Holden's Performance by award-winning author Murray Bail is the story of Holden Shadbolt, a guileless and matter-of-fact innocent as he passes through the cities and landscape of Australia. His reassuring silent presence and photographic memory make him useful to men of power and women who appear to need his protection. He is surrounded by larger than life figures whose exploits and adventures Holden followsex-Corporal Frank 'Bloodnut' McBee, the scrap dealer who woos his mother; his uncle Vern, a shortsighted proofreader who likes facts and eating newspaper with is breakfast cereal; and the crippled artist Harriet, whose twists and curves appeal to Holden as he holds to his own unswervingly straight lines.
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About the Author
Murray Bail's fiction, which includes Eucalyptus, Homesickness, The Drover's Wife and other Stories and Camouflage, has received many major awards, among them the Miles Franklin Award in Australia and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He is also the author of the non-fiction works, Ian Fairweather and Longhand: A Writer's Notebook. He lives in Sydney.
Read an Excerpt
HOLDEN'S PERFORMANCE (Chapter One)
A lesson in geometrythe invasion of khakigetting away with murdera diet of grey matterthe view from the Hillsfound objectsthe usherette and the projectionistthe body development of HoldenMcBee comes down to earththe facts of life.
When the last of the city's trams were removed with their poles and bells and the industrial paraphernalia of lines imposed on the mind's eye, it was as though a great net had been lifted clear of the city, letting in light. The trams had been inflicting all kinds of untold damage, running amok at will. Anyone living there beyond a certain length of time was in danger of becoming marked, ruled by inner grooves.
Day after day, for years on end, the heavy oblong shapes had been lumbering backwards and forwards across the field of vision and conversations, or there'd be one travelling away in an absolute straight line, its pole waving, demonstrating the laws of perspective, which is how they entered the souls of generations.
It was a small city and flat. There could be no escaping the trams.
On summer nights it seemed as if the sky had been lowered to a false ceiling joined to the earth by a monopoly of constantly moving poles, emitting at set intervals their own brand of pale blue lightning.
All this had been going on for as long as anyone could remember, and no one thought much about it.
The city was laid out along the lines of a timetable. There were no hairpins or dog-legs, no French curves or crescents; diagonals were few and far between. Mondrian would have been pleased. It was a city based on the original grid pattern laid down by the first surveyor, a tall colonel who'd come out all the way from England and knew where to place his knife and fork. Under the circumstances he was incongruously named LightColonel William Light. When the burghers muttered and sniffed in their balloons about the subversive elements or society's fabric, and other hot air, they should have looked at the directions of the streets and the presence of the trams. Instead, out of gratitude they had Light cast in bronze, and there he stands on a piece of high ground, a dunghill, the favourite of pigeons, one arm and forefinger pointing down to his regimented folly, Adelaide.
Other cities have a tralatitious effect on the people inhabiting them. Paris, constructed around glass and the melange of pavement cafe tables, where pedestrians allow themselves to be analysed from every angle, led naturally to the invention of Cubism, to the pre-eminence of Paris in the fields of haughty couture, love, vanity and selfishness. And northern Italian cities and towns: their medieval congestion breaking into sunlit piazzas channels those sudden outbursts of histrionic rhetoric, and the myth of the Italian tenor. There are other examples...
And in Adelaide, encouraged by the puritanical streets, the brown trams always went forward in straight lines, scattering traffic and pedestrians like minor objections or side-issues, and somehow this suggested the overwhelming logic of plain thinking. There always seemed to be a tram opening up a clear path to the distant goal of Truth. And so the people developed a certain ponderousness, a kind of nasal pendanticism; whole suburbs displayed maniacal obsessions with Methodism, with lawn manicure and precision hedge-cutting. These were a people who spoke slowly and distinctly, making frequent stops. There was a yes and a no, a right and a wrong. They liked to begin their sentences patiently with 'Look...'. The real facts and direction of things, look, lay out in front: anyone could see that. They prided themselves on plain thinking. Personal anecdotes were trundled out from memory-sheds as evidence. Subtleties, complications and deviations were seen as unnecessary obstructions. And so talent here was brief: the spurt of a night tram between stops.
With the removal of the trams in the 1950s the light was for a time blinding. A spaciousness returned to the city and the thoughts of the people; but it was too late. The martyrs had been the atheists, drunkards and determined divorcees, the motorbike gangs on the edges, women who wore red shoes (and men who wore suede shoes), the petty crims and flashers, and the rare deviants like that brylcreemed bank-teller with the tan briefcase who became famous locally for his practice of stepping off the No. 19 long before it stopped, avoiding the forest of onrushing poles, parking meters, fire hydrants and pedestrians, somehow keeping his balance, going on at a tilting half-run, as if the illuminated monster braking alongside had nothing to do with him. Such people were glanced at and thought of as 'characters'.
Holden had never met his grandfather with the pale, speckled eyes. His sole contact was through a few photos handtinted in vibrating pinks and greens, courtesy Gyppo processing. His grandfather had been one of Adelaide's early escapees. A funny name, Shadbolt. It conjures up...Etymology has this to say. It's Old English: Shad is from Shade, and bolt a local (nth. Eng.) reduction of bold or bottle, more than likely the latter. In those early days in Adelaide, days of vacant straw-coloured blocks, dry hedges and hum, Lance Shadbolt developed a thirst for, a deep hankering after, general knowledge and the bottle; was easily browned off. Instead of a silver spoon in his mouth he was born with a harelip. It's vaguely visible there in the smaller snapshot, the blur as if he's licking his nose. And yet after a certain age it didn't spoil his appearance. It gave him character.
In 1915 Lance Shadbolt signed up for the Australian Light Horse Brigade, leaving the missus and the kids bawling on the splintered wharf. Filing onto the bulging troopship and leaning over the rails were many jug-eared volunteers, ratbags who didn't give a fuck about the Empire, but were hellbent on escaping the straight and narrow of Adelaide and the wheat plains beyond; already they were horsing around, grinning and whistling, pulling faces, etc. The entire ship seemed to be in shade. Only the knitted nets draped over the steaming flanks bore any resemblance to the city they were leaving. The rest suggested chaos, chance and impending catastrophe.
The snapshots were taken a year later: Suntanned Lance-Corporal Lance Shadbolt facing the camera, head turned slightly away, a bucket in each hand. Khaki slouch hatwrinkled khaki shirt with epaulettesBombay Bloomers. Lousy photographer whoever he was: the Egyptian horizon is tilted like the side of one of the pyramids, and Shadbolt is sliced off at the ankles. He's squinting. A silent-looking man. The earth here is as bare as Simpson's Desert. In indelible (pre-biro) puce verso: '3.8.16carrying in the evening meal.'
It looks like the stuff they fed horses.
The second shot has more sand. Grandfather Shadbolt is astride a donkey on an empty beach, one arm dangling at side. His boots are almost touching the ground. A low wave is breaking behind the pair of them. Shadbolt is again unsmiling. Faint suggestion of harelip. Donkey is smiling. Written verso for the family: 'Hope you can distinguish which is which.'
Ha ha. Lance was evidently quite a card.
In his brief time away he saw the pitted Sphinx, child beggars and the death of thirty-four stock horses, papyrus and bent women scratching dry soil; camels with saddle sores, prisoners-of-war, Singer sewing machine after a direct hit by a shell; saw belly-dancing, the kasbah, grey scorpions in British tobacco tins, and a birth on the footpath. He saw very good Arab stallions. Bearded men banged their foreheads in tiled mosques. Almond eyes above veils. Orange trees. Confusing rigmarole of an unknown but strangely widespread language. Fantastic bloody sunsets; he saw with his own two eyes the longest river on earth: dhows, shadoof and a ramshackle dababeeyah. Porous walls of mud and straw. Unnatural acts unfit for print; and dilapidation, dilapidation.
He was sometimes flooded with an unaccountable nostalgia for nothing in particular, nothing at all. It seemed as if he didn't exist. Nobody in Egypt took any notice of him. At an oasis sou'west of Gamli, as he watered the horses early one evening, 1917, two shells exploded in the space of a frown: palms, shadows, legs and the silver water erupted. Covered in sand and horses' intestines Lance touched his face. He was thirty-nine. A second harelip had formed, splitting his nose. His ear and drum were also pierced. A faint pain spread out from his heart when he moved.
As small as a gold-filling: too small and close to the semi-lunar valves in those days to use the knife. Slowly Shadbolt died on a cane chaise longue at the Repat Hospital, North Adelaide. It took several years. From over the long immaculate hedge came the trundling of the trams, ironwheeled and regular, and the chirping of sparrows. His only advice to his son was shortly before he died, a whisper above a tram. 'If you ever get into this filthy business [desert warfare], put a tin of tobacco over your ticker.'
Staring at his father, Reg Shadbolt remained dry-eyed. He had no intention of smoking. He was still in shorts. Things wouldn't be easy from now on, that was sure. Already his mother had a loose stocking. She had the look of someone out of luck, singled out. In his confusion Reg felt a seepage of anger with his father and the invisible forces that had transported him away at long angles, and intersected at some distant isolated place. There and then he decided he wouldn't be signing up for any wars and leaving what he knew, namely the patterns and the rhythms of Adelaide.
Holden, born 1933, barely had time to know him; and unlike his grandfather in photographic puttees, who'd acquired over the years miniature Lawrence of Arabia status, there was not a single extant image of his father available for inspection; not one in the world. A battle had broken out over names. His mother nurtured certain airs or disappointments. 'Holden' was not nearly so well known in those days. Actually, it was so unusual Reg thought it sounded pansy. But the mother stood firm. Birth had been a blurry experience of release, yet natural enough at the same time for her to maintain her administrative position. Through his teeth Reg hissed All right ('Have it your own way'), so long as 'Lance' could appear in the middle, a protuberance. And in another atavistic leap, Holden inherited the large smooth jaws and a kind of uncommercial patience from his grandfather's favourite gelding, Hempire. (The chaps had pulled on an engraved hookah one afternoon after galloping into Port Said.) Early on the boy was often found standing alone under the trellis, blinking. Unusually large hands also implied patience, and future strength, and a forelocknot his fetlockkept falling over his eyes, which is how he developed the habit of constantly throwing his head back.
Another battle blew up over the Christian-naming of Holden's sister. Holden vaguely remembered it. His father had proposed Carmel, possibly for its erotic qualities, its vague to-do with Egypt and 'camel'. His father shouted. He was always shouting. He was under a strain. Again, Holden's mother won but after a compromise during the horizontal rush along the hospital corridor. They called her Karen. A tall, clean name.
The wonder was how the Shadbolts, both small people, could produce such gargantuan offspring. Holden's big head split his mother's body. Hydrocephalus was feared but it wasn't long before the rest of him caught up. At ten he weighed as much as his mother; at eleven he was almost as tall as his bow-legged father; and so from the very beginning he became accustomed to people looking at him and whispering. With Karen, jaws, arms, legs and teeth were long; and she had large gullible eyes.
The Second World War. Adelaide emptied of able-bodied men, a ghost town, yet Reg Shadbolt managed to hang onto his job as a conscientious conductor on the trams. Although a large percentage of his day was 'outdoors', for in the rush hour he often had to work his way along the running board, his face remained pale and strangely unlined. It was the fault of the trams. With his body and soul carried hourly over the iron lines of the city, the way a magnet is stroked, the straight and the narrow had entered his metabolism even more than other Adelaideans. He seemed tormented, worried over trifles, suffered terrible headaches. The human instinct evidently is to meander more like the pneumatic buses which were introduced in the late fifties.
Reg Shadbolt was a strict teetotaller, a card-carrying Rechabite, and for good measure, couldn't stand the willowy stench in his nostrils of cigarette smoke, every night cursing his smoke-laden trousers as he draped them on the slippery hanger in the wardrobe. To him a public smoker showed inconsideration to others. It was a filthy, unnecessary habit. Shadbolt was never known to swear, but he had the wowser's short temper.
Adelaide had been invaded by Americans who'd landed like paratroopers and wandered the city in search parties. Blue-eyed baby-boys ear-marked for the islands: they spoke loudly and constantly, cheeks bulging and shining with prosperity and tons of lung-coloured gum. Extremes were suddenly introduced to the city. No one before had encountered such minutely cropped hair on a person; such buck teeth on another; toadfish faces puffed from all that saxophone blowing; a young Virginian so tall and so poker-faced; so many yellow-headed pimples on another, who didn't seem to mind at all; and the outlandish tattoos of snakes and swords entwined around motherswho could do that to their own skin? Above all, the startling presence of completely black men, 'negroes', strangely urbanised the way they sauntered about in threes and fours; and certainly never before such wholesale irreverence, such casual confidence, in ones so young. Without warning they littered the defenceless city with new words, ephemeral slogans and card games, and a narrow range of in-vogue hand signals and quips, all as fresh as the soft cigarette packs they left behind on tables or in ashtrays and guttersHolden scored a perfect Camel pack. MPs whipped out their whacking great Colt 45s to show the gells. There was grog, silver tips galore. A small symmetrical city is defenceless under such a barrage. An aerial view would show the invaders strolling across the town plan, a random swarming, a crossing of the parallel lines, jaywalking, holding back the traffic with a healthy hand. Haw, haw: hijacking taxis and trams.
It was Shadbolt's luck to have a mob on his tram on a Saturday night, 1944: all negroes, and the negroes were jitter-bugging. They had been boozing, were red-eyed and perspiring, and Shadbolt almost choked on the fumes from their large-diameter cigarettes. And now they began playing blackjack on his tram.
'All right, that's enough. That'll do. There are other paying passengers here.'
'Shucks, man. What is this?'
Negotiation, Anglo-Saxon compromise seemed possible, essential even. They were allies, all in the same boat. Shadbolt tapped with his forefinger the shoulder of the nearest squatting on the corduroyed floor.
'Boy oh boy...'
They sighed in unison. They'd had that sort of crap before.
'We don't do that sort of thing here' Shadbolt had almost finished saying.
The shorn head had faced him, unsmiling.
Shadbolt stared. He seemed to make a tremendous effort to understand. This man had wide, unusually wide, liver-coloured nostrils, and a flat expression in his eyes. One of his friends let out a neigh-laugh. The man had inhaledwatch thisand still gazing at pale Shadbolt blew the lungful in his face.
Rocking through the night without brakes, it was the last tram heading for the Hackney terminus. The varnished seats and the overhead straps seemed to sway more, the lights flickered, as Shadbolt swung his conductor's bag as heavy as a bookmaker's against the black face. Almost simultaneously a terrific blow shattered his temple and nose; and Shadbolt couldn't help himself. He was falling into the air of the wind and night, his arms waving. Before he could properly explain or shout he embraced a circular steel pole, the darkness was split by a searing blue light, pain, ebbing pain, seeping into darkness, contained and slowly final complete blackness, the way a tram enters its depot at night, and switches off.
Duplications and intersections increase out of hand naturallyduring conflict on a grand scale. Winston Churchill's cigar and fingers prematurely signalling victory beckoned the fall of V-2 rockets on London; the recurrence of 8 in the logistics of the war resembled its appearance in the periodic table of chemical elements; and on the morning of 14 October, 1944 (wasn't that the day Field Marshal Rommel 'died'? Which also happened to be General Eisenhower's birthday?) on the morning of 14 October, Holden's voice began to break.
The boy was standing to attention under an immense Southern Hemisphere sky, a little wind stirring his hair. He tried to say hello to somebody, found he couldn't, and wondered if it might have been grief. Such was the recent accelerating growth in the boy's nose, jawbone and chin, an elastic adjustment had been forced on the rest of his skin, and seemed to lift his trousers, exposing an orphan's ankles.
A circle shuffled into shape, about eight paces across. Everybody knew where to stand.
It was the earliest ceremony for one who would become a master of ceremonies.
Holden concentrated on holding onto his mother.
From the woman next door she'd hastily accepted a crocheted shawl and hoisted it over her head. By itself it would have been all right; but in tandem with her high heels it encouraged the slightest shift in her centre of gravity, a cargo of barrels on a ship, and Holden was forced to keep planting his legs apart, the way his father did on trams. Swaying and tiltingand half-listening to the Minister's intonationHolden surveyed the circumference effaces nodding slightly and smiling, or just plain gazing at him and his mother. As a way of focusing he went over their birthmarks and individual characteristics, and counted their accessories, the wire-framed specs, tiepins (in those days), opal brooch, a dead fox, elastic suspenders and watch-chains. The men had their hats placed over their privates like tea cosies. Holden saw the broad hands of these decent people, even their bootish-looking shoes. Behind them, several ordinary objects, such as the spade angled against a headstone, assumed a glaring, matter-of-fact clarity. Everything was unusual, yet at the same time perfectly normal.
'Man that is born of woman'
Pigeons had exploded, starlings, sparrows and other small fish were yanked up and hurled into mid-distance. The leaves on the jacarandas began shivering. The preacher studiously went on reading, the surgical collarand here a prime function of his costume asserted itselfpreventing him from wavering. A squadron of eardrumming monsters barely cleared the wall and the trees, four Avro Ansons escorted by three clapped-out Wirraways, all trailing hyperactive shadows, jerking and plunging over the magpie verticals of the cemetery, pausing around the mouth of the Methodist Minister, so that instead of words in vain it looked as if he let out swarms of leisurely flapping bats. It took several minutes before the roar died into a dot and words returned. Low-altitude flights were common during the war. Designed to show the flag. Part of the psychological war. 'Where possible,' ran a mimeographed order, 'avoid flying over the sea.' But here, as always, they only demonstrated to a windy population the pitiful defences of the island-continent.
The circle broke up into slowly revolving satellites, and Holden suddenly began wrestling with his mother.
'The worms there, look! It's soil like we've got at home. But oh Lord, he was the gentlest of men. When he was young. You should have seen him. Before you were born. He turned sour with everything under the sun, myself included. I don't know why. I told him, goodness, hundreds of times. I did my best.'
'Yes,' Holden managed to croak.
The only man who had not replaced his hat was the bald old codger and now he was leaning back, laughing. A woman stepped in front of Holden, blocking his view. The local climate had draped cobwebs all over her face and throat, and she had the fox slung over her shoulder. 'I'm your Auntie Dais.' At her elbow stood a purple man grinning ear to ear.
'I remember you when you were this high. Look at him now, Jim. Unless my eyes are deceiving, he's almost past you.'
As she paused the incisions above her lip, deposited by uncertainties, radiated into the art-deco sunrise cotterpinned to the hats of all the AIF.
'Has his tongue fallen out?' she bent forward.
His uncle's chief language was a system of winking and backslapping.
'Chin up, boy!'
The ingenious geometry of the cemetery allowed everybody to stamp their feet and rub their hands with a sense of well-being. The little asphalt streets with their 'intersections', and the gravel plots raked and displaying names, and the geraniums in humble jars, resembled a tiny rectilinear city, so that even to Holden still a boy the dead underfoot felt like dwarf's. And standing there Holden felt he could look over and beyond the heads of these grown-up people and into the shadowless streets and avenues outside, an illusion increased by his inability just then to speak.
People were leading his mother towards the cars. He knew them by name and engine capacity. Little Morrises, Austin Sevens, Prefect and Hillman, models of caution, as their names implied, products of a nation of small roads; the obligatory Model A on wire spokes stood out, ungainly and yet designed to traverse a wide country, while idling at the front was the dusty hearse, a custom-built Hudson missing a back hubcap. The motorbike equipped with sidecar shaped like a boat belonged to his Uncle Jim and Dais. Outside, another single-cylinder machine coughed several times before producing a long straight line of diminishing sound. And then his sister, Karen, oblivious of him and everybody else, started bawling as a cluster of second cousins began tugging her away from the hole.
That was how the crowd dissolved.
Holden shuffled forward several paces. A lumpen clumsiness spread from his limbs, blurring his vision and all distinctions, a moral conditiona know-nothingnesswhich he would increasingly find himself struggling against.
Gazing at the mullockmining terms had penetrated the South Austrylian tongue'Get that mullock out of here!'he was about to turn when a synthetic brown curtained his right eye. More like a miner than a mourner a skinny man scrambled alongside. To keep his balance he began swaying and nodding; and craning further forward, as if he'd spotted something, he drew Holden with him.
'What do they do with the box? They leave it in the ground, I suppose. Do you think they'd leave it? With those brass handles fitted? They don't come cheap. What do you think? They've done a corker job. What sort of wood's that? Pine, it looks like a pine. They give it a good cut and polish. See the knots? How much did this funeral cost? Thirty-five, forty? Is that young Karen with your mother there? She's growing fast. Tall timber. You must be Holden. Where'd they get that name? I'll shake your hand. Is that six foot deep? Not on your life! I'm five-five and a half. How old is your sister? No, that's not six foot. I'm on your mother's side, your Uncle Vern. Call me Vern. That's my name. What's the temperature today? It's been the hottest October since 1923. Fahrenheit. It's hard to spell. Do you know where the name comes from? The man who invented the thermometer. Another German. Excuse me, is that a crow? Scavengers. Who's that buried over there? The iron cross. Let's have a look. Oxidisation. Where does all this granite come from? It doesn't grow on trees. How is your mother taking it? It came as a shock.'
The boy had been watching his uncle's teeth. The pneumatic force of his perpetual questioning had shoved them forward to an eyecatching degree, so much so that the teeth themselves had acquired properties of alertness and curiosity, even when momentarily at rest over his bottom lip like lumps of quartz, illuminated by flashes of sunlight. When he smiledalthough he didn't in the cemeteryhis teeth retreated from prominence, but then a series of vertical neck muscles took over, giving him the appearance of craning even further forward. Most of his questions were left up in the air. The mania for verification can be such a nervous disorder. Other people suffer asthmas or scratch holes in their skulls, drink their own urine for moral fibre, or letter by hand the Ten Commandments or a nation's constitution on a single grain of rice. Others develop their paranoia into local or world-class leadership; not Holden, and certainly not his uncle fidgeting beside him.
'Hello, what's this? An Afghani camel driver? They've buried him here? How about that? All that wool he must have carted down over the years from the Centre. Camel trains. Moslems. Over here, look at this: "Our only son, William James, lost in the Great Australian Bight. Never recovered." There's a true story. Real sadness. How old was he?'
But already he was moving on.
Always on the verge of answering the questions Holden began racking his brains for scraps of general knowledge, anything, to offer in return. Several times he had to clutch at the insubstantial elbow, stopping his Uncle Vern falling headfirst into one of the freshly dug holes. In this way his mind shifted from the invisible, still vertical, shape of his father to the solidarity of words and objects.
They were examining an overgrown grave ('What are they? Scotch thistles? "Zoellner." That rings a bell. Another German name?') when a horn sounded, and was amplified by the avenues of slabs.
For the first time his uncle faced him.
'Is that your mother? I think that's your mother waving.'
Solid granite unfurled into imperishable white roses and scrolls. Heavy urns spilt cannonballs of weather-stained grapes. Books of knowledge lay open at a blank page, marked by ribbons of stone. Fallen angels, swords and polished blankness registered as ornate feats of engineering, an industry that had found its groove.
Realising he hadn't said a word, not even a thankyou of gratitude, Holden stopped running. His voice croaked. It would not have reached.
Anyway the figure remained engrossed, spitting on his handkerchief now, deciphering again.
Bicycles had been hacksawed or melted down for the war effort. The mild steel frames were 'recycled' into speaking tubes for submarines and as tripods for light machine-guns. Rumour had it that the joysticks of the locally assembled Mustangs were nothing more than refurbished men's handlebars. Bells reappeared all over the Pacific screwed down on the cane tables of the Officers' Mess. By October 1944 the wholesale slaughter of bicycles was halted and the survivors emerged one by one painted like hedges or trees or the sides of weatherboard houses, and those requisitioned for aerodrome duty or stored in camouflaged sheds for the Land Army were returned to their original owners. People who were not in the war cannot begin to understand...
Several weeks after the funeral Holden arrived home one afternoon to find two bicycle machines on the back verandah. Both were ladies'no horizontal barand the light frame of one painstakingly painted rose madder was overpowered by a pair of muscular men's handlebars, which had been lowered, and a sheathlike saddle sprung on commas. Along its hypotenuse MERCURY had been lettered in silver serifs. Its twin was a composition of mismatching pedals, mudguards and wheel sizes, but its gender preserved by the original chain-guard of delicate plaited cotton.
Holden's feelings for bicycles were similar to his grandfather's affinity to horses. They embodied all that was intensive and silently inevitable. Bicycles were interesting and varied in themselves. Individual components were there to be understood, properly maintained and modified; combined they produced instantaneous movement. What with the war and the sudden taking-away of his father Holden had given up all hope of ever owning one.
His mother pointed with her chin.
'Your Uncle Vern would have done them up himself. I could never fathom him out. He's not one for chucking his money around. I haven't seen him for years. You'll have to thank him, both of you.' She came closer. 'Both of you listen. Holden? Now don't go getting yourselves killed.'
The streets of Adelaide had become the domain of the fabulous, the freakish and the disabled: not only dwarf's and obese waddling men or shadowless cantilevered figures, the seven-footers, pinheads and flat-earthers, or even those lonely men with eleven fingers or harelips (somehow no good aiming a rifle), but more to the point, pale men who couldn't run, think or see straight, poor devils, and those with perforated eardrums who couldn't pick up the piston-racket of a Heinkel, even when the smiling parabolic pilot could see the whites of their eyes: figures normally outside the body politic but now the core; gentle, vague, harmless creatures. They appeared as pedestrians singly at mid-distance, occasionally passed by metal insect-machines vaguely resembling velopedes. Similar long intervals showed in the revised schedule of trams. And spaces widened on bench-seats, on grocers' shelves, on pedestrian crossings. During the war there was hardly any need for traffic lights. Young women went about as if sleepwalking. Occupying an erogenous zone of uncertainty and incompleteness they joined the ranks of the walking wounded. Their bodies had become transparent. Visible was every hair, cleft and bulge. Here and there breasts grew expectantly, pointedly full: drawn tidally towards some figure across the sea, defying history. Irrational laughter erupted without warning from the worst afflicted, at the worst possible times. In their dreams they passed through foreign walls complete with crenellations, cracks and damp shadows, and received men by the ton or singly, sometimes the pliant ghost of a familiar dead man, opening and closing themselves. A kind of suspended animation, an existence in limbo; they scarcely lived in Adelaide.
