Betsy was really excited about going to Mervyn's house. Her mother gently explained to her that it would only be for a few weeks. But she wasn’t listening, she was running through her mind what books and clothes to take with her. The excitement of sleeping away from home was mounting the more she thought about it. She looked at her mother; some of her words broke through Betsy's thoughts,
“Now you be sure to wear your best dress to church on Sunday, behave yourself, and don’t answer back!”
Her Mother's weary face slowly came into focus, Betsy saw it was framed by a ring of wet hair, it was never a happy face, and today it seemed even more lifeless than usual. Betsy, at ten years of age was too young to be aware of the suffering of emotional deprivation involved with the adult world. Or she may have seen that on her mother's face also.
Dad hadn’t mentioned where Mum was going, he just said
“Your sister is going to stay with Aunt Alice and you will be going to the McGregor’s, and you better behave yourself, or else!”
It wasn’t far to Mervyn's place, Betsy sat perched up in the front of her Dad's Holden ute with her little cardboard suitcase on her lap, she waved good-bye to Mum and her sister Mary. Without a second glance or thought for them, she turned her mind towards the coming weeks of summer. It was Christmas holidays and the new school year was too far in the future to even contemplate.
The old Coffee Palace, where Mervyns' family lived, was a crumbling two storey soft red brick establishment. It was built in the days of the gold rush, as a stop over for the Cobb & Co. coaches, on their weekly run to the goldfields at Bendigo. Later in the early 1900’s it was a boarding house. Now in its declining years the McGregor family imbued as much life into the old place, as it had seen over the last one hundred. Besides Charlie McGregor and his wife Jean, the two kids, Mervyn with his pudding basin hair cut, and proud cocky's crest that would not sit down under any circumstances, and his nervous sister Susan, there was Grandpa Henry, a short wiry old gentleman in his eighties, but still sprightly of mind and body. In spite of the age of the Palace and its decaying condition, Jean kept it and the family remarkably clean and tidy.
Mervyn was watching from his bedroom window when the Ute pulled up out the front. He leaped across the landing and straddled the banister rail on the staircase. He slid down the first flight of stairs, around the hairpin bend, then shot to the bottom at breakneck speed landing, luckily, though a little ungainly, on his feet, and staggered backwards across the entrance hall and crashed heavily against the front door and slid to the floor in a crumpled heap. He quickly regained his composure and flung the door open just as Betsy's Father put his hand to the knocker.
Cracked and rusted harness and bridals, hung in the mostly disused stables. The sun filtered through a rusted tin roof, missing rarely visited musty corners where discarded horseshoes and other outdated paraphernalia lay silently, inevitably being relegated, unprotesting, to the past.
“Don’t touch any of that, boy” Grandpa Henry yelled at Mervyn, who was fiddling with a harness and pitchfork.
“Now then Missy” he said as he turned towards Betsy. Keeping his head buried into the side of the milking cow as he rhythmically pulled and squirted each teat. The milk came from a different angle each time and jetted into exactly the same spot in the bucket.
“Now then Missy, you know a three legged stool.... which leg do you think is the most important?” Betsy creased her brow and thought very hard, Mervyn was not listening; he was poking at a bit of horse dung with the pitchfork. Grandpa burst forth with.
“Give up?” As a triumphant grin spread across his face. Betsy nodded.
“The one that’s missing, d’ ya get it?” he cackled. He loved to have his little joke and always finished off with “D’ ya get it?”
The grin on his face suddenly turned to a look of puzzlement as he tried to release the cow from the bail. She was acting strangely. He slapped her on the rump but she still wasn’t moving, her eyes were wild as she started to low at a high pitch and strain forward. Then there was a loud snap as she rushed outside and pelted down the paddock as if possessed by the devil. Grandpa looked around, Mervyn was no longer visible. Then he noticed the nail in the cow bail where he usually draped her tail to stop it flicking in his face during milking. There was a great clump of hair and skin with blood on it. The penny dropped and he realised what had happened, he roared red faced into the kitchen and confronted Mervyn's mother.
“So help me Jean, if I get my hands on that kid I’ll skin ‘im alive, I swear I will. He just wound the bloody cow's tail around the nail out there and nearly ripped the poor old girls tail orf. I’ll kill him one of these days, bugger me dead if I don’t, so 'elp me, Gord Almighty.!!!”
