Whose Rules – Part 1
A Novel in Crisis
Did you break my sunglasses???!!!!!!!!!
Forty-one year-old Dad screams down at 6 year-old terror-stricken boy. The boy is slight, feeble and sickly.
Around six years of age, Bernie and his big brother Cory were playing tag inside the house. Their parents weren’t home, they were off at the pub. The object of the game was to flick/tag the other with a tea towel, the loser having to wash the dishes. Bernie was fast and agile, no-one could out flick him.
The front door was open – it was the only form of air conditioning in the tiny War Service cottage and the weather was oppressive. Long legged Cory chased nuggetty Bernie up the long narrow hall that led to the outside world and freedom. As he arrived at the doorway, a gust of wind caught the door, slamming it hard shut. Momentum won and Bernie sailed straight through the four panes of ripple glass.
Stunned and amazed that he had got off with only a nick on his shoulder, Bernie yelled ‘Barley’ to pause the game.
These were the days before mobile phones and in fact, few people even had a home telephone. Public telephones on street corners were a curiosity, but you needed to know someone with a telephone to call. The boys knew no-one.
In the mid 1950s, television was being talked about in newspapers, but hadn’t arrived in their semi-rural area and any form of communication was limited to how far and fast you could run or how loud you could shout. It was the days when boys on bikes delivered telegrams to people to inform them that their family member had been in a car accident, but there was no-one to send a telegram to, and anyway, the Post Office was closed.
The family didn’t own a car, although their father had some home use of a company car, as he was a commercial traveller, away from the house most of the time.
Cory helped steer Bernie the four blocks to see Mrs. Gay, a retired nurse that was known to assist the poor neighbourhood with various bumps and scratches.
Mrs. Gay was gracious enough to bathe and cover the wound and wrote a note for their parents, informing them the wound would need stitches.
The boys slunk off, then ran home and tried to clean up the mess on the front porch before their parents arrived home. Naturally their efforts were a total failure as every pane of glass was missing, and the separator strips had all been smashed.
Not a word was said.
Father just took Bernie out to the sleep-out in the back yard and tossed him inside a cupboard. The lock slid and clicked. There was no protesting or even crying. Six year old Bernie was just entirely dumb struck. His father had never said more than two words to him – ever – he was simply not on his father’s radar, then all of a sudden – this. The speed of his actions just confused him – he was like a footballer heading for goal.
“OK dad, I get the message – you aren’t happy with me….. can I come out now, I have to pee?” Please? Pleeeease!
Late that night, when Bernie had been crying for 4 or 5 hours, his mother came and got him out. She never did that again.
Mum used to tie Bernie’s tiny hands around a kitchen table leg with a length of rag so he wouldn’t get into any more trouble during the day, and she would even put a cushion on the floor for him to sleep on when he stopped struggling, but she had never actually locked him away in a cupboard. Mum was loving, always close by, delivering her ample bosomed hugs with cooing, “I will always love you” noises. She liked to have Bernie around, unless his father was home. Little boys were to be seen and not heard, then.
The front door panes got fixed, life went on. The daily routine was well established, up in time to run to school, St Mary’s Greensborough, and do battle with the swamp around the ‘Yabbie Pond’ or the dust bowl that attracted the snakes, depending on the season. There was an unmade road that went to the school, but it was circuitous and reserved for coming home with other kids. The fast way was direct, through the cow paddock (Bernie always considered the black one to be mean) and through the horse paddock, skirting the edges of the Yabbie Pond across the railway line and into the end of the school playground.
There were nine barbed wire fences to negotiate, lots of sticks and stones that needed to be hurled, old bits of corrugated iron from dismembered sheds and forgotten projects and all manner of booty to collect along the way.
School was a bit boring. Lining up and being presentable didn’t fit Bernie’s country boy image that needed a bit of scruff to define the edges. Bernie was helpful, maybe too helpful. A thin and puny boy that considered himself wiry and strong – who knows? He certainly didn’t make a great impression as he went around the playground at lunchtime, drooling over the other kids sandwiches. Bernie was one of the poor kids. He only had shoes at school when one of the teachers found a pair that someone had left behind because they had grown out of them, but he never wore them home, because he didn’t want to show up his siblings or seem superior – whatever it was that went on his mind, it didn’t allow him the luxury of shoes.
The bright red hair, three dimensional freckles and smart ass attitude meant that he was never forgotten in the schoolground – it also attracted its share of scorn and ridicule. He really wasn’t pugnacious, but had learned to stand tough and sound tough – he seemed like a yapping miniature dog.
Lesson learned: Redheads have fiery tempers.
A couple of friendships stuck by Bernie during his Primary school years, but none lasted beyond the geographical need for someone to play a ball game with. Bernie was not allowed to enter anyone else’s home, and he wasn’t allowed to invite anyone back, so most friendships were forged in a spare house lot as the kids were drawn out of a common need to have someone kick the football between, or throw the ball back.
Football was played a little differently back then. Living poor in a poor neighbourhood, the footballs were wadded up newspaper, tied tightly with string. Even the school football team always used a ‘wadball’ as a football, unless they were playing against another school.
The school playground was next to the railway line and there wasn’t a fence when Bernie started school there. The first football that ever came to school was eaten by a train. From then on, it was wadball. The fence must have gone up when Frankie got hit by the train on his way to school, not that any fence would have ever got in the way of those kids.
Frankie was a tiny kid with a full set of decayed teeth clinging precariously all over the inside of his mouth. He was the only kid smaller than Bernie and they sometimes banded together. Marbles, brandy, keeping’s off – that sort of thing. As the youngest in their respective families, they were both always voraciously hungry. They would stand together beside others that were eating with big eyes and drooling mouths, often scoring the scraps, just to make them go away.
Frankie and Bernie were sparring one day. A quite formalized game of chicken, where they would stand at arm’s length and punch at the other one’s face, with the aim of being short by a hair. It was almost like a martial art, no flinching, no hitting, just maintaining fearless control and allowing a fist to come straight for the chin. Then, one of the on-lookers pushed Frankie in the back at the critical moment. Out went Frankie’s teeth – five of them in an eruption of blood.
Within a week, Frankie was dead.
To this day, Bernie has never tried to hit someone in the face. He just can’t do it. Thanks Frankie.
Lesson learned: If you hit someone in the face, they will die.
