He would come out of the darkness, lost somewhere in a fog of morphine and over-proof rum. He would rave, scream, shouting and crying reliving things he experienced during the war. He was a drunken, abusive, violent bastard and he was my father.
We huddled in the front upstairs bedroom in 32 Probert Street, Camperdown an inner city working class suburb of Sydney. Mum, Patty, Lorraine, baby sister Joy and me, with a galvanised bucket in the corner to piss in, When he began noisily climbing the stairs, towards us, waiting for him to smash his way through the door to get at us.
I remember the sounds of everything about me turning down as if some unseen hand had turned a knob on a radio down and down.
I have never been so frightened and powerless in my life. Here I was at about eight or nine years old and there is a slobbering cursing stranger on the other side of the door.
I am age11, in primary school ‘supposedly’ in my mind, having to protect my family from someone who was four times my size, and had already bashed most of us with his fists, and his vacant eyes and foul beer or rum soaked breath; left a horror, a sensory imprint on our brains for life.
“When I grow up I will never drink and my family will always sleep safe in warm beds…..I’ll make sure they are protected and never go hungry”…..I promised myself. The two-story house was part of a terrace. No doubt ‘gentrified’ by now. Many families lived within earshot around us.
So ultimately they suffered the same sleepless nights and ineffective school days when he started up having come home from the pub after the six o’clock swill the swearing and shouting would begin an the cry would go up from the neighbours; “The f***ing Wards are at it again” and soon after the wallopers would arrive. He would put up some resistance, they would give him a thump or two and he’d be off to the cells in Newtown Police Station for some time. We missed a lot of school or slept through a lot of lessons after finally getting to bed sometimes after 4 am. It all came to a head one night when he began shouting at the foot of the stairs. Patty two years older than me, now dead, took the bucket and threw the contents down the narrow steep stairs all over him. Everybody rushed into mum’s room and bolted the door. Mum is by this time screaming “help us, help us” my sisters are reduced to tears, his fist crashed through the panel of the door and reached in for and pulled open the bolt, that is when I literally s**t myself. My legs couldn’t move, my eyes were open so wide, no sound came out of my mouth and that almost solid silence filled the room.Mum and the girls ran out around and behind him and he came straight for me.
I fell back, he fell on me and began choking and punching. Some how I slipped from his grip, he was after all soaked. I clearly remember thinking I was in a place where I couldn’t be any lower as a creature on this god’s earth. Terrified, smelling of other people’s urine, my own shit down my shorts legs, I ran into the night not seeking my family but simply as a coward fled. I sat in Camperdown Park in the cold, frightened and shivering, till I woke with the dawn and crept home like a mongrel dog that I was. I remained shamed by this all my life.
I learned that most times you don’t know how you will react to life’s situations until you are confronted. And then again you may react differently the next time the same thing turns up. The Police took him away again and he ended up in Concord Repat for some weeks getting electric shocks to his brain to control his behaviour. He was a bit of a zombie for a while and mum got pregnant with Rhonda. About this time I wagged school a lot and wandered into the city. I remember seeing the AWA radio tower in Clarence Street as probably the tallest building in Sydney, wow! You may remember newsreel footage of the mid 40’s early 50’s as you grew up, and how that footage let us know (in a visual form) what was happening around the world; weeks after the event of course. Well those news reels were my escape. Down by Wynyard station and at the State Theatre in Market Street you could watch a whole hour of news reels for sixpence. Plus the series of newsreels started over again so I managed to pass the hours learning about the aftermath of world war two. The thing that has stayed with me was the first images of British soldiers entering Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
The stick figures in vertically striped pyjamas, the stunned look on the soldiers faces as their bulldozers pushing 20 or 30 skeletal, naked cadavers into a trench and I’m thinking at the age of 10 or 11 “this is where he has been and this is why he is such a bastard”
For me that was some sort of comfort because I could make sense of the horror and rage he let out when he was so drunk or off his head. I warmed to him a little when he was sober, but could never look on him as a person I could love.
