When I was writing up my PhD, a stumbled on a story about the bombing of the Communist Party Headquarters in Brisbane in the 1970s. I imagined this story based on the reading I did about the bombings. The images come from the ephemera of the Brisbane Communist Party held at the Fryer Library.
Crocodile Hunt: A short story
An hour before the protest, they gathered under Murray’s apartment. Murray’s put down squares of green carpet to stop the mud from seeping up between the floorboards, off-cuts that meet in jagged lines. This part of the house has been neglected. When the owners at number one bought the place, they closed in the verandah, stuck bathrooms at the end of the hallways: one tub and toilet for every three rooms. Rented the place out to young men with stains on their collars and no baggage. But they calculated wrong—this part got left over, not enough for a unit. Tenants threw their garbage here.
Murray claimed the space, cleared out the junk. He felt it has possibilities, liked the idea of himself as a person who sees what others can’t. He’s dragged two sofas, thin with age, onto the carpeted part, and his friends all sit around. Roger was already drinking and he sits in the sun, doodling on the canvas stretched over the arms of the chair:
Billy looks out onto the street, waving his hand in front of his face, but there”s nothing there. No flies.
Murray leads them down Mary and Edward Street onto Wickham Terrace.
A mob gathers around the Tower Mill Hotel. Protestors and cops both. In the dusk, Murray watches a man jiggle a brick, gauging its weight. There’s a sense of something going on beneath the surface but Murray can’t grasp it. Thinks of the three witches in Polanski’s Macbeth, huddled together on the beach, digging a circle in the sand with bare hands, unwrapping their filthy bundle.
Murray sees the man’s stout hand, a flash of his watch dial, the sleeve rolled back, muscles on the upper arm bundled tight. His face half-erased by the dark.
The brick’s in the air and Murray expects it to spin but it doesn’t, it holds its position, arcs forward, as though someone’s taken the sky and pulled it sideways to give the impression of movement—those chase scenes in the Punch and Judy shows you don’t see anymore. The brick hits the cement and fractures. Red dust on the pigs’ shined shoes.
Murray feels the same shock he felt sitting in the sagging canvas seat at one of his film nights after he recognised the witches’ bundle. A severed human arm, hacked off just below the elbow. Both times, he’d been looking too intently. No distance or defence when the realisation came.
“What is it?” says Lan.
Murray points to the man who threw the brick but she’s looking the other way, at a cop in a white riot helmet, his head swollen up as though bitten.
The cop yells, “Drop any weapons you have. We will advance. Drop any weapons.”
Lan stands on Murray’s feet to see.
Through a megaphone: “You’re occupying too much of the road. Step back. Step back.”
Lan’s back is pressed against Murray’s stomach. Her bum fits snugly to his groin. He resists the urge to plant his cold hands on her stomach.
She says, “Don’t move.”
She sounds winded. He’s pinned to the ground by her feet.
Again: “Step back. Step back.”
Next to him, Roger begins a chant.
“Springboks,” he yells, the rest of the crowd picking up the chant, “out now!”
Murray looks up, sees a hand pressed against the glass in one of the hotel”s windows, quickly withdrawn. The hand belongs to a white man, for sure. It must be one of the footballers, although the gesture is out of keeping with how he imagines them. Too timid. He feels tired. But Jacobus Johannes Fouché”s voice is in his head, These men represent the South African way of life, and the thought of that bastard Bjelke inviting them here.
He, Roger and Lan were there the day before when the footballers pulled up outside the Tower Mill Hotel in a black and white bus.
“Can you believe the cheek of those bastards?” said Roger when they saw them bounding off the bus, legs the span of Murray’s two hands.
Five Nazis, all in uniform, were lined up in front of the glass doors reflecting the city. The Springboks strode inside, ignoring the Nazis’ salute. The protestors were shouting. An apple splattered wetly on the sidewalk.
The big football game’s been and gone and the protestors came back.
