Counterculture Dreams sample

Counterculture Dreams: A 1960s Story

Conciliar Series Book 3

Chapter 1

Mother Jerome and the goddess

MOTHER JEROME, Prioress and Superior General of the congregation of the Sisters of the Suffering Savior, sat at her desk in the order’s motherhouse in Melbourne, fiddling with her rosary and gazing at the three books on esotericism and the occult in front of her. She had just seen Mrs. Aine Winterbine to the door. At the happy chatter from below, which she had not noticed during her talk with Aine, she rose and approached the window of her first-floor office. It was Christmas visiting day for the sisters. Family and friends milled around on the parapet below while others sat at picnic tables. Aine approached Sister Agnes, her head bowed in thought. Agnes’s solicitous greeting and light touch on her arm roused her. But there was only time for a short exchange because Agnes’s father interrupted them—rather brutally. Unmindful of his daughter’s and friend’s disappointment, he was in a hurry to go.

While the Pearson family was packing up, Jannie de Kam bounced on the scene in all her beauty, fixing the eyes of those around them. After an exchange during which Aine displayed a reluctance to which Mr. Pearson and Jannie were blind, Aine followed an excited Jannie, helplessly glancing back before they disappeared through the archway below her. Mother Jerome returned to her desk but remained standing. She tapped the desk lightly. She made her way to a window at the front of the building. A luxury car with two young men had stopped alongside Aine and Jannie, who were waiting by the front gates. A young man got out on the driver’s side and spoke briefly with Aine. Jannie opened the door and pleaded with Aine. Aine reluctantly climbed in the back. Mother Jerome hoped Aine was prepared for the sort of temptation she had warned about in their conversation. She returned to her office, shut the window, and resumed her seat.

She looked again at the three books. She picked up Pistis Sophia, which she had acquired when researching Gnosticism as part of her classic’s degree. She had placed it in the reserved section of the convent library with strict orders against its borrowing without her authority. So, how had it come to Aine Winterbine’s notice when she was in the postulancy with Virginia Pearson (now Sister Agnes)? In what circumstances did Aine find it outside the library? How did it come to be just where she happened to be? These questions now demanded her attention. She had difficulty accessing the other two titles. To maintain privacy, she had to order them through someone she could rely on among her old academic contacts in Sydney. (See In This Vale of Tears, Book 2 of the Conciliar Series.)

The reason for secretly gathering the three books was Aine and Virginia’s strange experiences during the postulancy and Virginia’s clash with Margaret McGuigan, now Sister Catherine. She had initially not taken too much notice of the conflict between Virginia, the mature teacher, and Margaret, who was fresh from school. A young woman of Virginia’s intelligence, proven competence, and self-discipline would likely clash with a self-assured schoolgirl undaunted by persons in authority. She had counseled Virginia to understand Margaret rather than expect her to behave like one of her students. Margaret was not guilty of a lack of respect. She was asserting herself and her ideas. It was also an exercise in humility for Virginia on her way to her profession as a religious sister. But her talks in recent months with Sister Agnes and Mrs. Winterbine about the strange, frightening episodes she and Aine had experienced led her to reconsider. Was someone dabbling in the occult, unleashing demons in the convent?

Sister Agnes suspected Sister Catherine’s often furtive behavior and her outspoken ideas about female independence were somehow connected to the appearance of robed and hooded figures freely wandering around the convent grounds in the dead of night and practicing some sort of ritual at the grotto near the river. She did not know how but suspected, nevertheless. Aine and Sister Agnes did not have the knowledge about esoteric practices to categorize such behaviors as possibly linked to some form of esotericism. But she, Mother Jerome, did. As an honors graduate in the classics and with a long interest in Gnosticism as a deviation from Catholic teaching, she had happened into the vast field of esotericism and the occult.

Now Sister Catherine’s open encouragement for girls to be educated and self-sufficient took on a new color against the scenario of robed, hooded figures and nocturnal rituals. There was an air of the goddess movement, a developing part of the esoteric tradition, breathing from these strange happenings. When she recently visited the order’s exclusive girls’ school, where Sister Catherine taught, to make discreet inquiries under the pretext of a routine inspection, she heard of Catherine’s interest in ancient mythologies, not only Roman and Greek but also Norse. They had made their way into her classes on ancient history. This information was passed on as an aside in the conversations she had with the principal and deputy principal of St Theresa’s College for Ladies. Evidently, they did not think Catherine’s interest in ancient mythologies was significant or out of place; it was merely idiosyncratic.

Indeed, that interest may not mean much, but it made a possible connection because various strands of esotericism drew heavily on ancient myth, particularly those the goddess movement had taken to itself. Of course, an interest in ancient mythologies and ideas about female independence need not confirm a connection with the goddess movement, but it did raise questions. Sister Agnes had indeed grounds for her suspicions. Furthermore, Sister Agnes’s suspicions supported the indistinct feeling she had had for some time about a growing dissonance, something like incipient decay, in the congregation. Where it was, she could never point to precisely. But there were signs occasionally that could point to the goddess as the symbol of the divine feminine, an alternative to the Christian divinity. The goddess represented more than decay. Where to go now?

The question persisted after the Christmas visit, but she could do nothing because of the sisters’ Christmas retreat, the Christmas ceremonies, and preparations for the new school year. However, in the second week of January 1962, there came a lull in the convent’s administrative demands. Everything was in place for the start of school. Mother Jerome now had time to investigate. The vital question was how to proceed. She had to be careful not to upset the sisters who had never heard of esotericism or to alert those engaged in secret nocturnal goddess rituals. The latter would take steps to hide their activities. Another matter she wanted to keep hidden decided her course of action.

During the last two years, she had experienced a slow decline in her health. It was not serious at this stage, but it was evident to her sisters she was not as sprightly as she used to be. She had lost weight and sometimes seemed to be struggling at the end of the day. Sister Agnes typically could not hide her concern and she had to be reassured. She had to reassure everyone because if the order’s administration had to be handed over, there had to be someone capable. At that moment, the only person with the qualities to take over running their religious institute was Sister Agnes, but those qualities needed some years to develop. So, Mother Jerome kept her state of health to herself. Indeed, there was not much to tell.

She had secretly consulted a doctor during her last visit to Sydney. The doctor was a friend of her father’s, an eminent physician on whose discretion she could rely. He had found she was suffering from anemia, but after further tests, he could not isolate the cause. Indeed, the causes of anemia were many. The first step, he said, was to ensure Mother Jerome followed a diet that would rule out food as a sole cause. In addition to a strict diet, Mother Jerome had to give up forms of fasting that would not help. The adjustment of diet helped, but there was little improvement. It was time to consult the Sydney doctor. That was the first reason for a trip to Sydney.

The second, the more important one, was an overdue inspection of the congregation’s schools in Sydney. Their elite school, St Michael the Archangel Ladies’ College in Watertown, on the north shore of Sydney, was the primary concern. It was at St Michael’s that hints of esotericism may reveal themselves. Sisters Julian and Agatha—formerly Laura Mulligan and Anna Calwell—were postulants with Sister Catherine and the same age. They were not as close to Catherine as Sisters Hildegard and Benedicta, formerly Elizabeth Parker and Kate Armstrong, but solidly under Catherine’s influence. She had broken up their confederacy by sending Catherine to university with Agnes, Sisters Julian and Agatha to St Michael the Archangel Ladies’ College in Sydney, and Hildegard and Benedicta to suburban schools in Melbourne. Her task was to investigate if references to ancient mythologies cropped up in the teaching at St Michael’s. That would be a hint.

To help in that purpose, she intended to contact one of her former pupils, June Compton, married to builder Michael Williamson. June and Michael had four children. She had an idea that June and her two daughters, who attended St Michael’s, might help in her inquiries. Acquiring information by such means was not to her taste, but spying was justified in some circumstances. Once decided on her action, she summoned Sister Martha, one of the non-teaching sisters who looked after the convent household. Nobody lived the religious life more faithfully than Martha, of humble working-class background and a former salesgirl at a Coles variety store.

‘Come in, Sister, come right in,’ said Mother Jerome when Martha hesitated at the door of her office. Martha usually received her instructions at the door and went off to carry them out.

‘Yes, of course, Mother,’ said Martha, coming into the office and standing in the middle of the room with a questioning look, a rare expression for self-effacing Martha.

‘Take a seat,’ said Mother Jerome, shutting the door and pointing to one of the chairs in front of her desk. She waited until Martha had settled. ‘Now, Sister, as religious, we don’t expect praise for what we do,’ said the Prioress, taking her seat behind her desk and assuming the upright posture many of the sisters found forbidding. Martha nodded, her eyes widening. ‘We do our duty as well as we can, no matter what it is or what people think of it and us.’ Martha nodded again. ‘But now and again, good work must be acknowledged. Sister, you have done your duty as well as anyone could. Perhaps better.’

‘Thank you, Mother,’ said Martha, bemusement had replaced perplexity.

‘I now intend to extend your duties. But your new duties require strict confidentiality.’ Martha’s expression eased. ‘Will you commit to a promise of strict confidentiality no matter what you hear or see?’

‘Yes, of course, Mother.’

‘You must not give your commitment lightly.’

‘I am prepared to fulfill whatever duties you give me. That was my vow.’

‘You are not even to give a hint that you are aware of information that nobody else in our religious institute knows. You are not even to give the impression you are hearing or seeing things of a confidential nature.’

‘I commit, Reverend Mother.’

‘Good. After we finish here, you are to go to the chapel and say a rosary of the five Glorious Mystery as a seal on your commitment.’

‘Certainly, Mother.’

‘Good. Now, you will accompany me on a trip to Sydney to visit our congregation there. You need not know any more at this stage except that you will be waiting on me. You may receive some quizzical looks or even looks of irritation, but you are to ignore them. Is that understood?’

‘Yes, Mother.’ Martha’s blissful serenity returned.

‘Your first task will be to book flights to Sydney for late morning next Sunday. The phone is on my desk and the flight timetable next to it. This will be the sort of secretarial task I require of you. You have to get used to it. I will supervise this first time.’

With a bit of prompting, Martha completed the task without difficulty or anxiety. Martha then visited the bursar for two suitcases. She brought one to Mother Jerome. In the other, she packed for a week’s stay.

‘And, Sister,’ said Mother Jerome on the way to the airport, ‘as a break and perhaps relief from the tension of your duties in Sydney, you and I will visit Taronga Park Zoo and take a trip on the Manly ferry. These are sights that should not be missed on a visit to Sydney.

‘Thank you, Reverend Mother. I look forward to it.’

***

‘SURELY, I don’t have to go,’ said Daniel Williamson during Sunday roast dinner. ‘I can understand Angie and Stef going, but what has it to do with me?’

‘Mother Jerome especially asked to see the whole family,’ said Mrs. Williamson.

‘It is a polite request to which we will respond politely,’ said Mr. Williamson.

‘You’re not going to get out of it, Danny,’ said Angela with her familiar cheeky smile. ‘And why should you? If Stef and I must go, so should you.’

‘I don’t attend St Michael’s. That’s the reason. It’s a girls’ school if you haven’t noticed. And I go to a boy’s school.’

‘If I haven’t, you have,’ said Angela, poking his arm. ‘You want them carrying on at your football matches, don’t you?’

‘Will you stop your childish nonsense,’ said Robert, their older brother. ‘As Mum and Dad said, it’s a polite request. It is our obligation to act accordingly.’

