In primary school, I had a habit of becoming good friends with the newly arrived kids in my classes. Perhaps it was just curiosity that drew me to them, or their exotic nature, coming as they did from such faraway places as Greece, Korea, Poland and Melbourne. Yet, for some reason, I latched onto them. Not only was there much to learn, but in some cases there was much to teach – English for example. Some of these proved to be enduring and ongoing friendships, whilst others have since drifted away. Few, however, were quite as extraordinary as a certain rather late arrival from South Africa – the inimitable Carstairs Garner-Torlet.
On his first day at Woollahra Demonstration School, I followed him during the lunch-break and found him digging behind the Chisholm building with the broken back of an old wooden chair. I watched him for a while before deciding to approach him.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m digging a tunnel out of the school, man.”
Even at the age of eleven, Carstairs spoke like a drug dealer. He tossed some dirt over his shoulder.
“This is Tom, and I’m gonna start on Harry later, over behind the boys’ toilets.”
“Where are they going?”
He leered zealously, nodding his head with vigour.
“Why do you call them Tom and Harry?”
“You’ve never seen The Great Escape? Steve McQueen, the Cooler King? Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, Charles Bronson? It’s an all-star cast, man. An all-star cast! I’ve gotta work out where to put Dick.”
He started whistling the film’s signature tune, staring me right in the face, and for the first time I noticed a long, red, neatly stitched scar down his right cheek. The skin looked irritated and tender and the sight of it made me want to scratch my face in sympathy. There was something strange about his eyes.
“What happened to your face?” I asked, with the usual playground tact.
“I got run over by a drunk, man. I got run over.”
“He was swinging around this corner and I was on my skateboard and I fell off and he kept going and ran straight into my head. He ran over my foot too. I was in a coma for two weeks and my brain got so bruised it went blue.”
The following afternoon I found myself at Carstairs’ place in Woollahra, watching The Great Escape.
“I watch it every day after school,” he told me. “I’ve seen it two hundred and thirteen times now.”
He whistled the tune again and this time I found myself joining in. There was something utterly compelling about his unswerving commitment, and the film was, admittedly, very entertaining. Earlier that afternoon, I’d watched him reach a depth of roughly one foot with his broken chair back. Tom was progressing nicely.
“I don’t know where I’ll get all the wood for the supports once the tunnel gets really deep. I might have to pull down the school!”
After the film he invited me to play wars.
“I’ll be the captain, and you can be a corporal. That means I outrank you.”
He cocked an imaginary pistol and stood to attention.
“Captain’s the best rank because he’s the suave guy with the pistol and the brown leather gloves. If I wasn’t a captain, I’d be a Colour Sergeant, like the guy in Zulu. Have you seen Zulu? Very good movie – Michael Caine – very good actor. The battle of Rorke’s Drift, Isandlwana. A big mistake, man, Isandlwana. But they got ‘em, man, they got ‘em at Rorke’s Drift. Oooolloooolloooolloooo!” He started ululating like an enraged tribesman.
“Have you been to Africa?” he asked.
“Isn’t it full of dangerous insects?”
“Big game, man, big game. You have to come to Kruger National Park. See that lion up on the wall? My father killed that in Rhodesia with a shovel. We’ve got a zebra skin upstairs, real zebra skin, man. You can put it on and look like the Inkhartha Freedom Party. Oooollooollooooolloooolloooo!”
We went out to play wars and I let him be captain for the simple reason that it wasn’t going to be any other way. Within ten minutes he had me executed on a fabricated charge of treason after a gruelling interrogation. Carstairs brought whole new angles to play-time that I’d never considered before. His two elder brothers leant him more adolescent tastes and later that evening, I found myself looking through a Playboy magazine for the first time. I was nonplussed.
It was strangely liberating to be dragged in the wake of someone with such manic momentum and, over the ensuing weeks, I found myself spending more and more time with Carstairs. His parents’ four-storey terrace was the largest house I’d ever been in and it was full of technological diversions. I lived just a short walk away and, as his house was on my route home, I was there nearly every afternoon.
Carstairs was an exhausting companion; he could hardly sit still, he seemed to talk compulsively and he was constantly mimicking shooting people or stabbing them in the back.
“Man, we’ve got to go out on the streets and do a few hits, man. We’ve gotta go out and shoot a few people, take them out. Like this!” He launched himself at me, grabbed me around the throat, placed his hand, pistol-like against my temple, and executed me. “We’ve got to do a few stabbings and some bashings – some serious beatings. We’ve got to get Ho Chi-Minh off the streets!”
