Grandpa, she said. Tell me a story, Please.
What sort of story, Sweetheart?
You know, Grandpa. Ones you always tell.
Well if I’ve already told you, why do you want me to tell it again?
Oh Grandpa! Because I am only little and I forget easy. And you always remember because when you tell stories everyone says, ‘You’ve told us that one before’ and you always tell it anyway. But if I’m bothering you it doesn’t matter. Except… and she stopped.
Except what, sweetheart?
Except because you’re old and you might die before I hear them all.
Well, sweetheart that is the best reason I’ve heard for a long time. Do you want one of my remembering when I was your age stories, or one of my when I was grown up stories?
Any one Grandpa. You choose.
Did I tell you the one about swimming in the swamp?
No. I don’t think so.
It was a hot December day. A stinking hot December. Dad helped us harness up the old draught horse. Ben was ten foot tall. To me he was ten foot tall but I was only ten and Ben was a big horse. You could walk under him without bending. Not really but sort of.
Could I walk under him?
Yes of course you could.
If it was the gig and I had to harness the old mare – that was easy. But the cart was big and Ben was big and the harness was heavy for a kid of ten. So Dad helped.
It was a hot day. If I said it was as hot as Hell you would get the idea but I wouldn’t get any supper for saying Hell. But it was.
So all us kids got our togs on and old Ben took us down to the swamp. We were going swimming. We could have walked but we wouldn’t have gone swimming. All around the swamp there was tea-tree and it was thick and when we got there, old Ben just trod in and the cart knocked the tea-tree down and soon we were in clear water. Well the water wasn’t clear, it was brown like a cup of tea without milk and it wasn’t too deep because when I jumped in it only came up nearly to my shoulders but it was fun.
Old Ben just stood and we jumped off the cart and into the water and the dogs came out too and even once Robin who was only a girl climbed up onto old Ben’s back and jumped off from there. But she was twelve.
We had a lot of fun. And I wrote a little poem because of it.
It goes like this and you can keep on and on with the words and you can change them if you want.
No Grandpa I like the words you choosed.
How do you know what words I chose?
Because I heard it before.
All right then. Well here it is.
We were rich back then.
I didn’t know but I was only ten.
But we were rich back then.
We had no money way back then.
The house was warm
and we could play back then.
My mum and dad they loved each other then.
My mum and dad they loved us all back then.
And we were rich back then.
We swam in swamps when I was only ten
And we were rich back then.
I love that story Grandpa. But I have to go to sleep now so try and remember one for tomorrow.
And I did remember more for tomorrow. But some of them I might keep for later because she might be too young.
At lunch time while I was having my sandwich she said, Grandpa, you know how in that poem you said you were rich back then, well Mummy said she knows that sometimes you just had bread with dripping for lunch. So if you were rich why didn’t you have cheese or cold chicken?
Because, Sweetheart I meant we had lots of things that you don’t need money to buy.
Well, like a house that was warm and we could play anywhere we wanted to and…
Stop Grandpa. I know now. You mean like you had a mummy and a daddy who loved you.
That’s right Sweetheart.
There’s a girl in my class and her daddy doesn’t love her because he hits her all the time. And her mummy too.
That’s very sad Sweetheart.
I don’t know how to fix it.
Fix what, Sweetheart.
Fix it because she is sad.
Maybe if you just go on and be her friend, not just when you are playing but when she is sad.
Hmm. Yes Grandpa. I think that’s a very good idea. I will do that.
Can I have a ‘we were rich’ story tonight.
Yes. You’ll have to let me think.
Grandpa? she said, shaking my arm.
Are you still thinking or did you go to sleep for a minute?
Do you want a story for when I was a little bit naughty?
Yes Please. That will be good but I won’t tell Mummy.
We lived a long way out of town and we had a school bus. The school bus left town, travelled out the road toward the coast, turned in a big sweep and made a ninety kilometre anti-clockwise circle and then back to town.
What’s anticlockwise mean?
It means that it went out to the farms along the roads in big circle but the direction was most of the time going the way the numbers on the clack would be going backwards. You will need to look at the big clock in the kitchen. Go and ask Mummy.
Can I start again?
No just keep going from where you stopped.
Every week it changed direction and went the other way. We lived about eight kms from the bus stop. The Heggies lived just where the bus stopped to pick us up and the McLeans.
Now it’s important to get this next bit clear. On days when the bus went anti-clockwise we were about thirty kms to go to school. On the other week we had about sixty kms to go to school. So one week was the “early bus” and next week it was the “late bus”. On “late bus” weeks the McLeans didn’t catch the bus – daddy drove them in. These were the weeks we sometimes “missed” the bus.
Grandpa you have to explain that better. Other kids won’t know so tell me and I’ll tell you if you’ve done it properly.
I will try Sweetheart. Get me a piece of paper and a marker pen.
It doesn’t matter. Any colour will do.
I’ve got black and red and green. Which one?
Give me the black one.
No I like red. OK?
Thank you Sweetheart. So here I’ve drawn a clock. Pretend that the school is at number three. Yes, Sweetheart. Draw a school there. Now we lived down at number six. Yes. On one week the bus would go from number three to number twelve all the way and then to number nine and then to number six and pick us up. Then we would have a short trip to school at number three. On the next week it would go from school straight to number six and we would have a long trip all the way to nine and then twelve and then three. Is that clear?
