There is always something that reminds me.

Funny, what stands out in your memory of childhood. Sometimes, it’s an emotion that dominates the memory, rather than the event itself. And sometimes, similar emotions later in life can recall those memories.
At times, its difficult to know if childhood memories are real experiences, or manufactured ones from stories you hear, or photographs you are familiar with. I can remember, as a very young child, peering into a pram and seeing my newly arrived baby sister. But I’m not sure if that is an actual memory or if it is simply a created one, produced from a favourite family photograph I have seen over and over again while growing up. The look on the innocent little boy’s face is one of joy and wonderment, and that feeling has become the memory. Often, when I feel that way, I think of that photograph.
There are some things I remember as a very young boy, living and going to school in Redfern, Sydney, that are not recorded in photographs. I remember being stranded on the footpath one day after coming home from school because I was too frightened to pass in front of our next door neighbour’s house. Our neighbours were Aborigines and they had a large number of people visiting, all of whom seemed very drunk and raucous. At least one man was lying in the gutter. It was much later in life that I concluded I must have stumbled across a wake, but the memory of fear is a vivid one.
Redfern in the nineteen-fifties was what is now known as a low socioeconomic and disadvantaged area; in those days it was an urban slum. My father was very proud of saving enough for a deposit on a terrace house there, after just two years of working two jobs at a time. He would come home weekday afternoons for a couple of hours sleep before starting the next shift and sometimes, work on Saturdays as well. My parents had immigrated from Malta with the assistance of an Australian Government fare subsidy as citizens of the British Commonwealth, in 1955. My father has often told me how he had arrived in Australia with £10 in his pocket but owing around three times that amount to his brother who had arrived a few months earlier. My father owed my uncle the money for securing hard to come by accommodation for him and his pregnant wife. Apparently, I was conceived somewhere out at sea- there is a seamen joke there somewhere, but I just can’t think of it right now.
I lived in Redfern while I was between the ages of two and six years old. It must have been a very impressionable time because I have many vivid memories from that period. I clearly remember the dark brown brick, convent primary school adjacent to the attached Catholic church, I attended. My mother needed cheap childcare in order to work at a local factory so she started me at school early, at age four. The premature start to my schooling meant that I suffered the indignity of being forced to repeat kindergarten; not an auspicious beginning for someone who was to eventually became a school principal later in life. I can even remember as far back as when my mother and I used to stop at a corner store on the way to preschool. We would detour every morning and buy a lollipop on a stick in the shape of a rooster. It was always about that time in the morning that we would listen to a famous children’s radio program called “Sammy Sparrow”; a funny talking bird who would, incongruous as it may now sound to an adult, arrive at the radio station in a helicopter. I also remember madly running around the concrete playground during breaks at primary school with my friends and being walked home through the park beside Redfern Oval, home of the mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team. My babysitter and chaperone at that time was a local, older schoolgirl. Her name was Julie and she was my first crush on a female. I am sure I didn’t know what it was all about but I can clearly remember the yearning I had for her.
I also remember rainy days while being inside the house in Redfern while wearing my cowboy outfit (or do I just remember the photograph?), the steep stairs up to the bedrooms and the small backyard that was paved with bricks. I remember doing Elvis Presley impersonations with a toy guitar for my parents and knocking on every neighbour’s door in our street to tell them that my dad had bought our first car.
I remember some physical injuries too, like when I badly burned the palm of my hand while standing on a chair and placing my palm on the electric stove hotplate, to see if it was still hot after it had stopped glowing red. Once, I had my fingers caught in the big, old, heavy wooden door of my school classroom when it was slammed shut, requiring my mother to take me home from school early. Another time, I was administered eye drops which blurred my vision. I recall having a panic attack and wondering if I was going to be blind for the rest of my life. On yet another occasion I remember my mother’s panic when she came home during her work lunch break to find me, aged about five, sitting up in her bed and drenched in cough syrup. She had left me there instead of taking me to school because I had the flu and I had decided to self-medicate. My mother and father had arranged to drop in to check on me every couple of hours. Luckily, the doctor at the hospital worked out that I must have spilled most of the medicine on my pyjama shirtfront, while trying to emulate my mother’s spoon feeding.
One injury, or rather its psychological aftermath, has bothered me all my life. But not for reasons associated with physical pain, or its subsequent trauma. The memory still nags away at me to this day. It often comes back after I think that I have been hurtful to someone.
My best friend, another mischievous street kid and I, were inseparable as primary school aged boys. He lived in another terrace house a few houses further along the same street as I did and we would spend all of our waking hours after school and on weekends together. Sometimes we would sneak into an old dilapidated, corrugated iron warehouse that was also on our street. I remember one time when we found a billiard table somewhere in that warehouse and stole all of the brightly coloured balls that were lying on it. After we had taken them home, we were so frightened of being found out that we broke back in and carefully replaced them, meticulously trying to position the balls on the table exactly as we had found them so no one would know we had been there.
One afternoon after school, we quickly changed out of our school uniforms and into our old clothes, as usual, in anticipation of a new adventure at the warehouse. We found our way in and found some old, rusted squares of steel with serrated edges that were just the right size to propel through the air with an outwards flick of the wrist, just like a small, square frisbee. We had been regular watchers and devotees of a Japanese TV show that was dubbed in English involving ninjas, who also had metal weapons they flicked through the air.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. We ran around the warehouse and even onto the rusty rooftop of that big shed, mimicking our ninja heroes and flicking the lethal squares of rusted metal with serrated edges at each other while ducking for cover. Of course, the inevitable happened. I was hit by a particularly accurate shot from my adversary, just above one eyebrow; I still have a faint outline of a scar under my left eyebrow. My friend was mortified, I was bleeding profusely and to make it worse, the blood was flowing down into my eye and I was screaming. We rushed to my house and I was taken to a doctor for a tetanus injection and a few stitches. I thought that I was in big trouble for mt errant behaviour, but my mother was so grateful that I had not lost an eye, or worse, that she lavished attention on me rather than be scolding. I remember liking the attention very much.
After we had returned home, my best friend and his mother paid a conciliatory visit. My friend had obviously explained to his mother what had happened. I remember my mother letting them in, showing them into the kitchen where I was sitting, and me feeling belligerent. I was still angry at my friend for hitting me with the rusty, metal sheet. My friend was crying and tearfully blurted out a well prepared apology. I flatly refused to acknowledge him. I remember a feeling of immense control over another human being at that moment. It was an intoxicating feeling that I had never felt before. I enjoyed it. I relished the domination of my friend and deliberately made him squirm. I was wallowing in this new sensibility. I watched him cry and beg for forgiveness while I continued to ignore him. It felt good and I wanted it to continue. Both my friend’s mother and my own mother repeatedly tried to convince me to accept his apology and reconcile but I arrogantly refused to forfeit my newfound power. I know that I was just a kid, but my behaviour was cruel and vindictive.
I never spoke to my former best friend again.
I wish I could find him and beg his forgiveness.
It’s funny what stands out among your childhood memories.

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