A frank story. part 3 (of concrete bras and first dates)
Frank’s story; part 3
The few years of factory work that I was engaged in during the late 1950’s did not exactly meet the expectations of a young man. The games of openly pretend or real buggering, the constant ‘dating’ and the sheer squalor of mentality amongst the factory workers, the initiation ceremonies of young apprentices with dyes between thighs and balls, the bigotry and the total lack of even a single person with some sort of empathy finally made me start planning for a return to Holland as a desired option as mentioned before.
But, out of the blue an opportunity presented itself that was to change my life into a totally different direction. I went to an employment office and took a vacancy for an apprentice painter, unaware that this would be much different from any factory work. My first day was in anticipation of perhaps again having to risk and experience some initiation ceremony like at all those factory jobs. This was not to be. Not that the fellow workers were much different although they did seem a bit savvier and also had some kind of civility about them. It could well be that painters, when working outside could not very well put on the sort of pranks that went on inside factories. I can’t imagine, those working on a city building in George Street, buggering or bum dating in front of normal people on the way to the office. Inside painting was also often with other strangers about, often the lady of the house or nurses in the case of painting a hospital might be around.
The first job, after a very short one minute interview, was with a small team of about five or six painters and consisted in having to go to a hardware shop and ask for a ‘sky-hook’. They were painting a pub. In fact, from memory, this contractor seemed mainly about painting pubs. His speciality was to strip all those varnished swinging pub doors of old layers of varnish and the coats of paint underneath. The doors were timber and the fashion was to make the doors appear with a very heavy and rich looking wood-grain. The art of wood-graining was slowly disappearing, but this contractor had all the required skills to imitate this desired faux heavy grain look. The hardware shop man smiled and was good enough to explain that they had just sold out of hooks that you could hang from the sky. The joke was on me, and also not having any experience in the good natured world of the building industry. The request for a ‘sky hook’ was, in a way, the initiation of a young fellow worker. It was a definitive step-up from the dreary factory career. And no ‘dating’.
The painting and wood- graining of pub doors also coincided with a period of Australian history whereby there was strict control on not only the venues were alcohol was sold, but also the times whereby alcohol could be consumed publicly. Alcohol was sold in licensed public facilities not un- logically called ‘pubs’. There were no cafes or restaurants like in Europe, where at the time of around the late nineteen fifties or early nineteen sixties, that one could just walk in to have a glass of beer or wine, night or day, week days or Sunday in every cafe or restaurant.
The time of pub opening was at 10am and closing at 6 o’clock pm, strictly. On Sunday all pubs were closed but some clubs did sell alcohol to members or to those that could prove they lived a certain distance away from the club. It was all a bit of a mystery, but even today in clubs you have to sign in or in some cases show identity. This rather early time of closing up was strongly enforced to ensure that dad would come home, not just to have dinner, but more importantly, to hand over his pay packet before it was all pissed up against the tar-coated urinals of the pub. Already then, alcohol abuse had a strong grip on the culture, despite, or as some might argue, because of its restrictive attitude towards alcohol consumption. The closure at six o’clock resulted in frantic and very fast beer drinking which reached its crescendo at about three minutes to six, when lights would be switched on and off, heralding the ‘time out gentlemen’ and imminent closing of the pub doors. This was the moment for a last ‘shout’. This meant an almost manic panic from those wanting to have a last beer. At prompt six o’clock the taps would not pour anymore beer. Despite the restrictions, many would stagger out inebriated and sometimes seen being helped to stay upright by wives and kids on the stagger walk back home.
Our little group of painters including me would knock off work at four and if the work was progressing profitably for the boss, he would kick off beer drinking by shouting the first schooner. This would then be followed by others. If there were 5 painters, there would be six schooners including the free one from the boss. In my case, my first shout was after a couple of weeks and things progressed to seven schooners. Far too much and going home on the bicycle afterwards then would have to rank as the most dangerous and reckless part of my life. Of course the jobs near our home were the only times I used the bicycle. Often the job would take me away much further and I then would take trains and busses.
You knew the week-end was coming to the end on any Sunday afternoon, rain or shine. A kind of gloom set in as if any enjoyment should never have been trusted in the first place. The suburban strips of hooded shops and steel awnings were closed up, and dogs and people had disappeared. Was this not the time on a Sunday afternoon to expect the arrival of the “Demon of Noontide’?
Some of the tens of thousands across Sydney and other places would now be getting ready for the routine of obtaining the ticket to work by rail during the week. In those days a weekly train ticket was the best option for those that did not yet have a car. This ticket was called ‘workman’s weekly’. It was coloured a cheerful red and had both the destination and the year’s week number printed on it. Next week the same colour but the next number would be featured.
It is rather nice to know that in those days, a workman and his workman’s ticket was part of a society that had not yet discovered the stigma that would later attach itself to the word ‘workman’ by some. How many would now saunter up to a rail station, let alone buy a” workman’s weekly ticket”?
Of course, to avoid queuing on Monday morning in the thick of it all, the better planned would get the ticket from the nearest railway station on the Sunday afternoon.
Therefore there would often be a slight flare up of life and respite from the ‘Sunday demon’ between four and six pm or so, especially around the railway stations, when one could see fellow workers, so staunch and brave, facing the coming week with an heroic and fearless grim determination to buy his weekly ticket.. Oddly enough, those tickets, as far as I remember, could also be bought by work-women. Perhaps I am wrong here. Was there some sort of letter of proof from employer that one was engaged in physical work?
