Several weeks after Beria caught Steve carrying-on with another woman she confronted him. He promised it was all over with other woman because she refused to do his washing and ironing.
Beria held down three or four jobs at the same time. She worked five days a week as housemaid at the Central Hotel, polishing the linoleum covered floors on her hands and knees. She started at 5 am and earned £2 a week. Beria was totally smitten with Steve, and while my father was away prospecting she agreed to pay him a pound if he would stay home from work to spend the day with her. She hesitated when a church minister, a single man, offered her a cleaning job, but she accepted after a girlfriend explained: ‘It’s alright; he’s one of those who goes with other men.’ Once a week I went with Beria while she did the ironing at Clover Downs sheep station. The owner, Jack Bell, sent a station hand into town in a utility to collect us. At the back of the homestead was a large lawn and a small flight of wooden steps leading onto a verandah. While Beria ironed I played outside with another boy who smelt of stale urine. I recognised him when I saw him a couple of years later. ‘Ronnie, stop your staring’ Beria said when she saw me watching him. ‘He can’t help it; the poor bugger’s simple.’ I was going on for three years old when Beria took me into Maude Willis’ small overstocked haberdashery and dress shop in Leonora. I was told to stand in the corner, wait quietly, and I was not to touch anything. A dress on a nearby rack caught my attention. Oblivious to a shop assistant watching, I reached out to feel the fabric: ‘Hey,’ she shouted, waving the yard-long wooden dressmaking ruler: ‘You behave yourself young man, otherwise I will have to give you a big smack.’ I pulled my hand back, stood still, and hardly dared breathe until Beria came for me. From that day on, the moment I realised we were going back into the shop I grabbed Beria by the hand, promising, ‘I’ll be good, Mum! I’ll be good!’
In October 1949 Beria and Steve took Lewie and went to Kalgoorlie for a three-weeks, leaving me and Nita at home with our father. I was two and a half and Nita was eight. They stayed with a Slav couple who ran a boarding house in Hannan Street. By chance, Beria met Prince, an Italian bloke who was her boyfriend for a year when she lived in Kalgoorlie in 1931. She didn’t bother to tell Prince she going to Wiluna, and he spent several months trying to find her, not realising she was working as a housemaid in another town hundreds of miles away. Prince told Beria he was serious about her, and hoped they might have married. Beria didn’t mention to my father she was going to Kalgoorlie. Nita went to school and she left me for the day with Mrs Saunders, who broke the news to Ginger when he came home from work. The following day my father went see Father Spain, who made arrangements for the two of us to board with Elizabeth Ansley, a devout Catholic widow who was much lauded for her devotion to the church – especially for providing meals to the priest. To earn some extra money, she ran a boarding house for those boys attending the convent and whose parents lived outside Leonora.
Mrs Ansley was a large woman who lived in the old doctor’s house at the bottom of Tower street. Adjoining it was a disused grain shed which was connected to the back of the house by a cement slab path and a trellis covered in grapevines. The distance from the floor to the ceiling of the unlined galvanised-iron shed was almost that of a two-storey house. Mrs Ansley had crudely converted this gloomy area into a dormitory by clearing a space and adding a number of beds, and which is where Nita and I slept. There were no other children staying and every night we were in bed before sunset. The grain store was also Mrs Ansley’s storage area, and from my bed I could see into the open ceiling. She had a sizeable collection of dusty flags, bicycles, cane chairs and other paraphernalia, all suspended from ropes in the shadows overhead. In the gathering darkness I was sure the grotesque shapes came to life, moving and dancing about the ceiling and tormenting me. Scared, I slept with my head under the blankets.
Every morning we had a hard-boiled egg for breakfast. It was dry and difficult to swallow, and even though I gagged, Mrs Ansley wouldn’t let us get down from the table until we had finished. At night, Nita and I had a bath together in a minimal amount of water. By the end of the first week I was fretting for my mother. My father visited us every day, and noticing my condition he took me to Doctor Wilson who insisted I be removed from Mrs Ansley’s care.
And Be Home Before Dark is available from:
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Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning with Dan Lonergan on 3BA at 10.30.