University of California My Place Reading Response


While the identities of the fathers of Gladys and Daisy are never definitively elucidated, there is an interpretation of the autobiography that suggests that Howden is the father of both.
Sally Morgan’s My Place, Part II
Discuss the reasoning behind such a reading.
Sally is always following “her gut feelings.” How does intuition guide this reading?
If both women share the same father, they are both mother and daughter as well as sisters. How does incest affect their relationship to each other, to themselves, to truth?
Discuss how taboo guards the secrets of the family. Does the text ever ultimately overcome these silences?
The second half of the novel experiences a shift of narrative voice. The autobiography moves from the author’s perspective to a composite narrative that is made up of different first person accounts by the author’s mother, great-uncle and grandmother. How does the fragmentation in the narrative figure in the oblique allusion to incest? This fragmented text is after all the first novelistic text by an Australian aboriginal author. How do the tape-recording transcriptions of these interviews with her relatives speak to a transition from Aboriginal oral traditions to written European forms of literary narration? How does the hybridity of the text mirror the author’s own? Does the fragmented structure give you any clues about the possibility of incest?
How does the incest in Sally Morgan’s family pair with the pregnancy-through-rape in Bobbi Sykes’ history? What is the common denominator of both?
Why is the novel called “My Place?” 
Who are the Arrerntre?  

First Australians, Episode 4: There is No Other Law to an external site.My Place
‘Can’t you just leave the past buried? It won’t hurt anyone then.’
‘Mum, it’s already hurt people. It’s hurt you and me and Nan, all of us …’
In 1982 Sally Morgan travelled back to her grandmother’s birthplace. What
started out as a tentative search for information about her family, turned
into an overwhelming emotional and spiritual pilgrimage.
My Place begins with the experiences of Sally’s own life, growing up in
suburban Perth in the ies and sixties. rough the memories and images
of her childhood and adolescence, vague hints and echoes begin to emerge,
hidden knowledge is uncovered, and a fascinating story unfolds. It is a
deeply moving account of a search for truth, into which a whole family is
gradually drawn, nally freeing the tongues of the author’s mother and
grandmother, allowing them to tell their own stories.
Winner of the 1987 Australian Human Rights Award for Literature and the
1990 Order of Australia Book Prize, My Place is an Australian classic.
Sally Morgan was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1951 and grew up in
suburban Manning. She completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at e
University of Western Australia in 1974, majoring in Psychology. She also
has postgraduate diplomas from the Western Australian Institute of
Technology (now Curtin University of Technology) in both Counselling
Psychology and Computing and Library Studies. She has three children.
My Place is Sally Morgan’s rst book, and upon publication it
immediately achieved best-seller status. It has since sold over half a million
copies in Australia, and been published in the United Kingdom, the United
States, China, Malaysia, Italy, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, France,
Switzerland and Holland.
Her second book, Wanamurraganya: e Story of Jack McPhee, was
published in 1989. She has also written ve books for children: Little Piggies,
Pet Problem, Just A Little Brown Dog, Dan’s Grandpa and In Your Dreams.
As well as writing, Sally Morgan has established an international
reputation as an artist. She has works in numerous private and public
collections in Australia and the United States of America.
Sally Morgan is currently Director of the Centre for Indigenous History
and the Arts at e University of Western Australia.
Some of the personal names included in this book have been changed, or only rst names have been
included, to protect the privacy of those concerned.
First published 1987 by
25 Quarry Street, Fremantle 6160
(PO Box 158, North Fremantle 6159)
Western Australia.
Reprinted 1987 (three times).
is edition rst printed February 1988. Reprinted thirty-nine times.
Copyright © Sally Morgan, 1987.
is book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism
or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without
written permission. Enquiries should be made to the publisher.
Consultant Editor Ray Coffey.
Printed by Everbest Printing Co Ltd, China.
National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-publication data
Morgan, Sally, 1951– .
My place.
ISBN 978 0949 206 31 2.
I. Morgan, Sally, 1951– . [2] Aborigines, Australian — Biography. 3. Women, Australian (Aboriginal)
— Biography. [4]. Aborigines, Australian — Social life and customs. I. Title.
944 0049915
To My Family
How deprived we would have been
if we had been willing
to let things stay as they were.
We would have survived,
but not as a whole people.
We would never have known
our place.
e hospital
e hospital again, and the echo of my reluctant feet through the long,
empty corridors. I hated hospitals and hospital smells. I hated the bare
boards that gleamed with newly applied polish, the dust-free window-sills,
and the ashes of shiny chrome that snatched my distorted shape as we
hurried past. I was a grubby ve-year-old in an alien environment.
Sometimes I hated Dad for being sick and Mum for making me visit
him. Mum only occasionally brought my younger sister and brother, Jill and
Billy. I was always in the jockey’s seat. My presence ensured no arguments.
Mum was sick of arguments, sick and tired.
I sighed in anticipation as we reached the end of the nal corridor. e
Doors were waiting for me again. Big, chunky doors with thick glass insets
in the top. ey swung on heavy brass hinges, and when I pushed in, I
imagined they were pushing out. If it weren’t for Mum’s added weight, which
was considerable, I’d have gone sprawling every time.
e Doors were covered in green linoleum. e linoleum had a swirl of
white and the pattern reminded me of one of Mum’s special rainbow cakes.
She made them a cream colour with a swirl of pink and chocolate. I thought
they were magic. ere was no magic in e Doors, I knew what was behind
Now and then, I would give an awkward jump and try to peer through
the glass and into the ward. Even though I was tall for my age, I never quite
made it. All I accomplished was bruises to my knobbly knees and smudged
ngermarks on the bottom of the glass.
Sometimes, I pretended Dad wasn’t really sick. I imagined that I’d walk
through e Doors and he’d be smiling at me. ‘Of course I’m not sick,’ he’d
say. ‘Come and sit on my lap and talk to me.’ And Mum would be there,
laughing, and all of us would be happy. at was why I used to leap up and
try and look through the glass. I always hoped that, magically, the view
would change.
Our entry into the ward never failed to be a major event. e men there
had few visitors. We were as important as the Red Cross lady who came
around selling lollies and magazines.
‘Well, look who’s here,’ they called.
‘I think she’s gotten taller, what do ya reckon, Tom?’
‘Fancy seeing you again, little girl.’ I knew they weren’t really surprised to
see me; it was just a game they played.
Aer such an enthusiastic welcome, Mum would try and prompt me to
talk. ‘Say hello, darling,’ she encouraged, as she gave me a quick dig in the
back. My silences were embarrassing to Mum. She usually covered up for me
by telling everyone I was shy. Actually, I was more scared than shy. I felt if I
said anything at all, I’d just fall apart. ere’d be me, in pieces on the oor. I
was full of secret fears.
e men on the ward didn’t give up easily. ey continued their banter
in the hope of winning me over.
‘Come on sweetie, come over here and talk to me,’ one old man coaxed
as he held out a Fantail toffee. My feet were glued to the oor. I couldn’t have
moved even if I’d wanted to. is man reminded me of a ghost. His closecropped hair stood straight up, like short, white strands of toothbrush nylon.
His right leg was missing below the knee, and his loose skin reminded me of
a plucked chicken. He tried to encourage me closer by leaning forward and
holding out two Fantails. I waited for him to fall out of bed; I was sure he
would if he leant any further.
I kept telling myself he wasn’t really a ghost, just an Old Soldier. Mum
had con ded that all these men were Old Soldiers. She lowered her voice
when she told me, as though it was important. She had a fondness for them I
didn’t understand. I oen wondered why Old Soldiers were so special. All of
these men were missing arms or legs. Dad was the only one who was all
I tried not to look directly at any of them; I knew it was rude to stare.
Once, I sat puzzling over a pair of wooden crutches for ages and Mum had
been annoyed. I was trying to imagine what it would be like being lopsided.
Could I get by with only one of my monkey legs or arms? at’s what I
called them. ey weren’t hairy, but they were long and skinny and I didn’t
like them.
I found it hard to comprehend that you could have so many parts
missing and still live.
e Old Soldier rocked back on his pillow and I sneaked a quick glance
at Dad. He was standing in his usual spot, by the side of his bed. He never
came forward to greet us or called out like the other men did, and yet we
belonged to him. His dressing-gown hung so loosely around his lanky body
that he reminded me of the wire coat-hangers Mum had hanging in the hall
cupboard. Just a frame, that was Dad. e heart had gone out of him years
Once Mum nished having a little talk and joke with the men, we moved
over to Dad’s bed and then out onto the hospital verandah.
e verandahs were the nicest place to sit; there were tables and chairs
and you could look over the garden. Unfortunately, it took only a few
minutes for the chairs to become uncomfortable. ey were iron-framed,
and tacked onto the seat and across the back were single jarrah slats painted
all colours of the rainbow. When I was really bored, I entertained myself by
mentally rearranging the colours so they harmonised.
As Mum and Dad talked, I sniffed the air. It was a clear, blue spring day.
I could smell the damp grass and feel the coolness of the breeze. It was such
an optimistically beautiful day I felt like crying. Spring was always an
emotional experience for me. It was for Nan, too. Only yesterday, she’d
awakened me early to view her latest discovery. I had been in a deep sleep,
but somehow her voice penetrated my dreams.
‘Sally … wake up …’ Even as I dreamt, I wondered where that voice was
coming from. It was faint, yet persistent, like the glow of a torch on a misty
night. I didn’t want to wake up. I burrowed deeper under the mound of coats
and blankets piled on top of me. In my dream, they were heavy and lacking
in warmth. I wrapped my hands around my feet in an attempt to warm
them. Sometimes, I thought coldness and thinness went together, because I
was both.
Every night I’d call out, ‘Mum … I’m cold.’ And then, to speed her up,
‘Mum … I’m freezing!!’
‘Sally, you can’t possibly be.’ It was oen her third trip to my bedside.
She’d li up the coat I’d pulled over my head and say, ‘If I put any more on
you, you’ll suffocate. e others don’t want all these coats on them.’ I shared
a bed with my brother Billy and my sister Jill. ey never felt the cold.
I’d crane my head over the moulting fox-fur collar that trimmed one of
the coats and retort, ‘I’d rather suffocate than freeze!’
Nan had only to add, ‘It’s a terrible thing to be cold, Glad,’ for Mum to
acquiesce and pull out the older, heavier coats hanging in the hall cupboard.
Now, sitting on the hospital verandah, I smiled as I remembered the way
Nan had rocked my sleepy body back and forth in an attempt to wake me
up. It took a few minutes, but I nally came up for air and murmured dopily,
‘What is it? It’s so early, Nan, do ya have to wake me so early?’
‘Ssh, be quiet, you’ll wake the others. Don’t you remember? I said I’d
wake you early so you could hear the bullfrog again, and the bird.’
e bullfrog and the bird, how could I have forgotten. For the whole
week Dad had been in hospital, she’d talked of nothing else.
Nan encouraged me out by peeling back the layers on top of me. I lay
temporarily in a tight, curled ball. e underneath of me was warm, but,
with all my coats and rugs removed, the top of me was rapidly chilling. With
sudden decision, I leapt from my bed and shivered my body into an old red
jumper. en, barefoot, I followed Nan out onto the back verandah.
