[Publisher’s Note: Pretty Boy and Delilah by G. P. Shera was first published in a collection of his short stories ‘Brizbin Boy – Canberra Girl’ by Metro Community Press in 1991. I thought readers might enjoy it, I did. – Ian Curr, Feb 2015].
“So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life.” (Judges 16, Verse 24)
The first night, Pretty Boy bird’s ancestrally rambling house in an industrial and dormitory city in southern Queensland Amanda Akhmatova, Pretty Boy “Birdie” Bird and Ned Kelly are sitting at the kitchen table drinking beer.
AMANDA: I’m going to bed now. I hope I’ll see you again before I go, Dan. (Amanda disappears into a bedroom leaving her boyfriend Jimmy “Pretty Boy” Bird and Ned to their beer.)
NED: Yer better tell her my name’s not Dan, Birdie. I don’t want her to get the wrong impression about me.
BIRDIE: Sure thing Handsome Dan. Sorry, Mr Kelly.
NED: Cut the histrionics will yer Birdie. Yer know she’s not a bad Sheila that one. Where’d you pick her up from, or more precisely where’d she pick you up from, Canberra?
BIRDIE: Yep, Canberra; Yarralumla, more precisely; gliding through the wine dark and plum blossomed suburbs of Yarralumla like a superb blue and red mountain parrot.
NED: Lost none of the verbiage down there either ay?
BIRDIE: No Ned no, anyway it was like that anyway.
NED: And what do you call her again, that long name?
BIRDIE: Amanda Akhmatova.
NED: That’s Russian in’t it?
BIRDIE: About as Russian as Dr. Zhivago, of course like Dr. Zhivago it’s a made-up name, her real name’s Amanda Bourke. She looks like one of those gorgeous Russian ballet dancers don’t you reckon? I call her Amanda Akhmatova after a Russian poet who Alec Hope’s been writing about; Akhmatova was a poet under Stalin, she….
NED: What happened to that other bird who came up here with you from Canberra?
BIRDIE: Well, for a start Ned she wasn’t a bird, and you should know that by now.
NED: Sorry comrade, I’m a bit pissed, aren’t you…
BIRDIE: Yeah, well, Natasha, she joined Fraser’s Public Service, bought out a mortgage on an over-priced piece of dirt and she’s probably hung herself by now.
BIRDIE: No it’s fair dinkum mate. A girl hasn’t finished adolescence in Canberra unless she’s done a few weeks in the Mental Ward of the Hospital there. I was going to say she joined Fraser’s public service and became a bourgeois money-grubbing arse-hole, but no I guess Natasha could never be like that, she’s a good old Sheila Natasha …
NED: Well on that note Birdie I better roll along old mate sounds as if you might have to look after that new Sheila of yours, fix her up and all that. Yer know Birdie it’s only the second time I’ve seen yer with a woman, yer big tart!
NED: Ow, sorry Birdie, now remember to say goodnight to Amanda, Amanda, now what’s her name Birdie?”
NED: No need to get stroppy! Anyway good night buhhd., look after yourself, o.k.?
BIRDIE: Righteo Ned, I mean Handsome Dan. Thanks old cob see you round. Guten abends, o.k. mein Freund?
The Second Day
A street in birdie’s hometown. Birdie is talking to Pete who is working with a gang of navvies who are planting trees in a little park beside the road under a railway line.
BIRDIE: Pete, I’ve been thinking about you all day, wondering when I’d get to see you this time up; and there you are, like an apparition! How yer goin’?
PETE: Good. Real good. How’s yourself? Still down m Canberra I presume.
BIRDIE: Nah, I’m not, I’ve washed me hands of the lot of them. She’s a bourgeois town and the bourgeoisie don’t want to pay me for bein’ there. Tho there’s a bit of a conundrum there, because it’s not really a bourgeois town, it’s really a middle-class town of wage-slaves, alienated to hell, involved in some sort of glass-bead game of employment in the “public service” where the public that seems to be most served is itself.
PETE: So yer up here for good and Canberra’s a bourgeois town yer reckon.
