Friday, August 25, 2017

Corrugated Roads. A Bugger of a Kid. 1950s -1960s. Preamble and Chapter 1.

A Bugger of a Kid.
1950s-1960s.


G. Dixon Lowndes


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The author, G. Dixon Lowndes was born in Mitchell, a small town on the edge of the Maranoa River in south-western Queensland, Australia. 

The town was named after explorer/surveyor Thomas Mitchell who is memorialized in numerous statues and plaques across Australia as well as a suburb, a highway, an electorate--even a cockatoo. He is regarded as a “larger than life” character whose expeditions are lauded. In 1836 he won mild executive council admonishment (and later a knighthood) after killing seven Indigenous warriors in New South Wales. No official monuments mention this but.the Indigenous people have not forgotten. (Ref: P Daley. The Guardian).

The Ooline bottle trees from the remnants of a rainforest in times long ago are still there. They are currently in flower.

The author's life and her award winning short stories have been informed by Mitchell.

In the highly successful television drama serial, Neighbours, as the writer, script and story editor, the town of Mitchell and its townspeople became the fictitious Mitchell family—Charlene, Henry and Madge. 

Mitchell again inspired this novel and it is the first installment of a künstlerroman or the novels that tell the story of an artist’s life.

The author has a Master of Arts from Griffith University in 2005. She was awarded Alumnus of the Year in November 2011 by Griffith University, School of Arts, Queensland, Australia. 



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Copyright © 2010 G. Dixon Lowndes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9871513-5-3

Published by G. Dixon Lowndes
Contact:
http://ginnylowndeswriter.blogspot.com.au/ or ginnylowndes@hotmail.com

A guide to Australian history, its language and the phrases used in this novel is on this blog.

Previously published stories appearing in slightly altered form as chapters in this volume are: The Maranoa Picture Theatre. Billy Blue.1980. Bloody Children. Nation Review. 1976. The Lawd’s Prayer & The Cat. The Review. 1991. Manuscripts and other material by G. Dixon Lowndes are housed at The John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Reference Code 10147.

Disclaimer: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons―living or dead―is entirely coincidental.

Apart from use permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means or process whatsoever without the permission of the copyright holder and publisher. A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the National Library of Australia.



About the Corrugated Roads series

Once upon a time the Jae family lived in a tiny drought-stricken desert town that was miles from anywhere in The Outback of Australia during the nineteen fifties.

The Town was a hard-drinking brawling kind of place where the men made up the law and everyone, including the policeman, obeyed it. The rules changed constantly.

Most people in The Town had more fights than feeds especially over the long reign of its conservative Prime Minister, ‘Pig Iron’ Bob Menzies. He exploited the constant state of fear about invasion and scarcity that White Australia had lived in since its convict settlement in the seventeen seventies and the self-interested kept them in it any which way they could.

Along with their parents, Rene and Tom, the Jae family included Henry, Jenny and Baby Girl. They went to the local Catholic school and church but on their way there Jenny and Baby Girl had to protect Henry and his glasses from the local State school kids. They fought all the way to school and all the way back again.

At school, the nuns brutalized the children in their care. Their parents, the police and Father Fourex, the priest who was named after his favourite beer, were too afraid of them to complain.

The only escape from The Town and the family was at The Mish, an Aboriginal camp across the river. There, Uncle Lincoln, a tribal elder, tried to provide Jenny, as well as his own mob, with a sense of safety and sobriety from the grog-induced terror that gripped The Town most times.

Jenny’s matter of fact commentary about their lives provides the backdrop to the comic, tragic and the plain bizarre stories about it. 

