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THE WARM DARK TUNNEL

Freddie Hudson was cursed with a great memory. He could remember everything that ever happened to him. Every slight, every cruel comment disguised as humour, every kiss that led to heartache, every promise not kept, every humiliation, every betrayal by a friend, every stumble and fall in a life lived in search of meaning.

There were also bad memories too.

He remembered coming out of that warm dark tunnel of darkness and gazing up at the doctor painfully dragging him into a cold and clinical world. He had tried with all his might to scramble back but it was no use as the uncaring determined doctor gripped his little head harder and forced him into a place he wasn’t sure about. He always thought perhaps that was why he had a long neck. Some told him, much later, that it was the sign of good breeding but it never convinced him enough to give up his own theory.

On first viewing his parents seemed nice so Freddie decided to hang about and a short time later found himself cradled in his mother’s arms, his grinning dad beside them, in the backseat of a taxi on its way to what would become his boyhood home.

Once settled in his cozy compact blue room he began thinking about the meaning of it all and what all this fuss would eventually come to. He felt awkward imposing on this obviously struggling couple and guilty for the pain he had already caused his mother. This fear of imposing on people would remain with him all his life.

His dad like to drink stout and this miracle brew seemed put the old boy in high spirits – although it clearly had the opposite effect on mum.

“Stout is good for me!” his dad would utter with all the urgency of a serial killer pleading Not Guilty.

“Not when you’ve had ten bottles it isn’t!” Mum would counter in her best Perry Mason voice.

Observing all this sitting on his dad’s lap, Freddie was beginning to suspect he may be a genius. Well, at least in this household. After all, surely the solution to all this was simple. If only mum could just down a few pints herself she could join father and son in singing sea shanties that made absolutely no sense to anyone. And see the fun in it?

She didn’t. And so most nights his parents played another game where they would both reenacted the Battle of the Somme. Freddie very much appreciated the obvious effort they both put into this but it invariably left all three dissipated and feeling defeated.

It wasn’t long before Freddie was up and about and dispatched to school, an institution he loathed with every cell in his body. He thought it truly fraudulent that the teachers spoke gibberish and got paid for it. Yet part of him marvelled at their trickery and on several occasions offered to take over the class with his own form of gibberish which, instead of being rewarded for, got him beaten by the said teachers until he could hardly walk home. Upon completing that long painful journey he’d be greeted at the door by his smiling mum and the words, “How was school today, son?” On one such occasion Freddie found it difficult to speak so his mum cut in with her motivational skills, “Don’t worry, your dad and I were idiots at school too!” Freddie was tempted to ask if he could crawl back into her warm dark tunnel and shimmy up far enough to fall through some trap door and back to whence he came before he was so rudely awakened to this mad place. But refrained in the spirit of good taste and reverence.

Having survived school, Freddie realised he was old enough to be married so he did. He found a girl who seemed to honestly love him so he figured she was a good candidate to try and recreate the joyful association his parents had endured.  And so they took that huge journey down the aisle and thereafter were happy and life was simple and good for a time. Until it wasn’t.

Oneday she said something to him that he couldn’t forget. Or forgive.  So he went on alone trying to forget her and failing.

But as things developed, there was much to do, and shopping lists of things to clutter a life in order to distract a mind that never slept. Freddie’s religion was to stay busy. In a way he thought this would ward off death. For although this life had holes in it, it was all he knew.

He liked to hang out with his friend Jimmy Helle who’d never uttered anything that wasn’t a lie but his choice of words was compelling. Together they whiled away the days, one telling tall tales and the other pretending to buy them for the sake of a friendship. It was a fine relationship because they needed nothing from each other, other than the shared knowledge that they were witnesses to the futility of the passing parade.

Another pal was Alby who had more moves than a snake and was just as quick to disappear when a bar bill was presented. Alby was so dumb he joined ISIS thinking he was working for the CIA.

Around this time, Freddie had the sobering realisation that he had $32.56 to his name so he wrote a bunch of film scripts and hit the jackpot. Suddenly he found that he was irresistible to many women and it wasn’t long before he chose one of them to accompany him down the aisle. Again.

Things went swimmingly for a number of years and he found himself to be on everyone’s lips, especially actresses in need of a job. Or therapy.

Money rolled in but Freddie was too   busy to enjoy himself. Luckily he had a wife who wasn’t so busy so every day she very kindly thought up ways to spend his new found fortune. She was genius when it came to spending money and Freddie thought himself blessed to have her.

Freddie was also surrounded by a team of men who were good with numbers, which was a great relief to him as he’d found math to be as ridiculous as geomatry at school. He was told by these numbers men to just keep on doing what he was doing, whatever that was, and they’d handle the rest.

After Freddie had exhausted himself making 193 films in two years, the numbers men seemed disappointed that the workload hadn’t killed him. So crestfallen were they that they all took holidays at the same time and never returned. Freddie thought it was a little strange that he hadn’t received a postcard or any information on where all his money could be located. This was a major inconvenience as he’d been planning to take his wife (if he could get her out of the shops) and young son on a little holiday of their own.

The kindly men who were good with numbers finally popped up again years later and made a splash in the irrigation business before finally discovering their niche grading horse semen.

Soon Freddie’s name was mud everywhere, including his own home, and it wasn’t long before the Tax Department thought it might be opportune to lend a boot to the situation by charging Freddie with fraud. It wasn’t long before he found himself facing Judge Kafka in the Farce of the Century. Unfortunately Freddie didn’t have Paul Hogan’s millions, or even his own, to make the Laxative Department look like fools, so he had to rely on plain old common sense. Representing himself, Freddie stood and asked the Judge if the definition of fraud was “to financially benefit yourself through deception?” Judge Kafka smiled and affirmed that that was indeed the case. Freddie then stated, “Well I don’t have any money. So I guess I have disadvantaged no one through the deception of myself that the numbers men would take care of business whilst I was making 193 films. No further questions, you Dingbat” and sat.