The pigs surge forward. Murray staggers. He stumbles, pinned beneath Lan. They almost fall. Murray’s arm around Lan, lifting her, pulling her. Her legs tangle in his. Can’t touch the ground. Ahead of them, bodies crash against the fence around Wickham park, surge over. He loses his grip on Lan, re-connects with her elbow, holds tight. He thinks, she’s too small to survive. They’re swept against the fence. Someone’s pressing against the small of his back. Murray bundles Lan up. She spills over awkwardly, knees wrong somehow. She could be yelling or crying. He heaves himself over the fence, trying to keep one hand on Lan at all times.
His foot twists beneath him. He tumbles forward, hands out. The ground slopes away. Hits the deck, takes the full impact in his chest. A burning in his gut and grass in his ear. Flashes of hands and feet, coloured sneakers and polished shoes, half sliding, half falling into the night.
Lan slides with him, holding his jumper with both hands like reigns. The neckline stretches and he’s half-strangled.
She shouts, “Get up! Get up!”
“I’m up,” says Murray.
The words come out aggressively. He wants to protect her. “Hold on to me,” he says.
He puts his hand out, touches someone’s shoulders. He resists the urge to grab their shirt, use them to slow his descent.
A pig brings his fist down on a man’s head nearby and he drops out of Murray”s line of sight. Another of the bastards swishes his baton through the bodies as though mixing soup, yelling, “You fucking toerags, you dirty longhairs.”
Lights on the other side of the park. The green strip, hemmed by trees, opens out onto Albert Street. Bodies part, stream around the trunks, pushed onto the road by the weight of the crowd.
Murray holds Lan”s wrist, tells her to keep running. They break out beyond the edge of the crowd. They find themselves in the middle of the road. A car swerves around them, the driver leaning into the horn, yelling obscenities.
Lan shouts, “Peace!” to the disappearing car.
Lan left in broad daylight. Murray didn’t know why this upset him, except he had a vague sense it should’ve happened in the nighttime, under the cover of dark.
She pulled down half his jumpers getting the suitcase from the top of the cupboard. She left his clothes scattered across the bedroom.
In the two days after she left, Murray scoured their unit looking for some clue, a note to him perhaps, blown off the table in the wind, or put down and forgotten in the rush. Maybe there was a letter from her parents, bankrupt, demanding she return to Vietnam. Or a relative had died. A cousin in the Viet Cong napalmed. He emptied out her side of the wardrobe, almost bare, mixing her clothes with his on the floor.
He looks for Lan in a unit too damaged to rent out, which leaks in the corners. The carpet is torn up, candles melted onto the windowsill and a dark stain in the centre of the room. He called her name. His voice echoes so he didn’t recognise himself.
He circles the place, investigates its underbelly. He knows already—she isn’t there.
Murray stretches out face down on one of the lounge chairs underneath, caught a whiff of stale beer, the faint odour of Lan’s cunt. She’d sat there so many times. He turns his head to the side to smoke. He sees one of the other boarders—the male half of an old couple with a budgerigar each—sitting on the landing drinking Four Ex. He sees Murray and waved. Murray resents him. He sat with his wife on their five-by-two verandah every day, cut off from the others by a folding screen. They must have seen Lan leave. Haven’t said a word. Or tried to stop her. He turns his head and pretends he hasn’t seen.
Roger rings in the afternoon, says, “What gives? We were supposed to have lunch.”
Murray says, “Lan’s left me.” He knows he’ll cry, shuts up.
“Oh Christ. I’m so sorry, Murray,” says Roger.
Murray inhales. “It was just out of the blue,” he says.
“Where”s she gone?”
“I don”t know.”
“She didn’t say anything?”
“She could be anywhere. Maybe you should call the police, put in a missing report,” says Roger.
“I’m not too friendly with the cops,” said Murray, and coughs. Roger knows.
“You sound a bit crook. I’ll come over,” says Roger.
