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Occidental Trifle


Trifle is a dish for hard times. Stale cake goes further with custard and otherwise unpalatable fruit conserves remaining at the end of the fallow season. Trifle is also a tidbit of gossip, a delicious social chestnut relished when shared, but fleeting and inconsequential. Sweets are an afterthought in eastern longevity cuisine. To live well is to eat harmoniously and chew each mouthful thoroughly. This mixed metaphor is the title given to this biographical novela based loosely on the life of my paternal grandmother Maggie Bailey.

Australians of this period were the "British born colonials". She emulated and embraced second-hand loyalties to a summer set that was entirely foreign to her. She wore her hair as high as her remote and aging queen. Her colonial credentials were adequate, but not the material for toffs and squatters. She was a protestant from a newer evangelical tradition ("Don't they ever dance?"). She was nothing if not devout, in her fervour to civilize the world. Maggie graduated as a midwife from the Fremantle Womens Hospital in 1915. Like many women of her era, she was deeply respectable, but followed the passionate course of one waiting to marry. She decided on missionary nursing. Following true form, in the era of red cross volunteer nurses, she did charity work and raised enough cash for her own passage. She arrived at the China inland mission in Ghizou province, China in 1917.

A few Australians are remembered at the Australian war memorial for overseas service, earlier in 1901, in China. Australia essentially followed British interests and promised troops to support and protect her majesties imperial island possession of Hong Kong. The real reason was probably interests in the and opium trade, again by association with Britain. The loyal martial-arts trained boxers of the imperial court reflected discontent over european extortion. The boxer rebellions were brutally repressed and a short peace allowed parks to be laid out in the expanding european compounds. Famously there was a sign in one of these parks that forbade dogs and chinamen. Chinese embassadors were treated like princes in the courts of europe, but this also came to no good. Empirial indifference lead to the eruption of several rebellions starting in 1911 and ending with the communist coup in 1921. My grandmother had deliberately walked into a civil war where she could do the most good. China was in the midst of a civil bloodbath to rival the great war in europe.

Maggie's later childhood was spent in arid wilderness of Western New South Wales. The wilderness was full of numinous indultae and bristling with raw Norman Lindsay characters. Pubescent Maggie shares a bathroom with a ruffian, where she finds a fresh gelatinous stain. Circumstances require her to enfold the stain within her pocket handkerchief. When intercepted, she confesses by showing it to her spinster teacher, who lives in fear of consumption and believes it to be suspicious phlegm. Maggie gets the day off. Unaccustomed to truancy, Maggie finds herself stalking a boy. She is noticed and changes her name to escape detection. Maggie does not like her name, the minister explains that it is a variation on MARY and holy, but a reason has emerged to change it and her second name is GRACE which sells the idea to the minister. The seed has been planted in Maggie that she will devote herself to the lord, and the mature novela begins.

What motivates maggie to nurse? Escaping rural squalor? Feeling restless and unable to settle for needle work and cooking? Pursuing a respectable avenue for women? Libidinous choice for a profitable marriage? Wanting to provide for herself in fear of being left on the shelf? Where did she develop her admiration for healthcare, and for medicine in particular? Was there an accident, crossed a floor to chat with a friend and got caught in the carrer queue that lead to nursing school? Had she seen a midwife on horseback and set her sights on her own steed? Pure misssionary zeal, a desire to wade amoung the needy minions, to be the writer of the recipe of eternal life? The twin desires, helping people with one hand while converting them with another were once held the same, but how did she reconcile them? Cash?


  • Edwards ealry life
  • Edward being trained as a missionary in the USA
  • Edwards USA credentials being rejected in Australia
  • Maggie being rejected on health grounds
  • a boat trip
  • three day palaquin ride from peking to Ghizhou
  • The worrying American missionary
  • the medal
  • the communists, fireworks, warfare
  • learning calligraphy
  • proposal and betrothal, only to discover rejection after fait accompli
  • Death of her sister Hazel
  • baptist reception in china
  • culture clash between feudal china and civilized 1900 medical technology
  • door of hope womens refuge
  • Husband being out of place in China
  • decision to return home
  • missionary work up North and the whole story of little italy
  • motorcycle missionaries
  • Maggie opening a cottage hospital (war pension meets deregulation)
  • working nights as a lunatic attendant when the last of the ginger beer was sold
  • Ginger beer years and learning to become a mental hospital stoker
  • the view from neutral bay
  • John, Faith, Courtship, Pat and Me

Amid wivesEdit

Maggie was different from her family. Maggie was quite unlike anybody she knew. Maggie had such a short stature that those in her household at times found it a struggle to accomodate. Her stumpy arms could bearly reach the top of her head and there did not seem to be clothing made to fit her. But her physical appearance was not as remarkable as her behaviour. Maggie simply had no regard for any time, consequence or person outside her immediate acquaintance.

It seemed Maggie was perpetually in trouble for the licentiousness of her habits. She had no capacity for anticipation. Every day new evidence emerged of the myopic ineptitiude of her planning. Food was one example. Maggie simply ate when she felt hungry. She took great relish in arriving ust as the rest of the table were about to embark on a meal. Maggie would insert herself between two chairs and start picking at other peoples food. It never occurred to anyone to stop her. It was Maggies way to be forgiven. Her face was so innocent that it was impossible to inspire malice.

On top of everything else, Maggie was very distractable and roamed about the house in search of novelty to engage her interest. If she were ever allowed to escape the house and the loving atention of those inside, the consequences might have been very frightening. She ate with a spoon, as she had trouble with forks. She was nimble enough when stroking, kissing and caressing her folk, but dropped enough that people were cautious of giving her crockery.

