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I was visiting a lady some years ago, not long after her husband had passed away, when I noticed an old dust-stained Akubra hat hanging on the wall beside the door leading to the kitchen. I remembered the hat as belonging to her husband, and I wondered how long she would keep it there. Just recently I called again, and shouldn’t have been surprised to find the old hat still in its customary position on the wall. The significance of that old hat could not be underestimated, for it was a very real and physical link to who the owner was and what he had stood for, and I guess it was comforting to her to leave it there.

There’s something about a hat in that it can take on a persona of its own, and this old Akubra and the man who had worn it seemed to complement each other perfectly. Although I didn’t know him well I still recall having a few yarns at the odd barbecue and picnic, and that very hat, like an old companion, was never far away.

He and his wife had moved to town a year or two earlier, with mixed emotions. Their hearts were still out in their old farming country, but common sense had prevailed, leading to a life of relative ease in the suburbs. His hat had been purchased several months before their impending retirement, with just enough time to gather the dust and associated stains of a working man’s hat.

Every mark was like a badge of honour to the old bushman, a memory to cherish from a place he loved, and he wore that hat with pride.

Although his hat was the inspiration for ‘The Old Akubra’, the rest of my poem is not based on any real event. It is, however, a scenario that is entirely feasible and one that has been played out too many times. The death of my main character serves to illustrate just how devastating such a loss can be, and how the ramifications can affect those around him. His death is particularly hard on his wife; all their hopes and dreams of growing old together have been suddenly and irreversibly squandered, and she now faces the daunting prospect of spending those long years alone. Tragedy can strike at any time, at any age, and it is always terrible when it does. My tragic turn of events has occurred towards the end of a hard but successful working life, when thoughts should be turning to more leisurely pursuits. Alas, they instead turned to disaster.

The hat that inspired this poem retains pride of place on the wall, as though waiting for the old master to come home. It’s been there so long now that it’s become part of the house. To his widow it’s still the special link to a special man, but to anyone else it’s just ‘The Old Akubra’.

The Old Akubra

This story’s of a battered hat, his wife would like to share it

To recognise a bushman in the days he used to wear it

And while he may have shifted camp beyond the great unknown

His legacy’s still living through the qualities he’d shown

 

I met her in the kitchen at the entrance to the hall

And saw his old Akubra hanging there upon the wall

Among the finest trimmings and the fragrance and the scent

Just a dusty old Akubra, but I knew just what it meant

 

It clearly held a special spot within this woman’s heart

The last few years both man and hat had rarely been apart

Until that day, that dreadful day, they set out on their own

And while his spirit rode beside, his hat came back alone

 

The day he rode to wheel the lead, and took his fatal fall

They brought his old Akubra home, and hung it on the wall

Beside a coloured photograph that showed him in his prime

A good man taken far too young, and well before his time

 

I moved along the sacred wall and watched him all the while

The same old battered hat on top, the same familiar smile

And every single photo there to celebrate his life

Was taken, framed and cherished, by an ever-loving wife

 

We sat out on the garden seat and shared our thoughts of him

We watched the slowly setting sun, the daylight growing dim

Of all the old bush gentlemen, so patient and so kind

There’s never been a greater void, than that he left behind

 

She told me of their early years, their struggles with the banks

The endless work and low returns, with very little thanks

Until that day, that splendid day, he paid their mortgage down

He gave himself just one reward, a brand-new hat in town

 

At last they saw their way ahead, the path was bright and clear

They bought an extra piece of land, and built a homestead here

To carry on their long-held dream, to make it on their own

But now she had no heart or mind, to battle on alone

 

We watched the evening shadows as they settled on the land

Surrounded by her stories, and the future they had planned

Seemed his life for some odd reason had just simply run its course

And ended all too quickly, with that blessed bolting horse

 

He gave them everything he had, from underneath that hat

And still had so much more to give, I had no doubt of that

Financial independence with an open road ahead

And all those hundred little things, that’s better left unsaid

 

The hallway to the kitchen had become a sort of shrine

And that hat although uncanny was a replica of mine

I couldn’t help but wonder of the times that weren’t to be

When all so very often, it could have well been me

 

The western sun had faded to an eerie orange glow

When I had the sudden feeling it was time for me to go

That hat was him all over from the moment that I saw it

And I felt a bit nostalgic, for I knew the man who wore it.

Waltzing -australia (1)

This is an extract from Waltzing Australia by Tim Borthwick, published by ABC Books.

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