THE AUSTRIAN COUNTESS…..#A dog with a Pedigree # suppressed childhood in 50’s suburbia # scandalous gossip #exotic influences # strange music of the deaf.
Way back in the early 1950’s, our family had fallen in love with a friend’s Daschund, Bismarck, a small dog of great charm and character. We wanted one, apparently me especially as, to hurry my parents along in this financial commitment, I’d asked for the money whenever my siblings were given milkshakes or ice-creams. By the end of summer I offered up my matchbox of coins, no doubt of some small significance back in the day.
We heard the Litter had been born, and went on a cold Autumn day to visit the Breeder, and choose our pup, born in the beautiful isolated town of Emerald, high up in the Dandenong ranges, where my Great Grandfather’s house….our holiday house stood.
I could hardly contain the excitement….a pup of my own, I thought…..sitting in the back of the car, hearing the four adults talking, gossiping…..the talk drifting back to me, through my bubble of happiness….”she’s been married and divorced 3 times”, “she lives with a homosexual who breeds Afghan hounds”, “an appalling housekeeper…..she lets her Bitches whelp on the beautiful tapestried chairs”….”and you know she owns a shrunken head…..the Museum borrows it from time to time”……all this drifting over the top of my puppy dreamings, and then turning to look at us kids, “she can’t hear a word, she reads your lips….so you must look directly at her and speak clearly”
I REMEMBER VIVIDLY the first time I saw her, emerging from between two farm buildings….a small sturdy Woman surrounded by a pack of dogs, all undulating around her feet like sleek little seals, their long low bodies moving in a wave towards us, yapping shrilly.
My family and friends stood by the car, a stiff, formal little group, waiting politely.
Drawn like a magnet I surged towards her, her farmyard smell reaching me before she did. Eyes enchanted with the pack of hounds, I took her in from the ground up…..knee high gum boots covered in mud and reeking of pig shit, work trousers of a coarse, sturdy fabric, covered with a practical apron made from a hessian potato sack, a thick hand knitted jumper and then I was looking into her lovely broad, sunbrowned face, kind eyes, intelligent, smiling. Her brown/iron grey hair parted in the middle, with lovely plaits coiled over her ears. She was the most homely, exotic Woman I had ever seen…….and the music of her voice, shrieking commands to the little hounds in a thick, guttural accent. And me, a small girl coming from buttoned up conservatism and tight perms.
IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT…..
as my parents explained how I’d saved all summer, she took me in her arms and hugged me tight. Warmth, strength and softness, surrounded by such smells and noise, such vivid life, such joy.
Formalities and introductions completed, we were all invited inside……to view the litter (which had indeed been born on finest tapestry) choose our pup, and have afternoon tea…….
MA© Summer 2018
to be continued….#Art #a Shrunken head #Burmese cats #Politics and French Champagne.
THE AUSTRIAN COUNTESS…..Part 2.
Her name was Henny Marsh, obviously the Count had been her first or second husband.
Having gone through the awkwardness of introductions with the Adults, who considered this Woman with uneasy caution, we were invited into the house, for puppy viewing and afternoon tea. It was a gorgeous, light filled expanse……. floors covered with Persian Rugs, long low tapestry covered Chaise Longes, Glass Cases of gorgeous Chinese Vases, Paintings, Sculptures, Pottery, and everywhere lavish drapes, wall tapestries and furniture collected from all over the World.
The red gold Mother lay in state on a long low tapestry covered couch, her babies all in a row suckling……and one by one, the Countess lifted them handing each of us a pup…..golden red, like their Dam, they looked even more seal like, their heads still round and chubby as their sleek little bodies. The perfect smell of them, their strange smoky breath. We were all equally entranced, forgot our awe at the richness of our surroundings and heads bent, bodies curved protectively over these adorable babies, we sat cradling them to a background of Henny’s voice, strange , wild as geese honking through the skies. She, unable to hear herself, spoke in piercing tones, high, rich, almost operatic in comparison to our flat Australian drawl. She was utterly fascinating!!!
Finally, one perfect male pup was chosen, returned to his Mother, and we all sat down at a beautifully carved table for refreshments. Served on finest china was an assortment of cakes (you’ll find similar in Acland Street, St Kilda), and small cups of very strong Turkish Coffee. The manners of the adults was an education in deception and hypocrisy….as we kids reached for cakes……we were warned by our parent’s friends that “she was dirty, the food would make us sick”, and right there speaking about the Countess as though she wasn’t aware….they pushed European Delicacies under the table, into the eager mouths of the small hounds gathered beneath, whilst smiling up at her, as she brought more food, saying how delicious it all was.
