Father Steele – a novel by Bernie Dowling


Father Steele

a novel

by Bernie Dowling


Every Aussie comedian who makes me laugh


In memory of humorist
John Hepworth
Born spring, 1921

Died summer, 1995
Father Steele

Hugo XX for Women

Purchase any Hugo XX EDT 100ml $113

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Australian Myer stores 2007

hope. joy…Christmas catalogue


(My Favourite Dinosaur)

Children’s song from The Wiggles

about the band’s mute mascot

Book One

Who’s On First?

Chapter 1

Brisbane, winter, 1992

This comedian, see, she kills them and, later that night, someone kills her.

Stacey Jacks, 27, was on her back on the floor of the small dressing room for comedians performing at the Sit Down Comedy Club in Kangaroo Point. The Brisbane suburb was named after rude kangaroos giving the finger to tourists asking to take the marsupials’ picture.

Standing above Stacey Jacks, I was beyond speech while my sometime girlfriend Natalie Applebee was screaming in my ear.

‘Oh God, Steele, what are we going to do? Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck.’

Stacey Jacks was in a bad way.

Compared with her, the T-shirt which declared she loved New York was in good shape, in a lump in front of the dressing table mirror, but otherwise fine.

Slumped on the carpet beside an upturned wooden stool, Jacks wore a bra, sliced apart between the cups, and a pair of black slacks. No shoes, no stockings, no make-up, nothing else. Except for the bruises across her neck and the swelling in her face. And the blood forming a cross with the horizontal arm under her breasts from left ribs to right. The bloody vertical arm began under her windpipe and was cut down between her breasts to her navel.

I thought I heard Stacey Jacks say something. I bent down on one knee and pressed my ear next to her mouth. If I was a priest, I would have looked like Father Steele Hill, hearing her last confession. Which was only one word, repeated twice before she died.

I looked up towards Natalie and at the room beyond her.

A half-eaten meal lay on a round table and a chair was upended beside it.

The food was steak, vegetables and potato chips – traditional club nosh, though the steak would be hard to cut as the knife was missing. Only the fork sat on the plate.

My sometime girlfriend Natalie was a little calmer as her managerial training kicked in.

‘We have to call the manager and an ambulance. Feel her pulse. What did she say, Steele?’

`Nothing,’ I lied.

`You go for the manager while I feel her pulse, Nat.’

Natalie closed the door behind her as I felt no sign of life throbbing from the comedian’s thin wrist. Looking over her corpse, I decided Stacey Jacks died from strangulation. The cut marks forming the cross on her upper body were not deep while the swelling on her face and bruises on her neck suggested someone had a good go at choking her before applying the blade.

I looked around the room as Jacks had asked me to. Her dying word repeated twice was ‘farther’.

When I heard it for the second time, I knew a clue was somewhere in the room and Jacks wanted me to find it by looking farther.

Like a starving man, I kept coming back to the half-eaten meal with the steak knife missing. In case that was not the clue, I looked around some more but the only other thing to stand out was a narrow free-standing wardrobe.
In the robe were another pair of black slacks, a gold polo shirt and a pair of white runners with black stripes. A pair of sports socks lay on the floor. Those four items had been the work clothes the comedian wore for her gig earlier that night.

Natalie once told me comedians have to be careful what they wear. Nat tells me this sort of stuff because she knows a lot more fascinating arty tidbits than I do. Most times, I am interested.

Comedians have to be cool, Nat says. But they cannot embarrass their audience by dressing better than the stiffs do. The rule is to dress down, but not as far as the pits, where even the stiffs won’t go. Stacey Jacks was following the rule by dressing casually cool in gold T-shirt, black slacks and the rest of it.

Stacey Jacks was a lesbian. Natalie also told me this, not to excite me, but because the comedian used her sexuality in her act. Why not? Hetero funny people have been using sex as hooks for their strings of four-letter words since Adam and Eve set up the first nightclub under the tree of carnal knowledge. Why the fuck not, I ask, in this fucking age of equal fucking opporfuckingtunity?

I was looking at Stacey Jack’s gear in the dressing room cupboard in preference to looking at her dead body. My spirit was only casually engaged with trying to solve her murder. A little guiltily, I was hoping the real detectives would front before I find the farther object the dying funny woman had put me onto. My becoming involved in a murder investigation had no percentage for me.

