Do You Value Independent Arts Journalism & Would You Like To Help Us Produce More? Find Out More

Book extract: A Sunburnt Childhood by Toni Tapp Coutts

Toni Tapp Coutts grew up on the vast Killarney cattle station 600 kms south of Darwin, sleeping under the stars and living in a shed with no running water or electricity. She was the eldest of ten children and her step-father was Bill Tapp, who became known as the “cattle king” until he succumbed to alcoholism.

Her account of that upbringing A Sunburnt Childhood is described a “tender portrait of a life that many people would consider tough. She brings vividly to the page a story seldom seen: a Territory childhood, with all its colour, characters and contradictions”. Read Chapter One below.

***

IN THE BEGINNING

In Alice springs, on a scorching hot morning in November 1955, as the star-studded horizon dulled and the Southern Cross slipped off the side of the earth followed by the Scorpion, I made my entry into the world. I was the first-born grandchild on both sides of the family.

Alice Springs was a dusty desert town; it still is. The hot, harsh climate has a roller-coaster of temperatures ranging from an Antarctic minus to a murderous 45 degrees Celsius. The red desert is as flat as a breadboard, with staggered ranges popping up at intervals to create ancient gorges that whisper the stories of the Arrernte people who have walked the land for the last 40 000 years. The sky is a million light years away and yet, at night, feels so close you could just stretch your hand and touch the Milky Way above your head. My sign of Scorpio hangs just east of the Southern Cross, its tail curled low across the dark night, claws reaching out into the black universe.

The Aboriginal name for Alice Springs is Mparntwe. In 1955, the Aboriginal people lived on the banks of the Todd River at the fringes of town in skimpy humpies made from paperbark trees and scraps of rusty corrugated iron. They were forbidden to cohabit with white people.

At the time of my birth, Alice Springs had been gripped by a devastating drought for ten years and red sand hills were piled around the town, right up to our front door, covering suburban fences, roads and footpaths, old cars, gardens and anything that had not been moved in the past year. Alice was a tough place for anyone to live in. It was the year before the Melbourne Olympics and the rest of Australia was leaping into the world of modernisa- tion. With a population of just 1500, Alice Springs was still an outback town without television or telephones, where fridges were kerosene and few families had washing machines or a family car. Most women stayed at home to raise their children.

aweb-sunburnt-childhood

My mother – June Forscutt as she was born and June Clements as she was then – was no different. My parents were typical of the 1950s: childhood sweethearts who grew up in a small town, got pregnant, got married and had children. My father, Terry Clements, drank, worked and socialised with his friends too much. He worked at the Welfare Department earning twenty pounds a week, of which he gave my mother seven pounds to run the house and clothe and feed the family. The rest of his income was spent on his hobbies and social life: racehorses, playing cricket, football and drinking with his mates at the club, a common and convenient lifestyle for the men of Alice Springs, and too bad for the women if they didn’t like it.

On the day my mother went into labour, my father was playing cricket; after receiving the news, he continued to play. My mother was unimpressed but that was just the way things were: Dad would get on with whatever he was doing while Mum got on with the business of whatever she was doing – in this case, giving birth.

Mum tells me that she remembers the day I was born as the day she started reading Gone with the Wind and fell in love with Rhett Butler. My mum didn’t make a fuss about giving birth in a stark delivery room with nurses in starched white uniforms and caps like the Flying Nun wore. Instead, she made herself at home in the maternity ward right away. Maybe she had a sense that it was a place she would visit many times. Mum told me that the cranky old matron slapped her hands as she gripped the cast-iron bedhead in the final throes of giving birth. My arrival was swift and easy; I was born in the early hours of the morning and promptly taken to the nursery. Mum was wheeled out onto the verandah and left to rest under a big, slow-moving fan.

A few hours later the old matron came out and huffed, ‘Well, Mrs Clements, would you like to see your baby today?’

