Port Fairy 1950

A PORT FAIRY LIFE IN THE 1950’S

Dublin House

The birds sat on the edge of the roof and occasionally flew down to test the fruit. The tree had a life of its own, over the years its roots had succeeded in destroying the concrete and travelled over a wide area to where it felt they should be. It had resisted all efforts to tame it, cutting it back over the years had only made it spread broader and the branches had become gnarled and knotted in the process. It burst into pink flower every spring although in any year, apart from rain, not one drop of moisture was offered to it. I lay under the tree in the summer when the branches were filled with leaves and fruit, the sunlight came filtering through in patches and watched the birds enjoy the picking on the higher branches.‘Mum… Mummm… can I eat some of the nectarines?’

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‘Just one or two, make sure they’re ripe.. watch out for worms.’

‘Bring in some ripe nectarines when you come, we’ll slice them up for sweets and have them with ice cream.’

I liked the smell of the ripe fruit that perfumed the air and its independence, just like the mint patch that someone had foolishly planted under a dripping tap and now filled the entire yard, only the nectarine tree had resisted the mint and kept it at bay. It had several places where you could snuggle among its roots or lower branches to feel part of the tree to share in its feelings, to understand it. Towns, hospitals, car racing tracks and secret hidy places where you could safely keep any valuables, they were all there, all in that tree.

‘When you’ve done that, come in and give me a hand.’ My mother was calling again.

‘Awright! Do I have to?’ I had to.

It was too late, she had gone back into the kitchen and the door was closed.

I finished the nectarines and carefully planted the stones, a tree will grow there, a big tree, just like this one with plenty of fruit. Picking eight ripe fruits from the tree, headed for the house, passing the fern, I ran fingers along the feathery leaves and at the end, snapped off a small piece to look at more closely.

‘Help me get the seeds out of the melon’ It was jam making time and every year it was the same.

My Mother was holding the wire door open and calling me in.

‘Aw Mum, do I have to?’ There was no way out, but it was worth another try.

‘Yes!’

‘Here’s the nectarines, where’ll I put them?’ carrying the fruits in the front of my jumper.

‘Over on the sink.’

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Sitting on the kitchen table were two huge yellowy green melons.

‘Mum, doesn’t this leaf look like those biscuits, you know, the ones with the small dots?’

Mum had planted the fern outside the dining room window and the back of the leaves had small even brown dots, it was one she’d collected from someone else’s garden, like most of the flowers, shrubs and pot plants, she was forever striking a cutting.

‘Yes’

‘Get the small knife out of the drawer.’

Looking at the back of the fern leaf picked on the way past, I was again taken by the absolute symetry of the brown dots and the velvety smooth feel.

‘Which one?’

‘The small one that I use for vegetables.’

‘This one?’

‘That’s it, now I’ll cut the melon into slices and you use the small knife to get out the seeds.’

‘Where’ll I put the seeds?’

‘In the bowl. I’ll put them into boil with the jam in a cloth.’

The huge copper jam boiler stood on the table which had been carefully covered with some newspaper to protect the new surface.

‘Is it melon and ginger or melon and lemon?’

‘What do you like best?’

‘Melon and ginger.’

‘Me too.’

I begrudged the time spent picking the seeds from the melons,  but it was good to sit with Mum and watch as she weighed the melon and sugar, layering it in the pot as we worked. As we got to the end of the melon and the last layer was going into the pot, she added the chopped preserved ginger and a squeeze of lemon before putting the pot on the gas.

 

‘Why do you put the jars in the oven Mum?’

‘It stops them breaking when the hot jam goes in!’

‘Where’d you get all the jars from?’

‘I saved them from last year!’

‘How many jars will it make Mum?’

‘About three dozen, now hop off and let me finish,’ never allowed to help in the bottling, mother’s fear that I would burn myself on the hot jam meant she did the job alone.

‘Can I lick out the saucepan when it’s finished?’

‘Come back in a jiffy and I’ll give you the spoon to lick.’

‘Can I do the front step now then?’

‘All right, but don’t get boot polish all over you.’

Polishing the blue stone front step until it glowed, gave me a chance to sit at the front door and watch the passing parade for a while. I wasn’t allowed to sit at the window in the lounge room, even though it looked out onto the street,  my mother didn’t like the way I had to open the curtains to see out, she said that people in the town would say I was a sticky beak and a reputation of that sort was not worth having. The step was different, there, you could stretch the job to a full hours worth of watching,  there was a plenty to see, people coming and going from the butcher shop, ladies coming in to see Mrs Phillips, the new dressmaker who had just rented the shop on the other side, the shop in front of the nectarine tree. Across the road and down the lane a bit the blacksmiths shop was always being visited by farmers to get their horses shod or have some welding done. If timed it right, I might even be able to see Mrs Snow as she walked her dog Boofie and chatted amiably with it the whole time. The highlight would be if Boofie decided to pee or pooh, in which case Mrs Snow would stop, wait until he had completed the task, remove a small roll of toilet paper from her bag and wipe clean which ever organ had been used. The dogs that owned that stretch of street, decided that Boofie was too stupid for words and, at the sight of Mrs Snow, retreated to the opposite side of the road and there, followed Boofie and Mrs Snow’s progress down the street with continuous barking. Mrs Snow would occasionally make an charge accross the street clutching Boofie under one arm and swing her handbag in the other. The local pack would break up for a short time, but quickly re-assemble accross the other side of the street and the parade would continue.

