by Edwina Shaw
Banging on the front door. So early on a Monday? Don’t they know I’m a student? The pounding doesn’t stop, so I rub my eyes and get up. Through the bubbled glass of the front door, I see dark shapes too big to be anyone I know. I edge the door open.
The police. Even though they’re not in uniform, I know it’s them. No necks, red faces. I’m in big trouble.
‘Do two flamboyant homosexuals live here?’
Suddenly I’m wide awake. Oh no! Pete and Byron – my housemates. ‘Has there been an accident?’ I clutch my nightie close around my throat.
‘We’ll take that as a yes. Taringa CIB, here under the Health Act.’ They barge past me into the house. No need for a warrant. It’s 1984, Brisbane. Homosexuality is illegal, and the police don’t need anything other than suspicion to do a search.
The house shakes on its stilts as they up-end lounge chairs and haul sarongs from the windows. They’re looking for something, systematically tearing the place apart. Hugging my nightie tighter, I drift behind them as they storm from room to room like brown shirt troopers.
Thank God the boys are at work – they’ve been bashed by cops before. Still, I wish there was someone here to hold my hand: I feel like I’m eight, not eighteen. What are the police going to do to me once they get tired of destroying furniture?
In my room, they overturn the mattress and tear apart my pillow, sending feathers into the air. Crossing my arms, I somehow find my voice. ‘What am I supposed to have done?’ My voice is shakier than I want it to be. I wish I felt tougher, looked tougher. I wish at least I had a bra on. It’s hard to be tough in your pyjamas.
They don’t even look up, intent on destruction.
‘Got any communist literature?’ the blond one asks.
That brings me back to the real world. These men aren’t anything like the actors in cop shows on TV. They’re Queensland Vice Squad, Lewis’s henchmen, corrupt to the core, bored shitless and looking for laughs at my expense. Wrenching the drawers from my dresser, they tip my clothes into heaps on the floor. Whole shelves of books thud onto the carpet with one sweep of their ham-hock arms. It’s like some bad movie except it’s real. And I’m in it.
Down south, people call Queenslanders banana benders and think Joh’s a harmless old fool. But up here we know he’s no joke. I’m certainly not laughing now.
The police don’t find anything, and that’s making them angry. They trash the house, stomping over records and crockery as they rage from room to room, thumping, ripping, kicking. Byron’s prized Gary Newman album cracks under a police boot. The Virgin Mary statue Pete got from his Gran is hurled against the wall so hard her head’s knocked off.
‘Hey!’ I shout, putting my hands on my hips to help control the shaking of my legs. ‘That stuff belongs to people. You’ve got no right!’ My voice squeaks and heat rushes to my cheeks.
‘We’ve got every bloody right. You and your poofta mates have been breaking the law,’ says the fat one who appears to be in charge.
I fold my arms back around myself to stop him glaring at my boobs. ‘We haven’t hurt anyone.’
His hand comes thunking down on my shoulder. ‘I’ve had enough of your crap.’
‘Why don’t you go then?’ I jut my chin, despite feeling all my strength oozing through my feet into the floorboards.
Dog’s breath and spittle fly into my face as he shouts, ‘Shut up you smart-arsed cow. Sit down and shut up or I won’t need an excuse.’ His too-tight tie is cutting off the blood-flow to his face, so he looks like an inflamed pimple about to burst. Shoving me into the kitchen, he raises his fist in front of my nose – thumps me into a chair. ‘Now sit there and shut the fuck up!’
My heart’s beating so hard it feels as if my ribs aren’t strong enough to hold it in my chest anymore. I’m shit scared. It’s just me, alone in the house with four huge, angry men, each of them strong enough to snap my neck. Who am I going to call for help? The police?
There shouldn’t be anything for them to find. We scraped the bottom of the bag clean last night, and everything else is in good hiding spots. We know the drill. Queenslanders don’t leave stuff lying around.
The young blond policeman with flared suit pants comes in like a triumphant hunter, waving a scrawny potted dope plant in his meaty hand.
Shit. Forgot about that.
‘Look what I found down the backyard,’ he skites. ‘A bloody plantation.’
‘Oh come on,’ I say, shock giving me back a voice. ‘It’s only got three leaves.’
‘A plant is a plant,’ says the porky one. ‘Yours then, is it?’
‘Never seen it before in my life.’
Blondie plonks the plant down in front of me on the table between the crusted pots, dishes and ashtrays, my stomach churning in time with the frenetic rhythm of my heart.
