Last updated: 2 March 2011
MASTER INDEX of articles written, posted online or recommended by Alex Paterson
The first day at my new school. Wildly excited, and more than a little scared, I was up very early, in spite of knowing that Terrence and I had been excused from paddock duties for a couple of mornings. Mrs Dix had told me that she would feed Jock and Pop would clean the paddock until I became accustomed to 'catching the train'. I thanked her, but had not the whit to know why their kindness unnerved me. Without my usual routine of unchaining Terrence and racing off to groom, then feed brave old Jock, I suddenly felt very nervous about the day ahead and was all fingers and thumbs as I dressed in my spotless new uniform.
In the orderly kitchen, Rene had prepared my freshly squeezed orange juice, made the porridge and cut my school lunch. As I walked in to say 'Good Morning', she smiled and said my uniform looked very nice. She then placed the juice and cereal on a tray and asked me to sit down in the dining room to be served at table. We were both strangely nervous and our normal close rapport eluded us. Asked whether I would prefer smoked cod or poached egg on toast to follow, I said, 'Egg and toast, please Rene.'
Mother and Father soon joined me and I stood up to greet them. Both addressed me kindly, without remarking on my uniform - it having been the cause of many a shouting match between them - 'PLC was less expensive and more easily accessed,' was Father's opinion - but both were now very familiar with their disagreement about schools and Mother, breadwinning holder of the purse strings, always had the last word in every dispute.
'Good morning', I said, addressing them demurely, and they smiled. And it was indeed a good morning, for they were in rare accord and thus I was relieved and almost happy. Unaware that they had quietly entered the dining room via the drawing room, instead of the clattery tiled hallway which went past the door to the kitchen block, Rene came in with my egg on toast and became completely flummoxed by their silent, early arrival. Mother said,
'Not to worry. We're all early this morning, Rene, and there is no need to rush. Please give Margot her egg and serve our fruit juice and porridge when you are ready. We will help ourselves to tea or coffee from the side-board while you prepare our smoked fish. And please ensure that you always have a full and proper breakfast yourself - it is very important to me that you never skimp on any of your own meals. This is a large household to run, requiring a great deal of dedication and hard work, and which you attend so well. We truly appreciate everything you do for us, especially during times of disharmony and straightened circumstances. Like your sisters before you, we owe you our deep gratitude.'
Rene blushed momentarily, thanked my smiling Mother for her kind words and did as she was told. The formality of the proceedings and the unaccustomed goodwill between Mother and Father suddenly made me feel uneasy. Having finished my meal, and wishing to re-read my instructions from the school to ensure that I had not forgotten anything, I excused myself from the table and went to the kitchen. Rene was sitting down, eating her breakfast as I entered her domain, and she jumped to her feet, alarmed.
' Whatever's wrong ?' She wanted to know.
'Nothing's wrong, Rene. It's just me - on tenterhooks, as usual! I did not mean to disturb you. Please sit down - I'll get my lunch from the ice-chest, then check my school case to make sure I have not forgotten anything. I feel very nervous.'
Rene smiled. She had packed my lunch in greaseproof paper in a new, magic biscuit tin, adorned with an English hunting scene. The Master was well ahead of the huntsmen and women on their horses, following the hounds, with the fox glancing back over his shoulder with a grin on his face. I did not think they would ever catch that fox! I loved the tin, and hugged her for it - she must have found it for me - my deep gratitude made her blush with pleasure. Smiling, I went upstairs to re-check my new Globite school case and place the tin inside, suddenly aware that it would soon contain heavy school books too, and make me all lop-sided. Surely Sylvan satchels were much better! And suddenly, my euphoria vanished.
Back in hurry mode, Mother raced up the stairs to powder her nose, wished me well at school, then addressed Father, downstairs and left the house.
Father, with Terrence by his side, was outside the front door, waiting for me. Noticing my ill ease, he took my hand and smiled, to lift my spirits. We had very little to say to one another as we walked along Grandview Street, towards the station. We arrived with time to spare for the train, but our usual good natured rapport eluded us - until I started to kick some platform gravel with my highly polished shoes and he reprimanded me, which made me cry.
'Sweetheart', he murmured, pulling his neatly folded, clean handkerchief from his breast pocket, and wiping my tears.
'This will not do. You are now ten years old and committed to keep your chin up and do your best at your new school, so let's have no more tears, buff your shoes and give your Daddy a big hug. I think I hear the train approaching, so it will soon be here.'
There were no other girls dressed in my distinctive uniform on the station. Terrence, aware of my trepidation, came and stood close by me as I did as I was told. The train arrived and I stepped aboard, smiling now, and blowing kisses to my two best friends. The designated carriage was nearly full of Panama hats and lots of chatter, but no heads turned to greet me and 'phoof' went my slender confidence. I sat down in the small back seat, just inside the compartment, trying hard to stay calm.
Pushed down into the gap between the window side of the seat and the wall, I spied a green newspaper, and being a sticky-beak, reached over to investigate. It was a racing form guide, full of pictures of racehorses in the mounting yard and on the track - perfect viewing matter! Engrossed, I did not notice a lady in the aisle beside me until the green paper was snatched away and she screeched at me, her flashing eyes black with fury.
'Stand up child, with your hands clasped behind your back. You must be the new girl - we have heard about your wilful ways! The Head Mistress will be interested to make your acquaintance. I will sit across the aisle from you. We will be the last to leave the carriage and you will not even glance at the girls as they file past. I will walk beside you, at the end of the crocodile, and will deliver you straight to the Principal's office. I imagine you may be expelled on the spot. How do you feel about that dishonour?'
Dumbfounded, I said nothing.
'Oh, so you are churlish as well as a reader of filth!'
She sat down, flushed and breathless, her folded hands twitching on her lap. Still standing, I observed every girl in this reserved carriage, on her feet, goggle eyed and staring at me, clearly horrified.
The lady across the aisle made no further attempt to address me, so I resumed my seat and trembling, looked out the window at the treetops and the gardens of track side residents until we reached our destination. Feeling like a cockroach, I wished to disappear into some minute crevice, as they did, but obediently followed the last girl out the door, beside the lady whose name and status I did not know. Two abreast, in class order, the senior ones leading the way, the crocodile passed through the shopping village and marched towards the school. Once across the highway and through the front gate, it broke up, as groups moved off to their class rooms to unpack their books and place their bags in their locker rooms. I was the exception; frog marched, hat, gloves, school case and all, to the Principal's office.
The lady who had been so outraged by finding me with a race guide on the train, was now on her best behaviour. She politely asked me to wait in the wide corridor, opposite the office, while she spoke to the Principal and I did so. Smiling, she then knocked on the office door. It was opened almost straight away by a very tall, imposing woman, the Head Mistress herself. She immediately invited us to enter, together, insisting that she would not dream of leaving a new pupil alone, outside a closed door.
' And what is the problem, Miss J. Why have you brought this little girl to my office, instead of introducing her to her fellow students and making her feel welcome amongst us?'
Miss J was taken aback, but recovered her equilibrium and handed the form guide to her superior, with words like 'indecency', 'immorality' and 'lack of manners', explaining the depth of her indignation.
The head Mistress was wise. Without any suggestion of further criticism of her staff member, she said,
'Margot is an only child and her Mother is a highly regarded city journalist. Her Father is a retired sea captain of the merchant marine who sailed with great distinction during World War 1. They live at Pymble and their daughter is a seasoned rider who was taught the basics of equitation when only five. She has shouldered the responsibility of exercising and caring for up to three horses during the past five years. She currently rides her mother's Whaler, Jock, who was once a police horse, so it was only natural that she would pick up this horse paper in the train this morning, when perhaps no one welcomed her aboard or befriended her. I hope that you can both now let bygones be bygones, remembering that horse racing is the sport of kings. Our own Royal Family own and race horses without censure. I think your concern about the sport may be related to gambling, and not to horses.'
Miss J nodded, smiled at me and said, ' I am truly sorry, Margot '.
She then turned towards her superior, and addressed her.
'You are quite correct, Madam.. Gambling has been a hugeproblem in my family and has obsessed me. I apologise for being judgemental this morning. Such attitudes will not be repeated.'
Thus a bad start turned into a reasonably good first day at my new school, even although I was shuffled around between classes till nearly lunch time, as Mrs Thomson's assessment of my grades left several teachers, including Miss J, unsure of where I should be placed. The final decision found me in a very big classroom, already full of inquiring, friendly faces. When introduced to me by poor Miss J, the entire class stood, and each girl gave her name and place of residence, smiled at me, and then resumed her seat.
There was one empty chair and desk in the back, left hand corner and they were assigned to me. The room had windows on three sides, ensuring adequate natural light. The desks and chairs were close together and seemed rather crowded. There were no blinds and my chair was in the sun, which made me feel drowsy, until the heat was blocked out by the corner of the building, as the sun moved, allowing me to concentrate. After our lunch break - when two kind girls invited me to join them on a shady bench and admired my lunch tin - the sun poured through the western windows and gradually became too much for many of those exposed to direct, early February heat. I believe my corner remained shaded but have little memory of the afternoon's proceedings, except a repetition, in reverse, of the morning crocodile, this time, back to the station.
Again, we had an allocated carriage on the homeward journey, with students from other schools also segregated, in separate carriages, not only during the train ride, but we were also forbidden any integration on reaching our destinations. School travelling arrangements made me wonder how the general public ever got around, but I soon learned that these were special trains, for supervised school students only, with frequent, normal services for all the other travellers.
On reaching home, I had little to say about my first day at my new school. Rene, wisely, did not probe and Father invited me to walk with him and Terrence for just one lap around the block, so I changed into my comfy paddock clothes and off we went. More relaxed now, we chatted amicably and not one word about school crossed our lips. When nearing home, I finally said,
'Daddy, I would like to run down to the paddock to give Jock a hug. I did not see him this morning and I missed him, all day.'
'Of course you can, Poppet, but please do not be late for dinner'.
So off I went, with our faithful dog very wisely remaining at Father's side. Mum and Pop gave me the hugs I needed and Jock was pleased to see me.
When Mother came home, she told me that the school Principal had phoned her about a minor hiccup, but no interrogation followed and the subject was closed. Having bathed and dressed for dinner and without any homework this first evening, I felt lost and suddenly very tired, so excused myself, went to my room to start re-reading David Copperfield, and in no time at all, fell fast asleep.
Father and Terrence accompanied me to the station and ensured that I boarded the train each morning for the next six weeks, by which time every girl in the carriage - or so I was told by one of my new friends - had noted that he was old, used a walking stick which he sometimes swung around his head, had rosy cheeks, short grey hair and sparkling, very blue eyes. They were also aware that his big black dog worshipped him. They did not know that they accompanied me to ensure that I actually boarded the train - only Father and Terrence were aware that I was so unsettled at my new school that I might clear out again, or just jump under the train.
Sundays in the bush with tall Patsy Anne on little Dinky, and runt- sized me on great big Jock, eventually allowed me to regain a modicum of sanity, although I remained a 'troubled child' at school, where the sheer pettiness of rules and regulations were, to me, utter nonsenses and being apparently wayward, found me in constant trouble. Homework was often accompanied by the order to write a hundred lines of 'I shall nots' about every little nit-picking 'wrong doing' imaginable.
Most of the girls in my class were non-judgemental. They invited me to eat my lunch with them and then play hopscotch on the gravel around our school house which contained several upstairs classrooms, one of which was ours. Downstairs, we were eventually introduced to the extensive school library, which looked dauntingly hushed and big enough to have been a ballroom. Then Hopscotch was banned unless we changed into our inexpensive sandshoes, in which we hurt our toes! But we persevered.
I remembered this school house from visiting the Christie family, who lived just across the street. Their youngest daughter, knowing I preferred boys to girls as playmates, had taken me there to meet the two younger boys of the family who, at that time, still lived in the old house. Following introductions, they immediately challenged me to climb the biggest pine tree in the world, in their back yard! I was still, at heart a street kid, and wary.
'I'll watch to see how you do it first.' I responded, and to my surprise, they both raced to the heavily foliated, multi-branched tree, disappeared completely until near the wobbly top and then panicked, unable to get down again until rescued by the firemen. By then, we two girls had found a better view of proceedings from the Christie's rockery, but once the boys had been returned to safety, I felt guilty and scurried back to apologise for having goaded them. They were nice boys. We said pax and shook hands.
By the time of my later arrival at their old home, the family had relocated elsewhere in the district, the pine tree had been removed and not even a stump remained in memory of it's grandeur. The area below where it had stood was now a building sight of grand dimension - the genesis of a whole new block of classrooms. According to the site map, the double-storeyed, new building would reach three storeys on the southern end, with a western wing creating a right angle, part way down the main block. It would slowly emerge in rough cast, pleasant looking yellowy-red brick.
During the first year at the new school, I do not remember being a brilliant student, except in the most unexpected subject, Divinity, which was not part of the official curriculum, so marks did not count, and about which I knew so little, due to the tragic death of my dear friend, Paul, when I was very young. Our Headmistress taught this subject in a clear, concise and unpretentious manner and I blossomed, shot to the top of the class, wished she taught us everything. My only other claims to fame were my perceived waywardness and my ability to outrun the entire school on Sports Day, neither of which were considered worthy of merit, but both meant I made friends among the more adventurous.
Long Christmas holidays eventually arrived, and I was not put on a train, or sent anywhere, allowing Patsy and me, on our faithful steeds, and with Terrence at the helm, to resume our bush explorations at frequent intervals, instead of only at week-ends. But not always. Mother had apparently accepted the inevitable - I was unlikely to ever become properly civilised, but was photogenic and thus useful as the country bumpkin in pictures of neatly dressed city children on hay wagons or among farm animals and with me in a ragged straw hat and torn, none too clean bib and brace overalls, feeling shamed on the cover of Woman.
I loathed these excursions and most of the pompous city children; all of which had the desired effect -I began to really appreciate my new school friends, most of whom were not the daughters of the rich and famous - their landed and city parents were simply doing their best to weather the ongoing Depression in hard times of drought and lowered incomes, determined to ensure that their girls would receive the best possible education to enable them to matriculate and enter Sydney University, restricted to the Humanities, as Physics and Chemistry were not part of the school curriculum at that time.
returned to school without enthusiasm, finally aware that my class
was now in year five and no longer situated in the Old House. We had
all graduated together to a block of classrooms above the ground
floor gym/morning assembly area, sound-proof music rooms and first
floor boarders' dining room, food storage rooms and huge kitchen. Up
more stairs and on the second floor, our classroom had windows on two
sides only and received less direct sun but adequate natural light.
It may not have been our full time class room, as all I can recall
about it was being required to learn hand sewing, embroidery and
mending, which I did well but loathed with vengeance.
Being incarcerated for hours each day in a very confined space, did not seem to upset my classmates, but had me fully occupied, planning escape routes to the outside world and freedom, instead of accepting the inevitable and getting over it. But no. In constant trouble with my class mistress, I started having nervy turns, eventually ending up in the school house sick bay, where the Head Mistress finally found out about the idiot child. She cured me instantly, just by her presence, rang my home number to ensure that Father was there, and finding him on the line, she had said,
'Margot will be home early this afternoon, on the 2.15 train, Captain Hamilton, with a letter of explanation, and please do not worry at all'.
She then told me to go straight to my locker room to collect my case, hat and gloves, without returning to my class room.
'A prefect will then see you to the train. You might ride over to St Ives and give Patsy Anne a surprise when she gets home. Tomorrow morning, please return to school as usual'.
I had no idea that she knew about Patsy Anne and felt somehow relieved that she must also know that I had never wished to travel to this school. The prefect who walked with me to the station and saw me onto the train was pleasant company and did not seem to mind the extra duty imposed upon her, so I was composed and rational on reaching Pymble. When I stepped onto the platform, a smiling Daddy and tail wagging Terrence were there to meet me. They both seemed to know that I was going to give Patsy a surprise when she got home!
For the remainder of the year, in a different classroom, my class teacher and I became allies instead of foes, and my grades improved remarkably, not only when she was in charge, but across the board, in every subject, including Latin and French, which were stimulating, and even Maths, in which I had always struggled from the very beginning at Sylvan school, once we stopped adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing trees in the school yard and switched to written numbers on paper, in the classroom.
Sports day came and went, with Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise there to cheer me on, as Mother had been called away on newspaper business. To gain House points for my School House, Wentworth, I raced in everything that was not either an obstacle race or some other, to me, nonsense event, like the sack and egg and spoon. The amount of running I did upset Uncle Clem, who was appalled to hear from teachers that we were all untrained and made this enormous effort on just one day of the year. But I explained that we did exert ourselves in heats prior to the big day and were well exercised all year round, with hockey, basketball, rounders and tennis. My one big sorrow was that we had no hurdle racing, considered unladylike, as our huge, billowing bloomers would be visible under our sports tunics, should we dare to jump! Because the absence of hurdling experience would have made our school less competitive, we did not take part in any inter-school athletic competitions. This grieved me as the years passed by, as successive sports mistresses timed me and said I was the fastest recorded schoolgirl runner in the world. I thought that the sight of girls struggling on the ground in huge, elastic legged bloomers in obstacle races, was far more demeaning than racing over hurdles.
When time allowed, Patsy and I continued riding together in Kuringai Chase throughout the year and we ventured further and learned more about Aboriginal land care than ever before, especially noticing the proliferation of new growth and wild flowers, at varied intervals, after smokeless, cool slow burns. Wherever we rode on our explorations, we found ourselves in a well kept Botanic Garden, where no wildfire ever intruded. It was a paradise on Earth.
Early in term two, in nature study, which would later graduate to being called botany and physiology, everyone in my class was given a black, hard covered, blank, thick-paged exercise book to fill with examples of subjects of special individual interest to us, in any medium, over the remainder of the year. On our rides together, the magic of nature had always surrounded Patsy and me and the significance of our privilege in being able to access huge areas of carefully nurtured land was now even more meaningful. Somehow I would have to transfer our wonderland into the black book - with Patsy's encouragement willingly given.
'Next year, I hope my school gets the same brilliant idea', she quipped, thinking it unlikely.
My stepbrother, Ian, who had run away to his Aunt in Melbourne when I was still a baby, had occupied the bedroom which was now mine, and had left all his huge Chums Annuals, plus other heavyweight boys' books, on his bookshelves when he fled, so they were now my prized possessions. I not only enjoyed reading the great stories between their covers, but had already used the weight of the Chums to press pansies and sweet peas between sheets of blotting paper and hoped to do the same with our own native wildflowers, knowing that it would probably be much harder. Rene assisted my endeavours by giving me a tiny penknife in a leather case, to cut the flowers. She also found a padded, satin lined tin in which to carry them, and between us, we finally discovered that my old Sylvan satchel did not bounce around much, if worn back to front, across my flat chest, and with a drawstring to hold the straps in place across my back.
Our Nature Study teacher was a great help to anyone who asked for guidance with regard to researching the subjects we were considering for our black books. In case some girls wished their work to be kept as a big surprise, individual guidance was not discussed during normal lessons, but by appointment, in the Library. There I was introduced to the Librarian who directed me to an excellent little book on the wildflowers of Kuringai Chase, which I was officially permitted to borrow for three weeks. Concerned that three weeks would not allow me sufficient time to complete my huge task, the Librarian smiled and handed me a printed list of Library rules. I thanked her, read them, then felt very stupid. I was in my second year at this school, and did not even know the library rules! All I had to do was return the book by the date stamped on the card, and unless there was a waiting list for it, it could be re-borrowed straight away. The librarian could see my dilemma.
'Even if another student wants to borrow the book, you can get it back again three weeks later. If a book is suddenly in high demand, I simply order another copy - My job is to help you!' she said kindly, turning the Library into a friendly place for everyone. I do not know whether any of my classmates frequented it during our first year together, as I had lacked the confidence to even enter its hallowed space on my own initiative, so was relieved to hear that we would always be welcome there.
The wildflower book was a gem. It listed the plants in Families, which had common names and Latin names. Then each individual plant in each individual family had a common name and a Latin name. It made it all so easy because I already knew nearly all the common names,and was learning and loving Latin. The Chums pressed most of the wild flowers well, although there were some which were far too big, or fragile, to travel on horse back, so they were hand painted into the black book instead. Patsy was supportive of my enterprise but did not give advice or interfere. I think we were both sorry that we were not each working on our own assignments, but neither of us said so. We simply enjoyed every moment of our time together in the bush, especially in the Winter, when few wildflowers were in bloom and we had more time to roam at will in our huge, well nurtured Wonderland.
With the help of the wildflower book from the library, and successful flower pressing, the black book progressed well. Substitute paintings of huge blooms like Waratahs, looked quite professional. Using a fine pen and black ink - as in the horse book which Patsy and I had written and illustrated before I left Sylvan school - I then carefully painted them in water colours. My bedroom was spacious, allowing ample room to move about without creating clutter. With sensible bedroom furniture and desk, handmade for me in Silver Ash, Ian's built-in wall of bookcases and cupboards, having almost unlimited access to the Library's wildflower book, and the previous experience and discipline of working with Patsy, it was easy to become fully focused on the task of creating a comprehensive Nature Study black book.
Spring arrived early that year, making it possible to find every flower in the library book, not already discovered during second term, or in some out of season, sheltered spot, and which had been carefully pressed, categorised and placed in its rightful order in my assignment. On the due date, I handed it in to our teacher with joy and pride. It was an incredible feeling, never previously experienced. End of year exams would be next, and I felt serene and quietly confident about those too. By mutual agreement - because all the work on our cooperative book was done in her great big bedroom, and as it was never printed, and we only had one copy, I was happy for Patsy to retain our horse book, which she treasured. When next we met, I told her of my euphoria on handing in the completed nature study book, and she hugged me, for the first and only time, ever, saying,
'That's because you've achieved your goal and you know you've given your chosen subject your best shot. You'll be proud to have it back, no matter what your teacher thinks about your work. I know, because I'm still so proud of the book we wrote and illustrated together. As well as the illustrations, we'd hand written, in copperplate, in black ink, every single page of text. It's a masterpiece!'
Patsy was right. When something had been achieved by hard work and dedication, it was the actual process of completing the exercise to the best of one's ability that was rewarding. A leading veterinarian had given our horse care book full marks, and that had made us as proud as punch.
No one had vetted my flower book before it was handed in, but I had cited the Library reference book to give it accreditation and would not be upset should my teacher find fault with it. I had done my very best.
Our final exam results for the year were above average for the whole class and our teachers were well satisfied, as all of us would graduate to sixth form next year. Apparently they did not like 'repeats'. Our black books tested our Nature Study teacher though, as she was almost overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, originality, diversity and the sheer amount of work she received from us. Marking, therefore, took longer than planned and involved assistance from the Head Mistress, as the standard of our work was much higher than expected. To my amazement, I found a hundred over a hundred written on the fly leaf inside my book. I could not believe it!. There was no official list of marks, and no discussion of results between us, but everyone was smiling, so we knew we had all done well. It was a great end to year five.
The Christmas/New Year school holidays of 1937/38
found Father and I on a train to Cooma, in the Monaro district of
NSW, not all that far from Canberra. I had no prior knowledge of this
impending journey and could only pray that Jock and Terrence would
receive good care during the ten days of our absence. It was late
January, and we were travelling to visit old landed gentry friends of
his who owned a large stud sheep, cattle and horse property. The
reason for our proposed visit was never made clear to me, and I was
apprehensive, as Father was not a country person and I did not think
he would enjoy the heat and flies, but during the journey he
explained that he and his grazier friend had been good mates in the
Merchant Marine during World War 1. Both were Captains, in command of
ships of the same Line, seconded by the British Navy to protect
Mother England against the German juggernaut in WORLD WAR 1 and whose
wives and families had lived as friends and neighbours at harbour
side Watson's Bay, on the eastern shore of Sydney Harbour, near The
I was glad he had told me all about them before we met on the railway station at Cooma, where we were warmly greeted. Father's friends, Doug and Tess, were both younger than he. They were good natured and considerate. They even accepted my admission of a nasty habit of getting car sick and sat me up high in the back seat next to Tess who was armed with a lidded bucket, damp washers and a dry towel. Doug drove with care, making the precautions unnecessary, but when we reached the property, I developed goose pimples from shock and horror. The homestead and outbuildings were of brick and stone and well maintained, but the extensive, manicured gardens were wilting from lack of water, and the paved and heavy gauge, wire netted tennis court was full of exhausted brumbies, driven in there, somehow, from the big annual round up in the Snowy Mountains, shortly before our arrival.
It was not an auspicious introduction to the place for me, paranoid about the humane treatment of all animals, especially horses. We were told that this mob had been rounded up by expert teams of brumby hunters and contained the property's top thoroughbred sire, lured away two months earlier by these wild bush horses. The mob had been hard driven by a team of riders who had changed places along the route with men on fresh mounts, and an introduced 'Judas' mare had led the weary mob into this strange holding place.
Tess asked me if I would like to go down to look at them. I did not wish to appear churlish, but declined because I felt unsettled after the car ride and needed to rest awhile. I could see that Daddy was piqued with me - he was in deep water too, relying on me to be well behaved and cooperative with these old friends whom he had not seen for many years, and who probably knew little about the troubles in his home life, let alone the current parlous state of his once sound career as a writer and Shipping Editor of the now defunct Daily Guardian. He would have thought that I would leap at any opportunity to be with horses - never dreaming that I was picky and hated violence. Doug and Tess were understanding though. They showed us to our bedrooms and then took us on a grand tour of their magnificent old home, finishing in the library, with its high bookcases, the shelves lined with classic English language literature, from Chaucer's's Canterbury Tales, right through to the present day. There was also a vast number of reference books on innumerable subjects, popular fiction and recent best sellers.
Their children's books, many of which I had not read, filled a less lofty, separate bookcase for easy browsing. Intrigued, I asked if I could look at them while the grown ups enjoyed their sundowners on the verandah. They said that was fine, so I commenced a rewarding journey of discovery, picked up again and briefly repeated on only one more occasion during our action packed holiday. Two hours later a loud gong echoed through the house and Tess came to tell me that dinner would be served in the dining room in ten minute's time. I thanked her and went to brush my hair and make myself neat and tidy. When I reappeared from my room, Father was waiting for me. He smiled, nodded his approval and took my arm to escort me to dinner. I felt honoured - he had never done anything like that before!
Doug and Tess, whom I addressed formally, were already at the table and they rose to greet us. A liveried waiter took our entree orders. In spite of the Depression, it appeared that fine merino wool, prime beef cattle and high class thoroughbreds were of sufficient value to allow our hosts to maintain their normal workforce, both within the household and on the property, as Doug explained with pride.
The inspection of Stud Book horses - thoroughbreds, cattle - Angus, and sheep - fine wool Merino, took up most of next morning and both Father and I were enthralled. Even greenhorns like ourselves could recognise quality and presentation. The skilled workforce on this property must be large indeed. Although my Mother had introduced me to many of the wealthy producers of stud livestock at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney, I had never been on a stud property of any magnitude before, and I was suitably impressed, especially as it was my despised Daddy who had brought me here. He was indeed, a 'dark horse', through a friendship between two merchant marine Captains during WORLD WAR 1, as they landed Australian troops and stores on Gallipoli and carried surviving wounded to hospitals in the United Kingdom, both equally appalled by the carnage in the fetid trenches, where so many fine men died from appalling fungal and other filth related diseases.
We returned to the homestead for lunch, rested during two hours of siesta time afterwards, and were then driven for many miles to view a vast expanse of areas of crop land and grazing country, accessible by motor vehicle. It was an incredible experience for us, especially as Doug made numerous stops where the views of the Snowy Mountains left us spellbound. On the return journey to the homestead, we followed a different route, through a property village, with comfortable homes, a church, primary school, store and post office, a medical and baby health centre, a hall for dancing or playing badminton and a recreation centre, a sportsground and tennis courts. There were people everywhere! I was speechless. It was a huge eye opener for me - a working property where men and women could spend their adult lives in paid employment and raise a family.
Next day was spent around the homestead. Father and I elected to enjoy most of it in the library, which was not only stocked with classic and contemporary works, but traced the history of several generations of forebears since the land was first granted, 'improved' and the original owners gradually dispossessed, their hunting grounds fenced off and their food sources diminished. Some had remained as stockmen and house servants for many years, but they were now no longer here in any capacity. Son and property manager, David joined us for the evening meal. He spread good will like confetti and talked about the Jindabyne Races, scheduled for the coming weekend. He suggested that Doug and Tess might bring us over to the racing stables, early tomorrow morning, to watch a few of their 'hopefuls' timed on the track. We did not even know they kept racehorses or their own racetrack. This was an amazing place. The days were simply flying. By this time next week Father and I would be home in Pymble, in cramped suburbia.
We had an early breakfast next morning. With Doug at the wheel and Father beside him, Tess and I shared the back seat and with no kelpie on this journey, we soon passed by a group of well separated, classic wooden Australian farm homesteads. Built for those involved in horse management, farriery, training and general care, all were in garden settings, with fenced paddocks for kid's ponies, house cows or dairy goats and some had geese or a couple of pigs. Doug pointed out the one where David and his family lived, then he drove around a long, sweeping bend, stopped and said, 'We're here!'. Father and I were awed by the sheer extent of the enterprise. The extensive stable blocks and the track looked to be world class.
We watched six horses gallop on the racetrack, and they were magnificent, but we could not believe that the family could afford to maintain a grass track, for just a few horses. Doug soon sorted us out on this subject, assuring us that they prepared and sold some early dropped rising two year olds, broken to lead, and many rising three year old 'started' youngsters, broken to saddle, here, on the place, instead of taking them to the Newmarket yearling sales, near Randwick racecourse, in Sydney. Knowing the excellence of the stud's bloodlines, buyers were keen to purchase these started animals, knowing their pedigrees and the strong ground on which they had been reared, they could be confident that they would be sound in wind and limb, and never break down, barring accident or poor horsemanship.
Our next stop took us to David and Joan's home where we did not tarry long but met Joan and her charming Mother, the super-active, adorable pre-school children and the lovely new baby, who was fast asleep. Both Father and I were deeply conscious and appreciative of the welcoming aura surrounding all the places we visited and the friendliness of the people we met.
Days passed, with me being helpful and polite. Father and I were taken around the countryside on various missions. We looked at paddocks of grazing sheep and cattle, our hosts determining whether it was time to open a gate leading to fresh pasture. There was always a kelpie in the back of the car, rarely needed, as the stock were more than willing to move themselves, but was still sent round the paddock to ensure that no problems existed. We also checked weaned lambs in case of fly strike. In the only paddock where this had occurred, the dog held the lambs in a corner while Doug donned a leather apron, caught the one which was 'struck', pulled hand shears out of his back pocket and dealt with the problem. From his other back pocket he produced fly strike powder to kill the maggots and heal the wounds they had created. I was happy out in the paddocks, amongst the livestock and my only regret was that I was not asked to actually do anything.
At last the Race Day at Jindabyne arrived. The Buick had been washed on the outside and cleaned within, there was no kelpie in the back, we were all dressed up in our Race clothes, and with a big hamper in the boot, set off to visit a valley of timeless beauty, Jindabyne, nestling in the foothills of the Kosciusko National Park, and later to be drowned by one of the dams built as part of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme. The bush racecourse was emerald green and there were many dozens of magnificent horses, tied to the hitching rails on the sides or backs of trucks and floats, or being led around to loosen up, as many had travelled long distances. David, the glowing horses, their grooms and two jockeys had already arrived, so Doug parked nearby to share their racing fortunes and the contents of the hamper. It was a cloudless, mild and windless day, with the first race scheduled to start at noon.
With nearly two hours to wait before the horses in the first race were saddled, mounted and paraded before going out onto the track to warm up on the way to the starting line, I asked our hosts if I could wander around, to look at all the horses in the interim, and Tess said,
'That's a good idea, but I'll come with you, to introduce you to the connections and tick the names of their horses in the race book. Then the two old Skippers can sit on a bench and yarn in peace!'
It was much better being with Tess. She knew everyone and the names of most of the horses. In less than an hour we were walking form guides, having decided the winner of every race on the card. On returning to the car to arrange the picnic table and chairs for an early lunch, we both set eyes on a horse which had just arrived. It was jet black, about 17 hands high and it took my breath away. Even Tess was impressed, but she made no attempt to find out any information about the animal until she spoke to Doug. He did know. The black horse would be the 'dark horse' of the meeting. It was listed as a starter in the fifth race; the feature event, but it had no official form and was already five years old. It was clearly branded, registered as ' Blackjack' as a two year old, stud book listed and its connections named. The stewards could not fault its credentials and the new 'owner' said he'd 'run it in' with a mob of brumbies last year, had kept it with his own horses while having the legality of its bona fide's and brand checked, which were in order, but had failed to find any trace of the original owner /breeder.
The eight of us sat down to our picnic lunch in good time to be ready to watch the first race. David, his horse grooms/strappers and the two jockeys left us to get back to the horses as soon as they had finished their meals, as they had brought five young horses and one old favourite to contest six of the eight races to be run. We were just finishing our meal when an announcement was made on the loud speaker with regard to Blackjack in the fifth race.
'Should there be any objections to the horse taking his place in the Field, they must be filed before the Meeting commences'.
'Short notice,' said Doug. 'I wonder what provoked that'.
'Some old timer may reckon he knows about some skulduggery', Tess ventured. As noon approached, we waited to hear about 'objections', but not one was voiced and the first race contenders were parading in the saddling paddock, the jockeys came out of the weighing-in room with the saddles, the strappers saddled the horses and the jockeys checked that all was in order, were legged aboard and their fine mounts pranced out on to the track to canter their preliminaries up to the starting tapes.
Father had given me the huge sum of One Pound to wager as I saw fit, but I knew very little about racing and decided to put that pound on Blackjack in the fifth race. If elegance, flat bone and sheer size meant anything, I may be able to repay him handsomely, and not having to worry about placing bets on every race, gave me the time to watch our hosts' horses as they paraded and ran in their respective events. Three of them were winners and none were disgraced, as they were very close place-getters, all showing great stamina and speed. Of the eight races scheduled, Father's pound ran round the track in the fifth, at long odds on Blackjack, keeping in touch with the field, but offering no challenge until the final turn into the straight, where he swept right round them all, and won effortlessly by five lengths.
I was overjoyed, but too excited and jittery to collect the winnings from the bookmaker, so I gave the winning ticket to my Daddy to collect himself. He had no idea that I had put the whole pound on the one horse and was embarrassed by his bulging pockets as he returned to our seats in the stand. His normally rosy cheeks were florid and his blue eyes sparkled with happiness and probably relief too, as now he could return to Pymble, no longer a total pauper, as I insisted that he kept all the winnings, bar a pound for me to wager on David's horse in the seventh race. It won too, at shorter odds, and he persuaded me 'to have another flutter on the last race.' But our hosts were packing up, as they had no runner in this race. I was relieved, because the worry of having gambled on those two fine horses who had won, had spoiled the spectacle and created so much tension within me, that I realised I would never make a gambler.
'Take the winnings from David's horse too, please Daddy. I found the responsibility of wagering quite overwhelming and I do not want to do it again'. He smiled and he looked happy but perplexed.