In the short distance to Holden's school every other pedal stroke stamped out a soft statue in a front yard, Figure with Broom or Brooding Woman, wearing the same mottled dressing gown as his mother's, so that when he arrived home and found her as he left her, seated at the table, he didn't bat an eyelid. Newsreels of the day had lines of women seated at benches in munitions factories, or at long tables rolling bandages.
The formal haphazardness of her sandwiches became a tangible by-product: Tasmanian apple pulped with mutton and bananas, spaghetti with treacle, and all indiscriminately stained with the litmus of beetroot or curry-yellow pickles, a leaking spectrum of colour the like of which Holden had never seen before or since. When Holden dropped them in the 44-gallon drum, the school bin, the thud erupted into images of his mother, shell-shocked in her dressing gown like all the rest, slicing, spreading butter diagonally, transfixed by angled planes of yellow light, as if the sun was filtered not by the back trellis of vines but the smoke of afternoon bushfires.
For a time groups of relatives called and paid their respects.
Holden recognised them from the funeral, although now they stood in the kitchen wearing different clothing and expressions.
Funny family, the Shadbolts. Well, the way young Karen sat alongside her mother, the model of solicitude, and Holden there blocking the kitchen doorway, his arms folded like a eunuch. Isn't he a bit thick, dim-witted? (Holden had taken to wearing tight cyclist's shorts.) With barely a word spoken, even in greeting, visitors found themselves filling in with all kinds of repetitions and commonplaces, including weather-forecasting. The strain showed in the rate of Auntie Dais's munching and swallowing, for she wanted to be a help, while her husband Jim opted for the rural policy, which is to grin down at your serrated brogues and slowly nod your head.
Holden watched as his mother came to life and asked to read their tea leaves, smiling sweetly but snatching the cups before they were properly drained.
In a way it was a relief. But what did she 'see'?
From a few muddy calligraphies she managed to detect economic disaster areas and astral accidents far worse than those which had recently befallen her. World War Two would finish shortly, yes, but in the same breath she saw Jim losing his drinking arm in a brick-making machine, somebody else an eye, another an eldest son in a shotgun accident, and Auntie Dais her semi-precious wedding ring under the jetty at Glenelg. Looking up at Holden, Karen bit her lip at the injustices of the world. Their mother reached out for more cups. There were acts of God nobody on earth could control, genetical, geographical, meteorological, for she had the misfortune to see the first-born of an incessantly smiling niece cursed with red hair, freckles and pale eyelashes, and the entire family of plump lookalikes stricken with diabetes and halitosisHolden had last seen them at the funeral, standing to attention in chronological orderand someone else (name indistinguishable) completely electrocuted while sheltering under a dripping blue gum. On a scarcely less traumatic scale she announced the marriage of Holden's second cousin to a German Roman Catholic and that Uncle Milton's fly-blown delicatessen on Payneham Road would be going to the wall, and so-and-so, father of four, was seen fornicating with an office girl during the lunch hour on an unrecognisable back lawn.
'What about your own?' complained one, almost in tears.
Her husband, the bald man, had stood up ready to go.
'That's right. Take Holden there.'
For all that remained of their home which hadn't even reached the blueprint stage was a chimney and a few charred beams.
'He doesn't have a future,' she reported, her head still bent over a cup.
Holden didn't even blink at this piece of news. With tea rationed the future could be read only in an abbreviated form. Besides, even at his hairless age, he could see that few people were granted Histories. Among the Shadbolts crowded into the kitchen only an accident could throw one of them momentarily into prominence, as happened with his father whose colourless shape already was rapidly receding (the notion of ghosts originates from this imprecision of memory). Not to have a future made no difference to him. He was going to be like everybody else.
The visits of relations soon petered out and the house returned to its stillness. Mrs Shadbolt remained indoors. While Karen worried and tried to help, Holden's interest transferred to the openness of the clearly defined streets. In any other era an androgynous machine with one wheel smaller than the other, dwarfed by an expressionless rider in shorts, would have appeared grotesque. A time of material shortages was a time of improvisationsall kinds of contraptions were allowedand Holden only attracted attention for his resolute speed (orientalising his eyes and wind-sweeping his hair into an Italian futurist film star), and for an ostentatious cornering technique which defied the laws of gravity. It occurred in relative silence along street emptiness. He could shout into the wind and nobody could hear. Overtaking trams and British four-cylinder saloons was a breeze; Holden became enamoured of speed.
On a hot afternoon in December he came in as usual with a large patch of perspiration spreading on his shirt. The heavy canvas blinds at the back were unfurled, the house creaked like a becalmed ship. Both his mother and Karen were in the kitchen waiting for him. And this was odd: his mother was standing, not sitting, and wearing a cotton dress. Holden looked down at Karen, then back at their mother. She was young and fresh and smart again. Holden's concern that it might only be temporary introduced an aura of fragility, as if his mother's pigeon-bones might at any moment snap. Wiping the sink with her back half-turned she assumed a determined, independent air. Holden noticed her new sandals were slightly too large. The thick straps exposing her bruised heels made her look determined, yet curiously vulnerable. Karen, though, displayed complete approval by fastening an immense expectant smile upon her.
'Now sit down, both of you.'
She still had her back to them.
'There's something I want to tell you both.'
Folding his arms Holden remained standing.
His mother didn't seem to notice. Facing them, she fidgeted with the throat of her dress.
'Your father didn't leave much to go on.'
Branching off at a filtered tangent she murmured something about the greys and the yellows and the browns. Seems that these represent the passing of time: khaki tones, her afternoons. 'That blind needs repairing,' she added vaguely.
'It's been like that for ages,' Holden stirred. 'It was like that before Dad died.'
Ignoring him, Karen placed a hand on her mother's arm. Together they turned to him.
'You're a big boy now,' his mother smiled. 'Look at you.'
Fatso, Samson, Goliath and Tiny were other terms people tried. At the funeral a joker had said, 'How's Mount Lofty today?'
Their mother confided, 'We are three of us, all that's left in this world. We must stay glued together, blood is thicker than water'
That sounded more like it; Holden began nodding, when a voice from outside contradicted.
'You there Mrs Shadbolt? Anybody home?'
An apparition in ballooning khaki filled the back door, hands on hips, and as Holden squinted, the flyscreen stippled the figure, draining it of flesh tints, and focused into an exactly realised half-tone of a soldier. It was like a newspaper photograph. The ruled screenwhich coincided with the streets of Holden's citymagnified the standing figure, giving Holden all the time in the world to memorise it.
This was the earliest known example of Shadbolt's famous 'photographic memory'. For the rest of his life he'd see the tightness of the chin-strap, the small-diameter eyes, which suggested a future of perspiration and overweight, two shaving snicks, the expression of...Not exactly a photographic memory. The dilapidated screen endowed the figure with authority out of all proportion. Unlike a snapshot of Holden's grandfather, say, where the process was only chemical, an act of preservation, this coarse-grained soldier on the verge of grinning had the appearance of being singled out, as if he had stepped forward from a major news event. He exuded the power of endlessness.
Photo-sensitive, Holden took in everything. In its patience the figure appeared to address itself directly to him. At the same time something had been held back. Some vital essence filtered or 'screened'.
'Is anybody home?' the man inquired, although he and the boy were staring at each other.
His mother gave Holden a shove, 'Well, let the bloke in!'
Prescribing an arc, the screen returned the figure to the glare of normal colour, light and movement. The expanse of khaki, its falsity, was then startling. Everything in place, buttoned down and polished the pleated symmetry was broken only by the slouch hat, its calculated angle. Uniformsthe word says itare issued for their anonymous qualities. The soldier becomes one with a geometric mass. He moves forward under the illusion he can be destroyed only if the entire uniform army is destroyed. Similarly, the enemy is confronted with an advancing agricultural mass whose identical parts appear to be instantly replaceable. Holden had noticed some soldiers in the street wearing Rommel's binoculars or a cigarette behind their ears, and others with their arms crawling with tattoos of Rosella parrots, all in an effort to establish a degree of individuality. This corporal too had made the attempt by shooting a bullet through the side of his hat. Only a .22, it left a moth-hole, nothing more.
The corporal quickly understood his position. While he searched his pocket for smokes a nodding informality overran his features.
To Holden's surprise it was cut short by his mother who stared at the hat. Whipping it off he held it over his warm heart andwhat a ham!bowed. No one in their house had bowed before. Holden's mother, with Karen, eventually smiled; and his mother seemed to bow slightly herself.
Corporal Frank ('Bloodnut' to his friends) McBee was short and had beer-coloured hair. No eyelashes: he'd lost them at Tobruk. But he was one of life's positive thinkers.
Before Holden could blink with pleasure or surprise the corporal shadow-boxed him in the ribs. 'What do they call you?'
Smiling as he maintained the southpaw stance his chin narrowed into a glossy carbuncle.
'Holden?' He mulled it over. 'All right, that'll do for now. Put it here, Holden-boy.'
Winking at Karen to gather additional votes he squashed Holden's hand. Then for no apparent reason and without warning he suddenly pulled three or four faces of flaring, canine ferocity, which must have been how the petrified Italians in North Africa and the Japs in New Guinea saw McBee as he landed boots and all in their crumbling trenches, blindly lungeing and hissing with the bayonet.
Poor man. What horrors he must have gone through. Mrs Shadbolt, about to move her hand towards him, withdrew.
The world became more complex; it was an education. The presence of a foreign body altered their kinship to one another and to local time and space. Holden could see their house consisted of corridors with worn corners, something he hadn't noticed before. The breathing presence of Corporal McBee only a few walls away introduced a range of foreign sounds, and the porosity of his flesh and clothing released odours in the narrow passages, tobacco-laden and sharpened by Californian Poppy.
It was as if each of the Shadbolts had been fitted with stethoscopes. The creak of his iron bed transmitted an audio-visual solitariness. They could hear the man clearing his throat. Some nights came the stutter of machine-gun fire and the exertions of hand-to-hand fighting, loud enough to wake the entire house. (Next morning? Only a few shaving snicks, and cracking jokes as if nothing had happened.)
Corporal Frank McBee established himself in the chair by the icebox previously occupied by their father. In front of his plate he placed two or three bottles of beer like mortar bombs. After wiping his mouth he liked nothing better than to lean back and let smoke drift up past heavy-lidded eyes to the ceiling. All threebeer, tilted chair, tobaccowere taboo, or rather, never before seen in their kitchen. No one wanted to censor him. Not because he was an economic force, or even a physical forcea soldierbut because he was an 'unknown quantity'. How he'd react was anybody's guess. Corporal McBee came and went at all hours, 'going about his business'. To answer their questions he raised his hands in mock surrender with his mouth nonchalantly full, or clicking his heels and putting on a German accent, obeyed the Geneva convention, repeating only his name, rank and number. Had he killed many or any of the enemy? Holden wanted to know. He also had technical questions concerning tanks. Do they get bogged? They must be hot inside. Did they really have Rolls Royce engines? Several times his mother asked if he had brothers or sisters. When his mood was especially gay he answered with a snappy salute, barking out 'Colonel, suh!' which at first disconcerted and later irritated her. Meanwhile, he left his lethal razor in the bathroom basin, muddy bootmarks through the kitchen and live ammunition scattered among his loose change and hairbrush on his chest of drawers. All these things somehow suggested the defence of the city was in good hands.
Other families billeted soldiers. But Holden was unable to separate McBee from the image imprinted by the screen. At school he tried to explain the man's superiority in terms of body-weight and air of command, yet when he invited selected connoisseurs to the house, in the hope of catching a comparative glance, he found they were quickly disappointed, immediately ridiculing his red face and ginger hair. They couldn't see it. Instead of feeling embarrassed or at odds Holden felt protective towards his soldier.
Holden liked to get home early to see how he was getting on. Hanging around the bedroom he watched him cleaning webbing and spit-and-polishing his boots and brass. If McBee called for something Holden tripped over himself to oblige.
It was here that Shadbolt first learnt to handle a weapon. He swung McBee's .303 to his shoulder, and with his mouth agape his opinion of the man who'd allowed it rose in inverse proportion to the savage downward thrust of the rifle's weight.
'H-how do you hold it?' he laughed.
The corporal shrugged. 'After an hour of blasting away with that thing your bloody shoulder's black as pulp.'
The two trigger pressures were explained. He was shown how to elevate the sights. Removing the bolt he saw the rifling, the moon of light at the end of a dizzying tunnel. In the magazine the bullets were copper-snouted fish. McBee kept it loaded in case any Japs came over the back wall. Holden was shown how to present arms and how to clean the rifle.
All this was explained matter-of-factly by McBee lying on his bed in singlet and underpants.
Other times hardly a syllable or a sigh passed between them. Holden was content to bang his bum against the architrave while the boarder lay full length, fingers drumming behind his head, humming the national anthem.
One afternoon he surprised Holden by saying, apropos of nothing: 'Nine-tenths of a world war is boredom. That's the real killer.'
And still gazing at the ceiling he felt for his cigarettes.
Another time, even more surprising, 'I'm looking at the future. It's there staring at me in the face.' And slowly he formed a soccerballor was it a woman's hips?in the air with his hands.
Tossing his head Holden looked thoughtful. The corporal behaved differently here than he did in front of his mother and Karen.
It was not seriousness or silence so much as self-absorption.
Showing him the two snaps of his lance-corporal grandfather, because he thought he'd be interested, McBee commented, 'Yeah...' and handed them back.
He was thinking about the future.
Holden proved his usefulness in other ways. That black Saturday night when the rain poured tons of wheat on the tin roof: over and above that and the slapping and hissing of vines, Holden heard the intermittent slithering, some muffled swearing and grunting. The camouflage qualities of the fatigues made recognition difficult. Near the rubbish bins Holden found the soldier entangled among the dead marines and in the barbed-wire spokes of his bike. It took all his strength to drag him onto the verandah. Images of the Kokoda Trail passed through the straining boy's mind: surely this is what war is like? Sodden in his striped pyjamas and with the corporal streaming water and mud, a prisoner was assisting his captor.
'That's the boy. And in the nick of time. You've saved my life. I've strayed from the beaten path. One foot over and a man gets into terrible strife.'
'Shhh. You'll wake her up.'
McBee only laughed. He began drying his hair with his shirt.
'What have you done with my frigging hat? Good man.'
The boy watched as he made his way shirtless towards his room, adopting a very determined air.
Karen sat up. 'Is he all right?'
'He said he was.'
She clicked her tongue, 'Poor man.'
They listened as he reached the maverick floorboard outside their mother's room. It creaked accordingly. Butwhat's this? It creaked again. It went on creaking.
'I'd better give him a hand.'
Karen shook her head, 'No.'
Any hopes that he'd move on without waking their mother were wrecked by the next sound. Normally employed on street corners or from the backs of axle-whining army trucks McBee's wolf whistle was channelled by the low-ceilinged corridor, its lasso effect unmistakable in its intentions.
'No use hiding. Is that a smile? I think she's smiling. And a shoulder, I see a bare shoulder. Cover that up, whatever you do! That's better. The sight of fleshin the moonlight of Adelaidecan drive an honest man crazy, yours especially. It's a weakness of mine. Some would say a strength, I would say a weakness. You know all about the Horsestralian soldier, and I know all about your shoulders. I've been studying them. You may have noticed. I know them like the back of my hand. Oh, you're a good-looker. The minute I saw you! You don't believe me? I've been unable tohow do you say? unfasten my eyes off you. And I haven't gone past your shoulders, not yet. You haven't noticed? Look, Mrs Shadbolt! You're a corker cook, A-1, no complaints, but I've been off my tucker, I've had trouble eating. Bet you've noticed. Food clean missing my gob and falling on the floor. Not eating, unable to, has then made me weak in the knees. I have trouble standing for long periods. It's because of you. Why's that? A good question. Oh, I'm buggered. It would take me all night to answer. It's your bodily presence. Hey, now listen, if you look the way you do, why so shy? With me, of all people. I'm one of the family. We share the same bathroom. Move over, so I can whisper. I'll explain it all. What about the edge of the bed then? Only keep that shoulder covered! OK, OK, down at the very end. Anything you say. You see a slave standing before you. Ask and ye shall receive.'
A degree of mockery was needed and McBee wove it into his spiel. Cut the cloth for the customer; otherwise a woman could never swallow it all.
The spillage of words reached Holden and Karen loud and clear. The man they knew as Corporal Frank McBee they pictured in darkness, on his knees. They heard their mother's voice, steady but inaudible.
'OK, fair enough,' said McBee loudly. 'I'll meet you halfway. I'll stretch out on the floor, right about here. That'll do me. I'll close my eyes, I won't think about you. I'll concentrate on something else. How's this for starters? Do you know there's a war on? Half of Europe has gone up in flames. It'll be over soon. I have that on the best of authorities. I have my contacts. Our planes are dropping bombs on the Japs. I won't go near your bed, no siree. I won't even tickle your little feet.'
More murmurings from their mother.
'So this is it? The old cold shoulder? I'm in no condition. You're right. You're sticking to your guns. You've every right. Fair enough! You're no ordinary woman. Some other time, when I'm in better shape.'
Beating a retreat McBee stumbled over some shoes.
He swore'Excuse my French!' They heard his light switch on, and some scattered light machine-gun fire and cries of wounded. Almost immediately the house fell silent.
He seemed to have been dislodged by the immense forces of Northern history, and flung out to the bottom edge of the world, an impression which was exaggerated when the streets periodically emptied, and McBee appeared to be the only soldier left alive. With so little known about him the smallest bits of information became important. In his absences the Shadbolts reported their discoveries and observations. Nothing much to go on though, nothing much of substance. Mrs Shadbolt listened, appeared thoughtful, but hardly contributed.
'He seems to be your friend,' she turned to Holden. 'What does he have to say?'
There was his name, rank and number. Yes, yes, aside from that...well, the corporal said he luckily escaped from Dunkirk in a vulcanised rubber dinghy. Crete was a complete bloody fiasco from beginning to end. 'He said the officers should be lined up and all shot.' He was there when the Bismarck went down. His own ship was torpedoed under him off the Rock of Gibraltar, 'thanks to the drongo of a captain'. By the skin of his teeth and with 'Mother Luck on his side' he escaped the fall of Singapore. He survived the siege of Tobruk. He was dropped behind the lines in Yugoslaviaa dark nightit could have been Czechoslovakia ('the pilot was a halfwit'). Firing from the hip, leeches and mosquitoes glued to his arms and legs, he fought his way across the jungles of New Guinea. He'd been machine-gunned on the beaches, mortared in slit trenches, doodlebugged while running across the bridge at Chelsea, potshotted at by a telescopic sniper in a vineyard near Reims, landmined and strafed and divebombed at El Alamein, and bayonet-charged in a rain forest at Milne Bay. Physically, all he'd suffered was a sprained ankle. If any man deserved a medal it was Frank McBee. Why only a corporal? The old story...couldn't stand being given orders by ponces. He'd been AWOL several times. He knew where to find the dancing girls in London, Naples and Alexandria (parting the bead curtains). In a village outside Dijon in France, as in 'pants', he'd lined up a collection of great old violins and machine-gunned the lot. One night over Hamburg he and a flight sergeant mate from Warragul dropped a consignment of sewing machines on the sleeping city'that would have given the bastards something to think about'.
None of this seemed to interest Mrs Shadbolt. It only confirmed his unpredictability. Nonchalantly this intruder kept them off-balance. He dominated even by his absences. These absences were similar to the immense holes in his shape, in their knowledge of him. She never quite knew what he'd do or say next, or if he'd turn up, or when he'd pull any more ferocious faces, or come home shickered again. She didn't know what day it was. And yet the picture of a possible future of unreliability touched some deep awareness of her own steadfastness. Waiting for him and unable to penetrate his casualness she found herself constantly thinking of him.
On Friday nights McBee sat at the head of the table. In khaki and lacking eyelashes he chaired a select committee: leaning forward, lurching back, whispering, thumping the table, pointing to himself or at one of them, or rhetorically half closing his eyes, dribbling a sentence out into thin air, then cracking one of his jokes and winking, appealing not so much to them as to the world at large. He had a knack for rhythm and repetitions, and not a bad sense of timing: would come in handy at future public meetings. When appropriate he could administer a sharp, single handclap. All in good humour, of course. He exerted a binding influence. There was no doubt about it. In the electric glare the metal components of his uniform, his ivory teeth and orange hair, even his peeling face, became ablaze.
It was good enough for Mrs Shadbolt that her two orphaned children were happy.
Their mother's contentment showed in her relative silence. She bought a lipstick tube. For the first time she politely sipped a glass of beer. For his part, Frank McBee looked forward to the Friday nights. He usually arrived on time. His ritual of distributing presents began when he tossed their mother a pair of American nylons. 'Put 'em on now,' he instructed. 'Yell out,' he winked to them, 'if you want a hand.' She went away and came back. Twisting his mouth and frowning McBee stared at her altered legs with exaggerated attention until she crossed them under the table. Naturally this had to be followed, in 1944, by less intimate gifts, which is how the house had a surplus of perforated Egyptian handkerchiefs and a cylindrical brass lampshade made from an 88-mm shell. If he couldn't scrounge a bar of chocolate for Karen he presented with elaborate ceremony an English sixpence wrapped in lavatory paper. And Holden, he received what most people would consider grotesque junk but which he reverently placed as archeological specimens in a row above his bed: alloy piston out of a Spitfire, anemometer taken from a Hurricane, and a short length of plaited cord McBee swore was a German field marshal's shoelace. He told them stories. 'Did this happen to me? Or did I hear it from somebody? It doesn't matter. This is what actually happened...' In the middle of the stories and his improvised games Mrs Shadbolt often found him watching her; their eyes met and his mouth began working overtime. She saw how his speech ran on independently, a parallel action, while his thoughts were directed only at her. You never knew with Frank McBee. During the day, Holden testified, he barely said a word.
'Tell us again what it's like jumping with a parachute,' Holden asked, a Friday night.
McBee stroked his chin. He had a better idea. 'Tonight, it's Tobruk.'
Moving the table he positioned the Shadbolts like chessmen. Karen was the warm Mediterranean Sea. To her right, against the scrubbed sink, Holden stood for Egypt, and in the foreground under constant bombardment and seige, the object of the exercise, their apprehensive mother.
McBee began reasonably, sticking to the facts.
'The country known as Libya is nothing but sand and lumps of white rock with a handful of Arabs and camels. A land of desert plains. Tobruk was a pleasant little town on the sea, like Adelaide. Yes, we are talking here of the North African equivalent to Adelaide.'
He encircled their positions, speaking softly, and glared when Holden began grinning.
'By April, 1941, the occupying forces had taken all of Libya, right across to Egypt. All, that is, except Tobruk. Now why did she decide to hold out? That's an interesting question. With their backs to the sea, and enemy here, and here, the defenders went about in shorts and tin hats, nothing else. Their bodies glistened with perspiration, tense with the expectation of a frontal attack. How strong were the Austrylian defences in that endless heat and emptiness? Days passed into weeks, and weeks passed into months, and still the invader refused to go away. Gradually, resistance weakened. How long can a person withstand constant night assaults and probing actions, the outflankings, the ground, aerial and propaganda attacks? Anyway,' McBee asked loudly, rhetorically, 'what was the point? What could possibly be the point in not giving in? One part of the defenders actually began to hope for the next attack. They wanted to surrender, give themselves up, as long as they could be seen to have struggled.'
He had quickened his pacing and Holden noticed his eyes were fixed on their mother, Tobruk.
Mrs Shadbolt knew the soldier was erratic, and began fidgeting, but was still unprepared, as she waved a fly from her face, for the sudden thrust of his arms in a pincer movement. She screamed and ran around the table. With his shirt hanging out Holden stood there gaping like a neutral Egyptian.
Running amok, McBee had his arms outstretched.
'After so many months, resistance collapsed!' he shouted. 'Weakened by the constant probing actions, that's right, and the invader's diversionary tactics, she fell! It happened one night. It took place under the cover of darkness.'
Laughing, Karen screamed at her mother, 'You're in the sea!'
Mrs Shadbolt opened her mouth and stepped back. Between her feet then she saw the huge boots of the soldier. She felt his arms squash around her which altered the fall of her breasts.
'That's enough,' she said sharply. 'That'll do.' Immediately regretting it.
He released his hold.
'And that...was the fall of Tobruk.' He stroked her head. 'Never mind, Mrs Shadbolt. It's all over now. I wasn't about to hurt you.' Again he couldn't help winking. 'You're only a prisoner. If nothing else, I'm a supporter of the Geneva Convention. You'll be looked after. You'll probably be allowed to go free at the end of the war.'
She felt more confused than ashamed. The stares of her two big children, Holden especially, showed she had spoilt their game. She had never liked games; clumsiness easily unsettled her.
After that whenever Mrs Shadbolt felt tired or unwell McBee showed unexpected restraint. If it happened on a Friday night his consideration quietened Holden and Karen. Afterwards, he helped with the dishes. And nothing looked more incongruous in the 100-watt kitchen than a full-blooded soldier in khaki and stripes handling a tea-towel.
Some Friday nights he took them to the pictures. It meant getting dressed up and catching a tram. McBee paid for everything; but when Holden turned to him in appreciation after the newsreel he found him already asleep, one finger forming a handlebar moustache.
