A Short Story; remembering simpler times and harder times.
The Australian terrier is a small dog by any one’s standards. It is a tenacious little fellow with a bark that belies its size. Digger was just such a dog. The Johnstones had had him since he was a pup and he was ensconced with established territories; the top dog, lord of the manor and sure to let anyone entering therein know exactly that fact.
The house was an old weatherboard establishment. Built in the 1930, classic Californian Bungalow style, with a half verandah and a bay window to the other side. Here, Digger patrolled and controlled his place and time.
Now, it was safe to say that patrol and control were his watch words, for he knew every one that passed and was not in the least bit concerned about saying hello. And say hello he did, and discuss the weather and continue to recite the full works of Tolstoy as they walked on. An insistent little buggar was Digger.
The barking was his hallmark, so much so, the local kids delighted in riding past the house on their Malvern Star’s, the Queen’s Slipper playing cards held to the rear frame with clothes pegs, sounding all the world like a Vespa motor scooter until they finally ripped and had to be replaced, something a serious card user could almost do without stopping the bike.
The large Peppercorn tree in the front yard was the home of the neighbourhood’s cicada population and all summer, Digger’s barking, the drone of the card bikes and the cicadas kept the street alive and well.
Bender’s buses used to come down the hill on their way to city and the stop was on the corner. Something Digger delighted in. He would be on station discussing the events of the day with the passengers before the bus was in sight, and then, as it pulled away, say goodbye and continue to do so for a while, in case the loud black belches of the old engines drowned out his creative prose.
There were few cars back then; mostly buses and bikes. A kid on the street was a celebrity when he got a new bike, even a new coat of paint on an old frame would produce some magic in the thing that everyone had to try.
And if you had a Malvern Star Flier with hub gears, well, your family was rich. No doubt about it. Terry Mann had such bike and the kids of the street treated it as their own. This suited Terry because he was a sickly kid, something called Scarlet Fever, we weren’t sure but our parents had whispered about it and we over heard it while we were in the old Plum Tree, picking plums to sell for a bob a bag down the street and over the main road.
Our gang was a collection of eleven, our rivals over the main road were the Franklin Street mob and we continually warred and competed in all things.
The one antic we always beat them with were the plums. Our plum tree was the best in the place. We would bag them up and sell them the length and breadth of Newtown, We made a billy-cart out of an old fruit box and pram wheels and the eleven of us would go and knock on all the doors and sell them for a bob.
The money blown on Tarax Orange, Street’s Choc Bars and Marvel comics that we stored in the club house at the back of the Hunt’s place.
Summer in Australia is unique; long, hot days, usually three in a row and then a thunderstorm that refreshed everything and allowed the thing to start again. Sleeping on the timber floor in the passage with a sheet over you to be cool and loving the smell of the air through the open front door; the milky and his horse, the clinking of the bottles and the clop of the hooves in the early morning darkness.
Being woken by Eddie the baker, his cart at the front gate as Billo his Clydesdale stopped exactly at the same spot and continued to do so for the run down our street and over into the Franklin mob’s territory. We could never really come to grips with the fact that Eddie was not our property alone.
It was the summer of 1964. A gaggle of fifth graders and their younger siblings rode from the street down to the Barwon River. Down past the woolen mills and the scouring plant, the old Gasometer and beyond Harris’s Wrecking Yard with its old Fords and Chevrolets standing like modern examples of the leaning tower of Pisa, past the Polar dairies and the old bakery that had long since been deserted; to the swimming hole near the old bridge across the river to Belmont; the old quarry off to the left and the bamboo thickets to the right and the rope swing off a bow of the willow tree under the bridge.
We arrived and we swam as we did most days in the summer months. This day was different. This was the day we found the body.
The quarry was an old bluestone mine. It had to be 100 or 200 feet deep etched out of solid rock. Of course then we would not have understood that but know I realize it was definitely solid because it was less than 30 feet from the river and if it was not bluestone the thing would have been a lake with the osmosis of the river.
