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