Fiction Contemporary

It was autumn, the riot of colour could not be ignored; however, seasons alter in your personal life too. I was aware of a heaviness in my heart as I travelled up the road, to my destination. Visiting my aunt was usually a pleasure, but there was little joy expected on this trip. Even the car did not want to go, as indicated, by its stalling and refusing to budge.  After a little coaxing and cursing from me, sluggishly it spluttered, then as though making a mighty effort, it sprang to life however reluctantly. Good old Shirley, the Volkswagen beetle. She had seen better days but had kept me going through the tough times. Ray, my husband, of ten years offered to help me choose a new ‘toy’ but Shirley was an old friend, and goodbyes were always hard.  As far as the task ahead, I could not put the moment off any longer. As we inched closer to the two-storey house I had regarded as my second home since childhood, my thoughts were a tangled mess of memories. 

Aunty Min was waiting for me, but the face I looked for was not there; it never would be again except in photographs, or memories. The kettle was on.  Aunty Min presided over it. The ‘pet’ name was what my sister and I called her; everyone else called her Marion. She was a little flustered and had been crying.

“Coffee Meg? or would you prefer a tea?”

“Coffee will be fine Aunty Min.” I answered “is there anything I can do?”

“Yes, after this can you help me attack the library, love.” she answered briskly “I don’t know that anyone else could deal with it.”

I smiled my acquiescence and sipped my coffee trying to stem the tears.

The library was the only room in the house that had a code of silence; unless it was being used for social events. I had spent many happy hours usually with Uncle Pat, sometimes on my own rummaging through reference material for school; and for leisure always finding something to read, borrow, and a year or so later, re-borrow and re-read. Uncle Pat had been a school teacher; English Literature and Drama yet he was no drama king. He had fought in the war and said he could cope with most things, except for the fact that he had no reading material except newspapers, months old and tatty. He saw drama in Germany, enough of the other side of trauma, where the promising leader proved to be strong but, his people lived in fear because of him. To be honest, Uncle Pat was not happy about my buying Shirley, until his darling wife reminded him about my lack of money. He knew that feeling because his education was put on hold during the war and returning to university at war’s end where most young men found work, was hard. He was a quiet-spoken gentleman whose students respected him and whose nieces adored him.

Now three weeks after his passing memories long dormant, resurfaced with vengeance.  Whilst cataloguing the books; Box A labelled ‘Keep’ Box B ‘Junk’, Box C ‘Children's' and so on, I longed to retain some for myself, but we had so little room at home. Ray would accommodate lovingly, but there would be limits. As though she was aware of my thoughts, I heard Aunty Min speak:

“Oh look, love, these must be for you surely,” she had tears in her eyes

“They are yours, Aunty Min,” I responded, aghast.

“Oh, sweetheart I don’t need them now. Pat always had a laugh about the fact that you retreated with a “Billabong” book whenever things got tough. We both meant you to have them.”

The Billabong Series, written by Mary Grant Bruce set supposedly in country Victoria, centred on the Linton family; as Norah, Jim and Wally (Jim’s mate from a private school) grew up on a sheep and cattle station and later, fought in the first world war. The stories began when Norah was twelve and ended abruptly when they had grown up. I was ten when I was introduced to these adventures. I read “The Little Bush maid” while recovering from surgery, and staying with my aunt and uncle during the convalescence. I held the book now, my mind flashing back to that day.

My stomach still hurt and the scar indicating where the appendix had been was raw under the dressings. I started to cry and Uncle Pat heard me. Thinking I had fallen he rushed over to attend to my needs. Taking me in his arms, he carried me to the library, sat me on his knee and held me until the tears stopped. He asked me if I had read “the Billabongs” and I shook my head. They were big folk’s books, or so I thought. He started reading to me from the first page: “Norah’s home was on a big station in the north of Victoria, so large that you could almost, in her own phrase ‘ride all day and never see anyone you did not want to see.’ which was a great advantage in Norah’s eyes”

I was fascinated. Certainly, my reading this series alone was not as enjoyable as hearing Uncle Pat’s deep voice read it to me, but I like many other children loved it, and later tried unsuccessfully to obtain copies of my own. I smiled. Of all the books I was allowed to keep, these were the treasures. Aunty Min was watching me carefully assessing whether or not I was ‘okay’.

“Oh, come now Meg.” she said “I can’t expect to keep these. I can’t imagine it will be too long before I join Pat; so, if for no other reason than nostalgia, these first editions belong to you. You might need to get them rebound, but that is your expense, or Ray’s.”

As I worked, I thought of the influence Aunty Min and Uncle Pat had been. Then the tears came in floods. I would never forget the awful night when the family was involved in a car crash.  Mum, Dad and Harriet, my sister, did not survive. I did and was treated for shock and a few scratches. Uncle Pat was my next of kin, and the two-storey home became mine on a permanent basis.  He grieved my mother and once again I was sitting on his knee. We comforted each other. It was one of the few days when The Billabong books sat quietly watching a little girl comfort her sad uncle, and reach out to him with childish love knowing it would be accepted. Little wonder Aunty Min referred to us as the terrible twins.

That visit was two years ago. Aunty Min was right in her hunch, she is now with Uncle Pat. Ray and I inherited the two-story home and the Billabong books have pride of place in our library. Saying goodbye to them in order for the books to be rebound and look as new, was also hard; I could not quite work out why I was sad when the books were getting a new lease on life. Speaking of life, it certainly has its seasons; goodbyes are still hard, but books will never be replaced as long as libraries are allowed to function.

April 30, 2021 01:31

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