Category Archives: Writing

The Polisher of Broken Souls

It came in a song, at night, as if in a dream. Maybe it was. It was about him. It was about her. More than that I do not know.

Ash and Daisy-girl arrived, as they always did, around ten. They motored up from down below, from their home, near where the city first kissed the hills. Whilst the heat wave melted the metropolis, up on the ridge it was a little cooler – just. They were in the habit, in these days of extreme fire danger, of heading over to the rim rather than first going inside their pub to greet their help and make a start to a publican’s day.

Inside that help took the form of Beryl, a fusty blonde who showed every bit of her years on the planet. She could have been fifty, but she appeared every bit of sixty. Her employers knew something of her history, but nothing of her age. She had been up for hours, bustling around. She liked her bosses, particularly Daisy-girl. It’s what Ash always called her and it caught on with the locals too. Not that there were that many of those in the little hamlet perched on the ridge. And she knew that when Ash took over from Clarrie, a decade or so ago, he wasn’t real keen on keeping her on. He wanted fresh faced, youthful staff for the customers whom he hoped he would attract from the ‘burbs below. He’d run metropolitan hostelries and he knew what worked there. Ash felt he could transfer this knowledge to his new watering hole in the hills. He had. When he bought in it truly was on its last legs. Clarrie, towards the end, had let it go as he lost interest. In truth he had been running it off the sniff of an oily rag for years. He had enough sense to realise that he was old school and his time had passed; he was ripe for moving on. Ash gave old Marge her marching orders and employed a new, foreign bloke he’d worked with before to run the kitchen. Gone were roasts, seafood baskets and slabs of steak. The menu now was pretty flash, but not so flash as to be overly dear. And New Cook, as she called him to his bemusement, always made sure that there was plenty on the plate. Out went big brewery beer and in came artisan ales and ciders to the taps. The carpets had been replaced and new skylights put in to give the front bar and dining area an airier feel And gone too were the dozen or so regulars from this area. They definitely wouldn’t be good for custom. But Daisy-girl convinced him to renovate a room out back as she figured the old buggers still would need a place to go – there was nothing else for them in the village. She was soft-hearted, was Daisy-girl. She proposed it to Ash as keeping in with the community – and what’s more suggested that Beryl was the person to retain to run it. These days a few of the old fellas have passed on and most nights there were only one or two drinkers out back. As a result Beryl also helped New Cook in the kitchen, prepping and washing up. She didn’t mind. She’d do anything to keep her room upstairs. Pleasingly now she was also paid a bit of a wage and had regular time off. Clarrie had expected her to do it all for board and tucker. Still, he was once her life-saver. And then there was Bert. Old Bert was always there, in the back bar – a fixture.

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The couple did not peer out across the city to the gulf and beyond (Daisy-girl reckoned she could see forever) as the punters did. Their clientele loved the view – a factor in tempting them out of town. Rather the pair looked down – down into the gully. Ash was twitchy about bush fires and knew there were units fighting blazes further into the hills. There had been thunder overnight, although no rain. He was wary of lightning strikes. There’d been no soaking precipitation for months and down there it was tinder dry. And yes, this Saturday morning, there was smoke – and quite an amount of it, it seemed to Ash, down in their gully. ‘Shit,’ he muttered and drew out his mobile. He placed a call into the CFA and spoke to a bloke called Pat. He was promised the first available chopper would make its way over and take a gander. There had been, Ash was informed, other calls alerting them to the outbreak. After he put the mobile back in his shirt pocket, he and Daisy-girl turned and walked back across the car-park to their pub. Being Saturday, at the height of the season, they knew they’d be flat chat.

That Saturday, early, Bert had seen the smoke too on his morning constitutional. As soon as he spotted the tell-tale sign he produced an about turn and hurried, as fast as his old pins could manage, back to his place, ringing the firies on the landline. He was too set in his ways for a mobile – who’d he call anyway? But that being said, he had recently discovered the joys of the internet. He reckoned there was hope yet for him in the digital age. He then settled down to his Advertiser and perused it as he waited for the pub doors to open at eleven. Saturday was his serious drinking day.

He knew he’d drink himself into a stupor. It kept the memories away. He went easier during the week – that is, unless the looking back became too much. He wasn’t silly. He realised what was his problem. Doing something about it was the issue. He made the excuse his lack of action was due to him being stuck up in the hills – but he knew there was more to it than that. It had been better up on the ridge, he would admit that to himself, than when he had the heebie-geebies down in the city – but he could feel he was still struggling with it. He knew how this Saturday night would pan out – just like all the others. But she was a haven of sorts. He could cope as long as he had her. Beryl.

The woman in question was hard at it polishing the cutlery in the front dining area when Ash and Daisy-girl walked in. They informed her what they’d seen down in the gully and then went upstairs to check progress on what they hoped would be their living area in days to come – their quarters, as they had started referring to the five small rooms that were being knocked into one large studio type apartment. Builders and the like had been busy the previous week doing some finishing touches. It was almost there. They could think about selling down below, moving permanently up and calling it home. It had been a long time coming. Beryl wondered what it would be like sharing the upstairs with other people again. During Clarrie’s tenure there were already other permanents aboding at the pub when he first put the proposition to her. A couple paid him a few bucks rent, others stayed for nix, just doing odd-jobs around the place. When she quizzed Clarrie as to why the discrepancy, he simply replied that he owed them.

Bert was at the door when Beryl opened up the back bar at eleven, as she knew he would be. She’d be worried if he wasn’t. He patted her on the bum as she walked past him to her station where she pulled his first of the day. There was only one tap – Coopers. Most of her morning would be spent helping New Cook in the kitchen put together his fancy fare, but she’d make regular checks on Bert, as well as any other strays that might wander in, to pour refills. She’d long since given up trying to convince Bert of the folly of his ways. He’d drink himself to oblivion every Saturday night, with her dutifully picking up the pieces. He was better on week nights, reasonably with it when he left – if he left.

As Bert nursed the first of the morning he thought back, as was inevitable, to those days when he fought that dirty war. He’d found out back then how pointless all of what he did; all of what he witnessed being there was. Bert was regular army, not nasho, so he should have been trained in what to expect. But the war was like no training he underwent. And yes, he was only nineteen when he was shipped over. That song. That bloody song. He was quite euphoric when he first heard it. He could turn any bludger away who might query what the hell was up with him and point the clueless clot in the direction of the tune. These days, if the Redgum classic came on the radio, he simply cried. He thought it’d become easier as he aged, but it didn’t. The memories of the blood and guts, of what a land mine did to a man, the burnt babies – how do you get over that? And then he was sent in to deal with friend and foe in the aftermath of Long Tan. It was a friggin’ mess and it almost finished him. But the drink made it better – and if that failed, there was always Beryl. She’d take it away – for a while.

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Beryl’s thoughts were in the past too as she trimmed the beans. They all had to be the exact same length now with New Cook. He’d steam lightly before serving them up, almost raw. In the old days they would be boiled to within an inch of themselves and then dolloped on the plate. Today it’s as much about presentation as it is taste – but New Cook wasn’t as bad as some with their artistic micro-meals at fabulous prices. How it all changes, she mused – just as it had all changed for her. Her life pre-Clarrie had been a mess – although it started out okay. Now all she has is the pub – and Bert, when he needs her.

She was raised on the river at Murray Bridge. Finishing top of her class at high school, she thought she was destined for great things. She was brainy and had years of ballet training behind her. For a while she contemplated that as a career option, but as her body changed during her teenage years she lost her lithesome shape. Her breasts became fuller and yet fuller. She had a dancer’s figure no more so there was one idea scrubbed. Beryl reset her mind to becoming a lawyer and to the uni in Adelaide she headed. Beryl soon found she hated it – all that boring study. In no time she was skipping lectures, having taken up with a fellow law student, Stewart. He was a year or so older and he was almost as lackadaisical as she. Trouble was, he was much, much brighter too. He had a bit of family money behind him and they were soon shacked up together. They got along okay, smoked some dope together and he told her she was pretty good in the sack. The L word was never mentioned by either. Were it, would she be where she was now? They lived fairly openly – she knew he was seeing other girls and she had one or two fellas on the side as well. But it was like that back in those days – it didn’t mean much.

When she saw the ad she raised it with Stewart. He just shrugged his shoulders and muttered something about your life, your body. So she turned up for the audition, soon realising exotic dancing was just a euphemism for stripping. But as the money they were talking about was a tidy sum for back then, she gritted her teeth and performed a semblance of a routine for three fellows, done out in bling to the max, and a lone, brassy lady. She was required just to be topless – and she reckoned she could handle that. The woman, Pearl, took her aside, told her she’d been successful and gave her a date for starting. Pearl told her to come along to the Hindley Street address the day before she was due to face an audience for the first time. When she did, Pearl gave her some costumes, a stage name (Belle Angel – very cheesy) and a run through with the music she’d be removing her garments to the following evening. They hit it off, she and Pearl. She was hard on the outside, soft in the centre and they were soon bosom mates, despite the age difference. The first couple of nights Beryl was nervous. The punters didn’t seem overly interested. As time went on and she perfected the stagecraft, with Pearl’s advice, she became more at ease. Beryl soon figured out what got a man’s attention – or, at least, the type of men who patronised strip joints. She couldn’t say she enjoyed it having men ogling her tits, but the club wasn’t the worst place to work and management saw to it the men watching knew their place.

So, sashaying out onto a small stage and taking her gear off wasn’t so hard – but what increasingly became a pain in the butt was living with Stewart. When she offered, Beryl jumped at the chance of taking a room in Pearl’s inner city terrace abode. They rubbed along pretty well and Stewart drifted out of her life. When last she heard he was married and running a successful practice in Mount Gambier. That he got his act together to pass law was amazing. Any thoughts Beryl had of quitting stripping were soon gone – while she still had the figure she was going to milk it for all she was worth. Soon she had enough put aside to be able to afford her own place. During the seventies and eighties (her twenties and early thirties) the club was good to her and she for it. But time catches up and tastes change. Now to be competitive there was pressure to add more raunch. When management put the hard words on her to do so she knew going all the way was a place too far for her. Pearl tried to dissuade her, but she quit. She was told there were younger ones willing to do what she wouldn’t – and that was the refrain she received constantly as she shopped her wares around. Beryl was soon down to relying on the occasional topless photo-shoot for girlie magazines, buck’s parties and bookings in suburban pubs. She knew she was getting past it. As well, she had to deal with the sleaze factor – she hated what her life was becoming. The cash flow ceased and she found she had to give up some of her independence and move back in with Pearl.

It wasn’t long before it all became rather tense with her former mentor who, after a long hiatus, had a new fellow in her life. The sod was pressuring her to rid herself of her tenant so he could move in. Beryl had to find a new living arrangement, but how on the peanuts she was existing on? In stepped Clarrie. She took a shine to the man straight away. He’d booked her for a spot at his pub up in the hills. It was a fair drive, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. She found on arrival she was the only act at the advertised strip show – the first he’d put on to spice things up to see if he could attract more patronage. She did three routines during the evening to a crowd, she estimated, of less than thirty. Between performances she chatted to Clarrie, when he wasn’t pulling beers – in fact she unburdened herself of her woes to him. As she packed up he approached her. He stated that he had a proposition that may be of mutual benefit. He was also on the lookout for topless barmaids at weekends to go with the strip nights. If she was interested she could tend the bar other nights as well. He’d teach her the ropes. They’d be other bits and pieces she could do around the place in return for a room upstairs, all the tucker she could eat and assuming his plans went well, a percentage of the take. It didn’t – go well, that is. The other girls he employed were soon let go. Shortly he was telling Beryl to cover up as well. She was relieved – she knew her boobs weren’t what they once were. She was even more relieved, though, when he informed her that she was welcome to stay on. And that night they became lovers.

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Clarrie was older than she was by close to a decade and was married. His wife, he told her that first night, was content living down in the city with their only daughter looking after the grandkids while the single mother was at work. He had a son too. He lived in the US these days. Marge rarely put in an appearance up on the ridge. He joined her down below for outings and although he was very fond of her, they hadn’t been intimate for years. He took his pleasure where he could, but was by no means what you’d call sexually active any more. Beryl reckoned she’d change all that – and she did. He was lovely to her, but she could see the pub was struggling and after a few years of togetherness, he announced to her one day, out of the blue, he’d found a buyer. He was retiring. Then Ash and Daisy-girl came into her world.

As he was helping serve the midday meals Ash realised he hadn’t heard a helicopter in the vicinity. But as none of the customers had mentioned smoke, he wasn’t unduly worried. Many would have sauntered to the rim to take in the sights offered from it. He’d double check for himself as soon as the rush was over, just to rest his mind.

Meanwhile, Bert in the back bar had his recalling on a roll. He was ruminating on how, on his return from ‘Nam, the Aussie public had turned their backs on the diggers in the Whitlam years. They didn’t want to know, compounding his problems. As for his fiancée, she tried for a while, she really did. But the man who came back was not a remote semblance of the happy-go-lucky lad who’d left – as in love with the army as he was with her. He received the engagement ring back in the mail. Bert quit the army and went bush. He intended to get as far away as he could, but in the end, when he found the little place he still owns up the road, he snavelled it. It was cheap. The area had yet to become popular with the tree-changers. He knew getting far, far away wouldn’t solve anything in any case. There was a pub nearby – the cottage, the pub and an occasional drive down to the city – when he was sober enough – that was his life for years. As the tourist boom hit the hills he found on-going work labouring for builders. Then, at fifty, he retired to the booze. He sold his car and now he relies on a bus to get him to the city and to the nearest supermarket for supplies – when he can be bothered. Sometimes he feels like a movie or just a change of scene, pub-wise, but mostly he doesn’t stray too far from from his spot on the ridge. And besides, it’s where he’s close to Beryl when he needs her.

He’d had a few women down through the years – but generally they didn’t hang around once they figured out they weren’t going to cure him. He thought, at one stage, a surfeit of sex would be beneficial, but in the end that too was only transitory. And these days the hope of any real relationship was fanciful. He knows how lucky he is to have Beryl just down the way. He knew in the past she was Clarrie’s woman – and when he’d up and left, for a while she was anybody’s. Back then she’d tried to sweet-talk him into her bed. Then, he wasn’t remotely interested – but he always declined politely. He’d seen her strip. He’d seen her serve topless. Still, he was mildly surprised that the old publican didn’t take Beryl with him when the new couple took over. He wasn’t rapt, in the beginning, when he was asked to retreat to out of sight, but he could see the licensee’s point. And what Ash has done has now given the old watering hole a new lease on life. Ash and Daisy-girl, he could see, would provide him and Beryl with a drinking hole and home away from home for the foreseeable future. Ash rarely visited the back bar, but his wife was regularly in there. He’d immediately taken a liking to her, who wouldn’t? She had laughing eyes and a ready smile,. She was free and easy with the customers, whereas Ash was more reserved. He was the brains, but it was his lovely lady who made the place so welcoming that the city diners would view positively her constant invitation to come back soon. In his view it was down to her as much as Ash’s good management that the place was running so well. He could see Daisy-girl had once been beautiful – in her youth – but she was one of these women who only grew more interesting as they aged. She was still easy on the eye and he could see that Beryl was similarly enamoured. The pair were always gossiping, whispering and giggling behind the bar. Where would he be now if things hadn’t changed with Beryl? Beryl, she was his constant in this place.

After the lunchtime activity had died down, Ash moseyed across the car park to take another look down at the gully. If he peered really hard he could just make out a whiff of smoke, but certainly, to him, there didn’t seem any imminent danger. He knew the firies had a real battle on their hands further inland. He noticed the traffic on the road opposite heading back down to the city was heavier than normal, perhaps indicating that some fleeing of what was happening in the back country was going on. Ash decided not to trouble fire central again.

Beryl was also taken aback, as well as very hurt, that she didn’t figure in Clarrie’s life post retirement. His wife had long gone to meet her maker, but she also suspected that her bloke had become more than friendly with an old mate’s widow. She visited the pub a few times and Beryl could tell, the way Clarrie behaved around her. She knew it was her past as a stripper that he was leery of. It devastated her for a while, but she picked up the pieces and got on with it.

Come the evening dinner rush all thought of the gully and potential danger had gone from Ash’s mind. He was just too busy. As well as the usual full house of a Saturday, the situation inland was becoming more dire and the passing trade increased as many evacuees stopped on their journey for a cold one, or to pick up some grog. Even the back bar was chockers that Saturday eve and as poor Beryl was being so run off her feet, he sent Daisy-girl there to help out.

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For Bert, his change of mind about Beryl came five or so years back – and it was all down to that blessed song. The radio was always on in the bar, tuned to a city station playing a classic format. It came on – ‘Only Nineteen’. He screamed out for someone to turn it off. Screamed out over and over – bought the bar to a standstill. Beryl was the first to react. She switched off the offending song, rushed over to him, took hold of his head and pulled it in to her ample and soft old breasts – and let him stay there, sobbing. The few other customers discreetly left. When he had calmed down, she whispered to him, ‘Please stay’. An hour or so later, come closing time, he was still there, head in his hands. She told him she was locking up – he made no move to go. After she latched the door, she took his hand and guided him up to her room. ‘Undress, and hop in,’ she said, indicating the bed. ‘I’ll be back in a jiff.’ She quickly finished her duties downstairs. Ash and Daisy-girl had long gone – then returned, dispensed of her own clothing too before she joined him. She took his grizzled, bristly head again and settled it in to her ample cleavage. She reached down and gently stroked, before guiding him in. He cried some more, then he pulled her close and fell asleep. And now it is a habit – once or twice a week – and every Saturday night. He still enjoys the closeness, although the sex has largely disappeared. When he felt in need of her he simply remained settled as she finished up. Saturdays were different – she had to half carry him up those stairs. If Ash and Daisy-girl knew about the relationship, they didn’t let on. Beryl thought Daisy-girl would have a fair idea and that it wouldn’t worry her. About Ash she wasn’t so sure.

