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.
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.
Our old dunny was down the back and built in bricky union with the Chappies. The dividing fence separating our estates ran smack between the two feet that separated our privy doors. Our cisterns rarely chimed in unison because it was part of the game that one did not hear the grunts of labour of the sighs moanings of ecstasy of the unseen partner.
It was a Chappie Man I liked most to be in residence with his noisome pipes somehow seemed to catharsize the often turgid atmosphere of the backyard villa. There were always plenty of matches to be lit whilst he went through the Sydney Morning Herald and an ounce of Old Plug. Sometimes we’d have all been down the back and perhaps even washed-up before the blue smoke from his curly pipe would cease leaking through the roof and the fiscus. He had to wear his glasses down there for even with a house brick propping the door open there was not overmuch light. Of course there was always a candle to help out on really dark mornings. The candle was always an inch long and festooned with drippings which froze the curled and blackened matches in old enamelled holder. I can’t remember what other type of pipe-side literature Chappies Man indulged in during those secret hours.
The dividing fence could not have been more than twelve feet long. It stuck out like a row of toothpicks from the gloomy dentures of our wash-house which housed the sadly worn wringer whose perished middle was stop-gapped with an old trouser leg and half a tea towel. Fifty years ago the handle of this wringer was propelled by a quarter horsepower boy with singularly little grace.
This fence wasn’t much in the way of fences even for those days. It was very grey and most of the nails which upheld the privacy between 290 and 292 were museum pieces of iron oxide. The moistest thing about the fence apart from its age and decrepitude was the fiscus which supported it. This vine had gone berserk and its branches were closing up the lavatory door. It crept its long cancers through the vents and dropped the obscenity of its figs beneath my feet that could not touch the floor when I was enthroned.
Our W.C. was a somewhat more elegant than the Chappies’. Beautifully shaped cobwebs, neatly cut squares of the “Herald” strung on the door and oleographed reproductions of Sir John Millais’ “Cherry Ripe” and “Bubbles” set off the rest of the furnishings. Occasionally we’d switch and have squares of the “World’s News” and I was constantly amazed by the odd and scarcely credible information it provided before it met its predestined end.
Despite the artwork our lav was never in the first flight of mod. cons. It was adequate for the traffic (since we were invariably constipated), and could most aptly be described as a high-up suite with cultural asides.
As I said, one pretended not to be in there at all when the neighbours were puffing and blowing in the semi-detached. I could hold my peace when the Misses Chapman were in possession, but could not abide the long and wearisome wait for Chappie Man to complete the “Herald” and his movements. I used to pull the chain and to Hell with it!
Apart from reporting my getting bitten on THE MUST’NT TOUCH IT by a harmless spider, and big brother dropping his fountain pen in to the gurgling depths, I have nothing more to add to on the evacuatory life and habits of 290.
Our family was not one for the world of mystic card games. I doubt if they had ever heard of the tarot. If any precognition was expressed, it was in terms of tea leaves clinging to a cup, or of the fortuitous designs of chop bones left on the plate. We were well up on bridge; auction, not contract – and poker. Not that there was much money in it. Even on the wildest night of gambling, hardly more than a half crown would change hands.
Emmy and Otto, who made a reasonable living out of playing at the Sydney Bridge Club, used to observe and abide by the modesty of stake money.
Occasionally when Norman B and mother were fed-up with two handed gambling I was allowed to sit in.
I remember the sitting-in in a traumatic kind of way. Sitting under the silk beaded and dusty lamp shade losing all my message money. I was suddenly dealt a sting. It couldn’t have been purposeful on my part because when I shuffled or sprayed the cards they all fell on the floor.
Perhaps Norman jiggled it for me – maybe he wanted a quick end to my company, or had suddenly come into riches.
We were not on brain bridge – just simple poker – and he dealt me a ROYAL ROUTINE FLUSH.
It was his mistake of course.
Something which he should have dealt himself. Anyway I collected them for a whole ten pence and was sent to bed.