Life then was anything but sweet. The first block of flats I lived in with my parents on Westgarth Street in Northcote was a box made of chocolate brown rectangles. The box had a small outside balcony, big enough to fit three cracked plastic chairs, or one chair and a clothes rack. I remember looking through the rails at the park opposite, it ran at an almost 90 degree angle to the railway line that crossed the bottom of the street.
The park with its big trees looked inviting but my mother wouldn’t ever take me there, because it had a reputation for being a place where drug deals went down and homeless people hung out. Now I think it the worst excuse, then I was afraid. My parents’ idea of bringing up a kid consisted of food on the table three times a day, and a smack in the back of the head if I swore. When I think about it now they treated me like a barely tolerable pet.
Remembering my primary school days makes me cringe. Some kids tolerated me but they never invited me over, and I remember being teased because I smelt. By the time I got to Year Five I used to break my tram trip with a trip to the public bathroom where I would clean up. I used towels I’d taken from home and paper towel from the bathroom and wash with soap, then apply deodorant. I had my first shave in a public bathroom too. If you found my stray hairs in the basin when you washed your hands I apologise. I know Ms. Grant would expect me to.
You are probably wondering why I could not use the bathroom at the flat. The truth is I did occasionally but most of the time it didn’t work out on school days because of our routine. My Dad would start drinking about 4 pm, slamming back cups of sweet sherry or cans of beer. Around 6 pm Mum would slap a plate of food on the table and call, “Ben, Ben, Come get your food Ben.” See what I mean about the pet bit? Famished, I rushed to eat. In those days school lunches were hit and miss. Sometimes I ate only half a vegemite sandwich, or my lunch money had been nicked by three dudes all the kids called The Bad Boys. Bolting down the food, which most of the time was savoury mince and mash, I still noticed that the onions were chunky and undercooked, even though it barely touched the sides.
Anyway back to the bathroom and Dad. After Mum put the food on the table, she started on Dad. Dad retreated to the bathroom, after close to an hour of her cursing and nagging. Grabbing a pillow and two blankets he made a bed in the bath, locking the bathroom door. A few minutes later you would hear snoring. As I got older sometimes I headed to the bathroom as soon as Mum started up, but other times I took off. You see I did get to visit the park, but never with my parents. While Dad snored Mum would leave for her job at a local service station ten minutes away where she worked five nights a week. Until I was about eight years old I would sit by the bathroom door listening to Dad snore and hoping he’d wake and talk to me. He seldom woke ten minutes before I left in the morning, and after my butt got numb and cold I went to the lounge room couch and curled up in front to the TV Mum always left on. I fell asleep there. In later years, I started to wonder where Dad got the money from to drink, because he only did a day’s labouring here and there.
This is a long-winded way of telling you why I rarely used the flat bathroom. I was never real fond of bathrooms. No matter how clean they were they always smelled of defeat. However, I have come to believe personal hygiene is real important and Ms. Grant had a hand in that.
Ms. Grant was not one of my teachers. Most of them seemed to wish I had dropped down a dark hole somewhere. If I wasn’t ignoring them, I was distracting someone else, and all those half-cooked onions I ate provided plenty of farting, and farting is distracting for little kids. Most of my primary school career I cracked jokes, farted and cracked jokes or spent time at the principal’s office thinking about jokes while he ranted at me and arranged meetings with my parents. By Years five and six I took care of my body odour and avoided the onions but I already had a bad reputation. I did find a secret form of education in the shape of Nicky.
Nicky was a skinny little nerd who also lived in Westgarth Street. I thought of myself as a good-natured kid but my genes were set on bigger than average, so other kids literally looked up to me. One day, during the last month of Year Four, on my way to the tram I saw Nicky between two dudes from Year Five being pushed back and forth. I ran toward them roaring and kicked the dude to my left, in the knee with the side of my foot. He let go of Nicky and looked at me surprised. The dude to my right tried lifted his fist so I turned shoving my whole body towards him backpack first, into his stomach. “Oof”, he grunted and stared. Nicky gave me the thumbs up and when the tram came we sat together. We sat together every school morning after that. On Saturday’s I went to Nicky’s place and he imparted his enthusiasm for “Math-e-matics” and Science. Nicky was far more interesting than the teachers, and we liked each other. Everything I learnt in primary school, I learnt from Nicky, and everything else I learnt from Ms. Grant. I won’t talk about her yet, you ought t to save the best until last, I reckon. I’ll talk about my two other mates Richie, and Stan the Pole.