Bernie had already experienced the death of both his father’s parents, that was back when he was a little kid of four. Seeing them laying peacefully on their beds was far less traumatic than seeing Frankie swatted like a fly by a train hurtling by at 50 mph.
Six months later, Bernie is riding a neighbour’s bicycle down the unmade road outside his house. Recent rain had created puddles, and the small amount of traffic turned the puddles into potholes. As a 6 year-old, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, his job was to slalom between the potholes to prove how well the bike could be controlled. He ran a ridge between two holes, the bike slid sideways into one, and he was thrown from the bike and the bike was thrown in the air. Needless to say, the bike landed firmly on Bernie’s bright red head. There was shock, but really no pain. Bernie walked around the back of the house to where his mum was hanging out clothes, not even crying, but in need of some attention.
His mother saw him and screamed, blood was spurting from his head, creating a fountain that had entirely covered his body. He consoled her as best he could, but until he ran the hose over himself to prove, ‘it’s only blood, I’m not mashed up’, she was hysterical.
Once again, Bernie gets hauled over to Mrs. Gay, who once again, bathed the wound and pronounced that he needed to see a doctor, but this time, his mother was present. Then Mrs. Gay saw the old nick on Bernie’s shoulder, and asked what the doctor had done about it. Of course he hadn’t been to a doctor, and there was certainly no money for that kind of thing. Mrs. Gay wrote a note, put it into an envelope and instructed his mother to take it all along to Dr. O’Shannessy today. His mother’s financial protests fell on deaf ears as Mrs. Gay drew her mother aside and whispered something.
They went along to the doctors immediately. Bernie was seen next, as soon as the patient in the doctor’s surgery came out.
Lesson learned: Nurses can give orders to mothers.
Bernie’s mother accompanied him into the consultation room, and after a few words from the Doc, she left. The boy was ordered to strip off for an examination, because there might be problems anywhere on his body. He was really scared and shaking. He held his breath and closed his eyes as he was probed and prodded for scars, fissures and any other examples of the ‘devils work’. He needed to have a prostate exam – ‘That’s why we don’t need your mother in here.’
This involved a digital rectal exploration, while his penis was being stretched and rubbed. It felt weird and little tears kept burning the corners of Bernie’s eyes. Eventually, he was told to dress and ‘not to worry my mother about what tests we had done, but you will have to be operated on’. The head wound was forgotten about until Bernie started slurring words and stumbling. His mother was told not to let him out of her sight and not to let him sleep. He vomited. The pain of a migraine took over his body and he experienced his first delayed concussion.
Lesson learned: Pain delayed is pain doubled.
Bernie immediately burst into tears, realizing he had been taken over by the devil and that he would burn in hell for ever and ever. He was escorted back to the waiting room and then taken to the local District Hospital in a car driven by the doctor’s wife. This was to be the first of a total of 43 operations on the melanoma that had formed after repeated sunburns on the wound site had gone unnoticed for the last 6 months.
The first series of operations were ‘Locals’, performed at the nearby District Hospital, which consisted of a day surgery and about 10 beds, mainly used for observation. Each of these operations required the excision of the scar area and an area immediately surrounding it. From the original one inch accidental scar there was now a four inch long caterpillar of stitches on Bernie’s shoulder. He kept getting weaker as keloidal tissue pushed back through the opening and a tumorous growth emerged.
Lesson learned: A child of the devil needs to be exorcised, regularly.
Bernie’s language skills were good for a kid, but understanding the difference in meaning between ‘excise’ and exorcise’ when both were out of his range of vocabulary and they were referred to by the learned doctor as the ‘The Devil’s Work’ and ‘Excision’ in one breath… frightening.
Bernie followed their every instruction to the letter to try to get the devil off his back.
Within three months, Bernie was scheduled for Ray Treatment on the newly installed equipment at Peter McCallum Clinic, and he is to have chemotherapy, also in its infancy, to try to stop the re-growth. The schedule was, Chemo – Ray – Operation – Ray – Chemo.
Father is screaming about how much trouble Bernie’s caused the family. His drunken anger calls for him to pick up a knife to make his point and as he is waving it in Bernie’s face – he must have seen his own reflection. He dropped it to the table, picked the boy up in one hand and carried him off to the place.
Three days in solitude sorts out most six year-olds.
The place is a closet, 2 feet by 2 feet by 8 feet tall. Bernie can stand in there, he can squat into a tiny ball so that he can muffle his sobs. The smell, although foul, has become almost friendly now, it’s the place and no-one else ever goes in.
The closet is part of a ‘sleep-out’, a single room that was used by workers on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Project that had been transported to the back of Bernie’s parents home in the 1950s to create extra space for the adult inhabitants of the tiny weatherboard cottage. The finish of the sleep-out is rough, creosote stained vertical weatherboards that have been nailed over tar paper. The joists are showing inside; raw, rough hardwood. The timber floor is uncovered and scarred with cigarette burns.
The room has two louvered windows, about 2 feet wide and 3 feet high. They stand aside a single door that drops down 3 feet to the ground below. A simple sad-face room with a dirty green door. There are no steps, they don’t arrive for a couple of years. There are a number of variations of sawn logs on end, banana boxes that rot and later a large concrete paving stone that serves as a welcome mat, but for now, it’s just climb up onto the door-sill with toes-only on firm footing and reach for the pad-bolt, slip it open and fall in.
There is no furniture, not a stick. A mattress arrives some months later. it’s just a 12 ft square room. Roasting hot in Summer, mind-numbingly cold in Winter. There is a small shelf that has been tacked on under one window, just a plank of undressed hardwood, also soaked in creosote, held in place by a couple of prop supports. The place has an 18 inch wide wooden door, fitted by nickel-plated steel hinges to the closet that occupies the back corner of the room. Inside it there is a 4” nail to hang clothes on, otherwise the closet is just a scaled down version of the room. The place is dark, totally dark. To guarantee darkness, the closet has a pad-bolt and padlock. There is another nail on the outside of the door.
On it hangs the blanket that he is sometimes allowed, sometimes denied.
There is a ball of chicken-wire that lives in the closet. When he’s bad, he gets rolled in the chicken-wire before being put in the closet. The chicken wire is his own folly, he brought it home one day and wouldn’t say where it came from.