My mother looked up in surprise. She had become so immersed in reading Gone with the Wind that she had forgotten she’d had a baby. She took me from Matron’s arms, attached me to her breast and continued reading her book. As I was to learn, this was typical of my mother’s ability to be waylaid by her fascination with the world beyond her immediate experience.

I was called Toni because Mum was in love with the Hollywood actor Anthony Quinn. On her first day out shopping after my birth, she left me asleep in the pram at the butcher shop while she caught a taxi home. She arrived home with the groceries and no baby, so she had to return to town in the taxi to pick me up – finding me fast asleep in the corner.

My mother, June Caroline Forscutt, was born in Cobar, New South Wales on 12 December 1935 and grew up in the small town of Weethalle, about halfway between Cobar and Canberra. She was the second child in what would become a family of five brothers and two sisters. Her mother was one of ten children, a fun-loving woman with a great sense of humour who loved to dance and sing, while her father loved to sing and talk politics. He had a small garage in town where he fixed farm machinery. Next to the garage was the family’s house, with holes in the walls and a flapping tin roof and one dull light globe in the lounge. The Forscutts slept three to a bed, with thin grey army blankets and handmade pillowcase-style covers filled with old jumpers. The jumpers fell in lumps and bumps to the sides of the cover and created little warmth. The children rode three astride a horse to school and did not have any shoes. They were given a lunch of a slice of bread smeared with a thin layer of fat, more commonly known as dripping.

Both June’s parents had brothers serving in Darwin during the Second World War. When the soldiers returned to Weethalle they told stories about the last frontier and the lure of work, gold mines and crocodile hunting. This was enough for my grandfather Nick Forscutt to decide, in 1947, to pack up his wife, Gladys, and their six children (as they were then) to leave the almost destitute life they had in New South Wales and head north.

My grandfather went first, leaving Weethalle with his brother-in-law Frankie Hennings, who had been in Darwin during the war, to travel to Hayes Creek, a small gold-mining town 150 kilometres south-east of Darwin. They had to find somewhere to live before sending for Nana and the rest of the kids. Three months later, a family friend named David Fairlie drove my grandmother and the children, all under the age of fourteen, to Hayes Creek in a Model T Ford with two double mattresses strapped to the roof. They took a dog with them, specifically for throwing into the rivers – they had been told about the big crocodiles in the Territory and that the only way to tell if there was a croc near a crossing was to throw a dog in. If the dog survived it was safe to cross the river, and if a crocodile took the dog it was still safe to cross, as the croc would have had a feed and therefore would not eat the humans.

My mum was eleven. Nana was nursing her six-month-old daughter, Lynette, as she travelled the thousands of kilometres through outback Queensland, across the Barkly Tableland, on to the Stuart Highway and north through Mataranka and Katherine to Hayes Creek before they settled at Adelaide River, which had been an army base and hospital during the war, when Darwin was the home of Australia’s major military base. (The Adelaide River War Cemetery was the final resting place for many killed during the bombing of Darwin.) Mum says that on the trip up they had a tent to camp in, but that they only slept in it once because a bull got into it and ripped it to pieces.

The family lived in a large open tin shed. There was no school in Adelaide River, so the kids spent most of their time exploring the river and watching the trains and army trucks come and go – even though the war was over, the army was still at the hub of life in the town.

Just two months after arriving in the Top End, baby Lynette developed a high fever. Mum remembers Lynette having convulsions and Nana putting her into a metal tub and mixing mustard powder into the water in an attempt to bring her temperature down.

Lynette died not long afterwards of a brain aneurysm. It happened that the doctor from Darwin who visited Katherine once a month was returning to Darwin through Hayes Creek at the time the baby died. My nana nursed her dead daughter on the arduous and rough trip along the Stuart Highway – not so much a highway as a dirt road – to bury her baby in a cemetery in Darwin. One can only imagine the deep sadness Gladys must have felt, to be in a hot, strange place where she knew no one, having left her mother and sisters way down in the cold south. My mother remembers the day clearly, the devastation she felt for her mother and the loss of her baby sister. She remembers her anger when, a day later, her father and his friends set up to play their nightly card games at the dining table while Nana stood in the dark, looking out into the desolate night. The death was not discussed again; it was like Lynette just disappeared out of their lives overnight.

