Yesterday I went to tea with my old aunts Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia Shitsville. Actually they are my great-aunts or my great-great aunts, I forget which – it is hard to keep track of the centuries. The old aunts live in a house so dusty that the rats and mice have formed a league against them and write letters of complaint to council demanding tenant’s rights.
Aunt Olga is tall and thin and about a million years old. Aunt Tatiana has what you might once have called a belle époque waist and spends a great deal of time mooning about with her face in her hands holding it like a death mask.
Aunt Stacy once left the house – in 1953 – for a European tour, and came home under a cloud that still hangs around the weather vane too pregnant with mystery to blow home to Fromelles.
After Aunt Stacy’s doomed jaunt in the heady days of her youth, the aunts decided that they didn’t hold with abroad and have been “at home” ever since. Their papa and their uncles and most of their cousins travelled all over the world and over the years posted mountains of poisonous fungii, toads, politically incorrect shrunken heads, carved phallic totems and other undesirable objets d’art home to confirm them in their worst suspicions about the world beyond the gate.
Once when she was telling me the history of some bizarre dead specimen I found stuffed under the sink, Aunt Tatiana said:
“It belonged to our cousin Becca. She was an explorer.”
“Or a zoologist…” said Aunt Stacy.
“They are the same thing. She got this in Mexico…”
“You mean Swahililand…”
“They are the same place. Anyway, she died a week later…”
“Oh!” said I. “That’s unexpected. How did she die?”
“She walked into the mouth of a fjord and was never seen again…”
“What’s a fjord?” asked I. (I was young and at that time couldn’t be expected to know everything the way I do now.)
Then Aunt Tatiana said, “Oh dear, did I say fjord? I meant a crocodile.”
The best thing about visiting me aunties is the endless cups of tea and bread-and-butter and the dirty stories they will tell me accidentally. It’s a well-known fact that cousin Brunhilde Shitsville was an Opera singer; she used to practice in the bath holding the scrubbing brush like a sceptre and dreaming of the day when men would cast pearls before her, like swine. One day after she had finished slaving at the gentlemen’s hatter and millinery shop under Flinders Street Station she saw a famous stage manager staggering along the footpath, then go into a building where she couldn’t follow. Thinking this would be her only chance, cousin Brunhilde stood calling to him from the middle of Elizabeth Street until he opened up the shutters in a top storey window and leaned out to see what the devil the racket was about. And that was when she opened up her lungs and threw out her arms and began to SING!
“He was fixed to the spot,” said Aunt Olga proudly.
“Well he wasn’t about to leave any time soon,” said Aunt Tat. “Or she would see he had no trousers on.”
Aunt Stacy was a-goggle. “Why didn’t he have any trousers on?”
“Well obviously,” said Tat, “because he was in a broth—”
“In the soup,” said Olga quickly. “It is an expression meaning, he was in trouble. He had been caught unawares by the sheer volume of Brunhilde’s talent.”
“And the size of her…”
“And how did cousin Brunhilde end?” asked I. “Did she find fame and glory?”
“No, not fame,” said Olga.
“Not glory,” said Stacy.
“Only gloom,” said Tatiana. “She was on a boat – sailing to America – the biggest boat you ever saw…”
“Well never mind all that,” said Olga. “It was such a long time ago…”
“The boat hit an ice…”
“I think our niece would rather hear about the family jewels.”
“You remember I told you how fat she was?”
“Tatiana! We’ve had quite enough of this story for one day!”
“Straight to the bottom,” Tat whispered.
The aunts have twin brothers named Alfonso and Beau I’ve never met, in my youth I would imagine them looking like dapper skeletons carved for the Mexican Day of the Dead in silk toppers and bow ties. I think the reason I got the idea they were skeleton brothers is because once Aunt Olga said, “They are dead to us.” Alfonso and Beau were the best of friends for years but ended by shooting each other in a duel.
“But why did they shoot each other in a duel, old aunts?” I asked.
“Because they had the exact same taste in everything,” said Aunt Tat. “And one day they both fell in love with the same whor…”
“Horse…” said Olga.
“Horse…” said Tat. “And now every year on the anniversary of the duel the…”
“The horse will come and leave flowers on the place where blood was spilt. Acacias, ambrosias, azaleas, begonias and gerberas – euphorbia and epigaea…”
“All the flowers ending in ‘a’,” Olga summarised, “which makes me think she really liked Alfonso best.”
“Everyone liked Alfonso best.”
“But that’s silly! How can a horse pick flowers…?” asked Aunt Stacy.
“Is there perchance any moral to this story, Aunt Olga?” asked I, thinking if I squinted I might be able to see one coming from far away.
“None at all, I assure you!” she said sniffily. “There was never any morals where Alfonso was concerned.”
“We mustn’t forget Alfonso,” said Aunt Stacy sadly.
“No, no, never forget Alfonso,” said Aunt Tatiana.
“Poor sod,” said Olga. Even she looked sad thinking about Alfonso.
“But what about Beau?” I asked. “You said they were twins.”
“Beau is another matter altogether.”
“We can forget him, alright.”
“Forget about who?” said Stacy.