Me ‘n’ Pete sample

Me ’n’ Pete Recalling a Fifties’ Childhood

A History of a Catholic Family Part 3 1946-1953

Introduction

THIS IS THE third book in my social history series—an Australian social history through the eyes of ordinary people. The second book, War Depression War, ended with my father’s discharge from the Australian Navy and the building of our first house in the Sydney suburb of Lane Cove. Dad had finished the house a few months before my arrival on 22 July 1946. I was my parents’ third child and second son. In this third book, I talk about my early years, during which I gradually became conscious of the world around me. They were the immediate post-war years. The air was full of the talk of the War and the atrocities our diggers suffered at the hands of the Japanese. This third part ends in 1953 when I completed First Class at primary school, and the terrifying Sister Conleth succeeded in teaching a seven-year-old boy with a very short attention span to read.

There is so much of those years I remember. For example, my father’s running commentary on religious and political issues is so imprinted in my mind that I have clear memories of his speeches to my mother about the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Something evil called ‘communism’ was everywhere in conversations, and it was behind fighting in Korea, an Asian country that seemed at the end of the world. I was just four.

The Church authorities issued an urgent call to stand against the Soviet Union and its attempt to spread its atheistic ideology. Papal decrees and documents against communist ideology thundered from the pulpit. I, of course, knew nothing about papal writings, but I did hear Dad’s quoting from them and his condemnation of the political activities of the Communist Party of Australia. The coal strikes and the blackouts that suddenly darkened our rooms, forcing Dad to race to the cupboard for candles, resulted from that same party’s subversive activities.

My lifelong best friend, Pete, features in my story. Pete was a Rubella baby who had to struggle with poor eyesight. He would eventually lose all sight. His memories of those years as a blind adult make a fascinating story. Rubella, or German measles, was one of many childhood diseases that frightened kids. The warnings about highly infectious polio, incurable until the mid-1950s, frequently sounded from health professionals in the newspapers and on the wireless. Kids had to line up at school for all manner of vaccinations.

There were also our first holidays by the water at Tuggerah Lakes, north of Sydney and the exciting farm holiday in faraway Yea in Victoria, where we ran with the sheep and roamed the fields and the nearby bush. Quite unexpectedly, we witnessed the bloody slaughter of a sheep, a normal part of a sheep farm. We didn’t realise how privileged we were to go on holidays, let alone go to such exciting places.

War Depression War followed from Prison Hulk to Redemption, which covers my ancestors’ colonial period, beginning with a convict and a free settler on the First Fleet. Prison Hulk to Redemption ended with my mother’s family scattered around northwest and southwest New South Wales while my father’s family had moved to the big city, Sydney. My Wilson great-grandparents settled in Chatswood, a fledgling suburb on Sydney’s North Shore, where my grandfather Bert Wilson met and married Amy Bugden, who lived next door in Willoughby. Chatswood and Willoughby, together with Lane Cove, appear in this book as the geographical area of my childhood. War Depression War tells the story of my grandparents’ generation before focusing on my parents from childhood through to the first years of their marriage and the end of the Second World War.

Australia’s colonial period has no counterpart in modern world history. The First Fleet of eleven tiny ships (by today’s standards), sailing from England to the other side of the world, negotiated perilous uncharted waters to bring civilization to a continental mass we now call Australia. The ships landed civilization on the shores of Sydney Cove in the form of advanced science and technology, two and a half thousand years of political and moral philosophy, and the Judeo-Christian religion. From a base of nothing, convicts, waves of free settlers, and the descendants of both virtually performed a miracle.

From 1788 to the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, they built towns and cities, roads and bridges, established an enduring system of democratic government, and a thriving economy. In the 1880s, Australia was said to have had the highest living standard in the world. Things did not always go smoothly. There were faltering steps in government and economic management in the early years. There was also the clash of culture with the sparse nomadic tribes who spent much of their time waging war against each other. As in all cultural conflicts, one would prevail. That is the story of world history.

A nation or country is not a mass of land within geographical coordinates. A nation is a moral and political incorporation of people with a distinct culture and history living on a particular land mass. In this sense, the nomadic tribes had little to do with building the nation of Australia from scratch. That starting point was in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. My social history is particularly concerned with the part my family and my ancestors played in establishing the Australian nation. In 1950, ninety-five per cent of Australians, ordinary Australians, had a cultural history and identity like my family’s, the only significant difference being religion, that of Protestant or Catholic. This is their story, the story I continue in Me ‘n’ Pete.

***

 Chapter 1

Me and Pete

IT WAS, I’m pretty sure, in the third week of December 1960. The morning was bright and sunny, and the shimmering summer heat was already blasting the suburbs of Sydney. I had arrived home a few days before from boarding school. I do not remember who went with me—except Mr Allison was leading the way. Pete reckons Michael, my older brother, and my two sisters, Marie, and Narelle, were there, too. Michael has absolutely no memory of the occasion, and Narelle vaguely remembers seeing Pete sometime and somewhere in a hospital bed.

I followed Mr Allison into the entrance of a red brick building and then up narrow stairs, my eyes on his shiny black shoes as they trudged upward. Next thing I was standing a little to the side at the end of a bed, observing Pete flat on his back, his eyes still bandaged. I do not remember what we said. No doubt we swapped the usual comments, comments that passed unconsciously between best friends who had known each other all their lives. My attention was fixed on Pete lying rigid in bed, his white bandaged head partially framed by the window to the side through which the bright summer sun flowed out of a piercing blue sky—a sky Pete was never to see in such vividness again. I said something to Mr Allison as we left the Royal Prince Alfred’s eye ward, something about this latest drama with Pete’s eyes. Then I asked if it were true that Pete had to lie flat on his back for six weeks. I could not get over the idea of lying flat on your back for such a long time. Nothing seemed more frightening or impossible.

‘Yes, Gerard, it’s true,’ Mr Allison said, slowing and putting his hand on my shoulder. ‘The doctor said he must move as little as possible.’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t know how he does it, the poor little bloke. He has such courage. He’s borne it all without any complaint. He hasn’t moved.’

In December 1960, Pete was fifteen. The detached retina in one eye and glaucoma in both eyes would continue to work cruelly until he was blind by 1975. I had turned fourteen in July of that portentous year, 1960, the second year away from home. When I look back, I see that the two years of boarding school had been unsettling, though I had no idea of what preciousness I had turned my back on, not even sparing a glance backwards at pre-1959.

Pete’s detached retina and glaucoma and my visit to the hospital signalled the drawing of a curtain over the little bright gap that gave glimpses of acrobatics on balmy summer evenings in the front yard, Saturday matinees, my Cyclops and athletic clubs, Pete’s self-made picture shows, neighbourhood hikes, hunting cicadas, trips on the tram to Balmoral beach or Sydney’s Olympic pool, Christmas holiday trips to town, holidays on Queensland’s Gold Coast, and so much else that had made our childhood as happy as anyone could wish. These were Australia’s golden years. The 1960s would introduce a cultural revolution that would eventually upend everything. I begin my story here with Pete’s unique, entertaining character. His reminiscences form an important and illustrative part of my story. 

***

THE IMPULSE for writing about my childhood to show what life was like in 1950s Australia came to me while reading Hugh Lunn’s uproarious Over the Top with Jim (See Appendix II for the full account.) Before Lunn’s book, it had never entered my head, despite my ever-growing inclination to scribble down my thoughts and despite my mind continually returning to my childhood in the compulsive comparison of what happened then with the social life of Australia since the 1970s. There were also the frequent reminiscences I indulged in with Pete, who to some extent still lives in those times.

Social and political themes are rarely in our thoughts during these free-ranging reminiscences. Nobody is more non-political than Pete. We carry on laughing and sighing about the same fun, the same mischiefs, the same family incidents, and the same friends. We cannot imagine kids these days having anything like the self-made pleasures and self-organized adventures of our fifties’ childhood. Nor can we imagine the same consolation of family and friends when most families consisted of a mother and father cooperating with mutual purpose and respect. So, when I thought about it, it did come as a surprise that I never bothered to put it all down on paper. Lunn’s memoir changed that.