‘Sit still on the steps,’ she told me. ‘And be very quiet.’ I was used to such
warnings. I knew you never heard anything special unless you were very
quiet. I rubbed my feet together for warmth and tried to shrug the rest of me
into my misshapen red jumper. I pulled my hands up inside my sleeves,
wrapped my arms around my legs, and waited.
e early morning was Nan’s favourite time of the day, when she always
made some new discovery in the garden. A fat bobtail goanna, snake tracks,
crickets with unusual feelers, myriads of creatures who had, for their own
unique reasons, chosen our particular yard to reside in.
I wanted spring to last forever, but it never did. Summer would come
soon and the grass would yellow and harden, even the carefully nurtured
hospital grass wouldn’t look as green. And the giant nasturtiums that
crowded along our side fence and under our lemon tree would disappear. I
wouldn’t hunt for fairies anymore, and Nan wouldn’t wake me so early or so
I’d heard the bullfrog yesterday, it was one of Nan’s favourite creatures.
She dug up a smaller, motley brown frog as well, and, aer I inspected it, she
buried it back safe in the earth. I shivered as an early morning breeze
suddenly gusted up between my bare legs. I expected the bullfrog to be out
again this morning. I gazed at the patch of dark earth where I’d last seen
him. He’ll come out any minute, I thought.
I felt excited, but it wasn’t the thought of the bullfrog that excited me.
is morning, I was waiting for the bird call. Nan called it her special bird,
nobody had heard it but her. is morning, I was going to hear it, too.
‘Broak, Broak!’ e noise startled me. I smiled. at was the old bullfrog
telling us he was broke again. I looked up at the sky, it was a cool, hazy blue
with the promise of coming warmth.
Still no bird. I squirmed impatiently. Nan poked her stick in the dirt and
said, ‘It’ll be here soon.’ She spoke with certainty.
Suddenly, the yard lled with a high trilling sound. My eyes searched the
trees. I couldn’t see that bird, but his call was there. e music stopped as
abruptly as it had begun.
Nan smiled at me, ‘Did you hear him? Did you hear the bird call?’
‘I heard him, Nan,’ I whispered in awe.
What a magical moment it had been. I sighed. I was with Dad now, there
was no room for magic in hospitals. I pressed my teeth together and, resting
my chin on my chest, I peered back at Mum and Dad. ey both seemed
nervous. I wondered how long I’d been day-dreaming. Mum reached over
and patted Dad’s arm.
‘How are you feeling, dear?’ She was always interested in how he was
‘How do ya bloody well think!’ It was a stupid question, he never got any
Pelican shoulders, I thought, as I watched him hunch forward in his
chair. e tops of his shoulders poked up just like a pelican’s. I wondered if
mine were the same. I craned my head to look. Yep. Pretty much the same;
my elbows were pointy, too. Dad and I had a lot in common.
Dad’s ngers began to curl and uncurl around the arms of his chair. He
had slim hands for a man. I remembered someone saying once, ‘Your
father’s a clever lad.’ Was that where I got my ability to draw from? I’d never
seen Dad draw or paint, but I’d seen a letter he’d written once, it was
beautiful. I knew he’d have trouble writing anything now, his hands never
stopped shaking. Sometimes, I even had to light his cigarettes for him.
My gaze moved from his hands, up the long length of his arms, to his
face. It dawned on me then that he’d lost more weight, and the realisation set
my heart beating quickly. Dad caught my gaze; he was paler and the hollows
under his cheekbones were more de ned. Only the familiar hazel eyes were
the same confused, wet, and watching me.
‘I’m making you something,’ he said nervously. ‘I’ll go and get it.’ He
disappeared into the ward and returned a few minutes later with a small,
blue leather shoulderbag. ere was maroon thonging all the way around,
except for the last part of the strap, which wasn’t quite nished. As he laid it
quietly in my lap, Mum said brightly, ‘Isn’t Daddy clever to make that for
you?’ I stared at the bag. Mum interrupted my thoughts with, ‘Don’t you like
I was trapped. I mumbled a reluctant yes, and let my gaze slip from the
bag to the large expanse of green grass nearby. I wanted to run and ing
myself on the grass. I wanted to bury my face so Dad couldn’t see. I wanted
to shout, ‘No! I don’t think Daddy’s clever. Anyone could have made this bag.
He doesn’t think it’s clever either!’
By the time I turned back, Mum and Dad were both looking off into the
‘Can we go now, Mummy?’ I started guiltily. Had I really said that? My
eyes widened as I waited for their reaction. en I noticed that they weren’t
even looking at me, they were both staring at the grass. I breathed a slow,
undetectable sigh of relief. e last time I had voiced that question out loud,
Mum had been cross and embarrassed, Dad silent. He was silent now. Such
sad, sad eyes.
e visitors’ bell rang unexpectedly. I wanted to leap up. Instead, I forced
myself to sit still. I knew Mum wouldn’t like it if I appeared too eager.
Finally, Mum rose, and while she gave Dad a cheery goodbye, I slowly prised
myself from my chair. e backs of my legs must have looked like a
crosswalk, I could feel the indentations the hard slats had made in my skin.
As we walked into the ward, the men called out.
‘What? Leaving already?’
‘You weren’t here for long, little girl.’
e Old Solider with the Fantail smiled. He still held the lollies in his
hand. ey all made a great show of waving goodbye, and just as we passed
through e Doors and into the empty corridor, a voice called, ‘We’ll be
waiting for you next time, little girl.’
Strong, cool air blew through the window all the way home in the bus. I
kept thinking, can a person be wrinkled inside? I had never heard adults talk
about such a thing, but that’s how I felt, as though my insides needed
ironing. I pushed my face into the wind and felt it roar up my nostrils and
down into my throat. With cold ruthlessness, it sought out and captured my
reluctant inside wrinkles, and ung them onto the passing road. I closed my
eyes, relaxed and breathed out. And then, in a ash, I saw Dad’s face. ose
sad, silent eyes. I hadn’t fooled him. He’d known what I’d been thinking.
Dad came home for a while a couple of weeks aer that, and then, in the
following January, 1957, Mum turned up on the doorstep with another baby.
Her fourth. I was really cross with her. She showed me the white bundle and
said, ‘Isn’t that a wonderful birthday present, Sally, to have your own little
brother born on the same day as you?’ I was disgusted. Fancy getting that for
your birthday. And I couldn’t understand Dad’s attitude at all. He actually
seemed pleased David had arrived!
e factory
Mum chattered cheerfully as she led me down the bitumen path, through
the main entrance to the grey weatherboard and asbestos buildings. One
look and I was convinced that, like e Hospital, it was a place dedicated to
taking the spirit out of life.
Aer touring the toilets, we sat down on the bottom step of the
verandah. I was certain Mum would never leave me in such a dreadful place,
so I sat patiently, waiting for her to take me home.
‘Have you got your sandwich?’ she asked nervously when she realised I
was staring at her.
‘And a clean hankie?’
I nodded.
‘What about your toiletbag?’
‘I’ve got it.’
‘Oh.’ Mum paused. en, looking off into the distance, she said brightly,
‘I’m sure you’re going to love it here.’
Alarm bells. I knew that tone of voice, it was the one she always used
whenever she spoke about Dad getting better. I knew there was no hope.
‘You’re gunna leave me here, aren’t ya?’
Mum smiled guiltily. ‘You’ll love it here. Look at all the kids the same age
as you. You’ll make friends. All children have to go to school someday.
You’re growing up.’
‘So what?’
‘So, when you turn six, you have to go to school, that’s the law. I couldn’t
keep you home, even if I wanted to. Now don’t be silly, Sally, I’ll stay with
you till the bell goes.’
‘What bell?’
‘Oh … they ring a bell when it’s time for you to line up to go into your
class. And later on, they ring a bell when it’s time for you to leave.’
‘So I’m gunna spend all day listenin’ for bells?’
‘Sally,’ Mum reasoned in an exasperated kind of way, ‘don’t be like that.
You’ll learn here, and they’ll teach you how to add up. You love stories, don’t
you? ey’ll tell you stories.’
Just then, a tall, middle-aged lady, with hair the colour and shape of
macaroni, emerged from the rst classroom in the block.
‘May I have your attention please?’ she said loudly. Everyone
immediately stopped talking. ‘My name is Miss Glazberg.’
From my vantage point on the bottom step, I peered up slowly at her
long, thick legs and under her full skirt. Mum tapped me on the shoulder
and made me turn around. She thought I was curious about far too many
‘e bell will be going shortly,’ the tall lady informed the mothers, ‘and
when that happens I want you to instruct your children to line up in a
straight line on the bitumen playground. I hope you heard that too, children,
I will be checking to see who is the straightest. And I would appreciate it if
the mothers would all move off quickly and quietly aer the children have
lined up. at way, I will have plenty of time to settle them down and get to
know them.’
I glared at Mum.
‘I’ll come with you to the line,’ she whispered.
e bell rang suddenly, loudly, terrifyingly. I clutched Mum’s arm.
Slowly, she led me to where the other children were beginning to gather.
She removed my hands from her arm but I grabbed onto the skirt of her
dress. Some of the other mothers began moving off as instructed, waving as
they went. One little boy in front of me started to cry. Suddenly I wanted to
cry, too.
‘Come now, we can’t have this,’ said Miss Glazberg as she freed Mum’s
dress from my clutches. I kept my eyes down and grabbed onto another part
of Mum.
‘I have to go now, dear,’ Mum said desperately.
Miss Glazberg wrenched my ngers from around Mum’s thigh and said,
‘Say goodbye to your mother.’ It was too late, Mum had turned and ed to
the safety of the verandah.
‘Mum!’ I screamed as she hobbled off. ‘Come back!’
Despite the urgings of Miss Glazberg to follow the rest of the children
inside, I stood rmly rooted to the bitumen playground, screaming and
clutching for security my spotted, plastic toiletbag and a Vegemite sandwich.
By the beginning of second term at school, I had learnt to read, and was the
best reader in my class. Reading opened up new horizons for me, but it also
created a hunger that school couldn’t satisfy. Miss Glazberg could see no
reason for me to have a new book when the rest of the children in my class
were still struggling with the old one. Every day I endured the same old
adventures of Nip and Fluff, and every day I found my eyes drawn to the
back of the class where a small library was kept.
I pestered Mum so much about my reading that she nally dug up the
courage to ask my teacher if I could have a new book. It was very brave of
her. I felt quite proud, I knew she hated approaching my teacher about
‘I’m sorry, darling,’ Mum told me that night, ‘your teacher said you’ll be
getting a new book in Grade Two.’
ere weren’t many books at our house, but there were plenty of old
newspapers, and I started trying to read those. One day, I found Dad’s
plumbing manuals in a box in the laundry. I could work out some of the
pictures, but the words were too difficult.
Towards the end of second term, Miss Glazberg told us there was going
to be a night when all the parents came to school and looked at our work.
en, instead of our usual sheets of butcher’s paper, she passed out clean,
white rectangles that were at on one side and shiny on the other. I gazed in
awe at my paper, it was beautiful, and crying out for a beautiful picture.