This sent the court into an uproar. It had been a long while since common sense had been heard in public and the judge toyed with the idea of having him charged with contempt of court. The Lax Department then dropped the charge altogether and wanted to have Freddie retried on the grounds that they couldn’t understand the plot to one of his movies. Freddie stood  and asked them if they were able to follow The Lady From Shanghai to which they replied, “Not on your Nellie, no way” and asked the Judge to have Orson Welles joined in the proceedings. That’s when pandemonium broke out in the courtroom and Freddie was convicted for a parking offence, paid the appropriate fine and walked free. Then caught a tram home.

Urged by his wife (it was a public holiday and the shops were closed) to go to Hollywood and make another fortune for his family, Freddie accepted the challenge. Unfortunately, once he was away his wife, trying her own hand at fiction, told his impressionable son that Daddy had deserted them, leaving them penniless, except for a mansion and everything in it.

Whilst pounding the pavements in Hollywood, Freddie’s wife scored another bargain and moved one of her co-workers into the master bedroom to cope with those long, lonely nights and had Freddie served with divorce papers.

Pretty soon Freddie was seen drinking in bars that even Charles Bukowski would’ve turned his nose up at. He started on white wine and soon hit the harder stuff. One night he had a terrible nightmare and glimpsed hell in all its ugliness and debauchary surrounded by lost souls all screaming for mercy.  But taking a second look he realised he was actually standing on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Western at 3am waiting for the lights to change.

Work started to come Freddie’s way and soon he was being invited to all the right parties. Demi Moore wanted him to write a screenplay and Sharon Stone wanted him to take a shower with her.

Every day without fail Freddie sent home, well what was once his home,  gifts, cards, drawings, letters and, when he had it, money,  to his son. But strangely the money never seemed to reach his son and somehow ended up in the bank account of a doctor who shot Botox into women’s faces.

Freddie thought it was about time he wised up, so he married a bipolar movie star in Miami. They returned to L.A and settled in a rented home in Sherman Oaks and there was peace in the Valley. For a time. Some nights her mood swings suited the music and somehow together they stumbled through it. Two against the world. At times Freddie didn’t know if he was coming or going but after four years he found himself between leaving and gone. One particularly hard night, Freddie walked into the darkness and laid down in the road waiting for a bus to run over him.  Unfortunately for him there was a bus strike that night and misfortune followed misfortune until the marriage ended.

Somehow he came to be running a restaurant and proved to be so popular with patrons he was voted the unofficial Mayor of Santa Monica. He made some great pals amongst those he worked with like Ben, Gordon, Cathy, Pat, David, Neth and many drinks were consumed after closing time amidst shared laughter and stories. For a time it felt like he was part of a family again.

On the other hand, the two owners he worked for, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, were insane. Dum had the personality of white wallpaper and was the only wealthy Jewish doctor in L.A who couldn’t get laid. If he sat beside an attractive woman at the bar of his own restaurant and struck up a conversation with her, she’d be gone within 10 minutes. Sometimes less. Freddie named the empty bar stool next to Dum as the Seat of Death. His partner, Dee, always had a smile on his face even when you told him your mother had just died. He also spoke at a thousand miles an hour like a man who’d found the secret recipe of how to make speed.

Doctor Dum would sit on his regular bar stool every night after boring off every attractive woman in Hollywood and snarl at how popular Freddy was with people. It wasn’t long before Freddie was given his marching orders and on his way again, into the night with a thousand eyes and no particular place to go.

On one such night he gave all of his remaining possessions away and made his bed on the beach thinking, like the Indians do, that it was a perfect night to die. No sadness. No self-pity. In fact he welcomed the chance to now depart this strange world, leaving it like he came into it, with nothing. He closed his eyes and drifted off expecting to enter that warm dark tunnel again that would hopefully lead to a light. Or something.

But instead, he awakened to a new dawn and the disappointing realisation that a homeless person hadn’t killed him during his sleep. Then he looked around and witnessed a dawn of breathless beauty, and finally heard the voice of God as it said unto him, “Leave your cross here and find the music again.”

Freddie misinterpreted this message to mean go forth and populate so he found a jumpin’ little joint on Pico and exchanged numbers with lots of Black girls, until finally he got the right translation that it was all about the music being played at this club by a band of all stars led by Wadstar and Turk.

One night the doorman Basil Wrathbone sussed that Freddie had nowhere to go so he invited him back to his pad to share another 437 beers until they collapsed on the carpet and awoke a week later.

Sometimes between late at night and early in the morning, the bewitching hours, Freddie would see his new best friend appear giving a perfect impression of Creeping Jesus as he quietly inched in the darkness towards the Venetian blinds and nervously peeked out, whispering “The C.I.A are looking for us!” To which Freddie would reply from his living room sofa bed, “Why?” This question would rattle Basil and he’d give a knowing smile and creep back to his room. Sometimes they’d get so paranoid from this nightly activity that they’d watch endless repeats of Sherlock Holmes on TV in the hope that something, anything, would be resolved.

One day Freddie’s cousin thought he may be useful to him so he paid for his airfare to get him back to his suspicious homeland, Australia, the land of second chances and forked tongues.

Freddie returned and everyone patted him on the back.  Yes, everyone seemed pleased to see him except his old editor, the famous drunk about town Peter McBland who was genius at cutting the plot out of every film he edited.

