Saturday, July 30, 2016

A tale of two uncles - a short story

My entry into 
the Jolley Short Story Competion 
Australian Book Review Magazine

Two uncles

The daily battle had begun.  It was an ordinary March day in Sydney, the day was bright and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, my little sister only 18 months gurgled in the background but that was the day when my family was blown apart.  At home I had to stand near the door of the kitchen every day so that my mother could see me do my ‘exercises’.  These exercises consisted of loud exhaling with a chest rattle then a throaty cough so that phlegm could come up.  The daily battle was on ‘just 10 spits and you can go to school’ but I have done enough.  “Ten spits or you stay there!” was the firm reply as a noise at the door disturbed the mother to son battle of wills.

Mum went to the door, I could just hear her voice when she gave a loud gasp and choked back a cry.  I could not see what was happening and given her mood when she left me it was not wise to ask or interfere with what was happening at the front door.  Men could be heard carrying something heavy, “put him on the bed” said Mum and the door to our parent’s bedroom opened and closed. 

I stood in my spot with a blue chipped enamel chamber pot on a stool beside me, it had an inch of water in it and floating around it were the previous efforts.  My hands were on my chest down near my stomach, push in when you breathe in and let go when breathing out, cough and spit.  All this time my mother raced past me and out to the toilet in the backyard with another potty in her hand, her face was grim and tears streamed down her face.

Finally after three such trips I said timidly “What’s happening?”  Mum suddenly brought herself up with a jerk as if she just realised I was still there.  Choking back tears and almost snarling she said “get to school!”  I rapidly complied and was out the door and on my way.

School was only a short walk away but I was running late and the assembly before school was already underway.  I gingerly made my way to back of where all the other eight year olds were assembled and was not noticed.  I tried to get the attention of my two older brothers but they were a long way away and I didn’t get a chance to tell them that something was dreadfully wrong, something that was very disturbing.  It was pretty obvious that Dad was seriously ill but the details had been hidden from me.  The school day was starting and I would go them at recess and tell them what had happened.  I was left with a huge feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach till recess when the PA blared out my name and the names of my brothers demanding “come to the Headmaster’s office.”  My brothers had already assembled at the steps leading up to the little parish school’s only office, it was more of a storeroom as the headmaster taught all day and did no administration work.

Pennants from school competitions littered the desk and some other school items, text books, papers and of course a cane or two.

The brother in charge had a solemn look on his face, this is bad I thought.
“I am sorry to have to tell you this but your father died this morning.”  My two older brothers immediately began to cry and shake.  I was too stunned to comprehend what had been said but the feeling of foreboding and dread continued to knot and twist inside me.  I suppose I cried too but I remember it as a time when I didn’t cry much.

The days that followed were a whirl of neighbours, a priest or two, some nuns and maybe some religious brothers coming to our house and expressing sadness and condolences.  I was shooed out of the house and whenever I was out I was constantly hugged by the mothers of my friends.  “You poor boy, so sad” and such cooing noises and the offer of a sweet or two.  All this was so overwhelming and confusing.

In this mix came Uncle Ned, dad’s older brother down from Queensland full of confidence and charm.  Ned stood at six foot with jet grey hair swept back over a big head and intense eyes.  He charmed everyone around the house, boasted of how much he was prepared to help the now stricken family.  On one occasion he took my little sister around the corner to take some pressure off my mother and he bought her an ice cream.  She took one lick of it and threw it away.  A story he recounted with much mirth how the ice cream sailed through the air and landed upside down on the footpath.

Another Uncle arrived and he was entirely different from Ned.  Uncle Paul was Mum’s oldest brother, he was tall too but much taller and thinner.  His hair was black and his eyes were black and his skin was tanned and sun damaged.  He was a successful wheat and sheep farmer from South Australian.  He spoke with a slow drawl and was rather withdrawn but kindly.

The funeral day arrived and Mum firmly forbad me from attending.  She was in a terrible state barely holding herself together.  She was mainly in tears or just holding them back and her face rarely registered the surroundings. 

