Chapter 6 BIG GIRL
After the Christmas holidays Billy aged six started school. As family details were already on record I took him with me on his first day. We walked together on the side of the drain, past the swimming pool, across Chapel Road and I felt protective. When a bigger boy touched Billy's bag, I swung my school bag at him and gave the unfortunate assailant a bleeding nose, but not very serious. I conducted my little brother through the enrolment procedure without errors. Billy found that he did not like school much, perhaps due to the Infants Headmistress, who then sent me to the Primary Department, although I had been at school only one year and had been away for a third of that. Mum thought that my God-given ability had resulted in this promotion. Now I was in third class with my age group and soon made new friends, although I was never in their homes or even their yards. Schools had large classes and could not allow free undirected movement. The children did as they were told, when they were told and not before they were told. They hesitated to ask questions.
My leather school bag was considered babyish for the primary school and I began to use the wooden case my grandfather had made. Boys and girls were separated in the "big school" as was normal except in very small schools. We played different games, more complicated skipping games, hopscotch, using the asphalt area, while the boys were more combative, and scorned singing games.
In the primary school we were issued with monthly school magazines with illustrated (black and white) stories, poems and articles, suitable for each class level and which introduced us to classical authors. The magazines were kept in a special hard cover which had a cord for each month's edition, to keep them in order and in good condition. We were expected to cover our exercise books with brown or other suitable paper to help protect them. We would do sewing, a table-mat, pin wheel and needle case for which we had to provide the cotton material and thread. They were decorated with simple embroidery stitches in different colours. A thimble helped protect the finger when pushing the needle. None of this presented any problems to me.
I was called out to do a "sum" on the blackboard and added from the top instead of the bottom.
My teacher smacked me and said "We add up not down."
A lot of time in arithmetic lessons had to be spent in learning how to calculate the cost of goods, 4 oranges at 2d each + 2 apples at 1d each. Later this involved knowing that 12d = 1/-and later still that 20/- = £1. Once I had to write six times "I must be careful", and was glad the punishment was not to write it a hundred times. Was this really an effective punishment?
There were big gaps in my knowledge especially my handwriting. Nobody suggested it was unreasonable to expect work without errors. We should produce a "composition" on a given topic with correct grammar, spelling and writing. I did my best to comply. We had to produce "running writing" with a steel-nibbed pen and ink. Ink powder had to be mixed with water and a little poured into the inkwell in each desk. "Ink monitors" did this job. We dipped and wrote. But pens with nibs were blotty, scratchy implements in the hands of eight-year olds. My efforts were no doubt worse than most, as I had only learnt to do pencil "pothooks" in the Infants' School, and my hands and books were soon covered in undesired marks.
"That looks like a spider has been crawling across the page. Take that and show all the other teachers and ask them what they think." I felt that my teacher plainly did not like me and I was the main victim of her sharp tongue. How mortifying! I crept from room to room with the messy work and the message trembling on my lips, but was surprised that most of the other teachers were not so scathing. One was even sympathetic. "It's hard isn't it? But you'll try hard and soon get used to it," she said. I wanted to bury my face in her voluminous bosom and weep my anguish and my gratitude for her understanding and encouragement. My writing did improve, no thanks to my class teacher. Adults used blotting paper to help keep the writing clean and, if skilled, could produce an upstroke lighter than the down stroke, which was model copperplate writing. It was quite beyond me.
The sympathetic teacher always knitted in the playground on one large flexible needle with both ends of pointed bone which intrigued me. I usually hovered near her in the playground after that. The garment seemed endless, it took so long to complete, or, we wondered did she expand as fast as her knitting?
One day she called to me in the playground. "Dorothy, your father is here to see you. Your brother is over there with him now."
I stared in confusion "My father?" She must have sensed the reason.
"What's the matter? Doesn't your daddy live with you?" Apparently she realised there was a problem and sent an older boy with a message that Dad was to come and see the teacher. This he declined to do. He gave Billy a couple of presents and drove off in a hurry, saying he would give me mine another day. I don't remember ever getting them.
