I started life in a 2-bedroom fibro house with a groovy flat roof in a circle of unusual neighbours, alongside of them, over the road from them and at times a little underneath some of them. Our house was one of the last war homes to go up on the high side of the street, slotted in between two pre-existing families, which meant that their kids were already much older than me. The opposite side of the street backed on to a natural water run, a swampy bit of land you couldn’t build on, known commonly around the neighbourhood as ‘the back paddock’. The last available house lots after ours were on the down side of the street, so it was over the road where I was to eventually find kids and friends my own age or younger, with a few exceptions.
Settled on our right, were the extremely Catholic ‘Keanes’, who must have been there already for some time. Mr and Mrs Keane always seemed old to me. They had a son and two daughters who had done all their growing up by the time we moved in, yet they were still living at home. Thing is, the three of them never really got around to leaving. They were still there when I left and by then had started growing old themselves. I think one of the sisters got away for a little while and spent some time in a convent but she soon came flying back home, settling instead to just teach with the Nuns and not become one of them. The other sister became a nurse, at the Catholic hospital, and nursed my Mum when she was dying. I think the son went into his father’s business but he never got around to leaving home or marrying either. I remember asking Mum one time about why none of them were married. There was mention of a boyfriend for one of the sisters but the mention included something about disapproval and something about the Vietnam War. I was left to think he’d died in Vietnam but maybe it was just that he didn’t return to her for whatever reason. In much later years there was a plan hatched for the two sisters, (by then in their early 40’s), to move into their own home together further up the hill. Their father built the house. Sad thing is he died of a heart attack finishing it and the two women were left to look after their grieving old mother. They only went home at bedtime and were back again every morning.
Mr Keane had been a jovial old bloke. Their bathroom overlooked our backyard. I’ll always remember Mr Keane’s many renditions of “How Great Thou Art” that easily found their way through the louvres and over the fence into our backyard. Mrs Keane though was a sneaky old woman, the sort who’d peak out at the world through her lounge room curtains and had to know everything that was going on. Got a feeling that she was at the centre of the family’s problems. It was either Her or God.
Mrs Keane was very determined to have the best front garden in the street, at any cost. She was well known for her evening walks in a pair of gardening gloves, scissors in hand, ready to snip off cuttings and pull out plants from other people’s gardens. Seemed she was the sort who just couldn’t bear to be out done. I remember Mum calling me over one time to look out our lounge room window. There she was by the tap, almost falling into our yard, snipping away and looking up to see if anyone was watching. What annoyed Mum the most was not her stealing but the fact she had to copy everybody. One of almost every plant and tree in our street could be found growing in Mrs Keane’s garden. She had the botanical collection of domestic East Albury.
Straight across the road from us lived the not-so-religious Mr and Mrs Franklin and their two daughters Wendy and Lyn. I remember the Franklins’ house as a fun house with a big, loud record player and rainbow coloured venetain blinds. Mrs Franklin was a gutsy lady, jet black hair and a dark freckled complexion, who shamelessly smoked Marlboro Reds all day long and welcomed me in every time as if she always looked forward to my appearances. “Timothy Bee” she would say to me as I stood at her kitchen door. “Come in Timmy Bee, and how are you today?” I never got the ‘b’ business, that it was the first letter of my surname. I don’t think I even knew my alphabet yet. I always wondered what it was about me that made her think of me as a bee. Mrs Franklin had this barmaid feel about her and held herself well like any good barmaid would do, always cheeky, chatty and happy. I wonder now if the bottle of Scotch that sat on the kitchen bench had anything to do with it. Wendy was my age and became my first best friend. I asked her very early on to marry me and she said ‘yes’. There was a new house for sale further down the street that I picked out for the both of us and I made the announcement of my intention to marry to my other good friend, Mrs Rutter, Kit, the seamstress who lived with her husband Wal, the tennis instructor, just across the way. The Rutter’s were elderly and had no children of their own, just Cocky the cockatoo, so we kids were always welcome there, anytime. She made me a pink tulle bouquet to give to Wendy and we were married in the Franklin’s backyard under the swing set. But I liked the bouquet so much I kept it.
Mrs Franklin was also Mum’s best friend at the time and the four of us spent a lot of time together in the afternoons before the older kids came home from school. Mum and Mrs Franklin both loved music and they’d sit in the kitchen while Wendy and I danced around the lounge room to the latest record of ‘The Seekers’. I learnt ever line of “ Close the door, light the light,” over at the Franklin’s. On cue Wendy and I would literally close the doors and the venetian blinds and turn on all the lights whenever the Seekers said so. There was no doubt that Wendy and I were living “In a World Of Our Own”.