The funeral over, the whole family came back to house looking rather sad and exhausted by the emotional drain of the sudden death of my father.  Mum was the worst affected and she took to bed.  We were allowed to visit her bedside and even two weeks after the death she was still crying.  She would say things such as “Your Dad should be canonized, we are going to approach the Vatican to start the process”.  At which point I looked up at my parent’s bedroom wall which had the face of Jesus in a rather big portrait staring back at me with his heart exposed with huge thorns sticking out of it.  I was surprised to hear such news as Dad was a fairly ordinary, even very overweight man who was around 20 stone when he died.  He did not exhibit to me much holiness or kind patience, rather he was rather impatient, given to big explosions of anger and a vigorous user of the razor sharpener strap on my brothers and me.  Nevertheless Mum said this and it was to be believed. 

Adults around us began to worry about mother while she continued to stay in bed and gradually it became obvious she needed to be hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.  The children had to be seen to and in a process that I did not have a say in or any of my brothers or sister.  My sister who was too young to express a preference and she was swept up by some nearby neighbours who were of the most doting kind.  They were delighted to have a small child in their midst again.  My older brothers were assigned to a catholic boarding school in the country and were to spend their holidays with some local friends of Mum and Dad.  I was to go with my Uncle Ned to Brisbane where he was the principal of a state primary school.

In no time at all I was on a plane on my own with a big label on me with my name on it and destination being slightly fussed over by a hostess whose responsibility it was to get me onto the correct plane and into the arms of those who were going look after me. 

The plane trip from Sydney had been my first and Uncle Ned met me at the airport.  He was really pleased to see me and we drove through the streets of Brisbane in his big car.  Another new experience, as our family never owned a car.  The Storey Bridge was decked in decorations because of the Queen’s visit and the streets had all sorts of bunting on them.  I was very impressed and thought Brisbane was always gaily lit.

I was introduced to my Aunt Liz and all my cousins who were all a lot older than me.  Young Ned was about twenty five, Bridget twenty two, Kate twenty and Peg sixteen.  Uncle and family were kind at first.  Our family’s lack of contact with this family, their age, contributed to my sense of being a stranger in a cool climate.  The only one that I could barely relate to was Peg, but she being a girl and 16 there were no common interests.  She and I had many battles, and much mutual teasing.

I was accommodated in a room in an old wooden Queenslander with the big space underneath and slowly began to become accustomed to my new circumstances.  The day started as usual and I presumed that the family was giving me time to settle before I was to go to the school next door but after weeks it became obvious that I was not going to go to school but I was to wander around day after day till it was time to sleep.  Shortly after arriving in Brisbane we moved to another school near Ipswich called Blackstone.  Maybe this is why I didn’t start school, perhaps I was to start school in Ipswich.

Ipswich was the same as the Brisbane place, we lived in the principal’s house next door to the school.  Nothing was said to me about school so I had the whole day to myself and no specific thing to achieve.  I figured out a routine.  As the day got under way and the sounds of the school receded I made immediately for a clump of wattle some distance into the bush at the back of the house.  It was a remarkable place in the dry area of Ipswich at that time of year.  The little clump was cool, green and yellow.  The wattle trees surrounded a patch of grass.  I would lie in the grass in the shade of a tree and look up at the sky.  I was conscious of the blue patches surrounded by balls of yellow. 

I dreamt or day dreamt that if I looked at the sky long enough I could see the wind.  It was shaped in circles with a clear heavy dot in the centre.  These circles increased in numbers the longer I looked at the patches of blue.  Each circle seemed to have movement of its own, it was hard at first to take in all the movement so I would eventually follow just one circle’s progress.  Happily, these circles formed groups usually in a wavy line which went across the sky and disappeared, only for other circles and lines to appear at the other edge of the circles I was watching.  Usually, the circles and lines crashed in to the ground, dispersing and fading from view.  A quick blink of the eyes and a shake of the head could make these items disappear.

Meanwhile, the scent of the grass and wattle brought an incredible sense of unity with nature.  I was happy in this place.  I chewed on a blade of grass and thought of times back home. 

