't fit his shirt and strummed his left nipple just above his heart when he was with Denise. She laughed at everything he said, even when it wasn't funny. Smiling between us had ended, and recounting the best bits that made us laugh – "yeah, that was really good" – was out of the question. I had lost the angel who saw me to my veranda. He looked at me with new and terrible eyes.

"How come your name is Brownie and you're so white," he would sneer. And Denise would laugh.

There were storms and rains that summer, but none in our town or anywhere else in the valley that needed it. We would watch the lightning, but nothing much came of it. Dad knew, he could tell by the clouds. He'd been a stockman and the blackfellas had shown him what to look for. What to listen for. He told me, "Keep your eyes open and see with your ears."

The week after "the night of silence" felt like a light year of pain and confusion.

 

THEN ONE DAY Ron came out of the yellowing field of tall grass between the houses near the railway line that backed into the saw mill with its towers of logs on which we were forbidden, by threat of a good hiding, ever to play, though it had always been the backdrop of our best games. From its edges, we launched attacks on wagon trains and cavalry, as Saracens we killed Crusaders and as Shintaro I sliced Ninja. But we did not travel far for fear of snakes and broken glass. Roydee had lost his trike and his sister had lost something so precious that no one spoke of it. Heather had pooed there and chased us with it on a stick and been sent to Goodna where people who were mental lived strapped to their own beds.

Now here was Ron, barefoot and wearing the singlet and shorts he wore when he worked at the farm. Wiping his hands and smelling them. He saw me, turned around and began to walk back into the field.

"What you scared of?" he asked

"Getting burnt."

"What?"

"I got to be in shade at the heat of the day or I get burnt."

"You don't burn Brownie, You get freckles."

A thousand freckles burnt in me as those words left his mouth and sunk in. I followed him.

We passed the little ditch at the edge of our playground where we had once been injuns and deeper to the hole where it is rumoured secrets were told and things lost and the grass seemed to get taller and the sky turned white and things scurried underneath. He stopped suddenly and, balancing on one foot, showed me a bit of green bottle in his heel, and pulled it out. He took off his singlet and tied it round his waist and looked back to make sure

I was following. There was a clearing – stamped down grass, deep and almost shady. We rested. He sat and started picking the dry peeling sunburnt skin off his shoulders. He ate a bit, or pretended to, and snorted when I refused. He smiled. He took my hat off and rubbed my nose and lip gently.

"I've got to keep my hat on and my sleeves rolled down so I don't burn," I explained, putting my hat back on.

"You are not going to burn."

Ron had a tin of Log Cabin and papers and rolled a smoke. He did not light it. He placed the box of Redheads on the tin near the durry in preparation.

"Y'know what I saw. In the pictures?" The Night of Silence was over. "You want to know? Eh? Well I am not going to tell you. It's for me to know and for you to find out."

It was a new game. That is what his Dad, who was a Mason, said when I asked him what went on inside the old lodge on the road up the hill out of town.

"But we are mates, eh!"

"Okay then, I'll show you. You be the girl. I'll be the boy. Not for real, you drongo. Like in the movie. You want to. Take off your hat."

I took it off and squinted. He tore my shirt open and exposed my bosoms with these words, "wrench, tear". It was okay because we had seen wrench tear done by a couple of hard cases in Westerns. He slapped me, not for real, but with the noise "tish", which was okay too because this was the noise we used when we were torturing Allied prisoners if it was our turn to be Gestapo or Japs, so there was no hurt or surprise.

What was new was that Ron was wobbling his head and moving his lips in a slow rubbery circle and lowering his eyelids. He then plunged his mouth on to mine and as he did our lips met, and he began singing the theme music from the film. An honest heartfelt attempt at a full romantic orchestration, wondrous and intense.

I was drowned by a movie pash, complete with music. Here in Bilo across the Great Divide I was being pashed with a wet kiss borne of screen passion.

I stared at him. He pulled back a minute and told me to close my eyes and say, "Oh my darling, I forgive you." What was I forgiving? Ron could do no wrong, but I said it and he ploughed on singing into my mouth.

We stopped and he lay back and out of the corner of my eye I watched him take the readied smoke. He put it into his mouth and prompted me to light it. I did. Awkwardly. He offered me a drag. And there we lay. My eyes closed because the sky was white-hot and making them hurt.

 

THEY OPENED TO torrents of heat and the ghastly cackle of dry grass torn up by furious flames. Ron and I ran wildly, feet burning, skin blistering until we were safely out on the dirt road and men from the mill were beating the fire with wet sugar bags. It seemed our pash had enveloped Old Bilo with the fires of hell.

The town and we were saved. It was just a small grass fire, quickly under control. The kiss, a sloppy furtive cliché, copied from a second-rate picture. All over the world boys and girls were being awakened from the sleep of childhood with every conceivable excuse for a kiss. But we were boys and mates and Ron liked girls.

I was shaken and hugged back home by Mum. Dad warned about dangers in long grass. Ailsa frogmarched my prince among the lairs and two bob louts back to their place. She was big and fat, but strong, and lifted him.

"Don't lie to me. I smell it on you. I can smell your breath."

She could smell it on his breath! What me? The music? Oh God! Not the pash. One pash and the town had burnt down. Nearly. And Ron, so big and strong, is now being lifted by the proverbial scruff of his neck.

"What are you? Answer me! A liar! Louder! Liar! You have a choice, Mister Liar. You can take your hiding now or miss the pictures tonight and all next week."

It's my fault. I did it. I'm in on it too. I watched from the fence.

The door opened. "Get home," she said with venom.

I heard Ron say, "I want to go. Don't make me not go, Mum!"

Ailsa picked up the old pink slipper she wore when she did the gardening. She always made her sons count and never belted them after they cried. Ron got more because he didn't cry. When he did, she would gently explain that he had got what was coming to him and that was the end of the matter. He would be turning over a new leaf. After the bashing, she opened the door. Ron was doing up his pants and he was crying.

"You are a bad influence," Ailsa hissed.

 

THAT WINTER AFTER the races at Thangool, Custard Guts and Bull Features, the local constables, rounded us up and drove us to the crossing at Krombit to look at the smouldering wreck of the car that had crashed because it was speeding and there had been too much drink at the party at the dam. This is what happens to drink-drivers, how joy rides end. The car had flown briefly through the air and smashed and burnt. Ron and Denise and a couple of other no-hopers were in it.

When Ailsa heard, she ran down the road, and it took her other sons and a couple of big blokes to stop her. Then she began stamping her feet and made a noise like a cow. It was funny for a while, but so scary that we started to laugh and cry at the same time. In broad daylight.

His funeral was a Requiem Mass, kids were not allowed. I stayed at home, underneath the house; it was getting really hot again. It was cool and dark deep under the old house. We kept ice in an old copper and next to it a lowboy and mirror with cracks and missing shards. There I practised my pash, wobbling head, pursing lips singing an appropriately romantic orchestral score.

"What do you think you're doing?" It was Max delivering the ice. "Nothing much. I gotta stay under the house. Out of the sun. I burn." I am under the house. Ronny is burnt and buried and I am singing to myself.

None of this is true and all it of is. There was a Ronny and a Wardy and a Denise and a Polar and Tony and Gus and Lindsay and Wally and Ross and Eileen and Ailsa and especially Jim and all the others I mentioned. What happened, happened, but not quite as well as a short story can lead you to believe. All memory is fiction and has different rules from life.


From Griffith Review Edition 17: Staying Alive © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review