When an old friend from my music journalism days asked to meet for a meal a couple of years back, I was more than happy to oblige. He happened to be visiting Sydney from Melbourne with none other than Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, one of modern Australia’s most notorious underworld criminals, extortionists and stand-over men who’d served decades in prison, claimed to have been involved in 19-odd murders and hacked off his own ears. My friend was managing this man’s writing career at the time and the two were in town to promote Read’s most recent offering – one that I was assured was notsacrificial. For my buddy and I, it had been a long time between drinks, but not long enough for me to accept his kindly invitation at first blush.
‘Will Chopper be there?’
‘Okay, you’re on.’
Arrangements were made and I was shortly thereafter at Una’s in Darlinghurst, an understated restaurant boasting large portions of hearty German fare. I patiently slurped on a drink until my pal came bounding in. It was so good to see him after all this time! But lumbering behind him was a paunchy, shadowy figure; an older moustachioed shark-eyed gentleman. Holy Christ. He’d arrived withChopper Read. There he was, staring right through me!
Hasty introductions ensued, which sent me into a tailspin propelled by a moral dilemma. ‘Pleased to meet you’ followed by a brisk handshake suddenly seemed so wildly inappropriate. Was it right to remain in the company of a kidnapper, arsonist, perpetrator of assault and alleged multiple murderer? Somewhat shell shocked, I shoehorned myself into a seat around a tiny table and covertly examined people’s reactions to the slouched man dining in their midst. Yes, ladies and gentleman – it’s him, Chopper Read, ingesting food before your very eyes! With my shoulders plugging my ears owing to the sheer anxiety of it all, I noted the ogling, the sly smiles and the clandestine photographs snapped by smartphone. Believe me when I say that I may as well have been dining with Mariah Carey.
Meanwhile, Chopper gruffly responded to my inane banter. Weather. Sydney versus Melbourne. Writing. Um . . . sport? As I burst a capillary, I couldn’t help but notice that Chopper was making zero eye contact with me, and I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or offended. It was a type of shyness, my mate would later tell me, because Chopper didn’t know me. So . . . Chopper Read . . . was wary . . . of me. Yeah, it made perfect sense.
In any event, Chopper eventually began describing, in graphic detail, a variety of underworld figures that he’d either associated with, screwed over or killed. While looking exclusively at my friend, he described to ‘me’ how an acquaintance had wrapped an almost dead man in a garbage bag, taped it up and asked Chopper to help him dispose of the body. He also described how he’d fed either that body or the body of another (I wasn’t sure which) through an industrial-sized wood shredder, followed by a variety of trees, kangaroos and domestic animals, the leafy-intestinal combo ultimately being pumped into the Murray River.
Now I should point out at this juncture that I am anti-violence all the way. I’m all for love, peace and puppies. In fact I’m so passive, most people fail to realise I exist. I’m also one of the few people in this country who refused to jump on the Underbelly bandwagon because, as far as I was concerned, it glorified people hurting each other and generally disappointed my soul. Add to that the fact that I was not all that au fait with Read’s criminal history or that of most real-life people and one of these things just didn’t belong: me. So as Chopper spouted off names of presumable underworld figures or murder victims, I wondered if I was being fed information that would lead to me being forced to appear in a witness stand at a criminal trial. And as he disclosed yet more gruesome details of severed toes and the like, I forlornly watched his dull fork stab at his schnitzel and listened to his knife scrape along his plate, which I felt all the way to my back teeth. It was quite seriously the weirdest dinner of all time.
However, not wishing to offend, I oddly stuck around after our meal and we proceeded to the quaint Victoria Rooms across the road where I witnessed people at first pretend not to notice Chopper simultaneous to sheer delight dawning on their faces. Some gravitated towards him like moths to a flame. A hot blonde wearing a pair of skyscraper heels and accompanied by her boyfriend strode past several times, staring uncontrollably, until Chopper called them over. After a quick exchange, the blonde bashfully asked if she could sit on Uncle Chop Chop’s knee and have her photo taken with him – as though she’d just spotted Santa Claus and Santa Claus was real – hooray! Others plonked themselves down at our couch and chatted animatedly with all-consuming smiles, all the while trying to seem ‘down’ and ‘street’. I was gob-smacked. I wondered if Ivan Milat would have received the same reception. Probably not, I deduced, considering Milat hasn’t been portrayed by the lovable Eric Bana in a movie rife with dark comedy . . . yet.
Eventually people drifted away. And as I tore my gaze from Chopper’s mangled ear to his sullied silver teeth, my friend announced that he had to go to the bathroom. Every cell within me protested:‘Noooooo!’ Notwithstanding, Read and I were suddenly alone – just the two of us, side by side, on a red plush lounge chair in a sultry inner-city bar. I decided that now would either be a great time to (a) stamp a hole through the floor with the heel of my shoe, jump through it and vanish, never to be seen again, or (b) begin questioning my acquaintance about intricate details concerning his childhood. I chose the latter and this is where things got really interesting.
