Proust could have done it. He would have remembered every taste of boiled swedes, or cheap oatmeal he had from the days before he even would accept a cup of tea. All the awful healthy flavours which were not in the race with lemonade and marshmallows.
Sometimes when the leaden soldiers were not battling well my brother and I would have a go at peanut brittle, Bulgarian Rock or even marshmallows. Most of our efforts were not worth keeping, although peanut brittle & Bulgarian Rock were hard to dispose of. They had an indestructibility that even our scones lacked.
Mother was probably collecting the rents or playing bridge. She accepted our beginnings of haute-cuisine with a great deal of grace – so long as we consumed or gave away the delights and washed up after the mess.
We didn’t seem to be pushed around too much to household chores – maybe we kept to a minimal area – easy to clean.
Yet it was laid down that on Sunday morning, mother was taken tea and toast to her bed three floors up where she read the papers in luxurious ease. Occasionally she would borrow a “Truth” which would be hidden under a cushion later.
On the way back from Union Street the warmth of the meal tucked under my armpit released urges which the smell of chips rendered irresistible. I never knew how many chips I pilfered on the way home from the newspaper bundle. Doubtless the greasy paper contained the latest news of the attack on Passchendaele or Gallipoli for all I bloody well knew – or cared.
Somewhere just down from King’s the chemist, was an empty house which should have been haunted, but was not. It was cracked and all the cracks weren’t just the hairline things you see in the footling little walls people build these days. These cracks had the nobility and the vigour of the Mississippi River network. From the front gate which had even then long since been locked into rusted immobility, it was never used, seeing that there was no fence attached to it and one really did not have to open the gate to an estate which was not inhabited, anyway.
From the locked gate, locked so irrevocably that even St. Peter could not have opened it against the sole remaining erstwhile staunchness of the fence its opposite style member had parted with the things in it. It spread the non-fence demarcated by chick weed and pee-the-bed.
Am I still alive in Paddington? I have lost the contact. The stream of sub-consciousness is receding from awareness. – I am not remembering – I am not helping my childhood or my sons. If I put it down, it is out of my system, – the agonies, fixed – classified, not to be endured again, exhibits. That much of the effort sucked from the memory – one less thing in the bucket.
What in that crazed house must be written down and commented upon from the memory of our blood? Windows awry, concrete cornucopias adrift from the brave façade.
Sunflowers growing through the gasbox and behind the windows a suggestion of life becomes sometimes the grey sun drapes were not so fixed as there had been a week before. In the garden the long johns wart bent and withered in its maturity: the paspalum only just held its own with the buffalo because Glenmore road was kind in buffalo and greeted it. It grew in such great clusters as only a motormower salesman could envisage. Not that it was in any danger then, for the only pair of hand shears within blocks was regularly borrowed for the necessary training of the tiny lawns at Waverley Cemetery, wherewith monstrous regularity, our neighbours made their abode.
I’ve had this house – It hasn’t come to life—I have started off to say something and it has died in my throat. I don’t like that house now – It is not amusing, and if I think of it, I feel pretty near like it looked. Some other day we will both go down to Glenmore Road and throw a stone at its memory.
You, that is if you were under forty and were a guest at my grandfather’s table, were not allowed to laugh outright or for that matter, even giggle. If you were under thirty you had to wear the mask of a sphinx no matter what clean clerical joke was cracked.
It always seemed a little odd to me that on the seventh day there had to less humanity in the house than there was on the other six. Not that is to say that there was much fun and games for the young from Monday at 1 am (if you were up) till Saturday 12 mid. during the week. It was just that if you felt like smiling on the sabbath you just daren’t.
Grandma who always wore a great collar which was distinguished by its height and purity of whale boned lace, always saw fit to give my brother a good clip under the ear whenever he passed. Why Jack never learnt to pass her underneath the table or beneath the throne she held court on is still beyond me. Not that Jack did anything very much. Being four years older than I, he couldn’t sense the danger of just being around. I suppose his Eton collar and the fact that he sang in the choir sort of gave him (falsely in his own view) an air of sanctity which Grandma always failed to discern.