Muttering and swearing he went off to his room, straight to his wardrobe for a swig of what he called "his medicine."
Grandpa didn’t come down to lunch, Jean said he wasn’t well. Susan sat slumped in her chair, miserably staring into her vegetable soup. Mervyn was eyeing the blisters that had come up on her shoulders which were red raw from sunburn, then his scheming eyes flicked to the salt in the middle of the table. As if reading Mervyn's mind, his mother took the salt and placed it in a high overhead cupboard, out of reach. She sat down again with a heavy sigh, thinking, there are still weeks of the holidays to go. She was hoping that having someone Mervyn's age in the house, might curb his tendency to get into mischief. When she expressed this thought to Grandpa he exploded,
“And pigs might bloody fly!”
Betsy and Mervyn asked to be excused from the table and headed down the yard towards the back lane. Mervyn ducked into the rickety old dunny. Betsy proceeded towards the dog enclosure where five mongrels resided in a disused water tank being utilised as a kennel. The dogs rushed towards Betsy, wagging their tales and jumping over each other, hungry for attention. Ignoring the flies, Betsy draped her hand over the fence, patting and rubbing each one in turn. Suddenly, their mood changed, each dog stiffened and snarled with the hair on the back of their necks bristling. Their lips tightened across their teeth and a low threatening growl rumbled from the depths of their throats. Their eyes glowered at the sight and smell of Mervyn approaching from the direction of the outbuildings. He took very little notice of the dogs, he had something else on his mind other than gaining any modicum of pleasure by tormenting these poor confined creatures, as he usually did out of pure boredom.
“C’mon Bets,” he said as he climbed the fence and dropped into the lane at the side of the house. Before Betsy hit the ground, Mervyn was already scaling the next fence into the yard at the back of the corner shop.
“Stay there, I’ll pass some bottles over,” Mervyn whispered. Betsy looked up and down the lane, her heart was racing. She knew if Mr. Pepper, the shopkeeper, caught them, he would tan their hides. Mervyn passed two TARAX soft drink bottles over the fence, and then a few minutes later, two more, he then scrambled over himself and gestured to Betsy to follow him.
Mr. Pepper looked suspiciously at Mervyn before handing him sixpence refund on the bottles; everything that kid did or said gave George Pepper cause for suspicion. Mervyn then asked for two threepenny iceblocks, and the children sat outside on the curbing, shamelessly and lasciviously enjoying every lick of their ill gotten gains.
During the ensuing weeks and prior to the commencement of the school year, Betsy’s education was considerably broadened.
Still dressed in her going-to-church clothes, Betsy was once again perched up in the front of the Ute, accompanying her Father on the journey home. As they slowed down coming into the drive near the house, he turned to her and said,
“You go inside while I put the car away. Your Mother isn’t strong yet so don’t make a noise or run through the house, and there might even be a surprise waiting in there for you.”
Her Mother was standing at the bedroom door, she looked tired and drawn and somehow less bulky than when Betsy saw her two weeks ago.
“Did you have a nice holiday Betsy?” she asked as her eldest daughter walked down the passage. “I hope you behaved yourself!”
Betsy nodded; she could hear a strange whimpering sound coming from the bedroom. Her Mother smiled and said,
“Come and meet your new baby brother!”
We talked and laughed and I noticed, for the first time, the wide expanse of windows in this part of the house, overlooking a courtyard and Bar-B-Que area from which the steep, wooded hill continued sharply upwards towards the sky. It was as if a huge bite had been chomped out of the landscape and Daphnes' house seated into the cavity.
It wasn't long before we were joined by Alison, and the mood quickly changed when we were confronted by her stricken face. Alisons' venturing out this morning was accompanied by a minor drama concerning her car and a fence, both wanting to be in the same place at the same time. The anticipation of explaining her actions to Bruce, her husband, was causing her a certain amount of angst.
"Ring him up and ask him if he's heard of Whealan the Wrecker", I suggested, trying to bring a little levity to the situation. But as no-one in this part of the world has heard of Whealan the Wrecker, my efforts fell on barren ground.
