18th May, Australia
The drive from Canberra to Melbourne shouldn't take long. You could probably do it in a day quite comfortably in a modern car, but we have Ethel, so we spread it out over two days. It seems that after her 6-week rest in Sydney she's not quite up to her full capacity and I didn't want to push her (metaphorically and literally speaking). So, two days later we got to a place called Kilmore, about 60 kms outside of Melbourne and stopped again to take stock, see where we could go from there (the Lonely Planet intimated that caravan parks were few and far between in Melbourne, so we avoided rushing headlong right into the centre). We also didn't want to overshoot a place called Sunbury, where my auntie Chris lives - an auntie whom I've never met, in fact. As it turned out, Kilmore was just a stone's throw away from Sunbury, so the next morning we left at check-out time and made straight for Chris' place.
We pulled up outside in our noisy old van, parked it, slammed the doors shut (with these heavy doors, that's the only way to shut them) and went to the front door. "Strange," I thought. "You'd think Chris would have heard us turning up." Then Manda pointed to the sign by the letter box that belonged to a 'Les and Alma'. Right house number, right street, but wrong block of units. We got back in the van and drove around the corner to the correct place where we were immediately greeted at the door.
It's a very strange thing to roll up on a relative's doorstep whom you've never met before (and only spoken to over the phone a few times, and all in the last few days). What's the rule for greeting? A hug? A kiss? Both? I opted for a big hug and the words "Hello auntie!".
We soon sat down around Chris' living table over a coffee and caught up with events. Given how little we knew about each other, it was not surprising that we managed to spend the whole afternoon rooted to the spot. To me, Chris was the relative in Australia whom we used to get Christmas cards from and whose photos I could vaguely recollect from my mum's old photo albums. I knew that she was my dad's sister and that she had a daughter herself, Marni. And that was about it. Over our coffees I discovered that there is a lot to Chris, that she is a real character with such an interesting past.
Chris Broadley, as she was known at the time, left England in the early 60s and found her way over to Australia, doing much as backpackers do these days, but very much under her own steam. She recounted working as a barmaid in one of the roughest pubs in Darwin ("it was right above a knocking shop and you'd hear the men haggling with the pros"), living on an island in New Zealand (in Otahei Bay) for 6 years, working as a record buyer (and selling illicit records 'under the counter' when the shop owner thought that certain records were not in keeping with the company reputation).
At every turn, there always seemed to be another interesting story that Chris could tell, and it would be told with so much enthusiasm and detail. This in itself was quite amazing as this spritely 71-year-old had recently been in the wars, suffering a few strokes, chronic osteoporosis, pneumonia and an operation that went badly wrong after incorrect administration of a drug after the event. So many other people would just give in, perhaps become withdrawn and gloomy, but Chris had a joi-de-vivre that would put many people half her age to shame.
Later in the day we were joined by Marni, my cousin. Like Chris, Marni had plenty of stories to tell, the funniest of which was about her stay in England with another auntie, Margaret. Now, Margaret was born in the east end of London, just like her siblings, but now lives in Ascot and very soon after moving there subscribed to the Ascot rules of etiquette (metaphorically speaking). She didn't so much forget her roots as much as deny they ever existed. Along comes Marni, a brash, unpretentious Aussie teenager and upset the apple cart somewhat. One day Margaret announces that she's expecting the cleaner to visit but proceeds to vacuum the house and clean it up herself.
"What are you doing that for?" asks Marni. "I thought the cleaner was due to visit?"
"Yes, she is," replies Margaret, "but the cleaner also does a lot of my neighbours' houses. I wouldn't want them to think that my house is dirty."
"You're a f***ing idiot aren't you?" replies Marni, realising at the same time as the words tumble out of her mouth that she is saying what she only meant to think. Well, if I had a cleaner, personally I reckon I'd be wanting to get my money's worth!
So, that pretty much summed up the day - catching up on the past, hearing stories about family members back in England and trawling through old photos (heck, there were even a couple of me in there).