‘Now children, I want you all to do your very best. It has to be a picture
of your mother and your father, and only the very best ones will be chosen
for display on Parents’ Night.’
ere was no doubt in my mind that mine would be one of the chosen
few. With great concentration and determination, I pored over my page,
crayoning and detailing my parents. I kept my arm over my work so no one
could copy. Suddenly, a hand tapped my shoulder and Miss Glazberg said,
‘Let me see yours, Sally.’ I sat back in my chair.
‘Ooh, goodness me!’ she muttered as she patted her heart. ‘Oh, my
goodness me. On no, dear, not like that. De nitely not like that!’
Before I could stop her, she picked up my page and walked quickly to her
desk. I watched in dismay as my big-bosomed, large-nippled mother and
well-equipped father disappeared with a scrunch into her personal bin. I was
hurt and embarrassed, the children around me snickered. It hadn’t occurred
to me you were meant to draw them with clothes on.
By the beginning of third term, I had developed an active dislike of
school. I was bored and lonely. Even though the other children talked to me,
I found it difficult to respond.
Dad didn’t seem to be very interested in my schooling, either. He never
asked me how I was going or whether I had any problems. In fact, the closest
contact Dad had with my education was a brutal encounter with my black
print pencil.
I was sitting on our old velvet lounge, sharpening the pencil for school,
and, just when I decided I was satis ed with its razor-sharp tip, Dad strolled
in and bent down to sit on the arm of my chair. Without thinking, I stood
my pencil pointy end upwards and watched as blue buttocks descended. On
contact, Dad leapt up in pain and swore loudly. As he swung around, I
waited for him to belt me. To my utter surprise, all he could manage to do
was splutter, ‘Go to your room!’
‘Why on earth did you do it, Sally?’ Mum asked as she escorted me down
the passage that led from the lounge room to the bedroom I shared with Jill
and Billy. I didn’t really know. Curiosity about cause and effect, I guess.
I was allowed certain privileges now I was at school. e best one was being
allowed to stay up later than the others and share Dad’s tea. He loved
seafood. He had a drinking mate with a boat, and if there was a good catch,
cray sh came our way. Fleshy, white cray sh and tomato dipped in vinegar,
that was Dad’s favourite meal. At rst, I hated the taste of vinegar, but I
gradually grew accustomed to it. I was careful not to eat a lot. I knew how
much Dad enjoyed crays. It was a happy time then; crays and tomato, Dad
and me.
I knew some of Dad’s tastes were a legacy of the war. at particular one
from the time Italian partisans had sheltered him from the Germans. I knew
all about the war. Dad had told me about his friends Guiseppe and Maria,
and their daughter Edema. He’d taught me to sing the Communist anthem
in Italian. I thought I was very clever being able to sing in another language.
We had some good times, then. Some nights, Dad would hide chocolates
in the deep pockets of his overalls and we were allowed to sh them out.
Sometimes, he’d laugh and joke, and when he swore, we knew he didn’t
really mean it.
Dad slipped in and out of our lives. He was oen in hospital for periods
of a few days to a month or so, and the longest he was at home at one time
was about three months; usually it was a lot less. When he rst came home
from hospital, he would be so doped up with drugs he wasn’t able to
communicate much. en, he would seem to be all right for a while, but
would rapidly deteriorate. He stayed in his room, drinking heavily, and
didn’t mix with us at all. And soon, he was back in hospital again.
Dad was a plumber by trade, but, when he was at home, he was oen out
of work. Every time he returned from hospital, he had to try and nd
another job. Mum provided the only steady income, with various part-time
jobs, mostly cleaning.
When Dad was happy, I wished he’d never change. I wanted him to be
like that forever, but there was always the war. Just when things seemed to be
looking up, it would intrude and overwhelm us. e war had never ended
for Dad. He lived with it day and night. It was a strange thing, because he’d
told me how important it was to be free, and I knew that Australia was a free
country, but Dad wasn’t free. ere were things in his head that wouldn’t go
away. Sometimes, I had the impression that if he could have got up and run
away from himself, he would have.
Part of the reason I was so unhappy at school was probably because I
was worrying about what was happening at home. Sometimes, I was so tired
I just wanted to lay my head on my desk and sleep. I only slept well at night
when Dad was in hospital; there were no arguments then.
I kept a vigil when Mum and Dad argued, so did Nan. I made a secret
pact with myself. Awake, I was my parents’ guardian angel; asleep, my power
was gone. I was worried that, one night, something terrible might happen
and I wouldn’t be awake to stop it. I was convinced I was all that lay between
them and a terrible chasm.
Some nights I’d try and understand what they were arguing about, but,
aer a while, their voices became indistinguishable from one another,
merging into angry abandonment. It was then I resorted to my pillow. I
pulled it down tightly over my head and tried to drown out the noise.
I was grateful Dad didn’t belt Mum. Although, one night, he did push
her and she fell. I’d been allowed to stay up late that night, and was squatting
on the kitchen oor and peering around the door jamb to see what had
happened. Mum just lay in a crumpled heap. I wondered why she didn’t get
up. I peered up at Dad, he was so tall he seemed to go on forever. He ran his
hand back through his hair, looked down on me, and groaned. Swearing
under his breath, he pushed roughly past Nan and staggered out to his room
on the back verandah. I felt sorry for Dad. He hated himself.
Nan hurried into the hall and hovered over Mum. As she helped her up,
she made sympathetic noises. Not words, just noises. I guess that’s how I
remember Nan all those early years — hovering, waiting for something to
I sat on the kitchen oor for a few minutes longer, then I crept quietly
into Mum’s room. I pressed my back up against the cool plaster wall, and
watched as Nan made a great show of tucking in the rugs around her. Nan’s
eyes were frightened, and her full bottom lip poked out and down. I oen
saw it like that. Otherwise, she wasn’t one to show much emotion.
I tried to think of something to say that would make things all right, but
my lips were glued together. Finally, Nan said, ‘If you haven’t got anything to
say, go to bed!’ I ed.
I’m in the army now
e task of enrolling another member of our family in school the following
year fell once again to Mum. I was pleased Jill was starting school. I felt sure
I would not be so lonely with her there.
As we joined the small groups of children and parents walking to school
that morning, I watched Jill curiously. She seemed neither excited nor
daunted by the prospect of being away from home. I put her calmness down
to ignorance, and felt sure that, once our walk led us within sight of school,
Jill would break down.
‘Hasn’t the school got a lovely garden, Jilly?’ Mum commented as we
rounded the last corner and approached the entrance.
‘Yeah, we’ve got roses like that.’
I narrowed my eyes and looked at her, not a tear in sight. Oh well, I
thought, wait till it’s time for Mum to leave, then it’ll be on.
Mum deposited me at the door of my new class, then, taking Jill’s hand,
she said, ‘Come on, I’ll show you the toilets.’
‘Are you coming, Sally?’ Jill asked.
‘Naah, saw ’em last year. Ask Mum to show ya the boys’ toilets, I’ve never
been in there.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Sally, Jilly doesn’t want to see the boys’ toilets.’
‘Yes I do!’
I watched as, a few minutes later, Jill emerged from her tour of the
‘What do I do now?’ she asked as she trotted up the verandah to me.
‘Aah, ya have to wait for the bell. at’s your class down there. Go and sit
with Mum on the step, she’ll be with you till the bell goes, but she won’t be
here all day.’
‘Okay.’ I scanned her face. Poor kid, I thought, it hasn’t sunk in yet.
Jill walked back and plopped down on the verandah step. I watched as
Mum smiled at her in exactly the same way she’d smiled at me the previous
year. Jill grinned back. Mum had actually convinced her she was going to
like school. She was so gullible, sometimes.
Within a few minutes, the bell was ringing loudly. Mum waved and
began moving off. I was shocked when Jill calmly took her place in the
queue that was forming at the front of her class.
Just before Mum disappeared completely from sight, I saw her cast an
anxious glance towards the Grade One line. Now, Jill, now! I thought. It was
the perfect moment. For some reason, Jill sensed my interest, and turned
and waved happily to me. I groaned in despair. She was obviously dumber
than I’d suspected. ‘Mum’s going now!’ I called out, but she was too busy
chatting to the boy in front of her to reply.
I watched with a mixture of envy and surprise as she continued talking
to the other children. ey were all strangers to her, and yet she seemed to
t in, somehow. I knew then that, when it came to school, Jill and I would
never agree.
My daydreaming was suddenly interrupted by a deep, grumbly voice
calling, ‘You girl, you with the long plaits, come here and pay attention.’ I felt
so embarrassed. I’d been so busy watching Jill that I’d failed to notice my
classmates had also formed a line.
My new teacher began slowly walking down the line, carefully
inspecting each of her forty charges. ‘Don’t slouch. Stomach in, chest out,
chin up!’ She tapped my chin lightly with her wooden ruler. I attempted to
follow her instructions, but found myself leaning so far backwards, I nearly
fell over.
We moved quietly into class and the presence of each one of us was duly
recorded in the roll book. When that was nished, our teacher drew herself
up to her full at-chested height of ve foot eleven inches and said, ‘I … am
Miss Roberts.’ Apart from her pause aer the word ‘I’, she spoke quickly and
very, very clearly.
‘Now children, I … am going to hand out some reading books. You will
all remain as quiet as mice while I’m doing this. en we will check to make
sure you have all brought the things you were supposed to bring.’
I smiled to myself, it wasn’t going to be so terrible aer all, my new book
was on its way.
I waited expectantly as Miss Roberts walked rst down one row and
then another. By the time she nally reached my desk, I was practically
brimming over with excitement. She placed my book on my desk, and I
couldn’t help groaning out loud. It seemed that Dick, Dora, Nip and Fluff
had somehow managed to graduate to Grade Two.
In a way, I felt sorry for them. None of them lived near a swamp, and
there was no mention of wild birds, snakes or goannas. All they ever did was
visit the toy shop and play ball with Nip. I resigned myself to another year of
ere was no comparison between Miss Roberts and my Grade One
teacher. If Mum had felt awkward about approaching Miss Glazberg, she was
positively terri ed when it came to Miss Roberts.
‘Has Miss Roberts ever been in the army, Mum?’ I asked her one
‘What a strange question, whatever makes you ask that?’
‘Well, sometimes she acts like a man.’
‘When we line up for school. She won’t let us in the class unless we’re all
straight and stiff. She pokes you in the stomach and says, “Stomach in, chest
out, eyes forward”. Dad told me they do that to you in the army.’
Mum laughed, it was obvious she thought I was exaggerating again.
However, the following week, she con ded to me over tea that it seemed
Miss Roberts had, indeed, been in the women’s army. One of the cleaners at
the school had told her. I found this information very interesting. Dad oen
talked about the army. He’d been too much of a nonconformist to take
naturally to army life. Now, I understood how he felt. I didn’t like being told
what to do either.
From then on, whenever I marched into class, I would silently sing an
old army ditty Dad had taught me.
I’m in the army now
I went to milk a cow
the cow let-off and I took off
I’m out of the army now!