Later, sitting in the garden, we stopped talking for a few minutes and listened to the sounds around us. I had thought it such a quiet spot but sounds I had not previously perceived started to intrude into my consciousness - the breeze gently rustling the trees, the ever constant hum of distant traffic. Closer by a car engine revved up loudly, piercing the quiet. Not so intrusive, several different birds tunefully expressed their views, and nearby a dog sharply and aggressively barked out his displeasure at an imagined intruder.
Daphne bought hot coffee and the scones to the table, their warmth was reflected in our ease of conversation and exchange of ideas and experiences. We spoke of our mothers and Grandmothers and lastly a word that rhymes with least - beast, our partners in connubial crime, our consorts, our lovers, our honey-bunches.
I found Daphnes' theory that aromas stir up past memories hidden away in our subconscious, a little far fetched, however a dream I had that night still lingers........ hauntingly in my mind.
“Margie Margie!” Where the hell is that child, Lillian muttered to herself. “Donald, did you see where your sister went?”. “Don't know Mum, she might've gone down to the corner to meet Dad; I heard the train a minute ago.”
Lillian roared back up the stairs, a hundred and one things to attend to, she dragged three battered leather suitcases from the top of the wardrobe, frantically wondering how she could possibly have herself and the children ready to leave for Melbourne; a journey which would take the best part of a week on the train, by 10am next morning. Upon glancing out the window she saw her beloved Bob trotting down the street with Margery on his shoulders bouncing and laughing and hanging on for her dear life to Bobs' thick curly hair, she so enjoyed the horsy ride he gave her every evening when she ran to meet him after work.
Bob squinted as he looked up at the window on the first floor of Grace's Boarding house and saw his wife looking down anxiously, he thought to himself I wonder what's up. At the gate he swung Margery to the ground and tousled Donald's' hair. Donald looked up from his game of marbles and said. “G'day Dad, Mum's waiting for you upstairs, she had a telegram from Grandma.” He told the children to play outside till teatime then went inside and sprinted up the stairs taking them two at a time. “What is it love?” he called to Lillian, “Donald said a telegram came to-day.”
“I rang the station and the children and I can get on the train leaving in the morning, otherwise we have to wait more than a week and I am afraid that would be too late, Dad is gravely ill and I must go home, you understand don't you Bob. “Yes of course” Bob said as he sat on the bed, staring thoughtfully out the window, the building contract at the Trotting track wouldn't be finished for at least five months, it was behind schedule and as construction overseer he was coping a fair bit of flack for delays, the pressure was beginning to take its toll, indications were that he was getting another stomach ulcer, he had said nothing of this to Lillian so as not to worry her. After having been out of work for a year this job was his hope and their ticket to a future, a precious and tentative concept in these days of a terrible depression gripping the country. It was impossible for him to go with them and he felt a little desperate as he watched his wife a handsome woman with an inner strength he envied, somehow he would have to manage alone.
The commotion at the railway station was intense; for each traveller there were several people to wish them farewell, luggage trucks heading for the luggage van, more luggage littering the platform and railway staff all with a sense of purpose about them, strolling on and off what seemed like an endless, stretching into the distance row of carriages.
Bob embraced Lillian, then fiercely hugged Margery and Donald. The children were excited about the long journey and sleeping over on a train, missing a whole week of school and seeing relatives they hadn't seen for over a year; a long time in the lives of an eight and eleven year old.
The “All Aboard!” announcement crackled over the loud speaker and Bobs' heart sank. In what seemed like an instant, much whistle blowing and steam hissing, the train pulled out, slowly at first but quickly gathering momentum, leaving behind a shower of cinders it was soon out of hearing range and just puffs of smoke off in the distance. Bob was engulfed by a pervading sense of desolation as he stood on the now almost deserted platform.
Even if she had seen him it is doubtful Lillian would have recognised the heavily bearded, scruffy figure lurking in the shadows, a dusty swag slung on the ground at his feet. He cupped his hands around a flaming match and then puffed on a half smoked rolly as he looked across at Bob, a sort of hooded sideways look. Stepping out from behind a post this figure startled Bob then they made their way down the street to the Railway Hotel for a welcome glass or two of beer.
