Quidquid latet apparebit.
“Whatever is hidden shall be laid bare.”
Hearing or reading those mighty words of the Dies Irae, I’m reminded of a silly event from my youth, one that doesn’t involve evil or final judgements. I’m just reminded, that’s all.
Arcady. Know the place? South end of Sydney, just north of the preciously titled “Shire”.
We grew up there. The suburb curls round a hill that’s mostly bush reserve to the ocean side. Below are playing fields, a little inlet formed into a swimming enclosure and, beyond, the open waters of Kogarah Bay. Bush, suburb and water, without an industry in sight: that’s Arcady.
At the top of the hill was our happy avenue of solid brick or plaster houses which had the happy diversity of post-war homes that weren’t “war service”. Our family’s single story affair had a touch of British bungalow, a touch of Spanish Mission and Moorish. That was the good thing about the era just after the war: none of the oppression of good taste. There was restraint in most other things, but money or buildings skills could bring a little individual fantasy to a new home.
The avenue ended in a cul-de-sac, and, perhaps because there were no passers-by, people were less likely to have the tight “featurist” gardens which were the grand passion of suburbanites in the 1950s. The crewcut shrubbery, non-ironic gnomes and chocolate box displays of shrieking colour were found closer to the the Prince’s Highway. I miss those gardens now. I miss the Model Home of the Highway with its spaceship references. There again, I miss the 1950s.
In Eora Avenue, things were more relaxed. No, “relaxed” is the wrong word. We competed a little less. There was a milkman who flew an Australian flag on his front lawn, but that was more than enough overtness for Eora Avenue. (Before the eighties and Mojo advertising, flag-waving was frowned upon – remember? It was too demonstrative; it was un-Australian somehow.)
This was Sydney, so nobody tried to know anybody. You knew those of your age group if they lived very close, maybe those of your siblings’ age group. There was a boy a bit older than all of us called Terry Hurley, who lived just a few doors down. I never spoke to him all the time I was growing up. After some fifteen years or more, he saw me learning to park a car, and approached me. We chatted agreeably about cars, liked each other a lot. Then I never spoke to him again. So Sydney.
There were little scandals over the years. There was the odd adultery; there was the doctor who wanted his female patients to undress by default; there was a lady who drank sherry before lunch. Once some of us kids were approached in the bush by an overcoated man who exposed himself, then asked us for an opinion of his organ. When I told my parents later, they contacted the police. The police asked me to describe the man, and, for some reason, I said he looked like my Uncle Mick. My mother announced that she looked like Mick, so. logically, all we needed to do was look for someone a bit like my mother. So I got to ride around with the police, looking for a man in an overcoat who looked a bit like my mother…
Those police weren’t too interested, any more than the fire brigade which came sometimes to extinguish a tiny blaze in our bushland, with its safe easterly pitch. It was as if everyone knew that, in Arcady, nothing much would ever happen. They were right.
No pubs! For years, alcohol was only available in railway suburbs like Hurstville and Kogarah, a bus-ride away. Later, there were hotels built in less utilitarian spots, like the bridge over the George’s River and the beach at Sans Souci. Finally, the Taj Mahal, the new St. George Leagues Club, a mighty modernist lump, rose up by the Prince’s Highway.
But long before all that, came a family of spending, drinking, constantly eating Micks: us. We were different. For us, every weekend was open house, though more for relatives than neighbours. Those neighbours, being good people in the old, non-ironic sense, were not disapproving; but they were not interested in exploiting my father’s lavishness, even after we installed Arcady’s first private swimming pool (by the new Spraycrete process!). No, our neighbours “kept the noiseless tenor of their way”. To this day, I could not tell you what that tenor was; I can just say that they were excellent people. I miss them now, whoever they were.
On weekends, my father, a former naval man, changed into weekend uniform. That consisted of shorts and a safari or Hawaiian top, though his hair remained brushed-back and vaselined. His philosophy: the clothing maketh the weekend. Relax formally, dress for mirth. He was right, of course. Wartime fathers understood such things.
A giant concrete barbecue had been built at the very back of a rambling rear yard. Below lay the public bushland, with Kogarah Bay in the distance. And it was there that my father loved to station himself on weekends, with a raspy transistor radio to deliver the races while speedboats growled a similar noise in the distance. Women draped in their gaudy muumuus – for the weekend, naturally – would fuss over salads and incidentals, while my father commanded at the big greasy plate.
And there was the beer. At some point, maybe in the late fifties, a great worm turned. The bottled beer which had been almost a currency in the war years started losing commercial ground to canned beer. We were quick with the change, just as we had been quick to get one of the very first Spraycrete pools “in the southern hemisphere”.
The first cans were heavy and stiff, and had to be opened with one of those can keys. You made a small puncture opposite the drinking hole, so that the beverage could be swilled easily. Pop, hiss. Little pop, no hiss. Those early cans seemed to have more pressure in them than the modern ones.
First it was uncles joining my father for a can. Then women took to direct swigging as one swung into those sixties. Gradually, we kids came of age and were allowed the odd can of the hard brew, instead of Tarax. (Yes, Tarax was actually a soft drink, not a castration device or a rail network.)
And where did all those cans go?
