In the third of a series of posts about how the research for Secrets From The Dust relates to the novel, I look at the loneliness of life in the outback for European women, followed by two short scenes that illustrate Anne McDonald’s isolation.
Assisted immigration fuelled Australia’s growth during the 1960s. Half of all the assisted places went to the British, who were known as “ten pound poms” because of the cheapness of their assisted passages. The remaining places were filled by other Europeans under the white Australia policy, which was finally abandoned in 1973. From that point, many Asians were allowed to settle.
For Australians who had lived in the cities, never mind the Europeans, moving to the sun scorched outback was often a huge culture shock. It was particularly so for the women, who could often be left at isolated homesteads alone for long periods. Some of the features of these communities were:
- Men rode off to work on horseback early, with a stock whip, dog, axe, packed lunch and thermos of tea. They returned home late, tired and reeking of sweat.
- It was hard work for women—hand washing, ironing, chopping wood, mending fences. They were on their own for long stretches, with danger from strangers coming by.
- Typical of a small town was Mooloolah, which had a saw mill, a tiny post office which doubled as the general store, a small Methodist church, and a tiny primary school.
- The Post office and store was the centre of local activity and gossip for many bush-dwellers.
- The post arrived once a week into a tin box on a stump at the front of the house. Listening to the radio was an important way of connecting, with Sunday plays such as the serial Blue Hills being favourites.
- Many dairy farmers and their families lived in one-room shacks. The holdings were too small to make a profit and the work was never ending.
- A preacher might visit fortnightly to lead Sunday service.
- Those lucky enough to live close to the railways might get to watch TV at the stationmaster’s house.
- The women’s loneliness was more acute because outback men didn’t seem to talk very much. They found it difficult to talk to women, because there were times when they may not see a white woman for years. Mateship with other men became important to them.
Sean ploughed down his food like a hoarder, each spoonful reaching his mouth before the previous one had been fully chewed and swallowed. Even so he ate with a reverence that only people who plucked their meals from their own land could fully appreciate and understand.
Anne could see that he was happy with himself even though she was now back in her own room, and she wanted to ask him before he sat by the radio and fell into a sleep. She got to the end of the plait in Liz’s hair and summoned Margaret from in front of the open fire. “I was hoping we could go into Langley soon,” she said, as if to no one in particular. “We need to get some things for the girls and stock up on provisions.” Anne also needed to see a town with more than five buildings at its heart in order to remind her that she lived in the real world.
“Can’t do it this Saturday,” Sean said. “The Abbo boys are having some ceremony next weekend, so I need to get them to finish the planting this week. We’ll go next week.” With that, Sean got up, stretched his arms and rolled his neck, and then he walked out of the house and into the woods.
Anne’s fingers jumped to a dance in Margaret’s hair. They usually only went to Langley four times each year, and they had used those up already, but now he was prepared to go without any demands. She imagined herself walking down the street looking at people, new faces, probably summoning up the courage to say hello to one or two, and hopefully they would strike up a conversation, which, although she would shiver with stuttering unease, she would savour more than the iced creams from the general store. Just to talk out loud to someone other than the children or the women at church and get an interested response, if that was all she did, then the trip would be worthwhile. And maybe Sean would allow them to see one of those Hollywood movies at the theatre house, or with some luck they might have one of those Ealing movies on, and she might get to see what London looked like now.
“What’s an Abbo?” Margaret asked. The question caught Anne like a trap, and Liz stopped reading her book, but she kept her head down into the pages and waited to hear her mother’s answer.
“Why do you want to know that, Margaret?” Anne asked, trying to give herself time to think it through.
“Because Sister Ruth talked about Abbos at school, and Mr McDonald, he just talked about them, so I just wanted to know.”
Anne coughed up time enough to consider her answer and continued with the plaiting. “Well— they are desert people really— and I think some of them live in the bush. We have some of them close by and they help out on the farms and things like that.”
Margaret’s forehead remained wrinkled, as though Anne hadn’t said anything to help her understand what she needed to. She tried again, “Am I Abbo?” Margaret pressed her thighs against her hands like a vice, as if to squeeze life out of the possibility.
“No,” Anne chuckled haltingly, “Whoever gave you that idea?” Margaret shrugged her shoulders, and Anne tapped them with the comb to remind her not to do that. “You look more like a Southern European I told you, and that’s what you’re to tell Sister Ruth if she asks. The Aboriginals like to keep to themselves and have different ways about them, so you should leave them alone. And from now on when you go outside I want you to wear a bonnet to keep the sun off your face.” Anne tied off the end of the plait, “Now run along and get your things ready for school. And when you get back from school tomorrow I want you to take the scouring brush and scrub the kitchen floor as white as new.”
“Yes, Miss— Mrs McDonald.”
A car’s horn screamed as Sean swerved into its path, but even this angry blast and duel between two vehicles made a change to the silences of Malee.
Saturday afternoon was the busiest time for the high street, and Anne looked up and down at the afternoon strollers, some, like her, taking sustenance from seeing other people. Women loitered with two or three children in tow, and the parking bay of the general store was full. Most of the vehicles belonged to farmers from outlying areas, stocking up on groceries, and a group of them were talking and drinking on the boardwalk outside of a bar. She knew exactly where she had to go to buy the cloth for Liz and Margaret’s dresses, but she wanted to take a lingering stroll first, to steep herself in the life of the town. Several women were looking through the window of a new dress shop, and Anne and the girls crossed the road to join them. She stood at the end of the half circle peering through the window. Some of the women were giggling like pubescent girls and already in muted conversation. A burly woman turned to Anne, “Could you imagine me in one of those? Mind you, I’m sure my Alfred wouldn’t mind.” Her eyes, like Anne’s, were hungry for the sight of others, and her mouth and ears craving conversation. It was something that outback wives had in common.
“Does anyone really wear those,” Anne said, her usual reservation cloaked in the mist of her smouldering elation.
The dress ended halfway up the mannequin’s thigh, and the shoulder straps, which held it up, were hung low, revealing an ample amount of cleavage. On the wall behind the mannequin was a blown up photograph of the English model Jean Shrimpton, wearing one of the new minis at the Melbourne cup.
“They’re all the rage in London, we were there a month ago,” another woman said, and all turned towards her, an authority who had been in contact with the real world.
How do you think you would cope living in an outback community?
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