When I look through my life, I realize that I have had only a handful of friends. After family, it doesn't take me long to run through the list of meaningful relationships. And right up there is Maxwell of Norwich. I never saw him. I never met him. I never heard him. However, I spoke to him often, and he "wrote" to me over a twenty-five month period (I was in my mid 20s then). He was honest, helpful and gave good advice. Then he disappeared from my life, though his words are with me still. Let's see what I can remember.
THE WRONG PEOPLE
Two couples, some animosity between the girls. A very 60s Victorian Terrace in Sydney's Bondi Junction. Vietnam waxing, Beatles waning. Black floors, rush matting, wine bottles various and Modiglianis jousting with Hockneys across mural battlefields. The lights are low-candles in fact. We pass a glass tumbler round, breathing ritualistically into it in turn. I presume we all feel the same as I do – somewhat excited, two wines relaxed, a little self-conscious and on guard against manipulation, intentional or sub-conscious, by others. The glass tumbler stands inverted on a lightly powdered glass table. An alphabet of Scrabble letters surrounds the glass. We each place a finger on the glass, willing it to move, meanwhile invoking any interested spirit. My arm becomes tired and unsteady, my finger twitches and the glass moves a millimetre. Three faces brighten, then fade in disappointment at my murmured "oops".
Thirty strained minutes pass. Did we or did we not hear a guitar string twang of its own accord? Assured by friends that this really does work, I am afraid of failure – no sensitivity, no spiritual dimension! A sharp little face appears at the edge of the table, eyes wide, ears pricked – it is the cat. Suddenly, the glass moves, very fast, straight at the cat. It goes over the edge, landing intact on the matting floor covering. This is embarrassing, for we all sense malevolence. The cat goes out, the glass goes back. Soon, the glass stirs. There are tentative little shuffling movements, then circles and more purposeful sweeps. "Who are you?" The glass slides up to the letter J, bumps the tile, sweeps back to the centre, then advances again, bumping K. This is repeated. It spells out J-K-J-K.
"Where are you from?" T-B-T T- We are very excited, and are trying to help. However, we make little sense of this.
"Tell us again". T-B-E-T "Is that Tibet?". The glass moves to the "Yes" tile. This is unsatisfactory. Already we are prompting answers and anticipating responses. However, no one of us is dominating, and there is energy in the glass which seems to be moving freely. I wonder if one of the others is guiding it and decide to test. "The next letter shall be 'I'” I think, and decide that my energies will tend in that direction. Immediately, two fingers leave the glass, which stops dead. "Who's doing that?" asks Doug. "Me" I reply. They understand, and when anyone "tests", the others know immediately.
We address our contact again. "What do you want to tell us?".
"Are you JK?
Are you KJ?
Are you from Tibet?
Do you speak English?"
Swirling movement from the glass, but no answer. We plunge on in this "push-pull" manner for quite some time. We get only "keywords" and have to build a story round them. The words are B-R-O-T-H-E-R/ W-I-F-E/W-I-D-O-W/H-U-S-B-A-N-D/H-A-T-E/J-K/K-J/K-I-L-L/ Armed with only our contact's "yes/no" response, we probe for the story. We are not sure that this contact speaks English. The keywords are interspersed with "hate" and "kill". There is a bad feeling about this – also an incredibly tedious feeling.
We persevere for some time further, at the end of which we have no gold nuggets, just a few flecks of pyrites. We surmise that JK and KJ are closely related in a Tibetan "widow belongs to brother-in-law" situation. We decide to give it up for the evening and step out to the front porch.
We are today's bright young people, living in our trendy terrace. See the pot-plant in the window. See us at midnight, supping seated on our mosaic tiled porch. Look at the building next door. It is the Eastern Suburbs Leagues Club, spilling out its nightly load of entertainees. One or two look sober. Another one (who isn't) vomits. Bidding each other noisy farewells, they fan out in search of their cars, innocent of seat belts, and most make it home safely. This unseemly ritual apart, Bondi Junction is actually a pleasant spot situated between Bondi Beach and Paddington Barracks.
Even though we are not at all comfortable with each other's company, the sessions continue, although the material seems to be of the childish variety that seems to be so prevalent. We move to the comfort of a large wooden table, and dispense with candles and warm-up rituals. Contact is quick and positive. The glass moves with progressive ease, and we are soon "conversing" with a slightly odd, curious personality. The glass is moving fast enough for one of us to leave off and act as secretary, generally separating the flow of letters into words as we go.
"I AM MUCH AMUSED BY THE PICTURE OF A SMALL BIRD ON PAUL'S SHIRT" - I am wearing a Tee Shirt with a Penguin Logo.
"THIS PICTURE MUST BE THE WORK OF THE DEVIL" - We have, opened on the table, a calendar with a photographed Autumn scene.
"MAXWELL OF NORWICH" in answer to the obvious question, "Who are you?"