A date was set for puppy collection, and we all headed out into the big beautiful rambling garden, back to the car……the excitement and disappointment was overwhelming…..I didn’t want to leave all those gorgeous little dogs, the tiny chosen one, and I especially didn’t want to leave the Countess…
Everything about her made me feel good…..her simple clothes, her bewitching voice, her animal smell, her capable gentle hands, her way with her dogs………. I wanted to stay forever.
And on the journey home, lulled by the motion of the car, falling into sleep……..
the adults voices drifting back to me….”she’s mixed with royalty, you know……it was Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia who gave her the shrunken head”
MA© Summer 2018
To be continued….#puppy collection #the shrunken head #odd relations with the Museum.
THE AUSTRIAN COUNTESS……Part 3
a nine year old’s impressions
the shrunken head, and Museum connections
our puppy comes home
She opened the glass case, and lifted it out carefully…..a small, dried object approximately the size of a large orange….I don’t remember feelings of horror, but I think children are fascinated by the macabre, I didn’t think of it as human…..more like a face from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I didn’t hold it, it was the adults who wanted my parents to see this “curiosity”, and I was there. I wonder now why anyone would care to own such a thing…..for thing it was.
All the interior contents carefully withdrawn, then smoked over a fire. Perhaps a gift given by an Emperor has political, diplomatic value, too great to refuse. Perhaps the tribe this person once was part of, was thought deserving of such a death…..beheading, then preserving, never to “rest in peace”.
I try to recall it now, and feel only horror, yet a dark part of me can understand the savagery that would take such steps, to punish an enemy for all eternity. I can within seconds, imagine how it could be.
After a very short time, the Countess returned the dry dark little object to its stand, in the glass cabinet (yet now I see it’s eye sockets, nostrils, and mouth) and again, experience horror. Who was that??? That thing that once lived and breathed??? Who???
We moved away, left the room, transactions completed, our puppy and pedigree came home. Us three kids, taking turns holding him in the back seat, I overheard my father’s friend refer once more to the trophy of war we had just seen……”occasionally it develops a problem with mould, so, her friends at the Museum borrow it for a while, clean it up then bring it back”…..then I forgot about anything but our beautiful little puppy.
There was great status involved, so, he was named Berneray Prince Carl…..we were all terribly impressed. Our little Daschund was adored by everybody, and as with most grand posturings, within days, and for the rest of his life, he answered to Trupps (from Truppy….
a strange high repetitive call Henny used for the pack)
MA© Summer 2018
To be continued……#losing contact #finding her again #a keen intelligence #French Champagne
THE AUSTRIAN COUNTESS……Part 4
Time passed, and now in secondary school I missed out on family holidays in the old house….my father, an air pilot’s holidays didn’t coincide with school’s. The rest of the family continued going there while I stayed behind with my Grandmother. Disappointment vied with happiness, as she was my very favourite person (a book in itself)….feelings of loss and abandonment were cushioned by the love and care, and the joy she had in my company.
More time passed….I moved away from home, lived in a tiny bungalow in the gardens of a large house in Balwyn…..working week days in Advertising, and weekend nights through a strange series of circumstances, as a singer in a Melbourne Folk Club…..immersed and enraptured by the vivid stories, poetic lyrics and haunting melodies…..conquering my terror of performance with the soothing balm of alcohol.
Then falling in love and marriage.
On one particularly dreary suburban weekend, my husband and I climbed into the car and headed for the hills….no destination in mind. As we drove, I told him about my Great Grandfather’s house. Intrigued, he was determined to find it…..and we did.
An abandoned wreck….rusting roof iron full of holes, spouting likewise, broken, sagging, mostly gone. Years of rain pouring down the weatherboard walls had rotted them, some crumbling to dust as we touched them..
Windows broken, doors hanging…..and inside years of dirt and dust, mouse droppings and drifts of dead leaves, covered the floor. The high white plaster ceilings, drooping with damp, and large brown stains from possum piss.
Outside, the enchanted garden of my childhood was now a rampant jungle, slowly being choked by huge thickets of blackberries pushing upwards between the azaleas and the rhododendrons.
