And Be Home Before Dark – a childhood on the edge of nowhere.
Ironing was a laborious ritual requiring damping-down and wrapping the clothes in towels to keep them moist and easier to iron. The connection on the iron had been altered, and Beria stood on a chair to plug it into a doubleadapter attached to the light fitting hanging in the middle of the room. The heavy metal iron had no temperature gauge and prone to overheating and burning out if Beria forgot to switch it off at regular intervals. Eventually, Lewie fitted a four-point power board in Beria’s kitchen but if she plugged in more than one appliance it blew a fuse. There were no hot-water systems and Mrs Quarti had a commercialsized electric immerser, akin to those used in an electric kettle, which hung over the edge of the bath. Front verandas were closed in with fly-wire and green lattice and hidden behind scarlet bougainvillea, climbing fern, oleanders or jade. Space was at a premium and families converted either end of the verandah into a sleep-out – a permanent bedroom for the girls and boys, divided by curtains, and strictly off-limits to each other. Until her brothers left home, Clara Paravicini slept in the lounge room. When she moved into the second bedroom she shared it with her youngest brother up until the day she got married. Those boys who didn’t leave town and went to work on the mine lived at home until they got married. Some of them continued to sleep in the same backyard sheds put up for them years earlier when the house became too small to accommodate all the children. The girls stayed inside and as soon as the boys were old enough they were moved out. It allowed the boys an independence and a certain freedom denied the girls.
Every three months the slime-coated heavy-duty cotton duck from the sluice vats was replaced. After being squirted with a pressure hose, the cleaned filter cloth was much sought after; it made the perfect house lining and lasted for years. The interior walls were painted with pink or white kalsomine, a powder containing zinc oxide and glue and mixed with water. Cement floors were painted or polished, and the door jams were goldfields green. Beria had four thick-pile bedroom mats which featured large sprays of European flowers, a bucolic English landscape, and Australian flora and fauna. She bought for me from the Co-Op a glazed two-foot china kookaburra with a snake in his mouth and sitting on a tree stump, and a pair of plaster of Paris black-and-white Springer spaniels which she used as doorstops.
Tin chimneys, of all shapes and sizes and in varying states of disrepair, were attached to the sides of the houses. The return sides of the chimney had a small window, allowing light onto the top of the lead-blackened wood stove, which was the focal point of the house and more often than not the only source of heat in the winter. As soon as boys were big enough to swing an axe they were expected to chop the wood. Barefoot, and swinging the axe high into the air, I missed the log and almost severed my little toe. Beria washed and wrapped the wound in some strips of sheeting and left it to heal for a week.
Most families had a vegetable garden, but Bernice Quarti maintained the earth was so hard the carrots grew in the shape of a corkscrew.
In summer the ground was so hot we ran barefooted from the shade of one lamppost to the next. The earth was so compacted the water pipes were laid on the surface and by mid-morning in the summer the tap water was almost boiling. Anyone planning to take a bath during the day ran it first thing in the morning. There was no shortage of water, and the levels at Station Creek water supply never dropped. It was estimated the natural underground storage contained billions of gallons.
I was expected to do very little around the house, but it was my job to carry and stack small loads of wood in the kitchen wood-box and to bring in the morning’s wood every night. With the stove the only means of boiling water to make Steve’s tea, my rare lapses were guaranteed to incur Beria’s wrath, especially if there was a heavy frost. 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.