The idea of writing about my 1950s childhood kept on coming back to me long after I had finished Over the Top with Jim, but I curiously kept it to myself. That was until one evening several years later when I was on my way to pick up Pete. We were going to spend an evening chatting at our favourite Chinese restaurant in Dural. I was still thinking about the proposed memoir when I pulled into Pete’s driveway. I looked at the house in complete darkness. The memoir retreated to the back of my mind. I shook my head. I rapped on the flywire front door, which is always locked, protecting a dead-locked front door and listened. I heard movement on the inside, scuffing footsteps, and then the sound of hands and keys feeling around the door.

‘Gerard!’ says Pete, as he opens the door and manoeuvres himself outside, walking into me.

‘There are no lights on,’ I say, grabbing his hand and giving it a shake.

‘Yes, Gerard.’ He locks the doors and takes my arm to walk to the car. ‘Do I look okay?’

I glanced at his jumper. No spots this time.

‘You’re an idiot, aren’t you?’

‘Shut up, Gerard,’ he says defiantly.

Pete knows exactly what I mean. I wait until he settles and then shut the front passenger door.

‘I’ve told you before,’ I continue as I back out of his drive. ‘You should turn your lights on at night—show people there’s someone at home.’

‘Yes, Gerard.’

‘Pete, I’m serious. If your house is in darkness night after night, people will think there’s no one there. It’s an open invitation.’

He inclines his head and turns a little in my direction, wearing the sly amused smile I am so familiar with.

‘Yes, Gerard. Good to see you.’

‘I’m serious. How would you react if someone broke into your house with you sitting there listening to your music? It would scare the hell out of you.’

‘Would it?’

I glance at that expression. It was his polite way of saying it was time for the conversation to move on. Pete is not one for disputes about the way he lives.

‘You’re a stubborn old bugger, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, Gerard.’

Still the sly, amused smile.

‘You know, it would probably be the other way round,’ I comment as we come onto Galston Road. ‘You’d probably frighten the living daylights out of a burglar if he got in through the side window and you, sleeping like a Buddha in your armchair as you often do, suddenly let out a huge snort.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ he says, laughing.

‘No joke. It would be frightful. He wouldn’t know what was going on there in the dark—what sort of monster was emitting that terrible sound. He’d be out of there.’

‘You’re an idiot, Gerard.’

As we drive along Galston Road towards Dural, I continue to make up similar scenarios that have us laughing and kidding each other. Though blokes in their late sixties, we feel and behave no differently from when we were kids. Just before we arrive at the junction with Old Northern Road, the book about our childhood pops back into my head.

‘You know, Pete, I’m thinking about writing a sort of memoir.’

‘A memoir? About what?’ He turns his head towards me.

‘About us, of course. What do you think? About our childhood.’

‘Really? This is new.’

The junction of Galston and Old Northern Roads is bustling at that time of the evening, and manoeuvring the car into the restaurant’s car park a little further on is difficult. To make things worse, Pete is neurotic about noisy traffic he cannot see. So we suspend talk of the memoir.

‘Don’t say anything,’ I warn as I edge into the traffic flow and head for the precarious point where I must turn across the peak hour traffic into the car park.

‘Shut up, Gerard. I haven’t said a word.’

‘Well, don’t.’

Pete has this singular habit of using my name just about every time he speaks to me. Next comes the argument we always have in getting from the car to the restaurant. The broken-up, potholed bitumen car park is difficult enough to negotiate without Pete telling me to watch out whenever he stumbles in one of the unavoidable holes.

‘Well, watch where you’re going,’ I say.

Pete pays no attention, concentrating until we reach the restaurant, where a waitress ushers us to a table. After a brief discussion, we order the same dishes we order nearly every time: satay chicken, combination seafood, and fried rice. We delay ordering dessert, always banana fritters, saying we will wait to see how we feel after the main courses, knowing full well we cannot resist the oily fritters and blobs of ice cream. To top things off, we order a couple of Crown Lagers, Australia’s premium beer.

‘I think it’s a great idea,’ says Pete, after the waitress goes away to attend to our order.

‘The memoir?’

‘Yeah, I want you to do it. It’d be terrific. You’ll include me …?’

‘Of course. It will be about you and me. Me and Pete. Me and Pete ride again. Hi yo, Silver! Away!’

He laughs. ‘Very great and brilliant idea, Kemosabe.’

‘You think so?’ I smile at his perfect mimicking of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick.

‘Definitely. It would be great to have it all down in writing, all those terrific times … but how?

‘I’ll record it for you?’

I tell Pete how the idea came to me. I tell him about Lunn’s book and a few other childhood memoirs I later read. He has little interest in competing memoirs. Only our memories matter. Our Crown Lagers arrive. We talk about possible content, Pete reminding me again of the standout times and adventures. Our dishes come all at once, as always. I serve up, situating Pete’s plate and bowl where he likes to have them. I need not do it, but I nudge the bowl against his hand resting on the table edge. He feels for the spoon and fork and cups the bowl in his hands to ensure he knows its position. He pokes the knife and spoon around in the bowl and then begins eating.

I watch this routine, yet again wondering how it would be to always eat in the dark—in the pitch dark. He continues to talk and eat and ask questions. Occasionally his fork and spoon scoop up more than a mouthful of food, and he has to push it inside. Later, when we are hopping into the banana fritters and ice cream, he miscalculates and skewers a scoop of ice cream, which he has to gobble in. Now aware that a blind person is eating nearby, diners around us give him a few curious glances. I glance back, hoping my expression speaks the invitation to have a go at eating their Chinese dishes with a blindfold on. It takes courage to expose oneself in public in that manner. Finally, the empty plates are removed. When we have our cappuccinos, I say:

‘I want to begin with our very first memories. What are your first memories—and don’t tell me again you remember being born? This is the real thing, Pete.’

‘I do. I’ve told you …’

‘You’re really going to insist you remember the doctor lifting you up and slapping you on the bottom?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Come on, Pete, be serious. I want this to go in a book. People will think you’re crackers. Me, too, for repeating it.’

‘I tell you. I am not lying.’

‘Peter …’

‘I’m one thousand per cent sure.’ He points his fork in my direction.

‘How in blazes can anyone remember being born?’

‘Well, I don’t remember actually being born. I remember being held up and smacked.’

‘Nobody will believe it.’

‘I am telling you the absolute God’s honour truth.’ He drops his hands on the table and leans forward.

‘Have you ever heard anyone say …?’

‘I’m a freak, Gerard, a freak.’ He takes a sip of coffee.

‘Is that what you put it down to?’

‘Yes.’

‘Absolutely no doubts?’

‘None.’

‘I suppose you’re going to tell me you can still feel the sting of the slap?’

‘Boo-hoo … yes.’

‘And you can still hear your cry echoing around the delivery room, no doubt?’

‘If you want … no, wait.’ He stops and thinks. ‘You know, actually, I remember just being held up. I was told it took a couple of days before I really cried. So there you are, and I tell you I remember it. Now maybe if I had cried straight away, I wouldn’t have remembered it at all.’

‘What happened after that?’

‘I don’t remember anything after that until I was in a sort of operating theatre or waiting room,’ he continues, bending his head forward as he usually does when reflecting. ‘It was a small room where I could see for the very first time. Dr Sir Norman McAlister-Gregg was looking down at me. And he had glasses on … he had a white long-sleeved shirt … I think he had a funny sort of stethoscope around his neck … and the room itself had all sorts of pretty, coloured pictures on the walls. I was four months at that stage.’ He lifted his head. ‘At least Mum and Dad told me I was four months old when the doctor removed cataracts from my eyes. I was born with cataracts, you know. I was born totally blind due to cataracts over both eyes. Then, at the age of only four months, Sir Norman McAlister Gregg removed them. You know, he was a famous eye surgeon. But I’ve told you all this before, Gerard. I distinctly remember lying in his cot, and I could see him for the very first time. He was looking down at me. He was wearing glasses and a white long-sleeved shirt. The room had brightly coloured pictures all around the walls.’

‘You mean you went into hospital when you were four months old? You couldn’t see until then?’ Indeed, I had heard this before, but not in such detail.

‘Yes, to both.’

‘Because of your mother’s rubella?’

‘Correct.’

‘You remember hearing music, didn’t you?

‘That was later. I was lying in my cot in the Briary. I checked that out much later with Mum, and she said I was right.’