Well, my father was strict about rubbish disposal, as is anyone who has captained a ship. Yet cans were sterile, inert. They could be disposed of by throwing them into the enormous choko vine that grew in the bush below our fence. Enriched by the septic systems of the Eora Avenue houses bordering the public land, that choko vine was green and dense through the year, and gradually covered what seemed like acres to my young eyes. It devoured all, it cast tendrils even up to our low fence; it was like an organic empire, growing outward as its centre became impassable tangle.
From behind that green rampart, we could safely hurl ridicule or even firecrackers at any passing “bodgies” or “widgies” who might wander through the public land. None should pass that choko vine; none did. While the oversized chokos, boiled and served with white sauce, were my first inkling that all was not well with Australian cuisine, the vine itself became a symbol of…of what? Of social separation? Of abundance?
Over the years, we began to feel that the cans were nourishing the vine. Sometimes an entire bin-full was dumped over the fence, but the resulting concentration was frowned on. A single can thrown far disappeared instantly into the green maw of our vine; a pile might be visible for weeks before Big Choko could digest it. When one of my aunties criticised our littering, my father hurled a can extra high and hard, right into the outskirts of the vine, and explained:
“You need to get a spread. That’s the whole point. You’re spreading, not dumping.”
Uncle Bede added:
“It’s the iron. Chokos need iron.” And he hurled his can, to a different spot, to get a spread.
We knew that there was a neighbour or two who objected to the vine. There’s always someone who wants things tidier, clearer, more native, more natural, more something.
One weekday morning, there was a whiff of something odd and chemical floating on the air. The odour was stronger to the rear of the house. When we kids got home from school that day, it was fading, but still perceptible.
By Saturday, when my father established his position by the barbecue mid-morning, we knew what had happened. The vine, in an irregular pattern, was shrivelling at the tips. Someone had sprayed it, in the early hours.
When friends and relatives arrived over the weekend, there were many headshakes, resentful sneers, stabs at possible suspects. In that era, you wouldn’t put it past a commo, a wowser, a new A, or a Baptist to do such things. We could only guess who had been the poisoner, but it was no municipal employee – not before six in the morning.
Few cans were thrown that weekends.
Ah, but sewage, sunshine and – as far as we were concerned – extra iron in the soil, soon remedied things. New leaves and shoots were the vine’s quick response to the phantom saboteur. It even seemed to us that the vine was more vigorous now. “Give it its iron,” said my uncle Dom, as he hurled his can.
For the rest of that summer, the well-aimed cans rained hard, and Vine, as we now called it, was fat with new sap, glowed with unquenchable life.
It was the iron, for sure.
The seventies came. Still the cans went hurtling then disappearing into the gaps and folds of the green monster, which. in some lights, seemed a host of small monsters: an army of flat, hairy, prickly helmets, pressing forward up the hill, tossing up tendrils like scaling ladders.
We had fed and fed that army with metal, through all the sunny, dry weekends of the sixties. Now came some constantly damp years. We children had grown; my parents, a little less active, began to entertain more inside.
We had lost sight of Vine. It became merely part of the scrub which lay beyond our back fence. Someone now came round to pick up used cans for recycling. When I went to the back fence, I noticed that a white fluff had settled on all the leaves of Vine. There was a mushroom reek wafting up the slope on still evenings.
That winter, after constant rain through a cool year, Vine – our choko vine, which had been evergreen through all seasons, which had always advanced with an optimism born in the fifties – it withered. Then it died. For a while, Vine was a limp, brown mess, a land-locked Sargasso.
Finally, Dies Irae. Our ridiculous Day of Reckoning.
One cold Saturday morning, at the end of a wet and busy week for the whole family, I wandered down to the back fence.
Yes, I saw it first.
From underneath the dead mat, now washed away, a raft had emerged, a shoal, a massive reef…of beer cans! It was not a pile or a scattering of cans, but a Great Beer Can Reef, continuous and almost neat in its layout. How many? I tried to calculate: there may have been between fifty and a hundred thousand.
The red and white of my father’s Reschs Dinner Ale was flecked with the gold and blue of my uncles’ favourite Tooths and Tooheys, over an area big enough to play serious footy. There were even some antique Tarax cans.
We had got that good spread.
Soon the whole family was standing at the fence and gaping at our – and Arcady’s – disgrace. My father shrugged, as if to say…what? He could only shrug. He had created an enormous field of beer cans in Arcady, where an empty sherry bottle, sipped down over two years, needed secret disposal.
Soon others living adjacent to the bush reserve would see it, and they would discreetly invite other neighbours for a glimpse of our shame. They would not be harsh, or even critical, those good Arcadians. Which made it worse.
We kids were amused and even impressed, except my maturing sister, who fled the house that weekend.
My mother was in tears. Can you imagine?
Oh, my father was able to do a deal with our tin recyclers, who cleaned up most of the Great Beer Can Reef before the council or other authorities could get nastily involved. Old naval officers can sort any mess.
Why am I telling all this?
Well, what if there really were a dies irae, a single day when all is suddenly laid bare? All things done, all things left undone, all things thought, repressed, forgotten, fudged, spun, excused – by all of us, even in Arcady. Not just an accusing stretch of beer cans drained over twenty years. No, but all things, absolutely all things…
…laid suddenly bare!
How would that feel?
Just a thought. I know, I know. Change the subject.