One of my earliest personal tragedies and a memory that has stuck with me as a lesson for life happened from playing over at the Franklins’. Mrs Franklin suggested one day she take Wendy and I for a walk round the block, we must have been buzzing like bees, driving her off her block. She told me to go and ask my Mum if it was all right for me to go. I went and asked and Mum said yes and that she’d like to come too. She told me to come and get her when we were ready to go, she was just going to change her clothes first. I was so excited about going for a walk that I forgot the bit about Mum wanting to come too. When we came back from our walk and I went home, there was Mum sitting on the lounge, still waiting. She’d changed into her good plaid skirt, done her hair and put on some lippy and I’d forgotten about her. I burst into tears. How could I have forgotten my Mum? I was really sad that I’d left her behind, that she’d missed out, and that it was all my fault. She hugged me to stop me from crying and even laughed a little, telling me it was all right. But the memory of that pain I felt never ever left me and it reminded me to never again forget about my Mum nor anybody’s Mum.
I went off to my first day at school a little earlier than Wendy did. I remember Mrs Franklin and Wendy coming with Mum and I to help settle me in. I was ‘off to the nuns’ and Wendy was going to the ‘publics’. It must have been both the Mum’s plan to bring Wendy along to help smooth out our separation as we had become inseparable. I probably wouldn’t have gone that first day without saying goodbye to my wife and Wendy would have thought I’d deserted her if she wasn’t to know where her husband had gone for the day.
But something was up at the Franklin house all along.
Mr Franklin was a good bloke, my Dad always said. He helped Dad build the extra room on our house that got my brother and I out of my sister’s bedroom and out of her hair. I always found Mr Franklin very warm and friendly when I saw him on weekends. I was the only other bloke around at the Franklin’s house. He had a work shed in the back yard where he would sit on a weekend or after work, where I was always welcome to drop in. He would listen to my chattering, talk to me and let me have a go at sawing blocks of wood and hammer in nails. Something my own dad never did. I remember that he always sat at the bench with a bottle of beer and there was a constant pile of empty beer bottles stacked against the back wall of the house that you had to dodge when you were running laps around the house. Sometimes we knocked them over but it was never a problem to anyone.
One night though, Mrs Franklin and the two girls slept at our house in the lounge room. I thought it was really exciting having them sleep at our house but Wendy was upset and worried about her Dad. Something must have driven them out of their house; I guess it was Mr Franklin. Another night I remember Mr Franklin standing in the middle of the street shouting abuse at the whole neighbourhood. I particularly remember him shouting,” And I can see you Mrs Keane peaking out your curtains!” That made Mum and Dad laugh. We didn’t have to peak, we had see through curtains.
I was told one day, shortly after these events, that Wendy was moving away. She and her Mum and her sister had gone to stay with a relative out on the edge of town and wouldn’t be coming back. Mum and I drove out there to visit them a few times before they disappeared for good. There was talk out there that Mr Franklin had been coming out and tormenting them and there was mention of a rifle. Very soon after this they left town for good and Mrs Franklin wouldn’t tell us where they had gone for fear that Mr Franklin would find out. I received a letter from Wendy some time after with no return address, just saying they had gone to Queensland because Dad had tried to shoot Mum. Wendy said she missed me and I really missed her. We’d had a lot of fun together, had gotten married, showed each other our private bits and become really best friends and now I had to find a new one. But looking back, no one ever replaced Wendy.
The family to the left, who were probably the closest to us in our growing lives, is a much longer and much more difficult story to tell, I’ll need to take a breathe.
Mr and Mrs Scammel had a son Paul, about my sister’s age and a daughter Jenny, who was older. Both of our families shared a lot of living but I warn you now life next door was tough at times and not too pretty.
Paul had a nickname, ‘Scambo’, that Dad used in a friendly way that my brother also used behind Dad’s back to stir him up. Needless to say I never risked it, Paul was much older than me. His nickname referred to how black he got in summer and in fact how black he was for most of the year and he didn’t like being reminded of it. He was light of frame and long legged with jet-black curly hair. I remember his smell, not just his sweaty teenage boy smell but his particular smell that was a regular smell around our house and still lingers in my memory. He slept many a night on a mattress on the floor in our room when the going got tough next door. He had a noticeably good growth of hair under his arms, which is where I think the smell came from. Because of the hair and the dark skin, my brother also risked it sometimes to call him a monkey. Michael knew how easy it was to fire him up but also knew that he’d pay for it with a good thumping he’d have coming. Paul was handsome too, so the names didn’t really stick and he had a vibrant outgoing personality and had my Dad’s attention to his difficulties at home, which is probably what really pissed my brother off. My sister had his attention too, I read it in her diary, “Dear Diary, Paul came over today. Oooooh.”
