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Authors: Michael Costello

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BOOK: Season of Hate
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"You know your dad used to be the smartest boy in school. Dux, if I remember. Always studying. No wonder you ended up a GP."

I felt our chances of Dad just letting us spend our spare time catching tadpoles, or mucking around with Barry and Raymond or even him taking us swimming or fishing like Poppie did, fading fast; replaced with long weekends taken up with extra schoolwork.

"How's Mrs Renshaw, Sid?"

"Oh, as well as can be expected. Since you were here last, she's developed a touchy vagina." Within an instant, Mr Renshaw's face went the colour of an overripe tomato as he quickly corrected himself. "I mean a t-touch of
angina
." he stuttered. This always happened when he got flustered. Dad fought a smile.

"I'll be opening Monday if she needs to see me about her heart – or anything else. What else is news, Sid?"

This is what everybody asked of everyone in town – the quickest way the entire district's news got passed on. Little could happen without everyone finding out. Nan used to say there were times she felt she couldn't even sneeze 'without the whole blessed town knowing.' Though there were other times she concluded, 'when I was glad there were people who cared.'

The favourite spots for picking up all the gossip were at the barber's or the hairdresser's. Most of the news came via Pearl Binslow, who ran the local telephone exchange. She'd pass it on to the redoubtable Gwen Grady. After that, the whole town would know within hours.

Doug and I wandered around the store, both a little down. I know I was still thinking about our mother a bit and certain he was as well. Not having a mother singled us out from all our other friends who did. It made us different when we wanted desperately to fit in. We couldn't even remember what she looked like. Unlike Poppie and Nan whose wedding photo was on Nan's dresser, Dad didn't have one photo of himself and our mother anywhere, although he still wore his wedding ring.

Bored, Doug and I looked around the rest of the store. I held up a big pair of men's 'Y' fronts, stuck my finger through the fly and wiggled it about like a penis. Doug smiled and we both giggled behind our hands. We overheard Mr Renshaw telling about someone getting married and someone having their fourth grandchild, someone leaving and a new publican at the Exchange and that the Aboriginal Reserve was closing down shortly, before we wandered back to Dad. I pulled on the leg of his pants, to get his attention.

"Thanks for all the news, I best get these boys home. Seems they've got some homework they're busting to do." It was my turn to cross my eyes at Dad's comment – for Doug's eyes only.

"See you Sid. Thanks for everything," Dad added as we each took our brown paper wrapped uniforms from the counter.

"My pleasure, Harry. It's good to see you and the boys. Give my regards to Maureen."

The trip back to pick up the car in the laneway behind the surgery was interrupted at intervals. People, who had known Dad over the years, were reintroducing themselves and passing on their best wishes for his new practice. Everyone knew everyone in town.

Driving home we stopped at Green's Mixed Business on the corner of Casuarina and Main. Dad was welcomed into the store like he was royalty by an effusive Mr Green, greeting us with handshakes all around. He was bald on top and had little sunken piggy eyes peering out from under overgrown eyebrows, and when he spoke his lips barely parted. Dad purchased cheese, a loaf of bread and a jar of vegemite for our school sandwiches. Apart from the same sort of gossip as Mr Renshaw, he added as we walked out the door,

"I s'pose you heard about the Reserve closing, Doctor?"

"Harry's still my name."

"Yes, well Doctor, um Mister, Master Harry, I mean Harry …" He drew a deep breath. "… we were happy for it to stay open, but Sergeant Farrar's been instructed to turn off the water and close it down. Says he's just following Gov'ment's orders. The Aboriginal Welfare Board's bought the old Hudson place, you know, on the far end of Railway Street near the bush and's doing it up for a mob of them. Not ones from the Reserve but from out west. Movin' 'em right into the middle of town, if you don't mind. There's a meeting at the School of Arts about how we're gonna cope. This Frid'y at eight." His last words he had to call out from his shop verandah as Dad had already got in the car without bothering to answer him.

"You going?" Doug asked as we drove off.

"No Dougal."

Now it needs to be explained that when Dad called us by our full names, it was usually because he was mad at us and we were just about a second away from his threatened whack on the bum or a lecture, or else he had something on his mind. I elbowed Doug to keep him quiet, but nothing happened anyway. Dad remained deep in thought. And we left it at that. Occasionally he'd look past me in the middle of the front seat to Doug near the window, who was just staring at nothing in particular through the windscreen. It was a very quiet trip home.

