(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
Speed Melbourne 1916
Three hundred acres baking under the late summer sun, resting after the
heady rush of spring and yellow mellowing of early summer. Heavy with the full
heads of the grain, now stripped, bagged, and delivered to the wheat pool at
The bush, subdued, the green of spring greyed and dusty, waiting out the long dry months for the cold wash of winter.
A time to relax a little and catch your breath and visit your neighbour.
"Hullo," said Bill, looking down towards the gate. "Who's this?"
The buggy rolled up and stopped by the back verandah. "G'day. Tom Burns. This is m' wife Mary, and the family."
He gestured to the girl, about six, and the two boys, one nine and the other two.
"Ah, yes," Bill said, "been meaning to call over. Got a bit tied down with the harvest."
"That's alright. Young Bob and Rupe have been over to say g'day."
Mother and Harry came out across the verandah and were introduced, Mother taking Mrs Burns and the youngest boy and the girl back into the kitchen.
"You'll stay to tea Tom," Bill said. "Get the horse out and we'll give him a feed down the stable."
"You always been in the Mallee?" Harry asked as we walked the horse down.
"No. Wimmera. Share farming for the past few years on a block there, but thought I'd like to give it a go for myself and took up this mile here."
"Must be about three hundred acres you've got rolled?"
"Yes. Thought I might be able to sow it this year. Get it burnt off and run the disc over it."
"Should be able to," Bill said, taking a kerosene tin into the chaff house and filling it for the horse. "We had the three hundred acres sown when we came onto the place, but the drought took care of that."
"Yes," Tome mused. "That certainly knocked the country 'round a bit. Still, seemed to recover pretty quickly."
We left the horse and walked back up to the house where Mother had a cup of tea waiting, and sat around the kitchen table.
"What sort of disc have you got?" Harry asked.
"Haven't got one of my own. Thought I'd hire one somewhere. Can't afford to buy this year."
Mother turned to Bill. "We won't want our disc this year will we?"
"No, she's bit of a wreck though. Needs new red gum bearings in her, but I suppose otherwise there's nothing major wrong. Would you like to borrow her?"
"Well, yes I would "
"And horses," Harry asked. "How are you off for a team?"
"Pretty right there. One of the horses staked himself rather badly when I was rolling, but he seems to be okay now."
"A drill will be your next worry," Bill said. "Actually, we've got two old ones, and just brought a new fifteen row home the other day. In fact, the expert's due any day now to start it, so if it's any good to you Tom you're welcome to one of the old ones."
"Wants a few parts," Harry said, "but we've ordered them from the agent and the should be ready to collect any time now."
Mrs Burns seemed quite embarrassed. "We didn't come here to borrow "
"Now look." Mother spoke quite definitely. "If you and Tom need anything, you only have to ask, and if you don't I'll be most annoyed."
The two women smiled at each other.
"For a start, the boys can help you with the burning can't they?"
"Yes," agreed Bill. "Won't be long now before you're allowed to burn. A good hot day with a north wind and that three hundred acres of rolled mallee'll only be a heap of ashes."
"As long as you've got the spring-backs cut," Harry put in.
"Only a dozen or so in one corner left to do."
"Well then, just let's know when you're ready and we'll be over to help with the Burns' burn," Bill said with a laugh, and stood up. "Couple of things to do around the place before tea Tom. Coming out while I do them?"
After tea Harry and Mrs Burns took turns playing the piano, and even managed a duet, and then while Mother and Harry prepared supper Bill and Tom Burns went out to yoke up.
"They are a nice couple," Mother said as we stood waving to them from the verandah. I do hope they do well. The eldest boy is very like his father, isn't he?"
"That's John," Rupe said. He had cobbered up with him during the afternoon, showing him his wires of rabbit skins and the 'roo skins pegged to dry in the sun. "I gave him a couple of my rabbit traps. Going to ride over there one day and show him where to set them."
"That's nice," Mother said, the sound of the horse and buggy disappearing into the night. "I'm glad you've found a young friend son."
We went back into the house, and Bill poked up the fire. "Wonder how Wally's getting on? Seems to like it alright."
Wally had returned to Merbein to continue his apprenticeship as a baker now the harvest was over, and life on the farm had slowed its pace, Bill and Harry able to take their time as they checked over the machinery ready for the cropping.