The chicken wire has a few of the corners twisted over themselves to keep it secure. Inside the closet there is little room to struggle, and the fear of making a noise, gouging out an eye or being subjected to other punishments was usually enough to keep him still. The cuts and pressure marks still break out to this day, 56 years later. So do the cigarette burns. Cigarettes were a pretty standard way to elicit truth and Bernie was not getting any better at honesty.
Bernie contemplated Crime and Punishment a lot in those days. The philosophy of a six year-old is pretty basic, but time allows all sorts of scripts to play out in the mind. Sometimes Moochie, the Foxhound/Labrador looking mutt that hung around the house would crawl up under the sleep-out and whimper with him. He had probably been beaten too and knew the punishment corner as well as Bernie did. They philosophized together as only a boy and his dog can do, and when they were able to, hugged and nuzzled for what seemed like hours on end.
Lesson learned: Dogs can be trusted.
Both of Bernie’s parents worked, and they indulged in a standard after work practice of the day known as the six-o’clock-swill. As all bars closed at 6pm (last drinks at 6pm, off the premises by 6:15pm) it was the practice of Australian workers at the time to barrel out of their workplace and run to the closest pub and order a dozen beers which they lined up on the bar and poured down their gullets as fast as they could.
By 6:15 they were in their cars for the peak hour crawl, along with a million others in the same state. By 6:30 pm the effects of the beer had fully hit and car accidents were commonplace. Most police simply got off the road in the swill times, as they were checking all the pubs to make sure the drunks were off the premises, and sampling the brew at the same time.
These were simple times. The police were there to uphold the law and they did it with an iron fist. They didn’t want to charge anyone and send them off to court, they simply bashed the living shit out of you in a back alley, took an ‘On the spot fine’ and you knew to stay out of their way. Bernie’s father had been ‘done over’ a number of times at the pub – he liked to stay as late as he could and sometimes ran into the burly boys in blue.
“It wasn’t me! I never saw your sunglasses, honest!”
In fact it was him. Bernie had been let out of the place at around 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon after what he believed was 3 days inside his pitch black crypt. He stumbled, and stretched and stumbled some more. He covered his eyes with his hands and dropped down from the sleep-out to the backyard.
He swayed to the outside tap and splashed water over his burning eyes and his blood encrusted nose. One of his ears was still oozing something that was more green than yellow, there was blood too. His mother had always said that blood was there to wash out the bad stuff, so he guessed it just needs to bleed a bit more.
He made his way into the house to wash properly, because he had fouled himself again, and he knew he would get into trouble if he smelt at the dinner table. It was Summer, the stench was over-ripe and the sun was glaring at him, another accuser. He saw his face in the mirror and was still squinting from the bright light, even inside the house. He washed away the blood and tear stains and scrubbed himself over with a piece of rough towel. He put on a pair of sunglasses that were beside the sink and felt that he could hide behind them.
With the change in light, he walked straight into the door and the sunglasses hit, flipped and got stood on. Bernie picked them up and put them back onto the sink, hoping that they would self-repair as he was just too scared to own up to having broken them. Now he knows, he should have disposed of them, then. Bernie still had this wishy-washy attitude to deceit.
“If you tell me the truth now, I won’t hit you, but if you lie to me, I’ll give you a hiding like you’ve never had before!”
Now the dilemma.
Does he come clean and alleviate all guilt, admit the mistake and of course admit he had been lying? Or does he hold out and protest his innocence, with the fear that one day he would be found out. All kids want their father to recognize them, want their father’s love and want to be forgiven for making mistakes. He was young and naïve. There were so many games to learn and there was always a harsh punishment for trial and error. His father lit a cigarette.
Lesson learned: Cigarette smoking makes other people tell the truth.
The family’s ‘War Service’ home was in Watsonia, on the outskirts of Melbourne. The home was pretty dingy in an area of pretty dingy homes. There was a neighbour. The people were from Latvia and were refugees from the Russian takeover of their country. They were nice enough, but they didn’t know any English. Beyond them there were unmade house lots, soggy ground that was dotted with stands of mainly small gum trees, saplings that stood among burnt out stumps and grotesquely gnarled hollow logs, remnants of earlier bush-fires. There was a glimpse of another house in the distance and only 3 blocks away, a grove of pine trees stood ready to explode in flames if a spark blew in. The road was not much more than a half dried creek bed, about 8 feet wide, and had stinking black oily drains on either side that teemed with inch long red wrigglers. The local kids used to say that the mosquitoes were large enough to be packaged for dog food.
The family was poor. Even at age six, Bernie was in charge of the vegetable garden, and potatoes were required at every meal. The soil was a sucking mass of clay that was unyielding. He eventually got potatoes growing in enough quantities to feed a family of six. That took a willow tree to suck the water out and masses of sawdust from building sites a few blocks away. The addition of bags and bags of chicken manure, hauled in on a billy-cart from a farm five miles away, eventually did the trick. He was in production. Of all the things that he could do or not do in that phase of his life, his ability to supply copious quantities of potatoes and beans was the one thing that stood him apart as the provider.
Bernie’s father was away from the house for two weeks at a time. He would go on long country runs, selling the new plastic home-ware to gift shops and hardware stores. Those were the quiet times. He would roll up on a Friday night after playing travelling salesman and the fights would start. Mainly it was about money. He had always lost his money at the pub before he got home. Bernie’s mother once burst into tears because there was no money to buy soap to wash the kids. ‘It’ll all be fine when your father gets back, he’ll bring us some soap from one of the hotels he stays at..’. but of course he never did. He forgot the money too, although once, to his credit, he brought a case of oranges with him. Bernie had never tasted an orange before and just went into meltdown.
It was about then Bernie decided to make some money. There was a huge fortress like monastery about three blocks away from them, and they had groves of hundreds of pine trees. Climbing trees was one of Bernie’s favourite pastimes so they all had to be gradually conquered. They were his Everest. Together with his Latvian neighbour, Johnny, they divided up coloured fabric and raced to see which of them could work their way through a row of trees with their flags on the top foot of each tree.
The very tops of the trees would sway wildly if they got their balance wrong, or if there was the slightest breeze up there, but the rush of the achievement was amazing. After months of doing this, and falling a few times, usually from the very top, they figured the next extreme sport was to jump from the top and cascade down the outside branches. When Johnny broke an arm, they were banned, but Bernie continued until all 635 trees were conquered.
