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Sport 7: Winter 1991

♣ Olwyn Stewart — Mud, Dust and Angels

page 69

Olwyn Stewart

Mud, Dust and Angels

The other day I was reading a book in which Pt Wakefield was mentioned. One of those yellowing volumes they sell sometimes at the library for 50¢ each.

I felt the same tingle of excitement I used to feel as a child when I saw Pt Wakefield included in a map of South Australia. Admittedly the author used the past perfect tense to describe it, just as the cartographers had used pale italics to locate it. But nonetheless it was there. Outside observers agreed there was such a place.

'We had passed through Pt Wakefield, which was once the port for the Burra coppermines, and there had been glimpses of the distant blue St Vincent's Gulf. Right out in open country was a little old cemetery with enormous angels rearing up.'

What's this blue? I thought, once I recovered from the shock of seeing the words Pt Wakefield in print. Then I remembered the gulf did look blue from a distance. Pt Wakefield was built on its estuary end. A salt water river ran along one side of the town. This, dammed off in a couple of places, was called The Swimming Pool. Further out, narrow ridges of sand wove their way around mangrove swamps and were known as The Beach.

The Beach was the site for what euphemistically were called picnics.

There were quite a few clubs and societies in this town. They all had the same members, the secretary of one being the treasurer of another, and the president of yet another. They held their annual get togethers on The Beach.

There was an army camp nearby, and the soldiers would occasionally come up with the brilliant idea that a picnic on The Beach would be nice for the kids. People actually looked forward to these things. They had to find something to do between the Anzac Day Parade and the appearance of the Southern Aurora.

Among those who cared about such matters, The Beach was famous for its dodge tides. The army was there because of them. It was possible to shoot a missile eight miles out to sea, and then drive out later on the same day and page 70 view the damage. The army also benefited from the fact that the dust blowing in off the Adelaide Plains matched their summer uniform and the swamp water matched their winter uniform, which must have considerably reduced the cost of dry cleaning. The perpetual sound of gunfire, however, failed to make Pt Wakefield a lively town.

We would normally arrive at The Beach when the tide was at its lowest. Clean and glowing with optimism, the children would set out on the long trek across the mudflats in search of water. It was the logical thing to do. It was a beach after all. We carried buckets and hooks for catching crabs. Confidence began to wane and tempers fray before we were even half way there. The mud got deeper, blacker, stickier with each step, and there was nowhere to sit down and rest. By the time we reached the water's edge we would have long since stopped singing the rude words to the song about Davy Crockett, and started niggling.

Of course we would be uplifted for a few moments at the sight of the sea, and after about twenty minutes of wading around congratulating ourselves, and maybe even catching a few crabs, the tide would turn and we would have to race back to avoid drowning. The tide at The Beach did not wash in as it does in other places, but scuttled along with a quick crab-like gait, and you had to move fast to keep up with it. Inevitably sandshoes and buckets were lost, the fattest person would sink waist-deep into the mud, and while we were risking our lives to save him, a couple of toddlers would go missing. The crabs, angry and after vengeance, would scramble up the sides of the buckets, and the air would be filled with the despairing wails of children trying to run through mud with crustaceans dangling from their appendages.

By the time we reached the safety of the picnic spot the men would all be drunk, the women perched silently on the trunks of fallen mangroves, thin-lipped and simmering with glum fury. Skilfully avoiding eye contact with their wives the men would then proceed to light a fire and boil the remaining crabs in kerosene tins. You would try unsuccessfully to scrape the mud off yourself with whatever happened to be lying around, bat listlessly at mosquitoes, and wait, and wait, and wait ...

The men recalled these excursions as highly enjoyable, and would snort with laughter for weeks about how Norm, or Porky or Blue got so pissed he walked through the fire with his bare feet and didn't feel a thing.

The year my father died, my brother drove me up to Pt Wakefield, and page 71 I was delighted to see a picnic in progress. It must have been still in its early stages, because the people were clean and smiling. It was nice to see tradition being maintained.

Actually I was lying when I implied there was nothing to do between the Anzac Day Parade and the Southern Aurora. We had a cinema, Possum Kipling's Roadhouse, and a church hall, where Mr Walton played the piano and everyone danced The Military Two Step and The Pride of Erin. Not to mention two pubs, one of which had a garden containing enough rearing angels to rival the cemetery. Noteworthy visitors were shown around this garden; it was our main tourist attraction. It is easier to grow angels than plants, of course, in a place where you get ten inches of rain in a good year.

The mating ritual took place around the roadhouse, the cinema and the dance hall. There were always two or three old women with thinning grey curls who sat in the corner of the dance hall and knitted, while the youth of Pt Wakefield strutted and sauntered and flared with passion for the carefree couple of years between childhood and the dusty torpor of marriage to a second cousin.

'What a shame about Madeline,' the old women observed, when she turned twenty-three and was still unmarried.

To be respectable in Pt Wakefield you had to hold some official position, like Town Clerk, or own a shop, and simultaneously be very boring. A shop owner, who persisted in fighting at the pub, or throwing the local policeman into The Swimming Pool, could not be counted as respectable, but then neither could a boring silo worker. The Commanding Officer of the army camp was usually given honorary respectability, despite the fact that no one knew his relations.

