Clive James Whitehead

The best recent memory of Granddad was when we all went to find his family’s old house. I don’t think it was his house, but either his father’s or his grandfather’s. But he had milked there, so he might have stayed there. One thing that makes me perpetually guilty is that I don’t seem to ever be able to remember the stories exactly, or who did what, and when. Not like Grandma – she can remember anything and anyone from any time. Granddad told me about his young life, but there is always something lost in the understanding from one person to another when we all think in pictures, and all of our pictures are different. That’s what writing is about, and why it’s so hard: you are trying to convey the pictures in your head to someone else’s head. I think Stephen King called it telepathy – transmitting images from one mind to another.

Anyway, Granddad had all of his pictures in his head, and he described them to me. To him, they weren’t in sepia. I have to admit that for me they sometimes were – probably because I’m of a generation for whom everything is described in cinematic terms. But after a while, they become just a person’s stories. Like the fact that he hunted and sold rabbit skins to make extra money when he was young. That must have been a wonderful thing to do. Hunt for a living? At that point in time, in Australia and in especially in the dense, sometimes uncleared bush of the High Country, in the Snowy Mountains area, the rabbits that were a blight to most were a blessing to those who caught them for cash. I think, if my memory serves me, that Granddad would trap a few hundred at a time. That could be completely wrong, but it makes a good picture. So the hunting aspect wasn’t creeping through the bush on your knees with a bow and arrow – can you imagine the arrows you’d need?! – like Legolas with a short pants and a twangy accent. It was setting traps early and seeing if they produced the goods later. But there was a lot of navigating the bush and hiking, and it sounded like a great job. That’s one thing I was always conscious of when walking in the bush – I always thought I’d step on a rabbit trap. I was always waiting for it, but it never happened.

But this day it was clear, and everyone who was home at the time got in cars, three of them, I think, and drove up to Khancoban. Granddad’s grandfather, I think it was, used to own most of Khancoban until the government compulsorily acquired it for the Snowy Hydro Plant. It was a sunny day, the kind that Granddad would usually spend on the front verandah of their house, a giant verandah about a metre and a half raised in brick, looking over the garden and the edge of the farm, with Grandma. It was sunny, but becoming overcast. I remember that we all got out of the cars on the edge of town. The place where Granddad had been was overgrown with trees that were about three times as high as me. As we bashed our way through the scrub and growth, we looked for signs on the ground of buildings that used to be. We found what we thought was a filled in concrete dairy. We saw where the house had ended, and the dirt that I imagined people coming and going on with bare feet. What I remember most is the light through the trees. The trees were… I don’t know tree species, Mum, can you help? Like liquid amber, but thin and long. Their leaves were lime yellow, full of viens, and the way the sun shone through them made them all the more yellow. The day became overcast while we were there, and it made the area seem like something from a movie like Sleepy Hollow (see? Always with the cinema) – scary but comfortable to me.

One less recent memory, the first memory with real meaning for me, anyhow, was when I was younger. One time I remember – more than his incredible knowledge of the Bible and his pioneering efforts for our family to understand it, with the help of God, or the way he laughed when I messed up his (quite excellent head of) hair, or the way he jabbed me in the stomach and I jabbed him back – was the time, when I was old enough to wear my parents’ roller skates, skating along the only piece of concrete that existed on the farm apart from in the dairy. It was the path along the front of my grandparents house. I had probably just come from watching Vidiot, or something, and I was skating up and down, up and down the path. It must have been an annoying noise. Granddad came out with a long, tall glass of Milo. Even the glass, tall and thin, was a better glass than I’d even seen just for drinking kids’ drinks out of. We didn’t, as small kids, spend a lot of time with our grandparents, partly because of the ‘kids are seen and not heard’ culture, and partly because we didn’t go over there ourselves as much as we should. With my overzealous imagination, I made my grandparents into huge figures, whom I would be slightly nervous to talk to. That wasn’t the reality, but reality isn’t a place I inhabit very often. I remember the way the milo had gathered in the middle of the surface of the milk, as if it had just been given a brisk stir. It was very rare, and very out of the ordinary, for Granddad to make such a gesture – only because he never had to. There were always a swarm of women around to do that kind of stuff, whether it was Grandma or Mum or one of my Aunties.

I remember thinking, ‘Maybe the Milo is poisoned.’

Who would have thought that? I have no idea what possessed me at this point. I was an odd kid with a vast imagination, is all I can say. We didn’t chat – I’m not even sure that either of us said anything. Or perhaps the gesture of the Milo was loud enough that it didn’t seem weird that we weren’t saying anything. I was shy, ad he wasn’t a man of many words. Neither of us are that wordy, at least out loud. But poisoned or not, I drank the Milo. And he went back inside. And I kept skating.

I would have drunk any Milo my Granddad ever gave me. He was the only Granddad I had, alive when I was alive – and he was the best Granddad of all time. He died this morning – this afternoon, as it is in Australia. So at least I still have another half a day with Granddad in the world.

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