'You're a strange child Poppet; so headstrong sometimes and quite strait-laced at others. Anyway, you've got an eye for horseflesh, just the same. You're right though. We'd best hurry along and catch up with Doug and his Missus. Can't keep them waiting after giving us such a great day!
'Margot, you seem to know quite a bit about horses', David stated at dinner that night. 'You're a dark horse too. You can sure pick winners. Do you ride?.
'Yes, I replied, 'since I was five, first on a taffy pony, Jessie, who gave me a hard time for ages, till she became my friend and a cracking good ride. When I was eight, Father's friend, Harley Matthews, gave me a 14.3 and three quarter hands Arab Galloway, named Signor, who had been misused and ill-treated in harness and was nappy until I learned to supple him sufficiently to enable him to handle the steep going in the bush where we usually ride. I now ride my Mother's lovely old Whaler, Jock, who is almost human. But picking winners at the races was just a fluke!'
'Well, that could be true, but why didn't you tell us you could ride? We'd have given you work to do!'
'David, right from the start, I could see that this property is huge, that your workload is heavy, supervising a big workforce, Daddy and I are only here for a brief stay, and you have many responsibilities. We have been given a wonderful holiday by your Mother and Father and you just did not need the worry of a strange kid skittering around on horseback. I have that privilege almost every day, at home!'
'Gee, you're forthright. How old are you?'
'Just twelve, last year, but only six weeks ago. And I don't know much either, but I do know that the horses you trained for today's races were a credit to you. They did not waste any energy dancing around in the saddling paddock, they all looked great, were well ridden, and all brought home good stake money. Three winners and three close place getters. Congratulations.'
The men then excused themselves to go to the study to enjoy their port and Tess and I, both quite weary after a long and exciting day, decided to have an early night. In spite of reservations about some of my strange ideas about 'the state of the world', as she put it, Tess and I had become good friends. We hugged one another goodnight, aware that the morning after tomorrow, she and Doug would put us on the early train for Sydney. I knew that they would promise to visit us at Pymble, but doubted the true likelihood of that really happening. Life was strange; full of false hopes and broken pledges. I was a slow learner but on the improve!
Our last day was spent saying farewell to David's family, and to the great people whom we had met, who lived and worked on the property. Our farewell dinner was a home grown turkey, with all the trimmings. There were only the four of us, and following the final course and the coffee, Doug and Father remained at the table and offered port all round, which was probably the norm when there were no visitors. I tried my thimble full of wine gingerly, then found that it tasted rather nice, but it took my breath away with just a tiny sip. Father, Doug and Tess then stood up, one at a time, and each made a short but emotive speech. I was not required to add more than our deep gratitude for an awe-inspiring and magnificent holiday.
The kitchen staff rallied, an hour earlier than usual, to produce and serve another grand breakfast to last us all the way to Sydney, and Doug and Tess drove us to Cooma in good time to catch our train. Our farewells and thanks were heart-felt and sincere, as I had redeemed myself in Doug and Tess' eyes, and Father had not once blotted his copybook by drinking too much, swinging his walking stick or using foul language. As the train puffed its way out of the station, we both waved until our hosts became small dots, still standing there on the platform, waving their fond farewells with their handkerchiefs blowing in the chilly, early morning breeze.
Once home again in Pymble, Terrence's joy at our reunion was quite overwhelming. He trembled with excitement and undying love, his eyes and wagging tail expressing his deep emotional attachment to us. Rene too, was overjoyed to welcome us back, and Jock, usually a quiet fellow, whinnied loudly when he saw me walking down the road, and he galloped up to the five bar gate, put his head over it, and we rubbed noses in our time honoured welcome. Mr Dix was already home from work, the nearby job in Orana Avenue not yet completed, and the steamroller still parked outside my Sylvan schooldays' playmate, Mickey's place, so Mr Dix did not have far to walk home. I hugged them both, listened to all their family news and then thanked them both for their care of Jock, who looked really well, and Pop, for keeping the paddock clean.
' Well', he said, 'It don't take much effort with just one 'orse, an e's a goodun. Drops em in tha one spot, most times'.
Mrs Dix then explained Jock's good condition.
'When Jessie and Signor went down ta Yass, 'e was real lonesum. Then 'e greeted tha milkman's 'orse, real early of a mornin, an agin of an evenin, an they's got acquainted. So 'e tried makin frends with the baker's orse an the delivery 'orses from the produce store and Peterson's ol nag. But them's trained to be deaf an walk on to tha next place, so Jock, 'e starts callin out an gallopin round tha padduck. When yor around and givin im lots o' work, 'e settles right down agin. Now tell us about tha Snowy's.
I found it hard to describe the immense wealth and affluence of our Cooma hosts, so stuck to the Jindabyne races and the beauty of the Snowy mountains, where there was an annual round up of brumbies, which I thought was cruel but probably necessary, as they would starve unless their numbers were controlle
'They still conduct the round ups as described by Banjo Paterson in the 'Man from Snowy River'.
The Dix's had a copy of Banjo's poems and said they would 'have another look' at the one about 'the colt that got away'', to visualise the type of country where Father and I had been guests on a big property. It already seemed so long ago. And yet, we had only left there early, this very day, and now our holiday already belonged in another world Once back at our place, I rang Patsy, to hear how she was going. She was pleased to know that Father and I had enjoyed our time together, even although I was sometimes overawed. She could not believe that I had been among horses almost daily, but had not ridden at all. I tried to explain, but she fastened her ears and promptly said,
'Thank goodness your home. There's a chance you'll get over the
grandeur once we're safely back in the bush'.
She was right, as always. We resumed our adventures, and every journey released some previously undiscovered treasures.
Class Six. 1939.
first Assembly for this new year at School was strange and sombre.
The possibility of another world war had not been addressed last
year, even as the storm clouds gathered, but now our Head
Mistress announced that the school would be prepared for the
safety of everyone there, in advance, should hostilities occur in the
future. Air raid shelters would be constructed, we would learn to
recognise an air raid warning, we would be drilled on safe and
speedy access to the shelters, and how to conduct ourselves, at close
quarters, underground, until the 'All Clear' sounded. Being young,
and unaware of the horrors of war, most of us were strangely
stimulated by threats of conflict, our quivering faces reminding me
of the reaction of hounds and horses when they hear the hunting
The first shelters were built and reinforced under the gravel paths around our first school house and the entire area became 'out of bounds', unless supervised during practice runs, which we considered great larks, as it took us out of our classrooms, often breaking the monotony of 'heavy' lessons. In retrospect, I have no idea why we thought these exercises exciting, but it may have been our way of making light of genuine fear. My Mother refused to consider the prospect of another dreadful conflict like WORLD WAR 1, feeling confident that the Treaty of Versailles would deter Germany from breaking its international agreement and remain peaceful, but Father had no such confidence in Adolf Hitler, thus creating yet another schism in our household, soon to see him sent packing, yet again.
It broke my heart, because I continued to worship my mother and adore my father, unreservedly. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March,1939, and France and England made a pact to protect Poland, Mother still did not really believe that a huge conflict would ensue. Then, on September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared War on Germany on September 3. I was with her in Martin Place, on our way to Wynyard Station to go home to Pymble, when the paper boys started shouting the news that the Prime Minister had declared that Australia was now at War with Germany. Mother's face became ashen and I thought she would collapse, but then she resolutely shook her head and marched towards Wynyard, with short little me beside her. Once seated on the train, she quietly shed tears for all the young men of her generation who had perished in WORLD WAR 1, and then her distress increased greatly when she realised the next generation of Australian cannon fodder had barely reached manhood, and now they too, must prepare to give their lives.
Throughout Year Six, at no stage did I look like shining brightly in my school lessons, except in Divinity, which still did not count in an aggregate of marks, in Art, not considered of any real merit, and the doubtful honour of continuing my unbeaten record on the race track, for which there was not even a Shield on which athletic achievements were recorded. Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise still took me to their farm from time to time, and those journeys, plus Patsy's continuing friendship, and our rides together, kept me on an even keel, although I, and Terry too, missed Father deeply. Worst of all, I did not even know where he had gone. My beloved Rene had met a young man and was trying to persuade her Mum and Pop to allow them to become engaged. War talk was on everyone's lips and my world was falling apart. But in spite of everything, my marks were suddenly above average in our final exams for 1939, so I would progress to first year Intermediate in the Senior School, in early February, 1940.
Boarding School. 1940.
The construction of the new classrooms continued, probably at a slower pace, due to manpower shortages, but we certainly went to an amazing, curved and sloping evening homework area on the lower floorof the new complex, when I became a boarder at the beginning of that new year. This sudden change was made because Mother decided to visit her friend Alice Bowring, who owned and ran a gold mine at Edie Creek, in the Owen Stanley Ranges of Papua New Guinea, Australia's northern neighbour and Mandated Territory. For me, it was all surprisingly unexpected. As Mother rarely included me in her decisions, it hurt. However, she did make arrangements for Jock's care, again with Mr Egan, who had recovered from his back problems, and Mr Dix happily agreed to keep the paddock clean. With only one horse left, he badly needed every 'offering' to keep his garden in full production, while Mrs Dix kept her eyes open for any others from the delivery horses, who worked on faithfully till well after the end of the War.
Rene, whose romance had been put on hold when her young man joined up and found himself in another State, seconded to a Special Unit, which was all 'hush hush' at the time. His posting must have made her feel anxious for his safety, although at least he was still in Australia. In spite of this forced separation, she remained faithfully in charge of our Pymble home, so Terrence was well cared for and exercised, but it must have been very lonely for her. I still had no idea of Father's whereabouts and fretted about his absence, felt out of place as a boarder and missed my bush rides with Patsy Anne so much that I became miserable, especially as I was required to spend my free weekends with the long suffering Christies, who had always thought me wayward since Mother's accident, instead of going home to Rene and Terry, and riding Jock to visit Patsy Anne.
Mother returned to Pymble at the start of the May school holidays. She went to her office to write the stories of her travels, which were well received, but I was booked in to board at school for the whole year, much to my huge disappointment, and could not even go home for holidays, except to change my wardrobe, be sent away, and then return home to get back into uniform and return to boarding School. Rene eventually let slip that Father, fit and well, had returned home briefly, early in second term, but I did not see him, and he had soon left to visit his family in Melbourne.
For my first free week-end in term 2, I went to the Christie's and was made very welcome. Two of their older daughters were in military uniform and looked most impressive. On the Saturday evening we all went to the Pictures at Gordon cinema and viewed newsreels and films of such horrifying ferocity that I spent most of the evening crouched in my seat, eyes shut tight, and ears blocked with my fingers. The first newsreel was of Japanese soldiers chasing little children down a road with telegraph poles on either side, decapitating every child with a bayonet and laughing as the headless children continued their wild stampede. Horrified by what I had witnessed, I had shut my eyes, tight. At intermission, we each had an ice cream to sweeten our minds, and nothing was said about my odd behaviour. The second film was worse, with Mr Christie insisting that I sit straight in my seat and face the screen. I obeyed, with my eyes again shut tight, my chin in my palms, and my index fingers pressed inside my ears for an hour and forty minutes. Nothing was said. I was not invited there again.
Winter at school was bleak, even although I had made some good friends among the boarders, all of whom missed their families intensely. After school, we played rounders, basketball, occasional cricket, or tennis, which kept us fit. The tennis courts, situated in the south western corner of the extensive grounds, were on the edge of some beautiful bush, strictly out of bounds! But we sometimes ventured in there to retrieve balls, accidentally hit over the high fence, and felt childishly elated when we scurried back, undetected.
On one memorable afternoon, I was playing singles with a country girl whom I knew well from her occasional 'free weekend' visits from boarding school to our place at Pymble, to ride the bush trails with Mother and me, during the time when we still had Jessie and Senior, and before Mother's awful accident. Our final game in the set was hard fought, one match point after another being alternately won and then lost, when the bell rang for us to shower and dress for the evening meal. We made a last attempt to finish the match, then ran like hares to our school house, to find that every one else was late too, and there was only one shower recess vacant. Being late for tea was a serious crime, so we hopped in there together, back to back, and were out again in a jiffy, just making it to the dining room on time.
Next morning, my class teacher handed me a note. I was to go to my school house office forthwith. So off I went. The house principal had heard that I had showed with another girl, which was a 'disgusting crime'. She called me terrible names and said that I must never go near my friend, ever again, nor even speak to her. Devastated, I complied. It was not until I commenced my training as a nurse that I had any idea of the nature of the crime I had supposedly committed. The appalling implication left me feeling sullied forever. That unfortunate episode was followed some weeks later by my dismissal from the local Anglican Church, when, in the company of a large group of my classmates, recently prepared for Confirmation by the Church Minister over a period of many weeks, I was shamed by my failure to produce my Certificate of Baptism and told I was an infidel. On this occasion I disputed the judgement, arguing passionately that no mention of baptism had once been raised during our preparation for our acceptance into the body of the Church, and was shown the door. Twenty plus years, and three bonny lads later, Bishop David Hand found no problems in New Guinea - he baptised and confirmed me without demur.
I did not have much to say to anyone for the remainder of my year as a boarder, as no one really wished to speak to me, which was not surprising, considering my perceived crimes. I felt pretty sure that Patsy would remain my friend, or hoped so, anyway, but confidence eluded me, aware that I had, undetected, broken the rules about retrieving lost balls from the bush, so was indeed, a wicked child. It was a great joy to get home at last, for the long Christmas holidays, knowing, for sure, that neither Rene, her family, nor Jock or Terrence would be judgemental, or even aware of my shortcomings. Mother, if she knew about my fall from grace, chose not to discuss the subject. Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise, who were ever stalwart in defence of my integrity, remained supportive, right throughout my years at school, excepting our War Years, spent incommunicado, at North Rocks.
Once officially at War, Australia's first severe hardship came with petrol rationing, the reason for fuel shortage made obvious by the number of Army vehicles, frequently full of soldiers, which travelled on the Great Western Highway while Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise could still get sufficient fuel to make the journey to the farm at Luddenham, and I accompanied them. Eventually, severe drought caused shortages of primary produce. For the Chapman's, their way of life was altered dramatically, right from the start. Their chauffeur joined up during the first week of hostilities, and Uncle Clem drove himself to the Hospital. Trips to the farm continued, with Uncle at the wheel, until petrol rationing was introduced, when even a VIP like the great Doctor was 'rationed', and it was all he could do to get the Hospital and back, four days each week, as Rosy was such an extravagant 'gas guzzler'.
As visiting the farm was such an important part of their lives, and commuter steam trains still serviced the Western Line, Uncle Clem asked Mr Overed 'to find a suitable replacement for Rosy 'RR', to meet the train at St Mary's each Saturday morning and return in time to catch the Sydney bound train on Sunday evening.' Many weeks elapsed, then one afternoon, on my arrival home from school for a free weekend, now permitted, Rene welcomed me with the news that Aunt Elise had phoned to invite me to join her and Uncle Clem on Central Station at 8am tomorrow morning to travel to St Mary's. From there we would ride to the farm in Mr Overed's 'suitable replacement vehicle', about which they as yet knew nothing, except that it would be 'light on fuel'.
There was much speculation about old jalopies and T Model Fords as we rattled along through little towns and ravished countryside between Parramatta and St Marys, for the drought was severe on this overworked, marginal land, with no end in sight to the prolonged 'big dry'. Then Uncle Clem cheered up, suggesting that 'Overed may have found a light horse and dogcart to carry us over the corrugated roads to the farm'.
'Oh, I don't think so.' said Aunt Elise. 'Everyone's switched to motor transport in recent years. I'm sure all the old carts have been used for firewood and the horses have gone to the dogs!'
'Horses are still used for deliveries in Pymble', I ventured.
'Yes, and all over most suburbs, for sure. We live in the city. It's different. We only see brewery horses at work during the day, but have no idea how our milk and bread is brought to us at the Astor. We have never even thought about it. We have become far too mollycoddled, spoiled and introspective'. Uncle Clem stated, as he lifted Aunt's delicate hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. 'We'll soon know what Overed has rustled up though. Next stop, St Marys!'
We were travelling in the fourth of eight carriages, and peered through the window as the train reduced speed, hoping to see into the station yard, but a healthy hedge obscured our view. Once the train came to a halt, puffing and blowing steam everywhere, as engines do, our view was still obscured, this time by the station building. On alighting, we moved towards the exit, anxious to reach the station yard, and Uncle Clem suddenly recognised Mr. Overed, just outside the turnstile, where our tickets were collected. He was in livery, immaculately attired, and I did not even know him! He looked so grand, but immediately smiled and collected our luggage, directing us through the door, saying;
'Good morning all. Your carriage awaits you, close by, to the left.'
Before us stood a magnificent chestnut mare, between the shafts of shining black phaeton, with four black, high hickory wheels with light round rubber rims, set in fine steel, an all-weather, easily raised hood, carriage lamps, and four red leather upholstered seats, in immaculate condition. None of us could believe our eyes. We just stood there, in awed silence as Mr Overed stowed our bags in a fully enclosed compartment, up high, between the back wheels, then assisted us aboard by the easily accessed steps.
Once seated, Uncle Clem commended Mr Overed's choice of a 'suitable replacement for Rosie RR', and a smiling Aunt Elise held his hand as she relaxed into her seat.
'I just can't believe the luxury of it all, and the horse too, she is beautiful. Such a deep coloured, glowing chestnut. What is her name?'
' She's registered as Amber Light, but she answers to Betsy'.
Mr Overed replied, as the mare quietly moved into the line of mixed traffic, onto the tarred road, easily keeping up with motor vehicles ahead of us. I sat up tall on the front seat next to the coachman, near bursting with joy.
We came to a halt at the junction of the Great Western Highway, where we had to wait for the passage of a convoy of Army trucks, full of khaki clad recruits who cheered and waved to us. At last there was a break in the traffic and across the highway we seemed to sail, with me certain that the corrugations of the Marme and Luddenham Roads would soon slow us down. But I had misjudged the ability of the high phaeton wheels to glide effortlessly over the corrugated surfaces without any bumps at all. I sneaked a glance at Uncle and Aunt and they were still holding hands, overwhelmed by the quiet, smooth and dust free ride. Betsie's long, effortless strides did not appear to disturb the gravel, and we were fairly flying, much faster than Rosy RR could ever manage, once off the asphalt.
In no time at all, we turned on to the Luddenham Road, where the mare, unurged, further extended her stride, bringing us to the gate of the rented house on the hill in such good time that Uncle Clem, gazing at his watch, stated in disbelief.
'This mare has delivered us here, averaging 30 mph. That's just amazing. She is not one bit distressed and hasn't even raised a sweat'
' Well Sir, she'll be asked to go easy up the hill. It could take near ten minutes to get you to the door'. was Mr. Overeed's rejoinder. With the reins slack in his hands, he asked her to 'walk on, real steady now'. And she did.
'Where did you find her?' asked Aunt Elise.
'A friend of mine bred her for the track. She was rarely beaten there, but there probably won't be any racing till we thrash those mad Jerry's. I've had my eye on her ever since the War started. I knew there' would surely be a shortage of fuel pretty quick, so was just waiting for the good Doctor to ask me to find her for you. The friend who bred her wanted to keep her as a breeder, but I told him there's plenty of time for that! She's only just rising seven, and these well bred pacers are still racing in their twenties. They are all from the same original bloodlines as the gallopers, but their tougher. Bits of common blood in many of them'.
'Thanks Overed, you have done us proud', was what Aunt Elise had to
say, as Betsy halted near the back door. The brakes were applied and
the reins were hitched to the rail in front of the driver's seat, to
allow Mr Overed to help us alight and unlock the house. He then
carried all the perishables inside the back porch, placed them on the
shelves and delivered our bags to the top of the steps at the front
Together we waited outside till our coachman returned to Betsy, and gave her kind words and a pat on her graceful neck. As he turned to wish us a pleasant stay, Uncle Clem stepped forward to shake his hand and thank him again. To my surprise, Uncle had tears in his eyes. He was visibly moved by the elegant horse and carriage and said he could not believe that a vehicle from the 'olden days' could be so superior in grace and comfort to his modern day example of the best of up to date road transport.
'Ah, 'tis only on the back roads and in the fields that the horse has the edge. This new love of mechanisation will sweep the World after the War and all the little farmers will go broke, paying for the fuel to drive their new machines. We'll be reduced to race and show horses, and ponies for the kids till they're old enough to drive trucks and cars.'
We remained standing there, outside in the fresh country air, as we all came to grips with the future, as foreshadowed by Mr Overed, who had grown taller and wiser in his grand attire. Uncle Clem, shaken by his humble servant's prophesies, shook his hand again, saying.
'Your words of wisdom require our attention. We will all walk down to the farm at half past three this afternoon to inspect the additions to the stables, harness room and now, a coach house too. Then I would like to spend some time with you alone to discuss your concerns. We have always been grateful for the work you do for us, but I feel we have underestimated your abilities. Mrs Chapman and I will discuss your predictions during our rest period after lunch. I imagine that she will already have many answers, the most obvious being that the Allies must first defeat the Axis powers in their thrust for World domination.'
Mr Overed nodded his agreement, then begged his leave to take the horse and carriage down to the farm.
As planned, at three thirty Aunt Elise and I went for a walk around the farm while Uncle Clem and Mr Overed discussed the future of the world. During our evening meal, the immediate situation of the sustainability of the farm was clarified. Uncle Clem, until this day, unmindful of the value of his farm manager's good sense and accumulated knowledge, had finally realised they were, in fact, equals in intelligence and attention to detail, only separated by their differences in family background, formal education, present social status and pecuniary circumstances.
Our weekend seemed to pass in a flash. We did not go visiting on Sunday morning, as often happened, Uncle having realised that harnessing a horse and attending to its needs, plus cleaning the vehicle, was all much more time consuming than driving a car into a garage and paying to have it cleaned and refuelled. Instead of 'visiting', we made a very early start to the day, breakfasted, washed the dishes, walked down the long hill to the gate, admiring the layout and good health of the farm and its livestock, in spite of the drought, and were able to see every corner of it until we had almost reached the bottom.
Mr Overed greeted us warmly on our arrival, suggesting we may like to inspect the recently dropped lambs in a well sheltered field, quite close to his open door residence. They all seemed fine, the lambs running and gambolling in the early morning sun, and looking snow white in the soft light. Most of the ewes were resting in the shade cast by some eucalyptus trees in a copse near the centre of the field. Away from there, the rest of the paddock was surprisingly green and it was not long before Aunt and Uncle decided to spend time with the horses. It was clear that they loved all the livestock on the place, but the Clydesdales were their favourites. Now, with race mare Betsy, there were seven, all pedigreed work horses, three of Boxer and Bonnie's offspring already sold and only on view for the Chapmans' final inspection.
Aunt and Uncle could not take their eyes off them. Nor could they believe the size of the purchase prices of the four year old, fully trained, heavy duty work horse, the similarly trained three year old who would be given lighter duties till he was four and the two year old, also fully trained, who would be kept in very light work, between lengthy breaks in the paddock, until he too reached the heavy work stage.
Bonny had not foaled last year but now had an upstanding filly foal at foot named Bella. With white blaze and stockings, she mirrored her sire and dam's good looks, markings, coat colour and temperament. She loved having her light leather headstall slipped over her ears, could be led around by complete strangers, and was greatly admired by the many visitors whom she enjoyed meeting.
Until yesterday, Aunt and Uncle had taken their farm manager for granted. Now, as they assessed the quality and temperaments of the horses and appraised the new buildings and fencing, all expertly constructed by Overed, they looked back to when they first purchased the place. It was pretty rough and poverty stricken then, and the young bloke, with his dog and chooks living in the shack, were part of the deal. There was scant evidence of 'land improvement', ie, scrub removal and cultivation, the previous owners having been hard hit by the depression. But they had been pleased to have an unpaid - except for tea and tobacco - caretaker on the place, who shot game for them, his dog and himself and dug up enough ground with a mattock to grow pumpkins, potatoes and corn for his landlord's and his own sustenance and chicken feed.
When the property had originally changed hands, Aunt and Uncle had been unaware of the extent of their shack-dweller's knowledge of land care and the skills he possessed, but were impressed with his efforts to keep the original owner's family supplied with necessities of life and the occasional cockerel for the Sunday roast. They had soon found that the caretaker, 'who came with the place', had the ability to gradually turn it into a good little farm, so they listened to him and slowly but surely, the property was transformed to its present state of sustainability, commencing with the purchase of the Clydesdales. Uncle Clem was surprised that they should be Stud animals of the highest quality, but Mr Overed assured him that their offspring would be money makers, to help pay for fencing, and the pumping of spring water to stock troughs.
By the time of my inclusion in this enterprise, my mentors were totally immersed in its successful operation, never questioning their manager's final decisions, made after sometimes long and in depth discussion between them. They had deep personal regard for this quiet and gentle man, but it had taken the rationing of petrol during World War 2 and Overed's purchase of Betsy and the phaeton, for them to realise his full worth in their lives.
Mr Overed, in his distinctive uniform, drove us to the station for the evening train, with Betsy making the miles seem even shorter than on yesterday morning's great run to the farm. The train trip to Central Station seemed faster too. On arrival, Aunt and Uncle invited me to join them again at my earliest convenience, so I thanked them for their generosity and hugged them tight, then changed platforms to go home to Pymble for one precious night, before returning to boarding school in the morning. Aunt and Uncle travelled home to The Astor in a taxi cab, probably worn out after such an emotionally uplifting weekend. I phoned them to say I was safely back home, just as soon as an overjoyed Terrence and smiling Mother welcomed me and made me feel I had been away for ages, not just overnight. As it was Rene's day off, Mother and I prepared and shared our late evening meal together, and I told her all about Mr Overed's response to petrol rationing and the joy expressed by Aunt Elise and Uncle Clem, adding, as we washed the dishes, that there could be 'a story in it, if they would not be upset by the publicity.'
Next morning, I rose very early to run down the hill with Terrence, for a quick 'burn' round the paddock on Jock, and to say 'hello' to Mr and Mrs Dix., who were always early risers, and never short on hugs. Then I raced back home for a speedy sponge bath in cold water, dressed in my uniform, and Rene, who had come home last night after I had gone to bed, was already downstairs to serve my breakfast. Like her Mum and Pop, she embraced me warmly, so I asked how her young man was getting on in the Army. Her reply was wistful, but she said he was fine.
'And our romance is the real thing - we're unofficially engaged, even if Mum and Pop haven't come round yet.'
'Oh, dear Rene, I'm really happy for you both. But I won't say a word to anyone until you say so'. With another big hug, she said, ' Thanks luv.'
Feeling choked up and close to tears, I ate my breakfast quickly, wondering how life could be livable when Rene left to get married, but it did not happen for nearly a year, and by then all our lives had changed immeasurably. On this morning though, no school lunch needed to be packed, as I would eat in the School dining room. As I had not quite completed my homework, there was still time to finish it and say goodbye to Mother. She would be at breakfast by then, and I would catch an early train to School, to avoid the crocodile - the only perk that I could see in being a boarder!
As the 1940 School year drew to a close, the War news was dour and gloomy. Germany had overrun all of allied Europe. Our troops and the British were battling Germany's Axis Italian forces in North Africa, soon in need of German back up, and not finally routed by Allied forces until 1943. Germany invaded Greece early in 1941 and then attacked her ally, Russia, later in the same year. There, the resistance proved unexpectedly strong, severely delaying the German advance on three wide fronts, which ran into a devastatingly severe Russian winter, with Arctic temperatures, and catastrophic casualties on both sides, on the battle fields and in cities under siege, with death tolls in the millions.
As England was being bombed incessantly, night after night, we school children in Australia were practising the art of racing to our bomb shelters without realising that German air attacks were unlikely, due to their lack of aircraft carriers, but they certainly had warships prowling around, too close to our shores for comfort. Some of my classmates had elder brothers and even fathers serving in the armed forces overseas, and they were deeply concerned for their safety. Among the boarders, the situation was similar. They also worried about their home properties, where insufficient rain was falling. It was a stressful time for all of us and I was still without news of the whereabouts of my Daddy. If Rene knew, she kept the secret to herself.
Having passed all my exams in Year Six, I turned thirteen shortly before School broke up for the long Summer holidays, thus assured of moving up to First Year Intermediate in 1941, and looking forward to rides with Patsy Anne, whose brother Dennis had joined the RAAF to train as a fighter pilot. At the beginning of the holidays I was not immediately sent to stay with Ian and Mary in Canberra, allowing Patsy, and I, with our vanguard Terrence, to resume our bush rides on our trusty steeds, only to discover - as Patsy already knew - that a huge area around the Cascades and the Scouts Pool had been taken over by the Defence forces for ground training purposes and was already overgrown and likely to become a fire hazard, as the traditional owners had been the first ejected from the site. In spite of this limitation, we still had vast tracts of well managed bush in which to wander and wonder about the meaning of things, hopeful that our separations may be of shorter duration in future.
When finally aboard the train for Canberra, to visit Ian and Mary, I knew that I would find myself in the Press gallery on frequent occasions, as the War Cabinet was almost certain to call more full sittings of Parliament than in peace time. As well as his normal press duties, Ian Charles Hamilton, was now newsreader for the ABC. His bulletins followed the British BBC World News, and his readings were even more eloquent than the British renditions. He was on the first rung of the ladder to becoming a VIP, eventually heading the Australian News and Information Bureau.
After so many years of sitting in the Press gallery, overlooking Parliamentary proceedings, mostly in the Lower House of Representatives, where the behaviour of many politicians had upset and shocked me by their triviality and bad manners, this year, with the Allied Forces in peril on land, sea and in the air as they struggled to gain a toe hold against the German juggernaut, concentration and courtesy were present in the chamber throughout the sitting, and on all subsequent occasions. I was deeply inspired by the Prime Minister, John Curtin, who spoke with authority and passion about the present conditions being experienced by our Australasian Servicemen in their theatres of operation, especially in North Africa, where the Africa Korps, under Field Marshall Rommel, was proving very superior to the efforts of the Italian forces, thus causing concern about the safety of the Allied forces.
Another striking man, a Cabinet Minister, tall, white haired, of clear, quiet voice and dignified demeanour, spoke with such surety and common sense with regard to Australia's defence that I felt secure in the knowledge that our country was in good hands. As during John Curtain's address, not a pin drop could be heard during his speech. His name was Ben Chifley. He would become our next Prime Minister, after an exhausted John Curtain died in office towards the end of the War. But that was in the future. For now, the atmosphere within the Federal Parliament was of strong resolve by all Members to do their best to support our forces in their fields of combat and assist our Allies, as duty demanded. The enemy, having failed to bring England to her knees in the battle of Britain, was now concentrating on gaining command of the seaways by the strategic deployment of submarines and battleships to sever the passage of Britain's raw materials and food supplies from the remnants of her Colonial Empire, in India, Africa, the Caribbean and South East Asia.
On my return home, Mother finally told me that Father and Harley were in trouble for criticising Churchill's deployment of Australian troops to fight the Germans in Greece, claiming that it was 'Another Gallipoli, with our men again sacrificed in this second War, with faint hope of victory, and just turned into cannon fodder.' She thought that the two old scallywags were more or less under house arrest at Harley's place at Moorebank, as his remount horses were still required on the north west frontier in India, and they had to be trained and conditioned by him, as he was a proven master at the job. And the vintage was also of strategic importance in the mess rooms of many a senior Officer!
This news of Father heartened me. He always remained in good health at Harley's place, as they were far too busy to spend time in heavy drinking, or so I believed. I thanked Mother for telling me of his whereabouts, thinking I could go to visit him, or at least talk to him on the phone but,
'No Babe', she almost screamed, 'you can't contact them at all. It is against the law. We are at war! Don't you understand the serious nature of their unpatriotic words? They're incommunicado'!
Well, I got the message and did not know how to handle it. I had only just arrived home from Canberra, but it was already late in the day. Feeling wretched, I asked leave to walk with Terrence to visit Jock in the Dix's paddock. Permission granted, sanity returned. As it was Sunday, Rene was still at home with Mum and Pop, so I was given a hero's welcome by them, and also by Jock, who buried his head on my chest and closed his eyes. He had never done that before. His apparent devotion lifted my spirits sky high, enabling me to go home to help Mother prepare our evening meal and exchange news of our day to day individual experiences whilst I had been in Canberra. We did not clash at all. Our evening was a pleasant surprise, perhaps for us both.
Rene returned, as usual, bright and early next morning, her sunny smile quite radiant. She had succeeded in talking Mum and Pop into letting her become engaged, at last. It was because her young man was getting enough leave to travel to Sydney, to ask her parents for their daughter's hand, spend a few days with them and then return to his base, which was still hush hush. I met him briefly and he was really nice - I knew, with a child's sixth sense, that he and Rene were made for each other and would be very happy, but saw a great cloud on the horizon and could not talk about it, even to Patsy Anne. I knew I was thirteen years old and that childhood should have been behind me, but I was uneducated in the ways of the world and very naive, showing no physical or even mental maturity or thought, trusting those I loved and not, it seems, drawing a line between humans and animals. And yet, I was a God fearing and a devout Christian, because of Paul's immense influence and my ongoing sadness that he was no longer here to guide me.
The long Summer holidays finally ended, school resumed and Mother continued her hectic working life, interviewing and recording the harrowing stories of refugees who had miraculously escaped before they were herded into labour camps and branded like animals. We did not then know of the fates of those who were captured. Father was still at Harley's, in disgrace, and Rene continued to run our household, with a smile, no matter how awful the War news was now, or would be, soon. Then, at the beginning of February, Mother resigned her position as inaugural and established editor of Woman Magazine and told me that she was expecting a baby; a boy, to replace some Mother's son who would fall in the present conflict on the day of my brother's birth. Astounded, I had no answer to her statement, except, on impulse, to ask how she knew her baby would be a boy.
'Oh, Babe', she said, very sure of herself, 'These things can be arranged.'
On February 4th, 1941, my brother Robbie was born. Rene told me when I returned home from my first day back school. I had no idea why it was such a big secret, but later learned that 'nice people do not discuss intimate issues'. At any rate, Mother had certainly fooled me, the neighbours, her colleagues and Rene too. With her willowy figure and well cut, beautiful clothes, no telltale bump was even vaguely evident. On entering the house and hearing the news, I rang Strathallan Hospital to ask if I could visit her and my little brother. As the Matron remembered me from previous visits, over many months, following Mama's near fatal accident, she said I would be welcome. Thankful and elated, I changed into my riding clothes, all nice and clean, shared a quick afternoon tea in the kitchen with Rene, and leaving Terrence on the chain, lest he be unwelcome at the hospital, hastened to the paddock to groom and saddle Jock for a speedy trip to view this newborn and wondrous bundle of joy. Mum and Pop had spotted me coming down the hill, and I was overwhelmed to see them standing by the five bar gate with a groomed and saddled Jock, all ready to go. They already knew about this new addition to our family!
There was still no horse parking area at the Hospital and I knew Jock was seasoned in 'pulling back', so I removed his expensive leather bridle from under his strong rope halter and tied him to a solid post in the big strong wooden fence, slipped the bridle over my arm, shared an apple with him and asked him to wait patiently, pleeze!
