HEIFER CALLED FRED
true short story
Written by Nola Lyons
first met Eva one wintry evening when she was admitted for immediate
surgery to St Andrews Hospital in East Melbourne where I was nursing at
the time. Her history suggested that she was allergic to everything—her
diet was restricted to a glass of water and a Carraway seed but only if
she was starving. She was
self-diagnosed as having an “irritable” stomach that precluded
reasonable sustenance of any kind and addicted to ongoing ailments found
listed in the “Every Woman’s Guide to Rare and Untreatable Maladies”
that rated the number one seller in her medicine cabinet.
Her attitude to the forthcoming surgery was negative and her
visions of herself were that of a corpse lying lifeless on a mortuary
was far from the case and she not only survived the operation but also
enjoyed a complete and uncomplicated convalescence that rather
proved to be the most hopeless, hapless, difficult, frustrating, hard-to-nurse
patient to come under my care and more than once I was sorely tempted to
smother her with her pillow—the extra soft one she’d brought from home
along with all the other comforts to make her miserable life happy. I
could have cheerfully strangled her more than once with her IV tubing and
not felt the slightest pang of guilt!
the pantechnicon that transported her accessories of comfort from home,
one found everything but the kitchen sink, possibly the only reason that
it wasn’t somewhere hiding was because it had been securely plumbed.
I unpacked a mobile pharmacy of pills, potions, balms and gargles
that were spirited away into the security of the ward drug cupboard—to
be kept under lock and key until Eva’s discharge.
Despite her ranting and raving, she lost that round.
The “aids de comfort” were frightening in quantity including
such things as soft pillows designed for every part of the body—each one
labelled for its particular area of comfort; many multicoloured rugs for
shoulders, chest, knees and feet; embroidered hand towels for unknown
purposes; multi-coloured knitted bedrocks with pompoms and mountains of
woollen under-garments, neck-to-knee flannelette nighties and probably
most important of all, an old rubber water bottle that had to be
frequently filled with water that was neither too hot or neither too cold
and not filled from the tap as the content had to be precisely measured.
Making Eva comfortable was a task of mammoth proportions and the
only times she seemed somewhat content were when Charlie visited or her
finger was glued to the buzzer for attention she didn’t need. When she
went home I missed her!
enduring love affair with Charlie began with her gift of a pair of.
Hand-knitted army socks. The war was raging in the Pacific and Charlie
found himself serving in New Guinea and Borneo where he was taken
prisoner. He was interned for
three years during which time he was a guest of the Japanese in Changi and
a worker on the Burma Railway. He
suffered illness and injury and all but lost his eyesight but he was a
survivor, and after the war he was given a soldier’s grant of land in
the Kyneton district of Victoria where he finally met Eva.
He was not a young man anymore having served in both wars and his
POW status—had taken toll on this once robust body so that starting his
new life on the land was a task almost beyond his capabilities without Eva
at his side. She had included
her name and address in the parcel of socks he had received through the
Red Cross and from that day, they corresponded, a caring and loving
relationship developing between the soldier and his country lass who had
lived all her life on the land.
Eva’s discharge from St. Andrews, William and I accepted the warm
invitation to visit when we had free weekends—to go out into the
paddocks with the dogs and the rifles; to spend evenings in front of a
huge log fire listening to Charlie reminisce; to help him with his chores
and more importantly, to appreciate the loyalty, courage and belief in
themselves that overcame the many obstacles that at first faced them. The ravages of war finally took this tough man to his rest on
Anzac Day, 1957. Eva had a strength
that no one had recognized and despite her on-going ills and eccentric
ways, she virtually maintained the property single-handed.
contact was maintained by way of odd phone calls and crazy letters that
arrived in the mail—written on any old scrap of paper—the back of
receipts, torn envelopes, cardboard—anything that Eva happened to pick
up when the spirit moved her to write, and never without the inclusion of
a pressed flower or two. She
had the “green thumb” and grew flowers and vegetables in
profusion—in kerosene tins, old rusted good for-nothing water tanks and
even in the ground! She kept the property in beautiful condition and was the envy
of neighbouring farmers. If
their cows were fat, Eva’s cows were fatter and when the neighbour's
farms fell on hard times or were drought-stricken, it was Eva who was able
to help them out. She had
premonitions and acted upon them—always prepared for trouble.
She drove a hard bargain but was fair.
had been born and raised on a property near to where she and Charlie
farmed their land, some miles away from the pretty little town of Kyneton
surrounded by rolling green hills and rich pasture land, within a few
hours drive of Bendigo and Ballarat.
She and Charlie raised sheep and a few head of cattle and once the
farm was established, it thrived. Over the years, Eva didn’t alter.
She maintained the crazy, unhealthy life-style that we had seen in
the hospital—ate garbage and popped her multi-coloured collection of
pills prescribed by a weary-of-Eva local practitioner.
From the number of empty gin bottles roosting under the house it
appeared she had a healthy appetite for hard liquor but we never saw her
drink a drop! She maintained
a healthy, ruddy appearance with scarcely a line on her face and took
pride in her long glossy hair insofar there was no grey showing.
She wore it in an untidy knot at the nape of the neck but more
often when she lost all the pins that were meant to keep it in place, it
tumbled free to fly in all directions as decreed by the wind.
Her concern for fashion was negligible.
She usually picked up the last garment she’d worn—always
hanging on the floor from yesterday and possibly laundered last year.
Her outdoor gear was an old wool skirt in tones of
hardly matched the outrageous knitted sweater in multi-coloured patterns,
protected with a pinafore of floral cotton and in inclement weather, an
old khaki army greatcoat that had belonged to Charlie.
