I had no idea how soon that adventure was going to manifest itself.
The train pulled away from the station and the waving stopped. As it turned out, Peter and I were alone in the compartment. There was no third passenger, though that didn’t mean there would not be, as Gladstone was only the first of the many stops the Rocky Mail would make before it pulled in to Roma St Station in Brisbane. Gin Gin, Bundaberg, Maryborough, Gympie, Nambour.… There were quite a few little towns on the way, and the train would wait for some time at each of them through the night. The stopping instead of the noise and stillness of the train was what woke you up, if you’d managed to get to sleep at all. But that wasn’t on my mind right then.
We had barely got out of sight of the station when Peter said, ‘That’s over, at last.’ I turned to him, surprised.
‘The eternal time – at home - when I can’t have a decent smoke.’ He dragged a packet of Benson & Hedges from his bag.
Dear God. Within thirty seconds from waving goodbye to my mother, I had discovered another Bimbo Brown, though this one looked like a young Sean Connery and didn’t have dirt perpetually behind his ears.
He selected two cigarettes carefully from the golden B&H box, put them both between his lips and lit them at one go from a match he flicked into the ashtray in the compartment, and handed me one. What was I to do? He hadn’t offered me the choice but simply assumed my need for nicotine would be as strong as his. I felt like someone who’d been given something by a Japanese guest – I had no idea of the protocol for handling such a gift – and certainly not for refusing it.
But once, years before, I had found a thin dead gumtree stick with a hole through the middle of it. I was, at the time, up at the old Toohey house on our property after we’d bought it. Idly, I had lit the end of it with a wax match from a tin in the kitchen, and drew on the other end of the stick, blowing smoke into the air and NOT doing the dreaded drawback.
Then I discovered that by drawing the smoke into my mouth, closing it and opening some valve in my throat – I think it’s actually the epiglottis – and forcing the air from my mouth out through my nose, I could do a reasonably fair imitation of the drawback. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean - it’s not like you’re going to get hooked on smoking a dry stick with a hole through the centre. It was murder on the sinuses but I filed the trick away for future reference, not expecting it ever to be needed.
Honestly, I never imagined I would be using this rather specialised piece of knowledge while the train was still picking up speed getting away from Gladstone railway station, but it solved the diplomatic problem in the compartment while retaining some cred for coolness. He might have been a Nudgee boy but I was after all his senior and going to a tertiary institution, even if younger than he. I felt the need to retain the balance of power, or some form of seniority at least.
In any case, he wasn’t taking a speck of notice of what I was doing, making the not unreasonable assumption that every adolescent boy could and would smoke at every opportunity. He was again digging into his bag, from which he produced two stubbies of Fourex.
For those of you ignorant of Queensland ways, these were smallish bottles of the only beer drunk without embarrassment by real men in Queensland in the 60s. You could buy another Queensland beer, Bulimba Gold Top, but you would be revealing by our standards an appalling ignorance of the quality of beer.
Any idea you might have of getting out a Victorian beer like VB would have had you completely out of the right social circles where I came from, even though they were exactly the same beer but with different labels. And if you really wanted to become persona non grata, then try offering a proper Queenslander an imported beer! If the term ‘wanker’ had been invented then, which it hadn’t, then you would surely have been called one. And quite justifiably by early 1960s standards, in my humble opinion.
There was a built-in bottle opener under the fold-down washbasin of every sleeping compartment in the Rocky Mail – or any civilised passenger train in Australia at the time for that matter. Bear in mind that screwtops for fizzy drinks or beer hadn’t yet been invented either. A seasoned veteran, Peter flipped the tops off the luke-warm stubbies and handed me one of those as well.
Holy smoke. We weren’t even at the Toolooa bends five km from Gladstone and I was faux-puffing on a cigarette and illegally drinking alcohol (the age of adulthood then fixed at 21, not even 18!) and my poor mother would barely have made it out of Gladstone on the way back to Calliope by that time.
If she weren’t quite aghast by that turn of events – and I admit to being pretty surprised by them myself – she would have been totally appalled at what happened later in the evening. While I was sipping sedately on my stubbie, Peter chugged his down in about a minute – long enough to finish his smoke – and left the compartment, saying in his best General MacArthur accent, ‘I shall return.’
Now I KNOW what you’re thinking, but don’t even try to anticipate things, because you’re just going to get it all wrong. In fact, let’s clear this up once and for all. He wasn’t going to the toilet to shoot up on heroin, or snort cocaine (though where you’d do the latter on a rocking and rolling Rocky Mail that had now been wound up to top speed of about 70 kph I have no idea.) Hard drugs like those just weren’t around in the early 60s. Hard to credit that, I know, but really, the only ones till the late 60s up our way were tobacco and alcohol. No grass, no smack, no coke, no crack, no ice or ekkies. Just grog and smokes. OK?
So where the blazes was my new mate Peter going while I quickly stubbed out the last three quarters of my smoke and pushed it as far into the deep ashtray as possible so he couldn’t see it had been abandoned while still a goer?
He was away a while and came back looking pleased with himself. AHAH! Now I know what you’re thinking – that he’d found a girl or maybe two to bring to the compartment, now it was obvious we weren’t having a third party (like a Baptist minister or one of the Christian Brothers) to share with for some hours at least.
Wrong again. Be patient.
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