BIRDIE: Yep it needs about a hundred Attila the Huns to run through the joint, though maybe four or five Lorenzo the Magnificents were interested, indeed invested in its colonies, like out here for instance. It’s a bit of an ivory tower down there, really. Though in some ways it’s quite nice, beautiful in fact, like the byke-tracks for example, they’re not bad, though they’re not great. (Birdie then laughs softly) I see you haven’t left the Council ay Pete? Couldn’t leave the socialist heartland ay? Even if it is on a desert island amid a pool of sharks in the most and least socialist, least educated, most repressive, most dictatorial, most screwed-up state in the country.
PETE: Yeah, but I’ll let you in on a secret, work here on the Little Leningrad City Council isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And how about you Birdie? You still writing those poems?
BIRDIE: Yeah, occasionally. Though I’ve slowed up a fair bit. I only write one about every six months now. The last one got me a free feed and a booze-up at the A.N.U. Staff Centre, but then they knocked my latest one on the head, but, listen Pete, I don’t want to keep you from your work, I’m having a bit of a grog-up round at my place tonight, why don’t you come over for a yarn?
PETE: Yeah, sure, but it’s smoko time here now, tell us about this latest poem.
BIRDIE: Well it was a pretty good one, good ideas, good beat, though maybe it needed a bit of editorial. But that’s one of the problems here in Oz there’s hardly any real editors in this country, at least an editor who hasn’t got 800 manuscripts to look out, or a market to suck up to. But this poem of mine, which I like, I think it had something to do with Xavier Herbert, you know the bloke who wrote Capricornia, yeah, well it went:
I'm not a three ring circus but I have a circus cat
I give it fish'n chips each day and it chases circus rats
Da-d-da; d-da-d-da, d-da d-da d-dum,
D-da d-da, d-da d-da, d-da d-da d-dum.
And my vigneron's Italian, so I'm an Italian man;
Cheerio, cheerio for good wines and jam.
PETE: So that’s it?
BIRDIE: Yeah, well the jist of it.
PETE: And why wasn’t it published?
(An F1-11 jet passes loudly and low overhead, looking for a park in the nearby air-base. Birdie waits patiently till it disappears behind the town’s water reservoir before he replies.)
BIRDIE: Well I think the barstids didn’t publish it because they failed to invite the Italian wine and grappa makers from Griffith to the booze-up. No, that’s cruel, it probably wasn’t word perfect and needed editing. Would’a been good to go to the gig though. It’s become something of a trade do where the poets and the wine-makers hit the A.N.U. for a grog-on and a nosh-up. A good idea really. I got a guernsey there a few years back but they dropped me last year when I gave ’em this poem that joked about people’s names, mainly my girlfriends’, and compared velvety soft French wine to less favourable, harsher Australian stuff. One of my word-plays was about “Melinaevitch”, which, according to my copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, means son of Melina; mind you I’ve only read the first story in Cancer Ward but it was bloody good; uplifting, about indomitable humanity.
PETE: Yeah, I don’t mind the odd drop of Russian Literature myself.
BIRDIE: Anyway, back to my poem; my Melinaevitch hilarity was partly based on the appearance in Canberra of Melina Mercouri, the Greek Minister for Science and Culture, who came to Australia almost simultaneous to Bob’s election as P.M. She was the star in the film Never On Sunday that won a Grand Prix or a Grand Palm or whatever it is at the Cannes Film Festival and now she, Ms Mercouri, as the appropriate Minister in Papendraeo’s Greek Socialist Government wants the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles to the Parthenon where they were pinched by Elgin.
(As Birdie speaks of the Parthenon a long goods train rattles over the concrete railway bridge above them. It carries big, complex, cylindrical wagons like giant soft-drink cans labelled GRAIN, black on silver. The train also carries rectangular cattle wagons and great bin after great bin of the blackest of black coal.)
PETE: Hold on a tick Birdie. I better take a seat on the mower for this story.
