42[Ronan, Tom, 1964, Packhorse and Pearling Boat, Cassell Australia, Melbourne, Chapter 2]

CHAPTER TWO

TOM CROTTY’S GREY MARE

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There were four ships on the Fremantle-Singapore run and two more which went up the coast to Wyndham. Most of these called at Derby, which averaged about two ships every fortnightly spring tide. There was no radio, of course, to inform of exact time of arrival, but the blacks up the Gulf at Point Torment would light fires when they saw a ship in the offing, someone in town would notice the smoke and inform the necessary authorities. The doctor would be told, and the shipping agent; the wharfinger, and the police corporal, who was also customs officer. When the smoke from the ship’s funnels was visible with the eye, Tom Crotty harnessed up the old grey mare and swept out his tramcar. This tram, running on a narrow gauge pair of rails, was Derby’s only public conveyance, and it was definitely one-horse power, or rather one-mare. Tom would take the car to the top end of town, ringing a deep-throated bullock bell. At the terminus, somewhere up about the hospital, he unhooked the mare and hitched her into the rear end of his car. As he made his return journey most of Derby would be waiting for him; if not, Tom wanted to know the reason.

‘Where’s the Ronans?’ We were a good fifty yards from the tramline, but old Tom’s voice carried. ‘Come on now, Missus! Even if you don’t want to go, what about the kids? They might score a bit of ice.’

It was rarely that we did. Even though the first-class bar functioned while the ship was at the jetty, and knowing passengers retired to their cabins before the onslaught of shore-based invaders, etiquette was rigid. In the smoke room the men enjoyed themselves each in his fashion but, on the main deck, Mrs Grundy ruled supreme. No lady could be seen, in public, drinking anything stronger than lemon squash, and unless she had some gentleman escort to obtain her drink, she was denied even that.

So unless Dad or, before the Koombana tragedy, my cousin Will Smith was with us, we went drinkless. How I envied the older or less strictly-controlled boys who could shin each other up until the rider had his head dangling through the smoke room porthole asking, almost begging:

‘Mister! Misted Please, mister! Can I have the ice out of your drink?’