 

‘Can’t get the washing dry!’

‘Mine’s in front of the kitchen fire, too wet’

The opening gambit for Mrs Miller and Mrs Caulfield for their mid morning daily across the street chat. They had lived opposite each other for years, all their conversations were carried on this way, mid morning cup of tea and late afternoon. They hung over their respective front fences, Mrs Caulfield at the front gate of the tiny house and unoccupied shop and Mrs Miller over the front verandah rail, right on the street of the house and corner shop opposite. In the course of time they discussed the business of the entire town, interrupted by passing traffic and occasional delays as Laura Miller paused to serve a customer in her tiny milk bar shop, right on the corner.

 

Even though I had to strain my ears, they lived four or five houses up, over the years both had developed the ability to cast her voice and it was often claimed that they could be heard at the other end of the block and certainly heard by people walking down the street or up the street giving them the choice of being involved or waiting it out before they passed.

‘Heard that Mrs Pressnell was in hospital!’ Mrs Miller called.

‘I didn’t know that, how is she?’

Mrs Caulfield didn’t like being beaten to the draw with the latest news.

‘Speak up I can’t ear yer!’

Mrs Miller had missed the last bit, a car had trundled by.

‘Quite sick, poor thing.’

He knew who they were talking about, my mother knew Mrs Presnell. Poor old Pressie, she called her. When she died, she remained, poor old Pressie. Poor old Pressie’s only interest in life after her husband died was the bowling club. Every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, she donned the whites, put her bowling hat at a jaunty angle, collected her basket and handbag and strolled the one block up to the bowling green. Rain, hail or shine, she went there, always in whites. If the weather was too bad to play, she and the other bowlers would heat up the huge hot water urn and drink tea and gossip for a couple of hours. Her shopping was always delivered, based on a standing order she had with the butcher, greengrocer and grocer, she insisted on the same delivery people every time and each was given a small token at Christmas time in thanks, left neatly wrapped in some old paper that she had saved during the year. She never once had her house painted and the original paint peeled slowly away, leaving weatherboards exposed and looking like faded tiger skin. The garden had been allowed to die, a lawn of springy grass that never needed mowing, allowed to grow. The  house seemed to be in mourning on the outside and on the inside, she lived in absolute privacy. Deliveries were made to the laundry where the correct money was always left and even when my mother visited her after she became ill one time and was not seen for a week at the bowling club, she was met at the front door by poor old Pressie wearing a sensible apron and not asked in. Only when she died and they went to look for her  because no one had seen her for a few weeks and the groceries and meat were not collected from the laundry did someone enter. Maybe that’s why my mother called her poor old Pressie. She died alone and in private in just the way she wanted and lived her life. The house was left to a distant relative who never even came to see it, just put it up for sale along with the contents. It was only when the contents were auctioned that towns people got a chance to see how she lived and saw that the house was filled with large dark wooden furniture and a few oval framed coloured photographs of her and her late husbands distant relatives.

 

‘How’s Jack today?’ Mrs Miller called again as she returned after serving her customer, Mrs Caulfield was well used to these interuptions.

‘Orff at work, that place’ll kill ‘im yet.’

Jack worked for the shire and was on the roads, he rode to work on an ancient bicycle with handle bars set at a very upright position and the seat well sprung and  looked truly sedate as he rolled majestically down the street. Jack rode the bicycle four times each day, going to work in the morning, home for lunch at twelve noon, back to the shire yard at one then home again, via the Caledonian for his customary three stouts, at five. His dinner was on the table whether he was there or not at six sharp and was removed at six thirty if he had not made it home. It would re-appear again the next evening after Mrs Caulfield had reheated it on top of a saucepan of boiling water with the saucepan lid on top at exactly the same time the next day. And not a word would ever be said. It was considered by the people in the town that they had a perfect marriage since no one in living memory had ever heard a raised voice or a word spoken in anger between them. Jack’s only other bicycle ride was to the local football field on a Satrurday where he watched his son play in the local team and sat with his mates near the beer tent that was set up along side the grandstand and which the women of the associates committee frowned upon and would not give up their useage of the catering room at one end of the grandstand in which, every Saturday, they raised the wooden sides, propped them up on long pieces of timber and sold hot dogs and sandwiches. Mrs Caulfield was on the auxillory committee, but she rode to the football field in the car of another committee member or walked if no ride was available. She liked working in the catering room, that way she could keeop an eye on Jack and glare at him if she thought he was drinking one too many.