Here I was in Queensland to live with my father’s brother Uncle Ned.  Before the tragedy I had never known Uncle Ned or knew of his existence.  He turned out to be quite the opposite of how he portrayed himself during the funeral preparation.  He was an austere man.  His blue eyes were incredibly intense and if he turned them on to you he almost had the power to look through you.  His eyes, his manner must have been a terribly powerful weapon in his chosen profession of a teacher in the Education Department of Queensland.  His manner and expression gave the impression of coldness and irritability.

It was during this time at Uncle Ned’s, I began to talk to myself.  While I was slouching in the grove, it was then that I spoke rather long and loudly about all my troubles.  I became aware of talking so loudly that I glanced around to make sure no one was around to hear me.  I was completely alone.  I was free to talk to myself all day.

Eventually as the day wore on, I would leave the grove and head for my other place: it was the top of a nearby hill.  When you emerged from the bush near the top of the hill you were greeted with a sight of sheer desolation.  Bits of masonry were strewn about the top of the hill which was covered by exposed earth, black rocks and numerous large cracks in the surface of the earth.  From these cracks small spirals of pungent smoke arose adding to the environment’s bareness.  Apparently the mansion on the hill had been destroyed when there was a mining disaster under the house.  I was told that fires were still going on down below and that’s where the smoke came from.  The small cracks or gullies provided jumping challenges and I spent much time in the day jumping cracks, throwing stones into the gullies.  When the air got too bad around the gullies I ran to a vantage point to look out over the town of Ipswich.  I could also vaguely see the RAAF airbase from the hill and while I watched, Canberra Jet Bombers were taking off and landing.  One day I could see a plume of smoke coming up from the base and learnt later that a bomber had crashed and killed its occupants.  I thought of the children left behind by this accident with no father like me.

I would know when to come back to house for lunch and when to come back to the house and go out on the front steps and wait for Peg to struggle up the hill in her posh black schoolgirl uniform all hot and bothered.  We would exchange pleasantries or not so pleasantries and she would lie down to get over the exertions of the day.

This lazy, non-eventful life continued for several months until someone’s conscience was pricked and Aunt Liz announced that she would teach me Grade 3 work until I was reunited with my family.  She was a terrible teacher.  We would gather the materials we needed and sit on stools near a low table on the verandah and just 10 metres from our position was a fully functioning free State School for my age group.  Nevertheless we would sit in this position and Aunt Liz would try to get some attention and learning going in me.  I was completely out of the routine and could or would not put the slightest effort into anything remotely resembling school work.  As the ‘lesson’ continued I would become aware of Aunt Liz’s growing displeasure.  The ‘niceness’ would slowly creep off her face.  The tension mingled with the humidity of the day would be obscuring the already blurry mathematical symbols.  What became starkly obvious was that Aunty Liz was getting angry and annoyed even after a relatively short time.  This made learning even more difficult.

Still Aunt persisted in her martyrdom of teaching a talentless boy until one fateful day her anger boiled up after I said something contradicting her.  I caught a sudden movement of Auntie’s body out of the corner of my eye.  Instinctively, I ducked and Aunt’s arm kept swinging in the arc it was meant to.  This action brought her whole body to such a precarious position on the stool that the stool collapsed.  The effect on Aunt was even more dramatic.  She was deposited a few feet from the stool in a struggling, gasping heap.

Before the heap could right itself I left the verandah and ran down the backyard and onto the bush further on.  I was only eight years old and I didn’t go to school.  My aunt gave up teaching me after that day, so I reverted to the old routine of going into the bush for hours each day and day dreaming.

I was getting used to the house routine and what was going on there.  The evening was a time we all assembled around the dining table.  All except for Uncle Ned.  He as was his practice, was having his meal in the study.  How Uncle Ned managed to have a study in the houses provided by the education department I don’t know but in every house the family went to, one room was always ‘Dad’s study’.  The family tradition was such that he retired to his study and left the family to Aunt Liz.  Uncle always seemed to be unhappy, discontented and unable to communicate with anyone in the family.  It was almost a relief to have him away from the general family because he seemed as if he would bite or snap at you at any moment.  What the reason for his condition was I, an eight year old, couldn’t tell but he was always understood to be working on some school work or writing a textbook.

