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Ivor's Stories
By
Ivor Morton

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FIREWOOD

 

The four of us were over sixty, and perhaps over the hill as well, but we were happily sitting around the blazing fire keeping our fronts toasted even if our backs were feeling the winter chill. The sigh of the breeze that stirred the she oaks made even the strongest of us pensive.

We were out for the weekend and to cut a load of firewood each. Our camp was on Oakey Creek, a tributary to the Capertee River. We had come on Friday and had set up our tents and brought in a load of wood for the camp. Cooking meals that one can only cook on a campfire. Potatoes in the coals, vegies in the billy slightly smoky, barbecued steak or sausages for some, fried egg for another. Bubble and Squeak' of last nights left overs for yet another.

My little dog worked on everyone with the same sad look, assuring them that she never got a square meal at home. I did mention that it was cold didn't I? You would surely not think a glass or two, to keep out the cold, a crime, would you? It was Friday, and quite legitimate to pass chocolate around with port after our repast. We threw more wood on the fire turned up our coat collars and settled into our chairs. Scorpio shone in the sky, the Cross-mostly obliterated by the trees.

"It's a great way to spend a Friday!" I said.

"Great way to spend any day."

My dog curled up in a little ball under my chair with a sigh, she could tell it was going to be a long time before I spread my jumper on the ground beside my swag for her to sleep on.

"It's Friday the Thirteenth you know, there may be a few ghosts stirring up in the old shale workings."

"What a load of bullshit, superstitious claptrap."

"My Dad worked on the ships, all his life. They sure believed in it. Never go to sea on Friday the Thirteenth! Dad used to reel off wreck after wreck of ships that left port on Friday the thirteenth." There was a snort of derision.

"Speaking of port." I said, reaching for the bottle.

"I remember Uncle Jack talking about the depression days and he and a mate bought an old Chev Four for five pounds and went up to Lightning Ridge looking for opals, 'cause there was no work in the city. They left on a Friday the thirteenth, got thirteen punctures before they got to the Ridge. Stuck it out for six months and only found one little stone. Uncle Jack gave it to me Mum as a wedding present. Opals are supposed to be unlucky. Me Dad was killed only a few months later. Uncle Jack was as close to a father as I remember." We were quiet for a while and he drew hard on his pipe.

I broke the silence.

"I used to contract to a public housing authority, did all sorts of jobs, concreting, clearing, fencing, odds and ends but quite a bit of tree lopping. They had an office in Parramatta where all the work orders were collated. Ground floor was where they received the rents but up on the first floor you went through double swinging doors to a long passage with doors going off, and at one end was the maintenance department. I used to try to go in on Fridays because all the Clerks of Works were there and you could discuss problems and leave your payment claims, and pick up additional work orders."

One Friday, and I think it was a thirteenth, I was leaving the office when the District Manager called to me from his office. `Hey, Ivor I want you.' It was the first time I had had reason to walk up the passage but I felt the carpet got plusher as I walked along. His office was large; timber desk, not laminex like the ones in the maintenance dept, his window had an expansive view, the chairs were commodious, not that I got to sit in one.

"You still haven't quoted on that tree in Katoomba." He looked at me accusingly.

I visualised the tree, dead and rotten in places, several green limbs overhanging the house, something I really didn't want to handle. "It's bad, " was all I could say.

"You never said that about the one you put in the policeman's bedroom" he replied tartly.

"No, I said, but I'm not popular with the insurance company any more, they reckon I have only one more 'life' with them."

He became a little more direct in his attitude.

"Look it's got to be done. I've a Ministerial on it."

Ministerials came from Parliament House. Tenants who thought they were getting nowhere with the organisation would sometimes have the effrontery to contact their local member, who'd talk to the Housing Minister and he would vent his displeasure on the District Manager for not having the matter solved. They were not treated lightly.

"I'd need a hundred quid and costs for dropping the power lines and telephone service." I said cautiously. (I was paying a labourer twenty pounds a week at the time.) He looked out the window, considered a moment, "Okay, be as quick as you can." As I walked down the passage I counted the doors, thirteen counting the toilets and the cleaners' room.

I arranged for the power lines to be dropped by seven thirty one morning. The P M G people loosened their wire to let the service lie on the ground and at about six thirty on a beautiful, cold and frosty morning the two of us were on site.

"Did you say it was cold?" asked one of my campfire listeners. We took the necessary precautions.

"Not a breath of wind, that was good, we put ropes in the tree, we pulled up the fence posts and laid the rails on the ground, we put a billet of wood on either side of the water meter in case anything hard should fall on it. Everything going great, seven fifteen and the Electricity Authority truck drove up, I knew the charge hand from the Ski club but I hadn't known where he worked. Ladders went up the power pole, one of their members lit a fire on the wide, bare nature strip and put the billy on. Wires dropped to the ground and were coiled away neatly. I was going to tie the guide rope to a tree but our mate from the Electricity Authority said they would give it a pull with their truck. Seven twenty five and we were ready to go. The chain saw roared and I put two deep 'V' cuts into the trunk, the way I wanted it to fall, and then broke out the wedge shaped scarf. They took up pressure on the rope with the truck and I cut at the back of the tree, I saw the gap open as the tree started its fall. I cut the motor and the tree fell exactly as I had hoped.

As I untied the rope the charge hand said to put the power lines back.

"Jeeze you never give us time for a cupper," the billy boiler grizzled. They had the power service back in time for us to hear the seven thirty news come on, from the radio in the house.

We all stood round the fire and enjoying our drink, a young lad came out of the house with a plate of raisin toast and said that they had watched the tree falling from inside the bedroom window.

My mate from the Ski club said that they had been told to stay on hand all day if necessary but supposed they had better get back to the depot.

"We'll leave the fire, you may want to burn some of the rubbish," was his parting comment. Ten minutes to eight. We cut the green leafy branches and put them on the fire. Oil in them vaporised and they burnt fiercely. We were cutting the branches into pieces easy to load on the truck when the next door neighbour came and asked if he could have the wood. As fast as we could cut he and his numerous kids carried it away. By nine we'd replaced the fence posts, raked up all our mess and burned it. Finished, and back home in Penrith by ten.

"I thought this was going to be a hard luck story about thirteen," somebody said sounding a bit disappointed.

"Oh no, I am not at all superstitious, in fact I think thirteen is rather a lucky number." I said as I reached for the bottle.


GOING STRAIGHT

 

I opened the door of the room heater and threw the book into the fire. I adjusted the flue and we watched the pages curl and blacken and disintegrate into ash. Young Gordon gave it a jab with the poker.

"I suggest you go straight home and don't talk to anybody about it."

Gordon gave me a grateful smile and put his hands up in mock surrender, saying.

"Don't worry I'm going straight after this." He had a grin now, but he had had a shock. We shook hands and he left.

I watched him get into the beautifully restored Jaguar and drive away.

Gordon's dad Jimmey and I go back a long way, I had only had my shingle out as an accountant for a few weeks when he came into my office. He was fit and suntanned, his rough bricklayer's hands a contrast to my soft fingers when we shook. He’d needed his tax return done. Over the years I had helped him get established. First as a contractor in his own right, then into a well regarded Construction Company. We’d formed a liking for each other. Gordon’s dad was now one of my prized clients.

I met him in the carpark before the Rotary meeting the other night and had been surprised that he was driving the company's old ute instead of his much loved and cosseted vintage Jaguar. (A beautiful machine but a financial disaster from an accountant's point of view, but then, he could afford it.) He explained that he had given the car to young Gordon to go up to the college, some hundreds of kilometres away with his final assignments for the agricultural degree he was sitting for.

"Gave him special instructions, no speeding, no drinking and driving, no picking up hitch hikers. Probably wanted to cut a bit of a splash with the girlies but who would blame him for that."

So I had expected Jimmey when I saw the car in the drive and was a little taken aback when my secretary called me, saying Gordon Mallory would like a word. Gordon knew his way around my office. He had done work experience stints with me and I was in fact a little disappointed that he had decided against accountancy as a profession. I would have liked to give him a start. He was stable, industrious, articulate, hard working, all the things you would look for in an employee, even a possible associate in later days.

"Something wrong?" I asked. Gordon seemed quite out of sorts, obviously worried. He was waving this book about, it looked a bit like a large bank deposit book without its stiff outer covering, as he dropped it on my desk I noticed the state insignia on the outer cover.

“Where did you find this?” I asked.

"Well, well you see, it was raining when I left college this morning, more drizzle really and a cold wind blowing. I saw this chap on the road thumbing a lift, Dad had told me not to pick up people but it was really dirty weather to be on the roadside and I stopped for him. Even his talking was not his usual calm slow way.

It was obvious that something was really bugging him.

"Sit down, let's have a cup of coffee." I said, making two cups. Things were looming large in young Gordon's mind. He was restless in the chair and rattled on.

"I felt sorry for him, I hoped Dad would understand. Anyway I got him in the front with me and he was one of these blow hard types who can’t keep quiet. Within a minute he had told me he was just out of the gaol that morning. `The Boob' he called it. Eighteen months for larceny and living on immoral earnings. All because of his dopey solicitor. Could'er done better on his own! Then there were the screws and the tucker and the hard times and the boredom, all the smart cars that had left him for dead in the wet and what a great car this was and how fast would it go. Where was I going and would I drop him off at the junction of the south coast highway? One of his girls was setting him up with a room down south till he could get his act together again. He just never stopped talking. He asked again about how fast the car would go and I told him I had promised not to speed. He gave me a despairing look and said he liked watching the tacho needle as it went up and down when the revs lifted. I must have let my mind wander a bit because suddenly there was this siren in my ear and the blue light flashing on the rear of a motor bike as it pulled along side.

"Jeeze a Blue Heeler," my passenger muttered as I pulled up. "Think I'll stretch my legs for a bit."

"He was all very formal, as police usually are. Travelling at one hundred and eighteen kilometres an hour in a one hundred speed limit. The light was flashing and I was shaking. He wrote out the ticket and told me about my options of paying and what points I would loose. He went to his bike and put the book on the seat and then came back. Going to give me the full treatment I thought. But no, I breathed a sigh of relief as he asked about the car. Said he and his brother were restoring a Mark V model Jag, asked about the paint, who did the trim for us, where we got the spoked wheels. I couldn't remember, but then thought of the name painted on the inside rim of the spare. We opened the boot and he looked at the name. He thanked me, and said. “Be more careful of the speed limits in future,” (as if I needed telling) put his book in the pannier and rode off in the other direction."

"I was shaky, cranky with the pick up who was in the front seat again, I told him to be quiet, that he had already caused me enough trouble.

"Don't worry about it mate, it's only a traffic fine. You've got nothing to worry about, believe me!" But I hardly heard a word he said. I just watched the road and the speedo until we got to the place he wanted to get out.

"Look mate," he said to me as he opened the door, "I can see you’re upset but take the advice of one who knows, one good turn always deserves another. You picked me up when others didn't and I was able to do this for you." He dropped this book on my knee. "When the John Hop was looking in the boot of your car I whipped the guts out of his book. He's probably having his arse burnt by the Sergeant right now, trying to explain what happened. Couldn't happen to a nicer bastard eh? I told yer, yer got nothing to worry about." He shut the car door and walked away.

"I didn't know what to do about it." Gordon said. "I broke two of dad’s stipulation’s and look at the trouble I was in."

I closed the damper on the stove and thought what a pity I couldn't tell anybody the story.

 

GRASS

 

It must be more forgiving than a mother's heart and certainly more tenacious than any insurance salesman. It can be as capricious as a young girl's first love affair. It grows over the graveyard, the deserted building site, and the battlefield. It breaks the concrete of a seldom-used path. It hides the dropped coin. It yields to the press of your feet and supports you when you can catch forty winks in the park. It returns to the desert after rain. It won't cover that patch right at the front door and still you can never get it out of your garden. Its verdant green will rest your eye. Its sun-baked yellow will blend into the summer sunset so you can hardly make judgment on earth's end and sky's beginning. It ranks with the water we drink and the air we breathe in the importance of nature's bountiful gifts.

History cannot deny that at the heart of every great surge of exploration has been man's desire to find new fields of exploitation, chief of which is land suitable for grass. Herds followed and in many cases preceded the explorers.

Juanita, my daughter was in charge of a single teacher school on Mudginberri station in the Northern Territory. Permanent enrolment eighteen pupils, but usually only three as the rest were aboriginal children often on walkabout. Up to twenty more came when the abattoir on the station started up.

Beef cattle were a tenuous proposition here, large tracts of land were needed to raise the stock and returns were marginal at best. However feral buffalos, descended from those imported over a century before as beasts of burden, to plough land and produce milk thrived in the wet conditions. Buffalo became a meat product, desirable on the European Continent and all over Asia. Live export had been tried but was too costly and small abattoirs offered a solution to send the packaged, chilled meat abroad.

Quite a number were set up but only Mudginberri prospered. When the `Kill' was on there were upwards of one hundred men needed in the abattoir and for the support work.

Regrettably the future was not going to be kind to this venture, for it became the focus of a bitter Management versus Union dispute. Whilst the Union lost the battle (and paid fines of $1.45 M) the property owner who had been promised financial help from The National Farmers Fund eventually lost everything. The property is now part of Kakadu National Park.

Juanita was having a busy time both in the school and socially on this property, when she invited us to spend a holiday with her. We arranged the holiday in the school break time and Deirdre and the two boys looked forward to this as much as I did.

Before leaving work I was talking to a group over lunch and told them of my plans. Keith our factory foreman was full of foreboding about my plans to camp out along the road. "I mean you just can't camp out like that, up there. I mean it's dangerous, It really is. You hear about people being shot on the roads up there." Just before leaving he renewed his warnings.

Juanita met us at Darwin airport. She had a wound requiring hospital treatment, the result of rolling her vehicle, which was now off the road. We had to hire a car, and such being life it had an air conditioner unit in it. Tough when it was a muggy thirty plus degree climate. We bore up however.

We spent days marvelling at the magnificent rock art of the district. Oberi Rock. Noulangi rock. We climbed the rocky hillsides, where, with a feeling of awe and intrusion, I found in a small rock hole, two skulls covered with red ochre, wedged on the long bones of the legs in the traditional manner of the natives of the area.

We watched the magpie geese on a magic dawn over the waterholes, whilst our youngsters fished from aluminium `Tinnies' with friends of a few days. Raptors hovered over roads waiting for movement of reptiles or insects. The tall grass yellowed as we watched.

At five o-clock, the big shed that was Mudginberri store, became `Pub'. Sweat stained, grimy men who had toiled from six in the morning, mechanics who kept the place running, book-keepers, wives, men from `out the run'. Neighbours, they were all there to catch up with the days happenings.

Cold cartons of tinnies were broken open, the empties thrown into an old drum. People drifted in, went away to shower and returned in social dress. Singlets and stubbies, barefooted, they slaked their thirst in a formidable manner. Smoke filled the air and the noise grew louder. I caught snatches of the general talk.

"Pete's dorg got caught in the loading race and its jaw broken. He's taken Sam's car to go it to the vet in Darwin. Two hundred kilometres for a bloody dorg."

"Tom bogged in the Long waterhole! Couldn't drive a hearse in a cemetery."

"Bobby Big Eyes caught a Goanna and took it down the camp, they like that wild meat they do. Seen the bloody thing running along a bare patch and just took off through the bush in the Toyota, talk about bloody eyes."

"Break down on the chain line again, cut production down, not our fault yer know, lost our bonus, bastards, we 'oughter get paid time for breakdowns!"

"Bringing in a semi of buffalos late ternight, need a couple of blokes to help unload."

"Geezes th' bloody skeeters out there."

"Wouldn't drink this piss in town but tastes all right here yernow."

"Get them dorgs outer here."

"Putting the yards up out at the Black Waterhole. Big mobs out there, be ready to start mustering day after termorrer, would j'yer like to camp out there and have a day with the musterers?"

Above the hubbub of talk I caught these words. As I nodded he said.

"Bloody tough bunch them musterers. Bikies from down Perth, real tough bastards, have to take them as they are, do the bloody job though, never worry." He was the station overseer, Jemmy, had a bit of a crush on our daughter and was all for us seeing as much as we could. We arranged to go out next mustering day.

Jemmy took the five of us in the station ute. Away from the water lines the grass was now dry as straw, fires were lit to destroy the top cover in the hope that a green pick would grow for the stock. Kites by the thousands hovered in the smoke drift, dropping on grasshoppers and small animals as they staggered to bare patches of ground.

Much of the land was featureless to me and I was often amazed when we came to a track and turned on towards another invisible destination.

"See the yards over there?" Jemmy pointed, but I didn't see. It was another half-hour of rough driving before we came to the yards. They were a steel structure, bolted together, braced with sections of railway line, loading race, heavy sliding steel gates, two strong wing fences made of steel and then hessian wings running out for about one hundred metres.

"You'll see how it works when you come out with us this arvo."  He drove us on till we came to a camp under a few scrubby trees. There were four short wheel base Toyotas.

"Real good machines, these old Toys, never screwed off an axle in one of the buggers yet." They were stripped of anything unnecessary, heavy wide bull bars in front, roll bars, solid steel bars on the side, driver's seat and two spare wheels for a passenger to sit on, heavy coil of rope on the back of each, nothing else.

We met Brett and Blackie and Jazz and Teach and Gutzache the cook. Indeterminable age, lean, scarred. In another setting they may have been unsettling but here they had an air of confidence about them.

"Few little mobs under the trees, but a real big mob near the swamp, hard to get between the water and them but." It was Jazz who seemed to be the leader.

"Reckon we ought to skirt right round and come up where we seen the snake. Try and rush 'em from there." This seemed to gain approval.

"Go in half an hour, give yer time to set up your tents. Dinner right on dark Gutzie."

One man on each vehicle, each with a passenger from my family, endless driving through the straw-coloured grass, often tall enough to close over the top of the vehicle, I was completely lost.

"Look at them over there under the trees." I could hardly see the trees let alone the buffaloes.

"Might pick em up as we rush the others."

I was driving with Brett. He pushed the vehicle hard through the bush, bouncing over mounds, looping wide around the swamp.

"Gotta keep away from the green patches. Get bogged." They had arranged to light a fire when everyone was in position, we slowed, threw a match into the grass, within minutes there were four spirals of smoke and we were away.

Zigzagging towards the shelter where the mob was resting, blaring horns, in the distance I saw animals jump turn tail and flee. Brett was muttering under his breath.

"Stay in a bunch yer bastards. Hang on." we bounced over a dry watercourse, grazed a shrub. Brett was shouting now, I could hardly hear him.

"Shit they've broken away, Come on up Jazz, Come up, some have gone back. Christ look out." He braked savagely and went into a slide around an ant bed, gunned the motor and was away again. There were about fifty of them in a bunched mob, running hard, their lives depending on getting away from the four vehicles that were herding them along. I don't know if it was minutes or hours, it was bumps and swerves and muttering and dust and noise.

"See the wings? Gotta gun em now."

I couldn't see anything but dust. We increased our speed; the four vehicles close behind the running animals. Some baulked and broke away, they pushed the remainder hard. Suddenly I saw the hessian wings and the steel yards. In headlong flight the mob was confined by the wings and the vehicles, they charged on, headlong into the yards, two vehicles dropped away and then one jammed into the yard gate, the terrified buffaloes churned and tried to ram the vehicle whilst the ground crew slammed home the gates. Wild animals tried to climb the yard fences and fell back, horns ripped flesh, heads were bloodied on the steel yards, there was no escape, no compassion, it was the start of the meat chain in all its brutality. There would be loading onto trucks and a wait to calm their adrenalins flow at the Mudgenberri meat works, then the stun gun and oblivion.

Before dinner in the cool of the evening there was a swim in a waterhole. Jazz sat with a loaded rifle.

"No sign of crocs here but yer never know, one mighter got stranded." I thought they were having us on and didn't find it a relaxing swim but felt better afterwards. Around the fire, green branches smoking in an attempt to keep away the insects, there were potatoes baked in the ashes, green peas out of a tin, fresh baked bread from a camp oven and as many servings as you wanted of fresh grilled Barramundi.

"Done good Gutzie, better'n that bloody buffalo steak last night anyhow."

"Caught 'em meself this arvo, not bad eh?"

I had asked about taking beer into the camp and had been told that a can each would be O. K. Camps were supposed to be dry. After dessert of canned fruit I passed them round to the approval of all. Grass of an exotic nature was shaken from plastic bags. Talk time was of bike falls, fights in pubs, car chases, enforced `holidays' and drinking. Their rugged faces in the firelight, eyes alert. Tattoos showed darkly. Jazz sitting beside me, had a dagger etched on his arm, red with blood drops and NANCY printed under it, the knuckles on one hand spelling LOVE the other HATE. I wondered what Keith at work would make of it, and thought of his warning. Jazz turned to me and asked.

"Where 'jer come from mate?"

You've probably never heard of it, Emu Plains." I said.

He shook his head.

"It’s a suburb of Sydney."

He turned as though struck, frowning."

"Yer don't live in Sydney do yer? Christ they shoot people in the streets of Sydney."


LIVE MY LIFE OVER AGAIN

 

The thought of it! Live my life over again! Do I have to? Would I want to? Do I know then what I know now? The past again or the future?

I sat beside the fire, threw on an ironbark log. A stock take of me at present is essential if I am to consider the prospect.

Physically, well my feet are strong and healthy as are my legs, a bit marked by life’s journey. A kick from a horse, a fall from a bus, a football knee, cuts from a fall into a foreshore crevasse thick with oysters, the scar of a carbuncle, but they work well and I would be prepared to take them along with me.

I have a bit of a tummy due to weak muscles (a congenital fault I’ve been told) as are my rounded shoulders, however the rounded shoulders carry arms that are capable of holding knife and fork and a glass, so why shouldn’t the tummy be a bit rounded as well?

It’s when I get to what’s above the neck that I start to find problems. Teeth, my dentist peers into his little mirror every six months and starts to tell me about the lovely little polo pony he has an option on or the Porsche that his son wants him to buy. As a boy I was frightened by the pain, nowadays it’s the financial pain. The eyes have always suffered astigmatism and glasses have been my lot. Years of working with noisy machines have caused hearing loss, but that is par for the course. Hair is noticeable by its absence on the head, but it’s said (and it’s true I am certain)'you never see grass growing on a busy path.'

When, however I study what’s inside the head I start to get alarm calls. My friend Bill Shakespeare says that `--- nothings good or bad but thinking makes it so’, and it’s the thinking that needs attention. Advances in science have found the right anti-depressant for me, and I think, I can think clearly now!

 

“Hey you!” I was sitting on my cloud trying to tune my harp, concentrating hard as my ear for music was never very good, and was hardly paying attention to outside influences.

“Yes you, you with the beard.” I suddenly saw the light and stood in a deferential attitude, as one should before your Deity.

“I think that I will send you off for another stint on earth. You can't make a bigger hash of it than any of the others and don’t forget I expect another report like last time but this time pay attention to your writing lessons, I could hardly read a word of your last one. Call on the Quartermaster for your equipment issue. Report back in another lifetime. Any questions?

“Speaking of equipment, do you think I could have a bigger---.” Alas the light was gone.

All was quiet as I drifted down to ‘stores’. I was reluctant to give up my cloud, it was a late model, rather fashionable golden purple with a dawn glow, had never been overdriven or caught in a thunderstorm, had a custom built seat that had been specially designed for me. However the recycling attendant took the key and that was the last I saw of it. I was despondent when I fronted the counter.

“Ah, yes, Morton. Here’s your bag of goodies, sign there, and there, press hard there are four carbon copies.” I looked at the little bundle of qualities to see signs of leadership, great lover abilities, world statesmanship, financial genius, horse breeder, cattle baron or sportsman of renown, but as before all carefully wrapped. I signed.

“Now here’s your contract, sign there.” He pointed. It looked the same as before and I turned it over, there was a mass of small print, and I adjusted my glasses to read, then saw his pained expression,

“Look here feller, ye’r not going to be difficult are you? All standard conditions.”

“But the small print----.” He had been through this before. He grew red in the face, held me in a fierce look and said in a hard voice.

“Please, I’ve been flat out all day, laying out penances, agonies, torments, rewards and ecstasies, there are two civil wars on, it’s hurricane season and the pressure on the geological fault is causing earthquakes every day. I’ve never been busier, my feet are killing me and I want to go home and have a stiff glass of holy water before choir practice, SO SIGN THE BLOODY THING!”

I realised I was always going to be weak, signed it, and found myself sliding down to deliveries. It would be a good time to check on just what qualities I was to have and speculate on how I will use them.

Pity they all wrapped up tight and have opening dates. I started to think of my options.

Parents, good news, they were to be the same, I couldn’t ask for better. They would give me love and care beyond the call of duty. Ah would I ever be able to repay them.

Schooling, I will be bright this time, remember what I am told, be neat, methodical, and I won’t misspell the hundred demons, know what twelve and a half percent of one thousand is and where to catch the bus that connects with the boat that goes to the beach. I won’t leave my jumper in the playground, or forget to bring my lunch wrappers home. At school I will stand up to the bullies, carefully mixing discretion with valour, I won’t, in turn victimise the younger ones around me---.

 

A log crashed in the fireplace and awoke me to reality; I jabbed it with the poker and settled back in my chair. Schooldays, `happiest days of your life’, well some of them were anyway, what about, - - what about---.

 

Living skills, I have learnt to listen better and have the quick wit to make the right replies. I can analyse situations and see through people that are grinding their own axe at my expense. I won’t be influenced away from my chosen path, to be a Vet. No, not even for that farm deal, and even if I was, I wouldn’t fall for the story of the lost mob of cattle, or wear the dump for that marketing fiasco.

