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U3A Writing: The Tale Of A Table

Barbara Tregonning tells of the day they brought the table home.

Ballarat, the Depression, a time of great hardship for many who looked pinched and cold as they tentatively knocked at our kitchen door. Social Services were non-existent in that era of the thirties, so the needy would gravitate to our vicarage where a warm meal was what they really needed.

It became clear to our mother that we needed a larger table for our family eating room, known as the breakfast room. The formal dining room was used only by the grown-ups of course, when the bishop in short frock coat and gaiters, or an archdeacon or visiting missionary, sometimes in a jet black one, came to stay.

One Saturday morning our mother came in triumphant. She had found the very table at a house several streets away where they were having a backyard sale. "The man is keeping it for us. I said I would send the children over with the billy cart to bring it home".

An outing! What fun!

So we set off across the broad main road with its tram track down the centre to turn left into a narrower street and count down three streets to Nugget Street, its name inscribed on a sign on the lamp pole. Five houses in: number ten. I was in charge, being all of nine years old. Lorin was seven, and our little brother Rex, proud owner of the billy cart our father had made for him, five. The billy cart was a modest deal wood butter box screwed on to two axles with tiny cast iron wheels, adequate for smooth bitumen footpaths, and drawn by a sturdy rope. One of its best purposes was to bring home our monthly treat, a big four shilling tin of broken biscuits from the Sunshine biscuit factory close enough to the vicarage for our noses to catch its delicious baking odours when the wind was right. When the tin was ceremoniously opened, being allowed one coloured lolly biscuit to every three plain ones, we vetted each other like hawks to ensure no child cheated.

This was a very different kind of assignment indeed. "It's paid for and as the sale ends at dinner time, go straight away. Also, the man said that any small things that didn't sell and were still left on the table at the end of the sale you are to bring home as well. They might be useful.''

What our mother omitted to add was that when she saw it, in a small garden crowded with an assortment of furniture, its surface totally covered with odds and ends of china ware, tin ware, a cocky's cage, parts of lamps, battered books and more, she hadn't been able to judge just how large the table really was. Now that most of the surrounding wares had gone it looked formidable indeed, and very tired where the oil cloth had ripped in several places.

I'll help you load it," said the man, seeing our consternation. His mind was clearly on his dinner. We stood and watched as he man-handled the table on its side, then enlisted our help to lower it upside down to sit on top of our little brother's modest sized butter box on wheels. It's fat round legs reared up aggressively, so we clutched at them to steady it as he then added the left over bric-a-brac from the morning's sale, already cleared from its surface and set down in the dirt beside it. This included the cocky's cage, a set of bent fire tongs, the kerosene lamp parts, flowers pots, and a jangling assortment of chipped china and enamel plates and mugs, and rusted cooking tins and dishes. Perhaps it was his gesture to the vicarage people who would find homes for them in these stark post-war times.

We finally emerged, with difficulty, out the garden gate and on to the street for the daunting journey home. Rex's rope was far too short to pull the billy cart. Indeed it was lost out of sight far beneath the load. So the man produced a further length and obligingly joined it on. "No need to return it," he said jovially. I had the distinct feeling that this wasn't altruism, but was too young to gauge his real feeling. We had been taught to think the best of everybody. So at a very slow rate, we tugged and pushed and steadied our way along the slightly up hill side street back to the main road, our load slithering and jangling at every crack in the uneven pavement. Our little brother was red in the face with the exertion, but being taller, it needed we two girls to steady the legs.

The broad main road was finally in sight, but still busy with cars being Saturday, and families heading home from shopping. Even more carefully, we manoeuvred out into the centre, and several cars graciously waited for us to cross. Then we were on the tram track. Disaster. Somewhere underneath our load one of the tiny cast iron wheels had evidently turned sideways, and was stuck in the rail.

We tugged and pulled uselessly, as in the distance we could see a tram approaching. Closer and closer it came, insistently sounding its bell. Windows were lowered so that passengers could crane out to stare. All three of us were close to tears in a mixture of panic and real fright as the tram slowed to a stop right in front of us, in our eyes towering menacingly. Worse, as the table lurched wildly with our efforts, some of its goods tipped out and rolled from sight under the huge green and gold monster.

It may have been only minutes, but it seemed forever, when the driver climbed down, went round to the back of his tram to disengage the power pole from its overhead electricity wire, anchor it down with its rope, and then return to the front end to raise the other pole, so that his tram could reverse. Willing passengers jumped down to help, and there was a muffled cheer from the onlookers as we were set on our way again, load restored, with the warm feeling of encouraging pats on our shoulders to reassure us.

Only one half of the main road outside our vicarage left now to negotiate, and we would be safely home. So was this the end of our saga? Sadly, no.

At the end of the afternoon when our father returned from his day-long meeting at Bishopscourt, there were sufficient hands to manoeuvre the table towards the breakfast room. We all had an uneasy feeling as it almost scraped the walls of the back hallway. Then on to its side again to try and get those huge legs through the doorway into the cosy eating room. We were visualising a gala high tea to celebrate. Our mother had promised us hot scones and plum jam to follow the soup. And teacake, straight out of the oven then drizzled with thick warm cocoa sauce.

We did have our special meal. But it was not on the new table. That had to be backed down the hallway again. My mother's tape measure confirmed the sad truth. Had we got it into the breakfast room, which was impossible without its legs being sawed off to make it shorter, then somehow put on again, it would still not have been sufficient room for the chairs to be pulled out far enough to allow us to sit down. So it was regaled to the parish hall as a bric-a-brac table for fetes and other functions - a gift from the Vicar and his lady, where it proved very useful.

It seems the gentleman from No. 10 Nugget Street had been prophetic that Saturday morning when he loaded up three small children. I wonder if later he ever knew?

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