Smashing tea

Home life had its fair share of chaos, but it was the wrong KIND of chaos. Not the kind we wanted. Dad was a relentlessly sensible presence and strongly opposed to the sort of berserk shenanigans we kids wanted and only adults could facilitate.

Explosions. Precarious climbs. Lethally dangerous play equipment. Wild car rides.

He wouldn’t even take us to Luna Park when it reopened after the Ghost Train fire, remaining unswayed by the management’s assurances that they’d fixed all the electrical problems and arson had nothing to do with it. So naturally we sought another adult to look up to.

Munt had been some sort of itinerant hippy, I think. He said he’d never had a job before he started teaching at the school. Perfect choice.

He drove classic cars, about one or two a year, replacing them as crashed. A Type 3 Volkswagen, a Troop Carrier, a red Holden ute with a custom tray cover. I remember us getting a ride home in the tray a couple of times while that one lasted, rattling around like beans in a tin as he slapped through the suburbs at 110, laying it flat out round corners and swapping lanes like we were taking evasive action.

I made up a sign on one of those trips, a piece of paper with HELP written on it in texta. Held it up to the back window while we thrashed through traffic. I did it in the spirit of mischief, just a bit of fun, but in hindsight it seems perfectly rational.

It was his air of mischief that led us to admire him rather than recognise him as volatile and wildly incompetent. He had a cheeky smile and a wheezing Muttley laugh, made inappropriate jokes like he was trusting us to discreetly get them, and broke rules like they were largely irrelevant.

After six years with him as class teacher a child could come out with burn scars, an acquired brain injury and a suicidally lax attitude to personal safety, but would be unlikely to be a keen reader. Or able to read, in some cases.

On the plus side, they’d know a fair bit about beekeeping and be able to make a really, really good cup of tea.

A lot of people hypothesised that Munt had a drinking problem. He didn’t, though. His addiction was indeed causing him to gain weight, crash cars and give children concussions by throwing big wooden chalkboard erasers at them, but it wasn’t alcohol.

It was tea.

I asked him once. I just fronted up and said, being my usual restrained and tactful self, “Do you have a drinking problem? You keep crashing cars.”

He said no, it was down to drinking too much tea. He couldn’t sleep, which explained the matching luggage under his eyes.

He liked tea with honey, which was why he kept bees. In a two hour class he’d need four cups. A student would be sent to make them, which is how being the best at making tea could leave you illiterate enough to have to ask a nurse what the sign saying BURNS UNIT meant.

One thing I will say for the Arcadia Free School is that at least once a year, each class would be herded into a rusty Toyota Coaster and taken on a trip nobody would later believe. We all did wild things, like climbing Mount Warning in pitch darkness to see dawn from the peak – first light to hit the continent, thick, grey and obscured by rainforest – but Munt took the cake.

Munt took 30 primary school children up “Ayers Rock”, and was proud of it. “A bucket list thing”, he said. The children, now in their late 40s, are loath to admit having done it.

The Aṉangu, distressed by anyone at all making the easily lethal climb up Uluru without genuine cultural business, would no doubt be especially appalled. Parents, of course, were not notified until afterwards.

He was the wild uncle, the wayward older brother, the inspiration to try stuff that was obviously a bad idea. To my lasting mortification, I idolised him. He had records by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Ry Cooder. He played a National resonator guitar with a chrome hubcap in front and the sound of an old gramophone. He was a vegetarian, and so was his cat.

That last one bothered even me.

I visited his house, once. It was somewhere in the wilderness over Galston Gorge up the Hornsby side, which probably means you could still see a number of his cars down in the bush off the hairpin bends if you were willing to risk it.

His little house was basically a verandah with a bedroom and pit-toilet ensuite in dense bushland above a steep drop. It smelled of beeswax and cedar oil.

His cat, when called, did indeed come and eat steamed pumpkin from a bowl, while the sun set over a forest eerily devoid of birdsong.

I saw him one last time in the late 90s, when he had for some reason dropped in on my mothers. He was thin by then and smaller than I remembered. He said he was selling avocados by the road for a living. He reminisced with me about my high school bully, the one whose tyres I’d let down after he’d tried to run over me for laughs. They were best friends these days, he said, because nobody else would lend him a car.

*Names are changed regularly for your convenience

Stir five hundred more

Apparently Nub had, at some point, buried a cow horn full of shit somewhere on the school grounds. Months had passed, the seasons had turned, and it being the spring equinox the horn had to be dug up and the contents ritually diluted in a copper vessel. Today.

The problem was that he couldn’t remember exactly where he had buried it.

What had started as a warm and serenely pompous morning had by lunchtime become a sweaty and somewhat fraught mutilation of a perfectly good orchard. There was a horn of shit in here somewhere and damned if we were going to let it go to waste. The lemons, said Nub, would be rejuvenated by the mixture anyway.