Jill, Billy and I loved rude songs. We oen marched around the yard
singing that one. Billy beat on his old tin drum and Jill and I pretended to
blow army trumpets. I could play reveille, too. By placing a piece of paper
tightly over a comb and blowing on it, I could produce a high-pitched, farty
sort of sound that I could then manipulate into a recognisable tune. I learnt
to play many tunes on the comb, but reveille was my favourite.
Towards the end of rst term, I had an encounter with Miss Roberts that
wiped out any con dence I might have had for the rest of the year.
Our school seats comprised a heavy metal frame with jarrah slats spaced
across the seat and back. is proved unfortunate for me, because one day,
aer what seemed hours of holding my arm in the air trying to attract Miss
Roberts’ attention, I was unable to avoid wetting myself.
Miss Roberts had been intent on marking our latest tests and had failed
to notice my desperately ailing arm. But one of the clean, shiny-haired, nocavity girls next to me began to chant quietly, ‘You’ve wet ya pa-ants, you’ve
wet ya pa-ants!’
‘I have not,’ I denied hotly, ‘it’s just water under my chair.’
‘Oh yeah, well then, how come you’ve dumped all those hankies on it?’
She had me there.
By this time, most of the surrounding children were starting to giggle.
Miss Roberts raised her horn-rimmed eyes and said rmly, ‘Quiet
please!’ She stared at us a few seconds longer, obviously waiting for her
eagle-like gaze to have its usual effect. When the last giggle was giggled, she
pushed back her solid wooden chair, breathed deeply and said, ‘I … have an
announcement to make.’
We were very impressed with Miss Roberts’ use of the word ‘I’. For the
whole term, I had been convinced Miss Roberts was even more important
than the headmistress.
‘I … have nished marking your test papers.’ ere was complete silence
aer this statement. Under Miss Roberts’ reign, our weekly tests had
assumed great importance. We all waited anxiously to hear who had missed
the mark this time.
‘I … must commend you all on your efforts. All, except Rrrodney.’ She
always rolled her R’s when she said Rodney. You’d think he was her favourite
with the amount of attention she gave him. In fact, the opposite was true.
Rodney could do nothing right.
‘Rrrodney,’ she continued, ‘how many times have I told you bottom is
spelt b-o-t-t-o-m not b-u-m!’
Rodney grinned, and we all snickered, but were instantly checked by
Miss Roberts’ look of disgust. She disliked anything even slightly earthy. I
had a grudging admiration for Rodney. He’d been spelling bottom like that
for three weeks now. He was my kind of person.
‘Now,’ she said, in a way that made us all straighten up and give full
attention, ‘where is Sally, hmmmn?’ Resting her chin on her neck, she
peered around the class in an attempt to locate my nondescript brown face
amongst a sea of forty knowing smiles. ‘Oh, there you are, dear.’ I had been
cowering behind the girl in front of me, with my hands stuffed between my
legs in an attempt to prevent further trickles.
‘Sally has, for the first time this year, managed to complete her test
correctly. In fact, this week she is the only one to have done so.’ Pausing, she
allowed time for the greatness of my achievement to sink in. Everyone knew
what was coming next, and, mistaking the smothered raspberries and
giggles for eagerness, she said, ‘Well, come on Sally. Come out to the front
and hold up your book. I … can tell the class is anxious to see your work.’
Miss Roberts waited patiently as I rose carefully to my feet. I hurriedly
twisted the wet part of my dress around as far as I could, holding it tightly
bunched in my le hand. With my knees locked together, and my le elbow
jutting out at an unusual angle behind my back, I jerked spasmodically
forward. Fortunately, Miss Roberts was gazing in amazement at my test
book, and so was not confronted with the sight of my contorted body.
‘I … want you to hold it up to the class so they can all see it. Look how
eager they are to see a test that has scored one hundred per cent!’
Clutching my book in my right hand, I leant as far from Miss Roberts as
possible, lest she smell my condition.
My misshapen body must have alerted her to the fact that something
was wrong, because she snapped impatiently, ‘Hold the book with two
hands! And put your dress down, we are not interested in seeing your pants!’
A wave of giggling swept over the class. As I patted down the full skirt of
my blue cotton dress, Miss Roberts’ large, sensitive nostrils ared violently,
and she snorted in disgust.
Grasping me by the elbow, she hauled me back to my desk and, pointing
to the offending puddle, demanded, ‘And where have all those handkerchiefs
come from?’ Flinging back the lid of my desk, she shrieked, ‘Oh no! ere
are more in here!’ I felt so embarrassed. It was obvious she didn’t know what
to attack rst, my pile of dirty handkerchiefs nestled near my over owing jar
of pencil shavings, my collection of hardened orange peel, or my old apple
core turned brown and on the brink of mould.
Shaking her head in disbelief, she muttered, ‘You dirty, dirty girl.’ She
dragged me back to the front of the class and shoved me out the door.
‘Out you go, you are not to enter this class again. You sit out there and
dry off!’
I sat alone and wet on the hard jarrah bench.
My attitude towards school took an even more rapid downhill turn aer that
incident. I felt different from the other children in my class. ey were the
spick-and-span brigade, and I, the grubby offender.
Drinking men
ings at home weren’t getting any better, either. Dad was drinking more
than he was eating, he was very thin.
He had stopped even trying to get work, and was in hospital more than
he was at home. Gone were the days when he used to bring uffy baby
chickens home for us to play with. ere was a time when he couldn’t go
past a pet shop window without buying half-a-dozen little chickens for us.
He still lived in his favourite blue overalls, but he never hid tiny Nestles milk
chocolates in the deep pockets any more. He only hid himself, now. When
he was home, he never came out of his room. e only thing he seemed
interested in was the pub.
Our local pub was called the Raffles; it was situated on the banks of the
Swan River and had a Mediterranean outlook. Dad was popular at the
Raffles. ere was a huge group of returned soldiers who drank there. It was
like a club. Give Dad a few beers down the Raffles with his mates and he was
soon in another world. He forgot about us and Mum, and became one of the
We kids oen went to the pub with Dad. While he enjoyed himself in the
bar, we sat, bored and forgotten, in the car.
Summer was worst. Dad always wound the windows up and locked what
doors were lockable in case anyone should try to steal us. He forbade us ever
to get out the car. ese precautions meant that on hot summer’s nights, we
nearly suffocated.
One summer’s evening, I could stand it no longer. Dad had been gone
for ages, and I’d given up all hope of him returning with some bags of potato
chips. Somehow, the sweet, clean smell of the Swan River managed to
penetrate our glass and metal con nes. Like the wisp of a cloud on a misty
night, it oated around my shoulders and head, beckoning me to come.
‘Let’s go play down the river,’ I said suddenly. ‘Dad’s not going to bring us
any chips. He won’t notice we’ve gone.’
‘We’re supposed to stay in the car,’ Jill said as she eyed me doubtfully.
Two terms at school and she was a real stickler for convention.
‘Look Jill, there’s no use hanging around hoping he’ll turn up with
something. He’s forgotten about us again. I’m going whether you come or
e thought of a paddle was too much for Billy, who leapt out with me.
Jill followed, reluctantly. We wound our way quickly through the crowded
carpark and down to the sandy foreshore. We splashed and laughed and
built sandcastles decorated with bits of seaweed and stick.
Just as we were constructing an elaborate moat, a tall gure loomed
above the beach.
‘What the bloody hell are you kids doing down here. I told you to stay in
the car.’ Dad advanced menacingly, and we froze.
Suddenly, I yelled, ‘Well what did ya expect us to do, sit in the car all
night? You’ve been gone for ages and ya didn’t give us any chips!’ I stopped
abruptly, my mouth wide open. Where had my sudden bravery come from?
I oen had vehement thoughts, but I generally kept them to myself. Now I’d
done it.
Fortunately, Dad was as surprised as me. He stopped and stood looking
down at us. His gaze took in three haphazard sandcastles, and the beginning
of an elaborate irrigation system. Without another word, he ushered us
quietly to the car and took us home.
e following night, I stayed home with Mum. I’d decided the chances of
procuring a packet of chips were too slim. Billy and Jill insisted on going
with Dad. ‘ey’ll be in for another boring time,’ I told Mum as we waved
them goodbye.
Dad was home early that night. He was furious. Apparently, Jill had
become so bored she’d gone hunting for Dad in the public bar. Someone had
put her up on the counter and said, ‘All right, who owns this one?’ It was so
unlike Jill and, in Dad’s eyes, an unforgivable sin. e pub was his domain.
He felt she’d shown him up in front of his mates.
My father’s brothers were great drinkers too, and proud of it. e only one
who seemed different was Uncle John; he was a lot younger than Dad, and
we kids quite liked him. He always had a joke with us and never drank as
much as the others.
Even apart from our relations, we seemed surrounded by drinking men.
ere wasn’t one of Dad’s mates who was a teetotaller. I was always amazed
at how much a good man could drink. In fact, drinking seemed to be the
main hobby of everyone we mixed with. Dad’s mates, mostly ex-servicemen,
didn’t tend to bring their wives to our place. But the few women who were
included could generally hold their own when it came to drink.
I remember only one occasion when Grandpa actually came to our
house to help out in a practical way. ere were some tall gums that grew
close to the house and Dad wanted them chopped down. He said they were
a re hazard. Grandpa volunteered to help him. I sat on the back steps of the
verandah and watched as they both climbed high into the trees. I was sorry
to see the gums go. ey were tall and beautiful and I’d seen maggies nesting
in them.
‘Righto, Pop,’ Dad called as he positioned his saw. ‘You get that branch
on your side and I’ll tackle this one here.’
‘Righto, Bill.’ Grandpa was sweating like a pig and hadn’t had a drink for
at least half an hour.
‘Jeez, I could do with a cold one, Bill,’ he muttered as he sawed away.
Suddenly, there was a crack and then a splitting noise, followed by a
scream. Grandpa, and the branch he was sitting on, crashed to the ground.
Dad dropped his own saw and climbed down, shouting, ‘Not the branch ya
sitting on, ya stupid bastard!’
For the rest of the aernoon, Dad worked alone. Grandpa sat inside,
recuperating and drinking beer. By the time Dad drove him home, he was
too drunk to feel any pain.
Dad’s family oen came to our place for Christmas lunch. Actually, I
always found the two days before Christmas more exciting. Mum and Nan
cooked cakes and puddings, gave the house a real good clean, and prepared
the stuffing for the chickens. I was really excited, because we only ate
chicken once a year, and I loved it.
On the twenty-fourth of December, Dad would stride to the chook shed
armed with the axe. He always looked really determined, and I would sit and
think that maybe this year he’d do it. About ten minutes would pass, and
then he’d stride back again, with a clean axe and no chooks. War had spoilt
him for killing anything. He’d walk past me and hand the axe to Nan, who’d
be patiently waiting on the back verandah. ‘Jeez, I can’t do it Dais, you’ll
have to.’
It wasn’t a task Nan relished. She had a special relationship with the birds
and chooks we kept, but she knew we were too poor to be able to consider
her ner feelings. Within a few minutes, she’d be back with two limp chooks
and a bloody axe. ‘Come on Sal, time to gut.’
She’d spread newspaper over an old table we had on the back verandah,
and we’d set to work. I liked pulling out the feathers, because I was keen to
collect them. Jill would walk past and eye us both in disgust. Sometimes, to
scare her, I’d thrust a bloodied arm in her direction, and she’d scream and
run inside to Mum.
