In 1952, after thirteen years of marriage, including the legally required three-years of separation, my father filed for divorce on the grounds of Beria’s adultery with Steve Salinovich, who was named as co-respondent. According to the divorce papers, my father ‘remonstrated with Beria about her behaviour towards, and her association with, the Co-Defendant Steve Salinovich. When she refused to end this association, he ordered her to leave the matrimonial home, and thereupon cohabitation ceased.’
Divorce was messy, expensive, and carried with it a social stigma. It was not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church and deemed a mortal sin, which the parish priests brazenly visited on the children. Children born of second marriages, which were not approved by the church, and deemed illegitimate.
Beria and my father were on civil terms and when she asked him for a divorce he agreed without argument. He was the innocent party but never once made a disparaging comment about Beria, nor we were involved in any tension which had been between them. When the papers were served on Beria, Lewie and Steve drove to Kalgoorlie to make arrangements with Beria’s solicitor, Mr Hartrey. The two men, both of whom were six feet and a bit, completed the seven-hour, 294-mile round trip over one weekend. Steve rode pillion on the strut-metal seat of Lewie’s Bantam motorbike, the smallest in the range, which resembled a bicycle fitted with a lawn mower engine. Perched on the metal seat with his knees up under his chin, Steve needed a pillow for seating protection as they bounced over the corrugated dirt road.
On Monday, 31 August 1953, the divorce case was heard in the Eastern Goldfields Circuit Court, Kalgoorlie, before Commissioner T.A. Draper Esq. Both my parents were in court but neither was required to take the stand. It was an uncomplicated, uncontested session with no disputes from either party. By law, Beria’s adultery made her the guilty party and liable for my father’s costs; however, he chose to pay his own legal fees. They had to wait another year before the marriage was finally dissolved, freeing both parties to marry again.
As Beria was leaving the Hannan Street courthouse she stumbled on the steps and snapped the high heel from her shoe. She turned to my father who was walking close behind, removed the damaged shoe, and, to my father’s consternation, threw it at him.
‘Now look what you have done. It’s your bloody fault!’ Beria was having none of it when Mr Hartrey later explained it would cost a further £25 for the court to make a custody decision.
‘You can bloody well go to hell. I’m telling you straight, I am not paying you another penny!’
With that she slammed down the receiver of the public telephone and the living and financial arrangements remained as they were before the divorce.
I could read by the time I turned four and was obsessed with the idea of at-tending school. I played schools on my own at home and was always the teacher. I tried to play it with other kids but they were not interested. I pestered Beria, pleading to be allowed to go to the convent with Nita. In 1951, Nita’s final year in primary school, Beria finally relented. ‘For God’s sake, Nita, will you ask Sister Mary Bertrand if she’ll take him? And you can tell Sister from me, I said he’s driving me mad about it. Every bloody day it’s the same thing; wanting to go to school. He won’t stop harping on it.’
Unofficially, I started school in the third term after the August holidays. I could not have been happier, trotting along beside Nita every morning for the remainder of the year. In 1952, six-months short of my fifth birthday; I was officially enrolled at the St Catherine’s Dominican Convent.
When asked if we knew any poetry I leapt to my feet, keen to share my repertoire taught me by Beria. They were poems she had learned during her years in the Salvation Army Children’s Home. I recited my favourite: ‘Dan, Dan the dirty man,
Washed his face in the frying pan.
Combed his hair the leg of the chair,
And told his mother he didn’t care.’
The next time my teacher met Beria, she suggested perhaps I should be taught more suitable poems in the future. Beria was puzzled. ‘I’m buggered if I know what she’s talking about.’
I was at the convent two years before Beria sent me to the state school. ‘They’re not teaching him fast enough.’ When a school report said ‘He has a keen interest and a wide general knowledge, but needs to learn to control his tongue, and moderate his language,’ I was baffled. Beria made no comment, and it was never investigated. I wondered if I had been confused with some other kid. I never swore, ever. Beria warned, ‘I’ll bloody well wash your mouth out with soap and water, and then I’ll give you a belting. And don’t think I won’t.’
And Be Home Before Dark is available from: Collins Booksellers Ballarat