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Touch wood

The trouble with using ash to create a barrier for ghosts is that any breeze or air disturbance can spread the ash around, which not only makes a mess but of course cancels the barrier function to exit or entry, which was the main purpose in the first place. The other consideration is that the ash can be disturbed after your back is turned, so the keeping out (or in) quality is never assured.

The lore available recommends using lighter ash, like what may be found in a campfire after a larger log slowly burns away over a calm night. It is the type of ash that very old school jewellers may have used to polish metal — ash and spit was the accepted fix for tarnish in the days before bottles of polish were available. The white-grey ash is more effective, the recommendations say, but this type is also the sort more likely to be lightweight and liable to be disturbed.

In fact, given these inherent qualities in the material recommended, you might wonder why ash was even used in the first place. Given the thousands of years these sorts of tricks have been around to counter the various other ephemeral entities we’re required to deal with, and that the materials available to the ancients was more limited than today, it was still surprising, given how advanced so many other aspects of normal day-to-day living have become, that a very old and very basic substance such as ash maintains its prominence in such a necessary activity. You would have thought they’d have developed an alternative by now.

Still, there was an acceptable degree of wriggle room, although such flexibility could never be accredited to modern interventions. The source of the product — burnt apple tree, eucalyptus, elm, oak, acacia etc — was never an issue. It was more the type of ash produced that was the focus — although of course the original wood and its burning qualities would have an influence over that, as would the heat of the fire. And the location of the originating fire was similarly unimportant. This could be outside, in a fireplace, north or east facing, backyard, near a river, in a car park — none of that mattered. Small blessings, but welcome also in that a quick and ready solution was usually needed in a hurry. A line of ash, a few quick words, and even a wraith is able to be kept in check. And given the lightness of the material, as mentioned, the operation usually had to be repeated, and often. You really had to keep on your toes.

One surprising location where the long-term effectiveness of ghost blocking using ash was found to be proved, although initially no-one was even aware that this was the case, was at the historically preserved water wheel flour milling cottage that was right next to the river at Whitcombe, before the water flow reduced so much due to extensive irrigation infrastructure the government embarked on years after the flour mill was established. Apart from the resulting reduction in water flow just not being enough, other technology in other locations took over, so the mill just fell out of use.

The cottage had been the home of the families who were employed to operate the mill, one of the last of the very few water mills that existed in Australia. The mill’s water wheel and about half of the stone building that housed the flour-making operations were in ruins, but the nearby miller’s cottage still stood, and had been preserved and turned into a museum — not only for the mill’s history but the local area in general.

For many decades it was thought that the mill cottage was free of the spirits and hauntings that was almost expected with any other older habitations, whether abandoned or not. It wasn’t so much that such incidences weren’t deemed to be possible in this instance, but that there were no records of anything like that happening with the cottage, as usually these things are notable enough to be written down and kept with the municipal documentation. So over time the use of the words haunting and flour production together in the same sentence was never part of conversations about the miller’s cottage.

For many decades the cottage-museum provided a diversion for visitors, and an excursion destination for schools, both nearby and further away, and did its part to keep some of the local area’s history alive as well as to inform the general public about an interesting aspect of the industry involved.

As a viable flour mill, the last grain to pass through its water-driven grinding stones was only a few decades after the structure was built, but the eventual museum function of the cottage was not taken up until many decades after that. The interim years, after the cottage was left idle once the commercial operations of the mill ended, were not really documented, but left to hearsay and the vague recollections of locals. Once the option of earning a living was taken away, the cottage and the other buildings were forgotten by most. The family who lived there had just moved away, not even taking the furniture, the drapes, rugs, crockery, pots and pans or anything else — these were all supplied and owned by the business that ran the mill, so the people living there at the time the business shut down (the second such family to occupy the buildings since the mill had been operating) just moved out and left behind everything but whatever they had brought with them in the first place. This fact was later to prove of great benefit to the historical credentials of the abandoned cottage when it was considered for a museum, given that the everyday items left there were such that were in use from a generation or more before, such as the cast iron cookware, although no-one guessed that other residual factors were also left in place, which would later prove problematic and require use of the aforementioned ash.

It was quite a long time, but within living memory, after the cottage-museum opened as an off-road attraction that it was decided some more room was needed. Over the years, donations of antiques and curios had been coming in from the farmhouses thereabouts as well as older residences in the nearby town, handed over by modern descendants who didn’t really want to keep every antique item from previous generations found in the back of a dusty cupboard, but who were equally not ready to assign every heirloom to the rubbish tip. And apart from the need for more storage and display room, a considerable part of the construction concept included a souvenir and refreshments area.