I would be a good Vet. No thoughts of domination over the beasts of the field, would be patient with the stupidity of chooks or even sheep for that matter. Probably go on to research and make a small mark for discovering a treatment of skin itch in frogs.

Girl friends and marriage, well I know a few things now. Especially that marriage contract, I’d read the small print there! With a bit of luck my slippers would be beside the fire, and my dressing gown would never have its sleeves rolled up, by that same patient lovely person! Ah yes Deirdre, I would have a family, but all of them the sort that would treat their father properly and not run the car out of petrol, play in my workshop or tie my shoelaces to the chair legs when I am `resting’ after dinner.

Health and body, not sign of the fat belly or the rounded shoulders. Athletic and muscular, good eyes that are not astigmatism or need lens transplants. I would miss on those falls from busses and horses, no football knee or appendicitis. My dentist would check my teeth and say with a sigh.

“Nothing here, would you like me to descale them? Hardly necessary though.”

Financially there would be good times; I would sell out of my `Plutonic Internationals’ right at the peak of the market. Even my broker would congratulate me on my impeccable judgement. I thought about my mental condition, depression would never cross my horizon. Life this time round would be a breeze.

There was the sound of a bell, lights became bright, a sign saying `delivery room’ was illuminated. A burly bloke in front of me looked around and said.

“Hope it’s better this time.”

I hardly had time to say.

          “I’ll be happy to have the same again, though I would like to find the anti-depressant much earlier!” when the bells sounded again and he disappeared.

 

The ringing was imperious. I blinked. Deirdre answered the phone.

“Ivor, oh he’s asleep by the fire. I think he’s dreaming.”



LUNCHEONS PAST

We were drawn by the open doors, to a cool escape from the harsh sunlight into St.Andrew's Cathedral. Light filtered through the stained glass windows and the organ played quietly.

We sat and in that moment of meditation, I thought of the hurried luncheon with our unhappy son. Images of the little bay on the river and days long gone floated to my mind. He'd been a happy carefree boy then, swimming with his friends. The Granny, the skinny dipping Granny, dead now, I had the honour of giving the eulogy at her funeral. Then there was the Mentor, now fighting for his life against cancer. I thought of the young man with the slow sperm, now a grandfather and the Forger, I've never heard of him again. But he was never at the river. That was another lunch.

I kneeled and gave thanks for all the luncheons I have enjoyed.

 

ANIVERSARY.

 

It was to have been a toast in champagne, but as we had entered the restaurant we were welcomed with a sympathetic smile and,

"You look hot, sit there and I'll get you a glass of water before you order." The champagne remained in the ice bag. Our water came in a carafe, tantalisingly frosty, half full of ice cubes, the glasses from the freezer with twists of lemon and black straws. She came for our orders, saw we had drunk well and brought us another carafe. Decisions were not easy, as there was temptation in all the selections, her smile and the comment. "What excellent choices," filled us with confidence, as also did the plates on the other tables and the comments from the diners made us feel we were in for a treat.

          I had corn pancakes, layered with a thick sauce of blended mustard seed and cream, sprinkled with parmesan cheese on a bed of dark cos lettuce, it was tastefully surrounded with halves of egg tomatoes, oven warmed in a honey marinade.

           Dee's trout had a crust of polenta, baked to perfection with a sprig of tarragon. The side salad thin sliced Spanish onions, tomatoes and butter lettuce, crisp with a hint of ice shavings. Salad dressing was thick green virgin olive oil with chopped herb leaves and more than a dash of lemon juice.

"Forty five years!" Our glasses clinked, Dee held my hand. "I am glad we went on the walk but catching the scenic railway back out of the valley was a good idea."

I had parked the old truck at Katoomba Falls and we had walked around the headland to The Three Sisters down the Giant Stairway, (over a thousand stairs I have been told) and I had a bad case of `Laughing Knees' before I reached the halfway mark. By the time we had got to the Dardanelles Pass I was thinking about the orange and water bottle in my bag.

We had turned to the left and walked along to Leura forest, the Lyrebird kept beckoning us with his call. A whipbird offered us a rare glimpse as he fluttered in a tree then the path opened to the amphitheatre like beginning of the forest floor.

Federal Pass wound through rain forest till once again we rejoined the Dardanelles Pass at the foot of The Three Sisters and on to the decision of one hour's hard climb up Furber's stairs or the quick trip on the Senic Railway. I smiled at Dee over the shared hummingbird cake with lashings of cream and the hot coffee. I knew we had made the right choices.


HARD RATIONS.

We had been given a cursory frisking at the gateway. I had heard of the forger. His artistic talent had led him to being described as `damaging the financial integrity of the whole country'. It had been only the serial numbers that brought him unstuck, once in prison he continued painting and so gained a privileged status. My friend the dealer hinted at the money being converted into acceptable prison currency, packages being delivered nefariously and commissions being levied all along the line. The forger's payments were a resource for both prisoners and warders alike.

"They told me you were coming sir, didn't expect you to have a friend." It was a snowy, sleety, windy, winter's day, the `H M Prison' sign holding a rime of snow looked threatening in the pine trees. Our road wound upwards then the little camp came into sight, we parked and went to the administration building, there was a closed office, a man in denim trousers, sandshoes without socks and only a shirt, stood shivering by the door.

"I'm to take you to the mess hall Sir." He didn't look at us and we followed. Two rows of wooden trestle tables with bench seats, a servery behind a corrugated wall. We were beckoned to a smaller table at the end of the room.

The forger, who at least had a jumper on, shook hands with my companion.

"I have the pictures here." He placed rolled canvases on the table and took from a satchel a bundle of photographs, matching them to the portraits. "I really got this one," he said with pride. A smiling youngster in school uniform was transposed from the glossy photo to warm oils on the canvas. There were a lot of them, each one was shown and assessed. The forger seemed dubious about some. I thought they were bloody good and said so. The forger smiled and looked quizzically at my companion, the dealer, who replied, "A business associate, I brought him up for a run."

A siren wailed outside and soon we heard the rattle of motors. Through the steel meshed window I saw men get down from the back of two trucks and form lines in the sleet.

"I am sure the portraits will be OK,” said the dealer "I spell it out before I bring you the photos that they are your impression." The forger looked relieved at my companion's words.

"You'll pay through the agency, the same way?"  My companion nodded as a bell rang.

The prisoners formed a single line outside and marched to the door and as they entered, picked up a tin plate and an enamelled mug, walked and stood behind the benches. An officer with insignia on his sleeve walked in, nodded to my companion, and appraised me without acknowledgment. He stood for some time in silence and then began calling names and ticking his ledger, then standing silent again. They stood wet and cold at their benches whilst he indulged his power before ringing another bell, when they sat. Complete silence except for the clatter of their tin plates on the table. Two men went to the servery and brought out trays, distributed a fork and a tin of sardines to each man and two slices of bread. The sleeve walked passed me with a smug smile and I would have gladly kicked his balls off.

BUSINESS LUNCH.

"Amal Pets are on the run!" My broker used his peculiar slang for Amalgamated Petroleum Securities over our table in a noisy, smoky restaurant, where he and his ilk gathered. He pointed to a selection on the wine list and the waiter hurried off. Hands were waving, "most of them must still think they are on the trading floor," I think. White shirts, grey suits, ties, expensive cigarette cases, they show their teeth as they don't quite smile. "Somebody will get bitten," I think, as they reach for their gold Parker pens and make notes on pieces of paper.

SUMMIT LUNCH.

Amal Pets ran all the way to a late model Mercedes, it looked good in the lane near the Summit restaurant on the Sunday when the Grand Aunt took the family to her Christmas celebration.

She eyed the men saying, "Every man for himself with the wine." We agree happily each year to this though the mark up on the bottles was a cause for discussion. Our waiter flourished the bottle in front of me, plunging the corkscrew deep, and broke the cork, the little guests floated on the tasting glass. I remonstrated about the cork and he withdrew behind his unreadable Asian eyes. He took the bottle and entered into discussion with another waiter as I watched as a carafe was produced and the wine strained into it then brought back to the table. I wasn't happy but the language difficulty persisted and the other waiter was called to assist.

"Ah, bottle sir, yes, bottle without cork sir, yes." They went off and returned about five minutes later with the original bottle about two thirds filled, wine still smearing the label. Wine waiters are as a class, a pretty arrogant lot. I wasn't going to let them get away with it. I said, through slightly clenched teeth,

"I want to see the cellar master."

One of them then looked me in the eye, more eloquently than any verbal plea. I withdrew, rationalising that it wasn't my party, it was Christmas, it was only a few Amal Pets and I wouldn't give a tip. He bowed to me as we went out to the lifts.

Our kids filled the first lift and when we adults got to the plaza below, my youngest son had stripped to his underpants and the two little girl cousins had tucked their dresses into their panties. They were wading in the courtyard fountain-come wishing well, collecting the coins people had thrown in with their wishes. He slipped of course and was drenched, leaving a soggy mess on the seat of the prized new car and dripping all over the carpet. But it was, after all, only a few Amal Pets.

SUMMER LUNCH.

Summer heat was building up under the canvas, there were still a few seats left near the bottom of the stairway where the wheel chairs stood. Five youngsters in various states of dependency were there. I asked if we could sit and the young man who was making one lad comfortable said, almost apologetically "They can be a bit unpredictable."

Perhaps that was why the seats had been avoided. We sat with our grandson between us, and looked at the trapezes up so high and the boxes and balls with battered paint the sawdust-strewn floor. Through the confusion of the ropes we saw a youngster in a harlequin costume standing under the seats talking seriously to a man. He demonstrated with his hands. She nodded her head, moved her hands. Music blared and a spotlight flashed. We were engulfed with young bodies tumbling, twisting, catherine wheeling, mono-cycling and juggling, The Flying Fruit Flys were up and running.

We were enchanted, my grandson transported. His hands lifted and he crouched for cover at the moment when one Fruit Fly seemed destined to crash. He rolled with laughter and held his breath with his hand to his mouth. At interval, when we were eating expensive ice creams his eyes glowed with excitement as his memories tumbled out.

"But Gran what about when---?"

"Do you remember---?"

The couple with the wheelchairs, they seemed just kids themselves, were busy with washers and treats of fruit and sandwiches. They adjusted harnesses and held sticky cones, gave fizzy drinks and puffed up cushions. Smiled at demanding faces, listened and responded to sounds that meant nothing to me. The tenderness that the young man exhibited as he helped one young body, locked in callipers, piddle in his bottle amongst all the activity brought tears to my eyes.

We had said we would have a walk and feed the ducks in Centennial Park after the show but I thought a bite of lunch first a good idea." Are you feeling hungry?" I asked.

"Yes, could we have something special please?"

Centennial Park Cafe is a land of starched tablecloths, waiters and waitresses in black and white with bow ties and impeccable manners and menus to match. I waved away the wine waiter and the lass stood attentive, pen poised over the order pad. We made our selections and then I asked the youngster.

"What would you like mate?"

He folded his menu, looked at me and said.

"Could I have a peanut butter and sprouts sandwich?"

 

TRAVELLERS LUNCH.

You can't go much further north or west in Australia than Wyndham, it was a must on our travel list. It had gained the reputation of having `the best fish cafe in the north, if not the continent.' A visit had been planned before we left Sydney and had been reinforced when we had given a hand to two fellows who were motoring from a job as cooks in a mining camp and had run out of battery on an overnight stop. One of them had `a start at the cafe in a months time' and the other was going to see what he could pick up by way of a job.

It is a long town, about five kilometres from the sign proclaiming it, to the other end. The road in follows the water, there is a loading complex for minerals, the remains of stockyards where cattle were shipped, they go by road train now. A brick shopping block crouched in an almost furtive manner, where the bottle shop was behind steel bars, and sad eyed degradation lurked in each aboriginal face. Further on there is the efficiency of a fuel depot and better stocked shelves than at the shops. Right at the end of the road, past several old, old houses with signs declaring their history is the pub and on the other side a small weatherboard building, it's `Cafe' sign almost faded from the awning.

A fellow traveller, hot, sweaty and dusty, said as he carried a bundle of paper parcels across to the pub "Gunner sit in the garden and eat over a few beers."

We could see tables and umbrellas under shady trees over the road. I volunteered to bring our order, whilst the others went ahead and claimed a table. I took a while to get it and I thought of a cold glass of beer. Something to cut the phlegm. I had heard it called. There were cans of beer on the table when I got there but I said I was going to have a glass and walked into the bar and ordered a beer. The bar was `U' shaped, in the centre of the `U' was a partition running to a wall forming the enclosed `bar room' on one side and giving service to the `lounge' and beer garden on the other.

"Schooner please." I said. He was a big man, didn't say a word as he put a can on the bar.

"I want a glass please." He leaned back, frowning whiped his hand on his sweaty face, seemed to get bigger.

"Can't serve 'yer a glass here." He snapped.

"They have glasses out there." I remonstrated, pointing to the beer garden.

"Bloody Boongs, drink in the bar, cuppler glasses and they're pissed and then they start chucking glasses. Open cans don't do as much damage, the bastards are deadly with the glasses, sell yer a schooner in the lounge though."

I walked out the bar door five steps into the lounge, he had the glass of beer on the bar waiting for me.

 

RIVER LUNCH.

There was a little bay on the bank of the river, it was a weekend haven for a group of friends. The headland moved in the floods, sometimes retreating but usually gaining in bulk from the sand and silt deposits. Willows had grown and grass as well. The beach was gentle with a clear sandy bottom. Wind patterns changing with the seasons, the smoke of the fire sometimes layering, sometimes drawing straight upwards.

I would know who had arrived by the cars on the riverbank when I got home from the work that took me away most mornings. Sometimes there would be a tent, often people just `stayed over'. They were times that seemed to never end. We all skinny dipped, babies, children, parents and grannies, we talked, we ate, we drank, the plastic tub with its ice bricks and cans and bottles always full.

There was friendly competition to see who had the slightly more exotic new dish, had found a sample from a boutique winery to try. All the youngsters canoeing or sailing on what was almost a private bay, the little dog swimming from one side of the river to the other for sheer joy of life.

Our world was good to us, there was money about, the kids were all fit, the government for all its faults almost benevolent. Talk was of cars and land and investments and tax saving schemes and specials of champagne and what was a good book to read and trips to the theatre and plans for a long weekend camping and holidays in the snow in winter. Acrid smoke would waft and eyes become restful and the young couple who were having trouble with his slow sperm would paddle down river for a while and we would sometimes have to call back the youngsters, who would have followed.

Maurie was a mentor of us all in the art of canoeing. We studied his stick drawings in the sand around the fire. The currents, the way to navigate them, the balancing of paddles, positioning in the craft, for the best leverage on rapids. How to light a campfire with wet wood, tickling trout in mountain streams, reading a compass, reading the clouds for tomorrow's weather, it wasn't only the kids who hung on every word or listened to advice.

We shared luncheons of crisp salads from iced boxes, thin sliced ham cured with exotic herbs, devilled eggs, smoked salmon, fetta cheeses and green olives, home baked bread, wine from fine glasses, sitting on rugs under the shade of willows. Bacchanalian, a tinge of decadence, delightful.

At other times we had luncheons where hopes and fears were revealed, advice sought and given, commitments stronger than any legal bond entered into and luncheons that melted into quiet afternoons and mellowed into many a `Do you remember?' Then as pollution slowly killed the river and the families grew up, life drifted away to other pursuits and we sold up and moved on.

 

FAST FOOD.

Noise of heavy traffic, the espresso machine roaring, clatter of plates, scrape of chairs, ruffle of papers being read as people try to catch up or escape the world.

"I can recommend the Turkish Foccacia." Our waiter said as he placed the menus before us, "Coffee as you decide?" He queried.

We were with our youngest. His eyes looked troubled though his hair had grown a little and he was looking fit and well. He had his chef's coat and clothes with him and his knives in his bag. We had sensed his unrest from phone calls. Long hours at tech doing things he felt he already knew about.

          "Three hours on scrambling eggs in a microwave for Christ sake! Even the lecturers come to me to get their knives sharpened." He spoke critically of over priced food for overfed people.

           We knew the signs; He was going to pass it all up without thought of the difficulty of further employment.

           "Have to catch the bus across the road in half an hour, only two of us on the staff there now, Maria has worked fifteen days straight since the trouble, she's out on her legs." It wasn't a happy story, a new restaurant trying to break into the district, antagonism that broke into violence between the first chef and the proprietors.

          Two short blacks with glasses of water and my flat white arrived and we ordered. It was tight behind the servery but meals moved out quickly, service was efficient, tables emptied and filled with alacrity, the register pinged as the meal tabs were brought in.

          "How would you handle this?" I asked my son.

          "Ah, no worries, when you are busy you have to be organised," but his voice trailed off and he started to talk of his mate who was going to move back to the mountains. I thought of the grotty digs where I had moved him a few months earlier. His eyes told us of his uncertainty his unrest and dissatisfaction. I tried to be constructive about `hanging in' and not `burning bridges' and `better days' but thought of my own muddled life and wondered how it sounded coming from me.

          We hugged long and hard before he caught his bus, telling him to keep in touch. Deirdre was crying as we walked over to the Town Hall Square and saw the open doors of St Andrews. . . . .
 

MAGPIES

We rarely see a magpie in our gully!

A pair of currawongs claim it as their domain. Certainly for the last nineteen years there has always been a breeding pair somewhere close by; their possessiveness, especially evident during, and leading up to the breeding season.  On the eastern ridge resides a pair of ravens, similarly in possession. We clearly hear a butcherbird's song up the hill, but the maggies that live on the western hilltop keep very much to themselves.

On one of these glorious winter days we are now having, a carolling call from close by, brings us, cups of `elevenses' in hand, to the wide open doors, here we sit to watch the feeding tray. Usually we see red browed finches, an occasional thrush, sparrow or bowerbird. Many are the parrots, rosellas in all stages of life from newly fledged to old, old hands are always there. gang gangs with their beautiful headgear their creaky talking and foolish antics a delight, and if we are lucky, royalty, in the form of king parrots, the males resplendent in their green cloaks with scarlet or orange gold breasts honour us.

This Wednesday however, all we see is a solitary magpie checking out the ground that the lyrebird has turned over. The call again draws our eyes to the canopy of a tree nearby and there is his partner. We sit watching them, entranced by the serenade. Under the seed feeder the Maggie seems to glean much nourishment, chortling softly whilst the mate in the tree watches with intensity.

          Leaving the ground it flies to the table just in front of us. Cheekily eyeing us from alternative sides it then hops to the ground and comes closer, looking at my biscuit. I throw a crumb, which is caught and Maggie comes closer still, looking for other spilled crumbs. Clearing them all up he flies back to the table, gives a polite chortle, flies down to the door tread and cocking his head, eyes us again and walks sedately inside, spending some time inspecting the room. Back to the table for a loud carolling, then down to the pond for a drink, taken with delicacy. With hardly a splash, the bird wades into the pond for a long bath, splashing water everywhere, full dunking and preening his feathers in the pond then back to the table. Amidst this great shaking, flapping and preening the mate joins in, considers the matter, before following suit. This finished, both settle on a branch in full sunlight, to ruffle their feathers and stroke out water drops with their beaks. Finally, settled in the warm sunshine they throw back their heads and sing.

          Was it a hymn of praise to the world in general?

          A song of thanks to us?

          The sheer joy of living? Who knows?

          I am eating a piece of raisin toast from which some fruit fell. It was checked immediately but spurned, there is a hopeful eyeing of the toast in my hand and the crust part I offer is eaten with gusto.

          There is lengthy consideration of another bath. This time they splash and wash even more deeply, then back to the table for a shake and preen, before flapping to their sunny branch, where their liquid melody is disturbed by a divebombing from one of the currawongs. They speed away, still shaking droplets of water.

           Will we see Maggies in our gully again?


 

MODEL BOATS

We were visiting the Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour. My friend was a boilermaker who had spent much of his life at Cockatoo Docks working on ships of all sizes. In his retirement he had taken up building models of early sailcraft that had plied the Australian coast. He was hoping to find more material in the displays.

The main display was of fishing boats, used by Greek fishermen working from various ports in Tasmania. There were pictures of boat building yards with closeups of figureheads and religious motifs, sailmakers, winding gear, lobster pots, crowds at launchings and blessings. A feature of all the boats being built was a small-scale model, dissected from stem to stern from which all measurements of the boat were calculated.

          We were bending over one display and reading the history of the boat, commissioned in the late nineteen thirties, for a Greek family with connections with the Hobart, Launceston and Melbourne fishing trade, when an elderly couple came and joined us. They spoke in Greek, (well it was `All Greek’ to me,) anyway. Their conversation was animated, much pointing and hand waving. She was large, handsome, classic featured, flashing dark eyes, and long thick grey, lustrous hair. They embraced, kissed and talked some more, and then he turned to me.

          “My wife, She name boat, Her name. Her Father he build, before war, they fished, but later used it as an Abalone boat.”  We talked at length, she had great stories of the boat building yards where she lived as a girl, telling us about the uncertainties of life through the war when there was discrimination against any foreign accents. Our acquaintance emigrated just after the war and had prospered. Her family was still mostly in the fishing business. Despite the `Do not touch’ sign she stroked the little model in the display, and we couldn’t begrudge her that.

          Her husband told us the boat had spent many years Abalone fishing, finally being wrecked in a severe storm.

          “Licences were a pound then! Our Nephew paid nearly a million for one last year, the old man must have turned in his grave.” He crossed himself. He smiled and we moved away.

          Later as we were watching a video of boat building our Greek acquaintance came to us again, almost hesitantly.

          “Tell you story. Is true, but you may not believe.” Our appetites were whetted immediately.

          “My nephew fish for the abalone round Tasmania. Very good business, very good, and one summer evening, right at dusk, come down coast to Cape Tasman, before turn into Storm Bay. They see as they pass, something, no on the radar, not big, and they talk, perhaps a drum? Maybe cause trouble to another boat. Perhaps they should sink in case it causes damage. They turned, searched and soon found object."

           "But it not a drum. It was a survival raft and there were two young people in it. Man and girl. Both in swimming costumes. They been using raft for fun whilst swimming and the wind blow them away from the coast. Nothing but luck between them and South Pole."

          "They wrap in blankets and lend taxi fare home. They very grateful. Next day he come and pick up raft, return the money. He say his name is Martin Bryant.”


SIMBA

I was not long a member of the local Lion's Club, when a project came up to lay a concrete cricket pitch for the then Werrington Park Boys home. The boys were what we now call `intellectually challenged' but were then know as retarded or more cruelly `not the full quid', `a sandwich short of a picnic', or a `brick short of a load'. Funds for the concrete and reinforcing mesh had been raised by a raffle and we were ready for the `hands on work' laying the pitch.

One of our members, a retired air force Sergeant carpenter was in charge: he wanted "an early start, a few fellers not scared of a `wheelbarrer', a bloke with 'ammer and nails and last but not least, `a cuppler dogsbodies.'"

We were a motley crew: a doctor, a policeman, two real estate agents (who talked about the subdivision potential of the land), a shopkeeper, a gentleman of private means (with straw hat, gardening gloves and a hammer), a builder, our leader who was being `erfficient', and myself.

There were no hitches. We were prepared when the concrete trucks arrived, and the wheeling and screeding went with a will. It was a warm morning with `the compo going orf just lovely'. We were hard at it with the floats when one of the lads from the home came down and asked us to come up for morning tea. He spoke tentatively, his voice betraying his limitations.

"Just great!" called our leader. "As soon as we have finished the trowelling."

At the time I had a Samoyed dog, a big fellow, with a love of chasing cars. As nearly always happens to car chasers he had been hit and lost a front leg. He adapted well, his remaining front leg developed strength and size, he still chased cars as ferociously as ever and could stand on two legs to pee with the best. He loved a day out, Simba was with me on this occasion, and was hopping around checking on progress. The men called him `The Clerk Of Works' as he lifted his leg on just about everything. The lad from the home came up to me and touched me gently on the back.

"Can I pat your dog mister?"

"Sure, his name is Simba." I showed him how he liked to chase sticks, how to throw them high so Simba could jump and catch them. I suggested that he run around the paddock with him.

The dog loved it; the boy was in ecstasy and kept coming to tell me of some exploit. Once he confided.

"I never ever had a pat of a dog before."

We finished our work hot and thirsty. Thoughts of morning tea were strong in our minds. I loaded my floats and wheelbarrow in the ute and called the lad to come back as we were going back to the home. He ran up and carefully skirted the wet concrete. To my chagrin the dog, dragging a large lump of wood hopped straight up the wet concrete.

"Put that bloody dog in the car", the Sergeant roared.

The lad thought it was his fault and burst into tears. I consoled him and gave him a rope to hold the dog. We were really ready for a cupper by the time we had the surface smooth again.

 I had, or perhaps my dog, had, won the heart of the youngster. He smiled all he way up the long drive to the home in my ute with the dog slobbering all over him.

"Here give Simba a drink." I called as we got out, and he shyly asked if he drank water or tea. "Watch him at the tap." I said. He laughed when Simba jumped, snapping at the running water.

Inside it was back to the regime of institution life, smell of polished linoleum, thick cups, sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, pikelets, courteous boys obviously drilled in the behaviour expected of them, serving, and refusing to eat with us, and a little talk of appreciation from the officer in charge. It was time to leave and as we made for the door my young friend came up to me and took hold of my hand.

Would you like to come up and see my bed?" He asked, his eyes begging.