Jenny Scammell was a teenage woman of the world. She’d supposedly babysit us when Mum and Dad went out but I think she saw it as more of a chance to use our telephone, tempt us into smoking and play her EP’s on our ‘discatrone’ that Dad had won at work. I’ve never seen another discatrone ever since. It was a portable upright singles record player that eventually broke down. Before it died for good you had to sit a brick on the play button to keep the record going. In its early life it managed to pump out quite a few rounds of “Yummy, Yummy, I Got Love In My Tummy”, “Knock Three Times” and “Cupid”. One night, I remember Jenny deserting the discatrone and her babysitting duties to run back next door to meet up with her current, older boyfriend. We were left to go play in the street. We saw her kissing her boyfriend in the lounge room of her house, right by the front window with the venetians open and the light on! Michael and Paul threw stones at the window to let her know we were watching. Boy did she go wild. She also had Paul’s fiery temper.
At first, things seemed to only go noticeably wrong next door at Christmas time. Well to me at least. I was too young to really know what was going on. I only knew what I saw and what I heard. Paul would come over in the lead up to Christmas all excited telling my Mum and Dad, “This year it’s going to be a good Christmas!” The next thing you’d know it would be Christmas Eve and Paul would be sleeping on our floor.
Mr and Mrs Scammell were drinkers, beer drinkers, big beer drinkers. He was a council worker and she was a cleaner at the local high school. Every Monday to Friday at 6am Mr Scammell would wake us all up trying to start his old Zephyr to head off to work. It particularly gave Mum the shits and particularly in winter when the old car not only had trouble starting but staying started. You see the old Zephyr got started up directly under Mum’s bedroom window.
It seems that when the Scammells didn’t work, the Scammells drank. And worse was yet to come.
In her better years, Norma would come over to our place, mostly to use our phone or just to have a chat with Mum. Both of the Scammells were very likeable people. She was the joke a minute kind of woman, ginger haired and freckled with an olive complexion; a real stirrer who gave Dad lots of cheek, telling him he should take his wife out more often and show her a good time. “Take her out dancing Les!” It was clear Norma liked a good time and Mum and Dad enjoyed her company and had lots of laughs with her. Mr Scammell though was quiet, you never heard much from him but he seemed real gentle and polite. I do remember one night though when Dad was back at work, Mr Scammell came to our front door for no particular reason other than to tell my Mum, “You’ve got lovely legs Nancy.” He must have been drunk. Mum was a bit frightened by this and very unusually locked up the house after telling him to go home.
Not many more years went by till Jenny swiftly took off from home but still called back in on her parents regularly, I guess to check up on them. She got married very young and started a family of her own and Paul left school not long after, when Dad got him a job at his work. He too soon moved out from home but he never came back to either of his homes let alone to his mattress on our floor. I don’t think he wanted to come back ever again.
And the Scammells drank on. You never saw them much after that but you heard them, not violently arguing but verbally abusing one another and calling out to each other from different rooms in the house, drunk. From time to time you’d hear slow sorrowful wails of confusion coming from Norma laying on her bed by the window that became part of the regular background sounds of the neighbourhood and nothing unusual. There was never any perceived reason to call the police but there came times to call the ambulance. It was Jenny who’d make the call and she’d call them on our phone. I remember one of the occasions, possibly the first, when Jenny came in to make the call. I think only Mum and I were at home. I was sitting at our kitchen table when I saw Jenny come round the corner of our house looking stressed and angry. She came straight in the back door. She was embarrassed and she was upset. But she had this sense of control about her that held her up to the task and helped her face my Mum in the ugliness of the situation.
Jenny stayed in our kitchen with Mum till the ambulance came. She was very annoyed with her parents. Mum told me to stay inside while she and Jenny went out to meet the ambulance. But I watched from Mum and Dad’s front bedroom window and from their side window, which looked out over the old Zephyr and up to the Scammell’s front door. Out came the two, on separate stretchers. They were alive because I heard Mrs Scammell deliriously moan and I saw her flop her arm up into the air but Mr Scammell was as silent and still as dead.