‘Let me explain, Daniel dear,’ said Mrs. Williamson. ‘This is a special request from a special person, not just from the head of the congregation that runs the school Angela and Stephanie attend. Mother Jerome taught me when she was Sister Jerome at St Michael’s. She was a wonderful teacher, the best I ever had. She had as much influence on building my character as your grandparents.’

‘The three of you should listen to this,’ said Robert, pointing at his younger brother and sisters, ‘and not make silly immature comments.’

‘What do you know about her?’ said Angela, turning to Robert.

‘Well, I … eh … Grandma and Granddad know her family. Some people at the Catholic Youth Club know …’

‘I want the four of you to listen to your mother,’ said Mr. Williamson, rapping the table. ‘Please leave it, Robert. Continue June.’

Robert nodded and scowled at Danny and Angela.

‘It probably hasn’t occurred to you, but most people who have chosen a religious vocation had a normal life before they entered their order. This was especially true of Mother Jerome, or Lucia Beauregard, as she was before entering religious life.’

‘Lucia Beauregard,’ exclaimed Angela. ‘If that’s not a snooty upper-class …’

‘Angela, you will lose privileges if you interrupt your mother again. You are altogether too flippant and forward for a 14-year-old girl.’

‘Exactly,’ said Robert.

‘Sorry. I was just commenting on her name. You must admit it’s not normal.’

‘You’re right, Angela darling. The Beauregards are not your average family. Now listen carefully and don’t interrupt if you don’t want your father to discipline you. This is important information for our visit.’

Angela assumed an unconvincing contrite air, further provoking Robert’s already dense scowling.

‘As a young couple, Dr and Mrs. Beauregard migrated to Australia in the late 1890s,’ Mrs. Williamson continued. ‘Lucia has an older brother and sister, both born in England. Lucia was born in Sydney. Dr Beauregard quickly gained a reputation as an outstanding physician. He came to the notice of specialists and was encouraged to pursue specialist studies at Arthur Phillip University. Which he did, achieving exceptional results in orthopedics. He had his own practice but maintained academic contacts. The three Beauregard children were also academically inclined.

‘Lucia attended St Michael’s and did outstandingly in her studies. She gained a scholarship to Arthur Phillip University. She finished with a First-Class Honors degree in classics. In 1924, at age twenty-four, she joined the congregation of the Sisters of the Suffering Savior. Admired and respected by everyone, Sister Jerome made rapid progress. At thirty-five, she became headmistress of St Michael’s, the congregation’s foremost school in Sydney. In 1945, she transferred to the motherhouse in Melbourne and became Superior General in 1950. She now directed a vast foundation of schools, hospitals, and homes in two states.’

‘Mother Jerome,’ Mr. Williamson intervened, ‘has reached a professional position few women reach. In fact, few men reach such a position of power and influence. Her influence reaches far beyond the convent and the local parish priest. You are to talk about her with respect. I’m particularly warning you, Angela.’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘I’m sure Angela has respect for Mother Jerome, Michael dear,’ said Mrs. Williamson, resting her hand on her husband’s arm. ‘It’s just her lively way of talking. But pay attention, Angela. Remember what your father says.’

‘Yes, Mother,’ said Angela, shooting a glance at Danny, who remained straight-faced.

‘I have spoken about Mother Jerome’s professional position. Now, what I really wanted to tell you four children …’

Please don’t include me with these three immature persons. I know far more about the Beauregards than these …’

‘Please be quiet, Robert,’ said his father. ‘I am aware of your thoughts. It’s unnecessary to harp on it.’

Robert sufficed with deepening his scowl.

‘Yes, Robert, I know you have spoken with your grandparents about the Beauregard family, but you don’t know everything. Now just listen until I have finished.’

Robert nodded, then glared at Angela, whose lips reflected her amusement.

‘You listen, too, Angela,’ said her mother, ignoring her expression. ‘Now, as Robert knows, your grandfather met Dr Beauregard socially, and the two families became friends. Your grandparents have known Lucia since she was a child. They speak of her as a clever, respectful child and a handsome, accomplished young adult. She did not lack the attention of the young men around her, especially at university. I’m told there was one very broken-hearted young man when Lucia entered the convent.’

‘It’s hard to imagine that a nun had a boyfriend,’ said Stephanie.

‘Then you have learned something,’ said her father.

‘Just one more thing in my explanation as to why we as a family should cordially accept Mother Jerome’s invitation. It’s something none of you know.’

‘Oh, I hope it’s a bit of scandal,’ said Angela.

‘No, it’s nothing of the sort,’ said Mrs. Williamson, arresting the words on her husband’s and older son’s lips. ‘Be serious, Angela, and pay attention.’

‘I am,’ said Angela innocently. ‘But there’s always some scandal in families.’

‘You know that your father and I married during the War,’ Mrs. Williamson continued, waving a warning finger at Angela. ‘I was twenty-two, a very sheltered twenty-two, when Dad proposed. Your grandparents were reluctant to agree to it. We needed more time, they thought. There were other considerations, of course, reasonable considerations. The War. But Dad and I dearly wanted to get married. One Sunday, during your father’s leave, Mother Jerome invited Grandma and Granddad back to the convent after Mass for a chat. She persuaded them to give their consent. We married a week later.’

‘That’s a lovely ending,’ said Angela, ‘better than a scandal.’

‘Yes,’ said her mother, ‘much better.

‘Did Mother Jerome know you were marrying someone from the other side of the tracks?’

‘You can be so tactless,’ said Robert, sniffing at Angela. ‘It’s always a juvenile lack of respect.’

‘Angela,’ said her father, ‘you don’t seem to be listening.’

‘She’s just being humorous, dear,’ said Mrs. Williamson, quick to break in. ‘Your grandparents, Angela, always had the highest respect for your father and his family. They were particularly grieved when they lost a son, your father’s older brother Jack, to the War.’

‘It is a point, though,’ said Danny. ‘Granddad Compton has been a successful businessman.’

‘It didn’t matter. Any difference in social standing was never a consideration and certainly not with Mother Jerome,’ continued Mrs. Williamson. ‘Besides, it was tight for everyone during the War. So, we have good reasons for accepting Mother Jerome’s invitation. But the dearest of them is her persuading Grandma and Granddad to allow us to marry. Wouldn’t you think, Daniel?’

‘Yes, Mum,’ said Danny. ‘In fact, I am now interested to meet this phenomenon of a nun.’

‘Please speak respectfully, Daniel,’ said his father.

‘The correct term is “sister” not “nun,”’ said Robert. ‘Nuns are enclosed …’

‘What’s not respectful, Dad?’ said Danny.

‘Of course he is respectful, dear,’ said his mother. ‘It’s just his way of talking. The youth in 1962 speak differently from the youth of your time.’

***

DANNY often found his father unnecessarily stern, but he loved and respected him, having come to understand the origin of his ways. Like many fathers among the boys who attended St Patrick’s Chatsworth, his father came from a hard-working family of tradesmen going back to the previous century when Australia was emerging from the colonial period. His grandparents Williamson lost almost everything during the Great Depression when their building business failed. His father, Michael, known as Mike, and two brothers had to leave school to find whatever work they could to support the family. Just when the family business was getting back on its feet, the Second World War broke out.

Mike and his older brother Jack signed up with the AIF, the Australian Infantry Forces, while the youngest brother Carl joined the navy. Mike was shipped out to North Africa, and Jack’s battalion went to England as a reserve force. Mike fought with the Australian forces during the celebrated Allied victory at El Alamein in 1942. Scarcely had that battle finished when he and his mates were shipped back to Australia to prepare for the campaign against the Japanese in Papua and New Guinea. He survived and finished with the rank of sergeant, something he was proud of but not often spoke about. Sadly, Jack, the eldest, was killed during the Allied invasion of Europe. But there was no time for sentiment or talk about the War. Mike had to earn a living. He took over the business from his aging father, who took a backseat role.

While on leave in 1942, he met attractive June Compton at the local building suppliers. She worked in administration; ordinarily, he would have had nothing to do with her. But it was she who emerged from the back office to explain a query about his father’s accounts. Battle-weary Mike had no defense against the pretty face who spoke with a recognizable—and terribly appealing—convent girl accent. On a not-too-subtle inquiry, he discovered, to his surprise, that she attended the same Catholic Church in Chatsworth. Strange that he had never seen her. The reason quickly became apparent. As a tradesman, he was an early riser and attended the earliest Mass. She attended the late morning Mass with her well-to-do family and businessman father. He engineered a meeting by attending the late Mass the following Sunday. There was no time to lose, and he didn’t lose it. She returned his affection. Like many wartime couples, they needed to squeeze out whatever time he had.

With the reluctant but understanding approval of June’s respectable parents, they married before Mike departed with his battalion for Papua and New Guinea. Robert arrived nine months later in 1943, and Daniel in 1945, after Mike was shipped back to Sydney with a serious leg wound. He recovered but was left with a slight limp, which did not impede his work as a carpenter. Danny learned this history over time and could not help being proud and admiring of his sometimes stiff father. The building business grew steadily, and by the early 1950s, the family, now with two girls, could, with a bit of frugality, more than survive on the earnings. There were birthday and Christmas presents and roast chicken, baked vegetables and plum pudding for Christmas and Easter dinners.

If the business turned over smoothly without undue worries for Mike Williamson, it was not the same comfortable outlook in the social and political life of the country. Danny was aware of his father’s preoccupation with political matters from an early age. Something sinister called the ‘Communist threat’ sounded frequently in his conversations. The government had to act to contain a threat that Danny could not quite grasp. He only knew from his father’s long commentaries to his mother, grandparents, and his friends outside church on a Sunday that it was something evil and a disaster for Australia if whatever it was overcame the nation. Then, there were grave warnings when the dreaded communists started the war in Korea, a country far across the ocean to Australia’s north. Australia sent soldiers to help defend the world from this horror. By the time of the sensational Petrov affair in 1954, the defection of an important officer at the Russian Embassy in Canberra, he had a clearer understanding.

Communism was a cruel, godless tyranny that persecuted the people who came under its sway. The evidence was overwhelming. It was not only his father and friends who endlessly spoke about it. It was now the chief topic of the brothers at school, and the newspapers and radio news bulletins. The parish priest devoted many sermons to communism, drawing on the Church’s condemnation through papal writings. Then came the Labor Party split, apparently between those who condemned communism and those who supported it. By this time, Daniel understood communism as some sort of political movement but lost interest in the interminable discussions that arose at the merest provocation. He was more interested in sport.

At the end of the 1950s, the family business provided a comfortable living for Danny, his older brother, and two younger sisters. His dour older brother, eager to leave school, secured an electrician’s apprenticeship through his father’s contacts in 1957 after the 1956 Intermediate Certificate Examination and attended the local technical college. When Danny showed a head for learning, his father and mother encouraged him to aim higher than a trade, a tactless grading that surprisingly did not bother Robert. ‘You can have your stuck-up university with the pansies that populate the place,’ he said when the conversation arose about Daniel’s prospects late in 1959. He wanted to be his own boss, and he could not see that happening with the lazy, aimless layabouts who inhabited the pubs in a seedy part of town.

Robert’s nonchalance about university was not the only surprise. While Daniel and most of his friends treated the religious lessons at school and the instruction from the pulpit as something that had to be heard and learned—what others sneered at as indoctrination—Robert seemed to take it all as seriously as his parents, though one could not call him pious. It was odd, considering Robert’s rather earthy way of talking. Whatever the inconsistency, Daniel did not ponder it for too long. He took his schoolwork seriously and never neglected his studies, but his first interest was in sports, particularly football. He liked cricket, too, but was much better at football.