Carstairs often said things that either completely baffled or unsettled me. I had never encountered anyone with racially discriminatory opinions before and couldn’t quite fathom why Carstairs had it in for certain people. One day in McDonalds, after seeing a movie with him and his parents, I noticed him staring with indignation at an old Vietnamese lady. “Look at that old woman over there. Now what the hell is that? What’s that? I mean, what is that? Fucking communist!”
“The Japanese, however, are very smart,” he told me afterwards. “They are a smart race, man. Good inventors and very good at business. But the Chinese, man, they’re fucking communists!”
Although I knew absolutely nothing about global politics or racial issues, I knew there was something a tad suspect about what Carstairs had to say. Despite my ignorance, I had a soft spot for communism, simply because my father had always championed the revolution over rampant capitalism and called our house the Workers’ Socialist Democratic Republic Paradise. “I’m so left wing,” he once said, “that even the communists want to kill me!” The only problem was that, at the age of eleven, I didn’t know what left wing meant.
“Man, if Apartheid ends in South Africa,” said Carstairs, “it’s gonna be a bloodbath! There’s going to be murders all over the place – like Michael Meyers in Halloween – Johannesburg is going to be a slaughterhouse, man, a massacre. It’s gonna be a slum, man!”
I had no comeback because I knew so little about it, and Carstairs spoke with such surety and belief that I felt, to a degree, intimidated by him. He also had the advantage of a wider perspective, which I had little choice but to respect, having never left Australia. He had travelled around the world and had a curious interest in politics. Indeed, he spent his days in school reading Hansard, while I didn’t even know how the political system in Australia worked. When he made one of his frequent criticisms of the then Hawke-Keating Labor government, I either kept quiet or conjured a weak, uninformed response.
“No way, mate, Bob Hawke’s unreal,” I’d say, thinking mistily of him drunk at dawn in his newsprint suit when Australia won the Americas Cup. “Paul Keating’s a heaps good treasurer.”
“That Keating,” Carstairs would reply, with his surprisingly adult voice, “he’s a total and utter cunt.”
After realising that school wasn’t so bad and abandoning his tunnelling projects, Carstairs made his name as a designer of cities and towns. Starting from page one of an exercise book, he would draw a street running the entire length of the book, carrying over the edge of pages, with shops, apartments, mansions, factories, parks, fountains, malls, garages and lots of palm trees along its length. Everybody in the class was encouraged to invest in property, and Carstairs drew up a stock market and floated every major listed company. In one afternoon I bought IBM and commissioned Carstairs to build me a giant mansion with a swimming pool and a moat, in a glittering new suburb. Shortly afterwards, my best friend Gus moved in next door.
Carstairs was given a white electric guitar for his twelfth birthday and in no time he had mastered Satisfaction by the Stones. I went around to his house that day and stared at the thing in slack-jawed awe, while he slammed out chords and riffs. Afterwards, he gave me a lecture on The Beatles then spent two hours making a mix-tape.
“I’m telling you, man, I’m going to be a musicologist. That’s a real job, man. I’m going to be a Beatles-ologist. George Harrison, he’s the main man!”
We drove into town in his dad’s Ferrari and had lunch at the Imperial Peking. When we returned home, we watched, at Carstairs’ behest, Roman Polanski’s MacBeth, which, I have to confess, I didn’t enjoy at all. I was still a child with childish tastes and a longing for fantasy escapism. If it wasn’t a period film or it didn’t have elves in it, then it wasn’t my cup of tea. I’d be hanging around the video store fingering The Neverending Story, humming the Limahl song, when Carstairs would come running over with Scarface and say, “Let’s get this, man, it’s got lots of butchery in it. It’s all about cocaine!”
Carstairs’ favourite movie was Cruising with Al Pacino, which he would endlessly quote.
“It’s no use putting it on while you’re down at the shops. Face it, you’re gay. You’re one of us!”
As we sat watching Straw Dogs one afternoon, Carstairs tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around to find him leering at me with an eye in his mouth.
“What’s that?” I gasped, too shocked to be disgusted.
“It’s my fake eye, man.”
“What do you mean fake eye?”
He removed it from his mouth and toyed with it between his fingers.
“I lost my eye, man, so I’ve got a fake one. Eighteen months ago my brother was going through this phase where he really wanted to be a brigadier. He had this broken-off golf club and he used to march around the place with it under his arm like a swagstaff. One time he just threw the thing down the hall and I stepped out and it went right into my eye, man. He had to plant his foot against my head in order to tug it out.”
Carstairs’ emotions remained under control as he related this dreadful tale.
“Jesus Christ,” I said.
“My brother, Jason, had to kick me in the shins to take the edge off the pain.”
