The customers of the pub and the staff readily accepted me. Mainly, I think, because I mingled freely with them, not setting myself aside in a false “ivory tower”. I dressed casually both day and night. I was told by the staff that the “Black Dahlia” alienated herself from the pub customers. She spent her time either in the TAB or sitting perched up at the far end of the bar like “Lady Muck”. It's always been my belief this is not the way to get the locals on your side in areas like Normanton, or anywhere, for that matter.
The patrons of the hotel were made up of locals, men from nearby stations, stockmen, jackaroos, ringers, helicopter pilots, etc. Helicopters are frequently used in the mustering of the beef cattle, taking over these days on the majority of cattle stations from the horsemen. A few tourists passing through called into the pub during my tenure, however, not many. Gradually each day, I wore down Jeanie’s shy reserve. Jeanie went about her housemaid duties diligently and quietly. I made a point each morning of going to the motel rooms where she was cleaning to have a chat with her and to compliment her on her work. One morning I commented on some brightly-coloured flowers in vases on the coffee tables in each of the rooms. The blooms were made out of lost feathers of the Rainbow Lorikeets and wild budgerigars from around the area. I’m not particularly partial to feather flowers, but they did serve as an ice-breaker. And just as well I commented favourably on them, as Jeanie, her face opening up into a broad, proud smile, told me she made them.
A couple of days into my stay, I noticed after Jeanie finished her shift around midday, she came into the public bar for a drink, the same as the other staff did at the end of their shifts. Ordering lemonade or a beer, she handed her money to the girl behind the bar. It is common practice in the industry, that at the completion of his or her shift, the staff member is given a free “staff” drink. All the other pub employees enjoyed this benefit, but not Jeanie. All the staff members but Jeanie were white. It wasn’t fair nor was it right in my eyes. What’s good enough for one is good enough for everyone, and colour played no part in it, in my eyes. Jeanie was a hard worker and, as it turned out, never let me down once during my three weeks at the Central. I changed the rules and told Jeanie she was entitled to her staff drink along with the others. Whether it changed again after I left, I do not know, but while I was in the pub, Jeanie had her free drink, whether it be a soft drink or a beer. One could easily see that she was not an abuser of alcohol. Every day she only haf two drinks and a lot of those times, it would be lemonade or similar. I was happy and so was Jeanie. I noticed a change in her, whereas before this she would walk to the bar with a ‘hang-dogged” air about her, sitting quietly alone, hardly raising her eyes. When she was “recognized” in the same manner as the others and received similar benefits, no matter how small, she held her head high with her shoulders back. It’s the little things that mean and say a lot.
Walking into the public bar one morning, I stopped dead in my tracks. Across the bar, a couple of feet inside the front doors leading onto the verandah, stood an imposing, striking-looking man. Dappled shadows from the searing day sun played on his taut, inflexible back, his western shirt strained across his assertive shoulders. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His distinctive bearing, the strength of his wide, prominent forehead beneath his grey-streaked hair, which fell in loose, open curls to the top of his shirt collar, his trimmed grey and black-flecked beard and moustache below his broad cheek bones, the glow on his nut-brown skin, took my breath away. He fascinated me. I remember thinking at the time, and I still do, if I were a painter or a sculptor this tall, impressive black man would be the perfect model. He exuded nobility and moved with the grace of a panther. I asked a couple of people who he was, but all I learned about him was that he came from one of the cattle stations. This was one of his very rare visits to town. He stayed in the bar for a brief time, but his profound impression has remained firmly in my mind. Unfortunately, I never saw him again after that one short appearance.
Now, of course, I’d settled into the daily routine of running the pub. Each morning before opening the hotel, I let Duke and Duchess out for their run. Off they would gamble, happy to be free, around and around the backyard of the pub, their tails wagging, ears flapping and doggy smiles on their faces. They always galloped back to me when I called them to put them into the enclosure, except for one morning during my second week at the pub. I called and called their names. I whistled. I searched around the pub grounds. They were nowhere to be found. I looked up and down the main and side streets, still no sign of them.
“They’ll be back soon,” I told myself, half-heartedly.