“That’d be good,” says Murray.
Roger turns up at the house an hour later, wearing wide pants and a tight collared shirt with thick white and red stripes. He’s growing a moustache, only cuts his hair when he visits his parents.
Murray says, “I’ll make us a cuppa.”
Roger nods, sits down at the vinyl table with his hands resting on his knees.
He says, “Are you coming to 291 on Sunday?”
Murray says, “What’s on?”
“I’m showing The Jester”s Tale.”
Murray studied the film in class. His favourite scene is of a battle, with the jester in the front line. The jester breaks the metal fork that steadies the musket. Instead of standing to shoot, he has to stretch out on his belly. Because he’s lying in the dirt, all the shots go over his head. Parts of the film are animated, showing lines of soldiers with their heads being knocked off by canons, a horse dying on its back with its four hooves curled up. It makes war look ridiculous, a futile clash between paper armies, expendable men lined up and knocked down before God decreed that enough was enough—the jester knows the battle’s over when angels fly down from the clouds holding a banner scrawled finis. The jester finds a branch covered in leaves on the ground and plants it. Lan would’ve liked it.
Roger says, “Will you help me with the projector? Chris can’t.”
“Yeah,” says Murray.
“If you”re up for it,” says Roger.
Murray gives Roger a mug of tea, sits down with his own mug between his elbows, and cradles his head in his hands. His hair falls over his wrists.
Roger says, “Does her family know?”
Murray makes a gasping noise through his hands. “I don’t even know how to contact them,” he says. “She wrote them letters—couldn’t afford to phone—but she’s taken everything with her. The address book. Everything.”
Murray knows almost nothing of the specifics of Lan’s life before she met him. From what she told him, he constructed a very clear image of her house on the banks of a river, a tin shack on stilts with washing strung across the doorway, and her Grandma, head shaved, sitting on a stool, chewing and looking out at the barges sliding past, weighed down with melons and sand. But this could be any place anywhere in the country. She may have told him the name but he”d forgotten, the unfamiliar word slipping away from him. He feels his ignorance as a squeezing in the lower half of his back.
Lan was the first Asian he’d ever spoken to. She wore wrap-around skirts that changed colour in the sun; grew her hair below the waist; sat in the front row in class and never spoke. He liked the shape of her calf as it emerged from her skirt. He saw her on the great lawn filming her reflection in a window with a Sony Portapak and knew that he wanted her more than anything.
He walked up and asked her, “What’re you doing?” not sure how good her English was.
She turned the camera on him, looked at him through the viewfinder and said, “What does it look like?”
She was wearing leather sandals with a strap around the ankles. There was dirt in the corner of the nail on her big toe.
Murray seduced her by saying almost nothing and touching her as often as he could. He was worried about offending her. What reading he had done made him aware of his own ignorance, and his friend in Psych told him that when you touch a girl enough—especially around the aureole—a hormone is released that bonds them to you, makes them sad when you leave them or they leave you. In conversation, Murray would put his hand on Lan’s elbow, once on the top of her head. He got in the habit of hugging everyone, so it wouldn’t look odd when he hugged her.
Lan was ready to be seduced. Murray invited her to a winter party underneath the house. They kissed next to fire he’d made in a tin barrel. The rubber on the sole of his shoes burnt, pressed up against the barrel. She moved into his unit quickly, her clothes bundled in three plastic bags. He wanted her to stay in bed with him all day, imagined he was John Lennon and she Yoko Ono. Their mattress a soup of discarded clothes, bread crumbs, wine stains, come stains, ash and flakes of pot. He resented her when she told him she was bored, and left him, sheets pulled aside to reveal his erection, to go to class.
Lan tutored high schoolers for a while, but they complained to their mothers that they couldn”t understand her. She told him her parents wanted her to come home. The next night he tidied the house and cooked her dinner. Over the green peas and potato—Lan grated ginger over hers, mixed it with chilli and soy sauce, which she travelled all the way to Chinatown on a bus to buy—Murray proposed. They were married in the botanic gardens, surrounded by Murray’s friends.
