When I think of Robert Stewart, I can almost taste the tooth-ache sweet blackcurrant cordial. It was always poured into my tiny porcelain teacups from a glass pot with a green plastic lid that attached with a concertina of plastic. It had a spout that opened with a button, and in my head, I can still hear the ‘thunk’ of the lid as I poured the cordial out.
Robert Stewart was good company because he liked to play all the same games that I did. He also took the blame when I did things that were a bit naughty, like the time I didn’t want to have a nap and instead pulled all the tissues out of an extra large box of Kleenex.
The tissues fell around the room like snow, and it was fun until Nan came in. When I saw the look of horror on her face, I pre-empted her anger with: “It wasn’t me, Nanny, it was Robert Stewart.”
In case you hadn’t already worked it out, Robert Stewart was my imaginary friend, as was his puppy.
I don’t remember getting into trouble that time, or any other time I was naughty at Nanny’s house, but I do remember her telling that story to people all my life. She would talk about how the tissues covered the bedroom like snow, about how it was a brand new box so it was especially full, and how her little granddaughter told her about her imaginary friend.
I have a good imagination, but I’ve also always been a realist, so pretty much every aspect of Robert Stewart came from something I’d seen. His name was clearly taken from the Tasmanian farming supply company that advertised a lot on TV, Roberts Stewarts. But it was where his face came from that my family found the most interesting.
He was the blond, cherubic boy who featured on top of one of my nan’s many biscuit tins. This one:
In my stories, Robert Stewart lived in her pantry, which was how Nan figured out that he was the boy off the tin.
While I feel like that story is worth writing about as a memory anyway — the fact that I spent so much time in Nan’s pantry eating biscuits that my imaginary friend lived there on a biscuit tin speaks volumes about my relationship with her. But that’s not where the story ends.
When Nan was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2014, I flew down to have a visit with her. She spent a lot of time talking through her fond memories of biscuit tins and tissues like snow, but she also asked me if there were any of her things that I wanted to take with me.
I asked for two things, a burgundy velvet dressing gown, and Robert Stewart.
But unfortunately, both of those things had become victims of Nan’s ferocious pre-death de-cluttering and were lost to St Vinnie’s. And so the story of Robert Stewart went back to just being a story, not so often thought of now that Nan’s been gone for almost two years.
But not so long ago, I started thinking about Robert Stewart again.
My mum tagged me in a Facebook post for The Funky Pickers Shed in Victoria and when I followed the link, she’d tagged me in a listing of a red biscuit tin with a boy and a dog on the top. My tin. My Robert Stewart.
When you collect antiques, there are some things you need to think about and there are others that you buy without considering the price or any other thought. I wrote SOLD on the post and a week later, Robert Stewart arrived in my parcel locker and I was staging pancake parties at my place while Robert and his puppy looked on.
I’m choosing to believe that this is my Robert Stewart who lived in Nan’s pantry in Wynyard. The Funky Pickers Shed is in Victoria, so it’s not too hard to imagine that it went from a St Vinnie’s in Tasmania, across the Strait to Melbourne. Pickers do that all the time, people visit Tassie and import treasures to the mainland, and special antiques do sometimes find their way back into the hands of people who will treasure them.
Of course, I would have always had the memories of summer days in Nan’s backyard, of blackcurrant cordial, the jug with a green lid, tissues like snow, and her barely concealed smile when she opened the door on my imaginary friend’s mess. But now I have the object to go with the story, and that’s pretty special too.