Vern Hartnett worked as a proofreader on the conservative broadsheet, the Advertiser, his solid brick house in the foothills had an air of revision and infallibility.
Shuttered and walled at the end of a cul-de-sac it looked down upon the corridors of the near-distant city. To one side, hard against his fence, work had halted on the bleached frame of the only other house; unfinished rectangles, up-ended beams formed triangles: difficult to tell now if it was being built or dismantled. Hartnett's house stood out and against this and the casual lack of clarity of the Hills, the background to the city's postcards, which actually began as a bumpy slope in Vern's back lawn, before rising sharply (no need for a back fence), swarming with the vagaries of blackberry and honeysuckle, the grey gullies of brittle sticks humming with insects which obscured the true shape of things. These slopes of southerly aspect had once been part of George Penfold's vineyards. By standing at the mouth of the cul-de-sac the original dark geometry could be perceived here and there in the pale grass, as if under water.
In those days most Adelaide people felt the Hills were 'too far away'. Their instincts happily settled on the narrow coastal plain where the aerodrome and the cast-iron railway station, the racecourse, School of Arts and zoo, and the sewage treatment plant had been laid out.
The Hills supplied the city with its fresh fruit and vegetables, the gravel for the orthogonal expansion of its streets, and the most tenacious proofreader for its morning newspaper. At the stroke of six, 'gully-breezes', so-called, came down from the Hills, a blessing in summer, for they penetrated the fly-screens and the deepest recesses of the gasping housesair-conditioning on a grand scale, a peculiarity of Adelaide.
Holden first entered the cul-de-sac soon after receiving the bike. He'd climbed Magill Road, turning right before Bennett's Pottery; and after pressing an electric bell Vern's welcome was so matter-of-fact, as though he was already a regular, that he pedalled up several times a week, straight from school. With the arrival of the soldier the visits tapered off; but now that the corporal preferred talking to his mother in the kitchen, he began returning to the cul-de-sac again.
To Holden the house occupied a rare position. It was distant, it was 'farther-off'. From there you could look out and across. And the fact that his uncle lived there alone and remained at home during the day were other novelties; approaching the cul-de-sac, Holden felt the thrill of the many expectations. The house faced the sun at an unexpected angle and everything inside, including the chairs and tables, was in an unusualdifferent for himposition. Ensconced between the walls his uncle looked away when he spoke, beginning sentences, 'As a matter of fact...'
This man wanted to isolate things, to clarify them. He never stopped asking questions which in turn made Holden ask questions. His uncle could spell out and pronounce the longest Welsh word in the world. Together they looked up the origins of Mercury, the presider over roads. There was a reason for everything. He always had something to show Holden. Having so much information at his fingertips had left them blackened. He handled words. Fact-collector, establisher of facts, walking atlas and almanac; and still he kept looking out for more.
Frog-marching the bicycle-boy outside Hartnett pointed to the weathercock. Nothing could be more accurate than a weathercock. But that wasn't it. Those same Roman letters fixed on the spokes which marked the four corners of the earth spelt out (explained with a pencil and paper) his profession. Which was?
'So there you go. It only dawned on me yesterday morning.'
Happily Holden joined in. 'Africa!'
'What's that? Where?'
The boy had second thoughts. 'Doesn't matter...'
It wasn't exactly hard and fast: just that with the sun behind his uncle, casting his face in darkness, the flaxen hemispheres of hair on either side combined with his tapering chin to form the shape of the dark continent they'd been studying at school. His teeth which generated the aerosol spray pinpointed the Victoria Falls.
Holden measured a faint smile. He could be as clever as his uncle.
It took many months to acclimatise to his uncle's world. Presented with a front-door key he taped it under the seat of his bike. Often he rode up late in the afternoon, knowing the house would be empty, and in the curtained silence moved through the rooms, inspecting and replacing personal objects. He opened cupboards and drawers, and went outside. Thinking he had memorised everything he was pleasantly startled when an unknown object or a fresh piece of information fell into his hands.
The backyard had a special attraction. Holden spent as much time there as inside the house. Life-size statues had been planted at set intervals, quite a crowd, and moving among them he felt their stern gaze, transfixing him from all angles.
Cities erect statues to their prominent citizens. In the older European cities the exemplary figures in bronze virtually outnumber their living descendants. Adelaide had its statues to English monarchs, statesmen and town-planners. Standing on municipal lawns and under evergreens, or half blocking the footpath along North Terrace, they supplied a continuity with the past and an example to the present. 'I've done something similar,' Holden's uncle confided. 'I see nothing wrong with putting another man up on a pedestal. On the contrary.'
In that sense, his backyard had the appearance of a miniature city with the buildings, streets and pedestrians removed. Nothing but the statues.
Some of the figures were immediately recognisable.
The Colonel William Light was an exact replica of the one overlooking the city at North Adelaide. The cocked hat, tight trousers and outstretched arm and finger pointing to the back door were similarly splashed with lime droppings; pigeons were attracted to Light. Nearby the coiffured head and the horizon-stare of Captain James Cook, preferred by the seagulls, transmitted the essence of his famous reliability, long before his ghost appeared on the pound note. Surveyors and navigators: Vern Hartnett looked up to them. Other figures had been specially commissioned and required explanation. The foxy features of Daguerre were sensitively caught: back bent, glancing up, pleased with himself. Nicholas Jensen with a type of Roman nose stood alongside the angular Aldus Manutius. According to Hartnett, John Loudon McAdam, as the inventor of the modern street and road, was one of the most influential men of all time. 'His achievement is easily measured, it's there in black-and-white.' Even his surname and life (1756-1836) possessed an inevitable symmetry.
'I look up to these men,' he ran his hands over some other obscure autocrat. 'They're always there. It doesn't hurt to be reminded. I take my hat off. I shouldn't say that, I don't wear a hat. Clarity and accuracymaster them, like these blokes there, and goodness, you can name your own price. Never exceed the facts. You get what I'm driving at? If you become one half as strict...'
Standing out against the turbulent growth of the Hills, the stony clarity of their vision seemed beyond dispute. These were men with their feet well and truly on the ground. No room for Leichhardt, the Burke and Wills of this world, nor Rasputin nor Isaac Newton. No dreamers. Look at McAdam! No politicians and no women.
And Hartnett shepherded and protected them. After careful deliberation he occasionally added another; it took years to select a candidate. There was only so much space. Economic factors also kept the numbers down.
'Just by looking you can imagine...' Holden squinted.
'There's no imagining.'
But seeing the boy's confusion he smiled, treating him as an equal, 'Who would you erect a statue to, if you had a backyard? Perhaps I know the man?'
Holden, who never tired of moving among the outstanding figures, now found his mind completely blank.
'I don't think I'd be allowed...'
Blinking he pictured Corporal McBee in uniform.
'What about a soldier?' Holden suggested.
The one he had in mind stood before him as a solid force, someone different, even when horizontal on a bed, releasing cigarette smoke to the ceiling where it flattened into architectures, minarets spreading into dream-cities of cupolas. The corporal was a man who seemed to be making up his mind; biding his time.
Confusion crossed Hartnett's face. 'A soldier did you say?'
Holden had told him about the boarder. Surely the boy didn't mean?
'Don't be deceived by the uniform! Take it away from a soldier and what have you got?'
But that was the point. Holden could never entirely agree with his uncle. More active than the larrikin soldier, always on the move, always after something, his uncle seemed unhappier. This fully grown man could be found in the kitchen pressing his thumbs to his temples, and staring at the floor, waving his hand blindly for silence. At first Holden thought he might be straining to recall some fresh fact or other, such as the inventor of linoleum or the History of Floorboards, and he obediently looked down at his feet too. But a migraine was no joke if the proofreader was about to set off to work, checking the spelling and veracity in general of the entire edition of next morning's Advertiser.
Although always attentive Vern Hartnett avoided the boy's face. Their eyes hardly ever met. Whenever he explained or posed a question it was as if he was addressing the city laid out below, barely moving there in the heat haze, the city in abstract.
He was the most short-sighted man Holden was ever to meet.
There was something else about Adelaide, or rather the environs, which entered the mind; and it entered in the same manner it trespassed on the geometry of the city itself.
Beginning with the Hills in summer which rose up behind like a pair of agricultural trousers bent slightly at the knee, the country penetrated the city like no other city. A natural creepage of colourlessness breached the town plan, indenting and serrating the perimeter, at the same time vaulting deep into the most established suburbs of immaculate box-hedges, green lawns and culverts, and deposited vacant blocks of swaying chaff-coloured grass, one in every other street. The Dutch had better luck keeping out the sea. Whole tracts of land here had the country look. Colonel Light had surrounded the city centre with a band of open space mysteriously called 'parklands', and not even concrete benches and drinking fountains could soften it. Dust storms blew up there in the height of summer and small grass-fires started. Elsewhere, it appeared in its most contained form as a parched oval. Badly tended footpaths and lawn tennis courts reverted to 'the country' in a matter of weeks.
Everywhere a person looked the ragged edge of naturalness trespassed.
In the battle for people's minds it at first seemed to be an antidote to the streets...that habit-inducing pattern constantly underlined and repeated by the trams. But the stain of non-colouring spoke of the interior which, in southern Australia and the Northern Territory, was desolation. It was the struggleand for what?of the dry tangled bush and desiccated trees and the brave facade of the boulders that gave the country, unlike the deserts of dreams, its persistent melancholia. Within cooee of the town hall, blasted crows made their parched calls. What other city...? And the faces of the most optimistic smiling women in Adelaide eventually resembled the country itself: ravined, curiously wheat-coloured.
If Holden and Karen were never quite sure how to approach the soldier, they expected their mother to treat him casually, as an equal.
But she had scarcely any time to compose herself. He was always there, such a mass of pleated khaki, expanding and contracting, a nest of possible suffocating power. One minute he lay stretched out on his bed, and next he was following in her footsteps, alert to her smallest reactions, and telling lies to no one but her. That's a soldier for you. She didn't know how to look at him, how to behave, an awkwardness entered her movements and dress, she spoke too hurriedly, knitting her brows; and since part of him seemed to be everywhere at once it became hard to keep him out of her mind. Whenever he left the house she felt his eyes following her. It became empty without him.
Mrs Shadbolt felt more at ease when, stopping in his tracks, he expounded his plans for the near future. It was more like thinking aloud, and she listened and contributed sagely, for she had a practical mind, though the plans themselves were unspecific, only abstract commitments to future energy.
'There'll be plenty of work after this war. There's going to be a ton of opportunity. The public works, the manufacturing industries. People will have to eat and wear clothes and listen to a wireless. It's starting from scratch all over again. It's from the ground floor up. It's reconstruction of a complete society. Just a matter of choosing the right area of concern. Most of the troops, poor buggers, are going to be landing back shell-shocked and with their brains in a sling. They won't know which way to turn. There's still going to be time for fun and games. Plenty of that. As a matter of fact, women will want to begin conceiving again. That's only natural, the force of nature. Baby carriages might be something to get into. I don't know, I'm still thinking about it.'
Casual allusions that she might be included in his plans'What you've got to do, sweetheart, and right away, is find a man with nousknow what I mean?not just any pain in the bumand get your hands on him. That's my advice'such allusions were passed over lightly, to her consternation. It was often like that. Frank McBee had the gift of the gab; he could talk the leg off a chair; he should have been a preacher or in 'retailing' (Hartnett's opinion). He laid down an intricate carpet of sweet-talk and off-the-cuff promises, none of which she quite believed, but which made her laugh. By laughing she exposed her throat.
He was by turn accessible and elusive. His nature was restless. You never knew what he'd do or say next, especially after a few glasses. Coming in late and thinking she'd be annoyed he crawled in under the table. He demeaned himself in front of her, a sign of true power. Other perfectly normal occasions he crawled in under the table just for fun, grabbing one of her half-unsuspecting ankles. Holden had never seen their mother shrieking before.
And never before so distracted. She seemed at once happy and unhappy. Even with the soldier there beside her she became increasingly pensive, as if she had problems. A few words from him were enough to lift her head and open her face.
She took little notice of them; her children might as well not have been there. And the ginger-haired soldier spoke to her openly, urgently, in front of them; even whispered for minutes on end, his eyes fixed on hers. After drinking he shouted about his lack of luck. 'I can't budge her,' he confided to Holden. 'She's like the Ayers Rock.' He invited them to share his misery. Even their mother laughed when he rested his cheek on the table. 'Where did I go wrong? I might as well be out with the boys.' Tobruk and Leningrad happened to be the contemporary symbols of resistance, in that order; but to McBee they represented a wasteland. 'My timid Mrs Tobruk' he began calling her, dropping Ayers Rock, and 'poor little defenceless Madame Leningrad, look what's happening to you'. When her face went vacant with despair he didn't let up. 'I'm more dangerous than what's-his-nameyou know who I mean, Adolf Hitler. Watch out! He's a lamb compared to me.'
It was then March, 1945. While Allied foot-soldiers received French kisses and drank from outstretched bottles without breaking stepthe irrevocable march of historyand open-necked American generals in democratic jeeps gave the royal nod and wave, and were garlanded with peonies, and old men and boys emerged south of the Rhine with their hands raised, Mrs Shadbolt in the house in Adelaide continued to withstand the siege. If McBee disappeared for days on end he returned with grinning, dogged design. 'I haven't forgotten you.' He kept advancing, retreating. Operating mostly at night he reverted to normal during the day. She didn't know when he'd turn up next. His were classic guerilla tactics, amongst the world's first. American nylons were offered under the kitchen's naked bulb. He touched a possible weakness here. 'I've had no luck with my hands,' he said with apparent disinterest. 'Try these instead. Imagine them as my hands. Listen, what's got into you?'
From their room Holden and Karen could follow every word of McBee's advance. It became so constant, rising and falling nightly like rain on the roof that soon they took no notice of it. Lying awake at night they produced a rival murmuring, Karen doing most of the talking. In the dark she spoke about her school friends, describing in rapid details their beliefs, annoying faults, good points, where they lived; and Holden easily pictured his sister, lips pursing at the invisible ceiling, thinking of something else to add.
Holden's thoughts turned to the far-distant war. It was really oddstrangehaving a live soldier in the house. Where was the war? (Where was the soldier?) An autumn sunset, where the horizon glowed in the bright fading orange of a great city on fire, and a single illuminated cloud above it had the quilted form of a stricken airship, made him wonder, almost ask, if that was 'the war'. He climbed to the top of the trellis. It could have been Japan or Germany burning it was so far out to sea. Uncertainties made him inconsistent at home and at school. By then uncertainty had accelerated in the features of just about everybody, a general mood of incompletion, possible euphoria, relaxation, even in his teachers and others at school. It seemed only Karen and their Uncle Vern were oblivious to the closing days of the war.
At the split second when Mrs Shadbolt succumbed with the shriek of a mandrake the lights in the surrounding houses came on, car horns and crow-eating klaxons sounded, tram bells travelled along Magill Road ringing, somebody celebrated with a dented bugle. Crackers and sky-rockets, which had been banned because of their similarity to distress signals, were ignited at flash-points all over the city. The city's searchlights intersected at dizzy altitudes, and bitch kelpies, crowing roosters and the European animals in the zoo were deceived into thinking it was dawn. Neighbours came out and banged on the Shadbolts' front door. They shouted, they sang. And the Czech bachelor at the end of the street began shaving off his five-year-old beard.
Holden and Karen had been woken by their mother's unconditional surrender. As her muscular laughter continued from the bedroom, and still no lights, they went outside in their matching dressing gowns where the Roach sisters were doing cartwheels and a stranger was climbing a telegraph pole balancing a glass on his forehead. It was official. It was true. On his cement-rendered verandah opposite, George Merino had rigged up his plywood wireless with the pale green dial shaped like a fan, and at every sombre re-announcement of the long-awaited news people began hiphip-hurraying.
In the morning people still clasped each other and sank to their knees in prayer, and complete strangers rested their chins on the shoulders of others to read the best news they'd ever had, headlined in 120-point sans, OK'd by the city's leading proofreader, Vern Hartnett, and at nine on the dot the squadron of Avro Ansons reappeared, this time trailing an extra six ailing Wirraways and approaching from the opposite direction, as if they were returning from a victorious mission.
Never had Adelaide experienced such brotherhood. For a whole night and day it resembled a jungli Spanish or French colony, except the British and British-American flags flapped from every available pole, bonnet and masthead.
All through the morning and that afternoon Karen kept tip-toeing to their mother's room where a khaki triangle of McBee's army trousers showed under the door. She whispered to Holden, 'They still haven't got up.'
When McBee finally emerged they rushed in. She was sitting up filing her nails.
'Have you children eaten?'
By the time McBee in flannel pyjamas returned to his place beside her the bedroom had filled with neighbours, mostly women and their children. Everybody felt so happy on 14 May they stood around the bed not really looking at the couple.
Holden heard his mother ask, 'Did you hear the news, Frank?'
'You don't say? What did I tell you?' Catching the boy's eye he winked. 'A moral victory. And not before time.' Raising two fingers he parted them, a pair of pale thighs. 'A victory over adversity. It's a night I'll personally never forget. We ought to be out celebrating.'
'Don't be rude,' she murmured, but smiled, glancing up at the other women.
Holden had never before heard 'Frank' in his mother's voice, and standing alongside Karen he waited to be called or at least recognised.
But everybody was talking at once. Their mother and her soldier did not appear to be listening to anybody. The room was crowded with mouths and movement, so much insistent flesh, and words happily repeated and wasted. Holden felt quite calm in the crush. Watching their mother he realised he had never seen her as soft and controlled. Conscious of her newly acquired position she turned to Frank, 'See if there's any tea.'
In the old days he would have answered back, 'Yes-suh!' Now he paused in his declamatory rendition of Winnie and lowered his victory symbol, those little parted legs, and beckoned Holden. 'You know where the old teapot is.' He placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. 'Good man. See what you can do.'
Out of uniform Frank McBee looked less energetic. No doubt about it. His pyjamas were slack, his toes askew. But close up his face was rock-solid and spacious, and he had slightly tired, distant eyes. From the jawbone up it transmitted the tremendous mental superiority, hard-edged and what-not, of someone powerful, so Holden sensed, even when, catching the boy's gaze, McBee smiled casually out of the corner of his mouth.
So many things slid of Holden's large body; people commented.
He was generous, would always lend a hand, was dependable. Yes, but at whatever he saw or said or listened to his face remained as expressionless as his elbow. Even by the standards of the landscape and a laconic people the drollness of this boy was something else again.
At his shadeless school of asphalt where silence and the squinting poker-face developed as the norm, Holden's apparent indifference grew, with his size and smoothness of skin, monumental. Always to one side and at the back of a group (class photograph, 1945, to be repeated in many future photographs) Holden Shadbolt is head and shoulders above the rest, gazing at some point away at mid-distance. By the time he was fourteen he was already surmounted by the Easter Island head (just a few pimples). People naturally homed in on his nose which hung there; initially there was little else to grasp. But it was found to be dead ordinary, a nose only a shade oversize. The few signs and symbols which he'd allowed to run unrestrained hardly added to people's understanding. There was his occasional habit of tossing his head like a milkman's horse; the slow opening of his mouth and holding it open while concentrating on something; and under special circumstances, blinking. As clues they suggested patience, self-reliancequalities which had already impressed themselves on everybody. And he wore neat, conspicuously neat, clothes. Even then, in those daysonly a boyhe gave the impression of reliability, a preserver of secrets.
Impassiveness has its drawbacks; it can activate a flaw in an opposite personality.
When an irrational metalwork teacher hauled Holden out of his seat for sneezing at the wrong time, a study in local Protestant attitudes unfolded in slow motion. The teacher had untidy crinkled hair as if he'd snatched a handful of steel filings from one of the lathes and flung it on his skull. Without removing his coat, but making room around the desks, he brought the Queensland cane down in a fast-bowler's arcing action. Holden met the full force with a single, barely perceptible blink. It was enough to send the teacher into a frenzy. Glancing up at Holden and breathing through his teeth he grabbed the boy's other nondescript hand and in a shower of dandruff, spittle and chalk particles swung the cane down on it again and again.
Sensing some hesitancy in the strokes Holden met the man's eyes. He saw exhaustion and embarrassment. Offering an escape he lowered his hand.
The class remained respectfully silent as he bumped back to his desk and the teacher was left to contemplate what he had unnecessarily revealed of himself.
Pain for a time interested young Holden. Nothing kinky or dangerous, just ordinary old occasional pain. He looked upon it with curiosity. For a start he pondered its strange existence; he tried to inspect 'pain'. He measured its range, its instantaneous connections, local and artery-wide, and his reactions to it. Even brief pain, implied, like electricity, a kind of endlessness. It hardly made sense. While being caned it had been all he could do to stop suddenly laughing; lucky he didn't. And when any victim was dragged out before the class Holden could not help noticing how the class fell unnaturally quiet and pencils remained poised, observers to a ritual. The spectacle of pain being administered, or the public humiliation, compelled the attention of them all. That's right: minor sadismendurance for the futurecatered for right there in the classrooms.
'What do you expect in an agricultural economy?' his uncle surprised him by saying. And he added, 'Unfortunate man.'
'He's got his job to do,' Holden conceded. 'No one likes him much though.'
After the caning the metalwork teacher fabricated the easiest questions for Holden, and paid close attention to his work. Where was the logic in that? If it had not been for his size the class would have called him teacher's pet.
Holden though realised an affinity with fulcrum tools, the shaping of metals, and it dawned on the teacher that in Holden he had a natural. Handling tinsnips and the oxy-torch he displayed a fluency which, because of the nature of the work, gave him added strength in the eyes of the others. And donning welding goggles he became even more impervious.
The school had a fleet of British lathes in battleship grey, and their electric belt-driven hum and ponderous revolutions, the dense smoke released from spinning metals, saturated in spurting milk, engrossed him. He was allowed to stay back and turn out a few knick-knacksbrass ashtrays for the corporal, and paperweights in the shape of pawns for his uncle. The misunderstood teacher stood beside him, and fitting callipers over a slowly revolving bar he too became engrossed. Shoulder-to-shoulder Holden felt the warmth of the man. Turning slightly he could see the blackheads on the man's sympathetic nose. The close proximity of such undivided interest produced in Holden a sensation similar to pain. It feathered out from his stomach and reached up into his throat. Out of embarrassment it was all he could do to stop himself laughing.
At home Holden and the ex-corporal mucked around together. Anticipating his jokes the boy began foolishly grinning. Frank McBee could really be funny! He waited for Holden to arrive, and soon had everyone splitting their sides. His uniform had been a sign of his transitory status. Now that he was clear of the army and wore their father's tram conductor's trousers he looked like a bandstand player without an instrument.
Frank McBee watched Holden and went after him. Anything to penetrate the boy's surface! Such impassiveness wasn't natural. Not at that age. His mother who behaved in the opposite way, all expression and abandon, could only roll her eyes, 'That boy's always been a mystery to me.' And in an unfortunate allusion to his father, 'He's like a telegraph pole.'
During a lull in activities Holden would find McBee staring at him and seeing him notice, McBee would give an exaggerated start ('Who, me?'). Then he'd wave in front of the boy's nose, which made no impression, and pull a series of demented faces, which didn't work either; frowning, and still monitoring Holden's expressionlessness, he reached across on a Friday night and began twisting his arm.
'Stop it,' their mother began laughing, 'he's only a boy.'
McBee shook his head.
'He's all right. Aren't you, boy?'
He leaned towards Holden's stiffening face.
'Say something to the audience. Anything that comes into your head. Express yourself. Tell us what's going on in that thick skull of yours. What are your views of today's youth? Has the returned soldier been given a fair go?'
'Please don't hurt him,' Karen cried.
McBee tickled her with his free hand. 'I know your weak spots. I'll get you in a minutewhen I've finished with this difficult bugger.'
Bent up behind his ear Holden's arm made the sound of snapping twigs and branches. An atomic flurry in the ground plan of Adelaide: it only lasted a minute. Faintly, Holden perceived it to be evidence of loyalty not to crack. It lessened the pain.
'Good man,' McBee let go. 'You beat the clock. You've got a good threshold. That's right.' He tried the word again: '"Threshold". You've got a good threshold.'
'I didn't mind,' Holden rubbed his elbow, 'it didn't hurt.'
Karen didn't believe him. 'Are you all right?'
'Stupid,' their mother moved over to the sink. 'That goes for the both of you.'
And when McBee nudged him and winked he felt included in an alliance, almost as an equal. Unlike his awkwardness with the metalwork teacher he experienced a kind of hectic gratitude for being allowed to remain close to the older man.
Moving up a grade to Indian arm-wrestling Holden felt he could beat McBee (hands down), though he never pushed his advantage, and throwing and lifting each other on the front lawn in the hot twilight Holden managed, despite an indifferent audience, to hold the former soldier horizontally above his head while remaining completely expressionless.
That irrational movementarthritic, spasmodicwhich disturbed the lines of the city on Friday evenings was nothing to the one which appeared later in the year, in broad daylight. External (that is, observed by the population at large), horizontal and longer-lasting it was accompanied by the metallic strokes of internal combustion. Leaving Uncle Vern's place late one afternoon Holden turned as usual into Magill Road. Head down, exaggerating the illusion of being engulfed by the tidal Hills rising darkly a few yards behind him, Holden quickly reached the point where the pedals of Mercury became hopelessly under-gearedmust have been hitting forty-five or fiftyand was aiming to pass a tram, also swaying left and right as if being pedalled, when an olive-green war-disposal motorbike came from behind in a clatter and cut in front of him, leaning like a yacht tacking in a gale, almost clipping the tram's slatted cowcatcher, before leaning the other way in the one graceful motion to avoid colliding with a man and his missus, who'd stepped out to flag down the city-bound tram.