An extension to the cottage was voted on, planned, had funds raised, and saw volunteers put on a roster. A certified builder was required by the municipality to oversee regulatory compliance, but one of the volunteers could tick those boxes.

The extension to the miller’s cottage was of course the sort of volunteer-driven endeavour that takes a long time to complete, and in this instance took a good two summers (enthusiasm dropped markedly over winter). It was however at the beginning of the second summer, in a renewed push to complete the building works — hopefully to coincide with the nearby town’s bicentenary celebrations — that the secret of the miller’s cottage’s ghost blocking came to be revealed.

The floor of the extension naturally needed to be built at the same level as the original, and the plan was to have wider access between the new and the old, as the existing side doorway that was chosen to link the old building with the new works was quite narrow by current standards. However the initial inspection revealed an unusual feature of the redgum door sill. Running side to side, from one doorframe to the other, and fairly much along the middle of the sill, was a narrow strip of wood that was recessed into the top surface of the redgum. It was made of the same timber, but on closer inspection was obviously a seperate piece, neatly set into the sill proper and carefully levelled so the two surfaces were flush. Under general circumstances, and especially with the patina and wear of years, it was not obvious that another strip of timber was even there, as the two pieces were the same colour. But a scrape at the surface and a careful look revealed grains that didn’t quite match.

The recessed strip seemed an incongruous feature, although it wouldn’t really be deemed a “feature” either as it was made to blend in. As the project progressed, and the wall framing around the doorway was exposed in preparation for it being widened, the sill seemed to be as solid a single piece of good redgum as when it was first installed — so the strip wasn’t hiding any repairs.

It was at this stage, when the ends of the sill became accessible, that the curiosity of the two volunteers who were left to do most of this work, retired locals and also cousins Bern and Pete Yoskin, were prompted into the action of levering up the recessed strip of timber to see what was under it. What was found was a chiselled-out channel neatly cut into the length of timber, right along the middle where the recessed strip had been, but with a finger-width of wood left in place at each end. Filling this space, near to capacity, was a line of ash.

Pete guessed straightaway its purpose, and that it was made more permanent by the carpentry they’d uncovered. He went to replace the wooden covering strip immediately, but Bern wasn’t so sure and thought they should wait, and maybe ask someone what they thought of the whole thing. He was for holding off re-fixing the covering strip for now, and wanted to just leave it sitting in place on top (it couldn’t be left off completely because the wind was up). He involuntarily looked towards the front doorstep. “I know what you’re wondering,” said Pete. “Is a block line there too…and what about under the windows.” Bern got up and Pete followed him to the doorway, where they quickly confirmed, with a simple scraping away of the build up that time had left on the front door sill, that a similar covering strip was installed there. They looked around, but both made no move to check any windows… it could be assumed that a line of ash was under every one in some form.

“It was obvious to Pete what the line of ash was for, and to me too, although Pete said he sort of suspected there might be something like that lurking in such an old building, and it had been in the back of his mind to keep an eye out all along. His dad, my Uncle Ben, was known to have been keen on the old practice and have some knowledge about it, and he had known of people who provided that sort of service when we were kids, although it dropped off later and had gone more ‘boutique’ and specialist in recent years — like now only ghost gum ash was used, because that seemed to ‘fit’ with the concept, although Uncle Ben used to say that in fact any old timber as a source for the ash would have done.

“When the ash blocking was revealed I really had only a slight hesitation about still going ahead with the renovation as it was planned already, and that we should ignore what had been put in place ash-wise, obviously years ago. Pete definitely had other ideas, and said no-one really knew at this stage what might end up happening if the blocking line was taken away. I got the feeling, from how he was talking, that he assumed the line was there to keep something out. But what if it was to keep something in? It would be hard to tell without getting someone who knows about the blocking practice to have a look, and that might take a while, and there’d been enough delays already.

“Later, when the situation had been explained to everyone who was involved with the extension project, it was decided to just keep on with building the add-on room, and the widening or not of the joining doorway would be decided later or when proper advice was had or it became clearer one way or another what we were dealing with here. That was just as well because later on, when the roof on the new section was up, a few volunteers slept over for a night or two in the new room, including us two. It wasn’t so much a ‘beyond the call of duty’ thing as a bit of an adventure, but also because time was getting away from this project if it was going to meet the bicentenary deadline, which was also the reason the road out to there was being resurfaced, so the drive over wasn’t exactly convenient. Anyway, as the time spent overnight ended up being absolutely ghost free, Pete ventured the opinion that the ash line was a keeping-in measure after all, since where we slept would have been outside the original house. That seemed pretty clear to everyone, and so the width of the doorway would have to stay the way it was, and the walls each side reinstated.