‘Aha! Lookie, lookie, what’ve we got here?’ A man in a brown suit comes in clutching the Orchy bong like it’s first prize in a cake wheel. ‘What’s this, then?’
‘Suppose you’ve never seen that before either,’ says Porky.
Oh my God. They must’ve found the hidey-hole under the back stairs. That stinky, oil-smeared orange juice container with a bit of garden hose sticking out the side means big trouble. Combined with my scrawny plant, it’s jail kind of trouble. I know about these things. The new laws. I’ve heard the stories.
I have to think fast. A rumour about a friend of a friend flashes into my brain. She ate her stash when she got busted and got off because there was no evidence. So, while Porky has his back turned and the others are still rampaging through the bedrooms, I grab the plant and uproot it, shovel it like stringy noodles into my mouth. Coughing and spluttering on all that grassy fibre, I chew frantically and try to swallow, almost choking.
‘What the fuck!’ Porky grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me hard. ‘You stupid little bitch.’
His hand hovers striking distance from my cheek. I wince and turn away, waiting for the blow.
Blondie comes in, rattling a box of matches. ‘Jackpot!’ he says.
Porky lowers his hand.
‘In that room out front.’
It’s my room but I’m not even going to lift my head. A box of matches isn’t illegal, not yet anyway, not even in Queensland.
I slump in my chair like a first grader who’s been caught cheating, feeling weak and stupid. I don’t want the tears to come, but I can’t stop them.
‘What’s the matter with matches?’ I ask through the remains of stem stuck in my teeth.
‘You, shut up. You’re in enough trouble as it is. She destroyed police evidence.’ Porky nods at the empty pot plant and stringy green bits on the lino.
‘It’s not matches,’ says Blondie. ‘It’s a potential bloody plantation.’ He slides the lid open to reveal seeds. ‘Every one of these is a plant in the eyes of the law. You’re in deep trouble.’
‘So shut the fuck up,’ chimes in Porky.
My guts sink then rise to the back of my throat. Those seeds have been sitting at the back of my desk drawer for so long I’d forgotten they were there. I don’t want to go to jail.
I don’t want them to see me cry but there’s no stopping the tears now. Not because I’m sad, but because I’m scared, and mostly because I’m angry. I want to yell and scream and fight these bastards who are wrecking my house and my life all in one terrible morning. Why don’t they pick on someone their own size?
‘Okay everyone, let’s get back to the station. We’ve got enough to put this one away,’ says Porky, tucking his shirt-tail back into his pants. ‘I’m dying for a coffee.’
On their way out, they collect my diary and photo album, treading a path over the mess they’ve made. Sweat collects under Porky’s hand on my shoulder.
They let me get dressed then Porky shoves me into the back seat of the police car and speeds off down the road towards Taringa Police station.
Twisting his neck around from the front seat, Blondie asks, ‘So you’re a student, hey?’
I don’t answer.
‘I’m a student too, doing law part-time.’
‘Hmmph.’ It’s too late to be friends now.
‘So, what do you study? Art or music or something like that?’
‘What’ll that make you?’
I shrug. ‘Maybe a teacher?’
‘Don’t reckon you’ll be a teacher now. Not after you’ve been busted.’
I don’t answer. What does he want me to say?
He turns away. ‘How about a Hungry Jack’s breakfast?’
I can’t believe it. My whole life is going down the toilet and these bastards are stopping for burgers and fries.
The smell of greasy takeaway makes my stomach rise burning into my throat. I need a cigarette. So much for giving up. I’ll probably be smoking White Ox, prison issue, by the end of the week.
As soon as we get into their office, I ring the student legal service with my one phone call. ‘Don’t say anything,’ says the girl. ‘Don’t answer any questions.’
That’s my phone call gone and no cavalry to the rescue. The blond policeman lets me have one of his cigarettes, and another and another, until Porky finishes his fries and is ready to get me to talk.
He throws an ounce of heads into my lap and says I can keep it if I tell him the names of my dealers. He asks me about the layout of the house, trying to trick me into answering other questions. But I don’t tell him anything.
As he questions me, he flicks through my diary and to the amusement of the whole office he reads out some of the pages. He starts calling me Becky-Boo, the secret name my boyfriend used to call me, the name only he was allowed to use. Not even Pete knows about it. I shrink into the chair, willing myself to evaporate.
‘That’s enough, hey Reg,’ says Blondie. ‘We’d better get Becky-Boo here into lock-up, they might be able to squeeze her case in today.’
Cage doors clang shut as they push me into the only holding cell. Down and outs check me over from their seats on the bench rimming three sides. I huddle in a corner, wishing I could meld into the damp of the brick wall, or scuttle under the bars like the cockroaches.
