There was urgent shouting from the track leading towards his farmhouse. Digory Dunford squinted a pair of sun-creased eyes and peered outwards. He was on the wooden verandah of his modest home near the junction of Christmas Creek and the Macleay River, about 3 miles from Kempsey. Digory despised routine tasks like brushing his boots, but as he was resurrecting the leather from a dried-on cloak of khaki cow poop, he was interrupted by an agitated man running towards him.
By mid-morning, sunlight had finally pierced an early morning fog and clambered warmly over Digory Dunford’s 120 acres of lush kikuyu pasture on the rich alluvial Macleay River floodplains. His milking herd, 65 doe-eyed and gentle jersey cows, were enjoying the sun on their hides. White cattle egrets perched on the backs of a few of his herd, seeking flies and ticks in their symbiotic relationship. Heads down, cattle munched haughtily, chewed the cud, lifted their tails occasionally to splash noisily or defecate; it was the blissful cycle of daily life on a Macleay dairy farm in late 1968. They would be milked again in a few hours time, and were mostly disinterested in the antics of the man running towards the house from the farm-gate at the Pacific Highway 800 yards away.
“Have ya got a phone sir?” shouted the agitated intruder.
“Na… sorry mate. Is there a problem? Everything OK out there on the highway?”
“Yeah there’s a huge problem. My car’s broken down outside your farm-gate. For the life of me, I can’t re-start the bloody thing. Been tryin’ for 15 minutes, now the carby’s flooded. It’s crucial that I get my passenger into Kempsey. She’s late already. Can’t believe this has happened. She’s getting hysterical….”
“She havin’ a baby?” drawled Digory, arching one eyebrow inquisitively.
“Nah! Let me think… have ya got a car? Maybe we could borrow it … or you could drive us into Kempsey. It’s only 3 miles down the Frederickton straight. I’d pay you,” he pleaded, face alternating between waves of pale dread and flushed agitation.
“Sorry mate. The missus took the Holden into Kempsey this mornin’ to watch the parade, then do some grocery shopping. The parade shoulda started by now. She won’t be back until after lunch.”
“Bugger, bugger, bugger!” cursed the exasperated intruder. “The parade won’t be happening… We are the parade!”
Now it’s a well-known but tasteless joke for many travellers on the Pacific Highway that the best view of Kempsey is in their rear-view mirrors as they exit the town as quickly as possible and drive north along the poplar-tree lined straight towards Frederickton. Kempsey in 1968 is a sleepy rural service town which isn’t universally perceived as a beacon of high culture. But locals are quick to remind outsiders of their claims to fame:
The legendary Country and Western singer, Slim Dusty, had been born at Nulla Nulla Creek, a fair distance from Kempsey, but on the Upper Macleay River nevertheless.
The Wild One, Johnny O’Keefe, rock star of the 50s and 60s, had spent time in Kempsey Hospital in 1960 following a head-on crash when his car had slammed into a truck outside the town. The surgical repairs to his head and hands had the imprimatur of Kempsey Hospital stitched all over them.
But the claim to arguably trump all was when a local 18 year old librarian, Penelope Plummer, had recently been crowned Miss World 1968 in a beauty pageant in London. She’d just returned to Australia and her parents’ farmhouse outside Smithtown, a few miles downriver. This morning’s grand parade in Kempsey, where Digory’s missus had gone, was to be a civic welcome home to Miss World. It was anticipated that thousands of residents would line the main street for the cavalcade. Maybe even some of those snooty residents of Port Macquarie might visit and grudgingly acknowledge “our Penny.” Cop that, Macksville and Nambucca residents.
“Not followin’ ya,” Digory drawled, a stub of self-rolled cigarette lifting up and down at the corner of a tobacco stained bottom lip.
Almost screeching now, the visitor implored, “Is there any way you can get us into Kempsey? Miss World… Penelope… is sitting in the broken-down car outside your gate at the moment. She’s apoplectic. The parade was meant to start 15 minutes ago and there’ll be thousands of disappointed people lining the street. She can’t walk the 3 miles in her gown and crown. Is there anything you can do to help us? I just ran past an old utility in the paddock. Does it still start?”
In an earlier incarnation, Digory’s “paddock basher” had been used for many years by a fruit and vegetable hawker in Kempsey prior to being deemed unregisterable and put out to pasture on Digory’s 120 acres. It was extensively damaged, rusted by the elements, had no working electrics or lights, and the upholstery had been thoroughly chewed over by generations of bush rats and other vermin. But, on a good day, it could be started… with a prayer. The column shift selector could only engage first gear, but it was useful for dropping hay bales or rolls of wire in paddocks or multiple other farm tasks. One or two piston rings were obviously broken; blue smoke billowed from its exhaust pipe as it burned copious quantities of oil. Digory only ever refilled this wreck with tins of used sump oil.