“Later on I got to thinking about this, and that the conclusion reached wasn’t really based on enough evidence. The ash blocking could still have been intended to keep things out, and it could have just been that one overnight stay didn’t reveal much. Was more time needed to really be sure? And who could say anyway?

 

60. (…..Exit-o…..)

There came a time when Benny felt ready to get a dog. He decided to rescue one from an animal shelter, and had found one not too far away. When he walked through the door, there was someone standing behind the front desk with her hand around a steaming mug on the counter, which was caught nicely by a spot of sunlight from the front window (that she seemed unaware of because she was looking away). He could tell it was spiced chai latte when he, and his nose, got closer.

He had called ahead to check that there might be a suitable mutt on hand (and she must have been the one he spoke to) and he was told there were a few small and medium dogs they had available for adoption.

Once taken through to where the animals were kept, standing out from the line up of potential new best-friends was a medium sized biscuit-coloured dog with a happy grin. “He came in not long ago,” she said, “and we haven’t even given him a name yet. He didn’t come in with one, and we’ve just been calling him Boy. But he’s had all the health checks.” She said the dog was already de-sexed, and seemed to be familiar with some commands, like ‘sit’ and ‘stay’, so must have had some basic training at some stage.

She said he had a microchip but it wasn’t on the animal register, and they were going to fix that. “Did you have a name in mind Ben?” Before coming to the shelter he had been thinking that maybe Fang would be a good name, and a bit out there too, but right then had a sudden re-think and with a slight motion towards her mug said “Maybe chai… he’s the right colour.” She thought that would be a nice name for a dog.

I must admit that there was also in this choice a subtle nod towards our old dog Milo, who had been a darker brown colour — another grinning friend from long ago.

“Before we look at the paperwork, why don’t you take him for a short walk, just to make sure you’ll be comfortable with him,” she said. “There’s a big grass area over there that’s part of the shelter’s grounds,” and she put on an old leash for Benny to use. “Try a few commands, and practice being in control. Like make sure you walk through gates or doorways first, before he does, to show you’re in charge. It’s good to get him to sit” (and he sat) “before crossing a road, and try a command to get him to start walking again.”

She suggested ‘release’, as it doesn’t sound like many other everyday words, so shouldn’t be confusing, and when she said that the dog (or Chai as he’ll learn to be called), stood up like he was ready to walk. “Hey! You know, he must have been to obedience classes. I’ve heard some trainers actually use the word ‘release’, that’s why I suggested it. He must have heard it before too. You know what, why don’t I come with you for a short try-out walk. We can even go along the streets around here and try a few commands. We’ll find out what he can do.”

So they all three walked out into the sun, to test for that previous training, and also for Benny to start to get to know his new friend. He was glad he had made this decision, and felt no regrets.

 

END
< Chapter 59 …a concluding verse…

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59. “Look what I can do”

Benny remembered being told that the jelly desert wouldn’t set any faster if he kept checking on it in the fridge, that it will just have to set in its own good time, but will probably take longer if he keeps opening that door, so he’d better leave it alone.

The ants in his pants came from the fact that it was one of the first times he had ‘cooked’ something, so he was naturally keen to see that it worked. Not only did he want to be the first to dig his spoon into that smooth red wobblyness, but he was also looking forward to showing off the results — until then, he hadn’t really thought he might grow up to be a famous chef.

Sometimes I was reminded of that childhood moment of his, especially on those occasions when it became obvious that our boy was getting a little too expectant of a grand payoff of some kind or an imagined standing ovation on the back of another achievement of his. Okay, so he wasn’t shouting ‘look what I can do, look at me’ anymore, but sometimes I knew that the urge was there.

But this attitude, the hunt for recognition or looking for approval, the thought of winning certain laurels because of whatever he was successfully occupied with at that time, seemed to primarily work to dilute any aspired-to outcome. An expectation of kudos, or hope for praise, certainly got in the way of Benny actually appreciating what he had managed to bring about, and looking around for a pat on the back tended to make his otherwise solid achievements a little more rickety than they should have been.

Not that this happened very much these days, but I’ll have to try to be a little more vocal about these sorts of things as they arise. But that’s no problem. And it’s good to be needed!

