There was once in the middle years a claim of kinship strong enough to call the two of us back to Argyle and the wide family hearthstone. The hearthstone stood wherever relationship, however distant, held to old names. We went by train to Goulburn and thence by coach to the Middle Arm – and such a coach! Its top rocked like a tilt, while its curtains flapped like sails.
At the ‘Edinburgh Castle’, which then had its licence, we pulled up. A great round tumbling-looking woman, lurching sideways from foot to foot on feet too small for her bulk. At the sight of my face she started as if shot. “Are you Donal Cameron’s daughter?” she said. – “I am. What made you ask?” – “The likeness,” she replied.
“Will you not come in and warm you at the fire? It is cold in the coach.” Her friendliness looked from her eyes as she said it. But I was fitted into my place among the baggage of the “inside”, the road was a bog; the sleet was falling. I thanked her and said I would stay where I was.
But she insisted on a drink, and because I did not take wine, I put that poor woman to the trouble of making tea, as, for my father’s sake I had to have something; and it had to be whatever I wanted. Maybe she was the wife of John, who was a big man six feet tall; maybe of Big John, who was bigger.
From the inn we went on, the tongues on the box-seat now fluent and the voices fruity where previously both had been short and dry. After a time we came to our Uncle’s house – “Sandy Cameron of the Middle Arm” – “Big Sandy” – “Sandy Cameron of the Head of the River”. And all the place welcomed us: house, people, dogs, trees, sky, recollection.
“And how old are you, Jean?” asked long six-foot four Hugh, when, the elders gone to bed that night, we younger ones all sat round the hearth as big as heaven; and, like heaven, with some inside and some out; but most were inside.
I told him, and as I said it he laid his hand on my knee. “You have the family knee,” he said, startled as he touched it. And then whimsically: “It is time you were married…You have been too long sleeping alone.”
It was one of the broad simplicities of an old generation, but not broad to those of its day. The broad of today is coarse; that was of a provocative simplicity… I had become a town girl by that time; my hair nearly stood on end, but I kept my face.
- Diary: The Mary Gilmore weekend is October 27-29