A fresh, wind-kissed day amongst the mountains. The quietest Easter Monday yet. Not one barbecue sizzles in the neighbourhood. Not one spot of laughter. Yet the sun still shines. The birds chirp while perched nearby. The wind still brushes, traversing the milky sky of cotton candy.
“This one’s a big step,” I announce as Grandma Jo holds onto me with those crinkled, aged hands of hers.
It is only a brick’s width, but to her, it's like jumping off a roof. I guide her down onto the scarred brown matt. She asks if there are any obstacles, trusting me to guide her through this vibrant jungle of plants and flowers.
“No, there isn’t. Trust me.” Grandma Jo has always had a beautiful garden, ever since I can remember as a young tyke. She hobbles slowly as I walk her backwards over to a patch of the sun beaming in the courtyard. “Hold onto the table. I’ll go get your comfy chair.”
She grasps the edge of the old rusted green table. I lift over a dusty chair with a floral pillow, sitting it in the best patch of light I can find – right by the flower garden against the cream tin fence.
“Alright, plonk your bottom in,” I say, leading her a few steps over to the chair.
She does so and leans back into the rays. I close my eyes and look into it. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
She replies, “It’s lovely, sweetheart. Thank you.”
Before I sit down, I already know what would complete her morning. “Would you like a coffee, Grandma?”
She giggles. “You just read my mind.”
I leave her in the sun, switching on the kettle in the kitchen. Our morning cuppa brews, the only thing that rises us these days. Half a scoop of instant coffee and an Equal for Grandma Jo. One and a half scoops for me. It’s the milk that makes this instant coffee taste remotely nice. I place Grandma Jo’s old china mug in front of her, steam dispersing. She clutches it by the handle and lifts it to her mouth. I’m already by the flower garden. I pluck a white one with yellow at its heart.
“I got you a flower." I place it in her shaky hands.
She brings it to her nose and then stares at it. She can’t see it great. A glint of colour or two, but that’s about it. “It’s an English daisy this one," she says. "It’s always been my favourite pick of the bunch. Ever since I was a little girl. Ah, Mary Grant. She started my love of flowers.”
She peers off in the direction of the sun – ninety-two years flown by in a blink and a dream for her. I sit across from her, the warmth of the rays on my bare neck. This sun is exactly what I need. I take a sip from my white mug. It's stained from a lack of cleaning. I would have to bleach this one soon. It's the only one I use. “We need to do this more often, Grandma.”
Grandma Jo agrees, giving me a playful smile. I observe sternly at her beautiful withered skin kissed with glows. I want to know more about her early childhood. It must’ve been so different for her back then.
She sighs and grunts. “It really was terrible times. Back then, we had nothing. It was a hard time for everyone. No one had work. People could hardly feed themselves.”
“One of the fond memories I have was this bright peach tree across the road from the local tennis court in Weston. I can remember walking past it every day. One day – I think it was a Sunday – my father and I walked home from grocer carrying a few vegetables for dinner that night. I was about five years old. I asked him, ‘where did I come from, Dad?’ and he replied, ‘You see that tree over there?’. Little did he know that I knew this tree very well. I saw it every day. He said, ‘I saw you in that tree. You were a little monkey up there. I climbed into the tree and caught you and cut your little tail off. And that’s how you got here’. I always loved this story, and I made my father tell me the same one every time we walked home from the grocer. But, as the depression started to hit, those walks home from the grocer with him became less frequent.”
This dear lady has a story to tell. I ask her how her family fed themselves. Grandma Jo shoots me this look as if to say, ‘you’re about to find out’. “Bandicoot potatoes.” She says this with confidence and a cheeky wink.
I shake my head, smiling. I don’t get it.
Grandma Jo was eight years old. Her dusty bare feet sifted through the soil. She and her two comrades slinked through patches of trees and shrubs, a wide-open field at their brow. It was the dead of night. Lanterns lit the windows of the two-storey wooden farmhouse to their left.
“Old farmer Mav has been catchin’ bandicoots left, right and centre, alright?” Michael whispered stern. He crouched down, Ron and Jo following suite. Michael was the eldest of the siblings. “We can’t be seen, okay? Mum and Dad can’t afford to bail us out.”
