The hand-made bath was poured concrete and so
deep the water came up to my chin. The central landing between the kitchen and the bathroom had a flight of wooden steps leading down to the washhouse, an open-fronted tin structure with two cement troughs and a corrugated-glass scrubbing board. The copper was at the bottom of the back-door steps and in the winter my father ran a bucket supply of hot water to the bathroom as it was needed.
There was no plumbing and the water from the bath ran onto the flat, watering a clump of delicious wild berry bushes. The dark-purple shiny fruit had a sweet yellow juicy pulp with tiny black seeds. I picked and ate them by the handful. The house had no fence and the ground was overgrown with weeds and littered with household refuse and general rubbish. After lunch, Nita and I lifted rocks looking for centipedes and spiders, tormenting and killing them with a stick. The front verandah was enclosed by a halfwall constructed from asbestos sheeting panels, several of which remained broken for years.
The large rectangular chookhouse was about fifty yards from the back door. Its gate had fallen away from the rotted supporting posts. The rusted and corroded shelters were made from cut-down rainwater tanks and cyanide drums. My father killed and ate the chooks when my mother left and now the ground in the chookhouse was overrun with pig melon vines, which popped under your feet. The melons were not poisonous but made you vomit if you ate them; even the chooks didn’t peck at them.
At the far end of the chookhouse, in the corner, was the lavatory. The roof was made from a cut-down piece of rainwater tank, and the gap between the top of the curved roof and the front and back walls was left open to provide an airflow. It also meant you got wet in the winter if the wind blew the rain in the wrong direction. A section of the pine timber floor had decayed and collapsed and the dark red paint on the door had faded to a pastel shade. For nine months of the year the unlined tin interior, warmed by the sun, acted as an incubator for the thousands of prickly chirping brown crickets which covered the walls and roof. With their waving antennae the highly sound-sensitive scourge jumped in every direction the moment you touched the door. Perfectly harmless, they jumped in your hair and on your arms. No sooner had they settled than they jumped around again when you got up to leave. They didn’t seem to bother my father. I went inside, once, and fled in terror, covered in crickets and screaming and flailing about, trying to brush them away. It was the only time I saw my father laugh out loud. From that day I peed on the open flat, or squatted in the corner of the chookhouse to do my ‘bigs’, in full view through the kitchen window.
A few months after we arrived in Leonora my father bought a share in a small goldmining lease. The show was too far out of town to make a daily round trip so he and the five other prospectors camped in the bush, leaving us in town during the week and coming home for the weekend. While my father was in the bush Beria and Steve continued their affair. Lewie was fifteen and working at Sullivan’s garage. One day he arrived home about five o’clock and went looking for Beria. From the kitchen he saw her with Steve down behind the woodheap. They were having sex. In the first half of 1949 Ginger’s mining consortium was forced to sell to a man named Johnson. They had no way of knowing they were only feet and days away from a strike, and a lifetime of financial security. My father was philosophical. ‘It didn’t have my name on it.’ Following the sale my father moved back into town and went to work underground on the Sons of Gwalia mine. Everyone knew that Beria was on with Steve, but despite my father’s objections she wouldn’t end her association, denying it was a sexual relationship. ‘You know what’s wrong with you, Ginger? You’ve got a dirty mind.’ Beria and Steve had an arrangement to meet outside the local picture theatre every Saturday night. She became suspicious when Steve started making last-minute excuses. From the other side of the road Beria saw him arrive at the pictures with another woman. She waited and followed them, and from the shadows of the oleander trees at the corner of the state school yard she had a clear view of them having sex up against the wall of the registry office.
And Be Home Before Dark is available from:
Collins Booksellers Ballarat