The night before his father called him up and said, “It’s not too late to get out of it. You won’t be betraying the cause.”
Murray said, “You have no idea what this means to me.”
Murray wakes up early knowing he didn’t have any milk. He and Roger drunk too much the night before and Roger fell asleep sitting on the floor in front of the couch, his head resting on the seat, one arm flung over his eyes. Murray threw the sleeping bag over him. Although it’s Roger’s policy never to criticise any of his friends, Murray knows Roger thought he was losing it. Roger kept trying to clean up, shuffling things around without knowing where they went, not wanting to ask. Murray’s certain that his lack of milk would prove to Roger that he can’t cope.
By the time Murray is dressed, Roger is already sitting up. He climbs up on the lounge and sits cross-legged, scratching his head with both hands. Flakes of dandruff descend, illuminated by the morning sunlight.
Murray says, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
He walks outside, stops, sticks his head back inside the door and says, “Mate, what happened to your car?”
Roger says, “Huh?”
He stands up, letting the sleeping bag slide down his legs, showing his checkered boxer shorts.
Roger sees his car, says, “Fuck.”
Across the Valient’s yellow paint were sprayed the words, dirty commie bastard.
At 291, Murray ends up watching the kids’ movie Roger screens at the same time as The Jester’s Tale. He keeps losing concentration, finds his head in a space better suited to the irrational plot and random happenings of Clown Ferdinand and the Rocket. He likes the clown, his willingness to seek adventure; to climb into a spaceship with a bunch of kids without asking any questions; his joy in small things. Murray becomes mesmerised by the clown’s make-up, the two white circles outlined in black for the eyes, and the bigger circle around the mouth and chin, which comes right up to the nose.
When Lan was old enough, she would walk into the city temple with a tray around her neck and sell postcards to the American soldiers sightseeing. The first thing she learnt to say in English was, “One for your girlfriend.” She could say it in French too.
She would challenge the soldiers to games of tic-tac-toe, make them agree to buy a postcard if they lost. One American only played on condition that she would kiss him if he won. He would walk past every morning, squat down in the dirt with her, draw the lines with a stick. She won for ten days. He paid her the money but never took a postcard. Lan didn’t tell her parents, kept his postcards for herself.
On the eleventh day, the soldier won. He took her down a lane beside the temple. He untied the string that held her pants, hooked his thumb around the waist band, pulled them down. They bunched around her knees. The man’s lips wet on her thigh. Kissed her between the legs.
A year later, Lan got a letter in the mail from the soldier. Inside was a ticket to Australia and a note: “I couldn’t afford one to America.”
Lan told Murray this with a look of defiance.
“He was very ugly man,” she said.
Murray wished she hadn’t told him. He thought she wanted to make him jealous, perhaps arouse him. She liked to feel desirable. What he most wanted to do was save her, accept her past without judgment. He couldn’t think how to convince her of his neutrality. He forced himself to pick up the story, hold it, examine it from all angles. He would’ve liked to have found some hole in it.
He said, “Were you naughts or crosses?”
Lan said, “I was always naughts, he was always crosses.”
To Murray, Lan has become the zero, an imperfect circle scratched in the dirt, unbroken, empty. She never let him in.
Murray leaves halfway through. The film catches him off-balance. He feels queasy. He becomes aware he was sucking his stomach in, made the organ bunch up inside him. He goes out the back, leans against the long front window plastered with posters.
Billy, in thongs and shorts, comes out and rests one hand on Murray’s shoulder, holding a book in the other hand, The Ecstasy of Owen Muir.
“You all right?” he says.
Murray runs his fingers down either side of his nose.
“Yeah,” he says.
Billy pulls a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, passes one to Murray.
They smoke in silence, Billy leaning against the graffitied wall, flipping the pages of the book with his thumb.