BIRDIE : Anyway Ms Mercouri wanted the frieze, the Elgin Marbles, allegedly stolen by the English Lord Elgin, returned to the Parthenon, and I joked about her and the velvety nature of French wine in this poem as well as how I hate to drink wine from casks, and sure enough, come the gig, The Poets’ Lunch where I didn’t score a seat, all the so-called poets were prattling on about casks of wine they’d chatted up, and, to add insult to injury on that day I was then a poor student who didn’t even have enough money for a pauper’s lunch! AND some uncivilized prick didn’t even inform’ me of my poem’s lack of success at providing me with my lunch on that day either!
PETE: So you’ve had a bit of bad luck old mate?
BIRDIE : More bad management than bad luck. They couldn’t organize a chook raffle on a leagues club fight night down there mate! The year before I’d turned it on for them while half the other fop poets were overseas wishing they were Tennyson. And the next year they don’t even write to me! Bad management all right mate! Even the University’s publishing house went broke, can you believe that?
PETE : Listen Birdie, sorry to cut you short, what’s on tonight again?
BIRDIE: Well, nothing special planned, but I’ve got a girlfriend up here with me.
PETE: Fair dinkum? That’s great mate. Oah, listen, I just remembered, come round to Kev’s place tonight instead of having the grog-up at your place; he’s having a few people round before we leave on our next trip. You and your new girlfriend should come along to that.
BIRDIE : Where are you off to this time? There can’t be many rivers left in Oz. What have you done now, the Darling, the Mitchell , the Clarence?
PETE: We’re gunna paddle across Torres Strait, Townsville to Port Moresby.
BIRDIE : Fair dinkum?
PETE: (Seriously) Yep.
* * *
THE SECOND NIGHT, KEV’S PLACE, THE PARTY .THE LOUNGE ROOM:
KEV: Whad-a ya think of the power strike?
BIRDIE: Not bad; it’s pretty dark. When’s the power come on again?
KEV: A coupla hours.
BIRDIE: I don’t mind black-outs really, that is power black-outs· not black-outs from lack of oxygen and so on.
KEV: I don’t mind the strike either. I mean it’s not a 24 hour constant black-out, is it?
NED: Petersen’s O.K. I mean he doesn’t pull any punches and that’s all
PETE: Come of the grass Ned! Where have you been, out in Woop Woop? The guys a bloody small-bore fascist! Look for the twenty or thirty or forty years that that barstid’s been in power the people in this town for example haven’t had a say in who runs the place! And the gerrymander ‘s just the start of it mate! I mean you’ve got to allow people in a so-called democratic system a chance to be democratic otherwise they just crack up, and they get ground under! I mean you’ve got to give the majority of the people a chance to vote in the people they want to so-called govern them at least some of the time!
Now take the case of those power -workers who are striking at present, how long has it been since the people they’re allowed to elect to represent them, and their district, how long has it been since any of those people from the urban majority of this state, how long’s it been since they had fair representation in Parliament? I mean the story is that because of the gerrymander and that barstid Petersen those blokes haven’t got any legitimate representation in Parliament, because like us they’re urban people, so how can they express any sense of political power apart from through the withdrawal of their labour?”
PETE: But nothin’ Ned, you’re sympathizing with a fascist and you’re not worth talking to, why don’t you turn the record over? I mean.
THE KITCHEN, LATER.
BIRDIE: Ned tells me you’ve been standing up for democracy and the Australian way of life in the face of Realpolitik, Pete?
PETE: Yeah, where is he? I better apologize to him for losin’ my temper.
BIRDIE: Ah, no he’s o.k. I think he was just trying to argue about seductivity versus the abominability of political actions versus political ideology.
PETE: Bullshit Birdie. Oah, no sorry mate, I mean the bottom line is the, how did you put it “the illegitimacy of the Premier.”
BIRDIE: The Bible Bashing Barstid with the Pride of Beelzebub! Jeez, it’s a while since I’ve seen you barstids, what’s this music playing?
KEV: (who has joined in to re-charge the beers) Cyndi Lauper, Bop-she-bop!
* * *
LATER THE SECOND NIGHT, BIRDIE’S BIG OLD RAMBLING HOUSE, BIRDIE AND AMANDA ARE ALONE.
