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One hundred metres to the east of where I live a small boy’s dream is in progress. Road works, and lots of them.

 

Trench diggers, graders, rollers, water wagons and huge trucks filled with dirt come and go all day on the avenue to the east of us, the first in a series of streets in this long neglected part of the shire to be drained, guttered and footpathed, and have their surfaces completely redone.

Until now, the area to the far north of the shire has been largely left untouched. Reason: it didn’t have many tourists. Now, with the advent of the music festivals three miles to the north — something the locals fought against and lost (of course) — large numbers of mostly young people are being attracted to the area, and they need good roads and somewhere to stay while they’re attending the festivals.

 

music-festival

And so the long suffering residents, lurching for years over the broken roads, shaking their teeth loose, damaging their suspensions at every turn, have now been remembered. Well, sort of. Most of the people I speak to in this area couldn’t have cared less about the footpaths and guttering — or even the drainage, which might yet turn out to be questionable. They just wanted good roads.

Now it’s happening.

All day long, from 7 a.m. onwards, the road works continue. Little boys beg their mothers to take them there, eschewing trips to the park in Brunswick Heads, accompanied even by ice cream. All they want is a good view of the machines.

 

earthmoving-equipment

And it is exciting. Catching a bus now resembles the scene from First Knight, where Richard Gere as Lancelot ran the gauntlet for a kiss from Julia Ormond as Guinevere. Residents dodge artfully between bulldozers, water wagons, etc. in their efforts to reach the bus stop. And just where your particular stop might be that day is also exciting. As different sections of road are closed, the bus must reroute, and there’s never any notice of this in advance. One just turns up and, half-blind from the dust, dodges various pieces of large machinery (all in motion in different directions), and hopes to find a spot the bus might conceivably pass. It’s interesting. And it’s going to go on for a long time to come, as the council gangs work their way through the suburb.

The cat’s already on tenterhooks from all the tumult. He particularly dislikes the beeping. (I thought machines only beeped when they reversed; these things beep all the time.)

 

annoyed-cat

One thing’s for sure: he’s not going to like it when they’re doing his street.

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God chasing cat, b&wWatching my cat Tim this morning leaping from the washing machine to the linen cupboard and from there to the ledge of the little window from where he likes to survey the kingdom, I was reminded of another cat I used to have and his adventures with a rescue dog my then partner brought home, wanting to take in. Just why we didn’t realise from the start just what we were letting ourselves in for, I don’t know. But we had a lot on our minds in those days, what with the two children and my elderly mother.

The cat’s name was Mao; he was a bluepoint Siamese, and he knew it.

Bluepoint siamese

The rescue dog’s name was Harry.

Harry was a German Shepherd that nobody seemed to want. That should’ve given us pause right there, but as I said, we had a lot on our minds, particularly in the mornings. Harry was obviously well bred, the sort of dog that would’ve had “papers”, yet nobody wanted him.

We tried him out with the children; he was fine, so we let him stay.

Night fell. We fed Harry and bedded him down and locked him into the shed at the side of the house. Next morning, unbeknown to me, as I was working in the kitchen, making breakfasts, ironing uniforms, getting the children off to school, my partner let Harry out.

Mao, the Siamese cat, having finished his breakfast, strolled out to inspect the dawn from the doorstep of the back porch. As he sat there checking out the day, Harry came around the side of the house.

 

Shepherd looking tough

The cat, accustomed all his life to being superior, waved a paw at Harry to tell him his presence there on the step was not required, that he was persona non grata, in fact.

But Harry came on. The cat found himself being pursued by this slavering beast. He raced into the nearby bathroom and leapt up onto the hand basin. Harry’s first leap landed him in the hand basin, too. Just in the nick of time, the cat leapt up onto the edge of the shower stall, a precarious position.

Harry was leaping and snarling at him, but he couldn’t quite reach the cat, when I came out, atracted by the commotion. I grabbed a straw broom and began to beat Harry with it, to no avail. Then the cat teetering on the edge of the shower stall lost his balance and leapt onto the head of the straw broom when it was at the height of one of its upswings. Anyone could’ve told him this was not a good idea, but it seemed it was the only one he had. He then fell off the broom head, and saved himself from landing in Harry’s waiting maw by latching onto my thumb.

