Mick, Pat, me: 1962
Behind Mick’s house was a park with the usual poorly maintained play equipment which on an annual basis accounted for at least half of the local childhood injuries. Just outside his back gate, where two enormous bonfires were lit every cracker night and accounted for the other half of the injury tally, was an access hole to a stormwater drain. One Saturday we got curious and found that we could move the concrete cover if we pushed hard enough. The drain was dark but definitely asking us to get in so we lowered ourselves through the opening and found that if we bent over a bit we could move pretty easily. But without equipment we couldn’t go very far so we clambered out, replaced the concrete lid and made plans.
The following Saturday we had our candles, matches and toilet paper ready and with great resolve and having told no-one we set off for an unknown destination. The dark, slow-moving water in the centre of the drain, weakly lit by our candles, had an oily, psychedelic look to it. A few metres away from the entry point to our circular cavern it was very dark. Every few minutes I tilted my candle and put some wax on a piece of crushed toilet paper and dropped it so that we could find our way back. Straddling the channel of water we had to bend over a little to walk. Beside the edges of the waterway were thick sludge lines the colour of melted caramel. More often than not, in this awkward position, we saw clumps of waxed toilet paper flow through our legs.
Occasionally we passed smaller drains emptying waist high into our tunnel and without our candle light they would have been hard to avoid. Luckily our candles were quite large and the air was still. Neither of us owned a watch so it was difficult to work out how long we had been going.
In cinematic terms, about the time we were to come face to face with the evil in this darkened place, we rounded a bend in the drain and saw a pinball of bright light in the distance and soon emerged, a little relieved, into an open-air concrete canal with a much larger central water channel. Storing our candles, we continued walking with the water flow. Our journey nosedived just before the Cooks River in Earlwood as the canal dropped steeply away into an oily, copper-coloured holding tank of some sort. Thirty years on, the Cup and Saucer Creek Management Study showed the system, which stretched from Wiley Park Station to the Cooks River, had extensive toxic organics and what looked like decades old pieces of waxed toilet paper.
We knew parts of the Cooks River and local area pretty well and after our tunnel journey we decided to walk the three miles home to Tasker Avenue rather than re-visit the canal. On the way we covered the usual topics: comics, football, holidays and psychopaths. That’s not as odd as it might sound because it wasn’t too long after the police had caught the notorious Kingsgrove Slasher. This infamous local criminal terrorised the suburbs largely south of the river over three years from 1956 to 1959. My parents had shown impeccable timing when they decided to move, not just to Sydney, but to the epicentre of this very disturbed person’s domain in 1958.
We got our information from adults who we overheard saying how Clemton Park had changed because of the Slasher. People no longer left windows and doors open and often went to bed with weapons handy. Police later reported that by his own admission the Slasher had visited possibly thousands of homes (many repeats among them) as he followed his devious rat runs in and out of the Wolli Creek bushland. There were at least five streets in Earlwood where he claimed to have visited every house. In his twenty five recorded attacks, he would enter bedrooms with sleeping females and slash clothing, and sometimes sheets, with knives or razors. Psychiatrists at the time were at a loss, reporting that no such case was in the literature.
We couldn’t get enough of these stories and loved sharing the latest school yard speculation picturing how people woke up to find their bed sheets and clothes in tatters. What surprises me is that no one has made a movie about the Slasher’s exploits in 1950s suburban Sydney or indeed of our excellent tunnel adventure. An aspiring filmmaker should hurry because the look of the area is changing as the modest single-story fibro or brick houses - like the one I grew up in on Tasker Avenue - are making way for two and three storey houses that fill the entire block. Real estate aside, it would be another fourteen years before I found myself in proximity of another psychopath and diabolical serial killer on Soi Ngam Duphli in Bangkok.