This is an edited extract from Chapter 11…
When Jim was eleven, he was frequently up to no good, but his worst crime in those days was conning the visiting Yank soldiers with cold tea sold as whisky. At the Christian Brothers College, he worked hard, particularly on his best subject, English, which was taught by a Mr Duncan. As Jim recalled, ‘He was my favourite when I was eleven years old because he made it so obvious that I was his special pupil, the teacher’s pet.’
With Christmas approaching, Mr Duncan sent a note home to Jim’s mother asking if she would she like her James to come for the holidays to his home at Junee. Duncan’s own son, Peter, was Jim’s age, so the two boys would be ideal playmates, particularly since the Duncan family owned a milk bar. ‘And so off I went for the holidays, trusting in my favourite authoritarian for the promised malted milks and vacation fun, but it turned out he was something I didn’t understand.’
What Jim didn’t understand was that, just before his twelfth birthday, a cruel paedophile would change the course of his life. ‘He was a homosexual sadist and a few other things into the bargain, and I was a long way from Mumma and home at the time.’
For four days the trusted adult subjected Jim to agonising depravity that left the boy crying himself to sleep at night. The teacher’s son seemed oblivious to the visitor’s plight, and so skilled was the father that it was Jim who was stricken by fear and guilt – guilt that he had done the wrong thing and that if anyone found out, his mother would disown him and he would be sent to prison. This teacher knew the game well.
At dawn on day five Jim managed to escape, running along a dusty road that seemed to lead nowhere. A weighty shroud had settled on the boy’s heart. As Jim reached a long, deserted stretch of railway line, the sound of an approaching train reached his ears, and when it slowed he managed to scramble onto a platform under the huge milk tanks.
He lay there in the dirt and noise and cried until he thought his heart would stop beating. He wished it would. He had never before been so afraid and so ashamed. Fortunately, the train was heading south; after clinging to it for three hours, Jim was able to scramble off when it reached the outskirts of Albury.
Jim ran towards the nearest road. In time he found himself listening to an elderly woman but not hearing or understanding anything she was saying. She led him to her car, which was idling nearby. Somehow the gentle woman was able to elicit his name and his mother’s phone number. By evening an uncle had arrived to collect the runaway.
Jim never did tell his family what had happened. He couldn’t bear the thought of being taken from his beloved mumma or being sent to prison. Soon after, he punched a woman in the head in Carlisle Street, stole her handbag and lost all interest in school. Life was different now.
After spending a few months dodging English classes and the Christian Brothers’ strap, Jim’s uncles conspired with Don, his much older brother who was doing well in a large printing factory, to get Jim an apprenticeship. Ever since the Junee secret had burrowed its way into his brain, Jim had become increasingly difficult to manage. His temper was as short as his attention span, and it was only a matter of time before the confinement and constraints of clock-on, clock-off factory life became unbearable.
Out of school and work, Jim split his time between reading Oscar Wilde and The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam under a dinghy at the beach and getting into trouble around the pubs at night. One cool afternoon, on his way to the corner shop, he passed a woman leaning on her front fence. He knew who she was – she was notorious in St Kilda – so when she asked if he would run an errand for her, he enthusiastically agreed.
‘This was HER!’ he recalled later, ‘the most beautiful and most famous of all the local madams! Wife of public enemy number three in the triumvirate of Frederick William Harrison (the Frog), Norman Edward Bradshaw (Boofhead) and his own illustrious self, Robert David Charles Rebecca. Between them they managed the protection, baccarat, SP bookmakers and horse trainers, all who paid weekly to have themselves feel “safe” in Melbourne. They were the big three, and here was Mrs R actually talking to me and asking me to do something for her. Oh boy.’ Jim was ‘back in a flash clutching beer, cigarettes, potato chips for HER! Imagine how my little tail wagged when she invited me inside.’
The big house was dark in the late afternoon light and it took Jim’s eyes a minute to adjust. Poppelia invited him into the kitchen, and when she offered him a glass of beer, nothing could have been more exotic for the young boy. He looked about excitedly for working girls, but except for Poppelia the place was empty: too late for the criminal members of the Painters and Dockers’ Union, who came in every day for a liquid lunch, and too early for the regular girls to show up for work.
Poppelia Rebecca introduced herself to Jim somewhat formally, given the circumstances, and in return he told her his name was ‘Jim, Jim McNeil’.
‘There,’ she said, ‘we’re almost old friends already, aren’t we, Jim.’
After drinking the glass of beer and then a brandy, the boy’s head was spinning. Hopelessly smitten, he soon discovered that Poppy and nature were conspiring at that very moment to awaken him to the delights of puberty. ‘How I shivered and shook and trembled, wondering what the hell was happening to me,’ Jim remembered. ‘And afterwards she couldn’t have kept me out of that house with garlic! Soon all my pimples had gone away! But I never went away from my Lady Poppelia.’ For the first time since the event with his trusted teacher, the weighty shroud seemed to lift, lightening his spirit.
