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Retired carpenter..history buff, local and ancient..love stories of Italianate style, especially those village superstition stories..Very far left-wing.

A Trivial Inquiry

Ten Tales … Dieci racconti … Decem Fabulum.

English, Italian, Latin … in whatever language stories have come down to us as a delightful medium to offset worry or boredom … In the time of The Plague in Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote of the stories told by just such a group as they while away the hours in isolation from the Black Plague.

In keeping with this tradition, we offer you likewise some stories here. These stories may or may not have appeared on this site before, but it could be from a long time ago and many may not have read them. Let us now go to story number four:

A Trivial Inquiry

Peter Haffney took his latch-key from the deadlock and closed the front door behind him. He paused inside the entrance as one is want to do when first coming home, and looked about. He was not seeking anything in particular, just reassuring himself that everything was as when he left it that morning. An air of suburban mustiness pervaded the house and the dreary silence echoed even the polished rustle of his suit. He then proceeded to the kitchen pantry and easing his portly bulk between the ironing board and bench top he placed a plastic shopping bag with several regular sized cans of food on the bench nearest the pantry. Taking one of the cans from the bag, he raised it to eye level and read the label. On satisfactory completion of this task, he shook his head slowly and sighed. Taking a similar sized can from the pantry, he held it next the other and compared … the brand was the same, the content was the same, even the advertising slogan was the same, however, they had changed the layout of the label!

Gone was the old familiar pattern that had for more years than he could remember been the hallmark of the company’s product. The label, it could be said, was of greater recognizable value than the product contained within the can! indeed, when he thought about it, that old familiar label must have been the same since before he was born! But now that was all gone and, heaven forbid, perhaps too they had changed the mix of ingredients in the product …

Peter was a worried man. A worried man because for many years, because for a goodly part his life (or at least his married life, for that was when his little strange mannerisms first came to public attention), he had suffered from what is called a “obsessive-compulsive disorder”. His peculiar obsession was concerned with the cooking and eating of food … he would never eat any food that he had not himself prepared, with the exception of fish and chips. Though this condition may seem humorous to the layman, it can single out the victim for mischievous mockery. Peter had been many a time made the butt of poor-taste humour. For instance, although he would never eat any food his wife would prepare, he did bend this rule for a roast dinner (his mother always had the Sunday roast) … but he had to guard his portion at the table against mischief … such as: If anyone was to touch his food, never mind with a finger (Heaven forbid that!) but with just a clean knife or fork, he couldn’t help but sweep the corrupted article off his plate with a flick of his fork at the speed of light! So on a really bad day, bits of roast would be hitting the walls or television or whatever ‘til a cry of exasperation issued from him and the protagonists buckled over in convulsions of laughter! Such is the life of those that suffer this neurosis. Because of this complaint, Peter’s mainstay of nutrition from Mondays to Fridays was canned spaghetti on toast! Saturdays were fish and chip days … Sundays were … well if his wife was cooking one; roast day, otherwise … you guessed it; canned spaghetti on toast!

But now, all this was thrown into disarray with the shock of discovering that “the company” had changed the label and perhaps, the ingredients! Fortunately he kept up his supply of cans to allow a weeks ration of meals … in case a family member took a liking to spaghetti on toast. So all was not lost, he still had a week to sort this nagging doubt out … he would write to the company seeking reassurance.

A gentle beam of afternoon light shone through the lounge window. Peter folded back the top sheet of writing paper and placed the pad squarely in front of himself. He then sat and thought … while he was thinking, he carefully examined the point of his pencil, for, you see, he always wrote with a sharp-tipped, Staedtler Bl pencil, preferring it to a ball-point as it was not likely to clumsily slip over the paper and make for illegible writing. The house, except for himself, was empty. It exuded that unexciting silence that is common to outer suburban houses … nothing extraordinary would ever happen there and was tinged with the stale mustiness of yesterday’s air-freshener. Peter touched the tip of the pencil to the tip of his tongue and began:

Dear Sir/ Madam,

I am writing to you to make a small … trivial … enquiry. For many years, I have held your product above others on the market as being greatly superior in quality and flavour. Indeed, I have travelled great distances to full-fill my obligation to purchase your product when the local supermarket was not able to supply your particular brand! However, today, when purchasing my usual supply from the supermarket, I was astonished to be informed that you had changed the layout of the label! Upon inquiry if there had been some sort of mistake, I was reassured by the proprietor that this was indeed so! Though he hastened to add that the ingredients were the same, I was far from reassured! So I am writing to you seeking that reassurance and I don’t think I can exaggerate the importance of this reassurance required to myself!

I, fortunately, have a number of cans of your product (see the accompanying label) to see me through another week. So I would appreciate a swift response to this letter (may I suggest return post?) to reassure me of your continued high standard of ingredients.

I await, in anticipation, for your reply … may it be favorable …

Yours truly,

Peter Haffney.

Peter gazed at the letter with a sense of satisfaction. It said no more nor no less than he wished to say. It was written in that clear, concise script taught to him by his primary school teacher, Mrs Herreen, who enforced such a high standard from her star pupil with the aid of a flat, slim, wooden yard-ruler that would cut over his knuckles when a grammatical deviation was observed by the attentive Mrs Herreen gazing sternly over his shoulder!

Even the underlined words were encouraged by that same teacher, with the logic that:

“It does no harm to the correspondence, Peter, if you draw the reader’s a-ttention to a par-tic-ular point you wish to em-phasise by the use of underlining speh-cific words or phrases in nee-ed of their a-ttention!” And she would invariably finish her homily with a steely gaze over her glasses down the pointed rule.

But all this was inline with the mathematical precision of Peter’s mind. For his was a very mathematical mind. Indeed, perhaps the obsessive affliction itself was a result of conflict of reason versus reality. Perhaps the fact that the uncertainties of life did not adhere to his own personal equation resulted in the withdrawal of his eating habits to a more precise routine … a routine that he had complete control over. A cabinet maker of our acquaintance was of the same type. His obsession was with jokes and satirical humour. His over-exuberant laughter would ring through the rafters on all occasions and he became known by his laugh, his nickname being; “The HO! HO! man” … but that did not disguise to us his mathematical brilliance … and it became most visible in his skills with the chessboard, even at state-level competition. That and his swift response to subtle mockery. He too, like Peter, controlled his lifestyle through his obsessions, and with these obsessions, distracted and distanced themselves from too close a familiarity with the unruly chaos of life.

However, it was now nearly two weeks since he had written to the company. His supply of the older brand labelled cans had run out, and he had searched in vain for others at more distant markets. His fidgeting restlessness had not gone unnoticed, though, for the sake of sparing himself from inevitable ridicule, he had not said a word of his predicament to any member of his family.

“You’re not giving up smoking and your football team’s on a winning streak. You’re breaking even at cards, though you lost a little at the dogs the other night so I’m buggered if I know what’s eating you … but you’re out of sorts this last couple of days,” his wife accused.

“It’s nothing, nothing … I … I’m on a bit of a diet,” Peter excused himself so.
His wife let out an explosive guffaw …

“That’ll be the day!” She narrowed her eyes cunningly: “You haven’t been tucking into your spaghetti the last couple of days I’ve noticed that … what’s the prob’ can’t find the can opener? Got worms?”

“Look, piss off, love! It’s nothing … leave me be I’ve just been making a little inquiry … that’s all.”

“But you’ve got some cans … ” She moved to the pantry and took out a can. “Why look!” she announced gaily. “They’ve changed the label … crikey, after all these years,” and she gazed pensively at the can. Peter came and took it gently from her hand and placed it with the others on the shelf.

“So they’ve changed the label? So what? It’s their label they can do what they want with their label.”

His wife had been watching him closely while he mumbled this little discourse. She suddenly let her jaw drop a little as it all dawned on her …

“Oh, I see … the label! The label has changed … OK! OK! But what of the ingredients? That’s why you’ve not been hoeing into it this week, and I thought you were coming down with something … ha! ha! … you poor bastard! … ha! ha!”

“Don’t let it worry you, don’t let it worry you … I’ve made inquiries and I expect an answer any day now!”

But his wife didn’t look as if she was worried at all … as a matter of fact she had to ease herself into a chair so as not to crumple up with laughter. Peter reflected on the wincing humiliation he would suffer when this new one got around.

“Oh! You poor suffering dear,” his wife spoke between gulps of breath, then the look of comical angst on his face set her off onto another round of laughter.

Still, it was another three days before Peter was able to set his mind at ease as to the ingredients in his favourite food.

He walked in through the doorway from work with a bundle of letters in his hand. He was thoughtfully sorting through the mail when his wife asked:

“Anything there for me, love?” But she already knew the contents of the mailbox … she had looked before and saw the “brand-name” letter among the others and decided to leave them in the box for Peter to find.

“Yes … yes a couple the usual bills.” But here his eyes widened in anticipation.

His wife was watching from a sly vantage point in the lounge as he slit the envelope with his pocket-knife. Peter was a study in silence as he read the letter … then, slowly, his eyes closed with delight and a small smile spread over his lips.

“Anything else?” his wife asked.

“Oh … yes, one for me.”

“Important?”

“Well … sort of … just a reply to a trivial inquiry.” And upon completion of the read, he methodically tore the letter into very small pieces and placed them into the waste-bin. Next, whistling a little self satisfied tune to himself he went to the pantry and took out a now familiar can. His wife spied this little pantomime from her vantage point in the lounge and shook her head smiling …

“The poor dear,” she said to herself.

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The Day Bomfino Went Crazy

Ten Tales … Dieci racconti … Decem Fabulum.

English, Italian, Latin … in whatever language stories have come down to us as a delightful medium to offset worry or boredom … In the time of The Plague in Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote of the stories told by just such a group as they while away the hours in isolation from the Black Plague.

In keeping with this tradition, we offer you likewise some stories here. These stories may or may not have appeared on this site before, but it could be from a long time ago and many may not have read them. Let us now go to story number three:

The Day Bomfino Went Crazy

I doubt that many gen Xers or Ys would sympathise with the sentiments in the story below, it being of a ‘raving radical’ kind from the days of my apprenticeship when workers and bosses were a world apart and “nae’r the twain shall meet!” The paint shop man where I worked WAS named Beppi, he DID have a flagon (several that I saw) of red wine behind the tins of primer and he did go troppo one blistering hot day and he did get the sack even though we collectively pleaded to Mac, the foreman for his job (he was a decent bloke, just a tad homesick) … the political rantings are from my imagination … though such sentiments were not far from many of our lips in those days … Viva la differenza! … and thank god for the unions!

The day Beppi Bomfino went crazy was a hot day, it was the third hot day in a row. All over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit! The heat beat down mercilessly on our heads from the low corrugated iron roof of the joinery shop, the dust and sweat and heat like a hair-shirt on our backs. We should’ve been let go for the afternoon as per work-place rules, but the boss, a ‘self-made man’, an escapee from the communist Baltic States wasn’t one to tolerate such liberal comforts … not while he could still work in his air-conditioned office! So we stayed at our benches and the leading-hand gave out salt-tablets so we wouldn’t grow weak from the loss of sweat .

The salt tablets made you want to vomit when you swallowed them so most of us just chucked them away! But we stayed at our benches and worked. Beppi Bomfino was in charge of the paint-dept’, to be precise, he was the paint-dept’! His paint shop was a corrugated iron shed that backed onto the machine shop and opened out onto the yard where the trucks could load up the finished joinery frames. His shed was a mixture of foul smells, sticky floors and a cacophony of screaming machinery when the ‘four-sided moulder’ was going flat-out next door.

Beppi drank. Beppi kept a flagon of warm red wine behind the tins of primer in the paint cupboard and would imbibe liberally from time to time to make his life more pleasant. At times we could hear him singing a delightful Neapolitan aria as he splashed the primer on the frames. You could sometimes see him flinging his arms wide with the paintbrush in one hand in a flamboyant gesture and flecks of paint flicking over the walls a la; “Funiculi-Funicula”. At other times though, when things were not going so pleasant, he would break out in a fit of swearing, which, although incomprehensible in his native dialect held enough ferocity in its temperament to impress us immensely, so none would dare venture into the paint-shop till once again the sweet sounds of a gentle melody permeated the dusty air and floated above the hum of machinery and the hammering of nails.

The day Beppi Bomfino went crazy was the day he drank too much warm wine, it was the third hot day in a row, hot enough to strip the skin off a snake’s back! Beppi came out to the joinery-shop and stood by the wide-open doors that looked out onto the loading yard. His staggering torso looking too heavy for his legs so they bowed more than usual. His brow was black and knotted, which meant he had been brooding over something. He stood swaying unsteadily, bare to the waist and only an old pair of grubby dungarees hauled up tight around his stomach with a thin belt.

He glared out at the sweltering yard over to the large plate glass window of the boss’s office. The boss would occasionally sit or stand at that window of his air-conditioned office and gaze over to the factory where we worked. He would look over with the self-satisfaction of a ‘made-man’, secure in his setting, for he would stand with his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels in satisfied contemplation.

“Just look at him,” Beppi growled; “The Padrone oversees his flock! (puttana!).” He spat, turned mumbling to himself, then stumped, splay-footed, like a “potato-cocky” back to his paint-shop.

Jack, the leading-hand, came around with the daily dose of salt-tablets. We all gave him hell about them, but he wouldn’t listen.

“You gotta take ‘em, th’ boss says so..they’re good for you … look!” and he tossed one down his gullet and gulped it down.

“Let’s see you do that again with mine,” called Bruce.

“Mine also!” added Baxter as he tossed it over and it bounced off Jacks’ shoulder.

“Bugger orf!” Jack replied, “just take it and stop whinging.” And he stormed off to Beppi’s paint-shop.

Around the middle of the afternoon we were suddenly distracted from our work by an almighty’ cry that split the air with it’s ferocity!

Caaasso … !!(prick)”

It was Beppi Bomfino.

He was standing unsteadily out by the doors of the joinery-shop. He was out in the full sun swaying unsteadily, holding a filthy sweat-rag in his left hand and the unmistakable large, white salt-tablet held high pinched between thumb and forefinger of his right hand.

Stronz!(turd),” He bellowed out in the sweltering air of the yard.

He wiped his sweating brow with the rag and held it high for us to witness, we had all gathered in the doorway to watch the spectacle. Bomfino began:

“This is how they measure the worth of the working-man … how much sweat he puts out, the padrones’ holy water! yes, si, gather it from his brow and bless yourselves with it … bless yourselves and thank Christ for it and give the men salt-tablets so they can sweat a little more yes, sweat a little more for the boss!”

He dropped his hand to a gesturing position then began again:

“I’ll tell you a little story my grandfather told me. Every year at harvest time, the Padrone would come out to the fields of maize with the priest where the men were cutting the grain with their scythes. Then the priest would commence to “bless” their scythes one by one with a prayer and a dash of “holy-water”. When he came to my grandfather, my nonno raised his hand flat to stop him!

“Here, Father,” he said as he loosened his neck towel, “sprinkle your holy-water on this towel so I can wipe my brow, so I can cool my temple with the waters of the Lord..as for my scythe, I will bless that with my own holy-water.”

The priest looked to the Padrone, the Padrone gave a curt nod to the priest and he, a little hesitantly, splinkled some holy-water on the towel. My grandfather thanked him. Praised the Lord and the Padrone and as they stood there, took out his ‘old fellah’ and urinated on his scythe! and as he did he said :

“Holy Father, bless this scythe that keeps me chained to slavery … bless this scythe that allows my family to live in a borrowed hovel and be half-starved … bless the steel that keeps the Pope in Rome, the Padrone in comfort, and us in our place for ever and ever … amen!” Bomfino threw his head back and tottered about laughing

“Ha..ha..ha!. The Padrone fired him on the spot!” Bomfino paused for breath, swayed a little then continued; “Here in this country …” he paused to burp; “Here things are different … Oh no! (he waved a thick finger from side to side), oh no, not the work, the work is still the same, the work is the same all over the world! … The boss … the Padrone is still the same.” And he flung his arm toward the plate-glass window that now framed the figure of the boss gazing quizzically at the gesticulating individual in the yard, “The Padrone is still the same all over the world! … but there are no priests to sprinkle holy-water to cool our brows … Here the bastards give you salt tablets! Like grease for a hot bearing so it won’t seize up, oil to keep the machine going!” Bomfino yelled red-faced to the plump figure standing at the plate-glass window of the office! Bomfino seemed to relax and straightened up, he smiled to us then turned again to face the boss with the salt tablet held out in front like an offering.

“But no no … Bomfino doesn’t take his salt-tablet, for he has his own holy-water, no, I don’t need it you see,” he turned to us with eyebrows raised, mouth puckered and his head nodding slowly. “But the Padrone has anyone thought of the Padrone?” he asked with appealing hands, we all shook our heads, he nodded his head as if assured. “No … I though not … but the Padrone, he too must have his salt tablet, eh? In case he grows weak from sweating in the heat eh? .. we must not let that happen eh? No … so I … I Beppi Bomfino humbly offer my salt-tablet to the Padrone.” He turned and staggered to the centre of the yard now glistening white-hot with the dazzling sunlight on the white gravel and dirt.

The boss glared at him with hands on hips. He called to someone off the side in the office and a moment later the intercom buzzed in Mac, the foreman’s, office. Mac was locked away in his cool office listening to the races, oblivious to the goings on outside. He slowly picked up the receiver, listened a moment, then sprang to his feet, the chair falling back to the floor behind him as he gaped wide-eyed out to the joinery-shop floor.

Bomfino was out in the sweltering yard gesticulating to the boss.

“Padrone, come out now and I will give you your salt tablet.” He held it at arms length. The boss scowled behind the glass and shook his fist!

“What? … oh, I see the problem,” Bomfino continued “it’s my fingers, they’re too grubby … and they have made the tablet dirty … but that’s alright boss, you don’t have to swallow it, you can take it as a suppository now come out here and I’ll shove it up your arse!” Bomfino started to undo his belt … ” and to make it. more hygienic, I won’t use my dirty finger to push it up … I’ll use this instead!!” and he dropped his dungarees and his underpants there and then to his ankles. We all roared with laughter, Mac, the foreman pushed through, a look of shock on his face.

“Ohhh gawwd!!” was all he managed to say as he stood rooted to the spot in horror.

