Read The Road from Coorain Online

Authors: Jill Ker Conway

The Road from Coorain (3 page)

The city was a place of unaccustomed leisure for people who labored hard seven days a week. For the men there were cheerful drinking occasions before the wool sales or the agricultural shows. For the women there were the shops, the doctors and dentists for the children, and the luxury of restaurants, fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, flower stands. For the children there were the marvels of electric lights, neon signs, moving pictures, and unlimited candy stores. These were balanced but not outweighed by the ministrations of the dental and medical professions and the ominous crowds. For everyone there were the sore feet and aching legs which came from wearing one’s best shoes on hard pavements, and the unaccustomed feel of city clothes.

Everyone much preferred the rare occasions of leisure and festivity at home. There were picnic races, a bush festivity which involved horse racing by day, cheerful and alcoholic gambling and dances by night. A district might band together to stage a gymkhana, where the jockeys were not professionals and the horses were local products. Every half-dozen stations would have somewhere a vestigial race track, barely a trace in the soil, with some rickety shelters from the sun and some kind of access to water. Bookmakers throve as people cheerfully gambled away the
year’s profits in big bets, unconsciously recognizing that there were few other really satisfying diversions. Old lumber and battered corrugated iron would be pieced together to make a community hall in the middle of nowhere, and dances would be arranged by the Country Women’s Association, or the Returned Soldiers’ League. Musicians would materialize, and the men would appear in unaccustomed suits accompanied by wives in long dresses. People starved for company danced happily till dawn, reluctant to go home. Supper would be a feast at which every woman’s prowess in the kitchen was assessed, and none of the hardworking revelers needed to worry about dieting.

Before they set out in the lightening sky, they stood to attention for “God Save the King,” and if the evening had become an occasion for remembering 1914–1918, they sang “Land of Hope and Glory,” evoking the memory, not so much of England, but of her mighty Empire, of which Australia was the proudest part. Anyone who mocked these loyalties learned quickly that he or she did not belong.

The cars would sweep home over the dusty roads, their lights visible like pillars of fire across the plains. If one arrived home first, one could stand on one’s veranda and watch the other departures, visible for twenty miles or so. On regular nights there were only the stars, the cry of a fox, and the sound of the wind. Then if a car traveled very late at night it meant an emergency. Distant watchers would crane their heads to see where it went, and wonder what had gone wrong.


father’s savings was invested on taking up his block of land in the Western Division of New South Wales, granted him as a soldier settler in 1929. With them he built a house set foursquare to the points of the compass. The living room and bedrooms looked out to the rising sun, the kitchen saw it sink in a sudden blaze of flaming color. The side verandas received the occasional cooling southerly breeze or the hot winds from the north. My mother’s savings, accumulated during her nursing career, equipped the house with furniture, linen, china, and silver bought at auctions in Sydney in 1930. She had impeccable taste, as well as great thrift and practicality. Her purchases were items of quality discarded by city dwellers in favor of the fashions of the twenties. The ample oak furniture, delicate curtains, and old-fashioned china gave the place the solid comfort of an earlier era, and belied the true nature of the family finances. The cool, airy comfort of the house with its expanses of highly polished linoleum and generously proportioned furniture suggested an easy inheritance from the past. In fact, the house, the land, the spotless equipment, and the well-groomed horses in the stables represented an act of will, a gamble on which two natural risk takers had staked everything they had.

They had come to see the land in the summer of 1929 in the
midst of a drought that was to become legendary. The eighteen thousand acres of the block, a ninety-nine-year lease from the Western Lands Commission of New South Wales, had been carved out from earlier leases of hundreds of thousands of acres. Occasional fences marked the vast paddocks of the earlier owner and indicated the boundary of the new block. That year the drought was so severe that the topsoil was drifting, engulfing any obstacle in its path. The new owners thus drove not through the gate but over the silted-up boundary fence. My father was elated as he surveyed the realization of his dream to own land and to raise his own flocks of sheep and cattle. For my mother, not born to the bush, my father’s long-dreamed-of property was a nightmare of desolation.

She had grown up in a comfortable Queensland country town where the hills along the coastal range captured plentiful rain, the gardens were lush, and the rich soil suited small-scale agriculture. Until her marriage to my father at the age of twenty-eight, she had lived by choice in cities. Their married life had begun in considerable style on the rich and well-established sheep station my father managed for one of Australia’s great landholders. That homestead was situated on a river and overlooked a lake. The Chinese gardener grew sumptuous vegetables and flowers for the cook, whose kitchen fed twelve to fourteen people daily. The place hummed with sociability and activity, for the overseer and jackeroos (men of education and good family) dined with the manager and his wife. The lady of the house oversaw the station store for the hands, supervised the domestic help, and oversaw the care of anyone injured on the property.

The eighteen thousand acres they rattled across in their T-model Ford had no surface water, and only a few isolated and scraggy clumps of eucalyptus trees. It seemed flatter and more barren than any land she had ever seen. She saw no landmarks to identify directions, only emptiness. My father saw strong fertile soil, indications of grazed-out saltbush, dips and changes in the contours of the land and its soils, landmarks of all kinds. The
contours of the isolated trees indicated the prevailing winds. The sand drifts told him the path of the dust storms which boiled out of the inland desert in a drought. In his mind’s eye he had already taken possession of the earth and it was already blooming after the next rain. My mother, nursing her infant son, felt the flying sand become grit in her mouth and eyes and was temporarily daunted.

