And merriment was certainly had, but not of the historical kind. Oddbods of the world, I salute you! What a goldmine of entertaining freaks!!
I imagined myself surrounded by Greek and Italian Mammas pinching my arms, complaining I am too skinny and stuffing me full of creamy cannoli and sticky baklava. I’d flirt with their bewhiskered husbands (who’d all look like Omar Sharif in varying stages of decreptitude), then we’d talk for a while about the good old days, swap recipes for preserved lemons and figs, then stagger home under the weight of homemade wine.
It was not to be. It never is.
Climbing the stairs at the Brunswick town hall I was greeted by an older chap smelling strongly of beer, who gruffly repulsed any attempts at chit-chat. Walking into the mayor’s room (which was pleasingly mahogany and maroon) I took stock of the sheer volume of downy white heads nestled in their winter gear. All eagerly chatting and eyeing off the afternoon tea.
I grabbed the nearest chair and pulled it towards me. Just as my arse was about plonk down and before I’d said a word to anyone, a grey-haired woman’s hand shot up.
“You can’t sit there!’ she cried. ‘That’s the speaker’s chair. He needs to sit precisely opposite that screen THERE’.
She made wild square-shapes in the air in front of her. I apologised and pointed at a distant chair. ‘Perhaps I can sit over there.’
‘No no NO! That’s where the secretary sits! Just go and get a chair from the other room.’
This was Francesca, who I can safely say is the barkingest woman I have ever met. She had mad, streaky grey hair pulled in front of her ears. Clacky gold-rimmed glasses, yanked on and off in a blur. A tattered waxed bag full of hundreds of tiny piles of crap bundled in rubber bands. There was also a geranium plant poking out of the top of the bag of crap.
Everyone evaded my eye as I shuffled off in shame. In the empty council chambers I wondered what on earth I was doing. When I finally got sorted up the end of the table (leaving a good two metres’ girth from anyone else), I tried to introduce myself to a larger woman in blue, shuffling a large pile of papers. She pointed to the empty chair next to her.
‘You can’t sit over there. That’s where the secretary sits, the secretary.’
‘She sits there.’
‘You can’t sit there.’
I wisely decided to keep my head down until the meeting started. Which was forty minutes of unbridled joy.
They talked about the pine tree planting ceremony, and what they would eat (Anzac bikkies). They wistfully reminisced about billy tea for a good 10 of those minutes, and agreed that Sunday after church would be the best time to have the ceremony. They read out all the correspondence (Marian, the chairperson in blue had some trouble with the word ‘sustainable’ on the letter from CERES. The bloke in the wheelchair with the Akubra and orange flag helped her out). And they handed around a tin to donate a $1 for the afternoon tea (not a cannoli in sight).
Then the guest speaker arrived, spread his arms wide and boomed ‘LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! I am SO sorry I’m late!’ Marian fixed him with a baleful glare, and Francesca leapt ecstatically to her feet. ‘Oh! This is the speaker everyone, the speaker! He has come!’ She shushed him to the jealously-guarded chair and hissed in a stage whisper ‘But we’re in a meeting so you’ll have to be quiet!’
The final point of the meeting (my favourite) was that a member of the society had received a letter from them with its stamp stuck on upside-down. This was not only a personal insult to them and the Queen, but the entire British Empire. There was a long discussion about this and some dissent from the ranks up the back. This bit is fair dinkum, I am not clever enough to make it up.
Francesca wrapped up the meeting with a fierce glare at Marian, and stood up. She began an impassioned speech about the dwindling numbers of the society, and how everyone had to do more to help out.
‘We need more YOUNG PEOPLE!! We need to LURE THEM IN. We need intelligent, EDUCATED people! I have sent out fifty letters. To sixty schools! I have invited them here – librarians! Teachers! Educators! Sixty letters! Fifty schools!!!’ At this point she breathed turbulently through her nose, while we applauded. It was time for tea.
I was bullied by a fierce 4-foot buzzard (who grabbed my elbow with an iron grip) into pouring the tea for everyone while we waited for the speaker to set up. Carmen, a feisty turquoise-lashed lady of middle years helped me out, and at the end we made do with a few drops of tea and a crumbled digestive. Earl, a close-talker, ambled over to ask what I was doing there. I told him about an article I’m writing about Brunswick laneways, which seemed to make little impression. He told me he was a tradie who’d worked in every factory in the suburb, including Whelan the Wrecker.
At the sound of this Francesca let out a hoot,
‘Whelan the Wrecker! He’s one of OURS! He talked to us, in this room!’ she grabbed my wrist and jiggled my jumper about. ‘I always get them. The good ones. That’s what I DO! I don’t learn by this’ she mimed violent typing gestures ‘or THIS’ she pointed to each eye in turn, ‘but by….you know…..THIS!!’ Then she made broad circular movements around her ears, which cascaded up to the ceiling.
Me: ‘Excellent, excellent!’
I then took the opportunity to introduce myself, as she still had my wrist. She nodded enthusiastically during my explanations and raised her eyes to the heavens. ‘Oh, thank god. I need help.’ (no comment) Then she squinted around at the elderly members. ‘I’m just so overwhelmed with work. The photocopying! The organising! The typing!!’ And she lowered her voice. ‘Most of THESE PEOPLE are just…..fucking hopeless. They don’t lift a finger to help!’
I then had to stuff a tic toc in my mouth in case I started shrieking uncontrollably.
The next two hours were spent dutifully listening to a bloke from the Mint talk about 40 years of decimal currency, which was actually quite interesting. I’m serious! Did you know that we led the world on polymer paper notes? And that security at the Mint is so tight, that the entire place is landscaped to prevent attacks from tanks? At the end, the speaker received the geranium and an elegant speech of praise.
So Francesca bearded me again afterwards, and we talked about meeting up to talk about my photos, and the article. She wants to drink red wine with me, and possibly soup. I have cravenly put off calling her. I am too frightened. So will have to brave her wrath at the talk next week: ‘History – Why Bother?’
Whoever said old people couldn’t be fun??