Monday mornings were so much better for having survived the Sunday, another week and another quid was now coming up, we are talking about seventeen pounds ten shillings per week here, being about the average adult wage, back in 1956. It was mid-summer.
The trains had sliding doors that were manually wrenched open by burley blue yakka’ed station attendants. The waiting workers would flick away the Ready Rub fag end and all would align and board the train.
The trains then as perhaps still now were of a past era but very much accepted as being modern, almost in vogue. There were no toilets or water on board, so passengers would develop strong constitutions and camel like water retaining attributes and bladders, even travel by late pregnant women would be undertaken with no worries. The date on the steel couplings between carriages was around 1932 or 34 and above the seats were still those brass ornate luggage racks, now keenly sought by inner city residents to use as holders for their terracotta potted geraniums.
The workmen and their workman’s tickets were of the norm then and so were men in overalls and travelling women with hair curlers. The trains would be packed.
Heralds and Telegraph papers would be spread open and many women would knit, young men would glance through Post and Pix magazines, with photos of girls in swimwear revealing nude knees and even feet. The afternoon papers, Mirror and Sun featured scandalous stories of Princess Margaret’s romances and titillating scandals of Professors at Tasmanian Universities. Every six months or so, when sales were down, papers would print front page with a single word ‘WAR’. It was often a fracas in Egypt or disturbance in Malaysia. But the paper’s edition went sky high.
As the train arrived, its passengers would be disgorged and new ones would hop on, perhaps shift workers going home on the reverse trip.
Many workers carried those big bags that clipped together at the sides and would bulge downwards. Inside those bags one could easily have discovered tinned containers with clip on lids that held the previous night’s dinner leftovers. Those tucker tins and other goodies would then be eaten after the factory siren heralded the thirty minutes lunch break.
A lot of work carried out in factories was done by unskilled or semi skilled, work. It often involved very repetitive work, day in day out arms and hands sometimes combined with feet would perform the same movements all day. Those movements sometimes also had a counter on the machine and a minimum number of movements were required per day. To make extra money, it was encouraged to do more movements with working faster or taking shorter breaks. Often safety shields on machinery would be disengaged for extra speed, risking workers losing hands or limbs by compromising on safety.
But what sustenance the men derived from their tucker boxes of the previous night’s morsels, many women would get for tuppence out of the slotted coin machines fastened on the wall next to the bundy clock, in the form of headache powders. The bundy clock was that dreaded invention that would stamp arrival and finishing times at the factory. Some stricter regimes also had time for lunch breaks recorded on those machines.
It wasn’t so much the headache or other ailment those women suffered from, no it was more for the enjoyment of ‘getting a lift’, as I was often told. It was also not the single occasional paper foil of headache powder, no, three or four a day, and every day. Are you a bit sick, I asked? “No no, it picks me up you know, it makes me feel a bit better”.
Years later, when thousands of women developed liver and kidney ailments it was blamed on those headache powders, the ingredient of phenacetin was the culprit. Many women ended up with all sorts of ailments through their overuse.
I sometimes thought that in those times, with the six o’clock swill at the ‘Locomotive or Cricketer’s Arm’ and similar, and those men pissing money on boots and porcelain, with pyjama clad kids hanging around pubs waiting and hoping daddy would come home soon for dinner, had a lot to do with the ‘lift’ that those factory women were getting and needing out of the tuppence phenacetin loaded headache powder slot machines.
Then there were those that did not have clip on bags nor clipped tucker boxes. These were the recently arrived Europeans from complicated countries and backgrounds. Thick accents, some heavily vowel rounded, others guttural consonantly. Many silently doing the factory processing work, week in and out, bending over machinery, often imported from their home country, making bolts and nuts or putting thread on same.
Hungarians, Czechs, and Slavs with professorial demeanours and qualifications from Giessen or Vienna and with Cum Laude as well, doing now in factories what the Bill O’Reilly’s had done for generations. These were the times of ‘workman’s tickets, factory work and European migration’.
The job of painting, being often practised outside lent itself to a freedom that I had not experienced at other jobs. The demeaning experiences and poverty of spirits seemed to be absent from the building industry. During that period of sky hooks and seven schooners with some painting in between, I met an Englishman, Bernard Durrant, who was to become one of those major influences in my life as well.
Amazingly, having now started the story of my friendship from way back 1963 or so, I decided today 5th Dec 2008 to see on Google, and at the spur of the moment, to see if I could find something about him. Well, the first item after having typed ‘Bernard Durrant’, I found a website with photos and list of books published and paintings painted by him.
As I wrote earlier, at the time when I was about twenty three or so, I worked for short while for a painting company and on a job I met this man who seemed to be everything except a house painter. The way he held a brush, opened a tin of paint and his general lack of being painter savvy stood him out to me immediately. The others, to my surprise did not seem to notice that shortcoming in his painter skills. Anyway, I also thought he was cleverly hiding his inexperience by pointing out, while standing on the floor, some bits of work that had been missed by others. In other words, he camouflaged his own shortcomings by highlighting minor perceived faults by others. I was drawn to him and his humour, even though I felt there was something a bit desperate about him as well, he seemed down on his luck and finances.
