Chemistry and The French Connection
The “French connection” was a welcome diversion. Christian was a very sensitive and sensual lady. She was to stay with her sister for three weeks. I would work in my shop during the day and see her at nights and on weekends. I think I survived those three weeks on an hours sleep. Her English was very basic and my French was limited to hello and Goodbye. A little chemistry goes a long way in any relationship and despite our communication problems we got on remarkably well. The French accent is one of the sexiest on earth and when delivered by an attractive lady, my knees went to water. The language barrier often resulted in many special moments and the three weeks went by too quickly.
When she returned to France we communicated, in a fashion, with letters and occasional tapes. With the use of a French language dictionary and her basic knowledge of English we managed to keep in touch. Christian applied for some sort of visa for three months that would allow her to come back to Australia and look for work. She would stay with her sister. Whilst in France she did a refresher course in English and her improvement was quite noticeable. I had attempted to memorize some basic French phrases but these were only token and I soon learned that language is not my ‘forte.’
I arranged with her that before she started work we would spend a week traveling to the opal fields and seeing a little of Australia.
Bright Lights and Smelly Roos
Within a few days of her arrival we were off to Lightning Ridge and then on to White Cliffs. Somewhere towards White Cliffs we drove several kilometers off the main road and set our swags up for the night. Around 2 in the morning we were awoken by the noise of a loud four wheel drive with a missing muffler. It stopped about 5 metres from us and had a full bank of very bright driving lights aimed directly at us. The smell of recently slaughtered kangaroo filled the air. The driver stuck his head out of the drivers window (without turning the engine or lights off) and asks “Have youse seen a brown Ute anywhere round here in the last couple of hours mate?” I replied that after midnight I wasn’t in the habit of looking for Utes of any colour or even red Ferraris. He went on with an extended dialogue about the lost Ute and the ‘bastards’ driving it. After a good ten minutes of being blinded and suffocated from the smell of dead kangaroo and diesel fumes he casually remarked, “well I won’t disturb ya!” and drove off into the night. Christian innocently asked what that was all about. I thought about it for a while and said I would try to explain tomorrow when we had lots of time.
We spent a couple of days at White Cliffs and Christian found a nice small piece of opal. When we returned to Canberra I cut her a stone from it and had it set in a silver pendant. I wonder if she still has it and what thoughts it provokes now, if any.
Back in Canberra life reverted to a normal routine. I went back to my shop and Christian got a job as a sales rep for Perrier mineral water and a few weeks later as secretary for Milton Black (the now well known astrologer and psychic). The pace slowed down a little and our relationship settled into a semblance of normality. On some weekends when I had my daughters, Christian would accompany us on our outings. They got on incredibly well and still remember her softness and gentle demeanor. Over the next few months the situation was to change.
The English Flirt
Some time around this period an attractive little English girl started coming into the shop on Friday nights (Late night shopping in Canberra). She asked if I remembered her from visits several months ago. I did of course, as I had remarked to a few mates about this cheeky little English piece that had come in and flirted with me. I think it was this brazen confidence that I found appealing and her downright unabashed flirting was intriguing (These were still the days when most women didn’t let their intentions be known quite as forthright as they do today)
The business was running well and we were building up regular customers and the support of several of the embassies. The American embassy in particular was sending us customers and our opal sales were continuing to grow. My dad was helping me a lot and Cynthia (My surrogate mother) was working on Friday nights and some Saturday mornings. Crystals and rocks were selling constantly along with marble goblets and ornaments. Agate ashtrays were a very popular item (These days I couldn’t give them away). Tumbled stones and polished gemstone faces attracted a regular clientele amongst the young.
Across the road from the shopping centre was Mirinjani nursing home. We became ‘mister fixit’ for all the ‘old dears’ who lived there. Often their treasures were not particularly valuable but priceless when it came to memories. No matter how impossible, I attempted to find solutions to keep their treasures going just a little longer. Between myself, the watch smith and the goldsmith we managed some minor miracles and the resulting smiles were very satisfying.
I was now sharing my dad’s house with Hughie Campbell and another guy who was a camera man for a local TV station. It was a happy household and Hughie’s sense of humour was contagious. Hughie is Irish and enjoys nothing more then “taking the Mickey “out of someone for a good laugh. True lasting friends are just a handful and Hughie became one of the best over the years. There were many adventures and experiences… good, bad and ugly… to come.
