From The reminiscences of Sancho Leperello (the amanuensis from Hell
About Manfred Clootie, who failed as a poet but did quite well as a professional pickpocket
Sometimes, during our conversations, Manfred Clootie would go all feline on me. He’d lounge and stretch and stroke his now-grey hair, perhaps remembering it as black, perhaps enjoying a fancy that its blackness had returned. Such bodily relaxations nearly always presaged the delivery of some larcenous anecdote.
I think he was meditating (what other word could describe these fits?). But Clootie wasn’t some brain-dead wanker with a pious look on his face and a set of tormented kneecaps ruined by pretending to be a lotus – no, he was meditating as a cat obviously does when it abandons the world and turns its attention inwards.
Of course Clootie didn’t move like a cat. His only grace was in his fingers – the fingers of the right hand, actually. With those digits he could burrow his way into the best-defended pocket in town, rummage about in it, avoid anything nasty like the used condoms some curiously motivated people carry with them, push aside fluff and go straight for gold. No wallet could resist him. Sometimes he thought some genetic accident had perhaps provided his fingers with glands that exuded a leather-detecting ichor – as some insects exude pheromones that draw other insects to their eager genitalia.
Where was I? Ah, yes, the cat-like Clootie. Think of it: a cat likes to eat and sleep. It loves to find a secure territory from which it can observe the world at its leisure. It doesn’t much like other cats. If it’s bored it goes to sleep. If it’s frightened, its whole body is instantly prepared for fight or flight – preferably the latter.
So when I say that Clootie was meditating, I mean only that he was doing his cat things – sitting, observing, hoping not to be disturbed. His belly was full, his ill-derived bank balance healthy. Yet he was not happy. Why? Because he was remembering, and what he remembered was a time, many years earlier, when he was suffering.
He was recalling an old affliction, something that he thought of as a monster. It began to trouble him when he was about thirteen, harried him through adolescence and even raised its head (an unfortunate choice of words) in early adulthood: a monstrous, unwanted, importunate, ill-timed and decidedly uncomfortable erection.
Whenever the monster struck, Clootie became as randy as a goat on steroids. He never quite knew what to do about it. Of course he could have resorted to Mrs Hand and her five friendly daughters, but this always struck him as a cowardly way to deal with an illness that must have had gentler cures. Yes, it was a sickness of the body and the mind, expressing itself as a yearning for flesh, for fur, for soft warm, sweet wetness and surcease.
Let us, with some misgivings, visit Clootie in early manhood.
It was Monday, never his favourite day. It was his birthday, his twenty-fifth. The year was nineteen sixty, the place Clifton Hill, three miles from the heart of Melbourne and a million years from anything that might he have called home.
It was spring outside, a time of weedy growth and racketty birdsong. But Clootie cared nothing for the season. He had an attitude to weather: if he noticed it, it must be bad. If it was neither too hot nor too cold, then it must be . . . pleasant. It was the same with vegetation. He thought of himself as a poet, but only a poet of the mind and the senses. Those who had encountered his verse sometimes thought of him as a poet of moods – usually bad ones. He was well-read enough to know that many – perhaps most – poets had made quite a fuss about the seasons, about flowers, about Nature, God and what someone or other had called “ the single poetic theme of life and death”, but he, Clootie, was more likely to write poems about a stone in his shoe that he was too lazy to remove.
How do I loathe thee, stone, shall I count the ways? Oh, thou still unravished bride of sore-footedness. Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Apollo, who had a stone in his golden shoe and couldn’t work up enough godly energy to remove it. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace to the pebbleness of shoeness and – oh, fuck it! Won’t someone rid me of this turbulent piece of basalt.
The trouble with Clootie – well, one of them – was that he had read far too many books. His mind was a midden of quotations. He had another problem that he didn’t realise was peculiar to him: he couldn’t forget anything he read. This made him an intellectual, by which he meant someone who had one foot in the real, palpable world and the other in a bog of words that may have had something to do with reality, but may very possibly have not.
