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XVII. The Great Metropolis

Steele Rudd

DAD and Mother arrived in Brisbane at dusk and alighted at the Central railway-station. Dad took his bag, and, with Mother laden with parcels, went to seek lodgings.

They were welcomed to a boarding-house on Wickham Terrace that Norah had recommended to them. A daughter of the woman who kept it taught in Kangaroo Point school with Norah. ’T was a large house and a lively place to stay at. Twelve boarders in it; twelve gentlemen boarders of different degrees and dress and dispositions. One was born with a gift for music, and had the patience and courage to develop it. He used to spend his nights thumping “Alice, where art. thou?” out of the piano. Another constantly mortified the landlady, and made her miserable and unhappy. He would stay in on evenings she had company, reading the newspaper; and when the room was silent would straighten himself up and read aloud the house advertisements, dwelling on the “comforts” and “accommodation” with emphasis that made it sound like an indictment for perjury.

And there was a luxurious lodger who always had a ball or something to go to, and used to return late in the night or at early morning in a cab, and fly up the stairs pursued by the cabman. The others were harmless, quiet-living fellows, who only growled about their shirts every week and gave notice to leave.

Sweeney, a cheerful, red-haired lodger, coming from the bath, discovered Dad and Mother mooching about the balcony. He didn’t say “Good-morning” to them, or anything. He stared with all his eyes, and darted into a room as if they alarmed him. Then he and three of the quiet, harmless boarders poked their heads through a half-open door and grinned and grimaced at Dad and Mother.

But Dad didn’t notice them. Nor did he notice that they stole into the room of Doonan (the nasty member of the house). Doonan, who had lost a lot of sleep, was angry. In a loud voice he abused Dad and Mother, and accused them of tramping about all night, and asked if they were elephants. Then he took observations of them, and hammered on the wall of his room, and called lustily for Jacobs, another lodger, to come and see Esau.

The bell rang, and a host of gentlemen boarders with high collars and stiff shirts and soft hands trooped in to breakfast. The lady of the house, stout and stately, sat at the head of the table guarding a dish of sausages.

“See you’ve new lodgers, Mrs. Foley?” said one, a thin, satirical lawyer.

The others sniggered; the lady coloured slightly, smiled, and asked Mr. O’Rourke what he would take.

“Sausages, I expect,” Mr. O’Rourke said, sadly, seeing no second dish.

“Sausages for choice,” the lawyer added, and there was more sniggering, and fresh colour came into the lady’s face.

Doonan bounced in.

“Hello!” he exclaimed, “where’s Esau?”

Sweeney spluttered, and lost some of his tea. A small, big-footed girl, pouring out tea at a side table, giggled into the cups and scalded herself.

The lady rebuked her.

“Mary!” she said; “Mary, behave!”

Mary bent forward to place a cup of tea beside the lawyer, and broke out again in his ear and emptied a quantity of the boiling beverage into his lap. He sprang up and said “Blast it!” and Mary was sent to the kitchen.

Then came a noise as if someone was leading horses down the stairs, and Dad and Mother wandered in, looking as though they were afraid of being turned out again.

“Makin’ a start?” Dad said, pushing Mother to the front and removing his “other” hat, a broad-leafed felt trimmed with white calico.

The gentlemen boarders looked up, then dropped their heads like curlews hiding in the grass, and at intervals stole glances at each other and at Mrs. Foley.

Mother showed signs of uneasiness in the presence of so many strangers, and sat on the chair as though she distrusted it. She had no appetite, and would take only a cup of tea. But Dad squared himself and breathed noisily and took sausages every time.

Conversation flagged. The rattle of cutlery was the only sound for a good while—until Dad stirred his tea with a knife and started to drink. Then Sweeney, who had no self-control, lost some more of his tea.

Mrs. Foley looked distressed, but Doonan, who always knew when to say something, relieved her.

“Was that you walking about early this morning?” he asked of the lawyer, sitting opposite.

The lawyer smiled and reached for the jam.

“Where was it,” Dad joined in; “up here?” pointing his fork, with a sausage impaled on it, at the ceiling.

Doonan chuckled and said “Yes.”

