(c) Julie Boyd
When the Meeniyan pub changed its name to the Rose and Thistle- complete with new signs – the locals knew something was up. Rumours had flown around the district for months, but when the new signs went up and the local servo suddenly became the ‘Rainbow End Service Station’, the ABC crew rolled into town to film the TV series, Bed of Roses.
Meeniyan is a tiny, picturesque hamlet deep in the sleepy countryside of South Gippsland in Victoria. Surrounded by rolling green hills and paddocks full of contented cows, most people stop for a look before turning one way through to the magnificence that is ‘The Prom’ i.e. Wilson’s Promontory, or the other way to the industrial and open cut wasteland that is the Latrobe Valley. The median strip is shaded by mature trees and is the home of the war memorial, drinking fountain and picnic tables, with connecting footpaths and flower beds according to the local tourism blurb.
Meeniyan has, for many years, been the home of artists and artisans. In the main street fine jewellers rub shoulders with small galleries. The local supermarket used to be a favourite meeting place but it burned down in mysterious circumstances a couple of years ago, and hasn’t been rebuilt. Fortunately, the lady who used to run it has now opened a deli which looks like becoming the new ‘in’ place to be.
Like all country towns, dig a fraction below the surface and you find a seething mass of humanity known as the locals, with all the characters that country towns tend to feature.
Most of them congregate at the footy club, the pub or the bowls club, which could well have been the inspiration for the movie ‘Crackerjack’, and may, in fact, provide the perfect setting for a sequel. As Sylvie Jones says ‘the bowling club has 75 members, that’s the average age and IQ, and their names are like a cast list from Muriel’s Wedding.’
My Auntie Lorna, used to play bowls there back in the 1960’s. Then, the greens were made of rubber. They were ok for a while, but when the rubber started to get old and crack, the bowls bounced around a bit like bocce. She recalls being made to kneel down, much like we used to have to at boarding school, to make sure her skirt touched the ground. Lady Presidents ruled with an iron fist. In the clubhouse it wasn’t ‘done’ to remove your hat before Madame President removed hers.
Mollie Jacobs and her mates made a stand for women’s lib in the 1970’s when they became fed up with ‘ladies rules’ so they started their own club right next door to the blokes. Of course it wasn’t long before some of the blokes wanted to come over and join them. For example, Clive Cocking – the only gay guy in the club who is pushing 70. He lives with John Hope, a local solicitor who, as fate would have it, handled my divorce years ago. They’ve apparently been an item for decades, but I had no idea either of them were gay back then. John has three sons and several grandchildren. The first time Sylvie Jones played bowls with him she had no idea he was gay, so she asked, as you do, ‘G’day mate. You married? Got kids? Divorced? Grandkids?’ She later commented ‘Someone said to me afterwards ‘you know he’s gay.’ I didn’t have a clue, but I guess once you have kids you’re caught in the parent trap until you can escape.’
Even given all of the antics of the women, they were still treated like second class citizens until very recently. The Victorian Ladies Lawn Bowlers are the ladies, and Victorian Lawn Bowlers is the men’s division – they both have different rules. They have had separate administrations for decades, so the duplication has been ludicrous. But they’re now in the process of unification. In Sylvie Jones view ‘I don’t know how they’ll go, as the women spend hours discussing the most trivial shit. Last week they spent 45 minutes discussing whether to serve gravy on the cold meat at the Xmas dinner this year. It’s only July for goodness sake. It all got a bit much for me so I shut them all up by saying – don’t all men prefer their meat wet? You could’ve heard a pin drop in the room, and they sure changed the subject quickly.’
Sylvie prefers to play with the blokes. She plays pennant, and has achieved her life goal of winning a meat tray in the men’s comp, which of course is anathema to the other women in the club. As she says, ‘Cheryl Hanks does too. She’s a gun bowler. I lead for her in Division One pennant. She’s forever telling dirty jokes and they think she’s outrageous, but she’s paled a bit since I came along.’
Sylvie’s entre into men’s bowls was not without incident of course. As she relates it ‘ I was standing there with a group of blokes including Russell Runnymeade, wearing my husband’s basketball t shirt that had the writing ‘Myths and Legends’ at nipple level. Old Tommy Pallizano who’s 80 and had run off to Queensland last year with a 50 year old, came over and groped my boobs- in front of everyone, while asking ‘where does that come from?’ Just as well it was me he did it to or he might be up on assault charges. I just added a slight edge of menace in my voice when I said to him ‘Do that again and you’ll be singing soprano, sweetheart. I haven’t had any trouble since.’ The other poor blokes were really embarrassed. Russell said to me, ‘I’m so sorry. I’ve never seen him do that. I know he’s a dirty old man but that’s just not on.’
