Angels in Disguise.
The Christ-child’s coloured messengers,
Same as you or I.
Colour doesn’t matter
In the Saviour’s Home.
It’s what you say and do and think that counts,
When you reap what you have sown…’
IT WAS DARK under the school shelter as the rain came steadily down. All I could see were some other kids’ faces staring up at me.
The Headmistress, Miss Buckley, was holding on to my mug of Bonox. She had said, ‘Well, can anybody sing a song for us or recite a poem?’ as we all sat together on the concrete throughout that rainy Big Lunch. No-one had answered. So I put up my hand. ‘I know something,’ I said.
AUNTIE MAY HAD found the verse in a little frame in some shop in town and had given it to my mother. ‘Why the hell would we want this?’ my father had said. He wasn’t too keen on the Christ-child.
My mother had propped it up on the kitchen bench and I kept looking at it. Around the words was drawn a picture of little black men with wild thatches of hair, carrying a stretcher with a large white soldier on it. They were walking through a jungle of vines and butterflies, and big, dark green leaves.
IT SEEMED THAT everywhere white people in Australia were, you eventually came across some black people too. In the stories, at least. ‘It’s not Australia, though,’ Dad had explained: ‘It happened up in New Guinea. During the war. They helped the Australians fight off the Japanese. They’re called Fuzzy-Wuzzies because of their hair.’
The poem kept going around in my head. Especially the part about the ‘Angels in Disguise‘. I liked that: Angels who had taken their white robes off and then dressed themselves up in black-face disguise like Al Jolson to cheer everyone up. I wondered if the Australian kids knew about the Fuzzy-Wuzzies. It seemed important to tell them. It might be just the thing for a dull, rainy afternoon.
When I finished reciting there wasn’t a sound. ‘That’s the end,’ I said, hoping to start up a bit of clapping.
‘Well Raymond,’ Miss Buckley said, helping me down from her chair and handing back my Bonox: ‘Where did you learn all that?’ She turned to the others: ‘Fancy a Welsh boy who hasn’t been here very long knowing all about our Fuzzy-Wuzzies!’
I sat back down, feeling pretty proud of myself. Graham Weller, my best friend, had a funny little smile on his face. He leaned over and whispered unexpectedly in my ear: ‘Skite!’
On the way home that day he let me have it.
‘My Dad was in New Guinea,’ he shouted. ‘Yours was just a train-driver somewhere over in Wales. He wasn’t even in the War. My Dad knew Fuzzy-Wuzzies. So why are you getting up there like you think you suddenly know everything?’
‘Well, why didn’t you jump in first and talk about them then?’ I replied. It seemed worth asking.
He turned and pushed me hard in the chest. ‘I’M GOING!’ he yelled, and marched off.
I walked on alone. It was a free country. I could get up and talk about whatever I liked.
Graham Weller had become my best way of finding out about Australia. He was not much for schoolwork but he knew all about the bush. People around Bardon where we lived said he must have been born with eucalyptus oil mixed in with his blood. He seemed almost as much at home in the scrub as the gum trees.
WE LIVED IN a borderland zone where the city’s edge met the countryside. A few straggling dirt roads – hardly wider than car tracks with no curbing or guttering, and just strips of long grass for footpaths – ran up into the trees and stopped there exhausted. We lived right where Brisbane ran out of steam, and was taken over by bush tracks across the mountains of the William Taylor Range. The younger end of Ithaca Creek, with its thick mazes of lantana and wait-a-while vines on either bank, meandered past through the hollow, close to negligible in the dry season and a roaring torrent in the wet. Though the name was on no map, we called it Bardon Creek. Up this way, it had nothing to do with Ithaca.
In the bush-covered hills behind Bardon, Graham was both my guide and interpreter. His slim, brown body moved sure-footedly through the ragged, scattered trees. Here he was alert, vital and inventive, energised by nature. It was a puzzle really. He looked and acted nothing like his rangy, big-boned brothers and sisters. His features were sharp and delicate. His hair was even a different colour.
