The Fear of Revenge and the Great Flood of 1959
When I was just knee-high to a grasshopper I lived in a Pacific beachside suburb of Sydney called Coogee. There is another Coogee Beach, two and half thousand miles to the west in Perth, facing onto the Indian Ocean. Though I have visited there I do not know how the Western Australian Beach got its name. However Coogee in the local [Sydney area] Aboriginal dialect means big stink. When the white man arrived to this area, a large swamp was located a couple of hundred yards inland from the beach. This water was stagnant except after a rare king tide which would send some fresh salt water and sea creatures into the lagoon. As this water lay motionless under the hot Sydney summer sun, the body of liquid mush produced a very pungent odour — you know, seaweed, a few dead fish, crabs, blue bottles and octopuses. Hence the smell and hence the name.
By the time we lived there, this marshland had been drained and turned into Coogee Oval, home ground to the Mighty Greens, the undefeatable Randwick Rugby Union football team. This sports ground remained the lowest point in the suburb, somewhat below sea level. It is bounded by the long and wide Brook, Arden and Dolphin Streets, and the one-block narrow Afreda Street.
A little old Jewish lady lived in a house in Alfreda St, overlooking the oval. We used to meet her in the park sometimes and occasionally my mother would drop around and see her at her house. I think she was well into her nineties, but very with it. Her name was Mrs Feldhouse, a half anglicised version of the original German. Her great-grandson, Paul, was in my class, but something did not quite work out for me with him in those days. Paul was of one of the various Christian religions (largely roman catholic) which dominated our school and our area. So how could she be Jewish, or alternatively how could she be Paul's grandmother? I did not understand intermarriage and other real world concepts like that in those days — these were alien to our thinking. Old Mrs Feldhouse's Jewish son had married out. Already Paul's father had no halakhic Jewish status, and I image, any Jewish connection other than to his Jewish grandmother who remained outwardly Jewish all along.
In 1959, one afternoon after school, it started to rain. Not unusual in Sydney where it rains equally all year around, summer and winter. But this particular rain was especially heavy. It was like the skies had opened, and with all their wrath were disgorging whatever they had stored up there. Lightning and thunder — abrupt, discontinuous, atmospheric electric discharges, spectacularly lighting up the night sky. It was hard to sleep that night — it was exciting and it was scary all at once — a night spent completely buried in my doona for safety, but peering out periodically to observe the dramatic shapes movements shooting across the sky.
With morning the rain was still pouring down, in buckets. The drainage system was incapable of swallowing up the precipitation. Water flowed wherever it liked, and our thoroughfare, Brook Street, outdid its namesake, water gushing down the hill in a mighty torrent. If you ventured outside, the rain soaked through to your bones. Obviously a day to stay in bed. Ah, but then you do not know my mother. A school day is just that — a day to go to school, no matter what the odds — "we went to school barefoot in the snow when I was half your age". And to school I had to go. I do not know how I covered the two blocks to the Infants' School, but I, and three others in my class of thirty-five were there, drenched, but marked as present on the class roll. (I suppose the other three also had European parents.) Our teacher decided to let us go home at lunchtime because the weather was clearing and it was now safe to walk the streets. I guess we played games or some similar activity until then. Walking home was magnificent. The sun was shining, the sky was a deep blue and everything was sparkling, covered by water. And the air was very clean.
Coogee Oval, being the lowest point, bore the brunt of the flood. The oval turned into an enormous lake, with only the two tall rugby goal posts and the roof of the grandstand poking through the water. Alfreda Street was fully submerged. Due to the geography, the entrances to the houses are about fifteen steps above street level, so the houses themselves were not badly flooded. However the only way out of the Feldhouse residence and those of their neighbours was by rowboat. I remember going down to the see the site. It is a pity that I had not yet been given my first camera — though if I had a camera, the film would have been black and white. The colours were glorious, engraved on my mind to this day.
Peter, my friend from downstairs, was a year ahead of me at school. He also had a Feldhouse in his class, Paul's brother Mark. Unlike his little brother, Mark was an exceptionally big and strong fellow, already in primary school, not the guy you would pick to meet late at night in a dark alley.
At Coogee Public School, the playground was made of asphalt (we only found out that schoolyards could have grass when we were admitted to high school). The ground slopes down from the fence with the neighbouring Girls' School (yes I spent ten years of school in the company only of boys) towards the Boys' School building, bound by a long bench. Our entire school comprised four classes, grades three to six, a total off less than 150 boys. Once a week, all the students and staff would get together (if it was not raining) in the playground for assembly. The headmaster, Mr Quinlan, or one of his underlings, would stand on the bench and address the entire student body. We stood in eight rows, each class stretched across the yard in two lines, the younger classes to towards the front.