Sylvie went on to explain ‘There‘s all sorts of politics in bowls. This winter they only use locals as fill-ins. I suspect I’m top of the list as the preferred one. In the pennant comp the men got relegated from Division 1 to 2 and they have to be really desperate before they’ll put a woman into Division 2. Women play women and men play men and never the twain shall meet. But I’m not there to win a popularity contest – I don’t care. Deidre Van Wamell can’t stand me, but that’s ok, I’ve got her measure. I told Doreen Mortlock the other day that Deidre’ll step inside my personal space once too often, and then she’ll wear it. Bloody Deidre, she’s ‘raised’ my name twice, in my absence, at ladies meetings, the bitch, by complaining about the language of a member not present. Of course she waited until I’d just left the room. She hates me because I don’t hold back with my opinions and I can’t stand corporate bowls, one of her pet projects.’
Corporate bowls is like barefoot bowls but for the locals. Over six weeks the local real estate agent, chemist, builder, agribusiness and footy club all put in teams. Then they all get drunk and it just degenerates. They love their bar sales, so it’s not really about recruitment at all. The women start off with a glass of wine at each end and by halfway through the afternoon they are totally obnoxious. Break every rule in the book and are the world’s leading experts. It’s awful, and Sylvie wants nothing to do with it. She’s into serious bowling. The Gold Medal she won at the Masters Games on the Gold Coast last year scored us free celebratory meals and drinks along Cavill Avenue as we walked along after the finals, Sylvie flashing the medal at everyone.
Fund raising is always an issue so when Sylvie suggested a nude calendar a la ‘Calendar Girls’ it was bizarre. She had photographers lined up and had done her homework but told the ladies ‘if this is to be a success, then in this early stage secrecy is really important’, so it’s never been raised again – and no one has ever asked her if this is going to go ahead. A couple were supportive – June McAdam who used to be a model and is 80 was very enthusiastic, with her ‘well of course, if we go ahead with this it will require a makeover before the shoot won’t it Sylvie, so count me in ‘. Sylvie responded with a straight face, ‘I’m sure that can be arranged’. Most, like Pat Poklinghorne, were appalled. She was the woman who said to Sylvie, ‘I’ve lived in this district all my life and I’ve never heard of you. Are you married, Have children. Are they legitimate?’
‘Does it matter? I’ve been here since 1979 and I’m sure you’ll know my husband, he’s the local dentist- probably filled a few of your gaps. He’s also been footy club president and basketball president for about 20 years.’ ‘Oh.’ Pat didn’t quite know what to say.
On the day I visited, Sylvie was in the kitchen cooking and getting ready to go and meet Dulcie Meikle at the club. Dulcie is 85 and gorgeous – quietly unassuming and totally unflappable. The kind of elderly lady who would find it difficult to address my Aunt’s gardener, Mr Rockbottom by his name as it would be too rude. I asked her husband Neville, if she ever gets angry. ‘Nope, she’s the same as the first day I met her. She comes from a family of 7 girls and her sisters are all exactly the same.’
Sylvie had been asked to take on the club catering as she’s a brilliant cook, but in her usual manner she’d told them ‘You can’t afford me.’ Knowing her restaurant quality meals which have graced not only her own dining table but those of the Koonwarra store up the road, actually an old general store and school where my son first started when he was four years old, which has now become a well known deli, cafe and all round showcase for local produce, I asked if that’s what was on the menu for that day. She looked sideways at me and said ‘It’s not like the golf club where the ladies try to outdo each other in the casserole department. These are all Depression babies. Our budget is $1.50 per person.
As we walked out into the courtyard of Sylvie’s hilltop home where they’ve built a jetty out over the crest ‘so we’re ready when the climate change floods come,’ she looked across at the massive woodpile that feeds her slow combustion stove. ‘We’ve had more bloody wood stolen,’ she said. ‘Last time was a Monday – I was only playing bowls because Keith had called me at six on Sunday night to ask if I could fill in. Michael was at work. The bastards must know us. Last time we were in Melbourne overnight because Michael had his hand operated on. It’s freaky because it’s someone who knows our movements. I know others who’ve had wood stolen as well. They only take a ute-load because a trailer of red-gum would be conspicuous going through town. It’s the ‘creme de la crème’ of wood you know. The house is always unlocked, the shed is open and they don’t touch anything else. Took me hours to cut the stuff using that splitter that Michael gave me for Xmas.’
‘Have you told the cops?’ I asked. ‘Time before last I did – but he’s never there – he’s the phantom local cop. I have to leave a message in the speaker box. I left messages three times a day for five days – never even heard from him! It’s the unwritten golden rule of the bush that you never touch someone’s wood and you never touch their water. Bloody world isn’t what it used to be.’