“These kiddies are the flotsam and jetsam of Great Britain,” said the third mate to Miss, who was supposed to be organising games on deck but was instead drawing on a gasper behind one of the bollards. “Some of them have broken off from whatever family they had; others are being thrown away as excess to requirements. It’s a shame really.”
“Well, they were on a hiding to nothing in England,” said the woman. “We’ll see how they survive in Australia. It’s survival of the fittest there, you know. And some of these kids are right feral.”
Wanda knew what feral meant. That’s what people called the cats that roamed the bomb sites, with scraggy hair and raw sores, and you weren’t allowed to touch them; you had to keep away from their claws. Sometimes they came up the close and into the kitchens of the mingin’ flats, looking for scraps. At least they caught the rats. Mostly. And this woman was saying that Wanda and the other kids were feral.
Wanda sort of knew where babies came from, but she’d been surprised when she came back from school one day and found her mam with a baby in a blanket. Mam had tried to breastfeed it for a few days, before they both went a green colour and Wanda went to the pub and asked for help. That had brought the ladies in the blue coats and hats, and here she was now, halfway to Australia.
Once they disembarked, it took a couple of days to get their land legs back after six weeks at sea. Wanda felt grungy and then found brown stains in her knickers, which turned to bright red blood that kept coming. She had been warned this might happen, though not exactly why. The nuns said to her, “You are not a child anymore, Wanda,” and showed her how to make pads from old sheets and towels.
The older girls told her she could make babies now, but that if she did it before she was married, she would end up in the Magdelene Laundry next door to the convent, run by the nuns for unmarried mothers. “They’re not allowed to keep their babies, and they have to work for years in the stinking hot washhouses.” Wanda had seen half a dozen pregnant girls being walked glumly along the Esplanade by two hard-faced nuns. But she wasn’t clear how the bleeding led to babies.
There was an awful lot of brown dusty country when she travelled on the train between Melbourne and Adelaide, with three other girls and a nun. It was late summer, and the country was parched. Then Wanda alone was put under the care of the conductor on the train north to Bookaloo Siding, nearly two hundred and fifty miles northwest of Adelaide.
She had been on the Bakerloo train in London, but this was nothing like that. She began to worry after Port Augusta, when the landscape turned red—endless miles of baked red and terracotta earth, with scrubby grey-blue plants and grey-brown stones and rocks. The only living animals seemed to be small groups of grey kangaroos, loping along or huddled under the occasional clump of gum trees. Not a cloud in the relentless blue sky. No towns or cities after Port Augusta, just sheds beside the metal tracks that were called sidings. A dozen or so battered old utes, drawn up by the sheds where the train stopped to drop off crates and parcels and the occasional passenger.
Bookaloo Siding was two small wooden sheds by the track, one for the ticket counter and one for people to wait in. A couple of exhausted gum trees stood outside a small wooden shack that was the station master’s home. No plants because there was no garden; no garden because there was no water, except in the bore tank by the house.
Wanda was the only person to get off at Bookaloo.
One of the half-dozen men standing by the utes came up to her, saying, “You the new sheila for Red Hills?”
“No,” she said. “I’m Wanda. But I am going to Red Hills.”
“Right,” he said. “Hop in the ute, and we’ll be home in time for tucker.”
It took them two hours or more, rattling along the dirt track in the late afternoon.
The driver said his name was Bluey, “because I’ve got red hair. The dog here’s called Drongo because she is one.”
“What’s a drongo?” Wanda asked.
“An idiot, stupid. She’s no good with the sheep.”
“How many sheep are there?”
“Millions. There’s more sheep in Australia than there are people.”
Wanda could see the occasional sheep as they drove along, scrabbling in the red earth.
“It’s nearly the end of the Dry, please Huey,” said Bluey.
“The god of rain, you drongo. The rains should come soon, and then there’ll be grass. It’s hard to keep the sheep going through the Dry. And the Boss is new at the job, only had two or three seasons on his soldier settlement block. He would have done better to take up a place down by the Murray and grow grapes. It’s a bloody wonder he’s lasted this long.”
