He Painted Cupids on Soup Plates
All lines of longitude converge at the Poles. The South Pole is at 90 degrees South latitude. The island of Tasmania lies at 42 degrees South latitude and at 147 degrees East longitude. All things considered, this is not an ideal location for the smallish heart-shaped piece of land (known as Tasmania, after the Dutch explorer who discovered it in 1642, the year the English Civil War began, the year Isaac Newton was born, the year Galileo died). It would have done well to have been islanded a few degrees further north, perhaps somewhere around 30 degrees, where it could bask in sunshine and perhaps grow breadfruit, who knows? These days, I suppose, now that the twenty-first century is here, with the rise of sea level and the rise of temperatures, it probably doesn’t need to move after all. But there it was in 1955, drifting in the chill of the Southern Ocean, and that is where the story of the man who painted cupids on soup plates has its centre, close by a town called Deloraine (named for Sir William Deloraine, a character in ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’ by Sir Walter Scott), on the banks of the Meander River (possibly named after the Meander in County Mayo).
The girls arrived at Melrose Abbey by car and coach in early February. They came driving along the avenue of silver poplars leading up to the front porch, a stately procession. The year was long ago, as I said, 1955, and the weather was really quite warm for this part of the world. The Misses MacVicker, one round and fat and jolly, one tall and thin and possibly dour, were there to greet the girls, standing as statues beneath the portico of the Georgian house built long ago, so long ago, by labourers who came to the remote spot on the Meander in the service of Josiah MacVicker, free settler, dairy farmer, husband of Moira, father of many sons and daughters. The history of the house, a Tasmanian landmark, was printed in the prospectus for Melrose Abbey Finishing School, a document devised by the jolly one, Veronica, with grammatical corrections by the possibly dour one, Harriet. By a little quirk of fate, Veronica was inclined to pessimism, whereas Harriet was an optimist, thus subverting their stereotypes.
And so the girls arrive, in 1955, to be finished by the Misses MacVicker. Wendy Archer, Jennifer Dabner, Myra Mandeville, Robyn Woodhouse, Yvette Bowen, Jacqueline Marsden, Sonya Jones and Princess Aldegonda of Naples. There was always a member of minor European royalty or aristocracy among the group, giving this school a cachet almost unknown to such places on the mainland of Australia. Harriet had a contact in London who was able to supply her with these desirable exotics. The other students were all Australian or Tasmanian, about sixteen years old, had survived the Second World War and the epidemics of polio and tuberculosis, and emerged more or less gleaming and healthy from their homes and schools to be polished and finished in the lovely fresh air behind the little town of Deloraine on the Meander, in the shadow (so to speak) of the rounded blue peaks of the Great Western Tiers.
They came here to be far from the troubles of the world, to be separated from the distraction of young men, to be prepared for Life, principally in all its highways and byways of the commerce of matrimony. Conversation and Skiing and Fishing and Gymnastics and Literature and French and Art (History, Theory and Practice) and Music (History, Theory and Practice) and Philosophy and Grooming and Deportment and Speech and Dance and Needlework and Cookery and Hospitality and Woodwork and Flower Arranging and Book-keeping and Typing plus Shorthand were promised. Such a wealth of knowledge and information was parceled up there at 42 degrees South, 147 degrees East. Students were free to choose their subjects, the only rule being that in the end they must graduate in at least eight different fields. You can see that it would be possible to achieve in, say Conversation, Skiing, Fishing, Grooming, Deportment, Speech, Dance, Art and leave Melrose with a Certificate of High Excellence.
Apart from the Misses MacVicker and their brother Keith who taught Art, and the French wife of a Polish sculptor, the staff consisted of four female MacVicker cousins who were variously trained in a broad range of subjects and who came in from the town of Deloraine most days. One of these cousins, Judith, had been to business training college in Melbourne, and managed the Royal Oak Hotel with her husband. She taught the Book-keeping and Typing and Shorthand. Belinda, another one, another cousin, taught the Cookery and Needlework, and also supplied the tartan wool dresses and heavy navy blue cloaks which were the principal uniform of Melrose Abbey. Nobody, with the exception of Veronica, who had spent a year at a mainland college for kindergarten teachers, had any background as a teacher, but their dedication to their students was unmistakable. Various girls from the town drifted in and out doing the cooking and the cleaning and systematically pilfering small items of clothing and jewellery. The garden and odd jobs were done by two old brothers called Jim and Jake and who were more or less interchangeable.