Freddie was excited to see his son again but found that the young man’s heart and head had been poisoned by a woman who resented that her only achievement had been hitching herself to Freddie’s wagon. One night he invited his son to dinner and excitedly prepared a roast with all the trimmings and waited. And waited. Sometime after midnight Freddie turned the oven off. And something deep inside him too. Possibly the hope that the truth would win out and a happy ending might prevail. But life clearly wasn’t a movie.

An old friend Richard Masters, whom Freddie had once given a big break to, remembered enough to repay the favour. Richard was now running a very successful underground film festival aptly named P.U.S.S.Y and honoured Freddie by presenting a retrospective of 8 of his old movies. It was a roaring success and audiences cried in all the wrong places and the films were now deemed to be classics.

Freddie was hailed as a legend and people thrust awards at him in the hope that they’d weigh him down and he’d become stagnant like good old safe legends are supposed to behave. But it didn’t work and the bastard continued to live and produce new works.

In fact he lived to be 100 and received a telegram from the Queen  which read, “You’re a fucking miracle, Brad.” The fact that the silly old bitch had gotten his name wrong after too many G&Ts didn’t dilute Freddie’s delight in receiving this thoughtful correspondence and so he went on about his life, making mistakes, taking people at their word, searching for meaning in everything, and just being human.

His final words were reported to be, “Awwwfuckyasall!” Or something to that effect as he passed from this earthly world back into that warm dark tunnel of mystery, taking his place in our cherished and grossly rewritten history.

Text (c) Frank Howson 2017

Painting (c) Frank Howson 2017

HappyTimes

MY HOME

My home felt like a home to me. My mum and dad were there. And frequent visits from Uncle Arthur, Auntie Gladys, Uncle jack, Auntie Dagmar, Uncle Alf, Auntie Daf, Uncle Bill, Auntie Mary, Uncle Barney, Auntie Terri, and Uncle Charlie (who wasn’t really an uncle but was an honourary member of our family), who all added colour and laughter to our home at 51 Fawkner Street, St. Kilda.

From my child’s point of view our house was like Graceland and I was very proud of it. Today, I stand outside that same house and see a place so small and modest it resembles a doll’s house for grown-ups. Amazing that so small a space can house so many memories. To those who wander passed it would probably at best be considered “quaint.” To me it is a museum of my youth and I can still hear the distant echoes of laughter from my family, now all long gone.

My personality was formed in that house by those people. Life was simple and there was no need to be afraid of anything because my mum and dad held all the answers to Life.

It was a nicer world. People trusted each other. When we were having a poor week, Mr. and Mrs. Kilpatrick who owned the corner store would put the cost of groceries down on a piece of paper behind the counter and we’d pay them when we could. In those days to be able to wander up the street and buy an ice cream on the good of your name gave a small kid a lot of pride in who we were.

I learned the meaning of generosity and trust and the value of reputation in those bygone days. Your word was your word and your reward was the warm glow of pride when you were able to settle your meager debts.

From my mother I learned the meaning of kindness and never turning anyone in need away. I would sometimes wake in the morning and toddle down the corridor to find a stranger sleeping on our couch in the living room. When I’d ask my mum who this person was, she’d reply, “Oh that’s Tom, he’s from Hobart and didn’t have anywhere to stay so he’ll be here for a few days until he finds some place of his own.” People did what they could for each other.

From my father I learned that we all battle our own internal demons and that alcohol can sometimes make you say things you don’t mean. Hurt people hurt people. Sometimes in that house a kid got to hear and see things that ruined the dream world of Disneyland and Father Knows Best forever. But I learned forgiveness – knowing that at the heart of it my father didn’t mean what he said. He was not lashing out at us, but at the world. He’d had a much harder childhood than I could imagine and who knows what innermost regrets and sorrows his poor heart held and had to deal with every day. All I know is that he was the nicest man in the world up to 10 drinks. And that’s the man I choose to remember.

From my elder sisters I learned that envy can drive people to be cruel and mean-hearted and after many attempts over the years to forgive their actions towards me I had to cut them out of my life for good.

We were the last house in our street to get a television set and in the end we only got one by an Act of God. One day a delivery man from Steele’s dropped one off to us by mistake. Steele’s department store only realized their mistake two years later and dispatched another delivery man to pick it up. But by then we were seriously addicted to the weekly TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene, and there was no way my dad was giving it back. When the delivery man sensed that my dad was willing to fight to the death to protect his family’s entertainment, the man from Steele’s swiftly departed and our ownership of the small mahogany television set was never contested again. My dad was a hero that day.

Before God granted us a television set, a boy had to invent his own entertainment. So each day after school, I’d rush home, change out of my school clothes, get dressed, grab a football and stroll out onto Fawkner Street and start bouncing it up and down on the pavement. It didn’t take long before boys from other houses would hear the familiar sound and start piling out onto the street for a kick to kick football match until night fell and we were all called home for dinner.

I used to try and take skyscraper marks, sometimes climbing up onto the backs of my opponents, like my football idol Big Bill Stephenson of St.Kilda. My mum and dad had taken me to every St.Kilda match from the time I was a baby in their arms, and as a young boy I had marveled at Big Bill’s genius at full forward. Then, one day when the Saints played Essendon, Big Bill had climbed into the stratosphere for a mark and came down landing badly and ruptured his knee. When he collapsed to the ground, he uttered the words, “I’m buggered” to which his opponent Don McKenzie replied, “Thank Christ for that!” So far that year Bill Stephenson had kicked 20 goals in just three and a half games and at that rate would’ve scored 102 goals for the year at a time when the leading full forwards averaged 54. He never played again. To me, it was a tragedy on the scale of the JFK assassination.

