FOR MOST OF that Saturday morning we had been hanging around up at the mango trees. It was a favourite place of ours, largely because nothing ever happened there. We liked it that way: just two gnarled mango trees that someone, for some reason, had planted a long time before, standing side by side like a couple of old pensioners taking in the sun. They were low set and wide spreading, with glossy, dark-green leaves – boy friendly and easy to climb. They stood all by themselves on a wide, grassy expanse at the top of a gently sloping hill.
They are probably no longer there; but if anyone cares to remember them, they were located to the left of Simpsons Road, Bardon, near where the bitumen ended and just before the dirt road wound away towards Mount Coot-tha or branched on up the heavily forested mountain towards the Catholic convent, with its closed order of nuns, whose Angelus competed daily with the incessant cicadas. We could avoid the road altogether by cutting behind the Infants’ School and climbing the lush, bushy hill towards the trees. It would seem then that we were alone with nature and a tranquil feeling would come over us even before we got there. On the hottest day, it was always cooler in the shade of the stunted old relics that rarely, if ever, produced any mangoes. It was roughly the middle of the 1950s, and we were in the midst of our happiest days.
ON THIS PARTICULAR day, the sky was cloudless and an almost denim blue. I was sitting with my back to the bole of a tree, wondering if there were any songs about mangoes, and what such a song might sound like. Graham and my second cousin, Harvey, were balancing astride a low branch above me, discussing skeletons. They both agreed how scary they were. ‘But just think,’ Graham mused, ‘we’re all walking around with one of them inside us.’ I pressed my forehead with my palm and moved my thumbs around my eye sockets. Yes, there was a skull in there alright.
‘Yair. So there must be millions and millions of them walking about out there,’ Graham added authoritatively.
‘What about ants?’ Harvey asked. ‘Or mosquitos?’
We weren’t sure, but finally decided that skeletons probably stopped at small birds and geckos. Even smaller things, like silkworms, grasshoppers and maggots, got along fine without them.
‘Of course, all big things – big things that move, that is, like whales or elephants – have skeletons,’ Graham went on. ‘Great big ones. You could probably live at the beach inside a whale’s skeleton if you threw a tarp over it. You could sleep on a giant sponge.’
‘Yair, like Jonah,’ I suggested.
‘And what about the elephants’ graveyard?’ Harvey chipped in. ‘There must be tons of skeletons in there by now.’
‘Yes. And ivory,’ I reminded him.
The elephants’ graveyard, located somewhere in Africa, was a constant source of fascination for us. We couldn’t understand why no one could find it. Apparently if you went behind a waterfall into a big cave, then through a long tunnel it would lead to a hidden valley – or so legend would have it. Surely all you needed to do, then, was to wait for some old elephant to peel off from the herd and to quietly follow it. That wouldn’t be too hard; it would be walking very slowly. As soon as it ducked in through a waterfall, you’d know you’d reached the graveyard’s entrance. Then you could come back with trucks and men and get the ivory out.
HARVEY WALKED AWAY to pee by some stinking rogers we always used for that purpose. ‘Tarzan swings. Tarzan falls,’ Graham announced as he descended abruptly from the branch. ‘Must be getting near lunchtime.’
Though none of us owned a watch, we could always tell it was time to eat by the slant of the sun and the pitch of our stomachs. On Saturdays, it was particularly important to be punctual; after lunch, we would be off on the tram to Paddington, and the weekly children’s matinee.
‘Wonder what’s on this arvo,’ someone would always say around this time of the morning. The program was in the paper but we never looked. We were going anyway and liked the surprise. The best of all was a Cartoon Carnival, where Mighty Mouse, Tweety Pie, Woody Woodpecker and the like would all appear together in some long, delirious procession that lasted for hours. Afterwards, we’d stagger home punch-drunk. When we were slightly older, our favourites were Tarzan, the crazy Marx Brothers, and Hopalong Cassidy or Randolph Scott in some cowboy shoot-up. Dad said Hoppy was just a fake because he didn’t limp like the real one in the books.
‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if there were two Tarzan films on today?’ I fantasised. It had never happened before, but I could just imagine it: Tarzan twice getting to call up his rampaging elephants at the film’s climax, and no ivory poacher or cannibal or German spy then standing a chance.
We went off down the road from our beloved trees, doing our Ape Man calls. ‘Knock it off youse kids!’ yelled a man in a navy singlet out watering his front yard. But he was smiling. He knew what we were doing. We were pretty good at it.