That particular Saturday night the owners were exhausted. Neither gave a thought to their morning’s discovery, down in the gully, as they left Beryl to do her usual tidy up. They knew she wouldn’t let them down, this or any other night. As for Beryl, she saw Bert was all but passed out. After she did her final checks, she took him upstairs, helped him undress and snuggled up beside him as he began to sleep it off. It was enough for her that he’d nuzzle down into her breasts, for she knew that helped the poor old bugger as he tried to forget. He’d told her a bit about it. She was sure, though, that he hadn’t told her the half of it. But Beryl was happy that she, as well as her breasts, were still doing some good in the world. The last thing she noticed as she drifted off into the land of nod was that there was now a cooling breeze coming in through the open window. That it was quite a pleasant change. And indeed it was, but it also indicated that the wind had altered direction; that it was now coming from the south.

Much later, down below on the fringes of the city, dawn was breaking as Ash was awakened by the mobile beside the bed. He was given a run down of what had happened. That southerly had rejuvenated the smouldering embers down in the gully and soon a substantial fire was heading up the steep incline towards the car park, licking at the wooden walls of his work place. It gained ferocity as it rushed up, fuelled by the parched scrub. The car park was no obstacle to it. Someone had raised the alarm that his pub was on fire and a unit rushed to the scene. They managed to save Bert’s cottage and the remaining buildings that made up the village on the ridge, but the hamlet’s only commercial enterprise was already gone – well before they arrived.

When the licensee and his wife arrived the flames were out and there was little remaining of their pub. Ash’s first thoughts were for the building itself, Daisy-girl’s for Beryl. The couple were told that the remains of not one, but two fatalities were found within. The bodies were together – that of a woman who died seemingly protecting the other, a man. Daisy-girl knew straight away that man would be Bert.

By the time they left the ruin of their dreams, Ash had resolved to rebuild on the site. Daisy-girl left knowing Beryl had polished her last broken soul.

She Said No…He Complied

I pass all my hours in a shady old grove,
But I live not the day when I see not my love;
I survey every walk now my Phyllis is gone,
And sigh when I think we were there all alone,
Oh, then ’tis I think there’s no Hell
Like loving too well.

But each shade and each conscious bower when I find
Where I once have been happy and she has been kind;
When I see the print left of her shape on the green,
And imagine the pleasure may yet come again;
Oh, then ’tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.

You would think his reign would be a goldmine for the BBC, HBO, Netflix or some other media heavy of that ilk to take on – much in the same way that old Henry VIII has been done to death. In recent years alone there’s been ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Wolf Hall’. Yet, despite having arguably the most hedonistic court in the history of the English monarchy – a time of scuttlebutt and scandal, of perfumed dandies and plunging necklines – it has only been bought to screens, large and small, around the fringes. The Restoration saw Charles II throw out the puritan drabness of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and bring back colour and social (read sexual) freedom to his domain. His court was full of Machiavellian intrigue, usually associated with the royal bedchamber and the parade of wantonly women who made their way to it. Hollywood, etc, has only skimmed the surface of this fecund period – it’s time a more detailed light was shone on it, methinks.

With the possible exception of Wallis Simpson, perhaps the most famous of all mistresses popped her head up to be savoured by the royal personage, to seduce or be seduced, at this time. Most with a modicum of knowledge of the Brit narrative will know of this apple of the King’s eye who emerged from a dank, festering East End, as an orange seller, to become the top banana in his boudoir. She was probably the only woman in his life to have truly loved him and she was Nell Gwynne.

But the delicious Nell was only one in a long list of promiscuous misses to court the favour of randy Charlie. For twenty-five glorious years this ruler gave his subjects plenty to gossip about after he threw off the grey stays of the religious zealotry that preceded him at the top. He lived the life of a rake to the full, fitting his duties of state around dalliances with a long list of mistresses, some serving up their wares to him concurrently. He regarded his long-suffering queen as just another duty he had to endure before he could indulge throwing the royal seed about. He didn’t care about their station in life, these gold-diggers. Just as long as a woman was comely and not pock-marked too badly by the pox, she was fair game.

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We know of fifteen official mistresses – but as to the unknowns, it’s anybody’s guess. This is the case, as well, for the number of bastards his endless bedding of the fairer gender produced – there are fourteen recorded as part of the royal lineage.

Let us take a closer gander at some of his conquests. His first, to the best of our knowledge, was Lucy Walter, his constant companion in exile from the age of eighteen until he received the call to return from The Hague to the throne. Once he had his ascendancy sorted he went back to Holland to fetch her, only to find her in the arms of a soldierly rival. He dumped her on the spot. She ended up a prostitute ravaged by venereal disease.

Charles found Nell Davis on the London stage, a bountiful source for spirited wenches. Samuel Pepys’ wife termed her ‘…the most impertinent slut in the world’. She came undone when the other Nell, who followed her onto the scene, stuffed her full of laxative which caused her to disgrace herself whilst the royal person was in the saddle. The King was mortified.

Then there was Squintabella, a nickname Nell G gave the haughty Louise-Renée de Kéroualle, whose baby face and Frenchiness intrigued the monarch, despite her lazy eye. He was in her thrall until she got above herself and started demanding that he came out of the closet as far as his preference for the Catholic religion was concerned. The second Charles had better sense than to put his head on the block in such a manner, so soon dispensed of her services. But she stayed around long enough, fighting off all pretenders to usurp her prominence in the King’s bedchamber, to have him declare her the ‘maitresse en titre’ (the official one) – for a time.

Barbara Villiers was heavily pregnant to Charles when Catherine de Braganza arrived from Portugal, in 1662, to take up her arranged station as queen of the realm. Barbara was a married woman and a very feisty customer who had such a hold over her lover that after a spat, and they were very frequent, he could be found down on his knees grovelling for forgiveness. But she was forever giving her favours to lesser mortals and eventually he wearied of his high maintenance courtesan.

There was Hortense Mancini. She dressed as a man and was ‘wedded’ to another royal conquest, Barbara Palmer, whilst the latter was with child – his of course. There was nothing Charles liked better than to sit by their shared bed and watch these two beauties sleeping in each other’s arms.

If all that’s not enough to build a compelling bodice ripper around, I’ll eat my hat. But now let’s turn our attention to another Restoration beauty who was of a completely different disposition and was perhaps the only one of the women in his life that he, in turn, truly adored with all his heart. Her name may not be recognisable to us, but we all know of her in another way. This unique individual was Frances Stuart – in court she was awarded the appellation ‘La Belle Stuart’. Mrs Pepys’ husband described her as ‘The finest sight to me…that I did ever see in my life.’ So how did this undoubted stunner of flashing blue eyes and golden brown tresses fit in amongst all the other goings on in the royal household. What was her story?

Frances_Teresa_Stuart_by_Lely

She grew up in exile too – in France this time – her family chose the wrong side in the Civil War. As her name would suggest, she was also a distant relative of his majesty. When Charles was setting up his court in 1660, with due emphasis on gaiety and frivolity, he put the word about that he was on the lookout for pretty women, of worthy parentage, to populate it. His sister recommended Frances after watching her bloom across the Channel, so she was summoned. At fourteen she was bought to England and became a maid of honour to Charles’ new queen. The very instant the monarch laid eyes on her he was smitten – her beauty, the way she dressed, her gentility and her conversation enthralled. She excelled at dancing, wasn’t a meddler and flirted outrageously with him. Her decorous kisses were akin to sweetmeats on his lips Why, she even laughed with pleasure at his lame jokes. Even at so youthful an age, she was the complete package and he desired her almost beyond reason. Even though, verbally and in action, she gave every indication that she shared his affection for the other – there was a line she would not transverse. At a time when one’s virginity was used as a tool to make it to the top of the heap, Miss Stuart was determined that she would sacrifice hers for nothing short of true romantic love. Charles used every trick, every ounce of praise, every cajolery too at his behest to entice her into his chamber – but she was immovable. To his credit – he always took her ‘no’ as the final word – that is, until the next time he asked. Now, with all the temptation he had at hand, you would think he would soon lose interest. There’s no doubt his sexual needs were being fully catered to by more compliant minxes – but it seems his ardour for her continued to climb to boiling point the longer she withheld the ultimate prize. But every step of the way she managed to waylay him, yet did enough to convince him that one day she would be his for the taking. She remained his constant companion at many a courtly function and when the Queen appeared to be on her deathbed in 1663, it was assumed the throne besides his was hers. Unfortunately for Frances, Catherine rallied and so the game of cat and mouse continued. When the plague struck the capital and functions of state were transferred to Hampden Court Palace, the king was becoming decidedly more insistent in his wooing. Something had to give. The beautiful one started to realise that, as patient as his majesty had been to this point, there was a veiled threat now involved. She would either have to gift him her virginity or find someone to marry. That latter option would work to put her legally, if not entirely realistically, beyond his reach. What to do? What to do?

As luck would have it, into the court in exile strode her knight in shining armour. Coincidently, his name was Charles Stuart, a distant relative to both herself and the royal house. He was also loaded up with titles as the Duke of Richmond and Lennox and she was soon completely smitten with him. He seemingly reciprocated and they were quickly wed, but in secret – neither wanted to face the royal displeasure, before they had to, by making it open. Frances was no fool and soon realised her husband was very flawed – he was a philanderer, a drinker and a compulsive gambler – but he did extricate her from her fix so she settled in for the long haul with him. Of course, when he discovered her deceit our lusty monarch was livid and vowed never to set eyes on the pair again. They departed the scene and he kept his word. But in 1669 the King displayed his ongoing affection when he rushed to her beside on hearing she had caught the dreaded smallpox. He lavished her with all the care he could muster and as Nelly G was now foremost in his thoughts, there was no ulterior motive on his part for his compassionate actions on her behalf. Frances duly recovered and soon found the King had transformed himself into something of far more value to her than a frustrated suitor – he became her friend for life. She returned to court as Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber and to counter her feckless spouse, became an astute business woman. On the death of her wastrel hubby the King awarded her a substantial pension. In the end she used it to return to Scotland, the land of her birth, living there in comfort till her own demise in 1702.

So how come the vast majority of us are familiar with her – despite no inkling of her tale? Well, in 1664 the British defeated the Dutch at sea and Charles decided to have a medal struck in celebration. He envisaged a figure of Britannia, contemplating her victories, as the motif. With Frances at that stage, in his opinion, being the most beautiful damsel in the land, it was by decree that she was to model in the role for the casting. When he later decided to then have new coinage struck, her pose for the medal had a fresh use – gracing one face of the new design. Her portrait has thus appeared on British pennies right up till the introduction of decimal currency in 1971. So Frances Stuart is our notion of Britannia.

There has never been another Charles on the throne since Frances’ would-be lover. Is this because of the licentiousness of his life style? It will be interesting to see if our present Charles, if he ever gets to ascend to kingship, retains the name. After all, his story has not entirely been free of shenanigans behind a wife’s back either.

Frances Stuart by alfred chalon

But, in closing, let us return to the soppy versification the earlier King Charles scribed when he was lovelorn, pining for the fair Frances, a woman not afraid to say no to a king:-

While alone to myself I repeat all her charms,
She I love may be locked in another man’s arms,
She may laugh at my cares, and so false she may be,
To say all the kind things she before said to me!
Oh then ’tis, oh then, that I think there’s no Hell
Like loving too well.

But when I consider the truth of her heart,
Such an innocent passion, so kind without art,
I fear I have wronged her, and hope she may be
So full of true love to be jealous of me.
Oh then ’tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.

britannia

The Undertaker Man and the Star

Joan Crawford paid for it, if you believed the rumours back then. Even some newspapers reported it was so – but I don’t know if that was true. My boss would have known, you’d think – but he never told and I didn’t ask. The newspapers also reckoned that she owed the famous actress a heap of dough. I know for a fact that the press made up some of the stuff they printed about her – so who knows? But looking back, given my feelings for her – well no matter what, it was the saddest job I ever had to do. In it I’ve seen much to make the average Joe shudder. I’ve done plenty of kids, brides, starved people, the homeless, the deformed, numerous murder victims – I’ve seen it all. But she was the one who really got to me. She was the same age as me when she came in. Now here am I – sixty-five in ’63. This year we’ve lost a President, our boys are going off to war in Indo-China but me? I’m happy as Larry and content with my lot. Life couldn’t be better, but thinking about her, though, after all this time – well it’s about the only thing that can bring me to tears. She was something special. She was some kind of dame.

By the time she reached me her life had been in a downward spiral. She’d been the toast of the town only a few years previous – and then I had to look at her spread out like that before me. My life – well, I’d never be on the same pedestal as her. My life has been steady, hum-drum in comparison – but I’m still here and plan to be for some time yet. I’ve a fine house in the Hills, a swimming pool overlooking the city and regular visits from the grandkids. As well I have Nora who’s been with me through thick and thin – still a classy lady in my eyes. And now, to top it all, I’ve retired – it’s time to enjoy it all. So, for all her fame, who’s ended up smelling the roses? She could have had all that if she played her cards right – but she never did.

Its a long way from where I am now to where it all began – to where I first laid eyes on her. Great Falls. Montana. It was a place of big skies and amazing mountain views – but boring as hell. My Pa was the town’s undertaker and I grew up learning the business, being at ease in the presence of the dead. And it was a good business – we never wanted for anything as kids. The money kept coming in as people kept dying. But the town itself – what a hole! I thought that then and I still think it. Absolutely nothing for a young fella to do. Most my buddies found themselves in trouble pretty quickly – those that didn’t escape. But I was a reader and that got me through. It took me to far away places and taught me there was a big wide world just over the Rockies. I knew I’d be ready for it when the time came – until then I’d keep my head down and take notice of what the old man was trying to teach me about getting folk ready for burying. I learnt well.

There was also the Bijou movie picture house of a Saturday night – that’s where I fell in love with her. Back in them days the whole town would get dressed up in their best to go see a silent movie – it was the thing to do. With a girl on your arm, dressed to the nines, it was fun – or as much fun as you could get it that place. And if you were lucky, more fun could be had after the show. These days, you can see a movie any time on any day of the week, looking like a hobo if you wanted to – back then it was an occasion. As far as Great Falls went, it didn’t get any better than that. But I wanted far better – I must admit, though, she took my mind off that for a short time.

Now, as I said, I was a reader and I’d discovered this writer by the name of Fitzgerald. Of course, everybody knows him as the author of ‘The Great Gatsby’, but back in the early years of the twenties he was just starting out. I’d gotten hold of one of his early ones called ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’. I liked what I read in that book, so when I saw a movie of it advertised at the Bijou as that particular Saturday night’s main attraction, well I made sure I didn’t miss it. And that’s where it happened. I have no recollection of who I took that evening to see it with, if anyone, but I couldn’t forget the other damsel I saw for the first time. I guess it was a bit like the infatuation so many guys had for Marilyn Monroe before she checked out last year – and I suppose, thinking about it, Marilyn’s story resembles hers in a few ways. Same fate too I guess. Once I saw her up there on that screen that night – well. Yes, I was hooked too – on Marie I mean, not Marilyn. I just had to find out more about her.

beautiful and the damned

She was the heroine of the piece. I knew the story from the book, but even so that all passed in a blur. I was mesmerised by her – by Marie Prevost. This Montana boy had never seen a woman so beautiful, so sexy in all his life. She was incredible, that vixen up there on that silver screen. I later found out the movie’s story was based around the relationship of Fitzgerald with his own missus, Zelda, but for a period of time, for me, the stoty was all about Marie.

Marie_Prevost_

When she came in to be tizzied up for the showing after her autopsy, I had no idea who she was – just one in a long line, for in LA, dying young was a lot more common than back in my home town. Then I looked at the tag attached to her wrist and still, for a while, I didn’t twig. When the penny finally dropped I had to step away from the trolley in shock. That stunner who so charmed me back in ’24 didn’t connect to this lardy, blotched and bloated stiff that was before my eyes. I thought it couldn’t be – they just shared the same name. But turns out it was.

Yessiree, after seeing that movie I just had to know more about her. I bought up every film mag I could find in town for months and scrap-booked every word written about her, every picture taken of her. Pretty soon I had a fair handle on her life story to that point – assuming you could believe what you read in them. I knew even then they tried to stretch the truth – still did when they came to report on her in the days after my final encounter with Marie, a decade or so later.

By that time I was established in Tinsel Town myself. I’d made the move to LA just before the Crash of ’29. Back then Southern California seemed the most exciting place in the world to me. I suppose reading about Marie introduced me to it all, but I had no tickets on myself about being in the movies. I knew growing places would need undertakers and I was right – it sure was growing back in those days and death seemed more plentiful there somehow. By the end of 1930 I was married too – a shot-gun wedding it was. Just as well Nora and I were in love in any case, It all worked out swell. I had responsibilities once I had her. Pauline was born and soon after I had a place to live in Anaheim and another daughter on the way. Nora was the girl who answered the telephone at my first job in LA and what with courting her and what that led to, my ardour for Miss Prevost had long disappeared. I was just too busy getting ahead.