It’s funny the things that mean so much to us along the way and shape us as human beings. I still sometimes get teary eyed when I recall the long forgotten football hero Big Bill Stephenson. He passed away in 2010 with hardly a mention in the newspapers. But it meant something deep and profound to me. From Big Bill Stephenson I learned that no matter how high you soar, there is a still a price to be paid.

When I was born my mother wanted to name me Peter. My sisters wanted to name me Michael. And my Irish grandmother demanded I be called Frank. Guess who won out. A short time later we got a dog and he became Peter. Oh my, how I loved that dog. My first best friend. My confidante who never snitched on me if I did something wrong; who continued to smile at me even when I disappointed him and proved I was only human. From Peter, my rock, I learned loyalty.

One day I came home from school to be told the tragic news that Peter had run away from home. What? My best friend had run out on me? Had abandoned me for greener pastures? How could this be? It didn’t make sense. I grieved for many years over this and never got another dog. Perhaps deep down I still grieve in my schoolboy heart. Not that long before my mum passed away she told me the true story. Peter had not run away. The neighbor across the road had thrown chicken bones over our fence thinking the dog would like them. But Peter got one caught in his throat and choked to death. My mum invented the story that the rest of the family stuck by thinking it would be less traumatic for me if I thought he’d run away. I wonder if they still felt that when every evening after school I’d stand at the front gate looking up and down each end of the street for my best friend to come home. To me. It has probably instilled in me abandonment issues I carry to this day. If you love something too much, God takes it away.

Anyway, that was my first home. Sometimes I stand outside it today and fantasize that one day I’ll knock on the door and offer the people who live there a huge sum of money to give it back to me. I need somewhere to house these memories and am weary of carrying them for so long from one place to another.

And when I have it back, there’ll always be the kettle on for a visitor, a spare couch for someone in need, and if you have a dog with you, a big hug as I close my eyes and imagine Peter has come home.

 

(c) Frank Howson 2017

 

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SO THIS IS HEAVEN.

 

The hardest thing to get used to in heaven is that there’s no time. Not that much of a problem for me as having been a writer I was used to nights turning into days whilst I chiseled away at a new work. There’s not much point continuing that profession up here as no one seems to have the time to read. But here’s something for old times sake.

What’s heaven like? Well, it’s like Portsea with nicer people. No one brags about what car they own, or their penthouse in London, or how they made a killing on the market this week because of a pending war. Conversations like that seem a little facile here. Oh, and you can’t judge anyone by the cut of their clothes as birthday suits are the fashion of the day in this place.

Yes, we’re a friendly bunch. All the veils that separated us on earth have been stripped away and the fear of intimacy no longer exists. That’s probably because our leader (he hates being called that) is such a down to earth person. On arrival he told me I could call him anything so I now address him as Ted. My first request was to meet Jesus but Ted (whom I assumed was his father) just smiled and said, “Haven’t you worked that out yet? You’re all Jesus.” He really loves answering any questions with a complete mind-fuck that silences you. A bit like Bob Dylan. It may take an eternity for me to get what he means. So, I mainly sit and ponder until my head hurts.

There are some really beautiful women to gaze upon. I like to hit on Marilyn Monroe which is an exercise in futility as there’s no sex here. We seem to not need it anymore, or the expectations and responsibilities that used to accompany it. We generally just chat which consists of smiling and staring at someone while you read their thoughts.

Ted, our leader who hates to be called a leader, loves chatting about his favourite food recipes. He keeps promising to let me taste his Peach Melba but so far he hasn’t delivered. In fact, there are no meals as that’s kinda pointless too.

One day, or was it night?, I asked Ted what the point of creating the human race was, and he answered, “Well I wanted to find out what’d happen if I dumped a whole lot of ignorant people into a paradise, gave them total free will,  and waited for the result.” I prompted him for an answer, “Which was?…” And he smiled and replied, “Pointless”. I’m going to need to sit and ponder that too.

The good news for men is we don’t have to shave anymore. And ladies don’t have to pluck anything.

I play cards with Freud, who should be called Fraud as he cheats at everything, and Van Gogh (still a grumpy bastard who can’t read a thing you’re saying). If Grumpy tells me again he only sold two paintings on earth I’m going to have to clock him. Vincent and I currently owe Fraud several million dollars but again it’s kinda…pointless.

Marilyn is looking very alluring as I sit here but the cruel bitch just likes to tease me. She taunts me with tales of how good Milton Berle was in bed and the fact that he used to trip over his own cock. This has obviously left a lasting impression on her. I wish I didn’t have to read her mind, it’s painful.

The one thing we do have is music. Ted is a freak about it. I sometimes think it’s like being trapped in an elevator and having to listen to endless muzak. Wagner is a favourite of Ted’s, although he occasionally, thank God, slips in some Elvis, whom he confidentially informs me was just as chosen as Jesus. I am now pondering the conundrum that both Jesus and Elvis are in us all.

This could take several more eternities to work out before I’ll have a follow-up question that won’t embarrass me in front of Ted.

God, he demands a lot.

It just crossed my mind that, between Freud’s cheating, Van Gogh’s whining, Marilyn’s tauntings about Uncle Milty’s cock, Wagner endlessly played far too loud, and Ted’s oblique answers, this could be hell.

 

(c) Frank Howson 2017

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CHRISTMAS IN ST. KILDA

Harry Grivens had inherited it from his mother. An obsessive excitement about all things Christmas. His mother, Mary, would start her Christmas shopping January every year, her secret way of accruing all the magical gifts that dwarfed her illuminated pine tree every 25th. of December. From her meagre budget she miraculously produced gifts for her children, her husband, her relatives, friends, and even homeless people she had struck up conversations with on the street.

