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It was as though I’d fallen through its co-ordinates and highways and byways and rivers and rivulets and streets and unsealed roads to become trapped on the other side, unable to penetrate a mesh of my own making.Perhaps this had been the “Condon job” I’d been destined to acquit, the prophecy written in white chalk in the dank undercroft of a featureless suburban house.
I had spent countless hours here in the shadows, building a replica of Brisbane in the dirt beneath the floorboards, complete with roads and suburbs and the Brisbane City Hall clocktower, fashioned from a narrow rectangular offcut of wood.
Down in these cool shadows, I could hear my parents and my twin sister shifting about the house above, or the clang of a piece of dropped cutlery, or the flush of the toilet.
On the day of the Open House, I noticed some words written in chalk on one of the house’s wooden supporting beams – “Condon job” – perhaps scrawled there by timber merchants before they loaded it onto a truck and drove it out to the blank concrete slab of our future house in Bernarra Street. That the white cursive had survived for over a half a century was surprising enough.
But seeing it now, me twice as old as my father was when we lived in this house, it seemed it could be a message for me that had been sent into the future.
Why did I keep returning here, to this stamp of land? Stay in the car.” “Dad.” “Five minutes, that’s all.” It’s hard now to remember what I felt walking up and into the house for the first time in almost 45 years because so many emotions were at play. Here, family secrets I didn’t know existed at the time were as solid and deeply buried as the giant boulders of granite on which the house sat.
I had lived in some of the great capital cities of the world, and yet these few hundred metres of street in Brisbane, a spine of outdated homes, a clutch of footpath jacarandas and poincianas, had become my touchstone. Everything had started here, in the light of the house upstairs and the shadows of downstairs, with its concrete pillars and exposed timber and raw earth. And I only understood, in that moment outside the old house, with my children, bored and rolling their eyes in the back seat of the car, that I had spent my life trying to answer those questions. This molten mass had pushed up 200 million years earlier, and then my family came along and constructed a faux-colonial homestead on top.For almost a decade I had worked on the story of Queensland police and political corruption from the 1940s through to the 1990s.I have trawled through Brisbane’s underworld, conducted hundreds of interviews, spent three years of my life interrogating corrupt former Queensland Police Commissioner Terry Lewis, studied thousands of documents, visited the sites of former brothels and illegal gambling joints, had beers with murderers and lattes with old gangsters.But as I researched this story over the months, and then years, I was both surprised – and wearily not – that members of my own family had cameos in this narrative, and that I too had been in and around this drama since I was a boy.Like the house in Bernarra Street, my family history was all light and windows upstairs with a nice view from the veranda, but shadowy and sometimes pitch black down below.Going up those stairs and through the front door was, for me, like pushing back time, through decades, thrashing and flailing through the accreted detritus of experience, of life, to the beginning of my existence.But it was just a house on this hot and glary Saturday, with a real-estate agent in attendance, and some perambulating couples quietly assessing whether this might be where they would settle and raise their own children.And then there was the car, an American-style limousine with long, smooth lines that looked as out of place as the garden.Invariably, waiting beside the car was a man in a uniform and formal cap. I saw the man and the car many times, walked past them and looped my Dragster bicycle in their orbit.Early on we are riddled with questions that we can’t answer. I knew every square centimetre of my immediate landscape, every tree and ant nest, every gutter and drain. Around 1968, in Barkala Street, immediately parallel to ours, I was fascinated by one particular vehicle that was often parked out the front of a small house.I found the house curious because its garden was bulging almost exclusively with cacti.