Bridie is the main protagonist in Sweetmans Road and I like to think of her as representative of the generation of women I wanted to write about. She typifies the uncomplaining endurance of the women I encountered in the aged care facility I visited regularly.
Bridie was born early in the 20th century into an Irish Catholic family – poor working class people to whom family and religion were of great importance. Bridie’s mother died of medical complications two days after the birth. It was not uncommon for babies or their mothers to die in or soon after childbirth. Lack of medical services and isolation in remote rural areas were both contributing factors.
Of the women I spoke to many of them had lost a child or a sibling – some in childbirth, others to illnesses such as polio, tuberculosis, diphtheria or whooping cough.
Bridie’s father, ‘the beautiful, music-loving and often drunk Connor O’Brian‘ is despised by Bride’s maternal grandmother and her attitude is a reflection of the attitudes of the local catholic church, to which she is devoted. When the grandmother dies Bridie and her little sister Mary are taken in as charity cases of the church and spend much of their childhoods living in the convent. Their father is forbidden to see them and such was the power of the church, he obeyed, driven away because of his drunkenness.
It was not uncommon to have a father who was a heavy drinker, often spending his wages on drink and leaving the family without food or adequate clothing. Wives learned to be inventive – and silent.
Still, they so often said, ‘you just had to get on with it’.
In the story Bridie becomes pregnant to Jack during the Great Depression and is pressured to marry him by her Aunty Kit and Jack’s own mother. Despite having no other options, and never contemplating a termination, Bridie is reluctant to marry, seeing this marriage as the end of any dreams she might have had about love, fulfilment and adventure.
For his part, Jack is a good if taciturn man, who believes in truth and loyalty and hard work. He spends his days working in the local banana plantations which was, in those times, a back-breaking job with everything done by menial work. In the Tweed at the time, most banana were planted on steep south-easterly slopes. The men would start at the bottom of the mountain, cutting bunches of bananas that they would then carry on their backs up the steep slope, depositing them in the shed for packing.
The ‘hands’ of bananas would be cut from the bunch and packed in wooden cases (also made by hand), stencilled with the plantation owner’s name and loaded onto trucks to be sent, by truck or train, to the cities.
The price of bananas fluctuated according to the season and competition from other areas so that sometimes the grower got back no profit, only a bill for the transport. If this happened, the workers sometimes went without wages until such times as money became available.
It seemed that the women, responsible for ‘keeping house’ and getting meals on the table every night, managed with whatever meagre resources they could scrape together. Vegetables, macaroni, cheap steak beaten into some semblance of tenderness, eggs from chooks kept in every rural household and milk products from ‘the house cow’ – all these were the staples of a common family diet in the country.
In Sweetmans Road, Daniel is 15 in 1950. He is reluctant to attend school where he has to compete with ‘the town kids’ and always feels out of place and at a disadvantage. At his own home on Sweetman’s Road, however, he feels king of all he surveys. His best friend Gooch loves nothing more than to get out to Danny’s place at weekends to swim in the dam, make things out of the endless supply of materials available on the property or head up the red clay road to the forest where more adventures await.
When he leaves school Danny searches around for menial jobs, for a while joining his father working in the bananas, then getting a job in the sand mines at the beginning of a then new industry mining for rutile and zircon at some of the local beaches. When Robert Menzies introduces National Service conscription Daniel is thrilled to bits at the thought of possible travel and adventure. He survives his 6 months of National Service better than some and is smitten by a new wanderlust when he gets back home. He heads off alone on his motorbike to explore Australia, something his family would never have dreamed of before his stint in the army.
For his little Sister Maddie he brings home his ‘housewife’, a tiny khaki sewing kit which all conscripts were issued with for the duration of their time in the army.
Louise and Maddie:
Typical of many girls of the time, the Bowden girls are independent, resourceful and compliant. They both have their chores to do and are used to helping their mother around the house. Louise, at 12 has started high school. She excels at art and drawing and spends a lot of her time sketching things she finds around the property – a bird’s eggshell, ferns, flowers, insects, twigs and pebbles.
When she leaves school she does a commercial drawing course by correspondence and becomes a commercial artist in her hometown.
Maddie is a dreamer, a reader and a worrier. Although she spends her free time wandering the surrounding bush and hills, reading or playing with the animals on the farm, she also notices and worries about her mother’s obvious discontent and the subtle unhappiness that exists between her parents.
She adores, from afar, her brother’s best friend Gooch who comes in and out of her life as a confidant and a love interest.
Aunty Kit is Bridie’s maternal aunt and the most significant and enduring loved one in Bridie’s life. It was Kit who took over the care of the girls when Bridie’s mother died in childbirth, although she herself was only 15. She married Barrie and moved to Burleigh Heads where they opened a music shop, Kit being a talented piano player. Bridie and Mary both lived with Kit and her husband until Bridie fell pregnant to Jack Bowden and Mary decided to become a nun.
After the war, Barrie failed to return to Kit and instead set up house with a younger woman in Sydney. Kit was forced to move to Brisbane alone and play the piano in hotels and bars in order to support herself and her little girl Ellen.
Jacob is the illicit love interest who enters Bridie’s life when she needs it most.
Jacob is a returned soldier with a tragic past. He has become a successful artist who has escaped his past to live in a secluded hut in the forest at the top of Sweetman’s Road where the Bowdens live. His will be an important and lasting influence in Bridie’s life and it is this that brings the story to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.