Billy says, “Can you mind the shop while I take a leak?”
Murray nods and they go back inside. He perches on the backless stool behind the counter while Billy heads out. The film is still playing. Murray hears the soundtrack dully through the walls. The nausea passes, leaving him feeling scooped out.
When a man walks into the shop, Murray panics because he doesn’t know how to use the cash register. The machine sits on the desk in front of him, a creature with many button eyes.
He says anyway, “Can I help?”
The man paces out the length of the shelves too quickly to read the titles. He stops at a display of Australiana on a tiered shelf, slid his hand down the covers: Beckoning West, Window to Bushland, Restless Man, two collections of poems by Kath Walker: The Dawn is at Hand and We are Going. He pauses at Crocodile Hunt. The cover has a drawing of a bulky crocodile, scaled body bent in an S, its jaws under a man’s thumb. He picks it up, puts the picture close to his face. He holds the book loosely in his hand, his arm hanging down at his side. He continues his pacing, tapping the book against his thigh. He walks around the whole room once, scanning the shelves, reaches Murray at the counter and puts the book down between them. Murray picks it up, turns it over, looks for a price. He finds it stuck on the back in faded ink.
He looks up, opens his mouth to tell the man how much, and finds him staring intently at the ceiling. Murray looks up at it too. A hairline crack runs along the surface and bulges in the plaster where the wooden framework swells up. He looks down again to find the man staring at him.
Caught out, Murray mutters the price, says, “You don’t have it in exact change, do you?”
The man nods, fumbles around in his pocket for a bit and brings out a note, which he lays at an angle along the bench top. He counts the coins in the palm of his hand, pockets the extra. He makes a fist around the coins, brings his hand over the note and lets go. The coins fall over the bench. One spins wildly, rolls out past Murray’s arm. Murray lets it fall.
He recognises the man—the act of release triggered the memory, the fingers spread wide, the wrist bent, the black watch band. The man who had thrown the brick in the Springbok protest. Dead set. Murray looks up again, expecting to see the same glimmer of recognition, but the man’s back is turned and he’s walking out of the shop.
Murray follows him outside, leaving the door open and the money still on the counter. The man walks right along St Pauls Terrace. He tucks the book under his arm to cross Barry Parade, as though he needs both hands free to wave off oncoming traffic.
Murray stands on the other side of the road, unsure of what to do. He planned tell the man he recognised him from the strike and was a fellow comrade. They gave discounts to Communist Party members. But as soon as he was out of the florescent glare of the shop, it struck him that likely the man was not one of them at all. Just because he was at the march didn’t automatically make him a communist. Despite the unpopularity of the cause—“It’s just fucking football,” one of Murray’s friends had said. “What’s it got to do with anything?”—there had been many types there, a mixture of labour party members, unionists, members of the Radical Club and the Eureka Youth League, those not particularly attached to anyone. Plainclothes cops in amongst them. Roger told him that someone in the crowd next to him had turned quickly, bringing boots and fists down on people around him. Roger copped it in the jaw.
Murray remembers again the brick shattered on the ground. It hadn’t hit anyone, but was an incitement to violence.
He crosses the road about five meters behind the man, sticks to the outer edge of the pavement, head down. If he moves his eyes upwards, while still keeping his neck lowered, he can see the shoes of the man, his white socks flashing with each step.
The man turns the corner onto Brunswick Street. He stops at a car parked in front of the old Masonic Temple. Murray walks past fast, unsure of what to do next. The Temple’s entry is set back in the building, four steps leading up to a red door. Murray ducks inside the alcove, looks up to see the man sitting in the driver’s seat pulling out the pages of Crocodile Hunt and feeding them through the wound-down window where they land, fanned out, on the road. When he finishes dismembering the book, the man twists around in his seat, reaches back and spreads the page-less cover across the back of the car. The crocodile, snout on the side, one eye turned outwards, stares into the street. The man turns to face the front, flicks the ignition and drives off, the pages flying out and onto the road in his wake.