Signs everywhere said “KEEP OUT”, “DANGER”, “DEEP QUARRY” but of course to 11 and 12 year olds those words meant “ENTER”, “THINGS OF INTEREST”, “JOYOUS EVENTS INSIDE”, like some weird Twilight Zone theme where adults and kids saw different things.
The fence was cyclone wire but very old and rusted. You know, I laugh when I think of the unused Nuclear power plants, I read somewhere that they will need to staffed for at least 200 years before they are safe to dismantle. I laugh thinking of the fence around the quarry. Of course they will be staffed for 200 years.
It was on the third day of the three day hot spell, two days past the last cool night and the smell of hot tar being cooled by summer rain that it happened.
As it stands, the idea of finding a body would be strange to anyone, let alone a rag-tag group of pre-teens, still with knees chaffed from their latest billy-cart adventures and all those things that chaff the knees of such a group.
I remember Andy was at the lead. It was our want to do to pass under the fence near the wool scouring pit, full of stagnant stinking water, here, the drop into the quarry was at its least dangerous, although danger had no dimension at this age, less danger tended to translate into easier.
We had parked our bikes against the corrugated iron sides of the large shed at the back of the scouring yard, and took our rope that we had hidden under the floor jousts of the building. Steven always got it because he was the smallest, he had said he’d seen a red-back spider once but we didn’t believe him.
Tying the rope to the 2” pipe support of the cyclone wire fence it was thrown over the side and down into the quarry proper. As I said, this wall was very easy to climb, it was cut outwards on a slight angle and it was about 60 feet to the quarry floor which then dipped away to the low end about another 40 to 50 feet.
We all considered this feat to be on the scale of that of Hillary, the image enforced by the newsreels at the Pix Theater on a Saturday afternoon, before Flash Gordon and the Marx Brothers feature. Thus, five twelve year old mountaineers sans one Sherpa guide began the climb. The fact that we were climbing down did nothing to interfere with the adventure.
Once, we made a Billy-cart out of an old door, the wheels were main-bearings begged from the motor wreckers across the road from Andy’s and Steven’s. We nailed a wooden cross piece to the back of the thing and mounted the wheels, the steering was another piece bolted to the front. I remember running it down the hill, the speed was remarkable. Unfortunately it wouldn’t stop and the car backing out of the drive just picked a very bad time to do it.
Danger means nothing to twelve year olds.
The morning was hot. Christ, the days back then were hot. Not like today. Today, air conditioning everywhere, there is not the compound heat of those days, and the Cicadas sang and sang, I used to think that their singing stole the wind for they seemed to do most of it when there was not a breath in the air.
The quarry was always hotter than above and this day was no exception. On the floor we regrouped and started down the shale mound we were standing on to the level below. The blue water of the ground sink was just too attractive. It was said that the hole went down for ever, we didn’t know for sure but we knew it wasn’t stagnant and that was about the simplest test for any swimming hole.
The water here was crystal clear and as you swam you could drink it, although it always tasted funny. At the time we didn’t know what it was, now, it is the site of a factory dedicated to bottling that water into small plastic containers and sending it around the world as premier Aqua Minerale. The site is developed and consists of a hotel, spa and conference centre.
The old wool scourers long gone, although I muse I can still smell it when we visit to have a brunch of Sushi and designer beer.
On this hot summer’s day, the air as still as a wet blanket and the Cicadas making sure that any breeze was stolen before it even hissed its greeting, this group of kids at the foot of the quarry, the waters of the sink yelling at them to enter and swim, found out about danger for the first time.
Not that danger wasn’t understood, it was just that 12 year olds seem to believe it belongs to someone else. The man in the car accident with his head against the steering wheel and the blood down the front of his white shirt, The other kid, that swung out from the tree on the rope and broke his arm on the log in the slow moving waters of the river, Andy’s brother at the controls of the billy-cart that went under the old Hudson, it was always someone else’s domain, never their own, and never ever all their’s at the same time.
