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SODS - Anatomy of an Introvert


SODS Anatomy of an Introvert
A novel of the 1960s

This is a story about rejection and the pain of growing up.

Cromwell is a nice town about 200 miles north-west of Brisbane. It offers a stable, sub-tropical, semi-rural existence - though only to its white population. To Sods and the other descendents of British settlers, it is a community driven by country conservatism, imperial tradition, uncritical patriotism - and a virulent racism.

To the town aborigines it is a place where they can live on the fringe in squalor and without status – though citizenship and welfare benefits will be offered them by a distant federal government before the decade is out.

The time is the 1960s - a decade in which the pace of change has quickened. A younger generation, conceived just after World War II, the so-called ‘baby-boomers’, must now come to terms with MAD - the doctrine of ‘mutual assured destruction’ and its by-product, the Space Race. Military hardware will soon put man on the moon while giving him the means to destroy the world.

It is the decade of increased urbanization, of TV culture, of rock and roll, of telephones everywhere and a Holden in every home, of easy hire-purchase, of supermarkets and counter-lunches in pubs, of topless nudity on the beaches, of four-letter words in print and the pill of sexual liberation there for women on demand.

But some of the young men of the 1960s will not see the decade out. They will be conscripted to save their country from communism and the perils of the ‘domino theory’. They will fight with enormous courage in the deadly jungles of Vietnam, destroying the Vietcong and own future in a futile war. Some five hundred and fifty will come back in body bags.

At seventeen Sods (Silas) is a reclusive outcast who has been given a derisive nickname. The town passion is Rugby and success as a football gladiator means acceptance into a kind of ruling-class brotherhood. Sods is tall, skinny and inept, mostly due to abnormal growth.

Will Sods Marsden survive his adolescence? Will he be the hero of his own life or will he be driven deeper into isolation and despair? Will he earn acceptance and respect for his other qualities. Will he win the love of Sarah Jane, the object of his dreaming?

Just below the surface, in this warm and beautiful environment are the stress patterns of a town that can shatter along lines determined by racial tension and social inequality. Police brutality, violent behaviour towards aborigines, rape and murder are thus elements in a story that takes the reader to another place in another time and seeks to reveal its dynamics. 

In Store Price: $26.00 
Online Price:   $25.00

ISBN:1-9210-0524-6
Format: A5 Paperback
Number of pages: 343
Genre: Fiction

Also by Raymond Oliphant

The Siege of the Silt Jetty

 

 

Author: Raymond Oliphant 
Imprint: Poseidon
Publisher: Poseidon Books  
Date Published:  2005
Language: English


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THE AUTHOR

Raymond Oliphant was born and educated in Brisbane. And is a fourth generation Australian. His family was originally on the land but later went into business in various country towns. Ray was educated in Brisbane at Brisbane Grammar and Kelvin Grove Teachers College, later at Queensland University, St Lucia.

            He is a voracious reader of fact and fiction and always wanted to be a writer but instead went to Teachers’ College because they offered scholarships. He worked as teacher in Australia, Singapore and England, and in the TAFE system.

            Ray served in the Army - mostly in the Education Corps reaching rank of major. He worked at curriculum development, technical training, maths and science teaching and taught in London for a year at a senior comprehensive. Ray retired from the Army to teach in the TAFE system in Victoria, specializing in communication skills and management courses. He became computer literate as part of the job.

            He opted for early retirement and is now writing full time and living mostly on super.

            Other interests: listening to classical music, playing in concert bands, jazz bands etc. Plays clarinet, trumpet, soprano and tenor saxes, piano, tuba.

            Good movies a must. Likes to cook curries and pasta.

            Ray likes to travel in Europe, mostly in German-speaking parts.  Also  in Asia:. Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore. Roamed the USA in the 90s with a pilgrimage to New Orleans.

            He still takes politics discussion groups as a volunteer for adult education classes and tries to keep in touch with events worldwide.

            Ray has a grown family. Four children, all very clever and  is three times a granddad.