School continued fairly uneventfully. Except Doug and I no longer sat together. After a monthly test, you were moved up or down in seating order depending on your overall marks. The second class had three rows of seats and we had three for third class. I was at the front of the second row for third class, next to Penny, the pretty curly-headed girl I met at that first assembly.

"My dad'th Thargeant Farrar," she lisped through two prominent buckteeth. She had a lovely smile.

Doug was halfway down the last row. Third class boys who got to the top seats of the first row, as a reward, were allowed to assist Father Prittenden as altar boys at Friday Benediction. The school taught all the kids in the area from all denominations and to serve at Benediction was the biggest honour anyone in the third class could win. But only if you were baptised Catholic.

Sometimes at home I did my best to help Doug with his school work, but he just didn't seem to be able to concentrate. Everything else though, social studies and geometry and sport – especially sport – he was good at. He was the fastest runner in our class and a good batsman at cricket. I was usually one of the last ones a captain would pick for his team and always, they'd send me way out where no balls ever seemed to go, which suited me fine.

However, when the side was desperate, when there was no one else left to bat, I'd get a go. Bradman I wasn't, but I usually managed a few runs. Once they were in a desperate situation against a side with Steve and his mates in it and needing the seven runs I scored for our side to win. It was the one and only time I was carried aloft from the field as a champion sportsman. Still, I liked reading better – about places and people, wars and the ancient civilisations like Greece and Rome and Egypt.

The hardest part for both of us was when the school reports came home. Dad regularly said 'just always do your best' and would never say one of us was better than the other. The things that got him mad though, were comments like 'bit of a daydreamer' or 'can be disruptive' or 'can do better', that seemed to always conclude Doug's reports. My reports, besides the scores for each subject out of one hundred, luckily ended with 'continues to show improvement' or 'excellent effort.' I felt a bit self-conscious about my school reports in the face of Doug's, but knew I only achieved them not through being smarter, but by the fact I worked harder. Doug was smart, just as smart as me. He could have achieved similar results, but for him the view outside the classroom window was always more enticing than the work on the blackboard. That was Doug.

Chapter Four

May was the month of Mary, as Sister Mary Placid kept on telling us. All religious readings and stories at school and church on Sundays were about Mary. She was the mother of Jesus and not Mary Magdalene who, as Sister pronounced when asked by a classmate, "was not related in
any
way whatsoever" to the Virgin Mary.

It seemed like the longest month ever. The 24th of May was Mary's Feast Day, known as Mary Help of Christians. Sister maintained that this was the real reason why we were celebrating it. Some adults said it was because it was Empire Day, initially in honour of Queen Victoria. None of that mattered to us. It was Cracker Night – our first Cracker Night in town.

For the whole month, every kid at school was on their best behaviour, with the promise of crackers as the reward from their parents. We'd all seen them on display at Green's the grocer and also the service station.

For Doug and me it meant besides the collecting of the eggs and watering of the gardens, we'd do extra things like sweeping the verandah, gathering the vegies for Nan, getting home early enough to set the table and keeping quiet when the news was on the wireless. We also declared a truce on kicking each other under the table. By the time the 24th came around, I swear, if there was anything more we could have possibly done, they'd be renaming it the Holy Day of Doug and Pat.

Cracker Night was weeks in the planning. Several bonfires were prepared around town, for it was also the chance for everyone to get rid of all that year's rubbish in one fell swoop. Our bonfire was for everyone in Main Street south of the Casuarina cross-street. Doug, Barry, Raymond, myself and some of the other boys dragged old palings, broken pieces of furniture, old tyres and any fallen branches we could find or that neighbours gave us, to a large clearing about fifteen yards in diameter. The men had made it a few weeks before in the long grass in the paddock behind Mr Symonds place. Mr Wood, Mr Symonds and other parents helped us build the bonfire on the weekends. Mr Green even gave us some old fruit crates.

Old mattresses, the furniture and tyres were stacked into a big pile. These were then surrounded with the palings to form an overall conical shape. Branches, twigs, old newspapers, smaller bushes and garden clippings and anything else that would burn, were stuffed in and around the base. Miss Bridget gave us some old sheets and a mop, which we made into a ghost to sit on the top. Nan donated an old hat to put on top of its head.

The momentous night finally came. The sun was just about gone from the cloudless sky and there was a coolness moving in from the west. It was due to start half an hour after sundown. Dad was late home again. It was becoming a weekly occurrence. We'd had our tea and bath and were lying on the verandah, watching for him to drive up the road. The build up for the night's events had made us all excited and jittery with anticipation.

