A Chance Encounter: Jumping the Rattler

Ellen Weston

We met, this elderly gentleman and I, at a writers meeting in Sydney. He was much older than I was by thirty years or more. He spoke during this meeting of his life, his background and such. He said he lived in a retirement village on the North Shore and wrote poetry. A far cry from the swaggie he purported to have been.

Tea was served.

We mingled as we stood around. I sidled up to this awesome gentleman who was holding court with other ladies. I waited for a slight pause in the conversation and then blurted out, "Did you ever travel in Queensland?"

"Yes," was the reply. "I travelled all over Australia, but I remember Queensland quite well."

"That's my home state." I could hardly keep up the conversation, my tongue was tied.

He asked, as though he cared, what part of Queensland I was from. I told him, "Brandon, near Ayr, south of Townsville." It always seemed necessary to give a long description when telling anyone where Brandon is. Blink and you miss it, they say.

His face lit up with the memory. "Yes, I remember that area well." He looked at me with interest, as if he was telling his story to me alone; the others had wondered off. "We used to jump the rattler in Townsville to get to Bowen. But we never made it past Giru! The stationmaster there was on to us swaggies, and being a conscientious fellow, he would always come along the train, sliding open every wagon door, knowing he would find us in one of them. We soon wised up to him and learned to jump off just as the train was slowing down before stopping at Giru." He paused for a moment as though he was back there again in that time in that place. "Unfortunately, that meant we had to walk to Ayr and wait around for another goods train that was going to Bowen. There were always more than one or two of us, but apart from being on the train together we never travelled the roads together. It was always each man for himself. I remember the distance from Giru to Ayr was about 26 miles, what's that in today's measure? 40kms? I remember from Townsville to Bowen was 138 miles." I mentally calculated the distance to be approximately 206 k/ms. "We could usually pick up a bit of work at Merinda in the slaughter yards, or meat works, or in Bowen at the salt works."

"Do you remember the big fig tree at the cross-roads, just before you get to Brandon?" I asked.

"Of course I do."

I grew excited. Now, remembering it as the child. "You might have known where I lived then?" I suggested, excitement rising in my voice.

”Maybe." He appeared not to want to continue with this line of conversation.

Don't end the conversation here, I silently pleaded. Talk about your life rushing before you when you are about to die. Well, I wasn't about to die, but this part of my life was rushing in over me like a tidal wave at this particular moment!

As a child growing up, I lived in a small house, isolated on a long country road. The long unsealed road serviced the many cane farms in that area. Only the people who lived on the farms used the road, as well as the occasional service providers, so it always surprised us to have so many visits from swaggies, who just seemed to be passing by. Passing by to where? They never told us. We never asked. Our house was about three miles from the big old fig tree that marked the crossroads from Townsville to Ayr before you reached Brandon. It was the place where everyone stopped to revive before continuing his journey. It was at this junction in the road that the traveller turned left or right, whichever direction you were coming from at the time, and took the narrow dirt road that lead to all the outlying farms in the area and even further bush to nowhere. We were the only family living alongside this lonely road.

They, the Swaggies, would come just on sunset, and stand outside the garden gate leading on to the road. They would call, "Is anyone there?" How could they not know someone was there, with three little blond heads, filled with curiosity, peeping out of the windows! We had watched his approach and prepared mother for the visit. We had also noted every stitch of clothing the man was wearing and had been whispering the details to mother. She would know what sort of a fellow he was likely to be, simply by what he was wearing. Mother prided herself on the ability to tell character by outer appearances.

Although our mother had heard his call the first time, she waited until he called again before answering him. It was sometimes too much for me to bear and I would urge my mother in a strained whisper to answer the man! Our mother would take her time, wiping her hands on her apron as she walked to the bottom of the kitchen steps, and turning toward the side gate would ask, "Yes? Is there something you want?" So, cool and calm and lady-like, our Mother stood no nonsense from anyone!

"Yes, ma'am, I would appreciate it if you could give me some hot water, please, for me tea."