The new drill was going to be quite an asset, and from time to time Bill would spend an idle ten minutes trying to work out how it operated.
"But I don't seem to be able to get the hang of it at all Harry. Look at this chart on the super and grain box, says to shift the pinion cog up or down on the planetary drive to alter the quantities you're sowing, but it don't work out like that." He frowned suddenly and bent over the off-side wheel. "Harry. Look at this. The hub's broken."
Harry inspected it. "Must have been broken on the train."
Bill scratched at the crack with a length of wire. "No it's a flaw in the casting. Have a look."
Back at the house they mentioned it to Mother.
"Well you boys explain to me exactly what's wrong and I'll write to the machinery company in Melbourne."
"Ask them when the expert's coming too," Harry said. "We're counting on this machine."
The traveller who sold us the drill had assured us the company expert would come out an start it, and have any faulty parts replaced at their expense.
"He seemed such a nice man," Mother said, and will Bill explaining the trouble sat down and wrote a letter to the machinery company in Bourke Street.
Harry posted it the next day in Speed, and he and Bill continued working on the other machinery.
"Shouldn't take too long to answer," Bill said.
It was the beginning of March, and still hot, and we looked forward to a good rain storm to clear the air.
"Looks like the weather'll break pretty soon," Bill said one day as we all stood away from the house watching the big cumulus and thunder clouds forming.
The March flies were about, stinging sharply and nearly driving the horses mad. The bott flies had also appeared, and we had to keep rubbing kerosene under the necks of the horses, and tie little pieces of red rag under the straps on the winkers, to try and keep them off and prevent them laying their eggs.
It was always bad enough with the ordinary bush flies, but these March flies and bott flies
"Damnation!" Harry exploded, swiping at his own arm.
"Now, now," said Bill. "On a Sunday Harry?"
"If you can cut chaff on a Sunday " Harry started, then shook his head and walked off towards the sheds.
Bill winked at me and followed.
A hot and gusty north wind had sprung up from the freshness of the morning, tall cloud banks rolling up from the horizon to the rumble of thunder. Fierce jagged bolts of lightning snapped savagely at the ground from below the thunder heads, forked like the tongue of a snake testing the wind before it struck.
Down at the chaff house Harry stopped suddenly, frowning. "Look up there. Towards the north west. I reckon that's smoke."
Bill and I turned to where he pointed.
"Jove yes. Looks like Tom Burns' place. Reckon lightening could've set fire to the rolled Mallee Harry?"
"Looks like it might have."
"Better finish up here and go over. They might need a hand." Bill turned to me. "How about getting the ponies saddled and tell Mother Bob."
Mother came out onto the verandah and looked across at the smoke. "Oh dear. I hope they're alright."
As we rode it was like a great wall in front of us, the hot north wind becoming stronger, almost hurricane force.
"Well, at least it's blown the damn flies away for a while," Harry shouted.
"Yeah," yelled Bill. "That's something to be thankful for anyway."
As we galloped up to his house to warn him, Pa Jennings was just swinging into the saddle of his roan stallion.
"Keep going boys!" he shouted, and lifted the stallion into a gallop alongside us. "that fire's out of control."
We ran the horses hard for the Burns' place, and found Tom and Mary and their three children standing near the homestead, just a shack, they had built when they arrived. They looked as though they had been through an inferno.
"We've just come back from the fire," Tom shouted. "Lightning. Mary and I went up there, but the norther sprang up and we had to get out."
Mary was distraught. "It's coming straight for our home!"
"Reckon that green mallee'll stop it," Bill called.
Charlie McDougall slid his horse to a stop amongst us. "Get out! Get out! That green mallee'll burn worse than the dry!"
Tom Burns turned for the house. "I'll get a bit of the furniture out "
"No time!" Charlie shouted. "We've got to git for our lives. Where're your horses?"
Tom stopped, undecided. "They're alright. Turned them out on the main road this morning for a bit of grass and "
"Git up behind us then!" Charlie shouted. "We'll be lucky to get out with our lives "
This seemed to shock Tom back to the harsh reality of the situation, and grabbing his youngest son from Mary's arms thrust him up to Bill, turning for the girl and pushing her up into Pa Jennings' arms.
