Corduroy & Cabbage 5 – The Lucky Socks

I don’t think I ever had a real conversation with my first ‘girlfriend’. We met in the shelter shed of our Primary School during the summer break. We held hands and kissed. She was buck-toothed and greasy–haired and I was a skinny, scrawny kid with pimples. I don’t even know if I liked her, or she me. But it seemed like the thing to do, and it was certainly something different, so I went along with it. When we went back to school after the holidays she sent one of her friends to tell me that I was ‘dropped’. I don’t blame her.

Then, as now, I only seemed to really like the girls that had no interest in me. There was a short dark girl called Lesley in Infant School who I told was ‘sexy’ without having any idea what it meant. And a skinny English girl called Carol whose house I used to find reasons to loiter outside on the weekend. Much later, towards the end of High School, I developed my first teenage ‘crush’ on a girl called Marcia.

I been in the same class as Marcia throughout most of Primary School, and saw her often in High School, but I’d barely ever spoken to her. I’m not sure why I suddenly found her so attractive. She was a bit of a tomboy – loud and boisterous, even a bit obnoxious at times. She hung around with the ‘sports crowd’ during recess and lunch, played football and soccer with the boys. We couldn’t have been any more different. But one day I woke up and decided that I loved her more than anything else in the world and couldn’t live without her.

I began to structure my days in order to spend as much time in her company as possible. I tried to sit near her in class. I tried to walk where she would walk, and hang around the areas she frequented. I even feigned an interest in sport and sat around the oval hoping to ‘bump’ into her. But despite all my efforts she never seemed to notice me. It was as though I was invisible.

Even my efforts to enlist ‘supernatural’ forces failed. On the days I was most likely to see her I wore my lucky socks. I even had a ‘special’ Thin Lizzy song I played in the hope that it would somehow plant a loving image of me in her mind. I tried spells and potions, and all manner of ‘magical’ chants, but nothing worked.

As the months passed, and the obsession with Marcia started to form an ugly knot in my belly, I decided to confide in a friend. His advice was simple and to-the-point. “Tell her you like her,” he said. “I can’t do that!’ was my horrified response. But the choices were that simple, either I told her how I felt, and lived with the consequences, or forgot about her, and concentrated on other things (like my schoolwork).

The following day, I was careful to leave the school grounds at the same time as her. As we lived in the same direction, the fact that I was walking behind her was not all that unusual. But normally I would keep a safe distance, too scared to actually communicate with her. This day I sped up and drew alongside.

“Oh hi,” I said unconvincingly, as though I had just noticed her.

“Hi,” replied Marcia, with a not-too-unfriendly smile.

“Um…er…Marcia,” I stammered, wanting to get straight to the point. ”I really like you.”

“Oh…er…I like you too,” said Marcia. “But not in that way. I have a boyfriend y’know.”

“Um…er…oh,” I continued. “Okay…er…goodbye then…”

I then pretended I was heading in another direction and disappeared down a side street that would lead in the opposite direction to home. I felt embarrassed, foolish, stupid, clumsy and heartbroken. But I also felt relieved. The tension that had gripped me for months was finally gone.

When I got home I threw my lucky socks into the incinerator.

Corduroy & Cabbage 4 – The New Boy

I was 10 years old, about halfway through Primary School, when I first met Luke. He’d just started at our school after moving into the area and was seated at a desk near me. He was a stocky, slightly chubby, boy with wavy brown hair and brown eyes. He wore glasses, which gave him a serious, studious demeanour, as well as gray school slacks and jumper, unlike the rest of us, who were dressed in the rag-tag fashion of 10 year olds of the time.

Everything about Luke was different to me or my other friends. He was born in Australia, while almost everyone else I knew was born in the UK. We lived in Ingle Farm, a young, still developing suburb of uniform housing, new lawns and immigrant families. Luke lived in Valley View, which lay on the ‘other side’ of Wright Road, where every house was different, and there were hills, trees and a meandering creek.

Luke had older siblings, while I had three younger sisters. His parents were older than mine too. An older family might have accounted for the calmer, much more pleasant atmosphere at his house. Compared to the chaos of our house, with four squabbling children, and a menagerie of pets, Luke’s house seemed almost tranquil.