He looked forward to his final year at school and the football season. He had made the First Fifteen for the 1961 season, an unusual achievement for a sixteen-year-old in a school renowned for its rugby champions, but the season’s rugged games and training had left him bigger and faster. With his regular training regime, he would maintain his strength and fitness. He was ready for the first matches in May 1962. He entertained himself with thoughts of breaking through the flow of play to the crowd’s cheers, particularly the chaperoned girls who always attended the school’s First Fifteen matches. In January 1962, the uncalled-for visit to Mother Jerome interrupted his daydreaming about rugby.

***

DANNY had not often visited Angela and Stephanie’s school in Waventown. The events the family attended, like concerts, speech nights, and sporting matches, were always away from the main convent building, a colonial mansion built by one of the great wool barons. The car fell silent as they came up the drive toward the imposing two-story building with wrought-iron decorated verandahs flanked by two wings.

‘What a place for a religious order,’ murmured Danny.

‘Many religious institutes purchased buildings like this,’ Robert instructed. ‘The size supported their needs, and the property was often neglected and run down. The wider community should be grateful for the building’s preservation.’

‘You have a wealth of knowledge about this sort of thing,’ commented Danny. ‘I don’t blame you. I’d get tired of fiddling with colored wires.’

‘Daniel, I’ll talk to you later,’ said Mr. Williamson before Robert could reply.

Nothing more was said while Mr. Williamson parked the car, and the family approached the front porch. At the front door, a sister greeted them and led them into a large parlor, dark from the richly stained wood that dominated the room. A crucifix hung over the ancient fireplace, and framed photos of imposing, black-clothed religious figures decorated the walls. A black and white photo portrait of Pope John XIII featured among them.

‘Mother Jerome will attend you in a moment,’ said the sister.

‘You can feel the breath of centuries,’ commented Danny after the sister had left them.

‘Well put, Danny,’ said his mother. ‘I always had that feeling, too.’

Shortly after, Mother Jerome glided into the hushed room, followed by a cheerful, smiling sister who stopped two paces behind her.

‘Welcome, June, welcome Mr. Williamson,’ said Mother Jerome, stretching out her hands to Mrs. Williamson. ‘I am grateful you made time to see me. I am particularly grateful to Robert and Daniel, who might feel out of place. Please take a seat. This is Sister Martha. She will serve afternoon tea. You will all have tea? Perhaps the girls would like a soft drink?’

‘We will all have tea, thank you, Mother.’

Danny took close notice of Mother Jerome while she chatted with his mother and father about the family. The smiling Sister Martha served each and attended to Mother Jerome’s needs. He had not much to do with religious sisters, only the first three years of primary school in the parish school, run by the same order of sisters. But that was so long ago that he only remembered the sisters as strict, demanding women in their flowing black habits and white wimples who did not hesitate to use the cane on naughty boys, several of whom were members of his class. He was not one, being too intimidated to resist their authority. Now, he was seeing something different. Mother Jerome radiated dignity and authority in her tempered speech and upright posture, but there was an ease and warmth in her engagement with the family. It was obvious Robert and the two girls felt it, too, as the conversation settled on each. When his turn came, he felt not only that ease and warmth but also an unsettling penetration.

‘Academic ability together with sporting prowess is a gift,’ she said after his mother had given her usual proud assessment of his ability. ‘It is something to be thankful for. They are gifts to be developed according to their nature.’

‘Well, eh, yes, I do try to develop them,’ said Danny, surprised at Mother Jerome’s directness and not fully understanding her meaning.

‘One should develop one’s gifts according to their God-given purpose,’ said Mother Jerome, seeing his failure to grasp her meaning. ‘You are about to begin your last year at school. I imagine you have not yet been exposed to the philosophical underpinning of the Church’s belief.’

‘No, Mother Jerome,’ said Danny, seeing none of the family could go with this line of conversation. Robert looked unusually puzzled.

‘Have you decided what you will study at university? Do you have a vocation in mind?’

‘I have ideas of writing, journalism, or something like that,’ he said, shifting self-consciously.

‘I recommend you study philosophy as one of your subjects. With the right choice of study you will come to understand that everything in our existence has a purpose. A thing is good in so far as it perfects its purpose.’

‘I’m sure Danny will strive to perfect one purpose of his sporting prowess,’ said Angela, grinning.

‘Angela!’ said her mother. ‘Would you please mind your manners? I apologize, Mother Jerome. Angela sometimes forgets herself.’

‘But I only …’

‘Our daughter is a little too forward for her age, Mother,’ said Mr. Williamson, supported by Robert’s frowning nod.

‘Angela has greatly changed since I last saw her,’ said Mother Jerome. ‘Of course, at her age, that is to be expected. However, perhaps Angela’s sisterly teasing has touched the point I was going to make. It is mere general advice, Daniel. It applies to us all. One can misuse nature’s gifts if one loses sight of their purpose.’

‘Hah!’ breathed Robert, drawing a frown from his father.

‘I, eh, will do my best not to misuse my gifts,’ said Daniel, bothered by Mother Jerome’s forthrightness. It was as if she knew about some undetected character fault. Had his mother already spoken about him?

‘Don’t forget my advice about philosophy when you enroll at university this time next year.’ Daniel could only nod before Mother Jerome turned her attention to Angela. ‘Now, Angela, exuberance is not a bad thing, as long as one does not let it direct one’s thoughts and actions.’

‘Precisely my warnings to her,’ said Mrs. Williamson.

‘Our teachers are there to lead our girls in developing their characters,’ said Mother Jerome, leaving Angela no time to comment. ‘You are not the only girl with an outgoing character. Others have the opposite issue. They are shy, and our teachers need to bring them out of themselves. I think Stephanie is on the quiet side. You are about to begin your first year of high school, aren’t you, Stephanie?’

‘Yes, Mother,’ said Stephanie, reacting to her mother’s sign to speak up.

‘You must be careful not to let your older sister dominate you and influence you too much.’

‘But I don’t …’

‘Just listen, Angela dear,’ said Mrs. Williamson. ‘Now is the time to listen.’

‘It is not a rebuke, Angela,’ said Mother Jerome. ‘It is advice to your admiring younger sister. You have a sisterly responsibility to her.’

Danny thought he had to look forward to a tedious visit to the convent. How wrong he was. This Mother Jerome had him and his siblings paying full nervous attention from the start and his parents listening respectfully. Each received her calm, gratuitous, dissecting attention but in different ways. Angela received the most, and Robert received the least. He was unsurprised that Mother had a few perfunctory questions about his apprenticeship and plans. She likely already had enough information about their rock-solid brother. She relentlessly questioned Angela about her studies and ambitions, sometimes drawing defensive replies and explanatory comments from his mother. His father said nothing, content to listen. He gave the impression it was largely none of his business, a matter solely for the two women. The conversation took a turn when Mother Jerome focused on Angela’s teachers.

‘Sister Julian and Sister Agatha teach most of the subjects,’ said Angela. ‘Sister Agatha is for maths and science, and Sister Julian for humanities subjects.’

‘And you enjoy the humanities subjects more than maths and science?’

‘Yes, Mother, much more. Sister Julian makes the history lessons interesting.’ As an afterthought, she added with a cautious smile, ‘She always brings the history of Ireland into the lesson in one way or another.’

‘You find that odd?’ said Mother Jerome, with a slight hesitation.

‘Not odd but funny. It’s always interesting, though.’

‘Sister Julian has an Irish background.’

‘We could tell,’ said Angela, struggling to suppress a smile.

‘So does Sister Agatha,’ said Mother Jerome.

‘She does not make a big thing of it. I suppose it’s difficult to bring Ireland into a maths lesson.’

‘Indeed.’

With that succinct reply, Mother Jerome turned her attention to Danny’s parents. The building business, the parish, the extended family, and other such matters came under discussion. Danny kept his eyes on the formidable prioress, noticing that she glanced now and then at each of the siblings, once giving a sign she was aware of his scrutiny. In due course, she gave a tactful sign that the afternoon visit had come to an end.

‘Would you mind, Mr. Williamson, if I had a short word with June and Angela alone,’ said that great lady as the group rose. ‘There are some issues of this year’s schooling that I would like to discuss. I am sure I have tried the patience of Robert, Daniel, and Stephanie long enough—particularly Danny.’

‘Of course not, Mother Jerome,’ said Mr. Williamson, glancing at his bemused son. ‘We will wait at the car.’

‘Let me suggest, Mr. Williamson, that Sister Martha take you on a tour of the building and its surroundings while we talk. There are some interesting historical details about the property.’

After a short tour led by the affable smiling Sister Martha, Mr. Williamson and the children arrived back at the parlor where Mrs. Williamson and a slightly bemused Angela were waiting with Mother Jerome.

‘What was all that about?’ whispered Daniel after they were on the Pacific Highway driving toward Chatsworth.

‘It does not concern you, Daniel,’ said Mrs. Williamson from the front before Angela could answer. ‘It only concerns Angela. I remind you, Angela, that you promised to keep confidence.’

‘Yes, Mother,’ said Angela with a shrug.

‘That just raises my curiosity,’ said Danny.

‘And you’ll just have to put up with it,’ said Mr. Williamson.

‘Well, what was it about, Angie?’ said Danny when he cornered her alone on the front verandah.

‘I can’t say. I gave my word I would keep it to myself. So don’t ask. It has nothing to do with you, anyhow.’

‘It must be something serious for you to voluntarily keep your big mouth shut.’

‘No, Danny. I promised. Don’t ask me to break a promise.’

‘You can’t give a hint?’

‘No, Danny, and stop bothering me. I said it’s got nothing to do with you. It’s about the school—something weird, actually.’

‘Something weird?’

‘You see, you made me almost … I’m going inside.’

‘Something weird?’ Danny repeated as he stood on the verandah, staring across the road at the white-painted weatherboard cottages.

***

MOTHER Jerome sat again at her desk in Melbourne, pondering the Sydney visit. On all the essential points, it was inconclusive. At first, her probing chat with Angela, an intelligent perceptive girl, revealed nothing more than Sister Julian’s wide interest in all things Irish and Celtic. And the interest seemed to fit in with her history lessons. There was nothing out of the ordinary in Sister Agatha’s science lessons. The need for tact restricted her questions to Angela, whose inquisitive mind continually looked for a meaning behind the inquiries about her two teachers. In the end, the subject of the goddess and esotericism had to be broached, even if it was generally superficial.

Mother and daughter’s reactions were the same: surprise and puzzlement. Had Angela even a hint of it in the school? No, said Angela, struggling to overcome her bemusement. Absolutely not. But then, after some thought, she remembered Sister Julian mentioning the gods and goddesses of the Celtic druid religion on at least one occasion. That belonged to the history of pre-Christian Ireland, she thought. Yes, of course, that may be so, Mother Jerome had hastened to say. It may not have anything to do with esotericism. It was prudent, she decided, to leave it at that.

She asked June and Angela to be on the lookout for signs of the Goddess religion in the conversations around her, not only at school. She explained what those signs could be. Angela must give a firm undertaking to discuss their conversation with no one except her mother, who would then be in contact with her. She must have Angela’s absolute commitment to confidentiality. Such secrecy was regretful, but it could not be avoided. Angela could have little understanding of how grave the influence of any esoteric thought could be in a religious institute. June assured her she would hold Angela to her promise.

