Cups of tea blew steam into the air and Aunty Flo scratched her chin. She looked at Mum across the kitchen table. Mum sat with her elbows resting on the table and her hands covering her nose and mouth. Because she didn’t sit like that very often, I remember it more than shivering in the dark and cold when we started to walk home.
Mum was usually too busy around the farm for any sitting down at all, let alone resting in what I think of now as her had-enough pose. I caught her at it other times when she didn’t know anyone was watching. She’d sit there for a few minutes, moving her hands up and down her nose and sighing into her fingers. But that night was the first time I’d seen her doing it with anyone else around.
I scuffed my shoes on the dirt floor and looked at them both. Mum didn’t seem to notice that the rain was getting heavier. She didn’t call my brothers in from the porch. She’d said they could play out there, just for a few minutes, if they put their jackets and hats on. I don’t think she wanted them inside. She never let them play outside, ever, on nights that cold.
My eldest brother, Peter, had disappeared into the barn. I wondered whether he might go and comfort Fella, my horse. He was really Peter’s, but when I was five, I liked to think Fella was mine. I knew he’d be scared with the wind starting to pick up. The paddocks were all thick up with cloud and dark and Fella was probably running away from the wind hooting at him out of wire fences. That was if the sound of gum trees wrestling with each other wasn’t enough to scare him.
“So Harry’s out there in the car on Grampians Road and he just let you lot walk home?”
Aunty Flo stared across the table.
“Yes,” Mum said, stretching the word out and rubbing her head. “When we broke down he said he was stopping there for the night. And he just lay back and before I knew it he was snoring. I couldn’t get out and try and get the car going myself. And I wasn’t going to stay out there all night with the kids. They’d have bloody froze.”
My mother looked at me. She didn’t swear much. Not in front of me. She didn’t want me turning out like one of those loose-mouthed larrikins that hung around Brian Woodford’s shop. Whenever she swore in front of me she said, “Sorry love, don’t listen to that.” Tonight she just looked at me and gave me the smallest smile I’d ever seen and said go and play in your room will you please.
“That’s a good lad,” said Aunty Flo, taking a big slurp out of her cup and putting it down.
I liked Aunty Flo. She was big with flabby arms and when she gave you a hug you felt like you were snuggled up in clouds. She looked after us sometimes when Mum had to help our father in the paddocks. Aunty Flo wore a straw hat, always, with flowers strapped into it. Her dresses, too, were always covered in flowers, mainly red ones. That night she was driving home when she saw us all walking in the dark. She picked us up and brought us back to the farm.
“Go on Neville, get going.” Mum’s voice was louder.
I ran off into the lounge but didn’t go straight to the bedroom I shared with two of my elder brothers. There was something about the way Mum and Aunty Flo were talking that made me want to be around them.
The kitchen was quieter. Normally the two of them would let knives and spoons clatter in the sink and they’d talk to each other like they were sitting at opposite ends of the town hall. That night they were quiet with their cups. They landed them like sparrows on the saucer after every sip.
I looked through the kitchen door at them from where they couldn’t see me. Aunty Flo was looking at Mum and Mum was looking down at her tea like she was worried about something in her cup.
Mum didn’t look up.
Aunty Flo had a look on her face as if she was carrying something really heavy and couldn’t find anywhere to put it down.
“You know you should think about leaving him.”
That made Mum look up. She moved her head forward as if she might answer straight away and then she was quiet for a long time. Finally she said something.
“Oh, don’t be so stupid, Flo. What would I do?” She stopped then and rubbed her finger into her eye. “And where would I go? I haven’t got tuppence to rub together.”
We’d driven down to Natimuk that night where our father drank on Fridays. It was a little town with a lake in the middle of it and two pubs. But only one of them was any good. So our father said.
Normally he drank at home, but Friday nights his war mates, some of them still in their uniforms, got together and the drinking was special. You could hear it through the white frosty windows that reminded me of Christmas. At least the Christmas where Santa was.
On Friday nights our father would sometimes come home happy, talking about the opportunities all over the place. “You just had to look,” he said. “By jingoes, you just had to keep a look out.”
It was different to hear him talk like that.
Because Mum wasn’t allowed in the pub it was Peter’s job to go in and tell our father we were there to take him home. After a while, Mum let me tag along with Peter.
The first time I went in there, I stopped in the doorway, too scared to go any further. The whole room was full of orange light that seemed brighter than any light I’d seen before. And men were everywhere like I hadn’t seen them before, too. Laughing and talking, sometimes slapping each other.
