Fiction Work
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    I Remember Fred Short

When my brother Jeff married Laureen it was at Mortdale Baptist Church. I remember the day. It was hot, a summer's day, and I can still recall being there, standing on the footpath outside the main church building.

Jeff is 10 years older than me. I guess he got married at 21 or 22, so I was 11 or 12 years old at the time. I remember being dressed in short pants. Yes short pants. That's unheard of today, that a boy, even a 10 year old, would attend a wedding in short pants. Yet I was there, dressed like that. I wonder sometimes if I had dirty knees too. I often did in those days because I spent most of my time on the ground, playing with toy cars, or firing marbles, those small glass or ceramic spheres, with my fingers at one another in some complicated game of strategy. For whatever reason, I was certainly in shorts, but I'm less clear about the state of my knees.

Several of us were standing on that footpath. Me, my Nanna Anne, and her sister Rose. Mum and Dad were there and I still have recollections of them waiting also on the footpath. Standing next to Nanna and Aunt Rose was interesting for me. Rose was by name a colourful person and her clothes and smell were also colourful. Her dress was multicoloured. A white base with red on it, perhaps even in a pattern of roses like her name. Her perfume was strong, her makeup thick and white. She was really old too, and big. Maybe she appeared that way because I saw her with 11 year old eyes. While we were standing there lots of cars were turning up, driving slightly father up the road and parking, or stopping and allowing people to get out. The new cars were 1960's Holdens, but there were Fords too and Hilmans and Woolsleys. There was a parking space right in front of us and I still remember when Fred Short arrived and stopped there.

Fred was married to Lillian, who was my Nanna's sister, so they were my Dad's aunt and uncle. I remember Dad telling us about the time he spent on Fred Short's place, a rural property of 53 acres in Darkes Forest, near Helensburgh. He learned to walk home in the dark there. He built fences and walked in the bush. He got used to snakes and foxes and became unafraid of cattle. He talked to us about the orchard and the apples, and the belly aches they caused and he talked about Fred and Lillian's dog delivering mail around the table.

Ron Saw, a famous journalist in Sydney, wrote about Fred once in the Daily Telegraph. Ron wrote of Fred as a stocky man, like a chaff bag full of rocks. 1968 it was, the year the wild fires came through Helensburgh. Fred was building a new addition to the house and honing his massive thumbnail with a cutting file. He used that thumbnail as a screwdriver. Fred could see the black and red smoke of the fires leaping towards them from the West. He mustered his wife Lillian into their car and headed East, knowing that they were almost too slow for the flames. He just had time to tether their brindle cow Snip onto the top of a small rise and then headed out past Noel Carr's house, and he could see the fire licking at the bee hives at Noel's place on the way. Somehow they made it to the main road.

Fred was a rural man. Lillian and Fred were talked about regularly in my Nanna's house and it was always disparaging talk. "How could Lil marry a man like that? He's a ruffian, he's a dolt, I don't know what she was thinking". In China, the word for a person who doesn't live in the city, a country person, is the same word as 'peasant', which is also a word for an uneducated, low-brow and unsophisticated person. To many Chinese the two concepts are equated. If a person is not in the city, then they're a peasant. Nanna and Rose had the same view of Fred Short, perhaps for the same reason. In any case they weren't looking forward to Fred's arrival at the church that summer day in Mortdale.

He arrived in an old truck. It made my eyes pop, even then. It had large silver headlights mounted up on the mudguards, it had running boards. It was a ute I think, with a tray back, tall in the cabin. It seemed old even to those around me. They rolled their eyes and shot each other glances at the vehicle. "What a strange vehicle to bring to a wedding" many of them seemed to say. Fred Short was driving and when he got out of the driver's door I saw what sort of man he was. Short by name, sort by nature. Stocky, thick, tough, burley, rustic and brash, but somehow dashing too. He was dressed in a plaid shirt, it might have been chequered and flannelette, and he was wearing moleskins and calf high boots. I was so surprised and watched with some interest. Aunt Rose and Nanna were interested too, but not so curious. They were shocked. Well, they had shocked body language. I think their 'Tut tut' was almost audible. They seemed to say "He is a brute. How can he come to a wedding dressed like that? Oh my God, look what our sister Lil has to put up with". Lillian was with him, in the passenger seat and closest to the footpath where we were all standing, but she didn't get out.

Fred came around to our side of the truck. The man and his vehicle. Those country trucks weren't the usual in that part of the world. He made no effort to say hello to the waiting crowd but stood instead on the near side running board and opened the door. Lillian smiled down at her sisters and at us, and Fred was working his hands under her. With ease he seemed to gather her up, like you would a basket of clothes. He lifted her into his arms and carried her down. There was this stocky man, this 75 year old but fit looking bloke in moleskins lifting his 87 year old and crippled wife down from the truck and carrying her into the church. Past the onlookers he went, past the well wishes and the tut tuts alike, carrying Lillian without a heave of breath or strain. Nanna and Rose didn't say much from then on. That's how I remember Fred Short.