Home – The ClownChild.
Every large family has a 'Clown' child. I was our family's. It
was my self appointed duty to perform, whenever I saw the need.
This need was never more strongly felt than when the more rigid
of our relatives visited for cups of tea. For a short time I
would tell them outrageous tall tales and outright lies. My poor
parents never knew what little gem I was going to drop which
would endanger their young respectability. Most times I didn't
either, it all just flowed.
My eyes saw all and what they didn't see they imagined. My ears
heard things that others didn't. Every event was embellished,
drawn out, and acted out for those difficult visitors. Difficult
visitors, came to tea and sat. They would be very quiet and
appeared to notice every bit of fluff, every cracked cup. They
would answer mum's attempts at conversation with only the minimum
words, and I could see that action was needed. They expected
someone to entertain them.
This was my cue.
I saw myself as relieving the situation. Nothing like a few funny stories to
break the ice. A few home secrets tossed in for good measure,
always helped. Make them laugh Therese and then you can go
outside and play with the others. Mum will be okay then. Feeling
like mum's protector I was quick to see through the thin veneer
of politeness and almost feel the tiny stabs, the cruel digs, "Oh
Margaret you're not pregnant again are you?". I did not know what
pregnant was but mum's face would look sad and other people had
no right to make mum sad. That was our job as kids!!
Mum was almost too kind and gentle for her own good. She breast
fed in the 'bottle-fed’ sixties, 'on demand'. She cuddled the
babies when they cried, wore her hair naturally, and her dresses
flowing and floral. The more vicious relatives would pick away at
her, sensing a potential victim. I didn't know the words for
these things then, but I knew what I felt.
Later she would be in the kitchen cleaning up. I always felt a
bit afraid of what I had actually said, but most often she'd be
laughing away to herself. "You really are a card," she'd say
beaming. I had my reward.
Life at home in my primary school years was most of all, safe.
School was a totally different matter. Like having a split
personality. At home we were all loved and allowed to be
ourselves. I could bring home big bags of rocks for my
collection; I could dig holes for treasure, if I was careful. I
could paint, draw and go out in the yard and sing my lungs out in
full confidence of my place in the family.
Mum often spoke about Mrs Millar, who looked after her and her
father after her mother had died when mum was nearly four. She
showed Mrs Millar's photo and spoke about her in such way that
she took on almost mythical proportions. Mum needed to know that
I understood about how she felt and what better way than a life
sized drawing of Mrs Millar, on the newly painted wall of our
bedroom. In heavy lead, shaded to perfection, grew this icon,
complete with horn rimmed glasses and striped dress. On the most
prominent wall of the bed room. Mum would be so pleased.
June, only eighteen months older, but vastly more responsible,
came in and looked at it, eyes widening. "Dad's going to kill
you!", which gave me a totally different perspective on my
actions. It was the sort of paint that the more you scrubbed it
the worse the mess became. The ghastly blob that awaited mum's
approval bore little resemblance to the much lauded Mrs Millar,
except for the glasses. A bemused look of shock from mum, and a
very quiet, " I don't know what your father will say when he gets
home... but it does look like her!" I don't remember dad's reaction.
Sometimes the fear of waiting for punishment was the worst that
happened, being out of favour was far worse than physical
punishment. The occasional slaps and even more rare hidings we
got meant that we got away with more than we were caught for.
Occasionally I'd find dad with his arms around mum's waist. She
would be giggling in a different way. Although I was pleased, I
instinctively knew to back off at these times. Mum and Dad were
obviously deeply in love and arguments were rare. The worst one I
recall was when Dad had had too much to drink one Friday evening,
and Mum got so wild she threw one of Grandfather's beautiful
ceramic egg cups at him and missed. That was the only potentially
violent incident I ever witnessed. Grandfather had recently died
and mum was more upset over the egg cup being broken, than the
cause of the argument.
The odd times when dad knew he may be in
trouble, he would arrive home with big bags of lollies, smiling
benignly. Then, rather ponderously he would divide these in order
of type so that we each got exactly the same. Like a pack of
vultures we would watch the whole process to make sure that no
one got one crumb more than the other. We were all then dad's
advocates and the situation became like a small party.
A long hall ran through the middle of our home. Its length and
placement of the doors provided an 'on- off' stage for all the
concerts the three eldest of us put on for mum and dad, who were
obliged to sit in the audience chairs in the kitchen. With a
flourish the door would be flung back violently and they'd just
better be sitting attentively waiting for the start. Timing was
important in these impromptu but well produced masterpieces.
I loved to be up before sunrise when I would be the only one
awake except for dad. These mornings were special. We would make
up the fire and make toast. Then I would follow dad around our
huge yard and talk. The yard would be misty and unusual. We would
sometimes watch the sunrise out in the front and hear the small
town wake up. Then the mystery of the yard would fade as sunlight
Many years later, my own small family drove over to visit my
mother in Scone. We stopped at a tiny pub at Moonan Flat after a
very long hot drive over the Barrington Tops. I noticed a strange
old man, with the look of death all over him, staring at me. We
started speaking and he asked me was I any relation to Fred
Spencer. I was surprised and pleased to find any one who still
remembered dad, and saw a likeness. Dad had died tthirty five years
He said to me,
"Do you remember me? I was the Sanitary man. You used to sit
out the front of your house and talk to me just about every week
when you were little." Flash! There it was. I remembered. At
about 4.30am once a week he would run down our long drive,
thump...thump... thump..., empty pan hoisted high. I'd spring out
of bed and be ready for him on his return trip with the full pan.
We talked for some time and it was always interesting. I was so
grateful for the memory, and knew that we shared something no one
else did. he was somewhat of a philosopher and spoke about things
I had never heard of, which was just about everything in those
days. Mum would have been horrified at the thought that rather
than being safely tucked up in bed I was elsewhere.
One year dad dug a long trench in the yard for a pipe. We had
awful trouble with the waste water, and he was always cleaning
the grease trap. This huge trench was yet another effort to get
the water away from the house. This trench was left open till dad
could get back to it. It became the running joke in the town how
the ill fated sanitary man running in with the empty pan, missed
it completely, only to fall into it on the return journey,
copping the contents of the full pan. For the uninitiated it was
not a pan as such, but more the size of a four gallon drum.
Whether or not it was the same sanitary man that I was friends
with I don't know, probably not as it was some few years later.
All we knew in the morning was that there were a few extra little
bits of newspaper on the grass. Unsuspecting, we of course were
the last to find out until the story had been around the town
more than once. The tale grew, went width ways, underwent
metamorphosis and became funnier with each addition. The trench
got deeper; the pan fuller; larger and more disgusting. There
were maggots; no there were swarms of blowflies (in the middle of
the night?) There was everything imaginable in that pan, and
wasn't the Sanitary man lucky to still be alive. He walked with a
limp; no he broke his leg. It took him ages to shovel it all up;
no he had to use his hands. Chinese whispers had nothing on this
story. By the time we heard it, the trench was neatly filled in
and functioning perfectly, it even had grass shoots.
The night they told dad, in the pub he was set up. Surrounded to
see his reaction, and assured that somehow all the versions were
true. Mum was very embarrassed and I can remember her saying over
"Oh! Fred!....Oh! Fred!". Poor mum who grew up with such
‘gentility’ must have wondered about these grotty, earthy, amazing
people, who shone so much light on the vagaries of human nature
for an observant small town child.