 

‘ang on a minute.’

Mrs Miller had another customer.

Mrs Millers shop was her only means of support after her husband had died leaving her with two daughters and a son to raise. She had opened the shop after contacting the local area representative of the chocolate comapny and asked him for a number or large cardboard replicas of the various chocolates and sweets, these she used to fill the window and then hung a lace curtain, which she could easily see through, between the window and the shop. She contacted the area manager of the most popular brand of ice creams and was lucky enough to be able to purchase, quite cheaply, a second hand ice cream fridge that had been re-enamelled a lovely shade of green, the stainless steel top had been rebuffed and the ice cream containers slipped down into the circular pits that were topped with a heavy lid with thick rubber seals and black handle. There was one or two vacant circular holes and in one she kept the milk and in the other, supplies of the ice blocks she made two or three times a week from cordial she purchased from the local soft drink manufacturer and sold to the children in cones for a couple of pennies. Apart from that Laura Miller had two major claims to fame, she made the best meat pies in town, even though she wasn’t a baker and she only made enough every day to cover what she knew she would sell. She purchased the meat from my father and was very demanding about how big it should be cut and how red it should be. The price for the meat would be subject to a daily discussion where the quality and amount of fat would enter into negotiations. Laura Miller always asked for Linsday since she trusted him and made it clear, that although she had known old Jack as she called my grandfather, since she was a girl, she didn’t trust the old bugger nor most of his thieving sons. Just why my father should have been chosen as the only fair and trustworthy member of the family was not clear, but she would deal with no one else and the meat pies would be delayed until he was able to serve her, her secret, so some of the women in the town claimed was that she included celery in the pies and this gave them a different flavour and kept them moist.  Her second claim to fame and the one which gave her the most satisfaction was that she made the best sponge cakes in the town, every year she took off the Port Fairy show prize against all the country women, many of whom had built fine and respected reputations on the lightness and texture of their sponge cakes. It was rumoured that she used swans eggs for the cakes giving them that extra something that no one else could match, although no one ever saw her collecting the eggs, it could have been possible since the upper reaches of the river were the home of swans and her son was known to enjoy hunting. The rumours would always begin to increase as the annual show approached and reach a crescendo when she was again announced as the winner and her cake stood proud with the sort after blue ribbon and printed card that said ‘best sponge in the annual show’. Many of the women who each year comperted against her were heard to be muttering ‘old rubber kneck’ is up to something. She had a long kneck which over the years was to become more and more lined and enable her to live up to her name.

 

The postman rode up on his cycle and handed me the letters from the morning delivery instead of pushing them through the brass letter slot that was part of the job of cleaning the step. I watched as he peddled up the street towards the two gossiping women and saw him hessitate. Too late, he was trapped, Laura Miller engaged him in conversation immediately, he was a golden source of local information and a chance not to be missed. He remained sitting on the seat of the bike while leaning against the railing of Mrs Millers verandah. If he had some time, he would allow the two women to press him for tit bits of information, in return for a cup of tea in which case this was taken as a signal by both women that there was indeed some gossip worthy of their attention and in time, and at his own pace, he could be coerced into divulging the gossip. If time was against him, he made his excuses and quickly peddled around the corner to continue his rounds, over many years and knowing his customers as well as he did, just watching the mail and knowing where it came from gave him a lot of insight into the lives of the locals. The only person likely to know more than the postman was the telegram man who not only recieved the telegrams on the morse code reciever, but delivered them. if there was a death, a win or some other major event, he was always the first to know.

 

Fridays was the best day for the exchange of gossip, it was the day that the country people came to town for shopping, providing more material for cross the street conversations since it could now encompass a much broader area as the people from the districts farms came to town for a days outing. For the two women, Friday was the day, a chance to expand their own horizons and to catch up with some of the country women who stopped by to collect some juicy bits and pieces of town gossip in return for whatever gossip was the local titilation in the many small farming communities around the town. It was a busy day and often saw Mrs Miller and Mrs Caulfield spending more time that they should leaning on the verandahs, but in view of the comming weekend when gossip would bound to be quiet, Fridays collections of titbits could carry them through. The only highlight on the weekend would be the local football match or the rush at six o’clock closing when those who had hurried to drink a few extra glasses and beat the clock would turn out from the hotels in bewildered and stunned conditions attempting to look sober and find their way home, or in the case of the dedicated drinker, spill out from the hotels clutching a few bottles and continue in the street outside.