Beppi Bomfino held the tablet up high in front and appeared to be grasping his genitals and thrusting them provocatively toward the boss, who stood there mouth agape, arms spread and eyes wide behind the glass!

“For gods’ sake Bill, go and stop him,” Mac pleaded.

“Not me!” Bill was horrified, “He might mistake me for the boss! … why don’t you go yourself?” Mac winced painfully at the thought.

Beppi shuffled forward a couple of steps, his trousers around his ankles.

“Come my little fishy, my plump little polenta … your old uncle Beppi has got it for you .. the same location we’ve been getting it for a thousand years … now it’s your turn for some medicine … oh you lucky man!” … this in a sing-song voice.

“For Christ-sake someone do something or he really will shove it up! you, Brendon?”

Mac pointed his finger .

“Actually, I was kind of looking forward to the possibility of him achieving his objective in public !” … Mac groaned again.

“If you don’t come here my little ravioli, I’ll come there.” Beppi crooned.

“Oh god!” Mac wailed.

The boss, on hearing Bomfino’s latest threat suddenly disappeared from the window, a few seconds later his car was heard to start with a roar of the motor.

“The boss is pissing off.” Mac related to us as tyres screamed on the bitumen outside.

“First gear! someone commented, the motor roared a little distance away and the tyres squealed again:

“Second gear!” another quipped with respect and in the distance we could hear the tyres give another faint squeal.

“Third even!” Mac said, proudly nodding his head, a few of us whistled in respect for the power of that machine.

Bomfino, in his inebriated state was unaware the boss had vacated the premises as he stood in the yard, the tablet held high in reverence, his other hand still grasping his genitals and his buttocks shimmering and quivering as he thrust his groin at the office. He kept up a continuous tirade of obscene suggestions both in English and his own native dialect (strange how degenerate abuse is understandable no matter what the language used).

One of the office workers face appeared in the boss’s window, then assumed a mask of shock-horror-disgust! … as only women can when confronted with raw, male ugliness! She quickly disappeared, followed by the appearance of two other clerks, they too did not linger, nor were their expressions one of glee! Jack, the leading-hand, picked up a length of two by two inch timber and made to go into the yard, Mac grasped his arm.

“Don’t use that,” he spoke softly, his eye fixed mesmerised on Bomfino, wailing and chortling obscenities in the yard.

“Mac!” Jack pleaded ” we’ve got to do something.” Mac gently took the length of timber from Jacks’ hand and replaced it with a length of four by two!

“Use this and do a good job,” Mac whispered.

Jack crept up stealthily behind the swaying, cackling frame of Bomfino, he raised the timber … suddenly, as if on cue, Bomfino started to sway, then staggered forward, to finally sink to his knees and fell, face forward onto the gravel. Jack looked back to us with astonishment, the length of timber still held high, then everyone suddenly came to their senses and rushed mob-like to crowd around the inert form of Beppi Bomfino, face down, bum up in the dirt!

When the boss returned the following week, we tried to plea for Beppi’s job back, but he wouldn’t have a bar of it (so to speak) no way! which just proves that humour decreases as ambition increases.

So that was the end of Beppi Bomfino’s employment at the factory. I might mention that it also was the last time we were given salt-tablets on hot days, the boss let us have one cool-drink each free instead! Sometimes a great price has to be paid for a small mercy. We’d get our free drink on those hot days, stand in a circle and raise them to the memory of the day Bomfino went crazy!

Salute’!,” we’d cry.

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The visit from an old couple

Ten Tales … Dieci racconti … Decem Fabulum.

English, Italian, Latin … in whatever language stories have come down to us as a delightful medium to offset worry or boredom … In the time of The Plague in Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote of the stories told by just such a group as they while away the hours in isolation from the Black Plague.

In keeping with this tradition, we offer you likewise some stories here. These stories may or may not have appeared on this site before, but it could be from a long time ago and many may not have read them. Let us now go to story number two:

A visit from an old couple

Geezus! … the old couple that came to the nursery workshop … I almost forgot … ah! I was buggered after a lousy sleep the night before, what with all the lightning and thunder … I went straight to sleep after dinner last night … I’ll tell you now.

It went like this …

This old couple … Now we get a few curious people come to these free “how to pot and grow” workshops at the nursery, some tree-change people who want to grow their own … some for company and a day out … we got one couple who grew lilliums for show … they moved out here to stop other ‘breeders’ from stealing their bulbs and such … very jealously competitive is the flower showing fraternity … we had a couple of miniature horse breeders come along once … the horses were miniature, NOT the breeders … but I won’t go there!

This old couple turned up, John and Helen … never seen them before … said they were up visiting some rellies and thought they’d come see (we advertise in our newsletter). A nice couple, smartly if a tad conservatively dressed, sharp-pressed slacks and trousers, cardi and collar shirt … comfy, snug-fitted slip-on sandals … a lot of pastel shades … you know; the “eastern suburbs grandparents look.”

As a matter of fact, it was that which drew my attention to them … they had that exact look that you’d expect the perfect grandparents to have … Her; that soft-featured countenance with the “look of the listener”, hair; short, curled and permed (I suppose that’s what you’d call it). Him; soft, groomed moustache, kindly, inquisitive eyes with a keen ear … his hair, silvered, short, parted to one side, held in place with some sort of hair crème. They looked a picture of genteel grandparentlyness.

At the end of the workshop, when they were purchasing some pots, soil and a few plants (our prices were very cheap … cost only), I approached them with my observation … the lady laughed out loud and the man smiled ..

“Touche,” he said … ”Or rather; ‘Une touché de elegance’ !” And they both smiled.

I raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“I am afraid you see us in our theatrical get-up … it becomes very difficult to shake off at times,” the lady explained.

“This sounds interesting,” I remarked “Can I coax you in for a cup of tea and biscuits while you tell me about it?” I offered.

They accepted keenly and we sat at the kitchen table with cuppa and iced vo-vos while they revealed all.

The lady spoke:

“We hire our persons out to people or organisations that want couples such as ourselves to add a certain “touch of elegance” to an occasion … or as John said; ”Une touché de elegance” … as a matter of fact, that slogan is on our invoice.”

“Let me get this straight,” I pleaded “ … people and companies hire you to come to their events just to give it a sort of respectable elder citizen cred’?“

“Exactly,” he answered

“What sort of companies?” … I was curious.

“Oh financial investment houses, aged care providers, companies selling certain products for the elderly … we go there and … well … mingle … that sort of thing.”

“Mingle?”

“Yes … look respectable … like you’d expect an elderly grandparent to act … sweet, polite, gently condescending … that sort of thing … full of good, sound advice … provided by the organisers, of course.”

“And private people?” I asked.

“Now they are the difficult ones!” He sipped his tea and placed the cup and saucer back on the table. “We have some who want to claim us as their real grandparents so as to have a kind of geneaology line to impress another party … They supply a few pictures and we refer to them in conversation, sometimes we photo-shop ourselves into another photo … say “at the beach” or somewhere … for that extra touch of reality …”

“Isn’t that a bit risky?”

“You mean in case someone recognizes us in another place sort of scenario? … Well, my dear chap, that’s where the theatrics come into play … ”

“We are both retired actors.” Helen took up the telling: “Small repertory theatre, that sort of thing … Noel Coward farces and comedies … Unfortunately those small companies and theatres mostly closed down with the internet and “demand streaming” … and of course, the time of slapstick or double entendre vaudeville is now ‘persona non grata‘ … and we got bored with a dull life at home .. no kids, you see … so we thought of this … ”

“I tell you,” John leaned over the table to me … “we could come in next workshop as different people and I guarantee you wouldn’t recognise us!”

I believed him.

“But we did have some beauties before we got savvy on how to handle one-on-one situations … John , you remember that Italian woman … the fiancé of the orphan gentleman … ”

“Dammed embarrassing! … almost made a fool of myself! … But I plead innocence in the matter … I was ambushed!” John protested.

“Shall I tell him, John?” Helen touched his hand gently.

“Oh go right ahead … so long ago now it’s almost funny.”

“Well,” began Helen; “We had this commission from a wealthy Australian business chap … somewhat dodgy, if you ask me … that was going to marry an Italian woman … from Italy … in Italy, but he was an orphan and her family expected him to have certain credentials, so to speak … respectability I suppose you’d say … Anyway, we were hired to play the grandparents who became close to him after his mother and father were killed in a motor accident … He was on holiday in Australia with the lady and they were to drop in on Gran and Papa for afternoon tea … in the English manner, and we were to impress the lady with our quaint charm and so on … ”

“And did they?“

“Did they bloody ‘ell!“ Helen blurted. “Like a cloudburst! … I’d no sooner answered the door when she was in the hallway like a stray dog after a square meal!”

John took up the story:

“The woman was unstoppable! … All bouffant, bottom and bosoms!” John phewed. “I was sitting in the club chair and she came straight over to me … I was about to get up when she came and planted big, fat, juicy kisses on both my cheeks … my nose wedged into those voluminous bosoms like Edmond Hillary descending into a crevasse on Mt Everest! … and I tell you what, the perfume she had soaked down there nearly knocked me out cold! … I’d just come up for air when she exclaimed: “You are Brendan’s Granpapa but now you are my new Nonno! … and she sat BANG down on my lap!”

“Ha!,” Helen exclaimed, “dammed hussey!”

“ … and no sooner than she sat down, it came up!”

It?” I pondered …

He pointed meaningfully toward his crotch.

“Lazerus rising!” Helen mocked.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.

“You’re not kidding; whoa … I quickly jumped up, sending her to the floor, spun around to conceal and readjust the ‘inconvenience’ and then doubled over pleading ‘my old war-wound’ … “

“Anyway, we got it all sorted out and they departed happy if apologetically after a suitable time … I believe he informed her some months after the wedding in Rome that we had both died of a heart attack … one followed the other into God’s care … a nice romantic touch, don’t you think?”

They both smiled.

“I say,” John leaned over to me … “I don’t suppose you’d mind me taking a couple of those nice vo-vo’s with me … for a snack on the way home … one’s blood-sugar, you know … Ta! ” And they stood to depart.

I gave them the invoice for the plants and potting stuff they took.

“You’ll accept payment in seven days, I take it?” John asked, eyebrows raised, wide eyed.

I hesitated … then smiled ‘knowingly’ in return.

“Of course, of course … and thank you very much”.

Lovely couple, but I don’t think I’ll see them at too many more workshops.

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Decem Fabulum…

Ten Tales … Dieci racconti … Decem Fabulum.

English, Italian, Latin … in whatever language, stories have come down to us as a delighful medium to offset worry or boredom … In the time of The Plague in Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote of the stories told by just such a group as they while away the hours in isolation from the Black Plague … “The Decameron”.

In keeping with this tradition, we offer you likewise some stories here. These stories may or may not have appeared on this site before, but it could be from a long time ago and many may not have read them. So let us begin with one of the first stories offered here:

Pearl

The tide had ebbed.

He was strolling down the still waxy sands, she, with her two frolicking children, aged three and five approached from the opposite direction. Suspended from a coarse, frayed piece of rope gripped in his hand, was a glass net-float. It swung, pendulum like as he walked. As they drew near to each other, their eyes met and their gaze held one another with that curious cognisance that lingers longer than is usual with strangers. A search not timid nor wanting but rather, as with like minded travellers in new lands, a polite familiarity in each other. The wide open sands of the tidal beach allowed plenty of room for personal space. The older child, a boy, saw the glass float, its surface sheen reflecting, with rhythmic precision of the swings, a shaft of evening sunlight into his eyes. He ran over and touched it, open mouthed, wide eyed and with the innocent inquisitiveness of a child.

“What is it?” he asked, his fingertips palpitating over the glass surface.

“A float, a glass float off a fishing net,” the man continued to explain. The other child approached with the mother, its tiny arm clutching around the mother’s leg.

“Where did you find it?” The boy persisted.

His query remained unanswered because the man gazed at the woman who in return exchanged greetings with her eyes. He held out his hand.

“David MacKinnon,” he announced. She took the tips of his fingers lightly.

“Suzanne,” she replied with the natural caution of omitting the surname.

“What is it?” she asked, one hand waving across her face to chase away flies. The bridge of her nose pinched in a wrinkle.

He held the orb up by its rope, looking for all the world like a severed head with the bits of straggling seaweed.

“A glass float, rather old though … they use plastic ones now … or polystyrene.”

She didn’t remark on the information, just stared at the orb as it gently turned on its rope axis this way then that like a mesmerists fob watch, the “oily” aged glass swirled marbled with rainbow tracks.

“It’s almost … like … a pearl!” she delightfully exclaimed. There was a pause as he gazed.

“Why … yes, yes … I suppose you could say that.” The thought attracted and attached itself to his mind. “But then it’s only appropriate to find a pearl at a pearl-fishing part of the coast.”

The little boy reached up to spin it around, but his hit swung it against the man’s body … he lowered it to the sand and let the boy roll it around … it had no value to him.

“I dug it up back there.” He motioned toward a dark hulk of a wreck of a boat back up the beach, its rusty skeleton softened by a cluster of mangrove fronds over it.

“Maybe it’s from that boat?” she remarked.

“Maybe … but that’s not a fishing boat, its a pearling lugger,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“By the sweep of its deck, … oh, I don’t know really … I’m just guessing … a feeling rather … it’s the way they used to build them”.

She laughed gaily.

“Well perhaps that is an old pearl,” she said pointing to the float. “After all, I bet they don’t make them like they used to!” And they both joined in the friendly levity.

They stayed there together as the children played with the glass float. He looked intently at the children.

“I have two children myself,” he announced vaguely … “A boy and a girl … ”

“Oh … how old?”

“Seven and eleven.”

She nodded.

Here was comfortable ground and a chance to talk to another human being after that interminable drive up from Perth, with every town a seeming thousand miles from the next and oh! the dreadful endless road and the tedious bitumen.

“Where are you headed?” she asked.

“To Perth … home … and you?”

“We’re off to Darwin … to a new home … or at least we hope to call it that for the next couple of years.”

“I’ve just come from there,” (as if it was just up the road).

“Oh … what’s the place like?”

“The tropics are beautiful this time of the year. It gets very oppressive in the “wet” … yes, I enjoyed it there.”

“What do you do for work?”

“I’m a carpenter,” he replied.

She smiled … for there was something secure about a carpenter, the thought of his hands smoothing over a piece of wood … the truthiness of his eye, turning the wood, gauging the grain with a sureness of judgement to match and make … a workshop strewn with curled shavings, the odours of Pine and Fir resin … joss-sticks … sandalwood?

”Yes, a carpenter must have a patient touch,” she mused.

“Are you driving straight through?” she asked.

“No … not tonight … I’ve just arrived … ” he pointed to a distant campervan …

“I’ll book into a caravan park for the night. Get a bit of a clean-up.”

“There’s a nice one just up the road a little … at the edge of town, we’re camped there ourselves for the night too.” She gave this information over lightly, without invitation .. just as information.

“I s’pose that’ll do then … I’ll give it a burl … Gosh! … look at that sunset!”

They both turned to face the ocean, the sinking star shimmered and quivered into the lapping mercury of sea. He snorted humorously:

“It’s a pearl, too.”

They both stared silently.

“Yes,” she softly murmured. “It’s quite divine … ”

David turned to see the children frolicking, their stretched shadows flickering over the waxy sands …

” … and we live our lives in the shadow of the divine,” he said.

The caretaker showed an informal interest in his booking as there were few people staying there that night.

“Just find yourself a park over there near the ablutions block an you’ll be right.”

As David steered his van to the site he saw again the woman outside a station-wagon. She was with her two children.

“Hello!” he called, “Do you mind if I park nearby for the night?” And he smiled.

“Suit yourself, it’ll be good company.”

They crossed paths to the showers later that evening and after more small talk agreed to sharing a coffee after the children had gone to sleep.

The sweeping silence of the night lent a comforting familiarity to the talk and it wasn’t long before they were sharing confidences and laughter.

“Yes, I did meet some real characters up there in Darwin there’s some beauties, especially in the building trade.”

“Tell me about one,” she leaned over the little table in the van, her face supported by her fist under her chin.

“Ahh! … they’re too crazy.”

“No, really, tell me.” There was a tenderness attached to her inquiry.

He rubbed his fingers over his brow as he pondered, aware all the same of the purring sensuality in her voice, an early indicative sign that men interpret as woman’s intention and act instinctively. He sat upright and began.

“Here’s one … There was this bloke I knew up there … a Kiwi fellah … a contract painter … any how, he was telling me he done this big job for a wealthy family, the whole house, inside and out … a couple of months work … and they didn’t pay him … couldn’t get the money out of them … rich people can be the worst payers … and him with all the material costs, all the paint … and the other blokes he had working for him … a fortune … and it was sending him broke but he got this other job … with another wealthy family. He was up on a ladder painting the cornices with this dark, crimson paint one day and thinking of going down the tube what with these others not paying and thinking one thing an’ another an he didn’t know how he did it but he dropped his pot of paint! … and it fell outside the groundsheet! … all over the white carpet! … ”Holy shit!” he cried, “I can’t afford to pay for that! … ” and he was just about to panic when the woman’s poodle walked past (he knew she wouldn’t be far behind) … He quickly grabbed the dog and threw it onto the spilled paint and cried in an exaggerated yell … ”You little bastard!” … the woman came rushing into the room, threw her hands up in the air … ”Oh, Pickles! … Oh you naughty dog, I’m so sorry … I’ll … I’ll pay for the paint.”

Suzanne laughed as she threw her head back.

“Oh the rotten bugger!” she cried.

”Yes, I guess so … though I suppose he had to do something and I daresay the insurance would pay for the carpet … ”

They both giggled a bit more, then a silence fell between them, and within that silence there rose in each of them a warmth of companionship and familiarity so they both knew the others desire, but the restraining codes of society held them yet apart. Instead, he pursued the desire with some small-talk.

“Huhm … and what are you going to do in Darwin?”

“Me? … Oh … I work in jewellery shops … an assistant … so I suppose … ” she left the answer open to the inevitable conclusion.

“Jewellery … ” he repeated, his eyebrows raising swiftly. “Then I may have something that will interest you.” And he turned to reach into a drawer on the side of the van.

“Just a minute,” she said, her hand raised and lay familiarly on his shoulder, “I thought I heard one of the children … be back in a minute.”