People had names I can't imagine hearing anywhere else, except possibly as minor characters in a Tennessee Williams play. Names like Storky Griffiths, Rodney Milich, Golda Lucas, Sneaky Grigg and Russell Hissey. Sometimes railway sidings were given similar names, and it wasn't always easy to distinguish whether you were hearing gossip about a person or a location.

Education was not much admired, and school teachers did not enjoy the influence and respect they were granted elsewhere. No one waited outside the school with anxious eyes to discuss Storky's maths problems. Far from it.

It was most amusing to see the look of pale helplessness on the face of a page 72 new headmaster when Golda Lucas came in at ten o'clock one morning and announced, 'Mum said if you want Neville you can bloody well come and get him.'

Whenever I saw Mrs Griffiths she told me, 'If them teachers give you any trouble just walk out and come and get me. I'll deal with them.'

In spite of such discouragement a few of us went to the high school twenty miles away in Tony Bandini's bus. We may have been the intelligentsia of Pt Wakefield but over there we were not well thought of.

Balaklava, further inland and deep in the heart of wheat country, did not have the dank smell of swamp to keep its citizens in touch with reality, and they took respectability and boringness to astonishing extremes. The men wore undertaker's suits, the women hats and gloves, to go out and buy pig feed. They did not shout 'Have a go, ya mug!' at football matches. In fact they didn't go to sporting events or other entertainments to enjoy themselves, but rather as lay umpires, that is, to ensure that everything was being done according to the rules, and no one was getting laid in a nearby paddock. They too had their own peculiar breed of names. Hurtle Tiller, Tunk and Ryland Mobis spring to mind.

There are exceptions to every rule. A guy from Balaklava went to training college and was sent to teach in a one-room school next to a railway siding with about twenty pupils. There was not much to do in his cottage by the railway line, so he often went into town, to hit the booze with a few of his mates. Sometimes, as the children arrived at school, he would stick his head out the window and say, 'Go home and tell your mothers it's a public holiday.' Unfortunately a school inspector from Adelaide appeared on one of these free-range public holidays, and he was given the sack. This was a great pity, as everybody liked him.

About twice a term, the headmaster of the high school took Tony to one side and said, 'There have been complaints from the committee about horseplay on the Pt Wakefield bus, Mr Bandini, and we expect you to do something about it.'

Then we would get the lecture.

'Listena me, you kids. You can laugha, you can joka, you can muck around. But no play horse, the teacher don't like it.'

Tony was rich. He bought a lottery ticket each day and often won. Every second year he took a holiday in Italy. But he was not respectable, because he was illiterate, foreign and slightly weird. He lived alone in a one-room page 73 stone cottage, where he did cheap haircuts as well as driving the school bus. No one was particularly impressed by his visits to Italy, a place out there somewhere, like Pt Augusta and Adelaide.

Sometimes we were sent to look for mushrooms in the cemetery. Mushrooms in the Adelaide Plains do not present themselves as glistening white bubbles among lush green grass. That only happened in English fairytales. The ground was too hard for a thing as delicate as a mushroom to break through, and we wandered among the rearing angels watching out for little mounds of cracked earth. The colour green in nature was rare and exciting, making a brief appearance in late autumn or early winter. It was so inspiring to see I still regard green as a lucky colour.

The mushrooms we found were cooked up on woodstoves by broad faded women who wore aprons. Kitchens were large, and people sat around them, often till late at night, talking about murders, ghosts, peculiar births and religious experiences. Barry Griffiths was drinking beer in our kitchen when he told us in a trembling voice that he was saving up to buy his father the biggest tombstone in the Pt Wakefield cemetery.

I grow sentimental when I think about kitchens. My mother visits me here in New Zealand, and peeling potatoes, slicing beans, we unravel our lives and knit them up again, as if we were still in Pt Wakefield.

Houses were normally old and taken for granted, either hereditary or simply there. Quite a few people lived in dwellings that had been shops in the time when the copper mines were flourishing, and sailing ships were able to berth in the narrow estuary waters. A petrol station owner once built a modern house, like the ones in magazines, and it generated as much interest as the first satellite. Until I was about sixteen I associated the word 'mortgage' entirely with Dagwood comics.

If Pt Wakefield was the world, then Possum Kipling's Roadhouse was its New York City. Possum's stayed open all night, it had a juke box and was visited by a dizzying array of people who weren't related to one another. It's a very strange thing that Pt Wakefield had a main road running right alongside it, and still retained its oblivion to the world outside. Perhaps after a few generations people became as impervious as the earth they stood on.

I worked at Possum's after school and on weekend. Along with the smell of cheese and onion, ham and pineapple, beef and tomato, came the smell of exhilarating possibility. I wore waxy lipstick and carefully tousled hair, and was taken halfway to beautiful by the magic of interstate semis, highway page 74 pirate ships lit up and roaring in out of the night, their drivers zonked on speed and swaggering with laid back on-the-road charm. Brought to life by the joy and disappointment that blew in with the late night crowd from the Snowtown races.

Carol Cicollella worked with me, and I would go to her house every afternoon and tease her hair into the black lacquered beehive, without which she refused to be seen in public. It was a necessary part of her transformation from a lanky girl who skulked in the double bed she shared with two of her sisters, screaming 'Shut those fucking kids up before I kill them!', into the slow smiling madonna of the roadhouse.

To serve coffee to strangers at two am, to hear Hank Williams singing 'I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry' on the juke box, played especially for me by a truckdriver from Sydney with faraway eyes, was nearly as close to heaven as true friendship.