The headmistress wrote a note asking my mother if she wished my father to see us. My mother answered she would not interfere with her husband's wishes and would not influence us. Dad sometimes met us after school, which pleased Billy but left me uncertain. Mum who was normally quite forthcoming, never talked about the problem so I never knew how she felt. Such things were not shared with children. When her family members asked her outright, she found ways to avoid critical comments, and could not even share her feelings with them.
At school I enjoyed many ball games. In "countries" we each chose a country, one child threw up a ball and called a country and that child had to catch the ball or be "in". If someone had a long piece of elastic usually stretched from use, or several pieces tied together we played "elastics" making various shapes around the bodies of two people. If someone had a rope we skipped, singly with a short rope or in groups, with two people turning the ends. I enjoyed "leap frog" and found I was good at leaping over the bent backs of a team of children in a line. There was a Maypole and we learnt to do a Maypole Dance, weaving the coloured ribbons on the pole. I loved doing the polka step as we danced clockwise then anticlockwise to plait, then unplait the ribbons. It surprised me that some of my classmates found it difficult. There were other singing games and I had no trouble with learning the steps. They were much more fun than our usual "physical jerks". Most things came easily to me, occasionally I was taunted for "being smart" but was able to ignore the comments and felt no need to conform. Or we played more imaginative games.
My cousin Mary aged about four had chorea, the same illness Mum had had, but a generation of medical progress meant there was less strain and less permanent heart damage. As a result of a long stay in hospital with her parents not allowed to do more than peep through a hole in the door to see her (contact it was suggested would unsettle her) Mary was inclined to be anxious and timid.
When this period was over we went as often as possible to Ramsgate to visit Auntie Ida and my cousins, where of course we organised our own games and usually had a picnic at the beach. Our swimming costumes were all of a dark woollen material which stretched especially when wet. When we could all swim, we sometimes went to the swimming pool, costing 2p each, (adults 3d), where we could play and try to dive from the edge of a pool or a diving board (I never could, only "belly flops"). The mirrors which distorted our images grotesquely always produced laughter and teasing. Even more laughter was caused by the monkeys in the small zoo, which the owner had set up in the Depression years, knowing that most children could not get to Taronga Park. On our way back to KY we sometimes stopped at Auntie Nell's and played with her two boys. Their father had died some years earlier, having suffered a "rheumatic heart" from rheumatic fever as a boy.
Occasionally we played cricket in the nearby dead end with the local children. There was a batsman, a bowler, a wicket-keeper and everyone else had to field as there were never enough players for two full teams. The older boys bowled gently when it was our turn to bat. The father of two of the boys had contrived a set of stumps to stand on the asphalt road, falling readily when the batsman was bowled. About this time there was a topiary "Bradman" in a garden at Bankstown which we passed when going around with the books. At the time I got the impression that he had lived in that house. This was at the height of his career.
At home Mum taught us some other games which had been passed on to us from older children and we played these on wet days. She made me a puzzle using thick pieces of cardboard sewn to a base to make a frame and little wooden tiles on which she wrote numbers. We also made and decorated kites using sticks, brown paper and string, ready for the next windy day.
We had silkworms and fed them mulberry leaves or lettuce leaves in an emergency and sometimes if they were fed until they spun their cocoons, we got some silk by dropping the cocoon into boiling water and unwinding onto a piece of cardboard. Our efforts produced only enough for bookmarks. We also grew seeds on damp blotting paper, radishes, beans or peas. Cress gave quick results & could be eaten & radishes produced tasty food if we persevered long enough.
