THE KEEPER OF SECRETS

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“The hardest thing in the world to keep is a secret.

No matter how hard you try, someone always finds out.

Even the best-kept secrets are eventually exposed to the light of day.”

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The dust from the yellowing pages was irritating my eyes.

The writer was a shadowy figure in my life.

I met her a few times, but she was ancient and small children were of little interest to her; who could blame her.

When she died, I was ‘too young to go to the funeral’. Not that I threw a tantrum or anything, but I was curious.

She was the first person to die during my brief existence.

When you are a kid, old people are like creatures from another planet. So far removed from your world as to seem genuinely alien.

There are exceptions of course.

If you’re lucky enough to have grandparents, you’ll know what I mean.

Mine were either too old, too far away, or too dead to play a role in my life.

I’ve heard friends talk about their grandmother as being the one person they could say anything to.

It’s good to have someone who will keep your secrets.

Grandparents don’t feel responsible in the same way that parents do, so they tend to relax. They have been there and seen it all happen. They come at each problem with a calmness that young people react to.

I yearn to say that that’s how it was with Daisy, but it wasn’t.

You notice that I didn’t say ‘grandma’ Daisy.

That’s because my mother always referred to her mother as Daisy.

From reading through these old notebooks and loose pages, I’ve discovered that Daisy liked me, although why she should, I have no idea. I was barely aware of her existence, and I don’t ever remember having a conversation with her, although I must have because she quotes me here in her beautiful handwriting.

“The little one asked me what I was looking at. Both hands on her hips and a defiant look in her eyes. It was all I could do to contain my smile. This little one is going to make her mark in the world.”

‘This little one’, that was me, way back then. I must’ve been about six years old. That was the last time I saw her.

Naturally, I wanted to find more references to me in this box of handwritten memories, but there were precious few references to me.

How annoying.

I discovered the old wooden trunk in the mid-morning, and I sat in the attic and read until it got dark. Time went by in a flash, but that was what these papers were about; time.

Daisy was a spy.

She didn’t set out to be a spy it just worked out that way. Her world dipped headlong into a deadly conflict and her young self-decided that she had to do her bit. She thought she would be shuffling papers in some anonymous war office, but doors opened quickly for Daisy, and she found herself being trained to work behind enemy lines. The theory in those days was that the enemy was less likely to suspect a woman of being a spy. With what I know of the history of warfare, this was a stunning underestimation. Famous female spies go back as far as anyone can remember. So why did these bozos think that females would be safe behind enemy lines?

From her notes, I read that some Daisy’s friends lost their lives. Many because they were betrayed.

Students of warfare know that spies and codebreakers win wars, whereas everyone else thinks that guns and tanks are the only things that matter.

Secrets are one thing, and their procurement was a dangerous business. But the secret alone was useless unless it could be conveyed to those who could use the information.

Codes could be broken and often were.

Both sides went to enormous ends to safeguard their secrets.

Mathematicians were in high demand.

Knowing that any code could be broken at any moment must have made these agents very nervous.

The only unbreakable code was referred to as a book code.

But, carrying around a particular book could be dangerous in itself, particularly if other agents had been captured carrying the same book.

From what I was reading, Daisy had developed her system, but for the life of me, I didn’t understand how it worked.

She seemed to be referring to some person as, “The keeper of secrets”.

It was now very dark, and I was hungry.

Daisy’s trunk full of secrets would have to wait until tomorrow.

My family were more than a little annoyed when I go home because there was no food on the table.

I suggested that there were matches on the stove and that the top drawer held a can opener.

My suggestions were not well received.

I didn’t sleep very well that night, and the next morning after I had bundled everyone out the door with their tummies full of warm breakfast, [it seemed the least I could do after the previous night’s lack of dinner] I got in my car and drove around to my mother’s empty house.

This time, I was a little better prepared. I brought coffee, sandwiches and eyedrops.

Daisy’s papers held countless references to the mysterious, ‘keeper of secrets’, but by mid-afternoon, I was no closer to finding out who this person was.

Daisy wasn’t just a good spy she was a heck of a good writer as well. I was quickly transported into her wartime world, and I could feel the fear and excitement that she felt. She would’ve been very young and probably quite pretty, but inexplicably, my family did not have any photographs of her from this time in her life, so I’m only guessing. She did mention several times that she was able to achieve her objectives because of the effect she had on men, so ‘pretty’ seemed like a good bet.

