Bush Gentility by Roger Britton
It was 1963 when I arrived as the new teacher of a one-room schoolhouse. Once a week, the butcher would slaughter a beast and bring it down to his shop. He’d cut it up and make meat orders for the fifteen families in the village. The menfolk would gather in his shop that night. It had become a social time for the men and storytelling, often with a few stretchers, became a source of entertainment.
Henry Madson, the local storekeeper, would wait until the enthusiastic amateurs had told their yarns, before he took the sawdust-strewn floor. He would then clear his throat and begin softly. We would all lean forward to catch his words.
“Matilda found me in a hospital bed,” he started. “I had been wounded in the Second World War.”
“Shot in the bum as he was running away,” whispered John with a grin.
Henry’s black, three-piece suit from the 1930s, set him apart from the local farmers in their moleskin trousers and flannel checked shirts. The problem with Henry was you were never quite sure where fact and fiction merged. I’m not sure that he knew, either. I found that, listening to him, I either had to suspend belief and be swept along with the story or, smile surreptitiously and admire his craftsmanship. Henry was a consummate teller of tales. I learnt a lot from him.
“Anyway,” Henry continued with a scowl, “the army repatriated me to Sydney. Matilda had come in with her father, who was a Presbyterian minister. I guess she was doing her good deed for the day by giving out little presents to the men. Eventually, Matilda and I became quite keen on each other, much to her father’s concern. Nevertheless, we were engaged and married within three months.”
“Her father have a shot gun, did he Henry?” John was always a stirrer.
Henry ignored him and went on…
“Later, I found that I couldn’t stay in Sydney. My dad was dying. I would be needed back home in the country to run the shop. I told Matilda that things would be rather primitive compared to Sydney: no electricity, no phones, and no water closets. We would have to live in a couple of rooms behind the shop.”
“Harry”, she said, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people.”
“I think she was quoting scripture to me, but she was as good as her word, and she came all the way out here without a look back.”
No one spoke. We were all fascinated, as we had never heard this story before.
I caught Henry’s eye and thought I could see a slight gleam of conspiracy. He had roped us all in.
“While I worked in the shop, Matilda set about tidying up and decorating the back rooms. She made curtains for the windows, which I’d never worried about, and we even had our tea in a cup and saucer, rather than a tin mug. I tell you, she was so refined-like. I began wearing a suit to work and have done ever since.”
“People respect a shopkeeper who tries to look nice for his customers,” she said.
I reflected on Henry’s shop. It was a time-warp. Saddles, stock whips, and kerosene lamps hung from ceiling hooks. Pigeon-hole shelves held green glass cups and saucers, flannelette shirts, moleskins and haberdashery. The shop counters were covered with large glass jars of lollies, while some had nuts-and-bolts. A large set of scales took centre stage. Centre left was a huge, old-fashioned money till. Jute seed bags were spread around the wooden floor. Like sentinels, they guarded a table, covered with a bread bin and wooden trays of fruit. All of this in a galvanized iron shed. I loved it. Henry continued to weave his magic…
“After a few months of home decoration, I could tell Matilda was bored. And one day she came to me and said:
“Harry dear, you work so hard in the shop each day, could I help you with some of the load?”
“I was only too pleased for her help, but I warned her that some of our customers could be a bit rough around the edges.”
“They’ll respect a lady,” she said.
“Well, it all went well until old Paddy Lonegan, the shepherd from ‘The Eight Mile’, came in. He wanted his usual monthly provisions, flour, tea, sugar, you know, and he also needed his four-gallon drum of kerosene filled up. I kept a couple of 44 gallon drums in the backyard with a hand pump.”
“I said to the missus, ‘Matilda, could you please finish off this order for Paddy, while I go and pump some kero for him?’
“I was only half finished when Matilda rushed out to me quite distressed.
“What’s wrong, love,” I said.
“Harry, I think that gentleman is being rude to me!”
“Paddy?” I said. “He’s a bit of a bushie, but there’s not a mean bone in him. Why, what did he say?”
“Well, I finished his list like you asked me to do and then I said, ‘Will that be all Mr Lonegan?’ And, he looked at me, sort of evasive-like, and he said, ‘Yairs, I better have some of Henry’s arse paper.’”
We all grinned and so did Henry.
“Look, love,” I said, “poor old Paddy has bad haemorrhoids. I keep the soft green tissue paper for him that the apples come wrapped in. I stash it under the counter below the scales. He wasn’t deliberately being rude; it’s just his way of talking. Poor old Paddy rarely talks to anybody. You stay here and pump the rest of this kero, and I’ll go back and talk to him.
“Hello, Paddy,” I said, “you’ve accidentally managed to upset the wife.”
“Yairs, I thought I musta done. I dunno what I did, though. I didn’t mean to upset yer lady.”
“I know Paddy. It’s just that in Sydney, where the missus comes from, they don’t call arse paper, arse paper. They call it toilet paper. It’s more polite, like.”
“Oh, toilet is it? Tis an odd word, Henry, I never heard of afore.”
“Tell you what, Paddy, I’ll go back now and explain it to the wife. When she comes back in, just ask her for some toilet paper. That’ll be fine.”
“So, Matilda goes back inside and Paddy says:
“I’m sorry Missus, I didn’t mean to upset you, like. But what I meant to say is, I’d like some of that there special toilet paper that Henry keeps for me.”
“That’s fine, Mr Lonegan, Harry’s kept a big bag here for you.”
“Now, will there be anything else, today?”
“Yairs, I better get me some soap, too.”
“Will that be toilet soap, Mr Lonegan?”
“Oh no, Missus, I just wants to wash me face.”
I burst out laughing. Henry could sure tell a tale. John didn’t see the joke.
© Roger Britton
The editor’s note: Roger’s writing is reminiscent of the short story writer, Henry Lawson (1867-1922). He wrote his stories when the bush was a major source of inspiration for writers. His grave is at Waverley Cemetery, a scenic burial place overlooking the Pacific Ocean, not far from here.