As I said, people die and LA was as good as any place to escape from Great Falls to. It sure had glamour and was growing plump on it, but there’s not much of that in being an undertaker. Saying that, though, it would never be a dying business and it paid well. So lack of glamour didn’t matter one bit. After a stint working in a couple of other funeral parlours, I set up on my own in the forties and was soon making a killing, working for myself and not at someone else’s beckoning. I was good at convincing that death looked normal and my reputation spread. But all that was later on – let’s get to what I found out about Marie Prevost back in Great Falls. I suppose really, although I had more than my share of small town girls before I laid eyes on her, she was my first true love.

marie-prevost-215

I discovered Marie was Canadian, but she moved as a child to Los Angeles – and was literally discovered off the street and became a movie star. It seems she was a secretary at a legal firm and had to deliver some documents to the studios of Mack Sennett. The great man spotted her doing so and immediately cast her in a small role in the movie he just happened to be making then and there. Back then it didn’t matter if you never had acting training nor spoke well – well obviously – but as long as you ‘looked the part’, well then you were in the movies. Marie, it turns out, was a natural in front of the cameras – and later on she sounded okay too. But at seventeen she was now one of the Keystone Studios famous bathing beauties, earning the princely sum of fifteen bucks a week – a small fortune for a girl who inherited just one dollar from her recently deceased father’s estate. In 1919 Sennett cast her as the lead in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, it was a hit at the box office and she was now a star. ‘Love, Honour and Obey’, the following year, took her to super-stardom. I suppose she then became a bit full of herself for she thought Sennett was stifling her creativity and she was angling to get to Universal. She squirmed out of her Keystone contract and signed at her new home for fifteen hundred green ones a week. Now she was rolling in it. A couple more movies followed before she again had itchy feet. This time the move was to Warner Brothers and into the arms of Kenneth Harlan, her co-star in her first outing for them – ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’. Then I realised what made her so luminous in it – she was really in love with the man she canoodled with on screen – she wasn’t pretending up there. At this point Jack Warner thought he was on to a good thing with their relationship and decided they should marry on set as a publicity stunt. The couple agreed – only to have the a newspaper find out Marie was already hitched – secretly, to social darling Sonny Gerke. They had parted soon after the nuptials but hadn’t worried about divorce – and Miss Prevost didn’t think to mention it at the time. Scandal. Jack W felt betrayed and started to lose interest in his best dinner ticket in a long while. With all the hoo-ha over that it was around then that I started to lose interest in her too. I began to think more and more about getting away from Montana.

It was only after I helped bury her that I caught up with the rest of her story, once the obituaries started to appear in the press. The nature of her passing was a real talking point in Hollywood for a while, but it didn’t last long as by then her star had lost all its gloss. Still, a fair few of the big names came out to say their farewells on the day – Gable, Wallace Beery, Fairbanks and Barbara Stanwyck all put in an appearance.

marie-prevost-230

Some of the scribes in the press decided she had topped herself, but officially it was a heart attack bought on by acute alcoholism. Her body was not discovered for several days; the neighbours alerted by a dog’s barking. Some reporters wrote that the canine in fact was in the process of devouring her remains. My boss at the time, Bill, soon stopped that in its tracks. I saw the tooth marks for myself on her, but we figured the little dog would only probably be trying to rouse her. But, gee, she was a terrible sight, even so. How, then, did she get to the state I had to use all my skill to fix up?

After the outcry over her secret husband she made a few more movies, some even well received, but when her contract was up for renewal, Jack Warner declined to have more to do with her. By now a divorce had gone through and she was married to Harlan. He was let go too. In ’26 her beloved mother passed away in an accident and she was distraught. The news of that, plus her loss of contract, sent her to the bottle. This led to depression – then the following year hubby moved on to greener pastures as well.

Howard Hughes, being also entranced by her in ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’, took her on and cast her in her final leading role. They also had a brief fling but nothing could last now. She was too far gone with the grog. Her next screen product was in ‘The Godless Girl’ – and for the first time her name wasn’t at the top of the bill. As the thirties dawned she had faded to well down the list. Friends interviewed said she didn’t seem in any way bitter about her change of fortune, but she refused all advice to get off the sauce. Her once sexy curves were by now well hidden by rolls of fat. If she did gain a bit part she dieted furiously, refusing to eat but continuing to drink – that taking further toll on her body and mind. She was last seen on screen as a waitress in ’36. By then she was broken in spirit, sodden in cheap booze and in a black, black place. There was no coming back from there. She didn’t even have enough to cover her funeral expenses. Bill had a few connections and put the word out.

Life couldn’t have turned out better for me but seeing her that day, when she came to us in that sick and sorry manner – well, it gave me cause to ponder. I am a careful chap by nature – goes with the job, but seeing the state she was in sure was a jolt for me. I resolved to doubly work hard, put Nora and my two girls first and make sure I didn’t get dibs on myself.

In the end I reckoned I made her look as attractive as it was possible – but it took some doing. It was nothing like how she shimmered and shone in her best years – but I could give her some semblance of that for all the pleasure she gave me in so many ways back in Great Falls. When they came in to have a gander at her, they still saw a pretty good lookin’ broad.

Now she’s almost forgotten, We’ve had other screen sirens since but for me she’ll always be number one. And the shock over the way she fell on hard times caused Hollywood to make sure it would never happen again to anyone else who reached Marie’s sort of fame. There’s now the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital to take care of any unfortunate enough to need it – all as a result of her. Since that day I have prepared many famous names for their final public appearance, but she was the only one that really meant something to me. I fell in love with her once upon a time but then moved on to fall in love with someone far better – my Nora, my beauty who gave me my two girls. Of course they’re all grown now and have given me a granddaughter each. Pauline called hers Marie. You’ll be sure I’ll especially be looking out for her as long as God gives me breath.

2014 – Twelve Months in the Year of Wonder Weeks

1. He probably wouldn’t have been the pick of the litter, but something attracted the small golden spaniel to this prospective master and the feeling was reciprocated. Perhaps it was the way he departed from his usual ponderous deportment by revolving quickly in circles of ever decreasing circumference when he was induced to excitement. Perhaps it was simply a common preference for the ‘underdog’ which was obvious in this pup that won my son’s heart. As he matured it became clear he was a plodder amongst canines, clearly no match for his bright, exuberant kennel partner for a brief time, Rosie. She ran rings abound him and was a delicate beauty. But it was her intelligence that bought her undone. Rosie was an expert escapologist and whilst the senior dog was still trying to figure it out, she was off and away. On the other hand he may also have felt that there was little point bolting for freedom. He was happy with life under my son’s generous care. Rosie was soon sent off to more secure surrounds. She was replaced by a cat and Oscar found, in his view, real friendship. Leopold, the wily tabby, probably didn’t reciprocate to the extent Oscar desired – for, after all, cats are users, dogs the givers. But our hound enjoyed what company the feline deigned to provide, as he does that of his super-sized, striking mate of more recent times – Memphis. He is far more generous to his canine house pal.

Oscar is slow, steady, sturdy and endearing. Let loose on a beach, he shoots the breeze, haring after seagulls with a joyous zest that belies his normal mien. Oscar asks for little but a full belly and the provision of an environment where he is free to give to a master complete loyalty, devotion and love. Rich has always returned those qualities in spades.

Several shifts in home Oscar took in his stride. If times became a tad tough Oscar’s affection knew no bounds. His most recent move has been the best. Oscar has his new friend, an immense sandy strand to bound on and another human person in his life. With this person my son has found a love more profound than even Oscar can give. He has travelled to Europe with that person where there the two placed a lock on a bridge across a river in the City of Love. By this act enduring fealty is promised, this being reinforced by my son going down on bended knee a few months later. And the wondrous Shan accepted, causing Oscar and a father-in-law to be extremely happy indeed.

2. Bridport charms and beguiles. It has been this scribe’s home away from home whilst on pet/house sitting duty several times in 2014, as son and fiancée travelled the island, the country and across the seas. The little town’s sunniness, its salt air, the friendliness of the natives and the expansive panoramas across Anderson Bay are major assets. Coming to Briddy sits number two, behind our abode on the southern river, as a location to while away one’s time in bliss.

3. We were laden with gifts for the pre-Christmas Christmas Day, my wonderful Leigh and I. We lifted the latch on the back gate and entered the yard. The curtains inside the rear windows of the North Hobart cottage twitched and an expectant little face peered out. There was a squeal of pent up waiting expelled and then the rear door opened. Out she charged to welcome her Nanny Nee Nee, whom she adores; as well as her Poppy, who is totally smitten by her. The smiles and the hugs that the little imp give have melted this old man’s heart. There is no better gig than being grandparent to Tessa Tiger. Her mate, LFM, calls her Tee-Tah. This little man also attacks the world at full throttle fang speed and together they continue to give joy beyond measure.

4.The Hawks gave further cause for pleasure with a sterling premiership performance but now – enough already. No more of this three-peat nonsense. For three long years I’ve had to avoid that ‘one day in September’. I want to watch a GF. So come on Port, Freo, the Cats and the Swans. Get it together and mount effective challenges in ’15. And having my favourite footballing wordsmith appointed captain of his team, the Doggies, was the icing on the cake for the past year in footy
5. ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ was proclaimed the best book in the English speaking world for 2014. Richard Flanagan’s opus is one for the ages, an amazing showcase for a Tassie writer at the peak of his powers. ‘Writing Clementine’, a charming story of coming of age in the Burnie/Wynyard homelands was also published. I am so proud of my writerly daughter.

6. What a wonderful year it has been for films. And there was so much new music that gave aural rapture.

http://www.stevelovell.id.au/2015/01/03/the-blue-rooms-best-movies-2014/

http://www.stevelovell.id.au/2015/01/03/the-blue-room-music-gongs-top-ten-albums-and-singles-2014/

7. Our travel experiences this year were broadened to include Adelaide. We renewed acquaintanceship with old friends and discovered a city comfortable with itself. That, in turn, ensured we were comfortable in it and will return.

8. It was another year of random meetings: an American naval engineer who is a fan of relatively obscure Australian impressionist John Russell, as am I; another American who inhabited an island (Rhode) off the coast of his continent, as do I. We shook hands on the commonality of that; then there was Cookie of Hahndorf who told us so much and I added a little more.

9. Over the past twelve months we have lost Joe C, Robin W, Philip SH, Doc N and so many more. But She up there beyond the silver lining is still looking out for Jimmy Bx2, Willie N, John P, Neil Y and Eric C, amongst other aging luminaries. Hopefully She’ll continue to see them remain ‘forever young’ throughout 2015.

10. The lead up to Christmas was blighted by the loss of a cricketing star, the senseless slaughter of children – followed, in recent days, by the loss of another aircraft. As well, the nation held its breath as a Sydney cafe siege played out to its terrible end. An obscenity devised by the addled mind of a pseudo-religious fanatic cost the lives of two precious souls. My Australian Act of the Year was the response of Manal Kassem, from Punchbowl, Western Sydney. Martin Place, near the site of the Lindt Cafe, where the saddening event occurred, became a sea of flowers as Aussies paid their respects to the victims. On what should have been her day above all others, Manal took time out to journey to the memorial in her wedding dress, veil and hijab to place her bridal bouquet at the shrine. That is what is glorious about the ethnicity of our Australia. Actions like hers give me hope as we are about to enter a brand new sparkling year.

manal

As always and for every year, love you Leigh-Leigh

WAG

It was delicious to be out on deck after all this time. The rolling waves were finally abating, the skies were clearing and I was feeling refreshed. For so long we had been confined to the suite of cabins my employers were allocated for the duration of the voyage. Since our departure from Southampton sea-sickness had wracked the SS Peshawar, the vessel taking us home to Australia. My own stomach had roiled as a result, but many were far worse off – bedridden even. So, really, I had little to complain about as I went about my duties These mainly consisted of keeping the children entertained in such circumstances. Naturally exuberant, there was little space for their usual carefree shenanigans. They had displayed great self control during trying times in a constricted space. How those cramped poor souls below decks had survived the effects of the ferocious spring storms, for eight long days and nights, was beyond me.

That day was the first occasion we, as a party, could safely walk the decks to take the sea air. Sir William and Lady Janet had dressed in their best to promenade and I had difficulty keeping the little ones in check as all they wanted to do was scamper about. The sun was showing its face for the first time on the voyage and I took the liberty of wearing a veil to protect my complexion, as was the fashion back then, even if the tropics were still a way off. The adults in our group were all feeling quite languorous, the after effect of many sleepless nights. Then, all of a sudden my employer became quite animated and started gesticulating to a lone man staring out to sea, shouting to him and calling him over. As the stranger turned to investigate who was causing the commotion I lifted my veil, placing it atop my hat so I could better discern the cause of Sir William’s out of character performance.

florence mFlorence Morphy

I wonder who it will be? Which Australian will bowl that first bouncer of the summer’s test series against India? As our team attempts to recover from the awful event that has shattered the early days of the season and tries to gear up to face the visitors, our national sport is in dire need of a happier story. Thanks to a recent discovery under the roof of a girl’s school in Kent, England, here’s one that will put a smile back on the face of any cricket tragic/romantic at heart.

Over all our years together he would tell me many, many times it was that lifting of the veil. It did him in. He told me he was smitten from that moment on, remaining so for the rest of his years on our good earth. Something tells me it will not be too long before I join him; not long before I share that space alongside him in our Kentish churchyard.

It transpired that the gentleman in question did indeed know Sir William and he hurried over to shake his hand. He cut a very fine figure indeed. He possessed a most handsome moustache, pleasantly dark features, wonderfully twinkling eyes and was kitted in the most fashionable manly attire for travel on the high seas. I was most taken with him. He greeted us colonials with a deep bow, then tipped his hat to Lady Janet as he was introduced to her, followed by shaking hands with each of the children – making them feel very important indeed. When my employer came to me this elegant chap took my hand and raised it almost to his lips – as if I too were a person of some note, not merely a lowly governess. Sir William and our new acquaintance, we were informed, had moved in the same circles in London society during our long stay there. I knew Sir William Clarke was a devotee of the game of cricket as he had built an impressive ground back at Rupertswood, the family residence at Sunbury, on Melbourne’s outskirts. So it was no complete surprise to me that the young gentleman, who I took to be around my own age, was introduced by the older man, in a voice of some gravitas, as the captain of the English touring party. His team were en route to play some games against our antipodean cricketers. He was Ivo Bligh. I only partially listened to the discussion the two had about recent events in the sport as I was pre-occupied with the little ones, but there seemed to be much jocularity to do with Grace’s team being beaten. Mr Bligh told us all that it was his solemn duty to go to our shores and bring back some ashes that Grace managed to lose. What I did discern, though, was that each time I looked towards the two men, Mr Bligh’s eyes seemed to be on me. I also realised that his distraction from his conversation, by me, was not going unnoticed by Lady Janet. With her perceptiveness a propitious seed was sown.

In a dusty attic in the roof space of a girl’s school in deepest Kent some renovating workmen discovered a trunk full of attire from a bygone era. The only item that was not clothing was a thin manilla folder containing a dozen or so sheets of lined foolscap paper, covered in a shaky, spidery scrawl. They passed it on to one of the masters at the school, who duly took it to the local historical society to see if it was of any relevance for their records. On examination it turned out to be first draft of some memoirs. After close reading it was realised that, yes, what was so painfully scrawled was of import, but not so much to local history. As will be discerned from the following extracts, it was of considerable significance for the sport we love.

ivo01Ivo Bligh

As the weather continued to improve our party encountered Mr Bligh and his fellow cricketers many times, not only on the promenading decks, but in the ship’s staterooms as well. Although I never spoke a word to him during these encounters, I felt his eyes return to me over and over again. At one stage, as an entertainment, the ship’s officers challenged the sportsmen on board to a tug-of-war. When Mr Bligh took his turn he seemed to injure his wrist during the exertions. It was a few evenings later that the Clarkes were due to sit at the captain’s table for dinner. To my delight, Lady Janet informed me I would be accompanying them on this special occasion; that a suitable young lady from below decks had been hired to put the children to bed for the night. In my careful preparations for the dinner I had the feeling that, for me, this night would be auspicious, maybe even a turning point. I had little inkling, though, just how momentous it would prove to be. To his dying day my dear Ivo claimed he took no part in the arrangements at that high table, but on being seated I discovered my place-card was sited along side his. My suspicions fell on Lady Janet, but when I politely queried her on a later occasion, she feigned no knowledge.

From the commencement of the meal Mr Bligh was most attentive, seemingly wanting to know all about my life at Rupertswood, my employer’s country estate. I noticed that the poor man’s wrist was tightly bound and asked if it was healing. As I did so, I unthinkingly laid my hand on his arm. Mr Bligh then reached for my hand and raised it, this time fully to his lips, proceeding to kiss it most fervently. He didn’t seem to care who was watching. I duly noted that Lady Janet again had not missed the unexpected display of affection from a gentleman barely of my acquaintance

It was at that instance I knew. This fine vision of British manhood would become important in my life. As the night wore on we talked and talked, almost oblivious to those around us. Mr Bligh seemed to consume a goodly amount of wine to the degree that, by the time dessert was served, he seemed to be somewhat agitated. He finally leaned in closer to my side and whispered in my ear, ‘I simply must see you again at he earliest convenient opportunity.’

Doing so was not easy – he had his duties and I had mine. But in Lady Janet I soon found I had a discreet ally. The morning after our meal, at high table, she took me aside and indeed asked if there were ‘feelings’ developing between myself and Mr Bligh. I replied in the affirmative. She told me she thought that news was wonderful, continuing by asking if she could be of assistance in ‘helping the relationship along’, as she put it. I confided to her my admirer’s final request to which the good Lady replied that I was to leave it to her – she would see to a suitable arrangement. After that it became quite easy to organise our assignations. Lady Janet became an effective conduit between myself and the man who was quickly winning my heart. There could be no suspicion attached to her passing on notes between myself and Mr Bligh as this was done entirely in Sir William’s presence. If he was privy to what was occurring I had no way of knowing.

By this means we communicated throughout the remainder of the voyage and we gained enough time together for a true fondness to develop between us, albeit it with precious little privacy. Still, by the time we rounded the Cape of Good Hope and set forth into the Indian Ocean we had shared embraces, kisses and confessed our fealty to each other. I also knew by then he was a man of some means – was regarded as a future leader of men, off the sporting field as well as on it. By then he had truly become my very dear Ivo.

The SS Peshawar’s journey to Australia was not without incident. Off the coast of Ceylon the boat collided with the barque Glenroy. English paceman Morley was so injured he took very little part in the games on colonial soil and died soon after his return to his home country.