Baby Lynette Forscutt was buried in the Old Darwin Cemetery under the name of Baby Fawcett, the surname of another family living at Adelaide River at the same time. A mistake was made during the registration of Lynette’s death and it can’t be corrected, so Baby Fawcett she remains.

*

While my grandfather was keen on the idea of setting up his own gold mine and going crocodile hunting, the reality of having to support and educate his young family weighed heavily on his mind so they packed up and left Adelaide River, moving down the track to Katherine, where he took up a job at the Katherine Power House. Katherine stands at the junction of two major roads: the Stuart Highway and the Victoria Highway. When my grandparents moved there it had about four streets and not many more people. Today it’s a thriving town of over 10 000 inhabitants; it services an area of around 350 000 square kilometres, comprising remote Aboriginal communities, massive pastoral properties, mines and roadhouses and including Tindal air force base, home of the FA18s and 75 Squadron.

The family lived on the banks of the Katherine River, above the hot springs, in a shed similar in style to the Sydney Williams huts built by the army, which look just like a corrugated-iron version of a child’s drawing of a house – a square with a door in the middle, rough-cut windows either side and a sloping roof. They soon settled into outback life and their house was always full of people. The children walked, often barefoot, through the long grass to the one-teacher school, and the family’s social lives revolved around fundraising for the Country Women’s Association (CWA), playing tennis and picnicking on the banks of the Katherine River. My grandparents had their seventh and final child, Sue, in 1948.

My mother’s family was loud, boisterous and outgoing, and everyone had to look after themselves. The wood-fired stove burned twenty-four hours a day, with a large steel kettle boiling water for cooking and the endless pot of tea, and for warm baths in cold weather. After school, the kids played in the river that ran just below the back door – during the dry season the Katherine River runs through the town at a low enough level to be fairly safe. My mother was popular with all the boys and not so popular with the girls. She was smart, competitive and always wanted to win. She shared her high school holidays with many of the Stolen Generation ‘half-castes’, who had been taken from their Aboriginal families. They played football, tennis and cricket and spent all their spare time swimming at the Low Level, so named as there was a low car bridge and a weir, a spot where the paperbark trees towered and the river ran shallow in the dry season. It was a raging red torrent in the wet season.

The Forscutt family were close and Gladys adored her husband, Nick, who was a staunch Labor man. My grandmother had no interest in politics but she supported her husband in everything he did, and their home was often filled with Labor supporters, including Bill Donnelly and Jock Nelson, talking politics. In 1951, Nick decided to nominate for election for Legislative Council for the Batchelor Constituency. In this he had the support of the NT Trades and Labor Council. His opponent was the sitting member, Fred Dowling, also a Labor candidate – albeit unendorsed by the party.

One of Nick’s pledges was to fight for the north–south railway that would connect the Territory to South Australia. At a public election meeting held in Katherine on Monday, 23 April 1951, Nick also stated that he ‘supported the claim for equal citizens’ rights for the coloured population’. He was clearly a man of vision – it wasn’t until 1967 that the Aboriginal people of Australia were recognised as citizens and it was to be almost fifty years before the north–south railway was completed when the famous Ghan train made its inaugural journey from Adelaide to Katherine in 2001.

Nick Forscutt was not successful in his campaign, taking 34.3 per cent of the votes, while Fred Dowling maintained his seat with 65.7 per cent. My grandfather was tenacious, though, and decided to stand again in the by-election caused by the resignation of the sitting member, Tom Ronan, in Springvale in April 1955. On that occa- sion, Nick was endorsed as the Labor Party candidate. His opponent was Harold ‘Tiger’ Brennan, who stood as an independent and won the seat quite conclusively.
Sadly, my grandfather was to only enjoy thirteen years in the Territory he was so passionate about. He died of a stroke in 1959, at the age of forty-nine, in Katherine.

