I’m starting here, because it’s as far back as I can remember. I was born in Brisbane and had a few Brisbane addresses prior to moving to Gin Gin, but I don’t remember them at all. My mum and dad divorced during this earlier time, so I have no memory of that either. I’m sorry if this is like trying to watch a TV show without seeing the pilot, but pilots are always rubbish anyway. (Except for SMASH. SMASH was exactly the opposite. But a) that’s hardly relevant, and b) my life is not very much like SMASH. If it is, I have far more pressing problems.)
Let’s pick it up. I’m five years old. Mum and I lived in a flat in a Queensland town called Gin Gin. It’s a real town in Queensland, known for…well, exactly everything you know it for right now. It’s also a very small town, so mum and her 1980s shoulder pads work full time in the nearby “city” of Bundaberg. Where the rum comes from.
I don’t remember much from living in that flat, except that I lived there when I first started school. Though I can remember that my teacher was Mrs Lavaring, my best friend was Lisa Kelly, and my classmates included Shane, Logan, Vicki, Joy, and two Jennys. These are all people I haven’t spoken to since 1986, so it’s clear from this very first story that my memory is completely unreliable.
The obligatory “first day of school” shot of a tiny child with an ENORMOUS backpack. In the background: the entirety of the 1980s, apparently.
I was a precocious, oblivious child in primary school: an insufferable know-all with absolutely zero grasp of social cues. Spoiler: I was deeply unpopular through the majority of my schooling career, but I have to admit that in the early years I had only myself to blame, for being such an obnoxious tit.
For example, I remember in grade one we had to write a short story, no more than a few sentences, about what we did in our holidays. These stories were printed into little booklets and given to the class. Did I show mine proudly to mum? Pop it in the book shelf with the grown-up books? Nope. I edited everyone else’s stories. Correcting all their spelling mistakes, crossing out any sentences I didn’t believe, or just writing bitchy comments in the gaps. Shane said he went fishing with his grandpa and saw a shark: above the bit about the shark I wrote “OH, HOH!” (it rhymes with “off, off”, and was the five-year-old equivalent of “bullshit”). Vicki wrote that she went to Bribie Island: I had never heard of Bribie Island, assuming instead she meant to write “Brisbane” but had made a mess of it. So I crossed out the word “Island” and the second i from “Bribie”, and added an s, an a and an n.
There. All fixed. “What kind of idiot can’t spell “Brisbane”? AND thinks it’s an island? Bloody Vicki. More like Vidiotcki!” I thought to my obnoxious five-year-old self.
But it was I who was the real vidiotcki. I just had no clue about how the world worked.
Don’t worry, I continually got my comeuppance.
During big lunch one day, as I was wandering through the schoolyard, I saw one of the other grade one kids hold up a twenty cent piece and toss it away. I didn’t ask why he was throwing money away, because who knows why rich people do the things they do? No one in my family had ever thrown money away, but I was so grateful he did. The coin rolled towards me, and I picked it up off the ground and went straight to the tuckshop to buy a Sao biscuit with tomato and cheese and a cup of cordial. It came to exactly twenty cents. I was living like a king.
I was still enjoying my feast a few minutes later when a teacher came up to me and demanded I go to the principal’s office. I had never been to the principal’s office; I was too much of a teacher’s pet. Mortified, I started sobbing right there on the spot. I wailed all the way across the school courtyard, up the stairs, and over to the bench outside the principal’s office, and was still loudly, hysterically bawling five minutes later when I was ushered inside.
AS IT TURNS OUT, the kid wasn’t throwing his money away. He was rolling it to his friend on the other side of the undercover area. They had been rolling it back and forth to each other for about fifteen minutes before I came along and snatched it up mid-roll. I had to sit outside the principal’s office for the rest of the lunch hour. I sobbed the entire time.
For the next five years, I lived in constant terror that my mum would find out about my daylight robbery. I don’t know if the school ever told her, in fact she may only be finding out about it by reading this right now.
I also never ate another SAO biscuit. To this day. They taste too much like guilt (and very little else).
This oblivious naivety got me into trouble over and over again. Here’s one that relates to the flat we lived in (the point of this whole project): Our flat was one of two, and our next door neighbours, Vivian (Viv) and Yvonne (Von) Chase, were also our landlords. Viv and Von were the loveliest old people you could ever meet, and they loved mum and me. They were like a second set of parents for mum.
Yvonne Chase: willing to waste the planet’s precious resources simply for my bucket-sitting amusement.
One day mum was on the phone to my grandmother, and—because as a child I used to eavesdrop at an Olympic level—I overhead mum say “~sigh~ I don’t know how to tell the Chases we’re moving. I just don’t.”
I was so sad. Mum had forgotten how words work. Should she see a doctor about that? Meanwhile, I had just started school and was in the middle of discovering the magic of the English language. In fact, what better way to test my classroom-based theoretical learning than with a bit of real-world application? So I marched next door and told Viv and Von that we were going to be leaving.
“MR AND MRS CHASE? MUMMY SAID WE’RE MOVING. OKAY I HAVE TO GO BECAUSE I WANT TO PLAY WITH MY TOYS BEFORE MUM PACKS THEM. BYE!”
I had never been more proud of myself. As a five year old, you’re pretty helpless. Sure, I was at big-boy school now, but I still couldn’t do all that much for myself. Telling the Chases that we were leaving was the biggest task I had ever been able to undertake for my family, and I felt I had really stepped up. Mum may have been looking after me on her own, but in that moment I had shown I had what it took to be the man of the house. We could be a great team. She helped me, and I helped her. I couldn’t wait to tell her.
She didn’t thank me at all. In fact, I got into SO much trouble. I got the full three-pronged attack: Mum would get mad at me, then march me over to my grandparents’ place and tell them what I’d done. This would result in a fresh round of scolding from my grandmother, who would then march me over to my great-grandparents and tell them what I’d done, where I’d cop it a third time from my great-grandmother, Ninny. Admittedly, Ninny’s version of scolding was to say “Oh, Christopher” and then give me ice cream, but still.
So I got the three prongs. Once again, I had read a situation all wrong. My literal interpretation of the words and actions of those around me had failed, and would continue to do so for the next…how old am I right now?…28 years. To this very day, my instinct to take everything presented to me at face value causes me trouble. I am extraordinarily gullible, doggedly mood-driven and emotionally pedantic: the only fights I ever have with my loved ones is when there is a chasm between what they say and what they mean, because I still don’t know how to parse that information.
But I have stopped stealing money and listening in on phone calls, so never let it be said I don’t possess the capacity for growth.