‘What ya in for, love?’ says one old fella with long greasy hair who reminds me of Catweazel.
‘Busted,’ I say.
The tattooed men nod and clamp their lips in sympathy.
‘Bloody stupid what they done with them new laws, filling the lock-up with kids who smoke a few joints.’
A guard comes in and calls my name. I’m lucky. They’re going to hear my case right away.
‘See ya later, love. Good luck.’ Catweazel waves his withered arms after me.
The Legal Aid lawyer shuffles his papers and says he’ll do his best, try to make some sort of a case for me, but really it all depends on the judge, and he’s not exactly known for his leniency in drug cases.
The courtroom isn’t like the ones on TV. It’s small and white with laminated desks and one old man sitting up the front looking grumpy. The seats behind me are full of people waiting their turn, faces pinched and anxious. My Legal Aid guy stands up and pleads my case. He asks for leniency, keeps on saying that I want to be a teacher, that I’m a straight A student with a first offence. The judge listens and nods and looks at the bong and the matchbox full of seeds, then he peers over his glasses and asks me to stand.
‘What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?’
‘I’m sorry, Your Honour. I’ll never do it again.’ I hang my head.
The judge clears his throat. He says that because of my possible teaching career, and that as it’s a first offence, he’ll only give me two years’ probation and a compulsory psychiatric examination with a state doctor.
I look up at the judge and smile. Just a little.
No jail. I should feel like dancing a jig, but I don’t. I just want to get out of here.
A uniformed policeman opens the doors and lets me walk straight out, a free woman. I walk and walk, then break into a run down Roma Street into the city. I wonder if people can tell that I’ve changed, that I’m now a criminal, if my walk and the set of my jaw give me away. Do I look as hard as I feel? I think about getting a tattoo.
A year later, I’m living by myself in a flat around the corner from the old share place.
Pete’s moved to Sydney to seek his fortune and Byron’s living with his sugar-daddy in Paddington. I’m still studying so I rent this bed-sit where I try to make up for lost time and failed subjects. I was officially declared sane at my psychiatric examination and see my probation officer once a month.
Whenever I want to go to Sydney to visit Pete, I have to get signed permission to leave the state. The probation officers I see in Sydney laugh at my record sheet like it’s another bad Queensland joke. I laugh too. But really it’s not that funny. It’s my life.
One night, there’s a knock at the door. It’s late, I’m in my nightie. I answer it anyway. A big blond guy in a crumpled suit with flared pants is standing on my front step. The top button of his shirt’s undone and his tie is shoved into his pocket. He stinks of beer and is holding a book with a paisley cover that looks familiar. Something about him is familiar too. Then it clicks. It’s Blondie, one of the bastards who busted me.
‘Hey, Becky-Boo. I’ve been looking for you. Thought you might be wanting this.’ He hands the book over to me. My diary. Back from its year of captivity. “Pretty good read,’ he says. ‘We all had a good laugh.’
I stare at his boots.
‘So … Boo … Don’t suppose you’d like to invite me in for a drink?’ he puts his arm up and leans on the doorframe, edging his foot onto the carpet and peering over my shoulder into the flat. ‘Or a smoke perhaps?’
The man inside the banana (above) needs no introduction to those of us who grew up in Queensland, the sunshine state of Australia, during the Joh era.
He is Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the premier of QLD from 1968 to 1987, which meant that he was in power for almost all of my formative years. He was also the leader of what has been exposed as one of the most corrupt and brutal governments in Australian history. Joh was famous for his country-style witticisms “Look like a crow, fly with the crows, don’t complain if you get shot!” and for his fierce anti-union sentiments and appalling attitudes towards women “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that!”
Edwina Shaw, 2018
About Edwina Shaw
Writer of fiction, memoir and screenplay, Edwina Shaw knows about being ‘busted’ during the oppressive “police state” years under the iron-fisted rule of the Bjelke-Petersen government and its excessive law enforcement agencies. Edwina is the editor of ‘Bjelke Blues’ a new anthology of autobiographical fiction, essays and memoir to be published in September 2019 by AndAlso Books. They are calling for submissions for a new book due for publication in September 2019.
Here is her story “Busted” to help set the mood, and inspire you to get writing your own Joh stories, a remixed testimony about Brisbane’s well-remembered ‘home invasions’…
If you enjoyed this short story you can get hold of Edwina’s book ‘Thrill Seekers’. It’s set in 80s Brisbane—- Joint Efforts, Cloudland, drugs, sex and madness— as two brothers spiral out of control.