A Sunday reflection….stories from a “wasted” decade.
Henry Lawson once said the if you were drunk more than twice a week, you were never sober…using that as a premise, I can confidentially state that many of us boomers in the seventies were rarely sober!
The story goes that Jim, on visiting the dentist to have his mouth-full of rotten teeth attended to, promptly told the dentist they would all have to come out…
“I’ll be the judge of that!” the dentist hastily replied. Then asked him to open up….”Good lord!..They’ll have to come out!”..and Jim smiled..not for the fact that he was going to lose all his teeth, but, you see, Jim was right again!…he regaled us with this knowledge that same night at “The Cliff” (The Seacliff Hotel)..Jim was a specialist at “regaling” people with his stories, for that’s what they were, fictions of a very fertile imagination. But getting back to his teeth for a moment. It was a good job he attended to them when he did, he was fast losing friends from the mere sight of that “cavern of broken and blackened stalactites” as someone (I forget who) once said…..”It’s enough to put yer off yer finking” someone else (I forget whom ) remarked…(maybe it was Jeff Otto..it sounds like him!).
Jim was of dark-haired medium height, but he looked taller than he was through being rather lanky…he was one of those blokes who could hold their pint of beer and cigarette in the one hand while gesticulating a point with the other…he was always there on the fringe of a discussion, willing to make his contribution whenever he could…not by butting in, but by picking the right moment…for good yarn-spinning demands a damn good sense of timing…it is in using the accoutrements around one as props..like long-drawing on a fag, or pausing to lick the paper when rolling a cigarette, or polishing off the dregs of a beer and calling to Noela for a refill…it gives the listener pause enough to “get ahead” in their minds , of the story-teller….but the story-teller is really always in control…..Jim was a natural.
However, as much as I can make out, Jim’s career as the local bullshit artist began when he was employed with the district council on an unemployment relief scheme. Jim and his mate ; Mark, with whom Jim used to board, were both working up near the old golf course, widening the road. A lot of the local riff-raff of the community were employed on these schemes and this project was no exception. There were a few members of the notorious “Barbarians” motorcycle gang working the same stretch of road as Jim and Mark. These “youths” were known to possess a rather cruel streak within their ugly facades of greasy , unwashed grottyness….otherwise they were rather nice chaps!
One day at smoko, Jim decided to endear himself to the nearest “Barb’” with an example of his fiction…we’ll take up the thread at the ending…
“…well, there I was..broken down truck, no food, no water, no road out…the middle of the desert…the middle of summer….I knew I was in a fix, so I started walking south..(a drag on his cigarette..slow expel of smoke)..I walked for three days, no food, no water..on the third day I was standing under a gum tree resting..when suddenly an aborigine appeared before me…I thought I was hallucinating, I don’t know where he came from as there was nothing but desert all around..but there he was…a full-blood..dark as a pint of stout and armed with spears and things..(pause for meaningful reflection and another drag)..I couldn’t speak his dialect and he couldn’t speak mine…he gave me a drink and some chewy-meat stuff..then we sat down cross-legged in the red sand and he drew some wriggly lines with his fingers which I took to mean water..and he turned his head to the sunset and pointed…he then made three strokes in the sand….and sure enough, I walked three days in that direction and came across water.”
All through this extraordinary tale , the gruesome bikie was suitably impressed with Jim’s courage in the face of such odds and his calm demeanor in the retelling of the adventure, so that with every pause , he would punctuate the story with ; “yeah!”, or ; ”really!?” and even a proud ; “bloody hell!” so that Jim returned to work a hero in one man’s eyes..that is until the bikie repeated the yarn (replete with amazed interjections) to Mark.
“Oh, he was just bullshitting to you…he’s never been further north than Wheatland Street !” ( the street leading to the Seacliff Hotel).
“ Yeah!!..” the bikie raged..” I’ll kill the bastard!!”..it took Mark another half hour to calm the man down. Mark frequently had to follow behind to undo the damage that Jim innocently wrought. For however outlandish were his stories, he never meant any harm by them, They were as I said ..figment of a very fertile imagination.
But there was method to Jim’s madness. He would mostly relate these Munchausenish adventures to someone of influence …and as Jim spent a good deal of time in the clutches of poverty…and the front-bar of the Seacliff Hotel, that “influence” usually centered around the financial capacity to purchase more beer, or as in the case just mentioned, a toke on a joint or two of “Barbarian” weed!
