Twelve Caesars.

Twelve Caesars.

Book Two…”The Raconteur”

Part Third:

But I hope I have not given the impression that the only intellectual activity in the front bar of the Seacliff Hotel was “bending the elbow”…and getting inebriated?….I would like to assert that, like many front bars dotted about this great country, a good deal of instructive and philosophical comment was conducted by the plebian clientele on any given night of the week in that establishment…I would like to assert that..I really would….why, it would not surprise me in the least that the great discovery of the healing mould from which Florey extracted penicillin was not in a Petri-dish in his sterile laboratory, but rather scraped from the underside of a drinks-coaster surreptitiously slipped into his hip pocket by the very same Florey from down the local hostelry.

 The front-bar of “The Cliff” had it’s own level of curious and investigative clientele right there on the spot…amazing revelation was not a stranger to that den of iniquity…there were things….strange things.. For instance, there was the night of Mick’s discovery of anti-gravity. It happened like this..:

 Mick, in the middle of a discussion group deeply debating the case of whether the Morris Minor 850. was the better than the Datsun 120Y. in both acceleration and cornering capability, suddenly felt the urge for “ablution”, excused himself with a polite “gotta have a leak” and made for the men’s toilet there just behind them…taking his pint-glass of beer with him because he was too lazy to place it on the busy bar, he alone, fronted the porcelain…the old ceramic urinal was in the corner, and as every male knows, you have to go to the least exposure risk place while “shaking hands with your first love”…there, while doing his business, Mick leaned with his pint glass held pressed into the corner of the walls..the plaster there being softened from years of warmth and steamy urinic moisture had become somewhat softer, so when Mick leaned his weight against the pint-glass pressed into the corner the plaster “gave” a tad so that the glass became “wedged” into the corner..at least, that is what a “novice” like myself would have concluded..A curious and investigative mind such as Mick’s concluded differently. When he zipped up and pulled away from the urinal and the wall, the glass stayed there, suspended, unaided by anything visible to the naked eye…almost like anti-gravity!….Now, Mick was already given to occult-like sympathies..”the paranormal” was normal to Mick…to inform that he once gaily announced to his mate ; Mark that when he and Tracey have a child they will call HIM “Andromeda”..well?

“Have a look at this!” Mick announced loudly from the door of the men’s toilet to the surprised audience there..and indeed, there was hesitation…then as the imagined horror faded and curiosity took over the crowd surged toward the doorway…there being room only for a small number to enter, the crowding was extreme, the interest also…the general hubbub of opinion on “what was the power?” suspending the pint-glass of beer mid-wall, mid-air as the case may be was discussed…many worthy theories of the paranormal were put forward and rejected with equal intelligence…until, in a moments pause in the hubbub, the high, falsetto voice of Jeff Otto sang above the crowd…

“Static electricity”….

There was a gasp of wonder at the obvious simplistic truth of this explanation that solved the puzzle and the crowd, in accepting the obvious resolution quickly drifted back to their previous conversations at the bar.

And throughout the rest of the night, in those curious hushes that every now and then descend upon crowd chatter, Jeff Otto’s attractive falsetto could be heard to pronounce in a now more confident assertion to a lesser enthralled Jasper, sitting cross-legged at the bar…

“Yep!…that’s what it was…static electricity..simple, when you think on it !”

Jasper was a “Balt’ ”..ie; he was of those states centered around the Baltic Sea..perhaps he could have been Estonian…he was a tall ponderous sort of chap…with a long serious gaze, with one of those what are called “lantern jawed” faces. He always spoke in a slow , carefully chosen word way..I don’t wonder many philosophers came from the Baltic States..Jasper appeared to put a lot of thought into what he said before he said it…but then he didn’t ever say much of great import.

“You gotta watch those ‘Balts’ “ Jack Mitchell warned..’Ooo..they’re trouble..those bloody Balts”.

Jasper always wore shorts in the summer..not short shorts like a footballer, but loose baggy ones to the knee. He would sit at the bar pint in hand with legs crossed in a peculiar effeminate way..that is; with his legs entwined like women do…and he would stare incessantly at one person or spot before delivering some profound statement.

“Michael”..he announced out of the blue one day “Michael..would you tell your girlfriend to stop staring at my legs…I know I haff good, manly legs…but could she please not to stare at them so ?”

Of course , Mick was astonished and choked on his beer…Tracey, Mick’s girlfriend, was outraged and put on one hell of a show…Jasper was nonplussed by the whole affair and just commenced to roll a cigarette with his slow ponderous methodology.

Jasper had huge hands…big fingers more suited to blacksmithing or a farrier for draught horses than what he did do…but no-one knew quite what that was as he was an awful liar. Jasper’s toil at rolling a cigarette was something to watch..he was so clumsy with those big hands that it was quite a chore that exasperated him at times.

One day a “airy” young lady sitting next to him at the bar took out of her dilly-bag one of those automatic cigarette rollers where you place the paper then the tobacco, then lift or flip the lid and a perfectly formed “rolly” appears to greet you. Jasper, ciggy-paper stuck to his bottom lip watched this magic with deep concentration, his big paw all the while shoved deep into the pouch of tobacco…as he watched, the ciggy-paper fluttered with his breath on his lip…he detached it and addressed the young lady.

“That is a cleffer machine…a vonderful machine …where did you obtain it?” he asked in his slow deep voice.

“Well I didn’t steal it if that’s what you mean?’ The young woman replied.