‘Aah, she’s got no guts.’
‘Well these chooks have, you get on with your work and leave poor Jilly
One Christmas, Grandpa told us all about the history of his family. ‘Aah,
yes,’ he sighed as he downed another cold one, ‘the Milroy men have always
been great gamblers and drinkers.’
I watched curiously as he brushed a tear from his eye. Give Grandpa a
few beers and he’d cry over anything.
‘In the early days, we were quite well off. Had a business in Albany, coffee
palace it was. By jeez, you could make a few bob then with all the bastards
that were comin’ into the country. As soon as the sailing ships docked, all
the owners of the boardinghouses, pubs, you name it, would rush down to
the harbour to try and capture the trade. “Come to my place”, one of them
would call. “A free drink with every feed and a lolly for the little-uns,”
another might shout. “Double helpings of pud for all the men. Anything you
want, we got!” Aah, the company was rough and ready, but business was
booming. ey all made a fortune, every last one. All except your greatgrandfather, he never got past the pub halfway down the main street!’
I suppose it’s not surprising that I developed a keen interest in drinking
and smoking at a young age. I was adept at rolling Dad’s cigarettes and then
passing them to him to light. I could pour a glass of beer with no head on it
in a few seconds. Dad encouraged me to sip from his glass, Mum protested
in vain. If she complained about the same thing too oen, Dad would go out
of his way to annoy her. He was a rebellious man.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the taste of beer sickened me. I thought
it tasted just the way I imagined urine to taste. And the fact that I’d heard
some of Dad’s mates refer to it as ‘e Piss’ only deepened my impression. I
decided that that was one tradition I wasn’t going to maintain.
e day Uncle Frank entered our lives, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. He
just blew in out of nowhere one day and Dad was very pleased to see him.
‘Oh God,’ Mum groaned as she eyed the brown paper bag tucked snugly
under Frank’s muscly arm. ‘at’s all Bill needs, more grog.’
I could tell by the gleam in Dad’s eyes that, contrary to Mum’s opinion,
he thought it was exactly what he needed. Mum gave them both e Silent
Treatment. She was sick of us mixing with drinking men.
‘You kids go out the back and play,’ she commanded as Dad and Frank
plonked themselves on the front porch. ‘He’s got the most dreadful
language,’ Mum whispered to Nan, ‘I don’t want the children hearing talk
like that.’
My ears instantly pricked up. What dreadful language?
‘Out you go, Sally,’ Mum repeated.
‘Okay, okay, I’m going,’ I sighed as I nipped down the back verandah
steps. It took only a few seconds for me to run around to the front of the
house, where I happily joined the drinking men on the porch.
Within a few minutes, Frank had me totally fascinated. He used so many
words I’d never heard before, and they all sounded exciting. I’d have given
anything to be able to talk like Frank.
‘Young lady,’ said Frank as he drained his glass, ‘do ya know this bastard
saved my life during the war?’
‘Jeez, give it a rest, Frank,’ Dad groaned.
I leaned forward, eagerly, in the hope that Frank would continue.
Suddenly, Mum popped her head around the front door. ‘Sally, you come
inside right now!’ I gave her a grin and turned back to face Frank. ‘Sally,’ she
whispered in a more determined way, ‘come inside.’
Dad hated in when Mum began whispering from the doorway. He knew
she kept her voice down because of the neighbours, so he said loudly, ‘She’s
all bloody right!’ Dad didn’t give a damn what the neighbours thought.
Mum admitted defeat and disappeared back behind the door.
‘Aah yes, your father’s a silly bastard, doesn’t like me telling this story. I’m
gunna tell you!’ Frank pointed his brown, calloused nger towards me.
‘We were both poor bastards stuck on a POW transport bound for the
camps, Italian job she was, when Boom! a bloody Pommy sub got us right up
the Mediterranean! Jesus bloody Christ. I’ll never forget that one. Anyhow,
we stayed a oat and beached on the Greek coast. I couldn’t move. I was
wounded in the chest. I thought I’d cashed in me chips. en ya know what
‘No, what?’ I whispered.
‘is son-of-a-bitch,’ he jerked his thumb towards Dad, ‘heaved me over
his shoulder, dragged me up to the top deck and got me to shore. Christ-AllBloody-Mighty. I was no lightweight then, either. I made bloody sure I got a
look at his face before I passed out. I wasn’t going to forget a bastard like that
in a hurry.’ Frank threw back his tight, curly head and roared laughing.
‘Jeez, Frank,’ Dad said, ‘you were so bloody I thought you were dead
at made them both laugh. I thought they were very tough. Why was I
cursed with being a girl?
Frank visited regularly aer that. I loved to hear him talk about all the
crazy things that happened down on the Fremantle docks. He was always
bringing us around something that had happened to drop out of a crate. I
decided all his muscles must be due to all the crates he lied. He was always
talking about liing crates. He had the biggest, brownest belly I’d ever seen.
It was as tight as a drum. I’m sure you could have played a tune on it.
One day, I said to Mum, ‘How come Frank’s got such a big stomach, is it
all the work he does on the wharf?’
Mum laughed. ‘Dunno about work, more likely it’s all the food he eats,
and the way he washes it down with jugs of beer.’
I grew quite fond of Uncle Frank, but I never demonstrated my affection.
Kissing Uncle Frank would have been like kissing a barnacle, he had a lot of
rough edges.
Like Frank, Dad was the kind of man who enjoyed defying the odds. I think
it gave him a sense of power he didn’t normally have.
I’ll never forget when, in September that year, he took us on a picnic to
Roleystone. It was the only picnic I remember him taking us on. When he
wasn’t in hospital, he was rarely in a t state to drive far, even if he wanted
All year, Mum had been promising us that Dad would take us on a
picnic. We’d spent the May holidays playing down the swamp and visiting
Dad in hospital. Now, we were halfway through the August holidays and
we’d given up all hope of the picnic ever eventuating. So we were very
surprised when, one sunny Saturday morning, Dad said, ‘Right, we’re off to
the hills.’
We had an old 1948 Ford van by then. e Studebaker we had had for
years was up on blocks in the drive; it was another one of those things Dad
hadn’t gotten around to xing. e van had been a gi from one of Dad’s old
employers. When Dad was sober, he was a good worker, and it had been
given to him in appreciation of a job well done.
e van had no back doors, just a big open back. e roof was padded
with kapok, and so, uffy pieces poked through the torn lining.
In summer the van was great, because it let in the breeze, but in winter,
the roof acted like a sponge, soaking up the rain and depositing lumps of
soggy kapok into our laps. While we shouted our complaints from the back,
Mum sat, dry as a bone, in the cab, giggling away.
She’d con ded to me once that she’d learned to laugh over difficult
situations early in life, but I found this philosophy no comfort when it came
to smelly, wet kapok.
e roads around Roleystone were narrow, steep and winding, and going
for a picnic to the hills was no tame, family outing, it was a real adventure.
Once we’d eaten our camp pie sandwiches and stuffed down the cake
Mum had cooked, we all ran, screaming, into the bush. We spent hours
collecting stones, insects, rocks and wild owers. We knew that, when we
returned home, Nan would ask us what we’d found. She loved the bush, and
always made us hand over any of our treasures that she thought could have
special signi cance.
Too soon Mum began shouting for us to return to the car. We played a
bit longer, but when we heard Dad tooting the horn, we knew he meant
Billy, Jill and I leapt in the back, while Mum took her usual place in the
front, holding our baby brother David on her lap.
It wasn’t too long before we began to realise what a difficult task Dad had
trying to manoeuvre the van around on a tiny section of bitumen. He had a
rough gravel track ahead of him, a cliff face on one side and a deep bush
valley on the other. We all hung on tightly as he backed towards the edge of
the bitumen and closer to the valley.
In sudden terror, we pressed as close to the cab as we could. With no
back doors to hold us in, we feared that one sudden brake from Dad and
we’d be catapulted into oblivion.
To our horror, Dad failed to brake at all. Instead, he continued to back
closer and closer to the precipice. e wheels may have been on safe ground,
but we felt practically airborne. Worse than that, the back of the van now
sloped down, making it even more difficult for us to hold on. We began to
‘Shut up, you bloody kids!’ Dad roared as he poked his head out the side
window. He edged a few inches more and we screamed louder.
‘For God’s sake, Bill, stop! We’re going over the edge,’ Mum shrieked as
she clasped his shoulder. She was scared of heights. Her obvious panic
incited us to greater efforts. We squashed our faces against the small window
that separated the front cab from the back and, without taking a breath, we
screamed as loud and as long as we could.
‘Bill, please.’
‘Listen, Glad, you bloody stupid woman, I know what I’m doing!’
‘Bill, stop! You can kill yourself if you want to, but you’re not going to
bloody kill the rest of us!’
By this time, Dad had had enough. He pulled on the handbrake and
shouted, ‘Get out, the bloody lot of you!’
We eagerly clambered to safety and stood in a nearby gully. We watched
helplessly as Dad continued with what, we were sure, would be a death
plunge. e back wheels rolled off the bitumen and spun on the loose gravel.
ere was a sudden roar of the engine as the van leapt forward and Dad
neatly executed an awkward turn. With a look of smug satisfaction, he told
us to get in.
Mum was quiet all the way home. Dad whistled.
Nineteen y-nine, and another Milroy began school. Billy’s initial reaction
was similar to mine, he hated it. Every morning when we set off for school,
Billy lagged behind, sobbing. How he managed to walk straight and not trip
over always puzzled me, because while his body was trudging in the
direction of school, his face was turned backwards towards our house.
He knew that Mum would be watching us from behind the curtains,
and, if he looked really upset, she might weaken and call him back. Some
days, he began his sobbing ritual so early that by the time we le, his face
was red and puffy, his nose snotty and snorting. ese occasions were
generally too much for Mum, who only let him get as far as our letterbox
before calling him back.
Billy’s unhappiness at school never spilled over into recess and
lunchtime. He was the kind of boy other boys looked up to, so he was never
short of a pal. Billy was the image of Dad and, when it came to mateship,
exactly like him.
Nan had a so spot for Billy, too. She supported him in his dislike of
school. ‘Let him have the day off, Glad,’ she pleaded when Billy began his
crying routine, ‘the child’s not well.’
To Billy’s credit, he didn’t look well. I attempted to copy his mournful
look several times, but to no avail. Aer a few pathetic attempts, it became
obvious that what worked for Billy would not work for me. I had to resort to
more deceitful means.
I found that a light spattering of talcum powder, rubbed rst into my
hands and then patted lightly over my face, worked wonderfully well.
‘I feel really sick in the stomach, Nan,’ I groaned as she gazed at my pale
face. ‘I think I’m gunna vomit.’ Nan grabbed an empty saucepan and bent
me over it. Aer emitting a few strangled noises, I straightened up and said,
‘It’s no use, it’s gone down again.’
‘Go and lie down,’ Nan instructed, ‘I’ll send your mother in.’
Within a few minutes, Mum was standing by my bedside, looking
extremely sceptical. ‘Sally … are you really sick?’