“Thet wer’ me,” Dad answered proudly; “but it weren’t early”—(turning to Mother)—“weren’t it after four?”

Mother said timidly she thought it must have been.

“I expect you are used to early rising, Mr. Rudd?” said the landlady to Dad.

“Well”—stowing away the sausage he had been pointing at the ceiling—“middlin’, mum; ’bout three mostly. Dave, he gits up fust; then Joe an’ Bill they gets the cans ready, an’ Sarah she sees ter th’ tea fer th’ yard an’—”

The boarder with the mania for music suddenly left the table. “A minute or two to spare,” he said, addressing no one in particular, and threw himself down at the piano.

The others swallowed their breakfast hurriedly and left. Dad had another sausage, some more bread, and his fourth cup of tea. Encouraged by the music or the absence of the boarders, Mother tackled some bread and butter.

Dad finished, and shifted his chair beside the piano and stared into the face of the musician. The man of music became flustered and struck wrong notes. He wasn’t used to being admired.

“Wot ’s thet th’ chune o’?” Dad asked.

Without shifting his eyes the other shook his head as though he did n’t know.

“Wot are y’ playin’?”

No response excepting a violent conglomeration of sounds.

Dad waited till the storm was over, then put the question again.

“Al’ce ’r’ art Thou,” the musician hissed, striking a run of discords, and poking among the keys for the lost notes.

“C’n y’ play th’ ‘Wil’ Colonial Boy’ on thet?” Dad inquired.

“Play th’ deuce!” the musician said, savagely, and jumped up and ran away. In the hall he encountered Mrs. Foley. “What is it?” he asked, turning his thumb in the direction of Dad; then went out into the street, working all his fingers in imaginary manipulation of the keyboard.


Dad and Mother thought they would “mooch about” a bit, and strolled into Queen-street. They stood at the Courier corner for half-an-hour, staring in wonder. The people, the traffic, trams going and trams coming, and the row and rattle of it all bewildered them. Dad confessed that Brisbane had changed a bit since he knew it fifty years ago. They strained their eyes and ears trying to absorb everything, and got headaches.

“Look here! look here! look here! Eighteen lovely epples fer wan shellen’, and put ’em in a baag!” Dad felt his pocket. Twenty newsboys rushed him, pushing and scrimmaging, Shoving their wares into his hands and into his face, and claiming his custom. Mother smiled compassionately on Dad, and they both moved with the throng.

A female astride a bike attracted Dad; he grabbed Mother by the arm. “Look at thet ’un!” he exclaimed; and both of them stood staring and grinning after the wheeling female until she was lost to them in the traffic.

Three more pedalled past. “Another!” Dad gasped, tugging violently at Mother again—“two—three of ’em, be d—d!”

The excitement was too much for Dad. He was compelled to rest. He leaned against a verandah-post and reflected on the scene around. “Never see th’ like,” he said to Mother. “They’re thicker’n wallabies!” And a cheerful growl rumbled from him.

They walked Queen-street most of the day, and went without lunch. Dad was not a success on the pavement. The city people claimed all the space. They got in his way, pushed him about, collided with him, and whenever he stood a moment to stare back at anything, they carried him off his feet. Dad got sick of it all, and took to the street. The street was wider, and more in Dad’s line. He got on well there, could see everything, and was striding along, his hands locked behind his back, one eye on Mother, the other on some girls hanging out of a window in a top storey, when a ’bus driver yelled—“Heigh there!—heigh!” and cracked his whip.

Dad felt the moist breath of a broken-winded horse on his neck, and had just danced safely to one side when a fat, perspiring female, moving in the same direction on a bike, spurted to pass the ’bus, and drove her front wheel fair between Dad’s legs, and lifted him up in front of her. Then, like a woman, she let the handles go and screamed, and turned the bicycle over on the wood blocks, and mixed Dad up in her skirts. Dad was more bewildered than ever. He didn’t know what had attacked him until he regained his feet; then he scowled on the fallen female, struggling and kicking at the machine like a horse in a fence, and clutching her skirts to hide her great, black-stockinged calves, and said—

“One o’ them damn things!” and returned to the footpath.

