A long letter
What a beautiful sight, I think as I gaze dreamily through the dusty pane of the huge bay window of my homestead.
A gentle sigh escapes my weary body. I know myself enough to know that to really feel alive I do need to be outside where the action is – preferably with all guns blazing. That’s living, I tell myself: being outside on the farm, doing something worthwhile. I’ve just come in from my shift on the tractor, helping to mow down hundreds of acres of oat crop for hay, and Michael D has taken over the lunchtime shift, but now a feeling of guilt at doing nothing washes over me.
‘Damn,’ I say out loud. Why do I always feel like this when cooped up in a house?
I’m sitting at my writing desk (which was somebody’s dining table once), on a new chair that makes more creaks and groans than the farm’s old Ford tractor, but it’s comfy, this chair. The window brings the wonders of outside in to me, and it not only fills the whole room with a delicate light but also creates a warm and comfortable place for me to write this, my third book.
My readers have asked if I have a third book in me. They want to know where I am now. I still find it hard to believe I’ve written a book at all. To have written not one book but two, and now to have a third book on the way, is almost impossible to fathom. Those first two books, Diamonds and Dust and Stars Over Shiralee, have been an amazing adventure for me and for my family – my wonderful parents and my children, Leisha and Robby.
This new book, like my first two, was written with the help of my diaries, so all the places, dates and events I write about are correct. And there are so many more stories – of living on stations and about farming – to tell you, going back to the very beginning of my life.
Many years ago my grandfather Wallis had been the night editor of the West Australian newspaper and he encouraged me to write letters and to keep a daily journal, which I did – never dreaming that one day I would be writing the story of my life and having it published. I see myself as just another woman from outback Kimberley who has recorded her life with a pencil, and in many two-dollar exercise books. When I look back at what I wrote, I find that the palest of ink in my journals brings back vivid memories of my life in the outback. So vivid, in fact, that while writing my previous books I felt as if I was reliving those years. I could feel again that blend of adventure and great happiness, achievement and deep sadness – and there were times that I would never, ever want to relive.
As I grew from a child to a young adult and experienced all aspects of life – the good, the bad and the ugly – I sent a constant stream of letters to Grandfather Wallis who by then lived in England. I’d base these letters on my daily journals, and there was always so much to tell him.
While my brothers took on apprenticeships at the Broome meatworks, to my parents’ horror when I was nineteen years old I went bush, to Oobagooma, one of the Kimberley’s most remote cattle stations. This was where my education on the land really began; it was also where I started to realise that my childhood dream about a life on the land could come true.
As the days became weeks and the weeks became years, my letters to Grandfather Wallis continued. I wrote to him of the cold nights in my swag watching the fading coals of the campfire; of the dingoes moving silently about, checking each of us out, believing that they were hidden by the night’s shadows. Then I told him about the clear night skies of the Kimberley, filled with many thousands of twinkling stars; the calm of the evening would occasionally be broken by the lonesome call of the curlew and this would always unsettle me, because an Aboriginal elder once told me that ‘the curlew cries when a child has died’, and how I hated that thought.
From about this time I set myself goals: to work, to manage and to own my own cattle station. I now realise that these were rather huge goals for a woman in the 1960s, as this was an era when hard, tough cattlemen dominated the Kimberley cattle industry.
In pursuing those goals I moved onto millions of acres of wild, unfenced cattle country, helping chase the dollars ‘on the hoof’, as we called it – mustering the unbranded or ‘cleanskin’ cattle. In the Kimberley at that time large herds of unbranded cattle would roam across stations; the boundaries between properties weren’t fenced, so there was nothing to stop them moving from one station to another. As long as they were unbranded, they didn’t belong to anyone, but if they could be mustered and branded they were worth a lot. So we used to say that the dollars were ‘on the hoof’ – literally, on the hooves of these wild cattle, because they were worth so much to anyone who could get hold of them. On properties that spread 160 kilometres across, a simple boundary muster could turn into a huge war. The first stock camp out on the run or into a valley would usually end up taking the largest number of cleanskin cattle. This was the outback Kimberley way of life: first in was best dressed.