“We need to eat, mate,” Ron said, a little too loud.
“What do you think we’re doin’ here? And keep your bloody voice down!” Michael ordered with a hiss, punching him in the chest.
Jo remained quiet. She only ever spoke when she felt like she needed to, especially when her brothers argued. They seemed to do this quite often in a pubescent competition to be the ‘man of the family’. Jo always knew this was going to be Michael – a true leader that would fight for his family until the very end. Ron was the middle child – a walking feeling of unacceptance and rebellion. Then there was innocent, young Jo. The Jo who would be the top of her class in every test. The Jo that would live out her early childhood with just one meal a day.
Jo, Michael, and Ron, still crouched, tiptoed past the farmhouse. They held each an empty hessian sack. Fine china echoed inside the house. The three siblings crept low into the potato field, their feet caked in soil. Jo complained that her feet were itchy.
“It’s the stuff they spray into the soil,” Michael explained. “Jo, keep on the lookout in case anyone comes. Me and Ron will grab as many as we can and then we’ll get out of here.”
Jo agreed. Michael always knew best. She handed him her sack. He and Ron disappeared into the dark field, taking a line each. Jo remained at the end of the field, watching on. The two brothers pulled the root from the potatoes and then placed it back into the soil. Smart. No evidence. Jo kept looking back to the farmhouse behind her to make sure no one was watching. Michael and Ron filled the potato sacks. Jo kept watching, chewing her fingernails. She wanted to tell her brothers to get a wriggle on.
“C’mon,” she whispered to herself.
She wouldn't ever forget that face. The woman in the window with the apron on, permed black hair, and a shiny pearl necklace around her neck. Jo had never seen pearls before. They caught her eye for a slight moment before alarm bells screeched. The woman’s eyes widened like blown-up balloons, and she disappeared from the window.
“For heaven’s sake!” Jo muttered, darting off into the field. “A woman saw us! We need to go!”
Michael swore. A floating lantern in the distance approached the field, a deep voice booming. Michael ordered them to run. The three of them bolted to the end of the field into the shadows of the banana trees. Michael and Ron draped the filled sacks over their backs, Jo running with the one half-filled. Even that was heavy for her. They scampered out of sight, the lantern following them. The deep bellow of Old Farmer Mav continued. The three siblings didn’t stop running, weaving in and out of the banana trees — Michael in the lead, Ron trying to take over him but without victory.
“We’re bloody done for,” Ron muttered, looking back.
They could hear Old Farmer Mav whip through the trees behind them. The shadows of the lantern scattered like a lightning strike. Michael told Jo and Ron to shut up, leading them down to the overgrown creek bed, where they laid flat in the long grass on their stomachs.
“Get down and shut up,” Michael whispered to them.
Old Farmer Mav neared and stopped by the drop-off to the creek bed, growling. “Bloody kids again…I’ll find ya.”
Jo, Michael, and Ron clasped their hands over their mouths. The humidity had set in, their faces damp. Old Farmer Mav shone his lantern down at the fresh flowing brook below. He growled and sighed loud before scampering off up the creek line.
“I swear to God, when I get a hold of you bloody kids, I’m gonna feed ya to the bloody dogs,” they heard him say as he disappeared.
The three siblings took their hands off their mouths. Phew.
“That was a close one,” Ron said, wiping sweat from his forehead.
“C’mon. Let’s go,” Michael suggested.
They jumped across the creek one by one to take the long way home, through a few more farms.
“How do we know we aren’t gonna come across any ravenous dogs going through these farms?” Ron warned. “Shouldn’t we take the road?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve taken this way before with Jeff and Gary,” Michael said. He opened up a gap in the fence for Jo and Ron to climb through. Jo then held it open for him. “Plus, Old Farmer Mav is gonna be checking those roads like there’s no tomorrow.”
“You’ve done this before?!” Ron piped up.
Michael scoffed. “How do you think I knew what to do that entire time? Did you think it was just a great idea that came into my bloody head today?”
Ron pushed Michael. “Prick.”
“Both of you, stop,” Jo interrupted. “We’re gonna be seen if you don’t shut up.”
Her brothers didn’t know how to react to this but didn’t oblige. The rest of the walk home was sullen silent. They walked through three farms before reaching their little white house with the orange tin roof. Ron marched through the front door first.
