MASTER INDEX of articles written or recommended by Alex Paterson
Pymble, Sydney, Sunday, December 4 1927.
Vera Hamilton, nee Thatcher, or Thatch to her friends from before her marriage to Captain Jack Hamilton, was never idle for a waking moment and as it was a Sunday, the maid's day off, she was cooking the traditional Sunday roast. Many years later, she told me all about that memorable day. Jack and his thirteen year old son, Ian, had set the table in the dining room and retired to the quiet, cool smoke room to read the Sunday papers.
Vera was with child, due in two weeks, and had taken ten months leave from her position on the Women's Section of the 'Sydney Morning Herald', only yesterday, at 1pm. She had told no one except Jack and her doctor about the pregnancy. It was 'not done', by her anyway, in those days. She repeated the exercise thirteen years later with the arrival of her second child, Robbie. Unless part of the secret, her tailored suits were so subtly designed it was impossible to see any change in her appearance.
The meal was served. Leaving her own plate bare, Vera stood tall and smiling. She said quietly,
'Please excuse me Gentlemen. I am going to ring Dr Biffin and then lie down. Enjoy your meal. It smells delicious. And do not worry about me. Everything is arranged and I'll be in expert hands.
Dr Harriet Biffin was Vera's Doctor and her baby was to be born at home.
Perhaps Jack was unaware that such an arrangement had been made, as it appeared that neither he nor Vera had prepared Ian for the baby's expected arrival, or so he explained to me when I started school. Jack's adored and academically brilliant former wife, Freda, had died in childbirth when Ian was ten years old. Now thirteen and still mourning her loss with relentless passion, he could not stand a bar of his bossy stepmother, who was always far too busy telling him what to do and never found a single moment to listen to his woes. His now intimidated father had become a poor role model for his still grieving son, who was horrified by this belated admission that Vera was expecting her first child, about to be born, upstairs, here, in this house.
Distraught, Ian's immediate response was to 'wish this new mother and child dead too - it would even the score, perhaps'.
Without ado, Dr Biffin delivered me. The birth was apparently an easy one and should have been a joyous occasion, but my poor mother was heartbroken. She already knew, from one swift glance, that this baby would not grow into the graceful, peaches-and cream-skinned, blonde Gretchin of her dreams. Instead, she had near black hair, square palmed, stubby-fingered hands that would never grace a piano, highly arched, small, broad peasant feet and a look like thunder on her face. Without touching me, Vera Hamilton cried piteously on her husband's shoulder.
Jack's shocked response was to state that he was not bothered by his daughter's appearance but was proud of both mother and child. He gently placed me in her arms. Still diffident, she did not hold me close at first, but close enough to make me catch her fleeting glance and relax my mutinous gaze. The stand-off must have been resolved because she fed me for the obligatory nine months, as designated by the Truby King method of child rearing and I became a loved, happy, healthy baby.
Years later, on one of our afternoon walks together, my father told me that on first seeing me, Mother had lamented,
'Oh Jack, whatever are we going to do? How could we have scored this sour faced midget? She's a throwback to her great-grandmama, Henrietta Jane Von Essen.'
My great-grandmama was a tiny, wilful, peasant girl from Schleswig Holstein, whose parents had sent her to kith and kin in Sydney, Australia, during the mid eighteen forties, aged eighteen. She had reached the marriageable age in their society, but was not yet a 'woman', so they felt bound to send her across the seas, all alone, to find a husband on those distant shores. With no obvious suitor hovering in the wings and local custom precluding young women from working in the fields after they reached eighteen, her family could no longer afford to keep her with them, their land holding being too small to provide sustenance for even one more mouth to feed.
It must have been a harsh blow to Henrietta, who genuinely loved her family and was terrified of the sea. The voyage was very long and the seas tempestuous. She knew no English, but had learned and memorised four words by the time she finally reached Sydney Town, where she made no effort to disembark. She stood on her portmanteau on the busy deck to enhance her height, hoping to espy her relatives and friends, waiting on the dock below. They saw her first and waved, calling her name in welcome. She stood on tiptoe to wave back, then raising her head even higher, stated forcefully,
'I never go back.'
Those German families and friends, now well settled in their adopted country, were kind and accepting of their countrywoman. Henrietta soon realised they had all changed greatly since leaving their homeland, squeezed out, as she had been, by the pressures of over population. Here, there were no limits to growth, as these new settlers were skilled artisans and tireless workers, and all were prospering.
Henrietta was not sent to the antipodes empty handed. She had a small dowry, and soon met and married Henry Kloster, a gentle giant of a man, head gardener at the Sydney Botanic Gardens. With her dowry, she bought a row of sandstone cottages between St Mary's Cathedral and William Street, made them habitable and leased them profitably as an insurance against hard times. She and Henry occupied a similar cottage in the Botanic Gardens. Both hard working and very capable, they also prospered. Their children were all immensely tall. Vera's Mother, Jane, was one of them.
Throughout her life, Mother retained a strong resolve to thwart heredity and transform me into a 'lady'. She ensured that I would never attend a State School or associate with 'undesirable people.' The cost of private schooling for both me and later, my brother Robbie, was high and in my case, to no avail. My school did not teach Physics and Chemistry, the prerequisites for entry into Science courses at Sydney University, where she hoped I would graduate in Agricultural Science and eventually marry a wealthy grazier. My tall, fair, good-natured brother Robert pleased her by becoming a geneticist of note. On 'Sunny Ridge' turkey farm at Wallabadah, he developed a strain of superb table turkeys that were the best tasting and fastest growing in the world.
My early memories are still crystal clear. My cot was on the
partially closed in side verandah, upstairs, outside my parents
closed bedroom door. I cannot recall any sadness till after my second
birthday. By then, the Great Depression would have been biting hard,
but my Christmas was a very spiritual experience which, even now, I
cannot explain or fully understand. At that time, my Mother and
Father were loving and considerate to one another, and to me. I was
two years old.
I wakened at first light on Christmas morning, knowing nothing about God, Jesus Christ or Santa Claus and found myself in paradise, looking up into the branches of a delicately decorated, artificial fir tree. Spellbound, I was transported through the branches and into another world. There, I floated in a cocoon of exquisite beauty and light, until my parents came through their bedroom door and brought me back to earth. Mother took me in her arms and I was overwhelmed with love and joy.
I cannot recall the progress of that Christmas Day, but I clearly remember climbing back into my cot at bed time, receiving my usual hugs and cuddles and then being able to re-enter my other world of majesty by concentrating very hard, as I gazed through the delicate branches of the Christmas tree. There I found my way back into my cocoon, to travel up, up and away, towards the stars. Each evening, for perhaps a week or two, after Mother and Father had kissed me 'goodnight' and tucked me in, I would sail skyward, transported with delight.
And then it happened. My beloved parents were suddenly embroiled in a war of words. My cocoon vanished. When all was quiet again, I searched and searched but it eluded me, perhaps never to return. The harsh words became the norm in our household and eventually Father began to drink excessively, as The Daily Guardian newspaper had recently been closed and he had lost his job as Shipping Editor. Mother, who had 'put him on the straight and narrow,' before their marriage, went into a state of mental collapse. Joan, our maid, did her best to keep the family home running smoothly. Her patience and her wisdom were amazing, in one so young and, by my Mother's standards, of poor background and education. To clarify those standards, I will now travel back in time to Mother's childhood, of which she often spoke, especially towards the end of her life.
Holding a faded picture of little girls, all dressed in filmy white as they danced in formation on a Village Green, tears would overwhelm her. In the foreground of the picture, with his back to the camera, her beloved Father was watching his daughters and their classmates as they danced before him, his own features obscured. This was the only picture my Mother possessed of him. Crushed beyond redemption, it was clutched in her hand when she died.
Mother, Vera, was born near midnight, on the 23rd of August,
1899, the second of the three children of Frank Thatcher and Jane
Kloster, daughter of Henrietta Jane, from Schleswig Holstein. In
later years, Vera would describe herself as one of those 'mistake
babies', born far too soon after her sister, Henrietta.
Always known as Rita, Henrietta was feisty, whilst Vera was frail and miserable. She survived infancy with a huge chip on her shoulder, balanced only by her father's adoration of this highly strung, ash blonde, exquisitely beautiful child.
Frank Thatcher was English, sent out to Sydney to establish, staff and hopefully expand the Fry Pascal Confectionary Company on the eastern shores of Australia. The new chocolates and sweets were a huge success. Brisbane and Melbourne offices and factories followed in quick succession. A widower, Frank was accompanied by his young son Hugh. How and when he met Jane Kloster, I do not know, but young Hughie really liked no nonsense Jane and became the ideal, elder half-brother of the Thatcher siblings.
Frank and Jane bought ten acres of good, well-watered, gently sloping land in Marion Street, Killara, within easy walking distance of the railway station, to enable Frank to visit all three emerging Company branches during their siting and early construction. When in Sydney, he caught the train to Milson's Point, stepped onto a waiting ferry to cross the Harbour, then hailed a hansom cab to reach his office and factory.
My grandparents built and eventually sold two double storey homes, one of which they occupied during the construction of their red brick, stately permanent residence, Wychwood. The new home plan came straight out of tea plantation, British India, with deeply recessed, high and wide verandahs, supported by massive dark green wooden posts. Double storeyed in the main body of the house and triple storeyed at the rear, it moulded into the hillside. Partly sheltered from the street by flowering greenery and two mature stringy bark trees on the wide buffalo grass lawn, the Thatcher home was beautiful.
Wychwood boasted a carriage house and harness room, a well equipped workshop, an ant-bed tennis court and magnificent formal flower gardens. A Chinese gardener performed all outside duties. He milked the cow and cared for the horse, then harnessed it up when required for family outings. He grew the most superb fruit and vegetables, and tended the poultry, 'dressing' those destined for the table. Old and bent, he was still there, caring for the formal gardens as before and a now smaller food production area, when I stayed with my Grandma and Auntie Rita during my Intermediate exams nearly four decades later. He was now alone, his family grown up and living elsewhere, his dear wife recently deceased.
Rita and Vera blossomed and were joined in the family by their baby brother, little Frank, about five years after Vera was born. Older brother Hugh took them all on flora and fauna discovery and preservation walks in the near pristine bush surrounding their home. He would carry Frankie on his shoulders when the little bloke tired, or found the going tough. As they all grew older, they ventured further afield and became more and more captivated by the natural beauty of the world around them. Sometimes, if not away on business, when Hugh took the reins, Frank Thatcher gained great pleasure in driving his family on their adventure trips, noting their physical fitness and palpable joy in Nature's splendour.
Vera especially loved family journeys by horse and chaise to Bobbin Head, on Cowan Creek, or closer to home, down Fidden's Wharf Road, on the Lane Cove River. Travelling through the uncleared countryside, they shared the glorious scenery and the bird songs of the bush. With a fully staffed and well run home and grounds, their lives were idyllic.
Rita and Vera commenced their education together in Killara, at the Miss's Smiths' Academy for Young Ladies. They were pampered, indulged and unconditionally adored by their father, their half brother, and all the household servants. Jane Thatcher found Vera more pleasing, now that she was healthier and her nature had improved. The girls loved school and showed high academic ability. Rita also possessed great skill in all forms of artistic design. Holidays were spent at a rented cottage at Woy Woy during Autumn and Spring, Jane saying it was much more sheltered there during seasonal changes.
Summer holidays were enjoyed at Collaroy, in their own well built, spacious, sunny cottage in Homestead Avenue, with sweeping views of beaches and northern headlands. All except Jane braved the ocean at the southern, sheltered end. There they initially dog - paddled in safe little rock pools, until they felt sufficiently competent to brave a gentle surf and dive through the waves. Before long, Father, when he could be with them, and Hughie, little Rita and eventually Vera too, all progressed to 'catching' waves and riding them to the shore. They were ecstatic. This was really living!
On holidays, they were self sufficient. Jane would make preparations beforehand for dinner, then walk down to the shore to socialise with friends and neighbours, have a brief paddle in the shallows, tell her family when the meal would be served, then return to the cottage, her daily constitutional completed.
A Changing World.
Frank Thatcher travelled to Brisbane and Melbourne during the summer holidays when his family was at Collaroy, driven there by Hugh in the horse drawn chaise. Business was brisk. The Australian venture was an outstanding success for Fry Pascal shareholders. Further enterprises were being considered and investigated. Frank Thatcher was a very busy and very happy man.
Soon the Thatcher horse and chaise was replaced by one of the new motor vehicles. Noisy and smelly, they were notoriously hard to start and far less comfortable than the horse-drawn, high wheeled, well sprung carriages and phaetons. The new steel automobiles tended to rattle and groan. Equipped with steel springs and leather covered horsehair seats, they offered a degree of comfort on level surfaces. But their smaller, heavier wheels gave a rougher ride on dirt roads, especially if those roads were corrugated. Pneumatic tyres were sometimes punctured by sharp objects, necessitating the 'jacking up' of the vehicle, the removal of the wheel and getting the 'spare' one in place - usually bolted on the back of the conveyance - the overall ordeal, a dirty business and quite enough to ruin any picnic!
One day, Frank Thatcher received a cable from Head Office. The Fry
Pascal company in England had commenced negotiations with Cadbury's,
in the small, far southern island State of Tasmania. Should these
negotiations prove positive, he, Frank Thatcher, would take another
step up the corporate ladder to lead the merged Tasmanian company,
Cadbury Fry Pascal, onto the world market. The negotiations were
positive and Frank felt honoured.
The Hobart plant would be accessible to coastal and overseas shipping, have a guaranteed supply of pure mountain spring water and the finest dairy milk from the herds of their own exclusive dairy farmers. Cadbury's Dairy Milk and Fry's Old Gold Dark Chocolates would become household names across the globe. Head Office was confident that Frank and his family would love Tasmania, breathtakingly beautiful, and so much like Home.
There was jubilation, tempered by a degree of trepidation as the family adjusted to this salutary news. Frank was to set in place a good man from England to replace him in Sydney, and in due course, move himself and his family to Tasmania.
Frank had made arrangements to visit the Brisbane office. His annual leave was due, enabling him to make the trip north, then return to the cottage at Woy Woy to spend his holidays with his family. Five days later, his wife and children were waiting there to welcome his return. As the train pulled into the platform; they could see their tall Papa, standing alone behind his carriage exit door, warning them with his hands to stay well away from him. When they had all withdrawn some twenty paces, Papa indicated that only Jane should remain at the station, explaining he had a fever which could be infectious.
Hugh led the little ones off the platform, into the station yard and back towards the cottage. Frank stepped off the train and collapsed on a station seat. Jane and the Station Master hastened towards him. He raised his hand to stop their approach. In a wavering voice, he told them his fever could be typhoid. He asked if they would please call the Doctor.
Frank Thatcher had become ill about half way through his journey, but had decided to continue on to Woy Woy. The Doctor's diagnosis was passed on to the family by telegram - it was typhoid fever. He said that Hugh should take the children home to 'Wychwood' on the afternoon train, to avoid contagion. Jane agreed that it was a wise precaution and they duly obeyed the Doctor's orders. She remained at the cottage to nurse Frank after the Doctor had stabilised him and driven him there. Daily telegrams were delivered to 'Wychwood' where the family understood their father was critically ill, but was holding his own. His condition suddenly worsened and their Mother was desperately exhausted by the difficulty of keeping him comfortable and adequately hydrated. Within a few days, they heard that he was picking up and Jane was feeling more confident.
The battle to save Frank's life continued. Jane refused to even consider the possibility that he might die. He never once complained, or gave any indication that he would not pull through.
Nearly three months later, his condition was markedly improved. He was able to get up and about and dine at table with Jane. They both felt confident that he had beaten the scourge of Typhoid and would make a full recovery.
Then, in the early hours of a Saturday morning, without any warning, he died in his sleep from a massive internal haemorrhage, leaving a family that never wholly came to grips with their grief.
Her heart broken, Jane reverently prepared her husband's body for the undertaker. She dressed him in the laundered and pressed business clothes in which he had travelled from Brisbane, his countenance handsome and serene. He was taken from the cottage to the Woy Woy mortuary in an oak casket, ready for transfer to the Sydney train at 3.15pm. Two of her closest local friends, unafraid of contagion, assisted her with the final packing of personal items, knowing that she would never return.
The Boarding House.
On the day of Papa's funeral, Jane received a cable from England,
commiserating with her on the loss of her husband and father of their
children, but explaining that there could be no financial recompense
for her, or her family, as they were not, with the exception of Hugh,
British born. Hugh would receive an annual allowance for his
further education and expenses until such time as he was wholly self
While her family disintegrated into abject misery, Jane stood dry eyed and defiant at his graveside, holding only Frankie's trembling hand in one of hers and her prayer book in the other.
Returning home to Wychwood after the Service, Jane announced that huge changes would be made, starting right now, to ensure their very survival in these severely altered circumstances. Vera fainted into Hughie's arms, but Jane, unmoved, walked out of the living room and headed for the servants' quarters, leaving Hugh to restore calm..
Jane had a plan - debt free Wychwood would become a gentleman's' boarding house and she would rely on her esteemed and respected staff to determine who would stay to work under these straitened circumstances, and who would leave, armed for the future with glowing references.
Hard times entered the lives of the Thatcher family and their meagre work force. Gentleman boarders were slow in coming. Rita and Vera's schooling was transferred from the privilege of attending the Miss's Smiths' Young Ladies Academy in Killara, to Gordon Public School. They made the journey by train, there and back each day. Uncouth boys teased them and pulled their hair and equally nasty girls laughed at their lowered social status. Rita was defiant and stood her ground. Vera suffered a total nervous breakdown. She was withdrawn from school on Doctor's orders and received no further formal education. She was nine years old. Soon she was waiting on table at Wychwood. Some of the esteemed gentlemen pinched her bottom and by way of response, she had many attacks of the 'vapours', swooning to the floor, even if touched inadvertently. Rita knew how to retaliate. No gentleman tangled with her a second time.
Hugh remained the family stalwart. In receipt of his English pension, he completed his education at his GPS school and commenced work in a legal office. He willingly gave his meagre earnings to Jane.
The boarding house business slowly improved as the sons of wealthy graziers, remembering young Hugh from their school days and now graduating from Sydney University, needed a respectable address until such time as they were sufficiently established to branch out on their own. Wychwood not only offered a beautiful home and surroundings, but also a caring landlady, clean, well lit bed/sitting rooms, superb meals and delightful young partners from the Thatcher family on the tennis court. These well mannered young men soon outnumbered the original gentlemen boarders and the presence of this younger generation altered the tone of the place. No more bottoms were pinched and it was not long before Jane was able to hire staff to serve at table. Vera slowly regained her confidence.
When Frankie turned six, he proudly set off for school, alone and was not intimidated by Gordon Public. He fitted in well to the scheme of things, eventually topping his class and graduating to high school in Chatswood. Rita had preceded him there, but had left as soon as the law permitted to commence an apprenticeship in commercial art. She loved her course and did very well. Vera, who was a good writer, in spite of her brief education, found a job with Uncle Herc, her Mother's cousin, and the Australian representative of Universal Pictures. Films shown then were silent and sometimes hard to follow, so little booklets, or 'penny dreadfuls' - previews of next week's films - were sold at each prior screening. Vera was a preview writer and her work was considered the best of all. Paid less than a third of the male wage, she eventually complained about this blatant discrimination.
'It's a good wage for a girl'. Uncle Herc had declared.
Vera was furious. 5'10' tall, blond, blue eyed and exquisite, she gave her 6'6 Uncle a tongue lashing, announced her resignation and left his office for good. She caught a ferry from Milson's Point, crossed the harbour to Circular Quay, walked up town with her bag full of 'penny dreadfuls' and finally scored a job as a very junior cadet on the 'Sydney Daily Guardian'.
With both girls now working, and capable staff in charge of the household, Jane purchased a Baby Austin and experienced the simple pleasures of visiting old friends, or entertaining them at the family's own cottage at Collaroy. It had been leased for years, but now she could afford to use it herself, often accompanied by strapping young Frank, who loved the surf. Hugh, now a junior partner in the legal firm where he was originally articled, remained with the family, and, along with the two girls, paid for his lodgings and sustenance. Their lives were, once again, ordered and enjoyable.
The Thatcher family's' brief period of contentment was soon rent
apart, yet again, by the commencement of World War One. Almost
overnight, the colonial Thatchers became the despised Killara Huns.
Hugh, of British lineage, was exempt but deeply troubled. With
passion, he argued that his stepmother, half sisters and brother,
were all Australian born and full citizens of their country. His own
birth mother was from Canada, a country he had never visited.
He gave some thought to joining up with his Canadian cousins in the
fight against the Germans, but was soon dissuaded, assured that
'It would all be over by Christmas.'