Back to finding him just now on Google with his photos and lists of books of poetry and prose published, I find it incredible to have come across him after all those years of having lost sight of each other. Back in the 1960’s after the above mentioned meeting at a job, we became friends and as he was a keen chess player as well, I decided to visit him. He was living in a room at King’s Cross, Sydney and when I visited him we played some chess. I was desperate for friendship away from the everyday and mundane, aware that life has to have more than what I experienced so far. Bernard had travelled widely, spoke German and Italian and had read books. Now, books are what I did not discover just by chance. In Holland, when I was a boy, it was absolutely essential to join a library. Already then I was a ferocious reader with having started to read Jules Verne and other writers of adventure and travel, Somerset Maugham, Pearl S Buck. My taste as a fifteen year old was totally wild and undisciplined, try out anything or discarding anything that I felt I was not interested in.
Through Bernard and joining Fisher’s library in Sydney, he directed me to other writers which he thought I might find interesting. They were all the main Russian, English and French writers including all the works of Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, and DH Lawrence and later on Virginia Woolf, Guy Du Maupassant, Albert Camus and many others. It opened a new world and life became more focussed, for the time being, away from saving up to go back to Holland.
Even so, after a year or so I had saved up enough to go to Holland and try and rekindle old schoolboy friendships which I had left behind so many years before. I said goodbye to my parents who accompanied me onto the boat called, the Flotta Lauro “Roma”. I was hugely enthusiastic about having been able to do this trip back, thinking and believing that I would regain what I left behind through no fault, or especially by not having been given a choice, a choice of my own. The trip over was fantastic. Who would not enjoy the five weeks of being looked after with food and wine at every meal. The swimming pool, a modest library and chess games with fellow passengers. I also met a nice Australian girl called Yvonne who I managed to invite to visit me in Amsterdam if she could spare the time.
A major dysfunction of Australia seemed to be the very unusual way whereby the opposite sexes would meet or get on. It was a complete mystery, how dismissive Australian boys were of girls. They almost seemed to regard them as enemies, at best necessary enemies. At get togethers of the sexes, the boys and girls kept unbridgeable distances. If anything, sex was the only thing that, at that time and perhaps still lingering now, boys thought of having something to do or to be associated with girls. ‘A good root’, was often a reply when I asked if she was nice, when someone offered to divulge in having taken out a girl. With those bewildering cultural differences of my limited experiences with girls before migrating and the post migrating Australian girl- experience, I did manage a very rare event of dating a girl in Sydney. I achieved it by a combination of having a car and being able to dance the Pride of Erin.
First dates and concrete bras.
I don’t know about you, but first dates have a habit of infringing on memories as nothing else will. The catastrophes of life certainly include my attempts at romance many years ago as a just arrived migrant family’s son, looking even nerdier then now, although slightly younger. Consider that, on top of having a strong guttural accent and no car, how the hopelessness of the situation can well be imagined by some of you.
My wheels at the time were a Lambretta scooter. I was also the proud secretary of the Parramatta scooter club, motor bikes not allowed. My position of power though allowed me to get my brother to come on a few ‘treasure hunts’ trips on his single cylinder Norton 500cc motor bike. I soon found out that my chances of dating a sheila would improve greatly if I had a car. This is where my 12949 Ford Single Spinner V8 came into being. It was light blue and had leather seats back and front and used oil almost as much as petrol.
I had already found out through bitter experience that just to get a girl to dance was fraught with difficulties. There were so many men and so few girls willing to dance with nerds and reffos. The Ford V8 had to achieve what Dutch panache could not. The trick was to let it be known that you had a car. The fifties and sixties dance places in Sydney were The Trocadero in George Street, which is now a gaudy cinema complex, and Vic’s cabaret at Strathfield. Both had different bands and ambiences. It was also the period of TV serials Bonanza and 77 Sunset Strip. In one of hose there was a character called little Joey or was it Cookie, who was forever combing his hair while posing at a rakish angle to the movie camera? There were thousands of pretend little Joey’s, Cookies and James Dean lookalikes and the competition was fierce.
My trump card was the V8Ford and, I tried with copious Brylcreme bouffant coiffure, to emulate a mixture of all three of the TV stars. As I was already 6ft I could not be a ‘little Joe’ but with practise, might just convey a hint of mysterious masculinity and excitement.
The pride of Erin was the only Dance ensuring blokes of at least getting one dance in. The multi coloured ball hanging from the ceiling was throwing fascinating effects all around, and as was the norm then, sheilas with bee-nest hairstyles and hooped skirts with steel ironed petty coats holding them out, budding breasts encased in conical shaped concrete bras shackled at the back with rustproof buckles (pressed against a lucky hand when dancing), would be coyly seated on one side, and the shiny eyed, horny and well brilliantined blokes on the opposite. No matter how the girls twirled and swirled while dancing, no body parts would ever jerk up and down or move, perhaps just in case male desires would get aroused unnecessarily or even involuntary. Bras and other attire would resist the pesky hand even of a Houdini.
This Pride of Erin was a dance whereby partners would change at every twirl or so, hence the refusals by girls were kept at a minimum. You would have to legless if you did not get a dance in.
My Waterloo had arrived.
The band struck up a cheery “What’s the Matter with Kids today?” Everyone rushed forward and I got a ‘yes please’ at my request for a dance. After changing with different girls I got one with a friendly smile and kind look. I only had seconds, so, suppressing my accents as much as possible, and flicking my hair back with practised Cookie nonchalance, asked for a date the following Saturday. Unbelievably, she agreed.
That Saturday I turned up with a brand new Van Heusen shirt and polished V8 and after a thorough inspection by a very large father we drove off for a drive to Gosford, taking in the home place of William Dobell at Wangi Wangi, also inspected Woy Woy, fascinating place then. The previous week there had been a Willy Willy at Woy Woy and for an unfathomable reason I included the devastation and mayhem on our itinerary. She was very quiet but kept saying, ‘oh, how nice’, interspersed with ‘thank you’, which was at least something. It was a difficult day, and I took good care, going up any steep hill, to take it easy on the V8 not wishing the burning of oil and blue smoke to spoil things.