“Mum…Dad!” he called out.
Michael and Jo followed in behind him, now dragging their sacks. The heavy walk struck them tired and weak.
“Look what we got!” Ron shouted, tugging on his mother’s nightie. Their father John sat in a corner of the shoebox living room puffing on a wooden pipe of tobacco. Not fussed, he continued to read a tatted old book.
“What have you got there?” their mother Jude asked, pulling Ron’s bag close to her. A peek inside and her tired smile faded.
“What have you done?” she snapped. She lowered her voice to a soft hiss. “All potatoes? Did you nick these off Old Farmer Mav? John, look at what your children have done.”
The three siblings froze, trouble on the way. John didn’t respond, too fixated on a wonder of words and misty exhales.
Jude snapped. “John!”
He slapped his book down, pipe still hanging out of the side of his mouth. He peered from Jude to Jo, to the two brothers. He looked at their dirty feet and sweaty faces sprinkled with dust and twigs.
“You could have at least worn shoes,” he chuckled, excreting a deep chesty cough. “Bloody filthy.”
“Dad, uh…our shoes aren't exactly fit to run in,” Michael argued.
A few sets of torn, ripped sandshoes sat at the front door.
“John…are you not even going to chastise them?” Jude screeched.
“Jude, c’mon, we’re all bloody hungry,” John said. “And we all love mashed potato.”
“John, if they get caught for this, we could all be in jail,” Jude noted. “You know that Old Farmer Mav owns pretty much half of Weston.”
“Well, now he’s providing to us. Bout bloody time.”
“That’s why we did it,” Jo admitted. The rest of the family all looked at her, surprised that she spoke. “So that we can all eat on weekends.”
Jude sighed. She approached Jo and knelt down to level height. She told her that these were tough times but stealing wasn’t okay. Jude placed a hand over her face and walked into the kitchen. She was slim and frail with sprouting grey hair. Michael approached her. “Mum, we just don’t want you and Dad going hungry every weekend.”
“You can’t be worrying about us, Mike,” Jude said. “We’re here on this earth to provide for you three. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Michael kicked a bag of potatoes to her feet. “Well, now we’re providing for you. We’re all this together, right?”
Jude’s eyes lit up glassy, a smile growing. She kissed him on the forehead. “Thank you, son.”
“We helped too!” Ron declared.
Jude grinned at Ron, opening her arms in a hug with her two sons. “I know you did, Ronald.” He wriggled free.
“Mum, you know I hate the name Ronald, right?”
Jo approached her father, walking through a waft of tobacco smoke to get close to him.
“Dad,” she began.
He put down his book. “Yes, Jo?”
“Can we go swimming over the weekend? It’s been so hot this week.”
She wasn’t wrong. It was the beginning of February and the days had been nothing but trickling foreheads. Jo’s family didn’t own any transport. The train didn’t go directly to the beach, so going for family outings was rather problematic. Not that Jo was a fan of having sand between her toes. That’s why they had the old wooden whisky barrel around the side of the house – for emergencies. Jude and John would usually use this barrel to catch the rain and leaks to water the garden. That Saturday, it was an emergency. Jo knelt submerged in the mahogany barrel filled to the brim with water. The further she sunk, the more the murky water spilled off the sides – turning dirt to mud.
“How do you swim in that thing?!” Ron whined, watching her relax in the water with her head tilted to the sky.
She looked over at Ron’s sweaty face. “It’s better than nothing.”
In fact, she didn’t mind it. She didn’t mind the mosquitos that would sometimes hang about in the water either. As long as it was cold, it was yes from her. She did feel like a lily on a dirt tin though.
“Can you hear that?” Ron asked her.
She could. A repetitive clunking sound followed by an interspersed crack of a whip. The closer it got, the more the neighs echoed.
“Bloody ice man is gonna see you lookin’ all silly in that barrel,” Ron teased, pointing at her.
Ron cackled and ran back into the house. An old wooden cart with two rusty wheels pulled by two horses rolled around the corner. The rugged fit man driving the cart stopped the two brown horses outside the Mumford family home. He hopped from the cart and opened up the back, whistling a tune to himself Jo couldn’t decipher. The man heaved an ice block with two metal calipers dug into either side of it. He carried it over his shoulder to the front door. He knocked. Before someone answered, he looked over to Jo.
