Our family was pretty nomadic. Dad always thought that if he upped stumps and moved somewhere else, life would improve for him. Maybe he never discovered that we take our demons with us until we manage to shake them off, or perhaps he preferred to live with those he knew rather than risk being overtaken by the unknown. Whatever, between moves we’d often stay with Nana, my maternal grandmother Maude Louise, a remarkable woman to whom I owe my stubbornness and much else besides.
At the time I want to tell you of, Maude was living in a ramshackle house – best described as a dump, though we did our best to keep it and ourselves clean and tidy – in Hay Street, Subiaco, an inner Perth suburb now mostly the preserve of architects’ studios, advertising agencies and gentrified town houses.
The house was set below street level and boasted an outside brick dunny; the laundry and bathroom, with its wood-fired copper for the clothes and a cast-iron bath for us, occupied a lean-to at the rear of the house. You could see the sky through the old nail-holes in the kitchen’s iron roof – the other rooms had ceilings – and the floors had more bumps than a bellydancers’ picnic.
Hay Street was a marvel. Electric trams clanked and rattled up and down; there was a medley of bakers’ carts and the carts of hawkers, mongers and marine collectors; Bunnings timberyard was a rich source of sometimes purloined wood for the laundry copper and the West Australian Museum and Art Gallery was just a 45-minute walk away if you knew the shortcuts. Mr. Quigley’s barber shop, diagonally across the street, had prints of famous thoroughbreds on the walls and an atmosphere reeking of cigarette smoke, Black Cat condoms in red packets and the echoes of a miilion racy conversations. Footie matches at the Subie oval filled the air with roars and boos on Saturday arvos and the now-respectable Subiaco Hotel, just a couple of blocks down the street, was a mother lode for cigarette cards and, in season, pennies for the Guy. The local kids shared pigeons and fought over doogs – marbles – whether or not they could still hang kids for saying “bugger the king,” and generally acted like kids.
Next door, at street level on the Perth side and in a slightly better house left to them by their parents, lived Jock and Edie, a brother and sister. Jock was a merchant seaman, a veteran of the convoys I think the grown-ups said. Day and night, no matter how wild or cold the weather, he wore a spotless white singlet and navy blue serge pants held at the ankle above polished black boots by bike-riders’ trouser clips. Edie favoured print dresses, cardigans, and white cotton socks rolled down to the tops of her court shoes.
When years later I first read The Nargun and the Stars, Patricia Wrightson’s classic novel for kids and one of the scariest books ever, I instantly saw Jock and Edie in the siblings who take in the hero after his parents are killed. Brave, and warm with a sympathetic ear, Simon’s aunt is also named Edie.
Jock and Edie were constantly in and out of our house to collect one or all of us kids to take us for a walk or over to their place for biscuits and lolly water and a stickybeak at the mementoes of Jock’s seafaring days, or to just sit in Nana’s kitchen with its already ancient gas stove – a Metters Early Kooka with its now-collectable buff enamelled door emblazoned with a worm-eating kookaburra and gumleaves – and have a yarn and a cup of tea with the adults. After we left Hay Street for the last time, sometime in the ’50s, I never saw them again.
Being a seaman and living in Australia, there’s a bit-more-than-fair chance that Jock voted Communist, though probably not a party member, or maybe he was a Wobbly, and this may have coloured their actions and attitude during those difficult times in Hay Street, but I don’t think so – they were just warm, real, decent people; simple as that.
Somewhere around this time, Mum became ill. Really ill. She was running a high fever and her throat was sore and swollen to the point where she couldn’t swallow and was unable to talk, so a doctor was called to the house, testament to just how frightened Nana was. He diagnosed diphtheria and officials from the Department of Health were called in. Their job was to tack a notice on the front door and another on the front gate declaring to Hay Street and all the world that our house was infected with diphtheria and must not be entered or left by “any person or persons” and laying out the penalties for doing so. As a person or persons, I thought it quite exciting to be warned by a government notice tacked to the door by grim officials in white coats, but what they told us that day was, literally, terrifying.
For at least six weeks – I think that’s right – the white-masked official said, Mum must lie absolutely still in a darkened room; no problem, the house was dark anyway, though its ancient sewerage and polluted damp were probably responsible for the disease. Then, turning to us kids, he spoke in stern italics: “If you make any loud or sudden noises, even if you shout,” and here the italics were bolded, the words separated by en dashes for emphasis, “you – will – kill – your – mother.” I wondered at the time why a loudly talking official didn’t have the same deadly effect as an ordinary person or persons, but this didn’t lessen the terror. If we argued, Mum would die; if we dropped a saucepan or let a door slam, Mum would die.
Jock and Edie to the rescue. During all that terrible time, the pair ignored the official decree, loosening a few pickets on the dividing fence and swinging them aside to come into our place. Edie brought food: stews and baked rabbit – the ubiquitous “underground mutton” of the working Australian of the time – and cake for us and soup for Mum, and she and Jock had us kids over at their place as much as they could, Edie fussing over Kez and Jock rough-housing it with Dan and me, allowing us to let off steam.
I can’t remember what the official arrangements to get food to us were, but it was Jock and Edie who showed how it should be done. Their kindness allowed Nana to concentrate on housework and Peg. I asked them once if they weren’t scared they’d catch the disease. “Any old germ gets in me it’d die of fright,” said Jock, who always smelled of the carbolic soap much favoured by seamen. “And Edie’s too much of an old boiler for any germ to want to go near her.” Edie was often a target for his good-natured chiaking, then he’d duck as she – a head and shoulders taller and a few years older – would swing at his ear with whatever she had in her hand, usually a tea towel or wooden spoon and once, a ball of wool that unravelled her knitting as it flew.
Grampa Frank had a few years before given me a young sulphur-crested cockatoo with the dreadful beak-and-feather disease, poorly understood at the time. We brushed him with water in which quassia chips had been soaked, but it did no good – the disease is caused by a mite; feather plucking, brought on by neurosis, is sometimes halted with quassia but of course it doesn’t alleviate the cause – so we let him be.
Jock, an avid reader of Westerns or “Outdoor Novels” as they were sometimes called, named him Maverick. Seeing him shivering one cold morning, Edie had knitted him a striped jumper and Maverick loved it. He would let you know when he was too warm and wanted it off or when he was cold enough to need it on. That cockatoo had the run of the house but his favorite possie was on the spreaders of the kitchen chairs, which he reduced to matchstick dimensions in places as he perched on them waiting for scraps to “fall” from the table.
With us kids in terror of his raucous voice killing Mum, Jock and Edie took him to live at their place, from where Maverick wouldn’t leave when the time came and so stayed for years, moving with them when they were forced out by the encroachment of commercial expansion. Over the years their regular letters kept us informed of his doings until the day he died – and we could tell by the letter that the heroic couple were heartbroken. The letters continued, however, and they were still writing to Mum when I left home.
Peg eventually recovered, the quarantine was lifted. Us kids went to the free but compulsory swimming lessons at Crawley Baths, Grampa Frank, in his persona as “Mr Crocodile,” gave annual demonstrations in Boan’s department-store window and persons in the form of friends and relatives came and went, while Dad stayed went, working away.
Jock and Edie, if I get to the same place that you’ve gone, you’ll be among the first person or persons I hug. I swear it.