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Authors: Peter Doyle

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BOOK: The Big Whatever
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The Big Whatever
concludes with a mystic vision of a Johnson nation, surviving after earthquake or meteor has taken out large parts of the world, in which “a band of outlaw surfers . . . wait on the high ground for each new apocalypse set to arrive. . . . Anarchists, hippies, heads, blackfellas, musicians, fortune-tellers, separatist lesbians, artists' co-ops, angelheaded hipsters.” Motor vehicles made from scrap parts are involved. Perhaps we then remember that a leading character's name is Max, and that he's possibly not quite right in the head. But that's par for the course: Doyle's people are always offhandedly inventing the future.

THE BIG WHATEVER

SYDNEY, 1973.

The taxi was outside the Professor's house as usual, the motor ticking as it cooled. I dropped my bag in the boot, slammed it down twice before it caught, walked round and got in. It smelled of stale tobacco and air freshener. The fuel gauge looked okay, but sometimes you couldn't tell if it was short-filled until you'd driven for a few hours. I rummaged through the glove box – a few paperbacks, a broken pair of sunglasses, a cigarette lighter – to find the docket book. Filled out a worksheet, turned on the two-way and drove off.

I picked up the crippled kid from Drummoyne Boys' High School. Asked how he was, he said he was very good thanks, and I dropped him home without us exchanging another word. Then the pathology run to the city. After that I collected a couple of bank parcels and took them to North Sydney. Copped a street hail in Clarence, which doubled my take for crossing the Bridge. All except the street hail were regular jobs. They went with the cab.

At six I stopped into Barrack Motors. A dozen drivers were standing around the food van, gossiping, reviewing controversial radio job allocations, telling stories about their idiot passengers. I listened for a few minutes and drifted away.

A Legion cab on the opposite side of Oxford Street pulled up sharply enough the tyres screeched, then hung an illegal u-turn at the lights and pulled onto the drive. A guy with long curly hair and half a beard hopped out from behind the wheel and came over, grinning broadly. Brian.

He asked how it was going. All right, I said. How about him? He shook his head. “First job?” he said, “straight to fucking
Earlwood
.” A driver hovering nearby groaned in sympathy. Brian gave a quick sideways bob of his head and we moved away.

“Got any of the old smokables?” he said quietly, but with a comical eyebrow triple bounce.

“Maybe later. See you on the Cross rank? After eleven.”

“Ace,” he said, and drove off as quickly as he'd pulled in.

Back on the road. The sun nearly down, traffic easing off. Time for the private jobs. I stopped into a hotel in Croydon. A fellow in the front bar, perched near the door, was waiting for me. I bipped once and he slid in, said in a flat monotone, “G'day Bill, how's it going?” I told him it was going good. He directed me to a street in Gladesville, then down a long driveway to a garage behind a brick house. We filled the boot of the cab with transistor radios, still in their boxes – they were the mini type, much preferred by off-course punters. Not much passed between us beyond the directions he'd given me and the money I gave him.

I took the radios to an address on the northern beaches, which I'd hoped would dovetail with the pickup at Avalon. I unloaded the radios, received a wad of notes, then made a phone call from a booth at Brookvale. Avalon was ready to go.

I drove to the cottage on the headland where Katie, tan-skinned, dark-haired wife of one-time surf legend ‘Mullet' Jackson, was waiting. A green garbage bag was by the door, tightly packed. It gave off a musty smell, but nothing too strong.

“Looks all right,” I said.

Katie nodded. “It is. But it might be the last for a while. Comes from out the back of Lismore. It's tough up there now . . . the helicopters.”

She made coffee and gave me something grainy and macrobiotic to eat.

“Heard from Mullet?” I said.

“Three nights ago. Hawaii went very well, he said. Showed the film to the locals. Got a good crowd.”

“Showed it where?”

“Some old hall where they put on music films, head films and all that.”

“Like a scout hall?”

“Maybe, yeah. He'll be in California by now.”

I picked up the garbage bag and headed for the door. Katie said to send her love to Terry and Anna.

