Sunday, 15 June 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - Townsville)

Ten miles from the scene of our breakdown I was given a lift by a middle-aged couple in a Holden sedan (Australians never use the word' saloon') and we floated over the craters and dry creek-beds in a manner which I felt to be almost airborne.

'Oh, that was a nasty one,' said the wife, as the nose dipped ever so gently into another dust-filled pit. I sat morose and silent in the back seat, perversely grudging this couple their comfortable ride. What a tale they would have to tell when they returned home to Brisbane (or wherever it was), of intrepid adventure in the Mighty Outback. The dash-radio played some tinny drivel and the only sound which rose above it was the clink of bottle on glass, as the lady adventuress poured the iced beer. For them the harsh, relentless bush did not exist, save as a brassy blur that passed their windows between hotels. I cannot recollect a more severe attack of 'sour grapes' than I suffered during those twenty luxurious miles.

'Well, we're just about to close down for four days, y'know,' said the tall, grizzled garage proprietor. 'But Cyril here'll get the old jalopy goin' and pull you in, an' we'll have a look at it before we pack up.' Cyril, wiping his hands on a piece of cotton waste, pushed his wide-brimmed hat to the back of his head and nodded a silent greeting. I followed him round the back of the garage and we clambered into an ancient T-model Ford, which was coaxed and cajoled into life after much fiddling under the bonnet. The old pick-up truck wheezed her way down the strip of bitumen that ran the length of the main street and finished abruptly with the last house, and in two minutes we were swallowed by the bush.

'You're from England, aren't you?' said my companion, wrestling with the wheel as we crashed into a succession of hollows. 'Yes,' I replied, in no mood to enter into conversation. Another ten minutes passed, during which time the clatter from the engine was undisturbed by the human voice, then, 'So am I,' said the driver. 'Came out from Camberwell in '48.' 'Oh,' I replied, mildly surprised at this admission. I almost added 'why?' but let caution prevail. 'You prefer the bush to the cities then?'

'My word,' said the ex-Londoner who had forsaken his native 'not 'arf'. We rode on in silence; it was impossible to talk above the rattle.

Five hours of bush solitude had done nothing to improve Nita's spirits either, and her greeting was a trifle disgruntled. 'Thought you'd drowned your troubles in the local pub.' She smiled sweetly at Cyril and threw me a black look at the same time.

'Couldn't get the truck started,' I explained, appreciative of the long lonely wait my wife had just had. 'There's a chance that the garage may be able to do something,' I added (by way of consolation for her hours of solitude). 'But we'll have to be quick because they're closing tonight for Easter.'

'Naturally,' said Nita. 'Have we ever broken down on a day that wasn't a bank holiday or a week-end?'

Cyril regarded our strange-looking vehicle without change of expression and piped up again.

'I come from London,' he said, his sad little face wistful for a moment under the huge hat.

'Then,' stated Nita, surveying the sea of burnished grass, 'all three of us must be crazy.'

Four hours later the future looked a little brighter. We got back to Bowen, the garage mechanics stripped the rear end and pronounced the job as hopeless, but by that time we had at least formulated a plan, and were no longer drifting on a sea of despair. What we had surmised, however, was now certain. Repairs to the broken hub were impossible-even with the necessary parts this tiny garage had no experience of scooters. So we would load the outfit on to the train and make our way to Townsville; we had the address of an agent there on whom to call and he would be able to fix something.

But the train did not run during the Easter holiday. We had four days to kill in the tiny township, and thanks once again to Cyril these were made bearable by his invitation to spend the time with him and his wife. We blessed him, disconnected the sidecar body from the chassis, loaded all our belongings into the box and heaved it on to the back of Cyril's own utility.

Half an hour later we arrived at Queen's Beach, a long strip of silver sand, deserted save for a few bungalows dotted over the landscape, most of which seemed to be in varying stages of construction.

Queen's Beach: it was as though the first arrivals at this barren spot on the Australian coastline had christened the strip of beach in a desperate attempt to give the area a personality; to tame the place, making it synonymous with people and life and all the comforting hubbub of gregariousness which would swamp the wilderness for ever. This was a sad misnomer: Had it been called Desolation Bay one would have been agreeably surprised and felt that perhaps it was not so desolate really, there being quite a few people about. I don't know quite what we had expected to see, for the township was only minute, but here was no tight-knit community but a straggling skein of dwellings-flimsy, temporary, puny efforts of man to stabilize these vast, shifting silver dunes which were being ceaselessly pulled back and devoured by the white-capped tropical sea.

