A Google What, Now? by Mike Cavanagh
“Look out, Peter, here comes a googly!”
Our family was staying for a couple of days during school holidays in the summer of 1962 at our mother’s parents’ place in Somerset Street, Hurstville, a southern suburb of Sydney. The house was a dark red, double brick bungalow built between 1946 and 1947 on a slightly front to back sloping block, so the back portion of the house was a level above the ground. The windows all around the house were small, wooden frame sash with clear, curved leadlight glass. The front windows on the lounge room also had stained glass leadlight trims. There was a garage at the side with two small ‘bubble effect’ windows on the light green, double wooden door that always scraped on the concrete drive no matter how you might try to lift it clear.
At the time it was built, just after the Second World War, materials were hard to get and the place retained oddities in its fit-out as a consequence. In the bathroom, the porcelain bath, hand basin and toilet didn’t match, the small, dark green, brown and mustard floor tiles were a bit wonky, while the in-line electric water heater rattled and gave tepid results at best. Much of the carpet was a dull, slightly mottled, mid-green felt, and the walls were covered with cream patterned wallpaper. The wooden frame sash windows had light green timber Venetian blinds, which made a clatter when pulled up or dropped down. I also (now) fondly remember the clacking of the blinds if the windows were open and a breeze sprang up.
The gardens and lawn were matters of pride for mum’s parents, who we called Nan and Pop. Pop seemed to be out on the lawn with the push mower every weekend, leaving the smell of freshly mown grass hanging in the air. In the front yard, pink roses and azaleas, and in season huge beds of bright red poppies, ran outside the immaculate lawn, the beds demarcated with ruler straight edges made of left over red bricks. I used to love running my hands through the feathery leaves of the Diosmas that grew on the verge, and pushing my nose into the small cypress pines that grew against the front of the house, one on either side of the large wooden, leadlight, lounge room window. I’m sure the scent of cypress I exuded was taken as evidence that I’d been into someone’s deodorant. Not true; I reserved that for Pop’s deep yellow, Californian Poppy hair oil, and often popped the lid of the bottle to inhale the dark aroma that was literally like nothing else I’d ever come across. Or since, come to think of it. I suspect it’s just the tendency to associate sights and smells but even when I remember it now, the aroma is a deep, burnished gold; not the memory of how it looked, but the actual smell of it.
The house had minimal insulation, so on cold winter’s nights we’d be sitting around the single kerosene heater in the lounge room with the twin glass doors to the hallway closed to keep the warmth in. This left the remainder of the house with an icy chill and the lounge room occupants dozing as they breathed in the slowly being depleted of oxygen while being filled with kero fumes air. How our grandparents didn’t die either from asphyxiation or burning down the house I have no idea.
On the other hand, on summer afternoons while the oldies snoozed in the summer heat the lawn became a scene of madness and mayhem. Like backyard cricket.
My brother, Peter, and I with Pop’s help had set up a set of stumps to mark out the pitch, assigned the rotary clothes hoist as short mid-wicket, and Pop was bowling to Pete. I was fielding somewhere between ‘when’s my turn to bat’ and ‘don’t drop the next catch, don’t drop the next catch, etc.’, having just done that. Pop was what you’d term a wiry sort, not much to him, but hard of sinew and tough as teak if it came to it. He loved his sport, had played club cricket as well as representative rugby, was an avid St George Rugby League follower and was an absolute font of knowledge on all things cricket. The one thing he loved more than his sport was his vegetable patch.
The veggie garden, marked out by old wooden fence posts laid along the garden beds, took up all of the far end of the back yard, all along the back paling fence. While Pop could abide the odd divot in the grass from a poorly timed on-drive, woe betide anyone smashing a ball into the veggie patch, or worse, trampling through it to retrieve said smashed ball.
We miscreants knew to keep well out of the way when we heard Pop’s exclamation,
“Stone the crows!”
Now, there are about 1.8 billion people in this world who might understand what Pop had just said when he called his delivery to Pete a ‘googly’. The remaining six billion wouldn’t have a bleedin’ clue or probably give a tinker’s cuss. Of those who would know what a googly is, about 90% of those live on the sub-continent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), with the remainder in other far flung parts of the British Commonwealth, including Australia. But Pete and I sure knew what a googly was and my brother swung lustily, missed it and was clean bowled. I doubled over in laughter while standing at mid-off (you know, half way between long-off and silly mid-off… gosh, cricket terminology - makes Abbot and Costello’s whole Who’s on first? routine seem like a perfect example of deductive logic and well structured argument). As you do when your big brother makes an ass of himself.
“That wasn’t a googly!” cried out my brother, slamming the bat into the prickly buffalo grass lawn.
