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A Promised Land?
By Alan Collins
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2001 Alan Collins
All rights reserved.
During the Depression years we lived in what was formerly a very posh seaside guest house called The Balconies. It was sited on the highest point of land overlooking the grand sweep of Bondi Beach so that any guest entitled to special treatment would be given the first floor corner suite which had a veranda on two sides. From this vantage point one could take in the entire panorama from the Bondi sewerage vent pipe above the north headland, to the sprawling graves of the cemetery that swept down to the very cliff-edge of Bronte. Two massive gold-leafed glass doors with 'B' on each guarded the entrance. You couldn't see much through the doors because of the intricate sandblasted waves and seagulls, but a little piece of the plush red hall carpet protruded beyond the doors giving a foretaste of the luxury that lay beyond. The first floor verandas covered the wide footpaths and were held up by elegant fluted iron stanchions, two of which still had iron rings bolted to them to tether horses.
When our family came to The Balconies in 1935, I was ten years old and knew nothing of its past sophistication. We arrived towards the end of summer — Father, stepmother Carmel, my brother Solly and me. The Chevrolet had snorted steam all the way on the short trip from Bellevue Hill, quite rightly objecting to its reduced status. Portmanteaux were roped to its luggage carrier and to the footboards; the bonnet sides were tied back to cool the motor, giving the whole ensemble a most idiotic appearance. Even after father had turned off the ignition, the engine continued to sputter on independently, like an aged person to whom no one listens.
My brother and I sat in the back, only our heads showing above the miscellany of clothing and household effects. Father's irritable call to get out and help was, under the circumstances unheeded until Carmel removed the overburden of rugs and carpets. Only then were her 'two little mannikins' able to scramble out smelling strongly of newly stirred dust. Father, fully laden, backed himself through the glass doors, beckoning us to follow him into that dim interior, the colour of an Angelina plum. Carmel, her make-up sweat-ruined and with a temper to match, carried only her hatbox and a majolica vase through the doorway, letting it swing back on Solly, who took the full force of it on his nose. He dripped blood onto his shirt, then buried his face in the rolled-up curtains under his arm. I followed him closely, not wishing to meet the same fate. Once inside, I felt a chill of apprehension, a presentiment that this new era in my life was not going to be an enjoyable one.
My gloomy thoughts were halted by Father belligerently ringing a brass handbell and calling up the staircase, "Mrs Stone, ah there Mrs Stone, it's me, Mr Kaiser." The clapper of the bell had barely come to rest when two patent-leather shod feet appeared descending the stairs. From my lowly line of sight I watched as the rest of Mrs Stone appeared, as though a shutter was being raised — first the shoes, then a purple crushed velvet dress, a long glass necklace that swung to and fro on outsize pendulous breasts, two chins, two jowls, long thin nose with pince-nez, and a mass of tightly rolled hair that sat on her head like a horse's collar. She bared her teeth in a rictus smile and swept past Father to the brass jardirnere which one of us had dislodged from its base. Only after it had been adjusted to her satisfaction did she acknowledge him.
In a voice that seemed to be forced out of her by bellows she announced, "No need to ring, Mr Kaiser, the dead at Bronte could have heard you." She restoked her lungs. "Your rooms are ready, what about the rent now, two pounds in advance, get your own firewood for the copper and five shillings if you want to put your car round the back."
Carmel started to say, "Did you get the lavatory fixed ..." but Mrs Stone, her lungs emptied, had already stormed upstairs. We were left amid an island of domestic detritus in a red-carpeted sea.
"The cholera on you," my father swore softly in Yiddish, then over his shoulder, "This way Carmel, down the passage — Carmel, come away from the mirror for a minute — watch the boys, don't knock anything over." He grabbed the two largest trunks and was swallowed up in the gloom of the dank, dark hallway. Carmel called after him, "Felix, if you're going to swear, do it in English; that Yiddish, it embarrasses me so."
He stopped in front of a panelled ochre-coloured door, dropped his load and inserted a huge key in the lock. It made a sound like a meat grinder on bones but functioned sufficiently for Father to kick the door open and lead the way into our new home. Bringing up the rear, I noticed the painted number '4' on the door and decided then and there I didn't like it at all. Nothing I saw as I entered caused me to weaken in this resolve. Smell — cold, despite the dying days of summer; shadows — bizarre colours as a thin ray of sunlight was bisected by the leadlighted fanlight above the only window, shrouded in full-length drapes. The beam caught the suspended dust particles before it hit a wall mirror and dissipated its feeble strength. Father killed the beam by pulling on the light cord and a tulip-shaped candelabra high above us turned the dark into a pale yellow.
"The old devil's taken out the settee," Father yelled. "I know it was there when I came last week. Well, can you beat that?" He pointed to the wall and even in that weak light, I could see the light patch on the wallpaper. Carmel said, "I begged you not to sell ours." Father rounded angrily on her, reminding her that her settee, together with every other stick of furniture, had gone to settle tradesmen's debts.