I screamed, turning this way and that to save the cat. The dog leaped and snarled, the cat clung. I don’t know what would’ve happened next if my partner hadn’t arrived just then and whipped Harry off with one of the studded leather belts he liked to affect.

After that, we locked Harry back in the shed and drove to the hospital so that I could get a tetanus injection and, of course, I needed stitches. As I said, just why we hadn’t realised from the start what we were letting ourselves in for, I don’t know. But we had a lot on our minds in those days.

Harry stayed, by the way. He and the cat arrived at an uneasy truce, with the cat dominant. The tucker was good, and there were lots of cattle to harrass in the nearby paddocks; Harry knew he was on a good thing.

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Anzac Day

This Australian day of remembrance always reminds me of my Uncle Charlie, one of the many uncles on my mother’s side and the one I knew best when I was growing up; he and my mother were close siblings in that large Australian-Irish family of twelve children.

Charlie got into World War I at the age of 16. Unlike my father who escaped from the dairy farm in Palmerston North at 17 by joining the US merchant navy “when the old man’s back was turned”, Charlie did the whole thing legitimately. After his older brother Dave had joined up, Charlie drove the family mad, pestering them to let him go, too. “You’re too young,” they said. “And you’re not strong enough.”

Charlie couldn’t make himself any older, but he could work on the other objection. From then on, locals were treated to the spectacle of Charlie hanging from various tree branches around the shire, doing pull ups between chores on the orchard. He made every dinnertime a nightmare for the family; there were 13 of them now with Dave gone — 7 brothers, 4 sisters and the long suffering parents. In the end, Daniel Doyle and Clare Donovan Doyle (not that she ever called herself that) gave way and signed the papers to let him go, hoping Dave, who was much older, would be able to keep him safe over there. (The Australian military kept brothers together.) Charlie celebrated his 17th birthday in London.

As far as I understand it, he wasn’t a part of the unsuccessful Gallipoli campaign that spawned the holiday Australians observe today: Anzac Day. Where he was and what he did over there in the trenches, I have no idea; he never spoke of it. He spoke freely though of his search for relatives of the family in Ireland, and I remember once seeing a photograph of him standing with a group of people outside a thatched house somewhere in Cork.

The only person he ever talked to about his war experiences was my father. And that was only after Dad had joined the army in WWII and had gone over the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea. On the few occasions that he ever got leave, he and Charlie would sit up in the kitchen drinking rum into the night, long after everyone else had gone to bed. Looking back on it now, I realise just how much comfort Charlie must have been to my father, helping him to debrief from the ongoing experiences of that war in the Pacific.

Back in 1919 after WWI ended, Charlie and older brother Dave were on their own. Like thousands of other young men fortunate enough to return home to Australia physically unscathed, they were suffering from post-traumatic stress, a phrase unknown at the time.

Pine Islet Before MovePine Islet Tower [Pine Islet Preservation Society]

At first, he took a job as a lighthouse keeper at Pine Islet, his way of trying to come to terms with everything that had happened to him. Older brother Dave, who’d also returned unscathed, simply became an alcoholic and remained one until the day he died. Neither of them ever married. And neither of them marched on Anzac Day. “All the marching in the world won’t bring them back,” Charlie said to me once with tears in his eyes. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.

All his life, Charlie kept a framed photograph of a young woman on his dressing table. She was no beauty, I always thought with the harsh judgement of youth, and she was rather stout — still the fashion in that early 20th century Georgian era before the coming of the Roaring Twenties, when boy-slim became the mode. I gathered from my mother that Charlie” had been sweet on her” before he went to the war, and that she had married someone else while he was away. Young women married young in the country in those days.  Obsession and suicidal depression ran in that 1st generation Australian-Irish family, but Charlie picked himself up, lived an organized life with a job in the telephone exchange, kept his little house spic and span and never ever, ever drank too much.

There are so many things now that I wish I’d asked him when I had the chance. But I was too young to understand that nothing lasts forever and elders won’t always be around. If you’ve got an Uncle Charlie in your life, better ask him those questions while you still can.

 

 

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