This is something I wrote for a book Penguin published in 2008 called When We Were Young. The book is a collection of biographical stories written by Penguin authors, with each story drawn from the author’s childhood. Here’s mine.
by Michael Wagner
When I was eight years old, I got to live in a house for the very first time. It was a run-down, old Victorian terrace which was full of dust, and it wasn’t going to be our place for very long, but it was still a house – an actual house. I was thrilled.
We were allowed to live there because my dad was working on the building site next door and his boss said we could use the house until they needed to knock it down. We had it for one year. Twelve months. The only thing was, we couldn’t go into the tiny, concrete backyard because things sometimes fell from the building site next door. Things like bricks and nails. That was okay by us because it meant we could live in a house and we could finally move out of the flats.
That’s where we’d been living for six years – in a block of Housing Commission flats. Like everyone who lives in public housing, we couldn’t afford a regular place. So we had to live in the flats. And it’s lucky that we did. I’m not sure where we would have ended up otherwise. I hate to think of the six of us living on the streets. I’m sure my mum and dad would’ve thought of something better than that. But it was good that they didn’t have to.
Anyway, the flats were neat and tidy and they gave us shelter and protection for a long time. And because the rent was cheap, we had enough money to live. But, sometimes, I found them scary.
In the mornings, before breakfast, sometimes I had to walk to the shops to buy milk and bread. That meant walking past a group of older boys who would jeer and at me. I was too little to understand what they were saying, but I could tell they were mean. I’d just rush past as quickly as I could. And I was always relieved to get back into the flats with the bread and milk in my bag, and the change still in my pocket.
We also had to keep away from the family who lived in number 8. They had four kids – like us – and they were very tough. If they spotted you out on your own, there’d be trouble.
So while the flats were fantastic in some ways, I was excited to be moving. Especially to a proper house.
Then, when we finally moved in, I got a bit of a shock.
I’m not sure how long it’d been since anyone lived in our house, but it must have been ages. That’s the only way to explain the thick layer of dust that covered everything – even the floors. As we cleared rubbish out of each room and got the house ready to move into, clouds of dust swirled around us like smoke inside a chimney. We got covered in it. And the next day, when I woke up for the first time in a proper house, I couldn’t open my eyes. My eyelids had been glued shut by dust.
Afraid that I’d gone blind, I stumbled around my new bedroom looking for the door. In my panic I made enough noise to attract my mum. When she found me, she led me to the bathroom. I heard her turn on the tap. Then I felt her rub warm water onto my eyelids. For a long time after that, I kept rubbing water into my eyes, and eventually the dust-glue became soft enough for me to pull open the lids of my left eye. As they peeled apart I could see again!
But no amount of warm water softened the dust-glue on my right eye. It stayed solidly shut.
Seeing through only my left eye, I ate breakfast, pulled on my clothes and made the short walk with my sister and brothers to our brand new school. It can be tough starting at a new school, but it’s extra difficult when one of your eyes is glued shut – you look pretty weird.
Luckily, none of the teachers or kids made fun of me – not one. And an hour or so into the day, after rubbing it constantly, my right eye suddenly unclagged itself. I could see through both eyes again.
It was a rocky start to our new life, but I was still really excited about it.
A couple of days later, my whole family – all six of us – went on a Sunday morning walk. We wanted to explore our new neighbourhood on foot.
As we wandered through different streets for the very first time, I spotted a bright red telephone box up ahead. I loved telephone booths. They were like cupboards with lots of windows all around them. There was just enough room for one person – maybe two if you squeezed in tight. But mostly just one. So when I saw this telephone box, I ran up to it, pulled open the big door and stepped inside.
As the door closed behind me, I reached for the receiver. I held it to my ear and started dialling numbers. I pretended to be making a phone call. Until something caught my eye.
Sitting on the bench beside the phone were two things: a folded newspaper and a small, cream coloured box made of plastic and metal. The box had two dials and a plastic window with lots of numbers showing beneath it. I wasn’t exactly sure what the box was, but I thought it might be a radio. I guessed this because my dad had a small radio of his own. I’d never really had a good look at it because we weren’t allowed to touch it, but I was sure it had dials and a window with numbers beneath it too. But whether it was a radio or not, it looked important and I wanted to have a turn. So I picked it up, shoved open the phone booth door and rushed back to my family, leaving the folded newspaper behind.
Mum and Dad told me it was a radio and that someone must have accidentally left it in the booth. They said the newspaper was folded so that you could see the horse racing page. They thought the owner of the radio must have used the phone to place a bet on a horse, then accidentally left the radio and the newspaper behind.
They also thought the owner of the radio would come back to look for it. So, rather than continuing our family walk, Mum and Dad decided we should wait for the owner to return. And that’s what we did. We hung around the phone booth waiting.
But no one came.
