The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2015 Results

To Coin A Phrase

Copyright © John Pitman 2015

"Well?" asked Grandma.

"What’s the currency of the situation, Dad?" my father added from behind his hand.

Suddenly everyone paused, and, for a moment, time and breathing stopped. Six pairs of eyes scanned Grandpa’s face for hope. Was surgery his last resort?

You see Christmas at 4 Devon Street, Croydon, was always a time of great emotion. Anticipation, excitement and barely restrained commotion accompanied by the inevitable sibling rivalry. Subtle, as if! Shins were kicked, ribs prodded and tongues poked out, we three kids did it all. The riddle as to why I was saddled with two older sisters, but no supporting brother, Mum never deigned to solve. Hmm. At least we had grandparents living opposite us, a handy refuge in times of extreme family crisis; a missing fly button to be sewn, last minute cup of sugar or questionless hug.

It appeared our Christmas was modelled on a strange tradition, a hot roast meal in the middle of the day surpassing even our sun-crunchy school sandwiches, all while during boiling summers. Why had not our Anglo-Saxon forebears corrected menus for the southern hemisphere seasons we have to wonder. Inside the cramped kitchen more perspiration oozed from Mum’s brow than during any of her midweek tennis games, the Metter’s No.2 stove providing even greater zest to an Australian heat wave; no insulation under the rusty corrugated iron roof as reprieve either. Of course refrigeration was in its infancy, air conditioning had yet to be developed, its nearest cousin the Coolgardie safe, but only slightly cooler if you were the size of a leftover leg of lamb. The rest of us sweltered. And dripped.

Chores were allocated, albeit assiduously; the threat of withholding our threepence pocket money all that was needed to insure compliance. From recent calculations I’m still owed about 12 pounds 11 shillings and nine pence. But with compounding interest it could be much more, as Grumps, my high school economics teacher, dictated in note taking. Few passed that particular subject as both were boring.

In the midst of this chaos we progeny were commanded to make ourselves useful and set the table. This involved laying out the black tinged EPNS cutlery and the ‘good’ gold-lined crockery on the lace tablecloth only seen on special occasions, no risks to be taken with everyday use. For that we were to be thankful, for our outer Melburnian suburb had its own crockery maker, Johnson’s. From down in Lusher Road, locally known as Slusher Road when it flooded in winter, Dad had procured plenty of cheap factory seconds. That none of them matched, or sat level, epitomised the days of post-war austerity, even our kitchen cupboard doors were also similarly mismatched in colour. These days they say contrast is fashionable but some thought then it was a post-war shortage of paint. Rationing had only just ended. Could the burden of repaying Australia’s Lend-Lease war debt to America extend to us all forever, I postured.

As my mission in life was to keep up the wood for the voracious stove, this meant kindling for lighting followed by split firewood, preferably all about 1½ by 1½ inches and a foot long. Dad and I had gathered the wood from the roadside, especially after the SEC cleared the powerlines and left the wood in foot lengths for the working class like us. No one was too proud to scavenge then; these days they call it recycling but put a tax on it. Strange. However using wood as a fuel did demand planning. All the wood had to be carted home, split and stacked a year for drying beforehand. Of course, some might say these days, to reduce environmental smoke. Nah, it was because wet wood wouldn’t light, burnt poorly and you needed so much more. Certainly not rocket science then, a phrase not even thought of, the moon way too far away for serious consideration.

Mum’s old stove had seen better days. Somewhere a hole had deviously rusted its way through between the firebox and the oven, demanding constant attention on behalf of the cook, our portly and frayed Mum. Cakes always burnt black on that one side, the Christmas roast was no different and so required regular turning. Any which way it resulted in all sides of the roast being burnt, but no one was game to say anything as the potatoes in the tray always came out beautifully crisp more like the local fish and chip shop. Of course Mum made the gravy from the roast’s juices, only having to stir a little plain flour in towards the end. In other times she saved the solidified lard for cooking, little in our household was wasted, even if we all became heart attacks waiting to happen later in life. Don’t get me started on the amount of salt we ingested, no meal complete without a lavish sprinkling of high blood pressure, few relations lived beyond their Christian three score years and ten then.