And so the stories of her life begin…



1

I wish I could see it.
Mum wrote the other day to say the grass grew five foot after the rain they had. So thick you couldn't walk through it. She said they hadn't seen a sheep for weeks. Probably buried out there somewhere. The river was up again. First time in twelve years. She said the place was so pretty you wouldn't recognise it. Dry as a bone, most times, the Maranoa, and The Town perched on its banks’d shimmer in the heat of the summer sun. Everything out there in The Outback was bleached and sun-dried—wrinkled up like the haze that puckered up the gravel roadways. The water came out of the taps at boiling point, steaming and scalding. Red dust drifted into everything.
I wish I could see it now, looking green.
‘How I hate the heat,’ Mum’d say as she stacked the wood up for the stove before she’d add, ‘and how I hate this place.’
Then she’d hurl the wheat through the air for the chooks to scurry after. A lot of people said she’d married beneath her. After all, she was a Parton. Her father was one of the biggest squatters in The Town before he died. He’d owned thousands of acres of land from South Australia to Queensland, she’d said, as well as the gas and oilfields in Roma. She’d married Dad in Brisbane. They’d come back to The Town to make a bit of money before they went back to the city. She’d said she’d loved Dad then. The war was on and it didn't seem to matter what The Town thought.
Dad was a gun shearer for the western run. They lived in tents, painted the iron furniture orange and laughed a lot in those days—before we came along I guess and they got stuck there.
Dad’d say of a weekend when he came home that, when we had enough money, we’d all go to the city to live.
Mum’d ask wearily, ‘And when will that be, Tom?’
And Dad—hurt—used to reply, ‘Won’t be much longer, Rene.’
Mum’d turn away. Dad’d go back to his newspaper. They both knew they’d never go—not with four mouths to feed.
Sometimes Mum’d laugh and say, ‘Where there’s life there’s hope’ and ‘Maybe old grandfather’ll die soon and we’ll get his place’—proper payment for all the work Dad did on it for nothing.
But Mum’s life was creeping on. Her hopes were now reduced in scale to fit her life in the bush. Most days she’d just hope it’d rain to settle the dust or the train’d bring in bananas on Saturday morning.
‘I’d do anything for a banana,’ she’d say wistfully. ‘In Brisbane they just fall on the ground and lie there, there’s that many.’
When Dad came home on a Friday night we’d wait on the front veranda in our neatly mother-pot ironed pyjamas, watching for the first lights of the shearers’ cars to come across the plains.
‘Here he comes,’ we’d shout, ‘he’s coming across the back flats. We can see his lights. Mum! Mum! He’s coming.’
We’d stand there, jiggling up and down as the first of the lights’d dip down into the gullies and finally turn into the road for home. Dad’d get out of the old utility, kiss Mum on the cheek, squat down and gather us up into his arms.
‘How are you, Rene?’ he’d ask her over the din.
‘Fine. How are you?’
‘Back’s playing up a bit.’
He’d put us down and while we searched the ute for the presents he’d make us out of gum leaves, he’d stand beside Mum to watch.
‘Kids been all right this week?’
‘Not bad.’
We’d breathe a sigh of relief—so she wasn't going to tell on us after all. Dad’d put us to bed, then he’d settle down to tell us a story, usually one of his own invention. Later, he’d kiss each of us on our foreheads, turn out the carbide light and join Mum for a cup of tea on the front veranda. They’d talk long after we’d fallen asleep.
At least that’s how I think it was but perhaps it’s not the rosy glow of family fireside life I’ve remembered but rather a tin can of memories that once was buried in the red dust out there that I now feel compelled to kick noisily down the road and I don’t really know why I’m doing it.
On Saturday morning, the horn of the Westlander’d sound through The Town. Everyone’d rush about in excitement. The Town’d smell like Christmas as we’d bustle about doing the shopping for the week. In the afternoon the men’d go to the pub to lay a few bob on the horses at the Irish Giant’s place. Apparently there was a law against betting with bookies like The Giant back then but then there was a law against most things. Dad’d told us The Giant was a genius at mathematics.
