“Grandad, I need your help with an assignment.”

My daughter Renee is a wildly independent and successful woman and often remiss at staying in touch. I raised her to be that way. Powerful women are paragons in my world. So, contact from my grandchildren is always bittersweet and very welcome. We do a large Christmas thing each year but it’s very busy and I miss the one-on-one time I had with them all when they were younger, before Renee and Ben moved north a couple of suburbs and before Drake started clapping his hands.

“Sure sweety, which one are you? You all sound so big now.”

“Haha. Your favourite, silly. Sasha.”

“Of course. What are you, twenty? Twenty-three, now?”

“Haha. Sixteen, Grandad. Last month. Nice present by the way…”

“I clearly gave you the gift of sarcasm, didn’t I? That and premium genetics. You should be thankful enough to forgive my forgetful old bean.”

“So anyway, old timer…”

“Fire away, Sashy.”

“It’s not really that easy. I have this thing for English studies. Interview narration. You wouldn’t get it. I have to interview a family member, record it and then narrate the interview with relevant social and historical facts to be presented as a tape recording.”

“A recording you say?”

“Yup. We’re allowed to borrow the school equipment or use our own if we have it.”

“I’ll be a star. Do I need a moustache and a cane?”

“No, silly. Just some time to sit still and talk with your favourite granddaughter.”

“Sounds great. You want to hear about how I lost a testicle in France?”

“Eww! Grandad, gross. I don’t want to hear about your balls. I want to make it a love story. I want to ask you about Grandma.”

“Oh.” She died a few years ago now and left a gaping hole in my world.

“Is it okay? You’re not too sad still? Mum said it might be a bit rude to ask. It’s okay if you can’t.”

“Sweety, so long as you don’t mind seeing an old man cry a bit now and then, I don’t mind. It would be good to tell our story. The real story, anyway.”

“So, I’ll need to stay the weekend. Is that okay? That way we can chat in bits and pieces and take breaks when we need.”

“Do you want me to pick you up?”

“No, Grandad. I’ll take the train. You’re only a few stops away. See you Saturday.”

“It’s a date.”

“Mum says I have to cook and clean for you to say thank you. I’ll see you at around nine on Saturday morning. You better kick all those old girls from the nursing home out before I get there.”

“Cheeky sod. They don’t stay over anymore. I’m sick of them wetting the bed.”

“Eww… Now I know where Mum gets her overshare from. See ya.”

“Bye Sashy.”

As I hang up, I scratch my one remaining testicle and look at the photograph above my desk. She’s so young and beautiful. Tall and smiling. Full of hope and kindness. My Jeanie.


I’ve mowed the lawn and setup the spare room. I’ve washed my car. Not that I drive much anymore. It’s an old Kingswood. A HQ. Lorna loved the colour, that’s why we got it. It’s deep Maroon with a cream vinyl roof. It takes me to the RSL on Friday evenings, church on Sunday mornings and to the shops every other Thursday when my pension comes in.

My arm hurts a little when I’m finished drying it with the chamois. That bastard got me a good one. Right through the joint. They were going to take the whole arm. Jeanie laughed when I refused the surgery. “Then how will I properly see to myself?”

“You’ll just have to find a kind lady to assist.” She smirked and shook her head. For a moment, I’m back in that hospital with the smell of vinegar, decay and despair.

“Hi Pops!” Young people always look so busy going nowhere. Far too much energy in every moment.

“Hi yourself. How bloody long are you staying, kiddo?” She has a large suitcase and an overnight bag.

“Oh, that’s the recording equipment. Mum’s picking me up on Sunday afternoon. Are you ready?”

“Hell no. I have no idea what to tell you or how your gizmo’s even work.”

“You leave that to me. I’ve got everything organised.” She stops bouncing on the spot long enough to grab my beard like she did as a tiny child and pull me down so she can kiss my cheek. “Give me thirty minutes to unpack and setup. I’m on the sleepout right?”

“As usual.” The sleepout is an enclosed veranda that I built in when the boys were too big to share a room with their sister anymore.

Setting up some sprinklers with their ‘chak chak chak’ chorus on the freshly mown lawn to prevent it burning in the midday sun, I am glad for family. Lorna and I had all sorts of plans for my retirement. Most included travel through Europe so I could show her all the places from my stories.

