My Aunty Jess. The secret of eternal youth is…


Back in the olden days of British film production, pitcher credits were always regarded as an integral and important part of the show and were run slow enough to enlighten and prepare the viewer for the coming entertainment. In a sense it is the equivalent to a play-goer buying a programme at the door but a British film’s credits can throw up bit players who went on to become leading lights of their profession. On the other hand you might have noticed, few American ‘stars’ seem to have done the hard yards; like those stories about the producer’s couch are dinkum and that eating dick on cue is the quickest way to Hollywood heaven.

Any film with railway, or the suggestion of trains in its title won my attention, an Agatha Christie carry-over for sure or even a Freudian connection to Ewan McGregor. The other day, I glanced at the TV as the opening credits of the 1970 movie showed that The Railway Children was from a book written by Edith Nesbit, an English novelist whose appeal peaked early last century. Her surname was that of the married name of a favored aunt long dead, 45 years at least and I recall an incident that happened at our home in Headfort Street, a couple of doors behind Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital’s recreation room, when I was about seven years of age, the conclusion of WW2.

Jess’s hubby, to a war-aware child because of the searchlights piercing Brisbane’s night skies after the Centaur sinking, was a dashing chap. Smartly uniformed in airman darkish blue, always held himself proudly, returned from war wearing a cap that flattened when removed, and was tucked under shoulder epaulettes when not being formal. I always had the romantic picture of him dishing it out to the nips over New Guinea, where three of Jess’s older brothers paid penance in various ground-fought theaters of war. We had a fair relationship I thought, until the occasion a few years later when I was spending some time with the family and he monetarily rewarded me for some mundane task. I shot over to the railway station and took a first class ticket to the City. Sated, I jumped on a return train, but unaware of the vagaries of travel, it seemed to go 100 miles an hour as it shot past my station.

It was a lesson in express peak-time people transportation whose effect was to last no more than two-minutes. My absence would be arousing interest and concern and I started to rue my impulsiveness. Being only two stations from home, the delay would not be enough to create panic, I reasoned. Feeling an emotional release as I boarded yet another train, the panic was palpable as this bastard again shot past Graceville Station. I was back at Roma Street within minutes. My interest in rail travel was appeased in the short term; Jack tied my stupidity to my elitist tendency, taken aback by my first class choice, but I became au fait with timetables.

Had I borne his sur-name, my childhood introduction to reading would have almost certainly started with the sedate genre of The Railway Children when one considers that at this mind-developing time, the growing awareness of my own sur-name led me to the action-fantasy world of Biggles and his frantic mid-air warnings to Ginger and other fighting squadron ‘chaps’ of “yellow blighters at 10 o’clock.” I thank W.E. Johns belatedly and wholeheartedly condemn this era’s fascist dummy mind-makers intent on killing Australia’s fighting and thinking spirit.

I watched the movie intermittently, too clean and innocent for blaise ten-year olds now, and was probably dated on its 1970 release, but far more watchable than the current formatted midday trash. The raison d’être of my TV and its continual running is to muffle the screaming nonsense that mobile phone clots think their unfortunate neighbors should know. These boofheads and other cretinous gestures of idiots carrying-on with vain attempts to mask their stupidity. They should die in great agony.

Jess will remain forever young in my mind. Bit like ego-driven 27 y.o. being etched in another dimension when bacteria in average mortals makes us ordinary and fallible. I liked Jess and was often chastised for being a nosey interfering brat by hanging around when she visited. My enduring and nostalgic mind picture of her is of the aftermath of a family drama that I tend to think as seriously private even now so long after the event that to detail my unfounded suspicions would be a betrayal of trust.

I emerged from under the paling enclosed, high-set Queenslander, at the bottom of the back stairs down which Jess had just swept, unsealed dirt floor used mainly as a kid’s play area, but high enough to accommodate the laundry, crude by today’s standards. We couldn’t have been too far behind the times, what with a gas clothes boiler replacing the antique outside wood-chip job that had doubled at festive times to dip recently decapitated chooks to facilitate feather removal.

It was probably a ruckus of raised voices that drew my attention. An emotional crisis was unfolding. I watched from my spot at the bottom of the stairs as Jess wept uncontrollably. She was sitting on the grass some ten metres down the gently sloping yard, legs drawn-up crying into folded arms. I stood transfixed, wanting to ease her pain, but back then kids knew intrusion into adult business always got short shift. no-kids-allowed-in-restaurant. Not knowing what to do, I did nothing. Just watched. The lazy man’s easy way out. Life’s template had been cast.

I was sure she had been guilty of some grave moral sin and that her punishment was deserved. Such was the religious pus that crueled and crotched and finally destroyed one ambitious kid’s life. Patchy memories of Jess after this come and go, vague, nothing significant; puberty’s intrusion heralding denial. Had I met her or seen her again, my helpless guilt wouldn’t have allowed me to look openly into her eyes as I once could.

This was my first recognized and admitted act of cowardice, more significant than all those that followed.

Les.

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