The excavation continued through our lunch hour and into the afternoon. Eventually someone improvised dowsing rods out of a couple of tent pegs and used them to locate the horn on the far side of the first tree we had violated. No I’m serious, that actually happened.

A vast, dented copper pot was produced from somewhere. Bulbous and thin-lipped, lichen-patched with verdigris, this was clearly a pot that had already seen some shit.

The horn was quite large and when emptied into the pot seemed to contain something like very good soil rather than the sloppy black awful I had expected. There was some argument over how much there was. Resolving this involved calculating the volume of a cone while accounting for curvature. Topography not being Nub’s strong suit, it was eventually decided that near enough was good enough and two children carried the pot to the rain barrel at the end of the string of classrooms.

I had been wondering why he hadn’t just measured the shit right out of the horn but this became clear when I discovered that the only vessel of known volume in the school was a one-litre electric kettle. This was then used to dip 31 litres of water out of the rain barrel into the pot.

By now the afternoon was getting on. The preparation was finally ready to stir at 2:45pm. It was supposed to be stirred for an hour. School ended at 3:00.

Everyone was expected to take part. It was very strongly suggested that those of us who were going to catch the bus home stay behind and do our bit. It was always best to heed that sort of suggestion as the consequences of deciding not to could be unpredictable.

Children with incoming parents were told to begin the stirring as they wouldn’t have long. Two at a time were given wooden paddles and directed to stir the dirty water until there was enough of a vortex in the pot that they could see the bottom. Then they were to reverse direction, thrashing the water into a foam.

The second part of this was the hard one.

Creating the vortex was straightforward, just like walking laps in a circular above-ground pool. It got easier as you went. The point of it in a pool was to create a current that would then swing you around the pool like a roundabout. Stirring Preparation 500 properly meant changing direction mid-stream. Easier said than done when you’re eleven years old and have wrists like chicken legs.

My turn in this as in everything came towards the end. My opposite number was Bug, who was tall and thin with long slender hands that could have served him well as a pianist had he not been utterly incurious and as dumb as a brick. When it came time to reverse flow I planted the end of the paddle on the floor of the pot and held on with all the strength my puny arms could muster.

Bug just let go. His paddle vanished into the murk, clunking against mine as it travelled. “Shit!” said Bug. “Language!” said Nub and thrust his hand forearm-deep into the brown. He handed the the now befouled paddle back to Bug, who took it gingerly and helped me get another vortex going in the opposite direction.

Hauling the now very heavy pot to the top of the orchard was a job that took two children to each side. The wire handle cut into us and we had to put it down to change sides and/or personnel about every ten metres.

The sun was going down and the air beginning to chill as we finally got it to where it needed to be. We were dismissed just a few minutes before the last bus and had to run to the stop. Looking over my shoulder as I ran I saw Nub begin to drag the pot over the dewy grass under the trees, flicking the contents onto the ground with a branch. He looked exhausted and forlorn but there was a faint curl of triumph at the corner of his mouth.

The orchard continued to produce its unpalatably sour thick-skinned lemons over the spring and summer, except for the tree under which the horn had been planted.

It died.

*Names are changed regularly for your comfort

Dammed if you

It rained all summer the year they paved the road.

Our mob were opposed to the roadworks, of course, the natural (such as dirt) being spiritual, and the artificial the domain of Ahriman – who would no doubt be just as surprised to hear he’s not a spirit after all as to find himself specifically associated with tarmac.

Hornsby Shire Council also failed to grasp their reasoning, said some things about bus traffic and paved the road.

The sloping five acre block that was by then the Arcadia Free School had a rich but largely forgotten history and an ambivalent relationship with drainage.

Though it was never ceded by the Dharug, at some point someone with European masonry habits had quarried a fair bit of sandstone out of it, built some wonky walls and a small bridge over a creek at the bottom of the hill then abandoned the project when their incompetent stonework fell into the water.

The creek bowed to form two boundaries of the property. I can’t remember where it came from – a spring, perhaps? A pipe under the road, or some uncharted source on the adjacent property? It’s just another memory I’ve lost.

The original farmhouse looked to have been built in the 50s. The creek ran close by it then a hundred metres downhill past the quarry to a concrete weir. There it became a putrid ditch about two metres deep with a weed-blanketed surface like a bowling green, black and utterly anaerobic.

Being ten years old, Dang and me decided the most fun in the world was to stand in the middle of the weir and release methane bubbles by poking the rotting vegetation on the bottom with a stick. Having made the pond fart we’d try to ignite it by throwing lit matches. Naturally it was me that finally fell in.

Having to strip off my rank, sodden weed-encrusted clothes before Mum would let me in the car was so humiliating that two years later I was still leery of the weir and by extension all the other standing water on the school grounds.