I shake my head, wondering again how it could be possible.

‘Are you listening, Gerard?’

‘Of course I am. Get on with it.’

‘Well, I don’t want you to get distracted.’

‘I’m all ears. I promise.’

He moves his head around as if he were sound-scanning the area. It is another mannerism I am familiar with. I try to imagine what his developed hearing picks up.

‘Anyway, I remember lying in my cot. I had just woken up from a sleep in the afternoon, and I heard a radio playing yonder, and it was playing the “Dance of the Reed Pipes” from The Nutcracker Ballet by Tchaikovsky. You know … dah, dah, dah …’ He hums several bars of the melody. ‘You know that one?’

‘Of course. I think Tchaikovsky’s music was the first classical music I became aware of,’ I say, distracted by a significant childhood memory. ‘Dad once brought a kid’s 78 back from one of his trips to Melbourne. I think it was before I started school. It was called the Waltz of the Mice, a kid’s story about mice dancing to music. But the music was really the “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker.’

‘“The Dance of the Reed Pipes” was the one I heard,’ he says, showing no interest at all in my story.

‘How did you know it was the Dance …?’

‘Don’t be stupid, Gerard. Of course, I learned later that the piece was by Tchaikovsky.’

He leans into his chair, tilting his head back, as he sometimes does when lost in thought or listening to music. His mind was ranging into his musical past.

‘What’s the next thing you remember?’ I say to bring him back.

‘I remember Auntie Marjorie picking me up from the cot. And she said: “Oh, we’ve got a wet patch here!” I wet my nappy.’ He sniggers. ‘This happened in the Briary.’

‘The Briary?’

‘In the street in Mosman, not far from Military Road where it overlooks Balmoral Beach. The Briary was the name of the house. We stayed there a couple of years.’ He pauses. ‘Just stay with me, Gerard,’ he says, concentrating. ‘I’m talking about the Briary. I remember getting into bed with Marjorie and having a cuddle. Marjorie was my aunt, my mother’s sister.’

Pete talks about his mother’s family and the Briary.

‘What else do you remember?’ I say to bring him back on track.

‘I remember being baptized.’ He taps the table edge with the fingers of both hands and turns his head slightly as if to aim an ear at me.

‘Let me get up off the floor.’

‘I do remember, Gerard. I won’t back down, no matter what you say. I remember being held by the minister. It was in our lounge room. The lounge room was packed. It was afternoon.’

‘In the lounge room? It gets madder by the minute.’

‘It was in the lounge room in the Briary. I remember exactly where it was. You walk into a large foyer, and the lounge room was on the left-hand side. Okay? It was crowded with people. The minister picked me up and held me in his arms while pouring water over me. I remember it! I remember him praying. I don’t remember the words … only the “Holy Ghost”.’

‘Staggering.’

‘I absolutely remember. He had a large sort of gown on, you know, also glasses.’

‘Do you remember his name, what sort of car he had, his wife’s name, his dog?’

‘I’m serious, Gerard.’

‘That’s what I am afraid of. Who’s going to believe it?’

This was the first of many conversations I had with Pete about the childhood memoir in the years that followed. I recorded a good number of them. We often brought up the same things, but he rarely contradicted himself, not about the memories of his birth or other people and events that he recalled in astonishing detail. We had many disputes about how and when some things happened, but more often than not, when I painstakingly checked them against information we could not dispute, he turned out to be right.

It caused me to wonder about the memories of his birth and baptism—about the details he never deviated from. I could not reject them out of hand. But how is it possible to have memories of such an early part of one’s life? I have never heard anything to equal the claim. I have exerted myself into a trance-like state to fix on my earliest memory. The result is that I can go back no further than a hazy memory of being in the cot in my parents’ bedroom when I would have been at least a year old. Clear, coherent memories only form around eighteen months to the two-year mark.

An explanation for Pete’s accurate memories may be that his life has been more static and unchanging than most. His first and only job was in the tranquil and protected environment of the family business, Diamond Traders, known for many years to just about every engaged couple in Sydney. He stumbled into marriage with an employee who, after fifteen years, packed up and shot through. Since then, he has lived alone, and though he has a circle of friends and family, he spends much of his time lost in his world of music in which he can indulge himself. There is also the darkness that has been imposed on him, enabling him to reflect long on a childhood untouched by any great sadness. That childhood remains intact. Its memories are all the vision and colour in the darkness of his daily life. Even so, that does not seem to account for such vivid memories of the first moments of existence.

There is not a time in my memory when I am unaware of Pete being around. He and his family moved into a house two doors up from us in Barwon Road, Lane Cove. It was early 1949. I was two and a half. Although I can calculate from the evidence of black and white photos that my memories go back further, I do not remember when we first met. Pete does, with characteristic vividness. Perhaps the fourteen months that separate us (he is older) makes a difference. In any case, we have been best friends since that first meeting. The words blindness, cataracts, and visual impairment are, of course, legitimate words, but legitimate in a technical sense, if I can put it that way.

From the beginning, I knew that Pete had problems with his eyes. I remember Mum commenting on it. It was a physical limitation, nothing else. And that is the way I have always thought about it. Even now, I do not think of him as being blind, though undoubtedly he is. I think of him as my lifelong friend who cannot see. There is a difference. In those days of long ago, I was hardly conscious of his sight problems. We mucked around having fun, as kids do. But when I think about it, I was always aware of certain behaviours peculiarly to Pete. I did not connect them with his sight.

He had a way of what I would call deep listening. Perhaps that stuck out against my hyperactive ways and my taking the lead in our activities. I was not given to much weighing up of what I wanted to do unless the parental cane loomed in my mind. I went into action, taking the kids—the Barwon Road gang—with me. What was there to think about except devising the best way of putting my plan into action? There was something different about Pete’s intense concentration. Then there was his way of feeling and smelling things. So often, I remember him picking up a ball, a toy car, or some other object, turning it around in his hands, then bringing it close to his eyes, and finally smelling it. The funny thing is that I do not remember ever commenting on that very individual behaviour. That was just Pete. That was his way. Besides, I had no time to reflect on such irrelevant matters. There were always things to do, and I had to do them. Last, there was Pete’s uncanny mimicking of famous people, his specialty being the radio stars of the time.

My mother would not let us listen to the popular ‘Goon Show’ with Peter Sellars, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe. I will discuss later the reasons for that tyrannical parental decision. It was a BBC radio show that the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) broadcast in the fifties and early sixties. I heard snippets of the show, but I know it mostly from Pete’s mimicking of its characters and the storylines he made up on the spot, satirizing one of radio’s most savage satires. When repeats of the Goon Show were broadcast years later, I came to appreciate the cleverness of his mimicry. Remarkably, there was little awareness in Pete of the Goon Show’s political and social satire, nor his political act in making fun of it.

Once I asked him whether he remembered one of Australia’s most clever and admired comedians, Roy Rene, with his famous character Mo McCackie. Rene’s last memorable performance was on ‘The New Atlantic Show’ in 1952, which enjoyed a nationwide audience. He died in 1954. I have vivid memories of Roy Rene because my father thought him funny and sometimes used some of Mo’s better-known sayings like ‘Strike me lucky!’ and ‘You little trimmer!’ Pete paused, said he remembered him faintly, and then launched into a perfect mimicry of Mo McCackie that had me laughing my head off, the effect his mimicry always had on me.

One hears of cases of a developed ability in people who, for whatever reason, suffer a mental or physical deficit. We are all astonished at the well-known instances of savants, some of whom cannot do a simple sum but can remember the weather on every single day of their life. Or the autistic boy who can draw a cityscape from memory in minute detail. Of course, I am not suggesting Pete suffers a mental deficit. Quite the contrary. But I do suspect that being a rubella baby somehow sharpened his senses to compensate for the damage done to his eyes. I have no idea if that’s right. Can someone remember being born? Pete says he can.

***

Chapter 2

Images and feelings

FROM CROWS Nest’s Mater Hospital, Mum and Dad took me home to join my sister Marie and my brother Michael in a brand-new house that Dad had recently finished building. That red brick house with its orange terra cotta roof at 18 Barwon Road, Lane Cove, would be our home for the next sixteen years. To lead us into the narrative of those years, I return to the morning of the 15th of February 1941. Dad stood at the foot of the altar of St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Grosvenor Street, Sydney City, scarcely believing his dreams had come true. He was marrying his beloved Marie Steele.