 

(Don’t expect applause)
< Chapter 58 Chapter 60 >

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58. Stop splashing around in the shallow end

“I had a song in my head that was terrible and I just couldn’t get rid of it” (actually I didn’t think it was that bad) “and I had the thought that wouldn’t it be tragic if I was hit by a car or something… I mean that would be tragic anyway… but I mean wouldn’t it be privately tragic because only I would know, if that stupid tune became the thing that was playing in my head for the last time. There’d be nothing I could do to change that. And then, even though I’d be the only one to realise it, that dumb song would become the soundtrack for that last scene of my life.”

Every now and then, Benny would surprise me by indulging in something really trivial or puerile. I wish he wouldn’t do that. It seems very much at these times like he’s just paddling about in the shallow end of a swimming pool, like he’s avoiding actually getting some real exercise by his splashing around there and not swimming toward the deeper end. He shouldn’t waste his precious time, frittering it away on frivolities. He knows better.

 

(Don’t be frivolous)
< Chapter 57 Chapter 59 >

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57. What other-side-of-the-fence?

“I like that saying about the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence, when people are talking about being envious or jealous about what other people have. I think one of the reasons it seemed more intriguing for me than it probably would have for anyone else came about from when I first heard it years ago, and that had something to do with a misconception that formed in my younger head at the time.

“I’d imagined that there was some interesting science fact at play… that when you look at grass from a more side-on angle the light or something else physical made it look greener than when you saw it more from directly above. I was quickly put straight about the real meaning, and it all made sense then, although I didn’t really think I’d missed the point completely.”

Apart from feeling a little silly at the time, the picture in his mind that young Benny was left with was a residual impression of wandering through grassy paddocks judging all the greenness that was going on. I know that his ‘liking’ the grass-is-greener phrase had a lot to do with his having to be corrected about its intended meaning, because by then he had started to conceive the connected idea that an initially perceived ‘better’ greenness could fade to a usual same-old greenness once approached — although he then mixed this up with also imagining the affect somehow resulting from something like those temporary particles on your eye that float away when you try to look at them, but edge back into almost-view when you give up.

The appeal for our Benny was that his original misconception could be somehow justified if the imagined outcome of being envious about greener grass was that the inviting other-side-of-the-fence patch of pasture would fade to ordinariness once you got a closer look or were standing right on it. I did what I could to maintain the appeal of his idea, as it was also quite thoughtful and, I thought, added to the general thrust of the original saying.

“Anyway, it’s worth remembering. Envy’s a pretty useless thing to get yourself caught up with. I’d rather just get on with it.”

 

(Don’t be jealous)
< Chapter 56 Chapter 58 >

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56. Music for the pity party

“There’s been a few times when I’ve wondered if I’m just showing myself up to be a dill by all the self-criticism I put myself through sometimes. When I look around I’m not always convinced that other people have made such a fuss over things, or even bothered to think about situations at all. And what difference does it make anyway? It doesn’t seem like there are very many people who are worse or better off than me — I mean everyone’s pretty much on par aren’t they, although I suppose it’s hard to tell.

“The trouble is, I feel stuck with this. It’s a bit hard to turn off.”

The pity party continued for a while and was as annoying this time as every other time Benny fell to wallowing in it. And I knew he was wrong about there being little difference made. What we’ve uncovered are insights, and what’s wrong with that? And what he did get right this time, about not being able to turn it off, is a benefit he should be better acquainted with. In other words Benny boy, toughen up and get used to it.

 

(Don’t wallow in self pity)
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55. In the dark undergrowth

One thing that Benny didn’t mention about our older family member was that he was also fond of telling a joke or two, usually what might have been called ‘dad’ jokes, only of course these were uncle jokes. One that comes to mind, and that will be seen as relevant after certain notions have been teased out, concerned a leaky roof, with the thrust of the humour being that the person who lived under that roof didn’t fix it when it was leaking because then it would be raining outside, but also didn’t think to repair it in dry weather because it wasn’t leaking then.

The leaky-roof joke came back to me (but not really to Benny out there) one afternoon, no doubt prompted by a similar conceptual twist that grew in Benny’s thoughts. In the instance at hand it was the flash of white anger that had him clutching at his car’s steering wheel after another driver cut him off.

After calming down, it occurred to Benny that a while ago he had come to a conclusion about the uselessness of getting riled up or letting anything really get under his skin — especially when nothing could be done to change the outcome that he was left with — and he was reminded about the promise he’d made to himself that he would try to not go there. And it was at this juncture, for me at least, that a connection to the leaky roof twist could be dimly made out — that the problem was only discernable as a problem when it came into view… but when not out there or present in the here and now, simply didn’t seem to be a problem anymore.