So Mum and Dad decided we could go home. And because I’d found the radio, I got to carry it.
That evening, Dad and I took the radio to the police station where we were going to leave it just in case the owner came looking for it. By now, I did not like this idea at all. I really wanted to keep the radio.
That’s because, I’d listened to it all afternoon. And I couldn’t believe what I’d heard.
When we got back from our walk, I’d gone into the backyard to try out the radio. I was allowed out there because it was a Sunday, so there was no building going on next door. And I wanted to listen to the radio in peace – away from the fighting and arguing inside the house.
When I turned the radio on, to my amazement, it worked. And what I heard was incredible.
People were being nice to each other.
I kept listening, trying all sorts of stations, hearing all sorts of voices. It was unbelievable. Voice after voice was the same. People were friendly, enthusiastic, funny, excited, happy. One after the other.
Who were these people? They were unrecognisable to me. They were not part of my life. Sure, I’d seen people being nice to each other, but not very often. And almost never in my family. We weren’t like that. We didn’t believe in being nice. Nice was for weak people. We were strong. Nice was for dishonest, fake people. We told it like it was. Arguing, bullying, punching, slapping, scratching, biting and pulling hair were honest and strong. Well, that’s how we saw it.
‘If you think it’s bad here, Michael,’ said Mum on many occasions. ‘Wait till you see what it’s like in the real world.’
I knew the real world was bad. I’d passed it on the way to getting bread and milk many times. I’d often run away from it just in time. I knew my mum was right. But what was this I was hearing on the radio?
Wasn’t it the real world too?
I listened all afternoon. I loved the way people on the radio spoke to each other. I wanted to speak like that too. I wanted to be spoken to like that. I needed to hear more. But now we were at the police station and a policeman was dropping my radio into a plastic bag.
I’d been hoping he would let me keep the radio. Someone let us have a whole house, so maybe they’d let me have a radio. But they didn’t. They put my radio into lost property where it had to stay for three months. If, after that time, the owner hadn’t come to claim it, I could have it back. Otherwise, it would be gone.
‘Do many things get claimed?’ I asked the policeman, hopefully.
‘Yep,’ he replied, without looking up from his paperwork.
For three long months, I counted down the days on a calendar. I told myself not to get my hopes up. It was a bad idea to expect too much. The radio would probably be gone. How could anyone let such a precious thing go? They would come looking for it. It’ll be gone. It had to be.
But even as I prepared myself for the worst, a little part of me remained hopeful. Maybe it was possible. Maybe I will get my radio back. Maybe.
Then the day came.
Dad and I walked into the police station. Dad handed over a piece of paper with a description of the radio on it. He asked if the policeman could look for it in lost property.
I held my breath.
As the policeman searched the lost property shelves, my stomach churned. It was taking forever. It must be gone. The owner must have come looking for it. I knew I shouldn’t have got my hopes up. It’s stupid to expect too much.
Then the policeman came back. He was carrying a plastic bag.
‘It’s still here,’ he said.
It was there. In its plastic bag. My radio. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.
Dad filled out the paperwork and picked the radio up off the counter. As we left the station, he handed it to me.
I listened to that radio day after day, month after month, year after year.
In the mornings I listened to people telling jokes and playing music and talking about the traffic and the things that had happened overnight.
During the day I heard interviews with famous film and television people, and singers who’d come all the way from England and America.
While the rest of my family argued about what to watch on our little black and white TV, I listened to the songs people had requested for each other – songs for boyfriends and girlfriends, wives and husbands, children who were sick in hospital, and sometimes even pets.
I discovered all sorts of music – some old, some new, some I liked, some I didn’t.
I spent entire days listening to sport, and some nights too. I often fell asleep with the radio under my pillow quietly describing the cricket that was being played in England. These were some of the friendliest, funniest voices of all.
Through that radio, I discovered a whole new world of ideas and opinions. But most of all, I discovered more and more happy, friendly voices. And I listened to them whenever I could.
Then, eleven years later, it was time for me to speak on the radio.
I was sitting in a Melbourne community radio station called 3RRR, hosting what is known as the ‘Graveyard Shift’. It’s the overnight program that starts at midnight and ends at six in the morning. I guess it’s called the Graveyard Shift because the only other activity happening at that time of night is amongst ghosts in the graveyard.
It was a long night of playing music and talking, and there weren’t too many listeners, but I loved every minute of it. And it turned out to be the first day of a career in radio.
I worked as a radio broadcaster for over ten years. Strangely, during all that time I never really thought about the Sunday morning when I’d skipped ahead of my family to ‘make a phone call’. It was only when I’d left radio to write children’s books that I realised how lucky that day had been. What I found back then was much more than a radio. I’d discovered a life outside of my own. A life I hoped I could make for myself one day.
The life I have now.