Walleah Press header


Bertie Beetles

I have always deeply resented the adult imperative of putting away childish things. At nineteen or twenty, when I still rode a bicycle instead of driving a car, my friends and I felt we had our lives ingeniously organised. We did not care that the government of the day had recently been sacked. We cared only about the infinite limitations of our perceptions. Our suburb was our oyster. For a while these were our priorities: that every Wednesday afternoon we would go to one or other of our houses and smoke joints and eat Bertie Beetles and laugh. A lot. We had come a long way since banana skins. Bertie Beetles were a delicious chocolatey snack riddled with golden chips of honeycomb. This is not an advertisement, but without a doubt they were a favourite with stoned youth of the day. University in the seventies was something of an idyll. After these activities we would pedal home and pretend to study, until we began to get our licences and our degrees and childish things were put away. I was very good at browsing for quotes I could insert in future essays.

If this were fiction I would not have to explain what Bertie Beetles have to do with Ned Kelly. I would have planted the blunderbuss in act one. However I will explain.

The priorities of our lives were so ingeniously organised that all four of us, (there were four of us), had Wednesday afternoons exempt from our studies. None of us had been forced to get a job. None of us wanted a job. We’d been fruit picking in the holidays and could stretch our savings with remarkable elasticity. In those days, you may recall, an ounce cost only thirty bucks. God knows what it costs these days, more than gold, I should think. But then I should also think that the stoned youth of today have rather different and less admirable priorities.

Wednesday afternoons also happened to be the time our mothers were out taking an active interest in the world. My mother, for instance, took painting classes in the Max Meldrum tonal realist style. She always painted still lives of onions. Brown Onions with Holly. Two Onions Plus Lemon. Seven Layered Onion. Onion with Candlesticks. Onions in a Fruit Bowl. They are still selling to this day. My favourite was one of a brown paper bag full of pickling onions. I advised her once to paint a picture of a dead cat, but she looked at me as though I did not know anything.

My friend’s mother, Rolf, (my friend, not his mother), went to patisserie lessons. And the other mothers were likewise out of the house. We’d take it in turns to meet at each others’ houses and smoke cones and laugh and eat Bertie Beetles. The profound ephemera of our conversation. If this were fiction I could more cleverly draw all these disparate themes together. Sadly I cannot. The Bertie Beetles came from the milkbar on Main Street in a suburb called Blackburn. We often thought the milkbar owner gave us suspicious glances as we pored over the lolly cabinet. What were university students doing poring over a lolly cabinet? The neighbours were never suspicious at the sweet smoke wafting over their fences, because we were never at the same place two weeks in a row. It was perfect.

‘Just think,’ said Kendal, ‘when we’re old men we’ll be able to look back with fondness on these hedonistic Wednesday afternoons.’

Kendal didn’t really talk like this, but I’m sure he would have liked to. I do not think he would mind me saying this, because I have not seen him for twenty-seven years. I do not know what he would think.

About us: Kendal was short. Darren was tall. Chalk and cheese. Rolf and I were in between. Kendal was so short he would wear platform shoes on the beach. It was the era of platform shoes. And dismissed governments. None of us were virgins, although we behaved as if we were. Enough about us. Enough about our mothers. Enough about politics.

Further complications have occurred to me which, if this were fabrication in the Platonic sense, I would have introduced earlier. Darren’s father, although we hardly cared, was an historian and screen writer. You can check out his name and credentials in any filmography. He wrote the screenplay for the film of Ned Kelly. Not the first, and not the latest, but the one with the unlikely casting of Mick Jagger as Ned. Mick Jagger should also learn to put away childish things. As a souvenir from the movie, Darren’s dad had been given the suit of armour worn by Mick, complete with pop-star’s aura and head-lice. It was stashed in a cupboard gathering dust. We tried it on. It was one quarter of the weight of the original, but still as heavy as all get out. We rapped on the helmet with our knuckles, imagining bullets, and the metal rang in our ears.

In the spirit of Wednesday afternoons, and in the spirit of childish exploits, and indeed of Ned Kelly, after smoking our fill, we stole the suit. Kendal had just got his licence, and his mum’s car, and his horizons had expanded. Two things he did not yet mind doing were driving round in his platform shoes, and driving around with Ned Kelly in the back. I had the suit on. My breath echoed in the helmet. It was Wednesday afternoon. We were shitfaced. It was all a matter of tradition. I entered the Main Street milkbar, staggering a little under the weight of the suit. The lolly cabinet in the eye-slit.

‘Bail up!’

There was a gun. Did I forget to mention the gun? A blunderbuss. Or something like one. Also a souvenir from the movies. The milkbar owner, whose name I forget, closed his mouth. A detail I mention only for the fact that it had been open for so long. The others were in Kendal’s mum’s getaway car. Laughing.

‘Bail up you fat necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splay footed sons of Irish Bailiffs, bail up and give me all the Bertie Beetles.’

And he did. A whole box. Of course we paid. We let him try the helmet on. Kendal came in with tears in his eyes and money in his hand. We took them away and we ate them, before drifting home and pretending to study. Of course we returned the suit. And it is with fondness that I look back on those hedonistic afternoons, before we had a care in the world beyond the limit of our own perceptions, before we put away childish things.