Cyril possessed the foundations of a bungalow which he was erecting piecemeal, a sturdy wife who had all the qualities of a pioneer, and a large tent in which they were living with their ten-year-old boy until the bungalow was completed.

'He'll never finish it,' said Jessie, with good-humoured disgust. 'All he wants to do is swim and fish when he's not at the garage. A born idler, my husband. If I didn't keep nagging him he'd watch the grass grow over the foundations and be quite content to live in this.' She indicated the canvas walls around us. In the middle of a trestle-table a paraffin lamp burned fitfully, an irresistible magnet for a million insects. Yet in spite of their lack of possessions, Cyril and Jessie were a happy couple, and battlers in the truest Australian sense.

Nita and I pitched our own tent a little way off on Cyril's carefully marked-out two acres, and for those four Easter days we sampled the life of those two ex-Londoners who had swopped Camberwell for the bush.

The garage which employed Cyril as a general mechanic paid a wage of fifteen pounds per week, which enabled the couple to buy all the necessities for immediate living, run their pick-up truck, and pay for their building programme on the instalment plan. The plot of land had cost them two hundred pounds and they had an arrangement with the builders' merchants whereby they were supplied with material on credit terms. Someone had lent them a cement mixer, with which I became acquainted on the first day of our stay, during which Cyril laid the floor of what was to be the kitchen. On the second day, after about an hour's work, we ran out of cement.

'Ah well,' said Cyril with undisguised relief, 'can't do nuffin' else till we get some more. Let's go for a swim.' So we gave up our toiling, walked fifty yards down the beach, and waded in just as we were; we were only wearing shorts anyway.
'Course, if my mother knew we were living in a tent she'd have a fit,' said the comfortable-bodied Jessie. 'They'd think you were a freak if you did that at home while you were building your house, but of course out here it's very different. No one takes any notice.' We were sitting round the table again, drowsy with fresh air and the balmy tropical night.

'We wouldn't be building our own house at home, anyway,' rejoined Cyril with a tinge of righteousness. 'Leastways, not 'nless I won the pools.'

‘And if you won the Casket here you wouldn't be building our house yourself. You'd get someone else to do it for you.'

'Course I would,' replied our host, looking dreamily at a couple of mice which cavorted unmolested just underneath the kitchen cabinet in the corner of the tent. For the Londoner had transferred from one nation of gamblers to another. Everyone had their fling on the state lotteries which are the Australian equivalent of our own pools system. The Queensland jackpot was called the Golden Casket and paid out prizes up to the usual dizzy standards.

'If we ever land the Casket,' said Jess, 'I want to go and live at Surfers' Paradise.' (This is a glittering chromium-plated mushroom resort south of Brisbane, made fashionable by the Queensland socialites.)

'Over my dead body,' replied her husband with some warmth. It was clear that this little man, who had been born and bred in the welter of busy Camberwell, did not intend to have his halcyon days in this little backwater of civilization exchanged for anything remotely connected with a fast pace. Despite Jessie's aspirations, she was obviously extremely adaptable, and devoted to her husband, and he was one of those rare beings who had found complete happiness and contentment.

We caught the train on the last evening of the holiday, saw the still-dismembered scooter safely in the guard's van, and settled down in a saloon compartment to chug through the night to Townsville. Our train, whose engine wailed mournfully from time to time in true transatlantic style, paused briefly at tiny whistle-stops, where one or two solitary figures hurried on or off dimly lit platforms. The station names were barely discernible in the flickering gaslight: Guthalungra, Inkerman, Ayr, Brandon, names that stirred the imagination. Why had these places been thus christened? Had a Crimean war veteran, blood-stained bandage at rakish angle across forehead, stood on a wind-swept knoll and proclaimed in ringing tones: 'From this moment I name this area Inkerman?' Had Ayr come into being on a wave of nostalgia, to the skirl of pipes and kilts and sporrans being unpacked from dusty trunks? Somehow Guthalungra was the only station that dropped neatly into place on the railway from Bowen to Townsville.