 

‘Them Tilley girls was in town again.’ They were in town every friday, but it was an event and was mentioned each friday without fail by Mrs Caulfield whose fascination for the activity of the Tilley’s knew no bounds. She found herself on Thursday evenings anticipating the events of the next day with a certain vicarious thrill and not a little degree of wonder at the daring and exploits of the famous girls.

‘Gawd, did you see Josephine?’ Mrs Miller had made sure she saw her by popping a note on the front door which read ‘back in ten minutes’ and scooted down to the main street for the express purpose of seeing the sisters.

‘The way she chases after men, her father should stop her.’ Mrs Caulfield did not approve and was prepared to let anyone know who would care to listen.

The Tilley sisters, Josephine, Margaret and Babe were famous. They wanted to be glamorous, look glamorous and act glamorous and against all odds, not the least of which was a major shortage of money, they succeeded. Every Friday afternoon the Tilley sisters, arm in arm would parade up and down the streets, looking in all the windows, making eyes at all the men and generally turn the women folk of the town hostile.  They had the reputation as men chasers, thoroughly undeserved, since no man had ever won any of their hearts until Joe the Italian came along. And he won Josephine in a courtship that was heard and seen by the entire town and followed with increasing interest as it became clear he was succeeding.

 

The Tilley girls based their wardrobes on the latest styles that were on at the movies, part of the Friday experience, the whole family, after having a meal at the Craig Lea cafe or, later on when it was transformed, the Golden Fleece Road House, would attend the movies. Those in the know placed side wagers about the following Fridays outfits which, during the week would have been worked over restyled and redecorated in the current Hollywood style and they would arrive in town hairstyles changed, make up perfect and begin the parade all over again. The girls each had favourite stars and it was not difficult to tell who they were, Mae West featured prominently and was a real favourite of all three. In their own ways they had created a world of magic, when they lived in a real world which was harsh and difficult, they chose to live for short periods of every week, make believing they were somewhere else and quite different people.My mother knew that on Fridays I would peddle straight from school to the main street, just to catch a glimpse of the Tilley’s and then rush home to deliver the news on the latest look. Although reviled and laughed at by many women in the town, they lived a life that was full and rich and made the lives of many of the towns people dull and boring by comparrison. There second appearence was at the local Catholic Church each sunday for Mass when they would wait until the priest and altar boy had entered and begun their prayer where upon they would sweep into church as the organ was swelling with the last trumpets of sound and walk to the very front pew where they seated themselves in full view of the entire congreation.

 

Norma had spotted me doing the step and propelled her wheel chair along and was waiting for me to speak to her.

‘G’day Norma’ I wondered what her mood would be like today.

Norma mumbled a reply.

‘What are you doing today Norma?’ She did the same thing every day, but it was polite to at least ask her.

She mumbled another incoherent reply.

‘Mums’ takin me shopping, soon as I finish the step!’

I lied, she liked it when I took her for a walk and I wasn’t in the mood today. Down to the Caledonian Hotel and back, but the chair was hard to push and the footpath was badly cracked. I always worried that I might tip her out and nearly did one day when the home made wooden chair with the large back wheels got stuck in a crack in the footpath and if it hadn’t been for the help of a passing pedestrian, Norma and her chair would have tipped over.

 

At first Norma had frightened me, she looked so different, she couldn’t speak properly from her twisted mouth, she was short and dumpy and had a hairy face. Her Mother did her hair in a severe bowl cut which only succeeded in making her look more frightening. It was not the custom for families to expose their physically or mentally retarded children but Norma didn’t care nor did she conform to other peoples rules. Her biggest problem was a short temper which, if she was frustrated or angry could flare in seconds and the object of her temper was her Mother. Over time, her family had learned to allow Norma certain freedoms which she guarded carefully and learned to live her life making the most of the freedoms she had. She enjoyed the pictures and the local dances and balls, her family took her to the football all through the season and she had a special place reserved for her at the ground. Norma also enjoyed the accross the road conversations between Mrs Miller and Mrs caulfield and would propell her chair along the street to a spot closer so she could properly hear the conversations.

 

Norma had a brother Leo, who became the local real estate and stock and station agent. A confirmed batchelor, Leo, dressed in conservative country style drove a large black jaguar, never at spead, always within tolerable limits for a car of its delicacy and birthright, the car was a symbol of success and could often be seen in slow and sedate procession proceeding about the town and into the countryside. On the weekends it was to be seen doing the circuit that everyone did, when there was nothing better to do, around the oval, up to the east beach and then down to martins point.  Leo’s office was in the main street, next to the newsagent was correct in a military way, spartan and spare with the only sound being a pen on paper as everytthing was meticulously noted down and the occasional jingle of the telephone, but only with one or two rings from the hand opperated exchange, anything else would have been distracting. Interviews with potential customers were conducted in his office which he had equipped with a good solid desk, a filing cabinet in wood, an office chair of timber which swivelled and two guest chairs that could be moved from the back wall as necessity demanded. On the walls he had placed some photographs of the town which he’d had hand coloured and one of towerhill lake. The only other decoration was some photographs of horse race finnishes that he had sent off for when a particular race had taken his fancy. His office was closed when he was not in attendance and neat note was pinned to the door to inform customers when he would be returning. Leo always took great care to let the ladies of the telephone exchange know when he would be out so as not to inconvience any of his customers. As Leo’s fortunes improved, he moved away from the family home and the problems of deeling with his handicapped sister and purchased a house down near the river where he was able to live a life more suited to his taste.