During that time I learnt that I could survive off salt beef and damper washed down with sweet black tea, just as the Aboriginal stockmen did. Old Bob McCorry was the manager on the station where I was working. When mustering he believed in travelling light – and he wasn’t joking: the tuckerbox used to contain Log Cabin tobacco, one jar of Rosella pickles and not much else. I was the only white girl in an all-black stock camp and I can honestly say I was treated with total respect by all the stockmen.
Then, in the 1970s, I married McCorry. Twenty years older than myself, he was a drover and buffalo shooter, a good cattleman, and as hard as nails. He was a challenging husband at times, but made a wonderful father to our children, Kelly, Leisha and Robby. Throughout our years together I always saw myself as his apprentice in the Kimberley cattle game. And he had more faith in me than anyone else. Looking back, McCorry really was the wind beneath my wings, although at the time it could occasionally seem like he was being tough on me.
As the years rolled on, my letters to Grandfather Wallis kept rolling out. I became a wife, a mother and a cattle station manager. In 1982, at thirty-two years old, I became the first woman in the Kimberley to manage two-and-a-quarter-million-acre cattle stations in her own right. These properties, Louisa Downs and Bohemia Downs stations, are roughly halfway between Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing on the Great Northern Highway.
Managing the stations gave me both independence and confidence, but with my achievements came pain, and none greater than the loss of our firstborn son, Kelly, on Louisa Downs on 12 June 1981. He was only five years old. It took this terrible tragedy for me to really understand what isolation meant and what its consequences could be. Yes, we had the Royal Flying Doctor Service, but nothing truly moves fast in the outback.
Kelly had been out with his father on the property for the day. They were heading back to the homestead in the bull buggy and I watched from the front garden as they reached the gate. Kelly hopped down to open it and then got back up onto the vehicle’s bullbar. The buggy drove through the gate but then I could tell that something had gone horribly wrong. Bob hopped out of the buggy and picked up Kelly, who was lying on the ground, put him in the buggy and raced towards the house.
I was filled with terrible fear and my heart raced. I checked Kelly’s pulse and it was terribly slow. He wasn’t breathing. It was out of ‘sched time’ for the phone (we were only allowed access to the line during three set times per day) and the emergency button on the Flying Doctor radio wasn’t working. I got on the radio, screaming for help, and eventually someone heard me and contacted the Flying Doctor, but by the time they arrived it was all too late. I have always wondered if Kelly’s life could have been saved if we had only been closer to assistance.
Kelly’s death was followed by my husband McCorry’s depression; an abundance of alcohol didn’t help much. Deep down I knew he was blaming himself for the loss of our little boy and, truth be told, I was blaming him too – not that I ever said that out loud. We were a hell of a mess.
During this time I also had to physically dig graves with crowbars and shovels to bury seven Aboriginal friends on Louisa Downs who had died from illness or accident. It was tough going. These were people who had worked and stood by my side over the years – people who would protect me and be there for me. The burials were all accompanied by the chanting of tribal mourning songs, shaved heads and traditional bloodletting ceremonies.
Then, out of the blue, a stranger came into the station and stole a bull buggy, filled it with young camp kids then rolled it on a clay-pan flat, killing Kelly’s little Aboriginal playmate. I came close to breaking point at that time. With the loss of my son, then his mate and the others, I felt as though I was forever digging and filling graves. Yet somehow I continued on with my little daughter Leisha (my son Robby wasn’t yet born – he came along on 28 November 1984) and the faithful Aboriginal stock camp to give me strength. McCorry had his own team of stockmen and spent most of his time contract-mustering other Kimberley cattle stations while I managed Louisa Downs and Bohemia Downs.
I remember I did have the luxury of a Trafalgar two-way radio that had more crackle than a pork roast, and a wind-up telephone; on the rare days that phone was working everyone who was on the line talked to each other in a proper ‘galah session’.
As the years went on, so did my association with cattle stations. In March 1986, I began to manage another two and a quarter million acres, Kimberley Downs and Napier Downs stations. These properties are along the Gibb River Road, north of the town of Derby. I accepted the position of manager knowing that the government of the day – mainly the premier, Brian Burke, and his minister for agriculture (and sidekick), Julian Grill – were pushing to pass legislation that would enable the government to simply resume properties in Western Australia without paying the owners the appropriate compensation. If this legislation had passed it would have ripped off the four cattle stations I was involved with and every other pastoral leaseholder in Western Australia too, as not only wouldn’t we have been paid what the properties were worth, but we would all have been out of a job. We knew that the government had its eye on all four of our stations – in total about four and a half million acres of good Kimberley cattle country. So as soon as I started my new job, I had a fight on my hands. And I like a challenge, so I stood up for leaseholders’ rights; together, we fought the government of the day, and we won. I wrote in depth about this period in Diamonds and Dust, and also about the time I entertained ‘Burkie’.