And it was this hidden-in-the-bushes state that allowed it to remain undealt with.

It’s like that scenario that was mentioned not too far back, about learning all about a new device or appliance — instructions are okay, but the real lessons only sink in once you start hitting some buttons.

In this case, it seemed Benny could learn a lot from pushing his own buttons (even in an imaginary or analytical way), and try to ignite that useless anger in order to be able to deal with it, or at least to track its presence in the dark undergrowth.

With some honest examination, it would also become obvious that there was more than just anger to be dragged out and dealt with. There were elements within that if not recognised and shown in the clear light of day could ride under the surface interminably. It was a challenge for him, but I will certainly help, and I’m sure any effort made will prove to be a relief.

 

(Liberate yourself by examining and analysing)
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54. Make an effort, not an excuse

“I think I’ve already mentioned my Uncle Ted — he was a great guy and I really missed him. Although he was one of those practical types, he was always coming up with sayings, you know, pieces of wisdom, mottos to live by, that sort of thing, which I suppose he’d heard sometime somewhere and because they made sense he must have kept a mental file of sayings to bring out if one fitted the circumstances.

“Like he once said, after I’d made a blunder, something like how I should ‘forget the mistake, but remember the lesson’. It was that sort of saying that I’m talking about, usually old-timey but a lot of them made sense… I think I only realised that much later, when I was remembering back to the days when Uncle Ted was around.

“One that came back to me recently was ‘make an effort, not an excuse’. At the time I was doing just that, going at things in a half-arsed way and just making excuses for myself for the obvious fact that I wasn’t getting anywhere and just going through the motions.

“But the thing is, once I’d pulled myself together and really put in, in a wholehearted way, it really did make a difference.”

 

(Train wholeheartedly)
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53. Conquering hesitation rock

At a particular ocean beach at a holiday spot a couple of hours from where Benny grew up, and which he visited with his family a few times in his younger days, there was a wide and deep tide pool that formed in the seaweed covered rock shelf at low tide. The pool was close in to shore where the sandy beach ended and the rocky shelf began, which made it easy to get to. As well there was a large rock formation that rose up in a rough shape right next to the tidal pool. This made the pool a favourite for summer adventurers, both young and old, to jump into. Not only was the top of the rock, which happened to be right above the water, not too high (about six metres) but there was also a secondary jumping point on the same side only about four metres up — much more acceptable for the more nervous types who were not quite ready for the big jump. And although you could see the bottom, the pool was deep enough for the high divers — it was also very wide, so was a big target.

Another positive was that there were few inward overhanging sides to the pool, which made it seem safer because there were no lurking edges, and one section on the shore side usually seemed tentatively joined to the beach by having a steep sandy bank sloping down nearly all the way to the bottom, which made it much easier to get in and out. Years later Benny was reminded about that pool, and that it didn’t fill with sand, while watching a nature show on TV about intertidal zones, and that the reason his holiday rock pool probably didn’t have a lot more sand in it could have been because of the combined action of waves and incoming tides, which would most likely have scooped out any extra sand that otherwise would have kept sliding in.

Being at the top of the high rock was an issue for our younger Benny, and he could never quite work up the required gumption to take that final leap. From the lower ledge, yes… he could do that, after a few tries, and when everyone else he was with did it. But not way up there on the top. Benny had of course climbed up to that upper jumping spot on a few occasions, had stood there with his toes near the edge, looking over and down into the clear water below, with voices from down there somewhere urging him to jump. He even felt himself making tentative advances, then retreats, ‘should I’, ‘shouldn’t I’, going forward, backing away, ‘maybe another look’, ‘no not ready yet’ sort of approaches. But it was always too much of an ask for him to make the final decision and step out from the solid rock and into the waiting airspace. It was a particular vacillation he remembered in conjunction with that occasional summer destination, the leaving of which invariably concluded with a pact to really try to make the jump next time — a pledge which was repeated until he actually did it, in the last summer before getting his learner driving permit.

That was an amazing experience for the Benny of that time, who had just started to wake up. Much later he would realise just how many efforts, not just on that rock but in many circumstances, can be stymied just through having vacillated in the first place. That back-and-forth can be unnecessary on so many occasions, and it seems to be done just through fear of making a mistake. In a way, he should have been making as many mistakes as possible, and in that way learn to not make them again. Later it would slowly crystallise; if there was one main thing that resulted from his vacillating, it was that he became better at it.

 

(Don’t vacillate)
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