On the one-hundred-and-fifty-mile drive back to comfort and the constraints of being someone else’s employee they struck a bargain. He would attempt the gamble for independence only if she gave it her wholehearted assent. He was too much in love to contemplate the standard bush marriage where the wife and children lived in relative comfort in some distant country town. Half measures were not part of the vocabulary of either partner, and so it was agreed. They would go together, run the risks, and reap the benefits. He would move ahead of her to oversee the building of the house. She would make the journey to Sydney to equip it.

Neither of them could explain to curious children where their urge to get ahead and make something of life came from. Different as their backgrounds were, both were driven to excel, to run the best station, breed the best sheep, raise the brightest children, run the most efficient house. Yet they approached their new venture from entirely different perceptions of what was involved.

My father was born in the early 1890s, close to the South Australian coastal town of Port Pirie. Orphaned in early childhood, he and a younger brother were raised in the large and outgoing family of an uncle and aunt on Berta Station, near Broken Hill, a large acreage lost to the perennial debts and poor seasons of woolgrowing on the plains. They had no patrimony from dimly remembered parents and few opportunities in the sluggish pre-World War I Australian economy. At sixteen he began working for the mining company that was the only large employer besides the pastoral industry, Broken Hill Proprietary
Limited. He was tall, with blazing blue eyes, a mercurial temperament, and a wicked sense of humor that won men and women friends with ease. The Roman Catholic Church was an important center of emotional and social life for a lonely young man with few prospects. He had the manners and style of a man born to inherit land and husband it well. His education had been the lore of raising sheep and cattle, breaking horses, knowing how to command men. All his life he would be moved to rage when lesser men gained land he knew he could have managed better. There was no prospect of any for him so it was as natural as breathing to seek adventure by enlisting in 1914. He cherished, like all his family, ties of affection and family mythology to his Lowland Scottish heritage. The Scottish virtue of unswerving loyalty meant unreflecting acceptance of Great Britain as the font of all that mattered in the world besides the bush Australian ethos of strength and endurance.

What began as an adventure ended in horror too profound for speech. The farewells, the adoring young ladies, the troopship, England, and training on Salisbury Plain were in line with all the British Empire tales heard in childhood. The daily slaughter of the trenches never ceased to be a part of his nightmares. A childhood spent hunting kangaroos made him an excellent shot and earned him the post of sharpshooter, the man sent ahead alone to pick off the enemy. About this he could not speak, except to describe the common experience of the trenches, a kind of fellow feeling for the opponent. His worst memories were the screams of wounded horses, and the sight of men being driven back to the trenches at rifle point. An injury to the sight of one eye and trench feet, feet swollen with rheumatism and infected from long stretches standing in water, put an end to sharpshooting and marching. After taking part in the Battle of Passchendaele, he was sent home.

The homecoming was bittersweet. It rankled that married men who had served overseas qualified for grants of land, but he, as a single man, did not. He took a job as the overseer of a large
western sheep station, and quickly progressed to manager for another of the great properties of an absentee owner. There he met my mother and embarked upon the marriage that made him eligible for land.

By all accounts, my mother, always handsome, was then an extraordinary beauty. She was tall, slender, and graceful in carriage, and blessed with a coloring of skin and hair which made her memorable. Her abundant, curling hair was deep auburn highlighted with gold, but instead of the redhead’s tender skin she had an olive complexion which tanned to a fine rosy color without a hint of a freckle. This natural beauty was accompanied by boundless physical and intellectual energy. She was a “new woman,” a professional trained nurse, used to independence and responsibility, and in her late twenties she was already running her own country hospital. She was the child of a feckless British immigrant family. Her father was the type of Micawberish character whose failure to get ahead in England took him to the colonies. Her mother, a generous-hearted woman, lacked the education to make a success of the endless household businesses she undertook to support her burgeoning family. Soon after the family arrived in Queensland, my mother’s father quietly disappeared in the Australian contingent to the Boer War, a volunteer who neglected to mention his family when enlisting, and who was thereafter merely a shadowy presence to his eight children. My mother never forgave nor forgot the desertion, the casual sexual exploitation of her mother, and the humiliations of the economically marginal family.

Her resentment of men was fueled by the conventional sex roles assigned in her family, where the daughters were expected to wait on the males and to defer to the judgment of the older sons, who encouraged their mother to enter one economic venture after another. At fourteen my mother left school, began to work in an office, and to study bookkeeping at night. She resented the earnings which went to support unemployed older brothers, or to compensate for easily avoided economic failures. At seventeen
she left. Claiming to be eighteen, she began her nurse’s training at a general hospital in Rockhampton, a bustling country town and port, three hundred miles north of Brisbane. She was never homesick for a moment. She loved the order and discipline of hospital life, the starched and shining order of the medical world, and the chance to be in charge. She was a natural healer. No effort was too great to make a patient comfortable. No reward was sweeter than the total dependence of the very sick or the helplessness of an infant. She reveled in blessed independence: money to invest in clothes and outings, a chance to explore the world.

She finished her training while still in her teens, and she set to work to use it to educate herself. She took nursing posts in all the worlds about which she was curious. In this way she sampled life on one of the great inland cattle stations, where the household still dressed for dinner and the style of life was baronial. She explored the life of a young professional in a big city hospital and took nursing posts in the households of the fashionable rich in Sydney during the twenties. By the time she came to run the hospital in Lake Cargelligo, the town nearest the sheep station my father managed, she had been an independent single woman for almost ten years, and she was used to being in charge.

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