Murray sits down on the steps of the Temple and smokes. He isn”t sure what just happened. He guesses the man must have bought the book because he liked the picture on the front of the cover. Odd though he bothered to spend so much just for one picture. Murray remembers how he paced the shop and examined the ceiling. Reminds him of something.
A cough. Murray looks up. The man stands above him, his forearm resting on the wall. His other arm hangs at his side, hand bunched up around a bundle of keys.
“I wouldn’t of bothered following me,” the man says. “The police are on my side. Special branch are on my side.”
He pushes himself off the wall, stands up straight, says, “Heil Hitler.”
Murray brings his curled fist down on the door. It opens with the force of his knock and he feels like an idiot for even bothering. The hallway’s dark. Murray runs into a filing cabinet, swears, and stands in the corridor, with his hand still on the cabinet, calling, “Roger! Roger!”
Roger told him to meet him at 291. Murray had been walking back home, and on the other side of Mary Street, ready to cross, when he saw someone standing in front of the Auckland, looking out into the street. Murray didn”t stop. He didn”t need to. He knew it was the man from the bookshop, the Nazi. Murray kept walking until he reached the end of the street, turned the corner and ran. Shut himself in a phone box and dialled Roger”s number.
“I can”t get to my house,” Murray said when Roger picked up.
“Lock yourself out, did you?” said Roger.
“You know that Nazi who did your car? He’s back again.”
“How do you know?” said Roger.
“I saw him,” Murray said.
“What? Doing my car? Why didn’t you say something? We could’ve got the bastard.”
“No, no, not doing the car. I saw him just now. He’s standing outside my house. I think he’s waiting for me to come home.”
“I don’t get it,” said Roger.
“It doesn’t matter. I need to stay with you,” said Murray.
“You can’t. I’m going to a Communist Party meeting.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
“Ok. If you want.”
Roger hung up.
Now, Roger stands framed in the doorway of the meeting room.
“Hey Murray, shut up. I can hear you. Get in here.”
Murray sniffs, says, “Can you smell burning?”
Roger follows him down the hall.
Murray says, “Is it coming from the kitchen?”
Roger says, “No,” and the windows around them shatter. Next to Murray, a filing cabinet buckles and twists. A door blown off its hinges.
Murray feels things sliding away from him. Felt it once before. He wanted Lan to sit down with him, but she said she didn’t want to be touched. He’d playfully pulled her to him, a joke, but he pulled too hard and she went limp in his hands. Like she’d been expecting it.
Her head hit the table in front of him with a sharp, quick crack. He didn’t understand what had happened; he had never experienced violence this close. He imagined her brain as a line-drawing with the different sections coloured in, like his Psych friend had once showed him, except squashed in at the bottom. She recovered, of course, opened her eyes a second later to him gasping.
He remembers saying, “I just want to hold you. Why do you always do this to me?” Even to him sounded as though he’d missed something.
No one was killed in the April 19 1972 explosion.
That night, a man called The Courier Mail (1) saying he was a member of a right wing group and had just bombed the Brisbane Communist Party Headquarters. He threatened to bomb more on Friday if members attended the anti-Vietnam war moratorium that day. He ended his conversation with ‘Heil Hitler.’
Gary Mangan, a known Nazi party member, later confessed to the bombing. He was taken to court, but the Judge ruled that the body of evidence was inadmissible, citing a legal technicality. Mangan was not charged.
Ian Curr, in his article, Radical Books in Brisbane, published an image of the Communist party quarters in Brisbane. The image, entitled ‘After the Bomb, April 19 1972,’ shows detectives interviewing those who were in the building at the time. One man, with his back to the camera, is unidentified.
I imagined this unknown man, in thongs with the long hair, to be the main character of this story, Murray. It is in these gaps in historical knowledge that the writer of fiction is free to imagine.