Chapter 8 LATER MACKS
In the meantime I went eagerly many times alone to Macks. Mum was finding all the exertion to get there was too stressful.
By now I knew what to expect. The first night I was always excused from the washing up. Every time I went, I found an addition or alteration to the house, a different activity on the farm and I was soon involved in their varied, busy lives.
"Is there still water in the shale pit?"
"Not too much. It hasn't rained for a while. Enough for a dip if it's warm enough."
"I haven't got a swimming costume anyway. My old one is worn out."
Mrs Mack chimed in in her soft English voice, that there was sure to be a spare pair around somewhere and if not she would make me a pair. In spite of years of hardship on the unprofitable Soldier Settler block in the harsh western climate and further years of struggle in this slightly more fertile district, without capital for machinery which would make it easier to farm the land, still Mrs Mack had her beautiful creamy complexion and optimistic outlook. Nine children to cook and sew for and she still had time to think of making a swimming costume for the visitor from the city! Gracey found me a cotton two-piece suit in a pretty plain green material, now too small for her developing body.
It was always an ordeal for me to get into the cold water. I ignored the advice of the those who had quickly dived or jumped in. I crept in painfully as my body acclimatised. Joining in the swimming and playing enticed me and I learnt to take something warm to wrap myself in to get back to the house.
Sometimes we children took our lunches down to the creek in a sugar bag and spent the day catching yabbies in the deep pools, or went for long walks to neighbouring farms or built cubby-houses in the bushes. Once we walked about six miles to the Colo River with lunches and a clock in a sugar bag. It was a good two-hour uphill walk home and we needed to know the time in order to be home before dark with the mussels we collected, to add to the evening meal. Lassie was always part of any activity. In time the dog was replaced with a younger dog, also a Collie, also Lassie. I thought all Collie dogs were Lassie (or maybe Laddie). Normally I was not a "morning" person but sometimes I forced myself to get up at four am to go rabbiting with the others in the half-light, bringing back the evening meal and rabbit skins which were saleable after being stretched inside out on frames and hung on a fence to dry. If someone killed a snake it became a casserole too. Even if we returned empty-handed, the tramp was exhilarating and there were things to see at every turn. Dinner would then be scrambled or boiled eggs.
The propagation of life was no mystery to these children, and I tried not to let them see how intrigued I was by the rabbit with unborn babies or the activity in the chook-yard at sunset. Of course country children knew all about reproduction. I had learned the bare facts of how but not really why. Why did Mrs Mack have so many children? It was obviously a big problem to have so many. Gracey was a few years older than I was and I learnt from her what to expect in adolescence. At the time sanitary pads were all home-made from soft cotton material and towelling or cotton wool and had to be washed.
When we wrote letters (I occasionally wrote home or to friends) or stories and poems or drew pictures for magazines, we put them in the mail box, an old milk can by the roadside, and put the flag up to indicate there was something in it. A mail delivery and collection once or twice a week was the limit of services. Sometimes the older children who had money to spend would send for a "magic trick", selected from a catalogue, which they used to baffle the younger ones. One I remember was a little closed box inside a cloth bag with firm elastic at the neck. A sixpence was borrowed from the audience and was found inside the box, having been placed in the "magician's" pocket and slid into a flat tube, which had previously been inserted in the flap of the box inside the bag. The tube was easily withdrawn, baffling the onlookers who could not repeat the trick without it. One of the boys was a good artist and for a while did a correspondence course. Sometimes he ordered drawing material which was not available in Windsor or Richmond and which came by post from Sydney. I admired his efforts and tried to copy them but didn't like the results.
In the evenings after the washing up was done, we talked or organised games. There was now a Tilley lamp which gave a much more powerful light in the kitchen or dining room. The younger children were not allowed to touch it, only Mr Mack or the older boys as there was a procedure to light it and pump to get the correct pressure at the right moment. We used the older lanterns or candles in the other rooms. We played checkers or cards, thumped on the old piano or ventured into chess. There was also a wind-up gramophone and the latest cowboy records. We shared long "shaggy dog stories", jokes, "knock knocks" and authors. "I spy" had progressed to "animal, vegetable or mineral" and simple card games to more complicated ones.
Also book titles such as "How I Earn my Living" by Robin Banks
"Jacks" (cleaned knuckle bones from leg of lamb) which we balanced on the back of our hand, tossed and caught, with variations.
Some I wondered if Mum would approve.