"I sure would." He took me up to a room with six beds in it. Narrow beds, thin grey blankets, polished floorboards, little cupboards, no sign of comforts or personalities.

"I got the window bed." It was obviously a sign of status.

"This is my cupboard." He opened the door with pride. There was one shirt hanging in it.

He walked close beside me down the stairs and tried to give the dog another drink.

 

THE GRAVES

My family get an eyebrow-raising look on their faces when, after the Christmas pudding I reach for the books and read. Perhaps it's the doings of Pickwick at Dingley Dell over the festive season. Perhaps the field mice's carol from Kenneth Graham's `Wind in the Willows',

 

Villagers all, this frosty tide,

Let your doors swing open wide,

Though wind may follow, and snow beside,

Yet draw us in by your fire to bide;

Joy shall be yours in the morning!

 

Here we stand in the cold and the sleet,

Blowing fingers and stamping feet,

Come from far away you to greet---

You by the fire and we in the street---

Bidding you joy in the morning!

 

For ere one half the night was gone,

Sudden a star has led us on,

Raining bliss and benison---

Bliss to-morrow and more anon,

Joy for every morning!

 

Goodman Joseph toiled through the snow---

Saw the star o'er a stable low;

Mary she might not further go---

Joy was hers in the morning!

 

And then they heard the Angels tell

Animals all as it befell---

In the stable where they did dwell!

`Who were the first to cry Nowell?

Joy shall be theirs in the morning!'

 

Family tradition has it that we now compare this Christmas pudding with puddings past. We remember the time we drove to another Xmas dinner venue many miles away having forgotten the pudding, which was to be our contribution to the feast.

Then there was the time the damned thing slipped off the plate, across the floor, out the door and into the garden like Lindsay's Magic Pudding?

I have never had a bad Christmas, and in fact there is only one that I didn't spend with my family, however it was memorable enough in other ways.

Our dairy farm on the Manning River was sold and we were due to hand over on the second Friday in December. However, the inevitable delays that the lay-man cannot fathom, meant the solicitors were not able to effect `SETTLEMENT' and it would be after New Year before I could hand over and take my leave.

Deirdre and the two little girls had gone to Sydney a few days earlier and so we were facing a Christmas apart.

My good friend and neighbour Bobby and his wife Ven had asked me to join their festive board. It had been bad luck for a young cockerel and a prime sucking pig. There was pudding with custard and I had asked the milk carrier to bring me out a couple of bottles of beer which we were enjoying on the verandah talking about goodness knows what, when the remark came up.

Bobby said "Up there, on the hill where the graves are."

Graves! I knew at once where he meant but I had never known they were graves, just mounds in the ground that I had wondered about, but I'd never asked questions and was only hearing by chance about them now.

          I didn't know they were graves! Whose were they? " I had never given much thought to the dead of past generations, there were troubles enough with the living but in the mellowness of the after dinner repose I sought to find out more of the people who had pioneered the properties along the river.

          Bobby had lived all his life in the district and had seen many a change. The graves were those of husband and wife of some past owner or sharefarmer.

          I was told there were many such graves on the local properties. These were selections dating back to the eighteen fifties when the northern side of the river was thrown open for free conditional grants.

          The Australian Agricultural Company had millions of acres from the north of the Hunter to the southern side of the Manning River. The Company's work force consisted mostly of convict or `Ticket of Leave Emancipists'.

          Many crossed the river to take up blocks of land. For better or for worse their bones now lay at rest on the land they once called their own. The graves a testament to their spirit, their pluck and their striving for independence.

I wondered if they had ever had sucking pig and prime poultry and Christmas Pudding at their Christmas dinner.

 

WEST

There had been an overnight camp at Cooper Creek, Not near the `DIG’ tree that was further north.  We were about a kilometre from the road. There were seven of us travelling in two landcruisers and my utility. We needed the fire in the evening but Deirdre and I swam in the greyish water earlier in the afternoon, just to say we had done so. Next morning there was a heavy overnight frost, causing us to look after the fire longer than usual and it was after nine o-clock when we were ready for the road again.

It was a clear day, the sun and wind played with shadows on the red soil of the road verge, as we drove the few miles into the township. We wanted to top up with fuel and water, get last minute supplies and check on local knowledge of the road northwards. We planned to be well into the channel country that evening.

Being a small town, with population of `about 65 permanent residents’ as the guidebook said, I was surprised at the amount of space there was from the township sign to the first house and the distance over which the town was scattered. A shop with a battered bowser in front, fifty metres to a galvanised building saying garage and service station, several old caravans at the rear. Opposite was a large, rambling building with it’s verandah lined with beer kegs and an old man sitting in the sun.

A few houses surrounded by dead motor vehicles was all I could see.

Seeing the garage was shut, I circled back to the bowser in front of the shop. Pepper trees hung over dusty pathway, nothing stirred. The two other landcruisers drove into the service station and I saw a man come slowly from one of the caravans.

A large padlock was on the bowser so I went up the old wooden stairs to the doorway of the shop, it was locked as well but I heard rattling on the inside and it opened. A gaunt guy, wearing patched khaki overalls stood there with a bunch of keys. He kicked the door.

“Bloody thing, won’t stay shut unless you lock it.” He looked at it accusingly and then asked me if I wanted petrol. I nodded and went back to the ute and opened the filler.

“This is a dreadful thing to fill, watch out for it bubbling back.” I said as I went to the rear of the tray to get a water container I wished to fill.

“This is a bugger of a thing to bubble back.” He told me as I came back, I pointed to the container and asked if I could get some water.

“Go through the shop to the tanks at the back.”

Inside the shop a young girl was stacking bottles of condiments, row upon row of them. A great stack of jam tins and heaps of boxes of soft drinks looked ready for her to get to work on. She stopped and looked at me but said nothing.  A large lady was leaning on the counter at the rear, reading a paper; she didn’t look up, but said.

“Bread won’t be in for at least an hour or so.”

I said I was going to get some water. This stirred her; she looked up at me then, shrugged her shoulders and pointed to an opening with plastic streamers tangled about it. Outside there was a wealth of tanks that all seemed to be connected with odd plumbing, it took a few minutes to find a tap and when I did, a large dog was guarding it. Dingo, Great Dane and Cattle dog figured in his ancestry. He lay in the shade, not moving, but his eyes were on fire and the hackles on the back of his neck looked menacing. He begrudged me every drop of water I put in the container. Inside the shop the lady didn’t move from her reading. The young girl stood again and watched me.

“What a bugger of a filler this is, it keeps bubbling back!” greeted me as I came out.

I nodded, and asked about the road ahead.

“Going far?” I nodded again

“The roads not to bad, not bad at all really, but watch out for the wet patches.” This seemed like good advice to me. He finished with the petrol and screwed on the cap.

“Where ‘yer come from?’ He asked. I told him the Blue Mountains near Sydney.

“Nice and quiet up here, restful ‘yer know.” I agreed.

“Have a few nice times up at the pub here ‘yer know, there's a bit ‘er drinken’ done.” I said, I thought there would be.

“’Yer know, a mate ‘er mine from a town close in said I ‘orter buy up all the vacant town blocks and offer them for sale to people down south, a lot of ‘em want a nice quiet place to settle down in. What der ‘yer reckon?” I reckoned that it might not suit everybody.

“Shearers come int’er town a few weeks back an bought a lot ‘er beer and camped down on the creek. They really got on the piss and they were throwing their empties up in the air and trying to shoot ‘em as they come down. The Sergeant, he straightened ‘em out, he went down and made ‘em pick up all the broken glass, every bit, by jeeze he did. He teaches the kids to swim down there, every ‘arvo at four o-clock. As I say it's nice and peaceful up here. Eighty - seven dollars ‘ittle cost yer. Yair it’s nice and peaceful here.”

I offered two fifty dollar notes.

“I don’t think I can change that, haven’t ‘yer got a card?”

By the time I got out of the shop the rest of the party were by my ute. They told me the guy at the service station was blind and they had, had to do the paper work for him and that the old fellow sitting on the pub verandah had recommended a camping spot near a hot bore a few hundred kilometres up the road.

 

ROUSEABOUT

 

Tall and freckled and sandy,

Face of a country lout;

This was the picture of Andy,

Middleton's rouseabout.

 

Type of a coming nation

In the land of cattle and sheep;

Worked on Middleton's station,

Pound a week and his keep;

 

On Middleton's wide dominions

Plied the stockwhip and shears;

Hadn't any opinions,

Hadn't any `idears'.

 

Swiftly the years went over,

Liquor and drought prevailed;

Middleton went as a drover

After his station failed.

 

Type of a careless nation,

Men who are soon played out,

Middleton: -- and his station

Was bought by the Rouseabout.

 

Flourishing beard and sandy,

Tall and solid and stout;

This is the picture of Andy,

Middleton's rouseabout.

 

Now on his own dominions

Works with his overseers;

Hasn't any opinions,

Hasn't any `idears'.

 

It's a century or more since Henry Lawson wrote the verse, but why I ask you did he leave us in this quandary? What happened to Middleton? Was he really `Soon played out'? Did he perhaps prevail to live as wiser and sorrier man? Did he see the error of his ways? Did he forsake the drink and save his meagre wage until he could buy a small droving plant? Take jobs in his own name. Build strong connections. Perhaps drive for Kidman and earn his commendation, respect and advice. Snap up bargains along the way, devote some of his income to a home for aged insolvent graziers. Buy shares in that infant company B H P. Plough his gains into the booming city real estate market. Venture capital into gold mines in New Guinea. Become a NAME in the city, perhaps be offered a Knighthood. Marry a wealthy widow with good connections and be blessed with an only Son who turned out bad and squandered the whole lot. Who knows?

And What I Ask You of Andy?  Was he up to it? Did he only get by for the good years and then lose his all? Perhaps the closer settlement act encroached on his dominions and he was plagued by selectors who took the good land. Did the good natured country lass with red hair that he loved, turn out to be a real nag who spent freely of his substance and finally, (to his great relief) run off with an itinerant hawker in a gaily painted wagonette, but to his chagrin, come back eighteen months later with a child who she claimed was his. Cause no end of trouble with his relationship with the housekeeper whose brother was a sharp lawyer in the big city firm retained by his pastoral agency?

Mr. Lawson, why have you abandoned us, so heartlessly in this matter?

 

UNCLAIMED

Cast. In order of appearance.

Mother. Largish woman well into middle age. Blue rinse set type.

Gerry. Scruffy, torn jeans, sunburnt nose, cocky. Surfy type.

Dad. Tall, thin, grey hair about ears, otherwise bald, pale eyes, worried expression. Keep up appearances type.

Justin. Nervous, pompous, pale faced, slightly bent shoulders. Takes after Dad type.

Spider. Energetic young man, open face, direct look, neat casual clothes. Boy next door type.

The scene is the living room of substantial home in one of the better class suburbs of a large and prosperous country town.

MOTHER.

"Gerald? Is that you Gerald?"

 

GERRY.

"G'day Mum, Grabbed a lift down with a Truckie. I gave him a deal and we smoked all the way down. Talk about fly."

 

MOTHER.

"Gerald you know how your father and I don't like you to hitch. Who knows what might become of you? We read these terrible things in the paper all the time, and just look at your hair and the sunburn."

 

GERRY.

"Oh Mum, I'm only just in the bloody door, for pete's sake."

 

MOTHER.

"Such language, and not a word from you for six weeks, you could have been dead for all we knew. Your father and I wonder where we went wrong with you, we really do, thank goodness we have Justin to fall back on."

 

GERRY.

"Give it a break Mum, for Gor sake. Dad got any beer in the fridge?

 

MOTHER.

"I'll heat you up some soup, You probably haven't had a decent meal since you left."

 

GERRY.

"Good on you Mum, I need a bit of shut eye as well."

 

*          *          *        *

Early evening.

 

DAD.

"Well Mother, just look at what the cat dragged in!"

 

GERRY.

"G'day Dad, how's things at the bowling club? Got the committees working yet? and how's the accountancy going  Justin?"

 

DAD.

"Things are going well thank you. Justin is doing the accounts for us on an honorary basis. He's a big help to me you know."

 

GERRY.

"Yair, I'll bet, and what about Spider, did you put him on as apprentice greenkeeper. He was dead bloody keen you know. Fancy a surfer as good as him getting a real job!"

 

There’s a pause, then.

 

"Hey Justin, you'll never guess, I found Maria, you remember, you were keen on her and she chucked up her job at the accountants and disappeared. Well she's living on a coupla' acres in a bit of a barn up the coast with a few chooks and a garden and a big Maori surfer, boy can he crack a wave and a bottle of rum too. She's got two kids, little girl a ringer of the Maori bloke and an older blonde boy, cranky little bastard, twitches his mouth in a funny way when he goes off, reminds me of somebody, can't place it. She never sent you any message."

 

JUSTIN.

Why would I want a message from her? Dumped me didn't she?   Mum will you keep him from wearing my clothes."

 

DAD.

"Gerald, language please. Is dinner ready yet Mother? Justin and I have a Chamber of Commerce meeting to attend. That reminds me Jack Shaw from the newsagents said there's still no claimant for the big lottery prize. By jove I think Justin and I would know what to do with a win like that."

 

GERRY.

"Yair, a bit of tucker would go down well Mum. I think I'll step out then and find Spider, reckon we'll go to the pub and have a few grogs."

 

*          *        *        *

 

Scene: Smoky bar of a country hotel. Groups along the bar. Men playing pool. T. V. showing dog race in progress. Rattle of balls, clink of glasses and strident voice of announcer.

 

GERRY.

"Jeeze Spider, what's up? We've only had a few pints and you reckon your broke, and yer gotter be up early and yer given up the surf for an apprenticeship. That's not the Spider I went to school with."

 

SPIDER.

"I got to get a trade Gerry, life goes on and I can’t surf forever. I must go now. See you later. Oh by the way I nearly forgot, Angelo Grasso asked me to give you this envelope. He said it was thanks for helping him out at the markets when his son was crook.

 

GERRY.

"Well what you know? Fifty bucks and a lottery ticket!"

 

*       *        *        *

 

SCENE:            Living room as above. Next morning.

 

GERRY.

"Mum! Mum! Mr Shaw says I have won a million bucks with the ticket Angelo gave me, but I'll have to go to the city to claim it. What do you know. A million bucks."

 

*         *        *          *

 

SCENE:          Dining room of the same house. Evening.

 

MOTHER.

"Come on, eat your dinner Dad, and you too Justin, enough talk about your investments and the cash flow and the opportunities. You haven't even arranged it with Gerald yet."

 

DAD.

"Mother I know you would like to decorate the house, and that trip we have been hankering after and Justin will enjoy a new car and it will be good for Gerald to have to assume some responsibilities, be the making of him after all this waste of time and worry he has put us through. All the men at the bowling club wish they had our good luck."

 

JUSTIN.

"Yes Mum, I have worked out a plan for Gerald and the whole family, minimising tax by using a family trust. He won't be able to refuse it. I can see the whole family riding the road to riches."

 

MOTHER.

"I do hope that Gerald will appreciate all the thought you two have given to help him with this problem."

 

*        *         *          *

 

SCENE: Same dining room, next evening. Special tablecloth, wine glasses, empty bottle, signs of a celebratory meal.

 

GERRY.

"Wow Mum what a party you've given the four of us, You Dad, Justin and me, and thanks for the beer Dad. It will be nice to take off after a celebration, instead of the usual row with Dad telling me not to come back and all that."

 

DAD.

"What do you mean? Take off."

 

GERRY.

"Well Spider's too busy to drink with me and it's getting cold. I think I'll go back north again."

 

MOTHER.

"But, but, but, Gerald, what about the money, the plans, the block of units Dad had lined up for you to buy and the trip and my fur coat and Justin's car, and the security and the future and . . . . ."

 

JUSTIN.

"Come on brother, act real for once."

 

DAD.

"Gerald we have it all planned out for you. Why with a million - - -."

 

GERRY.

"But I haven't got the money."

 

MOTHER.

"GERALD."

 

DAD.

"What are you saying."

 

JUSTIN.

"Always have to have a bloody joke haven't you, what a nit of a brother you are."

 

GERRY.


"Well I give the cheque to the bloke in the park. He come up to me while I was sitting there and asked if I was right for a feed and a bed for the night and he took me to a hostel.  Do you know they fed two hundred and twenty four old blokes there and offered them all a bed? I helped him clean up after and he told me how they were always short of money to help these codgers. Some of them seemed not to have had a feed for days. I gave him the money, although he didn't want to take it at first. Finally he did though and gave me this receipt, a million dollars looks good in figures.

 

MOTHER.

"Gerald, the house redecoration, - - -"

 

DAD.

"Gerald, after all we have done for you."

 

JUSTIN.

"You rotten, scheming, lousy, feckless twit of a brother."

 

GERRY.

"Crikey Justin, when you go of like that I realise who Maria’s kid reminds me off.

 

THE GRAND FINAL

 

I have always liked horses. From the first old Dobbin we got when I was a boy, who faithfully put up with all the misguided use and handling that a youngster could give out. On to a few `Better Types' that I had as I grew up and moved onto various farms in NSW Certainly they gave me the little knowledge I needed to think that I was an expert. A trip to the races in my mid teens was a disaster. I was able to bet in shillings through the person who took me and backed three winners and came home with more pocket money than I had ever had. I have been hooked forever, the thrill gets my adrenalin rushing, the sound of the hoof beats, whether gallopers or trotters, the smell of the marshalling yard, the thrill when your pick is fast enough to be home first, the disbelief in your self when you have picked a failure, but I always love the horses, the fast ones I like better.

What's this got to do with grand finals you ask me? Nothing! Horses leave the finals for dead. Better than any public speaking display by an orator at the peace rallies, though the message may not be as important, are the bookies calling the odds.

"Who 'nows 'em? Who 'nows em?  Bor'dodds, I'll lay five ter four bar one!" It's a religious chant that they utter whilst fiddling with the knobs on their betting boards. In fifty years I haven't found the meaning of the chant and watch for them nervously changing the prices whilst looking over their shoulders at the other boards. A prosperous looking punter sidles up, speaks a few words, the bookie scribbles on a wad of tickets in his hand.

"Two thousand to four hundred, Smart Alice! Four oh eight". His clerk scratches on the betting sheet. "Three dollars to two, Potter's Charm, four oh nine, bord'odds Ih lay." The public mill around, a price is changed on another board, there is a stampede, hands waving money, the bookie grabs the largest handful and writes in haste, shouting the bets to the clerk scribbling the figures in his sheet, other bookies change their prices, the crowd mills around and changes places, the PA system gives a reverberated message and a bugle is heard. Activity in the ring speeds up. I decide to put my two dollars for a win and a place on Rebellious Robert at the odds of sixteen to one, a man pushes in front of me and says quietly,

"Twelve thousand each way Rebellious Robert." The bookie shouts at his clerk, there isn't a moment's hesitation. "One dollar each way Rebellious Robert." He hands me a ticket. I walk away towards the grandstand. It was a good class of race. There was the usual jockeying for position to get the best view. I noticed the quietly spoken man just a few away from me. The horses race generously. At the business end of proceedings my fellow backer's eyes were covered by his binoculars, he would have seen, like me, Rebellious Robert slipping behind the pacemaker and the other horses swamping him so that he could only finish fifth. He lowered his bino's and turned away, he didn't look any different as he took out his race book. My heart was pumping from my two dollar bet. It wasn't the winning buzz I could remember from school.

I told you that I had won a heap of pocket money as a boy didn't I? It was my last year at high school and I was feeling pretty smug about it, I have no doubt that I let it be known. There was another fellow there, a boarder, he came from a wealthy farming town, his father ran a hotel, this lad used to talk horses and bookmaking. I would guess that his father ran a Starting Price book but I don't know. I didn't like him, he tended to be in with a bit of a smarty group that talked property and rural squattocracy. He decided to run a book on the year's Melbourne Cup, obviously to gain credence with his group. (Cup Sweeps were fairly commonplace amongst the students and were not vigorously opposed by the teachers who often liked a bit of a flutter themselves.)  He had a few lads on his team and they canvassed for bets and pennies and threepences were growing in his bag. I was visited whilst at lunch.

"How about a punt on the cup, you've been talking about your day at the races."

"Yes, I said, do you have a limit?"

"I'll cover anything you could bet" was the smug response.

"How about ten shillings on Foxami? He's in the paper at sixteen to one." He visibly blanched, said he would take two shillings. Two of my mates also bet on the horse over the next few days for me. I was covered for five shillings on the day of the race.

Grapevines work well in all structured organisations, our maths teacher who also coached the football team, started using bookmakers as examples in many of his set problems, he spoke of `odds' and `covering' and explained the balance of the book to show a profit.

"If you take too much on one runner you can find yourself having to lay other runners at greater prices to cover yourself. It's hard for the Starting Price bookmaker to get such cover. Of course if your punters back the wrong horse you can make large profits."  He left the matter up in the air. But it seemed that at race start time on the first Tuesday in November he had an urgent call to the staff room.

We waited with baited breath, the class was aware of the tension. The door opened and he came in, not quite pokerfaced and walked to the blackboard, he picked up a piece of chalk.

"Oh, by the way Foxami won it!"

My bookie friend sent a letter home for more funds, he emphasised the need by sending the letter without a stamp, but his Father being a publican and probably a bookie as well did not respond.

I was paid off in dribs and drabs until we sat for our Leaving Certificates and then went our several ways. He was the only bookie that ever failed to pay me, and we laughed about it at the only school reunion I ever went to.

 

PROBLEM

I knew it would be bad before I looked over the side but I was not prepared for it to be just such a mess. I put my hands on my hips and looked in disbelief. I took my hat off and scratched my head. Just how, I thought, can it be solved?

I walked to the other side of the road, kicked a rock and went back and looked again, it hadn't got any better. I was absorbed until a whip crack roused me. I'd completely forgotten Butler would be coming through with his mixed mob bound for the sales. We all took an interest in Butler going through. We usually went with him. Or at least made sure there were no stock about. He had a reputation and there was nobody who could say with certainty that he had or hadn't lifted any of their animals, but we still watched.

Butler reined his horse up at the edge of the road. The horse looked over the bank and snorted and edged back nervously, Butler has good horses and kept them in good nick, but they are always toey and wary. Butler surveyed the scene.

"Christ, what a bloody mess."

From his horse he looked for a minute in silence, cleared his throat, spat, looked again and turned his horse around and looked from the other side, shook his head.

"I don't know what to suggest, but I got to keep these cattle moving."

Sandy Mac and his milk truck were nearly due and I knew that Big George would be here soon and Kell as well, I heard the motor of the tractor in the cutting, Kell would be in his Ute. I wondered if the three of us may be able to get down, then realised that we would need support from the bottom. The milk truck rattled up and Sandy Mac in his worn white boiler suit stuck his head out the window. His grey moustache hardly hid the scar of his harelip and his cleft palate inflection, which tended to give a twist to his statements, was full of disbelief.

"Wot th’ ‘ell caused thith? I haventh theen thuch a thingth thinth I wolled the milk thanker up on the 'ighway."

Kell's old ute steamed up the hill, he got out. Swore at the dogs that started barking as soon as they jumped from the truck, pushed his hat back and reached for a cigarette. He considered the situation as he lit up. He was so taken aback by the situation that he forgot to draw on the first match and had to light up again. He blew smoke out of his nose and coughed.

"It's bad." He offered no further comment.

Big George drove up to the gathering, aiming at the dogs barking at his tractor; they skipped out of his way, playing the game as always. George was dour and dark, not given to talk he just looked and turned to me, raised an eyebrow and looked back again.

Young Kit from the station up the creek cantered down on her skittish pony to collect their mail and papers from the milk truck as she did every day. She pulled up short and followed our gaze over the side, looked back at us. Her eyes widened, a grin split her cheeky freckled face.

"My brothers just won't believe this. I can't wait to tell them." She grabbed her mailbag as the pony reared and she was off in a spray of dust and pebbles.

"They just won't believe me." She shouted again over her shoulder.

"Yer made somebody happy anyrates." said Kell, He looked at George and suggested.

"What yer reckon? We get a bit 'er wire and run it over and twitch it onter ther ---"

"Wire wouldnth holth even harf" Sandy Mac sounded scathing, I had to admit I thought he was right.

"Coupla' big timber jacks, the only way, stick em in under and wind em up careful." It was Big George.

He was going to go on but another ute drove up with a crest painted on both its doors. Tiger Morris, council foreman. The fellers on the road gangs said that when you were too bloody minded to be a policeman you became a council foreman. Tiger got out, took one look and went straight to the point.

"We build bloody roads for you blokes and look what you do to them." He got back into his vehicle and yelled to Sandy Mac.

"Watch out on the way in I got two trucks both with trailers on, coming out. Watch em on the narrow corners." He drove away.

"Higgernth Bartherd, thinkth I donth know how ter drith a bloothy truckth, buth lookth I goth to geth thith milkth outer the thun, theze yer lather."

He drove off giving the dogs another reason to bark, Big George told them to "Shut Up" and threw a stone at them. They danced out of he way and grinned at him.

"I think the only way is to get a strong line onto the top and winch-."

"The whole thing has got to be pushed slowly ---."

"But It'll twist if it's ---."

"It'll have to be supported---."

Big George and Kell were so hard at it expounding their theories, we didn't see Old Bert walk up. He lived in a hut on a selection about a mile up the river and the milk truck brought his provisions. He had a sack to carry his goods home with him, dropped it to the ground and sat, saying.

"Well the last time I saw anything like this it took a team of bullocks."

"Where the hell are you going to get a team of bullocks?" Kell interrupted. Old Bert wasn't going to be silenced.

