An excursion into shared memory… a house, a mystery package and a……
An excursion into shared memory... a house, a mystery package and a……
BOOM! The drum shudders and leaps a little and a plume of grey smoky stuff billows from its top.
We’re a little surprised… well, that’s an understatement… we’re really quite stunned. What had been an old fuel drum of quietly burning rubbish just a second or two ago had suddenly become something more explosive.
On a long road, long ago
The story begins on Glebe Point Road, that long, undulating strip of asphalt that starts on the shore of Whites Bay and ends abruptly where it collides with the constant traffic stream that is Parramatta Road. And the story starts at what now seems a long time ago, the early seventies, perhaps. Neither of us is sure of the year.
For reasons I don’t quite recall I was there with Yvonne, who for just a short time in those days was a partner of mine. She was an outwardly vivacious girl with a deeply hidden vulnerability inside. She wasn’t short or dumpy… she was more compact and trim than anything else. Dark, chestnut colored hair fell to her shoulders and she parted it in the middle so that it flopped to either side, framing her face and green eyes.
Sartorial elegance was not her scene. Her wardrobe didn’t change much between a khaki, military style jacket over a T-shirt or over a plain grey pullover in winter. And blue denim jeans in all seasons were finished with sandals or sneakers, depending on the time of year. Dresswise, Yvonne was a child of the times.
A Saturday in summer
That warm, sunny day — a Saturday in summer perhaps — we were heading for a nondescript house of late Victorian vintage somewhere on that long road, a building typical of those that line both sides of the thoroughfare. This was long before the time when so many of them would be remade as cafes, coffee bars and pizzerias.
Just where it was neither of us remember. I thought it was towards the Parramatta Road end but Yvonne isn’t so sure and, now, neither am I. When I’m in the area and remember to do so I search for some clue, some sign of vague familiarity. But so far, nothing.
“I believe it was a double-story, shop-front building with a small, untidy backyard”, Yvonne recalled decades later.
Yvonne has sharper memories of us trying the front door, finding it locked, walking around the back and entering through a window.
Our reason for being in that long-forgotten house that day was to remove and dispose of a telephone. This we were doing as a favour for someone, but just who that might have been is now lost to memory.
The telephone isn’t. It stood there near the front door… one of those public telephones that were then commonly found outside small businesses throughout the city. It was a big, bright, red coloured plastic thing atop a square pedestal of white metal panels bearing the message — ‘Ring Here on the Red Phone’. But no one would be calling on that phone again. It had been prised open and someone had extracted the coins it once held. It remains a mystery why were had agreed to remove the thing or why it was necessary to remove it at all, but I expect it had something to do with the pillaging of the coins.
Getting rid of a red phone — just how do you do that? “We could light a fire in the backyard”, Yvonne reasoned, ” …what easier way to get rid of a Red Phone that by melting the thing?”. What was the point of injuring the device further, I wondered? The decision was taken without thinking any more and into the fire it went. That fire in the big 44-gallon fuel drum in the backyard… did we actually light it or was it smouldering when we arrived? I recall it being already alight as if somone had returned to th house to burn papers.
A blaze less than successful
The blaze succeeded in scorching the Red Phone but it failed to do much else. Some other means of disposal was clearly called for. Here, Yvonne recalls the incident…
“After some time, the charred remains of the phone were fished out of the fire and I took its identification number off.”
I can imagine how it looked, Yvonne ’s probably criminal prising off of the machine’s blackened identification number. There we were in the backyard and there was this diminutive but determined young woman, dark hair flopping in front of her face, screwdriver of whatever in hand, muttering imprecations while doggedly bashing and levering off a recalcitrant piece of metal for no good reason at all.
“I kept this small metal plate for a long time and I think if I look through my boxes of stored papers I may even find it again, now,” she said.
That was not all that thre was in that abandoned house, however. There was the package.
Yvonne takes up the story…
“The newly-formed Women’s Liberation movement was one of the groups that met there, in that old house. People lived upstairs.
“One of the organisers was an American woman, Martha Kaye, also called Martha Ansara… she had wild, black, curly hair and was also involved in a feminist filmmakers group.”.
Social microcosms like this could be found around the Inner West in those days. Inevitably political, though not in the party sense, they were coalesences of like minded young people. And being political, they were given to schism over minor doctrinal matters.
“There was a split, as commonly occurred in small leftist groups at the time”, Yvonne wrote to me. “And one faction had barricaded itself inside the building to prevent being evicted. At least, I think this is what happened”.
I remember the house because Yvonne would sometimes attend meetings there, and I do remember the package. It sat there on the floor in what passed, I guess, for the living room. In memory, the room was bare with scuffed white walls and was devoid of furniture or anything else. Except for that package.
Yvonne’s memory is clearer. “On the floor of one room of the now abandoned building was a strange object. Naturally, it attracted my attention and I went over to it.
“I crouched down in front of it and read the inscription scrawled on it — ‘THIS IS A BOMB’. Ha ha, funny joke.