The clips on the ear Jack always earned for the little things he might have done or even thought of doing, but never had the hardihood to do. For the things I would have liked to do Jack got two clips.
So it was that Jack always smothered up in a neutral corner when Grandma was around.
Grandpa was beyond all this. He just sat and ate and ate and bemoaned his lack of appetite.
His theatrical indifference to food never seemed to dim his awareness of what was going on or off the plates to the right and left of his august presence.
One dreadful 1st Sunday before Pentecost our hired help foolishly skidded her meat and peas on his lap.
If this girl ever had a name, that is immaterial. Today she is probably wrestling under the name of Big Chief Thunderplate or another latin alias. Although young, she had an extraordinarily powerful jaw which was never really clean shaven. The mole, which on another face would be called a beauty spot. remained untrimmed.
A few weeks after she tipped her Sunday dinner on the lap she went completely to pieces & either stayed out on a tram or sat on a gas box till 10 pm.
I reckon that Grandpa was quite a character. He seemed always a bit like God to me. Not that his beard was over flowing and lustrous like the high cumulus that came over Taronga.
Grandpa always sat at the top of the table in the big kitchen and regularly complained about his lack of appetite.
Grandpa suffered no ills. Apart from lack of appetite which was cured at meal times – he suffered only the livings of cold weather. These afflict the ageing and the thin like me, the un-diesel heated, the Grandpas. I suppose it was really Isabella Garrick McRitchie, his dour Scots wife who had the nostrum for all ills. Her recipes for cold agues had the genius of simplicity.
Grandpa wore, what Grandma sewed. A two inch bandage of red flannel around each wrist. This was an infallible preventative against goose flesh and wintry shivers, and so far as Grandpa went it worked. We’d sit shivering over some bread and dripping and marvel over his pulse warmed vigour as his flashing crimson wrists downed with gusto a Scots Irish Stew.
I really think it was more a psychological matter thing than a good old viable commercial. Somewhere in the boggy ice ages Dracula had got to Scotland. The keen old biddies knew that if you had bloody looking red flannelled, medial tuberosities of the radius wrists – he’d be confused and drop you as a pass-over has-been, a very traumatic connection twice done-over somewhere about those thin blue veins on the inner sides of his wrists and consuming teeth.
It must have had something to do with the night he baby-sat me. God knows where Grandma was but I’m in the double bed with Grandpa paradisaically night shirted and me trendy in pyjamas. It was a handsome four posted cedar mausoleum with a horsehair mattress as soft as a concrete slab. Grandpa slept with the sonority of a Bach fugue.
I don’t know whether it was the austerity of repose or if dreams of vampires which woke me in terror. I felt I was being masticated or impaled with an oaken shaft. Awake, upright as the cold moonlight, my fears were resolved unheard.
It all came clear and simple in the cold light of the moon. Rationality triumphed, cause and effect were vindicated as I unhooked his dentures off my flesh and slid them gently back beneath his pillow.
I hadn’t expected that – mostly they sat overnight on the mantelpiece keeping a purposeful vigil from their tumbler full of water.
WHITE .—The Relatives and Friends of Mr. JOHN WHITE, Master Builder, are kindly invited to attend the Funeral of his late beloved WIFE, Isabella Garrick, which will leave her late residence, “Trelawny”, Gurner-street, Paddington, THIS FRIDAY, at 3 p.m., for the Church of England Cemetery, Waverley. CHARLES KINSELA, Funeral Director, ‘Phone, Padd. 694., 143 Oxford-street. Sydney.