He blinked and I caught a glimpse beneath the lid of his left eye. My soul crept deeper inside me at the sliver of bloodshot meatball lurking behind the lashes.
“So now I’ve got this invincible prosthesis,” he continued. “Man, you could park a truck on it, or run over it in a bus and you couldn’t hurt it.”
It was hard to believe, but the evidence was compelling. I now realised why he often had such an oddly disconcerting expression; the scar wasn’t ugly, it was just bizarre, and as it was obvious, it was one of the first things we had ever talked about. But that eye had been at me for months, and now I could see what the business was all about. The fake eye moved around in time with the other, but the pupil did not dilate.
“Now, if I’d had a glass eye instead of this prosthesis,” he said, clearly proud of his knowledge of that word, “it might have smashed when I was hit by the car and infected my other eye, man. Then I’d be blind. I’d be blind, man!”
There was no doubting that he’d had some terrible luck and it had left him fragile and vulnerable. On a school excursion to the Snowy Mountains, during one of our glorious walks, Carstairs got into a fight with another kid called John. They plunged from the long procession of children in a frantic wrestle, falling into the long grass. The teachers were there in no time, dragging them off each other and waving fingers. Later that evening a special assembly was arranged in which Carstairs gave a speech about his two accidents.
“It’s very dangerous if I bang my head at all. I could suffer brain damage because my skull is fragile. It really hurts me because I wanted to play rugby league for Australia, but I’ll never be able to do that.”
Carstairs’ assailant, John, was very contrite. Like most others, he had not known of Carstairs’ injuries. It was somewhat ironic that when we went horse-riding the following day, John was asked to lend him the riding helmet he had brought with him and of course, he obliged most willingly.
At the end of primary school, we went our separate ways and gradually fell out of touch. After my second year of high school, I didn’t see Carstairs for another three years, shortly after my 17th birthday. I had just begun to grow my hair long, and, in a visionary moment of sartorial inspiration, I had bought a second-hand paisley shirt from Saint Vincent de Paul. The first day I wore it, I ran into Carstairs on the bus. We recognised each other instantly.
“Mister Cornford,” he said, “How are you doing?” His voice still had the strangely forced formality he’d sported since a child.
“Carstairs,” I said. “We meet again! But I’m getting off next stop.”
“So am I, Mister Cornford. So am I.”
We hopped off on the corner of Oxford and Queen Streets and shook hands, shrugging off the awkwardness of our transformation into adolescents.
“That’s a very psychedelic shirt, Mr. Cornford,” said Carstairs. “Have you been smokin’?”
He struck me on the chest with the back of his hand. “Have you been smokin’?” he repeated, his voice curling upwards with a touch of his old, spontaneous hysteria.
“I guess you mean marijuana? A bit, yeah.”
He began nodding keenly, grinning in anticipation of the fertility of his forthcoming suggestion.
“It’s about time, man, and we’re gonna get some. You and me. We’re gonna get some.”
“I’ve been smokin’ too, man. Big time. It’s good stuff, man, like the Beatles, after Rubber Soul. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” he sang. “In that psychedelic Rolls Royce, man. George Harrison, yeah.” He puckered his lips and shook his head about, humming and clearly pondering the late sixties.
“Are you still into George Harrison?” he asked.
“I sure am – My Sweet Lord is still my favourite song.”
“Good, good, well done, Mister Cornford, well done. I’m still going to be a musicologist. A Beatles-ologist. I’m going to know the Beatles even better than the Beatles!” He looked dejected of a sudden. “Why did that cunt have to shoot John Lennon?”
“I don’t know. Because he was mad?”
“All those years ago…,”
The scar on his face was considerably smaller now. Time had been kind to Carstairs’ features.
“So what have you been doing, man?” He slapped me again. “How you doing? Do you have a girlfriend? You’ve been smokin’ drugs, but are you taking any other shit, man? Any cocaine?” Carstairs snicked out a satanic gurgle. It was a wicked laugh, broken up by snorts and grunts.
“Smokin’ any cocaine, man? Ha ha ha ha,” snort, “Ooolloooolloooollooollooo.”
Clearly he had not lost his knack of ululating.
“No, not any cocaine, what about you?”
“Not yet, no.”
The following Saturday we met on the same corner and set off for the Clock Hotel in Surry Hills. A friend of mine had told me you could score weed there without any hassles at all, and he was spot on. I’d only just ordered my beer when I got the nod from a clichéd Rastafarian sitting at a table only a few metres from the bar. Not only did he have immense dreadlocks and one of those red, green and yellow crocheted hats, but he even wore a Legalize It tee-shirt. The staff were obviously hip to his trade and the exchange took place right at the bar.
