The gang is dead now: A short story about the cost of being gay in the 80s

Steve Danby has just won the overall prize in the short film competition that Peter Wells created when he founded the Samesame but Different festival, celebrating LGBTQI+ writers during Auckland Pride. This is Danby’s winning story, “Fire All Your Guns, Soar Into Space”.

The Hole-in-the-Wall gang is dead now.

And if you know where that line came from, you probably should too! Spoiler alert: This is about a stupid old movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And in the usual convoluted way of things, the Wellington Hole-in-the-Wall Gang was born because of a guy called Cassidy. Cassidy wasn’t even his real name; they called him that because he was a hairy old hippie obsessed with Beat poets. In 1985 or 1986, Cassidy swapped his Yamaha motorcycle for a Harley, and Mal au Bamboo Bar renamed him “Butch”. Then, when Butch’s underdog got himself a big Ducati, he became the Somedunce Kid, and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang was born.

Shades of Groucho Marx: The gang wasn’t really one, and I wasn’t really a member. They all hung out at the Wakefield Sauna; they were war babies and baby boomers, while I was Gen X and a pretty geeky computer operator with gray shoes, to boot. They called me “Whipper”, short for “Whippersnapper”.

I had been on the scene for a few years, but I had never met guys like the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. It was like they hadn’t read the manual. They weren’t obsessed with shopping or gyms or Kylie or “feshun”; they were into bourbon and speed and hard rock and some pretty extreme sex. They even had – horrors – body hair. (Of course, the macho shit was as much a pose as the Boy George stuff, and they knew it: if you did anything stupid, someone would lisp “you go, girl.”)

Really, we had everything in common. But I owned the slowest Indian Scout in the world, and every few months I would join them for a ride up the coast or to Ferry Lake.

And what I want to know is, how the hell did I end up with all their leather jackets? About 20 of them, please, and – get this – they’re in the closet in the back bedroom. Maybe six months ago, I was cleaning Ringo’s house after his funeral, and I found all those damn jackets in the garage. Each in an elegant Kirkcaldies box, wrapped in non-reactive fabric like museum exhibits. It was a bit of a mystery, really. This picky curatorial shit just wasn’t Ringo’s style at all; his house was a mess, and his own jacket hung on a hook behind a door. He must have inherited the rest from someone else.

Well, I couldn’t just throw them in the dumpster, so I took them home. Eventually, I figured it was Humphries who boxed them. Humphries worked in Kirkcaldies in the haberdashery. And I vaguely remember, when we were cleaning Moffie’s apartment, seeing Humphries in tears, carrying armfuls of jackets. It was just the three of us at the time: him, Ringo and I, and we had just decided that we weren’t going to go in the procession next time because there weren’t enough of us. And we knew there would be a next time, and soon: Humphries pretty much had Cain’s mark on him.

Of course, Humphries himself was a real jerk, and his leathers always looked like they had been ironed. But in his own way, Humphries was as tough as Sonny Bill Williams; his strategy in life was to hide in plain sight, and he was so totally into it that he was almost never a fag.

Almost never. There was that time the cops harassed him in Paekak. If the cops picked up the gang leaving Wellie, they’d radio their buddies, so brand new cars could follow us to the end of the country. Eventually they would stop us to inspect our bikes for WOF violations. Vain hope, sunshine: we were mostly white and middle class and the only thing wrong with our bikes was that they were too clean. So the Dees would invariably invoke the Misuse of Drugs Act and strip search one or two of us by the side of the road; they usually got a few punches too. Humphries would simply shout “more, big stallion, more”. In Woodville, Moffie got this awesome 8ml movie of Humphries getting whipped with a baton. We sent it to the police complaints people, and apparently they played it for the girls at their Christmas party at the Horokiwi brothel. The good old days. You can have them.

I had had all the jackets for a few months before I had the balls to pull them out and have a real look. I recognized some of them right away. The black one with the safety pins was Ringo. Ringo had so much ornamental ironwork on his body that he practically clapped when he walked. It was Ringo who always organized our mystery getaways. We would meet in Oriental Bay outside the Vic Club, and it would advertise “Vinegar Hill” or “The Richard J. Seddon Memorial Toilets at Mangaweka” or “Mt. Bruce” (“Ride whoever you want, Ringo.”) Ringo had a big BMW and always wanted us to go to Castlepoint, but we never got there.

It took me a while, but eventually I figured out who owned most of the jackets. Mainwaring who was chalk at the stock market and rode a Jawa. Bellend who ran the Midcity cinema. Moffie, Pinetree, Bilko and Weasel. Cassidy and the Somedunce Kid.

