Mother of Ten

By JB Rowley

Biography & memoir

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5 mins

Chapter 1

One day when I was around five years old I detonated with unexpected ferocity in response to the persistent teasing and aggravation of my two older brothers. I picked up a bastard file and thrust it violently at eight-year-old Maxie. The sharp end pierced the palm of his hand and ran through to the other side. Blood spurted into the air. Maxie’s wail shattered the silence of the bush.
“Mu…um! She stabbed me. She stabbed me.”
That was bound to get Mum’s attention - and it did. She dropped the tea towel she had been holding into the cement tub that served as a kitchen sink and rushed out onto the veranda.
Bobby had both eyes fixed on the blood streaming from his younger brother’s hand.
“Mum. June killed Maxie’s hand,” he said, eager to be the first with the news.
Mum ran over to us. Maxie’s cries increased in volume at her approach. I stood with legs apart and arms hanging by my sides. As far as I was concerned, my actions had been completely justified; my brother could cry his eyes out for all I cared.
Maxie took a few faltering steps toward Mum. “She stabbed me, Mum. She stabbed me.”
He held his bleeding palm up for her inspection. Bobby reached down and picked up the bastard file, its sharp point red with blood.
“With this, Mum. She threw this at him,” he said.
Mum remained calm. Though the sight of the blood no doubt filled her with panic, she had a mother’s experience of children’s injuries and knew they often looked worse than they actually were. Just the same, she acted swiftly to get Maxie to the doctor.
Her eyes scanned the empty green paddocks next door. Nonchalant sheep rested in the shade of large gum trees growing along the fence line. In the distance, the curved corrugated roof of the shearing shed was visible but the shed stood empty and silent. It was Saturday so there was no one there—no one to help her.
Mum was on her own with us kids because my father had been away for a few days. He and the other sleeper cutters often had to camp out in the bush in order to get the trees felled and hewn into railway sleepers. We all missed him when he was away and Mum and Dad hated being apart but there was no other choice. With each new child it had become increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Paying cheap rent to live in the caretaker’s cottage attached to the sheep farm in exchange for keeping an eye on the farm cut down on expenses considerably, but it also meant living several miles from town in virtual isolation. Our closest neighbours were at a dairy just over a kilometre away.
“Bobby,” said Mum. “Run down to the road. Quickly! Stop the first car you see.”
Bobby did not move. His fascination with his brother’s bleeding hand held him rigid.
The tone of Mum’s voice in that single word was enough to break the spell. Bobby ran. His bare feet trampled the grass as he cut across the paddock, his long lanky legs propelling him towards the highway turned so fast they looked like cartwheels.
We lived on the corner of Duggans Road and Bonang Highway, around five kilometres north of the township of Orbost in Victoria. Duggans Road was just a dirt track and Bonang Highway was a single lane gravel road. The so called highway continued across the state border into the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales (NSW) after meandering through old growth forest areas where Australia’s last bushranger, The Snowy River Bandit, roamed before being arrested near Orbost in December 1940.
When my father was away, Mum had no vehicle and no way of contacting him. In emergencies like the one I had created this day, she simply had to manage as best she could. Hailing a passing motorist was as natural for us as lifting up a phone to dial an emergency number is in today’s world.
“,” cried Maxie. His hazel eyes looked up at her imploringly. Rivulets of tears had created pink streaks of clean skin on his dirty face. “My hand hurts.”
Yanking off her apron, Mum squatted in front of Maxie and gently wrapped his bleeding hand in it.
“We’ll get you to the hospital. You’ll be all right.”
She rose and urged Maxie forward with an arm across his shoulders. With her other hand she pulled me along as well and hurriedly shepherded us down to the gate and along the dirt track. Maxie’s cries had subsided but, to keep Mum’s attention focused on him, he emitted plaintive distress signals as we hurried along.
When we reached the highway, Bobby was standing in the middle of the road peering into the distance, turning his head occasionally to scan the road in the opposite direction.
“Nothin’s comin’,” he said. He looked at his brother. “Maxie’ll die, won’t he, Mum?” His tone was one of excited anticipation.
“Don’t be silly. He’s not going to die.”
Mum looked at Maxie’s hand. Blood had seeped through the blue gingham apron creating an ominous large red patch.