Carstairs and I drank up and took the foil to Centennial Park where we sat in the amphitheatre just down from the reservoir. Over the next two hours we got throbbingly stoned and Carstairs filled me in on the missing years.
“Yeah man, I lived in Hong Kong for a year, last year, you know. Hong Kong was great; a great place, really wild you know, man. Though I was doin’ school a fair bit.” He made it sound as though it were a drug habit. “I had this nice girlfriend over there, you know, a beautiful Asian girl, man. With a shaved pussy, man. I love Asian girls – they’re the best.”
I was surprised to hear him say this and a part of me feared his interest was lecherous, but I had decided to give this new model Carstairs the benefit of the doubt. There was also something distinctly different about his voice. He had always had a hint of a South African accent and now it seemed a lot stronger.
“I was also in South Africa for a long time,” he said, intercepting my thoughts. “Well, about six months, man. Very good, but very dangerous place. There is so much happening there. You have to carry a gun, man.”
“No, you say, ‘is it’”
“Is it? Really? What do you mean?”
“Is it? Is it? People in South Africa say ‘is it’ instead of ‘really’. So if I say something and you’d otherwise say, ‘really?’ You must now instead say, ‘is it’.”
“Now you’re catching on!”
“Do you really need to carry a gun?”
“Of course, look here, how it stretched out the back of my jeans.”
He showed me, although I could not notice anything distinct.
“Are you still playing guitar?” I asked.
“Of course, Mister Cornford, of course. I’m going to be like Frank Zappa or the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Totally fucked up, serious fusion music.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but I let it pass.
“I’ve been learning guitar as well,” I said. “I’ve been playing in a band.”
“Ooollooollooollooo! Well then, Mister Cornford, we shall have to get some serious projects going. Some serious musical experiments. You are going to have to drink the monkberry moon delight!”
I saw Carstairs regularly after that and began to invite him along to parties and gatherings. We also started to jam every so often, though he was an infinitely more accomplished musician than I was and consequently he was much better off playing with my friends than me, who were also better musicians. It was good to have Carstairs back on the scene, just as energetically odd as he had been in the past, and still a true fount of ideas and information. He was still the oddest character I knew, and continually flirted with social brinkmanship. He loved to call people “cunt”, with a sort of curious affection, and wherever possible, chose to be provocative.
“Hey mate, do you mind if I smoke?” he once asked a taxi driver.
“No,” replied the driver.
“Do you mind if I smoke crack!?” said Carstairs, snorting and cackling. .
“Carstairs!” my then girlfriend and I exclaimed in protest.
“You shut up,” he replied. “And you fuck off!”
After a couple of years, Carstairs left for Japan where he was to spend the next fifteen years. Once or twice a year, he would visit Sydney for a few weeks, renting a hotel or apartment and often surrounding himself with new Japanese acquaintances. We’d hook up and get smashed and talk the old shit for hours.
In 1995, Carstairs returned from Japan for a visit with his fiancé, a Japanese girl called Noriko. After a few beers at the now vanished George Adams bar in the Hilton one September evening, we grabbed a cask of wine and ducked over to Hyde Park where we sat drinking from plastic cups. Noriko passed the time frantically trying to photograph possums, whilst Carstairs and I got well and truly lathered. Eventually Carstairs suggested visiting the luxury hotel opposite to see what they had to offer.
“I’m nearly skint, man,” I warned Carstairs. “I can’t afford to drink there.”
“Who cares, man,” he said. “I’ve got money, Noriko’s got money. We’ve got the fucken Yen, man. We’ve got Yen!”
His face stretched taut with excitement while his good eye swam and danced in its moist, bleary socket.
“Paul McCartney, man, he was arrested in Japan. For smoking dope. He had the Yen, man. The Yen will aim your life.”
He had become obsessed with Asahara Shoko and the Aum Shinriko Death Cult, responsible for the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway and kept a dossier full of news-clippings, photographs and his own written reports on prominent cult members. He often quoted their slogans, especially “Aim your life,” and sang their chants at me.
We blundered into the foyer of the hotel, from which I expected to be turned away in an instant. Yet, Carstairs, in his blue jeans and tucked-in striped shirt, looked so abjectly normal when he wasn’t impersonating a Zulu that anyone might have mistaken him as such, while Noriko was so prim and proper that no one seemed to notice the Lenin-goateed, Jesus impersonator in a painter’s smock with waist-length hair tagging along behind. We skipped up the grand staircase into an enormous, comfortable lounge bar. It was all polished brass, marble and maiden-hair ferns, with an elaborate fountain and a grand piano smoothing the air with Strauss. I stood beside the running water in this manufactured pastoral paradise, fiddling with the keys in my pocket, wondering if anything I ever did in life would allow me to afford to visit such places with regularity.