Remembering the necessity for cleanliness in hospitals, I went to the side door to remove my jodhpur boots, placed the bridle beside them, went into the 'clean-up room' , washed my face and scrubbed my hands and fingernails, put a theatre cap on my head and used a towel, placed out for the purpose, to rub any dust or horse hairs off my shirt and jodhies, and then entered the hospital itself, hoping to pass muster for Matron. Well, she was the same Matron, but a joyous one, very pleased that I had followed earlier learned hygiene procedures. She smiled, and giving my hand a squeeze of approbation, led me towards Mother's room, where the door was already open and she was sitting in a chair beside her bed with her baby in her arms, both serene and beautiful. Hearing our approach, she looked up, and smiling, welcomed us, saying,
'Thank you Matron for allowing Margot to visit us so soon. Please come in Babe, and give me a kiss. You have a lovely little brother, who came into the world without any trouble at all. I'm very, very happy.'
Matron excused herself and I went into the room in awe and wonder, for Mother laid the sleeping baby on the bed and embraced me, then gave me the promised kiss, bringing me close to tears of joy. Seeing my emotion, she unswaddled the baby, who opened big blue eyes, which seemed to me to be focused on my own. He wore only a binder, a cotton singlet and a nappy. His body and his limbs were long and lean, as were his fingers and toes and his feet were delicately arched. His head was well shaped and almost bald, but the very fine hairs he wore there, were nearly white, as were his eyebrows. His face was regal and he kept his gaze on me. I was entranced. Thinking he may catch cold, Mother wrapped him up again and offered to allow me to hold him. I was deeply moved by this gesture, but terrified that I may damage him in some way, handed him back to her without delay. Matron soon reappeared at the door. My visiting time was over for today and blowing kisses, I left the room and mayhem met me in the street.
The wooden fence was flat on the footpath with Jock on the grass verge, his head lowered, still tied up short to the big post, also down flat. Before I could die of shame, Matron appeared nearby, and said quietly,
'Some schoolboys threw gravel at him, Margot. It frightened him and I saw the fence fall and the boys running off. Please don't worry about the fence. It was very old and unsound and we have already made plans to replace it with brick. I just hope that your horse is unharmed.'
In reply, I spoke reassuringly to Jock, who stood quietly while I released him, uninjured, but a time consuming exercise as the 'easy release knot' was stubborn, due to the weight of the fence. Seeing that he was alright, Matron said I could come in by the back gate in future.
'There's an old dairy yard there, and he'll be safely off the street'. Then she quickly explained how to find the gate, wished me a safe journey home and returned to her inside job. Breathing sighs of relief, I tightened Jock's girth, climbed aboard, checked his parking area for our next visit and rode home slowly, aware that he may have a stiff neck and needed time to loosen up. As we strolled along, my mind was running around in all directions as I considered the altered circumstances of the future, with Mother at home, caring for her new child and the likelihood that Rene would soon leave us, once officially engaged to be married and working full time on her trousseau. In spite of the fact that we walked all the way, we reached the paddock in good time, as Jock, sore neck or not, had such a nice long stride that he covered the ground effortlessly.
Hearing the clip clop of our approach, Mum and Pop had the five bar gate open, anxious to hear all the news of this new arrival, about whom they had no inkling at all until Rene had the bed linen, towels and table linen bubbling away gently in the copper, which was now powered by gas, and had run 'down home' to give them the news. They were astounded to learn that my mother was already up and about, just hours after the baby's birth, but pleased that the child was the son she had always wanted. I tarried longer than usual and shared tea and homemade bread and blackberry jam with them at their kitchen table, overlooking the garden, an array of delicate flowers and healthy vegetables.
I loved being with them; they were honest, kind and gentle people who had brightened my life since my first memory of them at their modest home in Bannockburn Road when their eldest daughter, Joan, had taken me there in the pushcart. Now, they kept me up to date on her well being, the success of her marriage, her happiness, the good health of her husband and their two lovely boys and the immense success of their dairy enterprise. Mae and Walter's news was always even more wonderful to hear, as having visited them at Kyogle, I could visualise every move they made and even felt I knew the boy and the girl born since my stay, sure that they would be as happy and good natured as Roly and their entire extended family, so lovingly remembered by me.
Matron succeeded in persuading Mother to remain in Hospital for two whole weeks of rest and allowed me to visit her every second afternoon. On my next visit, I left Jock unsaddled and unbridled, in the old cattle yard, and his tack on a wooden saddle horse on the back porch of the Hospital. I then scrubbed myself squeaky clean, and checked-in with a smiling Matron. Mother, expecting me, had her door wide open and invited me in to her quiet room, where her baby was fast asleep in his basinet. Smiling and very relaxed, she asked me if I would like to name him. Unaware that she had not already done so, I was, at first surprised and then elated. This was a completely unexpected request and a great honour, for which I thanked her, and then asked if I could see him again before making my decision. Still smiling, she lifted his mosquito net and we held hands as we gazed at the sleeping child. Only his head and face were visible, but he looked so serene and stalwart that two names came to me in an instant.
'Robert Bruce', I quavered, overcome with emotion.
'That is a proud, strong name and I like it. Can you tell me why you chose it?'
'It just happened. I don't know any Roberts or Bruces - I just hope he likes it as he grows up'.
Mother lowered her head and kissed the still sleeping baby, who did not stir. She then pulled the mosquito net back into place and sat down on her chair, relaxed and very calm. It seemed to me to be an appropriate time to leave, as then perhaps she may lie down on her bed and rest until Robbie's next feed. She agreed, held my hand and kissed me on the cheek. I waved as I left the room and felt deep love for her and my little brother. His arrival had revealed the soft and caring woman, still in love with my father, whom I had known and adored when I was two years old.
Following the homecoming of Mother and baby, it was a proud sister who told my classmates about my brother, Robbie. They were intrigued - such a long gap between babies. Most of them had siblings, some older, some younger, but thirteen years! They knew my mother was editor of Woman and presumed the baby would be handed over to a nanny. When I told them she had resigned her position just days before his birth, and would rear him herself, they looked at me and shook their heads. Jennifer said pityingly,
'You're sure to finish up as nursemaid!'
That rather dismissive statement ended further baby talk. School work and sport became the topics of further discussion until the bell rang to return to class. There we collected our books and writing materials, then hastened towards the Laboratory, in the western wing of the new block, chattering away with expectation and a degree of trepidation - we would spend a double period, dissecting dead frogs! Lying on their backs with their legs and arms spread out, they looked almost human to my tortured mind. Frogs had always been my friends. How could I do this? Elizabeth noted my pallor. She was a kind girl. She spoke to me gently and got me back on track, but in spite of her support, the double period found me wanting, so the physiology teacher excused me and I was sent home early, with a note of explanation.
Aware that Mother would surely be cross with me after she read the note, I crept silently through the tradesmen's entrance and down the path to the back door. Even Terrence, asleep on the front door mat, did not hear me, so I turned the knob, hoping that Rene would be in the kitchen to give me asylum until the usual time for me to arrive home. She was not there. I went down to the laundry - still no Rene. I slipped along to Terry 's kennel in the garage, hoping he might abandon the doormat to get a drink of water. No Terry, so I sat on the step and started on my homework, listening for footsteps in the dining room, overhead. No footsteps. I did not own a wristwatch, so listened for the school trains instead, to ensure that I 'reached home' at the usual time. And then it dawned on me. I was now thirteen and possessed about as much confidence as a tiny kid. It shocked me, remembering that I was game enough to tackle anything but Johnny's mile long, black drain, eight long years ago. Why was I so fearful now? My criminal escapades were well and truly over, even if I did bring more than enough notes home from my teachers.
At last I heard the train on which I normally travelled, waited awhile and then retraced my footsteps back to Grandview Street, entered by the front gate, and was joyously greeted by a smiling Terrence. Up the front steps we walked and I patted him and ran my fingers through his soft, luxurious curls, then rang the doorbell, not too loud, lest its shrill sound should waken a sleeping child. Rene answered the door, bright faced and welcoming. She said that Mother and baby were sleeping, and that she too, had put her feet up and had a rest herself. So that was why she did not hear me! As usual, I changed into my riding clothes to give Jock some exercise close to home, with our wandering dog at heel and afterwards, we spent time with Pop and Mrs Dix, out in their thriving garden, from whence came all of theirs and most of our fresh eggs, fruit and vegetables and for which Mother always insisted on paying. She was not upset by the note from my Physiology teacher and made no comment at all, and as it was time to waken Robbie for his 6 o'clock feed, she said to me,
'Run along now, Babe.'
And off I went, to do more homework, then bathe and dress for Rene's reverently served evening meal, for which Mother always came down to the dining room, her attire immaculate and her face serene.
The school year continued without drama. I progressed satisfactorily with my studies, even in Maths, and did not look like becoming a nursemaid, as Mother devoted herself entirely to Robbie's every need. Neither Rene nor I saw much of him, as he had to be fully clothed and looking absolutely radiant with good health and happiness before we could walk in and view him, out on the back verandah, with its camphor laurel scented fresh air and broken sunlight. He was a lovely baby. He grew like a mushroom and never seemed to cry, so Mother's milk and Truby King discipline were working well together. He was sweet natured, smiled readily and was very good looking, with his blue eyes, blond hair, long honey coloured limbs and perfectly formed hands and feet. At last I realised how superior he was to me, all short and stumpy everything, with sun sensitive skin and dark, dark hair - he was the baby of her dreams and I was really happy for her - and maybe a wee bit envious too!
Then tragedy struck. HMAS Sydney, following a bitter gun battle with the German raider, Cormoran, had disappeared without trace, off the central west coast of Western Australia. No lifeboats or survivors had been found, and my tall, kind and studious classmate, Judith had lost her precious Daddy, whom she loved with unreserved devotion. When the news came through, one of the senior prefects consoled her and took her home to be with her Mother. We had known that German raiders had been spotted in more than one location around our huge coastline, but had believed our Naval vessels could protect themselves in any engagement.
The news we received on the radio, from the BBC, followed by the ABC, gave scant attention to the vulnerability of Australia and New Zealand, even as our armed forces strove to protect Great Britain, in the air, on the seas, across the globe and on land, in Europe, North Africa, and Greece. Our school must have found it hard to come to grips with the tragedy of students losing loved ones, maybe deciding to keep a low profile about such losses. If there were more of them, we were not told, and I think only our class knew about Judith's tragic loss.
At nine months, Robbie was weaned, without drama, accepted his baby food happily and drank from a baby cup. He had sat up and crawled early, and given every indication of not just toddling, but running in no time, so, before long, was introduced to my old push cart, impelled by Rene power, or sometimes by me, but never by Mother, which seemed to be the order of things in her opinion. As a child, she would have seen her baby brother, Frankie, being pushed around Killara by a Nanny.
The school year went on, as usual. Having to race to the shelters when the air raid sirens sounded, no longer left us bored. With the loss of our flagship, Sydney, anything could happen. We played mind games and charades in our cramped shelters, pretty confident that any shells fired towards us from any ship, would fall well short of our location, but we knew that the Germans were clever people, so we had to be ever vigilant, even if we had beaten them in WORLD WAR 1.
On December 7th 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, and other
American and British strongholds in South East Asia and the Pacific.
Mother was distraught, especially when our bossy neighbour calmly
suggested that she should cut her children's throats now, to save
them from the Japanese. This crazy announcement horrified Mother, and
then set her thinking about moving to a safer area, well away from
the bridge over the strategic railway line, the Pacific Highway and
the huge gasometers, just down the road, in case of possible attacks
from the air. She consulted many estate agents, till one day, leaving
Robbie in Rene's capable hands, she rang up about a little farm at
North Rocks, travelled out to view it by train and bus and bought it,
on the spot, with vacant possession available early in the new
With the Japanese forces already streaming through South East Asia, Rene was officially advised that her fiancee was soon to be posted overseas, so they planned to marry before he went away. Our lives were in turmoil, Father was still at Harley's and I had no idea how I could get to School from North Rocks, which was close to Parramatta, to me, the obvious place to go to school. With tears streaming down our faces, Mother and I farewelled our irreplaceable and wonderful Rene very early in the New Year. We felt her loss immediately. Although always conscious and grateful for her ability to run our home like clockwork, we now came face to face with all the tasks she had carried out, on a daily basis, with consummate ease, and which she had never found the least bit like drudgery.
Confronted with poling the sheets, towels and the now very few nappies out of our gas fired copper, I kicked myself for failing to ask Rene to bend her knees and work out a safe way for me, being so short, to tackle the task without getting scalded. Eventually, I stood on a butter box, until recently used for holding chips for the fire to heat the water, and used the pole to remove the lid from the copper to allow it to cool down a bit. It did so quite quickly because the laundry was always cold, right down, half underground, below two triple brick storeys of house. As it was school holidays, I soon got the knack of dealing with the washing and did it without complaint, as Mother cooked our meals and kept the house tidy, with Robbie underfoot, which she found disconcerting, until she bought a playpen and thus foiled, he screamed blue murder for the first time in his life!
Finding time to ride with Patsy was not easy either, but, with daylight saving now extended to two hours, we made sure that we did so, as often as possible. Once Japan entered the War, we knew that Australia could be at risk of invasion, unless the surge of Japanese advances was checked. We had already lost HMAS Sydney with all hands and the outlook was grim, but we felt buoyed by the fact that the Americans were now our allies. They would help us defend our shores. Mother's decision to lease our home and move to North Rocks was a bitter blow, but understandable, with our place so vulnerable. We both realised that our time together was running out, and Patsy stoically stated,
'Oh well, I'm really far too big for Dinkie now. I'm amazed that he perks right up when he hears Jock approaching and is still keen to be ridden, in spite of my weight and dangling legs. You're still a midget. How come? You're Mother's so tall'.
'Daddy's not very tall, but you might be surprised. I could be 'a late developer'. I know I'm fourteen now, but Mother thinks I may follow in her footsteps and not start growing like crazy until I reach sixteen. But Patsy, we must try to see one another after the move to North Rocks. We're best friends. My life is always in turmoil and it's because of your friendship and balanced outlook that I'm still reasonably sane. Perhaps we could write to one another - to keep in touch. You might even come over for a weekend sometimes - there's a train to Beecroft and a bus to the door.'
Patsy's face fell, and for the first since I had known her, her voice quavered. She looked close to tears, as she struggled to remain calm, and finally admitted that life at home had become almost unbearable.
'It's Mum and Dad; they've gone to pieces since Pearl Harbour and their worried sick about Dennis. They have not heard from him for ages and I'm not sure they even know where he is. It's terrible, because he's my ever loving brother, and my hero. I can't sleep, imaging that he may be Missing - that awful word. The oldies have shut me out of their lives. And now you're going, all at the same time. We must keep in touch. And of course we will, by hook or by crook, one way or another. Let's hope you have a telephone at your new place. Please ring me if you can. '
We had known one another since we were little kids, and except for one hug when I finished the black book, had never even held hands. Now Patsy held hers out and we solemnly shook each others, and I had to fight back the indignity of tears to break the grip of sadness which we had allowed to invade our lives. Smiling at one other, we both feigned absolute confidence that the War would finally end in triumph for our Allies, that Australia would not be invaded and that Dennis would return unharmed, covered in glory. I rode home, feeling so positive about our future and our friendship, that I diverted into Orana Avenue to tell Mickey that we were going to North Rocks, and to thank him again, for all the time he had spent with me, during our Sylvan school days, catching tadpoles in the creek that ran through the bush reserve below the road near his place. He was sad, and we too, shook hands.
Mum and Pop must have heard us as we crossed the bitumen near their place, and there they were, hand in hand, standing beside the big gate and offering me a cup of tea with them, at the kitchen table, after I had made Jock comfortable for the night. They were very lonely, they said, and did not know what they would do after we left, any day now. Rene had married her fiancee at short notice and, for security reasons, was not permitted to say where they would be stationed, but at least they were together and still in Australia..
'It wus a military weddin at Victoria Barracks - just Mum an me an tha Best Man - but Rene wus real appy, an they both lookt just dandy. Rene said to give you er luv, always. She never got er trooso made neither. Tha Army never give er tha time. Poor Mum's still shook up about that, arnt you luv?'
'No good a grizzlin. Rene's real appy, an 'e seems a good bloke. God bless 'em, an 'ope we win the war. Now wer gonna lose you too - dunno wot weel do - could go up May's way if thay 'av a rolla in town. Or down Joan's way - sumthin' ul turn up, an it won't be no bad penny! We'll git by, so long as we're tegetha.'
Casting round in my mind for something positive to say to cheer them up, the box was clean empty, and like a total sook, I burst into tears. Maybe it was just as well. They suddenly caught glimpses of my weird life as a kid and felt that I may never know true love because I was 'too high strung', and as they hugged and placated me, they told me so in roundabout way, and full of apologies for noticing these nit picky things, they finally managed to cheer me up enough to wander off home. I'd be back to tend the horse until we moved, and as Mother had not yet told me the exact day, presumably because she did not know herself, all I could do was to talk to Terry, the great listener and solver of problems - by just listening and never interrupting - and be glad it was holidays.
' Babe, where ever have you been for so long? You know I get worried when you are late! The carrier will be here to move our goods and chattels, early on Tuesday morning. That leaves only one day to finish packing our belongings to go to North Rocks. The house, Shalimar, is small and humble, so I have arranged to have a great deal of our heavy furniture auctioned by Lawson's and they will remove it tomorrow, at noon. You look worn out already, and there's still so much to do. I have put the dinner on, so please watch it, and have it ready to serve after Rob goes to sleep. This upheaval has made him fretful, so I will stay with him till he settles. You had better scrub your hands and change first.'
Poor Mother; she looked tired and rather frail. It frightened me, but I did as I was told and the evening passed in harmony. Even the meal was good, Robbie slept peacefully and we had an early night. I was up with the birds, as always, and told Mum and Pop that we were leaving on the morning after next, just as soon as the carrier arrived.
'How's Jock an you gettin' over there?' Pop asked.
'I don't know, but it makes sense to ride him, with Terry alongside. And I reckon the carrier may pick up the big feed bin, buckets, grooming gear and rugs, etc first thing, but I'll be here early tomorrow, anyway. Mother looks overwrought. It's a huge life change - so different from before the War - and especially since Pearl Harbour. She was such a brilliant writer and Editor of Woman, and yet she gave it all away to have Robbie, and now we'll have to learn to live on the produce from the farm, for which we are not skilled, although I've learned quite a lot from watching you both, producing so much good food right here, in your garden, by composting horse and chook manure with inexpensive straw. I have also learned heaps from Mr Overed on Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise' farm at Luddenham, where I've been taught how to humanely kill and dress chickens, lambs and baby calves for the table. If we have neighbours like you at our new place, we may make a go of it.'
'Oh, but it's very sad for me to be leaving here. I've known and loved you both, and hold the happy memories of Joan and Mae and Rene, as they came to our home, one by one, when not much older than I am now, to care for me and run that huge house of ours, with love, tolerance and excellence in every task they carried out, day after day, with good humour and genuine affection for me. I was just a toddler when Joan took me in the pushcart, all the way up to your place on Bannockburn Road, next to Cassie Cairn's paddock where I later learned to ride. That was after I'd thrown a tantrum and bitten her arm. and made it bleed while she was consoling me and being kind. I will never forget it.'
'The atmosphere of love that radiated in your home, there, on that day, has followed you and your family wherever they have travelled, and has embraced me too, and made me ever grateful to you all. With your family all living far apart, we may never meet again, but I will give you our new address and phone number - if we have one yet - tomorrow, when I come to collect Jock, and hope we can keep in touch. I owe you and your remarkable daughters the little bit of sanity and common sense I possess. I will love you all for as long as I live.'
Mum was a bit teary after that long and rambling out pouring, but finally cheered up and said.
'Well, luv, yor Mum never wasted 'er money on yor schoolin'. Wot you jist said wus real nice'.
'Just true words, Mrs Dix, not one bit better than the way Mae and Rene speak, and Joan too, I'm sure, but I was too little then to be aware of anything but her kindness and her patience with me, because I know I was considered a wayward child, by my Grandma, Aunty Rita, Uncle Frank, who's now fighting the Japs in Borneo, and my Great Grandmama, who never once acknowledged me. Perhaps she too, was difficult, and hoped that time would tell. She certainly never even attempted to learn English, although she lived to only days off her 100th birthday, and resided in Australia for 82 years. I remember her though, always in black widow's weeds, a tiny woman, perhaps four feet high, stooped, but light on her pins and a fast mover. The Thatcher's were in absolute awe of her, for she was a very canny businesswoman! I better run - see you in the morning - let's go, Terry!'
Our last full day in Grandview Street was fine and mild, but very busy, with last minute washing to do, which meant heating the water in the copper, just to get warm water for doing the job by hand. There were no detergents then, not at our place anyway, and bar soap was hard to lather-up in cold water. Robby was underfoot, everywhere, and unsettled by all the frantic activity. But he was pretty well toilet trained; a big bonus. He was good natured too, even in adversity, and I was falling in love with him, at last, as Mother was now too busy to attend his every need, and he and I clicked immediately.
Next day, the move was accomplished without too much drama. Mother and Robbie travelled up front in the pantechnicon, and Jock, Terry and I followed the route used by Harley during the Signor years, the bush track section of which was exciting, because it made me daydream that visiting Patsy could be possible. The rest of the journey was by the Pennant Hills Road to its junction with North Rocks Road, then easy going to Shalimar, and we finally reached our destination, clip clop, clip clop, in good time.
The Farm at North Rocks.
There was excitement and jubilation when we arrived, and our Terrence
raced ahead and greeted Mother, who was at our new front gate,
holding an animated Robbie on her hip. She had heard us coming and
had hurried out of the little farmhouse to greet us, a serene
expression on her lovely face and her blue eyes shining. With a big
grin, I dismounted, and holding Jock's reins in one hand, walked
towards her, hoping she might embrace me, with her free arm, and she
did. Robbie, learning words to express himself, pushed my old brown
felt hat onto the back of my neck, the now loose elastic against my
throat and hugged my head with glee. He had then wriggled his way to
the ground and thrown his arms round my left leg in a bear hug,
chattering away at finding me here, in this new place We were
standing on the freshly mown grass verge beside the road, facing
towards Parramatta, when I saw a middle aged couple approaching, each
carrying a cloth covered basket. Mother and Robbie welcomed them with
the familiarity of old acquaintance, explaining to me that Mr and Mrs
Maher had introduced themselves as soon as they saw the removal van
arrive this morning, pleased that it was a fine, mild and windless
day for our 'moving in'. They had given assistance when needed,
without unsolicited advice, and when the task was near completion,
their daughter had met them between the two properties to hand over a
billy of piping hot tea and home cooked refreshments for Mother,
Robbie and the grateful removalists, who had done all the heavy
lifting. Now, this caring couple were back to welcome me, Jock and
our faithful Terrence, and I knew, instinctively, that we were very
fortunate to have moved to Shalimar. I thanked them both for
returning to meet me, removed Jock's saddle, hopped onto his bare
back to introduce him to his new paddock, ran back up the hill, then
washed my hands in the laundry in the fruit packing shed complex. On
the way back to the house, I skirted around a huge and immensely
deep, circular well, now defunct and to be filled-in tomorrow - to
finally shake hands with our new neighbours.
Mother was smiling as she offered the sandwiches and biscuits they had brought to share with us. I was ravenous after a meagre, early breakfast and felt a bit guilty about the number I devoured, the excuse being that I could not remember ever tasting anything more pleasing. Smiling, Mr Maher leaned across the table to ask me,
'What were your thoughts, Margot, as you rode down the hill on your Jock?'
'Well', I replied haltingly, 'the fruit trees are bare of fruit, the good earth looks a bit hungry and the vegetable growing area between our place and yours has no ground cover to protect the soil. But Terrence was wagging his tail and Jock seemed quite happy about the paddock, had a good roll and started grazing. Because visibility was blocked by the orchard on either side of the track leading there, I could not really see much of the land at all till near the top of the rise, where the trees were also bare of fruit, but I felt pleased to be here, because you and Mrs Maher have shown such kindness towards us. Mother tells me that our other near neighbours, Mr and Mrs Jago, have also welcomed us, and I will meet them this afternoon'
Mr Maher gave me a broad smile, and said I didn't miss much, that the fruit season was early this year, which was just as well, as picking and packing was hard work, requiring a keen eye and sensitive hands. He nodded to Mother and Robbie, who were listening intently, and including them in the conversation, he continued.
'You have a very fine, well equipped packing shed and will know the ropes for next year's harvest. We still have a small stand of later maturing peaches which should be ready to pick and pack by next weekend. We will show you how to pick 'soft fruit', transport them to the shed and pack them in the diamond pattern to ensure that they travel safely to market and open up so well, they'll bring a top price. We'll help you all we can and the Jago's will too.'
Mother made a fresh pot of tea and Mr Maher said he knew that it was 'Back to school' for me next week, so he would supply meadow hay in a net and baled straw to bed Jock down at night, and then show me how to make and turn compost to nurture our Autumn market vegetables as cash crops to pay the electricity and town water bills. He then said he'd found a nice little Jersey milker, as requested by Mother. She had already calved, was in calf again and suitable for our needs.
Mother and I were very moved by Mr Maher's offers of advice and assistance. Mrs Maher had sat quietly while he was speaking, then, before we could offer our thanks, she said that we were welcome to visit the dairy to inspect their milk separating and butter making set up. She would also be happy to teach us to milk if we did not already know. I had already learned, at Mae and Walter's place but Mother had never milked, so she thanked Mrs Maher and they made a date for the next afternoon's milking. I went too, to see how they cooled and separated the milk.
Following the departure of Mr and Mrs Maher, Mr and Mrs Jago popped in briefly to welcome me. Like the Maher's, they were middle aged and their grown family had left home to marry and make their own ways in life. The Jago's skills were many and varied and it was immediately obvious that they loved children because Robbie, who had only met them this morning, toddled straight towards their open arms the moment they walked through the door. We all enjoyed another cup of tea and Mrs Jago, who had been a school principal, asked me about my school, while Mother bemoaned the cramped size of the sitting room, and Mr Jago said that problem could easily be fixed by opening up part of the dividing wall into the dining room. After they left, I was a bit amazed by the thought that this dear little house required renovation so soon after our arrival, and before I had even seen each room, but Mother told me not to worry.
'Mr Jago is a retired master builder, he has already renovated their own place, next door, and we are invited to join them there for dinner tonight at 6pm.'
What a day this had been, without a moment to catch breath.
Mother had given me the front bedroom with a widow looking out over the garden between the drive down to the packing shed and the shrubbery alongside the Jago's side fence. The front window overlooked the verandah, the front path and garden then across the road to level or gently rising orchard farmland. Terry's kennel was under that front window, but he chose to sleep on the door mat, as the evening was warm. Poor Mother, she looked so tired, but her spirits had not flagged. Now, all alone, we unpacked our belongings, put them away in our drawers and cupboards and then realised that the bathroom had no running hot water, so we heated big pots of it on the electric stove, to add to the cold from the taps over the bath until it was sufficiently filled for Mother and Robbie to pop in first. After adding another pot of hot water, I followed them, having just come in from feeding Jock and Terrence.
Leaving the second bedroom for guests, Mother had selected the third bedroom down the hall, to enable her to hear Robbie in his cot, should he waken, disoriented, out there on the strange new closed-in side verandah, on the opposite side of the dining room. There was a step down into the kitchen from the dining room, near Mother's bedroom, and a fourth bedroom, level with the kitchen, all of which were surprisingly spacious. The cold water bathroom was tacked on to the far end of the kitchen and the end wall of Robbie's closed-in verandah.
The dining room had an open fireplace with a steel mesh screen and its huge brick chimney, above the mantelpiece, rose skyward, in the bathroom, behind the bath and disappeared through a steel collar in the unlined roof - an indication that this inside bathroom must have been a primitive, latter day addition to the original structure of the place. With the exception of the bathing arrangements, the cottage was sound, easy care and gave me a strong feeling of belonging, with a place for everything we had brought into it. There was adequate room for all our belongings, with the exception of Freda Martin's precious books. I panicked, till Mother told me that she had catalogued them, and had a signed agreement with our tenants to care for them, until such time as their tenancy expired. My own, and also Ian's heavy books, were still on my bedroom bookshelves, only protected by a spoken agreement, so I hoped for the best, as my forsaken treasures included the black book of wildflowers and the album with my Brownie memories of Kyogle.
Dressed for dinner with Mr and Mrs Jago, we set off to walk along the grass roadside verge to their place and right on 6pm we were welcomed into their comfortable home. There we enjoyed genuine goodwill and a magnificent meal, with every ingredient home grown, including the chicken. We were truly grateful for the best dinner in the world, served by husband and wife, side by side. At its completion, we exchanged life stories until Robbie became restive and wriggled out of the Jago's grandchildren's highchair to play with his pre-birthday toy train on the lounge room carpet. We 'elders' lingered briefly over home ground coffee with cream and marshmallows, and later admired the alterations our hosts had made to improve the natural lighting and general ambience within their now spacious home.
Soon Robbie wilted and fell fast asleep in Mother's arms. It was time to thank our good neighbours for their kindness, generosity and superb culinary skills. As we prepared to leave, Mr Jago picked up a basket of fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, homemade bread, butter and a small, dressed cockerel and he offered to escort us home. Outside their front door, a smiling Terrence was waiting there and Mr Jago immediately knew that his services might offend our protector and handed the basket to me. Smiling at our host's insight, we took our leave to walk down the road to Shalimar for our first sleep under a new roof and a star studded sky, so brilliant, it lit our way behind Terrence's talisman tail. Once in our own familiar beds, Robbie did not even stir, Mother said she took quite awhile to settle and 'then went out like a light', and I relived my day.
Early this morning, after handing them our new address and phone number and tearfully farewelling Mr and Mrs Dix outside their five bar gate, with Terrence at Jock's heels in built-up areas and on main roads, I had ridden to the little house called Shalimar on North Rocks Road, a distance of maybe some twenty miles - not very far at all - but a lifetime away. We had been greeted by our caring neighbours and as we had settled in and been made to feel genuinely welcome amongst them, I slept soundly till early cock crow, just before dawn.
Up and dressed promptly, I ventured out in the very early light to feed Jock and have a peek around the place. Visibility was poor, but I already knew we had a fenced grazing paddock, and through the wide gate into an adjoining paddock, I could see the outline of the horse stable and a byre, bail and feed trough, with town water laid on, in the partially cleared corner of the farm woodlot, all at the bottom of the north east sloping, soft fruit orchard. Back at the top of the hill, a wide, almost level, irrigated market garden area extended across the block from the boundary fence between our land and the Maher's, beside North Rocks Road, then down to the first row of orchard trees and to the edge of the garden surrounding our homestead. Below the packing shed and poultry sheds and runs, there was more fallow ground, above the eastern side of the orchard.
Back inside the house, I could hear Robbie wakening, so crept past my still sleeping Mother's slightly ajar bedroom door, to go to him. He welcomed me, pottied himself and then climbed back into his cot to view early light in this new and wondrous place. We stood there, holding hands, in trancelike harmony for a long time. I do not know what his little mind was thinking, but mine returned to yesterday. After our kind neighbours had gone home, I had inspected the near new fruit packing shed, which incorporated a hay barn, a store room, a cool milk room, a laundry, with tubs, storage cupboards and a cold water, electric washing machine, a cold shower room, with a big hand basin and cupboard, a tool shed, a workshop, a second store room and a pan toilet. Entry to the packing shed was through a gauze breezeway door, along a central passageway between the laundry and the shower room. Both the entry passage and the spacious packing shed were well lit and ventilated, the fruit grading machinery and benches were spotless, and a there was a big, south-west facing, sliding door at the back, for loading the packed market fruit onto the carrier's truck. Shaded by a silky oak tree, it could be left open on hot days for extra ventilation through an insect-screen door.
In the area between the farmhouse and the outside work areas, there lurked the huge, already mentioned immensely deep, dry well, a death trap for a young toddler, to be promptly filled in to make a sandpit, lawn and garden where he could play under supervision. Scattered old fruit trees surrounded the house, and a flowering shrub - lined driveway, running between it and the barn and the already listed work areas in front of the main body of the packing shed, allowing easy access for the carrier to pick up our boxed stone fruit and suitably packed market vegetables as the season's rolled around.
Mother and the removalists had managed to make the house look homely, right from the start. After purchase, she had inspected the place on two occasions prior to moving, had measured the rooms with care and chosen only the curtains and furnishings that could be accommodated easily, without any suggestion of clutter. I loved it for its simplicity, its even temperature, being fully lined in dovetailed, insulating Oregon timber, and the fact that the animal pelts, with their heads, glass eyes and bullet holes, were no longer underfoot to torture me. Because of the overwhelming generosity of our neighbours, and the fact that Mother and Robbie were happy too, we had all slept soundly last night. His first birthday would fall on Tuesday, when I would start back at school and be away all day, as the bus to Beecroft Station would pick me up at 7 am and he would wonder where I had gone.
First light slowly crept over the fallow ground. Robbie noticed. He raised his arms and I picked him up for a dusky view of the road to Parramatta, the Maher's house and farm buildings, and as the light improved, of Mr and Mrs Maher leaving their house together, by the back door, down the steps and into the farmyard. He was dressed in dark work trousers, leather boots and a short sleeved shirt, and he went to the stable, led Bonny, their Clydesdale outside into a roofed yard to eat her breakfast at ground level, from a wooden manger, then barrowed soiled straw to the compost pile, forked unsoiled stable bedding around the perimeter walls to air during the day, then clipped both doors wide open, to allow the stable to be 'sweetened' by the sun. His wife wore a light print dress, an apron and leather farm boots, and she directed the milking cows from their overnight byre to the dairy for milking. Both were hatless and as they were busy, we did not distract them.
We later learned that Bonny and the milking cows were bedded down in bottom-end, oat stalk straw every night to make the ingredients for the compost, which, when cured, created all the fertiliser used on the farm. Growing the oats between the rows of fruit trees, to make chaff and straw for cow and horse feed and bedding, was an early discipline in which Mr Maher was my unforgettable mentor and teacher. After feeding Bonny, he left the stable to check the sows and their litters in their sties, which ran down the right hand side of a gravelled laneway, adjacent to our common boundary fence. Below the sties, our fruit trees partially obstructed the view, but we could see Mr Maher disappearing and reappearing, and then we watched as he walked back up the lane and went towards the dairy.
Later in the day, when shown over the highly productive and sweet smelling piggery areas, I was surprised to find that the sows, housed in free-draining outside pens with safe, raised, roofed and sheltered farrowing platforms for safe birthing and the rearing of piglets, kept those beds spotless until their young were sufficiently advanced to jump the rails which had earlier prevented them from falling into the paved, gently sloping pens, now popped over them with ease, ran around and played together, and then scampered back up again. Each pen had a toilet area, used only by the sow, [who ingests all droppings from her young, just like a bitch, and keeps her farrowing area spotlessly clean], with an irrigation drain running the full length of alternated rows in the Maher's thriving orchard, reticulated from the outflow from each sty when sluiced. There were never any flies, nor unpleasant odours.
