Margaret Britt came from England to
Australia in 1951. Wanting work with horses she was first a governess on a
Longreach sheep station, where there was plenty of riding to be had, and then
went to a Camooweal cattle property where she met her future husband
who was head-stockman. After they married they went contract mustering
until, in 1958 Jack Britt was appointed manager of Forestvale, an 1100 square
mile cattle property in the Gulf country. Here they spent twelve years until in
1970, the company transferred Jack to Lyndhurst, where they stayed fourteen
Margaret’s first book Pardon My Boots was published in 1963 and she has had short stories published in various magazines. She now lives in Atherton.
The sun was fierce, the air thick with dust from the yards as the bellowing cattle milled around, waiting to be let out.
Being a station manager’s wife was all very well in its way I supposed, but I was not yet ready to settle into a static domestic life. There was an adequate staff to deal with all that boring stuff. Jack had at last found from the several hundred working horses, a couple suitable for me to ride, and I had gladly donned my old riding garb and stockman’s hat and was on my way to let out the cattle.
The stock-camp had been out for three months, returning to the station only for fresh horses. I did not know any of the men who waited on their horses for the gates to be swung open. Being too shy to speak, I rode over to the scanty shade of an old iron-bark tree.
Several of the men glanced curiously at me, including two young ringers, who had to shout over the bellowing cattle.
“Jesus,” said one, staring, “ where did that pansy-looking bastard come from? Must be a new jackaroo?”
“Shut up,” shouted the other one. “It’s not a bloody jackaroo, it’s the boss’ wife.” I stared ahead at my horse’s ears,
I was indeed
the boss’ wife and we had been on Forestvale for only six months.
Forestvale homestead stood right by the gravel road, an elderly, solid house with enormous tree-trunk posts supporting the upper story. The two aging wings of the ‘butterfly’ steps joined at a railed landing, and then continued up as a single-wide flight to a pair of wooden gates in the middle of the upstairs verandah.
Under the front steps, starved looking shrubs and ugly succulents battled for survival. There was a huge expanse of old, smooth, grey concrete downstairs including a wide verandah, with nearly as much old, grey floorboards upstairs. Only the gauze-enclosed lounge, built in between the main house and the bookkeeper’s and jackaroos’ quarters, had a glossy, green concrete floor, polished to a shine by mopping with a mixture of very hot water and kerosene.
Visitors exclaimed at the coolness of the lounge - an impression, albeit false, given by the ferns growing in short tree-trunk containers, as this was the only part of the house with a flat roof, which crackled in the heat of dry season, and leaked like a sieve in the wet. But, hot as it was one had to admit that by contrast with the blistering heat on the gravel ridge, a room temperature of about 95 degrees seemed acceptable.
The history of the house was obscure. The main building was alleged to have been a school, brought from a distant gold mining town at the turn of the century. Indeed, I met an old man, a visitor, who claimed to have erected it after it had been brought in sections by bullock wagon, over the stony ranges and rough tracks, which passed as roads. Parts of an old Chinese joss house had been used to build the school and, when renovations to the house were later carried out, thirty or forty years after the school was built, some walls were found to be carved with Chinese characters.
For many years, the station was a mail change for Cobb and Co coaches. A very old camp cook told me he worked on the place as a lad. He was cowboy then, and his duties included harnessing the pair of buggy horses for the manager and his wife to go out driving - although I couldn’t imagine where to - and bringing up the rear with spare horses. He also milked cows, polished the silver and, when tennis parties were given, was required to change into a special shirt, starched and white and kept for the occasion, and attend the guests, handing round cold lemonade.
I wondered who the guests could have been. Had it been worth driving a jolting buggy over miles of rough tracks, to sit out in the blazing sun watching amateurs playing tennis on a crushed ant-bed court, lemonade or not? Rusting wire netting still enclosed the court, now overgrown with tough weeds and dry grass, bleached white by the sun. The old man told me he had also put up the picket fence enclosing the homestead, adjoining jackeroo and bookkeeper's quarters and the kitchen, which was across a long, covered landing.
When we had been at Forestvale a couple of years, the Company that owned the property felt impelled to make a few improvements - no doubt after a heated boardroom meeting. The picket fence was pulled down and a nondescript cyclone netting one with a mean little front gate was installed. I was sorry to see the picket fence go - it suited the house. But most of the white paint had flaked off, and it was too old and dry to repaint. Pickets kept falling out and were regularly tapped back into place in a shower of rotten wood.
The new fence was one of two symbols of progress - the other being a new coat of paint for the house which changed it from its old colour of mustard with a rusting roof, to a thing of beauty in a shining coat of grey-blue with cream trim. We did not know ourselves.
Unfortunately, although money was spent on new yards, bores and fencing, improvements to the house were limited to the fence and a few gallons of paint. But one had to be thankful for small mercies. I should have hated to become spoilt reading in anything more than the dim light from 110 volt power for which electrical appliances were non-existent , or a bathroom where the pipe from the hand basin didn’t protrude a couple of feet from the outside wall, so that soapy water gushed out over the bougainvillea.
As for a washing machine or electric iron, the mind boggled at the thought. It was character building to boil up white sheets and heavy towels in a great seething copper, lift them out on a wooden stick, wring them out by hand, and toil outside with a heavy, cane basket to the number eight fencing-wire line.
Ironing was a nightmare with Mrs Potts’ flat irons heated on the kitchen stove and carried across the yard to the laundry. Little better were the so-called petrol irons with their volatile little tanks. Lighting them was hazardous and getting rid of them when they went up in flames, more so. The old, wooden laundry floor was dotted with black scorch-marks where a succession of laundry workers had hastily flung them down.
