Gentlemen of the road

Mel Davies

I'm really going to give myself away when I say that by the middle of the Great Depression I was of remembering age. One of the things I remember most vividly is the procession of gentlemen-of-the-road who came to our door during those years. I refuse to call them tramps.

Our family was luckier than most; my Father was a senior railway employee who worked every second week and my sister, a schoolteacher, still lived at home. Even though she too had been forced to take a cut in salary she saved my parents' home for them by making the final payment on the mortgage. Many of our friends were not so fortunate, some losing their homes and being forced to live in a nearby shanty town. I can remember walking up the Gully Line with my father on his regular visits to mates who lived with their families in shacks made from cardboard and rusty corrugated-iron, and envying the children because they had so many trees to climb, and ran barefoot while I was always made to wear shoes. Occasionally my Father would allow me to shed my shoes, on the understanding that it was our secret, never to be divulged to Mother. But that's another story.

In our house during this period there were always, on the middle shelf of the kitchen cabinet, small dilly-bags made from well-washed calico flour sacks, some containing tea, the others sugar. Of course the heavy cast-iron kettle was always bubbling away on the back of the fuel stove. Against the wall opposite the stove was the stained-wood kitchen dresser with its ubiquitous leadlight door panels. On top sat a large round Arnotts biscuit tin which held home-made damper. No store-bought bread in those days. I still have that tin, scratched and rather faded but still in use, the cocky on its perch still visible on its side, albeit a little faded. It has over the intervening years held and still holds biscuits for many small and not-so-small mouths. In fact it's become a family icon. When I re-decorated the kitchen some years ago I set it aside with the intention of sending it to the dump with the other discards Some member of the family (I suspect my son) returned it, without comment, to the pantry. I got the message.

Usually about once a week there would be a knock on the back door and Mother or Father would answer it to find, a dusty, tired-looking man standing on the doorstep, blanket covered swag at his feet and blackened billy-can in his hand. The usual request was, "G'day, can I have some hot water for the billy please lady/mate?" I seem to remember that they always said please, I can't recall any of these men being less than courteous. Mother would take the billy, put some tea and sugar in the bottom and fill it with boiling water. Then she would cut a slab from the damper and take it with the steaming billy and an extra tea and sugar "dilly-bag" to our visitor. Should we have had a good week, that is, if Father had worked an extra shift, there would be something to spread on the damper, perhaps cocky's joy or some of Mother's jam, made from either the orange or the fig tree in our back yard, or perhaps from the fat, juicy blackberries picked by Father and myself from bushes which grew along the side of the near-by railway line.

If my Father was at home when the visitor arrived he would invite the man to sit down on the back step with him and have a yarn. A few didn't; perhaps so demoralised by their experiences that they'd lost all social skills. However, most accepted. Father would take out his beloved smelly pipe, plug it with tobacco, light up and then offer his guest a few cigarette papers and a cut of his tobacco. He never smoked cigarettes himself, but always had the makings ready for our visitors.

I was always my Father's shadow, the tom-boy daughter who was a stand-in for the son he never had, so often I'd sit near him on the step and just listen. It soon became obvious, even to one as young as I was then, that these men were not "just tramps" as I'd heard some people call them in a sneering tone. I don't of course remember the content of the conversations, but I certainly do remember the impression these men made on me. I have a particularly clear memory of one man of upright bearing who addressed my Mother as "Madam" and who spoke softly and fluently in what I was, much later, to identify as a polished Oxbridge accent. Sadly, I never did learn his story; it was always something I meant to ask my Father about, but I left it too late. I do, however, recall that they spoke at length and that Father was unusually quiet, perhaps even sad, after that man left. He went and sat for a quite a while in the old leather armchair just inside the door of the backyard shed and smoked his pipe. We knew that Father went down to his shed when, as he said, he 'had some thinking to do".

I have been told that not all houses were so visited – not everyone was as welcoming as my parents. Apparently these men had a way of marking the gateposts of those places where a sympathetic reception could be expected. I've always been proud that ours was one of the friendly houses with the secret mark on the gate post.

I've never forgotten those men – the men with the tired walk, the soft voice, the sad eyes but the undefeated spirit. The gentlemen-of-the-road.