Stan the Pole turned up at our school around my eleventh birthday about halfway through Year Five. A thin, graceless kid with a big nose, and a military haircut, he ate garlic sausage, prepared by his Polish-born grandmother every day. Since some kids were calling him Stinky Stan, Nicky and I started calling him Stan the Pole and sitting with him at lunch. Soon everyone was using the nickname, and it didn’t seem to offend him. He took it as an honour, treating it as some kind of official title. He expressed pride in his traditional Polish family. He seemed much happier about them, than I did about my family.
During Year Six along came Richie. His genes were set on huge. He head and shoulders above all of us. His hands and feet were broad and thick. I only saw his Dad a couple of times before he left Richie and his Mum, but he was easily six and a half feet. Richie had an easy-going nature. I guess when you’re that big you learn to quell people’s agro with the right look. Richie was the master of the rank look.
The four of us went right through school together until Year Eleven when three of us left. Nicky stayed on and got a scholarship to Melbourne University when he got the best mark in Melbourne for VCE. His mother bragged about at the top of her voice in the servo where my Mum worked. “Friggin’ marvellous”, she called it. “ I don’t know where that boy got his geniuses from.”
After Year Eleven when I no longer saw my mates every day or even every week, I missed them. I started hanging out with two local thieves, Pentham and Styles. Well, Pentham was more of a fence, and Styles and I stole for him. On weekends I worked at the servo shop where Mum had put in a good word for me, but during the week I would do two or three Break and Enters. Computers, mobile phones, stereos, TVs and cash were popular, and Pentham always let us keep twenty percent of the cash, and thirty percent of the proceeds of sales. These terms were lousy, now I think about it, but then I went with the flow.
There was no idea in my head then to swim against the tide. I was bored and lonely at home; didn’t try too hard to get a decent job, and I needed money. I operated on pure sur4vival instinct. It was easy to go by what I already knew. I had a hobby when I was a teen that I used whenever I started to think about my situation and get down in the mouth.
I would sneak out after dark and graffiti something. I favoured neon colours and railway tunnels. I used the name Stalker, and I loved the half dark in those concrete cocoons. I would crouch by torch light, watching neon colours fill the black outlines I made. I loved ten inch high letters with screaming faces either end of Stalker. I always felt better afterwards.
I don’t graffiti anymore and I’m reluctant to say unauthorised graffiti is a perfect thing, but if I hadn’t decided to graffiti a wall in a back lane, adjacent to the tunnels and stations I frequented I may never have met Ms. Grant.
I nearly knocked her over that night in November. The full moon was making my work at 3.45 am easy when a hand wrapped around my left shoulder. I leapt forward and turned my right index finger still pressing on the spray can nozzle. A figure in white leapt away from me and a neon yellow stripe divided the concrete between us.
A cultured English voice said, “It will never come off, of course.” She strode towards me, and I dropped my hood covered head to my chest. She poked a bony finger into my chest, “I need to talk with you young man.” I turned away and chucked the paint can in my bag. I jogged away. “Young man”, he voice resonated in the lane,” if you don’t come back I’ll call the police.” I took another stride and the porch light of the house ahead of me and to my right clicked on. . I slowed and turned my head away from the strip of light, illuminating the lane. I could hear footsteps behind and in front of me, but the iron-railed gate of the house was closed. Still, she marched toward me.” I am Ms. Grant, and you must come back and talk to me.” I stopped then, and looked back toward her out of the side of my eye. She had silver hair and wore a white tracksuit. “If you don’t come inside and talk to me, I will yell fire and neighbours will come, and I’ll call the Police. I need to talk to you.” I stood there, speechless. I heard the beep of her phone. I wanted to run but instead I spoke.
“Ok, Lady I’ll talk to you in your back yard.”
“No, you’ll talk to me where I can see your whole face or I’ll call the Police.”
I lunged toward her, and she jumped back. I blinked. “Oscar”, she called. The biggest German Shepherd I’d ever seen appeared next to her and bared its teeth. The dog emitted a low growl. “Do I tell him you’re a friend?” I started at the word friend. I’d never laid eyes on her before. “Call me Ms. Grant,” she said as we moved towards her back gate. She waved me in first, while she and Oscar followed me towards the brightly lit porch, past the Rotary clothes line, towards her back door.
