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The Country General Store

A Sunday reflection …

I have to tell you about these small-town general stores … It was once so that you would see them dotted all over the Australian landscape, the central point of the town, along with the pub a couple of doors down and the railway siding with wheat silos just over the highway.

There was a humerous story did the rounds back in the days of the London – Sydney air race, you remember? … When a Pommy pilot was lost and he called in to the conning tower for directions:

“I am at this moment flying over a small country town” he called. ”Can you tell me the name of it so I can fix a location?”

“Roger” … the tower called back, ”can you give me some identification features so we can pin-point you?”

“Righto … There’s a railway siding, a bank of white silos, a general store and a hotel …”

These little town general stores sold everything: from work-boots and ladies frills to toothpicks … from bath-salts to pump-valves … and the owners who loitered behind the counter were a fountain of knowledge where one could find advice on the right oil for a Lanz Bulldog tractor or a throat balm for that nasty cough … and … and … ah! … there, there was something else that I was going to say that you could count on finding in those stores that was so useful … damn! … it slips my mind for the minute … I’ll remember it later.

The one we have in this town nearby is a good example, the reins handed down from grandparents to grandchildren … and there is that level of local suspicion of any newcomer whenever they appear over the horizon. For instance … The bloke who owns the store now – we’ll call him Peter – he was a hard case, you see, he didn’t want to take over the store, but his brother who was in charge suddenly passed away and it went to Peter who really had ambitions for a Church Minister … Well, we had just moved to the area to live … recalling, if you please, my family had permanent connections with people and places in the district since the 1920’s and we had just purchased my aunty’s old cottage and moved here to live …

Well, I went to the post office and Rex, my cousin’s bloke (that is; a cousin from another aunty, not the one who sold us her house) who ran the post office, he asked how we were settling in …

“Funny you should ask that, Rex” I replied.

“Why’s that?” Rex asked.

“Well … I was just in Peter’s shop there, getting this ‘n that … and I have to say I feel quite chuffed at the welcoming he gave me … made me feel right at home”.

“Peter!?” Rex pulled back in surprise.

“Yes … you see … after he scanned my shopping through and printed out the docket, he proceeded to treat me with same level of scorn and disdain he treats ALL the locals! …”

But I remember the people who owned it before Peter’s grandparents bought the premise … His name was Kurt … something … I can’t remember the surname … it wasn’t Lambert, ‘cause he owned the old Towitta store … that’s gone now …. no … can’t remember it. But I knew him, because one summer back in the late fifties I was sent to the rellies here as a young lad while my mother was expecting her fifth child … I suppose to get me out of the way (maybe I was a difficult child), because the rellies here in the town got old “Mr Kurt” to give me a job part-times sweeping the floor of the shop.

The weirdness of these past events in politics being placed to one side for the moment by the welcome reality last year of Richard Flanagan winning the Man Booker Prize with his love story extrapolated from his father’s trials on the Burma Railway. It makes one think of things.

I was intrigued reading Richard Flanagan’s account of him being “a Burma Railway child” … where the memories of his father were kind of impressed into his young mind … but it took the adult mind to understand the constructed sense of what actually happened and to piece together the emotions resulting from that re-creation and then to work the memories into the structure of a book.

Such things happen to us as children that, at the moment of happening, they are almost incomprehensible to the child’s rationale … having no experience of what brought about those events. The child can live with the mystery for years till an adult “awakening” throws light on the event and all is revealed … Such a revelation was gifted to me in  the memory of that country general store.

His first name was Kurt – or “Mr Kurt” to me – children were expected to be polite to their elders those days. I remember being attracted to those little bottles of colouring and flavouring – ”Anchor” brand, if I recall – I liked the tiny “clinking” sound they made when I straightened them up at the end of the day (I still linger at those little bottles in the supermarket these days!) … I would sweep the dry floorboards in that old big store, with one long counter that Mr Kurt would invariably stand behind wearing his white apron … there were a few aisles with dry goods products on them …

I remember this current family who own the store now, back when the old Gran’ would sit at the end behind the counter, in a dark corner doing her knitting and scowling and the grandson would stand poker-like behind the counter looking like “Lurch” of “The Munsters” TV series … just watching … Watching as you walked up and down the aisles. Sort of creepy.