A neighbour who had taken a fancy to me, and felt that I needed something of my own, had given me first a small "wet-ums" doll with a special tiny bottle which allowed water to flow through and the doll to wet its nappy. Also a small black Topsy doll with frizzy plaster ringlets which did not cause any racial comments at the time. In fact I liked it as well as the other and Mum told me the name came from a book "Uncle Tom's Cabin", a book about Negro slaves in which Topsy's answer to her origin was "I just growed". Both dolls were composite and, with the help of some people staying with us, I knitted a dress for them, from the available wool which happened to be some pink and some khaki, from wool used to knit for servicemen. The skirt formed pleats by the pattern of purl and plain stitches. Apparently the dolls' donor believed we were deprived because we had few toys so she also gave me a big baby doll and Billy a wind-up clockwork train set which ran round and round a small track. Within a couple of days the train set had been taken carefully apart, but much to Billy's amazement, it would not go back the same way as before as did his building sets. We were both used to his Meccano set which could be taken apart and rebuilt endlessly.
Having acquired a beautiful big new doll with eyes that closed when it was on its back, I had to give away the others to a child staying in our yard in a van. The girl who got my other dolls soon ruined them by chewing them. My baby doll underwent a number of name changes, her pretty white dimity dress with red spots, gave way to my own and Billy's baby clothes.
Grandpa Kinny made Billy a grand "billy-cart", strong and smooth running, with a place for the feet on the front axle-steering bar, all painted dark green, with folk art scrolls on the sides for decoration. It was a work of art left for him to find under the bed. We rode down the gently inclined footpath from the corner, first checking that nobody was in sight and likely to get in our way and we in theirs. Then we pulled it by the rope to the corner again. Such excitement! I was more adventurous and once rolled it over. Later we found it useful for collecting horse manure from the road for Mum's garden. The manure was kept in a box with a "roof" which a mother cat decided to use as a home for her kittens. We called her Topsy "because she just comed", not unlike my Topsy doll. The cat was not discouraged as Mum thought it was a lesson for us in reproduction. Another cat, a black and white called "Socks" sometimes brought us "gifts" dead frogs and other goodies which were left on the veranda.
Perhaps before we were quite mature enough to understand, we went to Vaucluse House in Sydney. We knew about the crossing of the Blue Mountains by Wentworth who later built the house. He and Blaxland and Lawson had succeeded in their exploration by staying on top of the plateau and avoiding the problem of the cliffs. The house at Vaucluse with wisteria growing along the veranda and the gardens were very beautiful, but at the time only partly open to the public.
One evening Dad called at home to collect some things and told Billy to get his coat and come along too. For once my mother stood her ground.
"Do no such thing," she cried.
"Come on there. Are you coming?" shouted Dad.
"Stay here," said my mother in a quiet trembling voice. "Daddy is to come back and live with us here".
At that he departed, leaving us shaking.
I had noted she had written on the back of a photo of us "Dorothy Billy and Mrs Kinny", denying the possibility that the family had broken up.
I told my mother "If God can do anything I think he could make Daddy come back if he wanted to." Apparently to voice such an opinion showed that the Devil was at work.
"That is a wicked thing to say," admonished my mother. She was staggered. Usually calm and cheerful, she found my irreverent suggestion had disturbed her equilibrium, maybe it touched a raw nerve, but she never lost her temper, only expressed great disappointment. She wondered where she had gone wrong in my training. At the meetings I had learnt that God has his own reasons for not fixing problems and getting rid of the Devil. I had once asked "Who made God?" This was unforgivable. He had existed forever apparently in a bare and blank universe. I should have known not to ask.
But Mum understood that I needed a better reason for obedience than "That's what I want and I'm your mother" and she tried hard to give me one.
At the meetings I developed the habit of daydreaming to pass the time, inventing stories about members of the congregation and the discussions I heard.
