It’s coming up to 50 years — a long time between drinks, I know — but I will get this off my chest.
It’s summer, the ’60s, always summer in our street of Inverness Way, and the days are long and the skies are blue and the world is vast, calibrated only by our scooter rides to Liam McCall’s cubby and the lulling soundtrack of cicadas and Kennedy speeches. Remember? It’s the age of Play-Doh and plane trees, of Super Balls and hula hoops, when any grazed knee can be healed by the panacea of Vegemite on Tip Top or the miracle of Mum’s chocolate Quik. Remember?
And there you are, you curly haired vixen. You, all of six and beaming. Me, blue-eyed, innocent and seven. You smile, you dance, you sing, you steal my seven-year-old heart, and I am yours, hook line and sinker.
Shirley Temple. Curly Tops. Little Miss Broadway.
And for three infinite months in that infinite golden summer, I am yours, Shirley Temple.
It is true, Shirley, I’ve only seen you in the movies on the good TV on Sunday afternoons after World Championship Wrestling, your warm up act Professor Tanaka and Brute Bernard and the Golden Greek, Spiros Arion, and their cast of musclebound racial misfits fit to fuel any immigration debate. Amidst the flurry of sleeper holds and half nelsons, my little brother, Andy, and I wait by the TV for you, Shirley; hanging from the rafters, jumping from the turnbuckles, we wait for you.
And then you come, Shirley, in black and white, grainy as a NASA transmission, as though you’re tap-dancing live from Cape Canaveral.
And from your very first ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’, I love you.
I want to run away with you, Shirley Temple, to Sunnybrook Farm and Aunt Becky and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, where the men are Brylcreemed and moustached, and a ninety-piece orchestra springs from every bush, and every passerby knows the lyrics and croons like Crosby, and every older sister finds a millionaire fiancé, and all our woes are resolved in three acts, final song, close-up Shirley, roll credits.
And for three infinite months in that infinite golden summer, I am yours, Shirley Temple.
I try to teach myself to tap-dance. In the car, on our way to school, at dinner, cleaning my teeth. Ratatatat. My feet are flying like a broken rivet gun; I’m like a midget with Saint Vitus Dance. I experiment with different footwear and discover the best noise comes when I wear my leather footy boots with the metal studs in the bathroom. And now I’m in the bathroom in my footy boots every spare minute: ratatatat. I’m Ben Cousins after a big night on the town. Ratatatat. Tapping like there’s no tomorrow. Until Mum and Dad can take no more.
Shut up! Enough already, Stephen!
I now pronounce to the family over dinnertime fish fingers, I want to hit the stage. Big time. Just like Shirley.
Mum, driven to despair, consults the Yellow Pages and locates the only tap-dancing teacher within a 20km radius of Warrandyte. One grey Saturday afternoon she carts me to Mrs Mitchell’s grandly-named Eltham Ballet and Movement Academy, a sad extension at the rear of her ramshackle brick-veneer bungalow. A seven-year-old boy in an academy/kitchenette full of five-year-old girls jumping to a tuneless piano manned by a purple-haired, chain-smoking harridan thumping out ‘The Sunny Side Of The Street’. But there’s nothing sunny in Eltham on this Saturday. Between the smell of burning eucalyptus leaves and the faint drone of Norman Banks on a distant transistor, even I can find little hint of Hollywood here. I skulk from the Eltham Ballet and Movement Academy never to return, tap-less, Sunnybrook Farmless, Animal Crackers-less, Bojangle-less. Shirley-less.
Undeterred, back home, I now pronounce to the family over dinnertime fish fingers, I want to hit the stage. Big time. Just like Shirley. My bewildered father enlists Andy and me in the local Anglican Christ Church nativity play. We are to be the three wise men. Just the two of us. The numbers don’t add up, I can see that, but there’s a shortage of primary school thespians, or at least Anglican ones. Mum’s got to make the wise men costumes. Time is short, Mum’s Singer is rusting in the garage and, anyway, Andy and I have already got costumes. Although mine is a Superman costume: a royal blue, Kardashian-esque clinging body suit with a scarlet cape and a giant red and yellow ‘S’ embroidered on the front. And Andy’s is a Samurai outfit, complete with sword.
I don’t remember much about the nativity play, other than this: The newly born baby Jesus is being held aloft by Mary, a mean-tempered, freckled nine-year-old somehow related to the vicar, flanked on either side by a supporting juvenile cow and camel.
Cue the Vizard boys. Go wise men. Now. Enter wise men. Now.
Andy and I reluctantly nudge our way towards the manger, bearing gifts.
And then it happens.
Despite the setbacks, Shirley, you need to know that, even then, Andy and I remained committed.