Around teatime Dad’d come home again, park the ute at an unsteady angle and weave up the gravel path to the house.
‘Your father has tanglefoot again I see,’ Mum’d sigh. ‘Help him up on the couch you kids while I finish getting tea ready.’
Henry and I’d exchange glances. We knew he was as blotto as buggery. Most fathers were. After tea we’d get dressed for the pictures. Dad’d hop into the ute first then he’d toot the horn just to make Mum all flustered. But she wouldn't budge out of the house until every hair was in its place, her lipstick on straight, her teeth checked, rouge not too obvious, dress just so and stocking seams in a perfect line up the back of her leg. Once that was done she’d asked us anxiously if she looked alright.
With a last minute glance she’d pick up her dilly bag and walk out to the car. Dad’d lean out the window to whistle at her. Mum’d blush. We’d clamber into the back of the ute and cover ourselves carefully with old sheets so that our clothes wouldn't get dust on them. Mum and Dad’d stay by themselves in the front, and off we’d go to the pictures.
The Maranoa Picture Theatre was the only place in town, apart from Mick’s Café that had a neon light. We thought it very glamorous. Dad’d buy the tickets while Mum’d smile and try to chat to the people she knew. Because my mother was a Parton, we never had to worry about getting in early like the other townspeople. Our seats were in the grazier’s section, on permanent reservation. Mum’d used all her influence to make sure of it. We were in the last three rows in the theatre. No one was allowed to sit on our seats even if we never came. After buying the tickets Dad’d talk to a few of the men standing around together then we’d go into the theatre.
It had canvas walls, a clear sky roof and rows of canvas deck chairs placed in straight lines on the bare wood floors. We had an uninterrupted view of the screen plus we could see everybody who came in. Mum’d take her Chinese fan from her dilly bag, spread it out then wave it slowly across her face. The theatre’d begin to fill up. People came for miles around to the pictures of a Saturday night.
On their arrival they were shown to their seats by Delma, the Methodist Minister’s daughter. She wasn't allowed to wear make-up, Mum’d said to Dad, because it was against her religion.
‘Such a pity—she’s so plain too.’
The next three rows up from ours were reserved for the business people of The Town. The respectable people Mum called them.
Violetta, the French hairdresser, her brother and their parents took their seats. Violetta’d scandalized The Town when she told them in her wayward English that they’d eaten horses during the war. The Town had never heard of such barbarity but then she was French, they’d muttered. We’d heard they ate frogs and snails as well.
‘There’s no accounting for taste,’ Mum’d said when she was told.
The French family’d come to the Outback to heal their lungs after they’d been gassed. Violetta’d set up shop to give women the latest European hairdos as well as a literal translation of their names. Mrs. Cunningham, for instance, had become Mrs. Crazy Bacon. We’d gone to Violetta’s place for tea one night. Mum thought she’d given us cordial to drink but it was red wine cut with bore water. We were soon as drunk as skunks and reeking of garlic.
‘There goes Sean O'Connor,’ Mum’d whisper. ‘I see that Maura has a new dress on—probably why he put up the meat again last week, trying to pay for it. A pretty penny it cost too.’
Dad grunted.
Mum was horrified when we were served mincemeat and rice rolled and cooked in grape leaves at the Middle Eastern family’s place for lunch too. She was sure they were poisonous because if they weren’t then everyone would be eating grape leaves instead of mutton and potatoes, wouldn’t they?
‘The bank Johnnies have arrived early I see. Didn’t take long for that Lesley to get one. She must be quite desperate by now. Skirt’s too short too.’ Mum’s fan swished as she continued her observations. ‘There’s Mrs. McKenzie from Wanderoo—same dress she had on last Saturday—you’d think with their money she could afford to change more often. That girl of hers looks more like a heifer every day with that red hair and figure—you’d think they’d put her on a diet. Here comes Mrs. Maginnes from Childers Close—that husband of hers—he looks like a fish with his mouth gaping open like that. Look at his dirty tie! She still hasn’t managed to teach him how to use a knife and fork properly by the look of it. Money maketh the manners not. Oh good evening, Mrs. Maginnes … well thank you and you?’