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The English Touring Team

As our battered craft docked at Port Adelaide Ivo and I knew the time was not far off before we would be forced to be parted. He had ceremonies to attend in the South Australian capital, as well as some matches to play against the locals. Our party, meanwhile, would carry on to Port Phillip. By now Lady Janet was very much out in the open as my co-conspirator in managing time with Ivo. Prior to disembarkation she saw to it that our suite of cabins were empty well before time so my beau and I could say our farewells unseen. It was there that I felt for the first time the ardour of Ivo’s longing for me. Although I was determined to remain chaste till my wedding day – be that with he or some other suitor – his physicality had a powerful effect on me. I found myself swooning on more than one occasion.

Wonderfully, the first two test matches between the MCC and the combined antipodean team were to be contested in Melbourne. My good lady saw to it that Ivo was a constant presence around Rupertswood, when his schedule permitted. By then, as a result of our times spent in each other’s close company, he knew all there was to know about me, down to my inner most thoughts. He was privy to the fact that my father, John Morphy, had migrated to Victoria and in 1836 met and married my mother, Elizabeth Styles. He knew my childhood was spent in nearby Beechworth. I came into the world in 1860, soon making the discovery I already had six siblings preceding me. But I was very fortunate in being quick with my letters and adept at the keyboard. He knew that, with the latter, I had achieved some modest local fame, to the degree that the Clarke’s took me on as their children’s governess and music teacher.

By our time in Sunbury it was no secret that Ivo and I were unofficially betrothed. His form in the first two tests was wretched. But this did not seem to worry him. As he told me, he was there to captain. This he carried out very professionally, but the word was out – rumours appeared in the press insinuating his mind was far more on me than hitting a leather ball with a bat. That Christmas, prior to those matches getting under way, was the most thrilling of my life till that date. For days on end my Mr Bligh did not have to rush away and we started making plans to spend the remainder of our years together.

England lost the first official test at the MCG with Bligh scoring a duck and six. In the second confrontation the MCC prevailed, but Ivo again didn’t trouble the scorers. Then the English team moved to Sydney where two further encounters against the Australians were played. The first had its fair share of controversy, but the visitors were victorious. A final match was hastily cobbled together and was of an experimental nature. It wasn’t considered official, thus the Bligh’s cohort had achieved their aim – that of capturing the ashes to take back to the mother country. Revenge had been exacted. Of course, at this stage the games between Australia and England were not played for anything tangible – only bragging rights. The famous urn did not exist – but all that was about to change, with Florence Morphy and Lady Janet Clarke soon seeing to that. And the story has an unexpected twist that has only just come to light. For this we return to those thin pages scrawled by a woman who knows her time is short.

Saying farewell to Ivo, if only for a brief time, I found heartbreaking. He had to proceed to Sydney where there was the deciding clash to lead his team in – and that then turned into another match as well. It all caused me much anguish and distress. Would he come back to me as promised? Would he meet someone up there he found more to his liking than I? I didn’t know my Mr Bligh well enough to know that, when he gave his word, nothing would sway him from keeping it. After Sydney was done with he returned immediately, as vowed.

As departure neared, on his stay-overs at Rupertswood he had by now taken to sharing my bed, although we made some attempt to be discreet. But really he seemed not to care who knew we were breaking convention and who didn’t. Of course Lady Janet was privy to this development and gave me some advice to prevent insemination, but Ivo was, till the end, considerate of my desire to remain intact till our wedding night. I found other means to service his needs. And he mine. We had planned our nuptials to occur the following summer, with Ivo returning home at some stage in the autumn. The treasured man wanted to remain with me as long as possible.

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Lady Janet Clarke

Before the team left our shores, Lord and Lady Clarke decided to invite them all for one last gathering at Rupertswood. This occurred over the Easter period. A very fine meal was laid on and some humorous speeches made. This evening, though, has gone down in the annals of cricketing history far more because of a small token presented to Bligh and his departing team.

A few days before the announcement of the English visitors’ final festivities at the Clarke’s stately abode, Janet came to me with a devious plan. Yes, she was now Janet to me. I was forbidden to prefix ‘Lady’ to her name, in any situation, for she stated she now regarded me no longer as an employee but one of her closest friends. I was both touched and astounded. I also knew she was delighted with the role she played in creating our love story – that between Ivo and this daughter of a soon to be federated Australia.

In her hand she carried a small urn and was soon drawing my attention to it. When I inquired what she intended to do with it, a wide smile engulfed her face. She told me, in hushed tones, of her plan. It involved burning some cricket bails and placing the ash in the tiny container. They would represent those ashes the men were always finding humour in. They would now take on form. ‘But,’ Janet continued, ‘as I will be presenting this to Mr Bligh, I think it is only appropriate that we burn something more intimate as well. Something to wrap the bails in – something he can only associate with you, his darling love. Something that signifies the union that is about to occur between an English gentleman and a beautiful colonial rose. Do you think that would be a good idea? Only you and he would know that the urn contains the other item. I will not let that cat out of the bag – ever. Now, do you have a notion of what we could use?’

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Rupertswood

I did indeed. It didn’t take me long to produce an item for Janet. Of course, what else could it be apart from that very veil I lifted from my face on that fateful sea voyage? The act I was engaged in when he first espied me – and I him.

On February 9th, 1884 Florence Morphy and Ivo Bligh wedded at Rupertswood. On the death of his elder brother, in 1900, Ivo Bligh became Lord Darnley and he and Florence took up permanent residence in Cobham Hall. The little urn, which the lord of the manor considered a personal gift, knowing full well what else it contained apart from the ashes of a bail, became a fixture on a mantelpiece in the family seat’s library. Ivo passed away in 1925. Two years later Florence, Lady Darnley, presented the urn to the MCC at a function attended by a young tyro from Australia, Don Bradman. Florence later joined her husband, by being buried in a plot beside him, in 1944.

It was not until 1998 that the elderly daughter-in-law let slip in an interview to a magazine what else was burnt, along with some bails. What else was also placed in a minuscule urn, on that occasion, over a hundred years previous.

So, as our national team prepares to take the field in Adelaide for what will not doubt be an emotional return to combative cricket at the highest level, we can reflect on this happy story and the fact we are not too distant from another Ashes campaign. The tiny piece of pottery is now worth a small fortune and is far too fragile to travel from its home – but the story of its gestation is indeed a remarkable one. It was borne of love, the type of love that in recent times a nation has bestowed on Phil Hughes. May the battle begin.

A Mistress at the Library

He wrote of her:
‘The day when a woman who passes in front of you and gives off light as she walks you are lost, you are in love. There is only one thing to do: think of her so intently that she is forced to think of you.’

She wrote of him:
There can be no happiness greater than that I enjoyed this afternoon with you, clasped in your arms, your voice mingling with mine, your eyes in mine, your heart upon my heart, our very souls melded together. For me there is no man on earth but you.’

On a chilsome winter’s afternoon I turned a page in my daily Age and there she was – a glorious woman staring back at me. I was taken by her and went to the words to see what she was about. Alas she was only mentioned in passing – she was a great man’s mistress. It was all about him, the subject of a new exhibition at the State Library of Victoria. I took, as is my wont and pleasure these days, to the ether to discover more about the dazzling creature that captured my eye that afternoon. So, loving that Yarra City repository of books, I contemplated a jaunt to Melbourne to view yet another showing within its walls.

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Victoria’s premier library is a fabulous place to be. From its expansive portico it is possible to sit and relax, observing the passing parade up and down the top end of Swanston. It is in its interior that the treasures lie – books ancient, our infamous criminal’s armour and the marvellous reading room. The latter, viewed from above, is indeed one of the city’s best sights. In total the contents can hold one in its thrall for hours. But sadly, in the end, I decided against yet another trip to Old Bearbrass. It would be silly to initiate a venture on the single etching of a comely illustrious man’s lover!

reading room

The centrepiece of the exhibition, featuring her, contained a French national treasure, rarely leaving that country – the original manuscript to Les Misérables. That very production was concurrently running on a stage somewhere in the metropolis – a double-header then perhaps? No, I’d viewed a local effort, which surprised me by being remarkably entertaining – but I am not big on iconic musicals, so again the notion was dismissed. The great man referred to is of course Victor Hugo. His story has been told countless times – but what of this woman who careered into his orb and knocked him for six?

She is described in an account of the times as a ‘...delicate beauty; the nose chiselled and of handsome outline, the eyes limpid and diamond bright, the mouth moistly crimson, and tiny, even in her gayest fits of laughter.‘ She was also a most mediocre actress, but it was her reputation as a fashion plate, in the manner of today’s supermodels, that set her apart – that and her succession of lovers. Of these there were too many to count – and that gilded her reputation, for better or worse. On an equal footing with the beds of her enamoured beaux, she adored casinos and thus was constantly in debt. She was quixotic. She was quicksilver. She was Juliette Drouet. And here’s what the ether told me of her.

Julienne (she tweaked with her given names to suit her purposes) was born in humble circumstances in France, in 1806. She was soon to be separated from her parents, Julien and Marie Gauvain, Raised by her uncle, René Drouet, she changed her name to his as her stage fame grew. She was described as an intelligent but precocious child with teenagerdom finding her a stunning and vibrant beauty as well. At a very tender age she caught the eye of sculptor James Pradier who became a father figure to her, as well as her first known lover. She posed naked for him, inspiring much of his oeuvre. But when life became far too tiresome for the worldly miss, he encouraged her to embrace acting to gain a focus for her energy. She was a shocker at it, she truly was – but her radiant looks ensured her continuous parts – as well as many shared beds, particularly if their owners could enhance her prospects. She believed it to be far too beneath her to be loyal to just one paramour – she had them simultaneously – all over Paris.

pradier

Toto, her nickname for Hugo, first came across her in 1833 when she was cast in his stage adaptation of the story of Lucrezia Borgia. Juliette still retained her plebeian enunciation of the French language and couldn’t act to save herself – but Hugo saw the way her very presence lit up his stage. She was hypnotic and thus he was soon besotted. He’d just discovered his childhood sweetheart and now wife, Adele, had done the dirty on him and so, poor man, he was very vulnerable. Juliette saw her chance and took it. She was also besotted, not by him so much as his fame – at least initially.

In her welcoming arms Hugo felt newborn and soon his ardour was being passionately reciprocated. First she fell for the trappings, but was soon truly in love. She became the epitome of the kept woman. To indicate what this meant at the time, there is much parallel between her situation and that of Dicken’s mistress, Nelly Ternan. The recent movie ‘The Invisible Woman’ describes Nelly’s lot once she, too, became ‘kept’. It could be a stultifying, desultory existence. Drouet bore it all to have time with Hugo.

hugo

He set her up in a residence near his family home, a place she never ventured from unless accompanied by or to meet her man. This they would try to do daily at a tree halfway between the two abodes. In it letters were left when it was impossible to have a face to face encounter. Fortunately many of their epistles of devotion to each other have remained for posterity. She went with Hugo on his long literary tours in the guise as his secretary, so it wasn’t all bad. Later in life Juliette accompanied him into exile in 1852, to the Channel Islands, when Victor chose the wrong side in one of France’s frequent political upheavals. Unfortunately she’d also given her Toto a taste for affairs so he was not faithful at all to her. They also quarrelled incessantly over her profligate spending – he was quite thrifty. But for Juliette Hugo remained her ‘perfect man’, her ‘...marvel of all the ages.’ She remained the ‘…lowly woman that adores you.’

Drouet died in Paris having attained the age of seventy-seven. Two years later her Toto passed. Six months before her demise she wrote to him – ‘I do not know where I will be this time next year but I am happy to sign my life certificate for 1883 with this one (sic) word: I love you.’

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Juliette in later life

State Library of Victoria website = http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/

The Unknown Beauty

He came to me at night, as black as the night, my darkie. I was naked for him, ready for him. He’d whispered on our first coupling in this way he’d like me out of my night attire. We had to be furtive. It wasn’t the done thing in those times – nor would it have been in these. It only lasted a few months and I was constantly surprised at my wantonness; my daily yearning for night to come. Sometimes, if his days were particularly arduous out back in the gardens and orchard, he’d simply put his arm over my breasts and spoon into me – just cuddle me tight, whisper into my ear. Occasionally, I was asleep when he entered my chamber and he’d take pains not to wake me. But I knew – in the morning there’d be evidence of his presence. Sometimes I’d wake as the dawn broke and we’d be passionate. Most nights, though, I’d be waiting for him and usually his man-member would soon be erect and I’d guide him into me. He was slow and considerate – he would never take me quickly and urgently as had been my experience with my late, departed husband. My dusky man’s ministrations were so controlled and powerful he usually had me in such fervour I would cry out into my pillows. He always left me soon after the dawn, going back to his duties – my charcoal coloured man of the night.

The old woman, a septuagenarian now, sat by her window overlooking Sabattus Street. The Maine spring was morphing into another summer, but a cool maritime breeze ruffled the curtains as she attempted to air the room before her departure. Odile was awaiting the arrival of Lyman, her eldest son, named after his father. Her other boy was far away, across the Atlantic, with the troops fighting for the country of her birth. Her adopted nation was yet to enter the great European conflict, but the signs were it was only a matter of time before the United States did. The Huns had committed one atrocity too many. She knew war. Not first hand, of course, but the damage its barbarism could do – and this one, according to the reports she read in the press, was even more consuming in its sacrifice of men than the battles that tore her country apart when she was a young woman.

Lyman was to accompany his mother to the railway station and travel with her down to Philadelphia. She would now become a guest in his home – she hoped not an unwelcome one. Odile Ham had a pleasant relationship with her daughter-in-law, Sarah. And she adored her grandchildren. But they were growing up too quickly. Odile knew she would spend her final days in the bosom of their family. She was glad to do so. Mentally, on this late March day, 1916, she was ready for what lay ahead.

The huge old house, facing hard up against Sabattus Street, was far too big for her now. In fact it had been that way for a while. Most rooms had long been shuttered up and staff laid off. The death of her beloved Avril, a year or so previous, had been the indication that she could no longer carry on in her present circumstances. These days she lived frugally; even though, on paper, she was still a wealthy woman, thanks to Lyman Senior. Both her sons were doing fine in their own right, so she had seen to it the grand children would inherit. The house would revert to her brother-in-law’s family.

For all her life she had prided herself on always thinking ahead. She had trained her mind not to dwell on the past. But in the last week there came much cause for her to revisit her memories. The first came in the form of an unexpected post, a letter that took her back to those war years. It solved a conundrum for her, one that had fluttered around the periphery of her thoughts. He’d left her in1865, once peace had been declared. No, not her husband – he’d passed before the guns fell silent. She had never let what became of her real love to unduly trouble her, never sought to find out – but now she knew. That was deeply satisfying; even if, uncharacteristically, she’d shed a tear at the news and precious item the envelope also contained.

unknown beauty

The second need for recollection was, of course, the publication of her reminiscences of a long life lived in Lewiston – she being very much regarded as a town matriarch. The Daily Sun had issued them a few days ago to mark her impending departure. She was rereading the full page article as she awaited the carriage that would take her and her son to the station. She still preferred the old ways – these new ‘infernal’ combustion horseless contraptions were noisy, smelly and wholly unacceptable on the byways to her way of thinking – but she quite liked the idea of going up in a flying machine one day. She must broach that subject with Lyman.

She recalled the reporter visiting a few weeks beforehand after a telephone call from his editor. He resembled a weasel, this young fellow in a greasy suit with overly slicked hair and acrid body odour – not her cup of tea at all. But, credit where it is due, his article was well constructed. She enjoyed reading it – even if it was as far from the truth as it was possible to be. ‘A woman has to do what a woman has to do,’ she thought. The piece reflected on her prominence, for decades, in the little city’s social scene. It told of her former husband being brother to and partner in business with the burg’s first mayor, Jacob Barker Ham. Together the pair had set up a profitable textile mill on the banks of the Androscoggin River that flowed through the town’s heart, driving its industry. Lyman Senior, the article informed, was now long buried, lost in the final year of that other terrible conflict, the war between the states. There were no wounds involved in his demise. It, she knew, was the result of his unsustainable habits, although there was no mention of that in print. To all outward appearances his widow had stayed true to his memory. She knew, as she reclined in the sun’s rays coming in through the window, warming her, that the real story of her life was very different to one she was now engaged in perusing. It was a story she could only tell to herself, as she was now doing, These thoughts provided a very different parallel to the scribe’s account in the journal of the town’s happenings.

Copies of the newspaper were packed away in her trunks to distribute to family members on her arrival in Pennsylvania’s largest city. Her husband’s good name would never be sullied by her. She was now enjoying revisiting those early years in the calm before her boy was due. She didn’t allow herself to go back into past times too often, but on this auspicious occasion she felt she could indulge herself. Aiding what Deaver, her interviewer, had written was the image that sat next to the letter on the small table beside her. She would not entrust either to the trunks – both would travel in her handbag. The portrait she regarded was the finest ever captured, by artist or photographer, of her. It was when her beauty was at its peak – taken soon after her spouse’s death. It once had a pair, kept in her chamber – and, until recently, she thought that one had been lost to her long ago.

As the newspaper biography imparted, she was not a native of the United States, but was born to the north, across the Canadian border. She was Québécois, from Pleissisville to be perfectly exact, close to the southern shore of the St Lawrence. She and her two sisters, Maëlle and Vivianne, were born to that sleepy backwater. Her father worked the land, hiring himself out as a labourer to local farmers. He also owned a small apple orchard that bought in some seasonal money from its produce and he turned its windfall into a palatable cider, popular in the small community. There was enough from his toil to keep the wolf from the door, but it was a hardscrabble life and her father yearned for betterment. Their mother had married down, it was accepted, part of the cause for her husband’s dissatisfaction. He badly wanted to prove himself to her family – to join the droves crossing the border to work the Maine mills, as his brother had done. Her mother would not be shifted away from her family connections. It was she who taught Odile and her sisters much about keeping a house in the proper manner and Odile could read and write, albeit in the archaic French that was the patois of the region. Then, in her eighteenth year, tragedy struck when a fourth female child was stillborn and Odile’s mother, Francine Aubois, gaunt already, died of the toll the exertions took on her body. Strangely, although he grieved, her father seemed to become re-energised by this turn of events and they were soon packing, making ready for a cart to take them to his land of dreams.