She still had little certainty about the second object of the Sydney visit. The doctor confirmed the ongoing problem of anemia but could not discover the origin. He would carry out more tests and consult specialists. Though not improved, her condition was steady, which would give time for a more extensive investigation. In the meantime, she would stick to her diet and keep an eye on Sisters Agnes and Catherine.

***

Chapter 2

Danny Williamson

Ronnie Newell first came to Danny Williamson’s notice in April 1962 during the Sunday evening news bulletin.

‘To the surprise and apprehension of the university authorities,’ said the newsreader, battling to keep a straight face, ‘a wolf was today found tied outside the Vice-Chancellor’s office at Mitchell University with a note pinned to it, reading, “He who cries wolf …” The university is investigating how someone had managed to acquire a savage animal and bring it onto the university grounds without someone seeing it.’ 

‘This is most reprehensible,’ the Vice-Chancellor said, whose stern, lined face appeared in close-up. ‘I take this to be a student prank. It is a very dangerous prank. A wolf is a vicious animal. The police will be investigating.’

‘A reporter spoke to one of the student leaders,’ continued the newsreader, ‘but Ronnie Newell disclaimed any knowledge of the wolf’s presence on campus.’

‘How would I get hold of a wolf?’ said Ronnie with an impish smile.

‘Several students our reporter spoke to,’ continued the newsreader, ‘said it was just the sort of prank mad Ronnie Newell, editor of the student newspaper, would get up to.’ Ronnie appeared in close-up with the same impish smile, holding up his hands, ridiculously raising his eyebrows, and hunching his shoulders. ‘People from the city’s zoo came and collected the wolf. A representative said the wolf was theirs, but he had no idea how it came to be outside the Vice-Chancellor’s office. “Anyhow, he’s too old to hurt a fly,” he added.’

While his parents condemned the irresponsibility of the prank and wondered what privileged university students were up to these days, Danny thought it was hilarious—and impressively daring.

‘We know what was behind the prank,’ said Mr. Williamson, looking up from his newspaper the following evening. ‘It was in retaliation to the warning the university authorities had given Mr. Newell and his fellow editors. There were limits to the university’s tolerance of the newspaper’s grubby, disrespectful content, said the Vice-Chancellor. The community expected better standards from young people who had the privilege of attending higher studies. This Ronnie Newell and his friends were clearly behind the prank.’ He paused significantly and pointed at Danny. ‘I agree. Attending university is a privilege. I hope you will keep that in mind if you succeed in gaining a scholarship.’

‘I will, Dad. Don’t worry,’ said Danny to bring a stop to the sort of lecture his father had developed over the last two years. But the audacity and rebelliousness that emerged from Ronnie’s growing reputation could only impress him.

‘I hope you do,’ said Mr. Williamson, not yet finished. ‘Most young people your age will not enjoy that privilege. Even if they had the ability, the cost would prevent them. That applies to you, Daniel. If you don’t win a scholarship, we cannot afford to send you full-time to university. You would have to get a job and study part-time.’

‘I know, Dad. I will study hard.’

‘It’s in your hands,’ said his mother, who always backed his father, often with a few softening words.

Despite his promise and commitment to his studies, Danny was determined to learn more about the maverick who had succeeded in kidnapping a wolf from the zoo. He had to get hold of Bunji, Mitchell University’s student newspaper. But how? He didn’t know anybody who went to Mitchell University, and it was on the other side of the harbor, a part of Sydney his family rarely had any connection with.

Fortuitously, an unlooked-for chance came after a match against Waburton Christian Brothers College in East Sydney, a couple of weeks past the football’s mid-season. His father and mother often came to his football matches, but business occupied them this Saturday. So Danny had gone by public transport with Tim and Mark, two teammates. After the game, which they won thanks to his two brilliant tries, they accepted an invitation to visit the home of one of the Waburton boys.

 Max Gallagher, a nimble back who could also break through the play, lived in a frighteningly palatial home not far from Tamarama Beach, whose white foaming surf they could see from Max’s exclusive quarters at the side of the house. His fashionable mother brought them a tray with a teapot, cups, saucers, and a plate of pastries.

‘You’re very welcome,’ she said after the awe-struck guests had thanked her. ‘Max likes to invite the best players from the opposition team home for a cuppa and a chat.’

She poured the tea, taking the trouble to scrutinize each boy as she passed the cup and saucer and then, with an indulgent smile, left them.

‘It’s so I can devote myself to my studies,’ explained Max, as the boys’ eyes moved from the closing door to gaze around Max’s exclusive quarters. Outside, a sparkling kidney-shaped, green-tiled swimming pool was visible through the back window.

‘And do you?’ said Danny, unable to take his eyes off the pool glittering in the afternoon sun.

‘What?’ said Max.

‘Study.’ Danny had not been exposed to such luxury and such freedom.

‘Of course,’ said Max with a smirk, ‘after having my way with as many birds as I can lure to my lair. I want to go to uni next year.’

‘And is it many?’ said Danny, asking the question his mates obviously had on their lips.

‘Not bad, considering the Catholic gateway,’ said Max, lounging in his chair, ‘although that’s not too high.’

Danny could see from Tim and Mark’s expression that they, too, were curious about Max’s alleged conquests but shy of asking.

‘What university? said Danny.

‘Mitchell University, you know, where Ronnie Newell is. You know who I’m talking about?’

‘Of course,’ said Danny, eager to show he was not as sheltered as he might appear.

The conversation lingered on Ronnie Newell and his escapades, with Max showing superior knowledge about the student joker.

‘I have friends at Mitchell,’ Max said in reply to Danny’s question about his sources. ‘They pass on the student newspaper.’

When Danny asked to see a copy, Max laid a pile in front of the boys, who eagerly took them up to peruse.

‘Don’t read them now,’ said Max. ‘Take a couple home. I want to talk about the footy.’

As it turned out, Danny departed with four copies Max had pushed into his hands after seeing his keen interest. Tim and Mark declined the offer. There was no way they would get them past their parents. 

‘Why don’t you try for Mitchell University,’ said Max while he drove them to Wynyard station in the city. ‘We can have some fun, meet Ronnie, check out the birds, and try for the uni footy team. You’ll easily make the seconds.’

‘It’s a long way.’

‘Don’t be a piker. Train from Chatsworth, bus from Wynyard Station direct to Eastlakes. See you there, mate.’

As Danny and his friends alighted at Wynyard station, Max slipped a piece of paper with a telephone number on it into his hand. ‘Give me a call when you’ve got some slack time.’

Back home, Danny went directly to his bedroom, where he took the newspapers from his bag and stashed them under some folders on his bookshelf. That would be the least likely place his mother would look. He then returned to the breakfast room, where the family usually gathered. Because of his success on the field, everyone wanted to hear how the match had gone, even his mother who reveled in the sporting success of her fit well-built son. Staying in his room would have been strange. His sisters, too, always wanted to know about the chaperoned Catholic girls who wandered around the outskirts of the oval, not the least interested in the flow of play. After satisfying the curiosity of his family and modestly receiving the usual praise for his on-field exploits, Danny returned to his room to complete, as he said, some preparation for Monday’s classes.

Glancing over his shoulder as if he expected someone to break into his room at any moment, Danny extracted a copy of Bunji, disguised it in a folder, and settled down on his bed. After paging through two copies, he discovered that most of the material was, at first sight, unexceptionable. All sorts of information about student activities, interests, clubs, art, music, and so on were squeezed into eight pages. But slotted between this varied unobjectionable information were social and political pieces, some of them daringly counter to community views, most often supporting the Labor Party and ridiculing the Liberal-Country Party government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies who was made out to be as old and stale as a week-old loaf.

A second provocation was what the Vice-Chancellor had referred to as ‘grubby.’ It was about the whispered subject of sex. Matt Pierce, Bunji’s art director, contributed an illustrated piece about the sexual behavior of some men that would disgust most parents. Danny wondered how it passed the university’s censor. He learned later that the lurid piece earned Ronnie Newell a final warning for his 1962 editorship of Bunji. That didn’t matter. Ronnie’s time as editor was up.

The color of the political and social pieces wasn’t the end. On closer reading he found a mocking, sneering tone animated the content, whatever it was about. The Vice-Chancellor was right. Bunji was studiously disrespectful of anyone above student age. It was the sort of tone that, if uttered during class, would have earned a few cuts of the brother’s strap. Most people of his parents’ age would regard Bunji as insolent, impudent, disrespectful, frivolous, off-color, and immature. Danny could understand their reaction but could not help smirking as he turned over the pages. He wanted to be part of it—part of making fun of tired, useless ways and unquestioned authority. That’s what he felt, immersed in the pages of Ronnie’s Bunji. But he would keep it from his parents as best he could, not because he had contempt for them. No, it was the opposite. He did not want to hurt the hard-working parents he loved. It was a tension he had to manage.

Meeting Max and reading through Bunji meant passing a second threshold in 1962. He decided to see more of Max and go for a place at Mitchell University instead of the more prestigious Arthur Phillip University. Six weeks later, after the season’s final football match, he rang Max. Max was more than delighted to hear from him. His mother, he said, was very impressed with him and would be happy to have him visit again. They both agreed, though, that passing their final school examinations was paramount. Where they went and what they did depended on their results. So they arranged to get together afterward.

‘And I must look for holiday work,’ said Danny. ‘That’s my first task. I will have to support myself even if I score a scholarship.’

‘No worries, mate,’ said Max. ‘Leave it to me. My dad will have something for you if you are prepared for hard work for terrific money.’

‘I’ll work hard for normal money.’

After the exams, with which Danny was satisfied, Max came across the bridge to pick him up and take him to his father’s business on the south side of the city center. He stopped briefly to say a polite hello to Danny’s mother, and they were off. Mr. Gallagher owned a book and magazine distribution business that supplied libraries, bookshops, department stores and newsagents around Australia. The product was sourced both nationally and internationally. He always needed extra warehouse staff, particularly during the summer months when demand increased. Danny received a friendly greeting and a tour of the enormous warehouse.

‘If you take the job,’ said Mr. Gallagher at the end of the tour, ‘you will, along with others, be tasked with collecting the ordered product, packing it, and taking it to the dispatch department. You will be closely supervised in the beginning. It seems simple enough, but the day can become hectic. You need to be dependable and withstand the pressure.’

‘When do you want me to start?’

‘Good boy. Tomorrow. Eight o’clock sharp. Max will show you the ropes.’

‘You’re working, too?’

‘Of course,’ said his father, ‘Max is not going to sit on his backside until university starts,’ to which Max gave the same ironic smile. ‘You will be paid the normal adult rates,’ Mr. Gallagher continued, ‘and a bonus if the supervisor says you’ve done well.’

‘Thank you,’ said Danny, surprised. ‘I appreciate it.’

‘You have to work for it. We’re not a charity.’ He smiled a Max smile and patted Danny on the back. He left them to return to his office.

‘Come on, mate,’ said Max, ‘let’s spend the rest of the day perving on Bondi Beach.’

‘But I don’t have my togs,’ said Danny, following Max to his car.

‘You don’t need togs to perve, mate.’

Danny’s parents expressed more surprise—or rather caution—than pleasure at the news.

‘That’s very generous of your friend’s dad,’ said his father during evening dinner.

