Friday, 25 November 2011

The Alta Mira Bust, 1976

I say it was 1976, though I suppose it is possible that it was in the early part of 1977. My friend Geoffrey and I had caught the train from Sydney to Katoomba to stay for a few days with Rick Seary. There was thick mist obscuring Katoomba Street as we walked down from the station to Alta Mira, a grand house in Warialda Street. Rick and a friend were renting the place for - from memory - thirty or thirty-five dollars per week; rents were cheaper then in the Blue Mountains than they were in Sydney, which is still the case. The house is low-slung in frontal aspect, built on a sloping block so that it had the laundry and some storage areas beneath the back half. The style was a demure hybrid, influenced perhaps by Swiss chalets, English cottages, California bungalows and the Sydney Federation style. The rooms were large and wood-panelled. There was one enormous room at the back that was large enough to hold a huge dining table or perhaps a full-sized snooker table, though it had neither. The room mainly used for sitting in was at the front of the house, and was very cosy on cold nights with the fire blazing.
Rick welcomed us with glasses of port, a smoke of hashish and, presumably, something to eat. Bed before the point where the ceiling started spinning around.
The next morning it was solidly wet, rain falling as drizzle interspersed with more solid rain. The sky ended at the treetops, and occasionally lower than that. Not bushwalking weather or even much fun just going outside. Rick had to take himself off to work; he was a cook at a local French restaurant. Geoffrey and I were going to have indoor fun, sitting around doing not much at all.
That part of Warialda Street is quiet, leading from one sleepy residential area to another, so the police car I glimpsed through the gap in the hedge stood out, especially as it was travelling so slowly. When I saw another half an hour later I should have known there was something going on.
After tea and toast, we got down to the serious business of drinking flagon white wine, smoking some of Rick's hash and playing records. We were feeling pretty good, and had just put on side one of Van Morrison's Moondance, when we glanced up to see a sea of blue uniforms coming through the front gate, a few of them peeling off to either side and disappearing from view. I thought my best bet was to vacate the premises, and headed for the stairs that would take me down to the back of the house, but boots crunching on the pavement below stopped me at the top of the stairs. Geoffrey had opened the door to the leader of the raid, a grey-suited Sydney detective, who had a large proportion of the Blue Mountains constabulary in tow.
When Geoffrey and I were herded together in the front room, the detective had a couple of questions for us. 'Do you speak French?' he wanted to know. 'Non!' we replied, thinking it an unusual start to what we presumed was a simple pot bust. 'We want to have a look at the bathroom,' was what he said next, and that's when we knew there had been a misunderstanding, because he said it in such a way that he obviously thought there was some other meaning to the words. But, wherever he had heard this phrase, it had a straightforward and literal meaning. We showed him the bathroom.
It was twice or three times as big as any other bathroom I had seen in any Australian house, tiled in a luscious Edwardian way, and the centrepiece was a turn-of-the-century hydrotherapeutic bath. Big enough to comfortably hold three friends, it had a three walls of glass at the plug end, rather like an old phone booth, a huge shower rose, and a lever like a ships' speed indicator that controlled the water delivery, one setting being alternating hot and cold sprays from little holes down the metal columns that supported the phone booth part. It was a truly magnificent bath, in a room that suited it, a bathroom the equal of which I still have yet to come across. The poor detective's face sank when he clapped eyes on it, realising that 'having a look at the bathroom' had no nefarious meaning, and certainly didn't mean 'make a big drug connection'.
The uniforms had not been wasting their time looking at the bathroom; they were poking into every cupboard and drawer, looking for contraband. The hash pipe was easily found, sitting on a side table near the record player. It was small, glass, and stained with smoke and resin - a dead giveaway. Kay, Rick's co-tenant, away in Sydney at that time, was a student of acupuncture, so there was some excitement when a set of needles turned up. The same when one young constable, who looked like he'd had a haircut that morning, opened a drying cupboard to see twiglets of green herbs on the slatted shelves within. 'Hemp, Sarge! Hemp!'
We explained about herbs, about acupuncture. The detective nodded, seemed resigned to the fact that he had failed to find what he was looking for. All this while, side one of Moondance had been on repeat; in those days it was simply a matter of leaving the arm on the turntable in the 'up' position, and the record would play again and again. At a certain point I asked if I could take it off, having heard 'It Stoned Me', 'Crazy Love', the title track and the rest several times. It was a thorough search of the house, finding very little, and a long interrogation of a couple of teenagers who knew nothing.
The detective instructed one of the uniforms to take a sample of the herbs. And they took the pipe. But, apart from writing down our names, they had little further interest in us. The detective already knew Rick's name, it seemed, but wanted to talk to him, telling us that if he wanted his pipe back he had better contact him at Katoomba police station. And they left.
Geoffrey had cleverly put the hashish in a shopping bag which was hanging on the back of the kitchen door, and which the police obviously never noticed. And we still had our cheap flagon.
That evening Rick confirmed that there had indeed recently been a Frenchman visiting the house, in the company of mutual acquaintances. Many people visited, not just to see Rick or Kay, but to 'look at the bathroom'. Months later we heard that this mysterious French visitor had been involved in some serious crime, murder perhaps, or a large drug importing operation.
The lasting effect for me has been the inability to listen to Moondance without at least a slight twinge of nervousness, part of me worried that a dozen police officers are about to burst into the room.

1 comment:

  1. nice to hear your story. Ive owned the house since 1997 and it seems to have had a colourful history