The family on the footpath and the mystery of the keys

There’s a parked car outside my door. It’s hot out there.  The passengers of the car climb out to meet the passengers of another car parked up the road, out of my sight. They meet up outside my window and mill around, talking and shouting, and swinging bags around; then they abruptly part because there is a problem with a bunch of keys.

‘Dad’ is holding them in his open palm, standing at the back of the car. Another man, younger, moves close and looks down, and there is a discussion with their heads close together. The older man shakes his head, no, no, no. The younger man turns and raises his eyes at another man who is standing against my door. I can’t hear them. It’s too windy.

Two women approach from the other car and look closely at the keys. All the men move in again. Intense discussion, shaking of heads. One man makes a phone call, and as he lifts the phone to his ear he is shaking his head.

An old lady is helped from the front seat of their car by a teenager, and she moves close to the group, not smiling, not hurrying. Everyone realizes this at the same time, and there is a tiny movement of surprise,and then they all move apart and look down at her, kindly. She says something and nobody answers, and then she takes the keys from the older man and puts them in her cardigan pocket. The teenage girl turns away from the group with her shoulders raised, grinning, and puts one hand over her mouth, and I hear her say, ‘Yes!’

Sculpture by Will Kurtz

Uncle Don

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Just turned eighty. He said in photo one, he is fifteen, in photo two, he is half full.

In my stories of him, I remember the country, the heat, and the Cadbury chocolate blocks, the big ones (happiness).

There were cousins, strawberry fates and crabbing (somewhere).

So important, the memories and stories.

He just told me one of his stories:

When he was fifteen, he left school. He was forced to stay till fifteen. His mum (my Nanna) said, ‘Well you’re going then, and don’t you come back.’ She gave him ten shillings, a pack of cigarettes, one change of clothes and a new pair of R. M. Williams boots. Stirrup boots. He said, ‘My dad tried them on. I saw him in the hallway there, trying them on, reminded him of the bush you see.’

I remember his dad, my grandfather. His garden captured in rectangles, the vegetables obedient, the bizarre horse radish unkind to my mouth. There was a pool. It was a water butt, a tank overflow, waist high and diabolically beautiful. I played there with a set of plastic animals that I helped across the terrifying water to another place. In the shed nearby, my grandfather, a bushman and miserable in the city, worried pieces of wood into new smooth pieces, a pony, a seal, a round thing that clung to my small hand like an impossible, silken enchantment.

So my Uncle Don went off to Gulnare. On a property, there was a fine horse called Lady Claire, and my Uncle was given her foal to break in –  Dr Penney, he was called, after that Maralinga bloke, William Penney…

That horse would come to a whistle, no matter where he was.

He sewed wheat bags and fenced, one quid per mile if hilly, eight shillings and sixpence when not. He worked all day till it got too dark to see.  Then to the pub with a whole quid, ‘That bought a meal and four bottles of beer to take home, and change in my hand.’

‘I was a rich man.’

Bought himself an Austin 7 with my Nanna going guarantor, and she said, By God, Donald, don’t you let me down.’

My Nanna was a silent person. When I played on her back lawn, near the unkind horse radish, when I build small houses with cardboard and blankets with the livid, galloping imagination of the lonely child, she would approach silently, and leave at the entrance to the realm, a dish with five white peppermints and a glass of fizzy.

Well, my Uncle flipped the Austin 7. And that was the end of that!

But not the end of the stories. There is never an end to the stories; I just have to worry at everyone, and turn them into the impossible enchantments that they actually are.