“ I vas not accusing you, madam…you look like a honest young lady..an honest AND attractive young lady…perhaps later I would like to get to know you in a more familiar way..I like you..and I like your machine..I am asking where you haff purchased it”…

The following week, Jasper was seen to have one of those machines ..it would sit at his elbow on the bar next to his pouch of “Drum” tobacco…Jasper now had a contented look on his face, and he would gladly demonstrate the marvels of that machine to anyone who asked..and many would take advantage of his hospitality of the proffered resulting cigarette until he woke up to the fact that he was being taken for a ride…philosophers are like that, they learn fast!

Jasper disappeared out of our lives as quickly as he appeared..Late one night he asked Mick for a lift home on the back of his 1000cc. Suzuki motor-cycle…Mick delighted in putting the fear of god in anyone silly enough to ride pillion with him..Jasper had no sooner settled himself on the trembling machine and informed Mick to drive carefully as he, Jasper, was…and that was the last we heard of Jasper as Mick took off full-throttle and it was impossible to tell if it was the roar of the motor, the squeal of the tyre or the Joe. E. Brown howl of  despair from Jasper as they disappeared down Yakka Road toward Sth. Brighton.

But he never came back.

It’s funny, you know…; the image of adults one has as a child, compared to the actual reality known by the adults of the time around you. Mrs. Hancock used to cut our hair when we were children…the four of us ; from the oldest brother (about 10 yrs) , down incl’ to my sister, then myself (the youngest about five yrs). We would be marched down across the railway-line by the eldest (“hup-two three four”), each clutching a bob (one shilling) in our sweaty little hands to get that one generic haircut for which Mrs. Hancock was infamous..: “The Baseoh”…about once every couple of months, it seemed, most of the kids in the district would sport a Mrs. Hancock “special”…and we’d be lined up on the railway station going to school, looking like a lot of miniature “Moes” (as in The Three Stooges!) waiting for the train….girls incl’, you know!..I wonder that some social science person didn’t do a study on ; “Demographic by haircut” kind of thing for those days?..there must have been a “Mrs. Hancock” in every suburb…truth be known, I believe most barbers..like most architects, have one basic style..and everything else is a derivative there-off.

The image I had of Mrs. Hancock as a child was of this frumpy old lady, dressed in ‘lop-sided’ cardigan and dress, living in this dreary old fibro house, with creepy shadows and dull lighting…she would sit us in an old stuffed, armless chair next to one of those “side tables” of dark timber and curved legs and armed with scissors, a smelly fag and the endless glass of water, she would attack our tangled locks with all the tactics of “Tojo in a Zero” coming out of the sun!….the fag-end would send an endless swirl of smoke past her wincing eye…she’d take a gulp of water, vice-clasp our head unceremoniously with her left hand and her right hand would start with the then continuous…”snipsnipsnipsnip…snipping” as she dove into the job, to come out the other side in an undisturbed arc, the arm ascending upward to hover above our heads somewhere “sit still child!”..mechanically, continuously, snipsnipsnipsnip snipping !….one sat in a horror of anticipation for the next “strafing” (and you know, I can’t stand being “dive-bombed” by mozzies to this day…I don’t mind so much the bite…it’s the hovering, whirring, buzzing that drives me crazy!). Her house was the last one on that side of the road..behind the train station…I think it was called “Cygnet Terrace” before it was pushed through and became “The Cove Road”, thereby cutting off the notorious Emma St. Crossing that cost the lives of a young couple whose car was hit by the train coming out of the blind cutting there at the crossing…a cold wind would cut down through the barren gullies there in winter.

But it wasn’t till years later, when I first started going to the pub as an older youth, that I realized that the “glass of water” always at her beck, was gin and tonic…..Yes, poor old Mrs. Hancock was a gin-soak….and , going by her familiarity with her fellows in the front bar of The Seacliff Hotel ; an old hand at the game. I suppose that is why her front parlour where she “scalped “ us kids always had the curtains drawn…but , you know…my mother would have heard of that..but then again, many in that “fringe district” where we lived were escapees from reality….my old man bought there because it was cheap land…not now though!….It was at the end of the railway line…hang on, that’s not quite true…there was one more stop..”Hallett Cove”…but that place only got two or three trains a day then and it was the refuge of bankrupts, hermits and criminals….I got to meet quite a few in later years, so can confirm the statement!

Back to the mistaken image of adults one has as a child…I remember also being taken into the front-bar of the Brighton Hotel by my dad as a very young boy..he having a beer and me a raspberry..and this man bending down to me and saying in a beery voice..” hello little fellah..what’s your name…eh? eh?” and I got real scared, but my dad was just smiling…I couldn’t then understand why he didn’t chase the ugly man away!…poor old bastard was just another drunk saying hello to a kid……but then..I was a sensitive child!………………………….still am!

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 demeanour 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 South 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 daily’s..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 swivelled 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 tradies 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 attentive 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.

Scene :

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 marvelled 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…”

I have a relative who is keenly looking forward this year to a hip replacement…he needs it because he has carried so much weight over so many years that his natural one has worn down with the effort..of course, he will say otherwise..but that is the awful truth..and likewise are many of us “blessed” with such medical interventions that prolong an aged existence. We really have little choice..there is the suffering..here is the solution..what madness to refuse?

But I don’t think I need to extrapolate on the “long, winding road” that led us to this place. If we can’t identify it distinctly, we have good intuition of the what’s, why’s and wherefore’s that brought us here. The over indulgence of that relative of mine to the gluttony of a whole epoch of humanity has brought us here, where there is no longer a time for dreaming…of imagining…of procrastination while we relax on the laurals of our hard work..For it has already been costed and if there is not an algorithm already that calculates down to the last cent every individual citizen’s capacity of a lifetime’s contribution to the treasury coffers of the middle-class and gives a rating on that citizen’s worth to the middle-class..then there soon will be!

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