When she returned, David had a small, dark wooden box on the table. It was very ornate with chunky carvings, of the chest-type from Thailand, only smaller, about ten by six inches. Suzanne pulled her stool up closer to David, her hair brushing over his shoulder, she noticed the “goose-bumps” that arose and she smiled to herself.

“And what has he got in his little black box?” she smirked … He chuckled.

Lifting the lid gently, a chamois bag was revealed, he lifted it from the chest and placed it between them on the table. Dave slowly untied the soft, woven cotton pull-string that choked the neck of the bag … slipping two fingers into the opening, he eased the bag apart wide. In the tarnished glow of the mozzie-candle, lay, like the waxen orbs of many tiny eggs in a nest, a regular bounty of … pearls!

Suzanne pursed her lips, for they were indeed attractive, and in this light, their buffed skins took on a living glow, like the promise of an egg about to hatch! she put her hand forward as if to touch, but David, not noticing her movement, had placed his own fingers into the burnished silvered cache. As he lifted the pearls up and let them fall dull-tacking back into the fold, he looked to her face. It was intent on the pearls, the dancing flame of the candle light lapping into and onto the soft features of her face, a face not yet drawn with the lines of care nor bitterness, a face still open and serene … David pondered on his own features, were they as easy to read? were his eyes still capable of showing impromptu emotion? … but he quickly dropped these introvert thoughts … he longed to touch her … would she allow … ?

“Where did you get them?”

“From a Melville Island local … they call these ‘roughs’, as you can see, they aren’t nicely rounded. but they are still pearls … ”

“Why did you buy them?” Suzanne asked, not taking her eyes off the luscious hoard.

“I liked the look of them … the feel of them … the sound as they touch each other … ”

“Were they expensive?” she asked. He laughed.

“No … ” then softly, almost dream-like he ran his hand through them again. Suzy placed her hand on his shoulder … he gazed at it, then rubbed his hand over hers, they smiled together … she turned her attention back to the pearls.

“Why do you keep them?”

“I keep them because of how they feel … because I like how they feel.”

“I have to ask … it’s the way you run your fingers through them.”

He looked to her eyes to gauge his answer, to feel out her capacity for a simple truth … a male truth … for there are some secrets neither men nor women would share with each other … her eyes answered him encouragingly. He stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers, she pressed her cheek against them … but how does a man reveal that named desire for the untouchable, the impermissible part of a woman that he is both slave to and yet feebly jealous of without himself sounding feeble, or foolish in a description … a name for that most powerful sexual part of a woman.

“They remind me” … he paused in trepidation, to consider, for he didn’t want to lie to her, then spoke , the timbre of his voice firm, but softly tender, “I sense … they remind me … of … a woman’s —- .” And here he used the old Saxon word of description, a brash word of men’s language. His eyes moved away from hers to the pearls as if in apology for using such a vulgar noun, even though his pronunciation of the word was rather in a deliberate reverential tone than a cutting slander. But how else could he say it in truth, how does a man describe such that which is an overwhelming yet beautiful hunger? … He once again dipped his fingers into the pearls, their satiny surfaces making a sound like … like silver … He continued; “Sort of velvety-smooth … and pleasant to touch, a sense of moist … but these, of course, are dry … ” he picked one pearl up, pinched between thumb and forefinger … he rolled it gently around the ball of his fingertip … “and by themselves, like this, they are like a woman’s firm nipple … almost erect yet … so gently pliable.”

David spoke in a detached but tender tone. She had at first balked at his use of the vulgarity and she watched him closely, looking to detect any trace of lechery in him, but no, while certainly he could be called a sensualist, there was not that oleaginous sleaze that is attached, film-like, to the seeking voice of the degenerate. No, he had used the word as such because in the descriptive circumstance there was no other with the strength of emotion to encompass the fierceness of that strange male hunger.

Suzanne stretched her hand over his to touch the pearls with her fingertips. The smooth opalescence of her skin in vast contrast to his tanned workman’s hands … and as she dabbled them into the glistening bag, his hand moved to the inside of her thigh … Her head came forward to rest in the crook of his shoulder, his lips sought her ear … his other hand moved down the spine of her back to lift up the base of her blouse, his touch had found her so warm … he felt his hunger for her body rise … and ohh to touch that forbidden place and then to be encouraged to go further … David sighed. He freed the clasp of her bra and slipped his hand to cup her breast … lovely breasts, so full and voluptuous he squeezed the nipple so very gently between thumb and forefinger as she softly gyrated her hips to his caresses …

“Mmm, she cooed … ” I see what you mean.” She spoke as she fingered the pearls.

“How do you know?” he teased.

She smiled.

“Oh … just a wild guess … ” and she pulled back arms length with her hands clasped at the back of his neck.

They sat looking at each other for a full minute without speaking, the insect-candle sending its whisper of citrine scented plume curling over their heads. David placed his hands on her hips … it was settled, and it seemed as if some enormous imprisoning weight had lifted from their hearts to be replaced by a freedom of movement liberated from the constraints of the artificial dualism of civilised human – spiritual animal!

Suzanne moved her hand down and took his now firm manhood in a gentle clasp, as one would hold a thick stem of a flower …

“All rise to the power of the beast!” she laughed quietly … he chuckled with her … ”how good a carpenter are you?”

“Oh … fair to middling I always try to put my heart into my work,” he smiled.

She worked his zipper down and released his “beast” from its “cell”.

“Mmm … with a bar like this you should be able to jemmy any door!” They both laughed heartily but softly, then again a small silence … Suzanne gave his penis a gentle squeeze, noting again that soft, silken feel of the hardened flesh … with the oh so gentle undulations along its length … she felt a rising anticipation for it to press against and then to enter the soft opening of her body slowly pushing in deep up to its full length … her breath deepened at these thoughts she had … David’s words on the beach reverbetated in her mind …  “… and we live our lives in the shadow of the divine.”

“Will you stay the while?” And David patted the cushion of the seats … ” It folds down to a double bed.”

She felt a sudden flush of colour rise to her cheeks, a warmth of emotions that she had not experienced since her teens when her body was master over her mind … before the demanding constraints of social convention had enslaved her desires.

“Will she stay the while?” Suzanne repeated his request. She looked into his eyes, she leaned toward him, her breath quickened, their eyes held till the hiatus was broken by the gentle touching of their fingers intertwined …

A kiss! A kiss!

The first glimmer of dawn sweetened the charcoal sky as Suzanne changed into top gear and headed up the highway toward her ultimate destination, the memory of parting still warm on her lips. They had made love on awakening and she had left him there in the park and drove away so as to get a good start before the children awoke. A kiss and a wave of hand the last time she would see him … oh yes! … also the pearl! The pearl David had given her as a memento. She took one hand off the steering wheel to feel into her breast pocket … there it was!

She took it out, held it up in front of her eyes and gazed at it, its polished husk glowed like a moonstone … but wait! … the moon! … there, suspended in space on a lightening horizon was the full moon, as polished and opalescent as the pearl itself! a compliment to each other! she smiled as she thought of that morning’s quiet love-making in the bed and ahead of her lay the interminable road. She glanced back at the children still asleep and then, smiling wickedly, took the pearl and dexterously slipped the treasure down inside her panties to place it strategically and comfortably just there.

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Proverbs / Parables for the young and old

I suspect many readers here have heard of that old parable of the Sun and Wind having a competition as to who could get a man to remove his overcoat the soonest … The wind blew and blew its hardest, but the man just pulled the coat tighter around his body. The Sun on the other hand shone warmer and warmer so that the man got hot and removed his coat at his own leisure …

I have given up on writing political posts because there being a plethora of such on many blogs and social media, demanding change or attention to this or that current topic … and all with the good intention of bringing about a change of heart in if not the already converted then … presumably … the many undecided readers … I have to conclude that because of the still predominant angst of some regular posters in the many forms of social media, not much success has been achieved in that quarter.

I have gone another route … trying instead to use the art of persuasive language of story and tale as exemplars of the humanist struggle against oppression, be it political or social … Who knows, I may have as minimal success as the aforementioned political posters, but I would like to think that at least in my stories I show compassion or irony but do not exhibit the strident demands of the soap-box spieler.

In the spirit of both storytelling and that age old methodology of parables, I hereby offer these few proverb / parable cameos to you for a kind of exemplar of life.

Proverbs and Parables for the young and old

Proverb: It costs a lot of money to die comfortably.

Parable: Nickolai Petrov was moderately wealthy. He was also so cautious with his money, that many times his friends would chastise him with the old adage; “You can’t take it with you, you know!” … Now he was old and was dying of cancer. The surgeon told him this at his bedside in the hospital.

Nickolai’s wife sat at his bedside consoling him, holding and stroking his hand. A tear fell from her eye on to the bed cover.

“Ah, Nicky … my dear Nicky … what can I do for you?” She sang in sympathy.
Nickolai thought about this for a while … then said:

“Trishka, my dear … one thing you can do … ”

“Yes, my dearest … just say it.”

“A … a cushion … an embroided, red velvet pillow .. like they have in the old country … to lay my head on when I … pass on … to put in the coffin for me to rest my head on … ” He turned his eyes to her.

She wept a little at his request. “So like the man.” she thought,

“Yes, Yes, my sweet … I’d love to.”

And she made him the soft velvet cushion of the dimensions he wished, embroided with also a tasselled edging. She brought it to him in the hospital the day he was to be sent home.

The doctor had given him a couple of months to live and he spent these finalising his accounts and business and even arranging the funeral services. He insisted on doing this work himself and said:

“While I have the strength, let me have the dignity.”

And so he died and was buried with the red velvet embroided cushion under his head. His wife mourned for weeks in sadness, but, life goes on and the bills keep coming in.

One day she went to the bank to take some money out, there was none there! – the account had been closed. She went to the building society … that too, closed! … No money? Where had it gone? She asked all the relatives if Nickolai had given them proxy after death to handle the money? No, no one knew … Had he hidden it in the house? She turned it upside down in the search … No … gone … lost!

At last she went to the grave of her husband.

“Nickolai, I know you’ve hidden it … but where?” She glared at the tombstone through slit eyes. “You old devil.” She hissed “Where did you hide it?”

Then she looked to the photograph of Nickolai Petrov fixed in the left side of the tombstone. He had a certain “Mona-Lisa” smile fixed on his face. “Damn it, Nicky, I need … ” She stopped short as a niggling, nasty realization crept over her mind. She flung her hand-bag to the ground. “You swine! … Oh you, you bastard! … the cushion, the cushion … you did take it with you after all! You little pig!” She shook her fist at the grave.

It cost Trishka five thousand dollars and a lot of affidavits to exhume the coffin and redeem the money from the pillow. She replaced the cushion under his head when they reburied him … but this time she filled it with rocks!

Proverb: “Those with sour mouths cannot spit sweetness.”

Parable: Jim Parker worked as a motor mechanic in his own garage in Darwin. His wife: Cynthia worked in an hotel in one of the outer suburbs. After work, Jim would drive to the hotel, pick up his wife and give her a lift home. This evening he was late.

“What took you so long?” his wife complained.

“I had to finish Mr. Black’s truck, he wanted it tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah, so who’s more important; me or Mr. Black’s truck?” She didn’t want or expect an answer but snatched her bag from the desk and pushed the door open to the car park. Jim followed two or three steps behind. As she strode toward their car, she came near a group of aborigines lounging about drinking beers. One of the women was sitting on the bonnet of a car that belonged to one of her workmates Cynthia didn’t like aborigines at all!

“Get off that car you, black bitch!” She snarled as she walked past.

Suddenly: “Wham!” she was hit and knocked to the ground by one of the Aboriginal men standing close by. Jim pulled up in shock with his arms spread and his mouth open. The Aboriginal women, as if by some pre-arranged strategy quickly removed one of their shoes and thrust them into the hands of their men standing there. Jim dashed forward for the fight and was confronted with a “wall of men” with the shoes in their raised fists ready to strike. Although a seasoned “scrapper”, Jim saw at an instant this was too much to take on. He halted and glared around in anger, the men glared back, their raised arms wavering.

“Hit him, Jim, hit him, hit him … go on you coward … hit him!! … his wife yelled, one arm propping herself up off the bitumen. Jim felt the taunting insult rake across his brain.

“Go on, hit him I said … oh you … you coward!” She wept.

“Shut up, Cyn, for God’s sake shut up and get in the car before I hit you!” And they drove away. But all the way home she lay into his manhood so that he dropped her off and grabbed his shotgun and returned to “settle things”. But of course there was no-one in the car-park when he got there. Jim sat brooding in his car with nothing to calm his anger and the sour bitterness of his wife’s accusations biting into his soul.

Proverb: “What the eye doesn’t see, The heart doesn’t grieve.”

Parable: ” I laugh now when I think of it.” The old lady chuckled, “But I was young then, about fourteen … or sixteen … but I was a ‘young’ sixteen … you know? … and I had gone to the millinery store in the town and bought a dress for the fair. The dress was pink floral with a blouse all in one and it had two pieces of material, like braces, with big buttons on the waistline and those two braces went over the shoulders down the back.”

“Ahh … I was young then … anyway at the fair there was the excitement of a merry-go-round and bucking horses and shearing contests and … and tug-of-war … an … and … horse races … you know, that sort of thing and everybody from the district and from beyond the bend of the river .. and they’re dressed up to the nines, oh dear,ha! … the big day of the year for us then, ha!”

“Well, there was this aboriginal girl there the same age as me it turned out, and she had on EXACTLY the same dress that I had … exactly! … and we ran up to each other and laughed and became great friends that day … she worked, like me, at another station on the Murray … cooking, cleaning, looking after the children that sort of thing … anyway, we were great friends that day an’ we walked all around that fair together arm in arm, laughing and having great fun and we’d tell everyone we met that we were twins! … Ha! ha! … TWINS! … you’d laugh now, but we didn’t even think of her being black and me white then .. some people smiled and others threw their heads back and laughed and we just thought they were as happy as we were, ha!”

“Oh, a jolly good time we had that day … I can’t even remember her name now … ha! …. Ah well … twins … twins indeed … I can’t imagine what my mother would have thought!”

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The Indoctrination of Christopher

Christopher stood as instructed before the first small icon of the Stations of the Cross The pictures were at some height above his tiny frame, he craned his neck to see it. Sister Mary Joseph placed one arm around his slender child body and in a secretive whisper described the goings on in the painting … she did this to each child in turn, from one station stop to the next, with each station becoming more and more intense with the humiliation and torment of The Christ, her voice too grew in intensity and anger …

“Look!” she’d say, “look how they laugh and mock our lord Jesus … ” And the children’s eyes all wide and staring at the horror of the gore and blood on the crown of thorns and the leering faces of the torturers. The children’s hands clasping and wringing in fear and horror … several of the little girls clung to the habit of the squatting sister as she related the means of cruelty inflicted on the body of the Son of God as “He suffered for our sins here on Earth … He suffered for us,” her eyes alight also with the self-inflicted emotional pain of the scenes she described.

The young nun then proceeded to instruct the small group of children in the ritual of the journey through The Stations of the Cross … she would say the Leaders chant:

“We adore thee O Christ, and bless thee.”

Then she would ask the children to repeat after her:

“By your holy cross Thou has redeemed the world.”

Then she would gather the little cluster of children around her and softly tell them a little maxim of life; “As a child, we sometimes feel alone … sometimes others do not stand up for me when I am picked on and afraid … so help me Jesus to be strong and protect me in thy light.”

The chant was repeated at every Station, along with the repeated response and then another little homily on the lessons of life through the eyes of reverence for Jesus. “As a child, I sometimes repeat stories that are unclean and disrespectful … Help me to keep myself pure and clean … ” All while standing before another frame of the torment or torture of Our Lord Jesus Christ. These lurid paintings left nothing to the imagination, from the first of the condemning to death before Pontius Pilate to the meeting of his mother and the women of Jerusalem on the road to crucifixion and the stripping away of his garments to the hammering in of the nails to his hands and feet and the sinking in of the spear into the side of his body …

These chants, prayers and visuals were displayed in graphic intensity to the ears and gaze of those five year old children, fresh from the comforts and protection of Mother, Father and the safety of home … To Christopher, they were a shocking assault on his quiet nature … He had never seen someone so deliberately hurt … He had never seen someone held down and tortured. He had never seen a person stripped, beaten, speared, gored and nailed to a wooden cross … Yet here was Sister Mary Joseph explaining it all with the soft, gentle, assured voice of a confident adult … so it must be so.

But strangely, the terror didn’t bite into young Christopher. Those carefully designed pictures, those beguiling, persuasive homilies and all the Sister’s gently pitched whispers into his child ears were to be of no avail … for even as a child, Christopher was more of a “touching” child … he was more interested in the tactile nature of things .. on the habit of Sister Joseph, he would touch to feel the heavy-starched white cloth parts of her cowl as she cooed, as with a lover’s breath, the corrupting words of indoctrination into his ear, wondering why the cloth was so sharp … he would stand by her side and feel the heavy wooden beads of the Rosary belt that wrapped around her waist then dangled down the side of her habit-skirt … He would be mesmerised at the large, pendulating black cross that swung against her breast as she leant down to him. His was the world of touch, sights and sounds, the child’s world of wonder, when the wind told stories to his ears … alike to the animal kingdom … windy days telling hurried stories of trees and hills, grasses and ferns, of white-capped ocean waves and gliding sea-gulls under drifts of wind-blown clouds scattered over azure skies. A child’s ears and innocence tuned to that elusive pitch and timbre that becomes dulled and destroyed by adulthood and those alluring, wailing whispers on the wind are seldom heard again.

What is lost in the eyes of the child, when such macabre icons are drawn to their gaze … The innocence that must be destroyed so guilt can be created, hatred infused before a depraved love constructed, fear before security, doubt in place of certainty, death before life. What is religion that would need to do such to a child … for it is surely children to which all it’s cunning indoctrination are delivered … as the adult convert must be a relatively low number in proportion, so it is the child that must be coaxed out of it’s dreamy cocoon into the adult world of conditioned certainty … where “trigger words” or scenarios are embedded into the vernacular to be drawn upon when needed by civic state or religion … for they do work fist in glove in collusion with each other … how else could it be explained or excused, for what were these series of cameos of horror and degradation but in reality a kind of ecclesiastical pornography pushed into the subliminal thoughts of the children’s minds, a “sleeper” awaiting the right moment to respond.