To keep up his supply of stories, Jim would clip out obscure articles from newspapers to file away in this little notepad he kept he kept in a top pocket. Occasionally, he would be seen to write something in this pad, but never was he known to show anybody it’s contents. I suspect there was little to show, but was “played upon” to increase the “mystery “ surrounding his person…there was a rumour (no doubt started by himself), that he was in Sth Aust’ as a kind of modern-day “remittance man” from a wealthy family back in Sydney. Jim would draw upon those clippings and notes with suitable embellishments to concoct another outlandish tale with himself as hero to impress whoever had the generosity to maintain supply…
An Example …
You may have read in the papers many years ago about the discovery in the sea north of Darwin, a sunken Japanese submarine from the second world war that contained a fortune in mercury. However, the Japanese government pressed for the wreck to be left alone as a “war grave”..which, eventually it was. Well..a couple of evenings after that story broke in the papers, Jim had buttonholed some unfortunate and was relating to him the details (between draughts of the old amber), of how he ; Jim..and some others had dived for and retrieved canisters of mercury from a Japanese sub sunken out in St Vincent’s Gulf .. ”…if you follow that sunbeam on the water there straight out ‘bout five mile…” and sold it for a fortune which was used to buy arms for gun-running to Timor….oh!, pardon my slip, I forgot to tell you that Timor was at that time in conflict with Indonesia, which also made the dailys..and Jim’s notepad.
Most of these tales were good entertainment and people didn’t mind paying the price of a beer or two for such. However, Bruce (The Pinball Wizard), made the mistake of believing one of Jim’s creations and he never lived it down!….
It went like this…
Bruce was known as The Pinball Wizard because that was his occupation ; hiring and maintaining pinball machines. He ran a very successful business at it too…until the electronic video games made their appearance on the scene. Bruce failed to take these first crude machines seriously, thinking they were a passing fad. They weren’t, and failing to “take the tide at the flood”, missed the boat. Nobody wanted his machines in their shop anymore and he couldn’t get rid of them nor borrow against them to upgrade…he had left his run too late! Anyhow, he walked into the front bar one evening, looking for company and maybe a sympathetic ear to chew ( a problem shared is a problem halved) not to mention a cool beaded glass of beer to smack one’s lips over and who was there on the next stool?….Jim !
“Hello Bruce, why the long face?”
“O…g’day Jim.” A pause to sip his beer and weigh his reply “ O..a few problems with the business..y’know.”..and Bruce told Jim the whole sorry saga of his missing the gravy train and light-heartedly berating himself for not seeing the obvious. Jim sat through this narrative in unusual silence, just swilling the dregs of his nearly (and ruefully) empty pint glass. Jim’s contemplative silence, Bruce later confessed, may have been more to do with this fact rather than his ; Bruce’s enlightening story. Then, however, Jim had an inspiration that many consider his finest moment. For when Bruce had finished talking, Jim stared at him open mouthed as if to say something…he then swiveled his whole body around on the bar-stool to gape into the bar severy…he nodded his head several times as if amazed and then slapped his hand down smartly and sharply on the bar-top turning back to Bruce as he did so….
“Now that’s fate!” he announced with nodding head to Bruce. Bruce finished sipping his beer and looked sideways to Jim.
“Huh!…What is?” Bruce asked.
“Why, meeting you just at this moment!” Jim didn’t give Bruce a chance to question him, but took up the conversation. “ Just today I received a letter from my uncle’s trustees..(my uncle died recently, you know) telling me that he had left me some property in his will…(he had a tidy packet tucked away I can tell you..but no kids!) a two-storey building in Bankstown!” Jim’s eyes were fairly popping out of his head.
“What’s that got to do with me?” Bruce asked, but now interested in this suddenly wealthier Jim.
“Well !!..it’s an amusement parlour…TWO HUNDRED MACHINES !!…and I was just sitting here lamenting how in the blue blazes I was going to manage the place…I was thinking to best sell the whole lot!”…Now you or I would’ve squinted one eye at Jim and perhaps left it at that..but as I just told you, Bruce was a desperate man staring bankruptcy in its’ ugly face…also ( if I might add ), the gods had at that moment chosen to punish Bruce for being too successful at wooing women!….so had endowed Jim’s story with a cloak of irresistible attraction..Bruce looked smilingly at Jim’s credulous expression and spoke the very words Jim wanted to hear..
“Care for another beer, Jim?”
Let me just go off on a bit of a tangent an tell you about Bruce . How many times have I said : “If only I knew then what I know now”…Bruce was what would be called these days ; “A chic magnet”…attractive young ladies adhered to him like rouge to a mummer..He didn’t work at it, he wasn’t a mongrel nor presumptuous bloke..he didn’t put on airs or con anybody…he was what he was…and that is : calm…Bruce exuded what the Italians call ‘tranquillamente’ …and in a climate of frenzy and hurry, that was all that was needed…and he had it naturally..I remember a conversation amongst a group of us about rising early for work and how lousy it was some times…Bruce listened, sipped his beer (he always sipped..he was in no hurry) and commented to the attentative gathering that he like to wake “naturally”.