When the reality of war set in, Hugh, his close friends and all but one of the young men who visited Wychwood to play tennis, joined up during the first few weeks of hostilities. They numbered twenty, and none of them came home. Initially trained on horses in the deserts of North Africa, most were re-deployed and sent to fight the Turks at Gallipoli, in fetid trenches, where their losses were catastrophic. Those who survived were sent into the stinking, water- logged, disease ridden trenches of France and some to Flanders Fields, and there, once more, losses were devastating. Punty, the Thatcher family's only German tennis player, with his entire family, spent near five years as internees, and Hugh, badly injured and severely shell shocked, was deemed unfit to travel home to distant Australia. Without consultation with the Thatcher family, he was shipped to his Mother's family in Canada. He recovered marginally, married and enjoyed brief happiness, but developed a brain tumour which took his life while still quite young.
A Dearth of Eligible Bachelors.
After the war, the country came to realise that an entire generation
of young women would be hard pressed to find husbands. The impact at
Wychwood was immense and again Jane's heart was broken. She and her
family had been devastated when they learned that even their beloved
Hugh would not be coming home.
During the wartime years, Rita had been 'manpowered' to work in a textile factory, a job she found dusty, noisy and degrading. By contrast, Vera, as a journalist, had enjoyed stimulating work in a volatile and rewarding environment. She was doing well, as was 'Wychwood', now a well staffed, thriving boarding house business. Concerned about Rita's future prospects, Jane decided to take her on a cruise to the British Near East, in the hope that her daughter might find a suitable husband, perhaps a tea plantation owner in Darjeeling, or the highlands of Ceylon.
The first port of call on this momentous adventure was Colombo. Armed with letters of introduction to various influential people, they booked into an esteemed hotel to receive their guests. They were deluged with invitations to visit imposing homes in the city and to travel far and wide in the delightfully cool and scenic highlands. A radiant Rita was soon drawing swains aplenty.
On the evening before departing for another round of visits, a severe rainstorm lashed Colombo. Mrs Thatcher and Rita decided to have an early night. They retired to their adjoining, separate bedrooms. Some time after midnight, Rita was wakened by a trickle of water falling on her face. It was very dark, and unable to find her night light and dressing gown, she screamed in horror as the trickle became a torrent and the ceiling crashed down upon her. She suffered severe spinal injuries, lacerations and shock. Hospitalised for many weeks, her flashing smile and ready wit abandoned her, as did her avid admirers and Jane realised that 'East, West, home's best'.
Rita's injuries were life changing. She became hunchbacked and suffered acute physical and mental pain. Once home though, with the benefit of specialist medical treatment and exercises, wholesome, home grown food and good friends to lift her spirits, her condition gradually improved. She began driving lessons and bought a car with the money she had saved whilst working in the textile factory. Driving gave Rita confidence and made her feel strong again. Within a year she was again playing tennis at Wychwood and venturing into the surf at Collaroy. Her disfigurement was obvious in a swimsuit but went unnoticed, as she had regained her sparkling wit and good humour.
Punty had quietly resumed his place on the tennis court, seeking to wed one of the Thatcher girls. This development was encouraged by Jane but did not inspire either Rita or Vera, both of whom thought he was such a dill that he could not even make up his mind which of the maidens he wished to court!
Rita never married. She had a busy life, employed more salubriously in an art studio, often part time - and visiting her many friends and families on country properties around the State.
In 1926, against Rita's stern advice and absolute refusal from Jane
to even consider any liaison with that man, her second
daughter, Vera married Jack Hamilton, an older, widowed sea captain
of the merchant marine, who had left the service after the death of
his beloved wife, Freda. Having been offered the job of Shipping
Editor on the 'Sydney Daily Guardian', Jack had come ashore to keep
their Watson's Bay home running smoothly for his schoolboy son, Ian,
who was grief stricken by his Mother's death.
On the Guardian, Jack Hamilton met Vera Thatcher. Vera knew Jack drank too much, but he was good at his job and popular at work. She felt certain that she could reform his errant ways. Rita, equally sure he was a hopeless case, because he periodically 'went on benders' and neglected his morose son, Ian, warned her sister against 'any liaison' with him.
Vera, strong in her resolve, disregarded her sister's fears and clandestinely married her Jack at St Matthews Church of England, Windsor, with only a handful of close friends in attendance. Well in advance of the wedding day, Jack had joined AA and signed the pledge. They did their level best to make a success of their lives together. They bought and furnished a grand old home in Pymble. Jack was good company and remained sober for years. Sadly, Ian was distant with his father and disrespectful of his stepmother, but Vera was sure she could win his deference too, given time.
Some two years after the wedding, I was born on December 4th. 1927. Jack remained shipping editor on the 'Guardian' until the sudden closure of the paper soon after the start of the Great Depression in late 1929. Most of the senior staff members, including Vera, were taken on by the remaining Sydney dailies, but not Jack. From then on, it was down hill all the way. Eventually, he began drinking again and Ian, who now despised both his Father and his Stepmother, finally ran away to his maternal Aunt in Melbourne. Vera, feeling resentful and betrayed, took to putting Jack out on the street..
She would insist that 'Father was away, visiting friends'.
Miss Salmon and Joan Dix.
During my very early childhood our household was run by Miss Salmon,
a housekeeper of distinction, who became my Nanny when my mother
returned to work after I was weaned. I do not recall that early
interlude, but once up and running, can still remember Miss Salmon's
sighs of despair at her inability to stop me lifting the sump
cover outside the laundry and sliding into the deliciously warm,
slimy water on wash days.
When I was two, Mother employed Joan, the eldest of three daughters of Mr and Mrs Dix, who lived in a humble cottage on the western side of the Pacific Highway in Pymble, and later moved to a much nicer place on Bannockburn Road, next to Cassie Cairn's riding school. Mr Dix drove the Kuringai Council steamroller. He planted and tended fruit trees, vegetables and fragrant flowers wherever the family settled. Mrs Dix, a loving mother, was also a skilled homemaker, hand sewer and seamstress. The Dix's comprised a happy and well respected family whose daughters would each work for Mrs Hamilton on leaving school, aged fourteen.
Replacing Miss Salmon, whom my Father liked and respected and with whom he, and I in my high chair, had dined at midday, poor Joan Dix, following Mrs Hamilton's orders, ran into trouble with the Captain. She delivered breakfast, morning tea and lunch on trays to his upstairs study, six days each week. Resenting the change, Father was often disagreeable or downright rude. Joan stood up to him, requesting civility.
Things improved marginally, but as she was 'just a slip of a girl who should still be at school, his lack of respect continued to rankle. If he was impolite when she knocked, she placed the tea tray or his lunch on a chair outside his study door, then knocked again to let him know it was there. Slowly, he got the message. Peace reigned.
I loved Joan, with passion. Right from the start, she was able to mend my broken heart, after my mother left to catch her train to go to work. But one such morning was truly traumatic. Lest I scampered, Joan always carried me to the wrought iron gates, to lift and hold me on the middle rail of the big gate to allow Mother to slip through and close the little one. I was never allowed to hug or even touch her, but on this day, now far too old for tantrums, in my desperation to embrace her, I flung my arms around her neck, causing outrage and harsh words and finally, a slap on my bottom, which made me scream. Although distraught herself, poor Mother had to race straight off to catch her train.
Joan gently cradled me, still screaming, towards the house, through the front door, and holding me tight, she closed it behind us. I must have bitten her, because there was blood on both of us. Lowering me to the floor, she wiped the dark trickle off our arms with her hanky and tied it over a small puncture wound above her elbow. She then led me to the big, dark cupboard under the stairs - a special place, where she opened the door and moved golf clubs and travelling cases aside to enable her to reach my wooden pushcart, aware that a ride to her Mum and Pop's place would likely return me to instant sanity.
Very early, on this particular Monday morning, Joan, as always, had me up, dressed and 'helping her', down in the cavernous laundry. She filled the copper with water and made and lit the fire under it. As the water heated up, she slowly stirred in freshly grated soap. When all the soap had dissolved and the water started bubbling gently, in went the white bed, table, and bathroom linen, one piece at a time; all poled around and around, until she was sure that each item would finish up spotless, when boiled long enough on very low heat, with the lid on the copper. It must have been a fine art, getting the fire, water heat, and timing exactly right, then poling the linen into the first rinsing tub, without getting scalded.
We had to leave the laundry then, for Joan to make and serve breakfast for Mother and me. We ate in the dining room, usually in silence, unless I could be heard slurping or chewing and needed to be reminded about 'table manners'. Joan ate her breakfast hastily in the kitchen. Father had his delivered to his study.
With the pushcart bribe out in the hallway, and with me placated, Father's breakfast tray was collected from his upstairs den, where he wrote articles for the Bulletin and other journals, often all day long, in an apparently seldom successful attempt to earn his meal ticket, but must never be disturbed, so I waited for Joan at the top of the stairs.
Now, back to the laundry; the much smaller load of 'coloureds' went in to the topped up, re-heated copper and was poled around. The 'white' washing was then rung out by hand, from the first rinsing tub, into the second, lightly blued one, then rung out of there, again by hand, and into the big wicker laundry basket. I tagged along behind Joan, in a state of near euphoria, handing her the dolly pegs as she hung the clean, damp 'whites' on the line, knowing she would still have to boil, rinse and peg out the 'coloureds.' She would then deliver Father's morning tea to his study, prepare his lunch and leave it in the ice chest for him to collect and eat in the dining room, before we set out on our journey to her Mum and Pop's place, up on Bannockburn Road.
Even although very young, I was humbled by Joan's happy acceptance of her multiple tasks. She sang as she worked and smiled at me, always aware and never resentful that she was fully responsible for my welfare and safety at all times. It was a big house and she ran it like clockwork, keeping it spotless. She did the shopping too, and always had me by her side. But not today though; we were going much further afield, our carefree Irish Terrier, Ginger, wagging his tail and looking forward to the open fields at the end of Bannockburn Road. He knew the way!
At last we were off. Joan steered the pushcart along the footpath, with me and the dog out front, aware that we must never cross the road ahead of her. There were several hills on the journey. On the last and steepest one, Joan told me to hop into the cart and 'have a little nap'. That way I would be able to enjoy my time at Mum and Pop's. We had passed him on the steamroller, near the Pentecost Highway, and he had waved, telling us he would be home for lunch. Oh, how wonderful! Earlier tears of despair were all forgotten. While Ginger waited at the back door, Mr Dix came home for lunch and we enjoyed our meal together around the kitchen table, where no harsh words were ever spoken.
A year later, Joan 'became engaged to be married.' She went home to her family to commence working on her trousseau. Miss Salmon filled the gap until Mae finished school and came to work at our place. I now found the old lady's company delightful. She liked and respected my Father. At her suggestion, during the week at lunchtime we again all dined together, at the ebony dining table. With me now older and a wee bit wiser, we enjoyed one another's company and conversations, thus changing Father's outlook like magic. Dear Sammy knew all about Freda, the tragedy of her demise and the loss of her second child. She understood why Ian had left for Melbourne. She may have been the Hamilton's housekeeper at Watson's Bay.
The father swings his walking stick like a scythe above his head. He
often does this as he mutters to himself. People avoid him. They
gather in little groups, talking; nodding their heads; pointing at
The child is used to this. She stands by his side, holding his left hand - the one not swinging the walking stick. They are waiting outside Liverpool Railway Station. It is very hot.
Along comes Harley in his gig, drawn by his beautiful bay stallion, Diabolo. Father and child clamber aboard. The fine horse eats up the miles to Harley's vineyard, beside the Georges River, at Moorebank. He is fit and fast and he does not sweat. He is unharnessed, given a big pat and released in his field. The child lingers, absorbing the magic aroma of Diabolo, then follows her father and Harley into the house.
It is just one huge room but it is cool and wonderful with walls of red brick on three sides and an unlined, tiled roof, high above. Wooden stairs run up to nowhere - just some floor joists - the second storey that was never built. The wall facing the morning sun is mostly open - there are canvas blinds - rolled up. The room is full of light and the floor is made of huge, flat slabs of sandstone or cool, hard earth where the stone has not yet been laid. The wine press is in the room - the wine cellar adjacent.
Unpruned, vigorous vines wind their way up into the rooms that are not there. The men below drink red wine and yarn about the Great War.
The child, unnoticed, climbs in the scaffolding, entranced by the size and grandeur of the enormous green frogs inhabiting the intruding vines. Never has she seen frogs as magnificent as these.
It makes her day sublime and she loves her father, the wartime Sea Captain and his friend Harley, the Lighthorseman of the desert campaigns.
She loves them because they let her be herself.
One working day, after Mother had already left for the office and I
was playing with my grubby but much cherished soft animal toys, our
Ginger, who had a penchant for chasing cars, was killed on the
Pacific Highway, just over the railway bridge opposite our house.
Father dug a big hole in the garden, and with tears streaming down
his weather-beaten face, he buried his mate with due ceremony.
Miss Salmon, who had returned to our place to act as housekeeper and child carer - because our maid, Joan Dix, had become engaged to be married - had consoled Father with unsweetened black tea and Scottish oat cakes, just out of the oven. These were his favourite delicacies. He thanked her and asked if she'd 'tidy me up a bit' for a trip to Harley's vineyard. I was now old enough to realise that work on his house had been abandoned when his wife, Barbara, had left him.
Harley met us at the station. Diabolo's shining bay coat was dazzling in the sunshine. He champed on the bit as we climbed aboard the gig. Greetings exchanged, and once we were safely seated, we were on our way. Full of excitement, I was anticipating the glory of the tangled vines and their hidden treasures, but soon Diabolo was directed down a lane, through sparsely treed and hungry looking land. We ended up in a dilapidated farmyard, with an equally tumbledown farmhouse and many barking dogs, madly straining on their chains to savage us.
Ignoring the noisy dogs, Diablolo responded to Harley's 'Whoa.'
He stood like a sentinel while Father and I stepped out of the gig. When the woman who owned the place appeared on the verandah, Harley introduced us and drove away. He had arranged the meeting after Father had telephoned her husband, before we set off on our journey.
But what were we doing in this awful place? The woman was friendly enough, as she escorted us towards a gloomy wooden shed. Inside we found a pitiful sight - a big black, mangy looking dog who greeted us with a true dog smile. I can still remember his pleading eyes.
This once famous show dog, now reduced to a woeful state by neglect and near starvation, had only one more Challenge to win to become Australia's Supreme Champion Curly Coated Retriever. Lying outside his kennel, asleep in the warm, late afternoon sun, the woman's husband, in the farm dray, had accidentally run over and crushed a bone in the dog's tail, thus making him ineligible for the show ring. Without that final Challenge win, he could never qualify for entry into the Studbook or be used as a sire.
'Ten Pounds.' My Father offered her. She accepted the money. Except for his eyes, I was not impressed by this smelly creature. He had hardly any coat at all, let alone a curly one. But the deal was done. Father took hold of the frayed rope around the dog's neck, saying,
'Come on Terrence, we're off to Harley's for a good scrub'.
We went through a gate and trudged through seemingly endless rows of vines, where the grapes were commencing to fill with juice and colour. Arriving at Harley's house, Father borrowed a mackintosh and gumboots and set to work on the hapless dog, while I ran up the stairs to nowhere to find even bigger, more brightly coloured frogs than I had seen on our last visit.
While the two old mates discussed the prospects of the coming vintage, I sat down with Terrence and stroked his big, long ears, now spotless and covered in emerging, tiny, bright black curls. He was a peaceful dog. Just then, he yawned and opened his eyes. They were deep brown, slightly hooded, beautiful eyes, and at that very moment, I fell in love.
Back home, Mother had taken to her bed, mourning the loss of our Ginger. She almost fainted when Father led me and Terrence into the bedroom. The dog seemed aware of her deep distress. He moved a step towards her and she screamed. He then stood still and waited, those soft brown eyes upon her, gently wagging his near hairless tail, clearly displaying the disfigurement which had put him out of the show ring. At last Mother saw the compassion in the dog's gaze, all objections were dismissed and Terrence became our best friend for the rest of his life, his years possibly shortened by our shared adventures, me, and sometimes Mother too, on horseback, he running alongside.
Terrence never barked. If trouble threatened, he would let out one huge whoof as he leapt at his assailant's throat, usually an even bigger dog, but one day, it was a man. My Mother had answered his ring on the bell, recognised and remonstrated with him, addressing him by name, but he became angry, attempting to push her aside and enter the house.
Terrence rose to his full height and pushed the would-be intruder down the stone front steps. He then stood over the man until he recovered his wits, and miraculously uninjured, got up and ran away through the front gate.
Mother never did tell me the story behind this episode with our unwelcome visitor. But then, she seldom explained the reasons surrounding her likes, dislikes and phobias. When engaged in the frequent verbal screaming matches with my Father, I was always distraught because I loved them both, so much. I wanted them to love one another and be serene, just like Joan and Mae's parents, Mr and Mrs Dix, and I craved for them to give me cuddles and affection, but that remained as a wish unfulfilled.
Miss Salmon knew all about my poor Father's torment as the husband of
a tall poppy in the journalistic world. With her foresight as an
example, I learned to love and respect him, without really
understanding why I was living in a war zone. It was not until the
time of writing this story that the tragedy of broken lives in my
family began to be revealed with some clarity. As a child, I simply
could not understand the reason for such disharmony. My Grandma -
Frank Thatcher's Jane - Auntie Rita and Uncle Frank, all of whom I
liked, would not visit us at Pymble, because of That Man,
who was my Daddy. He and Ian had once briefly boarded at Wychwood and
upset Mrs Thatcher. They had been sent packing, their crimes never
Mrs Walker, our old and childless next door neighbour, had a crabby, ancient, invalid husband who kept her very busy. Their kitchen window overlooked the lower part of our driveway and garden, so she could monitor many of my activities and few of them appeared to please her sensitivities. Just recently, she had complained to my Mother - after I had fallen out of the smaller camphor laurel tree, and she had come to my rescue and thought I was dead - that I was strange - always chattering away to imaginary creatures - and she had insisted that something must be done about me!
Needled by Mrs Walker's assessment of my state of mind, Mother gave Miss Salmon the task of taking me to visit Mrs Crombey's crippled nephew, Paul, one afternoon each week, when he returned home from school. He was tall, wore long pants and a blazer with a large badge embroidered on the breast pocket, which identified his school at North Sydney. Just getting there and back again, each school day, must have worn him out, with all those steps, up and down, at both stations.
When introduced to me, he shook my hand. To my relief, his deep voice was soft and kind and he lifted my spirits by talking to me without reproach, assuring me that I was not strange at all - just lonely, because I had no little children for company and he was sometimes lonely too, as people shunned anyone crippled with a noticeable disability, which, in his case, made him all lopsided and awkward when he stood up and walked on his club foot with its noisy and ungainly leg calliper.
And so while we talked to one another and exchanged our stories, sitting on a garden bench above the large fish pond, full of tadpoles and flowering water lilies, our elders became acquainted, inside the house, its picture-windowed living room allowing them to monitor how we were getting on.
The weekly visits continued during school term and were held earlier, and sometimes an extra hour was possible during Paul's school holidays. On Sunday mornings he took me to his Church on the Pacific Highway, near the Ryde Road turnoff and the huge gasometers. There I attended Sunday School, with Paul as one of the teachers. This pleased me because I met other small children and got to know them, shyly at first, unsure how to behave in their company. Gradually my confidence grew and I was soon made to feel welcome among them.
One morning, when nearing our home after Sunday school, Paul became very pale. He was taken to hospital, his appendix was removed and he made good progress towards a full recovery. Some weeks passed. On the day that he was to come home, he suddenly became ill again. Two days later he died, and totally unable to accept that he had gone to Heaven, leaving me behind, I wanted to die too. Wise old Miss Salmon, who would be replaced by Joan's sister, Mae, early next year, spoke to my Daddy about my suicidal grief. He took me to George Finey's place, where his youngest son gave me a shoe box with folded, fresh mulberry leaves on the bottom, and six baby silkworms busily devouring the leaves. I was fascinated by this delightful present. As he gave me advice on silkworm care, I smiled and thanked him. He grinned as he placed the well ventilated lid on the box, adding that I would find fresh leaves for them from Miss Mathieson's boarding house garden in Grandview Street - if I asked her very politely. I did not ever know that boy's name because Father soon 'went to visit friends in England who had paid his return fare' . He must have really gone there in the big steamship, because Mother and I went to see him off at Darling Harbour and I was bawling again, for he was leaving me and the ship's crew were killing the rats, with iron bars, as they tried to get on board. All this death and destruction nearly overwhelmed me, so Miss Salmon allowed me 'to run' the creek drain pipes, underneath low lying Pymble roads, to 'let me get my bearings'.
Father could not have found his Eldorado in England, as some months later Mother and I met his return ship at Darling Harbour. He looked old and broken. There were tears in his eyes when he picked me up to hug me. I was never told the reason for his journey or why it had failed, but he was glad to see old Miss Salmon still at the helm in Grandview Street, especially as our midday meals together were resumed. He soon started writing again, with improved acceptance of his articles, and took afternoon walks with me, on visits to his distinguished friends. An atmosphere of calm crept into our home, lingering for quite awhile, but Miss Salmon was finding the work load increasing with her years and was relieved when Mae Dix left school, had a brief holiday with Joan, her husband and baby boys on their dairy farm on the South Coast and was ready to take her place.