After the last Station was reflected upon, the last homily spoke, the last humiliation embedded into their child minds … the children were lined up and marched back single-file to the classroom near the row of huge old pine trees … Christopher looked at the radiating branches ascending high up into the depth of the foliage …

“Wow! what a great place for a tree-house,” he was thinking.

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The Resurrection of Herbert Griegs

I have a war story … well, not actually about war itself, but about how it broke and remade a life … It is a true story and was told to me by Darcy C; an old farmer who lived on the farm next to us (in my first marriage) in the hills. He was one of those generational farmers whose family had been in the district since its inception. A dry old stick who knew everything that went on in the district, he was taken to telling a yarn or two when he had nothing else to do or it was raining … I was always a keen listener.

Of course, Darcy told me the main parts of the incident and I picked up bits and pieces elsewhere in the district … You have to be a bit canny when making inquiries of this nature … the locals don’t like giving anything away … it’s a bit like fly-fishing for trout you have to know how to search the shadows.

It went like this:

The Resurrection of Herbert Griegs

“Pray for me my sweet,

Lest I forget to praise myself,

For God is a distant star … ”

The small casement window of the dining room of the old house lay slightly ajar so that the gentle afternoon breeze just lifted the cotton lace edged curtain and it brushed against the glass fronted china cabinet next to the window. A crystal-glass wind chime tinkled sweetly as the breeze chinked its pieces together making little pin-pricks of sound. On top of the cabinet stood three objects, two of which were framed photographs and one ceramic figurine of a young lady with a basket of flowers over her left arm. One of the photos in a gilt-edged frame showed a young snapshot of the just recently deceased Herbert Griegs with his then new bride; Mary-Ann. Herbert is dressed in his army uniform. They both appear very, very happy. The other photo is of a young family, about the same age as Herbert and Mary-Ann. There is also a small child in the photograph. The man is also in a uniform, but it is the uniform of the Fascist army of Italy. The young family too, appear very happy. All these people, with the exception, perhaps, of the child are now deceased. Herbert and the wife of the Italian soldier died of old age. Mary-Ann and the Italian soldier died in the Second World War.

Here is their story:

Herbert Griegs and Mary-Ann were married in the local church at the small country town where they were raised and intended to live after the war. They did not doubt that Herbert would return from the war, it just seemed impossible that he would not. There was so much life ahead, the promise of a fine full life on the farm.

Herbert was already in the army when they married. He had joined up some months before so he had finished his basic training and was on leave. He expected to be posted to barracks in the eastern states awaiting orders to go overseas to active service. They had been married a week and three days when Herbert’s orders came through. He kissed his new wife goodbye reluctantly and travelled with a large number of soldiers away to New South Wales.

In the days of the Second World War, in many country places in Australia, soldiers were billeted on farms in the countryside. If there was a shearing shed on the property, the army would staff it with a cook and kitchen helpers and put a hundred or so soldiers there under canvas. Such an event happened at Mary-Ann and Herbert’s farm, two or three months after Herbert had been shipped off to New South Wales. Soldiers from all parts of the state were camped there.

This was a very unsettling time for Mary-Ann, for she missed her husband terribly, and in the course of fate, whether it was similarity in looks, sympathy toward their fate or simply the uniform, Mary-Ann one day was seduced by one of the soldiers. Why? Well, who knows, as mentioned before, it could have been for a number of reasons or desires but for whatever reason she did, Mary-Ann was the most shocked, and fell to despair when she found she was pregnant to the soldier who had by now long gone away.

Mary-Ann became so desperate of the situation, that she somehow, someway found the address of a place in the city that would, for a price, do abortions. Mary-Ann paid the money and was attended by the anonymous people. But the operation was a failure. she hemorrhaged badly and it couldn’t be stopped. She died in the room of a house in the back-street of the inner-city. During the night her body was re-moved and left propped against a tree in one of the parklands that surround the city.

Herbert received the news with horror and disbelief. Impossible! How could she be dead, she was alive and healthy six months ago, she was smiling still in his memory, she was laughing just out of reach on the slopes of the field-daisy covered hills behind their farm-house when he chased her up the slopes and laughing, pulled her down on the yellow and green carpet and there amongst the miles and miles of open countryside under a soft sky they made love.

“No! It couldn’t be so, No!”

The letter from his brother didn’t tell of the circumstances of Mary-Ann’s death, and he didn’t find out till he returned home for the funeral on leave of compassion. But still he was so shocked that even the sordid details didn’t seem to sink in. How? How? he kept asking himself and he would sit for hours at his brothers’ kitchen table and sometimes look as if he were about to ask a question but then would close his mouth in silence and look deeply into his cup of tea. He mechanically went through the ritual of the funeral and stumbled from the graveside in silence. It was in silence also that he re-turned to the barracks in the East to be shipped off overseas to the war in Africa.

On the crossing to the front he searched again and again through all the details in his mind that he knew of the tragedy. He started to hate Mary-Ann. He stood her before him in daydreams and called her “whore”, “betrayer” and any other names that he thought he could hurt her memory with, but in the end of it all he called her “love” and wept for the sadness of it all.

Then he started to hate the soldier who had seduced her. He looked around at the noisy men about him and tried in his heart to pick the types that would seduce “a lonely sympathetic woman.” Several times he fought fights with braggarts who told lurid tales of their “conquests” before they left home. He had to be dragged off one fight before he killed the man. Fortunately none of these fights reached the ears of the high ranking officers, it was just the “locking of horns” amongst the men, the release of tension before the approaching theatre of war.

The first action Herbert’s battalion was to see was the assault on Bardia in Libya. By now Herbert’s hatred was directed toward the enemy out front and there was no more eager soul for battle in the battalion. He was in a state of silent desperation. He silently nurtured the philosophy of “kill or be killed”, it didn’t matter to him at all. What was there home now? What was there here? Who was he fighting for? It just didn’t seem to matter anymore. He just wanted to throw himself into the teeth of war with a seething vengeance! He wanted to kill, if only himself, he wanted to kill!

At zero hour the artillery barrage began. Herbert was humming and whistling nervously. Then the barrage lifted and the first wave of infantry attacked behind the engineers who blew the wire with “bangalore torpedoes”. Herbert was rushing, running into the acrid fumes amid the fires and shooting. He shot at a few fast moving shadowy figures near a guard post. The horizon jumped and jerked with the flashes from the Italian artillery. He ran past a truck destroyed by their own barrage, wild orange flames swept around the cabin of the truck from the burning tyres, the flames lashed and licked at the metal like the wet tongue of a huge animal. His temper was almost uncontrollable as he rounded the corner of supply building of the post. An Italian soldier suddenly stepped out of a doorway just ahead of him with his hands on the verge of raising in surrender, he didn’t get the chance. Herbert shot at point blank range and the soldier fell in front of him. He rushed up and plunged his bayoneted rifle into the man’s chest. The soldier gasped. “Ah Dio Boia!, Dio Boia!” he cried and Herbert too yelled out amid the wild weird racket of battle all around him, it seemed as if a demon had escaped from the depths of his soul and he cried out for the release of it all while the filthy smoke from the burning machinery engulfed the entire battle scene and he fell to his knees beside the body of the dying soldier. Herbert felt his chest constricted and his breath laboured in short gasps as he knelt there with his hand on the Italian soldier’s chest.

He became aware of some words spoken near his ear. It was the dying soldier. At first Herbert was shocked, open mouthed, he lifted his rifle to strike the soldier again till he realized the man was no threat and that he was saying over and over again; “Non e colpa tua, non e colpa tua.” The soldiers hand moved slowly, falteringly up to his chest pocket, then quivering fell to his side. He was dead.

Herbert jumped to his feet and stood staring down at the first man he had killed, he was about to rush off when he was drawn, compulsively to reach into the dead soldier’s breast pocket. He did this quickly as if repulsed at the thought that he could be looting a dead body. He quickly put his hand in and pulled out a leather folder. He thrust it quickly into his own pocket and scrambled off to the battle further ahead in the mist of dawn and fire.

Herbert did survive the war and he did go back to the farm amongst the gently sloping hills of the hinterland. But he did not go to the grave of his wife in the grounds of the little church on the edge of the town. He could not face her name on a tombstone and he could not say her name for a long, long time.

His farm was suffering from lack of care and he himself moved about under an oppressive cloud of lethargy and listlessness till his friends and neighbours all felt it was only a matter of time till he broke down or cracked up. Herbert could feel himself being slowly drowned by his despair and was aware that he would have to do something to get his life back on track soon or he would go under. A friend of his from the district who had gone to the African war with him had returned and gone into a ministry with the church. Herbert drove to the city one day to speak with him of a certain matter that was troubling him. He was shown to the minister’s room and left to knock on the door.

“Come in” a voice called from inside. “Why hello, Herb!” The minister smiled and rose from his chair

“Here, come over here and sit down … cup of tea? good, good.” … He poured a cup from a pot. “ … just had one myself … I’m afraid this isn’t the army now … nothing stronger … ” and he laughed.

“Ta, thanks, Brian … no, it’ll do fine.” Herbert spoke quietly.

After the cup of tea was placed in front of him Herbert started to sugar and stir the drink with slow solemnity. The minister settled back into his chair and gazed quizzically at his old friend.

“You don’t look too cheerful, Herb,” he spoke.

“Well, no, no, I’m not much fun to be with these days.”

“Is it the memories of the war?” The minister asked.

“That … and Mary-Ann,” Herb answered.

“Hmm, I think I can sense that … but what precisely is the trouble with Mary-Ann?” The minister pried.

“I haven’t been able to go to her grave since I’ve been back,” Herbert spoke softly, a silence fell between them.

“You remember Bardia?”

“Do I?” The minister replied, “scared the pants off me.” He snorted “Glad it’s gone … why?”

“Brian … ” began Herbert “Brian … I killed a man there … ”

The minister squinted his eyes a little, there was something more in this, he was feeling, he replied with a stock answer:

“Well … we all killed there … many of our side were killed also.”

“No.” Herbert spoke slowly and carefully … ” I murdered a man there … an Italian soldier … he was about to surrender, I see that now, but … but I was full of hate, full of Mary-Ann … I didn’t give him a chance … I killed him out of my own hatred … I killed a man … ” Herbert dropped his head in shame.

The minister raised his eyebrows at the problem he saw before him, but then, he was thinking, who didn’t kill in hate of some kind, did people kill for kindness? … we were all full of hatred when we went there, otherwise we’d have stayed home and raised families! The minister spoke these thoughts and moved to quieten his friend’s fears, and because he spoke with the sincerity and honesty of friend to friend, he could see it sinking in … An inspiration came upon him:

“Have you told this to Mary-Ann?”

“What? But it’s too late now … she’s dead, Brian, dead and gone.”

“Dead maybe, Herbert … but not gone, surely.”

Herbert raised his head to gaze steadily upon his friend.

“Why don’t you go down there Herb, go down and visit the grave? It won’t hurt, and who knows, you may feel some sort of response to your worries … it certainly couldn’t really do any harm.”

It seemed a strange thing to do, to go down and consult the dead. He was a little apprehensive and also a little scared, so clutching a small bouquet of field daisies that he and Mary-Ann had lay in those days so long ago, Herbert walked through the whitened cemetery gates on a grey-clouded, winters day. He stopped before the white marble gravestone that read :

“Mary-Ann Griegs

Loved wife of Herbert Greigs.

Died Oct. 4. 1940.

A Tragedy”

Herbert stood before the grave, feeling lonely, not knowing what to think, what to say. So he just stood with his hands clasped in front with the small bouquet held upside down in his fingers. He thought over the happy days, the early days, the sad days in numbness and the war days in pain. The picture of the dying soldier came into his memory, the man’s life fading from the brutal attack of the bayonet.

“Dio Boia, Dio Boia!” The man had cried, the words now clear in Herbert’s mind. And then the final fatalistic sighing of the dying soldier :

“Non e colpa tua … Non e colpa tua.”

Herbert never could understand what the soldier meant by those words, even when he heard them translated, surely it was HIS fault the soldier died … HE was the one doing the killing! … He repeated the words now to himself and the repetitive tone seemed to bring clarity to his thoughts till suddenly, as if illuminated by light he understood the juxtaposition of their lives, Mary-Ann, the soldier’s, his own, and he suddenly realized why Mary-Ann had risked her life and destroyed the unborn child, her child, for whoever the father, it was still her child. But she destroyed her child and lost her life, not out of self protection, but rather for a greater prize to her … Herbert’s love … she died for love of him …

“Oh God,” he cried at the realisation “oh God! oh God! oh God!” and he fell to his knees in front of the grave and the meaning of the soldiers last words fell into place and he sobbed to same words to his wife:

“It’s not your fault, It’s not your fault! It’s not your fault!” he wept , falling down on his knees with his face clasped in his hands, he wept, and so as his tears were falling to the earth, so was his soul descending down, down, till he felt he could ‘touch’ the soul of his loved … and he now understood; the unborn child she sacrificed to Herbert to save her love and the Italian soldier he sacrificed to Mary-Ann to show his love. “pity the killed, pity the killers, pity us all, God pity us all !” he wept to her … a light rain misted over the small graveyard, beside the church on the edge of the town. The bouquet of daisies had slipped from his hands and lay softly on the flat polished gravestone. It’s yellow and green glowing brightly against the wet, white marble …

Herbert Griegs came back from that time of despair and started farming again. He never married again and spent his years in service to the local community and the church. The wallet he took from the dead soldier that night contained, beside other things, a photograph of a young family: The soldier, his wife and a young child. This photograph he put in a gilded frame matching the one of his own marriage and stood them side by side on top of the china cabinet in the dining room of the farm house. These people are now all gone and soon, but for this, I feel, will be forgotten.

This article was originally published on The Pub.

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Incident on the Bulldog Run

I can see by some of the recent comments that there are those who are getting a bit “nervy” … tempers are being tested and in some, found wanting … so please, if it can be of assistance in these testing times, perhaps you can let ol’ Uncle Joe tell you a tale or two to settle the nerves … after all, we may be here for some time.

Now … where were we?

If you turn off the main “Halfway House Road” there about seven mile out of the town, there onto a dirt, bush track; “The Bulldog Run” and go a few miles down that track, you’ll see away there off the side in the mallee scrub; Rhidoni’s old place … a small cottage built in that old pioneer style of four rooms with a lean-to on the back and the old “bucket ‘n’ chuck-it” dunny out the back yard.

The Hocking family had made this cottage their home … for the near future .. a future fraught with the uncertainty of shifting fortune and work … Not that Dick Hocking was such a determined seeker of full-time permanent employment … nor was his wife Alice that keen to become a part of any township community … herself having escaped from a trapped, middle-class life back in civil-war torn Ireland, but still retaining enough of that class’s snobbery to scorn small-town society.

No … the bush suited them just fine and so they sought out these cheap-rental, isolated cottages where scrutiny and regulation was never a problem.

So in consequence, Dick and Alice Hocking and their children stayed in many old pioneer huts out in the deep mallee back in the pre-war years … Because of their isolated positions, far from the nearest town, these huts and settler’s cottages could be rented much cheaper … and with them never being flush of funds at the best of times …

Such run-down old pioneers huts, part stone construct, part pug ‘n’ pine were the usual homes on such tracks as “The Sleeper Track” … named after the cutting of railway sleepers … ”The Seven Cross-roads” or as it is locally known; “The Seven Sisters Junction” … or in the case I am about to tell of: “The Bulldog Run” … locally shortened to just “The Bulldog” … not named solely on account of that particular breed of dog, but because of the wilds of country there … as in; “That’s wild country out there … real bulldog country … ”

It was at Rhidoni’s old place … out in the sticks there just a bit off from The Bulldog … The Hockings lived there a while with three of their children … there were five kids, but the eldest girl had gone to work on one of the river stations as a servant girl and the oldest boy had got work at the local post office in the town of Sedan and was away for most weekends … that left the two early teenage girls and the youngest boy who was around four or five years old.

The parents went to town one day, taking the youngest boy with them to get supplies, leaving the two girls home with the company of a local youth named Murray also in his late teens, who was courting after the elder girl, Maggie … he was safe … But there were some dodgy characters who made their way to the Murray Mallee to escape the law in the city and there was no better place to “disappear” than in the wilds of the mallee in those days … Such a desperate character came upon the cottage there with the three teenagers alone.

The rough looking man watched the youths play a while, reassuring himself there was no adult about … He then calmly approached them in the front yard.

“Hello, children,” he said, his gaze roaming cautiously about, ”Is mum or dad around?” He asked in an innocuous tone as if he knew the parents … foolishly, Rose, the younger of the three replied that “No … they had gone to the town to get supplies and won’t be back for a while” …

The man nodded, tipped his hat and melted into the bush …

But the teenagers became suspicious of his motives when they spotted him lurking about just out a ways in the scrub … They decided it was better if they went inside when they saw him sneaking up closer to the house …

It was fortunate they did, for no sooner than they had gone inside than they heard him cautiously try the door handle … the three children silently stared in fear as the handle of the door moved up and down and then could hear the door creaking and see the door being forced upon gently with his shoulder as he tried to get in … Now this is when things got a tad worse! … Rose had a little dog … a poodle she was most fond of and it had been forgotten when they retreated into the house … Rose became distressed when she noticed the dog’s absence and with a shriek, quickly ducked out the back door to retrieve the poodle, much to the panicked cries of Maggie and her boyfriend Murray …

“NO! … Rosie … come back!” But it was too late … they heard her call for the dog and they could hear the man leave the front door and scurry toward the voice of Rose … They heard his rough voice cry:

“YOU … stay there! … ”

Murray opened the front door and called for Rose …

“IN HERE Rosie, the front door!” and she suddenly appeared, little dog in arms and scurried through the front door with the rough man not half a dozen strides behind her! … Murray slammed the door in his face and quickly secured it … the man put his shoulder to the door and crashed it several times, but fortunately it was built of strong, stout rough-cut timber with a cross-bar securing it, so it stood firm against his thrusts … He then went to get the axe there at the wood heap and proceeded to hack at the door … The children were terrified …

Here, the youth; Murray, did the smartest thing he would do in what turned out to be an otherwise mundane life … He went as close to the front door as to be heard by the man outside and in a ‘just too loud’ whisper, said:

“Maggie … go get your dad’s 303 rifle and I’ll shoot the bugger through the door!” …

All went silent, the axe went still and the man seemed to think for a moment and then abandoned his intended deed and slunk away quickly into the bush … Of course, there was no rifle, it was just a clever bluff … and it worked … The police who later came and searched for the man found him and reported to the parents that he was a wanted rapist from the city …

Lucky children indeed …

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Irresistable Song

Many years ago, I was invited by a close friend to come to Perth to do some major renovations to his house … a kind of “carpenter’s holiday”. There, I met the lady about which this story was written. I got to learn about a kind of “way of life” for seemingly many single parents there … ie; the weekend love-tourists commuting between Fremantle and Perth. This was in the days before mobile phones and internet dating. It was a sad replacement for the permanent relationship. I would think it even was then or perhaps is now, a less than happy substitute for loneliness.

