FOR THE STORM BIRD
WAITING FOR THE STORM BIRD
Being a station managers 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 stockmans
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
Jesus, said one, staring,
where did that pansy-looking bastard come from? Must be a new jackaroo?
Shut up, shouted the other
one. Its not a bloody jackaroo, its the boss wife.
I stared ahead at my horses
ears, I was indeed the boss wife and we had been on Forestvale for only six
In Store Price: $22.00
Online Price: $21.00
Format: A5 Paperback
Number of pages:
Genre: Non Fiction
Publisher: Poseidon Books
Date Published: 2004
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
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.
station managers 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 stockmans hat and was on my way to let out the cattle.
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.
the men glanced curiously at me, including two young ringers, who had to shout
over the bellowing cattle.
said one, staring, where did that pansy-looking bastard come from? Must be a
up, shouted the other one. Its not a bloody jackaroo, its the
boss wife. I stared ahead at my horses ears,
I was indeed
the boss wife and we had been on Forestvale for only six months.
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
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 bookkeepers
and jackaroos quarters, had a glossy, green concrete floor, polished to a
shine by mopping with a mixture of very hot water and kerosene.
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.
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
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 couldnt 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
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.
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.
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
didnt 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.
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.
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 didnt 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.
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 housekeepers
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.
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 wouldnt rise.
aboriginal woman, Sally, helped her in the kitchen, and Debras sister, Peggy,
was housemaid. Another younger Aboriginal who also did the laundry work aided
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.
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.
woman’s taking money under false pretences he said, wielding the carving
knife at the head of the long dining room table. Why dont you get rid of
her notice, I said. Quite apart from her so-called cooking, Mrs Friske
bullied the housemaid, Annie, into a state of fright.
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 chefs clothing? The answer, unfortunately, was yes.
morning I went across to see about the days 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.
back in the house I found Annie diluting the washing up water with her tears.
that awful woman, she sobbed, fumbling with the china so that I feared
breakages. She is so dreadful to me. Ill have to leave and I dont 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.
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
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.
is that, may I enquire?
tell you the truth, Mrs Friske, your cooking is not up to the standard required
difficulty I held my ground as the knife and Mrs Friske came perilously close.
she said, dont tell me that, Mrs Britt. The trouble is that theres
nothing here to cook with.
I looked meaningfully at the
Mrs Friske, I began.
always say is, you cant make a silk purse out of sows ear. I must have
decided on one last word before making an expedient exit.