"C'mon John!" I yelled, and he caught hold of my hand and dragged himself up behind me.
"What about the traps Rupe gave me?" he cried, distressed at the loss of his treasure.
Mary Burns was in tears as her husband helped her up behind Charlie McDougall, clutching at Charlie as he kicked his horse away.
Harry's horse was already moving by the time Tom was on behind, and Pa Jennings' stallion leapt to the front, and we chased him through the bitter, stinging, choking smoke.
"Be careful!" Mary cried from ahead of us.
But the stallion in the lead seemed to have reverted to his role of the wild, picking the path for his mob to follow as Pa Jennings let him have his lead.
"Yippeeee!" John screamed behind me, excited by the wild ride and oblivious to the danger. "Catch 'em Bob!"
But the horses were running on their own, and needed no direction to maintain their pace, their hooves a subdued drum roll in the dust and sand, swerving or leaping forward through the bush towards the safety of the main road. Muscles bunching and uncoiling, the ridge and ripple against your thighs through the saddle flaps, a fleck of foam spitting back past your face. They knew as well as we that we were running for our lives.
"Thank God, thank God!" Mary Burns was crying, and with a clattering of hooves on the harder ground we burst from the scrub onto the wide main road.
"Keep together now," Charlie warned us as we swung down from the horses, but we needed no telling as we turned to watch the wall of smoke and fire sweeping across the Burns' property towards us.
Bill turned towards the sound of rattling hooves. "It's old man Whitecross and the boys."
"It's still on Burns' place," Charlie called.
"Be lucky to hold it here at the road even," Mr Whitecross said, swinging down from his horse. "God I hope there's rain in them clouds."
Thunder was rolling quite closely at times, bolts of lightning snapping down at the earth with a shock you could feel through the air.
"Come on boys, tie the horses on the other side," Charlie called, starting off at a run. "She'll be on us in a minute."
We tethered the horses and ran into the scrub, breaking of mallee bush beaters and spreading out back along the road, already the heat from the advancing flames striking our faces and arms.
But when it leaped and exploded in front of us it was like working in a blast furnace, and we moved in against it, head down to protect your face as best you could. Beat, beat and beat until you had your few feet out, then brush it back, and move on to beat, and beat and beat again, the green mallee bushes sizzling in our hands, and sudden pain and smell of raw flesh burning as glowing coals bit through our shirts and trousers.
And the searing, choking, smoke.
Hell, why don't we get out of here? Why don't we ride while we can?
"Stick to it boys!" Bill was shouting.
"We'll hold here," old man Whitecross roared back.
And then the fire jumped, right across into Pa Jennings' place amongst the dry wheat stubble, and Pa was over the fence in a running jump, beating at it like a man demented.
Oh God, help us! God, do something! I though of Mother's explanation of the angel and the British soldiers at Mons. They had had faith in God. Surely if we had faith?
And suddenly, the answer to my prayers, great drops of rain hissing in the coals. Wide spread, coming faster, faster, faster and the heavens opened in a great deluge. Rain! Rain! It poured down, soaking through to our skin, killing the flames with a ruthless stroke. Sucking the heat from the glowing coals and leaving them black. Beating the fine ash into a slurry and washing it harmlessly aside. Challenging memory that the soggy, blackened blanket before us could ever have been a threatening furnace of rolling destruction.
"Rain, rain, rain!" Bill shouted, throwing his head back and letting the falling streamlets drop into his open mouth.
The Burns' children lost their terror and began to dance in the roadway, shrieking in joy at being allowed to play in the falling rain of the storm, not noticing their mother's tears as she gazed across the blackened landscape towards the dream she had lost.
"All my wedding presents. I never even unpacked them. I was waiting until we could afford a decent place to put them in."
Tom shook his head and put an arm around her, at a loss for any word of comfort.
Around us the road was jammed with horses and buggies. People had arrived from everywhere. Speed, Tempy, Turriff, and women began serving food from the buggies, and repeating, with everyone else:
"Thank God the rain came."
Tom Burns shook his head and tried a grin, his blackened face streaked in long brown rivulets. "Well, no-one's hurt." And then he shrugged in resignation. "Have to give up now and go back and find some share farming in the Wimmera again. Still, no-one's hurt."