“Oh..and what time is that?” someone asked…Bruce casually lit up a cigarette before replying..
“About one pm.” He replied…..a low whistle came from somewhere……but back to the story.
So the remainder of the night was spent examining ; a;- the layout of the premises (Jim), b;- Machine maintenance and upgrading (Bruce) c;- staff requirements / management policy (combined effort), d ;- wages …here, Jim’s benevolence came to the fore.
“Well..that’s very generous of you Jim, but fifty – fifty seems a little too good….” Bruce stared glassy-eyed into his beer..” BUT…if it’s alright with the boss…who am I to argue?” and they shook hands on the deal and I might say that Bruce was so overwhelmed with this stroke of good fortune when all looked blackest that tears of happiness nearly, I say ; nearly, welled up in his eyes. And Jim WAS generous, because that is what he would have liked to have given…had he got it !!!
Closing time came and the two partners separated with more handshaking and effusive congratulations on the promise of a glowing future etc, etc.. and Jim reminding Bruce to meet him here at the pub at ten o’clock in the morning and they would go to the airport to get a standby flight to Sydney to look the joint over.
“Righto ,Jim”. Bruce slurred.
“Righto, Bruce”. Jim slurred.
And they wobbled away to their respective vehicles.
Bruce standing at the front bar sipping a Angostura bitters and soda. There is a discarded “Bex Powder” wrapper at his feet. Next to it stands a light, traveling suitcase containing the necessities for a short stay in Sydney. The time is ten-thirty am. …no Jim. Bruce makes a phone call from the booth.
“Hello Mark…It’s Bruce….er..where’s Jim?” ( Jim boards with Mark).
“In bed ..why?”
“What’s he doing in bed?..He’s supposed to meet me here at the pub at ten!”
“He’s in bed because some fool was buying him drinks all night and now he’s hungover to buggery!…anyway, what’s he got to meet you for?”….Bruce suddenly got a shakey feeling and hesitated to answer.
“Well…” he drawled uneasily..” We’re supposed to go to Sydney to look at this pinball parlour that he had inherited from his uncle……..” Bruce didn’t get the chance to say any more as the guffawing laughter at the other end of the line drowned all further communication. It also made it useless to proceed as Bruce had suddenly become enlightened ….he just quietly hung up.
To his credit, Bruce never held any animosity against Jim for the con-job. He saw the ludicrousness of the proposition and laughed at his own folly. Jim , of course never even considered it a “con”, to him it was just another good yarn…”that was yesterday..this is today” was his philosophy.
Though I will let you in on a little secret I discovered with Jim…I buttonholed him one day and asked him ( carefully choosing my words ), if there was ever a risk of over-egging the details in his “explanations”…his answer surprised me for it’s unspoken depth of understanding of that basic human weakness…he looked intently at me for a longer than comfortable time and he said ;
“My father had a small dagger in scabbard…middle-eastern, very ornate handle with emeralds and rubies ..the scabbard with gold inlay, looked good…all fake of course…he used to bring it out when people came to dinner..said he won it from a sheik in a marksmanship competition when he was serving in the army during the war….really , he bought it from a stall in the Prahran Markets when we were on a holiday in Melbourne when I was very young….and he was only a supply clerk in the war and never went overseas…but everyone marveled at it….rarely did anyone take the dagger from the sheath..they just loved the jewels and the gold…I thought that strange ..considering that the blade is really the most important part, since it must do the real “work”…so I learned at a very young age that people will always admire the bling rather than respect the blade ”…
…and the cheeky bastard then gave me a wink!!
The last time I saw Jim, was when I was working with my brickie mate ; Frank, on a job at Brighton, just off the esplanade. I’d heard Jim was threatening to return for a visit from Sydney where he had gone a year or two before to live. I was riding my treadly home one afternoon and had just reached the Seacliff Hotel when I chanced to glance over to the car-park and there was Jim’s car with the NSW. number plate on it and Jim sitting in it. I quickly glided over the road on my bike, alighting to one pedal as I cruised up behind the car. I was just going to call out when I noticed he was sitting in a trance-like state staring out to sea. He was wearing a “combat” style jacket, “C.I.A. sunglasses” and a camouflage baseball cap. There was a book open on the steering-wheel, I crept up and peered over his shoulder at the title…” Submarine Command” Hello! I thought…here’s tonight’s story…I stepped back a couple of paces out of respect to his daydreams , then banged on the side of the car..” Jim! “ I called ..”hey, Jim!”
But I have a soft spot for ol’ Jim..you see, he’s a loner..a dreamer..one must respect dreamers, they’re our only salvation. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I have jotted down a few lines of verse to celebrate his audacity…
“It is only in the harbours of our mind
That we reach our full potential,
Where images of reality and fantasy mingle,
Where drunkards and kings are equal…”