not often that anyone at a loose end gets the chance to while away the
time by pursuing a miscreant in the shadows, but that that’s exactly what
Sleepy Jack Hanrahan accomplished one night forty years ago. We were
reminiscing over a tableful recently and when I happened to comment how
tediously some evenings seem to drag these days, he reminded me of the
events in question.
in his time, Jack has been notorious for fancying himself
as many things apart from a celebrated teller of tales —
washboard player extraordinary, NSW omelette gargling
champion, to list but two — but I’d forgotten our
linguist’s steadfast yearning for after-dark bloodhounding.
you, now that I’ve heard the story again, I find myself even more
convinced that his natural curiosity was made worse on this occasion in
1960 by boredom brought on by a dearth of his very lifeblood: conviviality
in abundance and, even more indispensable, a captive audience.
get that salt-shaker ready, as he relates his evening adventure.
and I, Roy, were flatting at Elizabeth Bay at the time, with Tom Day — to
say nothing of the other casual inhabitants who drifted in and out at
random, some with keys, like Bob Norman, and others who had to knock, like
remember, the unit was in Onslow Avenue, opposite the Arthur McElhone
Reserve, a little park that looms large in my memory for the simple
law-and-order reason that I was a bystander to two assaults there.
occurred the afternoon when Sam and I were fired upon there by a brainless
thirteen-year-old with an air rifle, the pellets peppering Sam’s packet of
Rothmans which he’d placed beside where we were sitting. The fags were
ruined, as was the air rifle, Sam having pursued the boy over the
ornamental bridge and furiously yet cheerfully smashed the weapon against
the stone wall. The boy’s mother wasted no time in laying charges against
Sam for destruction of property, but finally allowed him to settle out of
court to forestall the airing in the public domain of her son’s
ill-advised shooting spree.
other attack took place on a Tuesday night when I had the apartment to
myself. You were visiting your parents, and Tom as usual was playing silly
buggers at the University Regiment. Abnormally, there were no itinerant
8.30 the disc had just reached Ave Formosissima (Blanziflor et Helena),
which leads into the reprise of O Fortuna that concludes Carmina
Burana, when I became aware of an altercation in the area outside the
garages of our building. To the triple-forte accompaniment of Carl
Orff I peered down surreptitiously from the window, and a brief inspection
revealed immediately that the dramatis personae were, from stage
left to right, a taxi driver and his passenger, the latter well the worse
Chinese taxi driver was doing his resolute best to persuade his fare to
cough up an appropriate sum, but the other was equally adamant in his
reluctance to acknowledge the fairness of the arrangement proposed.
Indeed, even as they were disputing the case, he was preparing to vacate
the locality as rapidly as his erratic legs would carry him. Down the
slope of the driveway he swayed, and though he was in no fit state to
appreciate the physics of gradients, this initial part of his journey
highlighted the sort of respectable speed he might yet be capable of on
future downhill stretches.
surveyed the arena, the taxi driver ducked into his cab to report the
situation over the two-way radio. Then, retrieving his money-bag, he
locked up his vehicle and set off in pursuit of his intoxicated adversary.
part, I’d decided to cast my own fate to the winds in order to observe
from closer quarters how things panned out and, never being one to shirk
my community duty, perhaps to lend unobtrusive assistance, should
propitious circumstances permit.
veins seemed full of quicksilver as I turned off the record player, donned
my shoes and grabbed my key, yet by the time I hit the street both
absconder and pursuer had vanished from view. But not from earshot. For,
while I stood there at the bottom of the driveway scanning the immediate
vicinity, there came from my left the repeated cry, “He has stolen my
was little doubt that the protagonists had gone round to the back of the
reserve, into Billyard Avenue. I, of course, knowing my way around the
district, had only to traverse the aforementioned ornamental bridge to
catch them up, which I now proceeded to do, except that my innate sleuth’s
discretion dictated that I need not rush things.
crossing the bridge and about to step down into Billyard Avenue when the
taxi driver’s hitherto repetitive shout suddenly acquired a new message:
Help! He has stolen m . . . Aargh! Aaaargh! . . . he has broken my arm
with his bottle! Aargh! Help!”
assault put a much different complexion on things. I’d have to be more
than circumspect now: a civic attitude, however laudable, in no way
night-beat procession we made along Billyard Avenue. All that was missing
was that march bit at the end of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Yet, although we were destined to an overall forward motion, no one could
have called it very swift progress at all. Our total journey would be only
about 700 metres, but it took us over half an hour.
reason being, certainly, that every few steps the individual en état
d’ébriété would pause to gaze lovingly at the bottle he was carrying
and then involuntarily danced left or right a bit before staggering
forwards. A few cautious paces behind him followed his wounded Oriental
nemesis, still intermittently crying out his grievance to what was
increasingly looking like an utterly apathetic neighbourhood.
diplomatic dozen metres further back — yours truly.
could hardly be portrayed as a runaway in the literal sense of the word,
our erstwhile taxi passenger. Yet what he lacked in steady strides he
surely made up for in stubbornness — a trait that showed every sign of
prevailing. Once he’d got a whiff of his domination of the situation, it
seemed, only a state of unconsciousness would stop him.
