We lived in the house down near Halfway Creek for a few months and Steve came to stay every weekend. He nagged Beria about the long walk
to and from the hotel and the betting shop. She agreed to move when he found a house just around the corner from the Co-Op, the butcher’s shops, the picture theatre and the Catholic church, and only two-minutes from the State Hotel and the betting shop where he spent all his spare time. A week or so after we settled in Steve arrived carrying a small cardboard suitcase of clothes. He stayed, permanently. The house, officially camp number 94 and with a rateable value of £12, was owned by Joe Radalj, a Slav friend of Steve’s. Joe was an ungainly giant with an enormous frame, olive skin, large forearms covered in tight curly black hair, a shining bald head and an over-sized sweating moon face. He never stopped grinning, revealing a number of gold teeth. Beria took one look at him “God, it’s Grinning Joe,’ and it stuck. I thought it was his name and called him Mr Grinning Joe. Unlike his mate Little Charlie, who lived 100 yards away from us in the next camp, Grinning Joe was clean. He wore navy blue or bottle green workman’s cotton trousers held up by a thick leather belt, a matching shirt and black working boots with reinforced toes and long leather laces.
Beria paid fifteen shillings a fortnight in rent for the fourroomed house and we lived there for five years. Grinning Joe lived in the next street and looked after any repairs. He came to collect the rent and if there was something wrong with the house Beria wouldn’t pay him until it was fixed. She always inspected his handiwork to make sure it was done to her satisfaction. ‘I’m not accepting that. Do it again, and I’ll pay you when it’s done properly.’ The house was built on a slope and my bedroom was a step lower. Constructed from galvanised iron, it was lined with plasterboard and pressed tin ceilings featuring kookaburras on one, and an effigy of Queen Victoria on the other. I asked Beria about her. ‘How the bloody hell would I know?’ she said. I lay in bed staring and wondering: ‘Who is she, and why is she on the ceiling?’ The two larger rooms measured 10 by 12 feet, and the smaller bedrooms 8 by 10 feet. The floors were laid with jarrah and it was Nita’s job to hand polish them – on her knees using Fisher’s polish wax which was applied with a cloth, allowed to dry, and then buffed to a sheen. When she neglected to polish under the bed, 10-year-old Nita was made to do it again before she was allowed to go to the pool. Her tears bounced-off the floor as she polished in the sweltering heat. Beria applied the same exacting standards to Nita as those the officers had applied to her in the Salvation Army home: ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.’ Desperate to go to the pool, Nita pleaded: ‘No-one looks under the bed.’ That wasn’t how Beria saw it: ‘I do, and that’s all that matters.’ Nita had an old pair of yellow woollen bathers which not only looked awful they itched, and were so heavy when wet, they almost pulled her to the bottom of the pool. She grumbled and asked for a new pair, but Beria was indifferent. ‘If you don’t like them, don’t go swimming.’ Beria made her wait for a new pair.
Beria and Lewie shared the cost of furnishing the house. Between them they bought a kitchen table and four chairs, and a cream and green kitchenette with leadlight doors patterned from clear and emerald green dimple glass. Down one side of the kitchenette was a cupboard pantry. In the centre, next to the set of double drawers, was a tin lined breadbox which caused the bread to sweat and created a pungent odour which tainted the bread with a slight metallic taste. When I complained Beria said I was talking bunkum.
She bought the four-piece bedroom suite – a double-bed, a triple-mirrored dressing table and two-double wardrobes – from an advertisement in the West Australian. It cost £30. The sprung mesh wire base of Lewie’s second-hand single bed had the spring of a trampoline but I only ever dared stand and bounce up and down a couple of times. Beria would have hit the roof, and me, had she known. The kapok mattress was studded with soft brown leather disks. Lewie bought the Kelvinator refrigerator on time payment; it cost 102 guineas (a guinea being one pound one shilling). Beria was forty and this was her first fridge. I was not allowed to open the door without asking, or to take any food or fruit without checking. There had to be an apple and an orange every day for Steve’s crib. If I asked for either, Beria always checked the number before answering. 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.