I was more interested in the totality of the so-called flat. The floor plan resembled those card-houses we built where we constructed numerous cubicle-like boxes that had common walls on top of which we would endeavour to lay more cards to roof them over. But these cubicles had no roofs of their own — only the high plastered ceiling of the huge room we had entered. Little rooms with thin plywood doors seemed to open off in all directions. The partitioned walls reached up about seven feet, leaving a good eight feet above. We were, in fact, as Father explained later, living in the main dining-room of The Balconies. The serving pantry had become our kitchen by closing it off from the main kitchen and installing a stove which had no vent, so that cooking fumes pervaded every corner of the flat. No matter what Carmel cooked, the smell would always be of something else, long gone.
By the evening, we had sorted ourselves out. Father and Carmel had the largest cubicle, Solly and I shared the smaller one, and the remaining box Father grandiloquently called his office. From a mansion in Birriga Road, Bellevue Hill to the dining room of The Balconies was a much greater distance than the hills that physically separated them.
Whoever called this period between wars a Depression was more than just economically correct. Our depression started within days of moving into The Balconies. Father's job as a commercial traveler in hotel supplies had ended months before, leaving him with a sample case of useless goods and a car that had left its vitality on the dusty roads of western New South Wales. It stood outside The Balconies for months with a sale sign on it until one day a farmer bought it, "to put in me hay shed and hitch the chaff cutter to it" he said.
Uncle Siddy came round shortly after that. Flash Siddy — unscathed by the Depression except that the scale of his vaguely illicit, varied operations was scaled down, but never sufficient to actually force him to offer himself for Susso, the government relief. How could he, whilst wearing a gold ring with a star-cut diamond sitting high in a claw that wore away the stitching in his trouser pocket?
"Felix, me son" — he wagged his finger at Father, "here's what we are going to do, you and me. We're going on the road. Now sit down," he said as Father rose in anticipation of another of Siddy's law-bending schemes, "this is dead straight and might just get you all out of this dump."
What he proposed was this. All round Sydney and in the country towns, people were desperate for cash. If they only knew it, they had a fortunate lying around in drawers. Old jewellery, gold in rings, pocket watches, lockets, mounted sovereigns, even picture-frames and spectacle rims. The two of them would go door to door and buy for cash, break it down and sell it to the government assayer. And so they did. When they worked the suburbs they came back to our flat in the evening and emptied out the chamois bags on the kitchen table. Solly and I stood wide-eyed at their elbows as the two of them took the dropper from a tiny bottle of nitric acid, touched the gold and watched to see what colour stain it left. If it was a dull green, the gold content was over eighteen carat. Next, they took all that little mound of treasure and with a pair of pliers smashed up lockets to remove glass photograph covers; the floor would be strewn carelessly with pictures of soldiers, grandparents and wisps of curly hair. After the rings and necklaces would come the watch-cases. Heavy gold hunters with Waltham and Rolex movements were attacked ferociously, the intricate mechanisms thrown aside as if they were gutting rabbits. These were our part of the spoils. The beautiful balance and escapment wheels beat on like a heart outside a body.
Carmel was torn between desire and contempt for their enterprise. She would run her fingers through the sad remains of the lives of the poor, reading aloud the inscriptions on watch-cases until Father snatched them away from her. Cameos in gold frames rested briefly on her neck only to join the twisted pile of gold before she could mouth a plea to save them for herself.
Once she said, "The Jews never seem to sell their family jewels, do they Felix?" Father dropped his magnifying glass in fright, but Uncle Siddy said, "They're not drinking away their savings either Carmel, so shut up." She swung round on him then and in a controlled fury spat out, "And I suppose they don't bet SP with you Sid ... much too clever by half, aren't they, eh?"
Standing quite close to him, I heard him swear in Yiddish, but the only word he allowed her to hear was the derogatory expression for a Gentile woman — shikser. It's funny, I thought, out of all the lovely, gentle, warm and comforting Yiddish words used to my brother and me, it was the hate words that remained longest in the memory.
For something over a year, Father and Uncle Sid worked the industrial suburbs of Sydney, but by then many others were also mining the same lode. Some were despicable cheats, telling the women at the door whose husbands were away on the track in the country that what they had treasured as gold was, in fact, only rolled gold or even brass. In that year, we lived a little better than most.
Carmel's attitude to Solly and me changed in that time, too. We could do nothing right in her eyes. First she would nag us incessantly about our appearance, table manners and laziness, perhaps with some justification. In moments of frustration, she mumbled about "caring for somebody else's bastards". Then we became pawns in a ferocious ongoing feud about money. Carmel started to buy furniture on time payment from a door-to-door salesman. The flat rapidly filled up with shiny veneered pieces until there was scarcely room to navigate a path. Father said very little except occasionally to criticise the quality and compare it with what we had in the Bellevue Hill home. Only when the food on the highly polished table became scarcer and almost uneatable did he stand up to Carmel. They blazed away at each other, he calling her a Paddington tart, she retorting that she was too young to be tied for the rest of her life to an old Yid.