WE HAD TO race into the foyer of the Paddington Pictures. The tram was late and the queue of kids had already gone in. We were worried someone might have taken our favourite seats, but no one else wanted them. Rather than sitting in one of the low-slung canvas rows across the centre of the cinema – a huge auditorium shaped like a cavernous water tank turned on its side – we always took over the same dilapidated leather chairs next to one of the side pylons supporting the vast, curving roof. There was a fire door beside it, so we could stretch our legs out and wouldn’t have some beanpole of a kid sitting right in front, or some fatty boom-bah plonking right down next to us on the canvas. These three seats were also positioned on the aisle about midway between the kiosk and the screen, so we could make a fast, strategic exit for the front counter at the interval, and usually be back in our seats before the serials began. For our purposes, they were the best seats in the house.
The first film was about a dog getting killed, along with his master, and then coming back to Earth as a private detective, played by Dick Powell, in order to catch the murderer. It was pretty funny, especially when his female companion, who had previously been a horse, began whinnying and galloped off up the road.
At interval, I asked some kid next to me in the rabble at the kiosk counter what was on next. ‘No one knows,’ he said. ‘It’s supposed to be a surprise.’ I came back, with my squat bottle of sarsaparilla and lucky-dip packet, and told Graham. Perhaps it is Tarzan, we speculated hopefully, or maybe even cartoons.
As the mystery film began with a burst of jaunty music, I saw to my dismay the title, Bush Christmas, fill the screen. ‘Stuff this,’ I heard Harvey mutter. It wasn’t fair. How could stock footage of black-and-white wallabies, kookaburras and sheep hope to compete with Tarzan’s elephants tearing yet again through another Gabonese village, or Randolph Scott in one of his fair-dinkum fistfights? So this was our wonderful surprise. There was a chorus of heartfelt groans from the audience, some hisses and boos and even some stuff thrown. Someone came down from the back with a torch. But Graham sat up, staring intently at the screen, his palms pressed hard against the padded seat. ‘It’s about the bush,’ he said, ‘it might be good.’ Then, very uncharacteristically, he stood up in the aisle and called out, ‘Pipe down youse kids. Give it a go, ay? It might be good.’ Then he sat back down.
I had never seen Graham stick his neck out like that before. We usually kept our opinions to ourselves. But his slant on things was always a bit different. For instance, if there were Indians in a cowboy film, he always sided with them, even when the story was pulling you in the other direction. Whenever a wild animal was attacking humans, he’d side with the animal. Once, when we were watching a film about a lost city under the sea, and the heroes in diving suits were exploring its dark, crumbling ruins, he turned to me and whispered, ‘Aren’t the fishes game?’ He seemed so earnest about it that I immediately whispered back, ‘Yes. Very game!’ I had to draw the line, though, when he kept insisting that Francis the Talking Mule really could talk.
As the film got underway, things settled down a bit. It started off okay, and as we kept watching it got better and better. It was all about these five children, just like ourselves, who get caught up in a really exciting adventure up in the Blue Mountains. One of the kids was a recently arrived British migrant, just like me, and another was an Aboriginal boy. The other three were all from the same family: two Australian brothers and their older sister who, like the Aboriginal boy, seemed to know a lot about the bush. They sometimes had to show the British kid, who also wore glasses like mine, how to throw spears and eat snakes and so on. With their cattle dog, Kanga, they were on the trail of a gang of adult horse-thieves, led by Chips Rafferty.
And before we knew it, it had won us all over. Every kid in the theatre. We felt we were in it, rather than just watching, it was so good. The most amazing part was that the Aboriginal kid and the girl – as well as, of course, the dog – had as much to do with hoodwinking the baddies as the white boys did. As the story reached its climax, most of the kids at the matinee started up wave after wave of supportive cooees, which echoed back off the high tin roof, and stamped their feet like stampeding horses. For some reason, this brought a big lump to my throat and I couldn’t join in. If I utter a sound, I thought, I might start to cry. So I just stamped my feet along with the rest. ‘See. I told you,’ said Graham. His eyes were glistening.
ON THE TRAM ride home, we were full of the delights of Bush Christmas. It had touched us in a way that Hoppy or Tarzan had never really managed to do. It almost felt like we’d witnessed a miracle. It was an Australian story, but it was also really good. Not just good, but sort of wonderful in a quiet kind of way. We weren’t used to that in the ’50s. It was as if the bush was yielding up more than we knew. Of course, what we didn’t know was that it was actually a British production, though the actors were nearly all Aussies.
