It’s an old saying that whilst most things change some will always stay the same. In this memoir Barry highlights how one particular Australian custom has definitely stayed the same.
Hepburn Street is Mount Magnet’s main thoroughfare and our house was third on the left when entering from the Perth end of town. It was timber framed covered with corrugated tin. The roof was also corrugated tin with wide and deep gutters to catch every precious drop of rain into large – yes, you’ve guessed it – corrugated water tanks. Externally it had been variously painted blue, then green, then blue again. But the efforts of the previous owners had been to no avail against the red dust that covered every building in sight from top to bottom. But it was our first home in this land of plenty.
The general store was owned and run by a Mr and Mrs Grogan and they sold almost everything needed to build, furnish and maintain your home. In some ways it was akin to the modern day version of a DIY centre. Ah, Mr Grogan. It didn’t matter what time of the day, or day of the week it was, Mr Grogan would always stand in the same part of the shop – near the tin money box. He seemed to stand motionless whilst Mrs Grogan and their junior store assistant did the running around.
As Mr Grogan totalled the purchases onto a scrap piece of paper, the ‘supplies’ – as they were referred to – were being placed into an old cardboard box that once contained tins of furniture polish. Now mum, being the shopper in our family had calculated a total cost around £5. Imagine her surprise when Mr Grogan asked for £7 and some odd pennies. After recovering from the ‘stunned mullet’ pose mum said something along the lines of ‘Get away with you, that’s daylight robbery!’
Mr Grogan, a lightly built man with a pleasant disposition, was undeterred by mum’s outburst. Smiling whilst holding out his hand for money, he simply said ‘freight mate, freight’. It would be a saying heard time and again during our living and travelling outside of the capital city. In fact, freight imposts were always blamed for higher than Perth prices. Sometimes though, such costs were exorbitant. But you had no choice but to pay the difference.
The years have rolled by and we have spent most of our lives living in Perth, Western Australia. Every now and again you will hear me say ‘freight mate, freight’ whenever my wife expresses concern at rising food prices or whatever. But apart from that, the expression has largely fallen into disuse. It’s left to dinosaurs like yours truly to remember or use it if and when an opportunity arises. But when it is used today it’s more likely to be shortened to one word – ‘freight’.
On Monday 28th April 2003 my lovely wife and me travelled to Kalgoorlie (pr. Kal-goor-lee) for the purpose of sharing in and celebrating my eldest brother’s seventy-fifth birthday the following day.
Kalgoorlie is approximately seven hundred kilometres from Perth. To this visitor it’s a city that seems to struggle with its future. But not it’s past. The ubiquitous global signs of franchise fast food outlets and other corporate giants’ dot the city in a clumsy and uncomfortable style. To say that they stand stark and incongruous with its rich colonial architecture and historic social fabric would be an understatement. But the sharp contrasts don’t end there.
The eastern goldfields of Western Australia are mile after relentless mile of red earth covered with a wide species of gum tree – silver, ghost, red gum and so on – plus other beautiful flora. It’s a harsh landscape, seemingly barren, yet eerily beautiful, peaceful, and full of life with native fauna. When the dry and cracked salt pans are awash to overflowing after the rains the red earth is briefly transformed into a rich verdant green. And for the most part this land of the ‘Dreamtime is covered with a canopy of clear blue sky as far as the eye can see.
Outback Australia never ceases to amaze me.
These desert towns and water holes represent a rich mix of Aboriginal and other names – from the ridiculous to the sublime. Aboriginal names like Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie (pr. Cool-gar-dee) coexist with names like Fly Flat and Bonnievale.
Bonnievale, Western Australia is a small rail stop – a siding with no raised platform some 20 kilometres from Coolgardie. It was late at night and pitch black when we stopped on our way to Kalgoorlie. There were no lights to guide the stranger – other than the headlights of our transport. And one could imagine passengers getting on and off the train using a smaller version of aircraft steps.