Sergeant ‘Bull’ Mooney once told me he worked homicide to avenge murder victims. I could see he regretted saying it once he saw the dubious, if not sneering, look on my face. I knew it had to be bullshit, something he read in a book.

I do believe Mooney’s house was turned over once. Among other things, they stole his entire library. He never did get to find out what happened at the end of that James Patterson crime novel. He never would unless they made it into a movie and Hollywood didn’t change the ending.

Footsteps scurrying outside advised me to shut the cupboard door.

Chapter 2

Natalie came in with a short solid bloke, mid-twenties, wearing grey jeans, black T-shirt and black jacket. Kinda cool he was, except for the sweat dripping from his forehead and upper lip. Steady Teddy Theodore owned the Sit Down Comedy Club.

‘Jesus,’ he said, turning around to lock the door.

‘Nat’s already done the blasphemy bit,’ I said, looking at him, rather than the corpse.

Natalie had recovered well. She has always been my rock.

‘The cops are coming and an ambulance. Is she alright, Steele?’

‘Apart from being dead, she’s pretty good,’ I said and wished I hadn’t.

Trading in cheap laughs was the only connection I had to stand-up comedy. Natalie punched me in the arm to tell me she knew her former hero was deceased and she just wanted to calm us all down. I looked at her for inspiration of what to say, as club owner Ted Theodore lost it before our eyes in a spray of disbelieving profanities.

‘Tough night,’ I mumbled.

`She only did it as a favour,’ Theodore said.


`She told me six weeks ago she was taking at least 18 months off.’

Natalie nodded sadly.

`I’d heard that,’ she said.

`She was taking time off to write and travel with Laura.’

‘Writing and travel be buggered,’ Theodore sniffed.

`Stacey was pregnant.’

I tried looking at the ceiling, so my eyes would not be attracted perversely to the dead woman. I couldn’t invent any solution to the awkward silence.

Theodore shut up immediately after divulging a secret best kept. Natalie was dumbfounded by the revelation. Me, I was confused. Natalie might be wrong about the writing and travel but she would have known Laura was Stacey’s girlfriend or a relationship term more polite in circles of alternative sexuality.

This murder was complicated, not like a stand-up riddle to be solved by half-pissed comedy consumers. Those poor sots unlucky enough to remember the routines the next day would be disappointed the jokes did not go over near as well in the work lunch-room. It’s all in the timing and your average stiff rarely gets that right.

The two Homicide detectives arrived bang on time. For them. For me, it was just as I was leaning towards Natalie to suggest we split and wait for the coppers to track us down the next day or so.

One copper was resolutely heterosexual though years on the grog might have dipped his sexual potency. I believe Shakespeare said something like that. But this police bloke had seen more death and mayhem resulting from the twisted pastimes of humanity than punters at a weekend festival of the Bard’s tragedies. The senior dee was never a bit player in any of the hurly burly. He was in boots, fists, nightstick and all.

The other copper’s sexuality was ambivalent or so he told me, one day. No, I don’t know what it means either. I never asked.

Chapter 3

Stand up comedy – what’s that’s that all about? It makes me need to sit down.

It was my birthday. 28, that’s old. Fuckin’ old. In two years, I’m fucked. To cheer me up, Natalie bought us tickets to the Sit Down Comedy Club in Kangaroo Point. I hate stand-up comedy.

Well, maybe I don’t hate stand-up comedy. I just don’t get it. We’re all paying $19 a pop to listen to some shit this comedian should be telling to their psychiatrist. In fact, this comedian is probably collecting all our donations of 19 bucks a head so they can rework the same material for their shrink. I just don’t get it. But Natalie does.

Nat and I are back together for a while. My Cucumber is the love of my life, but recently my career has been getting in the way. I don’t have a career, that’s what’s been getting in the way.

Actually, I do have a career. I am a professional gambler, subsidised by the State, in the interests of private enterprise. Every fortnight, the State pays me unemployment benefit, or dole money, as we in the industry prefer to call it. I invest my below-subsistence wage on backing racehorses. I expect my publicly funded, private enterprise to prosper to the point where I will no longer require State assistance for my firm.