Mr Whitecross clapped a hand on Tom's shoulder, then climbed up into the back of a buggy. "Alright you blokes," he boomed. "Gather around here. I've something to say."
We turned to face him, smoke-blackened and wet, eyes red-rimmed, someone coughing to try and clear the irritation from their smoke filled lungs.
"Ladies and gentlemen. Please! Ladies and gentlemen." Mr Whitecross paused and waited a moment more. "Thank you. Now, you all know Tom and Mary Burns, and you know this was their home. They're new here, and they worked hard to get here, and now they've lost everything. They came to live amongst us, and misfortune has struck them. But I say, here and now, that this misfortune is not going to prevent them from staying here amongst us!"
"I'll go along with that!" a voice called, and Mr Whitecross acknowledged him with a nod before he went on.
"Right here and now I say we'll agree to build them a new house, stable and sheds, re-fence the block, and see a crop is put in. Right?"
There was a swell of voices agreeing, and a voice called above them.
"I've got a couple of miles of wire they can have."
"I've got a spare harness."
"I'll put in some work."
Bill Anderson lifted a hand. "I'll see a new house is put up."
"I'll help with that."
And in the space of a few minutes it was arranged, that starting on the following Monday, working bees would move onto the property and begin the clean up. A list was made of what each could supply and what he could do, and every man allotted a job.
"Now look " Tom Burns protested, embarrassed, but he was shouted down.
"Come on Tom," Bill said. "We'll get hold of someone with a buggy going back our way and get Mary and the kids back home."
"You've already loaned us the disc, and the drill "
"Well being at our place you'll be right on the job when you start the repairs."
When we got back to the house Mother was standing out on the verandah, her face creased in worry for our safety, changing to concern for the Burns when she heard the story.
"The house and everything?" she asked, shocked, and putting an arm around Mary hustled her and the children inside, calling on Harry to build up the fire, and not stopping until we were all in dry clothes.
"Mother'd never have forgiven us if we'd come back without you Tom," Harry said.
The very next day Mother and Harry drove off to Speed to buy dress lengths and cottons, material to make pants for young John, trousers and shirts for Tom. They had nothing except the clothes they had fled their house in, but Mother's busy sewing machine soon took care of that.
But it's an ill wind and to Rupe and John it was Christmas. They rode off to school together in the morning, and in the evening they set off for the scrub and the traps, and if one of them was not chattering the other was.
"He's turning John into quite an expert trapper," Tom said proudly. He was working on the old drill and the Barja disc, making them ready for a start on the cropping.
Bill and Harry, while still working over the machinery when they were home, kept disappearing for a day at a time, and not a word out of them when you asked where they had been.
"Ask no questions and you'll be told no lies," Harry said, but we all knew where they had been, and kept up the pretence of being ignorant just to save Tom and Mary embarrassment.
Then one day in the mail there was a curt letter from the machinery company about the drill, expressing concern that we were unable to start the drill, but denying any responsibility towards sending a man to show us. If we needed their expert it would cost us his train fare, board and lodging while he was on the property, and £1 a day. And as far as the broken hub was concerned they again disclaimed all responsibility, and said we should have claimed on the railways before we accepted delivery. We could have a new one for £7, which they would send with their expert if we required him, and they would further appreciate our cheque in settlement for the machine, as it was now past due.
Of course we could be assured of their best attention at all times yours faithfully ..
"Yours faithfully ..!" Harry cried. "I could say a few words about that."
Bill shrugged. "Ah well, guess we just have to accept it."
"Oh no we don't!" Mother said quickly. "I have to go to Melbourne in connection with your father's will, so I'll go and see them. Their traveller did say their expert would start the drill at no cost to us. Just wait till I get my hands on them. Telling lies like that."
Rupe nudged me. "Melbourne Bob! Do you think Mother might take us?"
"I don't know. Jove, it would be alright, wouldn't it?"
I shook my head. "Wait and see what happens."
A little later Mother told us she would be leaving for Melbourne on Monday, and, marvellous news, Rupe and I were to go along for company.
On Monday night Harry drove us into Speed and saw us off on the midnight train to Melbourne. We were on our way to the city!