Eventually we saw his car with its parking lights on, coming from the southern instead of his surgery at the town end of Main Street. As he drove into the driveway and parked under the house, we rushed the car.

"Well boys, this is a warm reception I must say."

He got out of the car with only his medical bag. Our hearts sank. In an instant we did our own check of both the front and back seats before running after him as he entered the house.

"What's up with you two tonight? You seem all worked up over something."

"We've had our bath and tea, and done all our chores –" Doug began.

"And our room's tidy," I added.

"Well that's very commendable of you both." He washed his hands in the kitchen sink as Nan got his plate of smoked cod from the oven.

"Have you forgotten what day it is?" Doug asked.

"No, we always have fish on a Friday."

"Stop teasin' 'em," Nan urged, adding, "They've been good all week." Dad smiled.

"Oh, Cracker Night. Here. You missed the boot." He tossed the car keys to us.

I caught them and ran through the hall, out the door and down the front steps. Doug followed so close behind, I could feel his breath on my neck. We grabbed two large paper bags from the boot and ran inside to the lounge room. We each scattered our bag's contents on the floor, running our fingers over the crackers as eagerly as a pirate drooling over stolen treasure.

There were sparklers, tom thumbs, sky rockets, Catherine wheels, flower pots, roman candles, volcanoes and various other coloured crackers. As we counted the exact contents, I could overhear Dad and Nan's raised voices from the kitchen.

"What am I suppose to do, just leave them?" he argued.

"Son, I'm not sayin' what you're doin' isn't the right thing, it's just that people –"

"I don't care what people say or think! I'm a doctor first. Hey fellas, you got everything you wanted?" We rushed in and hugged him around the neck. "Once I finish tea and changed my clothes, we'll go over. Done all your homework?"

"Yes!" we cried. We watched every mouthful he took. He seemed to be eating even slower than ever.

"Just this once, why couldn't he wolf his food down," Doug whispered.

"Here you two, stop breathin' down yer father's neck. You'll give him indigestion. Help me pack the sliced damper for the soup."

One of the great things about Cracker Night, Nan reflected, was that, "It brought everyone together", on both sides of the street 'cept Miss Kitty of course. Through the afternoon people had set up trestle tables and chairs. And even though it was Friday, we would be allowed to eat meat – only because it was such a special night. Nan had made a big pot of pea and ham soup to reheat on a separate little fire Dad had made, away from the main bonfire. She made the same every year Dad said since he was a boy.

"No pea and ham soup ever tasted as good as Nan's pea and ham soup with damper on Cracker Night," he declared.

 

 

The air was clear and still as we waited for Dad and several of the other men to strike the matches at the base of the bonfire. First one of the dads poured some kerosene around the base then they struck matches and threw them at it. Whoosh! A feeling of something primal and dangerous began to grow inside me as I and all the kids stood around. Our eyes were the size of overcoat buttons as we watched the first flames grow then shoot up the height of the bonfire. We all cheered as they reached our ghostly figure, for only then could we start lighting the fireworks. All the crackers were pooled and placed in an old bathtub normally used to hold water for stock, who like pets, were moved far away from the night's activities. Honey was locked inside the Symonds' house.

Parents stayed with their children to supervise the selection of crackers. We were allowed to choose the coloured firework we wanted, but an adult had to put it in the mound of dirt specifically constructed for the night and light it. We were free to light our own sparklers though. What you usually did was get one ready to light off the one you were holding, before it went out; like the men that spilled out onto the street at the pub did with their cigarettes. We'd wave the sparkler about, making letters and numbers and words in the blackness.

Buckets of water were on the ready in case the fire got out of control and all shooting fireworks were pointed away from the creek and the wheat crop beyond. Bungers were to be saved for one last big noise. The older boys were allowed to join in with the men and light them, but they had to throw them well away from everyone. You had to be at least ten years old. They were also the only ones of the kids allowed to let off tom thumbs. That was how it was suppose to be, but they'd always pinch bungers early in the night and go off into the street and let them off. Steve let one off on purpose near the group and got yelled at, but no one took it too seriously.

In the distance, further into town, you could hear other groups of people celebrating around their bonfires. Wearing gloves, some men held the roman candles at arm's-length and had a contest to see whose one shot the coloured balls out the furtherest. Eric Horan the blacksmith, won. Dad was third.