I took the stuff straight to Duke Street. Terry and Anna were expecting me. When we opened the bag the smell filled the room. I put a handful of heads in a sandwich bag, then popped into my flat, a sleepout above an old stable at the back of their house, and took a fifteen-minute nap. I was driving again by ten.

I saw Brian at the Kings Cross rank, slipped him enough gear for a smoke or two, told him to make sure he took a joint down to Steve in the radio room, kept going.

I ran hot for a while on street hails, then it went quiet. That was all right; I was heading for a 35, maybe 40 dollar night, easy, not counting the other business. So near midnight I pulled up at St James rank and turned the two-way down low. Took a look at the paperbacks in the glove box. A Western, a Carter Brown, a book of golfing jokes, and a slim one called
Lost Highway to Hell
. The picture on the cover showed a bosomy girl in beads and a headband, dancing, with a gun in her hand. To one side of her was a bloke with an afro, hunched over a keyboard, while a hard man in the background looked on. I opened it. The title page had been torn out. I started reading.

I sucked on the square of blotting paper and checked out Cathy in the go-go cage. Shaking and twisting. Her hair swayed and swung and flew. Sweat ran down the side of her face. I kept pounding that Hammond B3, man, playing a fat seventh chord with my right hand, syncopated just the way I knew she liked it. She started to shimmy, and the fringe on her dress, and all those sweet bits underneath, shimmied right along. Dig the wavy lines. A Van Gogh pin-up. With neon colours. How long had I been playing that seventh? Who knows? I was out of my goddamned tree, dig?

I looked out at the crowd. Johnny Malone, alias Johnny the Lurk Merchant, his pockets stuffed with trips, stood in front of the bandstand, still as a statue, surrounded by
dancers, staring at Cathy. Had he seen her smiling at me?

Another four choruses of soloing, the music pouring out of the big Leslie speaker like nectar, sweeter with every chorus. I had the holy ghost in me. I mean, I was
preaching
, children. The tune was Ray Charles's, ‘What'd I Say?' Archie took over and played his sax like a crazy angel for another, what, fifteen minutes? My time-sense was blown to hell. The music flowed on and on and the sound turned into a swirling blaze of colour. It filled the discotheque, starting at the ceiling and working its way down, until everybody, Cathy, Archie, the Maori bouncers, Mick at the bar, even my sad-sack partner Johnny, was surrounded by pulsating haloes. Sweet LSD 25!

And it was like everybody else was seeing the same lights I was. Cathy smiled at me again, and I felt it – I mean
physically
. Watching the beautiful vibrations coming from all those people in the crowd, I imagined that instead of it being 1969 in the Joker Discotheque in Kellett Street, Sydney – the sweet home of funk I co-owned with Johnny, we were time travellers in some freaky space ship, cruising distant galaxies, and we didn't need speech to communicate anymore, we just understood each other's thoughts – you dig? – and when we
did
need to say something, we used pure musical vibration. Ray Charles was our crazy, blind, all-seeing navigator, steering us through meteor showers, alien attacks and shit like that, just
sensing
where we should go, and wherever he took us, that would be cool. We'd meet up with other searchers, crazy sweet like us, but in different ways – outlaws, poets, surfers, musicians, sacred prostitutes, mystics, artists, blessed anarchist lunatics – brothers and sisters all.

Right about then a fight started somewhere up the back of the room, and the Maori bouncers moved in. The bad energy was coming from a strung-out R&R guy named Eddie, one cat who was maybe
not
quite ready for lysergic acid diethylamide. Negative conditioning by the
military-industrial complex
and the CIA, plus a Nam skag habit – had turned Eddie's brain, which was no doubt once beautiful and angelic, into something vicious and twisted, and whenever he tried to turn on, things got VERY WEIRD. Anyway, the bouncer whacked Eddie, and he fell in a heap. End of story, dig? Another heavy picked him up and carried him out. Goodnight Eddie. Kind of changed the vibe for a while there, but hey, that's the world, sweethearts, and your correspondent Mel ‘the Cool One' Parker has no illusions about such things. So bros and sisses, I grooved on regardless, and lo, the room and everyone in it sweetened again.

