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Lost For Words
Episode 2 Mean Bones
Grace, wearing a ballerina-length dress and high heels, was pushing the carpet sweeper over the hall rug. The little red contraption on a broomstick was full of bristles that rolled over the carpet pile, brushing the grit and rubbish into the canister.
‘I’m the meat in the sandwich,’ she complained to herself. ‘I’m in a real pickle. Lord knows I’ve tried to work a way around it.’
Just then, Bert came marching up the path after work in the factory.
Under his breath he was pacing out an old ditty:
Left, left, left right left,
I had a good job and I left, I left, I left right left.
Serves me right, right,
I had a good job for twenty-five bob
and I left, I left, I left right left.
With the last step he reached the front door. ‘Home is the hunter, home from the hill. I’m exhaustipated.’
‘Darling,’ said Grace. ‘Guess where you’re taking me tonight?’
‘Blanket Bay,’ Bert replied curtly, dropping his briefcase on the floor and walking straight into the bedroom.
Bert always dressed up in suit trousers, white shirt and tie, and carried a briefcase to work. The briefcase did not hold documents or law briefs or paperwork. It held his crib and his work clothes — a set of clothes almost identical to those he was wearing, but older and more worn. He had never become accustomed to being a factory worker. So anyone who watched him swing on the strap on the tram every morning and every night took him for a solicitor or, at the very least, a bank clerk. Bert liked it that way. In the air force, flying Lancaster bombers over Germany, he had enjoyed the uniform, the responsibility and the homesickness. He had gone through London museums, stood in front of Henry VIII’s many suits of armour — ranged from boyhood to death — and marvelled at how tall the king had been. In Ireland he had picked three four-leaf clovers, which were even now pressed in his old RAAF logbook, hidden at the back of the linen press. Bert had always looked forward to coming home after the War and starting a career. He had never pictured for himself this endless future: standing eight hours in a noisy factory gluing veneers together, his ankles swelling, his deafness becoming more profound.
‘It’s a Christmas do at “Frocks by Janice”,’ Grace said, interrupting Bert’s melancholy thoughts. ‘It’s going to be like a fete.’
‘A fate worse than death,’ came Bert’s reply from the bedroom. ‘Wild brumbies wouldn’t drag me there. I don’t go to just any dogfight. I noticed that Janice had put up all her Christmas desecrations. She’s got more twirls than you could poke a stick at. That shop is chock-a-block. You can go on your Pat Malone. It sounds about as interesting as a scone recipe, but I suppose it’s good for women and kids.’
‘Yes, Bertie, Janice certainly knows how to dress a window. What she suffers for her art! And she has given me a part-time job doing her accounts. Come on, it’s her gala opening, dear.’
‘You mean galah opening. About as exciting as a budgerigar convention.
Why would she want me to go?’
‘Don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud, Bert. There’s no show without Punch. Cyril and Myrtle will be there. It’s going to be a big turn-out.’
‘Yes, Myrtle’s bound to have Cyril in tow, as usual,’ said Bert, as he walked out of the bedroom in shorts, short-sleeved checked shirt and sandals. ‘So every man and his dog will be there. What you’re saying is I have to knock off work to carry bricks. There ought to be a law agin it.
It’ll be another all-night sufferance.’
For the first time, Bert noticed Grace’s rig-out: the rouge, the lippy, the face powder, the hair newly set, and, finally, the crepe dress in ‘Thenard’s blue’ that was always saved ‘for best’. ‘Is it going to be
another Iced VoVo and cordial party?’ he asked.
‘You can’t go dressed like that, Bert! It’s going to be very swish. I’ve laid out your suit on the bed. Come on, get dressed, or we’ll be late.’
‘I am dressed,’ replied Bert. He was getting testy. ‘And I’ll get changed when I’m good and ready.’
‘Cyril will be in his suit.’
‘Well, that’s his funeral. Heavens to Betsy, it’s enough to drive a man to drink.’
‘Janice is putting on a big spread. It’s shaping up to be a pleasant evening.’
