Long-ago luxuries

I have finally been sorting through the saved flood-damaged files and photos, not without much regret and a few tears, throwing out many, reviving some and surmising what must have been deemed beyond hope and tossed by my helpers in the flood aftermath.

My daughter had dried these curling and stuck-together remnants; I just have not been able to face them.

I came across this drawing, intended for what I can’t recall, but it did set me reminiscing on just how primitive were the bathing facilities … and the leaky tank water supply… with which I grew up.

No shower, a once-a-week bath in inches of water, daily face and hands washing in a basin on a chair, which was then set on the floor for feet washing while one sat on the chair.  And we did not get a bath or a basinful each, but shared it: Mum first, then down through the sisters, with Dad last.

The once-a-week hair washing was done over the cement laundry tubs, with a jug of warm water for rinsing. For years I was too short to do this comfortably, as the drawing shows!

The wood-fired copper heated the water for Mum’s washing, with a water-furred stick for stirring the clothes and for lifting them out to the adjacent tubs for rinsing.

Mum did have a small cloth bag of Bluo for special whites and a slab of rough sandsoap for Dad’s really dirty work clothes.

But overall one soap did all this, plus being grated into the wire mesh soap holder for dishwashing: a plain yellow bar of Sunlight, the sort that would now be considered only fit for the laundry. 

The dishwashing was done in another dish, on the kitchen table, with a metal tray beside it for the brief draining of dishes before our tea towels seized them. There was no hot water on tap in kitchen, bathroom or laundry. The kettle on the fuel stove heated the washing-up water, while a ferocious and highly unpredictable chip heater loomed at the end of the claw-footed bath for the daring to light.

How did we survive without the hundreds of options in personal soaps, bodywashes, shampoos, conditioners, water softeners, pre-washes, stain removers, laundry powders or liquids?

How did my mother?!!

I can still recall the wonder of my first shower, elsewhere, as a late teenager. 

So my years of outdoor bush showers and washing at the kitchen sink at the Mountain were not hard; they were luxuries!

Sunkisses payback

I am taking a break from my usual nature rambles as I am undergoing a month’s radiation for a dangerous skin cancer lurking somewhere in my nose. Meanwhile I have to keep it out of the sun and can’t wear sunscreen on this tender part. It now looks very badly sunburnt anyway! Or blowtorched…

So instead I am sharing ‘Sunkisses’, a very relevant extract from Ch.16 of my first book, ‘The Woman on the Mountain’, and which was published as a stand-alone piece in a 2006 anthology, Stories for a long summer by Catchfire Press. I’m sure it will bring back memories for many!

The drawing was meant for that chapter, ‘Let the sun shine…’ but the publishers decided not to use illustrations in the end.


Summer once meant glorious, golden sunshine, for outdoor playing and swimming, from sunup to sundown if we could wangle it. Painful sunburn and peeling skin was inevitable, every year, for everyone except those with foreign, that is, not English, Irish or Scottish, skin. We soothed the burns by dabbing with vinegar or cut tomatoes, picked at the dry skin as it peeled, and drew satisfaction from extra long strips removed. Noses and shoulders were always the worst and most frequently burnt. As new freckles appeared we joked about ‘sunkisses’. I could count mine then.

By my fifteenth year it was all about sunbaking in bikinis, a race to ‘get a tan’ quickest, grilling our bodies like skinny sausages, assisted by a coconut oil baste. This ritual was interrupted only by an occasional stroll to the water, mainly to see and be seen by the unattainable golden boys with their goods on show in Speedos. As our costumes shrank to four brief triangles, soft and virginal bands of flesh burnt so badly the pink turned livid, yellowish, and school uniforms and seats could hardly be borne on Mondays. But we persevered, for white skin had the connotation of slugs, not porcelain. Not that I’d ever have the choice again, having by now acquired a permanent shawl of sunkisses.

Fifteen years later, summer meant the annual angst in front of unfriendly mirrors and lying saleswomen over whether we could still get away with wearing a two-piece costume. It was spent supervising sandcastles and shell collections, soggy towels and gritty kids, with hardly a minute to ourselves for sunbaking. As we still did, with suntan lotion overall, zinc cream or sunscreen only applied to acknowledged vulnerable bits. We did wear hats.

These days summer brings danger. Sunbaking, suntanning, sunkisses – such antiquated words, such tragic innocence. Forget sunscreen; with the hole we’ve made in the ozone layer, we need sunblock. Slip, slop, slap. Kids are growing up with sunblock as their second skin, they swim in neck-to-knee lycra and aren’t allowed to play outside at school without a hat. They are taught to be as afraid of our once-beneficent sun as of strangers. It’s like science fiction come horribly true. I dread the announcement that constant exposure to sunscreen has been found to be carcinogenic, but I won’t be surprised.

