Friday, August 24, 2007


The way to get rid of louse eggs is to run a candle flame along the seams of your clothes. They make a popping sound as they burst.

My maternal grandfather told me that, when I was about seven years old. A gentle, smiling man, he would reminisce about the trivia of life in the trenches of the First World War, but never discuss the rest. Four brothers volunteered. Two died, one took a machine gun bullet in the hip and the fourth, my grandfather, came through three years in the trenches unscathed. His gravestone stands now in a quiet place in the Australian bush, planted squarely in the harsh red sand.

He met my grandmother in Brussels. She was English too, and in 1919 it was rare for a woman to represent a company overseas. But they fell in love and took a land grant in Australia. The skeleton of the first hut built there by the first settler still stands, wooden poles without fill or roof, like a dead copse, stark against the sky.

They built a new house. And she hated it, moved away, taught piano in a city, and died, much younger than I am now. My mother and her brothers harnessed horses to a buggy and drove them to school, tying them up in the shade. She also left, when she was fourteen, moving to stay with my great uncle, my grandfather's brother, in Melbourne.

His hip still bothered him. Decades later, he visited us in England and marvelled at my tame ferrets - he'd kept them all his life but didn't know they could sleep across a boy's shoulders, under his jumper, with a drowsy face occasionally peering out enquiringly before grunting, disappearing, and curling tighter into sleep.

The hip was still a problem. He'd refused treatment at first, in 1917, on the grounds that others needed it more. By the early 1970s, his doctor had been trying to cut his leg off for years, but he liked to walk. When he was younger his wife would put his meal on the table, wait, then call him. He wanted it to be cool enough to eat before he came in. I liked him, but he was a harsh man for a fourteen year old girl to live with, back in the 1940s.

My grandfather worked, bought up the neighbouring farms, left them to his sons and travelled round the world every three years after he retired. He learned to dive for pearls on the Great Barrier Reef in his seventies. One morning, a decade after that, he got up, put on his suit, straightened his tie, and died. My cousin Bobby found him three days later. In a climate like Australia's, that wasn't such an easy thing.

I've lost pretty much everything I ever owned, at one time or another. But the thing I miss most is a tacky Egyptian head, a tourist trinket given to me by my grandfather during one visit that was a stop on a cruise that had stopped in Egypt. Cruises were the stuff of my early childhood. My mother still has a certificate the ship's captain gave me on my third birthday, as we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.

Fifteen years ago, I went to the house my grandfather died in for the first time since infancy. I didn't recognise it at all, though it seemed a lot smaller than it should be. Especially the kitchen. My uncle asked if I remembered it. I said I didn't, and he smiled to himself as he put the truck in gear.

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