‘Yes, you’ve quickly become friendly with Max and his family,’ said his mother. ‘Are you sure of what you’re getting into? Are you sure of the work you will be doing? Max lives in an expensive suburb on the other side of the city—the fashionable east side.’

‘What’s there to worry about?’ said Danny. ‘Max’s dad has offered me a job with good pay. I will be packing orders. It’s straightforward. And I like Max.’

‘Well,’ began his mother with a glance at his father, ‘are Max and our family the same? I mean, do you …?’

‘I don’t see we are any different.’

‘Max comes from a wealthy family. He seems used to …

‘I don’t see that makes any difference. We’ve become friends. That’s all that matters.’

‘All right. I hope the difference in background and wealth do not make any difference. You are used to certain standards.’

‘Max is Catholic and goes to a school run by the Rice Brothers, the same as St Pats. The standards are the same.’

Danny’s parents glanced at each other again. His father frowned.

‘All right,’ repeated his mother, ‘as long as you don’t forget your upbringing.’

‘No need to worry.’

Danny found it curious that Robert did not comment, as he often did when it was about their different paths. He merely looked at him with condescension.

‘He’s a good-looking boy,’ said Angela. ‘And he’s got style.’

‘There’s more to a person than good looks,’ said her father, glancing at Danny.

‘Personable, too.’

‘But not as good-looking as Danny,’ said Stephanie. ‘Some of my friends swoon over Danny.’

‘You and your friends are too young to be thinking about boys of Daniel’s age,’ said her mother.

‘No, we’re not …’

‘At thirteen, you’re far too young to be thinking about boys at all,’ said her father. ‘Pay attention to your schoolwork.’

‘He’s only two years older than me,’ said Angela.

‘That reminds me,’ said his mother before his father could comment. ‘Danny, Mrs. Dunn asked me if you would take Cathy to their school’s formal in two weeks.’

‘Say, no,’ whispered Angela. ‘You can do better than Cathy Dunn. There will be other offers.’

‘It’s not a question of offers, young lady. And if Danny has no better reason to refuse the request of close friends, then he should do the proper thing.’

‘Yes, okay,’ said Danny, ‘no problem.’

He knew Cathy and sometimes spoke to her after Sunday Mass. She attended St Michael’s, the same school as Angela, who had introduced him. He did not see anything in the request. She needed a partner, as most of the girls did. It might as well be him as anyone. He had had similar requests from girls from three different ladies’ colleges the year before. His mother had said he should be flattered because it was unusual for the senior girls to ask a boy not in the leaving class. The girls’ fathers picked him up and brought him home. He did not have to do anything. The school’s sisters and the parents arranged everything. Some of the fathers hung around, ostensibly to deal with troublemakers. There were a few.

They were enjoyable evenings. The girls were dressed in their best, a few breathtakingly beautiful, and they chatted in an intense, whimsical manner, which he found intriguing. As he expected, he received two more requests from mothers of girls needing a partner, to which he readily agreed. It was not hard to bear up under three evenings for which he had little to do except enjoy the girls’ company. Because of the family and school routine, he otherwise had little to do with girls socially. He suspected—at least hoped—that would change. He expected to join the Catholic Youth Club after Christmas, of which Robert was an organizer. Robert had already alerted him to that obligatory post-school Catholic pathway.

‘I imagine you’ll need some supervision once out of the guidance of the religious brothers,’ Robert had tersely remarked.

The following morning, he was up early, had a full breakfast, and walked to Chatsworth Station, where he took the train to Central Station. From Central Station, he caught the train to St Peters, where the business was. It took an hour, but thankfully, it was almost a direct route with only one change. He was surprised to find Max there, already at work. Max set him to work without more ado, showing him how to find the ordered product on the shelves from the invoice. After a few test runs without mistake, Max left Danny on his own. Max was evidently Danny’s supervisor. Picking the orders and dispatching them were two different jobs. For the moment, said Max, Danny would pick the orders. Again, to his surprise, Max set a blistering pace, spending his time between picking the orders, solving issues, and consulting with people in the dispatch section. Although a manager was overseeing the warehouse, young Max clearly had a responsible position.

‘You really do work hard,’ said Danny when they were sitting in the lunchroom after Max had fetched sandwiches from the milk bar nearby and Danny had unwrapped the sandwiches his mother had made.

‘What do you expect?’ said Max, ripping a bite from his ham and tomato sandwich. ‘It’s my inheritance, mate.’

The first payday was a new experience. Danny opened the envelope and counted the crisp pound notes. He counted them again. He had never had so much money in his hands.

‘Here, this is your bonus,’ said Max, stuffing a blue five-pound note into Danny’s shirt pocket. ‘Tax-free. Don’t tell anyone.’ He tapped his nose. ‘Keep it aside for some sundry expenses.’ He winked.

‘Goodness,’ said Danny’s mother when Danny asked her to bank the money for him—all the money except his bonus. ‘I don’t know how your father will look on this.’

‘What’s there to look on? I was promised good money if I was prepared to work hard. I have worked hard, really hard. That was the bargain.’

‘I hope you can handle so much money.’

‘I will. I’m saving for the future—perhaps buy a car.’

‘Have you thought the money might create an obligation?’

For a moment, Danny did not know what his mother meant.

‘I don’t know how it could. I’m getting paid for work I do.’

‘Be careful, darling.’

Danny settled into the work routine. He could do little else, for the work left him dead tired. He needed the weekend to relax. Occasionally, he arranged a day out with Max. After attending the early Mass with his father and Robert, he took the train to Town Hall Station, where Max picked him up. They spent the day on Bondi Beach chatting and staring at the girls. Indeed, other than football, Max seemed to have little else on his mind. He discovered that Max and his parents were fervent supporters of Prime Minister Menzies and abusive about anything that concerned the communistic Labor Party. It was a relief he could say his parents also voted for Menzies’ Liberal Party. He did not admit that, like many Catholics, his family had supported the Labor Party until the unions controlled by the communists almost brought the nation to collapse.  

But politics was not foremost in Max’s mind during their forays to the beach. With smiling confidence he attempted to ‘crack onto’ the girls they had been ogling. He often succeeded in stopping the girls for a chat. They were the sort Danny rarely had anything to do with—obviously state school girls, open and flirtatious. He hardly knew what to say to them. It was not the usual circumstances in which he met girls. He was uncomfortable. Max noted phone numbers and once prevailed on a couple of girls to come back to his house for a drink. Danny made excuses. He had to return home. His mother was expecting him. That did not discourage Max or the girls. Max happily took him into the city to Town Hall Station. He chatted and joked the whole way, making the girls laugh and giggle. He could turn it on if he wanted to. One of the girls said it was a pity Danny had to leave. She would like to get to know him better. Danny blushed.

‘What a chicken,’ said Max on Monday morning, ‘cluck, cluck, cluck.’ He flapped his arms up and down. ‘One of those girls was yours for the taking. She thought you were a doll.’

‘Yeah, well …,’ said Danny, hardly knowing what to say.

‘You’ll do better next time, mate,’ said Max encouragingly. ‘Practice makes perfect.’

The results of the final exams were published a few days later. Danny and Max had done well, very well, about the same standard. When Danny arrived at the warehouse the following Friday, Max and his father were waiting for him.

‘Congratulations, Danny boy,’ said Mr. Gallagher, ‘a wonderful result. Same with Max. We’re going to celebrate your outstanding success. You are both coming to lunch with me at the Club.’ Max gave one of his ridiculous winks.

Mr. Gallagher drove them to an RSL Club on the harbor near Vaucluse. They were ushered into an exclusive restaurant overlooking the water. Mr. Gallagher ordered a bottle of champagne. With a wink at the waiter, he asked for two lemonade glasses. The bottle and glasses arrived, and relieving the waiter of further attention, he poured the champagne into his flute and then into the lemonade glasses.

‘Who’s going to notice?’ he said, raising his bubbling flute.

‘No one,’ said Max, laughing and raising his glass.

‘But I have taken the pledge,’ said Danny, looking at the glass.

Mr. Gallagher and Max placed their glasses on the table.

‘Oh, that’s just the Rice Brothers’ trick to stop you from ending up a drunk,’ said Max. ‘One glass for a celebration like this doesn’t count.’

‘No, it doesn’t,’ said Mr. Gallagher, catching on. ‘It’s the undertaking that’s important. One glass won’t make you drunk. You can keep your pledge.’

‘I don’t know …,’ said Danny.

‘Come on, don’t be childish,’ said Max, pushing the glass into Danny’s hand. ‘Let’s drink to our success and where we’re going with it.’

Danny raised the glass and joined the toast.

‘Good boy,’ said Mr. Gallagher. ‘Now, speaking of where you’re going, where to for you, Danny boy.’

Danny blinked as the bubbles ran up his nose, and he wrestled with the strange taste. Enrolling in Arts at Mitchell University with teaching or journalism in view was his intention. He was confident of a place at Mitchell. Mr. Gallagher did not doubt it—the same with Max. But Max would enroll in the Commerce Faculty with a view to joining the business full-time. It was the first time Danny heard about Max’s academic ambitions. Max gave him another wink.

‘Of course,’ Mr. Gallagher continued, ‘Max’s future is in the company, but have you decided on teaching or journalism? You haven’t considered business? You’re a good worker, and you caught on quickly to our operation. If you were on the job market, I would consider you for a sales rep’s position. That’s an excellent point to start on a business career.’

‘No,’ said Danny, trying to cope with the idea, the bubbles, the taste of the champagne, and now the effects of the alcohol, ‘business has never occurred to me as an option.’

‘Well, you should think about it. No rush. You have time. I would only suggest you take economics in your degree. That would be handy if you change your mind.’

Danny had already decided on doing economics. He had been advised that economics would be useful if he went into journalism.

‘Just as well. Now let’s order. No, Max, no second glass. You can have another drink later. We have some business to do after lunch.’

Max shrugged and smiled at Danny while Mr. Gallagher ordered a lobster dish with a salad for each. Danny had never tasted lobster and found it delicious. They finished with a dessert Danny had never heard of—crepe suzette.

‘Go easy on the sauce, Danny,’ said Mr. Gallagher. ‘There is Grand Marnier in it. It’s a brandy.’

Danny could taste the alcohol and followed the recommendation. When asked how he liked it, he said it was delicious and had never tasted such delicious food. Mr. Gallagher called the waiter after they had finished. He paid the bill but told them to stay put while he made a phone call. As Mr. Gallagher followed the waiter, Max gave another of his waggish looks.

‘What’s going on?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Max, not altering his expression.

‘What’s the silly look for?’

‘Wait and see.’

A few minutes later, the waiter returned to say Mr. Gallagher would pick them up outside the club entrance. Mr. Gallagher drove them to a car dealership in William Street in Kings Cross. Without saying anything, he led the boys into the showroom. Max still wore the waggish expression. An attendant appeared, said a formal good afternoon, and ushered them through to the service area behind the showroom. He stopped at a gleaming red MGB with a rollbar.

‘Everything completed, as you wished, Mr. Gallagher,’ he said, handing him several keys on a ring.

‘Now, Max, my boy,’ said Mr. Gallagher, thanking the attendant who withdrew, ‘I promised you your own car if you worked hard and gained an excellent pass in your final examinations. Here’s the fulfillment of my promise.’ He handed the keys to Max.

‘Thanks, Dad, I appreciate it—a rollbar, too.’ The waggish expression had gone.

