Chapter 7 DAILY COMMUTER
One day Uncle Perce, Mum's brother came to Bankstown to ask if I could attend a private school, Presbyterian Ladies' College, which his daughter Betty had attended. He would pay all expenses and pointed out the advantages he saw in a private school. "With her ability she should have the best education available." Mum would definitely not consider it. She did not agree with the concept of private education, which she thought of as basically in overcrowded Catholic schools, or sometimes private colleges aimed at producing aspiring socialites. Not for us. Definitely not.
At Bankstown school when I was about ten I was selected to attend a special OC class (Opportunity Class) for bright children which would mean daily train travel with a rail pass from Bankstown to Erskineville. Mum interpreted this to show I was "specially" endowed by God and with proper guidance would become a paragon of virtue and knowledge. I hoped my handwriting would not attract adverse attention. Two other girls from Bankstown district were also selected, Jean Irving and Jean Simpson and we would travel together.
The school was very close to the railway station in an old building with a bell tower. The Primary Mistress was Miss Woodcock and, our teacher was Mrs Hellman our class was 5A. Our teacher was beautiful we thought, fair-haired, tall and quiet-mannered. It was expected that we would have the same teacher for the next two years and that she would get to know each girl intimately and get an insight into our ways of thinking. On the strength of this achievement Mum bought a large, heavy (5lb, 2.2kg), illustrated Webster's dictionary with the money she got as her share of the rent from my grandmother's house at Ramsgate. I made good use of the dictionary, for meanings and to find rhyming words when I wrote poems. I was now old enough to realise it was a valuable book and I did not dream of colouring the black and white sketches. I would look after it carefully.
Someone who had finished with a school case passed it on to me, but I pleaded for and obtained a pencil case and new coloured pencils. I immediately loved my teacher and school and the different, less structured approach to many lessons. My handwriting was quite acceptable and I felt relieved. There was more time for creativity, less need for emphasis on basic formal work. There was more singing, more art, more drama and different learning activities I had not seen at Bankstown. We made glove puppets and had puppet shows, using papier mache over plasticine or clay for the heads and sewing the clothes from material scraps. What fun.
A room at the school was set aside as a library with a meagre supply of books in a cupboard. I was excused from Scripture and usually read a book. 5A and 6A did not have much contact with the other classes although we all played in the same limited asphalt playgrounds, which were also segregated into boys and girls. Once a week in summer we went swimming at the Domain Pool (later Boy Charlton Pool) going by train to nearby St James station. For sport we girls walked a short distance from the school to the park where we played rounders and similar games.
There was still some rote learning such as lists of spelling words many of which we had never used and whose precise meaning we did not understand. What exactly was economy? or principal? We learnt to spell them anyway and retained for a while, relevant or not, those words we had no immediate use for. This was supposed to improve our mental abilities.
There were sewing lessons with a specialist teacher once a week, learning to do fancy stitches and seams and hems by hand. Art and singing were more frequent, often as part of normal lessons. We learnt some Maori songs and dances and especially enjoyed a poi dance with pois we had made in class. And we learnt and murdered "Vilja" from "The Merry Widow" . "Horo My Nut Brown Maiden" was more within our abilities. Music was such fun, not necessarily spiritual.
From time to time we went to the Sydney Town Hall to ABC school concerts which Bernard Heinze had inaugurated, to introduce orchestral music to schools and young people. I enjoyed them immensely. During the war, we were told, it was very difficult to obtain good instruments and to replace broken strings. We were taken as a class to see the films "Madame Curie" about her work on uranium, and "A Song to Remember" - after careful preparation about the subject matter, the latter about Chopin, and his unconventional relationship with George Sand, the pen-name of a French woman novelist. Until then I had seen no more than half a dozen films. At most functions "God Save the King" was played at the end and everybody stood up, but I had been taught not to, as that was considered paying allegiance to a worldly ruler. But when I went with the class I did as they did.
Mrs Hellman made an attempt to teach us to work independently. I was already pretty self-reliant. We were introduced to the idea of doing projects for which we did some research or developed a theme of our own choosing, illustrated in whatever way we chose. There was an opportunity to do rough notes, check the spelling and grammar and practice the setting out before doing the final copy in our best writing in a book, often with alternate blank and lined pages. I got good marks (A plus). Having found a successful formula, I usually did the next project in a similar way and perhaps did not use as much creativity and experimentation as I might. One of my projects was "My Idea of Utopia", suggested by Mum. My ideal place was very natural and beautiful bush, appreciated by those who lived there. It had remarkable similarities to Colo Heights. I did not see a perfect world as a place where "the lion would lie down with the lamb". Lions just do not do that. Normal lions eat lambs, what else? Everything good was made by God, everything bad was made by the devil. Were lions bad because they ate other creatures? This was perplexing. The lion in my world would stay out of sight.