Back to Mr Maher. At dawn, on that first morning at Shalimar, Robbie and I had watched every move he made before returning to help Mrs Maher in the dairy, where he told us on our later inspection of the property that same morning, he scrubbed up, cooled the milk, then ran half of it through the cream separator - for butter making, when chilled. The remainder, after saving sufficient for household needs for the two families on the block, was added to the skim for the sows and their piglets. When weaned, chopped root and green vegetables would complement the mixed milk, and would be fed to them judiciously until they reached market weight and condition. When all batches of each drop had been sold, their sties would be scrubbed and then fumigated with burning sulphur behind canvas screens and the skim milk would go to the dry sows and the boars, prior to mating.
After breakfast, Mr and Mrs Maher showed us around their entire property. That tour of inspection was a revelation. Mother and I had never seen such attention to detail anywhere. We followed every word our good neighbours had to say about the way they farmed, and their reasons were simple. They housed and bedded their working livestock down at night to make compost as fertiliser, to grew all the oaten chaff, corn, root crops, lucerne and clover hay required to maintain their breeding livestock and 'finish' their young for market. They had never used any 'outside' feed or fertiliser and had thus avoided the introduction of weeds and diseases.
Their dry sows and dry cows or heifers lived in valley fields at the end of the spring watered lane, the milkers joining them during the day. All were frequently rotated to ensure internal parasite control. The boars were housed and fed some distance from other stock and had outside toilet facilities and adequate sunlight They were noisy and looked pretty savage. Adjacent to our place, which had no spring, the Maher's tall timbered woodlot was thriving.
Much earlier, when I was on the closed-in verandah with Robbie, and Mr Maher had made sure that all the livestock were set for the day, he and Mrs Maher had walked arm in arm, back up the lane. As they topped the rise, Robbie clapped his hands and I called to them,
They waved and greeted us, then crossed the stable yard towards their back steps and from their porch, they waved once more, removed their boots and went indoors for breakfast. With little traffic on the road and the sun not yet risen above the higher ground towards North Rocks township, Robbie became restless, just as we both heard Mother busying herself in the kitchen, soon accompanied by the tantalising aroma of bacon and eggs on crispy toast; a sure indication that I must dress my little brother, bib and all, pop him in his highchair, and help Mother serve breakfast, knowing how much she missed dear Rene.
It was Saturday, our first morning of wakening at Shalimar, and because there was that deep and dangerous well outside our back door, I felt frantically protective towards my little brother, who could get around like greased lightning, be it on two legs, his bum or his hands and knees. On returning from our tour of inspection of the Maher's ordered and immensely productive property, imagine my sheer disbelief when the driver of a huge tip truck, laden with varied materials deemed suitable for filling in wells, pulled up on the far side of the road, alighted, and came to the front door with Terrence's approval. He did not need to knock, as Mother knew his name and business, all arranged by Mr and Mrs Maher, yesterday, before Jock, Terrence and I had even arrived. How did our dog know that this man was a friend?
While I held Robbie, goggle eyed and wriggling in my arms, the truck driver and Mother went round to the back of the house to assess the intricacies of the job ahead and I took the would be escape-artist inside to watch proceedings from the back bedroom, where he had a bird's eye view through the biggest window in the house. Standing on a kitchen chair, with me beside him, holding his hand, he chattered away with glee, as both Mr Maher and Mr Jago turned up with crowbars and a winch to help the truck driver back his rig down the drive to clear the rotting wooden beams covering the well, and Mother, seeing her animated Robbie, soon joined us. It was a delicate and dangerous job, and they used the strongest beams to build a sturdy back stop to ensure that the weight of the load to be raised to tipping height, could not force the rig into the well. To be doubly certain, the truck driver secured the winch to the cyclone wires' concrete and steel ballast, under the house.
Satisfied that all due care was in place, and instead of continuing to watch proceedings from the safety of the back room, Mother went into the kitchen, switched the oven on high, and whipped up a big batch of her famous, fluffy scones. She then set the table in the dining room for a very early morning tea, in the short time the high heat took to make them perfect. Out at the well, the tipping exercise was speedily achieved as the heavy, rough and stony 'fill' went into the abyss first, followed by differing types of suitable material until the well was almost full, and then a mountain of rich, dark loam was slowly tipped on top, to create the perfect base for whatever type of garden or lawn we planted.
As Mother opened the back door to announce that morning tea was served, the men came out of the laundry. All spruced up and satisfied with a job well done, they filed up the back steps, removed their boots on the porch, walked through the kitchen and into the dining room, to promptly and unanimously declare that the scones were the best they had ever tasted. Mother was quick on the repartee, saying it was Mrs Maher's delicious, thick cream and Mrs Jago's piquant, mouth watering raspberry jam that made the scones so good. She thanked them all for their time and expertise and insisted that they must send her their accounts and accept the cheques she remitted to them. They all nodded in agreement, but the only bill she received was from the contractor, and even it was for a modest amount. He drove his truck away as soon as the men left the house, but Mr Jago and Mr Maher did not go far. They dismantled the backstop to set the beams on the lower side of a mound of loam, knowing that it would subside considerably and those well set beams would insure against erosion.
No longer threatened by the possibility of losing Robbie in that deep black grave, Mother, buoyed by our neighbours' timely assistance in removing that threat, and the success of the scones, which she had not baked herself since the Dix girls had replaced her in the kitchen, except occasionally on their days off, unexpectedly hugged me, saying,
'Babe, what a hectic morning this has been! I can't believe that dreadful well was eliminated with such ease and precision. And then the inspection of the Maher's model farm made me think about the Chinese gardener and his family, who made us self sufficient in poultry, milk, fruit and vegetables at Wychwood when our dear Poppa was still alive. I have seen it all before - this ability to work with Nature and prosper. It's a gift and I thought you might like to take Jock for a little ride around the district this afternoon to get your bearings. We have the Jago's luscious young vegetables and roasting chicken for our evening meal, plus a map of our immediate surrounds, so perhaps we might celebrate Robbie's birthday with a single candle dinner party tonight - even if it is a wee bit early.'
I was thrilled with these proposals and Jock, Terry and I went off together on our journey of discovery, exploring a pattern of roads and tracks from the map of the area which Mother had been given by Mrs Jago. She was more than just a good neighbour; she was already a good friend who would stand by Mother throughout the years we spent on Shalimar, and long after both families relocated.
On commencing our 'little ride', we went up the to the village of North Rocks, comprising a friendly looking, freshly painted weather-board primary school, with well kept grounds and playing fields. It was opposite a big garage and a motor workshop, with petrol bowsers outside, a busy general store and a huge shed, to accommodate the district's bus fleet. I later learned that the neat homes and gardens of the shopkeeper, the garage owner, the bus operator, one of his drivers and the school groundsman, were in a neat row on the northern side of the road. All housed families, and as the day was warm, young children were playing under garden sprinklers on their lawns, and some of the mothers were chatting over fences. They waved to us and I waved back.
It would have been nice to stop and say 'hello', but there were a couple of dogs spoiling for a fight with Terrence, so I rode on by, with our aloof dog, eyes front, not even deigning to acknowledge the presence of would be adversaries, a ploy that almost always worked. On the few occasions when he had been attacked in the past, he had flattened his assailants by grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and executing a quick flip which left them momentarily stunned while the big black dog sailed nonchalantly on his way without a backward glance. Instead of going round the bend in the road we had followed on the day of our recent arrival in the district, we left the bitumen and continued straight ahead to test the accuracy of Mrs Jago's map. It indicated a route which should turn hard left after about three quarters of a mile and set us in a westerly direction of quite a considerable distance, before turning left again and eventually rejoining North Rocks Road, down the hill, towards the Woollen Mills, at North Parramatta. This was new territory, less tamed and not as ordered and friendly as Shalimar, or the Maher's and Jago's thriving acreages.
We poked along, looking around. On our right, farm houses and buildings appeared neglected. Many fields were uncultivated, and in those that carried struggling crops, the soil was light and sandy - impoverished, acid ground, with dry bracken along the sagging fence lines, and very few head of livestock or trees for shade and shelter. There were dogs though. They challenged Terrence half heartedly, and were ignored. Our journey of discovery was thus far, disappointing, but soon we spied dense bush ahead, still on the right hand side and a large, stately home, farm buildings and much activity across a wide spectrum of well grassed, undulating land to our left, where men were forking and shovelling fish waste from the trays of up to half a dozen trucks and spreading it over the paddocks. The stench was overpowering. It travelled with us as we moved on towards the wooded area, then subtly changed, as Jock shortened stride, unhappy to proceed. Terrence turned his head, directed some sort of telepathy to the horse, then trotted boldly out in front and Jock followed, trembling but obedient. Soon we all heard them - oink oink - disturbed by picking up our scents and hearing hoofbeats - free range young pigs, as far as the eye could see through the trees, and I could feel Jock's heart pounding wildly in his chest.
Pigs - a horse's worst enemy - a fear from way back, long before domestication, but which can still haunt them unless reared with them, as pigs had wicked tusks in ancient times and attacked from under cover, ripping the horses' bellies wide open. From the saddle, I could see a short, right hand lane, a little further along the road. Towards its end there was a gate and rows and rows of feeding troughs among the trees. Not wishing to linger here, lest trucks arrived to feed the pigs, and Jock's heart still thumping hard enough to kill him, or so it felt, I said,
'Home Dog' to Terrence, hoping he would go forward. He did, and Jock responded to my legs and followed, his heart beat gradually slowing. We were lucky, for soon we could hear the young pigs giving their lungs some serious exercise - they oinked like crazy at the approaching sound of several trucks, almost certainly on their way to feed them. There was no indication of the third left hand stretch of our journey of discovery coming up; only another huge, heavily timbered paddock, teeming with slightly bigger young pigs, crowding towards the sound of the feed wagons, which made us accelerate. Once safely past the access gate to their feed troughs, I saw that the country ahead, on the right, sloped gently downhill, still heavily timbered, but showing brief glimpses of closer settlement; a busy roadway and scattered buildings. On our left, the cleared and mostly grassed land and well separated buildings continued until we reached our turn off. I hoped we were no longer being followed, as Jock was still jittery.
On our western flank, the bush became rocky and much steeper. Through the treetops, the old woollen mills, homes and manufacturing enterprises of North Parramatta were vaguely visible and we could hear the sounds of industry in motion. On our left, the pig farm continued, with roofed and partly clad rows of sties, separated by wide laneways, stretching out in all directions, clearly indicating that this was a very big commercial establishment, far too close to Shalimar. Thriving, advanced orchards and mixed farms, very like our own, but larger and on more level ground, separated us from this big piggery and I thought Mother and certainly I, had no prior knowledge of its existence. Perhaps that was why Mrs Jago had given Mother the map - as a warning.
On reaching North Rocks Road, we turned towards Shalimar and eventually drew level with Mr and Mrs Maher's house. Sitting in their wicker chairs at their morning and afternoon tea table, they beckoned us across the road to the verge, some distance on the Parramatta side of their own and their daughter's front gates, and asked me where we had been venturing. Explaining why I could not leave Jock tied up to any fence, I told them, hoping that they would reveal all they knew about the enormous piggery operation and the smelly, dead fish being spread across the open fields. Mr Maher then rose and walked towards us, but did not venture close.
'An interesting journey, Margot. Your horse seems unsettled, so you best get him home. We'll be over at your place directly, to introduce you and Mrs Hamilton to your own dairy cow, the nice little Jersey, and we can tell you all about large scale piggeries, unsafe pig food and dead fish as fertiliser, a sure way of introducing the deadly Swine Fever into North Rocks. Our Shire of Cumberland was placed under quarantine at Christmas time, nearly six weeks ago, with the first diseased animal[s] diagnosed at Homebush Sales and all pig movement banned until the scourge has been eradicated. If a property becomes infected, every pig on it must be destroyed. I'm amazed that you did not know about the outbreak. I told Mrs Hamilton about it and the threat to our own pigs. I'm surprised she did not warn you to keep well away from that property, which must be liable to the disease, as the pigs there have been routinely fed offal, the presumed source of the outbreak, a practise now banned.'
'I'm sorry, Mr Maher. I did not know about the outbreak of the disease. I think both Mother and I are a bit shell-shocked by our move. She had given me a rough map of the district and did not mention the necessity of avoiding pigs. We had not even heard those ones at feeding time, presuming that all pig noises came from your place or from the big orchard and mixed farm across the road. I will take Jock home on the other side of the road so that any contamination on his feet will not get on the verge between our houses. It will pay to scrub his hoofs and Terry's paws thoroughly too, before we recross the road at Shalimar. Thank you, Mr Maher, for leaving your tea on our account'. I waved to Mrs Maher and rode home as promised, soon espying Robbie, jumping up and down in his cot on the side verandah, awake now and lively, following his afternoon nap.
Mother came across the road when cooed, heard about Mr Maher's concern about where we had been, and all the scary things we had seen on the back blocks, showing her the route we had taken, as depicted on the map that she had given me, and then of speaking to Mr Maher on our return. When asked to hold Jock while I fetched a bucket half full of strongly disinfected water and a scrubbing brush, she did not seem to recognise the possible threat of our journey to the Maher's pigs. She was more intent on getting Robbie out of his cot, to await the arrival of Fluchen, the Jersey cow, due in half an hour. With the hoof and paw scrubbing finally attended, I put Terrance on the chain and unsaddled Jock to ride him bareback, down to his paddock where he rolled and rolled, then galloped three times round its perimeter, glad to be away from scary pigs.
There was a gate in the hollow which led into the Maher's bottom ground and through our fruit trees, I caught glimpses of Mr Maher leading a small, almost black, somewhat intractable little cow, down the lane past the farrowing pens, so I hurried to tell Mother and collect the milk pail and the udder wash. She was already on her way, with a pail in either hand and Robbie on her left hip, clutching handfuls of her shirt and wriggling enough to make her fall, so I took the pails and told my little brother to keep still and please be kind, which he did. Arriving at the milking shed and adjacent byre, Mr Maher greeted Mother and said to me,
'You'd best take Robbie up to the house. The cow is young and needs gentle handling, with no distractions'.
So off I went and carried Robbie up to the house. Once inside the kitchen, I could see no sign of preparation for the little bloke's birthday party - no stuffed chicken in the ice chest - no prepared vegetables - no cake. Surely the early arrival of the cow, originally expected the day after tomorrow, could not possibly cause Mother to overlook her only son's first birthday, even if it was two days early.
I felt useless, but could only wait until Mr Maher carried the pail of foamy, sweet smelling milk into the kitchen and showed Mother how to strain it into the containers to go into the cooler to set the cream, as we had no separator at that stage, but still needed to make butter. The other bucket had held warm water and a clean cloth to wash the udder prior to milking. Apparently, the crabby little cow had let her milk down generously for Mr Maher and remained calm when Mother tried her hands to milk her out, no trouble at all. There was still nearly half a bucket of milk left over, so Mr Maher put it in a big billy to take to his place for separating, the skim to go to his pigs down the back. I quite suddenly felt outraged by all this coming and going, just to have fresh Jersey milk for Robbie, and said, 'Perhaps it would be better if we just kept enough milk for our own needs and gave the rest to the Maher's for butter making, at least until we get our own separator.'
The consensus was in the affirmative and I was given the morning milking slot for tomorrow, as it was peach picking and packing day for the Mahers, who would give instruction to us, both in the orchard and the shed, after the luncheon break, starting at one o'clock.
Mother thanked Mr Maher for the milking instructions, turned the oven on high, then brought the seasoned chicken, the prepared baking vegetables and Robbie's cake out of the big Coolgardie safe in the back bedroom, making me feel a proper nitwit, because I had clean forgotten all about that old safe, and had even failed to remember to start heating the bath water, a situation soon remedied. I then excused myself to feed Jock and bed him down for the night in the stable, in fluffy yellow straw, delivered by the produce merchant at North Parramatta to our little barn with chaff and bran for the big, zinc lined bin, as fodder for the horse and cow plus the bales of bedding straw.
When spread for the night in the stable or the byre, inevitably some bedding became soiled or wet by next morning and was forked out to make compost for the fruit trees and market vegetables. Clean, dry, used bedding was then forked to and fluffed up along the back and side perimeter walls, to be 'sweetened' by the early morning sun on fine days. Extra, clean straw was always added each evening to ensure the comfort and well-being of the compost makers, both of whom soon became accustomed to their new housing arrangements and made 'mucking out' an easy task.
Robbie was thrilled with his birthday party and fed himself almost every mouthful of his finely sliced chicken and mashed vegetables. His Mother was amazed and quite overcome.
'Oh', she said, as the dabbed at teardrops, 'My baby boy is growing up too fast'.
I cleared the plates and replaced Robbie's gravy coloured bib, then placed the birthday cake and the candle on the table to hand clapping and exclamations of joy from Mother, who lit the candle, and her small child, who clapped his hands with glee. It was nice party, and afterwards I washed the dishes while Mother introduced her animated little boy to a hand crafted, beautifully made wooden train with open carriages in which he could shovel real sand, when delivered on Tuesday. So now Robbie had two trains, the second one much bigger than the first and on the day I would return to school, he would be far too busy shovelling sand to even miss me.
Sunday afternoon found Robbie with Mrs Jago, with whom he had a fine rapport, and Mother and I in the Maher's orchard and fruit packing shed, where we commenced our introduction to careful, non bruising picking and handling of delicate, sweet scented peaches, placed them in the transit containers of similar sized fruit on a lightly sprung trolley for a safe trip to the packing shed, our every move carefully supervised by either Mr or Mrs Maher, each of whom gave clear directions and made the job a pleasure. Once in the packing shed, the fruit was transferred onto a slow moving conveyor belt, supervised by the married daughter, who lived next door on a half acre block, and was a dressmaker, poultry farmer and occasional helper to her Mum and Dad, by day, and the wife and mother of her accountant husband and primary school children at night and on weekends, fruit packing times excepted.
To my considerable angst, I found the packing shed hot and claustrophobic, the conveyor belt too fast, and the soft down from the peaches made me itch all over, but mercifully I shut up about these discomforts and slowly but surely got the knack of the diamond and other packing pattern skills, and my gratitude to the patience and kindness of our instructors found me truly humbled by their generosity of spirit. Mother amazed me too. I had always known that she was a brilliant journalist, but was astonished by the speed with which she had taken to the milking, and now, the fruit picking and packing too. She was also a wonderful cook, a top mother to her baby boy, and was not too proud to get down on her hands and knees to wash and polish the kitchen and bathroom linoleum floors. The only chore which was easier here than at Pymble was the washing. The electric machine in the laundry did a good job in cold water, when the soap flakes were first fully dissolved in hot.
Mother was really happy about the fruit picking and packing experience and the continuing helpfulness of our neighbours. Being at War and at risk of invasion was never discussed, their opinion being that we were primary producers, doing our little bit to feed a nation. Our own war effort was to continue to provide food, but at this stage, we were only consuming, and it grieved me, especially as Jock needed bought in oaten chaff. I knew we would be self sufficient quite soon for everything else, but oats first had to be grown and reaped, and to make chaff, the crop had to be cured, first in the windrow, after it was cut and stooked, and then it heated up and cured again when in the stack or the barn, so we would be buying chaff for over an entire year.
I went to the Jago's to collect Robbie when we finished the fruit packing, and told Mrs Jago my troubles, which she dismissed as nonsense.
'All you have to do is let Jock into our back paddock, when you're at school all day. Mr Jago would be pleased to have him and your cow in there to eat it down a bit. I'll speak to him. Jock will need precious little hand feeding on our place. There's a gateway, up on the back boundary. You may not have found it yet, but we'll make sure it is accessible. A few bags of sterilised blood and bone would do wonders for your own paddock. I'll speak to Mr Jago about that too. He could get some for you on our next order for his tomatoes. It's not expensive.'
I did not know what to say. Such incredible kindness all around us. It was unbelievable. But I knew Mother was strapped for cash. She had been unaware that our fruit harvest would be completely finished and sold before our arrival, but she had not discussed that subject with me either, even although I was now fourteen and no longer away with the fairies . Finally, I plucked up the courage to suggest to Mrs Jago that it may be better if she also told Mother about the very generous paddock offer, which would help us immensely.
'Yes dear, you're quite right. I should have done so in the first place. I intended to speak to her about milk from your cow, should you have any to spare. Our cow is old and has failed to get in calf, so will soon be dry. Poor old thing. Never mind. We all have to go sometime! Oh, by the way, when she does finally go dry, we'll have no use for the cream separator. It's a Diabolo, the very best little machine you can possibly get.'
'That sounds interesting. I know Mother's been thinking about the need for a separator. With butter rationed, I think she's been hoping that Aunty Rita might drive Grandma Thatcher over to visit us. They're horrified that we live here, but they both love their butter. They may be tempted to make the journey, even if just to see Robbie. Thank you for having him, Mrs Jago. He loves coming to your place.'
He came to me when called, jumped into my arms for a hug, then threw his arms out to embrace Mrs Jago as we said our goodbyes, our Terrence waiting outside the door to escort us home. Back in our own kitchen, Robbie went straight into Mother's outstretched arms and snuggled into her embrace. He was a jolly good kid. I glanced at the clock - there was just time to put the lid on the scalded milking pail, make up Jock's feed and carry it, his bridle, the lidded pail and the udder wash buckets down to the paddock, which was not much fun for a burn, so I placed the two buckets outside the fence, and Jock too, hopped on to his bare back and rode up, down, diagonally and across the orchard to have a good look at all the trees. They appeared strong and very healthy, even although our soil lacked the dark colour and strong tilth of the Maher's chocolate loam. Mr Maher had said that ours was a very good orchard and all the fruit packed and carried well. And sometimes topped the market!
Accepting the presence of Terrence, Fluchen, the cow followed Jock and the buckets into the woodlot; good girl! She walked in the direction of the milking shed and I made up Jock's bed in the stable, groomed and fed him, filled his water bucket, hugged his glossy bay neck and wished him a good night, then closed the bottom half of his stable door, and carried the milking pail and wash bucket over to the little cow, her head in the bail, patiently waiting for me to clamp it shut and place a dipper full of chaffed meadow hay in the feed bin, per favour, Mr and Mrs Maher. She was settled and content - a very different cow from the wild eyed, jittery creature who had only been with us for a very short time and was now part of the family. I leg roped her though, just in case she changed her mood and kicked the milk pail over. She was not the least offended and let her milk down with grace, making me glad that I had learned to handle and milk Jersey cows at Mae and Walter's place and knew they were super sensitive.
Approaching the house, Terrence lifted his nose up high to sniff the delicate aroma of another of Mother's delightful dinners, and he wagged his tail, knowing that he would share a part of it. She had already bathed Robbie and herself and left my top-up bucket on the stove, so I gave her the pail of milk to strain and chill and quickly bathed myself. The bathing arrangements were an oversight on her part. She had thought the set up a bit primitive when inspecting the house, but had not worried unduly, as the dining room chimney fire would surely warm the bathroom in winter, never dreaming that neither of the bath taps would ever deliver hot water! Over our meal of grilled skirt steak and vegetables, the steak delivered by the bus driver from Beecroft, I told her about the possibility of grazing Jock and Flutchen in the Jago's back paddock, and that we may be interested in their cream separator, but she had already spoken to Mr and Mrs Jago, over the side fence, while I was riding and milking and the deals had already been struck.
Next morning, after milking and letting Jock and Flutchen out into the paddock, I heard Mr Jago calling to me from the top, left hand corner of our boundary fence, where he stood waving from a wide open gateway which the horse and cow had already noticed and were fast approaching. He had cleared the brambles and I thanked him, then took the pail of milk straight up to Mother to strain and cool, before returning to the stable and the byre to barrow the compost material to the steaming piles, knowing I would need to be much slicker to morrow morning to get washed, dressed and breakfasted before the bus to Beecroft arrived at 7am.
This was my last day on the learning curve. There would be no margin for error henceforth. A smiling Mother and baby brother, plus a gourmet breakfast, soon cleared my mind of worries, and a short time later Mr Maher and Bonny arrived to prepare our market gardening ground for seed and seedling sowing for our late Summer and Autumn crops, and then sow lupin seed throughout the orchard to fix nitrogen in the soil.
Mother told me, on my return from school, that an old gentleman named Larry had arrived soon after my bus departed, to till the ground around the trees. Using a mattock, he turned the earth around each one with skilled care to avoid any damage to roots and branches. A long time, trusted friend of the Maher's, he lived down the road with his wife and their dogs, in an incredibly large, comfortable house, built entirely from scrap from the tip. When we finally met, I was in awe of Larry because he looked at least a hundred years old, all wizened and scrawny, but he put in his eight hours each day without any sign of fatigue, had a half hour break and kip with his home packed lunch and cold tea at noon, and the speed at which he worked was awesome. He helped us for years, never slacking, then one morning, near the end of our tenure in the district, he did not awaken. He had slipped away silently in his sleep. His poor old wife was heartbroken and she died soon after his well attended funeral, the two old dogs having pre-deceased her, by less than a week.
We missed them deeply, and having no family, their home fell into disrepair and was demolished by the Council. As forecast by Mrs Chilvers, later in the story, after the War ended, North Rocks soon became wall to wall suburbia and our once super productive, clean, healthy, environmentally friendly small farms and unpretentious people like Larry and his wife, disappeared for ever.
our fruit packing shed there were two chook houses with quite
generous, well netted runs, but no fruit or other trees for shelter.
I had noticed them on our very first day at Shalimar, but had lacked
the time to check their cleanliness and condition. Robbie had a cloth
picture book of farm animals and poultry which kept him entranced for
hours on end. Hens with baby chickens appeared to be his favourites.
I spoke to Mother about it, suggesting that she might talk to the
Jago's, whose main market enterprises were fresh egg production and
So preliminary arrangements for Robbie's first chicken enterprise were arranged but he was blissfully unaware until the chickens were finally hatched and delivered to our place. Then he was entranced. He played near the coop until the mother hen called her brood under her wings for them to have a sleep. He then complained to his own Mother, finding bits of words to express his indignation. She explained that they were only a day old and needed lots of sleep, so maybe he should come inside and have a little nap himself. By the time he wakened, the chicks may be up and out exploring their coop again, but would probably tire quite quickly until ready to leave it during the day, staying very close to the mother hen and all of them would then return towards evening to sleep in safety.
Back To School.
Next morning I mucked out the byre and the stable at first light and turned the compost, which was really hot and breaking down well. Jock was outside, eating his breakfast out of a Norco butter box while I fed Flutchen some of Mr Maher's oaten chaff and found that we may soon need a bigger milking bucket, with a tighter lid, now that she had better grazing in Mr Jago's paddock. Let through the gate into our grazing paddock, both horse and cow hot-footed it to the open gate into the luxury of grazing next door, with a big water trough and shade trees, while Terrence and I raced up our hill for breakfast. It was well after 6am, so I drank my orange juice, washed myself thoroughly, dressed fully, except for my uniform, slipped into my summer wrap and gave Robbie a big hug. Together, around the table, we ate our porridge and corn fritters, then drank our milk or tea, with my little brother now proudly able to feed himself
Mother had left my freshly ironed uniform on a hanger, ready for me. On my bed, my hat, gloves, school case and money for bus and train fares, were set out in a neat row. She brought me my lunch in its lovely tin, taken out of the cooler at the last moment, then wrapped it in newspaper to keep it cool, and into my case it went.
It was six fifty six as I farewelled my family. The journey to Beecroft Station was long and tortuous, turning off to the left, well up North Rocks Road, towards its junction with Pennant Hills Road, and into completely unknown territory to me, as the country was all either undulating or steep and had not been visible when riding into the district on the left hand side of both roads. On leaving North Rocks Road, the unsealed route went down a long, steep hill, then wandered around, up and down, with few stops because it was too early for local school children, but once we crossed the Pennant Hills Road, the going was easier and most of the surfaces were sealed. The dozen or so bus passengers were on their way to the City and the timetable was for their train, not mine, to Hornsby, where I would change to the North Shore line. By the clock at the station, the time was already 8.05 and the train to Hornsby was not due for another ten minutes. At this rate, close to four hours would be spent travelling each day and it would be nearly pitch dark on reaching home in Winter.
I was only a few minutes late for Assembly and the Welcome Back to School hymn. All my class mates from last year were present and correct. Many had grown taller over the long summer break, leaving me way behind, as usual. At recess and at lunch time, we exchanged stories of our holiday adventures. Our good rapport cheered me and I found I did not have to mention the move to Shalimar, as none of my classmates had ever been to our place in Pymble, and appeared not to have noticed my failure to catch the train there. But at lunch time, Barbara did ask me about my Daddy and the big black dog.
'Haven't seen them for ages', she stated.
'No', I replied, 'It's years since they accompanied me to the station to make sure I caught the train. I wanted to go to PLC with my friend Patsy Anne. We both had ponies and enjoyed riding in Kuringai Chase. Now Daddy's away, helping his friend Harley with the vintage, out at Moorebank. Our dog Terrence is at home with Mother and my little brother Robbie.'
'You're a dark horse. Didn't know you had a brother. Is he nice?'
'Yes, he's a year old now and he's gentle and kind'.
Barbara had no further questions. It was time to play rounders until the bell rang to summon us back to class. At the end of the day, with official approval, I raced off, well ahead of the crocodile to the station and managed to catch a train to Hornsby before my classmates discovered that I now travelled in the wrong direction. Why the secrecy and veiled deception about almost everything? I did not know.
Mother seemed to think I was much later reaching home than she had expected and out of nowhere, a sudden, strong feeling of resentment overwhelmed me and I argued the point with her, even suggesting that she should take a ride in the bus herself to see just how long it takes to reach the station and return to Shalimar. This was out of bounds behaviour for me, especially as she was cradling a sleepy Robbie in her arms, but I rattled on;
'It's just ridiculous to travel so far, when the State's top High School is only twenty minutes away, in Parramatta, teaches girls physics and chemistry, essential for any science course at University' -- I had to stop - Mother had swooned, with Robbie in her arms and had mercifully fallen onto the big sofa in the living room and neither of them was hurt, but Robbie screamed and kicked at me in fury until she wakened, and through her tears, she berated me savagely as the usual 'ungrateful child''.
I did not know what to do. I had always tried to speak to Mother calmly about issues which troubled me, and only when she was alone. Now I had blotted my copybook irrevocably. I had no one to whom Icould turn for wise council. Patsy Anne might just as well be in living in Timbuktu - because of the nearly four hours of each weekday I would spend travelling to school and back, and my farm chores, which would increase with the planting and nurture of cash crops to pay for the chaff for Jock and Flutchen too - as we could not possibly expect our good neighbours to help us indefinitely - and Jock would need shoeing every six weeks, plus the prohibitive cost of my education; it was now clear to me that I would never be able to maintain a long and positive friendship with anyone other than our good neighbours at North Rocks
On the only occasion that I had managed to contact her by phone, Patsy had broken down in tears and chokingly admitted that her Mum and Dad were still 'right round the twist', worrying about Dennis, who was flying in an overseas war zone, and from whom they had still received no news since he left Canada. I asked her to hang in there and write whatever came into her head, promising to reply to every letter. I waited in vain, and eventually wrote to her again, telling her of the wasted time spent getting to and from school, then pleaded with her to visit me for weekends, say at least twice each term, adding official train and bus timetables and saying how much Mother and Robbie would enjoy her company. There was no reply. I did not give up though, scribbling off frequent notes and finally asking Mother to contact her parents. I do not know whether she did so. Being in her black books most of the time, I never made the same request on more than one occasion.
Old Larry came to help us with our seed and seedling planting. Mr Maher and Bonny came in to top the young lupin plants in the orchard to stimulate root nodule growth to fertilise and aerate the soil, and the hen and her brood of healthy chicks were already out of the coop and scratching around, close to the house where she could summon them under her, should any danger to them be perceived. I had seen several different varieties of hawks on the wing, hovering at great heights, then plummeting like rockets into neighbouring fields from time to time, so it was just as well these little chicks had a very astute mother hen who managed to rear the entire clutch to the pin feather stage, when we could tell by their combs, which ones would be separated and fattened for the table and those who would become our first laying hens. Robbie had followed them everywhere in the early stages, but his interest had waned and finally died when the very protective mother hen would never let him actually touch any of her chicks. I now realised the experiment was probably far too early for him to understand why mother hens had to be so very defensive.
Old Larry found good wire netting at the tip to enable us to cover the tops of the high poultry yards, to ensure that no birds of prey could steal our pullets or cockerels, and one of the Maher's married sons carted it to our place for nothing. He said it was no trouble;
'I was coming to see Mum and Dad anyway, and I'll be taking all your produce to market and will get my pound of flesh then. You never know with markets. They can be volatile. Sometimes there's just no sale for even the best of produce. After all the work of producing and packing it, there are times when there will be no cheque - just my bill for cartage and the agent's brokerage and dumping fee. It's the way of the world of supply and demand, so it's good to see you're on the road to self sufficiency. Bringing that wire was a pleasure!'
'What a nice young man; polite, considerate and well spoken.
There can't be much wrong with the local state or Catholic school education around here. Why won't Mother discuss the subject with me? Now that she is no longer in a high salaried job, how can she expect to pay my exorbitant private school fees?'
I was talking passionately to Terry, who, like Jock, always listened to my woes and neither were ever upset by what I had to say. They would both press closer to me when I got teary, but only Terrence licked those tears. We're down by the young chooks, separated by wire netting, but able to touch one another by poking their heads through the wire. Yesterday, Mrs Jago had given me an old milk bucket with a lid, three quarters full of wheat for them. She said it should last a week and a bit and then I could pay her to top it up by trimming their hedge. And I did.
We did not possess a radio, nor did we receive a daily newspaper,
so I was surprised when my class mate, Jennifer, asked me to sit with her in the shade at lunch time, saying quietly,
'Please don't think me a busybody, but I want to ask you a something.'
Liking Jennifer, as I did all the girls in my class, excepting the one to whom I was forbidden to speak, I realised that I had no especially close friends amongst them, like Patsy Anne, probably because our lives had few parallels or special interests and mine was so completely different from theirs. Aware of hidden boundaries, I felt both gratitude and ill ease at Jennifer's request, but shrugged off both emotions, saying,
'Yes, of course. Ask away.'
'Well, it was a surprise to me, but our Mothers know one another, and my Mother has told me why you now live at North Rocks, the work you do there, and the time you spend travelling to and from School. You have kept all that under your hat, but that's your business, not mine. This morning though, on the early News, my Mother heard and thens told me at breakfast, that Swine Fever has invaded your district. I just wanted to tell you that we know about it and hope that it does not impact on you or your fine neighbours who have helped you to get on your feet'.
I was stunned. What a small world we live in!
'Oh, Jennifer, I did not know, but thank you for telling me. Our neighbours, Mr and Mrs Maher, have been deeply concerned about a big property nearby, running huge numbers of pigs, all fed offal, which they consider would be the source of the any outbreak in our district. The Maher's also run pigs, but in hygienic conditions. Their's is an organic farm and all food for their livestock and themselves is grown on the property.'
We sat in the shade then and opened our lunch tins, I, at last remembering that Jennifer had invited me to join her for lunch, because she had a question to ask. Both hungry, I waited till the pangs had been dulled, then said,
'When you first invited me to have lunch with you, what was it you wished to ask me?