WHITE.—The Relatives and Friends of Mr. and Mrs. JOHN A. WHITE, EDWARD C. WHITE, HARRY F. WHITE, Mrs. T. J. PIDGEON, Mr. and Mrs. S. E. PATERSON are kindly invited to attend the Funeral of their late beloved MOTHER,- Isabella Garrick Whlte, which will leave her late residence, Trelawny, Gurner street, Paddington, THIS FRIDAY, at 3 p.m., for Church of England Cemetery, Waverley.
WHITE.—The Relatives and Friends of Mr. D. MCRITCHIE, Mr. ROBERT MCRITCHIE, Mrs. R. THEW, Mrs. F. CROWE, Mrs. J. MCRITCHIE, Mr. and Mrs. McLEAN, Mr. and Mrs. E. CARR. Mr. and Mrs. CAMEREAUX, Mr. ROBERT MACKEY, and Mr. JAMES MACKEY are kindly invited to attend the Funeral of their late beloved SISTER and AUNT, Isabella Garrick White, which will leave her late residence, Trelawny, Gurner-street, Paddington, THIS FRIDAY, at 3 p.m., for the Church of England Cemetery, Waverley.
WHITE.— September 18, 1924, at her late residence, “Trelawny,” Gurner Street, Paddington. Isabella Garrlck, dearly beloved wife of John White, and mother of William, Frederick, Thlrza, John, Edward, Harry, Percy, Isabella, and Blanche, aged 71 years.
Grandma was dead. It must have been in the morning sometime in December [sic] because I was given some money to go to the pantomime down at Tivoli. What the pantomime was about, or its name and its impact on me remains securely forgotten, rotting away in some remote and atrophied cell of the brain.
Amy Rochelle could have been the Principal Boy. Principal boys were always girls anyway and Amy Rochelle boarded with us once. So maybe a little boy was sent off to see the big girl boy he knew while the family went about the duties attendant to the proper care of the dead.
Funerals were always a big occasion in those days. Uncles, aunts, cousins, even down to the fourth remove would congregate at “Trelawny” while the men went off to do the right thing at Waverley Cemetery, the women busied themselves in the preparation of sandwiches, tea, fruit cake and the inevitable port wine to refresh the returning mourners.
Glasses of the ale too were served under the dancing shadows of the grape vine trellis to the convivial grievers.
All those garrulous relatives, complete strangers flushed out of obscurity by death mingled in monetary bonhomie and parted till death again did them join. I suppose there were extra trams on these great days – no one had a car.
It was 1924 when “Trelawny” first housed a motor vehicle.
Uncle Sep, a devastatingly handsome and successful dentist had married Aunty Bella. They lived at “Trelawny” and looked after Grandpa White.
Somewhere along the line, the old dray, the buggy and the mad town (carriage) had been sold to more rural folk. The old carriage house was taken over by the Dodge. Uncle Sep’s friends had successfully updated and hard-sold him into switching from trams to a car. I was appointed car-washer and mechanic. Like all young boys, I knew more about cars than it is possible to know. I was constantly tuning the engine from perfection to imperfection. If anything was right I’d fix it.
Still we used to go so far as Windsor or Katoomba at speeds of up to 45 mph and have picnics on the running board safe from bull ants and other bushland horrors.
I learnt to drive it like a kangarooish motion. All very safe for the streets were as vast and “unencumbered” as the only hazards on the Nullabor Plain.
[In 1925, Wep was employed as a Cadet Newspaper Artist for the Evening News and Sunday News, after his dentist Uncle Sep “armed with forceps and needles ‘intimidated’ his patient”, editor of the paper, Marmion Dart.]
That tuck-shop and residence opposite the school gate has not changed its shape in sixty years. The weatherboards and the paint of what is left of it are still as they were when the Thomson widow ran it. Of course it had to all come back in a gush of memory. Nowhere else in recent years have I seen the small sunflower stretching in glory to the face of being. Only here in the weedy ground have I seen the remnants of old time proliferation of sunfire blaze. Everywhere, sunflowers bright like the burst of color of coreopsis in bloom along the north shore line.
