Authors: Jill Ker Conway
After the water supply was provided for the house, we built our own shearing shed. It was built of Oregon pine and galvanized iron, by an eccentric and talented carpenter named Obecue. Mr. Obecue, my parents said, was a secret ladykiller, who had had a series of young and wealthy wives. This information made me gaze at him with more than usual curiosity. I could not fathom his attractions, but I admired intensely the way his fingers flew about, appearing to fabricate things so fast the result seemed to be achieved by sleight of hand. I would sit on the frame for the woolshed floor watching as he laid it, his mouth full of long nails, his hammer striking home exactly right each time, and the result a smooth floor with nails driven in in an unwavering straight line. He was an excitable man, easily upset if anyone appeared to criticize his work, and equally easily made happy by praise. He was a fast worker. The shed was up before we knew it, changing our skyline permanently.
Once the shed was built, a new excitement came into life because instead of our sheep being driven overnight to the woolshed at Mossgiel Station, our neighbor to the northeast, to be shorn, the shearing team came to Coorain. There would be six or eight shearers, a “rouseabout”—the odd-job boy perpetually being set in action by the shouts for the shearers’ needs: disinfectant for a cut sheep, a count-out for a full pen of shorn animals (anything that would speed the shearers at their piece work), a wool classer and his assistant, and a cook. I had never seen so many people on Coorain before, and I never tired of watching the
throbbing bustle of the woolshed operating at full speed, the shearer’s blades powered by an impressive black engine. Everyone’s movements were so stylized that they might have been the work of a choreographer. A really good shearer knew just how to touch a sheep so that it relaxed and didn’t kick. Bodies bent over the sheep, arms sweeping down the sides of the animal in long graceful strokes to the floor, the shearers looked like participants in a rite. The rouseabout would pick up each fleece as it finally lay in a pure white heap on the floor, walk with it to the classer’s table, then he would fling his arms wide as if giving benediction, and let it fall. The fleece would descend to the table, laid perfectly flat, and the classer, hardly lifting his eyes from the table, would begin dividing it into sections, throwing it into bins organized by spinning classifications. Everyone’s hands looked fresh and pink because of the lanolin in the wool. The shed was permeated by the smell of engine oil, from the engine which powered the shearers’ blades, and by the smell of lanolin.
Beyond the classer’s bins were the wool press and the storage area, where the bales of wool would be pressed to reduce the wool’s bulk, carefully weighed, numbered, branded, and then piled to await the contractor who hauled it to the nearest railroad station. Large woolsheds had mechanical presses, but ours, being small, had a hand press operated by an athletic giant of a man, naturally nicknamed Shorty. Shorty was six feet six, weighed one hundred and ninety pounds, all of it muscle; there was no spare flesh on his body. He pressed the wool into bales by sheer muscle, operating the system of weights and ratchets which could compress four hundred and fifty pounds of wool into the size of a small bale. Then he would take metal grappling hooks and fling the bales about the storage area as though they were weightless. I loved to watch him work, and whenever I wasn’t needed in the sheepyards outside, I would come into the shed, climb to the highest point on the pile of bales, and talk to Shorty. He had a wife and family of his own, farther south, whom he missed terribly, since his team began shearing in Queensland in January
and worked its way south until it got to us in June. Each year when he came back, he would exclaim over how I had grown, look purposely blank for a moment, and then with exaggerated cries of absence of mind, recall that he had brought me some candy.
In quiet moments, when he had caught up with the supply of wool and had time to sit down, we exchanged confidences. On some Mondays, he would confess to having had too much to drink over the weekend. Once, deeply troubled and exasperated with himself, he talked of going to see “the girls.” I knew in a general way that this was not the best conduct for a married man, so I tut-tutted with as much wisdom as I could summon up and said once didn’t matter. It seemed to offer him some relief.
