In The Presence Of Royalty


A couple of months later, an older couple shifted into a vacant house in Kumbada Ave, next door to Bill French (Tonyís friend). Mom was up the street one day soon after, with me dragging behind. She 'button-holed' the new lady and introduced herself. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas were the new folks names. They had come up to the hills for a while because Mr. Thomas was crook and the mountain air might do him some good (doctors orders).


A couple of days later Mrs. Thomas 'button-holed' mom and proceeded to tell her that they wouldnít want to live in a place like this. They wouldnít be here at all if it wasnít hubbyís illness. The people were not up to their usual standard as they were related to the English aristocracy.

'Huh-well-whoopy-do.' Says mom irreverently.

So that was the end of a budding friendship. My mother called a spade a spade and simply did not know how to grovel in the presence of royalty. Mrs. Thomas leaning over their side fence one day told Mrs. French that they had bought a motor car, mainly to get to and from church on Sunday. Now that was big news. No one that we rubbed shoulders with could afford a car. So on the next Sunday morning nearly all the boys and girls from the whole neighbourhood were at the Thomas abode to see the new car. As Mr. Thomas backed out the car, Mrs. Thomas was on crowd control, waving her hands around like a city traffic cop.

'Get out of the way, we donít want to run over any of you grubby little urchins.' She states.

I was sitting on the gutter with Reg, Tony and Bill.

'Grubby little urchins.' Says Reg standing up.

'Iím going to tell mom.'

So off he trots, with me following a close second (I really donít like missing out on anything). We found mom in the kitchen, just finishing her cup of tea and a cigarette.

'That Mrs. Thomas called us grubby little urchins.' He says

Mom didnít turn a hair about the grubby bit, urchins what are urchins, said reaching for the dictionary.

'Small, mischievous shabbily dressed child.' She reads out aloud.

Hey, that's not bad, pretty close, I thought. But mom jumps up.

'Bloody cheek.' She exclaims, stamping around the kitchen.

'Gone too far this time. Iíll give her a piece of my mind next time I see her.'

And that's for sure I thought. So off we go Reg and I.

'I reckon we should save some more film,' he says to me, 'Just in case.'

'Yes.' I agreed.

About a month later, one morning we boys were getting ready for school.

'I will be a little late tonight, mom, Iím going to swap some comics at Joe Herberts.' Reg says.

'Donít be late for dinner.' Was all mom said.


On the way home from school that day, I stopped at all the usual places, under the trestle bridge at the creek, a couple of ant nests, etc. I was normally home later than the other two. Tony was in the back yard repairing his billycart, Reg wasnít home yet, and I remembered he said he was swapping comics at Herberts. That was the other side of town, so he would be a while yet.


I had been going over a story to tell mom about how I might die if I didnít get anything to eat before dinner. My stories usually worked because mom couldnít stand my whinging (well I was hungry, was I?). But this afternoon mom wasnít listening to me.

'Hey, that's the fire bell.' She said with a note of alarm in her voice.

We both ran outside. Tony was running up from the back.

'Fire, mom, look.' he said, pointing in the general direction of Frenchís place.

A big pall of black smoke was rising into the air.

'Oh my goodness, I hope it isnít a house.' Mom said and took off down the road at a good rate of knots towards the smoke. All the neighbours too were running, alarmed looks on all faces. Fire in the hills was a terrible thing and everyone knew it.


Another bell started and Tony said it was the fire truck (quick work). We were half way down Kumbada Ave when the fire truck passed us flat out. The fireman on the back closest to the bell was giving it curry. Most of the fire men on the back were shopkeepers from Upwey, I recognised Mr. Wilson, our grocer, Mr. Howden and Mr. Merritt, the butcher. They looked a little like dadís army, with their fire helmets askew on their heads. But the determination on their faces showed they werenít playing.


The fire-truck pulled up with a screech. Men pilled off everywhere. It wasnít Frenchís house, it was Thomasís. The house looked gone to me, with huge clouds of black smoke pouring out of every nook and cranny. Across the road from the house was the creek. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Howden headed there to organise a water point. Mr. Wilson slipped and skidded straight down the bank landing bum first in what was our swimming hole about four feet deep (he is the first adult in our pool). I bet he will be pleased when I tell him. The fire captain Mr. Groves ran to the front door of the house. He didnít have an axe to chop the door down so I knew he was going to break it down with his shoulder (I knew all this because it happened in the movies all the time). But to my disappointment he just turned the handle and opened the door. He disappeared for a couple of minutes, then reappeared, holding a hanky over his face, his eyes were streaming with tears.

'Nothing in there.' He yelled to the other fire-men.

'It must be under the house.'

He and another man had just disappeared under the house when a car arrived. The police car. Mr. Stagg got out and talked to the other fire men, then stood and waited at the side door. It took about ten minutes to locate the source of the alarm because they were on all fours under the house with little room to move. Finally, something was thrown out and a head and shoulders appeared soon after.

'Here is one of the culprits.' Mr. Groves said.

'About four smoke bombs under there.' He was wiping his eyes and blowing his nose.

'It is a terrible smell, could be film or something like that.' He states.

Just this time mom, Tony and I were probably thinking, who could have done this, I reckon. Mr. Stagg looked at the remains of the bomb, then looked around the crowd, clapped eyes on Bill.

'Ahh, Mr. French, what were you doing after school today?'

'Err-ahh, I dunno, err, sir.' Said Bill with great authority.

Well Bill was looking down the barrel for a minute but his younger sister Yvonne said she had walked home with Bill so it couldnít be him. For some strange reason, Tony was next, but mom cleared him. Mr. Stagg didnít interview any girls. The general thinking in those days was that girls were young ladies and couldnít do anything like this (wrong). I knew  a few sneaky girls that would easily have fitted the picture. Mr. Stagg turned to mom and asked about Reg.

'He is at Herberts place swapping comics.' States mom.

And speak of the devil, with almost perfect timing, here come Reg down the street with a heap of comics under his arm.

'What is going on here?' He says, looking with astonishment at the fire truck etc.

'Where were you after school Reg?' asks Mr. Stagg.

í'At Joe Herberts swapping comics.' Says Reg, showing Mr. Stagg the comics.

'Ahh well, no harm done here anyway.' Says Mr. Stagg, looking squarely at Mr. Wilson sloshing by looking like a drowned rat.

But it is funny, the whole incident should have been high on the gossip list for a few days but it wasnít. It was hardly talked about at all and not at all by the Oliver's.


But ending the story on a good note, Mr. Thomas must have had a miracle recovery because the Thomasís shifted back to the city about a week later.