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Return to the Islands

Unofficial Interlude

Unofficial Interlude

The McClures returned to Ocean Island towards the middle of 1925 from a four and a half months' tour of Japan and Australia. In his brilliant, effortless way Reggie had written the greater part of a book1 at odd moments of his holiday and also, while in Australia, had dashed off for the Sydney Sunday Times a front-page article or two on Pacific naval strategy. Writing, never less than an agony for my labouring mind, was no more than an amusing relaxation for his swift versatility. Nevertheless, the example of his successes did decide me to try my luck at freelance journalism—though on a less exalted plane than his—when next I went on leave to Sydney.

As things fell out, that 'next' had to be almost at once. Less than a year back on the equator had already drained poor Olivia's cheeks of all their English pink and reduced her once more to the frail ghost she had been in 1920, after our first page 174six years in the islands. I too was more like a wraith than a human being, for I hadn't yet managed to shake off all the effects of that sorcerer's dose of cantharides. For these reasons, our eighteen weeks of leave together in Australia were spent convalescing in perfect idleness at Turramurra (in those days one of Sydney's still rustic North Shore suburbs) and never a notion of breaking into journalism recurred to me until Olivia had to leave again for England.

But then the doctor suddenly said I needed another six weeks of his treatment, which brought me hard up against the question of finance. By that time all the full-pay leave due to me had run out: a six weeks' extension could therefore only be granted on half pay, and half pay was not even enough to maintain the family in England, let alone a father idling in Australia. It was in this dilemma that I turned to journalism for help. Wasting no time in struggling to emulate Reggie's superb front-page achievement, I began to grind out anonymous news paragraphs of the hit or miss kind for several Sydney dailies and single-column signed articles for those which ran weekly magazine pages.

Every Saturday morning (if I remember the day aright) I would queue up at their various pay desks with other contributors of my sort and, after producing evidence of identity and publication, rake in the fees with which—at two guineas a column for stories or articles and rates ranging between an honest penny and a princely twopence a line for paragraphs— they were good enough to reward our industry. It was contrary to colonial regulations and sadly discordant with every accepted notion of proconsular dignity, but the fun of it was more stimulating than all the physic in the world. It added 8 pounds to my weight in a fortnight. More important still, it increased my income by altogether £24 12s. 4d., and this easily covered my personal maintenance including doctor's bills, while a small advance against salary from our very kind Colony Agents, Burns, Philp & Company, closed every other gap on the domestic front until I got back to full pay again.

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But this happy interlude of rebellion had lasted only four weeks when poor Reggie was found by the doctor at Ocean Island to have a heart murmur and had to be sent by the next ship to Sydney for further diagnosis. Luckily there was a sailing from Sydney to Ocean Island the day after he left, which landed me back on the equator, with orders to act for him once more, almost as soon as he reached Australia.

The Methvens being still away at Fanning Island, no huge and smiling Stuartson was in the boat that came out to take me ashore. But a new friend—Jack Blaikie, ex-airman of the Great War, whom the education department of Victoria had lately lent us as headmaster of our government school for Baanaban boys—was at the boat harbour to give me a welcome. I couldn't stay at the residency, he told me, as Mrs. McClure had not left with Reggie; so would I care to put up with him and his wife until further notice? I jumped at the offer, and thus it came about in the fullness of time—meaning about a month from then—that poor Dorothy Blaikie's bungalow on the crest of the slope that fell away south-eastwards to the B.P.C.'s settlement at Uma was turned into a kind of guardroom and general rendezvous for everyone who had anything to do with the handling of the Chinese riot.