The old lady informed Deaver that they settled in the town, up-country from Portland, just as the new mills were springing up along the Androscoggin. Her father knew that, with three able-bodied girls to work the looms; with himself fit and able for any labouring, employment would soon be forthcoming for all. It was. Her father repeated a mantra over and over again that here in Maine they finally had a future – if they took their chances. The chance soon arose. He took it without remorse. But of course that’s not how she phrased events to journalist Deaver. Back then Odile knew she was a beauty to behold, even if she was still held back by her circumstances. Although she possessed little experience in the ways of men, Odile was worldly enough to know that there could be currency in her looks – and her father was no dullard. He knew it too. She was statuesque, well proportioned with a clear complexion. But it was her hair – all who encountered her commented on it. Thick and luxuriant, if somewhat unruly, it crowned her fine features and ensured, even without the frippery of fashion, that she stood out to a discerning eye. Odile was a beauty.

A gentleman of discerning eye was close to entering her life. By 1858 the motherless family was settled into Little Canada, as the area around Lisbon Street in Lewiston, housing the immigrants from the north, was termed. Soon jobs were found at the new Ham Brothers Mill, the girls on the weaving machines, the father packing the product for transportation to the four corners of the country and beyond.

As for the mill owners, Odile knew little of Jacob or Lyman, apart from the gossip on the factory floor. The senior brother, it was passed on to her, had a large brood of offsprings and political aspirations. On the other hand, Lyman was a widower and childless. There was, it was said in lowered tones, some mystery about his wife’s demise.

Then, in 1861, war broke out. Odile noticed that many of the younger men folk departed, replaced by extra women, as well as Negro men who’d arrived recently and mysteriously in the town. The looms were soon making uniforms of blue for the Union army.

This was the nub of the version provided by the old woman for public consumption, the events suitably sanitised. But what followed deviated from the truth markedly – what happened when a pair of discerning eyes first alighted on her. Deaver almost swooned when she reported how the younger brother, on a rare visit, spotted her at her tasks and was immediately smitten. He arranged an introduction and she was impressed with his impeccable manner and deportment. This, it appeared to her, was a Christian man of substance. He proposed after a few weeks of ‘walking out together’ and she readily accepted. She vowed at a small, but exquisite, wedding service that she would serve him to the end of their days together. The old lady dabbed at her eyes as she told how short that period of service would turn out to be, but at least she was able to provide him two fine heirs. Deaver was not to know they were crocodile tears.

unknown beauty

Thinking back now to how it all came about – the events that brought me to this stage in my life – a woman well past her prime with her independent existence now largely over – much of the tale can never be known. I feel no shame about it – but I doubt that the society I live in would agree. My son would be mortified for his good standing – although I think Davy would be more one to understand. We ‘Canadiens’, as the locals referred to us Québécois, seem much more liberal about such things – probably the French in us – and he has chosen to live his adult life in my birth country. I wish he were there now, across the border, instead of being in over there in France, albeit away from harm. Lyman Jr is far too American to have any flexibility in his views

No I have no regrets about the way Lyman Senior took me away from that dust-moted mill. I knew, deep down, that I’d have my day in the sun – that I was destined for a life better than sweating on a factory floor. I only needed the means – and he certainly provided me with that. The war was now well under-way when I noticed his presence in my part of the factory more and more. He was hard to miss. His face was dominated by that bushy black beard. He was quite ample in girth and with that stove-pipe hat, seemed very imposing. He always had his cigar in place, in hand or mouth, leaving a stinky odour in his wake. I was initially perplexed by this and the inordinate amount of time he seemed to be spending looking my way. But still, it came to the stage that I missed him when he did not appear – but love at first sight? It was never remotely that.

One day something unusual happened. My father appeared on the floor and informed me that a carriage was waiting outside for me. Stunned, I demanded of him what was going on. Father told me that Mr Ham had taken an interest in me and had a proposition. He then told me I was not to let him down in this matter as certain arrangements had been made in my best interest. I was required to return to our lodgings, pack and he would take me to the younger Ham’s home on Sabattus Street.

When we arrived it was apparent that Mr Lyman Ham was indeed expecting me, greeting me politely at the front door before withdrawing. I was taken to the elegant front reception room and was told to wait. My father then disappeared. On his return he quickly kissed me on both cheeks, told me that this was my chance and that I should take care not to ruin it. He then bade me farewell. I was not to set eyes on him, or my sisters, again. In due course Lyman informed me that I had cost him ‘a pretty penny’. But then, I was no fool either.

The old lady continued her responses to the journalist’s queries. She informed Deaver that her marriage had been the happiest period of her long existence, being so fruitful in producing two fine sons. She told her whiffy interviewer she received immense pleasure from running the household, thus allowing her new husband to concentrate on his business interests. Odile Ham described how this consisted of a bevy of indoor maids, cooks and eventually a trusted nanny for each of the lads. Out the back there were the gardens and orchard to be cultivated and managed. The man directly responsible for all this was a Mr Cherry, but her input was essential. Cherry came in each day, but the female staff lived at the top of the house in small attic vestibules. The men, maintaining the outdoor areas, bedded down in various outhouses. What was unusual for Lewiston, before the war, was that the indoor staff had been largely Negro rather than young local girls. That remained the case once the conflict between the states commenced, but when all the young white men left to fight, the reliance on former slaves in the gardens also became more pronounced.

I remember, that on my very first day, after my father took his leave, the whiskery, self-important Cherry came to fetch me and accompanied me to Lyman Ham’s study. Words were exchanged between the two men and Cherry went off and summoned a black maid to join us. She spoke my language, although with a markedly different inflection. Later I was to discover that she was originally from Louisiana. In fact Avril was to become my closest confidante and dearest friend – but I did not know this then. I was shown my room. It was full of the latest furnishings and even possessed a wash stand. The drapes were heavy and rich in colour. Avril then then took me to the bath house, told me to step out of my clothing and assisted me in scrubbing myself from top to bottom. She then spent several hours attending to my hair, ensuring it was ready for Mr Ham’s visit which, she informed me, was imminent. When she left I tried the door to my chamber. As I suspected, it was locked.

And hour or so later Lyman came to my room. He knocked, unlocked the door and with Avril in tow to translate, explained my situation. He said I was no prisoner. I was free to go at any time but if I did so I would never see him again, nor work at his mill. No more money would be forthcoming to my father. He stated that Avril would be assigned as my personal maid and I would learn English with her assistance. When it was considered that I was ready to face polite society, as he put it, Lyman would take me as his bride. In return I would be paid a handsome stipend for the rest of my life with him and be fairly rewarded in his will should he predecease me. He also told me that he would continue to look after my father and sisters. It was to be hoped that there would be progeny from this ‘arrangement’, that I would give him an heir. To all this I readily agreed for, after all, I was no fool.
Deaver wanted to know about her time with Lyman in more detail. What was he like? She told him of her great sadness at her husband’s early demise, he not even living to see the Union armies defeat of the Confederacy. Odile reported that the massive turnout of citizenry at his funeral confirmed his standing in the hearts of the Lewiston town folk. His brother, Jacob, by now mayor, gave a fine eulogy and many spoke of his generous attributes. She also praised his tireless work for the anti-slavery leagues in Maine. This was particularly noted in the newspaper. She also praised his first-hand efforts to ease the plight of the Negro. The old lady told Deaver that he was part of the ‘Underground Railroad’, essential in getting many escaped slaves to safety in the North and across the border into Canada. His house on Sabattus Street was a refuge, with many former plantation slaves being gainfully employed in his kitchen and gardens. He encouraged his brother to use his influence so Lewiston never enacted by-laws that dissuaded black men and women coming into their community. Many other municipal councils did this throughout the state of Maine. Negros also came to be employed in his factory. Lyman never exploited them as did other mill owners for, with the white boys away fighting to free their black brethren, he felt it his Christian duty to treat them with dignity. Of course, he was a firm supporter of Lincoln. All this contributed to Odile’s grief at his passing, leaving to her sole care of the two young boys he doted on.

I smiled as I reread my description of my husband in print. In truth our wedding was held in secret. My origin was too low, my looks and manner not yet refined enough to be presented to local society so soon. And my English was only very rudimentary at that stage. Even prior to my vows being taken Lyman was a regular visitor to my bedroom. The first time it felt my body would split in two. With Lyman it was always perfunctory and quickly over. He always returned to his own quarters immediately after coitus. He wasn’t deliberately cruel in any way though. I conceived quickly, causing some consternation as we now had to be wed before I showed. Therefore there was no elaborate ceremony – I was still too uncouth for that. Being no fool, I threw myself into my improvement, with Avril by now indispensable to me – and so she would remain.

As soon as I was in the family way I was no longer subjected to Lyman’s body pounding into mine. He was so heavy it was almost unbearable, so in truth I was relieved at this turn of events. Shortly after our first born came into the world his bedroom visitations returned, until it was confirmed I was pregnant with Davy. After that I was celibate for the rest of my marriage. I doubted that was true for Lyman. And by my second son’s birth I was well and truly that – married. And what’s more, I was ready for my introduction to the wider community as mistress of the household and now a suitable hostess for the many social events we held together, Lyman and I, at our grand Sabattus Street residence. We were also frequent guests at the fine houses of many of the town’s dignitaries. I enjoyed this aspect of our brief time together immensely.

Apart from that, our daily routines kept us apart – he at the factory, I in our home or visiting lady friends. We met over dinner each evening to discuss arrangements, but Lyman always retired early to his quarters – quarters I was forbidden to visit. Of course my suspicions were aroused very early on – but I didn’t really discover why I was so cursorily dismissed each night till after his passing. And that arrived soon enough.

Now, there is no other way to put this, but Lyman was a man of huge appetites. He consumed copious amounts of meat and game, but disdained much of the produce the gardens and orchard grew. Red wine and whiskey went down his gullet in impressive amounts and he never ceased to be chomping on his disgusting cigars. No wonder he dropped dead at forty-nine. Later, I also discovered, he consumed copious portions of something else as well. In fact, he was in the process of doing so when his heart gave out. It was just as I suspected, for I was no fool.

The representative from the town’s leading daily asked his old aristocratic-appearing interviewee about her relationship with the black workers who arrived from the south, giving their labour to her household. Odile Ham explained that for most it was a staging post before they journeyed to other parts, mainly across the border into Canada. Few stayed longer than a couple of months, although she stated Lyman encouraged those who displayed genuine promise in their duties to remain on. One such was her dear, recently departed personal maid, Avril. The work outside was very much seasonal, adding to the turnover. She explained that Mr Cherry made all the arrangements for employment and dismissal. She knew what they earned was only a pittance, but all their workers were provided equally with ample food and shelter. As for her relationships with them, apart from her devoted Avril, she was largely aloof – but always polite. It was not done to be seen fraternising too closely. There were occasions when the former black employees returned to the mansion, resplendent in blue uniform, on their way south to fight in the Negro battalions of the Union army. She felt proud that what they wore with such pride may have been made in her husband’s very own mill. As for Lyman, when this occurred, he greeted them warmly, always making sure they had a bed for the night if needed, as well as a generous bag of victuals to see them on their way.

unknown beauty

Yes, I really did keep my distance. Of course Avril, to me, was much more than a maid – she became my closest companion, confidante and later, in a way, co-conspirator. Even the nature of this relationship had to be kept secret from the cronies around town who delighted in gossip and ruining reputations. I had some friends, wives of the businessmen and dignitaries we entertained, but there were none that rivalled Avril as keeper of my inner thoughts – and my, let us say, later active night life. Knowledge of the latter would have produced scandal and ruined me. Lewiston prided itself of being an upstanding, God-fearing community. Avril will always have a special place in my heart till the day I pass – she spoke my native tongue, was the creator of the way I wore my hair, became Davy’s nanny and finally, the carrier to me of my husband’s greatest secret.

Davy was a sickly child who needed special nursing, something I’d only entrust to Avril. He grew into a strapping army major – though thankfully not one who would see active service in this terrible conflict in Europe. I think my Avril is responsible for that transformation. I would certainly have no other maid attend to my personal grooming, especially my hair.

It was Arvil’s friendship and good counsel that saw me through years of marriage. She was the one that was a salve to my loneliness in that regard. And, after Lyman’s demise – she let the cat out of the bag. She told me of his mammoth appetite for the young Negresses who passed through this old house. I had confided my suspicions just before the funeral and Avril tried alleviate my concerns. She shrugged it off saying it was all scuttlebutt. But soon after he was laid to rest she came to me and told me she had lied to me for the first time. She wanted me to get through the service and burial. I’d be on show for the whole town. She didn’t want anything of an unsavoury nature wearing me down. Then she told me of how he picked them out, the ones he’d share his bed with – the same way as he more or less selected me from all the other mill girls. It was Cherry who organised it all – who gave the chosen ones little choice but to acquiesce if they knew what was good for them. I asked if she was one of them and she nodded her head. She said it was the ‘plantation way’ – pretty girls were expected to ‘serve’ their white masters – why would it be any different in the north? Those who fell pregnant were sent on their way – Lyman always gave those fallen with child enough monies to ensure they caused no trouble. It seems Avril, with her exotic looks and accent, was similarly favoured and soon she too was pregnant. She was sent away with the usual parting gift, but as her child was still-born, she returned and Lyman was welcoming, but she never graced his chamber again. She said that Lyman was a ‘good’ master compared to those of her knowledge in the south and that she was happy in his employ – even more so now that I had arrived.

So, you see, there is much humour for me in these newspaper columns extolling my time in Lewiston . I did have another life, a parallel existence if you like. That one was for no readership, for Odile Ham is nobody’s fool.

One morning, after the funeral, I rose early, just as the dawn was breaking. I recall the night had been one of interrupted sleep and it was just before the reading of Lyman’s will. At that stage I was unsure of my future – what was to become of me? I was troubled. All I had was his promise. As it transpired he was true to his word. His lawyer informed me I had the use of the house and its complement of servants for as long as I cared to live in the Maine mill town. All else would pass to our sons, with brother Jacob appointed to oversee their affairs till they reached majority age. I found Jacob to be the most understanding of men in such matters – he even agreed to cease Cherry’s employment. I never liked nor trusted that odious man. His role, in all but name, became Avril’s position – with Jacob’s blessing. But I doubt my brother-in-law would have been as tolerant had he known the extent of my secret doings in the grand house.

That morning I felt like some air, but I knew there would be still a crispness that indicated summer no where near ready to bloom. I wrapped a shawl around my night attire. I felt an early walk down to the orchard and back would clear my head, possibly placing me in a better frame of mind. The garden was dewy, fresh and invigorating; my bare feet relishing the soft grass despite the chill. Before the orchard were the out-buildings housing the Negro workers, but all was quiet at that hour so I felt it reasonable that I should proceed beyond them. It was then, as I followed the track around to the rear of those clap-board huts, that I spotted him a short distance away. He had his unclad back to me and was engaged in his morning ablutions, washing down his body with a wetted rag. He looked a magnificent specimen, perfect in every way – apart from severe welts striping his back. It was the first time I’d seen a man in his naked glory.

In truth, it was not the first time I’d noticed this Negro’s presence. I’d seen him quite often during those spring months – always with the same boy beside him, hoeing away or at some such task. He reliably removed his cap and bowed slightly when he espied me in passing. Occasionally he’d greet me with a, ‘Morning Missus.’ – and I would acknowledge this with a tilt of my head, in response. If I was being completely honest, it arrived to the situation whereby I would look forward to an encounter with him. I started wandering the gardens more frequently in the hope that I would see him. Often I would even watch him, for some time, from a secluded vantage point. Once I was forward enough to inquire of him about his constant companion. What was he called; how old was he? To that he answered, ‘I have no idea of his true name or birth, Missus, just as I know not my very own. I call him Job for he is always doing a very good job for me.’ With that he let out a laugh that came from deep inside. With it I spotted those startling ivory white teeth of his, so distinct against his black features.

Seeing him unclothed in those early hours I felt it wise to beat a hasty retreat. He must have sensed me there so he turned before I could withdraw. Our eyes locked and he showed no inclination to hide his most private part from me. Then he raised his arm and beckoned me over. I didn’t hesitate. I was no fool, was I?

As she predicted he would, the scribbler asked her how she had managed all these years alone in this large house on Sabattus Street. Odile knew full well what he was alluding to – as if she’d she let him in on her secrets! She responded with a litany of all that kept her busy – her many friends; her community work with the poor and later her involvement in the movement for women’s suffrage. She told of her travels within the US and abroad; her love of going to Philadelphia and doting on her grandchildren. She had no time, she stated, to dwell on the past – and to his credit Deaver had written it all up pretty much as she had relayed it to him. It was an account of a blameless, most worthy life.

unknown beauty

Yes, I certainly had no qualms about approaching him once he had gesticulated to me. He stood motionless as I placed one hand on his moist chest. With the other I took hold of his man-member, marvelling how it rose up, engorged itself and swelled to my touch. He reached under my nightdress and I felt him press gently inside. He took his time, I took mine and I felt what it could  possibly be  like with a man. After our exquisite fumblings I rearranged my attire and asked that he be present in the same spot for another assignation the next morning, followed by another and so on. I wouldn’t allow him to enter me with his man-member, but I did allow him to see me naked in return once we found a secluded bower amongst the blossoming apple trees. I knew I had to have more of this man, but how could that be possible? I was too concerned with the consequences, considering how easily I had conceived with Lyman. After a most satisfactory series of trysts as the sun came up, I informed my dark lover that I wished for him to share my bed. He laughed and asked how could that  occur. At that stage I didn’t know – and it was then that I took Avril into my confidence. I’d shared all else with her – why not this? If she was in any way shocked she didn’t show it. She told me of a door she would leave unlatched of a night and that, if there was any gossip with the servants, she would see to that too. Avril, then and later, became my Mr Cherry.