 

‘Better go in now, I finished the step.’ Norma’s habbit of staring at people often made me uncomfortable.

Norma spun the chair around and stationed herself a few feet away from the door of the butchers shop, she could watch the boys at work and get a word or two of conversation. My father stuck his head out the door.

‘How’s my girlfriend today?’

Norma chuckled and looked girlish, she liked my father and he always had a kind word for her, he claimed that he had no trouble understanding her speach and they could occasionally be seen engaging in conversation although, I doubt this since her handicaps rendered her speach, to me at least, quite uninteligible.

 

‘I finished the step Mum! Can I go round to the gasworks?’ I called as I replaced the shoe black and brushes with the brasso and rags in the laundry box.

‘Don’t you get in their way and stay away from the fires.’

‘I’ll be awright Mum, I promise.’

I had two choices to get to the gas works, through the swamp and up by the fire station or down to the Caledonian Hotel and along the street past Miss Wrights, the piano teachers. Up to Mrs Millers Shop, turn left, down towards the Cordial factory, left at Digby’s house, the house directly behind our, through the shiny leaf hedge which we used in the summer time as our headquarters and into the areas of sluggish still water covered in swamp grasses and the several small streams leading in. It was the streams that most interested me since they were the breading ground for frogs. The swamp had been there a long time and was not the result of development, but a natural drain for the area. It was believed, at least by us, that the swamp area was a magical aboriginal site used on important ceremonial occasions and we spent a lot of time hunting for evidence.

 

Knowing your way across the swamp without getting wet was essential, keeping your shoes as free from mud as possible, just as important. Either one could have seen me prevented from going into the swamp and I spent a lot of time there. In the spring and summer when the swamp dried a little, it became a magic place, filled with endless possibilities, worlds within worlds. Life teamed in the small streams of water, tadpoles, larvae and even tiny fish all living in a minature world and all possible to see, observe and be part of. It was possible to create dams, divert streams and alter the flow of the water, to transform the place from swamp to busy harbour, to a city where the roads were all rivers, to wild mountains and deep oceans.  Water birds loved the swamp and a pair of spur winged plovers had nested there for years and every spring, took to the air squawking loudly and dived bombed anyone who entered their territory, as the eggs hatched and the chicks began to grow, the birds would redouble their efforts, anyone who came near to the nest was repeatedly dive bombed until they retreated to a safe distance, even hugging the ground and crawling was not helpful since the birds would swoop lower and lower. In the summer, the reeds would move in the breezes and the sun shine on the ripples of the water creating tiny waves of silver and gold. It was not difficult to create my own world, one far removed and completely different to the every day life of the town.

 

Comming up between the fire station and the housing flats, the side door of the fire station swung open and Tony Buzzard walked onto the street.

‘Whadya think your doin boy’ he spoke gruffly and directly.

‘Nothing’ I replied.

‘Whadya bin upta, making a nuisance of yerself I bet!’

‘Nothing’ I had no wish to speak to the man any more than was necessary.

‘Don’tya get in my way, now git orf withya’ I was told.

All muscles and aggression and smelling of liniment; and a well developed dislike of boys who he regarded as inherrently bad that must always be brought under control, he had no children of his own and treated the children of the town as nuisances, his attitude was little different with the fire brigade men. He was the Chief and they did what he wanted or hell and scorn were heaped on them from his fiery tongue. The fire brigade practised twice every week, Tuesdays and Thursdays and when it got closer to the annual fire brigade meetings where all the district brigades met in competition, every night and the relentless barage of abuse and abasement would be heaped on his men in ever more fulsome fashion. Because the fire station was just around the corner from the house, after tea, I was allowed to go and join the other kids who had come to watch. Tony Buzzard would stand in front of his men and roar abuse at them.

‘Yer bloody bunch of useless rubbish, yer couldn’t put out a match.’

‘Yer the spawn of the devil, yer bloody useless, not a bloody brain in yer head.’

It was always amazing the amount of abuse that each man seemed capable of taking without retort. If in the end, one of the men did retort it became a slanging match of vast proportions that could last for days as the victim discussed the whole matter with his mates at the pub and spent a lot of time feeling agrieved at being treated in this purile manner.

‘Make those bloody kids stay on the foorpath! Keep the little bastards out of the way. Git back you’s kids, git outtha way, keep back or else!’ We all moved out of the way.

