We step out across the little street. My grandfather and me. I look up at him. He is so tall. He is all mine right now and I don’t have to share him with anyone. Grandfather will pick flowers for the Sunday table and I am with him. We step across the road and into the bush. The bush is spiky and reaches out for my frock and my arms but I am holding Grandfather’s hand and nothing can get me. The bush is singing its song. The trees are murmuring and there are birds and I can hear the creek falling away. Grandfather’s hand is so big and so warm. My hand is engulfed in his hand, just like when I wrap myself up in my blankets at night. Grandfather points to some clouds and tells me that it’s a mackerel sky not twenty four hours dry. And then he pulls aside a little bush and there is a tiny lizard hiding. He touches its tail and it scampers.
We walk on, through the sighing bush and to where the wildflowers grow. I don’t even see them till we are upon them and then Grandfather picks this one and that and I ask them their names and he tells me and I straight away forget. And he tells me things about the other plants and what they used to do with them when he was a boy on the farm. But I forget all that before the sentences are even finished. Because I am in the happiness and comfort of being with Grandfather and not sharing him with anyone. I’m the youngest in the whole family and everyone calls me the wrong name at family gatherings. Even grandfather calls me Lyn. And that’s the oldest granddaughter. Nobody even notices. But I do. And I just want to be called by my own name: Barbara.
So we walk on and there is only us in the whole world and I don’t want this walk to ever end. I want to pick wildflowers every day and never ever stop.
But we have to go home now, Grandfather’s arms are full of a big bunch of flowers and as we walk out of our wonderland, the soft-scented bush, and cross the road, I know I’ve lost him again to the family. He lets go of my hand and sits down under the big tree in the back yard until lunch is ready.
Sometimes Dad will sit with him and they talk but when I approach they stop talking and talk about something else. Mum puts the flowers in a vase and sits it in the centre of the table. It looks beautiful and she gives Grandfather a beer while he sits under the shady tree. These are our flowers, grandfather’s and mine.
Usually he is in terrible trouble from Mum. I never know what he’s done wrong but it seems to have something to do with not having enough baths. So when Grandfather walks over to our place from West Cessnock he has to have a bath. And Mum keeps clean clothes for him at our place.
I know his wife is dead. That was my grandmother, apparently, but to me she doesn’t exist. Not even a name to me and somehow I know to never ever talk to Mum about her. So Mum and her sister, Auntie Maizey, look after him and try to keep him off the beer and keep his house clean. But it’s a wreck and this seems to annoy Mum more than anything. Maizey is all love and warmth and billowing skirts and she reminds me of a chook on a roost.
Sometimes Grandfather will start to tell a story from some time in the past and Mum and Maizey leap in, frantically telling him, “That’s enough, Dadda.” And Maizey is all fluffed up like a chook with her wings going and Mum rushes about getting my sister and me away from whatever it is that Grandfather is talking about. All I ever hear is about the music teacher and Bill Barrett and then the flapping puts an end to everything. I can’t see what the problem can be as I have a music teacher, Miss Hartley. Maybe she might know Bill Barrett too?
Grandfather sits under his tree, sipping his beer in the heat of the afternoon and he always has one leg bent up under the other. He never, ever wears shorts, always a white shirt with a flannel underneath and his black trousers. How can I know that he broke his leg falling from his horse at aged 14 and had to be tied onto the horse and ride 24 miles to Maitland to have it set and now it’s crooked and he has been embarrassed all his life.
Or why Mum reads the paper to him. He can read and write a bit but was one of fourteen brothers on a little farm at Pokolbin. There was little time for school. Or that he was blinded in one eye in the Rothbury riots when the police attacked him and Bill Barrett with batons while they marched. Or a hundred other things that I won’t know until it’s all too late and I don’t have my grandfather any more.