"They got a team of bullocks, put wires down and joined them onter the snig chains and then they put jacks under, bullocks pull real steady you know, just what yer need in a situation like this, MaCarthys had bullocks up to about twenty five years ago." He got up and packed his supplies into his bag.

"Must have left too early for today's papers again." He sounded resentful.

"Hang on, I got ter get back too, I'll give you a lift," said Kell.

"Got to push too, ploughing yer know." Said Big George.

They went on their way, deserted I took my hat off again and scratched my head. Perhaps the guys putting in the telephone line up in back creek might be able to help, but I thought I would go home and have a cuppa' first.

 

SHOES

She was a tough old biddy, gave us a hard time when we were clearing our land but over the years we got to know each other and finally became good friends.

She had strong opinions on most subjects, I didn't always agree with her. Once when we saw a handsome young Asian couple with two exquisite children walking by, she said sharply.

"I know God made them, but he did make them over there!"

It's the shoes, however, that I want to tell you about.

Her father was a pilot on Sydney harbour. He'd earned his ticket in the days of `Wooden ships and Iron men.' He told her the first thing he saw as he climbed up the ladder to go aboard the ship, were the shoes of the officer on watch and he would know, he had told her, from the shine on them, the condition the ship would be in. Funny thing, I noticed I cleaned my shoes more often after that little story.

My father spent the last few years of his life, in a nursing home sorely troubled by Alzheimer's. My mother visited him daily to minister to his needs becoming almost part of the staff through her involvement with the patients.

On the same grounds were retirement units. Every day from one of these, a dapper little man would come, after breakfast, to spend time with his wife who was also afflicted with Alzheimer's. Each morning as he approached she would start screaming for the nurse to get him to go away. He would try to comfort her but her agitation would get the better of him and he would go out to the verandah and wait till morning teatime and take her a drink. She would be calm for a while but soon ask him who he was and start to tell him to go away.

I will never forget the look of grief on his face as he came away one morning, it was on one of my all too infrequent visits. My dad was away having treatment. So as I waited, I sat on a chair next to the old gentleman and yarned. His shoes were immaculate, gleaming brown, you could see your face in them. I couldn't resist telling him the story of the ship's pilot.

He smiled, and glanced at his shoes. He spoke of the need for meticulous detail in his life's work. He had moved from teller to bank director in his career. He spoke of the milestones in his life, promotions, moves to the country, greater responsibilities, executive positions, family commitments, overseas postings. His wife was brought out in a chair and set beside him, but she wailed and asked the nurse to take her away from `that man'. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, as he left me, saying.

"All those times and it comes to this."

My father returned and I spent some time with him, our contact was brief and he soon left me for the measured pacing that seemed to fill much of his day. I said my farewells to him and my mother and went out the entrance door to the railed in patio. Another sufferer was at the gate, working at the lock, his fingers raw from the constant picking.

"Come on Ronnie, I'll take you in to sister." I said. He followed me with a bewildered look. I left him inside.

The gate had a complicated numerical locking system, I got it wrong twice before it opened. The man delivering bread watched me with suspicion as I worked on the gate but must have decided that it was safe to let me out.


 

"TOMMIE"

She was of average height, thinish, flat chested, mousy hair slightly unkempt, large pale rimmed glasses that were no longer quite fashionable, pale eyes that blinked a lot, an almost always-present frown, thin lips, a bitter looking mouth. She rarely used make up and often covered her head with a scarf. Her clothes were quality, good looking but she missed out on elegance, perhaps it was the knee length boots. It was hard to pick her age but she was well into the middle years.  She moved into the house but one from us, but she gave us the feeling that it was a come down for her. I was not working at the time but she quickly found reason to use anytime she observed that I was "wasting" in such activities as reading in a sunny corner, or walking my dog to the village.  Poor Miles's death had not only been untimely and undignified (hints of bowl cancer and complications) but almost unforgivable in that he had left his affairs in a hopeless mess. The business was hardly profitable and hard to sell, there was a mass of debts, his insurance had been borrowed against. "Why even the Benz was long overdue for its big service, and you can imagine how much that cost." Her two girls were no help to her in the matter, one was overseas with a high power job with a bank and `Poor Judy' had married that plumber chap and had babies in nappies all over the place.

"No help at all in setting up a home especially under these reduced circumstances."

Could I recommend a good mechanic? Would I help her with the dispute over the load of firewood? She was certain that the load was underweight. She would arrive at the door wanting to borrow a few tea bags until she went shopping right on `drinkies' time, didn't mind if she did, although Miles always insisted on French Champagne of course. She would throw a couple of precious ironbark logs on our fire. "Makes the place so friendly", and stand in front of it blocking everybody's heat.

"By Jove that soup smells good." We tried to keep off touchy subjects but at election time I really let the side down when she saw me on the "Greens" stand.

"Ivor you MUST realise the Liberals are our ONLY chance." Still, by and large I did seem to be an acceptable neighbour.

Her brother Peter was going to call in, he had some business to attend to and was, “coming to help me with the solicitor, to see if we can get some matters finalised." He would be down for a few days and could I help with a bit of male company, perhaps take him to the club?

"But don't let him drink too much, its a bit of a country failing you know?

Peter was older. Weather worn, squinty eyed from looking into the far distance. A strong family resemblance in looks but it ended there. His smile was quick, easy with a joke, acceptance of his present circumstances -  "Bloody crook, thank God we don't owe anything."

80,000 Hectares, 8,000 sheep, costs up all the time, with help from the missus and his two sons they did the lot. Crutching, drenching, shearing, classing, packing. Shearers cost more than the wool was bringing. It’s a case of hanging in until the good times come again. `Tommie' as he called her was giving him a hard time, there just wasn't anything to help with. The trip to the solicitor had brought no joy at all. My suggestion of a quick beer was accepted with alacrity.

 "Come in my car," said Peter, a seven year old Holden, a bad scrape down one side making the door hard to close, dusty outside. The usual collection of land gear inside, ear tags, and a bottle of drench on the floor, a clearance sale catalogue on the back seat, one wiper blade missing, dusty on the inside to. He had a good capacity. Four beers were downed quickly over general conversation. He suggested a game of snooker and set up the table proficiently, bought another round, he seemed to loosen up with the click of the balls.

I questioned the name `Tommie'

Dad called her that, Tomboy I guess, she was a real goer out on the plains, ride anything, drive anything, have a go at anything. By gees there were wild times at home that year she came home from school. She was a good looker then, Mum was planning a wedding after every second phone call, all the boys were running around with their pricks hanging out of their eyes, she broke a few hearts when she went to Sydney University I can tell you. She did well too, good results although she never e home. She shacked up with some guy from uni, `MY handsome Joseph' she used to call him in her letters. At the end of the second year she phoned Dad up and said she was going overseas, would Dad put her allowance in to a bank account in Athens, they were going to spend some time in the Islands? Mum got in a tizz and took off to Sydney but they had gone before she got there. We got a few cards and letters but nothing much. Plans about going to Turkey, then nothing for a long time, the money went out of the bank though. Then Dad got a letter, she was in real trouble with Joseph, didn't say what and for two years bloody nothing, we couldn't get any information about her. Mum was desperate, going to see the local member for help, but bugger me, one morning she stepped off the mail truck with nothing but a shoulder bag." He lined up a shot.

"She wouldn't talk about it, didn't want to participate in the local life, wouldn't go back to study, just sat around. Dad decided it was time to retire, offered the place to me and Tommie but she didn't want a bar of it, said I could have the lot, Dad and I worked things out. The oldies moved to the sea, Tommie went with them, got a shop job, where she met Miles. Dad was bored shitless by retirement, was dead within eighteen months, Mum went soon after. Tommie got her share of the money then." Without a word He potted the last seven balls in a manner that made me glad we were not playing for money.

"Let’s go home." His driving was reckless and fast but we got there safely. We shook hands over the top of the car as he was leaving early the next morning. He slammed the bent car door hard to shut it, pulled his coat closer round him against the cold.

"Come out and look at the old place some time, if you'd like."

"Yes, I'd like to." I said.

"I think I got the better of the deal." I heard him say as he walked away.

THE PARKING LOT

It is best that I start with a short geography lesson. The parking lot in question is entered from the road and has rows of parking bays to the right and left. At the end there is a ‘T’ intersection with bays going both ways. These bays are desirable as they have trees that afford some shade. There is often congestion at this section towards the end of the week when more shoppers are about.

I came to the T intersection and there were no parking spaces in sight. Down to my right a vehicle was standing behind the parked cars with its left blinker on. To my left a car backed out and pulled in front of me, I swung left and straight into the vacant space.

I told the dog to mind the car, rolled the windows down a little to give ventilation, got out and locked the doors.  I was walking from the car when the vehicle that was behind the cars parked to my right backed up quickly and the lady driver shouted at me.

“That was my parking space!” I was a bit nonplussed.

“But lady------.”

I got no further.

“You wouldn’t know what that word means.” Her eyes glinted malice at me.

“Don’t be angry, you were down the other side.”

“I wouldn’t waste any anger on an inconsiderate oaf like you.” Her eyes were glowering. “And I had my blinker on!”

I couldn’t deny that, but thought better of saying anything about the logic of it, or the fact that I had probably seen fifty cars with their blinkers on, on my way to the shops, and that none of them were laying claim to the parking spot.

Braving the scornful glare, I said. “I am glad you are not angry.” I thought I felt the daggers in my back as I walked away.

It was whilst I had my head in the refrigerator getting the milk that I was rammed by a shopping trolley. Full force, on the side of the ankle and shin. Not a word spoken but there was a look of triumph in not-angry lady's eyes.

THE STARGAZER

There are those cynics who don’t believe in  them

They claim that the position of the planets at the time of ones birth has less influence on us than the lighting of a match on the top of Mt Everest has on the warmth of Katoomba in a bleak August snowstorm.

My friends, I can assure you that you can place complete faith in the weekly publications our newspapers provide us with! After all would a newspaper lie to you? Should you still have doubts let me relate a little tale that will put your minds at rest.

More years ago than I care to admit, life was not treating me with the consideration I thought I deserved. Why I thought, being a well balanced Libran who knew and fostered the virtues of justice and fairness, cause and effect, the advantages of consideration and caution, steady progress, sobriety, hard work, planning, moderation, kindliness, reliability and sensitivity … Ah but modesty, the one flaw in the true Libran’s character forbids me to continue. Why? I wondered. Why hadn’t the world acclaimed me? Where was my Rolls Royce with the uniformed chauffeur? The evenings at the club in conference over a bottle of vintage port were eluding me. The late night phone call regarding a technical hitch needing my personal knowhow never came. To be honest there wasn’t even a phone for it to come on. My off the rack suit was threadbare and shiny. I was waiting for the weekend to put a fresh layer of Kromhyde on the soles my shoes.

Positive action was called for and I decided I would win the lottery!

Now Librans don’t make decisions lightly. I needed to weigh the costs involved. Would I spend ten shillings and go for the big prize of TWELVE THOUSAND POUNDS or be more modest and get less value, five and sixpence for SIX THOUSAND. Whilst I was thinking, fate intervened in the form of the baker’s weekly bill. Six thousand, it would have to do! With my ability it would soon grow.

The ticket bought, I could now start planning. I had difficulty getting past the task of resigning from my job. Would I just not turn up and let them find out how much they relied on me? Would I take myself into head office and confront the Managing Director? I could hear him,

“Loss to the Company----Reconsider----- Executive position----A seat on the board perhaps?”

Would I continue as if nothing had happened until my immediate superior gave me one of his sarcastic snarls and then tell him a few salient facts? I could hear the office girls saying.

“Could see it coming.”

“Served him right.”

“Told him straight.” There seemed a lot of satisfaction here.

‘Stargazer’ in the weekend papers gave a good run down of the prospects of the week ahead. Significantly for the day of the lottery draw was this advice. ‘STAY WITH ROUTINE. EXPECT A SMALL FINANCIAL GAIN.’

I had to be fair. It could only be a small prize as I had only bought a small prize ticket. My mind was in a quandary, should I warn my wife in advance or just let her get the telegram with the joyous news. I opted for the latter feeling certain she would phone the news to me at work, even if it did mean a considerable walk to the nearest public phone.

My excitement grew as the day dawned. STAY WITH ROUTINE, I did just that. No message, nothing. By works end there was a heavy disbelief in my heart. The train home was slow and cramped; I missed my usual bus. Across the street from the bus stop the hotel was noisy with revellers waiting for the six o-clock closing call.

I thought bitterly of my plan to catch the taxi home, getting the driver to stop in front of the bottle section whilst I slipped in to get a celebratory bottle of champagne. Suddenly, revelation. My wife was keeping the news as a surprise for me when I got home.

Confidence restored I faced the bus queue assured of EXPECTING A SMALL FINANCIAL GAIN. As I put my foot on the bus step there on the second step was threepence!



 

  THE OTHER TWO

I heard your poem David, I agree with what you say. 

          One out of three men a child abuser!

But what about the other two David?

I saw one of them stop in his tracks at the window of the child minding centre. He had seen his child, the love in his eyes just glowed. He was transfixed for more than a minute.

If ever I was judge of man, I know he's not one.

A mate of mine, his days now marked, will live forever in the mind of countless youngsters in his district. They would cluster around him at a campsite where he was talking bush sense and kept them spellbound explaining the wild waters of a remote stream where he explained `the run', `the currents', `the eddies'  the use of draw stroke on the paddle.

I've seen his children grow, I know he's not one of your `ones'.

I have seen my father, home and weary after his long days work, striving for the `something better' for his children and family. He always had the time and the love for us when it was needed.

 I tell you now he wasn't one of yours.

Another was old and thin and wiry, his eyes contrasted with the black of his body as he squatted on the ground in Zimbabwe and showed his woodcarvings. "I am the craftsman, I am training my sons in this work too." He spoke with pride

David, I won't let you have him either.

At my daughters house the door opened and the two littlies ran. "My Daddy" they shouted.

He's a two.

My son learned his canoeing skills from the one now marked. He went on to wear the Green and Gold of his country in that sport. The phone was ringing as I got home from the folk festival and my four-year-old grandson shouted. "I did go canoeing on the holidays and I got stuck and my Dad saved me very quick."

One of the sixty six and two thirds percent I think.

David, I don't ask that you let up on the ones, but remember the twos.

After all I think you're one too.

TRAINS

When I was a boy of eight or nine, more than sixty years ago the great Tex Morton, country and western singer of renown used to sing a song that started. "I'm going to travel by train." The tune still lingers with me and over the ensuing years I have done my share of travel in many different trains.

Queensland trains, with their narrow gauge were bumpy and lurchy. Trips in them always seemed long and one would reach the destination in a crumpled and dirty condition. I always took them for granted and never thought about the incredible engineering needed and the Herculean task of building the railways without todays mechanical technology.

In the early fifties I travelled from Tully in north Queensland to Brisbane by steam train. The clanking of piston rods, the chuff, chuff, chuff of the smokestack, smell of steam and smoke, the shrill whistle. Ah the nostalgia. I left late in the afternoon, two nights and one days travel, Brisbane early in the morning. I had the luxury of a sleeper, second class, three bunks in the cabin, one above the other; you folded two up during the day.

The vastness of the land was impressive, the trip somewhere around two thousand kilometres. It took hours for the low level paperbark scrub to change to the verdant green of sugarcane, to the citrus orchards climbing the low hills, to the neat rows of pineapples, their orange fruit a contrast to the grey of their spiny leaves.

It was nearly dark, on this evening, when I left Tully, the guard said there were no other passengers for the up high bunks but he would leave them down just in case there were any last minute bookings. I ate my sandwiches and read for a while, the motion of the train was soporific. I decided to turn out the light and sleep. It was too dark to see anything in the cabin if the lights were out it might discourage anybody from disturbing me.       

I was sleepily half awake, a torch flashed, I caught the lights of a station. The train had stopped.     

"One of the top ones mate." A hoarse whisper, a suitcase, (a`port' if you were a Queenslander,) scraped on the floor. I heard the whistle from the engine and the lurching started again. I was aware of a shadowy figure rocking on the ladder trying to access the top bunk; he gave a hacking cough. I rolled over and went to sleep again.    

Next time I woke with a start, I was wide awake, apprehensive. Someone was patting my feet, it was too dark to see anything, but I felt the hand as it patted and progressed up my legs, I swung down my legs and felt a person. I pushed him hard up against the cubicle wall. He gave a muffled cry.   

"Ahhh, dont'h hit'h me mathe, I coffed me bloothy teef out, I carn't finth em, thurn on the bloothy ligth." The light flooded the cabin. He was little and old with a shrunken face, in sore need of his teeth, we found them under my bunk.

He was a good travelling companion but I didn't sleep well.

 

TURN  AROUND

"WHY ARE YOU AFRAID? OF WHAT? IS IT SOLITUDE, OR DEATH? OH STRANGE FEAR! THE ONLY TWO THINGS THAT MAKE LIFE BEARABLE." Joseph Conrad. Letters to Marguerite Poradowska.

*     *      *       *

"Ivor"

The Fear grips me as of old; dry mouth, short of breath. It takes me a moment to wake properly and come to terms with my self, the world.

Early January morning, going to be a clear summer day.

"Ivor, we must leave early if we are to be in Canberra to help get ready."

Quick shower and dressing, party clothes (the socks I had been given for Christmas). Into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat.

"How was your night?" I ask Diana our eldest daughter who has stayed over with us.

"Not a wink of sleep, watched the moon and stars through the window all night. Lovely. Need a shower and I will sleep in the car going down."

It had been a peaceful night for all, WHY should fear sit on my shoulder like this, I wonder, no sign for months and then back it comes, bitter as ever, no call for it. Fear.

Fortieth birthday for our little girl.

Life will be hopping with her today.

Turn on the radio to check the time, who is it singing? Maybe Marrianne Faithfull or was it Joni Mitchell?

"Turn turn turn, to every time there is a purpose under heaven."

*       *       *       *

"Ivor."

That call was forty year ago and I still remember that fear. The previous night's storm had cleared, it was dark outside.

"Yes,Yes." I managed to reply, tight throat, heart pounding.

"I feel a bit sick, a bit funny."

"Is it the baby?" I was wide awake now, clearing my mind of the darkness of unknown fear into the present reality.

"Of course not, it'd be premature."  I tried to be of comfort but was not successful.

"What about a cupper?"

"Yes I'd like that."

Out to the kitchen, strike a match, turn up the wick in the lamp, yellow light flickering. Pour in the metho, strike a match, turn the valve on the side of the Primus. Turn the tap for a kettle of water, idly turn the Primus pump waiting for the preheat flame to die. Pump hard, prick the jet, clear blue flame, orange tips, hot flame. Get cups, milk and teapot.

I look out the window. Clear sky the stars washed and sparkling, the hills purple in the night light, a dash of colour in the east. Turn off the pressure tap to the little stove, make the tea, back to the bedroom with hot cups.

"Feeling better?" We take gulps of the hot brew.

"Yes." It makes me feel better too.

"Must be early. Didn't that storm rage last night?"

"Be about four o-clock by the look of the sky."

"OOH" The grimace of pain. Deirdre's cup on the floor, the gradual look of relief as the pain receded.

"Are you sure you're right?"

"No I think perhaps, but it mustn't be, it's too early."

"I'll phone for the ambulance."

"No! No, wait, wait, yes perhaps you better." Another flush of pain on Deirdre's face.

No time for fear now, out to the phone, turn the handle on the old upright Erickson on the wall, not a sound, wind it again hard, long, nothing.

"That storm, they will have closed the exchange at the post office. They won't open until eight o-clock at the earliest. I will have to go over."

The post office was at the next farm about a mile away. The owner had given up the dairy and put on a share farming family. He and a retired post office worker, keep the post office in one of the several homes, whilst The sharefarmer's daughter housekeeps for them.

"If that's what they call it," as one neighbour said.

I scrambled for my clothes, shirt, shorts, socks, outside for my boots, drag my floppy left foot, momentarily cursing the tractor accident that left me with a `footdrop'.  Stars are paling and the trees stand out against the lightening east. Fumble with the boot, with the calliper, turn the foot around with my hand and get it set in the boot, the tingle of `pins and needles'. A good sign the Doctor had said.

Tighten the buckles up at last, clip in the spring and walking was almost normal. Inside again.

"Will you be all right? I'll be as quick as possible, another cup of tea? Anything I can do?"

Anxiety on her face, clutching the bedclothes for comfort, nodding

"I will be as quick as I can."

Out the gate, turn down the road, over a mile to the post office, follow the road or over the paddocks? Realisation that I had not even checked the other little one, she would be stirring soon, run as fast as this leg will let me.

What a mess, no car, nearly two hours drive to the hospital and the ambulance would have to come out. Storm water glittering in puddles on the road, the hills becoming green in the distance as the light widened, breath coming hard. Out of condition since the leg.

Turn your mind to something else Ivor, but keep running. That Bank Manager, think about that bastard.

"What right have you to ask for more money when you can't even service your existing loan? Quite irresponsible of you to have another child in your position. Especially after the accident, I certainly won't advance money for a motor vehicle. If you don't get your repayments in order I will have to consider foreclosing on your mortgage."

Turn across the paddock here and run down the hill behind the old house where the post office is. Only one fall, you're doing O. K. Look at the green, look at the grass, the country is looking at its best for years. Not long now, try not to think of the E S & A Bank, the corn is looking green down on the flat, not far now, the dogs are barking. Turn up the side lane and onto the verandah and bang on the door, not a sound. Knock Knock KNOCK

"Come on Siddy or John one of you."

A flicker at the curtain, slide of a lock, the agonisingly slow turn of the door handle. Siddy's tousled old head with it's washy blue eyes.

"What are you doin' this early?"

"Phone" -- I could hardly get my breath, "Phone ambulance." -- "Quick". I lent against the wall gasping for breath.

"Wha'yer wanter get an ambulance for?"

"My wife - baby, phone the ambulance."

"She's not havin' a baby is she? Jeeze I didn't know, are you sure?"

"Siddy, for Godsake phone the bloody ambulance!" I am still gasping for breath.

"Awright, awright, keep yer shirt on, who's yer doctor? Storm closed us down last night yer know."

He went to the old switchboard, pulled the cables with their metal fittings, flipped up the metal connectors that were forever `going down' especially in stormy weather. He turned the handle and a comforting ring filled the room.

"Who's yer doctor?" he asked again. I told him. He clicked the receiver and rang again. Longer and waited, my breath was coming back. He was about to ring again when there was a sound of a voice at the other end. He talked softly, waited a while, a click and more talking, he was talking quietly and I only heard "Mrs. Morton" and then "baby". He hung up. Holding the receiver he looked at me accusingly.

"That bloody Doctor told me to tell you to get an ambulance, the bastard hung up on me."

"Siddy, phone the ambulance, NOW, PLEASE."

"Awright, awright." He rang again, more quiet talk and then "Yair it's on its way."

"Siddy, leave the switch open I'll have to make more calls when I get back." He nodded and John came in and asked what all the fuss was about. I told him to ask Siddy and took to my heels.

Sun nearly up and the world is in all its glory. Down on the flats the river reflects the dawn lights, the far hill with a wisp I-of mist, the cattle tracks still running with the last of the night's storm. Breath coming hard as I ran up the hill. Think of something else, yes think of selling out! Yes think of that. No life for the others, might suit you if you could get your head above the financial mess. Keep running, look at the raindrops like diamonds in the grass, turn round the corner and down to the house.

Deirdre was up, the suitcase was on the little verandah, the soon to be superseded baby was doing something to her favourite Golliwog. She told me it had "Two Butts for eyes." (Buttons)

"Is it coming?" Deirdre's eyes asked the question.

"On it's way." There was comfort in the words.

"How are you?" I asked, her look told it all.

"I thought I would get Kath to look after Diana till your mother can get here, I don't think she would mind. Yes I'll phone her now."

There was a need for action. It was definitely women's business, I felt inadequate and talked to Diana about the "Wowowag" as she called it.

"They will come over now and pick her up if their truck will start." Vehicles were not the district's strong point. We set about packing up a second bag and prepare Diana for her first time away from her parents and with relatively unknown people. It would take me a bit of organising to get in touch with my mother who was coming up to look after Diana whilst Dee was in hospital, but that was planned for six weeks time! Try later.

We heard the truck long before we saw it. The muffler was gone and one mudguard was flapping. It was the first time I had seen Kath without her heavy make up. Their little boy was in the front shouting `Bunny Rabbits, Whoosh.'

Diana didn't want to go and took quite a bit of persuading. I hoped that the brakes were in better nick than the rest of the vehicle looked. Finally it was a brave little look and not a tear in the eye when she heard me say I would see her later in the day.

I gave her the Golliwog and I reminded her about the `Two Butts for eyes'. She took him with her but she never liked him afterwards.

We sat at the table both close to tears, worrying for the little girl. I said I would make another cup of tea and some toast. Whilst the kettle was boiling I asked for advice on all the things that I took for granted around the home. I wrote the maternity hospital's number in large numbers.  Asked if she had money and an extra cheque but I doubt I said any of the things that she wanted from me at the time. We didn't hear the ambulance till the toot.

He took pulses and the suitcase, asked me if I was coming. I said I had fifty cows to milk and would get in later. He said he had to go and he did, hardly time for a kiss and a goodbye. I watched the vehicle turn the corner and smelt the toast burning.

No need for fear, the neighbourhood rallied.

"Take my car."

"I'll come and help with the milking so you can get into town early."

"Sure I can get a message to your mother to come up."

Phone call after milking. Starchy response from hospital staff.

