A man who has returned to where he grew up to find its folks unrecognisable has been given a cold ladle of change. But that change has its own quality, it can be for better or worse, progressive or ruinous. Moreover, it is the degrees of that change which can profoundly affect a man.
Here, I tell the story of Greg. He shared it with me one night over free-flowing lager he bought while we drank at one of those typical old Australian pubs now a museum rarity; refusing me the duty of my round for very private reasons that he did not share with me, but which he was inflexible about. Greg was on a mission that night and some darkness was consuming him.
Greg had grown up in a beachfront suburb in Sydney, although I won’t say where, because naming and shaming the place doesn’t serve the purpose. Let’s suppose that this suburb is a microcosm of Everywhere Australia and leave it at that.
His childhood, by all accounts, bore no distinctions for better or worse but was a typical time in which he explored all the gadgets, fads, and fashions of his epoch. He spoke of no particular unhappiness, and his parents were not mean, nor did they mistreat him. They were not particularly wealthy, neither were they poor, and they provided for him as dutiful parents.
Greg had two brothers and a sister, one older brother, one younger, while his sister was the eldest. Both his brothers are dead and his sister moved overseas long ago after marrying a musician. They never kept in touch.
“Where I grew up was OK,” he frowned. “I had the beach, although it wasn’t much for waves or surfing, I was only a skip-and-a-hop from the water. Summer was for swimming and winter for fishing, although, truth be told, I was a lousy fisherman.”
“I went fishing as a nipper and all I caught was a cold.”
“That’s not too far from where I was at. Anyway, I went to the local school, and then things started to change. I noticed it when I was about 12. It was like, one day I woke up and most of the neighbours had changed.”
“What do you mean?”
“They began moving away. I had this old bloke named Mr Atwell on one side. Believe it or not, he once worked for my grandfather, who owned a crop of different businesses. A scary man was my grandfather.”
“How so, mate?”
“He was big, for one thing, a big solid Irish bastard built like a cement pylon with a head like a brick. But it wasn’t just that, he was scary in all the ways that successful men are, men who have made what they have from nothing. He had no time for pussyfooters.
“He was my mother’s father, my old man, his dad died when he was young. They lived out on a farm up in Queensland. I only ever saw one picture of him, but he didn’t talk much about him. About all I knew was his old man used to get on the piss. Dad left home and joined the army when he was 17, in WW2, and fought up in New Guinea. He doesn’t talk much about the war.”
“No, he won’t have any of it. He doesn’t commemorate Anzac Day or nothing. Because the old man drank so much, he was really straight; couldn’t stand the stuff. He banned me and my brothers from drinking in the house.”
“What about his mother?”
“She died after he was born. There is no photo of her.”
“Sounds like he had it rough.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not going to pour too much sympathy on him, nup. He was a prick in his own way. He wasn’t cruel or nothing, but he didn’t care much for his own kids. My sis was another matter, she was his favourite. But we never went on holidays, and he was pretty strict with money. He was just an old man, a provider, nothing more, nothing less.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
Greg became distant at that moment, and an idiot at a winning poker machine slapped his hands having pulled up a royal flush. The whole circus of its bells and whistles sounding the winning spin created a momentary disturbance in our part of the bar, so we decided to take our drinks and move to the outside area where a group of young folk were yakking and other patrons were engaged in their own varying levels of social interaction. I felt we were the oldest blokes in the bar, although there were one or two inside. Strange, because, as I say, this was an old-school pub; you’d think it would’ve drawn a more old-school clientele.
“My mother was a bit of a flower pot, you know, a daffodil. She used to smile heaps and she wasn’t the sharpest set of shears, but she cared.”
“What happened to them?”
“Oh, they’re gone, ages ago, one from cancer, one from a stroke.”
“Right. Well, I have a similar story as far as my parents passing away.”
“Anyway, the old bloke, Mr Atwell, he just died one day, there was a period where his house, one of those old brown brick homes with a backyard and Hills Hoist, just sat empty. Mr Atwell mowed his lawn every Sunday, so it was always neat, and he had a good flower bed. You miss those things; now everything is high-rise and there’s not much trace of that. You don’t get the smells, those summer smells, that garden smell. I mean, whatever happened to Christmas beetles?”
“Daigou shoppers bought them all.”
He paused to take a long pull on his beer, smiling wryly, recognising the quip, but finding in it something more unsettling. His brows furrowed, and he looked past me again for a moment before resuming his story.
“Anyway, old Atwell goes toes-up, then his neighbour moves out, and before I know it, on either side, all those old Australian families are just gone. In moves the Greeks and Italians. They weren’t bad people. I used to play with them as a kid, but they right away knocked down the old Aussie houses and built these wog mansions that were fucking awful. You know, like two storeys of cream brick with those tacky columns, what do they call those things?”
