Like faces at a window
Just passing through – like faces at a window
Broughton Lane. A narrow, treeless passage of hard surfaces. Grey. Asphalt. Brick. Not exactly inviting and more an image of some bleak, northern English coal town in hard times.
The outlook from our room at the back on the second storey of 168 Cathedral Street was over this unremarkable Woolloomooloo lane. Occasionally, I would gaze out into this totally paved and overbuilt landscape. There was an allure about it that both repelled and captivated, but charming it definitely was not. Sparsely illuminated by street light at night, the impression was of a mean street from some 1930-ish black and white crime movie.
Down the hill to the ‘Loo
It was now 1970 and my Sydney journey these past few years had taken me from a Potts Point attic, out to Randwick and back to the inner city. In that year in Woolloomooloo, I inhabit an area that was only recently just a passage on my way from Potts Point to the city… a valley crammed with old, down-at-heel buildings.
At 168, people were to come and go through the year but there would remain a core of permanent residents to bring a sense of continuity and stability to the house.
So, who was here at this time?
Sol, Yvonne’s sister, moved into the dark attic at the top of a staircase that switchbacks up from the entrance hall. I don’t know if it was she that painted the room such a dark colour or some past resident, but to enter her room is to enter something gloomy and cave-like.
Sit on the bed and look around. There’s a narrow window set in the corner to give a limited view over the passage between 168 and the brick wall of the neighbouring terrace house. It brings a narrow shaft of natural light into the room to cast a wan glow over a bed that is set against the rear wall. There’s a dressing table and a wardrobe but, with the bed, that was all.
As Sol’s belly swells with Sasha over the coming months she finds the added weight too much to carry up that zigzag staircase, so she moves into the streetfront downstairs room when it becomes available, a room flooded with light compared to her dim attic.
Frizzled mat of dark hair like a brown haze wrapping her oval face, Mazz — Marilyn — was an attractive young woman in her twenties who moved into the attic after it was vacated by Sol. Mazz’s voice wasn’t quite husky but it had a low, sonorous quality that gave the impression of a woman with a potentially classy style, were she ever to foster that. But looking at her sitting there on the bed the impression comes that — ignoring her blue jeans and blue, utilitarian button-up shirt — with her classic facial features she could have been a woman sitting there in that attic of any period… now in the early 1970s, a young woman of the early-1950s full of hope for her future as a new world opened, a working class woman in the 1930s, one setting out in life in the exuberance of the 1920s. But this was 1970 and it was Mazz sitting there.
Some time that year, Gary Hyde-Gates makes the acquaintance of the household but does not become a resident. Gary’s acquaintance with the crew at 168 led to his taking an interest in Mazz. She reciprocated and they formed a pair bond and seemed to be getting on well.
Later, I would learn the relationship had taken a downturn due to Mazz’s nervous breakdown, or something of that order, though exactly what remained unclear… it was through hearsay only that I learned of this. When I did, I found it hard to reconcile with the cool, calm woman I knew at 168. The last I hear of Gary was to be less than a year later. He had left for the UK and was working in television, or hoping to.
Bronwyn Spencer, a north shore girl from Turramurra and her young son, Rowan, had the big, first floor room that overlooked Cathedral Street. This must have once been the living room as it had two tall, double doors that gave onto a narrow verandah that ran the width of the building. It was the largest room in the house, by far.
The room at the first zig of the zigzag stairwell immediately below Yvonne and I housed another north shore refugee. Driving through Darlinghurst with her parents some years before, she tells me, they had told her how fortunate she was to live in St Ives rather than in the close-packed, down-at-heel terraces of the inner city— buildings of the insalubrious type that she now occupies at 168. A friend of Bronwyn, Charmaine was a medical student at Sydney University.
Her’s was a quiet, thoughtful personality with a sharp, analytical intelligence offset by occasional outbreaks of humour. Despite this, she gave the impression of an underlying seriousness. Her long blonde hair hung loose and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses would sit on the bridge of her nose, adding to the intellectual image her speech and manner created. Charmaine was a little taller — though not by much — than Yvonne, but of a slimmer, finer and petite build.
