The days seemed uneventful, we went to school as usual, and mother was increasingly busy, raising her children on her own.
Despite the house being unencumbered, it was difficult to make ends meet, we were living under the poverty line. The widow pension was not enough.
Mum kept a strict budget in the ledger, recording all her incomings and outgoings. She had a “Singer” sewing-machine and was able to mend and make all our clothes. Mum, without a car, found a few part-time cleaning jobs at private homes close by, and in this way, was able to walk to work, with Robert in his pram. He played with his match-box cars, whilst mum cleaned house.
There was the Van Til house, the home of a Judge and a mansion called Welby Park, beautiful Federation homes, where mum cleaned house weekly.
During the weekends, mum sent us out to play, saying, “it’s a beautiful day, stay outside and do not bother me, or come inside, I am mopping the floor”, or else, she was sewing or painting, there were so many chores.
Together with neighbourhood kids, or else, just my siblings and I, we would go explore the bush. Starting at the Gibbergunyah Creek, meandering through the thick scrub, then following the Nattai River, and traversing between deep gorges, carved in the course of thousands of years. We scrambled on rocky outcrops just big enough for little people to crawl along.
There were caves at the water’s edge, and from time to time we came across wide stretches of water. We found many small waterfalls and large tracts of blackberry, popular at the watercourses due to the abundant birdlife. We found an old abandoned tin canoe. We took it to the other side of a small lake and explored the caves. There were ancient carvings from a period long ago, I felt small and insignificant.
Jos was the eldest and the leader of the expeditions, and the boss to be obeyed.
I found treasure, and was about to pick it up, when Jos screamed, “I bags that!”
“No, I found it first” I said.
Jos said, “I saw it first and bagsed it, so it’s mine, hand it over”. I handed it over. It was an unusual shaped and beautiful wooden box, inlaid with mother of pearl and filled with coins. Amazing how people would simply lose such a thing.
We built a fort at a cliff’s edge, overlooking a vast gully, with the creek glistening in the distance, and blue hills beyond. There were the odd fire trails, but for the most, we were off the beaten track.
There was the man-made presence on the peripheral of the bush. The garbage tip, cemetery and rifle range. Often, on our wanderings, we heard gunfire and the shrill of bullets piercing the atmosphere. We collected the spent cartridges or scrounged at the garbage tip, like feral-cats.
At one time Jos found a Japanese sword, decorated with dozens of coins, with little square holes in the centre of each of them, which was used to thread them to the sword. We played Samurai and eventually lost all the coins, and then the sword disappeared as well. I imagine mother threw it out.
There were interesting discoveries of marine life at the waterways, where we swam naked, or chased wheelie bugs and dragonflies. We tried to catch tadpoles, or created dams with rocks, and then burst them for effect.
At one time we wandered off too far into the dense scrub and realized we were lost. We saw Mount Gibraltar circle, to the left, then to the right, not knowing which direction to take. And then Mount Gibraltar disappeared altogether.
We “cooeed” and screamed out to hikers at the other side of a gorge, and they pointed us to the direction home. It was the Box Vale track we followed, leading us through the old rail tunnel from a disused coal mine, and on to the old Hume Highway.
It was at these times, in our childhood, out in the great Australian bush, I gleaned an appreciation of nature, and the abundance of our national treasure, we had at our fingertips.