CHAPTER ONE: BRISBANE
Brisbane is a peculiar place . . . not because there’s anything that weird about it, but because everything is so unremarkable. In fact, people in Brisbane pride themselves on just how normal they are and how their existence is perfectly run-of-the-mill. Brisbane is essentially a group of average-looking people living in typical-looking homes nestled in ordinary-looking suburbs. Nobody ever really sticks their neck out. When I was growing up we’d hear reports about how Sydney and Melbourne were full of these vibrant and bizarre subcultures such as swampies, surfers and punks, but in Brisbane we felt safe and shielded from all that.
I grew up in a household that was typical of Brisbane in the 1970s: two parents, two kids and one car. There was my mum Pam, my dad Peter, me – the eldest son – and my brother Chris, who was four years younger than me. We lived in the suburb of Carina. For those who aren’t totally across the geography of Brisbane (I don’t blame you), it’s about 10 kilometres to the east of Brisbane’s CBD. One of my earliest memories is realising that we had the worst house in the street. Our neighbours on both sides lived in sturdy-looking brick houses with nice cars parked in the driveways. Meanwhile, our place was on stilts with ugly glass venetian louvres that had turned grey from lack of cleaning. I can still remember looking out my window one afternoon and connecting eyes with the kid next door. As he looked down from his three-storey home, I could clearly see the sadness in his eyes . . . he felt sorry for me.
Typical of many other women back then, Mum stayed at home to look after Chris and me. She was very quiet, meek and mild. Looking back, I can recall her rarely saying more than a few sentences. Mum was expected to have dinner on the table at six o’clock every night. Dad worked as the sales manager for a smallgoods company, meaning that he was on the road a lot. As strange as it sounds, it was an immense relief when Dad went away for work, because when he was at home all hell broke loose between him and Mum. The scene when Dad came home from work was always the same. I’d hear his car roaring towards the house from streets away. Within seconds of his arrival, whatever we were watching on TV was switched off, he’d crank his music up as loud as it could possibly go and then the rowing would begin. Yelling and anger and unhappiness . . . that was all part of the nightly ritual in the Sandilands home.
From an early age I taught myself how to zone out from traumatic and stressful situations. I wasn’t just ignoring what was happening, I actually went one step further – I’d transport myself to this safe world I had created where no bad things could ever happen. I’d be able to sustain this escape to the fantasy world for hours on end. When Chris was old enough to become conscious of the ﬁghts too, I felt I could no longer selfishly zone out and leave him on his own. So, instead, I’d combat the misery in the living room by coming up with the greatest and most entertaining games on our bedroom ﬂoor. Whether it was playing with our cars or building the biggest of castles, toys became the only way that Chris and I could avoid dealing with the ugliness happening just metres from us.
Music ended up becoming an immense passion of mine, through the most unlikely of avenues. When Dad would return home, he would always – without fail – put on his Johnny O’Keefe records. Whenever I heard Johnny’s voice, I’d instantly get a feeling in my stomach like I had just been punched. The Johnny songs that Dad played would always have these dark and angry double meanings to them. For example, the song ‘She Wears My Ring’ was originally intended to be about how proud a man is to be married to his wife. But when Dad played it, in my mind the song became an ode to subservience and dependency.
What is quite funny, though, is that on the rare occasion when Dad was in a good mood, he’d play Elvis Presley.
Needless to say, to this day I don’t know any Elvis songs, but I’m quite conﬁdent I could rattle off every single Johnny O’Keefe number ever released.
It was all those years ago that I made the connection between music and the powerful reactions it can cause in people. To this day, I’ll listen to every new song before we play it on the radio, to get my head across the feeling of it and the emotions that the listener will experience. A few months ago I ﬁnally mustered up the courage to once again listen to ‘She Wears My Ring’. For years I had been struggling to decide whether or not it was something I should revisit. On the one hand, listening to the song was obviously going to bring up emotions that I would eventually have to confront, but on the other hand I had become an expert at avoiding unpleasant things. I was seated in my car on the side of the road when I decided that I’d hit play on the song. I only got as far as the second line before the same old awful feeling shot right back through me.
Perhaps it was because of the lack of stability at home, and a subconscious desire to right wrongs and keep the peace, but from an early age I was determined to become a police ofﬁcer when I grew up. One afternoon when I was walking home from school I found an old dog carcass next to the train line. I was so desperate to befriend the cops and eventually become one, that I ran home to grab some wood and old cloth bandages so I could tape off where the remains were (just like I had seen it done on all the TV cop shows). I then jumped on my bike and rode to the local police station. ‘Guys, I’ve just found a human skeleton by the railway track! I’ve taped it off – quick, follow me!’ So off I rode on my bike with three police cars following me to the scene of the crime. Even though I knew that it wasn’t a human skeleton, I still felt on top of the world because I was hanging out with the police.
