The unspeakable violence which men can do

“He stood at the window of the empty café and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (1992).


Most of my memories growing up in the Reno are happy ones, but given the amalgam of humanity a few were not so pleasant. Things I saw or heard which would leave a lasting and sad impression on me such as the too often ruinous fallouts of gambling, prostitution, and heavy drinking. One of these experiences however, was wholly terrifying for a young child, and it would haunt me well into my adult years. It would be as a result of this happening that I would find it extremely hard to forgive those who would take advantage of children, especially if this was sexual abuse. As consenting adults we are more often than not deserving of the consequences of our relationships and we should fight against that ‘self-righteousness’ which would squarely place the blame on the other, but when it comes to children it is far better that we lose all that we possess than it is to harm even one of these. It is also very difficult for me to understand why otherwise very good and sensitive authors would feel the need to describe such violation graphically. It never made any proper sense to me. 

Next door to the shoppe was the ‘neighbourhood’ fine food delicatessen.[1] It was only a small place but packed to the rafters with just about anything and everything that could have been considered even remotely edible. Owned by a hardworking Greek-Albanian couple with three children, it complimented the Reno in its longevity at least. The eldest of the three siblings T., who had a remarkable gift for drawing and went about barefoot paying no regard for weather, was my very first best friend. Together we would explore the foreboding nooks and crannies (and not rarely the roof tops too) of that long stretch of King Street, Newtown,[2] running all the way south to Saint Peters. Along this wide expanse of our exploration which included fabulous toyshops, colourful haberdasheries, bloody butcheries ankle deep in sawdust, cagey pawn shops, together with that brilliant splattering of old generation milk-bars and queenly bakeries with the best pink iced finger buns this side of earth, were the numerous pubs. Big and brawny, the beating heart of the street they were. One of these, the Sandringham Hotel (The Sando),[3] was to figure prominently in our lives. Most pubs or ‘hotels’ as they were also known, would rent out rooms. Committed bachelors and widowers would spend large parts of their lives in those popular establishments as borders. One such person, someone we referred to as Uncle A., would hurt us.

During our late afternoon expeditions up and down King Street, which would afterwards conjure up lively images in my mind of two latter day Huck Finns, we looked out for the jovial Uncle A. The middle-aged man with his unruly mop of reddish hair would be frequently seen having a drink near the main entrance to the pub. What drew us to him were the Superhero comics he would invariably be reading. One evening T. and I were out playing past our curfew (which to the ongoing chagrin of our parents was a much too regular occurrence) when we decided to play “chasings” down to the hotel. Normally this would be in our billy-carts, but this day it was on foot. Uncle A. seeing us and second-guessing our fascination for his marvellous magazines asked us to meet him “round the back”. He invited us to his room and brought out a large cardboard box. It was stacked with those colourful thin volumes which illustrated the improbable stories of our larger-than-life superheroes: The Flash, Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and all the rest who made their way into the 1960’s through the Great Depression and World War II.

He cleared some space and dropped the big box onto the kitchen table. What he almost immediately started to pick out were not the comics we were excitedly anticipating. He had placed “comics” in our hands which had real people in them, and what straightaway struck me was that these people were not wearing clothes. And the pictures too, were without colour, the pages were like those of a newspaper. I started to feel uncomfortable and scared. A child has crystalline discernment. This nasty man had thrown pornography into our hands. Something is not right here. There is the throbbing feeling of an outer darkness.

The little boy sees him place the long serrated blade onto that kitchen table next to his yucky magazines. The man runs his tattooed and nicotine scarred fingers through the little boy’s neatly cropped hair. He mutters unfamiliar words under his intoxicated breath. The little boy looks again at the sharp blade which only moments ago had been depressed hard into his throat. Has he cut me deep? Daddy, am I bleeding? He is terrified, even more than that time when he was run after by the angry dog. It was an Alsatian, he was later told. A heavy hand grabs him from behind the neck. The other older boy, the one without the shoes, is perfectly silent. Maybe he thinks this is some kind of game. The room reeks of alcohol and cigarette smoke. The table has a leg missing and is propped up by a piece of broom-stick. In a twisted connection to identity everything in this small dirty flatette appears to be broken. Laws count for nothing here. These things I can still remember. Sometimes almost entirely clearly and other times only loosely in bits and pieces.