Dad, being the self-appointed carver of the first water, would spend an inordinate amount of time sharpening the sole bone-handled carving knife. Much gnashing of teeth and shrill drawing of the steel until blood was just oozing as he sliced, from his thumb usually. By now the meat was generally coldish, the fat congealing and the knife considerably thinner. Mum, however, after many years of marriage, knew his idiosyncrasies well and had placed the dinner plates in the oven where at least one side of the plate grew warm. On the stove top our home grown peas were now better suited for warfare as rock hard bullets, the pumpkin represented soup, the beans withered to string and the rest of the family similar as we waited for the repast. Impatiently too, as our bone handled cutlery tapped on the table top. By this time it was past two in the afternoon and the table legs took on a particularly good look for a little gnaw. After all, the cat sharpened its claws and teeth on the legs, why not us?

Grandma’s role in the meal had started at least a month beforehand with preparing the pudding. Never once referring to a recipe, she threw all the dried Mildura sultanas, raisins and shrivelled dates found in her cupboard into some Penfolds sherry for soaking. Being staunch Presbyterians meant alcohol could only be used for cooking, but also being Christian meant nothing should be wasted either, if you get my drift. No use-by dates, only Afghani then. Along with gluggy but delicious butcher’s suet, Gippsland butter and lots of Queensland sugar, the pudding now resembled a gigantic mushroom, wrapped in an old threadbare pillowcase, which had been boiled for ages and hung up to cure in her fireplace. Her pudding was something that few could wish for a second helping, it entered one’s stomach as a lead balloon. Adults were treated to lumpy Birds custard waved over by a brandy cork; us kids had to be content with cream, our arteries contracting as we gorged. Did I mention the cream was unpasteurised, one of Dad’s Grade Six parents running a dairy herd and hoping for good marks. If we had been good, drinks included Devondale apple juice and were allowed to pour Lilydale cider for the adults. Carefully. As to whether cider was alcoholic was answered by Dad’s index finger poised over lips. Another father-son conspiracy. Right.

For colour and tradition, Grandma always added her festive touch of inserting a silver coin into the pudding, but in the name of fairness, only one per dish and just before serving. Maybe she realised just how keen we all were to find the thruppence, especially when it represented a whole week’s pocket money. With all of us distracted with chores she almost surgically inserted the seven coins into our servings and then revelled as we discovered our fortune a few minutes later. With much excitement, as though we never knew what she’d done, her apron blackened with polishing.

Adults recycled their winnings, something we kids were allowed to keep. One hiccup though, on Grandpa’s scraped dish no sign of his silver. What! Not that he seemed to notice, or mind, after all he probably thought it was thruppence saved if she hadn’t blessed his pudding.

Out of Grandpa’s missing coin was born a family mystery. Where had it gone? Or had it even been inserted, after all Grandma had only gone to Grade Seven, could a miscount have occurred? However anyone knowing her would be quickly impressed by her innate intelligence, especially arithmetic and written. Not even the next door butcher dared to rest his finger on the scales when her all-seeing blue eyes were supposedly perusing the purse.

"Well?" asked Grandma.

Grandpa shrugged his already bowed shoulders. Apparently this was something that was not going to be ignored. Their weather-boarded dunny awaited outdoors, a dank cobwebbed pan service adjoining the narrow back laneway and his printing workshop. Dark as the inside of a cow even in daytime, graced by only old newspapers and a horde of insatiable mosquitoes. Hardly a convivial place for faecal exploration or olfactory sensitivity. At least we had a modern septic tank across the road, I knew how that worked along with other canals, alimentary and sewers not Suez; biology was a subject passed for once.

Days progressed. But so developed the family mystery into folklore, Grandpa’s misplaced thruppence. Where was it again? When would it surface? Or sink? Exactly who would find it? Yuk! Main topic of conversation every teatime though despite being shushed.

A day or so later, our father awaited his opportunity for a wild thought. "Any change yet Dad?"

To coin a phrase, that is.

But as in mid-breath, everyone suddenly paused. And whilst we fixated on Grandpa’s downcast, but teddy-bear like brown eyes, between ink-stained fingers the shiniest sixpence we’d ever seen, magically appeared, to be greeted by a collective gasp. Sixpence? Wow!

"Obviously gained, err, some interest on its passage."