Mr. Maginnes’d lean over to Dad to say things like, ‘Blowflies in the ewes.’
And Dad’d reply with, ‘I’ll keep an eye open.’
The graziers slowly filled up their seats. Further up, past the business people, the next three rows were kept for the shearers and the ordinary people. Delma’d run up and down the aisle with her torch, showing people where to sit.
‘Probably the only excitement she gets all week, poor thing,’ Mum’d say. ‘They don’t get many in at the church, not with her father belting the bottle the way he does.’
The next block of seats was kept for the yahoos, the riff-raff and their girlfriends. They were seated a long way up from us, so that we wouldn't be disturbed by their carryings-on.
‘Take no notice of those yahoos,’ Mum’d tell us. ‘They’re just looking for some attention.’
We couldn't take our eyes off them.
Their spurs hit hard on the bare boards, broad brimmed hats curled up at the sides, half-drunk and defiant, they’d squire their women up the aisle.
‘Don’t see how any respectable girl could go out with those yahoos,’ Mum’d say to Dad and he’d grunt some more.
From where the yahoos’ seats were to where the next seating began, there was a six-foot gap. The old, worn out and patched up chairs were put there—right up the very front so, if you put your hand out, you could almost touch the screen. Those seats were for the Aborigines, the blackfellas—the original owners of the whole joint, Dad said, before the British came and tried to kill them all off.
They’d come into the theatre dressed to the nines, starched and polished. As the lights’d dim for the slides, they’d follow Delma up the front where she’d bob her torch up and down impatiently, waiting for them to sit.
‘Don’t see why Charlie and his family have to sit up there,’ Dad’d always complain. ‘He’s a bloody good mechanic. Flamin’ British and their class system.’
Charlie Smith was Dad’s black brother. We called him Uncle Charlie. We had a lot of Aunties and Uncles. Aunty Pearl was minding the new baby for Mum tonight. Uncle Lincoln was her brother. He’d been married to one of Dad’s sisters.
‘Ssssh!’ Mum said. ‘The Queen will be on in a minute.’ Then she'd change the subject. ‘I wonder where Janette is. She’s late. It’s always such a pleasure to see her—a lovely girl.'
The theatre shifted about impatiently. Just about everyone was here except for Janette. Everyone adored her. Her smile lit up the whole town. She was our movie star—long, shining brown hair loosely waved, creamy skin, large dark eyes, small and gracious.
A lot of people’d wondered why she’d never married.
‘She’s no need to,’ Mum’d tell them. ‘She’s got plenty of money of her own. She can’t just throw herself away on anybody.’
Janette’s parents’d owned one of the biggest places outside The Town until they died. Now she ran it by herself.
‘She’s as smart as a whip too,’ Dad’d say in admiration and Mum’d add, ‘It’s amazing how two such plain people as them could produce something so beautiful—no wonder old Johnny looked like a stunned mullet most of the time. I don’t reckon he knew how either.’
Us kids called Janette the shining lady. She was the highlight of our small town—the seal of approval on everything we did—her just being there seemed to keep The Town a living, dancing kind of place.
The tap of high heels on the stairs made everyone turn around. Mum glanced back quickly.
‘It’s just that Karen. Trust her to try to get some notice by coming in late. Stuck up thing she is too. How the mighty have fallen. Well,’ she lowered her voice to Dad, ‘they can’t hide her condition much longer.’
Dad gave another grunt.
‘It’s that football coach,’ Mum said. ‘Threw herself at him. Well, serve her right. I've heard she’s not the only one either.’
Dad just grunted again.
‘That football coach has caused more trouble than enough,’ Mum continued. ‘No respectable person’d be seen dead with him.’
Dad rummaged round a bit and said he’d met the football coach and he seemed like an ordinary sort of bloke.
