Shooting Auntie’s wardrobe

For a long time I was without a permanent home. Nobody in the family wanted to know me, so I was shunted from house to house like a foster child. This was because of my larcenous profession. I was a pickpocket, which was thought to be low, mean, disreputable. I didn’t then know about those relatives of mine who looked normal enough but whose activities would have landed them behind bars if anyone had been rash enough to bear witness to them.

These activities were not criminal in their eyes. They were “enterprising”, whereas my individual exploits, involving as they did the invasion of other people’s pockets, were definitely down-market.

At length I moved in with Aunty Gert.

She, my mother’s sister, hated her name so much that she never used it, and she would stare down anyone who did. If the offender persisted, she would freeze him (or her) out of existence. She liked the name Helena, so Helena she became.

“Who wants to be a Gertrude?” she would say. It sounds like some kind of cow. “And as for ‘Gert’, it sounds like our land is girt by sea. What am I? A sailor’s girl?”

She was smaller than her sisters, and had been beautiful. But sometime in her late thirties her face had decided to shrink and shrivel, becoming quite monkey-like and showing a savagery that masked her essential kindness.

I arrived to find her in a filthy temper. Once more, the police had invaded her realm and treated it as occupied territory. And now, with me standing there, towering over her, she buzzed about the kitchen like a trapped bee, heaping execrations on all those who thought it their proper business to maintain law and order.

“Nothing better to do,” she said. “They couldn’t catch a cold in Iceland, so they come after your Uncle Bert – always. First port of call. I’ll tell you now, he didn’t shoot The Wombat . . . although he did once punch him stupid. But he only did that because The Wombat insulted me – or Bert thought he did. You know what he’s like . . .”

I stood in her kitchen, enduring this, gangly, towering, adolescent in the pimpliest way and terribly embarrassed. In my father’s house we did not speak of ourselves. We seldom spoke of anything personal.

Helena had no such inhibitions. I’m sure that, given a stimulus, she would have talked to her young nephew about anything – even those mysterious matters usually referred to in the family as “women’s troubles”.

Eventually, I understood what was going on.

The night before, a notorious con-man and petty crim known as The Wombat – his real name was Charley Broom – had been found dead on a patch of waste ground in Punt Road, South Yarra. (Aunty Gert – sorry, Helena – lived in St Kilda.)

The following morning, the police arrived, looking for Uncle Bert. Helena had to let them in, but there was no point in being polite to them. She screamed at them from the front gate to the kitchen. They took no notice. They were used to her – and Uncle Bert. Of course, as I later learned, the last thing they would have done was to lay hands on her, or to damage anything in the house. Policemen may have been formidable then, but they weren’t bullet-proof.

They were, however, entitled to question her – or Uncle Bert, if they could have found him, so question her they did. Where was Bert last night? What time did he come home, did he go out and what was his appearance when he got home?

“Always the first!” she had screamed – “Always!”

“Well, you know,” said a detective whose name I think was Heen, “He did give him a pretty good quilt a few weeks back.”

I thought a quilt was something you flung over a bed. I thought: Why should the police worry about that? Was it a stolen quilt? Then I learned that a quilt was what you got when someone hit you.

“That was because he insulted me,” Helena said. “He called me a bitch. Bert doesn’t like that sort of talk.”

“No,” said the other detective, Garbutt by name, “He certainly doesn’t. The Wombat spent the night in the Alfred getting his nose straightened. There was an awful lot of blood on him.”

“How do you know? He didn’t make a complaint, did he?”

“Who? The Wombat? Of course not, but there were lots of witnesses.”

Helena asked who they were, but the two detectives weren’t naïve enough to tell her.”

“What about the last time?” she said, “When Laurie Dukes fell out of the window?”

“A locked and barred window,” said Heen. “Someone had to unscrew the grille. You could only do it from inside.”

“Yes, well why come here? Bert doesn’t do – he’s not – he’s just a middle man. And he has a steady job.”

“He’s not there this morning,” Garbutt said. That’s why we’re here.”

“Well, he’s not here, and I don’t know where he is.”

“Most wives do. They can tell you exactly where their husbands are.”

“I’m not most wives,” Helena said, and as she related this conversation verbatim, she spat out the words “most wives” as if she were referring to some species of low life.

As the detectives left, Helena tried to slam the gate on Detective Garbutt’s hand, but he knew her well enough to keep clear.

And now she rounded on me, the tall and pimply one, as if I had been part of the conspiracy to imprison her husband.

“Well, what do you think?” she said, in a tone appropriate for addressing an old, grave and wise counsellor, but certainly not for a 17-year-old homeless youth.

I could not answer. Uncle Bert frightened me. He and my father had been cronies many years earlier and I had been told to steer clear of him as my family became.

“You father knows all about him,” my mother had said, and then she had fallen silent. This rationing of information had often infuriated me. I wanted to know all the details, and they were never supplied. Hints were thought to be enough. Stay away from the big, bad wolf.