To top this off, Australian Land and Cattle Co., the company I worked for – which owned another eight Kimberley cattle stations – was in the hands of the receivers, with debts accumulated way before my time. This mess was the result of previous management throwing money around like confetti. The whole outfit was not only flyblown but stony broke too, and we were hobbling along like a sore-footed duck on a gravel road.
By now you must be thinking I had to have rocks in my head for sticking with it and, honestly, there were times when I wondered myself. Some months the company couldn’t afford to pay wages – not even for staunch stockmen, the cook and governess – or provide the little money needed to help repair dilapidated windmills. It did get to me, especially when I was sending thousands of head of cattle to the meatworks and not seeing a single dollar returned to the station. What was all the hard work for?
In those days in the mid-1980s, I comforted myself with the knowledge that there were still large numbers of feral cattle running out back on the properties. We only had to muster them, and by winning our fight against the government we were able to carry on doing that. But no sooner was that battle over than I was hit with the largest TB eradication program in the Kimberley’s history.
We did complete the program, but it took five long years, and we went through a hell of a lot of cattle. We also paid off all outstanding monies owing from the company’s heyday, leaving the stations debt-free. The only way I got it done was with help from a good mustering crew plus station staff behind me, and a fantastic boss Peter Melsom in Perth head office who had enough faith in me to leave the show completely in my hands. There were also the great people who worked in the Derby office of the Department of Agriculture. The whole endeavour wouldn’t have been so successful without them. I’d never felt so proud to complete a job in my entire life.
Grandfather Wallis answered my letters with a constant stream of questions about my life in outback Kimberley. I soon worked out that it was his way of motivating me to keep writing, and to keep the daily diaries going, and I did.
I told him of the time in 1987 when the murderous marksman Joseph Schwab was loose on Kimberley Downs and of the chilling fear that hung like a dark cloud over the station. How my gut was a tangled mess because of my concern for the safety of my children, staff and Aboriginal camp – they all depended on me, as did the worn old ‘jack pumps’ that needed to be cranked over every day to keep water flowing to thousands of head of thirsty cattle on the station. As terrifying as it was, though, this experience only helped make us stronger. I loved my work, even with the hiccups, and to me it was simply a way of life. This time, too, is chronicled in Diamonds and Dust.
If it wasn’t the worry of a killer stalking the outback, it was a king brown snake or the kids’ ‘pet’ crocodile, Dundee, popping up in unexpected places – there was always something going on. Yet somehow during this time McCorry and I were able to purchase two stations of our own, and the dream that I had carried with me from the age of eighteen was finally a reality. First we bought a mango plantation, then three more, followed by Kilto Station just north of Broome, and a couple of years later Fairfield Station, which has Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge on its back doorstep. The mango farm had been McCorry’s to run but he was never the same after a court case – which I wrote about in Diamonds and Dust – so I decided to sell it.
But just when I was sure that my family’s future was set up nicely with our two properties, my grandfather died and my husband of twenty-two years asked me for a divorce. These two events took me by surprise: initially shocked, later I came to accept them. I had lost a grandfather who always encouraged me to document my life in journals, no matter how insignificant I thought these daily events were. And I did accept Grandfather Wallis’s death, because he was an old man. He was very much loved and is greatly missed.
I also accepted McCorry’s request for divorce. The way it came about in the kitchen one beautiful sunny morning, he could have been asking for a cup of tea. McCorry always saw himself as an old stockman who needed just his swag, dog and battered Akubra, and, I guess, to be alone. Remembering that he liked to travel light, I had wondered over the years if I was accumulating too much luggage. Maybe he became overwhelmed by it all. So we went our separate ways. It wasn’t easy. We sold Kilto and Fairfield, and each bought properties in the Great Southern region of Western Australia, McCorry on the Sleepy Hollow and the children and me on the Shiralee. I wanted to buy McCorry’s share of Fairfield but he wouldn’t sell it to me, so instead it was sold to the local Aboriginal people.