"Your wife is as comfortable as possible under the circumstances."

"Visiting hours nearly over, don't disturb the patients."

I made a late evening visit to the hospital.

"It's a girl, She's a redhead!" Sparkling eyes, tired face.

"You must go now Mr. Morton."

"You really shouldn't ask us to disturb the routine to show you the baby." Late Fathers were not high on the priority list.

Next visit and Deirdre was sitting up in bed saying. "I want to get home, I want to see Diana, they don't even make a proper cup of tea here, I need exercise."

She arranged to come home a few days later, despite the matron.

"Your wife needs a lot of bed rest, foolish of her to go home so soon."

It was a borrowed car, on a heat wave day, engine boiling, the only container for water is the new baby's bottle, fifteen trips from the river to the top of the bridge.

Eldest youngster, Diana on the verandah, critical look.

"Ten toes, ten toes."

*            *          *         *

On, on, I am going to sell, fence here, tidy there, agent's inspection, buyer's inspection's. One buyer, that's all I need, and he came. In due time the family was off to suburbia and I would follow as soon as the sale was completed.

On the last night and I walk alone, the moon reflected in a shimmering furrow of water through the river oaks and looked like a heart. Turn away, it could break.

*         *          *           *

Nose to the grindstone, suburban living, earning a living, meeting our commitments, kindergartens, schools, two bikes for Christmas, high schools, gatherings, boy friends with nobby knees and diverse interests, sibling rivalry and two brothers along the way to add to the confusion. College education, moving in and out, changing hair styles and clothes. Turn the years over.

*         *        *          *

Forty years on, turning into the rounding roads of Canberra, and feeling joy in the design of the city and its bush setting, I wake the sleeping daughter in the back seat.

"Nearly there." We turn and turn again into a drive and there, held firm, lest they run out before the car is stopped, are the two grand daughters, same age span between them as our girls, same sibling rivalry.

"Gran, Gran." They shout, their father lets them go and they race for the car.

"There's a cake."

"Candles, Candles."

We add to the medley of preparations and ask questions all at once and pick up the Leggo blocks from under our feet.

Friends from the birthing group, with their prams and car capsules in every corner. Best friends from her teaching stint on Christmas Island, their children with long athletic limbs and blonde hair. Best friend, schoolmate, colleague, some treasured for thirty odd years, some found like `Lucky' stones along the track of life.

Why here's Heidi, I remember her in the big storehouse at the cattle station in the Northern Territory, and the smiling eyes of the aboriginal children as she gave ice blocks after school. We met again at the folk festival years later.

Megan and her two boys, my most vivid memory was of her baby lusty at her breast, tugging at a handful of her long hair. She had it cut short for the next one. She's as calm and beautiful as ever.

This chap had been a cause for worry. He seems O K. now with wife and lots of children, a pillar of the public service. Cold tinnies making fizzing noises and ice clinked in glasses.

'Where's the computer?' The older youngsters were away with `Lawnmower' and `Spacejack'. Plates of sandwiches went with them. The table replenished and we were all asked to `help ourselves'. Glasses were filled and the Birthday Girl's health drunk. The men slipped into the other room to check on the cricket score. Frank discussed the merits of Taylor against `Old Captain Grumpy' and Greg filled in all the background to the latest political scandals.

"Father how about you get the cake underway?" Have you ever tried to light forty candles with littlies blowing them out quicker than you could strike matches? Eventually the Hip Hip Hurrahs resounded and little speeches were made with loving kisses all round.

"Can we do the presents now Mummy?" The three-year-old could wait no longer. Thoughtful gifts were thanked for and the humorous ones laughed about. Diana, the big sister who had appraised the `Ten Toes' produced CDs of the sixties.

"Not the Mamas and the Papas?" Volume was turned up and songs sung, discs changed and I overheard,

"I cried when I heard of Janis Joplin committing suicide".

"Oh I must listen to this." Leonard Cohen! He droned on about Suzanne down by the river with those oranges. Jiving music and the room was full of the whirling figures with hair all over the place, shoes kicked off and bodies turning, the littlies watching with wide eyes.

"Nothing like a sixties tune for rhythm, you can really twist and turn" somebody called.

From my vantage point in an easy chair, my mind turned back, ten or more years further back to Harry Belefonte.

"Where are you going? My little one, Pretty one.

Where are you going? My baby my own.

Turn around and you're tiny

Turn around and you're grown

Turn around and you're a young wife with babes of  your own."

There's a vibrancy here. I think of my fortunate life and the irrational fear that I carry with me, always unfulfilled.

 

"AH, DAVIDSON, WOE TO THE MAN WHO HAS NOT LEARNED WHILE YOUNG TO HOPE, TO LOVE --- AND TO PUT THEIR TRUST IN LIFE!" Joseph Conrad. `Victory.'


SAGO PUDDING

The very words bring back my schooldays. 'Frogs Eyes' and 'Sinker' were two of the perennial complaints that we would hear from the boarders. Sago pudding so I was informed tasted heavily of lemon essence and swam in a pale custard, the small gelatinous balls of sago invariably being hard and chewy. However this was greatly preferred to the steamed pudding or 'sinker' that must have been easier to make, or the ingredients less costly, as this seemed to be on the menu every second day.

After lunch the boarders would come to the open areas where we day pupils ate our lunch. They'd ask for sandwiches or pieces of fruit and complain of hunger. Often 'wars' would break out between day boys and boarders when compressed masses of the 'sinker' would be used as ammunition. Catching a direct hit from a well-aimed missile was to be avoided. A cricket ball could do no greater damage and the school carpentry teacher, who attended to maintenance, was always wandering classrooms threatening murder and measuring glass panels in broken windows. Each carpentry student became expert in 'hacking out' but I fear that I never became proficient at 'puttying in' window panels.

'Sinker' became the reason for the only mass action of students that I was to witness as a pupil. There was often talk of storming the barricades, destroying the record books that contained all our sins, burning the canes and generally establishing a system where forbearance and mercy were to be the prime motivation in the treatment of students. But alas these remained just talk.

'Sinker' however, was TOO much to be tolerated. One day every plate of the dessert was returned to the kitchen uneaten. The headmaster, who dined with the other resident teachers at the top table, rose, causing a rare moment of silence for the dining hall, and said.

"There will be no dessert for the next month." He rang the dismissal bell, and there wasn't.


NORTH QUEENSLAND

North Queensland was hot, very hot. I was waiting to pick up somebody from a `Mixed Goods'. It ran to a timetable, that meant the train would probably come sometime, but you could be certain it would never be early.

All along the line there were little sidings, rails where trucks could be left, sometimes there was a construction of some sort. Perhaps a few sleepers piled up and held together with spikes, occasionally a hand operated crane, a marshalling yard with a water tank at one end for the steamer engines. Open and closed trucks could be shunted in for local produce to be loaded, or a store from `further out' would get a load of provisions. Full trucks would be taken on to their destinations. At the time it seemed a bit ho hum but I now realise that it must have taken a lot of organisation to keep the system working.

Where I was there was a station of sorts, an open shed perhaps two metres by two meters and a three metre timber station section. Tracks shimmered in the hotness, disappearing around a bend perhaps a kilometre one way. The other way the tracks seemed to melt into the distance. Black ballast along the tracks seemed to almost melt. The only shade was in the tin shed though the heat was magnified there. There was a plank supported by two oil drums serving as a seat and a small round tank at the back of the shed where you could get a drink. Heat built up and the proverbial leaf stirred not at all.

Did I imagine it, or was there movement in the mirage along the line? No, just the heat haze playing tricks, but no, perhaps there WAS something, just a speck. Focusing on something was a relief from the boredom and I spent the next half hour making bets with myself as what it was. A mob of cattle, no just a mirage, but perhaps it was a small truck or a rail motor. Slowly it resolved itself into a hand trolley with a central handle and two men working it. It seemed an eternity until they came to the siding and pulled the machine off the rails.

"'Ere Goin'" one enquired of me, his mate smiled. They wore the official uniform of the fettler, shapeless felt hat, wet with swear, blue singlet and shapeless long trousers that could have been any colour but now were stained to match the black ballast. Boots solid but scuffed and down at the heel.

Smiley wiped his face with his arm and pulled an axe from the truck and split up a bit of sleeper had a fire going in no time and filled a blackened billy from the tank.

Talker produced two chopped enamel cups from a sugar bag, "'Ave a Joee with us in a shake mate." He said whilst Smiley got tea and sugar out and found another mug. Tea, hot black and strong, Smiley picked up a splinter of sleeper to act as a stirrer. Would there be any railway in Australia without this elixir, I thought.

The offer of a cupper was as automatic as breathing to these types, they seemed to take the hardness of conditions as a matter of course. We yarned in a desultory way, they had papers to pick up from the guard on the goods train, their rations as well, Smiley grinned in assent. Then talker said. "Run out'er tebacca last night, yer wouldn’t have a smoke on yer?" I regretted that I didn't smoke.

"Just the two of you working together?" I asked.

"Yair." Talker answered and Smiley nodded his assent, then after about a minute added "Like it this way, since Ben." Smiley seemed saddened by this and frowned, there was no conversation for some time.

"Always worked around here?" I asked.

"Nar, 'uster be on the Western line." Smiley looked a bit troubled, and Talker seemed to consider the matter, then said.

"Uster camp a few miles out of a little town some nights we'd walk into the pub, the three of us, then we'd bring a bottle er rum home with us." Smiler seemed happy about this and grinned.

"Uster have to have to cross a bridge ter get in or outer town, it was about thirty foot high, and this night Ben was carrying the bottle in his hip pocket an he slipped right in the middle and fell, well yer know, he never broke the bottle."

Smiley spoke for the first time and he wasn't smiling.

"No, he never broke the bottle, but he broke his bloody neck."

 


WHEN I WAS YOUNG

When I was young, I knew that it would take a long time for me to get as old as I am now, but I was wrong when I was young.

Hills were steeper when I was young, and roads went further and further and the tar on the side of the road would bubble up like small volcanoes in the hot sun and you could squash them with your bare toes and there were often cigarette and tobacco tins in the bush and you could keep them to put nails in, if you had nails, and keep them to nail boxes onto the billy cart that you longed for and your elder Brother was still alive and your Sister wasn't even born, and in the bush there were long dead tree branches that you could drag away to make a bonfire in the open land behind the shop that had the steps covered with cobwebs leading down into the dungeon where the ghosts were, because the grocer's boy, who used to poke faces at you through the window, when he came to get the morning order, had told you, and Johnny Mc- Intyre's Father held the bunger too long and it went off in his hand and he went round for days with a bandage on his eye and his arm in a sling, and you could twirl round and round and round until you fell to the ground and the world would go on spinning for ever and ever, and you could get blackberries from the bushes in the paddock where the horses were next door to the Chinaman's Gardens where you could get a whole big basket of things for not much money because My Mother said so and sometimes we went to the dairy up the road for milk if we hadn't put out the billy with sixpence for the milkman with his horse and cart and once the horse bolted and there were cans all along the road and you could see the spilt milk in the holes in the road, and then they started to build houses along the road and you couldn't see the dairy any more when you had to walk for ever to catch the tram and on the tram you could sit in the wooden seats and know that you just had to be a tram guard when you grew up and walk along the side step saying "Fez, Fez Plez" and if it was raining you could wear a funny black thing to keep your hat dry, but the double decker busses came and you didn't have to walk so far unless you wanted to go to the pictures, but somebody had to take you and sometimes your Uncle would give you `Frippence' for your very self and you could buy a big ice cream with two scoops or keep it and buy lots of lollies on different days but you would lose the change if you got any and David's Dad had a car and took you camping and it rained all the time and right down the other end of the road was the water and the soldier crabs would run along the sand and dig little holes and bury themselves quicker than you could catch them and you fell over in the oysters and cut your legs and had to have eleven stiches and the Doctor poured Iodine on the cuts and you yelled and yelled and didn't like Doctors for ever and ever and sometimes you would ride your dinky on the road with your Father and your Mother talking behind you and often your Father was gone before you got up and sometimes lots of people would knock on the door and you remember your Mother having her scissors sharpened three time on the one day and the Bottle Oh wouldn't come to your house as you didn't have bottles but next door would have some and you would watch him turn the halfpennies over and over in his hand before giving them to Mrs. O'Grady and he would count the bottles again as he put them in the sack and take it to the cart with the big horse and call "Bottle Oh" again and the horse would move on without him even being in the cart, just like magic, and the days were hotter than now and colder and you could lie on your back on the lawn and see the clouds going over and sometimes see the shadows racing along the road and on your birthday your Dad gave you a special treat by taking all your friends for a fly in Kingsford Smith's plane over where you lived and you were sick and lay on the floor of the plane and everybody else saw their houses but I didn't.

Ah when I was young.

 

SHIRLEY

Others have done it better before. Who would dare to better Kipling when it’s the emotion brought on by a dog?

‘Ah brothers and sisters I bid you beware when you give your heart to a dog to tear.’

But it was Dalby Davidson’s description of the old red cow, struggling to the water edge and failing in the quest for life, slowly drowning in the mud at the waterhole that I was reminded of when the little dog’s back legs collapsed.

I saw a bewildered acceptance and yet a pleading in Shirley's eye for help. Yes I could pick her up and I could get her to water and food but I couldn’t do the walking for her. She collapsed uneasily and uncomfortably into her basket. Her eyes held mine as I went and phoned the vet.

Jemma the vet talked of the possibility of cortisone tablets. She asked if we had really thought the matter out saying. “It is finally your decision about her quality of life.”

No, Jemma was unable come to the house for a few days because of her workload. She was alone in the practice for the weekend. I could drive to the rear of the surgery and the little dog could stay in her basket.

Oh! She knew!

She snapped at Jemma as she tried to place a tourniquet on her leg. She looked at me with more courage than I felt at that moment. The needle seemed to take longer than I thought it would. Her breath came slower and slower and Jemma at last laid the stethoscope aside saying.

“She’s gone.”

Tears were running down our faces as we took our friend of sixteen years home.

I dug a grave in the garden and our two grandaughters sprinkled wattle flowers as I buried her. I keep her rego tag 02578 and the waratah we planted for her blooms beautifully each year.

 

THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR

I arrived at Canberra at the same time as he did! His journey had been long. For seventy-five years he had been at rest in the country he died in. It was now considered fitting he returned to his homeland. His remains were to lie in state at old Parliament House before internment at the war memorial. The pomp of military death was to be enacted and no expense was to be spared in doing the `right thing' for him.

My mission was to help my daughter put to right her house that had had a long run of tenants. There were trees to be lopped, rubbish to be removed to the tip, doors to be eased, locks to be oiled and refitted, screens to be remeshed, gutters cleaned, and walls and patios to be repainted. My daughter's partner was on a field trip to Indonesia and she was pleased to have my company and support with the two little girls. The three days were busy indeed.

It was a `Guvvie' estate where houses for the general public had been built by the government to ease the housing shortages that were so prevalent in the sixties. (They still are now but there are no public housing schemes.) People had bought the roof over their heads as they prospered and as life changed the stayed or sold and moved. That was how my daughter had come to buy the place. In the street there were grand extensions, modest alterations and signs of houses being loved. There were also places that had deteriorated over time. A few doors up and across the road was a place with problems or at least `problem people'. Unkempt toddlers were a danger to themselves and passing cars, the driveway was rutted, old cars were piled in the back yard, shouting was often heard and the cries of children.

"For Christ sake piss off!" He said he'd be here at twelve. We don't want another blue." She was young and thin, had a cigarette in hand and a youngster on her hip. The words were addressed to a leather coated fellow standing near a motor bike, though I could hear clearly from the garden. He threw his hands up in the air, roared the engine and with a final hand wave, took off. She dumped the youngster on the ground and went inside with the slam of a door.

As I went on with my painting and saw a decrepit car, with two doors and a mudguard different colours to the car body, pull up outside the house. The youngster ran forward with a glad cry of "Daddy! Daddy!' The driver got out and had a long embrace with the child. The door slammed as the thin woman came out and dragged the child from the man's arms. The child shrieked in protest. Ernest conversation took place between the adults, resulting in the child going back to the man, it quietened immediately. He placed the child in the back of the car, and I heard her say it was time he had a proper seat for the kid. He got into the car and it limped away, blowing smoke and making a lot of noise.

My daughter drove up with her two littlies. She set the baby rug on the floor and suggested that we have a bite of lunch. I was all for it. Fresh wholemeal bread, lots of salad and cheese and a hot cupper was most welcome. Our fuzz buzz of a two year old grizzled because her bread roll didn't have butter on the outside as well as the inside. In her `Weboks' and `Osh Kosh' clothes her life prospects seemed poles apart from the lad across the road. We worked on through that afternoon, settling on paint colours and removing another tree that was too close top the garage.

I could only stay for three working days and on Thursday I would have to return home. Even if all the jobs were not completed, only the outside work remained and the place was ready for a new tenant.

Thursday was a magic day, warm sun and spring greenery abounded. I didn't have to hurry my journey and I stopped to look at the birds on Lake George. Sheep along the lakeshore were running and the cattle had the bloom of condition that only comes from a good season. I had been listening to the music on the radio when the announcer said that the normal programme would be interrupted for a commentary of the interment of the `Unknown Soldier'.

As the commentator came on I could hear the gun salutes and a military band playing in the background. "The plain coffin, draped with the Australian flag, the slouch hat with a sprig of wattle, is moving the last mile of the journey to it's final resting place."

There were interview's with retired generals who spoke of honour and dignity, the glory and heroism of the deeds in France and the homage we should all pay.

Whilst the Prime Minister gave an impassioned speech, my mind seemed to drift away to another `unknown' person who had been in our family all my life.

I remembered being small enough to push to the front of the barricades, one Anzac Day. I saw them marching, medals in rows on their chests, I saw the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, rank upon rank of them and I saw the floral offerings on the Cenotaph.

"Why aren't you marching Uncle Fred?"

"Don't ever go to war my boy."

I often used to wonder about Uncle Fred. Sometimes he seemed so happy. He would talk loudly and give me the copper coins in his pocket. He was always smoking and each lungfull would bring on a fit of coughing. In the mornings he was cranky and I would hear my Mother or Aunt Majorie say, `It's the war'. I remember he took me out for a day on a motor launch, and for a brief period we went sailing on Saturdays. There were often different ladies at his flat and it smelt of smoke and something I didn't know. There were bottles and I wouldn't see him for a long time.

Hostilities with Germany and Japan entered our lives, and I was becoming aware of the world around me. We were living at Hornsby and on Saturdays I would go into my Father's library bookshop and pack parcels and carry them to the G P O for posting. The heavy parcels would swish down the chutes and give a resounding thump as they hit the floor. Sometimes I would meet Uncle Fred and he would have that smell and be full of life. He would light a cigarette and cough and have to hold onto the wall to steady himself. My father didn't always seem as pleased to see his brother as I was and he would frown as he reached for the petty cash tin.

"Just till pay day. Working sixteen hour shifts, I'll fix it then."

There were four in my father's family. Uncle Bill my Father's twin who I really don't remember, Aunt Marjorie, the youngest, and Uncle Fred who was some ten years older than my father. In today's thinking they would be considered abused children. I have heard my father say that his mouth would dry out and be unable to swallow when he heard his Father's key in the door lock. Uncle Bill shot himself on a ship between Sydney and Newcastle after he had confessed to my mother that he had to choose between shooting himself or `The Old Man'. Uncle Fred said the other ones `Got nothing compared to me'. He chose life on the Sabraon, a training ship for intractable youths rather stay at home. I understand that he went to the war from there. I heard him say at a gathering that after he had returned from the war he had called in `HOME' to see his family, his Father had dismissed the others with the words, "I want to talk to Fred alone".

"As a grown man I was more frightened of him then, than anything `Jerry' had ever thrown at me".

Uncle Fred seemed to move around, as I matured I would hear that he was at the War Vet's Home at Narrabeen, he had moved to Port Macquarie, or he was in another home at Tweed Heads. He bought a caravan and lived on my Father's property for a while. I remember taking a ute load of bottles to the tip when he went back to the Narrabeen home. The only time I ever really talked to him was in a pub down there. For once his tongue was loosened and he talked of Lightning Ridge and opal mining, of spraying Prickly Pear, and of working as a painter and docker during the war. He lit another cigarette and had the usual bout of coughing.

"Bloody gas, I lay in the mud for two days after he smashed my knee with his rifle butt. That's when the gas got me." His voice faltered, then with bravado he said. "It must be your shout". It was the only time I ever heard about the war from him. The last time I saw him was in Concord Military Hospital with an oxygen mask on.

"Could you get them to give me a cigarette?" He asked.

He is my `Unknown Warrior'. He asked that no one go to his funeral. His ashes are scattered we know not where. No guns fired on that day and the Prime Minister spoke no words, but I know that Uncle Fred would want that that kid across the road could have butter on both sides of his bread roll too.

 

THE EXILE

He walked slowly up the ramp at Parramatta station. I had to look at him twice to be certain that I did not know him. He bore an incredible likeness to a person I have many reasons to dislike. I girded myself for a few unpleasant minutes if we met face to face, but was able to relax when he turned onto the station proper. I felt full of the milk of human kindness when I noticed his problem.

His well-worn baggy trousers gaped under the belt that was straining to keep his paunch under control. I thought back to my childhood when little boys had pants with funny little flappy devices that should have been tucked in. Alas mine were always flying out, much to the enjoyment of older children at school. Then I graduated to buttons that begged the statement `Your wearing a medal.' It took me years to get over the distress of these exchanges. The zip fastener was a heaven sent system that brought relief.

I watched him from across the platform, what to do in this case? Leave him to his ignorance and future embarrassment or alert him to his problem now and perhaps not be appreciated for my efforts.

I walked up to him and stood close, his bloodshot eyes again reminded me of his look alike. He frowned and tried to push past.

"Your zip, mate." I said.

"Huh, you'd think some bastard would a told me." He growled as he adjusted his dress.

"Some bastard just did." I said.

The long Indian-Pacific train rolled through the station, causing a distraction.

"Come over in 'er six weeks ago. Got in the smoker car, hardly a bastard in it, mostly in the sleepers. They lose more'n a million dollars a year on that run you know."

"I didn't know, but I hope to do a trip on it sometime." I responded.

"Come over to see the family, four brothers and three sisters, one of ‘em lives down Wollongong, ain't goin’ to see ‘er, too bloody far! Not goin’ ter come back again. Bloody place all gorn ter the dogs here. U'ster to live in Granville in the old days."

"It's seen a lot of changes. I remember when there were market gardens and lots of open space."

"U'ster be aw-right. Full of bloody Arabs now, got no morals, some of them don't drink yer know! Their laws too, bloody animals, that’s what they are. If I had my way I'd give ‘em a pannikin of water and a bag of flour, and piss ‘em orf inter the bush, that's what I'd do!"

A young Asiatic couple walked by, He in a tailored suit, silk shirt, gold Rolex watch gleaming on his wrist and a smart attache case in his hand. She resembling a Paris model, with a flash of diamonds in her necklace. They had two beautiful youngsters with them, the little boy asking in perfect English.

"Are we going to be at the Zoo soon?"

"I'd sent them bloody slopes back too."

His next words were lost in the rattle of a train drawing into the station and the reverberating announcement from the railway public address system. With a nod I moved to a different carriage, wondering if I would raise the alarm if I saw another fellow traveller at half-mast.


THE REVENGE OF THE UNDERDOG

Katoomba train, a red-hot summer day. I was early, the air-conditioned carriage beckoned and I had the choice of every seat in the carriage. I settled down to read a magazine and was aroused by a commotion, a banging of a stick against the seats, a hardly intelligible mutter of words.

"Garn, get under there, bloody dog." With a heavy white stick, he gave the dog a thump. This didn't remind me of the caring relationship between person and dog that the guide dog people like to promote. Dog slunk under the seat in front of him, on the opposite side of the aisle from me.

Giving himself access to four seats, the blind man spread out a large collection of plastic bags, pulled out a ball of wool and some multi coloured knitting, talking loudly to himself all the time.

More passengers were entering the carriage by now, but they tended to give the Knitter a wide berth. As the train left Central the need for a seat prompted one man to sit beside the blind fellow. He grizzled about having to move his bags but still had the two seats in front of him piled high. He pushed a woolly item under the man's face.

"I knit them you know, Beanies! I knit them to sell. I can make them any size, would you like to buy one?" His fellow passenger demurred, but the Knitter was not to be put off. He scrabbled in one of the other bags and pulled out an odd looking garment, it was white, pale blue and pale green,

"It's a singlet mate, would you like one of them?"

"No thanks."

He got up and walked to-wards the front of the train. We stopped at Burwood and another traveller took the seat beside him. Next stop Strathfield, the train was starting to fill up, an old couple came up to the seat covered with plastic bags and tried to turn the back over. Knitter pulled his bags around him; he looked rather like a broody chook settled well down in a nest.

The old couple reminded me of a retired minister and his very proper wife. They were dressed neat and careful. He had on an old fashioned grey suit, striped shirt, plain tie and an old but well brushed grey hat. She a shiny blue suit with a frilly collar to her blouse; they gave me the impression of parsimony, and good works in a poor parish. Granville, the goods were being displayed to the new person sitting beside Knitter, and the train was really filling up. Parramatta was left behind and people were jammed against one another, the air-conditioning was having a battle and the carriage was beginning to steam up.

Do you remember the dog? I think I was the only passenger apart from its owner that knew it was there.

