‘If I don’t fall down and die it’s safe to eat it.’
Vera Deacon, 91 and impeccably dressed in a floral blouse and slim black skirt, tucks into the cake she has baked for our afternoon tea. It’s a carrot cake, made with pineapple, spices, brown sugar and walnuts. ‘I feel a bit better about it when it’s got things like carrot in it.’
Vera has cleared us a small space, rearranging the books, maps, letters and annotated newspaper articles on her dining table, in the still-working-class suburb of Stockton. On the walls hang framed historical maps of Newcastle, ranging from the 1800s to the present day. Born in 1926 and growing up on the lost Newcastle islands, Vera has seen and written about vast changes to her beloved Hunter River.
‘My life by no means is a straight path—just stumbling along. Because we lived on an island, and people have romantic ideas about islands, they think it’s all Treasure Island. But it’s hard work, particularly for mother and father. The kids run wild and have a wonderful time.’
The Hunter River islands—Mosquito, Dempsey, Ash and Spit—are prominent on all the maps on Vera’s living-room walls, but they no longer exist. They were reclaimed and industrialised to become the Kooragang coal port. To help me understand how the islands fit in with the Newcastle I see today, she brings out a bag of ‘mud maps’.
Any rough map is a ‘mud map’, and Vera has hand drawn these, copied from a range of pre-existing charts starting with the first surveying done in 1801. Each is dated, mounted on thick board and highlights a different aspect of the islands in history. One records the Indigenous place names, another the early settlers and their allotments.
She tells me the islands were first put up for sale in 1844 at one pound per acre. ‘One of the first buyers was the Reverend Charles Pleydell Neale Wilton. He bought 14 acres on Mosquito Island and with the aid of six convicts he planted an orchard. And do you know what he called it? Kooragang! And they took it, it’s sinful, shameful that they did. He had contact with the Aborigines in Sydney before he came up here. They think it means either brolga or Aborigines camp here. It’s a musical name.’ The fertile islands became instrumental in feeding the burgeoning Newcastle colony. ‘The soil was very bad here at Newcastle, and anyone that could grow food was terribly important.’
As she pulls each map out of the bag, Vera runs long, thin fingers over its surface, tracing the changing shoreline. The skin on the back of her hands is sun spotted, her nails trimmed. ‘See this little island? Mangroves are land makers. It got bigger and bigger. My sisters and I, we used to get my little flat green boat and row around it.’ She has marked where her house used to be, on Mosquito Island, with a small dot.
On one map, the changes made when the islands became Kooragang are overlaid in orange highlighter. ‘That’s what I propose to give you, do you think that will help you? You just follow the orange marks.’ We trace the roads, find the roundabout, the bridge, and finally I get a sense of where Mosquito Island used to be. ‘Whenever I go on that roundabout I know I’m on home ground. It’s the nearest I can get.’
Along with the maps, there is an impressive collection of photos and articles in the bag. Anything that relates to the islands Vera has kept. We pause at a yellowed newspaper cutting, carefully clipped and stored in a plastic sleeve. It announces the agreement with BHP to create Kooragang. ‘See the date?’ She points to the top of the article. ‘11th of November they hung Ned Kelly. 11th of November is Armistice Day. 11th of November 1948 they come to an agreement to fill in the islands. Dead and buried, our memories of the river, by millions of tonnes of polluted sand.’
And yet those buried memories became the foundation for a story Vera wrote for Ribbons of Steel, a competition held by BHP when they were closing in 1999. ‘I didn’t know anything about it. My writer friend Joan Clark—she was instrumental in helping to form the Australian Society of Authors—she rang me up and said, Vera, did you know? and I said, No, I don’t know anything about it at all. You had to send along a story with an industrial background. So, I thought about it and I wrote a thing called “River Song”. We were the last children. I call mine a bio-history.’
Vera is constantly moving. They’re only small movements, rearranging cups and saucers, or lining up her books with the edge of the table. She shuffles her maps like oversized cards and then sorts them back into chronological order.
‘They announce the prize winners for poetry, the most marvellous poem. Anyway, they come to the stories, and I think, Oh, maybe I might get commended, but I didn’t get commended so I just sat back and tuned out. Which is my habit. And then suddenly people are pushing me and shoving me and saying, Vera, wake up they’re talking about you. I’d won the first prize! They all laugh about it. I get up and I go “ooh” like a cow coming out of a bog. Truly!’