With an old piece of sheeting, Bernie would run up to the monastery’s pine forest and toss the pinecones onto it, eventually having enough to draw into a swag, hang off a stick before commencing the trip home. In those days, hot water came from either a wood fired copper that would have its contents bucketed into the bath or sink, or if you were rich and had a separate hot water service, it was a chip burner. Many homes still had combustion stoves or pot-bellied stoves as electricity was usually restricted to one or two light bulbs, often with an adaptor trailing from it to power the odd electric appliance. In Bernie’s house, the appliance of choice was the revered electric iron.
So sauntering back from the pine groves with his cache of cones, people approached Bernie with offers to buy his firewood. The population was small, but so were Bernie’s arms, so fair rewards were earned for pine cones. The family was never without soap again.
Bernie gradually saved up pennies and placed them in a tin along with a bar of soap. These were then hidden in the crawl space under the house, where only a scrawny boy could reach them. Bernie had vowed never to be hungry or without soap, ever again.
Lesson learned: There is always a way to make money when you need to.
In those days, ‘burning off’ was very common. As there were no council rubbish pickups, household waste needed to be burned and then buried to keep the rats away. Most families had a concrete lined incinerator that could swallow all manner of refuse. Bernie’s family had a simple campfire style incineration technique. This was where he learned to separate the garbage from the compost, the tins from the bottles and the paper from the decaying cooked food scraps. The Latvians next door had, through osmosis, taught him the value of compost and with limited language, a lot of gesturing and occasional fence jumping, Bernie found that the ashes when mixed with green waste and left to marinate for a while, created a healthy environment for earthworms, and this was the sign of a healthy soil.
The family weren’t allowed to mix with the neighbours, they were not like Australians, they drank vodka, not beer, spoke funny and then the all pervading, ‘We’re not telling anyone about family business’.
Of course with similar age kids, they still got together and played, before the parents got home, when Bernie was supposed to be peeling the spuds and preparing dinner.
“I tripped, I stood on them, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry, I lied.”
Fear is an amazingly powerful tool. Having convinced himself half an hour earlier that he would never tell a living soul, that he would take the secret to his deathbed, Bernie gave up without a fight at the mere sight of a glowing cigarette.
He was ashamed at himself for having given-in at all, he was ashamed at himself for lying, he was ashamed at himself for being so clumsy that he broke the sunglasses, he was ashamed at himself for being a habitual criminal that could never be trusted, he was ashamed for disappointing his father, yet again.
Lesson learned: Punishment is deserved
Sister Mary Francesca ran the local school. She was, stern, strict and intolerant and yet, there was a softness to her that Bernie never understood. She was running a school of 56 kids with another teacher, Sister Mary Santa Claus (actually Stanilaus, but kids would be kids…) The pupils ranged in age from 4 to 14 and from a wide socio-economic background. There was the Publican’s son, he was brought lunch each day by a waiter and sat down in the playground, picnic basket, rug, cutlery and a flask of juice. He was so far removed from reality that he was called Richie Rich. He wasn’t picked on, it just seemed accepted that he needed to have things done differently. In those days, every child was handed out a one-third pint bottle of milk at morning recess. During summer it had always turned sour, because the crates were left just inside the gate, in the sun.
Being a naughty boy, Bernie was always being summoned before S.M. Francesca and always given extra tasks. He suspected that she understood more than she said. He was always tasked to bring in the milk, go to the store (2 miles away) to get supplies or even clean up in the staff room after the two nuns had finished their lunch. There was always some tid-bit or leftover that would ‘Be a sin to waste’ that Bernie was left with.
Lesson learned: If you work with food, you get to eat.
The Parish Priest, Father Adams, was a dour man. He was as Irish as Paddy’s Pigs and as well presented. He muttered and mumbled with a brogue so thick, that no-one ever understood him. He also had a strong drinking ability that didn’t stop at the altar wine. He was never seen to smile, and like Bernie’s father, he was never seen sober. He was a train wreck.
S.M. Francesca often had huge screaming matches with him – it was always over one of the children that had been sent up to the Presbytery to help him with cleaning or other tasks. Bernie never knew what those fights were about, but in a culture where nuns were always subservient to priests, this stood out as being earth shattering.
Bernie was never allowed to go to the Presbytery, even when his presence was demanded. It was always, ‘Over my dead body’ and ‘I’ll kiss the devil first’ from S.M Francesca. Bernie never discovered what the fuss was all about. In his six years at that school, he never once entered the Presbytery and he treated it as though it was a haunted house – giving it a wide berth.
Father Adams eventually gave Bernie the opportunity needed to give up Catholicism – which he jumped at.
The loud cracking sound inside Bernie’s head was new, the force behind it was not. He literally saw stars as his head and shoulders were forced through the wall. He sank to the floor before remembering to never sink to the floor. Bernie’s father kicked him, just once in the face, shattering teeth and ramming his head back into the wall to create a second hole. Bernie felt the black cloud of unconsciousness roll into save him from the pain, ‘perhaps this time I will die and not have to clean up the mess I have made’. He awoke to the booming voice of God.
“Never, ever lie to me boy.
You are a worthless loser, you’ll never amount to anything.”
Bernie’s mother came in, and whispered to the boy, ‘when you lie to him, it makes him angry’. Then ran off to pour her husband another beer, before he came after her. When Bernie’s father passed out dead drunk, Bernie scampered up the road to see Mrs. Gay, who put a couple of tiny clips in his face, squeezed stinging lemon juice over it to kill the bugs and sent him home quickly before anyone missed him. She was a godsend that was only there to minister First Aid, and when he left his parent’s house, he never spoke to her again – but today, Bernie swears she has a special place in heaven.
Bernie was allowed to eat, but this time his food was set on the floor, without a bowl. Lying dogs should eat with dogs. Bernie’s damaged face and painful gums made it nearly impossible to slurp up the food, but he knew the alternative would be more punishment. Mum cried a bit at the thought of her littlest one having to grovel on the ground, but shut up when threatened. Bernie’s father was a big, powerful man and his mother was the weakest person Bernie had ever met.
Bernie slept in a bed that night, inside the house, but his parents were arguing about him and he just knew that she was going to be hit. ‘If I had only told the truth the first time, or never told the truth, maybe she wouldn’t be threatened.’