‘And you, Danny boy, you are not to be left out. I promised you a bonus if I was satisfied with your work. I’m more than satisfied. Here is your bonus, an expression of my appreciation—also my appreciation for a steadying influence on Max.’ He handed him an envelope.

Danny glanced at Max, who shrugged and raised his eyebrows. He opened the envelope and counted ten red ten-pound notes. One hundred pounds. He drew in his breath.

‘I … I don’t what to say, Mr. Gallagher.’ He looked from Mr. Gallagher to Max and back again. ‘My parents will think …’

‘I know. They’ll think it far too much. You ask them to give me a call.’

‘You deserve it, mate,’ said Max. ‘Come on, stuff them in your pocket, and I’ll take you for a spin.’ He turned to his dad. ‘Thanks, Dad. I appreciate it. I won’t let you down.’

‘I know Maxie. Now, drive safely. You make sure he does, Danny. I’ll see you both on Monday.’

With unflappable confidence, Max put on his sunglasses and drove the car with its hood down out onto William Street and set out on a route that took them along the harborside, through Double Bay, Rose Bay, Vaucluse, all the way out to Watsons Bay on South Head. He slowed while driving through the exclusive East Sydney shopping centers and gave a wave to any eligible girls who looked admiringly at his new sports car. From Watsons Bay, he turned south along the oceanside to Bondi Beach, where he did a couple of circuits, all the time soaking up the attention. Danny was a little embarrassed by the stares. Few boys of Max’s age could boast a shiny new red MGB with a rollbar.

From Bondi, Max drove further south to Tamarama and Bronte beaches, where he slowed again to excite the attention of the summer beachgoers, girls and boys alike. Danny thought, being so close to his home in Waburton, he may end his tour and take him to the nearest stop for a tram back into town. But, no, Max was far from finished. He drove back into the city, over the Harbor Bridge, and along the Pacific Highway to Chatsworth. As they drew to a stop outside Danny’s white weatherboard cottage with its trimmed lawn and flower gardens, Danny now noticed the stark difference between his world and Max’s.

‘Do you want to come in?’ he said for the sake of politeness. He expected Max would want to continue his pop tour.

‘Yeah, I could do with a cup of tea and a biscuit if your mum doesn’t mind. It’s tiring work being a star.’ With an ironic smile, he patted Danny on the shoulder.

As with his first visit to the family, Max, entirely at ease, was impeccably polite to Danny’s mother and gave a friendly hello to his sisters, who observed him wide-eyed. Mrs. Williamson, showing at first some uneasiness, soon thawed. Danny could see the reason. Max’s conversation subtly answered his parents’ questions about himself, his family, and his father’s business.

‘Dad’s very impressed with Danny,’ Max said. ‘He says Danny would have a future in the business world if he ever chose to go in that direction.

‘Why?’ said Angela, who earned a reproving look from her mother.

‘Danny is a hard worker and understands business.’

‘Mr. Gallagher is just being friendly and encouraging,’ said Danny, to prevent any misunderstanding by his parents.

‘Not at all, Danny boy,’ Max hastened to say. ‘That’s his sincere opinion.’

‘Danny boy?’ said Angela, who seemed to ask the question in Mrs. Williamson’s eyes.

Max laughed. ‘That’s what Dad calls him—you know, the Irish connection.’

‘We have no Irish connection,’ said Angela, who gave the answer her mother’s eyes were seeking.

‘You’d be surprised,’ said Max with a twinkle. ‘The Irish are everywhere. We attend a school run by an Irish order of brothers.’

‘You’ve said enough, young lady,’ said Mrs. Williamson.

Max indulged the young lady with a smile. He stayed long enough to remain within the boundaries of politeness. Mrs. Williamson, Angela, and Stephanie, who could scarcely do more than gaze at their suave visitor, accompanied Max to the front door.

‘Wow!’ said Angela, seeing the gleaming red MGB with a rollbar. ‘That’s not your car, is it?’

‘Yes, it certainly is,’ said Max, seizing the cue. ‘Dad promised me a new car if I worked hard and gained a good pass in the Leaving Certificate examinations. Both conditions fulfilled.’

Mrs. Williamson’s eyes narrowed, the girls stared, and Danny fidgeted.

‘Would you girls like a ride around the block?’ said Max indulgently. ‘If Mrs. Williamson allows it, of course.’

‘Yes, please …,’ said Angela.

‘Please, please …,’ said Stephanie.

‘But there’s only room for one in the passenger seat,’ said Mrs. Williamson.

‘They can squeeze in together. And I’ll only drive up and down the street, Mrs. Williamson. It’s a quiet side street. There’s no danger.’

Max drove to the end of the street of neat, white-painted weatherboard cottages, where it met with the main road and back again. The girls glowed on their return. They thanked him and joined their mother on the sidewalk. Max beckoned Danny to the driver’s side.

‘See you on Monday,’ he said, but added out the side of his mouth, ‘You have a cute sister. Better keep an eye on her.’ With a wave, he was off, driving in a manner calculated to appease Angela’s mother’s severe expression.

Back inside, Mrs. Williamson took Danny aside.

‘You are embarking on a life in which you will be increasingly responsible for your own decisions. You must judge the circumstances you are in and who you mix with. That’s your obligation and your business.’

‘Of course, I …,’ began Danny.

‘I want … no, I insist, you discourage any interest in your friend for Angela.’

‘He was only being friendly.’

‘I want you to promise me.’

‘Yes, Mum, I promise.’

***

Chapter 3

Danny meets Cathy

DANNY WORKED until the Friday before Christmas when Mr. Gallagher closed the business for the Christmas-New Year break. It had been a frantic three weeks, processing and dispatching the final orders, and he was exhausted. He did not even have the energy to take a turn around the beaches in Max’s MGB. It was a half-hearted invitation, anyhow. Max was also exhausted, and his urge to parade doused. After the warehouse was shut in the afternoon, and the staff given early leave, with pay and Christmas bonuses in hand, Danny was relieved. There was no bonus for him, which did not surprise him. He could not expect anything more after the whopping examination bonus. But Mr. Gallagher asked him to stay behind.

‘Come on, Danny boy, let’s have an end-of-year drink,’ he said, leading Max the boys up to his luxurious office suite in the administrative part of the building. ‘You’ve done exceedingly well, and we must celebrate that.’

‘I’m very grateful for the opportunity,’ said Danny, seeing a bottle of champagne in a bucket of ice on Mr. Gallagher’s polished oak desk.

‘It’s my pleasure. Max did well to see your potential.’ He took the bottle from the ice bucket.

‘My potential?

With a pop, the cork flew across the room, and the champagne bubbled over the lip.

‘An outside center as fast and cunning as you must have the qualities,’ said Max matter-of-factly.

‘I agree,’ said Mr. Gallagher, pouring the champagne into three flutes beside the ice bucket.

‘You could see that in my play on the football field?’

‘Of course.’

‘You’re joking.’

‘He’s not,’ said Mr. Gallagher. ‘Part of Max’s business education is discerning staff potential. He’s already surprisingly perceptive.’

‘Really?’ said Danny, glancing at Max, who smirked. There were indeed hidden talents in the boy who seemed preoccupied with cracking on to every passing bird.

‘Enough of that,’ said Mr. Gallagher, handing glasses to Danny and Max. ‘Let’s celebrate the end of the business year with best wishes for the coming year of which you, Danny boy, will be a part. I have plans for you if you are willing.’

‘Plans for me?’ was all Danny could say, hearing his mother’s warning about being drawn into the Gallagher empire.

‘We’ll talk about that next year. Drink up.’ He raised his glass and clicked against Danny’s and Max’s.

They had two slow glasses over an hour and a half. Danny felt the alcohol this time. It was not unpleasant. It surprised him that Max was content to drink slowly while they chatted about business and family. Danny heard more about Max’s older brother and sister, whom Max rarely spoke about. His sister resided in London, where her British boyfriend lived and seemed ensconced there. His brother was in the States, attempting to break into business. It seemed the brother wanted to cut free, but Danny was too shy to ask about the story behind it, and Mr. Gallagher and Max appeared reluctant to mention more than the superficial details.

‘Right, I think Max is okay to drive,’ said Mr. Gallagher abruptly after a long, desultory conversation, which frequently returned to Gallagher’s Book and Magazine Company and its prospects.

‘I’m perfectly okay,’ said Max. ‘Come on, Danny, I’ll take you home. We can’t have you taking public transport after your elevation.’

‘My elevation?’ said Danny, conscious of his dumb-sounding repetitions.

‘Yes, when you come back in mid-January, we’ll have more interesting work for you.’

‘Yes, eh, I look forward to it,’ said Danny, more concerned about keeping the job than the supposed elevation.

‘Good boy. Now here’s your end-of-the-year bonus—a little Christmas present,’ said Mr. Gallagher, stuffing a folded envelope into Danny’s shirt pocket. ‘No, don’t open it here. Later.’

‘Wait until we’re crossing the Harbour Bridge,’ said Max as he drove out of the company parking lot onto the Princes Highway. ‘There’s too much traffic before then to concentrate.’

Not seeing the connection, Danny waited until they were halfway across the bridge before opening the envelope. Another ten red ten-pound notes stared at him from within. Max laughed.

‘I wanted to see your reaction,’ he said. ‘Priceless.’

‘I don’t know how to take this … all this generosity. It’s more than a couple weeks’ salary for some workers.’

‘No tricks, mate. It’s all on the level. If you want, you have a future in business—preferably ours. Take the bonuses as an incentive. It’s all up to you.’

When they stopped outside Danny’s house, Max pulled on the handbrake but left the engine running.

‘I’ll be going away with Dad, leaving shortly after Christmas. I’ll be away for two to three weeks. I’ll give you a ring when I get back. Say Merry Christmas to your folks.’ He released the handbrake and skidded out of the soft earth by the gutter. ‘Cheerio, mate. Merry Christmas,’ he called with a wave.

Danny stood watching as the sleek red MGB with a rollbar slid swiftly down the road. Before it reached the main road, Angela hurried from the house and onto the front concrete sidewalk.

‘Why didn’t he come in?’ she said, catching the sports car as it turned onto the main road.

‘He has things to do.’ Danny hesitated. ‘He’s too old for you?’

‘He’s two years older. That’s about right for girl-boy relationships.’

‘He’s not your type.’

‘How do you know what my type is?’

‘I know.’

‘You sound like Dad.’

‘Stop bothering me, Angela.’

Angela raised her eyebrows and smiled cheekily. Mrs. Williamson appeared at the front door.

‘Come inside, Angela, you have chores to finish.’

Angela followed Danny through the gate and up the steps onto the verandah without saying anything.

‘He brought you home again, did he?’ said Mrs. Williamson.

‘Yes, a special consideration for the Christmas closing.’

‘It still doesn’t occur to you that he is creating an obligation?’

‘I wouldn’t know what for?’

‘I hope you’re not being naïve.’

‘What’s there to be naïve about?’

‘That’s something for you to think about. Wealthy people are not wealthy for nothing.’

***

ON MONDAY morning, after breakfast, Danny tidied his room and headed for the Chatsworth shopping center, which was a twenty-minute walk away. He felt too uncomfortable about having his pound-note bonuses stuck between the folders on his bookshelf. His mother would surely find them if left there. The teller raised his eyebrows slightly as he opened the bank passbook and picked up the notes stuck between the pages.