By the time the tram reached the terminus, we were almost back to earth.
‘Of course, it was just made up,’ Harvey said. ‘It didn’t really happen. Nothing much ever happens here.’
‘Yes it does,’ I protested.
‘Like what?’ Harvey pressed me. All I could think of offhand was Ned Kelly and Cole’s Funny Picture Book, but they didn’t seem to fit together.
‘What about Anzac Day?’ I suggested in desperation.
‘Doesn’t count,’ said Graham. ‘Didn’t happen in Australia.’
‘Well, what about that?’ I shot back, pointing triumphantly at the window of the terminus shop. While we had been away a circus poster had gone up in it, showing clown faces, plumed white horses and a trumpeting elephant. We went over to study it more closely. Ashton’s Circus was coming back.
Every year, the visit of a circus or two to Brisbane would brighten our mundane lives. The really big affairs, Wirth’s and Bullen’s, would pitch their tents at Lang Park, close to the city. But the smaller, and undeniably tackier, Ashton’s would endear itself by travelling around the suburbs and coming right into Bowman Park at the end of my street for a couple of nights. None of us could ever afford to attend the actual performance, but we could extract some degree of enchantment by hanging about the old tents and musty cages until dinnertime. There was certainly something thrilling about having a lion or a camel living for a while in the vicinity of the soccer changing sheds. Once, a Shetland pony bit me hard on the back of the right calf. A monkey bit Graham. Harvey stayed well clear of uncaged animals and remained unscathed. We always lived in hope that by doing odd jobs for the circus people we would get free tickets – but it never happened.
As we walked home through the local cutting, the poster started Graham off again about elephants.
‘Imagine having an elephant for a pet,’ he said. ‘You know, a baby one to start with, and as it grew up you could ride it around Bardon. Just imagine us all riding our elephants in single file down Outlook Crescent, and all the people coming out of their houses and the shops to watch.’
‘How would you feed it?’ Harvey broke in. ‘You wouldn’t have the money.’
‘Well,’ Graham submitted, ‘we could ride them to school, like other kids ride their bikes. And in the lunch hour, we could charge for rides around the playground, and get the money that way.’
‘The teachers wouldn’t let us,’ Harvey countered. ‘They’d confiscate them. Anyway, you wouldn’t ever get me up on a bloody elephant!’
A FORTNIGHT OR so passed, and Harvey and I were walking home from school one afternoon as we normally did, when something quite remarkable happened. We were making our steep descent down a winding bush track towards the crossing at Ithaca Creek, our heavy school bags strapped to our backs as though we were native porters. Across the creek, some colossal shapes were moving ponderously through the tall guinea grass. We stopped in our tracks. Ashton’s Circus had arrived, and their three large elephants were enjoying a touch of jungle-like normalcy in what we then envisaged were their otherwise spangled lives. I stared in wonderment. Our little patch of bush had become a Tarzan movie set.
But beside me, Harvey had gone completely rigid. ‘Bullshit,’ was all he kept saying. I tried to get him to walk forward with me – even taking his sweaty hand – but he was immovable. The path up to the roadway would lead us within six feet or so of the grazing trio, and Harvey was incapable of handling such proximity.
‘Come on,’ I urged him. ‘Let’s be game like those kids in that movie we saw.’
‘Bullshit,’ he replied.
Finally, in exasperation, I left him and went cautiously on alone. ‘I’ll show you,’ I called over my shoulder, ‘that it’s perfectly safe.’ I sounded gamer than I was, but as I neared the elephants, I noticed their keeper lounging on the bank above them, some distance away next to the road, and my courage grew.
‘They’re okay,’ he called. ‘They won’t hurt you. You can pat them if you like.’
Gingerly, I pulled a few long strands of grass, which the nearest elephant graciously accepted. Its soft, sad eye regarded me as it chewed. I brushed my palm across its ancient, furrowed trunk as it swung past me, close to a glancing blow. ‘Look, Harvey,’ I called, turning back towards him; but Harvey was gone.
As I continued on home, about a hundred yards or so further up the road, near the big iron-bark tree, the thick bushes beside me suddenly began shaking violently and Harvey burst through. He had waded waist-deep across the slimy creek and then crashed and flailed his way through a wide expanse of almost impenetrable lantana. He was dripping wet and dishevelled. His shirt was torn and his arms, legs and face were etched with a bloody scribble of scratches and cuts. ‘Don’t tell Graham,’ he whispered, breathing hard and looking miserable. Then he just took off up the dusty road ahead of me, so nothing more was said.
