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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Four bob well spent (2)

I've been reading too much Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century literature lately, and it's affected my writing. I'm using sentences that are too complex, unnecessarily convoluted phraseology, and long words when smaller ones will do perfectly well.

Even that last sentence is a disaster. Well, no more! The KISS principle is hereby invoked as I go on with my story.

Friday morning came. Mum, Kay and I were off to Gladstone in the train. Instead of Saturday, as I expected, an opportunity had come up a day early, and this was school holidays.

I adored riding on the train. The steam engine still frightened me, with its noise and steam and mighty power. The carriages were varnished wood and creaked as the train moved. The pungent aroma of stale tobacco and creosote was addictive. I loved it.

Fifteen miles (twenty kilometres or so) took about an hour, depending on whether we had to wait at the junction five miles down for some other train to go through. This was a single track line, carrying traffic both ways. Sometimes that wait took an extra hour as well, but on this day, we went straight on.

I had my four shillings in my pocket, the one that buttoned at the top. It may surprise some to know that zips were rare in those days, and if a button would suffice, then it was used instead.

Even at high school, the flies of our khaki shorts and winter long trousers were buttoned, not zipped. You'd be amazed at how adept....

Focus, boy. This isn't about flies. You have money to spend.

Uncle Frank Ford met us at the station. Lord knows how he knew when to come, as we had no phone and neither had he and Aunty Lucy. They probably heard the train come in, as there weren't that many going through that end of the town in those days. Aunty Lucy made an obligatory cup of tea for Mum, but I was longing to get up town.

I had something to buy. Something good, as Cam Lowes told me to get.

I don't know if he was talking about something altruistic, but 'something good' has a broad spectrum of meaning in the objective sense. With four bob, I might have bought all manner of things for the benefit of humankind, but hell, I was seven, and the problems of humanity did not weigh heavily upon me.

There was only one speciboy of the human race I had in my little self-absorbed mind for a good-thing-to-buy on that day, and that was guess who.

Between Woolworths and Coles in the main street there was a stationer's shop – Stobo's. Bill Stobo ultimately became Mayor of Gladstone, but that was later.

You know how pharmacies sell everything these days, from sweets to eyeshadow? Well, for some odd reason, there was one item displayed in the stationer's shopfront window that would appear to be completely unrelated to stationery.

A bow and arrow.

Yep. In a stationer's. It made perfect sense to me, along with diaries and notepads and that day's Gladstone Observer. What didn't compute was that it had been sitting in the front window for months and I had drooled over it every time we came to town. How could someone not have bought it, at the generous price of three shillings and ninepence on the tag attached to the arrow? Were people insane?

Well, all that was about to change. The arrow was nothing special. I could make better ones myself, fletched with a section of carefully chosen wing feather from a chook who'd come off worst in a pecking-order scrap in the henhouse.

But the bow. Oh, that magnificent bow! It didn't have all those fancy bits on it you see on competition bows these days. It was a real Robin Hood bow, made of I know not what timber. Maybe even yew, like Robin's. Yes, definitely yew. I'd heard of that, but I had no idea what a yew tree looked like. They didn't grow round Calliope, I knew that much, or if they did, they'd all been made into bows long ago. Maybe that was it.

Maybe that was the last yew bow in Queensland, on the shelf at Stobo's.

I'd made all my bows from mulberry branches. I'd cut one from our tree that had the right bend in it, trim it and find some string in the kitchen drawer. All pieces of string around packages were un-knotted and wound into little coils and put in the left hand drawer of the cupboard, next to the cutlery one.

I'd get a coil the right length for the bow and string it, but to be perfectly frank, mulberry didn't have as much spring in it as I hoped. My beautifully fletched arrow would go maybe ten metres at best, with a very unsatisfactory trajectory. Getting an arrow to hit the rain gauge on top of the fencepost meant aiming at about a 45 degree angle over the distance.

It didn't add to my confidence as an archer, but in computing for hitting any given target, I did learn a lot about elementary laws of physics, mathematics and probability. And, dare I say it, string theory. Some strings were more equal than others too.

The string on this bow, about to become mine, was red and white very finely plaited material of uncertain origin; maybe catgut. I didn't care.

I walked into the shop. Alderman Stobo was there on the front counter.

"What would you like?"

"I want that bow and arrow set in the window."

He looked surprised.

"That bow and arrow, do you mean?"

"Yes." Heck, how many bow and arrow sets did he think were in his window? There had always been one set, and only one. 3/9. Three shillings and nine pence. Not quite four bob.

I produced my money to prove intent to purchase. My two shiny florins.

His face changed from surprised to puzzled.

"You can't buy just the arrow. It's a set."

Of course I wanted the set. Did he think I was stupid? Well, I wanted the bow. The arrow was rubbish, but it was part of the deal for the set.

Wasn't it? Then the dreadful realisation dawned on me.

The three and ninepence was the cost of the arrow. Only the arrow.

I must have looked thunderstruck. Or maybe pierced through the very heart by that shoddy arrow.  [** Violins **]

"How.... how much is the bow?"

Alderman Stobo gently took me by the hand and led me to the window.

There was a label on the bow that had turned around so you couldn't see the price from the street. In fact, you could barely see the label. I sure hadn't.

As he turned it round, there was a little smile on his face; half amusement, half pity. Then he turned away and walked back to the counter.

The label read: 21s./6.

Twenty-one shillings and six pence. £1/1/6. I can see that label to this day. It may as well have been twenty-one thousand pounds, from where I was standing, 17 shillings and 6 pence short.

But.... that wasn't the end to this story. In spite of my dreams having been crushed so quickly and brutally, I still had my four bob, and the terrible disappointment was quickly erased by what happened next.

This I will narrate briefly in the final instalment. Yes, I thought it would be finished this time too, but life at age seven often has a way of reversing despair, even if a little more explanation is involved. 

And no, I never did get that yew bow.

Hey, it was probably a fake anyway. A genuine yew bow and arrow in a stationery shop? Sounds dodgy really, don't you think?

1 comment:

  1. Aww, no! What a disappointment, and you deserved that bow and arrow, you worked so hard. I love the bit about the saved string in the drawer -wasn't it GOOD then, the way material things really mattered, were of worth. Loved your description of the train too. Sometimes we'd be taken to Murwillumbah railway station to see my great aunt off on they train to Sydney. It is perhaps my most mysterious, glamourous and deeply exciting memory. Victorian influenced reading or not, these two pieces are wonderfully well written!!

    Julie M


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