The collector was a man named Alfred. He lived with his wife Emma in an old hotel on a bumpy dirt road below the blue hills of Talmalmo.
The hotel was built in the 1860s. It began as a coach stopover and provided the services of an inn. From Bowra to the head of the Murray, where the way was being made more and more accessible with every year that passed, it was the only licenced establishment. The hotel must have seemed at the time a worthwhile venture. There was a mining boom, and pastoralists were gaining a foothold. Some money could be made. It would serve a purpose, too. Coaches ran along the road outside its doors. People would stop and stay a night or two. There would be food, drinking, lounging on the verandah. You could take in the view, think of future prosperities. In its beginnings, the hotel would have been a welcomed site to travellers trying to get their drays through on the long haul to Albury. But with the uncertainty of making a living on surrounding runs, and by the very remoteness of its location and so little settlement, the hotel would never produce a great deal of profit. It would always be a lonely hotel. Yet the beer kept coming, well into the next century. Brewery listings dating back to the 1920s record an ongoing supply to the hotel. But it would dwindle. Alf, who bought the hotel with Emma in 1946, could get what he needed himself, in his mustard-coloured ute, driving the hour or so to Albury for the kegs.
Alfred, or Alf to everyone who knew him, had transformed the hotel barroom into a private museum. It became a kind of Wunderkammer, a room crammed full of wonders and curios. Step in, have a drink, listen to Alf tell his jokes and stories, and while you’re at it, pick an object, any object, and ask about its history.
Alf’s barroom was also a kind of bush museum. Look up! Look up and you would see on the ceiling the jaws of a shark, crocodile skins and a stuffed goanna. Around the walls and on shelves there were Aboriginal and New Guinean artefacts; there were rifles, pistols, daggers, swords, a collection of pipes from around the world, shells, bullets, drums, spears, tankards, porcelain figurines, medicine-man stones, a joystick out of a Japanese Zero, an indicator from a submarine and, if that wasn’t enough, the long saw from a sawfish. On one of the shelves behind the large oak counter Alf kept a fisherman’s ruler, which ‘naturally tells lies,’ and there was a tiny slug of printer’s metal on which was engraved the Lord’s Prayer. A framed photograph of the monoplane the Southern Cross hung on the wall above the shelves. The tooth of a mastodon, a relic of the ice age, was used as a doorstop, and a print of the Mona Lisa was stuck to the back of the door. Of all the wonders and curios, however, Alf’s favourite was his collection of hats. They hung in a back room just behind the bar and included a silk topper, a fez, a beaver Paris beau, a boater, a fedora, a slouch, and a yarmulke. Next to these, on the wall, there was a miner’s helmet, a gas mask from the Great War, a Communist Chinese soldier’s cap and many wigs. When people visited Alf would come out to greet them in one of the wigs, or in a hat or the gas mask — sometimes all three.
On each new visit you could fix upon something you hadn’t noticed before. There seemed no end to the marvels in that room. Each object contained within it an unfolding story. Each had a material past, had come from somewhere and from someone. Alf knew all this. The room and he together. Appearing in the room he disappeared, too, into a multitude of narratives, into the stories of the past contained within the curios and the people who had ushered their existence into the room.
Then, after all this was said and done, after decades running the hotel and being in his barroom, quick changing in hats, masks and wigs, telling his stories while staring out through the barroom window across the paddocks into the deep expanse of the country, down to the winding brown river and the hills in the distance where his eyes would rest and never grow weary, Alf had a heart attack on his tractor and died. Emma was left alone at the old hotel. Hearing the news, many people rushed to the place and looted the curios. What was left, what Emma saw before her, went to a museum. But to this day many items are still locked away from inquisitive eyes, for fear that someone, or someone’s descendant, may return to reclaim them.