I don't think Dad ever approached Mum to discuss us visiting him, but he obtained permission from the authorities for us to go every second weekend. He had built a small house at Peakhurst and was sharing it with friends we had known when they lived at Punchbowl and went to the same meetings, an unmarried brother and sister (a little older than Dad) and their widowed mother. During our visits Billy slept in the men's bedroom in the same bed as Dad. Dot and her mother slept in the second bedroom, but I had to sleep on the settee in the living-room. Dot kept house for them all. Billy seemed greatly excited and enjoyed being with Dad and learning about all sorts of interesting things, mainly car engines which Dad regarded as useful. Billy learned to do basic maintenance. The nearest Dad came to praise was to say "OK. Next time you'll be a bit quicker."
Not being particularly rapt in cars and aware that I was not expected to be, I wandered around and occupied myself as well as I could. After a few such visits, I was glad when Dad asked me if I would like to visit Grandma Kinny who lived at Kogarah, not far away, where there were always things to do. I loved my gentle grandparents and felt less in the way, even that I was welcome. More grandchildren had arrived since Billy and I came into the world, and there were sometimes some of my young cousins at Kogarah. Exploring and doing much as I liked were permitted. I watched my grandfather tinkering in his workshop, making wooden suitcases and letterboxes, my Uncle Ernie process his films in an improvised "dark room" or my grandmother cooking. She had a large kitchen with a fuel stove. She washed the fruit for fruit cake and spread it on the kitchen table to clean and dry it. I was allowed to help remove bits of stalks, leaves and useless scraps. Near the back door was an outside flush toilet!! There was a happy relaxed atmosphere and no Grace before meals. Once we walked from Kogarah to Ramsgate with one of my cousins in a pusher. A great joy was the piano in the living-room where I spent hours teaching myself to read the notes and pick out tunes.
Like Dad, some of his brothers and father had little to say, especially taking part in friendly small talk or discussing personal things or emotions. They would recount and explain technical matters, but never asked about other people's welfare or feelings. I never saw any member of Dad's family get as angry or intolerant as Dad did when he disagreed with the way something had been done. Subconsciously I felt that Dad's family was more practical than Mum's who, in spite of a lack of formal education, had studied to improve themselves and gone into more academic careers.
Billy seemed to look forward eagerly to the fortnightly visits, but I only wanted to go to Grandma's or stay at home and I began to make excuses about having homework at the weekend. Dad did not show disappointment at my reluctance and I was not pressed to go often. Finally at the end of the year Billy went regularly without me. I missed him. The time dragged until Sunday night.
One Sunday while Billy was away I was wandering around the house unable to settle down to anything. I made myself a piece of bread and dripping and looked for something to read. Among the books I found a book inscribed William Andrew Kinny, followed by Dad's address. I was stupefied.
That night I dreamed of two children playing in a sunny field and a man beckoning to them from the edge of a dark wild wood. The trees were purple and black and the man was dressed in sombre colours. Suddenly the boy jumped up to answer the call and the boy and the man were soon lost in the purple shadows. Dread and horror seized the little girl who was prevented by unseen hands from moving.
I awoke crying "Billy, come back."
But I knew he would not.
Mum believed a boy needed a father and felt it was her duty to acquiesce in Dad's wishes and would not antagonise him by objecting. "Pray the Lord will guide them both back." As with her illness she thought it was God's will. When Dad left, Mum was devastated but was always optimistic that he would come back in time. "Everything has its reason, God's reason. We know we are here for a purpose. We don't question God's purpose." She helped me fill my days and by her own optimism, encouraged me to think he would be back soon.
I learnt later that Billy went to Peakhurst School to Fourth Grade, aged nine. At first Dad sent him for a few months to stay with a friend, giving him no explanation. At the end of the holidays he stayed on and did not complain about the extended holiday, as he did not like school but would have preferred to go back to Dad. He got no support or encouragement with schooling. He learnt a lot about different things from Uncle Ernie and Grandpa. Dad did not teach him much, but expected him to be able to do things.
Mum had never been an extravagant housekeeper. She was a very basic cook. She grew a few vegetables and had a few chooks. I had always been allowed to "help" and sometimes took it upon myself to get the dinner early if Mum was out going from door to door "witnessing". It became a minor tragedy if I let the meal overcook. She would explain it was too early to make the dinner, but did not punish me for using my initiative, even though I had made an unfortunate mistake.