But that was not quite the end of the elephant saga, though the last bit of it is probably the hardest to swallow.
SOME TIME LATER, the great Bullen’s Circus arrived again at Lang Park to appropriate fanfare. Graham went down immediately, but as it looked like rain that morning, my mother had prevented me from going with him. Harvey was no longer interested.
By lunchtime, and with the sky clearing, my mother relented after much nagging and off I went. ‘Be back here by five,’ she called after me. As the tram rolled down the hill past the Paddington Pictures, there was a sharp sunshower – and as I arrived at Lang Park I saw, for the first time ever, a complete and perfect rainbow, extending unbroken from one distant horizon to the other, all its colours perfectly visible. Its highest point, I swear, was directly above the Bullen’s Big Top, with its pennants flying from the escarpment at the park’s centre. It looked a bit like the open cover of a Cole’s Funny Picture Book. What’s more, the rainbow had come to me. I didn’t have to go off chasing it. A rainbow with a circus pitched under it – what could be better?
Bullen’s Circus was an immense affair, alive with confusing activity and accosting smells. Upon one straw-covered rise, its nine elephants were tethered, moving slowly and ceaselessly to their own internal rhythms, and every so often throwing trunkfuls of straw and earth onto their vast, grey backs. They were a magnificent and formidable sight.
‘Did you see that big rainbow?’ I asked Graham as he came up to me.
‘No. What rainbow?’ But then he went straight on, ‘Hey, guess what. I’m getting a free ticket for the show tonight.’
‘No way. How come?’
He was bubbling with excitement. ‘Well, all I have to do is to take these elephants down there to be watered this afternoon.’ He pointed to some big metal troughs, fifty or sixty yards away.
Graham, I knew, was given to flights of fantasy but not usually to bare-faced lying, especially if the lie was on the brink of exposure. So I was prepared to play along.
‘You mean all those elephants up there – the whole nine. Are you being fair dinkum?’
‘Course I am.’ He sounded indignant. ‘God’s honour. Look, I already did it this morning with the trainer and he said I could have a go by myself this arvo while he watched. Come and see if you don’t believe me. Are you game?’
I had already been game enough to feed and pat one relatively unattended elephant, but the thought of nine instantly put my stomach in a knot. I knew I wasn’t all that brave. I’d certainly never be as game as those Bush Christmas kids. What I did know, though, was that I was at least as game as any damn fish. And it was essential to show some guts, especially in front of Graham.
So I heard myself saying ‘okay’, and then found myself walking alongside him up the hill to the waiting herd. It all became rather dreamlike from this point, although Graham seemed as unconcerned as if he were going to feed the cats. The great beasts loomed above us, pungent and powerful.
Without hesitation, Graham took the lead elephant by the trunk and began to coax it forward. The other fell cumbrously into line behind it and then the immense caravan began moving off down the slope like clockwork, with us at its head. It seemed like we were preceding a slow, dark avalanche, and I felt a strong urge to run away. But there was Graham, this quietly self-assured slip of a boy, leading the way, talking softly to a moving grey mountain towering above him.
I knew that something could go terribly wrong at any moment. A stampede was only one possible scenario, and I couldn’t even see a trainer. The image of a crushed foot flashed unbidden into my mind. Please God, I thought, don’t let anyone give the Ape Man call. But I put my trust in Graham. I stuck by him and we watered the nine elephants together. I just copied whatever he did, shaking inside but feigning nonchalance in front of scores of on-lookers, who must have taken us for circus kids. And, what is more, those elephants seemed to like us.
IT WAS ONE of those experiences that, when it’s over, you can hardly believe happened. And when it is happening, you can’t believe you are really there. The funny thing was, though, that when I thought back over it on the tram ride home, my sharpest image was not of those nine large, obedient animals – impressive though they were – but rather of my friend Graham, stepping out so fearlessly before them, his bare feet upon the wet, golden straw. The late-afternoon sunlight was breaking through cloud, making his tanned face shine and burnishing his crop of unruly, auburn hair.
It made me think again of the rainbow, and of the kids all stamping their feet at the matinee. Kids I didn’t even know. And how funny it was, that sometimes, when you least expect it, things like that can almost make you cry – though not in a sad way. And how you never really know why.