Time was running out for me. I had to open the pub. As soon as the bar girl arrived to commence her shift, I could leave. I grabbed the keys to the hotel ute (tray-back) and hurriedly made my way to the hotel garage, my heart pumping wildly in my chest, my mind erratically spinning around with terrible, vivid thoughts of the
Duchess was carrying I don’t know how many puppies, puppies that were worth four hundred dollars or more a pup! I began to imagine myself being the victim of a lynching party, being hung from the highest tree in Normanton with the “Black Dahlia” below chanting curses upon my soul, as I swung in the torrid,
I drove down to the river bank. I parked the vehicle and ran along the banks, over the bridge calling out the names of the dogs. A group of young kids, obviously playing “hooky” from school, broad grins flashing across their chocolate faces, their teeth glistening under the sun yelled out to me and waved. I asked them if they had noticed any dogs around the river that morning. They shook their heads, giggling as they chanted in unison, “No, Missie!” I warned them about crocodiles and for them to take care. They giggled. I figured they knew more about crocodiles than I did, were braver than I or, being young kids, had no fear. It was probably a combination of the three.
The hot sun bore into my back as I continued my search along the banks of the river. I had to get back to the pub, dogs or no dogs. Driving into the pub yard, the “Mango Lounge” was before me. An idea popped into my muddled brain. I jerked to a stop, pulled on the hand brake and jumped out of the ute .
“G’day, everyone!” I greeted the upturned smiling faces.
“G’day, Missie! G’day, Mate! ‘Ow ya goin’?” Echoed back at me.
“Not too good this morning,” I replied, crouching down in the dust with the “Mango Loungers”.
Fleeting concern flickered across their faces.
“You know the dogs here…you know, the big cream dogs…the ones that are in that enclosure there each morning,” I nodded my head towards the pen beside the unit. “The dogs…they belong to the managers of the pub. You must've noticed them. You know the dogs I mean?” I looked in askance at each face turned towards me.
“Yep!” “Yeah!” Heads nodded vaguely.
“Well,” I continued. “They’ve gone missing. Duke and Duchess…that’s their names…Duke and Duchess…they ran off this morning and they’ve not come back and I’m very worried about them. You know, with the river just down there, the crocs…I’m worried something might happen to them. They’re in my care while the managers are away, and now they’ve both run off. I’ve been searching for them down by the river, calling and calling out for them, but I can’t find them. I'm going to be in a hell of a lot of trouble if I don't find them!”
Again, they nodded and mumbled amongst themselves, showing little sincere interest in what I was saying because it was getting close to the time of the day they moved on up to the Purple Pub. Showed little interest, that is, until I divulged my idea.
“I’ll make you this offer…and then you can pass it around to all of your mates… whoever finds the two dogs, Duke and Duchess, and brings them back here to me or comes and tells me where they are so I can go and get them...well...there is a case of beer and a cask of wine in it for them.”
I had captured their interest now.
Off they went to the Purple Pub. I knew it would take very little time for the word to pass around the town from one local black to the other. The “bush telegraph” is a wonderful system. I'd have practically the whole town searching for Duke and Duchess!
After putting the ute into the garage, I went back into the pub. There was work to be done; however, I wasn’t feeling very good. My stomach was tied up in knots from worry about the two dogs, and, for my own welfare to be honest! I told David, the pub roustabout and Kathy, the bar girl, about my disastrous morning, swearing them to secrecy for the moment. I told them if the “Black Dahlia” or her husband rang they were not to bring up the subject of the dogs. Do not mention “dogs”! I didn’t ask them to lie. I wouldn’t and couldn’t do that. I just told them to talk about anything else but “dogs”, and if possible, to pass the telephone over to me. I would handle the situation. How I was going to do this and remain alive, I had not a clue at that stage. As I was always within reach at the hotel, it wouldn’t be a problem my taking any telephone call, if it were to come that day or the next or whenever. Up until that morning in my search for the dog, I hadn’t left the pub perimeters.
The day passed. Evening came and went. I arrived back at the unit around with still no sign of Duke and Duchess, or any word back from the “bush telegraph”. I slept very restlessly that night. For some reason, I had a lot on my mind....