The row outside got worse. It was midnight on a Saturday night in inner-city Melbourne. The gentle rain on the roof of the small upstairs bedroom would usually be a comforting sound and we would have settled into the warm bed and a deep and enjoyable sleep. But not on Saturdays. Not recently, anyway.
For the past five Saturdays, we had been woken in the early hours by our mystery neighbour.
Dave was in his mid-thirties and we called him the mystery man because we couldn’t put a label on him, an occupation label that is. A person doesn’t need to have a label of course, but certain people just invite the question: “What does that bloke do?”
Dave was one of those people.
Sound was amplified in these tiny back streets and through the little square backyards of the narrow cottages.
Dave lived with his mother Shirley and an old terrier called Butch.
When the terrier wasn’t barking at nothing in particular, it was whining because it was cold, for it had nothing to sit or lie on in the all-concrete backyard when Shirley locked it outside and went down the street to shop or meet the girls–other older women she’d grown up with in Fitzroy–for an afternoon drink at the Royal Derby.
When Shirley got home, she talked loudly to Butch mainly about how much she loved him and had missed him that afternoon, and when Dave got home he shouted at both of them, telling them what useless bastards they were.
Most nights, Dave went out and things would quieten down. Shirley would watch the telly with the volume switched up, naturally, but then, thankfully, she switched it off and went to bed early.
Dave was big, footballer-like. He took a lot of trouble over his appearance. He was always shaved and his hair was perfect. He wore a suit during the day and smart casual clothes at night. But this almost impeccable image just did not fit the man.
Dave was arrogant, he swaggered when he walked, he shouted, and he bullied young kids in the street if they came too close to him with their bikes. And you couldn’t help thinking that, underneath it all, he was probably a coward. Who else but a coward would shout constantly at his mother? He was a man you’d simply choose to avoid, someone you wouldn’t want to know.
But there was more to consider than Dave’s behaviour and dress.
Each morning at around 9.30, a large white late-model sedan would pull up outside number 107. The driver would double toot, then sit with the motor running until Dave appeared, usually with a piece of toast held tightly between his teeth.
Dave would jump in beside the driver and the car would leave a little bit of rubber on the road as it took off to who knows where.
And then there were the golf clubs. At least once or twice a month, Dave would appear with toast as usual but with a fully loaded golf bag hanging from his shoulder. This he bundled into the boot, which opened as if by magic just as he aimed the bag at the back of the car. Then he would slam down the lid and dash for the passenger door as if the driver were about to leave without him.
But where was Dave off to? What did this man do?
Saturday nights turned bad when Dave got a girlfriend.
He would bring her home in the early hours. They would take the short cut from the pub along the lane that ran between our house and the shoe factory.
Well before they reached the street and turned the corner to walk the five metres to his mum’s door, Dave and Ms X (we never did discover her name) would be screaming at each other.
It sounded just dreadful, violent. And although it was probably only minutes before they passed our window and turned into the street, the stark and horrible sounds of these two seemingly about to do each other serious injury left one wide awake and emotionally disturbed and unable to get back to sleep for a long time.
We discovered that a slab of cheese on toast and a cocoa helped to settle us down after these episodes, and we reminded ourselves that, bad as it was, it wasn’t the London Blitz, and bombs would probably not fall on the house and for that reason it was now safe to go back to bed.
Being prisoners of this weekly event was beginning to bother us permanently. Not knowing how long it was likely to go on for, was depressing.
How could one possibly look forward to a pleasant weekend at home?
There were, however, not a lot of options.
We, like a number of our friends who had bought houses in the early 1970s in what until recently had been exclusively inner-city poor, and working-class suburbs, were very aware of the bad feeling being expressed by some of the local residents. Trendies and hippies were clearly not welcome here. These people belonged somewhere else, not here in true-blue battler territory.
Calling the police was not really an option.
For a start, you had to wait for Dave and Ms X to arrive, then try to get a constable on the scene before they’d moved round the corner. Too hard. And talking to an aggressive person who was also drunk seemed pointless.
Visiting Dave at home during the week for a friendly chat was the only civilised option, and I kept putting that off.
Tonight was the last straw.
We had jokingly thought that because of the rain, tonight might be different, but it wasn’t.
We heard them coming, the sounds of the worst human condition after murder, torture and war. A drunken man and woman, neither of whom might ever have experienced love. And both most likely having grown up with alcohol-induced violence.
When the couple arrived below our first floor window the yelling stopped unexpectedly, but the sound that came in its place was more chilling than I could have imagined from my comfortable bed.
Instantly I knew that Dave had Ms X by the throat. A gargling, gasping sound, a thud against the brick wall, and then Dave’s awful voice, “You fucking bitch! I told ya, you fucking bitch. Didn’t I? I told you to shut up or I’d shut you up for good. So, bitch! How does this feel?”
Without thinking or listening I flew to the window, threw up the sash and hung out high above the couple. She had dropped to the ground and Dave had already landed his first kick.
