Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fred's Shop

Fred's Shop was on the school bus run, on the main road that ran alongside the harbour. Next door to Fred's Shop lived a Maori family who were named after the first canoes. The kids ran up the driveway just as the bus pulled up. Some days they didn't turn up at all. Across the road from Fred's Shop was a mountain rising quick and surprised from the estuarine floodplains. Named after the wedgetail eagles that circled the place once, it is crowned in granite, dugite snakes and the Marri tree home of the sea eagles.

The teenage boys who grew up in the orchard beneath the mountain, well, I remember them as quiet, wild and angry. One of those boys died recently: by then he was a lanky, middle aged man whose trademark bikie beard had turned white. Opiates killed him in increments, as did his tendency for violence, the ongoing disaster of his wrecked boat, a random blight in the family orchard, his conviction for manslaughter and his troublesome little brother.

So, backtracking .. Across the road, Fred's Shop sold milk and bread and lollies. Fred's Shop felt dirty and dusty whenever you went in there. The counter was to the right of the ringing, clanging door. Behind the counter, Fred stood, watching.
When I was eight or nine, my parents commanded, after long whisperings in the lounge room, "You are never, ever to go into Fred's Shop again." It felt like us kids had done something terribly wrong.

This kind of lolly shop apartheid was a problem because Fred had a butterfly collection. He'd collected butterflies from all over the world and the evidence stood in the room right behind his shop counter. We could see the butterflies, pinned to immaculate white boards under glass, whenever we triumphed in our clandestine treks to his shop. We knew we weren't supposed to be there because for some reason this place was off limits, but ... oh those butterflies.
I still think of butterflies as dangerous.

Fred never let me see his butterfly collection up close. I could smell his disgust with my clumsy, girly-scented presence in his shop. He would sell me a twenty cent bag of lollies and shoo me out of the place like I was a blowfly. But at around the same time, something happened. Neighbourhood gossip and anxiety heightened and within the next year, Fred's Shop was burned to the ground. The Maori kids moved out. Fred just disappeared. The quiet, wild boys across the road started acting up and carried on like that for the next twenty or thirty years.

I still don't know what happened next or who burned down Fred's Shop but when it burned everyone breathed out. Perhaps the burning out of a man who'd identified himself as something deviant to a 1970's white bread town would be construed as a different crime these days. Maybe someone got rid of Fred because he was the recalcitrant creep in their street who traded their sons' futures against cash, lollies and butterflies. Dunno. I only remember the mountain and finding Noongar camps; their mattresses and enamelled cooking pots stuffed into deep clefts of granite, and a sea eagle buzzing me on the road as she flew back to the Marris with a fish flapping in her clenched fists.
The sight of those butterflies.

They were all the colours of the rainbow - magnificent, perfect chrysalii - fresh, brilliant trophies pinned against a white board in the back room of Fred's Shop.


  1. Thanks Cathy! It's a nasty little story that one ... I started thinking about Fred's shop again recently, when the man who grew up across the road died.

  2. I almost wanted to apologise for this story because I know it may set off triggers for some people. The truth is, Fred was a nasty piece of work who destroyed many young boys' childhoods. But a certain kind of justice happened and I saw it happen. I just didn't understand what was going on at the time.

    1. Did you know it was justice at the time? Or was it just confusing or go over your head, as a kid?

  3. Sinister. Posing the butterflies and lollies against the dirty scourge. I heard the bell ringing as the door to the shop opened, the old man shuffling in from out back.


  4. I spent my early years out on remote sheep stations and such, and then lived in small towns during a lot of my high-school years and early adulthood, before moving to the city. On this most recent trip to the sticks, I realised I've developed something of a slight back-of-the-brain/pit-of-the-gut wariness about country towns – especially ones I've lived in.

    Incestuous child abuse; the teacher who raped a student; the dirty old prick in the wheelchair we got into trouble over, if we let him creep up close enough to grab us; the pedo whom everyone defended because he was an upstanding member of the church and never touched the kids of anyone important; the teenagers who bashed a mentally handicapped bloke, tied him up, sexually assaulted him, and forced him to watch as they tortured his dog to death; the violence and sexual deviancy that was a general staple of the weekends.

    Sometimes measures were taken, but I don't think I ever saw that much “justice” out there. And I'm not saying that stuff doesn't go on in the cities, but there's something different about places that are (sometimes literally) like a big family, where everyone knows everything, and everyone knows what they're supposed to turn a blind eye to, and there's things you talk about openly and things you just don't.

    I've heard people talk about friendly little villages chock-a-block with salt-of-the-earth types, and I'm sure they're out there, but they weren't really the types of places I encountered. Maybe they're all in more coastal places?

  5. Oh, I dunno Alex. Plenty of what you've just described happened in our pretty coastal town, especially the upstanding member :~) who never touched the kids of anyone important.

    I guess this story is about an occasion when the community did force justice, albeit immediate and possibly not really doing any favours to their own kids who were left to deal with it on their own.
    When I lived in NZ, there was another story from my neighbour, a single mum from Canada. One school teacher in her home town was abusing the girls in his class. It went on for ages until a child told her mum about it. It was verified then by several other kids. The men in the town got together and went to visit the school teacher on a night when it fell to minus thirty or forty degrees. They brought rum and whiskey and sat around in his house, telling stories, cracking jokes. None of them drank much but they watched the teacher get drunker and drunker. Finally, they walked him outside and laid him down in the snow where he fell into a deep snow sleep and died. Everyone in the town knew what had happened, whose kids were involved and the fathers' actions that night. No one was ever charged.

    1. Wow. That's like Top of the Lake. Or better than.

    2. That's a good story from Canada. It kind of plays into the stereotype of Canucks being nice and polite too, doesn't it? Even when they're knocking someone off.

      Everybody knew. No charges were ever laid.

      I think I could end about 95% of my outback tales with those 2 sentences.

    3. Yes, it's shitty. It's just shitty.
      The problem lies with the DPP also, With detectives trying to build a case for my particular grievance (and it is different to this tale, just let me be clear) they said 'We know the man did this stuff. He was a serial abuser of children but to put it before the DPP we need more because he got off last time. At the moment prosecuting this man would be seen by the DP as being vexatious."
      My response was, "Vexatious? I can be really vexatious with a box of matches."
      But really, it was devastating Alex, and the result shut me down for a good ten years or so.

    4. So yes, everyone knew. No charges were ever laid.

    5. Apologies if I brought up something that would've been better off left alone, Sarah.

      Like everything we do as a species, our system(s) of justice are horribly flawed. I've seen it up close in the bush, but I guess it's the same everywhere. Unless you're a person of exceptional means and influence. That seems to make a bit of a difference.

      Ten years is a lot of time to lose.