‘Yer know which way to pull the bloody cart, yer like a bunch of old women, bloody poofters!’

‘You, you Mathews, why couldn’t you keep up you fat fool!’

‘Do it right this time Noggy or else I’ll kick yer ass.’

And the abuse would continue. The hose was not curled correctly, the water was turned on too soon, the cart was not travelling straight, the ladder was in the wrong place. They could do nothing right, his eyes were filled with fire and his chin set in a defiant and no nonesense way. Appealing to his better side was usueless since he had none. When that part of the practise was over, they all headed inside and polished the brass until it shone and even then the abuse continued. Even as he gave each man a quick rub down with the linament that he mixed himself, the abuse did not abate. Nothing made him happy and no matter how hard they tried, they never succeeded in doing what he wanted. The fact that they frequently did win the highest honours at the local meetings must have been why they stayed since putting yourself through the pergatory of a twice a week session of abuse could not have been easy. His reputation as a man who could repair muscular and other phyical problems with his own forms of massage was wide and every day, people would arrive from all parts of the country to consult him and submit themselves to his special form of verbal abuse as he bent and twisted their bodies. Over the years many claimed to have been cured of quite sever illnesses by this strange man and as his reputation grew, so too did his abuse. When I asked my father about Tony Buzzard, all he would say was that he was alright and when I met his wife, I wondered at why this placid and peaceful woman had ever married this strange excitable and foul mouthed man.

 

Later that year when the fire bell began to ring in the middle of the night, I ran to the window to see if I could spot the fire. It was David Browns house, just around the corner burning fiercely, I got the chance to see all that training in action and at last begin to appreciate the results of the abuse, our local fire brigade, although poor in equipment and forced to use things that they had had and nursed along for years, were an extrordinary team capable of dealing with any fire with great efficiency. Although David Browns house was damaged beyond immediate occupation, the fire was quickly controlled and stopped from spreading to the houses on either side. Many in the town claimed that it was because of David Browns drinking that the fire occurred in the first place, he would have had a lighted cigarette and have dropped off to sleep induced by too much beer. In time the whole town knew that David Brown was drinking too much as his appearence became more and more dissipated and he was known to be incoherent after lunch each day. At the weekends, in the winter when the hotel was closed, the serious drinkers of the town all went to the golf club where it was legal to drink, the gold club closed in the summer and so the drinking was transferred to the bowling club.

 

The gas works smelled of fresh tar and burning coal, the whole place was covered in a thick layer of coal dust and grime from the smoke. A maze of massive pieces of ancient steel equipment installed in the centre of a huge shed over the top of a fire pit where the ashes dropped from the tons of coal shovelled in. You could walk completely around the huge burners, but the back section was a fearful dark hot place and after venturing there once, it was not a place to return to.  I had to be careful, if I got in the way, I would be told to ‘git lorst’. The men spent a great deal of the time shovelling in huge spade fulls of coal into the roaring fires and watching the gauges, occasionally they would spurt a bit of water into the flames if they got too hot.

‘Hoo’s the kid?’ asked one of the men who had stripped down to a pair of overalls and a black berret in the intense heat and was freely sweating.

‘Bully’s boy’ my father was  called Bully by many of my friends and specially those who had been to the war with him, like so many names given to people in those days it was in complete contrast to him as a person since he was the least likely person to bully anyone. I asked him often how he had got the name and the only answer I could get was that he didn’t know. Uncle Syd suggested that it was because he used to kill the cows in the slaughteryard, but that was the most he would say.

‘Don’t come too close’ the younger man in the overalls was concerned, he was new and had not seen me here before so did not know if I was aware of the dangers.

‘I won’t, can I watch you for a while?’

‘Longas yer stand back and keep outa the way’ my fathers friend knew I was safe and would not get in the way.

I watched for a bit as the two men kept up a steady flow of coal into the four doors, it  was best when they opened one of the doors and the blast of heated air filled the room and the darkened corners of the old shed with the coal black walls was lighted up like someone throwing a piece of burning wood down a dark well, then the light would fade and return to black as the light from the burning coal would dim with the addition of new coal. The ovens reminded me of some fiersome beast as they roared and belched. The four great ovens all lead up to one single chimney, all day and all night it spewed black smoke into the sky, you could see the smoke rising well before you ever saw the town. It was one of the ways I always knew that we were nearly home when the family had travelled away from the town, that and the water tower which rose up like some small medieval castle as you approached it from the hills to the south.

 

There were two gasometers, one bigger than the other, neither was as big as the one behind Auntie Mons, but then Port Fairy was a small town. The gasometers themselves floated on water as they rose and fell with the amount of gas inside them, painted industrial red above a black line which was the line to indicate the gassometre was reaching its lowest level they sat within there great frames and rumbled up and down. In the late afternoon, they were always full and very high, by the next morning they were very much lower as the towns demand for gas had been met.