It did not matter that Mum’s parents refused to agree to their daughter marrying a sailor, a sailor without a future and likely of questionable moral character. Dad remained unperturbed. He would not let matters outside his control affect his happiness on his wedding day. The opinion of his parents-in-law, though disagreeable, was not significant. As for being a sailor, he was proud of his service on HMAS Sydney during the Mediterranean campaign and would remain outspokenly proud of it throughout his life. He would ignore the moral slur, attributing it to the ignorance of a shallow insulated snobbery. Mum, whose steady sober-minded character would not allow herself to take up with a man unless she loved him with her tender, innocent heart, must have felt regret mixed with her happiness, although I never heard her utter a single word about it.

To ensure Mum understood the unacceptability of such grave filial disobedience, her parents announced their intention to boycott the wedding. As it turned out, Mum’s mother arrived with her sister Hilda during the ceremony and sat at the back of the church. It seems Hilda prevailed upon her sister to go. Perhaps the cracks in their opposition had set in under Hilda’s sympathetic moral stand. Mum’s father later said he had to work that day and could not avoid it. Dad’s parents were there, bursting with pride over their son and his achievements, not the least of those achievements winning the affection of a girl of the stamp of Miss Marie Joyce Steele. There was no way they would not be at son Charlie’s wedding.

When I asked Mum after she had turned ninety who else was present, she said her memory was hazy, but she believed Dad’s sister Elsie, the sibling he got on best with, was there. I cannot help thinking Thelma Hillsdon, Hilda’s daughter, with whom she was close friends, also came. After all, Con and Nell Collins are witnesses on the wedding certificate. Nell Collins was Hilda’s second daughter and Thelma’s younger sister. In any case, it was a small group that accompanied the newlyweds to the famous Cahill’s basement restaurant in Martin Place for their wedding breakfast. Hilda organised it because she said, ‘there had to be one.’  That afternoon, after farewelling their little family group, Mum and Dad took their bags and boarded the George Street tram to Central Station. There they caught the train for a week’s honeymoon at Cronulla by the sea. It cost Dad six pounds ($12). I have the receipt.

At this time, Dad was still attached to HMAS Sydney, but in April was transferred to HMAS Penguin, the Navy’s land base at Balmoral. It was just before HMAS Sydney sailed towards Australia’s greatest naval disaster off the coast of Western Australia. A stray disguised German raider carried out a surprise attack on the Sydney, sending her to the bottom with the loss of the entire crew. Although officially stationed at Penguin, Dad worked at Randwick Hospital in their medical technology department. His rank was Leading Sick-Berth Attendant. After returning from their honeymoon, he and Mum moved into a flat at Kirribilli but did not stay there long. As a well-brought-up young woman, Mum was not happy with the nosiness of a busybody landlady who thought she was authorised to enter their flat at will.

They moved to Mascot, where Cousin Thelma and her husband Vince lived. It was also closer to Randwick Hospital. Almost a year after their wedding, Mum gave birth to their first child at Darlinghurst hospital, a daughter, Marie Veronica, on the 2nd of February 1942. In September, Dad transferred to the Navy’s land base HMAS Cerberus at Crib Point in Victoria on the Mornington Peninsula. Mum said he was to follow a course at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, ‘under an English Professor’, which would qualify him as a medical technologist and lead to a promotion to the rank of Sick-Berth Petty Officer.

Marie was a toddler when they settled in Victoria but remembers nothing of the stay on the Mornington Peninsula (1942-44). All she knows is what Dad told her when she became inquisitive, which was often. He placed her in the basket on the bike’s handlebars when he took her with him on errands or simply on a ride. Mum said that was true. Their bike was the only mode of personal transport. Otherwise, it was the bus and the train. He also said she sang nursery rhymes over and over again, to the amusement of her doting parents.

When Michael was born at nearby Hastings on the 17th of September 1943, Grandma Wilson made the trip down to Crib Point to help look after the new baby. Dad was proud of being able to fulfil one of his mother’s dreams. During her stay, he took her to the Melbourne Cup, where she bet on the winning horse and caused havoc by wildly brandishing her walking stick as the horses came racing down the straight. It has always appeared strange to me that Grandma and Dad took such an interest in the horses. It seemed out of tune with their devoutness. Perhaps it was the Irish in them, a residue from Grandma’s grandmother, Anne Whitehill, of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Dad and Mum returned with their two young children from Crib Point in 1944. They lived with our grandparents, Clarrie and Nell Steele, known to us as Mardie and Pardie, at 7 Nea Street, Chatswood. From where did the names ‘Mardie’ and ‘Pardie’ come? Nobody I ever knew called their grandparents Mardie and Pardie. As Mum always told it, the motivation for the titles was that her mother did not want to be called Grandma, revealing her characteristic sensitivity about such matters. It embarrassed her. An old school friend from Goulburn OLMC (Our Lady of Mercy College), Hilary Jago, told Mum that a national group in South Australia called grandmothers ‘Mardie’. That was distinguished and harmless enough for decorous Ellen Maria McGroder, daughter of John McGroder and Ellen Burgess. And so it came to be. Clarrie, forever captive of the alluring Ellen Maria McGroder, went along with it and answered to ‘Pardie’.

Dad had no intention of staying with his wife’s parents for longer than was necessary. He had gathered a stake and bought a block of land at West Lane Cove. (See War Depression War for more about the period with Mardie and Pardie). He got to work immediately. As far as I can gather, he completed the house by early 1946. Marie remembers its construction, but Michael does not. It was unlikely they had the chance to see it often, if at all. Dad and his carpenter father, who helped build the house, would have caught public transport to the block or perhaps borrowed the truck belonging to Mr Ryan of the fruit shop opposite his parents’ house in Baldry Street, and for whom Dad had worked as a kid. In any case, it was ready when I came into the world on the 22nd of July 1946, 22 inches long and weighing 8 lbs 14 oz. It was one in the morning, the Feast Day of St Mary Magdalene. I was named after St Gerard Majella, the patron saint of pregnant women. I never stopped to reflect on the significance of my patron saint. Perhaps a difficult pregnancy? It is too late to ask.

Our new house had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom with a lavatory, a lounge room, a dining room, and a laundry. At the time, many houses still had outdoor toilets. The Allisons had their toilet just outside the back verandah. At least they did not have to go to a dunny can in the backyard. Marie and Michael shared the second bedroom, whose two windows overlooked the driveway and front porch. There was as yet no garage. Dad, of course, had more building plans. There are photos of me in the front and backyards when I was a toddler, not even a year old. Mum said I was walking at ten months. The lawns and gardens are well established. The driveway was not yet laid, but a path leads to the front porch. Fences at the front, side, and back are there all in place. A high trellis fence stands where the garage would come in a couple of years.

When I study those photos, I marvel at the fancy brick fence at the front, made of the same bricks as the house. It consists of four brick pillars, between which is a brick wall with a flat top and an upside-down crenellation. A tall, elegant brick chimney sits atop the terra cotta roof. After learning from Dad’s cousins, Jean and Margaret Wilson, that their father was a bricklayer specialising in building chimneys, I wonder whether Granduncle Percy was not one of the bricklayers. The front porch was also unusual, I realise now. Three steps led to it, but the front door was not visible from the front. It was to the left in an alcove. Anyone who came to the front door was hidden from the street view.

The implications of a hidden front door never occurred to me during my childhood. It was just a front door. I understood Mum’s uneasiness about it when she mentioned her fears years later. I suspect that the fancy brickwork and the alcove were ‘modern’ design features that Dad had dreamt up and had thrown into the mix. He was like that. Dad snapped many photos of me, Marie, and Michael around the house, forming a cute threesome from when I was barely walking until I was around two.