I had known Mae from her school days and we had clicked. She always kept her word and she trusted me, but I sorely missed Miss Salmon, who understood my Father's problems and had restored his self respect.
On an on I grieved for Paul. Mae sometimes allowed me to run
down the road, with Terrence at my side, to visit the Dix's new home,
on high ground, above the deep hollow in King Edward Street. She knew
that her Mum and Pop could always find words to comfort me.
There was no one to take me to Sunday School any more, so once I learned to ride my pony, Jessie, I went riding with Mother instead. Before the pony was presented to me, Jessie lived in a back garden in Ryde, where she had been pensioned off, chained to a high, double clothesline, to eat the buffalo grass lawn and provide manure for the fruit and vegetable garden.
One Sunday morning, Mother persuaded Mae to interrupt her day off to take me to Ryde on the train, and then to a place near the station, to meet my pony, who looked very cross. Mousy-coloured Jessie had a pretty head, a huge scar across the near side of her rump and a built-up shoe on the hoof below to compensate for muscle shrinkage as a result of an accident. Her remaining hoofs were neatly shod to make her roadworthy. Mother, on her lovely, recently acquired thoroughbred mare Bunty, had already arrived to lead me and my pony home to Pymble.
Jessie was handed over to me, complete with a slippery leather riding pad and a bridle with a thin, savage bit, stiff old leather reins and a pretty blue brow band. I had never ridden before and the journey home, on a leading rein beside Bunty, made my legs and bottom so chafed and sore that I finally hopped off and led her the rest of the way, receiving plenty of nips from her dirty old teeth.
Jessie spent her first night in Pymble hitched on our clothesline. Next morning, Mae accompanied me and my pony to Cassie Cairns riding school on Bannockburn Road for my first morning of riding instruction. Jessie then remained at Cassie's for the duration of the learning process. Mae took me to all my lessons, waited for the hour or so of each one, while I bounced around on the poor pony until finally released, to fly into Mae's arms and then walk home with her - until I was able to catch, groom, saddle, bridle, mount and ride Jessie with some degree of competence - which seemed to take forever.
Bunty and Jessie shared two good sized paddocks, opposite one another, divided by steep King Edward Street and owned by the two surviving, haughty, very old Miss Reid's. They lived in a once grand, single storey, dark red brick house with a lichen covered slate roof and a wide, covered veranda, tiled in a delicate mosaic pattern. Dark green, shuttered windows, rarely open, and the gloom cast by surrounding, closely planted old fir trees, scared me witless. There was seldom any sign of life and the gardens and orchard were overgrown and decayed.
In the field below the house, surrounded by a forest of long grass and huge buzzie weeds - which stuck to my clothes until Bunty and Jessie decimated them - decrepit stables, a carriage house, milking shed and livestock feed storage room, were all chock-a-block with wooden crates of exquisite, but probably not so precious stones. They had been collected by the old ladies' brother, who had died some years ago, my Mother said. But she had no time for mysteries. Instead, I was equipped with a light wheelbarrow and shovel to collect and compost the manure each day and I did not mind at all, as the bay mare was friendly. Jessie, now relieved of the boredom of the clothesline, and equipped with a well-fitting, child's' poley saddle, instead of the pony pad, which chafed her withers, had begun to look forward to being ridden.
One night, Bunty died suddenly from a twisted bowel. She and Jessie were in the big, steep paddock across the road. In her death throes, poor, stricken Bunty had run along the entire 180' length of the paling fence on the lower side, flattening it completely. This tragedy left Jessie alone, in the smaller paddock below the Reid's house. She fretted until Mother purchased Jock, a bay, highly-strung, ex-police horse with a white star on his forehead and white socks on his hind legs.
When I eventually went riding with Mother, I hated these outings but slowly learned to appreciate the scent of wild flowers and the welcome shade of huge eucalyptus and turpentine trees. Mother seemed, on those occasions, to be a more relaxed and caring person, away from the hubbub of her everyday, busy life, and in the great outdoors we became friends.
We avoided crowded thoroughfares and followed unsealed roads and tracks through beautiful bush and small acreages on the Gordon side of Stony Creek Road, now Mona Vale Road, until we reached the scattered small farms and orchards of St Ives, surrounded to the north and east by the unspoiled bush and varying terrain of the Kuringai Chase National Park.
One day we followed a steep, rough track to the fabled Scouts Pool, right to the bottom. This discovery made Mother very happy, because she had heard about its delightful setting. She had been unable to persuade any of the press photographers to venture there. They knew about the difficulties of access, having been told by staff from other papers about 'getting stuck, right down at the bottom, in the middle of nowhere.'
Riding back up the really steep pinch, we realised that it was not hard on either Jock or Jessie. We soon found we could leave the track where the climb eased considerably and ride out along a stony outcrop which gave us a sweeping view of the valley. The Cascades, two streams which came together and spread out over a wide, rocky expanse of bubbling water, flowed into the sandstone barrier which the Scouts had constructed to dam the water for their swimming pool. My Mother was ecstatic.
'Oh, Babe', she exclaimed, 'What a magnificent sight!'
I loathed being addressed as Babe, especially now that I was five. . But I did not mind too much, happy that she was enjoying our ride together.
The English Lady and the Persian Prince.
Some years earlier, Mother had covered the story of an English Lady who had married a Persian Prince. After the wedding, they had sailed from England to Australia. Their ship had docked in Sydney, where Mother. interviewed them before they disembarked to spend a few days as tourists in the harbour city before purchasing a Buick to venture across the Blue Mountains and settle on their new estate. Named Myalla, it was a walk in walk out working sheep property in the picturesque Capertee Valley, on the western side of the Blue Mountains, purchased in London. The home, property and livestock were all in excellent order and with the help of a competent stockman, the young couple prospered for quite a few years, until severe and interminable drought shattered their dreams and pockets.
The Prince had no longer liked living there, in this harsh, alien land with the dust and the flies and insufficient water. He finally decided to return to his own country, leaving his Princess with a small daughter and very little money. Now, by invitation, Mother was making a hurried day visit to see what could be done to assist the abandoned wife and small child.
The weather was kind, so I was enjoying the ride and the changes in scenery. We left the main Western Highway, beyond the Blue Mountains and turned onto an unsealed road, on the way to the little town of Capertee, in high country, with magnificent views over the Valley. Down below and travelling along the Rylstone Road beside the Capertee River, there were fat cattle around us, all sleek and healthy, giving us hope that Myalla would share similar abundance.
We reached the property mail box, only to discover that the gate we opened, went through and shut, also carried the name of another property. Mr Fyshwick, our driver and press photographer, had a hard look at his map and discovered that the Princess had right of way through this gate to enter her own place. Now far from the river, access was over several miles of rough track on gently sloping, dry and hungry land.
Mother had packed a hamper, knowing that we would be likely to make good time and arrive for the midday meal, which was just as well, as the elegant Princess was not at home preparing luncheon for her guests, but met us at the gateway to Myalla. With no stockman now employed, greetings were exchanged and she popped her little daughter, Miriam, onto the back seat beside me, then rode on the running board, opening and closing the gates of many paddocks. Along the way we passed dams, scattered trees and covered stands for salt licks. Miriam, with her mysterious dark brown eyes and graceful, olive skinned little body, sat studying every inch of me, intrigued perhaps at seeing another child.
There had been no conveyance at the entrance to Myalla, so I realised that she and her Mother must have walked many miles to meet us and could be tired. I wanted to break the silence between us, but did not know what to say. Irritated, Mother turned around in her seat and addressed her instead. Miriam dropped her head. She too was speechless. At last we had arrived and Miriam jumped down and promptly ran away to hide.
The brown weatherboard house looked near new and was imposing. The roof was high, peaked, and made of corrugated iron, with a large, similarly shaped ventilator on top. The verandah was roofed on all four sides and every room - except the offset kitchen range and scullery, joined only by a covered, open walkway - opened on to it, through high, double wood framed, glass doors. Two wide corridors met in the centre of the house, at right angles to one another. They were designed to pick up prevailing breezes in hot weather to keep the house cool. Huge rainwater tanks on high stands, collected every drop of water from the roof and was considered more precious than gold.
House inspection over, the two women started preparing lunch and I went off in search of Miriam, whose absence had not been noticed by them. I wandered around, looking for dogs - all farms had dogs, but they must have been kept out near the sheepyards and the shearing shed, as there were not any near the house, unless they were hiding underneath. There were very few trees for shade and shelter, except a nice big eucalypt near the woodheap. I knew that snakes loved woodheaps, so I jumped up and down, clapping my hands, hoping they would hear me and go away. The noise must have alerted Miriam. Her pretty little face peeked out from under the house, so I called to her to say 'hello' and she walked to my side. Once there, she lifted my right hand and tugged me along, up on to the verandah, right round to the other side of the house and into her bedroom, with never a solitary word.
'My name's Margot. My Mother call's me Babe. Can you talk?
She smiled and said, ' Me, Miriam', then held my wrist and showed me her Bunny, hand crafted out of a real rabbit pelt. It felt beautiful and I stroked its soft warmth, smiling back at her. Just then I heard my Mother calling. I beckoned Miriam to follow me and we went into the breezeway, towards the dining room and there we found the table set and food upon it, ready to be served. Our mothers were already seated and they smiled at us.
The Princess asked if we had washed our hands and yes, we had, so we were shown our places and sat down. Mr Fyshwick, having heard my Mother's call, joined us for a delicious lunch, during which the adults conversed amicably and Miriam and I had little to say and plenty to eat. Towards the end the meal, our driver stated that he had checked the car and we would need to be on our way within the hour. The women must have had their photographs taken and discussed the reason for our visit, for no mention of proceedings was made and they both appeared relaxed.
. On leaving, the Princess again travelled with us to open and close the gates, right to the last one, which had to be locked. Miriam sat in the back seat beside me, no longer overawed, and holding hands, we chattered away amicably. I did not see any sheep and enquired as to where they may be hiding. Her Mother replied that they found shade and rested during the middle of the day. They were Merinos, originally from Spain and famous for their superior, fine wool and their ability to withstand extremes of temperature and sparse grazing conditions.
Between opening and shutting gates, the Princess explained that the sheep always knew if any gates were left open and then they would get mixed up. This scenario created extra work, as some were breeding ewes and some were wethers, running in separate fields. Their nutritional needs were vastly different and it was hard to sort them out again, as their distinctive earmarks were difficult to see from the head of the drafting race.
I was fascinated to learn about these sheep and stored the information away for future use, not yet knowing how valuable it may prove to be at a later date. Miriam held my hand very tight, willing us to delay our departure. Teary-eyed, we said our goodbyes.
Approaching the western side of the Blue Mountains, Mr Fyshwick announced that a cold change was on its way. He could tell by the dark clouds that were building up in the south west. At Blackheath we stopped to enable him to put the yellow windows in place, to keep us warm and dry once the storm broke.
In spite of these efforts, the interior of the car became colder and colder. The leaden sky grew even darker, and light snow started to fall. It was not the time of year for snow, but soon the fall increased and the road became white and treacherous. I do not know the exact location of the roadhouse where we stopped to warm ourselves by an enormous log fire, but hot cocoa and buttered toast was served for sustenance, and a big pile of newspapers bestowed upon us, in which to wrap ourselves to defy the freezing conditions.
Other traffic on the road left wheel marks for us to follow and eventually we emerged below the snowline and I fell asleep, warm and cosy at last, on the back seat. It had been a very long day.
One Saturday afternoon in late Spring, Mother mounted her Jock, the
sometimes jittery retired police horse, and asked me to accompany her
to a home in Douglas Street, at St Ives. We were going to meet a
little girl named Patsy Anne, who also rode a pony. Patsy Anne's
father had been in the Great War and he had a wooden leg, which
creaked as he walked. He came to the railway station on the bus each
morning and managed the station steps in time to catch his train into
the City. Mother caught that one too, so they were on nodding terms.
One day, when the train was more crowded than usual, they found
themselves sharing a double seat, and they spoke to one another about
Over time, the disabled, returned soldier and the women's page newspaper editor looked out for each other, sitting together whenever they could. Each had grown up in the Lindfield-Killara area, and although they had not previously met, he had heard about the stunning Thatcher girls, and had known several of the young men who had played tennis at Wychwood. His leg had been blown off in a grenade attack that had felled half his platoon.. Hospitalised in England, he met and later married his favourite nurse. Now they lived at St Ives, with their tall son Dennis and little daughter, Patsy Anne.
Approaching the Adam's' home, we saw that it was new, double storeyed and rather grand, in a disordered kind of way, with a thriving flower garden, lots of land and a Jersey cow in an adjacent field. Patsy's saddled and bridled pony was tied up to a rail in the stable yard, near an orchard and vegetable garden. Various sheds and pens held poultry and pigs, sheltered from the western sun by a solid stand of pine trees. It was a true miniature menagerie.
Our horses could smell the pigs and were reluctant get any closer, so we dismounted and waited till Patsy's Mother and Father came out to tell us where to put them. They soon appeared and welcomed us and just then, Mr Adam's moved his squeaky wooden leg and Jock spooked, his eyes nearly popping out of his head. Mother growled at him and Patsy smiled as she took my hand in hers, then asked us to lead Jock and Jessie behind her, around the far side of the house, well away from the pigs and into her pony's yard.
Patsy' parents invited us inside while she ran upstairs to pull on her jodhpurs and riding boots, then reappeared, looking very businesslike, wearing a proper crash helmet and carrying a plaited leather whip. I felt like a 'bushy' in my old felt hat, with the elastic under my chin, but when Patsy led her Dinky out of the yard, I realised that he was only a roly poly Shetland pony who made my taller Jessie look quite aristocratic.
The bush track chosen for our ride led us past caves and rocky spurs and there was evidence of cooking in one secluded place, near the crest of a sandstone ridge. Terrence glanced towards some tall trees. Noticing this, Patsy explained that the original owners were still looking after the land, although no one saw much, but at the right time their slow burning, 'cool' fires regenerated the forest floor without ever doing any harm.
I was surprised. What was she talking about? She then pointed to a waterhole in an area far below, where the bush was thick and green and where animals came in to drink. She had been on her pony one evening when two dark-skinned men had passed by the waterhole and looked closely at a group of sleeping wallabies. They had selected one fat male and had promptly driven a long spear through its heart and out the other side, removed the spearhead, then balancing the weight of their prey on their shoulders, they carried it away. Patsy hadn't been scared. She thought it was such a painless killing after all the gruesome bloodshed she had seen at home, especially when all the other wallabies wakened, shook themselves and hopped away in the fading light.
I could not believe Patsy's story, but was too scared to say so and changing the subject quickly, I told her that I'd like to gather some wildflowers. She spun round to face me, her face flushed.
'Well, pick flowers in your own garden then' she said, sounding upset, as indeed she was, for she continued in a sad voice.
'These are wildflowers. They belong to God and his chosen 'first people' in this land. We do not care for this place. We tear it apart. And we say the dark people are savages. We are the real savages.'
She threw her arms around Dinky's thick neck and wept. I had never before even heard of the existence of any 'first people of Australia' and felt out of my depth here, with this lovely looking, fair haired little girl and her weird ideas. Then Terrence came up to me and I finally found the strength to tell Patsy I was sorry to have upset her, and admitting that I was unaware of the existence of these people, asked her how she knew about them.
She dried her eyes, and replied that there was a large orchard below their place. The orchardist had thrown all his tree prunings over the fence to burn them, once they were dried out, and the unattended fire had 'got away'. Her brother Dennis had donned his fire fighting gear and went off to help put it out. Uninvited, she had followed him, to drench the jute bags in the creek when they dried out. There was no sign of the orchardist but an old man from across the creek turned up and he and Dennis soon extinguished the blaze. It was that old bloke who told her how the Aboriginal people had cared for the land and all their kin, for tens of thousands of years before we turned up and started felling the trees and displacing the original owners. He reckoned we showed no respect for those people or their fragile country and would finish up turning huge tracts of it into desert.
Well, when Patsy said something, she certainly had plenty to say for a little girl. Never mind, she changed my life and we became best friends. For the first few weeks of our acquaintance, Mother would ride with me towards Patsy's on Sunday afternoons until we reached the safe byways close to her home. There she would visit friends, with a yard for Jock and await my return some two hours later, me bubbling with stories of my joy of riding with Patsy on her varied and beautiful bush trails. Before long, Mother realised that I was safe on bomb-proof Jessie, with Terrence alongside and gave permission for me to ride with Patsy during the weekends and for a couple of afternoons mid week. One of the Erhardt's married daughters now lived in Pymble and she and Mother enjoyed genteel, rocking chair Sunday rides together around St Ives, where I would meet them in Brown' Forest to go home. Jessie and Terrence always knew where to find them.
Five years later, Patsy and I had co-authored and illustrated a book about horses, written entirely at Patsy's, when inclement weather drove us out of the bush. It was laughed at by my Father's publisher of sea stories but acclaimed by our local Vet, so we were proud and happy about that, even although our carefully written black ink, fine pen text and illustrations never saw the light of day in any bookstore.
Patsy, nearly a year younger than I, had started school at the
Presbyterian Ladies College in Pymble, when she was five.
'Much too young!' my Mother had declared.
It meant that we saw less of one another and her absence left me at a loose end on weekdays. As Mae was always so busy with housework and making morning tea, midday lunch, and afternoon tea for Father, if and when he was in residence, with her tacit permission, I was able to slip away now and again, to 'run the drains.' They carried creek water in huge round concrete pipes under roads in many of our low lying residential areas. Some of these pipes actually ran underground for many blocks and were too dark and spooky for me to tackle on my own, even with Terrence to protect me. Then, one day we met a little boy named Johnny who said I was a wimp. He lived near an enormously long drain and he dared me to enter it.
'No, it's pitch black down there and full of spider webs. I can't even see any light at the end. You tell me where it comes out and we'll meet you there.'
'Oh, Miss Smarty Pants, you're just a Scaredy Cat. Run off home, back to your dollies.'
Miffed, and lacking negotiation skills, I threw a stone which found its mark. Johnny, impressed, pulled a shanghai out of his pocket and offered to let me have a go at knocking out street light bulbs. I soon got the hang of it and a flicker of admiration crossed his freckled face. Terrence shook his head in disapproval, so I said,
'Home Dog', and he went.
'Let's knock out a train!' Johnny ventured. And we did. Sparks flew in all directions as a missile hit a transformer. With a deafening screech of brakes, the train stopped, right down below us, in the deep cutting. Scared witless, we lay dead still in the long grass up above, barely breathing, waiting for the axe to fall.
'Get up and come out of there, you rotten little sods.' It was the law, in full uniform, baton and all, and I crawled back to the railway fence to surrender, without a fight. But there was no Johnny. He'd up and scampered and would soon be swallowed in the depths of one of his favourite, fearsome drains, where only a police dog could find him. And there were no police dogs in 'up market' Pymble.
My beloved Daddy was mortified as he watched me frog marched across Grandview Street and through our front gate. He was close to tears, till he recognised the Officer as one of his mates. Together, they cross examined me, but I'd lost my tongue and developed the shakes. There was no way on earth I would ever rat on Johnny, even if I did not really know him. He had accepted me as an equal; that was true grit.
Mother was sorely vexed when she heard that I must have broken Mae's trust by throwing stones at a train, just across the road, in the company of an unknown little boy, probably an urchin, in Pymble! She had the vapours for awhile and then closed the door of the smoke room behind her to make a private phone call.
I was all jumpy and disturbed that evening, and although I had a room of my own, opposite Mae's room, with my favourite big camphorlaurel brushing my windows, I could hear Mother berating poor Daddy for neglecting my welfare. On and on it went, and sleep, when it came at last, was one long nightmare, with the waves at Collaroy pulling me back into the sea as I struggled to climb a steep and crumbling sandbank.
Very early next morning, Mother came into my bedroom. She was crying
and I was scared. She finally dried her eyes and told me that she had
decided to send me to Mrs Thomson's Sylvan Primary School and
Kindergarten, on the corner of Station and Church streets. Father
would accompany me there, this morning and bring me home in the
afternoon. I would take a cut lunch and an apple. My school uniform
would be fitted and purchased from 'Farmers' on Saturday
Terrence, as always, ambled along beside father and daughter. I was deeply upset. If I had to go to school now, why couldn't I be sent to Pymble Ladies College (PLC), like Patsy Anne? Father, who never criticised Mother's decisions, squeezed my hand reassuringly and smiled. With kind words, he managed to persuade me to continue our penitential journey up the steep Station Street hill. On the crest, we turned right, into Church Street and I looked across at the big, gloomy old two story house, wherein was the school. It was haunted, for sure.
Terrified, I broke away and bolted. Terrence stayed at heel with Father, or so he told me later, and he and the dog then crossed the road together. They soon met Mrs Thomson, whom he described as a sensible, no nonsense woman, who said she understood why his child would run away, under the circumstances of yesterday's strains and stresses. She suggested we should wander back, after school when the place was quiet, in about two week's time.