Although Mother settled down for the long journey, Rupe and I were far too excited. And the train stopped at every station!
Before each stop there was the long drawn-out whistle to warn of our approach, the change of tempo of the wheels over the joins as we began to slow, the hiss of steam and clank and rattle as we came alongside the platform, and then the sudden quiet. Just the low voice of the Guard and Station Master, the whisper of wheels through the gravel of the platform as the trolley was wheeled back to the guard's van; then a whistle, a clank of couplings, a long hiss of steam, and off into the night again.
Just after dawn we arrived at Maryborough and changed trains for Castlemaine, where we had to change again for Melbourne.
"Castlemaine rock! Castlemaine rock!" a boy was shouting as we climbed down from the train to change for Melbourne. "Castlemaine rock, almond rock!"
Mother let us buy some. It tasted like toffee, but was more brittle, we decided, sampling it as the Melbourne train steamed out.
"Rupert, Bob," Mother called during the journey. She pointed out the window. "Over there to the north at Moliagul. That's where they found the 'Welcome Stranger'. It's the largest gold nugget ever found in the world.
"Jove." Rupe was impressed. "Wish we could find one." He gazed out the window. "Be good wouldn't it Bob?"
We rocked on through the countryside, and Rupe's attention was next caught by the lights still burning in the carriage. "Why haven't they turned them off?"
Mother explained the train would be going through tunnels they had cut under hills, and without the lights it would be pitch dark, so we waited eagerly for the train to reach them, thrilled by the sudden plunge into darkness, as though suddenly we were rushing through night again.
Rupe had never been to Melbourne, but when Father was alive he had taken me several times, so I was not so awe-struck as Rupe when we struggled with our two large suitcases from Spencer Street station and Mother hired a cab to drive us to the Coffee Palace in Collins Street.
Rupe and I had a room to ourselves. "Look Bob," he called in excitement, leaning from the window, "look at those tram things. They're going along without horses! Blowed if I know how they do it."
"I'll have a look in a minute," I called, and went through into Mother's room.
When I came back Rupe was standing in the doorway. "Look at this! They have all the lights in little bottles, and you turn them on with a tap!" He flicked the switch on and off to show me, then lost interest in that and wanted to go down into the street to see the sights. "Come on Bob .."
"If we want to go to the pictures tonight we've got to take a bath and have a lie down. You know what Mother said."
He shrugged. "Awright. I suppose so "
The baths and showers with unlimited steaming hot water were another sense of wonder. This was surely the ultimate in luxury, just to turn a tap instead of having to light a fire beneath a copper, then bucket the water into a tub. Marvellous, and after washing there was a soft bed in a darkened room, and through the haze of sleep imagining the rocking of the train and the sound of the long, long whistle ..
"Come on Bob. Come on."
Rupe was shaking me by the shoulder, already dressed and ready for adventure. It's five in the arvo. Get dressed and we'll take a look around before Mother wakes."
I gave up and got dressed, and we threaded our way along a maze of passages until we found the stairs to the booking office and lounge. Rupe, never one to walk blindly by opportunity, entered the lounge via the banister, and wandered away without waiting my more formal entry.
People arriving, people leaving, people standing.
"Over there Bob," Rupe called as I caught up.
We crossed to two big leather arm chairs where two boys about our ages were standing, both very smartly dressed in plus-fours and belted Norfolk jackets, an enamel badge on their lapels.
Rupe leaned over and whispered. "What d'you think of the apple catchers?"
The older boy heard him and looked across. "I beg your pardon? Do you want a punch on the nose?"
"Oh, no offence. I reckon you look alright. Better'n us country bumpkins."
"But we come from the country," the boy answered. "My name is Alistair, and this is my brother Jock. We're from the Western District, near Camperdown you know."
"Where's that?" Rupe asked.
Alistair and Jock seemed taken aback.
"My name's Bob Delahoy," I said, standing up quickly, "and this is my brother Rupe. We're from the Mallee. Speed."
"Speed? Speed what?" Alistair asked.
"No, no. Speed is the name of our nearest town."
There was a large map of Victoria on the wall and I went across and pointed to our town.
"Up there?" Alistair was horrified. "That awful country! Pity they ever took it from the blacks."
