Friday, April 27, 2018

The Raid

This piece of my memoir writing was originally published in 2017 in  Harvest, the Anthology of the Past Tense Group at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Wrters' Centre in Greenmount, Western Australia

The Raid

Viewed from the front, there was nothing unusual about my grandparents' house in Strathfield, but to me as a seven-year-old, around the back was a place of intrigue and mystery. A towering brick wall formed the boundary fence between their house and the row of shops beyond. Shards of broken glass had been cemented along the top of the wall, like a row of sharp brown fangs to scare off intruders.

'Why are there broken bottles on the wall, Gran?' I asked.
'Because they don't want people climbing over.' She folded her arms across her bony chest and stood tall.

Curiously, the window of the room above the shops had been plastered over with brown paper.

'Do people live over the shops, Gran?'
She shrugged and turned to go inside. 'I'm not sure.'

But Gran was dodging my question. Sometime later, I discovered that my grandparents often heard shouting, late into the night, behind the browned-out window.

Most of the days when I visited, I spent the time in my grandparents' bedroom at the front of the house, playing with my little sister. While Gran toiled in the kitchen, preparing her famous coconut-ice, we would be getting into mischief, bouncing up and down on their big old iron-frame bed. We'd crawl under the bed and explode into fits of giggles at the large porcelain chamber pot, hidden there. I don't know why they kept a chamber pot, because they did possess an indoor toilet. Maybe because they were country people at heart and old habits die hard?

Grandpa was semi-retired and spent his leisure time growing vegetables in a garden bed along the side of the house. We'd trail behind while he pulled up a fresh crop and couldn't wait to sink our teeth into the juicy sweet carrots, still smelling of earth. During the school week, I took the train to Strathfield Station and dropped in to see Gran and Grandpa on the way to school.

The peace of my grandparents' suburban life was shattered late one night when they were rudely woken from their slumber by a sharp knock at the front door. Grandpa stepped into his felt slippers, pulled on his chequed, woollen dressing gown and, still half-asleep, shuffled to the front door. Gran padded after him, gathering a shawl over her tall frame. They turned on the veranda light and cautiously opened the door, peering out into the gloom. Standing there on the front veranda was a uniformed policeman. The light caught his sandy-coloured mustache as he smiled reassuringly. Behind him, in the dim light of the front path, were several more policemen, one of whom held a long wooden ladder under his arm.

'Sir, we're sorry to disturb you at this late hour, but we need to cross over your backyard to gain access to the shops behind you.'

Grandpa led the way down the driveway and the men tramped behind him, their black leather boots leaving deep imprints in the garden soil and squashing the precious carrots. Gran retreated into the house and emerged at the back door in time to witness events from a safe distance.

The police propped up the ladder and scaled the fence, avoiding the spikes of glass. They climbed to the covered window, and tried to force it open. When it wouldn't budge they took a mallet and crashed through the glass.

My grandparents couldn't see inside the upstairs room, but they heard the commotion and voices shouting: 'police raid!' – followed by the muffled footsteps clomping down the timber staircase as men were being frog marched out. And so, that night, another Sydney Two-up school was busted.

Over the next few days Gran pored over the morning newspapers, searching for juicy details of the late-night raid. Shoppers at the local butcher shop winnowed through the husks of the story, searching for the precious grains of truth. It transpired that more than a dozen men had been apprehended at the Two-up school above the shops. They were taken to Strathfield Police Station and charged with being found in a common gaming house. The mystery behind the backyard fortress was revealed. The next time I visited Gran on my way to school, she regaled me with the whole thrilling saga.
In the postwar years, Two-up schools were common across Sydney. From Kirribilli to Surrey Hills, if you were keen for a flutter, the local taxi driver knew where to find the action. Usually a man, known as the cockatoo, would stand guard to warn of an imminent raid. On the night of the Strathfield raid, the hapless cockatoo, like the guns defending Singapore, must have been facing the wrong way.
Law enforcement never did stamp out the evil of Two-up and eventually they surrendered the fight. By 1954, the era of clubs and pokies had already begun. In the 1990s, the New South Wales government legalised Two-up and in so doing, eliminated a long standing element of Australia's larrikin tradition. My grandparents dined out on the story of the Strathfield Two-up raid for several years, until they moved away from the neighbourhood in the 1960s.

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