Rob Dummet moved into 168 at its start as a share house. He spent his youth in Panania, a nondescript part of Sydney’s spreading western suburbs. He worked for the Post Office, sorting mail at the big Redfern exchange. With trim beard, round face and dark hair cut below his ears, the always-unruffled and quietly spoken Rob went about his workaday life without fuss. He was intellectual in outlook and considered in what he said, but is capable of having fun.
This was our core group of residents, the people who brought 168 to life that year. Shared houses, we knew, are made up of temporary comings-together and partings. Others were to come and go through that first year of the new decade, their time at 168 like a movement of faces past a window, there briefly and the next time you look, gone.
One such was a tall, slim and attractive woman with curly, brown hair. She was the daughter of a clergyman but she stayed for only a short time though that was sufficiently long for her father to discover her sin and disown her. She was pregnant, though in her time at 168 it didn’t show. And her name? Long forgotten.
That year, Marie came to the house with young Timmy in tow, moving in when Bronwyn and Rowan moved out. Her pleasant disposition fitted in well. A slim yet sturdily-built woman with curly, light brownish-blonde hair, Marie has a strong voice that was never raised in anger — none that the rest of us heard, anyway.
I have no recollection how long she stayed but her arrival must have been during the latter part of the shared household’s existence. Whether she left before the house broke up or at the time of break up, I don’t recall.
Gary Hyde-Gates and I got on well and, when we are in the vicinity of Bob Gould’s Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street — it was sort of a cultural magnet — we would go to the Brass Lantern, a coffee shop just around the corner in George Street run by a mother and her daughters.
Another friend, Earle Lomas — a tall, quietly spoken youth who frequented the bookshop as well as its folk club, the parties that happened in the back rooms and the youth movement that was also based there— was also a regular at the Brass Lantern. In times to come, he would fondly recall the place and the women there. When he did this I would wonder — where are those women now? What became of them? How did they fare in life? As so often with questions like these, they remain without answers.
The daughter with the straight, jet-black hair falling to her shoulders was in her late twenties. She was quite attractive, so I thought, though perhaps a little too mature for the likes of us. Her appearance, igiven emphasis by the judicious use of dark eye shadow, her hair and clothing style, led me to imagine her as a habitue of some 1950s apartment inhabited by beatniks listening to cool jazz, though I have no idea if that was her cultural scene at all.
Tina, the younger daughter has long, auburn hair and was in her early twenties. We got on well with her and spent time talking. Ours was a casual friendship.
The last I sew of that family was when Tina started to show unmistakable signs of pregnancy. She then disappears from the coffee shop and from our lives — but to where? Another of those questions left hanging in life.
Earle Lomas was not a resident at 168, however he had lived in an earlier share house that Yvonne and others had inhabited in Chippendale. Just a couple years ago and decades after the Cathedral Street days, I encountered Earle after he had returned from the US where his intended six month stay had spun out to 20 years, and after the time he became a musician there. I asked him what he remembered about the Brass Lantern women.
“Close by on George Street, just around the corner from Goulburn Street, the Brass Lantern was our haunt and haven though I doubt Nina (the mother of the girls) was ever going to get rich from the Resistance punks ordering hot chocolat and an occasional meal”, he responded.
“Try as I might I have no memory of the decor. Maybe there was fish net draped from a black ceiling and candle-bearing Cianti bottles on the tables. Or maybe those are the kitch images I recall from other cafes. What I do remember is the jukebox. The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want would always carry me away and Jawbone by The Band still raises an association with the place.
“But none of that would matter if the people there were not memorable. Nina and her three daughters — Anna and Tina and the middle one whose name escapes me. It shouldn’t, she always kept me in line. Heck, they all did. I got to help out with the dishwashing from time to time and was glad for the company. Though more than once I got to feel like Basil Fawlty on the wrong end of a skit when Nina would hold a fork before me that failed her inspection”.
It is early evening. Rob and I are sitting at the old wooden table in the kitchen, drinking coffee and talking. Charmaine, towel over shoulder, pads quietly by and announces that she is going to take a shower. There’s a small bathroom upstairs but most of us shower in the outside bathroom as it is larger and we prefer to leave the upstairs shower for Bronwyn and Rowan.
It’s that transitional time between daylight and night, a time when the light has not quite gone from the day… an hour when time seems to slow and stretch as if weary of its toil and ready for rest… a special time beloved by photographers for its pastel colours that darken as the landscape moves into evening. For me too, this is always a special time of day, and not just because I took a lot of photographs.