***

NOW I am sitting on the back terrace, clutching my bottle before Michael helps me to put it in my mouth and hold it there. Now I’m walking on the front lawn with the support of Marie and Michael, holding my hands. I’m dressed in overalls that I always had trouble getting on and off. There is a similar photo at Mardie and Pardie’s federation-style house at Homebush to where they had moved, probably in 1947. We are in the back garden where Great-Grandfather Steele is cultivating a healthy-looking vegetable garden. There’s Mrs Ryan of the Baldry Street fruit shop holding me in our front garden. I’m not even twelve months old. We are posing with Marie and Michael and a youthful-looking Mum who is thirty. I have a happy smile as I do in many of the baby and toddler photos. Mum said I was a happy baby. Mr Ryan, who had given Dad his complete trust and many hours of work, had passed away by this time.

I’m playing in a pile of sand, which was there for Dad’s ongoing building plans. But I don’t remember any of these occasions and many others in the photos that Dad compulsively snapped. My first memory of my physical surroundings is of being put to bed in the cot in my parents’ room, my mother settling me in, saying a loving goodnight, and then the light going out. There is no continuity there yet. My memory of events and physical surroundings is in fragments until not long before I am ready to go to school. But there is cohesion in a real immaterial sense. Though my memories are broken until after the arrival of Narelle in April 1949, I have an increasing length of recall, with the growing pieces beginning to merge.

It is morning, and I am listening to the ABC’s Kindergarten of the Air: ‘Boys and girls come out to play, the sun doth shine as bright as day …’ The songs and the games enthral me, but, above all, I love the stories and listen entranced. Sometimes Mum sits with me, but mostly she does the housework. My mind unconsciously follows her around the house. Later, I’m listening to Doctor Mac and When a Girl Marries on the wireless which Mum has on each morning, the volume loud enough for her to hear as she breezes from room to room. I listen, intrigued, to Dr Mac’s Scottish accent at the beginning when after picking up the phone, he says, ‘Aye, it’s me, Dr Mac.’ I don’t really follow the story. I am content to feel the drama as I potter around with my toys. Later, much later, I learn that When a Girl Marries is about ‘the tender, human story of young married life, dedicated to everyone who has ever been in love.’ The couple around whom the stories turn is a man from a poor background and a woman from the upper class. This, I also learn years later.

Now I am outside. The days are long, and there is a comforting buzz in the summer air with the occasional dove and pee-wee call. I wander endlessly in a backyard that seems as big as the Sydney Cricket Ground. I sometimes make a half-hearted gallop at the pee-wees, knowing I will never catch them. I’m anything but bored. Time flows smoothly by. Now I am with Mum up at the bus stop waiting for the bus. The bus arrives, and I stare anxiously at the open door. I don’t like enclosed places. Mum must often pick me up and carry me wriggling into the bus, where I eventually settle down and peer out the window. Once when I am more confident, and I am helped up the bus steps by Mum, I see Dad sitting in the very front seat with a big smile on his face. I am surprised and run to him. He greets Mum, who accepts Dad’s sudden appearance without surprise.

I’m in the Commonwealth Bank in Longueville Street in Lane Cove shopping centre. I can’t see what Mum is doing, and she lifts me up and puts me gently on the counter while the teller attends to her. I am not afraid of the height this time, but she keeps a hand on me. The bank is another of those intriguing places I’m constantly taking in. I know it has to do with money, familiar to me as copper pennies and halfpennies, silver thruppences, sixpences, and shillings. I witness now and again Mum writing out a cheque. I know it is a cheque because I hear the word often. Eventually, I come to have great respect for the magic of the cheque. I see Mum writing a cheque for the doctor who has come on a visit. That’s easy, I think. Just write the amount on a piece of paper instead of using pennies, shillings, or pounds.

When we arrive home after stepping off the bus at the top of Barwon Road, Mum cuts a meat pie into small pieces. She had bought it at the baker’s shop at the junction of Burns Bay and Longueville Roads in Lane Cove shopping centre, or the ‘terminus’ as I often hear it called. I love the flaky pastry. She leaves me to eat it while she resumes her housework. Big band music often fills the house. Glen Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and ‘In the Mood’ will forever conjure up the sights, sounds and feelings of the time and the Lane Cove house.

It is Christmas day. Mum, Dad, Marie, and Michael are crowded around a decorated Christmas tree that Dad has set up in the third bedroom. The third bedroom has just been built but is not finished. There is no carpet in the bare room, and the new floorboards are gleaming clean. Mum and Dad give me a red toy wheelbarrow with two white stripes around the bucket that I immediately wheel around to the family’s delight. I take it out into the hall and then wheel it back. This is Christmas day, 1947. By this time, Dad has managed to add a breakfast room, a third bedroom, a brick garage, and a workshop onto the house. The concrete driveway and the paths all around the house are complete. All the gardens have either a brick or concrete border. Dad is thirty-one and bursting with energy and optimism. But it’s Christmas day, and we are off to have Christmas dinner with Mardie and Pardie all the way over town in Homebush.

After Christmas Mass at St Michael’s Church in Longueville Road, where we pause long before the nativity scene at the back of the church, we take the bus to St Leonards. Here we get off to board the train to Central Station, and there change for the train to Homebush. The train ride is exciting. I swing on the bar that joins the two upright passenger supports and is waist-high for an adult. It is not a long walk from the station to Mardie and Pardie’s house in Burlington Street, a couple of streets away from the train line. We can see the chugging steam trains with their billowing smoke from the backyard for a time before they disappear behind the houses. I learn later when reading Thomas Keneally’s Homebush Boy (my favorite Keneally book) that the Keneally family lived in a street on the other side of the train line.

Mardie and Pardie live in an enchanting house. Michael and I never tire of exploring its spacious rooms and dark corners, which we mostly do together. Mardie is in the kitchen preparing the Christmas dinner. The aroma of baked potatoes, pumpkin, and roasting chicken wafts through the house. Mardie’s specialty is the traditional plum pudding loaded with thruppences, sixpences, and shillings. It has already been prepared and boiled. It hangs in the pantry. Mum joins her to help. Marie, Mardie’s first grandchild and her favourite, lingers with Mum and Mardie while Dad, with Michael and me following, joins Pardie and Great-Grandfather Steele on the back verandah. The verandah, which is really a wide sitting room with cane furniture, is enclosed. A railing overlooks an immense fernery that forms part of the verandah’s enclosure. There is a soothing subtropical feel to it.

The Staghorn ferns hanging around the fernery walls always catch my attention. Just outside the fernery, there is an aviary with twittering canaries and budgerigars. The canaries are Pardie’s and Great-Grandfather Steele’s. Twenty-five-year-old Uncle Sid leisurely joins Pardie and Dad from his bedroom, which runs off the verandah. Friendly and good-humoured, Sid is our favourite uncle. He is not yet married. We have Christmas dinner at Mardie and Pardie’s up until Great-Grandfather Steele’s death in December 1951, but I am too young to take in all the pleasure and mystery of the Burlington Street federation house. That will come. It seems that Great-Grandfather Steele’s sudden death a week or so before Christmas forever spoilt the Christmas dinners at Homebush.

During the afternoon, we leave Burlington Street and take the train to Chatswood to walk from the station down Victoria Avenue to Baldry Street, where the Wilson family are preparing an evening Christmas dinner. The scene is a great contrast with the Burlington Street celebration. Dad’s brothers and sisters are there with their families. There is a great deal of boisterous hustle and bustle as the verbal Wilsons prepare the dinner and set the long table in the backyard. That table is an improvised affair with the top a mixture of tables and lengths of wood from Pa Wilson’s nearby workshop. There is also a mixture of benches and chairs along each side.

Grandma Wilson has become too old to do much. Mild-mannered Pa Wilson, pipe in his mouth, affably greets and talks to his children. He appears not to take much notice of his grandchildren, who are still too young to be a collective nuisance. That will come later. I will also find out that Pa does take notice of his grandchildren. In the evening, there is present giving which I am old enough to take a keen interest in. As with the Burlington Street visit, I am not yet old enough to process it all. By the time we walk to the top of Victoria Avenue, me in my stroller, to take the bus back to Lane Cove, I have sunk into a loving slumber, a feeling that underpinned everything in those years of growing awareness.