            Many more writing projects are planned and Ray has five other manuscripts nearing final form.  One is a trilogy (called Banished!) of about 500,000 words set in ancient times. He likes to rework books for about three years until they feel right and is doing research at the moment on a historical novel based on an incident in the life of Emperor Hadrian (he who built the wall.)

            Favourite writers: Fielding, Trollope, Thackeray, Gibbon, George Elliott, Austin, Dickens, Twain. Forster, Maugham, Bennett, Orwell, C.P.Snow, Greene and the Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pastanak, Solzhenitsyn. and a hundred others. Likes Henty Handel Richardson but unmoved by Patrick White. Finds James Joyce unreadable. (Doesn't everyone?) 

Chapter 1 (part sample)  

 

I was late. I had forgotten to tell my father that it was rugby practice that afternoon. I was through the house in a flash, ignoring a plate of anzacs and a glass of milk set out, as usual, by my mother to tide me over until teatime.

I heard my mother’s voice. ‘Silas, where on earth …?’ but that was as far as she got.

No man can serve two masters; everyone knows that. No man would be expected to, but a boy – well, that was a different matter. ‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute…’ Kipling’s oft-quoted words reproached me from the sampler above the sideboard as I flashed past and took the back steps three at a time, while behind me the Westminster chime began to whirr and ding five o’clock.    

My father, as near as I can recall, only ever struck me once. That blow has remained in my mind to this day. I can still put my hand to the place and feel the bruises raised by his thick, work-hardened fingers. I want to write about that day and try to understand that moment when violence entered our relationship for the first and last time.     

I was a twelve-year-old who had grown too fast and now towered a good six inches over my father’s head. I had long, thin arms like an inmate of Dachau on liberation day and was already wearing a size twelve shoe with a triple E last. Unfortunately, my overall muscular development was still that of a child and my weak and flabby frame attracted much comment, mostly derisive and contemptuous.

He was about five foot seven, a stooped man with long arms and huge biceps from the heaving and kneading of great tubs of bread dough and pastry, six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Today, bread-making is done by machine, but in those days it meant long hours of hard physical work in the desiccating air of a wood-fired bakehouse, a building which was itself baking under the hot Queensland sun.

My father’s pale face was wrinkled and withered from opening the door on the raging heat of a firebox full of blazing black wattle logs. His large, muscular hands were always white and clean, except where the tar from his cigarettes had stained his right-hand fingers. In spite of severe lung problems, my father was a hand-rub, roll-your-own, forty-a-day nicotine addict, though he never smoked over the bench, nor dropped ash anywhere in the workplace.

We both belonged to a society which set a high value on discipline. In the nineteen sixties, Victorian attitudes were still the norm. Most parents saw their children as personal property, to do with as they saw fit, just short of grievous bodily harm. Corporal punishment for boys was common, being taken as a sign of parental concern for the good of the boy and the welfare of society as a whole. Girls got off more easily, though they were sometimes spanked by their mothers to keep them in line. It was accepted that fathers could strap their sons but not their daughters, though this was a rule sometimes violated. All too frequently, both wives and daughters were savagely beaten by drunken husbands, which was a crime deplored by the more enlightened but ignored by the many, as it often is, even today. It was believed that hard physical punishment did little harm to a boy and those who complained were, by definition, weaklings who needed toughening up, anyway. It was a society which had little regard for the sensitive, the artistic or the intellectual, preferring to invest its ideological capital in those who could project physical toughness and uncritical acceptance of community values.

As you can imagine, an increase in height of about ten inches (or 25 centimetres) in one year, can be a disaster. In my thirteenth year I had acquired the scaffolding of adulthood but not the substance. My legs were thin and scrawny and my knees knobbly. My feet were unbelievably large and clumsy and totally unsuitable, it seemed, for any athletic activity. My clothes were always too small and tight for my gangly frame, thereby generating an endless stream of droll comments.

Growing up too fast can cause such misery. The increase in height means that you are going to be noticed. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, the world assumes a certain maturity and capability in your gangling frame. At school you are considered a potential rugby natural and therefore keen to inherit a scrum position, even though the ideal frame for a rugby player is short and broad. You watch as the last incumbent of the forward line heads off to boarding school, heaving his twelve stone up and onto the train and giving all his juvenile associates a lordly wave of the arm, not realising that your bag of bones is to be his replacement.