Lesson learned : Never go back on your word.
Bernie’s father would be going away the next night after dinner, so everyone attempted to lay low until he left, to stay safe.
Bernie knows he can’t confide in his mother either. She always tells, and that usually ends up in a visit to the place again. She doesn’t understand that by confiding in her husband, her children are threatened. If Bernie was late for school one day, he might be locked up for another weekend. Maybe that was to give her more free time with her partner, which was impossible to understand, even in later years. Bernie was told in his thirties that his mother was the one that suggested locking him in the cupboard, not just as punishment, but apparently to safeguard him from greater danger whenever his father was home. In a strange way, Bernie wanted to believe that, but…. he doesn’t.
Every second weekend, when his father was away, Bernie would go exploring, often with the next door neighbour, Johnny, sometimes alone. There was the hidden billabong in the Plenty River which for no particular reason, was called Bucks Dam. It was a place to fish and swim, although the red-bellied black snakes loved the area as much as the boys. There was the aqueduct which was a largely open, man-made stream that sped along at faster than running pace. It travelled from the Yan Yean Dam, the main water supply for Melbourne to within five miles of Bernie’s home. The trick with the aqueduct was to hike and fish as far as they could walk in a day, and then strip off their clothes, tie them in a bundle and jump into the aqueduct with the bundle held above their heads. This offered them high speed transport and they only had to tread water. Sometimes their clothing got wet, but panic only set in when they were separated from their clothes and they feared having to go home naked.
Johnny and Bernie would often see distant bushfires and attempt to plot their direction and size. When they could see the flames licking into the sky, they knew it was close and threatening. On their way home, they would call into farmhouses and warn them of the fires. In those days, this simple bush telegraph was a necessity as there was no other means of communication.
Bernie goes to church most Sundays, it’s a way to get out of the house and as there is rarely any real curfew, he usually dawdles aimlessly, plotting his escape, ‘They’ll miss me when I’m gone’, says the ‘poor me’ in him.
Sometimes his mother comes to church with him, his father never does. Today, Bernie’s mother is wearing hand me downs from her twin sister. Twinny is wealthy, married to another bitter twisted man, but bites her tongue too. It’s not Christian to say anything bad about your husband.
Bernie’s mother has a hat on as they walk the four miles to the church. His Sunday shoes, tied together, are looped over his shoulder, one in front, one behind, socks stuffed into his pocket. The mud along the roadway will ruin shoes, and it might be another year before he can wear his brother’s cast offs. One of the other kids from school sees him barefooting it toward the church and calls a few names, and in front of his mother too. There’s a water tap near the entrance to the church where Bernie rinses his feet and finishes dressing while his mother dobs at her shoes with a handerkerchief.
They go inside. The Mass is in Latin and Bernie has already been instructed in some of the meanings of the prayers. It seems so surreal to him, there is all this talk of love, while people he knows are plotting to leave their families, beat their children and abuse their neighbours. The full irony of an hour of platitudes doesn’t yet strike home to him. Everyone is on their best behaviour, but he notices that his mother never talks to anyone, she keeps her head bowed the whole time. She asks her son to sit on the other side of her. It’s not until they swap places that Bernie sees her bruised and puffy cheek and the black eye that makeup can’t hide. She rattles his arm and says, ‘You pray for forgiveness for what you have done to me.’
He looks down at his shoes, rough, but clean and wishes the floor would swallow him up.
He thinks of the Page family. He was a builder in the area. He was tough and hard as nails. His kids were always damaged and battered. Then Bernie found out Mrs. Page had taken to her husband with a hammer in the middle of the night and was in jail on murder charges. Somehow she got off, but was never allowed to enter the church again, presumably because the priest had not seen her at confession. The kids moved from the Catholic school to the state school and Bernie rarely saw them again.
Bernie’s mother went to communion at the head of the row, came back to her seat, grabbed him and her handbag, and headed out the door before the Mass was over. Her eyes were red with tears. Shoes off, they arrive back home, not a word spoken.
Lesson learned: I know how much harm I have done, I can’t undo it – I’m powerless, beaten.
Without saying anything to anyone, he goes straight back to the place and sits in there, no wire, door open, but safe in his sad world.
Later, his father comes to the door,
‘What are you doing in there?’
‘I forgot to ask God’s forgiveness.’
The door to the place slammed and the darkness closed in – but Bernie had won – He’s not in the chicken wire at all. Perhaps his father will forget about it.
In the darkness, Bernie carefully lifts the wire up and hangs it on the nail above his head giving him more space. As he lifts it, he hears a strange flapping sound. He feels around to find the 18 inch square of linoleum is loose underneath him. It has been nailed in place, but over time and probably his own shuffling, the nails have all pulled through. He’s able to stand on the wall support that is an inch higher than the floor, and lift up the linoleum. He can see shards of daylight through the gaps in the floorboards. It smells pretty bad under there, but there is a puff of fresh air every few seconds that makes his heart beat faster. He resolves to replace the lino and say nothing until he has found a way to make better use of this eureka moment.
Before dinner, Bernie’s father pulls him out of the place and tells him to wash up. He’s drunk, but he doesn’t seem aggressive. Bernie’s subdued, compliant and not looking for a beating. He asks his son what he is going to tell them at school about the missing teeth and Bernie responds with the required lie.
“I was playing and fell out of a tree and must have hit a rock”.
“Have some dinner.”
Lesson learned: Lying is OK to protect your family, but not okay to protect yourself.
So after a few extra lies to the nuns when he returned to school, some bragging rights to the other boys – “You oughta’ see what I did to the other guy!” and a few whispers from his siblings, that episode went away, his Father went back out on the road and his mother went off to work, smelling of way too much cheap makeup.
To everyone else, Bernie fell out of a tree. The ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was firmly in place at the family home, and he realized that while he was the current whipping boy, all the others had been the primary focus at some time or another.
Lesson Learned: Survival meant silence, failure was terminal.
With his father away, out came play. Even though Bernie’s mother would tell her husband everything, there was that magic time between 3:30 pm when school let out and 6:45 pm when Bernie’s mother rolled in. Sometimes there was a sibling around, sometimes not.
