The station wagon clambered along the dusty trail, over the dry hills, from Culcairn. It had been travelling more than 12 hours already. Dad's mind, always too far from the present, was unable to spare more attention. 30 mph was his limit. At the age of 16 I was still to experience the exhilaration of passing someone. The sky was overcast and heavy as it had been for many hours. The light was fading quickly.
Mother began to cry shortly before 6. She sat in the car, on the corner of the bench seat, and wept. There was deep despair that affected all of us – except dad. Only the odd muffled sob had betrayed the tension building throughout the day.
Apparently not noticing mother's choking tears, dad snuck out through the car door and disappeared around the side of the cottage, into the closing twylight. In the car no-one breathed. We listened to mother sobbing. Jammed together, as we had been all day, each nursing the bags and bits and pieces that had refused to fit in the back, we waited, hoping dad would return chastened and relenting. If this was Walbundrie, then we didn't like it. We didn't need to tell each other that.
It was no secret that dad possessed a remarkably independent sense of reality. We had more or less grown accustomed to it. But the Walbundrie idea seemed very, very, intrusive. How on earth had life come to this?
A cyclone wire fenced enclosed the area around the little wooden school house. Heavens knows why. Inside the fence lay a yard of bare red earth. Outside the fence stretched the rest of Australia. From where I sat, at the back of the car, Australia seemed very big and consisting chiefly of bare red earth.
A candle flickered inside the cottage window. I slipped out of the car and cautiously ventured inside too.
The Walbundrie school residence had probably been built sometime shortly after the village was declared in 1867. It was the standard off-the-rack New South Wales Government Education Department design. Four rooms plus an enclosed sleepout. A kitchen and bathroom had been tacked on at the back probably in the 1940s or 50s. The WC was a hole in the ground at the far end of the yard. I would learn to contemplate the size and speed of brown snakes while making that journey at night.
Looking around inside by candle light I could tell things were soon going to get worse. Mother was weeping in the car. She still hadn't been inside the school house! The evening before we had gone to our beds in our modern suburban house next to the ocean at Sydney. We were accustomed to wall to wall glass, soft carpets and the paraphernalia of city living. True to the original architectural concept, the floors, walls and ceilings at Walbundrie were lined with roughly joined boards. The floors were partly covered with a brown bituminous sort of ancient linoleum. Electric wires ran like spider webs, coming up from holes in the floor, climbing over the wall boards to the light switches and trecking on over the ceiling boards to reach the electric bulbs which dangled on long skinny wires fitted later, some time after federation, in a gesture to the twentieth century. A large black telephone hung on the wall. A handle leaned out from its side.
Someone, in some far off epoch of fashion had garnished the place in harlequin colours. The lounge room sported a yellow wall, an orange one, a budgie blue one, the fourth was baby bum pink and, to properly make the point, the ceiling was cadbury violet. The two doors and the window frames contrasted brightly in splendid lime green. The festival to colour did not stop at the lounge room! Each room was as imaginatively vivid. In the days to follow, the colour schema grew even more outrageous.
As part of the settlement that prized mother out of the car that night, dad agreed he would not seek to have his appointment extended. It was also agreed that tomorrow he would go to Albury and buy some new carpets to cover the linoleum stuff. Shortly afterwards, perhaps in a badly considered move towards loss mitigation, dad left; he said to look for an electrician. His search took him to Walbundrie's only pub.
Always true to his word, dad left early next morning and went directly to Mates Store, in Albury, a journey of about one hour along a narrow and badly rutted dirt road between paddocks of silent sheep. I went with him. Along with politics, the share market and horse racing, dad was keenly interested in monetary efficiency. So when he was shown some “end-of-run” carpet stock he immediately locked on to the obvious advantages. To understand well, “end-of-run stock” is the carpet that is produced every few months by running all the short ends of finished rolls of thread together. These ends accumulate to produce entirely random arrays of coloured streams running for a distance and then stopping to become some other colour. In dad's rationalist mind, matters of aesthetics could not weigh against the financial savings, so the journey home was dark with more foreboding . Two days in two. This run of misfortunate choices had to break soon. It did.
In view of the generally negative prestige his recent ideas had earned him among all his followers, dad had quietly calculated the Walbundrie venture could be turned around by showing mother how much money could be saved. After all, there were no malls at Walbundrie. So, in the spirit of making good, it seemed to him reasonably obvious that Kerry and I ought to continue our schooling at one of the state high schools in Albury. Even school fees could be spared. Dad also wanted to provide some steerage to our new enterprise and he knew clear direction meant feeling well about everything.
The cleverness in his idea died in infancy though. It came mid way through a rather sullen evening meal when he proposed his plan, explaining he was thinking about how to make the best of everything after all. However, in view of the carpet (and the things mother had had to say concerning it) he was, anyhow, even more responsive to mother's alternative idea that if you bring up your kids to think they belong to Rome then, even if there WERE school fees, it is a rotten betrayal to send them to Her Majesty's high school. She said some other things too that were perfectly appropriate, we thought, but they are not for repeating here.
And so I found myself a few weeks later starting at Aquinas College for boys in Albury, in southern New South Wales.
Now I know most of my fellows of Aquinas have no idea what it was to come to school from Walbundrie in 1966 so I'm going to take a further moment to describe that.
You know, in these days its difficult to bring back the way things then were. For in the summer, when the thermometer in the hall read 140 degrees, it was not air conditioning we thought about. There was none. Nor was it a fan to collect the dust, thrown up by traffic passing on the gravel road outside, and to push it into every corner through the gaps between the wall boards. No, rather it was to fancies of rain, the like of which came only during the impenetrable fogs that blanketed the icy ground in winter. For water was the precious commodity. It came of course in winter and we drank it for 12 months afterwards, drawing it from ancient steel tanks outside the kitchen. As the year crawled on the taste got progressively stronger. And no surprise too. One year when they ran empty, and had to be filled by truck from Albury, the remains of numerous possums and other animals were found inside! No wonder we all enjoyed such robust health.