“Mr Cornford, Mr. Cornford!”
Carstairs waved at me from a chunky leather arm-chair.
“Come and join us.”
I wandered over to where they sat and eased myself into a neighbouring chair.
“What do you want to drink, Mr Cornford?”
“You choose, Carstairs. It’s your Yen and I don’t want to upset the yin and the yan.”
“Let’s have some Wild Turkeys, man. With Coke!”
His face split with laughter. Snort, snort!
“Noriko, what do you want to drink?”
“No, Carstairs, I don’t want to drink.”
“Are you sure? I bet they’ve got some pretty good ones here!”
“No, I have too much already.”
A bow-tied waiter wandered over and raised an eyebrow.
“What can I get you?”
“Yeah, sorry about that, mate. My colleague here, Mr Cornford, and I, would like to have some Wild Turkeys. With Coke, right, with Coke. And my fiancé here, Noriko, who is going to be my wife, man, my wife, she would like a glass of water.”
The waiter walked away and Noriko stood up as well.
“Carstairs, I have to go to bathroom. I be five minutes.”
We both smiled as she stood up and left. Carstairs turned to me when she was out of range.
“Man, you should get yourself a Japanese girl. Very beautiful, very nice. White skin and black nipples. Haw haw! What you really want is a Japanese girl with an English accent. That should be policy man; that should be policy.”
“Sounds alright, I suppose.”
“That’s it! Well done, Mr Cornford.”
“But, I have a problem with non-native English speakers. They never get my jokes, and I feel totally disarmed.”
“Fuck that, man, think of the bodies! Man, you should come to Japan. You would go nuts with that long hair. Japanese girls would be fucking you every minute. You would go off, man, Japan would aim your life. They would all want to suck you off!”
“Well, when you put it like that.”
“Man, if you don’t come to Japan, I’m going to have to gas you! You need to be gassed with Sarin. You’re out of control, man, you’re out of order!”
Carstairs was shouting now as the Wild Turkeys arrived; huge shots accompanied by bottles of Coke.
“Good serve, waiter. That’s a nice pour!”
I picked up my glass, trying to look obviously sane and calm. Carstairs continued to rave about the virtues of Tokyo and its inhabitants. I sat and listened, washing down his tales with hard liquor and savouring everything I imbibed. He was certainly very convincing in his way. The more his anecdotes sank in I felt myself rebelling against all the cloying stability in my life. I wanted to get on a plane right then and there and screw my way around Japan. As Carstairs raved, getting louder and louder, I began to wonder what had happened to Noriko.
“I don’t think she was feeling too well, man, you know,” said Carstairs. “So she’s probably having a chuck, man. I bet she’s having a chuck in the dunnies.”
He snorted and giggled, then called the waiter over and ordered another round of drinks. The waiter looked as though he were about to say something about the volume of our conversation, but thought better of it. Unaware of the eyebrows of censure, Carstairs was becoming hysterical in tone.
“Keep it down a bit, man,” I warned him. “The waiter’s starting to hover about.”
“He’s fucking what?” Carstairs leapt to his feet and stared at the waiter across the floor.
“You can’t hover around me,” he shouted. “Or I’ll be forced to call my attorney!”
The waiter rolled his eyes and wandered off and I was struck for a moment by the fear that Carstairs would go and bash him.
“I got thrown out of the Hilton last night for telling this cunt off behind the bar,” he said. “But he was asking for it, man. He was a cunt. I’m gonna go back and gas him!”
“Well, let’s try not to get thrown out of here, eh?”
“If they want to call security, I’ll call the South African security forces and they will all get bashed. They will set the dogs on them and they will get gassed!”
He stood up again.
“Do you want me to call my attorney?” he shouted across to the bar. “I’m going to call my attorney!”
At this point Noriko came back looking frail and puzzled by Carstairs standing there in this comic rage. It was clear that he was not even angry, he just plain didn’t give a shit.
“Carstairs, what are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m going to call my attorney,” he shouted. “Ooolloooolloooollooollooo! Come on, grab your jacket, let’s go.”
“Ummm,” I said.
“Noriko, you’ll have to pay,” said Carstairs. “I’m going to call my attorney!”
He wandered off out of the bar and down the hall, cackling to himself and singing about Asahara Shoko. I shrugged my shoulders while Noriko paid. Not wishing to upset her by letting her in on the secret, I leaned over and whispered to the waiter, “Don’t worry about my friend, he’s just a bit of a nutter.”
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