Mum said it wasn't what she’d heard. He was wanted by the police in every town he’d been in. Maintenance, they said.
‘Maybe Janette’s not coming,’ Mum sounded disappointed. ‘After all she broke up with young Jimmy not long ago—probably feels that it isn't right to be seen out in public so soon. Though mind you, I can’t say I could see what she saw in him.’
‘Aaaargh, Jimmy’s not a bad bloke,’ Dad replied. ‘Hard worker too.’
‘She can’t just throw herself away on the first person who’s a good bloke,’ Mum retorted.
Loud giggles rang out behind us.
We all turned around again.
‘It’s the Page girls, Val and Donna,’ Mum told Dad as she turned back to the slides. ‘Getting on too, though god knows how they’ll find anybody living out there, poor cows—Val’s getting quite ratty.’
They came into the theatre, walked straight past the grazier’s section and on up the aisle.
Mum’d clutched Dad’s arm and hissed frantically, ‘Look at that! They’re going right up the front where the yahoos are!’
Dad grunted.
‘But Neddie’s seats are reserved down here with us,’ Mum said. ‘They know that.’
‘They have to have a bit of fun, Rene. They work like bloody blacks out there,’ Dad protested.
‘They’re talking to that no good Mackie Mitchell. He’s the one that lives with Gertie, you know, that gin with all those kids.’ Mum watched in horror. ‘That Val is pawing all over him. It looks like she’s enjoying it too.’
‘Aaaargh, Mackie’s not a bad bloke,’ Dad said. ‘He’s a bloody good worker.’
‘So I've heard,’ Mum snapped, ‘and he’s plenty of kids about the place to prove how fast he is.’
Mum sank back in her seat. ‘Neddie Page’s girls. I never thought I’d live to see the day. Old Nell would turn in her grave. The way she slaved to bring those girls up.’
A great cheer ripped across the theatre as the house lights went down. The Movietone News’d begun.
‘I’ve never liked American accents,’ Mum’d whisper. ‘They’re so vulgar.’
The news was usually several months old by the time we got to see it, but it always had “a lovely feature on the Queen” as old Mrs. Tonkin’d say the next day.
Dad’d tease Mum about how beaut the movie queens looked, and we’d scream around saying “ooohwoo woopie doo” and wriggle our hips, pretend to smoke cigarettes and do our best to look like them.
The first feature was usually a cowboy movie. We’d sit glued to the edge of our seats while Dad’d fall asleep. He always managed to stay awake for the Movietone News but nodded off soon afterwards. Mum’d nudge him in the ribs but he’d never even blink so she’d keep fanning herself, hoping nobody’d notice his snoring.
Dad’d wake up with a start at interval to give us two bob for drinks, ice creams and a small bar of chocolate. It was a real luxury out there so we’d bolt it down before it melted then slowly lick our fingers. Dad’d buy Mum the same plus a packet of salted cashews to eat during the second half. After a short scuffle with the other kids just to keep our arm in, we’d go back to our seats.
Mum’d grown more restless. ‘Janette’s still not here,’ she was saying when a noise caused her to turn around to pretend she was looking at an old poster on the wall. ‘Ah, here she comes now.’
Janette floated towards the aisle dressed in red chiffon—the flame colour reflected in the glow of her skin.
She smiled and waved to everyone. The theatre sucked in its breath. She’d never looked more beautiful but Mum’d gasped. Her face was shocked.
‘My god no!’ Mum caught her breath. ‘I don’t believe it. First the Page girls and now this.’
Everyone stared.
‘You could’ve knocked me down with a feather,’ Mrs. Tonkin’d remarked the next day. ‘The football coach with Janette. I’d heard of course, been going on for months they say. I just dismissed it as idle gossip.’
‘He’s from Sydney you know,’ Mum said.
‘I might’ve guessed. You can tell them a mile off by their clothes—smart alecked.’
‘They say he drugs them before he you-know-what.’
         Mrs. Tonkin took in a large amount of air. ‘And he’s so good looking too.’
‘In a flashy kind of way,’ Mum conceded.
Janette became aware of the stir she’d caused. Some of the yahoos snickered. Her smile faded and she faltered. The football coach put his arm under her elbow then guided her firmly down the aisle behind Delma. She showed them into their seats, blushing furiously, flustered by all the excitement. 
A few people booed. 