Concern about what the constabulary might think if they saw this wreck on the Pacific Highway, or any other public road, flooded through Digory’s mind. On the other hand, he was a conservative, rural man with a strong sense of occasion, propriety and loyalty to his town and its residents. He agreed to try to start the beast.
In a pother of blue smoke, they arrived at the farm gate in first gear. True to his word, blonde-haired Miss World was sitting in the broken-down Ford Falcon dabbing at her eyes with damp facial tissues.
“Shoulda bought a Holden,” mumbled Digory to no-one in particular.
He was quickly introduced to Miss World, and in reverence to her title, and the tiara on her head, Digory quickly whipped off his hat and bowed slightly.
“Pleased to meet you ma’am, “ he intoned.
Miss World, who had by now turned nineteen, ceased sniffling and smiled at Digory. “Hello… I’m not the queen you know… I’m just Penny from a farm about eight miles downriver from here.”
Without ceremony, Penny was transferred into the paddock basher. Digory found a hessian chaff bag in the back of the ute which he placed over the rat droppings on her side of the bench seat. There was no room for her minder. Emitting an aura of burnt oil, Miss World and Digory limped the three miles down the Frederickton straight in first gear, through an avenue of magnificent green poplars, towards the marshalling area that he had been directed towards adjacent to the town’s ambulance station.
Small towns love an occasion. This was Kempsey’s moment. A late-model, glistening convertible Pontiac was waiting at the western end of Belgrave St, near the railway crossing. The mayor, who would accompany Miss World down the length of Belgrave and Smith Streets through the few blocks of shopping centre, was already seated anxiously in the convertible, checking his watch repeatedly. Every student from Kempsey High School, Penny’s alma mater, lined the streets. There were hundreds, possibly thousands, of other residents lining the shopping centre, eager to welcome “our Penny” home and be part of history when Kempsey accepted the unofficial, and self-bestowed, mantle as ‘Cultural Capital of the North Coast.’
To reach the starting point of the parade, Digory needed to traverse the route from the opposite end. In a cloud of blue smoke, and the roar of an engine being thrashed in first gear, Digory and Miss World reached the main street. The crowds were craning their heads looking in the opposite direction in wild anticipation of the arrival of the official cavalcade. An unexpected staccato of exhaust backfires heralded their arrival from the opposite direction and heads began to turn.
“Hey there she is!” shouted someone in the crowd and now all heads craned towards Digory’s paddock basher.
The crowd began roaring and waving enthusiastically. There was a melee of calls and wolf whistles.
“Welcome home Penny.”
“Congratulations, Penny, you done it.”
“We love ya Penny.”
“So whadda we do now ma’am?” asked Digory, cigarette stub firmly stuck to his lip and oscillating wildly.
“Just wave. We need to go past the whole crowd just to get into the official convertible and do it all again. Wave, Digory. Soak it up. I’m just incredibly relieved to even be here. Thank you.”
There were no windows to wind down in the wreck, there wasn’t even a horn to pound, but Digory’s and Miss World’s arms wildly acknowledged the roaring crowd right through the shopping centre. Despite the din, Digory overheard a familiar piercing shriek of excitement as he passed by Barsby’s department store. Hearing his name screamed out, he swung his head towards the direction it came from. Briefly his eyes met his missus’ disbelieving eyes as the old paddock basher surged onwards. He would explain later.
By the time they arrived at the Pontiac convertible to commence the official parade with the mayor, many of the crowd began dispersing. They’d seen who they came to see, and had roared their approval. Teachers had begun marshalling school students for their walks back to their schools. The Macleay Argus had taken extensive photographs of Miss World and Digory in the paddock basher, the constabulary had asked questions but sagely turned a blind eye, reporters from the newly created Channel Ten in Coffs Harbour had interviewed Penelope and Digory on TV. Miss World 1968 had come from sleepy Kempsey, and Miss World had returned to acknowledge her home town and its people. And Digory Dunford had relished his five minute brush with fame in the cultural capital of the North Coast of NSW.
Post Script: The veracity of this recount hinges upon Digory Dunford’s retelling of the event. Readers are cautioned to winnow the chaff of fantasy from the grains of reality. Fact-checking may unearth historical variations and alternate truths.