Dad joined Mother again, and together they purchased some fruit and explored George-street. Several barristers wearing wigs, their gowns ballooning in the wind, issued from the Supreme Court and swept by. Mother watched them till they were swallowed up in Burnett-lane, then said she supposed they would be bishops.

Dad shook his head. “Might be Judges,” he remarked; “ain’t bishops, or they’d be in tights.”

Assembled at the gates of the courts were a number of legal lights. Among them Dad recognised the lawyer from the boarding-house. Dad was delighted.

“Hello!” he said, “this where y’ are?”

The Law resented Dad with a look. But looks were nothing to Dad. The rest of the fraternity smiled and smoked.

“Have some o’ these,” Dad said, producing a fistful of bananas from a large brown paper parcel that Mother was hugging.

The lawyer frowned. “No, thanks,” he snapped, turning his back on Dad.

“Put ’em in yer pocket,” said Dad, amiably, proceeding to load his reluctant beneficiary with the fruit.

Fire flashed from the lawyer’s eyes. He drew back fiercely, and shouted: “Go to the devil!” His learned brethren laughed, and they all moved away, leaving Dad staring perplexedly at Mother.


Dad and Mother got tired of the streets, and made their way back to the boarding-house. Dad took the lead and found Wickham Terrace without any trouble. Dad was a good bushman. The bump of locality was strong in Dad. Then he stalked into a private dwelling courageously, dragging Mother after him, wandered among the furniture looking for the stairs, and alarmed the inmates. A man with a capacious stomach hanging to him like a staghorn, and wearing glasses, came and saw them both off the premises again, and remained on the steps till they closed the gate and departed.

Mother remonstrated with Dad in the street for being “a stoopid.”

“I could ’a’ sworn thet wer’ it,” Dad said, staring back at the place. Then, after eyeing a house a few doors up, “Ah! this is the one.”

He placed his hand on the gate, and opened it eagerly. Mother hesitated. She was n’t going to follow Dad any more. She was n’t quite sure of him. Dad chuckled. “ You’re bushed!” he said, mounting the steps heavily and striding in at the open door. Inside Dad saw himself revealed in a large mirror, and was confused. He stood staring and trying to remember the surroundings.

“Well?” from a sonorous voice in a corner of the room. Dad glanced round, and saw another fat man with glasses on, looking hard at him from behind a book.

“Ain’t this Mrs. Brown’s boarding-house?” Dad asked.

“Three doors up,” the voice said.

“Dammit!” Dad said, and rushed out.

Finally Mother recognised Mary grinning from a balcony, then Dad knew the place and rejoiced. They wandered in and mounted the stairs and found their room. Dad said he would have a wash. He threw off his coat and shirt and splashed and bubbled noisily in a basin, and made a great mess of the wall and the floor. When he dried himself he pulled his boots off, and like a horse that had been ploughing or ridden hard all day, rolled heavily on the bed and groaned.

He had scarcely stretched himself when Mrs. Foley, pale and looking as though she had seen a ghost or buried a boarder, appeared at the door of the room, and asked Dad if he’d thrown any water over the balcony.

“No,” Dad answered, sitting up, “On’y what I jest washed meself in.”

“Good gracious me!” Mrs. Brown exclaimed, putting her palms together, “then it went all over a lady an’ gentleman passing in the street!”

“It dud?” Dad said, jumping up and going to the balcony for verification. Below he saw a tall swell holding a wet silk hat in one hand, while with a handkerchief in the other he mopped splashes from the skirts of a gorgeous female. At intervals the swell glared wickedly at the walls of the house and made threatening remarks.

“Wot!” Dad called out apologetically, “dud thet go on y’?”

The swell looked up.

“Was it you threw that watah, fellah?”

Dad turned to the room, snatched up the towel he had dried himself in and rolled it into a lump.

“Here,” he shouted—hanging over the balcony again—“wipe ’er with thet!” And he threw the towel down. It opened in its flight like a fan, and spread itself over the swell’s head and shoulders and blindfolded him.

“Blackguard!” the swell cried, dragging the moist rag from his head—“damn your insolence!” And he looked up fiercely.

“John!” the lady interposed, “don’t get exasperated, my dear!”



Then they moved away and left Dad staring from the balcony.

Our New Selection - Contents    |     XVIII. Seeing the City

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