My earliest memory concerns eating. It happened when I was still too young to sit at the table, not having yet turned two. I was the youngest member of an extended family who gathered together for “tea” on a Sunday evening. This weekly ritual involved four generations and took place at Cartref, a substantial red-brick residence in the respectable Melbourne suburb of Caulfield.
The house was built back in the days when houses had names, not just numbers, by my great grandfather, Sam Hollow. There was quite a clan at Cartref: five aunts and uncles of various generations. My parents and I lived immediately opposite, with another three Hollow descendants.
Two small dogs were part of our domestic circle: Bunty, an inoffensive silky terrier who lived on our side of the road, and Spotty, an energetic fox terrier who resided with my Auntie Irene opposite. With no children of her own, Auntie Irene doted on me – and on that dog. Perhaps that’s why Spotty and I never took to each other: it was a case of mutual jealousy. Spotty is not actually a part of the tableau I hold in my memory, but was certainly the critical off-stage presence.
On the Sunday night in question, I was in the cavernous dining room at Cartref. The big table was set for tea, but the various adults were clearly occupied elsewhere: women in the kitchen, men (I now surmise) in the billiards pavilion that graced the back yard. I was strapped into a high chair. It was gloomy and silent as I toyed with my tiny toddler spoon.
At last, an aunt appeared. She set an enamel plate in front of me. I inspected the chopped up food with an uncritical eye and, evidently deciding not to wait for my elders, reached for the spoon. Then, as I conveyed the first spoonful to my lips, all hell broke loose.
Wild-eyed and with apron strings flying, Auntie Irene burst through the double doors crying “Jan’s got Spotty’s dinner! Jan’s got Spotty’s dinner!” My spoon froze in mid-air. In the nick of time, the offending plate was snatched from the high-chair tray. I’m not sure, now, whether she was worried that I might eat something dangerous or (as is more likely) that poor Spotty would be deprived of his lovingly prepared chopped ox heart.
Fortunately, this experience failed to put me off food forever. Perhaps it even instilled in me a willingness to eat “variety meats” like brains, liver and kidneys. But I don’t think ox hearts have ever appeared on my plate again.