A small grimy engine with a high smoke stack and prairie-type buffers pulled a string of tarnished brown coaches strewn inside with empty bottles and cigarette stubs. Together with a group of other miners, unshaven men in shabby clothing and heavy boots, Jim boarded and found a hard wooden seat. A sudden jolt dislodged him, and then they were off, very slowly beside long lines of washing attended by small brick houses divided from each other by rutted tracks. As they moved out the train passed an unending line of broken bottles which blazed the trail of the miners who had passed this way.
From time to time they stopped at a small station, invariably a few tin huts with water tanks perched behind them, and a bar fenced off from the bush. While the engine driver delivered mail and collected supplies the miners jumped down and crowded into the bar lowering as many schooners of beer as they could before they climbed back into the hot and airless carriages.
When it began to get dark Jim saw some lights flickering ahead. The mine was the end of the line.
In the darkness he was directed to a boarding house run by a huge Italian woman dressed in what seemed to be a tent of rustling black silk. Over the years she had converted four decaying shacks into miners’ batches.
‘You live here! No drink, no guns, no knives. Damage you pay. One little bit of trouble and OUT.’
Some wooden steps with gaping holes led up to a balcony shrouded with blankets to keep out the sun during daylight hours. Jim stumbled through the doorway over a heap of empties.
‘Who’s there?’ a voice called out in the darkness.
‘Mrs Pucci said there was a bed…’
‘Mrs Pucci said…’ the voice mimicked. ‘Another bloody pom. Wops and poms – and the Abos – the place is overrun worse than rabbits.’
‘I’m not a pom, I’m Irish,’ Jim muttered defensively.
‘Oh well, that’s different.’ Suddenly the voice sounded more cordial. ‘Why didn’t you say so? There’s always room for a bloody Mick.’
The voice belonged to Doug who introduced himself next morning. Out on the balcony beyond one of the hanging blankets Jim could see the bush beyond the town, an expanse dotted here and there with spinifex and dying mulga, small misshapen bushes, their narrow trunks parched from lack of water. Salt flats gleamed a hard white in the sun beside the molehills of abandoned mine shafts scattered across the crooked earth.
In the vast open landscape, violet at its rim, sand-coloured in its centre, the mine was placed at the edge of a red-brown hill scattered with pebbles. The wooden derrick and wheel rose over the main shaft, surrounded by skips and steel hawsers and an untidy pattern of sheds. A mile away spreading across the bush was the ugly white patch where waste product was pumped.
Jim wasted no time and walked into the town, much of it built of corrugated iron. Lines of small shacks like pill boxes, each surrounded by an open balcony, were grouped among a couple of churches with crosses pinned on top, a post office and some stores. The shops and saloons with wooden arcades, many boarded up, ran along a main street which tapered off into the bush at both ends.
At the petrol station a notice proclaimed ‘Vietato Fumare’, and the shop beside it where Jim bought cigarettes sold salami and battered copies of Il Tempo several weeks old. At the mine, groups of men stood around smoking wearing dented steel helmets, singlets and heavy serge trousers with leather belts to which were clipped their carbide lamps. A horn sounded and with a hiss of steam from the pumps the great black wheel which hung suspended over the shaft began to spin, uncoiling the steel hawser down into the shaft. Then the wheel pulled the skip up to the surface bringing up tired dusty men blinking in the bright sunlight after eight hours underground.
It was easy enough to get work. The foreman, a dour Scotsman, issued Jim with jobs – he would be a pitman and a banjo boy.
‘Hey Domenico, this is your cobber.’
A small wiry man peered at him shielding his eyes from the sun. ‘New to the job, mate?’
‘Just my bloody luck…’ The expression sounded strange in his Italian accent.