AMANDA: But what do you really think? I mean you and your mates must talk
about something apart from coal mines. What do they think of me
BIRDIE: Well, they like you.
( Birdie is distracted as the air-conditioner noise from the hospital next door shuts down for the night with a final shuddering expiration.)
AMANDA: But what do they say? What do they think?
BIRDIE: Well they like to see me with a girlfriend, and they like you.
AMANDA: But what do they think? What do they really think, of me?
BIRDIE: Well, they’d think you had a pretty good sense of humour, and that you were a pretty smart, nice, friendly sort of person. They might think you were a bit rarefied, coming from Canberra and all. They’d reckon you might be worth a couple of bob, “good for a few bob” they’d say, and they’d like your smile and your good looks; they’d wonder if you could cook, and what you drank, and if you liked the bush, and wonder if you were a kind old thing or not.
AMANDA: Yes, I see. And why is it they’ve got so many nick- names for each other? And why do they call you Pretty Boy???
BIRDIE: I dunno Delilah. I just dunno.
AMANDA: Jeez you’re a liar! You really are, aren’t you?
BIRDIE: I have never told a lie in my life, and that’s the truth. Funny that, people don’t believe you when all you really ever do in the world is tell the truth.
AMANDA: (Laughing) Feel my muscles! Go on, feel my muscles, go on, feel them! (She waits till Birdie feels her biceps then with a big smile says to him) Hard, aren’t they?
BIRDIE: Mmmmm, yes, very hard, very hard indeed Amandavitch!
* * *
LATER STILL ON THE SECOND NIGHT, BIRDIE AND AMANDA ARE ALONE IN BIRDIE’S HOUSE.
AMANDA: Tell me another story about you and “Handsome Dan.”
BIRDIE: Well for a start his real name’s not Handsome Dan, it’s Ned.
AMANDA: Don’t you fellahs ever call anyone by their real name? I hope he didn’t mind me calling him Dan all night!
BIRDIE: No, he wouldn’t have minded you calling him anything; you could call him bangers and mash and he wouldn’t have minded. In fact you could say that Ned loves womankind to his own detriment, no matter what any one of their number might ever call him. So you want a story about Ned ay? There’s one story about Ned and myself going over Cunningham’s Gap in a motor car, asking each other when the car had crashed to the bottom of the ravine whether the other was still alive, but I’ll tell you a better story, no a sort of moral tale maybe, about racism I suppose, and retribution, and insult, and violence I suppose.
AMANDA: But it’s gotta have Handsome Dan in it.
BIRDIE: Yep, he’s in it all right is big bad Dan.
AMANDA: Right, story beginning in approximately a second and a half, ready, set, go!
BIRDIE: Well, once upon a time in the late nineteen-sixties Ned and I were the greatest of mates. We even went out to his Uncle’s sheep and cattle property out west, out Longreach way, pulling dying sheep out of the mud of the dried-up dams in the terrible drought of what must have been about 1968, or ’69 or ’70. We even got lost out in the mulga out there then, out in the back of bloody beyond. And as well as that we used to play a fair bit of football together then, and even go up to the Police Boys Club to do a bit of sparring together.
BIRDIE: Yeah, you know boxing, Johnny Famechon and Lionel Rose and all that jazz.
AMANDA: 0h yuk, not boxing!
BIRDIE: Yep it was great, we’d even give exhibition bouts before school of a morning, till the bell rang for the start of school and morning prayers. A few of us were hoping that maybe we’d become big-time professional footballers and get a contract to go down and play rugby league for South Sydney.
AMANDA: Oh, so Sparta lives?
BIRDIE: Yeah, but the trouble was that with all our attention on sports our marks started to slip, and, as you would have noticed, Ned’s a pretty bright sort of bloke, in fact when he came over from the convent he used to top the class, but in the last couple of grades his marks, as well as mine, started to slip. I don’t know why it was with him, maybe· he was too interested in the girls across the road, maybe it was the responsibility of being the oldest boy of ten children, maybe it was because he lived too far away from school, or that at home there just weren’t any books, or maybe it was that at that time the devil had just got into him, but at that time Ned and school just didn’t get on. And of course school and I just didn’t get on at that time either.
