TILLY’S TEA-CHEST by Nadia King

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Tilly stares at the cardboard box perched innocuously on her dining table. Kent—Removals & Storage—for Peace of Mind is written on the sides in big block letters alongside Ada’s haphazard writing. Tilly tries not to be sentimental but she wishes it were at least a tea-chest. She remembers her mother unpacking a wooden tea-chest when they first moved to South Perth in the 1930s.

She wonders how a whole lifetime has come to one box. How can everything ever loved or lived through, be contained in such a flimsy holdall? The nursing home stipulated belongings other than luggage to be packed in a standard book and wine carton. ‘One’ was underlined along with the phrase ‘no exceptions’. Tilly reflects on the nursing home’s rules. She doesn’t like rules; she never has.

In 1938, when the family moved to South Perth, Tilly and her brothers went to the convent school on top of the hill. They walked to school through grey green scrub battling ants and snakes arriving dishevelled. Flats kids were scruffy. At least that’s what the nuns had said. It was different back then, Perth was young and less than ten years earlier had commemorated one hundred years of British settlement and there were strict classes of distinction.

She had held five-year-old Derek’s hand during the walk to school. He was the baby and carried a slingshot in his back pocket. Tilly was the only girl and had two older brothers; ten-year-old Michael, and Gerald who at fourteen, was apprenticed to Clayton’s Butcher Shop on the corner. Gerald hated the early mornings at Claytons and complained bitterly about the smell of meat and blood, but by his nineteenth birthday he was dead somewhere in France. In 1949, Michael, who had survived the War, met his demise when he was hit by a Perth trolleybus on St George’s Terrace. Tilly’s baby brother, Derek is still alive today. At a sprightly eighty-two, he sails a dinghy on the Swan River without a care in the world.

Eight-year old Tilly had watched her mother unwrap the best china from the tea-chest. Each cup and saucer wrapped carefully in yellowing pages of The Mirror. Her mother looked over at Tilly topping and ending runner beans for dinner her sharp frown creasing her brow.

‘Sister Agnes stopped me on Angelo Street today.’

Tilly paused in her leg swinging, concentrated carefully on the runner beans not daring to lift her eyes. She wouldn’t look at her mother, she couldn’t. She didn’t dare.

‘She had a few words to say about you, Matilda. Have you been playing cricket with the boys at lunchtime?’ Tilly nodded keeping her head down and her eyes on the beans.

‘You need to behave like a lady, Matilda.’

Occasionally, her mother would take her aside but her words never seemed to stick in Tilly’s mind. She reflected on this later, years later when she snuck out with her best friend, Edith. They danced with handsome smartly dressed American serviceman at the Embassy Ballroom—it’s where. Tilly met Jerry.

Jerry had taught her to jive. How Sister Agnes would have clicked her disapproval if she had ever had the chance to see Tilly jive at the Embassy. But Sister Agnes had been tucked safely up in bed at the convent and Tilly danced for the moment. It was wartime and there may not have been another moment. At least, not with Jerry. He might get into his PBY Catalina and get shot down by the yellow peril. Jerry told her Californian stories and ran his fingertips over her bare arms. Jerry kissed her once before he went back to the States. He was Tilly’s first love and his name was all over her Embassy dance card. It was the first thing to go into Tilly’s box.

Her mother had pulled out a silver teapot from the tea-chest holding it close to her chest. It had modern art deco ridges around its body and a wooden handle. It had been a wildly extravagant birthday present from Tilly’s father who drove the 27 tram and would pop home for a quick cuppa in the afternoons. When Tilly came home bursting with the news she was to start as a typist at the South Perth Road Board, they celebrated with a cup of tea from the pot. The pot is dull and the handle blackened but Tilly wraps it carefully in bubble wrap and puts it into the box.

In 1951, Ada arrived. She was a funny little pink figure who resembled a skinned rabbit. Lewis had picked her up in his big arms, looked into her baby dark eyes, and crooned. The other mothers in the ward had looked on enviously at this handsome man star-stuck by his firstborn. Tilly smiled smugly and thought she had this marriage thing down to a pat.

It was true; marriage with Lewis had been mostly happy. Lewis had kind eyes and a tenor voice. Sometimes he left to travel two hundred miles to log the Karri and Jarrah forests. But he always came back. Tilly picks up their wedding photo from 1950 running her fingers over Lewis’s face. Six years ago, he finally left her for good. Tilly keeps some of his ashes in a zip-lock plastic bag folded into neat squares and hidden away in Lewis’s old cigarette case. It’s her guilty secret. She couldn’t bear to leave all his remains at the bottom of the Swan.

The Swan River has been the backdrop to Tilly’s life. She paddled in it as a child, fished for blueys, and swum in it in her scratchy woollen bathers on blisteringly hot summer days. As a young mother, she had sat upright on the City ferry with a wicker pram while Ada gurgled happily. She watched black swans bring up their own families while she held Ada’s hand walking along the river’s banks.