Quite naturally Auntie Liz was the focus of the family – especially as the family was all grown up.  They seemed zealous to prove to her how much she was loved and admired.  I could never understood the reason for this lavish praise as Aunt Liz seemed very ordinary to me, and a bit cranky at times.  However, Aunt was always the queen at any meal and many honours were showered on her by her doting offspring.

Aunt took her matriarchal position and surveyed the table and then gave a nod to start eating after the Lord was thanked for providing the meal.  One dinner time conversation that I remember went like this.  It started off with some heavy talk about the man who supplied wood for our household needs.  Young Ned was indignantly telling the story of how this man had nearly knocked his Mum over in the street.  The story was that ‘Mum’, with her head up as usual, had not looked where she was going and stepped off the curb.  The man in his big flash car braked suddenly and nearly hit Mum.  The wood contractor had then had the temerity, and positively dastardly hide, of sticking his head out of the window and abusing Mum.  Mum got such a shock!  That disgusting man!  He ought to apologise!  There was much agreement around the table at these noble sentiments of young Ned’s – a real mother’s treasure.  A flash of inspiration crossed young Ned’s face; he enthusiastically suggested that we discontinue our contract with that awful man.  “Anyone who treats my mother so disrespectfully doesn’t deserve to have our business.”  Even more encouraging nods – young Ned was a real credit to the family.  After all, he had to fulfill the role of man of the house as his father had forgotten about it.  Aunt sat quietly during this display of loyalty, just managing to restrain young Ned’s enthusiasm to acceptable limits.

Days of aimless wanderings in the bush and the occasional bit of schoolwork were interrupted one day when it was announced that Peg had to go to a doctor for her ‘checkup’ in Brisbane.  We got in the car and Aunt Liz launched into how she had uncovered the best lung specialist in Brisbane and insisted that he treat ‘her Peg’.  “What she got?” I asked.  “Well dear it is lung complaint called Bronchiectasis”.  Aunt Liz replied.  “That’s what I’ve got!” I said.  “I know dear” said Aunt.

We entered a large hospital waiting room full of people of all ages and economic status.  The room had the whiff of chloroform that permeated all hospitals.  It was a smell I was familiar with, after spending countless consultations with specialists with mirrors on their heads and x-rays of lungs in the background.  At one stage I was subjected to sharp sticks being inserted up my nose to prevent sinus and another unique form of torture, the Broncho gram where a large pipe was inserted from the mouth into the lung without anesthetics.  I was fully aware of what to expect.  The people present waiting at this Queensland hospital were largely silent and waited on long chairs and as patients were seen, the row stood up and snaked its way until finally it was your turn when your name was called.  After about an hour Liz was called.  I stood up with Peg but Aunt Liz turned to me and said.  “No no just Peg, you wait here dear” and they went to see the fabulous specialist.  Maybe I was next but after a while Peg and Liz reemerged and collected me and we walked to the car and drove home.

The days of absent minded wanderings came to end around October when it was announced that it was time to go to Sydney.  The two older daughters Bridget and Kate now came into their own and started discussing what they were going to do in Sydney.  I listened half interested in all the places they wanted to see and concerns that young women in their early twenties were interested in.  The main thing was that I was going home.  I could see my mum and my brothers and sisters and we could be together again.  I packed things up as best as I could and the next day early we were off.  The journey to Sydney was slow as the road was very narrow and busy in places, while trucks and caravans slowed down our progress.  We stayed overnight in a hotel somewhere and next day around the early afternoon I began to recognize landmarks from the many suburban bus trips I had taken. 

I leant over from the back seat and said: “Just up here is a Fire Station at that corner you can turn, and I can show you the way to Mum’s hospital.”  At which point one of the girls suddenly turned around in an angry way and said rather loudly “Do you think we came down here just for you?  No! We came down here for a holiday and we will deal with you when we are ready.”  Crestfallen and sullen, I sank back into the seat hoping the world could not see me.

