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mother and father, Mum and Dad, had only two things in common; they were both
sired by alcoholic fathers (and consequently abhorred alcohol) and they were
both adventurous spirits. These common traits probably account for some of my
misadventures. As they matured, the responsibilities of motherhood subdued
Mum’s adventurous urges and Dad’s pecuniary and social ambitions softened
his hatred of the demon drink. In the 1940s they ceased to share a bed.
was born in
favourite sibling and best friend was her brother, Cecil, after whom I was
named. He was two years younger than Mum. In 1914 when she was twenty and he was
eighteen, they were about to escape together to the colonies when World War I
broke out. His Victorian upbringing gave him no alternative but to do his duty;
fight and die for King and country. So, she caught a ship (in steerage) to
was born in
life is well chronicled in the library at Bourke. He had no formal education. At
the age of twelve he started work as a groom with Cobb and Co. – there were
still coaches operating under that name in northern
Dad was eighteen he and his older brother secured a number of mail and passenger
runs along the routes formerly serviced by Cobb and Co.
early period of his life was not without excitement. One night he evaded being
speared by aborigines only because of the bush knowledge and guile of an older
friend. On another occasion, he swam for a whole day across a flooded river to
get help for many people stranded on the other side.
was twenty-two when he married Mum. He had lived so much in his short life that
she didn’t question his age. She thought that he was about thirty-five. She
was twenty-seven at the time.
and Dad travelled around for about a year, looking for somewhere to settle. Mum
said she would join him in any business so long as it wasn’t a hotel. They
finally settled in Bourke, where they went into the garage business. My older
sister, Myrtle, was born in 1922.
At First the Infant
At first the infant
and puking in the nurse’s arms …
entered this world at Bourke in the northwest of
Some years later I saw a photo of Dulcie as a bride. She was gorgeous. I am sure that the handsome young man standing beside her in the photo found better things to do in Dulcie’s arms than mewl and puke.
first became conscious of my surroundings at the age of three. Our home was a
cottage behind and attached to Dad’s garage. It had one bedroom (occupied, of
course, by Mum and Dad) a sitting room and a kitchen. All rooms opened onto a
gauzed-in veranda. Myrt and I slept at one end of the veranda and the dining
area was at the other end. An iron shed at the back fence served as a bathroom,
laundry and toilet. An iron fence divided our backyard from the driveway to the
rear entrance of the garage.
understand that the big benefit of living in these surroundings was that we had
a supply of electricity from the generator in the garage.
that this mattered much to me, because when I was four years old an enterprising
businessman built a power station on the corner of Glen and Mitchell Streets.
While this was happening, poles were going up and wires were being strung all
over town. Then one night the whole population took to the streets and there
were great celebrations as the lights came on and electricity was available to
these exciting things were happening, Bonnie was being born. Dad built a new
house on the corner of Glen and Oxley Streets and we moved to what was to be my
permanent childhood home. It was the essence of the modern, country home of the
day. It had two smallish bedrooms, a box room (probably where the domestic would
have slept, if we had one, but we used it for storing things), a big kitchen
where meals were both prepared and eaten, a large lounge room (with open
fireplace) and a large, formal dining room with highly-polished furniture for
use only when we had special
were wide, gauzed verandas all around. These were the accepted sleeping quarters
for children. Mum and Dad occupied the main bedroom while the second bedroom was
kept ready for guests. At one end of the veranda on which our beds were located
was a small bathroom with a woodchip heater and bathtub. There was no shower. At
the other end of that veranda was a large cupboard where our clothes were kept.
