The House That Jack Built

Joslin looking at her Dad Harry McCabe

Joslin McCabe’s life can be divided into two parts; before her Mum and Dad separated and after her Mum and Dad separated. It’s fair to say if her great grand dad Jack McCabe never managed to get on that convict ship from London in the mid 1800’s and then escape from Parramatta Prison in Sydney with his brother Jim none of this would have happened.  He would not have come to the Dimantina and met Joslin’s maternal great grandmother Jenny Lind of the Murrawali tribe. There would have been no shearer’s strike in Barcaldine in 1891. The first Workers Union that formed the labour party would not have been formed. And the house that we’re sitting in, originally the old Cobb and co depot in Winton that Jack built, would not be here. Nor would the old piano that Banjo Patterson’s lover Christine McPherson first played Waltzing Matilda be sitting in the corner covered in old photos and dusty memorabilia. And Joslin would not of had to ride from Ingham to Townsville in 1948 on her pushbike in search of her father Henry after the family break up.

It’s September 1946 and Winton has just lost its most prized possession; the North Gregory Hotel burned down last month and Henry McCabe’s truck has become the new hub for food and mail and drop offs. He’s busy all day every day and he needs all the help he can get. His eldest daughter Joslin is good company and she can drive the truck if he puts a potato sack under her bum but she can’t reach the brakes without disappearing under the dash. That’s only a problem if there’s oncoming traffic and there isn’t much out here. Not at this hour. It’s the new cop and the roo’s you need to worry about.

Joslin’s ten. Old enough to know stuff. She’s standing at the bathroom door. Her Dad’s brushing his teeth. It’s still dark outside and the rooster next door has started. She has her teddy. Her singlet is dirty from last night’s dinner and her hair is like fairy floss. All the other kids are asleep but not this little one. It’s delivery time and the big Bedford truck is warming up outside gurgling diesel in the cool desert air. This is her time with Dad. She likes driving the truck. She likes the sound of the motor and the horn and the rhythm of the big tyres rolling on the road and the smell of her Dad’s breath and his aftershave. She like’s his soft voice. She loves it when their eyes meet in the cracked side mirror. But she has to keep her eyes on the road. Her job is to drive the truck. His job is to lift all the stuff off the back. They’re a good team and they both wear white singlets. Dingee her pet dingo always sits beside her in the truck. They live is the old Cobb and Co House in Winton that Henry’s Grandad Jack built in 1898. They’re a family of workers. Irish Aboriginal and proud of it. Fencers and drovers and drivers and shearers.

Flash forward to February 2014 and I’m standing in the very same house in the same doorway looking at an old photo of this man Henry McCabe in his prime. I’m talking with his daughter Joslin who is now almost 80 and if I look close I can see that little girl in there but only when she smiles which isn’t often. There’s an infrequent cackle of sorts that occasionally bubbles into a chuckle but the real laughter is buried beneath 75 years of lived experience. Of making sense of stuff. Of endless work. Of changing nappies and standing in doorways watching her own 12 kids grow up.

Joslin likes living in the house that her Great grandad Jack built but she gets lonely. She likes Sprite and lamingtons and Rothmans cigarettes and she especially likes researching and writing her family’s history. She lives alone with almost 8 decades of memories and enough suitcases full of old photos and books and archival material to fill this old house to the rafters and make a paper road to Brisbane.

I like her. I especially like her eyes when she smiles. I can see her radar working overtime. I can see I’m going to have to work hard to get her to laugh. I know she wants to like me but she’s a cantankerous bittersweet woman shredded by the vicissitudes of life. She’s on guard. She lights a smoke. She’s thinking… can I trust this bastard. She looks me in the eye. Squints. There’s an ocean of tears in those cobalt eyes. You can see them in there swimming like tiny silver fish trapped in a desert spring. The kettle whistles and a kitten races under the table. ‘I loved my Dad’ she says ‘ He was the best man I ever knew and will ever know’. She holds a picture of him and looks him in the eye. The little fish move and she puffs back on her smoke and somewhere outside a bit of iron is talking to a rafter.