Momentarily, her memory failed her, then she smiled and wanted to know why I had kept the move to the farm a big secret.
Rattled, I had to admit that I didn't know, my life was complicated and I was forever clutching at straws, ducking and weaving, trying to please, plus deal with a heavy work load, but was now very thankful that she knew all about my double life and told her so, then gabbled on, and thanked her for asking, continuing with the supposition that everyone in our Class had enormous baggage to carry, especially now, with loved ones overseas, in peril during this terrible War.
I then missed a few beats and said I had a best friend right up till we left Pymble. We had been confident that our friendship would continue, by mail, telephone and her promised visits to Shalimar during school holidays, but nothing ever stays the same. Her much older, adoreds brother was a fighter pilot, probably overseas and her Mum and Dad had cracked up. They wouldn't let her out of their sight, except to continue her education at PLC Pymble, where we had hoped to be together.
'I should have realised that nothing stays the same. We are still children, all at the mercy of circumstance. Is your life ordered and comprehensible?'
' Not really. My father and sister are both dead and Mother is not well, but she has a good job which she enjoys and never complains. She is determined that she will last long enough to get me through Medicine, but tells me I should try for a scholarship, to be sure! We have a strong and loving relationship, so I'm singularly blessed'.
Before I could thank Jennifer adequately for her interest in my wellbeing, and to hear more about her Mother's illness, the bell rang for class resumption. On our way back to our classroom, she enlightened me on how you could get into Medicine at a school without Physics and Chemistry. She and another classmate, Anne, were being tutored in both subjects by our Science teacher, at extra cost, and after School, of course! No wonder Mother was in denial. But I made no mention of that problem to Jennifer - had never done so, and never would, to anyone, until now, in my eighties. I did, however, thank her for her kindness in giving me this very serious news, and, as was now my practise, left to catch my train well ahead of the crocodile to the station, and was soon on my way home.
Our bus driver had been asked to warn me about the horror unfolding in North Rocks, with the noise of screaming pigs being destroyed and thrown on a gigantic, evil smelling, petroleum product induced bonfire to incinerate them, within view of our house. I thanked him for warning me. The view of the carnage, from the top of the rise, near the village store, was laid out below us in full colour, all sound effects included, completely overwhelming some of the elderly passengers, who demanded to be let off the bus and returned from whence they had come. I rushed into Mother's arms as soon as I entered the house, which was all closed up in an attempt to block the entry of the appallingly acrid smoke. She was alone, in tears, waiting for me, and Robbie and Terrence were at the Jago's. She soon recovered enough though, to put the kettle on in the sealed, airless kitchen, hoping the tea would be untainted.
'Oh Babe, you could not imagine the horror of this day. It started just after your bus departed. An army of veterinary and quarrantine officers arrived in droves and swarmed over the infected property and Mr Maher stood at his gate with his gun to keep them away from his healthy pigs. As he expected, an officer eventually drove off the infected property, straight towards his gate, demanding entry, which was refused on the grounds that both the vehicle and the officer were contaminated. Mr Maher, gentle soul that he is, was able to convince the officer that he could return tomorrow, with freshly washed and fumigated clothes, boots and gloves in sterile containers, which he could put on beside a vehicle carrying a guarantee that it had not been on contaminated ground, and even then, the officer could enter the properly but the vehicle would remain outside, parked on the verge in such a way that the driver could exit it without walking on earlier contaminated ground. So much for that confrontation. We can just hope and pray that the Maher's pigs can survive this ominous threat. Let's drink our tea and go over to visit Robbie to see if the Jago's air is less foul than ours.'
As we walked along the now foul-coloured, greasy verge to the Jago's, a stiff southerly blew the smoke and stench back across the road and we hoped it would keep blowing till all the pigs were destroyed and incinerated. I had changed my clothes, and as we had opened and left all the windows and doors open, praying for a forecast wind change, we hoped that the smoke in our place would clear before our return. Robbie was in great spirits when we met him, and the Jago's house doors and windows, front and back, were wide open too, to clear the air in their place. With chores to attend, I excused myself and Terrence followed me. The southerly was still blowing hard and both the house and the farm felt cleansed, so I hoped for the best, milked, delivered the strained whole milk to our icebox and gave Mrs Jago their share. I then strained and separated the remaining three quarter bucket, met Mr Maher with the skim and after cleaning, sterilising and putting the dairy equipment away, it was time for our baths and the preparation and serving of our evening meal.
The destruction and burning of the pigs seemed endless, but the wind remained southerly, rising or falling in intensity and by the end of the following week all was quiet across the road and the height of the pyre gradually diminished. When it finally dropped, all we could smell was roast pork and I have never been able to face it since, remembering in my nightmares, the screaming animals being thrown on that monstrous funeral pyre, sounding just like little children. Miraculously, the Maher's pigs remained healthy, none of their tests showing any sign of the disease, in spite of their close proximity to the infected pigs' destruction area, and the fact that the early prevailing wind had dropped thick, greasy ash all over the Maher's property, in greater profusion than it had fallen on most of our place. It was a miracle, according to the authorities. Mr Maher chose to disagree, saying;
'Clean, healthy land, producing clean, healthy food grown by following the natural laws of decomposition and renewal, without any contamination by artificial fertilizers or toxic sprays, gives livestock natural immunity against disease.'
Having said all that, he then praised the scientists who developed the compulsory spray all soft fruit growers were required to use to prevent fruit fly infestation and agreed that there could be other crops which needed protection, but recommended caution in the production of dangerous, new insecticides, stating that proven, old faithful, natural pest control methods would keep the world a better place.
Getting Started on Organic Growing.
week or so after being able to repay Mr and Mrs Jago for their
kindness to us, by pruning their hedge on a Saturday, when I was at
home, Mr Maher and Bonny came 'to plough in' the lupins in the four
wide rows between the Watts peach trees, the ones closest to his
house and our little barn, to sow oats to harvest and store for later
chaff cutting and straw binding, when fully 'matured' and ready for
use as fodder and bedding.
The market vegetables grew fast and soon I was on my hands and knees, thinning and weeding the carrots, having been shown the correct spacing by Mrs Maher, who came straight over as soon as she saw me out there, on my knees, wondering how to tackle the task correctly. With such kind and knowledgeable neighbours, I had no excuse for fretting over schools, or anything else, really! It was not just the lack of communication and the money worries that bugged me, but also the effect my disagreement with Mother had made on Robbie's affection for me. He no longer raced into my arms and deferred to Mother before taking my hand, except when we were with Terrence and then everything seemed to be fine.
Mr Maher returned, when 'the time and the moon were right', to show me how to run straight, spaced furrows with a clawed hoe and sow the oats, tamp them down gently, then cover the furrows. He also spoke to Mother about pruning the fruit trees when they were dormant and 'the sap had stopped running'
'Old Larry is a proficient pruner. I'll mention it to him and keep him posted as to when the trees will be 'right'. He will place all the prunings in lashed bundles on the central lane down to your paddock, and being lashed, they'll be easy to carry. When time allows, I reckon they'll be best lined up, spaced about ten by ten or twelve feet apart, for burning in your paddock, after the frosts are over, when they'll burn to a fine ash for easy raking over that hungry bit o' land. You'll be surprised how soon it will respond. Margot can take one bundle each time she goes down to milk. Being lashed, they'll be easy enough to handle and will get lighter each day, as they dry out, so it will best to start at the bottom, right near the gate.'
'We're extremely grateful to you for explaining the necessary tasks to be undertaken to ensure a good fruit harvest in early to mid summer, and I know that we will have to spray the trees twice between now and then, even on an organic farm, because it's the law, to keep the State free of the dreaded fruit fly, but why can't we use the prunings for kindling?' my bemused Mother wanted to know. Mr Maher scratched his head, gave it a bit of a shake, then tapped it with his knuckled hand and finally grinned at us all, standing there, waiting on his every word of wisdom.
'Well, Mrs Hamilton, you've tossed me a poser, and my old brain got left on the blocks. But now I've got it all sorted out. I don't believe there's any law against it, but we've always thought it 'best safe practise' as a protection against mutant disease. It's been a generational, handed down tradition, and may well be groundless!' Mother, with Robbie grinning happily on her hip, smiled at our knowledgeable neighbour and told him how wonderful he was and vowed, never again, to doubt his wisdom.
Mother and I both learned our pruning skills from Larry, on the job. He had no truck with weekends or holidays and I felt sorry for his wife, alone in their huge, rambling and secluded house, but he insisted that she enjoyed her own company, her garden, plus kitchen magic, and had the dogs to keep her company.
'If a man's around the 'ouse too much, she ups and leaves.' he said, with his satirical, toothless grin. 'And the rotten dogs go with her!'
Rough diamond or highly polished gem, Larry was an integral part of our ability to make a living on Shalimar. He did not have to work for anyone, at his age and on his two pensions for serving King and Country during the Boer War and WORLD WAR 1. Building his house out of scrap and helping people like us had nothing to do with poverty. It had everything to do with the philosophy of 'waste not, want not'.
The Skinner watering system for the large vegetable growing area was made of rustproof, round steel pipes with adjustable spray roses which could be set for the length and width of spray required. The pipes were elevated on light steel stands of adjustable height and once the town water was turned on at the stopcock, at the elevated end of 'under the house', safe from freezing up in the quite severe winters, it could be directed to the entire system, or to selected areas, as required. There was a handle on top of each pipe to set the spray in the direction and intensity required, and there was another little gadget on each pipe which turned it on or off without affecting the water flow to the rest of the network. I cannot remember the bore of the pipes, but I was able to disconnect and move them, one at a time, with ease, and they worked, trouble free, for our tenure at Shalimar, probably because Mr Maher showed us how to set them up and maintain them properly. I don't believe we would have lasted there for long without the selfless assistance bestowed upon us from him and his family, Mr and Mrs Jago, and Larry, the bus drivers and the postman, all of whom delivered badly needed essentials to us, way beyond the call of duty.
Our autumn vegetables sold like hot cakes at Flemington Markets, which cheered Mother immensely by enabling her to pay Mr Maher for the work he and Bonny had thus far performed in the orchard and vegie growing areas, and Mr Jago, for renovating the house and making some small book cases for ornaments and the books we acquired whilst living there. Both he and Mrs Jago had saved us a fortune in fodder bills, offered help and advice on so many seemingly small but essential items, and thought it an honour to care for Robbie from time to time. We knew we had been singularly blessed. Mother had been able to pay Larry the pittance he accepted 'as more than enough', from the pitiful rent she received from our tenants at Pymble, which had grown from one family to three, all related, two of which had moved 'up market' by purchasing 'forced sale' homes at low prices, then leasing them, each for twice the amount that Mother was paid for our place in Pymble. The Fair Rent Tribunal understood her distress, but could do nothing about it 'because of the housing shortage caused by the war', but they did give her the information about our tenants, and could do nothing about that either. These people had not broken any existing laws, even although they had a long history of moving all over town for generations, 'on the make' with every move. She was then told, apologetically;
'There's good and bad people in the world and you were unlucky'.
Poor Mother, she was mightily distressed but unable to do more than ensure that the winter vegies did not get frost bitten when the sun came up, and I was already long gone, in the dark, on my way to school. Mr Maher had ensured that the frost sensitive caulies, sprouts and cabbages were situated close to our long rubber hose for the Skinner system, which was put away for the frosty season, as the late summer and autumn crops had all been marketed and the ground was now lying fallow for the compost, earth worms and soil bacteria to revive its fertility. The rubber hose had a special nozzle attached for very gently washing the frost off the sprouts and the cabbages, just as the sun was rising and radiating very little heat The cauliflowers had their rough, outer leaves bent over, high up, to make protective covers over the more delicate leaves and snow white hearts, and, on Mr Maher's advice, were then better left alone.
Towards the end of winter, just before 'bud swell', we sprayed all the stone fruit trees, including the big old ones around the homestead. Gloved, masked and wearing goggles, we dressed in protective clothing and took turns of up to an hour at a time on the spraying job, watching the breeze direction gauge we carried to enable us to ensure we did not inadvertently walk into spray drift, which stuck like glue, because it was mixed with cane sugar, initially dissolved in boiling water, then cooled before the very toxic ingredient was added. Because of this glueyness, we had to keep going constantly till the job was completed, then promptly dismantle the spray unit with light rubber-gloved hands to clean and dry every part of it thoroughly. For the next sprayings, we knew the job would take much longer, as the trees would be covered in fresh foliage and buds, occurring at five different times, depending on the variety. It would be a big job which we thought could not be postponed for weekends only, so Mother would need plenty of help from Larry.
We had no citrus, or other fruit varieties, so only needed one type of spray, very toxic, no doubt, because Robbie went to the Jago's for the days when we sprayed, and they took him, by bus, to Parramatta for picnics by the river. He loved those outings, because he dearly loved Mr and Mrs Jago, and riding in the bus was a special treat. This first year, with minimal spray drift present, we were able to finish the first job in the one day. The second applications went much better than anticipated, as Mother and I managed to spray all the Early Watts peaches and all the early plums over two days of ideal, windless weather. The right moment for further spraying did not occur till the following weekend and together, taking turns, we managed to spray the remaining plums and peaches, leaving only the Goldmine nectarines, our largest block, and most valuable of any individual variety, all eventually 'done and dusted', by Mother, with Larry's help, while I was at school.
Soon the flower buds responded to the warmth of Spring. They opened up in such a brilliant display of varying shades of pink and pure white that weekend country sightseers stopped to walk to our front fence to breathe in the sweet scents and take snapshots of the glory of nature before their eyes. Our orchard was probably the most spectacular in the immediate area, as viewers could look down over the entire field of soft colours, which completely concealed the foliage, branches and the understorey of lupins, whereas the view of the Maher's was partially obscured by their house and farm buildings. The very large orchard, on the opposite side of the road, was on flat land and the front row of trees obscured the sweeping vista behind them. The Jago's few fruit trees were scattered around their house and did not comprise a commercial orchard, even although they were in full bloom, of mature age, sweet scented, and beautifully shaped.
Flutchen had been 'dried off' in June and was due to calve any day now. She was already in calf when Mr Maher purchased her for us. As the Maher's had four cows, their calving dates were staggered to ensure heaps of milk when each crop of piglets was born, so we were able to purchase sufficient for our needs from their dairy while our cow was out to pasture at the Jago's, their old cow now long gone. They were managing on powdered milk till ours calved, saying her milk was worth the wait! Jock, always stabled and rugged at night, was exercised in the dark most evenings and wintered well. Mother and Robby brought dry Flutchen home to the byre most evenings, fed her and bedded her down to continue the build up of compost for the fruit trees, market vegetable areas and the productive fruit, flowers and vegetables which bordered our house. When ready for use, I barrowed and forked the finished product onto the ground, sometimes by moonlight.
Keeping up with schoolwork proved difficult, although I was able to do some homework whilst travelling. The short days of winter would always test me! But now it was Spring and all was right with our world. We were in good health, Mother's antipathy had melted away, and my little brother and I were best friends once more. The whole property was neat and tidy, Robbie's pullets started laying, reawakening his interest in their wellbeing, and we had our own, mouth-watering roast chickens every second Sunday, for midday dinner, killed and properly bled by me, and plucked, drawn and dressed by Mother, as was our practise when I reared cockerels at Pymble.
The autumn sown oats, with the ploughed-in lupins as fertiliser, amazed Mr Maher by their height, strength of stalk, and strong, darkest green, healthy leaves.
'Never dreamed the lupins would prove so beneficial,' he said. 'Will pay to use them again, next year, between the next four rows of trees down below the present crop' .
Flutchen's calf was born overnight in the byre. It was up and
suckling by the time I arrived to let her and Jock out into the
Jago's paddock. It was a beautiful morning at the end of August, but
sadly, our little cow did not want to know me, so I closed the latch,
let Jock kick up his heels and high-tail it next door, mucked out his
stable and hastened to tell Mother about the calf. It was a school
day, so I had already washed in the laundry, but had to hurry to
change into my uniform, eat breakfast and be out on the bus stop on
time, leaving Mother to seek Mr Maher's advice about how to handle a
very touchy little cow. She had been like that when we first bought
her, but time had worked wonders and she had become as docile as
could be. I knew she now had every right to be upset, having given
birth during the night, but lacked any knowledge of how to handle the
situation, having not met a similar one at Mae and Walter's place at
Kyogle in summer, long after all their cows had calved.
On my return home, Mother told me that Mr Maher would show me how to handle the milking of Fluchen with a newborn calf at foot. I changed into my farm clothes, gave Jock some bareback exercise in the woodlot and paddock and then turned the compost, awaiting the arrival of our dignified, caring neighbour. On time to the minute, he bailed up and leg roped her, lest she kicked. Her calf was asleep on some hay on the ground near the manger. Flutchen, unruffled, was chewing her cud, waiting patiently while Mr Maher, normally helping Mrs Maher in their dairy at this time of day, spoke quietly to her and gave her a small leaf of hay to keep her occupied while he gently took milk from two engorged teats, not yet suckled. He then wakened the calf, who drank just enough from those two back teats to keep them comfortable till morning. Mother had cleaned the byre in my absence. Now Mr Maher fluffed up the clean bedding, Flutchen lowed to the calf and they filed into the familiar place where it had been born. Robbie was impressed! Before we had time to thank him, Mr Maher said he would stop by at 5.30 am to supervise me in the art of avoiding udder engorgement.
'The calf can stay on the cow for at least a week. By then it will be sleek and very strong to go to its new home to be bucket reared to grow into a top dairy heifer in two years time. As soon as the calf goes, you'll be able to use the milk, as all trace of colostrum will have disappeared. The calf is well bred and she'll pay for your packing cases when the fruit season starts.'
'Oh no, Mr Maher, we're already deeply in debt to you for all the help you have so generously bestowed upon us since our arrival in the district. Please seek the highest price you can obtain for Flutchen's calf and keep the money yourself for a 'rainy day.'' I knew that Mother would wish for his agreement, but Mr Maher just grunted. He was not an argumentative man.
As promised, and carrying a hurricane lantern, he met me outside the byre at 5.30 next morning. Cow and calf were barely awake, but touchy Flutchen leapt to her feet as we opened the door, and to me, she looked quite threatening. Mr Maher said nothing - just stood there between me and the cow, waiting for her to settle down. He had another leaf of aromatic meadow hay in a sugar bag under his arm, which must have done the trick, for she lowed softly to the calf, which rose sleepily and stood beside her. Then, and only then, he ushered me ahead of him and followed close behind, into the milking area where he placed the hay in the feed trough, on the other side of the bail and awaited the entry of cow and calf. I was always deeply impressed by Mr Maher's stock handling ability, but this episode was amazing. The cow put her head in the bail to eat the hay and he walked forward and closed the bailhead. Unalarmed by our presence, the calf wandered round to the far side of the feed trough and lay down within its mother's line of vision, exactly as it had yesterday evening.
Flutchen stood quietly, eating her hay, while without a leg rope, she made no attempt to move or kick while her udder was carefully examined by specialist hands. She did not flinch and ignored the pinging sounds against the steel bucket, when those hands commenced to milk her just enough to even the quarters. He then asked me to take a little more from each quarter. Flutchen remained relaxed as I spoke gentle 'sweet nothings' to her, my head on her warm flank, and finished the task by lifting the bucket as I rose from the stool. His job completed, Mr Maher undid the bail pin, spoke sweetly to the cow and patted her on the rump as he waved us goodbye, the whole exercise having taken less than ten minutes, as mesmerised, I had kept an eye on his fob watch throughout his ministrations, hoping that I would one day develop a modicum of his patience. and competence. I never really did become anywhere near as skilled as any of our fine neighbours, but the expertise absorbed during our years at North Rocks has stood me in good stead throughout my life.
As the weather warmed, hand sown autumn clover was scythed by Larry, left to cure till 'ready' - not too dry and brittle, but sufficiently seasoned to roll into bundles - to be 'wigwam stooked' for further seasoning, until ready for transport on a simple sled to the barn. The weather was fine throughout the hay making, loading and final cartage, which by sheer good fortune, fell on a Saturday, and although Larry had other commitments, it did not matter, since Mother, Robbie and I made short work of getting it into the barn, as the sled had good, shiny, light steel runners and ran over the level going with ease. It also had straight, lightweight posts at each corner and fitted, hessian sides to hold each load in place. Such a simple, easy conveyance, and very light for either one of us to tow! We took turns to pull, while the other carried Robby or held his hand, lest he ran in front of the sled and tripped over the towline. The Maher's had observed our industry and met us at our back door with refreshments, just as we completed the task.
Right through spring and early Summer the weather was storm free and very kind. When the market vegetables needed a drink, soft rain fell. When equinoxal gales were due, they missed North Rocks. Mother seemed fulfilled, Robbie was always nice, although he had to be dressed in pillar box red overalls. He had taken to wandering off, if Terry had fallen asleep instead of keeping an eye on his every move. That's the trouble with treasured animals - they age too quickly and it breaks our hearts. He still accompanied me and Jock wherever we roamed, but at a slower pace, as I had once or twice observed that he occasionally struggled to keep up to even a gentle canter. Because of the Army traffic on the main roads, and the distance involved, he'd be left lamenting on the chain when I took Jock to Carlingford for shoeing and tooth filing, necessary now, for he too was getting old.
As the season progressed and the fruit on the trees grew bigger each day, Mr Maher came to inspect their progress.
'Is Mrs Hamilton about? I'd like to see you both, if possible. It's about the fruit on the trees being so heavy'. Mother was in the back room, ironing, so I asked him to come inside and sit down while I went to tell her that he wished to speak to her. She had heard the front door open and close though and she and Robbie met me in the living room, so we all went in there together. Mr Maher was on his feet, apologising for interrupting her, then repeated his concerns about the fruit, our bread and butter for a successful financial outcome to ensure our liquidity for the year ahead. He repeated what he had already said to me, then asked if she could interrupt her home duties and inspect the orchard.
'Of course I can Mr Maher; your counsel is always more than welcome. I must change my shoes and get my hat.' and she hurried off to put them on and find Robbie's sun hat too.
Robbie was excited about going out and Terrence stretched and yawned, then wagged his tail, very pleased to follow us down through the orchard. We started our inspection, at the top, among the Early Watts peaches, the first ones we would be picking and packing, when they were ready for market.
'These ones seem well spaced,' he said with relief, 'but we'll need to get the oats cut and stooked as soon as possible, to enable us to make a thorough assessment of the trees' ability to carry the weight of a heavy crop. Broken branches are a tragedy and unbalance the trees. It has been a much better than usual growing season, and on our place we will need to thin the fruit on some of our varieties. I'm hoping you won't have the same problem, because it's a time consuming, specialist job.' Mother looked worried. She could not afford 'a specialist job', but forced a determined smile onto her beautiful face as we walked past the five rows of trees lining the oats, and inspected the remainder of the Watts peaches, none of which were overladen with fruit at this stage.
Below them were our later peaches - the ones whose name I could never remember and which were said to be very popular with buyers, but needed gentle handling, as they were delicate. Miraculously, they too had their fruit evenly spaced. Mr Maher breathed a sigh of relief as we moved down through the Goldmine nectarines and again the fruit was even and uncrowded, at this stage.
'But we'll need to keep an eye on them as they are later developers, like the Narrabeen plums on the Jago's side of your central lane. Let's see how they're shaping up.'
They too, were doing well, their fruit well spaced, and I hoped that the buyers would want them because the trees were many. Above them, below the big corn and pumpkin patch, which lay fallow when we first arrived on the property, stood the final six rows of smaller plum trees whose limbs were less widely spread than the Narrabeens, and their older leaves were tinged dark red. Mr Maher called them 'fruit salad plums', and I cannot now recall their illustrious name - but it may have been Monterosa Deliciosa, which would become our favourites for making bright, clear and deliciously piquant plum jelly, and the best tasting fruit in the orchard. They were our smallest fruit and as we picked them for market, they tasted a bit tart, but after a day or so in the fruit bowl, even Robbie kept asking for more.
Orchard inspection concluded, Mr Maher accepted Mother's invitation for a cup of tea and he sat down with us at the kitchen table while she turned the oven on high, as always, whipped up her famous scone mixture, put the kettle on, cut the scones, popped them on the scone tray and straight into the oven, then phoned Mrs Maher to invite her to join us, apologising for the very short notice. As the scones came out of the oven and on to the cloth covered cooling rack, Mrs Maher knocked on the door and was welcomed aboard. Because of the interruption to their working day for our benefit, and as none of us had changed our clothes or washed more than our hands, we agreed to forgo formality and drink tea and eat scones around the kitchen table, now bedecked with a pretty floral cloth. Before Mr Maher could start talking about fruit trees, Mrs Maher expressed her delight at being with us in the kitchen, for she had learned something special!
'I now know the secret of your ability to turn out perfect scones, Mrs Hamilton. Mr Maher will have seen you prepare and cook them, oh, so quickly! And I have arrived in time to see them on and under a light linen tea towel to briefly cool on the rack. So now your secret is out! I hope you don't mind sharing it with us.'
Mother was overjoyed with the compliment and blushed with pure elation, while Robbie sat in his high chair, clapping his hands with glee and speaking coherently.
'It's no secret, Mrs Maher, just a family tradition, handed down from my grandmama, who brought it with her from Germany in the 1840's. She was a dark haired, determined, tiny peasant woman, who married soon after her arrival, reared a family of very tall, capable children and was a canny business woman. My Margot resembles her in many ways. It gives me great pleasure that the tradition may now be passed on through your family and friends, and Margot too, in time, may follow suit.'
Robbie clapped and clapped. The Mahers were delighted and the scones disappeared very quickly, allowing Mr Maher to commence his dissertation on heavy crops of fruit. He was clearly curious to know why our trees were not overladen. Mrs Maher immediately suggested that the secret may lie with the lupins and a great discussion ensued. The final conclusion was that our ground had been less well cared for than their own, although our trees were strong and healthy and must have found sufficient nourishment to do so well, the drainage on our slopes was perhaps superior to theirs, our trees were younger and no piggery effluent came our way. This open discussion was profitable to both families, for we learned a lot and the Maher's concluded that their trees may have been over fertilised during this unusually good growing season, prompting Mr Maher to divert the piggery effluent to the woodlot, at least for this and future bumper years. The response in their orchard was immediate. Their trees thinned themselves evenly, the boars were let loose for a brief period each morning to deal with the windfalls, and we all looked forward to a good picking and packing season.
With the cow, the horse, compost, chooks and the vegetables to care for, it was clear that I would be sorely missed if the fruit was ready before my end of year school exams were over. I spoke to Mrs Jago on the subject. Her reply was immediate.
'Ask your Mother to buy a bike for you, on time payment. You'd be there and back in no time. If she jacks up, I'll speak to her.' I thanked her, very much. I had not even thought of such a rational solution!
Mother took a lot of convincing. It was a major confrontation.
'You don't know how to ride a bike. You' ll have an accident, for sure, and then what will we do? Robbie and I depend on you! I wish it could be otherwise, because your work load is too heavy for a girl, but you seem to relish it. Please do not create further issues about the critical importance of you education. You will thank me, one day, for my determination on this contentious subject'.
Oh dear! What to do? Well nothing. What could I do except grab the bridle from the store room where I kept Jock's tack, call Terry, quite loudly, because he was getting really deaf, and go for a gentle ride, bareback, around the corner from the Jago's house, to the end of the road to visit Mrs Chilvers. She raised and marketed magnificent Plymouth Rock table poultry which Mother would purchase for special occasions now that all Robbie's cockerels had been consumed. A widow, she lived in a larger version of a little old house like ours, with her two sons, who were at High School during the week and helped her around the place before and after school. They were good company and very likeable, but they were not at home today, because it was Saturday, and they both played District team cricket in Summer and Rugby in Winter.
Mrs Chilvers and I yarned for ages, mostly about how well her boys were getting on with their studies and their hopes of scoring enough Distinctions to maybe get bursaries and go on to University to study Agricultural Science. She herself held a B A degree, and was a history teacher before she married, but being widowed and bereft of the love of her life, electrocuted in an industrial accident, and with five grieving children to rear, her hands were full. Knowing the district from visiting her Uncle's family before her marriage, she had decided to move to North Rocks and make a living from prime poultry, a skill she had learned in childhood.
'It was a good move. Our kitchen garden and fruit trees flourished, as did the poultry enterprise and the girls did well at school. Although we were in the country, a new perspective for them, they loved North Rocks Primary, and then Parramatta High, the best in the State, they say, and it's just down the road. The two little boys followed the same pattern once they started school. We're self sufficient except for poultry food, kerosene for the lamps, tea, salt, sugar and matches! We don't have electricity or town water down here - place is too remote! As you can see, we have plenty of firewood for the stove and living room fireplace, which draws well, and heats the whole house. It has one of those huge, round plough disks up against the fire wall bricks, and it throws the heat right through the place. Sorry, I've got carried away with my own voice! Would you like a cup of tea and a Johnny cake? I know you won't come inside, because Jock pulls back.'
I accepted the invitation and undid the right bridle rein to double its length to enable Jock to keep munching away on the buffalo lawn and sat down on the back steps while Mrs Chibley made the tea. She brought it outside on a tray, set for two, as there was a table and chairs under an old cherry plum tree, laden with fruit and closer to Jock. He was not the type to want any Johnnie cakes and went on grazing, with some difficulty, because of the bit in his mouth, which I had never learned how to slip out of his mouth whilst still bridled.
'The tea's really nice, Mrs Chilvers. What is it called?'
'Varies. Depends on what Dennis brings home. He does our little bit of shopping after school, and still catches the first bus. This could be Kinkara - can't remember - it goes straight in the caddy.'
'Do you ever feel lonely - without any neighbours for miles?'
'No, too busy Margot, and pleased that we're isolated. Lacking services, rates are low and we get no other bills, except for poultry food. After this War is over and the men who survive come home, the whole area will become suburbia. It's so close to Parramatta. Then they won't let you keep chooks, pigs and maybe even cows; electricity and town water will be extended, whether you want it or not, rates and taxes will skyrocket, they'll seal our road and we'll have to sell up and move on. I'm just glad Dennis and Charlie have no brothers in the armed forces - well, they have no brothers at all, and their sisters are happily married to men in essential services - one's a doctor, always busy, one's a fireman - my, they work for a living - and the third's a big dairy farmer, out on the Hawkesbury, where the whole family toil like beavers, and love it.
I have eleven grandchildren. The families get over to see us and share our midday roast now and again, one mob at a time! In the breaks between the cricket and Rugby seasons, the boys take turns to visit their sisters wherever they live. The bus from the top of the road takes them to trains in all directions. This North Rocks is a good place to live - honest, hard working people - never any trouble round here, though we're close enough to the gaol!
On returning home, I found that Mrs Jago was in the sitting room at our place. She had persuaded Mother that a bike would make a world of difference to my travelling times to and from school. Her nephew had a bike shop in North Parramatta, and she would ensure that we received a good deal. When I came to the open door, Robbie ran towards me, but as my elders were still in deep conversation, I paused, not wishing to intrude, and held my little brother's hand. Mother and Mrs Jago both beckoned me into the room, told me all about their bike discussion, thus far, and Mrs Jago continued,
'Thank goodness you're back from Mrs Chilvers place in time for us to catch the ten to four bus down the road for you to fetch your brand new Malvern Star!'
I had trouble believing Mrs Jago's announcement, but Mother was smiling and nodding her head in agreement, so it must be true! Jodhpurs and boots were fine for bike riding, I imagined, so I expressed my pleasure and thanks and excused myself to tidy my hair, and not wishing to be seen in Parramatta in my awful old brown felt riding hat, I thought I could wear my green beret instead. With daylight saving, there would still be plenty of time to attend my chores on returning home on my bike. Robbie loved bus rides, so he was jubilant, Mother fussed over my beret, insisting that I must wear my straw farm hat instead, so I had to obey, and went into the bike shop feeling a proper yokel. But there was the dark blue and white Malvern Star - a beautiful bike - which I had agreed to push home and learn to ride in the paddock!
By Monday morning, bike riding was a cinch and I fairly rocketed to school, arriving far too early, even although there were some steep climbs, especially up Thompson's Hill to Pearce's Corner, and North Rocks Road, which had looked pretty flat when riding along on Jock, or in the bus, now seemed uphill in both directions. Riding home, on that first day of serious peddling, the school hat elastic under my chin nearly strangled me as I pelted along, but the euphoria of silent speed ensured that no discomfort was acknowledged until after the turn off towards the farm, where free wheeling was not once encountered until I passed our general store, and by then my legs started feeling the strain. I wheeled the bike onto the front verandah, deflated.
This riding to school was not the piece of cake I had imagined, and it was only Monday! But then I looked at the kitchen clock and realised I'd made record time, with Mother, Robbie and Terrence either outside attending farm chores, visiting neighbours or away on the bus somewhere. It was far too early for me to call Jock and Fluchen in from the Jago's field, so I would need to get used to a new routine, like 'straight out of uniform, have a nice cup of tea, do a few stretching exercises to ease leg pain and study, study etc, with exams just around the corner' Farm chores would wait till their normal time.
Mother and Robbie, having spent an hour with Mrs Jago on her front verandah, waiting to watch me spinning down the road on my homeward journey, then came bustling home, Mother certain that I had met with the 'accident I was sure to have'. But then, of course, she saw the undamaged bike on the verandah, grabbed Robbie's hand and went back to tell Mrs Jago that I was already home, well before they went out to watch for me.
Next morning, with chores completed and no need to rush, a specially nice breakfast of rice bubbles with milk, 'snap, crackle, and pop', with a dollop of thick cream on top, followed by corn fritters and close family communion - but still no news of Father or Grandma and Auntie Rita - then commencing my journey to school, was just as exciting as yesterday's excursion, my aching legs forgotten until I got going and felt the strain of the gentle hill between Shalimar and the village of North Rocks and realised that a less frantic effort at breaking speed records was required until my leg muscles became accustomed to pedalling.
By the time I had reached the easier going after the Thompson's Hill ascent, two noticeable features had etched themselves into my thick skull - not one vehicle had passed me, and oncoming traffic was sparse, even on this main ring road through Pennant Hills to its junction with the Pacific Highway at Wahroonga, then all points north to the Queensland Gold Coast, so petrol rationing must be stringent indeed. In the distance, the bright morning light drew my gaze towards a highly polished, off-white car gliding soundlessly towards me, the driver leaning his forearm along the open window frame and lifting his hand in salute as he passed me by on the far side of the road. This shiny, silent car soon became and remained, the measure of how well I was going on my journeys to school. Should I meet it below or on Thompson's Hill, I needed to pedal faster. If Pennant Hills was behind me, I could admire the scenery. If I did not meet it at all, I would imagine all sorts of reasons for its failure to arrive.
My legs adjusted well to pedal power and did not slow me down athletically, as expected by our sport's mistress of the time. End of year exams came and went, trouble free - amazing! After our results were in, I was given exemption from attending the final weeks of school to help with our heavy fruit harvest. We picked and carted in the Early Watts in the first light of day, possible because there had been no dew to dampen them and before the sun had warmed them enough to bruise when handled, they were placed in their baskets on the 'carry in' trolley, transferred onto the grading belt, set on 'slow' till we learned the procedure. We eventually got it down to a fine art, enabling us to pack each case with even sized fruit in the diamond pattern, because they then looked quite magnificent and should attract a buyer's eagle eye.
