The £2 Black and Rose Kangaroo

by Ian Irvine (Hobson) copyright 2013, all rights reserved.
Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, April 2013.

When Dad had to work away from Adelaide—in Central Australia—in the early 1970s he soon began buying my brother and I special gifts with his extra earnings. One night on the phone after complaining about the heat up there—‘I saw an egg fry on the bonnet of a landrover today!’—he asked us what we wanted to spend our extra weekly pocket money on. We both answered ‘stamps’. Soon after a deluge of mail-order stamps began arriving in the mail every fortnight or so. They came in large, colourful albums, usually from nations we’d never even heard of. We noted that animals, plants, oil paintings and famous people— composers, scientists and literary figures—featured often. Although we liked these mail order collections—mostly for their sheer gaudiness—it was Australian and British stamps we loved the most. The £2 Black and Rose kangaroo is one of the aristocrats of Australian stamps. As a twelve year old living on the outskirts of Adelaide I longed to own a copy. When we began collecting Australian stamps seriously, Dad agreed to take us to stamp dealers whenever we visited the city or went on soccer trips to Melbourne and elsewhere. The shop I remember visiting most often was in the seaside suburb of Glenelg—not far from the wharf. For a time, whenever we went fishing at the wharf, we’d end up at that stamp dealer—usually late in the morning on a Saturday. Mum would go and buy herself an ice-cream and sun bake and Dad, my brother and I would go and peruse Australian stamps. For a while there Andy and I thought we were onto a pretty good thing While Dad was earning good money he took a special kind of pleasure taking us to that shop in Glenelg. He particularly enjoyed asking the stamp man to show us some of the more expensive stamps. The old stamp dealer had thick glasses and always seemed to be squinting through them or over them. He also had stained yellow teeth, and in one conversation with Dad we found out he was veteran of the Second World War. He always seemed to have a pair of tweezers in his right hand. It fascinated me the way he handled the stamps. He loved them. He had the steady hand of a brain surgeon and could flip stamps in an instant, like a magician with a wand, or a fisherman with a fly-fishing rod. Dad was starting to like South Australia—partly due to the work opportunities and party due to the outdoor lifestyle. After a hard year in Sydney, working in factories (not unlike the factories he’d left back in Britain) Dad believed the lucky country had finally come up trumps. Due to their hard work saving for a deposit the bank considered Mum and Dad worthy of a housing loan—and soon after we bought a brand new three bedroom brick veneer home on a quarter acre of old farming paddock in the Salisbury area of Adelaide. Mum and Dad were proud of themselves—it showed in the letters they sent home to family in Britain. Dad was especially happy because the well-paid work meant he could send extra money home to the UK to support two sons from his first marriage. What we liked most about the arrangement, however, was the fact that they were able to buy us some of the more expensive Australian stamps. For a time, whenever we went near that stamp dealer in Glenelg Dad would spend larger and larger amounts stocking our collection—a kid’s idea of paradise! We were fast assembling a collection containing all Australian stamps since Federation. We had our very own pre-decimal Navigator set; we owned a neatly postmarked copy of the £2 Coat of Arms—a striking green stamp worth $18 in the catalogue of the day. We owned the 6d Kookaburra, a 10-shilling stamp in mint condition depicting the queen in long purple robes. We also had the 1971 Primary Industry set in mint condition and on First Day Cover. We had pretty much everything but the 5shilling Sydney Harbour Bridge and the £2 Black and Rose kangaroo.

More than anything, however, I wanted a copy of that black kangaroo sitting inside a rose-red map of Australia. We’d gradually worked our way through all of the lesser stamp s in the kangaroo set—the 1/2d Orange, the 1d Red, the 6d Chestnut, the 9d Purple, the 5 shilling Yellow and Grey (though our copy had a colour flaw that made it a ‘Lemon and Grey’) and so on. After a time it was only that black and rose kangaroo left to acquire. Each time we asked Dad to buy one of the more expensive stam ps he’d stand there as if he were an aristocratic art dealer. Imagine that, a boilermaker, a sprinkler fitter, a former builder’s laborer standing there like an art dealer. It was fascinating ritual to watch unfold, and one that a concerned mum increasingly liked to oversee—she tended to be the realist when it came to the family budget. He’d study the stamp or stamps we wanted to buy, then he'd exchange small-talk for a few moments with the dealer. Finally, with a glint in his eye—and looking at mum as though begging her not to overrule him—he’d slap down some money, the full price or a deposit. The more expensive the stamps got the more we tended to have to wait a fortnight or two for them to be paid off. Our collection became the envy of many of the kids at school. Stamps were very important to me that time. They took me to strange new worlds, they took me back in time, and they were fuel for a twelve year-old’s imagination. One moment I could be back in Yorkshire with my grandparents, the next with the Australian cricket team in the West Indies. A kid could go anywhere with stamps. Our father understood this flight of the imagination and we loved him for it. The day came when Dad agreed to put the £2 Black and Rose kangaroo on lay by. Every time we went into the shop to make a payment, Andy and I would ask to see it. We stared at it silently for a while with a sense of awe—willing it home to our collection. It was, of course, a symbol of something I only barely understood. To me it seemed to be ancient, infinitely delicate and fine—and beautiful in a rugged sort of way. Looking back, it probably represented the mystery, the vastness, the harshness even of our strange new homeland and the creatures that inhabited it. The stamp introduced me to the totem creature 'kangaroo'. Soon, very soon, we’d be able to take it home. We never did get to take that black kangaroo sitting inside a rose-red map of Australia home. Dad was half way through the payments when the family finances collapsed. He came home from work as a pipe fitter one night in agony. Mum bought some deep heat and gave him a massage. As she worked her fingers into his shoulder muscles he just about jumped through the roof, ‘It’s very tender,’ mum said thoughtfully. The company doctor didn’t think it was that bad, ‘Have a few days off, take these painkillers and you’ll be back at work in no time...' Back at work in no time... One week later, still sore and by now dosed up on painkillers, Dad did go back to work. As requested he carried huge pipes about above his head all day long. He also had to balance them on his shoulders whilst fellow workers welded them into place or tied them up with steel wires. ‘A bloke got killed last week ... no safety helmet ... walked underneath two blokes who were tying stuff up ... bop ... from 100 ft ... just like that, dead...’ Mum would flinch