Um hmm. I guess so. You can go on now.
This is how it worked. We’d all be happily playing around waiting for the bus. Then we’d spot it coming down passed the Plantation about half a mile away. If we’d all agreed that today was a good day we’d run and hide in the long grass. The bus would come, turn around and wait for us. But we would not arrive. Neither would the Heggies – hiding in the grass with us. Neither would the McLeans – safely riding into school with daddy. The bus driver would wait about five minutes and then head off into town.
In the paddock next to the Heggie’s house paddock – and hidden by a stand of stringy bark gum trees– was a big swamp. A small island not much bigger than tennis court was in the middle. A little tin boat waited for us. Taking turns – if the swamp was too deep to wade through – we made for the island two at a time. The best part of the day was swimming and toasting our sandwiches over a little fire that Jimmy Heggie lit. I think it was here that I might have tried my first ever cigarette.
Oh Grandpa. You were so naughty. Did your Daddy smack you?
No. He never found out.
Wow wow wow. You were lucky. Go on.
Towards the end of the day we had to be very careful because mum would come in the gig to pick us up. We had to be back in school clothes and looking frazzled before she got to the bus stop. So – we would “oo-roo” to the Heggies and set off up our track towards home. As soon as we made it into the scrub we’d sit and wait. But we had to be watchful for snakes.
Then mum would come down the sandy track. “Was the bus early?” she would ask.
“Yep, so we thought we’d walk. Save you a bit of a trip, and we can all get home early.”
Mum was very pleased with us. “Thank you kids. It’s very considerate of you. Especially on such a warm day. You do look a bit hot and sweaty.”
It was probably a bit of swamp water rather than perspiration. But the difference was neither here nor there.
I’d like to think we did this often. In reality we only did it once, although we did hide in the long grass and miss the bus a few more times. I don’t remember what we did to fill in the time then.
On early days there was a different kind of fun to be had. On the road out toward Lucindale near where number nine would be on the map, there was a huge sand quarry. Right on the side of the road. I remember quite a few times when the bus would break down just as it had staggered to the top of the hill and conked out at the sand pit. While the driver was waiting for the engine to cool down a bit we would all hop out and play. The game was to jump off the top and into the pit which had sloping sides – just like jumping off the top of a sand dune.
But the day on Heggies’ swamp was the best.
Now no more questions and go to sleep.
That’s like being rich. Isn’t it?
Yes I think you’re right.
‘scuse me Grandpa. You know how you said it was a warm house. Well if you get a good heater it would be warm anyway. So why did you say it like that?
Well I guess I mean it was warm, like cuddling and warm in your heart. Does that make sense?
Yes. I was hoping that’s what you mean.
I wrote something about it in a poem. It isn’t a poem with rhymes at the end of each line.
Our teacher at school said that’s called blank verse. So is yours blank verse?
No Sweetheart. Blank verse has a special rhythm like da –DUM, da –DUM, da –DUM, da –DUM, da –DUM and each line goes like that and it is hard to find the right words that have the da –DUM sound every time.
So mine is called Free Verse. That means anything goes. But really it mean each line says something special and it’s a bit airy fairy but you’ll get the idea. Do you want me to read it?
Is it sad or just a bit special?
It’s not sad, Sweetheart. But it is a bit special.
Can you print out a copy so I can read it with you?
What a good idea. I can see you are going to grow up to be a lot cleverer that me.
I won’t grandpa but it should be ‘a lot more clever’ not ‘a lot cleverer’. I don’t know why but it sound better.
Hmmff! Do you want the poem or not.
Of course I do, Grandpa.
My father built our house of saplings
Tall and thin. Held upright
and secured by twists of fencing wire
The bark still on. The roof of iron
Second hand will nail holes.
You could see the stars at night.
The floor was stones and sealed with tar
And carpeted with floral patterns
Pale but once were bright.
But it was warm; the walls were lined
with bags that once held fertiliser for the grass.
Now washed and hung to dry on wire fence.
We never asked why did we live
So far away.
But it was warm;
Our life was one of joy
And the privations hidden by a warmth
we felt when sitting at the meal
Or doing homework with a spirit lamp
Or running barefoot in the forest sand
Or swimming in the swamps when they were full
Or living life far, far away
From whatsoever we had left behind.
I went back many years ago and all I saw
Was where the floor had been.
White ants had eaten all the walls
The iron roof was taken for a shed
The forest and the bush had disappeared
Bulldozed to make way for the sheep
The farmer never knowing what he’d done.
He only visited once in every while
And lived all of his time
Five hundred miles away.
But still it was my home and stays
There in my heart. All ways.
Oh Grandpa. Do you have a picture? It sounds like a magic house.
Yes Sweetheart. I do have a photograph. Here!
Is that you on the truck? And who is the others? I know that must be your mummy.
Well the other boy is your uncle David and the little girl is Aunty Fiona. I think Aunty Robin took the photo.
Well where is Uncle Michael?
He was only a baby and was probably in his cot having a sleep. So! What do you think?
I thought you might ask me that so I am thinking and then I will say. Mmmmmm. I’m ready Grandpa. I think it is a warm home and I wish that my friend at school whose daddy hits her had a house most exactly like that. Can I keep the picture?
And the poem?
Yes Darling you can keep them. I copied them for you anyway.