Despite turbulence in our leaky romantic boat, I suspect Natalie still loves me. We don’t discuss it.

I asked Nat to resume her Hendra flat on the floor above mine. She said no. She wanted to move to New Farm, near her supermarket, despite the impossibly high rents in that neo-yuppie suburb.

New Farm was established, a long time ago, as a naturalists’ retreat. I am unsure whether the wowsers or toddlers just learning to speak evolved the name change. Wowser is the lovely Aussie word for Puritan. It could have been the wowsers or the toddlers who created the name change from Nude Farm.

Nat was recently promoted to manager fruit and vegetables which includes nuts and mueslis as well as, much to Nat’s disgust, lollies or sweets or confectionaries, in countries unacquainted with that lovely word, lolly.

In Australia, to do your lolly is either to lose money or to go off your brain.

Nat does her lolly when she ponders how sweets or confectionaries sabotage her fruit, veg, nuts and mueslis section.

‘It’s not right, Steele,’ begins the lolly speech every time.

To Nat’s credit, she does vary the content if not the theme.

‘It’s a con, because when the parents buy fruit and vegetables for the kids, the shrewd youngsters can blackmail their parents that they will eat broccoli if they get chocolate elephants as well.’

‘Do they make chocolate elephants?’ I ask, because this is going to be a fairly long diatribe, so I might as well consume it in pieces.

‘You know what I mean, Steele. Or the parents themselves or non-parents for that matter think it’s all right to treat themselves to lollies because they have brought healthy fruit and vegetables. It’s not right.’

‘I agree,’ I say.

‘It’s bad enough they put chocolate bars in children’s reach at the counter. Why do they have to put lollies in my fruit and veg,’ Natalie continues.

‘It should be illegal,’ I agree.

My best mate, illegal bookmaker, Con ‘Gooroo’ Vitalis is something of a street philosopher and he agrees totally with Natalie. That’s easy for him to say. He’s down in his Tweed Heads unit watching a stupid doco about animals in the wild. He is not hearing the love of my love, fired up in anger.

‘To make it worse, they put the lollies loose so you scoop them up just like you do with nuts and mueslis,’ she continues.

‘Disgraceful,’ I say.

‘You can’t tell me it’s not a subliminal message that somehow lollies are good for you, too.’

I give up and say nothing more and Natalie gives up, too, after another three minutes of spleen venting.

Natalie lives close to the bright lights of the CBD where she can go to rock concerts and find like-minded young people to verbally wage glorious campaigns against lollies and other evils.

I still think she would like me to move in with her or near her. Would like me to ask the question.

It is not fear of rejection which stops me from asking. It’s fear of acceptance.

New Farm is not my scene, as we say in some sub-culture or other, or must have said at some time in the past.

When the working girls, the pimps, the druggies, the gamblers and the grifters owned the streets of New Farm, it had some sleazy charm. But by 1993, the yuppies had all but colonised the place with a bank loan, his and her credit cards, a sander, a few tins of paint, recycled and new-growth timber. I have nothing against yuppies. Well, not much. As a matter of fact, I have lots against them so it’s best I lie rather than bore you with my venom for three days.

Natalie has a nice old wooden flat in New Farm and the rent’s pretty low and I did see a vacancy sign for the same block. That cheap empty flat destroyed my stated argument for not moving to New Farm. Nat was dying to ask me and I was dying to say yes, but we both knew I would say no. She couldn’t come back to Hendra and I couldn’t go to New Farm. Sad, really.

The real reason I was going to stand-up comedy was not that it was on at a place called the Sit Down Comedy Club, but you have to admit the club moniker is funny, probably funnier than most of the acts. I was going because My Cucumber loves stand-up. She loves it and I don’t hate it– I just don’t get it – and we go.

I like to think Natalie came back to Brisbane to be with me, but she assures me it’s all about the job. We’ve gone out together and fucked together a few times, since she’s been back. All is not lost.

Tonight, we are going to see and listen to a hot lesbian comedian called Stacey Jacks.

‘Who’s on first?’ I asked Nat.

I know about these things. You see, Natalie is an observer and astute predictor of an artist who is about to conquer the known universe. I figure if Ms Jacks, lesbian comedian extraordinaire is on first, I won’t have to listen to a plain old boring hetero comedian.

