The Kite

(Copyright 1999)

My family moved up north, away from the rest of my relatives, before I was born. As a result, uncles, aunts and cousins were seen only about once a year, when we made our dutiful Christmas trek south. I have one dim recollection of visiting my maternal Grandfather before he died, but that's all.

For me, when I was a child, the closest I had to real Grandparents were Gussie and Pop. They lived next door to us and were the oldest people I had ever known. Actually, only our parents and older siblings got to call them Gussie and Pop to their faces - my sister 'Nettie and I had to call them Mr and Mrs Gusterson.

'Nettie and I were scared of Gussie. She was a big woman and had that retired school-teacher look about her. If the neighbourhood kids were playing too loudly in the street, she'd appear at her front door and tell them to quit making a fuss or she'd "tan their backsides". Sometimes, she'd have a broom, which she would wave threateningly. She always seemed to be in a bad mood, especially where kids were concerned and we felt sorry for old Pop.

For his part, Pop never seemed to give her much heed. 'Nettie thought he was very brave for that. I thought he was more than a bit foolish. When Mum used to do her weekly baking, she'd always make an extra cake and get me to take it over to Gussie and Pop. I'd carefully walk down our rickety back steps, negotiate the fences and gates and knock on their back door. I always hoped Pop would answer but, invariably, it would be Gussie.

Gussie would take the cake and look disapprovingly at me through her thick spectacles. "I suppose you want a piece, then?" she'd ask, as if the thought of an eight-year-old and chocolate cake in her spotless kitchen filled her with dread. I'd nod, never really knowing whether this was the right answer.

Gussie would usher me into the kitchen and sit me down at the Laminex and chrome table. Pop would amble in from the sitting room, where he'd been reading the paper, and smile genially. Gussie would cut a huge slice from the still-warm cake and place it before me on one of her prized Wedgwood plates. I'd take tiny nibbles, petrified that I'd drop a crumb on the floor. Pop would wink at me and roll his eyes at Gussie when she turned her back. As soon as I'd finished, she'd whisk my plate away to the sink and furiously wipe the table in front of me. Dismissed, I would mumble goodbye and slink away.

Gussie and Pop's house was the neatest in the street. And the next street, for that matter. Looking at it today, its stuccoed brick exterior and flat roof seem strikingly out of place amongst the neighbouring weatherboard Queenslanders and 1950's fibro beach houses, but back then it was its neatness that made it stand out. It was painted cream with red trim and had an attached garage with huge wooden doors. Except for the footpath and a small rectangle of lawn at the front, its entire yard was concrete. This enormous expanse of hard surface was painted dark green, in strange imitation of real grass and Pop was always asking my dad, who was a painter, what was the best paving paint to buy.

Pop must have liked painting, because he was always doing it. At least that's what 'Nettie thought. I thought that it was Gussie's idea of punishment for him. Pop painted the concrete paving, he painted the house and he painted the roof. He even painted the chain wire fence to match the house, picking out centre diamond shapes in red paint.

Maybe it was the diamond shapes that gave my sister and I the idea to make a kite. Neither of us actually knew how to make a kite, but we did know they were diamond-shaped. It was a windy August day, and it all seemed simple in theory.

Dad always had a lot of timber scraps under the spider-web laced benches in his workshop. The heavy hardwood pieces were for the regular Sunday barbecues, but there was lots of pine kindling suitable for a kite frame. A couple of sheets of newspaper, a saucer of flour-and-water glue and we were soon ready to launch our creation into the winds.

Of course, it was a dismal failure. Despite the stiff sea breeze and me running as fast as I could, encouraged by the enthusiastic yells of my sister, our poor little kite simply bumped dejectedly along the asphalt roadway. I was close to tears as we sat in the gutter, chewing stalks of paspalum, Nettie with her arm around my shoulders to cheer me up. Suddenly, we heard the back screen-door open on Gussie's house. My sister and I looked nervously at each other.

"Foolish children. It won't fly without a tail, you know," she called out. "Bring it here - quickly!"

I don't know how long she'd been watching us, but she had a strange expression on her face - half angry and half sad. She gestured impatiently and I hurried over to her with the kite. She took it from me and inspected it critically.

"Hmmph! No too bad, I suppose. But you forgot a tail."

'Nettie came up beside me and looked shyly at Gussie. "We didn't know we needed one," she offered. "Can you help us make one?"

Gussie handed the kite back to me and reached into one of the huge pockets on the front of the apron she always wore. She withdrew her hand and out snaked a length of string with pieces of red ribbon tied in small bows at regular intervals. "This should do," she said.

"Oh, Mrs Gusterson, it's beautiful," exclaimed 'Nettie. "Thank you; I bet this is just what we need."

I tied the tail securely to the bottom of the kite. The wind had grown even stronger and as I held the kite aloft, it was snatched from my hands and the newspaper diamond soared into the sky.

"Wow! It works," I shouted. "Look at it go! How'd you get to know so much about kites Mrs Gusterson?"

Gussie didn't answer me. She stood looking up at the kite for a few minutes, then turned and walked back into the house. Pop had also been watching from the shadows of the doorway and walked out, closing the screen door softly behind him. He leaned over his neatly painted fence and rested his huge hands on the top rail. He too looked up at the kite for a while.

"Her dad used to fly kites with her when she was a little girl," he said at last. They lived on a property up on the Darling Downs. I'd sometimes see them on my way home from school - out in their big paddock behind the barn. He sure could make a good kite, her dad. All shapes they were - boxes, diamonds, triangles, you name it. He'd make them swoop and dive and Gussie would run about trying to catch hold of their tails. She had long blonde hair back then and I remember how it used to shine in the sun as she ran."

Pop glanced behind him at the doorway through which Gussie had disappeared, and smiled wistfully. "I guess that's when I fell in love with her."

Pop used his wrinkled hand to shade his eyes as he peered up at the kite tugging at the string in my hands. "Her dad went away to fight in the first world war and didn't come back. Gussie never flew kites after that."

I saw a sudden movement of the curtain in the kitchen window behind us as Gussie's hand let the lace fall back into position. A moment later, the screen door opened again and she walked slowly over to where Pop stood.

'Nettie reached out, took the string from my hand, and offered it to Gussie. She looked at 'Nettie for a moment, then slowly, hesitantly, took the ball of twine in her wrinkled, age-flecked hands. The wind was so strong I thought the kite might win its freedom, but Gussie held firm and the little diamond continued to duck and weave in the sky, its ribbon tail fluttering and flicking like an angry dragon.

As Nettie, Pop and I watched Gussie fly the kite, I thought, just for a second, that I caught a glimpse of a little six-year old girl, her bare feet stained green from the lush paddock grass and her long blonde hair blowing in the wind.

And, from the look on Pop's face, I think he saw it too.