In January, we are in a holiday cottage near the water at Tuggerah Lakes. I hear the name Long Jetty. We have travelled 65 miles by train and bus. The Trehys are with us but in another cottage. Mick and Marjorie Trehy live in Hallam Avenue, just around the corner from us in Barwon Road. They are part of Lane Cove Parish. Their two children, John and Margaret, are Marie and Michael’s age and will attend St Michael’s convent school, as will five of the eventual six Wilson children. Mick Trehy is a pipe-smoking Irishman, and I hear Dad speaking jovially about his accent, sometimes doing an affectionate imitation. The Wilsons and Trehys stay close friends even when Mick buys a convenience store and moves up to Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains. Before then, there were many joint outings: fishing trips, picnics, and visits to the Zoo.

I am at the water’s edge and looking out over an enormous expanse of water covered in a blue haze. Marie and Michael are splashing around in the water, which, I discover, remains shallow no matter how far out you go. But I don’t go very far. I paddle and splash around and look at the flat bottom boats on which adults and older children are enjoying themselves. Mum grabs me and takes me, clinging to her, further out to be with Marie and Michael, who appear to have no fear of the water. I love the water but am still wary. Michael and I have little yachts with canvas sails. I take mine to the water and cannot understand why it will not sail. Michael has better luck with his boat, as he always does with such things. He seems to understand them better than I do. He also has more luck with fishing. Now he is holding up a little fish at the end of a line to Dad. But I am not interested. When I am used to the surroundings, all I do is run along the water’s edge, play with my bucket in the sand or splash around when Mum is there to protect me. Dad is not far away because he is taking all the photos.

Later, maybe a few days later, I am standing at the back of a half-cabin motorboat. Dad has put me there and keeps his eye on me, sometimes reaching out to put a steadying hand on my shoulder. Michael is allowed to stand free and peers fearlessly over the side of the boat. I edge to the side and look cautiously into the green water, feeling Dad’s hand on my shoulder. We sit on the bench at the stern. Mum is with us and keeps her arm around me. Then Mum has me up on the roof of the cabin, still holding me. She is smiling into the camera. Then I am at the stern again. Michael is grasping the rudder enthusiastically and appears to be steering the boat—he is always doing such things—and Dad has me half on his lap. My little leg rests on his thigh. I am pointing eagerly at something away from the boat and have the happiest smile on a zinc-smeared face. These are two of my most treasured photos of Mum and Dad with me from those early years. Dad is again beaming with youthful energy. Life is so good.

We are in the nearby convenience store for holidaymakers. Mum has come to buy a few things. When she finishes, she picks up a magazine that has caught her eye. She has hold of me while Marie and Michael wait patiently. Enough is going on in the shop to maintain their interest. Mum puts the magazine back on the rack and heads for our holiday cottage with me in tow and Marie and Michael following. She meets Dad on the way back. Then there’s panic. She does not have her purse, and the purse has most of our holiday money. Mum is beside herself. What could have happened to it? As Marie and Michael watch on anxiously, and I remain oblivious to the drama, Dad tries to calm and reassure Mum. She left the purse on the counter when she picked up the magazine! Mum races back to the store with a fervent prayer to St Anthony, patron saint of lost objects. With enormous relief, she finds that an ‘honest person has handed in the purse’, and the shopkeeper has been honest enough to hand it back. The feelings of that momentary drop in attention, when she had laid the purse on the counter to pick up the magazine, will stay with Mum for the rest of her life. She will always tell the story with tension and relief in her voice.

Work has begun on the block of land beside us, at 20 Barwon Road. Mr and Mrs Noel Barr are an older couple. They look about the same age as Mardie and Pardie, perhaps a little younger. Dad likes Mr Barr, who is organising the building of a strangely shaped house. A rounded room features at the front. It is nighttime in May, and we’re next door at the back of the Barr’s not yet completed house. There are building materials everywhere. Mum has me on her lap while chatting to Mrs Barr on a long plank that acts as a bench. Flames leap high into the night air from a blazing fire. There are bangs and bright flashes. Some are very loud, and I nestle against Mum in fear. A whoosh and a stream of light flash up into the dark sky, accompanied by a chorus of oohs! There is a starburst, again accompanied by oohs. Michael and Marie are racing around between the people, looking like they are having a lot of fun. There are squeals amid the rata-ta-tat of crackers. 

Mr Barr is a gruff, no-nonsense sort of man, often with a roll-your-own cigarette hanging from his lips, a digger’s hat on his head, and rough working boots on his feet. Later I hear him saying something that sounds like ‘ship’. It sounds tough, and I try to imitate him until Mum tells me to stop. Mrs Barr is warm and friendly and takes a lot of notice of us kids. She sounds a little like Mardie, who has a sweet way of talking. I am outside on the front nature strip. Suddenly a dog rushes across the road and leaps on me, knocking me over on the grass. It is a greyhound, and it continues to trample over me. I try to get up, but the taut, slender, trampling legs stop me. Mrs Barr appears from nowhere, holding a knife like the one Mum uses to peel the vegetables. She shoos the dog away. I see it clear off back over the road while she takes me back inside from where I have wandered. Mum arrives to take me in hand as she listens apprehensively to Mrs Barr relating what has just happened.

The following January 1949, we are again on holiday at Tuggerah Lakes. This time the Lamont family has gone with us, as well as the Trehys. Jean Lamont worked with Mum at Orange Top Cabs, and they have kept up their close friendship. Former AIF soldier Gordon and Jean Lamont have two daughters, Fay and Patricia. Fay is Marie’s age, and Patricia is my age. Neither draws my attention. I am too busy playing in the water and digging in the sand with my little spade and bucket. I glance with interest at the older kids on their flat bottom boats. Michael and John Trehy are having the time of their lives on a flat-bottom boat and later revel in the rowboat that Dad and Mr Trehy have hired.

Eventually, Dad hires a canoe for me. But I will not get in it. I don’t know why. He encourages me, even lifts me up to place me in it. But I struggle and whimper. He gives up. I spend the rest of the hire time, which must have been a half an hour, pushing the canoe and running alongside it in the water, feeling the splash against my legs. Dad takes another photo of me, again with the happiest of smiles across my face as I run, splashing alongside the boat. It does not occur to me that my behaviour might appear odd to others. I am just happy doing my thing. I don’t care what anyone thinks.

Michael and Marie are at school, and I have the house and backyard to myself. Apart from Mum’s shopping excursions, I continue wandering around the backyard, playing with my toys and anything else that takes my fancy. Time flows comfortably through me. Mum takes me to do some messages at the grocer’s on Burns Bay Road, now a manageable walking distance. The Tickle family runs the grocer’s shop. It is on the corner of Burns Bay Road and Cullen Street. The shop is always busy, mainly with other mothers who crowd around the counter while Mr and Mrs Tickle, with their dark-haired twin sons, serve the customers. The twins wear a long white apron and have a pencil stuck behind their ear, which stays there until they add up the purchases. They do this by scribbling the amounts on the wrapping paper, and then with the pencil running up and down the columns of figures, they write the cost. A vague whispering accompanies this action.

Mrs Tickle calls all her customers ‘darl’ and carries on a familiar conversation while she picks and wraps their purchases. Behind the wide wooden counter, shelves reach to the ceiling, divided into compartments on which are square bulk tins, bags, and packages. Hessian bags lay around on the floor. The colourful Rosellas on some tins catch my attention. Mum orders biscuits. Mrs Tickles selects handfuls according to kind, places them carefully in a brown paper bag, and weighs them on the scales. Then, with her fingers holding the top edges of the bag, she twirls it around and around until it is shut. She wraps other purchases in a length of brown paper, which she has drawn from a roll at the side of the counter. She ties the parcels with string. Mum places her purchases in a string bag, and we are off to visit the greengrocer’s on the opposite corner.

Dr Breslin, the family doctor, has just left. Mum called him because I am sick. He’s a big hearty man who, despite a deep voice and a dignified bearing, has a warm manner. He drives a big beige car with running boards and rounded mudguards. He never calls Dad ‘Charlie,’ as most people do. It is always ‘Charles’. Like Pardie, he is always in a three-piece suit. Only his suit is brown, while Pardie’s is dark blue. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but it can’t be much. Dr Breslin leaves after a friendly chat with Mum, whom he addresses as Mrs Wilson. She tells me I have to rest quietly for the moment.

