Pat Toomer

Cousin Bill: An invitation to Dinner

Houseboat on a river

‘He’s a bit of a character,’ they’d say.

‘He’s an old bugger,’ someone would be sure to reply.

Everyone who meets Bill has an opinion, usually at each end of the spectrum. So, let me describe Cousin Bill as he is today.

Bill stands about five foot eight, a nuggety build and pretty agile for his eighty-five or so years.  His weathered arms coloured and wrinkled by the sun. His face, equally weathered has settled into the wrinkles that surround one twinkling blue eye, and the laughter lines around his mouth. 

Bill wears a black leather patch over his left eye, the result of a fracas several years back. Trouble seems to follow Bill around, or some may say, he looks for it.

Well worn and comfortable King G pants, a nondescript equally worn top and a peaked cap with the legend ‘Captain’ written on the front that covers a head almost devoid of hair. The mouth that grins often, shows gaps, in the not so pearly whites.  

‘A wicked smile,’ they’d say. 

We found Bill, pottering around, watering his flower-pots on ‘The Gunbower.’ The small Houseboat that he’s called home for twenty years. After greetings, and a catchup, we asked if he’d like to come and have lunch at he local pub. He spruced himself up, put on his going out cap and off we went to The Royal Hotel in a small community on the NSW side of the River Murray. Here Bill regaled us with stories from his travels on the river.

In South Australia, it is apparently against the law to live on a houseboat, if one didn’t have a mooring. So, Bill spent years dodging the ‘Inspector’ who would issue him with ‘a bluey.’ A fine. I’m not sure Bill ever paid one of those fines, so he became quite well known to ‘the Inspector’ who could recognise his boat from a distance and seek him out. Occasionally his mobile would ring. 

‘Hello?’ He would say.

‘Better get a move-on Bill. The Inspector’s on his way.’ Someone would say.

‘Thanks Mate,’ he’d reply. Then immediately look for a small creek where he would take his boat and lay low until the danger had passed, cackling all the while.

People up and down the river, loved him, and often rang to warn him that the ‘Inspector’ was on the prowl. Occasionally, if there was no little creek or inlet in sight, the Inspector would catch up and issue him with yet another bluey and send him on his way.

‘He’s retired now you know,’ he said. ‘That Inspector. Retired a couple of years ago.’ His voice sounded almost wistful that his nemesis of so many years was no more. 

‘So how often do you take The Gunbower out now Bill?’   We asked

‘Oh well, I can’t drive it now. They reckon my eyesight’s not good enough to drive, so I just stay in the one place.’ His one good eye twinkled, and in a conspiratorial whisper said. ‘Officially I live in a cabin at the Caravan Park, but I just use that for storage. I actually live and sleep on the boat. It’s comfortable on the River, has everything I need. The water laps against the sides, and I can fish if I want to.’

He sighed a contented sigh, and we smiled with him, that became a laugh out loud. I wonder what that old ‘Inspector’ would make of it all.  

Lunch over, we took him back to his home, and said goodbye till our next visit. Bill has many stories so who knows, perhaps I’ll write some more about Cousin Bill’s reflections on his life another time.

Pat Toomer © 2020

Consequences

Research Methods was a subject that did not sit well with me. A totally alien concept, that I struggle to even remember what it was forty years later. Except, that one took raw data from research and did things to it in order to make sense to someone else.

It was maths with bell shape curves, and strange sounding names for mysterious numbers and letters in brackets. I have never been able to work out how you could add up or subtract a letter. Computers were in their infancy, so we were all learning how to tame that beast as well.

Now Whyalla was a med size town, and their University offered some interesting degree courses, one of which was Social Work.  I was happy enough to collect the data from research but decided I would just hand it over to someone else to decipher it if necessary.

‘Why would I need to know how to do this?’ I asked my Tutor.

 ‘So you can pass the subject,’ he replied. ‘It is part of the curriculum, and if you want to graduate, you must pass this.’

The semester passed slowly, and painfully, with much throwing up of arms and running fingers through hair in public. Screaming abuse at home sent family members off in all directions. Managing to just scrape through, and not learning anything useful for the entire year, the last assignment was due.

By this time I was a nervous wreck, as were my family, not to mention my delightful tutor who cringed when he saw me coming.  As I finished my assignment, with about 15 minutes to the deadline, I printed it out, then rushed to the Uni to hand it in. Knocking on the door of his office, I was invited inside. The Tutor looked at his watch and I rummaged in my bag for the assignment to place on his desk.

‘Just in time Pat,’ he said. ‘I’m proud of you.’

Still rummaging in my bag, I pulled out the assignment and plonked it down with a resounding thud.

 ‘Well, I’m sure this is quite good,’ he said. ‘But why are you giving me your Social Work Assignment?’

No, no, no. I grabbed it back, not believing what he was saying, but there it was. A completed assignment not due for a few more days, and not Research Methods.

 ‘I’ve left it home,’ I wailed.

 ‘You still have ten minutes Pat,’ he replied.