North Newtown Primary Demonstration School was a mixture of some absorbing learning times and brutality and fighting to protect myself from the bullies. They gave me many a good bashing and humiliation but taught me that the hits you get
right now don’t really hurt till much later, so there is no need to be afraid of threats or fights.
We would get ourselves off to school. Mum would have already gone to work and unfortunately she had given up on house work and disappeared into her own world of work and singing lessons. Opera mainly, she had quite a voice and singing allowed her to escape reality. So there we were, a little band of misfits around school and as you probably know, is if you are different; just like in the chook yard, the mob is merciless.
What I learnt was, just like the bloody chook yard, is, if you turn your back and worse if you run, you become everybody’s target.
Maybe eight months after my father had finished a bout of electric convulsive shock treatments he went off the rails, came home smashed, I mean really totally blind drunk and it was dark. Just after twilight.
Lorraine came running to get me at my mate’s house in the next street,
” he’s hitting her again” , Lorraine is yelling at me.
By the time I got into the kitchen she is bleeding from her face. Heavily pregnant with Rhonda , she is sliding down the wall as her legs collapsed out from under her. His back is turned to me and he says to himself, “Look at her. Like a f***ing great whale”. I hit him with a toy gun that I held by the barrel. But the barrel was only made with electrical metal conduit and it just sort of bent around his neck. I knew I had hit him as hard as I could, and he now turns towards me, coming after me. -This nightmarish flash back stays with me through- out life!
This time I know I can’t hurt him and fear grabbed my insides , they went like ice. I ran again outside and up the path. I hear him calling after me. Somewhere in the dark and as I ran, I decided I was not going to leave my mum like that and turned back down the path.
There he is coming, he’s staggering into the shaft of light that is coming out of the Kitchen window. I grabbed hold of a quarter house brick from under the peach tree and ran at him, I leaped up and smashed that bastard in the forehead.
A gash two or three inches long opened up like magic above his eyes, blood suddenly flowed out then and runs down into his left eye. He is stopped in his tracks and still in the light, stared up the path blankly. Then slowly he turns around and walks back into the kitchen with me left wondering what else I would have to do to stop him.
I followed him back up the Kitchen steps in time to see what happened next. He falls to his knees and to my surprise, in an almost sober voice, said, “Val who did this to you”?
By this time the locals have done the usual thing and the knacker twisters are thundering through the already open front door and down the hall past his bedroom. They charged across the dining room, out the back door past the ice chest and landed heavily on top of him and give him a bit of what for. Good on them I thought to myself, the bloody pig.
They dragged him off to the cells. From there, he was sent again for more Repat Hospital Electric Convulsive Therapy and came home weeks later with a hundred tiny little morphine tablets in a cylindrical cardboard container and sought oblivion washing those pills down with many bottles of Beenleigh O/P Rum.
Over the next few years I got taller and stronger and if he caught hold of any one of us he was immediately pole axed with pieces of wood or bottles or anything that came to my hand. We then dragged the mongrel off to bed.
My school work went down hill through lack of sleep. I had begun to stay super alert during the night, on guard, until I fell asleep between 3am and 4am. My mother was contacted by my Head Master at North Newtown Intermediate High School.
She agreed with the headmaster in my absence, that as I was disruptive in class or fell asleep at my desk I should either repeat first year of high school or leave school altogether.
I left at fourteen!
The law allowed that sort of child abuse in those days. We were after all just working class kids, (with chips on our shoulders). Many intelligent people fell by the wayside in those days and struggled for the rest of their lives with the handicap of a limited education.
Later, I often wondered how she could have been so careless, about my education, when she herself was the Dux of Fort Street Girls High School in the years following the First World War.
Ultimately I came to realise, she suffered her own level of shell shock, as my father bought his war home with him.
She moved us to Melbourne to avoid the possibility, that I would kill my own father .