How does one deal with such a situation? There was only one way. Under exhortation from a coach and a cackling gaggle of fellow students, mostly adolescent females, you bend your back and insert your seven stone of stick insect frame into the rugby scrum and promptly discover that you have an additional handicap. Your ears are set at right angles to your skull like the open doors of an FJ Holden .

Several scrums later you are exhausted, crushed and almost de-eared by the continual clamping of your head into the meat grinder of sweating, pushing, kicking, farting, punching and eye-gouging practitioners of a game that seems to have no rules, nor any pretensions to sportsmanship or civilised behaviour.

Utterly exhausted after a half-hour of this, you stagger round, following the ball in its journey up and down the field, trying not to get involved in the actual play. But you can’t escape for long. A tough, freckle-faced, red-headed kid with short, powerful legs passes you the ball to avoid the clutches of a huge tackler. Motivated by some suicidal impulse, you reach out and clutch the slimy leather and run off as fast as you can. (Your feet are encased in dirty sandshoes because there appears to be no such thing as a size twelve triple E football boot in any shop in the town, even assuming that your mother can find the money to buy them.)

Then you realise with terror that the tackler has launched himself at you and you go down like a lone skier before an avalanche, making the dreadful mistake of clutching on to the ball, instead of doing what any sane person would do and throwing it away. Immediately this becomes the excuse for every player on the field, friend or foe, to try to kick the ball out from under your body, which you have curled up around the ball in the foetal position.

Your fate is now roughly the same as that of a pumpkin in a stamping mill until, mercifully, the ball pops out from under your body, flying off down to the other end of the field, giving you a temporary respite from mayhem and mortification.

A melee of this kind happened during the afternoon of the day my father struck me for the first and last time. The coach in charge of the practice (this being a try-out in late summer for one of the junior high school rugby teams) ran down the field to see whether I had survived the above incident.

‘You alright, Marsden? Nothing broken?’

I could see the suppressed contempt on his face. I knew that my inept performance was going to be the laugh of the day for him and his colleagues when they sat down in the staffroom that afternoon to have their tea and scones. On the sidelines I could see a giggling group of female students who were obviously sharpening their catlike claws at my expense.

I believe now that our coach was looking to see if he had made an error of judgement in putting an ungainly overgrown youth with a long thin neck into a scrum position where he might easily have finished up as a quadriplegic. I think he was relieved to find that I was still alive from the neck down, which meant that he still had his job. For a moment he just looked at me with something akin to pity. Then he shook his head sadly, ordered me off the field into the showers, and resumed his torment of the rest of the team, yelling like a maniac.

In the showers it was another kind of hell. Most of the team seemed to be beardless youths with penises yet to be adorned by the curling foliage of puberty. For some reason, no doubt related to my sudden spurt in height, I had reached the event a few months earlier than anyone else. For this reason I had been, for the past few weeks, the butt of every personal comment or general observation. I had committed the awful sin of being different, albeit temporarily, and therefore marked for the attention of the mob. As I stood and tried to bring life back to my battered body under the hot bore water, the rest of the rugby training squad came in from the field and began to give me their undivided attention. Someone suggested that my few wisps of pubic hair resulted from manual labour of the self-abusive kind.   

This suggestion really stimulated the creative talents of the sadistic who vied with each other for the right to claim a direct hit on my hair-framed dick with the end of a wet towel. Chased back and forth between the lockers, I provided the mob with ten minutes of hilarious sport, uninterrupted by any voice of authority, for our coach had long since disappeared in the direction of the staff room.

Of course I tried to laugh it all off as good clean fun, but I knew that my physical inadequacies were now public property, my image as a tormented soul etched forever into the consciousness of the whole school.

But I digress from the story of my father’s one moment of uncontrolled wrath, which took the form of a great, round-arm swing of his hard and muscular palm, slamming into my upper left arm, hurling me off my feet into a pile of empty flour bags.