All of these things, together, might seem a nuisance. In truth her society did not seem to notice any inconvenience and the troubles she suffered were tiny in proportion to what she caused. The situation may have deteriorated, had it contrived to persist for longer, but fortunately everyone, most of all Maggie, knew that it would not last forever. Almost all of the incapacity which I have described can be blamed on the brevity of Maggie's existence in the world. In other words, Maggie was an infant. The story begins while our heroine is just two years of age. The scene in which she had landed on earth could have been prettier and were in some respects wanting. Nevertheless Maggie had such a tenacious propietary sense of her position in the universe. Her bearing gave even passing strangers a strong feeling of her destiny. She was a figurehead behind whom trailed a glorious spectral ship.

Leaving homeEdit

All the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, could not have conspired to deliver a more deliciously sinister beginning to our story. Against the tides of nature and despite the most earnest wishes of her ancestors away in the mist of old blighty across the sea was Maggies mother bought pregnant to a patch of earth in Kimberley. There was a reason for the foetus to arrive at such a place. This patch ofdirt was the same as all the other patches of dirt as far as the eye could see, in any direction. Land is cheap in the desert where nothing grows but children. A stain appeared on the earth. Maggie was born under four shadows.

The first shadow was the tiny Cape Colony that was to become modern South Africa. The Cape Colony was a British outpost of barely twenty thousand people. It was a tiny city struggling in every sense with pioneering challenge. Kimberley had no port access, so all goods had to be delivered by roads under taxation by tyrants. The port itself was frequented by untrustworthy aliens. They were mistrusted by French pirates and harangued by malevolent American sealers and whalers. The little natural water was never enough for their needs. The selection of Pioneers included convicts and many who had reasons to flee to the outskirts of empire. Some of them were innocent enough and they lived and scoured their living from the savannagh laced with scallywags and theives. While all around them, crackling dry brown Africa loomed. A county for wild animals and wilder people.

The second shadow was diamonds. It has be said that diamonds are a girl's best friend. Certainly in the South African city of Kimberley, where Maggie was born, this was not the case. Diamonds were the reason the British had occupied this territory in the first place. The DeBeers Mining company provided the only sanctuary, employer and something like stability. A few miserable tennants dared to scratch a living from the parched earth, but their grains were only in competition with imported biscuits from the many ships arriving to trade and take on supplies. These ships would avoid buying anything at Kimberley prices. The prices revolved around the diamonds and put the grain out of reach. The same diamonds that were the pioneers keep, arrested any other development. There was only De Beers mine and the diamonds.

The third shadow was never spoken. Anglicans built churches in Kimberley and made it known this was the only one holy and apostolic church: theirs. Maggie and her parents were methodist and had no church on which to fall in hard times. Times were hard. Amoung the many other denominations which might have opened shop and been accepted, there seemed little room for compromise. It was Anglican or nothing. The Anglicans used this to their advantage and preened promising society from amoung their congregation and suppressed all other. The bitterness of this intolerance had Maggie's parents looking at return to England. At least at home in the old country, there would be a church they could use to huddle against the petty prejudices of denomination. If you were to look in their window, at evening, before dinner, you might think they were a quaker family taking a silent prayer. In truth they were exhausted people who watched the steam curl up over their plates. Too frightened to declare themselves and too tired to fight back, they had to be content that this, at least, was methodist steam.

The fourth shadow was cast by Mars ascending. Within the year of her birth, tension between the British Cape Colony and the Dutch neighbours in the Orange Free State were turning sour. Britain began sending peace-keeprs to drill and train there. They prepared to challenge the Dutch pioneers for control of British South Africa. One day a group of coldstream guards in their bearskin caps came to thier village and bought every horse they could. For many farmers, this seemed a perfectly legitimate way to profit from security, but for Maggie's parents this was the last straw. They realized they had to leave quickly, or be embroiled in the Boer War. They took a map and looked at the far reaches of their grand empire in all shades of pink. They shyly enquired about Methodist colonists without any Diamonds or Belgianh Neighbours. They dreamed of romantic trysts in Colombia and the West Indies. When their enquiries were complete, Maggie's father donned a blindfold, spun himself three times in the cramped cottage and placed a pin into Australia.

Groan upEdit

By the age of ten, Maggie was herself a marvellous baker. A neighbour asked for all in the community to contribute to a spread for the wake of an unfortunate hermit. Maggie shamed all of her female neighbours publicly in church by chastising them. Consequently the role fell to her. She set about baking her favourite. She had developed a reputation for her strawberry short-cake. When a handsome fellow asked what was in the oven, she blurted out "...a short-straw burial cake". Moments of mirth were few enough. Rural drudgery seemed to interfere with God's plan to make a vessel of wrath out of Maggie.

The invasion of Australia by europeans is a mass migration for which meticulous written records exist. Shipping beurocrats account for every ounce of tonnage, and where the cargo was human, they often surpassed expectation by recording the occupation of the passengers in the manifest. We know that Edward, the earliest Darby to set foot on Australian soil, found himself alighting from the three masted barque "Fairlie" in Adelaide in ? date.

Maggies father kept an octogenarian dog to guard their little livestock holdings. The fox was introduced to Eastern Australia in the 1930's and was soon widespread. Nevertheless, the outback was plagued with native dingo dogs and opportunistic rodents. One night Maggie's father heard the hen-house in uproar. He took hus blunder-buss loaded with fine shot and wandered out to investigate. He was full of anticipation and roughly shouldered the weapon as he walked. On this occasion his night shirt had caught up and failed to cover his behind. The old dog following him was blind and deaf and even the dogs nose failied to stop him from colliding with his master. The marksman started at the intrusion of the dogs icy nose, squealed and pulled the trigger without aiming. Chicken graced the menu for weeks.
Ryanlerch female profile drawing

Occidental Trifle

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