Over time, the local police station would see more and more of me. One weekend, Chris and I stumbled upon a mulberry bush. Once again, I jumped on my bike and told the police that we had discovered a ‘drug tree’. A few weeks after that, I discovered a burnt-out old tin lunchbox. Once again, I ran home to acquire the appropriate materials to cordon off the scene of the crime and then rode straight to the station to report that I had found evidence of a burglary. Although the police no doubt grew tired of me, they always treated me well and made me feel like I had somehow helped the community.
One day, in an effort to do my bit to ﬁght crime, I came up with a brilliant concept – what if I headed up a group of youths who helped the police to bust bad guys? Without hesitation I picked up the phone and called the general number for the Queensland Police headquarters.
‘Hello, ma’am, my name is Kyle Sandilands, and I’d like to speak with the police commissioner, please.’
The lady on the other end of the phone was a little puzzled, but she patched me through to a superintendent who said he’d be interested in meeting with me. In the days leading up to the meeting I spent every spare minute on the typewriter, putting together my proposal for the superintendent. The morning of the meeting I wore my ﬁ nest button-up shirt and jumped on a train to the CBD.
‘Superintendent, what Brisbane faces at the moment is a huge problem with juvenile delinquents . . . the only way we can fight it is with the help of the JDF.’
The superintendent appraised me. ‘I’m sorry – what’s the JDF?’
‘It’s the Juvenile Delinquent Force – run by juveniles and headed by me.’
I continued to rattle on for a while about how we were perfect for the job because we always had our ears to the ground. He shook my hand and showed me out . . . I never heard back from him.
The fact that the JDF never got off the ground didn’t deter me in my pursuit of criminals in the suburbs. One summer, there was a lot of talk among the adults about bras and other underwear being stolen off people’s backyard clotheslines. There was a pervert on the loose! This was deﬁnitely a case for Sergeant Sandilands. I began my investigation by ﬁnding out what homes had been targeted by the pervert. I put one and one together and realised that all the homes were close to a particular park where a local weirdo hung out. I disguised myself (not that the guy had any idea who I was) and began to trail him. I’d occasionally see him hang around a scout hall, and I suspected there’d be some kind of evidence at the hall that would help my investigation. So, one night, armed with a torch and a broom handle, I snuck up to the hall. Shining my torch underneath the building, I saw that some cardboard boxes had been stacked there.
‘Strange,’ I thought. ‘Why would someone put boxes there?’
I squeezed myself under the hall to investigate, and struck gold – a giant mound of underwear and bras! Only the man who discovered Tutankhamen’s grave could understand the sheer bliss of such a discovery! As I continued searching, I found old glass bottles that the pervert must have urinated in. As you’d expect, I immediately informed the police about my discovery and they apprehended the local weirdo. I was on top of the world!
A few weeks later the guy was released and someone must have told him that I had reported him. Whenever I rode past him on my bike he’d chase me down the street and I’d have to pedal as quickly as I could to avoid getting caught. Every time he chased me I’d think, ‘Yep – this is the life that a successful cop like myself will have to get used to.’
The guy who lived directly across the street from us was a one-eyed gentleman in his late ﬁfties called Pat. He was a big deal in our street because he was the watch commander for the ﬁ re brigade. If you called triple-zero to report a ﬁ re in Brisbane, chances were Pat would be the one to dispatch the ﬁre engines and save the day. It goes without saying that both Chris and I held Pat in high regard – in our eyes he was a hero who single-handedly put out ﬁres and saved everyone’s lives. Pat was married and had two kids who were both adults, so things were nowhere near as hectic at his home as they were at ours. Having said that, I did once see Pat chase his son around the yard with a pick, which he threw at the back of his head. I remember thinking that his kids must be extremely naughty. Back then, though, that was the norm: people would get drunk, become violent, go to bed, then get up and go to work and start the cycle all over again. One-eyed Pat was great friends with my dad and would occasionally pop over to ﬁx our bikes when Dad was away. Although it was nice having Pat look after things, we were intimidated by him too; he was much older, grumpy and he only had one eye. Keep Pat in the back of your mind because he’ll be popping up again soon. (See what I did there? A classic radio ‘tease’.)
