Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Afternoon tea.

It was the nicest cup of tea I'd ever drunk. Perhaps it was where I was, or who had made it. I was standing in the enormous reception room of an old Anglican rectory at three o’clock on a cold Thursday afternoon. Gas heaters flickered high up on the walls. It would have been a very cold room when not in use, which seemed to be most of the time. Several large trestle tables, laden with food, ran almost the length of the room to the western wall, where a large stained glass window with a dove and a cross in it stretched up about twenty feet. Behind tables, ladies were wielding giant teapots and the tea was flowing, like the Diamantina in flood, into a regiment of cups and saucers all lined up in perfect formation. There must have been forty people in the room, queuing for tea and eyeing off the spread, which consisted of rolled-up asparagus sandwiches, tiny pastries, scones topped with jam and cream, strawberry and lemon lamingtons, butterfly cakes, rum balls and more of the kinds of items that will die out with this generation of CWA ladies. The conversation was animated now; rueful smiles giving way to the odd laugh, more of relief than anything. It's always the way after the funeral of someone who has lived a reasonably happy life and has died in old age.


It was a bitingly cold June day, and the sky had been a brittle grey as we stood, earlier, outside the funeral chapel in the grounds of a sprawling cemetery full of bare trees and clipped roses waiting for spring and gravelled pathways. We had huddled under the porch as a shower of rain moved across and fell on the chapel and passed. When we went inside, three people moved into the front pew, and the rest of us filed in behind and sat at a respectful distance.


I had known R. for thirty years at the sports club, but not well. He was always there, part of the place. Sometimes you barely notice them until they are gone. We knew he had been an Olympian and was a home-town hero in Melbourne in 1956, and that after retiring, he had continued to take part in the sport as an official and a judge; and then later, when he could not be so active, he kept records and took photos of events and ran the website and posted results and wrote reviews. Beyond that we knew nothing.


The funeral director gave his one-size-fits-all oration, which was nice enough but he'd probably given the same speech twice already that day. Then he called on a relative to speak. One of the three in the front row, a man about sixty, got up and came to the microphone. He started from the beginning. R.'s parents had married in the late 1920s at Christ Church, Brunswick - on the corner of Sydney Road and Glenlyon Road - and had had a child the following year. R. was born a year later. When he was twelve months old, his brother had died. He would not remember him. Another year went by and a third child was born, a girl this time. But tragedy struck again, and around R.'s fourth birthday, their mother died. This was at the height of the Depression. No social welfare, no benefits, no family allowance. No work. A man could not raise two infant children. The family was disbanded. The children were farmed out to distant relatives – apart – and were never reunited - with themselves, nor with their father. In succession, R. had lost a brother, a mother, then a sister and a father at one blow.


The nephew's speech produced a deadly silence, such was the hidden tragedy it revealed. He said the rest of the family had known about R., and had seen him in the news in the 1950s. But there had never been a reunion, and it was not revealed which party, if either, had failed to make contact; or alternately, had refused overtures from the other party. Nor why. After his speech, the nephew returned to the front pew, next to a woman in her early sixties whom he resembled, and a much older woman, plainly their mother. The funeral ended and the three family members went out into the clear, cold afternoon. The rest of us followed. As she walked down the aisle, the older woman's head had been erect and her eye dry.


Dr. Alice said...

That's so sad. The older woman must be the sister. Perhaps R found a substitute family in the camaraderie of sport, training and the Athletic Club. I hope so.

The stories of people's lives, the things we don't know, never cease to amaze me.

mish said...

Reading this piece has left me tingly all over. The complexities that are families (sigh) ... Your writing demonstrates to me that you are (prehaps one of the few of us who) takes time to 'smell the roses'/reflect and strives to instil in your sons the joy contained in the simple things.

I hope you'll continue to share your stories for a long time yet.


Barbara said...

Lots of "what if's" in that story. What if times had been different. What if their mother had survived long enough to raise the children together. What if they'd both had the desire and opportunity to enjoy tea and lamingtons together while they still could. It's nice, I think, that the nephew cared enough to stand up at his uncle's funeral and say a few words.