At the end of the day and drive, I took her back to her formidable dad and she thanked me generously again. There was not an encore, ever.
Years later, having outgrown the Trocadero, Vick’s Cabaret, Brylcreme and Ford V8 I decided to go to Europe and get a proper job. I went to work in a bank but escaped about four months later and went to Austria where I met my present partner on the ski slopes at Lienz, in Ost Tyrol, Austria.
A lucky and very fortuitous break?
Meeting a girl with nice eyes.
The trip back was as I remembered our family’s adventure on Board Ship years earlier, accept the boat was now filled with full fare paying passengers instead of 10 quid poms and Government funded immigrants. Many of the passengers were like me, en route to re-discover their roots and settle back home. The plight that many experienced after arrival in Australia, with alienation and loss of identity did not just apply to me. In fact, it was so re-assuring to find similar afflicted lost souls and many a heartfelt conversation ensued on those five weeks on board the Flotta Laura Roma. The ports of call were also as exotic then as five years earlier. Being on an Italian ship, there was wine at lunch and dinner. The pane di casa was a thrice daily event, warm, fresh and chewy from the ship’s bakery each time.
The first stop at Singapore I took a taxi to show me around. At that time the harbour was floating with, from my memory at least, those oriental looking Chinese Junks, double or triple masted with battens across the sails to prevent them from tearing. On land, it was chaos with traffic seemingly going at random. I managed to have a glass of beer at Raffles and imagined to still feel the presence of writers such as Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling. I remembered reading that over three hundred Japanese soldiers committed suicide in Raffles after they surrendered out of Singapore.
I thought, rather stupidly, that I would also get a taste of Oriental food such as Indonesian fare called Nasi Goreng or Bami Goreng, but no luck. I was given some terrible mixture of sloppy rice in a dump of a place where the taxi driver had taken me. At that time in the 1962 or was it 1963, Singapore was poor and full of slums, in their Malay language they were called ‘Kampongs’. At the end of the day, the taxi driver wanted far more than was originally quoted on. I was not prepared to give in, luckily a British couple noticed the fracas and told me to wait and they would get the police. The police never turned up and the taxi driver decided to drive off with the money that I had paid and was originally quoted on, just in case!
I sauntered back on board, feeling a bit crook from either the dodgy rice dish or from guilt of not having given in to the taxi driver demand. I had heard of tourists bargaining to the very end just to save ten pennies or so and did not want to be in the league of tourists making a sport out of denying locals to earn a bit of money. I suppose, if the lunch place would have been better instead of that place that must have belonged to some taxi gang, I would have been more generous. I am now nearly seventy and still mulling over that Singapore incident. When does it ever stop? Still, when my wife and I visit Bali, we don’t haggle much and try and be fair to those hardworking people trying to make a living. This might atone and make good some of my stinginess back in Singapore.
The next port of call was Bombay which today is called Mumbai. There were hawkers lined up and after getting on land we were soon surrounded by people trying to sell trinkets, souvenirs and hand beaten brass plates, goblets and ornate Indian metal works. It was stifling hot and the poverty all exposed. Children were holding hands up begging and legless men on little wheeled carriages crossing busy roads. They seemed oblivious of traffic and also knew where they were going. One man without legs crossed the road with his remaining stumps working scissor like, propelling him forward. You could hear the scraping of his limbs on the road. The number of people and the overwhelming city noise and smells, the bandaged arms and legs, the blind and lame with children just everywhere made Mumbai. But, the thing that struck me most was the exuberance and cheerfulness of its people. I remember, during the evening that I stepped past bodies of people just lying on their mats smiling and being totally friendly. I never felt in any danger. One man said; look at me, I am happy. He spoke English and I have never forgotten what he said in that second.
Going back on board and the boat leaving next morning I saw an turban wearing policeman beating one of those hawkers over the head with a bamboo rod. I could hear the crack on his head. After the beating, the policeman kicked his table full of miserable wares scattering all over the quay side. It seemed that cruelty did exist there as well. Of course, it is easy to dismiss those experiences as superficial and coming from a well to do tourist point of view. However, the experience when landing in Fremantle on that Sunday some years earlier certainly did not exude anything that I experienced in Mumbai during that visit some years after.
The rest of the trip had stop-over’s including Port Said, where I had booked a trip ‘on board’ to Cairo and the pyramids. On the bus trip I had a rather philosophical discussion with a middle aged Indian couple who had asked me if I was married. They told me that their parents had decided on a suitable partner, they did not know each other until after the marriage was arranged. They discovered love once they married and where very happy. The idea of romantic love makes westerners blind, and, according to this Indian man and sage,’ “it was the major cause for high divorce amongst westerners”. If love is blind, why would you want to be blind when making such an important decision about living together and raising a family, he added? He did most of the talking while his wife smiled but seemed genuinely content.
In Cairo, I visited the palace of the King Farouk and of course the obligatory pyramids. At that time, and quite amazing when considered today, we all climbed right inside the main pyramid, the largest one called Giza or Cheops through a long and arduous climb up a tunnel and up many rough hewn stairs. I picked up a bit of stone along this climb and kept it in many different pockets, depending on what I was wearing, for years. That’s right, my own bit of pyramid. Just imagine those millions of tourists doing the same. There would not be a pyramid left! The traffic in Cairo was amazing, even then. I am sure there was no left or right, just drive wherever there is a gap. While on the bus, there would be many hawkers, some trying to sell jewellery, with one man who was blind in one eye, scratching on the bus window with the ring, I suppose a demonstration proving that anything that scratches a bus window must be genuine diamond.