His family lived in a new house on a sharply sloping block. His father was always working in the garden when I visited, and there was usually a mound of dirt, sand or gravel waiting to be shoveled or wheelbarrowed. Luke and I turned these giant sandpits into vast cities, complete with roads, skyscrapers and dams. Our imaginations seemed to spark when we were together, and our games would invariably become more fantastic and elaborate the longer we played.

Our creative collaborations soon included writing and drawing, and we began to put together a series of little ‘books’ (made from A4 pages folded in half and stapled in the middle) called ‘Parade Of Monsters’. It was more like an encyclopedia than a set of stories, as each book introduced a new group of ‘monsters’, and described their habits and habitat. They generally lived on islands with odd names – Stinkyshoe Island, Anklebone Island – and had names like Pupo or Blotto.

After the completion of ‘Parade Of Monsters’, Luke wrote stories about new characters – the Cheapsteaks (each one named after an American state), Bing Bong of the Mark Patrol, Nosey Parker, Mr Manta and others. Meanwhile, I started work on an epic three-part ‘novel’ called ‘Tale Of The Ring’. As can be guessed from the title, I was a big Tolkien fan. I also loved CS Lewis and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, and the ‘Tale Of The Ring’ included elements of all these influences. The central characters were Mungy (who looked suspiciously like a Marshwiggle) and a little dragon called Mingie.

Luke and I then expanded our invented universes to entire planets. I called my planet Sapphire, while Luke settled on Bauxite. We designed every element of these worlds – cities, animals, vegetation, transportation, even water and power supplies. We filled books with maps, designs and diagrams.

Our teacher that year was a grim disciplinarian called Miss Barker; a short, bulldog-like figure renown for her habit of spitting while she spoke, and using a megaphone unnecessarily during recess and lunch (e.g. when you were right in front of her). I don’t think she smiled the entire time we were in her class. She certainly didn’t like our extra-curricular activities, sneering at our ‘silly books’, and even confiscating them if she caught us working on them in class. Miss Barker’s opposition to our projects didn’t deter us; in fact, it seemed to spur us on to even more elaborate projects.

The following year, Luke and I said goodbye to Miss Barker. We were also put in different classes and, as is so often the case with childhood friendships, we drifted apart and found new friends. Years later, towards the end of High School, we became friends again, and we are friends still, but there was a period of six or seven years during which we had little or no contact. It was during this period of separation that we each destroyed the books we had written as children, as well as all the maps and drawings. They were just too embarrassing for young boys entering their teenage years.

I did manage to save my two ‘epics’ – ‘Tale Of The Ring’ and ‘Invasion Of The Coobah Monsters’ (which was never completed). I don’t recall how or why they escaped the incinerator, but I’m glad they did. They are like strange relics from another age, written by someone familiar, yet unfamiliar.

And sometimes, when leafing through the yellowed pages of these books, memories and sensations from years ago will pop into my mind – a Saturday afternoon playing in Luke’s backyard, meeting him before school to swap the latest stories, or staying up late in my room with a pile of maps and drawings, imagining a new and exciting world.

For a glimpse of some of the drawings from these early books click on this link.

Corduroy & Cabbage 3 – Bully For Me

I don’t know what it was about me that attracted the attention of high school bullies. I wasn’t fat or short, I didn’t wear glasses or braces, I wasn’t odd-looking in any way. I was utterly ordinary. I was, in fact, exceeding quiet and went to great lengths to remain anonymous.

Maybe they sensed that if pushed far enough I would lash out, say or do something in a pathetic effort to defend myself, and give them an excuse to punch me in the face. I lost count of the times I would be standing with a group of friends and passing bullies would single me out as the one to antagonize.

It usually started with some ridiculous preliminary banter. They would say something like – ‘That’s a nice watch.” If I said – “Yes, it is, thank you’ – they would accuse me of being smart and stuckup. If I said – ‘No, it isn’t’ – they would challenge me for disagreeing with them. It didn’t matter what I said, within minutes I would end up in a ‘head-lock’ with someone punching me in the face.

During the middle years of high school avoiding the bullies became my primary objective. I avoided the school toilets (what is it about bullies and toilets!) and the canteen. Recess and lunch breaks were spent in the library. While before school I didn’t linger in the yard but went straight to class. The most dangerous periods were between classes when walking from one building to another. I soon learnt to know what classes the bullies had, and which route I had to take in order to avoid them.

