Running along the outside wall of the butcher’s shop was an open cement drain about six inches deep which was used to dispose of animal waste products. The drain fed into a twelve-inch cement pipe which ran under the road in front of the shop. It was the job of the two teenage butcher boys to keep the drain and the pipe clean using a large rubber water hose and a length of free-wheeling heavy-gauge chain which ran the inside length of the pipe. With a butcher boy positioned at either end of the pipe and physically heaving the chain back and forth between them, their repetitive action and the flow of water kept the waste moving and the pipe clear of blockages. The bloodied water, waste meat, offal and lumps of animal fat emptied out onto the vacant flat directly in front of the shop, where it was eaten by the birds or decayed in the sun. Some days were worse than others, and the stench as we came around the corner of the shop turned my stomach. Even Beria commented: ‘Hold your nose, Ronnie. It’s putrid today, isn’t it?’
There were approximately 100 houses in Gwalia, most of which were in one of the four machine-graded streets. The others were built at random around town, giving it a higgledy-piggledy aspect. The houses were much of a muchness, four rooms built from corrugated iron with a central passageway and a front and back verandah. Lucy Tognali’s father was a carpenter and their house was a cut above. The outside was rarely painted. Some of single men’s camps were one or two rooms and so small they were like a house in miniature. My father lived in the two-room pink camp with only inches between the top of his head and the ceiling, and he was not a tall man. The six management houses on Staff Hill were finished to a higher standard but only the mine manager’s house, Vic and Melda Mazza, the State Hotel, the police station, the state school and the headmaster’s house had a pull-the-chain lavatory and septic tanks installed.
Gwalia was not an impoverished town but still nothing was wasted and building maintenance was minimal. Beria’s house in Tower Street was built to an exceptional standard with materials pilfered from the mine. On the other hand, her house down by the railway line was put together almost entirely from recycled materials. The floors of the back and front verandahs and two additional bedrooms were cement. The others were a combination of timber and discarded gelignite pine boxes collected from the mine. The bottom half of the walls were lined with mismatching pressed and ripple-corrugated tin, the top with plasterboard. The white enamel built-in kitchen sink was connected with cold running water and considered a luxury. In summer Beria rolled down the heavy canvas blinds on the front verandah, hosed down the cement floor, and closed the doors and windows to keep the house cool.
In some houses the laundry doubled as a summer shower. The end of the garden hose was fitted with a rose nozzle and attached to the wall with a makeshift connection. The Paravacinis’ bathroom in the backyard was free-standing a couple feet away from the door. In the winter the wind whistled through the gaps in the walls and around the door jam. Some of the gaps were wide enough to see through, which sometimes disconcerted the women.
Tower Street ran through the centre of both towns and was a crudely constructed strip of blue-metal gravel coated with tar, which melted in the summer and stuck to the soles of your sandals and burnt your bare feet. The road was hardly wide enough for two cars to pass. On one side was a footpath supported by a retaining wall. On the other side the distance from the edge of the road to house fences was almost the equivalent of two lanes of traffic, which was where we played.
We rode our bikes but mostly we walked everywhere. Quite a few of the men working on the mine rode to and from Leonora every day. There were not as many sedan cars as there were utilities, and some like Ike Nye’s had a tin cabin with no doors and a timber tray. Ike always parked his truck on the mound outside the State Hotel, and when it came time to leave he released the handbrake and rolled away to a self-start. At various time my brother Lewie drove a jalopy with no canopy and wooden running boards, a small Bedford truck, a left-hand-drive army jeep, a motorbike fitted with a sidecar, and a new black Holden utility. Everyone, except those men living in oneand two-room humpies, was connected to the electricity supply and mains water. Some meters erratically ran backwards, and when Alf Petersen came to take a reading you had to run around and make sure everything was turned off, including the fridge. Sinks and hand basins were unusual and few houses had a tap in the kitchen or power points. It was constant. ‘Ronnie, go and fill the kettle with rainwater.’
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.