‘Who put all the gas pipes around the town?’

‘Dunno, maybe them convicts’ my father’s friend answered.

‘D’you know who done it Kevie?’

‘Nah!’

‘Do the fires ever go out?’ It seemed that this was impossible since they were always there every single time I had visited and I rarely walked past the gas works without dropping in.

‘Only when we clean em out’

‘How often do you have to clean em?’

‘Once a year’

‘But how do people cook when there’s no gas?’

‘It’s only one day, they manage.’

‘Shire’ll let em know when.’ The shire was the thing that everyone depended on and yet was the first thing to be critricised.

‘How do you clean them out?’

‘Wait’ll ay cool and git inside, scrape out all the tar, bugger of a job.’

‘To bloody hot ay Kevie.’

‘Dunno, I ain’t never done it.’

‘Your turn’ll come! haw haw haw’

‘Better git now, Shire engineer’s due and he’ll toss yer out.’

They were right, once before I’d been caught on the premises by the shire engineer and he was less than pleased and had spoken to my father when he called in for his parcel of meat and I had got into trouble for being a nuisance.

 

If I came one way to the gas works, I like to go home the other way.

 

Winifred Wright taught piano, played the organ, taught at sunday school as well as running choir practice as the Church of England. Her house, built right up to the street with a few steps leading up to the front door and windows that overlooked the footpath, her house was worth dawdling past on the off chance you could listen to some person trying to play the piano and stubling through the scales and notes. A spinster, she kept a neat house and divided her interests between church and teaching piano. The daughters of a local farming family who had missed out on finding a husband,  she had turned her genteel talents to making a small living.

‘Hello Peter’

‘Hello Miss Wright’ I muttered

‘When are you coming to Sunday school?’

I had been an intermittent student at Sunday School and only when my mother remembered was I made to go.

‘I dunno’ I replied, hoping that she was not going to speak about this to my mother when she next saw her.

‘Well come along soon.’ Miss Wright called over her shoulder.

And she was off, peddling the bicycle for all she was worth.

I headed towards the Caledonian Hotel and home, just in time for lunch and well within time so that my mother would have no cause to to cross with me.

 

‘Tonight’s the first night of training for the debs.’ My mother said as we sat at the tea table.

‘Where are you doing it?’

‘In the drill hall!’

‘What time?’

‘Eight o’clock!’

‘Can I come Mum, please Mum, I won’t get in the way.’

I liked to watch my mother doing things, she had spoken about the debs before and this would be my chance to be in on the workings of the whole thing before the big night came. I looked accross the table and noticed that my mother had carefully curled her hair and was wearing a hair net.

 

Mum was the official trainer of the debs to be presented at the Shire ball every year, she trained them how to walk, how to make the debs bow and how to do the dance. She also advised them on proper dress and what was expected of them on that night. It was a social highlight of the year. I knew that if they were doing it in the drill hall, there would be a good chance that the picture theatre with the connecting door would be open and this would give me a chance to test the echo’s in the empty theatre and frighten myself with the sounds and the darkness.

 

‘Only if you’re good and you have to come home after an hour.’ My mother was happy that I wanted to come even though she thought that I would become quickly boored, she enjoyed the chance of showing me that she was not just a housewife, but had talents and abilities that were in demand. Balls were Mum’s big thing, not only was she in demand as a deb trainer, but in the supper room she was regarded as the best meat carver in the district and was asked on many occasions to lend her talents.

 

When the nervous debs came in and took off their coats, hats and gloves, they were able to see for the first time who the competition for the great event was going to be. Girls from the town and girls from the country, some who had never before met each other were going to be vying for the attention of the public on the big night. They were weighing figure against figure, bust against bust, hair do against hair do and assesing their chances. Having been at first made to attend, they now had become determined to make the most of it all. Their partners were not required for the first few lessons and just as well since some of the girls had not yet settled on nor secured partners, at least, not acceptable partners. All sorts of things could be read into a couple at the debs ball, it more or less signalled that they were going out together and if some of the local gossips had their way, much more. The choice of a man to accompany a deb was fraught with a great deal of emotion on the part of the girls, much of which owed it origens to the first blushes of girl friend and boy friend learned years before in school when love notes became the game in class rooms. If all else failed and an acceptable and pliable beau could not be secured then a member of the family would have to be chosen since too much was read into the twosome and many young elligible men were very hessitant to accept and often had to be forced into accepting by parents who had made arangments between themselves after having decided that their two children would look good together. Some parents reacted with indignity when their daughters announced their choice for a partner and it did not fit in with the notion of the type of young man who deserved the honour, this was specially true of country girls whose familes may strongly dissaprove of a boy from a farm which ran sheep, when they had a dairy herd. Religion too played an important role and crossing the divide between catholic and protestant was only done rarely and resulted in increased gossip when it occurred. At this early stage of the proceedings, there were yet a couple more weeks before final choices of partners had to be made and frantic negotiations were taking place and would continue to take place until the deadline in order to secure the most efficatious outcome. From the towns point of view this was both expected and anticipated and people felt entitled to draw conclusions based on choices made.