She installs me on the cane settee under the Louvre windows in the breakfast room. I find it hard to stay in one place. I play cubby house with the cushions and blanket for a while, but that is too restricting. I’m up and down on the settee, opening and shutting the Louvre blinds, jumping off the settee and back on again, throwing the cushions into the air. Then Mum snaps at me. I curl up on the settee and pull the blanket over my head. Mum takes me on her lap and clasps me to her. She talks soothingly about how much she loves me. I start to cry.

Mrs Chesterfield is looking after me. Mr and Mrs Chesterfield, with their four children, live across the road. Mum is very friendly with Mrs Chesterfield. They often chat and swap women’s magazines. Mrs Chesterfield is a bit like Mum. She has that same quiet reserve and always wears an apron. When I need to go to the toilet, she takes me across the road to our house. But she only looks after me during the day. Marie and Michael are at school, so she does not have to look after them. Dad is home in the evening to care for us while Mum is in hospital. Mrs Ryan comes over from Baldry Street to help Dad in the evenings. She takes care of the baths for us kids. The bathroom is steamy, and when I’m out of the tub, she wraps a towel around me, dries me, and with a ‘scoot!’ sends me off to the lounge room where the coals in the fireplace are glowing and flaming.

It is Friday, the first day of April. Dad tells us Mum has a baby, a little girl. Sometime later—I don’t know how long—we are at the Chesterfield’s in their sitting room at the back. Mr Chesterfield, who has a rugged face and wavy dark hair and that typical larrikin sense of humour that delights in teasing people, says to me, laughing: ‘I was a bit worried about the back of our bed, young fellow. We thought you were going to break it with your head.’ Much laughter followed this mysterious dig.

That kidding comment and the larrikin expression remained in my mind. Many years later, I asked Mum if what Bill Chesterfield had alluded to was true. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘when you were small, you used to hit the back of the bed with your head while sleeping. It really worried us. It made me understand you were of a nervous disposition.’ Of course, the story has always provoked the usual comments whenever told. ‘Oh, that explains everything!’ Well, no, it doesn’t explain much at all to me.

***

Chapter 3

The Allisons

NARELLE WAS not the only one of significance to arrive in Barwon Road in 1949. The Allison family moved from Mosman to 14 Barwon Road, two doors up the road. Pete was a year older than me, and Christine a year older than Narelle. They were to share our childhood at Barwon Road, forming a core Barwon Road club with Narelle and me. Typically, Pete remembers the exact time and moment he entered the Wilson house.

‘Let’s go back to your first memories, Pete,’ I said one day while in his television room where the easy chairs were arranged in a row against the wall and facing his elaborate television and Hi-Fi equipment. ‘Remember we got to the stage where you allegedly remember being baptised in the Briary living room. What followed then?’

‘Not allegedly, Gerard. I do remember.’

‘Okay, let’s not go over that yet again. Get on with it.’

Pete bows his head. The darkness recedes in his mind as long fixed images of many colours return.

‘There are different things. I remember sitting on the front porch of the Briary and my father giving me a lolly to suck, and I got it all over me. It was a mess, running all over me. Mum had to come and clean me up. Dad sometimes picked me up. He had a suit on. I was riding on his shoulders …’

‘Where was John at the time?’ John was Pete’s older brother, a year older than Marie.

‘I only remember him in a vague sort of way during that time. He had a magic lantern, and he used to show pictures on a towel he had hung up. That probably influenced me into getting my slide projector later.’

Pete’s primitive slide projector would provide great entertainment for the Barwon Road kids. But more about that later. Pete was now lost in his thoughts as he wandered back through the years, remembering in tiny detail the Briary’s objects, colours and spaces. Golliwogs, dinky toys, aunts and uncles—all sorts of things paraded in bright colours before his mind.

‘Whose house was the Briary?’

‘I think everybody in Mum’s family owned it. I think it was actually Mum’s mother’s house. And that’s another thing, Gerard. I vaguely remember her mother, my grandmother, not long after I was born. She had white hair. She died shortly after. I never saw Mum’s father, though. He was already dead when I was born.’

‘Her parents must have been quite old then.’

‘Yes, Mum was one of the youngest of the children.’ Pete pauses, reflecting. ‘I definitely remember the mother. You know, Gerard, all that just came back to me. I remember her on my left-hand side. I remember, clearly. I might have been on her lap. All these little things are coming back. Another time I remember, I was sitting in my cot. We’re back at the Briary now. And my father walked in. That was towards evening as the light was fading. Isn’t it funny how these things came back to you when you begin to think?’

‘Yes, very funny. Go on.’

‘Another time it was raining cats and dogs, and I’m sitting at this huge table—we had a huge table—with those long seats, milk bar seats, you know. That’s what the seats were like. It was right near the big window. It was a rainy day. Uncle Tom was sitting next to me. Just little things, all coming back to me now as I’m speaking to you. But this is uninteresting stuff, Gerard. You’re not going to put any of it in your book, are you?’

‘These are important memories, Pete. They are what you are.’

He might have been talking about the small things in his early childhood, but I wanted him to search around for the things he thought significant in those years of sight.

‘Do you remember Christine being born?’

‘No. I remember her in Lane Cove. Wait a moment. Before that, before we get on to Lane Cove, we went to live in Balmoral. You know that street on a huge incline that runs down to the beach and the tram terminal?’

‘Yes, Raglan Street. I know it well. The top of that street opened the view of Middle Harbour on our way to Balmoral Beach. Whenever Mum and Dad took us there, we would all shout together on the crest of the incline, “First to see the water!” Then we would get into a furious argument about who was actually first.’

‘That’s right, Raglan Street,’ he says, talking over me as he concentrates. ‘You know I went missing there once, sort of got lost. There were sheds at the tram stop at the bottom of Raglan Street. We stayed in Rosetta’s house. Rosetta was my father’s sister. One afternoon, I went right down the hill and arrived at the tram sheds.’

‘That was a long walk for a three-year-old. Nobody now would allow their three-year-old to go wandering like that. It’s a reflection of the peaceful times.’

‘Yes, but stop interrupting. A few people were sitting there waiting for a tram. There was a tram parked at the tram shed. I got on and walked up and down. And the next thing, one of the passengers seemed concerned about me. Then a policeman came up to me. I think he tried to get my address. The next thing, I was riding on his shoulders. He headed up the hill towards the house. I remembered being worried about how I would get back to the house. Police to the rescue! He delivered me back to the house. That was sometime in 1948. I was three. I think we only stayed a short while at that house in Raglan Street, around six months. The Briary was being sold. I remember Mum was angry with Charlie because he sold the house at a really low price.’

‘Then you moved to Lane Cove, two doors up from us. Do you remember that?’

‘I don’t remember the move. We were just there. Hang on. There’s something I remember about the Briary. It’s coming back. As you entered our house—The Briary—there was a great archway. My bedroom was at the end of the hallway. There was a sun verandah. The back led onto a porch with a small flight of steps into a large backyard. My bedroom had a blue line. We had quite a long backyard, right, and I remember my brother talking to the neighbour at the back of the house. His name was Patrick. I remember that clearly. How about that?’ he says, turning towards me. ‘And I think John was playing with aeroplanes. I can’t be sure about that, but I do remember the name Patrick. Isn’t that amazing?’

‘I’m floored. Keep going.’

‘Well, the next recollection, of course, is Lane Cove. And I do remember Christine then. Funny how a lot of things are blanked out. But I do remember Christine was in the nuddy … no, I’m not going to tell that.’

‘Come on.’

‘No, it’s personal ….’

‘Don’t be stupid. We’re talking about 1949 when she was two, and I was three.’

‘Ah well, she did the inevitable on the footpath, Gerard, outside the garage. Poor Mum had to clean it up. Christine was only a little bubby then.’ He laughs heartily. ‘I remember Christine in the backyard once, in a white dress. She was doing somersaults. I remember that white dress.’

‘I don’t remember our first meeting. Do you?’

‘I certainly do. I wandered down to your house from our house—I’m picturing it now—I’m walking down the side path through the trellis-shaped gate, around the corner, up that little slope, and straight through the door into the breakfast room.’ He describes it all exactly. ‘I didn’t introduce myself, but I was invited in by your mother. “Come in,” she said. I lay down on the lino on my side and started playing with Michael’s cars.’

‘How do you know they were Michael’s cars?’

‘You told me.’