Not that Uncle Bert seemed bad (he certainly wasn’t big). A slender, wiry man of medium height, he had hair that had silvered in his twenties, so that people now thought he was older than his forty years. He wore clothes with a skill that shamed me. I would watch him carefully put on a jumper, treating it like a priceless work of art, inserting an arm almost apologetically into a sleeve as if he were unwilling to violate it, and then carefully tugging and stretching until the garment sat on him like a skin. (I, as my mother once said, seemed always to have fallen into my clothes – no, someone else’s clothes – from a great height.)

There was elegance in the way he moved. Like that of a dancer. (My own dancing was right down there in the mud, keeping company with my clothes sense.) But I think he would have moved that way if he had never danced a step.

Officially, he was a barrow man. He sold fruit. He attended a barrow parked somewhere in Carlton, and on Fridays and Saturdays he worked in the Victoria Market. Of course, being a man who was above menial tasks, he usually paid someone else to work for him (unless he needed an alibi).

He spoke in a way that was quite different from the way my father and the other men in me family, the Clooties, spoke. His was a slow, nasal drawl, precise, larded with slang that was often unintelligible to me, able to sink to a murmur but quite capable of rising to a shrill scream when he was enraged – which he often was. But at his most menacing he was quiet, still, lethal.

There had been a legendary bust-up in our family, back when my Father, Maclennan Clootie had been friendly with Uncle Bert. A witness of this told me many years later: “Bert could fight like a pro, rights and lefts coming out of nowhere, feet like lightning. But your old man didn’t know how to fight, so after he copped a couple in the mush, he just picked up Bert and bent him backwards over the end of a bed. Bert couldn’t move. Macca held him there until he calmed down. It was those hands of his. You couldn’t fight against ‘em.”

The massive arms and hands of Macca Clootie versus the boxing skill of Uncle Bert. No contest.

Uncle Bert’s son, Bill, and his many nephews, were in awe of him. He ruled without effort, the nasal voice cutting through all attempts at rebellion.

I used to try to imagine what it must have felt like to be Uncle Bert. I’d see myself moving into a billiard room, picking up a cue, chalking it, looking, not too directly, at some shadowy figure and whispering something like: “Tonight, nine ‘o’clock, behind the Scout Hall.” But I could not do it. Uncle Bert would turn into Manfred Clootie, would stammer, would forget what he had to say, or worse, would not be able to see in the gloom and would organise some criminal activity with the wrong man.

But then, I was never much of an actor. Some evil insect had got its horny ovipositor in me and filled me with its poisonous eggs. I simply couldn’t be anyone but my own, unsatisfactory, clumsy, socially inept and feckless self. (To say it in the old Irish way: I was “clutey” – more later.)

My cousin Bill was quite different. He moved easily into any group, one of the boys.

We were each other’s negatives – I, tall, dark, half-blind, lazy and incompetent: he, shorter, more muscular, a natural athlete, fair-haired, clear-eyed, a magnet for girls. So different were we that we became good friends – until he got to know me better.

We both lived in fear of Uncle Bert.

I know now that Uncle Bert did have something to do with The Wombat’s shooting. Even if I hadn’t found a suspiciously clean shotgun in their woodshed, I would have known. Because I’m like that – secretive myself, I like to know the secrets of others.

And then, perhaps this is all nonsense. Who knows.

But soon after moving in with my aunt, my uncle and Bill, I knew Uncle Bert was as guilty as Hell. Not of the murder. He didn’t have in him the heart of a killer. But if someone else was doing the killing, and it did not touch his family – well, business was business.

Bert and family lived in half a house. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the houses the rest of us lived in, houses inhabited by chisel-wielding, hammering, painting, soldering and screwdriving men who thought it a moral fault to call a tradesman in to do what they could themselves do. I tried to imagine Bert with a chisel. No, he wouldn’t know what it was for. Something for picking locks, perhaps. Yet there was always more money in their house than in the house of my parents. Real money, cash, handfuls of it.

If Bill and I were going out, Bert would pull out a roll of notes and say, “How much do you need?”

In our house, my father would scrounge for coins and say, “This’ll have to do.”

Bert’s life had a leisurely beauty lacking in the Clooties, who were driven by a passion for respectability. He looked the kind of man who’d never had an accident. The Clooties looked like the kind of people who had to glue the crockery down to avoid smashing it.

It was while staring at Bert’s body one day as he took a hot sea bath at the old St Kilda Baths that I was struck by the thought: Guilty as Hell.

My reasoning? Simple. Uncle Bert never worried. About anything. He was concerned from time to time, perhaps even at times obsessed. But worried? Never. Not in any conceivable circumstance. And I thought with a chill: if I were to be kidnapped, my parents would worry themselves sick – and not recover me. Uncle Bert would grow very quiet in his easy-going way – and I’d be back at home next morning.

There was another reason for my suspicion – the wardrobe. What kind of man moves the wardrobe in his bedroom so that it completely covers the main – indeed the only – window?

This is what Bert did, and did it so well that the bedroom was quite dark. You looked into it from the narrow passage that ran the length of the house and you saw – nothing. If someone came after me, I would sleep in such a room.

And the locks were changed throughout the house.