Upon their arrival in Melbourne, Lillian and the children were confronted by an identical scene to that which they had left eight days previously at Perth station. The same bustling and jostling, tears and embraces, baggage and children patiently waiting for the person responsible for them to come and carry them off to their final destination; and railway staff still strolling back and forth at the same unvarying pace. Lillian was almost overcome when she spotted her sister Sophia who was carefully scrutinising the crowd for a glimpse of her and the children. They wended their way towards each other and fell into each others arms, both struggling to hold back tears, then they helped their younger brother Sidney to settle the children and the baggage into a trap. Sidney promised to buy them an ice-cream on the way back to the house if they behaved themselves. Trotting through the quiet early morning streets of Melbourne, Sidney told Lillian that their father died two days ago and the funeral would be held that afternoon.
Having suffered for over a year with a painful brain tumour, James Armstrong had earned a blessed release from this life. Sitting beside her mother, sister and brothers, at the Camberwell Funeral Parlour, Lillian reflected on how her father had been a good provider for his family. Though distant with his daughters and firm with his sons, his expectations had been for James Jnr. And Sidney to take over his plumbing business. The raising of daughters was the business of their mother, only serious matters concerning them were to be bought before him, he considered his role in their upbringing being primarily one of financial support. She called to mind his insistence at having his shoes perfectly polished each morning; apart from attending to the men's' clothes, the girls in the household cleaned their shoes; no matter how much attention she gave those shoes, her father would send his back to be repolished. This ritual had been the bane of her young life for many years. He was stern and could be frightening to smaller children. Sophies' second eldest Maurice, on one occasion had somehow wheedled his way into his Grandfathers' inner sanctum, a sitting room-cum-office, which was out of bounds to children and women (except for cleaning purposes), he entertained a couple of his cronies every Sunday afternoon, with a glass or two of ale, exchanged stories and discussed Saturdays' footy match at great length. His sons were sometimes allowed in on these discussions. The room was furnished with a large roll top desk, where the accounts were attended to, three huge leather easy chairs, a few straight backed chairs, an ornate chiffonier, which contained whisky, brandy and sherry, the best glasses, several decanters and pieces of family heirloom silver. Muffled sounds of trams could be heard rattling past the windows, which were clothed in heavy, dark-green drapes. Around the fireplace was a wooden surround with a mantelpiece across the top, littered with containers, string, pencils, betting slips, scribbled notes an assortment of screws and hooks, dice and bits and pieces to numerous to mention. Strict orders were issued that it never be tidied or dusted, no female interference would be tolerated. Maurice, upon entering the room went directly to the mantelpiece and foolishly put his hands above his head, taking a firm grip he lifted his feet off the ground, swinging. He misread the look of surprise on his Grandfather's face as the mantle and the wall parted company, everything clattering down around him. Expecting, at the very least, the wrath of God, he took to his heels and was out the door, over the back fence, reaching the safety of his mother's presence before the startled men could register what had taken place.
A hint of a smile played at the corner of Lillian's mouth as she glanced across at Maurice who was now a strapping young adolescent of eighteen, gazing, preoccupied, at his cousin Doreen; or more to the point Doreen's substantially abundant breasts, a preoccupation for Maurice that was to last through the funeral and on into the evening when family and friends gathered at the house to eat, drink and comfort each other.
Lillian's mother Sarah carried herself through the ensuing weeks with stoicism; stoicism forged on the anvil of a convict heritage. Margery and Donald loved their 'Big' Grandma, she was always patient and kind with them; they would watch hungrily as she skilfully attacked a loaf of her home-baked bread with a large serrated knife, caressing it just beneath her bosom, she deftly brought the knife towards her to separate a generous. thick, ready buttered slice from the remainder of the high-tinned loaf.
Several weeks had gone by and one day while Sarah and Lillian were pegging clothes on the yards of clothes line strung across the back garden, Sarah said, “If you don't hear from Bob by the end of this week, Lilly, I think you had better contact Perth on the Telephone, it isn't like him not to write to you and the children, or send you some money; mind you we can manage for a while yet, but I am worried about him. It's been nearly two months and not a word.” Lillian didn't answer her mother, she was very concerned and had already decided to do something the next day.
