My father was a gambling man. Whether it was on the racecourse or in Thommo’s Two-Up School in Sydney he was always looking for that lucky break. He taught me to play poker almost as soon as I could read and passed the time that way on many a train journey. His most ingenious invention was not intended to make money but reflected his love of cards. For every card in the pack we had a secret code. Linden would pull up at a country hotel on one of his business trips, order a beer for himself and a raspberry and lemonade for me and then proceed to amuse the locals. He would produce a pack of cards, ask someone to choose one and then ask me to name it. Only once did I make a mistake and that was when he fed me the wrong information.
It worked like this. The code word for the suite of hearts was “mummy” or “mother”. It would not seem unusual to mention my mother in general conversation. As it was eight miles to Mittagong from our home my father might say, “Linda’s mother will be shopping in Mittagong today”. I would know that the card was the eight of hearts. Unfortunately I can’t recall all the codes nowadays as it is fifty five years since I last performed these tricks but the card numbers reflected how many dogs, cats, sheep or hens we had, the distances to various places and some aspects of our garden and home.
Staying in country or city hotels was a regular way of life for us. My father called me his “Shiralee”* and insisted I was getting a far better education travelling with him than attending school. In fifth class I missed fifty eight days of school. I learnt how to calculate the winnings on a bet in a horse race and discussed the possibility of life after death. My father didn’t believe in it but said if it was true he would get in touch with me after he passed on.
We sang songs, recited poetry, discussed how Harry Houdini escaped, examined the meanings of proverbs and talked about Henry Lawson’s short stories as the truck rattled and bumped its way through Boorowa to Cowra. I didn’t believe it at the time but I think he was right. My education with my father complemented and enriched what was learnt at school. I am so lucky to have spent time with him, especially as that time was so short.
- The Shiralee, by D’Arcy Niland is a novel about a swagman who tramped the towns of Western NSW with his four year old daughter.