He is staring glumly at a sprung mousetrap on the floor, which he himself has set off thinking in the gloom it might have been a gift unexpected.
He had hoped it was something more than the contents of the pillowcase hanging at bed’s end.
Striped handkerchiefs, grey school shorts, a book by Robert Louis Stevenson and a packet of raisins and muscatels, already consumed.
Another Australian Christmas Day had dawned in Nowra.
My first decade of life was a time of bemusement and disappointment, whereas my second was a time of growing hope followed by a triumphal awakening in what was then the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
The 1950s world, the contradictions of which I did not understand in the least, seemed to promise a lot but deliver so little.
My life story began at the beginning of 1945 in the second floor flat of a mean building near the centre of the struggling but once-flourishing silk town of Macclesfield in northern England. My mother was in labour and my father was at war.
My paternal grandfather, a retired wastrel who had managed to squander the entirety of his father’s fortune, had taken to hawking matches to smokers on the street.
My maternal grandfather was a silk weaver who, by the 1940s, was reduced to a modest life due to depression, war and technology.
My mother sold ladies clothes at Marks and Spencer in Manchester. She was a formidable saleswoman - pretty, vivacious, tempestuous and persuasive.
The money that had come into the family in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was due to the efforts and talent of my paternal great-grandfather, Robert (Bob) Jackson. Talent, first, on the cornet and then in the organisation of people and affairs. Robert’s photo, taken in his 1880’s prime, graces this essay.
As its manager, Robert twice led the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band on Empire tours of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. These were the years before football became entrenched and when competitive brass banding held sway as the passion of the masses.
And so Robert accumulated the wealth that his son, my grandfather Walter, also briefly a bandsman, managed to dissipate wholly and fecklessly.
Walter and his wife became silent people who lived in silence in a small terrace house. When my father’s younger brother, also named Walter, died of diphtheria in the early 1920s, he was whisked from home while his siblings were at school and his name never mentioned thenceforth.
Great-grandfather Robert died at Walter’s funeral while paying the undertaker.
My father, Stanley – a strong, silent, self-centred type who died recently aged 98 and who possibly suffered from a form of what we now call Asperger’s Syndrome – was the first of his line to go to grammar school (as a scholarship boy) and the first to go to university.
He and my mother Joan were smart enough after the war to understand that Britain had lost its Great and in 1949, along with my sister Susan and me, they migrated to Australia on the battle-battered migrant ship Georgic.
After some weeks at Bradfield Park migrant camp in Sydney, my father was appointed as a geography and commerce teacher at Nowra Intermediate High School and the State government found accommodation for us in a disused schoolmaster’s house at Beaumont in the beautiful but isolated Kangaroo Valley.
My mother, acculturated to city life, felt abandoned. And sometimes frightened and bewildered. When itinerant Aborigines knocked at the door for “a bit of grub, mussis”, they were given the week’s grocery box in the hope they would go away. Which they did up the steep hill at accelerating pace.
Meanwhile, twice a day my father and I traversed Cambewarra Mountain to Nowra in the Austin 10. My schooling had begun.
One fateful afternoon in Grade 1, I became upset and then ill, wheezing and panting for breath. I was placed alone in a room and given paper to tear. “Don’t give him scissors,” a teacher said. A puzzle I had to get used to. It was my first asthma attack and it would be many years before the disease was properly understood. It dogged me all my school days.
School for me was always a matter of conflict with authority and “could do better” report cards. Despite the asthma, however, I made the soccer, basketball and debating teams and played competitive cricket, tennis and rugby league.
And I developed an urge to write. At age nine, I published the Worrigee News (circulation 10) using a paint-on-gel printing process and funded by house-to-house sales and an advertisement for his watch repair business by family friend, the landscape artist Leonard Long.
I studied piano at a nearby convent under Sister Agatha, a rotund, florid, pie-faced nun adorned with round spectacles and a three-foot ruler. Sister Agatha did not so much teach piano as enforce it. It was not a love of music she induced but a fear of Sister Agatha and her brutal knuckle-searing responses to ill-conceived notes, ill-timed pauses and ill-struck pianissimos.
It sort of worked. My playing was exemplary. I achieved high scores in the annual Australian Music Examination Board examinations in both practice and theory. Sister Agatha made us pray in the Catholic Church beforehand; which as a committed Anglican I did with trepidation. Anyway, it evolved that the fat nun left me a lifelong legacy – a hatred of playing the piano.
Meanwhile at home, following some bizarre medical advice, my bed was put out to the open verandah so I could sleep with the spiders and moths as therapy for my asthma.
When I was 14, American evangelist Billy Graham visited Australia and I went to listen to him on landline at my local church, where I was a Sunday School teacher. I was converted to card-carrying Christianity on the spot, a decision that, when announced to my family, was greeted with a snort by my father.
It was a faith that would be tested, and which collapsed agonisingly three years later after I moved from home to Sydney as a student and experienced a time of great personal turmoil.
At 15, in my penultimate high school year, it was with a sense of excitement that I realised that liberation from home and school was looming. I edited the school magazine and, under the pen name Jumpshot, reported basketball for the Nowra Leader.
I had also learned the value of mateship and its role in socialisation and sex education. Empowered, I took myself off to a church-run Father & Son night to expand my knowledge, my father refusing to attend.
Then the recruiters from the Department of Territories came to town.
Papua New Guinea seemed to be as far away from Nowra as a young bloke might aspire to and it was a prospect I relished. If I could beat the selection process, I could detach myself from the conflict of my family life and the existential emptiness of a small town.
So I took the train to Sydney, bought some patent medicine to fight off an incipient asthma attack, and faced the selection panel.
When the letter in a brown envelope dropped into our mailbox in November 1961, it advised that, dependent upon my results in the Leaving Certificate, an education cadetship at the Australian School of Pacific Administration awaited.
I scraped through the exams, and the Territory of Papua and New Guinea was at hand.
It was to change my life.