David LOVED it, could see its potential, wanted it, got it!!! A few phone calls to distant relatives who still owned the property….a price was agreed on, and to my dismay…..we moved straight in…..living in the most habitable areas, while my husband commuted to his office in Melbourne and I in a desultory fashion, did what I could. It was often an adventure, cooking over the big open fire, then installing a slow combustion stove into the empty kitchen chimney alcove….until he, a civil engineer was sent to Savage River in Tasmania….coming home to work on the house at weekends, arriving Saturday….leaving early Monday mornings. I was utterly alone….facing a constant series of catastrophes…..no company. Not. even. a dog…..
MA© Summer 2018
to be continued
I find Her
THE AUSTRIAN COUNTESS…..Part 5
Somewhere, in all of this…..somebody I met mentioned Henny Marsh…..that she had moved but was still living in the hills….not far away. Being deaf and a lip reader, she had no use for a telephone…..so, I simply arrived one day after a hiatus of 17/18 years….no longer a child, but feeling very unsure of myself as I rang her doorbell. Anyone living with animals knows they hear things long before we do, so, with a pack of daschunds yapping around her heels, running to the door and back….she found me there.
It was as before between us…..the years fell away…..she was smiling into my face…..her strange musical voice shrieking welcomes, beckoning me in…..leading me to sit down while she went for coffee and cake, then sitting next to me…..we began talking about anything and everything…..because, of all the people I had ever met, she was the most educated, interested, fascinating, cultured.
Put yourself for a moment in my place!!!
My full concentration was intent on looking directly into her eyes, as she focused on my mouth…..reading my lips. Any difficulty in communication was swiftly solved by paper and pen she had close by….pushing it towards me to write my words down…..all this happening as her favourite dog sat at her feet, yapping incessantly, wanting attention. If she felt the vibrations, she would turn and scold the dog, but mostly the shrill yapping accompanied my slow, careful speech and her wildly vivid, fascinatingly exotic accent…..not only this, but as I sat looking into her face…… my minds eye sketched her…..the strong broad features, lined, sun browned, constantly animated, expressive…..kind, interested. She was full of curiosity and a great hunger for life, her thick grey hair, still the same without the brown of youth, parted in the middle, plaited in circular coils around her ears.
I wish I could remember what she was wearing, for apart from that first childhood meeting on the farm….I never noticed her clothes. The overwhelming sensations were of great humanity, unbelievable conflicts of noise, beautiful musical speech underlaid with the barking of hounds….her hands holding mine in affectionate greeting, fine, brown skinned, lined and worn with outdoor work….warm, strong…..and everywhere, crowding everything……ART!!! Paintings, carvings, pottery, sculptures, antique Chinese vases, tapestries, Persian carpets, large open fire places, smoke stained wooden beams, white washed walls…..and always, always, her voice……
MA© Summer 2018
we are invited to a party
THE AUSTRIAN COUNTESS…..Part 6
Time passed, the old wreck of a house, with my husband’s skills and hard slog, became a home…..downstairs was partly furnished with original furniture left behind….beautifully intricate double brass beds in the three bedrooms, cedar sideboards and chests of drawers, huge, sagging old velvety armchairs….too comfortable to throw away, and strangely, a collection of hospital beds, single iron, cream coloured on wheels, which repainted, were my sons beds when they grew into them.
Upstairs was one huge room, the length of the house, with storage cupboards built into the angled walls sloping upwards into the high pitched roof. The slow combustion stove (the heart of the kitchen), heated our water, warmed us, and always had something cooking on top….huge pots of soup, kettles boiling, big winter casseroles and in the oven, my own bread (a recipe taught to me by a British Colonel who lived nearby….another story). The ruined kitchen windows were replaced by diamond paned leadlights….the two storey front verandah rebuilt….where on miserable wet days, my little boys Dylan and Nick, could still play outside….looking out into the canopy of the huge, sheltering oak trees…..and every day, just below the bottom of our garden, Puffing Billy’s whistle screamed as it tore along the tracks to Emerald Lake (Lake Treganowan, after my Great Grandfather who had been the brains behind it) a short walk away.
Sometimes I was able to get away, to visit Henny Marsh, once with my small sons, who were absolute terrors, 2 and a half years apart, they had no interest in visiting an old lady, but were fascinated by all her “things”. The visit was brief, as I constantly tried to communicate and simultaneously control them from breaking precious artifacts and relics, it was a nightmare!!!
MA© Summer 2018
To be continued