There hadn’t been other children after Ada. Tilly casts aside miscarriages, preferring to remember Lewis’s long naked body under a white sheet instead. She remembers Lewis lying rakishly against the headboard, a cigarette dangling from his lips and his eyes glittering at her. Tilly lovingly lays Ada’s pink crochet baby bonnet over the cigarette case and tarnished silver framed wedding picture.

When Ada was five years old, they had walked up the Terrace to London Court to watch the clock strike eleven o’clock. Ada stood looking up with her thumb in her mouth, her big eyes wide and her red ribbon fluttered in the breeze. She turned to Tilly in delight and pointed up at the clock.

‘Mama did you see?’ Her cheeks were flushed with excitement and she pulled out the ribbon with chubby baby fingers to hold out to her mother. Tilly winds the red ribbon around her fingers. She has tried rubbing her age spots with lemon juice but they’re still on the backs of her hands and her knuckles seem larger than ever. The ribbon lies curled, the vibrant red in deep contrast to the soft pink of the baby bonnet. Maybe her mementos will fill one box after all.

There’s only Derek and Tilly now. Tilly’s father had died shortly after Tilly’s mother lost her hair, a breast, and finally her life in a quiet gasp in the summer of 1972. She was seventy-five years old and too young. Images of her parents dancing hover for a moment. They loved to waltz and sometimes danced the foxtrot. They rolled the carpet in the front room. Tilly had carefully placed the gramophone needle down and watched her parents hold each other as they danced around the room. Her mother’s hair swept up with soft tendrils around her face and an intense look of love for her tram driver. It was a look so private that Tilly had turned away embarrassed. She wraps her parent’s wedding bands in a navy-blue polka dot silk scarf. It was the one her mother would knot around her neck when out for the day. She ties up the ends of the scarf and hears a soft clink as the little bundle lands on her own silver-framed wedding picture.

Picking up a disarrayed pile of papers, Tilly grunts in dismay as a booklet slips from the pile falling to the ground. It reminds her of a rainy night in 1965 when she had sat in at an Anti-Vietnam War vigil at the Wesley Church in the City. She had pushed open the church door with the feeling that sitting in there for the night could be the most important thing she would ever do. Emotion had hammered in her chest so violently it was all she could do to contain it. She was vehemently opposed to the War that wasn’t ours and the conscription of Australia’s young men.

Two years later, she marched through the streets of Perth in a great crowd. Banners and placards waved in the air. She had shouted ‘Stop the War’ until she was hoarse. At home, she told Lewis all about the ‘Moratorium March’ as she eased her feet out of her shoes. He made her a cuppa and rubbed her shoulders. That night, they made fervent love, thankful Lewis could not be called up and they hadn’t a son to go to war.

Her relief was bitter sweet when Australian troops finally withdrew from Vietnam. She was racked with grief from the loss of her mother. She was empty. Emptier than she had ever been and she cried for her mother for months. She paused briefly in her grief to concede her father’s death. Although it was her mother’s face which lingered as her father’s coffin dropped slowly into the ground.

Tilly’s phone breaks the silence with its shrill noise. It whirls across the tabletop, vibrating and shaking to remind her to pick it up.

‘Are you ready Mum?’

‘Almost, Ada love. I’m trying to fill the box; whittle down my life for the nursing home.’

‘I’ll help you later ,Mum. Be ready. I’ll be at yours in half an hour.’

‘Okay, sweet pea.’

Tilly drops the pile of papers in the box. ‘I’ll need all those,’ she thinks.

‘And this.’ She drops in an opened jar of Vegemite first checking the seal on the lid.

‘I must hurry,’ she deliberates. ‘I want to be done when Ada comes or she’ll nose her way in and take over.’ Tilly slips in a full bottle of Bombay Sapphire, her Chanel No 5, and an unopened jar of olives. Her eyes rove around the room.

‘Nothing else. It’s all inside me.’

Tilly stands by the front door with her walking frame when Ada arrives. She has touched up her make-up and slipped on sensible shoes she never thought she would have to wear. They are lunching at Fraser’s with views over the City. A lunch to mark Tilly’s eighty-fifth birthday. Tilly privately dubs it her last supper. Next week, she’ll be a resident of the nursing home with rules she will break. Most likely, she will be crabby at first. She hopes they serve green tea with breakfast and she’s rather partial to avo on rye. She never thought her life would come to this — down to one box not a bit like her mother’s tea-chest and a head heavy with memories.


Australian author, Nadia L King, was born in Dublin, Ireland. Nadia is a YA author and short story writer. A second edition of her book, Jenna’s Truth is available from Serenity Press. Inspired by Amanda Todd’s tragic story of bullying, Jenna’s Truth is more than just a teen story it’s a lesson in empathy, self-awareness, and speaking out about what matters, especially bullying. Nadia lives with her family in Western Australia.

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