“What happened to your t-shirt? Half of it’s missing.” I ask her when I head inside. She’s all set up in the lounge with a big tape recorder on the coffee table.

“Ha Ha, old man. Get with the times. It’s a boob-tube.”

“A boob-tube? Your mother lets you wear it outside?”

“Grandad it’s nineteen eighty-eight, not eighteen eighty-eight.”

“Where did you get breasts from anyway young lady? Goodness me, I better go and see if my old smelly works still. There’ll be boys lined up around the block.”

“Eww… I don’t want to hear about your old smelly. What the heck?” She’s standing with her hands on her hips looking at me like I’ve grown a second head.

“Ess. Em. Ell. Ee. SMLE. Short magazine lee enfield. My old three-oh.”

“Oh, a gun. I get it. Got anything to drink Grandad?”

“Um… Some ginger ale in the fridge.” I keep it to mix with my scotch. There’s a theory that the ginger in it helps with gout.

“Make yourself comfy pops. I’ll get us a drink and we can get started.”

When she returns, she puts the ginger ale and a half bottle of Teacher’s Scotch on the table.

“Mum said this will get you talking. But only one bottle a day.”

“Ok so where do we start. I’m not very good at this talking stuff. I’m better at shooting things and drinking whiskey.”

“I’ll turn the tapes on and then introduce us and lead you through. Don’t worry, just be yourself and try not to swear. I can edit out bits and pieces later, so don’t panic if you do. Okay?”

I nod and sip my whiskey. She’s a little shy with the scotch and generous with the dry but it’s still morning so that’s probably a good thing. My granddaughter reminds me very much of Renee at that age, both in looks and in her business-like manner. I’m a proud grandfather and watch smiling as she presses the play and record buttons at the same time.

She counts off five seconds for the leader and starts speaking, “My name is Sasha Jean Doherty. I am a year twelve student at Brisbane Girls Grammar. I am speaking today with my grandfather. Grandad, please tell me your full name and date of birth.”

“Now?” I ask.

She shakes her head and laughs. “Yes pops, now.”

“Sorry. You can cut that bit out right?”

“Yes. So, go ahead, your name and date of birth.”

“Well, that’s easy. I’ve been called many things overtime. Scissors, Ace, some you’d definitely have to edit out, but my real name is Clarence Charles Grace. I was born to Edward Charles Grace and Norma Estelle Grace, nee Murphy in the Charleville hospital on the Eighth day of February, nineteen twenty-three. That makes me sixty-five years young, although most days I feel about a hundred and sixty-five. How was that?”

“Very good pops. Um. I, wait…” She picks up her notepad and scans it quickly, ticking off something. “So, today I want to ask you some questions about what it was like growing up and your love affair with Grandma. Can you tell me a little about growing up first?”

“Well okay. I suppose… Your mum has never really said anything to you?”


“Well life was a bit tough when I was born. I was a war baby. Dad came home in nineteen-nineteen. He and Mum were together when the war started and when he came home, they got busy making babies like lots of other soldiers did. I had an older sister Narelle. She drowned in the cattle trough before I remember. Then Peter. He died in Papua New Guinea on the Kakoda. He was a chocko.”

“What’s a chocko, grandad?”

“Chocolate soldier, reservist. They shouldn’t have even been sent there but all our main forces were over in the western front, D-day and all that, you know. Should have been watching the home front all along, I say.”

“Sorry for interrupting. Where did you grow up?”

“Charleville, initially. You wouldn’t know it now, but back in those days it was a major centre for wool production. Dad came back from war a damaged sort of man. He drank too much and he was violent. I remember hiding in a bedroom with all the furniture pushed up against the door. He broke it with an axe and started throwing bricks at us before he passed out. Dad died in a shearing shed accident. They reckon he was drunk and fell from a truck.”

“Wow. Um… Did you ever tell Mum any of this?”

“Nope. She never asked and there was no real call to.”

“You said, ‘Charleville initially’?”

“Yes. After Dad died, Mum moved back home to her parents place in Proston. It’s a little town out in the sticks, past Kingaroy. She married a man called Edward Turner. He was more a father to us boys than Dad had ever been. He was kind to Mum too. He died from a snake bite when I was eleven. Mum did her best to keep the farm going but by the time I was sixteen she gave it away. Moved back to her parents place in Newfarm and worked in the wool stores.”