“Yeah, those things, like back in Greece. Well, it didn’t look right, and I noticed, over the next few years, just as the Greeks moved in suddenly all these Lebs came out of nowhere. Then came the Asians. At school, it was like, the whole place changed because they had so many of them coming in that they stopped doing normal classes so they could teach these kids, like, the basics. Just like that, it went from all-Aussie to this thing I didn’t recognise anymore.
“They had an assembly one day to let us know that things were going to be different from now on. And they announced this Lebanese brother and sister were coming to the school and we had to go out of our way to treat them nice because they came from a warzone. I remember thinking about that, and I knew what a warzone was, ‘cos I saw it on the television and movies, but I couldn’t really imagine what it was like so I guessed it must’ve been bad. Anyway, the next day these kids arrive and they another assembly to introduce them.
“After assembly, during recess actually, I watched this kid do what the teachers told him to – he walked up to this Leb kid and offered him his hand to shake. Well, the Leb winds back with his fist — and I swear he was smiling — and gives him a snotty! He cracks him right on the nose and it starts bleeding.
“Well, everyone was freaking out. Our school wasn’t like that, there wasn’t a serious fight the whole time I was there, but after these Lebs came they got in groups and started picking on the smaller Aussie kids and hassling the girls. The teachers wouldn’t do anything about it and if you went to tell them they’d take you aside and give you an angry talk about how some people are different.”
“I went to a high school where there was a group of Vietnamese but only one or two of the students were of Mediterranean persuasion.”
“Lucky you, but I wasn’t fortunate enough to come from where you did. Not many people were.”
“True. I guess, we had old money where I grew up, but it’s changed now.”
“I’ll be back in a moment,” I said, getting up from my chair.
I had to excuse myself to make an environmental statement in the men’s room. When I returned another two schooners awaited us, along with a bowl of potato wedges smothered in sour cream, which he ordered earlier.
After scoffing the wedges and slurping down the lager, we resumed our tête-à-tête, and at last Greg began to bear down on the cause of his distraction.
“Anyway, as you do at that age, you can’t wait until you’re older because there’s all this stuff you want to do, like getting your P-plates. Then it comes and you find that part of you wants to hang on to what you had when you were younger, but the other part is a tearaway.
“I went from this secondary school where I was happy to high school and that was a real shock. It was all, you know, multicultural. There were gangs everywhere: the Lebs had their gang, the Asians had theirs; the Croats; the Greeks, and believe it or not, there just wasn’t enough of us Aussies left in the area to form our own gang. We usually had to side with the Croats, or whoever we could, and pretty much as independents.
“I had great plans for achieving top marks. I always did well at secondary school, I got mostly Bs, but enough As, too. Everything changed at high school, it was a fight just to survive; it was like that book they made us read, Lord of the Flies, only from the point of view of multiculturalism. I had this bunch of Lebs who particularly used to pick on me for nothing.”
“Did they ever hit you?”
“Yeah, all the time. I was outnumbered. Then, one day, this Leb Khaled made me meet him down at the park after school, which is where we used to have fights. He came with two of his mates, and there were heaps of other kids watching, and I smacked the crap out of him.”
I raised my glass, genuinely pleased he’d prevailed.
“That’s probably the worst thing I could’ve done. It’s supposed to be over when you stand up for yourself like that, but not with these Lebs. The next day there were about ten of them who wanted to fight me. No kidding. And after school, this Leb’s uncle turns up and I nearly shit myself. He started shoving me around outside the school telling me he was going to kill my dad and fuck my mum. He did it in front of the teachers and told them to fuck off when Mr Overton walked over. They didn’t care about anything those Lebs.
“Well, I couldn’t take it. I wasn’t getting any work done because I was always afraid of what would happen once the bell rang. I couldn’t hide anywhere because they would send kids to check where I was. I couldn’t complain to the teachers because they didn’t care and most of them copped threats off the Lebs anyway.”
“Mate, it can’t have been that bad.”
“That’s exactly what happened. What reason do I have to lie?”
“I don’t know, perhaps you want to enlist me in the KKK or something,” I joked.
“The KKK!” he scoffed. “Something ought to be done, but it’s nothing to do with the KKK. That’s not even Australian.”
“OK, so what happened? It sounds like it was just a typical lower socio-economic school where these migrants naturally ended up.”
“That’s crap, it was a top place to grow up; all these migrants took over is what happened! One family turns up the next day all their cousins are there and before you know it, you’re living in Beirut. It used to be a good school. You only had to look at the old photos in the hall it was a totally different place. It was all this multiculturalism that ruined it. But it also drove me out of my home.”
“How did it do that?”
“I stopped turning up at school. They called it jigging; I jigged the lessons where I knew I would run into this Leb and his mates. Then, I remember, this kid who was waiting outside the principal’s office when I was sent there for jigging told me, he said, ‘If you’re going to jig, you jig the whole day’.
