When the fit is on me, I am like an elephant in musth, snorting, twitching, looking for a fight. No, I don’t mean fisticuffs. I’m far too discreet for that. I mean feverish wrestling with alternative self-histories. Sometimes I like to think I’m the abandoned child of an earl. I see myself waking on a spring morning, having recently come into my heritage and saying: Well, what will it be today? Polo? Hunting? Lunch with the Queen? No, bugger it. I’ll stay home and add another wing to Clootie House. Well, perhaps not exactly, but something like that.
Among my papers (papers: I like the sound of that, as if I were a retired general) I find the following, very little of which is true.
During one of my more involuntary escapades, I encountered a man named Stephen Berrymont and fell in love with the man’s name. I then decided for a day or two to become this man, and write of him . . .
A long time ago (says Berrymont) we lived in Bentville, thirteen Chislebury Avenue. I don’t live there any more. I don’t think anyone ever lived there really. We were just dreams, figments, ectoplasms – and so was the street. It must have been. No one fully conscious would have designed such a brain-freezingly dull piece of real estate as Chislebury Street. The most exciting thing about it wasn’t even there. It was up at the end of the street and round two zigzags … the local quarry. I was pretty old by the time I found that other suburbs didn’t have quarries. This one was about the size of the Grand Canyon. All day long – and for much of the night, judging by the sounds it gave off – this enormous hole allowed itself to be eviscerated.
Hovering over it were what I at first learned to call brickills. Later, I was to split that word and drop in an “n”, so that they became brick kilns – mighty ovens of brick (what else?) with towering chimneys. We did a lot of trespassing on the Brick Company’s territory. We scrambled down the quarry sides, pinched clay (out of which we made little men with large appendages) and occasionally vandalised unattended machinery.
The company servants knew about us. It was said that one of them loved to blast away at trespassers with a shotgun loaded with saltpetre. I never knew anyone who had actually seen this mythical beast but of course we lied and said that we’d often been narrowly missed. I don’t think any of us was ever caught by anyone, but now and then we would see a gesticulating man, shrunk by distance, who screamed obscenities at us. We usually screamed worse ones back.
In summer we could start grass fires on vacant blocks and lie hidden until the fire brigade and police arrived. Then, when the crowd was large enough, we’d emerge and say harsh words about the perpetrators of the offence … Us? Oh no, not us – them! Well, that was about it, trespassing and vandalism. There wasn’t much else for us in Bentville. Truancy was then difficult. There was a universal scheme, originating perhaps in heaven and enforced down through all the realms of being, constraining all those in authority, from the angelic orders to the policeman on his bike to forget everything else if necessary, so long as they kept those kids where they belonged – in school.
Thirteen Chislebury Avenue. It didn’t stand out. We were standard quarter-acre people. Front lawn. Side drive on the left, narrow sideway on the right. Big back yard divided into three sections: front (near the house) all neat and mown; middle bit, tired-looking vegetables; and back – combined Gypsy encampment and rubbish tip. No car: it would be years before everyone was forced to own a car. No electric washer, not even a rotary clothes line (they hadn’t been invented). We didn’t need all the appliances now thought necessary in a home. We had an unpaid all-purpose woman, built like a truck and guaranteed to last forever. We called her Mum. She could chop wood, light fires, boil up the copper, wash and iron and cook and do first aid; she could dig and weed; she could do the shopping and carry most of it home in half a dozen string bags. We took her for granted, but when at last she wore out I must say we missed her.
Nothing much was permitted to happen in such houses as ours. People must be born elsewhere, marry elsewhere and die elsewhere. For my part I would have been happier living elsewhere too, but it took a series of catastrophes to bring about that happy condition. I once tried to find out who Chislebury was. Reasoning that, if someone was well enough known to have a street named after him, then he must have left some kind of footprint in the sands of time, I went to our local library and asked: no answer. They gave me some good advice on how to research your district, advice which I immediately forgot. I was not eager to work at any task. I found it easier to invent.
I looked at Chislebury Street and thought how much it looked like Chislebury Street – just as people look like their names. And I learned how to make history. It was easy. You took some event, place or person about which you knew little or nothing. You closed your eyes and dreamed – and history was born. A history of Chislebury Street? Certainly. Let me close my eyes and dream.
Obviously some half-pissed pioneer carpenter had buried his tools nearby – to keep them safe from Aboriginal predators – and had marked the spot on his map – buried chisel. Well, it’s not much of a history, but it may be true. I have seen more fanciful derivations in my time. But Chislebury Avenue? Surely an avenue ought to be a tree-lined approach to some opulent mansion of a kind not to be met with in Bentville. And that was another thing I had against our district: no mansions, no great estates, no great buildings of any kind; and nobody seemed to care! If the Taj Mahal had suddenly materialised in the middle of our Memorial Park, nobody would have been struck dumb with wonder. The only question would have been how to demolish it in time for Saturday’s football.
I did have an aunt who lived in a Mansion in South Yarra. I was not welcome there, but sometimes I would stand outside in the street and stare at its facade and imagine. Then I would return to my father’s house, stare at its façade, shake my head and say, “No”. About the only thing that pleased me in those days was my name: Stephen Berrymont, a fine, aristocratic name, I thought. I could easily see myself as Sir Stephen, or even Lord Berrymont. But I looked at our family and the suspicion grew in me that our name had been curiously derived. We had not stolen it, of that I was sure, but we had not come by it honestly either. A possible family history occurred to my dreaming mind – and, such is my nature, it rapidly solidified into fact.
I saw an unshaven, filthy, reeking convict. The year was 1820, the place Sydney. This repulsive bag of vacuum-cleaner suckings, wrapped in discarded sausage skins, oozed from the hold of a convict ship and was driven by rope’s end across the deck and down the plank on to the wharf, where he stood alone and stank, bringing scabbed eyebrows down almost to his cheekbones in an attempt to shut out the sun.
“Who, or what, is that,” said the receiving officer, hastily clapping lavendered hanky to nose. “Irish, sir, known only as Bugmouth, transported for stealing sewage.” “Good God! Assign him to the Governor’s kitchen. He can eat the cockroaches.”
Ten years later. Now part of the colony’s bunyip aristocracy, Bugmouth has become Bigmont, and convicts as filthy as he once was are assigned to him. Another ten years and he is the city’s biggest nightsoil contractor. He uses what his labourers collect as manure for his farm; but moderation is foreign to him. He dumps so much of the stuff on his land that it becomes a stinking swamp. He is still unable to write his name, but he has learned to form a few letters.
Some of his efforts at signing documents still exist: Boogmot, Bogmart, Beermut, Booming; and by now he has a first name: John. On his farm is a hump so hospitable to blackberries that is has become known as Berry Mountain, and he, as lord of the mount, comes to be known as Lord Berry Mount, a name he almost learns to spell, a name that at last standardises itself as Berrymont. So much for the putative origin of my name. But of course we cannot leave the founder of my family unaccounted for …
He dies by drowning. Whip in hand, pursuing a slack worker, he runs into one of the softer parts of his well-manured land and rapidly sinks. The body is never found.
At his funeral, the minister’s words bring tears to the eyes of his widow, a lady who resembles a mouldy cottage loaf, and to the eyes of his sons, five hulking mouth-breathers. Says the minister: “He came from it; he was made of it; and now he rests in it …”