“Is he married?” Wanda asked.
“Yeah, he married the schoolteacher from up at Woomera Village last year. She’s smartened the place up a bit, and now she’s got a bun in the oven. That’s why they sent for you, to help with the baby.”
Wanda took some time to absorb this information. “What’s she like, the wife?”
“The Missus is okay, but you can tell she’s been a schoolteacher. She doesn’t stand for any nonsense. The Boss does what he’s told too. They’re both a bit nervy about the pregnancy—such a lot of dead babies been born around here in the last couple of years. Not just to sheilas but to sheep too. There’s been one of them scientist blokes from up Woomera looking at the lambs. Right weird some of them are, all head and no bodies or all bodies and no head. Sometimes two heads.”
“That’s the rocket range over west of here. The Poms are testing their rockets there. Getting ready for the next war. Atomic weapons.”
Wanda couldn’t really remember the last war. It was just a fuggy memory of going down to the bomb shelters in the Tube stations with her mam and hundreds of other people. Mam usually made a new friend down there and would bring him home when the all-clear sounded. But Wanda had grown up playing in the old bomb sites along the street.
“What’s a Pom?”
“A Pommie, you drongo. A Brit, from England. You’re a Pom.”
The Missus was very clear about what she wanted Wanda to do around the house, and she was good at teaching her things like how to use the mangle for the washing, which was hard work. She was particular about keeping the house clean and tidy, and that took up several hours each day because the red dust got in everywhere.
Wanda learned to cook, especially mutton, and even to sew. The Missus showed her how to turn her old clothes into dresses and aprons that Wanda could wear, and how to turn the collars of shirts and mend sheets by ripping them down the middle and sewing the sides into the centre. Wanda liked the treadle sewing machine, and they had a good time making baby clothes from lengths of flannel and other material that came up from Port Augusta.
The Missus also encouraged Wanda to read the old encyclopaedias in the house and copies of the Women’s Weekly. Wanda settled down, and the Missus said she would be a great help when the baby arrived. Wanda never felt able to mention her baby brother.
She didn’t have much to do with the Boss, though she helped the Missus make dinner most nights. She ate in the kitchen lean-to while they ate at a table in the front room.
The bigger the Missus got with her pregnancy, the more anxious she became. “The Boss wants the baby so much, and we’ve already had one miscarriage. He had a really bad time during the war.”
Oddly, it was Bluey Wanda asked when she wanted to find out how babies were made. They were driving into Port Augusta, just the two of them and Drongo. Wanda was going to do the shopping for “women’s stuff” for herself and the Missus, while Bluey collected the stores. Drongo sat between them on the front seat as usual, but she was very fat round the belly.
“The stupid bitch is pregnant,” said Bluey. “Probably shagged by a feral dog, and I’ll have to drown all the puppies. Either that or shoot her now, and I don’t want to do that.”
“What’s a feral dog?” Wanda asked, remembering what Miss had said on the boat.
“Dog that’s gone wild, probably mated with the dingos out in the bush. Dingos are wild dogs that attack the sheep. The Boss and the other owners put down baits and traps to kill them, but they keep on coming. The Boss’ll have a shit-fit if he sees any puppies. But I’m off anyway, in a couple of weeks.”
“What’s shagged?” asked Wanda.
Bluey stared at her in amazement. “You coming the raw prawn on me? You gotta know what shagged means.”
But it was clear she didn’t, so he told her. And then he said, “You want me to show you?”
She did, so he turned the ute off the dirt track, laid out the tarpaulin on the ground behind some rocks so they wouldn’t get bitten by bull ants, and showed her. Not yet out of his teens himself, he drew mainly on his knowledge of sheep tupping and two or three experiences from his travels round the stations. Where he came from, sheilas were of two sorts: those who were out of bounds and those who were fair game. The first sort had fathers and brothers around to protect them and their prospects of marriage, with shotguns if necessary. The second sort didn’t, and that included Wanda. They did it again on the way home. And again on the next trip down. And then he was away, taking Drongo with him.