Our discussion was not about anything of great importance, just one of those quiet and sporadic, rambling conversations made with steaming cup of coffee in hand… easy going conversations interspersed with silences that are not awkward among friends.
Suddenly, we are jolted from our quietude by a loud, piercing SCREAM from the backyard.
Did you hear that too? It’s not a verbal question, rather one signified by the quizzical expression on our faces. Momentarily we look at each other, then we rise as one and rush out, knowing that the scream was Charmaine’s. We encountered her wrapped in a towel, getting out of the shower.
“There was a man at the window”, she says in a rapid, alarmed tone, indicating the little window that gives onto the shower recess. “And he was looking at me”. Her voice carried that high pitched, rapid delivery that indicates fright.
A peeping tom. I rush through the back gate that opens onto Broughton Lane, but the street is empty. Whoever it was has made a fast getaway.
After that, we make a point of keeping the back gate closed.
Pass through a gap in the chainlink fence then clamber up the scaffolding. Simple. Being a weekend there are no workers on site, only us — Yvonne, Rob and I.
Why do we climb onto the viaduct that will one day be traversed by trains heading to and from the eastern suburbs? There’s no answer that makes sense, but from up here we look down the length of Cathedral Street and over to the aging, dirty creamy coloured terrace house that has been our home for a few joyful months.
Conveniently, the viaduct is just across the road from 168 and the fence around the works wouldn’t keep a stray fox out, though such an animal has surely not been seen in Wooloomooloo for perhaps a hundred years. Climbing onto the viaduct is one of those spur of the moment things for which rational explanations do not exist. It’s just something done by a bunch of friends on the spur of the moment on the occasional weekend.
This day, I lift my camera to take a photo of Yvonne up here on the viaduct. She’s wearing her dark beret, her usual T-shirt and jeans and sits against an opening in the wall of the viaduct. This is an image that will survive the decades.
Man with a gun
168 Cathedral Street, early evening. We sit at the kitchen table where we seem to spend so much of our time. It’s good when there’s a lot of people here because then there’s a buzz, the product of people relating stories, reminiscing, telling tales, joking and laughing.
Tonight, though, we listen to Paul Shubeck relate a strange but unfortunately true tale.
It starts on his way to work. It’s a long walk from Wooloomooloo over to Surry Hills via Railway Square and the Devonshire Street pedestrian tunnel. The tunnel was familiar to me. In 1970, you descended the stairs and passed along a somewhat grungy passage walled with cream tiles that had clearly been there for some time. It was a straight walk, the exit looming ever-closer as a rectangle of daylight in the distance. You passed by the assortment of people that make up this city.
But that fateful day for Paul, as he related it to us around the kitchen table, a Post Office technician enters the tunnel at the opposite end. Somewhere in that long tunnel, Paul notices the technician coming his way.
Just what Paul’s objection to this man is I have no idea, but I get the idea that Paul dislikes him. This the technician must have recalled as their eyes met, and it is confirmed as Paul reaches into his pocket and retracts a snub nosed black object which he points at the technician, yelling threats about it being the man’s last day, or something of the sort. It happens quickly as these dramatic things do, and what a sight it is – this wide-eyed, Rasputin-looking, apparently crazed and bearded character with long jet-black hair and dressed in leather jacket and seldom-washed jeans, yelling and making assorted threats — and with his finger on the trigger.
Understandably the technician, realising perhaps that his day is about to take a sudden turn for the worst, becomes more than a little alarmed if not panicked as he looks down the short barrel of the revolver. How he must have anticipated his fate in those few seconds when life appeared to have come to some turning point. But there came no BANG! What relief he must have felt as Paul withdrew the weapon, put it back in his pocket and went on his way.
What the technician didn’t know, Paul explains, is that the pistol is merely a life-like replica and his anger a largely fabricated emotion. He meant to startle the technician, he explains, not shoot him.
Ironically, it is Paul who is the victim of this impulsive encounter. The technician, a little shaken by his encounter, notified their mutual employer about the incident of the apparently crazed, armed man in the half-light of that long tunnel. Paul was summonsed to the office and informed that the Post Office really didn’t want to employ a gun-toting loony. He has become the victim of his own impetuous nature, something that doesn’t really surprise some of us gathered around the table.
