The car's headlights told the nightly story. If they weaved slowly down the driveway, then the Old Man had a skinful and tonight would be a night of anger, abuse and violence. If the lights bounced down the driveway at normal speed, then tonight would be all right.
It was how we assessed most nights. It was not that the old man, my father, was an evil man -- not in the usual sense of the word. He was a man with a limited formal education, but a quick wit and inquiring mind. He was raised in the shadow of the Great Depression and working class men, as he was, defined themselves not by their education or trade skills, but by their capacity to absorb hard, unremitting, backbreaking work. They lumped heavy bags of grain on their shoulders; they cut trees with axes, hammers and wedges; they sheared sheep, dug ditches, sweated in the heat and battled day in and day out.
Their belief was that real workers could work hard and drink hard. Combined, it gave respect. ("He's a hard worker," said with pride, "and can he hold his grog," said with just as much pride). But deep in the Old Man there was a blackness, a darkness -- a frustration and anger with the world and with life. The grog brought this to the surface, gave life to it, amplified and magnified it.
The nights that were interspersed with abuse and violence were never talked about. That was part of the community shame -- preference for silence, preferred ignorance; "He's a good bloke, just has a bit of a problem with the grog". There were explanations for the black eye, the split lip, the tufts of hair on the kitchen floor and the occasional visit from the police.
When the old man was on the rampage, Mum would hide with her children in darkened bedrooms -- the light never turned on in case it aggravated his mood: in the laundry, in the sleep-out, anywhere that might be safe until you heard him mumbling, stumbling and then finally snoring. It happened so often that memories become blurred, bleeding into one.
But rural isolation is dangerous. There are no neighbours, there is no one to intervene until the sons are old enough, big enough to play the role of the protector when such actions race you into adolescence, stretches the relationship with the old man to one of anger and contempt. The lack of sleep makes staying awake at school difficult. And, of course, there would be remorse, promises, until next time. It never stopped. Not until Mum finally left, struggling to keep herself and my younger sister afloat. Those were hard times of which she rarely spoke. This was a woman skilled at 'making do'; skilled at making the old new again, shopping frugally.
Nearly five decades later, I sat in the crowded ballroom of the Sofitel Hotel, Brisbane, with its white linen tablecloths and heavy silver cutlery, listening to speakers condemning domestic violence. It was a breakfast for White Ribbon Day.
What I really wanted then, in that crowded place, was to stand up and say what I should have said.
I wanted to say that I salute all the women like my mother, who survived their lives and their marriages with a background of violence and abuse.
I wanted to say that I salute the women who, with little support, nurtured, protected, guided their children; I salute those women who spent nights huddled with the children in the dark while violence stalked the hallways; I salute all the women who took the blame, took the blows for imagined slights, indiscretions, and conversations that never happened.
I wanted to say that I salute the children who saw the tufts of hair on the floor, the bruises, the dark glasses and the broken bones in those sad, lonely, isolated houses.
I wanted to say I salute the women who escaped to too few shelters, with too little support and skills, and too much social disdain. I wanted to say I salute those women who battled constantly, with humour and love, to make scarce resources meet increasing demands.
I wanted to say I salute every child today who lies awake at night waiting, dreading the inevitable abuse and crashing violence and who dreams, envies, Walter Mitty-like, happy families. I wanted to say I salute all those children today, tonight, who will go home with a ball of fear in their stomach.
I wanted to say these women never escape the fear that lingers in their eyes. I wanted to say these women are heroes of the stature of the ANZAC legends. But I didn't. I sat there sipping tepid coffee from mass-produced china wondering why so little has changed in 50 years.