‘I have a holiday job,’ said Danny defensively. The teller, old Mr. Brown, who wore his spectacles on the end of his nose, had a way of making subtle condescending remarks to his young customers.

‘It is good to see a young man like you not sitting around during the holidays,’ said Mr. Brown, counting the notes slowly, pausing to hold up one ten-pound note, look at it, and then at Danny, and then resume counting. ‘Good, all done,’ he said after filling in the information, stamping the passbook, and handing it back to Danny. ‘Merry Christmas, Master Williamson. Enjoy your holiday break. Spend your money wisely.’

Danny spent the rest of the morning roaming around the shopping center, looking for presents. He chose 9-carat gold chains for his sisters. He had never thought he would spend so much on Christmas presents. Hopefully, that would please them, especially Angela. He wanted her on his side. His mother did not say anything when he arrived home. She glanced at the packages and smiled approvingly.

Christmas Day did not differ from previous years—early morning Christmas Mass, late morning to Compton grandparents at Willoughby for Christmas lunch, then back home to prepare for the Williamson family gathering at the Williamson grandparents’ home, where they would have the evening Christmas dinner, usually set up in the backyard if the weather allowed. Everyone should relish these gatherings, said his father portentously, because the oldest grandchildren had reached adulthood or were on the brink. They would soon enough have their own families and the accompanying responsibilities.

It seemed to Danny an odd thing to say, almost pessimistic. The remark went over the heads of his sisters, who seemed to have only the social occasion in mind, most particularly swapping gossip with their female cousins. Danny could at last relax and forget about studying and getting up early to catch the train and bus to Gallagher’s Book and Magazine Company on the other side of the harbor.

At both venues, he graciously received congratulations for his excellent Leaving Certificate pass and answered with a brief account of what the year had in store for him. He did not mention his work with Gallaghers and certainly not Max. It surprised him that he never caught Angela mentioning Max to any of her cousins during lunch or the evening. She normally could not keep her mouth shut about such things. He listened attentively to his father’s and uncles’ conversation about the day’s burning political and religious questions. The exchanges brought him up to date on events he had no time to pay attention to let alone analyze.

There was his father’s expected conversation about the communist influence in Australian politics, now including the developments in South-East Asia. Vietnam, an obscure little country unknown to most Australians, came in for heavy treatment. That was a communist flashpoint, he assured his audience. He approved of Prime Minister Menzie’s decision to send military advisors to support the local effort against the godless Communist insurgents. Uncle Carl, his father’s younger brother, gave him his usual fiery support for this warning. There was also comment about the first session of The Second Vatican Council that had taken place between 11 October and 8 December. Much comment about change was in the Catholic press, but Danny’s father and uncles did not have much to say about it. They didn’t know what to make of it.

His father, who had undying admiration for Pope Pius XII and a cautious attitude toward his successor, Pope John XXIII, did not see how any great change could be made. It wasn’t easy to see the point of it. The Church was rock solid. The Council could only make it more solid, in the sense of being truer to itself, more holy, of being a banner of hope for the separated Protestants, and an invitation to other faiths to truly consider the offer of salvation held out to them. There was no other means of salvation. Later in the evening, his father’s cousin, Sister Mary Thaddeus, arrived with a companion from their convent only a fifteen-minute walk away. It was the first time the sisters were allowed to attend the family Christmas gathering.

There was talk at the convent of great changes to the female religious orders, but Sister could not say precisely what. Danny detected some guardedness in her comments. His father repeated his opinion that they could not change much. He thought the press photos of the procession of the world’s bishops into St Peter’s Cathedral presented a magnificent picture of Holy Mother Church’s grandeur. Who could resist such splendor? Sounds of approval brought a close to the talk about the Council. Danny, glad to catch up again with Jeremy Williamson, the cousin he got on best with, was surprised to hear he had left the junior seminary where he had been for four years.

‘This is sudden, isn’t it?’ said Danny when they had wandered away from the main gathering in the backyard, each with a glass of lemonade.

‘Not really …,’ said Jeremy. ‘But in a way, I suppose it was.’

‘It was, or it wasn’t,’ said Danny, finding his usually quick and precipitous cousin slow and vague. ‘What was it?’

‘Yeah, well, I don’t know.’ He looked away. ‘Some of us were caught smoking. We were on a bike ride, a bunch of us. I thought they would kick me out, so I decided to act before them. When called up for a conference with the rector, I told him, before he could open his mouth, that I was not suited—to be a priest, I mean—and wanted to leave. As it turned out, the rector didn’t find smoking such a big deal. He took a menthol cigarette from one of the packets confiscated, ostensibly for my benefit, lit up, blew a cloud in front of me, and said he agreed. I wasn’t suited. He was very nice about it, compared to his persecution of me until then.’

‘You would have been kicked out for smoking if it had been St Patrick’s.

‘Most of the priests smoked at the seminary, some when talking to seminarians. One of the priests smoked a pipe. His study stank of tobacco—not that that’s an unpleasant smell. Perhaps that’s an explanation.’

‘Well, here you are. What are you going to do?

‘I don’t know,’ said Jeremy, shrugging. ‘I’ve got the Leaving Certificate coming up next year. Mum and Dad are busy sorting that out. They’re looking for a school that teaches Latin and Greek.’

‘That won’t be St Patrick’s.’

‘Won’t it?’

‘You don’t seem worried.’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, gazing around the gathering. His eyes came to rest on Angela. ‘Angela has grown up this last year.’ It was a half-conscious remark.

‘A little too much, Mum thinks.’

‘Oh, well …’

At that point, Angela turned and saw the boys looking at her. She came over to them.

‘Hello, Cousin Jeremy—given up being a priest?’

‘Yes, I … I’ve given it … away.’ He shifted, unable to look her in the eye.

‘Look at what my darling brother gave me for Christmas.’ She came closer and held up the gold chain around her neck. ‘The charm is mine. Isn’t he sweet?’

‘Yes, I suppose he is.’ He averted his eyes from her naked neck and shuffled a step back.

‘You can look for a girlfriend now, can’t you?’

‘Stop it, Angela,’ said Danny. ‘Don’t pay attention, Jer. She’s teasing.’

‘Danny can find a girl for you,’ said Angela, undeterred. ‘My popular brother will have a few to spare.’

Jeremy seemed unable to do anything but stare.

‘Angela,’ said Danny, taking hold of her arm and walking her away, ‘you’ve got your gold chain. Now, go and join your cousins, the female ones.’

‘See you, Jer,’ called Angela as she walked toward the cousins she had left.

‘Don’t take any notice of her,’ Danny repeated. ‘She’s recently discovered she’s cute and now makes the most of it if she can spot an audience.’

Jeremy nodded and looked around again.

‘What have you been up to?’ he said at last.

Danny took the cue and embarked on an account of the year’s activities. When he got around to Max Gallagher and Gallagher’s Book and Magazine Company, Jeremy lost that uncertain, faraway look. He seemed especially interested in Max’s preoccupation with every girl that came within his gaze.

‘To be truthful,’ said Danny, ‘I don’t know how much is talk. His real interest seems to be in the family company.’

The conversation was interrupted by the call to dinner and the bustling of uncles and cousins being marshaled to a long, lavishly set trestle table by a contingent of very voluble Williamson aunts who served the dinner. The present-giving followed with the cousins crowded around the Christmas tree in the lounge room. With so many cousins, so much chatter, and so many long squeals of delight, Danny did not get another chance to talk to Jeremy.

‘We’ll catch up sometime, Jer,’ he said as Jeremy was leaving with his family.

‘I hope so,’ said Jeremy with the same faraway expression.

‘He seems depressed,’ said Angela at Danny’s shoulder as they watched the Carl-Williamsons leave.

‘I would call it a state of bewilderment. I think he’s forgotten what girls are.’

‘I can help him remember. He’s cute, not as cute as you, but cute.’

‘No, you won’t. And don’t let Mum hear you say things like that.’

‘I am joking, of course.’

‘You think you’re daring, but it’s a dangerous joke. And he’s your cousin, first cousin, apart from anything else.’

‘Yes, big brother. You will protect my virtue?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. What are the sisters teaching you at that convent?’

‘It’s not just the sisters.’

***

AFTER the Christmas and New Year festivities were behind them, Robert cornered Danny one morning before leaving for work.

‘It’s the first meeting tonight of the Catholic Youth Club. You need to register. Make sure you’re ready to go at seven. And wear something appropriate.’

‘What do you call appropriate?’ Danny could not resist needling his stiff older brother.

‘I will see he wears his best, dear,’ said his mother. ‘Daniel will wear the shirt and slacks he received for Christmas.’

Robert scowled, picked up the lunch packet prepared by his mother, and left with a perfunctory goodbye.

Danny was curious to see what went on at the CYC meetings his brother attended without fail every week. Considering Robert’s morbid seriousness, it was likely to be a dull affair. So, he was astonished to see a colorful melee of boys and girls turn up outside the church hall, some girls dropped off by their fathers. There were at least a hundred, about half of which were in their late teens, the rest in their early twenties. To his further amazement, when the young people had crowded into the hall, and the meeting was about to start, Robert, a few weeks short of twenty, took his place on the rostrum. In a more relaxed manner than Danny was used to at home, Robert briefly covered the agenda for the evening and then introduced the youthful assistant parish priest. Fr Doyle led in the prayers of intercession for the graces to negotiate the usual pitfalls that were bound to be in the path of the young and inattentive. He then took a seat at the side of the hall to observe the proceedings.

Robert returned to the rostrum, joined—to Danny’s continuing astonishment—by a tastefully dressed young woman around the same age. She touched Robert’s hand lightly as she took her place beside him with a wad of papers in her other hand. Robert’s face cracked into a small smile at the touch, and after acknowledging her with a glance, he introduced himself and Ada Barrington to the new members. They then launched into the evening’s packed agenda. For activities common to both sexes, Robert and Ada proceeded in tag-team format but took the lead in those pertaining to their own sex.

They covered the sodalities and devotional groups first and then moved on to the sporting groups—cricket, football, tennis, swimming, and any other sport for which there was sufficient interest. Danny could not help staring at Ada, whose smooth, modulated delivery in an educated convent girl accent contrasted with his deadpan brother’s delivery. He later learned she was a senior teacher at exclusive St Anne’s Ladies’ College further up the Northshore line and two years older than Robert.

‘I expect those young men who played in their school’s first football team to register for the football team,’ announced Robert. I mean especially my brother Daniel who, I’m told, was named the best and fairest in St Pat’s 1962 team.’ He pointed accusingly at Danny, which gesture brought every eye in the hall, so Danny felt, turned toward him. Light clapping and cheering broke out. He blushed but noticed a good number of female smiles directed at him. At the end of the meeting, which took around an hour, the attendees were invited to fill in their registration forms.

‘Before doing so,’ said Ada, as the shuffling of feet began, ‘I mention perhaps the most enjoyable social activity of the CYC. Every Saturday evening, a dance occurs at one or other metropolitan branches. We take it in turns. For those who wish to learn or brush up on their dancing, we will hold several lesson nights this week and next. You will learn some basic progressive ballroom dances and a bit of jive. All are invited to turn up at the hall. The times and dates are on the notice board. After that, you are on your own. For the sake of the girls’ feet,’ Ada lectured, ‘I urge you boys to attend. Be sensible.’

‘Hello, Danny,’ said Cathy Dunn while Danny filled in the registration form. ‘We’re glad to see you joining.’