Nan always interrupted, ‘Course she’s sick, Glad, look at the child’s face.’
‘I’m not puttin’ it on, Mum, honest. I feel real crook. Maybe I’ll be better
by lunchtime. Nan can send me to school then.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Sally,’ Nan countered, rising to the bait, ‘you can’t go to
school, you’ll pass out.’
‘All right,’ Mum relented, ‘you can stay home, but don’t eat anything and
stay in bed.’
Jill wandered in aer Mum and Nan had le and said, ‘You’re rotten.
You’re not really sick, are you?’
‘Course I am! Go away, you’re makin’ me feel sick. Mu-um, tell Jill to go
away, she’s makin’ me feel worse.’
‘You come out of there, Jilly. You let Sally sleep.’ Jill gave me a disgusted
look and walked off.
Once Jill and Billy had le for school, and Mum had le for her parttime job in Boans’ Floral Department, I called out to Nan, ‘I’m feelin’ a bit
better Nan. Do ya think I could eat something?’
Nan pottered in, with her old tea towel slung over her shoulder, and said,
‘Oooh, you still look white, Sally. I don’t think you eat enough, your mother
can’t expect you to get better if you’re not going to eat. You stay there and I’ll
bring in some toast and a hot cup of tea.’
Aer six or so rounds of toast and jam and a couple of mugs of tea, I said
to Nan, ‘Gee, it’s stuffy in here, Nan.’
‘Yes, it is, go and sit outside, there’s nothin’ like a bit of fresh air when
you’re sick in the stomach.’
Nan only spoke to me aer that to tell me when lunch was ready. I spent
the rest of the day outdoors, playing all my usual games and climbing trees.
I was sitting on the back verandah step, inspecting the cache of small
rocks I’d collected, when Mum returned home from her day at work.
‘How’s Sally?’
‘Hmmph, she’s all right,’ Nan grumbled. And then, with a giggle, she
added, ‘Been sittin’ in that tree all day.’
Mum wandered out. ‘Another miraculous recovery, eh Sal?’
‘Yeah, dunno what it was, Mum, but I hope I don’t get it again.’
‘Don’t hope too much.’
Apart from learning different ways to feign illness, there wasn’t much to
school that year. All my lessons seemed unrelated to real life. I oen
wondered how my teacher could be so interested in the sums I got wrong,
and so disinterested in the games I played outside school, and whether Dad
was home from hospital or not.
e best thing about school was that Grades Two and ree shared the
same room, so this meant I saw more of Jill and we sat near one another.
One aernoon, our teacher asked if there were any children in the class
who could sing in a foreign language. Four children immediately raised their
hands, Jill and I included. At the teacher’s instruction, the rst two kids got
up and sang ‘Frere Jacques’ one aer the other. en it was Jill’s and my turn.
We were both very shy and embarrassed and walked to the front with our
eyes down.
We linked arms and then, swaying energetically back and forth, loudly
sang ‘e Internationale’ in Italian.
Mrs White was as stunned as the rest of our class at our sudden show of
theatrical talent. We usually shunned any form of public display. ‘Lovely,
girls,’ she nally said, ‘lovely.’
Dad was in hospital at the time so we were unable to tell him how we’d
performed, but we knew that he would have been proud of us.
Whenever Dad was in hospital, Mum and Nan went out of their way to
make home a nice place for us. We were allowed to stay up late, and we
didn’t have to worry about keeping quiet. It was much more relaxed.
Sometimes, Mum even scraped together enough money to shout Jill,
Billy and me to the local outdoor theatre.
e theatre fascinated us. We loved the gaily striped canvas seats, the
large spotlights and the huge white screen. It was such a magical place, we
even felt excited during intermission.
But one of the best nights we had there was the time Mum provided the
Aer we paid our threepence entry fee, we walked up and down,
searching for four empty seats. Mum reckoned we’d be lucky to nd any,
because they always sold more tickets than they had seats. We were
fortunate, Billy’s keen eyes spotted four beauties.
‘Over there, Mum,’ he shouted. ‘Look over there.’
Mum looked in the direction he was pointing and sighed: they were in
the middle row of the centre block, and almost impossible to get at. e
rows of seats were so narrowly spaced it was difficult to walk between them,
even when they were vacant. Only a fool, or someone very brave, would
consider trying to claim them when all the surrounding seats were full, and,
when one of our party happened to be a woman who was eight months
pregnant …
‘ere must be somewhere else,’ Mum said helplessly as she glanced
around the over owing theatre.
‘ere’s not, Mum,’ I said matter-of-factly. ‘If we want to sit together, it’ll
have to be those.’
As we struggled over the various arms and legs jutting in our path, Mum
kept apologising, ‘I’m sorry, I’m awfully sorry. Please excuse me …’ By the
time we reached the empty seats, Mum was blushing and exhausted.
Darkness descended and we all grinned when we heard Mum breathe
out. She responded by giving us a no-nonsense look that said shut up and
watch the picture!
It was halfway through a new item on the Queen Mother that Mum
disappeared. ere was a sudden rip, following by an urgent gurgling noise.
All we could see was her desperately ailing arms and legs.
Fumbling in the dark, we managed to grasp her hands and tried the old
heave-ho, but to no avail. A sympathetic chap in front leaned over the hard
metal railing that separated each row and gave us a hand. As he pulled, we
pushed Mum’s feet towards the ground in the hope that it would give her
more leverage. Instead, our fake grunts and groans sent her into a t of
giggles, which was no help at all.
e newsreel rolled on, but the Queen Mum’s nal wave was totally
ignored. A lady kindly went to fetch the manager, and returned with the
bouncer as well. When they reached Mum, she was a quivering, giggling
mass and we were near hysteria.
By the end of the newsreel, Mum was free. Embarrassed, but free. She
was supplied with a hard metal chair to sit on, and a small bottle of lime cool
drink by way of compensation. Mum consoled herself with the fact that at
least it hadn’t been necessary to turn on the lights.
It was early in Grade ree that I developed my infallible Look At e
Lunch method for telling which part of Manning my classmates came from.
I knew I came from the rough-and-tumble part, where there were teenage
gangs called Bodgies and Widgies, and where hardly anyone looked aer
their garden. ere was another part of Manning that, before I’d started
school, I had been unaware of. e residents there preferred to call it Como.
e houses were similar, only in better condition. e gardens were neat and
tidy, and I’d heard there was carpet on the oors.
Children from Como always had totally different lunches to children
from Manning. ey had pieces of salad, chopped up and sealed in plastic
containers. eir cake was wrapped neatly in grease-proof paper, and they
had real cordial in a proper ask. ere was a kid in our class whose parents
were so wealthy that they gave him bacon sandwiches for lunch.
By contrast, kids from Manning drank from the water fountain and
carried sticky jam sandwiches in brown paper bags.
Nan normally made our sandwiches for school. She made them very
neatly, and, sometimes, she even cut the crusts off. I was convinced that
made our sandwiches special. ere were occasions when Mum took over
the sandwich making. Her lunches stand out in my mind as beacons of
social embarrassment. With a few de strokes, she could carve from an
unsuspecting loaf the most unusual slabs of bread. ese would then be
glued together with thick chunks of hardened butter and globules of jam or
Vegemite. Both, if she forgot to clean the knife between sandwiches. We
always felt relieved when, once again, Nan assumed the sandwich-making
In April that year, my youngest sister, Helen, was born. I found myself taking
an interest in her because at least she had the good sense not to be born on
my birthday. ere were ve of us now; I wondered how many more kids
Mum was going to try and squeeze into the house. Someone at school had
told me that babies were found under cabbage leaves. I was glad we never
grew cabbages.
Each year, our house seemed to get smaller. In my room, we had two
single beds lashed together with a bit of rope and a big, double kapok
mattress plonked on top. Jill, Billy and I slept in there, sometimes David too,
and, more oen than not, Nan as well. I loved that mattress. Whenever I lay
on it, I imagined I was sinking into a bed of feathers, just like a fairy
e kids at school were amazed to hear that I shared a bed with my
brother and sister. I never told them about the times we’d squeezed ve in
that bed. All my classmates had their own beds, some of them even had their
own rooms. I considered them disadvantaged. I couldn’t explain the happy
feeling of warm security I felt when we all snuggled in together.
Also, I found some of their attitudes to their brothers and sisters hard to
understand. ey didn’t seem to really like one another, and you never
caught them together at school. We were just the opposite. Billy, Jill and I
always spoke in the playground and we oen walked home together, too. We
felt our family was the most important thing in the world. One of the girls in
my class said, accusingly, one day, ‘Aah, you lot stick like glue,’ You’re right, I
thought, we do.
e kids at school had also begun asking us what country we came from.
is puzzled me because, up until then, I’d thought we were the same as
them. If we insisted that we came from Australia, they’d reply, ‘Yeah, but
what about ya parents, bet they didn’t come from Australia.’
One day, I tackled Mum about it as she washed the dishes.
‘What do you mean, “Where do we come from?”’
‘I mean, what country. e kids at school want to know what country we
come from. ey reckon we’re not Aussies. Are we Aussies, Mum?’
Mum was silent. Nan grunted in a cross sort of way, then got up from
the table and walked outside.
‘Come on, Mum, what are we?’
‘What do the kids at school say?’
‘Anything. Italian, Greek, Indian.’
‘Tell them you’re Indian.’
I got really excited, then. ‘Are we really? Indian!’ It sounded so exotic.
‘When did we come here?’ I added.
‘A long time ago,’ Mum replied. ‘Now, no more questions. You just tell
them you’re Indian.’
It was good to nally have an answer and it satis ed our playmates. ey
could quite believe we were Indian, they just didn’t want us pretending we
were Aussies when we weren’t.
Only a dream
By the time I was eight-and-a-half, an ambulance parked out the front of our
house was a neighbourhood tradition. It would come belting down our
street with the siren blaring on and off and halt abruptly at our front gate.
e ambulance officers knew just how to manage Dad, they were very rm,
but gentle. Usually, Dad teetered out awkwardly by himself, with the officers
on either side offering only token support. Other times, as when his le lung
collapsed, he went out on a grey-blanketed stretcher.
Jill, Billy and I accepted his comings and goings with the innocent
sel shness of children. We never doubted he’d be back.
Dad hated being in hospital, he reckoned the head shrinkers didn’t have
a clue. He got sick of being sedated. It was supposed to help him, but it never
I heard him telling Mum about how he’d woken up in hospital one night,
screaming. He thought he’d been captured again. ere was dirt in his
mouth and a ri e butt in his back. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t move.
Next thing he knew, the night sister was icking a torch in his eyes and
saying, ‘All tangled up again are we, Mr Milroy? It’s only a dream, you know.
No need to upset yourself.’
Dad laughed when he told Mum what the sister had said. Only a dream,
I thought. I was just a kid, and I knew it wasn’t a dream.
When Dad got really bad, and Mum and Nan feared the worst, our only
way out was a midnight it to Aunty Grace’s house. Other nights, the ve of
us were shut up in one room, and, sometimes, Mum put Helen and David,
the babies of the family, to bed in the back of the van. I was so envious. I
complained strongly to Mum, ‘It’s not fair! ey have all the adventures.
Why can’t I sleep in the van?’