Mum was disappointed that I did not mention God in my project. I found the world I saw as quite fitting, a balance of positive and negative, evolution of life over a long period as more logical than supernatural creation. When touching upon a delicate subject such as religion our teacher was always careful to say "Some people believe... It doesn't mean that God didn't plan or guide events."
Dad brought money from time to time, when he came to discuss affairs with Mum connected with the house and land, always saying he hadn't been able to do a lot of work since he left Chullora. I suspected he was enticed into unpaid jobs or uneconomic jobs which interested him, maybe left unfinished. Mum and I now had to exist on a very reduced income, having to depend on what he brought, what came from the chooks and our garden and gifts from friends.
Dad put the house up for sale which he could legally do. Prices were pegged during the war which meant that he could only ask for £400, the original price it had cost him. He had paid £1 a week to the bank since 1927, apart from the depression years when he had made no payments. He still owed much of the principal. There was virtually no building for the duration of the war and vacant flats and houses were extremely rare. No doubt those houses that came on the market were snapped up.
An eviction notice arrived, delivered at Dad's instruction by his youngest brother Bruce. I was unaware of this at the time but it was probably not a complete surprise to Mum although she had not worried me about the prospect. Mum began to look for other accommodation not too far from Erskineville School, preferably near a bus or tram stop. She did not question that the house in its entirety and most of the furniture belonged to Dad. There was a sideboard, a cedar dining table, a kitchen table and a gramophone which he took. On preparing to leave Bankstown Mum encouraged me to accept what we could do nothing about. She said "It will be less work. The house and yard are far too big. I'll have more time for God's work. You'll be closer to school. It will get better you'll see. You'll get used to it. We have everything to look forward to. God will provide."
We were to move into an unfurnished room in Constitution Rd(?) Dulwich Hill in August. Mum had to dispose of most of the furniture which Dad had not already taken, as it would not fit in the room. A few things such as her glory box and sewing machine which were considered hers she stored with friends until she was able to find better accommodation. We planned to take our few books and other precious possessions, also a couple of records and a portable wind-up record-player on which Jehovah's Witnesses played speeches recorded by their leader.
Finally, Mum bought a "Globite" suitcase for £5 with money she had recently got from the rent of the family home at Ramsgate and packed all our clothes into it.
The youngest son of the family came to collect us in his truck and on the way he told us how he had jilted a girl at the altar when drunk. Mum was dismayed at this disclosure. Another son and his wife and child lived in the third bedroom and we all shared the kitchen, bathroom and washhouse. We would sleep together in the double bed. The wardrobe had to be sawn in half to get it from the narrow hall into the room. This was not a good start.
Next door lived a girl about my age whose parents had a piano which they let me use. I entertained myself trying to read the notes of the piano to play familiar melodies, having learnt the basics at Grandma's and Macks.
I went to school by tram to Newtown from where I walked. Most trams were of the "toast rack" type with compartments entered by passengers from a running board along the outside. There was always a conductor who rode on the running board with his bag of money and tickets to collect our fares or inspect our passes. It would have been a cold and unpleasant job in winter with no shelter. The most modern trams had doors front and back and in the centre and an interior corridor running the length for standing passengers and the conductor. These took longer to load and unload as there were fewer doors. If we were late for an outing, Mum would ask me to run ahead and ask the conductor to wait. They always obliged.
The overcrowding as well as the atmosphere of drinking, arguing and bad language in the house was unsatisfactory and Mum soon began looking for another room. She found one at Cammeray, North Sydney, in a row of tiny terraced houses, due for demolition, all with elderly occupants. So we moved again, in December, to a three-roomed house which we shared with an elderly lady whose sister had recently died. It was partly furnished so more of our furniture was stored with friends. Our room had been a "parlour" and anyone coming or going passed through it to the front door which opened directly onto the footpath. There was a bathroom/laundry out the back with a fuel copper for washing and the weekly bath and a tiny garden. It was near some shops, a butcher and a greengrocer where we bought meat and cheap "specked" fruit, and not far from a park.
None of my school friends lived anywhere near us, there was a dearth of young people in the neighbourhood and I became obsessed with my friendless state. The old lady had an equally old dog which I took an immediate dislike to. Mum did her best to be companionable to the old lady and to encourage and support me.