I am sobbing and have wet my pants, yet amazingly still enough in “control” to be scanning about the room for any avenue of escape. One of the bonuses of growing up in the inner-city tributaries, we did not panic or frighten too easy. But I knew nothing of death until that hour at the Sandringham where I would receive one of my earliest lessons into the more brutal and violent realities of life. Uncle A. had taken my friend by the hand and led him into another room. I could only just hear the voices but have a distinct memory of running water. The door behind me had a number of locks, for some reason perhaps in his haste and panic, only one or two of these were securely fastened. All I had to do was unlock those bolts near the door handle. They were within my reach. Michael, do not make any noise. Quickly! A few moments later I am sprinting as fast as my legs can carry me up King Street. Our parents have to know of T. being in danger because of the “big bad man.”

The police came to the café in a hurry but they were not in uniform. They were the ‘plain clothes’. These were the famous detectives. One of these was a striking looking silver-haired woman. Could this have been the legendary Shirley Morgan with whom I would incredibly work with some twelve years later as a probationary constable?[4] With the permission of my parents the two detectives helped me into their unmarked car and we sped down to the pub. By this time safe myself, I was more concerned for the safety of my best friend. I have forgotten how we managed to get into Uncle A.’s room, but not what we saw once we entered. There was no one in the kitchenette. We heard voices coming from what turned out to be the bathroom. T.’s clothes were lying on the wet ground and my young friend was in the bath-tub. The semi-naked Uncle A. was on his knees. His hands were deep in the soapy water.

And for the second time that night, the sense of an awful and overwhelming dread.    

The rest is not too clear, and maybe it is better that way. I do remember however some time later, going to the “big building” and thinking it odd that the detectives would bring our soiled underwear (mine and T.’s) into the court in plastic bags. For some reason I felt unhappy when I realized what the police had brought with them. I suddenly felt ‘unclean’… and responsible. It would take a long time and countless nightmares for me to comprehend these confused feelings and to be rid of them. Michael, you must remember these happenings are not you. Do not multiply the ghosts. Long afterwards having read Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish Nobel poet who emphasizes childhood experience and memory in his work, I discovered that it was possible to write of these things without getting completely ‘fixed’ on them.[5] There exists in Tranströmer’s literature a rich trove of insights for those who are engaging with developmental psychology and particularly with the innateness and environmental influences question.[6] I do not know what happened to Uncle A., but we never saw or heard of him again. I was seven years old at the time and T. was eight.[7] Many years into the future a Sydney based rock band The Whitlams would write an ode to the pub “God Drinks at the Sando”… but for two little boys it was where they would come face-to-face with the devil.


A few weeks later and my first brush with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Make sure the doors are locked, Michael… 123… knock… 123… knock… 123… knock. Surprisingly, it would take some time for me to realize why the skin of the middle knuckle on the index finger of my right hand would invariably be sore and broken.

“I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armour.” (T.T.)


Years earlier I had been sexually assaulted by my Nanny. In lots of respects adults have continued to shock me, in very good and very bad ways. I mean for their limitless capacity to routinely express undreamed-of acts of compassion, as for their day-to-day devastating acts of unspeakable violence.

We may carry the memory of the damage which was done to us, but it is not who we are. And to the extent that we move forward and build and create and share a little of the Light which has been revealed to us, the perpetrators hold on us is increasingly weakened and diminished. And for those who have practised the great and often enough difficult art of forgiveness, the victory itself is greater and goes deeper than the memory. It will take a little time and some heavy loads of endurance, but the ghosts can be surely quietened. 

“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time” (Saint Francis de Sales).


[1] Similarly to the Reno, the small delicatessen went through a number of transformations throughout the decades. It is now a busy newsagency run by a lovely Asian couple.



[4] My initial posting as a junior trainee was at Newtown Police Station, just a few blocks down from the Reno! It was one of the more well known divisional stations with an improbable bag of ‘colourful’ characters.



[7] I literally bumped into T. some thirty years later outside a church in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. He was leaving after a baptismal service just as I was about to attend one. We embraced warmly, but too much time had passed. There was little to say.