After having gone through the Suez Canal the next stop was Messina on Sicily. The welcoming of all these long lost Luigi’s and Giuseppe’s was so tearfully joyous and sobs of joy would be renting the air. The same tears and joy happening the day after in Naples with some returning bachelors being greeted, (no doubt) by demure looking future fiancé’s and wives. Finally the Flotta Lauro “Roma” arrived in Genoa where I took a train to Lienz in Austria. I was to meet up with my father’s sister at a place called Grieblerhoff in East Tyrol. The train journey from Genoa to Lienz included changing trains several times, slowing the journey considerably. When approaching my final destination, I thought of sprucing myself up a bit, changed shirt and put on a tie. I shared the train carriage with Italians and to my surprise one of them went through the trouble of adjusting and fixing my tie. I thought that such a pleasant and unusual gesture. Surely, that could never have happened on a train back in Australia! I arrived late in the afternoon and asked for directions. It was some hike up a mountain but found the Griebelerhoff just before dusk. While I was clambering up this steeply sloping road I notice people at least twice my age having no trouble at all ascending the mountain and overtaking me. The five weeks on ship must have been to the demise of my fitness or was it just that the mountain climbing Tyroler folk were so much healthier and fitter?
My Aunt was to arrive after a few days and with my simple German I managed to convey that I was part of the family Oosterman, was welcomed and shown a huge bedroom. Grieblerhoff was one of those enormous double storied farm houses typical of that region. It had gables and large verandas with ornate fascias, barge boards and carved lattice woodwork around the windows and doorways. Next morning at waking someone had opened the shutters in the room and prepared coffee. The view from this room has never been surpassed. The peaks of the steepest Dolomites with pine trees hugging at their base was almost within reach. All I had to do was open windows and stroke the granite. The air was still and frozen with distances impossible to guess with the absence of any humidity. That winter was cold, the snow acted as a blanket absorbing all sound. It was so still, you could hear the soaring of the large eagles against the granite looking for prey.
During the day, skiers would arrive but at that time Lienz was without ski lifts as I remember and still nothing like some of the busier resorts around the area. I borrowed a pair of wooden skis that fitted on the boots with clasps. I managed to ski with bare respect and was hoping that people would think that an Australian would not ever ski. After all, a hot and sheep farmers paradise did not go with mountains and snow, did it? I thought it wise not to inform them that the snow area of Australia was larger than Austria.
I had met up with some super experienced Austrian skiers who invited me to go and walk up to some Hutte on the ‘Alpen-weide’ next morning and ski down in the virgin snow next day. Alpen-weide are above the tree line and used in summer for farmers to graze their cows. The walk next day, carrying our skis was to become the closest and ultimate test of my resolve to not give up and go for a permanent sleep. I became so utterly exhausted and so keen to sit down but still had something that would make my feet take another step, perhaps I was too embarrassed to even let on that I was getting totally exhausted, pain in my chest and dragging my feet, step by thousands of steps. It was almost dark when we finally arrived at the shepherd’s hut. The Austrians soon had a fire going and as the hut had good provisions, they soon revived me with hot salami-wurst and black bread and coffee. The Schnapps afterwards made all caution go wind-wards and was the icing on the sugar! I was totally triumphant that evening, that day was the closest I ever came to doing the almost impossible. I had overcome!
Next day, the Austrian friends skied down after telling me to follow their trail, which I did but slowly, nursing a bit of a hangover. What a glorious few days I had enjoyed, and yet, the best was still to come!
As I was skiing downhill back to below the tree-line the weather had warmed a little making for some snow lower down to have melted but which got frozen over in the late afternoon when I was almost back at Grieblerhoff, creating treacherous ski conditions. I was wearing glasses and when I hit the frozen over iced-up snow, the skis could not find traction and started sliding sideways. I made a solid fall, flat on my face and broke my glasses and my nose. Even to-day my nose points to the left as a result of that nasty fall. I was only staying another couple of weeks so decided to see the optician in Holland for a new pair of spectacle and used a pair of optical sun glasses to give sight which made me look a bit silly, especially indoors, or more mysterious, perhaps even sinister? I met up with my Aunt who had more or less a permanent self contained apartment under the same roof with lots of glass doors surrounding her lounge room. No matter where one looked outside, it was like a picture book. Almost too beautiful to be true.
It was during the next few days when I was walking around the area and up and down to the village below, that on one of those walks, still wearing a bruised nose and dark sun glasses, I saw a girl standing on the steep way up, just looking at the scene. I said hello, she looked a bit surprised but said nothing back. I suppose she must have thought I looked a bit dodgy or of unreliable character wearing dark sunglasses on a cast-over day. I then took of my glasses and said; I have fallen while skiing and broke my spectacles. She was silhouetted against a backdrop of the grey granite Dolomites and looked serene and so calm. She also had eyes wide apart and very beautiful with a hint of humour around the corners of her mouth. Are you not a good skier then, she asked? I was taken a-back, thinking it a bit premature to form a judgement by her on my skills as a skier. No, I am not; are you? I come from Finland, she said simply, as if everyone ought to know that in Finland they all are ski champions. The conversation was pretty well on her terms so far, and I was not getting the question about the state of my nose, let alone any sympathy. Would you like to have a coffee tomorrow morning, I asked? Yes, that might be nice! “Might be nice”. Here at least was something to ponder about. It was now or never; “you have very nice eyes,” I said. Yes, “I know”, she answered, looking straight at me. The whole of the conversation so far was performed in my primitive German, so I had some trouble to come up with a good repartee. In any case, her answers threw me so off guard that I doubted fluency in any language would have helped.