“So you and I took the ‘bomb’ into the back yard and threw it into the bonfire that was going in a rusty 44-gallon drum.
“That’s when it went… BOOOOOM!… and blew up the drum! “.
Neither of us recall why we bothered to take the thing outside and cast it into the fire. Such are the vagaries of memory.
In the gathering gloom of evening, a gurgle
Despite the surprise package there remained the problem of the Red Phone that had refused to incinerate or to melt into a rosy coloured sludge.
“Here were you and I with the debris of a minor crime”, wrote Yvonne. “So we did the only sensible thing possible, we decided to get rid of the evidence”, she recalled.
“Loading it into the boot of your Mini, we knocked in one of the side panels of the stand and put the charred phone into the metal box. Then we drove around a bit, waiting for dusk, when we stopped down at a wharf.”
Here our memories diverge. Yvonne says we were at “the very end of Glebe Point Road…. where Jubilee Park stretches along the foreshore and the dank waters of Rozelle Bay promised to hide our burden.” But I recall us sitting in the Mini, waiting for darkness by the park at Balmain Wharf. Of that I am certain.
We sat quietly in the gathering gloom of evening. To our left a path led along the waterfront, a stone wall separating the dark waters of the harbour from the small, grassy patch of park. Thankfully, trees obscured the view from the nearest houses. In front of us the Balmain ferry wharf was deserted and there was nobody on the street.
The park had taken on that grey, deserted aspect that sets in with early evening. The magic hour so beloved by photograhers, that hour after sunset when the sky turns a deep blue, had passed. It was now the time at day’s end when lights go on… and a good time for the disposal of evidence. We sat for some time, waiting for the right moment. We wouldn’t move until darkness had fully set in and we were sure that there was nobody about.
Now it was time. I open the boot and we haul out the blackened, charred device – Yvonne at one end, me at the other. A last look around… ok, nobody about… let’s go… quickly now, over to the wharf… ready? Lift the thing onto the railing… now… shove…
SPLASH! Surprisingly loud, certainly loud enough to attract the attention of anyone we hadn’t seen.
“But… oh, horror… it floats!”, exclaimed Yvonne.
“Into the lapping waves we shoved the thing”, she recalled, “… expecting a quiet splash and a quick disappearing act, but instead it sat high upon the water like a lopsided Titanic”.
We had thought that its weight would carry it quickly to the bottom. But here it was, gently bobbing on the surface. What to do?
But, just then, a gurgling noise… a tilting… and, in the darkness of early evening we watched it slide into the grey depths.
“The phone inside shifted”, explained Yvonne , “and one end of the metal stand dipped sharply downwards. The last we saw of it were the words “Ring here on the Red Phone” slowly disappearing into the dark, oily waters.”
Our job done, we wandered nonchalantly back to the Mini, casually got in, started the motor, did a U-turn and drove up that long, steep hill that takes you to the Balmain shops.
Behind us, in the grey waters, the last bubbles rose unnoticed to the surface from a now-invisible and badly burned red phone.
One day, perhaps, a dredge will bring it to the surface, but until then it, like us, is undergoing its own sea change.
A note on shared remembrance and reconstructed memory
Yvonne and I had resumed more frequent email contact following her return from Beijing. She had spent some years there, first teaching English, then doing journalism. Now that she was home in Tasmania, where she had moved to not long before going to China, we indulged in late night emails. This is how we got around to our shared past and our theory that memory might be a collective reconstruction.
Our communications were made late at night because that was when Yvonne finished work and made her way home. Back in Tasmania, she had abandoned writing and reverted to her original profession of cooking. At the time, she cooked at a small hotel near the city.
I find the late night hours conducive to writing. It is quiet then, when the day takes on that sense of enclosure that comes with the darkness. In the hours approaching midnight the distractions of the city are cloaked and this makes possible the focus needed to string words together intelligibly.
So it was that we would sit in the pool of light cast by our desk lamps in our respective cities, bathed in the blue-white glow of our screens, clicking at our keyboards and sending messages all those kilometres to and fro across Bass Strait.
We had been discussing what had become of people we knew all those years ago and discovered that we had each completely forgotten about specific incidents. When one reminded the other, it was as if separate pieces of memory suddenly coalesced to create a picture of the past. Our discussion over those late night sessions was whether this reconstruction, as a collective effort, actually revived authentic personal memories that had long laid buried or whether we were negotiating some collective reconstruction, a synthesis, a simulation of actuality.
So it was that, stimulated by Yvonne’s remembering, those separate pieces of memory came together in my mind to create a sequence of images around a red telephone and that package in the bare room. It was a memory without dialogue; it was like watching ourselves going through the motions, as in a film without soundtrack.
I had more or less forgotten about the incident although I did retain that image of the bare room with its scuffed, white painted walls, the one in which Yvonne had crouched down to read the inscription scribbled on that package.
I also remember — we both do — that BOOM! as the thing went off that fine, warm afternoon so long ago in a building now long forgotten somewhere on Glebe Point Road.