After that, it would be downhill in life for Paul. He was a troubled young man under his impulsive, intelligent and exuberant surface, a livewire character, talkative and sometimes funny. He was not a deep thinker, rather a creature of the moment. Seemingly friendly to be with, there was always a hint of uncertainty about how he related to you, a hidden sense that you were seeing the surface emotion rather than its deeper, more troubled psychological source. I had always felt a little insecure around him… not all that much… but there was just this guardedness, a hesitancy I felt about him, and I don’t think I was the only one who felt this way. I realised that behind Paul’s façade was an edginess. It was something people would notice after awhile… a restlessness, a nervous animating energy that surfaced as impulsiveness.
To jump ahead to the near future… deprived now of legal income, over coming months Paul will find an income source of a different kind purveying a selection of assorted and illegal pharmacology up the hill in the Cross.
There had for decades been marijuana at the Cross. The recreational drug, that along with alcohol was favoured by the bohemians, the artists and their hangers-on that inhabited the area as far back as the 1920s.
A change for the worse came in the late-1960s when US military personnel, on rest and recreation leave from the war in Vietnam, introduced heroin. That brought a marked change to the social ambiance and to the crime scene up there. It was this changed environment that Paul was to enter and, for a brief period, thrive in. Somehow, he blended into that underground milieu as if he belonged — like a fish in water, as Mao Tse-Tung might have said.
The 1960s had prepared the social ground for the trade in the various mind-altering substances that were Paul’s stock in trade. A tolerance of such pharmaceuticals was part of that decade’s youth culture and sales were not hard to make for an aspiring young dealer.
Most drug pushers prefer visual anonymity, they don’t like to be noticed. Shiftiness and anonymity are crucial to their remaining in business and not in jail. Not so Paul. Not only did the big black hat that covered his long, black hair make him stand out in a crowd, so did the African kaftan he took to wearing at times.
It should come as no surprise that Paul would eventually be swooped up by the police and spend time in a completely different environment to the exuberance of Kings Cross and the sociable household at 168 Cathedral Street.
Coming out day
It’s late in the year now, and living at 168 has taken on a pattern set by work and a convivial home life. Not that we keep constant company — we see each other on weekends more than during the week when we go about our own business.
The kitchen is the social centre of 168 and we gather around the table to eat and talk. Here, we meet some evenings to drink instant coffee (yes, our culinary tastes left a lot to be desired) or cheap wine and talk about the events of the week.
On one wall is a large photo poster, a modification of the noted portrait of his mother by the American born artist, James McNeill Whistler. In the authentic work the woman is seen in profile with her hands clasped in her lap. That differs a little from this modern rendition in which she still sits in profile, only now her hands are clasped around a submachine gun. I had come across an illustration of the genuine work while in art class in high school, however I think the modern modification of the painting offers, shall I say, a somewhat refreshing interpretation that played on mixed — or confused — sixties youth culture sentiments around peace and conflict.
In this cramped kitchen this evening, a revelation is about to take place and it takes great courage on Rob’s part. You could tell that by his hesitation and nervousness.
Most of the denizens of the house are here as we have made a shared meal and are now sitting around talking. Rob sits on a chair at the corner of the table nearest the door.
“I’d like to say something”, he announces in a voice loud enough to get our attention. We look over to him, our separate conversations disrupted. “I hope what I’m going to say won’t affect our friendship, but I wanted to let you know anyhow”, he says.
What could be so important that it risked our friendship with Rob?
“I just wanted to say that… I’m gay”.
Silence. We look at him.
Had she been there, Connie, a woman friend of the household, would have then realised why Rob had never shown any special interest in her, despite her interest in him. We reassure Rob that nothing will change in our relationship with him and that he is still our friend. For Rob, the ready acceptance, though welcome, seemed a bit of an anti-climax.
Years later in talking about the event, Yvonne recalled ” …an odd incident when Paul tried to kiss Rob in the kitchen and everyone cracked up in some sort of disgust or horror — they were the days before Rob ‘came out’ — so I don’t know what Paul saw that we didnt…”.
Revelation over, we return to our conversations.
Our first year at 168 was moving on. Soon it would fold into the next. Life had taken on a sort of routine and it seemed we had been here for quite some time, but in reality it had only been a short period.
