I'd never felt so frustrated in my life. I was learning to ride my first bike, a Christmas gift the year I turned six. I'd been on tenterhooks for days. We had spent Christmas and New Year with my grandparents. It was bad enough that I had to wait until we came home before I could properly try out my new transport; it was even worse that I couldn't get the hang of riding the thing. Why was it so hard to stay on it? I picked myself up off the lawn after yet another fall and stood the bike up again, looking around to see if Dad was coming back yet. He had been coaching me when he'd been called to the phone, and left me to keep trying. I got back on and tried again. I was concentrating hard on keeping upright and didn't notice the young boy watching me from the footpath. I lost my balance; my foot caught in the chain and I yelled in pain as I hit the ground and the bike landed on top of me. Blinking back tears I tried to get my foot out, but in my haste I wasn't thinking straight and only made the pain worse. Then a voice behind me said, 'Here, lie still and I'll help you.'
A few moments later the bike and I were separated, and I was rubbing my foot where the chain had left a deep imprint. 'Thanks,' I said, as I looked up at the other boy. 'Who are you?'
'I'm Travis McKenzie,' he said proudly, rising up to his full height. His brown eyes under an unruly mop of brown hair looked right into mine, as if he expected me to dispute it.
'Oh. I'm Michael Parker. Are you new here?'
'Yes, my mum and me just moved here from Melbourne. I'm seven, and I'm going to be in Year 2 at 545 this year.'
'Me too.' I didn't tell him it would be a few months before I turned seven; I figured he didn't need to know that I was younger than he was.
Our neighbourhood boasted the oldest school in the town, housed in a picturesque 1880s building next to Victoria Park. Its official name was Sale Primary School, but it was known everywhere by its number, 545. Somehow, I was pleased that this new kid would be in my class. He helped me up and I took him inside to meet my family.
Travis lived just around the corner, and from then on we were inseparable. We were a study in contrasts. He was tall and lanky and a bit awkward, while I was shorter, stockier and better coordinated. He was boisterous and full of fun, and always looking for new things to do. I was quiet and read a lot. He was outgoing and made friends easily; I was reserved, but a fiercely loyal ally. Travis always reckoned I was better looking than him, but he had the kind of face that made you want to trust him—even though it just shouted at you that he was about to get up to something. He was quick-witted and was always making me laugh.
We had known each other for a year when a new friend came into our lives.
'Who's that?' Travis asked. It was the first day of school, and he was pointing towards a boy I'd never seen before.
'I don't know. He must be new.'
Travis thought everyone should be his friend, even if they didn't want to be. He went over to the new boy and within five minutes they were best mates; within a few minutes more he was my mate, too (with Travis around I never had any problem making new friends—his friends naturally became my friends; he didn't allow them a choice). The new boy turned out to be Brett Thompson, whose father had taken a job on the Bass Strait oil rigs and moved his family to Sale. Brett was tall and fair, with penetrating blue eyes. He was quiet and serious, and it soon became apparent that he was the class brain. He was a steadying influence on Travis, who listened to Brett whereas he usually ignored everyone else's opinion.
Now that there were three of us, my parents gave me more freedom. Perhaps they reasoned that there was safety in numbers, but I think it was more likely that they simply believed that Brett was more responsible than Travis. Their trust in us was generally well placed, but there were times when they must have been worried sick—and others when they surely felt like strangling us. With Travis around we just seemed to get into scrapes. At least they could never claim that life with Travis McKenzie was dull!
We rode our bikes all around our neighbourhood, roaming further as we grew older and gained confidence. Sale is flat—perfect for bicycles—and there were all sorts of places to explore within easy reach of our homes. We came to love the wetlands and the low-lying flat areas around the town.
In its early days Sale had been an important port, the stepping-off point for passengers and goods destined for the Gippsland goldfields. Although it was inland, a canal had been dug to connect the town with the Thomson River, which flowed into the Latrobe, and then into the extensive Gippsland Lakes system. A cut through the narrow sand dunes at Lakes Entrance opened the lakes to the ocean. Although no one we knew had done so, it was still possible to travel by boat from Sale out into Bass Strait and then to Melbourne. We got to know every metre of the port and the canal, and explored along both rivers as far as we could.
We explored the cattle yards and the showgrounds, the bores that fed Sale's water supply, and the tower that provided the pressure to distribute the water. We made hours of fun out of trying to find the oldest grave in the cemetery (we were thrilled when we found the resting-place of Angus McMillan, a famous explorer). We knew every back road and could find our way anywhere. With Travis egging us on we even swam out to the tiny island in Lake Guthridge one summer day. That got us into trouble because we disturbed the black swans that had built their nests among the pampas grass and bushes.