It decided now to drop the most incredible fart. It was the sort of fart that would clear a football field. In the enclosed carriage it was horrendous. The man sitting next to Knitter said "Jesus" and tried to get up. Knitter looked straight ahead. Mrs Parsimony turned on her husband and berated him volubly; he flushed red to his ears, shook his head and pulled out a hanky. The people in the aisle drew back but we were all jammed in with this malodorous heated atmosphere.

Blacktown beckoned as an oasis of escape and couldn't come soon enough for us.

 


ALONE IN THE DESERT

I think the name has changed now, but it was Concord Military Hospital, War Veterans' Hospital or Concord Rehabilitation Centre. It was there only in the back of my mind. Sometimes there would be pictures of it on Anzac day, or the fete would get publicity.

I had no trouble getting to the hospital, though I wasn't prepared for the size of it. It seemed a mile from the parking lot to the entrance where an interrogation awaited me.

"Who do you want? Why do you want to see him? Are you a relation? What ward's he in?" When I said I didn't know, there was a pained expression and a consulting of lists. Finally an emphatic. "He's not here."

I went through it again, there were more consultations, a phone call, then at last a smile. "Bed 27, ward GG, building 6." He opened the gate for me and the hugeness of it got to me. Perplexed I looked back and asked.

"Could you give me a hint." It is obvious that I had passed some sort of test because he came out leaving other visitors waiting.

"I was at the same push in France with your uncle." His eyes flickered. "Follow that path, up the ramp, through the double doors, down the steps, veer to the right and into the covered walkway, the numbers are up, you won't miss it."

"Thanks Dig." I say, he smiles a faraway smile.

Some of the buildings are solid and brick but my directions led me to row upon row of weatherboard buildings, connected by covered ramps, handles on the sides, some glassed, others open all painted in the regulation yellow brown of Government buildings. Off course I did miss it and had to get directions twice. First from a group of patients sitting in the sun, who asked me to sit and have a yarn and looked disappointed when I said I had to push on. Next I asked a nurse laden with trays. She had a clipboard under her arm and no time say more than. "Keep going and follow the signs."

Building G G. I enter another world. Each window frames the side of the adjoining building, heavy curtains on the side, fluorescent lighting, bedside cabinets sterile white, dark linoleum floors heavily polished. Hospital smell of disinfectant and floor polish strong on the nostril. Hushed voices and stainless steel clattering. A tall woman with glasses and authority in her demeanour challenged me. She turns to the nurse beside her.

"Nurse. Bed 27."

She held me with her eyes till the nurse returns.

"Take Mr. Morton to see his Uncle."

I am released and the nurse leads me away. I ask.

"How is he?"

She says. "Comfortable." But her eyes don't.

She left me there and I am amazed at how small he looks, pale, the same colour of the pillows that seem to submerge him. I saw the oxygen mask and the gas bottles with their fire sign, red warning line through it. I stand and look and remember the scraps of his life I have heard from him. The bullet wound in the leg. The smashed knee. The gas that caused coughing fits that seemed to go on forever. His childhood of terror and abuse. The first time he had ever felt justice he said was on the `Sobraon' a training ship for intractable youths. Little wonder he liked the drink.

"For Christ sake wake him up mate, visitors are too few here", from the man in the next bed. His eyes startled and then recognition. His handshake was limp. Not like the `Put it there if it weighs a ton!' bravado of old.

"Could you get them to give me a cigarette?" There was a plea in his voice.

I asked the nurse if I could take him out and let him light up, but she shook her head. "Doctor's. Orders."

We talked on till a bell rang and three patients in chairs were wheeled in. He scrabbled in his drawer and pulled out his purse, insisting that I take some money to buy a `treat for the kids'.

I shook his hand again and said, "Don't know when I will be able to get down to see you again, I am that busy." He held my hand long, and looked at me hard saying,

"You don't know how lucky you are my boy." I nearly bumped into the nurse because of the tears in my eyes.

She said, "Please come again soon, he often says it's like being alone in the desert here."

I never saw him again.


BAGS

Just what sort of bags? A bit of help please! Plastic bags, wheat bags, hand bags, money bags, paper bags, overnight bags, lunch bags, old bags, new bags, sleeping bags, duffel bags, kit bags, shopping bags, body bags,  . . . . .

We knew that we would not arrive at Newcastle till late and Deirdre had booked us into the 'Grande' Hotel. We were not used to travelling and certainly had no suitable luggage. All we took with us fitted into a shabby old suitcase with a broken handle; it worked if you knew how to hold it.

There was an imposing set of front steps up to the foyer of the hotel. I stopped there and collected our suitcase to book in. As we climbed up, the Concierge with flowing coat and top hat swooped on us and clutched our bag and ushered us towards the entrance. He didn't say as word as the handle failed, the bag dropped, bursting open, allowing all our possessions to tumble down the stairs.

 

THEATRE VISIT

"I will have to refer you on of course." The doctor was short, roundish, of dark Slavonic appearance. Meticulous desk, blood pressure gauge and stethoscope on a large blotter, prescription pads beside, reference books in a locked cabinet. A crucifix on the wall, who I wondered was to suffer the agony?

"The address and phone number are on the envelope."

"Thank You." He gave a short nod and showed me to the door.

Several days later I was at a large multipractice, medical centre, two receptionists and ten consulting rooms. Patients coming and going. There was a shadow of a tree across the window. It was hot and the glare from the windows exacerbated by the white painted concrete blocks.

"Mr. Morton?" I was ushered into a dark room.

"Sit down. You brought a referral?" "Hmmp" as he read. "MMM, Hmmp."

"Hmmp, Yes, This is a serious matter, have you given it consideration?"

"Yes."

"You have children? Four eh, MMM. We have to counsel carefully on these matters you know. MMM. Can you afford to go to a private hospital? Ah good, good. What does your wife think of this? Ah, her suggestion, I see, I see. My secretary will arrange things. I will see you at the hospital."

I followed all the instructions on the form and at seven A.M. one sunny summer morning, form in hand, presented myself at the admission desk of the hospital.

There was the all-pervasive smell of disinfectant mingling with that of linoleum polish and bright overhead signs were going click, click, click.

People in wheel chairs, people lying on trolleys with drips above and bags below, on the floor a couple of kids playing hide and seek amongst the sick, uniformed nurses with clipboards, a squat, swarthy man threatening all before him with a floor polisher. Men in pyjamas with post-operative stoops and suitcases, anxious stir crazy eyes hanging around the door, obviously waiting to be released.

The summer sunshine seemed far away and I thought of the crucifix.

"Ah! Yes, Mr. Morton" as she read my letter.

"What are you here for?"

I told her.

"Just fill in this form please." Nervously I scratched with a biro. In the one moment of silence in the morning's confusion the receptionist beckoned a sister and called down the corridor in a loud voice.

"Judy here's your other vasectomy."

I was led away, told to put my bag, `there’.

"Mr. Shaw's things will be out of your locker soon. Go and have a shower, put this on, what are you here for Mr. Morton?"

A quick shower and dry down. The garment confused me. It certainly didn't cover, seemed more like a surgeons mask.

The curtains were pulled around my bed when I returned. Just as I sat down, they rattled apart again. She was a young lass and looked like a contemporary of my daughters, she wore a short uniform and cap on at a rakish angle. She was a bright, cheery type and asked as she put her tray down,

"What are you here for Mr. Morton?"

I told her. She removed the tray cover. Cake of soap, mug of hot water and a safety razor.

"Just round the bollocks will do." she said over her shoulder, pulling the curtain behind her as she left.

I was busy when the curtains rattled apart again. This time two of them standing there.

"What are you here for Mr. Morton? I mutter an answer. I’m just take your blood pressure and listen to the chest, here take this, it will help calm you down."

Drowsy, heavy eyes, curtains pulled apart again, a trolley wheeled in. "Move over Mr. Morton, come on. What are you here for Mr. Morton?"

As I slide over I mumbled an answer, swinging doors, bumping into swinging doors, more swinging doors, then bright lights. My hand was grasped tightly.

"What are you here for Mr. Morton?'

" Mumble mumble."

"Count to ten."

"One, Tw, w, - - - - - ."

"Wake up, Wake up."

Bright, glaring light, dry, dry mouth.

"Wake up, wake up, what day is it Mr. Morton?"

Swirling, Swirling -----. "Mr. Morton. Mr. Morton, time to go to the toilet. Come on Mr. Morton, just have a pee and you can go home."

"Get your things out of the locker and sit in that chair Mr. Morton, we’re making the bed up for another patient."

I found that I was hanging around the door with stir crazy eyes and anxious thoughts, waiting.


THE BALLAD OF FOREST GLEN RD

There was trouble in the mountains,

Where the creeks go rushing down.

And the neighbours stood beside, in battle lines!

Till it fell upon the Council, to lend a soothing hand.

And Peter Mackie rallied to the cry.

Oh he drew a water causeway with bends both smooth and wide.

There were river gravel bottoms and rocky banks beside.

There were written words of comfort, for the owners of the land.

But he left it with the Council, and retired.

Thus it fell upon Bob Johnson to make the drawings work.

And he picked upon the Kenco's as the best!

So they came in trucks with trailers, had their dunny on behind.

They brought bobcats, backhoes, buckets and vibrating hammers too.

And a turquoise blue Kobelco, shiny new!

They had a truck as big as blazes from a distant Nordic land.

New fangled Reno mattresses and rolls and rolls of wire.

Our Deirdre's ire was raised when they marked trees that had to go.

But we quickly found a way around, as the chainsaws gave a roar.

And the chipper cut the branches to a mulchy gummy straw.

Now Ashley got a hammer and a metal stake so sharp,

And he hammered through the sewer for a lark

So we sent him to the quarry for a load of lucky stones.

Whilst Steven bogged the Kobelco in the sticky mountain loams.

It was Ken come to the rescue. Who with thoughts and words perverse.

He directed till the Kobelco rolled right out, and not a jot the worse.

Thus the gully bed was formed up, whilst the Renos swelled with stones,

(Though if you tried to sleep there it was peril to your bones.)

Great boulders lined the curving banks, came courtesy of Leighton's!

Whilst wood chips smoothed the loamy banks against the dread erosion.

We have to our good fortune, now, a means to save

The hanging swamps below us from the dreaded urban drains.

And again, to our good fortune the neighbours can't complain.

So if ever you're in trouble, call a Kenco quick and smart.

And they will have the problem solved to the joy of every heart!


A PIECE OF STRING

`You silly old Bugger', I thought as the disinfectant burnt into the cut right around my finger. It was difficult to bandage and would be a nuisance for weeks. Serves you right for showing off to the kids, they love watching the near magic of the string being cut just by a few turns around the finger. I often do it when they want string cutting, they ask me how, and I say it's a bit of old fashioned magic. I didn't even look, a quick twist, `Abraba Kadabra', hard yank and the finger nearly ringbarked. I will make certain it's not the nylon `Brickies Twine' next time.

How I tried to learn that trick when I was a boy. `Grocer' behind the counter of the Moran & Cato store used to do the same trick when I would go into the shop with the list my mother would give me to bring home after school. Pencil behind the ear, a white apron, close cropped hair and thin moustache he would go through the list, biscuits out of the tin and into the bag, twist it round his fingers, slide behind the counter on the slippery floor to the eggs in a box of fine sawdust.

"Tell your mother they have gone up to two shillings a dozen!"  I can remember that because I used to keep the family chooks and they were `Off the lay'. A tin of jam, perhaps some cheese, watch him weigh out the butter, he could cut half a pound from the box with his wooden spatulas to almost exact weight. I would sit on the high Arnott's chair and watch the goods pile up on the counter. Then the packing into a box and he would tie it with string so that it would be easier to transport on the bike rack. I would watch the parting of the string, ask how it was done?

"Like this." His hands would fly like lightning and the string would be in two. Watch as closely as I could, it took me nearly a year to learn this magic. At last it was my secret as well and I used to put it to good use when I went to my Father's bookshop to tie up parcels for posting on Saturdays. I became a gun hand at packing though the skill seems to have left me of late.

Once however it wasn't a Saturday. It was the last Friday of the school holidays and for some reason other things would prevent my going into the city on the Saturday. I can remember it was raining heavily as we left home in the morning, the sky grey and wind blowing the rain at us as we walked up the City Street. It was good to get into the back room of the Library and Bookshop and complete my task.

Grey days have never been favourites of mine. Perhaps it was hereditary, as my Grandmother disliked them as well. They were always an excuse for her to dress up. Catch `The Boat' (Trams, Busses, Trains even Boats were always `Boats' to her, as she would come from over the harbour to Sydney and in the days before the bridge it was always a `Boat') to seek entertainment at a theatre and have a bite of lunch at a restaurant.

She was a Grand Old Lady in the true sense of the word, though by the time I remember her there had been a coming down in the world for her. She had come (as far as I can gather) from the Squattocracy, but the never mentioned `Drink' had reduced her Father's fortune.

She had married, for love an emigrant Swede who sailed into Sydney Harbour on a Square Rigged Ship and decided to stay. He became a designing Jeweller, who as result of his hard work prospered, invested, built several fine houses, patronised the arts, donated with generosity to his church in both money and goods. Candlesticks, crosses, jewellery, fine robes were part of his largesse.

He helped finance the Theosophical Society, putting most of his fortune into `The Work'. Failing investments due to the Great Depression and over extension of his physical capacity led to his premature death and my Grandmother's circumstances, though I never heard a word of bitterness from her.

I had done my parcels, weighed them, stuck on the stamps and was returning from my last trip to the G P O after posting when I met her at the entrance to the bookshop.

"What 'yer doing?" was her usual greeting and when I explained that I had finished my chores she suggested we both go to a movie, and then have a bite of lunch together. This was good news, as she would, hopefully, take us to Cahill's where there were waffles and maple syrup. Morning or afternoon tea would sometimes be to Reppin's where crumpets were the go. I remember once suggesting a Sargeant's cafe as we were passing it, but it was dismissed with a whispered.

"Oh, dear, no."

I must admit that I do not remember the show, and I was a little disappointed that lunch was to be at David Jones, Elizabeth St store. Upstairs of course! This would mean the embarrassment of calling back  the waitress to be certain that she remembered the second jug of boiling water for the tea. Possibly standing round on the way out whilst there were discussions about clothes that she had no intention of buying. But this was a small price to pay for the pleasure that she so often gave me. We were both happily content as we made our way back to the lifts to return to the ground floor.

Hostilities with Germany and Japan were still on and the lift attendants were all returned servicemen, resplendent in their officer like uniforms, showing ribbons and medals from the earlier war. Some had disabilities, one an eye patch, another only one leg and was allowed a stool to support himself, several had only one arm and their coat sleeves were pinned to their sides though the arms of their coats would still swing as they attended to the door. Our lift was not crowded and a lady with a baby in a stroller and a small boy about five years of age got in and stood with us at the back of the lift. One floor down was the fashion floor of the store, clothes that one couldn't afford were displayed there. Sometimes my Grandmother would look around but would say that they wanted `Too many coupons' for such things.

On this day an elegant lady entered, a box with wrapping paper denoting a purchase, not often seen in these times of austerity, she stood in front the young family.

Next floor several more people got in, next down an American serviceman, forage cap under his epaulette, pips on shoulder, medals on chest, our lift attendant bowed his cap to his pinned back sleeve in salute. First floor where were lots of people pressed into the lift. "Right back please, thank you." From our driver, we were all pressed back and the lift descended.

"Ground floor. Thank you." The doors swung open, people moved out, the crush eased, the elegant lady with the parcel stepped forward, turned, swung her arm with vigour and gave the American a resounding backhander, turned again and in high dudgeon marched out of the lift. The lift attendant's coat sleeve seemed almost to lift and salute her as she passed.

Obviously shaken, the American put his hand to his face, shook his head, dabbed at his face again.

"What, what, I, I wonder, what that was about." He stammered.

"She was pushing me up against the wall with her bum, so I bit it." said the small boy standing beside me. Grandmother took me by the arm and led me out. I could see her smiling.


A SAFE QUID

Did I tell you about Uncle Rupert? He gave me two of the most wonderful holidays a city boy could have. One thousand acres on the Darling Downs, his old homestead sat under pepper trees half a mile from the gate on the Warwick-Toowoomba rd. Thick sticky black soil, soft green grass and the quail whirring away from under your feet as you walked through the icy frosty morning to the cow bail to watch the cow being milked. Next holidays I did the milking myself.

In retrospect it was a picture of neglect and decay. Old sheds leaned, their corrugated iron walls loose and flapping in the wind, fences were broken, a stack of old harnesses, cracked and weathered propped against a post. The old harvester a fading red, bags of seed grain covered with an old tarp that, when lifted revealed a writhing mass of rats and mice. The hut door swung open to reveal the iron stretcher that Harley the farm hand slept on before he went to the war. Forty-four gallon drums of power kerosene lying near gates that didn't shut anymore. The spiky wheeled tractor that had replaced twenty horses stood where last used.

Ah, but I stood behind Rupe on the tractor, as he burnt the straw in the harrows preparing the ground for the wheat crop. He would let me ride on the `Sundercut' as he turned the grass and castor oil plants into the soil, leaving shiny topped furrows where the birds picked the worms and grasshoppers.

It was a sort of hero worship. Rupe, tall dark and strong could kill a sheep, crank the old tractor and lift the dray shafts onto old Bright, the only draught horse left on the farm. He trusted me to go to Sharp's, up the road and over the hill for bags of seed wheat. There wouldn't be any traffic unless a convoy of army trucks came by and anyway, old Bright is long past was long past being frightened of anything.

Smithy drove over in his truck, one cold clear winter's night to load bags of wheat from the earlier harvest. Rupe and Smithy would throw the bags from the ground to the tabletop truck. Every so often they would stop and load the bags higher on the truck. Rupe offered me a quid if I could load a bag onto the stack and although I turned it and twisted and propped it against the stack I couldn't do it. Smithy told Rupe that his quid looked safe.

It was thirty years before I learnt the tragedy of Rupe's life. The two properties dominated by his father's decisions never maintained. Rupe working for his father almost a serf. A loving wife who suffered three still born babies before a Down's syndrome child, then at last a healthy boy who died as a youth.

I last saw him struggling with the uncertainty of the onset Parkinson's disease. I would gladly have given a quid to see him loading bags of wheat again.

 


AGE OF A HORSE

Perhaps my only claim to fame at school was telling the age of a horse. It was an Agricultural College. Pupils were a mixture of borders from country areas of NSW and dayboys from all over the Sydney metropolitan zone.

Day pupils, of whom I was one were known as ‘Dagos’, were considered to be inferior by the boarders or ‘Bedbugs’ who were certain that their Spartan way of life endowed them with greater intelligence and physical prowess.

The War was just over and fuel still rationed. Mechanical revolution on the farm with three point linkage tractors, live hydraulics and power takeoffs were still in the future. We received instructions in milking cows, culling fowls for their egg laying ability, boiling the swill from the kitchen into gruel for the pigs. Cutting silage (we had a power driven chaff cutter.)

Farm power came from horses. They were a mixed bunch, mostly Clydesdales but a few with a smattering of Percheron or Suffolk Punch blood. They were gentle giants, no doubt long suffering, countless hands were to learn to groom them, pick up their feet and look for stones caught in the frog of their hooves, and no, I never once saw the need for that strange blade on a pocketknife. I was fortunate that my parents had given horses to my sister and I, they were a strong love to me and my desire to be associated with the land was a result of this interest.

Age of the horse was a critical matter. We had books with diagrams and drawings. Milk teeth, Canines, Grooves, Dents, Angles, Wear and Broken mouths. Theory went on for some time and then down to the stables to put theory into practice. The stable hand brought him out, seventeen hands high, dark bay typical blaze of his breed.

We milled around with textbooks in hand and looked on.

We stood around some more, students looked at his head, the teacher took the halter from the stable hand who went off about his business, other students looked at his head, and eventually the question was asked. “How do you look at his teeth sir?”

There was a silence; the teacher changed his stance. As he reached for the horse’s top lip it lifted its head. He pulled down on the halter but the horse backed away, students scattered, the teacher held on and was dragged back, nearly lost balance, held the halter for support as the horse reefed. Putting his hand up again the horse retreated further quicker, pulled away and trotted back to his stall.

Our teacher was flustered and there was a definite loss of face, somebody suggested we get a smaller horse and some other ‘Silly Boy’ suggested a ladder.

I wandered down to the stall and brought the horse back, he was a bit wary and snorted and held his head up high. There was a general air of expectation; teacher looked as though somebody should do something.

I patted up the horse’s shoulder and down his face, he was standing quietly again and I slipped my hand into his mouth and took a firm hold on his tongue holding his mouth open and his head down with it. This caused great merriment amongst most present as the saliva splashed and the horse reefed to get free, however he soon calmed and I looked at the teacher for further advice. He countered with.

“You show them the grooves and the dentine wear Morton and explain the age to the class."

Now I wasn’t too certain of the horses age, he was ‘Full Mouthed’ as I had heard people say, I pointed to teeth grooves and said.

“Hard to tell exactly Sir, teeth in good condition and I would say ten years old.”

“Yes, exactly, excellent, thank you Morton, that will do.”

He tried to get other students to open the horses mouth but got no starters and certainly didn’t do so himself. I was called out of class on another occasion to demonstrate again.

I scored first prize in Practical Agriculture that year, I got a copy of ‘My Love Must Wait’ by Ernestine Hill, it’s still on my bookshelf over forty years later, my name is spelled incorrectly but I think that it was probably because of guessing the age correctly.


AN OLD FRIEND

"Mate " I said as I touched his shoulder. I had spotted him in the throng of people standing in the queue of people at the entrance of the hall.

He gave a little start and swung round, a grin spreading over his face as he recognised me - "Should have known that you'd come if you were about, but I've missed you the last three years, where you been?"

Before I could respond the queue moved on.

"Ten dollars." Said the lady at the table issuing tickets, we paid and wandered inside the hall that was filled with stalls, lights flashing over displays, the spruikers and the demonstrators calling for attention. He was just the same I thought, hadn't been to the dentist as he had promised to do, hair a little greyer but still a full head, sun cancers and freckles, thin as a whip and still a bundle of energetic movements.

"I thought that you may have given up since you left work, but I felt that you'd want to keep up with the trends, even if it's only a hobby now." He went on.

"Yes," I replied. "I have been travelling quite a bit over the last years and have missed three of them, these woodwork shows are too good to miss unless you have to though. I remember that you were in love with that lathe chuck last time we were here together, did you let your hair down and get it?"

"Sure did, last year, I wish I got it sooner, you ought to see what I can do with it. Hey hang on a minute, I want to see these finishing oils, look at the sheen he's getting on that cedar. Where you been anyway?"

"Well, year before last we were travelling. All over the northwest, across the Plenty highway to Alice then straight over the Tanami Desert, up to Hall's Creek, Wyndham. Through the Kimberleys, Broome, Fitzroy Crossing, back home western Queensland, The Isa, Charleville, by jeeze there's a yarn or two from each town, I'd go back to-morrow. Last year we went to South Africa, and had a month driving through the National Parks in the west of NSW"

"Gawd, what are the poor people doing I wonder?" He gave a derogatory grin.

"Well they can't afford to buy lathe chucks at these prices."

There were special clamps; new fold up saw horses, sanding jigs to get into those corners that only the craftsman look at to see how the project has been finished. Beautiful burls of timber for the artist to work his (or her) magic on. Opportunities of a life time to buy three years subscription to magazines for only two years price, diamond sharpening stones that would put scalpel edges on chisels, router bits with new and exotic profiles, four-in-one combination machines on special "For This Show Only". Multi graded packs of sandpaper, people carving objects with chain saws, instantaneous glues that would fix just about anything.

People everywhere - it was noise, pushing, feet that got sore and stepped on, legs that got weary. At last it was a snack bar with unhealthy food, cans of cold beer and chairs that we sank into gratefully.

As we rested and had our refreshments, we talked of other days, with many a `Remember' and `What abouts', then patting his pockets he said.

"Remember last time we were here? It rained like all get out as we got to the railway? You gave me that spare plastic raincoat you had in your bag and told me not to bother about giving it back?"

"I hope it wasn't too split to keep you dry on the way home." I rejoined.

"No it was a blessing, it was absolutely pissing down when I got to my station, well I put it on and I found this in the pocket."

He placed a small folding knife in my hand, it had gone from my memory but was an old friend from former times.

"I have brought it each year but you haven't been here."

"Here's to you." I said as I opened another can of beer.


BEARDS

“You will have to keep your face dry, don’t try to shave, don’t even scratch when it gets itchy or you will get scars.”

I had suffered first and second degree burns to my face. Luckily I had my glasses on or it may have been a disaster for my eyes. Both cheeks and the chin were affected.

People with beards in those days were eccentrics, down and outs, poofs, rebels, social outcasts. Beards can also get you into strife, as I was to find out I have only ever shaved once since then and that was for a bet. I couldn’t see any scarring when I looked into the mirror, but my face was pale and somehow out of place without the beard and I was glad when the grey grew back. There were white patches where the burns had been severe and for a few years I had a sort of piebald look but the grey quickly took over.

I was a member of the local Lions Club when the accident had happened. I was at the stage of partial recovery, my face making me look like a derelict from some city park when I was given the task of welcoming the Rev Ted Noffs as guest.

He was to give the members some insight into his work at the Wayside Chapel. My part of the introduction went well enough and when he stood up speaking to the President of the club said.

“I know it’s customary for people who are welcoming guests to a club to try to put them at ease and make them feel at home.” Here he pointed to my scruffy appearance. “But it was quite unnecessary for Ivor to go to these lengths.”

He gave us a great talk and joined us in the bar afterwards for a glass of ginger ale before leaving.

