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Chapter 11. Perth, Michelangelo and Pool

Harvey started the next stage of his life with his usual enthusiasm, and Perth responded. 

Perth!  What a place to be at any time, but to be young in Perth in the late1960s was heaven.  Perth was light.  It was sun.    Jake and Harvey saw the city through eyes that were still gritty with the dust of Afghan roads.  Perth was a paradise to the travellers who had just come from the chaotic alleys of Benares and the masses milling in the streets of Madras.  The well-kept gardens and smart houses of Perth were a world away from the narrow streets of Calcutta where everything needed a coat of paint.  In Calcutta even new buildings managed to look old before they were finished.  Perth welcomed the two travellers. Everything was clean.  Harvey was struck by the cartons of milk in the shops. Something ordinary, yes, but the rows of neat, white cartons full of fresh, white milk in the fridge in the corner of the shop seemed to symbolize all that was good in the new life.  Life had possibilities. Here was a future, and it was all the better because for Harvey it was so unexpected.  He had only thought of Australia as another stage on the journey.  It would be more hard work at the business of existence like in Afghanistan or India.  He had not expected paradise. We always find nirvana when we are not looking for it. He had arrived with about 20 American dollars, and ever afterwards remembered his first efforts at getting a job. Things were positive.  Australia was going somewhere.  Everyone was helpful.

“Sorry mate, we’ve nothing here, but if you just walk down the road to the packing factory, they might have something.  I heard they were taking men on.  Or failing that, try the building site round the corner there.  They often need people.”

It seemed to him that the pioneering spirit of the old settlers hadn’t quite died out.  Perhaps the passengers singing the songs on “The Eastern Queen” had had the right idea after all. Australia was worth living in. There was a freshness and a newness here.  The air of Perth was a clear air.  Harvey soon had somewhere to live and found a job in the potato department of the fruit and vegetable market.

Jake had come across a boarding house run by a Mrs Hartington who was a gruff, kind-hearted widow in her seventies who felt she had to be doing something.  She loved starting businesses, and then selling them, and in this she was usually successful.   Her last venture had been travelling through the outback in a van, selling dresses to the wives of farmers and shopkeepers in the little communities dotted across the huge expanse of Western Australia.  She had given up these marathon journeys a couple of years before, but her van was still parked on the driveway, with some dresses hanging in the back.  It was facing the gate to the road, and the road led to the vast expanse of the northwest.  The little van seemed ready to set out again over the miles of dry roads, and every time its owner passed it she had to struggle against the temptation to throw some more stock in the back and head off out of the city to sell dresses once more.  For the time being, however, she was running a boarding house in the western suburbs of Perth.  Apart from the newly arrived like Jake and Harvey, she had long-term lodgers who were mainly failures in the hard business of life.  They were men (she only let rooms to men) who after years of work had still not managed to buy a house of their own.  

William was a good example of the type.  He was a thin man in his late thirties who wore old-fashioned clothes and a conventional length of hair.  He also sported a moustache and looked as if he had stepped out of the 1940s.  He spent his mornings writing letters applying for jobs and his afternoons watching old films on TV.  One afternoon, in the middle of a black and white western from the 50s, he received a phone call. The phone was out in the hall and as no one else moved, Harvey got up and answered it.

“William, it’s for you.”

William looked up bewildered.  No one ever phoned him. He didn’t move.

“It’s for you!”

 William finally got up, shuffled over to the hall and took the call. A few minutes later he put down the phone, came back to the lounge and announced, “You are now looking at the Assistant Director of the Edgarley Hotel.”

It turned out that this hotel was in some small town about 600 miles up the coast, and the manager must have been rash enough or desperate enough to recruit William at a distance, on the basis of his letter of application.  William’s new job, announced in this portentous way, was doomed to failure.  He knew almost nothing about managing hotels, and he was not the type to learn.  He walked about the house for the rest of the day in a slow and dignified way as befitted the importance of his new position.  The next day he packed and left.  How long would he last in the Edgarley Hotel?  How long would it be before he was back in Mrs Hartington´s boarding house, scanning the papers for vacancies, making more applications, and watching black and white films on TV through the afternoons?

Harvey enjoyed his working day.  The hours were from 5.30 in the morning to 1.00 pm, and despite the early start it was not a bad timetable for a young man with no obligations. He strolled down to the market in the summer morning and did his undemanding work with little exertion.  He emptied sacks of potatoes on to a conveyor belt. The potatoes had come from the farms around Perth.  The belt carried them to a team of five women who bagged them up ready for delivery to the shops. These women chatted happily through the morning. Harvey finished at one o’clock, had a cool, thick milk shake outside the market, and then strolled home.  In the afternoon he lay on his bed and read from the books he found on the boarding house shelves. In the lounge there were about three feet of hardbacks from some long-defunct book club. They all had the same binding, a glossy green with the titles picked out in gold.   He chose one which was the story of Michelangelo.  It was worth reading, and Harvey felt bit strange to be there in the new world, reading about the old.  He was starting a new life, involved every morning with potatoes, but reading about renaissance Italy in the afternoon. Hadn’t he left Europe behind, along with the renaissance and along with the past, both his own and Europe’s? 

In the evening he went with Jake to the centre of Perth to a bar where there was a pool table.  A couple of hours later he walked back, dropped into bed and knew nothing till his alarm woke him at 5.00.  It wasn’t a bad life.   Harvey was always disposed to be happy, and if a total lack of responsibility is happiness (and it can be for a short time), then probably his stay in Perth was one of his happiest times of all. 

This was helped by the fact that in his first week in Perth, in the bar where he went with Jake to play pool, Harvey met Lorna.