The Missus was spending most of her time lying down and was too self-absorbed to notice whether or not Wanda was having periods, and Wanda herself didn’t know enough to worry about the fact that she wasn’t.
Then the vomiting started in the mornings. Even the Missus noticed that. There was an almighty barney.
“You’re pregnant, you stupid slut!”
It was news to Wanda, but she came to realise that the Missus was right.
“You can’t stay here,” shouted the Boss, who never shouted in the house except when he had nightmares about Burma. “You’ll have to go back to the nuns and the Magdelene Laundry. They’ll make you wash sheets and habits ten hours a day, and then they’ll adopt out the baby. As soon as you’re fourteen you’ll be on your own, God help you. You’ll be on the streets before you’re fifteen, just like your mother. And we’re left stranded just when our baby is due!”
He didn’t ask who had got her pregnant, because she was fair game and he could guess well enough. Bluey was the son of a station owner in the prosperous Merino country, sent out to jackeroo and toughen up on the back blocks for a few months before he went off to agricultural college. He was untouchable, and the outback omerta that cloaked these sorts of situations would keep him that way.
But it was the lambing season, and the Boss was out day and night seeing to the ewes. He and the Missus realised they’d be cutting off their noses to spite their faces if they sent Wanda away now, especially as the Missus didn’t want to be left alone in the house. They decided to wait until their baby came and the Missus was back on her feet. Wanda was a strapping young woman, and a pregnant skivvy was better than no skivvy, for a few weeks at least.
The three of them settled into sullen co-habitation. The Missus stopped including Wanda in her preparations because she knew Wanda wouldn’t be able to keep her baby. She thought it a kindness to draw a veil over her own nesting instincts in her last trimester. She made up a nursery off the main bedroom, and while she lay on her bed and prayed for a healthy baby this time, she didn’t let Wanda into that part of the house. She treated Wanda coolly but not unkindly, knowing that as soon as she was back on her feet after the birth she would have to send the girl back to the nuns. Getting a new skivvy from the child-migrant system might be tricky, now that she had to send this one back pregnant. But it was the cheapest form of labour—bed and board and occasionally a few bob as pocket money to spend in Port Augusta.
Wanda spent her few spare hours on her bed in the little room at the end of the verandah. The Missus wasn’t a person she could ask about what was happening to her and what would come next. She could see that a baby was growing in the Missus’s tummy, but she wasn’t at all clear how it would get out.
She learned when the Missus had another miscarriage, seven months into the pregnancy. There was a lot of blood, and the Missus was groaning and crying and screaming, “No! No! No!” And then something fell out of her.
The Boss looked at it and cried as he wrapped it up and bundled it into a tea chest. The doctor came up from Port Augusta and said, “The bairn never had a chance, my dear. He was so malformed you wouldn’t have wanted him to live.” He told the Missus that she shouldn’t have another pregnancy and advised her to go into the hospital for an operation. He didn’t notice that Wanda was pregnant, as she hovered by with hot water and cups of tea in her hand-me-down smock.
The Missus was distraught for weeks, and the Boss not much better. Wanda got to thinking. If she was sent back to the nuns, she would have to wash heavy sheets and habits until the baby came, and then they would take it away and probably make her work some more. But if she could stay here and then leave the baby with the Missus and the Boss, she would be free. Free to make her way back to London. Still nearly a child herself, she didn’t feel any maternal instinct for the baby inside her. She had never really been mothered; she had seen the “Unknown” written next to “Father” on the copy of her birth certificate that the nuns had sent with her and was now in the Boss’s locked drawer.
She knew how much the Missus and the Boss wanted a child, and she was making a child. She wanted to be out of the situation, out of the pregnancy, out of the sad house, out of the hot red sands of the station, away from the flies and the smell of sheep piss that stank up the homestead and its pitiful garden.
One afternoon when she took tea into the Missus, who was still more in bed than out, she said, “You could have my baby.”
The Missus looked at her properly for the first time in weeks. After a few minutes she said, “I’ll talk to the Boss about it.”
