Authors: Michael Costello
"It's not Christmas," Doug pointed out, for Easter had just passed.
"Not just for holidays, I mean for always." I looked over to Mrs Crofter who nodded in agreement. Doug and I looked at each other.
"Yes please!" we sang out together, excited at the prospect of the carefree existence at Kilkenny. The later sad realisation that we would have to leave our friends behind soon sunk in, but couldn't dampen the prospect of embarking on this new adventure.
"Who knows Dr McNally, you might even meet a nice new mother for the boys," Mrs Crofter offered to an unresponsive Dad.
With teary waves through the back window of Dad's Holden at Mrs Crofter, we said goodbye to our old home at 222 William Street, Kingsgrove in Sydney, for good. After many hours driving we would soon be in the welcoming arms of Nan at Kilkenny. Mrs Crofter would stay on to oversee the removalists and forward our belongings. Before we left, she had packed us sandwiches, marble cake and a thermos of soup for our trip. She also gave us a present each of books with lots of colourful pictures to read on the journey. Doug's was about pirates and treasure and mine was about the adventures of a young English boy, who grows up and joins the army to fight against the bloodthirsty Zulus in Africa.
We read them one at a time. Both of us lingered over and discussed each picture, taking in all the detail, and saying the words together. When we came across a difficult word, we spelt it out. Dad taught us how to say it properly and what it meant. I could see he wasn't too impressed with Archie from my book, as he fired his rifle, 'the bullet smashing the jaw of the six foot savage' or 'stuck his bayonet into the evil chief's chest', but he did explain 'bayonet' to us and let us continue. I guess from his point of view, it stopped us from getting bored or feeling sad about leaving Sydney as we drove by town after town.
We pulled into several petrol stations on the way and stopped many times on the side of the road to prevent the car from overheating or to stretch our legs. Also I suspect, to give Dad a break from our repeated singing of
Ten Green Bottles
and games of 'I Spy'. His only full relief from us came when Doug and I dozed off to the rhythm of the wheels spinning over the endless stretches of hot bitumen, through the middle of the day, or fell asleep in the backseat at night.
By the time we reached Nan's place on the second day, close to bedtime, Dad was exhausted. He'd driven day and night. Nan hugged us so tightly on arrival, I thought my bones would break. Later, under our barrage of pestering, "Oh please, please, please …", that every child knows will get positive results if it's whiney and prolonged enough, Dad finally relented and let us stay up another two hours. He took one of the spare rooms and Doug and I remained in our normal holiday bedroom. While he unloaded the other suitcases and boxes from the boot, Doug and I lugged our smaller suitcases crammed with the most vital of our toys that we couldn't be parted from, up the front steps. We arranged them on the two bookcases Poppie had made for us. They were wide enough to fit our larger planes and cars and toy soldiers as well as my growing library of books.
After a cat's wash and a glass of warm milk, Doug and I gave up all resistance to going to bed. Dad hung up our clothes as we changed into our pyjamas. Tonight we were allowed to say our prayers in bed. Dad gave us both a goodnight kiss before leaving the door slightly ajar.
"Goodnight boys. Sleep tight. And don't let the bed bugs bite."
Lying in bed, I felt warm and secure to be with Dad and Nan, even if Poppie wasn't there. 'Cept he was. He just wasn't there to be seen. Unable to settle, I got up and went to the window. I brushed aside the lace curtains before pushing open the window and climbing out to sit on the thick jacaranda branch, as Doug and I would do during our holidays. Tucking my knees up tightly under my chin I breathed deeply, savouring the fresh country air. My eyes wandered up and down the moonlit street of what was to become our town, our home. A strange round of sounds louder than a bunger, more like gunshots came from far away in the distance from the direction of the Reserve, but too far away to be of concern. Shortly after, an old truck with three men in the cabin passed our place coming from the direction of the Reserve. They let Mr Wood off at his place. I took several more deep breaths as I looked up at the stars, twinkling between the leaves of the jacaranda's canopy.
"I wonder what the school is like. Do you think it'll be as good as Our Lady of Lourdes? Doug? Doug?" I too was asleep within minutes of my head hitting the pillow.
"Doug. Doug wake up! Look!"
I pointed towards the window at the sun disappearing from the front of the house.
"We've slept in!"
On holidays we were always up at dawn, helping Poppie collect the eggs for breakfast. Jumping out of bed, we headed barefoot to the kitchen.
"Sit up, almost ready." Nan's plump sausage fingers gripped a wooden spoon as she stirred away over a saucepan. "Yer dad's gone into town to wait delivery of his old furniture for the surgery. You two villains are to stay in the yard 'til he gets back." We both let out a disappointed,
I watched as her generous backside, like an over-stuffed armchair, moved around the stove. The skin of her underarms wobbled as she reached up for plates.
"But we want to go and play with Raymond and Barry," Doug tried to argue.
"Not today. He wants ya here where he can find ya. He's taking ya to the Sacred Heart to get enrolled. That's where all yer friends are anyway. It's not school holid'ys 'round here now." The penny dropped. "Yer scrambled eggs are ready." She served up before sitting down between us with a cup of tea.
