The Fear of Revenge and the Great Flood of 1959
When I was just knee high to a grasshopper, I lived in a 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. I don't know how the Western Australian Beach got its name, but Coogee in the local (Sydney) Aboriginal dialect means "big stink". When the white man arrived in the 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 the water lay motionless under the hot Sydney summer sun, the body of would produce a very pungent odour -- you know, seaweed, a few dead fish, crabs, blue bottles and octopusi -- and hence the smell, and the name.
By the time we lived there, the marshland had been drained and turned into Coogee Oval, home ground to the mighty greens, the undefeatable Randwick Rugby Union football team. The sports ground however, remained the lowest point in the suburb, slightly below sea level. It is bounded by Brook, Arden, Dolphin and Afreda Streets.
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 didn't quite work out for me with him in those days. Paul was of one of the various Christian religions which dominated our school and our area; so how was she Jewish, or alternatively how could she be his grandmother? I didn't understand intermarriage or real world concepts like that in those days -- these were alien to our thinking. But old Mrs Feldhouse's Jewish son had "married out". Already Paul's father had no halachic or I image, any Jewish connection (other than his Jewish grandmother who remained publicly 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 very heavy. It was like the skies had opened and with all their wrath, were pouring out whatever they had stored up there. Lightning and thunder -- abrupt, discontinuous, atmospheric electric discharges, spectactularly 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 accross 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 like a mighty river. If you ventured outside, the rain soaked though to your bones. Obviously a day to stay in bed. Ah, but then you don't 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 don't 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 guess they also had European parents.) Our teacher decided to let us go home at lunchtime because the weather was clearing and it was now safe in 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.
Coogee Oval, being the lowest point, bore the brunt of the flood. The oval turned into an enormous lake, with only two goal posts and the roof of the grandstand poking through the water. Alfreda Street was fully submerged. Due to the geography, the entrance to the houses are about fifteen steps above street level, so the house themselves were not at all badly flooded, but the only way out of the Feldhouse residence and their neighbours was by rowboat. I remember going down to the see the site after school. It's a pity 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 in 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 twelve years of school in the company of boys only) towards the boys' school building, bound by a long bench. Our entire school comprised four classes, grades three to six, a total less than 150 boys. Once a week, all the students and staff would get together (if it wasn't 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 didn't suffer as much as we did. Peter wasn't feeling great to begin with, and as Mr Quinlan took his time telling us whatever a headmaster thought was important to impart to his 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 didn't just excuse yourself if you felt unwell -- you just held it in and prayed for survival. But head teachers march to their own beat. I'm sure what he was telling us was 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'm 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 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 rideto Coogee in the peak hour. When would Feldhouse make his move? Peter's bus stop was approaching and Feldhouse still hadn't made a move. Peter's stop came, but he made no move -- Feldhouse got up and left. Not surprising as he only lived a block away from Peter. "Phew -- he didn't notice me." Peter alighted the bus a stop further down the line -- the last stop on the 373's route to Coogee. He left behind a large pool of sweat on the seat.
Twenty years after the end of high school, Peter's form organised a reunion. (I've hoped for something like this for our year at Randwick -- if it's 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 can't go on forever, all the way to the grave -- I'm 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 haven't 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 wasn't feeling to well, and I vomited all over your back. I really couldn't control myself -- I was feeling feint all morning, and the hot sun, well . . . .
Really -- I don't know what you're talking about.
* 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 Plattís 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 Normanís brother, Lionel Lindsay, wrote and illustrated The Adventures of Chunder Loo for Blyth and Platt in 1916. The characterís name became a nickname in World War One (sometimes abbreviated to Chunder), which is where the idea of a military link may have originated. Itís suggested that the term is rhyming slang (Chunder Loo = spew) and that it was first taken up as public school slang.
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