The three of us were like brothers and considered ourselves part of each other's families. Travis's mum really appreciated this. She had fallen pregnant with Travis in her first year out of high school; her fiancé refused to accept any responsibility for the baby (even denying that he was the father) and left her to fend for herself. She had sworn off men after that and had never had a lasting relationship. Travis had never known a father, and so, to some extent, my dad and Brett's dad filled that role in his life.
My family was fairly typical—two parents and three children. Mum and Dad had been married for nearly twenty years, and still loved each other as much as they had when they first met. Well, that's how it seemed, anyway, because we kids often had to tell them, 'Gross! Knock it off, you two—or at least find somewhere private!' They'd just laugh, knowing we weren't serious, and that we loved how they were still so devoted to each other. Like Travis, some of our other friends had only one parent, or two parents who weren't on speaking terms unless they were yelling at each other. We knew we were blessed, and tried to show Dad and Mum how much we appreciated them.
My older sister, Kellie, and younger brother, Simon, were cool and we got along well. We were a close-knit family; we showed our love for each other in the way we spoke and acted, and our friends often told us how much they wished they had a family like ours. Well, they did, really, because our place was just as much home to all our friends as their own homes were. The warm and comfortable family atmosphere my parents created made our friends feel welcome and wanted, and there always seemed to be a couple of extra kids around.
I was never happier than when I was with my family and friends.
When I was thirteen my parents bought a rambling house that had originally been a private hospital. It was a beautiful Federation-style building on a large block of land, but it had fallen on hard times. It had been converted into flats at some stage; additions had been tacked on, rooms had been converted to kitchens and bathrooms, and doors had been closed off. Only an enthusiastic renovator could have seen any potential in the old building. I'm sure that most people would have torn it down and rebuilt, but Dad and Mum saw something in it that no one else saw. They bought it very cheaply because the owner was desperate to sell. They decided that making it into a home would be a great family project, so we kids were roped in to help. We were dubious about the whole idea, and more than a bit reluctant to comply.
Dad contracted out major repairs and alterations, but we were able to do a lot of the work ourselves. Much to my surprise our parents were right, and Kellie, Simon and I got really involved in the project. All of us enjoyed seeing our efforts rewarded as we contributed to the making of our home. It took nearly two years, but gradually we transformed an old wreck into a really nice family place that we all enjoyed and valued. I found that I really liked the old house, and I thoroughly enjoyed the work involved. I learned new skills and appreciated home more because I had helped to create it.
My parents weren't big on owning possessions. We had what we needed and not much more. Mum and Dad's most prized assets were their children and they put everything they had into making sure that we grew up valuing and respecting ourselves and others, as well as instilling in us high ideals and values. They were constantly encouraging and affirming us—praising us when we did something well, but sympathising and helping us to see where we'd gone wrong when we messed up. They rarely punished us because we always wanted to do our best for them—but we knew very well that they wouldn't hesitate to ground us for life if it became necessary.
I remember vividly the last time I was grounded. Looking back, I can't believe I was so stupid. My fifteenth birthday was coming up and Travis and Brett, both a few months older than me, decided that I needed to celebrate—in their words—"becoming a man." Travis talked an older friend into getting him a bottle of Woodstock, and that Saturday night we rode to the Latrobe River near the old swing bridge to party. Although Travis had bought cola to mix with the whisky, none of us had any idea how much of each to use, so we guessed. Wrongly. After a few drinks all three of us were very tipsy. Instead of staying there and sleeping it off we decided—for reasons best known to our fuddled minds—to ride home to Brett's place. His family was away for the weekend, so I think we probably assumed we could just crash there and Travis and I could go home sober the next day. We often slept over at each other's homes, so we could just phone our parents to tell them we wouldn't be home that night.
However, we didn't realise how badly the whisky had affected us. Drivers tooted as they passed us; we thought they were being friendly, so we waved. We were riding along the white line at the edge of the road (well, we thought we were following the line; later we were told that we were zigzagging dangerously into the traffic lane) when I realised there was a light flashing behind us. 'Hey, what's that light that's flashing?' I asked the others.
Travis glanced back and said 'Oh, it's a cop car, they must be after someone.' They were. Us.