Peter, then in sixth grade was in the very back row. It was rather warm on that fateful day, and standing in the sun had its effect on all the boys. The teachers sat in the shade of the building, so did not suffer as much as we did. Peter was not feeling great to begin with, and as Mr Quinlan took his time telling us whatever a headmaster thought was important to impart to his young charges, Peter felt more and more nauseous. He soon got to the point that he knew he was not going to be able to hold back any longer. Please Mr Q, please finish off or we're going to have a little problem back here. In those days, you did not just excuse yourself if you felt unwell — you just held it in while praying for survival. But head teachers march to their own beat. I am certain what he was telling us must have been earth shattering. But Peter reached the point of no return — and chunder*, puke, spew, a technicolour yawn — all over who, but Mark Feldhouse. Feldhouse turned around and, with gritted teeth, snarled, "I am going to kill you!!" with a look on his face that sent Peter heading towards the hills.
Somehow Peter survived that year alive, spending the remaining few weeks of the year avoiding Mark. But six weeks later they were all in high school. And Peter spent the next six years in fear for his life because he knew that Feldhouse was going to kill him, literally pulverise him. He spent an entire six years of high school, avoiding one single individual.
To say the least, Peter was glad when high school was finally over. The Feldhouse episode too was now over. Well so he thought. Three years later, Peter was on a bus from the city back to Coogee. He was sitting upstairs by the window on one of the old double deckers buses which had replaced the magnificent Sydney trams ten years prior (worst town planning mistake made anywhere in the world). Peter was reading his newspaper, minding his own business, when he spied, yes, you guessed it, Feldhouse waiting at the next bus stop. Feldhouse also still lived in Coogee at this time. He boarded the bus, came upstairs, and sat down in the vacant seat next to our friend, his intended victim. Peter pulled the newspaper closer to his face, buried himself right inside it. He barely breathed. He turned slightly towards the window. It's a forty minute ride to Coogee during the peak hour. When would Feldhouse make his move? Peter's bus stop was approaching and Feldhouse still had not made a move. Peter's stop came, but he made no move. Then Feldhouse got up and left. Not surprising as he only lived a block away from Peter. "Phew — he did not notice me." Peter alighted the bus a stop further down the line — the last stop on the 373's route, the Coogee terminus, outside the Aquarium. He left a large pool of sweat on the seat.
Twenty years after the end of high school, in 1990, Peter's form organised a reunion. (I have hoped for something like this for our year at Randwick — if it has already happened, no-one invited me.) Peter went along, and of the fifty or so gentlemen present, he notices Feldhouse. At first he avoids him — remember, it is only twenty-seven years since that tragic event in the Coogee schoolyard. Then Peter thinks to himself, this cannot go on forever, all the way to the grave — I am a big boy, I can handle myself. So he walks over to Mark. Mark was happy to see him. He's a commercial airline pilot, married, lives outside London — just happened to be in Sydney tonight between flights — if you're ever in the London area, please drop in. They talk for ten or fifteen minutes, of all the kinds of things men, old friends, who have not seen each other for years may discuss. Peter even mentioned the great Coogee Oval flood of 1959.
It's going well so Peter plucks up his courage and says, "You know I've been carrying around this fear of you with me for many years. Back in sixth class you swore you were going to kill me." Really, why would I want to kill you? Well, one hot steamy, summer day at school assembly back in Coogee, I was not feeling too well, and I vomited all over your back. I really could not control myself — I was feeling feint all morning, and the hot sun, well ...
"Really — I haven't the foggiest what you're talking about."
Menachem Kuchar, 13th July, 2013
* Chunder A common Australian euphemism for vomit. Presented by Barry Humphries in the film The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie as a contraction of "watch [out] under". This was supposedly shouted out by upper-deck "passengers" on First Fleet convict ships, before they vomited over the rails to the peril of those below.
According to Michael Quinion, it is said to come from a series of advertisements for Blyth and Platt's Cobra boot polish. These appeared in the Bulletin newspaper in Sydney from 1909 on, originally drawn by the well-known Australian artist, Norman Lindsay. The ads featured a character named Chunder Loo of Akim Foo and were popular enough that Norman's brother, Lionel Lindsay, wrote and illustrated The Adventures of Chunder Loo for Blyth and Platt in 1916. The character's name became a nickname in World War One (sometimes abbreviated to Chunder), which is where the idea of a military link may have originated. It is suggested that the term is rhyming slang (Chunder Loo = spew) and that it was first taken up as public school slang.
The other words in this sentence are all unque Australian slang synonyms for vomiting.
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