When I was young I had a dirty little habit that used to drive my father wild. It was the vice of a solitary boy. I was an eavesdropper.
Whenever I saw or heard people talking, I would try to listen to them. I wasn’t spying. I was looking for companionship.
I knew my father disapproved of my habit. He knew all about it, which surprised me because I’d developed a certain skill as a listener-in. Nobody ever caught me slinking towards the source of a conversation. I was just there. Yet he knew, and so did my mother.
One day, while practising my skill at home, I was startled to hear my parents talking about me. There was my mother’s voice, definite, assertive, a little flat, and my father’s, deep and rough, like rocks in a tumbling wooden keg.
“You know what I don’t like about that kid of yours?” he said.
“That kid of mine happens to be your son.”
“Yeah, well what I don’t like about him is he creeps up on you.”
“What do you mean, he creeps up?”
“Well, you’re doin’ somethin’ like polishin’ your shoes – ”
“You? When did you last polish a shoe?”
“Ah, shuddup, willya. Anyway you’re doin’ somethin’ an’ you look up, and there he is -back there in the shadows, watchin’. How’d he get there? I didn’t hear nothin’ – but there he is. Like I said, he’s a creeper – an’ I don’t like it.”
“I know,” she said. “I’ve seen him too, but just let him go. He’ll grow out of it.”
“Yeah, but will he grow into anything, like regular employment frinstance.
There was a shockingly long silence and I heard my mother sigh.
Hidden under the kitchen table, I was on all-fours, listening. A fourteen year old bespectacled boy, not suited to sports – not, in my father’s view suited to anything. I took mental notes. I liked the word “creeper” and didn’t mind its being applied to me.
I’d mastered a shallow-breathing technique that allowed me to hear without being heard. Now, hidden by the large tablecloth, I thought: I’m safe, as long as nobody sits down. Nobody did.
My father was a master plumber, who ran his own business. He was a large, muscular man, whose lightest touch on my arm felt to me like a bump from a rogue elephant. He liked to keep home and work separate. Most days he was out all day doing I knew not what. I had only seen his employees when they came to redo our plumbing. It amazed me that he had a complete life that didn’t include my mother and me.
One special Monday he took some time off from work. He was waiting for the tradesmen, who were soon to invade the house: electricians, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, carpet-layers, wall-paperers. He had planned a huge renovation and I was close to ecstasy at the thought of all that I would soon be overhearing. Since the school holidays had begun and I had little to do, my father told me to “keep an eye on things”-as if tradesmen were fanatical house-strippers who would be off with the family silver as soon as anyone’s back was turned.
Yet he was a tradesman. Did that mean he didn’t trust himself?
“What will I do if I catch them pinching things?” I asked my mother.
“They won’t pinch anything,” she said.
“Yes, but what will I do if they do”
She thought for a minute and I believed he could see her thoughts. She was thinking: What could this child, who could do nothing well at the best of times, do in a crisis?
She answered at last: “Nothing.”
“What, not anything?”
The adult world was a strange country.
I came to enjoy the company of the various contractors. These were people I could be comfortable with. All of them were skilled tradesmen, like my father. Watching them at work, I learned the meaning of the word “skilled”.
The plasterers were one group that particularly fascinated me.
I had thought plastering was only a step removing from playing with mud. Now, witnessing their easy mastery of the craft, I was almost ready to apologise to them for my underestimation. There were three of them, two men and an apprentice. I watched them as they worked, envying them their panache. They would talk about football, women, the cost of living, politics, the economy, and at all times leaven their talk with easy-going abuse and jokes. They often sang – fragments of songs, dirty ditties, even commercial jingles. They accompanied music on the radio that was never silent while they worked.
Hidden from them, I liked to watch as they swept up nearly liquid plaster and gracefully applied it to the wall. They made it look easy. I often listened in on their conversations , concealing myself in a corner and pretending to work.
They were Mick, a muscular, compact man, Norm, red-headed and beefy, and the apprentice Ken, tall and thin.