But where was I? Ah … yes! … I had this job of sweeping the floor and straightening up the products on the shelves. The shop had that dry country dust scent … not really a smell, more a scent, mixed with the cropping scent of harvest time. I was sweeping up one warm Friday afternoon, near the end of the shelves by the counter … Mr Kurt was behind the counter chatting to a woman who was holding the handle of a pram with a little baby in it … they had their backs to the pram … I had to stop sweeping as a young woman paused next to me to take a can of fruit off the shelf there … she put it in her string bag … there was also a box of “Rinso” in there … I think I can recall the string bag was green. I had a good long look at the young woman, because she was so obviously pregnant, and her slow “undecided” movements seemed somewhat distant and strange … she then turned toward the counter … she paused, looking intently at the pram … she then slowly, quietly moved toward it … there followed a rather strange moment …

The young woman walked over to the pram. I thought she was going to look into the pram at the newborn baby, but she instead stopped, and gently took a clean, soft nappy off the top of a stack there in a pouch  at the front of the pram … she just stood there with her string bag and with the nappy and then pressed it to her cheek with one hand , then with both hands, she pressed the nappy onto her face with both hands, as if to feel into the depth of the soft-cloth. Mr Kurt happened to see her out of the corner of his eye … he touched the mother gently so as not to alarm her … and as she turned, I could see this young woman give these silent heaving sobs … her mouth agape, but not a sound, but just these huge, heaving, gulping sobs. Mr Kurt came quickly around the counter and took her in his arms and she held him with her arms around him, her fists closing and unclosing and she was gasping; ‘Kurt, oh Kurt, oh Kurt” … like she was trying to say how much something hurt and I was behind them and I could see this big tear roll down her cheek and drop to his shoulder and run down the silky back-cloth of his vest and then stop and stay there and glow, like a little shining jewel in the middle of his back. A jewel of the eye.

Yes … you see … it seems – as I was told years later when recounting the moment – that the young woman had just six months or so before lost her baby suddenly – cot-death, I believe it was called – and she went into such sadness and she then got around the town telling everyone that she was pregnant again and expecting a little baby later in the year. But she wasn’t … and it was a pillow she had pushed up under her dress just to make her look pregnant. Of course, everybody knew … but that is how it sometimes was in these small country towns … a kind of safety-valve so people could go a little bit “off the scales” when they have a shock … and they needed a bit of time to recover.

NOW! I remember! That useful thing you could always rely on to find in the general store.: Bicycle valves and tubes with vulcanizing patches! … When you would clamp and strike the strip and the vulcanizing patch would burn onto the tube … and … and those chain joining links with that little clip that would sometimes spring off and be buggered if you could ever find it again!

Yes, the country general store … it was a wonder. But I don’t know if it will last past this generation … a big, brand-spanking new super-store has opened up in the Barossa … along with an Aldi … and I think it just might be curtains for these little country stores.

Ah well … everything changes.


9 comments

  1. maggiesummers

    such a beautiful recollection – thank you so much for sharing xox

  2. Adnil

    Thank you Joseph…..That brought back wonderful memories from my childhood. During that time my parents managed a local store in north west NSW. I still remember the smell of Rinso which was kept in a separate room along with the other similar products, they were sold by the ounces and pounds.
    As a treat sometimes we were allowed to have some of the broken biscuits…although some biscuits were “accidentally” broken when we opened the tin. It seems not so long ago, yet its a lifetime.

  3. helvityni

    My in-laws came to Oz 1956 as Dutch migrants; the boat trip was fine and they remembered it fondly. The boat stopped in Freemantle and some of the immigrants, dressed in their best gear, suits and ties, walked into a store on a hill, the woman working there ignored the customers and kept filling the shelves….As they still had to walk back to boat my Father-in law asked ,most politely, if he could purchase some cool drinks, it was February and it was hot…the kids were parched…

    “When I’m ready, LUV..”, was the answer, but she wasn’t ready in a hurry….

    I wondered if that was the country’s custom then, their way of “welcoming” Europeans, or were the shopkeepers friendlier towards the locals…?