Jim followed him to the rectangular bucket, stepped so it could hold about ten people standing cramped together in pairs one above the other. With a hiss of air the big wheel began to turn and they dropped breathlessly for several minutes. No one spoke until the skip jarred to a halt and they clambered out at the lowest level, a couple of miles underground. Some ghostly lights illuminated a large rock chamber from which narrow passages radiated into the darkness. It was very hot and the pungent smell of carbide filled the air. From time to time there was the sound of a fall of rock, a muffled explosion followed by a moment’s silence and then the chatter of a drill.
Domenico led Jim down a passage which widened when he stopped and shone his lamp into a cave hollowed out of the rock.
‘Buon giorno Queenie. Come stai oggi, bella mia?’
A pair of luminous eyes appeared out of the darkness.
The pony stood motionless staring blindly as Jim tackled the halter, the ropes and trailing chains and the heavy studded blinkers and the buckler which offered protection from falling rocks and fitted tightly over Queenie’s back like an old-fashioned bodice.
‘Cretino,’ roared Domenico when he discovered everything had been put on in the wrong order.
The next job was banjoing. Domenico, half his size, worked at twice his speed shovelling.
‘No good,’ Domenico said at his efforts.
Lines of tubs were filled with rubble as sweat, cramp and blistered hands took over. Jim banjoed fretfully before Domenico lost patience altogether and gave him other orders. He fastened Queenie’s long chain to the leading tub, took her bridle and led her through the long dim passages and piles of rock clattering behind him. Streams of tubs pulled by other blind ponies converged towards the main shaft where the same skip that had brought the men down took the dirt to the surface.
The shift dragged to its close and Domenico told him to unharness Queenie and give her some hay before leaving her in her stall. For the next eight hours the ponies would be the sole occupants of the mine.
The skip took the men up slowly to where the stars shone brightly above the wheel and Jim tasted the night air. Filling his lungs seemed to be the first breaths he had taken since he went down in the morning.
Never again. He couldn’t stand another day of it. Domenico would find another cobber. For Jim it seemed to be back to Perth and the fruitless search for another job.
But he had a bit of luck.
In the evening, in the awful room at Signora Pucci’s, Doug gave him a hint, a favour to help someone who was not a wop or a pom.
‘Why don’t you try the solution?’
It was a good idea. The very next day Jim found himself with another job. He took the place of a man who was sacked for dipping his pyjamas into the wash of cyanide and dirt, hoping specks of gold would cling to them.
After the dirt was brought up in the skip, it travelled on a conveyor into the mill-house where it was pounded into dust by five mechanical hammers, the noise of which could be heard all over the town. The dust was mixed with water and some cyanide, and then pumped through a series of tanks until the gold became separated from the liquid.
Once a fortnight, a ritual took place when the gold was smelted in the presence of the mine manager and any other worthies who happened to be around. And Jim. The solution was passed through canvas screens and all the gold was carefully scraped together and placed in the furnace. Then everyone stood around smoking for half an hour or so until the oven was opened and out came two little bars of gold the size of cakes of soap. Jim’s task was to keep the machinery going, watching the tanks laced together with a series of flywheels that kept the agitator paddles in motion. The sides of the tanks were wafer thin, since years of rust had eaten into the metal. Years of neglect meant that the creaking machinery was in the last stages of dilapidation, liable to go crook at any moment.
Over time he developed the nervous ear and sixth sense which told him immediately a tank threatened to overflow, a paddle stopped or a pump jammed. Not a shift passed without one of these crises taking place. Spanner in hand, he carried a notebook full of instructions. ‘Decanter – if overflowing, disconnect Oliver filters. Check up on agitators. If no good, clean down with nitric acid.’
If there was not enough cyanide he would have to climb up the ladders to the top of the suction plant where there was a barrel of cyanide blocks beside a notice in red: ‘Dangerous – do not touch’. He would seize a block and hurl it into the agitators to try and bring the content up to the right level. Cyanide poisoning meant a red rash over his legs; however it could have been worse.
He had to be prepared to work quickly or a disaster might have happened. At all costs the solution had to be kept moving; if it was allowed to remain stationary for more than an hour it would harden and soon the machinery would be encased and frozen solid.