Chopper became more open, even daring to face me square on. He told me that his father – a former soldier who’d served a tour of duty with the Australian Army – had discussed killing and maiming without censorship to a very young and impressionable boy who would later be known as Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. Chopper’s father had shown him how to shoot a gun from as early as he could remember and they carried out target practice often. His dad had also explained how certain nationalities and races were less than others. His depiction of his childhood called to mind my rudimentary knowledge of USA serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker. At a very tender age, he too had been taught about guns and murder in a shockingly explicit way by a cousin who’d fought in Vietnam.
Read then went on to discuss his mother, a religious woman who, rather than look at things from a broader perspective, presumed her son to be possessed by satan and in dire need of exorcism. He was sent to various children’s homes and committed to mental institutions by his early teens. It seemed that young Chopper was not given life’s greatest start.
As he chatted and opened up further, he painted a stark picture pertaining to an incident while he’d been incarcerated within a sanatorium. He said that he’d been assigned bathroom-cleaning duty, which he carried out to the very best of his ability day after day to the point of obsession. During this time, he befriended an Italian man and fellow inmate, which was noteworthy in itself, being that it seemed that Chopper didn’t make friends easily. Sadly, this man went on to take his own life in the very bathroom that Read had been charged with. He told me with deep sincerity that he went on to clean that bathroom regardless, right after the event – even more meticulously – scraping his friend’s ruby red blood and other bodily remnants from the tile grout until the whole room sparkled again.
According to Chopper, the resident psychiatrist of this facility took this as confirmation of Read suffering a serious mental condition and commenced electro shock therapy on him shortly thereafter. Chopper allegedly received numerous treatments of higher and higher voltage which had no effect on him whatsoever. It has since been suggested that he suffered Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Aspergers’ Syndrome. Had he been properly diagnosed back in the day, who knows how his life may have played out.
Anyway, as Chopper divulged such things, I felt that he came closer to ‘accepting’ me. He didn’t extend any affection as such. Nor was he in any way sleazy. If anything, he was simply Chopper parroting the story of his life to a fellow-writer without fanfare or emotion, and allowing me to listen. Occasionally he’d laugh gregariously, or say something so politically incorrect that I’ve wiped it clear from my memory banks. But he also revealed a softer side, primarily reserved for his sons and his wife, Margaret. He described to me how upset she’d been that Chopper the movie had included scenes of domestic violence, which he claimed never happened in reality.
As the night drew to a close, Chopper asked for my phone number and my tongue collided with my teeth as I fumbled for the appropriate response. I mean, seriously, who willingly shares their phone number with Chopper Read . . . yet who has the guts to say no?
‘It’s 0405 … …’
The three of us soon milled outside on the footpath. As a bouncer pumped Chopper’s hand and slapped him on the back, my friend asked if I’d like just one more drink elsewhere, which I declined. To my mind, there’d already been more than enough excitement for one night. But the piece de resistance came when I hailed a taxi; it was then that Chopper cried, ‘Aw, come on, love! We’re not gonna try and root ya!’
They would be the last words I’d ever hear from Chopper Read.
THIS WORLD IS A LIE
I realised something important today. Either I don’t fit the general female prototype, or the world at large is a big fat lie. Well, the world as it’s been sold to me, anyway.
This epiphany occurred as I was preparing to seize the day, which, of course, involved cladding myself in various pieces of fabric and drawing on my own face.
First off, it struck me that, as far as I’ve been able to discern, women are meant to own a variety of undergarments which tend to be frilly and lacy, fit beautifully and facilitate leaping into the air to declare, ‘I wholeheartedly embrace my womanhood’ while looking fantastic. That being the case, I wondered why such numbers not only look ridiculous on me, but have never quite ‘worked’. Instead they’ve vanished into dark crevices frequented by bat colonies and glow-worms, left VPLs and looked plain idiotic under blouses (‘Mummy, why’s that funny lady strapped two traffic cones beneath her top?’)
I told myself to chill the heck out, for it was time to smear things all over my face. I settled before the mirror and equipped myself with the necessary tools to apply a hint of black here, a dash of pink there, and a subtle dab of powder across my cheekbones, its ingenious product name being ‘orgasm’. (Let’s hear it for the cosmetic corporations. Hooray!) It was then that I realised that even though I’ve been living as a grown up for a good couple of decades, I’ve never found an eyebrow pencil that doesn’t crumble, a foundation that matches my skin tone, a lipstick that floors total strangers, nor an eyeliner that makes my eyes ‘pop’. Hell, I still have no idea how to properly apply blush and eyeshadow. I’m deadly serious.
‘But hang on a minute!’ I spluttered. ‘This is all wrong! What about the adverts? I’ve obviously missed something vital along the line!’
The quandary in its totality naturally led me to contemplating the quaffing of alcohol … and the fact that I’ve still never found a wine that doesn’t leave an aftertaste in my mouth that could be confused with territorial markings. Nor the perfect hair colour. Nor the right products that make my hair flick out just so. Nor the elusive moisturiser that makes my flesh comparable to that of an infant’s. Nor the perfect snack food. Nor the right handbag. Nor a satisfactory pen. Nor the perfect shoe that looks fab without dislocating my knees, thus seeing me tumbling across concrete.
‘Why the hell not?’ I hear you shriek. I’ll tell you why. Because although we’re bombarded with advertising 24/7, the ‘perfect’ anything doesn’t exist ‘out there’ in this world of illusion. And that’s all I have to say about that … for now.