  4. Joseph Carli

    helvityni …A English chap I worked with had just arrived in Australia…at Adelaide…and he went for a walk around the city centre..He saw the old Cowley’s Pie Cart, there outside Adelaide Railway Station, and thinking to have a taste of the local ware, he innocently asked the bloke in the pie-cart what were the pies made of (being used in England to many varieties of meat pies)..the bloke impatiently looked at him and tersely replied.:
    ” If I told you, you wouldn’t eat ’em!”

  5. Barry Thompson.

    Joseph, I think you should consider writing a novel.
    You have a most evocative style, enjoy your work.
    PS I’d buy the book.

  6. Joseph Carli

    Thank you Barry…I enjoy putting the work up…

  7. Joseph Carli

    Here’s one about when we had to go to the Borrika general store..about 20kliks from Karoonda.

    The pommy builder we three contract carpenters did a lot of work for lost his mind one day and bought a mass of land out from Borrika on the Pilchera Bore Rd…”The Pines”..I remember it was called…which was out from Karoonda which was out from…oh!..you get the picture… Well, the other chippy and myself went in one van and we stopped at the Borrika General store to pick up essential supplies ..milk, bread etc..
    We walked through the front door to be met with two ladies in their mid-fifties bent over holding onto the counter barely holding themselves together from huge belly laughter..they looked up at us for a moment and then burst into more laughter…tears pouring from their eyes..

    “ What’s the joke, ladies?” we asked.

    Well..they took a moment to gather themselves together..just..and one lady spoke..

    “Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph…you wouldn’t credit it..no bullshit!..it’s cruel..my old man..he…” and she burst into laughter again..settled and went on..” He went to light up the gas burners on the hamburger grill..ahh…ahh..and the flicker thing didn’t work..batteries dead..and..and he leaves it to come into the shop here to get some matchesssssss…ah ha ha!..oh dear…he left the gas on…he goes back..ahh..ahh but first he lights up a smoke..and then…and then he bends down to strike up a match to..to..light up the burners..but…his…his..cigarette lights the gas..and BOOOOM! ..up it goes.. We..Trixie here and myself we rush in..and there he is still bent over the grill and he straightens up ..and he ..(you could see her pinched lips trembling as she tried to hold it together again)..he turns around….and his face…his face..Ahh hahaha! ..”

    Here they both lost it completely again and it wasn’t until they got themselves under control they could finish explaining the rest of the unfolding events..

    “Where’s your husband now then?” we asked..

    “Oh, HIM..oh they just took him off to the Karoonda hospital just before you turned up..( another burst of giggling)..burnt every hair off’n the cicumfrence of his head..he looked like Al Jolson with a bad case of sun-burn…ahh…god it was funny..I tell you what..you blokes…now..what have you got there..?”

  8. Miriam English

    Great ringing of the memory bells there, Joe, and nicely used to flesh out a story.

    Barry’s right. You have a pleasant way of telling a tale. It’s as if you’re standing in the shade nearby on a too-warm day and just casually relating it.

    Our local general store is morphing into a larger one that can hold its own against incursions from any larger companies. It recently expanded sideways and out the back, making it about 4 times its original size, and installed two checkouts equipped with laser scanners. At the back they’ve added a couple of long fridges with about 6 glass doors each — one contains cool goods (milk, cheese, etc) and the other contains frozen foods. Their roof is now covered with solar panels to deal with the blackouts so that they don’t lose all their refrigerated goods. The store still carries everything, from plumbing goods to canned food, from fencing materials to fresh veggies. It’s not quite the same, but in many ways it’s better… and it means I don’t have to travel the best part of an hour to the nearest big town for one or two items I might need. I still make the big trip over the longer distance to do my main shopping, stocking up on food and other goods in the more diverse shopping center of the larger town once every couple of months. (But now that I’m eating less — to increase fitness and hopefully longevity — I hope to extend that gap to 3 or 4 months.)

  9. etnorb

    Yet another enjoyable thought piece Joseph! You always paint such great images in your tales, thank you! Here’s hoping that some of these beautiful old General Stores can manage to still keep going in the face of all these bloody international & local conglomerates!

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