She did, and then talked to the doctor, who had seen many a by-blow before and knew how much the Boss had suffered on the Burma Railroad during the war. Wanda was a far healthier specimen than the Missus, who needed a hysterectomy now. The Doc knew too that, oddly enough, he was not legally required to report an underage pregnancy, even though the age of consent was sixteen.
The Missus came back from the hospital after the hysterectomy and was very dependent on Wanda, though she was now in the last trimester of her pregnancy. All the baby gear was packed away, and it was understood that babies were not a safe topic of conversation. The Boss and the Doc talked with Wanda and offered her a ticket back to Britain if she promised to leave the baby behind and never try to see it again. In fact, the Doc said, it would be better if she never saw it at all—that would make it easier for her to draw a line under the whole sorry business and get on with her life. The few doubts Wanda had were overcome when they said she would be sent direct from the hospital in Port Augusta to Melbourne, to catch a ship back to Blighty, as they called it. The Boss and the Missus would give her a hundred pounds as long as she signed the adoption papers before she left the hospital. They said she would be doing a great kindness to them.
She went to stay at the Doc’s house just before the baby was expected. She never saw the Missus or the Boss again, and the baby was whisked away as soon as he was born. A nurse gave her a stern but illuminating talk on contraception and showed her a couple of rubbery things. Then she was put on the train to Melbourne. Wanda had been in Australia for a year and had just turned fourteen.
Even in late summer, it was a relief to see the parched brown country out of the train window after the relentless red earth. The tram from the Spencer Street station retraced the route back down to the bay, and there was St Kilda, just as she had left it. But Wanda didn’t go to the nuns or anywhere near them. She’d been given the address of a women’s hostel on Inkerman Street.
It was less than a month since she had given birth, but she felt as light as a bird as she went out in the early evening to Luna Park. As she was walking through the gaping mouth, two women, arm in arm, called out, “Hey, you want to come on the roller-coaster with us?” So she did, and they had a grand time, and ate fairy floss afterwards.
She was back in the hostel by ten o’clock, as the regulations required. The women had invited her to have lunch on the beach with them the next day, and she met them down by the pier.
Marnie and Muriel were very nice. Wanda told them she had done a year as a skivvy on a South Australian sheep farm and was heading back to London. She made no mention of the baby she had borne. They were very envious of her ticket to what they seemed to regard as the centre of the universe.
At the end of the afternoon Muriel said to her, “We live in a boarding house with a lot of blokes. They’re painters, or trying to be. We work in the George Hotel most mornings, doing out the bedrooms, and then we go over to their studio in the afternoons and pose for them. They want to make a big splash and head off to London to show the Poms what Aussie art is all about.”
Within a couple of days, Wanda had moved into the boarding house and postponed her trip back to England. The shipping company said that her credit note for the fare was good for six months. Marnie and Muriel encouraged her to stay and helped her get a job like theirs at the George. She had a small bedsit down the hall from their double room. They said the Olympic Games were coming to Melbourne in November and that there would be plenty of work for the likes of them in the hotels. Wanda still had most of her hundred pounds.
One great advantage of working at the George was that performers who appeared down the road at the Palais Theatre stayed there. Muriel and Marnie taught her a thing or two about how to wheedle tickets and backstage passes. They all got in to Nat King Cole’s show, and then Louis Armstrong’s, within the space of a week in April. “And there’s this wonderful singer, Virginia Paris, who’s still here after being Bloody Mary in South Pacific for two years. Sometimes she sings at the George.” Wanda heard each of them sing “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long ways from home.”
“But things could be worse,” said Louis Armstrong at the end, and Wanda agreed with him. She had a ticket back to London, some cash, a job, a room—and now she had Marnie and Muriel. The baby she had given birth to had a good mother in the Missus and was much better off where he was, on the Boss’s sheep farm. Wanda had been told by the Doc and the nurse to put it all behind her, and she did. But she never spoke about her son to anyone, especially not Marnie and Muriel.