I caught a tram from outside the door, going over the harbour bridge to Wynyard to catch the train to Erskineville. On school days with my pass I travelled free, otherwise the tram fare for me was a penny plus a penny toll to cross the Harbour Bridge. Near the northern pylon the facade of Luna Park could be seen, also the "big dipper" which looked very stomach-churning to me, but I longed to explore the place which my friends talked about and sample some of the milder and cheaper rides. Coming home I caught the train to Wynyard then a Suspension Bridge tram, still so named fifty years after it was built, even though the bridge had been built with turrets and an arch and was never suspended. Trams were noisy and ran until late at night and began again early in the morning when normally I would have been asleep.
Mum tried to help me understand what is important for a rewarding life and what does not matter. She always tried to answer my many questions truthfully, so long as I did not imply a lack of acceptance of certain taboos. I had long ago learnt that many topics were unmentionable. "Why is the sky blue?" was OK but "Did Adam and Eve live in a cave? Were they Cave Men?" was not. She made a great effort to take me on educational visits to the Australian Museum (I remember a wonderful collection of rocks, stones and fossils - don't ask anything about fossils, they didn't exist in her world), the Technological Museum at Ultimo where I was particularly impressed with the Strassbourg Clock, (a large working model made by a local Sydney watchmaker about 1890) and again to Vaucluse House in the spring, when the wisteria was at its best.
She enjoyed these visits as much as I did. The Botanic Gardens were a frequent destination and could include a visit to the Mitchell Library, just across the road. I was fascinated by the bas reliefs on the heavy doors, the stained glass windows and the remarkable high ceilings as well as the many books. Sometimes we went to the Municipal Library from which books could be borrowed and which was part of the Sydney City Council in a large dilapidated and smelly building near Market Street, the site of the original Sydney markets.
At the library Mum tried to steer me towards John Bunyan, a nonconformist who was in jail when he wrote "Pilgrim's Progress" about Christian's journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. These were familiar to me from "The Children's Treasure House" when I was very young, intended to improve my character. Maybe Mum told me in such a way I thought the words were coming out of the book. She also told me about John Milton who wrote "Paradise Lost", an epic poem based on the biblical Garden of Eden. Neither theme seemed very relevant to my life and circumstances. Later I discovered Milton's "On his Blindness"... "When I consider how my light is spent..." and felt more empathy. "Little Women" was essential reading for girls of our age if we wanted to be part of "girlie" talk.
The Children's Treasure House contained extracts from "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Graham and other delightful stories by many authors. Mrs Hellman read us chapters of "The Wind in the Willows" and we enacted "Toad of Toad Hall" from the story. One of the girls was an excellent Toad singing boastfully about his exploits. Great fun!
I had discovered A.A. Milne's engrossing books about Christopher Robin and his eccentric toys, illustrated by Ernest Shepherd. Now I found "A Dog of Flanders" about an impoverished but artistically gifted boy who dreamed of having art lessons and his love of a large dog which pulled the cart in which he collected milk to take to town to earn a living.
Another book I chose to read was about Leif Ericsson, a Scandinavian who sailed on a voyage of adventure and discovery and reached North America hundreds of years before Columbus. Scandinavia and voyages such as this intrigued me and kindled an ambition to see these places for myself one day. One of my favourite books was "The King of the Golden River" by John Ruskin about two greedy, selfish brothers and their younger kind brother, Gluck who was rewarded by the dwarf, the king of the river. Gluck learnt that the water flowing from the Alps was far more precious than gold. Those wonderful mountains of Europe! One poem, "Tell's Address to his Native Mountains" about William Tell, the Swiss hero appealed to me very greatly. I could readily understand his emotions.
"Ye crags and peaks, I'm with you once again!
I hold to you the hands you first beheld,
To show they still are free."
I found a matching picture in a magazine, cut it out and copied the poem as a present for a friend.
My favourite poem was in "The Children's Treasure House". It was a dramatic epic poem, "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, from which I learnt large parts. Not a very upright character! My reading was not limited to pious themes, other themes were more inspiring and entertaining.
I wrote lots of stories and poems some of which reflected the way I had been brought up. One example I remember writing -
"Behind a shell-strewn cave extends,
While below a placid river wends, Its way rejoicing,
To meet the other streams.
The Creator's work, a garden of dreams."
At school we were asked to write something for the school magazine. I wrote about Vaucluse House, well influenced by Mum during preparation with phrases such as "hanging clusters of fragrant blossoms". Some of the girls in my class illustrated their work if they felt talented at drawing. Much to my disappointment my story was not published. I felt my effort was well-written, certainly well-prepared. Why was it not chosen? There was a contribution by Robyn Pratt, the daughter of Pixie O'Harris who illustrated a lot of magazine stories and whose story "Marmaduke the Possum" we knew well.