“What were you doing?”

“It was different then. At sixteen I was pretty much my own man. Peter had moved to Hivesville, nearby and was working in a sleeper mill. Ah, that’s where they cut the hardwood timber for the railway line sleepers. The things the track sits on. You know?”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“I left school after Edward died. Mum was struggling, so I tried to find work. It was hard to find work at eleven, but I figured the best place to look was the post-office. Mrs Milton ran the exchange. Not many people had phones back then, but she heard every phone call that anyone with a phone made. Mr Milton was a barber, and he heard every story every man in town told while they got their hair cut and beards trimmed. If there was work to be had they’d know where.”

My mind wanders for a moment remembering how I felt. I was a timid sort of kid and it took a long time to gather the gumption to talk to Mrs Milton. Mum had given me sixpence, so I sat on my haunches across from the post office and ate the bag of lollies and drunk the bottle of raspberry soda I’d bought and tried really hard to think of what to say.

“You okay, pops?”

“Just remembering.” I sip my glass of whiskey before continuing. “Mrs Milton listened to me. Not much more than a little boy, I was. Then she frowned at me and said, ‘Unfortunate business with your father, I’m sorry.’ Then she wrote something down and told me to take it to Mr Milton. He looked at the note, looked at me then asked, ‘You know I can’t read, right?’ I didn’t, but I could read well enough from the little school I’d done. I took the note and read, ‘Give this boy a haircut. He looks like a girl. He is your new apprentice. I’ll work out the details.’ So, I had my hair cut in a proper barber’s chair. It was the first time for me. I started work the following week.”

“What, at eleven years old?”

“Yep. I earned a pound a week to sweep the floor, polish boots, sharpen razors and run telegrams for Mrs Milton from time to time. It was good money for a kid back then. Hell, Peter was only getting two pound a week at the sawmill and he was thirteen.”

“Child slavery. I wouldn’t work for a dollar a week.”

“Back then I was giving Mum ten shillings out of my pay. Half a pound. It bought all the groceries for a week. It was a lot of money back then. By the time I was sixteen, I’d finished my apprenticeship and had my own chair in the barber shop. I was making a lot of money and had not much to spend it on. I’d saved about just short of five hundred pound in a big old bookies bag that used to belong to Edward. That was around the time Mum moved home.”

“That must have been hard, living alone at sixteen.”

“Not so much. I missed Mum. But we were a lot more independent back then than kids now. She told me when she left that the farm was mine and Peter’s. She’d keep paying the land tax until we were old enough to have our names put on the deeds. Then we could sell it or work it. Peter sold me his share.”

“You used your savings?”

“Not all of them. He was spending a lot of time on his days off, in Brisbane. There were girls down here. Um… showgirls and dancers…”

“Ah. Like prostitutes. It’s okay, Grandad. Look, for the purpose of this, no filters okay. You talk honestly and candidly, and I’ll beep out or edit. I’m a big girl. You might have been more independent back then, but we’re a little more worldly these days.”

“Yes well, not hookers as such. Just showgirls and they didn’t mind fleecing young men. Peter was convinced if he could get a car and move to Brisbane that one particular girl would be a prospect for marriage. He was in love, the silly fool. He asked me for a hundred pounds. Old Murray Livingston had a v-eight ford; a thirty two model for sale. It had a couple of kangaroo dents in the fenders but was good mechanically. I gave him a hundred and fifty, so he’d have a start in Brisbane, and he promised no claim on the farm.”

“How big was the farm?”

“Two hundred and forty acres. Not huge. It was two dairy properties. When Edward was alive, he share farmed it with another couple. I figured I’d sell it when I was twenty-one. But then that Jansen fellow dropped his code book.”

“Code book? Was he like a spy?”

“No, a stock and station agent. He bought and sold cattle. You need to understand that not many people had phones back then. Technology was evolving and geographically Australia was a big place to try and put infrastructure into. The cattle buyers relied on the telegraph system to get urgent messages through and they needed a code system because fortunes were made and lost on the information they sent by telegram. Who’s buying, who’s selling, what price, etc.”


“Um, kind of like an old-fashioned fax. Can we stop for a moment? I need the toilet and I’ll find you an encyclopedia, so you know about telegrams.”