As the day progressed, we opened the doors to ensure that the shed remained cool and only picked the amount we could pack in ideal conditions. Mrs Jago looked after Robbie and Larry was an absolute gem, both in the orchard and the shed. We started off on a high note, as our peaches were indeed 'early' and of fine flavour, but soon learned all about the volatility of prices for perishable produce. We only received one bill for freight, agent's fees and dumping fees, but low prices broke Mother's heart and pocket.
At the end of what the Maher's thought a good season, with very little fruit actually dumped, Mother's devastation finally drove her back to work in journalism, no longer as a highly esteemed magazine editor, but as a common hack reporter on the 'Daily Telegraph', just to keep me in a private school. I thought I would die of shame and frustration, as, in the absence of any contact with Patsy Anne, who had twigged to my family problems from the first day we met, so no disclosures were ever necessary, and now I was on my own. Patsy could read me like a book and I missed her pithy, non judgemental statements which had formed the building blocks of my own meagre self confidence and strengthened my love and high regard for my mother and my father. Only Terry and Jock now knew all about my grief and without them, I think I would have cracked up completely.
Back at school, it's now 1943, I'm fifteen, the War grinds on and it's our Intermediate Examination year. I keep meeting the near white car and its laconic driver on the stretch of level going between Pearce's Corner and Pennant Hills, where the road crosses a bridge over the northern railway line, double tracked almost as far as Maitland, near where a single track branches off to Brisbane, standard gauge all the way. The car driver and I are now old acquaintances and we exchange nods and brief smiles without ever changing our rates of progress in opposite directions. From the road, I often glimpse troop trains, choofing along, going north, carrying soldiers to defend our country from the Japanese, and I feel disoriented; lacking purpose.
On my return to the farm after school, our little house is empty. Even Terry has abandoned it to be near Robbie, at the Jago's place. Mother leaves for work at noon and will not return till the paper has been 'put to bed'. Then she will catch a train from Town Hall to Parramatta and a taxi home to Shalimar, in the small hours, unable to get enough sleep to catch up on household duties and prime time with her little boy. I do my best, dogged by inadequacy, in what turns into a normal routine of milking night and morning, mucking out the stable and the byre, keeping the compost going, spreading it at weekends and tending market vegetables and irrigation as required. There is rarely time to finish my school homework and feel guilty when Mrs Jago washes the separator thoroughly, then sterilises it, after I dismantle and rinse it, placing it in cold water in the laundry sink each school day morning.
We manage to get through that hectic year, with Mother working desperately to make ends meet, finally sending me to Wychwood, for the weeks of my Intermediate Certificate exams and dancing lessons at the Marion Street Hall, where a boy named Chas says he loves me. I am not told who fills the gap in the chores department during my absence. Once home again, we receive a hurried first visit to the farm by Grandma Thatcher and Auntie Rita, who are appalled by our humble home, but impressed by the orchard and the market vegetables, which keep us 'in the black,' and mollified, they leave with heaps of precious butter, cream, eggs and vegies. Fluchen is dried off in mid Winter and has another valuable heifer calf in early Spring, last year's oats have matured very well in the barn, Mr Maher has honed our hand chaffcutter to perfection and we are now self sufficient in stock food, except for the chooks, so I know we will need to plant extra corn this year. The new season's crop of oats, again fertilised with ploughed in lupins in their four new rows, and planted by me, shoot away with amazing speed, but the lupins are only 'topped', by the Maher's Bonnie - drawn mower throughout the remainder of the orchard. Hoeing around the fruit trees and spraying against fruit fly attack, are all completed, unaided, by Larry, our Rock of Gibraltar.
With two and a half, and sometimes three hours on windless days, more time on the farm, our market vegetables become our mainstay financially, as I can tend and harvest those ready for market. Mr Maher's carrier son keeps us supplied with suitable jute bags and wooden boxes for their safe transport to market and never overcharges us for a. single item. Right up to exam time, I keep the compost heaps 'cooking' until ready for spreading, and the Maher's and the Jago's continue their selfless, usually unseen assistance, to keep us viable. And then it is the long Christmas holiday break, extended for me, as I have been released from school as soon as our exams are over, to help with the fruit picking and packing, ably assisted by Larry, and sometimes his wife, an expert picker, helps too, but only in the orchard, because she feels claustrophobic in the packing shed, a sentiment I understand.
The fruit sells well at Flemington Markets, with very few poor sales and no dumpings, so our coffers are much improved, but Mother is always tired and her beautiful face shows the extreme pressures of sleep deprivation, worry, and the tyranny of the distance between her office and her home and family.
An Unexpected Visitor.
before school resumed, Mother was at work in town and Robbie was with
the Jago's to allow me to do the housework, uninterrupted. I was
cleaning the front windows when I saw my long lost Daddy stagger out
of the bus from Parramatta and weave a course across the road,
towards our garden gate. I put the chamois back in the bucket, dry my
hands and walk out to greet him. To my horror, he is raving drunk and
does not seem to recognise me. As he comes to the gate and leans
heavily upon it for support, he addresses me as 'a bloody wench' and
demands to see his son. I have never before seen him in this state of
inebriation and am unable to convince him that I am his little girl.
I feel totally inept and do not know how to handle his dreadful rage.
But then I thought of Terry, with Robbie, at the Jago's, so I race
inside, shut and lock all three outside doors and phone their number,
as Father rages outside, banging on the front walls with his walking
Mrs Jago responds to my SOS by saying 'Home dog!', our Terrence soon turns up on our verandah, and Father's rage is spent. Putting the front door key in my pocket, I exit the house by the back door and walk along our side lane to welcome him. With Terrence at his side, he is a different person, acknowledges me 'as his little girl who had grown up' and asks if he could use our toilet and wash his hands and face.
'Yes Daddy; they're both round the back of the house, in front of the fruit packing shed. The fruit season is almost finished, but there's still some greengages on the old tree near the back door.'
He walks with me to the ablutions and separate toilet area, looking a bit dismayed when I tell him we have only cold water for the shower, but 'reckons he will risk it as the day is very warm'. I hand a nice thick towel to him and say,
'Come back to the front door when you're ready and I'll make a cup of tea for you. Those back steps have no handrail and are not safe for a person with a walking stick'.
With Father occupied out the back, I ring Mrs Jago again to thank her for sending Terry home and seek her advice as to how I should handle his wish to see Robbie. She makes it very simple for me, wise friend that she is.
'Margot dear, bring him over here and I will make the tea, and explain to him that Robbie will be collected by his Mother on her return from work. It's only a little white lie and the only safe solution. Take Terry inside with you, and show your father over the house before you come here. But first, it may be wise to push Robbie's bed into your Mother's room, lest he get it into his poor old besotted head to return and kidnap him. You have to have some pity for him. I do not even know whether he's ever seen his little boy. Do you?'
I have to admit that I do not know either, but am mightily afraid that he could turn up any time, now that he knows where we live. and I instinctively also know that our days at Shalimar may now probably be numbered. Torn, as always, between Mother and Father, I no longer have any idea of which side is Up. When Father comes back to the front door, all squeaky clean and revitalised after his cold shower, and being with Terrence, I invite them both into the living room, ask him if he wants to look around the place, but he declines, so I tell him that Robbie is with neighbours and we would be welcome to visit them for afternoon tea.
'And how do you know that?' he asked, perplexed, and perhaps unsure about my motives.
'Because I rang them while you were showering and Mrs Jago has invited us. She even thinks she has some Scottish oat cakes in her pantry. Neither of us know if you have ever met Robbie, but we're both sure you will be proud of him. He's is very good natured and advanced for his age. Everyone loves him because he makes them feel good.'
I see tears in Father's eyes and find myself hopeless at diplomacy. I simply have no idea how to handle the very thought of the position he is in, so lamely ask him 'what he'd been doing at Harley's while he was there, and where was he living now', and all that sort of idle chatter. Patting his dog's noble head, he looks into my eyes, and ignoring my nonsense questions, he says,
'Let us go to the neighbour's house for me to see my son.' And he took my hand and we walked out the door, which I closed behind us, then we strolled along the regularly mowed verge of North Rocks Road, towards the Jago's place, with Terrence out in front, and I was hurtled back to early childhood when we had walked thus, all those years ago.
Mrs Jago was the one well schooled in diplomacy. She had coaxed Mr Jago away from his never ending summer job of tending his famous, absolutely world's best tasting - and selling - tomatoes, and there he is, scrubbed up and genial, beside his wife, to greet Captain Jack Hamilton, who smiles, rising to the occasion. I remain in the background as Robbie looks up from his wooden toy train on the floor and walks purposefully towards the visitor, has a good hard look at him, then smiles and raises his outstretched hand. When seated around the table for an early afternoon tea, Robbie choses to sit on the Captain's knee. He addresses him as Dadda, then has quite a lot to say for a boy still under three.
My emotions are tumultuous, but kept well under lock and key, as the tea party proceeds with the same rapport that had accompanied Father and daughter on our holiday together in the Snowy Mountains country, not that many years ago, but it seems to belong in another world. Father and little son are entranced with one another. There are no signs of the inebriation that had accompanied him to Shalimar and I become worried about how the day will end - will he return to his place of residence - wherever that may be, or would he refuse to leave? Perhaps sensing my unease, Mr Jago invites him outside to inspect his fine tomatoes, and Robbie accompanies them, while Mrs Jago and I clear the table, wash the crockery and prepare to feed the laying hens. Once outside, we see that Robbie is holding his father's hand, fully occupied by what the men folk are talking about. When tomato inspection is finally completed and acclaimed, we soon all finish up together, feeding the ever hungry hens.
Then, walking back towards the house, Father announces that he plans to catch the bus back to Parramatta station at 4.15. Mrs Jago may well have stifled a sigh of relief, but she just gives him a winning smile and asks him, in a quiet aside, if he would like to 'smarten up in the bathroom' before leaving. As the Jago's have a septic tank and an inside toilet, he is grateful. He comes out looking cheerfully well-groomed, and we all accompany him to the bus stop, his walking stick in his right hand and Robbie gripping his left one, trotting along beside him like an adoring puppy, with Terrence, as always, leading the way. Mr Jago has struck a positive chord with Father, out there amongst the tomatoes, understanding his difficulty of walking on uneven ground on his broken feet, and, as he had felt comfortable in Mrs Jago's company from first acquaintance, we all chat amicably until Robbie tugs on his arm and points up the road towards the approaching bus, which he climbs aboard, without either he or his little boy getting upset.
I am immensely grateful to Mr and Mrs Jago for their kindness and tact and pray that Father will not make a welter of their goodwill by making frequent visits. It sounds petty, but my farm workload is heavy and time-consuming, not to mention school hours and bike riding, my mental balance is often rather shaky and I know, for sure, that Mother will never welcome Father to Shalimar.
Next morning, my gratitude to the Jago's goes sky high when I do not have to discuss yesterday's visit. I had left Robbie's trundle bed in Mother's bedroom and neither of them stir when I go out to attend the farm work. Two hours later, now in a room full of early morning sunshine, they are both still fast asleep, so I draw their curtains, put the porridge on simmer, shower and dress quickly in the laundry, where I will not disturb them, cut a quick lunch, have breakfast and set off for school, with our Terry, who had been with me while working outside, now quite happy to stay on the front door mat, guarding the house, knowing he could not keep up with the bike.
Mid February, 1944.
Our summer harvest had been a success and I'm now
sweet sixteen and still as green as grass in the comprehension of
human relations. The terrible War continues, unabated, and I do not
have time on the farm, or even at school, now in the first year
Leaving Certificate class, to find out anything about what happened
to our troops in Malaya, except that they are prisoners of the
Japanese, who do not always abide by the rules of the Geneva
Convention, causing terrible anguish to my classmates with family
members incommunicado or possibly dead.
Mother resigned her job on the 'Telegraph' soon after Father's visit and filed for divorce. Mentally brilliant, with those beautiful, artistic hands, she was not really suited to grovelling in the dirt for a living. For me and for Robbie, it was heaven to have her at home, as she was an astute housekeeper and a wonderful cook. To keep us viable, she started writing freelance copy for whoever would buy her articles and accepted Mrs Jago's request to a have Robbie at her place for about three hours or so each day, because she missed his cheerful company. So for awhile, all went well and we settled back into a pleasant routine, with undemanding and efficient old Larry filling in all the cracks in our system of work sharing, the farm thus producing a reasonable return on produce marketed on a regular basis.
To feed and fatten our growing numbers of poultry, I had planted the extra corn, in conjunction with the pumpkins and they grew well together, following Mr Maher's advice on correct spacing and compost mixture, which contained our straw and poultry manure from the chook houses, the rotated yards now grassed and with plants that chooks love, like milk thistles, tares, and the shelter cherry plums growing so well, it was clear they would need constant trimming lest they poked through the overhead wire netting. My work routine remained the same, Fluchen gave gallons of delicious, creamy milk, the weather always seemed better on our well sheltered place than anywhere else on my way to school, where I still met the man in the off white car each morning.
Jock and Terrence remained in good health, despite their advancing years and Grandma and Auntie Rita visited more regularly for vegetables, eggs and dairy products, for which they paid generously, congratulating Mother on the high quality of our produce. Since giving up shift work on the 'Telegraph', she was young and beautiful again, able to sell most of her articles, which kept her in pocket and good spirits, her Robbie filling every day with his infectious goodwill at home or with Mrs Jago, while Mother tapped away on her typewriter for three hours each weekday morning.
Then, out of the blue, things went wrong. I went down with the measles. I was really sick with a raging temperature and kept in bed in my darkened bedroom, in isolation, while Robbie went to stay with the Jago's for three long weeks. Poor Mother not only cared for me and the home, but must have found herself confronted with milking twice daily, separating the milk and washing, then scalding the multifarious separator, tending and feeding the poultry, washing our clothes and harvesting and packing our market vegetables - with help from Larry and the Maher's - but still a very big workload for a woman totally unaccustomed to such a long stint of consistent menial work, especially as she sorely missed her little son, even although they blew kisses to one another, from a safe distance, across our boundary fence at least three times each day. To ease her burdens considerably, she left Jock and Fluchen out in the paddock day and night, but unseen, Mr Maher turned the 'cooking' compost and spread the pile that was 'ready', out in the orchard, and Larry always appeared out of nowhere to do the lion's share of the harvesting, washing and bagging of market vegetables.
Being confined to bed for so long, even after my temperature became normal and the rash began to fade, left me as weak as a wet rag, so I rode Jock around the district, hopping off him to walk up hills, for my benefit, not his! It also helped Terry, who was getting the odd white hair around his muzzle, and slowing down even more, which worried me greatly, because his eyes were still bright and he did not look old, but I knew that he sometimes experienced sudden attacks of severe pain and had to lie down and rest awhile. The next step was to ride my bike up to the local shop and I nearly wept, as due back at school on Monday, I could tell that I would have to return to the old bus and train routine until fit enough to treadle. When finally recovered, or so I thought, off I went again, this time, all the way to school, but I was so slow that I met the man in the off white car, just as I turned from our road onto Pennant Hills Road, and he stopped to ask where I'd been for the past five weeks; so I told him and thanked him for his concern, and we both resumed our separate journeys. By week's end, all signs of weakness had disappeared and I experienced no trouble in resuming my routine farm tasks, much to Mother's relief, as after milking, she had experienced occasional stabs of chest pain on climbing our steep hill, which deeply worried me, as nothing would induce her to seek medical advice at that stage.
The End of an Idyll.
Perhaps the hint of a heart problem made Mother realise that our days
on Shalimar were indeed, numbered. Although she eschewed doctors of
medicine with disdain, on Robbie's account, she may have sought
consultation about the chest pain experienced when carrying a heavy
bucket of milk uphill and been advised of a cardiac dysfunction. I do
not know, because she withdrew from me, as often happened, when
perceived danger threatened, and life went on, as usual, through the
winter, with all its sequential outdoor tasks attended by me, and
less frequently now, by Larry, on calm, sunny days, after the frost
had melted. Together, Larry and I had pruned and sprayed the fruit
trees at bud swell and again, when in leaf. Everything was shipshape,
although there were no lupins, as Mr Maher had said the trees no
longer needed the extra nitrogen, for now anyway, and he told me all
about 'balance', knowledge I stored away for future use.
The tall, slim, fair-haired young man called Chas, whom I had met at dancing class when staying with Grandma and Auntie Rita during my Intermediate exams, had doggedly kept in touch with me by mail, in spite of my negligible response, and wished to visit the farm, so Mother invited him, a copy of our bus timetable enclosed with her letter. When his visit was finally arranged and we were expecting him to either ride a bike or arrive by bus, he turned up on a nice, steady mare whom he often exercised for a friend, who owned her. Now, he had ridden her to our place for a long weekend in early Spring. Unsure about her temperament with a strange horse and cow, we stabled her for the three nights of her visit and rugged Jock and Fluchen to keep them both warm and comfortable, out in their now thriving paddock, as the Jago's big field was closed for one of its frequent rests, to ensure parasitic worm control and pasture regrowth.
On the Saturday, we let the mare loose in the stable, byre and woodlot paddock, to allow her to meet Jock across the fence, have a roll and find green pick, as there was quite a large area of pasture near the business end of the lot, only grazed occasionally, to keep the grass under control. The former owners of Shalimar had left sufficient cut wood, both in the woodhouse near the packing shed and sawn to the right length and stacked for splitting for the fireplace, in the woodlot, to last us for many years, so we had not needed to fell a single tree. That consideration had been a great boon, especially as Larry, unasked, had consistently split enough stacked wood and barrowed it up the hill to the woodhouse, to ensure that our supply never ran low. He even split our chips for us! Our visitor, Chas, was most impressed.
We did not ride that day, but walked down to Mrs Chilvers place to say 'Hello,' and collect one of her magnificent Plymouth Rock table birds, so superior in size and flavour to our own, and ordered only yesterday, by Mother, by phone. Her young men were both at home, which was unusual for them, on a Saturday, and I guessed there may have been a little bit of parental intervention, but it's a small world, for they knew one another, anyway, through their sporting activities, which were on a short break between disciplines. They were all pleased to meet on neutral ground and promptly set off on a tour of inspection of the property, while Mrs Chilvers and I enjoyed our usual nice cup of tea and a good yarn, this time in her sitting room, in the absence of Jock. And she knew more about affairs at our place than I knew myself!
When Chas and I arrived back home with the bird, and handed it over to Mother, it was time to commence the evening chores. Chas followed me around like a puppy, a situation in which I felt flustered and quite uncomfortable, but Fluchen disregarded strange vibes during milking and was a good girl, returning to be with Jock. Both cow and horse wore rugs in the paddock and were probably relieved to forego the night-time duty of assisting in the production of compost. As we approached the house, I asked Chas to please put the milk bucket on the bench in the dairy, then go inside to help Mother with dinner preparations while I separated the milk and washed and sterilised the machine.
'It won't take long', I assured him, being a 'bossyboots'. But Chas declined, which flustered me. With a winning smile, he said.
'I'd like to see the machine in operation, if you don't mind. We have never had a cow, and all this is new to me, and very interesting'.
So what could I do? I let him stay, having no idea why his proximity flustered me, even although only the transparent gauze door was closed and the outside door was wide open. He remained far too close to me in this crowded space, absolutely godsmacked by the superb efficiency of the Diabolo. He had never seen anything so complicated, but easy to use, with skim milk delivered into the big stainless steel bucket for Mr Maher's pigs, and thick cream pouring into the smaller one, for butter making; our full cream milk for home consumption having been strained and then placed in the dairy Coolgardie safe to cool, prior to transfer into the icebox in the kitchen. Perhaps by good fortune, Mr Maher arrived punctually to collect the skim, so there was clearly no room for a third person in the dairy, and Chas stepped outside to meet our neighbour, walked and talked to him all the way to his gate, leaving me alone, at last, to wash and sterilise the machine.
Dinner was superb. The Plymouth Rock cockerel was indeed the supreme table bird, but Chas was sure it was the way it was cooked that made its flavour unique. Mother instantly put him straight on that idea, and he soon found out that she could prevail in any difference of opinion, so he offered to do all the washing up at the conclusion of the meal and neither Mother nor I attempted to dissuade him, but thanked him and we put everything away in its rightful place, knowing that no two families do such things identically. We then played Euchre together until Robbie tired of his toys and our lack of involvement in his affairs, Mother picked him up to get him ready for bed, and I explained our archaic bathing routine to Chas, who elected to have a cold shower outside, in the shed - brave fellow, for the evening was chilly.
We had two spare bedrooms and Chas elected to sleep in the back one, off the kitchen and we all had a good night's rest. Aware that he was coming to visit, Mrs Jago had given us a new map of the district, well away from the old pig farm, and it included some off-road tracks which looked interesting to me because I had never had the time to do much exploring. Next morning, the weather was unseasonably warm, with a soft zephyr breeze, so when chores were completed, we packed cut lunches and bottled water into our saddle bags and set off on our journey of discovery at any easy pace, as Terrence was adamant in his wish to accompany us.
'We'll have to take it easy', I said to Chas. 'our Terrence has accompanied me on my explorations, ever since Father and I found him, near starving, out at Moorebank, on the Georges River, when I was very young. He has been our faithful friend ever since we got him, but I feel guilty because he has led and protected me everywhere, lickety split, once I learned to ride and I think it's been too much for him. He's a heavy gun dog, not a kelpie, and he's slowed right down. I think his heart may be failing, but he wants to accompany us and I always listen to Terrence. I'll show you the Mountain views tomorrow, up past Pearce's Corner, on the Castle Hill Road, as I ride part of the way home with you'.
Chas nodded in agreement and off we went, around the Jago's corner, towards the Chilvers' place, then turned left on to a bush track about half way down their road. It was a soft, level track, well defined, and the surrounding bush was thick with varied multi coloured wild flowers and creepers, under a canopy of magnificent trees, mostly eucalypts, and to my surprise, there were many I did not recognise. We followed the track for over an hour and found that we were in a magnificent stretch of pristine country, undisturbed by the sounds of axes and cross-cut saws. I could not understand how it had been preserved in an area so relatively close to thriving farms. At last the track led slightly downhill and we emerged from the forest into a large clearing, with post and rail fenced paddocks, livestock, with shelter sheds, a small, flowing stream and a large farmhouse and outbuildings, away on the southwest boundary of the cleared land.
Unsure of whether we were indeed trespassing, I dismounted and asked Chas to hold Jock while Terry and I walked towards the house. As we approached, the front door opened and a middle-aged, smiling woman beckoned us forward and greeted us. I introduced myself and Terry and gestured towards Chas, holding the horses. In reply to my question about possible invasion of privacy, she offered her hand, saying.
'You are very welcome to ride through our place, and I hope you both enjoy the journey. You will find another track towards the north eastern corner of the clearing which will take you over the creek, which is a pleasant place for a picnic, through more heavily timbered land, all still on our property, and you will finally reach an unlocked steel gate in a barbed wire fence, which marks the boundary of our holding. The track becomes a road out there and runs between mixed farms until it reaches the North Rocks Road, nearly opposite Oakes Road. It is quite a long way round to return to Shalimar. You're welcome to stay on our place as long as you wish.'
'Thank you so much, Mrs Smith. I think we will have our lunch at the picnic place by the stream, ride on through the forest to the gate, look at what happens to land after the forest has been felled, then retrace our steps and thank you for welcoming us onto your beautiful property.
'We will leave the way we came in. This is a very special place.'
And that is exactly what we did. The spirit of that unspoiled forest was so strong, it remains with me, to this day. I hoped it was the same for Chas, but upheaval and removal soon changed my life immeasurably and I lost touch with all my childhood friends by the time I was eighteen.
Today, I looked at a Sydney street directory, and noted that a wide reserve extends from North Rocks to Carlingford, with Kent's Creek running through a large portion of it. Perhaps it was the area that Chas and I explored, all those years ago. On that day, he was so overawed by the grandeur of the forests that he asked me to hold his mare while he offered his own personal thanks to Mrs Smith. Once home at Shalimar, he soon let the mare loose in the woodlot to roll and graze till milking time, and hurried up the hill and inside the house, to share his love affair with trees with Mother and Robbie, while I put Jock in his paddock and commenced the evening chores.
That evening, with Mother, Robbie and I already bathed, Chas gratefully accepted a big tub of bath water, heated on a steel hob at the front of the dining room fire, behind the fire guard, and wearing thick oven mitts, carried it all the way to the bathroom, now comfortably warmed by the back of the chimney. The delicious aroma of one of Mother's beef casseroles, with potatoes, baked in their jackets, pumpkin, parsnips and greens, tempted our appetites, the main meal followed by preserved peaches and cream and all bar the beef, home grown. Mother and Chas became so engrossed in one another's yarns, that I was able to put Robbie to bed and read 'Winnie the Pooh' to him till he fell asleep, then do the dishes and serve our cocoa, before they were even aware that they had not stopped talking for over an hour! They then realised that the evening had flown, and it was already well past our usual bed time.
Morning chores completed and breakfast enjoyed by the fire in the dining room, we saddled the horses and Chas expressed his thanks to Mother for her hospitality and gave Robbie a farewell hug. We then got on our way, with the pace determined by Terry, out front, and obviously feeling cock a hoop on this fine, crisp morning. As the first leg was uphill, we deliberately lagged behind our talisman, to temper his enthusiasm, with eventual success. On reaching Thompson's Hill, we both dismounted, ran our stirrups up, crossed the road and led our horses slowly, with several lengthy pauses, to ensure that Terrence also slowed down.
At Pearce's Corner, still leading the horses and with Terrence going well, we turned left and walked less than a mile to a lookout, from which we could clearly see the eastern section we had followed on Pennant Hills Road, with the tall radio masts, and closer settled areas, interspersed with farmland and orchards, all laid out before us, like a picture postcard. To the south, the view was marred by smoke and haze above the industrial areas, and then it cleared over the Southern Highlands, where we could identify salient points, until distance blurred into infinity. It was such a bright, sparkling morning that the Blue Mountains, usually blurred by distance, stood out in such bold relief that we could identify all the well-known peaks with ease.
Back at Pearson's Corner we said our goodbyes, with thanks for a pleasant interlude, but made no commitment to further visits, as Chas may have observed some tension in the household and realised that the times, 'they were a changing.' Soon after he turned north, I led Jock, with Terry 'at heel', all the way to the North Rocks Road turn off, as there was now a considerable amount of Army convoy movement on Pennant Hills Road. Earlier experience had proved that young soldiers were bored witless on such journeys and stimulated to ribaldry. By being on foot, we were no longer 'traffic' but pedestrians, who, by law, must walk towards oncoming traffic, which meant we were not spotted by the recruits, who could see us only out of the backs of the trucks, after they had passed us by. Terrence appreciated this new way of travelling together, so I walked beside him and led Jock all the way to North Rocks village, then remounted for the downhill stretch to Shalimar.
Early Spring brought rapid growth in the market garden and the orchard. Fluchen had been dried off later than usual, her calf expected in October. Our poultry were corn fed and self sufficient, the hens let loose in the orchard towards evening to ensure they had green pick and exercise before they brought themselves home to roost. The growing of extra corn had proved a winner. School, and social interaction with classmates, came to be a pleasant diversion in a hectic lifestyle. Mother and Robbie appeared content and all seemed to be going well in our uncertain world, perhaps because there were signs of hope for eventual allied victory in Europe and hard fought gains were also being made in the Pacific theatre. The weeks simply flew and the longer days of early Summer arrived in all their glory, with the entire property looking like a miniature grand estate, with a bountiful harvest guaranteed, unless bad weather intervened. And then our beloved Terrence died. On the front door mat, guarding his precious territory, he let out one sudden, guttural yelp, thrashed around briefly and before we could reach his side, he was gone. I do not think three human mortals ever grieved the loss of a canine friend as we did our Terrence, whom we would never have known had Father not saved him from imminent destruction when I was just a whippersnapper and Mother was unwell. While I dug his grave in the front lawn, as close to his kennel and the doormat as the verandah boards would allow, Mother washed his aristocratic face and closed his beautiful, dark brown eyes. Running his fingers through his Terry's still lustrous, curly black coat, Robbie wept in deep despair, as if his heart would break. Mr and Mrs Maher and Mr and Mrs Jago arrived with sweet scented, beautiful little posies, hastily gathered after Mr Jago, who had seen and heard our grieving through the boundary fence, had phoned the Mahers, and they all hastened to console us before Mother wrapped Terrence in a brand new, pure white bed sheet and we gently lowered him into his last resting place.
At school, I could not concentrate. When the bell rang for morning recess, Jennifer waited for me on the stairs until I caught up with her, then drawing me aside, she murmured,
'I know about the death of your faithful Terrence, and we all remember seeing him on Pymble Station when your Father and the big black dog accompanied you there, to make sure you boarded the train, when you did not want to come to school. Our Mothers have been in touch, early this morning, and I'm very, very sorry that you have lost your wise and valued friend before his time'.
Jennifer's kind words touched me deeply. They helped me through a long and exhausting day, exacerbated by the news, on my return home, that dear old Larry had also passed away whilst resting, at about the time our Terrence succumbed to his fatal heart attack. This double tragedy overwhelmed poor Mother, who was devastated, knowing that both the little old man and the big black dog had made our lives and fortunes not only tenable, but filled with successful outcomes and mutual respect throughout our tenure at Shalimar. Together with our wonderful next-door neighbours, they had been the linchpins of our endeavours.
Now, because of the importance of my education, it was clear that Mother and I would not be able to satisfactorily complete all the necessary farm work unaided, once the fruit season commenced. We talked about it after Robbie went to sleep that evening, and although mightily upset, I fully understood and concurred with her decision to sell Shalimar and move back to the North Shore, to be close to a railway station to enable her to catch a train to the City, and return to work in journalism.
Fluchen calved, delivering a lively baby bull this time, and to our immense surprise, he was not dumped on the calf truck, headed for the meat works, but was bought by the breeder of his sire to be raised for stud duties on unrelated heifers. Jock's future was not immediately decided and I hoped and prayed for the best. Because the days were lengthening, I found time to continue exercising him regularly. His summer coat came through, a dazzling bright bay, without too much grooming effort on my part, and he looked, for all the world, like top Royal Show material. Each spring, on this healthy farm, his condition had improved, despite his advancing years, but I had to be realistic and accept that the scars from his accident with the car would always keep him out of the Hack show ring, in spite of his superb movement and obedience. In the absence of Terrence, a heartbroken Robbie centred his animal adoration on Jock, who was pleased to carry him around the farm, the tall, wee boy riding on Jessie's little old pony pad, happy and relaxed as either Mother or I found time to lead him up and down our paddock or on the Jago's place.
The weather remained ideal, with just enough rain to finish our market vegetables to perfection, and they all sold well, in spite of a boom season in our district. This result heartened Mother, encouraging her to ready our house and superb little farm for buyer inspection, well before the fruit began to ripen. As the entire farm was in perfect order, she decided that the homestead needed a 'sprucing up'. The outside paint work, although in good condition, was dusty, and had cobwebs in some sheltered areas where predators were loath to venture. So out came the ladder and the hoses, with me starting well ahead of them, washing the high areas, which Mother and Robbie could not reach, all of us working like beavers and finding enjoyment in sharing a task together for the first time since Terrence's untimely death. Robbie stuck to his guns till nearly lunch time, then went off for a short kip on his trundle bed in Mother's room, while she and I prepared our midday meal.
Before milking time, the deep cream coloured house was so sparkling clean, that even the house name, beside the front door, having responded brilliantly to 'Brasso' treatment, could now clearly be seen from the bus. Mother and I were cheered by our efforts, but four year old Robbie ran right round the place, then pondered awhile and finally said,
'The roof shood be green!'
Mother and I walked to the front gate, and from there we could see what he meant. The walls were sparkling, but the raised and clearly visible parts of the roof, although in good condition, looked dull grey by comparison.
'You're right Robbie; green and cream go well together but you are far too young to go roof painting, my balance is too impaired for me to climb a ladder, and it would be too big a job for Margie, on her own, unless she could get some competent help'.
That was where the matter ended for that day, as I had been on the roof on several occasions, when high winds were forecast - but had not materialised - to check the tension of the cyclone wires which fastened the house securely to huge concrete columns, buried deep on the east and west sides of the place, and I knew that the roof area was large indeed. It would take a long time for me to paint, unaided, as over three quarters of the area was of gently sloping skillion - I'd be on hands and knees, all the way! Then, on reaching school early on Monday morning, I was surprised to find Jennifer at the door of the small, locked room at the back of Adams House, for which I had a key, and where I left my bike each school day. We greeted one another with smiles, then Jennifer came straight out and confided,
'As you know, ours mother's are long time friends from way back, even if they don't discuss the circumstances of their friendship with us. You're mother phoned mine, very early this morning, to enquire whether I had ever done any roof painting, and guess what? I had, only last summer, when I painted all the front part of our roof which could be seen from the street. It was rather high, but I did not get giddy and quite enjoyed doing it, so would be happy to help you with yours, if you would like me to give you a hand'.
'Thanks Jennifer, your help would be much appreciated, specially as you know what to do. I have been on our roof several times to check the cyclone wires, but have never painted one. I imagine that it could be slow, laborious work, and jolly hot in the middle of a still, sunny day, which I guess is what is required to allow the paint to dry.'
'Not necessarily, Margot. Depends on the paint and the manufacturer's instructions, as written on the tin. When would you like me to come?'
'Perhaps the weekend after next, depending on the paint that Mr. Jago, one of our next door neighbours, may recommend as the most suitable. I'm not sure what preliminary preparation of the surface may be necessary; I suppose every roof is different! For me, it's exciting that you will see the farm. And also, very generous of your time, for exams are not that far away. Living and working here has been a true labour of love and achievement, thanks to the help and wise council of our truly great neighbours, Mr and Mrs Maher, Mr and Mrs Jago and dear old Larry, who died the same day as our beloved Terrence. They have taught us all the basic principles of sustainable and highly productive agriculture, where every living thing flourishes, year after year. Thank you again, Jennifer, for offering to come to Shalimar'.
'I'm intrigued. You have never waxed lyrically about anything at school before! But we better put our bags in the cloak room and get ready for Assembly. Let's run, or we'll be late.'
By the time Jennifer and I reached Shalimar by train and bus two weeks later, all the preliminary work of thorough cleaning and the application of an undercoat had been attended by me during the intervening, fine weekend. Now, the weather forecast was good and the farm looked beautiful. Mother and Robbie gave us a warm welcome and a super scone afternoon tea, then we changed into work clothes to commence the evening chores, all of which left my good friend speechless with wonder and admiration, as she had never previously seen any form of primary production, and could not believe that we grew almost all our own food and everything the livestock consumed, with the extra bonus of composting, producing and spreading all our fertiliser requirements.