"Boys, now that Poppie … Now that Poppie is, well …" We both reached out and squeezed her hands. She leaned over and in turn, kissed us both on the head.
"You miss him Nan?" I asked.
"Every day, darlin'. Every blessed day. He's in God's hands now. Prob'ly makin' Our Lord a nice set of shelves as we speak." Nan blew her nose. I pinched myself hard on the leg under the table, for asking such a hurtful question. I just wanted to know whether she missed Poppie as much as we did.
"Did Poppie die peacefully?" Doug asked softly. I kicked him under the table.
"Come on you two. Yes, he did, love. In his sleep, mercifully. No pain. Ya know, I'm so fortunate for the rich and full life I've had with yer Poppie that, well I wouldn't say 'bum' for sixpence." We looked at her in shock. "It's an old sayin'. Don't dob me in to yer Dad for sayin' 'bum'. It just slipped out. So, now you're both here, and I haven't got Poppie to help me, I'll need ya to do some chores – besides makin' yer beds, puttin' yer toys away and keepin' yer room tidy. Will ya do that for me?"
"Anything," I gushed, trying to redeem myself as we both wolfed down our breakfast.
"Bags chopping the wood!" Doug cried.
"No, I think we'll leave that for yer dad. What I do need a hand with, is waterin' the front and back gardens and the veggie patch, feedin' the chooks and collectin' the eggs. Oh, and cuttin' up the newspaper into squares and puttin' it on the nail in the toilet. Ya think you can manage all that between ya?" We nodded in agreement. I waited a few moments.
"Can Doug and I go outside now?" I asked. We were both itching to re-explore our territory.
"Not in them pyjamas."
We nearly knocked each other over as we dashed up the hall, trying to beat the other to be the first dressed and out the door. A few minutes later and we were belting past the kitchen, now fully clothed. With her back to us Nan called out,
"Now go back and put some shoes on. What if ya tread on a snake or a red-back bites ya on the toes?"
"I told you, she
got eyes in the back of her head, like Dad says," I whispered, or so I thought.
"You two'd have to get up pretty early to put one over on me. Shoes on and I'll call ya when lunch is ready. Remember, stay inside the yard."
Fully shod, we were out through the front screen door and up the jacaranda tree in seconds, straddling its branches. From there we could see up and down the street. The further up you went, you could see over the roofs of the houses across the road, and beyond. Mr Symonds lived directly opposite. He was sitting on his wraparound verandah with the timber blinds pulled up.
"G'day Mister Symonds!" Doug yelled.
"Mister Symonds!" I echoed.
Mr Symonds and his wife were the owners of the town's tearooms and were about Dad's age but childless. I overheard Nan and Gwen Grady talking about their situation once.
"I'm not one to gossip, but he looks to me like he'd probably only have one or two trout in the stream, if ya know what I mean. And they're obviously doing the backstroke," was Mrs Grady's charitable observation.
"Gwen! All I know is they've been tryin', but the Good Lord doesn't hear their prayers."
Mrs Symonds would still be inside baking the scones for the Devonshire teas that day. Everyone knew the exact time they were due home from the tearooms and sometimes, if there were any leftover cakes or scones, she'd bring them home. And then all we kids would swamp her before she even got to the front gate. With begging hands outstretched, we'd wait for her to remove a tea towel over the tray to reveal our booty. Then we'd cheer and take a piece each. If it was lamingtons, sometimes we'd get two, gorging a mouthful in turn out of each of our hands.
Mr Symonds looked around to see where the voice was coming from.
"Up here Mister Symonds. It's Doug."
"An' me, Pat."
He stood and moved to the top of his steps, followed by his old blind dog Honey, a dingo blue heeler cross. We both slid down the tree and continued our conversation hanging over our picket fence.
"Nan needs us to water the plants and collect eggs now that Poppie has gone to Heaven," I informed him.
"Dad's going to do his doctoring from town and we're going to go to Sacred Heart," followed Doug.
"So ya dad said. Well, won't that be good?"
"Is Mrs Symonds doing some baking?" I asked, hoping that it might include some vanilla slices or cream buns as well.
"She sure is." Mr Symonds smiled, picked Honey up and headed for inside. "Ready Esme?" he called, as the screen door banged shut behind him and we climbed back up the tree.
Over beyond the Symonds house and the wide paddock with its long grass, that ran behind his and all the other houses on his side of the street, was the creek. It snaked around most of the township, serving as a natural barrier during the mice plagues. Now it was flowing way below normal levels, but still deep enough for swimming and fishing.
Beyond the creek were the wheat silos, dotted over the harvest landscape and jutting into the sky. We turned over onto our backs on the thick, almost horizontal centre branches. I watched the leaves quiver as the smallest puffs of warm wind feathered through the tree top. And all around you could hear the she-oaks in the paddocks and especially along the creek bank in whirring conversation with each other.