The local folklore tells of an Irish nun coming to live and work in the local parish of Coolgardie. Her train journey ended at Bonnievale in the early afternoon one fine and sunny day. But her welcoming party was nowhere to be seen. Because it was a only rail siding the train’s cabin crew and driver were reluctant to continue their journey to Kalgoorlie until the nun was in the safe keeping of the locals.
So they waited with her.
Time passed by. But still no welcoming party. The nun, concerned that the other passengers wanted to get home to Kalgoorlie, asked how far it was to Coolgardie. Sadly, this is where the local idiom can cause strangers no end of grief. One of the cabin crew indicated it was ‘just down the track’. With that the nun told the driver she would walk to Coolgardie, that she would be fine, and for him, his crew and passengers to continue their journey.
The train driver and crew were not so sure. So they decided to radio ahead to Kalgoorlie for someone to telephone Coolgardie to let the ‘welcoming party’ know that the nun was walking from the rail siding. But by the time the nun was spotted walking towards the town the she was suffering from heat exhaustion.
One week later a landline telephone had been installed at the siding, and the state government issued an edit that train crews and drivers must not continue their journeys until passengers had been met at isolated rail stops.
A happy ending all round, thank goodness. These days train crews have cell ‘phones as well.
Next stop Coolgardie, Western Australia – just 30 odd kilometres ‘down the track’ from destination Kalgoorlie. Once it was a thriving gold mining community. Now it is nearly a ghost town – its downsizing almost complete because the local post office now serves as the tourist bureau, the arts and craft fair, and occasional seller of train or bus tickets.
When we called in to buy a birthday card for my brother, plus several postcards, the postmaster was struggling to come to terms with some new software on his computer. He looked up from his burden and was pleased to be distracted by our presence. With furrowed brow and squinting eyes he told us the new way of doing things was causing him headaches, that every time an error occurred he was required to report it to the IT person – who just happened to be his wife. He also told us he much preferred the old way of mental arithmetic, pencil and scrap pieces of paper.
Prior to calling into the post office we had visited the local café for a cup of tea. Externally the building was less than appealing as a place to eat and drink because time and a lack of regular maintenance had reduced it to a relic and sorry reminder of its former glory. Suffice it to say one could be forgiven for not venturing forth to partake of the hospitality therein. But my eldest brother had recommended it.
As is the way with country folk they greet you with a generous smile and warm welcome. They particularly like to see strangers and tourists because it gives them a chance to talk about their town, and to point out the places to see or visit. Some of the ‘locals’ have lived in these country towns all their lives. Several claim to have never been further than the next town ‘down the track’. All have a story to share.
Our repast consisted of two small pieces of chocolate cake, one small diet Coke, one small basket of freshly fried chips, and one pot of tea. In the ‘Big Smoke’ we would have expected to pay around $6.00 for these purchases. Out here we knew it would be dearer because of freight costs. Oh boy, were we in for a surprise.
It’s the modern way you know. They all have them – from the capital city supermarkets to the country town cafés. I’m referring to the electronic cash registers. A far cry indeed from the tin moneyboxes of the nineteen sixties.
Like so many small country eateries you are required to order and pay for your food and drink before being seated. So it was on this occasion. As the lady’s husband went into the kitchen to organise the chips she stepped up to the cash register to total our account. Her fingers ran smoothly across the keypad ending with a deft press of the total key. With that same generous smile that had first greeted us she asked for twenty two thousand, twelve dollars and…her voice trailing off. She was looking in bemusement at the total on the printed docket. It read $22,012.88. With impish humour yours truly suggested that it was case of freight costs gone mad, then requested a discount for cash.
The lady returned to the cash register and, with the same deft approach as before, went through the motions once more. This time she announced that the discount for cash total would be $11.88. Humour aside, it was still double what we would expect to pay in Perth.
Needless to say that ‘freight mate, freight’ is well and truly alive in two thousand and three.
See you later…
May 9, 2003