He got into an anxious rhythm – anything was better than returning underground. If his nights were sleepless with worry, the money was good. Most of the time he avoided the bar at the state hotel, where Doug spent much of his free time.
‘You’re like the wops, saving the whole bloody time,’ Doug grumbled.
‘I’m saving to get out of here,’ Jim admitted. You never saw an Italian in the bar, and he was like-minded. A few months and he would have enough to move on from this awful place. But Doug was a good sort, and Jim went drinking with him the odd time, perhaps once a week.
The sun beat down, meat crawled with maggots, and the flies took charge.
‘Leave the buggers alone and they won’t harm you,’ Albert growled. Albert was one of a mob of ‘Abos’ who trailed every day around the garbage heaps hoping to find something useful. A bull of a man, his squashed boxer’s face was always covered with an army of flies, settling on his chin and nose. He regarded them as treasured guests and never waved them away.
The Aborigines lived in a part of town that had the appearance of having been blown together. In precarious lean-tos of canvas, hessian and corrugated iron, you saw old men scrounging for bottles of booze (‘Goodonyamate’), barefoot children in patched dresses, and women holding out their hands. There were always a few younger men dressed in bright-coloured silk shirts, tattered trousers and wide-brimmed slouch hats standing in the main street that vanished into the bush. They were splashes of colour against the dusty brown and dried wooden arcades.
They survived on handouts and had nothing to do with the miners. Where they came from was anyone’s idea. They might have been blown in by the dust storms which filled the sky with burning red particles of sand. They had trekked this way not that long ago, before the prospectors and the mining companies had disturbed their ancient ties with nature and reduced them to outcasts. All around them teams of men ransacked sacred ground searching for gold. No more bush walking, only the roar of the mill echoing across the empty land, disturbing the all-embracing silence.
Jim took little notice of the Abos until he learned about the debutantes’ ball which took place once a year. There were never any of them in the bar; they were banned since ‘black fellas couldn’t hold their drink’.
Under the notice ‘NO COONS IN HERE’ the subject of the ball was discussed animatedly. The Abo girls looked forward to an evening when they would be partnered by some of the miners. No Italian girls would turn up of course; the few young ones were grimly chaperoned, while the rest were the age of Signora Pucci. Just once a year antipathy towards the blacks was put aside and again the big question around the bar was ‘who would go?’
Unsurprisingly Doug didn’t like Abos the way he didn’t like Italians or Englishmen. Abos were worse than tramps. He worked hard enough, hard as any wop; every week he saved up to start his own business. Doug lied, of course. His money was spent right here.
But he was superior to the black bastards – what did they do?
‘Bloody nothing, mate.’
Jim preached about how Abos had managed to live in this barren land with no aids except their inherited skills. Bugger all that – look at those coons now.
As for the ball – you could not believe all that, the governor arriving and other big wigs so that Aboriginal girls could come out.
‘Come out of what?’
‘Like they do in England.’
‘You must be joking.’
Jim mentioned Buck House in London where swan-necked English girls made fools of themselves.
‘I thought you were Irish.’ Doug spent another week’s wages on drink at the idea.
But others agreed to be escorts, among them Jim, and Scrawny Williams. Scrawny had lived in the bush dossing for gold, and had returned to the mine because his money had run out. A tall thin man with most of his teeth missing, like the rest of them he felt that an Abo girl was better than nothing.
The town was spruced up to some extent and a Union Jack fluttered over the big wheel of the mine. Jim made his way to the church hall, along with the rest of the escorts who were dressed up for the occasion. Instead of sweaty singlets and stubbies they wore razor-sharp creased trousers and white shirts with buttoned-down collars. You could smell the bay rum over the shampoo.
Inside the church hall were flags, a coloured photograph of the queen in her crown and coronation robes and a raised dais with a table and semicircle of chairs. Before they were let in the plump priest inspected their clothes, checked to see they were not carrying bottles, and gave his annual pep talk. The girls had to be treated with respect … we don’t want trouble … you have to behave yourselves.