“How’d you put it in?” Norm said to Mick during one lunch break. I found this question unanswerable; it had too many possible meanings. Later I understood that it meant: How did you spend the weekend?
“We went crab fishin’,” Mick said, “or crab huntin’-dunno what you call it when it’s crabs. We had a beaut time. You go down the bay past Frankston, past the pollution. Water’s about four foot deep. You stand in it with a bit of meat on a string. You let the meat down and bounce it on the bottom. After a while there’s a wiggle in the sand, just like a hand was buried there and coming’ up for a look round – and there’s Mr Crab, as big as your hand. He grabs the meat, you pull the string. He won’t let go, he comes up with it. That’s when you get the net under him and lift. Sometimes it’s hard to get him out of the net.”
“Shit,” Norm said. “Sounds disgustin’. What do you do then?”
“Take ’em home, boil up a pot of water, drop ’em in and slam on the lid real fast. If you don’t do it right they might throw their claws. You get hit in the eye with one of them claws and you’ll know it. Big as your thumb, they are.”
Norm looked at his right hand, which held a cigarette. His finger and thumb were so big they made the cigarette look like a toothpick.
“I’ll leave it to you,” he said. “Boiling water-shit!”
“You got to be careful,” Norm said. “Some crabs are poison.”
“Ah, bullshit. Crabs aren’t poison.”
Mick appealed to Ken the apprentice. He was tipping the remnants of his lunch into a plastic bag.
“You tell him, Ken,” Mick said. “He doesn’t believe crabs can be poisonous.”
“Well,” said Ken, “me brother caught ’em once. The old man roared shit out of him, said if he didn’t know how to look after his dick he should keep it in his pants.”
“No, you silly young bugger,” Mick said. “That’s crab lice-something you shouldn’t know nothin’ about. We’re talkin’ about real crabs, the kind you eat.”
“Not me, mate, I wouldn’t eat ’em. Some of ’em are poisonous.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Norm said. “I dunno whether you’re dumb or just plain ignorant. Maybe you should go into politics. You’d be at home with the other boneheads.”
“Yeah, said Ken. Might do that. I’ll be old enough to vote next year.”
“Vote!” Norm said, almost blowing the rolled cigarette from his mouth with the force of his displeasure. “What would you wanna vote for.”
“Well,” you have to, don’t ya?”
“Nah, you only have to go the booth an’ register. No one knows what you write on the ballot paper.”
“What do you write?” Mick said.
“I write, ‘Up yer bum, yer pack of bastards’, then I put the paper in the bin, the box . . . the ballot box”
“But that’s informal!” Mick said. That’s no way to elect a government.”
“Listen,” Norm said. “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, ’cause it doesn’t work. The system. It’s rooted. You can’t make a circus into a government by swappin’ one lot of clowns for another.”
Mick said, “Nah, nah, bugger that. I’ve voted Labor for the last fifteen years – an’ I will next time.”
“Yeah,” Ken said. “That’s why you’ve got three houses, five cars and a lease on the Taj Mahal.”
“Ah, piss off, Ken. Time you got off your arse anyway.”
This was the signal to end lunch and resume work. I watched the three plasterers go from a loose group of men eating lunch to a co-ordinated team, and I was sad at the thought that I couldn’t manage plaster and conversation the way they did. They lived in a world of things that you could see, touch, hear and smell. I lived in language and shadows, consuming swarms of words that flew about like frenzied bats, resisting all attempts to catch and hold them; not things like plaster, trowel and crabs and clowns.
While I was deep in envy of the three men, my body was shaken by the impact of a powerful hand. My heart raced as I turned to see my father, his face stern. His hand tightened and he drew me away from the plastering that was proceeding in the next room. He steered me all the way through the house to my room, then gave me what passed with him for a gentle nudge. I was propelled half way across the room. The door closed and I was left alone with my shame.
For the first time I began to think that my parents might be right about me.