After school each day and across the long weekends, we – that is, my cousin Harvey and I – pursued Graham’s latest project with him: Building canoes out of the corrugated sides of old water tanks or carving elaborate networks of track through the tangled lantana, using rusty cane knives and an old tractor tyre we rescued from the nearby dump. The tyre was immense – taller than we were. We rolled it victoriously down Simpson’s Road, but it got away from us on the incline near the school, picking up speed alarmingly and crashing through the council fence abutting the bridge at the bottom before plunging into the creek below.
We had to clamber down underneath the bridge to salvage it. Pointing to the sturdy wooden beams and pylons above us, black with protective tar, Graham said, ‘You know, the Yanks built all this when they were here back in the War. They used to drive their trucks and jeeps through here up to a big ammunition dump in the mountains. Mum told me all about it.’ Then he added, ‘We should have a go at building a bridge over the creek further down, just like the Yanks did.’
Eventually, we did build our bridge at a ford in the creek right across from my place on Bardon Esplanade. Graham directed operations throughout, as though he was born to it and had suddenly discovered innate engineering skills. And the final product was no ramshackle affair: Adults used it regularly on the shortcut from the tram depot to Barnett Road and Upper Outlook Crescent. It turned out to be a sturdy structure with nicely finished handrails, lasting the rest of the year until the big January flood washed it away. It was hard to believe we had actually made it ourselves. Just like those Yanks up the road not long before we were born.
ONE AUGUST MORNING in 1955 or so, when the westerly winds were blowing, we sat on the backyard lawn at Graham’s grandfather’s house in Barnett Road, building an enormous kite, about as tall as ourselves and twice as broad. This lawn had now become a kind of private workshop and safe haven for many of our enterprises. There was no-one there like Graham’s father to get cranky and chase us all off. We always felt good when we were there. Graham’s grandad lived with a lady we all called Auntie Lucy, who was always very kind to us. It was once more a bit confusing why Graham called his grandfather’s wife ‘Auntie’ instead of ‘Grannie’ or ‘Nan’. Though she had no children of her own, she made the perfect grandmother. I couldn’t work out the relationships in that family at all. Since the time of the bridge, Graham seemed to be living with them more than he did with his own parents.
When we had finished making the great kite, we carried it almost to the top of Outlook Crescent – to get a better flight trajectory, Graham said. Its awkward shape banged about against our heads and legs in the blustery wind as we climbed the high hill, as if impatient to break loose and be off. It was no trouble to launch. The wind took it like a gift and soon the immense ball of string we had attached to it was exhausted as the kite dipped and plunged about in exhilaration in the clear blue sky.
It took all of our combined strength to hold it back, our feet sliding and stumbling in the steep, rutted roadway as the wind blew us around. You could say, as such activities frequently did whenever Graham was involved, that this was turning into an event. Adults from the nearby houses came out with more balls of string that they connected to our own as the kite soared higher and higher, turning gradually into a speck and then simply disappearing from view. We were left with the illusion of a taut, vertical cord, jerking violently about in our hands and extending skyward into nothingness, as if pulled there by God’s fingers. We wrestled with it for another hour or so before a growing crowd of onlookers – all of them with necks craned skyward, putting in their two-bob’s worth. Then Graham cut the string with his penknife; and our massive kite, like a released marlin, escaped into the infinite blueness. God knows where it finally landed.
As we walked empty-handed back down Outlook Crescent, Graham said that Auntie Lucy was leaving again for Biggenden soon. Biggenden was one of Graham’s favourite subjects. It was way up in the country. Auntie Lucy had been born there. I asked him what Biggenden was like, even though Harvey and I had heard it all before. Graham answered without hesitation that it was the best place in the world. I didn’t argue even though I knew from my parents that Blackpool-by-night was really the best place. In Biggenden, there were no Illuminations after dark and certainly no Bertram Mills Circus performing nightly in the Blackpool Tower. But Australians didn’t know anything about Blackpool, so I let it pass.
‘Yes, but what’s it like?’ I insisted.
‘Well,’ Graham replied, ‘you know Butterfly Valley? It’s a bit like that, only ten times better.’
Butterfly Valley was a place we had named in the mountains where, at a certain time each year, magnificent black and white butterflies would hatch, rising up in agitated clouds as we walked among them. If we stood perfectly still, they would alight like a blessing upon our arms and shoulders and heads. It was like a sacred place to us.