Buffalo grass, prickly stuff, especially after it’s just been cut, and Pop did like to keep a well manicured lawn. It was tough under bare feet, and it made dimples in our skin when we laid down on it. Anyway, yes, also springy, so in response to Pete’s slammed bat,
“Sproing!” went the buffalo grass, with nary a dent to be seen.
“Ker-thwack!” went the wooden cricket bat as it bounced back up and hit Pete on the elbow.
“Yow!” yelled Pete, which he followed up with “Yow, yow!” as he hopped around madly rubbing aforesaid and now damaged body part.
Well I couldn’t help myself, could I?
“Ha! Ha! Hit yourself in the funny bone!”
Why it’s called ‘funny’ I still have no idea. It’s like watching some other poor bloke get hit in the nuts; you just gotta laugh, even though you’re wincing from remembered pain. Yeah, OK, maybe that’s why it’s ‘funny’, more ‘funny peculiar’ than ‘funny ha-ha’, as our mum used to say. Anyway, it all could have ended up in quite the fracas as Pete stopped his hop ’n rub routine and beetled towards me with murder, mayhem and much maiming all clear intents in his eyes.
“Now, now boys,” Pop said as he stepped in to keep us separated.
Mortal blows were avoided but it was the end of the match, unless you consider the grass as one of the players, in which case fair play to the buffalo.
Not that we often came to actual blows. More a bit of push and shove until I tripped and fell on the ground, then went blubbering off to Mum who was invariably in the kitchen with Nan cooking up the day’s fare.
“What is it Michael?”
I think at this stage my mother’s brain went into auto-mode, and the whole ‘There, there, it’ll be all right, and how about a glass of Milo and some scotch finger biscuits?’ thing kicked in.
“Oh-okay…” I replied having achieved my carefully constructed win-win outcome; sympathy and biscuits.
Back in those days, at night the only entertainment for us at Somerset Street was playing cards or watching the television, with its black and white picture covered by a three tone transparent plastic screen overlay. This was blue at the top for sky, green at the bottom for the ground, and some light tan come pink sort of colour in the middle third - for people’s faces, I guess. It sort of, but not really, kind of worked for about five minutes for every hour of viewing time.
The house had three bedrooms and in the earlier visits our sister Lynette came along. Being nine years older than us she soon pulled out of these visits as she hit teenage years and found more interesting things to do. Boys, I guess. When Lynette was with us, we three slept in the front bedroom, where as soon as the light went out a whole new world awaited. My sister, you see, developed a penchant for horror stories. In the dark, to the clacking of the venetian blinds as the summer breeze inveigled itself into the room, Lyn scared the living daylights out of us, relating in her own words the stories she been reading or movies she’d seen. Unworldly creatures rising from the ground, horrible monstrosities clawing through the walls, huge beasts of unknown origins blotting out the stars above us, all seeking to end our meagre lives in the most gruesome ways possible. As she concluded her story, I’m sure I detected a sly satisfaction in her voice when she said,
“Good night boys. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
The wind whispered through the flyscreen on the bedroom windows, the venetian blinds clicked and clacked, a mournful Mopoke cried in the distance, we said nary a word and slunk beneath our sheets.
* * *
Even with all this fun to be had, the highlight of these trips up to visit Nan and Pop was our grandparents themselves, in addition to the weird and wonderful collection of stuff they had.
Pop smoked roll your own cigarettes, ‘Champion Ruby’ tobacco in a square, yellow tin as I recall. The tips of the first two fingers of his right hand were permanently stained brown from decades of smoking, which seemed to fit with his somewhat leathery appearance, from decades of being out in all weathers as a lineman for the Post Master General (PMG), the government telephony department at that time. As I said, he was what my mum would refer to as wiry in body build, and was invariably in a woollen long sleeve shirt and woollen trousers, or khaki shorts and white singlet if working in the garden. He was also a veritable font of silly things, sayings and puzzles, to keep Pete and I amused. I will here pass on just two of these without further comment:
…and the other,
11 was a race horse
12 was 12
The other thing of Pop’s that Pete and I loved was the rickety, worn timber tool shed (well, more like large tool wardrobe really) he’d erected in the back yard against the outside of the laundry wall. Pop had fitted it out inside with all sorts of bespoke shelves and timber bits with hooks and nails for hanging things on. I remember it had a very distinctive smell, and I think he must have rubbed it all down with linseed oil to protect it from the weather. It looked and smelled exotic, and wow, the stuff he had in there kept me occupied for hours. Well lots of minutes anyway. If you’ve ever gone to a jumble sale or garage sale where there’s invariably a box of old tools I suggest there was (at least) one of any piece you mind find. Claw hammer, ball hammer, shoe maker’s hammer, hand sledge hammer, small tack hammer, all hung together in descending order of size. Large oil can, small oil can, oil in a glass bottle, petrol can, big funnel, little funnel, and… just stuff, just so much interesting stuff. And the smells, oh my goodness the scents that accosted our senses; turps, metho, paint, linseed oil, grease, small paint brushes in tin cans in turps, greasy rags, paint rags, rags with I have no idea what stuff on them but smelt like tar. Sometimes I could almost enter a Buddhist monk like trance breathing in all these aromas. Mind you, given everything that was in there, I was undoubtedly also getting a bit high in a chemical as well as a metaphysical sense.