There had been some student failures, as is only natural. (Famously, a girl called Sunshine Feathers from Lower Snug in the south of the island had absconded with the barman from the Westbury Inn and they had ended up in Alice Springs from where her father went to reclaim her, only to have a heart attack and die. Sunshine never came home. She and the barman went to Lightning Ridge and were never really heard from again.) Girls came for two years and often left to travel to Europe for further broadening and buffing and polishing. (Who could need more, people wondered.) At the end of the two years another group would arrive to be greeted by the Misses MacVicker. Melrose Abbey had a high reputation for its choir, regularly taking out first prize in the eisteddfods which were celebrated in several towns throughout the island. Once the girls had been taken by boat to the famous mainland The Royal South Street Eisteddfod in chilly Ballarat, where they had again triumphed in their dark tartan dresses with huge white collars and emerald green pussy bows.
Above the lintel, over the heads of the Misses MacVicker as they stand there waiting to greet the group, carved into the golden stone are the words:
‘The way was long, the wind was cold,
The Minstrel was infirm and old’,
from “‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’”
And so they arrived, on that February morning, Wendy, Jennifer, Myra, Robyn, Yvette, Jacqueline, Sonya, Aldegonda. Aldegonda was accompanied by her own companion-chaperone, a young Swiss woman named Sofia who paid, it seemed, little attention to her charge, spending much of her time walking and attending to her own diet and general appearance. Chopped fruits and seeds, fresh air and exercise. She was perhaps handsome but not pretty, and spoke many languages. She was of a fidgety disposition, and always wore a fresh flower pinned to her blouse, and shiny neat brown pointed boots on her tiny feet. She and Aldegonda chattered to each other in Italian, but Sofia could switch back and forth with great facility into English or French. Her English resembled that of British royalty. Her French—who knows?
The girls themselves were fresh-faced and hopeful, bearing large suitcases and cabin trunks and tuck-boxes of fruit cake and sweet biscuits to sustain them through who knew what days and nights of finishing. Aldegonda’s tuck-box contained only slabs of nougat wrapped in rice paper and seven bottles of a rather inferior brandy which was placed in the wine cellar to be brought out on Sunday afternoons and shared. Sofia seemed to have an endless supply of her seeds and grains and also dried fruits which she took with her to the breakfast table She was evangelistic about this, and willing to share, although the only person interested was Yvette who was allergic to eggs. Myra, who was the class comedian, said eating Sofia’s breakfast food was like eating birds’ nests. Sunday was a day of indulgence. There was no religious content whatsoever at Melrose Abbey, the name of the place being purely literary, nostalgic and fantastical.
I could beat about the bush here, take you skiing and fishing and making patchwork quilts as a way of building suspense and red herrings, but I might as well tell you first up that brother Keith and companion Sofia caught each other’s eye. That is the something that happened in 1955 and it was most exciting for all concerned. Just like the girls, she was searching around among the boys from town and Jim and Jake and Keith for the promise of romance. Well, it was Keith. I have described Sofia, but I should also describe brother Keith.
Keith MacVicker, youngest child of the family, was born in 1930, and in 1938 he contracted infantile paralysis (or poliomyelitis). He survived the disease but his wasted limbs meant he would be crippled for the rest of his life. He was expert with his crutches, in the manner of story writer Alan Marshall. His skill with a paintbrush was legendary in the district, and his portraits, pictures of houses, and local landscapes graced many a wall and mantelpiece. He also did miniatures in oval silver frames, and decorated china. He was not really handsome, but he had a dazzling smile and a soft, perhaps seductive laugh. Those pilfering girls with their dusters and brooms were a little afraid of him, saying that his dark eyes could see right into your soul. They avoided him.
