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16th December 1918
‘Yes, I realise that,’ Tom Sherbourne said. He was sitting in a spartan room, barely cooler than the sultry day outside. The Sydney summer rain pelted the window, and sent the people on the pavement scurrying for shelter.
‘I mean very tough.’ The man across the desk leaned forward for emphasis. ‘It’s no picnic. Not that Byron Bay’s the worst posting on the Lights, but I want to make sure you know what you’re in for.’ He tamped down the tobacco with his thumb and lit his pipe. Tom’s letter of application had told the same story as many a fellow’s around that time: born 28 September 1893; war spent in the Army; experience with the International Code and Morse; physically fit and well; honourable discharge. The rules stipulated that preference should be given to ex-servicemen.
‘It can’t—’ Tom stopped, and began again. ‘All due respect, Mr Coughlan, it’s not likely to be tougher than the Western Front.’
The man looked again at the details on the discharge papers, then at Tom, searching for something in his eyes, in his face. ‘No, son. You’re probably right on that score.’ He rattled off some rules:
‘You pay your own passage to every posting. You’re relief, so you don’t get holidays. Permanent staff get a month’s leave at the end of each three-year contract.’ He took up his fat pen and signed the form in front of him. As he rolled the stamp back and forth across the inkpad he said, ‘Welcome’ – he thumped it down in three places on the paper – ‘to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service.’ On the form, ‘16th December 1918’ glistened in wet ink.