Somedunce ended really badly. He was in the military and the guys must have found out because he accidentally fell off a Huey at 4000 feet. Cassidy only found out when Somedunce’s mother sent the bailiffs to throw him out of the house. Pretty much turned his face to the wall after that, Cassidy said.

Now the brown jacket was Pinetree and it shouldn’t be here at all. Pinetree was a dark old man, remembered the real old days; his first date had been with a Marine during the war when he was still a schoolboy. He and Cassidy were talking about Easter weekends in the 70s, when they anchored the Rangatira in Wellington Harbor and the cooks and stewards brought out all the drag queens for a three-day party. It all sounded like ancient history, I wish I had paid more attention to it. When Pinetree was diagnosed, he drove up the Foxton Straight, opened up his Vincent Black Shadow and drove straight under the wheels of a Salvation Army truck. A black shadow of Vincent. I hope you’re thinking “what a totally unnecessary WASTE” here.

Eventually I realized that the jackets are not a complete set.

Saveloy’s red jacket is missing. Sav has always been a quiet guy, but the virus has messed with his head; he had an absolute meltdown at the Drummerboy memorial.

Poor old Drummerboy was an actor. He couldn’t get a bloody audition while he was alive, but after he died he got the full star treatment. A huge showbiz funeral at Old Saint Paul’s and a huge memorial concert at St James to raise money for charity. Paul Holmes and Eve van Grafhorst, Fran Wilde, the cast of Shorty Street, the Topp twins. All the stars were supposed to arrive in vintage cars, with the Hole-in-the-Wall gang in front. But when the TV people picked up the event, they only wanted Alfies nightclub walkers in their cute little shorts. An Auckland hard fish was in charge, and she was unimpressed. “You guys don’t look gay at all, do you?” Can we get you some feather boas, maybe? Zhuzh you a little?

Saveloy snatched the clipboard from her hands and ripped the papers on it to shreds, then he got this totally mean look in his eyes and just shoved right into the bitch’s face. She ran away screaming for a doctor, for a disinfectant, for a full blood transfusion. Saveloy, meanwhile, jumped on his bike, drove off and – we just never saw him again. Someone said he had an old road service bus: he loaded all his things in it, set it on fire and knocked it off a cliff. Descend in a burst of glory! I certainly don’t have his jacket. There is only one spare part in the set that I don’t recognize; but it’s tiny, and it’s definitely not fire engine red.

It bothered me, that spare jacket. I couldn’t remember who wore it.

Jackets are a bloody nuisance, actually. It’s not like Sanjay and I have a lot of space, and he thinks it’s a little scary to have them around the house. And they stink. But I can’t just take them to tip, can I. There was once a shop that sold second-hand leathers on Cuba Street, but it’s gone now, there’s a sushi bar instead. I tried putting a few on TradeMe and barely got a nibble.

Now that Sanjay is seriously riding my ass, I accidentally left one of the jackets in a cafe on purpose, hoping someone would nick it. Good try. A few weeks later, the boy behind the counter said, “Oi, Grandpa, you forgot your jacket; try it for me, yeah? It was Moffie’s jacket and there was room for the three of me. The waiter shook his head. “Stick with the beige pants, man, keep your dignity.” And just for a second, he reminded me of little Allistair: and finally I knew who the mysterious jacket belonged to.

Little Ally. The silly little butterfly with the gutless Kawasaki. I only really met him once or twice; he was the very first to enter intensive care. Over time, we all somehow learned how the story would unfold: the weight loss, the drug cocktails, the cancerous lesions, the pneumonia

… But Lil’ Alli had no idea what was coming next; his endocrine system went into overdrive and everything got a little awful, but his usual response, bless him, was “what doesn’t kill me, it hurts like a malefactor”. With hindsight, he taught us how to die, which is not nothing: but I would have liked to have learned it from John Banks or Israel Folau.

I remember Lil’ Alli working as a bartender at a posh former RSA restaurant on Ghuznee Street. It’s all gone now, of course. “They won’t age, like the rest of us age…” Well, Lil’ Alli hasn’t aged; none of them did. Everything they were, everything they did, everything they suffered is lost in memory, like tears in the rain.

I finally found a plan. On Halloween, I’m going to load all the jackets into a van and take them to Castlepoint. Pile the gang of holes in the wall on the gravel, douse them with benzene, set them on fire and run away like a naughty schoolboy.

I can practically see Cassidy shaking her head and laughing at me.

“Born to be wild, Whipper. Born to be wild.”

The theme for this year’s festival is Legacy; stories submitted to the competition had to include the phrase “once upon a time”. The judges were Carole Beu, owner of The Women’s Bookshop, and writer David Herkt. Danby wins $1,000. The winner of the under 25 section is Phoebe Wilton-Stuart, for her story “Trinkets”. Phoebe wins $500.

About Rachelle Roosevelt

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