If we had been riding on a back road the police might have just taken us home and handed us over to our parents, but we were on the South Gippsland Highway, one of the main roads out of Sale, and on a Saturday night it was busy. They made a big show of taking us to the station. They lectured us on the dangers of being drunk in charge of a bicycle and riding carelessly on such a busy road. Then they put us in a cell for a couple of hours before they came and told us our parents were there. Well, actually only Travis's mum and my dad. Susan said 'Travis Alexander McKenzie, we need to talk,' gave him a look that would have penetrated body armour, grabbed his arm, and propelled him out to the street and into her car. I knew he was in serious trouble; his mum only ever used his full name like that when he had done something so bad that it would take a parish priest six months to hear his confession.
I watched them get in the car. I was worried; I'd never seen Susan so mad. I turned to Dad, but before I could open my mouth he said, 'Don't worry, she's not going to kill him; he'll be okay.' He looked at me, and then Brett, with an expression that only a parent can conjure up. He was saddened, disappointed and hurt. He didn't say another word; he just grabbed us and helped us out to the car. We drove home to my place in silence. Brett was supposed to stay home to care for the family pets while his parents were away, but I guess my parents didn't think it was safe to let him stay there in his drunken state. I knew his dad and mum would hear all about our escapade when they returned, and I knew their reaction would be pretty much the same as Dad's. At home Mum and Dad hugged us both, said we'd talk in the morning, and helped us into bed.
Our parents must have collaborated, because all three of us received the same punishment. We were grounded for a month and had to go to the police station, report to the two officers who had picked us up, and apologise for taking up their time. They were very gracious and told us they were pleased that they had found us before we caused an accident. I thought they looked like they were trying not to smile; Dad revealed several months later that they had told him they laughed for ages after they "threw" us in the cell. They said we looked so funny weaving our way along the highway that it was all they could do to keep a straight face when they "arrested" us. He said they were very serious, though, when they told him it would have been only a matter of time before we weaved out in front of the traffic. The possibilities, had we done that, didn't bear thinking about. Our parents also called a meeting and lectured us on the folly of drinking too much. From that time on we were all allowed to have a drink at dinner time. With our parents' guidance we learned to use alcohol responsibly.
Travis, Brett and I were all in Year 10 at Wellington Secondary College. We were good students and were doing well. We knew just about everyone in our year level. I had always been shy but with Travis and Brett's encouragement I was starting to come out of my shell, and beginning to mix and widen my circle of friends. Brett was the brainy one, and a talented guitarist. Travis played basketball. He was charming and popular, and the class joker. He was saved from many a detention only because he was so loveable, and no one took his pranks very seriously. He was a good student, too, although Brett and I stirred him mercilessly: we reckoned he only did well because we helped him a lot. I loved history and politics and was a member of the school photography club. I enjoyed most types of humour, and introduced Travis and Brett to Red Dwarf and Absolutely Fabulous, two quirky television programs that only the British could have created. It took my friends a while to get the hang of the jokes, but once they did they were as hooked as I was. All three of us played indoor cricket in the local league; our mixed team, the Wildcats, was made up of members of our year level.
School was good. Home was good. Life was good. The future looked good…but I didn't know what lay ahead.
It was mid-July. Mum had begun to prepare dinner when she found we'd run out of milk. 'Kids!' she exclaimed, shaking her head. 'Never look beyond the present moment.' Apparently we had overdone it when we made ourselves drinks when we arrived home from school. Mum asked me to go to the shop near Victoria Park to get a couple of litres so we would have milk for breakfast.
I grabbed my bike and headed for the shop. On the way I saw a friend from school so we stopped and chatted for a couple of minutes. I got the milk and started back home, retracing my route through the park. It was now pitch dark and getting cold. I was hungry and looking forward to dinner. Mum was cooking her special lasagne, one of my favourite meals, and we were having fruit salad and ice cream for dessert.
I was riding through a dark area of the park, deep in thought—preoccupied with a history assignment we had been given that day. Suddenly there was a "shhhht" sound and a split-second later something wet sprayed on my face. It stung and I couldn't breathe, and my eyes closed reflexively. I started coughing, and lost control of the bike. I was falling. It must have taken only a second, but I remember it as if it happened in slow motion. I landed heavily on my left shoulder and my head hit the pathway. I felt pain as the gravel bit into my clothes and my face and hands. I stopped sliding, and then everything went black.
I have no idea how long I was unconscious, but I remember having a bad dream. I was hurt badly. I was being carried in someone's strong arms to the hospital. Only I wasn't taken to hospital; I was thrown into the back of a van and driven on a long journey. When the van finally stopped I was pulled out of the vehicle and dragged into a building. I heard a door open and I was pushed roughly. I stumbled into a room and fell on the floor. I blacked out.