"Ikey Moses king of the Jews
Sold his wife for a pair of shoes
When the shoes began to wear
Ikey Moses began to swear
When the swearing began to stop
Ikey Moses bought a shop
When the shop began to sell
Ikey Moses bought a bell
When the bell began to ring
Ikey Moses bought a ring.
When the singing began to stop
Ikey Moses went off POP."
"A for 'orses, B for mutton, C for yourself D for ential, E for Adam (or a brick), F for vescence, G for police, H for ? I for?, J for oranges, K for ?, L for leather, M for sis, (or M for size), N for a dig, (or N for a lope), O for the garden wall, P for a penny, Q for a ticket, R for mo, S for?, T for two, U for me ( or U for mystic), V for la France, W for ?, X for breakfast, Y for husband, Z for breezes."
* * *
On New Year's Day other families were invited with home-made invitations and a two or three mile walk each way to deliver them. We made hooplas, lucky-dips and organised treasure hunts and other games and activities. All the children within walking distance came to join the fun.
"It's Johnny's birthday soon. Let's ask Mum if we can have a party."
"There's an acre of beans ready to be picked. It's all hands on deck until that is done. Then you can have your party."
When there was a crop to pick I helped in a limited way, I was slow, continually stopping to stretch and relieve my back, but would not give in before it was time to stop each day. They had organised a pump to bring water over the road from the shale pit and this ensured a water supply for a vegetable garden and some crops to sell, except in a prolonged drought when even the shale pit was empty and they were left with the dregs in the house tanks.
Each child planned and produced presents and games. A birthday was always an excuse for organising concerts or contests. The preparations kept us busy for days after the bean-picking and in the evenings. Eggs were plentiful, so it was permissible for us to make unlimited cakes. As there were only two girls in the family, and the boys were reluctant cooks, my services were required in the kitchen on these occasions - in spite of my deficiency in experience of cooking for large numbers for a party. I learnt to use a fuel stove. No doubt we children gained more than Johnny, now an adult.
I relished the fresh air, the activity with others both older and younger. In spite of a freckled skin which did not tan well, I became a healthy-looking brown from swimming and exploring and felt carefree, confident and very fortunate.
When there was a bad car accident near the shale pit and a number of young people were hurt, the drivers had wanted to put all the injured into the damaged cars and drive them to Windsor hospital. Luckily there were no major injuries and Mrs Mack insisted they were not to be moved. She sent Johnny to run the ten miles to Central Colo to call an ambulance. In the meantime she organised blankets and pillows and drinks for the injured. They applied for a telephone and some time later achieved that luxury.
Dawn and Grace
During term time the children had to walk several miles to the one-roomed school, where they were educated along with two or three other families in the district. At any one time the Mackintosh clan supplied half the pupils necessary to keep the school open. The youngest child seemed to be the last, so the school would have to look elsewhere for pupils. Gracey hoped that when she left school she could get a job as a nursing aid in Windsor. The older children, all boys, each left school as soon as they turned 14 and began their life's work on the farm or some allied occupation. They were all resilient and had an innate ability to use their initiate. Although tolerant of my eccentricities, they regarded me as most extraordinary, intending to go to High School next year to learn French and Chemistry and other mysterious and useless things. They didn't realise, and neither did I at the time, how much I learnt from sharing their lives.
"See these tracks. That's a dingo."
"Here's a wallaby."
"Look you can see where a bower bird has been."
"This is a good place for setting traps. See the rabbit dung."
One day, collecting the rabbits caught in the traps, we found a tiny possum whose mother was killed.
"We'll take it home for Gracey. She'll rear it like a baby. You should see some of the things she has looked after, even taken them to bed to keep them warm."
"Gracey once raised an orphan possum which ended up wrecking her room."
"Listen and you'll hear a lyrebird. It's imitating a whip-bird, but you can easily tell it's not really a whip-bird."
Oh really? I didn't admit my inability to hear anything special, but gradually began to learn.
The bush invited me so persuasively to explore and sometimes I found myself wandering further than I was allowed alone. Nobody gave me any credit for any "bush sense", but although I was sometimes delayed collecting wildflowers or diverting the creek, I was never lost. I developed a good sense of direction and felt very much at home in the bush although I never learned to wring the necks of rabbits or catch snakes.
I learnt that the Colo River was explored and parts settled from the very earliest days, the year after Governor Phillip arrived. Colo Heights was well above the river and had extensive views.