Only slightly less fascinating was the outside laundry against which Pop’s tool shed stood. If the tool shed was ‘secret men’s business’ then the laundry was the equivalent for women, Nan specifically. The laundry itself was a brick annex, set a level below the rest of the house owing to the sloping block, and the spare bedroom, the one we kids slept in, was above the laundry. There was a white painted trellis on the rear wall with a struggling rambling rose tied against it, which poor thing in summer often lost even its few blooms as cricket balls were smashed in its direction. Inside of course is where the magic happened.
I guess I’d watched too many ‘jungle natives boil up explorer’ cartoons, as the large copper boiler in its concrete stand in the corner scared the jiminy crickets out of me. Only slightly less menacing was the old, wringer washing machine next to it, which was affectionately known as ‘the mangler’. A concrete wash tub and a small laundry cupboard made up the rest of the devices of deviousness with nary room to swing a cat between them. One day Nan had explained how everything worked but my fertile imagination still ran riot.
First off, to the incessant beat of jungle tom-toms and savage chanting, the hapless explorer was pumped for information via hands jammed into and wrung through the mangler, which was worked by turning a handle, so able to be precisely manipulated for best effect. Then from the cupboard were brought forth these little cloth bags of ‘blue’, which despite Nan’s insistence they were for whitening the clothes, I knew contained exotic poisons made from deadly blue frogs that only came out at night. Like spider’s venom, when force fed to the hapless explorer, they sedated, but not killed. And most assuredly not numbed, oh no, most assuredly not numbed. Then mangled, blue and in no fit state to resist, the poor sod was forced to watch as the boiler was brought up to a fine bubble-along, and slowly, most assuredly slowly, he was lowered into the copper vat. Cunningly, the boiler dissolved all flesh, leaving only clothes, boots and mandatory pith helmet as evidence that the explorer had ever even existed. Mind you, they were by then very clean and bright clothes, so maybe my Nan was onto something.
* * *
For me, our trips to Nan and Pop’s were always over way too soon, and after hugs and goodbyes we were in the car heading back to Wollongong with glum faces. However, there was a tonic to lift our spirits just before we got home, when we crested the top of Mount Ousley Pass and the vista across Wollongong and the Illawarra coastal plain then across to the Pacific Ocean came into view. In spring and summer the views were framed by the glorious red flowers of the Illawarra Flame Trees (Poinciana) that grew along the highway. Invariably our mum would spot them first and remark,
“Look boys, Illawarra flame trees. Aren’t they beautiful?”
The gloom of leaving our exciting adventures in Somerset Street and ‘the big smoke’ lifted and the warming sense of being back in familiar territory took over; we were back home. Decades later the iconic Australian rock band Cold Chisel would sing, ‘…the flame trees will blind the weary driver, and there’s nothing else to set fire to this town…’. While the song harks back to Grafton, on the New South Wales northern coast, every time I hear it the memories of coming home back down Mount Ousley, past all those glorious flame trees, after trips to Nan and Pop’s, floods back to me, as if it was only...
It was only yesterday, surely?
Yet for all the exciting things that I remember from Somerset Street, one of my strongest memories is of the everyday sounds and smells that still come back to remind me of those days. At times, when the adults and Pete were doing their own things, I would kneel on my bed under the window, pull up the clattering venetian blinds, open the sash and listen. I didn’t know what the names of the birds were back then, so in summer particularly, the trilling calls of Indian Mynahs, the soft churring coos of pigeons, even the short, sharp chirps of the common sparrows created a sound track that was for me both familiar and exotic. If Pop had just mowed the buffalo grass, which was more than likely given it was a weekly ritual, the scent of the freshly cut grass and the flowering climbing rose would play a soft counterpoint melody to the calling of the birds.
Not that I realised it then, but an understanding was being seeded in me during those days at Somerset Street, that life, in all it’s complex simplicity, is a miracle and one never to be taken for granted.
Thank you birds, thank you grass, thank you Nan and Pop.
Thank you Somerset Street.
Pop surveying his newly mown lawn