They’d be gone for many weeks. I was told they’d gone to Kenmore where they’d be stopped from drinking. There was talk of ‘drying out’. I reasoned rightly enough that Kenmore was a hospital because that’s where ambulances took you but I’d never heard of Kenmore hospital. I only knew of “The Mercy’ and ‘The Base’ so I always thought of ‘Kenmore’ as being some place way, way, away, somewhere quite mysterious, where nobody knew except for the ambulance drivers who took you there. A couple of years ago I came across a story on the internet about a big old hospital near Goulburn that was up for sale. It was called Kenmore Hospital and had “operated as the acute psychiatric admission centre for the southern region, with services also provided to inebriate patients”. Immediately I finally found out where the Scammells had gone to on their trips in the ambulance. A mystery no more.
The treatment they received though was never a cure. There were a number of times that Jenny had to make the call and as many number of times that I watched the Scammells disappear into the back of an ambulance for a few weeks and come back again, sober.
One time, it was Dad who raised the alarm. I was a lot older by now, maybe thirteen. It was a Saturday morning and I remember it well. Who could forget it. Suspicion must have been raised, maybe it was the lack of wailing coming from the house. Dad went into the Scammell’s yard to suss things out. The house was locked up and neither of them would answer his knocking on the door. But he knew they were in there, the Zephyr was in the driveway. He decided to break in or he got me to anyway. He took out the louvres in the bathroom window and hoisted me up; I was the only one who could fit through the small bathroom window. Dad told me clearly, “When you get in, go straight to the front door and open it from the inside for me, I don’t want you to go anywhere else but straight to the front door, allright?’
Any kid would enjoy jumping in through a window so I was more than willing but no kids I know would enjoy walking up a hallway spread about with human shit. It seemed to be everywhere and I was pretty horrified by it. There was no way I was going to go looking around; I wanted to get out of there and away from that sickening smell of stale beer and human shit as quickly as possible. I walked straight to the front door just as Dad had said, carefully stepping over blobs of pooh. Just as I passed the lounge room door I momentarily saw the back of a body lying on the floor, silent and motionless. I let Dad in and I was out.
They both lived again to see another day but things did change from here on.
Mr Scammell gave up the grog for good this time and became a local ambassador for Alcoholics Anonymous, stories about him in the newspaper and all. But Mrs Scammell never did. Somehow he stayed off the grog while she still drank. She never got taken away again to Kenmore though, so I suppose he had some moderating influence on her or maybe he just set her limits. Besides becoming a public example of alcoholic reform, Mr Scammell took up lots of vegetable gardening in his spare time, started training greyhounds from home and raised chooks when he wasn’t at work ‘on the council’. We also saw a lot more of Jenny looking happier, and she even started to bring her own kids up to the house to visit. But we still never saw Paul. He was starting to have problems of his own.
Here comes the worse bit and the saddest bit about their story.
Mr Scammell got retired from his council job of digging holes and started drinking again with Norma. Mum reckoned it was all that extra time he now had on his hands and all that extra time to put up with Norma that drove him back to drinking. I‘d left home myself by now and only know this end part of their story from what Mum told me. She said he drank a bottle of ‘turps’ from under the kitchen sink and it killed him. Thing was, Norma was so drunk she didn’t know he was dead at the kitchen table. Whoever raised the alarm I’m not sure but Mum said that when Mr Scammell was taken out on a stretcher with a sheet over him, he was lying on his back in the sitting position that he had stiffened into, with his legs bent up in the air.
Surprisingly Mrs Scammell survived a number more years. One time after Mr Scammell had died and I was home visiting, Norma was telling Mum over the driveway fence, “Nancy, they told me ten years ago that my liver would only survive another six months and I’m still here!” And she was and she was still drinking. Her game now, without a husband to drive for her, was to come into our place and ask to call a taxi. But she never went anywhere in the taxi. The taxi was called to collect a carton of beer from the drive-thru bottle shop and bring it up to her house. No ambulances pulling up into the drive but plenty of taxis. Last I heard though, the ambulance did come one last time for Norma and it took her off in a different direction than Kenmore, to Beechworth mental asylum, for good. Her brain went in the end, before her cast iron liver.
When my Mum died, there was a notice put in the local paper from Jenny Scammell. It said, “To a good neighbour”. Paul came to Mum’s funeral and he couldn’t stop himself from sobbing all the way through.
These were just some of the neighbours that circled me in my growing years and only the ones whose lives I saw a little more into. I thought I’d had a pretty ordinary childhood but it wasn’t all that ordinary at all, only as ordinary as what I was used to as an ordinary every day kind of life. Now I don’t think anything is ordinary anymore; it just looks it sometimes, from where you first look.