when dad talked like that—we were twelve thousand miles from family and what would she do, how would she survive, if something like that happened to him? Back to work in no time... After his first day back at work Dad came home in a lot of pain. Once more mum gave him a massage and once more he had to visit the company doctor. ‘Just take more of these pills, maybe it’ll get better...’ the Doctor said. Dad did as he was told, after all nothing appeared broken, ‘Just a muscle strain’ the Doctor theorised. But it didn’t get any better and as it turned out he shouldn’t have gone back to work so soon after the initial injury. After another week of hell and he was back, once again, in the company doctor’s waiting room. ‘We’re going to send you to a specialist—you’ll be fine, he’s also attached to the company ... he’ll set you right. In the meantime I’ll give you a few more days off work and you can up the dosage on those painkillers ... we suspect you might have a pinched nerve or something.’ The injury wasn’t healing and soon Dad was no longer receiving a weekly wage. Payments on the £2 Black and Rose halted as Mum and Dad struggled to pay the mortgage on our three bedroom home. Dad didn't talk much to anyone during this period—his main support was Mum and a union official dealing with the case, though some loyal family friends— migrants like ourselves—helped out as best they could. Dad was either off work and brooding or coming home from work in agony after only a day or two on the job. His moods were volatile fuelled by a sense of worthlessness—an emotion often close to the surface for working class Scotsmen struggling to look after their families. We never uttered a word to him or Mum about that black and rose kangaroo. We knew they were struggling financially—there was no money for luxuries. The union, thankfully, decided to back Dad in court. ‘An open and shut case …’ said the union official, ‘so long as you can hold on long enough.’ Dad began an endless procession of interviews—with solicitors, company officials, specialists, rehabilitation experts and of course union officials. The company soon decided he was a liability and, in accordance with the logic of many profit maximizing enterprises, his suffering, and increasingly our suffering, became an abstract mark on their balance sheet— an operating ‘cost’ that had to be minimised in every possible way. They claimed that there was nothing wrong with him, that he had hurt himself pottering around the house at home or somewhere else—his injury had nothing to do with lifting those massive pipes and balancing them on his shoulder for tying or welding into place. The union, on the other hand, affirmed that he had been hurt at work and that the company had been negligent not only in making him carry the pipes but in making him go back to work after he’d originally been injured. The company and their doctors did everything they could to make our family crack. The union did their best, given the powers available to them, to fight for compensation. They said that the company would have to cough up sooner or later but weeks turned into months and months turned into six months then into 18 months and all the time Dad was unable to work at anything involving prolonged physical activity—in the meantime he tried to retrain for other kinds of work.

Without Dad’s wage we were soon unable to pay the house mortgage. Our three bedroom brick veneer home of five years had to be sold. We moved to a small flat in Para Hills and changed schools again – an involuntary move this time. The stamp dealer in Glenelg probably put our £2 Black and Rose kangaroo back in his album of expensive Australian stamps. Of course 18 months on I didn’t give a damn about stamps—I just wanted my father to be happy again. Australia, the vast and mysterious continent down-under—one of the world’s last wild frontiers—was proving a harsh taskmaster. The company sent men in suits, driving late model cars, around to try and get photos of my father lifting things—pot plants, bricks, wheelbarrows, etc. Maybe they planned to tell the court that Dad was fine, that lifting bricks or pot-plants was the same as lifting huge pipes and balancing them on his shoulders day after day. Back to work in no time... When the out-of-court settlement eventually came through it was for $9,000 dollars—a lot of money in those days. The union official, however, warned us that Dad would find it hard to find employment on any South Australia building site as a result of him winning the case. Job application forms usually asked applicants whether they’d ever received compensation payments for injuries sustained at work. Still, we had $9,000 dollars. With it Dad could probably have bought us half a dozen £2 Black and Rose kangaroos. The day it finally came through we all sat in a circle and tossed some of the crisp banknotes into the air. They fell on us like confetti and helped pay for a trip back to Britain. Five months later they also helped pay for air fares to a new life in New Zealand. When I recall that day, however, I don’t remember much celebration—the mood was more to do with ‘vindication’. Dad had really only recouped the two years of wages that he’d lost due to the injury. More than anything else I think Mum and Dad felt relief—that we’d survived a relentless ordeal. What did I feel that day? A deep and unsettling numbness.

Author Bio (as at April 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine is an Australian-based poet/lyricist, writer and non-fiction writer. His work has featured in publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), as well as Best Australian Poems (Black Ink Books) and Agenda: ‘Australian Edition’(2005). He is also the author of three books and currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at Bendigo TAFE (Bendigo, Australia). He also teaches in the same program at Victoria University (St Albans campus, Melbourne) and has taught history and social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo). He holds a PhD for work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.

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