Translating Terror Australis

Ian C Smith writes in the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.  His work has appeared in Antipodes, Cordite, Eureka Street, Griffith Review, Journal of Working Class Studies, Meniscus, Shaping the Fractured Self (UWAP), and So Fi Zine.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy published by Ginninderra Press.


My bad-tempered mother had a lot on her plate, as she put it, which was what I needed, my extra rations sneaked past her martial frugality from the hoarded past, energy for an uncharted frontier.  Emigrating from England to Australia was like the pivotal point in a play, this play being my life.  Aussie English was a lingua franca back then.  Mother, trouble dogging her life, didn’t get the nuances of local idiom, whereas a boy starting school with wild larrikins absorbs slang quicksmart, as we used to say.

Australians swore.  Everyone swears now but back then perhaps the English didn’t.  Home from school, ripe language saturating my mind, I playfully called my pre-school brother a little bastard.  Mother, face ashen, threatened me with her copper stick, itself the colour of her shocked expression, again.  No washing-machines for frontierswomen.  Accustomed to patient queueing in blitzed London, she challenged locals waiting for service in a higgledy mob like their sheep, pointing out to shopkeepers when they pushed in, her strident accent overriding soft drawls exchanged with sneers that pierced me.

My new cobbers, clattering bikes against our front gate, come to swap comics, yelled my name, a symphony to my ears, instead of knocking, my mother’s reputation spreading.  She complained about their dearth of manners.  I said, They’re just singing out.  Their phrase for this.  She said, There’s nothing musical about that lot.

She thought doing your block meant working hard when it actually meant losing your temper, exclaiming in the presence of other migrants more assimilated who knew her well that nobody could accuse her of not doing her block, her eyes then going from face to face trying to decipher shared yet cautious smirks.

In one year alone during the sorrow of war she lost her mother, two sailor brothers, a grandfather, and her father-in-law, after burying a baby son earlier.  Three months after the shock of arrival in Australia she said was like journeying back into the past, her father died, this further morbid news arriving in a blue aerogramme.  She loved flowering gum trees, and always the warm weather.  No more chilblains.  The sand in her glass nearly emptied, her remaining English relatives commented on her raucous Aussie accent, impressive acquired idiom.

© Ian C Smith, 2022