The laundry was quite a large room off the kitchen. The toilet was, of course,
at the back fence.
bought the vacant block next door and put a tennis court on it. He also
constructed two monstrous steel poles with wires strung between. This structure
served as a radio aerial that enabled us to get radio reception from the ABC
(2BL) and the commercial station in
this happened in the years of the Great Depression. There was no doubt in the
minds of the townsfolk that the Coleman’s were rich.
was a dynamic character. As I have said elsewhere, his achievements are well
chronicled and I will only refer to them here to the extent that they affected
my life and my doings.
and I were not close mates. I didn’t see enough of him for that. When he was
at home he would leave for the garage at seven-thirty, come home for lunch, then
go back to the garage until seven at night. On Saturday nights he would go back
after tea and stay open until midnight . He bought a garage in Brewarrina and
would spend a few days a week there. He had the General Motors franchise. This
gave him the sole right to sell Buicks, Chevrolets and Pontiacs, which were the
most popular cars of the day (at least, they were popular among the people who
could afford to buy new cars).
or his salesman would travel around the cattle stations in the district if he
thought the owners might be interested in buying a new car. This often resulted
in a trip to
at least two, but maybe three, occasions he took me to
1929 Dad spent some time in
before he sold the plane in 1934 and gave up flying (I think it was because of
his deteriorating eyesight), he took me into the rear cockpit with him. After he
had warmed up the engine, he said, “Right son, you take her up.” He taxied
down the runway, turned into the wind and got up some speed. By that time, I’d
been up with him often enough to know that the aircraft tells you when it is
ready to take off. So, when I got that feeling I yelled,
“Now Dad?” He nodded and smiled. I pulled the joystick back slowly as I had
seen him do many times.
soared smoothly into the air and he said, “I couldn’t have done better
myself.” I was so pleased with myself that I wanted to tell the world, but he
said, “Don’t tell anyone about this Cec, especially your mother.” And I
was always encouraging me to do adventurous things without parental supervision,
such as fishing, swimming, horse riding and bike riding. I was also encouraged
to camp out overnight in the bush. He was generous to a fault with toys and
sporting equipment. I was never without a Meccano set or other educational toys.
Nor did I ever lack sporting equipment, particularly a quality cricket bat and
ball, a football and a tennis racket. I always had a pushbike of the right size,
starting with a little red ten-inch two-wheeler when I was five years old. I
hasten to add that this generosity was not limited to his family, but extended
far and wide, particularly where children were involved. I think this may have
resulted from his own deprived childhood. His pet charity was The Far West
Children’s Health Scheme, to which he devoted an enormous amount of money,
energy and time.
was also generous with Mum, insisting that she had all mod cons. She had an
electric range and oven (she preferred the old fuel one), an electric iron
(which she did appreciate after having used the ones that she had to continually
reheat on the fuel stove), an electric toaster and an electric jug. He also
tried to replace the ice chest with an electric refrigerator but the original
couldn’t cope with Bourke’s heat and needed to be continually wrapped in wet
towels and bags. Thus, the old ice chest lived on side by side with its modern
pride and joy was his radio, a monstrous piece of furniture that to me resembled
a robot. It had a handle on each side which I believed were its ears. The front
displayed tuning and volume knobs (its eyes) and below them was a big circular
station selector (its nose). Below that was some gauze which covered the
speaker. That was the robot’s mouth. Many a happy hour was spent sitting
around the robot, but more of that later.
Dad was the natural product of his deprived childhood and adventurous youth, Mum
was the enigma of hers. Once settled in Bourke, her childhood conditioning took
command and she became the essence of the dutiful housewife. All meals,
including lunch, were laboriously thought out, prepared and ready on time. Our
house was always sparkling clean and tidy. Our clothes were washed and ironed.
Monday was washing day and Tuesday was ironing day. On Saturday friends came to
play tennis and that had to be properly catered for. On Sundays she went to
church (Communion in the morning and Evensong and Address at night).
the local minister would be invited for dinner, which, on Sundays, was in the
middle of the day. At 11am I would be packed off to Sunday school. As I
obediently got religion I would envy my mates playing cricket on the vacant
block behind our house. I solved this problem by realizing that if I became
confirmed I could go to Communion and free up the rest of the day. This I did,
and at the age of nine became the youngest confirmee ever in the parish. This
ploy was both a success and a failure, because although I solved the cricket
problem it was considered that my soprano voice would be of benefit to the adult
choir, with the consequence that I had to attend choir practice on Thursday
evenings and Evensong and Address on Sundays.
we needed Mum she always seemed to be around. Quite often she was around when we
wished she wasn’t, particularly when we were doing something naughty. I recall
an occasion when I tried to entice the daughter of a guest at a tennis party to
adjourn with me to the toilet. Mum moved from the tennis court to the toilet at
the speed of light.