Grabbing the paper, I careered out of his office, into the car and drove like a maniac the short distance to my house. Then grabbing the offending article, drove like a maniac, pulled up at the entrance in the no-parking area and ran to his office, not bothering to knock.

He was sitting at his desk, watch in hand.

 ‘You’re five minutes late Pat,’ he said. ‘You know I can’t accept assignments after the cut off time.’

I threw myself gasping for air into the chair opposite his desk.

 ‘But.’ He said. ‘Just this once then. Now scram so I can do some work.’

Too traumatised to even say thank-you, I just left the office, and was pretty sure there were muffled guffaws coming from that general direction.

Now the really hard time came. Waiting for the results to come out. When they appeared on the notice board, I approached with some trepidation. If I didn’t pass, I would have to repeat the subject the following year. Hardly daring to look down the list of names, there it was, D-. That Dear man gave my 50%, just for trying, I think. Or maybe he just couldn’t bear the thought of having to put up with me the following year.

© Pat Toomer 2019

The Overcoat

 

Graduation day couldn’t come fast enough. After completing the first year of a Social Work degree, while working full time, and being a single mum to two small children, I had to postpone my studies in 1978. Fast forward to 1994, a new marriage, a new child, and a new address beckoned me to complete what I started all those years ago.

My family came up to Whyalla for the Graduation Ceremony. It was a wonderful celebration. My mother, a dressmaker since age 16 had continued through the years to make all our clothes. Specially for this event, she made me a Graduation Gown, the black intricate gown with tiny pleats at the shoulder and across the back. It was made and worn with love that day, and several members of the family have now used it for their own graduation. It hangs in my wardrobe.

She also made for herself, a beautiful overcoat. The fabric was a deep bottle green, with red stripes running through it, making a wide criss-cross pattern. Around the neck and running down to the hem, the fabric was pleated into two folds. There were no buttons, it simply met edge to edge.

My mum looked wonderful that day, and she wore that coat for many years. It always reminded me of my graduation. She died this year a few weeks short of her 98th birthday, and I now have and wear her green and red overcoat. I love it. When I’m feeling a bit sentimental, there is the wonderful sensation of having her arms around me.

© Pat Toomer 2019

 

Puce Pink and Donkey Brown

‘Halfway there,’ she said. Only another two hours to go, or more if we stop.’

They had driven from Whyalla, and the little green cottage just south of Crystal Brook on the Augusta Highway was the half-way point between Whyalla and Adelaide.

‘Pull over,’ he said. ‘I’ll drive now.’

She slowed the car and pulled up right outside the house.

‘There’s a For Sale sign, want to have a look?’

‘No. It looks like it’s falling down.’

‘Good spot though and looks like there’s a bit of land with it too.’

Reluctantly, she followed him, ambling off down the driveway.

‘The price is rather good, and it’s much easier to get to Adelaide from here.’ He said.

They peered through the front windows, noting the crumbling cracks in the verandah. She laughed out loud when they made their way to the rear of the house. Most of the louvre windows were broken, and gaps filled with various odd vits of timber, also broken.

The back yard completely covered with a dense weed mat.

‘But there’s a shed’ he said.

 ‘Ya can’t live in a ruddy shed,’ she replied. ‘Anyway it looks as if it’s falling down.’

 ‘Only some of it. And, it’s a pretty solid double brick house.’

They continued the trip to Adelaide, he deep in thought, she, not giving it any thought at all.

 ‘I’d like to see it properly,’ he said. ‘Inside.’

 ‘Really? Are you crazy?’

So he rang the Real Estate agent, and made a time for them to have a look inside.

 ‘Dear God,’ she said at first glance.

‘Well, there is an order on the house,’ said the Agent. ‘Not fit for human habitation, so there is work to be done. Oh and the Council will have to inspect.’ The Agent continued.

 ‘Really?  You surprise me.’ She muttered.

  As they walked around, she began to catch just a little bit of his enthusiasm.  I guess, it could be OK. Himself needs a project now he’s retired, and we don’t want to stay in Whyalla.

They talked about it over the next few weeks, had another viewing, and eventually bought it. He was in his element. Every surface of the house needed work beginning with the floors, then walls, then ceilings, roof plumbing and electrical re-wiring, and on it went.  

He camped in the lounge, the only room with an air conditioner, while she returned to Whyalla to pack up the Whyalla house, and visited from time to time. He shared this haven with the various critters that had made it their home. Swallows had taken up residence in the back room, bees ditto in the fireplace. And we won’t mention mice and their larger cousins under the floorboards.  It was seriously interesting when some of the floorboards disappeared, then the loo. A porta-potty solved that little problem, and so it went on. Week after Month. He beavering away, little by little, she now taking some interest with the important stuff. Like what colour walls and curtains.

The lounge room boasted a spectacular feature wall of puce pink, and the main bedroom, a deep donkey brown that needed some cosmetic help. What were they thinking? She asked herself. That was ten years ago, and today, what is himself up to? 

Fixing cracks and painting. Again.     

© Pat Toomer 2020