After the first time I got my courage up. I pushed through the door as it swung shut behind Peter, and the yelling and laughing sprang up and wrapped its arm around my shoulder, whispered jokes and told me I was a big sonny Jim. Then it pushed me along until I got to Peter and the bar stool where our father always sat.
My father rubbed me on the head when I walked up to him. Every time he would introduce me to Bluey Thompson who sat next to him, with big round arms and blue pictures on them. Back then, I thought that was why they called him Bluey.
Before we left for the car my father gave me a sip of his beer. He never did it at home. Seeya later Harry, half the men in the pub called out as we left. And because our father picked wild flowers on our property for a living, some men yelled out, “Watch out those flowers don’t turn you into a dung puncher!” I didn’t know what that meant then, but my Dad responded by saying no worries about that fellas and pushing his hips back and forward.
I left the pub that Friday the same as every other, but with the taste of beer in my mouth and my father almost crushing me underneath his hand, sounding happy and like he might stay that way.
I had plenty of memories of how he was on Friday nights stacked up in my head like books. I pulled one out whenever I went to bed at night with my head stinging from knuckles or my bum cut and bleeding from the belt. Or when I was trying to get rid of the picture in my head of Mum lying on the ground where she’d fallen, our father over the top of her saying what it was like to have to put up with her and all of us kids.
I knew that having good memories in your head was better than talking about what happened at home. Because what happened at home, stayed at home. That’s what Mum said. “Don’t you be telling anyone about what goes on in this house, Neville. What goes on here doesn’t concern anybody else, anyone nosing around in our business.”
We have to forgive our father. That’s what we have to do, we have to understand. We don’t realise what it was like in the war. We don’t know what it was like to have guns going off all day. Or to have someone put a bayonet in our stomach and one more twist of the blade and that would be the end of us. We have to forgive and be on our knees at night and pray for our father.
Maybe that was what my mother did when she put her hands up over her face and sighed into them. She was praying with just her breath.
Mum and Aunty Flo whispered then talked louder then whispered. Mum rested her head on her hands. Aunty Flo took her hat off and held it on her lap and looked down at it.
If I’d snuck a bit closer to the kitchen door, I could have heard more of what they were saying. But I’d had enough of listening. I knew what my mother needed so I got myself busy.
I turned up the cushions on the couch, hunted underneath it and found bottle tops, but they weren’t what I was after. I searched under the radiogram and in behind the cabinet that held all our best crockery, the one I had to be careful of whenever I ran past it. I stretched my hand along the wall as far as I could reach and dragged one out.
“You bewdy,” I said to myself.
Only one so far, though. I needed another.
I tried in the hallway, in behind the teak chest where Mum kept all her sewing things. I pulled out a steel mousetrap that had gone off long ago and missed the mouse. I reached my hand in further and touched something that seemed promising. I strained my arm as far as it would go and managed to pull it out.
A copper button. Great for coats, but no good for me.
There had to be another one somewhere.
There would be one in the kitchen for sure. I knew Mum and Aunty Flo didn’t want me in there, but this was way too important. I had to risk it.
I snuck in, hoping they would be too busy talking to notice me. Mum was looking down again. Aunty Flo saw me, but it didn’t seem to worry her that I was back. I crawled along the wall and reached in behind the meat safe and stretched until I thought my arm would break off. But it was worth it. I’d found another one.
Forgetting what might happen to me, I ran over to where Mum was sitting, reached up and put the coins in front of her on the table, right next to her teacup.
“Look Mum, tuppence! Now you can leave.”
Mum looked at me as if I had an extra ear or something growing out of the top of my head. Then she raised her eyebrows and looked at Aunty Flo. She put her hat back on and straightened her dress.
“He must have heard what you said about not having a penny to your name,” Aunty Flo whispered, pressing her lips together.
Instead of yelling at me to go to my room, Mum let out a little laugh.
I waited for her to rub them together. What magic they had in them I didn’t know. But they had to be special if she could do it and leave the farm. She’d take me and my brothers. Peter had better get in from the barn.
“Rub them together, Mum.”
She sat for a few seconds and didn’t say anything. Aunty Flo stood up and gave me a little smile.
“Come on, Neville,” Mum said and she got off her chair and pushed it under the table. “Let’s round up those brothers of yours. It’s time for bed.”
“Think about what I’m telling you,” Aunty Flo said.
“Yes,” Mum said, with something like a smile on her face. “It’ll be alright to pack the bags now, won’t it, with my tuppence and everything?”
I knew it. Those coins were magic. And I had found them. But she walked away and left them on the table. I followed her onto the porch.
“Mum, your money …”
It was like I hadn’t spoken at all. She just told my brothers to get up and go inside and told me to shut up now about my tuppence.