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Excerpt from Part One: The Tearaway
My story begins in January 1948 in a small town east of Goondiwindi in Queensland. It was a Sunday. I heard the bells begin, deep in the middle of a scorching summer where even at six o’clock in the morning sweat ran down the middle of your back and into your flour bag bloomers, dampening the drawstring. It was my fifth birthday and I had just finished my breakfast of a brown egg, fresh hot bread just lifted out of the fiery oven and covered with lashings of home-made butter.
‘Come,’ my pretty mother said, and she took me by the hand and walked down the five back stairs and into the shed. In the far corner of the shed my mother bent and picked up a small wooden box covered with an old nappy.
‘This is for you,’ she said, her green eyes crinkling at the corners, the way they did when she smiled. ‘Happy birthday, Judy. Look after her now.’
As I pulled off the nappy, a quiet “squark” sent a ray of sunshine into the still morning air. Sitting on a handful of dry grass was the most beautiful bantam hen I had ever seen. We had bantams, lots of them. White ones, red and white ones, brown with feathers on their legs, but this one was different.
She was russet red with soft wing feathers and the colour matched the leg feathers, and the little top-knot that stood up on the top of her head was like a small wriggly bonnet.
‘Is she really just for me?’ I asked.
My mother nodded, still smiling, her long auburn hair flowing around her shoulders, not yet rolled and bound around her head.
‘Can I call her Sugar?’ thinking of the sweet white powder my mother kept high on the shelf and that was only put on the table for my father and visitors.
My mother laughed — a high tinkly laugh. ‘That sounds like a wonderful name, Sugar it is then.’
Sugar would join the family of bantams down the backyard in the chook house, which was made of wire and bits and pieces of wood.
The chook house backed onto the policeman’s house, and I would frequently stand in the far corner of our backyard and talk to the town drunks as they slept off their Friday and Saturday night binges in the lock-up.
‘Urmph,’ my mother would voice her disapproval, ‘blotto again,’ as their loud out-of-tune singing began.
As I walked down the back to put Sugar in her new home my fingers played with her tiny wing feathers, and I brushed the top-knot of small ginger feathers across my lips, feeling them tickle. First though, being Sunday, and knowing old Sam would still be in his cell, I thought I would show him my prize — my very own birthday prezzie. I told old Sam almost everything and I had no doubt he would want to see my little chook called Sugar.
The sound of a car driving up the road, especially at this early hour, took my attention away from Sugar and old Sam, and I watched, greatly interested, as it stopped outside the church just across the dirt road from our house. I hadn’t noticed the two horses and two buggies before, or the people who were standing outside the church and dressed in their best.
The man driving the car stepped out and brushed his hands down his white shirt, took off his cap and opened the car door. A girl in a short white dress with a veil across her face stepped out from the back seat and stood beside him. Even from where I was standing I could see she had a rather big belly.
Then the bells began to ring again, this time loudly and purposely. Clear and angelic, they rang out across the morning, across the dust and pebbles, across the fence and pepperina trees, across the pretty gerberas, across the lock-up and the outside dunny. And I forgot old Sam as I ran back up the stairs as fast as my small dumpling legs could carry me, still holding my little ginger and white chook.
‘Mum! Mum!’ I garbled, excitement blurring my words.
‘Come and see the black shiny car and her. They’re beautiful.’
Rounding the corner of the kitchen I came across my parents, both as still as statues. Maybe they were playing that game ‘statues’, where we’d yell and open our eyes trying to catch someone still moving. No, my mother was upset, her hands resting on her big tummy.
‘I want a son, not another one of those,’ he said flicking his fingers toward my four-year-old sister, playing on the floor at their feet.
I’d heard my father bellow this before. It was very confusing, why would he want the hot fiery ball in the sky, the sun that was stinging hot in the summer, and how would he get it anyway? My mother’s face stiffened and even though I couldn’t see her eyes from the corner of the doorway I knew they were flat. I had become clever at watching the different looks slide across my mother’s face, as my life seemed to be ruled by them.
‘Anyway … I start next Monday,’ my father said, his arms now stiff by his side, fists clenched, and I wondered what I’d done wrong this time. Or maybe it was my older brother’s turn for the cane, and I stayed very still and watched my mother’s face.
‘I’ll be here by myself for weeks on end,’ my mother said timidly.
My eyes swung back to my father.
He shrugged. ‘Can’t be helped, you’ll manage, others do. It’ll only be for a year or so then I’ll put in for a transfer. Anyway, that’s how it is.’
My mother’s anxiety caused my arms to tighten on Sugar and she squawked. My father turned at the sound.
‘Get that thing out of here!’ he bellowed.
‘Are you going away?’ I asked bravely, hopefully, yet made afraid by my mother’s fear.
I saw his face tighten.
‘Go outside now Judy and look after your hen, eh!’ my mother pleaded as a stubborn look settled on my face.
Even at the age of five I had been caned many times because of my defiant eye contact with my father. I was willing to suffer pain for my obstinacy and pride.
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