All Holden had glimpsed was a patch of nicotine-coloured hair. Something about the receding rider's splayed elbows opened Holden's eyes; and suddenly he recognised his father's piped trousers. By then the couple were directly in front of his handlebars, and only by swerving violently, his left elbow grazing the jutting breast of the embroidered woman did he avoid piling into thema rare moment when his face expressed alarm.
Recovering nicely, he began laughing. Not over the close shave, the frozen faces and the man's angry shout, but in anticipation of seeing McBee at home with his precious motorbike.
A new informality showed between Mrs Shadbolt and Frank McBee. They could be quite solemn and matter-of-fact together: a naturalisation ceremony of the kind eventually performed by thousands of post-war migrants.
The naturalness tended (extended) to extremes. Diving under the table retrieving a fork Holden saw the former soldier's trigger hand between his mother's splayed legs. A single blink registered it as clearly as a Leica shutter, and he stayed under a second or two more for the humid image to develop. Emerging red in the face with the effort, as if he'd stayed too long under water, his mother hastily assumed it to be embarrassment and moved away from McBee. But it was when she began adding 'dear' like a Christian-name at the end of every other sentence that Holden squirmed. The automation of the intimacy irritated him. He wondered what her feelings were. To Karen though the endearment was natural.
The Shadbolts were now usually into their dessert before McBee came in; 'tea' had always been at six and Mrs Shadbolt saw no reason for delaying it. The sound of the motorbike as it turned into their street and accelerated towards them alerted their mother, and Holden, who had an ear for these things, although everybody recognised the distinctive single-cylinder clatter, nodded authoritatively, 'Here he comes.' And as the rider changed down through the gears, blipping the throttle quite unnecessarily, their mother ducked out to consult a mirror. Only a brief embrace was allowed as he banged through the screen door. With the post-war reconstruction in full swing McBee wore overalls, his hands and sometimes his cheeks smudged with grease. And his raw energywhack: 'Howdy, Holden-boy!'transformed the house.
After scrubbing his face clean, he sat down and proceeded to methodically chew the chop or steak, removing strands of gristle with his fingers, indicating to Holden not so much simple hunger as this man's unalloyed determination. Between mouthfuls he asked Karen, 'And what did you get up to today?' Politely nodding at her finger-twisting recital he then turned to Holden, taking a different line, 'Did you fell a teacher with a single blow to the head today? How many did you tell to jump in the lake? Let's have it, buster. You're among your mates here. At least you were when I left this morning.' The more colloquial and exaggerated he became the more they enjoyed it.
As he ate, Mrs Shadbolt watched his veins stand out, and she smiled pointedly at her children during his interrogations.
Only after leaning back and running his tongue over his teeth did he turn to her and almost jump out of his seat with surprise. Karen and Holden had been waiting for it; McBee never let them down. 'What? You're here too? It's Mrs...'clicking his fingers and frowning'Mrs Whatshername. For the life of me I've forgotten her surname. Normally I'm a tiger for...names. I believe we've met before. It was dark. Remember? My, you're looking nice today. Isn't she now? In broad daylight.'
Out of uniform his open-necked shirt always of the same brown-check spilled out from his slacks and at least one button and shoelace was undone. His red knuckles, oscillating Adam's apple and jaw had become hungry, carbuncular. The energy he brought into the kitchen and the bedroom was tradition-free, larrikin energy. It was expansive, raw, and sometimes dry, as unpredictable as the climate over the perplexing continent.
Holden heard McBee tell their mother he'd hired 'without doubt the finest and most sought-after signwriter in the state' to paint her initials, AJS, in resplendent gold leaf on the petrol tank of the machine. Andwho would believe?she swallowed it. Long after he'd sold it and moved onto better things she kept seeing her monogrammed motorbike on the streets in various colours and states of repair; and once when she saw an AJS with a sidecar she felt a pang as if she had given birth to another child.
To Holden, McBee sometimes spoke in riddles. Slapping the machine's foam rubber seat he said quite loudly, 'She's a good ride. I'll tell you about it one day. She can be a temperamental bitch,' he added, a joke.
Holden thought McBee had been confiding in him. Looking up he saw his mother with hands on her hips. 'I heard that,' she said. But smiling slightly she had eyes only for McBee.
Squatting beside him Holden developed his mechanical mind. For McBee seemed to enjoy dismantling the Amal carburettor, adjusting its needle. He fiddled with the magneto. They threw away the air cleaner. The spark plug was reverently handed to Holden to clean, and using a shirt soaked in petrol he polished the alloy crankcase until it mirrored his solemn face.
And McBee and the boy became a common sight around the streets of Burnside, Payneham, Norwood. Accelerating up Magill Road after tea the motorcycle's four-stroke engine imitated the sound of tearing trousers, and as the succession of shaded streets fell away left and right, the expanse of pale countryside and rising hills opened up before them in a vast zipper-action. Holden embraced the man in the foetal crouch, leaning when he leaned. Braking heavily he merged into the broad back. Briefly then they were one, their eyes slitted like our Asian friends. It encouraged in Holden a false feeling of equality.
'Where do you go all day?' he wanted to know. 'Is it your job? Can I come one day?'
The scattered remnants of the world war included of course a surplus (there's a mercantile term) of khaki trousers and epauletted shirts, and tons of ammunition boxes with the rope handles going cheap. There was a glut of rucksacks and canvas belts which matched the complexion of the jaundiced survivors of Burma and the Islands, while tarpaulins and tents used now for picnics had the dusty greens of the box-hedges. It would be years before the regulation boots wore out in the trenches of homesites, or along the borders of invisible gardens, just as the veterans of Crete and the Western Desert would take almost as long to stop ducking their heads at the distant explosions from the quarry in the Hills overlooking the city.
The dry colours of this surplus material had been carefully manufactured for its camouflage qualitiesits closeness to earth. Now in peacetime it introduced a layer of melancholy to the city. Khaki was a hardworking colour, the defender of plain virtues. It was a declaration of practicality, of post-war rebuilding and repopulation. Nothing frivolous about khaki. It's all over Africa and the colonies like a plague. The word itself has been handed down from the Hindustani. Is it worn much by affluent, already-made societies? There's scarcely a square metre of the stuff in Sweden or Switzerland.
The most eyecatching relics of war were the rearing fuselages of stranded Avro Ansons. From the back of the AJS Holden spotted them behind blurred hedges or protruding in backyards, and in an otherwise ordinary street off Payneham Road a Mustang fighter had managed a perfect pancake landing on a lawn tennis court. Stripped of wings and disgorging the instrument panel and intestines of plaited wiring, these great machines announced an agony of impotence: the war was well and truly over, kaput.
Between them Holden and Frank McBee knew the location of most of the aircraft in Adelaide; a small city, easily traversed. But if McBee had a special interest he wasn't letting on. He crouched over the rattling motorbike.
In those days aluminium was as exotic and as expensive as poultry at Christmas. Its light weight and dull shine fascinated Holden. And the aluminium accounted for only a small part of an aeroplane's technology. It had the instruments and the hydraulics, and riveted struts and pedals drilled to reduce weight had a refined engineering-sculptural quality. Whenever he sighted one of those partially stripped planes Holden envied the gaunt handyman in weekend overalls who'd had the foresight to acquire it.
'You know my Uncle Vern, he reckons you can get an Avro Anson for 140.'
'Is he looking for one? Does he want to buy one?'
Holden shook his head, 'He's interested in other things.'
'I don't know the man. He's on your mother's side, right?'
'Her brother,' Holden nodded solemnly. 'And he's good. You can ask him about anything under the sun.'
'What, he knows everything, does he? You can't catch him out?'
'He works at the Advertiser.'
McBee made a brief arse-wiping movement. 'That's all the newspapers are good for.'
The boy had to laugh.
'Anyway,' Holden returned to his pet subject, 'where do all the old planes come from? These ones that we see?'
Lighting a cigarette McBee flicked the match away.
And that afternoon Holden was taken on a longer, deliberate ride out of the city. They parted a furrow through a corridor of waist-high grasses which swayed and rippled in the turbulence. When the road shifted a few points towards the setting sun the bleached paddocks, the low hills to the right, and even the trunks of occasional gum trees were overrun by a lava of blinding orange. All this Holden saw with his head to one side. He followed the rapidly receding perspective of stalks, fractured densities and fencing endlessly repeating itself. At set intervals the darker verticals of telegraph poles made abrupt exclamations, and he watched the shadow of himself hunched on the elongated insect-machine advancing rhythmically and retreating.
The aerodrome serving Adelaide was at a place called Parafield (as in 'parachute' and 'paratrooper' the aircraft industry resorted to the prefix, testifying to the artificiality of human flight). Holden had glimpsed the first windsock as McBee turned right. The motorbike bumped along a dusty track away from the aerodrome. Holden hopped off to unhook an agricultural gate; McBee accelerated away leaving him standing there.
Through a screen of trees he saw a small paddock crammed full of aluminium aeroplanes: DC3s mostly, a few wingless Wirraways and Ansons. As he ran towards them a Sutherland flying boat came into view, moored like an exhausted silver duck in the khaki waters of the dam. And above it crows and hawks circled thermally.
Holden had never seen a graveyard of planes. They were arranged more or less into cemetery rows. Perspex noses and scratched alloy surfaces glittered at the foot of drought-stricken hills. And there was no doubt the RAAF circular markings endowed them with heroic histories; being grounded only added to the poignancy.
No such feelings afflicted McBee.
Throughout the late 1940s there were two prevailing caricatures of dealers in scrap.
First, the greying old boy behind the desk sporting the striped tie; bought and sold the surplus aircraft on the advice of others, along with pig iron, railway sleepers and wheat crops; all sight unseen, over the telephone. Clean fingernails: scrap metal being only a recent and temporary segment of his turnover. A slow-moving, sedentary operator. Time was always on his side. When General Motors set up manufacturing in South Australia he'd put up risk capital for small suppliers (the foundry churning out the rear-vision mirrors, for example). His sons were chinless wonders given to lairising around the streets in British sports cars. The second and more common archetype wore filthy overalls, shorts and army boots. His office was a corrugated iron shed or nothing at all. No telephone. Deals were completed on the personal level with a handshake and tenners stuffed into a hip pocket. Beginning with an Avro Anson bought with back-pay he personally removed easily saleable itemslanding lights, sheets of aluminium, the bucket seatsand then the other less accessible parts. The huge radial motors were pulled down to isolate the block of aluminium alloy. About halfway stripped, the hulk had paid for itself. Then onto the next. Turnover became the trick. An aeroplane rarely left his hands intact. A lotta hard work. Often they dabbled in digger spades and enamel plates on the side. But at least you didn't answer to a boss. Such a dealer in scrap had grazed shins, stubborn eyes; a face already half worn out.
The former group represented preservation and accumulation, movement of capital: essentially conservatism; the second specialising in dismantling and dissemination, piecemeal exchange, was more visible, physically active, democratic.
Frank McBee belonged to the...probably the second category.
Not all the aircraft belonged to him; part of the paddock he leased to the first category of merchant. 'I swap their planes around,' he explained with a wink. 'They wouldn't know the bloody difference.'
Most dealers began with an Ansonplenty of non-ferrous scrap, and they were the cheapest. McBee had a lucky break. Through a contact he heard about a Spitfire. 'Not as much metal, but crikey, I'm a romantic. Look how they performed in the Battle of Britain.' On the day it was delivered a speedboat enthusiast bought the supercharged engine. He had his own personal mechanic lift it out. 'I then thought: no, bugger it, I can pick up an Anson anytime.' Instead he turned to the DC3the old Gooneybird. These went for four times the cost of the Anson. McBee bought two on credit. The Spitfire shell he meanwhile sold to a German in the Barossa Valley. Took out options on another two DC3s. Small airlines were springing up in Australia and all through the Pacific basin. They needed spare parts. McBee quickly sold the propellers, flaps, balloon tyres and hydraulic systems; Air New Guinea became a regular client of undercarriages. Anything left was sold for scrap. At one stage he had thirteen DC3s. By then he owned the paddock, freehold, and branched out into Ansons, Wirraways and plywood flying boats.
'This is a great country of ours,' he said with a simple but expansive gesture. 'Thank Christ the Japs didn't come down and take us.'
The land remained silent. The sky had darkened to a fuselage grey pierced by a full moon, a single flared cannon hole letting in light.
'What happened to the speedboat driver?'
McBee gave a short laugh. 'Don't you read the papers? This was a few weeks back. The idiot was trying to break the Australian water speed record. He broke his neck instead. His boat turned turtle at over a hundred. They're only made of plywood. I got one of the boys to make up a kind of wreath out of a few exhaust pipes, and the man's wife, not a bad-looking tart, was so touched, or chewed up, one or the other, she let me have the engine for nix. If I fished it out. That was easy enough. And you know what? I sold it while it was still dripping saltwater to an ex-RAF type who's getting the whole thing chrome-plated and mounted in his loungeroom. It takes all types.'
Looking around at the extent of the paddock Holden could see McBee was different from everybody else. And with his face partially cast in shadow he now looked especially able, a man who wore the burden of complicated components and high numbers lightly. Towards Holden he had always been friendly and yet remote. And that was how it should be. It was only natural, Holden decided.
These numbered among Holden's happiest days. Many years later the sight of deserted aircraft on a tarmac, especially at the close of a tropical day when the windscreens turned into panels of mica, never failed to remind him of the dusty paddock near Parafield, and even brought a slight smile to his face.
For after that first visit he became McBee's assistant. Like many national heroes McBee had an aversion to being alone.
They rattled out on the A-J, Siamese twins suffering curvature of the spine. With his forehead pressed almost daily against the billowing back, flecks of khaki from the passing landscape and McBee's war-disposal shorts entered Holden's pupils and remained: wind-conditioned eyes, marbled khaki. At the paddock McBee hop-hopped into his ex-RAAF overalls (zippers, map-pockets, flaps...), already casting around for the most immediate task. Plenty of times Holden climbed into a cockpit'Pancake to Four O'Clock. Over'but soon returned to his position at the boss's elbow, igniting the oxy torch with McBee's temperamental Zippo, handing him spanners, helping him undo the nuts on Merlin rocket-coversthat sort of thing.
The complexities of identical aircraft constantly posed a different set of problems. Nothing remained static. A part was always being dismantled or swapped, reducing the whole. The great powerhouses of frame and solid metal laced with wire, piping, clips and cable, the sleeves and brackets of many different sizes, and the hundreds of watch-like screws and nuts engrossed the two of them. There was always something to do, always something to look forward to. And as Holden studied McBee's neck as he strained and swore, unbolting a stubborn supercharger, he was bathed in a kind of liquid gratitude.
Wiping his hands at the end of a long day, and kick-starting for the return home, McBee often got it into his head to suddenly slalom, just for the hell of it, through the formation of Dakotas and Ansons and, in late 1946, an American Liberator'There's a rare bird for you'with Holden gripping his waist, until they lost control one night, clipped the propeller of a Mustang and somersaulted, and McBee practised his ratbaggery alone. As it grew dark the hills several hundred yards away became silhouetted, as did the patient shapes of the planes in cold gun-metal against the sky, standing on angular undercarriages of polished bones. Without lights McBee made a point of riding faster and faster. Holden followed his progress through sound and imagination, sometimes deceived by a backfire of bluish flame. In another little game, McBee on AJS motorbike gave the boy a ten-second start and then hunted him down in the style perfected by the SS. Unfortunately it revealed the former corporal's worst qualitieshis ruthlessness, for exampleand Holden felt hurt when he was caught and then repeatedly run over by his otherwise generous friend.
Leaving Parafield, approaching the streets of Adelaide, McBee's reluctance to turn for home was transmitted through his back in a series of muscular contractions. A hesitancy stuttered the exhaust note. If there was a phone call to make, or someone to see somewhere, Holden waited outside on the pillion seat. But onceit was rainingMcBee took Holden inside the Maid 'n' Magpie. The big boy sat there with his glass of lemonade, appearing not to follow the conversation, and after that always accompanied McBee into the public bar whether there was business or not.
McBee was at his most relaxed there. The enclosed noise of men blurred distinctions. A bar had an anonymous, respectful quality. Men enjoyed each other's noise. They wanted to be there, and the noise further confirmed it. They were comfortable; Holden admired their ease. And McBee became laughingly expansive.
'We'd better go,' Holden had to tug his sleeve.
It always took a few more minutes. Usually McBee made an exaggerated show of consulting his watch fitted with a leather hood. (Protective leather watchbands were common after the war: as if they obliterated the past and offered an open future.)
And Holden quickly knew how long they'd stayed by the rate of acceleration up Magill Road and, turning into their street, if McBee sped down the gravel footpath between the shadowed hedges and the flashing jacarandas, his chin on the petrol tank, before broadsiding to negotiate the gate.
They banged into the kitchen with extra loudness, McBee still talking and Holden half-grinning behind him. The passivity of the soft-skinned womenthe familiar shape of Holden's seated mother, his sister Karenseemed like a rebuke. Bold as brass though McBee kissed his missus on the lips and neck.
'Here! You've got dirty paws!'
And when he trotted off she turned to Holden.
'I know where you've been. Do you know what time it is? Why are you doing this? The pair of you. We've been sitting here. We begin tea here at six. If only your father. Be late as this again and I'll'
Holden sympathised. 'I know,' he scratched his leg.
Glancing at Karen he saw her smiling. He wondered if they had any idea of the extent of McBee's business. His mother never enquired at the table. It seemed enough that he was fully occupied. His contentment increased her contentment. In this way she followed the social laws of post-war growth. And although up to his neck in his work McBee cheerfully managed odd jobs around the house, first rigging up a silken clothesline from the entrails of a parachute, with Holden's help, and replacing rotten gutters and the front gate post (after he'd clipped it one night). He silenced the maverick floorboard in the hall and handled live wires without wearing rubber soles.
By early 1947 he began bombarding the faintly protesting Shadbolts with the latest in labour-saving consumer-durables; in certain crucial ways McBee was inarticulate. One Friday night the carpet-sweeper was ceremonially hurled in the manner of a loose propeller over the back fence, and replaced by the latest in cylindrical Hoovers. A barrel-shaped washing machine arrived. It inched across the floor on castors: the entire house vibrated when Mrs Shadbolt had it going. The Frigidaire with shoulders like a woman introduced a soothing belt-driven hum at all hours. Holden happened to be there when Frank McBee slipped his arm around his mother's waist and suggested they give the early cream and green Kooka stove to the Salvation Army or chuck it in the River Torrens. 'No, I happen to be perfectly satisfied with that,' she said, squirming out of his clutches. 'It's not you who has to do the cooking.' In case that wasn't clear she added, 'Shouldn't you purchase yourself a decent pair of trousers?'
Musical jugs, whistling kettles, a bigger and better wireless, and the telephone, arrived. Whatever his line of business it must have been doing all right.
He began reading the Advertiser at breakfast, leaving later for work. But he still bummed around in overalls or shorts, and rode the leaking rattletrap of a motorbike.
McBee's old room had been left as a storeroom, the bed always made (just in case), and as business expanded it took on the appearance of an office, a card table became a desk, and shoeboxes on the floor contained vital papers, though according to McBee 'it was all stored up here' (tapping his skull). The telephone had been installed there, and it was often difficult to find once it began ringing. Gathering dust in the corner was the rifle McBee carried the day he'd arrived at the screen door. When Holden remindedjokingit should be turned in, McBee shook his head, 'Nup, I'm keeping it handy for the tax inspectors. I'll shoot any of the bastards if they come.' And he confided to his silent partner, 'I had offered to me the other day 2000 Lee Enfields. I knocked them back.'
In the space of six months Holden had moved from the airy world of bicycles to explosive motorcycles to the densities of dismantled propeller-driven aircraft. And now that bicycles were common, the local manufacturers were riding the boom, he felt faintly ridiculous on his androgynous machine with the different-sized wheels. It attracted all kinds of laughter at intersections. Even McBee, normally careless about appearances, and who sometimes wobbled around the front lawn on the bike, began cracking jokes. He offered to replace it. 'And I'll donate your thing to the zoo.'
But the creak of its pedals and the cantankerous outline reminded Holden of his angular uncle. Just about every week he pushed the triangular frame towards the Hills, out of the seat half the time, building tremendous strength in his lungs and legs, until he entered Vern's enclosed vantage point from where everything in the world suddenly appeared different and fresh. It represented a factual way of looking at things, structured on words and distance. At Vern's place Holden asked hundreds of questions. He enjoyed listening. He acquired word knowledge there. With his other friend, McBee, the friend of his mother, it was different. For hours on end they barely exchanged a word. Alongside him, Holden simply observed. He traced the logic of metals and engines, learned to appreciate the physical nature of things. It was knowledge based on equations and appearances, all within arm's reach. In this way two men who had never met competed for Holden's attention.
Holden had told his uncle all about their boarder, and his expanding business. 'I've heard on the grapevine about him,' Vern nodded.
This didn't surprise Holden.
Up there in the house his uncle always heard news before anyone else. Proof sheets from the next morning's, or even the next week's, Advertiser lay draped over chairs and fluttered on tables. To prove a point Vern often read something aloud, pausing to mark corrections. From the aerial and shadowy nature of proofs Vern strived to establish clarity. 'What do you make of this? Fancy that. So the British have nationalised their coal mines?' Or, 'Here's interesting news. Did you know there are now 311 million people in India?' Bradman retained the Ashes for Australia, and Joe Louis flattened another dumb opponent. Some of this news locked in type hadn't happened yet. No wonder his uncle knew everything.
On 5 February, 1947, Holden must have been among the first to hear the terrific news that gave the rest of the country (the following day) a surge of relief and national pride. Graziers, their bankers and brokers, and the average Joe in the street, lowered their newspapers in wonder: images of swirling dust and bleached ribcages receded, and with it went the vague undercurrent of perpetual foreboding.
'I've told you how rain works,' was how his uncle broke the story. 'Now listen to this...'
Two brainy local scientists had been researching techniques of cloud-seeding. Their aim: to 'stimulate' clouds. What is a cloud? Tiny droplets of suspended water. In order to fall these have to freeze. Then in the lower altitudes they melt back again into 'rain'. Several methods had been tried, with little success. On 5 February, over the little wooden town of Oberon west of Sydney, the team struck pay-dirt. From a specially converted Liberator bomber they poured the bags of dry ice onto likely looking broken cumuli. 'I've told you all about cumuli.' In thirty minutes flat it erupted into a larger higher cloud which rained for two and a half hours solid. Local flooding was reported, although ten miles from the town was dry as a bone.
'There was so much trickling water,' reported one of the rain scientists with a solemn grin, 'I had to keep ducking down to the lavatory.'
The accompanying photograph had them standing at ease in front of the victorious propellers, both wearingappropriatelysheepskin and leather jackets. They deserved a medal: this discovery could transform the yellow-red surface of the entire country.
'It's always good to have good news,' Vern sighed. 'There's never enough of it.'
'Did you say a Liberator? Let me see a sec.'
Holden studied the page-proof.
'I know that plane. Ha ha. I've sat in the cockpit. Guess where it came from?'
He couldn't stop shaking his head.
Because, partly, it was strange experiencing the transformation of an intimate object into a printed image ready for the rest of the world to share.
On slightly deflated tyres Holden left, gathering speed down Magill Road the way mercury rolls clumsily along a table. With the wind still in his hair he entered the kitchen and straightaway began nodding knowingly at McBee.
'What's eating him?'
'So, that's where the Liberator went? You didn't tell me.'
The boarder turned to the others. 'I think the boy's trying to tell me something.'
'He's been up with his mad uncle,' his mother explained.
Realising McBee didn't know, Holden felt even more pleased. With mechanical movements he unfolded the proof and pointed.
'That's our Liberator, the one you had before Christmas. Some scientists are using it now to make rain. I'm not kidding. There's going to be no more droughts in the country.'
'Where's this from?' McBee stared. 'Let me see.'
'It's going in the paper tomorrow.'
McBee's lips moved as he followed the lines of type a second and then a third time.
'It's always good to have good news,' Holden turned to the others.
As he spoke a few drops fell on the roof. And before anyone had time to even glance at the ceiling the rain became delirious, erupting into applause, anticipating the national mood of euphoria so accurately that while it lastedthe trouble with tin roofsnobody could hear anyone else talking.
Old bombers above the clouds altering the will of nature...the subsequent vision of merinos standing permanently knee-deep in green pastures...would capture the minds of the entire population. No more pictures of cracked cockies squinting up at the perfect Wedgwood sky, and the buckled tessellations of empty claypans and dams, spinifex cartwheeling across the paddock, or the khaki of grasses which added melancholy to the city and towns.
Holden had to leap up to fasten the clapping screen door.
When he returned he found McBee in his office shouting into the telephone.
Cupping his hand over the mouthpiece he asked, 'You sure it's going into tomorrow's paper?'
After cracking a few tasteless jokes, and winking at Holden, options were slapped on the remaining Liberators known to be grounded in Australia.
Vern rarely talked about another living person, his interests being fully committed to the more technical area of facts. Provable, collectable, renewablefacts were hard metal, energetic. They offered little in the way of unpleasantness; Vern had never fully understood the phrase 'unpleasant facts'. Above his city he continued to construct an ever-changing yet solid grid, an antechamber of aerial numbers, surnames and nouns, which fully encompassed him, and seemed to offer support against his deprivations.
For this reason his conversation ran parallel to other people's. More a process of inferring via precedent, true stories from other places, questions mixed with well-established facts; and other people couldn't help glancing at him, trying to make sense.
If the subject of a known person cropped up he began hurriedly stroking his throat and sought refuge in the fly specks on the light bulb or the pelmet above Holden's head. Not only was a living person porous, difficult to grasp, Vern had a horror of casting aspersions.
Of Frank McBee all he said was, 'He's an unknown quantity.'