There were many references to a rag doll which was sent back and forth from occupied France. I jumped to the conclusion that messages were concealed within the doll, but this was never spelt out. That doll must’ve racked up some serious miles. I hope it didn’t get airsick, or seasick for that matter, as there were references to the doll being smuggled out on fishing boats as well as being collected by daredevil pilots landing in open fields on moonless nights.

I wondered what had happened to this doll after the war.

If it had been me, I would have kept it as a reminder of my adventures.

I headed home at a reasonable hour and while I was chopping up vegetables and preparing the dinner my mind was imagining a young woman taking her life in her hands on a daily basis. I wondered how she managed to assimilate back into civilian life. Did she find housework as boring as I do?

The notebooks I was reading talked mostly about this exciting part of her life.

Maybe there were other notebooks that talked about the struggles of her post-war life, but they were not in this old wooden trunk.

If my mother had been alive, I would’ve asked her, but my only link with that time was now gone.

Maybe they were up there somewhere talking about times gone by.

Being a mother myself I wondered how Daisy’s mum felt about this young girl being so close to danger. Something told me that Daisy’s mum did not know what she was up to, which was probably just as well.

The next day when I had returned to my mother’s attic, I continue to read Daisy’s wartime journals, but something else was nagging at me and distracting me from my task.

Finally, I put the journals to one side and began going through the other boxes that were stored in this dusty old attic.

This task was made more difficult because my mother never labelled anything.

It was always a voyage of discovery going throughout our pantry and refrigerator when my brother and I were young, because you never knew what was in the jar, or can, or bottle.

It’s amazing that we didn’t poison ourselves.

The first few boxes were full of children’s toys and clothing, some of which were mine and some of which belong to my brother.

Eventually, I found a box that was full of things that I did not recognise, and among these things was an item wrapped in layers of old newspaper.

It occurred to me that the wrapping might be more interesting than what was inside, but I was dead wrong.

The layers of newspapers were protecting an old rag doll.

A very old rag doll.

“I’ll bet you could tell some stories,” I said to the doll as I held it gently in both hands.

“I would never tell. I’m the keeper of secrets.”

The voice was a faint one, but I didn’t imagine it.

The doll was speaking to me, and amazing as it may seem, I wasn’t surprised.

It seemed as natural as it could be.

“What secret do you have for me today Daisy?”

The little doll’s features were now faded and worn, and this made the situation even more bizarre; I was being spoken to by a crudely shaped, almost featureless, rag doll.

“I don’t have any secrets, and my name is not Daisy,” I said, feeling slightly foolish for arguing with a rag doll.

It did occur to me that leaving this house as quickly as possible would be a wise move. Possibly even an appointment with a competent psychiatrist could be called for.

But my curiosity got the better of me.

“You must be Daisy. I only speak to Daisy and the person who knows my name,” said the little doll.

“Daisy was my grandmother.”

“You must be very much like her for me to have made that mistake.”

“Daisy was brave and fearless. I don’t think I am either of those things.” I said, and the words made me sad as I said them. “How did my grandmother find you, and how did she know that you can keep secrets?”

“I cannot tell you. It’s a secret.”

“It doesn’t matter. Even if you told me, it wouldn’t make any difference. No one is ever going to believe me when I tell them this story.”

“So don’t tell them then. It can be our secret.”

I should’ve been frightened, or at least a little apprehensive, but all I felt was calm and brave. Was I channelling my grandmother? Was being close to this rag doll from that dangerous time giving me a sense of my inner courage? All I knew at that moment was that I had to protect this ancient little rag doll.

It was a connection to my mysterious grandmother, but it was bigger than that.

It felt more like an ancient quest.

My sworn duty would now be to keep this piece of magic safe and warm.

“Are you a happy person Susan?”

“I am,” I said, wondering how it knew my name.

“Tell me your secrets Susan and I’ll keep them safe.”

“You are my only secret, and from now on it is my job to keep you safe.” As I said it, I had a strong sense there were adventures to come, and that a small rag doll who can keep a secret would feature prominently.

I’m up for an adventure as long as I can be home in time to prepare dinner.

Who would ever suspect an ordinary suburban housewife of being a spy?