I did indeed need the toilet. Scotch in the morning after coffee insisted that I was an older man than I felt. Watching her read the Britannica entry on telegraph systems, I realise exactly how far we’ve come technologically. I still want a flying car though. Cartoons promised us that by the eighties.

She turns the tapes back on and asks, “I get it about telegrams now. But why the code? Why didn’t they just call and talk directly to each other.”

“Well, back then when you placed a phone call, an operator plugged your line into another line and put your call through. That operator spoke to you as part of the process and could, (often did) listen in to your conversation. Trust me on that one. There was not a single phone call went through the exchange that Mrs Milton didn’t listen to. The telegrams though, you sent a coded message, and it was private.”

“Ok, so we’re getting a little off track here, pops. Why is the code book important?”

“Well, with that code book and the scraps of paper that Mrs Milton wrote the telegram requests on, I learned a lot about the cattle industry and prices. It was nineteen thirty-nine and some phoney war had been declared. Germany invaded Poland and everyone declared war but wasn’t doing very much about it. The Australian government was poking around trying to establish available resources for beef and kidney beans.”

“Er? What for?”

“Because if war actually broke out, the commonwealth would be spending a fortune on beef imports and on bean imports. An army marches on its stomach, as the old saying goes. The ration packs are mostly bully beef and baked beans.”

“Right. So…”

“So, I started buying a lot of bean seed. I got the old Howard tractor going and worked cultivation. I fixed fences and bought fifty breeders. I also bought the neighbours blocks, another two hundred acres.”

“At sixteen?”

“Yes. Life was different. I needed Mum’s signatures and she visited now and then, but technically it was all mine.”

“Right. A little spotty faced tycoon!” She giggles.

“Pretty much. I’ve always been a short sort of man and yes, I had my fair share of pimples back then.”

“So how does this have to do with Grandma?”

“It doesn’t really. You asked what life was like.”

“Oh. Right. So, let’s finish this bit off and take a break. I could use a swim.”

“Right well I guess the long and the short is that war did get serious. The Germans took France and launched a devastating air battle with Britain. By nineteen forty-one, I’d sold my seed stock that cost me a hundred pound, for almost a thousand and my breeders had produced a hundred head of cattle that I sold at nearly twenty pound each.”

“Quite the teenage entrepreneur, Grandad.” She looks impressed.

“Yup, but then came conscription. In 1942, I boarded a train for Brisbane and rather than sign up for the CMF, I volunteered. With my smaller build they sent me to the RAAF and off I went to England. The Four-Fifty-Third. Spitfires. I was almost nineteen years old and flying missions over Germany. Escorting bombers mostly, although I did a little recon and home defence as well. That’s how I got my shoulder injury and lost a man in action.”

“What? A man in action?”

“My testicle. Shrapnel through the fuselage. An inch either way and I would have either lost my dick or got my femoral artery. Personally, I’d have preferred the femoral and a swift death to losing the captain.”

“Oh my god, pops. I think we’ll leave it there. Haha.”

“Oh shit. Sorry, I forgot. You can edit that right?”

“Maybe I’ll leave it. Mrs Svenson will get a giggle.”

“Right then.” I watch as she turns off the tapes. “Pool time for me. What are you gonna do?”

“I might join you Sashy. Hot in here.”

“You could turn the air-con on.”

“Bloody thing costs a fortune, it’s not that bloody hot. Hot was Egypt. That was hot.”


Watching the beautiful healthy young grandkid swim laps so strongly and fluidly makes me happy for her peace filled experience of our country. She’s tall and healthy due to good nutrition and antibiotics; luxuries my generation didn’t have as children. She swims with power and grace courtesy of training and culture. Not at all like when I learned to swim in the freezing waters of the Seine.

Renee was so patient. So, kind and encouraging. It was her coaching at that simplest stroke, breaststroke, that got me out of France alive. Every evening we would black ourselves with soot and sneak down to the shallows where we’d strip naked and she did her best to teach me to swim. I panicked at first. I blame an unremembered response to my sister’s drowning.

But slowly, I learned well enough to cross the river against its slight current and return. I was rewarded each evening with her body. The risk of being out after curfew, the exhilaration of the cold waters and the sneaking through the dark, the fact of her offered body, the fact of her offered life inspired our passion.