In an album I still have, there are coins from all the places where I have travelled as an adult – coins of all shapes and sizes. When we were little, it was very rare to see coins from any other country, in splendid isolation as we were. That was especially true of Calliope, an often bucolic 1930s backwater stuck in a time warp, even though it was the 1950s and we’d almost got electricity.
Consequently, foreign currency always held a fascination for me that would be lost on those in other parts of the world where coins and banknotes from other countries are constantly exchanged for no more than their monetary value. But for me, each exotic coin has its own story. IS its own story, in fact.
That’s not what this is about. Looking at my coin album, I just wanted to get that observation in somewhere and this looked the perfect spot.
In this album, there are two very special banknotes. They are both Australian. One is a ten shilling note, and the other is a pound note – worth double the ten bob note for the information of decimal currency babies, some of you now nearly fifty years old. I don’t have three ten shilling ones because I deliberately exchanged two of them for the quid, to have a souvenir of both denominations of our old banknotes in my album.
This story is about how I came by two of those ten shilling notes. I can’t tell you the story of the third, because for the life of me I can’t seem to remember right now how I got it. It's gone into a black hole somewhere in my brain – maybe one of the bits they chopped out during surgery, but I have this hope that by the time I have finished these two interlocking stories, something will have clicked a tiny neurone in my memory and I’ll know about the third. It must have meant a lot to me not to have spent it. All I feel sure about is that it has nothing to do with horses, but these two do.
If this were the movie version of the Denis Wright saga, we’d now have a ripple dissolve from stills of those two banknotes at this point, for a flashback done in Bogdanovitch Last Picture Show style. There’s a tall, skinny, elderly man standing there near his house on the hill, his wife sitting on the kitchen verandah reading an air-mail letter from her son in New Guinea. Airmail letters are rare round Calliope and they have a distinctive blue and red edged envelope, and this one has brightly coloured stamps of Birds of Paradise on it, much more interesting to the boy than the lines of scrawl she’s reading.
The man’s name is Rusty Toohey, owner of the adjoining property to Len Wright. Rusty has his hand on the shoulder of a little boy, maybe 6 years old; Len Wright’s lad, and they are watching the bay pony in the home paddock, with a week-old foal tangling its legs up capering around her and bullying its mother mercilessly into allowing it to suckle.
‘See that foal? When she grows up, she’s yours. I’ll get Phil Long to break her in for you.’
'Don't break her,' the boy says, aghast.
'No,' he laughs, 'She won't be broken. She'll just be ready for you to ride when you're old enough to look after her.'
I will never have any explanation for Rusty Toohey’s generosity on that day, but I was pleased. Not everyone had a horse, and from that day on I owned one until adulthood, even if she was just a little brown pony, unaccountably named Topsy. I associated ‘Topsy’ with black, not brown, but it was always what she was called and I didn’t choose it. I don’t know who did, but that was her name and she was mine.
Next scene: Phil Long’s property. A pretty young bay mare with a white stripe down her face is bridled up and saddled, tail swishing away the bush flies. Phil Long is standing, stockwhip over his shoulder, talking quietly to Len Wright, with Len’s nine-year old son beside him. They have just double-banked out the couple of miles to Long’s on the big half-draught horse Juno, and have come to pick up Topsy and take her home. The lad is excited at the novelty of having his own horse ready to ride at last.
‘She’s right to go,’ Phil said, intent on attesting to his words by walking behind her rear and passing his hand over her flanks, ‘though be careful. She can be pig-headed now and again.’ His action implied faith in his horse-breaking and acknowledgment by Topsy as to who was boss. He was clear of her by no more than a few inches when she lashed out high and straight with her left leg. It was truly a vicious kick, and her sharp little hoof whistled past his ear, but he pretended not to notice.
I certainly noticed, I can tell you. I filed that right away in the part of my brain that said, ‘Things never to forget when dealing with Topsy. Stay well clear of back legs. Always. Take no chances.’
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