our phone rang at just on six in the morning. As the only one up I answered it wondering what else was wrong. We had gone to bed knowing that Darwin had been devastated by a cyclone. Concerned though we were we knew nobody living there or even on holiday in that part of the world.
"Cat it's B...here. Sorry to ring so early but I thought you'd be up. Is there any chance you and your parents could be at Centennial Hall by eight? We need some help."
My parents had come sleepily out of their bedroom by then to find out what was wrong. I relayed the message. We all knew why help was needed. They nodded.
The old Centennial Hall building was then the largest in the show grounds. It has since been demolished but, by the time we arrived, the Red Cross was moving in and organising things. B...came hurrying up and sent the Senior Cat off with her husband to organise. She told my mother what she wanted her to organise. She introduced me to someone who said, "You're awfully young but B...says you have some communication skills we might need. Do you think you can handle some very distressed people?"
"I'll try," I told her.
The government was trying to make sure everyone was accounted for and I spent very long hours for the rest of what should have been the school holidays interviewing people. Most of them were nice, reasonable, grateful to be getting some help - even while they were frightened and worried and bewildered. Most of them spoke English but sometimes the other interviewers would pass people to me because their English was limited or because they were deaf and used sign language or they had some other problem which meant they needed a little extra time.
I remember the profoundly deaf mother of nine children. I was taking down the names and ages of the children. We got to the end of the list and I checked. There were eight children on the list. I showed her and signed "eight not nine". She burst into tears. In the chaos one of her children was missing. (They found him safe later.)
I wonder what happened to all of them.
I remember the very old man, almost blind, who was only worried about his dog. I don't think the dog was ever found but I passed him on to someone who took him for a cup of tea while I phoned his granddaughter in an outer suburb to say he was there. She burst into tears and said she was coming to get him immediately.
I remember the car loads of families coming in. Some of the cars were, quite literally, tied together with garden twine and pieces of rope - and they were the cars the police had allowed through at the checkpoint up north.
I remember the indigenous family who looked totally bewildered. The mother had a six day old baby in her arms. I phoned my indigenous friend R... They spent the next eight weeks living with her and her family.
And I remember the family with two profoundly disabled children who had been left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. There was a residential section in the school I was then working in and I rang the Matron. She sent one of the school buses over to pick them up so they could stay until somewhere was found for them.
Yesterday the sister of one of those children, now both sadly deceased, phoned me. She was just eight at the time.
"I don't remember much," she told me, "But Mum had kept your name and I looked up the phone book. I just wanted to say thanks to someone for the help we were given."
I asked her where she was working now. She's a nurse.
"I wanted to do something where I could be kind. The way people were to us."