Over the twelve years we were there, I developed a love/hate feeling for the house. Love for its spacious rooms and verandahs and ‘if only walls could speak’ history. Hate for its inconvenience and the prolific spiders - daddy-longlegs in the high corners and red-backs, happy with their webs beneath the seats of the cane chairs in the lounge.
I hated the dark pantry in the house where the rough concrete floor was at least two inches lower under the window than it was at the door. When it was scrubbed out, the water continually ran back so that a ten-minute job took half an hour. “When they built this house, why the devil didn’t they . . .?” was my mental, and sometimes actual cry as I madly wielded my straw broom, sweeping water uphill, or as I staggered downstairs only half awake at midnight, to move furniture as a storm swept through the gauze lounge.
But, of course, there was no actual THEY to blame. Over sixty or more years, occupiers had added on, taken off, and joined things up. It was a housekeeper’s nightmare. “What a lovely old house”, one enthusiastic padre gushed at his first visit. Then, catching my baleful eye added hastily, “What a lovely, dusty, cobwebby old house I suppose.”
No, for all its teeth gnashing faults, the old place was home. Our children, Jacquie and Alan, loved it. The only home they could remember. Although correspondence school later on was a drawback, there was still plenty of time for ponies and Land Rovers, helping up at the cattle-yards and excursions on foot to collect agates in the creek beds.
When we first went to the station, the kitchen was presided over by a young woman called Debra who wore a long, voluminous apron tied tightly at the waist and high-heeled court shoes. However, when she turned around, there was nothing below the large bow of the apron but a pair of minute black shorts and long bare legs. She looked like one of those old-fashioned peg dolls from the front, and ‘What the Butler Saw’ from behind. But one hardly ever saw her from behind as she was usually seated on a wooden chair, in floods of tears because the dough wouldn’t rise.
An old aboriginal woman, Sally, helped her in the kitchen, and Debra’s sister, Peggy, was housemaid. Another younger Aboriginal who also did the laundry work aided her.
As I groped my way through the first couple of years, cooks and housemaids came and went, for those were the days when white and aboriginal staff was plentiful. After twelve months, Debra, the peg-doll, and her sister left for more congenial lives on the coast. The kitchen reins were taken into the large hands of Mrs Friske; an Amazonian and intimidating woman who wore snowy, hygienic uniforms such as those sported by chefs. I had engaged Annie, a young girl from the town, as housemaid, and thought I should be all right for staff for a while.
After three or four weeks the food, plain enough to start with, deteriorated to such an extent that even Jack, the easiest person in the world to cook for - corned or roast beef and no sweets or puddings - began to look askance at what was brought from the kitchen. Bloody roasts, corned beef cooked to shreds - the most heinous crime in bush cuisine - almost inedible bread, and a casserole with the meat swimming in watery blood.
“The woman's taking money under false pretences” he said, wielding the carving knife at the head of the long dining room table. “Why don’t you get rid of her?”
“YOU give her notice,” I said. Quite apart from her so-called cooking, Mrs Friske bullied the housemaid, Annie, into a state of fright.
“The kitchen is your domain, not mine.” Jack said firmly, and put an end to the discussion by getting up, pushing his chair in and leaving the room.
For the rest of the day I hovered, hearing the boards of the kitchen reverberating to Mrs Friske's ponderous tread. I convinced myself that I was only putting off the interview (if it could be so-called) because it would be better in the morning - a new day and all that sort of thing. After all, was I to be intimidated by a wolf in chef’s clothing? The answer, unfortunately, was yes.
The next morning I went across to see about the day’s meals. My predecessor had always ordered the menu, so I carried on the great tradition. Mrs Friske was always sullen about this. She never wanted to make anything for pudding but lumpy chocolate blanc mange or tinned fruit and custard. I risked her basilisk eye and asked for a steamed pudding instead, and left without delivering the coup-de-grâce, convinced that now was not the appropriate time.
However, back in the house I found Annie diluting the washing up water with her tears.
“It’s that awful woman,” she sobbed, fumbling with the china so that I feared breakages. “She is so dreadful to me. I’ll have to leave and I don’t want to go. I like it here.” That was the last straw. We all liked Annie, and she was very good with the children. I knew I must bite the bullet as one call to town would bring her parents, hot foot, to fetch her.
Girding up my loins, I headed back to the kitchen. By the time I reached the landing, my steps had slowed and stopped altogether. It was strange, I had never noticed before that I had a misplaced heart. Instead of beating in my chest, where hearts ought to be, it seemed to be in my throat or even higher - in my mouth for instance.
Ridiculous. Lest I prove too craven, I took a deep breath, raced across the landing and pushed open the gauze door. In the same breath I said, “I shall have to give you notice, Mrs Friske.” She was standing at the sink with her back to me, hacking something about with a large knife. Slowly, she manoeuvred around like a battleship bringing its guns to bear on the target. Her first reaction was amazement at my temerity. I had already invaded her territory once that morning and no doubt the request for a steamed pudding still rankled.
But, as my words sank in I could see her shock.
“And why is that, may I enquire?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, Mrs Friske, your cooking is not up to the standard required here.”
With difficulty I held my ground as the knife and Mrs Friske came perilously close.
“Huh,” she said, “don’t tell me that, Mrs Britt. The trouble is that there’s nothing here to cook with.”
I looked meaningfully at the laden shelves.
“Oh now, Mrs Friske,” I began.
“What I always say is, you can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear. I must have ingredients.”
Boldly, I decided on one last word before making an expedient exit.
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