It must have been grand to be an early explorer, and continue on and on over each succeeding hill until coming to the last. If I had done so I might have seen the gorge containing the amazing Wollemi Pine. [When it was discovered 50? years later I felt a kind of vicarious pleasure. I had been there in spirit.] The first ridge didn't seem so very far and the temptation was great, but luckily for me, I resisted and most of my days were occupied joining in the normal children's games and jobs. No persuasion would have been needed to entice me to make my home there, it seemed an idyllic existence in holiday time. As the day approached for the next trip to town the children became keyed up with expectation. While they made their plans to spend their money earned by selling rabbit skins or picking beans or collecting eggs, I wandered off alone to gaze across those alluring mountains, standing row upon row.
Once when I had enough money for the fare Gracey and I went from Richmond in the little train called "Pansy" across the road, through the park, over the Hawkesbury River and up into the hills. For passengers to alight where there was no station, a ladder was put down. It was a noisy, rattley and slow train gaining height all the way with views of farms, orchards and fields until I could see almost to the ocean. Not the cliffs of the Jamieson Valley and Katoomba I had expected but I was not disappointed. "Pansy" could not turn round, but unhooked at a siding and went to the other end of the carriages where it was reattached and went down the hill backwards. This trip was quite an adventure. In holiday times there was an extra engine and six carriages.
One year when I arrived I learnt that Mrs Mack's mother was living in a nearby hut with hessian walls, but as she got older and more feeble, she came to live in the house. She tried to "help" by emptying the milk into the washing up or the chips for the fire into the pot of stew on top of the stove. We knew we had to be tolerant as she could not help it, but it must have been a big problem to Mrs Mack.
Eventually we heard that one day she had wandered away from home and was found drowned in the Colo River, nine miles way. The hut was later being used by other family or friends when a bush fire approached, neighbours took the furniture out and put it in the middle of the road for safety, but embers were blown into it and everything was burnt, and the hut escaped undamaged.
As each visit came to an end, Mrs Mack observed that I became very quiet. While I was with them I was caught up in their busy lives, but once back in the city I became despondent, living only for the next holiday. Travelling home I thought about melancholy poetry, sentimental stories about broken hearts and tragic things. I dwelt on things which bewildered me, the purpose of life, the perplexity of eternity, sickness, death, my scepticism about religion.
I stepped out of the steam train, my head awhirl from the unwonted suddenness with which I found myself thrust once more into the bustling surging crowds of Central Station amid the billowing steam and dirty smoke. In August it was dark, the station ill-lit and noisy, porters pushed hand-barrows or trolleys of glass water-beakers for the next passengers. People hurried hither and thither all busy. I felt there was nothing friendly, nothing peaceful, nothing constant, only a mad rush of people and trains, the crowding-in of buildings. Automatically I caught the Wynyard train, then the tram. The screeching of brakes of the tram woke me from my reverie, and despondently I got off and tramped across the road, gazing at all the fine houses until I came to one little three-roomed house. This was home, at least one room of it was. Here I was supposed to live and be happy.
Mum had a smile to welcome me home, but received only a brief, unaffectionate recognition of her words. There was a blackout due to a breakdown at Bunnerong power station and a candle, almost burnt-out, lit the room, casting long dancing shadows across the floor and tingeing the furniture with a faint red glow. The old familiar things wrapped in the disguising darkness seemed unfamiliar and unfriendly.
Later in the evening groups were roaming leisurely home from the pictures or other entertainment for those light-hearted people. Sleep came less easily. Hours passed and I still lay awake. Why did I have to face all this again? My sleep-destroying thoughts alternated between worry and excitement.
Mum wanted me to be independent, but conforming to her ideas. Until my trips to Colo Heights I had never spent all day, every day with children who thought for themselves, were creative, inventive, uninhibited, responsible, self-sufficient and felt no need to conform to other people's ideas. The Mackintoshes were Jehovah's Witnesses, but had a very liberal interpretation of the creed. While there I felt a lack of restriction, not only because of its country atmosphere. The older children acted without constant reference to anyone and largely solved their own problems.
Even compared with other people of the time, they had very little in the way of worldly comforts. The one luxury they acquired in time was a kerosene Silent Knight refrigerator which would keep food in an edible state for longer so they could buy more perishables in town and their own farm-butchering lasted better. We still bought meat and vegetables almost daily.
I would have gladly exchanged my home for theirs any day. As soon as I got back into it, I knew I would again enjoy school and the companionship of my friends who were always admiring of my adventurous life.