Poppy not only gave Jim his first taste of sex. As he recalled, over the next few weeks she ‘gave me other new tastes in the form of different drinks, bennies, snow, plus one or two other items quite unmentionable’. Bennies are Dexedrine tablets – powerful amphetamine psychostimulants that produce increased wakefulness, energy and self-confidence – while snow typically refers to cocaine, although it is sometimes used to describe heroin. Within six months Jim’s life revolved solely around his Lady Poppelia. ‘Without Poppy I could have no drink, no pills, no sex, no thrills at being allowed into the same house with Freddie Harrison, the killer.’
Harrison affectionately called Jim ‘the Kid’, gave him money and took him at dawn in his big Hudson car to listen to horse trainers eagerly volunteering the best tips. Jim enjoyed the fear that Freddie always educed from people in his presence. ‘It was good being Freddie’s “kid”, almost better than being Poppy’s little sweetheart.’ The only ambition he felt now was to grow up to be just like Freddie Harrison and Boofhead and Big Bob Rebecca. ‘The Rebeccas owned half a dozen brothels, a few beer halls, a couple of dud racehorses, and me.’
Poppy’s business was a thriving enterprise, with ten girls working a zone from Inkerman Street to the beach. ‘They’d lumber the mugs back to Rebecca’s, get their work done, sling Poppy her wack of the money and off again. After work they’d all come back for a party starting from midnight and going till about nine or ten o’clock next day as a rule.’ Big Bob Rebecca would play guitar with Claudie Zooker, and Cokie Hal Coleman and the girls would demand that Little Jimmy sing them their favourite song, ‘If you can’t tell the world she’s a good little girl, don’t say nothin’ at all’.
The underworld of St Kilda and Melbourne was full of characters in the fifties: Jack the Crooner, Kitchener Hull, Up the Lane Jack, Big Percy Neville (before Boofhead shot him dead), Bobby Walker and Tom Foggerty, Big Jack Twist, and Pretty Dulcie Markham – the brothel owner they called ‘the angel of death’. The women in this rogues gallery were as infamous as the men. As well as Pretty Dulcie, they included Beryl the Biter, Pretty Sally and Scarface Stella, who, according to Jim, was a lesbian sadist ‘with a stock in trade so amazing I’ll never divulge it’.
The criminals who frequented the Rebeccas’ brothel and beer house adored the kid. He would tell yarns that had them hanging off every word. In return they would dress him as Hollywood film star Alan Ladd and put a real gun in his hand. Propped up on the bar dressed in the cowboy costume of Whispering Smith, the latest Ladd film, Jim would slap his chaps and draw the pistol on the gangsters as if fighting it out in the heat of a shootout. Nothing had prepared him for the power and confidence he felt when he held the heavy .32 revolver in his hands.
The Painters and Dockers gangsters helped Jim earn good money by getting him work on the docks and on short-haul cargo ships. By the time he turned eighteen, Jim had been going to sea on and off for a couple of years ‘but always returning like a pigeon to Poppelia’. It was on such a return visit that he met Beverly.
‘One night, for reasons of ego and ambition, I took a gun to settle a difference with someone,’ and the so-called difference was indeed settled. All did not run like clockwork, however, with Jim’s deadly plan seriously compromised by the appearance of two eyewitnesses. Jim knew that one, a young male friend, would keep his mouth shut out of loyalty or fear, but the other, an attractive blonde girl, was a different matter because he didn’t know her. She had seen Jim shoot and leave the victim for dead.
Heading for Poppy’s place, Jim knew he was a gonner and that it was just a matter of time until he was arrested. He hugged Poppy, poured a drink and waited ‘for the Jacks to arrive telling me that I’d been identified by a blonde girl’. He waited and waited but, inexplicably, the police ‘never lobbed’. The girl, when interviewed about the shooting, had told police that she had not seen anything much at all. In truth, she had not only seen the shooting at close range but had also heard her companion address Jim by name.
The victim was taken off the critical list after a few weeks in hospital and eventually released. Justice having been served in that peculiar way of the underworld, Jim and the victim agreed to let the past stay in the past and get on with their lives. ‘I forgot to worry any more about it,’ Jim recalled. However, the blonde witness stayed in his mind, both for her beauty and her unfathomable decision to protect him from the police. Then one night when Jim was sitting in a local coffee lounge, a loud female voice declared, ‘Well, it’s you! And who are you planning to murder tonight?’ It was her.
Shocked and delighted, Jim invited her to join him and learned that her name was Beverly. They drank coffee for hours while he told her stories and she lectured him on the evils of violence and crime. ‘I really only remember one other thing that she said on that night,’ he recalled. When he explained that he needed to play up a bit to get anywhere, she disagreed. ‘I am all you need to succeed,’ she told him. ‘In this town or any other.’ He was hooked.