Before our coffee appointment next morning I had trouble getting her out of my mind and had a troubled night tossing and turning in the large Austrian double bed with the generous eider downed donah. I got up early and thought about those wise words back on the bus from Port Said to Cairo, from the Indian couple who warned about ‘falling’ in love, and the divorces inevitably following from being ‘blind in love’.
There was nothing like blind love in the cafe though. We sat down and talked a bit. She was studying languages at a Finnish university, had worked during holidays in Sweden and Germany, and was now just taking a week off to visit Austria. We sipped our coffee and I spoke a bit about our family from Holland that had migrated to Australia and that I was on my way back to Holland because I was not happy in Australia. She listened and looked at me with those same large eyes that never seemed to blink. It was all a bit unsettling and unnerving, the same as it had been the previous day on the mountain slope. Her name was Helvi. She was a confident woman. We exchanged addresses and said goodbye.
Back in Holland and banking career.
The next day I settled the bill for my stay at Grieblerhoff, said goodbye to my aunt. I walked down-hill with my suitcase wearing my broken nose and dark optical sunglasses, caught the train to Amsterdam. I could not wait for the experience of crossing the border and experience my old country again. How was it going to feel? Those few years spent in Australia, apart from meeting Bernard, and being able to save money to go back ‘home’, were, when tallying the plusses and minuses of achievements, somewhat unremarkable. I had worked as a factory cleaner and process worker, learnt how to paint and imitate wood-grain on pub doors and could shout a beer when the need arose.
Still, through Bernard I had discovered art and literature and through those came to understand that life need not be a repetition of the past. There was a way out and the trip I had undertaken might well give me clues on how to get on further. It was the next day when early in the morning the train crossed the border into Holland. There was no snow, and the country-side seemed all grey and green. The houses of the towns flitted past the train windows unaware of my presence, nor did the people standing at rail-stations care much about the man with the dark spectacles peering out. It was all exactly as I remembered it all those few years back, and the ordinariness of it all hit me rather brutally.
I got off at Amsterdam Centraal Station, and found my way on a tram which would take me to my mother’s sister’s place. The tram journey was exceptionally unremarkable, difficult to explain. People on public transport are the same all over the world. They dip into newspapers or just look outside. The only way I could have stood out was through wearing sinister dark glasses and a blue –purple nose. It was an anti-climax. Again, I am at a loss to explain but expected some kind of surge of joy or acknowledgement of having returned to my birthplace and giving preference above Australia to again live back in Holland. This was my choice. Did the tram travellers not understand this?
I was greeted over-joyously by my dear Aunt Agnes, who then phoned my mother in Sydney to let it be known that her not so prodigal son had arrived. She had arranged lodgings and bed with an obscure uncle not far from her and along a typical Amsterdam canal. This uncle turned out to be an ex-grandmaster of chess, so I was lucky to have at least chess games ahead of me if nothing else. He was a big man, somewhat angry with his ex-wife who he kept on berating almost non-stop during the few months of my stay there. He was angry and also dying of cancer.
After a few days getting my bearings around Amsterdam and playing chess with the distant uncle I settled into my room quite nicely. Well a room was overstating it. The room was a passage between the front lounge room facing the street and canal and another room at the back. The bed was against the wall and had to be pulled away and down each evening and up again in the morning. Blankets and sheets were held in place by straps. My suitcase fitted at the foot of the bed and against the wall so that the passage was uninterrupted between both rooms. With all the labouring jobs in Australia, varying from factory cleaning to working on Czechoslovakian lathes and milling machines, from apprentice optical mechanics to house-painting, I decided to turn a new leaf and get a job wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. I applied for a career in Banking.
I still think it remarkable that I was accepted at the first job and first interview at a small branch of the Rotterdam Bank in East Amsterdam. It was my task to keep the books. As the branch was small the branch director (directeur) at the interview impressed on me the need to put shoulders under any required task and flexibility of all personnel was the main requirements. The need for typing was essential. I had never pushed finger to typewriter ever, so quickly bought a portable one. It was small and Swiss made. I was going to practise without stopping for the two weeks that I had before starting the job in the bank. At first I could not even find letters or how to space between words. The uncle was just as helpless. But, just when I was about to give in, the Australian girl Yvonne from the boat decided to visit me.
What luck to have an expert typist at disposal. She soon sorted the essentials of my typing skills out, taught capital letter key, spaces etc. By the time I started the job I was at least capable of finding the letter ‘a’ or number 7 on the keyboard within a couple of seconds. I squeezed through the first day’s ordeal by pretending that switching from English to Dutch might take some time. In any case, the typing at first consisted mainly of doing invoices and day-statements. Balancing debits against credits was the main obsession each day with not even a single cents being allowed between. The Director was a bit suspicious, but at least I was diligent and made reasonable coffee in the little alcove at the back. There were only three personnel, no wonder we all ‘needed to put shoulders under any task’. Often I had to deal with the customer at the counter. I never understood why, but most times they just wanted to check contents of their safety boxes in the cellar of the small building, which required me to locate the key and the guiding of customer to downstairs and their safety box filled with diamonds and share certificates.
