I remember the date they dug up Uncle Ernie. It was April 10, it was year 1904. I don’t remember when they put him in the ground the first time, or when they put him back in over at the cemetery by town. But I remember the day the pulled him out because it was the one Sunday his whole life that my Papa didn’t go to church.
It wasn’t the only day he wasn’t a Christian but: because that was every day. He was drunkard the moment he could get his lips around a bottle. That’s what my Grandmother said about him, every bit just like that and I never saw it disproven.
He didn’t ever count that Sunday as not going to church because he didn’t remember it, on account of being drunker than a three-legged dog. If you were to remind him, he’d say it was church-enough because the Priest was there. That was true if you consider it church to be standing by the Priest under the big oak while a couple of boys from the prison are digging up a grave. Well if you deliberate and consider that church, then he was there that Sunday like every other, sure enough.
They dug up Uncle Ernie when the New State of New South Wales said that you weren’t to be burying folk in your yard any longer, and that being a day’s ride from town wasn’t any reason to get away with it. There was a politician behind it, a local man that started out in the Church here and made his way into the city and into suit because he went to boarding school and could tie a proper tie and use a steak knife. He wanted to keep skirts long and memories about his childhood whereabouts short.
He paraded up here with the boys from the prison and a man from the newspaper.
Papa said he smelt the country on him, still. That you couldn’t shake the smell of the country in a man. He said that to him and the Politician didn’t like that none.
Still, he shook all our hands and made a little speech about it being a big day for the State, and that our Uncle Ernie was going to be a posterboy for progress.
He said that like we were going to clap for digging up Uncle Ernie and be happy for getting our mugs in the paper. Well we did do both of those things, and we were happy. But the story wasn’t just like that, not at all.
When they dug up Ernie, they just about dug up every bad secret our family had had time to put together since ever. In there with him was a big old journal written our Grandmother’s hand, even if she lied to you with a straight face she hadn’t seen it before.
The journal was a few things – like a list of owings between the town – but one frightening and beautiful thing more than anything other. It was a list of every sin every one of us had done by her recollection – and she was as hard as a Priest on calling a sin that wasn’t her own.
It was etched out from the time by Papa put his hand up a nun’s skirt at his Holy Communion and then blamed it on the Lord controlling his arms like a dirty puppeteer, to Uncle Ernie swindling a man for a pocket knife and a basket of corn by pretending he was a tax collector, even though no corn was collected as tax as far as anyone could remember.
They were listed out one by the other with dates and name like a ledger of owings. There was no humour in them at all – everything was there like a list for the store, even the most ridiculous of them.
The detail was better than the learning books at school, as was the way Grandma didn’t seem to have missed a damn thing – things you couldn’t understand her knowing. Like that I fooled around, just a little childish bit, with my cousin behind the water tank, or that my brother shat on the doorstep after my Father whipped him for getting kicked out of school.
There were things I couldn’t remember doing, but that could not have been anyone but me. Tying up a rope and tin sheet carriage behind a pair of goats and having them pull me around the yard. It said that I had done that, in there. Even though I couldn’t remember it, I became pretty fonly proud of it and I told that one around the ways.
But that wasn’t enough to make the newspaper, or ruin a man’s career.
Once they dug up Uncle Ernie and we all got a kick out of the journal, and the newspaper man got his photo, we passed that thing for weeks and read it out instead of the radio. We got plenty of laugh and stir out of it, and there were some fists thrown – some that were mine and some that come got me right on the face for the laugh and stir I was giving out.
Then the summer came around and school was out and I turned 15 and I wasn’t going back. My brother and I worked the farm that whole summer. Father hit the drink like he was trying to get through it before we run out of ice, just we didn’t have any ice, so we did all the farmwork for the three of us. No one had much time for reading and we kind of forgot about the book then.
Then that Christmas the Priest ran in all riled up and red face like he was snakebit. They’re closing God’s House, he says, and Grandma rubs his face and they pray together a bit on that. Grandma starts going to church every day like it’s flour in war time and she’s stocking up on it.
A few weeks into the new year that Politician came around again with the newspaper man and his camera. He’s all talk about the black tar road they’re gonna put in right on through that church and he wants a photo with some normal country folk, and he remembered how hard we’d smiled the first time around.
They came in for tea after the photos and there is the journal on the table, open in front of the newspaper man like a placemat. We hadn’t seen it most the summer, but there it was and open right to a note about the Politician. It goes that his mother and father didn’t meet at Church, like he told, but that they were brother and sister. With one inheritance and one set of parent between them. It says he’s sent off to boarding school to keep him from knowing it.
That was all it took. He turned and ran right out of there and we never saw him again. The cameraman got a blurry snap of him just clearing the gate and they published that in the paper right alongside the rest of the news. The people came down on him like a cattle chute closing on a calf; everyone had something to say on him.
Not much else happened that summer, but that was plenty excitement for us. They still took that church down and put the tar road in and Grandma and the Priest cried on it for a week. Democracy manifest, Father kept saying and no one knew what he meant. Then the Priest opened a general store and ran poker out the back on Fridays if you had two bob.
I’d spend the evenings on the fence by that road waiting for an automobile to come by and sometimes I’d see one or two, but it wasn’t much good for anything else. I’d see the politician’s parents walk by sometimes – sometimes weeping and confused and sometimes the Father would be screaming to himself in some other language and the Mother saying nothing.
We read the rest of that book back to front looking for something else good in there but there was nothing more like that. When we would get her on our own we all begged Grandma to give up how she knowed it all, but she reckoned again and again that she didn’t write a word of it. She’d point out that there were sins of hers in there, too, but they were nothing like ours.
Grandma Joy: October the 16th, 1901. Grandma Joy spilt the flour for bread and swept it
under the overn and carried on.
Then one day Father went to town and so we called work off that day. I was bored as a stump so I reckoned I’d try that goat thing again. I fixed up a bit of tin I pulled off the chicken shed and got the three best goats – big Bobcat, Blue and the one with the big tits. I couldn’t remember if I’d done the ropes round the necks or right on their horns. I put it on the horns and I sat there on the tin whipping them ten minutes, not moving a crack and my brother laughing and clapping me on, until they just turned around and ran at me and knocked me cold.
I woke up in the evening, in bed and Grandma was watching me from the door like a big shadow. I sleep the night and in the morning I’m all dizzy and can’t get up. I call my brother in. Go check under the overn, I say. He doesn’t go anywhere, just looks at me. Go check ya goose, I said. He doesn’t move and I sit up to try and slap him but he dodges and shakes his head.
Ain’t no flour under the overn, he says.