Long ago, before Van Gogh made the big ones commonplace, we as small children would stare up to the swaying sol six feet above and with a face as big as a soup plate – bending over the fences to radiate a joy to small children in the shadows of the lanes. Sunflower and chokos over bore the tattered fences – the sunflowers were gay – we got sick of chokoes and chops. The little sunflower plants had leaves like the feel of a cat’s tongue, raspy on the skin the loving tactile semblance of a sedge tooth file.
There used to be the depths of night shaped into gramophone horns adorning the more neglected lanes. With our bited dogs we passed the convolvulus bells with siren tendrils clutching at our throats. In the twilight, the vibrant blue weeds of our back yards. I never remember ever seeing a frangipani or hibiscus or any other modern exotica. There were scents of the evening – perhaps we were too young to notice the small white jasmines or the occasional tuberoses. Red geraniums, yes everywhere in little window boxes – not children’s flowers at all – very adult.
Arum lilies and cannas yes (mostly around the semi detached) -seemed to lend a glory to the necessities of human functions.
Who was not enabled on the way back from the out-house by the soft lick of the lily leaves and a fairy touch brush across the face of the asparagus fern?
My Grandmother had grape vines which bore somewhat edible fruit. She had too, a sturdy clump of verbena shrub. Somehow this seemed to go along with her personality extremely well.
On Sunday afternoons after being let out of Sunday School we would aimlessly roam around the cabbage patch (fenced off of course) past the manure bin through the carriage paint shops (as those sheds were called) all mucky & soiled. A good fistful of verbena leaves crushed up in smelly hands. How those verbena leaves reminded me of Grandma.
Just like carraway seed cake. You’d have to have been born in 1860 to have acquired a taste for that. Sunday afternoon tea was a bloody trial. Carraway seed cake and Sao biscuits, or Thin Captain. Perhaps we were given lemonade – if we had been, the occasions have left no impact on my junior memories.
Only one other plant ever impressed me. Grandpapa’s glossy tree on the 3’ x 4’ lawn in front of “Trelawny”. Grandpapa used to sit on the gas bar during the dusk and note the comings and goings of the locals. Everyone was on foot just like in a communist city. This tree, or shrub, was not more than three times taller than I. Looking from underneath its leaves were dull and undistinguished but from the verandah they were miraculously transformed bright green and glossy as a cerebric glaze. It was a very formal affair & impressive but never to the day has it had a name or a signature of being. Perhaps it is still there – I should look again.
From round Goodhope Street and down by McCaffrey’s (or was it Stoddard’s) place he would come in the settling mist. It was colder and darker in the early winter. We had ceased play, even old Warder had given up his dismal barking, his sniffing at the old cast-iron lampposts. Huddled in anticipation of the new world, we awaited his coming. Mr. – I cannot dredge up with name but to us, he was a real mister, almost a bishop.
His silhouette against the last gas lamp he had lighted, greater, closer and bigger in the full dusk – until he greeted his tiny congregation. With his crook he would pull on the light. Down Hoddle Street and up around to Lawson Street we followed. The admiring flock, the bishop of the young and the lighter up of the lamps existed only for our particular joy and wonderment.
Always the shadows marched east from Goodhope Street. It didn’t matter whether it was winter or summer, those shadows marked the creeping end of day, finally to engulf the short valley of Hoddle Street with twilight yet leaving to the last moment the repossession of the golden light on the school and the tips of the terraces on the odd side of Glenmore Road.
Sometimes we children were quick and naughty enough to anticipate the elderly lamp lighter – yet mostly we seemed to follow him in a religious rite of observance to his ritual motions of the crook which brought the gas to light on the corners of our territory. We followed the soft effulgent glows so far as Cascade Street and called the ceremony a day, or better speaking a night.
Crickets and cicadas gave the drone notes to our shrill childish cadenzas as we marched back to a wash and something hot to eat.
