Mateship with Birds is a clever title for this book. While’ bird’ can mean both the winged variety and in slang, a sexually attractive woman, ‘mateship’ draws on dual meanings too: mating – finding a mate, courtship rituals and mating for life; and also the Australian notion of mateship – meaning a special kind of friendship: laconic, but loyal: an indivisible, enduring bond between equals. In an Australian bush town in the 1950s, the wooing of a woman is more complex than the instinctive courtship of birds, but if it succeeds, the down-to-earth relationship that emerges is solid and strong, a mateship for life. But how best can a lonely man achieve it? A slow, careful campaign that shows what a great father he’d be? Or give in to instinct and be a lover, as the birds do?
Harry is a dairy farmer and Betty is an aged-care nurse who’s escaped to the country with her two fatherless children, Michael and Little Hazel. She is fiercely independent but a neighbourly relationship has developed. She binds up Harry’s occasional cuts and bruises and gets him through a kidney attack; he lends a hand around the house every now and again. But there’s reserve between them, with feelings unexpressed and much unsaid.
After a few years they have the impression that Harry is always there, but in fact he is only ever there in small snatches – a meal, the delivery of a particular item, collecting Michael to help with the cows. The operations of the family are attractive to him, but also unsettling. When he’s invited to tea he leaves immediately the meal is finished, as if unsure of what happens next. (p16)
Harry’s passion is bird-watching, and through a journal in verse, we learn about the activities of a family of kookaburras throughout the year: Mum, Dad, Club-Toe and Tiny. Harry’s ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’, written in an old milk ledger to share with Michael, records the cycle of life: birth, death, and wooing. The birds have family squabbles but they unite against an intruder. They share the work of hunting and caring for the young. Harry attributes emotion to them too: there is love and loyalty; jealousy and sulking; hesitation and fear of the unknown.
The parallels with the human misfits hesitating to form a family are cunningly woven into the story, and there are some lovely images in these verse passages:
It seems plausible to consider
That birds were the architects for trees.
or a fork,
for every nesting cradle; a branch for every grip.
And they designed a structure
to which insects are naturally attracted
like women to the shops. (p135)
One of my favourite moments in Harry’s slow adoption of Betty’s kids is his act of kindness for Little Hazel. There’s a school holiday camp to see the snow at Mt Baw Baw, and the girl has never seen the snow. But it’s accepted that she can’t go. Tiffany doesn’t labour the point but the condition of the house shows that there is no spare money for school trips: when it’s ‘nippy’ in the winter in the sleep-out – ‘a closed-in section of the verandah with timber boards halfway up the walls and louvred aluminium windows above them’ – Little Hazel ‘buries her head under the blankets to get to sleep and often wakes in the morning with an earache from the draught’ (p103). But Harry, unasked, waits till Little Hazel is at school and then – using the legendary Aussie ingenuity for adapting things and ‘making do’ – makes a wonderland of snow in Little Hazel’s bedroom using kapok from a pillow. (A pillow that he says is just an old one. But Betty buys him a replacement one at the co-op anyway. She knows).
So things are looking good. But oh dear, Harry, whose own experiences of learning about women and wooing began badly with a vague and confusing sex education lesson from the vicar and ended with a failed marriage, thinks it might be a good idea to teach Michael about the ‘birds and the bees’. And to say that his efforts are clumsy is an understatement, and Betty is not best pleased when she finds out about it!
You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out if they sort it out.
© Lisa Hill
Author: Carrie Tiffany
Title: Mateship with Birds
Publisher: Picador, 2011
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $19.99.
Mateship with Birds