Twice a day, the whistle blew for “smoko” time. The cook would bring over billies of tea and mounds of sweet pound cake and biscuits. Everyone would relax, consume vast supplies of tea from tin mugs, and roll the inevitable cigarette. Sometimes, a shearer might get what Shorty thought was too friendly with me. “The kid’s a girl,” he would say warningly. That would end the matter. It was easy to see how people might be mistaken, because I wore my brother’s cast-off clothes for work outdoors and had my hair tucked away under the usual Australian felt hat.
Each year I waited eagerly for Shorty and the rest of the team to return. Yet I also knew that there were class boundaries to all our dealings with one another. In the evening during the two weeks of shearing, Mac, the wool classer, being an educated person, was always invited to dinner at the house. We were all eager to see Mac, a witty and ironic Scot, whose friendship my parents valued. I loved to see him because he was a great storyteller, and the hour by the fire before dinner would be filled with jokes and laughter. Because he saw the Coorain wool clip each year, he could offer valuable advice about its good and bad characteristics, and make suggestions about qualities that should be introduced into the breeding lines. Best of all for my parents, because he had been traveling from station to station year after year, he
was a fount of gossip, and news about distant friends, comical happenings, marriages and divorces, signs of changes in the cycle of wet and dry years. My parents were hungry for talk with other adults, and they would stay in animated conversation till long after I had drifted off to sleep.
The war brought another form of sociability into the routine of our lives. My mother, a shy woman, and a nervous driver over country roads, nevertheless felt that in addition to the work of Coorain, she should undertake some further form of war work. Our district contained not much more than thirty families within its fifty-mile radius. My mother recruited the women of these families into a local branch of the Red Cross. The twenty-five or so members of the branch held very formal meetings in the creaky old Mossgiel village hall. The minutes of meetings were recorded in my mother’s neat handwriting, and the branch set to work to raise money for comforts for soldiers, and to produce the standard khaki socks, scarves, sweaters, and balaclavas which Sydney headquarters of the Red Cross said were needed. Thereafter, my mother’s evening reading was accompanied by the click of needles, and I was taught to knit the simple squares which were crocheted together to make scarves.
The best part of the Red Cross activity was undoubtedly the fund raising. This was done by means of organizing dances in the Mossgiel hall, to which people came from hundreds of miles around. The floor would be prepared the day before. Sawdust was sprinkled about liberally. Candles were then cut up and scattered about over the sawdust, and any children fortunate enough to be around were asked to sit on clean burlap bags on which they were towed in wildly exciting circles about the floor. When the floor was pronounced just right for dancing, the sawdust was swept up to reveal a gleaming floor. My mother’s garden provided a sizable part of the decorations for the hall. Garlands of flowers and streamers were wound around the posts and beams, transforming the old hall from its workaday self. On the actual day, musicians arrived, and my mother and her committee members
carried mountains of delicious food into the supper room at the back of the hall. The actual money for the Red Cross came from raffles, a variety of party games, such as a dart board in the shape of Hitler’s face, which people fought to compete at. At the end of the evening, the cakes uneaten at supper would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Often the cheerful winner would present the cake back to the organizers for another round of bidding, so that many cakes had accounted for thirty or forty pounds before the evening concluded.
These occasions gave me a fresh vision of my parents. I had never seen my mother in evening dress before, and rarely saw my father in his well-cut navy pinstripe suits. They were a handsome and lively pair, and full of fun and laughter. My father’s gift for storytelling made him always the center of a laughing group, while my mother would dance happily without remembering the hard day of preparations. There being no one to sit with me at home, I came in my best clothes to these functions, and was tucked into bed in the backseat of the car, at what my mother deemed an appropriate hour. It was all very exciting. The sound of “When you come down Lambeth way, any evening, any day” usually indicated that the party was warming up. The music was from the thirties, untouched by any hint of jazz or swing. I thought it quite wonderful. Sometimes the mood of the evening would persist while we drove home, my father’s beautiful tenor voice singing the popular songs of the moment until the lights of our car shone on the windows of Coorain.
