On the Trail
[ Issue 21 ]

Sleepy Jack Hanrahan is one of Emily Bronto’s favourite Bikwil features

Bikwil celebrates Edith Sitwell

On the Trail

With Issue 21 and On the Trail we return to our occasional series featuring the thoughts and deeds of Sleepy Jack Hanrahan, as reported by his friend E. Roy Strong.

To the triple-forte accompaniment of Carl Orff I peered down surreptitiously from our lounge room window, and a brief inspection revealed immediately that the dramatis personae were, from stage left to right, a Chinese taxi driver and his passenger, the latter well the worse for wear

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On the Trail
 
[ From Come Spin Us a Yarn, Sleepy Jack ]
— E. Roy Strong

Copyright

It’s not often that anyone at a loose end gets the chance to while away the time by pursuing a miscreant in the shadows, but that that’s exactly what Sleepy Jack Hanrahan accomplished one night forty years ago. We were reminiscing over a tableful recently and when I happened to comment how tediously some evenings seem to drag these days, he reminded me of the events in question.

Now, in his time, Jack has been notorious for fancying himself as many things apart from a celebrated teller of tales — washboard player extraordinary, NSW omelette gargling champion, to list but two — but I’d forgotten our linguist’s steadfast yearning for after-dark bloodhounding.

Mind you, now that I’ve heard the story again, I find myself even more convinced that his natural curiosity was made worse on this occasion in 1960 by boredom brought on by a dearth of his very lifeblood: conviviality in abundance and, even more indispensable, a captive audience.

Anyway, get that salt-shaker ready, as he relates his evening adventure.


You and I, Roy, were flatting at Elizabeth Bay at the time, with Tom Day — to say nothing of the other casual inhabitants who drifted in and out at random, some with keys, like Bob Norman, and others who had to knock, like Sam Owen.

As you remember, the unit was in Onslow Avenue, opposite the Arthur McElhone Reserve, a little park that looms large in my memory for the simple law-and-order reason that I was a bystander to two assaults there.

One occurred the afternoon when Sam and I were fired upon there by a brainless thirteen-year-old with an air rifle, the pellets peppering Sam’s packet of Rothmans which he’d placed beside where we were sitting. The fags were ruined, as was the air rifle, Sam having pursued the boy over the ornamental bridge and furiously yet cheerfully smashed the weapon against the stone wall. The boy’s mother wasted no time in laying charges against Sam for destruction of property, but finally allowed him to settle out of court to forestall the airing in the public domain of her son’s ill-advised shooting spree.

The other attack took place on a Tuesday night when I had the apartment to myself. You were visiting your parents, and Tom as usual was playing silly buggers at the University Regiment. Abnormally, there were no itinerant guests.

About 8.30 the disc had just reached Ave Formosissima (Blanziflor et Helena), which leads into the reprise of O Fortuna that concludes Carmina Burana, when I became aware of an altercation in the area outside the garages of our building. To the triple-forte accompaniment of Carl Orff I peered down surreptitiously from the window, and a brief inspection revealed immediately that the dramatis personae were, from stage left to right, a taxi driver and his passenger, the latter well the worse for wear.

The Chinese taxi driver was doing his resolute best to persuade his fare to cough up an appropriate sum, but the other was equally adamant in his reluctance to acknowledge the fairness of the arrangement proposed. Indeed, even as they were disputing the case, he was preparing to vacate the locality as rapidly as his erratic legs would carry him. Down the slope of the driveway he swayed, and though he was in no fit state to appreciate the physics of gradients, this initial part of his journey highlighted the sort of respectable speed he might yet be capable of on future downhill stretches.

As I surveyed the arena, the taxi driver ducked into his cab to report the situation over the two-way radio. Then, retrieving his money-bag, he locked up his vehicle and set off in pursuit of his intoxicated adversary.

For my part, I’d decided to cast my own fate to the winds in order to observe from closer quarters how things panned out and, never being one to shirk my community duty, perhaps to lend unobtrusive assistance, should propitious circumstances permit.

My veins seemed full of quicksilver as I turned off the record player, donned my shoes and grabbed my key, yet by the time I hit the street both absconder and pursuer had vanished from view. But not from earshot. For, while I stood there at the bottom of the driveway scanning the immediate vicinity, there came from my left the repeated cry, “He has stolen my money!”

There was little doubt that the protagonists had gone round to the back of the reserve, into Billyard Avenue. I, of course, knowing my way around the district, had only to traverse the aforementioned ornamental bridge to catch them up, which I now proceeded to do, except that my innate sleuth’s discretion dictated that I need not rush things.

I was crossing the bridge and about to step down into Billyard Avenue when the taxi driver’s hitherto repetitive shout suddenly acquired a new message:

“Help! Help! He has stolen m . . . Aargh! Aaaargh! . . . he has broken my arm with his bottle! Aargh! Help!”

This assault put a much different complexion on things. I’d have to be more than circumspect now: a civic attitude, however laudable, in no way demanded recklessness.

A fine night-beat procession we made along Billyard Avenue. All that was missing was that march bit at the end of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Yet, although we were destined to an overall forward motion, no one could have called it very swift progress at all. Our total journey would be only about 700 metres, but it took us over half an hour.

The reason being, certainly, that every few steps the individual en état d’ébriété would pause to gaze lovingly at the bottle he was carrying and then involuntarily danced left or right a bit before staggering forwards. A few cautious paces behind him followed his wounded Oriental nemesis, still intermittently crying out his grievance to what was increasingly looking like an utterly apathetic neighbourhood.