Harry always said he’d found the spirit of Christmas in her eyes, which brimmed with tears of joy as she handed out her gifts to each and every one. He called her Mary Christmas.

Now here he was, a boy grown into a man, an old man, rushing around his little rented apartment with all the enthusiasm of his youth. It was dawn of Christmas morn and all his gifts for those nearest and dearest to him surrounded his little electronic tree in the living room. As he manically prepared the turkey, roasted the chicken, and cut the ham into generous slices, he wondered who’d be the first to show up at his door. Everyone had accepted his invitation with such surprise and enthusiasm that he laughed wondering how his little apartment would hold them all. He knew somewhere, in that other country,  that thinly veiled dimension, his mum was smiling at him and proud of the efforts he’d made to duplicate her day of giving.

He was betting that his son, Jamie, would be the first to excitedly knock on his door. Harry hadn’t spent a Christmas with him in eighteen years. He stopped carving the ham as he froze in the stunted memory of where all those years had gone. A tear appeared in his eye as he thought about what a wonderful Christmas gift it’d be if God gave him back all those years.  He had made so many mistakes. Not out of meanness or not caring but just because so much had happened 18 years ago to pull the rug out from under his established life that he’d had no experience in how to think straight in such circumstances. His successful and envied life had come to an abrupt end at the peak of his ability when he ended his partnership with a man he no longer trusted and who seemed hell-bent on self-destructing, taking all those who rode with him along for the nosedive. Harry had thought he was doing the noble thing by getting rid of this man. Yes, he was standing up over a principle and although he didn’t expect to be lauded a hero, he certainly hadn’t anticipated the trauma and devastation that awaited him and those he’d loved.

He looked down at the cold wet sensation of his finger and realized he’d cut himself with the carving knife. He hadn’t even felt it. Perhaps he was numb to everything when he thought of those wasted years. Perhaps his only way of dealing with the loss. His business partner fine-printed Harry out of his fortune and assets until he had nothing but his integrity left. But Harry was to learn that such a high moral ideal meant nothing to anyone if you had no money and a tarnished reputation by association. They judged winners by who got away with the most money. Harry realized he’d have to wait for a much higher judgment if he wanted an acknowledgment for doing the right thing.

Harry unsteadily sat on the nearest chair and looked down at the blood dripping from his hand.  He thought of Pontius Pilate washing the blood from his hands rather than making a decision to save the life of another: and Pilate’s terse remark to Jesus when the prisoner mentioned truth, “What is truth? …Your truth or mine?” Harry’s body started to jerk uncontrollably now as he bowed his head and sobbed for the naïve, good man he once had been. After eighteen years in the wilderness Harry strongly doubted that he’d ever stand up over a principle again. He couldn’t afford to. Everything was gone you see? The work, the money, the house, the marriage, the child whom he’d loved more than life itself, and, now, finally Harry. Looking down at the pool of blood at his feet he realized how deep the cut was and knew he was bleeding to death.  The blood was draining from his body and he was feeling weak. Numb. Even more numb than usual. The thought of that ignited something in him and he rose and kicked the chair into the next room narrowly missing breaking many of the gift wrapped presents piled high around his $13.99 electric Christmas tree. He grabbed a napkin from the table and pressed it down hard against the wound. He turned off the oven, made it down the stairs and hailed a taxi to the ER of his nearest hospital.

When the nurse on duty saw the blood soaked napkin Harry was immediately admitted deemed unsuitable for waiting. He was rushed into a room where a nice Indian doctor sowed up his cut and made jokes that Harry laughed at without really hearing. He was concerned, no, distressed, that his son may’ve shown up at his door to find him not home. And that he’d think his father had let him down again. He wanted him to know that he didn’t do these things on purpose and that some things are beyond your control. They just…happen. They just happen. The kindly doctor, aware of Harry’s anxiety and, to him, incoherent rambling about his son, administered a sedative and had a nurse escort his patient to an outside cab rank.

As Harry climbed the stairs to his apartment his inherited Christmas spirits rose again and he found himself calling out, “Jamie are you there?…Here I come!…I had a stupid accident that’s all….You know me!… Accident prone…Your silly dad, huh?…Don’t worry, just give me an hour and you’ll have the feast of your life!…”  But reaching the top floor he realized he was talking to himself.  He looked down in hope to see if there were any tell tale signs that his son had come, waited, and gone. But no. There’d been no visitors from what he saw. None at all.

With some difficulty he inserted the key into his lock and opened the front door. He was home. Whatever that meant. A new enthusiasm energized him when he looked at the clock and realized it was still only 10.30am. What an idiot he was. His guests hadn’t arrived yet because it hadn’t reached the appointed hour.  Hope sprang eternal again. He turned on the oven again and looked around at all his preparations and felt the joy his mother had felt all those years ago, knowing what a wonderful day awaited the cherished ones.

At 2.45pm Harry found himself sitting at the head of his small table, wearing his Christmas hat, and staring at the perfectly roasted turkey, chicken, sliced ham, rustic potatoes and other goodies worthy of a king on a  budget. In the background Christmas music played on endless repeat and now he was listening to Bing Crosby, his mum’s favourite. He turned off the pot of boiling water bringing life to his plum pudding and caught a reflection of himself in the shiny salt and pepper shakers. He looked ridiculous. He wearily took his Christmas hat off and went to sit in his living room to gaze at all the unopened gifts.