And as for constipated clouds being bombed into activity for the good of the nation, Vern who regularly used 'H2O' in casual conversation could be more specific. 'They're clutching at straws,' he said, without even a trace of a smile.
Reading the stories set for the front page'Rain-boffins Fly Again'Vern held the blue pencil aloft and began gaping in disbelief. 'What on earth does this mean?' He was tearing his hair out with frustration. Vern Hartnett alone could not of course stem the tide of extravagant claims, the lack of proof. Stick to questions of grammar, spelling and juxtaposed paragraphs. Especially watch out for the split infinitive. These would always be the proofreader's perimeters. And as the rain-seeding trials proceeded the mounting delirium of nouns, optimistic adjectives and numbers, and the report splashed on page three of a run on umbrellas and gumboots, became a real agony for him and surely contributed to the migraines, insomnia and failing eyesight beginning as early as 1947.
Everybody wanted to believe. That was the trouble. Rain-seeding not only erased the climatic despairs of the past and promised a verdant future, it represented a visual reversalraining abundanceto the recent desolation of Coventry, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Darwin. It fitted the mood of post-war reconstruction. While Frank McBee understood this, Vern stubbornly maintained such hopes flew in the face of the facts, and suffered.
Often Holden found himself picturing his unusual uncle. There he stood, an isolated figure looking lost in the backyard among outstretched statues. In some way Holden wanted to help him. But he didn't know how. Holden could see his visits were important. If he missed a week his uncle wore the same perplexed look as when the subject of a living person cropped up. Early on, Vern had busily promised to introduce two of his oldest friends'you'd like them for different reasons'and Holden, who felt drawn to older people, looked forward to it. Several times after missing a visit Holden was told, 'If only you'd come when you said you would. My two friends were here, itching to meet you. They were sitting where you are now, until the sky went dark.' Or 'Guess who were here yesterday afternoon?' So regular became the near-misses Holden virtually ceased believing even the phantom surnames of his uncle's best-friends.
As for the loaded 'He's an unknown quantity...'
Well, yes, when Holden's thoughts turned to Frank McBee he pictured the weave of his knitted back, or else a close-up of his jaw and neck, and at other times nothing but a rapidly diminishing dot. For McBee approached the family of Shadbolts the way he handled the smoking motorbike: rushing in, making noisy contact, veering off. His sentences rattled and vibrated, and when things went quiet he glanced left and right, his teeth chattering, waiting for an opening. Cut-throat shaving had stippled his neck. He grew a handlebar moustache and developed quite a spluttering kick-start laugh.
A side of McBee remained impenetrable. He could take a sudden close interest in a person. Often did. He made the point. Intimacy was allowed the way the arms of a pillion passenger encircled his waist for the duration of a ride. In the next breath he'd be standing there distant, a dot, taking no notice of anybody, his mind somewhere else. The Shadbolts regularly experienced it: part of his 'unknown quantity'.
During this putting of distance between himself and others the jaw and nose of McBee unconsciously solidified, and especially at sunset among his dismembered aeroplanes, he assumed the same blind stare of the well-known visionaries standing in Vern's backyard. Holden had seen it when McBee first announced himself through the flyscreen door. Holden hadn't been mistaken. The roaring success of the scrap business allowed the former corporal to leave the day-to-day operation in the hands of a few trusted mechanics, and the Shadbolts' small nineteen thirties house had become a repository for local fauna in bric-a-brac and knick-knacks, the very latest in gadgetry and the woodcarver's art. Proof of McBee's success was there for all to see.
He was generous, and yet there was his impenetrable, invisible side.
Holden had not even been considering this on a day it had been raining. The gutters were still gurgling as he rode home on the heavy old machine, now reduced to 'MERC Y'.
Each downward thrust of a pedal measured the space between the saturated telegraph poles. As Holden entered that simple regularity he began to experience an intense, private satisfaction, as if there on Magill Road in Adelaide he was in perfect tune with the universe. The entire world seemed to be laid out in clearly defined elements; water, glistening road and gutters were part of it; and almost with a laugh he imagined himself striding on the telegraph wires, a figure plunging through the sky. There was so much to see, so much to learn. Gripping the pitted handlebars he already decided how he'd enter the kitchen. He was going to burst in, rubbing his hands, talking his head off. That was the plan. To give an impression of energy. But as on other occasions an awkwardness would overrun his intentions at the last second, and he appeared extra-deadpan, suppressing his true feelings.
Lately his friend McBee had reverted to breezing in long after six. To kill time, and just for fun, Holden turned off into an unknown side street, although it had begun lightly raining.
The houses were spacious and set back. Instead of jacarandas, clumps of obnoxious lantana decorated the footpaths. Holden kept glancing left and right. One of these posh places could easily have an unknown Anson or Mosquito on the front lawn.
From behind, a familiar rattle of tappets entered the street and accelerated towards him. Holden swerved into the gutter. Already he had his knowing grin ready. But Frank McBee had twisted around to his pillion passenger, yelling something, before crouching and mounting the footpath opposite, and in an all too familiar hail of gravel and mud, spraying the hedges and a parked Buick, did his old slalom routine through the islands of lantana.
Above it all Holden heard the shrill notes of the squealing passenger. A peroxide blonde, she had pleasure-loving teeth. With her cheek glued to the curve of McBee's spine she managed to give the boy facing her a spontaneous little wave. Then, one leg extended in exaggerated speedway-style and giving the throttle a violent blip, which produced a fart of blue flame, McBee skidded sideways through a wrought-iron gate.
The trundle of trams and the gear-changing of evening traffic climbing Magill Road seemed to interfere with the boy's thinking.
For a good ten minutes he contemplated the toe of one of his dented shoes. Whenever he looked up he still saw the tail of the AJS parked at the end of the drive.
What could be going on in there? Holden wanted to pass through the wall of bricksmottled, manganese which had been fired twenty years ago at Bennett's factory, only a few streets awayand enter the rooms, one by one, until he located McBee. But the house standing there not only remained bland, it appeared to be gazing blandly back at him.
Quickly he imagined how he'd greet his friend when he emerged. And what would McBee say, surprised to see him there?
A vague stain of uncertainty made Holden uncomfortable. He thought of his mother, waiting in the kitchen. It was enough to make him fiddle with a pedal. For the first time he wondered what he was doing there.
It was past six o'clock. Without looking again at the house Holden followed the sensible course and rode slowly home.
No one had met any of McBee's friends. Leaving the house early he'd be out all day and return after dark. Associates left digital messages over the telephone. It was all matter-of-fact.
It became a mystery: how could a man who clearly knew his way about town, a man with a future out of this world (i.e. beyond Adelaide), a man alert, and always ready with an impractical jokehow was it he never introduced a good friend, not one, not even in conversation? It bothered the Shadbolts. Even their Uncle Vern, Holden pointed out, had at least two good best-friends.
'Of course Frank's very popular,' their mother explained, 'with other men in particular. He's that type of man.' Though she immediately coughed and contradicted, 'I know him better than anybody.'
Gradually this conspicuously vacant side of the man who came and went was accepted as part of his isolated make-up.
So that when Frank McBee announced from behind the paper he'd be bringing home a friend on Friday night, if that's OK by everybody, it sent the Shadbolts, after a moment's pause, running around in circles.
Holden, who regularly experienced McBee's ratbaggery, turned the colour of Bennett's brick. The peroxide blonde. Surely he wouldn't.
'Tell us. Who is he?'
'What's his name?'
'But that's tomorrow night. What am I going to cook? Does he eat fish?'
At last McBee lowered the paper.
'Stone the crows'rural terms had penetrated the urban vocabulary in South Australia, along with mining slang'anyone would think I was bringing Jane Russell into the house.'
A private joke, it went down like a 'lead balloon'an aeronautical term, McBee was the first in the state to use it regularly, just as when giving the thumbs down he said, 'That's a real no-no.' To Holden now he raised one shoulder and flashed one of Jane's cheesy smiles. The last of their American Liberators at Parafield had her symmetrical statistics curvaceously cartooned on the fuselage, spilling out of one-piece bathers.
'Say, what's eating Holden-boy?'
'Perhaps he's in the dark,' muttered Mrs Shadbolt, 'like the rest of us.'
'Friday nights are our special nights,' Karen reminded. 'But I'm glad you're bringing him.'
'Who said it's a him?' bellowed McBee, and laughed like a maniac from Parkside.
There he goes again, Holden frowned. And although he began smiling, something about McBee troubled him.
'Don't you think I'm attracted to local sheilas?'
The newspaper sliding from his knees ('RAIN-SEEDING PLANS SHELVED'), McBee scrambled after filly-legged Karen, giving their mother an affectionate pinch in passing.
As it happened, McBee's friend turned out to be a flight sergeant from Warragul, a good foot shorter than Holden, and sporting the pukka tooth-brush moustache of his superior officers. Natty little chap. When he grinned, which was every few seconds, he blinked vigorously. Originally a signal to show his prowess as a listener his blinking had developed into a Pavlovian tic.
'How do you do?' their mother had offered her hand.
Standing to attention he remained at a slight Pisa-angle.
'Sit down, sit down!' shouted McBee. 'For Christsake, everybody sit down.'
It was then as the airman tried crossing legs under the table that Holden winced and realised he had only one leg.
'Sorry, old boy,' said the airman. 'My fault entirely.'
The evening advanced rapidly on several fronts: monologues shouted, froth and slops, and other repetitions. Two glasses were broken, as soon were laws of courtesy and commonsense.
Did the family always create such a deafening racket on Friday? Holden observed their behaviour through the eyes of the stranger. At the head of the table, and acting as headwaiter ('Wait, don't get ahead of yourself'), McBee took on the complex tasks of chief toast-maker, bottle-opener, orator, joker. The last came easily to him. He told elongated stories. He repeated himself. (He was speaking to the ceiling.) A bang of the fist brought the table to order and a smile of indulgence from Mrs S. The success spread to his head. As Holden watched it expanded, squeezing transparent moisture from the pores, ballooning melon-round, and flushing into the blood of the rare steak he had insisted upon. After offering a glimpse of an inflated future McBee's face subsided into its familiar bright-eyed countenance. Patience meanwhile took its toll on Holden's mother. Drained to the colour of pearl she looked to be bored, definitely.
Mrs Shadbolt, and even Karen, began to wonder why the one-legged flight sergeant had been invited. McBee took no notice of him. Whenever he tentatively parted his purple lips, which immediately activated the eyelids, McBee shouted the man down. To Holden it was not at all how he imagined a best-friend to be.
Ten-thirty, and Karen had nodded off in her chair.
The way the lonely airman surveyed his panatella between each puff showed he had been seeing too many American good-guy films. Now his way of half-smiling down at his lung-coloured smoke began attracting attention. The airman was getting too big for his boots (only officers were allowed shoes); and he seemed to be unaware of it. Between talking McBee was staring at him.
'That looks like,' he suddenly pointed, 'you're holding someone's prick in your hand.'
'I say,' the flight sergeant reddened, and glanced at Mrs Shadbolt.
'Don't mind us,' she yawned. 'And Karen, she's off to bed.'
Holden stood up.
Grabbing his elbow McBee knocked a bottle over.
'Before you go, what does this remind you of?'
Taking their visitor's chin he turned the face this way and that. Funny little chapto put up with that. Well? McBee glanced around the table. Toulouse-Lautrec? No specs. How about Group Captain Douglas Bader? The legs more or less matched, but there was the problem of the charcoal moustache, all the rage in the forties. Why wasn't he original?
'I know!' Holden's mother put her hand over her mouth.
'Cut it out,' the airman blinked. 'There's been a difficult war on.'
'Shhh, let the drip have his go.'
Holden stood there like a post. His photographic memory had swung into place. Rough suggestion of HitlerAdolf Hitler.
'Right!' Whack on the shoulder-blades. 'For zat, you vin vun hun-dered pounds and a free veek in Berlin.'
'I said, that'll do. That's not funny. It's beyond control how a person looks.'
Frank McBee drowned him out with 'Onward Christian Soldiers'.
'You're a bully,' Holden's mother turned to him. 'Why are you always a bully?'
'I can take care of myself,' the sergeant interrupted. And he whispered, 'I say, that boy of yours, if he is yours, gives me the ruddy creeps.'
'Oh shut up.'
The ex-corporal didn't seem to be listening. Studying Holden's face he kept the elbow in a pincer-grip; Holden felt the man's strength. In his coarse shirt, and perspiring, he looked as if he'd come straight from a factory.
Holden's mother now had one of Adolf s panatellas in her mouth and the flight sergeant grinning encouragement slowly began disappearing behind reams of newspaper-coloured smoke.
Suddenly pitying her, and not knowing why, Holden felt ashamed.
'Go to bed,' she coughed. 'Frank, tell him to go.'
'What's happening?' Karen asked.
Fumbling in the dark for his pyjamas Holden shook his head.
And lying down the swirling impressions simply smothered his thoughts. The pillow's softness entered his ears and throat, filling the space behind his eyes, as water finds its own level. The adult murmuring from the kitchen rose and fell, a further blurring, edging higher, settling back, which served to upholster his disquiet; or so he thought.
Barely had memory and feeling departed when he was woken by a scream. As he sat up voices began overlapping, shouting. Another scream, higher still. That was their mother. In the bed opposite Karen began crying.
The shapes of things were still imprecise. In the soldier's room among the hat boxes and cartons of electrical appliances Holden crouching in his bare hocks found the .303. Its tremendous vertical weight pointed to the immensity of the task. He couldn't think of anything else to do.
Its weight briefly invited caution. So did its narrow precision-fitting length. But Holden had hardly thought about his action. 'It happened like a dream.' Orchestrated by the floorboards his career started on schedule.
In the 100-watt kitchen he saw the moustachioed flight sergeant seated as before, his hands folded almost primly on his lap. His mother was partly obscured by McBee: bending over, he had her by the shoulders. On the exposed side of her dress a long glass of something had stained the shapes of India and Ceylon.
'What is it you want? What's gotten into you?'
Shaking her head she sniffled, 'I don't know.'
The throttling shadows on the wall above may have grossly exaggerated; yes, but
'She doesn't know,' the flight sergeant intercepted.
'I'll tell you what,' McBee straightened and revealed all of Holden's mother. 'Tell you what I'm going to do.'
She raised her head in partial hope. It was then they saw Holden almost together.
'What are you doing?' she stared. 'My God, what's that he's got?'
The flight sergeant stuka-dived under the table, his DSO and Bar forming a brief rainbow.
'Put that thing away!' Holden's mother shouted. 'I'll brain you.'
McBee restrained her with a slight head movement.
Stepping forward he held out his hand and laughed, 'That's my rifle. Come on, boy.'
But Holden followed him in an arc. That did it: daylight of release widened between his mother and him.
And yet her face contorted, 'What are you doing this to me for?'
From under the table came the cramped voice, 'Tell him someone could get killed...'
McBee had not taken his eyes off Holden. Now the former corporal stiffened, his face, neck and shoulders expanded into a sterner remote force.
'Atten-shun!' He went cross-eyed with the effort. 'Prezent...ARMS!'
McBee turned from Holden with contempt. Phew! The airman crawled out from under the table, lucky to be alive. 'A fat lot of good you were,' McBee said out of the corner of his mouth. 'You RAAF types are all the bloody same.'
Mrs Shadbolt pushed forward; Holden had never seen eyes so wide.
Without a word she slapped him hard across the face.
In the congested kitchen the never-before-heard blaze of noise reverberated, and it was that as much as the loosely held war rifle which threw Holden backwards. The weapon fell from his hands. But too late for the copper bullet to alter its busy trajectory through local history: first collapsing the nearest table leg, before driving the smallest of McBee's toes clean through the pine floorboards (where it gradually decomposed into opal and dust), cartwheeling McBee backwards in a spurt of blood, upsetting the cotton reels in the mending basket, then ricocheting off the concrete back step, shattering louvres and exploding the myth of the flyscreen door, perforating two perfect piss-holes in the corrugated tank, and so touched upon the cardinal points of the South Australian house, deflating the front tyre of McBee's motorbike and clipping the wing of the Medleys' notorious Black Orpington.
McBee lay on the lino, clutching his foot. Pale and trembling he raised himself, and steadying against the sideboard, aimed a tremendous boot at Holden's behind with his undamaged size 8, corporal punishment, the force of which sent him sprawling again and torpedoed the bewildered boy through the doorway into the arms of his sister, Karen.
Those were the days when the appearance on the streets of a new car attracted curious crowds. No sooner had one pulled into the kerb and the driver casually stepped out hurdling the door if it was a roadsterthan men would be drawn from across the street, from passing trams, men from all walks, and couldn't-be-less-interested wives would turn in mid-sentence to find themselves temporarily abandoned, as if the latest in cars had magnets fitted under their fenders and bonnets, exerting an irresistible pull within a short radius, causing in the process jaws to drop, eyes to glaze and hands to thrust deep in the pockets of trousers. Within minutes it would be two or three deep around the car. From splayed legs underneath came muffled reports to the nodding bystanders on the type of front suspension, depth of sump and other specifications, and just about everyone perfected the technique of craning in through the side window to read the instruments, briefly experiencing amid the odour of genuine leather the technical sensation of a framed view of the road, without once laying a finger on the duco.
Parallels with the lunch-hour crowds which also surrounded the excavations for Adelaide's first skyscrapers are superficial; for those men were merely 'filling in time'. Car crowds were knowledgeable, definitely. They had statisticians and 'car maniacs' among them. As they stood there letting the aesthetic and mechanical details sink in, an alert, concentrated hunger distracted their faces: mix, socio-biological of course, of mechanical appraisal, envy, power-lust.
Those same men (hands in pockets, eyes glazed) who might have been all at sea in judging the right shade of curtains, who would not bother looking twice at Drysdale's Woman in Landscape hanging in the local museum, had an almost instinctive feel for the proper rise and fall of mudguards, the proportions of a radiator grille, angle of windscreen, the right or wrong quantity and placement of chrome (always a sore point that), and so on; and they wore this innate knowledge with the usual quiet certitude of the connoisseur.
The magnetism of cars was not restricted to the fully imported experience of Jaguars, Bristols, Lancias. It was more widespread than that. The first locally manufactured product from GM in 1948, which featured six cylinders in line and a pink tail light, was accorded front-page treatment in the Advertiser. No wonder its grille had been pre-set in a wide grin of victory. Each successive model proved a crowd-stopper, causing minor traffic jams, at least for the first few weeks, and scored page one regularly into the sixties, the American PR-man's dream, only retreating onto page four in the seventies. And year after year the population voted in a slow-moving Premier for the state who chauffeured himself into the office and whose surname was a play on (i.e., a subliminal reminder of) a mass-produced American car: enough to activate every man's dream for modernity and stability; no accident that he eventually shattered the world record for the longest serving parliamentary leader in the entire British Empire.
The town plan of Adelaide, the remoteness and emptiness of the old continent itself, and the post-war prosperity fuelled by the occasional copies of Life and Saturday Earning Post lying opened on the benches in barbers' shops (boy, those Americans always looked happy): yes, these undoubtedly encouraged a car-culture. It entered all aspects of daily life, from all directions, replacing, or rather, emotionally interfering with, the invasion of khaki grasses, for the metallic spread of cars never managed to replace the cancer of the grasses, not entirely.
As for the post-war reconstruction, its gathering momentum could be measured aurally by the narrowing interval between the explosions from the roadmaker's quarry visible in the Hills from any point in the city. Another, possibly more accurate index: the number of side-valve British motorcycles equipped with sidecars and eyesore canvas-and-celluloid hoods declined in inverse ratio to the increasing number of blessed prams, pushers and strollers, each fitted with a canvas canopy, once again on a smaller scale. There also appeared to be fewer war-surplus trousers, belts, shirts and boots seen on weekends in front gardens; all things wear out, needless to say. Only the trams retained their original shape.
Of Vern's two best-friends, Les Flies wore his tram-driver's black trousers which featured the vertical maroon piping normally associated with the trousers of bandleaders, whether he was on the job or not, while their joint friend, Gordon Wheelright, went about in shorts even in thunderstorms or at midnight or in the middle of winter. Arriving at Vern's house together they were an odd pair, visually diametrically opposed, not only in the region of legs.
It goes to show how names can slip out of sync: with their respective occupations and preoccupations Flies and Wheelright should have swapped surnames. (Then what? Would anything have changed? Wearing a tag like Flies or Wheelright it is possible.) Wheelright was an Adelaide nose specialist. His spare-time preoccupation, he was well-known for it. His listed occupation though was Weather Forecaster. A man cultivates a hobby, especially when the value of his profession is open to doubt, and, in the case of weather forecasting in those days, ridicule. Wheelright had a litmus nose for rubbish, for flotsam. A student of the streetshis termhe could 'read'his term againthe tempo and condition of a given city by its gutters, and a secondary, more surreptitious source, the contents of its municipal rubbish bins. A city's central nervous condition was revealed by the quantity and degree of angle in stubbed cigarette butts; all right, an obvious example.
The centre of gravity had a way of shifting from one sector of the city to the next. To everyone's amazement it had happened almost overnight during the war when those hordes of rest-and-recreation Americans rejuvenated certain alleyways, cafes and street corners of a dying quarter of Adelaide. Wheelright had read the shift long before the Tramways Department decided to put in extra stops. Now the post-war reconstruction suggested a glacial shift, possibly towards the south. Whenever it rained, information accumulated on one side of town half a mile away was deposited at Wheelright's feet by the perfectly straight gutters. By standing at the right intersection with notebook, pencil and stopwatch he could 'read' the points of localised activity occurring at various parts of the city. The length of mother-of-pearl oil slicks testified to reduced numbers of parked motorcycles to the west. There were virtually no dogs in the south and inner city. He picked up his first ballpoint pen in Hindley Street in 1954, and the declining worth of the half-penny began to show in its increasing deposits on the footpaths. Toadfish-looking contraceptives washed up along the western perimeter were duly noted. A glance on the ground outside the Odeons told Wheelright of the decline in Ealing comedies, just as his gutter-count of the patronage of trams tallied with Flies'. His absorption in the signs on the ground was Aboriginal, although the ground here was dead flat and well and truly asphalted, an absorption which left him with perpetually barked shins. It was Wheelright who taught Holden to use his eyes. Actually confessed to the dumbfounded boy that he, Gordon Wheelright, could live very happily and know what was going on in the world if he had a device which prevented him from lifting his eyes more than a foot off the ground. Certainly his gutter, footpath and rubbish-bin findings were more accurate than his official weather forecasting.
Wheelright was said to be married, but no one ever remembered seeing a wife.
His best-friend Flies exchanged information with him, for he saw the world framed daily by the window of the tram. Like Wheelright he was intensely local. But he understood that any patterns revealed within the perimeters of Adelaide stood as examples of all human life. All the movements between the cradle and the grave, and even before the cradle, passed before him; only a matter of keeping the eyes open.
Pale from his years of being carried all day across the rigid lines of the city, the most conspicuous feature of Flies was his low forehead. Sometimes it seemed Les had no forehead at all.
Unlike Wheelright, and their best-friend Vern Hartnett, he was not obsessive; was not tormented; held no theories; was not driven. His view of the world allowed everything. And his best-friend Wheelright was constantly picking up his unfinished sentences.
From late 1948, or to be mechanically precise, 29 November 1948, through all of 1949, young Holden suffered from carbuncles. The painful eruptions placed strain on his already famous expressionlessness.
'Your body is trying to tell you something,' Wheelright pointed out, downcast. Les Flies agreed.
The new cars produced excitement-fevers in the boy. Every other day another longer, lower, more glittering model made its appearance and instantly overheated his adolescent nervous system, sweating palms gripping the handlebars being a symptom.
This could have produced the carbuncles.
But what of other factors? The first volcanic eruption coincided with his traumatic flight from home when he pedalled distractedly up Magill Road with a lump in his throat. As he dismounted in the cul-de-sac the lump transferred to a throbbing pain in his neck which almost made him cry out. It felt like a spreading, disconcerted blush. In the first few weeks at his uncle's place he noticed other outbursts, and for a long time there would always be a carbuncle glowing somewhere under his clothing, like a small tail light. Only his pale face escaped, remaining as smooth as soap.
Concerned for the boy, Vern and his best-friends Wheelright and Flies ransacked the medical dictionaries, encyclopaedias and handbooks before calling in the finest in local medical opiniona carbuncle specialist in North Terrace who drove an Armstrong Siddeleyalthough no one said what they knew, or half suspected, which was that the body's normal defence mechanisms were reacting against Vern's special diet.
What did Holden's early growth consist of? Words, words: a flawed, grey-and-white view of the world.
It was more than a match for his mother's tasteless technicolour sandwiches.
His uncle had picked up the idea proofreading. It had to come from words. It was pure and simple theory. And its origins were not American, like most theories after the war, but British from their long experience in the down-trodden maize economies of the tropics. That's right. Vern became one of the first white men in the Southern Hemisphere to believe sincerely that a daily intake of roughage aided digestion, facilitated bowel movements, cleared the brain, abolished night starvation, cut down the chances of cancer of the lower intestine and bowel, eased the splitting head-and ear-aches; in other words, it surpassed the fine-print claims on more than a dozen patent medicine bottles. And like all late-in-life converts (Adelaide had plenty of them in other fields), Vern Hartnett swallowed the medicine with all the rigour of a zealot; he even contemplated casting a statue to the unknown discoverer of the fibrous diet.
If his uncle had a weakness, Shadbolt reflected many years later, it had been this.
With a daily supply of galley proofs from the Advertiser, Vern had plenty of roughage at hand. Whistling or breathing through his teeth he pulverised the fibrous newsprint until his veins stood out. He then mixed it with their breakfast cereals: the words, half-tone photographs and post-war growth advertisements all went in. To be on the safe side he included it wherever possible in their evening meal too. It blended well with mashed potatoes; you could hardly taste it with icecream. Newsprint consisted of 90 per cent water anyway, Vern informed the starving boy. Once the habit had formed Holden spread it on bread with dripping when he came home from school.