Father thanked her and left immediately so that Terrence could lead him to where I was hiding. As I was closer to Gordon than Pymble, the walk home was long, with two steep climbs and poor Father was worn out when we finally arrived. Mae promptly put the kettle on to give him a belated morning tea, suggesting we might like to share it in the dining room. We did, and enjoyed it, thanking her. Then I got really bold, telling her that Miss Salmon gave us our lunch together, too. Father looked a bit shocked, but Mae said brightly, 'Of course! It would be much nicer for you both to lunch in the dining room every day. It would offer the Captain a break from the typewriter and the pleasure of the company of his daughter.'
And so, following Mother's acceptance that Mrs Thomson would see Father and me again in two weeks time, to discuss the date for me to commence my education, Mae served our midday meals in the dining room. She never dreamed of eating with us, so propriety was strictly observed. The effect on Father was magnetic. He treated me with courtesy and conversed with such generosity of spirit that my self esteem rose to a level not previously experienced. When we resumed our afternoon walks again, he took me to visit his more erudite friends in Pymble and I was included in their conversations on the state of the world, as when Miss Salmon had been our housekeeper. He needed no prompting to make the appointment for us both to have afternoon tea with Mrs Thomson. Those weeks of spending a good deal of time with my Daddy and finding myself accepted by his associates had made a huge difference to my attitude.
Mrs Thomson and her daughter Meredith, a teacher at another school, answered our knock on the door and greeted us warmly. During afternoon tea, we soon learned that next year, this School was moving into a big Church Hall with spacious grounds, at the other end of Church Street, on the Gordon side of Mona Vale Road. A place would be kept for me there at the beginning of First Term. That way, I would be with a new group of students, none of whom would have already learned to read and write, and I would not feel left behind. The prospect of starting school with beginners pleased me. Mother was not impressed, but after discussing the matter with Mrs Thomson, she finally agreed. So for now, I was still a free spirit and my walks with Father and rides with Patsy were resumed.
Eventually, my first day at school arrived and it was good. We had to leave very early though, as Father was unsure of letting me travel alone and insisted on accompanying me. Mrs Thomson met us at the school gate. Noting Father's near exhaustion from struggling up the steep Church Street hill, she told him that three senior boys lived near the top of Wellesley Road. They were responsible young people and she was sure that they would be happy to escort me if he took me to the top corner of Wellesley Road each morning and met me there in the afternoon.
At the conclusion of classes on that first day and thereafter, until they moved on to bigger schools, those three boys dutifully escorted me to and from school, there and back, from the top of Wellesley Road. My Father liked those boys. Sometimes he and Terrence would walk down the hill with us to stretch his legs, then, with acclaim, he would recite a poem or relate a sea story during the steep descent.
Mrs Thomson possessed the rare gift of treating every one of her pupils as individuals. Without ever raising her voice, she had our respect and full attention. Learning to read and write was a joyful experience and not one of us got left behind in class. At morning recess and at lunch time, we changed into sandshoes, and once we had eaten and drunk our bottled milk or water, we were required to spend some time in quiet contemplation before we could run or play all over the spacious grounds. Our activities were organised so subtly, that we truly thought we were running free.
The older children enjoyed separate activities. They were friendly towards us, and never made us feel new or stupid. When the bell rang to resume classes inside the Church Hall, there was no pushing or shoving. Four classes of twenty plus students and the Kindergarten children took their seats in an orderly manner, each class well separated from the others. The hall was spacious and naturally well lit, except in wet or heavily overcast weather, when electric lights were switched on. How our teacher managed to keep every child in each class fully occupied and totally engaged in their individual pursuits, never failed to amaze me. She seemed so totally relaxed, even in a thunder storm.
When we newer pupils had mastered reading and writing and drawing and painting, we were taken outside, under the big gum trees and turpentines surrounding the Methodist Church and introduced to the complexities of Mathematics. We counted and subtracted trees, progressing from one to another as we became more and more proficient, thoroughly enjoying what seemed like simple games. Mrs Thomson called it Mental Arithmetic. And then it was Sports Day and we ran races on the tennis court, at the back of the Church grounds. To my joy and amazement, I emerged as the fastest runner, in spite of being the smallest - but certainly not the youngest child in the school and was thereafter addressed as Phar Lap, which was nice.
My Mother's choice of school impressed me and made me grateful. At the end of that first day, Mae ran my bath, gave me my early evening meal and allowed me to look at Freda Martin's beautiful books in the smoke room, awaiting Mother's return from the Office. When she finally arrived, I longed to hug and kiss her, to express my thanks. Although such nonsense was avoided, she smiled benevolently upon me and kissed the top of my head. I floated up the stairs to bed on a cloud of pure joy.
My years at Sylvan Primary School and Kindergarten passed in an aura of great happiness, in spite of those awful times when Father failed his responsibilities and was sent packing. To alleviate my sorrow during these often prolonged absences, Mother sent me all over the State during school holidays, often to people I barely knew, or back to the Capertee Valley, where things were looking up, marginally. The Princess was now making more money from writing and publishing children' adventure stories than from fine merino fleeces and now owned and drove a small sedan car.
Mother, Jock, Jessie and Terrence sometimes accompanied me on the train to Capertee. We rode down through majestic eucalypts, into the valley to visit the Princess and Miriam, who were always pleased to see us, but having no horses, could not go riding with us. Being with Miriam was somehow more fun when Mother put me on the train, in the care of the guard and I travelled alone, to be met at the station by a joyful little girl and smiling Princess.
On one unaccompanied visit, Miriam was overseas, visiting her father, so the Princess put her pen down and drove me to the foot of Mount Tyar - our mission, to walk to the summit. We climbed over the rabbit proof fence and excepting the tall trees and woody shrubs, the ground was bare - the rabbits had decimated it. She was a great walker and guide who showed me many bush secrets. In no time I learned the directions in which the various native nocturnal animals would travel, to and from caverns of natural salt or to clean springs, with water gently bubbling out of the ground.
The Princess knew this country intimately. As we ascended, the undergrowth increased in density between outcrops of lichen covered rocks. Once, we glimpsed the valley below and eventually reached the summit of lofty Tyar, a tableland of stone from which we viewed a breathtaking panorama of valleys, grazing land and forests far below, stretching into eternity. My tireless hostess did not tarry and smiled as we commenced the descent, pleased that I could keep up with her. I had not seen a single rabbit. Once safely back at Myalla, we shared afternoon tea, she returned to her writing and I went out to wish her farmhand goodbye as he left to ride home.
Over the years, during most school holidays, I would find myself packed off somewhere. After a solid grounding in journalism on the Melbourne Argus, my now still immature but grown-up brother Ian became the youngest editor of the Kalgoorlie Times. For undisclosed reasons, every year since leaving Pymble, Ian had sent birthday greetings and a story book to me. His stints at child minding would commence after he divorced his first wife in Kalgoorlie, re-married a lovely young journalist named Mary and moved to Canberra. Closer to home there was the summer cottage at Collaroy with Grandma Thatcher, Auntie Rita and sometimes Uncle Frank. Learning to surf with Aunty was an amazing experience. She was patient and kind and would have been a great mother. Being at Collaroy was a joy, except that I sometimes upset Grandma, in some obscure way, perhaps because I was my Father's child.
All this travelling about put a huge burden on Mr and Mrs Dix. They looked after Jock and Jessie during my absences and kept their paddocks clean, initially at the Misses Reid's, until their place changed hands and then on the huge Council block, next to the Dix's recently acquired new place. Their Bannockburn Road rented home, thriving orchard and gardens had been purchased for subdivision.
Highly organised holiday activities meant that rides with Patsy were less frequent, but we still managed to meet on the Gordon side of the Mona Vale Road after school, when hours of daylight permitted, and then escape into the cared-for expanses of Kuringai Chase. On wet afternoons, we sat on stools at Patsy's desk, in her upstairs bedroom, slaving away on our horse book, all hand written in neat copperplate and painstakingly illustrated in black ink, using fine point pens with amazing precision - no errors - no blots - a credit to our school teachers, who knew nothing of our enterprise. It was our secret.
Jessie remained with us, and, in spite of her great age, I continued
to enjoy my schooling and bush rides with Patsy and her much younger,
willing little Dinky. Then, out of the blue, Mother announced that
Harley was on his way from Liverpool, riding his mighty Diabolo and
leading a brown Arab bred gelding, named Signor, for me. He would
come to our front gate first, for morning tea with Father and I would
hold the horses. He would then ride on to the big paddock adjoining
the Dix home in King Edward Street, with Johnny's huge, dark, round
concrete drain pipe running underground from Station Street, almost
all the way to Wellesley Road. You could hear it drumming when the
horses galloped around on top of it.
I had not seen Johnny since our day of criminal activity, but knew he was still out and about, judging by the number of broken street lights around our neighbourhood, including the one outside the Dix's cottage. As I was now a respectable Sylvan schoolgirl, and with admirers aplenty because no one could catch me, I did not seek any more nefarious activities. Fame was enough and Harley was coming our way. I could hear the clip clop of eight steel shod hooves in the distance and Terry and I raced outside to greet our long distance travellers, while Mae put the kettle on. As I held the horses at the gate, Harley said that they had been watered. They had cut across country from Thornleigh to the back of Pymble and forded several streams He said they would be fine with me while he went inside the house for a cup of tea and a yarn with Father. And they were.
At first glance, dwarfed by the upstanding Diabolo, Signor looked like a tall pony, but when Harley set him loose in the Dix's paddock, I could see that he was very nearly as big as my Mother's Jock, and I quailed at the thought of bridling, saddling and riding him.
Harley solved that problem by calling him back, then he showed me how to get him to lower his lovely black head, without fuss or bother, open his mouth, take the bit, and allow me to slip the bridle over his head without any resistance at all. My little poley saddle looked silly on such a big horse and I could see that the girth would never go round him. Harley though, had thought of that and produced a much longer, well fitting girth from his kit bag.
My next problem was buckling up. I was far too little to get any purchase on the girth straps. Harley had that difficulty covered too - with a big, round block of wood from the Dix's woodpile. By standing on the block, I was able to make the girth secure enough for me to mount this new horse, who did not move at all. Harley was pleased, and then showed me how to tighten the girth, on either side, when mounted. Signor was very cooperative with his master around, but would he be kind for me, in the future? Harley's reply was to the point.
'Be firm but very gentle and never lose your temper. He belonged to my wife, Barbara, who did not ride, but drove him in the trap'. Harley told me that Barbara and Signor had got on well for years. Then she grew sick and tired of the vineyard and the half built house and all his old mates visiting for a tipple, and she took it out on the horse, belting the living daylights out of him, as she raced him all the way to town, or wherever she was headed. People spoke to her about the cruelty and it just made things worse. Then she went too far. She buggy whipped him round the head and he stopped dead and lay down between the shafts.
Harley explained that Barbara had run away that very day. A mate of his got Signor up and moving again, then brought him home. .
I did not know what to say. It was really sad. Why couldn't people be kind to one another, just like Mr and Mrs Dix? While I sat there on Signor, Harley tightened Diabolo's girth and said he'd ride around the block with me.
Signor behaved beautifully and I felt quite regal, sitting up tall on this easy going horse as we set off on our test run.
'My Mother told me that Signor was brown, but his coat looks black to me'. I ventured, at last.
'Well yes, his coat surely does look black, but it's mealy-coloured around his muzzle and under his tail and that's what makes him 'brown'. Pure black horses' coats tend to bleach in the hot Australian sun. Brown ones are better suited to the climate, all year round.'
Signor and Diabolo each possessed a wonderful, long striding walk. They moved through their paces, side by side, on the wide grass verges of our more level streets and we were soon back at the Dix's place. There Harley showed me how to massage the pressure areas that needed a rub when the gear was removed, making me feel guilty, because I had been a bit remiss with Jessie, who was really good at finding suitable massage areas for her own personal use.
When Harley finally took his leave, Signor tried to follow. Whinnying shrilly, round the paddock he raced, with mane and tail flying; until he realised that Diabolo had not answered his frantic calls. He then inspected every yard of the boundary fence and beaten, finally joined his new mates. That paddock fence was made of heavy gauge, corrugated iron, and it was nearly six feet high, with no easy run up to it, anywhere.
Mother and I went riding together on the following Sunday. Signor proved willing and good natured but he was a big horse for a still very weedy kid, so I rode Jessie when Patsy and I met on our bush trails after school. My relationship with both my new horse and my old pony were good, but I only ventured close to home on Signor, knowing that I lacked the skill to control him, should he take fright or bolt. With 'feeding the horses' and 'picking up and composting the manure,' as my chores each morning, having the extra horse made extra work and sometimes I finished up a bit late for school. Mrs Thomson turned a blind eye and made no comment. She was a great ally.
Mother and daughter Sunday rides continued amicably and without any problems with Signor, who moved with grace, so we were entered in the St Ives Show. Once there, I realised that we had no chance of success. My riding outfit and my old, brown felt hat made me feel ashamed. My horse was unplaited, his hoofs were undressed and he could not manage the tight circles in which the horses were required to work. The judge was kind and gave us a green ribbon 'for trying', saying that Signor was lovely, but had never been 'suppled or schooled'.
I asked Mother if she knew how I could learn to ride well enough to 'supple and school Signor'. She said she did not really know because both Bunty and Jock had been well trained before she bought them. She agreed to ask Harley. He had been a Light Horseman during WWI. He would be sure to know. Harley's reply was simple.
'Forget all about Shows, and just ride for the joy of it', was his
response. So that is what we did and it seemed to work, for a time.
One Sunday, Mother told me that a bridle track had been constructed in Kuringai Chase. It commenced below The Sphinx, a monument carved in sandstone by a WWI Digger, in the bush below The Lady Davidson Hospital for returned soldiers from WWI, suffering from exposure to mustard gas. It went down to Cowan Creek, above the high tide mark, then all the way to Bobbin Head.
She wanted to have a look, As there might be a story in it.
Patsy and I knew all about this track. We had skittered along it many times. Constructed by dole workers, these poor men had to carry their tools in and out each day to the roadway above the Sphinx or at Bobbin Head, whichever was the closer. We imagined the workers' own children probably went hungry, and they must have hated us poor little rich kids for being out there and seeing their harsh work conditions. The track had many steep ups and downs and would have been hard going for the workers. It was beautifully made, with hewn sandstone culverts and drains, wide enough for two horses to be ridden abreast. Patsy thought it may have been planned as a National Park walking track, then taken over by the wealthy horse riders, because the Depression dragged on and on.
When the track was originally completed, the horse people had started using it to exercise their steeds, but it was hard on horse shoes, so then the dole workers had to cart tan bark, in huge sack bags, on their backs, for many miles, only to see it wreck the beautifully constructed track by not only blocking the drains but also by run-off, with much of it finishing up in Cowan Creek, killing the oysters and encouraging the growth of mangroves along once pristine shores.
On reaching the Sphinx with Mother, I said nothing about prior association, as it may have upset her, but shed genuine tears of sadness when she told me about the poor gassed Digger who built the monument but died even as he completed his task.
Below the Sphinx, the going was steep and Signor started zig-zagging, instead of engaging his hocks, like Jock. Because he was obviously upset by the incline, I dismounted and led him till the track levelled out, then popped straight back on before Mother noticed. She fortunately led all the way, so was unaware of my antics and Senior was grateful. Even I, who knew so little, realised that the horse had been bred on flat land and was too stiff to handle the steep going.
I just hoped the track would even out when we reached the water's edge. I could not really remember, because it was a long way from Patsy's place and we had not been out here for ages, but I did recall many steep ups and downs and tidal, stony creek crossings, which had never bothered our tough little ponies. At last we were down on flat land and Signor relaxed completely. I knew it would not last. His inability to cope with the terrain made me realize what a cracking good pony I had in Jessie.
With a bit more subterfuge, we finally made it to Bobbin Head, but not before Mother caught me leading my poor, stiff horse down the last steep hill. She thought that by giving into him, I would teach him bad habits and I had to agree that she was probably right.
'But did Harley tell you about him lying down between the shafts? I ventured.
'Yes, Babe, he did, but it was because his wife was so cruel to the horse. You're just a featherweight - you can't possibly be hurting him. On our way back you must remain mounted. Don't use the whip. Just sit there and talk to him. Eventually he'll lose sight of Jock and will crab his way down the hill, somehow. No horse ever likes being left behind'.
I wished she had been right. We had come up a steep incline and Signor did, in fact, take a couple of tentative steps forward to go down the other side, then stopped and shuffled backwards. Had I been wise, I should have jumped off when he stopped - he may have followed me - but I had missed the moment. Now both horse and child were scared stiff, perched on the track, cut into the side of the steep hillside, looking over the treetops, all the way down to Cowan Creek. Signor was trembling, and thinking he may be about to lie down, I jumped off, quick as a flash., just as he let out a shrill, desperate whinny, which was more like a shriek - Mother and Jock were coming back for us and she was furious.
'Get back on that horse and follow, right behind me. Now!'
Obediently, I urged Signor forward and he went straight to the ground, with his knees neatly folded, and sittng on his haunches, just as if he was back between the shafts, and there was not a whip in sight.
'Oh dear!', Mother lamented, 'perhaps you're right. Just take the reins and see if he will, in fact, get up and follow you.'
Miraculously, he did; very gingerly at first, swinging his quarters, and then he rushed me to the bottom of the hill where I climbed on board once more. Eventually we arrived back at the Sphinx and the journey home created no more dramas. Our horses walked side by side along the verge on Bobbin Head Road and Mother apologised for being cross with me. Jock was a great walker and when on level going, Signor was too.
'On reflection, your theory on your horse's stiffness makes sense. I think we should ride together over easier terrain and accostom him to gentle downhill slopes. I will ring Harley for advice on suppling exercises. The horse has a gentle nature. He could be a good ride when he gets his hind legs under him'.
With Harley's advice and Mother's acceptance that Signor's only introduction to steep descents had been when led by Harley, beside Diabolo, on the journey to our place, we went riding on some nice, undulating green fields, on the left hand side of Mona Vale Road, between Telegraph Road and Pentecost Highway and not all that far from home. There I was able to commence the gentle exercises which would benefit him immensely.
No sooner had we realised that he was now a different horse and a truly pleasant ride, than the green fields had a road cut through them and subdivisional wooden pegs were driven into the ground on either side. Then all the lovely Eucalypts were felled, more roads appeared, 'for sale' signs blossomed and we realised that this development would be different from any that we had seen before, in our neighbourhood, anyway. It would be called 'closer settlement', and people would have less land for shade trees, flowers, fruit, and vegetables. Mother thought having smaller houses and longer walks to the station to catch trains to schools or work should keep them fit but would be hard on boots and shoes.
These were still Depression years, but there must have been a light on the hill somewhere, as subdivisional and building activity was now taking place and had previously been unknown to me, with the exception of the building of an occasional new house on a single block, formally used for grazing the family cow and carriage horse, and adjacent to an original, large family home. Accustomed to the freedom of Kuringai Chase, even those developments had looked drab and crowded to my blinkered eyes.
During the 1930's, in our cocooned world, when I was eight and
still a pipsqueak, city department stores and all local suburban
general stores, grocers, greengrocers, butchers, bakers, icemen,
milkmen, pharmacists and providers, delivered at least once daily and
twice for milk, allowing monied housewives and mothers to remain at
home to care for their families and entertain their friends. There
were very few professional working mothers and those who found it
necessary to be the breadwinners experienced little difficulty in
finding well brought up young women to care for their families and
run their homes, as was the case with my own Mother. But the strains
and stresses took their toll and she finally broke down.
Mother was, at this time, the inaugural editor of 'Woman,' which was very popular. She worked in the 'Sun' building in Elizabeth Street every weekday and also, on Saturday mornings. One Saturday afternoon, she asked me to groom and saddle the horses while she had a brief rest. We would then ride up to the Bannockburn Road paddocks, all now unfenced and awaiting development, as the Dix family and Cassie Cairns had moved away.
Looking refreshed, she came outside and thanked me for the clean and tidy presentation of the horses and for having taken them to the farrier that very morning. Their newly shod hoofs were shining with Stockholm tar, with its pleasing, pungent aroma.
'Oh Babe', she said, as she sprang into the saddle. 'They look marvellous. I'm impressed with your ability to handle them so well and I have been thinking that you will soon be ready for a more senior school, possibly at Wahroonga'.
'Mother, Patsy Anne goes to school right here in Pymble. What is wrong with PLC? She says it's very good and she loves it. I would really like to go there, because she is my friend. And besides, it's close to home. I could compost the manure and be at Patsy's for a quick ride in the Chase by the time her bus reaches St Ives'.
'Well dear, my enquiries, and Mrs Thompson's recommendation, suggest that the Wahroonga school is the very best girls' school in Sydney. I think we should accept the advice of the experts in their field. But there is no immediate urgency. We can talk about it at length before making a final decision.'
Jock and Signor were pleased to be going out. They walked up Station Street with vigour and lengthened stride as we reached Bannockburn Road, both looking forward to a good long canter on the grassy paddocks. A large area had already been lost to us in the past year. A big stable complex and agistment paddocks with shelter sheds for racehorses had recently appeared, obviously fulfilling a need, as every stable and spelling paddock was occupied. A new, unsealed road separated us from the complex and we put our horses through their paces without distraction.