The first thing in the morning was the ritual of the bank director reading the all important financial news in the papers that were delivered each morning. He would do this while smoking a large and hefty cigar. (Non-smoking inside was still decades away) The drawing in of the smoke would be accompanied by the tilting of his chair backwards on its hind legs and then blow out the smoke while gazing towards the ceiling. It was obvious to me that this was his little moment of triumph over adversity and ennui of his life in the bank. The cigar and the tilting were synonymous with the taste of momentary success, as fleeting as the rising smoke from his cigar.
One morning though, the tilt went too far and he fell backwards. The other fellow ‘personnel’ and I could not refrain from laughter, the directeur had no choice but to scramble off the floor and grin a bit. I noticed the tilt from then on was more cautious. The bank career with the bonus of wearing suit and ironed shirt in the tram to and from work did, as was the case when I arrived a few weeks earlier, not raise any attention, everyone on the tram was dressed as if going to an office. It was only when I spoke up that some would notice that my Dutch had an Australian accent. Indeed, once I asked the directions to a cinema and a man answered by saying; you would not be a Dutchman that has lived in Australia, would you? Little consolation for all those experiences!
Yvonne stayed with me for a few days, and we decided to see a movie. After the movie she paid me for her ticket which I left on the table to be put in my wallet after leaving the table. To my surprise the uncle picked up the money and pocketed it. Later on when I asked him about it; he said he thought it was ‘a tip’ for the coffee that he had made! Geez, some cultural habits of the Dutch never die, do they?
Yvonne’s impression of the Dutch was that she felt they were too overwhelmingly polite; why are they always opening doors for me or why do they feel they should get up in the tram? I suppose she missed the ready rough and tumble of Aussie male manners. We said goodbye and I never saw her again.
The days were becoming more settled and the evenings were often spent with the dying uncle who was still a keen ex master chess player. He would forever go over games and encounters in the past with the world’s best chess players. Oh, “Vienna 1958 with the Perugia’s en-passant move by the last pawn turned Queen against King”, he would enthuse, and as proof would set up the board and re-play this move. Little did he know what was coming around the corner!
In the meantime I had kept contact with Bernard in Australia who told me he had moved back to England and was in the process of finding a chalet in the North of Italy somewhere to write his poetry for a few months. He was going to visit me at some time and asked if I could put him up?. The uncle was only too happy to have company, so after a couple of weeks Bernard turned up and Uncle was not only happy to practise his English but also looking forward to a game of chess. Why not?
Bernard turned up and as he had managed to find the chalet in the Bolzano district of North Eastern Italy he was keen to go there as soon as possible and indeed, invited me to come with him as well. This was impossible and would ruin my banking career that I had only started a few months before. Anyway, he was staying for just two days. He soon relaxed and Uncle invited him for some chess games, keen to play with a better player than just me. I had told him that when I played Bernard he would always give me a handicap by foregoing a couple of pieces right from the start of the game, for instance a couple of pawns and a castle or knight. I had improved because at the beginning of my chess learning he would give Queen and castle or knight, even a bishop, so……! My uncle smiled and no doubt would soon sort Bernard out from the amateurs and ex grand-masters. I had never beaten Bernard without a handicap and felt confident that Bernard and Uncle would be fairly evenly matched with perhaps experience slightly favouring my Uncle.
During my stay with him it had come out that even though the cancer was terminal, he harboured the hope that somehow he would be spared an imminent death and would continue to live for a few more years yet. We both shared the food shopping and our main staple was a simple dish of cooked rice, some vegetables and a minced meat mixture with fried onions. I was used to spicy Indonesian food thanks to those Dutch Indonesian friends back in Sydney. It would be unthinkable for them to have food without ‘sambal’. The Sambal is made from hot chillies fried with prawn paste and salt, vinegar and many other spices. I introduced the Uncle to Sambal and not only did he like it, he also thought, because of the heat of those chillies, it would somehow burn away the cancer that had invaded his shoulder. It was almost a daily dish of mince beef swollen by a generous ladle of oats and a spoonful of Sambal with beans and cooked rice, that would be our main food stay and for uncle the magic cure as well.
The chess board was duly set up; the main gladiators relaxed in their fauteuils but ready for battle. It was white to uncle and black to Bernard. The game lasted the best of two hours and uncle lost. Never mind, a return game would settle it. My uncle was a bit flustered and went over the moment of inattention, when a fatal mistake was made by just one move which Bernard had exploited. To be able to settle the first game and loss for my uncle, I decided to allow some time to pass first and put on the kettle and made coffee with Speculaas biscuit. The Speculaas biscuit is made from cloves, cinnamon and even nutmeg together with the other ingredients to give it sweetness as well, and this no doubt because of his belief in the cancer curing spices, had become uncle’s favourite biscuit. Bernard was the opposite of spice loving; nothing would displease him more that the use of any spice, accept perhaps salt or pepper sometimes. Yorkshire-Pudding is what he would consider to reside at the very top of ‘haute cuisine’. He never had speculaas before and Bernard did his best to hide the revulsion on his face after the first bite. I felt pleased that at least something was now going my Uncle’s way.