‘Yes, well it’s kind of like that,’ he went on, ‘but it’s also got orchids. The best orchids in the world. You can pick them right off the trees.’ Orchids she had brought down from Biggenden and Springbrook were growing everywhere in Auntie Lucy’s garden. That was probably why Graham liked living there now. That’s also how he knew how good Biggenden was, even though he wasn’t allowed to go himself. But Auntie Lucy had promised that one day soon she would take him up there with her.
NOT LONG AFTER the kite episode, on another bracing Spring day, bright and shining in its promise, we had climbed a nearby mountain with a larger group of boys and a couple of dogs and come out into a small clearing near the summit. We fought our way into a rushing vortex of sound. Tens of thousands of cicadas were breaking the backs of their old skins and roaring up into the sun. We ran among them, our arms outstretched as their resolute little bodies bashed against us like soft rubber bullets. Our yells were swallowed in their deafening cicada din. We fell to our knees, enveloped in this bedlam, tears of laughter streaming down our faces.
Staggering to our feet, we’d quickly fall again like wounded soldiers as they thudded against us on their damp, untried wings. We contorted like actors in a film, our bodies reverberating within the profound, communal roar, the dogs spinning and snapping in delight.
And then they were gone, a whirring diaspora disappearing rapidly northward, leaving us to gather up the brittle carapaces they had abandoned – each a perfect replica of its departed tenant, attached by tiny feet to the ironbark and eucalyptus trunks. Sunlight pours down on us through the dusty branches. We lay exhausted on the warm earth, soaking it in.
‘Them locusts are just like the Japs, ay?’ said one of the kids, ‘ambushing an Australian patrol… Hey, did any of youse know sometimes when they would capture an Australian soldier they’d tie him to a post with nothing on? Then they’d force some sheila, an Australian nurse or something, to parade past him in the nuddy. And when he got a stiffy they’d all take pot-shots at it.’
‘Bull!’ said Graham.
‘No. Fair Dinkum,’ said the boy. ‘My brother read it in a book. The Japs were always doin’ stuff like that.’
‘I think my father might have been tortured by the Japs,’ Graham suddenly offered. This took me by surprise, but also made sense. His father was not a normal sort of bloke. We were all pretty wary of him.
‘Why do you think that?’ I prompted him.
‘Well, he goes nuts so easily. And he always takes it out on me – never on any of the other kids. No matter what I do he just hates me – hates my guts. That’s why I’m not sleeping up there any more. Not after he got drunk one night and dragged me out of bed. He was yelling and swearing and started throwing me across the room. An’ he even hates all of the Yanks. He kept yelling “Bloody Fucking Yanks” as he was trying to get me. He even said “Fuck”. You could smell the grog on him. I had to climb out the window and run down to Auntie Lucy’s in my pyjamas. I’m supposed to keep right away from him now. That’s why I think the Japs could’ve tortured him up in New Guinea. There’s something wrong with him.’
It was a lot to take in all of a sudden and no-one said anything. No-one knew what to say. In my head I could see Graham running through the dark in his pyjamas. He was a pretty fast runner. Eventually someone changed the subject.
That night, after I went to bed, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be fast asleep and have some huge drunken maniac suddenly pull you out of bed and start bashing into you. And then that maniac turns out to be your Dad. I thought about how terrible the War must have been up in New Guinea to make him go like that. And then I thought about the big green leaves and the butterflies and the little Fuzzy-Wuzzies. Perhaps there were orchids up there too. I wondered if I’d ever meet a Fuzzy-Wuzzy like Graham’s father had and whether, perhaps, they might have saved him from being tortured to death by the Japs. Otherwise, why would the Japs be torturing him and then just let him go? Then I thought of how good it was to be here in Bardon, and how amazing it was that it had been part of the War too for a while, with the Yanks building the bridge up the road and driving through into the mountains and all. And how my own Dad hadn’t had to fight because he was a Welsh train driver, so he hadn’t ended up going mad. And how lucky I was to be living here now, now that the War was over and the Japs no longer on the march, safe in my own warm bed.
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