He's gone now Ol' Daniel. He passed away in his eighty third year. He went the way he'd liked to have gone, standing up. I was in my twenty fourth year, just three days home from my first tour of Vietnam. I flew dust offs and medivacs, so I'd learnt a thing or two about death. I'd heard the screams and the curses, the calls for morphine and the sudden silence when a man dies. I knew how to hold a mate's hand as the Grim Reaper came to collect his toll.
But Ol' Daniel didn't die like that. He told me he knew the Reaper, and along the way they'd had a dance or two. Ol' Daniel was one of those legendary blokes, The Australian Light Horse. He'd been in Palestine, the sand and the thirst and the scorching bloody heat. Where a man gave his last pint of water to his horse, and then his last bullet because you didn't let an animal suffer. It was kinder like that. He'd been at Beersheba, the last glorious cavalry charge in military history. They'd galloped across the plain, under the guns, and tore the bloody Turks to pieces.
"God we were thirsty." He said. "And a bloody Johnny Turk gave me a drink. They weren't bad blokes, pretty good really, not like the Hun."
Then he wouldn't talk about the Somme, or France, or any of that stuff.
Ol' Daniel died simple and fast, just like he would have wanted. At breakfast he was his usual self, quiet, dignified in the way of a bloke who'd spent most of his life in the bush As was his way he went out to the back step, to stand there and roll his first smoke. Even back then he didn't smoke inside the house, his Wife never let him, and even twenty years after her death he still wouldn't do it.
"Mary wouldn't like it ." He told me once.
So he stood at the top of the back steps. I reckon the Reaper must have been waiting under the steps and tripped him up as he walked down to the back yard toilet. Heart attack the Doctor said. It was quick. So we buried the old bloke in the little cemetery, the one on the old coach road, next to his beloved Mary. He waited faithfully for twenty years to join her. Oh, he had Lady Friends in that time, he was a gentle man, and courteous with the Ladies, so he never went without a Sunday cooked roast.
But there was an old photograph of a small dark headed Lady, and no one could touch it. It was the most treasured thing in his rambling old house. Once a cyclone hit. Ol' Daniel wrapped that photo in two blankets and held on to it the whole time. No bloody cyclone was going to get that photograph.
I was born illegitimate, no Mum, no Dad. At least non that wanted me, and I grew up learning how to fight. Ol' Daniel taught me how to fight because he said there will always be those who wanted to call me bastard. No man has to stand for that he said. Back then a woman and her child, without a husband or father were looked down on. Fair game for all, unless you could fight. I could fight.
I spent half my childhood years in an orphanage. The other half I loved. Six months a year Ol' Daniel came in from the bush, he would come and get me and take me home to the only family I ever had. Ol' Daniel, me, and three dogs. When I was about seven I came home from school and fell down. Not down the steps. I just couldn't get up. Ol' Daniel picked me up in his arms and carried me two miles to the hospital. Polio the doctors said. I couldn't understand why they wouldn't let me go home and why Ol' Daniel had tears in his eyes. I'd never seen that. The Polio took three years out of my young life.
When I had just turned thirteen Ol' Daniel got sick. They put him in hospital, a man's thing he said. I found out later it was testicular cancer but back then I knew not to ask. There were complications because the Doctors buggered something up and Ol' Daniel was in hospital all that year. I had the house to myself and I played up. The local cop was a mate of Ol' Daniels. No one took on the local cop because the legend was he'd been in Z Force in the second war. He got me by the ear and gave me a boot up the arse. When Ol' Daniel came home the house was sparking clean, and Mary's picture was untouched. No, not me. But I did the rounds of Ol' Daniel's Lady Friends and they came and did the job. Then I went out and played up again. Ol' Daniel and his copper mate suggested I join the Armed forces. Make a man out of you they said. Man? Good God, I was only fifteen. But the Armed Forces take apprentices. Oh, I said. I joined the Air force and by a series of my usual mishaps I ended up as Aircrew, in Helicopters.
Vietnam. A lot has been said about it. Ol' Daniel had good advice. Keep your head and your arse down and never turn your back. It worked, I'm still here. Then I came home and three days later I faced the saddest day of my life. Ol' Daniel was gone but not finished yet. In nineteen sixty nine I auto rotated a shot up helicopter into the jungle at a place that Australian forces were never supposed to have been. We had to walk out. About two days out from a fire base and safety I heard a voice. Ol' Daniel's.