‘I don’t know who’s on first, Steele,’ Natalie said.

‘I just know Stacey’s on.’

Can you believe it? Can you believe it? Nat went to school with Stacey’s cousin who is now a vet. But that’s not why we are going to the show. We are going because Stacey’s a cutting-edge lesbian comedian.

‘Don’t make fun of what she is wearing, Steele. Comedians have to dress down. The lowest member of the audience has to be able to identify with her. The chicks wearing cocktail dresses understand it and do not feel embarrassed.’

Natalie was wearing her black hair long, reaching the back of a black sort of semi cocktail dress and she wasn’t embarrassed at all. I had on a pair of black jeans, only five years old, a white long-sleeved polo and a black jacket, so I had nothing to be embarrassed about. Apart from being there.

Stacey Jacks wasn’t on first but Robbie Booster was. He was about mid-twenties, above average height, thin with shoulder-length black hair, shinier than Nat’s. His face was kinda handsome, I guess, though it had craters and hills, monuments to a teenage acne battleground.

His routine was about drugs, alcohol and police and I would say he had passing to intimate relationships with all three.

It must have gone for 20 minutes which seems an awfully long time to be listening to any one person, the Pope, Dalai Lama, US President Clinton and Arnie Schwarzenegger included.

Maybe not Schwarzenegger. You might only get 20 words from him in that time, 25, if you count a grunt as half a word.

Robbie Booster finally said farewell but he promised or threatened to be back another night.

I went to the bar to buy Nat and me a wine each. I’m 28 this year and I’m getting smarter at this caper of intermission dialogue. I sat beside Natalie on a brown two-seater couch and asked what she thought of Robbie Booster before she could trap me with the same question.

‘He was pretty funny but political humour is so 1970s,’ she said.

‘Political humour?’ I asked.

‘All he talked about was getting pissed, stoned and picked up by the police.’

‘The subtext was pretty obvious, too obvious, to my mind,’ Natalie said in the condescending tone which educated while it reminded you someone had raided your brain and taken most of your I.Q.

‘We supposedly live in a free enterprise system but when you choose to use your free will in leisure pursuits, you risk sanction by the State.’

I was hip, babe.

‘Oh, you mean that subtext. Yes, of course, that was bleedin’ obvious; I thought you were talking about the other subtext.’

Natalie punched me on the shoulder but she did laugh and put her right arm in the crook of my left which had my palm resting on her thigh. Natalie sipped her white wine and I cuddled my glass of red. It was a pleasant wait for headliner Stacey Jacks.

Chapter 4

People were laughing. If you pay $19 at the door and fill yourself full of over-priced piss, laughter is more uplifting than tears.

Stacey Jacks received the biggest guffaws when she slyly took the piss out of the heteros and moved her palm across the top of her hair to let the queers and would-be queers in on the joke. Nat looked across at me and I smiled to say I got it. I don’t think I did.

I did a quick count to figure about 150 people in the room; some were in groups of up to 10. Most of the couples were same sex, men with men and women with women.

You could only presume couples such as Nat and me were hetero. I mean, a male and female gay couple – what’s that about?

Jacks neared the end of her first set when she produced this shtick – or maybe it was a stick, I don’t know – for the audience fetch a family tale. Her parents gave her a rag doll when she was a toddler. She grabbed her older brother’s toy gun, stuck him up with it and makes him eat the doll.

The punchline is, to this very day, when her brother’s hungry, he always says he could eat the crutch out of a rag doll. I don’t know. I guess you had to be there. I was, still didn’t get and laughed heartily, in case Natalie glanced across.

It was a Friday night and, while I laughed and clapped and whistled, I was trying to remember who was playing the rugby league game on television that night. Thinking about football was an accurate gauge of how out-or-sorts I was. I am not much interested in rugby league, especially when they have the bad taste to show it on the sacred night of rock music. I wonder if Natalie suspected low testosterone levels when she picked me for a boyfriend.

These thoughts are flying around my head while I am working hard on impressing Nat with my appreciation of alt comedy. That’s the problem with gay comedians – they make you think.