There was a garden shed at the very back of the yard. It was a reclaimed packing crate for an imported car. It was naturally ventilated with 1/2 inch gaps between the palings. These were the days before containers, when oversized wooden crates were cheap and plentiful. There were a few building sites within a mile or so. It was easy to wander onto the sites and pick up scrap timber and nails that had fallen during the building work. On the way home from school Bernie grabbed a few pieces of timber and a whole bunch of nails, he also got some paint tin lids – but he had always collected them.
Paint tin lids were quite simply the original Frisbee. The local boys had paint tin lid wars with each other – 8 inch metal disks flying back and forth until someone ended up in tears. A great game. This time, Bernie took the builder’s booty back to the garden shed and left it there – then inside to peel the spuds, and slice the tripe.
Tripe is the only food stuff that can be mistaken for whitewall tyres (remember them?). Kids were told that tripe was ideal for youngsters, because growing children needed meat and that was the best there was. It was diced into one inch blocks, and boiled forever before being served with a white sauce that was flour and milk. It created a globulous, gelatinous mass that always made Bernie gag, but had to be eaten to keep his strength up. After years of this, Bernie finally figured out that bread squares, soaked in white sauce looked similar enough to tripe, to be able to pull a sleight of hand when it came to his plate. He wolfed down the slurry before anyone could notice the difference – more for them, none for him. Bernie’s health picked up immediately as he left tripe behind. These days, it’s the one food he refuses, still. He passes it off as ‘A Fashion Statement’ and lets it go – but it always makes him shiver.
Lesson learned: Stealth and deceit are good things.
When Bernie’s father was home, he always ate steak. He always ate potatoes and he always drank beer. 3 meals a day, seven days a week, he ate steak and potatoes, although he was rarely seen to drink beer before noon. The family had to feed him steak because he was the ‘bread winner’ and men needed to have their red meat. Bernie’s mother worked too, but in those days, women’s wages were a third of men’s, so they didn’t need to be fed so well and women were obviously less important.
Lesson learned: There is a pecking order that can never be questioned.
The myxomatosis virus that was released to combat the rabbit plagues were starting to close in on the local area, but that didn’t stop young boys from spearing and even netting the tasty rodents. They quickly learned about the look of a Myxo rabbit and only used them for skinning contests, while those that were unaffected were kept for the pot. This was the red meat supplement and Bernie’s father wouldn’t dream of eating them, ‘Give me a steak any day’ – so for at least 6 months of the year the rest of the family had a good chance of having rabbit on the menu once or twice a week.
After a time, hunting became an art-form, and Bernie’s neighbours invested in some ferrets. They made a big coop to keep the ferrets in and covered it in chicken wire. The roll of chicken wire was endless, so that’s when Bernie decided to cut himself a length and hide in his sleep-out, he had no idea, he had been instrumental in creating his own torture chamber.
Mushroom Harry was a local character that lived an extraordinary life. He had an air rifle and lived on rabbits and mushrooms, or at least that’s how it worked out in Bernie’s head. In the forests of the grounds of the Gresswell Sanitarium were a few abandoned car bodies that Harry had set up as his home. Over the years Harry had gathered junk that had been hurled out of cars, in those days before rubbish collections. His collection was neither an artistic statement nor of any utilitarian nature, it was just his stuff.
Johnny’s mum worked at Gresswell and knew the story. Harry had been an inmate of Gresswell and had been ordered to never leave the grounds. That order stuck. He had been dragged back into the dormitories kicking and screaming too often. They finally let him just sleep in the woods. Bernie and his friends had a fear of Harry, he was as mad as a hatter and they were young and freaked out by his living conditions.
In summer he was naked and they giggled as they watched him through the dense scrub. In winter he had on a huge army great coat, gum boots and an old army slouch hat, with varying amounts of rags underneath. At an early age, the boys discovered Harry talking to himself, swearing at everything, rambling. He was not a subtle man. They saw him keep walking up to one tree and then another like a sentry on duty, barking orders or having an animated conversation with each of them.
The boys decided to play a trick on Harry. They would bring things to one of his favourite trees for him to discover and then see what he would do. Harry wasn’t to see them, and it took all their courage to venture into his realm. Many double-dares later and either Johnny or Bernie would leave a bottle of Slades Lemonade or a pack of cigarettes under his tree. He was really suspicious and would watch to see what was going on, so then they would leave something at one of his other perimeter trees.
Over a period of five years, they left Harry all manner of things from fishing poles to an armchair, from clothes to rations. He was their Smith Family, and they got a great kick out of not being discovered. After the first couple of years, Harry left things by the trees, which the boys decided were for them. A couple of matchbox cars, a little whistle, various pieces of wood. They never met face to face, but Harry knew as much about the boys as they knew about him. They collected his toys and left their treasures for him. This was the start of a number of hidden relationships that Bernie forged over the years.
Bushfires went through the area, Harry couldn’t leave. He perished alone in the grounds of the asylum. After discovering him, the boys never went back, it was like a shrine that needed to be left for Harry, and he wasn’t returning. Bushfire is not an easy death. Harry had bloated and swelled where he lay, half underneath one of his car bodies.
Each day Bernie rushed home from school and straight to work in the shed. This time he took a piece of string and a knife. He returned to the place and measured beyond the piece of linoleum to the wall supports that he had previously stood on, and cut one string to its length, the other to its width. He ran back out to the garden shed and began piecing together timber slats until he had recreated the flooring of the place complete with extra size, so that it would fit firmly on top of the linoleum. A little jiggling, hacking with a saw and the size was right. He took the floor back into the shed, and poured oil all over it and then buried it in the mud. Bernie had never tried building anything before and marvelled at the patterns made out of the bent nails as he learned the craft from scratch. But for now, time to peel the spuds.
After a week of running backwards and forward from the shed to the place, he had recreated flooring that he was sure would pass inspection for age, roughness and colour. He carefully lifted the lino out of the closet, placed the new false floor into place and then replaced the lino. The floor inside was now raised by 1/2 an inch, but otherwise it was identical. He covered all his tracks in the garden shed, burying sawdust and hiding spare nails and then to leave it all alone until his father had seen it.
Bernie had no intention of showing it to him, he just wanted it to pass inspection unnoticed, before he went any further.
It went unnoticed.
