This machine was my grandmother’s. It would have been my grandfather, though, who kept it in working condition. From what my mother has told me, Thomas Arnold Thomson was fascinated by the mechanics of machinery. If anything in the house broke, Thomas Arnold Thomson’s solution was to purchase a manual explaining how the thing worked and fix it himself.
So that he bought a typewriter – beyond it being an appliance my grandmother needed – is likely no comment on whether he wrote, but more so on his desire to know typing worked at all. That the typewriter is still in perfect working condition simply means that it is in the same condition as everything Thomas Arnold Thomson (or ‘Arn,’ as my grandmother liked to call him) owned.
I had no love for Arn. I was ten when he died. Until his death, his relationship with me was characterized by a series of grunted rebukes, barks almost, and the very memorable nightly ritual that was his shaving.
In his defense, the rebukes Arn doled out were never undeserved. Arn came from an era where to eat before all were at the table was met with corporal punishment. His four liberal-minded daughters had surely softened him somewhat, then, for all he did when we were noticed eating from our knives, kicking our feet out under the dinner table or just being generally unruly, was to bark ‘RUMF!’
In retrospect, it seems rather harmless. No doubt that is why our parents let him get away with it. But Arn was a fierce old man, easily six foot tall, so the bestial rebuke could be startling to three-foot-nothings.
The shock of the barks was intensified by the fact that these, or rather, this, was the only word he spoke to us. I cannot ever recall a time when Arn interacted with me at a more cerebral level, although there are some anachronous photos of me as a baby, seated on his lap, wherein he appears rather fond of me.
The only time I remember feeling safe from Arn’s barks was during the aforementioned shaving ritual. It was Arn’s custom to perform this ritual in the living room after dinner, or ‘tea,’ as my grandmother called it.
My grandfather was in possession of one of the first electric razors. It had three pads at the top of its cylindrical body, designed to be held to the user’s face and rubbed around until all stubble was done away with. This would have been unremarkable in its use, were it not for the fact that Arn had an exceedingly wrinkly face. He would sit in his armchair (and it was his armchair, as more than one ‘RUMF!’ indicated to us) after dinner, feet up on the matching leather pouf, eyes closed as though in a meditative state, and massage the electric razor around the folds in his face.
It hummed gently throughout, changing in pitch and tone as the folds of Arn’s face presented more or less hazardous terrain. I remember nodding off as I lay on the floor by the fire, listening to the Mongolian throat-singing-type drone that the machine made in harmony with Arn’s face.
And then it would be over, the trance broken. One of our parents would take it upon themselves to do something wholesome and educational, like play the recording of Banjo Patterson’s ‘Man from Snowy River’ and challenge us kids to memorise and recite portions, and from there my brain, understandably I think, gave up trying to make memories.
The last memory I have of my grandfather, although it does not concern him in the flesh, is of the night my mother left our home in England to be by Arn’s side at his deathbed.
We were living in Pershore at the time, and some time in the middle of the night, the phone started ringing. This wasn’t unheard of at the time, between work calls from Japan for my father and our Australian relatives who had yet to work out the time difference. This call, however, rather than being dealt with quickly, kept my parents up until morning.
I slept on and off until my alarm went off for school, but the noise of my parents’ movement around the house during the night, their hushed conversation, had created a sense of unease.
When I left my room, I saw that a suitcase had been packed. I think it was my father who told me, ‘Your grandfather’s had an accident. Your mother has a flight out of London back to Australia today. I have to take her to the train station. You and Erin are going to have to get lunch from the cafeteria today.’
I remember for a moment being pleased, though I knew better than to show it, that we would not be eating Dad’s brown bread salad sandwiches.
My mother looked worn and hard. I think she had been crying, but it was long enough ago that the only sign of it was a blinkered look in her eyes. She seemed full of brittle purpose, as though she was still convincing herself that she was ready.
Arn had slipped when he was repairing the roof of the shed at their house in Mittagong, whoever had called had told her. He had fallen several metres and, not being in good health, was unlikely to recover.
The only means I have now of relating to my mother’s experience is to imagine losing my father. I cannot, not truly, and I imagine that says more about the magnitude of grief involved in losing a parent than imagination ever could.
I have no means of knowing, then, how Arn would feel about my using this typewriter to write such a belated and dispassionate eulogy. He never seemed an especially passionate man to me, but what significance would you afford the recollections of a ten-year-old?
Perhaps my grandfather would have been pleased to watch me learning how to replace the typewriter’s ink spool with one of the two spares his wife left in the case. Maybe he would have appreciated the pleasure I took in cleaning the decades-old grease from the machine’s undercarriage before carefully reapplying machine lubricant to its inner mechanisms – its letter stems and ink colour adjustment dial – so that this letter typed smoothly, truly and well.
He may even have said ‘RUMF!’ in such a way that it meant something completely different.