‘Oh, don’t be silly, Sally, you don’t understand.’ She was right. I never
realised that if we had to leave the house suddenly, the babies would be the
most difficult to wake up.
Aunty Grace was a civilian widow who lived at the back of us. Nan had
knocked out six pickets in the back fence so we could easily run from our
yard to hers.
It oen puzzled me that we only needed a sanctuary at night. I
associated Dad’s bad ts with the darkness and never realised that, by dusk,
he’d be so tanked up with booze and drugs as to be just about completely
Many times, we were quietly woken in the dark and bundled off to
Grace’s house.
‘Sally … wake up. Get out of bed, but be very quiet.’
‘Aw, not again, Nan.’ It had been a bad two weeks.
‘Your mother’s waiting in the yard, you go out there while I wake Billy
and Jill.’
I walked quickly through the kitchen, scuttled across the verandah and
into the shadows, where Mum was standing with the babies.
Mum was rocking Helen to stop her from crying and David was leaning
against her legs, half asleep. I shook his shoulder. ‘Not yet, wake up, we’ll be
going soon.’ Nan shuffled down the steps with Billy and Jill, and we were on
our way.
‘No talking, you kids,’ Mum said, ‘and stay close.’
We followed the line of shadows to the rear of our yard. Just as we
neared the gap in the back picket fence, Dad ung open the door of his sleep
out and staggered onto the verandah, yelling abuse.
Oh no, I thought, he knows we’re leaving, he’s gunna come and get us!
We all crouched down and hid behind some bushes. ‘Stay low and be very
quiet,’ Mum whispered. I prayed Helen wouldn’t cry. I hardly breathed. I was
sure Dad would hear me if I did. I would feel terrible if my breathing led
him to where we were all hiding. I remembered all the stories Dad had told
me about the camps he’d been in. Horse’s Head Soup. ey’d had Horse’s
Head Soup, fur and all. e men fought over the eye because it was the only
bit of meat. I was shivering, I didn’t know whether it was from nerves or
cold. I remembered then that the Germans had stripped Dad naked and
forced him to stand for hours in the snow. His feet were always cold, that
must be why.
My heart was pounding. I suddenly understood what it had been like for
Dad and his friends; they’d felt just the way I was feeling now. Alone, and
very, very frightened.
For some reason, Dad stopped yelling and swearing; he peered out into
the darkness of the yard, and then he turned and shuffled back to his room.
‘Now, kids,’ Mum said. We didn’t need to be told twice. With unusual
speed, Billy, Jill and I darted through the gap to safety.
Within seconds, we were all grouped around Grace’s wood stove,
cooking toast and waiting for our cup of tea. I felt safe, now. Had I really
been so terri ed only a moment ago? It was a different world.
We never stayed at Aunty Grace’s long, just until Dad was back on an
even keel. Prior to our return, I would be sent to negotiate with him. ‘He’ll
listen to you,’ they said. I don’t think he ever did.
Aer my mother had bedded my brothers and sisters down on the oor
of Grace’s lounge, Nan walked me to the gap in the picket fence. Aer that, I
was on my own. One night, I told Nan I didn’t want to go, but she replied,
‘You must, there’s no one else.’
If I was really worried, she stood in the gap and watched me until I
reached the back verandah. She didn’t have to stand there long, fear of the
dark usually made my progress rapid.
My father’s room was the sleep out, and his light burnt all hours. I think
he disliked the dark as much as me.
Our house seemed particularly menacing. It was surrounded by all kinds
of eerie shadows, and I wondered if I’d nd something horrible when I got
there. I didn’t, there was only Dad sitting on his hard, narrow bed,
surrounded by empties. He always knew when I had come, quietly opening
his bedroom door when he heard the creak on the back verandah.
I took up my usual position on the end of his bed and dangled my feet
back and forth. e grey blanket I sat on was rough, and I plucked at it
Dad sat with his shoulders hunched. His hair, greased with Californian
Poppy, curled forward, one persistent lock dropping over his brow and
partly obscuring three deep parallel wrinkles. ey weren’t a sign of age, he
had a clear sort of face apart from them. ey reminded me of marks le in
damp dirt aer Nan had dug her spade in.
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask, who dug your wrinkles, Dad? I
knew it would make him cry. When Dad smiled, his eyes crinkled at the
corners. It was nice. He wasn’t smiling now, just waiting.
‘Dad, we’ll all come back if you’ll be good,’ I stated matter-offactly. I’d
inherited none of Mum’s natural diplomacy, but I sensed that Dad hated
being alone, so I started from there. He responded with his usual brief, wry
smile, and then gave me his usual answer, ‘I’ll let you all come back as long
as your grandmother doesn’t.’ He had a thing about Nanna.
‘You know we won’t come back without her, Dad,’ I said rmly. We both
knew Mum would never agree. How would she cope with him on her own?
And anyway, where would Nan go?
Dad ran his hand through his hair. It was a characteristic gesture; he was
thinking. Reaching behind his back and down the side of his bed, he pulled
out three unopened packets of potato chips. Slowly, he placed them one by
one in my lap. I could feel the pointed corner of one pack sticking through
the cotton of my thin summer dress and into my thigh. Suddenly my mouth
was full of water.
‘You can have them all,’ he said quietly, ‘if … you stay with me.’
Dad looked at me and I looked at the chips. ey were a rare treat. I
swallowed the water in my mouth and reluctantly handed them back. We
both understood it was a bribe. I was surprised Dad was trying to bribe me,
I knew that he knew it was wrong.
‘I always thought you liked your mother better than me.’ He didn’t really
mean it, it was just another ploy to get me to stay. Deep down, he
understood my decision. Reaching up, he opened the door and I walked out
onto the verandah. Click! went the lock and I was alone.
I walked towards the outside door and stopped. Maybe if I waited for a
while, he would call me back. Maybe he would say, ‘Here, Sally, have some
chips, anyway.’ ere was no harm in waiting. I squatted on the bare
verandah, time seemed to pass so slowly. I shuddered, the air was getting
cooler and damper.
Some sixth sense must have told him I was still there because his
bedroom door suddenly opened and light streamed out, illuminating my
small hunched gure. Towering over me, Dad yelled, ‘What the bloody hell
do you think you’re doing here, GET GOING!’ and he pointed in the
direction of Aunty Grace’s house.
I shot down the three back steps and sped along the track that cut
through our grass. With unexpected nimbleness, I leapt through the gap in
the back picket fence and, in no time at all, arrived panting at the door of
Aunty Grace’s laundry.
Mum and Nan always questioned me in detail about what Dad said. It
was never any different, he always said the same thing. ey’d nod their
heads seriously, as though everything I said was of great importance.
Once I’d nished telling them what he’d said, they’d then ask me how he
seemed. I found that a difficult question to answer, because Dad was more
aggressive towards them than he was towards me.
Eventually, I’d go to bed, and the following day, we generally returned
home. I guess Dad slept it off.
ere was only one occasion when Dad intruded into our sanctuary. We
were sitting in Grace’s kitchen, eating chip sandwiches, when he appeared
unexpectedly in the doorway. No one had heard him come, he could move
quietly when he wanted to.
We were all stunned. No one was sure what was going to happen. For
some reason. Dad didn’t seem to know what to do either. He looked at all of
us in a desperate kind of way, then he xed his gaze on Mum. I heard him
mumble something indistinct, but Mum didn’t reply. She just stood there,
holding the teapot. It was like she was frozen. I think it was her lack of
response that forced him to turn to me.
‘All right, Sally, which one of us do you love the most? Choose which one
of us you want to live with, your mother or me.’
I was as shocked as Mum. I wanted to shout, ‘Don’t do this to me, I’m
only a kid!’ but nothing came out. I had trouble getting my mouth to work
in those days.
Dad stayed a few seconds longer, then, in a resigned tone, he muttered, ‘I
knew you’d choose her,’ and le as quickly as he’d come.
at night, I found myself feeling sorry for Dad. He was so lost. I blamed
myself for being too young.
A change
It was halfway through the second term of my fourth year at school that I
suddenly discovered a friend. Our teacher began reading stories about
Winnie the Pooh every Wednesday. From then on, I was never sick on
Wednesdays. In a way, discovering Pooh was my salvation. He made me feel
more normal. I suppose I saw something of myself in him.
Pooh lived in a world of his own and he believed in magic, the same as
me. He wasn’t particularly good at anything, but everyone loved him,
anyway. I was fascinated by the way he could make an adventure out of
anything, even tracks in the snow. And while Pooh was obsessed with honey,
I was obsessed with drawing.
When I couldn’t nd any paper or pencils, I would sh small pieces of
charcoal from the re, and tear strips off the paperbark tree in our yard and
draw on that. I drew in the sand, on the footpath, the road, even on the walls
when Mum wasn’t looking. One day, a neighbour gave me a batch of oil
paints le over from a stint in prison. I felt like a real artist.
My drawings were very personal. I hated anyone watching me draw. I
didn’t even like people seeing my drawings when they were nished. I drew
for myself, not anyone else. One day, Mum asked me why I always drew sad
things. I hadn’t realised until then that my drawings were sad. I was shocked
to see my feelings glaring up at me from the page. I became even more
secretive about anything I drew aer that.
Dad never took any interest in my drawings, he was completely
enveloped in his own world. He never went to the pub now, we were too
poor to be able to afford the petrol. ere was never any money for toys,
clothes, furniture, barely enough for food, but always plenty for Dad’s beer.
Everything valuable had been hocked.
One day, Dad was so desperate that he raided our moneyboxes. I’ll never
forget our dismay when Jill and I found our little tin moneyboxes had been
opened with a can-opener and all our hard-won threepenny bits removed.
What was even more upsetting was that he’d opened them at the bottom,
and then placed them back on the shelf as though they’d never been
tampered with. We kept putting our money in and he kept taking it out.
‘Who knows how long we’ve been supplying him!’ I complained to Mum. I
felt really hurt: if Dad had asked me, I’d have given him the contents,
As usual, Mum saw the funny side of things.
‘How can you think it’s funny?’ I demanded. ‘It was a rotten trick!’
‘Can’t you see the funny side? It was such a childish thing to do.’
I knew what she meant, but I didn’t think it was funny. He was just like a
child sometimes. He never mended anything around the house, or took any
responsibility. I felt very disappointed in him.
Dad hated being poor, and I could forgive him for that, because I hated
it myself. He loved the luxuries working-class people couldn’t afford. If he
had been able to, he would have given us anything. Instead, his craving for
beer and his illness le us with nothing. I knew that Mum and Dad had had
dreams once. It wasn’t supposed to have turned out like this.
at year, Dad’s love of luxuries really broke our budget, but it also gave
us the status of being the rst family in our street to have television.
As he carried it in, an awkward-looking square on four pointy legs, and
tried to manoeuvre it through the front door, we all rushed at him excitedly.
‘Get out the bloody way, you kids,’ he yelled as he staggered into the hall.
Televisions were heavy in those days. A few more lunges and the hallowed
object was nally set down next to the power point in the lounge room.