He’d been hoping to have a beautiful bonding Christmas day with his son which explained his anxiousness about every detail of it being perfect. He’d wanted him to experience the type of Christmas his dad had known when he was young, and his mother was still alive.

Harry’s ex-wife had not allowed their son to spend one Christmas day with his dad in eighteen years and even when Harry had gone to a woman lawyer, who was appalled at the situation and sent Harry’s ex several very serious legal letters, Jamie’s mother defused the situation by agreeing to allow Harry and son a Christmas. But unlike Christmas, it never came. There was always a reason. Harry wondered how someone could hurt another so cruelly. Had he treated her so? Or was she just bitter that the money and the expensive trinkets all went away?

She had also told his son lies. Told him Harry had deserted them both. Left them with nothing. Never paid alimony. Lies, lies, lies. Trouble was, how could Harry set the record straight without telling his son his mother was a liar? He’d attempted to explain the real story one day but it ended bitterly with another two precious years wasted in not talking.

The truth was that eighteen years ago Harry’s career had finished in his homeland. Although he’d taken action to get rid of his business partner, those facts were buried deep beneath the guilty by association tag that was so much easier for people to remember.  In the end he was advised by his lawyer, friends and wife that it’d be easier to resume his career in Los Angeles where he was still highly regarded. Over there the only thing that lived was the work, not the innuendo and cocktail gossip. In fact, his wife, so convinced it was the right decision, eagerly drove him to the airport. He’d realized later that she’d wanted him gone as she had a more promising option awaiting his exit. Harry had left her everything his business partner hadn’t taken, mainly a big mansion and everything in it. The sale of it intended as a big one lump sum payment to her and the welfare of their son. In contrast, Harry walked though the airport departure door with a suitcase, the clothes he was wearing and enough money to last him a year in L.A if he lived like a monk. Then one year became two, then three and so on for nine years that seemed to go by like nine months.

Harry sat on his couch and thought that perhaps he deserved this Christmas. He couldn’t wait until New Year’s Eve to pledge that he would never stand up over a principle again; or love something too much lest it be taken from you.

His only ambition now was a simple one – he just wanted his son to know the truth and how much his dad had loved him, and…everything.

Then he looked up and saw his mother standing by the electronic flashing Christmas tree. Her eyes were filled with that all too familiar Christmas joy and her accompanying smile not only warmed Harry’s heart but healed it.

“Have you been a good boy, son?”

“Yes mum, I have tried so hard to be. But I feel old and weary from the trying.”

“What do you want most this Christmas, Harry? And I’ll see if I have it for you.”

Harry’s voice trembled as it always did when he got too emotional, “I want to be home, mum. I’ve been trying to get back there for so long but I think I took the long way. And got lost somewhere.”

Harry felt something and realized his wound had reopened. Maybe they all have to be reopened before one can truly begin again?

No one was in Harry’s apartment to see him go. So many had wanted to be there but things just got in their way. But that was Life, huh?

 

(c) 2015 Frank Howson

 

 

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MY FAVOURITE BOOKS LIST

A friend asked me to pick my 10 fave books of all time. The 10 best of anyting is a hard ask but here’s goes. I have chosen those 50 books that moved me the most and had the biggest influence.

1) THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2) GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens.

3) THE DISENCHANTED by Budd Schulberg.

4) THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde.

5) NODDY IN TOYLAND by Enid Blyton

6) A LIFE by Elia Kazan.

7) CRAZY SUNDAYS – F. SCOTT FITZGERALD IN HOLLYWOOD by Aaron Latham

8) CHRONICLES by Bob Dylan.

9) THIS IS ORSON WELLES by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich.

10) A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway.

11) THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

12) IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

13) A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens

14) HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain

15) WHAT’S EXACTLY THE MATTER WITH ME by P.F. Sloan

16) DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller

17) TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

18) TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald

19) POWER WITHOUT GLORY by Frank Hardy

20) PETER PAN by James M. Barrie

21) DIARY OF AN UNKNOWN by Jean Cocteau

22) ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE by William Goldman

23) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD by Ron Hansen

24) SCOTT & ERNEST by Matthew Bruccoli

25) THE POWER OF MYTH by Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers.

26) ERROL FLYNN – A MEMOIR by Earl Conrad

27) ON THE STREET WHERE I LIVE by Alan Jay Lerner

28) DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD by Eric Burdon with J. Marshall Craig

29) OLIVIER ON ACTING by Laurence Olivier

30) THE MUSIC GOES ROUND MY HEAD by David Johnston

31) FREE ASSOCIATION by Steven Berkoff

32) THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE by Robert Evans

33) MARILYN by Norman Mailer

34) HITCHCOCK BY TRUFFAUT

35) A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway

36) JOURNAL OF A NOVEL by John Steinbeck

37) PICTURE by Lillian Ross

38) HOME BEFORE DARK by Ruth Park

39) TINSEL by William Goldman

40) PORTRAITS by Helmut Newton

41) THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT by Quentin Crisp

42) THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell

43) TEN GREAT PLAYS by William Shakespeare

44) FINISHING THE HAT by Stephen Sondheim

45) W. C. FIELDS – HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES by Robert L. Taylor

48) THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN Volume 1 by Mark Twain

49) IN HIS OWN WRITE by John Lennon

50) THE ENTERTAINER by John Osbourne

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REMEMBER

Remember the days before ipods and iphones when we actually took the time to talk to each other? Really talk.

Remember when you could go out to lunch as an escape from the pressures of work and for an hour could unwind and enjoy a meal without being interrupted by a phone call about something that could obviously wait an hour?

