...for Miss Mahony nursed a dark secret, and forget about guessing what it was, because you don't have a bleedin' clue.
Look, I'll come straight out with it.
Miss Mahony smoked. That's right. Cigarettes. Gaspers. Durries. Fags. Call them what you will, there's no getting away from it. She was a smoker.
I realize that this will have shocked you to the very core, but it's a critical part of the story that follows.
Now it must be said that there were women in our township who smoked. Some, like Joyce Moran, did it openly. Joyce was a legend in Calliope, and legends can get away with almost anything. But women who smoked generally did it on their own verandahs out of sight of the public.
My Aunty Lucy smoked. When Uncle Frank came home after a long shift at the meatworks, Aunty Lucy would sit in the cool under their house in Gladstone with the sea breeze wafting in, and have a 7 oz. (small) glass of beer and a smoke with him. That was the only place and time she did, and she lived to ninety.
Old Jim had his pipe, but only smoked it in the garden of his house, usually well after the last child had cleared the school grounds. But he was a man, so different rules applied. Naturally.
Women teachers did not smoke. Girls who were Miss Mahony's age and single who smoked were usually Bad Girls. End of story.
I don't know where Miss Mahony got her supplies or where she kept them, nor where she usually smoked. She couldn't have bought them in Calliope or everyone towards the centre of town would know in hours, and in a day or two for those who lived further away, all without the assistance of the telephone, considered a rare luxury for personal use.
I don't think she had a car. Few women did, though many drove the family car if there was one, or farm vehicles like the tractor if they had the strength to push in the clutch or turn the steering wheel (then without hydraulics, and heavy as lead). Miss Mahony must have got a stash of smokes in Gladstone and hid them away.
Where she could have smoked unseen and unsmelt in Calliope I can't imagine. Maybe she did it only rarely, when the rigours of the Calliope lifestyle got too much. How am I to know, hey?
I mentioned earlier that Miss Mahony boarded with old Mrs Fergie next to the dance hall. Her house was no more than three metres from the southern wall of the hall. No wonder Miss Mahony turned up at the dances. With Mitchell's Orchestra music blaring away twenty metres from her room she may as well be there, in the hall, dancing.
I have no idea how well she got on with Mrs Fergie, who was a decent, honourable widow of many years. I've no reason to believe it was anything but cordial.
I should mention that Joyce Moran lived directly opposite Mrs Fergie, next to the pub. With a westerly wind, smoke would have drifted across constantly from one or other of these sources, so I'm guessing it could have been possible, if Miss Mahony chose her times well, for her to slip outside and light up behind the dance hall, and it could be assumed the smoke was coming from the other side of the street.
I should explain, for the benefit of those who've never experienced the novelty of an outside dunny that it's usually not a WC. Got it? It doesn't flush. There's what is called a pan under the seat that fills up over the course of a week.
In order to keep it sweet – or at least, not hold-your-nose ghastly, there's also a good-sized tin or box of sawdust in the dunny, and a generous tin scoop or something similar. The routine is that after you have completed whatever was on the ablutions agenda, you'd get a scoop of sawdust and scatter it on top of the contents of the pan. It worked pretty well.
Here's what happened, based on a tearful admission by Miss Mahony the next morning, and what Mrs Ferg told my Aunty Mag, who lived across the other road from her. (Dad had seven sisters and four brothers, most of whom lived within a kilometre of each other, so we had valuable intelligence from many quarters on just about anything that went on in our world.)
Mrs Fergie went to bed at 9 pm or so, regular as clockwork, and Miss Mahony slipped into the dunny after the dance. It was a chilly winter night and Miss Mahony had perspired a bit from the last Log Cabin dance, which turned into a gallop as they sometimes do. Feeling pretty sure she could safely have a smoke in there, she lit up.
Sadly for her, it was a night when Mrs Fergie was having a bit of tummy troubles, as she explained in some detail next day to Aunty Mag. Miss Mahony was disconcerted to find, as she sat puffing away on the flat wooden lid of the thunderbox, that out of the pitch blackness, the beam from Mrs Fergie's torch was lighting up the gap under the dunny door.
"I'm sorry – I'm in here, Mrs Ferg."
No doubt she was sorry she was in there right then.