Eventually, after a couple of sessions, we deduce that Maxwell of Norwich lived in the fourteenth century. His tentative first "utterances" seems to indicate a state of confusion. Asked where he had been before we called him up, he answers, "In a shoe box in Paul L's cupboard". Paul L does indeed have shoe boxes in his cupboard. I ask Maxwell whether he had been a spider or a mouse. He replies that he does not know. He returns to each session with fresh experience, and becomes much clearer in his assessment of his situation. He tells us that he died at the age of 22 when his horse slipped on a wet hillside as he was mounting it. He was a teacher of Mathematics and English, and made two trips to Turkey, for both Trade and Diplomatic reasons. They bought carpets and also taught English at the Turkish Court. He now reveals that when we first "called him up" he was frightened.
"I EXPECTED TO BE LOOKING INTO THE FACES OF THE EVIL ONES OF MY DAY"
"Who are they?"
"WITCHES AND HERETICS"
"What about the "work of the devil" as you called that photograph.
"NOT KNOWING WHAT IT WAS, AND NEVER HAVING SEEN A PICTURE OF THIS QUALITY, I ASSUMED IT MUST BE THE WORK OF THE DEVIL, AS NO HUMAN HAND COULD HAVE DONE IT."
Max has no idea where he has been in the centuries after his death. However, he refuses to use the word "die" and insists on correcting us in this usage. He consistently says "When I left my body". He appears to be behaving pretty much like any 22 year-old, and tells us that he has another contact, a young boy who is driving at Bathurst. In fact, he seems car-mad, to the point where we feel a little jealous of the hoon who is sharing our contact. A couple of phrases which Max uses strike us with force, partly because of their quaint language, and also their individual pint of view. "…THIS INSANE AGE OF METAL PROGRESS" and "I AM HORRIFIED BY THE CLOCKWORK PRECISION WITH WHICH YOU LIVE YOUR LIVES"
Max is becoming quickly acclimatised, and concepts such as air travel and photography are becoming rapidly assimilated. There are occasional witticisms and word jokes, some of which don't seem very original. We are amazed that he corrects us so often, and that our anticipations of his story are so often incorrect.
"I AM CO.."
"WHO'S TELLING THIS ST.."
"Who's telling this story, me or you?"
"YES. I AM CONSOLED BY....etc"
Relations between the girls however, are deteriorating fast, and Jean has been having unpleasant dreams, of teeth turning green, rotting and falling out. She has her doubts. Time to find my own place. I take a place in inner suburban Surry Hills.
Ensconced in my new home, I am closer again to another time. I must be very close to the spot where the author Ruth Park lived (The Harp In The South, A Fence Around the Cuckoo, Playing Beattie Bow and many more wonderful books).
THOU SHALT NOT…
My own religious background and upbringing did not dispose me kindly to Spiritualistic activity of any kind. In our 50s classes of 80, 90 and even 100 children, not much was left to chance. Religious devotion was highly encouraged, and remnants of a medieval belief system persisted. During Lent, and on certain Feast days, visits to the Church, and other devotions could win much remission from the pain of Purgatory, a cleansing unit prior to finally entering Paradise. This system appealed to young minds, and we would compete to chalk up the highest credit.
What appalled us was the time scale involved, for the period of remission won appeared so great, that it implied a vast amount of time in Purgatory itself. Our teachers were very clear. "Only God knows the future. Any one who tells you different is lying, and one must beware the influence of the Devil".
This subject was both thorny and horned and a whiff of sulphur seemed to accompany the subject for many years. The subject of spiritualism and associated activities such as ouija boards did not come up very often in our religious instruction, but whenever it was mentioned, it was in disparaging terms. "Only God knows the future" and anyone who claimed otherwise was in error. Astrology was treated as a harmless pastime unless one took it too seriously…it was also seen as possibly the tip of a horned iceberg. Anything which appeared to be of a miraculous or supernatural nature in this context was suspicious, and very likely the work of the devil.
THE WRONG PLACE
Can you guess what I was at the time? I'll tell you. I was in the Army, as a bandsman stationed at Paddington Barracks. This was one of the more comfortable posts during the Vietnam War. The walled environs of the barracks, built by convicts in 1841-1846, contained a squash court and a billiard room, both of which were deserted, but which I began to use a great deal as a kind of personal club.
After a day's work, I would take off for one to two hours surfing at Bondi Beach, where I shared a flat with Bernie. After a civilised dinner, I would return to the barracks to practice in our resonant bandroom. Working on weekends, we often had compensatory days off mid-week-golden days on the sand as the rest of the city worked 9-5. The descent to Bondi effectively turned one's back on the huge metropolis, and I entered a dreamland. Even as a partner-less, childless 22-year-old, I was deeply moved by the beautiful picture at the Southern end of the beach. A rock circle formed a natural shallow pool, where a group of young mothers would meet, bringing their tiny children. The best things in life were free, I thought. This simple but timeless picture is with me still.
