The tube of toothpaste was barely recognizable. More a crumpled aluminium ribbon than a tube. But Davy managed to squeeze out the remainder. A small snake of paste oozed slowly to the ground. They all giggled. The squeals of kids savouring doing the wrong thing. There was a sense of frisson in their devilry. What if the Swaggie came back and caught them? Would he tell their Mums? Would he hurt them? Then Davy found an equally sad toothbrush and stomped it into the damp soil. Two older neighbourhood kids had egged him on. He was only seven years old, they were so much more worldly at ten years of age. Almost men. Davy sought their approval; wanted to match their delinquency. They’d tossed some of Swaggie’s meagre belongings around his campsite and squashed his billy can with a rock. Then Snorter hissed that he’d heard a man’s voice and they scarpered like startled rabbits. Could’ve been a local but it might have been Swaggie coming back.
No-one remembers when the swagman arrived here and set up his crude camp. It was now late 1960, cicada season, but he’d been coming and going for a few years before having his campsite plundered today. Located adjacent to the West Kempsey landfill tip, he’d salvaged some sheets of corrugated iron and erected a crude shelter underneath the canopy of a large mulberry tree. Smaller shrubbery created a walled effect affording him a modicum of privacy. But Swaggie was on their turf. The local tip was a honeypot for the kids of West Kempsey. It was a constantly changing smorgasbord of materials for cubby houses and billy carts.
Swaggie never stood a chance to meet or show them any kindness. The Graeme Thorne kidnapping and murder in Sydney’s eastern suburbs had unfolded only a couple of months earlier. The freewheeling, free-range lives of Australian kids would never be the same. Their parents had warned them: never talk to Swaggie and never go near his campsite. In the kids’ fertile imaginations he was evil incarnate. People usually only encountered him from a distance and he rarely engaged with Kempsey’s townsfolk. Similarly, his hair and beard had seldom engaged with scissors or a comb. He wore the same dark coat in all seasons and his right leg dragged with a pronounced limp. In 1950s Kempsey he stood out; was suspiciously different. Comparable to being a leper or, even worse, a communist. There was no thought of compassion. The three boys were providing a community service by trashing Swaggie’s campsite.
From a distance I watched for almost ten minutes. There were possibly three of them in there. I didn’t want to frighten the little buggers and incur the wrath of their parents, or worse, the local coppers. Vagrancy‘s a crime in NSW, it’s the government’s way of policing us undeserving poor. It’s arbitrary; if a cop decides I’ve got no visible means of support, then, by default, I must be from the criminal class. Yeah, I’ve had a few brushes with the coppers. Some of them are OK, leave me alone. But others want to give me a good kicking and move me on. Depends how they’re feeling. It’s amazing how the bastards’ spirits lift after grinding a homeless bloke further into the ground. You can lift yourself up a bit, but they want to chop your legs off again. I’m not bitter. It’s just reality; the way my life has played out.
Would the snotty-nosed little intruders in my campsite show some respect if they knew my story? Nah, they’re just mirrors of their parents’ own prejudices. Would they care that I’d fought for my country? Or that I was repatriated to Australia in 1917 after taking shrapnel from an exploding German shell at the front? Do they wonder why I limp?
After the war I studied at nights at the Sydney Technical College. Completed my Leaving Certificate and Engineering Certificates. It was a slog, but I was determined. I also found love. Life was unfolding gloriously. By 1927 Maisie and I were living in Watsons Bay with our twin daughters who attended school in the city. As a young engineer and draftsman I’d been asked to undertake preliminary work on Bradfield’s proposed bridge across Sydney Harbour.
If the parents of the three little miscreants trashing my camp love their children as much as I loved mine, they’d have an acute empathy for my loss. When the steel hulled RMS ‘Tahiti’ sliced through the smaller wooden passenger ferry ‘Greycliffe’ en-route from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay, the ferry sank immediately. On that November afternoon in 1927, forty passengers were trapped and drowned inside the wreckage as it plunged to the bottom of Sydney Harbour. Maisie and my twins were amongst them. Who could predict that a regular school ferry run would end so devastatingly just off Garden Island? In an instant, my universe altered irrevocably.
My grief was indescribable; there are no suitable adjectives. The pain of my loss was infinitely greater than the chronic pain of my shattered leg or my shell-shock. I sought refuge in powdered aspirin and alcohol. I couldn’t complete my engineering project for the Department of Main Roads and the proposed Harbour Bridge. I undertook a few consulting engineering tasks but quickly lost all enthusiasm for work and life itself. I quit the rented home in Watson’s Bay. The harbour, which had cruelly swallowed my family, was a daily torment. It laughed in my face. When I fled Sydney I created a new universe and relocated there.
And for 30 years I’ve been a withered leaf randomly tossed by the winds. Living roughly and simply, I’ve eschewed the trappings of my old universe. I exist with an underlying numbness. There are few highs or lows. Just daily survival. My possessions are minimal and replaceable so I’ll shout out a warning rather than confront these little nose miners. Should scatter them. That way I’ll avoid another beating or a vagrancy charge. Maybe not. But I struggle continuously with the public’s malice towards homelessness. I am not a criminal.
Writer’s note: The 1902 Vagrancy Act in NSW determined that it was a criminal offence to be unable to demonstrate visible means of support, i.e. vagrancy. It remained enforceable until the 1970 Repeal of the Summary Offences Act which, amongst other offences, removed vagrancy as a crime.