It went like this:

Irresistible Song

Memories are an irresistible song; chained to our triumphs and failings as the notes are played out on the music sheet and the song is ever played in tones of sweet delight or melancholy:

One memory always brought her back to the old water-mill they would visit as a family in her childhood. They would visit that mill in the Summer months for picnics as it was always cool under the reaching shade of that enormous building. She could see now the shadowed sloping lawn slipping away to the willows on the bank of the stream in the lee of the hill with the crumbling limestone edifice of the mill on the opposite bank. Silvered bracelets of water wept from a rusted sluice channel onto the blades of the mighty but now frozen wheel suspended from the side of the stone building. Her minds eye swept over the scene and fixed on her mother and father sitting next to each other on the red checked rug. Her mother’s head thrown back in a sudden shout of laughter so her father leant close kissing her neck in a noisy exaggerated passion so her mother squealed delightedly and they both overbalanced, falling back giggling onto the cool grass.

The memory faded and she came back to the present like a falling leaf and she waved to her children, departing excitedly in their father’s car … her ex-husband … today was Sunday, they go with the father’ every Sunday; her day off.

“Bye, bye mum … Ta! Ta!” the children cried.

The father said nothing, for the bitterness still rankled both parties so silence served for accusations.

“Behave for your father,” she called as they drove away.

Her shoulders drooped as the car disappeared around the corner, as if shedding armor and responsibility combined; the tonnage of adulthood. Marie lingered in the driveway, gazing across the road. Sunshine poured out of the morning sky and the enormous expanse of oval lapped, water like, right up to the kerb of the footpath. A gaggle of gulls frozen collage on the embankment stared patiently at a small group of children running, crying, kicking a ball in the centre of the oval.

On the closest edge of the park stood, isolated and deserted, one of those gauche spaghetti plasticised “playgrounds” that reflect the banal taste of local-govt’ and the naivety of design that would believe that children can be enticed to “have fun” on such sterile frameworks that appeal only to vandals and local government administrators. It stood out painfully yellow and red against the placid azure-blue of the western sky.

Marie turned from the oval to gaze upon a row of scraggy geraniums lined, dusty and weary along the length of the gravel driveway. There is an unfathomable insanity inherent in our society, reflected most visually, I feel, in those tawdry flower beds of the houses in the outer suburbs; earth desperately scratched and scrapped and mounded with paths of various coloured gravels or scoria, cacti and daisy bushes, hardy roses (without scent!) or other tough, dry climate vegetation and, of course, that mainstay of colourful desperation: the geranium! with its scaly stems like rooters legs and the little circlets of hue almost precocious in its attention grabbing way like a spoilt child with a new toy to show off, demanding to be seen and used by those poverty stricken gardeners to balance out against the financial unpredictability of their own existence, at least flowers are manageable!

“Oh this dry weather,” Marie sighed. “The poor garden,” she added with a “tch” and took the hose to sprinkle some water over the geraniums. She then went inside to pick up the last discarded clothes that the kids had dropped before leaving, then again fell to washing up the breakfast dishes, as she didn’t like coming home to a dirty kitchen; it was one thing she detested; the dirty sink. “If I let the little things go,” she would protest, “it soon gets to be a frightful mess!” and she would mop the floor to finish off so she could go out and know there was a clean kitchen to come home to. For today was Sunday, her day off…today she could dress up and drive to Fremantle … Freo.

She would drive to Fremantle to sit in some cafe and try to meet a man. She smiled a little smile at the thought of these strange encounters, she smiled as she remembered Ivan, the Slav who was nice but so noisy … and he laughed at his own jokes! which she found annoying! and then there was that nice Egyptian man; … Rafaya his name was and she thought they had so much in common … almost soul-mates you could say, then she saw him that time in the city with his family and he made like he didn’t know her and she knew he saw her by the frown and the warning away with his eyes … and he too agreed they were “soul-mates” but he couldn’t risk talking to her with his family because:

“You see, my sweet … my wife she would get very jealous and maybe take a knife to you! They are like that, my people … very jealous.”

But still he had a lovely voice and when he talked of love in the dark sanctuary of her bedroom his words were like an irresistible song, the sweetness dropping dew-like into an empty heart, and even if it was only for one night affairs they could still see each other now and then … “Eh, my darling Marie.”

Memories are like an irresistible song, only where the lyrics of the song are fixed, the memory will sometimes edit, cut, embellish, till what is left is the scattered coloured fragments of that which we desire so deeply to see. But today was Sunday, today she would dress up and go to Freo.

She carefully selected her clothes as to best show off her figure, which (she observed critically) was in need of “strenuous exercise,” she was “running to fat” and she frowned, then brightened a little as the noticed that her buttocks at least, now had a rather voluptuous curve to them, something she knew some men found irresistible in a woman, she gave herself a playful slap on the bum, “You’ll be right!” and she smiled into the mirror, giving herself a furtive wink. She finished her dressing, adjusted her sunglasses and hit the road to ‘Freo!’

Once she cleared the city traffic and made the highway, she pressed the ‘pedal to the metal’ and streaked down the road, the window down and her elbow out, with one hand on the wheel and the stereo blasting a suburban beat, her long dark hair streaming in wisps out the window from the speed of the car. Long streaks of cirrus cloud from the west pointed abstractedly to her destination and the car ate up the miles. Ah! speed, speed, that euphoria universal that swiftly carries body and soul on an ecstatic high to god knows where … where? … the same place, most usually, from whence we came!

Marie felt the cool rush of air over her face … Sunday … Freo! … she laughed … But Oh! did she lock the house securely? She went over a check-list in her mind: Front and back doors … barrel-bolts?- Yes. Security locks? – Yes. The windows? – Yes. The kids room … the lounge? – Yes – Yes. Ah, but did she plug in the electronic security alarm? … ”Yes, oh yes! … and I better be careful when I come home not to trip over the cord in the dark and pull the bloody thing off the wall! … Freo here I come!”

Travel is like an irresistible song, escape from the dreariness of an ordered existence, even a day-trip can have the feeling of severing the ties that bind us to our duties. So the countryman goes to the city and the coastal-plainsman to the mountains. The desert appeals to the forest dweller and there must be an ache in the heart, sometime, of the Bedouin for sweet rainforests!

Marie parked the car under a large conifer tree next to the park, she locked the steering bar in place then checked all the doors were locked, “you can’t be too careful, you know.” She suddenly remembered the house. Did she lock up securely? – “Yes.” Good, with her mind comforted as regards her material security she could go forth to risk her heart!

Bells! bells, she paused as she heard the faintest tinkling of bells, no, not bells, too metallic,

“What is that? can’t see, can’t imagine, too far away.” And she stepped off the footpath.

Memory is an irresistible song. She remembered her own wedding and how her father wished to hear the peal of bells to celebrate the occasion, but there not being any bells at the church he decided to supply his own in the form of two enormous hand held bells that her younger brothers were to ring as she stepped out of the portal of the church, and how her father, on seeing the youngest boy struggling to sound his strongly, rushed up to grasp hands over hands and ring the bell furiously so it clapped out its joyous peal over the whole assembly in the churchyard and she could still see his grimacing smile and his suit coat flapping open with his strenuous efforts! Ah, what started so sweet should end so wan.

‘Francines,” the pastel coloured neon light glowed softly and the art-deco interior oozed cleanliness. Marie stepped up to the counter and ordered a coffee and cake.

“I’ll bring them to your table,” the waitress said.

Marie chose a table with only two seats near a potted palm and the full glass window. As she sat, she gazed around the cafe, there were only two other women there, seated two tables away, they were dressed as though on show. “Looking for men too,” mused Marie.

“Here Luv.” The waitress placed the coffee and a small plate with fork and cake on the table. “Oh, that’s alright,” she assured Marie with a light touch on her shoulder, “you can pay me on your way out,” and she moved away with a soft smile.

“This looks a nice place … a clean place,” Marie thought, “I must remember to come here again,” and she sipped the coffee sweetly.

She finished her first cup and took it to the counter for another. The waitress server her and asked in a comraderie sort of way:

“Nice then, was it?”

“Oh … yes, very much.”

“So,” the waitress smiled as she placed another cup in front of Marie on the counter, “your day off is it’?” Marie looked at her puzzled.

“Pardon?” Marie said quizzically. The waitress placed two sachets of sugar on the saucer and leant towards Marie.

“It’s alright luv,” she spoke with a familiar confidence, “Saturday’s my day off from the kids but I live here in ‘Freo’ so I go to Perth.” And she winked at Marie as she moved down the counter. “Oh, I’ll put that on your tab … and who knows, you may not have to pay it on your way out’” and the waitress smiled knowingly.

Marie was shocked, the familiar tone of the woman’s voice and the insinuation left her speechless, was she that obvious, she had always considered these sorties into ‘Freo’ as her own private excursions, she never would have thought that her behaviour was such a public spectacle. She turned to go to her table and then stopped, for two men had approached the other women at the table near hers.

“Hello Ladies.” The taller of the two spoke in a cheerful voice. “May we join you for a coffee?” The women smiled stealthily at each other, not giving anything away, then as if coming to an agreement without spoken word or sign, one of the women said:

“Well, we don’t know you but … well…they look harmless … don’t they Marcie?” and she smiled.

“We’ll take a chance,” the one called Marcie replied.

“I may look harmless but there’s a sting in my tail!” The man laughed as he sat down. It broke the ice.

“Your friend’s quiet, has the cat got his tongue?”

“Oh … he’s thinking,” the first man said quickly.

“What about? … no … don’t tell me, I know what all you men think about … don’t we Marcie?” and the group broke into thrills of laughter and a lively conversation ensued, punctuated by lowered voices and secret confidences then bursts of shrill laughter.

Sexual attraction is an irresistible song, like an intricate spiraling melody it encircles and entwines desires to mull, mould then meld the senses into sensuality till voice and eye become a hypnotic serenade to lure the soul to hungrily acquiesce to the body’s physical need.

Marie sat gazing into her cup, but this was terrible, she was thinking, the crass coarseness of their conversation was embarrassing … then she remembered that day with Ivan in another cafe … oh God! was she that vulgar too! Yes! … yes! she recalled their own conversations … noisy and touched with crudity … conversations of idle chatter, of subtle innuendo designed to lower the barriers of strangeness between two people, the probing into lifestyles, work, interest and leisures, all followed closely with eye contact to filter out the compatibilities of two distinct personalities. She had never thought twice about her behaviour, but today was different, the waitress’s wink had triggered off a feeling of disquiet in Marie, a feeling of commonness that she was party to, a conspiracy of seduction, a whole underclass of single parents desperate for company to hold off the loneliness of isolation from casual conversation with the opposite sex. Marie sat stunned at the table, not quite knowing what to do with this new found discovery, like a person witnessing a crime but not knowing whom to tell.

The tail end of a joke wafted over from the nearby group, the men laughed.

“Oh, that’s an old one,” Marcie moved her hand wearily. “And a dirty one, the other woman admonished playfully, the man raised his hands flat in surrender.

“You should have your mouth washed out,” the woman said chidingly.

“You’re right,” the man agreed, “and I know just the club to do it in … Anyone for a brandy and dry?”

“Make mine a ‘Harvey-Wallbanger’ and you’ve got a deal!” and the laughter resumed gaily as they all stood from the table.

“Excuse me.” Marie turned to see a man standing at her elbow. “Excuse me,” he repeated, “I noticed you sitting alone and I wondered if I may join you?”

Marie turned to gaze up at him. But it was no good, the magician’s trick was exposed and she couldn’t now fake it. She stood up from the table and gathered her things together.

“Are you leaving?” the man asked

“Y … yes,” Marie mumbled.

“Why?”

Marie turned to him, trembling slightly.

“I … I’m the mother of two children … ” she said weakly as if that in itself was an explanation … there was a moment’s silence between them.

“And I … I am the father of three,” he said softly.

Marie looked into the proud eyes then lowered her own, he was not to blame, there was no fault in either of them, just as there was also no common interest save their own circumstances.

“Excuse me,” Marie said quietly and the man stepped aside. But as she passed, he touched her arm.

“Then why did you come here?” he asked, for each of us recognises others of like personality and needs.

“I … I made a mistake,” was all she could say, then lowering her eyes turned away to pay her bill.

The waitress leant over closely as she tallied the account.

“He looks alright to me, luv,” she whispered secretly. Marie didn’t answer but quickly left the cafe.

The sound of bells echoed over the park as Marie sat sad faced on a bench under an elm tree, the sea breeze hissing soft admonitions through the leaves.

Love is an irresistible song, that searches the emptiness of the heart, weaving melodies of possibility within its chamber, and like an irresistible song; the more you shun it, hold it away, the more alluring it becomes and not even a cloak of bitterness will shut out its desiring warmth. The one that seems so wise can be the one most vulnerable to its passions.

“What are those bloody bells!” Marie cried in exasperation and she arose from her stupor in a determined stance to investigate. Clasping her handbag to her stomach she strode through the lawned park toward the sound of the bells. A cry of gulls permeated the air as if harking attention to the dropping sun and a sweet song of voices wafted above the chime of those “bells” … the washing of waves against the sea-wall slapped time to the dancing yachts in the marina.

The singing voices were a trio of Vietnamese women talking and laughing on the wharf of the marina and the gulls overhead argued in competition to their musical language of tone and song … and the clipping of the sail ropes ringing against the aluminium masts of the yachts swaying at their moorings in the harbour: “the bells.” Marie sighed, she had expected a more mysterious solution, not such idiotic simplicity!

“Dammit,” she hissed, “why must every avenue of retreat be just a deceitful blind alley?”

Life is an irresistible song. All its trickery!, all its joy, its fanfare, its deceit but a moment etched on us like breath on a mirror and who really has the time or wisdom to answer the whys and wherefores before that mist is evaporated forever?

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The Big Catch

A silent, still night on Darwin Jetty … fishing … it wasn’t my idea of an eventful evening, but Bernie wanted to fish … and after “fishing” him out of the local lock-up the last night, I presume the last thing he wanted was another “eventful evening”. I won’t go into the details of Bernie’s jailing, many and varied are the layman’s path to chokey, injured pride being the usual penance for the journey … I will just say that even in those more tolerant times of yore, if you’re going to get plastered and still drive, make sure the other car you run off the road is not the local copper! … But tonight it is better to go fishing!

Trouble is, Bernie had that unfailing knack of attracting attention. Perhaps it was the too loud voice that carried, the unfortunate practice of an uncivil comment when commentee was not out of earshot, bringing a wincing to the eye and a moving away of the vulnerable body before – the – fight – starts.

And there we were … on Darwin Jetty, fishing.

Someone once said (perhaps it was me) that fishing is akin to a sadomasochist waiting for the thrill of the dentist’s drill to commence! Translate that as you will. But there we were, the night was still, the water calm and every man-jack of fisherman tense for the first catch AND jealous as only fishermen can be, waiting for the BIG-BITE … that BIG BARRAMUNDI!

I was admiring the argent reflections of the harbour lights on the waters, taking no part in the fetish of fishing, leaving Bernie to bait-up and check the hand lines at decent intervals (laid down in the hand-book of code of ethics for fishermen … it is a thin book!) … I was dreaming, I had just sighed, when that annoying, too loud whisper that was Bernie’s trademark …

“Hey, Jay! … this line’s got something on it.” My interest was aroused … as were others nearby … I know … I saw the sudden jerky twitch as the antennas were shifted “into the wind”.

“It’s gotta be something big … feel that!” … Bernie quickly let me feel the line … and just as quickly took it back and started to haul-in.

This is the highlight of action for the spectator fisherman, that proof-of-the-pudding time and much speculation and exaggeration is spent on the deed! Bernie excelled at both!

“Could be a bloody big Barra!”

He mused out loud to the gathering audience. Who, strangely enough, seemed to shove their hands deep into their pockets at this juncture, such are the habits of fishing envy that you can tell the degree suffered by the depths of fist in the pocket … the hunching-up of the shoulders and uncontrollable rocking back and forth on the heels. None but the most hardened fisherman can show such cruel cynicism for other’s catches. Tell the yarn of your biggest triumph and with certainty, another will, with snarling lips dismiss it with a greater triumph on a lesser strength line than your own .. that is how “fishermen’s tales” were perfected.

“Yep!” … called Bernie over his shoulder … ”Big Barra’ … maybe shark!” And he strained on the line to show the weight on the business end.

By now, all those who had been on the jetty (about twenty persons) were ranged along the edge of the planking gazing down to the silvered line as it dipped and strained out of the sea. Now and then one or another would remove a hand from his pocket and “feel” the line, then add his “expert” speculation to the pool of information as to the breed of monster at the other end. Of course, as any seasoned Darwin fisherperson will know, the tide in the harbour goes in and out like a fast flowing river … adding tension to the line … Bernie pulled hand over hand, slowly, methodically … the line “sang” and the spectators leaned over the edge.

” Whatever it is,” Bernie gleefully in formed us, “ … it’s bloody BIG!” … fists plunge further into pockets .. ” Gotta be the catch of the night!” he added mischievously …

Oh the bitter bile of jealousy bites deep in fishermen! … and he hauled in hand over hand … till a wake could be seen to break the surface …

“There she is!” someone shouted and Bernie gave a sudden, nervous tug on the line that made the thing “jump” with the jerk!

“What is it?”

“Can you see it?”

“Get it up, man … get it up! … you’ll lose it!”