The football coach held Janette’s shawl for her while she sat down. We could see her in profile—her chin jutting out, her ramrod back. She stared straight ahead. The theatre let out its breath as people began to mutter among themselves. I thought Mum was going to cry. Her face’d crumpled. Even Dad looked angry. So did a lot of other people. We silently sank into our seats.
Mick O’Flynn, who owned the theatre, quickly turned out the lights. 
Tom and Jerry jumped onto the screen.
The yahoos roared, whistled and yelled, stomping their spurs into the wooden boards. Mick flickered the house lights on and off a couple of times, warning them to be quiet. It had no effect. They kept the noise up. Their girlfriends tried to shut them up while Delma shone her torch over the seats. Several couples sprang apart.
One of the graziers at the back of us got up. ‘Be quiet down the front.'
One of the yahoos answered back, ‘Why dontcha come down here and make us, mate.’
The grazier’s wife put a restraining hand on her husband. Furiously, he shook it off.
‘I said you be quiet!’
‘I said you be quiet,’ mimicked one of the riff raff, taking the mickey out of the grazier’s Oxford accent.
The rest laughed noisily. Then they began to say loudly, ‘Ssssssh! Ssssssh!’
Several of the jackeroos who’d come in with the grazier stood up beside him. 
The cartoons had ended.
Mick O’Flynn stormed down the aisle. ‘Shut up, y’bloody mongrels.’
‘Why dontcha have a go at makin’ us, mate?’ drawled one of the yahoos.
Mick walked quickly back up the aisle, saying over his shoulder, ‘Don’t you try anything, mate or y’can get out.’
Bing Crosby flittered over the screen. Mum ignored him and grabbed Dad’s arm, ‘Tom, Tom. They’re going to start a brawl.’
Dad just gave another grunt.
Several more grazing properties stood up to side with the grazier and began to call for the yahoos to be quiet.
One of the jackeroos yelled back in reply to a yahoo, ‘Yeah mate, we’ll have a go.’
We were agog with an excitement that not even the movie could hope to match.
Mick ran down the aisle again. ‘Not in the middle of Bing bloody Crosby y’ not. Get outside, all of yer.’
Out they trooped—the grazier’s mob, tight-lipped, entitled and angry, the yahoos cocky, spoiling for a fight.
‘Outside, mate,’ they said to the football coach as they passed him.
Dad got to his feet. ‘Think I’ll go outside for a while, Rene.’
Mum didn't reply. Stony-faced, she watched the screen.
Janette was talking rapidly to the football coach, shaking her head. He stood up slowly, shrugged his shoulders, walked past her and down the aisle. No one looked at him. Janette sat, not moving a muscle, all by herself in the row of canvas seats. She looked very small.
Bing Crosby danced and sang across the screen, barely able to be heard over the cat-calling and brawling outside the walls.
When the lights came up, Mum made us stand for God Save the Queen. Dad never did. Janette stood too and then, looking neither left nor right, she strode out of the theatre. Mum told us to mind our own business and to go straight to the ute. Not long after, Dad got in. The door slammed. Usually Mum’d say ‘Home James’ but not tonight.
Without a word passing between them Dad drove away.
We never asked Dad what side he was on or who had won. I think Mum knew though she never said anything. But Dad and her, they never really smiled at each other anymore.
Mum also said in her letter that they’d shut the Maranoa Picture Theatre down a few weeks ago and that she’d miss it. Everybody was going to Roma these days for excitement, and that, you know the old gum tree out the back? Well, it got white ants and Dad had to chop it down. She said she’d miss the sound of the wind rustling through its leaves.
And oh, she forgot to mention in her last letter, you remember Janette? You must remember her—the shining lady—though you were still young when her baby died and all that fuss was on because Father Fourex refused to bury it—some Catholic law or something—well, she shot herself the other day. Went out to her parents’ graveside to do it. The loneliness of living out there all by herself must have sent her silly.
Sad, isn't it? Mum wrote. But she supposed that Janette never really got over the football coach leaving overnight like that. 
Though, Mum added, it just goes to show, that life is pretty funny sometimes, isn’t it?