Although Mum was softly spoken, she was an absolute trooper, and did everything she could to make my childhood as normal as it could be. When Dad left on his week-long work trips, Mum would buy all sorts of over-the-top outﬁts and costumes to entertain us. All of a sudden she would jump out of the kitchen wearing a Donald Duck mask or playing the xylophone. It gave Chris and me such a sense of joy and relief to be able to laugh and be silly in our own home. As the moment of Dad’s return grew closer, the costumes and musical instruments would be hidden away. God forbid we should ever give Dad the impression that we enjoyed ourselves.
As my tenth birthday approached, Mum and Dad’s relationship was deteriorating. For years, Dad had been frustrated that Mum had shut down sexually. Years later, I would learn that this was the main reason for Dad’s unhappiness. These days you might be able to attribute her lack of sex drive to a condition like postnatal depression, but back then if a woman wasn’t putting out, she was no good.
While Dad was away on one of his work trips, Mum ﬁnally mustered up the courage to leave him. Chris and I were asleep – it was the middle of the night. Mum calmly walked into our bedroom, gently woke us up and packed a couple of bags for us. Within a matter of minutes, we were out the front door and driving away from home, never to return. One of the things from that night that I still replay over and over is how serene Mum was while repeatedly whispering the words, ‘We’re out.’
We spent the next twelve months living in a series of different homes, and I was constantly changing schools. It may sound superﬁcial, but always being the kid at school who was wearing the wrong uniform made me feel as small as the full stop I’m about to put at the end of this sentence. All I wanted to do was ﬁt in and be accepted, but unfortunately our lifestyle wasn’t conducive to normality. It seemed that as soon as we’d start getting used to a new home, new school and new friends, we’d move again. We’d then have to start all over somewhere else.
One afternoon, Mum and I went in the car to fetch Chris from school. Every afternoon as we arrived to collect him, we’d see his little face poking through the fence and his arm waving wildly at us. This afternoon was different, though: there was no Chris waiting for us . . . Dad had turned up earlier and picked him up. It would be nearly a year before I saw Chris again – the longest continuous stretch we’d go without seeing each other. It tore me up; not only was Chris my brother, he was my best friend in the world. He had been the co-creator of many castles and my faithful deputy when we solved all types of crimes around the suburbs. Although I was too young to really understand exactly what was going on with Chris’s absence, I remember how devastated Mum was. She was convinced that she was never going to see her youngest son again.
One Christmas my mum and I were on our way over to her parents’ place for dinner. I was absolutely sick to my stomach because I was minutes away from being involved in one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. In the days leading up to the dinner, Mum had told me that Chris would be turning up to it – with Dad. She explained to me that she had negotiated an exchange: she would get Chris and hand me over to Dad. Here’s the thing, though: Mum had planned on double-crossing Dad by having me grab Chris and run back to her. I’m sure you’ve seen countless movies where both parties are standing on opposite ends of a bridge, or something, with their hostages, who are made to slowly walk towards the middle for the swap-over. That’s exactly how it went down with us. Dad was at the front gate with Chris, while Mum was at the front door with me.
As Chris walked through the front gate and into the yard, Mum softly nudged me to begin my walk. All of a sudden, the yard felt a hundred times as big as it was and time came to a screeching halt. I was staring right into Chris’s eyes and concentrating on each step as I got closer and closer to him. As I got within arm’s reach of Chris, Mum shrieked: ‘Now!’ I grabbed Chris by the wrist and dragged him back into the house. Mum slammed the door shut and pulled Chris into the safety of her arms. After years of seeing Mum’s tears of sadness, I was delighted to ﬁnally see tears of joy. The sound of her sobbing was almost loud enough to drown out Dad’s shouts. When Dad got angry, he loved doing burnouts with his car. So, until around midnight, we had to put up with Dad screeching his tyres up and down the street. Thinking back on that night, I can’t begin to get my head around how incredibly sad Dad’s life must have been to spend Christmas night venting his unhappiness at his own family.