staying power! Totter and sway he might, reel and lurch he did, but onward
ever onward he proceeded, toward some secret destination that he himself
had perhaps only the vaguest awareness of.
where were the police? So far they had failed to find their fugitive —
assuming always that they had been informed and were searching at all.
meantime, the principal players in this night-time drama — one wobbly
malefactor, one wronged coachman, and one public-spirited citizen — had
arrived at the end of Billyard Avenue and had begun to make their
conscientious way right into Ithaca Road. Careful not to approach too
closely, for fear of further injury, the taxi man maintained a wary
distance, but never left off his pursuit, despite his obvious pain.
part, I was beginning to have third thoughts. All the available evidence
pointed unerringly to the fact that there wasn’t going to be an arrest
featuring vital key witnesses, so what was the point of my involvement?
anyway, neither of the other two was even aware of my presence. This, of
course, had been my deliberate policy from the very start of this outing,
but now, in the absence of any encouragement whatever from them my
position was fast becoming untenable. I was just contemplating the
unthinkable — retiring from the scene — when I realised that the leader of
our gloomy parade, notwithstanding his insecure steps, was about to attain
the busy corner of Elizabeth Bay Road.
clear to me that if he turned right he was going to end up in Kings Cross.
Two considerations, however, stood in the way of such a deviation
first was the bright illumination of that Garden of Earthly Delights,
which even the befogged brain in question would have surely wanted to
avoid. The second was the pure effort of struggling uphill against that
Newtonian force by which all bodies tend to be attracted towards the
centre of the earth.
left would be the obvious way to go, and taking several deep breaths I
resolved to continue if he made that choice, otherwise to pack it in.
at the corner, he struggled for what seemed ages with his momentous
decision, and then turned left.
driver and I slowed our pace even more, so that when I reached the
intersection, our two leading men were stumbling along not very far ahead
got to say it. Their perseverance was exemplary, the one driven by a
compelling need for justice, the other — well, who knew what demons, apart
from a passionate desire to escape apprehension, empowered his shaky
the downward slope of Elizabeth Bay Road, our progress remained
exasperatingly unhurried, dependent as it still was on the
ever-diminishing capacities of the felon. Events began to overtake us
sooner had we arrived in Elizabeth Bay Crescent, at the bottom of E. B.
Road, and our intoxicated desperado had begun to grasp the unwelcome fact
that it was a cul-de-sac, than a stream of taxis began to pour into
the area, twenty of them, I’d say, followed closely by a police car, a
Black Maria and an ambulance.
anyone knew an ambulance would be needed, Roy, I’m unable to say. Perhaps
it’s a normal precautionary measure in cases of taxi fare theft, more
likely we owed it to some faceless stay-indoors flat-dweller who phoned in
about the assault.)
ambulance men had some difficulty persuading the injured diver to
accompany them to the hospital (he wanted to be sure he got his money),
but before long they succeeded in their endeavour, and he was whisked away
to X-ray and the plaster room.
meantime, the villain of the piece had made a stumbling bid to enter one
of the private driveways and vanish. No such luck, mate. Into custody he
police van drove off, I approached the sergeant and identified my status
in the scheme of things.
what you’d describe as hanging on my every syllable, he kept looking over
my shoulder. Having hastily checked the direction of his gaze and found
nothing special of interest, I was able to form the strong opinion that
his thoughts were elsewhere. Indeed, his general demeanour was that of one
who rather have been out chasing youthful car thieves at great speed
through Granville or harassing back-lane harlots wherever he could find
I pressed on and told him my tale. He took my name and address, saying, “I
don’t think your statement will be needed, sir. Thank you anyway.”
Even I — with modesty, tolerance and patience to spare — have my limits,
Roy. There was I, flushed with the success of what I consider to be my
finest hour in a life’s unremitting dedication to Truth, Justice and the
Australian Way, and there was that indifferent sergeant, absolutely
unmoved by my civic-mindedness, snapping shut his notebook, obviously with
the cast-iron intention of being far away as soon as ever he could.
to say, what was the world coming to?
bit ripe, isn’t it, when a law-conscious but self-effacing citizen offers
to give compelling evidence about a robbery and an assault, and all the
local constabulary can do is ignore him and start scratching around for
heftier beef to boil.
at a loss for words (gobstruck, more like it), I gazed upon his impassive
features for a moment or two, hoping, I suppose, for some encouraging sign
of belated interest in my news.
being forthcoming, I departed his presence and started to wander aimlessly
around observing the camaraderie of the taxi drivers, ruminating “I could
have been part of this”. Life can sure dish out its bitter pills, can’t
lonely desperation I went up to a couple of Red Deluxers, who were leaning
against a cab, no doubt swapping old assault stories or talking football.
the whole thing.”
bored response, uttered without either man looking at me, I might add.
settled it. Frustrated and perplexed, I set off from that foul place of
unconcern to plod my weary way homeward, resolving to leave civic duty to
others in future. Far preferable, I realised, would be to devote my
shattered ego to prolonged meditation on the more readily solvable of
life’s mysteries — the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask, for instance.
Or Jack the Ripper’s.