My swimsuit mostly functions as a relic of my past, to be found scrunched in the back of a drawer along with lace handkerchiefs, suspender belts, French knickers and tired G-strings. Summer glare and heat are too savage for me to want to be outdoors at all. Instead of exposing winter flesh, I cover up more, never leaving my verandah without throwing on my sunfaded Akubra hat and the longsleeved cotton shirt, usually a man’s work shirt, second-hand, that will be hanging there.

Too many threatening spots and lumps have already been removed, after hiding amongst the thousands of freckles of my inappropriate Celtic skin. I go to my skin cancer clinic every six months for a checkup. The doctor, genetically brown-skinned and unfreckle-able, shakes his head at the mottled map of my youth each time I take off my shirt. 

Snakes Alive…

This is an extract from The Woman on the Mountain, Chapter 18, ‘Snakes Alive and Dead’, .

‘Once, when I was about nine, Dad and I and the leech-burning neighbour were in the bean paddock when we noticed a really big black snake sunning itself on a log beside the track. The practice then was to kill any snake one saw. The neighbour told Dad to throw his hat on the ground in front of the snake, and then run home for the hoe. He reckoned the snake wouldn’t move until the hat did.

‘I didn’t believe the snake would be so stupid, while the neighbour and I were standing — living, breathing, and so vulnerable — nearby. But he was right. That powerful, brilliant black creature was mesmerised by the hat and ignored us completely. Dad arrived, panting, and before I could think about it, swung the hoe high above his head and down, with all his strength, onto the motionless enemy. He chopped through the thick body once, twice, seemingly many times, in a turmoil now of thrashing black and red, and pink, until it lay still.

‘I think Dad felt as sick as I did.’

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Wet school days

Few modern parents would allow their children to take the risks that I frequently did to get to school in weather; well, perhaps they still would in the country…

From The Woman on the Mountain, Chapter 13: Wet and Wild

By the time I was thirteen I was used to our farm creek flooding, when I had to wade barefoot through knee- to thigh-deep water that covered the lower parts of our track and the road to the bus stop, half a mile away. My school shoes and stockings and a little towel were in my Globite school case, balanced on my head with one hand, the other keeping my tunic tucked up into my navy bloomers.

There was first the hurdle of our rickety wooden bridge, which lost at least one of its round logs each flood, the gap hidden beneath milky brown rushing water. It was a matter of inching forward, feeling with my toes for the gap that might drop me through to certain drowning, as the creek was full of bobbing and whirling branches and logs — more than a match for my feeble dogpaddle.

The farmer’s wife at the house next to the bus stop always let me get dressed on her verandah. I’d dry my cold legs and red feet, still tingling from walking on the sharp gravel of the road, and put on my black cotton stockings. Later in this particular flood school morning, I was commanded to the blackboard by the formidable Sister Augustine. I had passed up the aisle between the desks and was halfway across the open space of lino before the blackboard, when Sister’s sharp Irish voice rang out in the slow-rising-then-fast-falling rhythm she used for my name when I was about to get into trouble: ‘Sha-a-a…ryn Munro! What on earth is that?’ pointing at the floor near my feet.

Everybody stared at a trail of dark red spots that led from my desk to where I stood and where the spots were forming a small pool of what appeared to be blood. This blood was coming from somewhere up under my tunic, and given that menstruation was in the offing for all of us, she could have been more tactful. I was so ignorant it didn’t occur to me, or I’d have been even more embarrassed.

I was publicly commanded to go and find out what the trouble was. As I slunk out the door, she called, ‘Well at least there’s nothing the matter with your blood; it’s a lovely rich red!’ (She also taught biology — and geography, as it was a very small school.) In the toilets I rushed to unclip my suspenders and pull down my stockings. Out rolled a fat, gorged leech, its puncture mark on my thigh, just above where the stockings ended, still steadily oozing blood. It must have been there for hours, as it was now nearly eleven o’clock.

On my return I explained what the cause was, which drew not much more than a general ‘Ugh!’ from the class and a ‘Really!’ from my teacher, who gave me a bandaid and sent me to fetch a mop and bucket to clean up the blood. I had the distinct feeling that I had displayed something too basic, peasant-like, for my superior town classmates.

And I still shudder at leeches!

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Ending on a high note

With the recent news of an aunt’s sudden death, just five months after her husband’s, endings are on my mind. I now only have one aunt, and no uncles, left.

I was reminded of a short piece I wrote a few years ago, when a favourite uncle was terminally ill in hospital. I thought I’d share it with you.