Remember when love was something magical and special and people didn’t take each other for granted? Or for a ride. We all rejoiced when there was suddenly free love. Trouble is, like most things, people don’t value things that come too easily.

Remember when music was on vinyl and an album was big and had a beautiful cover that actually looked like a work of art and we carried those albums around with us to friends’ houses as a badge of pride? They had cover notes. They listed what musicians played on what track. What studio each track was recorded at? Who engineered? What time of day or night had it been recorded. Who had written each song? Who arranged it? Who mixed it? The lyrics. It was important to us to know all these things and to respect those who had participated on our beloved recording. It was difficult to skip tracks so it made you listen to every song and appreciate an album as a whole. Now, music has gotten smaller in so many ways. People download things in inferior sound quality and don’t give a damn about who played on it and who else contributed. Now it’s all about beats.

Remember when people used to know their neighbours? And actually care about them?

Remember when a dog was a child’s best friend and there were so many hills to climb and games to play in the open air? It taught us to use our imaginations. Without a computer screen, we could imagine we were Zorro, Davy Crockett, Robin Hood or Geronimo and play in parks for hours having the time of our life. And were safe.

Remember when the smallest gesture was appreciated and treasured?

Remember when we believed that our vote counted for something? This was in the days before the Whitlam sacking (a Prime Minister elected by the public and dismissed by one man), and Kevin Rudd (another man elected by the public but dismissed by his own party).

Remember when our innocence was lost from three bullets fired in Dallas? A reminder that the world was not a safe place for those who dreamed big dreams.

Remember when your parents took the time to read you bedtime stories?

Remember when an ice cream and a trip to the movies made you feel like the richest kid in town?

Remember when Christmas was spent with all those long gone family members and we laughed as if there would be no tomorrow?

Remember when the days seemed so long that you could easily fit into each one everything you had to do?

Remember the first time you heard the Beatles and they sounded like nothing you’d ever heard before? It’s hard for younger people to appreciate their full impact on the way things were. Music, hair, clothing, and attitudes changed overnight. Or so it seemed.

Remember when you were small and played with children with different coloured skin and didn’t even notice?

Remember the excitement of each birthday party shared with your friends?

Remember the smell of your mum’s cooking? It seemed like she was some kind of magician. She always knew what you wanted.

Remember when each day was your friend and another chance for an adventure? Where did we lose that enthusiasm for life? I lost it for a whole decade but have worked hard to regain it. Be thankful for each day no matter what you are going through. Each day is a gift. If you treat it as such it will be.

Remember when radio stations played any and every style of music as long as they thought it was a hit? It was such a weird and exciting mix of Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Louis Armstrong, The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Anthony Newley, The Shadows, Bob Dylan, The Seekers, Bobby Darin, Paul Mauriat, The Kinks, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey,  Janis Joplin, etc., etc., etc.

Remember when people read books and writers became celebrities?

Remember when Bing Crosby was the voice of Christmas?

Remember romance?

Remember Muhammad Ali in his prime when he glided like a proud eagle in flight?

Remember reading the Old Testament and being scared because God seemed so pissed off all the time? In the New Testament He had, like us all, mellowed by time.

Remember crying over the loss of your first love?

Remember when people took the time to write and post Christmas cards?

Remember Noddy in Toyland?

Remember when the circus came to town?

Remember watching man set foot on the moon and knowing nothing would be the same again? It was scary and exciting all at the same time. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Man has invented his doom, first step was touching the moon…”

Remember when it wasn’t painful to remember?

 

(c) Frank Howson 2014

Luna

THE ST. KILDA OF MY YOUTH

Growing up in Fawkner Street, St. Kilda, was an adventure, as I have written of in the past.

My earliest recollections were of the Barkly Hotel on our street corner. In those days a rough and tumble pub, not helped by the archaic 6pm closing times of the day. That meant that all pubs had to stop serving alcohol by 6pm (can you believe it?) and so men, and women, would rush there from their day jobs and with less than thirty minutes or so would order six or seven or eight pints, line them up and down them in record time. All this did was ensure that there’d be a blood bath outside the pub most nights giving the poor, who couldn’t afford to go to Festival Hall and see professional boxing, free front row seats as unhappy drunk patrons settled their imagined differences with their fists. It looked quote poetic on reflection. A kind of slow motion, weird, drunkards dance.

Everywhere there seemed to be street theatre happening.

People falling out of pubs, or pushing to get in before closing time. Children, crying in strollers, waiting for dad or mum to drink their fill and return to responsibility. Maybe.

Mr. and Mrs. Kilpatrick’s Milk Bar was a few doors down and I’d be sent to get supplies for the dinner meal most nights, so I always got a first hand look at the action. Who needed to read “Treasure Island” for thrills when all this was happening outside your door?

My mum never did a shopping list. She was an improve artist when she cooked. My dad, who was jockey size, used to joke that he’d have been 6’4″ if my mum hadn’t sent him on so many errands. It usually went something like this…

“Hey Jack, can you walk up to the Kilpatrick’s and get some milk?”

“Is that all you need?” Dad would ask.

“Yes. That’ll do.”

So off he’d go.

Upon his return he’d be met with…

“Oh. And I need some butter.”

At this point he’d look at me with the greatest look of exasperation seen since the great Oliver Hardy.

He’d put the milk down, loudly, on the kitchen table and through tight lips and clenched teeth would again enquire, “Now…is that all you need?”

“Yes, that’ll do me, Jacky,” my mum would assure him. So, off he’d go again. Dutifully walking up the street to ensure we finally got something to eat as our in-house masterchef toiled away.

No sooner would he get in the door when he’d hear, “Oh and I could use some more flour too.”

