His name, it turned out, was Mark MacLeod. Actually I can’t be entirely sure about the spelling. When he first appeared at our school, it was by way of an absent and unknown student’s on the roll. The teacher called out “M MacLeod”. To which some wag replied, “Oh, that’s Max”. When M MacLeod physically appeared, a couple of days later, he slotted into the “Max” role perfectly. In fact, he quite liked it. Called himself “Max”. Which, of course, soon became “Max Merritt”. Which naturally grew into “Max Merritt and the Meteors”, and other variations on the theme of “Max”.
Until, on account of his having a slight overbite and a top lip that kind of came to a little point, he morphed into “Chook”. And it was as Chook that he is remembered. He arrived, as best as I can recollect, in Year 9, and left in Year 10. His father was a local minister of relegion for that time. I went to his house a few times. I met his father, but I don’t recall ever having seen his mother. I suppose it is possible that he didn’t have one, although such an idea was alien to everything I knew back then. What he did have was a lot of freedom. Freedom, mainly, to misbehave, and to spread misbehaviour amongst our innocent ranks.
For starters, he had an impressive collection of dirty magazines, from which he had acquired an equally impressive, if not entirely anatomically correct, vocabulary. The key to all knowledge, for Chook, was that girls had something called piss flaps. From these unimaginable zones, according to Chook, they were capable of doing something called piss-flap farts. Nobody (including, I suspect, Chook) had any idea exactly what this involved. Sounds? Smells? We had no idea. We couldn’t even begin to visualise it. And we weren’t about to be asking anyone. So these flaps remained a mystery, but a mystery that gave Chook an amazing degree of power amongst the boys, for it was Important Knowledge That Only He Was Privy To.
Chook was also into music, which I suppose is why we hit it off so well. He introduced me to “Cat Scratch Fever”, by Ted Nugent, which is how, 25 years later, I was to be the only person in a crowded cinema to laugh, at the end of the Seven Soderberg remake of “Ocean’s 11”, when George Clooney says “Ted Nugent called, he wants his shirt back”.
My parents, nobody will be surprised to hear, didn’t take to “Mark”. (They couldn’t bring themselves to call somebody “Chook”.) But they did let me go to his house from time to time, and in return I made a silent pact with myself never to let slip about the outrageous things that were to be seen at his house, or the schoolyard and classroom antics that were a big part of his reputation. (Of these, I don’t remember much in the way of detail. It was just mostly kids’ stuff. I think it was Chook who was the first to point out how Miss Jones’s bum wiggled when she wrote on the blackboard. There may also have been something to do with short pants and bare knees, but I think that might have been to do with me, and I would need to go through years of therapy, probably, in order to be able to dredge that back up to the surface.)
We took Chook with us to the Melbourne Show. We spent the trip in the car hunched over in the back seat; I was reading music magazines (as always) and Chook was trying his hardest to distract me and make me laugh. It was pretty annoying, although not as annoying as finding when we got back to the car that the newsprint magazines (whatever they were, NME, RAM, Roadrunner) that I had left on the ledge behind the back seat had yellowed in the sun over the course of the day.
For me, the Show was often our one trip to Melbourne for the year, and it was a time of excitement and wonder, and also of a kind of childhood nostalgia, as each year I liked to find things the same as they were in previous years: the scones at the CWA pavilion; waiting for one or another of my uncles or cousins to suddenly appear amongst the cows; the coloured baby chicks and their water slide; the model train display (I may have cried the year it disappeared); and the grand parade in the middle of the afternoon, signalling that it would soon be time to go. But none of this was for Chook. He wanted to spend the whole day hanging around the sideshow alley, saying rude things to girls, simultaneously looking for and staying out of trouble, and eating the kind of crap food I coveted but knew that I would never in a million years be allowed to eat. Chook wasn’t remotely interested in looking at cows. Or chooks. What ended the dream for me was the Mad Mouse. The Mad Mouse was like a miniature roller coaster in the shape, roughly, of a cube. It was another of the landmarks I associated with the Show, but not one that I had any interest in partaking of. Chook wanted to go on the Mad Mouse, and he was insistent that I go on it too. I wasn’t having a bar of it. (I wasn’t, and still am not, good with heights.) This soon went from good-natured stirring to actual anger and abuse: I was a chicken (to which I wasn’t confident enough to say “Well you’re a Chook”, although that may well have been the circuit breaker that the situation needed); I was gutless; I was a pussy.
It was a very long two hours, in the dark, in the back of the car, on the way home. Mum and dad would have had the radio on the ABC, which would only have given Chook another reason to treat us with the contempt he probably felt we deserved. Things didn’t really get repaired between us, but they didn’t have much of a chance to, anyway, because it wasn’t long before Chook disappeared from our lives. I wonder what became of him.