I found myself on my own with three daughters, aged sixteen, twelve and ten. We found a nice enough little house that we could afford, and I had a small car, but I had never driven further than the Gold Coast from Brisbane. It had been almost a year now, and it was time for some sort of adventure.
We decided to visit my sister who lived in Sydney with her very good, respectable family. It would do us good, and perhaps help them to understand our situation a little better. Yes, we would go. I thought I could manage the long drive, and if we were careful, my finances would stretch to it. Mind you, there would be no luxuries...everyone must understand that!
I had an old flame of years and years ago who lived in Tamworth, and who, despite being married, had remained in touch sporadically. So I dropped him a line to say when we thought we would be in town, and that if he liked, he could meet my children. We would be staying at the Flag Inn, a very reasonable but comfortable motel. I thought perhaps his foreign born wife might invite us to their home for a meal. Dream on my girl!
After leaving early on the first day of the school holidays, our packed little car ran well. After several hours, I thought I should take a break from driving, and pulled over into a rest area. We would have early lunch. I knew I was rather tense as I found the tea making equipment and set it out with some food. The others just sat there and waited for me to do everything! And I was the driver, who should be looked after! They were startled when I exploded, downing tools and telling them to make the sandwiches or else! First lesson learned well.
When, some hundred kilometres down the track, my second daughter produced a packet of cigarettes and lit up in the moving car, there was another explosion, but apart from a few minor hiccoughs, all went well and we arrived at Tamworth. Our motel room was lovely, and there was a message from my old friend to phone him on our arrival at a given number. This I did, left a message, and he phoned to say welcome and that he would like to take me out to dinner. Could I arrange for the girls to be looked after? I was taken aback, but after consultation, assured him the older one was perfectly capable of taking care of the younger long as I arranged some good take-away food. Right! So I was going on a dinner date! The three of them were very excited at Mum going out to dinner...
It had been a long time since I had seen him. Since our single days. But he looked just the same really, and I knew I carried my middle years well. Neither of us had gone to fat, and we both still had our own teeth! He met my irrepressible daughters who were ready for bed and looked beautiful in their new night attire, and who were full of kisses for Mummy amid cries of ‘Have a good time Mum!’ They knew, God bless them, that good times for me had been few indeed.
He took me to probably the best restaurant in town where he insisted I have baked trout, which I had never had before. He showed me how to lift the sweet flesh from the backbone. Then he announced that he would like to show me his home which his brother had designed. ‘It’s all right,’ he explained, ‘my wife is at friends’ for the evening. All arranged. She is very volatile, and would make a terrible scene if she found out! We are all used to her, and my friends are very loyal.’
He seemed to know what he was doing, and I enjoyed viewing the charming house with all its mod cons. He phoned his friend during the visit to make sure all was serene; we had a pleasant chat in the car, and he checked with me that the girls were okay. Then he left with a brief kiss. It would be more than twenty years before we met again.
We headed for Sydney, the weather worsening, expecting to see my sister that evening. Fate intervened however, and as we neared Richmond, the menacing thunderstorm unleashed a torrent of pelting rain as we approached a decisive intersection. To the left was Sydney, to the right was something else. I was in the right hand lane, couldn’t see the sign, was too nervous to change lanes, so followed the traffic to the right, hoping to change direction somehow... we ended up in the Blue Mountains!
We sought refuge in a caravan park, but were informed it was fully booked, it being the Rhododendron Festival that week. Eldest daughter Susan who was doing the enquiring, seemed to talk at length to the female park manager. She came back rather victoriously to our car saying if we reported at 5pm to the lady in the office, she could secure a van for us. This was great news, but how come? ‘I told her my mother was having a nervous breakdown,’ she replied, ‘And she said she wanted to get rid of a troublesome tenant. And seeing as we seemed nice folk, and my mother looked a good person, we could have the van for a week.’ I phoned my sister, telling her we would not be seeing them, and tried to explain why. Through the rather crackly land line connection I thought I heard my sister say something about expecting something like this...
Leura was a delight. The weather cleared and we became part of the festival, touring magnificent gardens to the delight of Susan, a budding horticulturalist. Huge mushrooms were for sale everywhere. You could buy a large bag full of perfect specimens for two dollars! So we lived on mushrooms, fried, sauteed, on toast, with salad, with vegetables...and enjoyed the inexpensive treat. We roamed the public parks where I sketched the local flora, particularly the graceful weeping cherry, which pencil drawing I would later transform into one of my enamel plaques. There was this compulsion to capitalise on any expenditure by utilising the journey to produce the works of art that constituted my living.
We wanted to see The Three Sisters by floodlight. These mountain peaks were famous, and on a chilly evening, I rugged everyone up in our warmest clothes; we ventured into the dark night and headed for the viewing area, promising the girls a wonderful sight! Terrible disappointment awaited us however, as the fog had rolled in, and all we saw was a wall of white, a dense white-out! We were silent as we peered into this murky stillness, perhaps hoping that our sight could penetrate it somehow, in vain.
On our last day in Leura, Susan announced that she thought we should try to find the old O’Reilly place in the Megalong Valley which was part of this area. ‘Are you up to it Mum?’ she asked and of course I was.
Susan had Bernard O’Reilly’s book ‘Green Mountains’ with her, as she usually did, and we referenced it as we drove in the direction of the place where she thought the old home would be. We followed roads, tracks, creeks, mountains and vales until she announced, ‘We must be close!’
There was a house nearby, and I knocked at the door nervously. ‘Do you know where the O’Reilly family lived...around here somewhere?’ I asked, but was politely told they had no idea, as they were newcomers to the district. A bit further on I had the same experience, and then we came upon a neat little cottage with an old gentleman hoeing in the front yard. He was easy to approach, and I queried if he knew where the O’Reillys once lived?
‘Yair,’ he replied, ‘out the back!’ And he gestured to the rear of the house. ‘Go and have a look if you like,’ he offered, ‘the hut is still there.’ So we all piled out of the car and followed the old fellow to where the old cabin stood, just as it had when Bernard was a boy. We went inside, to the single room with a huge inglenook at one end in which the children had clustered in the wintertime. We marvelled at the small area which housed the parents and ten children. We knew that the big boys slept on the verandah that did not seem very big at all. How did they do it?
‘They had a vegetable garden out here,’ said our tour guide, who was related to the family, and had inherited the property. There were bits and pieces lying around, much as it perhaps was when the O’Reilly family finally left for the Lamington Plateau in Queensland. Nothing had been done, it seemed, to tidy it up...which was a good thing as it turned out, because I spied half buried in the soil an old basin. I picked it up, expecting it to be broken. But no, it was perfect though crazed. ‘That would have belonged to his mother, the old bloke informed me as I lovingly admired the dirty bowl. ‘You can have it if you like,’ he said, ‘No one here wants it.’
‘Go on Mum,’ said Susan, ‘You would love to have a memento of this trip.’
‘Are you sure?’ I asked him, not wanting to appear greedy, to which he assured me Bernard’s mother would be pleased that loving hands were caring for her much used utensil.
It is in my kitchen nearly forty years later. It is used regularly and referred to always as ‘Bernard’s basin.’