Inside, she led me through a clean kitchen, and into a sitting room. She said, “Do you have wet paint on your clothes?” I shrugged. She inspected my back.
“You can sit there.” She directed me to a chair with worn brown velvet upholstery by the gas heater. She turned it on. I was grateful for the night was cold for November. She stared at me. “I am going to make some tea and toast. Will you join me?” I nodded. She left the room and the door handle clicked. I got up and walked around. I found another door out of the room, but it didn’t budge when I tried it. I had no picking tools on me, I figured if I got caught for burning the Police couldn’t connect me to my B and Es. The room smelt of lavender and a musty odour, most likely dog. It explained the locks on both internal doors. Here I am, treated like a pet again.
She returned with a tray on which sat buttered toast, a teapot and two cups. I wanted more than butter on my toast but I didn’t think it wise to ask since I’d been interrupted breaking the law. “Why do you spray graffiti?” she asked while pouring the tea, her head covered with silver curls bent to one side. I smothered a laugh. My mind mocked the situation. Here I am taking tea with a lady, old chap, and she wants to discuss graffiti. Yes you could have knocked me over with a feather, old chap. She tapped a cup, “milk and sugar?”
I drank my instant coffee with both so I nodded. I wondered what it would taste like.
“One lump or two,” she said. I stared at the cubes of sugar, figuring one lump was a teaspoon. “Three”, I said. She raised and eyebrow, “please.” My reluctant almost- nineteen self, mimicked her. We sat back with our cups. “You haven’t answered my question, and you haven’t told me your name.”
“Ben”, I shoved my hood back.
“Ben”, she repeated. “You are a handsome young man Ben, and despite your behaviour you have an intelligent look about you.” I stared. No one had ever called me good looking. The only thing I admired about myself were my tattoos. Nicky had said once that I was pretty smart.
“Why do you spray graffiti?” she said.
“I like it”
“Why do you like it?”
I sighed in frustration. “What business is it of yours?” I nearly said lady, but managed to say,” Ms. Grant.”
“You’re breaking the law and defacing property. I am wondering why you can’t find something else to like.”
I gulped half my tea. The truth was what I was doing wasn’t graffiti really, I was letting off steam, and I hated to admit her question bothered me.
“But why must you deface property and break the law because you are bored.”
I gulped the other half of my tea. I stood up.
“We’ve talked. I’d like to go now.”
She stood, smiled and held out her hand. I reached out and felt her delicate hand. I shook it gently. She went to a box on a shelf, and lifting out a card gave it to me.
“I am a retired Oxford tutor. I’ve talked with hundreds of young men trying to work out what they want in life. Give me a call, please.”
I’ve never forgotten how she looked me right in the eye and said please. She didn’t say if you like, but please. I took the card and shrugged dropping it into my bag.
The police caught up with me. On the night before I went to court, the night before my nineteenth birthday, my Mum brought my old bag with a few clothes and some books Nicky gave her for me to the remand centre. “The lawyer says you’re gonna go away this time, Ben.” I nodded and she patted me on the shoulder. A tear oozed from her eye. I hoped I wasn’t seeing pity. I hated pity. After she left the policeman watched me empty the bag. This bag contained all my possessions in the world, I knew I wouldn’t be returning to Westgarth Street when I left prison. The Policeman nodded and as he moved away from me I shoved a shirt into the bottom of the bag, and the tips of my fingers brushed a piece of card. I pulled it out. Ms. Grant’s card. I asked for a phone call, and they allowed it so I called Ms. Grant, “my counsellor”.
Dressed in slacks, pink blouse, and a lacy cardigan she sat in the second row of the court room and raised her hand to me. I nodded, surprised at how glad I was to see her. That day my teenage career of Breaking, Entering and Stealing caught up with me. Sentenced to two years in Port Phillip prison. The magistrate observed that pity wasn’t enough to reform me. Though the recipient of many warnings I needed greater punishment.