“What the devil are you doin’ in there, kid?” he asked, screwing his face up.
“I quite like it in here, sir,” Jo replied, still gazing up at the almost cloudless sky.
Before the man could reply, the door swung open. It was Jude with a forced grin on her face.
“Oh, God bless you, Oscar!” she exclaimed.
He heaved the dripping ice block into the house and placed it into a metal box in the kitchen.
“It’s a lovely surprise,” Jude said. “We didn’t think you would come – especially with all that is going on.”
John puffed on his pipe, as usual, not moving from the couch. Jude thanked Oscar kindly for the ice. Unfortunately, the family had no food that needed cooling. The block would melt away into nothing but a box full of water.
‘At least I could use it for my refreshing barrel bath’, Jo thought as she walked with Michael and Ron down to their neighbour’s house later that afternoon. The Grant family had always been wealthier than the Mumfords. Their pleasant, vibrant garden bloomed full of Mary Grant’s favourite flower – the English daisy. Jo always liked Mary Grant. She loved going down to sink into a slice of bread with home-made strawberry jam.
“You can come down here whenever you want jam, possum,” Mary Grant would tell her as they ate together. Michael, Ron, and the two teenage Grant sons would play cricket on the road using a garbage tin as the wicket. Mary Grant picked her freshest daisies from the garden so that Jo could take them home with her. They became a beacon of light for the Mumford family home on the corner of the street. The flowers soon died, and Jo would come back for more.
“Would you like some Jam, Jo? Oh, that was a silly question,” Mary Grant asked as the three siblings entered the house. The four boys ran out to the road to play their week’s end game. “You were saying, Elsie?”
It wasn’t just Jo and Mary Grant that Saturday afternoon. A woman stood in the kitchen with her back faced to the front door. She stared out to the backyard; a cigarette firmly grasped in her hand.
“Oh, yes, so these god damned kids last night,” she began.
The woman ran a hand through her neat permed black hair as Jo entered the kitchen. She touched one of the glimmering pearls on her necklace.
“They stole at least a row of our new harvest batch of potatoes.” Jo didn’t step any further, rooted to the spot. The woman rambled and threw about her hands. “I can absolutely understand that these are tough times. But the little thieves must understand that Mav and I have a business to run. And suppliers that need stock. This is the second time it’s happened in the past week too!”
‘Don’t go any further…Oh, please don’t turn around’, Jo thought. ‘If I stay right here, she won’t see me.’
“Sorry to hear that, Elsie. Now, have you met little Jo over here? She lives down the road at that little house on the corner.”
‘For heaven’s sake. Please, God. Have mercy on me’, Jo thought, watching Elsie turn around to face her.
The two locked eyes for a long moment, just like the night before. Elsie knew. Jo knew. Elsie squashed her cigarette in a porcelain bowl sitting by the back-door windowsill, approaching Jo frozen in her place. Jo waited for Elsie to scold her and call Old Farmer Mav immediately. But, she didn’t.
“We ate jam and bread as per usual that day,” Grandma Jo explains. “I even went home with a fresh bunch of daisies. I spent the rest of the weekend worrying – that by Monday we’d be in big strife. I was sure word would’ve got back to the old farmer somehow. But ah, we went to school on Monday like usual and lined up for our only meal of the day. Dad had to put cardboard in my shoes to cover up the holes, you see, and my parents didn’t have any money to buy new ones. I quite liked Mondays though. Mondays were soup day, and I can remember the smell of it coming out of the hall as we all waited for food."
“And she never gave you up?” I ask, nearly spilling my coffee at Grandma Jo’s feet – at those crochet red and black socks of hers.
“She knew we were all struggling, I guess. I think she knew deep down that the bandicoot potato pinchers didn’t have a choice,” she says. She finishes off the last few gulps of her coffee. “We didn’t have much back then. There was no money for quite some time.”
Grandma Jo twirls the daisy back and forth in her hand. “At least we had a few beautiful things.”
“English daisies?” I ask.
She smiled, looking up at the sky. “English daisies.”