- Bachelor Brothers
Morning tea at the Fletchers’. Four bachelor brothers who live on the neighboring farm. When the ding-dong clock on the walnut sideboard chimes 9:30, you take your seat at the round table and sip the best cup of tea you’ve ever tasted. The plastic cloth is patterned with purple pansies. Its centerpiece is an aluminum teapot and a tray of tomato and barbeque sauces, salt and pepper, Vegemite, golden syrup, and toothpicks.
Frank, the family cook, sets down a plate of hot date scones. The brothers slather them with margarine and chew tremulously. They talk in stop-start phrases, their voices heehawing over each other. From their teasing tone you assume they’re bullying or blaming.
You don’t understand a word they’re saying.
Growing up during war-time, way out the back of Green Pidgin, the brothers chopped wood, carried water, dug lantana, and milked cows. They didn’t go to school. They didn’t learn to read and write. They learned which seeds were poisonous and that pigeons were “goo eang,” but not crows. They learned how to wring a chicken’s neck. At dawn one morning they spied their father going outside. They were sure he fed the pigs a human fetus. Twelve children. Until the nuns took the three girls. [End Page 143]
A code spoken by a family. “Lash” is latch, “Tussex” is Sussex, “showed” is closed, “boozed” is bruised, “awigh” is all right, “icey” is pricey. You record words in search of a pattern. But just when you decide Rs and Ls are spoken as Ws, you hear them articulate the R in “rats” correctly. Some words are left hanging, only half said, like “sho dow,” which is shut down. Some words elide; others are skipped altogether. The key is context.
Three Meat and Veg
Frank is seven. Standing on a wooden stool at his mother’s side, he learns to bake and stew and roast. Unlike his brothers, he doesn’t learn to use a gun or a chain saw.
He gets work cooking—for harvesting contractors, for weed sprayers, for workers at the asbestos mine. When he buys the farm with his brothers, he sets out breakfast (cereal and toast, no eggs), morning tea (Sao biscuits with sliced tomato), lunch (cold rissoles with onion, tomato, and white bread), and tea (three meat and veg). In summer he bottles apples that he gets cheap by the box. In winter he pickles chokos from his own vine.
Invited for “tea,” you find Frank hovering over the grimy Formica kitchen table with its jam tin of hot fat and ice-cream container of vegetable scraps. His conical red face peaks in a Tintin tuft of rice-white hair. Wiry hairs sprout from his blotchy skin. He stabs a bone-handled fork into a roast chicken the size of a turkey. “Tea” is wilted beans, dried out roast potato and chicken, and pork and beef drenched in salty gravy; for “sweets” there’s rhubarb crumble that sticks to your palette.
Frank milks three Jersey cows at five o’clock every morning. He funnels the warm milk into old port flagons and stacks them in the fridge that sits on the verandah between a bucket of sour milk and empty beer cartons. A flagon costs two dollars and you return the bottles washed clean. Frank keeps a tally in his head of who owes him for milk and who doesn’t wash out the bottles. [End Page 144]
One of the local women refuses to go on her own to get milk from the Fletchers. She’s scared, she says. She can’t understand a word they say.
Frank keeps laying hens. Sussex, Silkies, Leghorns, Bantams. Numerous roosters crow at dawn. If the wind is blowing in the right direction, you hear them from across paddocks a 30-minute walk away.
After lunch he lets the chickens out into the paddock. A dozen eggs cost two dollars—the dried chook poo, dirt, and feathers are free. Frank keeps a tally of...