It was no surprise to me that my mother’s little Red Cross branch regularly won awards for raising more money than branches five and six times its size. The dances gave pleasure to everyone, and the fund raising gave people a chance to express their loyalty to the Allied cause. My mother was in her element, using her powers of organization for a cause she revered. She could brook no opposition, however, and her efforts ceased as abruptly as they had begun because she disagreed with the easy bush habit of looking the other way when minors bought drinks
at the bar. Negotiation not being a part of her mentality, she left the Red Cross work she had launched just as she and my father sadly needed recreation and distraction.
Our other great expeditions were to the town of Hillston, seventy-five miles to the east of Coorain. It was a railroad town, on the banks of the Lachlan River, and it was the seat of our vestigial local government. My father served on the Pastures Protection Board, a body that concerned itself with the control of vermin, the eradication of dangerous plant materials such as Bathurst burrs which destroyed a sheep’s fleece, or certain poisonous plants which were a hazard. It also supervised the public stock routes over which anyone could drove sheep or cattle, and took responsibility for the maintenance of watering places and holding yards along the stock routes. Its meetings were occasions for us all to visit Hillston. The town looked like a stage set for a western town. It had a wide, dusty main street lined with rundown hotels, a dilapidated store, and one stock and station agent’s office announced by a tilting sign from which the paint was peeling. A night spent at one of the hotels was bedeviled by fleas and the days offered few diversions for an adult. The town contained a milk bar and coffee shop which represented unbelievable luxury to me. One could have milk shakes and ice cream, and at the back of the café there was a garden, with a pond full of goldfish, overlooking the Lachlan River and its stately gum trees. If I was lucky, we would meet my father’s friend and our neighbor, Angus Waugh, on the street, and he, a bachelor, would decide to see how many milk shakes a child my size could drink. Angus was a member of the same board my father sat on, and often we would take lunch or dinner together at one of the two rickety hotels which faced one another on Main Street. If Angus had enjoyed more than enough beer before or during lunch, he was likely to take me back to the milk bar and buy out the entire stock of chocolates just for the fun of watching my expression.
He was the archetypal Scot, short, stocky, peppery in manner, loyal and warmhearted to his friends, and a formidable enemy.
His sense of humor was legendary. In our household, we all remembered with glee overhearing his voice on the telephone to the local store in Ivanhoe, an institution which exploited its monopoly position to overcharge shamelessly. “Is that Ned Kelly and Company,” Angus said, naming Australia’s most famous armed bandit. “What are you going to rob me most for today?” Our telephone lines were often tangled with those of other stations, but we children always hoped we would pick up the phone and overhear that familiar voice from Clare, Angus’s vast family property, fifty miles to the west. He often stopped a night with us on the way back from Hillston, and that was always a special time. Knowing how much our parents liked and admired him, we adopted him as an honorary uncle, and were eager to sit while he talked about life and the bush, using pungent and vivid language that was always memorable. I liked to watch his face when he told a story. A gingery mustache, which partially concealed his mouth, would give a telltale wiggle as he, otherwise deadpan, told some ridiculous tall story. His deep-set brown eyes literally sparkled with mirth, and his laughter was wholehearted and satisfying. His sense of fun was particularly appealing to children, whom he always treated as though they were his exact contemporaries.
All in all, what might on the surface appear like a lonely childhood, especially after the departure of my brothers, was one filled with interest, stimulation, and friends. It lacked other children, and I was seven before I even laid eyes on another female child. Yet this world gave me most of what we need in life, and gave it generously. I had the total attention of both my parents, and was secure in the knowledge of being loved. Better still, I knew that my capacity for work was valued and that my contributions to the work of the property really mattered. It was a comprehensible world. One saw visible results from one’s labors, and the lesson of my mother’s garden was a permanent instruction about the way human beings can transform their environment. My memories of falling asleep at night are to the
comfortable sound of my parents’ voices, voices which conveyed in their tones the message that these two people loved and trusted one another. After the windmill was built, I would wake in the morning as the early dawn wind began to turn the sails to the familiar clinking sound of the pump working. Magpies used to perch on the windmill’s stand and sing every morning at first light. This sound would mingle in my waking with the early morning smell of flowers in the garden. It was an idyllic world.