Minutes passed in silence. Then more minutes, as I turned back over onto my stomach and looked further up the road to the Elliott's mulberry tree in the front yard. Like our jacaranda, theirs was the only mulberry tree in town. We'd had Nan's mulberry jam made from them on holidays, but we longed to taste the fruit straight from the tree. There wasn't any yet.
I looked over my left shoulder. Raymond's house, next to Nan and Poppie's on the southern side, wasn't like ours; it was still wooden, but not mounted on big stumps. It only had a few steps to their lattice enclosed verandah. It was painted white as well, like most of the weatherboard houses in town, 'cept Raymond's had blue trimmings as opposed to our green. From our side verandah you could look down into their backyard and also his parents' bedroom.
One summer night when we were on the verandah sleep-out, we saw Mr Smith's bare backside as he got changed for bed. We turned the torch off and put our hands over our mouths so that he couldn't hear us laughing in the stillness of the night.
That nocturnal secret we kept to ourselves because Doug and I were supposed to be asleep, 'cept we weren't. We'd taken Poppie's torch out of the kitchen and were reading comics by its light instead. Raymond was a year older than us with wavy golden hair that always looked liked it needed a good comb and tortoiseshell framed glasses that were forever slipping down to the tip of his nose.
He had the respect of all of our gang because he was the only one of us who could suck in enough air to say their whole name, in his case Raymond Archibald Charles Barrington Smith, on the one released burp. Best I could do was Patrick Michael of my name and up to 'H' of the alphabet. He was also part of the street cricket team along with Barry and some other kids nearby. Over the Christmas/New Year break we'd join them and have our own Test match, which went for days. Raymond's sister Sandra was in sixth class but a hopeless catcher. She was even more hopeless than I was which made me feel better. As we lay in the tree, I reminded Doug of the sight through Mr Smith's window.
"Boomp ba boomp ba boomp ba boomp," I laughed, imitating with my hands how Mr Smith's bum wobbled when he walked.
"Boomp ba boomp ba boomp ba boomp," Doug repeated then we both went into a fit of the giggles. As the humour died away, we sighed and rested there with nothing to do again 'cept listen to the faint sound of a piano coming from the Walshe house next door. The occasional passing vehicle or horse stirred up small clouds of reddish brown dust that had settled in a film on the old bitumen road. They hung in the air for a second then drifted back down onto the road.
These periods of being in the doldrums we would grow to accept as part of the everyday. Just as surely as holidays turned into school days, we would begin to fall into the slower rhythms of country life and the dictates of the seasons, but it would take time.
"Let's check out the chooks!" Doug suggested. We raced down the tree then around the side past the shed to the large chook run. With his longer legs, Doug came first, as usual.
Poppie kept half a dozen layers at a time in the twenty by thirty foot pen. It was made of strong double thickness chicken wire secured on iron posts to keep the foxes out. As well as benches, there were boxes filled with straw for sleeping and laying. He said he felt funny giving the chooks names.
"But everyone's got to have a name," I once insisted. With some misgivings he gave in, naming the chooks after movie stars of the day. There were only five chooks that day; Shirley, Rita, Lana, Betty and Lauren. We lost Greta last Christmas. Poppie told us he had to mend a hole at the edge of the wire fence where she either got out and ran away, or one of the foxes got in and carried her off to eat. It made Doug and me sad whenever this happened, but Poppie always got a new one before we came the next year.
There was one problem for us in agreeing to help Nan with the chooks. The feeding was okay. We could stand at the gate and just throw the chook pellets in on the ground and aim the hose at the water trough. Collecting the eggs was another thing. I was packing it.
"I'll feed them if you like and you collect the eggs," I offered.
"You collect the eggs and I'll do the feeding," Doug countered.
"Toss you," and I dragged out my lucky 1936 halfpenny that I always kept on me.
"Heads I collect 'em, tails you do," directed Doug. I tossed it high into the air with a little flick of my thumb.
"Best out of three?" I pleaded, but Doug wouldn't be in it.
I loosened the catch on the pen gate. Lauren came running over so I shooed her away and made my way to the benches – easy. I waved my hands about and made as much noise as possible and Shirley, Lana and Rita took flight. I moved slowly toward the boxes. Doug was encouraging me to go faster.
"You're scared," he taunted.
"Am not." So I acted like I wasn't. I peered inside the first box; no Betty, no eggs. The second box was empty as well. I edged my way to the third box, my heart beating in my ears. I turned my head away and stuck my hand in. Betty pecked me hard and I ran screaming to the safety of the gate then outside as chooks squawked and took to the air in all directions. Doug was on the ground laughing as I slammed and bolted the gate shut. I was fuming.
"You're supposed to throw some feed on the ground to distract them, like Poppie showed us!"
"I forgot," he smirked. I was rubbing my finger where she had attacked me, when Nan stuck her head out of the kitchen window.
"You two, leave them chooks alone. I got today's eggs and fed 'em." This only made Doug laugh more, so I punched him on the arm then ran to the safety of the house steps before he could get to his feet.