AMANDA: Oah come on Birdie, GET ON WITH IT!
BIRDIE: Well at about this time one of his old mates from his convent school days started slinging off at him, deriding him; maybe because he was jealous, or because of his former friend’s fall in marks which used to be so good, or maybe he was just being over-exuberant about his own successes within the regime of education at that time, anyway this bloke, Tony Winter, started deriding his former comrade and intellectual peer in the cheapest, worst and most smart-arsed manner. It was terribly childish of him really but his continual carping turned into a truly evil and odious denigration of our good man Handsome Dan. Meanwhile the United States’ War in Vietnam was raging, Buddhist priests were burning themselves in the streets and the yanks were just about to put a man on the moon, and Ned (Handsome Dan) and I were belting the Christ out of each other down at the Police Boys Club, and, of course, attending Latin, German, Physics and Chemistry classes with Tony Winter.
Also at that time Ned was getting involved in a few fights which were a little less Marquis de Q.; down at the railway station, in the subway, near the picture theatre and out on the footy field, anywhere and everywhere. I remember once he broke his hand belting his brother one in the chops, but that was his last fight from memory. And some of the blokes he used to fight might have gone on to become professionals too, if they got off the street, and included the odd aboriginal lad. Of course you must remember this was all in the time of Lionel Rose and Cassius Clay who changed his name to Mohammad Ali and, having refused to be conscripted into the U.S. Army (“I got no argument with those people”), wrote:
“I’d rather be in a jail watchin’ T.V. fed
Than in Vietnam dead.”
Anyway, at some stage in the proceedings in our final years at school, Ned and I were working out up in the Ring and we reached a conclusion regarding the moral invalidity of this former mate of Ned’s. Ned and I both agreed we were sick of Winter calling Ned “the black man”, or of him saying “been out with the niggers lately Ned?” or when we’d be talking about the football game at training him saying “not bad for a coon”. All remarks which were meant to put down aboriginal people and indeed anyone with dark skin, all remarks which were so inane and insulting and repetitiously boring that we agreed deserved some sort of truculent response.
So Ned and I made a pact between ourselves and a third right-on guy called Stevie Hammer that the next time Tony Winter uttered a racist remark toward Ned, that Ned should have the full and unmitigated right to blue poor old Tony, no, to hammer stupid, ugly, pig-spittle childish Tony Winter.
Ned’s a dark fellow as you know, though if you met his parents you wouldn’t believe the touch of Malay he seems to have in him; but you could never describe him as being a black man, or, more precisely, as having black skin. In fact to call people “blacks” is to speak in a pretty racist manner I reckon, I mean, for example I’ve got a Chinese girlfriend, Li Ling Qua, I mean she’s not “a yellow” is she? No, as you see the tears in my eyes now, no! She’s a person!
Not a bloody colour!
Anyway, by Winter calling Ned a “black bastard” (or whatever he’d constantly refer to Ned as, in a great array of semantically similar innuendoistic and deprecatory forms), he’d heap onto Ned a great
load of unwarranted prejudices, hatreds and generalisations onto what in the beginning is an error in fact anyway (Ned is tan rather than black). It’s an evil thing, racism.
But, anyway, back to my story, as sure as night follows day, one little lunch break, not long after our pact had been settled, Tony Winter greased a remark across a group of about twelve other students “How’s the black fellah today?” or was it “Anyone seen the coon, I mean Ned; oh there you are!” or some other such rubbish.
Anyway, as sure as night follows day Ned said angrily, “Put up or shut up, bood!” and then hit him in the mouth.
Tony Winter was understandably quite shocked by this response from his over-tolerant and long-suffering mate.