Robbie accompanied us wherever we went, his first duty being to let his laying hens and pullets out into the orchard for green pick and to scavenge for insect larvae, the earthworms being too savvy to alloy themselves to be scratched up and eaten. He then let his table cockerels out of their chookhouse into one section, out of three, in the tree sheltered, grassed and sand bathing yard, and prepared evening meals for hens, pullets and cockerels of cracked corn, cooked kitchen scraps and a sprinkle of shell grit, collected from Collaroy Beach by Auntie Rita, every now and again, in exchange for eggs, the exact number determined by Robbie, to balance the amount of shell grit received! He knew that the cockerels would return to their chookhouse when the hens and pullets filtered in from the orchard and went to their separate sheds towards dusk to feed and then roost for the night, and there would be just enough light left to close the three doors behind them.
We had earlier made an obligatory inspection of the fruit packing shed and all the other places of interest in that complex, and finally reached the barn, to cut the oaten chaff and bundle the rough-end stalks for bedding for Jock and Fluchen. Jennifer was awe struck by the ease with which the razor sharp blade of the hand operated chaffcutter produced the high quality meals which they would consume after Jock was exercised. We carried his saddle and bridle, the feeds in their kero tins and the straw, in hessian bags, down to the paddock, and having heard the chaffcutter in operation, both Jock and Fluchen were waiting at the bottom gate, he wanting the bridle over his head and she waiting to be put through the woodlot gate to ruminate alone in her byre till milking and tucker time.
Robbie asked to ride up front, on a folded cornsack, on the pommel, on the front of the saddle and Jock carried us both, cantering slowly, in figures of eight, changing the rein so well that it was imperceptible. We worked in the bottom corner of our paddock, which was relatively level, making it easier for him to remain well balanced throughout the exercise, which thrilled Jennifer, who had never been close-up and personal with any horses, except Ben, the baker's old faithful. He had a penchant for milk thistles, which she always tried to find for him, and if she was successful, his whinny of appreciation could be heard on Chatswood Station.
I was aware that Jennifer wanted to go for a ride on Jock and felt mean spirited when I told her about his bolt, straight into an oncoming car, after Mr Egan had legged his daughter aboard, thinking he was bombproof.
'I'll happily lead you around the place and up through the woodlot, but our combined weight would be too heavy for him to double-dink us. Robbie's just a little flyweight now, but Jock might tip us both off if I put your weight on his loins instead of Robbie's on the pommel on the front of the saddle' Jennifer nodded.
'Yes', she said, 'I understand, but he's such a noble horse, I would love to sit in the saddle, just to experience the feeling of being much taller than when I'm on the ground. Will he let me do that?'
'Unless you're terrified, I'm sure he will be kind. And we best swap footwear before you climb aboard, as your light shoes could slip through the stirrup irons. There's a mounting block beside the gate into the woodlot and stable area'.
I pulled off my boots and stepped into hers - a good fit. And leading Jock towards the gate, I saw that Jennifer looked businesslike in boots, so demonstrated mounting and dismounting from the block, had a whisper in our old horse's ear, breathed with him to keep him calm, showed Jennifer how to hold the reins in her left hand and hold on to the pommel to help her lift her weight, and then gently lower herself into the saddle. Jock stood still and relaxed as his rider 'lifted and then lowered herself into the saddle', and he did not move an inch. She smiled, and said,
'How wonderful it feels to be on top of the world.'
Robbie and I both smiled too, as he opened the gate into the woodlot and running ahead, chose the prettiest track through the tall trees, while we followed him, missing our Talisman Terrence, but happy for our guest rider and for Jock, both of whom were relaxed and enjoying themselves. We then returned to the paddock, walked right round it and entered the orchard where we had to remain on the central laneway because the trees were so heavily laden with fruit and foliage that visibility through them was restricted. At the top of the hill we moved towards the tack room and a smiling Jennifer dismounted with aplomb, mission accomplished. She held the reins and talked to Jock, who listened attentively, his ears going backwards and forwards, while I put the saddle away and brought out the grooming brushes to stimulate and soothe all his pressure areas, an exercise he appreciated.
It was now milking and feed-up time, and we were running a bit late, so I suggested to Robbie that he may like to ask Mother to please put the udder wash water on the back porch, then help her in the kitchen and get ready for his bath.
'Jennifer and I will feed the poultry for you'.
Being a really great little bloke, he waved to us and went inside, and Mother responded, with the small bucket of warm water appearing like magic. She greeted us, but seeing Jock outside the tackroom and not yet fed and bedded down for the night, she urged us to,
'Get a wriggle on or you will both be late for dinner'.
Jennifer and Jock continued their conversation while I scrubbed my hands, grabbed the milking bucket from the dairy and the warm water from the porch, and asked her if she wanted to lead Jock or carry the buckets.
'Oh, lead Jock please'.
'Ok, but hold his head up, and make sure he doesn't tread on you. He can be a bit careless sometimes, especially if he's listening to kind words and forgets where he's putting his feet'.
We made the descent without mishap, quickly forked and fluffed up Jock's bed, filled his water bucket and placed his food in the floor level manger, and wishing him a good night, closed the bottom door of his stable. Fluchen was pleased to see her evening meal at last, but it was she who had put herself in the bail - she could have walked out and returned to the paddock, so it was no use her being crotchety. She appreciated her chaff, chock full of oats, and let her milk down generously. There was a great deal of it, which explained her wish to be milked earlier than usual. She took a liking to Jennifer, who tried her hand at stripping and was a natural, even although she had never been near a cow in her life. With the lid on the milk pail and the wash water discarded, Fluchen's unsoiled straw from last night was forked out from around the walls of her adjacent byre and the new straw added to make a comfortable bed, just like Jock's. Jennifer filled her water bucket and we closed the door on her, hoping she would enjoy sweet dreams.
When we reached the dairy to strain and separate the milk, I was concerned that Jennifer might be tired after a long day and may like to go inside and bathe while I finished up outside, but nothing would persuade her.
'This has been the best day of my life, and I want to see it right through, till we wash up after dinner and finally go to bed. The whole place is just magic, and Jock and Fluchen too. They have such strong personalities and they truly communicate. I honestly did not know that cows and horses could bond so well with people, even strangers, like me. It has been a revelation. Loosing Terrence was a tragedy, because I can visualise him fitting in so well, always faithful and in command'.
That remark about our beloved dog brought tears to my eyes, but it was not the time for sadness. The hens and pullets were slowly drifting through the fruit trees towards home, so we needed to get up there and feed them, in their separate hen houses. Placing the milk bucket in the cool dairy, we collected Robbie's carefully measured feeds, and as the cockerels were all waiting in their shed, we fed them and closed their door, then waited briefly while their sisters filed into their shed, and the hens went into theirs, all cluck clucking amiably, with no disagreement amongst them, as their feed was put into their well spaced food containers. Jennifer was amazed, and asked,
'How do they know which shelter is which?'
'Oh, I'll tell you while we separate the milk.' So we entered the dairy, washed and dried our hands and assembled the separator, then ladled the first ten pints into the bowl, as the milk bucket was near to overflowing and was too full to pour accurately. We took turns at turning the separator handle, an effortless task, which had surprised me initially, as much as it now surprised Jennifer.
'All these old fashioned tools and machines were built before electrification. They had to be guaranteed against breakdown, and last a lifetime. When we dismantle this machine to wash and then sterilise it, you will be left speechless by the intricacy of its working parts, and yet, their re-assembly is simple.'
It was now her turn on the handle, so I went on with the poultry saga.
'The pullets and the cockerels were incubated and raised to pin feather stage by one of Mrs. Jago's broody hens. It's the fourth lot she has raised for us, loss free, but the eggs she sat on were not her own. They came from a friend of the Maher's, who sells 'settings' of highly productive, fertile eggs which will grow into superior layers and table birds. When they out-grow the fine-meshed coop where they spend their early weeks of life, safe from predators, the hen teaches them the art of sheltering under her wings and feathers to grow up to and through their most vulnerable stage of loosing their warm chicken feathers and being near bald until their adult plumage gradually appears.'
'Once they can keep warm on their own, and the males' combs are large and red enough to determine their sex - and are getting much too big for the hen to shelter, they are separated into their adjoining sheds and yards to grow to the laying and table size. It has worked well for us for egg production, but we do buy the odd cockerel from Mrs Chilvers, who lives down near the end of the road that runs off to the right, past the Jago's place.'
Jennifer was intrigued that the poultry always came home to their own roosts, went fossicking for insects and their larvae in the orchard and had never invaded crops or market garden areas, perhaps because Terrence had deterred them. We would never know now, as we would soon be leaving here, our future undecided. The only certainty was that we would be gone before the harvest, already shaping up to be a bountiful one. When the big steel 'skim' bucket was close to overflowing, there was a gentle tap on the door and I was close to tears, knowing it was Mr Maher, come for the skim. But I was turning the handle, so attempted to stifle the sob stuff, and asked Jennifer to open the door, and I introduced them to one another, telling him that she had come to help me get our roof painting job finished this weekend, God willing.
Mr Maher paused and engaged Jennifer in meaningful conversation, while I finished the separating, put the lids on the cream container and the big skim bucket, dismantled the separator and rinsed it in cold water, then stepped outside to join them, thanking him for waiting for me, and saying how nice it was to have a visitor come to stay. He smiled and said,
'It's an honour to meet you, Jennifer. I hope that you will find time to bring her to visit us for an early morning tea tomorrow, before the dew has dried on your roof and it is ready for its final coat of paint.'
'We'll make time, Mr Maher, and thank you very much for the kind invitation. We will bring tomorrow morning's skim with us, to
save your legs. We have a spare bucket and lid. '
He wished us good evening and was on his way, leaving time before bathing and dressing for dinner, to cut chaff for the morning and bind bedding for Jock and Fluchen, who prepared the rough end oat stalks for our compost production, a process which Jennifer considered so simple and effective that she could not believe most farmers no longer practised the art, preferring to buy and spread artificial fertilizers, using modern, noisy petroleum driven spreaders. Next morning, she was equally amazed to find that Bonnie was the only working Clydesdale left in the immediate area and she spent time getting to know the beautiful animal, after morning tea and model farm inspection with Mr and Mrs Maher and prior to our commencement on the roof painting exercise.
The day was kind. There was the hint of a breeze and just sufficient broken, shifting cloud cover to make working conditions ideal. We both had long pigtails, and Mother made certain they were well secured around our heads, in case they fell down onto the freshly painted areas and turned bright forest green. We both wore big straw hats and soft leather work gloves. Mother and Robbie kept us well supplied with cool drinks and insisted that we climb down off the roof every hour to stretch our legs and straighten our backs, lest we developed cramps from working on our hands and knees on the skillion.
I really appreciated this consideration, as Jennifer was a fast and expert painter, and I'm sure those frequent breaks helped us both to cover the roof area in record time, as we were about two thirds of the way to completing the job at the end of the first day. While I put the paint tins away and cleaned the brushes, tireless Jennifer went off with Robbie to prepare the poultry food and then brought Jock up from the paddock, hoping that there would be time for rides before Fluchen needed to be milked.
Everything was slotted in without mishap. We saddled Jock and Jennifer led him down to the mounting block where Robbie steadied him while she mounted, then he went out in front, without a lead rope, and Jock followed him through the bush with Jennifer in the saddle, directing the horse with the reins held in her left hand, both horse and rider totally relaxed but none the less, alert. They were out of sight in the bush and perhaps at risk, but I did not think so, as when he was a tiny toddler, Robbie had enjoyed a great rapport with Jock, ever since I had found him hugging the front of his near foreleg and the poor horse was teetering on collapse, as he did not want to move that leg to balance himself, lest he injured the child.
The remaining evening tasks were completed with ease and deep satisfaction. By the time the poultry had all come home for their evening ration of cracked corn, Robbie soon closed their doors behind them. The routine did not vary, except that Jennifer, by choice, did most of the work in the stable and in the milking shed and, wishing that she had shown interest in life at Shalimar a long time ago, had to accept that more visits were unlikely, with end of year exams on the near horizon, and the necessity to study hard in preparation, an absolute 'must'.
We worked so well together that the milk was separated, the machine thoroughly rinsed, then scalded in a bucket of boiling water and laid out to dry on a clean towel in the Coolgardie safe, and the skim was awaiting Mr Maher's arrival, ahead of time, so we took it out to meet him. Robbie lacked interest in the dairy, probably because it was so cramped, so he carried the cream in the billy into the house, then joined us in the barn to play in the haystack, while Jennifer and I took turns at cutting tomorrow morning's chaff and tying the bedding straw by reusing the original ties from the harvest-time sheafs, usually still in good condition.
Mother, as always, made certain that there was plenty of hot water for baths, the evening meal was scrumptious, and ensuing conversations were inclusive, covering a wide spectrum of all the everyday difficulties of civilian life during wartime for those whose countries had not, thus far, been invaded, although the German Naval vessel, Cormorant, had sunk HMAS Sydney, with all hands, off the mid north west coast of Western Australia, and the Japanese had bombed Darwin Harbour, city targets and the nearby RAAF base with heavy loss of life, ships and infrastructure and then flown on to flatten Broome and bomb and destroy refugee mercy ships, sent midget submarines into Sydney Harbour, foiled by safety nets, bombarded parts of Sydney's eastern suburbs from the sea and attacked Townsville, in North Queensland.
Now, near three years later, with American support in Europe and the Pacific, the Allies were at last in the ascendant, all battles hard fought, every inch of the way.
Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, and after the completion of livestock care, Mother told us that Mr and Mrs Jago had invited us all to have early morning tea at their place before Jennifer and I got on with our painting. I was very grateful to them for this kind invitation, as I knew that Jennifer would now better understand how and why we had learned so much from our caring neighbours, and about the selflessness of old Larry, whose ability and generosity of spirit had been boundless.
As expected, Jennifer found it difficult to understand how two such erudite old people as the Jago's were happy to devote their time and energy to poultry farming and growing tomatoes, for market, and cockerels and fresh vegetables, for home consumption. Having grown up in suburbia, she had no previous concept of self sufficiency, but having seen the Maher's impeccable property yesterday, and now, having met Mr and Mrs Jago, and after morning tea, looked over their model of proficiency, she told me later, as we climbed the ladder to resume the roof painting, that it was a revelation to see so much food being produced on pocket handkerchief sized blocks of once unproductive, hungry land. We knelt on our jute bags, painting side be side, and surprised ourselves by the speed with which the unpainted areas were shrinking.
'Even with the hourly breaks and hour off at lunch time, we should be finished early enough for you to ride Jock in the woodlot and even out in the paddock this afternoon, at your leisure, but only at the walk, on the lead, with Robbie close beside you, on the more level ground near the gate into the orchard, where I'll be barrowing compost around the trees and will keep an eye on you. When you have had enough, I'll take the lead rein from Robbie, who will open and close the gate for us, and I'll lead Jock up the steep hill, to the tack room, because horses love to gallop up hill! It would be awful for both you and the horse if even the smallest misdemeanour should occur. Just remain tall in the saddle. Do not lower your weight over his neck like a jockey, as that's the galloping position.'
After lunch, by two thirty, we had narrowed the unpainted area to almost zero and were congratulating one another as the near last strokes of paint were being applied, when there was a noisy furore down the road, on the Parramatta side of the Maher's place. My heart sank and my plaits fell onto the paint, knowing it was Father, by the flailing walking stick and foul language. Overwhelmed with grief and sorrow, I broke down completely, then seeing Jennifer's stricken face, quickly regained sufficient control to tell her the truth as we stood up, side by side and watched Father's final fall from grace. I do not know whether Robbie and Mother, or indeed, our neighbours, witnessed the drama, as a once proud Sea Captain and now shamed and silent old man, handed his walking stick to a tall police officer, who opened the front door of the police car and waited till Father got himself inside, next to the driver, then sat in the seat behind him.
There were no sirens blaring as the car turned and drove away, towards Parramatta and to my terrible shame and deep regret, I never saw my beloved Daddy again. He did see Robbie though, from time to time, as my little brother grew tall and willowy, until Father became frail and returned to his birthplace, in Melbourne, where his youngest sister, our Aunt Dalny, took over the responsibility of his wellbeing and ultimate hospital care. He lived to reach ninety six years, a broken shell of a man.
Jennifer and I remained on the roof, stunned, for some ten minutes after the silent police car was driven away, then somehow, we finished our roof painting, and each carrying our jute bags, paint tins and brushes, we descended the ladder and went straight to the workshop to thoroughly clean the brushes. Mother and Robbie must have known about Father's disgrace, because they looked like stunned mullet as we descended the ladder, and had nothing to say to us, except that the kettle was on. We too, were short on words, but while in the workshop, making sure the brushes were still nearly as good as new, I plucked up the courage to thank Jennifer for standing tall, beside me, on the roof and finally asked her,
'Have you still got the courage to ride dear old Jock, after what you witnessed this afternoon?' Her reply was immediate.
'Yes, I have, but I would like you to be with us all the time, as poor Robbie looks to be in a state of shock. He's only a little kid, but he must have seen something, because he's as white as the proverbial sheet.'
'Mother doesn't look much better, so I think we'd best join her for that cuppa she mentioned. She might need to unload some of her pent up emotion. She rarely confides in me but she likes you very much, and may wish to make some explanation to you. If so, I'll take Robbie outside and try to cheer him up a bit. He may even prefer to speak to Mrs Jago, whom he worships. We'll just play things by ear, and hope for the best. You are an absolutely true friend, dear Jennifer.'
We had our cup of tea and a slice of orange cake which Mother had baked before Father could be heard blaspheming, way down the road. Robbie had taken himself off to the Jago's while Jennifer and I were in the tool shed, ensuring that the paint brushes were squeaky clean. Mother looked drained and very tired. She was polite to us but made no mention of Father's shameful behaviour, so I left Jennifer sitting opposite her in the sitting room and excused myself to wash the dishes, hoping that she may engage our guest in meaningful conversation and 'get a few things off her chest'. By the time the tea things were washed, dried and put away, Jennifer was by my side, anxious to get outdoors and have a final ride on Jock, who whickered when he saw her and came straight up to her to have the bridle over his head, and I did not ever know whether Mother had spoken to her about poor Father. We spent a precious hour together, just wandering around the farm, then through the back gate and into the Jago's big shady paddock where Fluchen was grazing.
We strolled past her with quiet words and she lowed softly to us in response, bringing tears to Jennifer's soft brown eyes, as she was deeply moved by our animals' responses to the human voice. Mrs Jago met us at their back door, soon followed by Mr Jago, who never went back to work in the heat of the day, but immediately remarked,
'You girls have done a really good job on the roof'. It looks very professional. Congratulations!'
Jennifer slipped her boots out of the stirrups and slid to the ground with the ease and composure of a seasoned rider. Holding Jock's reins close to his head and giving him a gentle pat on the neck, she said,
'Thank you for your kind words. It was an easy task, especially as Margot did a great job last weekend, and we only had to put on the final coat. I want to say good bye to you both and thank you for your hospitality and kindness. I have never before been a guest in such a caring community, and will remember North Rocks as a special place.' Mr and Mrs Jago stepped forward and shook Jennifer's hand with warmth and sadness too, realising that their paths were unlikely to cross again. Robbie seemed to have cheered up, for now anyway, and I hoped that he may come home with us to give Mother a hug to cheer her, too, which he did. A good little man was her only son. After we unsaddled Jock and returned him to his paddock, there was still enough time before evening chores, to slip out through our bottom gate, into Mr and Mrs Maher's place and walk up the laneway to their front verandah, knowing it must be their late afternoon tea time. They were pleased to see us and perhaps expecting our visit, offered us tea and scones, but they made no mention of poor Father. Jennifer was close to tears as she farewelled them, perhaps for the same reason as she was emotional when saying goodbye to Mr and Mrs Jago. It was not my turn to break my bonds with them yet, but it would come very soon and seemed to be shaping into a pattern of severance from all I held dear.
Jennifer asked if she could make Jock's bed, fill his water bucket,
feed him, and then talk to him for awhile, while I milked Fluchen. Of course, I happily agreed, as everything would needs be done very quickly next morning for us to catch the 7am bus to commence our long journey to school. We had found little time for homework, over the hectic weekend, but Mother had plenty of hot water on the stove, so we bathed, one after the other, at top speed, and did all we could before dinner, which was a small leg of roast sucking pig with all the trimmings, per favour Mr and Mrs Maher and very much appreciated.
Since Larry's death, and the end of our market vegetable growing, I guessed that Mother was no longer able to afford to buy meat, and felt a bit guilty that I had not killed and dressed a cockerel for the table, but had no way of doing so without Jennifer knowing. As she was a city girl, I thought it may have upset her. It was one thing to collect eggs, but killing a cockerel may have been going too far.
Jennifer slept in next morning and I did not rouse her, as I rose an hour earlier than on the weekend, because of the bus, and raced through morning chores at top speed, knowing that Robbie would feed and water the poultry, and deliver the morning billy of milk to Mrs Jago, waiting by the boundary fence, down near the dairy. Jennifer was sad that she could not say goodbye to Jock and Fluchen, and I again felt guilty, unable to right the wrong, as they were right up in the boundary corner, as far away as they could get, and time would not permit her seeing them. Our journey to school was thus an anticlimax, after the many highs and one big low of our painting weekend, and neither of us could find the words to sort out our emotions until we reached our destination, where we apologised to one another for our lack of grace.
When on our way to assembly, Jennifer noticed that my plaits were shorter and of uneven length. Not having noticed anything amiss on the roof, as we gawked at Father's disgraceful behaviour, she asked me why I did not seek her help in removing the paint, before it all went hard and horrible, and all I could say was,
'The full impact of Father's conduct, on and out of the bus yesterday, was so devastating at the time that I could not think straight or care about pigtails and I hacked the ends off in the tool shed while you were cleaning up in the laundry, but I have now somehow managed to come to grips with reality, because there is absolutely no choice. I have lost my beloved Daddy and know that the chance of seeing him again will almost certainly be zero. I am still a wholly dependant 'child' who needs my leaving certificate to help me towards some reasonable future employment. You are probably in the same position, but at least you already know that you will be studying Medicine, and will have absolutely no problems, as you and Anne are receiving after school lessons in physics and chemistry. You are both near the top of the class in all other subjects, and will sail through Medicine, however tough it is.'
We reached the assembly Hall and stood in rows near the back of the Hall. With only forms Six Upper One and Two behind us, we were each aware that we may have to go to the aid of girls who fainted, as there were few assemblies without a swoon. No one collapsed this morning though, as the hall was pleasantly cool. Our homework passed muster, and all our classes were interesting. We ate our lunches, cut and packed by Mother, sitting with a group of class friends under the shady trees in bushland between our sports ovals, enjoying the cool breeze and listening to the highlights of their weekends, spent mostly at the seashore on the northern beaches. The subject of roof painting and a miscreant Father at North Rocks did not rate a mention, thanks to Jennifer's tact. She did, however, mention her visit to the farm, and her joy in riding Jock and learning to milk our little Jersey cow, stories which were well received.
It was good to be back on my bike for the journey home after school as there was no strong westerly wind blowing to slow my progress, and I seemed to be home in record time. Neither Mother nor Robbie were there to meet me, so I changed into my riding clothes to give Jock some decent exercise in the beautiful bush where Chas and I had ridden during his stay, and then continued on to Mrs Chilvers' place to tell her that we would soon be leaving the district, and to say goodbye to her and her lads, with thanks for their friendship and sound advice on many varied subjects. They were pleased that I had taken the time to visit them, but had to admit that they knew why we were leaving and fully understood the necessity of handing over before the harvest. I rode home in despair, as our future was common knowledge, and as prospects of a good home for Jock had not been mentioned, I feared for his survival.
Mother and Robbie were still absent on my return, so I unsaddled my faithful steed, massaged his pressure areas and rode him bareback to his paddock, then commenced the evening chores as usual, and missing Jennifer's wonder at the efficacy of everything we had done together, I was suddenly overwhelmed by deep depression. When finally in the dairy, separating the milk, I heard the early evening bus from Parramatta stop opposite our front door, and catching the sound of Robbie's happy laughter as he and Mother crossed the road, my pall of misery evaporated, as if by magic. Mr Maher was at the dairy door to collect the skim and commented on how much he and Mrs Maher had enjoyed Jennifer's company,
'And what a great Doctor she'll be, because she listens to people and will understand and solve their health and associated problems.'
He then wished me goodnight, without a hint of whether he had any knowledge of Mother's immediate intentions or what, if he knew, had happened to Father, after he was driven away in the police car on Sunday afternoon, and I did not possess the grit to ask him. I may well have been a tireless worker, but was inept at clear communication, and thus ignored. After all the secrets of organic husbandry that Mr Maher had taught me over the years at Shalimar, I was crushed by the realisation that the ball was now in my court and I would have to deal with whatever the future held without his, or any other guidance. Since moving to Shalimar, for some reason unknown to me, contact with Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise had been put on hold, indefinitely, hopefully to be resumed at a later date.
In this state of mental turmoil, I went into the kitchen to deliver the cream and collect the boiling water to sterilise the separator. Mother looked quite bright and cheerful and Robbie gave me one of his bear hugs, clearly indicating that they knew nothing about my worries, thus I was appeased, and after dealing with the separator and putting it safely in the Coolgardie, was quite normal when I came inside to have my bath and do some homework before dinner. During the second course of a beautifully cooked and served meal, Robbie told me all about his bus trip to Parramatta where Mother and he visited a man in an office, at the top of a long flight of stairs. At this juncture, Mother interrupted his story and said she would tell me about it later, as he would not have been able to fully understand the fine details of the meeting.
'Go into the lounge and play trains to settle your dinner while Margie and I wash the dishes, then perhaps she will read one of your favourite bedtime stories until you feel sleepy. It has been a long and tiring day for my good little man.'
Always agreeable, he did as he was told, then requested I read the tar baby story from Uncle Remus, exactly as written, a difficult task in perfect intonation, but he was satisfied with my effort, and finally his head started nodding and Mother picked him up to help him clean his teeth and pop him into his bed, while I completed my homework. It was cocoa and crunchy cornflakes biscuit time before Mother told me about the outcome of the journey to Parramatta to speak to her estate agent regarding the sale of the farm, which had been successfully negotiated, and was now signed and sealed, necessitating the removal of our worldly goods, into temporary storage, until we found a suitable place to rent, for perhaps years, under the war time tenancy laws, before we could hope to dislodge our own tenants, and finally return to Pymble. In the interim, we would move to 'Wychwood', in a little over two weeks. Fluchen would accompany us there to provide milk for all the family, and would be tethered around a huge, run down garden, surrounding a deceased estate mansion on the other side of Marion Street.
'There is no paddock for Jock and he will have to be sold before we leave here. I am sorry Babe, but my hands are tied. You will have to accept the inevitable and wish him goodbye.'
I almost stopped breathing as this news sank in to my addled brain. Knowing full well that my ability to change Mother's mind was zero, I said nothing, somehow controlled my tempestuous thoughts, nodded in acquiescence and prepared for bed. Once there, I wept like a baby for what seemed like hours, then rose earlier than usual next morning to give me extra time to spend with Jock, who for the first time ever, licked my tears, just like Terrence, and listened to my sorrowful outpourings by nodding his fine head, and understanding every word, or so it seemed to me.
All chores completed before Mother had made breakfast, I delivered the Jago's milk to their door, perhaps hoping for some consolation from them, but they did not yet know of Mother's latest plans and I wisely remained silent on the issues which had overwhelmed me, by simply wishing them 'good morning'. At school, I smiled at everyone and remained tight-lipped, not wanting to upset anyone at all, especially Jennifer, who simply would not be able to fathom the reason for such a decision, as I imagined that she had no inkling of Mother's parlous financial position. We lunched with a group of friends and discussed the progress of the War in the Europe and in the Pacific, where Allied forces, slowly but surely, continued to gain ascendancy, and our first year Leaving Exams, getting closer by the day, also engendered lively discussion.
On Friday, on my return home, Mother gave me the news that she had found a buyer for Jock and assured me that he would be going to a good home.
'He will be collected after lunch, on Sunday week, the day before our household goods are booked for transfer into storage, and a carrier will transport Fluchen, the zinc lined chaff and bran bin and all the milking and tethering accessories, to the property across the road from Wychwood. Our personal belongings will also travel in a separate compartment in the truck and will be delivered to Grandma's front door.
Jock's buyer would like him to wear his hessian stable rug for travelling, and would also appreciate his winter paddock rug for his comfort when the days get colder, around Easter time.' For some tortured reason, I disbelieved the story about Jock's new owner and leaped to the conclusion that he was a con artist, out to make every post a winning post, and prayed that I was wrong.
Robbie's poultry had been sold with the place, minus the last of the cockerels, which we consumed ourselves in those final weeks. The Maher's and the Jago's usual good fellowship was expressed in abundance as our departure date grew closer and Mrs Jago assured a worried Robbie that she would make certain that his laying hens and this year's batch of pullets were well fed and maintained, their droppings and scratching straw composted for the orchard and their roosts regularly scrubbed with lysol to maintain their lice free status. All this assurance went down well with Robbie, but I knew that no one could advise new owners if they chose to ignore sound neighbourly advice.
Right to the end of those last two weeks, I stabled Jock and Fluchen at night to make the basis of the compost, turned the heating piles as required, and spread the finished product in the orchard. On the last Sunday, when Jock was to be collected after lunch, I started the chores earlier than usual to allow time for me to take him down the road towards the Chilvers', then turn left to let him wander undirected in the magic forest half way down that road, and I was sure he knew that we had reached the parting of the ways. Once out of the forest and back on the road, I dismounted, ran the stirrups up and walked home beside him, telling him what a great friend he was, as his ears went back and forwards, listening intently.
Mr Maher met me outside the tack room when we returned home, to tell me that Jock would be collected from their driveway, not our own, as Mother knew that Robbie loved the old horse as I deeply as I and would be distraught on seeing him loaded up and driven away. He walked down to the stable with me and Jock, and offered to load him when the time came, knowing I had only loaded him on the train for Mother on journeys to the Princess's first property in the Capertee Valley, when I was very young and rode and also loaded my old pony, Jessie. I thanked him for his concern and agreed that Jock may not wish to get on the truck, so his assistance would be appreciated.
I did not return to the house for lunch, but remained with Jock in the stable, dressing him for his final journey. Dry eyed, I shined his hooves, groomed his coat, mane and tail till they glowed, and dressed him in his hessian stable rug, white cotton police headcollar and leading rope, and finally gave him some carrot slivers from my pocket. As I led him from the stable and through the gate into the orchard, I realised that I had forgotten to throw his washed and folded winter paddock rug over my arm and we went back to collect it. Fluchen was over in the Jago's paddock, awaiting his company, and as I led him out the gate a second time, she bawled and hot-footed down through our paddock in a bid to join him. Having only one another for company, they had become good friends over the years, and separation from Jock would sorely upset our little cow. As I led Jock through the bottom gate into the Maher's lane, I could hear her lowing pitifully and Jock returned her calls with a crescendo of long, deep neighs, from the bottom of his heart.
At the top of the lane, near the gate onto the road, I could see the new owner's truck, with the ramp already lowered, and I stopped breathing. I knew that truck from my bike journeys to and from school. It was the Knackers one way journey truck to horse eternity. Mr Maher took Jock's lead rope from my hand, I placed his winter rug over his withers, silently kissed him goodbye and he sprang straight up the ramp without falter, the spring loaded ramp closed behind him and he was gone. Mr Maher emerged from a small side door and the truck was driven away. He took my hand and closed the road gate, as Mrs Maher called from the front verandah that luncheon was served, her words barely audible over Fluchen's anguished bawling, way down at our paddock gate. He held on to me till we topped the steps, where Mrs Maher took my hands instead and led me to the bathroom to wash them before sitting down to lunch, the first and last I shared with them.
Aware that I had been duped about 'Jock's good home' buyer, and had recognised the truck, Mr and Mrs Maher did not dwell on his fate, except to express their sorrow in my loss. Instead, they let me in on a secret about Fluchen, which was completely out of character for their high standards of integrity, but as they knew that she was super sensitive and of unsuitable temperament for upheaval, uprooting and removal, and would be unlikely to ever settle calmly in alien surroundings, they had, nevertheless, been unable to convince Mother of almost certain problems ahead.
I thanked them for this information and asked them how to handle the situation, admitting that Mother did not share her thoughts and dreams with me, perhaps because I was my Father's daughter and not tall, blonde and willowy like my adorable little brother, with his sunny temperament. I was dour and purposeful, just like my great grandmama, who was a tiny, implacable German peasant woman who lived to within days of her hundredth birthday, and whom I remembered as a tyrant.
Mrs Maher stretched her arm across the table and held my hand in hers. She spoke quietly and with warmth.
'Mr Maher has managed to persuade your Mother that she must take full responsibility for Fluchen at Killara, because you will be going into end of year exams and must do well to enable you to enter your Leaving year with confidence after the Christmas holidays. We will collect your little cow and she will join our herd at a moments notice, unless of course, she defies our predictions and settles down quickly.'
I again expressed my gratitude and thanked them for the meal. I wanted to hug them both but refrained, determined to do so tomorrow, when they came to see us off. As Fluchen was still bawling, Mr Maher rose from the table and said that he 'Would sort her out', and I went with him, down the lane, to clean every last straw out of Jock's stable, close both doors, and light the small container of fumigating sulphur to ensure that the next occupant remained disease free. As I left the stable, I saw that Mr Maher had been successful. Our little cow was now safely in her byre, lying down, chewing her cud and Mother, Robbie and our good neighbour were in deep conversation, and they were smiling.
Mother did the evening and next morning's milking, under Mr Maher's expert guidance and words of wisdom on tethering, which he introduced to Fluchen, drama free and said he would pack two bags of chaff and as many butts of straw as he could fit into the his cousin Bill's stock truck, when it arrived, after lunch, hosted for us by Mr and Mrs Jago. Our bags of clothes and personal necessities would fit into lockers behind the cabin, Mr Maher would travel with us, settle Fluchen, and make certain that Mother could drive the heavy steel tethering stake in deep enough to hold her under any circumstances, and still be back in North Rocks in time for evening milking and pig feeding, plus the stabling and feeding of the compost makers, Bonny and the milking cows. At the last moment, he realised that Mother may possibly be unable to pull the tethering stake out of the ground, so he found three more to hammer in really deep, and then the chain could be rotated around those fixed points.
And so we moved, with Mr Maher travelling beside our tethered cow, as there was not enough room for him in the cabin. Our arrival in Marion Street created much shock and horror among the residents, none of whom had ever seen a stock truck in their hallowed boulevard, much less, a cow! Grandma was obviously far too ashamed of us to even acknowledge our arrival, so I was overwhelmed with gratitude for Mr Maher's determination to ensure that Mother got things right with Fluchen, who could create havoc in the district if she got loose, dragging that heavy steel chain. Before leading her down the ramp, our driver and Mr Maher unloaded the feedbox and its contents and trolleyed them to an old stable block, at the back of the house.
Soon Robbie and I found ourselves abandoned, so we stayed in the cabin of the truck and played 'I Spy' until he wanted to go the toilet and I knew that we had been moved into the realm of nightmares. In trepidation, I took his hand, we slipped to the ground from the high truck cabin and walked through the front gate of 'Wychwood', crunch, crunch on the gravel, around to the steps to the wide verandah and up to the front door, where I rang the bell and waited and waited, but nobody answered our plea. Robbie's face was pinched with misery and I felt helplessly inept, unable to come to grips with the loss of Jock, only a few hours earlier and now finding my little brother and I, locked out of what was supposed to be our temporary safe haven until Mother found work and recovered her equilibrium.
