Poppy

Pop sat in his lean-to office with its open window and roof sloped downwards, near the front of the shop so that he could watch the street, the black phone with the handle for vigorous turning when he needed to get the attention of the telephone exchange lady, mounted on the wall well within easy reaching distance. The desk was a piece of wood that was slanted to about the same angle as a school desk and like a school desk, had a small flat piece near the wall in which Pop kept an inkwell, a used cigar box for his pens and a couple of spikes for the in and out orders. The tall stool was designed so that Pop could ease his copious bum onto it while the stool legs were angled wide so that there was little chance he would fall. Once installed in his office, usually never much before 10 am most days since he did the first part of his days from home followed by a quick round of inspection of his world… abattoirs, paddocks, a cup of tea with the stock agent to get a handle on the upcoming stock sales, he just sat there, conducting his world and as much of the other world as he could. Pop always left his walking stick leaning near the door of his office, he glanced at it occasionally, he needed it, but it was also part of his persona and for some, a symbol of him.

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The Boys, two or three of his sons, including my father were hard at work bringing in the freshly killed carcasses from the old covered lorry that Jack Flavan had driven down from the slaughter yards. Jack and Pop had an understanding, they had known each other pretty much all their lives and although it was often obvious they did not much like each other, they worked well together. Pop knew that once he had sent stock to the slaughterhouse yards, it would be attended to by Jack Flavan. Pop tried a bit of inside espionage and had my father working with Jack Flavan in the yards a day or two each week. That was how I got there.

Jack Flavan had an evil aura, he was a large strong man who claimed that he got his strength by drinking a large cup of fresh blood each day. Jack was not much bothered with talking, he found it a bit of a waste and much of what he said was done with his deep set eyes that blazed at you until you wilted. Jacks outfit week in and week out was a blue singlet, a pair of old army pants, an apron, a black beret and a scowling face. Most people were scared to death of Jack Flavan, me included, if I knew that he was alone at the yards, heaven and hell would not have moved me to go there. To make matters worse, Jack lived at the yards in a small timber house that was surrounded on all sides by dark pine trees. Not much interested in gardening, Jack Flavan kept the grass cut, but the house and the trees just sort of melted into blood drenched yards adding to the awe of subdued horror I always felt when made to go there. Even opening the gate felt like I was entering a place that I just should not have gone to.

Jack Flavan was a returned soldier from the first World War, he was married to a woman that I saw maybe one time and who rarely left the house. Jack was a Catholic and even at Sunday mass, wore the same clothes and his demeanour never altered. I am told that he and his wife did not sit together at church and that she walked the mile or so whilst he rode his bicycle, a big black very early model that forced the rider to be quite stiff looking and took a lot of effort since it was unassisted by gears or even for that matter, brakes.

Jack Flavan’s story is fascinating, married before being hauled off to fight a war that was nothing to do with Australia and undoubtedly subjected to gas when in the trenches in Europe, he returned a changed man. A man much diminished, unsure, moody and often disagreeable. The women who stayed at home and kept the homes and families together had to bear the brunt of the war and its after effects. Those who were lucky enough to be born into more affluent families were often quietly kept apart from the normal world and lived in isolation for the remainder of their lives.

Lindsay John, my Dad, got on alright with Jack Flavan, in fact in his whole life I can’t remember anyone ever not getting along with Dad, he was just one of those people who was easy to like, hardly ever impacted on anyone’s life and in some cases, made peoples lives easier with small gestures of kindness. If Jack Flavan had a friend, it was Dad.

Pop was not a man who had needs, he controlled his own empire and world and just so long as his world was going in the right direction, all was fine. Every day after he arrived at his office in the corner of the butcher shop in Sackville Street, his cronies would start dropping in, some in the hopes of a free chop or piece of meat, some popped by with a bit of gossip and some just because it was expected.

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In all his years, Pop had never learned to drive anything other than a horse and cart, his large family had the job of transporting him here and there and he even had his favourites for that job. Pop liked to sit in the front passenger seat, and those wives that would give up their seat were given ticks while those who would not, were simply not spoken to. Pop was uncomplicated, so long as all was heading in his direction, his world sailed along on calm waters. His way of arranging a ride here and there was peculiar to himself, he never asked directly to anyone, but always rang one of his older children and suggested to them that he needed to be in such and such a place at a certain time, All flowed on from that and when who ever it was that got the job of driver arrived, pop would be there, sitting on his stool near the front gate, his ever present grey hat tilted back on his head, its sweatband deeply stained, leaning on his stick as he waited.

For many years my father did not have a car, Dad was not the favoured one in Pops world, his oldest son and his youngest took that status and had cars. I was fourteen when Dad got his first car, a blue bullfrog like Standard Vanguard. After that Dad’s status as one of Pops favoured was elevated and since Mum, grudgingly I suspect, was prepared to give up her front seat, Poppy was often to be seen being chamfered here and there by Dad. Many years later when Poppy had moved to Melbourne for a short sojourn and then decided that the double story house he had bought on the Esplanade in Middle Park did not suit him, was returning to Port Fairy. I shared the four hour journey with him and he regaled us with a constant flow of stories, most of which were made up, but that he swore were real.

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I think I spent much of my young life never sure if my Grandfather was or was not telling the truth, I was more inclined to believe him, probably because I wanted to. On the four hour journey he started to tell us about how he, as a young man, fresh off the boats from Ireland (North or Orange part) had set off from Melbourne with his mother and father with a single horse pulling a cart and walked to Port Fairy. He said there were no made roads and the journey took them over four weeks. Complete and absolute lies, yet I believed it for much of my life until I found out that my Grandfather was born in Australia a few miles from Port Fairy at Bessiebelle and had never ever left the shores.