After coffee and speculaas the return game was set up. This time it was Bernard with white to start, Bernard was smoking, taking long draw-backs deep inside the cavities of lungs while Uncle was rubbing his cancer shoulders massaging the speculaas and sambal spices into doing their remedial work. The ex grand-master was throwing everything he had ever mastered during a lifetime of chess and the game was evenly divided. Vienna 1916 move was followed by Budapest 1933 with two Castles a Bishop in black to win against Queen one pawn and single Knight in white. It all went horribly wrong after a battle lasting more than three hours. Uncle lost a bishop and had no hope of winning. He looked at the chess board for fifteen minutes, saw the hopelessness of it all, and surrendered his King.
A shattered man is not easy to console. Bernard left next morning to his chalet in the Italian province of Bolzano. After Bernard left, uncle took out the chess board and set up the pieces as they were before he made his fatal mistake. It was only by going over and over this fatal move that he came somewhat to terms with his humiliating chess losses and by admitting a mere mistake he managed to retrieve some dignity. In between he also managed to throw in the evil deeds of ex-wife, blaming her for cancerous shoulders and now a chess defeat thrown in as well. I think it would have been totally ungraceful and cruel of me not to turn a blind eye by pointing out that he just was not playing as well as his opponent. Who would be so mean as to throw oil on a fire that was almost burnt out anyway?
The Dolomites at Bressanone.
It was after a couple of weeks that I received a letter from Bernard with details of the chalet with marbled window sills and pine clad ceilings with white-washed walls. It was at a very high altitude with views of the Dolomites above and the village of Bressanone (Brixen) below. The rent was cheap and the chalet owned by a wealthy German Baroness Fraulein Von Johnson who had an interest in art and artists. Not only that, but because that part of Italy was still disputed by some of the local German speaking Austrian/ Italians, the locals spoke mainly German. There was still unrest in the Bolzano (Bozen) district and a kind of stirring going on with the occasional bombing of a post office or shooting at police stations. (The Bolzano district was annexed by Italy from Austria after World War 1, and even to-day the majority still speaks German.)
Bernard’s letter came at the same time as a letter from The Dutch Government with a date for a medical examination to determine fitness for National Service. This definitely threw a spanner in my Banking career; I did not want to be in the Dutch Army for two years. Surely being skinny and having lived in Australia would exempt me from National Service. I thought it prudent to smoke like possessed and drink coffee to boost heart rate and blood pressure on the day of medical examination. However, I was found to be extremely fit and healthy and would within six weeks become a very valuable asset for an eventual attack on The Netherlands. It was Bernard’s letter of the chalet high up on the Dolomites with marble window sills more than the fear of Army that set into motion the idea of leaving job and Holland. I thought for about an hour or so, and next Monday after an hurried goodbye to Aunt and Uncle, I packed my bags and without even giving notice to the Bank and Career or collecting salary and entitlements, holiday pay etc, that I took yet another tram trip, but without wearing a suit, to Centraal Station, Amsterdam and booked the train to Bolzano, Italy. I don’t think I ever felt more glorious than on that morning. I again had the feeling that the passengers on the tram surely must know what adventurous plans l was undertaking. Again, the Dutch are the most practical of the world and would read paper or book, knit or crochet, do always something, but not contemplate too much on what another passenger might be up to. At the same time, I felt as if the Military Police were already on the alert and grab me, handcuff me, and march me off to an underground barrack.
The train to Bolzano included several changes and would take a long time, but so what? I did not regret having taken the step and was only too eager to spend a few months up in the Italian part of Sud Tyrol. While the train was gliding along I had time to reflect on the plight of my uncle. Had it been unfair for Bernard to not consider letting him at least have something to enjoy during his life’s end and given him at least the last chess game? On the other hand, you play the best you can, and one pits oneself to an opponent who has every chance of winning as well. The matter of someone dying was not in Bernard’s or Uncle’s mind. What about though when I was giving a handicap for not having the experience of better players? To what extend does one consider other people and their lives when making choices. I suppose, Bernard, when confronted with Uncle being at the end with cancer could simply have chosen not to play at all. However, my uncle was looking forward in playing against a good player and still felt cocky enough to predict to me he would win, being an ex chess- master.
The sudden departure from my job without letting them know or given notice for the bank to find a replacement was also hardly a courageous move either. I was less concerned about that than I was about uncle’s chess losses. The bank would have been given a replacement and the director might just have been forced to delay smoking his cigar and do his usual chair tilting until things had settled. In any case, I had foregone my salary and all other entitlements, so it wasn’t without some payment from my side as well. Oh, how much easier it is to smooth things over when it comes to commercial choices. The item that was probably most on my mind at the time of the train trip would have to be this sudden change from a career in Banking, with the dignity and benefits of wearing a suit and an attaché case, now being totally thrown aside. Was it just on the basis of a whim or the lure of marble window sills of the chalet and those grey Dolomites? Last time I sat sight on the Dolomites was with a girl with beautiful and large eyes silhouetted against those grey mountain slabs. We had kept in contact!
The combination of a possible two years in the Dutch Army, those mainly lonely evenings I spent with a dying uncle, the disappointment of Australian Yvonne with her keenness on Aussie male manners, her practical outlook on what she thought she would like to achieve, (not much), all added to the decision to take on the offer of Bernard and to share his chalet. More importantly, while I don’t think the Aussie male bullying buggering, bum dating or apprentice testicle dying ever had taken hold in the Dutch work-force, the boredom of adding credit notes and balancing the same with debit notes, did not grab me as life fulfilling either. The Banking career was not what it was cracked out to be. Slowly I came to realise that the freedom of the Australian painting job was actually preferable. It was not as if the wearing of the suit had thrown open any new opportunities.
In Holland it also always rains!