And Be Home Before Dark – a childhood on the edge of nowhere.
The situation at home was tense when Beria returned from Kalgoorlie. My parents hurled personal abuse, constantly. Although they still slept in the same bed they were leading separate lives, with Beria coming and going as she pleased.
My father was friendly with an Italian couple, Mr and Mrs Fanetti, who called around to see him and discuss Beria’s behaviour after watching her at the pictures with Steve. The simmering situation was resolved on a Saturday night in November 1949, when Beria left me at home with my father while she, Nita and Lewie, went to meet with Steve at the open-air picture theatre. Unbeknownst, my father followed her. Having satisfied himself about the affair he went home. When the three of them returned he was waiting at the front door and refused to let them inside. When the argument was about to turn violent 16-year-old Lewie stepped between them. It was the first conflict between the two of them. My father agreed to let Nita into the house, but not Beria and Lewie, and flatly refused to hand me over. Beria was determined and became impatient.‘Now listen, Ginger. I’m not standing here arguing with you all night. I’m taking Ronnie with me, and there’s nothing you can bloody well do about it. Either you hand him over, or I’ll knock you down. Now make up your mind.’My father knew Beria was not one to shy away from a physical confrontation and he offered no resistance as Beria and Lewie pushed past. It was well after midnight when we arrived at Mrs Saunders’ boarding house. The next morning Steve took us to Wint in Gwalia. A few days later while my father was at work, Beria went back to the house and collected our belongings, including her Singer sewing machine.
We stayed with Wint until Steve found us a house on the edge of the town, almost to Halfway Creek which marked the unofficial border between Leonora and Gwalia. Halfway Creek was dry except for about a month every winter when the rains turned it into a knee-deep waterway, spawning thousands of tadpoles.
While there was some on-going acrimony, it took only a few months for my parents to resolve their major differences. Beria never denied my father access to me and Nita, and I saw him on regular basis. When Beria asked for maintenance, they agreed on £1 a week for each child which he paid fortnightly, without fail, bringing the money to the house on payday. He paid even when he was off work on compo. He also bought us clothes and never hesitated if we needed money.
Gwalia is the ancient Gaelic for Wales – a land famous for its dragons and its music. In Gwalia, (pronounced Gall-ya) Western Australia, it was the constant drone of the mine’s engines.
Washed by clear blue skies and nestled in the rocky ridges and the outcrops of Mount Leonora, Gwalia was a magical place; an isolated outpost where the passing of time and the beat of the town were determined by the rising and the setting of the sun, and interrupted by the regular blowing of the mine’s steam whistle, and the blasting in the open cut. From the summit of Mount Leonora, the town site was a picturesque shanty settlement surrounded by an uninterrupted 360-degree horizon. There was something spiritual about the clear blinding light, and the eerily silent bush. The sun rose over Mount Leonora and disappeared into the flat distant horizon which stretched far away to the beyond. Whenever I went out to play Beria warned, without fail: ‘You behave yourself, and don’t go getting up to any mischief. And be home before dark.’
I never did, and I was, always.
Needing to keep an eye on the sun, it was impossible to miss the brilliance of the sunset as the golden globe sank into the blazing red horizon, which was how I imagined the flames from the fires of hell might be.
The summer full moon was huge and sat high in the inky sky. It was so bright you didn’t need a torch which provided me with a sense of security. The stars were dazzling, and the Milky Way a constant source of wonderment. Its path streamed across the heavens and I marvelled at where it might lead. When I asked Beria she said: ‘Ronnie, how would I know?’ The evening star, Venus, and the saucepan constellation (Pavo) were the only ones which Beria knew, and she always pointed them out to me.
And Be Home Before Dark is available from:
Collins Booksellers Ballarat