I can’t repeat what my father’s response would be to this. But he certainly made it clear to my mum what she could do with the dinner.

Who needed television? Every night at my place we had a live comedy sketch worthy of anything Laural & Hardy, Buster Keaton or Chaplin ever did. Maybe that’s why it was easy to develop a sense of humour. You had to look at the funny side of things or go mad. Or kill someone. To be totally honest some nights the two of them did attempt the latter but that’s a whole other chapter and darker in tone.

Looking back, my upbringing destined me for the theatre. Franz Kafka would’ve felt right at home at our table. The bizarre was normal to us.

Both my parents were originals. Characters. I have not found their like in anyone else in all my years. Perhaps that’s why they were so well loved. They made people laugh, either intentionally or not. When my father died, the crowd couldn’t squeeze into St. Colman’s Church on Carlisle Street and overflowed onto the pavement outside. Tough men who’d worked with him sobbed like children and tried to explain to me how much he’d meant to them. Didn’t they think I knew?

My mother outlived my dad by over twenty so her funeral didn’t achieve the same standing room only crowd but that was only for the simple fact that so many of her friends and family were already gone by then. But the outpouring of grief was just as intense. Many couldn’t contemplate a world without Pearl. I must confess that this writer still struggles with it himself.

Being originals meant both of them were irreplaceable.

If my mum wanted to go and see a romantic film at the classy Victory Theatre my dad would convince her that, while she was enjoying Grace Kelly and Cary Grant act in a story that must’ve seemed almost science fiction to the world she knew, he’d take me and go see a man’s movie at the nearby Memo Theatre. The once beautiful art deco Memo had fallen into disrepair in my youth and I remember my dad affectionately calling it “the Flea Pit.” The first such movie outing between us men was “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.” I was three years old. I had nightmares for years. Child psychology wasn’t a concept in those days. No one ever thought about how things might harm or unnerve a child. You either coped with it…or harden the fuck up!

Another place I’ll always remember was Candy Corner. It was a sublime lolly shop and was situated across the road from Luna Park and the Palais Theatre. When my mum got a part time job there I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world and was so proud of her. I used to brag about it to my friends. Suddenly I had influence. I was somebody once removed from a somebody. Yep, I learned how powerful it was to have connections. Kids would beg me to accompany them into the shop while they ordered in the hope that my mum would think they were my pals and give them a very generous serving of their favourites. And she always did.

When she lost her job there, perhaps for being over generous, I lost a few friends too. Another life lesson. More grounding for a future in showbiz.

My dad had been a hurdle jockey, as were his two brothers. One of them, William (Bill) Howson is in the history books for winning several Grand National Steeple Chase races. But my dad gave it all away when he married so he could get a more reliable job. Did the frustration of that lead to his drinking? Watching his brother go on and become famous and wealthy? Who would know? This was the era when men didn’t talk about their problems. Nor acknowledge them. And went to their graves with the secrets of their inner feelings.

He got a job on the St. Kilda Foreshore Council and became a gardener, and a damn fine one. There was nothing he didn’t know about plants. He’d walk through a garden and pick various flowers or plants and eat them to impress you. He knew which ones you could eat and which ones would poison you. He was in charge of the O’Donnell Gardens next to Luna Park.

The head of Luna Park in those days was Mr. Keith Marshall, a man I remember looking up to, literally, and being so impressed with the fact that he always wore a suit, collar, tie, and a fedora hat. He dressed like Melvyn Douglas in the movies. Immaculate.

After my mum’s tragic demise from a career at Candy Corner, I had a revival in popularity when Mr. Keith Marshall became friends with my dad. It was impossible not to like my father – when he was sober.

I remember Mr. Keith Marshall looking down at me and saying, “Whenever you want free tickets to Luna Park you just go to the front office and tell them you’re Jack Howson’s son – and that I personally okay however many you want. Alright my boy?”

Oh my God. Now I was bursting with pride about my dad. He had sent me to the top of the popularity charts again. For a kid this was really something. And God aka Mr. Keith Marshall had personally authorized it! I was so happy I could’ve cried, but I was a St. Kilda kid and possibly still in trauma due to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Almost overnight a lot of my friends returned with fanciful excuses for their absence and why they’d dropped me off their birthday party invitations. I must admit, I was becoming a bit cynical about it all.

I spent a lot of my childhood in the O’Donnell Gardens playing Robin Hood, Davy Crockett and Zorro. And rolling down those green hills until I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand. It was cheap entertainment. You had to develop an imagination and use it. I always dreamed that oneday I’d become so famous and rich that I’d have the powers that be change the name of the O’Donnell Gardens to the Henry (Jack) Howson Gardens in tribute to my dear ol’ dad. That dream still gets me to sleep.

Eventually my dad got promoted to boss of the St. Kilda Foreshore, and my mum always maintained that was his downfall. Now he had no one to answer to and the drinking escalated. It got so bad that my mum would go and sit in the gardens and watch him in order to cramp his style. This must’ve humiliated him with his workmates but there you have it. It was a situation that lasted many years and led to World War 3 being fought every night in our living room.

Most times just verbal brutality, sometimes physical. All I know is I overheard a lot of horrible nasty things that no child has a right to hear. A frightened kid standing at his half opened bedroom door watching and listening to your two heroes destroy each other’s ego and pride. And your innocence. So the little boy ran away and hid somewhere inside me.

Some people have remarked that when I laugh or am filled with joy they can actually see the little boy. Maybe it’s on those occasions he feels safe enough to come out.

He’s still very proud that his mother worked at Candy Corner, and for a time his father was friends with God – the man who ran Luna Park.

(c) Frank Howson 2014