It was football in winter: “kick it to me, Joe, over here”.
In summer, it was cricket: “Oh, good shot. That’s a four definitely. Come on, Chris, your bowling has to be tighter.”
However, the ground we played on was always the same. It existed on a sad patch of asphalt we called our street at Victoria Grove Brunswick. The patch we played on mostly ran between my house on the left side of Victoria Grove and Chris’s house on the right side of the road.
It was the same patch of road where, during one Guy Fawkes season, we wedged a Penny Banger firecracker into a power pole and lit it. As advertised, it went bang or BANG! And having expended our excitement, we left to attend to some other slice of mischief.
Little did we know the Penny Banger caused a fire to start, which we did not report as we did not notice it. I still have no idea who put it out. The blackened section of the pole that eventuated from the Penny Banger lasted for years. I would even bet that pole is still there and still blackened.
That patch of road was also where I got hold of the tray of the familiar soft drinks truck that sold and delivered soft drink across the entire suburb. The truck was starting to pick up speed and I hung on to the back, my feet still on the ground, trying to keep up with the accelerating vehicle. My friends watched as I realised the driver could not see me. I supposed he would never have thought anyone stupid enough to do such a daring trick. He had obviously never met me.
Good idea! No! Was I being watched by my friends? Yes! Did I fall and badly graze my knees? You bet! Damn!
Just at the t-intersection at the top of our road was one of four milk bars, all within easy walking distance. As I was about to enter, the door opened and out came Alex. “Hi, Joe,” he said with a smile and ran across the road. I still vividly remember the sound of Alex being hit by a car. Like everything else, that bang has become bigger, deeper, and louder over time.
I remember turning quickly to see Alex’s frail frame flying high through the air and finally hitting the ground in a soft, wet squelch. Don’t worry, Alex survived. But I don’t remember what happened next. Other cars must have stopped, and an ambulance must have been called, Alex was taken to the hospital and somehow put back together.
All I remember was running home. I was 10, yes, that is my excuse. It was summer, and my mother was home and noticed my shock as soon as I walked in the door. This was the first of many times she reached into the drinks cabinet and brought out what I later learnt was called “a good stiff drink”. Most likely, it was Marsala, a sweet fortified wine from the west coast of Sicily.
On the other side of the patch of road was Tony’s house. One day as we walked around, we noticed tufts of grass growing out of the bottom of his back fence. Well, that would not hold. We thought it would be a good idea to see if we could get the grass to burn.
What do you know? It did burn! Much to our delight.
It also burnt down Tony’s back fence. Much to our despair and Tony’s parent’s horror. I can’t remember what sanctions I received from my parents. It must be because of the sanctions I received a little later, and that have remained with me forever.
About 10 minutes walk from Victoria Grove was a creek, Merri Creek. I was a latch-door-key child, so after school, before my mother returned from work, we would go down to Merri Creek and play in the shallows. I often tried to beat her home, but often failed: “Joe,” she’d look directly at me, and sternly say, “I don’t want you down at the creek. It’s dangerous. Ok? Promise? You won’t go there without me?”
“Of course, mum.” And the next afternoon, after school, I’d go again. When she found out: “Joe,” she’d look directly at me, and even more sternly say, “I don’t want you down at the creek. It’s dangerous. Ok? Promise? You won’t go there without me?”
And guess what I would say?
She did give me enough rope to hang an entire school of boys hanging out at Merri Creeks all over the world, but I just kept reeling it in.
Then the day came along (don’t worry, no one died or was badly injured, but a lost shoe was involved). Of course, I was down at the Creek with my buddies. It was summer, and it was hot, so we paddled in the shallows and played whatever we played.
“Okay, I am going home before my mother gets there.” I am standing there with one shoe in my hand. “Has anyone seen my other shoe?” It was gone, and I have no idea what happened to it. Now I definitely had better get home before my mother.
And so there I was rushing back, barefooted, socks in my pocket, and clasping just one shoe. I looked up, and there was my mother coming the other way. She had this look on her face I had never seen before.
“Shit. Fuck. God damn!!”
It was the day I began to swear in full sentences. “Holy fucken, fuck! Shit!”
I can’t say what my mother did. And I can’t say I didn’t have enough warnings. Did I deserve it? Yes, of course I did. But I think my mother’s rage came from something else that I didn’t understand at the time.
I think my mother was feeling guilty about leaving her 10-year-old alone from an early age. Here I was, crossing main roads, and playing down by the creek, which was at the back of a large rubbish dump that took years to fill in. I am sure she often wondered how many 10-year-old boys were in amongst that rubbish. Her biggest disappointment was that I had abused her trust. Taken it for granted.
Let’s not forget the shoe I lost. Somewhere in amongst the debris, on the banks of Merri Creek, at the back of Allard Park, there’s a left-footed school shoe that is still in hiding waiting for me to find it and take it back home. I am sure there are still kids playing in the shallows.