When I read 'Wake in Fright' I thought they'd stolen my story.
The travels, the town, the countryside, the shooting, the kangaroos.
My life was all there in that book, how could they know?
For a city boy like me it was real too, and I had to deal with the mailman as well. I'll tell you about him shortly.
I was so stupid. In those days, at the end of my training, at Sydney Teachers' College,
I had to nominate a preference, a place I'd like to go and be willing to teach.
I was on a bond of course and was cannon shot for the New South Wales Department of Education.
They could shoot be anywhere, and I thought I couldn't refuse. I know better now.
I could only think of Sydney then. I had experience of Sydney, of Mortdale, Hurstville, Forest Lodge,
Newtown, Cronulla. I'd even had a liaison in Turramurra, but that's another story. I wrote 'Sutherland Shire'
and 'Sydney CBD' as my first two nominations but since three choices
were required I stupidly and arbitrarily also wrote 'north-west', thinking of
Sydney CBD's north western suburbs, like Ryde.
I was allocated to Caringbah. Ripper!
I told my friends. Caringbah High is a pretty nice start, and the drive each way
was against the traffic, a bonus. I waited, smarmy and happy. Then another
telegram arrived 'Your previous appointment has been cancelled,
report to Goodooga Central School. Train to Brewarrina,
thence mail lorry to Goodooga'. Shit! Where the bloody hell is Goodooga?
I searched the map. 'north-west', I discovered, meant north-west New South Wales.
I also eventually tumbled that Tamworth was the administrative centre of the
north-west educational region. I started searching for Tamworth and places
nearby. Nothing. Farther and farther away from Tamworth I searched.
Today you could type it into Google, then you had to look. I looked and looked.
Eventually I found Brewarrina. Oh My God, up there!. There it was, Brewarrina.
I had found one place mentioned on that telegram. Now for Goodooga. Looking, looking.
A week later, in the evening, Mum, Dad and me went to Central.
The country concourse. It's still there, but it's changed so much.
Then it had a huge clock and timber station lists, each with square rollers
so that blanks or different location names could be displayed. There was
activity too, people everywhere. I'd never caught a country train before
and had no idea how to read the boards or find the platforms. I got a sleeper too,
whatever that was. It was summer, by 8:30pm the daylight had started to fade
and I was moving out. Westward I went, through Macdonaldtown, Strathfield, beyond.
I was awake in fright even then. I had a sleeper, but a sleeper I discovered had no
seat. Sure there was a bed, I think. There was something like a bed attached to the wall
at eye height, and nothing else in the cabin. I was alone, I was Department of Education
cannon shot, being shot north by west. I remember looking out the cabin window and when
the train turned right I could see the guard in his compartment up ahead. His ruddy
face stuck out, a bottle of brandy in his hand, in the hot summer evening, leaning out of the
van to his waist, chug-a-lug. He rode into the never-never and I rode it too, I rode but did not
sleep, a city boy on a train.
It's a blur now, but I remember Dubbo railway station. Hot, and people dressed
in shifts, with thongs on their feet. I got out of one train and into another.
Somehow it was the right one. I still don't know how I managed it. I had a seat now - excellent!
The train was air-conditioned too. I sat there for sometime. Eventually it moved out towards Bourke.
It's a blur. I looked out the window. Bare plains,
soil getting redder. Trees giving way to bushes, bushes giving
way to salt scrub. More plains. Plains, red, empty, dry, hot,
and I was watching this from my air-conditioned carriage seat.
The train stopped, eventually. It was a station I think.
It was a high platform anyway, Byrock. I got out and so did two other people, who rapidly disappeared.
There was water in bags hanging from posts on the station, and tin cups. River water. Hot, muddy water and
104 degrees in the shade, and it had been that temperature for 3 days. Somehow I found a shop,
brick and in the middle of nowhere. I think it’s the only building there. 'Can I buy a sandwich?' I think I said.
'Sure, one type only: ham and pickles'. I still hate pickles. I waited. Eventually another
train came bumping into that high platform at Byrock and I got on it. No air-conditioning this
time. Slow. It took 3 hours to go the 60 miles to Brewarrina. The cannon shot and a second blast
sent me farther north.
Brewarrina station arrived and I sat in the waiting room on the platform,
too shy to get out, too stupid to go into town. I could see a pub too, lights
in the windows and noise from the bar. People drinking and talking, and me, hidden
in that waiting room, waiting. I had to meet the mailman and I didn't want to miss him.
6 hours I waited. Nothing, and it was getting dark. I think it's like a first night in gaol,
I was pulpy. 'What the hell am I here for?' At 10pm and I hear a noise.
The mailman. He's been in that pub I find. He doesn't have a van either,
like in Sydney. No, he has a truck. It's empty too. He's full,
slurring and staggering. I get into the cabin, no seatbelts. Together
we travel round the town. I expected packages, letters, envelopes.
A city boy's notion of mail. It wasn't to be. Mail in the
back country is long timbers, dozens of them. We load them
from a dark yard somewhere, alone. The next pickup is two large green bags of dry ice.
I'd seen these before, holding ice creams at the football. We heave them on with the
help of a portly bloke out the back of some shop. Then we tie them to the side with belts.
The tray top of that truck was getting full, but not full enough. One more item, back country mail:
a wool press. Large, rectangular, with iron poles. A forklift heaves it up and we watch, then
we shove and shove and grunt and slip. Eventually we tie it also, with belts, onto the truck.
After midnight we drive off, into the north, over the black road. Later I heard that the mailman claimed the
'road was wet', even when it wasn't. That night it was dry.
The red countryside got blacker. A black road, black culverts,
red bridges, kangaroos hopping into the road and we dodge them. I fall
asleep. I think I woke about a mile from the town. We lurched over grids
which woke me and some low roofs were in sight. No-one moved in that town.
We drove down some street. We stopped. 'This is it' he said. I hopped out,
in the dark opposite, sat a large bungalow with an iron roof.
I walked down the path to a screen door. A bloke was there already,
his name was George I discovered later. It was 2am and he wasn't in the mood
for conversation either, but he handed me some sheets. 'Find a bed'.
I'd started from home at 7pm, and arrived at Central Railway Station before 8.
That night I'd stood most of the way on the train, or sat on the floor,
and arrived in Dubbo the next morning 12 hours later. From there, the trip
to Byrock took about 4 hours, then another 3 hours to Brewarrina.
I arrived there about 3pm at the railway station in a place I could at
least eventually find on the map. There I waited for 6 hours for the mailman,
till about 9pm and collected mail with him for another 3. At midnight we drove
off and I arrived in Goodooga at about 3am. I was Department of Education cannon shot,
and a slow one too. It took about 30 hours to get to Goodooga and I'd stepped
out into a place just as foreign to me as the moon. I'd found a bed, it was hot, I slept.
In the morning light I woke and George was off to Lochrey's for a meal.
I sat there, in that hostel, alone. I lasted some of that morning.
I looked around, across the road there was a school. By the afternoon
I came to the realisation that I was alone, cannon shot, and in the north-west,
a wake in fright. At about 3pm a knock on the door. A woman. Glennie. 'We're going to
the river for a swim, do you want to come along?' The back country life arrived.