Monday, 2 August 2010

Thank you Uncle Dusty

"Where do you want me to look up?"
"Bordertown of course for Mabel's birthday card." My wife laughed her tinkling little laugh, and went on, "Have you found it yet?"
I thumbed through the small print. "Bombo, Bondi, Bonnie Hills, Booleroo Centre, Borambil. Ha! Here it is: Bordertown 5268."
"Thanks", Chrissy said, and addressed the envelope with a flourish.

I continued to stare at the postcode listing. Booleroo Centre. I felt a shudder of fear go through me. After all this time I hadn't forgotten. How could I? Forty years or more ago we lived in that delightful country town of Jamestown in the state's mid north. Win, Jack and me were all born there, in the District hospital. Well I know that now, Mum always said she found me down by Belalie creek, just past Humphries mill and fodder store. I believed her for many years and thought I was privileged to have such an unusual beginning. The thought of being abandoned by strangers down among the big red gums there, where the scent of eucalypts was so strong in the summer's evening and where kangaroos could be seen at the creeks edge excited my imagination. I had surely been the offspring of bushrangers on the run, despite it being 1947!

Our family was spread right across the northern towns, from Port Pirie to Yunta. Uncle Eric lived at Laura and worked on the railway there. Mums sister Auntie Viv lived up at Booleroo Centre with her husband, Uncle George. His nickname was 'Dusty'. Being the youngest I called him Uncle Dusty which made everyone laugh, especially when I politely said, "Thank you, Uncle Dusty." Auntie Viv however was a mysterious character that we saw very rarely. Mum would make excuses for her by saying, "Poor Viv, she's had such a lot to put up with."

Uncle Dusty, was little better as I remember. He was portly and walked with a slight limp. What sticks out in my mind was his habit of saying, "Damn and bugger it all," at every opportunity. This phrase peppered his conversation regardless of subject or necessity and I can see Mum's face now as he said it in front of us kids. She would give out a little sigh and turn to Dad, as though he could somehow help by erasing what had just been said.

Uncle Dusty and Auntie Viv lived right on the main street of the town in funny little cottage next door to St. Mary's, Church of England church. Just outside the back door was a brick domed well. It wasn't really a well, it was a big underground rainwater tank. On one side of the brick dome was a timber frame and a small door about two feet square which was used to access the piping that drew the water out of the tank by means of a hand cranked pump. The door had a hasp and staple with a short piece of fencing wire slipped through it for security.

On the few occasions we went up to see them, Dad would drive us up there in the old Pontiac that had seen better days. When I was smaller I sat in the front between Mum and Dad, but later as I became more fidgety I had to sit in the back with the other two. There we would fight, scream, and bounce up and down to our hearts content. Mum and Dad didn't seem to mind so long as we didn't pester them. Although Mum did sometimes yell out to Win and say "Stop that hollering Win. Your voice is just like a cross cut saw."

Dad would drive with one hand, the other would be leaning out the drivers window, with his fingers curled up over the roof gutter. Mum said it was because he had to hold the roof on if we did more than thirty. I believed that too!

Apparently Auntie Viv was not a well woman, Win told us once in confidence that she had been informed that Auntie had suffered terrible with her insides. I could only imagine that all the pipes in her body had been joined up wrong thus causing her this distress.

It must have been quite serious because one evening after we had come home from school, Mum gathered us all together and told us that Auntie Viv had died the previous night. Death had never touched us children before. We had poked at a bloated and stinking sheep's carcass in Farmer Brooks paddock, and the usual procession of pets from the goldfish all the way up to Rastus the cat had been buried with due ceremony when they could no longer endure our harsh treatment. But they were not real people like Auntie Viv.

Mum cried a lot, cause it was her sister I suppose. Dad didn't joke and laugh quite so much. He did however say "Thank you, love" to Mum at mealtimes which was bit unusual! The three of us meanwhile discussed the whys and wherefores of such an event. It was Win that said there was something terrible about her dying. Jack was sure she had been murdered. For me on the other hand it was all so new I had nothing to say, but took quite a lot in.

Only Mum and Dad went to the funeral. We were dropped off at Laura to stay with all the other children, who were assembled there. We had lots of cousins, six alone belonging to Uncle Eric and Auntie Lorna. Dad often said he didn't know when Uncle Eric had time to go to work as he must spend all his time in bed. I only ever saw him when he was up and dressed though. These cousins were mainly older than us and had organised lots of games and things to do whilst the adults were up at Booleroo, saying 'Goodbye to Vivian', as Mum put it. This confused me somewhat because I was sure they had said she had died. We were collected later and all the way back in the car Mum and Dad didn't say a word, so I guessed they had had another row.

The next weekend Mum got Dad to drive us all back up to Uncle Dusty's place, to give him a hand. The hand consisted of a casserole and a fruit cake.
"It's the least we can do," said Mum.
"And where's my cake this week?" asked Dad, but he got no reply. But I heard him mumble "Thank you very much".
When we got there, Mum set to, organising.
"How you feeling now, George?"
"I'm managing."
"Have you gone back to work yet?"
Uncle Dusty looked up at her and shook his head wearily. Mum turned to us kids and said, "Now off you go outside and play."
As we slipped out the door, the conversation turned to the doctor's opinion and whether Father Weeks had been any help.

The garden was just the same and it wasn't long before we were tearing about as usual. During the afternoon Uncle Dusty had to use the outside toilet which stood in isolation some way from the back door. When he came out I was running over the top of the brick well. Still fastening his trousers he let out a yell and started chasing after me waving his fist. I was petrified.
"Keep off. I don't want you to go near there." he shouted.
I stood still, confused and blurted out, "Why, is Auntie down the well?"
I had never seen a grown up man cry before, and I didn't like it. Uncle Dusty just sat down where he was and bawled his eyes out. I stood there fixed to the spot. Win could see what had happened and ran in to get Mum.

My small mind must have shut out that incident for years, no one ever mentioned it till we were all grown up. Then it was a source of mirth to others but an embarrassment for me......I was day dreaming; Chrissy was saying something.
"I said, what's the matter with your eyes? Are you all right?"
"Yes, Thank you very much." I said wiping away a tear.


  1. You conjur up a great atmosphere.

  2. Beautifully written and poignant.

  3. You have written a vivid picture of childhood loss. The characters were well written and the descriptions were flawless--to me.

    Well done. Wow.

  4. great story..great writing..from your wonderful beginning to your tearful loss. enjoyed my visit

  5. I love the way you build up your stories - there's always a stunning last line! Thanks for your visits...Jae

  6. Excellent insight into a child's wonder of all things adult.

  7. Very moving and written with such tenderness. Delightful.

  8. children and their perception of grief - they are confused and a bit afraid because all they know is that it means change and how will that affect them? I remember my nephew was confused because the week before my mother passed, their dog died and was buried in the woods behind his house. He asked (totally serious) if that was where grandma would be buried. He probably will be embarrassed as he grows and yet it did lighten things up for the adults.