It was this belief that allowed kids to explore and learn, if danger was considered for what is truly was, no fences would be climbed, no cliffs scaled, no swimming holes discovered and no bodies found.
It was the smell that first caught the collective attention of the junior explorers. The Barwon River was home to any number of industries dedicated to the creation of smells. I know now that the smells were always the by-products of manufacturing of some sort, but back then, the dull brown brick walls seemed to be dedicated to competing with each other to produce a wall of smells destined to keep us from our goal, the shade and waters under the Shannon Avenue bridge.
The tannery, the wool scourers, the abattoir, the chrome-plating plant all in concert to make the quest to get to the water heavy with effort. Normally, at the bottom of the quarry, the air was still and sweet. The smell of the scourers left as we descended into the pit. Today, it was heavy, acrid; although acrid is not a word used, if memory serves me right, reference to a dead cat was made; smelling strong and viscous on the still hot afternoon air.
I remember that Jenny had her transistor radio with her. She was attached to it there was no doubt, everywhere she went it came. We never minded, except when it interfered with our adventurers, like today, when it had to be lowered with the rope in case it was dropped on the way down, that new English Band was singing something about holding someone’s hand.
Over by the edge of the pool, at the deepest end of the quarry we saw it. The crows were a dead giveaway, as they pecked and poked at the mound.
Andy and I were the oldest so we deputized my brother and his to keep control of the ranks and made our way towards it.
The smell got worse as we got closer.
Andy mumbled something like “bigger than a dead cat” and I nodded my agreement. We were past masters of smells and nonchalantly dipped the corners of our towels into the water and covered our mouths and noses as we approached it; the cool water seeming to drain the stench from the air, filling your mouth as it did but keeping the gagging, cloying pong at bay.
Now we could see it was a man, his suit was a dark brown, I remember his shoes were black and in the water, they shone from beneath its surface and looked like my school shoes after dad had spent half an hour with the Nugget and copious amounts of spit.
Strangely, the body was quite normal, looking like someone who was asleep or had slipped and was just about to get up, except for the fact that the back of the head was gone, with a cavity where I suppose brains would have been had they have not fed half the crow population of Newtown and that the flesh on the hands was peeling away displaying the bleached white of the bones of the fingers.
The torso was bloated and straining at the jacket of the suit, I know now that this was due to the gasses in the decomposing body; then it just look weird, like a big fat body and very small head.
It was the smell that drove us away. Amazingly, it was not anything that resembled horror. On the contrary, we were intrigued I suppose, but the bloody thing stunk to high heaven.
We ran back to the throng at the far end of the quarry stopping halfway to fall face down in the water and both drink and wash the smell of our skin.
“Gee that stinks mate” I think I said to Andy. He nodded and looked a little pale.
He nodded and ran on ahead. Perhaps it did effect him a bit, can’t really be sure about that because I am only remembering this as I write it, I haven’t seen him in close to 20 years and we definitely didn’t talk about it that afternoon at 13th beach as we waited for the swell to build on the turning tide near the Hole just down from the Golf course, our Rip Curl boards the state of the then newly founded art.
When I got there, even then I never ran if a walk would do, Andy was deep into the debriefing that always followed an exploit. Aren’t “exploits” an incredible part of being twelve?
The general consensus was that everyone should get a chance to see it and I have to admit that at the time we could see no reason for that not to be the case. So, all the gang got to see the body.
The afternoon was getting hotter and we decided to have a quick swim and get out of there. Now, two things.
First, the swim; that was just the practical nature of kids; it was hot, there was water, the swim was the quotient. The body was a diversion for sure but not a consideration of great import. After all it was up the other end of the quarry and there was no reason not to cool down before we traipsed back up the cliff.