The blow was terrible, but the landing was worse, for it brought me into contact with our tomcat Sam, who reacted savagely to having his afternoon nap suddenly disturbed by a cart-wheeling object of arms and legs landing painfully on top of him. He lashed out, giving me two long parallel scratches across the thigh and then ran off, leaving me to my pain.

My father stood over me for a few seconds to see if his punishment had been adequate. It had been. The stuffing was so thoroughly knocked out of me that I gave no further offence that day. A few seconds later, wrapped in my white apron, I was engaged in my usual chores as if nothing had happened, except that I had, as legacy of the encounter, five great purple bruises on the fair skin of my shoulder. They were there for a month, one for each of my father’s stubby fingers and a bigger one for his thumb, each mark gradually turning greenish and fading, a colourful reminder of the danger of calling my father a fool to his face.

Why would the mildest of men and one of the hardest workers for his family and community, react so suddenly and with such uncharacteristic violence? Let me explain how it happened.

When I burst into the bakehouse my father was already replenishing the firewood bin for the oven – one of my chores. He dumped his huge armful of cordwood into the box and roared, ‘Silas! And about bloody time too! Where’ve you been?’

‘I had rugby practice, Dad.’

‘Rugby? You’ve been playing bloody FOOTBALL? What about all this work? Who do you think will do your work while you’re out there having your fun, kicking a bloody ball around, eh? If you want to be a football star, do it in your own bloody time, lad. I’m not carrying any football bludgers in this bakehouse!’

I suppose that I had an excuse of sorts for what happened next. It had been a bad day. My morale was at rock bottom and my self-image was bleeding from a dozen wounds. When I thought about it later, I realised that his words of anger were simply an expression of his tiredness. My lateness had annoyed him, for that meant extra work for him at knock-off time. He could not leave a dirty workplace. Because dough sets like concrete in the heat, it was an inflexible rule that we left our workplace clean and ready for the next morning. My dad had finished his work and had begun to do mine, no doubt fuming at the irresponsible attitudes of youth.

When I thought about this incident later, I realised that I now had a good excuse for avoiding football practice in future. I was, after all, an only son. I could now say to the school rugby coach, ‘Please sir, I have to work in the bakehouse.’

Yes, that would be the line I would take – but at that moment I could only think about the injustice of it all. Football practice was not voluntary. The town passion for rugby had long made attendance compulsory, for the school teams were an important element in an overall program which fed likely lads into the junior teams of the Cromwell Football Club. These would be coached further and eventually become 16+ seniors, to be pampered, cheered and admired as they took the field to do battle with the teams of similar communities throughout the South Burnett and the Western Downs.

My father’s outburst had seemed to me the final injustice, that he should accuse me of actually enjoying a game that had left me battered and humiliated. Why could he not understand that my day had been a screaming disaster, that the word rugby evoked fresh images of torture and suffering every time it was mentioned?

I could not believe that he could be so stupid, so lacking in understanding of his son. I would like to say that the mouse roared, but I think it only gave a tormented shriek. Perhaps my response might have been due to the novelty of having a new hormone –testosterone – surging through my veins. The boundaries of my authority as an adult male were just beginning to be established across the unclaimed wastelands of my adolescence. Sooner or later I was going to have to test my mettle against the authority of my father and, in coming out of the encounter in one piece, recover the territory lost to the enemy on another frontier.

Perhaps that was for the future, but on this day there was a raw sensitivity in me, an open wound of the psyche which flinched from probing and insensitive comments. What I needed at that moment was to be left alone, to wallow in my misery and then to find a way of coming to terms with it. Something like that.

I don‘t think I meant to say what I did. The words were in my mind and just slipped out. Before I could stop my tongue, I heard my voice say: ‘Oh Dad, don’t be such – a – a – bloody fool –’

A moment later I was flying through the air and trying to escape the lightning riposte of Sam the tomcat. I knew that I had gone too far. You did not call your father a bloody fool to his face – not in my world. Fathers may well have been called any number of nasty names behind their backs in moments of anger and frustration, but in the face-to-face usages of my time, fathers were given their due, for a violent reaction was accepted as the just response to any kind of disrespect. Rebellion was out of the question. A father must be obeyed. It was an axiomatic law of our existence. I must therefore accept my punishment and apologise for my insubordination.

