submitted by John Sourrys on 18.03.2012
Photograph: George and Maria Sourrys and family.
One of the species thrown up by the outback was the Greek Cafe. Hailing from the small island of Kythera, the Greeks began to come to Australia from the turn of the last century. Sydney was to be the first stop. The Greek immigrant would work for another Greek in a Cafe, pay off his passage and learn the trade. first by standing behind the cash register. Then with a little capital, venture to all towns in New South Wales and Queensland.
The central heartbreak of every Greek is that he leaves behind a community, a place where every rock and piece of grass is known. After tbe privations of a long voyage. He arrives in Australia without any language. Only one who has arrived on a foreign shore can tell you what it feels like.
One such Kytherian was George Sourys. He first went to Mt Isa, a mining town in North West Queensland. It was a frontier town where the streets often ran with blood. Small tent houses sprang up around the mines. There was a link with aborigines. Some of the whites had gone native. They were usually sunburnt and the scars on their faces bore testimony to some past battle. Barefooted they had a black wife with one child on the breast and bringing up the rear would be these half-caste children.
Nor was the link with the aborigines confined to the poorer classes. An English Governor came to Mt Isa for a civil reception, he excused himself to go and find his nephew. His nephew was an aboriginal boy, his brother’s son. His rebellious brother had left England never to return, and as the Governor sat by the campfire with the young aboriginal, tears rolled down his face.
George was interested in buying a business in this boomtown. The lead bonus had attracted workers. He put a 100 pound deposit on a shop. The sulphur fumes from the mine would stand above the ground , burning your eyes and people were continually coughing. Georgie, as he was called, decided to leave when a railway stationmaster told him 'I am getting out, these fumes will kill you’.
He then went to Hughenden. Hughenden. Hughenden in North West Queensland, midway between Townsville and Mt Isa. was named after Disraeli’s residence in England. It stood on the Flinders, River and was an important sheep and railway town. With large sheep stations around it, it was the centre of the shearing industry. About 200km from Winton where Banjo Patterson penned Waltzing Matilda, it was said to be the first town where Waltzing Matilda was sung publicly.
Lacking any capital, he bought a horse and cart. He called the horse Lucy, after an Australian girl whose temperament he admired. He would make his own ice cream and pies. He would go around the town by day ringing his bell calling out “ice cream, pies" in his broken English. At nights he would pull up outside the movie theatre.
Somebody mustn't have liked the way he operated, because one morning he woke up and found Lucy his horse gone. Frantically he looked everywhere for her. He suspected one of the cafe owners. lt meant he was finished. A young boy told him that he’d seem a horse up the river. There was never a more joyous reunion when he found her.
Two things happened that set Georgies destiny in Hughenden. A shop became available near the railway line. The previous owners had gone broke. It was on the wrong side of the town ut well equipped. He went to see a Mr Llewellyn, the manager from the Bank of New South Wales. He told him “I’ll back you”. It never would have happened today. This began a love affair with the Bank of New South Wales. Later, the future Bank Managers would send a teller to Georgies to collect the takings and save him a trip to the bank.
The other event that occurred was that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. In a short time Australia was overrun with thousands of American Servicemen. Being in the north, a base was set up outside Hughenden. Georgies became very busy. Being raised on a Greek Island, he knew how to cook fish. The fish would arrive from Townsville by rail. ‘Nobody cooked fish like Georgie,’ remarked a Mrs Cath Murphy in Mt Isa. He stayed open until the early hours of the morning, until the last dime was spent.
The Americans had money. Always accompanied by a band, they were an attractive group. They would jump on the running board of the taxi and call out, "Go man Go”.
They went to local dances. The Aussies could say to another nationality after the war years 'no dancing with the white girls'. This was funny because the coloured girls did not go to the dance and the Americans ignored the Australian men. Anyway the Australian girls were attracted to their flashy ways. Skirmishes broke out and one night the Americans gave the Aussies a hiding.
Two things dominated the Greek mind. Capital and a safe to put your money in. He began to make a lot of money, but safes were not available. An Emmanuel Comninos, another Kytherian who went through Hughenden remembered that he had a huge rubbish bin filled with money, figuring that if he were robbed, no one would look in the rubbish bin. At night during the blackout, he would walk home with his money rolled up in a newspaper under one arm and the other carrying a knife. He would wave it in front of him as he walked home in the darkness.
One day an American officer called him aside and told him 'George where we come from we don't serve niggers'. He didn't like the idea that George was serving black servicemen. Stories were circulating around town that if a Negro misbehaved, they’d shoot him. Georgie said, 'everybody is the same to me'.
One thing he learnt in Brisbane was that you had to be consistent. He felt that it was a failure of the Aussie businessmen that he would be up one day and down the next. He began to give credit. There was a method in his madness, because he figured, then they wouldn't steal from you. He also got the reputation that he was easy to put the bite on. A young railway man in Hughenden, away from his family, soon found out he could get a few bob. Some young men are belittled and bullied. Self-accusatory, they would not be received by the group. But if they could motion Georgie out the back of the shop and walk out with 5 pounds, they felt like somebody did care. The secret was simple. A young man might feel like doing himself in, but if he had one friend he was okay. Now we hear of black deaths in custody and youth suicides in the bush.
He was not avaricious. However, over the course of time, nearly everyone in Hughenden owed him money. He trusted people where others would feel trust was ridiculous. People would come to him with all sorts of propositions. He bought the whole block in the street and he used to like it when travelling with showmen like Lucky Grills would erect a tent on his vacant lot and thank 'George Sourrys for providing us with the land '. People like Lucky Grills never forgot him. George Moore the famous jockey would have a cup of coffee with him. One day Wirth’s Circus came to town and a circus handler bought a small elephant into the shop. George started protesting 'get the elephant outside'. 'Watch out for the showcases’. Glass was hard to get in the bush towns. The handler was a bit cheeky and he yelled out, ‘he only wants a drink of water, he's thirsty.’ There were people running everywhere with buckets of water.
Georgie was a good dancer who would dance Zorba like for hours. John Corones from Brisbane said that they’d dance when they closed the shop. They’d put on the phonograph and start dancing. The Aussies would peer through the windows. They’d never see anything like it, and they’d throw their hats up in the air and burst out laughing.
As be said many times, civility costs nothing. He liked the commercial travellers who came through the town. He respected them and never let them go without plying them with his hospitality. One traveller said ‘you’re the only person between Townsville and the Isa who offers me a drink'. Sometimes the young commercial traveller would become the Managing Director and he never forgot that kindness.
Now George owned a couple of other shops that he bought and closed down. They would be unoccupied and another group would make a proposition. They were the down and outers, although they didn 't see themselves like that. They were without family home or money and liked alcohol. Sometimes they lived on the riverbank. They proposed to George that they move in, and they would look after the empty property. George considered the possibilities. If they were to move in, he knew they'd guard the property and the Insurance Company couldn’t knock him back by saying that the building was unoccupied. There were no better caretakers. They’d take pride in pointing out there were no broken windows and reporting, ‘I saw some bloke hanging around and let him know I was watching’. Everybody won.
George’s business still stands in Hughenden. It is now run by his daughter, Gina, with the same good will and fellowship and a desire to make everybody happy.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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