Ms. Grant wrote to me while I was in prison. Most of her letters contained stories about other “young men and women” who had made good decisions in bad situations, and over time (she always emphasised, “it didn’t happen overnight”) made good. I complained to her that her language was too fancy, and she made reading hard for me. “I know you’ve got a good heart”, I wrote, “but cut the fancy lingo.” Her next letter arrived within the week.
Before you start reading this letter, you should find a dictionary. I am not cutting back on the “fancy lingo” as you put it, rather I am helping to educate you…
She had the last word, of course, and I started looking up words, like recalcitrant, reprobate, miscreant and recidivism. Her letters also encouraged me to read Shakespeare, and she shared with me a variety of his insults. I laughed at the lines: “I do desire that we be better strangers”, and “a whoreson beetle-headed, flap ear’d knave!” We discussed the insult “foul-spoken coward, that thunder’st with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing darest perform!” We agreed that it was sure to be apt for my old partner in crime, Styles and cause him to be speechless.
One day after 23 months of prison I received a visitor. Tempted to shout and grab her in a hug, I acted indifferent when Ms. Grant greeted me. Relieved it wasn’t Mum I shuffled my feet. After discussing the weather and her health, Ms Grant said, “I want you to consider coming to stay with me when you get out of prison.” I nodded and swallowed a lump that rose in my throat.
“Of course, if you reoffend or go near that Penham fellow I’ll throw you out.”
“Ms. Grant, his name is actually Pentham.”
She laughed. “I’ve created a monster.”
Six weeks after I got out of prison, enjoyment characterised my life with Ms. Grant. Her garden was immaculate due to all my hard labour. I accompanied her and all her older friends to bowls and shopping. Their interest in the tattoos on my arms and what they sometimes saw of my back tattoos surprised me. I started telling outrageous stories about the symbolism of the tattoos, the notoriety of the tattooist, and where the tattooing had taken place. Of course, some of the true stories were unsuitable, but they listened to my tall tales and laughed.
I made contact with my old mates. I was shocked when Richie came to Ms. Grant’s door. I smiled and reached up to slap him on the back of the shoulder. Ms. Grant was speechless as she surveyed all six foot nine of Richie. He said, “I’m sure I’ve stopped growing.” Ms Grant nodded.
“I hope so for your sake young man, I hope so.”
Ten months after I got out of prison, Easter holidays came. Ms. Grant was watching the Royal Children’s Hospital appeal telethon. Restless, I wandered around, going in and out of my room, fiddling with books and papers. I looked at my watch. Forty minutes later the front door bell rang.
“Who’s that?” yelled Ms. Grant, “I’m not expecting anyone.”
“I’ll get it.” I bolted for the door.
Outside the door, Nicky held a huge bunch of apricot roses and baby’s breath, and I grabbed them. Richie nursed a cake box. Stan clutched an enormous card. “My Mum did all the calligraphy for you, and we all signed it,” he whispered.
Ms. Grant called out, “Who is it, Ben?”
“It’s Ok, they’re friendly.”
I ushered them into the dining room and turned on the light. When I went towards the sitting room, Ms Grant was already in the hall. I took her arm and said, “You’re presence is required in the dining room, Ma’am.” She smiled.
When we entered the room, the guys had found a plate for the cake but Stan was still waving the roses around as he searched for a vase. I grabbed them and shoved them into Ms. Grant’s outstretched arms. Richie gave us the note, and we broke into a rendition of Happy Birthday to You.
“Oh, thank you”, she cried. Tears were in her eyes and we waited for her to say more but she seemed overwhelmed.
Anyway, I reflected, it’s my turn. The A4 size card lay on the table and I held it out to her. “A small token of our great appreciation.” Inside the card with large strokes of a calligraphy pen Stan’s mother had written:
Happy birthday to the world’s greatest tutor, menter and freind, Ms. Grant.
Thanks and We love you.
Under the We love you on the right hand of the card was a photo of me with my friends.
Ms. Grant true to form pointed out the misspellings and said, “oh well, it’s the thought that counts.” She was pleased to hear it was not my fault.
Richie went to the kitchen to retrieve plates and a knife so we might share the ginger fluff sponge. Ms. Grant said, “I’m so glad you boys didn’t make me blow out candles.” I winked at her. She knew that we’d probably forgotten, but she was always kind, firm, but kind. Nicky turned to me as I licked cream from my fingers. “I brought over the Bachelor of Science info.” I smiled. Life was sweet.