Now, for such a young man, the business of fornication presented problems. Here he was with an appendage that had a disturbing tendency to become rigid when subjected to the vibration of a double-decker bus, or a single-decker bus, or a smoothly gliding tram, or when he was walking along Bourke Street with his mind on higher things.
What, then, should a word-obsessed Clootie do? Well, he could retreat into the aforementioned arms – or should it be fingers – of Mrs Hand, or he could steal someone’s wallet and then take a tram to St Kilda, there to wait until nightfall, when the patrolling ladies came out to work. But Clootie, as well as being an intellectual – which he understood to mean someone unfitted for the graft of daily living – was at heart a romantic, which he understood to mean someone doubly unfitted for any kind of living.
No, the easy victory of the hand, the purchased ease of commercial crumpet was not for Manfred Clootie.
Come closer, let me whisper it: Clootie, poor bastard, was avid for love.
The radio had a lot to do with it. Clootie couldn’t afford a television set. He was living in a single room in a house owned by a vulture named Mrs Croon. She, a widow of no distinction whatsoever, seemed to have adopted him. Manfred Clootie, unemployed, a pickpocket who thought of himself as a poet, seemed to be her surrogate son. She doted on him. – or seemed to.
“Manfred, dear, would you like a cup of tea? Would you like to watch ‘In Melbourne Tonight?’ I think Graham Kennedy’s lovely, don’t you? Here, have a biscuit.”
And yet, if anyone should dare to leave a ring around the bath, or traces of Johnson’s Baby Powder on the bathroom floor, her eyes behind her diamante-studded lenses, would turn to painted marble.
“Cleanliness,” she would say, as she tore strips off some visiting relative who had used her toilet bowl carelessly – and Clootie, atheistic to the core, would pray: please don’t let her say what it’s next to . . . and then she would say the dreaded words. Which had to do with godliness.
Now Manfred Clootie, the world’s worst employee, who understood precisely the relation of his craft, pocket-picking, to the received ideas of morality, was not in any way a sociopath. If he could have earned a crust as an accountant, a fitter-and-turner or a shop assistant, he’d have leapt at the chance. But God had decreed that he should not possess any marketable talent. So he was a poet – and a pickpocket.
But he was not the kind of person who likes to leave a ring around the bath.
So Mrs Croon loved him. There was no other word for it. When he came into a room where she was dusting, she would thrust the duster from her as if it had rabies. Then she would touch her iron-grey curls with a girlish hand and give a little laugh.
“Oh, Manfred, you startled me. For a moment I thought . . “
Clootie raised his eyebrows in order to elicit the rest of the sentence . . .”I thought you were an intruder.” Another little laugh.
Clootie, who found this game unappealing, would nevertheless play it: “I’d hate to intrude. My mother always warned me not to do it.”
“Oh, silly boy. As if you could intrude on me. You’ll always be welcome here.”
Angels and ministers of grace defend me, thought Clootie.
I ought to mention here that I am merely reporting events as Clootie narrated them. Perhaps Mrs Croon did not say these words. Perhaps she never existed. When Clootie speaks, the Goddess of Truth raises her eyes skyward and sometimes emits a world-shaking sigh.
Where was I? Ah yes, Clootie, homo erectus loping across the pliocene savannah with a woolly rhinoceros in hot pursuit – well, that’s how it felt to him.
The trouble was that anything at all could set him off. One boring Melbourne Sunday – this was back in the days when every Melbourne day was boring and when each Sunday fell on one’s soul like a ton of condemned liverwurst – on one such day, Clootie wearily climbed the basalt steps outside what was then the Melbourne art gallery (it called itself the National Gallery, but nobody outside Melbourne had ever heard of it).
Only God knew what he was thinking (and, as a committed atheist, Clootie didn’t like to ask). Perhaps some romantic notion had entered his mind, telling him that if he could only get his mind on higher things, that lower thing that was giving him so much trouble might lie down and hibernate for a few months.