Just two words. "Duck mate." I did because you don't argue with Ol' Daniel when he sounds like that. The bullet went through the air where my head used to be. I felt it go past.
I reckon he's up there now, looking down, and calling me a silly arse for some of the dumb things I've done in my life. But I'll always remember those words. Duck mate!
What's in a Name?
Well, what is in a name? Who is Aardvark McGillicuddy? Menzies Herbert? Do you know a Fred? Or a Mary? Have you ever met an Anastasia or a Clementine? Perhaps even a Heracles or a Boris?
Characters in a novel? Or a play, or perhaps I just made them up. Perhaps, to me, there is something ridiculous or irritating about them?
No, none of the above. they are just people I know, or have known, or have met. Nothing odd or special, nothing quaint or noteworthy or extraordinary. Aardvark is an elderly gentleman who lives up the street from me. The most extraordinary thing about him is that his Father could register such an unusual name on the Birth Certificate. Aardvark (That's how it was spelt on the birth certificate) tends his roses, takes his Wife to church on Sundays and has seventeen grand children. He drives an ordinary six cylinder sedan, not very well, has a day out at the bowls once a fortnight and loves his old dog, who has the rather ordinary name of Rover.
Menzies Herbert is a young fellow, eleven years old, who drives me nuts because he loves my dog and doesn't have one of his own. Menzies plays tennis, is a good reader, loves his Play Station and thinks surf boards are cool. He has three sisters, an older brother named Boris and his Dad is a school teacher. Menzies Mum is named Mary, and his Dad is named Heracles. Perhaps there is a tradition of unusual names for the males in his family. I do not know.
Clementine is the local butcher's Wife. He husband is named Fred. Not Frederick, he will tell you so, just Fred, call me Fred, that's my name. Fred is an inventor as well as the Butcher. Fred has seven patents to his name, and his inventions are to do with the aviation industry. Very high tech and Fred can talk the finer points of aerofoil design for hours, Reynolds numbers and co efficients of drag all day. Fred has even designed his own wind tunnel. It works to.
Anastasia. It conjures up visions of Russian Princesses, fine silk gowns, and tall stately women. One thinks of the late Audrey Hepburn or in a modern concept perhaps an elegant Sigourney Weaver or the cool beauty of Kate Blanchett. No, sorry, the Anastasia I know is a short, plump, acidic lady of seventy. Her purpose in life, as she will tell any one, is to outlive that mongrel old man of hers. When he's in the ground she says, she will finally have peace. She has not seen the man for close to twenty years. They correspond through solicitors. He wants a divorce, but her family has the money, and if he divorces her he gets "not a bloody bent penny". Now it's a contest to see who outlasts who. If she goes first he gets a pretty penny, but, as she delights in telling you, he'll have suffered for every penny of it.
I do not know what breeds such bitterness, why two people can conspire to make each others life such a misery, it saddens me, and the only reason I know Anastasia is because I am teaching her to use a computer. "I'll write that bastard to hell" she tells me, what ever that means. The final irony? There is a photograph of a bride and groom that hangs in her sitting room. The man tall, well formed, the woman a sweet petite little lady with a mischievous and adoring smile. There are no photographs of children. Sometimes I notice her glancing at that photograph with a wistful look, and once, just once, with a trace of a tear in her eye.
So This is Christmas
NOTE: THERE IS SOME BAD LANGUAGE IN THIS STORY.
IF YOU MIGHT BE OFFENDED DO NOT PROCEED.
He was sitting on a bench as I strolled aimlessly past. Our eyes met and he gave me a quick nod.
"Merry bloody Christmas mate." He said and raised the cheep bottle of whisky in his hand.
"Yeah." I replied bitterly . "Merry Christmas mate"
"Wanna drink?" He indicated the bottle. I looked at him. Thin, fiftyish, covered in tatts, long straggly hair in a pig tail, grubby jeans and a T shirt which read 'Don't follow me, I'm lost'. I looked at the bottle and though fuck it, why not?
"Might as well " I said. "Nothin' else to do."
I sat down on the other end of the bench and he handed me the bottle. "Have a good swig mate, it's bloody Christmas."