In these days too, when even the rituals of the church have become unrecognisable and bland, who is interested in the mass that was said on Sunday by Father Stanley, at rotating venues, Walbundrie, Brocklsby, Rand and Howlong? These tiny one pub towns were connected by a dreadful gravel road that filled the car with deep layers of fine dust. Nonetheless, compelled by the incendiary mix of duty and mortal sin, we traveled the distances faithfully each Sunday. Mother and my sisters dressed carefully and entered the church two weeks in three feeling as if they had been caught in a powder fight.
Father Stanley was an Olympic Mass sayer. Not before or since did I ever meet a priest who could blitz the latin like he could. On a hot morning he could get it done in slightly more than 15 minutes and even on a bad day after a heavy night, he could always break 30 minutes – even despite a microsermon. His respectful congregation appreciated his efficiency and since none knew a word of latin we took it on faith that the wisdom of the Holy Church had prepared this man to give to us. Of course Father Stanley's interests were wider than the mass, but they were not wider than those of his community. My father thought of him less as a confessor and more as a colleague. His passion for the horses (and the culture that enveloped them) engaged dad with his priest as I never saw before.
Even now, when I think of Sunday mass, I have an image of Father Stanley's faded blue/green, Vauxhall emerging, twenty minutes late, out from a cloud of red dust to signal it was time to enter the church; I can see the congregation richly dressed in the weeks following a good harvest and my mind goes back to the wonderful descriptions captured by John O'Brien. Afterwards of course, it was bad form to rush away from the church and the congregation would swarm outside, dressed in their finest, under the gum trees, to resolve pressing matters relating to the improbability of rain or, in winter, the calendar of village balls.
The really outstanding thing that happened for me at Walbundrie was that I obtained my driving licence. In those days the formalities were conducted by the local policeman, George Redding, who, as it happened, shared a number of dad's interests too, and often helped him home under State protection afterwards. I struggle to understand where there is justice when I see the difficulty my own sons have today, to get a driving licence, and the substantial costs they have to meet. When I walked into the little police station set high on the dry hill above the pub and the post office that day, George dealt with the formalities quickly and effectively.
“Can you drive, Son?” he asked the skinny eager teenager.
“Yes” replied the boy applicant.
“Good, Take this mail down to the post office for me.”
My licence, sealed by the seal of Her Majesty's government, was waiting for me when I returned from my mission.
Bush culture has completely capitulated to city culture – even in the bush - and that gives me not a little sadness. I find it hard to recognise the country in which I grew up.
But I linger. These stories are to paint a context for my Aquinas experience. Through Walbundrie experiences I formed a special friendship with Grant. Its a friendship I'm immensely proud of. It was Grant who introduced me to the local Walbundrie & Rand communities. Largely through him I came to know the richness and strength of those people and I entered into their community with gratitude. No small thing if you imagine I knew nothing about aussi rules and I had quite a different idea in my head when I heard people talk about “stripping”. And it was Grant too who helped me to break the ice at Aquinas. Intuitively I expected the rules and customs of Sydney schools would be of little use in Albury. I resolved to watch carefully and try to integrate by learning the local rules. The he odd thing was I found it wasn't that I had to learn things at Aquinas, it was that I had to unlearn them. There were many dumb rules to govern survival in city schools but they did not operate in the bush. To understand what this insight was for me, it is necessary to know going to school in Sydney was very much like courier work. Each day I'd come home with a bundle of forms for parental signature. Each morning I'd set out with permission notes and excuse notes duly signed by a parent. Every trivial detail had to be covered off by a parental signature.
The disdain Grant showed me one morning, in reply to my suggestion he cover some problem or other with a letter from home, was precise enough. I didn't need telling twice. Not withstanding some of the adult personalities that I feared to contend with, I found my classmates were completely easy and enjoyed a self confidence that surprised me.
A day at Aquinas began around 5.30 am. At 6.30, Kerry (who went to St Josephs) and I would be ready. We'd sit around the kitchen table with mother, chatting for 10 or 15 minutes to check off that nothing had been forgotten and confirming we were rightly prepared. About 6.45 we would leave together, walking the half mile to the Walbundrie PO and gossip exchange to wait for the Rand bus, a kind of reform school on wheels. In winter we walked along the center of the road to avoid being speared by the icicles, some 20cm long, that could shear from a branch or overhead wire and plunge to ground. The bus would set down the Aquinas boys about ten to nine if I remember well. The day would pass as schooldays always eventually do, filled with the same relentless monotony for student (and I'm sure) teacher alike. Kerry and I would get home between 5.30 and 6 at night. They were long days but we quickly adapted to them.
Although I never fully lost the sense of being an outsider, my last two years at Albury were the most complete and really, I suppose, they were my ONLY happy years of school. I think I grew up in important ways during my time at Aquinas. I found self-confidence that prepared me for adventures that lay well out in the future. Most importantly, and it wasn't in the syllabus, I learned to contend against and to respect adults. History has revealed that some of those teachers who would have had us follow them, were mere frauds and cheats and worse. Already though I enjoyed sufficient confidence and I had learned to make judgements that protected me.
As well there were others, dear old Ms Malouf for example, who were unimpeachable. They were quite simply honest souls who knew how to love. It radiated from them. Such people can teach poetry to donkeys and, in at least one case, that's what she warmly did.