When you’re a small child and all you ever see in the house is knees and a tablecloth, and the big key which locks a door, what do you remember? What do the chokos growing wild around the lanes; the new fangled Studebaker depot down past the old horse drawn McCaffery’s? Motorcars spoiling our pitch on Glenmore Rd.
You know I dreamt up that these “Studies” had even killed our dog Sandy. But this was not so. It is just that so many cars are about now, I project a hatred.
Once, I remember my father coming down the steps, right down to the bottom of the house. I suppose he had finished work and was coming home to the area where the dining room and kitchen hung out. Perhaps to where under the steps leading to the salon de resistance was a grimy little poke hole in which one put brooms and mops and a hand clipper for cutting the meagre grass of our back lawn – or to tidy up the always overgrown wilderness of 6’ x 3” which covered father in lot 702A at Bronte and looked so wildy and beautifully, as the winds from the sea and the extra salty south.
Of course I have no memory of Frederick Castledine’s internment. A box in a house with a father in it.
Twenty seven years later at or on, the same site I learnt to hate funerals and all the bullshit and beatification which comes with the mothballs and glossy white gloves.
Wep’s father, Frederick Castledine Pidgeon, passed away June 12th, 1913 when Wep was only four years old. Wep retained the memory of seeing his father in his coffin, laid out in the front room of the family home at 290 Glenmore Road and suffered from claustrophobia for the rest of his life as a consequence. Bill hated funerals, subconsciously perhaps from the trauma of his father’s death at a young age but reinforced as he says, approximately twenty seven years later at the time of his mother’s funeral in August 1941.
My brother was always doing things for me. He always let me have a first go at the washing-up or do the messages, and he even let me carry his hymnbook back from church. Whenever there was a Smoko in the saddlery next door he (being acuter of hearing than I) used to relate the least blue of the speeches.
This affectionate solicitude became irksome on the evening of Mother’s Party. In 1916 people didn’t have radios and had to make their own noise. You’d never think to look at our old house now, with its ten or twelve rooms and gas-ring jobs, that one Surgeon-Commander, one Lieutenant (army) , and one Captain (army) and one widow and one spinster could have all fitted into one of its rooms.
A Commander, a ‘cello, a Captain, a flute, a Lieutenant, a tenor, a spinster, soprano, and one widow with piano and such accessories as chairs, epergnes, and aspidistras will fill any 10 x 11 room.
Well about 9.30 p.m. when they were all blowing and scraping, big brother helps his bleary-eyed junior out on to the top staircase redoubt.
From which impregnable post big brother helpfully launched me down the stairs into the midst of the ‘cello and the “Picardy Waltz”.
This slight-of-foot earnt brother no acclaim. Me, being small enough to be priggish, basked in the subdued uproar and was fed with cakes. I was not offered ale. Big brother, God Bless him! was rebuked and awaited in the cold and seedy hours my hand outs of leftovers.
Three or four years later I narrowly missed cutting his throat – he had begun working for a bank in Newcastle.
Cousins were just as natural as fleas to me. I seemed to have millions of them and they were all up and down from my level. Somewhere or other, it seemed impossible to find one who added up to my number in the elementary scheme of things in those days. Nowadays, everybody is supposed to be your cousin and the world is full of do-gooders obsessed with piddling and no-one has the entrée to that bunch of cousins, those fabulous characters who seemed to have been born of chimera and who would bust the world apart for a zac which would have bought them a gospel in the times, I speak of. Not that those days were any better than that. Amongst the many cousins, I had – it seemed as if I had collected them, doesn’t it? – I can assure you that they were all foisted upon me before and after that auspicious Thursday in January, 1909, when I joined the galaxy – the Milky Way of cousinhood. The Pluto of my planetary world was of course gargantuan cousin, Bill who was expelled from his mother’s orbit in a 14 1b craft, in the very month in which I, also, was sputnicked into this horrendous space.