Time has scattered the prejudices since then. Nowadays there are long beards, straggly beards, goatees, designer stubble, three-day beards, trimmed beards, mutton chops, long curly moustaches, and even the occasional clean- face. I don’t feel out of place at all now, though I find soup and porridge a bit of a problem.

Recently some friends invited us to a children’s Christmas party. Their young daughter had become our honorary grandchild. Her Dad was going to be the Santa and we had a little present for her to go in Santa’s bag. We were saddened, when we got to the gate, to hear that our little friend was not coming. Her Dad was sick and somebody had gone to get his Santa suit.

There is always one at every party, a hyped up kid, full of knowledge. Big ears, big mouth, big timing. He was underfoot as we got this message. With a whoop he was shouting.

“I told you he wasn’t real, didn’t I? They gotta get his suit, I told you.” He missed nothing and was hard at work spreading the word amongst the younger children.

In the grounds was a marquee with tables and chairs, Kalamata olives, crispy breads, tubs of ice for the wine bottles, flowers in profusion, huge bowls of salad. There were old friends to meet and babies crawling on the close clipped grass, a mountain summer at its best and this kid under every step you took.  Still it was only a few days to Christmas, the big event and one has to be charitable.

One course led to another. Little speeches of welcome and appreciation were made. An Alderperson was seen talking to the ‘right’ people. fruit salad, cream and ice cream came in bowls and this kid took a huge helping, spilt it and got another, then left it when a puppet show was announced which had all the children racing to the lawn.

I was enjoying the show. It had been under way for about ten minutes and this kid was at the point of trying to get behind the stage when the convenor of the festivities handed me a plastic bag saying it was so nice of me to help out. I must have looked a bit  blank.

“You did say you would be Santa with our other one away sick didn’t you?”

“Well no. But I’ll give it a go if you like.” She looked relieved and I was ushered to a bathroom to change. A glance in the mirror assured me that I looked as good as the one I had seen in the shopping centre, though the false beard and moustache was giving me a bit of trouble. I was sure I could manage. Outside the bathroom door was a large red sack with presents the parents had brought for the children. The lady of the house gave me a bell, and pointed to the side door of the house as I heard the calls.

“We want Santa. We want Santa!”

With a ring of the bell and a ‘YO HO HO’ I was led to a garden seat amongst the  throng of youngsters. This kid, who didn’t believe in Santa, was jumping all over me, tugging at the bag of goodies.

I got an assurance from everybody that all the children had been extremely good for all the preceding year. I mentioned that it was too hot for Reindeer in summer in the mountains. I mopped my brow as the children crowded around me and started giving out the presents. The scrummage lessened as the bag was relieved of its treasures. This kid went off with a whoop, tearing at the wrapping of his parcel. Only a few remained.

A little girl in a dress of blue put her hand on my knee; there was a questing look in her face. I called another name and yet another and she was still there waiting, her eyes steady on me. Then only she remained, and, and there were no more presents in the bag.

She was looking at me, her hand on my leg moved nervously. This kid was back beside me, thrusting something in my face.

“How did you know, just what I wanted, how could you know, oh Santa how could you know?”

I brazenly said how clever Santa was whilst little grey eyes were fixed on mine. I was desperately trying to think how I could get the present from my wife’s bag, the one we had brought for our friend’s child, without shattering her image of Santa, then a voice whispered in my ear.

“Here’s a spare present.” paper brushed my hand and I tried to see who had given it, but my vision was blocked by the false beard. A smile and not a backward glance from her grey eyes as she skipped away with the little parcel. Then it was this kid again, giving me a hug and saying again.

“How did you know Santa? You’d have to be magic to know how much I wanted these.”

At least three of us believed in Santa Claus.


BLACK COCKATOO

They are huge birds! 90 centimetres from head to tail, yellow patch at the ear lobe and under the tail. Big bright inquisitive eyes, huge beak and heavy claws. Mostly they fly as a family of two adults and a juvenile. When the autumn winds start they congregate into large flocks flying the updraughts; aerial acrobats without peer. Their plaintive calls bring me out of the house whenever I hear them.

Surrounded by bush, my morning walks often take me to a gully that is part of the territory of a pair, I have never found their nest but have seen three juveniles raised by them. They will play hide and seek with me. I hear the warning call of the lookout but they sit so still that sometimes I will walk under a tree before I know they are there. One will fly off with a warning sigh, the others will call and raise their head feathers and perhaps spread their wings. Mostly they just keep on with their digging for grubs in the branches. Branches as thick as your wrist torn asunder in the matter of minutes.

To day, four of them sat in the tree in our courtyard, spreading their wings against the wind, turning their heads from side to side. I stood transfixed, they looked hard at me, perhaps they knew of the great indignity that one of their kind had suffered, years ago, partly because of me.

I worked for a chain store and had my foot on the executive ladder. Really that meant I worked overtime for no pay but that has nothing to do with this story.

We had there, a pet section that stocked various types of fish and birds, birdseed, fish tanks, dog leads, collars and biscuits. It was a popular and profitable section, due to the energetic, caring, hard work from Wilko, the salesman.

Striking the bell on the register twice was a call for assistance from a floor manager, and I, answering such a summons one morning was shown a big cage with a large black cockatoo in it. We discussed making room to show this bird to its best advantage. The bird hunched in the corner of the cage, and Wilko said. “Do you think it’ll ever sell at twenty quid Mr. Morton? Perhaps I could get petty cash to buy a dowel to make him a perch?”

By lunchtime the dowel was torn to shreds, an old broom handle was in splinters next morning, the piece of ‘four by two’ from a broken pallet lasted less than a week. Water pipe was wired in and timber sections placed in the cage for the bird to work on.

Cramped and bored, it sat for weeks and weeks.

Company policy was that if goods weren’t moved within a certain time, they were progressively marked down in price until sold.

“Make him eighteen pounds, fifteen pounds, twelve pounds

ten shillings, ten pounds.” I said to Wilko progressively over the weeks.

Success at last! In the heat of a Saturday, when one could hardly move on the shop floor two bells rang. “Sold the parrot Mr. Morton!”

This was discussed over the Saturday afternoon beer. Shopping hours were different then, the relaxation on Saturday afternoon was like gold to us. We hoped the bird had gone to a good home. We were glad that there were to be no more of them.

On Monday just after the shop opened I heard two bells ring. “Gentleman wants a refund on the parrot.” Said Wilko. I signed the necessary paper work and asked the man to wait whilst I went up to the cashier to get ten pounds. (Registers started each morning with change for one pound.) When I returned and repaid the money.]

“Would you mind telling me why you brought him back?” As I looked at ‘money cheerfully refunded unless completely satisfied.’ guarantee printed on the docket.

“I took him to the local show and won five quid in the parrot section.” Came his cocky reply.

Fortunately the bird did sell soon after, I hope it got a decent home. Seeing them flying free now fills my heart with sorrow for that black cockatoo.

 


BRIDGE TO BRIDGE

I swam in the inaugural Bridge to Bridge race on the Nepean River, and did so for five years. It was an annual festivity each Australia day. I was able to swim a marginally better time every year. If I had continued to improve at that rate for about one hundred and eighty years, I would have been amongst the winners. If you completed the swim for five consecutive years you were promised a medal. I looked forward to this as I spluttered and paddled along in the water.

As swimmers finished they grouped around the official tent, chatting with friends as they waited for their times to be posted. On this fifth year a P A system was blaring pop music, interspersed with announcements that there was to be a presentation of medals, along with other festivities in the early afternoon.

Being Australia day, the main feature was a re-enactment of the landing of Captain Arthur Phillip. In the meantime the bar was open at the nearby hotel where barbecue facilities were available. We were promised that there would be 'other displays' by local groups.

It was the typical summer day in Australia! Picnic rugs were set out, kids swam and played in the mud, Mr Whippy destroyed Greensleeves. Relaxation was in order for the rest of the day. But was it? Some were taking life very seriously indeed. The Sea Cadets, (all six of them) who had a small shed-like establishment on the riverbank as headquarters, were hard at work. Boots were being re-cleaned, that is five pairs were, under the disapproving glare of the one who was obviously in command. After he begrudgingly accepted the boots, serious drill then commenced.

All five of them formed fours as best they could, shuffling forward in the approved manner, to line up at arms length, whilst the commander stood close and criticised looking deep into offender's eyes. To be fair he did it to all of them in turn; so no doubt, they all finished as well skilled as each other.

Haphazard traffic and parking on the road was a problem. A siren's blare was necessary to clear a path for a grey truck trailing a beautiful, old, clinker built, naval cutter. Obviously a prized naval showpiece to be used in the day's festivities. Our gallant Cadets were marched over to take possession of this wonder and from time to time could be seen give it a loving pat or rubbing the gleaming brass with their handkerchiefs.

Have I given you the impression that this was to be the `Sea Cadets' day? I mislead you, because the Army was also there in full force. Blitz trucks with trailers. Soldiers with camouflage battle dress. A large prime mover with six landing craft type barges. Land Rover utilities, bales of netting all adding to the confusion.

A shortish, red faced man, peak cap, bristly moustache and buttons on the shoulder was being deferred to by anybody who seemed to have anything to do with the day's events. He was exuding O-L-Q (OFFICER-LIKE-QUALITIES) throughout the event; he pointed, people ran!

By mid-day things were hotting up. Kids were demanding second or third ice creams, tempers were getting brittle. Mums were putting babies to sleep under mosquito netting and unsuccessfully telling older brothers and sisters to be quiet.

The PA announcer was beginning to fill in the details of the afternoon program. Miss Penrith Showgirl was to attend and would be brought by barge, courtesy of the Army reserve. Captain Arthur Philip would read a proclamation! The nearby hotel was open and had barbecue facilities available.

O-L-Q was like a man possessed.  The army number seemed to increase. They launched their barges and 'over and outed' with their two-way radios. On the back of one truck, groups of reservists were having black smudges put on their faces, weapons were being distributed. We were certainly going to be protected if there was a Koori objection to the proclamation.

The P A reminded us that the barbecue facilities were available at the local watering hole.

Our Gallant Sea Cadets were again visible, now resplendent in clean uniforms. Army landing barges were running up and down the river full of camouflaged reserves. A lot of swearing was going on over an outboard motor that wouldn't start. O-L-Q was taking it personally.

Good things come to those that wait, we are told, and at last an announcement;

"Ladies and Gentlemen Miss Penrith Show Girl will be arriving by Army barge." A hot wind had sprung up, small waves beat against the landing dock, as the barge made a ceremonial circuit and approached us. Miss Penrith Showgirl, resplendent with sash and large bouquet of flowers was seated on a high-backed chair, balanced on a box in the back of a land Rover in the barge. O-L-Q attended her, rigidly at attention.

Perhaps the Army is not as skilful with boats as the Naval Reserve. The barge's power was cut just as a gust of wind blew the craft sideways and the landing dock was missed, the motor sprang to life and another circuit made, we could see the colour of O-L-Qs' face heightening.

More power was applied on the second approach. Too much more! The assembled crowd felt the thud. Miss Penrith Showgirl was flat on her back in the land Rover on top of O-L-Q. Her throne like chair in the river, a small boy dived in and rescued it. 'Officer Like Qualities' was gallant. Our showgirl's flowers were restored, her dress was brushed, and a swimming official helped her to a chair under an umbrella. The driver of the barge was looking forward to scrubbing toilets for the rest of his career. O-L-Q was definitely much redder.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Captain Arthur Phillip is going to be transported by the Sea Cadets in a genuine Naval Cutter." Our commentator was ecstatic. We knew the reason for the clean outfits and the pride in the craft. One man standing at the bow. Four men at the oars, chief cadet the sweep. Captain Arthur Phillip, blue jacket, white trousers, peaked ceremonial headgear, a large parchment roll under his arm, standing in the stern. The cutter set out from the bank some hundred yards up river, the breeze clearly brought the 'Pull, Pull' calls from the sweep, to our ears. Do you know anything about timber boat construction? Clinker built boats depend on being wet at all times to maintain the tightness of the boards. Left dry they shrink and the craft will take water.

We soon saw that the approach of Captain Arthur Philip was in difficulties. The cutter was getting lower in the water. The sweep's rating was increasing in tempo there was a note of desperation in his voice. Our Sea Cadets on the oars responded with ragged gusto. One very vigorous stroke resulted in an oar breaking, the cadet falling in the lap of the man in front. As half the oar floated down the river, two canoeists grabbed a rope from the cutter and helped pull it to the landing stage.

Half full of water the cutter was sinking fast. Captain Arthur Philip's knee length boots slopped water as he climbed to the landing stage, his white trousers showing the tide mark.

The Sea Cadets were despondent. Their leader seemed to have given up his venom and politely asked the canoeists to bring back the half oar that was floating downriver.

O-L-Q was livid.

Captain Arthur Philip sat down. His boots were pulled off and drained. Towels applied to his trousers and some semblance of order restored.

"Ladies and Gentlemen! Captain Arthur Phillip will now re-enact the reading the proclamation of the founding of the Colony of New South Wales".  Our P. A. announcer had joy in his voice. Great times had arrived. Captain Arthur Philip his dignity restored stepped up to the flagpole. Clearing his throat as he unrolled the parchment.

BANG, WHOOSH, BANG, BANG, VROOM, WHOOSH. THE WESTERN SIDE OF THE RIVER ERUPTED IN NOISE AND COLOURED FLAMES. Landing craft roared into action and headed across the river, mounted machine guns spluttering with a crescendo of cracks.

We were under attack! All however was not lost, for on our side of the riverbank camouflaged troops broke from the greenery. They returned the fire. A desperate battle took place. Babies cried, kids rushed for the spent plastic cartridges and fought as valiantly as the troops for them. Some of the crowd seemed mystified whilst others were laughing. The mother of a child that had been knocked over by one of our defenders was savaging her child's assailant.

O-L-Q was ecstatic.

At last honour was satisfied and peace restored.

"Ladies and Gentlemen Captain Arthur Phillip will now re-enact the reading of the proclamation of the founding of New South Wales" There was finality and pride in the announcer's voice.

Captain Arthur Philip stepped up to the flagpole and again unrolled his parchment and started.

" Ladies and Gentlemen ------"

"MY GOD LOOK AT THE RIVER BANK. PUT OUT THAT BLOODY FIRE." It was O-L-Q.

Everyone looked across the river, for hundreds of yards flames were reaching to the trees and being blown up the riverbank. Smoke was billowing in a most spectacular manner. Obviously the incendiary devices had done their work better than expected. The dwellers on the opposite riverbank must have been terrified.

As the troops took to the landing barges and set off over the river. I heard the sound of fire sirens and somebody singing `Soldiers of the Queen. . '

I had to go home and asked a friend to pick up my medallion, it lives on the mantelpiece in the kitchen.

I haven't swum in the Bridge to Bridge since and believe that pollution may now have cancelled the event altogether.


CHRISTMAS

Deirdre and I gave ourselves a treat one Christmas and went to Jenolan Caves House for a night of luxury and rest. We felt we'd earned it. The build up to Christmas, at our house is hectic to say the least. The actual day is often a let down. With a family of four now gone separate ways, the commitments of partners and grandchildren's demands often mean that our celebrations have to be held on the weekend before the actual day.

On the real day there is often only us two old buffers at home. This year was no different. We spent time mopping up all the spills, tidying up the torn wrappers, found the odd glass or two behind the lounge, packed away the surplus dinner plates and made the place livable in our accustomed manner, well, yes, we did deserve a break. Good old Caves House! There was a vacancy in one of their de-luxe verandah rooms for the Yuletide stay over. This included: "A cave tour after the evening meal, a complimentary pre dinner glass of Champagne, buffet breakfast and traditional Christmas Dinner, on Christmas Day."

It was a hot drive out and the coolness of the tunnelled entrance was as welcoming as the wide open doors of the Victorian building. The high ceilings, grand staircase, heavy timber doors to the lift, the cedar reception desk polished to a glowing red and the hushed quietness, took my thoughts back to a more leisurely (for some) way of life.

Decked out for the festive season Caves House looked grand. Our dining table was near the large Christmas Tree, resplendent with decorations, flashing lights and parcels piled below. I thought of Pickwick's Dingley Dell experience and quietly thanked Dickens for reinforcing the spirit of Christmas in us all. We lacked the glowing hearth but were glad of the high ceiling fans circulating the cool air. A feeling of goodwill and cheer pervaded the dining room.

Seated at the table next to us was an elegant young couple, casually dressed, with a lovingly cared for boy of about three years of age, I heard them talking of the joys of this blessed season to the child. He sat with wide-eyed wonder, looking at the scene, and occasionally at me. He conversed in whispers with his mother who smiled at his remarks. We heard a quiet announcement that our cave tour was due to leave presently, and knew we must be on our way. Our waitress told us to be sure to use the same table tomorrow.

You could be traditional or continental for Christmas breakfast. Fresh fruit and cereals, juices, yoghurts, breads, croissants, toast, eggs in may guises, order an omelette if you wanted it, proper crispy bacon, (like they had before the war) four types of tea, myriads of herbal brews, coffee, short black, expresso, latte, fresh fruit. I chose traditional but was enjoying the scene as much as the food. I smiled to the little lad at the table near us. He was dressed in a brand new cowboy suit with a large hat he refused to take off. He was nearly too excited to eat his rice bubbles.

It was while we were having coffee that his young Mum came over to me, holding him by the hand.

"Would you mind?" she asked, "Would you mind if he felt your beard?" (I grew it longer in those days). "He realised that the Santa he saw in the shopping centre didn't have a real beard and it has caused him some doubts." He seemed satisfied as he left, but came back to show me the shiney buckle on his belt, and thanked me for his new suit.  There was a look of trust in his eyes that filled me with warmth and also a little longing for another little boy of years ago.

He wasn't such a little boy really, he was seven or eight, but he had a nature as sweet as wild bush honey and his sunny disposition brought joy to our family. He was still young for his age, sometimes almost vulnerable in his naivety.

When I drove home one hot February afternoon, I found him still in his school clothes, bowling a ball at the garage door and trying to pick up his bat and hit the ball on the rebound.

"Would you bowl for me Dad?"

"Sure, I'll just change my clothes and get a beer."

I bowled and we grew hot and so drew into the shade and talked about bats, his bicycle and school, then he said. "Would you tell me true Dad?"

"I always try to." I said.

"Dad is there a Father Christmas?" There was appeal both in his eyes and voice.

"No mate, it's the spirit of Christmas that’s nice to think about. Mum and I like you to think about the happy times." My eyes searched his as I tried to think of ways to ease pain in a young heart.

I felt his arms around my neck and warm tears on my shoulders.

"Oh Dad, did you really buy me this bike? Oh Dad."

My tears mingled with his.


 

COMPLIMENTARY TICKETS

"Hey, just great! Tickets to a film premier in Sydney. A free day out. Email them to say we'll be there."

That was weeks ago. Today was the day and, as I have become used to things changing without notice I queried the proposed activities with Dee.

"Of course we're going." It was then that the doubt as to suitable clothing raised its head.

"How about we get something in town?" This gained a withering glance and a statement about all the mirrors and the fact that her legs were too short and her bum to big.

"I'll shop locally, then there's no need for you to come and look bored."

This trip was a success, a crushable old gold number that looked great with the new blouse. Very smart indeed! My comfy, shabby Donegal tweed coat felt out of place.

"Oh, by the way, there's hell on the railway, track work everywhere, we'll have to drive to Penrith."

Our trip to Penrith was reasonable; the car was out of fuel so it cost thirty-four dollars and ninety cents to fill it. Parking was easy and the ticket seller didn’t even want to see Dee's senior's card. (Probably realised I wouldn't have a young spunk with me.) But he did give me a hard time when I forgot the twenty cents GST.

Our suburban train was pretty full when this vision of a girl walked up the steps. Everybody moved to let her sit beside them. She was magnificent, possibly South American. Dark skin, Titian hair in a big rolled plait, gold earings, pale pink lips, apricot tank top and skirt empathising her slim but full figure, gold ring in her navel. Ah the glory of adolescence.

We were in Sydney earlier than we needed to be so decided the Art Gallery would be the go. Walking across the park we saw young scaffolders erecting a show stage. Strong virile young men, casually throwing large bars to others high above who caught them with ease, the sun shining on their perspiring bodies. Ah the arrogance of their youthful assurance.

Admission was free, the Aboriginal exhibition we wished to see was a cost though, even with the Senior's discount, and one of those recording things there wasn't much change from a twenty.

Magnificent art work telling stories difficult for the westerner to comprehend. A history of the reserves that had been set up years ago in which many skins and tribes, often hostile to each other were forced to live together. How from the resulting distress some managed to start a creative activity that has become world famous. I recalled the distress a similar establishment caused me, years ago when I went looking for petrol on a trip across the desert. Vacant eyed youths kicking empty tinnies around a concrete walkway between the store and the petrol bowser, which was triple locked, three people needed to open the pump whilst the kids crowded around to sniff the petrol. I compared the devastation and deprivation of those youngsters to the study group of fashionably dressed kids, in the gallery. Keenly interested, discussing, writing notes, comparing, moving to and fro, sharing the tour guide information.

After the art we did need a smidgen didn't we? Harbour view, smell of coffee and good food, busy and efficient waitress, and a pleasant time to reflect, before the tip on the table and the presentation of the plastic card on the way out.

Walking past the sandstone buildings, we saw the new spires on St Mary's Cathedral then wandered on to Hyde Park, where we passed the Archibald fountain. I blessed the adolescent country's hopes and faith that invested so much passion and thought into the future of the city.

We had to go to David Jones food hall because we had forgotten the birthday present for stepsister Gilda on whom we would be calling. Twinings Tea and a Fortnum & Mason Jam. It was only plastic money after all.

A happy time, as we caught up with Gilda's news in her delightful little Paddington house, the orchids in the tiny terrace garden looking beautiful. Then it was on to the Chauvel Theatre for the Film Premier. Perhaps it wasn't quite what we thought it might be but a good show just the same. Alas we missed the bus to Central, not another for fifty minutes at that time of the evening. However a taxi and a tenner fixed that.

Our train was crowded again; we were looking for a seat together when a youngster with physical difficulties stood and offered us hers, she moved to one of the other part occupied seats. We sat opposite a young Indian couple, he asleep on her shoulder, she looking at him with so much tenderness. Sometime later we saw them talking, heads close together, her eyes weeping, he comforting her and wiping away her tears. Dee caught her eyes and mouthed "Bless you". She smiled back. There was more talk and tears and comfort and then close contact and heads together again. As they arose to get out at Blacktown he turned to me saying,

"She was crying because I said I wanted to have six children." She smiled; dark eyes shining, and asked.

"Do you have children?"

"Four." I said.

"Ah, my grandmother had sixteen!"

They bowed and he shook my hand as they left the train, arm in arm.

It could have been the inner glow they left us with that made us feel hungry. When we arrived at Penrith we sought our favourite Chinese café.

Our waiter smiled and said "The usual?" to which we nodded. We reminisced as to how long the café had been at this spot; of family gatherings we had had there over the years, of the time our youngest (about five) gave the attentive young waitress a more than respectable pat on the bottom. I fear my remonstrations had been tinged with jealousy.

 

As (yet again) I signed the paper work of the plastic card and dug for a tip I asked our young waitress if the café had been there for over the thirty years we had estimated.

"Ah long time, before I was born. I don't know."

It had been a happy day, but the hour of reckoning with the plastic may belie the "Free day out" tag.

 


DADS ARE DIFFERENT

Well mine was anyway! His name was Harold and he was one of four children born into the slums of early Sydney. He grew up in the shadow of Darlinghurst Gaol. Money and love were in short supply but there was plenty of cane and strap from his father's brutal discipline.

Rage and anger were always present in the house, his elder brother enlisted in the Great War to get away from the home, but never got over his fearful upbringing. My father's twin took his own life after considering patricide. His younger sister as a child could not swallow food, through fear when her father was present; this led to obesity and diabetes.

At fourteen Harold was attracted to the Liberal Catholic Church of St Alban's, where my maternal grandfather, a patron of the Church and its diverse activities befriended many young people.

Harold and his father attended a service together once. It resulted in Harold's father stamping out of the Church and shouting.

"If you ever attend another service you'll be turned out of my house."

Harold with fourpence halfpenny in his pocket caught a ferry to my mother's home at Cremorne. Her father offered him sanctuary in an atmosphere in which he could blossom. His natural ability was developed. Harold was attracted to holy orders and progressed to the point that he was about to be ordained as a Bishop in the church. He was a capable executive and became the general secretary of the Theosophical Society in Australia. They were at that time pioneering radio and formed radio station 2GB.

There was a power struggle over the station, which became an extremely valuable enterprise and I fear that justice was not done and much heartache and division was caused. In the final wash up of events Harold became the proprietor of a library but it carried several extremely avaricious shareholders that caused problems over future years.

Optimism, belief that the good would prevail and love were the gifts he brought to the home he worked so hard to provide.

My elder brother's death as a six-year-old coincided with legal battles that saw 2GB wrested from the founder's control caused a division between the Church and himself. Harold never spoke against religion but it ceased to be part of our family life.

He was a kind and loving man. He taught me to respect but always to question authority. To try to help the needy, either spiritually, physically or financially. He taught me to love and respect nature. I regret that it has taken me so long to find the meaning in so much of his wisdom.

Life was not always kind to him but Harold considered himself lucky in the extreme. His marriage was long and good. He did not attract wealth, nor was he robust but he had courage! Courage to face the bitter derision of being a Conscious Objector in nineteen thirty nine. Courage to face the possibility of prison for his ideals. Courage to face the racketeer who tried to implicate him in nefarious dealings during the war. Courage to help my sister to build a new life when her young husband died leaving her with two little girls. Courage to help his alcoholic brother throughout his broken life. Courage to stand and be counted for what he believed in.