"It's not as bad as all that! We took eight bags to the acre of 600 acres this season. How many bags would you get down your way?"
"What?" they chorused, and began to laugh. "We don't grow wheat. Our father runs cattle and sheep. We've thousands of acres and thousands of sheep. How many do you run?"
"Well, as a matter of fact we haven't any at all."
They were a little taken aback. "No sheep?"
"Well," said Rupe, rubbing the side of his face and looking towards the ceiling as though he were counting. "I bet you we've got a lot more rabbits."
The two boys retreated from the subject of numbers, feeling they were outclassed and searching for safer ground.
"We go to Scotch College."
"Well, Rupe and I go to the Turriff East State School, although I've been away for a while helping with the harvest. It opens two days one week, and three the next "
"And twenty kids go there," Rupe said proudly.
Alistair looked surprised. Well, it must certainly be a tough country to live in "
Rupe wasn't standing for that. "Betcha it's a better place than Camperdown!"
"Oh well, excuse us. Here comes Papa. We must go now. Cheerio."
Rupe and I watched them leave, then crossed to the stairs to go and see if Mother was awake.
"They weren't really bad blokes," Rupe said. "But fancy, no sheep old chap! Really!"
I was thinking of the suit I wore. It was quite some time since these clothes and I had been the same size; the sleeves of the coat half way up my arms, the pants too short and too tight. At least, with Rupe, his coat fitted.
Well, it would in a couple of years.
Ah well, never mind, I thought. Mother was going to buy us new clothes tomorrow, and tonight we were going to the pictures in Bourke Street.
While Mother purchased the tickets Rupe discovered the Commissionaire. He was dressed in a green uniform with a peaked cap and plenty of gold braid. He held a cane in his hand and: "Never in this world," he informed us, "has there been a greater picture produced than Mary Pickford stars in tonight."
He was quite overcome by the wonder of what he proclaimed to us, and it seemed to him almost beyond credibility that the management had included the one and only funny man, Charlie Chaplin, in a hilarious, side-splitting comedy on the same bill.
"And all for two shillings a seat! Children half price." He looked down at Rupe, open-mouthed before him, and seemed encouraged. "Roll up! Roll up! Don't miss this opportunity to see one of the finest shows in the world."
"Rupert!" Mother said again, and this time he seemed to hear and followed us, looking back over his shoulder, into the theatre where a girl took our tickets and escorted us to seats.
"Peanuts and lollies!" shouted a boy with a tray. "Peanuts and lollies!"
With peanuts and barley sugar we settled down to enjoy the show, but had to stand with the rest of the crowd when the orchestra struck up "God Save the King," singing along with everyone else.
"Jove, imagine being able to go to the pictures every night!" Rupe said as we walked home, and this time there were no arguments about bed. We were tired out.
In the morning we were woken by a knock on the door and shouted a question as to whether we were staying the night.
"They want to know so they can change the sheets and towels if the guest is not staying another night," Mother explained at breakfast.
There were certainly a lot of things to learn in the city.
After breakfast it was off down the street, with the first call the machinery company who had sold us the new drill.
Glass doors led in from the street to a huge room, drills, harrows, and even a harvester on the floor, the harvester being a new machine, just out. Using one you did not have to clean the wheat with a winnower. It was all done in the one operation, and I wondered if we could afford one for the next harvest.
The Manager's name was on a door at the rear of the showroom, and we started towards it.
"Excuse me." A young man came forward. "May I help you madam?"
"Yes, thank you. I wish to see the Manager."
"You have an appointment ..?"
"No. I am Mrs Delahoy, and I wish to see him about our new seed drill."
The young man's face lit up. "Oh, just one moment Mrs Delahoy." He knocked on the Manager's door and went in, coming back to say the Manager would see us right away.
"Please take a seat Mrs Delahoy," the Manager invited.
He was a stoutish little man with a waxed moustache, and wore a pair of rimless glasses.
Rupe nudged me. "I think they're clipped to his nose."
"Now Mrs Delahoy. You wish to buy a drill."
"Oh no. I've come to see you about the drill you have already sold us." She took his letter from her purse and handed it across to him.
