(NOTE: My brother Chris, eight years younger than me, has written elsewhere (I'll post it later) of our days on the farm at Goolmangar. In his account he remarks that it was always I who decorated the Christmas tree. Now read on…)
My good mate Garry Scale is an actor. As such, he travels a lot, staying in "digs" or with friends. On one occasion he stayed in Brisbane with fellow actor Rainie Skinner. Rainie tells the story, to illustrate what a wonderful house guest he is, that returning home after picking up Tim, her eight-year-old son, from school, she found Garry cleaning out the cupboard under the sink. Young Tim said, "What are you doing?" Garry replied, "I'm cleaning the cupboard under the sink. I'm a homosexual, that's what homosexuals do."
All by way of saying, yes, Chris, I decorated the tree - that's what the family faggot does. Not that I knew that I was at the time and probably no one else did, either. But thanks for your warm reminiscences of those Goolmangar days - though you left out the blowies, the mosquitoes, the humidity and the smell of stale milk and cow shit. Maybe you were too young. (Years later, one Christmas, while I was living in London, I received the usual fortnightly air letter from Mum, where she said in passing, "Nobody's ever done the tree like you did." That got a great chuckle of recognition from my new gay London friends.)
But to stick with my theme, I must go back to Ryde one last time. I went St Kevin's, Eastwood (now Marist College) from years 4 to 6. By year six the classmates were beginning to talk about girls. I was nowhere near puberty, but what they described as liking in girls - looks, hair, etc - was what I liked in some of them. I mean, though I knew nothing of sex, I harboured the same longings towards my handsome classmates as they were expressing of the fairer sex. So I guess I was homosexual before I was sexual, if you see what I mean!
Also at that time, I spent some of the summer holidays at the Blewitts' farm at Cobbity, near Camden. Uncle Mac and Aunty Pauline (Mum’s sister) managed a dairy farm for the Downs family. My cousins Peter, Paul and Michael lived there. One day they took me down behind the barn and told me an extraoardinary thing: babies came out of their mothers' tummies! I knew this to be patently absurd - after all, I read books (I'd just been bowled over by "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland") and they were merely country hicks. Besides, I knew babies came from hospitals - that's where Mum had got Robert and Chris. I humoured them, but I did not make a big thing of it, as I was a bit of a wimp.
In 1953 a lot happened. Grandma O'Keefe died and left the farm at Goolmangar, near Lismore on the NSW North Coast, to Dad. He decided this was a great chance to start a new life for his family on the land. So in September the family all piled into the new (but second-hand) Holden and headed north - all except me. Because I was in sixth class - doing the still significant Primary Final - it was decided that rather than disrupt my schooling, I would see out the year living with Nona and Grandfather, two doors down at Number 53.
That was great, I never had to make my bed and was spoiled rotten for three months. But I missed my family. In December school ended and I took the train - the Northern Express with the great 3801 steam engine that I'd often seen pass through West Ryde or Eastwood stations on my way to and from school - to Casino, its nearest stopping point to Lismore. After a long and sooty trip I got off the train to see Mum and Dad waiting for me. I dropped my suitcase, ran to Mum, flung my arms around her and burst into tears. What did she do? She extracted herself from me, looked down and said, "Oh, don't be so foolish!" Her exact words, I can still hear them, I can never forget them. I learned at that moment that one didn't express one's emotions, it just wasn't done. It took me years into adulthood to let loose of this principle. (Many years later, when I co-wrote the music, book and lyrics for the highly successful "A Lad 'n' His Lamp", a Christmas panto at the Marian St Theatre, Killara, (1978) I took Mum and Dad and other family members to a matinee. When it ended, Dad's only words about the show to me were, "It must take a lot of people to put on a show like that." O’Keefes just weren’t into the showing of emotions.)
So here I was at a major watershed of my life - primary to secondary, city to country. Eleven years old and still a good way from puberty. I knew three swear words, and three only - bloody, bugger and bastard - and knew enough not to use them, ever. I was a bookworm, a total cissy on the sports field and extremely introspective. And I had to start making new friends and adjusting to a totally alien life. One with dirt and animals and creepy-crawlies and all the horrors of the rural world.