She usually jammed an old slouch army hat to protect her hair
before sloshing her way into the paddocks to do what had to be done but
not before working her sensible beige wool stockinged feet into an ancient
pair of rubber boots.
a previous visit I recall Eva trying to wrestle another army greatcoat
from the back porch floor—it was glued to the boards with a strange
orange substance that refused to free it from its captivity.
On cautious close inspection, it appeared to be apricot jam—a jar
of which had been dropped and smashed at some time or another—not enough
problem to encourage Eva to clean up either the jam or the small shards of
glass. The ants had given up
and gone home and with gentle persuasion, Eva was persuaded to confine the
coat to the incinerator.
trips to town were as infrequent as possible and the wardrobe where one
would expect find a day dress or two contained everything but.
The shelves were stuffed with a conglomerate of things and it
wasn’t unusual to find loaves of bread wrapped in pillowcases—well
past the use-by date, not forgetting the loaves lovingly wrapped in a
length of burgundy french velvet, purchased at some time in the past and
intended for a new gown to be worn at the Bachelors and Spinsters Ball
this year, next year, whenever the mood took her to sew.
Eva did have an old Singer treadle sewing machine but it was mostly
a place for saucers of milk to rest on—she fed seventeen cats!
years after Charlie’s death, we decided to take the children to visit
“Barfold” to get the feel of life on a farm.
Eva was ecstatic and we duly arrived.
We met with kisses and cuddles at the front door but that was as
far as we got because the hallway beyond the door was chaotic—a
repository for cartons, boxes, stacked newspapers and various other items
of flotsam and jetsam—all making entrance to the front of the house
impenetrable. The kids had
whooped with delight on arrival and had already headed for the paddocks
leaving their parents to seriously contemplate whether they should abandon
the whole thing and drive back to town with the promise of daily visits or
get stuck into trying to make space—at least in the hallway.
Our consternation didn’t seem to have any effect on Eva who was
too delighted to worry or notice such things so we took the least line of
resistance and decided to face the music and start making space.
The bedroom designated for the children was in much the same state
of turmoil as the hall except it housed an added hazard—boxes and bowls
of eggs that were far from new-laid and already in explosion mode.
Maybe movement in the room set them off but it was frighteningly
the same as being out on a rifle range where at least there was no putrid
smell of rotten egg gas to wither the nostrils.
Eva was quite unperturbed about the whole thing whilst we agonized
about having made the right or wrong decision to stay. The eggs weren’t just confined to that room—they rolled
out of cupboards and drawers with gay abandon!
sitting room where we were to eat was another disaster and the thought of
eating was furthest from our minds. Eva
had obviously eaten when no one was around and eaten quite heartily—the
Leaning Tower of Pisa bore testimony to this fact—every piece of
crockery was stacked one on the other with cutlery fighting for space
along with old food glueing the plates together.
They leaned disastrously but it was unlikely they’d fall. I doubt there’d been any dishwashing done in months.
I had visions of two sick parents and four sick children—not Eva
though, she’d built up her own immunity against such things and it was a
long time after we’d washed and dried dishes that we had the courage to
face the evening meal. This
was the beginning of my busman’s holiday! The bedroom in which we were to sleep held yet another
mystery that we solved before the light of day—Eva slept in a back room
having vacated the guest room some time previously so was not privy to our
nocturnal investigations. Once
we’d cleared away more cartons, boxes and more eggs, the green linoleum
on the floor was visible but peppered with strange black blobs in
irregular patterns and irregular places -dozens of them—but more
intriguing on closer inspection were the gently waving grey whiskers that
moved when we moved! They
appeared to be alive. A quiet
sneak into the kitchen found a knife and with caution, William eased one
of these blobs from the lino—I admit, at arm’s length, to recognize
the pepperminty smell of “Minties”!
It was months since Eva vacated the bedroom and obviously she
supplemented her strange diet by perching up in bed eating sweets and
allowing the “Minties” to stay where they fell, the passing of time
reducing them to a pasty substance before they became little creatures
was far too interested in her sheep and cattle to concern herself with
mundane tasks like washing and cleaning and I doubt she was too worried
about callers so whilst she was out and about on the land with the kids in
hot pursuit, instead of going off with them and the dogs, I greased my
muscles and cleaned the house from top to bottom.
I found the lino in the kitchen to be not turd brown under its
crust of dried mud, but a very presentable mustard yellow and the green
lino in the guest room was devoid of black blobs.
The day we packed up to leave “Barfold” the kids had had a
wonderful holiday- Eva had allowed them to christen the new heifer
“Fred”. William had been able to get out into the paddocks with the
kids and I was pleased for them all.
Eva had had a wonderful week with kids trailing after her and
despite my chapped hands and housemaid’s knees, it had been a memorable
more reasons than one, Eva Roots was quite a character.
The lady who ran the little general store referred to her as
“mad”. We found her
eccentric but not mad. No one
could manage a property the way she did and be mad at the same time.
We continued to keep in touch but her scruffy letters and pressed
flowers became more infrequent until one day they ceased altogether.
She was always concerned that her family considered her unfit to
run her property and the last time I spoke to her on the phone, she
sounded more vague than ever, was living in town and the family had taken
never regretted having known Eva and Charlie—they were the salt of the
land. Eva’s lifestyle was
out of the ordinary and we wore her eccentricities but grew to love her
for the person she was. Both
she and Charlie have a very special place in my memory of special people.
2000 Nola Lyons