Cantering slowly, side by side, Mother and I had been chatting amicably, when she suddenly became silent and fell to the ground, pulling Jock, who wore a vicious bit, down on top of her. It happened so suddenly, without any warning , that I screamed for help from the stable hands across the road and leapt to the ground to release Mother's unconscious vice grip on Jock's reins to allow him to rise without trampling her. Both he and Signor were remarkably well behaved. They stood quietly, well away from Mother's crumpled body and skewed head. I felt for her pulse. She was alive, but cold. Soon the Stable Manager arrived with blankets to keep her warm, but I would not allow anyone to move her, even a fraction. Instinctively, I knew she was gravely injured.
The stable manager called for a stable boy to hold our horses, then stayed with me while we awaited the arrival of an ambulance. I must have been suffering from delayed shock, because I started to shiver and shake. He wrapped a spare blanket around me. By the time the medics arrived, the shakes had passed, Mother's condition was assessed, [Oh, her head looked misshapen and her poor face was ashen and contorted.] She was carefully placed on a stretcher which slid into a secure holder in the ambulance, then taken to nearby Strathallen Hospital. Devastated, I thanked the manager and the stable hand, climbed aboard Signor and leading Jock, set off for home, where they were soon back in their paddock, rubbed down, fed and watered. Manure collection and composting would have to wait till tomorrow.
My Father had been away again for some time now, and on this occasion, Terrence had gone with him. Mae had no idea where they were and I missed them both very much. She did her best to console me about Mother's accident, then explained that her solicitor, Mr.George Christie, had phoned, leaving a message for me to return the call as soon as possible. I had been taken to the Christie home in Wahroonga on several occasions and was in awe of all of them, with the exception of Mrs Christie, who was sweet natured and kind. Their five daughters were much older than I, two of them already Sydney University graduates and even the youngest one was three years my senior. With my heart in my mouth, I made the call.
'Margot', Mr Christie stated, sombrely, 'Your Mother is in a critical condition and is not expected to live. She has a fractured skull and is in a deep coma. Mindful of her responsibilities to you, her only child, she left directions with me for your future care should any serious harm befall her. She did this when your Father lost his position as Shipping Editor on The 'Daily Guardian' Newspaper when you were very young. Her wishes for your care wear clear. Because of disagreements with her own immediate family, she requested that I should act as your Guardian until you become of age.'
He hardly seemed to pause for breath. I held the phone close to my ear, trying to take his words in but it was difficult for me to concentrate as he continued to bombard my shattered senses.
'In view of her current critical medical condition, I have arranged for Harley Matthew's to find new homes for your horse Signor, and your pony Jessie, both of whom he will entrain at Hornsby, to travel to Yass, where Signor will be used for stock work on a big sheep station and Jessie will enjoy a comfortable retirement.'
'Oh, no!' I rudely interrupted, 'they are my friends. I can't live without them. I am going to ask Harley to alter those arrangements. Good bye'.
I put the receiver back in its cradle, then rang Harley. He was, by some miracle, in the house, and he agreed to cancel the hastily made 'arrangement'. Feeling certain that Mr Christie would try to ring back and castigate me, I now took the receiver off the hook and raced out to the kitchen, in the hope of finding Mae, to ask her to ring Strathallen to enquire about poor Mother. I think I must have gone a bit crazy at that stage but she hugged me and then she rang the Hospital as requested. The Matron answered the call, spoke to Mae for several minutes and then she agreed to talk to me.
'Your Mother is comfortable, dear,' she said quietly. 'I should probably not discuss her condition with you on the phone, but you were with her when she fell and would understandably want to know how she is now. The doctor has examined her and her most serious injuries appear to be confined to her head, where she hit the ground, with the horse on top of her. Those injuries are severe. While Doctor was examining her, she moaned a few times and he thought her degree of unconsciousness was abating, but it really is too soon to tell. You will not be able to see her until she wakes up and can recognise you. It may be a long wait, but her condition is improving, even if very slowly. You will have to be very patient, dear'.
'Thank you for speaking to me, Matron. When you are with her, would you please keep telling her I love her, even if she cannot hear'.
'Yes, dear, I will. It is a known fact that many unconscious patients will later tell you they could hear people speaking and they could also appreciate soft, beautiful music, even although they could not respond. I will tell your Mother, over and over, just how much you love her. And pray for her dear; God is merciful. Now I must return to my rounds. Good-bye, and may God bless you too'.
What a nice lady that Matron was. Her kindness buoyed my spirits and I felt surprisingly certain that Mother would survive, even if her recovery may take a long time. The phone line was now clear, so I asked Mae to hug me again to face the tirade which could be expected from Mr Christie, with whom nobody ever argued about anything. His word was law. He would be extremely angry with me. And he had said nothing about Jock, so I would have to stay at home with Mae to look after him and keep the manure composting under control.
Mr Christie did not ring me again, but Father did, after the receiver had been replaced. With his many astute friends in journalism, he must have been tracked down to Harley's vineyard and informed of Mother's critical condition. He was helping with 'vine tying' and told me that Harley had plenty of workers, so he and Terrence would be home tomorrow. He would do the talking with Mr Christie. Life should go on, as usual, until Mother came home from Hospital to make decisions herself about my future. He just needed to cover household expenses until his cheques arrived for his recently accepted articles. This was a great relief for me and I asked Mae if she could explain my expected absence from school to Mrs Thomson, at least until Mother's life was considered to be out of danger.
For now, I asked if I could ride Jessie to Patsy's place, in the hope that we could spend an hour together in the beautiful bush near her place to talk about poor Mother. Patsy and I knew exactly how to deal with one another's problems, just by talking about them, and we always found solutions.
Mae agreed to let me go, on the condition that we only rode for an hour and that I was back home again, here, in the house, well before the sun went down. I had never let Mae down again, after the Johnny debacle and today would be no different, so of course I was back on time, uplifted by Patsy's wise counsel. For the first time ever I asked if we could have our evening meal together, either in the dining room or the kitchen - wherever she decided, because I felt much too sad to dine alone. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mae selected the kitchen, but she put a nice clean cloth on the table and set it, as if it was in the dining room. I felt at a loose end when we finished our meal and I asked to help with the washing up. My offer was turned down.
Mae too, was glum, perhaps unsure of her continuing position in the household. She suggested that after bathing and before going to bed, I should get back to reading one of Freda's grand books, prizes won by her at the University of Melbourne, comprising all the classic literature in the English language, leather bound, gold leafed and lining the walls in the Smoke room. Once in bed, I wept for what seemed like hours.
Early next morning, Father and Terrence came home and I hugged them both. Father was sober and considerate then, and throughout the long months of Mother's hospitalisation. Her condition gradually improved and at last Matron rang to say that I could visit her, just briefly, in the mid afternoon next day, at 3.30, but not to be upset if she did not recognise me, as her eyesight appeared to be severely damaged.
I had resumed my place at school after Father's return but now requested an early mark to enable me to visit the Hospital. I decided to ride there on Jessie, who never pulled back or minded how long she had to wait.
Strathallan Hospital was in an old, multi-storey red brick mansion, on the southern side of tree-lined Boomerang Street, close to the field where Mother had been injured. The entrance hall smelt strongly of disinfectant, floor/furniture polish and Australian wildflowers. There was an office to the side of the open front door and Matron, who had heard Jessie's busy little footfalls on the footpath outside the front gate, welcomed me, saying,
'Your Mother is looking forward to your visit, Margot, but I will get Nurse Molly to take you out the side door, into the garden, to brush any dust or horse hairs off your riding clothes. You can remove your jodhpur boots and your riding coat on the verandah before you re-enter the side door, then put them back on again as you're leaving. Nurse will also see that you scrub your hands and face thoroughly and put all your hair up, inside a theatre cap. It might sound Dickensian, but caution is better than cure. We cannot risk the possibility of any infection and our sterile gowns are all far to big for you. You are very small indeed!'
I nodded my agreement and did as I was told, passed muster and Matron herself walked with me up the stairs, along a corridor so highly polished that I had trouble staying upright on my stockinged feet. We finally reached Mother's door, where Matron knocked gently and I heard a far away, tiny voice requesting that we 'Please come in'.
It was quite dark inside the small room; dark because Mother was having trouble with her eyes. She was afflicted with double vision which started moving all over the place in bright light. So here she was, in this dark room and crying with joy, because she was getting better and I was by her side. It made me feel smaller than ever, because I had always thought that any love she felt for me was conditional on my good behaviour and it was very hard to please her. I held her hand and kissed it. She was lying in a semi recumbent position, not yet permitted to lift her head above her pillows. We exchanged kind words for ages and then, out of the blue, she said she hoped that the Christie's were looking after me well. Absolutely scared stiff, I nodded and then Matron, realising there was a big problem brewing, quietly decided that our time together was up for this first visit. We held hands and said 'goodbye for now,' then Matron led me from the room.
Once downstairs, I had some explaining to do. Who were the Christie's and where was my Father? I simply did not know how to answer these questions adequately and knowing there was quicksand all around me, I simply said that Daddy was at home, looking after me and working on his newspaper stories, Mae Dix was running the household as usual, and that Mr Christie was Mother's solicitor. Matron looked at me very hard and then decided to 'leave it go at that,' saying I could come back to visit Mother again, same day and time, next week.
That meeting came and went amicably and nothing more was said about my living arrangements. Mother looked much better. We were alone, as Matron was in the theatre, helping the surgeon with an appendix operation, which made me remember that my beloved Paul had died in this very place, having apparently recovered from just such an operation, not all that many years ago. I had shivered and shaken going up the stairs, then pinched myself to deny the usual tears and told Mother, propped up, higher in the bed, that I still grieved for Paul. She agreed that his death was a great loss to everyone who knew him, and she also agreed that she could understand why I still missed him. She then held out her hand. I gently kissed it - Matron having left a message that I must not embrace her.
I came away feeling all warm and fuzzy, confident that Mother would recover fully and I would be spared the necessity of going to the Christie's. But it took a very long time, during which dear Mae became engaged to a tall, dark and handsome young dairy farmer from distant Kyogle, close to the Queensland border. I met him at the Dix's when he came to ask for her hand and knew, with a child's sixth sense, that they were right for each other. The normal procedure then ensued. Mae would spend two years at home with her family and with her Mother's help, make her extensive trousseau. This time she would be replaced by Rene, whom I already knew well and liked her just as much her lovely sisters.
In Mother's absence, Mae instructed Rene in the details of running the household. It took her a whole three weeks to be satisfied that Rene knew and understood every little detail!
I continued to exercise Signor and Jessie and lead Jock from either of them on a regular basis and when visiting Patsy, we met half way between our homes, travelling on side roads and tracks, to avoid the traffic on Mona Vale Road. Mother was obviously unaware of my exploits and I imagined she may have preferred me to stick to Jessie. She had never considered allowing me to even sit on her feisty Jock's back, perhaps because it was a long way to fall if something went wrong. Yet it was alright for me to ride Jessie and lead the two horses all the way to the farrier, on the busy Pacific Highway. She probably realised that no drivers were likely to tangle with three equines, as they might damage their precious cars. In a group, the horses were unfazed by motor vehicles of any description, but I knew that lone horses could be frightened, which was why I chose the byways with Signor, even although he had never shied or even spooked with me. With Mother so ill, I could not run any risks.
I visited our horses in the Dix's big paddock thrice daily; very early each morning, to feed them, clean up and compost their droppings, and after school to exercise them, leading Jock from either Signor Or Jessie - except on the occasions when I visited Patsy - then finally, back with two more buckets of chaff in the evening.
Father, who considered the horses a ridiculous extravagance, had decided to help me, in spite of his antipathy. Remembering nice big dogs pulling milk carts in Holland, and knowing chaff was much lighter than milk, he built a light, strong wooden cart and painted it bright red. It had rubber shod wheels and he made a strong little red leather harness to enable Terrence to transport two kerosene tins of chaff round to the paddock, morning and evening. This was an exercise he really enjoyed, very quickly proving that he could be trusted to do the job alone, carefully checking traffic and people movements before crossing roads. Once in harness, he 'was on duty' and even ignored cats, his betes noire. I had been grateful, both to Father and our remarkable dog, because those tins had always been difficult for me to manage, as they tended to bump the bitumen when I failed to hold them high enough. This great arrangement lasted for several years, then someone reported me to the RSPCA, saying it was cruel, and that was the end of that enterprise.
By spending so much time at the Dix's, I was able to continue to see Mae, whom I missed, even although Rene had crept into my heart, and I loved her equally. The integrity and simple decency of the entire Dix family played a huge role in keeping me on an even keel throughout early childhood and beyond.
Towards the end of Mother's long stay in hospital, another School holiday time came round. As was customary, I was sent away for the usual two weeks, and this time it was to my step-brother, Ian and his wife, Mary, in Canberra. Mr Egan, who lived near the bottom of Wellesley Road, cared for the horses and exercised Jock and led Senior on his longer rides. Jessie exercised herself by galloping around the paddock when left alone. Mr Dix dealt with the manure, telling Father that his family benefited from the resulting compost for his thriving fruit trees, flowers and vegetables and Mr Egan refused any payment because he said it was such an honour to ride a well schooled horse and no trouble to lead Senior. I did not really want to go away - having not done so following Mother's accident - but Father thought the break 'would do me good'.
He took me to Central Station to catch the train to Canberra and gave me a little leather bound, second hand copy of David Copperfield to read on the journey. My stay in Canberra was more rewarding than earlier visits, because Ian and Mary had moved into a larger house with extensive grounds. As well as bike riding and visiting the Australian War Memorial, to occupy myself usefully, I did the housework and cleaned up the overgrown garden, which pleased them. If Parliament was 'sitting' at night, I was required to accompany them in the Press Gallery, which I loathed. Many Members of Parliament were ill mannered and strident of voice. One old, highly regarded member slept through all proceedings unless a 'division' was called. He would then be wakened and muttering expletives, cast his vote.
On my return to the big city, Father was on the platform at Central to meet me, looking a bit dishevelled. He was sober but his eyes had lost their sparkle. I thanked him for David Copperfield and told him how much I had enjoyed reading it, but he did not seem to be listening. We left the country platform and went to suburban platform 16 to take us over the Bridge and up the line to Pymble. Out on the station, I could see that his eyes were moist.
'What's wrong, Daddy? I asked plaintively.
'Your Mother will be discharged from Hospital at the end of next
week, and she wants me well and truly gone by then because she says I'll hit the bottle again and she won't be able to stand it. And she's probably right. She's just too hard on a man. It's pick, pick, pick, all the time. And never a kind word.'
'Where will you go, Daddy? I want to know so I can visit you'.
'Round my traps, sweetheart. I'll keep you posted.'
I took his hand, and he cracked up. Muttering profanities that I had not once heard during Mother's long months in hospital, he swung his walking stick like a scythe, round and round his perspiring head.
Next morning, well before breakfast, he was gone.
Mother Comes Home and Jock is Gravely Injured
Mr Christie brought Mother home in his automobile. He was solicitous
to her and nice to me, which was a big relief. He said he would 'take
her to the eye specialist next Tuesday', and he did. When her glasses
were ready, he took her back again and she could not believe that her
normal vision was restored. She allowed me to look though her magic
glasses and all I could see was a plethora of jumping, wavy lines,
which made me feel nauseated. Poor Mother. No wonder she had been
restricted to a darkened room. She had to wear these special glasses,
or progressive updates of them, for the rest of her life as her
normal vision was never restored, yet she adjusted magnificently and
never complained. She was very happy to see our Terrence in his red
leather harness doing such a sterling job, carting the chaff to the
horses, and when he came home, mission completed, she loved removing
the harness and running her hands through his lustrous, tight, soft,
'Oh, Terrence', she murmured, 'You are such a good dog! It is hard to believe that I screamed when I first saw you, all scrawny and neglected. Just look at you now! A true champion.'
He wagged his tail, very pleased to see her.
Mother was equally pleased with the way Rene was managing to run the household with such finesse, her only sadness being that she was 'the end of the line' and she knew that another family like the Dix girls would be hard to find, once Rene found 'someone to marry'.
Life settled down at home. Mother recuperated so well that she returned to work a month after leaving hospital. She had been sorely missed at the office and was welcomed back with open arms. In no time, she found herself far too busy to consider exercising Jock, so Mr Egan was more than happy to continue riding him for her. One day, his nearly grown up daughter asked to be allowed to sit in the saddle, but the horse leapt sideways, the girl dropped the reins and leaned forward, over his neck, into the galloping position and Jock bolted. At the bottom end of Wellesley Road, he veered right into Church Street and galloped flat strap up the hill onto busy Mona Vale Road, straight into the path of an oncoming car. He landed lengthways on the bonnet, smashing the windscreen with his head and forelegs, shooting the hapless girl straight through the broken windscreen, which had disintegrated on impact, and onto the back seat, shocked and bleeding from minor cuts, but miraculously suffering no apparent life threatening injuries.
The driver, who escaped injury, had tried to avoid the collision, the car finishing up on the wrong side of the road, with the horse thrashing around on the bonnet, facing him, until he freed himself.
In anguished pursuit, Mr Egan was the first on the scene. He was distraught, seeing blood running down the paved Church Street gutter, all the way to the bottom of the hill. By the time he arrived at the scene, Jock had struggled off the car and was on the footpath, leaning against a high brick wall. With his legs, head, neck and chest severely lacerated and his belly skin ripped open by the car bonnet emblem, he was dazed and trembling violently.
Mr Egan found his daughter and the elderly male driver alive and still in the car, too shocked to move. Several other cars had stopped and some of their occupants were directing traffic. Someone had called an ambulance - its siren could be heard in the distance, and it soon arrived, closely followed by a policeman, who wanted to shoot Jock, to put him out of his misery. Mr Egan pleaded with him and managed to get him to call a Vet instead. He hurriedly explained his stupidity in letting a non rider, his own dear daughter, up onto the sensitive animal, without due care.
. After assuring Mr Egan that his daughter was not severely injured, the ambulance officers transferred the car driver and Mr Egan's daughter to Hornsby Hospital, where both were kept under observation for delayed shock and the girl's mild lacerations were attended. Mr Egan then did his best to comfort the horse. In spite of weakness from loss of blood, he whickered softly, gratefully accepting a sugar cube, just as the veterinarian arrived. Without attempting to move Jock away from the wall, the Vet immediately injected intravenous glucose and pain relief medication, then talked to the horse who responded with another gentle whicker.
Mr Egan was asked to hold the horse's broken, blood encrusted reins, while a coagulant was sprayed on the still bleeding areas that could be reached. The Vet then proceeded to suture those multiple lacerations, even along the horse's belly. Jock did not flinch or attempt to move. The cuts which caused the greatest concern were those on his legs and knees, where a special thread was used that had some ability to stretch and retract. The Vet could not stitch too firmly lest the sutures tear when the animal tried to walk, and walk he must, to survive.
Mother and I knew nothing about the accident until man and horse reached our place, causing Mother to break down completely. Rene took her inside and immediately phoned for the Doctor. The Vet called in soon afterwards. He tried to cheer Mr Egan up a bit, before he went home, and found me with Jock, on the front lawn, where he was struggling to crop the tough old buffalo grass, which was all we had, at both the front and back of the house. He looked at Jock's sutures and was relieved that none had broken, or even stretched too much and that his wounds were clean and dry. He then told me to put the horse away for the night in the garage, under the house, just on the bare concrete, to dissuade him from attempting to lie down and bust the stitches on his knees. From his van, parked in the street, he collected a small cardboard box of medications which would help heal the wounds and keep the flies from bothering him. The kind man then walked beside me as I slowly led the poor, wounded horse down the red gravel drive to the garage. I was instructed to keep Jock in the garage for at least six weeks, with early morning, noon and evening walks out on the back lawn, then added,
'That way you'll find very little cleaning up to do in the garage, because if you're punctual, he'll wait for you. I believe he was a Police Horse - he'll be well trained. I'll call in and see how he's going, now and again and you can assure your Mother that there'll be no charge for these random visits.'
Throwing another glance around the garage, he inspected the wooden, zinc lined fodder bin with interest. It did not take up much room, held two bags of loose oaten chaff and a bag of loose bran, in separate compartments with rounded corners inside and was fully sealed when closed. It also had a moveable set of light-weight steps to enable us to get in there and sweep it spotless, before the next load of fodder was delivered and emptied in by the produce merchant.
'Very neat', said the Vet. 'Who made it?'
'Mr Burgess, from Turramurra. He also made my desk, and my bedroom furniture. He's very old, but he makes everything well'.
'I'll keep him in mind. Thankyou.'
Having already closed the big garage doors behind Jock as I led him in there, the Vet walked towards the little door, stopped briefly, then shifted Terry's cart and harness round into the laundry and pushed his kennel just far enough forward to ensure that Jock would find it impossible to attempt escape through the open door. He gave the horse a gentle pat on the less lacerated side of his neck and prepared to leave, then suddenly he paused to ask if we had any meadow hay.