The two women posed in the nude for the artists, but they were very strict that Wanda mustn’t. One of them was always there when she posed. Anyway, the blokes seemed to want her dressed like a school-girl. They spent hours drawing and painting her. When she saw the paintings, she couldn’t see that they were very like her. She didn’t even think they were grown-up art, not like the paintings she had seen on the ship coming over, proper pictures of men in uniforms and women in ballgowns hanging in the Music Room where the morning lessons were held. These paintings were sort of jerky and unfinished. Sometimes she seemed to be flying. But because they were of her, she kept the ones she was given and rolled them up in her suitcase. “When we’re famous, even these sketches will be worth a packet,” the blokes said. They called her Kiddo or Kiddiwinks or Chickadee.
Wanda needed to go back to England before her ticket credit expired. Muriel and Marnie went to the shipping office with her to sort it out. On the wall was an advertisement for jobs on a big ship which was going to be berthed in Melbourne for a fortnight during the Olympic Games and serve as a floating hotel. There were afternoon and night shifts as well as morning shifts. Marnie and Muriel saw a way to make really good money towards their fares to London. As soon as they asked about the jobs, one thing led to another. By the end of the afternoon, the three of them had afternoon and night shifts lined up at the Olympics hotel, and a plan to work their way to Britain. Wanda’s ticket was taken as part payment for a three-berth cabin, and they would work off the rest over the six-week journey.
The artist blokes were very cross. Not only would the women not be able to pose for them in the afternoons now, but they would get to London first.
When the painter Georgia O’Keeffe came in from wandering the frontier towns of the Texas Panhandle, she would say she was “the colour of the road.” Life is like that. The Colour of the Road unfolds the interweaving stories of five characters in search of themselves.
Wanda, Marnie and Muriel (who are a couple), and Bryant (who prefers to be called Brenda out of office hours) arrive in London in time to become part of the Great Australian Art Bubble before it moves on to New York in the 1960s. There is money to be made, and Marnie makes it. She needs to, because the brain damage that Muriel suffered in the Napier earthquake in 1931 in New Zealand is worsening. She needs institutional care. Moreover, Muriel’s twins by Bryant (keep up there!) need care and schooling while Marnie runs her art gallery. She passes off paintings by Muriel as originals in the style of one of the best-selling Australian artists, until one punter gets annoyed and shops her.
Meanwhile, Bryant and Wanda have entered into a lavender marriage, and he has been transferred by his London law firm to New York. Wanda’s son, Jack, left in Australia for the price of a ship’s passage back to London, eventually finds his mother in New York. It’s the 1970s now, and Jack is drawn into the struggle for independence of the island territories to the north of Australia.
Wanda and Jack travel round the USA together, and then Jack goes back to university in Australia. He volunteers to courier vital photographs of napalm-bombing atrocities from Southeast Asia to the UN in New York. After crossing the Australian desert, he meets independence fighters out in the Arafura Sea, who hand him the vital negatives. But he can’t go back to Australia with them because it’s clear that the authorities are closing in on the pro-independence networks, and the fighters can’t afford to lose the radio transmitters that are keeping the world informed of the atrocities across the sea.
So Jack follows the action-packed hippie trail across to Jakarta and then on to Singapore. He steals a passport from a hippie dying on the beaches of Bali. Two European women thieving their way along the trail entice him into their hostel room and try to take his gear—including the negatives—but he escapes and manages to fly to New York from Singapore.
He gets into the UN by joining a tour group that’s taken into the back of the remarkably insecure Security Council chamber…and from there it’s just a short sprint and hurdle down to the rostrum. Jack is kneed to the ground, but he flashes the incriminating photographic proof at the delegates supporting the independence struggle. The rest is history.
Sue Rabbitt Roff was born in the USA, grew up in Australia, and now lives in a Scottish fishing village. She was a human-rights activist accredited to the United Nations in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, serving at one point as Press Officer to José Ramos-Horta, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. Her short stories have been short- and longlisted for several UK prizes, including the Wells Festival of Literature and the Fish Short Memoir Prize, and her essays on 20th-century settler-Australian culture have been published in Meanjin, Overland, The Conversation, and Pearls & Irritations, and reported in the Guardian and the Independent. The Colour of the Road is a mixed-genre historical political thriller. More information can be found at rabbittreview.com.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021