Chapter 2

2

I’d been standing on the top of the water tank for what seemed like hours waiting to kill my brother with the waddy I’d stolen from the sideboard in the lounge room.
It’d only taken me a couple of seconds to get my hands on it and shin up the tank stand. Dad’d said the Aborigines had sometimes called the waddy a nulla nulla. It was a couple of feet long and very heavy. Henry’s head stood no chance.
Mum was busy reading the Woman’s Weekly and listening to Mario Lanza on the radio. Mario made her feel close to The City and The Arts and the Woman’s Weekly kept her up to date with the Royal Family and the social gatherings of the elite. She had an encyclopedic knowledge about them including their breeding and heritage. Mum’s made her different from the rest of The Town. They only listened to Tex Morton and Hank Williams and read Carter Brown, if anything. Mum, highborn and highbrow, had nothing in common with them.
She used to shudder if she ever had to utter the words Chad Morgan or Chips Rafferty. She wouldn't go to any movie Chips was in because of his Australian accent. She only said their names when she was defending the Queen in an argument with Dad or demanding to know when we were going to leave The Town. Mum hated everything that sounded Australian including us most times. She’d sent us to one of the nuns who had a British accent to have elocution lessons so we’d stop sounding like children and, in particular, Australian ones. Mum didn't like children much either.
‘You are the price I had to pay,’ she’d say.
We lived on the wrong side of town as well. In winter, the right side of town, which was over the railway bridge near the Catholic Church, got the warm water. It was frozen by the time we tried to turn a tap on. In the summer we got the boiling water while they got the cool.
Up on the tank stand I had the element of surprise and the height necessary to deliver a fatal blow. I tucked my right leg behind my left knee the way I’d seen the Old People do when they were down by the waterhole. I held the club as if I too was about to spear the yellabelly that glided in the deep waters below. Even now I can still hear the frogs plopping in the water tank behind me.
From my vantage point I could see the sun’s rays hit the iron-roofed houses before they spilled onto the bush tracks that cut through the clumps of spinifex and mulga then dappled into the red dust in a dance across the sandy river to The Yumba or collection of blackfella humpies The Town called The Mish.
From there the sun began to fold into the dreamtime of the desert where the orange and white striped figure of the Kadaicha Man waited for the words that would bring him to life. I was desperate to get him to come to help me. As I looked around for any sign of my brother I silently chanted the songs I’d heard from Uncle Lincoln and the others at The Mish where I’d spent a lot of my small life hiding out in the bush near it or sitting on a log in it beside Lincoln. I didn’t know which songs’d work but I hoped one’d tell the Kadaicha Man to come and get Henry. My patched dress puffed out in the light breeze. When I thought about it, I loathed my brother even more than the new baby. Dad’d called her Baby Girl. He only called me The Girl. I’d been trying to starve her to death for weeks. Even though I hated the taste of milk I drank every bottle Mum put into the cot. It’s why I’d copped such a hiding this morning. Henry’d dobbed on me then Mum’d pimped on me to Dad. My brother only did it so Mum’d take some notice of him. He hated me as much as I hated him. We all hated each other because there wasn’t enough of anything to go around. We were always in a fierce fight with each other to try to get what crumbs dropped from the table.  
I could hear myself breathing in the fiery desert air. It had the sweet smell of my brother’s blood in it. As I checked my surroundings I saw him lick his head in and out from under the back veranda like the blue tongue on an old goanna. The light caught on his glasses. I’d used them once to start a fire in the riverbed for some drovers who were too drunk to boil their billies. He’d dobbed on me for that as well. There was a whole pile of dobbing I was going to get him for.
I’d learned about payback from the blackfellas at The Mish too. It wasn’t the Catholic stuff the nuns preached. It was a kind of natural justice. Well—natural enough for me to do it anyway.
I hated my brother because I had to take him to school every day as well. I had another year to go before the gov’mint said I had to go to school but Mum made me go early. She told Dad that no one could expect her to walk all that way there and back again in her stilettos. My job was to stop the other kids from bashing him. Every day as we walked to and from home the Catholic kids’d square up to the State Protestant ones and Henry’d always ended up as piggy in the middle. The nuns used to get stuck into him as soon as he got to school too but Mum didn’t count them. They had been wonderful to her when she was little, she said and she wouldn’t hear a bad word said against them.
Henry was left-handed—a sure sign he was in league with the devil, the nuns’d said. They'd beat his left arm and his hand until they dangled uselessly by his side. After that, he made matters worse by figuring things out in his head and yelling out the answers because he couldn't write anything down. It was all the confirmation the nuns needed. I tried taking Henry to the State School to get him away from the nuns but our school uniforms easily identified us and we were sent back to the Convent.
They’d already condemned me as a heretic when I couldn't see God and I asked where he was. They told me he was everywhere. I still couldn’t see him so I began to demand it so they told me I just had to take their word for it. I said I wouldn’t and we got into a big blue about it then they began to beat me. I decided there and then there was no God and no amount of beatings'd make me believe there was.
‘Fairy, fairy,’ the kids were chanting as they swung their sissy-silencing schoolbags at Henry. 