Used to swimming in the cold southern waters of Victoria, I was comfortable swimming through the Sydney Winter, sans wet-suit. I became a confident body surfer, always alert for the perfect wave and the next challenge. One week, it arrived. After fierce storms in the pacific, a powerful surf tore into the eastern coast, stripping the sand from many beaches. As I surveyed the huge breakers crashing into the beach, I planned my tactic.
In previous large seas, I spent a good deal of time making my way under the breakers until I reached green water where I would ride the swells and catch my breath till I was ready to surf. I plunged into an ebbing river of froth foam and sand and shot under the first incoming white wall. I worked hard, plunging deep under successive waves, to find myself quite quickly in clear water, riding high, then dropping like an elevator with each mighty swell. I was shocked to realize that I was "out the back" so soon. I was even more shocked when I looked up and realized that I had passed beyond the headlands of the crescent-shaped bay. I was in open ocean!
My heart lurched, and my first instinct was to sprint for the shore, but I was aware that I would be swimming against the current which had brought me out so fast.. I had my fins on, and got them working in a long, sustained kick, aiming for mid-beach. As I swam, I noticed a throng of people on the headland between Bondi Junction and Tamarama, the adjacent cove. Above them a helicopter swooped. Feeling grimmer by the minute, I stroked steadily shore-ward, anxiously assessing whether I was getting inside the headlands. Still the helicopter rose and fell, rose and fell. The people were still there. Were some of them pointing at me?
Now I was inside the heads, but very tired. The swell lifted me up to roof-top height and passed on, leaving me aghast. Where was the glassy slope I would skim, dolphin-like, to the beach? Nowhere! Only a mountain of water collapsing in a cataclysm of foam-my only route to the beach, and I would have to take it, for the light was just beginning to fade.
Before giving myself any more thinking time, I committed my life to the next wave. Up, up and up again I rose thrusting strongly with my fins. On top of the mountain, my world stood still. An unbelievable drop yawned beneath me. Great angry white ridges barred the ocean between me and the beach. And I knew I shouldn't have been there. Reality was upon me again- it was freefall followed by a raging express train of water driving me deep down, tumbling me like a rag in a washing machine. I didn't know which way was up, where my breath had gone or how long I could hold out. The storm subsided and I bobbed to the surface, had time to take two or three gasping breaths when another monster struck. Deep as I dived, it picked me up like a matchstick. Again I surfaced, desperate for air. Wave number three was upon me, and conscious of diminishing strength I plunged for the bottom. The beast rolled me like a Catherine Wheel, and I came up utterly spent, conscious of an odd feeling on one foot, as my fin had been plucked from it, and was nowhere to be seen. I knew it was a non-floating fin and I could not expect to recover it. Again my mind took a snapshot.
The headland was crowded with people and the helicopter simply hovered. A dog barked on the beach and I could hear the hum of the evening traffic. Sea birds flew over me on their way back to their cliff wall nests. Everyone seemed to know their place but me. They would go to their loved ones, their dinner and their cozy beds while I, who had underestimated the power of the elements, would be flushed away like any piece of flotsam, by the unknowing, uncaring sea.
I cried bitterly, but briefly, as my strength was returning with each breath I took. I had been swept down to the Southern end of the beach and was lined up with the Mothers' Rock Pool where the waves were pounding. Above this stood the whitewashed swimming pool with the link chain border, normally high above water level, but now being pounded from above, sluicing torrents back into the sea. If I could be thrown into that pool I reasoned, I would have to be prepared for a couple of broken ribs, and probably limbs as well. A small price to pay for life! I would do it!
Lining up for the swimming pool, I caught the next beach express. I had miscalculated, and my watery chariot veered right, propelling me headlong towards the rocks. Expecting to have my brains dashed out on the rocks, I was shot through a gap between boulders in a giant jet of water. Into the sanctuary of the Mothers' Pool where I floated round and round in swift shallow water till I grounded. I rolled over, and removed my surviving fin. Then I stood up, and fell over. So I stood up again, but I fell over again. After a couple of minutes I propped to a standing position. I became aware that two boys were watching me, with very large eyes. "Was that you out there mister?"
"Ah, yes, I suppose so", trying to sound casual.
"Are you alright mister?"
I ached from head to toe and had survived an ordeal, but didn't think that it should show.
"Yes, of course" trying to sound casual. I didn't realize that only a waist string and a scrap of the front of my swimming costume remained; nor that I was covered all over in a criss-cross pattern of cuts and abrasions relieved here and there by stripes various, and that most of these injuries were bleeding gently. As I made my way back to my car, I found my other fin, high on the beach. I did no practice that evening, so heard the news for once. A helicopter had tried to rescue a surfboard rider at Tamarama, but had been unsuccessful. The surfer was never seen again.