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The Waddi Tree  - Kerry Mcginnis

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Published: 8th January 2007
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Two branches of the McAllister family lead very different lives on cattle stations in Central Australia. Rob, a stickler for correctness, manages a wealthy, company-owned property, while his easygoing brother Sandy struggles to support his wife and son on an impoverished leasehold.

When tragedy throws the families together, before ultimately driving them even further apart, it's Sandy's young son Jim who suffers most. Left to rebuild his shattered world, he depends on the larger-than-life station characters and the comfort of horses.

This is tough country, where personal heartache is kept in perspective by drought, fire and isolation. The times are just as unforgiving, and as the years pass, Jim discovers that he must pay for his father's mistakes as well as his own. Yet this harshly beautiful land is full of promise, a source of strength to Jim on his road from innocence to independence.

PRAISE FOR KERRY McGINNIS

'Heartbreaking one moment but full of hope with the turn of the page.' Adelaide Advertiser

'McGinnis has an ear for the colloquialisms of the bush and keen eyes when it comes to realising the landscape.' The Age

About the Author

Kerry McGinnis was born in Adelaide and, at the age of twelve, took up a life of droving with her father and three siblings. The family travelled extensively across the Northern Territory and Queensland before settling on a station in the Gulf Country. Kerry has worked as a shepherd, droving hand, gardener, stock-camp and station cook, eventually running a property at Bowthorn, near Mount Isa. She is the author of two volumes of memoir and now lives in Bundaberg.


The bay pony came thundering down the track from the horse paddock, stubby ears pricked, red dust clouding behind his feet. On his back a boy gripped the hide with bare legs, his eyes sparkling as he urged his mount on. The house was within Jim's peripheral vision now and he saw his mother step out onto the verandah, drawn by the noise. Satisfaction buoyed him – his father, standing by the bore, was already looking, so they would both see.

'Watch me!' he yelled. The trough was six feet away. He clenched Jake's barrel tighter in readiness, but the pony swerved violently and stiffened his legs, front hooves sliding in the sand as he stopped dead. Without time even to yelp his surprise, his rider shot up his neck and over his head to land with a rib-shaking thump in the sand.

Mortified, Jim lay for a second collecting his wits while the pony shook himself until the bridle rattled, and blinked big eyes at his fallen rider. 'Toad!' he spat.

He could see his mother running towards him, her dark hair flying, and he scrambled up.

'Are you all right, Jimmy? What in the world did you think you were doing?' Jenny McAllister was out of breath, flushed from heat and effort.

'Course I am. I meant to do that.' He saw the laugh forming on her face then, and grudgingly backtracked. 'Well, Jake was supposed to jump the trough.'

'Then it's a good thing he's got more sense than you have,' his father said. He had arrived with grease on his hands, the spanner he used on the pump-jack in one of them. He scratched the side of his nose, leaving a black smear across reddened skin. 'You can think up more ways of getting yourself into strife . . . ! You could have broken Jake's neck. Where were you off to?'

'Just up the paddock. I came back for Nipper – there he is.' Jim clambered onto the pony as a skinny black boy of the same age with a shock of wild hair came running up and jumped lithely on behind him.

'I seen you,' he cried delightedly. 'You fell off.'

'Did not.' Jim kicked Jake, who ambled placidly away. Nipper grabbed Jim's middle, his slightly longer legs hanging below the white boy's, the woolly width of his hair masking Jim's red mop.

The sight of it jogged Jenny's memory. 'Not so fast, you two. Where's your hat, Jimmy?'

'We're gunna find it, Mum.' Jim was too wise to stop. The pony, picking up a sense of urgency, swished his tail once in protest then lengthened his stride, carrying the boys rapidly beyond recall.

Jenny rolled her eyes and felt for the pins in her escaping hair. 'Dear God, that boy will kill himself yet. Why didn't we have a daughter?'

'Ah, come on love,' Sandy said, 'a few tumbles won't hurt him. I had my share. Though I must say,' he broke off to chuckle, 'I never thought of claiming any of 'em were intentional.'

'No, that's a new one.' She reached her thumb to the grease smear by his nose. 'Come home, I'll make us a cuppa and you can tell me again how Daring Danny is going to make it through childhood in one piece.'

Sandy's pale eyes crinkled into a smile. He was a short stocky man with a round face and sandy-coloured hair and brows. His face and arms were reddened from sun and wind, the skin about his eyes puckered into tiny creases. Nearly fifty, he seemed younger – a tolerant, easygoing man with an unshakeable faith in his ability to snatch a living for himself and his family from the harsh country that was their home. He adored his wife, whom he had married six months to the day after his discharge from the army. Jenny, a former nurse, was farm-bred and settled easily into life at Arcadia Station. They had taken up the unimproved property in 1947, the year their son was born.