With such a regular fibrous language-fertilizer the growing boy would be expected never to suffer a single minute of constipation; but beginning from that very first day at Vern's he suffered blockages, often for weeks at a time. This may have contributed to the carbuncles.
Aside from the carbunclesand they were painful enoughthe diet had other, longer-lasting effects.
When young Shadbolt landed on his uncle's cement doorstep he was fourteen. In that vital growth period for testicles and intellect he began twice daily swallowing and digesting the contents of the morning newspaper, down to the last full stop. Without so much as a hiccup he took in faulty headlines, misplaced paragraphs and punctuations, the wrong choice in serifs, photographs with incorrect captions. There was always something not quite right in what he took in. For even when given corrected 'final' proofs for the evening meal or dessert he swallowed the so-called eye-witness accounts, along with the various so-called official statements and statistics, hearsay From Our Special Correspondent, earnest conclusions and prophecies which rarely came to pass, the exaggerated dire warnings and so-called weather forecasts. Political scandals, their 'ramifications', the editorials helplessly laying down the law, sporting and financial predictions just wide of the mark, half-tone assassins, saints and beauty queens, the unconfirmed report, hopeful signs of the wheat and wool crop, so-called reviews of novels by the local dilettanti, halftone royalty. So of course the boy developed a taste for crowds, reported births and deaths, not to mention the extravagant adverts and adverbs for everything under the sun from trusses and stockings to lonely hearts, knackered horses, fridges and 'Australia's Own Car'. In one sitting he'd consumed the daily history and shifting minutiae of Adelaide, and the rest of Australia, and the world beyond. All was swallowed. Very little rejected. It went on for six years.
True, he acquired a large body of opinion. At school he gained top marks in geography. Shadbolt could reel off place-names and world leaders with his eyes shut, and he became the poker-faced arbiter of Bradman's statistics and the outright winners at Le Mans and their average speeds. The consumption of half-tones also sharpened his photographic memory, and naturally he absorbed the internal laws of coincidence and charisma.
But such a staple diet gave him a fragmented view of the world. Nearby or faraway happenings were summarised in brief impressions which only approximately matched the actual people or events. He developed a distant, incomplete view of women. And because each day demanded approximately the same number of words to be printed on pages the size of tea-towels it became difficult for young Shadbolt to distinguish truth from half-or quarter-truth, importance from no importance, while at the same time his attraction to men in power was reinforced by their repetitions in screened images.
He'd always 'kept his thoughts to himself (mother's term). Now with his twice-daily intake of short sentences and the short plain paragraphs, at intervals broken by an exclamatory subhead, he too began to speak in short clipped sentences, and often threw in a laconic word or two in summary.
A third and final influence was harder to assess.
Fact is, from an impressionable age Shadbolt began digesting local and world news before the rest of the population. In a sense he was several hours older than everybody else. Nothing therefore surprised him; he accepted everything; and beginning from those formative years a shoelace or a shirt button was left undone the way a mechanic is casual with the grease on his hands.
The supply of wounded aeroplanes dried up. Displaying the agility which would always demoralise his opposition McBee branched out into jeeps, paddocks full of surplus jeeps the colour of fibrous cow dung; and when they too dried up he moved into non-ferrous metals. He melted down truckloads of bravery and service medals. At any one of McBee's barbed-wire depots you could get ten shillings for a dead car battery.
With every Tom, Dick and Harry wanting to steer his own car and the British and American manufacturers unable to keep up with demand, let alone supply enough spare parts, McBee opened garishly painted car wrecking yards at intersections north, east, west and south of the city centre: great news for the struggling motorist. In those days an anxious beggar for a Jowett Javelin head gasket, or the seller of a badly pranged Packard, often found himself dealing with Frank McBee in person.
Negotiations took place ankle-deep in mud embedded with bolts, gaskets, cotter pins. Surrounded by rearing chassis frames and the doorless shells of smashed and dismantled saloons and cabriolets it looked like the desolate aftermath of a battle in World War Two. Leaning on his walking stick, as if wounded, McBee conducted transactions in an exceptionally loud voice. This alone intimidated anxious sellers of damaged cars, and enfeebled attempts of buyers to bargain for a crucial part; and in the same loud voice McBee cracked jokes, mocked and poked muck, switching in mid-sentence to backslapping and mateship, even resorted to rhetorical self-analysis'What am I doing in this rotten business? Do I have garbage for brains? The short answer is', and so gathered around him an audience of transfixed sympathisers.
It became well known that he'd give away a valuable spare part if a buyer came up with a good sob-story, and if he became carried away with his own rhetoric and humiliated a customer, he quickly settled quietly and over generously. A known soft-touch for charities he even gave, after first loudly blaspheming, to the Church. The men he employed were all returned soldiers who'd lost a limb or one or two internal organs, and so resembled the cars they dismantled. The shell-shocked digger with a steel hook for an arm who for years sunned himself on the footpath outside the Magill Road yard, who'd taken it upon himself to nod, 'You'll find Mr McBee in his office', was supplied with the floral armchair and regular pocket money for tobacco. By then McBee had freehold title to all his paddocks at Parafield and blocks in the city. He was making a name for himself.
In his search for meltable metals he bought into an old established linotype printer. It did a nice line in calling cards. It had the long-term contract for the printing of timetables and the pastel-tinted tickets for the trams. A real goldmine. It was McBee in Adelaide, back in 1949, who first coined the much-abused phrase 'It's a licence to print pound notes'. (How did he muscle in on that one? The peroxide blonde on the AJS hanging onto McBee's waist, her breasts squashed against his back, happened to be the war-widow of the printer who'd tried paratrooping. McBee easily made her laugh and cry out; otherwise she was the silent partner.)
With one eye on the statistics of post-war reconstruction McBee pitched for the printing of the Adelaide telephone directory, and from now on (he announced in his loud voice) trimmings guillotined from all jobs were to be perforated and smartly packaged as confetti. A deluxe range of wedding invitations were designed, featuring serrated edges dusted with gold. All very successful, thankyou. And he began printing how-to-vote cards for both political parties.
From wrecked cars it was a short step to quality used cars. McBee set up his first yard on Anzac Highway; had to knock down a house to do it. Motorists driving home at night were blinded by the sudden artificial daylight of 'McBEE's' in eight-foot-high letters set by more than three hundred locally produced light bulbs which also illuminated the teeth of the Buicks, de Sotos and one-lady-owner Hudsons and Vanguards.
By then McBee began placing regular ads in the Advertiser, and young Shadbolt digested his achievements and spreading influence without being quite aware of it. Sometimes a mouthful of food stuck in his throat. 'Some bad news?' his uncle inquired. 'Masticate more, keep it going.' It could have been the story with half-tone photographs of McBee and mulga walking stick opening his fourth car emporium.
For all his worldly success McBee still went around on the old AJS. It now dropped almost as much Castrol on the road as it took in petrol; the entire machine had become encrusted with rust and muck as though it had just been dredged from the sea. Yet it started first kick, had never let him down. Criss-crossing the town plan to the various outposts of his empire took no time at all, even in the rush hours among the increasing number of cars and trucks.
Besides, it had become something of a trademark. 'There goes Frank McBee,' people would smile from the trams. At least he wasn't getting too big for his boots.
On nights he took Mrs Shadbolt and Karen out for a meal at one of the hotels he'd just get on the phone and bellow hoarsely for a taxi. Mrs Shadbolt's concession to affluence was a kangaroo-skin coat, and decked out in this, even in the height of summer, she and Karen tripped after their provider.
Several times Holden had turned by mistake into his old street. The first time his legs had pedalled almost into the drive before he realised.
No one was there. No one had seen him. The brown house had the latest in electricals and upholstered furnishings poking out of the windows and from under the front door: walls, fly-screens and tin roof bulged under the pressure. It was smaller and browner than he remembered. This was not merely the usual trick of spaciousness played by memory. Parked on the front lawn were two ex-army amphibious vehicles, known as 'ducks', as well as a pyramid of Amal carburettors, propellers off DC3s, and serpents of exhaust systems writhing among beam axles off Ford V/8s. These greasy masses foreshortened the foreground. Otherwise the house was the same as any other in the street.
Several months later it had shrunk even smaller in his estimation. The front screendoor had exploded off its hinges.
Stacked on the verandah were large plywood letters from the alphabet; parts of McBee's name.
In identifying them Holden may have stared for too long.
Almost back to the corner he heard his name and an onrush of athletic breathing. A hand touched his shoulder like a policewoman.
His sister Karen was astride a grasshopper-green bike. It had a wire basket hooked over the handlebars. The rushed ride and the close up of him, and now the pleasure at his surprise, widened her eyes and lengthened her jaw; and space of a more fixed nature had been introduced to the rest of her body. Through the arm of her sleeveless blouse he noticed the tidal swell of her body, and he measured the twin disconcerting outlines by the damp folds of the blouse. That and the way she kept switching from laughter to earnestness gave the illusion she was older than him.
Karen kept telling him news, and asking questions; she couldn't for a second stop smiling.
Nothing had changed with their mother, except she had her hair permanently curled ('she's still the same underneath, though').
At the mention of Frank McBee, Holden stared down at his spokes and then actually smiled as he listened. Seems that McBee wanted their mother to read tea leaves every afternoon at his car yards, a shameless gimmick for lucky customers to see if they'd crash or suffer mechanical breakdowns as they drove awayand we all know the answer to that.
'You don't have to worry about him,' Karen whispered. 'Honestly, he wouldn't hurt a flea. He doesn't talk about you now. Besides, he doesn't come home till late. He's a very busy man.'
Holden thought about that. 'I'd better get going anyway.'
Slowly they pedalled up Magill Road. She could visit him, if she liked. They agreed. She wanted to see exactly where he lived. Very much the lady she'd write or telephone first. Her new bike had gears.
He was fascinated by her fluency: signs of her recent growth. As her legs formed an A astride the bar he couldn't help thinking that the slit girls were supposed to have would have widened into a hole, just as in a machine there were 'male' and 'female' parts.
Until then he had managed to steer clear of McBee. But Adelaide being small and rectilinear there were only so many combinations in lines of force intersecting, or angles of vision briefly coinciding. The odds were further shortened by McBee's constant motion backwards and forwards; while young Shadbolt's slow-moving mass kept more to a routine, mostly up and down, to and from schoola sitting duck. Bumping into Karen had opened his eyes. He began seeing the motorcyclist coming towards him in his entrepreneurial crouch, or his ears would pick up the AJS rattle in the most unexpected side streets, almost as if McBee was tailing him. On these occasions he'd dive into boxhedges or duck down the nearest gravel drive. He learnt to make himself scarce. He mastered the art of grabbing the rail of an accelerating tram. Anything to avoid Frank McBee. It was out of embarrassment rather than fear or guilt; throughout his life Shadbolt never suffered from guilt.
'Your uncle's bending over backwards.'
'Vern thinks the world of you,' Wheelright went on.
The boy blinked: because he agreed. They knew him well enough to accept the signal, but he scraped his feet like a draught horse, a social-something he had learnt, because he didn't know what to say next.
They were standing among the statues in the backyard. The boy had been weeding and trimming edges. Gratitude had made him obedient. Heavy birds were landing in the hill trees. The shadows of the outstretched arms also pointed to the hour: Vern had left for the late afternoon shift.
'In fact, if you don't watch out...' Flies gave a wink.
'Before you know it,' Wheelright picked up, 'Vern'll do a bronze of you one day.'
'How would you like that?' nodded Les.
Young Shadbolt could only rub an eye, 'That'd be a laugh.'
One of the first things his uncle had done was outfit him with rubber-soled shoes in case he was struck by lightning.
At his feet now earthworms suddenly exposed to the universe wriggled in panic: oily fingers, just amputated. Holden squashed them with his heel.
'What'd you do that for?' Flies stared down at the ground.
'It's about time,' Wheelright was looking around, 'he did one to Churchill. He's what I call a great man. I know all about Gallipoli, but if it wasn't for him none of us'd be standing here right now. I've told Vern this a hundred times. I've said I'd even chip in for part of the casting cost. Churchill would make an impressive statue. But he's not even on the short list. Vern says he's only a mug politician. I point out the man's charisma. Those eyebrows, that cigarmy God! At least he had a clear view of the world. And what does Vern say? It's all window-dressing. What did Churchill know about truth? All Churchill used were fancy adjectives. You've heard him. I think he's got a real blind spot there with Churchill.'
For all his enjoyment of the special vantage point of the Hills, Shadbolt never felt quite at ease. In the company of Vern and his two best-friends he felt distinctly outside their line of thinking. More often than not he became awkward. Whenever they tried to include him he felt like scratching his neck and nodding; his mind a blank.
Inside the house his body felt out of place, not belonging, even when he caught sight of his mirror image calmly gazing back in the midst of it. Furniture and other objects stubbornly remained in unfamiliar or wrong positions. He kept bumping into them.
Using his uncle's Zeiss lenses Shadbolt liked to lean over the front wall and look down on the city. As he focused on faraway fences and poles, the sounds all around him diminished, as if they were funnelled into the concentrated image, and he felt suffused with his private powers of observation. Early on he'd pinpointed the tram depot and the Advertiser building. The walled-in lawns spotted with magnified deckchairs and figures in slow-motion must have been the Parkside asylum. Methodically he covered every inch of the city. Here and there faces and small movements. The School of Arts and Crafts. Silent cars. Plenty of corrugated iron tanks. Sudden geraniums. Flapping from lines, brassieres and handkerchiefs. Postman on his red bike. Flags and capital letters. A horse pulled a green bread-cart. Trams, always a brown tram.
And being so horizontally mobile Frank McBee slid across his vision. It happened more than once. McBee was on the curiously silent motorbike, and as Holden quickly followed he recognised the blonde toothpaste smile hanging on.
Taking a fix on the palm-tree and moving a fraction right he located amongst a mist of jacaranda the unmistakeable tin roof of his old house.
Or so he thought: the barnacled date-palm would be Mr Merino's who lived opposite. As he nodded it released a confetti of pigeons he'd never seen before. And yet the tall mast collaged there to the left belonged to what's-his-name, the radio ham, who also happened to be their talkative butcher. A process of calculation, of elimination, crafted to local knowledge, was not without its satisfactions.
But his uncle straightened his back and simply shook his head.
'You can't be sure. It's not one hundred per cent. You could never swear by it.'
A lesson in local empiricism, and doggedly put: Vern suffered no illusions. As he detailed a few facts on the ancient history of optics and, as a matter of fact, how the short extension-ladders of the Adelaide Fire Brigade determined the stunted growth of the skyline, Shadbolt stared at the windswept forehead and the oblivious teeth and felt a flush of irritation. He even disliked the way his uncle's gaze travelled past the city itself to the distant sea, as though he took in all knowledge of the world.
Vern broke off. 'What's the matter? Is something wrong? What are you looking at?'
He had seena small illuminationthat his uncle couldn't help himself. Some things evidently go beyond your control. A person can begin to trip over themselves. Staring again at the face which had in all innocence reverted to rapid talking, he experienced a rush of simple affection, and smiled even more to himself at what he felt was contentment, or at least, gratitude.
Their sense of isolation in the Hills was modified by the house next door. Those seemingly random lengths of four-b-two which had turned grey like everything else in the war years were suddenly morticed to verticals and horizontals of oregon, the colour of Frank McBee's hair. Shadbolt arrived home one afternoon to find the finished walls almost touching their side fence; and when he looked out from his bedroom he faced another sash window, at barely arm's length.
Nouns such as casements, jarrah and theodolites now issued from the intricate store behind Vern's mouth. It was Les Flies who interrupted with the softer-shaped information that their new neighbour was a war widow who had red hair and worked as an usherette at a picture theatre in Rundle Street. 'The Regent,' Wheelright added. Usherette, a strange profession: it caused the briefest of imaginings and swallowing among them. Not long afterwards they saw her.
Shadbolt's diet developed his photographic memory further. Naturally many of the people and events screened into the news stayed in his mind. The Korean war had just started and the spectre of fanatical communists 'teeming'with 'hordes' it became the vogue wordteeming across the 38th parallel, which meant they were teeming on a wide front towards South Austrylia, had put the wind up Shadbolt. Victims of famines and volcanoes, captured spies and Italian racing drivers also left their mark. Winston Churchill's sagging face appeared in Adelaide more often than Clem Attlee's, even though the old lion was no longer in power. Ernest Hemingway looked unhappy after the publication of Across the River and into the Trees. After Noel Coward he was the author whose face appeared most frequently in the Adelaide Advertiser. Who was the President of the United States with the silver hair and glasses? The sheer untruthfulness of his name made Shadbolt choke on his food, without knowing why.
An exaggerated mood of instability was maintained by photographs of sky and loose projectiles. Every few months in those early years of the fifties the billowing face of destruction reared up on a terrible elongated neck, indelible image, and the subsequent turbulence in the circular sky brought down an inordinate number of Tiger Moths and prototype jet airliners. In the desert to the north of Adelaide the successful flight of a pilotless jet aircraft showed as a grainy sunspot. It looked surprisingly similar to John Cobb's body and speedboat both disintegrating above Loch Ness while setting a new water speed record. Otherwise the British sense of superiority was signified by the Landrover tilting as it negotiated mud or foreign sands.
In Australia, Bradman had bowed out, and the army was sent in for a couple of weeks, to run the coal mines. There were the seasonal bird's-eye views of floods: impressing the country's emptiness and harshness, in case the boy had forgotten. These were always powerful images in grey-and-white.
The new Prime Minister, R. G. Amen (all things to all men), chose for his official car an American make, a 1949 Cadillac Fleetwood seized in a customs raid, and for the first few months his florid features were superimposed on the car's elaborate fenders and nascent fins, so the various ceremonies of officialdom entered Shadbolt's subconscious via American metal and chrome. The PM had such stature across the land that when people tried to express their admiration all they would do was shake their heads and repeat his initials. 'Ar, gee,' they'd say. This was around the time he decided to ban the Communist Party in Australia. Shadbolt had accepted his arguments without blinking. At school he and his friends were more concerned about the Cadillac, a barge or a tank, not a car, how it didn't suit the PM with his pinstriped trousers and the plum in his mouth. Everything about him pointed to Daimler or Rolls Royce.
Local scenes in the Advertiser instilled in Shadbolt a certain innocence. Reports of the most alarming reverses in Korea on the front page were rendered inconsequential by the adjoining photograph of a glorious spray of the first almond blossom taken in the Hills, and instead of a chubby mug-shot of Ike after his 'landslide' election, in 1952, the Advertiser featured the entirely different, squinting face of the city's longest-serving tram-driver on his last run, a face criss-crossed with lines, unsmiling. Unconsciously too Shadbolt swallowed the languid poses developed by the local gentrylegs dangling over armchairs, proprietary hand on the silk shoulder of hyphened grazier's daughterfor one appeared on the social pages just about every day. And there were the usual local mayors, Chamber of Commerce spokesmen and Irish-headed footballers.
Among the quantities effaces the most frequent was the state's Premier, Thomas Playford. There he was handing out trophies to school-boy hurdlers or announcing the state's wheat harvest; always announcing something or other or shaking somebody's perspiring hand; so that Shadbolt on Magill Road instantly recognised the straight face with its sober red nose which closely resembled, and so gave added kudos to, the famous tail light of General Motors' first locally built car. (GM were later to name their poshest model the Premier. It goes to show...) Originally a cherry orchardist, though not at all cheery, Mr Playford lived in a valley at Norton's Summit, and drove himself to and from work. No motorcycle escorts. He stopped at traffic lights like anybody else, and put his hand out to turn right. After recognising the face Shadbolt always knew his unmarked car, a Ford Pilot, and when it lumbered past he watched the gradually diminishing boot, tail light and V-shaped bumper in case something happened; for example, if the Premier ran out of petrol or broke an axle Shadbolt would have rushed up, the first to offer help.
Aware of his photographic powers Shadbolt sometimes skidded to a halt when he recognised a face in the crowd. With one foot planted in the gutter he'd stare, ransacking his brains until he'd properly 'located' it, showing no embarrassment at the figure he cut, although the diet had inflated his body to dugong size, so that he appeared to be astride a ludicrous dwarf's machine pedalled in circuses.
He had to watch it. After appearing on the newspaper page a face reassembled to normal colour and fleshiness, almost like any other face. Only by looking behind the rounded surfaces could he find vestiges of the screened image. With casually powerful figures such as the Premier or Frank McBee it was reversed: their printed images had become their real appearances.
At the crack of dawn, on 14 October, they elbowed themselves into Flies' newly acquired Wolseley, the boy in front because of his size, and left the city, for their best-friend Gordon Wheelright had suddenly expanded his horizons in flotsam research. Instead of street directories and demographic tables, Wheelright had turned to shipping routes, weather statistics from top and bottom hemispheres, local coastal charts, tidal patterns. Using Vern's em ruler, a piece of string and brass dividers, he made a faint wheezing whistle through his pursed lips.
As for Les Flies, he could have been driving one of his rocking trams. Sitting bolt upright he took the corners wide, and at every opportunity fitted the tyres in the polished grooves of his city. With his skull touching the roof Holden felt the driver's ingrained habits entering his own system, as he nodded in motion, and vaguely smiled.
Strata of rust-coloured rock withheld their forces as the car passed through. Rearing claws appeared to be poised above the hollow roof: many boulders had already been flung into the shattered creek beds below. And as the angle back to fixed positions along the gorge constantly widened, the occasional rocky outcrop and tessellations of red ochre stretched into faces of aboriginal forefathers, shrubbery for eyebrows, and the slash-strokes of ghost gums in shadow-drenched gullies appeared as momentary fissures, letting in light.
They left the Hills. Out there a warm wind stroked the earth. It ruffled paddocks of wheat and allowed dark birds to float. Now with Adelaide behind them the apparent endlessness of the rest of the world was drummed into them by the longer intervals between known objects, such as distant tractor sheds, and the frantic efforts of the four-cylinder engine, which seemed to be getting nowhere: flylike saloon making little progress from the edge of continent. On either side of the road eroded channels radiated as ancient vertebrae. Abandoned walls of mud-brick and lime similarly spoke of futile effort and time.
'Write down everything you see,' Vern shouted above the striving engine, 'so you can look back on it. There's a sparrow-hawk. That there's a stump-jump plough.'
Crossed one of the longest rivers on earth.
Barely two hours into the interior then, and young Shadbolt detected in the sudden loquaciousness of the others a reluctance to leave the sight of water. It was the colour of weak tea, wider than a dozen Adelaide streets, and flanked by groves of peeling river gum, a dead-loss area stuffed with the tangle of colourless sticks, bleached rubbish and leaves from the last big flood, refracting light and perspective like shattered crystal.
The river entered the sea eighty miles south from Adelaide as the crow flies, a hundred and forty odd in the wandering Wolseley.
Now Wheelright directed Flies rapidly left, rightno, straight ahead. 'Isthmus,' Vern pointed for Holden's benefit, and stubbed his finger on the window. Twice Holden had to leap out and push. On the left a flock of fidgeting water fowl quilted a lake.
'The realisation came to me in the bath,' Wheelright was telling them. 'I was looking closely at the fingerprints of my thumb. "The future lies at our fingerprints." I considered this. Yes, for one thing they reveal the kind of work a man does. You can pick a bankteller or a tram conductor by his thumb. Right, Les? Looking closely at mine, I said: "Hello, this thumb is imprinted with the same swirling lines employed in my profession of meteorology"' ('Isobars,' Vern nodded vigorously) 'and I thought that was interesting, very interesting. I saw in my thumbprint the patterns of tides and sea currents. In microcosm, of course. And I realised the wandering streets of the ocean must carry all kinds of information, not simply information of one city, but the entire world and its contents, the contemporary history of man. All this I saw in my thumb.'
Upholstered in the warm car Holden blurted out, 'That's terrific. Who else would have thought of that?'
'The truth is always close at hand,' Flies opined.
'From there it was simple,' Wheelright went on. 'A study of charts, and taking the spin of the earth into account, suggested that many of these currents would deposit their messages in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, along our coast.'
Vern leaned forward from the back. 'Where's your proof?'
'According to my calculations...'
After a few more false leads they came smack up against a sandhilla hundred-footer, or more. They could hear the sea. Abandoned with its doors spread open, the car grew smaller, an exhausted gull from the north.
Shading his eyes as he climbed Holden wondered if any other man had ever trudged here before.
The bay below sparkled like an overturned wine glass. At its sunlit entrance it foamed effervescence. A parachute drifting towards the middle could have been a saturated napkin, though gently pulsating it looked more like a vast jellyfish.
He was joined by Vern, on all fours.
Pausing only briefly alongside them, Wheelright began sliding and half-rolling towards the water.
Around the circumference so many layers of flotsam had been deposited by recent world history that Holden, as he watched Wheelright zigzagging with his eyes and head angled down, immediately thought of Frank McBee. If he'd discovered the secret whereabouts of all this...Gas masks lay tangled among tins of regulation jam and bully. Empty life rafts sloshed with puke and inflated toadfish. There were bales of rubbers, shattered deckchairs. Names of ships stencilled on logs and cork. Musical boxes contained angled levels of sand imprinted with anemones. In the shallows the goggles of bomb-aimers transformed into masks of channel swimmers. Wheelright picked up buckles and belts, and bits of the Bismarck; he kept counting and scribbled notes. Turbans unfurled and floated and strangled perforated helmets. The remains of river towns, wreckage from mountaintops had found their way here: Dresden soup plates, Tudor gables embedded with sewing machines, carcases of glockenspiels. There'd be gold fillings on the bottom. Friends were mixed up with enemies. Between naming nameschopsticks, Mae West, anemometersVern asked unanswered questions. 'How far is it to Japan? How long can a submarine stay under? Eight bells is four o'clock. What's a nautical knot? I'll tell you.'