Now there was an older cousindom led by relative John, who was always cleaning himself, and could not leave dirt well enough alone. There were girl cousins to kiss and others to tease. And on Sundays at Church, you could find out from the Common Prayer book, if you could marry, the best looking one or not, even if you weren’t allowed to wed your grandmother; not that I had secret thoughts and passions and Freudian longings for that austere Scot who dominated, with a carbon steel rod, the cohorts and regiments under her command. A strong type, my grandmother in recollection; always in black or maroon.
Buttoned up in front, practically from the boots and with a surging pacific swell of a bosom breaking into a stiff-necked white collar of foaming frills which the white bones of the past paraded around the throat and were confronted by the indomitability of a North Head chin. One could hardly call it nestling. There was perhaps, branded, would be better, upon the black and unyielding bosom, my sole idol. A massive gold snake curled and entwined upon itself in convolutions such as only Laocoon himself has witnessed, all bestudded with diamonds and rubies and lights of flashing green and folded scales, like Baal, turning and re-entering upon itself, swallowing, digesting, illuminating and fascinating; a viscera of an emblem; a Europhobus tortured in gold; Heavy too! To top it all, beside the pin attached, it had a chain with a second mooring – I do not know who got it when the old lady died, I would like to see it now – but it doesn’t matter; I can still see it heaving on the waves of that Gaelic breast.
It is funny how you seem to lose your place in this memory story. Here I am choc-a bloc with cousins and I am off on Grandma. Anyway, I did not really need to consult that old Common Prayer, because the girl cousins got away, and I was left with the paragon of all cousins, Georgie. Now, Georgie is to be likened in this day and age to a hydrogen bomb in the ten-megaton range. Not that he was ever dropped whilst in my care by me; I had too great a sense of responsibility towards humankind, ever to have made that unchristian like gesture. Georgie was a dear sweet boy, as harmless and benign as an unfused bomb as long as you kept him in your own bomb bay, all was well with the world – which means in those far off halcyon times, 290 Glenmore Road, Paddington. But if the area door was not thrice bolted and key withdrawn, the back door nailed in and the chimney flue bricked in – well, one had had it!
Now Georgie, as a son of Uncle Percy, who often got kicked in the “deaf and dumb” when playing league with Bluey Watkins and who won his corps heavyweight boxing contest on the way to France was a two-man man and an inaccurate ikon to puling little weaklings like myself. He married a robust dark and to my eyes, passionate almost gypsy. Perhaps too much alive, like a femme fatale, for the rest of our somewhat reticent family group. Georgie equaled the equation.
Several times Georgie stayed with us and no-one could have foreseen such nuclear reactions as he could make out such an elemental meal as warm sop with pepper and salt. Don’t ask me the recipe for that sop. It is to go into the appendix to these writings. His sop with water added to the milk seemed to grant my cousin a superhuman sense of well-being and omnipotence. In no time at all, (that is if we had left unguarded a door), a bevy of tearful neighbours would be wailing and bemoaning, the scourge that had befallen over the district. Infantile paralysis was a non-sequitur compared to Georgie’s descents upon our precincts. Unbattered, unbloodied and unbruised, Georgie alone was serene. Neighbourly eyes and noses hammering on his inborn bricklayer’s fists had left him unmoved, or to be more precise, only mildly delighted with life as it came.
Georgie lived for the day, and each I suppose was good. One of the best, I guess was the afternoon I took him to West’s Picture Show in Oxford Street. It was probably one of my worst. I could have put up with paying for him in the ice-creams. I could have put up with his throw-downs and crackers during the show, but when he hung his feet up on the ears of the boy in the front of the pictures, I lost their interest. I cannot even dredge out of the past, the name of that picture. Maybe there was no picture at all. All I could see was twenty Darlo kids ready to tear Georgie apart, and not to make much of it, me too. Now that I think hard, nothing seemed to come of it except that I was the first to exit and lay awake that night in fear and trembling and in youthful hope that Georgie’s chemistry would become less fissionable.