At three that morning I smoked a joint in the back lane with Cathy and we sipped cognac from a bottle I'd taken from the bar. Cathy did a dance, right there in the alley way. Not the fucking Watusi or the Boogaloo, but pure, free, arms-waving, tribal goddess MAGIC. Dig, Cathy had powers. That's not a figure of speech, little ones, I
mean
it. She was possessed by Lilith. She was the Hindu goddess Mohini. She was Delilah. She was Cleopatra. She was Gilda. Morgan le Fay. Medusa. And don't forget Beatrix. She was angel, siren and succubus. She was
She
.

Actually, dear friends, I exaggerate. She was just another chick, right? Like everyone is just another whatever they are. It doesn't do to make out this one or that one is
that
special, dig?

So, truly, Cathy? you ask. Now harken unto the good doctor Mel. She was like this: About five foot six or seven. Good height. Thin, slightly foxy face, brown hair, which she sometimes grew long and was never less than shoulder length. Light brown eyes, large, but not gormless large. Taking-everything-in, never-miss-a-trick large. She leaned a tiny tad forward nearly all the time – gave you an impression of energy and enthusiasm, and even when she was stoned that drive and animation was there. Her brow was clear and even, but deep furrows would suddenly appear if she was laughing or concentrating. They were cute. She
gave it all she had, everything, all the time. She didn't fuck around. Metaphorically speaking.

Which leads me to the bod: nicely stacked, but not too much of anything. She could walk into any dancing, stripping, lewdly-displaying-the-wanton-flesh-type gig any time she wanted. But it was never a dumb thing with her. She kept a knowing eye on the staring palookas, and probably picked up a lot more about them than they did about her.

Anyway, Cathy had it all going on that night in the lane way out the back of the Joker. She danced in big circles while I was slouched against the wall, clutching a bottle of firewater. She sauntered over and slowly, beautifully leaned against me. I kissed her cheek, then her nose, then her lips, while she swayed and wiggled.

Then I shook my head and pushed her away.

“It's not right.”

“Hmm,” she said, moving her hips, “why not?”

“You know, Johnny,” I said. “Where is he, by the way?”

“He split when the fight started.” She moved forward again. “Forget him. He'll be all right.” She nuzzled into my neck and whispered, “Let's go home and fuck.”

I looked at the cover again. The author's name was given as ‘Mel Parker.' The blurb on the back said,
They live for thrills – drugs, sex, music and MURDER. The shocking truth about Australia's freaked-out generation
.

There was a hesitant tap on my window. A man in a suit, leaning forward, said politely, “Excuse me. Are you free?”

I shook my head, switched on the NOT FOR HIRE sign, started the cab and drove away. I could see him in the rear-view mirror, standing in the street staring after me.

I drove back to Five Dock and filled up at the Victoria Road Shell. Dave asked if I was going to pop into the game out the back. I shook my head. The petrol bill was high for the miles I'd done. Another short fill.

I left the cab back outside the Professor's place, quietly slipped the pay-in under his door and hailed a cab back to Balmain. I knew the driver slightly, and he tried to chat. I was having none of it.

His two-way was turned down low, but like any proper taxi driver I was never
not
conscious of what was happening on the radio, even if I was talking to a passenger. So I distinctly heard Steve call me in. “Car 370 on this channel? Message for 370.”

The driver looked at me. “That's you isn't it? You're Bill, right? Bill Glasheen?”

“Don't worry about it,” I said, but the bloke already had the mic in his hand. “22 in. Got him right here with me, basey.”

“Having an early one?”

“Apparently.”

“Tell him there's a message here. Ring his mother.”

The driver turned to me again. “Get that?”

I said nothing, so he shut up. We rode in silence until I asked him to stop in Darling Street, two blocks from Duke Street. I paid and walked the rest of the way home.

Lights were on downstairs, sounds of carousing came from the big front room. The Forth and Clyde crowd, smoking the stuff I'd brought over earlier.

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