The front room of Vera’s little mining cottage is a library. Her husband built the bookshelves for her, and they’re full to overflowing. ‘I used to weave stories in my head, rowing the boat. And then I read the Katharine Susannah Prichard novel The Black Opal in 1944. I bought it from a little paper shop down on the corner of Havelock Street and Maitland Road, Mayfield. Mr Perry, he used to have a shelf where he stocked better-class books. You have to realise Newcastle didn’t have a library or anything. Books were pretty scarce. It just kicked on from there.’ The books that don’t fit on the shelves are piled on the floor or in boxes, stacked one on top of the other.
We talk about the writing course I’m doing and she asks me what I’ve learned. She’s starting to look a little tired by this point, but the moment I mention Aristotle she stands straighter. Her eyes are bright, and there’s suddenly pink in her cheeks. ‘Oh, he’s always being referred to. Do you have a textbook? He seems so wise. I’d love to read that.’ She powers back to the dining table to find a small square of paper and write down the details. ‘I’ve often thought I must get on to this bloke.’
While fishing for the piece of paper, Vera disturbs one of the neat piles, revealing a photo of the winner of the BHP poetry prize. As she hands it to me, I realise that I’ve been handed a lot of photos this afternoon, but Vera’s in very few of them. Most of them are of the river. There’s a blurry black-and-white image of the shoreline, taken from the family home on Mosquito Island. One of her sister reclining in their small boat, surrounded by grey water still as glass. And her father as a young man, sitting on the riverbank with his banjo by his side.
Vera’s father was a ward of the state, and as a child he was fostered out to farming families in the Hawkesbury Valley. ‘Told me how he used to help bring in the cows, a boy of eight. He was born in 1904. Used to stand in hot cow manure because his feet were so cold.’ Vera recounts history like a storyteller, with an eye for detail but always accurate with the date, the place, the names. It flows so naturally, it takes me a while to realise she’s doing it.
‘One family, the Lawtons, were very nice to him and they treated him like their own.’ From the Lawtons he learned the art and joy of growing food. ‘He took us to see them in 1939. We were there, camped in a tent on the Hawkesbury the night the prime minister declared we were at war. Mrs Lawton ran down to tell us.’
After his time with the Lawtons, Vera’s father was placed with a carer who mistreated him, and he ran away. ‘He put everything he had into a sugar bag and his banjo and took to the track. This was 1921–22. Fell in with a circus.’ His adventures took him to Newcastle, where he met and courted Vera’s mother. ‘Dad turns up, knocks on the door, grins and says, “Hello, can I throw me hat in?” Her brothers were very suspicious of this two-bob lair. Not only a two-bob lair, but an orphan and a bloody Protestant!’
It was her father’s knowledge of farming and his ability to fish the Hunter River that sustained his family of seven children during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Self-made and a socialist at heart, her father not only fed his family with what he could grow and catch, but he fed his neighbours as well.
Vera lights up when she talks about her father’s life, the same way she does when discussing Aristotle or following the lines on her mud maps. I try to tell her that she should write a book about her father’s story. If she hears me, she doesn’t acknowledge the idea.
‘I’m just carrying out what my parents wanted me to do.’ As the eldest, Vera was taught by her parents that it was her duty to become the family historian. ‘I had to leave school to help mother at 13, and I wanted to because I loved her, but I did all sorts of things to broaden my mind. It’s my getting of wisdom, bit by bit.’
It’s only as I’m leaving that we touch on her recent recognition from the University of Newcastle. Vera was honoured in a ceremony to celebrate the Vera Deacon Regional History Fund, which was created using the donations Vera has made over the years. The fund supports the preservation of regional history and is almost ten years old.
‘Oh, I started to cry, it was just too much. Just too much. I wasn’t expecting it at all. It just overwhelmed me.’ Her voice dies as she looks at the painting awarded to her by the university. Her Hunter River in vivid blue, painted by a renowned local artist. It sits on the floor, almost lost among the books and maps. ‘Coming from having nothing, I seem to have too much.’
Joanne Anderton writes award-winning speculative fiction, children’s books and nonfiction, most recently the CBCA Notables picture book The Flying Optometrist, and the personal essay ‘Prosection’ in Island Magazine. www.joanneanderton.com