Authors: Libby Hathorn
Especially for my sister
rom the back verandah, Ingrid Crowe watched her dog Blackie chase a stray bird across the garden. She saw the tall gum tree giving slightly in the breeze and, beneath it, her little sister Pippa playing happily in the sand pit. It looked the same as any other day out there. But it wasn’t. Her mother had just told her something bad. Something so shocking it was going to change the whole world. Ingrid’s mother had told her she was going to burn their house down. That’s what she’d said. Burn it to the ground on purpose!
the old weatherboard house that had been home to them for the past two years, ever since they’d come to live here in the Blue Mountains.
‘What’re you doing, Mum?’ Ingrid had asked, coming in from the washing line almost submerged in a bundle of clothes.
‘What d’you think I’m doing?’ Mum had asked, looking up over the kerosene tin she was holding. ‘Pouring kero into this thing.’
Ingrid didn’t dare ask why outright, but a blade of fear sliced right through her as she put the clothes down
slowly and carefully on the old cedar table. Mum answered, anyway.
‘Because,’ she raised her eyes to Ingrid’s, ‘because I’m going to burn this lousy old house down, that’s what.’ She didn’t make many jokes, so Ingrid knew she was serious. She watched dumbfounded as more kerosene swirled into the enamel dog bowl.
Some of it splashed onto the linoleum, but Mum didn’t stop to wipe it up. And yet Mum had always gone mad on her, whenever she’d filled the old heater and spilt as much as a drop of the strong-smelling stuff. She was extra fussy about the way Ingrid filled the line-up of lamps with paraffin oil for the kitchen and bedrooms; or the more handsome cut glass lounge room lamps, when they had paying guests to stay. Even though it was 1954, electricity hadn’t been connected yet to their house on the edge of the village of Blackheath. So filling the lamps was Ingrid’s job – and the heater, when they didn’t light the open fire.
Everyone knew that kero was never, never poured carelessly into open containers like this.
‘But Mum –’ She was shocked.
‘You heard right, Ingrid. I’m going to burn the damned house down. Tonight.’ She said this in a triumphant voice, the same way she might go on over the extra money from departing boarders for something they didn’t realise they’d broken, in their short stay. On account of Mum and her ways, no one ever stayed long.
‘Hate to mention it, but there wasn’t a sign of a tear in that bedroom blind – not before you came, Mr Donnelly, sir. Not so much as a crease in it.’ This with Ingrid right there beside her, though Ingrid knew it was an outright lie.
‘That jug and basin set was perfect, not a chink out of it. Dear me, and now the lip of the bowl – such a shame, Mr Evans,’ when Ingrid knew the chip on the blue and white ringed basin had been carefully rotated to the back of the washstand. Mum only ever tried it on with the male boarders, these extras. ‘Women are sharper in every way,’ she would tell Ingrid with that glint in her eye, as she tucked the money deep into her brassiere.
The glint was there this sharp spring morning. But this was not about a tear or a chip. Or a lie to a boarder. It was something else altogether. Mum had been strange for days with her two daughters, distant even with little Pippa, her pretty four-year-old, so like her in looks – the one she clearly favoured. And this morning she’d been downright mean.
Ingrid looked harder at her mother. Pretty and young as she was, her hair was wispy untidy today, a sign she was out of sorts. She was without an apron, strange at this time of the day, and her floral dress that was usually pinned with the Scotty dog brooch, gaped open, showing her old swami petticoat and too much white flesh.
‘Where’s Pippa?’ she asked, rummaging noisily for more enamel bowls behind the innocent blue and white material that curtained the shelves under the sink. Ingrid swallowed hard.
‘Pippa’s in the sandpit, Mum, playing peg dolls,’ she managed, making a mental note not to let their old dog Blackie into the house. He’d lap up the kero and drop down dead.
‘Good. Then you can help me, Ingrid. And don’t look at me in that doe-eyed way of your father’s. I gotta do this and you just gotta help me. There’s no other way, or we go
straight to wrack and ruin. You and Pippa into a home, first thing. And your brothers too.’
This was her mother’s favourite wrack-and-ruin refrain, heard more often since Grandma Logan died over a year ago now. There was no Grandma Logan to calm her mother down when she went off the air like this about her life. ‘Don’t be so angry about everything. Sometimes you’ve got to go the long way round, Elizabeth, to find your way. But there’s always a way, and I should know!’