'No, we never have hay. Our horses have a very big paddock with heaps of rough grass, and we have nowhere to store it, safe from mice'.
His brow wrinkled in concentration and then, as we walked up the drive, he finally stopped and said,
'Jock will find chaff and bran too heating, now that he can't be exercised. I'll see what I can do to remedy the situation. A warm bran mash will help him tonight. And let him pick as much as he likes when you take him outside. Can you manage those big doors on your own?'
I assured him that I could, then told him about the car we once had - a Shenard Walker - which Uncle Frank, who sold Buicks, called 'a shove 'ard and walka.'
'We drove all the way to Melbourne and back too, when I was little, for me to meet my Father's family. It was a very big family.'
That kind Vet worked wonders on Jock's damaged legs. When they healed, he treated them with 'Reducine', a thick, black liquid, liberally applied with a paint brush, then covered with soft, brown paper, firmly bandaged and known as a 'blister' remedy. It was remarkably effective. Eventually the horse returned to the Dix's paddock, looking well, thanks to the good care he had received, especially the sweet meadow hay which the Vet ferreted in to the laundry in a big canvas sail bag which stymied the rodents.
On school days, Mrs Thomson allowed me to go home during lunch
break to care for Jock and dine with Father, an arrangement which was
appreciated by all of us. During the long weeks of Jock's treatment, Mother constantly complained about the cost of it all', but I do not think the Vet ever charged for his time or for the hay. She did receive one account for medications, a minimal amount, which did not include attending him at the scene of the accident. She finally agreed that the whole battle had shown a side of her daughter that she admired. She called it perseverance against the odds, impressed that I had composted all Jock's droppings, and, without any resulting odour, had turned our garden into a show place.
Elated by this pat on the back, I requested her permission to saddle her elegant horse for gentle exercise in the paddock, to see if he would be sound enough to ride. She was hesitant, but finally agreed, providing I put Senior and Jessie in the yard and rode alone, without them running alongside to stir him up, which was a sound precaution.
Jock moved tentatively and stumbled on uneven ground. It was clear that it would take a long time for him to fully overcome his multiple injuries. A few days later I used all the pocket money I had saved and led him down to the farrier to trim his hooves and nail on a new set of shoes. This was a positive move, which gave the horse confidence. His physical recovery could now begin. I was sure he would regain his perfect balance and become fully sound once more, given time and patience. And of course, he did, although the scars meant he would be ignored in Show hack events but would be fine to carry me in riding and games competitions. He loved gymkhanas and local shows, always carrying his ribbons with pride.
Signor Goes Missing.
Very early one morning, when Terrence and I arrived with the full
horse feed buckets in the cart, we found Jock and Jessie all sweaty
and upset and there was no sign of Signor. Mae came out and said that
the horses had started neighing frantically, long before daylight,
galloping round and round for ages and as there was only one gate,
and no fresh hoof-prints outside it, he hadn't been stolen. Pop had
walked right round the perimeter fence before he left for work. He
could not find Signor or any sign of how he got away, but the light
wasn't good. She offered to come with me to search inside and outside
the fence when the light improved.
I thanked her, fed Jock and Jessie, neither of whom seemed hungry, but ate out of habit, and we left them, to look for deeply gouged hoof prints left by Signor, somewhere, but they eluded us. In desperation, we finally searched the outside perimeter of the high, corrugated iron barrier. This was difficult, as two of the areas were below the roadways and full of towering, prickly weeds, sure to be harbouring snakes. Then finally, out near the junction of Mocatta Ave and Wellesley Road, under the heavily foliaged willow trees on the lower side of the massive fence, we finally found black mud scattered on the bitumen, leading straight up the hill, in the direction of Liverpool. Without leaving any defining take-off hoof prints, Signor had cleared that huge fence and landed in a quagmire amongst the willows where the underground pipe became a creek again. With mud up to his belly, as later confirmed by Harley, he had struggled though it and up an embankment onto the road, apparently unharmed, retracing the route back to Harley's place. Mrs Dix was not amazed by his sudden decision to leave.
'Must be somethin' wrong at Mr Matthew's place,' she stated pointedly, then added, in a softer tone, with a quaver in her voice,
'Orses are real tinny. They know!'.
Terry and I scooted home. It was Sunday and Mother was resting. Noting my distress, she did something unusual. She hugged me and I cried with pent up emotion, love and yes, gratitude. She already knew that Signor had arrived safely at Harley's place and was with the magnificent Diabolo, his sire and best friend, who was dying from a twisted bowel. Harley told me later that Signor's presence had calmed the stricken horse, who died soon after. Two weeks later, riding Diabolo's younger brother, he led Signor back to the Dix's paddock.
The year simply flew. Mother, in my memory, always very highly regarded for her professionalism, was now a VIP and our house played host to local and overseas dignitaries. Because of her accident, which was attributed to a cerebral haemorrhage, causing the blackout and her subsequent fall from Jock, I do not remember her riding again for a very long time and it made me realise that it was a huge expense for her, simply maintaining three equines, all of whom required exercise, feeding, shoeing and extras like dental care and worming. Now that Jock was more or less fully sound again, it seemed ridiculous for me to have such a big workload, especially as homework was increasing, to prepare me for my new school. Perhaps we should keep only Jock and Jessie and let Senior go home for good, even although I would miss him and he would miss Diabolo.
As I was plucking up courage to speak about these concerns to Mother, she told me that an American film star was coming to stay at our place, during the shooting of the parts he would play in a film called 'Wrangle River'. He had expressed a wish to go horse riding during his stay and I would have the job of accompanying him. We had an argument then and this is probably what I said.
'He will have to ride Senoir. Jock and I understand one another. He still needs to be reminded to pick up his front feet. If he goes down on his knees, he'll be finished. I hope he's not a very big man.'
Mother was astounded.
'This man is a competent horseman and will make his own decisions. You will do as he says. I am shocked that you have never admitted that Jock has not made a complete recovery. You ride him with confidence and now you tell me he's unsafe. What a deceitful child you are'.
'He's perfectly safe for me, because I have nursed him through his recovery and understand him. I can feel when he's not concentrating and only need to remind him. Mr Jory may be too heavy for him, as he's no longer accustomed to carrying even your moderate weight'.
'Oh, Babe, I don't know what's come over you. You're so self-willed and disrespectful. I hope that you will change your tune before our visitor arrives. Your Father will be home tomorrow, to act as man of the house during Mr Jory's stay. I trust that both he and you conduct yourselves with decorum at all times.'
When assured that 'I would do my best, and that Father would too, if our visitor was friendly', she then skipped a few beats and told me of a plan to improve my social awareness and my manners. Mr Egan had agreed to care for and exercise Jock and Senior during the coming May school holidays [and also feed them and keep the paddock clean], plus take Jessie on a lead beside Senior from time to time. This would allow her to send me away to a new family in the country, just for a change and a rest from so much responsibility, as I was becoming an 'anxious child'. Poor Mr Egan. I was staggered by his generosity, after what he and his family had been through already, with Jock bolting and the traumas surrouding his daughter's miraculous survival. But that was many, many weeks away. In the meantime, Father would be reinstated, Victor Jory would come to stay and my task was to take him riding, after school and on weekends, whenever he had the time between official duties with the film company.
A handsome, gentle man, according to Mother's assessment, Mr Jory had been staying in Sydney for studio work, then travelling, by car, to and from the Burragorang Valley, and surrounding areas for action shots of the wild colonial days. Now only studio re-shoots were needed to complete the already well edited film and, as Mr Jory was required for very few of them, he would be coming to stay with us until the film was launched.
Our upstairs back verandah was turned into bedroom, study and lounge for our noted visitor. Three storeys high, facing east, north and west, it offered commanding views, and the big camphorlaurel tree, standing head and shoulders above the house, shaded the western side, which was a bonus, because it diffused the heat of the afternoon sun.
Father returned, in good spirits, having recently spent about six weeks with Harley, helping to tie the vines, a task he enjoyed. He was proficient and able to pay his way. Terrence was so pleased to see him that he abandoned his kennel altogether to sleep on the front doormat, the closest he could get to being inside the house. When Father was in the smoke room, his dog lay down outside the huge front windows, apparently asleep, but ever vigilant.
Finding his bed made up in the main bedroom, Father hung his clothes in his own small wardrobe with space for his suit, trousers, jacket and shirts and drawers for handkerchiefs, socks and underwear. He and Mother were both on their best behaviour, but I sometimes heard him, during the night, pattering down the hall to the stretcher in his den, probably because he disturbed Mother by his snoring.
Rene was happy to see my Daddy back home, sober, genial and looking fit after his working stint at Harley's. Victor Jory's arrival proved to be a catalyst for goodwill, making our home the caring place of all our dreams. He engaged with Father, listened to his stories, read the edited chapters of his masterpiece of the glory days of clipper ships under full sail, powered solely by the wind, as they raced across the South Pacific Ocean, around the Horn of South America to meet the Atlantic Ocean. The journey was then fraught with such hazards as the doldrums in equatorial waters, and severe storms, as they beat their way northwards to their home ports, in England and northern Europe. Unaware that these ships were originally of American design, Victor was enthralled. Powered only by the wind and deft navigation, they had successfully competed against steam until the dawn of the 20th century, Father had sailed in them and it was only yesterday!
Our visitor was equally enthusiastic about my Mother's work in journalism, empathising with her determination to make 'Woman' an uplifting read for her sisters, daring them to dream, and reach for the stars. He went with her to the office one day, when the paper was being put to bed, and visited the composing room, watching the compositors setting the silver metal type. He then peeked into the photo labs, and the huge, noisy place where the printing presses were churning out Associated Press papers for that day.
Victor Jory was superb horseman, choosing to ride Senior one day and Jock, who stood tall and never looked liked stumbling, on the next. Overawed, I did not dream of offering any advice. It was clear to me that Mother had been well informed. He was indeed a knowledgable, considerate rider and great company too, moving straight into the rank of my Hero, for life. Thirty odd years later, he turned up regularly on our TV screen, at the farm, in Tasmania, starring in a detective series and was just as warm and caring in that role as he was with our family in Pymble.
The magic of Victor Jory's presence stayed with our family for many months after his departure. Rene had her hand in that outcome. Like her sisters before her, she was kind and very efficient and, like Mae and Miss Salmon, she also possessed faculties which enabled her to handle Father's foibles - she liked him, was totally non judgemental, and treated him with respect. Peace reigned in our household. Mother's job in the office was tough and she was often stressed by the time she arrived home, but the absence of any tension worked small miracles and she relaxed, enjoying the harmony.
Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise.
The May holidays duly arrived. A soon as I changed out of my uniform,
I told Rene I was off on Signor for a pre-arranged ride with Patsy. I
promised to be back well before dark, allaying any fear that Mother
may arrive home before my return for the evening meal, where Father
still retained his position at the head of the table, granted for
Victor Jory's stay, and I dined with them..
I chose Signor on this occasion because he was fleet of foot and handled the bush better than Jock. Patsy and I restricted our ride to an area undergoing a slow burn. As always, their was no smoke and very little heat - just tiny tongues of gaslight coloured flame, creeping across the forest floor. Undeterred, Signor, Dinky and Terrence walked across it, finally reaching last week's 'burn', now covered with an array of tiny orchids, grasses and flowering plants.
Although it was still daylight, we saw a wallaby casually hopping around, selecting choice mouthfuls. Unafraid, her well grown joey hopped out of her pouch and nibbled around beside her head. Our presence did not disturb them and we rode homewards, full of wonder and joy at being so close to normally timid nocturnal animals. Patsy, who spent much more time in the bush than I, finally decided that the quiet wallaby was probably, 'An old girl who needs good pickings for that oversized child she's still carting about.'
I said nothing in reply, devastated with the certainty that I'd not see too many more wallabies in the future, as we were both fully aware that my time at Sylvan School would conclude at the end of the year. We also knew that we would never attend the same school and that I'd be ferreted away to 'foreign parts' for most of every school holiday period in the future. Patsy was more philosophical than I about the amount of time we would find for riding together next year. She chipped me when I lost my tongue, then continued cheerily,
'There's usually some part of the holidays when you're not sent away and we can use the telephone to keep in touch.'
She accompanied me for part of my journey home, waving farewell as soon as we reached the bitumen. Dinky possessed the best set of hoofs imaginable; so strong that he did not need shoeing, but Patsy knew that artificial surfaces would wear them down.
That night, after a harmonious evening meal, prepared and served by Rene in the dining room, Father excused himself to take Terrence for a walk and Mother led me under the arch and into the drawing room, a place I loathed, with its hideous glass eyed, bullet holed, big cat African game heads and pelts, felt-backed and scattered on the floor - to learn all I needed to know about the next two weeks with Dr and Mrs Chapman. She explained that they were quite old, like Father and they both adored children, although sadly, they had none of their own. They hoped we would get on so well together that they would become part of our family and be addressed as Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise.
I had no way of knowing how to respond to this statement, so remained mute, thus once again being dubbed,
'An ungrateful child', now perilously close to tears.
Aware that this approach was non-productive, Mother changed tack and told me all she knew about the farm and Mr Overed, who managed the place and lived in an open, two room cottage, shared with an Angus bull, a red kelpie dog and lots of laying hens, none of which ever did any damage or soiled the floors. The property was of modest size, produced fat lambs and yearling beef for market and farm haulage and cultivation was shared by two magnificent Clydesdales. All forage for the livestock and meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables for the Chapman's visits were grown on the place. When in residence, they leased an elegant brick bungalow, opposite and overlooking their own land, some of which remained as bush, in its natural state. To me, it sounded like an interesting place.
Mother still addressed me as Babe, which rankled. I'd be ten next birthday! She said she would take me to meet these kind people early in the morning, on her way to the office, and hoped I would find them agreeable. I was then released from the sadness of surveying the lifelike, enormous cats of Africa, which covered almost the entire floor and which I had always skipped across to avoid treading on the poor dead creatures. I was now teetering on an area of carpet, looking at the bullet hole in the skull of a once majestic leopard. I was close to tears. I heard Father talking to Terrence, as he opened the front gate, so summoned up a smile for Mother, promising to do as she said and not let her down. Forever hoping for harmony, I hastened upstairs and packed my bag.
Next morning, as we descended the crowded stairs from Wynyard Station, Mother hesitated ever so briefly and stepped out of her beautiful pure silk knickers, hand crafted in a Strand Arcade lingerie store, and continued her descent without any suggestion of salvaging them. I was godsmacked, knowing how expensive they were. Struggling with my suitcase and racing to keep up with her immensely long strides on the ramp leading up to George Street, I finally asked her why she had not quickly picked them up and received a thorough tongue lashing for that inappropriate question.
I knew Sydney well, especially this area. Determined as she was to turn me into a fairy princess, or, at the very least, 'a young lady', Mother had taken me to First Nights of every Opera, Russian Ballet, Classic Stage performance, Sydney Symphony Orchestra or Conservatorium of Music concert, all of which I enjoyed, without ever learning much about the disciplines involved. When very young, I was taken to ballet lessons for what seemed like ages, but failed to shine. We students were contortionists, our limbs were under threat many times and I was never again able to sit in the graceful lotus position. We never rose upright from that floor, nor were we taught to dance a single step.
At last we turned into Macquarie Street. Mother carried my bag as we entered the Astor apartment building and took the lift to one of the higher floors. I had been with her on several previous visits to her friends' front flats overlooking the Botanic Gardens, to watch the Guy Fawkes fireworks.
The Chapman's flat was one floor from the top. We walked to the end of the short corridor to the last door on the right hand side and rang the bell. Instead of the Botanic Gardens, the view from this flat was sure to be of other buildings!
A grey haired couple, beaming smiles of welcome, opened the door. Mother, looking relaxed and more beautiful than ever, introduced me to Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise. They hugged me to them, and I immediately recognised their attention as genuine goodwill.
We were offered tea and almond biscuits, sitting around an oval shaped, red cedar table. It was set with white lace table mats, blue and white cups, saucers and plates with small, rolled serviettes in silver rings. Tall, rugged Uncle Clem walked behind, to assist each of us in drawing our chairs to the table, chatting amiably as we all said, 'Thank you'.
I soon learned that petite and pretty Aunt Elise came from Wales. Her accent sounded sweet and rhythmical, making me feel happy, but I could not comprehend a word she said. I could only hope that this difficulty would soon be overcome and prayed that my new Aunt would speak slowly, to enable me to understand her.
Last night, Mother had related how she met Clem and Elise when she was a cub reporter and they had arrived by ship from England. She had painted up their story.
'Clem Chapman was a country boy, raised in the cherry growing district of Young. His was not a wealthy family but hard working. His parents prospered well enough to ensure that their children were given a good education and grew up on a diet of home grown fruit and vegetables, milk, eggs and meat, with poultry on special occasions. Clem had won a State scholarship, enabling him to board and matriculate in Sydney. He entered the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney, on a Bursary that paid towards his studies and accommodation. Casual jobs, between or after lectures, kept him in pocket and good trim but he was always keen to get back home to see his family and enjoy lavish servings of the produce grown to perfection on their own farm.'
'World War One found Dr Chapman in the trenches, on Gallipoli. Conditions were appalling. He did his best for the sick and wounded but eventually became critically ill himself with trench fever and a devastating fungal infection. He was invalided out on a merchant ship for England - possibly under the command of Captain Jack Hamilton, who had the job of landing troops and evacuating survivors throughout the campaign. Arriving in England, the Doctor was a physical and mental wreck. He rallied marginally, noticed a Welsh nurse, an amazing woman he thought, who administered loving care to her patients, dispensed kind words up and down the ward and managed to make men smile.'
Now, here my Mother and I were sharing tea and biscuits with the Doctor and his wife. They radiated their love for one another to everyone they met and their warmth made me realise that my Mother really did love me. Bringing me here was because she wanted me to spend time with people who loved with unashamed passion and would be unlikely to exchange harsh words, which so upset me, at home. She was about to excuse herself and leave for the office, when I managed to flash a smile of thanks to her. She smiled back and we said our goodbyes. Uncle Clem escorted Mother to the door, while Aunt Elise and I cleared the table. She chatted away merrily, but I still could not understand a word she said. Once the washing up was done we readied ourselves for the journey to the Farm.
Uncle Clem emerged from his dressing room looking every inch the country squire, his tweeds immaculate and his jaunty cap pulled down over his forehead to shade his clear, blue eyes. Aunt Elise had changed too and was now beautifully attired in a light-weight, soft blue woollen suit, with a hat to match.
There was quite a lot of luggage; table and bed linen, towels, clothing and enough tinned and packaged food to last a fortnight. Uncle Clem explained that fresh food would come from the farm. Taking the lift to the basement, I noticed that his cheeks were puffed out with anticipation. The reason for his joy was parked nearby. A shining yellow and black Rolls Royce - his one and only huge extravagance. To go to the Hospital and back, during his working week, he was chauffeur driven, but every week-end, and for annual holidays, he took the wheel to drive to their Luddenham farm.
I cannot recall the details of that first journey with my new 'relations', probably because I was prone to car sickness and may have spent the journey huddled over a bucket. I certainly do remember that I screamed when The Rolls Royce left the bitumen at St Mary's and hit the corrugations of the Marme Road. I must have been half asleep. What a hopeless child I was! Upsetting these kind people by asking to get out of their magnificent car.. Fleeing into the dusty roadside brambles, I lost my breakfast and felt better right away. I was so grateful that they had not interfered. Aunt Elise was waiting by the car with a damp cloth and then she gave me a glass of cool lemonade.
'Thank you, Aunt Elise. I am sorry to have been a nuisance'.
She patted my hand and offered commiserations, which went right over my head. I had little choice now but to explain that I could not understand her. She smiled and began speaking slowly, spacing her words. The problem was solved. We resumed our journey on the bumpy road, Uncle Clem enjoying every mile, oblivious to any discomfort for his passengers or possible damage to the car. At last we reached the front gate of the leased house which overlooked the Chapman's farm on the lower side of the road. I leaped out to open it. On the hill above us, the spacious red brick and tiled residence sat comfortably amongst the gum trees, awaiting our arrival.
By the end of my stay, Aunt Elise and I communicated effortlessly and I knew that I really did love her and Uncle Clem dearly. The house was well appointed and comfortable. It had closed in verandahs, large glass windows, flyscreens and blinds, all easily adjust see the livestock in the fields, the uncleared land and the areas under cultivation. After a simple sandwich lunch and big mugs of tea, Aunt and Uncle rested for a little over an hour and then we changed into our farm clothes and walked down the hill, crossed the road and opened the gate to their place, which looked quite different at ground level as the land was undulating and the wide views diminished. At close range, the property and the Clydesdales, cattle, sheep, swine, poultry and crops all looked well kept and healthy, to my untrained eye and my hosts amazed me with their energy, as they strode around their domain with great enthusiasm, checking every little detail to ensure that order reigned supreme. The fence wires were taught, the posts were strong and the hinged gates opened and closed with ease. It was a well run place.