I didn’t expect to have to worry about them in class, however, the climactic episode of my bullying experiences occurred in the middle of science lesson.

It so happened that one lesson I found myself at the back of the class on a desk adjoining another which seated a group of the worst bullies in my year level. One, in particular, seemed to have singled me out as a regular target. His name was Neville Camberwell. He was skinny and scrawny, had long stringy hair and a mean little face. He and the others decided to shoot spitballs at me. At first, I attempted to ignore them. But it was difficult to pretend that there weren’t great globs of spit clinging to my neck and cheek, and scattered across my workbook, and in the end I told them to ‘piss off’.

Of course, the teacher happened to hear me, not the spitting bullies, and made me move even further back in the room, actually behind the table of bullies. I was now completely out of sight of the teacher, and closer to the bullies. They continued their bombardment, until once again I reacted, probably with something ineffectual like – ‘Please stop it.’

The next moment, Neville Camberwell was standing in front of my desk. ‘Ya gonna stop me!’ he taunted. There was no way out of it. I had to do or say something. A string of suitable responses flitted through my head – ‘Fuck off and die’ and ‘Eat shit’ and others. But I went with, of all things – ‘Get lost, you skinny weed.’ It was enough. Neville hurled himself at me, overturning the desk, tipping papers and books onto the floor. We were a tangle of legs and arms. One moment I had my arm around his neck, the next, he was trying to wrap the power cord from an overhead projector around my throat.

The fight wasn’t stopped by our science teacher, who still had no idea what was going on, but a teacher from an adjoining area, who had noticed the commotion. We were both dragged to the principal’s office and interviewed at length about the incident. A note was sent home to my parents, but beyond that, I wasn’t punished.

There were other bullies and other incidents after that, but nothing quite so ridiculous. Thankfully, by Year Eleven, most of the bullies had left school or had been expelled, and I was finally able to breathe easily. I was even eventually able to use the school toilets.

Corduroy & Cabbage 2 – The Boardies

For a few short years in the mid 70s the skateboard made a spectacular comeback among the kids of Ingle Farm. Overnight, it seemed, every second kid on the street was out on the footpath or in the road on a skateboard. It didn’t take me long to join them. Of course, in the Catt tradition, I had to ‘make-do’ with little more than a roller skate nailed to a piece of wood. No one laughed at me openly, but I imagined my friends giggling behind my back.

Still, I was out there with the rest of them, crowding the ramp in the local supermarket carpark, or hurtling up and down the many alleyways that linked the streets of our neighbourhood. We held impromptu competitions, performed acrobatics, raced each other the length of the carpark, until the security guards or police chased us away. My skateboard wasn’t the most agile and certainly didn’t look very cool, but it was light and fast, and I was able to keep up with best ‘boards in the street.

There were three main gangs in our district – the skinheads, the surfies and the rockers. Of those, it was the rockers who seemed the most threatening, with their check-flannel shirts and ripple-soled shoes. They hung out at a takeaway chicken shop on the main road, or gathered in the local shopping mall on a Thursday night when the shops opened late.

At the height of the skateboarding craze we decided to add a fourth gang to the equation – the boardies.

We imagined ourselves some kind of urban surfers, our long hair flowing in the breeze as we sped along on our ‘boards. There was talk of a gang t-shirt, a logo or emblem. I bought a necklace with a skateboard shaped pendant. We talked about fighting, and thought it would be cool to invent a new martial art combining kung-fu and the skateboard.

But despite our best efforts to create a ‘buzz’ about the new gang, the boardies failed to develop any kind of mystique or ‘cred’ among the local teenagers. At school one afternoon I turned conversation to gangs. Everyone reeled off the usual list – the skinheads, the surfies and the rockers. ‘What about the boardies?’ I asked, safe in the knowledge that no one present knew of my involvement in the fledgling gang. ‘I hear they’re pretty tough!’

‘The boardies! Isn’t that just Robbo and a few dickheads from around your way?’ replied Scott with a snort.

I shrugged and remained silent, turning a dark shade of scarlet. Maybe the world wasn’t quite ready for the boardies.

In any event, by the end of the summer, the skateboarding fad had passed, and everyone was moving onto better things – BMX bikes, video games etc. My own skateboarding career ended when I hit a piece of gravel at full speed. My skateboard stopped, but I kept moving, and ended up sliding for a couple of metres on my face. My front teeth were smashed, one of them ground down to a stub. I stumbled home to horrified parents with a mangled face and blood-soaked t-shirt.