The next thing I remember is hurting all over. That, and feeling hungry. And cold. My eyes were sore, my face felt like it was on fire, and I couldn't stop coughing. I must have faded out again because I seemed to be reliving the dream I'd had earlier.
Someone was shaking me. It hurt. In fact, I seemed to hurt everywhere, and I was still hungry and cold. At least my eyes were no longer hurting and I wasn't coughing. I opened my eyes and gasped. There was a man standing over me, staring at me with eyes that seemed to look right through me; an evil grin was playing on his lips.
'Who are you? Where am I? Why am I here?' The questions tumbled out of my mouth, but I may as well have been talking to a stone. He didn't say a word. In fact he didn't even acknowledge that I'd spoken. That, and the grin, unnerved me and I fell silent—which is exactly what he wanted, I guess. In fact, he scared me witless. He was ugly, with a scar under his left eye. His hair was closely shaven and he had a thick, drooping moustache. He was tall and solidly built and looked really mean.
The man left the room. I tried to sit up, but that caused pain all over my body. I raised my head as much as I could and looked around. There was no window, but a skylight in the ceiling flooded the room with light. I was lying on a double bed, the only furniture in the room. It was an old house, judging by the high ceiling and ornate trims, and not well cared for if the peeling paint on the walls was any indication.
The man—I came to think of him as The Monster—held me captive for another five days before I managed to find a way to escape. I became his sex slave. He had stripped me naked, and that was how I stayed for the whole time I was there. I had to be available and ready whenever he felt like using me. I tried to resist the first few times, but that only got me beaten. It was humiliating, but less painful, to do what he demanded. He forced me to perform oral sex on him, and he raped me repeatedly. I was in constant pain from his penetrating me. I guessed that he had torn something, because I bled every time he entered me, and the sheet on the bed became filthy. Sitting on the toilet was an exquisite form of torture; I had to go, but when I did it hurt like blazes and resulted in more bleeding. My injuries from falling off my bike went untreated; he gave me a little food and water, but I was constantly hungry and could feel myself growing weaker. I had to wrap myself in blankets to keep warm.
I needed to get out of this place, but how? The Monster kept me in the locked bedroom and he would come to me only when he wanted sex. I never saw the rest of the house, and he never spoke one word in all the time I was there. During the day he would disappear for hours at a time; I assumed he went out to work. I decided that I had my best chance of escaping during one of his absences; all I had to do was find a way out.
My prison was small. There was just enough room for the bed, with a narrow space on three sides. As I had first thought, there was no other furniture. There was a tiny windowless bathroom off one side of the room, and that was where I started to search for a way out. There was an exhaust fan high in one wall and I thought if I could remove it there might be a hole big enough for me to squeeze through. First, I'd have to climb up to it, though, and it looked like that would be impossible for a fit person, let alone me in my weakened and injured state. It caused a fair amount of pain, but I managed to clamber on to the handbasin attached to the wall and that brought me within about a metre of the fan. Now that I was closer I could see that it was only about 20 centimetres in diameter—far too small a hole for me to fit through even if I could get up there.
I was deeply disappointed. I sat down on the bed to rest, and to think about my predicament. Could I rush my captor when he came into the room? Could I overpower him while he was having sex with me? The second question was easily answered—no, because he handcuffed me to the bed each time and only released me when he was finished. Rushing him wouldn't achieve much, either, because he was so much bigger and stronger than I was. Even fit and well I would be no match for him. Could I break the door down? I tried putting my good shoulder to it, but it didn't even bend, let alone break. Of course, it opened inward, so that made it hard to do anything from the inside. I tried to remember if I'd read a book or seen a movie that might give me an idea, but nothing came to me.
I was worried. The Monster wasn't feeding me properly, he didn't care about my injuries, and I began to believe he was simply going to use me until I died. He would dispose of my body secretly and no one would ever know what had happened to me. I'd given up trying to talk to him because he never spoke a word. During his absences I talked and sang to myself. There was nothing else to do; a few times I had asked for a book or magazine to read, or a radio to listen to, but I gave up when he just wouldn't respond. At least talking and singing kept my mind active. In time it also gave me inspiration.
Lying on the bed passively as I was violated wasn't good for my sanity, so during those times I thought about life before my kidnapping. That helped take me away to another place and eased the pain. During one particularly rough session of sex my captor had the bed rocking, and I suddenly realised that it seemed to be tilting. Man, this old house is a wreck, I thought. For some reason that thought came back to me later, after The Monster had left for the night. Hey, that's a song, isn't it? In primary school my class had learned "This Ole House" and now some of the words came to mind. I started to sing the chorus quietly:
The second or third time it hit me—Ain't got time to fix the floor...! The bed had felt like it tilted; maybe the floor had a hole in it or had a weak spot. I might be able to get out through the floor! I got really excited until I realised that, even if I could make a hole big enough for me to fit through, there might not be enough room under the house for me to crawl out.