A diplomatic dozen metres further back — yours truly.

He could hardly be portrayed as a runaway in the literal sense of the word, our erstwhile taxi passenger. Yet what he lacked in steady strides he surely made up for in stubbornness — a trait that showed every sign of prevailing. Once he’d got a whiff of his domination of the situation, it seemed, only a state of unconsciousness would stop him.

What staying power! Totter and sway he might, reel and lurch he did, but onward ever onward he proceeded, toward some secret destination that he himself had perhaps only the vaguest awareness of.

But where were the police? So far they had failed to find their fugitive — assuming always that they had been informed and were searching at all.

In the meantime, the principal players in this night-time drama — one wobbly malefactor, one wronged coachman, and one public-spirited citizen — had arrived at the end of Billyard Avenue and had begun to make their conscientious way right into Ithaca Road. Careful not to approach too closely, for fear of further injury, the taxi man maintained a wary distance, but never left off his pursuit, despite his obvious pain.

For my part, I was beginning to have third thoughts. All the available evidence pointed unerringly to the fact that there wasn’t going to be an arrest featuring vital key witnesses, so what was the point of my involvement?

And anyway, neither of the other two was even aware of my presence. This, of course, had been my deliberate policy from the very start of this outing, but now, in the absence of any encouragement whatever from them my position was fast becoming untenable. I was just contemplating the unthinkable — retiring from the scene — when I realised that the leader of our gloomy parade, notwithstanding his insecure steps, was about to attain the busy corner of Elizabeth Bay Road.

It was clear to me that if he turned right he was going to end up in Kings Cross. Two considerations, however, stood in the way of such a deviation rightwards.

The first was the bright illumination of that Garden of Earthly Delights, which even the befogged brain in question would have surely wanted to avoid. The second was the pure effort of struggling uphill against that Newtonian force by which all bodies tend to be attracted towards the centre of the earth.

To turn left would be the obvious way to go, and taking several deep breaths I resolved to continue if he made that choice, otherwise to pack it in.

Pausing at the corner, he struggled for what seemed ages with his momentous decision, and then turned left.

The cab driver and I slowed our pace even more, so that when I reached the intersection, our two leading men were stumbling along not very far ahead at all.

I’ve got to say it. Their perseverance was exemplary, the one driven by a compelling need for justice, the other — well, who knew what demons, apart from a passionate desire to escape apprehension, empowered his shaky tread?

Still no police.

Despite the downward slope of Elizabeth Bay Road, our progress remained exasperatingly unhurried, dependent as it still was on the ever-diminishing capacities of the felon. Events began to overtake us rapidly, however.

No sooner had we arrived in Elizabeth Bay Crescent, at the bottom of E. B. Road, and our intoxicated desperado had begun to grasp the unwelcome fact that it was a cul-de-sac, than a stream of taxis began to pour into the area, twenty of them, I’d say, followed closely by a police car, a Black Maria and an ambulance.

(How anyone knew an ambulance would be needed, Roy, I’m unable to say. Perhaps it’s a normal precautionary measure in cases of taxi fare theft, more likely we owed it to some faceless stay-indoors flat-dweller who phoned in about the assault.)

The ambulance men had some difficulty persuading the injured diver to accompany them to the hospital (he wanted to be sure he got his money), but before long they succeeded in their endeavour, and he was whisked away to X-ray and the plaster room.

In the meantime, the villain of the piece had made a stumbling bid to enter one of the private driveways and vanish. No such luck, mate. Into custody he went, post-haste.

As the police van drove off, I approached the sergeant and identified my status in the scheme of things.

Not what you’d describe as hanging on my every syllable, he kept looking over my shoulder. Having hastily checked the direction of his gaze and found nothing special of interest, I was able to form the strong opinion that his thoughts were elsewhere. Indeed, his general demeanour was that of one who rather have been out chasing youthful car thieves at great speed through Granville or harassing back-lane harlots wherever he could find them.

Undaunted, I pressed on and told him my tale. He took my name and address, saying, “I don’t think your statement will be needed, sir. Thank you anyway.”

Well, I ask you.

Look. Even I — with modesty, tolerance and patience to spare — have my limits, Roy. There was I, flushed with the success of what I consider to be my finest hour in a life’s unremitting dedication to Truth, Justice and the Australian Way, and there was that indifferent sergeant, absolutely unmoved by my civic-mindedness, snapping shut his notebook, obviously with the cast-iron intention of being far away as soon as ever he could.

I mean to say, what was the world coming to?

It’s a bit ripe, isn’t it, when a law-conscious but self-effacing citizen offers to give compelling evidence about a robbery and an assault, and all the local constabulary can do is ignore him and start scratching around for heftier beef to boil.

Somewhat at a loss for words (gobstruck, more like it), I gazed upon his impassive features for a moment or two, hoping, I suppose, for some encouraging sign of belated interest in my news.

None being forthcoming, I departed his presence and started to wander aimlessly around observing the camaraderie of the taxi drivers, ruminating “I could have been part of this”. Life can sure dish out its bitter pills, can’t it?

In lonely desperation I went up to a couple of Red Deluxers, who were leaning against a cab, no doubt swapping old assault stories or talking football.

“I saw the whole thing.”

“Yeah?”

Another bored response, uttered without either man looking at me, I might add.

That settled it. Frustrated and perplexed, I set off from that foul place of unconcern to plod my weary way homeward, resolving to leave civic duty to others in future. Far preferable, I realised, would be to devote my shattered ego to prolonged meditation on the more readily solvable of life’s mysteries — the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask, for instance. Or Jack the Ripper’s.

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