Bernie, addled by a feeling of simultaneous heroism and panic, quickly heaved the thing out of the water toward the jetty … there, in the sallow wash of the one single jetty lamp-light, the realisation of the “Big Barra” came to light.

It was nothing but a pair of greasy, clogged, heavy with mud workman’s overalls. They remained suspended there halfway between the jetty and the water, like a leper kept at arms length … a deep silence prevailed … so silent one could possibly hear the chirping of crickets way over the other side of the bay at Mandorah …

Everyone was peering over at the catch, seemingly mesmerised, the whole lot of them dumbfounded … then … as if on cue to the stage directions of an invisible director …

Bernie looked to me, looked pleadingly to the others … who in turn, all together, turned their scornful, disgusted gaze on Bernie, who dropped the line and could only mutter … ” I .. I “ … and they turned away as one and silently walked away, forever unforgiving that such a hoax could be played on their good persons … fists came swiftly our of pockets and much low muttering could be heard up and down the jetty.

Bernie and I quickly and humbly gathered out tackle together and stole away into the gloom, to slake our humiliation with a “cuppla beers” at The Darwin Hotel.

Bernie wiped the modicum of beery foam from his upper lip … “The blokes in the cells had more understanding,” he muttered sadly.

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Renmark to Mildura in a row-boat

This article originally appeared in The Riverlander, March 1958. The author, Therese Hocking, who is now in her 85th year (now deceased), did the trip with her parents in the Depression years, when work and money were very scarce. It shows the determination of the hardy souls in those times.

Row-Boat from Renmark to Mildura

By Therese Hocking.

Have you ever thought of travelling by river? Not in a comfortable steamer, but in an open boat. My father and mother, my sister and I tried it some years ago when we did the trip from Renmark to Mildura and back.

Our two-roomed canvas cottage that stood on blocks was exchanged for a rowing boat and a white tent. We rolled the latter, stowing it with only what was necessary, including a fortnight’s groceries, into the boat and left early one morning.

It was my job to mind my little sister, while mother and father, seated side by side, rowed the boat. Unfortunately “Mary” developed a love for watching things zig-zag down through the water out of sight. I am unable to remember how many odds and ends we lost this way until she tired of it. We then began to count the scarred trees out of which the aborigines had cut their canoes. On the lonely stretches of the river there often were many.

Posts for the tent were cut whenever we decided it was too chilly to sleep under the stars, or if we stayed a few days to fish or set rabbit traps. In fact, we travelled ‘Wagga’s way’, as we came to call it; because he was the only other person we met using a rowing boat for that purpose.

Wagga was the first, but one of the many characters we happened to meet. A big man, straight, in spite of sixty years, He had a huge, rounded beard as black as midnight. So was his big cat “Satan”, who sat on the prow of his master’s rowing boat and was the most ‘human’ cat I have ever met. Wagga always pushed, facing the front to row his boat, as he “liked to see the way”, He was a super-cook and used the native way to cook fish or wild game, straight from line or gun, wrapped in clay and placed amongst glowing coals: When cooked the feathers stripped off with the clay.

We first met him one evening when he rowed across the river to warn us that the side where we intended to camp was haunted. The story was that a woman passenger on one of the paddle steamers had wandered off while the crew were cutting logs for the boiler fires. She was never found. Her spirit, we were told, used to come back to that part of the river looking for the boat.

Mother is Irish, so we did not stay to find out the truth, but quickly crossed to the other side. It was here next day that a huge ram frightened us. Father and Wagga went off shooting and We other three sat on a fallen gum tree to drink in the surroundings. Suddenly mother’s sixth sense caused her to look round and there, not more than three yards behind, stood the ram. His curled horns looked really dreadful. We hastily and quietly withdrew to the boat and continued enjoying peace and wild beauty from there.

Between towns we met several families who had settled on the banks of the river. One that astonished us was the goat farm people. They were a big family and owned goats of every kind, size, sex and colour. They ate goats, milked them and used home-tanned skins for rugs and mats. We were welcomed like old friends. A huge meal was prepared for all and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I have often wondered how they never grew tired of goats, goats, goats.

Sometimes we never met anyone for days; there was just the never-ending scrub and the gurgling of the Murray River. Then, round a bend, a home stead would come suddenly into view. The people of the homesteads were mostly kind, giving us meat and often flour. In return father would solder their leaking kettles and things.

There was only one accident. Mary, running down to the water’s edge to watch a paddle steamer, cut her foot badly. We came to a homestead next day and the people there re-bandaged it. Not a scar was left.

We reached Mildura four days before Christmas, pitched our tent opposite the town and decided to stay a few days.

The next couple of mornings father spent in the township, trying to get soldering or other work. We others washed and cleaned every thing, giving, the camp oven a good scrub with the clean, white sand found at he water’s edge. Christmas was spent quietly, it was cool under the giant gums. Then it was decided we would go back to Renmark. In Renmark the fruit picking season was about to start and father had been promised some work. So we started back. It took six weeks to come up, and a fortnight to get back.

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‘Precious’

Here … a bit of Australiana to cheer the place up a tad … as Barry Humphries says: “It’s nice to be in the cheering-up business.”

‘Precious’ was a travelling stores requisitioner and supplier for a large mineral drilling company. He was called Precious because of his penchant for slapping on the after-shave and a Dandy for the attire … In town it would be Fletcher Jones and Julius Marlow … in the Outback it was strictly R.M.Williams, right down to the Cuban heels .. and always particular about things right down to the hair-oil.

Back in my youth, when a bad case of industrial diarrhoea forced me from the building industry for a short break, I took a job with that drilling supply company, building specialised shipping crates for machinery and drilling equipment … it was a dumb job, just what I wanted … didn’t have to think much, and we could play “shoot-‘em-up” target practice with the air-compressed nail gun (they didn’t have safety locks those days) … one of the shipping clerks would make a dash past the timber racks and I’d try and get him with the “rat,tat,tat” nail gun … great fun!

Come smoko, a group would gather and yarn about life and things … you know … the usual crap. One of the sales reps used to work on the rigs and one day he told about this chap nick-named Precious … I’ll relate it to you as best I remember he told us.

Doug Orchard’s (Orchies) crew had set up camp on a grid-line somewhere way out west of Longreach in Qld’ in January … Lethargy usually sets in by that month in Summer, due to the heat and isolation from all forms of civilised discipline.

When the camp was first set up, Doug discovered an old, dry bore hole about fifty yards from the camp.

“This,” he thought “will do for a dunny-hole and will save me from setting up and drilling one.”

He asked the ‘cocky’ about using the old bore hole and the farmer shrugged and said; “Sure, why not?” So the rickety site dunny was erected over the old bore hole. This toilet hadn’t a roof because of the horrors of being trapped in such a sweat box under an unforgiving sun with a bad … bad conscience (shall we say?).

It was January and a Sunday and it was hot so that most of the team were sitting outside under the mess-van annex in canvas deck chairs having a cold beer. There were a couple of dogs lolling about there too.

Who should turn up but Precious … Actually, they could see someone approaching by the thin streak of dust rising over the dirt road on the distant plain rising to the low plateau on which they were camped.

“A fiver it’s Precious,” one of the men spoke languidly to no-one in particular.

“You’re on,” … replied Bob.

When Precious stepped out of the truck, a fiver changed hands with a fatalistic sigh from Bob.

“Hello chaps,” greeted Precious, without a hair out of place and a smile on his face.

“ ‘day Precious” … they replied and greetings were exchanged in monosyllabic words as only can be understood by those who have spent time in the Outback and mixed with the many and complex eccentrics that inhabit those remote parts … and it is said that an open mouth only attracts flies.

Precious settled down in an empty chair and partook of a nice cool beer … only he drank from a glass … his own … After a short interval of idle chatting, he indicated he wanted to use “the conveniences” (his words).

“Down by the big tree,” Bob pointed with his chin.

“Flamin’ long hike,” exclaimed Precious.

Bob shrugged and flicked the ash from his cigarette.

After returning from the dunny. Precious complained, with a screwed-up nose:

I can see why you’re so far from that dunny! … Geez, fellahs, it’s a bit on the nose!”

“It don’t bother us, Precious,” said Bob.

“No … I s’pose it wouldn’t,” said Precious with a sigh; “anyway, I’ll do you a favour and burn it out … er … where’s some petrol?”

One of the men motioned to some five gallon drums in the shade of a lean-to. Precious doffed his Akubra, took one of the drums and headed down to the toilet.

As Precious told his story later … ”A man’s a fool. I’ll tell you what happened … I emptied the whole drum down that hole … say; How deep is it? … you don’t say … well, no wonder I didn’t hear it splash on the bottom. Well, after I’d emptied the drum, I lit a match and threw it down … nothing happened (it musta blew out before it got deep enough). I tried again and still nothing, so I got a few bits of toilet paper, lit them and dropped them down and stepped back … still nothing!! … Well, I don’t know what made me do it, I shoulda’ known better … but I gingerly leant out over that hole and looked down … and suddenly … god! it was frightening.”

Doug was up at the rig and arrived at the mess van as Precious was walking down to the dunny with the drum of petrol. The boys told him what precious was up to. He just grunted … ”Good luck to him,” he thought and sat down to a beer with the other blokes.

“A fiver says he’ll blow himself up.”

“You’re on,” said Bob.

He’d only a couple of draws on his beer when suddenly … and it’s strange how, at a distance, the action happens before the sound reaches you … like a person chopping wood with an axe, and you can see the axe fall before the “chop” sound reaches you.

They saw Precious’ Akubra hat flip, spinning away out the top of the dunny like a frisbee with bits of snowy stuff floating with it, then the ‘WHOOMPH’ of the explosion and Precious crashed out of that dunny, ‘swimming’ sort of out of the smoke and coughing heavily. Bob reached into his pocket and gave over the fiver … Doug, not to miss a chance at dry humour asked; “Baked beans for tea again tonight, Bob?”

The sales rep said they all just sat there like they were the audience in a theatre watching a show. Precious came stumbling back shaking his head and cursing … when he got closer, they could see bits of toilet paper and … stuff … stuck all over his face … ”an’ his eyebrows were all burnt off.”

“You’re gonna have to change your after-shave, Precious,” Bob said, shaking his head.

Anyway, that’s why you’d know Precious if’n you met him … He’d probably tell you his tale if you showed curiosity in his complexion.

He’s a bit nervous around petrol these days, and even traded in his old petrol driven truck he swore by and bought a diesel …

“Better mileage,” is what he says.

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A Simple Love Affair

I can see there is need of a little distraction …

Years ago I was “doing a reno” for this Greek bloke who was managing the job for his daughter, who was the owner of the house. She was as the lovely “Anna” described in the story below. She would come around to the job every few days and talk to the old man about design and so on … I never spoke to her and only saw her from a distance … she always wore a jacket thrown over her shoulders in the Greek tradition, so I didn’t know she was a thalidomide child.

“Is your daughter married?“ I once asked him.

“No!! … she never marry!” he replied with a twist of his face. I was puzzled.

“What do you mean; never?” I persisted.

‘What? … You not see? … no arm, no marry.”

“What do you mean: No arm’?” I queried him.

“She have no arm … just a stump … her mother she once take that pill … tha … tha … ” I twigged.

“Thalidomide?”

“Yes! … that’s it … and she have no arm … so, no arm no marry … ”

So I have built a story around that moment, that awful reality … and I have moved the story to the mallee, to another older time and place … Why not? … I too desire a better ending than what the sour cynicism of that old man offered. Why should there not be a … a simple love affair, set in a mallee town with two young people? Yes! … let us create our own “reality” … our own desire if only for one moment, one afternoon! And even as the some may attest; that only 1% of people are interested … so what!? Let it be just that 1%, for that small number is powerful enough to move Heaven and Earth to a better place in the heart of humanity even against the greater odds of the indolent 99% … We must accept that our “Art” is failing us … there is a loss in western interpretation of “romantic inspiration” … by romantic I mean that desire for the imaginable reality rather than the “cynical certainty” … bad things in life are a given, but hope is always there … without desire, there is no hope … without hope there is no life.

So, dear reader … as the story unfolds, let us desire …

A Simple Love Affair

When Anna fell in love it was not without a good deal of caution. You see : Anna was a thalidomide child and though she had grown to a beautiful woman, her left arm, stunted just below the elbow with two stumpy fingers threw a “check” on any chance of an out-going personality. So when Anna fell in love with Harry, it was a long, cautious apprenticeship.

Anna worked in partnership with her cousin; Bella, running a small general store in a country town out in the mallee. They named the business: “Annabellas” and it was a good business, an honest business well run that reflected the determination of the proprietors.

Anna was twenty – eight years old, of medium height with a slim face and long black hair down to the middle of her back. Let no-one doubt that old truth that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory! Anna was a fiercely independent woman and held no truck with self- pity, yet, there was that natural reserve that sets aside those with physical disabilities, that je ne sais quoi, (that certain something) of the spirit that brackets their behaviour, a caution in manner and speech that is sometimes sadly lacking in other, less impaired specimens of “Humanus Grossness!” However, in matters physical, Anna never failed to pull her weight, and was always ready with a quick witticism if her stunted limb failed her. Yet, she never developed a long term relationship with any boy from the district. Oh, she was not the type to lament this reality, nor did she overcompensate her disadvantage with lasciviousness! She just had a well-balanced perspective of the situation and the close-knit societies of country towns of those times seemed to lock the young of that era into behaviour systems that excluded, in the majority, any dabbling in relationships away from the physical and physiological norm … sadly, any who went against this “norm” had to leave the community for the wider understanding of the cities. Not that this is an unforgivable fault, for a country town is born of the earth and survives from the earth and therefore any deviation from the “pure state” (however illusory that is) of natural wholeness is, if not condemned; shunned. To put it simply, as old Smith once remarked with a worldly shrug: “No arm … no marry.”

Harry was of the district, once. His family sold up and moved away many years before and now he had moved back to take over the garage once old Peter Porter retired, for Harry was a mechanic. Harry was thirty-three years old when he moved back to the district. He was tallish, well-built (for a mechanic!) with short fuzzy hair and a fixed smile on a generally happy face. Harry had no chip on his shoulder (no axe to grind!) and a healthy disposition. Just the person to run a garage in a small country town! Why sneer? he created neither moon nor sun, nor shook fist at others fortune, yet, Harry suffered that most disabling of conditions: He was shy! Oh, he could slam the gearbox of any tractor onto the block of the engine, with appropriate epithets and wiping of greasy hands and shout to a farmer across the road:

”She’ll be right this ‘arvo Clem’,” … but, stand him in front of a social crowd in the Hall meeting, or a pretty woman and he’d fumble about like a cow in a mud-hole. So consequently, one rarely saw Harry outside of overalls and armed with a spanner … except for the annual football club ball. (you don’t like football? … tough, millions do!)

Harry’s garage was three doors down from “Annabellas”, consequently there was frequent conversation concerning pies or pasties or pieces of string between Anna and Harry. One of these centered around the aforementioned Ball …

“Getting close now,” Harry said in an offhand way.

“Yes.” Anna checked the list of groceries. Harry shifted foot, like a horse resting.

“Who are you going with, Harry?” this threw him a little as he was about to ask Anna the same question.

“Huh,oh! … well, myself I ‘spose … you got someone?” a slight inflection of voice.

“Yes … ”(drop of mouth from Harry). ”My father.” (Mouth picks up again) Anna ticks the last entry on the shopping list and looks up expectantly.

“Oh, … right.”

Harry fumbles in his top pocket and withdraws some money. He counts out carefully on the counter saying as he does so:

“Well I was wondering if you’d care to go with me?” Anna raised her eyebrows, the merest flicker of a warm smile at the edge of her mouth.

“Hmm, … but what about dad?”

“Oh, … he’d come too,” Harry quickly replied, lest there be insurmountable opposition. His eyes appealed.

“Well … ”and here the usual reserve stalled her, but this time she relented. “I’ll ask dad if he doesn’t mind … ”

“And you’ll come if it’s ok with him?” Harry persisted unusually but fearfully.

Anna thought, then looked at Harry closely.

“Yes,” she said. Harry seemed to lose a frightful burden just then, for he suddenly straightened up and smiled.

“Righto! … ” he quipped confidently,” I’ll … I’ll catch you later.” And he left the store … he suddenly returned sheeplishly to take his groceries. He gathered them up as if they were a clutch of puppies, smiled, and quickly retreated to his greasy nirvana.

Well, the night out at the ball went smoothly, as neither Anna nor Harry were wild ragers and would rather dance than drink. So consequently there were other social events that they escorted each other to, for Anna would invite Harry as much as vice-versa and so it became accepted that Harry and Anna would be matched on invitations ipso-facto, so do small communities naturally react … and their mutual company gave confidence to the two companions as they grew more familiar with each other’s idiosyncracies.

No more than a stage of evolution I suppose ( but you knew this was going to happen; quiet man meets beautiful, flawed lady, they fall in love, get married etc, etc and so forth!). But there was one hindering factor in this quaint affair of the heart, something most of us in our safe, sheltered worlds have never to face or confront: the thalidomide arm … the flaw! … ah! as a flaw in a diamond will deflect the light so does a flaw in a human disturb the smooth natural flow of emotions. Why even an embrace would draw attention to Anna’s stump arm, she; the embarrassed frustration of not being able to rub a caressing hand over Harry’s shoulders, he; the knowing of this frustration in Anna and the clumsy overcompensation on his part, the actions of dismissal of the offending limb! Yet that limb was her, or a part of her, as much as a leg or nose or breast! She knew it, he knew it but still the dammed thing would obtrude, out of all proportion into their consciousness. But then again, neither of them could or would broach such a delicate subject, such are the cautions in the courting phase of a romance, the halting secrets of the heart: “Will I? Should?” And so neither is done.

I’ll have to mention that long before Anna had met Harry, she became aware of this nagging feeling and once even, had seen a doctor in the city with a view to amputation of the offending limb, reasoning that it would be easier to explain away an injury than be eternally on show as a “freak”. Fortunately (for she was strong willed) this idea, born on the wings of youthful despair, was soon cast aside as ridiculous and childish. And she grew stronger for it. Oh! that us with body complete could draw on such fortitude, when even a slight ailment of body or soul sends us into paroxysms of complaints … Oh frail souls! Oh weak heart!