We lined up in awe behind Dad, waiting for our rst glimpse of this
modern-day miracle. We were disappointed. All we saw was white ecks
darting across a grey screen, all we heard was a buzzing noise. While Mum
pressed the power point, Dad ddled with the knob marked vertical hold. It
was only aer they’d both banged the set several times that Dad realised the
rental people had forgotten to leave the aerial.
We all went racing out the front, hoping the ute that had delivered our
television set was still parked in the drive. ‘Jesus Bloody Christ!’ Dad swore
as he gazed up the long length of empty road. I shrugged my shoulders in
disappointment and went inside.
e aerial arrived the following day, but it never made the difference I
imagined it would. Grey, human-like gures became discernible and their
conversations with one another audible, but they didn’t impress me. I had
the feeling they weren’t quite sure of whatever it was they were supposed to
be doing.
In July, we had a surprise visit. We were all playing happily outside when
Mum called us in. ere was an urgency in her voice. What’s going on, I
thought. We don’t do midnight its during the day. I peeped into Dad’s
room on the way through. He was lying down, reading an old paper.
When we reached the hall, I stopped dead in my tracks. Mum grinned at
me and said, ‘Well, say hello, these are your cousins.’ As usual, my mouth
had difficulty working. e small group of dark children stared at me. ey
seemed shy, too. I felt such an idiot.
Just then, a very tall, dark man walked down and patted me on the head.
He had the biggest smile I’d ever seen. ‘is is Arthur,’ Mum said proudly,
‘he’s Nanna’s brother.’ I stared at him in shock. I didn’t know she had a
Arthur returned to the lounge room and us kids all sat on the oor,
giggling behind our hands and staring at one another. Mum slipped into the
kitchen to make a cup of tea. I glimpsed her going into Dad’s room. en
she returned, nished off the tea and dug out some biscuits. I helped pass
them around.
Mum said, very brightly, to Arthur, ‘He’s asleep. Perhaps he’ll wake up
before you leave.’ I knew she was lying, but I didn’t understand why. Sleep
never came easily to Dad.
Aer a while, they all le. I was surprised to hear Arthur speak English.
I thought maybe he could speak English and Indian, whereas the kids
probably only spoke Indian.
I don’t remember ever seeing them again while I was a child, but the
image of their smiling faces lodged deep in my memory. I oen wondered
about them. I wanted them to teach me Indian. I never said anything to
Mum. I knew, instinctively, that if I asked about them, she wouldn’t tell me
Dad seemed to be getting sicker and sicker. By the time September came
around, he had been in hospital more than he’d been home. At least he
managed to return for Jill’s birthday towards the end of September.
Mum asked a special favour of him that day. She wanted him to stay in
his room while the party was on. It was the rst party Jill had ever asked her
friends to, and Mum didn’t want Dad to spoil it by walking around, drunk.
To my surprise, he actually agreed.
It was halfway through a round of Queenie, Queenie, Who’s Got e
Ball that Dad appeared, a bottle and glass in his right hand. I watched as he
casually seated himself on the front porch and poured a glass of beer. Aer a
couple of drinks, he began to call out and make comments about the game
we were playing. Mum suddenly appeared behind him in the hall and began
to whisper crossly, ‘Bill, come inside, you’re making a fool of yourself, the
neighbours will hear you.’ As Mum’s whispers became more urgent, so Dad
re lled his glass more oen, he delighted in taking the mickey out of Mum.
One morning a few weeks later, Dad emerged from his room early, we
were just nishing breakfast. All the previous week, he’d been in hospital, so
we were surprised by the cheery look on his face. Nan hovered near the
table, intent on hurrying us along. She knew we’d seize on any pretext to
miss school.
‘Come on, you kids, you’ll be late,’ she grumbled when she noticed our
eating had slowed to a halt.
‘Aw, let then stay home, Dais,’ Dad said. ‘I’ll look aer them.’ Had I heard
right? I froze halfway through my last slice of toast and jam, it wasn’t like
Dad to interfere with anything to do with us. I’d heard him call Nan Dais
before. It was his way of charming her.
Nan was as surprised as me. She icked her dirty tea towel towards us
and muttered in her grumpiest voice, ‘ey have to go to school, Bill, they
can’t stay home.’ I sensed that she was unsure of herself, and beneath her
lowered lashes, she eyed Dad shrewdly.
‘Well, let little Billy stay then, Dais,’ Dad coaxed. I smiled, he’d called her
Dais again, how could she resist?
‘All right,’ Nan relented, ‘just Billy. Now, off you girls go!’
Billy waved at us smugly. Jill and I grumbled as we dressed. Nan had
always favoured the boys in our family, and now Dad was doing the same.
By lunchtime, we’d forgotten all about Billy. Jill and I had been taken off
normal classwork to help paint curtains for the school’s Parents’ Night,
which was held at the end of each year. We were halfway through drawing a
black swan family when the headmaster came down and told us we could go
home early. We were puzzled, but very pleased to be leaving before the other
Nan wasn’t happy when she saw us shuffling up the footpath.
‘What are you kids doing here? ey were supposed to keep you late at
We just shrugged our shoulders, neither Jill nor I had the faintest idea
what she was talking about.
‘Go outside and play,’ Nan ordered grumpily.
Jill immediately raced out the back to play with Billy, but I decided I’d
like something to eat rst. I was just coming out of the kitchen with a
Vegemite sandwich half stuffed in my mouth when the familiar sound of an
ambulance siren drew me to the front door. Nan stood impatiently on the
porch, she had her hand over her mouth. When she saw me, she turned
crossly and said, ‘I told you to go out the back and play!’
Two ambulance men hurried up the path. A stretcher case, I noted, as
they walked briskly through. In a few minutes, they returned, and I watched
as they carried Dad carefully, but quickly, down our faded red footpath. is
time, I couldn’t see his face.
Billy, Jill and David pushed up behind me, followed by Mrs Mainwaring,
our neighbour. Before I knew it, she’d ushered us into the lounge room and
told us to all sit down, as she had something important to say. It was then
that I noticed Mum squashed in the old cane chair in the corner of the
room. Nan hovered beside her, stuffing men’s handkerchiefs into her hand. It
occurred to me she already had more than enough.
‘What are ya crying for, Mum?’ I asked, puzzled. Whenever he’d gone
before, she hadn’t cried. Dad was like a boomerang. Mum continued to
sniffle. I tried to reassure her by saying con dently, ‘He always comes back,’
at which, she broke down completely and hid her face in a striped grey
‘Please sit down, Sally,’ said Mrs Mainwaring. ‘I have something to tell
you all.’ I obeyed instantly. She was a nice middle-aged lady and we were a
little in awe of her. Her home was very neat.
‘Now …’ she continued, ‘I have some bad news for you all.’ She paused
and took a deep breath.
‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ I was sure I said it out loud, but I couldn’t have,
because everyone ignored me.
‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ I repeated, but still no response. My heart was
pounding. Mrs Mainwaring’s lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear a word.
He was dead, I knew it, Dad was gone.
‘Now children, I want you all to go to your rooms.’ Somehow, this
sentence managed to penetrate my numb brain. I looked around at my
brothers and sisters, no one was moving. I craned my neck to look at Mum,
she was avoiding my gaze. We all looked blank. What were we going to do in
our rooms?
Mrs Mainwaring nally pulled each one of us up and ushered us out. As
I closed the bedroom door, Jill said, ‘What are we s’posed to do?’
I was shocked, it wasn’t like her not to know what the right thing was.
With the superior con dence of a nine-year-old, I ung myself stomachdown on the bed and said, ‘I s’pose we’d better cry.’
We cried for what seemed a long time, when our bedroom door slowly
opened and the freckled face of Billy peered around.
‘I’m going outside, who wants to come and play?’
‘You horrible boy,’ I growled, ‘don’t you know he’s dead?!’ Aer all, he’d
been with Dad all day. Billy vanished.
‘He doesn’t understand,’ Jill defended him as usual. ‘He doesn’t know
what he’s s’posed to do.’
We lay on our beds a few moments longer. I began to count the y
specks on the ceiling.
‘Sally … do ya think … we could … go outside and play now?’ Jill asked,
‘You’re as bad as Billy.’
‘Well at least I cried. at wasn’t easy, you know.’ Jill put her head under
her arm. I watched her silently.
‘Oh, come on then,’ I relented. And leaping up, we joined Billy in the
Family and friends
I felt very strongly about families sticking together. So strongly, in fact, that I
had a secret meeting with my brothers and sisters; for some reason, I was
frightened we would be put in an orphanage. I’d read about things like that
happening and I was determined it wouldn’t happen to us. We all pledged to
run away together if it looked like happening.
But we needn’t have worried. A couple of weeks aer Dad had died,
Mum informed us all that Billy was now the man of the house. is came as
a great surprise to me, because Billy was only six years old.
But Billy took Mum’s Man Of e House thing very seriously. For
example, whenever anything broke down, he insisted that it was his job to
x it. But, whenever Billy xed anything, Mum ended up having to pay out
money. So much so that when he accidentally locked himself in the toilet,
she felt like leaving him there.
‘I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a great inventor, one day,’ Mum said aer
she let him out. ‘He’s so interested in the way things go together.’ I just
grinned and listed the clock, the toaster, Dad’s old watch and David’s
clockwork train that were all now in pieces. Mum laughed, ‘Well, he has to
practise on something.’
Whenever one of us mentioned Dad’s death, Mum would say, ‘Never
mind, Billy’s the Man Of e House now. He’ll look aer us, won’t you
Billy?’ It was an old-fashioned thought, Billy was the eldest son. I think
Mum meant to reassure us with her statements, but she only confused us.
We wondered if Billy had special powers we didn’t know about.
A few months aer Dad’s death, Mum found out the contents of the
Coroner’s Report. e verdict was suicide. Mum was very upset. She had
told us all that the war had killed Dad. She’d xed it into our minds that
Dad’s death was due to something called War Causes.
In a way, the coroner did our family a favour. He attributed Dad’s suicide
to the aer-effects of war, and that meant there were no problems with Mum
obtaining a war pension. It was regular money at a time when we needed it.
e suicide verdict never worried me a great deal. ough I guess, like
Mum, it made me feel guilty and a little responsible. I knew there was
nothing any of us could do to bring Dad back, and, to a large extent, that
was a relief.
Fear had suddenly vanished from our lives. ere were no more
midnight its to Aunty Grace’s house, no more hospitals, no more
ambulances. We were on our own, but peace had returned. I was still afraid
of the dark, but I didn’t burrow under my pillow any more.
Dad’s death crystallised many things for me. I decided that, when I grew
up, I would never drink or marry a man who drank. e smell of alcohol,
especially beer, had the power to make me sick. I also decided that I would
never be poor. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of what we had, or the way we
lived, it was just that there were things I longed for that I knew only money
could buy. Like art paper and paints, piano lessons, a pink nylon dress and
bacon sandwiches.
It had also made me very choosy about different men who seemed keen
to befriend our family. ere was one local chap who was always keen to
take us on outings, but I knew he was only interested in Mum, not us. I’d
heard about men like him, they play up to the mother and get rid of the kids
on the sly. at was the only time in my life when I wanted to be a witch. I’d
have loved to turn him into a frog.
Mum growled at me several times for being so rude to him. is made
me really mad,…
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