'Spread out,' Wheelright kept urging, 'and keep your eyes open.'
But Holden soon became lax. These objects were the same as the daily contents of the Advertiser. They'd leapt from the pages, disintegrated, and now lay dumped at his feet in 3-D. He stubbed his toe on them; cut his fingers on Venetian glass and a Polish coffee percolator: a pawnbroker's collection of everyday objects.
Among the cargo of torpedoed kettledrums and lightning conductors it became necessary to isolate matador capes from the cardboard suitcase Holden had originally seen clutched by a boy much smaller than him and frightened (would never forget his ghetto cap and black socks, nor the cardboard suitcase) and isolate them from the South Australian muscat bottles and the imported fountain pens, displayed in local advertisements. Drosometers and boxes of alphonins were identified by Vern. Lapilla-encrusted hookah and dancing pumps, sardine tins from Norwegian waters.
There was so much material here Wheelright would have to come back.
'We've only seen the tip of the iceberg,' he cried in a hoarse voice.
By mid-afternoon even Vern had lost interest in the naming of objects. He joined Flies near the water. Wheelright had called Shadbolt over for help; and the boy found the weather forecaster so engrossed he had become kindly. He pointed to a mystery object. Successive tides had flung one of those nets normally suspended on the portside of troop-ships over the corroded remains of a twin-cylinder motorbike. Holden had little trouble identifying it as a Panther. ('I might have known...' Wheelright jotted in his book.)
When Holden looked up again he saw Les had dropped his tram driver's trousers and was waist deep in blue-green, and his uncle wading in too, buttocks whiter than the sand.
The boy ambled over but squatted down. As he stole glances at their bodies shame about his own projected shape turned his thoughts inwards. He fumbled with his toes. During the war, photos had appeared in the Advertiser of diggers buggerising around in a khaki waterhole in New Guinea, soaping themselves and grinning at the camera, wearing nothing but their slouch hats. Fair enough: for months they'd been struggling and slithering through the jungle, Japs everywhere. But here on a Saturday afternoon in South Austrylia there seemed to be something indecent about men revealing their nakedness, revealing it so nonchalantly it seemed to be deliberate. Wild horses wouldn't get him stripping off and walking towards the water. No fear! Clothing felt especially precious to him there and then. Even as he ignored his uncle'Don't be a pica!'Gordon Wheelright belted past, the grey thing floating on its hinge; in he went, belly-flopping.
It was here when Vern came out and stood alongside, his teeth dripping and refracting light, and proceeded to towel himself with his shirt that the mysteries of mechanical reproduction were explained. Holden had simply asked a question: anything to avert the nakedness at his elbow. To his alarm Vern dropped the shirt to launch into the facts of a subject he knew inside-out.
The pictures you see in the newspaper (that was the question): each one is re-photographed through a glass screen onto a sensitised printing plate. The screen has been ruled like graph paper, Hartnett's description, 'a grazier's shirt', Wheelright's shouted interjection.
Holden conjured up their old flyscreen door.
The screen interrupts the light rays of the projected image, breaking them up, so a photo of the Prime Minister, say, registers on the printing plate as a pattern of dots.
Holden's mechanical mind saw it in a flash. Large dots reproduce the dark areas, as Amen's eyebrows and pinstriped suit. They carry more ink. The smaller dots in all their graduations reproduce forehead, teeth, silvery hair and sky.
The chosen person is broken into particles and reassembled by the eye. That's how it's done. A coming-together of various shades and shadows which form an impression. There are more shadows in an ink-printed photograph than in real life.
The magnesium flash of the American Graflex cameras added a gleam of alertness to the darkest eyes. Still it didn't quite explain...
'The secret is in the screen,' his naked uncle almost answered. 'Otherwise'he sucked through his teeth'how on earth could you print a man's true feelings? His thoughts as about to be expressed? His misdeeds? Moments of triumph?'
The halo of dazzling sunlight revealed the indentations in Vern's skull and made his teeth grasslike, and with a wreath of seagulls above his head, activated by waving hands, it really did look as if he'd outlined something of real importance. Fully grown-up men had a way of devoting all their opinions to a single subject. Holden had seen it in the deliberate fixations of Frank McBee. Whereas, leaning back on his elbows, avoiding a carbuncle or two, he didn't feel drawn to a single anything, nothing, not yet; except cars of course. Generally his mind remained a blank. And he almost burst out laughing with fondness for his stark naked uncle addressing the sun and the sand in all his distracted intensity.
Often Holden would look back on this afternoon of gradually lengthening shadows. An adult casualness had descended on the beach: in the desultory words and the gaps which had been allowed to open naturally between the figures. Les had squatted nearby. Together they waited respectfully for Gordon to complete his preliminary findings. Young Shadbolt then had decided to explain the logic of internal combustion, how an ordinary car engine works. The spark ignited the petrol/air mixture pushing the piston down on its connecting rod, in turn turning the crankshaft, twisting the tailshaft back to the rear wheels. Entering the final, exhaust phase Shadbolt had faltered. Keep your eyes and ears open, boy! Les had begun a separate conversation. Never had he produced so many words. This alone was enough for them to sit up and take notice.
'It's happened to me only the once,' Les was saying, 'I was heading back to the depot one night in the Number Ten, not much traffic. This was during the war. The Yanks were in town. Halfway down Magill Road...I almost drove over a negro bloke standing on his head in the middle of the line. Well, I didn't mind. A few of his friends came out of the shadows, hee-hawing. They thought it was a great joke. As I got going I could hear the racket they were making inside.
'I'm blowed if I can remember my conductor's name. I was thinking of him only the other day...funny little bod. Well, he couldn't handle it. Part of you has to be the diplomat in that job. He got into a fracas with those negroes when he should have left them alone. Maybe he made a crack about their colour? I'm blowed if I know.
'I only knew something had happened when I stopped. I had no conductor. The tram was empty with the lights still blazing...a ghost tram. They found him near the Rosella factory, lying in the gutter.' Flies paused again, and Vern had the word 'concussion' on the tip of his tongue but wisely held back. 'Poor devil, his head was split down the middle the way you crack open a coconut. There was an inquest. The army brass got involved. Nothing I could tell them.'
Flies squinted at the bent figure of Wheelright still fossicking along the semicircle.
'When you're driving a tram...a heaviness comes through the soles of your feet. It's so strong all around you and under you it feels like you're part of a terrific weight rolling downhill. It's difficult to stop. There's no steering wheel. The bell's not worth a cracker. Everything's been arranged in front of you in advance. Things are largely beyond your control. You notice them out of the corner of your eye. Whatever happens is decided by your moment of departure.'
Vern put his hand on Holden's shoulder, 'Better see if Gordon wants any help. Quickly.'
Not noticing, Les Flies went off, the geometry of trams in his blood.
'If I'd left the depot a split second earlier, or a split second later, the skull of my conductor, forget-his-name, would have missed the pole by a good foot or more. Because I hadn't, a meeting with that solid thing in his path became inevitable.'
The usherette's house was painted the colour of indecent dreams, a doll's house pink, and petticoated with crepe, a foreground of quadrants and sunflowers, with an optimistic beer-coloured doormat there to welcome a young on-again, off-again admirer, who also worked in the dark at the Regent, the pale projectionist. All aroundexcept on Vern's sidethe land was overrun by nettles, Scotch thistles, humming insects, and a flock of daggy merinos that roamed apparently ownerless. In Adelaide a cul-de-sac still had a novelty value. On Sunday afternoons when Salvation Army bands marched up and down in straight lines motorists were drawn into the stem of the wine glass in their new Australian-made cars, and nosed up to Hartnett's or the usherette's gate to turn around, happily experiencing the simple detour sensation of a 'dead end'. They did that, scattering the sheep, even though the Hills directly behind were being carved up into uneven streets because of the terrain, and given extraordinary names. SKYE was one designated suburb, it being closest to heavenwritten in white-painted rocks on the slopes, visible from the city centre.
One afternoon Holden pedalled up to find the merino sheep gone, vamoose, and new Bennett-brick houses in various stages of completion lining the cul-de-sac. And when Karen visited and was shown the view, what was left of it, she expressed no surprise: barely gave their surroundings a glance. The spread of new suburbs paralleled her own growth. Her brother sat there on the sofa gaping. Close up, her features had smoothed. In the space of a few months the length of her chin had been arrested by the endlessness of her legs. And her expression had reached a level of solemnity, almost to the point of self-consciousness. Wearing white knitted gloves she hypnotised the fully grown men by talking very firmly as she removed them, one finger at a time.
'We could see the blue of St Vincent's Gulf before,' Vern gestured half-heartedly. And his two best-friends nodded in unison.
'The cars in town,' Holden tripped over himself, 'I could see with my own two eyes. And the people waiting for the lights along North Terrace. On a clear day you could count the flies on their faces and necks.' Holden became conscious of his erupting flesh. 'I picked out your house, its red roof. You could see that palm tree across the road with the homing pigeons...'
'You're sweet,' Karen smiled sadly. She turned to the others. 'Isn't he sweet?'
'He's got plurry good eyesight,' Wheelright conceded.
'I'll say,' Les Flies agreed.
A single woman hadn't set foot in the house for years, if at all, but over the years Vern had consumed more ideals of local beauty than anyone. With Karen's perfume still lingering on the lounge he gave his considered opinion.
'She's an Austrylian beauty, if ever there was one. She's going to be. You watch. And I don't know where she gets it from. It comes from the bone structure of ancestors, and the state's climate. The rainfall, and so on. Not from her father, certainly not from our Holden here.'
And Flies, who had seen tons of beauties pass in front of his tram: 'She's turned out well.'
To Holden's surprise they showed little concern about the encirclement of buildings. Both Les and Gordon Wheelrightwho was up to his neck in his latest findingsbegan taking most of their meals in the house. One vantage point had been exchanged for another.
Holden saw the redheaded usherette in uniform and high heels bending over in the garden before the afternoon matinee, and sometimes passed her as she ran out from the dead end, intent on catching a tram; one hand formed a salute as she held onto the little fife-player's cap worn by all the usherettes at the Regent.
The way Vern and the others pooled these sightings and other scraps of information (colour of dressing gown, bottles near rubbish bin...) over their cocoa, reminded him of his own family's consuming interest in the soldier McBee, his mother especially. No one thought much of the projectionist. He had the troglodyte's classical stoop and pallor. His clothes loosely fitted as if he'd dressed in the dark. 'He slinks around here like a tomcat,' said Les Flies. 'I wouldn't touch him with a barge-pole,' Wheelright frowned. Olde English terms had also entered the local vocab...It was sometimes noted the dirty projectionist had stayed the night next door. 'He must have missed the last tram,' Holden said brightly. Sometimes they heard the couple arguing. And occasionally Holden noticed him at other parts of the city, miles away, walking alone. Years later when shown the curious statistics that the majority of arrested anarchists gave as their professions, projectionist or 'film technician', he surprised his peers by not being surprised at all.
With only one exit from the cul-de-sac meeting the furtive young man became unavoidable, and although Shadbolt avoided the eyes of the usherette that could see in the dark, he soon became on nodding acquaintance with the projectionist, who had a long but pleasant face, and close up, astonishing blue-green eyes.
'Your friend Mr McBeeit doesn't have an ais in hot water again.' The deadly proofreaders' pencil prescribed an arc (slightly exaggerated) reminding Holden of the birds with sharpened beaks he had seen on the Murray.
'Profession, "automobile dealer". He's going to break his neck if he doesn't watch his step. Then what will your poor mother do?'
Booked under the influence while riding a motorcycle; riding on footpath; blap-blapping with defective silencer; going through a red light (more than once); speeding; overtaking a tram on wrong side; overtaking stationary tram; overtaking Premier Playford while standing on seat and making disrespectful finger gesture. And the latest to hit the subheadlines: caught redhanded wheel-spinning his initials in the gravel around the sacred statue of Colonel Light at four in the morning. And abused the law when apprehended with electric torches.
'Because he's Mr Frank McBee,' Wheelright underlined the 'mister', 'I suppose he'll get off scot-free.'
'He cut in front of me the other day,' said Les, 'riding no hands. He scared the living daylights out of me.'
A motorcyclist transgressing the rigid lines of the city was enough to drive a tram-driver mad.
Picturing it Holden couldn't help grinning.
Others too vaguely recognised in McBee's recklessness a last-ditch stand against the debilitating laws of the city.
'He's getting worse,' Karen told them one day. 'He can't sit still for a minute. He throws his money awayto anyone who comes to the door. He's been seen with other women. He's got confidential secretaries. His voice is getting louder. He slaps me on the bottom when I walk past. Our mother,' she turned to Holden, 'doesn't know what to do. They're not married yet. He says, "Ask me about it tomorrow." I don't suppose they ever will. He's a wild man. They're often yelling at each other. And yet he's still good to us. In a way, he's very nice. I guess I like him a lot. Don't you, really?'
'He's what's called a yahoo,' Les said.
Holden didn't know what to think. He looked at his uncle.
'Mr McBee's got advertisements on himself.' Wheelright's opinion. 'Why doesn't he take things easy?'
'He must be unhappy,' said Vern. And Holden agreed.
His image appeared constantly in the papers. If it wasn't the lackadaisical mugshot after another of his traffic offences it would be there leaping out from the full-page ads for his used-car yards, beaming or pulling faces (e.g., cross-eyed and tongue hanging out: 'Only an idiot would sell qwality cars at these crrrazy prices!') As a way to be everywhere at once McBee sponsored a bewildering number of sporting events, such as solo world record or reliability attempts, usually to do with an engine and four wheels, though not always. Congratulating the exhausted victor, their hands clasped across the trophy the size of a funeral urn, the generous sponsor with the larrikin features gazed wistfully at the camera.
In summer he wore a knotted handkerchief on his head. His name became synonymous with perspiration and hard work, aphrodisiac moustache, good humour, opportunism (in the best sense!), perspicuity, pride in being Austrylian, loyalty, good honest value when it came to a used car.
And stillalthough his features were almost better known than the Premier's or Prime Minister Amen'sa dissatisfaction showed. It surfaced in the eyes and around the mouth. It registered too in his congratulatory speeches which tended to trail off, and in the horse-laugh and the unnecessary back-slapping. Holden recognised it, just as Karen complained of his restlessness. And in turn it made people watch Frank McBee all the more.
Holden Shadbolt had shot up like a rocket from Woomera, Wheelright's phrase, and reaching its ceiling, exploded auxiliary growths in sudden arcing trajectories; shirt and fly buttons cartwheeled away from the main body at various stages, bum-fluff sprouted from lips and chin and armpits, big toes bursting through the saddle-stitching of his locally made shoes.
Beneath his weight the hollow frame of Mercury suffered metal fatigue. He gave the bike away.
Size then remained more or less static. It had reached its optimum form. Modifications were constantly evolving, but in details so subtle and gradual they showed mostly as alterations to symmetry. His face became more adult. His neck thickened, eyebrows became conspicuously hooded, a few straight lines added here and there.
Those shadeless Australian afternoons. Without his bike Shadbolt covered long distances on foot. He didn't seem to mind at all. Vern had taught him the futility of complaining about things beyond your control, such as the daily weather. And in a continent obsessed by climate, Shadbolt's apparent indifference contributed to his reliability. He walked through the famous grasshopper plague (summer 1952), which clogged up the steaming radiators and windscreens of cars, stuffed motorbikes, and almost blotted out the sun there for a minute. It went on for days. And he would always remember the Black Thursday or Friday when the entire length of the Hills behind the city caught alight, a near-biblical lesson, and sent down a rain of grey ash on the streets. Walking home meant heading towards the flames. He then felt like a striding giantable simply to stretch out an arm and plug the leaking dyke holding back a molten inferno. In the event all he did was hose the smouldering gutters of the usherette's house next door.
Indoctrinated by the mathematics of the streets and the general air of wide-openness Shadbolt became a 'car maniac'. Others had their narrowing obsessions. At least a belief in something. It positioned a person within the endlessness. Cars suited Shadbolt's mechanical mind. The dense odour released by hot oil, aluminium and copper was French perfume to his nostrils. Other car maniacs his own age called for him with greasy hands, faces already endowed with pragmatismknowing country faces. Outside the house they squatted like Aborigines around the dripping radiator of someone's Austin Seven stripped of mudguards, and standing they banged their post-adolescent buttocks against an unpainted alloy bonnet held on with a leather strap. For hours they argued ponderously about specifications and the latest Formula One results, Shadbolt keeping one eye open for the usherette to appear in the front garden, or slowly enter the cul-de-sac after the last screening in town. At night they hurtled around corners on two wheels, converting right angles into curves.
Vern never inquired whether he was looking for work; enough that his presence remained in the house.
But for all his time spent with the maniacs it was the metal of the cars, not the maniacs, that held Shadbolt's interest. Realising this he studied the faces surrounding him and saw the distant, oblivious expressions as they argued. There was something temporary and unreliable about their repeated assertions which silenced him.
His loyalties remained with his uncle and their two best-friends. He listened, usually agreed and felt as one of them. In exchange for keeping the Wolseley spick and span, and mechanically A-1, Les offered him the car on Friday nights.
'Aren't you going to say something?'
The familiar triumvirate nodded in the lounge room, a semicircle of approving aunts.
The boy's tongueit should have been a man's by thenbecame tied. It was difficult to remain expressionless. To hand over the keys of a car: among the maniacs it represented the ultimate in friendship and trust. He'd do anything for these best-friends now! Grease and oilchange the car, run messages...
Some Friday nights he casually stayed home with Wheelright and Flies, and as they waited for Vern to stumble in from double-checking the entire Saturday edition he felt between his fingers the geometry of the Wolseley's keyskeys to an outer world of noise, speed and limitless space. Wheelright kept glancing at his watch as he tried concentrating on deciphering a pattern in his 'preliminary findings', while bolt upright in an armchair Les listened to the wireless, or merely studied the palms of his hands. Shadbolt turned the pages of the sea-mail edition of Autocar. Now and then one of them spoke.
'Saw a strange thing from the tram today,' Flies usually began.
'Oh, what was that?'...Wheelright asked, but remained staring at the Preliminary Findings. And gradually Shadbolt learnt more about his friends.
Flies, who saw life framed every day by the glass of his tram, casually mentioned he had every copy of Life magazine that had been printed. Stored in his bedroom the valuable pile 'reached the ceiling'. And when Holden with a nostalgic lump rising in this throat announced from a partially digested proof that the national rain-seeding experiments were to cease, all the venomous frustrations of the hopelessly unreliable weather forecaster erupted as Wheelright banged his fist on the table.
'I said at the time it'd never get off the ground.'
'But, but...' Shadbolt protested. It had always seemed like a good idea to him.
'You can't frig around with nature,' Flies joined in.
They turned to Vern for support. The various kinds of clouds were accordingly outlined. And what about the prevailing windsdid the rain-seeders ever think of that? You can't just turn nature off and on like a tap. Facing Shadbolt the three presented a united front, and with so many facts at their collective fingertips he back-pedalled, or rather, became confused. He changed the subject to one they were united on, the recent sightings of the usherette next door.
The diet that had grossly inflated his body growth and left him constipated imbued in him qualities of reliability. Twice daily he 'chewed over information'. Nothing in the behaviour of men, or Amen, or the vagaries of nature, could surprise him, which is why he was hardly ever seen raising his eyebrows.
And then all thoughts of an obscure or unreliable type were systematically eliminated by his unclealways there on red alert at his elbow to come down upon the slightest lapse, even before it formed in Shadbolt's mouth. Speaking in measured tones, and only when absolutely necessary, became a sign of reliability.
A sober view of the world was an asset, 'it's as rare as hen's teeth,' and when combined with the boy's diet-induced photographic memory it guaranteed him a place in the modern world. 'You'll find that most people don't want to know the facts, they steer clear of them. And so they're never really believable. Be less like them and before you know it, manufacturers, etcetera, will come running after you, waving their cheque books.' Again (Vern gesticulating among his statues): 'Steer clear of other people's loose talk. Cut through the nonsense that's seen every day and spoken. Spare your words. There are already too many. The more you talk, the more errors you'll make. I say, is that a cicada on the wattle over there?'
With solid fact-particles as the foundation a person could grow and transmit knowledge and traffic opinionsand withstand the forces of criticism.
Waxing lyrical Vern appeared to speak on behalf of the silent statues. As Shadbolt ducked to avoid the ecstatic word-spray he fleetingly imagined the bronze arm of nearby Colonel Light moving to wipe its brow; such fanciful notions were precisely what his uncle preached against.
At the age of almost-nineteen and the golden horizon spread out before him he became aware of an encroaching, less definable world of softness and imprecisionthe facts of life. His curiosity had turned towards girls developed into women, and vice versa, even when no girl-woman was in sight. He became conscious of the forms which existed beneath their words and vague clothing; and yet they eluded him. When the facts of life were revealed ceremonially he became still more confused; and he was attracted to the difficulty.
On a Friday night he'd been sliding the Wolseley sideways through the gorges in the Hills, the rock walls flickering in high-beam; almost had a head-on cutting a corner. Chastened, he dropped the other car maniacs off early. Entering the cul-de-sac he saw the usherette opening her gate. Fridays were her late night-shift. Unexpectedly, Vern's house was in complete darkness. Feeling for the switch inside his room a hand squashed his, 'Shhhh'Wheelright's instructionand Vern's raincoated arm motioned to the chair. 'Sit there.' Les Flies could be made out, seated on the bed.
Almost simultaneously a light came on in the room facing them. They stared at the illuminated rectangle, as though waiting for the feature to start at the Regent. And that was a turn-up. For nowwhat's this?the usherette moved into the frame and faced them, still in her turquoise uniform. Until then Holden didn't have a clue what they were doing there.
Without a flyscreen the figure was not fragmented. The flesh tones, eyes and mole on skin were clearly defined. The glass actually added a touch of moisture to the teeth and eyes. She began unpinning her hair. This was the signal for Vern. He moved to the window.
Les crossed his legs, Wheelright sighed and shifted in his chair.
The usherette had stepped out of her uniform. Next, her silvery slip formed a pool around her ankles. To Shadbolt she seemed to be removing bandages. Suddenly spilling out and spreading, her two soft things stabilised and held the boy in a liquid gaze. From then on, from whatever angle as she moved, they offered their intangible softness.
Barely above a whisper Vern nevertheless managed to lecture with characteristic enthusiasm. It could have been his vocation. He pointed with the ruler, a salesman of medical encyclopaedias occasionally turning to his audience.
'The breasts of a fully developed woman...these, these...come in various sizes, are composed in the main of fatty tissue. These here would be, I don't knowwhat would you say, Les?above average size for the lass's weight and age? Right. They're common to all female mammals. Essentially they're there to manufacture and supply liquid nourishment to the offspring. What are these two brown, target-looking circles? If she'd just stop moving...there we are. We all have these in some form. They're even fitted to the chassis of cars. Am I right, Holden? These are a woman's nipples.'
Combing her hair the naked usherette had turned slightly. These nipples, Holden swallowed, looked nothing like the ones fitted at various points on cars.
'Here's an interesting fact! You'll notice from this angle a woman's breast is comma-shaped. Why are they shaped like a comma? Everything in the world is connected to words. And the breasts of women, over the ages, have inspired words one after the other, strings of adjectives mostly.' Vern mumbled, 'That's the only reason I can think of.'
Shadbolt stared with his mouth open at the pale expanse: how the body before him was weighted and balanced differently to those of men seen only the other day on the semicircular beach. Faintly now he understood the function of high-heeled shoes. She had a snub nose and wide nostrils. Combing her hair she appeared to be smiling.
Tissue, muscle, glands, ducts and other technical terms went over Shadbolt's head. He wasn't listening.
The wand briefly touched on the navel.
Vern then pointed to the narrow waist and the wide hips.
'We now enter the most unusual region. I don't think there can be any dispute about this. It's the distinguishing mark of the opposite sex. You know quite well what you and I have between our legs. Something solid. But here you'll notice there's nothing, at least nothing on the surface. This makes women...difficult to understand. You never know exactly where you stand with them.' An embarrassed laugh. Hoarsely he said, 'The spitting image of Tasmania.'
Shadbolt could not take his eyes off the powerful tangle which nevertheless revealed so little of itself. Wielding the ruler Vern had launched into the reproduction process: 'There's a hole so narrow you can't see it. The male enters there, like so. Unfortunately, we don't have the woman's young friend here tonight...'
Shadbolt was amazed at the casual way she remained naked for so long.
'The woman's legs are like parenthesis,' the proofreader went on. There was the pudenda, the vagina, the cervix. And yet to Shadbolt, as he listened, the words seemed to describe something altogether separate. The softness remained untouched. As he stared and tried to work this out he felt the lump in his throat move down to his trousers.
From that moment on Shadbolt had an inordinate, irrational respect for women, all women, everywhere. When the light suddenly went out he felt stranded. He kept seeing the usherette although she was no longer there.
Removing his raincoat Vern said there were plenty of other facts of life he hadn't covered. They nodded, almost grimly. It would have to wait until next Friday night. Everyone agreed.
So Holden developed.
'He's making a big name for himself, all right.'
'One of these days I'm afraid he's going to come a cropper,' Vern squinted up too. 'He's never had his feet properly on the ground.'
'With so many airlines in the future, the sky isn't going to be big enough,' Wheelright predicted.
Angles of chance, lines of force...
