Cockatoo Island c. 1990s, in its tourist period. Some of the 1940s infrastructure still remained, though the scars from mining in the 50s and on can be seen. 1: Our old house, once the last one in the row, it has a darker roof. 2: The little swimming beach. We took it in turns to keep cockatoo for sharks and crocs from the top of the little cliff. The butcher, baker, post office, school and a jury rigged cinema screen were on the flat out of sight behind the beach, 3: Nob Hill where the BHP bosses stayed on the rare occasions they flew in by, I think, Sunderland flying boat. 4: This is where the butcher kept the pigs. The goats ran wild and we occasionally had beef obtained from a station on the mainland and brought over by MV Yampi Lass. 5: Paradise Point, where Two-Ton Tony dumped the guts on killing days. The Buccaneer Archipelago was once a vast, coral encrusted Garden of Wonders.
Weird, isn’t it? You think that you’ve outgrown things that got at you in your childhood, or at least learned to cope with the major hurts, when something happens to trigger a memory and it all comes flooding back. It happened to me recently and I just couldn’t cope with it so I regressed many decades and responded in exactly the same way as I would have done – did – back then.
Many, many years ago I attended a vey small two-roomed school on an island in the Kimberley, a school with a student body of about eight at its peak (and more of that island in another post). The teacher, a Mr Miekeljohn – I hope I’ve remembered the spelling – was young, enthusiastic, and in hindsight full of the latest theories about education. Once a week his equally young wife would don a red, polka-dotted dirndl skirt and a white blouse and skip lightly down to the school to lead us kids in folk-dancing in the otherwise unused second room.
Now Mr M. may have been in the vanguard of modern educators and his wife’s penchant for folk-dancing suggests an empathy with the proletariat, but he must have been very lacking in life experience and knew next to bugger all about the kids that existed outside the text books he’d read at Teacher’s College. He didn’t know that kids had parents and other family that affected their lives and attitudes and that they were all different and all the same, adhering to an unwritten code of conduct that was inviolable and unknown to adults, especially those with no life experience.
With every good intention I’m sure, he arranged a tour of the tiny island by which we would “learn to observe nature”. That was a bad start, we were already familiar with nature. Every rock in the cleared area around the small cluster of houses was fought over by goannas and pythons wanting to use them for reflective sun beds and we knew just how far we could push them before they’d retaliate. Boys’ heaven was to ride with Two-Ton Tony in the open rubbish truck to dump the pig and goat guts from the fortnightly butchering over the cliff into the sea at Paradise Point. Watching the wedge-tails, sea-eagles and hawks scoop smaller tidbits from the air and the sharks and other fish in a feeding frenzy below was a sight to behold. And didn’t we take it in turns to stand cockatoo for sharks and crocs during the daily swim?
Never mind all that, next day he was going to teach us about nature. We must wear sandshoes, we were told, so that we wouldn’t damage our feet, while The Department in the form of Mr Miekeljohn would provide paper, coloured pencils and expertise. The boys sniggered at this. We spent all day every day barefoot, running over rocks and coral shards and our feet were like bullock hide. Even walking on the coral flats at low tide we went barefoot, though keeping a trepidatious eye out for stonefish. But the word was out, sandshoes were compulsory, without them you couldn’t go. So next day we all turned up at the usual time of 6.30 am, all but one pupil shod with the requisite foot torture.
“Where are your sandshoes, Frank?”
Louder: “Where are your sandshoes? Answer me, you stubborn boy.”
Silence. Then, no doubt exasperated, he grabbed my arms and shook me back and forth, yelling: “If you don’t have sandshoes you are staying behind. Now, where are your sandshoes?”
“I don’t want to go.”
That was it, he pushed me against the wall, said “Stay here, then, you ignorant boy,” and walked out with the rest of the by now embarrassed kids, leaving me to sit all day in the schoolhouse being lectured about obedience by his wife.
I wasn’t going to admit I didn’t have any shoes at all, let alone sandshoes. The family budget was pretty tight and if I’d asked my Old Man could I have a pair he would have told me that he didn’t need sandshoes when he was kid, so why should I. No matter, I didn’t have sandshoes, but I wasn’t going to tell him any of the whys.
As I said, that teacher didn’t know much about life, or kids. We were never on good terms after that and the other kids stood off from him too. The code wouldn’t allow them to tell him I didn’t own any shoes, but they weren’t going to cut him any slack for not knowing that. He also didn’t realise that back then kids in the families of the working poor, the boys anyway, didn’t wear shoes at any time, ever. Oh I had a pair of sandals, but that was later when we lived on the mainland. But they were only for special occasions, school not being one of them, and because I went barefoot all the time they hurt like hell. It was barefoot to school and to everywhere else. We played footie barefoot and games such as stone-age hockey and kingie were played without shoes. That’s the way it was.
Fast forward to 2013
I still do advisory work, copy editing and so on, for a pretty well-known magazine and in all the years I’ve worked for them, through several owners, it’s been from home; at first in contact by mail and public telephone then mail and private phone and later by email. In all those years, I suppose I’ve been into the office perhaps ten times, certainly no more, and three of those occasions have been for the annual presentation nights at which people are recognised for their accomplishments in various fields of endeavour.
Years ago I opened one with a short performance, but others I’ve attended as a way to catch up with the writers and staff I deal with on a daily basis and to put a face to a name that some readers follow. All in all they were usually pretty casual and friendly affairs. I’m invited every year, but often I’ve been too far away to make it practical or other things have got in the way, but I really had no excuse this year, so I told the person responsible to go ahead and book my flight. I was really looking forward to going, I really was, until I received the formal invitation, noted the flash venue and so made the fatal mistake of asking what people would be wearing. The person I asked casually remarked, “Oh mostly slacks and a dinner jacket I think.” That was it, it all came crashing down. I took a deep breath and then emailed to say I couldn’t make it and to not make the bookings. When I explained to one of the staff that I really didn’t have anything suitable to wear, and despite her protestations that whatever I wore would be fine, I just couldn’t budge. My mind sat back on its hindquarters, reefed back on the lead rope and that was it. Off went my nose to spite my face.
As I said, I just can’t do it. Not yet. Give me a month or a year or so, and I’ll work my way through it, but not this quickly. I didn’t know it still hurt so much.