It’s just after midnight on the 12th January 1938 and Alice McCabe stands on the Springvale Station veranda rocking side to side on tippy toes. It’s late and very quiet. Everyone’s asleep dog-tired from fencing. She doesn’t want to make a fuss. She bites down on her bottom lip. The pain is intense. She bends over and breathes through her mouth. Her white knuckled hands go to work on the railing trying to find a place for the pain. This is her first child. Henry walks over with the horse now and she plants her muddy foot into his cupped hands and somehow swings herself up onto the back of the horse.

Three hours later Alice McCabe is lying on a horse blanket on the veranda of the Winton Hospital with a wide-eyed baby in her arms. No blacks are allowed inside. Henry sits by her side back up against the wall watching his baby girl suckle. A light curtain of rain falls softly on the tin roof while the steaming horse eats grass on the hospital lawn. Mother, father and child lie huddled in the soft light on the hospital veranda. Leaning in Henry catches a glimpse of his daughter’s eyes in the moonlight. Something big inside him moves and he shifts his weight and clears his throat. ‘Joslin’ he whispers to his little girl. ‘Joslin….’

‘I love my Dad’ Joslin says again now in the kitchen. ‘He was the best man I ever met and is the best man I ever did meet. He never drank, swore or smoked and he was honest and strong and hard working. I miss him. I really do.’

Henry McCabe takes his daughter’s education seriously. Right from the beginning he saw that alcohol causes shitty lives and decided early on he wasn’t going to have a bar of it. Some nights he takes his little girl down to the seat across from the pub to look at the drunks. There is no shame in this. Henry is a practical man and rarely gives advice. He likes to show not tell.  The violence and abuse is shocking at times but this is the education Henry McCabe has chosen for his kids. He shows them how ‘not’ to live by letting them witness real life on the footpaths outside Winton pubs. And he shows them how ‘to’ live at home by cleaning the house or making pumpkin soup or working in the early hours of the morning driving the truck. He takes them bush and shows them his old peoples secrets and stories. He tells them about their Irish and Aboriginal relatives and ancestors and makes sure they know who they are. Pride and strength and courage are important to Henry McCabe and that is something he learned from his father Mick and Mick learned from his father Jack. Jack McCabe the man who built this house.

It’s just before Christmas 1948 and Alice McCabe is leaving her husband Henry and her eldest daughter Joslin is not happy. Joslin is 11 now and she wants to stay with her dad in Winton. Every fibre in her little body is screaming not to go. Her dad is her rock. He puts a warm face washer on her face in the morning to wake her. He brushes her hair. He lifts her into the truck in the early mornings. He is Henry the son of Mick who is the son of Jack and Jack built this house. She does not want to go with her mother but she’s a kid and this is an adult situation. All she’s can do is cry. She walks up and down the hallway crying and dragging a teddy she hasn’t touched in over a year. But nothing works. Before long they’re on the train moving further and further away from home and Dad. Joslin looks at her mother with contempt. She hates her. This is not going to work.

Although she is her fathers daughter and does not swear ever under any circumstances the word fuck keeps presenting itself and finally Joslin says her first swear word out loud, quietly so only she can hear. She presses her forehead up against the train window and makes an angry face. ‘Fuck!’ she whispers between her teeth. ‘Fuck it!’ She says again smiting her mother. She keeps saying the word over and over in her mind completely unaware that the second part of her journey has just begun.