Then I remembered the toilet in the laundry, around the back of the three storeyed house, now divided into at least four, possibly five apartments, and I lifted him on to my shoulders to carry him there, hoping we'd make it in time. We did, but heard no sounds of life anywhere and finding no cars in the extensive garage, finally returned to the truck where Bill was anxious to get our personal belongings into the house. I told him that no one appeared to be home, but showed him the direction of the front verandah and we helped him transfer our luggage off the street and under cover, by which time both he and Mr Maher were ready to wish us all the best and Mother was left standing there, thanking them both, and holding a bucketful of Fluchen's creamy, delicious milk, unaware that no one was at home to greet us.
As it was wartime, Auntie was manpowered to work in a textile mill, as had happened during WORLD WAR 1. This time she quite enjoyed the repartee of the factory floor, and was now employed under superior conditions, in a well lit studio, designing 'cheer up' mess room curtain designs, etc, to hearten the troops, and as work starts and finishes early in factories, she soon arrived home in her little yellow Baby Austin, for which she received a ration book of petrol vouchers, as she was physically handicapped, but still able to work in an essential industry and help the war effort. Auntie looked mightily surprised to see us waiting for her, but she let us in, anyway, and was pleased to strain and chill the milk. It turned out that the mind games that she and Grandma had always played on one another had taken a serious turn since I had spent some time with them whilst doing my Intermediate Exams and they
were now at war, with Grandma's nightcap whisky bibbing turning in to a state of demented loathing of her crippled daughter.
This was an awful state of affairs and I knew that we must not stay long in this atmosphere of hate. Mother also knew this to be true, for Robbie's sake, and took him with her everywhere, even across the road to milk a distressed little cow who did not look like 'settling' and her milk production dropped alarmingly. When alerted by Mother, Mr Maher fulfilled his promise to take Flutchen back to join his herd at North Rocks, Mrs Jago offered to care for Robbie until we found safe haven, and Mother landed herself a good position on a rural weekly, based in Sydney, where she rejoined the human race and was successful. By then, first term of my Finals year had commenced and I languished, unable to get into Grandma's house after school and badly missing my little brother, till Aunty returned from work and always lifted my spirits. She knew I should have my own key to let me into the house but Grandma had forbidden it.
'I'm sorry Margie, but if I have one cut for you, she'll have the locks changed and we'd all be locked out She's in the house, but refuses to answer the doorbell. She has become obsessive about her privacy and is seldom rational.'
Some weeks later, I started complaining about frequent bouts of severe abdominal pain, diagnosed by the family as 'attention seeking', until Auntie found me unconscious on the back lawn when she came home from work. Shocked, she called an ambulance to cart me off to Hornsby Hospital, where I nearly died from a gangrenous appendix and missed a huge part of the first Term of my Leaving Certificate year, for which my teachers made me drop my Honours Classes in English and History, my top subjects.
At some time, while I was in intensive care, which was just an isolated, single room, Mother contacted Chas's Mother, whom she knew and liked, and found that she owned a rental property, not far from School, which would become vacant and available to us within a week, so arranged for a removalist to shift our furniture out of storage and into our new abode. She moved in there, alone at first, as Robbie remained with the Jago's until she found a reliable carer for him. Travelling by train, her new position took her all over the state, to report on and obtain photographs depicting the War Effort in action across rural NSW. She was busy, solvent and fulfilled. When I finally joined her, pathetically frail and disoriented, she was dismissive, convinced that the entire episode had been nothing but a hoax, but at least she did not have huge bills to pay, as Hornsby Hospital was a public institution, where I had received expert care.
Hospitalisation had shown me the pathway to an eventual career in Nursing where I would be housed and fed during my training, and my uniforms would be provided, free of charge, laundered, stiff and starched, and returned to my locker. On top of all that largesse, I could even expect to be paid; not a lot, but something. It seemed too good to be true, but I said not a word about such hopes and dreams to anyone, and did my best at school, glad to have more time with my friends, all of whom now knew about my busy life on the farm, thanks to Jennifer's glowing accounts, which never made any mention of Father's disgrace, and made me wonder whether other families also had skeletons in their cupboards. Because she had fallen in love with the whole concept, I did not break the spell by ever telling her of Jock's fate. It would have been an act of cruelty towards my gentle, caring friend.
Chas' Mother, concerned that Robbie had not yet joined us in our new home, arranged a meeting between Mother and a refined English lady, named Mrs Thynne who lived nearby in leafy Burn's Road, and who might be willing to care for Robbie while she was at work. The meeting was a success and soon she and her little boy were reunited and he loved the gentle English lady, I regained my strength and our family was now back together again, with Robbie the one who kept the goodwill flowing generously.
By second term, I found myself included in the social lives of my local friends, became an accepted member and received invitations to visit cinemas and parties far and wide, as these privileged young people drove motor cars. They seemed to have little difficulty in finding adequate supplies of rationed petrol, especially after Germany capitulated on May 7th, 1945 and the War in Europe ended. One of the boys was a tall American named Steve, also in his final year at a nearby College. Steve was impressed with our place because it sported a sunny, well fenced lawn tennis court with a rising slope on the eastern side, bedecked with fragrant freesias, opening onto the entrance driveway to the front steps of the old-fashioned, single storeyed, comfortable house. Across the court and between the bottom of a steep bank and the boundary fence, closely planted, leafy evergreen trees ensured road noise abatement and privacy.
Although the court was neglected, a heavy roller, sitting in deep, unmown grass at the northern end, proved moveable, so Steve offered to 'rustle the troops', and to weed, topdress, mow and roll it smooth enough for social games. Next door neighbours, with two daughters at my school and a gate in the dividing boundary fence, had a fast, hard, all-weather court where aspiring champions could test their skills. Both venues proved popular on fine week-ends, the fleeting warmth of a late Indian Summer having turned quite chilly and sometimes even frosty, so it was now deemed too cold to drive through French's Forest in open MG's to go to the beach.
Among this new circle of friends, all of whom appeared worldly and sophisticated, nobody knew much about me and I did not enlighten them, fearful of rejection as a hayseed, and I carefully avoided showing any aptitude for hard, physical labour, although Steve had heard of my running ability and was anxious to pit me against the schoolboy champion at his school, some Sunday afternoon when there was little supervision of activities on the Oval, but which sounded risky to me. Undeterred by my ambivalence, he eventually persuaded me to accompany him there and take on this very fast, big strong sprinter over one hundred yards. To my chagrin, this was a public challenge, with far too many spectators, but I hid my feelings, stood beside him, looking like a pipsqueak in my old sandshoes - he had proper running shoes, I think, with spikes or something - we shook hands, lined up, ran a true David and Goliath race and he did not pass me. Other challengers followed, from far and wide, and still they failed to pass me. Eventually, the state schoolboy champion was brought in to settle the matter. Unknown to me, the tape was set over a hundred metres, instead of yards and I was pipped right on the extended line, to everyone's relief, as male honour was now restored. Thank goodness, none of my treasured class friends lived in this refined environment, or knew about these races and I was glad the issue had finally been settled, as I much preferred the predicability of days at school, to the often scary excitement of weekends.
One Sunday, the weather was heavily overcast, with rain and a cold wind change expected about noon, so prospects for tennis looked bleak. Mother was away on one of her work trips and Robbie was with Mrs Thynne, so I had been left under the supervision of the other tenant in this comfortable old house, who lived in a separate flat at the far end of the long, central corridor. She had access to our place, but not vice versa, so when Steve called in to see me, unexpectedly, she intervened in a flash and upset him no end by telling him to leave. He had come with a written invitation from his Mother and Father, asking me to join them for lunch at their nearby home, and it was still in his hand, undelivered.
The misunderstanding was sorted out quite quickly, but Steve remained piqued until we were walking down a steep hill towards his place, when I stopped dead, for there in the driveway of a big white, double storey house, I recognised the silent near white car from the Pennant Hills Road early morning encounters when on my way to school, a lifetime ago.
My heart skipped a few beats, as now my years of toil at Shalimar may have become common knowledge, but need not have worried. No one showed a scrap of interest in my past; not even Steve's father, the laconic man with the winning smile, who welcomed me into their home and introduced me to Steve's genial, rotund, happy-go-lucky Momma, and the delights of drinking unlimited quantities of Coca Cola, straight from small, signature-shaped bottles, which were delivered regularly, and stacked up on top of one another on the cold laundry floor, two dozen bottles to each wooden crate. Mind boggling indulgence, and I had never even heard of Coke. Shame on me, especially as it made me sneeze!
Over a long lunch in the big dining room, Poppa explained the reason for their presence in Sydney, and it was all to do with the War, and the fight back in the Pacific against the Japanese. He was the Australian Manager of the American earthmoving Company, Le Tourneau. Back during the Depression days, Bob Le Tourneau, from the impoverished southern state of Mississippi, was taken out of school by his almost destitute parents. In only his eleventh year, he was sent to work on the roads to help feed his brothers and sisters. Using a heavy, long handled, rock splitting and crushing sledge hammer, a crowbar and a shovel, his foramen introduced him to the physical labour of splitting stone and shovelling it into deeply excavated areas of ground to form a solid base for roads built to withstand the weight of heavy motor traffic, before the bitumen went on top.
Underfed, and resentful, because he was working with happy, universally despised Negroes who had the audacity to sing as they worked, Bob knew there had to be a better way to make roads. Years later, he and Steve's Poppa, Al Loach, an unemployed lumberjack from around Seattle, finally met in downtown Fresno, California, and they came up with a brilliant idea. So Bob hired Al, his astute new friend, found a workyard, bought and mended a broken-down crawler tractor, stuck a heavy hydraulic steel blade on the front of it, and the world's first bulldozer was born.
Bob was no fool. He patented the design, and, with Al's immense savvy, designed and built the prototypes of all the world's first mechanised earth moving machinery and fast became a multi millionaire. Al was not admitted as a partner, but was well paid for his expertise and commitment, especially now, as Australian manager.
The Australian plant was at Rydalmere, on the Parramatta River, and on the following Saturday morning, Steve's family piled into the regal, off white Pontiac and took me there to view the immense and diverse machinery under construction or ready for shipment to the frontline Pacific Islands, already wrested from the Japanese, where airstrips would be constructed for advance attacks on the enemy, as the fight got closer and closer to Japan. With every inch defended by the Japanese to the last man, high American casualties occurred, in spite of concentrated, blanket bombing before attacks.
Working conditions at the Sydney plant were exemplary. After morning tea, served in the Manager's Office, where the door was never closed to any employee wishing to discuss any workplace problem, Steve taught me how to drive a bulldozer, down by the River, shifting sand, and we all went to lunch in the Canteen with the workers before driving home, my morale immensely boosted by what I had seen and learned Life was now a far cry from Shalimar, and I became a pampered pet, with Steve and his school friends doing all the hard work to maintain the tennis court.
Mother's busy life continued. As I had taken over most of the household and garden chores, and still had time for study, and with Mrs Thynne in charge of her happy little son, she was able to come and go as her work commanded. It was at the end of first term school holidays that I asked Mother if I could be reunited with Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise, whom I loved, and had not seen for over four years. With mixed feelings, on her part, which baffled me, a weekend at Luddenham was finally arranged, and once more, I floated back into the realms of majesty as we were driven by liveried Mr Overed, with still beautiful, but trace clipped Betsy - for the coming winter, effortlessly covering the miles to the Farm without once shortening stride or raising a sweat.
Mr Overed was pleased to see me. He had heard all about the hard work I did on Shalimar from a friend of his who knew Larry, but was quick to change the subject when he saw tears in my eyes. Shalimar was not mentioned again till a later visit, after I had left school and before I commenced my nursing career, when Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise took their annual holidays and spent them at Luddenham, with an open invitation for me to join them, if I could manage it, and I happily did so. Now, during this present visit, I just needed the reassurance of their presence and hoped that they would tell me about their lives since I had last seen them. They said that Mother had not kept in touch while on the farm at North Rocks and that they had no idea where we lived. Had she done so, they could have spoken to us on the phone, but the number was a silent one and no one in journalism would blow our cover.
The Chapman's exclusion from our lives during those busy, rewarding and often hectic years left me wondering what the secrecy was all about. Surely nothing to do with child labour, when I was always a willing participant. Where I now felt like a fish out of water, was on the social scene, knowing I was unsophisticated and socially inept.
The week-end simply flew and I cried when I saw the regimented rows of crops that were being mass produced to feed the troops. The years of organic nurture of our land must have left me a bit soft in the head. All the young draft horses had gone, but Mr Overed had refused to switch to a tractor, and still ploughed and hauled with Bonnie and Boxer, both of whom looked superb. Bonnie had another filly foal at foot who trotted along beside them when they were working in the fields. On our return journey to St Marys Station, Uncle Clem, aware that my lack of Physics and Chemistry would preclude me from any Science Course at University, asked me about my career plans after leaving School.
Unaware that he and Aunt Elise knew nothing of my illness at the beginning of the year, I told them about Hornsby Hospital and the good care I had received there, which had eventually resulted in my decision to become a trainee nurse myself, even if it broke my Mother's heart.
They were pleased with my decision, but knew that Mother would not welcome the suggestion, as they had tried to explain to her that I was attending the wrong school for admission into a science course and had been rebuffed, probably the cause of lack of contact during our time at North Rocks. I was alarmed, realising that I could not make any decision about my future until I reached my eighteenth birthday, after I left school, and it could then be too late to find a place in a teaching hospital, like Hornsby Public, till later in the year.
Uncle Clem reassured me he would do his best to get my Mother's blessing. I thanked him and his lovely wife, but had little hope of resolution to my dilemma. On the train journey back to Central, they said that they would support my resolve and were sure that I would eventually beat the odds, but should enter training at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where Uncle Clem could keep an eye on me, which was reassuring news. For now though, I had to make sure I did well in my Leaving Certificate exams.
Then out of the blue, the entire World changed forever. On August 6th, 1945, America dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. On August 9th, they dropped another, perhaps a Hydrogen one, on Nagasaki. The death and devastation caused by these two bombs sent shock waves of horror around the globe, but ended WORLD WAR 2, with the surrender of Japan on August 14th. My school and social friends were dumbstruck by the way that victory was achieved and I cannot recall any joyous celebrations in our immediate locality. Initially, we all withdrew into our shells and then, one by one, went on with our forever altered lives.
Inclement weather had clouded much of the Winter holidays, and left adequate time for studying, while many of the group with whom I associated locally, went off to the snowfields on an annual migration, returning suntanned and radiant with gold health, while Steve and other 'stay-at-homes' came to play tennis on sunny days, or drove to the beach on the rare occasions when the water temperature was forecast to be warm enough for surf-board riding. I seldom accompanied them, preferring to spend prime time with Robbie, who was never invited anywhere! Nearly grown up teenagers despised little ankle biters, as they had none in their own families, and they could not, or would not relate to them.
At the beginning of our final term, Robbie commenced his formal education at a small private primary school in a nearby church hall, overlooking the local Park. Mrs Thynne took him there each morning and brought him home again, as my school hours were much longer than his. He loved that little school and socialised well, until a bully came along and then he intervened with amazing vigour and flattened the intimidator, much to everyone's surprise, as he was such a generous, peaceful kid, and until then, had never once been raised to violence.
Our Leaving group completed our school days many weeks before the end of final term and went on Stuvac, at home, virtually unaware that we may never meet again, as we would sit for all our exams externally, at other schools, well away from our own and could only associate with fellow students whom we recognised, after our papers were handed in and we had left the building. For some reason, I was unprepared for this abrupt ending of our years together and felt completely lost until my closest friends, Jennifer and Elizabeth, whose Doctor father had saved my life when I collapsed with the appendix, and whom I sometimes visited briefly on my bike rides home to the Farm, contacted me by phone and we kept in touch with one another until our
Leaving results came through, amid jubilation, as our entire class had done well.
I do not recall returning to School for us to congratulate one another and wish one another well in our chosen careers, but Jennifer and Elizabeth kept in touch until they commenced their first semesters at the University of Sydney and I commenced my Nursing training, on Uncle Clem's insistence that only the top training hospital in the State was appropriate for me, and it was right next door, at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. So near, and yet so far removed, and we never met again, as both those caring, brilliant young women were probably as unprepared for the harsh realities of university, as I was for the 'top' nurse training school, so unlike Hornsby Hospital, with it's happy staff and tender loving care.
I will never know the stories of my friends, as Mother felt betrayed by my decision to decimate her efforts to ensure that I entered University and eventually become a graduate. She was unwilling to accept Uncle Clem's reasoning that a degree course at university for me would cripple her financially, as Robbie's private school education had already commenced and would continue, with increasing costs, right through to the tertiary stage. Imagining that Uncle Clem's insistence that under his mentorship, nursing was an appropriate and noble career for me to follow, I was shattered by her total denial, especially as it meant that I would not be welcome at home and could lose touch with Robbie.
Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise then opened their home to me, assuring me that Mother would soon be proud of the contribution I would be making to society, but it took years for her to relent.
The Nursing Years.
After six weeks of excellent preliminary training and socialisation,
we raw recruits soon found ourselves on another planet, working,
officially, a 72 hour week, in broken shifts, but, in reality, many
more, as we started hours early and finished when all our tasks
had been satisfactorily completed. Steve and all my tennis friends
soon gave me up for dead, which was not surprising - I had entered my
third year of training in a four year course before finally scoring a
day off on a weekend! Like all my school and tennis friends, I lost
touch with Jennifer and Elizabeth, although did learn eventually,
from our school Old Girls' Union, that both had been highly
successful in their chosen careers.
Sadly, the same records also noted the dates of their premature deaths, so my retirement came far too late for any possible reunion. Nursing was hard work, even for toil hardened me. For the first three years of our training we attended all lectures with the medical students, and sat the same exams, but were seldom able to get off duty in time for those lectures. The Med students were very good to us. They made extra copies of their lecture notes available to us, but the standard of the content of those notes was too high for several of our fellow trainees, all capable and competent in their ward work and in the operating theatres, but sadly failed their end of year exams and were lost to the profession. I was very grateful that my school had taught us Latin, which facilitated the deciphering and understanding of medical terms. Imagine our surprise when we sat for our final Nurses' Registration Board Exams at the end of fourth year, to find them at Intermediate Certificate school level and a walkover for those of us still on the course.
Over the years, Mother relaxed her antipathy sufficiently to accept me back in the fold, after she finally managed to oust the tenants and return to Pymble. By then the recent, terrible world War 2 was almost forgotten, but there was plenty of sabre rattling around the globe. I had two days off, unheard of in the early years, and Robbie was in a private Hospital with viral pneumonia, so having a driver's licence and with Mother at her office in Town, to which she travelled by train, I asked her permission to borrow her car and went to visit him. From the central office, I was directed, unaccompanied, to his single room, where I found him lying flat in bed, breathing in rapid little gasps, barely conscious and the colour of alabaster. After a quick check of his chart, the salient statistic was that his red cell count was almost zero. There was no point in attempting to get help here. I lifted him into my arms, wrapped him in a blanket, grabbed his only pillow and raced to the little car, where he wakened enough to sit up tall in the seat beside me, and I drove towards home, with my left arm supporting him for most of the journey.
On arrival, his breathing was easier, he was almost fully conscious and he smiled. Upstairs, I took him to the toilet, made an armchair arrangement of pillows to enable him to sit up in comfort and safety, put him in the spare bed, which had once been Father's, across from Mother's, and asked him if he would like some Actavite, and he said,
'Yummy'. So I left to get it for him, rang Mother at her office to tell her what I had done and why, asked her to come home and made the cool drink for Robbie, who slowly but surely, drained the glass, went to the toilet again and soon fell asleep, breathing easily.
I kissed his pallid brow, carried every cushion in the house to his bedside to make sure he would be unharmed, should he fall out of bed, rang his doctor to inform the hospital of his removal and the reason for it, asked the Butcher to please send a minced lambs fry over as soon as possible and finally rang Aunt Elise to please tell Uncle Clem what I had done, and to ask if he could arrange some extended leave for me, from work, all calls interspersed with runs up the stairs, to ensure that Robbie was breathing easily. At this stage, I had still not acknowledged the enormity of my actions, except to be sure that, had I not intervened, my little brother would have been left alone to die, too frail to call for help, but having removed him, illegally, and had I failed to save him, I would have been charged with his murder.
When the butcher boy arrived and had been thanked and paid, I soaked the minced lamb's liver in iced boiled water, strained it through a gauze filter and filled the ice cube trays in the frig, keeping enough unfrozen liquid to last for two days, and made his next glass of 'chocky worms' with a small amount of the diluted, odourless, tasteless blood. Within twenty four hours, he had turned the corner towards recovery and after about five days, Mother took over and I returned to work. No charge of kidnapping was laid against me, Uncle Clem ensured that I was not punished for my extended leave and Robbie's blood count climbed steadily to normal.
These days he is a proud husband and father, retired geneticist and teacher, current trumpet player, yachtsman and Para-Olympic Coach. He will be sailing in the Masters' Games, up against much younger 'yachties'. Recently, on long service leave, prior to his retirement, he and his wife Maria completed a grand circuit of mostly off-track Australia, a truly magnificent journey. P.S. Robbie won Bronze in the 2009 Masters Games in Sydney, Australia, in Sailing.
The Nursing Years.
years of General Training at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, I only
once worked with a member of our Preliminary Training group, and that
was on our first ward, A1, a Medical ward on the top floor of one of
the main buildings, overlooking Missenden Road. Margaret Houen and I
were rostered together on our first shift, arrived bright eyed and
anxious to please, met our fellow workmates and were treated with kid
gloves till we learned how to effectively deal with the multiple
difficulties that confronted us on this huge ward, with two long rows
of mostly old, very sick men, facing one another, across a wide
expanse of polished, wooden floors. All of them had to be sponged,
head to toe, in bed, with white screens on wheels pulled round them
to give them privacy and to avoid draughts.
The men did their best to roll from side to side, as we lifted their legs and arms over thick towels as we sponged and then rinsed them with warm water, but some were far too ill to move at all, so we helped one another, especially with lifting them up into sitting positions to assist their restricted breathing. We made their beds, cleaned their teeth and shaved their stubbly chins, then wheeled their bed tables into position in front of them, for Inspection, when our Sister-in-Charge came on duty, and then hopefully, they would be able to eat, or be fed, the first meal of the day when the breakfast trolley arrived.
Margaret and I only managed two or three sponges apiece that first morning and realised that we would need to come to work much, much earlier in future, as our seasoned workmates had to give a lick and a promise to the ones we could not finish. We knew that would not do, especially as the men on the verandah, who were mobile and able to wash themselves, or go to the bathroom, were still waiting for us to make their beds before we could hope to go to breakfast, for which we were so late, we had to bolt it down, or go without.
On our return, the Sister-in-Charge was waiting to read the Night Report. She then admonished us for our lack of speed in the sponging and bed making departments, and led us through the open ward door, into a wide corridor running between the male and female wards, with a shorter corridor to the verandahs, the lift and the stairs, comprising four big rooms - an occupied, one bed, private ward, adjacent to a work and instrument sterilising room, facing the street, the dayroom/kitchen opposite, and Sister's Office, across the short corridor to the lift and facing the private ward, where she introduced us to the terminally ill patient, a retired Anglican Canon, who greeted us with a smile, in spite of his dire prognosis. He was still able to smile and wish us well when were shifted to our next wards, three months or so later.
Sister showed us the locked drug cupboard in her Office and described the system of double checking of all drugs administered to patients and the importance of full cognisance of Doctor's orders and ward Sister's reports. We then inspected the Day Room and learned that we would prepare the patients evening meals of soup, white bread and butter and hot drinks, then distribute them from a trolley. We listened dutifully, heads up, eyes front, hands clasped behind our backs, as we had been instructed in PTS. Sister seemed relieved that we showed respect and sensibility and then got down to the nitty gritty of the complexities of the Treatment and Sterilising room, full of trolleys with trays set up and individually wrapped for the sterile administration of varied treatments, primarily of penicillin, the new wonder injection drug, on a three or four hourly basis The room was noisy, full of billowing steam and the rattle of instruments and trays as the steel sterilisers bubbled and boiled. On leaving, we were directed to open the windows higher and close the door.
Sister then opened the big door into the women's ward and it differed immensely from the men's, as the disparity between them was not the usual male/female divide, but the numbing fact was that so many of them were young and suffering from a totally crippling type of rheumatoid arthritis from which there seemed to be no hope of recovery. Several others had brain tumours under investigation for possible surgical intervention, and one of these beautiful young women was rapidly losing her sight. Having never heard of these afflictions, it was a great shock to strong, healthy me. I had sat next to Polio victim, Honeywood, at school, but she made little of her handicap and was an active member of our class. She never complained and got herself to and from her home each day, albeit slowly, with the help of crutches.
I do not recall Margaret's response to the number of young, desperately ill young women in the ward, but I was deeply distressed. Sister excused herself briefly to tell a senior nurse to switch off the sterilisers and set up more trays, then continued her round with us. The remainder of the women on the ward mirrored the poor old men, having been afflicted by strokes, chronic heart disease, renal failure, diabetes and varied less common afflictions, but she had not yet completed our orientation, so she hurried us down to the noisy bedpan and tooth mug emptying and sterilising room and the offset toilet block, all similar to the men's end, minus the urinals, called bottles. We then spoke to the convalescents on the verandah and were sent off to first lunch, which was a very second rate meal, slapped onto plates with no respect at all for our one star status, clearly marked as a small, blue star on the starched fronts of our white, hair covering caps.
Sister directed us back to the men's ward after lunch and every man with a bit of life left in his veins, suddenly needed a bottle. We brought them out, four at a time, at top speed, and thrilled those poor old blokes, who named Margaret 'Bernborough' and me 'Flight', as we raced one another down the long straight, one of us on either side of ward furniture in the centre, and those names stuck for our three months plus on the ward. Those possessing a coin or two, even had a flutter on us! When the bottle running racket had been exhausted, it was time to use our newly learned lifting skills to elevate those with breathing problems by getting them to drop their armpits over one of our shoulders, while with the other hand we shook up and restacked the pillows, then, with both our shoulders in position, we joined hands at the point of balance under the man's thighs and counted 'one, two, three, lift'. And it was a breeze, even with the heaviest of men, all of whom did their best to be cooperative. With people who were paralysed it was harder, but even if they could not assist our efforts, they could not impede them either, and we never needed to call for assistance from wardsmen, to sit them up high enough, with the support of the pillows, to enable them to breath easily.
There were about nine hundred nurses in training at that stage. We were housed at random in the Nurses' Homes, needed written permission to go out at night, and often felt lost when unable to find our friends. Our PTS group had three weeks annual leave in March each year, and having made friends with a senior nurse with holidays at the same time as myself, I followed her suggestion and booked into a very good boarding house at Palm Beach, the last of the northern beaches before Barrenjoey Lighthouse, Pittwater, to the south, Ettalong and Brisbane Waters, to the north and Patonga and Brooklyn, on the Hawkesbury River, heading north west, towards Windsor. From the Pittwater side of Palm Beach, ferries serviced many beautiful and secluded tidal beaches and walking tracks to higher ground in national parks with breathtaking, panoramic views, at Box Head, on the northern side of Broken Bay, and opposite, on the north west side, at West Head. Small groups of those of us with March holidays, returned to the Palm Beach guest house each year to enjoy comfortable accommodation, balmy days and cool nights of good fellowship, strict but caring management and superb food throughout our years of training.
During the early years I seldom felt welcome at home, but continued to visit briefly during Robbie's school holidays from boarding school, as our feelings towards one another remained rock solid and Mrs Thynne welcomed my brief comings and goings. Mother's work was rewarding for her. She became a household name across rural NSW and she sometimes took Robbie with her, which he enjoyed. Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise remained ever faithful, taking me to Luddenham, sometimes for just one day off during their holidays and before I ever looked like getting a weekend off duty. This meant extra work for Mr Overed and Betsy, but they did not seem to mind at all, as Mr Overed enjoyed my Shalimar composting success stories, of high yields, generally good prices and total self sufficiency in stock and poultry food and our household expenses remarkably low.
As the years trundled along, everything appeared to occur in slow motion, perhaps because nursing was a very complex occupation which was sometimes difficult to fully understand. During that period, I received two worthy offers of wealth and marriage and perhaps foolishly rejected them, determined to graduate in General Nursing and later, in Midwifery, to ensure a lifetime meal ticket, should the necessity arise, and in the meantime, enjoying every brief moment on the Wallaby Track, until I reached my chosen goal. The Wallaby meeting occurred on my second Ward placement, on the verandah of surgical ward C2, where this gorgeous man offered me a packet of 'very difficult to obtain' cigarettes and instantly won my heart. Critically injured during a scrum before the Australian team left for England, he had spent a long time on the ward, dicing with death, the left hand side of his head smashed in and his jaws broken, but had dodged the grim reaper and reached the verandah stage, soon to be discharged. Before he left, he told me he wanted to keep in touch. I was pleased and fully understood his determination to remain single, as his life expectancy would be brief. Just one small crack on the left side of his head would finish him.
That determination paid dividends, as he was my friend and hero, when I was around, for five magic years. The Wallaby introduced me to his friends and they were a grand mob. Every spare moment we spent together, however brief, made me feel ten feet tall and I never questioned his resolve. By mutual agreement and no regrets, parting time came when he took me to Canberra to fill my position at the Canberra Community Hospital as a midwife and my life soon changed completely.
But I have jumped ahead of myself, so back to RPAH.
As our Final Nursing Exams drew closer, five members of our March group became unhappy about the large numbers of traumatised women we nursed in the Gynae Wards, and on expert advice, decided to apply for places at the Brisbane Women's Hospital. We were all accepted into Midwifery at the completion of our current General Nursing course. We had passed our final R N exams easily and my friend Margaret - Bernborough - topped the State, which made me proud. Our graduation ceremony was a grand affair, with many long and often loquacious addresses and where we finally received our veils, and would henceforth be addressed as 'Sister'. We were overjoyed until the final speaker told us that 'we were all over twenty two years of age and our duty now, was to marry and have four children each; two to replace our husbands and ourselves when we died, and two more to build a nation.' It was implied that there was no shortage of trained nurses, so we took pictures of one another in those hallowed veils and Betty Lou, from Adelaide, Maureen, from Sydney, Ann, from Port Macquarie, and Ruth, from Mangrove Mountain, set off on brief holidays with family or friends, then finally met up in Brisbane to commence our Midwifery course together.
I stayed behind during the holiday period to undergo surgery on a badly broken nose, smashed by a patient coming out of a spinal anaesthetic in the Neurosurgery ward. Because the unfortunate man had a history of violence towards staff members, I was requested to sue him for damages, but declined, stating that he had never shown any previous antagonism towards me during the many months I had cared for him, and that he was not fully conscious at the time of the incident and therefore could not be held responsible for his actions. A country stock agent with a dependant wife and family, still, for now, with the use of his arms, he was slowly dying from creeping paralysis caused by hydatid cysts in his spinal cord, and after several previous surgical attempts to dislodge the cysts, without success, I felt that he already had enough problems without adding litigation to his woes.
For my refusal to sue, my smashed nose had to wait for attention until my broken training was completed. Being on night duty at the time, kept me out of sight until finally admitted to sick bay, the surgery was attended and when the worst of the bruising had subsided, I was discharged, and boarded a flight to get me to Brisbane in time to join my colleagues to commence our Midwifery training. My nose looked quite regal for quite awhile but then little bone chips started to work their way into the nasal passages, the whole job went awry and I got used to it.
After our tough initiation into general training to become RNs, and aware that Midwifery could be even more demanding, with over 10,000 births a year at Brisbane Women's Hospital, we expected hard work, but the training, for me, especially in the labour wards, was brilliant. For the first time in my nursing career, I gained complete confidence in my ability to ensure that no one in my care during childbirth would be mentally or physically damaged in this well equipped hospital. The early warning signs of circumstances requiring specialist intervention never once occurred while I was on duty, as the Sisters-in-charge examined every woman in labour every half hour, while we trainees ensured that not one of them was ever left alone in physical or mental distress. It was absolutely amazing to me that explaining the birthing process to young mothers, teaching them how to breathe correctly through contractions and giving them confidence and encouragement by listening to their fears, plus the regular cervical dilation and foetal heart checks, meant that they became part of the team, relaxed completely and had easy births.
There was no possibility of misadventure or cross infection in the nurseries either. The babies had no pillows, wore only their cord binders, a cotton singlet and a nappy, and were wrapped in light, breathable rugs. Each crib had a tetra (coconut fibre) mattress, changed regularly, and were unlined to ensure a free current of air so that smothering was impossible. At morning bath time, each baby's singlet became its wash cloth, each was bathed in a freshly sterilised, stainless steel basin, Lux flakes, instead of bar soap, wear lathered up and used for bathing and the binder, singlet and nappy replaced by autoclaved fresh ones. Boy babies were circumcised a few days after they were born and the procedure was so quick and clean that they did not even flinch until the tiny dressing, dipped in Friar's Balsom, was applied and must have really stung, but only briefly, before there were popped into well separated, small cribs in the long trolleys used to transport them to their mothers at feeding time.
As a trainee and trained midwife, I never encountered a single case requiring any intervention, no baby ever became distressed as it came into the world, and no mother ever received any suggestion of even a peritoneal graze, let alone an episiotomy, or worse still, a tear. In 1950 - 1, Caesarean births were so rare at BWH and at Canberra Community Hospital, that I did not personally meet even one woman whose child was delivered thus. Childbirth is a natural process, not an illness and I believe it should be 'woman's business', except in cases of foetal distress.
We five trainees stuck together in Brisbane and tried to organise our rosters to enable us to spend days off together, in a guest house where we would be housed, fed, cared for and indulged. Our favourite destination was Stradbroke Island, with its pounding surf, great fishing, and stories and memorabilia of the prohibition days. Back then, the Island had a racecourse at Amity Point, ensuring that some of the horses absconded and bred more horses, thus creating a serious environmental problem, as the sandy soil, although well vegetated, was fragile. Our ferry landed us there and a dilapidated bus took us to our lodgings at Point Lookout where we were indulged with 5 star meals, great service and a well handled brumby for me to ride bareback and bridgeless - just a flimsy rope halter all over the Island, where we sometimes glimpsed other brumbies, which were elusive, lest they were shot as pests. We never found any sign of the old whisky stills, for which the place was famous, but we caught plenty of fish and loved the peaceful solitude.
On graduating, Maureen, Ruth and Betty Lou returned to their places of origin but Anne and I decided to buy an old Hilman Minx and drive it to Sydney. Anne was wealthy and was taught to drive professionally, in an up to date automobile, but I went to work at the Golden Circle Factory to earn my share of the car and was taught to drive by a horse trainer from Hendra who was grateful for the safe delivery of their son and heir, which had been as easy as all the others. Our trip to Sydney was a joy and we made a good profit on the resale of the car, as they were very scarce in early 1951!
The document, 'The Road to the Farm' is the copyright © of the author, Margot Paterson. All rights reserved by the author.