Well, I am not the most sensitive and perceptive of men, but even I could have told him that if he was being tormented by lascivious thoughts, the worst place to go would be a building whose very walls reeked of frolicsome carnality.
As you can imagine, the enterprise was a disaster – fifty-seven varieties of lust congealed in paint, stone and bronze. Susannah being poked by the Elders, at least twenty Venuses being caressed by amorous putti, naked statues whose faces nobody could remember but whose genitalia stayed in the mind for decades, unclothed Circe with outstretched arms, inviting any passing chaps in for a tumble . . . it was too much.
He was very glad to be wearing his long, billowy overcoat. But, overcoat or not, he soon felt that he simply had to walk with a stoop. It was quite clear to him that family groups who happened to pass by would pause and stare and innocent children would point and say, “Look, Mummy, there goes a man pretending to be a hat-rack.”
Escape or die, he thought. He didn’t know if anyone had ever died of tumescence, but surely there was always a first time. The only thing that kept him alive was the thought of the inquest. He could imagine morgue attendants falling about with laughter after they stripped his corpse. He saw them eagerly calling to the Coroner, saying, “Hurry up. You want to see what killed this one before it thaws.”
The tram was a brief sip from whatever stream runs through purgatory. Its gentle motion made things worse.
Still stooping, he got off the tram and hobbled along the street that would take him home. By now his legs were aching from the unnatural stresses his posture was causing.
There it was – home – rest – ease –a cold shower would probably help. He almost broke into a run. Through the front gate, up the concrete path –key – the door, the door wouldn’t open – wrong key – try another . . . This time his key slid into the welcoming aperture as if it were oiled – it shot home with a satisfying ease. He turned the key as he grasped the huge doorknob. The door opened and he plunged deep into darkness.
Such relief. He moved so quickly in the dim hall that when he ran into Mrs Croon, who had been standing there as if in wait, he bore her down and fell on top of her. He was winded, she was not. He lay panting on top of her, forgetting all about his troublesome engorgement.
Mrs Croon, however, was not so insensitive. She immediately felt the urgency of the situation, felt it in the most direct way imaginable.
Relating this incident to me many years later, he said, “I didn’t really know about women then. I thought they were sexless, that they only took their gear off to please men. I didn’t know they could be so . . . hungry.
“She treated me like a model-T Ford that needed cranking.”
“And did you . . .”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Clootie said, making funny little fly-swatting movements of his hands, as if to squash the memory out of existence. “I didn’t have any choice. Once that machine gets started, you can’t switch it off.”
“The next thing I remember I was in my room. It was a detached sleep-out, a fibro shack, probably asbestos, with an iron roof. I started packing, but before I could escape she came to my door. She tapped on it, turned the handle. It was locked.
“She began to croon to me – well, Croon was her name, after all – ‘Mm-a-a-a-a-nfred, you naughty little boy. Come and see what I’ve got for you.”
“And did you?”
“She didn’t know about the loose fibro panel at the rear of the sleep-out. It was rat-up-a-drainpipe time for me. I don’t know how I got myself and my suitcase out of there – yes, I do: it was God helping me.”
“The God you don’t believe in?”
“The God that springs into existence when you need him and then goes back into non-existence.”
“So you got away. What happened to the – ah – affliction?”
“What affliction? Oh, that. It went into reverse.”
“You mean you couldn’t . . . ?”
“Not for months. For a while I thought it would never come back. And I worried that when it did I wouldn’t be able to control it. But I found a way. I have a very good memory. I can call up things that have happened to me and all their shapes and colours and smells . . .”
“Every time old Harry refused to snap to attention, I thought of Mrs Croon.”
“And that worked?”
“Like a spell.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.”
“For me? There’s no need to be.”
“Not for you, for her, Mrs Croon. Poor lady, she didn’t deserve you.”
Clootie leered like a satyr.
“Nobody does,” he said.