The audience start laughing. Not just a bit. But uncontrollably and then hysterically.
Andy starts crying and takes out his sword and waves it at the guffawing naysayers as though they are money changers in the Temple.
And they laugh even more.
Nearly 50 years on, still humiliated and still trying to make sense of it, I can see how the sudden arrival at the birth of our Lord Saviour of a miniature Man of Steel and Shintaro might represent an unpalatable departure from the scriptures. Especially one wise man down and bearing two presents wrapped in red Myer Emporium Christmas paper.
Despite the setbacks, Shirley, you need to know that, even then, Andy and I remained committed. Still we basked in your all-singing, all-dancing Sunday reverie. Still, Shirley, I was yours.
Until that day. That fateful day. As black and haunting and inexpugnable as Lennon’s death or Princess Di’s demise.
I’m seven, it’s now school holidays, and I’m playing with Silly Putty and talking to my mum in the kitchen. Mum lets slip that she too grew up with Shirley Temple.
Says my mum, ‘I loved Shirley when I was about your age too, Stephen.’
Hang on – are you crazy?
Mum, my mum, old as Methuselah, Mum grew up with you, loved you, had her hair in curlers and sang ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop’ and danced her way through the Ballarat South Street Dance Competition?
That is the exact second of the gut-wrenching realisation that I will never dance or sing or escape with you, Shirley.
‘Here’s my tap-dancing blue ribbon to prove it,’ confides the crazy woman.
Surely not my beloved Shirley Temple. Surely, Mum, you mean some other six-year-old, chubby-cheeked, curly-haired, tap-dancing freak called Shirley. Surely another Shirley.
But she doesn’t.
And it dawns on me, rudimentary though my seven-year-old maths may be, limited by fingers and Cuisenaire rods, if my Shirley and Mum’s Shirley are one and the same, our Shirley can no longer be six. Nor even sixteen. She must be…
And that is the precise moment my world falls apart. That is the exact second of the gut-wrenching realisation that I will never dance or sing or escape with you, Shirley; I will never ‘S-M-I-L-E to be H-A-double P-Y’ with you; I will never do anything with you, on the sunny shores of Peppermint Bay or elsewhere.
And I pine. And I ache. And I am angry.
Shirley Temple, you floozy. I have given you my everything; when you were Little Miss Broadway, the Little Colonel, the Little Princess, the Littlest Rebel.
You two-faced tap-dancing Tori Spelling. Little! Me six and you forty-three! Your roly-poly legs by now as veined and sun-spotted as Mum’s. Your careworn world now an unreachable world away, a World War away, kids and cut lunches away, with no time left for impromptu barnyard concerts. Your tap shoes rusting and cobwebbed, the leather as parched and brittle and broken as my seven-year-old dreams.
Shirley, you have let me down. Faithless and fickle.
But the real culprit here, it dawns on me, is not Shirley.
The real malefactor is Time. Not the wasted Time of my own making, the Time I’ve squandered on a couch or in a bar, the frittered Time that killed my potential career as a concert pianist or my chance to open the batting for Australia.
No, a different sort of Time has flattened me. Big-picture Time, Stephen Hawking-sized Time, way-out-of–my-hands Time, the Time that divides me from a generation before. The mocking, inarguable Time that separates aeons like continents and stands between me and Ancient Rome or Sunnybrook Farm, denying me the togas I might have worn, the Last Suppers I might have consumed, the tap-dancing showstoppers you, Shirley, and I might have sang.
Time is the life-changing bitch.
There is a coda.
It’s 1999. I’m in California with my friend Mark. As we drive through Woodside, he says, ‘See that street there? That’s where Shirley Temple lives.’
And I ask him to pull over. ‘No reason,’ say I. And I walk to the front fence and there in the garden I see a woman, an old woman, the same age as Mum, on her knees turning the soil with a small trowel.
And it’s her.
And though we never speak, on this day, in this garden, all I hear is an orchestra swinging in crackly syncopation and the sounds of tapping feet.
And all I see is a mop of blonde curls and a smile that lights up the world and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson tapping down your front steps. And I’m flying again and the world is bright and anything is possible.
So I write to Time, of the nagging hourglass and the mocking hands. Let it be known, Time, that 50 years on, despite your trickery and tomfoolery, I’ll have none of it.
Let it be known, Time, you can stick your nitpicking seconds up your arse. I’ve had it with you.
Let it be known, Time, as far as I’m concerned, and from hereon in, the plane trees are in flower, my red scooter is polished, Killer Karl Kox is jumping from the turnbuckle, I’m wearing my Superman costume — yes, with the big S embroidered on the front. Anything is possible and somewhere in the near distance an orchestra swells, cue the wise men, cue Shirley, cue close up, roll closing credits: The End.