by Stephen Sewell
My father had six brothers and a sister. They had big families in those days, especially the Catholics. There were eight of them in all – Browny, Noel, Tom, Trowl, Barny, Harry, Mary and my father, the youngest, Jack. Browny was the copper, a mounted policeman out at Condoblin, Tom was the thief who served time in gaol and died spitting and cursing in a sanitorium. He was a favourite of my father’s because of his tough-man talk and claims to knowing Darcy Dugan, a notorious gunman and escape merchant of the era. Sometimes Dad would look at me and say, “You look just like Tom,” and I wouldn’t quite know how to take it, as my mother had a less flattering view of her brother -in-law than my father did. My Uncle Harry lived with us, or we lived with him, till he finally died choking of the same asthma that tore at my father’s chest and mine, and my father stripped off the newspapers he’d wall-papered his room with, painted it and I moved in. The room still had the soury-sweet smell of sickness and tobacco. Noel was a farmer out at Portland who lived unhappily with his wife and starved his dogs. He was the dark horse in the family, with a thick, cruel spirit. One time when they were kids he told Uncle Trowl to put his hand on the chopping block, and he chopped three fingers off with the axe. Another time he shut Tom in the stable and set fire to it. His son, my cousin, was killed in an industrial accident at the cement works when someone switched on a machine while he was inside repairing it. They said you could hear his screams from one end of the factory to the other. It was a family with all the shock of daybreak. My Aunt Mary worked hard all her life, turning hamburgers in a milk bar and calling everyone Darl and raised a large family of hardworking children of her own. Just before she died I took my father down to see her again. They were both deaf and couldn’t work out their hearing aids, so spent the entire time squawking “What?” “What?” “What?” at one another across the dining table. I hadn’t seen my aunt for awhile, and was amazed at how ugly she’d become, with terrible, plum-blotched skin dry and paper-thin peeling off her wrinkled face, but as I listened to her talking about the things she always talked about, her children, my cousins, how Uncle Tom had never been as crooked as he’d made out to be, she began to transform, and it was like her face caught fire while I was looking at it, and in the fire I could see all my ancestors, my uncles and grandparents, all the Sewells, each one flickering there, first this face, then another, and it made me realise they were still alive and still burning inside her and inside me as well and one day I’d look like her, and she would live in me too. The first Sewell, Joseph, had been transported to New South Wales in 1817 after being convicted of stealing a bottle of wine. When they were talking about it, my Uncle Brown, the policeman, liked to add a rueful, “And we’ve been drunks and thieves ever since.” The Blue Mountains had just been crossed, opening up the wide pasturelands to the whites beyond, and Joseph was sent as a shepherd to Bathurst, home of the Wiradjuri people. I don’t know what kind of interaction he had with them, but it was said he used his time to identify the richest pasture in the area, and upon the completion of his sentence he had a good enough knowledge to become one of the largest landowners in what was to become Rockley when it was declared a town in 1848. Rockley became a kind of ancestral home for the Sewells, and every Christmas when I was a kid, Dad would pack our old third hand Vauxhall he spent every weekend trying to keep going and we would limp up and over Mount Victoria with a grey canvas tent filled with stretchers and tables and camp chairs tied to the roof rack to go camping out at the creek, Sewell’s Creek, a trickle of muddy water meandering through the steep bare hills that my father would then stalk, looking for rabbits and ducks and the happiness he’d left behind in his childhood. That’s the way it went. The farming people were driven off the land, their properties foreclosed by the banks and their children hunted into the factories awaiting them. My father felt the oppression of the working class sharply and was never really tamed. Like all of them, he longed for the day when they’d be able to step back out through the factory gates as free men and go back to the country where they belonged, but it never happened and he ended his working life in an abattoir, the closest he could get to the things he loved, listening to the animals roaring out their last, and feeling the pull of their own forlorn sadness. That first Sewell, Joseph, lived many lives and like the children he fathered stood tall against the sky. He died at the age of 86, breaking his neck as he came down the steps of the Bathurst Court House, where he’d just been charged with murder and having only recently sired his last son. They were tough people, all of them, made of something immortal. One time my father took me to visit one of his cousins, and she was out in the field ploughing with a horse. When she came up to talk to us, her skin and overalls caked with dirt, it was like she was made of the earth itself. And she was, just like me, just like all of us, made of the earth and waiting to go back.
All photos property of Stephen Sewell