We found Mr Overed, farm manager and general factotum, in a timbered area, where he had been cutting, and was now stacking firewood for his own use. He stood tall, his red kelpie at heel, smiled and removed his hat at our approach, but did not speak until addressed by Uncle Clem and Aunt Elise, who introduced me to him. Although aloof, they held him in high regard for his attention to detail and his devotion to his job of maintaining this modest patch of paradise for their recreation and pleasure each weekend and brief holiday, to give them both a well earned break from city life and Uncle Clem's busy jobs at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, in Camperdown and at his consulting rooms in Macquarie Street.
The two weeks of holiday passed in a flurry of social visits to properties with stately homes, where I felt gauche, much preferring visits to working properties like their own. The feeding of ensiled, chopped maize to dairy cows from a slow moving, endless trough-shaped, conveyor belt on a neighbouring property held me spellbound.
A visit to the Luddenham Show was equally memorable. There I saw pacing and trotting race horses, similar to those I had seen racing at Sydney Royal Show, between the ring events. They looked just like those I had seen at Royal Randwick but they moved differently. Aunt Elise told me these horses were from the same original bloodlines as the gallopers, but their gaits were much smoother so they were originally bred to transport the gentry in their carriages, at high speed over long distances. They were now beasts of burden on business days, and occasional race horses at The Royal and many country shows. Races on this fenced perimeter track thrilled me. Most of the horses carried jockeys in silks but there were a few pulling light sulkies, their drivers similarly attired. Between races, I was able to talk to the horses and their connections. I liked their friendliness and informality.
Between races, we watched led cattle judging, led ponies and horses, ring events for children on ponies and hacking classes for adults. At last the mighty Clydesdales entered the arena. Mr Overed, unrecognisable in his tweeds, cravat, waistcoat, smart trousers, shiny boots and jaunty cap, paraded Boxer, Uncle Clem's favourite, in the Clydesdale stallion class. I had never previously seen such large numbers of these gentle giants, even at Sydney Royal. Boxer received the coveted blue rosette, amid spirited acclamation. Bonny, parading with panache in the mare's class, followed suite. Together, the fine horses won the pair class, followed by all three Championships, making my new relations as proud as Punch and Mr Overed well satisfied. Both horse and mare were bright bay, with long white feathered stockings. They were magnificent and had totally eclipsed strong fields.
During the following week I was allowed to spend treasured hours on the farm and was shown how to work Bonny behind a mould-board plough, to ready the ground for the sowing of crops. Mr Overed was a patient instructor, and Bonny so docile and responsive that we ploughed straight furrows and made perfect turns at either end of the field, almost right from the start. The ability to succeed in this exercise gave me a degree of confidence which I had not experienced before and may well have never been eclipsed.
Over the years of my visits, I learned how to handle animals and poultry for slaughter in a calming and humane manner, to ensure that they felt no fear or pain, and how to sharpen a wood cutting axe correctly and use it without damaging its cutting edge or handle. Although only nine years old, I retained those skills into my teenage years, and they stood by me when on our farm at North Rocks during World War 2. Later, when we returned to suburbia, they slowly drifted into the distance, replaced by the urgency of new dimensions, until finally revived once more in Tasmania.
Whilst staying with my mentors and travelling around the district
with them, I had become accustomed to the battering that Rosy Rolls Royce had to endure on those rough, unsealed roads which worsened considerably, the more remote they became. When our holiday finally ended and we packed up and headed back to Sydney, I felt relieved and happy for the car once we returned to the highway, imagining that she was a living entity and would appreciate being able to proceed with the dignity she deserved. Safely back in her allotted parking spot in the basement garage of the Astor, she looked a bit dusty and forlorn, but Uncle gently patted her bonnet and said, to anyone who was listening,
'James will be back to look after you to-morrow and then we will be off to work, first thing on Tuesday'.
Even a highly intelligent, grown man had trouble distinguishing the difference between flesh and blood and cold steel, so now I did not feel quite so silly. I spent that night at the Astor, leaving early next morning after a good breakfast and big hugs and kisses from these adorable, new relations. Two weeks had passed without a single harsh word.
I met our Terrence on my way home from the station. He must have wandered. I had caught him red handed, out by himself. I called him to heel and he walked beside me, his nose just touching the back of my hand till we went through the front gate. I patted his head and ran my fingers through his curls. I did not have a key, so reached up high to ring the doorbell. Rene came to the door and threw her arms around me in welcome. Father was away. That explained the wandering Terrence. I was crestfallen, but she told me to he was expected back later today.
'And everything will be alright, because he's been working at Harley's - pruning, I think, and he's always fine when he's been there. They're real good mates. They can sit and yarn for hours, just like all his friends who come to the house to visit him here. I've never heard a single one of them raise his voice.'
Two weeks away from the horses had not done them any harm. Lightly fed oaten chaff by the Dix's, they had routinely exercised themselves by galloping around the paddock every time a delivery horse passed by.
In continued preparation for my progression to big school next year, Mrs Thomson was increasing my homework at an alarming rate, making it clear to me that exercising three horses over the Winter term would be crazy, as Mother had not yet resumed riding, even although a woman who lived up the street, at Miss Mathison's boarding house, had bought a hack for herself, and would probably enjoy her company. At last, with the knowledge that any hope of joining Patsy Ann at PLC was a pipe dream - because attempts to discuss the matter with Mother had consistently been evaded - I was convinced it would be Abbotsleigh, her choice from the start.
A child, dependant on the family breadwinner, is often in a cleft stick when important decisions are made. I found myself with nowhere to turn for wise counsel in this dilemma about my education, as it would have been disloyal. Father talked a lot about honour and integrity on our walks together and his views on such matters were ingrained in my psyche. I had now to accept Mother's will and try to think clearly.
Within a week of agonising over the thought of losing Signor and Jessie, I bit the bullet, explained my reasons, and asked Mother whether we could find new homes for them both, adding a sprinkle of subterfuge by suggesting we could always share Jock if she ever wanted to ride with Miss Becket.
Mother was unaware that I had disobeyed Mr Christie's directive
following her life threatening accident but could understand my concern now. Lack of time and money made sense to her. She had battled these demons for most of her life, or at least after her Father's death, and was
graciously pleased that the suggestion had come from me, saving any possibility of confrontation. She praised me for my foresight and gave me a big hug.
Events moved quickly after that discussion. Signor and Jessie were entrained by me at Hornsby, travelled well and arrived safely at Yass. They were as pleased with their new home as was the Reid family, their new owners, with them. The Reids kept in touch, even after I left home. Jessie was patient and gentle with their little children and Signor shone as both stockhorse and well mannered lady's hack.
Father took me to Forster for the September school holidays. We
travelled by train to Taree, then in a dilapidated old bus, over a very long and rough, unsealed road to Tuncurry, managing to catch the ferry by a whisker. The Captain tried to dissuade the driver from boarding, but he had a schedule to keep, and we trundled down the ramp, and on to the ferry, hearing it groan from the extra weight.
We did not get far. The tide had run out faster than usual. Stuck on a sandbar, we awaited the return of high water; for hours and hours and hours. Father and I were both hungry and thirsty. Many passengers, familiar with the vagaries of tides and tempers, had come prepared. They generously shared their cool drinks and sandwiches with the newcomers. Father remained nice and calm - no grog - no drama, throughout our holiday, which was a dream come true.
We stayed in a boarding house, overlooking Wallis lake, within hearing of the mighty South Pacific breakers pounding on the beach. It was a pleasant, well run place, with good meals, served on time, and strict protocols heeded without the necessity for reminders. Whole families made an annual pilgrimage to this and other guest houses in the area, possibly because there were no taverns in Forster and no alcoholic beverages were permitted in the boarding houses.
I loved every moment of every day we were there. Father made friends with another lone father, accompanied by his son, John, who was clever and planned to become a dentist. The four of us went fishing every day and we ate our catch at the next meal. Such economy of resources appealed to me, even then, probably because of Patsy's influence. John was senior to me but good company and not scared of girls. His father took us both swimming at the ocean beach on those rare occasions when the surf was considered safe. I had never before seen waves as huge as those at Forster. They were gigantic.
The day before we were to leave Forster, we four were booked on a boat trip right round Wallis Lake. It was a magic journey. The weather was kind and the scenery superb. I became fretful though, when we stopped for lunch and I was not allowed to go exploring. I cheered up, when our Dad's swapped stories about their lives. With a big crab each for tea, we returned to our lodgings, showered and prepared for the evening meal, dressed in older clothes, knowing that crabs can be messy.
Next morning, Father knocked on my door before daylight. The manager had informed him that our bus was leaving earlier than usual, because of the sudden deterioration of the road to Kempsey. There had been overnight flooding somewhere along the way. A special breakfast was to be served at six thirty to ensure we made it to the train. John and his father were not leaving for another three days, so would not know about our early departure. And Father said 'not to disturb them', assuring me that they did know where we lived.
He was right, as usual. A letter from John arrived a week later. His writing was in perfect copperplate style. He was bursting with news of his activities and reminiscences of our holiday at Forster. He said his Dad reckoned that writing letters was the best way to improve a mind that was jam packed full of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology and had trouble expressing itself!. Happily, a regular correspondence commenced between us and we became good friends. We maintained our pen friendship for four years, until Father was given the final boot, Mother leased our Pymble home and we moved to North Rocks to a brand new life of rewarding but unremitting toil, in late 1941.
In the interim, Father must have again blotted his copybook, as after Christmas, New Year and another unexpected trip to Forster with him and a happy reunion with John and his Dad, I was sent to Kyogle to Mae and her family - without any time at all for bush rides with Patsy. Whatever was going on in my mother's head? I was being pushed all over the place and kept away from Jock, Terrence and Patsy, my friends. Now I was on a train for a very long journey to the last train stop before the Queensland, to visit dear Mae, her husband Walter and their toddler Rory. They owned a dairy farm inland from the township, situated in glorious country near the foothills of Mount Warning. I was used to train travel and pleased about going to visit Mae's new family but the bogey man of travel sickness grabbed me mercilessly, perhaps because I was alone and scared once daylight faded and a moonless night fell like a huge, black shroud.
Before long I felt sick, grabbed the little bag which Rene had given me, 'just in case' and I fled, with one of the kind ladies in my compartment right behind me to ensure that I would be alright. She soon agreed to return to her seat when the guard gave me a pillow and a woolly rug on which to crouch, huddled on the floor, near the toilet. And so the nightmare started and went on and on, as the train rocked, rolled and rattled along the permanent way.. The guard was concerned. He offered me weak, sweet black tea, for which I thanked him and finally managed to drink when the line straightened out for awhile. I was grateful to Rene for her forsight in equipping me for this eventuality. By then, dawn was breaking and the train was just chuffing along, no longing rocking and rolling, and I caught a brief glimpse of the sea.
By the time we reached Grafton, and after more of the guard's sweet tea, plus a few plain Sao biscuits, I felt well enough to return to my compartment, which now held five middle aged women from Casino. They were not the least surprised that I was travelling alone. They had done so themselves when packed off to secondary boarding schools in Sydney and were great company for the remainder of their journey.
Once alone for the final leg to Kyogle, the views from my window of well nurtured farmland, forested areas, gentle streams and distant mountains held me spellbound until the train neared the station. Lovely Mae, and her tall, handsome husband, Walter, with Rory on his shoulders, stepped forward to greet me, and although I was now ten years old, I cried like a baby in Mae's fond embrace, while Walter took my ticket to the goods van to collect my suitcase.
I just hugged Mae and cannot recall the car journey at all, as, for once, I had quickly become accustomed to the bumpy ride. Mae later told me that I was fast asleep within minutes of leaving the town. On arrival at their place, I wakened, had a boiled egg, tea and toast, a good wash in a big steel, well screened tub on the kitchen floor, towelled myself dry, pulled my light cotton nightdress over my head and smoothed it down to my ankles, then cleaned my teeth, and Walter carried me to bed. There I slept for two milkings and wakened for a very late breakfast next day, without remembering anything at all. With the exception of my joy when hugged by Mae on arrival at Kyogle station, my mind had gone walkabout for nearly twenty four hours.
But then the best holiday of a lifetime began to unfold, as I played with my hosts' sweet natured, happy little Rory on the spotless lino of the kitchen floor, to keep him out of the laundry while Mae went through the routine she had perfected in Pymble, now underneath her own home, of washing the clothes and pegging them out to dry. Their timber house was new, with wide, open verandahs to protect and shade the windows from the weather, and fully lined inside with polished, light coloured local timber. It stood on high stilts, on sloping ground and had well secured cyclone wires just in case freak weather hit the place.
All the exterior weatherboards had been pre-treated with creosote to preserve them from white ants. This was a lovely big house, well above flood level from the creek that ran through the property. Rain showers were frequent during my stay, and Mae said that there had never been a shortage of house or dairy water in living memory
By my third morning in this well organised, happy home, I wakened in time to follow the light of the hurricane lantern along the gravelled path to the milking shed. Rural electricity had not yet reached these backblocks and she and Walter still hand milked the cows, already waiting in the yard. It was pitch black outside, so I could not count the cows until they quietly commenced filing into their bails to be milked, by lantern light and without leg ropes. They numbered forty six and were back on fresh pasture, the separating was completed, the skim was fed to the pigs and the cream cans left on the cool floor of the dairy, just as the first light of dawn lightened the eastern sky.
Rory was in a wooden barrel in a corner outside the dairy, where the milk was cooled and separated. He was learning to talk coherently and named each cow as she entered the milking shed. I asked Mae if she would teach me to milk and she did. It was not at all difficult. Nearly all the cows in the district were Jerseys, as they were gentle, hardy and 'good doers', and being light footed, did not compact the soil. Rarely afflicted with bovine diseases, and never on this farm, their milk fat ratio was the highest of the dairy breeds, thus ensuring a good return from the butter factory.
Back at the house, we washed our hands in the laundry, and left our boots outside the back door before entering the kitchen, where Mae had hurried ahead to fix breakfast of porridge and bacon and eggs on crunchy toast. When over and appreciated, Walter thanked Mae and squeezed her hand, hugged his boy, gave me a wave and went out to harness the horse to cart the big cream cans, on a sled, down the hill to the cream can stand, outside the front gate. He timed it so well that the cream truck arrived just as he lifted the last can onto the stand.
Curiosity, and Mae's permission for me to run to the farm gate to catch a ride back up the hill, found me by the roadside to wave to the cream truck driver as he was about to leave. Invited, I hopped on the sled beside Walter, and rode back up behind a big bay Clydesdale called Toby, who smelt just like dear old Jock. Past the house, the orchard and the vegetable garden, we finally reached the ordered farmyard, which included drafting yards and loading ramp for cattle or horses.
Whilst unhitching Toby from the sled, Walter told me that the cows were due for dipping tomorrow, a three weekly exercise they loathed and detested. His youngest brother Ted would bring his two heelers over to help their own dog drive the protesting cows to and into the council dip, situated a mile and a half down the road. I asked if I could help and he said I could, but warned that 'it was a stinking, rotten job.'
'Though driving them to the 'hosing off' yards afterwards and bringing them back home again is a cinch.'
He went on to tell me that this was a certified tick area, so the law insisted their cattle had to dipped regularly, even although they had never once had a tick on them. They would be given a bit of extra cracked corn in the bails at morning milking, then forced by the dogs along the grass roadside verges to this nearest council dip.
Next morning, the exercise went off exactly as described and expected by Walter. Ted hung around till after lunch, then decided to go home to join his brother Jack, fishing on the Richmond River. I had liked working with him and Walter. Both were firm but kind with the cattle and the heelers, gave me clear directions on how to urge the unwilling cows forward towards the dip, and were very good company. Mae reckoned Ted would be back because school holidays bored him, being the baby of the family. Apart from milking, odd jobs and a bit of fishing, there was not much to do on his parents' well run, very large property. He came over at some stage, most days and did odd jobs for Mae and Walter, which was appreciated.
'He'll be happy when he finishes school and is working, full time, perhaps in town in a legal or accounting office.'
That evening a dozen or more rogue steers worked their way down to the fence on the edge of the bush, near the milking shed. Walter reckoned there must be a tree down on the top southern boundary, easily fixed by Ted and his dogs, with help from old Dinah, the big Clydesdale packhorse. Around the tea table that evening, Walter told the story of how he and Mae scored a top World War One leather pack saddle at a farm clearing sale, which fitted Dinah and proved useful for carting equipment in steep or difficult terrain. The purchase had brought tears to his Dad's eyes. He had been one of those men who shot their beloved horses at the end of World War One, as quarantine regulations barred their return to Australia.
As usual, we went to bed early that evening, to ensure that there were no sleepy heads at morning milking. Everything had to run like clockwork to ensure that the cream was on the stand at the gate, on the dot, in the early light of each new day, which changed fractionally every day of every year, eternally. This previously unconsidered information amazed me. It made me realise just how precious every single moment of one's life can be.
Most early mornings were a revelation; crisp and cool, with clean air and the smell of wood smoke, if there was no breeze. This morning, when Ted was bringing his heelers, the weather was fine and misty. Milking and breakfast over, I asked Mae if she thought he would take me with him and the dogs to shunt the neighbour's cattle off the place, then deal with the problem which had given them access. She said I'd have to wait and see!
Walt and Ted came in for a quick morning tea of scones and home-made raspberry jam, thanked Mae and filed through the door. I understood and started clearing the table. Then Ted popped his head back round the door and asked if I wanted to go too. And I said I'd like to if I would not get in the way and slow him down. He reckoned I would not be as slow as old Dinah and I might like to lead her part of the way, or until it got too steep and then I'd have to wait for him to take over, 'lest she run over the top of you.' He said he'd work the dogs to make sure they covered the whole hillside - there wasn't much point in fence mending if we missed a couple of steers.
'So come on then, if you're coming.'
With a big grin and a hug, Mae handed me my hat, a small pair of leather gloves for barbed wire handling and my lunch and water bottle.
When I reached the horse yard, both Dinah and Toby were harnessed and ready to go. Walter wished us luck on our mission and tilted the plough to one side, so that it did not dig up the ground on the way to the ploughing paddock. Ted took hold of Dinah,
'To loosen her up a bit, for a start. We have to go through the current horse paddock on our way to the bush. Walt's handling two well bred, good looking youngsters, a three year old filly and a two year old colt, Dinah's last foals. The colt will bother his Mum and I'll deal with that. He won't bother you. It always pays to have a couple of youngsters coming along. That way you have one to sell if you need a new bull, or anything costly - it's better than money in the bank, although the times are beginning to change. Everything will be driven by petrol or electricity before long. I don't think we'll be as happy or as healthy when that happens.'
'I'm interested, Ted. In Sydney, we have to pay for all these services, and Mother complains daily about 'the cost of living'. I haven't been here long, but Mae and Walter and little Rory seem pretty well self sufficient, or that's what Walter reckons.'
'Some more than others - this family's special. When Walt first moved onto the place, he lived in a humpy, near the front gate, long before he ever heard of Mae, let alone travelling all that way down to Sydney, just to check her out. Worth it tho'. She's lovely; a great wife and mother too'.
Just then, galloping hoof beats blocked out further conversation and we were surrounded by horses; five of them, counting led Dinah, the old bay mare with the impeccable pedigree, who would work with us today and always produced sound, long lasting stock who never let you down - or broke down. The other four followed us all the way to the gate into the bush, then wandered off after the dogs snapped at noses to drive them back. We stepped out of the sunshine and into the dense bush, closing the gate behind us. There, visibility was near zero till our eyes adjusted and then Dinah's lead was handed to me.
Ted told the dogs what to do in a language of words and hand signals, and they soon melted silently into the dense bush. We heard and saw nothing for a good ten minutes, then, without any commotion or haste, we spied cattle silently picking their way through low storey vegetation, moving along, like trained bullocks, in an easy, long striding walk, Ted's two dogs well back, zigzagging between the parallel fences which ran up the hill, keeping them away from the western fence and Walter's Beau ensuring that they did not get too close on the eastern side.
Ted was pleased. All we had to do now was follow the cattle tracks to the top boundary, on more open ground that did not pug. As the going got steeper, he took Dinah's lead and I followed. The dogs were waiting for us in the breach - sitting on the trunk of a tall young tree, uprooted, with all its leafy branches on the far side of the flattened fence. He patted them, tethered the horse and unloaded the axe, saw and fencing materials. As he severed the branches, I pulled them away, giving him space to chop out the area of trunk lying over the unbroken wires. Once in manageable lengths, it was easy to roll them out of his way.
Ted had begun on the ground line and cut and rejoined all the stretched, unbroken wires up to the ones that had snapped. These were promptly retrieved and rejoined, the whole task quickly completed and it was only mid morning. Fred smiled, saying it was good timing and he thanked me for my help. We put the tools back in Dinah's pack saddle and set off down the hill, the dogs at heel.
I was deeply impressed by the ease with which the three dogs had worked as a team, calmly and without force and clamour, to drive the next door cattle back home, so we talked about their patience and discipline as we walked down the hill, with me finally admitting that I had thought blue heelers could not help heeling. Ted said that it all depended on bloodlines and training.
'These three can be as rough as guts on the rare occasions where force is required, and that's usually only when dipping. Cattle really hate that, and the dogs are like hornets - don't you remember?'