"Hurry up, dear," I can imagine Mrs Fergie saying, "I've got to go." It was probably that nice pawpaw, she told Aunty Mag in the debriefing session next day.
There wasn't a lot Miss Mahony could do. The best solution as she saw it was to bury the half-smoked cigarette deep in the pine box of sawdust and hope to retrieve the evidence the next day. So she did bury it deep, and I imagine, do all those useless things people do when they're in a confined space trying to hide the evidence of smoke from illicit substances, such as wave her hands around like mad and... hope for the best.
She left the dunny, had a bath and went to bed. (Well, I think she would have had a bath. I could be making that bit up.)
Mrs Fergie was far less concerned with any lingering smell of tobacco than her major objective. Obviously I don't know those details and there's no reason why either you or I should want them, but she probably gave Aunty Mag a good rundown on how things went. Suffice it to say that Mrs Fergie completed her mission as best she could, and went back to bed.
It appears that Miss Mahony did not know that a pine box of sawdust isn't the best place to hide a smoke unless you are absolutely certain it contains not a flicker of a spark in it. Sawdust itself burns just as well as a decent cigar. It will smoulder away there for hours quite contentedly until a full combustion point is reached.
That happened at about 4 am on the Sunday of some date in some month probably 1956 or 1957. Sorry, I can't be more specific. There's only so much my brain can hold, and the date of the total destruction by fire of Mrs Fergie's weatherboard dunny isn't one of them. There was nothing anyone could do. All that was left was the solid blackened steel pan, and the desiccated remains of its contents.
I don't know if Aunty Mag got a gratuitous description of those from Mrs Ferg, but it's possible.
Mrs Fergie was obliged to confront Miss Mahony with the evidence of smoking she'd detected while engaging with the thunderbox. Perhaps overtaken by remorse, or maybe it was surprise, Miss Mahony readily but sadly confessed to the misdemeanour. No-one accused her of arson. There could be no motive when you think about it.
The events surrounding the reasons for Miss Mahony's departure are shrouded in mystery, a phrase I've borrowed from a commercial broadcaster's investigative journalism program. (They would love to have done this story, for sure, as it has all the elements required for one of their scoops – public interest, drama, mystery etc.) But we were kids and not too sophisticated, so don't expect precise reasons.
I can speculate based only on words of a friendly nature exchanged between Miss Mahony and Old Jim when I was kept in for talking in class and had to write fifty words before going home. This was when she came through the glass internal door of the school on the final day to hand him her class roll. The words were "north" "college" and "shore".
Putting those three together in a more logical order would suggest a new job in Sydney, wouldn't it?
It may be that her departure from Calliope was long premeditated and had nothing to do with the destruction of Mrs Fergie's dunny. It could be that she was already destined for a more liberal place where a young woman teacher's smoking wasn't regarded with such grave suspicion.
The matter of urgent construction of a new dunny arose, for the body's plumbing system waits for no man or woman. Someone lacking agility like Mrs Ferg couldn't be expected to go too far for too long.
It was fortunate that the dance hall toilet was as close as it was, as you see by the map, and that the women of Calliope were scrupulous when it came to personal habits. So that facility was immediately available and needed only a quick going-over to be fully serviceable for a week's private use when otherwise it would have been vacant except for the occasional little girl caught short on the way home from school.
Rather like the building of my ramp, a working bee the following Saturday by willing volunteers saw the rapid construction of Mrs Ferg's new dunny which, it must be said, was slightly more elegant model than the previous one, with a door that didn't creak and better access for Mrs Fergie, so it all turned out rather well in the end.
It was like the phoenix had arisen from the flames ignited by Miss Mahony's fag. It was even painted in the the tasteful muted colour (bridal path tan) that Mrs Ferg had visions of one day painting her old grey weatherboard cottage; only that never got done – so the new, improved phoenix-dunny remained as the one bright spot on her eastern horizon.
Miss Mahony's dark secret was kept, in the manner of all country towns, where everyone knew but only talked about it in muted tones, with snorts of disapproval or derision – or amused guffaws from the men, or some combination thereof.
The enigmatic Miss Mahony, it seems, was not really of our world; nor ours, it must be said, of hers. After that last day, she disappeared from our lives forever. Fortunately for the school, she was replaced by the lovely Mrs Dart.