On that first night he lay between my sheets I informed him how much I wanted his man-member inside me. I confided my fears that that could never occur – but with that he surprised me by whispering, ‘Now don’ you worry Missus. I will be careful and I promise, you will never bear a little-un to me.’ I believed him and he was true to his word. He was the most considerate of lovers – I can judge that now. He gave me such pleasure in those few months of our joining together, but I knew – I just knew. It couldn’t last – for I was no fool.

Deaver had been admiring the portrait of her as a younger woman. Odile could see that he was quite taken by it. In the end he asked – did it have some special significance? He referred to it as being very fine. Odile Ham replied that she decided to have it taken in Mr Crosby’s new studio in the town, in the last year of the war, to alleviate her mourning – and to please herself. She confided to him that, at twenty-five, she felt she was at the height of her charms and she wanted a record of it to look back on when, as now, her beauty had faded. Deaver seemed very pleased with her answer. He remarked on how beguiling her hair in particular was arranged. Odile reached up to her now lustre-less grey braids and told him that there is no joy to be had from her hair now, that sometimes growing old does disappoint. She remembered back to the morning of her appointment with the photographer; to just how long and hard Avril had laboured to get her coiffure shaped just so. She gave thanks to Deaver for his compliments and felt a little softer towards him. She explained to him that a long time ago there had been a smaller copy of it in her private quarters but that had long disappeared. She was on the tip of saying that it had been returned to her only recently – but that was going too far towards a place that no one else should enter.

As we lay together, after our coitus, we talked of many things. He told me of his early years on a Georgia cotton plantation, working all the hours of daylight for as far back as he could remember. He had no real memories of his parents. He told of the overseers and their whips, of some of the lashings he had endured. He spoke of the plantation owners and their treatment of the womenfolk. They forced to their beds any who took their fancy, married or not, some barely into double figures in years. He told me of his despair that he would never achieve a better life. When he worked out that the ‘Underground Railway’ was more than just a rumour, he resolved to take his chances and escape. He moved north from safe house to safe house, suffering many tribulations in doing so. En route he’d heard word of the house in Lewiston where he might find work, as well as a haven – and so it was. He informed that Ham had been a considerate man. Had he still been alive he would never have been so forward as he had been that first morning. He had found peace of heart and was happy to see out the summer behind the house on Sabattus Street. These last words cut me to my core for, by then, I knew I was in love. It was not just total lustfulness on my part.

I asked how old he imagined himself to be. ‘I truly not know Missus’, he breathed into my ear, ‘but I calculate somewhere betwixt thirty and forty years on this good earth.’ I remember him saying that like it was just yesterday.

Then it came as I knew it would. He had already lingered far longer than I had a right to expect. It was well into the autumn that I awoke one morning without him beside me. That was not unusual as he often departed before my eyes were open, but I sensed that something else was not as it should be. It took a while to discern what it was – but then I noticed an empty frame on the bedside table. My small portrait was not behind its glass. I dressed quickly and went out to the gardens at the rear. He was neither there nor in the orchard. I made inquiries from the others working and was told that he had packed up and was gone without saying farewells to anyone. A short time later it became clear that Job had left with my Negro man. I had known for some time that it had to end, but still I was distressed. But then I realised he had given me something that eased my grief – he’d given me a certain kind of freedom. I would put that freedom to good use for then, as now, I am no fool.

She remembered the reporter closing his notebook and taking leave from her, praising Odile for her fulsome and honest responses. ‘If only he knew – that would set the cat among the pigeons.’ she thought to herself. She initially considered Deaver a man of little merit but, once reading the article, perhaps not quite the fool she originally took him to be. She had warmed to him over the course of their discussions – but he was so far from the type she invited to her bed once upon a time. He would never know the real truth of her life. As she sat and waited, Odile cast her mind back over the lovers that had populated her world since the departure of her ‘original sin’. She had remained alluring till well into her fifties, taking great comfort in the charm and attention of the menfolk who came calling over the years. If she approved, she took them to her chamber. She only gave herself to men of breeding. With Avril’s assistance it was all so terribly discreet. Many had departed after a few beddings – semi-paralysed with fear that wives and family would discover their indiscretions. Some souls of a more libertine nature stayed around longer, but of course they had to measure up where it counted – her first indiscretion had given her a taste of how men could truly please. Some were fumblers – she couldn’t abide that. She can truthfully say that she never fell in love again. Few of her lovers were free – and really, she preferred it that way.

Now she was too old for all that. Odile prepared to resign herself to devoting her remaining years to her grandchildren, but knew she – when allowing herself revisit the past – would miss her home hard up against Sabattus Street. When she was young, she had imagined a life akin to the one she’d had here. Luck went her way – but she knew her great beauty made it all possible. She thought of those of her gender who had devoted themselves to just one man – even after they had long departed. These women, she muttered, were the true fools – not her.

At long last Odile was removed from her reverie by a rap at the door down below. Lyman Junior had arrived. She reached for her portrait and the other item that lay beside it – the letter. In it was an exact copy of that very same portrait, taken so long ago now – only smaller. The envelope was adorned with a Canadian stamp – it had come down from Louzon, on the banks of the St Lawrence, not so far from where she herself had been born over seventy years beforehand. It was ironic, she thought, that he had been so close to her in that way throughout all these years. The signatory had informed her of the passing of one Otis Freeborn. In his will her ‘dusky man’ had instructed that the small photograph, wrongfully taken many years beforehand, be returned to its rightful owner. The letter was signed – Jobias Freeborn.

unknown beauty

The Unknown Beauty by Curtis Crosby, Lewiston, Maine, USA, ca. 1870

A Burnie Tale – Comb-over

Winsome. If you’d ask me the one word to describe her, that’s what it’d be – winsome. That’s how I first thought of her, once upon a time, when we first met. It’s how I still think of her, all these decades later. And, in a sort of way, it’s all down to AJ and Al – otherwise, had it not been for that crazy trip we went on way back when, the winsome one wouldn’t have been in my life at all. I wonder how they’re doing, those two old mates of mine, all these years on – I’ve heard zilch from them in years – not that I’ve exactly pushed myself to make contact either. Too much water under the bridge? Well, perhaps.

Is Al still with his Nora? I’d like to think that. Last I heard they were still together, contentedly, on that big spread near Byron he called Mangoland. With her by his side, nothing would be impossible for Al – or so I felt when I bade my farewells to them in their adopted part of the world. In truth, I was so envious. I saw myself at that stage possibly living up there too, so well was it all starting to come together for me. I hankered to stay – and I had as good a reason as they did to do so – Al and his Kiwi beauty. There was the new job in Lismore I could see prospects opening up with. But Al inherited that, together with my newly leased pad there. Then there was my equivalent to Nora, although that newly minted relationship I had kept very much to myself.

There was AJ as well, my other travelling buddy. Everyone – well almost everyone – was in thrall of him. He was everything I was not. I could surf – and in truth I was the best of the three of us. AJ thought he was a gun (he wasn’t) and Al only dabbled in it. But with his shock of blonde hair, tanned skin, cheeky grin and ‘come hither’ blue eyes, AJ looked the part far more than I – and didn’t the chicks just love him? They flocked to him as we went through uni – us three fellows from the Coast, becoming friends almost from the get-go in our first year. The young ladies gravitated to him on our ‘gap year’ as well, when we caught the ferry from Devonport to adventures on the ‘big island’. From the South Australian coastline to the eastern seaboard, as well as the bits between, he seemed to have a conquest in every port of call. He really hit his straps, though, when we reached the commune – a detour on a recommendation of a mate of a mate of AJ’s. In those pre-AIDS, post-Pill days, he was in clover. But it certainly derailed our intentions.

For Al it was different – Al fell in love, not lust. Although he toyed with a few of AJ’s cast-offs during our progress, at the commune he bided his time. I could see from the start who he’d soon have his eye on – and from the commencement it was evident there was reciprocation, although it took a while for the pair of them to get around to doing anything about it. AJ was busy screwing his way through all the available women there, as well as a few who supposedly weren’t. But Nora could see how shallow his charms were. She knew all he was after was another notch on his belt – not that he wore one. The blonde one took to the clothes optional vibe of the place like a duck to water – whereas Nora, Al and I were more circumspect. We knew full well that AJ wouldn’t want to leave the place until he had exhausted all available womanhood, but we, his travelling companions, were less enamoured. That was Nora’s problem as well. Our next stop was meant to be the Gold Coast, and then further north. We never made any more progress on that as a unit.

I wonder now if AJ is still up there in Port Douglas. He actually made it to the end of the road. That had been the plan for the three of us – to go as far as we could, in the year, until time ran out – and then return to Tassie to commence our legal careers. From what I read between the lines, when we were still in contact back then, AJ used the natural charms he’d perfected with the ladies and talked his way in on the ground floor of the land boom in those far northern parts. He was soon convincing punters from more southern climes to come to the tropics and take up his real estate deals. Part of me now wishes I had simply kept going north too. I hope AJ and Al have both had happy ever-afters. I keep thinking I need to do something to get in touch again now that I’m not getting any younger – especially as my love is presumably is up there, somewhere, too. But these days I seem enveloped by lethargy. I can’t even make the decision as to whether or not it’s time to throw this lawyering business away and embrace retirement – but then, what would I do without her? With the winsome one I thought I had it made. But then I got above myself and threw it all away – there’s no fool like an old fool. I should have known better.

I was a virgin when I entered uni. I was still one when I left it, as well as when the ferry departed the Mersey for our travels – and nothing had changed by the time we hit the commune in the hills behind Nimbin. Back then I was a beefy lump of lard and almost bald. These days I’ve the shaved skull as is the modern way when one has a follicular challenge on top. Back then it was the comb-over. With it I used to try and pretend – with the rest of my mousy locks tumbling to the shoulders. Now I look back – I really did look appalling. Think the Christian Bale character in ‘American Hustle’ and you get the idea. No wonder the opposite gender weren’t interested. Nothing could hide the fact that, in my early twenties, I was a fashion disaster – but it was Meagan who sorted me out in that regard. She also convinced me to be at peace with my hairlessness in the cranial region – to treat it as a sign of virility. And it was the winsome Meagan who fixed my sex, or absence of it, problem as well. Just when I was beginning to think I’d have to remain celibate for a lifetime, along she came. Gawd knows what she first saw in me – but I count my blessings she saw something.

combover

 I hated the commune – all that hippy, free love crap that was in its death throes everywhere else. The ‘Summer of Love’ was long gone, but, as in everything, we in Oz were slow to catch on. I didn’t see the point. I had a life to get on with and I was starting to get antsy. I knew Al and Nora felt the same – and then my luck ran out, which in turn gave them a way out as well. By then we knew that AJ was in no hurry to get a move on – he just adored the freedom of the alternative lifestyle there. Now I enjoy the sight of a naked woman along with the next man – but they looked at me, then at the blonde Adonis by my side and I wasn’t even a consideration. Al bided his time and then had Nora. I just escaped. As soon as the daily chores were done I took the Kombi and headed for the coast – from Byron to Snapper Rocks, I went wherever there was likely to be a wave. It was at the latter I found her. More to the point, I guess, it was initially she who spotted me.

I noticed her out on the rocks, snapping away with her camera as I rode the breaks into shore that Coolangatta afternoon, passing her by en route to the beach. It was a good swell that day and I was in my element. Still, I didn’t realise it was my adeptness on a board that was the focus for her lens. When I emerged from the water she was on the beach waiting for me. Turns out she was a professional, or at least semi-pro. Surfing magazines were in their heyday back in the Seventies as the craze took hold on the nation – everybody was a surfer, or so it seemed. She told me she freelanced for a couple of the more popular titles and would I mind if she submitted some for consideration she’d taken of me. I told her I had no problems with that When she wrote down my details, she proffered surprise that I was so skilled at it coming from Tassie. I retorted by informing her of Bicheno’s Redbill and of those waves the Roaring Forties bought in off the Indian Ocean at Marrawah, the two main spots back in the day. She seemed impressed. As the evening started to settle in, she asked if I’d like to see the fruits of her targeting of my prowess. As I had only a smelly dorm to return to and the address she gave me, down the Tweed, was on my way back, I thought her invitation a mighty fine idea.

She resided in a small wooden bungalow not far from the river. Little was I aware it would become pretty familiar to me over the next few months. When I arrived I sensed red meat on a barbecue. As the commune was strictly vegetarian, I was soon salivating – and she had a beer, as well as a huge smile, in greeting for me. She offered both to me for the taking; pretty soon she was offering much more.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – that came later. It’s all indelibly etched in my mind for the duration – those early details. She knew how to keep me waiting – in the nicest possible way. When I eventually, reluctantly, made to depart I complimented her on the best meal in a long duration and stated I was impressed with the results that emerged from the chemical bath. She was certainly more than just a competent practitioner of her craft. She took my arm and walked me to the door. I well and truly knew by this stage I wanted to see more of Meagan – much more. I think I was already in love – but that was understandable, considering the paucity of my experience with the emotion. Really, she was the first girl who’d taken any sort of interest in me. So, at her entrance, I took a deep breath and asked her if she’d like to come see me surf again. She laughed and shook her head, stating she had enough to work with for the time being. But then she added the rider that made my heart surge. She told me that she wasn’t adverse to meeting up with me again, but on one condition – I had to rectify my god-awful, as she put it, comb-over. When I asked her what she would suggest I do about it, she grinned and asked, ‘Would you like me to tackle it now?’

‘What have I to lose?’ came my reply, which she thought was kind of funny She took me by the hand and led me to her bathroom. She grabbed some scissors and started cutting away. A totally different looking fellow came out on the other side. She could tell I was pleased with the result as she leaned in and whispered, ‘Now there’s the sort of man I could go out with on a first date.’ Of course, when I eventually made it back to the commune, I received the third degree. I merely responded that I’d felt like a change and had gone to a barber. Meagan was mine, for as long as it lasted – I had no intention of letting AJ within a bull’s roar of my newly found, winsome beauty.

Beauty? Well, she was beautiful to me. I suppose she wasn’t in a classic sense, but to my yearning, lovestruck eyes, she looked amazing. Her hair was brunette, long and straight to her shoulders. Wearing the cheesecloth and muslin dresses of the era, she was slim and small breasted enough to carry them off perfectly, in my humble opinion. It was plain to see that she also preferred the braless look, wonderfully popular for a while, so that was particularly tantalising. She had exquisite brown freckles all over her face and when she smiled, she lit up – and lit up my heart too. I couldn’t wait to get to know her better, in every possible way. But would I get the opportunity?

That first date, a few days later, was in the dining room of the old Greenmount Hotel above Snapper Rocks – which seemed apt. Back in those days Coolangatta wasn’t conjoined on to Surfers as it is today. The hotel hadn’t developed into the resort format of modern times. It still had some of the charm of its historic past and I felt at home with this beautiful woman opposite. She was a great conversationalist, with stories of the surfie types she’d photographed and of her day job behind the counter in a camera shop. She enthused about developing her sideline till she could do it full-time. I was a little coy about my hopes – it was way too early to tell her they centred around her. I anticipated that more could occur when I drove her back to her little home, but my hopes were dashed when she chastely kissed me on hopping out of the Kombi. Then she came around to my side and gesticulated for me to wind down the window. ‘Do ring me if you’re interested in a little more of my company.’

Before Meagan there had been no one and after, well, we’ll get to that. AJ, with his multitude of conquests, I suspect wouldn’t have a detailed clue about any of them looking back to those times – and it was thinking of AJ that partly caused my future misadventure. In light of what happened – all those early dates with Meagan are crystal clear in my mind.

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And I couldn’t wait for the next one. I tried ringing her first thing the morning following Greenmount, on the commune’s sole telephone, but of course she was at work. Later that evening she answered, by which time I was in a paroxysm of desire for her. I expressed my feelings of interest in another meeting and she chortled, saying, ‘I’m just so pleased you’re minus a comb-over. Now I’m very interested too.’ She said that, if I cared to drive north Saturday arvo, she’d be waiting for me by Elephant Rock on Currumbin Beach. ‘I know it’s a bit of an ask of you, but I will make it worth the kilometres.’ I became very excited at those words.

Inside my body I was experiencing feelings foreign to me as I took to the Pacific Highway that day. I’d never had the expectation of any physical contact, let alone sexual, with a girl before. I didn’t know what awaited, but I hoped that, with Meagan, I at last had someone to love who would reciprocate.

True to her word, she was waiting. She led me to a fairly secluded spot along the river bank, away from the masses on the beach. There she revealed herself in a red bikini. I remember distinctly how its redness contrasted against the cool white of her skin. For some reason, seeing her in it really moved me. When we were supine she stated, ‘I burn easily,’ and passing me some lotion asked, ‘Could you do the honours for me please?’ She turned onto her tummy and undid the straps to her top so, with shaking hands, I applied the protection as competently as I could – and I can’t tell you how wonderful the touch of my hands on her flesh felt. Then she murmured, ‘Now the front please.’ She rolled over and lifted her bikini cups off, exposing her perfect breasts to my view for the first time. My red face no doubt gave away how I felt. They were, well, perfection. After the girls at the commune I had seen plenty of nakedness – but nothing, nothing beat this. I was in a trance like state, I think, as I gently rubbed in the block-out. This was the first time I had touched a woman’s intimate areas. Eventually she told me that she now felt ‘well basted’ and I could desist. As I, in turn, placed myself down on the blanket she’d considerately bought along, she placed her hand on my upper thigh. I thought, right at that moment, that life didn’t get any better – but, for a while, it did. That after noon we swam, we talked – so much talking. Then we walked, hand-in-hand, back up the beach to the surf club on its little peninsula. We dressed and returned to her car. Would the day offer any more delights? Sadly no, as it turned out. She explained she had a family function to attend, but then asked, ‘How did you enjoy being with me today?’ I gushed something to the effect that it was the best day of my life. Again there was that laugh of hers, before, ‘Well we could do something the same time next week. I know a place up in Surfers. We should go and perhaps even spend the night. It’s a long haul for you again, but if you’re interested, you may even get to see a little more of me. Would you like that?’ Would I what!