There was the pond full of mosquito larvae in front of the covered walkway between two classrooms, a thriving swamp in the old quarry, and the dam.

The dam was presumably farm infrastructure from the same era as the house and had been used as a dump at some point. Or maybe it was a dump that had filled with water. Either way by the time I turned twelve it was a black pit of tetanus soup.

In dry weather you’d see loops of barbed wire and the filigree knife of a rusted-out 44 gallon drum crest the surface. When we returned to school after that wet summer it was brim-full and completely opaque with mud from the roadworks.

It being early in the term, Wat had yet to come up with anything to teach us. After some furrow-browed pondering he announced we were going to embark on “A test of bravery and common sense.” He instructed us to cross the dam while “avoiding hazards.” Dang shrugged, got his kit off and waded through the mess with the rest of them, having at least come up with the innovation of using a long stick to feel his way forward.

I just outright refused. You couldn’t have gotten me in there by throwing me. Wat was quietly furious and said several demeaning things about my cowardice while everyone else set about proving themselves. Some genius rigged a couple of ropes over it so other kids could teeter across above the surface. I watched through my hands in a nauseous adrenaline chill every bit as bad as stripping off in the car park.

Afterwards as the children sat in the sun to dry he announced “You have all passed the test of bravery. He, on the other hand,” pointing at me – “Is the only one to have passed the test of common sense.”

*Names are changed regularly in the interest of public safety

Tin, lead, antipathy

I don’t know why Tin decided to take the children shooting. He said something about teaching us to respect guns but I’m not sure we learned that. Or much of anything else.

Tin had been some sort of bikie, apparently. Not a dog-pack “individualist” with the brittle dress code that runs all the way to a beard-redacted face, more your Stone bikie, a shiftless denim longhair on a big Kawasaki.

In 1978 he’d rolled into Arcadia chasing a rumour of construction work. The school fast turned him into a Seeker After Truth. They always did. He’d sometimes proudly tell us how he’d put his last cigarette out right there, slept on the farmhouse floor with the rest of them and spent two years labouring for nothing but shared lentils. He’d helped build the arc of increasingly complex polygonal timber classrooms, to perform the rituals and lay the artifacts into the foundations. He’d get angry if you asked too many questions about it though.

When he announced we were going to spend the morning learning to shoot I asked why. It wasn’t received well. “It’s important to know how to respect guns,” he said, as if it would make more sense the second time. He threw the Meaningful Look the other teachers reserved for discussing esoteric knowledge, the one that said “If you’re spiritual enough this will be obvious, so if it’s not obvious then you’re intrinsically defective.”

I shut up and got in the van.

The van had two seats. Tin was in one of them. The other held an ancient single-shot bolt action .22, a cheap K-Mart .410 shotgun and a couple of boxes of ammunition. The kids got to ride in the back.

The back of a 1970s Kombi panel van is short on handholds. It’s a lightless steel box with nothing in it but a corrugated floor.

With the door open we could see it was painted the same slick baby-shit brown as the outside. With the door shut it was the inside of a tumble drier. We shrieked and tried to brave-face glee at the zero gravity moments when Tin hammered over rises in the road but a gut-deep sense of threat sharpened the edges of our laughter.

We were ten years old. Eight or nine of us in the class. We were told we were going to a rifle range. It looked like a desolate bush clearing designed for fly-tippers. It might have been in the backblocks of Maroota or Maraylya.

Clay, asbestos and old TV sets had been bulldozed into stubby berms. Tin propped both volumes of last year’s Yellow Pages against the nearest, one in front of the other. I felt like I was about to witness an execution.

He picked up a bit of what might have once been a Venetian blind and drew a long line in the dirt. “Nobody past here until I tell you,” he said. There was a ferocious look in his eye. That and the presence of of actual death-sticks – heavy and somehow far more intrinsically nasty than they had ever seemed as toys or television – kept us in a sort of shocked and silent obedience.

He set the weapons and ammunition on the bare dirt and lay down beside them. He was about ten metres away from the phone books. It didn’t seem very far. I remember looking at the rocks in the clay and wondering what would happen if we missed.

He loaded the rifle in complete silence and fired it once into the centre of the books. I’d expected a louder sound than its little cough. He repeated the procedure with the shotgun. It made a more worrying but still not very convincingly gun-like sound.

He picked us one by one and made us lie in the dirt while he stood behind. He’d load the rifle and hand it to us. If we missed our one shot we’d be dismissed. Those who hit the phone books were allowed to fire the shotgun.

I was picked toward the end, missed and was dismissed. The somewhat ragged phone books were packed away with the guns and remaining ammunition.

Tin seemed darkly disappointed. We rode back to school in a subdued mood, scrabbling for purchase on the steel floor in relative quiet.

The incident was never spoken of again.

*Names are changed regularly to ensure security