"Thanks." I said."Might as well have a drink, it's about all I'll get from Santa fuckin' Claus."
"You think I'm Santa fuckin' Claus?" He said belligerently. I heard the warning in his voice.
"Nah mate. If you was Santa Claus I'd be inclined to kick the shit out of you."
He roared laughing. "The old bastard fucked you over to has he mate."
"Yeah." I said. "You could say that."
We passed the bottle back and forward a few times in companionable silence.
"No where to go on Christmas day?" He finally asked.
"No." I said. "No where to go, no one to go there with."
"New in town?" He asked.
"Yeah." I said. "Just got here last week."
"Bad time of year to be travelling if you got no where to go."
"I got nothin' but no where to go mate. Doesn't matter what time of year, it's always a bad time."
"Where you from mate?"
"Up north, Queensland."
"Shit you're a long way from home!"
"Home is where me bloody hat is mate." I looked at him, he was getting a bit personal.
"I ain't prying mate." He'd picked up that I was getting a bit edgy.
"It's O.K. mate." I said. "It's just that the last time someone wanted to know about me it turned out he was a Copper."
He laughed. "Well I sure as Christ ain't a Copper."
We had a couple more swings in silence.
"If you got no where to go," He said slowly. "I'm goin' to me sisters place for Christmas lunch, she's a bit of a knock about and you'd be welcome, we usually get some lost souls turn up. You wouldn't be out'a place."
I thought about it. "O.K." I said. "Thanks." It sure beat the hell out of the bridge I'd been heading for. I'd been worrying that it wasn't high enough to jump off.
This little bit of nonsense probably owes it's origins to a chance meeting with two young Canadian back packers.
A Brief Expose of the Australian Idiom - Lesson 1
I have a distant Maiden Aunt who resides in the more Gentile parts of Montreal In Canada. Said Maiden Aunt has a fascination with Australia and has, on a few occasions, expressed a desire to visit our part of the world. Unfortunately the Lady is somewhat in poor health and so is unable to make such a long journey. Her alternative solution has been to petition me to offer accommodation at her home to any Australian I know who happens to be travelling in that part of the world.
A Month or so ago I made the rather unfortunate decision to give her contact details to a mate of mine who had decided to holiday in the eastern parts of Canada. In due course I notified Aunt Florence of my mates eminent arrival and the dear Lady was beside herself with anticipation and excitement.
My mate arrived and stayed the full two weeks on offer. I had a brief email from him expressing his gratitude and praising my Aunt's hospitality.
I expected that, as normal, I would receive details of my mates visit in one of my Aunt's quarterly letters. The letter duly arrived and I was somewhat surprised and disturbed at her acidic account of my friend's, and I quote, "unintelligible manner of speech." My Aunt also expressed concern at what she described as Australian's strange notions of morality, culinary taste and manner of dress.
Further enquiry as to her concerns brought certain factors into focus and so I was able to pacify my Aunt's concerns with the following explanations.
"Humping the Wallaby" Dear Aunt Florence humping the wallaby is not an indication of a preoccupation with strange and unusual sexual desires. Humping the Wallaby is Australian slang for carrying a swag or moving from place to place.
"Eating a Dog's Eye" Dear Aunt Florence eating a dogs eye is not indicative of a strange, unusual or exotic taste in foods but Australian rhyming slang for the simple pleasure of eating a meat pie.
"Wearing a Bag of Fruit" Dear Aunt Florence wearing a bag of fruit is not an unusual expression of sartorial rebellion but, once again, Australian rhyming slang for the conservative and perfectly correct act of wearing a suit.
"Catching a Noah's Ark" Dear Aunt Florence catching a Noah's ark is not some late attempt to join a well know Christian occurrence but the rather terrifying process of catching a live shark. Once again Aunt Florence, Australia's rhyming slang is to blame for your confusion.
"ArfaMo" Dear Aunt Florence arfamo is not an Aboriginal native word having some mystic meaning; arf - a - mo is slang for half a moment and is an expression used to request an extension of time. Said extension could range from ten seconds to somewhere the other side of ten minutes.
I hope that this addresses your concerns Aunt Florence, and in my next letter, as promised, I will provide explanations and translations of certain other "Australianisms" that have caused you concern. Among those explanations will be a full account of why Australians never use the word "root" when signifying support for a sporting team.
Via Black Stump