The princess and the pyre: why royalty was no match for bush rats


Not long ago, my mother was moving from her home on a mountain river to a smaller place. A trunk was dragged from the shed. It had accompanied her from England in the ‘50s, containing memories of that English life. I’d known this trunk forever. When I was a boy, it was a pirate’s trunk and I worked at picking its locks and hammered at its hinges with no success. Recently, bush rats had made a hole and found brief profit in Mum’s memories, which were fouled and gnawed.


Under a winter’s cold blue sky, she raked a pile of sticks, bark and leaves together on a bank overlooking the river. She lit the pile and on went the button-eyed woollen doll. Then the rice paper love letters, still scented faintly with a dead boy’s first eau de cologne. Sheafs of pale blue Par Avion letters went black, pulsed orange and tumbled upward. Those Household Cavaliers, sporting waxed moustaches and regret at having missed the big show, they could turn a phrase.

Onto the fire went her ruined wedding dress, its waist small enough for a cartoon princess. On went the desiccated garlands from that day. On went strapped shoes and ragged stoles, the artefacts of a wartime girlhood and the post-war fashion years. And on went various felt hats, and a diary, items she’d guessed might be required for life in Australia. All the artefacts of a young life, an English coming of age, were lifted from the trunk, piece by piece, smiled at in wistful recognition, and pitched to the flames.

The air above the fire coiled as viscously as vodka and warped the mountainscape beyond and the manna gum leaves overhead chimed on one another in the updraft. Then another dress, off-white silk with a rose print, thin shoulder straps, nipped at the knee-length hem, a piece of 1950s haute couture from the cover of Tatler. Margaret Rose had liked it on her model so much she had asked Norman to let her keep it, as a gift from her princess. Onto the fire it went.

How strange life became for my mother soon after that royal gift was given: 1950s rural Australia, and always another child on the hip. Northern Victoria must have seemed like something spilled from a Steinbeck novel; sweet sherry in the ladies lounge at the pub, swagmen begging at the gate, the Indigenous camped under tin by the river … It wasn’t a world you could imagine from Norman Hartnell’s salon, where Brahms played on the Grundig Majestic turntable while beauties pirouetted for royalty.


By Christmas, she’ll have aced another three of The Age’s cryptic crosswords while lamenting her failing memory. And she’ll be 90. Twenty-three years in that life and 67 in this.