His dying was long and undignified, not a fitting end for a Dad who was so different, so loving and caring. I have heard it said that you should choose your parents wisely, as I certainly did.

DERELICT

I had seen her in the city before, her walk slow, heavy, almost lumbering. Down at heel shoe on one foot, remains of a slipper on the other, shapeless hat, `Mother Hubbard' type dress, dirty, a large collection of plastic bags stuffed full of who knows what in each hand. They must have been valuable to her, for once, when I offered to carry them for her she repelled me with a withering glance. She demanded her privacy and space. I never saw her with anyone.

I saw her this morning as I walked up Wynyard ramp, as shapeless as ever, plastic bags overflowing, slow steady walk, with not a glance at anyone. What was her story I wondered, as I hurried towards the business centre. A wait at the kerb, then as one of the flock, cross George St as the lights flashed. I could feel the morning heat as I climbed the granite steps into the marble foyer. A world of glass, potted plants, quiet elevator doors, gentle rocking, a gong to announce your arrival hundreds of metres in the sky. More glass and plants and spacious offices with displays of pottery and paintings of rivers and a wind tossed ship in a full clipper rig. Always tasteful, always serene, carpet soft under foot, never the picture of a grimy factory, a shipyard, or a textile mill with its rows of scruffy workers bent to the loom.

A receptionist looks up from her desk, headphone on, plastic smile as she answers the phone call. `Putting you through.' Smiles again and asks cosmetically,

" Can I help you?"

Pushes a button on her desk and talks quietly and points to the chairs. Doors open silently, the air conditioning lulling me away from the summer heat. Then He's there. We shake hands and he ushers me into the `Clients Room'.

"Yes, It's a good idea to take your profits! A trip to South Africa! Great! We can help with the travellers' cheques, at best price. Reinvest half the funds, good thinking." He talks on about Faxes, Blue Sky, Figures, Up Sides, Market Forces and Overseas Influences.

Agreement! We settle on a few ideas, make arrangements about money for the travel agent. Shake hands. Then back to the blistering pavement of Australia Square.

Life is good! Smart that broker! Kept me off the pension for another six months, perhaps longer if he can keep up the good work. A Cafe Latte under an umbrella in the Plaza beside the fountain, perhaps one of those sticky cakes from the trolley? Go on, Dr's not watching. You deserve a treat. Yes, life is good. I savour the Jamaican bean, the smoothness of the creamy milk, the scene of busy city life.

She trudges up the steps from Pitt Street, over the plaza to the fountain, places her plastic bags carefully on the ground and sits on the edge of the pool.

My friendly waiter quietly asks if I would like another coffee. I nod assent as I continue to watch her.

She pulls off her felt hat, splashes water on her hot red face, on her head, sits a moment, splashes more water and then cups both hands lifting water to her mouth.

Life is good for some I thought. Perhaps a bit of compassion for another may give me a few points in the right camp if ever St Peter and Old Nick were debating the fate of my soul. I went over to her, a bank note in my hand.

"You look down on your luck, how about having a bite and a cupper on me?"

The eyes were the same as before but the voice was loud and shrill.

"Get away from me you dirty old rapist or I'll scream for the police."

As I regained my seat, Many eyes were upon me and I needed the caffeine.


DUST

Dust blew from the cliffside as the machines drilled and scraped away. The traffic was slowed on the road, due to the workmen. We halted. I was stopped near the narrow bridge with the emergency ramp in front of me. I tried to remember some of the history of the Victoria Pass. Thought of how, as a boy on a school excursion to the Jenolan Caves, our coach driver had shouted to us,

“See the pick marks left in the rock by the convict workmen.”

Then there was the accident I had here. I ran into a truck when the brakes of my vehicle failed. I thought of how my youngest son had gone in his first weeks at school on an excursion to Little Hartley Farm at the bottom of the pass. His tales of shearing sheep, riding on a farm cart, seeing a cow milked and sitting in a farm shed to eat his lunch. A quiet uneventful school type activity we thought from his tales. It was a few weeks later as we were driving down this same road to visit our daughter at Bathurst, that our youngster said, pointing at the safety ramp.

"This is where we came to `Little Hartley Farm' and our bus driver took us for a drive up that hill!"

Traffic moved and I was on my way again to the bush block to cut firewood with two mates. Two or three tranquil days. Sitting around the campfire, walking in the bush, binoculars at the ready for a bird sighting, a dip in the ice cold water of the little stream and perhaps a friendly `cold one' or two, at `half past' with my friends.

It was decided when the wood was cut and ready to load, for us to wander over the ridge to the remains of old shale oil mines where the rock or torbanite had been won over a century ago. Perhaps if time allowed catch up with Johno and his Missus who lived nearby on a little bush block. They ran a few cattle and fossicked for gemstones in a mine they had the rights to work. They always had time for a yarn and said they enjoyed a visit.

They live a hard lonely life I was thinking as we climbed the steep hillside. It was slow going, but on top of the ridge the view made up for it all. Peaceful rugged bush, no sign of habitation. A hint of a little clearing over one ridge. Two wedgetail eagles soaring the wind drifts. Harsh tang of wild goats in a small cave, over in the trees we could hear the Lyrebird's `Clang Clang' call, a wisp of smoke miles away on the horizon.

Perhaps Johno was right after all.

The scramble down was much easier, though, when we were in the gully near the little house, we were hot and puffing. The water tank was a welcome sight and as we slaked our thirst we noticed the house seemed quiet, almost deserted. No dog barked as he usually did. Johno always left him tied up when they were away at the mineshaft. After calling out and getting no answer, we walked on to the mine to see if we could find anything about what was happening. Not a thing, all tidy and in order, but no sign of life.

It was a walk of few kilometres down the bush track to the creek, where we could make our way back to the camp walking along its course.

My hearing is not the best and I saw the dust first far along the track. Johno was alone with a few packets of provisions on the seat beside him when he stopped the old green utility and put his head out the window.

"How's ‘yer going, and where's Tom and how long are you up here for?” He was full of questions, seemed to be trying to monopolise the talking from the word go.

When I got a chance I asked.

"How's the missus, not with you to-day?"

"Well no, no, things ain't too good there, in fact she's gorn. Gorn off and shacked up with the publican at the local, so a bloke can't even go in there for a bit of a booze up.”

He was quiet a moment, then almost as an afterthought.

“Would yer believe it, last week me dorg fell orf the back of the truck and I had to shoot him." He was a tough old body and I didn't know how to console him.

"You're having a tough trot!" I said, looking him in the eyes.

"Yer, it's bloody hard getting a good dorg nowadays, by jeeze it is".

 

FAR WEST

Southern Queensland. Far West. The town boasted a population of 123. I had booked an overnight van, at a caravan park two miles out of town, a sprinkler was going, showing the first bit of greenery after hours of red dust. I had a long way to go the next day and hoped for an early start. I decided to go into town and fill up with petrol.

Town consisted of a few old style buildings. A Pub. Then a hundred metres on, a timber and iron building with a faded `BUTCHER’ sign, obviously boarded up for generations. Another fifty metres to bowsers on the side of the road in front of a large building with a ‘GENERAL STORE’ notice. I had to get out to see smaller print proclaiming ‘Business Hours 8 till 5’. It was well after five and the shop and bowsers were locked. Opposite a weatherboard building painted a dirty mustard yellow. POLICE, said the sign. The evening chill came as rapidly as the darkness. Friday evening and the only activity was up at the pub. Perhaps it could be interesting I thought.

Proper old-fashioned swinging doors, `BAR’ painted in large white letters. Mary M ----- Licensee, over the door. Inside an l-shaped bar room, big pot bellied stove in the corner, stools along the bar. One stool pulled near the stove had a large cattle dog draped over it, in imminent danger of falling off. His yellow eyes in the big Roman nosed head watchful. Groups, mostly youngish men standing along the bar. Older men sitting separately here and there, a television set blaring about the football match to be seen later that night. A babble of talk and shouts of laughter in the smoke filled air. I took in the photos along the wall, horse races, a boxer his face mostly hidden by his gloves, large coloured poster of a naked well built girl holding a popular bottle of whisky, strategically… .

A door at the rear of the room opened with a squeak of rusty hinges. A man and woman entered. She had tousled blonde hair, and lifting the entrance to the bar stepped in. He lent across the bar and gave her a selfconscious kiss and joined a group of drinkers. She stood there and brushed at the blonde hair with her hand. Another of the drinkers sidled over to her, notes in hand, she counted them and stuffed them into a handbag. Coming from behind the bar she took his hand, the door squeaked as they went out.

"Want a drink mister?" it was the landlady. She wore a large `smily’ badge saying `Hi I'm Mary’.

"Stout please." She shook her head.

"No call for that here."

"A draught then thanks." The foaming glass formed wet patches on the bar. She took the note I offered and slapped down the change. Reaching for clean glasses she was off to the other drinkers.

I was enjoying the scene and moved over to the fire. I heard the growl and turned, the dog’s eyes glowered. It was then I saw the sign painted above the fire "DOGS NOT ALLOWED IN THE BAR”. A group of drinkers exploded into laughter, somebody stepped back and knocked the stool. The dog lost his balance and fell to the floor, snarling, with bared teeth, hair bristling he jumped back on the stool and settled again, defiance in every movement, gravity, the sign, the man who bumped him.

I walked across and signalled for another drink. She placed it in front of me and before picking up the money asked.

"You up here looking for opals mister?"

"I didn’t know there were opals here!" I said.

“Hey Macca!" She called. "Tell him about our opals and the mining." One of the older drinkers sitting alone, pushed his stool across.

"They call me Macca, you know like Macca on a Sunday Morning on the ABC. I’m gunner phone him up sometime and talk about the opals here to him! You know Macca to Macca." He proffered his hand, sun cancers on the back, work hardened. We shook. He stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray and felt in his pocket and pulled out a tobacco tin, opened it and took out some carefully wrapped gems.

"Have a drink" I said and signalled again to Mary. Mary was working hard, the bar was filling up. Macca was away, talking of potch and doublets and "REAL GEMS" and claims and strikes and the hot hard digging and the effect of machines on the fields. He was growing animated, reaching into another pocket he produced a leather pouch. They were beautiful stones. He wrapped them carefully in soft cloth and packed them with tissue paper to prevent movement. He was talking all the time. A voice cut in.

"I can show you a real opal." It was the blonde lady from behind the bar, she tugged at a chain around her neck and pulled a polished stone from between her cleavage, exposing a pendulous white breast with darkish nipple. Light flashed colour from the stone as she twirled it gently, not adjusting her dress.

"Five hundred bucks, and a good time thrown in, what do you say?"

"Right out of my league." I said.

She dropped the stone back and pulled her blouse tightly and huffed down to the far end of the bar. She wasn’t alone long. I turned back to Macca but his manner had changed. He was agitated, his mouth working with no sound, his eyes distant, fingers and hands trembling.

“Bloody woman.” He found his voice. “Bloody woman, I give ‘er that opal, dug it out of a support column, coud’er got killed. Bloody woman. Here give me a rum.” He shouted. The landlady knew the signs. She was in front of him, hard eyed.

“Joe McKenzie, remember what the Sergeant said after last time you got on the rum, down the city.”

“Fuck the Sergeant, give me a rum.” He was defiant.

“Macca!” She said.

“Give me a rum.” Bravado this time. Not hiding the vacant look of the dedicated alcoholic in his gaze, but mostly it was the fear that I saw. "Them bastard pigs in the city, the things they do to you, bloody animals don’t do that sort of thing, give me the Sergeant anytime, He may be a bastard but he’s our sort of a bastard. Gimmie' a rum" he shouted.

Realising I was out of my depth, that Macca had forgotten all about me, his fear filled eyes looking right past me. I finished my drink and left, conscious of eyes for a long time, Macca’s frightened the landlady’s hard and the dog’s glowering.

It was cold in the caravan and I slept fitfully, till near dawn when I slept heavily and it was nearly half past eight when I pulled up at the bowser. The store was still shut and there was no sign of life anywhere in the town.

I got out of my ute and slammed the door, stomped over the wooden verandah. Rattled the shop door, looked in the window, row upon row of bottles of sauce, pickles, condiments, chutneys. Something to go with the boiled mutton I supposed.

Across the road a door slammed, I looked at the police station and the residence beside, for the first time noticed the dumpy brick cellblock, and the paddy wagon standing alongside, the back door still open. On the verandah opposite a large man in khaki shorts, brown boots and a worn shirt, I could see where the insignia had been removed. He was obviously dressed in Saturday morning chores mode. He came across the road and demanded.

"Where you going?"  I told him.

"Turn round, eight kilometres up the road turn right. Two hundred and sixty kilometres you come to a "T", turn left, sixty Ks further you can get more petrol, keep going."

The door behind me opened and slammed, a woman came out of the shop.

"Morning Sergeant, must have slept in a bit after last night. Quite a night wasn’t it?" He gave her a look and the words seemed to dry up in her mouth. "Unleaded?" she mumbled keeping her eyes on my petrol tank. The Sergeant leaned his arms on the side of my truck. He was older than I had at first realised, his hands and knuckles were scratched and cut, bits of skin missing, more scratches on his cheek, a swelling at his eye.

"Sixty two dollars, thirty." She said, I offered my Bankcard.

“Cash.”

I took out my wallet and found a hundred-dollar bill. Not a word was spoken. She went into the shop and returned with my change. Included was a five dollar bill, as I walked round to the driver’s side of the ute I folded it over my finger, proffering it I said

“Could I buy a cold one for Macca?"

The Sergeant hardly seemed to move but suddenly his chin and eyes were very close, menacing.

          "Piss off."

I got into the driver’s seat, glad I wasn’t an Aborigine. As I started the motor and put on my seat belt he walked to the middle of the road. A big roman nosed cattle dog came out from under his house and stood beside him.   


THE WINK

 

In the Deputy Headmaster's office. He had already taken us through the finger-stabbing regime. We had been accused of just about every crime ever committed in the school precincts; The blackouts, wartime Sydney suffered, were down to us, Hitler's march through Europe was due to a deficiency of ours. He was into the cane flexing now, bending his symbol of authority and fear in our faces. The crimes were coming closer to home.

          "What do you say to that?" Eyes glinting under fat lids, his pudgy jowly face held close to ours. "What about that?" Blue and I were edgy. I was ready to confess to the rape of Lucrezia Borgia. "Eh, what about that?" He shouted.

He maintained his authority by `fear and terror', and was the only teacher that I can remember that I never heard a good word said about from anybody. It was during my second year at High School that the news, one assembly morning of a massive stroke, causing his immediate retirement was greeted with spontaneous cheers. He was gone, unlamented, leaving only a scar in the memory of everybody he had come into contact with.

But that was to come, He was very present and very threatening at this moment. I looked around and was shaken to my very roots to see the change come over Blue. His shoulders had started to shake; he rubbed his fists into his eyes. Sobs, yes sobs from Blue, tough never to be daunted Blue, Blue with all the answers. The leader of the pack, the one we all paid homage to.

Blue, was what my maternal Grandmother called `common'! He was a little, cocky, crew cut redhead. A swatch of hair at his forelock, lots of freckles and confident grey green eyes. He played football two grades above everyone else in class and stood up to the bullies by leading us en-masse against them. He was never actually in the fight himself, but was always exclaiming his prowess. His supreme confidence carrying him through. Always skirting trouble by the skin of his teeth. Late to school, late with his homework, a ready answer for any situation on the tip of his tongue. The leader in many a foolhardy exploit. His adventures writ large in the annuls of student's memories. "Do you remember when Blue talked himself out of trouble with his homework by talking about the cat having kittens?"

"Do you remember the time when all the fuel drums were on the station and we were arguing whether they were petrol or kerosene?" It was Blue's match found that out.

We talked a lot about him when he didn't return for the third year of high school. Everyone had a story; even teachers would bring up some exploit. Where did he go I wonder?

But I knew where he was on this day; in the office beside me, shattering my dream of his legend like qualities. He was bawling, his voice came in squeaky filled sobs, his whole body shaking with misery. What had happened to my hero? Even our tormentor was taken aback. He must have thought again about the punishment that I swear he enjoyed administering, for he turned around and replaced the cane on his desk. (I felt the same feeling of relief that comes when the dentist hangs up his drill and pushes it away.) Whilst his back was turned to us, Blue dropped one fist from in front of his eye and gave me an all encompassing wink. I was jolted, had to bite my lip to hide my smile.

The piggy eyes were again close in front of mine, the voice harsh.

"You keep your little ginger mate out of trouble in the future, You hear me?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Dismiss."

Sounded good to my ears.

Blue was whistling quietly as we walked back to our classroom. 

 


THE BOTANICAL GARDENS

She was the grand old lady of the family and used to take, what she called her `little' family, consisting of her married son, his wife and four children, her Batchelor son, my wife Deirdre her niece and our four children, to the Summit restaurant. It was a real Christmas treat for us all. Whilst the youngsters were little it was a huge success, they would vie with each other to see who could eat the most puddings and generally be as gross as kids could be. Slowly the years caught up with her and us. As youngsters became pairs, we felt it becoming an imposition, not that she minded. However it was decided to combine her ninetieth birthday (early December) and the Christmas outing with a picnic in the Botanical Gardens.

          Deirdre and cousin's wife Diana are great providers and there was a touch of rivalry as to who was to bring what. I know that we brought the square of sponge, which was to be both birthday and Christmas cake. Large bottles of fresh cream and an egg whisk were packed with ice in the esky (at the expense of the Champagne.) There were phone calls to the Strawberry farm with requests for fruit to be ready for us on the way to Sydney on the Sunday morning.

          "Only firm, fresh and ripe ones, please."

          All went well, the berries were magnificent, Deirdre kept them at her feet, in the front of the old Land Cruiser, the air conditioner on them `to keep them cool.'    We all knew better, it was to keep them from being eaten.

          We arrived at the park gates on the drive to Mrs Macquarie's Chair a bit ahead of the others. I pulled into the kerb on the side to unload the feast, the chairs, the picnic rugs, assorted people and presents. We were a happy and party-minded group. Not so the Council Parking Inspector who gave us no peace.        "Can’t park here!" I didn't answer as we continued with our unloading. He took his peaked cap off and put it on again, the peak a little further over his eyes. "See the sign?" He pointed.

          Our families had their orders, carry the goodies carefully into the grounds, no skylarking, get a clear section of the lawn, some shade and some sun, spread out the rugs and repel invaders with vigour!

          "Move it as soon as we're finished unloading." I said.

     He stood there flapping his parking infringement book and didn't move until I was driving down the road to find a spot for the vehicle.

          What a magnificent day I thought as I walked back. The harbour at it's blue green stage with the multicoloured sails of the small boats reflecting. amidst the accasional white splash of wave. Across the harbour close built North Shore suburbs' red roofs, climbing up amongst the green and colour of flowering trees. The dull green of the fig trees with many a yellow leaf on the grass, sandstone wall with it's piked railing, rolling grass of the gardens picked out by beds of flowers. What a lucky person I am, what a lucky day, what a lucky country I thought, as I was back at the gates.

Cousin was helping his mother out of the back seat of his Bentley. Her thick dark glasses and wide hat made it obvious that the sun troubled her eyes. Two grandaughters were at her side as attendants. More goodies were being unpacked as the parking attendant returned. Eyeing the classic old motor, he turned to Cousin and smiled. He pulled his cap even further down over his eyes so as not to see me. 

          Colourful rugs, baskets full of food, Christmas presents wrapped in pretty paper, cans and bottles in a plastic tub of ice, the fizz of an opening bottle. Youngsters throwing their beach ball, people trying to hold two conversations at once. Quiet assessing of a new partner in the youngster's ranks. I wonder if I have put on as much weight as the Bentley Cousin has over the year; The Batchelor Cousin, who is always late and still not here as we settle down to pure indulgence and the joy of each others company.

          "Come and play ball with us Ivor." I am away

with the grandchildren and running down the hill to catch the ball. It finishes at the feet of the Japanese bridal couple having their photos taken with the Opera House as a backdrop. The Groom kicks it back with a smile and as I run back up the hill I see an elderly lady, book in hand, sitting by hersesf in a park chair. She calls the youngsters to her and offers them a sweetie out of her bag; they laugh about something and run off with their ball.

          Back at the festivities it’s more talk, perhaps a bit of bragging, words of caution about someone’s new deal. Petrol prices are discussed.

          “Have another piece of this quiche”.

          “Where's the corkscrew?”

          “Try a glass of this, it’s special from the Wine Society”.

          “What about the birthday cake?”

          I whisk up the cream, as the strawberries are destalked, the sponge placed on a large wooden tray, smothered with cream and almost hidden by the strawberries.

          Nine `ten year candles' are lit and we all sing Happy Birthday. Champagne flutes are brought out as corks pop and good wishes for the birthday; Christmas and the New Year are passed from one to another. I look at the Bacchanalian scene of luxury and plenty. The cornucopia of food and fruit. Silver wine goblets, pewter beer tankards, the champagne flutes, and the tub still half full of bottles, healthy youngsters with their ball.

          Summer afternoon nor'easter stirring the harbour and making the little sail boats skip. All's well with the world.                                                


THE OLD SAUCEPAN

Rivers. Ah the pleasure they give me. From the headwaters in tiny hidden gullies overhung with rainforest trees to their quiet disgorging into the sea, how I love the life along them and the joy, occupation and relaxation they have given my family and myself.

          From the quiet mountain rivulets, just a gap in the ground with a splash from the birds going about their ablutions, to the swirl of a trout, and the ever hopeful angler casting his lure under the overhanging branch.

          I can see his quiet contemplation of eddies; The slow twisting of the leaves on the water, and hear the rattle of the ratchet in the reel, tension at the strike and the do or die battle of tactics with the light line against the plunge of the fish.

          Half an hour lost to every thing but concentration on the catch. Slow wind in, quick release as the fish drives away towards its familiar resting-places. Guiding away from the snags, winding, flash of silver as it leaps from the water to free itself, more slack, quick rewind, closer. Smile of triumph as the line comes ever closer, lunge away, give line, give line, final reel in then the net and the basket, while the Kingfisher flashing his bright colours, watches our presence from the safety of a branch. Then his quick dart to the prey, the circles widening away from his plunge into the water.

           How can I forget the pretty figure, nymph like, strong legs, brown hair, firm breasts, smiling face. The cold of the water and the warmth of the sunshine and the long afternoons of loving on the grassy bank? Fat babies with large hats, plastic spades and a bucket full of water trying to build a castle or catch a tadpole and the shouts of the elder children away with their canoes, drifting over the water. Cattle under the willow tree chewing on their cud, swishing their tails

          I recall the chestnut horse harnessed to the slide. Old milk cans rattling and water  splashing as they are filled from the river to ease the strain on the rainwater tanks. She'd been there plenty of times before. She dips her big head into the clear stream, lets water dribble from big floppy lips, sighs and ease one hind leg to stand on the hoof tip. Sighs again and tug against the rope reins for a last splash when there is a clicking for the hard pull up the soft bank from the river and the slow drag to the dairy.

          Waterfalls from the high cliffs. Thin trickles almost mist like in the wind, the black cockatoos surfing the drifts, playing, wheeling, rolling, diving and soaring again, through the mists. Crying their delight in life. Perhaps the roar of flood laden creeks merging on escarpments and tumbling, tumbling on to distant ledges far below, into the wild valleys that wind away towards the sea. Rushing waters becoming tranquil as the valley floors widen and the farmland spreads.

          I remember holidays in the great outback on the banks of western rivers. Turgid, slowly flowing as they carry their grey colloidal load. Lifeblood to the farmers and graziers, feared for their drying up, feared for their flooding, locked and dammed, diverted, used for pleasure and used as a waste drain, pollution threatened, winding imperceptibly to the sea.

          There is a boy who shared this love of the rivers with me. His little canoe with its gay colours, the camaraderie it helped to build. His love that turned to sail craft and schoolboy sailing events, but returned with a rush, like the adrenalin when he found the thrill of canoeing whitewater. His quest for excellence that resulted in him wearing the Green and Gold of his country, with no great distinction but gaining a confidence in life that makes an old man proud.

          Long lost early days when life was hard and stressful. The invitation to go skiing on the river and the looking forward to the Sundays, though the budget would be strained by the cost of the petrol. The river water, ice cold, released from the bottom of the dam. Traumatic thoughts of the miscarriage caused by too long immersion in the cold.   

          Evening gatherings at our home after the day’s sking and the scrabbling for oddments of money to buy a bottle of beer and a share in what became a traditional Chinese meal.

          We would phone an order for a few dishes and I would take a cast iron pot to the cafe for the ten servings of fried rice that would pad this luxury out. Our gaily painted yellow saucepan with the enamelled landscape of red animals became traditional.

          The beautiful Asian lass behind the counter would never give us so much as a smile for all our chi-acking, our change was the only thing she ever said.

          "One Poun' Eigh' and six." Never a smile as she counted out the money. Her lack of communication became a laughing point with us and we vied to try to get her to smile, all to no avail.

          It was mid winter, skiing long over and the treat was for some another occasion. I phoned an order and walked into the cafe with the iron saucepan a little later.

          "Oh, Hello Miss'r Morton, I no see you such a long time!" She gave me a radiant smile.

I was up in the air with joy, she remembered me!             

"I recognise your saucepan."

 

COPYRIGHT. IVOR MORTON. 2003.