I realise that this might sound surprising, but Dad was actually quite nice to Chris and me. He never once hit us, nor did he ever lose his temper with us. A part of me felt sorry that Dad had been tricked during the switch; I felt a huge amount of responsibility for and guilt about what went down. At the end of the day, he was still my dad and he was still someone I looked up to and wanted to be like when I was older. As time went on, Chris and I would occasionally spend the weekend with our father. As a way of bonding with me, Dad bought me my very own lamb – I named him Lambert. Lambert was exactly like a dog; he’d follow me everywhere and sleep on my bed. I’d dress him up in all sorts of outﬁts. I even enlisted him as a ‘sniffer lamb’ in my games of cops and robbers. One rainy afternoon Lambert and I were having a tea party together and I accidentally fed him some milk and cheese . . . He dropped to his side and started shaking. He was frothing at the mouth and his little eyes rolled to the back of his head. Then everything went dead silent. I ran as fast as I could to get Dad, who was out the front. Dad calmly picked up Lambert and tossed him across the back fence. The last memory I have of Lambert was seeing his woollen white body being ﬂung through the air like a Frisbee. To say that Lambert’s death (and subsequent flinging) was traumatic is an understatement; a week doesn’t go by where I don’t think about the bond that Lambert and I had.
Dad had been telling me about how brilliantly he was doing without Mum and how he was seeing a slew of different women. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. I could see that Dad was trying to get back at Mum by having me report how happy he was without her. I didn’t buy into it and I wanted no part in being the intermediary between my parents. For months Dad had been badgering me about meeting the newest love in his life. He kept giving me the whole ‘she’s the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen – the two of you will get on so well’ spiel. One Sunday afternoon, Dad took Chris and me to a beer garden to ﬁnally meet his new girlfriend. By ‘beer garden’ I mean a decrepit slab of concrete with rusted metal chairs, and ceramic pots that were bursting at the seams with cigarette butts . . . I don’t want to mislead you into thinking it was some type of romantic setting. Dad walked in with his hand ﬁrmly placed on my shoulder and confidently marched towards these two women. One was blonde, one was brunette. My head was down, but a quick glance at the pair was enough for me to know that I wanted nothing to do with them.
‘Kyle, this is Dianne and Sue,’ Dad said warmly.
The only thing I was able to blurt out was: ‘Which one of you two sluts is rooting my father?’
I turned around, freed myself from Dad’s shocked grip (his ﬁngers were stiff as nails) and stormed off to the pub’s bathroom. From what I remember, I must have stayed in that cubicle for the best part of the afternoon. Were my ﬁrst words to Dad’s new girlfriend eloquent? Not particularly. But were they sincere and from the heart? Absolutely!
One of the good things about visiting Dad was that I’d occasionally get to meet one of his mates who worked in radio. For those of you familiar with Brisbane’s radio landscape, the name Wayne ‘Waynee Poo’ Roberts would deﬁnitely ring a bell. Back then, Waynee Poo was the edgiest and funniest guy on the air. He’d drop by Dad’s place in the Radio 4IP car, armed with all sorts of Waynee Poo merchandise. I felt like the most popular kid in the city when Waynee Poo’s Datsun 180B would turn up in our driveway. The huge Radio 4IP logo on the side of the car showed the world that out of every house he could have turned up at, he’d picked mine! I was proud to drink from my Waynee Poo mug and to draw buildings using my Waynee Poo ruler . . . and of course I’d never leave home without wearing my Waynee Poo visor! Back then, I remember being totally blown away at how radio presenters were kings among men. Waynee Poo would regale us with stories of all the celebrities he had met and all the pranks he had pulled on the air – I was in heaven! Just like my discovery of the power of music, I realised that speaking on the radio could be such a direct and powerful way of conveying emotions.
At my school I befriended a young, freckly, red-haired kid called Spencer Howson. He was just like me – he loved music. At that age it’s so easy to bond with people, so the fact that we enjoyed the same bands meant that we were never short of things to talk about. Spencer came from a wealthy family – they had the Rolls-Royce and the big four-storey brick home. I would deliberately ride out of my way just so I could catch a lift to school with Spencer in his Rolls-Royce. There was no better feeling than being driven around in such a classic piece of art! Years later, when I started making decent money in radio, I splurged on a Rolls-Royce so that I could relive that thrill from all those years ago.
I would spend most afternoons at Spencer’s place. We would record mock radio shows where we’d re-enact excerpts from the popular TV show Sons and Daughters. We’d sit up behind his father’s wooden bar and pretend that we were reading the news and giving out the weather forecast. During our trip in the Rolls-Royce of a morning, we’d take note of things that the radio announcers would say, and then during our afternoon radio show at Spencer’s place, we’d mock the announcers and what they had said. For example:
SPENCER: Hey, Kyle, what about how that radio announcer said that today was going to be a beautiful day but it ended up being cloudy?
ME: Yeah, he’s so stupid, he shouldn’t be allowed on the air!