I think we all try to defend our ground, but on that day my territory was a pitifully small area, encroached upon by the tides of adult authority, diminished and invaded by the unwanted intimacy of my peers and with no-go zones marked out by the limits of my self-confidence, my athletic ability and my physical courage.

I could not apologise. ‘Give me where to stand and I will move the world,’ said the great Archimedes. But I had nowhere to stand and therefore could not move the world. I could only be the butt of its jokes and the object of its scorn. An apology to my father, self-initiated and delivered with sincerity, would have been the beginning of my long march to manhood but I did not have sufficient humility or understanding of myself or others to grasp that at the time.              

I told nobody about the exchange between my father and myself. My mother never referred to it, so I can only assume that my father did not mention it to her. This was his way, for he had the personality of a man who had spent the greater part of his life working long hours alone, speaking only when he needed to. In those days a baker got up a good hour before dawn every day but Sunday. His tired and dehydrated body was chronically deprived of sleep and his muscles were strained from lifting bags of flour and great trays of bread. He kneaded the dough through two risings in the bins then rolled it out on the table. Every loaf had to be weighed, dropped into the tin and left to rise. Then into the hot oven for twenty-five minutes and out again on to the racks to make room for the next batch.

Apart from a permanent bad back, my father had developed lung problems from inhaling an atmosphere loaded with fine particles of flour. His work was hard, monotonous, repetitive and unhealthy.

Many bakers in those days depended on ‘jack’ to get them through the day. This is a frothy mixture of sugar, yeast, dried apples and sultanas, warm water and a little vanilla or lemon essence added at the end, after it was decanted, to give it flavour or an extra kick. It quietly brews in large stone jars at the back of the bakehouse, providing an alcoholic lift when it is needed. My father used it quite a lot. By 5pm, which was the end of the day for him, he was ready for a bath in the big iron tub under the house, a heavy meal of meat and vegetables, an hour of dozing over the newspaper and then an early night.

I could not be close to such a man, even though I worked alongside him every day when I was old enough, scrubbing the work benches, the tubs and the utensils, wiping out the trays and loaf tins and sweeping the floor. I picked up all the tricks of the trade just by watching his skilled hands and, at ten years old, could make bread and pastry that would have passed any test. He was simply my father and I was his son, a lineal appendage and a product of his life. In that cloistered existence he was shaping me for a life just like his. I was a prisoner of family inheritance, of social custom and of economic necessity, without hope of reprieve.

No, I did not speak up. An apology from me was neither sought nor given, for an intimate conversation between myself and my father was out of the question. He was there, like a crab, but one unable for some reason to shed its shell and to be forever stunted and suffused with the detritus of its own existence. I too had built a shell around myself, that is, the bit that was left of me after the exposed parts had been stomped on by the mob.

I am sure that my father thought about me only as a replacement for himself, so that the bakehouse and the community would always be served. I am sure that he never thought of me as a continuation of himself, a forward surge of the individuality that was Ben Marsden, the product of those ancestors who had provided him with the genes which I, in my turn, now possessed. He was responsible for feeding me and raising me to a life of law-abiding utility, to become an adult person with a realistic understanding of the way the world operated – but only for the purpose of survival. It would be my role to step into his shoes and to do all the things he did, but without mistakes due to inexperience, for that was his duty – to enlighten me.

But why did he not demand an apology from me? I think that the thought never entered his head. An apology is a plea for forgiveness, a request for a relationship to continue on the same basis as before. Whether I apologised or not, our lives would continue as before, for we knew no other way to live. I did not have words to express this at the time, but I think it was understood by both of us. I had tested his fatherly authority, he had put me in my place and the matter was ended. 

My father never raised his hand to strike me again. It was not necessary, for I had learned the limits of his tolerance. He would work with me and teach me the trade, but he would never accept me as an equal or a friend or as someone with ups and downs and problems day to day. My half-formed personality was not strong enough to demand acceptance on my terms, so the rules of engagement had to be his and the penalty of transgression also his to deliver.

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