‘Bloody cheek. What does he know about women?’
Ten minutes passed before the main door was thrown open and the girls, wearing their white cotton dresses that reached down to their ankles, and pink and blue ribbons in their curly hair, fluttered in to cheers from the waiting miners. You would never associate them with the forlorn figures you usually saw begging in the town. They were smiling and giggling as introductions were made.
Jim’s girl was called Jenny. She didn’t say much, and he was also shy. But soon they didn’t have to talk because there was a racket from the loudspeaker and the governor walked in, followed by his staff and the mine manager. The governor, another bloody pom, was tall and wore a uniform with gold braid. You would think that by now they could manage to find some sort of Australian to do his job and send the bastard back to England.
However, he did the right things. He inspected the mine and was shown the weekly gold ingots. He visited the school, shook hands with some of the children and had a pleasant talk with the teacher. Now he prepared for the last chore of the day.
He stood behind the table giving a short speech. No one was listening. After he sat down his uniformed moon-faced equerry wound up the gramophone and put on a record – a scratchy waltz.
‘Number one!’ the mine manager called out.
‘What are you waiting for?’
The miners and the girls were roped off at the back of the hall and as the first couple took to the floor there were cheers and whistles.
‘Get on with it.’
Pat Saunders, a tall pimply-faced youth who worked alternate shifts with Jim on the solution tanks, slipped into the waltz with his partner.
‘Her name Anne-Marie,’ Jenny told Jim.
Pat towered over his girl as they swayed around and the governor watched impassively before indicating after a few minutes that he had seen enough.
The waltz was switched off.
The short dance was a preliminary, a warm-up to the most important part of the ceremony. Jim and the other miners had been briefed about it beforehand by the priest. They knew the form, and they had all been given numbers.
‘You make a bow to the governor and your partner curtsies.’ That was what was needed for the girl to become a debutante and qualified to take her place in the wider community.
Jim watched Pat and Anne-Marie line up before the governor as Pat bowed his greasy head and Anne-Marie lifted her full white skirt and descended. The governor nodded.
‘We practise,’ Jenny said.
Pat and Anne-Marie, the newly blessed debutante, slithered off the floor as the next couple waited their turn.
‘Two!’ It was the manager’s duty to call out the next names and no one in the governor’s entourage would guess from his beaming smirk that at nearly all other times he was foul-mouthed and bullying. The gramophone played, the second pair stepped onto the floor and eased into the sounds on the remainder of the record.
‘Her name Sally,’ whispered Jenny.
Thirty seconds of very careful dancing ensued before the pause, the bow and the deep curtsey and the governor responding seriously with his nod as Sally became a debutante. The watchers cheered while the manager made a smiling call for number three.
‘Her name Gladys.’
With the gramophone playing, the pause and performance, and the tense silence of the watchers, there was no opportunity for any other conversation between Jim and Jenny. For a start he would have liked to know why none of the younger Abo men joined in this ceremony, why it was left to the miners.
Number Seven. That was them. The equerry put the needle down once more.
Jim felt the watchers were waiting for him to make a false move. She was looking up at him with her dark inquisitive eyes, her black arm lightly clasped around his back. He could smell soap and feel her body pressed against his. The music was half of the same slow waltz and this time the needle wasn’t sticking. She guided him skilfully and he imagined he saw the governor looking pleased at this generous gesture of friendship. They did three turns and to his surprise he found he was beginning to enjoy himself, but not for long; the time allowed for dancing had speeded up. The equerry lifted the needle and the music stopped.
Hand in hand they walked nervously to the spot before the dais for the blessing. This was the all-important moment. He glanced at the governor and the tinted queen in the poster behind him before making his bow to be returned. Jenny’s curtsey was a magnificent sweep to the ground.