In fact within about four seconds Ned had broken Tony’s nose, about two years of false friendship and perhaps a lifetime of pathetically racist jibings. He was a bloody good boxer, Ned. After those four seconds blood streamed from Tony Winter’s nose all over the teacher’s podium while the teacher was due to resume classes any moment. I can still see Ned’s poor old nemesis holding his broken head bleeding all over the podium. But, sure enough, that was the last time that Winter joked at Ned over the colour of his skin, and I hope it was the last time that such distasteful and inaccurate and stupid remarks were foisted towards Ned on account of his looks.
AMANDA: (A little shocked by the story, changes the air a little after an awkward moment or two.) But why do you call Ned “Handsome Dan”, now isn’t that similar to Tony’s jibe?
BIRDIE: Oh no, that’s another story Amanda Akmatova, another story.
* * *
LATER STILL AT BIRDIE’S, AMANDA AND BIRDIE.
AMANDA: Birdie, what’s that word you use all the time, that rhymes with could, b …
AMANDA: Yes, that’s it! What does it mean?
BIRDIE: Well I think it sort of means brother or other human being. I think it’s an aboriginal word that’s been sort of corrupted and hidden lately by the use of the word bud, which as you know is common in American English. I think “buhhd.,” belongs to an aboriginal sub-conscious or agenda and “bud” to an American sub-conscious and agenda/style. I think “buhhd.,” places human beings a bit closer to each other, it’s closer to the chest etc, whereas “bud” is a bit more abstract as to the survival of that other member of humanity, a bit further away, spat out.
AMANDA: And what’s a badoolah?
BIRDIE: Well a badoolah is a loud sort of a wag, the sort of bloke who wears a bright red or iridescent royal blue shirt as he dances on the bonnet of his F.J. Peter Allen could be regarded as a badoolah. And you could say that Ned acts the badoolah sometimes.
AMANDA: Jimmy, Birdie, Pretty Boy darling thing! Feel the muscles in my arm, go on feel them! Oah; go on Jimmy, Jersey, Georgy, darling lamb. (Birdie squeezes her arm.)
AMANDA: Do you still love me, heaps?
BIRDIE: Heaps and heaps, till all the seas gang dry my little picaninny.
* * *
Other Stories in BRIZBIN BOY – CANBERRA GIRL.
GERALD JOWL SEES A PENNY
In which Gerald Jowl has a jar of red with his lumpen prolt;ta1 L111 t 111111 .1d n
and sees a penny.
SPRING AT YARRALUMLA
In which Gerald Jowl leaves the house of his vagabond compadres to visit the
Department of Social Security in the City of Canberra. He is upset, sad and
hungry with poverty. He is entertained by a pair of balletically costumed punks
and the light on the spine of a rain-wet and yellow labrador dog. On his return to
the house he learns that his friend, Palasha, has called in to see him.
In which a Department of Social Security man comes to visit the house. of
Gerald Jowl and his mates in Yarralumla.
In which it is both 1979-and 1980 and wherein Gerald Jowl finds himself in the
great Queensland city of Ipswich recalling his mates in Yarralumla and his fear
of television sets.
THE BALDWIN DOCTOR
In which Gerald Jowl buys some fish and chips and detects a strangely battered
message in the form of one of the pieces of fish and wherein which story Gerald
learns of the Baldwin Bashing. · .
In which Gerald “Georgy” Jowl has morning tea with a diplomat’s daughter on
the first morning of Spring”and also remembers his friend Chastity from the night before, the last night of Winter at the A.N.U. Bat.
In which Georgy remembers his· childhood in Ipswich as well as some other
moments in his history including his dialogues with truck drivers and his
adventures with an ensemble of pop musicians.
THE YANKS WERE INCREDIBLE .
In which the professional student “Georgy” Jowl is told an account of the
Vietnam War. ·
PRETIY BOY AND DELILAH
In which Pretty Boy Bird, alias Gerald “Georgy” fowl, introduces a girlfriend of
his from Canberra to some of his mates from Ipswich.
In which the romantic tale of Palasha Nijinsky and Georgy Jowl on the
Kosciusko High Plain and in Canberra· Town is told, including the sad story of
the demise of Jimmy Velasquez.
In which a well humoured, thoughtful, intelligent and wistful student is
remembered by an old and gracious academic.