“He was right, so I started taking off whole days and then the entire week. It was easy ‘cos I started working shifts at the local supermarket. It was supposed to be casual, after school, yet I was a good worker so the manager asked if I’d come in for the day shift. Before I knew it, I was full-time.”
“Did your parents find out?”
“That’s how fucked the school was — they didn’t notice I was gone until about a month later when I was fully ensconced in the supermarket. I used to get dressed for school — the old man would already be gone when I got up — and fool my mother by sneaking into the back yard, getting changed, and stashing my bag under the house. By the time the school got in contact I was old enough to legally leave; 14-and-nine months. The folks didn’t argue or anything, they just let me leave. I don’t think they cared to be honest.”
At this point, Greg switched from buying us schooners to shots of whiskey. As I said, he was on a mission.
I liked Greg, although, because I was married, I didn’t have much chance to see the old set. Greg and I first met when I was about 20 and he was a precocious 17-year-old who had no problem entering nightclubs. He looked well older than his age. We first met in Sydney at a live band called the Piccolo Pyros; a post-punk band I followed. This was the 1980s, you see. However, my wife was overseas on a shopping trip and I had, by chance, discovered Greg on Facebook as the friend-of-a-friend and I sent him a private message.
So many years had passed, so much time. The last occasion I recall we were together was just after 2001 when the Twin Towers went down. Greg was talking about joining the army which was absurd since they’d never have him. He had turned into a wild reactionary so I could gather, but tonight, he was worse. I was a little uncomfortable that his conversation had a decidedly racist edge to it. I had no way of knowing the type of crowd he was with now. But he was an old friend and as such, I would permit much. I, myself, was a liberal at that point; none too concerned with world affairs, or politics other than keeping myself informed enough to hold my own at a dinner table debate. I believed in going along to get along. My interests were paying off the mortgage and making it over to Tahiti at least once a year.
The whisky made Greg sharper. Rather than dulling his eyes, they became like two gimlet pins which targeted me in a disconcerting sniper’s glare. As he spoke, he became animated, although anger was evident in his tone. But his speech had a purpose and what he said did not sound like faux rhetoric or maudlin reminiscing. The best way I can put is that he was communicating his soul, and the liquor rather loosened his tongue more than his spite or hubris.
“About this time, my old man retired. My sister had left home already and was travelling in Europe. My older brother, Darren, was stoned every night and I didn’t even know. We had our own rooms and never mixed together. He hung out with crims that took advantage of his slowness and I only had three friends from the neighbourhood who hated the Lebs as much as I did. But they were in the same boat. See, we were targeted outside of school, too.”
“Didn’t you and your brothers go to the same school?”
“Darren went to a ‘special school’. But Mark, the youngest, he was hit by a car when I was ten. Darren died in a bike accident in 1986. He was pissed.”
“When did you move out of home?”
“Home moved out on us. I think because we didn’t finish high school the olds weren’t real impressed even if they didn’t show it. They wanted us gone. The folks took the old man’s superannuation and moved to the Victorian countryside. We never saw them after that. When the old man kicked the bucket, the house was sold and my sister got most of the money. But when they left, I moved to the inner-city and met you guys. The old man let me have some money for a lease and stuff. I blew it all. Didn’t save a thing. Spent it all on drugs and piss.”
“Last we were together, you said you would join the army.”
“Nah, I just wanted to shoot towelheads.”
“Right, well, you would have been on the wrong side of history, the invasion of Iraq was bogus and a big mistake.”
“I know that now, but I didn’t then.”
“Where did you go to? You weren’t working when I last saw you.”
Apparently, if Greg’s remembrances were true, fortune continued to treat him inhospitably. Having achieved small roles on television, when directed by a friend to a casting agency specialising in commercials, contacts led him to the print media where he became involved in the advertising business, writing copy. He spoke about a lucky break but it all went sour when a change of management led to him experiencing what he says was terrible bullying.
In those years, he moved away from the city which irritated him so, and back by the water, but on the other side of the bridge. His office was located nearby and he seldom travelled to the city. All was lost when he was, according to him, “hounded out” of the agency. His overall lack of suitable qualifications for any other field left him unemployed although he was able to freelance here and there. When those contacts of his kind enough to line up freelance work moved on so that source of money dissipated and he was forced to go, for the first time in years, cap-in-hand to Centrelink. This was a terrible assault to his pride.
Now, all along, his story had been veering in a direction that I found unpalatable; and he blamed migrants for his problems. Migrants forced him out of school, out of his childhood neighbourhood, and were responsible for other atrocities that marred his life and happiness.