Since my mother’s death, almost a decade ago, my dad was becoming an alcoholic. During the war he had seen some atrocities in Papua New Guinea so shocking he needed alcohol to cope. After the war my mother’s strength kept the demon’s away from him most of the time. When she died, he again needed alcohol to come to terms with the adversities of life and now the demons were winning.
Despite Cynthia’s best endeavors my dad was loosing the battle. He would say he could stop drinking tomorrow if he wanted to. I guess he just never wanted to. My dad was a brilliant man. He had enormous empathy towards his fellow man and I loved him to bits. I could see the alcohol taking a grip and it was upsetting to see the effect it was having on him. At the time I believed it was weakness and didn’t understand that alcoholism was a disease and an addiction. He needed my support and I turned away from him, preferring not to visit if he had been drinking. It would be several years before the demons finally took their prize and many years before I could see the many mistakes I made with handling his addiction.
In the early years of my business the shops shut at midday on Saturday. Quite a few of the shop owners and many of the workers would go to a local tavern called “Matilda’s” that was attached to the shopping centre. This became a regular event for an hour or two after closing on Saturday. We would talk about our businesses and how things were going and the problems we were facing. Many of the shop owners were my age and were also running their first business. It was becoming obvious that several were not viable. Within the first two years many collapsed and went into liquidation leaving the lives and finances of these young entrepreneurs in ruin. Many more closed their doors when the first lease was up. The first few years for any new business are hard and most don’t last. Fifteen years later when I moved MINESHAFT to the centre of Canberra there were only six original shop owners left.
Us and Them
Shopping malls seem to be run by corporations that show little empathy towards their small business tenants. I will point this out more in later chapters but for now this little gem will do.
During the early years of Cooleman Court shopping centre, management became concerned that many of the lease holders were getting together and talking about business and management. They had heard amongst other things, the tenants were unhappy with the way management was spending the compulsory advertising money we all paid. They were perfectly correct in this as we (the tenants) were never asked how we would like our money spent. Management on the other hand spent it the way they felt, patting themselves on the back at what they perceived was a great job. Their discontent with our meetings became a major issue for them and they sent around a memo stating “that no more then three tenants can meet at the same place at the same time.” We were absolutely amazed at the audacity of this Gestapo like attitude. It actually became a bit of joke, as when anyone saw a group of tenants talking, another tenant would come over and demand we separate! It certainly didn’t stop our Saturday morning “Matilda’s” get together. This “us” and “them” is a major concern to tenants in most shopping centres in Australia. If only it was “we”!
I enjoyed surf board riding and had been doing it off and on for many years. One of the shops at Cooleman Court was a surf shop, owned by Kevin Barr. Kevin was an expert surfer and at one time was Australian knee board champion. We would occasionally head for the south coast for a little surfing. He knew all the good breaks and which break would be working best at any time of the tide or weather condition. One particular day above all others, sticks in my mind.
We had gone to a beach a little south of Ulladulla and arrived just before dawn. It was one of those perfect mornings. The sun was just rising when we hit the water and we had the beach to ourselves. The sea was mirror smooth and you could easily see the bottom. The red clouds reflected like patchwork on the mirrored water. The waves were absolutely perfect and the swell was just the way I like it, not too small and not too big. I was sitting on my board waiting for a wave, totally immersed in the beauty of the situation. Something made me turn and coming towards me, about a metre away, I saw a fin. Well, to say I shit myself is an understatement. My legs simultaneously headed skyward just as “Jaws” passed within millimeters of my board. It was then I recognized that it was just a dolphin. What happened next was remarkable. Every time we caught a wave, as soon as we stood on our board, a dolphin would nudge it sending us sprawling into the water. There were perhaps a dozen dolphins and they played with us for almost an hour. If we stayed lying on our board they would let us go but as soon as we stood up they would knock us down. It was truly an exhilarating experience and one of my most treasured moments.
The French embassy lost one of its secretaries and Christian was asked if she wanted the job. These jobs were highly prized, well paid and generally led to travel to other embassies across the globe. Before she left Milton Black, Christian asked if he could tell her about her future. At the time I thought nothing of it except for a skeptic’s interest. In hindsight he was extremely accurate and foresaw events in her life that were uncanny. I could see Christian’s long term future being mapped out and the initial magic we shared was mellowing; at least on my side.