In 1946, the year before I was born, my mother started an affair with Steve Salinovich, a Croatian miner eleven years her junior. Steve was seventeen when he arrived in Fremantle from Yugoslavia early in 1939, to join his father Mirko. Steve was born and raised in a Spartan mountain village outside of Split where the industrial and Agrarian revolutions came to a standstill in the previous century. Subsistence farmers, they shared a village water pump and struggled to live off the land. Steve was six feet tall, slim and conspicuously handsome, with dark wavy hair which he oiled and parted in the centre. His father took him by train to Kalgoorlie, where he boarded him with a Slav family and enrolled him at the Christian Brothers’ College (CBC) – ‘corn beef and cabbage’ as it was known. Steve lasted two months and took off to join his father in Linden, a remote shanty settlement east of Leonora on the way to Laverton.
Mirko was working on his own, prospecting for gold, and took full advantage of Steve’s youth and strength, working him like a slave and leaving him alone in the bush for weeks on end living in a one-room rusting tin shelter. He had no money, and were it not for his Uncle Vince he wouldn’t have survived.
The affair between Beria and Steve began when he spotted her walking in the main street. Taken by her trim figure and her sassiness, he wolf-whistled. Beria responded with a barrage of verbal abuse and encouragement. As the weeks passed and the flirtation developed, she began looking out for him in the street. The attraction was mutual and one day he called unannounced at the house while my father was at work. She couldn’t resist his dark curly hair.
Their association soon became public, and when my father heard about it, he and Beria argued. Beria took no notice, and refused to stop seeing Steve. One time he called at the house when my father was at home, but he was not invited inside. He also visited while my father was on afternoon shift and Nita, who was seven, watched as he sat in my father’s chair in front of the wood fire. Steve once brought me a bag of sweets. My parents’ domestic problems were exacerbated by persistent rumours the Emu mine was about to close. Uncertain of the future, and unhappy at home, my father decided it was time to for us to leave Agnew. I was about eighteen months old when, in the middle of 1948, he packed our belongings, including a dozen laying hens and a rooster, onto the back of the old Ford truck and headed for Leonora. My father was driving on the wrong side of the road, and Nita, whose head was hanging outside the truck, was almost decapitated when a truck passed on the inside. Beria pulled her pulled back with less than a second to spare. She shuddered at the thought: ‘It would have taken her head clean off.’ Before we left Agnew, Beria told Steve of our plans and a few days later he followed, moving into the nearby boarding house run by Beria’s friend, Mrs Saunders. Mr Saunders had been killed during the war. Although they were never married, Mrs Saunders went under his name and received a war widow’s pension.
Leonora was built on the long gradient of Tank Hill, from the top of which you looked out across the town. My parents rented a house from their friend, May Hill, the licensee of the Central Hotel. The house was over the quartz rise behind the post office and on the open flat halfway to the railway station, and, conveniently for Beria, a two-minute walk from the back gate of Steve’s boarding house.
The house was built from a combination of galvanised iron and asbestos cement sheeting. It had two bedrooms, a dining room and a kitchen. The top third of the walls and ceiling of the kitchen and dining room were blackened from a badly smoking chimney, which, if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction smoked-out the house. A bare light bulb, spotted with fly droppings, hung in the centre of each room. The burgundy cotton protection had begun to fray, exposing the rubber coated electric wires.
The back verandah was partitioned into a kitchen at one end and a bath-room at the other. The kitchen measured eight by four feet, big enough for a small wooden table and two chairs, a kitchenette in the corner and an armchair in front of the stove which was set into the wall. The stove sat outside the foot-print of the house, and because of the land’s gradient was raised about two feet in the air on the side of the building.