The Manager's attitude changed abruptly. He took the letter and read quickly through it. "Mmmm, and what seems to be the trouble?"
Mother explained that firstly his traveller had promised an expert would come out to our place and start the drill, and secondly about the broken hub, stressing that it was a casting fault, and not a crack the railways might have caused.
The Manager's face hardened. He pressed a button on his desk and a young girl came in and was sent for our file, and when he opened it I could see the letter Mother had written him.
"Mmmm .." He read briefly through several pages, then took the glasses from his nose (Rupe nudged me. "See! They are clipped!") and wiped them with a handkerchief, cleared his throat, a finicky little "Ahem, ahem," and looked at Mother.
"I can assure you, Mrs Delahoy, I have fully discussed this matter with our representative who sold the drill to you, and he tells me that he definitely did not promise an expert would start it for you, and the cracked hub is your responsibility entirely. It should have been pointed out to your station master before you signed the waybill." His face took on a pained expression. "You surely were not expecting us to supply a new hub free of charge?"
Mother did not answer, but took her cheque book from her bag and opened it on the desk.
The Manager's face lit up. "You wish to settle now?"
"Of course," Mother said. "The moment you agree to send an expert to start the drill, and to supply a new hub free of charge."
The Manager's face hardened again. "We are a highly respected company Mrs Delahoy, and any agreement we made we would honour. But what you are demanding " He shook his head. "No Mrs Delahoy. Definitely not."
"Well I am very sorry to hear that," Mother said sweetly, and putting the cheque book back into her bag, closed it with a snap.
Mmmm. I thought. Round's about even.
The Manager's face became very hard, his little eyes glinting behind the glasses of his spectacles, the words rapped out: "I will not waste time with you Mrs Delahoy, but I must warn you, if settlement is not made within seven days we will issue a summons."
Well sport, I said silently. You've asked for it now.
Mother rose from her chair and looked down at him, her blue eyes hard. "My late husband and I were in business for many years sir, and our name is well known in the northern part of Victoria, and our reputation as good as yours or your company's. You have the impertinence to actually accuse me of telling lies! It is you sir, you and your precious traveller who are the liars "
"I am speaking sir! Upon leaving these premises I will wire my sons to return the drill to your agent at Speed, and then you may summons me. I am not afraid to defend my case in any court of law in Australia, and further, I intend to take this matter up with our local Member, and request the matter be brought up in the House to see if farmers cannot be protected against the sharp practices of the likes of you and your company which you so poorly represent!"
Mother was really getting into her stride, and the Manager's face was all colours, with scarlet runners down his nose, his mouth now opening and closing without a sound coming out.
"Come boys," Mother said, she turned towards the door, then paused for a final word. "I will see my many friends in the Mallee hear of your terrible after sales service. You just do not have any! Good day sir." And with head held high she led us through the door.
As I left I took a quick look back. The Manager was holding his head in both hands, and in two or three days he would receive an urgent query from the agent at Speed as to what he should do with a new drill, returned.
"Jove," Rupe said when we were out in the street again, "fancy glasses clipped to your nose!"
"Listen," said Mother, glad of the chance to change the subject. "Can't I hear a band?"
"Yes," cried Rupe, excited. "There!"
Coming down the street in the distance was a marching band, and behind them, stretching back as far as we could see, were long lines of soldiers.
"Hooray!" shouted Rupe. What an excitement to see so many men in uniform, and I looked up at Mother to share the excitement with her, and found she was crying.
She shook her head and wiped at the tears with a handkerchief. "Cheer those brave men son."
But suddenly the excitement was gone. Mother was thinking of George, and those horrible casualty lists appearing in the papers, day after day, and always someone you knew in the 'Killed in Action' column, or the 'Wounded' or 'Missing, Believed Killed' columns.
At least this was the war to end wars. There would never be another one after this, our politicians told us. After this people would be able to live with each other without slaughter, and sense would at least prevail in true civilisation.
Some one would have to answer for these killings in a day of reckoning for the instigators. It was not the ordinary people who wanted this, or any war.
Mother touched me on the shoulder. "Come Robert. We will go and have a cup of tea. This morning has upset me."
I felt so young and useless. "Mother. It'll all be alright."
Chapter 5 | Contents | Chapter 7