In the course of the next few days I was taken to visit my mother in hospital.  She was clearly still fragile, shaky and pale looking, but overjoyed to see me and became very weepy with emotion and began constantly touching and stroking my face.  Somehow it became clear that Mum was not going to be discharged from hospital for a few weeks and that I was now in care of a social worker from the Catholic Church.  She explained that my mother was not well enough yet and that I would have to spend some time in an orphanage near Woy Woy.

The time in the orphanage seemed to go quickly and one day a nun approached me and said that early tomorrow we will get you up early and we have arranged for a man to escort you to Sydney.  The ‘man’ duly arrived early the next day, he was gaunt with a haunted look in his eyes, he wore a navy blue suit that shone with wear and he seemed to have an especially bad case of dandruff with flakes all along the top of his coat.  He did not say much but he did his job and delivered me to a room in the city with the same social worker in it but best of all my mother and little sister were present.  The social worker left us and Mum explained that we would spend one night in Sydney and the next day would fly over to have a holiday with Uncle Paul on his wheat and sheep farm.

A few days later my older brothers arrived from Sydney, they too had been flown over to the Eyre Peninsula at Uncle Paul’s expense.  Uncle Paul’s at Tooligie was a flat place where I had spent some months a few years prior.  I had been diagnosed with bronchiectasis and a Doctor had said he needs a dry climate so Uncle Paul came to the rescue for the first time. 

I was able to go to school with my cousins though it was a small one teacher school and a long trip each day but it was a joy!  I had to walk back for miles over unsealed roads towards Uncle Paul’s till someone came and picked me up.  The land was under cultivation for wheat and it grew extremely well and waved and moved with the breeze and the land stretched to the horizon except for one hill that poked out defiantly and it was wheat or sheep in every direction.  I even shot with a .22 and Uncle Paul taught me how to set rabbit traps and how to skin them.  I think I made a considerable dint in the rabbit population of Tooligie at the time.  Uncle was pleased I was taking an interest and he had all sorts of itinerant workers at his place who showed interest and spoke with strange accents.  Auntie Kit was very generous and doting, she did most of the picking up after school.

Here we were back at Tooligie and at last we were a family again minus a father but at least we were together again and I could forget the casual indifference of Uncle Ned’s family.  We spent over six weeks together doing odd jobs around the farm and getting to know some nearby cousins, some mischief as well.  As time went on Mum seemed to get stronger and more confident.

Uncle Paul and his wife Kit were childless and very keen to have a family and now here was a readymade family on their doorstep.  Paul came to this farm barely able to make a living out of it.  He lived in a tin shack with his brother and gradually cleared the tough mallee from the land to make it fit for a wheat farm.  There were long days of hard labour and little return from the land that lacked some essential elements.  The time drifted into years and by the time Paul was established enough to marry he was in his early fifties and Kit his partner was close to the end of her child bearing age.  The alternatives flashed before them; adopt or pass on the farm to his brother’s kids nearby.  They were undecided but what they did know was they ached for children.  In their time of indecision along came Paul’s younger sister, my mother, obviously not coping with the death of her husband, sick and emotionally unstable.  The situation was ripe for a solution to Paul’s and Kit’s childless problem.  Paul and Kit presented the idea to his sister.  How about you move here, we can set you up in a house nearby or in the nearest largest town and I pay for the children’s education at pretty good schools.  In return the children would have to spend a great deal of time here on the farm and maybe one of them could be farmer and inherit his farm. 

Long long discussions were held into the night.  Mum could see the generosity of the offer but she could also see a trap for herself.  Mum even in her delicate condition was appreciative but adamant, she would strike out on her own, she would not go through another series of electric shock treatments, she would rule her own family thanks very much.  Mum packed us up to take the long trek back to Sydney via train to restart our Sydney lives minus a father.

Ned was one Uncle who had a family and an extra family member and couldn’t care less.  Paul was another Uncle desperate to have a family but wasn’t allowed by a fiercely independent younger sister.

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