His first pocket

He picked his first pocket before he could even read. The act of picking didn’t thrill him. He dipped, seized, retracted and re-pocketed. That was all there was to it. No great pleasure, no warm feeling of achievement. There was just the knowing that it was possible to get hold of goods without asking for them, or for money to buy them. Later, he discovered that he could earn money by working for it, but that was something he never became good at.

Here’s how he came to pick the pocket.

He lived with his parents in a pleasant street that might have been easily seen from the centre of the City of Melbourne if the whole area hadn’t been hidden behind a hill. He didn’t know how pleasant the street was. He didn’t know any unpleasant ones. To him it was just “Our Street”.

To get to the centre of the city from where he lived, you had to walk for nearly a mile (it would be wrong to give the distance in kilometres; they didn’t have them then). Then you got on a cable tram that climbed up High Street, dipped down a hill and then, even though it was firmly set in rails, seemed to wander through Clifton Hill and Fitzroy, as if it wasn’t sure of the way. It went up Smith Street, turned into Gertrude Street, headed for the Exhibition Building, turned left at Nicholson Street – which, after crossing Victoria Street, became Spring Street – and then turned right at the State Parliament House and wobbled down Bourke Street.

This trip was so uncomfortable that after it you felt that you deserved a reward.

There are some crazy old people who talk as if travelling on cable trams was fun. It wasn’t. Nobody could remain upright for long. (One of his earliest memories was of swaying passengers.) And curves were taken by disconnecting the tram from its cable and allowing it to career by its own momentum until it reconnected. Sometimes it didn’t, and everyone would have to get out and push.

His mother often hinted that the sheer excitement of going mainly by cable tram to the Women’s Hospital in order to give birth to him was sufficient to explain why she subsequently developed “nerves”.

The only reason for mentioning these 19th-Century tumbrels is that he, Manfred Clootie, began his professional life on one of them.

Early in the 1940s those who decide such questions found that the ageing cable-tram infrastructure was simply not worth replacing. So they erased it from the streets of Melbourne, replacing trams with double-decker buses, which managed the rare feat of being more uncomfortable than trams of any kind. But before this occurred, he got his hand into a pocket not his own and stole from it a thin wafer of foil-wrapped Nestlé’s chocolate (value, twopence).

He and his mother were riding on the dummy, the exposed part of the tram that could strike terror into your vitals. To be a dummy traveller you needed fortitude and tenacity. I never knew of anyone actually falling off and landing in the street to perish miserably in the traffic, but perhaps a few did. Reality was brutally present out there where the weather lived. Dummy-travellers were daring travellers.

“Mind the curve,” his mother would say as they approached one of the four or five bends on their route, and he would grasp the nearest thing, which on one occasion happened to be someone’s overcoat. That is how his hand found its way into a pocket. Once inside, his fingers ran about like maddened beetles. And then he touched something metallic but feather-light.

Disregarding the danger of letting go, he drew out his hand and found wedged between index and middle fingers a wafer-thin confection of the kind that used to be dispensed by slot machines at railway stations. He slipped it into his own pocket, and then grasped frantically at his mother as the tram took the curve.

Of course he had to throw it away. Mothers being the insanely intuitive monsters they are, she would have found the thing sooner or later.

But although he understood this, he was still far too young to be constantly prudent. Two days later, he was sent to bed without his evening meal – then as now called “tea”. His father liked to leave small amounts of money in various places. When he was going out he would reach for the nearest pile of coins and pick it up. The child’s new consciousness of universal availability asserted itself and he pocketed one of these piles.

There could not have been more than a few pennies in the little heap he took from the small table on his father’s side of the bed. Elsewhere in the house he could have scooped up as much as a shilling’s worth. But these were his trainee days and he was content to resist the urging of ambition. He walked into his parents’ bedroom, looked for money, found it, took it and then announced that he was going for a walk “round the block”.

“All right,” his mother said, “but don’t cross any roads.” He had no need to cross a road. He only had to turn right after coming out of his front gate and walk for a minute or so to come to a shop referred to as Wilson’s corner.

Shops were mysterious entities. He could not imagine how it was possible to make a living by purchasing and selling goods. There would be no money left over. Therefore, the shopkeeper must be a thief. He stole the goods and then made people pay for them. His mother later enlightened him.

“He sells them for more than he pays,” she said. “That’s what’s called making a profit.”

The boy was shocked. Sell for more than you pay! It was disgraceful. He would rather the man stole them. But this disillusionment came later. On the day of the stolen coins he walked in innocence down to Mr Wilson’s corner shop and bought a few pennies’ worth of broken biscuits. These were sold so cheaply that he had a huge mass of paper-wrapped goodies to consume before completing his circuit of “the block”. He managed it, however, and at length tottered through his front gate and walked down the sideway to the back door. (They never entered the house through the front.)

Bloated and crumb-bedecked, he walked nonchalantly into the kitchen and was met by what he remembers as a roundhouse right from his mother’s fist. (Actually, since it left no marks and stopped hurting within minutes, it must have been merely a slap from the fingers, but it lingered in memory as a punch.)

“You rotten thief!” she said. “Go to your room and go to bed, and don’t just lie on it. Put your pyjamas on and go right to bed.”

Stunned not so much by the force of the blow, but by the realisation that thievery could be so easily detected, he went to bed, dreading the arrival home of his father, a muscular man who was likely to throw a punch when angry.

He still remembers brightly saying to his mother, who had come to make sure that the blind was down and the lights out, “Good night.”

She slammed the door so hard that the house shook. He lay in bed thinking of how unfair it was that Mr Wilson could have a whole shopful of goodies, whereas a boy who didn’t own a shop couldn’t even pick up a few odd pennies without being punished. Some time later, after his father had visited him and displayed a terrifying, if largely simulated anger, it dawned on him that he’d made two mistakes: committing a crime in his own house, and being caught.

He wasn’t sufficiently frightened to give up stealing, only to make sure that in future he would steal with more care.