Corduroy & Cabbage 1 – Caught Out

Although I haven’t always hated sport, it’s never been a pastime to which I have been naturally drawn. My early Primary School teacher, Mrs Jolly, was so convinced that I would end up a scientist that she allowed me to miss out on Phys Ed class so that I could sit in the classroom and read about primates or geology. And I can recall my mother berating me for not wanting to join my father kick a soccer ball around in the park. I liked dinosaurs and space ships. Sport just didn’t interest me.

But later on in Primary School things changed. I found myself in a group that hung around the sports equipment Store Room. During lunch and recess breaks, it was our responsibility to ensure that equipment was borrowed and returned according to School Policy. It was a position of tremendous power. All of the boys in this group were athletically inclined and played sport whenever possible. I joined them in games of cricket during summer, and football or soccer in winter.

I never excelled in these games, but I also wasn’t totally hopeless. I had good reflexes. I could move quickly and catch or kick a ball without too much difficulty. My problem was not physical – it was psychological. What I lacked was a competitive nature. If there was a fight over the ball, an argument about rules, or any sort of disagreement, I would just back down or walk away. I was not the sort of person to start cheering if we were winning, or cursing if we lost. I didn’t care enough.

Eventually, I decided that cricket was the sport for me. It did not involve much, if any, physical contact. It seemed relaxed and civilized. My best friend at the time, Kevin, had reached a similar conclusion so, for a couple of summers, we took our cricket very seriously. We practiced all day every day, regardless of the heat, and sometimes continued well into the evening. Some nights we would still be trying to bat and bowl in near darkness. There were no cricket nets in our neighbourhood, so we practiced on the concrete cricket pitch in the middle of a nearby school oval. There was only the two of us – a bowler and a batsman – no wicketkeeper. If the batsman were to miss the ball it would continue hurtling away behind them, eventually trickling to a stop near the far edge of the oval. We took turns fetching the ball. On a bad day we would spend the whole time running after the ball.

I was similarly keen to practice on my own, and spent hours hitting a tennis ball against the side of our house. At one point I decided I was going to be the new Jeff Thomson and would bowl an actual cricket ball at a strip of brickwork near the back door. If I missed the brickwork the ball would thunder into the door, to the horror of my mother, who would be working in the kitchen on the other side. By the end of that summer, there was a sizeable dent in the door and the wall was dotted with red marks.

My cricket phase culminated in the joining of a local team. Neither Kevin nor I were good enough to make the top league, but we just scraped into a ‘B’ team, a motley collection of nerds and misfits not deemed worthy of the ‘real’ team. I should have realized that things were not going to turn out well when I ended up in hospital after the first practise. I was sent to field at mid-on, and found myself facing the afternoon sun. I didn’t see the ball. Apparently, I didn’t even move my arms to shield myself. One minute I was standing, the next I was on the ground. Both of my eyes swelled up so badly that I could barely open them. When I got home later that evening my mother, convinced I would never see again, burst into tears.

After a couple of weeks, I went back to practise, and played my first game a few weeks after that. I didn’t get to bowl. I fielded at fine leg or third man. And I batted at 10 or 11. Then, the following week, someone else took my place and I watched from the boundary. This continued for most of the season. I played a couple of games, took two off, played another one, and so on. I think my highest score was about 16. Kevin did not fare much better, but at least the rest of the team knew his name. I was just this anonymous skinny kid that turned up to every practice but never got to do anything.

Once again, I don’t think my poor performance really had anything to do with ability. Given a decent chance and I probably would have done well. But the opportunity for me to bat or bowl came along so rarely that I invariably ‘froze’ and either bowled badly or got out immediately. And while cricket was not a contact sport, and did not require overt physical aggression, it did require an aggressive nature of sorts – a sense of competitiveness. The loudest kids got to bat first and bowled all game long. It didn’t matter that they were not all that good. If they were ‘pushy’ they got their way.

Kevin and I dropped out of the team after that one season, and I eventually gave up my dreams of becoming the new Jeff Thomson. My mother might have been disappointed, but I’m sure she didn’t miss the sound of the cricket ball smashing against the kitchen door.