It is early evening, dark outside now, and we gather around the kitchen table. Someone has an idea and they rush upstairs to get the makings of it. They return carrying a box, out of which they extract something that unfolds into… a ouija board.
The device has numbers and letters around the side and a pointer that moves according to the unseen directions of a spirit. We start out with a sense of fun — none of us really believes this stuff — but, for one of us, it is a step towards a state of increasing anxiety.
“Alright”, says Sol authoritatively. “No moving the pointer deliberately and no moving the table”.
We turn out the light and light a candle, as seems appropriate. The proceedings start. Rob, trying unsuccessfully to hide his amusement below a serious tone of voice, tries to invoke a suitable mood in the group.
Rob speaks: “Place your fingers on the pointer”. We reach over and touch the device with our index fingers.
“Don’t touch it heavily and don’t push it”, Rob says. We look at each other expectantly, wondering who will be the first to push the pointer. Is it mirth or seriousness we see in each other’s eyes? Silence for a few minutes, as if to invoke the appropriate ambience.
Rob lifts his eyes from the board and looks around at us, then drops his gaze to the board. A few seconds pass and he speaks. “Is anybody there?”, he asks quietly. Silence. Half a minute passes. Nothing happens.
“If anybody’s there, make a sign”. Still nothing. The spiritual airwaves are quiet tonight. In silence we sit, fingers on the pointer and with a sense of disappointment quickly replacing our amusement as we realize that there may be no contact. Again Rob invokes a passing spirit. We sit, waiting.
Then… it moves. Just a couple centimeters. Eyes meet but no words are spoken. Expressions of uncertainty replace barely hidden expressions of amusement. Each of us asks ourselves whether it was one of the others that moved the thing, or whether it was…
Movement, more rapid than I would have anticipated, and the pointer carries our fingers to a letter ‘r’. There it stops briefly before moving again. We watch anxiously as it heads to ‘a’ then ‘t’, ‘g’, back to ‘a’ and over to ‘n’… ‘ratgan’, a term with absolutely no meaning for any of us. Is it someone’s name, one of us suggests?
“Do you have a message for us” — Rob again. No. Just a name. We assume that was what had been spelled out.
Then, nothing. Communication ended. We realise it is over for the evening but the mood in the kitchen remains subdued, even a little tense and even after we put the board aside. We speak quietly. The ouija board now lay closed.
“I’m going up to my room”, says Yvonne after awhile. We hear her footfall as she ascends the stairs to the second floor. Suddenly, there’s a scurrying, scuffing noise and Yvonne emerges in the kitchen doorway.
“I’m not going up there!”, she exclaims.
She withdraws defensively into herself, sitting on the chair and bringing her knees to her chest and bowing her head as if trying to make herself smaller. Her voice has that subdued, serious and nervy tone that signals fear and it is that which seems to permeate the kitchen as we try to make sense of Yvonne’s reluctance to climb two flights of creaky stairs to her darkened room in the empty house above. I offer to accompany her up the stairs but she declines. I go on anyway, more to assure Yvonne than to check for malevolent demons from some unknown realm of existence. But she stays down there for some time, curled into the chair in the corner, holding a strand of her hair and nibbling on it, all the time looking down to the floor.
Messages spelled out on a board in a small kitchen at Wooloomooloo. Whether it was the doing of a prankster or the happening of unexplained chance, I don’t know. Curiosity was our reaction when the first question was asked. That, I think was when there came an edginess to our little group that evening. It was like our skepticism had been placed on temporary hold, just in case something interesting might show up.
The dim lighting, the tingly ambience around the table and the supposed communication had spooked Yvonne. It was the only time I have seen her so affected and it was remarkable for the difference it produced to her usual state of mind.
That was the one and only séance we had at 168. But, as to what ratgan wanted…
So life passed through that relatively short but seemingly long period at 168 Cathedral. People came and went, a pet python joined the household, a couple broke up with one taking another resident as their new partner before moving out, and life took on that happy blend of the workaday world and home life.
Most of those there had met before the shared house came into existence. Our period together intensified our relationships as only the sharing of domesticity can. But like most shared households, that of 168 Cathedral was temporary… a transition period… an interregnum between an exuberant decade just passed where we had spent our youth and the new decade opening, where we would soon spend our early adulthood.