But the dark eyes lit upon companion Sofia, and Sofia’s heart softened. She began to take part in the painting classes alongside Aldegonda (who had quickly become known as Allie). The girls were always on the alert for any whiff of romance, and naturally they were aware of the chemistry between Sofia and Keith. He painted a little plate for Sofia, a plate with cupids on it. Allie alone denied the romance, maintaining that Sofia was simply being polite, and saying the others could not be expected to understand European manners. It is curious how the minder and the minded changed places, with Sofia at risk and Allie in charge. Well, truth to tell, Allie was jealous. That’s the thing here, the Neapolitan Princess felt she was losing Sofia who was her possession. She could not care less about Keith, no, she did not want him for herself; she wanted, owned, Sofia’s attention, and she had lost it to Keith.
Did Allie splash Sofia’s hand with boiling butter in the Cookery class? I think she did. Did Allie mix sawdust from Woodwork into Sofia’s breakfast cereal? She certainly did. Did Allie nick Sofia’s edelweiss pendant and throw it down the well? Yes. And one of the town girls took the blame, what’s more. Did Allie realise that her childish carry-on was counterproductive? No, she didn’t.
But then comes the day when they all went fly fishing with Harriet on the Meander. Willows drape the river’s edge. It is a bold afternoon. Harriet is like a rugged Scottish highlander with her canvas knapsack and her brilliant home-crafted flies. She has even succeeded, perhaps by virtue of her own passionate interest, in teaching the girls to fish. They are quiet and attentive. She catches a small trout. Wendy, who displays real talent, catches a large one. Myra gets her line snagged in a willow branch.
Sofia and Keith are sitting alone at the bend of the river, beneath a weeping willow, beside an old stone bridge, beside also the swiftly running waters of the meander. Out of sight, out of earshot.
Perhaps Allie had planned what happened next, perhaps she acted on impulse. She had left the others behind and crept along under the bridge to spy on Sofia and Keith.
Suddenly she threw herself fully clothed into the freezing water. Help! Oh Help! She called, and at the moment she meant it. What did she expect to happen? Did the stupid girl know how deep the water was? It was deep. Would Sofia jump in after her? Would Keith throw her a lifeline? What lifeline? Oh Harriet, Harriet, come quickly, quickly. But Harriet and the others are in fact far away; they do not hear the cries. Sofia ran towards the bridge, and in confusion stood stiffly on the edge as Aldegonda of Naples struggled in a panic in the river, her woolen skirt and jumper gradually taking on the water. She held on to a low overhanging tree branch, but it was very slippery and she would soon have to let go. Keith moved swiftly along the bank on his crutches until he was as close as he could get. He balanced on one crutch, leant over, extended the other crutch to the girl in the water.
Curiously, Myra seemed the most affected by the tragedy. She sought consolation in a convent in France and in her due course rose to be the mother superior. Sofia returned to Switzerland where she eventually married a prosperous inn-keeper. When Aldegonda’s horrified parents gathered their little daughter to their breasts, they asked her what had happened. She told them she had fallen into the river and the brave painter had saved her, but he had drowned. She explained that he did lovely china paintings, and she had in her luggage a little souvenir he had given her. It was a soup bowl decorated with pink ribbons and blue hearts and flying cupids. ‘It will always remind me of him,’ she said. ‘He was very well known for these soup plates with the cupids. It is very Tasmanian, very typical.’
First Published in Island (Tasmania)
Editors: Matthew Lamb and Rachel Edwards
Island is a quarterly magazine of ideas, writing, and culture. It started in 1979, initially under the banner of The Tasmanian Review, reflecting the magazine’s home and scope. But by 1981, after only five issues, and with its interests and scope becoming much broader, Island Magazine was born.
Island is now one of Australia’s leading literary magazines, tracing the contours of our national, and international culture, while still retaining a uniquely Tasmanian perspective.
Carmel Bird was born in Tasmania in 1940 and she has been publishing short fiction since the early 1960s. Her most recnet publication is a children's picture book Fabulous Finola Fox. She is working on her tenth novel, and on a non-fiction book about fairy tales. Find out more about her at her website.
This story was published in Issue 13 of The Literarian.