Good Reading : April 2010
APRIL 2010 ı goodreading 51 to thousands of homes. The rain pelted down, drowning out the radio as Mamma tried to tune in to the horseraces in Melbour ne. Phyllis was more agitated than usual, pacing the floor, chain-smoking and cursing all the angels and saints for her predicament. She knew not to look to her mother for help or sympathy. 'I'm going to call an ambulance,' Uncle Stan, Phyllis's older brother, said when she started screaming the house down at about three o'clock in the after noon. The ambulance arrived with sirens blaring.They had a hell of a job getting Phyllis onto the trolley -- she didn't want to go to hospital and tried to fight everyone. 'Take us to the nearest mater nity hospital,' Uncle Stan said, getting into the back of the ambulance and taking Phyllis's hand. At first the admissions nurse at King George V Hospital in Camperdown wasn't going to admit Phyllis because she wasn't booked in to the mater nity ward and didn't have a doctor. Uncle Stan, who is about five feet four inches in his socks and weighs 110 pounds wringing wet, is nor mally a mild- mannered man, but when he's had enough he'll let you know. 'You bloody will take my sister. She's not having this baby on the street!' Having a baby at King George V Private Hospital was a privilege usually reserved for people with double-barrelled surnames and a pedigree going back to the colonial squattocracy. God knows what the other patients and staff made of a mob of blackfellas rocking up to visit one of our own, in a private room, to have a stickybeak at the new bub. 'She was sitting up like Lady Muck, ordering the staff around,' Uncle Stan told me one time, chuckling at the audacity of his feisty sister. Being tied down with a baby didn't fit Phyllis's lifestyle. I was nine months old when Aunty Daphne stepped in and stopped Phyllis throwing me over the front balcony. Phyllis took off that night without leaving a forwarding address. I stayed with Mamma, who, as soon as she got a good look at me, said, 'This baby will have to go to hospital.' That meant I was probably close to death's door. I had pneumonia. When I came home from hospital it was still uncertain whether I would make it, and Uncle Stan was nervous because I hadn't been baptised. 'We can't let this baby die with a mortal sin on her soul,' he said, bundling me into a blanket and taking me around to St Benedict's Church on Broadway, a short walk from Raglan Street, where I was christened and baptised a Catholic. Uncle Stan was a devout Catholic and took his role as my godfather very seriously. By 1953 Mamma's second husband, Fred Carlton -- Kev, Robbie and Dan's father -- was gone for good. Fred was by all accounts a drunken no-hoper who liked to throw his weight around. He was last seen running into the back lane after Granny, Mamma's mother, had up-ended a pan of sausages over his head, hot fat and all.This left Mamma with four children to support. Aunty Daphne had left home to mar ry Jack McCarthy. Uncle Leslie was away fighting in another war, and no one had heard from Phyllis. Things would have become pretty grim if Uncle Stan had not postponed his mar riage to his fiancée, Shirley, to stay home to help Mamma look after his three younger brothers and me. Uncle Stan was a wool dyer, and, although he worked long hours at the Alexandria Woollen Mills, he was a keen gardener. Our backyard was only small but every inch of dirt grew something. Flowers, vegetables and fruit trees were all clumped in together and thrived, and Uncle Stan even grew things in tin cans with holes cut in the side. A profusion of jasmine climbed up and over the outside dunny and choko vines twisted their way along the top of the paling fence. Sur rounded by the colour and fragrance of lemon trees and roses, I'd amuse myself for hours drawing pictures with sticks of charcoal from the wood-fired stove in the kitchen onto the concrete path that ran from the back door to the gate leading to the laneway. On the hottest days the jasmine helped to mask the stench from the open-pan toilet. When it was too wet to play outside, and if Mamma was in a good mood, we'd play a game I called horsey. Mamma would pull up a chair to the stove in the kitchen and take a breather from the endless housework. She'd cross her legs and I'd straddle the outstretched leg and say 'giddy up'. Then slowly her leg would rock me up and down, like the carousel ponies at Luna Park. 'Do you want to go faster?' Mamma would say, taking a drag on her cigarette. 'Yes,' I'd reply, grabbing hold of her knee with both hands. 'Where did Katie come from?' she'd ask. 'I came out of a beer bottle,' I'd say, quickly shooting back my stock-standard reply. Mamma would throw her head back in peals of laughter, causing her leg to pump up and down a little faster. 'What's Katie going to be when she grows up?' she'd ask. 'A prostitute,' I'd jump in, barely giving her time to finish the sentence. Then I'd hold on for the ride of my life as Mamma's whole body shook with laughter. It took all of my strength and concentration not to fall off and crash into the hot stove. I was trained to repeat these responses like an organ grinder's monkey but had no idea what was so amusing. For years I had nightmares about being trapped in the long neck of an amber glass bottle. One night I went to sleep at Raglan Street and woke up in a soaking wet bed next to my cousin Jimmy, Aunty Lor na's son, who was about my age and still wet the bed every night. Aunty Lorna, Uncle Bill, and their three kids, Elaine, Denise and Jimmy, lived in a rambling old weatherboard house in Lansdowne [Fred] was last seen running into the back lane after Granny up-ended a pan of sausages over his head, hot fat and all.