By now I realised she was being something of a tease – but I could wait. I’d waited this long – she knew she had me hook, line and sinker. What I minded was I had to wait a whole week for another dose of her. Unfair! I knew how long those seven days would take to pass – but hopefully heaven was waiting on the other side. It was – but not quite what I was expecting. Now you’d think, dear reader, that having a whole night with her would mean losing that ‘burden’ I was carrying. It wasn’t to be.

Along side of developments with Meagan, other aspects of my life were taking shape in ways I was happy with. With that winsome girl at the back of my mind I was determined to get out of the commune situation asap. I was honestly petrified that, if she visited me there in that environment, she’d take one look at AJ and it would be all over, red rover. On reflection, he would have probably respected the fact that she was mine – but I wasn’t so sure Meagan would see it that way too. I didn’t know her well enough yet – but I knew her enough to know she wasn’t as innocent as I was in the ways of the world. I noticed a position going in a chambers in Lismore for a para-legal and as luck turned out, I was the only applicant. The partners seemed happy enough with my interview and the following week I was to start – easy-peasy. I purchased a couple of cheap suits and was ready to commence my career in law. I found a flat on the outskirts of the town, purchased an old banger and said my farewells to Al and AJ – they didn’t seem too nonplussed. The former now had Nora permanently attached and AJ – well he was happy continuing his amorous ways. And at last I bade farewell to that wretched commune. At that stage I could see a future in that part of the world – all dependent, of course, on how my newly minted relationship would pan out.

But back to my attempts to lose my virginity. That may sound a tad flippant, but I felt only with that bridge crossed could I be at peace, as well as perhaps more relaxed and ‘natural’, in her company. I knew to my core that, apart from the lust I felt to have my way with her, I was no AJ. I genuinely loved that girl. Mid-week I put in a call, on that single blower, to her to make arrangements for the following Saturday. We arranged to meet on the corner of Cavill Avenue and the Esplanade. When that moment arrived soon after midday, on yet another perfect day in paradise, she took my hand. We strolled the strand, had some tucker in a cafe and then it was time to book into our Orchid Street hotel. Meagan was her usual buoyant self, throughout the day, but seemed a little less so as we inspected our room. I asked her if anything was amiss to which she replied, ‘I know you perhaps expected something tonight but I am afraid you-know-what has come a bit early. I am sure, though, she whispered, I can give you a night to remember in other ways.’ And she did. She disrobed me and allowed me to do the same, almost, to her. She then proceeded to take me to places I’d never been, in fact hardly knew existed. I went to heaven – several times. I could tell she was no novice at this type of thing as she took the initiative in all that occurred. After our fun and games I felt I had to front up with my hither-to lack of experience in all this. ‘I figured that from your nervousness, Murph – but you certainly seemed to enjoy what we did. And, play your cards right, my lad, and next weekend I’ll be happy enough to relieve you of your little problem – that is, if you’d still like me to be the one after what’s just gone down.’ I told her I had no problems with that at all.

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And finally it happened. The following weekend she greeted me at the door of her bungalow naked, took me to her bedroom and in a thrice it was done. Eventually, under her guidance, I became a relatively skilled practitioner and I think that I can safely say that our entwinings weren’t totally without pleasure for her as well. Life then settled into a routine of to-ing and fro-ing between our respective abodes, work, sex but, most of all for me, simply being with the woman I adored. What she saw in me was beyond me – and, in all the time we were together, she never used the ‘l’ word once, although I left her in no doubt of my feelings. I couldn’t prise it out of her and in the end, simply accepted that there must be some feelings to keep her with me for two decades or so. But back then, with my virginity out of the way, I felt, with Meagan in my world, my life had truly begun. But then came that phone call when it all went out the window. Suddenly my future, as I saw it in those few months, was taken away and replaced with another path completely.

You don’t say no to your mother – or, at least, in that situation, I couldn’t. The call informed me, in her typical matter-of-fact manner, that my father had passed away. I was expected home immediately from my traipsing around the country. She also let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I had to ‘grow up’ and take on some family responsibilities. The latter, I discovered, involved the business. It was assumed it would be mine one day, regardless of how I felt about it. I was told of the sacrifices she had made for me, although, having plenty of money all her married life, that didn’t exactly ring true to me. But, of course, I had the guilts well and truly and felt helpless against her insistence. I was sad about my old man – I was, but not overcome with grief. He was never, what you’d call, a hands on father. He married my mother fairly late in life – a second time around for him – and he always seemed quite ancient to me. A steady diet of cigars and red wine wouldn’t have helped either. She was once his legal secretary, but once hitched to him and financially secure, she trained to be a legal practitioner as well, taking on helping him run their chambers in Ulverstone, a town on my island’s northern coast. In recent times they had opened a branch in the bigger town of Burnie, a short distance to the west. My father took over that, preferring to acquire a flat there, rather than making the short drive home during the week. I suspect it was largely a marriage of convenience – they never displayed affection to each other in my presence, but had managed to produce Eliza and myself. My mother was still a very attractive woman, so would have had a few admirers around the place. She was rarely home through my teenage years. It was the Burnie branch my mother had in mind for me. Very soon I discovered the other experienced solicitor there would take me under his wing, till I was ready to fly solo and eventually take over. There, it was all mapped out – and that, dear reader, is exactly what came to pass.

Al and Nora jumped at the chance of my digs in Lismore and I recommended my mate for my position. The firm was understanding and took him on and he, so I believe, never looked back. AJ ran out of hippy chicks at the commune – in fact his reputation became pretty toxic – and he moved on to complete our original plan. As far as I know he’s still up in Port Douglas.

So, my friends reading this, you would have already gathered that, for much of that time, the winsome one was still very much part of that life. How did that occur? When I broke the news to her she was adamant that she couldn’t see herself moving to Tassie. ‘Just how cold and wet down there is it?’ I told her winter could be pretty miserable, but waxed lyrical on the wonders it would do for her complexion. She didn’t think that was much of a reason to change her mind, but she finally agreed to coming south, once the dust settled, to see what she could make of it. A couple of months later, she was true to her word. One characteristic of the young woman I adored was that if she promised something, she stuck to it – as I later found out to my disadvantage.

It was a miserable beast that flew south to a miserable funeral on a miserable day. But slowly the tide turned. I had taken over my old man’s flat and it was quite cosy, but knew Burnie in itself wouldn’t assist my cause very much with my winsome one. Back then it was a working town with factories spewing out polluting smoke and discolouring the sea. Sport was the main diversion. I knew she wasn’t into that. It’s better now, but when she arrived on a grey, misty day, Meagan took one look and reckoned ‘no way’. Still, that first night she was enthusiastic in her lovemaking and l felt that she was pleased to see me – both good signs. The next day the sun was shining and I took her around the local beauty spots – she was particularly impressed by Boat Harbour Beach. ‘Now this is more like it.’ she enthused. I introduced her to my mother with some trepidation, but they seemed to hit it off. The few days she allowed went quickly and soon we were at the airport to say our goodbyes. I told her how much I loved her and how I wanted her by my side – forever. She indicated she would think on the matter and get back to me. I knew she would be honest with me. She already had been reeling off the factors that could possibly keep her up on the Tweed – her photography – which she was making headway with; her family and the climate. But, as good as her word, a week or so later, her decision was made.

And in the end it was a compromise – but would it work? When she rang and I heard her voice – not containing its usual positive bounce, I feared the worse – but it didn’t turn out so badly. ‘How would you like me to be your summertime girl, Murph?’ I requested her to explain. ‘Well, you find us somewhere to live near that gorgeous beach you showed me and I’ll be all yours every summer.’ I did and she was.

Initially she said she’d see how it worked that coming summer and take it from there. I had several months to find a place and did – almost on the beach, with it not costing the exorbitant prices the equivalent would be there today. In many ways I hoped it would remind her of the shack back up north. When she came she loved it – and so she remained through two and a bit decades – my summer time girl. It worked well. I kept my Burnie pad and lived there through the lonely winters – alleviated by taking my annual leave in each June and flying up to her. Her photography was coming along and she gave up her day job in the early eighties – concentrating on local weddings, portfolios and an occasional commissioned assignment that took her all over Oz and even overseas. Several times I took time off and joined her on the latter. She grew to love the Tassie wilderness and often carted her camera into the national parks. I continued with my surfing into my forties, before ditching the waves for regular swimming – indoor heated pools of course in the cooler months. Meagan wasn’t interested in marriage or having kids – she was seemingly enjoying the life she was leading too much for having a family, which turned my mother off her no end. Was she faithful? I had no way of knowing. A woman like her – well her winsomeness didn’t diminish over time and I suspected I wasn’t her only lover – but, really, I didn’t care. I felt that what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me. As for me, well my looks hadn’t improved with age so it was never an issue. I was happy enough – felt, all in all, I’d been dealt a good hand. Right up until around my fiftieth birthday our relationship had been fine. Our apartness seemed to enhance our love-life and I was perfectly content. But around the turn of the new century it seemed Meagan was slowing down, spending more time at Boat Harbour, extending her summer stays. She reckoned, as digital photography started to take over, her days were numbered in her field – she didn’t like the move away from film and knew soon she wouldn’t be able to compete. All seemed set for a lovely dotage. And then, with AJ in mind, I blew it. It took just one four letter word – Bron.

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As she wound down, Meagan rarely went away for an extended period. But there was this one occasion – and I now think that may have been the underlying cause for the events that followed. She claimed it would be her final assignment. So naturally I was missing her. I also guess, as one approaches fifty, it is a time for reflection – and I was doing a bit of that. I was harking back to those days on the commune and AJ’s casting his seed about, so to speak. He’d had so many women up till that point and goodness knows the number since – was I to leave this mortal coil knowing the charms of just one? Was that to be my lot? How unfair was that? And when the opportunity offered itself shortly after, I fell for it – the idiot I am. She came flouncing into my office, wanting some amendments made to her will. She was full of flirtation, was showing off a remarkable amount of cleavage – this ample, blonde apparition. When we finished the business she asked what time I knocked off work. She explained hubby was away and she was in need of some male companionship. I responded by saying I was in the same situation. I should have had better sense, but, as explained, it was a vulnerable time for me. In the end we agreed on a meal at the Raindrops Room down by the sea. From the moment I joined her at the table I knew this night would only end in one way if Bron had anything to do with it. She even had a room booked upstairs – just in case. Well what’s a man to do? Say no – well, obviously, but I didn’t – and it was wonderful, I must admit.

So different was Bron to Meagan. My darling’s attitude was to get nude and get stuck in. Bron preferred to take her time in the disrobing bit – later on she would perform elaborate strip teases for me; we’d massage each other; do it in different locations around our homes – while it lasted, in the absence of partners. In all it was only a matter of weeks, but I can’t deny she was addictive.
Whereas Meagan was slim and willowy, Bron was voluptuous and soft – and those luscious breasts! I now know I was one of a number of professionals about town she seduced as a result of her ‘open’ marriage. I never encountered her husband – I wondered how he felt about it all, or perhaps he did the same.

I visited her home almost daily over that period of time, but Meagan soon returned and it was my intention to desist. I did, but not for the reason I wanted to. At first it was fine. Meagan and I made love as was usual when she came back from a time away – and she seemed as caring towards me as ever. But when, at the end of her first week back, I drove down to Boat Harbour Friday eve, I discovered the place empty of any trace of my love – save for a note. It read, ‘I promised myself if you did the dirty on me then that would be it. You have and so this is goodbye. Enjoy the rest of your life. Don’t try to come after me.’

I have, to this day, no idea how she found out about Bron. The latter had never set foot in the beach house. Was there evidence in the flat she discovered? Did somebody tell her. She had so few friends here that I doubted that situation. I was suspicious of my mother, but she denied any involvement. Maybe my love just sensed it in some way. And of course I wasn’t going to let her go easily. I flew north to the Tweed, but there was no sign of her at the bungalow – and, checking through the windows, it was devoid of all her possessions. To me it seemed it had been empty for a considerable amount of time. Her mother was still around, but despite my pleading she refused to throw any light on Meagan’s whereabouts. So there was nothing left for it but to return home, to wait and hope – which is what I am still doing, all this time on. It is my belief now that Meagan too had found someone else – was perhaps living that double life like you see in the movies. It is just supposition. I have no way of knowing. Since then there has been no sign of her on any social networking site I can discern – it’s all just a mystery. If I cannot have her back, at least I’d like some sort of closure – but I doubt that, after more than a decade, it will be forthcoming.

And I have been celibate ever since. I guess with me that is fairly easy to be – but really, I just can’t raise the energy to go out and try to find someone else. In my cups, not so long ago, I did make contact with Bronnie. We chatted a while and then I asked if she’d like to meet up. She laughed and claimed she had retired from all that. She said the man in her life these days was more than enough for her to handle at her age. I asked if that was hubby – she just gave another guffaw and hung up. I still keep the Boat Harbour place going – just in case. I rent it out to the holiday crowds these days. No, life is just work, work, work. I really should retire and do something else with my remaining years – only trouble is, I cannot think what that may be. I don’t want to be just sitting here waiting for the grim reaper – but I can’t seem to shake the lethargy away either.

So then, why do I write this cautionary tale? And that’s just its purpose – to act as a word of caution to you, dear reader, particularly if you’re male. I know full well once our gender arrives at a certain age most get an attack of the ‘what if’s’ – and the ‘is that all there is’ question arises. My advice is, if this is the case, you don’t succumb. If you have a pretty okay life as it is, especially if there is a person in it you adore and who reciprocates – then accept it as your lot and don’t aspire to the lives of those who seem to have it better, or who have more ‘history’. No, if only I could go way back to that time my winsome Meagan took me by the hand, guided me into her bathroom and took care of my comb-over. If I could start all over again, knowing what I know now, I’d do it in a nano-second. I wouldn’t change anything, except one factor. Another woman wouldn’t get a look in. So there, you’re warned!

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A Companion piece = http://www.stevelovell.id.au/2013/10/27/the-seventeenth-floor-2/

The White-Barked Sentinel

The old man looked up to his hill of dreams as he drove, headed to the shops, that quiet and normal Sunday morn. As he did so he spotted it – a feature he hadn’t noticed till this time. It stood out – really stood out as he observed more closely – as closely as possible whilst still concentrating on the task at hand. Pale-trunked, it seemed to be exceedingly tall, towering above the eucalypts around it – its colouring distinguishing from the dun green surrounds. This, the old man thought, was possibly a tree for the ages. Over the following weeks the old man thought and thought about the White-Barked Sentinel – wondering if what he imagined could be its story – a tale about this fine old gum on a ridge above the little city on the river. He wondered and wondered if what he could make of it would be special enough. He determined he would make it concrete and discover if his efforts would measure up.

White-Barked Sentinel could now rest. It would die easy, of its own accord – as nature intended, not as white human man determined. WBS need not fear any longer. Its white human girl/woman had seen to that.

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For WBS those early years had now dimmed, such was its great age. More than three centuries had passed since the seed containing the nub of WBS had germinated and grown to be a sapling amongst the gums on Kunanyi’s foothilled northern flank. It already realised it was different from the others of its ilk. Whereas their bark was dark, WBS’s shone with luminescence in its stand. Gradually WBS reached for the sky with such vigour it outstretched the tallest of the older eucalypts. It could now embrace the sights to be discerned above and below. Up behind WBS there was the mountain, beyond which distant peaks seemed to go on forever to the shore of the sea of ice floes. Down below was the slow flowing tidal river – Raagapayarranne to the black human people who roamed the land. In these early years of WBS’s pomp that land was mainly whisper silent, at peace with itself – a far cry from the noisy world of the mature WBS. This special tree was proud that possum and parrot sought out its branches as their home and playground. It was proud that the winter pelted black human men gathered at the base of its trunk; it being a meeting place for warriors. Its role as a sentinel was in place. WBS knew that as winter receded so those pelts would be dispensed with as the black human clans made their way up to the high country to hunt bird and marsupial close to the battlements of Kunanyi. It knew their position from the thin slivers of smoke from their campfires rising above the canopy. Those wisps were a far cry from the form of smoke driven down the valley by the roaring forties at that time of the seasons. That forewarned of the bushblaze to follow – always destructive, but also of the cycle of the environment. It was not to be feared for the sap fed flames could damage, but never destroy. The land would sprout anew after the passing of the inferno – it was the forest’s way of rejuvenation. WBS knew the black human people used the flames to tame the land to their liking. With firestick clutched, it often saw them in passing, off to create new pasture or cooking fires. Down below, on the river, WBS could espy the reed canoes the black human men used to reach the opposite shore. With them they could also spear fish and catch water fowl whilst their womenfolk gathered shellfish in the shallows, filling their dilly-bags. The black human females were as sleek and as playful as the seals that came upriver in those days. In their nudity they were as innocent as that first Eve, whispered on the wind. The river provided much bounty – black swan, native duck for the black human diet. On special occasions WBS would discern spouts of water indicating a great creature was in residence, resting on a long journey to and from the land of ice. This animal, as placid as it was majestic, was impervious to the hunting instincts of the black human tribes. But it was another animal that WBS prized even more than the cetacean giants. A sacred place for it was held in its memory bank – a stealthy, prowling, stiff-gaited, striped marsupial wolf, of ramrod tail, lolloping through the ferny under-storey, often as day became night. It was rarely sighted, but WBS could discern its distant yelps – so ethereal compared to the snarling frenzies of the frenetic devils. The wolf was the master of its world as the emu and roo dominated the savannah country and the wedgetail eagle the thermals above. BWS only sees the latter two species rarely these days, the former two – never. They have been vanquished from the planet. Now a new species totally dominates the landscape and WBS yearns for the simplicity and peace of bygone times. Back then the black human males were the alpha animals, but they too have gone the way of thylacine and Tasmanian emu.