All Henry wanted to do with his life was draw pictures of trees. He couldn’t read or write though Mum was trying to teach him how to from Phantom comics. I drew kookaburras and sometimes, when Henry wasn’t looking, I put them in his trees.
I watched him come out from under our old pisé house. It’d started out as a couple of rooms then Dad’d put a veranda around it. When it was necessary, he’d ram another earth wall up and stick some louvres in to make a new bedroom.
Henry looked all around to see if he could spot me. He knew I was there. He knew I’d get him. That’s just the way it was. He’d do something to me and I’d get him for it. I’d do something to him and he’d get me for it. The red dirt burned his bare legs so he stood up to look for another place to hide. I held my breath as he made his way over to the tank stand. I silently unfolded my leg and leaned forward on it. Henry was moving carefully so as not to put his feet in the prints he’d already made this morning. The Old People’d told us that we must never walk in our own footsteps unless we were ready to face the ghosts of our past. And who’d want to do that?
Sometimes we’d walk for miles out in the bush to avoid our former footsteps. When we finally got to school, the nuns used to beat us for listening to blackfellas instead of praying to God.
I always reckoned the Old People knew more about the ghosts and spirits that dwelled inside the desert than some swollen up red-faced old Irish woman we could barely understand. They didn’t even have the nous to wear sensible clothing. They broiled from head to foot in black serge in nearly a hundred and ten degrees of heat in summer and they froze in winter. The Sisters of Mercy. They were more violent than the whole town put together. Every one of them should’ve been jailed for it.
One day I told Uncle Lincoln that I’d figured out that all the nuns’ spirits went to live in Italy with the Pope when they died.
Lincoln’d laughed. ‘Not much use having a spirit over there when you need them here, ay?’
The blackfellas had the Kadaicha Man. He was always there to fix someone or something. From what the nuns said God was a bad-tempered old bugger living in Heaven who’d wipe out whole tribes if someone crossed him. He sounded a bit like Grandfather. The Kadaicha Man was more selective. He only killed the person responsible. He seemed fairer than God, and besides, he was a local.
Henry crept closer. I gave a blood-curdling yell as I threw myself down from the tank stand. I tried to kill him with one blow but a cloud of dust blew up as we hit the ground together. It made it hard to see him but it didn’t stop me from trying to smash the waddy into his head. He gouged his fingers into my throat while he yelled out to Mum to come and help him.
The next blow broke his glasses.
I was aiming another one when I was plucked up into the air. I was face to face with Dad. He took the waddy off me. I could smell rum so I knew I was in big trouble. With nothing to lose I swung a punch at him too.
‘I’ll teach you to fight you little bugger.’ Dad picked up a sugar bag and stuffed me into it.
I struck out blindly. I had to be able to get him somewhere.
‘You can stay there till you learn to behave yourself.’
Just to show him I never would I kicked out at what I hoped was his belly.
‘They reckon them blackfellas were wild,’ I heard him muttering, ‘but they’re not a patch on you. We’ll see if this cures you of brawling.’
Stifling hot sugar bag smell suffocated me as he tied a knot in the top of it. I heard my brother pleading with Dad not to be put in the other bag but he too was hooked to the clothesline alongside me.
‘The war’s been over for years,’ Dad was saying, ‘but you’d never think it the way you two carry on.’
He grunted as he put the forked stick in the wire to hoist us in the air. Henry began to scream and yell and plead. I began to plot. Henry started to fit. He always had a fit every time he had contact with Dad. He only had to think Dad was around and he’d begin to fit. It made Dad really sad. He’d’ve done anything for more boys he told anyone who’d listen. He had no use for girls. No one did. Not out here. It seemed women had to work ten times harder than the men just to get a feed. Mum refused to be one of them.
‘I wasn’t born to work in a kitchen,’ she’d say with a toss of her head.
The noise brought her outside.
‘What in God’s name are you doing to Henry, Tom?’
I could hear Baby Girl bawling over the top of Henry’s convulsions. Dad told Mum he was trying to knock some sense into Henry and me and that I’d broken his glasses again.
‘It’ll be another month before we get some from the city.’
Mum told him to let my brother out of the bag at once. The clothesline came down. Mum led Henry away.
Dad began to poke at me in the bag with the waddy.
Ah, pigs to you, I thought.
‘Maybe she’s dead,’ I heard Mattie say.
He must’ve climbed over the back fence.
‘She’ll be flamin’ dead if she keeps this brawling up.’ Dad rattled me around in the bag.
I tried to will the Kadaicha Man to come to kill the lot of them so I could run away to The Mish and never come back. Granny was kind to me there. She gave me lots of cuddles and brushed the dirt off my clothes. Her daughters gave me porridge and others put pigtails in my hair. Mum said touching us gave her the creeps.
I heard more kids. They must’ve come over the fence from The Mish to meet up with Mattie. They said it was a pretty hot day.
Dad snorted. ‘She comes from hell so she’d be used to the heat.’
‘Maybe you should let her out of the bag,’ Mattie said.
I coiled myself up like a spring in the corner of it so I’d be ready to get him but he was on to me. Dad tipped me upside down and I sprawled out into the burning red dust. I sprang at him desperate to claw him to pieces but as I only came up to his knee I just managed to scrape some skin off his shins.
‘Jesus bloody Christ.’ Dad tried to kick me out of the way.
I rolled over to the red and yellow cannas that grew on top of the septic tank. I tried to find something to kill him with. My orange and white striped cat was hiding there.
With all the force my little body could muster I threw her at Dad and got him in the face.
‘Go on,’ I yelled to the Kadaicha Man. ‘Scratch his bloody eyes out!’

Then I turned and ran for my life towards the safety of the river and The Mish.