Between The Pages.

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My grandfather loved books, and I think he loved me almost as much.

I know I loved him.

I can still remember the feeling of squashing down next to him in that comfortable ancient armchair.

No one sat in that chair except my grandfather. It wasn’t because we were scared of him or anything like that, it was just that it was his chair and to sit there without him in it, didn’t seem right.

I was working overseas when my grandparents died; one after the other with only days between them.

It wasn’t the kind of job that I could up and leave, so by the time I was back in the country, there wasn’t a physical sign that they had ever been here on this Earth. Their ashes had been scattered, and their house emptied and sold.

Indecent haste was how I phrased it.

“Where the fuck were you while all the work was being done?” was their reply. I guess I pissed my father off because he wouldn’t tell me what had happened to my grandparent’s furniture. It was the armchair that I was really interested in, but I guess it was landfill or in some op-shop warehouse somewhere. I hoped that it had been purchased by a house full of uni students. I could see a nineteen-year-old female English Literature student curled up with a tattered old copy of something by Somerset Maugham. Possibly, ‘The Razor’s Edge’. Yes, that would be good.

My grandfather introduced me to the delights of Enid Blyton and Robert Louis Stephenson in equal measure. He didn’t treat me like a little girl, he saw only a curious, young person who had fallen in love with the worlds that existed between the pages of a book.

He had the most wonderful husky voice, and sitting close to him was like sitting in an old dusty closet. He was warm even in winter, and I got the feeling that it was because of some kind of internal glow caused by his love of books.

He always read me books that were a bit above my understanding, and I think that was on purpose. He would smile when I asked him what a particular word meant, and he would sometimes get me to run my finger over the word as he explained its meaning.

I collect bookmarks because he did.

I give books as presents because he said it was a wise thing to do.

His heroes were authors, and mine are too.

He thought that reading was as important as writing, and so do I.

We will meet again someday, but for now, I have to be the person he wanted me to be, and I need to find a comfortable old armchair so I can sit and read and remember.

Chauncey Giannone: The Best Defence.

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This story is now published as part of the anthology ‘Loyal and True’.

Chauncey Giannone’s family had been building defensive weapons for fifteen generations.

Their offensive weapons were exemplary but, truth be known, they only produced them for the money.
There were numerous mouths to feed and these were violent times.
All through history men have invented new and more efficient weapons, designed to kill and to terrify.
And, as fast as men invented and developed these weapons other men invented and developed ways to counter them.
Chauncey held the intricate chain-mail in his hands wondering how men were able to stand up let alone fight in this heavy armour.
At the time it was a reaction to bronze and then iron and more terrifyingly, steel blades.
The chain-mail would afford a degree of protection without restricting movement, but the weight was a problem.
Battle was fatiguing enough without the added burden of all that weight.
His ancestors had experimented with different metal alloys, all in an attempt to gain strength and lightness; not an easy task.
The chain-mail he was holding was more ceremonial than military, but if called upon it would have stood up to the task.
Each link was delicately embossed by hand and would have taken months to construct. Only a royal could have afforded such a garment.
Every successful business needs a few rich clients. They provide the cream and this ‘cream’ allows the business to invest in new ideas.
Family legend had it that the money the business received for this suit of chain-mail was the impetus for the development of the family’s most successful product, and the reason that the business was able to last for so many centuries.
Chauncey was sure that his ancestor would have received a lot of pressure to concentrate on offensive weapons.
“No one ever went broke taking a profit”.
Despite the pressure his ancestor had a vision of the future, and the vision was directed towards defence.
Fear is a great motivator in any age. 

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Photo Credit:

1952

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When I was about 18 months old, my dad took me on my first aeroplane journey.

It was 1952, and my dad had survived the war, been awarded a bunch of medals including the DCM, was sent to London to represent Australia in the Victory March, came home, and sometime in 1949, he helped to create me.
Somewhere in 1952, a decision was made that I would be better off in Melbourne with my aunty and uncle. They were unable to have children at a time when nothing could be done to solve the problem. So, my dad bundled me up and put me on a plane and brought me to this house. He stayed a few days and then went home [that must have been a difficult journey]. I stayed and lived in this excellent little house in this little suburb of Melbourne until I was 22 years old.
The story that goes with all of this is a good one, and one day I will tell it to you.

