Visiting my mother one evening, she dumps a large sealed box at my feet as I am about to depart.
“Here,” she nudges me forcefully, “You better take this before I throw the lot out.”
“What is it?” I ask, genuinely surprized.
“I don’t know but it has your name on it and it has been clogging my basement for decades!”
Dumbfounded, I toss the box in the back of the Camry.
A few weeks later, I use a cutter to open the box. It contains a great wad of A4 papers, perhaps two thousand pages in total. I empty the box, and by way of contrast, stack the papers next to a slim volume of poems by the American poet Tim Peeler and take a photo.
Flipping through the pages over the next few weeks, I realise that this is my long lost first novel I had written in the summer of 1979 at Maroubra Beach when I was on the dole for three months. I had been working as a head storeman in a sheet and curtain factory in Ultimo near the city. When I heard my Aboriginal workers from Moree had been sacked upon their return from our Christmas break, I asked the boss why he let them go without consulting me.
“I didn’t think they would come back,” he tells me.
The blokes were living in entrenched poverty in Chippendale, twenty to a house, six or seven to a double bed- but they were easy to work with, had a hilarious sense of humour and were usually reliable.
I sniffed around the office for the next couple of days and it appeared the boss had no trust in the mob and suspected some of them of stealing the company’s merchandise- pillow cases, single bed sheets, curtains and the like. Just before the Christmas break, I recall he had stopped to search a few workers from leaving the premises but he had found nothing.
I told the boss I suspected he may have been racially targeting the workers and after some heated words I quit the job. I explained all this to a Commonwealth Employee Service worker who was fully empathetic but she warned me I had to wait six weeks before I could access any benefits. My partner Marcia worked as a barmaid at a bar at the airport, and on principle, I was prepared to wait.
At the time, we shared the top of a 4 bedroom flat overlooking Maroubra Beach, 20 kilometres south of Sydney. There was Liam an aspiring painter from New Zealand who was methodically working on his latest project: a life-sized human skeleton carved out of balsa wood. There was Jeff who lived in a cupboard of a room by the back door. He was a professional diver and who like to annoy people and big note himself. Donny & Milly lived in largest bedroom and were casual bar staff at the local pub.
We lived at the top of the crest on Maroubra Road and had a terrific view of the beach. The best aspect of the flat was you were able to sit on the toilet on the south side and watch the breakers roll in as you had a crap.
I can’t recall too much about writing the novel The Dispute: A Preposterous Tale (284 pages) but I must have had a lot of fun writing it. According to the Contents page, the book was divided into 8 parts and 75 short chapters with such edifying titles as: ‘Portable Bazooka Word Launcher’, ‘The Old Dart Board Wino’, ‘Worn Out Re-tread On A Rampant Rabbit’s Foreskin’, ‘How Do You Spell “Shit?’, ‘Do The Police Street Shuffle’ and “Oink-Off: A Literary Debate.’
Glancing at the first chapter ‘Stretched Elastic’ my spirits quickly sagged as I read the deeply flawed work. The heavy spray of similes and the underlying meta-narrative groaningly exposed how poorly I was imitating writers such as Richard Brautigan and John Fowles at the time: (click on the pages to enlarge)
We lived in that flat for 12 months and shortly afterwards I gained entrance into the NSW Public Service. My novel was never submitted & eventually found its way into my parent’s basement a few years later when I shifted to Western Sydney to teach.
From these ancient times, I can only recall three incidents from Maroubra Beach. They have long since been immortalised into poetry. The first involved Jeff who, blind drunk, stumbled over Liam’s skeleton exhibition on opening night at the Bondi Pavilion and smashed it to pieces. In another incident, Jeff was escorted home by the police after repeated requests by the lifeguards not to skateboard along the beach promenade. I remember Donny scurrying along the back steps to hide his cherished pot plant.
The last unfortunate event happened to Donny & Milly. A few weeks previously they had carefully installed twenty four one-foot by one foot mirrors on the ceiling above their bed so they could check out each other as they were making love. One night, we unexpectedly heard these god-awful shrieks coming from their bedroom. Slamming the door open, we found a mirror panel had fallen from the ceiling and had implanted itself into Milly’s back. She was bleeding profusely, but after stemming the flow, she was more shaken than anything else.
Sadly, none of this gold made it into The Dispute. In retrospect, the novel was more of a treatise on the process of writing than something that reflected a lived experience. The book was mildly amusing but was phony and pretentious.
In the days which followed, I re-read a few of the opening chapters & became increasingly disillusioned. Most of the material must have been written while I was stoned & perhaps revised while pissed. It has its moments of originality- but overall, the book was an embarrassing reminder that I was a lousy writer and I needed to pull my head in and get a real job.
It amazes me now that I may have found some of the writing funny- at least, while straight. I scan Chapter 2 'Renegade Naval band, Trampoline Spasms and Runaway Brain' before tossing it into the flames:
The following day, I am left with a dilemma. I really don't want to simply discard my fledgling novel without a trace. I had to somehow pay tribute to its nascent creativity & hope, despite its vomit-inducing content and abject use of language.
So I’ve immortalised the book through the following series of images to perhaps breath new life into The Dispute, a novel I had written as a displaced 23 year-old Canadian in Oz decades ago.
My first brainstorming response was for me to set the thing alight as I casually mentioned above. I soon found there were far too many reams of paper of paper to do it safely, especially after a few cold ones.
Next, I considered using The Dispute as a compost additive. The pH levels in my bin recently tested in the low alkaline range, so I reckon it was ok to add paper to the pile, say 100 pages per week.
Uncle Bob flew hundreds of missions into Germany during World War 2 in a Lancaster Bomber and miraculously survived. This squadron is for you Uncle Bob!
The Dispute is also a great liner for the green recycling bin and also makes for a wonderful floor covering.
Better still: a fire effigy. The photo below reminds me of The Last Supper entombed in flame.
I visit my mother for Thanksgiving and bring over a turkey I had cooked earlier on my Weber. We chat amicably about COVID, the upcoming presidential election, and her favourite streamed series at the moment, Grace and Frankie.
As I’m about to leave, she tells me to wait a minute and returns with another box.
“I don’t know, but it’s been here for ages.”
On the side of the box is inscribed in bold black letters: “INSIDE THE TYPE WRITER MAN.”
“Holy shit! Not another mongrel!”