Jacks had enough nous to call a break when we punters came out of our fits of screaming, air punching, crying and thigh slapping with laughter.

I had to quell a surge of pride when Stacey Jacks headed straight to our table, casually waving in the general direction of other people who called her name. I silently berated myself for offending against my egalitarian disposition – chips on both shoulders for balance, Natalie calls it. Jacks made for Natalie, of course, and gave her a sisterly kiss on the cheek.

Nat introduced me and the comedian said hello in a sweet voice. As she did, she gave me a filthy look. At the time, the long-serving expression of filthy was evolving a dual life. Most of my punting mates knew it to mean disgusted while some of my rock music fellow travellers used it as a compliment. The look Stacey Jacks gave me was not complimentary.

No big deal. You don’t have to be gay to take an instant dislike to me. Ask Natalie’s parents who believe first impressions are spot on, at least in my case.

An icy look aside, Stacey – and I did call Ms Jacks Stacey – made a few punters jealous with her show of affection to half of our two-person table. As only my closest friends and well-chosen strangers know, I am the bastard son of John Lennon. I felt the old man taking the piss out of me from the grave because I had been fame-struck.

Buddha, John, I pleaded, again silently, she’s not very famous and she’s gay and she hates me.

I think that placated him.

Stacey dragged Natalie by the arm to the toilet. I watched them enter the cubicle as a voice spoke in my ear.

`Dykes have it easy,’ it said.

I turned to see comedian Robbie Booster in Natalie’s chair. He had brought a glass of yellowish liquid which might have been scotch and ginger ale, a popular drink, in those days, but not with me.

`Compared to who?’ I asked.

`It is `compared to whom’, you know. I have honours in English.’

I do not want to know anyone who immediately tells you he has honours in English.

‘Good for you. I have dishonours in meeting strangers,’ I said.

He wasn’t offended. Even gave an insincere laugh. It made me warm to him a little. Faking sincerity shows an effort.

`Where do you know Stacey from?’

`From a bar of soap,’ I said, still willing to be difficult.

His frown followed by an embarrassed titter told me he did not get it. Ah well, Robbie Booster would not be borrowing my material.

‘I’ve been busting my gut in pubs and clubs longer than Stacey has,’ he said.

‘Ah,’ I said, knowingly.

‘I’m not jealous,’ he said.

We both knew that was a lie but only one of us knew why he was sharing it with me. The one who knew wasn’t me.

‘I mean, I don’t do all that old sexist shit, the staple of the Aussie male comedian for most of the century,’ Booster said.

Staple, I thought. I bet he doesn’t share that word with the punters too often, especially when the blokes in the audience realise he is not referring to a Playboy centrefold.

‘You don’t say much, do you?’ Booster asked as if he too was sick of hearing his own voice.

`Strong silent type,’ I said.

‘I never refer to my service in the ‘Nam,’ I added.

‘You’re years too young for the Vietnam War,’ he said.

`That’s why I never talk about it.’

He laughed, loudly and sincerely, this time, and I decided he could be my new best friend for a couple of minutes.

`Where’s your fan club?’ I asked.

`I have a reputation for being difficult,’ he said.

After Robbie Booster and I introduced ourselves, I looked him over. Close-up, he could have been younger than the 25 I picked him for, earlier. He had no permanent frown marks and his pale skin was undamaged by sun. If it were not for the acne pock marks, he would have been a pretty boy. Even now, I would imagine some women and/or men found him unusually attractive.

‘How did you get the reputation for being difficult?’ I asked.

He shook his head slightly from side to side as if he might not answer.

‘I gave it to myself,’ he said, eventually.

‘Ah,’ I said, as if I understood, but actually to convey I did not want to hear any more on the subject.

He obliged by reverting to an earlier remark.

`My routine is deceptively simple but in reality it’s pretty out-there,’ he said.

If I was giving my own review, I would be as generous as he was. I would hope I was more charitable to the competition than Booster.

‘Stacey’s stuff appeals to the prejudices of a sub-group and people who feel guilty about their part in the oppression of that sub-group.’ he said.

I nodded knowingly, as I always do when someone speaks in the foreign language of Bullshit.

‘Stacey Jacks has an audience of gays, people who admire gay culture and people who detest gay bashing,’ I translated.