At one point, looking away from our fire over to the creek, I could see through all the cracker smoke the hazy outline of a group. There were maybe eight or ten, men, women and children around a smaller camp fire, but without any crackers. They just stood and looked toward our bonfire.

Sky rockets whizzed high into the sky from the milk bottle launching pads, exploding into the darkness and filling the sky with more stars, while Catherine wheels placed on nails in fence posts spun out their bright colours. The flower pots and volcanoes were placed into the mound of earth then lit. It was so exciting watching from the safety of one of Nan's cuddles, Dad light the paper taper then stand aside as it slowly burnt away until a gush of sparks and colour spewed out the top. I loved Cracker Night. It was magic! It was just a truly magic, magic night I'll always remember. A night we never wanted to end.

And when there was nothing left in the bathtub, when the last bang, the last eruption of colour was over and the smell of smoke hung heavy in the damp air, we gathered with our mates around the tables to eat. Nan gave her permission for us to eat as much as we liked.

There were about fifty people I guess, all up. The women had pooled the food and gathered around the tables placing people's selections on plates for them. Nan ladled out the soup into mugs and placed them on the table next to the damper for people to help themselves. The men stood and ate with us before drifting off into little groups, drinking beer and talking. Mrs Symonds didn't disappoint either. All the kids waited to see what would be revealed from under her tea towels this time. It was a large tray piled high with coconut macaroons, with a small dot of strawberry jam on top of each one.

"I don't care if I don't get to the front of the class and get picked to do Benediction. I'd even happily go to Hell a native heathen, as long as they had coconut macaroons there," I declared to Barry.

At one stage I copped a sneaky elbow to the ribs from Steve. It caused me to drop my plate, as he and two of his mates pushed in between Barry and me. They laughed their heads off. While I picked up my plate and unbeknown to Steve, Doug dropped a golly in his trifle to pay him back. Only Mrs Symonds saw Doug do it. She made no fuss, just gave him a little wink. We all held our composure until we were at a safe enough distance, then cacked ourselves laughing as we watched Steve eat it all up. He and his mates just looked at us like we were morons.

There was more than plenty of food for everyone. Dad stayed with Mr and Mrs Symonds and us at the tables, helping Nan butter the still warm damper slices. Later, I wandered over with my replenished plate to where a group of the women clustered together. They were whispering amongst themselves about Mrs Wood's no-show, even though Steve brought along a sliced jam roly-poly she'd made.

"Three guesses and they all relate to her husband," stated Mrs Horan with a knowing look to the other women.

"If I was Pam I'd leave him. It can't be pleasant livin' with him and his drinkin'. He's alright through the week mind, sober as a judge. But come knock-off Frid'y through Sund'y, he just writes himself off. You know I'm not one to gossip, however, bein' right next door, you can't help but hear the rows over his pay packet, after he's come home from the pub. Have a look at him over there tonight and you'll see what I mean," sniffed Mrs Grady.

"She'll cop a gob-full tonight then for sure," observed Mrs Horan.

"Oh my Lord. I have to close me window it gets so bad," added Mrs Grady. "And a man that hits a woman is a bloody mongrel in my book. Pardon my French. You know I asked her once about some bruises on her arm and she covered by saying, 'Oh I must've bumped into some furniture.' Furniture my foot. It was like a handprint. And she had a swollen bruised eye another time. But you can't interfere in people's domestics. Up to them to sort it out, isn't it? And young Steve looks like he's following in his father's footsteps," she predicted.

"You should hear the language he uses to his mother. Even in the street," confirmed another.

"Needs a good kick up the bloody bum, if you ask me. Pardon my French," responded Mrs Grady.

"I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," added Nan through pursed lips. I wanted to find out more but Nan caught me eavesdropping and gave me one of her 'what are you doing here? This is none of your business' looks. I moved away.

At Nan's urging Dad decided to join the men. Doug stayed at the table but I tagged along. In one group Mr Horan was telling a joke.

"– So this woman gets on the tram with her baby and the conductor takes a squiz at the kid and says to the woman, 'That's the ugliest baby I've ever seen.' The flustered woman is lost for words and just moves to the back of the tram and says to the man she sits next to, 'That conductor just insulted me.' To which the man says, 'Why don't ya go back up there and give him a piece of yer mind? I'll mind yer monkey.'" The group all laughed themselves silly. We moved between them and another group where the men were all nodding and agreeing with Mr Green. Mr Symonds poured Dad a glass of his beer.

BOOK: Season of Hate
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