Our teacher's husband was in the Air Force, and during the year she was given compassionate leave to spend a holiday with him, while he was on furlough. Presently we learnt that she would be resigning, and we girls began to speculate. In anticipation I knitted her a jacket, bonnet and bootees, white of course which was acceptable for boy or girl.
1945 began and I was in sixth class. I told my new teacher, Miss Schofield that I had knitted the gift all myself and would not even let my mother wash it. "Don't tell me you got it dirty?" she teased. "One sleeve," which was not quite true. Like Mrs Hellman, she did not need to use punishment to inspire us to achieve. Even admonition was rare. I was thrilled to receive a letter from Mrs Hellman after Michael was born, saying how much she and the baby appreciated my beautifully knitted set.
At times I was despondent, wallowed in melancholy poems such as "High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire", "A Child Alone" and "The Forsaken Merman". But these moods were short-lived.
One very hot evening we went for a ride in the tram to The Spit to get out of the depressing house. Without saying so, Mum understood that I was missing friends and my life at Colo Heights. The cost of the tram fare would have reduced the housekeeping money, but Mum found it somehow.
"It's so nice here with a cool breeze and the lights on the water," she said as we walked around the park at the bottom of the steep descent, watching in case we might witness the bridge opening for a tall-masted yacht or large launch while we waited for the next tram back. She had been an onlooker during hectic family activity in her adolescence and had to be patient and go slowly when gardening or house-cleaning, shopping or washing. But she had a deep faith that kept her cheerful and optimistic about the future. I was not always able to find something to be positive about but learnt gradually that it was a more pleasant state of mind and made more friends than complaining. Mum helped me find the unique experience which made me different and better prepared than most girls to cope with the unknown future.
Sometimes I indulged in daydreaming about my future home and the characters and names of the children who would grow up and be happily there. But always without a husband and when I remembered him could never imagine what he might say or do in the scenes I created. He often had to be packed off for a holiday. My fantasies continued at night when sleep did not come. In my dream world I could visualise myself at a place like Colo Heights, surviving by my wits and was never downhearted for long.
After school one day I was rushing for the train home, when I slipped on the steps and fell ingloriously to the platform. A searing pain ran through my knee, the guard saw me and waited until I had staggered aboard into the nearest carriage. Somehow at Wynyard I got to the tram that took me to our door and when I took off my shoe I found that my ankle, which was by now severely swollen, looked a great deal worse than my knee. Mum heated some water, brought cold water and bandages and towels. She cleaned and bandaged my knee, put hot and cold compresses on my ankle. Weeks later my knee and ankle were still not right, in fact that leg was never quite the same again.
About this time Mum was going from door to door with the books "witnessing" and had to sit down on someone's veranda. Calling the local doctor was out of the question for us. If we had had a family doctor he would almost certainly have made a free house call, but we had not been there long enough to have done so. As soon as she felt well enough she came home and rested and the next day I stayed home from school to go with her to North Shore Hospital. We waited all morning in the outpatients' department to see a specialist, which was free. For many years Mum had had a weak heart from Chorea but now it showed signs of a serious problem. As usual she accepted with resignation what she could not change. She had often said "I've got something sitting on my chest", a common description of indigestion.
"I don't believe it's indigestion. You've probably had a heart attack", said the doctor when eventually Mum's turn came. "The mitral valve muscle has been affected, permanently weakened, the valve does not open properly and the normal amount of blood does not get through," he explained. "I'll put your name down to get a bed in hospital as soon as possible. Be prepared."
I took a note to school the next day to explain my absence.
"I needed Dorothy to come with me to the hospital yesterday as I was afraid I might collapse." The headmistress called me to the office for further details and said I should keep her informed.
It was difficult to get a bed in hospital even for urgent cases, so Mum had to wait some weeks before being admitted. Hospitals and doctors were free to the poor. We never thought of ourselves as poor, our circumstances were what we were used to and were not uncommon. We certainly did not have the notion that "the government should provide for us", an unheard of concept at the time. If anything Mum believed that "God would provide" and encouraged me to make the best of things and to use my many talents and opportunities to learn to look after myself and achieve what was possible. Even a small success was important.
While awaiting a bed, Mum organised things to make it as easy as possible for me to cope. It was providential that I had been allowed to learn to cook and housekeep and that I was pretty self-sufficient. She sent me to the hairdresser to get my plaits cut off, knowing that I could not manage them myself. My hair was thick and dark and wavy which compensated for my freckles. Mum's hair was still long and she wore it plaited and wound around her head, unable to afford regular hair cuts.