Over time, Spencer and I started becoming better with our jokes and quicker with our one-liners. Unfortunately, Spencer ended up moving schools, so we lost contact. But he went on to become a successful breakfast presenter on ABC Local Radio. Whenever I check the radio ratings and see that we’re at number one in Sydney, I take great joy in ﬂipping to the Brisbane ratings and seeing that Spencer is number one in Brisbane . . . Funny how things turn out.
As much as I loved the idea of radio, it was still nowhere near rivalling my passion for the police force and fighting crime.
I had just started year ﬁve when I returned home one afternoon to ﬁnd that someone had moved in with us . . . It was one-eyed Pat (told you he’d pop up again). It turned out that Mum and Pat had suddenly made the speedy transition from polite neighbours who’d occasionally wave at one another from across the road to fully ﬂedged lovers who’d wave their arses together in bed. It’d be easy to assume that everything from here was smooth sailing and that we lived happily ever after . . . but sadly not. Pat’s kids and his ex-wife absolutely hated our guts. Although I wish they didn’t despise us, I can understand where their hatred came from – I mean, I’d be pissed off too if my dad ditched me for another family. Mum and Pat ended up getting married. By then, Pat was in his ﬁfties and, although he was kind to us, he felt more like a grandfather than a father. What I liked about Pat was that he was gentle and loving towards Mum.
For me, the greatest beneﬁt of this newfound stability was that I was able to be enrolled at a school for longer than a few weeks. It mustn’t come as any surprise to learn that I was the class clown at school. Not because I was particularly blessed with wit or with one-liners, but because I was so terrible academically that I ﬁgured I should try to excel at something else. Making people laugh was my way of making friends and feeling accepted. I was more than happy to endure the wrath of the teachers if it meant that I was getting laughs. There was this one particular teacher in year ﬁve who knew that there wasn’t a whole lot of hope for me at school, so every day during class he’d send me down to the local shops to buy cigarettes for him. Class would always start the same way: ‘Hello, everyone – take out your books. Sandilands – go down to the shops and get me a pack of Winﬁeld Blues.’ So, off I’d trudge. Truth be told, I didn’t really mind going on those walks; it was nice being in an environment where I wasn’t constantly being reminded how dumb I was.
Not all the teachers were that sympathetic to my lack of academic ability. There was this one particular teacher who really had it in for me and my antics. On my ﬁrst day in his class he got everyone to stand up and say their names out loud. There must have been about thirty of us. He then turned to me and said, ‘Sandilands, do you know everyone?’
I automatically blurted out, ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Righto then,’ the teacher replied, ‘let’s see you name everyone in your class – go!’
Obviously I had no idea of the names of every single person in the class. As I tried to politely tell the teacher that I couldn’t, in fact, remember all the names, he roared ‘Liar’ at the top of his lungs.
‘You’re a liar, Sandilands – you said you knew their names and you don’t. You never fucking lie in my classroom!’
I went totally blank, but I was vaguely aware of him saying something along the lines of: ‘I’ll cut you a deal, Sandilands, okay?’ He picked up one of those metre-long wooden rulers and balanced it upright on his palm. ‘Because you’ve lied, someone’s going to get hurt. If the ruler falls towards you, you’re going to get hurt; if it falls towards me, I’m going to get hurt. Deal?’
He swiftly pulled his hand out from underneath and made the top of the ruler fall towards me.
‘Unlucky for you, Sandilands!’
He proceeded to whip me several times with the ruler across the back of the legs.
‘Never, ever lie again, Sandilands.’
It’s worth reiterating that this was my ﬁrst day in his class. I hadn’t even really sat down and already I was being punished.
I was a good kid . . . I was just really bad when it came to school. I was also a fearful kid; the years of living with Mum and Dad’s rows had turned me into a nervous wreck. As time went on, Pat was still nice to us, but he did become increasingly strict. It got to a point where I’d be too embarrassed to invite friends over because I was scared that Pat would pull them into line or yell at them. If that wasn’t bad enough, he would do this thing where he’d pull out his glass eye and – unbeknown to my friends – drop it into their drinks. It may sound funny now, but when you’re a kid trying to make friends, there’s nothing worse than a stepfather dropping his eyeball into your friend’s glass of Tang. Apart from that, though, home life was okay and I loved the fact that we weren’t living with constant rows anymore. Nothing good in my life ever lasts long, though, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that a few days after turning ﬁfteen, I was living on the streets.
Excerpted from Scandalands by Kyle Sandilands. Copyright © 2012 by Kyle Sandilands.
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