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Tales from the 60s: An excerpt from new novel "Fitzroy Raw"

Writer Tom Petsinis grew up in the 1960s on McKean Street, when North Fitzroy was filled with other immigrant families like his own.


In his new novel Fitzroy Raw, Petsinis draws on his own memories and actual events from that time to tell the story of Nick Mangos, who like him had immigrated from Macedonia.


“It’s a mixture of fiction and autobiography. There were events there that I experienced and other events that I’ve taken liberties with. But it is pretty much the world of Fitzroy and North Fitzroy in the 1960s, as I saw it,” he tells The Rotunda.


One chapter is set on a hot summer’s day in Edinburgh Gardens and is based on real events. In the early 1960s a man’s body parts were turning up around North Fitzroy.


“My mate’s mum found the arm in the backyard, in the woodpile,” says Petsinis. “She reached up for a bit of timber and grabbed an arm.”


You can read about the summer that terrified Petsinis and his neighbourhood mates in the edited extract below, and buy Fitzroy Raw (published Tantanoola, $29.95) at bookstores.

 

By late afternoon, seeing from his window boys gathering at the Busy Bee, Nick puts away the album and joins them. Little Chris, transistor pressed to his ear, says other body parts have been found in Fitzroy and Clifton Hill. Zlatko smiles and places the first three fingers of his right hand over his heart.


‘Why not Collingwood?’ asks Danny.


‘Could mean the killer’s from Collingwood,’ says Nick.


‘Yeah,’ says Tony, ‘probably a bloody Collingwood supporter.’


The police have made no progress in solving the crime, Chris reports, listening intently, and they won’t say whether the parts are from the same body. The boys turn to one another with a look of alarm, thinking they have to endure another hot night with the killer wandering around their back lanes. But then, maybe to take their minds off body parts, big Paul, who’s a good leg-spinner, suggests a game of cricket before tea.

Kids play in Fitzroy. Photo: Chris Lermanis.

When Dom cracks the ball into the Council Yard for six, Lance bolts after it, only to stop abruptly at the edge of the long grass as though he’s seen a snake. He races back to the pitch without the ball, looking shaken.


‘Where’s the bloody ball?’ says Dom, eager to bat again.


‘There’s a man’s head in the grass,’ Lance gasps.


He is a known joker, so at first they think he’s pulling their leg, trying to spook them, but when he swears on his mother’s grave they pull out the stumps and follow him. On the way he keeps saying the sight isn’t for the faint-hearted: the tongue’s blue, hanging out of the mouth, and the eyes are white and half closed.


‘If you want to pull out, do it now,’ Lance says, ‘but if you want to see it, just know one thing, you might live with nightmares the rest of your life. Grandpa fought the Germans twenty years ago and he still keeps Gran awake with nightmares of blown-up bodies and chopped-off heads.’


The group hesitates a moment, each measuring his own fear by the look in another’s eyes. Sensing that some are afraid and might go back, Lance takes on the role of a platoon leader.


They follow, sprinting toward the long grass, screaming out their fear, only to stop dead in their tracks once in the Council Yard. Some draw back in shock, others look away, a few close their eyes. Nick stands his ground, having watched a relative slaughter a sheep in their gully trap one Easter. Black bush flies buzz around the head nestled in the grass, face up, as though a body buried up to its neck. Nick’s both curious and sickened. The hair’s oily and still brushed back Elvis-style, there’s a kind of sleepy look in the whites of the eyes, the mouth gapes in a silent howl, while the tongue sticks out, mocking and dark. Lance takes the bat from Dom and, against calls for them to go, pushes the head. It rolls onto its side and blood trickles from the biggish nose, making some of the boys jump back in fear.


‘We gotta call the cops,’ says Danny.


‘Hey, what if the head was dumped just before we got here,’ says Lance.


‘What if the killer’s still in the Council Yard,’ says Paul.


‘Behind one of them mounds,’ says Tony.


Spooked, they all leap to their feet, except Lenny. Just then Vlad appears at the Busy Bee. They call him over, hoping his wild, daring nature might come up with something. He’s eating a bread roll with a thick pork sausage inside, another of his father’s homemade products. When they tell him about the head he strolls over to where it lies and, still biting into his roll, parts the long grass with his foot.


‘Poor bastard,’ he says, ‘lost his head for...’


‘For a double cross,’ says Lance.


‘Or maybe for love,’ says Tony.


Vlad instructs Lenny to run home and bring back whatever sack he can find. They boys look at each in disbelief at his daring. When Lenny returns with a spud sack, Vlad rolls the head inside using one of the bats.


Kids play cricket in the backstreets of Fitzroy. Photo: Chris Lermanis.

'What are doing with it?’ asks Lance.


‘Boil it for breakfast,’ laughs Vlad.


‘No, serious.’


‘Swear you won’t tell anyone.’


‘Not a soul,’ says Tony.


He gets them to place the first three fingers of their right hand on their hearts. They all swear, some on God, others on the Bible, others on their mother’s grave. He then gathers them around him, opens the sack, and calls on the head to haunt anyone who reveals his secret.


‘There’s a bloke on Brunswick Street, a taxisomething-or-another, who stuffs all kinds of animal heads. I reckon he’ll pay a few quid for this catch.’


Knowing Vlad’s wild nature, they aren’t sure whether he’s joking or not. Ordering them to go home before they’re spotted here, he hurries off, taking the back way along the quiet end of Alfred Crescent.


After days of living like prisoners it’s a relief to swing open the front and back door, to feel the fresh draught sweeping out the stale heat from the corridor, the living room, the kitchen, and, even more, to feel it driving out the week-long fear festering in him. Yes, they all feel better now, freer, not just for the cool change, but because the killer was arrested this morning. The killer isn’t Louie’s dad, he isn’t a serial killer, as they feared, or a cold-blooded murderer, as the police said, he isn’t even a man – it turns out the killer’s a thirty-six-year-old woman, a mother of three small children.


The woman clobbered the man on the head with a hammer and then cut him up with a razor blade in the bathtub of their house. She has already taken police to the places where parts were disposed. An extensive search of the area didn’t find the head, the last piece in the jig-saw puzzle. According to the latest news update, the Inspector in charge of the case is certain she dumped the head in the disused part of the Edinburgh Gardens, but he’s unable to explain its disappearance, except to say that, having been there several days, it’s more than likely feral cats roaming the park have made off with it.

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