‘You mean yet another bunfight,’ Bert replied, resignedly returning to the bedroom. ‘You women are in cahoots. We’re becoming social butterflies. This is the second time we’ve been out this week. We haven’t done that in donkey’s ages; not since little Ima came along. I’ve always said Myrtle keeps poor Cyril on a short lead, but now I can see I’m leg-roped as well. I don’t understand it though. Why are we going?’
Bert waited, then said to himself, ‘But answer came there none.’
Bert was putting on his tie clip when Grace walked into the room.
‘It’s no use, Bertie,’ she said, dropping both arms loosely by her sides as if they were broken, a dead giveaway that he’d better give her his undivided attention. ‘I’ve been hit for six. I’m having a bad streak. It’s all gone haywire. The whole thing’s a shemozzle. I’ve made a boo-boo.
It’s all gone to pot. It’s a shambles. It’s cock-eyed. I’ve tried to bite my tongue, Lord knows I’ve tried. I’m that cheesed off with your sister-in-law.
She’s the fly in the ointment. It’s always tit for tat with her. I don’t know if I can face her again. Not by myself.’
‘Aha! she cried, as she waved her wooden leg!’ said Bert. ‘Now we’re cooking on gas. That’s why it’s so vital I come along to this shindig tonight. What’s Myrtle done this time?’
‘Well, I’ve had my eye wiped,’ Grace said. ‘Myrtle has been helping her sister by minding their boy — and,’ she added, as if to explain everything — ‘he is an only child.’
‘His Nibs is spoilt rotten,’ added Bert.
‘Yes, Myrtle’s sister certainly mollycoddles him,’ said Grace.
‘It’s the fate of the only child to be ruined,’ said Bert.
‘His mother is like a hen with one chick.’
‘She’s making a rod for her own back.’
‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’
‘He’s a real Little Lord Fauntleroy.’
‘She’s too protective. Won’t let him out of her sight.’
‘Are they hoping he’ll join the Vienna Boys Choir?’
‘You shouldn’t handle children with kid gloves.’
‘It’s not healthy to treat him like a little tin god.’
‘They think he’s Boy Wonder, that’s for sure.’
‘Well,’ said Bert, ‘what has all this to do with you? With us?’
‘Myrtle thinks it’s a crime, the way that child is being brought up,’ began Grace. ‘Myrtle was minding the boy last week, and he went missing. The mother came home and had a pink fit, so Myrtle came and got me and we sent out a search party for him. When we finally found him he was at the paint shop sitting up like Jacky eating a chocolate, totally oblivious to all the fuss he’d caused. It was the first time he’d ever got out. The first time he’d had fun. Myrtle’s sister gave her what for. They had words. And now the sister wants to keep the boy so close to her that she’s started telling him the bogeyman will get him if he leaves the house. The poor child is scared witless, he hides under the bed. Myrtle doesn’t feel she can say anything, being family and all that, and until this they’d never had a cross word between them. And blood is thicker than water, so she asked me to have a word to her sister — to tell her she’s got to stop scaring the boy, and just take to him with a belt if he doesn’t do what he’s told.’
‘Give him a clip over the ear,’ added Bert.
‘Yes, give him a good hiding,’ said Grace. ‘And I’m to tell her to let the child roam a bit, or he’ll never learn by experience. It’s like with dogs, you’ve got to allow them to learn to be street-wise. And, Bertie, I promised Myrtle I would. Tonight at Janice’s party!’
‘And you want me along to back you up,’ said Bert.
‘It sounded simple when Myrtle asked me, but now I think about it, how can I face her sister, and tell her to loosen the apron strings? But Myrtle is relying on me to speak up. And I did promise!’
‘F’crying out loud, Grace, I’m lost for words. Is it Tree Week and you’re the sap? This isn’t your problem. Tell Myrtle you are going to mind your own business and she should mind hers.’
Grace wiped her eyes, picked up her compact and sat down in front of her large dressing-table mirror.
‘I’ll have to grow mean bones,’ she said to herself.