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 to ensure security