The next morning after The Monster had gone to work I went around the room carefully, searching for holes or weak spots in the floor. The bed was an old-fashioned type that had a wire spring base attached to a timber head and foot, with an innerspring mattress. I found that the legs at the head of the bed were resting on a board that had been nailed on top of the floor. When I stood on the end of this board it sank. 'Yes!' I almost shouted. 'There's a weak spot in the floor!' I might be able to make a hole, but would there be enough crawl space underneath?
The bed was heavy, but I managed to move it away from the wall. Pressing down on the rotten floor, I got my hands under the nailed-on board and lifted. It came away easily, and I was elated to find that it had been covering a hole. I lay down and looked through it. I could feel air coming in and there was light underneath. I could see the ground; it was only about 30 centimetres below, but I was right at the side of the house and there was nothing between me and freedom! All I had to do was make the hole bigger.
That proved to be more difficult than I expected, but I was able to use the board I'd pulled up to lever off pieces of the floor until there was enough room for me to fit through. I'd started to crawl out when I remembered I was naked. I pulled a blanket off the bed. That would have to do; at least I'd be decent and its dark colour would give me a bit of camouflage if I needed it.
Once outside the house I discovered I was on a farm and about a hundred metres from a road.
I took stock. I wanted desperately to get away from that place, but I was wary of dashing out on to the road or going to another farmhouse in case The Monster had friends in the area and I got caught again. There was a clump of trees in the paddock a little way from the house, so I headed for it, thinking it would hide me from the house as well as the road. From there I could see that the road ended at a T-intersection a few hundred metres away and I could see traffic on the other road. I decided to make my way to that road and try to flag down a car to get help.
Pain and the lack of shoes made it difficult to walk, so I had to take my time, but eventually I was crouched behind some bushes beside the road. It might be best to try to find a woman driver on her own, I thought, then I'll have a better chance of fighting back if I run into trouble. I let the first few cars pass, and then I spotted a small car being driven by a young woman, alone. I ran out on to the road, waving to her to stop. She swerved around me, but skidded to a halt a few metres away. She got out of the car and, as fast as my injuries would allow, I moved towards her. She looked angry. I thought she was about to yell at me for nearly causing her to have an accident, but as I limped closer her expression changed.
'Good grief! What happened to you?'
'I was kidnapped,' I said, hoping that would be sufficient explanation.
The young woman's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. 'You're Michael, aren't you? Your picture's been on TV and in all the papers. They're looking everywhere for you!' She seemed frozen, rooted to the spot where she stood. I guess my sudden appearance was a bit of a shock.
I had already decided that the first thing I would do would be to tell the police everything I knew so that they had a chance to catch The Monster. 'Can you take me to a police station?' I asked.
That broke the spell, and she helped me into her car and tried to make me comfortable. I said, 'I'll need to tell the police where we are, and the name of that road.' I pointed to the road that stopped at the T.
'Okay, gotcha,' she said. She told me her name was Maree, and that it was Wednesday. I'd been attacked the previous Wednesday night, so I'd been held captive for a week.
Fifteen minutes later we were pulling up outside Sale police station. She'd wanted to take me to the hospital, but I insisted on talking to the police first. She had let me use her mobile phone to call home, and when we walked in Mum and Dad were there—along with a couple of detectives who had been working on my case. They all wanted to get me to the hospital, too, and I lost it.
'I'm not going anywhere until I tell you all I know so that you can catch the bastard who did this to me!' I yelled. 'I want to make a statement!' Perhaps I'd watched too many TV crime shows, but that seemed to do the trick and the detectives took us all into an interview room. Maree told the police where she had picked me up, and I described the farmhouse and its direction from the intersection. I gave them a description of my attacker and told them I thought he worked during the day. I was pretty sure they would find my clothes in the house, and there was the bed sheet with my blood on it. That would prove that I had been in the house. I said I could describe the room in which I had been held, but they said that could wait.
I guess the adrenaline stopped flowing then. I broke down, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably, and collapsed on the floor.
(1) This Ole House was written by Stuart Hamblen and published by Duchess Music Ltd. It was recorded by Rosemary Clooney on May 22 1954, and released as a single. It reached #1 on Billboard magazine's charts, and was in the charts for 23 weeks.
Source: www.rosemaryclooney.com, accessed February 6 2008