At this time, I was, in a small way, an independent businessman myself. Uncle Siddy employed me to collect the SP bets. On Saturdays I sat bored through the Sabbath morning service at the synagogue, but straight after changed my clothes and went on my rounds. With a billycan I covered the surrounding Bondi streets collecting bets. A shilling here, two shillings there, the name of the horse and the punter wrapped around the coins. Then back to Uncle Siddy at the rear of the barber's shop where he wrote them down in an exercise book. The race would then crackle over the wireless, and Siddy wrapped up the pitifully few payouts and I went back on the round, kidding myself that the police knew nothing of this.
Uncle Siddy had tired of the gold-buying, and without his drive and impudence Father showed little enthusiasm for fronting the shriveled women, old before their time, who came to the door offering dead husbands' spectacles in return for a few more weeks of living. But Carmel held different views. "You don't need Sid, he's a shyster Felix. Why don't you go to the country? You know the towns well." Oh yes, he knew them well enough; had travelled them for twenty years, was known as a good spender to all the publicans west of the Blue Mountains, drank with the police sergeants and was guest at most of the service clubs. And now? Go back as a hawker — no better than some of those Jewish newcomers to Australia with their battered suitcases containing dress lengths and thin towels? Carmel wanted Father out of town, out of sight and out of her bed as the squabbles through the plywood walls clearly showed.
And the door-to-door salesman increased his calls to three times weekly.
He gave Solly and me threepence every time he called. A stocky, cocky, tight-suited, patent leather-shoed mongrel with straight black hair parted dead-centre, whose calling card was his payments book left on the hallstand. We took his threepence and went upstairs to our diversion. Mrs Stone in the bath. Mrs Stone seen naked in the full length cheval mirror that reflected back in the hall mirror. Mrs Stone, who never locked her door for fear of being found dead days later. The door to her suite stood open a few inches and we flattened ourselves against the wall and watched enthralled as three afternoons a week at around four o'clock she filled the bathtub in her living-room with buckets of hot water from the copper in the backyard. Then undressed in time to a Galli Curci record on the gramophone. The ritual had to be completed before the record ended and the machine needed rewinding. Would she make it? Her gigantic whale-like body was finally unsheathed as the last trills sounded, then she lowered herself into the tub like a suet pudding, the water coming within inches of the tub top. We clutched our groins half in fear and half in an effort to subdue the strange tingling in the crotch.
Father came home from the country early one day. His clothes were torn and he had a bandage around one hand. Angry, dispirited and smelling strangely of liquor, he brushed aside our breathless questions meant in some way to stall him and ward off the inevitable. He pushed past us and slouched into the flat straight into the bedroom. Within seconds he reappeared, his ruddy face as colourless and formless as Mrs Stone's flaccid belly.
"The bitch, the whore, oh the slut ..." Saliva trickled from the corner of his mouth. He turned to me as I tried to escape. "Look, look my son, look at me hand — they put the dogs onto me in Mudgee, and I was only trying to make a living for us all — and she's doing that while me back's turned. Oh Alice, Alice, why did you have to die?" He collapsed like a winded colt and sobbed deep retching sobs into his dirty coat.
I backed away from this different father to the one I loved. At the door I hesitated a moment then fled down the passage. As I got to the hallstand I saw the salesman's payments book. I grabbed it and ran into the street. This evidence of my father's misery I stuffed down the stormwater drain. The salesman came out seconds later, saw me and growled, "Seen me order book young shaver?" I shook my head. "If y' find it Ikey, I'll give ya a zac if y' bring it to me office." And he sauntered off as though he hadn't a care in the world.
The weeks that followed were unbearably tense. Father stayed in the flat, unshaven and wearing his dressing-gown almost continuously. Until now, he had never hit my brother or me, but with every new outburst of fighting between him and Carmel, the predictable result was a vicious swipe at one or both of us. Sometimes he took his leather razor-strop and flailed us about the legs. We took to staying out on the streets until exhaustion forced us to go home and try to get to bed unseen. We ate on the pay from Uncle Siddy's SP round. Carmel, on the other hand, became our protector, taunting Father with sneers of: "That's right, Felix, take it out on the kids why doncha?" As long as the rent was paid, Mrs Stone ignored the brawling of her tenants. After all, ours was not the only family to show the tenseness of the times by scrapping. The police had come to The Balconies before in response to a wife rushing into the street screaming she was being murdered.
Excerpted from A Promised Land? by Alan Collins. Copyright © 2001 Alan Collins. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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