For more than 80 years, the Aquatic Dance Palais perched like a gangly white seabird on the edge of the muddy inlet of Trinity Bay. The Cairns harbour required daily dredgings to be navigable by anything with a draught deeper than that of the Green Island ferry. Memories are a bit like that: silt-filled waters that need regular dredging to keep the channel open.
The Aquatic, housed in the Cairns Yacht Club, was at the centre of the town’s social life for generations. Back in the days when there were few other distractions, the locals flocked there to cut the rug at a “jazz dance with Mr W. Ward’s Modern Dance Band with Miss Billy Blackmore at the piano” (The Cairns Post, October 11, 1935). Throughout the war, the Aquatic soldiered on, as The Post reported on March 3, 1941: “The Aquatic Dance Palais was en fête last week when 150 dancers enjoyed the very bright music supplied by Marion Jenkins’ Orchestra.”
Until the old wooden building was finally demolished in 2008 and the club moved to newer premises further along the seafront, the Aquatic’s sprung floor echoed with the ghosts of dancers past, the fading strains of The Merrymakers and the naughty rhythms of Geo. Stone’s Cuban Band. In our time — the late 1960s — it was Michael & The Mustangs who shook the Aquatic every Friday night.
For a small town of around 30,000, Cairns was remarkably blessed with musical talent. Georgia Lee (born Dulcie Pitt in 1922) and her niece Wilma Reading were international singing stars, touring with Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington respectively. Wilma’s sister Heather Mae Reading is also a successful singer. I was friends with their brother Warwick and thought them the most glamorous, exotic family on the planet.
Our school dances pulsated to the sounds of The Fireflies or The Embers, but the acknowledged top group was Michael & The Mustangs. The singer, Innisfail boy Michael Turner, was around my age but his powerful, bluesy voice made him seem older. On lead guitar was Brylcreemed butcher’s son Reg Denny, in whose big hands a Stratocaster looked no larger than a mandolin. Cheryl Fulton, who later became a nun, played bass; John Jones was on rhythm guitar and Neville Hayling played drums. The band’s gear was first rate: all Fender, imported from Ford’s Music in Brisbane. Later on they added 4CA deejay John Christenson on Farfisa organ, the vital ingredient of anthems like House Of The Rising Sun and A Whiter Shade Of Pale.
Friday nights at the Aquatic would begin sedately enough with The Mustangs breezing through some Shadows instrumentals, maybe a few Beatles and Gerry & The Pacemakers numbers. Then Reg would switch from Echolette to Fuzz-Tone and the band would kick out the jams with some Cream and Hendrix. It was quite something to see a big front-row forward with a duck’s-arse haircut channelling Jimi and Eric. The week Sgt Pepper’s came out, you just knew The Mustangs would have the title song down by Friday. Having a radio deejay in the band no doubt helped them keep up to date with the latest.
By the time my last weeks of school rolled around, my friends and I had got into the habit of missing the first bracket. (Back then, bands were called groups and they played brackets of songs, not sets.) We’d be at the nearby Pacific Hotel, tanking up before heading off to the dance — the Aquatic wasn’t licensed — and ogling the orange Gretsch Country Gentleman wielded by The Embers’ guitarist, Bob Smallwood. The girls would also be eyeing Bob and we’d be watching the girls — the ones who were bold enough to be there. I’d guess the majority of the Pacific’s Friday-night punters were underage.
The last time I went to the Aquatic, just before I started university in Brisbane, I expected to meet my girlfriend Diane there. All Slavic cheekbones and olive skin, she was a knockout. But it was a curious relationship, now I think about it. We didn’t really “go out” — I had no licence, let alone a car — and we were both busy with final year. We paired off at school dances and kept things on the boil with long phone calls. The one real date we had, one weekend afternoon, was a serious necking session behind a hedge at the Tobruk Memorial Pool. For 10 minutes after that I could barely walk. So, as I said, an odd affair. We saw each other so seldom I had no idea she was no longer my girlfriend.
I spotted Diane as soon as I walked in and went over to ask her to dance. She was sitting with her girlfriends; they all glared at me. “Greg’s got the next dance,” she said, pointing at one of my classmates, who stood nearby with a bunch of his friends. (The sexes hardly mixed at dances, except on the dancefloor.) “OK,” I shrugged. “The one after, then.” Avoiding my gaze, she said, “Greg’s got that one, too.”
The fog of the two or three beers I’d had at the Pacific abruptly lifted. My face hot with humiliation, I turned and walked into a solid wall of blokedom. Suddenly I was a six-year-old again, in my first year at school in Cairns, when the two rival gangs would join forces to chase me around the playground and bash me for being a “fuckin’ southerner” — you know, from Sydney. Some of those same faces now stared back at me, 11 years older.
I don’t know if I did anything threatening but I sure felt like it. It must have shown in my face, because Greg’s fist shot out from his protective phalanx of cronies and bloodied my nose. I’d always been prone to nosebleeds and this one was a gusher. Tears welled in my eyes. I looked down at the big splash of bright red across my white shirt and, holding my dripping face, headed for the door.
That was when my night suddenly got better. Recently arrived in town from somewhere in Eastern Europe were two sisters, Katya and Sofia, dark blonde and unfashionably curvy at a time when the leggy dolly bird was all the rage. Not many of us talked to the sexy “reffos” or even danced with them, though I think we all wanted to. Their English was sketchy and there was something knowing about them that made them seem more mature than their years. It was mainly the older guys who asked them to dance.
Right then, at the most embarrassing moment of my young life, one of the sisters — I think it was Katya — appeared from nowhere, put a warm hand on my arm and said, “Come.” She handed me a tiny handkerchief that was soaked within seconds and we walked out together. I hoped Diane and all of my ex-schoolmates were watching.
Katya led me down the stairs and under the jetty. It was high tide and waves were lapping at the barnacled piers. The humid air smelt of salt, frangipani and the sickly scent of mangroves. Katya unbuttoned my shirt and squatted to rinse it in the sea water. When the blood was gone, she hung it up to dry. Smiling, without taking her eyes off mine and with no hint of coquettishness, she shimmied out of her mini and hung it up next to my shirt. She was wearing a black bra and ballet tights. I thought my knees would give way any second. She washed her hankie and we stood chest to chest as she cleaned the blood from my face.
Oh, the wonders I saw that night in the reflected headlights of passing cars while behind us the club bounced to Michael & The Mustangs. I never saw Katya again; I can’t remember if we even spoke that much. Two days later I left for Brisbane. I did see Greg again, 40 years later at a school reunion in Cairns. This time it was his face that was red — florid from booze — and he’d stacked on the weight. He and Diane had married but it was well and truly over by then. I took no pleasure in that but I wish I’d remembered to thank him for snotting me that January night in 1968.
The Aquatic was still there, but in a sorry state of paint-flaking dilapidation. A year later, they knocked it down.