It took the operator at the Post Office over three hours to connect Lillian with the site manager on the Project where Bob worked. She didn't know what to make of what he told her; Bob had not reported to work over the last two months, in fact since the day after she left, he had given no notice to quit and had not collected his wages due to him; efforts, by the firm, to contact him had been fruitless as he had left the boarding house leaving no forwarding address; in fact some of his belongings were still there. She went home and discussed these revelations with her mother who, though not wishing to alarm her, said, “I think you had best contact the police Lilly, straight away, I don't like the sound of things.” The Police made their enquires but it seemed that Bob had uncharacteristically vanished into thin air.
Now Lillian decided it was time to put her book-keeping skills to good use and applied for several positions. After several rejections on the basis of her having children to care for, she decided she would have to put on her thinking cap to overcome this obstacle. Her next interview was with 'MAPLES', a large department store, at 11 am the next day, so she had the children get up early and asked her mother to come with them. Sarah stood in front of the hall-stand mirror, shoving a large hat pin through her black straw hat, she carefully pulled the black face net down and tucked it under her chin. Lillian said to her “I want you to take the children to the cemetery and visit Dad's grave, then I want you to wait there until I come and get you.” Sarah agreed to this and did not question her daughter, she knew Lillian was a capable woman who knew exactly what she was doing.
Mr Thomas looked at the smartly dressed woman sitting opposite him, he was impressed with her references and her appearance; she had an air of calm self possession about her that he admired. His only concern was that she was married; his previous experiences with young married women was that they took more time off than his other employees, having and caring for young children. He asked Lillian if she had any children. Lillian allowed her gaze to drop to the floor and replied “Yes, they are in the cemetery!” Mr. Thomas said “Can you start on Monday?”
Margie and Donald and Sophie's children were kicking up a hell of a racket playing in the back yard, they chased each other around and over the wood pile with hardly a care in the world. Lost in thought Lillian put the kettle back on the stove and sat down at the kitchen table, stirring a strong black cup of tea, she looked up, despairingly at Sophia “I'm almost at my wits end , Soph, the police have closed their file on Bob, they say there is nothing more they can do, he has been missing over a year now, I have imagined every possibility, including the worst, but I know in my heart he is still alive. Oh yes I have seen the snide looks on some faces, I won't mention who, but I know Bob and he wouldn't have gone off with another woman. I just know he must be in some sort of trouble. What can I do Soph /' she pleaded. Sophia sipped her tea and looked thoughtfully at Lillian. “There is one thing we could try,” she said, “Aunt Mary!
Aunty Mary lived in a tiny single fronted weatherboard cottage in Richmond, Sophia and Lillian scuttled down the back lane, with a final glance over their shoulder, they ducked through the back gate; sometimes the police were watching the front of Aunties house as it was against the law to give psychic readings. Upon request from Auntie Mary, Lillian handed her one of Bob's Neckties, Aunt Mary sat for a good five minutes with her eyes closed, running the tie backwards and forwards through her fingers, then she took a big breath of air, opened her eyes and announced solemnly “He is in a very hot place” She paused, then oblivious to the bemused look that passed between the sisters, she continued, “He is with someone we all know, there is a tent, the name Caravan….no,no, it's Canarvon….that's all” She looked into Lillian's eyes and kindly and knowingly she said “I hope this helps you my dear.”
The authorities in Perth finally agreed to make enquiries in the Carnarvon area which were to reveal that a man fitting Bob's description was in the regional hospital suffering a complete breakdown with loss of memory and also Borcoo Rot, (an illness similar to Scurvy). A prospector named Joseph had left Bob at the hospital then headed off, back into the desert. The only Joseph the family could think of was the family black sheep, Joseph, who many years ago had gone off to Tasmania prospecting for gold and had never returned.
It would be three months before Bob finally returned to Melbourne. Sarah now had the whole family under one roof and was kept very busy indeed. Bob spent many hours of the day sitting on the front verandah taking an interest in the household traffic, coming and going, and enjoying the gentle noises of a busy city 1930's style. He soaked up the warm, healing sun, also the occasional greetings and snippets of gossip offered by passers-by, He liked to be within earshot of the children as the played up and down the asphalt path at the front of the house; their need to be close to him as great as his to watch over them. He never spoke of the year and a half of lost contact with the family, nor was he to fully regain his health, mentally or physically. Lillian never questioned Bob about what had happened, she was content to have him home and her intuition told her they would never again be parted.