I used to visit McCorry sometimes, just to see if he was all right. We’d help each other with the cattle and with odd jobs around the properties. I’d take him shopping, because his driving wasn’t the best, and after a little while we even started going for picnics together. Despite everything that had happened, I felt responsible for him. By that time he was an elderly man, and he was also the father of my children. There was a bond between us that I couldn’t break, even if I’d wanted to.
With all the time we were spending together, we regained some of the respect that we’d once had for each other. I was very forgiving of him, but I also knew that there was something wrong with him – grief over Kelly’s death, sickness, pain – that was responsible for the worst things he’d done. And now I was starting to see some of the real Bob returning, the one I’d known at Oobagooma.
It wasn’t to last, because McCorry died on 5 October 1998, on our daughter Leisha’s twenty-first birthday. Despite all of that, I will never forget McCorry’s greatest gift, which was bestowed on Leisha, Robby and me as this weary old Kimberley cattleman lay dying in St John of God Hospital in Perth. With hardly enough life left in him, McCorry whispered those three precious words, ‘I love you’, so softly that only our children and I could hear. Finally, on his deathbed, the real McCorry had returned to me.
Not six months later I found a hard lump in my right breast. Diamonds and Dust was initially written for my children after I was diagnosed with breast cancer following the discovery of that lump – not that I thought I was going anywhere in a hurry, but as a gift for them. I never thought, or believed, that anyone else would read it.
I had an aggressive form of cancer and soon one lump had become three. There was no family history of breast cancer, and I certainly hadn’t planned on being the first! At the very beginning there were no tears for me. There was no anger or a feeling of ‘Why me?’ – it simply all seemed unreal. My real pain came from seeing my children’s suffering. Leisha cried for a week, and Robby, who was thirteen at the time, withdrew into a deep silence; this worried me more than Leisha’s tears. I felt that my children had had more than enough to contend with, having recently lost their father, and it must now have seemed to them that they might lose their mother too. While all this was happening, the new man in my life, Terry, was pushing for us to marry. For some reason or other, Terry was in one hell of a hurry to get to the altar.
My subsequent marriage to Terry sent me to the depths of despair, and eventually depression, because he was a manipulative and violent man whose only interest was in having power and control over me. Those depths are a place I have promised my family and friends I will never go to again. In Stars Over Shiralee I wrote openly about my loss of confidence and identity because of this man’s put-downs and criticism, his constant mind games, humiliation, physical abuse and intimidation. The abuse affected my family and friends, and frustrated the hell out of the people around me, because I could not see what was happening. I still cannot believe that for so long I was unable to see the signs or help myself escape from that terrible situation. But eventually I did, with help from a counsellor, family and dear friends.
Domestic violence is far more widespread in our community than many of us want to believe. It should be remembered that perpetrators of domestic violence don’t always use their fists: psychological violence can cut as deep as any physical wound. I should know. I was a victim of a marriage made in hell, and although I am now free of it, there are still some days when it haunts me terribly, to the point that I suffer heart palpitations and panic attacks.
One day I’m sure this deep-seated fear of Terry will leave me. But there are lots of people out there who are terrified for the same reason. We all need to be brave and speak out against domestic violence, and I write this with both men and women in my thoughts. Since that terrible time I have researched abusive behaviour, and learnt that it not only affects women but also men – and our precious children. Abusive behaviour and depression are not subjects the general public really likes to acknowledge or be associated with; I think people are afraid to talk about them. But I’m not. I’ve been there and I’ve survived. And if I can get caught up in something as awful as that, anyone can. I hope that by writing about my own experiences I can help someone else who is in the same situation – or, even better, help people recognise the signs of this behaviour before they get into the situation. Life is full of challenges. They test you, they can break you, but ultimately they make you stronger.
This is the third volume of the story of my life, and I am very lucky to be able to share it with you. This is my story of life in the beautiful outback, on the properties I have called home, and all the different people I have met and worked with. I hope you enjoy it.
Excerpted from Love on Forrest Downs by Sheryl McCorry. Copyright © 2012 by Sheryl McCorry.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.