Mark Cornell

Short Fiction by Mark Cornell

In Bulleen back in the early seventies it felt like you were out in the bush. There were vacant blocks everywhere, wild creeks, orchards and thick bush around the Yarra. When the Scanlon’s moved into their white weather board house in winter, Connor Scanlon was stunned by the mists and greenery. The air smelt sweet with the scent of gumtrees and wattle. The boy loved flying down the middle of Sheahans Road on his pushbike. It was perfectly straight, there was no traffic, it was downhill and the road seemed to stretch forever, at the end it plunged into a steep dip then suddenly rose again, Connor whooped as he felt like he was flung up into the middle of the sky.

To top things off his mate, Neil Brown who’d left Templestowe High to go to Ivanhoe Grammar a year ago, suddenly re-established contact with Connor by appearing unannounced out front of his house in Carrathool St with his pushbike. Neil introduced Bulleen to his mate. The creeks were great places to seek cover, build dams and hunt for tadpoles. The orchids were exciting places to pinch fruit. Connor often came home laden with apples and lemons for his Mum. Then there was the Yarra! Connor felt like a free spirit while he and his guide Neil explored its many wonders through old bush trails. The place was teeming with life, cockatoos, rosellas, wattle birds, noisy crows, ducks, magpies, bellbirds, king parrots and the occasional hawk and Joe Blake! The boys learnt the characters of the animals. Connor laughingly imitated the warble of the magpie, Neil, the gargle of the wattle bird. Then there were the trees, huge magnificent gums, in all shapes and sizes, wattle trees with their canopy of mini suns, blackwood’s, myrtles and tea trees. The boys climbed so high sometimes that they could see all the way to the bay. Neil called Bulleen, “the urban forest.” 

The Yarra could be an unyielding swollen beast. Sometimes her brown waters broke their banks, Templestowe Road became a lake. Marcellin College was closed. “Lucky bloody Micks!” Connor said to his annoyed Catholic Mum. The area around the Veneto Club transformed into a huge lake. The bloke Connor’s Dad bought the weather board house from said the end of the backyard was once under three feet of water. The Scanlon’s backyard was full of lush pittosporums and noisy possums at night. The boy had never heard their unearthly growl before, it sounded like a demon trapped in hell. When he went outside with is torch, he saw these two huge eyes in a tree staring at him. Connor went up to investigate the creature and it pissed on him. After a few nights the boy managed to coax the monster down and feed it bread. It was a brush tail possum; Connor loved the way the little fella cupped his pink hands and meticulously chewed his food. Over the years the possums would bring their babies down to the Scanlon’s, and allow the family to pat them. Some people saw them as pests, but Connor’s Mum said, “They were here first.” 

Connor went with Glen one night in the Morris to Collingwood. Glen’s workmates dog had given birth to a litter of puppies, half Sheep dog, half Labrador. Connor fell in love straight away with the little curly black bundle of fluff. He looked like a little Sheep dog except his eyes weren’t covered over with fur. The puppy licked a giggling Connor all the way home. The Scanlon’s decided the only way to name the pooch would be to put names in a hat and pull one out. Glen pushed for the name Rocky. The name was pulled out. The Scanlon kids protested and Glen reluctantly agreed to another ballot. The name came out again, and thus the pooch was christened Rocky. Connor was given a telescope for Christmas and spent nights out in the backyard using his Grandfather’s Tom old bomb of car as an observatory platform. Connor would sit on the boot of the old Austin and use its roof to stand the telescope on. After the boy taught the dog to leave the possums alone, Rocky would jump up on the boot of a car to join him.

Connor never forgot the sight of the shadowed lunar seas, the glowing mountains and craters. The boy marveled that man had recently been up there. Connor and Glen used to sit in silence seemingly all night and watch the astronaut’s race around the moon in their buggy on the telly. Connor kept all the newspaper cuttings from the Apollo Program and pasted then into a scrap book. Sometimes Rocky jumped onto the roof of the Austin then fall asleep. The Scanlon’s soon discovered Rocky wasn’t a dog who could be restrained in the backyard. The family used to nickname him Bird Dog. Connor often flew down Carrathool Street on his bike to see Rocky asleep on top of a car. 
The boys swam in the Yarra during summer. Rocky joined them and they often had to rescue a yelping pooch from the rapids. The dog used to dive after the rocks the boys piffed into the river. Connor’s parents warned him about potholes and underwater branches but Connor and Neil were thirteen and reckless; they knew no darkness, only the glittering surface of the river. The boys often snuck below a large wire fence to explore the brickworks. Neil said his mate was chased out of the quarry by a man wielding a salt gun who shot him in the bum and it stung like buggery. Neil and Connor constructed enormous clay dam walls then demolished them to watch the water flood all over the place. It was like something out of the Dam busters in World War 2. Sometimes they snuck all the way up to the factory and knocked on the door, then flew off. They were always accosted by an angry factory worker but never saw any salt gun. Glen bought home large pieces of green cardboard from the Heidelberg Repat upon which the boys drew and developed elaborate Third World war games. Both boys were music nuts and used to spend a lot of their time at each other’s house listening to their recently purchased albums. Glen had bought Daddy Cools Golden Hits for Connor for Christmas. His Mum, Margaret, reckons he purchased it for himself rather than his son. It didn’t matter; the album was on high rotation in the Scanlon’s house hold. It was popular at Scanlon dos, all the relies got up and danced, especially to  Eagle Rock. Neil had bought Elton John’s, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Don’t Shoot me I’m only the Piano Player; the boys played both albums to death.