Now came the task of making a false ceiling. The door was short, maybe five feet tall and the ceiling in the place was eight feet tall. He wondered if anyone would notice if he brought it down a little. The ceiling was tar paper, which he sliced with a razor blade until it fell. There was nothing above it at all, other than rafters and a corrugated iron roof – it was merely looped in place. Before threading some unwound pieces of fine chicken wire through the corners of the tar paper, he used the tar paper as a template for the false ceiling. Then he was able replace the ceiling temporarily. By using the template to measure, Bernie found a piece of Masonite that was almost the exact size. The boy test-fitted the masonite and marked the upright supports at about 9 inches below the ceiling. He counted the supports and went back to the shed to cut some blocks. After cutting, they were soaked in oil and then buried in dirt to age appropriately. Back to peeling spuds.
Over the next few weeks, whenever he had a private moment, he worked on his project. The ceiling tar paper was now glued to the masonite, which was sitting on small blocks that were in turn, nailed to the support joists in the place. To remove the false ceiling, it needed to be lifted and tilted slightly, then it would come free. Now, the time had come to work on the floor again. Home alone, Bernie lifted out the false floor and broke through the original floor with a tomahawk. Once there was space, he inserted a saw, and took out the whole of the square closet floor. He disposed of the old floor pieces under the house, rasped at the newly cut edges to smooth them, and applied oil and dirt to the newly sawn edges. They disappeared into the general character of the woodwork. He then simply lifted the new, oversized floor into place and it was supported by the wall joists.
Standing back, nothing had changed. Inside, it felt no different, but now he knew, he would never be a prisoner forever – he had made a trapdoor.
There had been a constant fear in Bernie’s mind that he may be locked in the place and his parents would go out drinking and be killed in a car crash or that a bushfire would follow the smell of smoke that often wafted on the summer winds, causing him to quietly starve to death or burn like Harry. This fear was gone.
Lesson learned: Bottom line, you have to have control over your own life.
Over the next few months Bernie was sent to the place regularly, but now, just before his seventh birthday, he had created the tunnel to freedom. He was too scared to use it at first, but eventually he vowed never to soil himself again. He readied the space by clearing junk from directly below the drop zone under the place so that he could move about in the dark if necessary without being cut or making a noise. As the family gardener, he had a number of planter boxes that covered the underneath of the sleep-out on stilts, so he made sure there was a simple push at a small wooden box that covered the drop zone.
Bernie set about making his toolkits. He made sure he had a similar size piece of chicken wire in the ceiling cavity, and was able to find a couple of cans of sardines, small and flat and with their own key, a bar of soap, a candle, pliers, matches and of all things, some underpants. Other items he stashed under the house, or buried in the garden shed included a screwdriver, a penknife, a length of rope and another box of matches. Over the next months, the various stashes around the place, under the house and in neighbouring front yards grew. He became increasingly aware of his surroundings. Bernie really didn’t want to live there any more. Bernie was sad that pride in his work could not be shared with anyone.
Lesson learned: Everyone will give you up rather than get hurt.
This was his personal secret, perhaps the first of many. Once he was able to walk away from his prison, he would wander the neighbourhood in the dead of night. That’s when he learned a little too much for a seven year-old.
Bernie had progressed from Local Anesthetic operations to General Anesthetics. He progressed from scarred to immobilized as the operations cut deeper, the chemo got wound up and the Roentgen of the Ray Treatment increased. He spent more and more time in hospital seeing less and less people. His parents never visited beyond the original sign in and final bail out; the hospital was not on the way to the pub. Bernie was isolated and felt no-one really knew where he was apart from his parents, he had just disappeared like the siblings before him.
By the time he was 10, Bernie’s life expectancy had grown from 6 months to 2 years. He gave himself credit for this, although he knew the good doctors and nurses had definitely played their part. He was now on the Outpatients Register and was able to make his own way back and forward from home to hospital. He did a few weeks at school, and was given some work to take home, but his focus was elsewhere. In fifth grade Bernie came bottom of the class, but in sixth grade, he turned everything around, came dux of the school, won a 100% scholarship to the best Catholic College in the state and had a lot to live for, but still only 2 years to live.
As he left the place one weekend evening, he saw a light on in the bathroom. The bathroom window faced the rear of the house and the front door of the sleep-out, it was frosted glass, but it was obvious that two people were inside. Caught between fear and guilt, Bernie crept closer and heard the rough drunken mumble of his father and his sister, whimpering. He couldn’t fathom what was going on at that stage, he simply had no clue. His sister Clare was 13 and he only knew that she must have been getting into trouble. Bernie was very short of bravery and simply went back to the place and sobbed for her.
Bernie realized how separated each of the kids were. One had left home, and Bernie was a virtual stranger to a brother and sister that shared the same house as he did. Bernie’s closest sibling, Cory, had an identical sleep-out, but his was a lined, painted bedroom, not a punishment chamber. He never did anything wrong, never got into trouble, and simply sold Bernie out at every chance. He looked like his mother’s father and for some reason, that gave him the status of the fair haired child. He was 16 months older than Bernie and simply never got hit. The boys’ sister lived in the main part of the house. She had her own room, never got beaten, but was always timid and shy around people. She was a regular churchgoer, beautiful and radiant young lady, but she could never look anyone in the eye.
Clare made school holidays so special for Bernie on a couple of separate occasions. She played a game, hiding notes around the house and even outside in the yard, creating a form of treasure hunt. The prize was always simple, everyone was poor, but the fun was in the fact that she cared. She moved out of the house to live with neighbours and then was magically getting married although she’d only ever been on a couple of dates.
This loving behaviour of hers was seen to be some sort of repayment for having interrupted dad while he was abusing her. Bernie had made it his business to barge into the bathroom whenever he heard her crying. Father swore he was just washing her in the bath with him, but she was in tears, 13 or 14 years old and forced to be naked. It wasn’t until Bernie was 35 years old that Clare gave him the complete run down – because at the time he was pre-pubescent and had no knowledge of sex other than sniggering at a bare bum.
Between the ages of 18 months and 16 years, their father sexually abused, molested and raped Clare. At one stage Clare quit school to be the house mother to look after Bernie between medical treatments, after school and during holidays. Their mother could earn more money because of her experience and age. During that time, their father would come home every day for lunch and rape Clare. It was as regular as morning coffee. She would beg him to stop – he never did. When Bernie was well enough, he intervened. Clare, ashamed that her little brother knew too much and wearing her own guilt inappropriately, left home. That was when their father taught Bernie about sex – the hard way.
