When Beria heard someone was selling-up she bought an oak china cabinet for £8. It sat in the corner of my bedroom displaying her fine bone
English china cups and saucers, none of which she used, and her collection of china ornaments, which I spent hours rearranging. Some were Christmas presents, others were won at the funfair which came to town every year. The full blown metallic magenta rose sat in a silver snow storm dome the size of large orange. The Dolly Varden figurine was six inches high. Her three-tiered skirt, the cover of her opened parasol, and the trim on the brim of her picture hat were made from layers of glued and lacquered pastel lace. My favourite was a water set – a jug and six glasses, all rimmed with a 24-carat gold band and made from lightly smoked brown fine crystal. Each glass and two sides of the jug were decorated in rough-relief, with the thick outline of a pink rose head. ‘I bought it at the Co-Op,’ Beria recalled. ‘Six pound I paid for it. I don’t think I ever used it. For years it sat in the china cabinet. I bought it when Joan was born in 1955. I knew Steve wouldn’t give me anything, so I bought myself a present. Ronnie love it. He used to get it out and stare at it.’
Nita and I shared a bedroom until Beria decided Nita was too old. She moved into Lewie’s bedroom and he slept on one end of the enclosed front verandah. He made a window over his bed by cutting a three-sided opening into the unlined galvanised iron wall. It was rolled up in the summer, and weighted down from the outside with a couple of heavy posts during the winter.
The front verandah had a green wooden stable door, the bottom half of which was always closed to help shut out the fine gravel and twigs of tumbleweed which blew in the wind. The yard was a mixture of gravel and small rocks, and apart from the vegetable garden there was no other greenery. The chicken-wire fence was slung between roughly dressed Mulga trunks and secured with roofing nails. The inside of the flimsy tin bath was painted with a pale green enamel which peeled off and floated on the water; consequently the bottom of the bath was rough and chaffed your bum.. Beria bought a chip burning bath heater. She conserved water and insisted we all use same bath, adding more hot as it was needed. Nita, who liked a very hot bath and came out looking like a lobster, always went first. Sometimes Beria sprinkled Rinso washing powder into the water, which I swirled around for a bubble bath. I didn’t have a bath every night but before Beria threw out the washing-up water she added a bit more hot, placed the tin dish on the floor in front of the fire, and I stood in it, rubbing one foot on top of the other. She ignored any mention of the grease and bits of food floating on the surface. ‘Stop complaining. They won’t kill you.’
The lavatory, chookhouse and woodheap were at one end of the yard and the washhouse, rainwater tank and the vegetable garden were on the sheltered side of the house. The washhouse was a wooden frame with a tin roof and torn double hessian walls. It had no door or window frames. The copper was free standing and floor crudely slung planks with gaps between. Two brass cold-water taps over the tin washing tubs were the only luxury. Beria physically hauled and carried the tubs to empty the used rinsing water onto the garden. The rainwater tank was coated with a lime wash, which hissed when you wet it. Steve watered the vegetable garden every afternoon, but it was Beria who did the weeding and sprinkled it with chicken manure. The rich soil was filled with giant earthworms and produced huge watermelons that cracked like a stock whip when you cut them, rockmelons that perfumed the hot air, fennel, peas, beans, red and white radishes, carrots, lettuce, Slav cabbage four feet tall, huge capsicums which we ate like apples, bushes of hot chillies, and tomatoes the size of a saucer. Beria was not allowed to have a flower garden. ‘Waste of time,’ Steve sneered. ‘You can’t eat them.’
And Be Home Before Dark is available from Collins Book sellers – or direct from Roland.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30 with Edwin Cowlishaw.