Second, to get out of there was logical. For any twelve year old will tell you that if anything happens out of the ordinary the blame will fall quite solidly at their feet; simple; statement of fact.
So, the swim was really a cool, very little in the way of horse play or pretend drowning or the like. I wonder now whether it was in reverence to the body or just our assuredness that this was possibly the last time we would be swimming here; hard to say really; perhaps both.
Argument now was centered round what to do.
Brian was the thinker in our group. His mind had already construed a number of quite feasible scenarios for the body being there. None the least something to do with Rocket Man and a similar occurrence seen at the Pix last Saturday in the serial before the main feature, smiling here, I can remember the feature, it was “The Land That Time Forgot”; amazing.
Brian was of the mind that we would have to tell someone. Conversation moved around the group and the debate took two sides; a simple yes or no. Finally, with a resolve heavy on our shoulders, we decided that tell someone we would have to. Although we all accepted that this would be our last time here, for somehow, we would get the blame and with blame was always loss of privileges; it was axiomatic.
The afternoon was growing hotter, 3 PM is the hottest time of an Australian summer and we decided to wait a half an hour longer, sitting in the water on the farthest side away from the body and just talked the talk of kids, facing their first year at high school, still talking about cricket cards and dinky toys and yet, knowing that strange things were happening all around. Like Andy and my attention to Jenny of late, really enjoying listening to the transistor and not playing anywhere as much marbles as we used to.
What did we call marbles; that’s right Allies or Agots.
As I said earlier, this was the third day of the current spell so the change was coming and by the time we decided to leave, the rolling white clouds were turning to gray and covering the sun like some old camp blanket.
I found my old camp blanket just recently at mum’s. I had over 200 badges on it. Can you remember the quest for badges, it was all consuming. You know; until I felt it again, I had forgotten all about it.
At one stage my blanket was the talk of the Brisbane Jamboree, winning the prize for the most badges, then cast aside into the old case, with my scout uniform. Mother’s do a lot to keep the memories we all are so happy to let drop by the way.
The climb up was easy given that the heat had dropped considerably and quite soon we were riding back along the riverside road.
The hill near Fyans Street was a walker. Just too steep to ride and we pushed the bikes up, always accepting this cost for the thrill of riding down it next time. At the top we decided to split up and for Andy and me to ride over to the Police Station near the corner of Pakington and Noble Streets.
My brother went of with the rest of them and was to tell mum in some part of our find. The other’s the same to their own parents. We rode off, down towards Pakington Street. If I remember correctly we didn’t speak much.
Suffice to say, the events from then on were high-powered.
The body was that of a big-time “crim” from Melbourne. He had gone missing about five days earlier. It seems he had had the back of his head blown off with a hand gun or the like, I remember seeing the newspaper reports of the incident many years later in the Morgue of the Geelong Advertiser.
This bloke was the king-pin of prostitution, SP book making and Sly Grog. The coroner listed his death as murder and to the best of my knowledge to this day it is an open case.
As to our fears of the place being closed down; it seems we were mistaken. Admittedly the next few days or so were busy but after a while the place settled down again and I think we spent another two summers there before we drifted away the way teenagers tend to drift away.
To this day, it is called the “body place”; even when we visit the complex I will say “let’s go to the body place” which has tended to cause a number of reactions. In adults it is treated with a quiet distancing, but, in the kids, well, I have had to tell the story on more than a few occasions.
Thinking, recently, my twelve year old grandson came home with his best friend after a swim at the local pool. Cricket bats in tow, the Cicada’s shouting about how hot it was; wet towels around their necks with their bathers looped through the legs, bikes left strewn on the front lawn in the abandon that only twelve-year olds can have. As he poured the cold cordial into the plastic drink flasks adorned with the golden arches, he turned to me and said,
“Grandad, tell us about the body?” And they sat at the kitchen table, chins in their hands and a look in their eyes that was so reminiscent; the magic returned; again.
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