We were issued with ration books for clothing and some food, such as meat, butter, sugar and tea. Mum and I had more coupons than cash with which to dispose of them. The surplus coupons we gave to more affluent relations or friends (strictly not allowed) and accepted in return their cast-off clothing. Freddo Frogs and Crumble Bars became even more of a luxury and were often unavailable due to sugar rationing. This was very disappointing.
Stockings were in very short supply and some women painted their legs in imitation of stockings, but sadly the paint they used was not waterproof. Children over a certain height got extra coupons for clothes. Everyone was completely accustomed to avoiding waste. Even people who could have afforded it, did not throw away food or clothes. There were always friends, relatives or neighbours who could use things. Glass jars and excess fruit were given away, jars were reused many times for bottled fruit or jam. Our peaches were always much appreciated. Cans were very rare and were used as containers by handymen. Clothes I had grown out of were passed on to my cousin Mary.
I had a new pair of flannelette pyjamas every winter. By summer they were getting threadbare and by the next winter I had outgrown them even if they had lasted through continual mending and I would get a new pair. Rags were used as dusters. Mum was not much good at dressmaking, but she could mend and embroider. I was given a drab brown dress which she enlivened, and when other people said how good I looked in it, it became acceptable.
Jumpers were reknitted using another colour if necessary in stripes or another pattern to enlarge them. Hems of frocks were let down, or if the material had faded they were carefully unpicked and turned inside out to prolong the life. Shoes were made of leather and often had an adhesive Kromyd sole added to lengthen their life, also crescent-shaped metal tips on the toes and heels. As blackouts became more frequent due to breakdowns at Bunnerong Power Station, candles were always kept in a handy place.
One day a group of Jehovah's Witnesses was sitting on the grass having lunch when someone spoke of calculations that Armageddon, the end of the world, the end of Hitler and the Devil would occur soon, because the world had been an especially wicked place in 1914, the beginning of the Great War, with "wars and rumours of wars ... nation shall rise against nation.... and there shall be pestilence and earthquakes in diverse places". That was the year in which "the second coming" had occurred. Add to that the age at which Jesus had died. This was by no means the first time Armageddon had been predicted since the society had been formed 60 years earlier. No exact date was predicted, but in 1920 in their magazine "The Watchtower" it was stated "Millions now living will never die". Mum warned some of her family about the current prediction hoping that they would listen and be saved. I was a bit anxious, not knowing what to expect, but well aware that I was sceptical, having heard many unbelievable and conflicting things. My picture of Armageddon was of volcanic activity or boiling lava, which of course I had only seen in pictures. No doubt volcanoes had generated the idea of Hell and Armageddon in the myths of early cultures, trying to explain natural events in terms of angry gods. I knew too much about the world around me to be captured by such explanations.
Occasionally when it had been arranged to meet Jehovah's Witnesses at a nearby place to go around the local street with books, but Mum was not well enough, she sent me to go with the others in spite of my reluctance.
* * *
In 1942, Darwin and other northern towns were bombed by the Japanese. Strips of sticky paper were to be used on window glass so that it would not shatter if an air raid occurred in Sydney. Names were removed from streets and railway stations but I was used to finding my way around and could recognise any station or street I was likely to need. Windows in Sydney were required to have blackout blinds so that enemy planes could not find landmarks but this was not strictly enforced until later in the year when a little spy plane flew over Sydney Harbour and located a US vessel, followed by Japanese midget submarines. Some damage was done by the submarines but the pilot of the aeroplane escaped. This was a shock and as near as the war got to us. Most people did not even know there had been an air raid until the next day. The tower of the GPO was dismantled block by block to protect it in case of another air attack and NES (National Emergency Service) wardens began checking whether there were chinks if light visible from windows during a blackout.