Getting the “sin” out of the room, and other nightmares

SLEEP has always been my escape from stress. But there was a time when I served in the Salvation Army in Melbourne where I dreaded it. Every night for at least a week I would have vivid dreams.

I say ‘vivid dreams’ because they were not nightmares, exactly, but they weren’t pleasant, sweet, or desirable. I think there was one time I felt like I was choking, and when I woke my arm was around my neck.

But I wasn’t the only Order member. I know the others had nightmares and vivid dreams too. One of them was even a sleep walker.

There were more than a few in the group who prayed  believing these vivid dreams were an attack from the Devil. Sometimes they would pray in the hallway which pissed me off because I was watching a movie in the lounge. But you can never ask; “if that’s the Holy Spirit, can you tell it to be a little more quiet? I’m watching Law Abiding Citizen.”

I say this not to mock. I say this to highlight our thoughts and beliefs at the time.

G- and A- were roommates. One night G- woke to see A- standing over the bed with eyes closed, muttering, “got to get the sin out of the room.” And G- screamed.

One night I dreamed I was walking in Fitzroy Park. There was a campfire in the middle, with one of my friends warming himself over a fire. “Look out,” he said to me. “Ronald is coming. You should go!” But it was too late. Ronald was standing on the other side of the fire to me. He pulled out two swords from somewhere in dream-space, and chopped my arms off. I heard ambulance sirens and I still had painful stumps for arms before I woke.

I knew then I was scared of Ronald more than anyone else in my life.


THERE are men I have met who when become angry for whatever reason, react. And they react with spite. These men, and some women, are not limited to the lower classes. They are politicians, they are members of a middle class audience watching stand-up comedy or theatre, and they are the laborers.

They all have something in common. Bad tempers. And charm. They can reason with you but you will find it difficult to persuade them. When threatened their logic skips like a broken CD. You find holes in their argument and they ignore it, only repeating their previous verses again, and again, and when losing over and over, resort to intimidation.

In Melbourne there was one man who scared me more than every other. During our two week induction the Order members were warned about Ronald.

“He has a life long ban from the drop-in centre,” we were told.

There must be a serious reason for being banned for life from a room filled daily with drug addicts, schizophrenic, ex-convicts, homeless, and no doubt the occasional down-on-his-or-her-luck prostitute. An organisation who prides itself on being merciful, forgiving, and the last place a person can go for assistance cannot take a life-long ban lightly.

One morning in the drop-in centre, Ronald stood next to me and grabbed a bowl. I smelt his thick dreadlocks and body odour before I even recognised him.

I let him go but told my supervisor he was inside. She left him alone.

I couldn’t blame her.

He was part of the milk-crate gang, who sat at the beginning of the alleyway from Little Collins Street near the car-park. Ronald held the court, leading forward in bagging clothes drinking cheap piss from a paper bag. We kept our distance but were worried when other attendees spoke and gathered around.

I was in the alleyway once when a bald headed man in his thirties, with a knobbly nose that must have been sun-burnt and broken more times than the fingers on your hands, strode up to Ronald, yelling. Ronald stood from his milk crate and his massive body swelled. The energy surged from his chest and his shoulder as he pummeled his fist into the man’s face. The knobbly nosed man toppled back. His head crunched into the smelly alleyway bitumen. I still remember hearing the crunch from the back of his head.

The bosses and the paid professionals ran to move Ronald on. The drop-in centre manager lured the victim away to sit on the curb. He was not bleeding from what I could see.

And then the man wailed. He was so drunk that it took him more than 10 seconds to feel the pain.


Pictutre from
Picture from


RONALD lived in one of the parks most of the time beside one of the old power stations. It was one of the first places we stopped at when we ran the coffee van at night. Not every person would want to run into Ronald at 9pm at night, but I never had a problem with him. He was usually placid, relaxed, perhaps even high.

He was dangerous because he was unpredictable. You feared his violence and preferred to keep him happy so you did what you could to respect him. It was a base form of manipulation, one I would liken to the abusive stepfather or the dominating partner. We gave him what he asked for like blankets, poppers, sausage rolls, coffee, and with a smile. But he wasn’t pushy. In fact, he didn’t ask for much compared to his friends, who often whined impatiently if we were not fast enough to bring back a coffee.

“Treat every one of these people like you’re serving Jesus,” was a popular saying among the Melbourne Salvos.












Making the closest group of friends I’ve ever had

I REMEMBER getting off the plane and landing at Tullamarine airport for the first time.  When I turned my phone on I already missed three phone calls from my new supervisor.

I took the escalator and on the way down I noticed a girl holding a piece of cardboard with my name on it. My first thought was “hello, she’s pretty.” The second thought was that she must have been one of my supervisors. But S- was actually one of the Order members. I don’t know why I thought she was older. I think it was because she was extroverted. She carried herself like one of those members of Greenpeace asking you to sign some forms in the street.

S- was talking to an elderly couple, asking them if they saw someone that matched my description. They hadn’t. I was off the escalator now and I introduced myself . Then we went to collect my bag, and waited outside for the supervisor, who parked in front of us in the Salvation Army van which was nicknamed Bertha.

We stayed at the Salvation Army training college, in Parkville. The building was opposite the park. The trees were lined across the road, the leaves turned orange and about to fall. I had never noticed autumn before. This place had a dying and ratty beauty in a ways Queensland could never be.

We lived on the eighth floor. I remember being amazed at how large an area we had. I’d expected some shoddy concrete lined refuge. The kitchen was well stocked with jams and breads and fruits. The rooms were spread out with en-suites. And the view! OMG, the view overlooked Melbourne CBD  would have set a room’s value at 50,000 alone just to see the skyscrapers.

Everyone else shared a room, but I was disappointed to learn that I was going to be on my own. It was for the best I think, because I am an introvert. I needed the isolation, it turned out, and without it I might have killed someone (not a far stretch of the imagination if you see the blog post’s last photograph).

The 11 Order members met each other that night at dinner. Back then age counted. I was only 19 at the time, and I felt like everyone else was older. However, we ranged from 18 to about 25 years. Halfway through the year, I learnt age had nothing to with maturity or necessarily guarantee a bond between someone your own age over someone a few years older. Unfortunately, when I left the Order, I discovered that many people still hadn’t learnt that lesson.

That first night we took a group photo in the hallway.

I'm the one in the centre far-back, my head hidden in the hood.

Throughout the year I would look at this picture and think, “wow, we looked so young. We didn’t know what we were in for.”

I ended up loving this group more than any other group of friends. We worked, lived, hung out together, with half of us sharing bedrooms. With the stress and long hours, we saw our worst sides. But after a while, the worst sides didn’t matter so much. We knew our friend’s weakness, and in a stressful situation, we worked around it.

carrying ourselves Order
If one of us fell, two others would carry that person even if we were grudging (which suited me just fine in this particular case).

We were a team.

I have never found a team like this before. I think for years after there was an emptiness, an attempt to chase after a social group that had as much meaning, but none came close.

Sometimes life was a party and we all got along fine.


Sunglasses party!
Sunglasses party!

Even when we worked hard sometimes we had time for a smile and a ridiculous photo.




But then there were times where we just wanted to bury our Order friends alive in a beach somewhere.

G- and I at St Kilda Beach. It's my birthday!
G- and I at St Kilda Beach. It’s my birthday!

And  times we just wanted to kill each other.

Fun and games!