Category Archives: Rural Childhood

A Writer’s first obituary

BROTHERLY LOVE (L-R) Nicholas, Michael & Andrew Burge in 1973.

Nicholas Burge (June 1973 – September 1973).

ONE of the earliest original pieces of writing I completed was an obituary, written for my younger brother Nicholas who had died seven years prior from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

I was in the final year of primary school, with an inspiring teacher, a sensitive Welshman, who set us a writing task to record the story of ‘something I’ll never forget’.

I don’t know why I chose Nicholas. Most probably it was because there had not been much talk about him since he died, even though I had experienced first-hand the devastating impact his loss had on my family.

The piece has long since been lost, but I know I wrote about the morning he died. Me (aged three) and my older brother (four) were the ones who discovered the baby, dead, in his cot, during our usual morning ritual of waking him and taking him into our parents’ room.

Not understanding the concept of death, of course we did not see the impact that was coming, when we went to tell mum and dad that the baby wouldn’t wake up.

At the time of writing about the day, I had no more than a mental picture of my mother, flying out of the bed with a great sweep of the pink sheets, and my father trying to wind the old party-line telephone into action. Mum, keening like a seagull, held the dead baby in her arms.

I learned much later that we’d all driven from our farmhouse into town, the dead baby in a carry-basket between my brother and I. We were left with our grandparents while Nicholas’ body was taken to the hospital.

Later again, when I retrieved his death certificate, I discovered Nicholas was buried the very next day in the family plot. Apparently my father was incapable, in his grief, of driving away from the cemetery. Mum took over.

We didn’t last much longer on the farm after that. Despite being encouraged to have another baby, the grief worked its way between my parents, and we left the land for a brief life in town, before they separated and divorced. Not long after, we moved with mum closer to the city where she’d grown up.

There were psychological reasons for everyone’s behaviour in the wake of Nicholas’ death, but this is not the place to explore them. When I wrote his obituary, I was too young to understand them anyway, I was only responding to being asked about something ‘I would never forget’.

Perhaps this was also my first lesson in how powerful words can be? I know it bonded me closer to my mother, to have her son recall with great importance something that was a life-changing moment for her family. When I packed up our house after her death, I found Nicholas’ clothes in a little bundle wrapped inside her wedding veil in a bottom drawer in the garden shed. A photograph of the baby boy confirmed they were his.

When I wrote to my father about the same events many years later, he expressed that he always believed it was better to get on with the care of the living, as opposed to thinking about the dead. At the time, I said nothing, because I didn’t know if I agreed, or not.

But writing about my memories gave Nicholas a place in my life, even though his own had been so very short. Like most of my writing, this little obituary involved looking back, and I have since learnt how controversial that can be. In this case, I believe it was more than worth it.

Obituaries are biographies, often written at acutely painful times. I recall my obituary for my brother Nicholas was very short, like his life. It was an affirmation that he existed, that we knew him, and that we loved him. Sometimes writing is really that simple.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Send her down Hughie!

WAITING FOR RAIN Midwestern farm by Margaret Bourke-White.

A Writer’s first exposure to supernatural forces.

IN MY childhood, rain meant something. It meant action.

Buckets had to be strategically placed along the hallway of our farm-house to catch the roof leaks.

My father had to move fast, to get outdoors towards the approaching bank of clouds, cup his hands to his mouth and lean back into the wind, crying out: “Send her down Hughie!” as loud as he could. If my grandfather was around, he would yell it too.

“A farmer had to take things into his own hands, not by bending to his knees in prayer, but making a proactive, dramatic, full-throated invocation.”

I don’t recall asking what the shouting was for, like I don’t remember asking why we had to run around with buckets while mum lifted the rugs. Somehow it was just part of living on a farm.

Dad was doing what many farmers do, calling on the weather god to send down the rain and not miss our farm. Too often we’d see heavy showers passing to the south at the far end of our shallow upland valley west of Delungra, leaving our hillsides dry and cracked with the heat.

A farmer had to take things into his own hands, not by bending to his knees in prayer, but making a proactive, dramatic, full-throated invocation. Nothing less would do. You had to make a great gesture of effort, a visible show of need.

My father would also pretend to be the ghost of ‘Old Harry’ walking down the long hallway of our home, scaring me and my brother into our beds.

Seeing dad’s familiar figure pass in the half-dark, I was never sure it wasn’t ‘Old Harry’. After all, if your dad is yelling to a weather god, then anything could be true.

These days, people will try to tell you that ‘Hughie’ is Saint Hugh, the Catholic saint associated with rain. Surfers apparently invoke Hughie for the best coastal conditions. Slim Dusty even wrote a song about him.

But none of that is what Hughie means to me. Hughie is darkening skies. He’s dangerous gales. He’s the hood on your parka flapping in the wind, while you think about getting inside before the storm hits.

STORM FRONT Cumulus panorama.

Hughie is fickle and chaotic. He doesn’t just drop the rain anywhere. He’s up there, riding the front of the weather where it’s so loud you need to wail at the top of your voice for him to hear you. To send down the rain, Hughie needs to see someone, and not just anyone. He takes orders only from the most stoic, the most reserved member of your household, and that’s always dad.

When Hughie’s feeling generous, he’ll give you gentle, soaking rain when your crops are in and it’s time for them to grow. When you’ve pissed him off, he’ll send your sheds tumbling over themselves, and lift iron sheets off your roof.

Perhaps Hughie’s a stray weather god stranded in the southern hemisphere, lost after some climatic sortie when people stopped believing in the pantheon of Greco-Roman Gods? Perhaps Hughie’s always been here, and we’ve just given him a new name?