"Bring your billy in then." Mother would say, adding, "It is safe, we don't have a dog." And she would mount the five steps back into her kitchen. He, the man, the swaggie, would open the gate, and come to the bottom of the steps, produce his blackened billy and wait for the hot water; while three little girls watched spellbound through the casement windows. Mother would keep up a running conversation with this vagabond. "I'd sooner give you some hot water than have you light a fire in the paddock over there. Are you sleeping there tonight?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Have you got any tea leaves?" She would ask as she peered into the bottom of the billy.

"No, ma'am."

"Well, I'll give you some," she'd say, as she reached above the fireplace to take down the tin canister that held the tealeaves. "Do you need any sugar?"

"No, thank you ma'am."

"Would you like some fresh milk? It's goat's milk. We don't have a cow."

"That's OK lady, I don't need milk."

We girls giggled. At that part of the conversation, no one ever wanted our goat's milk!

The swaggie would wait at the bottom of the steps. Once the tea was made, mum would go to the top step and leaning over she would proffer the steaming billy of tea, and he would reach up and take it from her, thanking her ever so politely for her generosity, whereupon, Mum would say, "Now, look, if you have another billy I can give you some hot soup for your tea if you would like it?"

"No, ma'am, this is the only billy I have."

"Never mind, wait there a moment. I have a spare billy I can give you." And she would fill the homemade billy with her nourishing soup. Mother only ever made nourishing soup.

Thank you, lady, I wouldn't mind doing some jobs for you if you need anything done at all?"

"What do you do?" Mother would ask. She always welcomed the ones who sharpened scissors.

We were warned, "Never speak to any of them. Ever. Understand? They don't get a chance to have nourishing food every day, he'll feel better after his cup of tea and a billy of soup." Mum would explain her actions away to us.

Father spoke to them too. We never heard what he said; he always visited them on their own patch of grass under the big gum tree in the paddock across the road. But, speak to them he did. Mother would reprimand him for giving them some of his precious tobacco and a packet of Zig-Zag cigarette papers 'to tide them over'. We'd hear him say. "I don't mind giving them food but encouraging them in their other habits at a time when there is no money around, you know I don't approve of that." She had said her piece and now she turned to her evening duties, satisfied that she had made her point. Our father never argued with our mother. The deed had been done. The Swaggie would be gone by morning.

Now, here I was, after all these years, speaking to one of them!

"Did you ever come to our house and get some of my Mother's nourishing soup?" I asked him.

"Many times." he replied.

A little shiver coursed down my back, He was a friend. He knew us. "Can I tell you then, that your tree still stands, and is still providing a shelter for the weary traveller even to this day. The local council has put a water tank there, and toilet facilities, as well as a picnic table and seats. I took a photo of it just this year while I was up there on holiday."

"Fancy that! So the old tree still stands, eh? Where do you live now?" he asked out of politeness, or was it a real interest?

"I live in Sydney too, in a Retirement Home near Botany Bay. I always dreamed of moving to a big city. A far cry from the country area you knew in your travels." I added.

" And what do you do now?" he asked.

"I write poetry too."

It was time to disperse and catch our respective trains home, but I wanted to know one last thing! So I took a long shot. "My father said that you fellows used secret signs to tell each other where to go for a good meal. How else would a swaggie appear at our side gate, three miles off the beaten track, almost daily? My father even rode his bike to the tree one day, when he wasn't working, to see if he could detect what kind of a sign you were all using! But he failed! Tell me, was there really a secret sign?"

He appeared not to hear me.

"Please," the little girl in me looked into this old man's friendly eyes. "Please tell me. Did you have a secret mark on the tree, or some way whereby you informed each other of what to expect and how to get to our house? "Please sir, tell me?" I pleaded, as I silently thought, 'before you die.'

"Oh, I can't tell you that girlie." he replied, with a roguish look in his eyes."That would be the end of us, if I gave our last, best kept secret away."

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