“There’s nothin’ comin’, Mum,” said Bobby again. “Nobody’s gonna come today.” The hint of satisfaction in his voice revealed that he was relishing the drama this bad news would add to the situation. He stood with his hands at chest level and a thumb behind each of the braces that held up his grey shorts. His large ears, exposed by Dad’s amateur hair cutting skills, made him look even younger than ten. Despite this, he exuded an air of authority as he often did when, as the eldest child, he felt the need to assume the role of head of the family in his father’s absence. Mum’s brow creased with worry as she listened for the sound of a vehicle.
Between Orbost and Duggans Road, the Bonang Highway was bordered on the western side with farm paddocks and on the other side with bushland. People travelling through to NSW used the road and the locals used it to get to the rubbish tip which was just a couple of kilometres past our home. At the weekends people drove, walked or rode their bicycles out to ‘the tip’. If they saw Mum in our yard, they would wave to her as they passed. Mum would respond with a cheerful answering wave. Sometimes that was the closest interaction she got with anyone outside the family for weeks. In fact, seeing other people was such a novelty that we would all wave energetically at passers-by.
This particular day being a Saturday Mum must have felt sure someone would be along fairly soon on their way to the tip. The minutes ticked by but we heard only the bush and the silence of distance.
Somewhere a kookaburra cackled. “Koo koo koo ka ka ka koo koo koo.”
Kookaburras were common where we lived and they often came right up to the house and sat on the verandah rail. Our cottage was set back from the road. Between the house and the highway stood the chook house on one side and the ‘wood heap’ on the other. Beyond that was the orchard. Well, perhaps calling it an orchard is being a little grandiose. It was just a corner of the yard where several healthy fruit trees grew. Apple, plum and apricot trees contrasted with the gum trees that surrounded the property. Behind the house was a hayshed, a tool shed and a wash house. In one corner stood the dunny, camouflaged and kept cool inside by the canopy of a huge apple tree. I had been startled out of my wits on several occasions by the sound of one of the big green apples dropping on the roof of the dunny while I was occupied inside.
Time dragged by. The sharp shriek of a cockatoo cut through the bush. We waited. Finally we heard it—the far off rumbling of a car engine.
“Somethin’s comin’ Mum. I can hear a car,” said Bobby.
It would be some time before the vehicle arrived. Sounds travel long distances in the bush so that we could hear a car even when it was still miles away. Mum pulled Maxie closer while we waited.
“We’ll have you to the hospital in no time. The doctors’ll fix you up and give you a big white bandage for your hand.”
“It hurts, Mum.”
“I know, love, but you must be brave. When your father comes home, I’ll be able to tell him how brave you’ve been.”
“I am being brave.” Maxie rearranged his face in an effort to look heroic. “It doesn’t hurt that much, Mum.”
After a few seconds another thought occurred to Maxie. “Will I still have the bandage on when I go back to school, Mum?”
A smile brightened Maxie’s teary face as he considered the possibility of showing his school mates his fully bandaged hand. I could almost hear him. “I nearly lost my hand on the holidays, I did. My sister tried to murder me.” His trauma was already evolving into an adventure he could use to impress his friends.
In the centre of the road, Bobby was waving his arms in criss-cross fashion to alert the driver of the oncoming vehicle. It was coming from the town but we knew whoever it was would turn around and take us back into the hospital; that was the country way. Bobby stayed in position until the car drew close and began to slow down, stepping to the side of the road as the grey Holden come to a halt.
Tom, the driver of the car, turned out to be someone who knew my father. In a small community it is not unusual to discover that a randomly hailed motorist is an acquaintance, a friend or even a relative.
Bobby gave Tom the news bulletin: “My sister tried to kill my brother.”
Maxie thrust his bloodied, wrapped hand under Tom’s nose. I remained sullen and silent; sure I had been justified on the grounds of self-defence.
“That looks like a serious war wound, young fella,” said Tom. “You’d better hold your hand upright to stop the blood running away.”
After helping us all into the car, Tom drove down to the house so that my mother could collect the twins who were sleeping in their shared cot. Then, with Bobby and Maxie oozing importance in the front passenger seat and the rest of us squashed into the back, we headed into town.
At the hospital, the doctor assured my mother that Maxie’s injury was not as serious as it looked but needed ‘a few stitches and a bandage’.



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