As Joslin tells me her story and drinks her tea and eats her lamington she swears like a shearer without batting an eyelid. Bitterness is in the room but it’s a grumpy old circus lion of a thing… a toothless tiger with a crooked smile and a sweet tooth with eyes like cobalt and skin the colour of fool’s gold. When she finally does laugh I catch a glimpse of the little girl on the train and in the truck and on the bike. I nod and smile at her every word. I’m hooked and she knows it. This old circus act will never get tired. (Excerpt from a longer work in progress by Tom Hearn)


30 Responses to The House That Jack Built

  1. This is a great story Tom. Beautifully and evocatively told. So many stories of people’s lives that we never get to hear. Thank you to you and to Joslin for sharing it. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. Love Joslyn she reminds me of my great aunty em who raised seven children in railway camps while uncle ted built railway tracks

  3. I’m heading for 70 and these stories are magic to my ears

    My great Grandfather (on Nana’s side) was a shearer from Victoria who followed the sheds from Victoria through NSW to Qld every year pushing a bike (wheels no tyres) with his swag (including shears etc) and was active during the great shearers strike.

    My Great Great Gran (on Pops side) came from the Torres Strait and her son was a teamster (Clydesdales not Bullocks) at 12 yrs old.

    I listen to Joslin’s stories and think how different but how similar to those in my family (Dad passed on at 86 years last September 2013) Blimey how I would appreciate the time for a quiet yarn with her.

    Keep on with what you are doing. It can give young fella’s a sense of their culture if they want to know it.

    • Thanks heaps Mark, yeah I’ve only just started writing again as I lost the ‘muse’ for writing years ago. But Joslin has for some strange reason has reignited my love for the written word!! Not only am I writing but also reading again too!

  4. I love the way stories like this takes me to another place… As a young Aboriginal women myself…. IT GIVES ME STRENGTH! TY for sharing this story.

  5. hi tom loving yr story been reading stories like this for a long time had a very unhappy childhood and books were my escape keep on writing

    • Hi Christine, thanks for taking the time to write to me and I’m sorry you had a troubled childhood. I hope you write about it one day to heal the pain and also thanks so much for your encouraging words about me ‘keeping on writing’ I do appreciate that as its hard sitting writing words wondering if anyone is going to ‘conenct’ with the story. I’m glad you connected with it, I’m excited to share more of this story with you soon. Please sign up to my newsletter as this is where the stories are first published. The link is here , cheers tom

  6. Hi Tom,

    Just read your story about Joslin-great stuff! Love your writing style-just like mine LOL! Most people don’t understand there’s a lot of difference between being a storyteller and being a journalist! I would love to become involved with your ‘creatives’ but would be limited by the fact I don’t have a 4 wheel drive, a video camera nor a good digital camera-if there was a ‘team vehicle’ it would be a different story LOL! I am a trained Artist and Teacher but am on a Disability Pension these days-a long story in itself!

    A few of the names you mention in Joslin’s story caught my attention. There’s a large family of McCabe’s here in town and Pentland had a number of bush rangers in the early days and one was a McPherson. My research “addiction” soon went from a little known missing miner in 1917 to a spider web of interlocking stories about the early North Queensland Gold Rushes and so on.

    A friend and I did an art expo in 2011 about a missing miner and only very recently a reporter from the ABC in Darwin saw one of fb pages and saw that I was looking for historical photos that need restoration. He thought it would make a good story and got a lady from ABC Townsville to contact me.

    She wanted to know how I got interested in the project, so I started with the story behind the art expo. Now their plan has changed and they want to put the story about the miner on their webpage instead. Call it intuition if you like but I don’t feel it’s going to be what we want it to be.

    Any ways, keep up the good work and maybe one day soon I’ll be on your team! The biggest problem you’ll have with Joslin is she won’t part with “women’s business”. I have the same problem with the Aboriginal Men.

    Cheers. Jo.

  7. Loving the story so far, particularly how you are capturing the feistiness of Jocelyn. I think she has really managed to draw you into how her life was. Waiting for next chapter with enthusiasm.’ Thanks Tom for finding your writing muse’

    • Thanks so much Jan, it’s lovely to hear your feedback. I’m heading back out next week so will be writing something new upon my return. I look forward to sharing it with you.

  8. I love these stories from these ‘ keepers’ of the stories. keep collating them, Tom. These Elders wont be around forever, and someone has to have these stories for the future generations.

  9. Very moved by her story, and your telling of it Tom. Beautiful work.. thank you, & thank Joslin, for sharing it.

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