Monday 26 January 2009

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Uncle Brian was a sad case

© John Sawyer – November 2008
Another episode in
1001 Pots - Conversations overheard in pubs 

I first came to Abbotsford when I was just a young girl, about 10 I suppose. I came up from Bairnsdale to stay with my cousins for a week during the school holidays.

Uncle Brian and Aunty Meara had a room in a house in William Street. There were two double beds with a blanket hanging on a rope between them. Uncle Brian and young Kev slept in the one bed; Kev was probably about 8 at the time. I slept in the other bed with Aunty Meara and my cousin Clare; she’s about my age, so about 10 then.

Not that we saw Aunty Meara that much. She had two factory jobs on the go and when she was at home she was either sleeping or cooking. I can’t really remember how the cooking was done. I think it was a small gas stove in one corner. There was one small wooden table with lino on the top and one kitchen chair. That was all that was in the room.

Uncle Brian was a bit of a sad case and a pretty bad drunk. He had plenty of opportunities or occasions for sin as we said back then. He ran the boiler on the day shift at the brewery, near the river, a few blocks away. The brewery used to give away free beer to the workers for tea and lunch breaks. Brian would queue up with the others; a hatch would open and they’d be served beers until the hooter went off to go back to work. He was probably 3 parts drunk before he knocked off each day. There was some talk about workers compensation after the brewery and the union got together to get rid of the free drinks perk under an Occ. Health and Safety scheme, but Brian had left the brewery by then.

Anyway, I remember him leaving home at 6:30 in the morning just before Meara got home from her night cleaning job. He wore this navy blue footy jumper with big white C.U.B. letters on the back. More than half the men in the street had one of those jumpers; probably an early form of corporate loyalty scheme. He arrived back at 6:20 at night, just after Meara left for work and just after the pub closed. Six o’clock closing back then with fifteen minutes to drink up that last round. Brian usually drank at the Baker’s Arms on Victoria Street, nine houses away. The family story is that he found his way home by counting the front gates as he weaved along the footpath.

What? Did your uncle drink on and off all day at work and then spend two or three hours in the pub every night? No wonder they were living so rough, they didn’t have any money.

Yeah I know women weren’t well paid then, but things must have been bad if there wasn’t any money to rent a better house out of 2½ wages . Uncle Brian probably spent all his money on beer.

Yeah, and the punt probably.

Uncle Brian was also pretty violent; at one time there, he’d been banned from nearly every pub in Collingwood and Richmond.

Anyway, when he got home he’d burst through the door yelling and swearing. Meara would already be back at work, so poor Clare had to have tea ready on the table or there’d be hell to pay.

What? Did your cousin have to cook the meal? A bit bloody rough on a 10 year old.

No, I think Aunty Meara cooked the tea before she went to work and Clare just heated it up. While Brian sat at the table eating, belching and farting, we three kids hid behind the blanket listening and waiting for an explosion of violence. Two nights while I was there Brian threw his plate of food at the wall and went to bed. Other nights he’d start snoring with his head in his mash and peas.

One night he just didn’t come home. We kids were bloody worried. The tea was on the pot drying out for a couple of hours before Clare turned it off and we went to bed. About 1am in the morning Uncle Brian finally turned up. He looked awful. His face was a mess of bruises and cuts. His nose was broken, he had stiches over his eye and his shirt was covered in blood. He kept yelling at Clare: “Come here girlie and take these fuckin’ stiches out of my fuckin’ head.” He just kept yelling until Clare finally cut them out with a pair of scissors from Meara’s sewing box. Just picture that. I can still see it now.

A week in the “Big Smoke” should have been pretty wonderful for a young girl from the bush but it was awful. At least I got to go home. Poor Meara, Clare and Kevin had to stay and put up with it.

How did Brian and Meara meet up?

Mum told me it was no marriage made in heaven: “They met at a local dance at St Mary’s when Brian came down to play in a church football carnival. We were pretty naïve back then. Before the week was out Meara was in the family way and there was this unholy rush to get her married. Uncle Brian got horribly drunk and finished up having a really bad fight on the dance floor with your Uncle Frank.”

Did Brian attack Meara or the kids physically?

Not that I saw, but the verbal abuse and the violent behaviour were bad enough. Anyway Brian only saw Meara on Sundays.

It wasn’t a real happy family. They kept up some appearances and trooped off to St Ig’s over in Richmond together on Sunday morning but he’d stop at the sly grog on the way home and turn up two or three hours later to a dried up Sunday roast on a pot. Clare left home when she was 15 and after Meara died she became estranged from her father. Brian and Kevin still got on pretty well and they saw each other quite a bit.

Was Kevin a drinker like his Dad?

Not as bad as his Dad, but he did have some drink and violence issues.

Very sad some families.

Yeah, but it doesn’t end there. When she got older with her own family, Clare tried to fix things up with her Dad. I suppose she was at the age where she was trying to discover her place in a family tree, so she hunted around the registries in Ireland trying to find where Brian had been born. By mail it was then. She eventually found Uncle Brian’s family in Limerick and made preliminary contact.

It seems that Brian left home during the War, after a family row. The family assumed he’d signed onto a merchant ship and when he didn’t make contact they assumed he’d been sunk or something. It was pretty hard on them, but they were pleased to hear he was alive after so many years and they wanted to make contact.

When Clare first told Brian the news, he got pretty angry. You know: “I don’t want to have anything to do with them bastards …”, but when Clare told him that his Dad had died he calmed down a bit and started to warm to the idea of going back home to a reunion.

Anyway the whole thing was eventually organised. Brian flew over to Ireland with Clare and her husband and kids and they all had a pretty good time meeting all Brian’s relatives for a week. Somehow Brain managed to stay pretty dry and kept to his best behaviour with the family. Everyone agreed that it was a very successful time and they were all at the airport to see Brian off. Clare and her crew stayed behind to tour around Ireland for a couple of weeks.

Things all went bad on the plane trip home. All that free beer after a week off the grog was too much for old Brian to cope with. He got terribly drunk, violent and abusive. They had to padlock err… handcuff him to the seat. Young Kev was at the airport to meet Brian and drive him home. There was also quite a media scrum there to take film of a violent hijacker who’d caused problems on a flight from Singapore.

First I heard, Mum rang me from Bairnsdale. She’d been watching the 6:00 news and she sees Brian. You know “Is that Brian in the handcuffs?” Next thing there’s a close-up of Kev looking pretty angry. He throws a swinging right cross at the cameraman and yells: “Leave my bleep Dad alone you bleep hairy-bleep bleep.

They were both dragged off to the watch house for the night, but luckily in the morning, the magistrate gave them both good behaviour bonds.

That’s sure some family you’ve got there.

That’s right. Almost unbelievable. Anyway I’ll have another red if that’s OK.

No worries love.

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