‘We’re going to wrack and ruin, Ingrid, wrack and ruin,’ Mum said. ‘Won’t be long until the bailiffs come and toss us out with our furniture, such as it is. Out on the footpath. Children’s home for you and your sister, then, and that’s all there is to it. Useless government won’t be any help. It’ll be out on the street with all of us, and who’ll care? Not a sod, that’s who.’
And the worst times were at Grandma Logan’s dressing table, tilting the lamp too close to her creamy white, smooth face, framed like an angel’s with crinkly golden hair.
‘See how old this place is making me? Take a real good look at my face, Ingrid. All these new wrinkles round my eyes – that line there, and that one. To hell with this life! You kids – it’s too hard. It’s killing me.’
Sometimes she’d start to cry and throw Ingrid out of the room. Sometimes even break things that had belonged to Grandma Logan, though never the fine cut glass perfume bottle she’d always admired, with the fancy silken tassel and fat pink rubber pump. Those bad times, after Mum’s facestaring, could be avoided if Ingrid got in fast.
‘No, Mum, your skin’s still as smooth as a peach. Mr Johnson was only remarking the other day how young you
looked for a woman with four kids of her own. Like my big sister, really.’ She knew how to soothe and she’d take up the brush if she were allowed, and brush and brush her mother’s pretty, curly hair until, fixing her gaze on the new image in the mirror, her mother became dreamy.
‘I think I can still extend our credit, you know. That grocer, he fancies me. I’m not bad for a woman of thirty-four, not bad at all. If it weren’t for that hard-faced bitch of a wife of his, always hanging around…’
No, Mum, not the grocer. There’d been a scandal in the town right after Grandma Logan died. Edward, the son of big-time Mr Curzon, of Curzon’s Drapery, had started to call. And then didn’t bother calling anymore, because he’d moved right into one of the empty rooms of their guest house. He was just a boy. That’s what his father had said when he came to fetch him.
‘Shame on you, Mrs Crowe!’ Ingrid heard him say – not shame on his silly-looking son. ‘Eddie is just a boy,’ he’d said, when Eddie wasn’t a boy at all and surely could make up his own mind about where he wanted to live. ‘Just a boy.’
‘We have to eat,’ her mother had told her angrily, when Eddie left shamefaced with his bag of clothes, but without a goodbye. ‘And we need boarders. That’s all there is to it.’
But Mum didn’t need to make up to that nosey grocer, if that was what she was thinking. After all, they weren’t
Since Grandma’s house and the Blue Mountains, there’d always been enough food. Who cared about fancy biscuits or jams or peanut butter, when Grandma Logan’s stove could turn out just about anything, and her garden and her hens supplied the table?
Ingrid could never understand why her mother talked endlessly of returning to Sydney. After Daddy had left – or, more correctly, after Mum had locked the door against him –
they’d known hunger for the first time. The kind that had made her mouth water just thinking about boiled egg, let alone a full baked dinner. And there was another kind of hunger, a longing to see Daddy again, that made her stomach cramp and her heart ache.
Now two years had passed, and although Grandma Logan had died so unexpectedly and left a great gap in their lives, things weren’t all that bad here at
even with no more boarders coming. So why on earth was Mum thinking about doing such a thing – and tonight? What was going on? She swallowed hard, trying to think of something to say.
‘So you just drag the kero tin down the hall right to the front door – only a little bit left in it. And don’t let me hear another word!’ Mum’s voice was extra cold and hard.
Now Ingrid was good and frightened. Mum didn’t often let her in on her plans. They were usually sprung on the family at the last moment. So this was the last moment, then. This – this
Mum was planning to do. And unless something was done to stop her, it was going to happen. Mum was going to burn the house down, just like she said. Grandma Logan’s house – their house. It was the first real home she and Pippa had known in a long time.
They’d come here stony broke, as Mum liked to say. ‘Stony broke and with nowhere in the world to go but this wooden shack of a house I hate, up in the mountains I hate just as much. That no-good Alan, walking off like that. Had to get the boys into care, just had to, or we couldn’t survive.’
They’d come, Mum, Pippa and Ingrid, a grim little group on the train, so cold, the guard had brought metal foot warmers people usually got in first class, and lingered to talk to Mum.