So into the summer months under a vacant sky rafting on a sea of mallee bush did they continue with their courting, a gentle affair with neither tryst nor jealousy but as two labourers with a common goal they met, socialised and parted. And then one day Harry “popped” the question. And Anna accepted and indeed, why shouldn’t she? … She desired children, a home to raise them in … but should one feel a little raising of hackles at this servile “acceptance” of a woman’s lot? Should she rebel at this “presumed” social construction? … for after all it is but a story … a facsimile of a life … But ah! … permit me a query … and I ask : do we really believe the world and all in it waits with bated breath for miraculous revelations from those that would have us stride with determination down this or that corrected path? … Have we not all waited, so many in vain … and then all the while inside each of us there is that strange hunger, that desired want for a kind of fulfilment … Yes. Anna accepted, yet there was one unsolved dilemma left in the air and she meant to speak, felt she had to speak, to Harry about it soon.

Saterdee arvo, is there a more pleasant occupation than being young and alive in the summer with work behind you on a sunny Saterdee afternoon in the country? … Harry thought not as he stood wiping his greasy hands with a bundle of cotton waste outside his garage. A smile on his dial, a song in his heart and whom should he spot walking up the pavement toward him? …

“Anna!” he called with glee.”Where’re you off to with such a pretty bouquet? … not another secret love I hope?” and he laughed … and gosh, didn’t she look pretty … her warming smile above the multi hued bouquet.

“It’s for mothers grave actually”, she said. Harry gulped at his over exuberant gaffe!

“Oh dear, pardon me,” he gasped. Anna smiled now.

“Don’t be silly, she’s been dead fifteen years now.” And she fussed with the arranging of the flowers”I’m going out to her memorial now, … you want to come?”

“Say no more,” and off they went.They had hardly driven a hundred yards when Harry suddenly ducked his head below the dashboard.

“What are you doing?” frowned Anna. “Just keep going it’s Noela Gretze! I said I’d have her car fixed this arvo!”

“What, are you afraid of her?”

“Dammit, the whole town’s afraid of her.”

“Whatever for? she’s a lovely lady … she just knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to say it.” Harry raised his eyes to glance backwards out of the car.

“Well, if she saw me driving around instead of fixing her car, she’d want my guts for garters! I’d lend her my car, ‘cept it’s out of action.”

“Your car?! it’s the worst bomb in town!”

“Oh yeah. an’ I bet your cupboards are empty!” they were both silent for a moment then burst into simultaneous laughter.

“The carpenter’s house is falling down around his ears! … Anna cried … ”And the cobbler has holes in his shoes! … Harry laughed … ”And the tailor has the arse hangin’ out of his trousers! they both choked in fits of laughter … ”Ahhaha! … but it’s true!” cried Anna.

The car pulled up at the cemetery gates, Anna jumped out, Harry made to follow.

“Wait there, just be a minute.”

“But I thought you wanted me to come?”

“To her memorial. yes, this is her grave. We’ll go there next, I’ll be right back.”

It seemed a mystery to Harry, “Graves … memorials … same thing.” Anna returned in a moment and they started going again.

“I just had to replace the flowers.”

“So where is the memorial?”

“On the farm, dad made it just after mum died, it is rather unusual … we’ll be there in a little while.”

The family farm was ten kilometers out of town on a side road. After the black ribbon of bitumen, turning off onto the dirt road was like turning into a photograph:

“And I mark how the green of the trees,
Matches the blue vault of the sky … ”

The low stunted mallee trees leant in from the shoulder of the road, the fronds of slim leaves dipping over the limestone gravel. Blackened twists of discarded bark and twigs littered around the knuckled boles and roots. Here and there amongst fallen trees, rabbit warrens displayed their sprays of fresh diggings white and musty amongst tangles and hummocks and if the eye is quick enough, a flash of cheeky tail can be spotted sporting behind tussocks of native grass, or even a round-glassy eye spying unblinkingly for any sign of danger, then a quick “thump-thump!” signal to other rabbits and scurry down the safety of a burrow and braer rabbit says cheerio for the daylight hours!

Anna drove off onto a track with a gate in the fence, entering the paddock, she drove alongside the fence till she reached another gate, though much smaller than the first, like a front gate to a house, there was a carefully manicured path with white stones edging it, that led on a gentle slope toward a grotto-like cavern at the bottom of a basin in the surrounding land. Anna led them to this singular spot, for Harry had never heard of it before. They stood at the lip of the soak, green kikuyu grass spilled out from the sunken pit, it was circular, about thirty feet in diameter and the front sloped down to a pool of cool, clear water mirrored under an overhanging lip of limestone six foot above the pool. To one side of the pond, in a well tended, circle of earth, was the most beautiful flowering yellow rose-bush Harry had ever seen! He stood at the lip, gazing around at the scene.

“How long has this been here?” he asked amazed.

“As long as I can remember, Mum and Dad used to bring us here in the hot weather and we’d wade in the pool. After Mum died, Dad and us kids made it into a sort of memorial … she liked the place so much … ”The oasis” she called it. Dad also pumps water out for the stock in the dry weather. It never seems to run dry.”

“And the rose?” Harry asked.

“I planted that … a rose for incorruption … she liked yellow.”

“It’s a lovely place … peaceful.” Harry spoke dreamily … Anna took out a pair of clippers and went toward the rose.

“Come … ” she called “Help me cut some roses.”

So they stood, she cutting, he taking the blooms. With her stumpy arm Anna deftly moved the prickly stems out of the way, her long, dark tresses falling this way and that over the blossoms so sparkling yellow in the sunlight. Now and then a petal would dislodge and fall spiraling to the earth, so silent was it there you could almost hear the petals touch the soil.

“Harry?” Anna spoke as she concentrated.

“Mmm.”

“What do you think of my arm?” she didn’t look at him as she asked, she was listening to the tone in his voice. Harry hesitated … he knew what she meant and was delving into his emotions .

“Your arm … ”He repeated almost to himself. “I … I think it’s unfortunate but I don’t feel put off by it.” It was a start.

“It’s a burden, Harry, always has been, always will be, strange how sometimes it feels like it isn’t a part of me, so different, when I wake sometimes I look to see if it was just a dream.”

“Does it make a difference to our relationship?” he asked.

“In its clumsy intrusion, you know that … yes … more later perhaps than now, when our company grows so much more familiar and little things come between us.”

Harry didn’t answer, but shrugged his shoulders. Anna stood facing him and placed her hand on his shoulder,

“Harry, we are about to be married … to have children … from there it’s a long road ahead … ”

“I … I’m sure we can do as good as other people in their marriages.” Harry gently replied. Anna turned slowly to one side to stare at the rose.

“I worry, Harry, that any children we may have will not also be affected.”

“It’s not passed on. I believe.”

“You believe, but who knows!” Anna’s emotions engulfed her and she dropped her head crying “ Who knows,Harry … it killed my mother, the responsibility she felt for it … if … if I bore children that were deformed … ”

“Oh I’d hardly call … ”Harry interrupted.

“Yes!” Anna persisted “deformed, for that’s what it is Harry, deformed … it may just be a word, but there it is and I would indeed blame myself for … for … ” and she turned her tear-stained face to him …

“Oh, Harry, If ever there was a time to back away from your commitment, it is now! … I wouldn’t hold it against you … but marry me not with naivety, nor … for gods’ sake … pity!” And she turned to him with a steady challenging gaze. Harry reached for her stump-arm and deliberately took it in his hands. she automatically went to pull it away but he held it tight and though she could have withdrawn it. a stronger force held her.

“Anna … would you think me so simple so as not to see the complications that lie ahead in our marriage? … for marriage it shall be, lest thou refuse me now … and would you hold my feelings for you so lightly that you could see me casting them aside, like a discarded rag, for nothing more than this stunted limb? For if that be the measurement of grace, where does one start? Do I compare the beauty of your eyes against size of your feet? … or grace of your step to the lobe of your ear? … hearty laugh against dirty nail? … and where do I stop? … ”He rubbed Anna’s two stumpy fingers gently: “If I gaze into your eyes, do you see pity, greed, selfishness? .. look now, Anna , don’t turn away, look! … you see affection … no pity, no naivety, no denial … I’m a grown man … l love you, Anna, do not misjudge me nor deny your own feelings but just say you will marry me.”

Harry raised her stump-arm to his lips, the two tiny fingernails painted red like those on her other arm, and kissed her fingers. Anna’s face contorted to one of weeping happiness and she flung her good arm about Harry’s neck and there they embraced while standing over the rose bush.

“Yes, Harry,” she murmured in his ear” I will marry you, yes!”

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The Three Sisters (part 2)

Continued from Part 1

Sfaccio fronts the house of Mother Fortune …

“Hey! … ” he called out sheepishly from the gate, “hey there … Lady Fortune?” But there was no answer. He was about to leave with hands in pockets when Lady Face motioned him to come over to her fence.

“My sister is away in Brommio on business what would you want with her?”

“Ah … it is a little business between us two, madam,” Sfaccio grumbled.

“And have the seeds sprouted?” Lady Face asked slyly. Sfaccio looked up suddenly.

“What would you know of any seeds?”

“One has ears master Sfaccio. and one knows one’s own kin!”

Sfaccio grasped the pickets of the fence fiercely.

“Then tell me, if you know the curse, what have I to do to undo it?”

“Why master, who spoke of a curse? … still … one shouldn’t jest with Kaileena, she has no ear for humour and she will try hard to avenge any slight she feels … ”

“But what of this mystery of the seeds … is that not a curse?”

“Ah! … maybe, but then again the seeds may have been boiled beforehand for just such an occasion … ”

“But how would she have known the question before it was asked?”

“There you may have the “magic” master Sfaccio,” Lady Face said cunningly. “Why was she in her garden just as you passed? … But there … let it lie, and take these seeds, they are ‘Love’s heart lies bleeding’ and plant them next to the others, see, they sprout everywhere here, you will soon see a bounty for yourself and your wife.”

“What! … more seeds! … ma fungool … if I have to plant a whole pasture next!?”

“Well, young master, leave it be and go away then and none shall be the sorrier,” and she turned to go.

“Wait! … I apologise for my hastiness signora, I … I will take the seeds we have nothing to lose” he mumbled as he held out his hand.

“just one thing”, she said as she gave him the seeds,” you must first water them with an idiot’s tears!”

“What! … Madonna santissima dio boio! I’m the only idiot left here I’m sure!”

“No, there is Boffo.”

“But how am I to do that, signora?”

“That is your problem, I can only give you the solution … good day to you master Sfaccio,” and she went inside the cottage.

Boffo was the village idiot, he would be mostly idle save when required to do a little light labouring in return for food or drink. At other times he was full of pranks. Sfaccio indeed had his work cut out for him, for all Boffo did was laugh! But Sfaccio struck onto a plan!

Now isn’t it a strange thing, amici, that nothing is freely given in this world without some string attached to the tail … even God wrote a “rider” into the contract of the garden of Eden!

So Sfaccio caught up to Boffo at the Bar …

“Here Boffo, have another glass … it’s a little thing for such a hard world that we live in”.

“Ha Ha … well, and thankee, master Sfaccio. Cruel, yes cruel,” and he gulped the wine greedily.

They sat at a table in the darkened corner of the bar. “Yess … (Sfaccio drawled out) cruel … I was just yesterday thinking of old Mother Zoanetti, and her three sons.”

“Ohh! … Zoanetti … si,si … sad … so sad … tell me, Sfaccio … who was she and what of her?”

“Here, drink up Boffo, drink up!” and he filled the glass again after Buffo gulped down the last dregs.

”Ah! … it’s a worthy tale from sadder times,” Sfaccio sighed “Those were loyal people, loyal to their kindred, stuck like glue they did. Well … The Zoanetti’s were peasants farming up in the hills over Campobasso when the war was at its height. There were the father, mother and three sons. The war was raging in the north and as the oldest son came of age to fight, he was called up. Away he went, oh the sadness for a mother to see her offspring going away with rifle over his shoulder where once he carried his favourite blanket and never knowing if that child ( for we are always children in our mothers eyes, eh Boffo? … drink up!) would return. And they waved him off down the road … and he never came back … never heard a word from him, probably killed straight off as he got to the front.

Then the second son came of age and he too marched off to war with nothing but a backward wave to his grieving mother … and he too was lost in the mayhem of fighting in the mountains. Try as they would, no word came back of his fate. Ahh! the grief a mother feels at such moments when her children are snatched from her bosom and thrown to the dogs of war! The weeping, the grieving … ( drink Boffo, drink! ), still, there was the youngest, when he came of age she refused to part with him, for he was the favourite, she implored him to hide. for her sake! But to no avail, he ,himself turned up to be kitted out, for how could he shirk that duty that his brothers faced so courageously. How she wept and implored the saints as he too walked down that road. The father had to support her as she collapsed to her knees with clasped hands and weeping contorted face! (You see the situation eh Boffo? You could just see them there in the middle of the road all sad and miserable … some more?) and would you believe it? … the same again, no word, silence to every enquiry the old couple made. But then they were dying like flies up there at the front and who knew who was alive or dead.”

“Oohh … master Sfaccio … si … I myself lost two uncles at that war … oh it was indeed pitiful” and Boffo sniffed sorrowfully, Sfacio was encouraged.

“So one day the father says: ‘Wife, you’ll have to manage the farm, I’m going to the front to find my sons” and sad as she was, she rejoiced that at last they would at least get some answers to their worries. So he joined that circus of fighting to see what or where his sons were. If he found them no-one ever will know for he too failed to return, till there, all alone with her grief, mother Zoanetti vowed to search the mountains and battlefields till she found her family. The courage of those mothers was something to reckon with, eh Boffo?” Boffo’s eyes were brimming with tears, Sfaccio was overjoyed, his plan was working!

“Ahh! My own mother … ah!” Boffo nodded his head sadly. Sfaccio took out a clean handkerchief ready to capture those tears and then to wrap them around the seeds given him by Lady Face.

“She was a sturdy peasant so it wasn’t hard to disguise herself as a journeyman labourer, and in this guise she shouldered her pack of essentials and with one last glance over her shoulder at the old farm that had given them so many memories, she headed down the road and do you know, Boffo? … she-never-came-back!” Sfaccio finished his story with a sad drawn out sentence and Boffo sat there drunk and maudlin with tears running down his cheeks.

“That is the saddest story master Sfaccio …” and he sniffled and snortled.

Sfaccio held out the handkerchief:

“Here, my good friend Boffo, wipe your tears with this.” He offered the cloth generously, Buffo looked wide eyed at the crisp clean handkerchief.

“Why … grazie, signore Sfaccio … grazie,” he said softly and he took it so very gently in both hands as if it would break and raised it to his face in wide-eyed wonder, ( as was also the anticipating Sfaccio) then suddenly put it to his nose and blew with such force it fluttered as it filled with his gruesome snot!

“Stronzi!” cried Sfaccio and he swung his fist to knock Buffo flying, but too late, for Buffo was to his feet like a shot and out the door baying like a donkey, for such was his laughter. Sfaccio ran to the door yelling abuse after him to no avail, for it was his own misery that he was abusing.

“Why curse the fool? Sfaccio,” one of the men standing there asked.

“Ah … nothing,” Sfacio answered and stormed off, but not without hearing as he went:

“Even a well-dressed donkey cannot hide his ears,” and then followed light laughter. He decided on another more direct way to get those tears from Boffo. A fortnight later, Sfaccio bailed up Boffo in the street.

“Hey! Boffo … give us a hand will you?” Boffo approached with caution.

“You’re not … not going to attack me are you, Sfaccio?”

“No,no … what’s done is done, no use crying over spilt milk! but I do need a labourer for a small job.”

“What job?”

“See, I have a little work up at the grotto of Saint Felice, I need you to help me take this material up there.”

“It’s late in the day to start work Sfaccio, its near dusk already … and there’s a storm coming on.” “Yes,yes … but this is for tomorrow … so I can get an early start in the morning … a meal and drink for a little help … OK?” Boffo thought for a second:

”OK, master … I’m your man.” So Boffo took up the wheelbarrow and Sfaccio the tools and they set off up the hill. It was dusk when they reached the grotto, a stiff wind was blowing off the mountains and rain-heavy clouds rose toward them from the south. Flashes of lightning and soft rumblings of thunder echoed in the distance. They placed the gear in the grotto.

“Well, Sfaccio, we’d better hasten back if we don’t want to get drenched.”

“Why hurry, Boffo? The storm is a while away and I have some wine to refresh us after that long hike,” and he pulled out a bottle of wine and a small bag of food from his sack.

“Ah well then, as you say, master, why rush?” Boffo squatted down on the earth and licked his lips in anticipation. And there they sat in congenial comfort while the weather closed in on them. They had been there a while passing the bottle and bread and indulging in small-talk when Sfaccio let out a sigh.

“Ahh! Boffo, Boffo … I’ll have to let you in on the real reason I lured you up here tonight.” Sfaccio spoke in a wistful! way. Buffo took the bottle and drank a swill.

“What’s that, master? … lure? … reason?”

“You see these seeds? … here … well, lady Face says I have to plant them tonight, and need your assistance.”

“Ahh! … the seeds, yes I have heard of them that did not grow … You have more? … How many bambini do you want, Sfaccio? … You will need a whole province if they all grow, ha, ha!”

“I have only ten, Boffo, but the lady said that ‘Boffo must plant them,’ and I dare not disobey.” Sfaccio held the seeds out in the palm of his hand.

“Such a small thing, Boffo will be glad to help you.” Boffo took the tiny seeds into his hand.” Where will we plant them?”

“Out there by that boulder is the spot.” Sfaccio pointed to guide Boffo.

They both went outside. The wind was wilder now and sudden little squalls of rain whipped up the valley, the storm was upon them.

“Here,Boffo, dig a little hole here and plant them. Boffo scraped at the earth with his fingers while behind his bent form stood Sfaccio with a long-bladed knife he had secreted in his belt! Boffo dropped the seeds into the earth,

“Now, Sfaccio, do I cover them up?”

“Not just yet, there is one small thing that must be added.”

Sfaccio suddenly grasped Boffo’s hair and pulled back, at the same time brought the knife around to his throat! Boffo yelped in surprise and anguish.

“Now Boffo!! I must have your life!” Sfaccio cried. Boffo howled with fear as he heard these words.

“Why! master, Why?” he whimpered.