“You’re a fucking animal, Dave!” I called out, slightly surprised by the unfamiliar tone of my loud voice.
“Get off her. Be a bloody man for Christ sake, not a Moron. Get away from her.”
I quickly ran out of things to say that I thought might make the difference. The next move must be more serious and I must not hesitate to do what seemed necessary, and to heck with the consequences.
Dave stopped and stood swaying, looking around to see where the voice had come from. Had he even heard what I said?
All this took only a split second. I saw the woman roll to one side and jump to her feet.
Faster than I could have imagined, she lifted her head and looked up to where she knew I must be in the darkness above. Then, in a voice from Hell, she called out.
“Don’t call my boyfriend a moron you trendy bastard. Pull ya fucking head back in before we break it open along with ya fucking windows. And you and ya la-de-da slut can go back to where you fucking came from and leave us in peace. Fucking bastards, all of youse!”
And with that, she took the still swaying and confused Dave by the arm and dragged him away and around the corner.
I felt very strange. I was upset, confused by the outcome, and relieved that they had gone.
Had this been something I just hadn’t understood? Is it possible they were two professional actors discovering that they had the same sexual fantasy which they now played out every Saturday night? Act 1: eyes meet across a crowded bar. Act 2: a violent pursuit around dark alleyways. Act 3: well, that’s their business. Don’t be silly. Could Dave and Ms X be actors? No, and stop trying to rewrite the plot for God’s sake. Be real.
Whatever the circumstances, I was determined to find some answer to what was now very definitely “the Saturday-night problem”. I refused to consider staying the night elsewhere.
Unlikely as it may sound, the Gods decided to intervene.
Whether Dave split up with Ms X or whether on Saturdays they did something different, or came home by another route, I don’t know. But from that night on, Saturday nights were given back to us, though we couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t turn up again.
Then one day, things changed for ever.
Butch died, then Shirley died a couple of weeks later.
Shortly after this, Dave came over to me in the street outside our front door one morning.
It was early. Not quite nine thirty, and no toast in his mouth.
He seemed a little disoriented, lost maybe. Shirley’s demise had no doubt affected his life for the moment. I cruelly suspected he was now having to wake himself up, do his own ironing and the like, and that he no longer had someone to shove the toast into his mouth.
In a whining and grovelling voice I had not imagined he was capable of, Dave mumbled an apology for any trouble he might have caused us on his nights off when he said he sometimes had too much to drink. He said that now that Mum was gone he was going to live with his sister Gwen in Coburg, and that it was much better out there where people were not living in each other’s pockets and one had a car port.
I really couldn’t think of anything to say at that moment. I muttered “Best of luck ,Dave.” Then the white car pulled up and Dave grabbed a suitcase from the doorstep of 107 and threw it at the boot as the lid opened. In a flash he was in the white car; then it disappeared from our street for the last time.
‘Shit,’ I thought, ‘I could have asked what the hell he did. Damn!’
The venue was Festival Hall a fortnight later. We were at a huge rally for the party faithful. A Labor government had been refused supply by the Senate. The Prime Minister had called for a new election. We were there in our thousands, young zealots, middle-class folk, left-wing intellectuals, and the blue-collar folk from the industrial heartlands.
What a night. Only the top men spoke. One of these was a senior union official, leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and destined in a few years to be a Labor Prime Minister.
When the prominent union leader had finished his speech, the crowd rose and applauded with great enthusiasm and only slowly was he able to back away from the microphone, waving with both hands and turning to left and right so that all could see him.
Suddenly, the curtains behind him parted and two big men in suits came slowly forward to escort the speaker back stage: his minders.
Each man took up a position on either side of their leader and each put a hand behind his shoulder to guide him safely while still soaking in the applause and waving continuously.
Together the men backed slowly to the curtains, then disappeared.
One of the men was our neighbour, Dave.
“Well, I’ll be buggered,” I said out loud, pointing to draw my partner’s attention to Dave. “So that is what he does.”
Together the three backed slowly to the curtains then disappeared.
All the bits came rushing together. Dave’s immaculate dressing; the movie-style car rides; his remonstrating against little kids on bikes when he caught them riding on the footpath; the golf clubs; and then, the drinking and the violence.
In his own small way, Dave was a celebrity. He earned his daily toast watching over one of the most important men in the country. At work he bathed first in the light of his master’s popularity and secondly in the hidden darkness of mindless ambition that surrounds all seats of power.
And then finally, Dave would go home to the tiny house where he lived with Shirley and Butch or, lately, to his sister’s house in Coburg where there was a carport and where, I suspected, his sister Gwen now woke him up–maybe just a little earlier in the mornings–and ironed his shirts. And did Gwen make his toast?
Maybe I’ll think Dave’s story through again one day when I’m writing something that demands a minder, or a prime minister.
It’s odd, but whenever I do think of Dave all these years later, I don’t think of his job, only of the family dog Butch, whimpering on the cold concrete and the sad Shirley with her booze and the television turned up.
Maybe that’s a clue to where the real darkness lies in everyone’s life?