Jessie stepped out of the Chrysler Tourer into the fine red-brown bulldust that instantly clung to her white shoes. She ran her beautifully manicured hands down her sides to smooth the wrinkles from the skirt of her navy and white silk suit as she took in the scene before her.
Charlie had driven the Chrysler right up to the back verandah. Just a few yards away the contents of three kerosene-tin pots were bubbling furiously on the grate of a stone fireplace. A short distance away in the shade of a line of eucalypt trees, a group of Aborigines stood waiting with expectant faces. Swarms of flies buzzed around them, settling momentarily before a hand movement sent them flying again.
“What are they waiting for, Charlie?” Jessie asked.
“They came up from the camp to see the new Missus,” Charlie grinned. “I told them you were coming, y’see. Every Sunday they come up from the camp to get their rations – those three boys over there are my stockmen. They get their dinner here every day so I reckon they’re waiting for their tucker as well.”
Charlie took her elbow and propelled her forward a few steps, “This one,” he said in a proud voice, “belonga me. I bin tellem you I bringem new missus longa Mt. Dare. What you reckon, eh?” He drew Jessie closer to the group and introduced her to the old lubra who had moved out a few steps from the group. “This is Maggie. Maggie is boss of all these women and all these picaninnies – eh Maggie?”
Maggie gave a lopsided grin showing the pitchourie-stained teeth and the disgusting lump of pitchourie she’d parked between her lip and gum. She stretched out a wrinkled, bony claw and grasped Jessie’s forearm, squeezing gently. “Maggie look after missus.”
“Good girl, Maggie. We talk next time, okay?”
Jessie waved at the flies trying to settle on her face, “what’s cooking? Is it for the blacks?” She asked Charlie as they moved back towards the car.
Charlie answered without even looking in the pots. “Salt beef, spuds, carrots and a bit of pumpkin. Old Jack put it on,” he pointed to an old aboriginal man squatting on his heels a couple of yards from the fireplace, “ only my stockmen get their dinner here – now you’re here you can do the cooking.”
“Me! Cook!” Jessie exclaimed in horror. She had not the faintest idea how to cook and, in fact, had never even boiled an egg in her life.
“Well,” Charlie shot her a look of pure astonishment, “what in the bloody hell do you think you’re here for?”
The words exploded in her brain like a thunderbolt and she stood stunned. She felt the sting of tears filling her eyes and fought hard to suppress them. Her mother’s voice rang in her ears. You’re making a terrible mistake, my girl, MaryAnne had warned her when she announced her intention to wed the dashing young manager of Durrie Station, in southwest Queensland.
Jessie had been the governess and bookkeeper on the neighbouring property, Morney Plains, when she met Charlie who lost no time in the wooing and courting of the lovely governess. Durrie Station was one of Sidney Kidman’s chain of cattle stations and Charlie, who had served his apprenticeship on Kidman properties in South Australia, became Kidman’s youngest manager when he was sent to take over the running of Durrie.
When he was successful in winning the heart of the lovely governess of Morney, Charlie announced his intentions to his employer and was dealt a mortal blow. There was no place on Durrie Station for a wife – the property was for a single manager only. However, if Charlie cared to postpone his marriage for a year or two, there was every possibility a management position for a married man would arise. Charlie, his pride wounded, gave a month’s notice.
When Jessie announced her intention to wed the dashing young station manager from Durrie whom she presented to her mother with some pride, Mary Ann voiced her concern to her daughter when they were alone. “I hope you know what you are doing my girl,” she warned “marriage isn’t always a bed of roses.”
Jessie laughed. “Oh, mother don’t worry so. I’ll never have to work again!”
After their wedding in Brisbane, she and Charlie headed for South Australia where Charlie had been offered a job with the Stock and Station Agents, Goldsborough Mort & Co. to take over the running of Mt. Dare, Federal and Dalhousie Stations, which properties were in the grip of drought, and their owners had walked away heavily in debt.
Charlie left Jessie in Adelaide with his parents and spent the next six weeks mustering and trucking away any saleable cattle on the three properties. He then returned to Adelaide to collect his new bride and take her to her new home at Mt. Dare.
Charlie relished being back in his old stamping grounds and took the opportunity to call on friends and relations to show off his beautiful new wife. Their final short stopover was at the Blood’s Creek Post Office and General Store before tackling the last twenty miles to Mt. Dare.
By the time they arrived at Mt. Dare, Jessie had spent long days bumping over roads that were meant for wagon wheels and now the shock she was experiencing upon her arrival at the homestead was indescribable. It was isolated, drought stricken country. The homestead, constructed of rough hewn logs looked primitive and basic, and now her beloved was sounding like a hard taskmaster talking to a slave.