The early fifties in Adelaide would long be remembered for the daily displays of sky-writing. It was all started by...Frank McBee. He figured it would be at least another ten years before every home had its television receiver. In the meantime, he had this hankering need to direct audio-visual messages to a captive population. The sky became his screen. There was this former flight sergeant with a toothbrush moustache and only one leg. Funny little chap. He only felt at home at high altitudes; down at earth he'd suffered a succession of broken marriages. McBee had slapped him on the back and bought him a drink to ease the pain at a bar near the aerodrome where the ashtrays were made out of pistons. 'I say, old boy, spelling's not my strong point,' was brushed aside. McBee shelled out for the conversion of a consumptive Tiger Moth. Within weeks the daredevil pilot became a household name, the precursor to the conventional TV star.
A clear sky was the first requirement. And no wind. Otherwise, a person's name or the brand-name of a washing machine could surreptitiously drift into that of the competitor's or, as once happened over the Easter weekend, Latin obscenities. Each morning the sky-writer phoned the Weather Bureau. Often Wheelright himself took the calls. 'He sounded shy, surprisingly for that kind of maniac.'
The plane's petrol engine could be heard faintly rising and falling as it printed QUALITY USED CARS three miles wide followed by McBee's extroverted signature. Everybody in Adelaide enjoyed reading the white writing. Frank McBee wasn't so crass as to advertise himself only. Important sporting results were announced, and the first the population knew of Stalin's death, and the incredible conquest of Everest, in 1953, was when they gazed up and saw the ecstatic adjectives in the sky, courtesy F. McBee. Traffic came to a standstill, pedestrians kept colliding with each other. Which is why the infamous law banning any writing above the sacred geometry of Adelaide was rushed through by the ruling party, supported by the press and the small shopkeeping class.
Vern, the proofreader, stared critically now as the pilot shot an enormous javelin on McBee's behalf through a pulsating aerial heart, and alongside it lazily wrote 'F. McB' andno, no!misspelt the single syllable Christian-name of Shadbolt's mother. That hour happened to be the anniversary of the moment the unknown corporal had opened the flyscreen door of the widow's house. 'There's a man of true feeling for you.' Motorists and women hanging out the washing smiled: it could only be Frank McBee. And it did his business no harm at all.
Because he had taken to chewing gum McBee now had the lackadaisical look of someone permanently grinning. That's how he appeared the following morning, on the front page: 'CAR DEALER FLIPS OVER SWEETHEART'.
Seated in front in the open cockpit the moustachioed pilot sheepishly wore the leather helmet and a necklace of war-disposal goggles, and looked slightly away.
No prizes for guessing who tipped off the waiting photographers.
'You boys ever been in one of these fresh-air machines? It's like a motorbike that leaves the ground. You should have felt my guts turn turtle as we did the old loop and barrel-rolls. It felt the sameyes, sir, it was the same feeling in the pit of my stomachas when I first set eyes on the lady of my life. And you can quote me on that.'
While the subject of Frank McBee acquired a special clarity to the population it became more confusing to Shadbolt.
Ever since he had seen with his own two eyes the facts of life he looked at Karen differently; he actually wondered how she shared the small house with Frank McBee. 'He's the most active man in the Southern Hemisphere,' their mother had answered a reporter through the screen door. 'He's always on the move. I'm in the dark. I never know what he's up to from one day to the next, or what's on his mind.' Mmmm.
Shadbolt noticed how his sister had grown tall and long-legged: and her legs kept scissoring violently as she sat on chairs or leaned against fenders under the street light. Some of McBee's restlessness had rubbed off. But when he casually asked questions about him Karen became dismissive. Her brother noticed too how she liked to hang around his car-maniac friends, the only girl there, and as they repeated their tall stories of speed and close shaves, she watched their lips with exaggerated interest, laughing and widening her eyes at just the right moment. When she wrist-wrestled with one in particular, a lanky mechanic sporting nicotine on an index finger, Shadbolt to one side remained stone-faced.
Late at night he drove the Wolseley through the deserted streets to the gaping Hills, the little car responding well under his carbuncular wrists, now sprouting windswept hairs, while behind him on the slippery leather a talkative girl in a humid skirt submitted to the hectic experiments of one or sometimes two of his mechanically minded friends, their muffled breathing and rustlings, snapping of elastic, sending the barometric lump in his throat down once again to his trousers. Hedges, intersections, painted fence posts. It was here while acting as chauffeur that Shadbolt first saw his sister bare chested. She was with the elongated mechanic. A passing tram strobed the back seat, and Shadbolt involuntarily glancing in the mirror saw her smeared face as she sat up, blouse open and peeled off the shoulders. Her body had the startled luminosity of a person caught by an usherette's torch; only, with such an expanse of paleness it seemed as if his sister was a light source herself.
Shadbolt kept his eye on the road as his thoughts rushed back to the usherette. The fuller nudity of the older woman eclipsed his sister's part-nakedness, her tentative breasts made fragile by car shadows. And when he glanced in the mirror to double-check she had disappeared again.
The Wolseley may have looked like any other car travelling along the road, Shadbolt thought, but there was plenty going on inside. He changed back to second. Elsewhere in the world, copulation, birth, marriage, death, and other educations, take place on the streets. While in Adelaide auto-eroticism...
With his newly acquired facts of life Shadbolt kept meeting the usherette in the mouth of the cul-de-sac, where there was no escape, or bumping into her at the tram stop. Since regularly seeing her at the window his distance from her had unaccountably, uncomfortably, shortened to mere arm's length.
She had a way of examining his face, and then abruptly turning away. Shadbolt put this down to her job, where an usherette, after checking someone into their seat, automatically looks back up the aisle for other waiting patrons. She had freckled skin, and slightly soiled piping on her uniform. Close up, parts of her face demanded his attention. But he kept seeing her naked. Every Friday night he made sure he was home and seated in his darkened room, waiting for her.
He was in his...twentieth year.
It was the age of mobility, and that was all right by him.
Over and above the trundle of trams and the swish of locally assembled cars, and the first experimental 2-stroke lawnmower starting up, even he with his jug-ears had trouble distinguishing between the irregular explosions from the Hills, quarrymen loosening 'metal' for the expansion of roads, and the sound-barrier being invisibly broken by the Sabre jets of the Australian Air Force.
It was a day of deceptive clarity, a Saturday. The sky he noted as Molsheim Blue, perfect for sky-writing. Walking towards the Hills he was mulling over Vern's short-sightedness. Only the night before he'd pointed to the usherette's breast as she painted her nails, and named it navel, until Wheelright corrected by repeatedly clearing his throat.
He reached the Maid 'n' Magpie where the streets formed a star. Later, attempting a reconstruction of the accident, he found it difficult, as with any hiccup of history, to establish the exact sequence.
Crossing into Magill Road he'd waved at flies near his nose. At that moment Flies happened to be passing and mistakenly slowed the tram. Frank McBee was converging then on the AJS. He too mistakenly acknowledged Shadbolt's wave. And whether it was taking his eyes off the road or surprise at his own response, McBee suddenly lost all control. The front tyre became channelled by the irrefutable tramline and before Shadbolt on the footpath could open his mouth he read his mother's initials written across the sky in a violent gold flourish. In nothing but cotton shirt and war-disposal shortsonly pansies wore helmets and leathers in the fiftiesMcBee landed underneath the machine and slid across the intersection of misunderstandings without letting go of the handlebars, a sign of avarice, and in that brief journey over asphalt, iron and oil exchanged one personality for another, the way a snake sheds its skin in summer.
As his handlebar moustache was torn off the chewing gum fell permanently out of his mouth. People wondered if he'd suffered any brain damage. He lost several inches in the crash. The hair never grew again on his head, and his jaw was wired into a permanent jutting position. From that day he spoke in measured sentences, and lost all interest in strangers.
Frank McBee switched from his daily draughts of Cooper's to stiff brandy-sodas. Overnight he became stout and round. He appeared in sober suits cut by the city's finest tailor, and in a reincarnation of his indelible one-upmanship leaned heavily on his mulga walking stick, and was never seen or photographed without the bow tie and the Havana double corona, which he now employed to torpedo the doubts and innuendos of rivals, bankers and investigative journalists, Shadbolt's mother, and anybody else approaching within arm's length. He became pink, sometimes florid. His formidable energies were now channelled towards greener pastures, not a patch of khaki in sight.
In the space of six months he sold the car-wrecking business, the secondhand car yards, the freehold blocks at Parafield. He counted his shekels, made the right noises, and landed a General Motors dealership.
How did McBee pull that? In those days it was a licence to print banknotes the exact colour of greener pastures. GM and its carefully selected dealers couldn't keep up with demand in the post-war years. After slapping down a healthy deposit a lucky man might wait another twelve months before taking delivery of the car designed and built for the local conditionsthat is, specially engineered to take account of the never-ending distances and the dust, the heat and the incessant potholes, the mirages, the kangaroos which were known to collide into the grilles at night, and all the bushflies and galah feathers which clogged up the imported radiators. GM made sure their product had reliability. They also attached the gear lever to the steering column, and introduced democratic bench front seatsshrewd move. Anybody and everybody felt they could slide across and drive.
Every night McBee drove home a different coloured car. He'd moved his reluctant de facto and daughter out of their small house with the battered screen door into a mansion on the other side of town which featured a mansard roof and too many bedrooms. Most of their plywood furniture he'd tossed on the rubbish tip (using company trucks), replacing it with imitation English antiques. And his name now appeared in sloping serifs on the letterheads, business cards, adverts and calendars; serifs slanted even in royal blue neon across his plate-glass windows. Vern who knew about these things pointed out that in the old days 'McBee' had always been in heavy sans, which is easier to read.
The population digested the transformation with respect, tinged with regret. McBee was again everywhere at once. If his name wasn't appearing on committees and commemoration dinners his familiar screened features were seen conversing with politicians, or whispering behind his hand to beaming visiting VIPs.
Shadbolt dreamed about McBee.
But when McBee had offered him a plum job in the service departmentjust like the old daysafter learning it was Shadbolt who'd whipped out his handkerchief to staunch the fountains of blood, as he lay out-to-it on the intersection, everybody else apparently standing around gaping or retching, Shadbolt turned him down. He had other plans, although he didn't know exactly what.
The Maserati brothers, C-type and F-head, Marelli magnetos and Amals, Webers and twin SUs, Enzo, Briggs Cunningham, Lago and Cisitaliathe names rolled off Shadbolt's tongue like the cast of a Hollywood epic on the chequered history of motoringand yet he didn't know the name of the woman next door. In his room on Friday nights, heeling and toeing in the dark, he wandered his eyes over every cubic inch of her paleness. And couldn't fathom her out. He had seen everything and could name the bodily parts; and yet he knew nothing.
When they met in the street it showed. His tongue became the fibrous cud of newsprint he chewed over morning, noon and night, the second tongue which interfered with speech and clear thinking.
At last at the tram stop his knowledge of her accelerated.
'Watcha up to today?' she called out. 'Come here and talk to me.'
'I was on my way,' he gestured down Magill Road. 'You know...'
On his way to help a car maniac replace a head-gasket. Nothing important. There was nothing much else to do. 'Stand in front of me so I won't get blown off my feet,' she instructed. 'There's a good boy.'
Only the night before he had seen her through the window accompanied by the projectionist, both stripped, in an audiovisual demonstration of the facts of life, and now standing so close, parts of her uneven body brushed against him, swaying on high heels.
'I thought you'd be tearing off to meet a girlfriend at the pictures.'
'Me?' Shadbolt shook his head violently. 'No fear!'
'What? He doesn't go to the pictures? But there's nothing like a good film.'
'I've been a few times,' he mumbled, catching sight of the tram.
'I don't believe I've seen you at the Regent,' she squinted up at him; lipstick on her teeth. 'There's a film on now in Technicolor I could see every day for the rest of my life.'
'At the matinee when it's half empty I can let you in free.'
He took his job seriously, helping her on the tram, 'You OK now?'
And stepping back and waving he almost collected a Dodge ute.
Several days later he arrived in at the Regent.
'Take a pew there,' she whispered near the back row. 'Otherwise, your head'll block the screen.'
As she went away to usher a small party of nuns the newsreel started. Long shots of Hillary and Co forming an immense millipede around the base of a foreign mountain; hectic Australian Log Chopping Championship, Royal Easter Show; and suddenly the huge image of Frank McBee, flickering as in a dream, smiling and jabbing with cigar at his grand plan for an Adelaide without trams, which was the first Shadbolt heard about it.
McBee's crafty features had Shadbolt smiling slightly. After all, McBee had almost been killed by a tram, and now he ran a business devoted to car ownership. Shadbolt was still adding two and two together when the titles of African Queen came on, and the usherette crept into the aisle seat beside him.
Before long he forgot the perfumed presence at his elbow. Unshaven Bogart in his clapped-out river boat was a man after his own heart: not afraid of a bit of grease, skilled and practical, a protector of women in white dresses.
'Here's the part I like best,' she nudged.
Jumping up and down on the bow the mechanic imitated a monkey just for the woman's amusement. In humour women evidently recognise a code of promise.
Later, the usherette dug her nails into his arm when leeches sucked onto his chest. 'I hate this part.'
On the way home she leaned against his shoulder in tune with the swaying of the tram, and he found himself talking freely, and began searching around for extra things to say, still aware of her strangeness.
When Frank McBee ventured on subjects outside his field he riveted people's attention with his jutting jaw and long rolling sentences which rose and fell, a majestic surf of words, tossing in figures, and never failing to come up with a sparkling vitriolic phrase or two, which people in Adelaide called 'pearls'. The technique came straight from the scrapyard, the used-car lot, the horse-trader's telephone. On a large audience it made a powerful impression. McBee knew when to pause; when and how to repeat a special word or a phrase; and how to raise his eyebrows slyly while making a crowd, or even a roomful of journalists, piss themselves with laughter. He developed a kind of public splutter of disbelief, which his half-smiling audience came to expect, and a guttural delivery, hissing and breathing through his nostrils and filed-down teeth.
McBee initiated debates of public interest. And although the subjects could often be sheeted back to self-interest, such as his campaign for the removal of trams, he surely did have a pointhistorical, socio-political, psychologicalwhen he extolled as 'democratic' the bench front seat developed by General Motors, denouncing as 'autocratic' the individual buckets preferred by British manufacturers.
Even before the trauma of Suez (when the whole country was proud of Prime Minister Amen's walk-on part) McBee had detected the decline in British power and influence by the static design of their heavy motorcycles. The barometer was there for all to read.
Basically the British bikes were stolid and merely dolled up every other year with a coat of gold or powder-blue, and adorned with kinetic names such as Golden Flash or Thunderbird, even though they were heavy and unmanoeuvrable. Frank McBee never failed to raise a laugh of sorrow when he deciphered the once popular BSA as 'Bits Stuck Anywhere', and on the subject close to his bulging hip-pocket, pointed to the cramped bodywork and the sewing-machine motors of English saloons. 'Speaking of sewing-machines,' he rolled his eyes, 'I see they've named one of their cars Singer.'
The names given to cars tended to support McBee's case, for although chosen for their psychological colours they rather suggested that the minds of British manufacturers had remained within their own narrow worlds. Oxford, Anglia and Humber, and dog names such as Rover were pastoral examples. In a devastating analogy McBee showed how the British were exporting to the colonial market their notions of the boarding school, brand-naming their most popular model Prefect, 'while bringing up the rear is Vanguard'.
In the design of their ships, Royal typewriters, fountain pens, men's shoes and films (for despite his busy life McBee escorted his de facto and daughter to the Regent most Friday nights) the story was much the same.
McBee figured this industrial entropy reflected a larger decline.
Audiences felt a collective lump gather in their throats when he announced the sun had finally set on the Empire 'like the lines radiating from an empty leather purse, the same lines you see etched around the pursed lips of women no longer able to bring forth into the world spritely and imaginative offspring. These,' he thundered, 'are difficult times.'
He wanted to know 'who were our friends? I'd like to know where are they now?'
It was Frank McBee dressed in pinstripes and polka dots just like a colonial Winnie who first coined the evocative term, 'the Bamboo Curtain'. It remains the only surviving phrase from the speech 'Bamboo versus the Gum Tree' that almost brought the roof down in a draughty hall in Thebarton. Shadbolt had digested it word for word, including the close-up of McBee looking especially ferocious. Waving his walking stick he pointed to the cancer of Communism spreading 'like red corpuscles gone mad' only a few hours north of, ha, Austrylia, 'this great white land of ours, a land of spreading plains'.
McBee's GM dealership flourished.
The correlation between industrial stasis and imperial decline detected so early in the market place by McBee proved 80 per cent true. The South Australian police department had already decided to switch from BSA motorcycles towho would have ever imagined?BMWs made in guilty Germany.
And as the Empire began losing its grip it encouraged, or rather, allowed in the far-flung dominions a proliferation of walrus moustaches, nicotine-coloured brogues, dog shows and half-moon glasses, and Winnie and Anthony Eden lookalikes, which although acceptable in certain streets in Adelaide and parts of New Zealand, Rhodesia and the Bahamas, lacked the naturalness of the real thing.
'You're almost twenty-one, and you're no fun.'
Dancing in front of him the usherette gave a shove, laughed at his poker-face, and turned and poked her bum at him.
Holden snickered slightly; he shouldn't have told her.
With the usherette he always became conscious of his size and the simple heaviness of his limbs. Passing in front of him the twin softnesses he'd seen released a dozen times (at least) shifted beneath the fabric printed with flowers and moss. He grabbed her arm, brushing against them.
'Hey!' he said.
She looked at him.
Letting go he blinked. 'Doesn't matter.'
Now that his sister lived across town he seldom saw her, except in the social pages flash-lit alongside Frank McBee at a charity do, and so Shadbolt regularly joined the usherette in the darkened theatre, seeing the same newsreel and feature four and five times, without saying a word. He also waited for her at the tram stop.
He couldn't account for the usherette's shifts in mood, which resembled the restlessness he'd noticed in his sister, Karen. Some afternoons she ignored him when he trooped in to his usual seat in the back row. 'I had a husband once but you wouldn't want to know.' And strangely enough he didn't want to know. He wasn't at all interested. There were unpleasant afternoons when she shook her head as he approached, or jumped onto the tram ahead of him, preferring to be alone. She wasn't happy. Talking to him was like talking to a telegraph pole, she'd laughed in his face. And yet in broad daylight on Magill Road she confused him by turning side on and pointing to her breasts, 'Do you like these?' Other times her voice came out so drowsily he could have sworn she was half asleep. When Shadbolt thought about all this he drew a blank. He didn't know what to think of the redheaded usherette.
He began to realise: other people were more interesting than him. Other people had things to do and plenty to say and were constantly on the go, and he had little or nothing to offer; he was always the onlooker. It showed with the usherette. Shadbolt felt she merely put up with him hovering on the fringes in his dusty shoes and mechanic's hands dangling, hoping to be of use. It showed too when he returned with Vern and their two best-friends to the beach, the depository of facts, Flies' phrase, and found it stripped, a beach almost like any other, spotted with bell-tents and clumsy cricketers. This didn't stop the others, Wheelright in particular, stumbling about with their noses to the sand, picking up the odd oxidised buckle, pointing and explaining, drawing attention to themselves. To Wheelright, the beach removed of its contents indicated another pattern, 'the end of an epoch'. As in collective memory, uncomfortable facts are gradually and systematically erased.
The last Shadbolt had heard of his mother was that she'd gone deep into spiritualism, mysticism and imprecision. Photographs in the Advertiser suggested she'd developed a hypnotist's penchant for shawls and darkened eyes. His sister, Karen? She now had her beauty to look after, a beauty strengthened by impatience; and she reeled off career possibilities on her long fingers, beginning with air hostess.
Wherever Shadbolt looked he saw a firmness in others.
The man in the street below had his racing pigeons, the Medleys had their Methodism, others were into crystal sets and/or cricket statistics...He saw men and women on their knees before flower-beds. Some concentrated on political sideways movements, the idea of neat grandparents, small economies. And Adelaide had the usual percentage of definitive collectors, zealots.
While other people moved in all directions and created self-noise, the way the usherette had danced in front of him, Shadbolt went on in a straight course, without any particular direction, which is why he had a lump in his throat.
He was left with a photographic memory, rarely used, hardly an asset (not yet), and detailed knowledge of a woman's body acquired at arm's length through a pane of glass. And cars, cars. He knew all there was to know about them; and it included the limits of adhesion.
On nights when he wasn't tagging along with the usherette he was behind the wheel of the Wolseley or thrashing some other crate across the rectilinear city. He wasn't the only one. An aerial view would show a warping and wefting, a velocity of masses, across and straight ahead, crisscrossing, stopping at intersections, starting up again, in concert, others stopping, never-ending. At intervals two would meet accidentally at ninety-degree angles, disturbing the pattern, some congestion, while the rest continued, backwards and forwards, individual parts replaced by other units, to form a whole.
Shadbolt had removed the Wolseley's stifling silencer, and inserted in the shortened exhaust pipe a tightly rolled length of flywire, like the map of the city. The car then made a long-distance racket, agricultural and aeronautical by turns, farting out lengths of blue-orange as the foot was lifted for intersections.
The camaraderie of the car maniacs took the form of elbowing and poking fun. Shadbolt's size nines came in for it. 'You should have been a copper, boy.'
And not entirely joking.
If they were pulled over for speeding or driving without the regulation silencer Shadbolt would step out and give the world-weary police a single nod. What followedilluminated by headlightswas a demonstration of his main asset, which had to be his steadiness. Expressionless and unconcerned, Shadbolt would suddenly notice a part of the car, the rubber flange around a tail light, say, sometimes squatting down for closer inspection, and before long he had the men-in-blue bending forward in sympathy. They all began nodding, hands in pockets. With Shadbolt the police became matter-of-fact. They recognised a kindred spirit. One time he managed a let-off at Payneham Road after passing a tram on the wrong side, hitting over seventy. The others had pushed Shadbolt forward as the driver.
Humiliation and heroism were discovered inside the cars; and auto-eroticism, naturally: especially when Shadbolt approached the cul-de-sac at high speed, anxious not to miss a single moment of the usherette's astonishing nakedness. Strobed by his high-beam the porosity of hedges and the pale limbs of gums and guavas projected before him tantalising parts of her, soon to be revealed again, body.
Shadbolt had developed automatic reaction wrists. On this designated Friday in April a figure in flaming hair tilted out from the gutter in front of him. Only by violently swerving from her rush did he narrowly miss, and so produced an entirely different set of repercussions.
'You should be home,' he almost shouted. He reversed the Wolseley.
The usherette began singing.
'Crack a smile, why don't you? Let's see your ivory.' She stretched his mouth with her fingers. 'There, I can see your true feelings. Not even your own mother'd recognise you.' She squinted through one eye. 'I think I prefer you like you was before.'
She was tiddly all right.
'Did you miss the tram, or what?' Shadbolt bent forward.
'That's for me to tell and you to find out.'
Suddenly he felt like chasing her around the car as he once did with his sister; and catching her.
But she sat down and removed her shoes.
'I could drive you home. I think I'd better.'
'Oh, who cares?'
Grey against gun-metal the Hills rose up before them, a wave about to curl over the innocent city, lights twinkling here and there like bits of phosphorus on the crest.
'I'm so bored.' She lay across his lap in the car. 'I don't know where to go. What'll happen to me? What's there to doanywhere? Nothing has ever happened to me. Do you think I'm an interesting person?' She punched him in the stomach. 'And you're the same. Look at you. You're living like a zombie.'
And he began stroking her hair.
'That's nice, keep doing that.'
As he drove he could measure her smile on his lap. The slightest bump and he felt her jaw and throat.
At the house he had to half-carry her in, she was playing dead. He stroked her hair as she tried fitting the key. Once insidewhere he'd never been beforeshe began switching lights on and off, leading him by the hand, until he lost all sense of direction.
In a small room patterned with wattle she unbuttoned her clothes, hop-hopping on one leg, her eyes fixed on him, and smiling. Stumbling against her paleness he almost took her breath away; he wanted to lift her up in the air. Framed by the window he was guided by the usherette into darkness, stumbling here and there in his eagerness to please.
Now this is funny, Shadbolt mulled over.
Some mornings one of their friends, Wheelright or Flies, appeared and watched Vern and the boy, who was no longer a boy, chew through the quota of fibrous diet; hardly ever did their rosters coincide for them to appear together, the demands on weather-forecasting and tram-driving being especially strong first thing in the morning. And yet here they were seated on either side of Vern, and barely giving a nod when he arrived, whistling.
Shadbolt felt more animated than usual and wanted to share it by rubbing his hands and talking loudly.
But a glance showed an ageing trio staring down at their knees. So embarrassed was gentle Vern that his front teeth ('Let's see your ivory') kept advancing and retreating every few seconds as he simultaneously felt for his cup and concentrated on burying his nose in Monday's galleys. A flake of translucent skin had lifted on his forehead: a hinge of disappointment.
Silence itself became an embarrassment.
Les Flies scraped away from the table.
'We missed you last night'Wheelright'It's not like you.'
'You were there?' Shadbolt asked, chewing mechanically.
They were always there at the window Friday nights.
'I'd better have the car this Friday,' Les choked from behind. 'I think I might be needing it.'
'It says here...' Vern frowned, trying to change the subject.
'This Friday?' Shadbolt repeated.
On Vern's galley he noticed a half-tone of Frank McBee beaming with the Premier, while parting the thighs of his pale fingers to form the now characteristic V.
'I was going to tell you today,' he said. 'Guess what?'
Wheelright stopped pacing. The city lay stretched out below in its orderly geometry before the morning haze.
While half-reading the caption beneath McBee's screened image Shadbolt mentioned he might be driving to Sydney this coming Friday. He and a few of the chaps. (Twelve hundred miles, there and back. That's nothing for a car-full of car enthusiasts all talking at once, chain-smoking, belching and farting, wearing five o'clock shadows and air-force disposal flying suits.) Leaving Friday afternoon they'd arrive Sunday, returning on Monday when Holden would be twenty-one.
HOLDEN'S PERFORMANCE. Copyright 1987 by Murray Bail.