As for the keys, they were hidden on a high ledge, rimmed with stiff-backed razor blades. Anyone who didn’t know enough to reach high over the ledge would suffer such injury that he wouldn’t be likely to persevere.

I knew about the locks and about the wardrobe – and yet I managed to forget about them.

One night, Bill and I were out seeing a film. On the way home, we met some friends and began to talk . . . and talk. And somehow the clock crept round to 2.30.

We had promised to be in by midnight. Bert, whose life was all disorder, tolerated no irregularities in his family. Midnight did not mean ten past midnight.

“What are we going to do?” I said.

And Bill said, “Don’t worry. I’ll get in. I’ve done it before. I can move like a mouse.”

We came to his house, where all was dark. We crept up under the front veranda. Bill reached up for the keys and stumbled in the dark.

“Shit!” he snarled. In the moonlight, his hand was black with blood.

“Gotta get inside before I bleed to death,” he hissed. We knew we could not get past the gates at the side of the house.

“We’ll have to get in through the bedroom window,” he said.

“You mad or something? They’ll hear you.”

“Hear me? What do you mean, me? My hand’s rooted. You’ll have to do it.”

Suddenly I wished to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

“I can’t do it,” I said. “I’ll make a noise.”

“Have you ever done it before?”

I hadn’t, of course.

“Then you don’t know if you’ll make a noise or not.”

Something certainly had to be done. I could hear Bill’s blood splashing onto the planks of the veranda. I had visions of waking his parents to tell them their son was now a bloodless corpse.

So, like a bulldozer ploughing through a swamp, I felt myself move to the window. My mind was racing with excuses for what I was about to do.

And then I was at the window, my fingers (the only dexterous part of my entire body) sliding over the sill, feeling for a crack at the bottom of the window that would only be there if the window hadn’t been locked.

I found the crack, prayed to the gods that look after the terminally incompetent, felt a movement, and then another one. And all might have gone well except for two things: the window had an old-style sash-balancing system that used pulleys and weights; and I had forgotten about the wardrobe.

By the time the window was open far enough to admit me, the rumbling was loud enough to wake the terra-cotta gargoyles on the roof.

But that was nothing to the noise that followed.

I had just touched the wardrobe. I knew we’d never get past that. And there came a sound such as I have never since heard – the sound a 12-bore shotgun makes when you fire it indoors.

The top half of the window blew out into the street, followed by ten million plywood splinters. I stood on the veranda trying not to breathe in powdered glass. Bill fell to his knees and I thought for a moment that he’d been hit.

He hadn’t been hit. He was laughing uncontrollably, hysterically.

“Oh, shit!” he said, over and over. “I’ll never see anything as funny as that again!”

Funny? He was on his knees, blood streaming from his cut hand, a veneer of shattered glass and wood splinters making him look like something that had spontaneously generated in a swamp, and there was an angry man standing in the doorway with a shotgun.

I am about to die, I thought, but I had reckoned without the speed of Bert’s mind. He took everything in at a glance, looked down at his bleeding son – and laughed. I stood back looking at them, this pair of lunatics, screaming with laughter.

Of course all laughter terminated when Helena appeared. Her voice cut through the night like a siren, chiding, castigating, damning us all to hell. We soon quietened down after she started in on us.

She put her face up against Uncle Bert’s and hissed, “I told you. You shouldn’t have done that with the wardrobe. Now we’ll have to get new clothes.”

Bert smiled, reached into the pocket of his dressing gown and took out the roll of notes he always carried. I wondered if they had somehow leaked out of his body while he slept.

He gave the roll to Helena. Touching the money seemed to calm her. She smiled as she caressed it. Her little tongue poked briefly out and shot in again. She would have a lovely day tomorrow – no, today.

It was nearly four by the time I got to bed. I was a little sad, despite the night’s adventures, for I knew I simply didn’t have the nerves to keep on living in that house.

I left the next day and was some distance down the street before I heard Uncle Bert’s voice, laden with contempt.

“Those Clooties.” he said. “Bunch of no-hopers.”

It may have been an accurate assessment. I wasn’t sure, but I paused and tried to think of a riposte.

And then I remembered my pack of jokey business cards that had so often amused my friends. I had left them behind. I went back for them. I was amazed at how unwelcoming Bert and family were. I told them what I was after, went in, passed the bedroom that stank of gunsmoke, retrieved the cards and left. As I stepped off the veranda, I handed a card to Uncle Bert, saying in my most formal manner: “My card, sir.”

As I walked away, Bert looked at the card.

It was printed like a business card, which said:

CLOOTIE DEFINED

cloot, n. [Scot.] The whole or part of a cloven hoof.

Clootie, n. [Scot.] 1. A small hoof. 2. A name for the devil, ie the cloven-footed one.

Also Clutey, adj [Irish Gaelic] Clumsy, awkward.

From:              The Cutpurse’s Lexicon Melbourne 1950, never published but privately imagined by Manfred Clootie, pickpocket, poet and moral teacher.

I heard them talking about the card as I walked down the street. I distinctly heard the words “buggered if I know.” That was enough for me. I kept on walking.

I wondered if my mother would be pleased to see me.