It was well into WBS’s second hundred years when, from on high, the tree spotted that initial strange vessel moving up the river. It was a thing of ramrod masts with white cloth a-flapping in the light breeze. After a while it turned and went back downstream. Some numerous months later there came another, but this one did not leave – it stayed, anchored off the opposite shore. Soon, across from that side there arose smoke that didn’t change location after a day or two, as well as solid structures no black human man had ever made. Then came the sharp retorts that a clan firestick also never caused, as well as a boom from something much bigger – something much more sinister. Quickly those structures disappeared from across Raagapayarranne, but not so those new and perplexing river craft. As with the black human people, they took the waterfowl and fish, but also crudely took the whale. WBS knew that on these boats were men of a different nature to those it was familiar with. From so far away the tiny figures on the craft were no bigger than ants to WBS, but soon they could be viewed at closer quarters from the near shore. WBS was able to discern two types – one clan were bedraggled, dressed in rags, connected to each other by tethers. The others were dressed in layers of clothing in reds and blue, no matter the heat, carrying firesticks not like in the experience of this land. Soon these strangely cloaked white human men were rampaging through the forest with massive, salivating dogs. In numbers they were chasing down the kangaroo and wallaby, clubbing the life from them once they were coralled by the ferocious canine. WBS wondered, unlike as with the black human people, why there were no women and girls. None were apparent for many a year.

Gradually the landscape afore WBS changed too. Trees down by the riverbank were felled by axe and saw, being replaced by a track – muddy in winter, dusty in summer. White human men rode along it on another creature foreign to BWS. With this women were indeed observed – never naked like the black human girls of experience, but covered so thoroughly barely any skin was visible. BWS noticed that the whale and seal no longer frequented the water, with the fires of the black human clanspeople now far distant and then – then there was nothing of them. They had succumbed to dog fang, lethal firestick and unknown convulsive distempers. Soon, as well, no more did the thylacine slink by, nor was its yowl heard by moonlight.

Upriver the chained white human men lugged rock to create a pathway across the river as wood and stone structures started to crowd the shoreline thoroughfare – not so muddy or dusty now. Boats plied across the river from bank to bank and as more trees disappeared, other strange creatures came into the presence of WBS – cow, sheep and pig.

The decades passed and sail was replaced by steam funnel on the river. The number of horses dwindled to be replaced by various forms of horseless carriage on the ever widening track around to where there was now a bridge at the end of the causeway the white human tethered men had laboured on. Their ilk had long vanished too. More and more white human structures took over the land in the view of WBS – beginning their long march up towards the huge pale tree on the hill of dreams. Unlike the flimsy structures of the vanquished black human people, these constructions had a permanence about them. WBS knew down to the core they would outlast the time remaining to anything else living. They were built for a sedentary life, not a nomadic one. The thickly covered lower hills of WBS’s youth were no more.

The sound of axe and saw eating into gum tree was also now a noise from long ago, replaced by machines that could demolish huge swathes of forest in an afternoon. It wasn’t long before the clearance had reached almost to the base of WBS’s massive frame. The white humans were now nibbling at the very extent of its spreading root stock. A structure in red oblong stone and green roof appeared beneath the most extended of the tree’s branches and soon the white human girl made her first appearance. One fateful day she was a presence at the base of WBS’s trunk, accompanied by a fully grown white human man and woman. She was very little then, merely a white human child. She and her mother watched as the white human man nailed a step-way into that trunk. Then, on the lowest branch, he proceeded to build a wooden structure resembling all the others down on the streets below – only smaller. He worked and worked, sweltering through a week of days till one culminating summer dusk. Then was heard the white human female’s call, ‘Tessa Tiger come and look up. Your Daddy’s finished. See what he’s built for you. It’s a cubby. Do you like it?’ WBS saw the white human child nod her head vigorously and cry with glee, ‘I love it Daddy. I will play in it forever!’

The next morning, as soon as it was light, there came a rushing blur though the gate that separated the white human little family’s garden and the bush around WBS – it was the tiny girl pounding her legs as fast as they would go to get to her cubby on the lowest branch. All day long she moved back and forward to BWS, bringing out her treasures to carefully place in an abode created just for her. For WBS these were days of joy as it witnessed wee Tessa Tiger’s delight with her new mini-world. WBS felt her move around inside the cubby and it seemed as good as anything during that long experience. WBS also knew that to the two fully grown white humans this small, white human child was more precious than life itself – and they entrusted her so readily to the care and embrace of the giant gum. From the tips of its very leaves to the life channels of its roots and trunk the ancient tree, WBS, was proud that this should be so. Tessa Tiger had found a safe haven within its mighty timbers, along with possum and parrot. As the strident summer merged into softer autumn she came most days. On other days the child went off with her white human father to return to her mother in the mid-afternoon. Soon WBS knew she’d be out amongst its branches and leaves, for every day till dusk, she climbed up and around – exploring to discover all the tree’s secret places. Now the presence of the white human child made WBS feel complete – her absence, somewhat bereft.

The times when the white human father and daughter were not present in the house, WBS loved to observe the white human woman day after day plucking away at something with her fingers, seated at a table where she could observe the bush, as well as the presence of the familiar eucalypt. WBS noticed the pure joy on the white woman’s face when Tessa Tiger returned to her each day – the talk and the laughter that would flow between them. Often the mother would walk the girl out to the base of her steps to the cubby and she seemed to delight in watching her daughter’s antics once up in the foliage – up into WBS’s embrace.

.red_river_gum

Most days Tessa was in her cubby alone. WBS listened as she talked in white human words to herself as she made up convoluted games and read aloud her treasured books. WBS tingled with the joyousness of his favourite temporary lodger. WBS knew the girl child valued books as she bought armful after armful up into the sanctuary of her cubby on the lowest branch. In fair weather she took them even higher, up to favourite reading spots with a wide view of the world around. On memorable days Tessa Tiger would bring other children to share the specialness of her little construction in the leaves. WBS swelled with the sheer pleasure of these occasions that were a testament to the strength of the boughs the tiny girls romped around on. Their laughter, loud chatter and robust play filled WBS with the importance of simply being.

WBS innately knew that human people, both black and white, grew from child to adult – that these wondrous times could not last – and they didn’t. Rarer and rarer were the occasions Tessa Tiger visited and the old gum knew this was the way of things – but lamented nonetheless. It still watched her come and go from the construction across the bordering fence – saw her grow from child to teenager to finally a white human girl woman. Sadly there came a time when she was no longer a constant presence, just a visitor now and again. BWS felt this deprivation as much as it felt the loss of the black clans, whale, emu and thylacine. Something, it felt, had been removed from its very inner core.

One day WBS’s reverie was broken by a gathering of men in hard hats down below, around its trunk’s base. The venerable gum had seen this occur before. White human men in yellow hats had come to meet and gesticulate before in the surrounding bush. Soon after would come the fellers, with the result that areas of treelessness would be created, soon built on with constructions. The grand tree realised its fate would be be soon – quickly over by metal incision.

Tree fellers duly arrived and wandered around, pointing to and shrugging their shoulders at the old cubby that still remained. Soon a little vehicle came speedily up the street and out of it hopped, at pace, the white human girl woman BWS knew to be Tessa. She rushed out to the white human men in hard hats, still in discussion below, pointing her finger upwards and saying human words in a stentorian manner. The tree knew for humans this meant anger. White human Tessa Tiger was soon speaking into a little box held to her ear. Then they arrived – her friends of old – and more. Some climbed the still strong old palings to the cubby and perched on branches. Others joined hands and surrounded its trunk. Much loud white human language was raised. Then came some white humans all in blue who stood around, but with them came a quietening of tone. A single man came with a roll of white paper that was unfurled and pointed to, then slowly the humans started to leave. All that were left were the white human girl woman, her friends, her mother and father. There was laughter and much joy in their language. Later came music and some bottles of fizzy water that went ‘pop’ when they were opened. As day turned to night, the white humans departed, leaving WBS to ponder what would happen on the morrow. Sure enough, the human hard hats returned and started up their noisy felling machines. All around the oldest gum fellow trees fell so that, at the end of the day, the white-barked eucalypt could survey a field of unholy destruction. Over time new constructions built up, trailing up to the hill’s ridge, but WBS continued to be last gum standing. And so it remained, through the days and years of its existence until, eventually, the sentinel would be taken away, as nature returned WBS to mother earth.

.red_river_gum

The old man finished penning his tale and looked out his kitchen window, across the water, over towards Kunanyi. His beloved Tessa Tiger was on the cusp of her third year of existence. He hoped that one day she would read his story, in amongst all that literature she devoured and perhaps look back to the times she went adventuring with the old man. Maybe she would also remember the day she herself stood on the very summit of Kunanyi, in tiger hat, held by her father’s safe hand and looked down onto her grandfather’s hill of dreams.

 

 

 

Male – Guilty by Definition

Sunday night’s showing of the Rebecca Gibney vehicle ‘The Killing Field’ did not help. It had a leading actress, seemingly striving to be the Aussie version of the Scandi-noirs’ Saga Norén or Sarah Lund, failing dismally in this punter’s opinion – Gibney is simply not in the same league. Included were some happenings that, embarrassingly, even surpassed the illogic of some of the more daffy American police procedurals. It was a bit of a stinker. Before you could snap your fingers our ‘brilliant’ blonde heroine had a hit-list of sleazeball males as long as your arm, all possessing the necessary ingredients to classify them as suspects for the serial murders of under-age girls. The town was choko with them. Their graves had recently been discovered within the small rural community’s boundaries. Were there any decent males to be found in Mingara? The school’s oily principal was definitely in the frame, as was the slavering fire chief. What a coincidence it was that both were visiting another town on the same day that one of the victims was snatched in it – how convenient. These two and others were just waiting to get their hands down the panties of nubile teens in a tele-movie that stretched believability to the limit. This tepid effort followed on from the excellent ABC/BBC series Janet King and Broadchurch – very classy offerings, but the principal was the same. Some of the most trusted defenders of the law, in the former, were in Janet’s sights as members of a ring of slimy paedophiles. The British effort even took me away from Friday night footy it was so addictive as David Tennant tracked down which of his small town’s shady characters were responsible for the defiling and death of a young lad. Then there’s Rolf, the Catholic church, Salvos, scout masters – this list is also as long as one’s arm. No longer are crimes of sexual perversity committed against defenceless children swept under the carpet – not a week goes by without some individual or organisation being the brunt of sensational headlines in the tabloids in much the same way as those ‘odious gays and their foetid practices’ were last century.

Please don’t misjudge where I am coming from with this. As a doting grandfather of an exquisitely beautiful two year old I would attempt to rip to shreds any predatory male that lay a finger on her, heaven forbid. And pure evil like Jimmy Saville should have been subjected to sharia law had he been still with us. What a cockroach – I never did get the Poms’ adoration of this odd creature before he was ‘outed’.

No, its not that. With so much bad news on the topic about, on our screens and in print, it’s only natural that mothers like Tracey Spicer go to the nth degree to helicopter their progeny against what is even the slightest possibility of something ghastly being perpetrated. Nevertheless, even if I agreed with almost every point made in her article ‘I Don’t Want My Kids Next to a Man on a Plane’, it still made me crabby and frustrated as a member of the male gender.

Of course Tracey covers herself by meekly scribing ‘…sure, not all men are paedophiles.’ Couldn’t she at least have stated that, despite the impression created by ‘The Killing Fields’ et al, that the overwhelming majority of us certainly aren’t and abhor the thought? Poor Johnny McGirr, forced to change seats on a Virgin flight when a computer placed his bottom next to an unattended under-ager Automatically above his head was raised a sign – ‘Potential Child Molester’. He was presumed guilty because of that y chromosome. I imagine, had it been me, I would have been mortified. How soul destroying to be labelled such a risk to the young and vulnerable. Yet I understand why Virgin and other airlines have such a policy – there’s always the ‘what if’ question and equally predatory lawyers out there waiting to feast on any bid for resulting compensation. It is also revelatory that Ms Spicer is protective of her own side of the ledger, promptly informing us of the minuscule percentage of women who are like offenders – only eight in a hundred, don’t you know? Despite her children recently making a transcontinental flight without her and retaining smiles on their faces at the end of the journey, she was still not satisfied. Although praising Virgin for their placement and treatment she ‘…was disappointed I had no choice about where they’d be seated.’

traceyspicer.             Tracey Spicer

These days I get nervous around children’s playgrounds or beaches with a camera in hand when my sole intention is capturing the adventurings of that little braveheart who is my granddaughter. I hate feeling like that. I wonder where it will end. Will there come a time I will need a police check to carry a camera out in the open, or indeed to fly? Will male teachers one day be unable to ply their trade in schools until their pupils come of age? Will adult males be forbidden in the scouting movement. Perhaps that is a tad too extreme, but what about the case of a male wrongly accused on the word of a child? Check out that superb Danish movie ‘The Hunt’ to see the results of that.

I praise the media for making the world a safer place for our children, even if Ms Spicer contrarily laments that the world no longer engenders ‘…a sense of adventure…’ for her offspring. Yes, males are to blame for that too. I do know what she is banging on about is far too important to be merely a case of male bashing. By gee, though, reading this, I do feel for my gender.

Ms Spicer’s Opinion Piece =

Sunday night’s showing of the Rebecca Gibney vehicle ‘The Killing Field’ did not help. It had a leading actress, seemingly striving to be the Aussie version of the Scandi-noirs’ Saga Norén or Sarah Lund, failing dismally in this punter’s opinion – Gibney is simply not in the same league. Included were some happenings that, embarrassingly, even surpassed the illogic of some of the more daffy American police procedurals. It was a bit of a stinker. Before you could snap your fingers our ‘brilliant’ blonde heroine had a hit-list of sleazeball males as long as your arm, all possessing the necessary ingredients to classify them as suspects for the serial murders of under-age girls. The town was choko with them. Their graves had recently been discovered within the small rural community’s boundaries. Were there any decent males to be found in Mingara? The school’s oily principal was definitely in the frame, as was the slavering fire chief. What a coincidence it was that both were visiting another town on the same day that one of the victims was snatched in it – how convenient. These two and others were just waiting to get their hands down the panties of nubile teens in a tele-movie that stretched believability to the limit. This tepid effort followed on from the excellent ABC/BBC series Janet King and Broadchurch – very classy offerings, but the principal was the same. Some of the most trusted defenders of the law, in the former, were in Janet’s sights as members of a ring of slimy paedophiles. The British effort even took me away from Friday night footy it was so addictive as David Tennant tracked down which of his small town’s shady characters were responsible for the defiling and death of a young lad. Then there’s Rolf, the Catholic church, Salvos, scout masters – this list is also as long as one’s arm. No longer are crimes of sexual perversity committed against defenceless children swept under the carpet – not a week goes by without some individual or organisation being the brunt of sensational headlines in the tabloids in much the same way as those ‘odious gays and their foetid practices’ were last century.

Please don’t misjudge where I am coming from with this. As a doting grandfather of an exquisitely beautiful two year old I would attempt to rip to shreds any predatory male that lay a finger on her, heaven forbid. And pure evil like Jimmy Saville should have been subjected to sharia law had he been still with us. What a cockroach – I never did get the Poms’ adoration of this odd creature before he was ‘outed’.

No, its not that. With so much bad news on the topic about, on our screens and in print, it’s only natural that mothers like Tracey Spicer go to the nth degree to helicopter their progeny against what is even the slightest possibility of something ghastly being perpetrated. Nevertheless, even if I agreed with almost every point made in her article ‘I Don’t Want My Kids Next to a Man on a Plane’, it still made me crabby and frustrated as a member of the male gender.

Of course Tracey covers herself by meekly scribing ‘…sure, not all men are paedophiles.’ Couldn’t she at least have stated that, despite the impression created by ‘The Killing Fields’ et al, that the overwhelming majority of us certainly aren’t and abhor the thought? Poor Johnny McGirr, forced to change seats on a Virgin flight when a computer placed his bottom next to an unattended under-ager Automatically above his head was raised a sign – ‘Potential Child Molester’. He was presumed guilty because of that y chromosome. I imagine, had it been me, I would have been mortified. How soul destroying to be labelled such a risk to the young and vulnerable. Yet I understand why Virgin and other airlines have such a policy – there’s always the ‘what if’ question and equally predatory lawyers out there waiting to feast on any bid for resulting compensation. It is also revelatory that Ms Spicer is protective of her own side of the ledger, promptly informing us of the minuscule percentage of women who are like offenders – only eight in a hundred, don’t you know? Despite her children recently making a transcontinental flight without her and retaining smiles on their faces at the end of the journey, she was still not satisfied. Although praising Virgin for their placement and treatment she ‘…was disappointed I had no choice about where they’d be seated.’

These days I get nervous around children’s playgrounds or beaches with a camera in hand when my sole intention is capturing the adventurings of that little braveheart who is my granddaughter. I hate feeling like that. I wonder where it will end. Will there come a time I will need a police check to carry a camera out in the open, or indeed to fly? Will male teachers one day be unable to ply their trade in schools until their pupils come of age? Will adult males be forbidden in the scouting movement. Perhaps that is a tad too extreme, but what about the case of a male wrongly accused on the word of a child? Check out that superb Danish movie ‘The Hunt’ to see the results of that.

I praise the media for making the world a safer place for our children, even if Ms Spicer contrarily laments that the world no longer engenders ‘…a sense of adventure…’ for her offspring. Yes, males are to blame for that too. I do know what she is banging on about is far too important to be merely a case of male bashing. By gee, though, reading this, I do feel for my gender.

Ms Spicer’s Opinion Piece = .http://www.smh.com.au/travel/i-dont-want-my-kids-sitting-next-to-a-man-on-a-plane-20140424-375z6.html