For me, Hughie was a precursor to chaos. Not just bad weather, but death, divorce and family divisions. He chased me and my family off the farmhouse in the late 1970s, and I even felt him blowing around the town houses we lived in after that.

I became a weather-watcher, because I could sense a change coming. My parents’ separation, divorce, and our move away from the country was all played-out against a great tension I had due to the fear of abandonment. I could hardly go to school for fear of coming home to find nobody there, with thunderstorms raging outside and no-one to protect me.

That was Hughie.

The day we arrived at our new home on the fringe of the city, shell-shocked, I began to relax. Something about that place is beyond Hughie. He rarely makes an appearance there, with the cool climate gardens and higher average rainfall.

But I still feel him at work whenever I take off in a plane. He’s that gale which creates turbulence, reminding me I am no longer earthbound.

Next time you’re waiting for rain, think of Hughie. You’ll know what to do.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Theatrical dags

STAR PERFORMERS Tom Roberts’ ‘Shearing the Rams’ c.1890 from the National Gallery of Victoria.

A young Playwright’s first theatre.

SOME of my earliest memories of growing up at ‘Paxton’ (the property my parents owned near Delungra in New South Wales), are of the shearing shed, and not just during shearing season.

Back then, ‘Paxton’ was not a particularly iconic or beautiful homestead, but my parents had made it habitable after years of standing derelict, and turned it into a viable farm.

The home itself was once two buildings – the main house faced the east, and, built onto tree stumps at the west stood what was probably the old kitchen, once separated. This was common practice from times when the risk of the house burning to the ground was great if the kitchen went up in flames.

“There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed.”

A falling-down chook run and an overgrown tennis court stood at each end of the home yard, and up the gravel road was the shearing shed – a cluster of corrugated iron buildings with sheep yards on one side and a rather large door.

This shed was a source of delight and surprise for me and my brother, probably starting when we found our Christmas presents behind that door, long before Santa Claus had a chance to deliver them that year. It was far enough from the house that our frequent secret trips to ride our new bikes were not discovered for some time!

Most of the year, the shearing shed was empty. Not being completely weatherproof, the elements had worked away at the wooden rails of the yards, which were over a child’s head height and enclosed tall weeds more than they did sheep.

But once a year, the building would fill with life, when the Shearers arrived. They introduced new words into my world, the most evocative being ‘Smoko‘, meaning a break, a few minutes to swill down a hot tea and smoke a cigarette, usually sometime in the mid morning. The other was a ‘Spell’ – a short sleep in the shade of a tree after lunch.

My brother and I carried an esky and thermos up to the shearing shed every day the Shearers were in residence. I have no idea where they lived – they probably camped in the shelter of the shed itself.

MAKING AN ENTRANCE Inside the shearing shed at “Paxton”, Delungra.

These were worn men, angular with years of bending into their task, hands burnished from holding their shears, and senses dulled from maintaining the loud engine which drove the complicated overhead shearing system – dangerous rubber belts and fast wheels which whizzed the clippers into action.

We were too young to do more than sweep up sheep crap and help with cleaning the shorn fleece, in the raucous masculine atmosphere which departed as quickly as it had arrived, leaving the shed empty and full of potential.

There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed for me, even now I cannot pass one by without getting a look inside. They are scattered across the Tablelands, often surprising you around a rural corner, usually well cared-for if the farm is still functioning. For me, however, the more dilapidated they are the better.

In the drafty darkness of an empty shed, the smell of decomposing sheep crap brings my childhood stampeding back to me. The odour is always tempered by lanolin, the oil from the fleece which builds up on all timbers where sheep have been herded and shorn, preserving wood better than any varnish ever could. The skeletal frame of a shearing shed endures for decades under this resin, whereas the outer shell rots away until it’s like driftwood, lending the place a graveyard quality.

But the most romantic element of a shearing shed is the journey of the wool. Corralled in the waiting yards, sheep are dragged through a timber gate onto the shearing floor, where they are clipped from head to toe, then shoved down a chute to the lower ground level outside to recover from the shock. Those chutes, slippery and steep, were our first fun park.

Each precious fleece, akin to a great fluffy jacket, is thrown over a large wooden table, allowing burrs and sheep crap (called ‘Dags‘) to be picked out, then thrown into the top of an enormous timber cupboard with great doors. There it waits until being pressed into bales and labelled by spraying across a tin stencil to create a mark identifying the wool’s source.

ROGUES & VAGABONDS Australian Shearers operating a wool press. From the Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Those great doors held a kind of theatrical power, perfect for making dramatic entrances. In fact, for me, the perfect theatre would be a converted shearing shed, with the same hand-made quality as the original Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays first saw the light of day.

Thousands of pin-sized holes in the corrugated iron roofing sheets make a sky of stars overhead, especially on a brilliant sunny day. An audience could be herded onto the shearing floor, waiting for the actors to emerge from behind those great doors.

Perhaps it was the spirit of Shearer’s industriousness and camaraderie that inspired my love of shearing sheds? And probably their faces, full of weathered character, adept at entertaining youngsters.

In shearing sheds, as with theatres, roles are defined, achievements praised, young people trained-up. Vocabulary is important, for the sake of tradition as much as safety. Star performers are made every year. Sometimes they fall, overtaken by younger talent.

The existence of Shearers is tenuous at best, much like the lives of those who ‘tread the boards’. Both career choices rely on good economies and fair bosses, and entire careers can be judged on one day’s performance. There’s plenty of touring, you must go where the work is, and the pay is not great.

The end result of both these labours is something that enhances life without taking it. Such roles should be treasured forever, but they languish in danger of their existence.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.