Charlie proudly took her on a tour of the homestead, pointing out its comforts and spaciousness. Jessie’s heart sank further with each step. The place was thick with fine dust that seeped in through the large gaps between the log walls. The furniture was basic and mostly home made and there wasn’t one single homely item to be seen.
For a few months after this bald introduction to the bush, Jessie set about learning to survive it. After the initial shock wore off she took an objective look at her predicament and decided she had no option but to make the best of it. She would not dwell on the thought that she should have heeded her mother’s warning, and pushed it far back into the recesses of her mind. She had made her bed and she would lie in it no matter how lumpy it got.
The demands of the station left Charlie little time to allow Jessie to settle into the routine gently. He spent a couple of days instructing her on the art of making damper and bread, and to manage the black monster of a stove that stood at the far end of the kitchen. It burned wood like a furnace and heated the whole house to unbearable temperatures before its oven became hot enough to bake a batch of rock cakes.
Charlie also told her about the jar of yeast that stood on the hob and instructed her how to dish out the rations to the lubras on Sunday mornings. Finally he showed her how to pack a tucker box for him to take on the ‘run’ and then he saddled his horse and rode off with his boys and the plant horses.
Left on her own, Jessie stoked up the black monster and sweated for hours as she tried to master the art of cooking. She wept bitter tears when her loaves of bread came out of the oven as flat as when she put them in. She wept buckets more because she was lonely and frightened. Oh mother, what have I done? What am I going to do?
Charlie rode in from the stock camp after a week to check on her and instead of praising her for her efforts, he ranted and raved about the waste of station supplies. “Out here, Jess, you don’t waste anything. If we run out inside three months we go without, for God’s sake.” When he left again a few hours later she wept another ocean of tears for a few more days.
After that first time alone, Jessie asked Charlie if she could join him when he went out on the run. At first Charlie refused, saying he wouldn’t have time to look out for her so it was safer if she stayed at home. However, she persuaded him that she might be useful and from her point of view, anything was preferable than being totally on her own in the middle of nowhere.
Jessie had learned to ride a horse when she was on Morney Plains and Charlie was surprised that she proved to be asset rather than a liability out in the stock camp. Her cooking skills were improving as well and she soon discovered that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach and Charlie was no exception. She was becoming quite adept at knocking up a damper or a brownie cake in the camp oven and this sort of fare was most appreciated by the blokes after a long day mustering, branding or whatever.
After Jessie suffered her first dust storm and spent a whole day shovelling out the dust that blew into the house, she enlisted Charlie’s help to help her plug up the larger spaces between the logs with newspaper and then to line the inside of the walls with thick layers of newspaper. They made flour and water glue to make the paper stick to the logs. They tacked up a ceiling of hessian to soften the image of corrugated iron and the rough-hewn timber bearers and joists.
When her pregnancy was confirmed, Jessie’s contribution in the stock camp ceased. She had settled into her new life reasonably well but was still coming to grips with her husband’s short fuse and his tendency to pounce on any small mistake she made and serve it up to her repeatedly in a never ending diatribe. She went to great lengths to avoid his lectures and recriminations and began to hide or cover up the mistakes she made as she set about learning the ways of the bush. She took to burying her cooking failures in the vegetable garden she had started in an attempt to add fresh greens to their diet of canned stuff.
Charlie wandered out to see how the vegie garden was coming along late one afternoon and he came rushing back calling excitedly, “Jess! Jess! Come and look at this giant mushroom.”
Jessie hurried out to see what he was on about and there, looking for all the world like the mushroom Charlie thought it was, was the bread dough that had refused to rise and which she had buried in exasperation the morning before. Her hand covered her mouth as she suppressed a giggle, and then steeling herself for the tirade that was about to issue from Charlie, she admitted her sin of waste.
That same evening when she put his meal in front of him and he went through the usual ritual of waiting until she sat down ready to eat before asking for whatever condiment was not on the table, she rebelled. “No chutney, Jess?”
“There is chutney in the cupboard, Charlie. Middle shelf, left hand side.” Jessie uttered the words so matter of factly she surprised herself, and for a moment Charlie looked somewhat taken aback.
“Oh! Well I suppose pickles will do but you ought to know a man likes a bit of chutney with cold beef.”
Jessie said nothing. From now on, a man will discover his wife has backbone; that she won’t be a doormat for a man to wipe his boots on; from now on I promise myself there will be no more tears – I will beat this God-forsaken drought-stricken country if it is the last thing I do. And with that promise to herself, Jessie took the first confident steps into her future in the bush.
NOTE: This is the first chapter of what I hope will be a
Novel, my mother’s story of a long life lived in
Remote areas of Australia’s outback.