Lesson learned: Sex is dirty, hateful, overpowering, painful, demeaning and shameful
Clare never came back to save Bernie, never came round to take him away for a weekend, never bothered, but she was ‘safe’ at last.
Lesson learned: Once you get away, never look back.
Then, a few years later, Cory left also. Bernie was now alone with a madman that was hell bent on destroying him. Bernie was bright at school, too bright and with a warped sense of humour. He was in people’s face all the time, challenging them and began to get into all manner of scrapes. The lessons learned at home weren’t as valid in the real world. ‘The Brothers will sort you out in no time!’
Like so many baby faced cherubs that went to Christian Brothers Colleges, he was raped. In the name of Jesus he was raped. He felt shame, fear, anger and revulsion at what was happening to him, he was a pawn, he was 11 years old and he had nowhere to go.
Bernie couldn’t tell his family, they wouldn’t believe him, or would somehow have twisted the blame on to him. He couldn’t go to the priest – Fr. Adams was now well known for his misdeeds around the parish. The local Doctor forced everyone to have internal exams for the common cold, and the police just took you out and bashed you, then would tell your parents you started something so they finished it.
He didn’t know anyone with a telephone, he was lost in his own world. Simply nowhere to go. Bernie vowed that he would never be in that position again – but everything had to change for him to take charge of his life. Alone with tears, he set a timeline of 3 months to get some money together and leave.
He roamed the streets at night, stealing the coins that were left out for the milkman. He organized a raffle of a chicken, saying it was for a local school, selling tickets from a blank book he had bought from the Newsagents. There was no chicken, just the cash from tickets sold. He jumped the back fence of the Milk Bar, stealing their lemonade bottles that were waiting to be exchanged for new ones, then brazenly walked in the Milk Bar’s front door and cashed in the bottles.
When the Bottle-O drove his horse and cart from house to house to pickup beer bottles for recycling at 2 for a penny, Bernie would direct him to all the biggest drinkers houses, and get paid for selling bottles that weren’t his. He was eleven, out of control, on a mission and a street thief, a rich one. He had more than 20 pounds, he could survive.
Bernie wanted to catch up with a couple of the kids he had gone to the Christian Brothers’ College with, as he had just thundered out of there and never returned. He wondered what was being said, but had his suspicions. Bernie decided to catch up with them at Mass on Sunday.
While he was still about a mile from the church, an horrific car accident happened. The car was heading toward the church, and ran off the road into a power pole, disintegrating. He stayed with the dying people until another car came along, then left to run to a nearby house that had a telephone. The second cable coming from the power pole was the give-away sign of a telephone service, and as this was a richer area than where he lived, it only took a few minutes to get to a house, break-in, use their phone to call an ambulance and head back to the accident scene.
Other passersby had arrived and needed to shield him from seeing the full gravity of the tragedy, so he went on to church, to pray for their souls. He was late, the service was well under way, but he had done his civic duty.
Bernie entered the rear doors of the church, and commenced the walk down the aisle, looking for a free seat, or more likely a friendly face, when the pulpit erupted in the maniacal raging of Fr. Adam’s hatred of people who didn’t love God enough to be on time. He belittled Bernie, and ordered him from God’s house. He had been unofficially excommunicated by one of the least godly men that he knew of.
Bernie walked quietly from the church, remaining composed – at least until he got outside – then ran back to the car accident, realizing what was more important to him. The hypocrisy of organized religion has never eluded him since that day.
Lesson learned: Hypocrisy and religion are synonymous.
Someone dobbed, the chicken raffle had come back to haunt him, because an eleven year-old kid with a shock of bright red hair had been trying to sell them phony tickets. Bernie’s father was at the front door with a stranger, yelling at Bernie for blood, while his mother was at the back door, begging Bernie to just Go.
Lesson learned: Never stay where you aren’t wanted, and figure it out before you’ve wasted eleven years.
Little has been said of their mother, there is little to say – she simply wasn’t there for her children. She clucked and hugged them arduously, but always pushed them away if their father was around.
Just before Bernie left, his mother told him a couple of family secrets. There was another brother, Laurie and that he had been institutionalized from an early age, because of a head injury. It was many years before their mother admitted their father had been jealous of a 6 month old baby that was in his bed when he came back from Military Service. There is no admission, just an opportunity to draw the conclusion that their father had mistreated Laurie and the ensuing brain damage meant that Laurie was legally blind, legally deaf, had an IQ of around 70 and was so spastic that he only stumbled with the aid of a walking frame. Laurie had a vocabulary of around 50 or 60 words, was never fully toilet trained and could barely find his mouth to feed himself.
Laurie was living in Sunbury about 40 miles away in an institution that was also (rightly )known as ‘the zoo’. The conditions were horrific, the zookeepers worse.
Laurie’s life didn’t get any better when he was transferred to another establishment at Ararat.
Bernie knew one of his tasks would be to track Laurie down and spend some time with him.
As their estranged brother David wrote when recounting his own story, “And she held his coat” should be written on their mother’s tombstone.
So within 3 minutes of Bernie’s mother telling him to go, he was officially launched… No more school, no more church, no more home, no more family, no more hospital, no more tripe – he was on his way.
That night he crept back home, into the place via the trapdoor and slept more soundly than he ever had. In the morning, when his parents had left for the day, he crept into the house, took all he could fit into his schoolbag and left. He never returned to that house, there are probably still sardines imprisoned in the ceiling of the place.
Thirty years later Bernie did call in to see his parents again, in their retirement village unit. He wanted his own children to be able to say that they had met their grandparents. They stayed 15 minutes, everything was hypocritical smiles in front of the children and then everyone moved on to ‘another appointment’.
As an eleven year-old walking the streets with only minimal concepts of direction, Bernie was a target. He had to get off the street, but there was no-one to trust, and he was by now a wary little boy. He had a small address book that had a few names in it, but had no concept of how to get to their homes and wasn’t sure if he would be welcomed, as an embarrassment or returned to his private hell.
Hitchhiking was a standard method of transport in those days, but there were still many times that Bernie told the driver that he was on his way home from martial arts lessons. A few times he jumped out of a moving car, a couple of times he was groped, once he was driven out into the bush and dumped.
Bernie pictured himself leading the life of Mushroom Harry, squatting somewhere and beating off anyone that came by.