Harry could hear Mum singing along with the wireless as he sat on the dusty back step, waiting for Grandpa to join him. “……..better watch out, better not cry, better not shout, I’m telling you why….,” sang Mum along with some awful American twangy voice coming over the airwaves. “Santa Claus is coming…………. “
Harry liked Mum singing like that. She always sang along with the wireless. It brought a happy feeling into their house. Harry was glad Mum was happy - or at least made out she was happy. Harry knew she missed Dad more than anyone. “……..gonna find out who’s naughty and nice…..,” Mum’s singing was interrupted by Grandpa calling to her that he and Harry were setting off. Harry snapped out of his thoughtful mood and leapt up to take the bag from Grandpa.
One Saturday a month, Harry and Grandpa would walk two miles to the poultry farm and collect a small chicken for Mum to cook for Sunday lunch.
On the other Saturdays, they would eat a different roast, which Mum would conjure up from whatever meat (or meat-like substance) she managed to obtain during the week.
Mind you, the much feted roast chicken was not really the feast-treat they made it out to be. It was just that Grandpa had known Mick the chook man for years and Mick could be relied upon to find some scrawny little bird (once a month!) to pluck and put aside to sell extra cheaply to Grandpa.
This month was special. It was December. In fact, Christmas Day was only three days away. Once a year, in December, Mum would have saved enough money to buy two chickens. “Two decent sized birds this time!” Mum would instruct Grandpa and Harry. And then they would invite Dad’s sister, Aunty Marge, and Robbie and Glenda, to come for Christmas dinner. Two chickens. What a feast!
Harry loved the walk to the poultry farm each month. He loved the feeling of closeness he had with Grandpa. And the conversation - man to man - that they had on the way there. It was a long walk, but it was lovely.
On the return trip they would take turns in carrying the hessian bag containing the little carcass destined to be eaten the next day. Harry enjoyed the feel of the gently swinging bag with the plaited string handle resting over his shoulder. Sometimes they each had a large brown egg or two resting in their pockets as well, and it was then that they felt like millionaires.
Despite all the circumstances, they were a happy threesome - Mum, Grandpa and Harry. Certainly they missed Dad. But, to a seven year-old, four years was a long time. Harry had been too little to know his father very well at the time war broke out, and, to Harry, Dad had become almost a fantasy figure, bravely being a soldier in a far-off country in a part of the world that may as well have been on the moon.
“………it’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide. But come you back……..,” Mum sang along with the wireless crooner. Harry would dutifully plant a kiss on the glass of Dad’s framed photo each night before going to bed. He’d mention Dad’s name in his prayers and he supposed he did love his father as much as a son should, but, for Harry in 1944, Grandpa was the important person in his life. Grandpa was the person he looked up to; the best friend, the confidant. Grandpa and Harry were a real team. A person needed a mate in those days.
“………we’ll travel along, singin’ a song - side by side.” This year had been a particularly horrible one for Australian soldiers and Australia in general. To have reached December at all, seemed somehow to have been an achievement.
A new year was just around the corner and people were saying, “It can’t last another year,” and “This time next year it will surely all be over.”
Funny how words and numbers on calendars can influence thinking. In actual fact, one day is much the same as another. One month is not much different from any other. Really. But, somehow, December always manages to signify the end - the full-stop - to things. And, maybe a beginning, also?
“……..angels sing, glory to the new born king……,” Mum’s singing greeted the two travellers as they placed their larger than usual baggage on the kitchen table. And 1944 ended and 1945 began.
The first time Grandpa had the big pain, Mum got Mrs Dennis next door to ring for the doctor.
No need to worry too much, said the doctor. Just make sure that he doesn’t over exert himself, and keep the nourishing food up to him. Probably just the heart getting a bit tired and complaining a little.
It was two whole months before Grandpa attempted a slow walk to Mick’s chook farm. Harry carried the bag all the way home.
They went again the next month, but the pain came too often after that. Some days Grandpa just sat in his big chair looking out the window. Then Harry would sit on the footstool and be content with the nearness. There was no need for conversation. On one Saturday, Mum let Harry walk to the poultry farm on his own. But it wasn’t the same and Harry wondered why he had never before noticed what a long distance it was - and how tiring; and what uninteresting scenery skirted the route.
Mum at first resisted others’ pleas to put Grandpa into the hospital in town, but became frightened that she wasn’t capable of caring for him properly, and, at last let the doctor have his way.
Three and a half days was all that Grandpa lasted in the austere hospital setting. He died in his sleep his fourth night there. For Harry, the grief was as unbearable as Grandpa’s death was incomprehensible.
Days and nights of nothingness followed. Mum cooked meals which they ate like robots. Few words were exchanged. The wireless was left switched off.
It was while they were in this state of suspended reality that the outside world began to change. Mum took little notice. Harry even less. But, by the time atom bombs had obliterated Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, despite the horror of it all, Mum’s spirits lifted a little at the thought of no more war and a future which once again included a husband. Dad came home for good on the 27th of September, 1945. And Mum was overjoyed.
Harry knew he should be happy, but it wasn’t easy. The void left by Grandpa was still an aching hole which Dad was unable to fill.
The wireless was turned back on. “Happy days are here again, the skies above are clear……..” Days merged into weeks. Weeks into months, and it was December again. Memories of last December came flooding back and sadness overwhelmed Harry. Harry left the bright dusty day behind and tiptoed into the living room to be alone. He sat in the big old chair that had been Grandpa’s and drew his legs up against his chest. His body melted into the soft contours of the aging upholstery and he felt himself drifting into a fuzzy reverie. Harry began to experience a strange, but comforting rocking sensation, and his thoughts went back to the days of togetherness. “Grandpa. Oh, Grandpa.” Harry wasn’t sure if the words came out aloud or if it was just his mind saying them. But as the Grandpa thoughts became stronger, and he sank further into the chair, he felt an incredible feeling of peace and warmth overtake his sadness. Some sort of invisible arms seemed to firmly enfold him and he was rocked and soothed in their loving comfort.
Harry slept. His dreams were of Grandpa. And, as he dreamed, he knew that they were Grandpa’s arms around him and that everything would be alright.
When Harry began to wake sometime later, he could still feel the arms encircling him. Their strength and warmth was radiating through his body. And as he became fully awake, there came a sweeping sensation, and Harry took a deep breath as he felt the sadness and the pain of the last few months slowly being brushed away. Steady brush strokes swept a clear path and Harry felt his being fill with a newness and a strength he had not known before.
He unfolded his legs and flexed his body a little as he sensed and responded to this strange awakening. He felt he had physically grown bigger over the last few minutes. His world looked brighter and the weight, which had been pressing on his shoulders, was no longer there. Harry stood up and looked around the room. Even the dull old walls and the shabby furniture looked brighter. As he reached the door, Harry heard his father’s voice call him. “Coming, Dad,” Harry answered, as he ran outside. “D’you reckon Mick might have a couple of his best quality chooks for us today?” asked Dad when Harry reached him. “Will we go and see?” suggested Harry. Mum was singing away with the wireless “……..come let us adore him, oh, come let us adore him….” As she watched Harry and Dad walk down the road. Harry’s left hand was clasped firmly in his father’s large fist. His right hand held on to the plaited string handle of the chook bag flung over his shoulder.