new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Mitchell


A Staccato History of Maltese Jack and Harry Lurber

Russell Haley


Sydney: August 1965

One old-timer, Ron Tame-of-the-penis-sandwich, reckons our two slippery eels, Jack and Harry, met in the desert wastes called The Cross. Another spieler, Bob-the-sunbather-with-corks-between-his-toes, says the two galoots fronted each other in a place called Forbes. Jack toted his Derringer Trip Book but Lurber’s tooled-leather holsters were empty. Harry wore nothing but his crooked smile. Lurber had always imagined a dreamslinger’s career. He’d be a sidewinder, a word-hoon. Yet Harry was a Pommie foreigner even to himself.

Jack had sprung, high and mighty and fully formed in his very own whenua-land. You could see the verse-sharp notches on his rawhide belt. And maybe, just maybe, he could bring this Lurber down with velvet words and a well-oiled tongue; no need for knife or gun. The guy would never know he was pushing up quartz, powdered mica in his open eyes. He would still think they were friends.

        ‘There’s a school of thought in Aotearoa,’ Jack said, face invisible behind his polished mask. ‘You could give it a roll.’
        ‘Maybe we’ll meet at noon in three months’ time,’ Lurber said. ‘Straight off the Oriental Queen.’


Ponsonby: Midwinters 1966/67

Harry Lurber lived for learning in a thin, weatherboard house in Hepburn Street. A Pacific Island man was dealt to with a spade at the killing junction. Lurber never looked for trouble even if it came sniffing around for him. He bought a kauri table for five pounds but otherwise avoided Ponsonby Road and digging implements.

Meanwhile, Maltese Jack was in his own place and his own time. He sojourned with his wife and child at the top of College Hill. Life was heavy but cool. He had one coat, two shirts and a portable writing machine. His moustache and his hair coiled black and lively. His Danish wife was paper thin.

Harry Lurber went ad eundem to Auckland’s school of second thoughts. A testing time would surely come. He sharpened his wits on greywacke and moved to Parnell where it was said that more than one tohunga lived.

The rumour ran across the sky. Maltese Jack could be found at Lett’s shooting gallery on the evening of every full moon. Jack performed oral sleight-of-hand and soft verbal explosions.

Lurber thought he’d like to try a little range-shooting himself. He didn’t know that these yellow-moon nights at Lett’s were an old compadres’ tall-tales club. Maltese Jack and Mark, Paul and Barry and countless others spoke the lingo. Some of them hailed from Titahi Bay. A tautangata, a stranger such as Harry Lurber didn’t even know where Porirua was. He was dumb to tell even a fragment of a word within this ordained inner circle.


Brighton Road: 1967/68

Harry Lurber invited friends to a potlatch at his new house in Parnell. He tried to stop the word from leaking underground. The story was that Maltese Jack had parted from his love. He was back on the ancient cigar and blowjob track – mesmerising a gang of one-armed, hardjawed men, testicle-jugglers, Gypsy Queens and dwarfs. He and his clan would light out now for anyone’s territory if the pickings were rich.

Harry didn’t know that Jack’s mob had crashed his unguarded gate. His eye-in-the-back-of-his-head was hazed from Mother’s Cellar’s flagon red. He neither saw nor felt Maltese Jack’s sly-footed rear approach. Why didn’t anyone warn him with a hiss? Jack threw an arm-lock round Lurber’s throat. ‘You slipped a filthy length to my woman,’ he said. ‘In the gritty sand at Double Bay.’

Lurber was lost for words and breath. He had scarcely exchanged a word with Black Jack’s love. Harry felt his feeble powers failing. Jethro Tull and Canned Heat swamped his bloodless ears. He bowed his head in feigned submission then opened his dentatata jaws on Jack’s taut arm. He bit like a dhayban. Jack and his fellow travellers decamped in a foggy cloud of adjectives and verbs.


The Kiwi Tavern: 1969

O Fons Bandusiae, sang Maltese Jack. John Sloane pulled him another beer. Tuna Scanlan pretended to punch the wordsmith’s arm. Lurber grinned, lopsided, four beers down from the far end of the bar. A blue flash ran from his skull to the soles of his feet. How he liked this man! They should have roved in the very same gang but pride, or jealousy or dumb stupidity threw up an impenetrable wall. He and Jack were purblind cretins, circling and diving, fouling each other’s air.

O Fons Bandusiae, recited Maltese Jack. Fuck him, thought Lurber who’d read neither Horace nor Mason’s words.


Auckland: 1972

Maltese Jack made an offering of peace. He placed his own black book in Lurber’s hands. But Harry Lurber was never any good at accepting gifts. He was as stubborn as a Yorkshireman’s voice. They merely glanced off each other during the rest of that century.


Birkenhead: April, 2009

The telegraph wires hummed. Maltese Jack was laid low, breathing, thinking, reading, writing but as silent as time.

After all this, after all that, Harry Lurber is speechless.


©Russell Haley

Last updated 5 March, 2010