A book in time

‘See that bloke in the end bed?’ says my uncle. ‘You ought to meet him, he’s written a book. And I think he’s related to the bloke who used to own your old house. Same odd name, anyway.’

‘That bloke’ is a perky fellow in his 70s, sitting on his bed in his dressing gown. In his mind he’s already left the sick and dying behind in this hospital; he hopes to be going home this afternoon. He’s escaped It this time.

I introduce myself. It turns out he is the uncle of the man I knew, but he’s nothing like his nephew, who was a coarse and ignorant fellow with hardly any teeth and a bitter outlook on life.

This Mr. N. is intelligent, amiable, neat. I ask about the book. He’s a bit embarrassed, but proud too. The printed copy only arrived in his hands today. ‘My grand-daughters have been at me for years to get it all down,’ he says. ‘The war, my squadron, lots of narrow escapes, you know. They always wanted to hear more stories… not that I ever told them the nasty stuff… but they liked the adventures, said listening to me it was as good as a book!’

I flick through it. The girls have had it printed for him, organised photos, layout, typed in the stories: they’ve done a good job. It looks inviting, interesting, humorous… like the writer, I think. I congratulate him on it, and the effort involved. ‘Lots of people apart from your family will enjoy this,’ I say. ‘It’s really important to get stories like yours down on paper. This is real history!’

He is pleased. My uncle has told him I am a writer… ‘But I haven’t got a book with my name on it,’ I smile. The doctor arrives just then for his discharge examination, and nurses begin to swish the curtains around the bed.

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For the love of frogs

As the rain falls, the ground squelches and dams overflow, I thought of a very short story (fiction) I wrote a few years ago…

The raw orange scar of the new dam was ugly. Wherever she stood, it leapt out from the subtle shades of the surrounding unskinned bush to catch in the corners of her eyes and accuse her of its injury. Scalped, disembowelled, the shape of the slope forever broken to make this awkwardly perched dish for catching raindrops.

‘It’s for bushfires,’ he boasted to the local blokes.

‘It’s for bushfires,’ she apologised to those rare visitors with an eye for beauty marred. More often she was apologising silently — to the land itself.

The scar would never heal, since the exposed bedrock clay did not belong to the realm of sunlight, could not grow softening plants. As the dam filled, she planted waterlilies, but their beauty only called attention to the glare of the eroding clay above.

‘It needs some life,’ she said.

‘I could put yabbies in,’ he offered, forgetting that she wouldn’t let him eat them anyway. For peace, and from laziness, he ate her vegetarian food, but he was a carnivore at heart. When they went to town, he secretly indulged — a hasty meat pie or a sneaky steak sandwich.

As he told his mates, she had some weird ideas, but he was on a good wicket here — and he’d always been a sucker for long legs like hers, especially in tight faded jeans, like now.

‘Or I could get some tadpoles from the big dam?’

The big dam was a gentle scoop in the land, its edges well-grassed. Deepened years ago from a natural depression, it had never seemed an interference.

From its shallows they filled a jar with tadpoles, bulging, brownish grey, semi-transparent. She carried them on their brief adventure through the world, tipped them into their new home, then forgot them.

Until the first thundery summer, when it sounded as if the dam had been taken over by a flock of demented sheep.

The big dam being far from the house, they’d never heard its frog chorus. She laughed when she checked the frog book — the tadpoles had to be baby Bleating Tree Frogs.

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Baby days

I am feeling rather nostalgic for the days when my adult children were babies.  This has been brought on by the fact that my first-born is turning 38 this month!

The serious little egghead, whom a friend always called Winston, reckoning he only needed the cigar to pass, is now a hefty six foot plus.

 His mother is no longer brunette, nor in possession of a single chin, and yes — those are flares! Well, it was 1973.

This nostalgia led me down the road of his and his sister’s childhood, and to my years as a kindergarten teacher. I still find small children fascinating. 

It also led me to consider sharing with you a short related piece I wrote, broadcast on ABC 1233 regional radio a few years ago. It was then called ‘Ten dollar sweetie’ but inflation takes its toll and I feel $20 is more reasonable now!

Twenty dollar sweetie

The train’s only just left Sydney. A young mother and her child are sharing one seat, right behind me.

Child is whinging, mother is surly. ‘Stop that or I’ll smack you!’ she keeps on saying.

The child is now crying half-heartedly. ‘Keep still or I’ll smack you!’

This goes on for an hour – I can’t concentrate, can’t work, can’t read. How to survive the ten hour trip to Melbourne? She’s obviously too young to be a mother; such impatience, such lack of understanding — why doesn’t she read the child a story or something?

Finally they both fall asleep.

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