 

‘Come on girls, pay attention!’ My mother was beginning to get the girls into some order. Twenty girls began to settle down and face the task of getting it right before the big night, partners asside, their own performance would come under intense scrutiny and the smallest mistake, lack of attention to detail, even a hair out of place would be noted and form the basis of much discussion at the many afternoon tea parties and auxillory meetings that would take place shortly after the big night.

‘Now I want you to watch me carefully’

My mother began to demonstrate the walk down the hall, pretending to be arm in arm with her partner and then, when she had reached a couple of yards away from the imaginary Mayor and his good wife, she performed the debs curtsy, the highlight of the event and the one thing apart from the dance which drew the most criticism. This consisted of swinging the right leg up and out, then swinging it in a gentle curve behind the left leg and bending the left knee while inclining the head. It all looked so simple. Just why my mother felt it to be so important, I couldn’t understand, that only became clear when the girls all tried to emulate her simple and smooth curtsy, most found it impossibly hard and several even fell over.  My mother delivered a short speach, telling the girls that the debs ball is the equivalent of a local show where experts judge the texture of the sponge, the lightness of scones and the distribution of fruit in a fruit cake. The only difference was this was them being judged, but none the less severely. She was attempting to get the girls to take the whole matter seriously and to frighten them into getting it right. For many of the girls, this night would be the crowing glory of their lives, since later, when they married and began to raise families, the photgraph of them making their debut, would take pride of place along side the wedding photo’s as the two times in her life when she dressed in a long gown and looked beautiful. In her own way, my mother knew this and went to as much trouble as she could to make certain that this night would be one to remember.

 

‘You be the Mayor, sit up there and the girls will all curtsy to you.’

‘Ohh Mum.’ I was feeling embarrased.

‘Go on, or go home.’ my choices were now limited and I sat up in one of the two chairs placed for the mayor and my wife. The girls, all holding imaginary partners walked or in some cases, stumbled down the hall and in front of me, performed a variety of curtsy’s which, in many cases spoke a great deal about their upbringing. The country girls, shy and not used to any form of public airing, had spent more time rounding up the cows or riding horses, found the experience a daunting one, the town girls, more accustomed to public exposure and more sure of themselves soon picked up on the theatrics of the event and were beginning to enjoy themselves. What was clear was that none of them actually wanted to be there, but the persistent nagging of mothers determined to see their siblings ‘come out’ was the motivation, that and the fact that many would become the proud owner of their very first long frock and for a short time, become the centre of their familes attention.

 

The town had been abuzz for some weeks before hand as mother’s, egged on by those mothers who had succeeded in convincing daughters to participate worked hard on their own daughters. Age did not appear to be a relevant factor in deciding when a girl should be a deb, rather it was the time that it took a mother to convince her daughter as to the necessity of coming out. Mrs Miller had last year stood proudly watching her own two daughters, partnered by ‘acceptable’ young men, perform well in front of the town and country elite. This year, with her help many other mother’s had become convinced of the necessity of having their daughters do the same and the numbers had swelled. This was to be a bumper year. Nominations had to be in at the Shire Office some month or so before the event and the last minute rush spoke volumes about the effect of Mrs Miller’s gossip and persuasive powers along with the overall success of last years ball.

 

‘All right girls, that will be enough for tonight, could you all wear a long skirt next week, Miss Wright is coming along to play the piano for us.’ My mother was giving orders for the next weeks session.

 

It was over for that week and I had been allowed to stay for a whole two hours. I thought that it would be a bore when I discovered that the door adjoining the picture theatre was locked and my chance to test then echo’s and spend a little ‘fear time’ in the darkened theatre was thwarted, but had enjoyed watching the girls trying to get it right and succeeded in staying in my mothers good books. Next week dawned and I assumed that since I was so well behaved, would be allowed to attend once again. That was wrong, this week was ladies only since Mum intended to speak about the proper undergarments as well as dresses. Last year, she had succeeded in creating quite a spectacle, all the debs had warm the same dress but in varying shades of pale rainbow colours and the effect was applauded by all, This year she had to cap that and she did not require me to interrupt her train of thoughts. There was still eight or nine weeks training to come and the best part was watching the partners trying to master the steps of the walz as Miss Wright pounded it out on the piano and the dust was raised in the old hall. I hoped that I would be allowed to attend that night and watch the fun as the now partnered debs began to awkwardly practice the old fashioned dance steps which would take them from wall flower to blooming rose.

goo.gl/tES7jf

~ by peterwatson on October 5, 2019.

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