He Who Loves An Old House.

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“He who loves an old house never loves in vain.”
– Isabel La Howe Conant, late 19th Century author

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And every old house needs a backyard and a dog………… or two.

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This amazing, little old house was built nearly one hundred years ago and the oak tree that you get a glimpse of in the first photo (on the right) is one hundred and seventeen years old (you can measure the age of an oak tree by its circunfrence. one inch per year). This means that the original couple who built this house probably laid out the garden many years before they began building. We know a little bit about the original owners because when we moved in there was a very old bloke living across the road from us and he had lived in our street for many years. He remembers when they died and the family came and dug out many of the plants that they had nurtured! He was disgusted. He would be very sad to know that his decendants unloaded his excellent old house the minute he died. The lady who bought the house has been a good neighbour, most of the time.

The window in the photo above is the reason we now own this house. The owner at the time asked me to repair this window and I instantly fell in love with this house. Years later the next owner asked me to repair another leadlight panel for him and I told him that I’d been at his house before. He showed me around and showed off all the improvements he had made and as I was leaving I said that if he ever wanted to sell the house that he should ring me. He laughed and said that there was no way he would ever sell that house.

Fast forward a decade and he makes that call.

A few months later and we are the new owners of this house.

One day I will post the story of our journey to living here. It is an excellent story and deserves it’s own post.

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The 117 year old oak tree is on the right.

ImageThe lamp belonged to my grand mother who came to Australia in 1910. My dad smuggled it out of her house when she died to avoid a family feud.

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Back in the day I was approached by a bloke who collected tins. He wanted to sell a big chunk of his collection so that it would not be a burden on his wife when he died. He was a great bloke and although I could not afford to keep all of them I did manage to hang on to a few.

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Our front deck looks over a creek so we get a few visitors who drop in to dry off after bathing.

ImageOld dogs love old houses too.

My wife gets the credit (or the blame) for photos 1, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10 and 11

A TALE OF THREE BROTHERS

They were poor but happy enough, and one of their jobs was to chop wood for the fuel stove.

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They took it in turns but generally they would all pitch in as this was a satisfying job. A large pile of wood was evidence that you had been there.
Brothers can be rough and ready even at the best of times, and although it happened more than a hundred years ago and the story suffers from being strained through a lot of people’s memories, it seems that while chopping wood a piece flew into the eye of the brother named Ansel.
If it had happened now, someone would have bundled the boy into a car, and hospital staff would have assessed the injury. With a bit of luck, his injury would have healed leaving him with only a story to tell.
But this was a time before cars and doctors were rare and often lived a long way away.
The boy lost the use of his eye.
I’m sure that his brothers were affected by what happened, and his parents were upset, but this was a time when much worse things happened on a regular basis. In some ways, it was a miracle that the boys grew up to be men as many children died in childhood. Families would often have ‘extra’ children to compensate for the expected deaths. Maybe Ansel’s injury was such that he would have lost the use of his eye in any case, but I cannot help but think that the time he lived in contributed to his disability.

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He must have been devastated.
I remember when I was told at age 8 that I needed to wear glasses. My world seemed to be collapsing around me.
I thought that I would not be able to run, swim or play Footy ever again!

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I thought that the kids at school would make fun of me and in this regard, I only felt a bit better when the message came back that the older boy who lived across the road promised to belt anyone who made fun of me!
Ansel probably felt the way I did, but as often happens this misfortune turned out to be a blessing.
In fact, it saved his life.

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When World War One broke out, Ansel’s two brothers signed up as most young men did at that time. One brother fought at Gallipoli and survived, only to die in France. The other brother saw action but died of disease as many of our soldiers did. Ansel was not accepted into the army due to his disability and went on to father five daughters and a son.

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His troubled son signed up to fight in World War Two, received the second highest bravery award, survived the War, came home, fathered two sons and a daughter.

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One of those sons is writing this now.
A simple childhood accident allows several generations to live their lives and tell their stories.
I met Ansel a few times.
We didn’t like each other very much.
Probably because we were a bit too much alike.
Neither of us ‘suffered fools gladly.’

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As I do with all my ancestors, I owe my existence to Ansel, my grandfather.
He came to me in a dream and warned me not to let my arrogance get out of control.
Good advice.
Thanks, granddad.