*
Around the same time as the Forscutts moved to Katherine, my father, Terry Clements, also arrived in the town, aged twelve. Terry’s mother, Lillian Clements, had fled a violent first marriage in country South Australia, taking with her her sons Bob, aged twelve, and Terry, aged six. She found a job working as a cook in a hotel in Adelaide. Bob left Lillian’s care to find work when he was fourteen and Terry was subsequently brought up as an only child, cherished, spoilt and protected.

Adelaide was where Lillian met the railway station- master George Tindill, who had been evacuated from Katherine to Adelaide during the war. Following a brief romance and a year of writing letters, Lillian arrived in Katherine to live with George in 1946. During the long- distance romance, Lillian had sent Terry to live with some friends in Broken Hill because there had been an outbreak of the crippling disease poliomyelitis, which could cause high fevers and permanent paralysis, and she was terrified that her young son would catch it. Following her marriage to George in 1947, she brought Terry with her and they lived a happy life in a big old upstairs tropical house right beside the tiny two-room railway station. Lillian, unlike my grandmother Gladys, washed and ironed Terry’s clothes and laid them on the bed for him to wear to school every day. She cooked three-course meals for her family, whether it was 100 degrees in the wet season or cold, dry weather, wind cutting through the wooden louvres into the house.

Lillian had a glass cabinet filled with delicate glassware, plastic roses in a dainty ballerina vase, a Bakelite radio and three china ducks flying across the wall. She had hand-crocheted doilies on her dressing table with elegant figurines and a crystal bowl that held marquisite earrings and an opal brooch that I would eventually inherit. (I am sorry that I didn’t claim the flying ducks!) Nana Lil was a self-taught dressmaker and she set up a dress shop in the main street called Lillian Frock Shop, which she stocked with ladies dresses and underwear ordered from Adelaide.

*

Along with other teenagers from Katherine, my mother and father were sent the 1500 kilometres south to Alice Springs for their high schooling. Katherine, a small town of 200 people, did not have a high school. Darwin was only 300 kilometres to the north but didn’t have any boarding facilities, which meant that most of the secondary school- age teenagers were sent interstate to boarding schools. Many, though, were sent to Griffith House boarding hostel in Alice Springs, a town with a population that was a hodgepodge of European people – Dutch, German Irish, English – and the Afghans who plied the camel trains carrying stores and mail to remote communities and roadhouses in the desert.

Those girls who did not go away to school went to work at the hospital or one of the local hotels as a house cleaner or nanny. And, reluctantly, my mother soon joined their ranks: she left school in year nine, at fifteen years of age, and returned to Katherine to earn a living. Mum was very good at maths and her first job was working at March Motors Garage as the bookkeeper, as well as pouring petrol at the bowsers.

When Mum returned to Katherine, Terry was sent to Rostrevor College in Adelaide to finish his schooling and on return worked for a year with Mum’s brothers, Rex and Bill Forscutt, until he got a job working for the Welfare Department in Alice Springs. My mother went with Terry to Alice Springs, where she worked as a cleaner at the local pub, the Underdowns’ hotel, until they were married in March 1955. They were both twenty years of age when they wed; Mum was a five-foot-two Elizabeth Taylor lookalike with dark hair and sapphire blue eyes. Terry was a catch: tall, thin and good looking, with a cheeky smile and a head full of curly blond hair.

I have vague recollections of our time in Alice Springs, living in a low-set grey fibro house with red soil in the front yard and no garden, set against the backdrop of the McDonnell Ranges. I don’t have any recollection of a favourite teddy, doll or books, or any reminder of those years other than some lovely photos of my parents’ wedding, with Mum’s older brother, Uncle Rex, and younger sister, Sue, in the wedding party. I do remember a beautiful lamp in the shape of an African lady with big gold hoop earrings, portrayed in a kneeling position and holding a large orange lampshade, which my mother threw at my father. It smashed.