'Yes Ted, I do. It's just a miracle to me though, that the same dogs could perform such a different and difficult exercise without being able to see the cattle in the thick bush.'
'Well, I'll have to let you into a secret. This sixty acres of bush is very special on this property. It protects the farm in extremely cold and windy weather and because plants in the natural herbage are so different from introduced pastures, it provides a good clean out of any internal parasites in the dairy cows after they are dried off, and before they go to our place for the winter. Being light footed little Jerseys, they never pug the ground near the stream and it gives all the family an incredible area in which to quietly train their working dogs to cope with rarely being able to see the stock, making it essential that they use their acute senses of smell and hearing, which means they move silently and don't bark. They quickly adapt to surroundings where stealth is essential, then give plenty voice and nip fetlocks at the dip'.
After leading Dinah to drink at a spring below a large pool, Ted tied her to a strong sapling, on a long line, so that she could graze. He removed the pack saddle, and collected our lunch boxes. There were three big, flat rocks at the edge of the pool, which was crystal clear and beautiful. Surrounding it on three sides, was an under-storey of tall man ferns on an open, moss-covered forest floor. They stood under a canopy of giant trees, which were different from any I had ever seen. I followed Ted on to the only sunlit rock, and we lay down to drink, laughing at our reflections, then ate our lunches, sitting on a dry log, pleased that the removal of the steers had been accomplished so easily.
Rain Forest Idyll.
Next day, it rained. Mae was concerned that the planned Saturday
family journey to the high forest country could be postponed, but the
wind changed and the clouds retreated, leaving the countryside
refreshed. In the morning, after milking, breakfast and cream
carting, Walter carried Rory on his shoulders and the lunch hamper
and canvas water bags in a haversack on his back, with Mae and I
close behind; each carrying a small string bag of freshly picked
fruit to share. Men, women and children would be travelling on the
wooden tray of the truck, sitting on corn sacks, Mae and Rory
excepted. They were now up front with Gran and Grandad, because Mae
was 'expecting' again and Rory was too little to travel on the tray.
We sang 'country' songs as we bumped along the stony road, finally
reaching the escarpment without any splinters, and all in high
There was a steep, treeless climb ahead of us - straight up to the forest.
Before commencing the climb, family members whom I had not previously met, introduced themselves and their children to me and I found myself happily accepted, even although I was the littlest one amongst them. Children under ten were not permitted to travel on the truck tray. It was scary for me until a big girl held my hand, giving me confidence and then balance came easily.
The climb up the escarpment was not too difficult, the first timers amongst us amazed at how distant the valley below appeared from this altitude. The forest commenced quite close to the end of the ascent and we entered another world; a gloomy one, at first, until our eyes adjusted and then I, and others with no prior experience of the splendour all around us, were absolutely spellbound. Fragrant, cool air rose from an open forest floor and towering, mostly buttressed trees with trailing lianas made me feel minute. Shafts of filtered sunlight highlighted the varied colours of numerous birds and the foliage of the forest giants, leaving dapples on the short cropped grass and soft green moss.
We youngsters took off like wildfire and my ability to outrun them caused some disappointment amongst the boys and I slowed down so that no one lost face, and that made them smile. I was learning a lot about boys. We had run ourselves almost to a standstill by the time we heard the cooee and were relieved to join the elders to follow Grandad towards some harder going. On the edge of it, he called a halt, to explain to newcomers the intricacy needed to avoid being caught up in the lawyer vines. Grandad had put on a pair of leather work gloves. He moved towards a spindly, innocuous looking vine and pulled it down to show us its tiny, implacable little vice-grip thorns which he explained, had; 'Tied many big, strong men into inescapable knots, leaving them helpless.'
We first timers moved back among the bigger kids, hoping they would protect us. Those awful lawyers were so difficult to see in this dark bush and we were scared. Then Grandad set off, his big, extended family filing dutifully behind him, unmarried Dave and Jack and tall, schoolboy Ted bringing up the rear. The march through the scary bush did not last long and we emerged into another glorious forest, similar to the first, with sweeping areas of flattish land between even more varied rain forest trees, which Grandad named. I was overwhelmed by their grandeur and the presence of even more colourful birds, apparently aware that we would soon reach our luncheon place and could discard items of food which they would relish.
There was a small spring close by and seats of fairly low cut stumps, apparently from a valuable timber, which may have been cedar. These stumps received a beating with solid sticks just in case they harboured some snakes or spiders, and there was a big wooden table adjacent, where the picnic food was set out by the adults and older children and covered with voile cloths, to dissuade the birds and insects. There was no wind at all and diffused sunlight accentuated the beauty of the setting. This was not a simple picnic. Grandad told the children to play close by until they heard the dinner bell, then wash and dry their hands and,
'Come and get it, youngest first, being careful not to spoil anything or take too much until everyone has been served. There'll be plenty left over for 'seconds''.
Mrs Thomson set a high standard of child behaviour at Sylvan School, but these children would even overshadow them for good manners and care for the younger ones by their older siblings or cousins. The food was served with skill and ease, everyone either helped themselves or received what they wanted in total harmony without a single parent overseeing proceedings. Children first - who had ever heard of that! Many of us used the stumps as tables and shared our meals. To me, it was a revelation and the memory of that happy day will last forever.
Lunch break over, some of the adults and their children elected to catnap briefly while others offered to pack up and give our meagre leftovers to the birds, who had waited patiently.
Rory was the only toddler in the group and he was on his dad's back, in the haversack, sitting on a bolster over Mae's picnic containers and the empty water bags, all safe and sound. We had a twenty minute walk through the forest to reach the escarpment and the descent was a bullock track, in current use. Grandad had timed our arrival at exactly the right moment, thus enabling us to see how expertly those strong and agile beasts controlled the great log on its descent, by digging their hind legs into the soft ground, lined up on either side of the log when it reached the point of balance, then sitting deep in their heavy breeching straps to control its descent. I was overawed, aware that one error by only one bullock could maim them all and split the log to matchwood.
Then it was our turn to make the descent, on the bullock tracks, in even numbers on either side. We moved with great care down the steep slope, selecting each foothold to avoid deep pug holes, made by the bullocks as they 'dug in', to steady the log. We all reached the valley floor without mishap, just in time to see the huge log loaded on to the jinker with such ease and speed that I wondered why anyone thought it necessary to replace these gentle giants with the noisy machines which were starting to appear in more easily accessed forests down near the great coastal rivers, according to Mae, who was even a bit doubtful about milking machines for the cows.
Back on the truck tray, I was no longer scared about the return journey, confident that Grandad would miss all the worst bumps and get us safely home for a quick afternoon tea before milking time. Mae and Walter's place was the most remote, so we were the first to leave the truck, thanking everyone for a great day. As we walked up the hill to the house, I knew it had been the best day of my life. All those wonderful people together, caring and sharing a family picnic, with never a cross word between them - it made me so happy that I burst into tears of joy. Mae wiped the tears and gave me a hug. We drank our tea and ate our cornflakes coated biscuits, my special favourites which she used to bake at Pymble when I was really little. We then washed our hands and followed Walter and Rory towards the milking shed where the cows were already waiting in the outside yard, relaxed and chewing their cuds.
With nearly two more weeks of holiday ahead, I fitted into the household routine like a veteran, perhaps because life at home and with School and the horses was also ruled by the clock. The days followed a definite pattern, both with Mae's new family responsibilities here and mine in Pymble, but I had no homework on this lovely farm and the early nights made me more alert and perceptive. Ted continued to help Walter with two-man jobs like fencing and house maintenance, and in free moments, taught me how to catch and gut the freshwater fish in the deep waterholes of the sometimes turbulent stream which flowed right through the property and most of the grazing paddocks. Stock on high ground were watered in troughs by a system of pipes running uphill from the stream to a very big tank, pumped up there by a hydraulic ram once or twice a day, depending on the needs of the animals. The ram fascinated me - it was such a clever device, it's only drawback being lack of automation - it had to be primed every time it was started and I lacked the skill to do it until Ted sorted me out.
During the final week of my stay, Gran and Grandpa organised another family picnic on their property on the banks of the Richmond River. To my absolute joy, we travelled there in comfort, standing up on the sledge behind Toby, following well-used, soft tracks on the grassed verges beside the road. It was quite a long journey but every moment was precious to me as the sledge made no sound as it slid over the stoneless grass and Toby took huge strides, covering the miles with incredible ease, his load a featherweight compared with cream cans, full to the brim and well tied, as that journey was mostly downhill, with the brakes on, to keep the sledge fully under control. Rory, looking over his Dad's head and the horse's broad back, travelled as before, in the haversack, atop the picnic tins and on a folded rug, as he was too small to reach the rails on the sled. It was a light load, with no water or fruit required; just whatever we wanted to cook on the gridirons or in the coals.
On arrival, Mae led Rory towards the house, disregarding the excitement of the family work horses, who apparently always welcomed Toby with great enthusiasm, and galloped with him, right round their huge paddock when he was unharnessed and allowed to join them.
During that second wonderful picnic, this time well supervised by parents, especially when we littlies all wanted to go swimming in the fairly fast flowing river before lunch, I felt terribly sad when I overheard a couple of young men saying the days of sleds and work horses would soon be over and the world could get going - at last! Remembering Uncle Clem's apparent inability to differentiate between horseflesh and cold steel when talking to Rosy Rolls Royce, a shiver ran down my spine. But not for long. The picnic was superb and after our catnaps, we played organised games of volley ball, cricket and soccer and finished with an exciting treasure hunt, in the unstocked fields, in full view of the organisers, ensuring the safety of every participant - minus the tiny tots, who remained with their parents and played around them.
The remaining five days passed in a blur of elation and sadness, all mixed up between wanting to stay with Mae and her family forever, in this beautiful, self sufficient place and my need to get home to see my mother and hopefully, my father too, and be reunited with Rene, Patsy, Jock and Terrence. On the day of my departure, Ted brought the family car round to enable Walter, Mae and Rory to take me to the train, after morning milking. He was not coming to the station to watch the tears, because Walter wanted him to check that the dip would be spotless and ready for the cows tomorrow morning. It was a good note on which to say farewell to the farm, as the dipping was the only procedure which I had not really enjoyed.
After the expansive vistas of the farm, the platform and station buildings looked cramped and tired, suddenly bringing back memories of my outgoing journey and making me scared. Mae had expected this eventuality and was well prepared to handle it.
'You won't be sick on this journey, Margot. You'll get your travelling legs under you long before the line gets twisty and by then you'll be more than half way home and you won't notice the curves at all. Everyone agrees that the ride down to Sydney is much easier than the return. I've packed everything you could possibly need tho, just in case. And there's plenty to eat and drink in the carryall.'
She spoke with authority, giving me confidence. Walter, who had made the trip on quite a few occasions, smiled and leaned over to give me a hug, in full agreement with Mae's thoughts on the subject and Rory clapped his hands together and hugged my knees, addressing me by name, as Margoo, which sounded really nice.
'You can use the carryall for your next visit - no need to send it back. And we all hope that will be often. Not just us, but Gran and Grandad and all the family - they couldn't believe a city kid could fit in so well. We'll all miss you, and look! The train's coming and we never even heard it! See, it'll be down hill and easy going, all the way.' Mae was right; the train whispered its way along the side of the platform. Walter gave me another hug, saying,
'It's not always so quiet; you have scored a top engine driver - lucky girl! The scenery's just grand too. You will enjoy this trip'.
As my suitcase was not very big or heavy, Walter took it into the
carriage for me and placed it in the luggage rack above my seat.
'Will save you time at Hornsby, when Rene meets you. The guard will get it down for you if you ask him well before the station, when he'll be busy. About Berowra, which you know well, because you told us all about your friend, Rosemary who ran away from boarding school one night, thinking she could hear her favourite cow calling her.'
I had a window seat, going in the right direction, so I opened it and we held hands and blew kisses to one another until the whistle blew and I saw my dear friends getting smaller and smaller as the train gathered speed. There were no other passengers in the compartment at that stage, so I had time alone to shed a lot of tears of deep sadness, until the beauty of the countryside, as mentioned by Walter, demanded my full attention and my spirits rose sky high, with the happy thought that I would return again and again and one day perhaps, even marry Ted. Ah, the simple dreams of childhood!
Happy now, the structure of the compartment caught my attention. It was quiet and restful, with large, framed, sepia photographs of rural scenes behind clear glass on the wood panelled walls and corked bottles of water in strong holders. The leather seats were luxurious, with adjustable footrests and the floor was carpeted in a deep, deep red with some fine black design woven into it. I had travelled by train to Canberra and to Capertee on many occasions, but those train carriages had lacked the grandeur of this train, which turned out to be the Brisbane to Sydney Express.
Through Casino, Grafton and all points south, the smooth journey continued to enthral me. The seats in my compartment did not fill till Grafton, where a mother and son smiled and took their seats beside me, and another, with two daughters, sat down, opposite, and we all made friends before the whistle blew. The young people were on their way to Sydney to become boarders at secondary matriculation colleges. Although older than I, we found we had much in common, especially when the conversation turned to their horses and country lifestyles.
We shared our packed meals and walked the corridors for exercise as the train purred along through majestic, tall forest country. As the sunlight slowly diminished, we sat up talking till the lights were dimmed, then settled down for a good night's sleep. Without any 'rocking and rolling' during the journey, the train simply proceeded on its way and when woken by the early light of a new day, we found ourselves on a rail bridge, clickity clack, across the Hunter River, near Maitland, about four hours from my journey's end The train stopped for breakfast at a small station soon after we crossed the Hunter and we purchased cups of tea and bread rolls with bacon and egg inside, to still our pangs of hunger.
Near Berowra, the guard lifted my bag from the luggage rack, as Walter had suggested, so I farewelled my travel companions, thanked them for their good fellowship throughout the journey and wished them success in their endeavours.
As I stepped onto the platform at Hornsby, there was Mae's kind sister Rene to meet me with open arms, which soon hugged me tight and made me feel good. We had to change platforms at Hornsby to catch our electric 'red rattler' to Pymble. Rene wanted to know all about the family at Kyogle and was relieved to hear that they were in good health, prospering and very happy. I then went on to briefly describe the aura of love and goodwill within the entire extended family, and its positive acceptance of me when we were all together for two wonderful picnics. She, in turn, told me that my mother was well, my daddy had returned home, just as she was leaving to meet me, that Terrence was delighted to see him and that Jock was in fine fettle, but had cast a shoe, so I would need to take him to visit the farrier before he could be ridden. Mother had left money to cover a full change of shoes, if necessary.
We met Father and faithful dog, about to walk through the front gate, and on their way to meet us. Our reunion was joyful and they both looked marvellous. What a great homecoming! Once inside the house, I rang Patsy to arrange a brief ride, explaining that I did not know how long I would have to wait to get Jock shod, so could not give an exact ETA, but would do my best to arrive before 3 o'clock I then quickly changed my clothes, grabbed a glass of milk and a sandwich from Rene, gave Father another big hug and raced through the door like a hurricane, with Terrence in hot pursuit.
Mr and Mrs Dix were in the orchard, picking fruit, when dog and I arrived, breathless. They wanted to talk, of course, about Mae and Walter and Rory, and I had to be rude and express the reason for this mad rush and why it was necessary - a simple little matter of a cast shoe! But at least I had enough manners to say that the family was fine and I would tell them all about my visit to Kyogle later this afternoon. Looking a little bit flustered, Mrs Dix said.
'That's fine, luv, but be real careful on tha 'ighway. Jock aint dun much work since ya bin up at Mae's place'.
'Thanks for telling me, Mrs Dix. I'll only ride him on the grass verges to our place, then lead him over the railway bridge, and on the grass beside the footpath, both going down to the forge and coming back. Saves crossing the highway.'
Back at our place, I led Jock through the gate and called for Rene, hoping she'd hear me and she did.
'Rene, I don't think I should take Terry. With Father having been away, and not exercising him, the dog may get footsore. Would you mind holding Jock while I put him on the chain, and when you take Father his afternoon tea, could you please tell him he's there and might like to go for a walk. I should have thought about it before I let him follow me to your Mum and Pop's place. It was selfish of me to rush off, leaving poor Daddy with only the noisy old typewriter for company. I've learned more about good manners, respect and sharing at Kyogle than anywhere else I've visited and now I've only just got home and can't help making mistakes. I'm sorry, Rene. And thank you for holding Jock'.
She smiled, and told me not to worry. Feeling awful about my lack of consideration for both my father, and now Rene too, I led Jock back through the gate, across the railway bridge and down to the forge where the farrier did not take long to make him roadworthy. Thanking him and handing him his fee, I climbed aboard and set off towards Patsy's place, knowing I would find it hard to upset Patsy, who was far too smart to let me get away with it.
Patsy and I enjoyed a brief, pleasant ride in the bush together and she showed intense interest in my Kyogle stories.
'Sounds like a great family', she stated, 'where everyone shares equally and no one is ever neglected. I was very moved by the edict of 'children first'. I'm really glad that you had such a marvellous holiday. It will give you confidence to tackle any problems you may run into at your new school, and I hope you find it much better than expected'.
'Thanks Patsy. I hope we'll continue to find time to ride in the Chase and remain best friends.'
'We will', she insisted. 'Next Sunday I'd like to show you a whole new area that Dinky and I discovered while you were away. I think it will amaze you!
We parted at the last track leading towards Gordon before Mona Vale Road, and I let Jock move along for a couple of miles to ensure that I would not be late home, knowing we were duty bound to walk for the last two. That way, Jock arrived at the Dix's without having raised a sweat. Mr and Mrs Dix had heard us coming and were waiting to close the heavy, five bar gate behind us, anxious to hear more news of Mae, Walter and Rory. With their last daughter now working for Mrs Hamilton, they must have been feeling a bit lonely, even although they were such very good friends to one another, so I massaged Jock's pressure areas and fed him, quick smart. All the horse gear was now reinstated in the Dix's spare room on their back verandah and the big, zinc-lined feed bin stood between it and the back door, safe from storm and tempest. This change had been accomplished while I was at Mae's place, to make it easier for Mr Egan's daughter to feed Jock if her father hurt his back again.
Having everything in the one place was wonderful, but surely it would have made more sense for them to have asked Mr or Mrs Dix, with all their old fashioned horse knowledge, to feed Jock, but I suppose propriety would not allow it. After three weeks in an environment of love and respect, that thought devastated me and all I could do was give Jock a hug round his dear old neck, then open the garden gate, go up the steps, cross the verandah and briefly describe my incredible and life changing holiday with Mae and her wonderful new family. I then admitted that I had to start at my new school tomorrow and needed to get home now for an early night, but asked whether I could visit them tomorrow, after school., for them to see the pictures I had 'snapped' on my Baby Brownie camera. Mother had taken the film to her work place this morning to have it developed.
'There's just so much to tell you!' I exclaimed.
They smiled at me and Mr Dix said,
'Tha rolla's jist round in Orana Avenue, outside yor friend Mickey's place. Round about 4 o'clock'll be fine'
After final hugs, I suddenly felt guilty about Mickey. We had met at Sylvan School and became good friends, as he liked frogs and creeks and drains as much as I and we often shared a secret playground which we passed each day, going to and from school. It was in a deep, heavily timbered gully, fenced off, below Orana Avenue, from opposite Mickey's house, on the higher side of the road. It continued to the junction with Church Street and around the corner, to the place where Jock's blood finally stopped flowing after his car crash. There the fence turned left along the edge of the bush and ceased to be visible, with grassland and livestock grazing peacefully on the other side, ensuring that our playground remained our secret.
On reaching home, I found Father and Terry in the garden, admiring the zinnias, both pleased to see me, and Rene relieved that I had 'made it in time' to bathe and dress for dinner, well ahead of Mother's arrival.
The evening was pleasant, without any acrimony at all. Mother was
genuinely pleased to see me 'looking so fit and well', but asked no
questions about my holiday, except to say that my photographs were in
the right hand drawer of my desk. Conversation topics were wide
ranging, sophisticated and idealistic, leaving me out of my depth
most of the time, or at least until Jock or Terrence were mentioned,
thus making me realise that from this day onward, my early childhood
was over. I was now nearly two months over ten years old, would go to
my new school tomorrow and 'had to grow up', leaving the past behind.
Mickey, a year younger than I, had an elder sister, Judith, with whom
he was 'best friends' and sombrely shaking my hand, he said he
The evening was pleasant, without any acrimony at all. Mother was genuinely pleased to see me 'looking so fit and well', but asked no questions about my holiday, except to say that my photographs were in the right hand drawer of my desk. Conversation topics were wide ranging, sophisticated and idealistic, leaving me out of my depth most of the time, or at least until Jock or Terrence were mentioned, thus making me realise that from this day onward, my early childhood was over. I was now nearly two months over ten years old, would go to my new school tomorrow and 'had to grow up', leaving the past behind. Mickey, a year younger than I, had an elder sister, Judith, with whom he was 'best friends' and sombrely shaking my hand, he said he understood.
The document, 'The Road to the Farm' is the copyright © of the author, Margot Paterson. All rights reserved by the author.