The Scanlon’s had a three foot Clark Rubber swimming pool in the backyard into which Glen threw Rocky into for a bath now and then. Trouble was the clean pooch would jump over the backyard fence and return in a few hours’ time stinking of horse shit. Rocky did it every time the family washed him. Connor caught him in the local supermarkets dump master once; he stuck his furry head out stinking of fish. Margaret saw him in Coles one day walking up and down the aisles like he shopping for something, (fish probably.) Connor went to a party and chatted to the host who said his dog had just given birth to a litter of puppies. Connor went down into the basement to see six little Rocky’s.

‘Do you know who the father is?’ Connor asked.

‘Do you know that rotten grey mongrel the roams the neighbourhood and answers to the name of Rocky?’ replied the host.

‘Guess what we’re related!’ Connor shook the stunned host’s hand. One summer Neil’s mother advised Connor that Rocky’s fur was matted and the poor thing needed a haircut. So Connor’s Pop came over with a large pair of scissors and sheared Rocky. Pipe smoking Pop left a little bit of fur on his tail, so it looked like a feather duster. Neil reckoned Rocky looked like a skinhead.
Then, just as he’d re-established his friendship with Neil, his best friend had to move up to Sydney because his Dad got a promotion. Connor was devastated. Neil was more like a brother to the boy; The Brown’s his second family. Their house in Morang Ave was a refuge. Connor used to stay overnight on Saturdays, the boys would stay up late watching the telly, then go to bed talk and listen to the radio until the early hours of the morning. Their conversations were predominantly about history and music. So, although the two might have appeared as typical teenage boys, Neil was Connor’s first intellectual friend. The boys often played and toyed with ideas. Connor wasn’t to experience such a deep friendship again for a couple of years.
* * *

The hills of Bulleen became full of Italians who’d moved out of Fitzroy and Carlton. They all built palatial mansions with concrete lions out the front. Connor reckons they were more like blocks of flats than houses. The boy walked the two miles to Templestowe from Bulleen every day. On one of his walks through the hills he befriended John Costanzo. Initially the two had epic arguments over culture and migration, as they walked to and from school, slowly but surely Connor changed his mind. Connor had been raised to despise Italians, there were too many of them and they were taking over the country. The only time the boy has seen Italians was at the Victoria Market, but now Bulleen was chokers full of them. John told Connor he should read, They’re A Weird Mob. Connor read it and left the prejudiced world of the Scanlon’s. The humour got him. Although part of his conversion was to do with John’s older sister, Natalia, she was a stunning beauty with long thick dark hair and piercing blue eyes. She liked dressing as an American Indian and was into Jackson Brown. Before Connor knew it his closest mates were all Italian and they all roamed the wild places of Bulleen together. There was Enzio Pretto, who was built like a brick shithouse, told grouse jokes and did a mean rooster impression. There was Ross Botter a tall lanky country fella from Myrtleford who swore too much, and Mick Vitali, he had long fuzzy hair and the boys used to nickname him “ helmet head.”

Connor incurred the wrath of Carla, John’s mother a few times. Once they were exploring a huge irrigation pipe under Sheahans Road. Connor pretended to panic and ran, John, who was wearing platform shoes, fell into the stinking water trickling below them and stank like an outback dunny when he got home. Carla brandished a broom at Connor to say, “ You a bad boy you make my boy stink lika shit !” Whenever he was in trouble with his Mum, John used to say Connor influenced him to do it. Another time John and Connor had a big black berry fight and pretty soon both boys’ school uniforms were covered in black juicy stains. Carla, again with her broom said,  “ You a bad boy you make my boy looka like he’s covered in shit!” One Monday morning when Connor knocked on the palatial mansion front door he noticed a huge dent. “ Oh that, don’t worry Conn, Mum had a fight with Mario and pushed his head through the door.”  Now Carla was a pint sized woman, and Mario, John’s older brother was a giant. Connor whistled, he was impressed by Carla’s strength. Connor had a soft spot for John’s Grandfather, who with his pink nose and cheeks always used to grab Connor by the cheeks and say, “ Youra goodaboy.”  The boy wished his father would say something similar. Connor and Neil kept in contact by post, eventually Bulleen became another nondescript suburb on the outskirts of the city. Although it’s never that simple is it? Stories flourish anywhere.       

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