`I guess so,’ he conceded, coming out from the closet of English honours.

`The thing is, Robbie, you have a much larger potential audience than Stacey,’ I said.

`Maybe you are not as good as her. Maybe you haven’t been as lucky. I don’t know. What I do know is when you say dykes have it easy, you remind me of something else other people say.

`What white people on the dole, and rich white people, as well, say.’

Robbie Booster was listening intently even as I tried to control the tone in my voice so he didn’t know he was not going to like the rest of it.

‘They say Aboriginals have it easy,’ I said.

Robbie understood my comparison. He squirmed in his chair and his face took offence.

‘It was not a homophobic remark,’ he protested.

‘I was only talking about getting a break in this business.’

I could have parried his comeback, but life’s too short.

`Forget it,’ I said.

`I now bugger all about your business. Buddha, for all I know, your marketing strategy of being difficult might work a treat.

`Buddha knows, my life strategy of being easily led keeps me winding up ankle deep in blood.’

He tittered again and I reminded myself to stop speaking shit that only makes sense to me.

Chapter 5

I sipped from my glass of Gooroo’s bottled red which he bought at a price I would feel guilty for a month afterwards about paying.

‘Buddha, that’s a nice drop,’ I said.

‘Why do you keep saying Buddha all the time?’

‘I don’t know. I guess I picked it up from someone, a long time ago.

`It annoys me.’

‘You’ve never mentioned it before and I’ve been using it for the six years I’ve known you, Gooroo.

‘Why didn’t you mention it before?’

`Only stiffs point out the shortcomings of friends.’

‘Shortcomings, that’s a bit strong. Everyone uses ejections.’

‘Ejaculations, you mean ejaculations, Steele.’

‘Ejaculation? I thought that’s when you…’

‘Think about it, Steele.’

‘Oh, I get it: ejaculation, that’s funny.’

We both smiled at the two meanings of the word. Gooroo took a mouthful of beer and I had another sip of his expensive wine which made me seek conciliation.

‘If it bothers you, I will use something else. Any suggestions?’

‘It’s your ejaculation,’ the Gooroo said and smiled again.

I thought about it for a couple of minutes, enough time to finish my glass and pour myself another.

Gooroo had moved on.

‘It’s also called an interjection,’ the bookie said.

‘A bit like coitus interruptus,’ he added.

‘Ooo la la, I love it when you talk French.’

`Or even Latin,’ the bookie corrected.

`That too. Aren’t words sexy?’

I took a full mouthful of red.

‘Bother,’ I decided. ‘I like bother.’

‘We know that.’

‘No, instead of Buddha, I like bother.’

‘That’s not bad, Steele.

‘Bother, it has olde-world charm. Yeah, I rather like it,’ the Gooroo said.

‘You can’t have it.’

‘I didn’t say I was going to take it.’

Gooroo saw me frown as if I did not believe him.

He sulked a bit and I thought on.

‘Just one problemo,’ I decided.

‘I knew it. I knew it.’

‘Knew what, Gooroo?’

‘I knew I shouldn’t have agreed with you because now you are going to want other choices and we will be having this conversation for two hours.’

I reassured my illegal bookie mate.

‘It’s not that. It’s just, you know, when you put your car in an underground car park, the concrete roof is always low and, hanging along the roof are these big metal pipes – Buddha knows what’s in them. But when you hit your head on one of these pipes, I’m thinking `bother’ may not be the first word on your lips.’

‘Nothing like that has ever happened to me, Steele, but I could see your doing it.

`There’s ways around it,’ Gooroo said.

`Think about it: `bother’ and `Buddha’ are similar words. Both start with ‘b’ and have two syllables with the accent on the first syllable in each case.’

‘Right, Gooroo, but I don’t get it.’

`If you forget to say `bother’ and say `Buddha’ instead, remind yourself you said an inappropriate word. You will be saying ‘bother’ exclusively in no time.’

‘Excellent strategy, Gooroo.

`But should I say bother forcefully as I would with ‘Buddha’.

`Or should I go with a refined upper-crust Pommy accent for ‘bother’?’

‘No comment. Next topic, please.’

`You know, Gooroo, an interjection should be in the middle of a sentence.’


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