Dress-up parties were the entertainment of the time and there are photos of Mum and her friends dressed up as Mexicans, Nefertiti and sultans. There are some photos of me at about twelve months old, with beautiful blonde curls (if I may say so), in a big pram wearing a gorgeous little navy and white sailor dress, with a huge white sulphur-crested cockatoo sitting on the edge of the pram. There is also a photo of me with a huge python wrapped around my pram.

My brother Billy was born in December 1957 and my baby sister Shing two years after that, in August 1960. Billy and I slept in the one bed and Shing in a rickety wooden cot. Shing’s official name is Kristen; however, she was called ‘Little Thing’, which became ‘Little Shing’, and that finally became Shing. Shing was a tiny thing who sucked her thumb and everyone loved her, including me.

Though my parents had nothing and lived in a Housing Commission house, Terry still managed to save enough money to go to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics – on his own; Mum, of course, had to stay behind and look after me. Mum couldn’t drive so she walked everywhere with the kids in a pram or relied on taxis to take her shopping or my father to take her out. My vague memory of Terry is that he was soft spoken, easygoing and always happy. He was always immaculately attired for his job at the Welfare Department, wearing the Territory Government dress code of ironed white shirt, tailored grey shorts, long white socks and shiny black shoes. He must have ironed his own shirts because I am pretty sure Mum would not have done it.

One day, Mum just decided that this was not the life she wanted and Terry was not the husband for her, and she left him when I was five years old. I do not think there were any major dramas with my parents’ marriage; certainly, I don’t remember any, but I was very young. My mother is a passionate woman with a great appetite for and interest in life, and I can only imagine that she didn’t much like the prospect of living out her days as an Alice Springs housewife.

I don’t remember having any feeling or emotion about the split as my father wasn’t around a lot, and I felt totally loved and secure with my mother and my little brother and sister. Nothing much would change about our day-to-day life once we left Terry. Perhaps that is why I don’t have strong memories of that time.

It was extremely hard for my mother, aged just twenty- five with three small children, to leave her husband, but she had decided that there was no future for her in the marriage. This was a brave move in 1960, when women were expected to stay in a marriage, no matter how bad or sad. There were no government or welfare benefits to support women if they left. The men controlled all the finances and did not legally have to pay maintenance for their children, so there was no guaranteed financial support there either. Divorce could only be obtained through one of the partners declaring to be at fault, such as having an affair, and most women didn’t have the financial resources to hire a lawyer to petition for a divorce. Women were also unable to obtain bank loans unless approved by a husband or a father.

So when Mum separated from Terry, she did not receive any payments to help her with living costs. She had left school at fifteen and hadn’t had much experience working before becoming a mother, therefore there wasn’t much chance of her getting a job – plus there was the issue of what she’d do with her children while she was working. So the only option for her was to return to live with her mother. Mum packed everything she needed into a couple of suitcases and, along with her three babies, flew the 1200 kilometres north to live with Gladys in Katherine. Mum didn’t look back, and we just wanted to be where she was. Besides, there were adventures awaiting us in Katherine and beyond – bigger and better than anything we could ever have imagined.

In our new life, we had to rely on my grandmother for all our food and clothing. Of course, Nana – who was by now a widow supporting her family – wasn’t eligible for any kind of support either, so she worked. Typical of my mother and grandmother, neither complained, and in the usual Forscutt family style, everyone chipped in to help.

I loved living with my nana, whose personality was as big and bold as, but maybe a little gentler than, my mother’s. The house was full of people coming and going, so there were always extra people at the dinner table and plenty of laughter. Our arrival there began a new journey for all of us.

A Sunburnt Childood is published by Hachette Australia

You can buy the book here

One response to “Book extract: A Sunburnt Childhood by Toni Tapp Coutts

Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Newsletter Signup