Most women would have felt despair in Mum's situation. Her marriage broken in an age when it was considered that a woman's primary duty was to keep her husband happy, rarely seeing her son, whom she missed greatly, the home sold and gradually articles sold or disposed of because of the lack of space or the need for money. She was not known to complain or express despondence or loneliness. Her faith strengthened as her body weakened.
She continued to believe that a boy needed a father who would guide him firmly and teach him the things a boy needed to know, how to do all the mysterious things Dad performed in the garage. Bill had always shown a great aptitude for studying how things worked. He was also compliant and fitted Dad's picture of a dutiful son. If Bill felt less than happy, Mum knew he would not anger Dad by expressing such sentiment.
"One day my health will improve and the family will be reunited. It's all part of God's plan. In the meantime I've got confidence in your ability to look after yourself with the help of the good Lord".
When she was notified to go, Mum walked to the tram with a bag of requirements to take to hospital. Wards were large with a row of ten or so beds on each side. Beds had to be kept tidy and not to be sat on. Visiting was strictly limited to an hour in the afternoon and another in the evening, and the number of visitors at a time. There was a minimum of staff and they were very busy. Food was basic with little variety, but Mum was a "good", undemanding patient and was liked by the other patients, nurses and visiting doctors. It was necessary for me to collect Mum's washing regularly, do it by hand, dry it and get it back to her.
When Mum went to hospital I told my teacher and apparently the school looked in the telephone book and contacted Dad's sister, Jean Kinny as she had a telephone for her business and the school felt that my father should be informed. Telephones in ordinary houses were very rare. Auntie Jean contacted Dad. I was considered to be "neglected" as I had no family members to look out for my welfare. Nothing eventuated from this action. I did not feel at all neglected as Mum expressed confidence in my ability to cope and I enjoyed the freedom and adventure.
The school provided me with a cooked lunch from the nearby Home Science Department, a lamb chop, egg and tomato, so that my culinary experiments were not my sole source of nourishment. I ate in the room next to the teachers.
In the evening I did my own domestic chores or failed to do them as the mood took me. At twelve I was my own housekeeper, my own dressmaker and my own treasurer and did not think myself to be unhappy with the responsibility. Everyone knew how to entertain themselves. I had perhaps more hobbies than most as I liked sport, sewing, embroidery (fancywork), knitting, reading, drawing, walking and took an interest in things around me. Visitors showed me how to do things. Clothes were carefully patched or mended, elastic in bloomers was replaced preferably before it got to the state when it let us down in public because of its poor quality at the time. It was a matter of shame if we wore something torn, worn through or pinned up. Although most of our clothes were mended sooner or later, we tried not to wear mended clothes including underwear when going out in case we had an accident in the street and were taken to a doctor or even hospital, and someone saw the state of our clothes. I was given some wool, bought myself a pattern book for 3d and learnt to knit a pair of socks on four steel needles. Most needles were made of bone, but for very thin needles, steel was used for strength. I had previously knitted myself a blue jumper on two needles. Next I would learn to knit gloves.
I often bought inexpensive brains which I cooked in egg and bread crumbs, an economical dish which I was proud to be able to cook. Housekeeping was almost an adventure and I imagined myself as the mother of a large brood of hungry children. Occasionally I awoke from a daydream to find my dinner ruined and the elderly landlady most unhappy. There was no sympathetic person to keep a loving eye on a twelve-year-old who had got distracted with a book or was moping around the room, insecure and sick of her own company.
In May when the war ended in Europe I had not heard the news having no wireless and went to school as normal. There were celebrations going on all around me, with "ticker tape" thrown from every window in the city. This was rather surprising and perplexing until I got to school, found it was declared a holiday and was sent home. This was VE Day.
When Mum came out of hospital after a few months I resisted her returning to her former habit of organising the household. It was hard to become a dutiful, obedient child. I felt I had managed pretty well working things out for myself and using my initiative. Having enjoyed being master, I didn't want to be demoted to apprentice!
"Go and wash up now and get on with your homework."
"I haven't got any homework."
"Then you can do some sewing."
"I need some buttons", hoping to buy new ones.
"Look in my button tin." (no longer required for earplugs and barley sugar).
I was sewing by hand a red floral cotton dress for myself. When this was finished I was sufficiently emboldened by my achievement to attempt a light coat for my mother, from flannel given to her by a friend. The old sewing machine would not fit in our room, so everything was done by hand. Our room in this dingy, three-roomed house, built directly onto the street, with trams rattling past every fifteen minutes until late at night, we considered only a temporary solution, because of the desperate wartime housing shortage.