Danny looked up to see Cathy and two friends looking over him. ‘Robert insisted I come along,’ he said, ‘not that I resisted. I wanted to see what it is like.’

‘Are you coming to the dance lessons?’ said Cathy after she had reminded Danny that he had met Helen and Geraldine at their school formal.

‘I suppose so. Robert has never said much about it—only that I must be part of it to prevent me from getting into trouble. Will you be there?’

‘Yes, Ada asked me to come along to help out.’

‘I look forward to seeing you.’

’Me, too.’

Danny moved aside to let the girls fill in their registration forms.

‘I didn’t know you had a girlfriend,’ said Danny, having chosen to comment the next morning when everyone was at the breakfast table.

‘Robert, a girlfriend,’ exclaimed Angela.

‘Don’t be vulgar,’ said Robert.

‘Who is she?’ said Angela, laughing.

‘And I don’t want your insolence,’ said Robert. ‘The two of you, mind your own business.’

‘It’s a rather imperious person named Ada Barrington,’ said Danny, seeing the same question on his mother’s and father’s faces.

‘Miss Barrington who organizes the Children of Mary?’ said Angela. ‘I don’t believe it.’

‘Miss Barrington is a friend,’ said Robert, attempting to stare Danny and Angela out of countenance—without success. ‘And to call her imperious merely reflects your immaturity.’

‘Ada Barrington is a young woman to admire,’ said Mr. Williamson, tapping the table. ‘She’s a teacher at St Anne’s in Waitara. We know her and her family well. You are not to ridicule her in your silly schoolgirl way, Angela, or any of Robert’s friends. And have a little respect for your older brother, Daniel.’

Angela put her head down and cast an arch look at Danny, who had trouble suppressing a smile.

‘I merely remark on an impression,’ he said. ‘It was just an observation. Otherwise, she seemed friendly enough.’

‘We are both CYC organizers,’ said Robert, recovered from Danny’s blunt remark. ‘We cooperate well together. We take the responsibility seriously.’

‘Yes, I can testify to that,’ said Danny. ‘The meeting was extremely well organized.’

Robert frowned at Danny as if he did not know how to take him. Mrs. Williamson then stepped in to divert the conversation away from Robert and his affairs.

Danny went along to the dance lessons, rather because Cathy and her friends would be there than having much of a desire to learn to dance. But he enjoyed it—immensely. Cathy was a good dancer—he already knew that from the formal—and she took charge of him. They spent the evening learning two progressive dances, the Barn Dance, and the Pride of Erin. Danny loved the Barn Dance, during which he got to partner every girl in the hall.

‘That’s the idea,’ said Cathy, after returning to him. ‘It allows the gentlemen to meet and dance with every lady in the room. Some are too shy to ask, you know.’

‘I am lucky I have you,’ said Danny innocently.

‘Are you?’

He enjoyed the following three evening lessons even more. The uneasiness and shyness of those just out of school receded and a joyful exuberance overlaid the activity of learning. It was a group affair with everyone having an equal part in the enjoyment. He was sorry when the lessons came to an end. On the fourth evening, he accompanied Cathy to her front gate. Geraldine and Helen had left them to go their different ways.

‘I really enjoyed the dancing,’ he said, holding the gate open for her. ‘If it had not been for Robert’s insistence, I might not have gone.’

‘No regrets, then?’

‘None at all.’

‘You learned quickly. You’re ready for the real thing next Saturday. Will you be going?’

‘Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.’

‘Shall we walk there together?’

‘Yes, good idea. What time?’

‘Come by at around 7.30. Is that all right?’

‘I’ll be there,’ he said, shutting the gate. ‘Bye.’

He waited until she had mounted the front steps, and her mother opened the door to her knock. She gave him a little wave before entering. Her mother also gave him a wave, and he walked home with the balmy summer breeze ruffling his open-neck shirt. Cathy was much nicer than his first impressions of her at her formal. She was also quite attractive with her fresh oval face, budlike lips, long light brown hair, and warm, intelligent eyes. He had missed that on their first meeting. It would be a pleasure to accompany her to the dance. When he informed his parents of his plans, his mother sent the two girls to their rooms later that evening.

‘What for?’ said Angela.

‘We have something to say to Daniel,’ said her mother.’

‘Why can’t we hear?’

‘It’s a private matter, only for Daniel,’ said her father. ‘Please do as we say.’

‘What have you done, Danny?’ she said impishly as she and Stephanie left the lounge room.

Danny shrugged and waited expectantly. His parents listened for the bedroom doors to shut.

‘Your mother and I have increasing concerns about the moral decline evident all around us in films, books, and popular music,’ his father began.

‘Not all of it,’ said his mother, ‘but it’s a worry what there is.’

‘Take that Ronnie Newell and the disgusting content of that so-called university newspaper,’ his father continued.

‘It’s a question of standards—moral standards,’ his mother broke in again, ‘standards that you have been exposed to at school, in Church, and in this family.’

‘Yes, I know. Why …?

‘You are about to mix socially with girls your age,’ his mother went on. ‘You will like some more than others. Some will like you more than others. At all times, you must respect the girls you mix with, whatever their views. A girl like Cathy Dunn comes from a good Catholic family. Her father has an important job in the civil service. It’s all the more important you understand that.’

‘Of course, I respect her,’ said Danny, now understanding the point of the talk. ‘I would not do anything to disrespect or harm her.’

‘You must remember your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit,’ said his father gravely.

‘Mr. and Mrs. Dunn are good friends of ours. That is secondary but something you must also respect. We expect you at all times to remember you represent our family values.’

‘I won’t forget, I assure you. I like Cathy and would not do anything to upset her.’

‘Good. That’s all Dad and I have to say. It is a brief talk but of the utmost importance. At some time in the future, you will meet a girl you want to marry. Your choice of wife and married life will depend on how you conduct yourself in the coming years—to what extent you have followed the values you have learned. Most girls you meet look forward to being a mother, however much fun they may want to have in the here and now. They will need a supporting, caring husband—like your father.’

‘I understand,’ said Danny, hoping the lecture had ended. It was not really necessary. Cathy was safe with him. If he felt uncomfortable with the girls Max had sent his way, he could not imagine doing anything to disrespect Cathy. And, after all, he was just accompanying her to the dance. That was all. They weren’t girlfriend or boyfriend or anything like that. But his father was not yet finished. He expatiated on the evil influences everywhere around them, giving abundant examples from television, magazines, films, and books. He did not stop until his mother reminded him the girls were still in their room. They would like to watch television.

***

WHEN Danny arrived to pick up Cathy, Mrs. Dunn invited him in.

‘Cathy is not quite ready, Daniel,’ she said. ‘Make yourself comfortable in the lounge room. She’ll be with you soon.’

He said good evening to Mr. Dunn and Cathy’s younger brothers and sisters watching television. Mr. Dunn rose and turned the television down to the protests of the brothers and sisters who stared disagreeably at him. Mr. Dunn got as far as congratulating him on his Leaving Certificate results and asking what university he hoped to attend when Cathy made her entrance, resplendent in a white skirt, floral short-sleeve blouse, white leather heels with straps, and light makeup.

‘I have applied for Mitchell University, Mr. Dunn,’ he murmured, staring. ‘Hello, Cathy.’

‘Oh, I’m surprised,’ said Mrs. Dunn. ‘I thought it would have been Arthur Phillip University.’

‘Me, too,’ said Cathy. ‘I have applied for Arthur Phillip. Hello Danny.’

‘Well, I … eh … have a friend who is going to Mitchell.’ He was caught. He could not very well admit Ronnie Newell was the initial incentive.

‘It doesn’t matter now,’ said Cathy. ‘Let’s go.’ She took his arm. ‘I hoped you would be at Arthur Phillip,’ she said when they were outside on the front path. She still had hold of his arm. ‘We’d have someone we both knew.’

‘I’m sorry, Cathy, I have not yet congratulated you on your Leaving results,’ he said to change the subject. ‘You did just as well as me.’

‘Thank you, Danny, for remembering.’

‘Are you sure you will get in?’

‘Pretty confident. I compared results of previous years.’ She paused. ‘You’d be sure to get in, too. Based on the subjects you studied, we’ll be in the Arts Faculty, possibly doing the same subjects—English literature, for example. Can’t you change? Arthur Phillip is Australia’s oldest university, with the most prestige.’

‘I have ideas of writing and journalism. Mitchell University has an active student newspaper. I thought that could be a place to submit my writing and see how to produce a newspaper.’

Bunji? It’s pretty rough, I’ve heard. I was cringing while my parents were watching the news report about the wolf prank. They’ve already given me a talk about student activism and those I must avoid. They don’t have to warn me about that show-off Ronnie Newell.’

‘Me, too … I mean, they’ve given me a talk. Anyhow, Bunji doesn’t only print the stuff parents find objectionable.’

Helen and Geraldine joined them at that point, and the conversation switched to their expectations about the dance. Ten minutes later, they entered the festooned, brightly lit hall with chairs down both sides and a table with a choice of soft drinks. Pretty girls dressed as smartly as Cathy stood or sat around talking. Boys dressed in suit and tie, or tie, jacket and slacks, huddled in groups casting lingering looks at the girls. Danny had rarely seen such a brilliant scene. It was not long before the hall accommodated around one hundred bustling young people. A loud drum roll brought a hush to the hall, and Robert ascended the rostrum.

‘Welcome everyone to tonight’s dance,’ he said. ‘We will, as usual, start with some progressive dances—the Barn Dance first—to put everyone in the right mood.’

Ada joined him on the rostrum. ‘We want everyone to have a chance to dance. So you boys, don’t be shy in asking the girls. That’s what we’re here for.’

‘Come on,’ said Cathy, taking Danny’s hand and leading him onto the floor.

The band struck up, and the dance began.

‘Helen and Geraldine don’t have partners,’ said Cathy during the dance. ‘Can you introduce some of your school friends? There are some here, aren’t there?’

Several football teammates were standing around by the drinks table. When the dance ended, he fetched friends Tim and Mark. From their expressions, Tim and Mark could hardly believe their good fortune as Cathy introduced Helen and Geraldine. They were just in time for the start of the next phase of dances. The boys paired off with the girl closest, which meant Mark scored Helen, the beauty of the three friends. Cathy squeezed Danny’s hand in appreciation.

From then on, apart from a short break between the dance phases, there was hardly a stop to the dancing. Ada, when not dancing with Robert, who was surprisingly supple, moved around the hall making sure everyone had a partner. The band took a twenty-minute break at ten o’clock. Danny could not have enjoyed himself more. The chatter, the constant shuffling of feet, the bright lights, the rhythm of the music, and the girls’ colorful dresses and tops—it all made for a brilliant atmosphere. He danced mostly with Cathy, whose lips smiled, forehead glistened, and cheeks flushed. Geraldine and Helen, who danced as well as Cathy, also had turns with him. When the band shut down at twelve sharp, he was sorry. He and Cathy did not delay on Mr. Dunn’s instructions, and they set off immediately, with Helen and Geraldine following.

‘I had a wonderful time,’ said Cathy at their front gate.

‘So did I,’ said Danny, opening the gate. ‘Let’s do it again.’

‘I would love that.’

She bent over the gate, put her hand on his arm, drew him to her, and kissed him on the cheek. He waited again until her mother had opened the door, and with a little affectionate wave, she disappeared. He walked home, his mind spinning from Cathy’s sweet femaleness.

End of sample

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Writer … and still in the fifties