‘Boring, all this mountain scenery,’ she had exclaimed, clutching one large battered port and Ingrid managing two little ones, as they crunched across the neat little railway platform at Blackheath, the sky already drooping with the promise of snow. A look of wonder on Pippa’s face to see so many trees, a lump in Ingrid’s throat to see such beauty all around, and Grandma Logan beaming at them, right in the middle of it.
The relief, the delight of Grandma with her big rambly house that smelled of cooking, flowers and furniture polish, all mingled. And then the added comforting smell of fresh chopped wood in the big old kitchen, where it was stacked neatly by the stove, and in the lounge room as well, where the stack had its own fancy metal box. The smell was sweet – like Daddy’s pipe, after he’d fussed around with packing it for five minutes before he lit it and inhaled. Helping Grandma Logan with those fireplaces, so big Pippa could walk right into each of them without ducking down one bit, even cleaning out the ashes was good fun.
Fireplaces always made her think of her father’s fire-lighting rituals, the way he used to lay fires, so neat, the small spatter of sticks and the scrunched newspaper lit in two or three places real quick, flames taking, then growing and shooting up, so that the big, artfully placed logs were soon at their mercy.
‘There’s a roar in a fire when it gets going, love. A throaty roar that means it’s away, and warming up our nights. I
always think there’s a song lurking somewhere in the warmth of a good fire,’ he’d say. Sometimes he’d take up his mouth organ and there’d be a tune or two that would bring her brothers.
Except for the fact that he was far away and the boys hadn’t arrived yet, Ingrid was mostly happy at Grandma’s. It was so beautiful up here in the mountains’ clear light air, and out of the dark little semi-detached house they’d shared in the city.
Grandma’s rambling house was perched on the edge of a cliff that looked down into a sweeping valley, the air sometimes so clear that the curving road on the valley floor, the farmhouses and paddocks, even the fence posts down there were brittle with colour. Other times when it was misty, snatches of view made Ingrid feel dreamy, as if she could sing something startling and sweet, glistening-green like the billowing trees and mossy-brown like the soft waterfall ledges falling all the way down to Megalong Valley.
She learned to cook at Grandma Logan’s generous fuel stove: apple pies with the perfect crust, scones light as bird’s feathers, sponge cakes deep enough to dive into. Food was so plentiful from Grandma’s own garden, even Mum, who picked at her meals between cigarette puffs, had put on weight here, which didn’t please her.
‘You should give up that dirty habit, Elizabeth, you really should. The money you spend, for one thing – but, what’s worse, your health!’
‘I will. I will. You know I plan to give up and soon, so don’t go on about it,’ Mum would answer readily enough. But the smoking didn’t stop.
Despite missing her two brothers, Ingrid was mostly happy here in her grandmother’s house, even though Mum and Grandma Logan had fought night and day.
Mum fought with everyone, after all, and here in the big house, no one would knock on the walls and scream at her to pipe down. And Grandma hadn’t been rattled by her, the way Daddy, and then Alan Oldfield, had been.
‘You can send to Wallerawang for the boys now. Freddy and Charlie need a home, too.’
Ingrid’s heart had felt like it would almost stop, as she listened from the sleepout on the verandah, where she sometimes chose to sleep just so she could look up at the stars. They seemed so much closer and brighter here in a sky that was surely wider and deeper and darker. And just before sunrise, if she made her way to the toilet, she could see a certain stubborn star that seemed to hang on in the dawn sky just for her. She wished on that star for Freddy and Charlie, even though she was beginning to feel it was a useless wish. And on those sleepout nights when conversations about the boys took place, as Mum had her final cup of tea before bed, she’d pray, ‘Please, Mum, say yes tonight. Just say yes.’
‘I can’t manage four kids, and the boys are just fine out at Wallerawang for a while yet. I’ll see them soon enough. I’m not staying here in this hole forever, you know,’ Mum would warn Grandma Logan as if it was she who was making them stay at
‘When I get work in the city, then that’s the time the boys can come home. Meanwhile, they’re sure to be happy as Larry in Wallerawang.’
The name of the place was like a plaintive refrain in Ingrid’s head. Some unknown woman on
a farm, who took in foster kids, had taken big strong Freddy, and curly-headed Charlie – board and lodgings just for a few months. They’d only have a few chores, like helping with the milking and a few extra farm jobs round the place. ‘They’ll be fine with me,’ she’d promised. ‘Good little school not too far away.’ Ingrid didn’t know why her mother believed the grim-faced woman who’d come to see them and who seemed cold as a stick.