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Pop called everyone ‘son’. No matter who they were, what sex they were, relative or non relative, including his wife, all were called son. He had a way of adding some sort of inflection to the word son so that you would know how you were standing in his eyes at the time. Come to think of it I cannot recall him ever calling my mother son, I actually don’t recall him ever calling her anything at all. I tried to find out if he had attended his sons wedding in Mount Gambier, where Mum’s family lived, I suspect not as the journey in those days was one that took many hours and frankly I find it hard to conceive of Poppy feeling any need to attend. I am certain he never called her Iris, just referred to her as Lindsay’s wife. His own second wife was Pop’s equal in every way.

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Pearl White came from the rough side of Melbourne. Pops first wife died not long after the birth of her last child, when my father was twelve years old. Ella Rebecca Sharrock had been unlucky enough to have Rheumatic Fever when she was a child and it had weakened her heart, she died peacefully at home. Pop was not a man who could manage with no home support and although his three older daughters were still at home and took charge of the younger children, it was not ever likely to be the answer, Pop’s daughters, like their mother had strong wills and there was no way that any of the three was ever going to stay in Port Fairy and they made it very clear to him. Melbourne called and each had their sights set on work, husband and a better life than a small seaside town could offer. Legend has it that Pop took to the drink and every day would finish work and head for Star of the West Hotel, just over the street and drown his sorrows in a whisky or two. It was here that Pop met Pearl White who had come to Port Fairy to get out of Melbourne for a while.

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Pearl White was a woman who came from the wrong side of town and whose life was chequered. She had three children by a previous marriage, one of whom was conceived out of wedlock and who in the future would also give birth to a child who in turn would repeat the same thing. Her life in Melbourne was mysterious, her life in Port Fairy was as a bar maid at the Star of the West Hotel. The rest is history. Pop’s three daughters were horrified and refused to accept the developing friendship. They threw down the gauntlet to him and told him he had to choose between them or Pearl and Pop being Pop, chose Pearl. The girls left the next day for Melbourne aboard the train and set about starting a life in the big city. None would return to Port Fairy to attend their fathers wedding.

Pearl or for me Aunty Pearl was a woman who took no prisoners, was honest as the day, spoke as she saw it and someone I just loved. She and I spent a lot of time together when I was nipper and until the day she died, I simply worshipped her. She was my rock and was always there for me no matter what. My three Aunts eventually came around, but never completely, as they saw how well she took care of their father and his household. Auntie Pearl smoked Craven A corked tipped cigarettes and was rarely seen without one dangling from her smoked stained lips. She said she did not draw on the smoke much, but in the end it was the cigarettes that claimed her. Pearl knew just how to keep Pop well under control, she fed him well, three big meals a day, lunch and dinner with a good desert, made sure that every bit of meat he consumed was accompanied by a bit of fat from the animal and between meals, made him cups of sweet milk tea and at five, every day, bring out the Scotch and pour him a good slug. Poppy at home was a contented man and with the success of his business and the pleasure of his cronies around the card table, life was good.

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I dropped in to visit Poppy and Aunty Pearl when they lived in a great old early sprawling house down by the river they called Emoh Ruo, I walked in the front door past the well clipped hedges and lawns that I laboured over most Saturday mornings and walked in the front door. The long central passageway lead straight to the kitchen. Auntie Pearl was sitting in the chair in the winter sun, snoozing. On the table reposed a massive plate of cut sandwiches, piled high. On a tray eight cups and saucers and a huge teapot at the ready. I must have woken her as I came in the door and her familiar ‘hello ducky’ got my attention and she laughed. She took me by the hand and walked me up the passage saying nothing until we got to a door on the left, It was the room where they kept the old billiard table, the walls were covered in green baize and had lots of those pictures of dogs playing cards and framed prints of horse finishes from famous races. Aunty Pearl opened the door and the cigarette smoke trapped in the room rushed into the wide passage. I looked in and there, sitting around the billiard table which had its card playing top fixed on, was my grandfather and most of the towns more notable citizens engaged in what had been a twenty four hour game of cards, complete with bottles of scotch and over flowing ashtrays.

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I was stunned, Auntie Pearl just giggled and gently closed the door on the marathon card game which by 5 pm that day, came to a halt as the wives of the players came to find their missing husbands.

Poppy was a large and demanding figure in my life, he asked for and got most of what he wanted, including his family (all of them from his seven children plus grandchildren and wives and even great grandkids) be present with him on New Years in Port Fairy, we were allowed to float about the town, enjoying the annual festivities until about 11 pm and then come hell or high water, it was time to join Poppy for the midnight hour. Just before midnight, he would hand around a 10/- ($1-00) note to all the second and third tier offspring with a look of extraordinary benevolence. It should be noted that Poppy rarely if ever dealt in real money, his world was one of negotiation and real money was something that he simply did not employ.

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He was a rogue, a gambler, a womaniser, an indignant and difficult man, he was demanding, arrogant and just plain difficult. But he was the largest and by far the brightest light in my starry world and I loved him. I am often told by family that I am a lot like him, I cannot see it, I am not a womaniser nor a drunk, but perhaps the rest. One of my all time treasures is a photo that I have of Poppy, my Dad, me and my first born… four generations. I am proud he was my Pop.

Poppy died at the age of 94, still smoking, still drinking his beloved whisky, still eating big meals and still arguing with anyone who dared to contradict him. Auntie Pearl predeceased him by a few years. 

~ by peterwatson on April 10, 2013.

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