In a moment it was over, and they left the floor to cheers, which were fairly muted by this time. They were the last, and seven girls had become debutantes this year. Soon the flags and bunting would be taken down and the governor and his party would be entertained to a lavish dinner attended by the manager and the priest.
‘Thanks. Goodbye.’ Jenny expected nothing more from him.
Outside the hall she and the other newly created debutantes were greeted with excited cries from their families who, throughout the ceremony, had squatted in the dusty road. Albert and his entourage of flies were among them.
Some of the miners went off with their girls. The others, including Jim, retired to the bar.
‘Little black devils.’
‘Good for one thing.’
In her camp out in the bush Jenny would have taken off her white dress and hidden it away. Soon everything would be the same. Broken dreams and poverty – but who would scoff at a night of fame?
Jim didn’t seek her out; he had the solution to contend with. For another three weeks he and Pat, running alternate shifts, managed to keep things going, but he could not sleep with the worry. The solution must be kept moving, moving, otherwise it would freeze into a mixture of hardened mud and gold.
Calamity came one night shift. He had been through his usual routine, wandering around by the light of his torch, testing taps and valves over and over again.
Things seemed all right and he settled down for a nap among the millhouse pumps.
Silence awoke him. There was no roar of the battery and mill, nothing but the sound of dripping water. The fuses had blown and every single nut, bolt and pulley had slid to a standstill while he had been sleeping.
He dashed up to the agitators through a downpour from the over-flowing tanks. In the half-light he could make out that the agitator paddles had stopped, but there was other movement. The solution was pouring out, slopping into the dried grass below the tanks. Every second, more and more gold trickled out into the bush.
At the mill the floor was already a foot under the solution and rising all the time and the great Oliver filters were hidden by cascading water pouring down their sides. He waded through the black water which clung to his trousers. The air was heavy and tropical as the heat condensed some of the dripping liquid into a steamy dampness.
Dawn lit up the devastation. The flood was slowly making its way outside, leaving thick mud over everything. Pools of black water, marooned by machinery, glinted here and there. Some of the mud, thrown upwards by the gushing water, hung in stalactites from the silent pumps and tanks. The water had reduced to drips thumping monotonously on the heaving floor. A fortnight’s worth of gold – dug by scores of men working day and night – had vanished.
The manager’s angry face stood out tomato-red against the dark ruin. ‘You’re fired.’
At least he didn’t have to clean up. Poor old Pat. He staggered out of the mill-house and made his way to the bar. He had a brandy.
He had money. He would clear out; the train left in the evening. As he made his way to his digs he ran into Jenny, barefoot and ragged. They exchanged smiles.
‘I’m off. I’m away out of here. Back to Perth, maybe Sydney.’
‘Goodbye,’ she said.
He paid the rent he owed to Signora Pucci and told Doug he was leaving.
Doug had heard about the big mess. A couple of hours had passed since dawn had revealed the full extent of Jim’s failure and the whole town knew about it.
‘The sooner you get the hell out of here the better.’
The miners, Italians and otherwise, were cursing him. Money would be taken from their wages.
The calamity had taken over as a topic from the flowers.
Worrying over the past weeks, Jim hardly thought about the clouds that had suddenly crossed the burning blue sky, or the rain that followed. Even for those living in leaking corrugated shacks the tattoo of the downpour had been welcome.
A few days later the arid landscape had turned into a garden.
Who could have thought the baked red earth could produce so many flowers? Kangaroo paw, hibiscus, paperbark, sturt bean and the rest. Some bushes were more than ten feet high and the scent was overpowering. You wanted to avoid some like smelly socks.
Most people, even the wops, were fooling around like children let out of school.
For men imprisoned all week in the deep shafts of the mine all those flowers seemed like being in paradise. Some stripped and were excitedly handing each other bunches of scented blossoms.
The Abos took no notice of the spring. Neither did Jim. But as the train moved out of the town past the mess he had caused, he looked out of the window and gazed ahead at the carpet of coloured daisies spreading to the horizon.