“So I am instructed; ‘The blood of Boffo must fertilise them’ she said.”

He brought the knife out so Boffo could see it glimmer and flash in the lightning, like ice in the heart! Boffo howled with fear.

“Stay, master, stay, I am just a poor fool with no home,” he wailed. Sfaccio pulled Boffa’s head hack and called out. to the heavens;

“By all the saints in the heavens, I’ll have his tears or I’ll have his blood!” cried Sfaccio to the breaking storm (Bertouli stood glass in one hand, the other raised to emphasise the action) and the heavens opened up and a shaft of lightening struck the side of the hill upon which they were and the crack of thunder shook the very ground upon which they stood … such was the sudden tempest that Sfaccio loosened his grip on Buffo so that in a flash, he twisted out of his grasp and sprung to his freedom out of Sfaccio’s reach as quick as the lightening that just struck the hillside!

Sfaccio gave a desperate cry to the heavens when he saw that his last chance to have an idiot’s tears fertilise the seeds was now running, arms flaying in consternation, down the hillside track … and at that moment it was as if time suddenly stilled, the wind dropped as if out of breath and the storm ceased in its tumult while thunder drummed into the distance the very heavens held its breath … and then, Sfaccio dropped to his knees and broke into a piteous sob and his wretched face rubbered into the most horrible twist of sadness and big tears rolled down his dirty cheeks and dropped, jewel-like into the soft, damp hole that held the seeds … dropped, dazzling like diamonds onto those tiny seeds. Sfaccio gasped and trembled with lost hope wrapped around his heart and with every tear that touched the earth and those seeds, a clap of thunder shook the mountain and lightning whipped across the apron of the sky!

His face, sheened with rain and fear, quivered and shook with grotesque sculpture and it couldn’t be said who wept the most: the stormy sky from a thunderous rain, or Sfaccio from despair. Sfaccio dropped the knife and wept.

Sfacio had no fears that Boffo would make trouble for him, the story would sound too ridiculous to be believed and besides who would believe an idiot! No, Sfaccio stayed mesmerised to the little hole scraped in the earth which held the seeds. He covered them gently anyhow and patted the soil down then went back to the shelter of the grotto to pray. (Ha!, there! One moment a pagan, the next a Christian!) and so he fell asleep in the grotto to wake to a fine dawn and a clear sky.

Sfaccio rubbed his eyes when he woke, he couldn’t remember falling asleep. But he slowly got to his feet and stumbled out to the dawn. He stretched and yawned, then , remembering the events of the night before glanced quickly to the spot where the seeds were planted, imagine his surprise when he saw there, miraculously just pushing through the topsoil, tiny shoots of seedlings! Their tender tips just penetrating to the air.

”Blessed Lady!” he cried dropping to his knees and quickly crossing himself … and so the kind sister was correct in predicting that the tears of an idiot would have to fertilise the seeds … and it was when he saw the fragile, sprouts, that he realised that all along … he was the idiot …

“Fool am I!” he cried in a mix of shame and ecstacy …

He rose and walked backwards, never taking his eyes off those seedlings. Stumbling clumsily toward the path, he turned suddenly and ran whooping down to get Primula to show her the good tidings. Indeed, it became one of those minor miracles well known in the district and many people gathered that day to witness that marvellous event. However, the next day, those seeds where just yesterday there were ten, the next day there were just six, though that in itself remained a mystery, I know old Signora Rauni who had ten children herself, had pinched off four of those shoots ,

“Ten bambini are four too many Bertouli,” she told me, shaking her head.

And that is how Sfaccio and Primula came to have six beautiful children and grey hair before they were fifty! Allora signori, there is little that people will not do to be blessed with heartaches and happiness! And while The Three Sisters are with us no more, now those who wish for children will go to the grotto of San Felice, and there plant some seeds of “Loves Heart Lies Bleeding” (that they can purchase from my cousin, Sergio, for a few lira) as a gesture of desire … so that now the statue is more one of Pagan worship than Christian! … But enough, there is wine for all!

”Alfredo! Biacchio!” come here and drink , don’t be shy, the good people have been listening to my story and now we celebrate! Alfredo smiled weakly at the two tourists, took a glass and called; ”Saluti!”, then turned to Bertouli and spoke in dialect; “My god, Berto, you’re the longest winded bullshit artist between here and hell, saluti!”

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The Three Sisters (part 1)

“Buongiorno signore e signora turisti”… Bertouli called out effusively with appropriate operatic gestures with the arms.” Welcome to my humble stall … Scusi signora, but your shadow falls on my bowls and utensils and dulls their shine … grazi!” he danced around his wares manipulating the tourists with gentle hand movements, all the while keeping up a running commentary on everything and anything …

“So, just off the train from Naples eh? Have a good trip? … see here, this is an exact replica of the Emperor Caligula’s goblet … that he would use to toast the death stroke of some unfortunate wretch! … and here, a platter very useful for the salada … fruit … or just hanging on the wall for the decoration.“

“Now, this urn, madam, cast your eyes on the ancient Greek embossing, from the temple of Aphrodite … a fertility celebration … you can have it cheap! What, no fertility left! … ahh! a sad fate signora … and one that overtakes us all I’m sorry to say but then we have … (you have the bambini? … ah! good, bene) our children, but pity those who are denied that delight signora … ahh, madonna mio.” And Bertouli sat wearily down on a door step next to his stall and sighed; “Yes signori, many a tale can be told of couples desperate for the little bambini.”

Here he puckered his lips then raised a finger to the sky … for the day was wearing long and he had not sold many wares … and his thirst for a good glass or two of vino was gnawing at his mood … Bertouli had an idea!

“I remember one such couple in our village many years ago.” He paused, looked to the ground then raised his eyes stealthily … ”but you wouldn’t want to hear such a mysterious tale, “there was a stillness in the air as Bertouli felt for their sympathy … He played his card …,” especially as it concerns three witches!” and his eyes met the eyes of the woman cunningly. “What’s that, you would!? … but no, no signora, it is much too long, the day is warm and I am already thirsty! … ” he stroked his bristly chin thoughtfully. “I tell you what I’ll do, for just a little carafe of vino from the ”Bar Centuri” over there, I’ll regale you with the whole sordid story .. heh, heh … you’ll like that, eh signora? … But quickly, quickly, presto. I thirst and the two tourists rushed off to the Bar.

Bertouli sighed. The man from the next stall sidled over to Bertouli and spoke out of the corner of his mouth:

“Eh, Berto, you got a couple of live ones there … buona fortuna!” And he moved away smiling, stopped, thought a moment then turned back to Bertouli; “If you have a little of the wine left remember your friend Alfonso!” and he tapped the side of his nose and winked.

Bertouli suddenly became motivated, he poked his head into the doorway of the house next to his stall and called:

“Signora Seneca, tre bicchieri per favore?”

“Quando ritorno?” a voice inside asked.

“As soon as we have finished the bottle!”, Bertouli cried. “Pulito? Yes … clean as a whistle and I’ll dry them with my tongue!” The last comment was spoken in a whisper.

The two tourists returned with the carafe of wine. Bertouli began his story …

“Now, amici, keep in mind that these events took place in another age. An age when superstition was to some degrees; dogma! and every village had its “Witch-doctor”. But then, that was also not so long ago! I sometimes think our modern medicine hovers on the boundry of the absurd, and in the end we all have to be our own physicians, eh?”

Bertouli took the carafe from the tourists so as to facilitate more expediently the transfer of wine from bottle to glass.

”There,” he said, handing a small glass of the wine to each; “Salute!”

“Our little village of Castella di Luci, was part of the estate of a wealthy Padrone, who lacked in nothing save a son to carry on his name and the estate. For he was of that generation that looked to the male to become the next “Padrone” and so continue the family tradition. But that was not to be! Three girls and no boy. Then one cruel winter, his wife died of influenza … he was heart-broken, for he loved that woman dearly … and she was pregnant when she died … yes … a boy child that died with her (“sigonori … un ultri? ah! si! grazi!”).

“Well, the Padrone buried them both then settled down to drink and curse his fate into an early grave. The three young girls were raised by an old retainer and her husband, the gardener. The Padrone forgot about them, so bitter was he, and continued to drink his misfortune away. And so he joined his wife and unborn child ten years later to the day!”

Bertouli slapped both hands flat on his knees to emphasize fates’ whimsical twists.

“Well, those three little children were raised by the housekeeper and her husband. The property was sold by the executors to pay debts the old Padrone had run up … all was sold except three identical cottages, side by side along the high road. These the old man had built as a sort of dowry for when the girls grew up. And grew up they did, though none too handsome I might add, and they each one lived in one of those three cottages, and as time went on and they never married, they slowly took on those inevitable eccentricities that identify bachelors and spinsters. Each had an interest in gardening, so with a small income left them from the estate they lived and thrived in their little individual worlds.“

“The first one had an interest in herbs, her garden bristled with strange, wondrous weeds which would overwhelm you with mystical aromas when you walked past. She could always be seen out amongst those tenacious plants singing and crooning soft songs while dressed in tasselled cloaks and heavy woollen dresses of her own make and design, busy turning the earth with a small garden spade as she hummed … Her name was Marita ..  we nicknamed her ‘FATE’. “

“The second was a light, delicate child, and indeed, she was the same grown to womanhood. Her passion was flowers. Such sweet fulsome blooms of so many varied hues you never saw the like of before and I’ll risk the future to say; you’ll never see the like of again! She too would sing while tending her beds of poppies or mughetti, rose-hedges and lilies, showers of sweet-peas would wash over the fence like a woven waterfall of dancing confetti … and when a wild wind blew, all the front yard up and leapt a-swaying and swirling like a wild tribe in the free abandon of some pagan dance! … she of the multi-coloured skirts we called ‘FACE’ … though her name be Katrina.”

“The third sister was the more serious of them all, with her hair pulled back stern to a tight bun at the back of her head and she clothed in trousers and gum-boots, she would till the earth in her garden as though she were teaching it a lesson, so there were long beds of rich, brown soil oozing an aroma of humus and worm with a faint scent of dry straw wafting amongst the bean trellises. She grew vegetables, all types, and she grew them well or cursed them to hell, her name was Kaileena, we nicknamed her ‘FAVOUR’.”

“So there they stayed and there they cultivated their own peculiar idiosyncrasies, we referred to them as the three sisters: Fate, Face. Favour! And they had strange powers those sisters … mark my words when I say that! … strange ways, strange powers! (fill my glass signor, I thirst! … huh? .0. you’ll second that? … ha.ha … very good! saluti!). I’ll tell you amici, down south here, we are still very pagan in our beliefs, very superstitious … oh si, yes … we give the saints their candles and the pope still gets his silver, but our hearts … (he leant close to whisper) our hearts are with the pagan gods! Ecco! (Bertouli cried as he leapt to his feet and spun his torso in a lithe, quick-stepping momentary dance, finishing with a “Spanish” flourish of the wrists in the air) : we pray to Jesus but dance to Dionysus!”

“The three sisters grew to be our “priests” of pagan superstition, to them we would go for visions of hope, of wealth, for cures of illness. Many mothers would burn a candle at the church for a sick child, then sneak off to Lady Fate for a hopeful cure with a concoction of herbs and secret chanting … even for a little fortune telling from lady Face … what do I mean; even … Madonna mio!, for wasn’t that their speciality? … and they would do it with riddles, with cryptic clues or even facial expressions … my word! they were not often wrong either.”

“For instance: There once was a black marketeer; Capodolcia, his name was, a very wealthy man. then one day he suddenly disappeared … never came back (Bertouli tapped the side of his nose) he was, as they say in those old Yankee movies; “taken for a ride.” And do you know. the day before he disappeared, he comes over to my shop holding a cucumber …

” Mother Favour, she gives this to me as I passed her place,” he said quizzically.

“Did she say anything?” I asked.

“Not a word! … curious, what can it mean?” he said puzzled.

“Well, I for one remember the old saying: The world is like a cucumber ; one day it is in the palm of your hand, the next it is up your arse!” The next day he goes and never comes back … a mystery eh? … but that is what those sisters were like, cryptic and mysterious. (I can see the future now in the bottom of my glass, signor … it looks like a drought … grazie!).

But there was one young fellow who scorned the superstitions, even openly mocked those ladies to the quiet mirth of his friends, though none of his companions would openly laugh at his jibes, being caught between the two worlds, so to speak.

And it came about that the young man, “Sfaccio”, married. and the wedding party walked past the cottages of the three sisters from the church to the parent’s house for the reception, as was the custom in the village and as was also the custom, the three sisters would give the married couple a token each from their garden to wish the newly-weds well.

At the first cottage, that of Mother Fate, parsley was given to the bride as a sign of fertility.

Mother Face gave a boquet of lily as a testament of lasting beauty … and the party then proceeded on to the third cottage.

As Sfaccio came abreast of the cottage of Favour, he, being in an extra happy frame of mind, thought for a bit of sport with the lady there in her garden. He held his hands high to stop the procession and leant over the fence of mother Favour.

“My dear Mother Favour,” he called jovially … “pray attend to the request of the bridal party and tell, if it be in your power, how many bambini will bless their household?” and he laughed uproaresly, others ducked their eyes away, some moaned sheepishly for no-one had ever openly mocked those women before.

”Tell me, oh wise mistress … how many seeds planted in our garden will germinate to fruition or will our loins be as barren as … ” and Sfaccio suddenly snatched off the hat of his father-in-law … ” Pappa’s head!?” And at this everyone laughed, even the father-in-law grinned as he grabbed his hat back, for Sfaccio was friendly if a little cheeky! as the laughter died down there was mother Favour standing there at the fence with her hand out and ten seeds in the palm.

“What are these?” Sfaccio asked, the giggles dying around him.

“Melon seeds” Favour answered,” Take them to the grotto of San Felice, plant them in the shadow of her smile and there count your bounty.” and she turned away with no more to say.

Well, Sfaccio made to cast them aside but his bride held his arm.

“Hold thy patience love, plant them for but the novelty and should they sprout, we will try to match their number.”

“And should all ten sprout?” Sfaccio laughed.

“All the more arrows for thine quiver.” His bride smiled (ah!, amici, it is true that the women have a closer tie to the gods … and the devil!) Sfaccio held his arm up with the seeds in his fist and gazed deeply into his bride’s eyes, but those same that once mesmerised him were now shrouded in mystery! (a wine, signore, a wine!) and he lowered his arm, put the seeds in his pocket, he then called an over-exagerated: “

Addio! Mother Fortune.” And the party moved on.

A week later they passed my shop walking up the hill.

“Ah!” I called out jovially “the newlyweds surface! and where are you two off to on such a crisp day?”

“We are off to plant some seeds, Signore coppersmith,” Sfaccio called back

“What! … and thou has been idle for the last week!?” I laughed.

“Ah! … but this time we plant them under the nose of the blessed Saint Felice!” Sfaccio waved his right hand in a swirling motion.

“Well at least cover her eyes with your cloak lest she get jealous, the saints can’t abide with happy humans!” And the two laughed together and trudged off up the hill.

Now, Franco, the shepherd-boy just happened to be with his flock there near the grotto, and while he saw and heard them, they were oblivious to his presence, particularly as he had hidden himself most cunningly behind some rocks. This is what he heard:

”Now, Sfaccio, we are nearly there … where did she say to plant the seeds?”

“In the shadow of Saint Felice’s smile, wherever that is … but, my love, I confess, I have forgotten to bring them!” And Sfaccio raised his hands in mock apology.

”It’s alright, I took them myself … lest thou fail to remember … Now … where can be the shadow of her smile?” and she gazed around the base of the grotto. Sfaccio’s shoulders dropped with his arms.

“Dear Primula (for that was the wife’s name) this is foolishness to pursue, such a sweet day was made for embracing, not grovelling on a fool’s errand!”

“Ah!” Primula cried ”There … Sfaccio, look!” and she pointed to the ground. Poor Franco was nearly exposed as he gaped over the rocks to see what it was …

“Oh. Of course … I see it, mio stupido … dirt!” Sfaccio mocked.

“Don’t be silly, there, the shadow of her statue on the ground, and there, her lips at the base of the boulder. Here, the seeds, plant them. Sfaccio!”

“What! … not I, dearest … why ”(and he turned to look in every direction)” what if someone were to see me?”

“There is no-one here save the saint and thee and me.”

“Those look like Franco’s flock, he could be hiding, watching us this very minute.”

“What fearest thou from his tongue?”

“You know these people, they see you doing any little strange thing why, if one was to fart in the village of Brommio. by the time you reach Castella di Luci three kilometri hence, the word is already about that you shit yourself!”

But Primula took no notice of him, such is the stubbornness of women.

“Just plant the seeds quickly and it will be done and we will not linger. The longer thou speech … ”

“Alright, alright, it is done!” he said vexed and suspecting that he had been conned, such are the remaining feelings of a woman’s persuasive logic. And I tell you amici, none of those seeds sprouted, and also … no bambini! (look signore! no more wine, presto per favore … to the Bar Centuri” … and the tourists trotted off to get another carafe).

“Bertouli! .. Bertouli!” Alfredo called from the next stall … “You talk too much and too long, remember your friends!” Bertouli looked over and there was Alfredo and Biacchio both wide eyed rubbing their hands together. Bertouli schussed them with pattering hands as the tourists returned.

“Ah! … new wine, new friends, new day!” Bertouli cried effusively … and then continued …

“At first Sfaccio dismissed the delay as bad luck then, as the cycles came and went, they both grew more alarmed … no bambini! … and what is it that possesses the Italian heart, even more than love? … ah! … the family, the bambini! … the little children that drop to earth from God’s lips … il piccilo baci di Dio! Secretly, Sfaccio was seen to visit the grotto of Saint Felice to check if those seeds had sprouted, for little by little that idea had got hold of him, so do we all grasp such thin straws in times of despair. But no seedlings, and allora … no bambini.”

“The people of the village had not failed to notice either, not for nothing is it written: “and the eyes are not satisfied with seeing, nor the ears filled with hearing … ” and I might add: “and the mouth emptied from talking!” so the chatter did the rounds of the village, one gossip to the next and worst of all, Sfaccio and Primula heard not a word of it! Which made them all the more anxious, for they suspected the substance of those rumours. Finally Sfaccio could stand no more, so he fronted the cottage of Mother Fortune.

(Continued tomorrow with Part 2)

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