For instance, the younger brother run over by a car was hit by an Asian driver who was not licensed. The older brother that was killed on his motorbike (while drunk, mind you) was not a victim of his own negligence but rather struck when another motorist of Asian origin sped through a red light. Greg was deeply offended because his sister married a “coon” as he put it, and had a brood of “quadroons”. Within all of these trials, he seems to have retained a passionate identity as an Australian, which I was never aware of when we were punks together in the 1980s. Now, his rhetoric was fired with contempt for other races, and he considered the country to be in a “predicament”. His tale of dealing with Centrelink was a nightmare by all accounts involving him “having to grovel” to a “wimpy curry” who “could hardly speak English.” This little Indian fellow apparently made his life hell as he applied all sorts of tests before consenting to grant him Newstart benefits.
“Imagine,” Greg blasted, “having to beg to someone who was not five years in the country for relief money when you’ve been taxed at top dollar in your own country for the past 15 years!”
This wasn’t all, as part of the term of receiving Centrelink, he was forced to attend ‘job providers’, which he said were staffed with aliens. He thundered, spilling his whisky, “Everyone on the employed side of the desk had hardly been in the country a week, and all the ‘clients’, all those on the other side were Australians!”
The conclusion to his story — what he seemed to posit was an arc that demonstrated a theory which he never outright stated but was tacitly left to be understood as a comment on multiracial Australia — he told of how, after nearly 40 years he had returned to the old neighbourhood. According to Greg, it was all circumstantial; he couldn’t afford much else but a small apartment in a block near where he grew up.
He described the feeling of returning to that place: “The house where we lived was just as I last saw it. Oh, I think they had put in a new gate, and they changed something about the windows, but otherwise, it was the same.
“Other things had not stayed the same. Those awful wog mansions had doubled in size and rather than that Mediterranean look, they were giant death-star-like monstrosities of the nouveau, new-Australian rich. Garish, ghastly and contrary to the character of the neighbourhood as it had once been.
“But more so, whereas I may have created the picture of a suburb utterly transformed by migrants when I left, that was the perception of one who had been weaned on monoculture. Now, returning, I don’t even know what fucking country I’m in. It’s not just Arabs anymore, although they seem to dominate the beach. I mean, I went for a walk along the beach during summer, and it was walking tents as far as the eye could see. I wondered whether I had been caught in a space-time eddy and transported to the middle east.
“You have no idea; it was like being slapped in the face with the fresh arse of a slaughtered goat. All over the beach, Muslim families, and I kid you not they actually sat on the beach on rugs smoking hookahs! Seriously, hookahs! It was to me like the ending scene of Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston finds himself looking up at the ruin of the Statue of Liberty. You walk into a shop and it’s as if the UN is in town since there seems to be a representative of each nation on earth represented. I was the only Australian there!
“From the shopping centre down to the beach and everywhere else there are Indians, Africans! Africans! I swear the only Africans that were in Australia when I was a kid all played test cricket. Now they’re ubiquitous and it’s as if I’m in their way. There are Asians, Islanders, but least of all, the least represented are actual Anglo-Celtic-Europeans, MY people! This is what I’ve returned to. If you thought there was a type of nostalgia to be had by returning where once you belonged it’s a false assumption! There is nothing of the sort. There are buildings which the same, many which aren’t, but it’s the people who have made it so alien!”
Then, rolling the last of the whisky in his glass in his mouth, and gulping it down acridly with a mask of contempt he said parenthetically-yet-profoundly, “You get that sense of wishing you were home… while you are home.”
I must confess to fatigue. Greg’s story had been fascinating, but if his intention was to sell me over to a kind of nationalism then he missed his mark. I have never had the troubles he has had; or rather, I have never viewed the world with his jaundiced eye.
Before parting ways, I relieved myself for the last time, washed my hands, and met Greg out by the front of the pub. It was noisy this night, and plenty of hoons about; ironically, the kind of Lebanese tearabouts that Greg had complained of earlier. He might’ve made capital out of the fact but it was outside his attention span. We stood at the lights, and when they turned green indicating to walk, I slapped him on the back and we stepped off the kerb. Suddenly, out of the glaring light from the headlights of those cars which had stopped in the lane closest to us, a small Korean-made car came hurtling along. Greg was a step or two ahead of me and lost in thought. I realised the car wasn’t about to brake and quickly jumped back. A terrible thud sounded and I watched in slow-motion horror as Greg bounced off its bonnet and over the roof. He was thrown like a proverbial rag doll. In shock, I ran to him. I fumbled in my coat pocket for my mobile. I rang 000. It was too late. Greg died at the scene. The car never stopped. In the ensuing weeks, I learned that the driver was a Chinese national who had been stopped further away. He blew twice the legal limit and he wasn’t licensed. However, the authorities granted him bail and he was not required to surrender his passport. The last I heard he was back in China and nothing could be done diplomatically to have him returned.