Despite the changes brought by ten years of unremitting labour, Arcadia remained a lonely and isolated spot on the edge of the Simpson Desert, midway between the Queensland border and Alice Springs. There were cattle on the property now, and tanks and mills for the three bores, even a couple of paddocks, but none of this had altered the distance separating them from their far-flung neighbours, or brought the conveniences of town any closer. Kharko Station, forty miles to the west, was their closest contact, but forty miles was a long way on two­wheeled tracks and their visits there were infrequent.

Kharko was a big property, even by desert standards. It was company-owned, and managed by Sandy's brother Rob, who was as different from his elder sibling as it was possible to be.

'He's a buttoned-up sort of bloke,' Sandy said one day when they were driving home after a visit, and Jim, looking at the rolled sleeves and open throat of his father's shirt, had silently agreed. Uncle Rob wore his pressed khakis buttoned to the wrist, and his shirts always seemed to be spotless. He spoke slowly and deliberately and never tossed his hat about or hugged Aunt Mary when he came home, the way Sandy did with Jenny. He was very strict too – far too strict for Jim's liking. Even his nine-year-old cousin Rosemary agreed with him on that, calling her father Old Grumpy behind his back. Her brother Oliver, who at fourteen was four years older than Jim, chipped her for it but Rosemary paid no attention. Rosemary never did. She was the most aggravating person Jim had ever met.

'How come,' he demanded of Sandy, 'Uncle Rob doesn't look like you?'

'That's because Rob takes after your grandfather. Just like you do. Brothers don't have to look the same, any more than they have to think the same.'

Jim, who was a literal-minded boy, pondered this. The closest thing he had to a brother was Nipper, from the Aboriginal camp down on the creek bank, and if all proper brothers were anything like Uncle Rob then he was better off without one. Nipper was clever; he could throw straighter and track faster than Jim and was an eager participant in all his friend's undertakings, even those that sometimes led them into trouble.

There had been a time back when Jim was six when he desperately wanted a brother. But his mother – who as a nurse was an expert in such matters, and was occasionally called upon to help the Aboriginal women in their birthing – had told him there was no guarantee he wouldn't get a sister instead. Jim, properly horrified, settled for Nipper and had never raised the subject since. If he thought about it, his life was perfect anyway. He had everything he wanted – the freedom of Arcadia, friends to share it with, the best father in the world, and a loving mother to return to each night with the tales and foragings of his day.

These last often found a place on the shelf beside the kitchen sink, where special treasures were displayed. The good teapot lived there, and a narrow-necked, gold-lipped jug Sandy had once brought home from the Alice. Jim's drawing of Jake was there too, along with a bangle he had plaited for his mother out of the pony's tail hair, and a posy, now dried and pale, he'd made for her with the everlasting daisies that spread like a vivid carpet across the land after rain.

The shelf was homemade, as indeed was the entire house. Sandy had built it himself from bush timber, concrete and iron, squaring the roof rails with an adze, which he'd also used to shape the coolabah doorframes. There were three rooms: two bedrooms with hinged shutters that could be closed over the bare window spaces, and the kitchen, which also served as their store and living room. Jim did his schoolwork at one end of the table, where he would lift his head from the problems of long division, or the spelling of difficult words, and marvel at the way things fitted in. For besides the kerosene fridge and sink, and the stove that added unbearably to the heat of the room in summer, there were shelves of tucker – flour and sugar, tea, rice, oatmeal, jam, and all the rest. His mother grew vegetables in winter; they kept goats for milk and meat, and, thanks to the camp dogs, an ever decreasing number of hens. But everything else had to be stored on the shelf in the crammed little kitchen.

There were other things in the room as well – his mother's sewing machine, his father's accordion, and the tea chest in which his school papers were kept. A large box containing the best cups and plates, which they never used, was stored under the sink, together with his mother's crystal dressing-table set. They would all come out of their wrappings, Jenny told him, when they built the new house.

'When's that gunna be?' Jim asked. He saw no need for another house.

'When our ship comes in,' Sandy would say, which made no sense at all to the boy.

In summer they lived mostly on the verandah, a square of shade in front of the kitchen roofed over with a spinifex thatch and shaded on the eastern side by a desert acacia, which Sandy maintained must never be cut.

'That's a waddi tree, son.' He slapped the dark trunk. 'They're real desert battlers. Like us. The first night we spent on Arcadia was under this tree – and all the rest till the house was built. It's practically a family member. And it'll be here long after I'm gone, I shouldn't wonder.'

Sandy had carted gravel in for the floor of the verandah and Jenny hung creepers and ferns from the rafters, planted in cut-down oil drums. On the hottest days they soaked the gravel with the garden hose and ate and worked out there, drinking from the big canvas waterbag while the breeze, channelled through the leaves of the waddi tree and over the damp ground, cooled the air. In the hurtful light beyond the shade, the horizon shimmered and swam as the thermometer touched a hundred and thirty. The blacks, straggling slowly up from their camp for water, looked like trees walking.

ISBN: 9780143006046
ISBN-10: 0143006045
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 8th January 2007
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 13.4  x 1.524
Weight (kg): 19.9