hated the social side of the life, that Dad, as a prominent citizen, revelled
in. But she would always accompany him when required. The one and only time that
she refused to be involved was when she, as town mayoress, was supposed to have
the opening dance with the State Governor at the ball to celebrate his visit for
Bourke’s centenary. She had never danced in her life and she was not
going to make a fool of herself – especially in the vice-regal presence.
modesty was Victorian in the extreme. She never left the house unless she was
fully dressed (including hat, bag and gloves). She never donned a swimsuit and
consequently never went swimming, even though we spent most of the summer
yet, for all this apparent conservatism, she never once tried to stop me from
undertaking adventurous pursuits, even when they involved some danger, such as
getting on the back of a frisky horse or swimming unsupervised in the
had two siblings, Myrtle (Myrt) who was four years older than I and Bonnie (Bon)
who was four years younger. Some wag was heard to say that Mum and Dad only
‘did it’ every four years.
don’t remember a great deal about Myrt in this stage of my life. The age gap
was a bit too wide for us to have common interests and she went off to boarding
one occasion, we were riding our bikes together when a town bully, about the
same age as she was, pushed me off my bike. Without any hesitation, she jumped
off her bike and went for him with her fists swinging. I remember hearing crack
crack as she got him twice. He ran off howling and with his nose
bleeding. He never attacked me again. Myrt was left with two badly-skinned
fists. Mum admonished her, telling her that girls shouldn’t get into street
fights. I jumped in and said, “Mum, if she hadn’t, I’d be dead by now!”
terminated the admonishment. I was most surprised when Myrt took me aside later
and thanked me for, “…sticking up for her.”
from that one occasion I remember Myrt as a quiet, gentle, well-mannered person
who liked making clothes for and dressing up her dolls, helping Mum do the
household chores and generally being a typical girl.
was a different kettle of fish. She was what was then known as a tomboy. She was
very bright and much more mature than other kids of her age. She preferred
playing with boys rather than girls and wasn’t the slightest bit interested in
dolls or like feminine pursuits. Her forte was marbles. At a very early age she
knew the language. She talked fluently of louses, deuces, specs
and bonkers. When she had nothing else to do, she would put a couple of
dozen marbles in a bag and say, “I’m going to Perry’s to win some
marbles.” The reference to Perry was Perry Hales whose father owned the
town’s biggest general store and who was reputed to be very wealthy. Perry was
considered by all to be a bit of a sissy. A few hours later Bon would come home
with her bag overflowing with Perry’s marbles, which she would assure us she
had won, “…fair and square.” This was one of Dad’s favourite phrases.
didn’t care much for good manners and she showed respect for few people. One
Sunday we had the diocesan bishop for dinner. In keeping with the importance and
solemnity of the occasion, Mum had got out the best crockery and cutlery and set
up the table in the dining room. She had even bought two chickens, which were a
special delicacy back then. There were the usual vegetables and Mum knew that
the bishop liked butter on his vegies, even though they were roasted in fat.
There was accordingly a crystal dish of neatly cut butter squares in front of
the place occupied by the bishop. Dad carved and dished up the chicken and the
vegie dishes did the rounds. The bishop gently sliced his potatoes and carrots
and applied lashings of butter. There was a temporary lull in conversation while
everyone watched the bishop’s butter turn into yellow oil and run into the
liked the look of this and said in a loud demanding voice, “Chuck over the
butter Bishoh!” In the deadly silence that followed, my attempt to hide my
amusement failed. Then the bishop’s face broke into a smile and everyone
laughed. From there on, the dinner was a success. This, however, did not stop
Bon from getting a severe tongue lashing later on. I think that Bon was about
five-years-old at the time.
learned to swim at a very early age. She claimed that Dad had thrown her into
deep water and said, “Swim or drown.” I didn’t, and still don‘t believe
that he would use those words and I know that he would have been there had she
got into difficulty. Bon and I swam together in the river a lot and she also
joined my friends and I on our bike rides. She excelled at sport and was always
near the top of her class at school.
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