My great-aunt Agnes was a pain in the arse; possibly even a grumpy old hag.
At least that’s what I thought when I was seven years old.
As a family we visited her house a number of times be before she died, aged 103.
I was too young to go to the funeral.
I stayed home and played with my Matchbox car collection, and kicked a football in the backyard with my older cousin who was designated to keep and eye on me.
Great Aunt Agnes smelt nice, which was unusual.
When you are a kid old people smell strange.
My world was full of old people at the time, and thinking about them now memories of antique dust, woollen jumpers, eucalyptus lollies, disapproval, annoyance, mothballs, walking sticks, furniture polish and old dogs, come flooding back.
Great aunt Agnes had a walking stick and I’m pretty sure that she poked me with it at least once — possibly twice.
She obviously liked expensive perfume and she had a great name— Agnes. In all my many years I’ve only known two people named Agnes, and only one of them actually existed. The non-existent one was really named Rachael. Her brother was my friend and he nicknamed her Agnes just to annoy her — it worked, so he kept it going. I was never sure why she was insulted by being called Agnes, I liked the name.
I didn’t realise how cool my great-aunt Agnes was — I was young.
All little boys love pirates — Captain Blood, Bluebeard, Captain Hook. They all spell adventure, but they all lived so long ago; so far from the world of a twentieth century little boy.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Great aunt Agnes had a huge, carved wooden box at the end of her enormous bed. The lid was almost too heavy for a young boy to lift, but not quite.
All small children are born with an inbuilt sense of the right time to go exploring. My great-aunt would produce the ‘good china tea service’ and brew a pot of fragrant tea. Plates of biscuits and cakes would magically appear and I knew better than to reach for one of these sweet delights before the adults had placed a selection on matching plates and had begun to sip from their elegant cups.
There was always the temptation to hang around for ‘seconds’, but if I did that I would miss ‘the moment’.
The moment when all parents feel that their children are displaying the appropriate behaviour for visiting relatives.
The window of opportunity was small and the possibility of adventure beckoned.
Great aunt Agnes’s bedroom was at the other end of the hall and the box at the end of the bed was full of wondrous things but most of them were incomprehensible to a seven-year old boy.
One item caught my eye.
It was a tattered old journal.
The leather-bound hard cover looked like it had been dragged behind a horse and cart, the way that cowboys often were on TV.
It was thick and heavy and the page edges were marbled so that when the book was closed there was a swirly, colourful pattern visible.
I’d never seen such a book.
I opened the cover and inhaled that beautiful dusty book smell that all lovers of old books will recognise.
Inside the front cover there was an ornate ‘ex libris’ plate. The script was probably in Latin but I recognised the name Agnes Annabel Leigh. My great aunt’s name was Armstrong, just like mine, but I was old enough to know that women changed their surname when they married.
This journal was from a time before she married my great-uncle, who had died many years before I was born.
The first page was blank but the next page contained the beginning of a story about a girl who falls in love an impoverished young man — not exactly interesting for a seven-year old boy, but it did occur to me that there might be other stories that would appeal to me.
The next story was also about another girl falling in love followed by a story about a horse, which was a bit more interesting, followed by a story about a cruel aunt and an orphaned little girl — boring!
Then I hit the motherload; a story about a pirate — bingo, now we’re talking.
I almost skipped over it because I was expecting more of the same.
But no, it really was a story about a pirate.
There was a note at the beginning saying that the story was inspired by letters my aunt had read which belonged to one of her ancestors.
She had an ancestor who fell in love with a pirate?
It didn’t take me long to work out that this meant that I was related to someone who fell in love with a pirate.
My seven-year old brain was well advanced for its age but it was not up to imagining little illegitimate pirate children running around on the Poop Deck — but I am.
The story was long and exciting and I hung on every sentence.
Despite my fear of being discovered by my parents or my great aunt, I was instantly transported into the story; probably as one of the pirate ship’s crew.
I was prepared to put up with all the ‘lovey-dovey’ stuff because the story was so well written and the descriptions were dripping with salty spray. I imagined my callused hands from pulling on the wet ropes. I could hear the songs that the crew members sang. I could taste the salty food and I could feel the roll of the ship.
I didn’t get caught but it broke my heart having to put the book back in the box.
There were more stories to read and I wanted to know more about my pirate consorting ancestor.
But, not long after my discovery, my great-aunt died and I had missed my opportunity to ask her about her youthful writing pursuits. I never got to find out why she wrote such exciting stories and never showed them to anyone. I never found out why the journal was so heavily worn. Did she take it out every night and read about young love and salty adventures?
I couldn’t bring up the subject with my parents without giving myself away.
I was too young to know what happened next but I guess that my great aunt’s stuff got divided up or thrown out; that’s usually what happens. I never found out who got the big wooden box and when I bought up the subject many years later, no one seemed to know.
Some idiot relative probably sold the box to a dealer and threw out the contents. My pirate story most likely ended up as land fill. I can see the pages fluttering in the cool afternoon breeze.
So much of life is luck.
I found the stories but was too young to be able to do anything about it. My great aunt’s talent lay hidden in a trunk because she was born at a time when women were not expected to do anything other than look after their boring husbands.
Not everyone can lay claim to a pirate as an ancestor; I can but I just can’t prove it.
Once a year, at about this time, I celebrate ‘talk like a pirate day’.
Everyone has a great time and a lot of parrot jokes do the rounds, but for me it means a lot more.
Once a year my timbers are shivered and my plank gets walked.
Great aunt Agnes might have been a grumpy old bastard, but she had a very good reason for being that way, and somewhere there is a pirate who is wondering why no one remembers him.