‘I told you? When?’

‘Around that time. We could talk, remember? Anyhow, and then Mum came down, looking for me. She introduced herself, and that’s how we all met. The Allisons and the Wilsons. Mum apologised for my unannounced intrusion, but your mum said, “Oh, that’s okay, he’s welcome down any time.” I think I remember you, Gerard, being there, just vaguely. It all sort of blossomed from there.’

It certainly did. Dad took several photos of us at the end of 1949. There are two fabulous photos of the ‘Lane Cove Gang.’ We’re all there: John, Peter, Christine, Marie, Michael, me, and Mum holding Narelle, who is around six months old. We are all in summer clothes, Christine even barefoot. Pete and I are sitting next to each other, clutching our toy cars. In another, we are posing on tricycles together. You can see that Pete and I were already great mates. The photos show the Allison family arrived no later than at the beginning of 1949 when I was two and a half. It’s strange I don’t remember meeting Pete because I have distinct memories of the holiday at Tuggerah Lakes. I just remember Pete was there, always there, as much as Marie and Michael were there. The Allisons slotted so easily and unnoticeably into the Wilson world.

‘Once, we had afternoon tea at your place,’ says Pete. ‘Narelle was just a little bubby. She had one of those slack suits on, blue, with straps over the shoulders. She was sitting in a little highchair, and she was crying as babies do. And we, you and I, sat at a little green table. We did. Yes, the table was green. We sat opposite each other, and I think we had GI and a few fairy cakes. I think we were celebrating her birthday. She would have been two, I think. No, wait a minute. she would have been one.’

‘GI was my favourite drink for a long time,’ I say, fondly thinking of the lime soft drink in a distinctively shaped bottle. There was an advertising sign for GI for years outside a shop on the corner of Longueville Road and the Pacific Highway, Artarmon. Thruppence a bottle, it said, a bottle the size of a Coca-Cola bottle. I detested Coca-Cola then—and still do. ‘Okay, we’re up to 1950. What happened next? When do your memories begin to cohere? Mine start to cohere around then.’

***

MUM spends a lot of time in the kitchen. I don’t take much notice of what she is doing. I sit close by on the floor, playing with my toys. There are cars and planes. I like the model warplanes, Vampires, and Spitfires made of lead. There are toy soldiers, too. These are lined up and bombed continually by the warplanes. Talk of the War is all around us, about Aussie diggers dying in concentration camps, the Japanese soldiers’ cruelty, the naval battles, the atom bomb, and so on. Dad comes into the kitchen and hugs Mum. They stand there in an embrace for what seems like a long time. I feel funny about being exposed to these hugs, as if I’m not there. Dad lifts me high into the air and then puts me on his shoulders, jigging me up and down. I feel a little unsteady because of the height, and I clutch his head but cannot get a firm grasp because my hands slip in his oiled hair. Later, Michael and I crawl over him in the hallway. He piggybacks me as he crawls on all fours along the hallway. I have trouble staying on his broad back. He calls me ‘snowball.’

I’m in the bath with Michael. We splash around with our toy boats. Mum soaps my hair, vigorously rubs my head, and then bends me back, pouring water over me while I struggle. I hate the rinsing. Now I am in bed, and Mum is sitting next to me reading from the Little Golden Book, Scuffy the Tugboat. Mum often reads to me from Little Golden Books, and Scuffy the Tugboat is my favourite. Tootle, the wayward train, is also a favourite. I’m intrigued by the little, red-painted toy tugboat, unhappy about being restricted to the toy shelf and a children’s bathtub. ‘I was meant for bigger things,’ he tells the boy and his father, who own him. He must go out and explore the big wide world. Finally, the boy and his father relent and take him to a nearby brook.

The journey from the ‘laughing brook … high in the hills’ leaves me spellbound as the little, red-painted tugboat sails along ever-widening waterways, past women washing clothes in the river, drinking farm animals, timber jacks on floating logs, wood mills, villages, flooded riverbanks until he reaches the busy harbour. The noisy surroundings thoroughly intimidate him, leaving him wishing he was back with the boy and his father. Then, at the last moment, when the red-painted tugboat is being pushed into the wide-open sea, the boy and his father appear on the side of the wharf to pluck him from danger. They return him to the bathtub, where he realises that ‘this is the place for a red-painted tugboat … this is the life for me.’ Mum, whose grandmother Granny McGroder once commented, ‘that girl always has her nose in a book,’ makes sure there are plenty of books around. I can’t read, but I spend ages looking at the pictures.

The winter is cold, and after Mum wipes me dry, I run from the bathroom to stand in front of the fire in the lounge room. The coals in the brazier glow and flicker comfortingly. A poker and a coal scoop are at the side of the hearth. Dad uses the scoop to collect coke from a big black pile under a cover at the end of our backyard, where the vegetable garden is. I don’t know it then, but Mum is not happy with the burn marks that appear on the carpet in front of the fireplace. It is not long before the coal brazier disappears, and an electric heater appears in its place. The electric heater is not as cosy as the fire. There is something cosy and comforting about the smoke billowing from the chimneys of the houses in the neighbourhood. On the mantlepiece above the fireplace are some souvenirs from Dad’s time in the navy. There is a row of black elephants linked by their trunks and tails that walk endlessly over a black hill. There is also a small oblong box with a sliding cover. Its outside is a layer of porcupine spikes. It, too, draws my attention. They are probably souvenirs of his brief stay in Colombo, where HMAS Sydney stopped on the way to the Mediterranean in 1940.

It is early Sunday morning, and as usual, Mum is helping me dress for Mass at St Michael’s church in Longueville Road, a little down from Lane Cove shopping centre and tram terminus. She has selected my good clothes and makes sure that everything goes on neatly and correctly. I don’t have shoelaces yet, so I buckle my shoes myself. Mum rubs a little oil into my hair and carefully parts it on the left-hand side. She only uses the hair oil when we go somewhere dressed in our best. We must be dressed in our best when we go to Mass.

When Mum is happy Michael and I are suitably clean and tidy, she kisses us goodbye, and we leave with Dad for the bus stop at the top of Barwon Road. Mum and Marie are not going with us as they used to before Narelle appeared on the scene to usurp my position as the youngest. Now Mum must stay behind to look after Narelle. Few mothers take their babies to Mass. Mum and Marie will go to the 8.30 morning Mass while Dad takes his turn looking after the new baby when we return.

The congregation is not large at the 7 o’clock morning Mass, as it is at the 8.30 Mass, where there is hardly standing room. Dad takes us to the pew we usually sit in, about halfway down on the left-hand side of the aisle. It is very quiet. The candles are gleaming in their brass holders on the altar, which is on a raised, red-carpeted platform three steps high. Gleaming white altar cloths, contrasting with the flowers, cover the altar. There are statues at the side of the altar area, fenced off from the congregation by altar rails. The rails enhance the solemn, sacred atmosphere of the area, which I learn later is called the sanctuary. A red light atop a tall brass candle holder to the side signals the sanctuary’s sacredness and what is about to unfold.

I find it challenging to keep still usually but remain quiet at church, especially during Mass. I am conscious of the prayers Mum and Dad have taught me and the stories about Our Lord. I am aware of the presence of Our Lord on the altar and his love for all men to the extent of dying for us. By the age of four, I know that the example of that love motivates all Mum and Dad do. They teach us by word and example what that love means. They will never deviate from that central belief.

Religious belief for them will be an issue of love and self-sacrifice—never an intellectual exercise. I don’t have trouble understanding the value of giving one’s life for another. Talk about the War and our soldiers’ terrible but willing sacrifice is all around me. I already know about the Australian soldiers and the barbaric cruelty the Japanese soldiers meted out to our diggers. I know about the diggers’ extraordinary courage and gallant fighting spirit in the face of sometimes hopeless circumstances, all for their fellow Australians.

I am dressed smartly in a winter overcoat and walking with Dad to Mr Denton’s red and grey convertible Austin A40, parked in the Dentons’ driveway, two doors down on the corner of Barwon Road and Hallam Avenue. The top is not down because it is winter. Marie and Michael do not know of Dad’s plans. They have already gone to school. Mr Denton drives us to John McGraths Motors on the Pacific Highway at North Sydney, where he enters a big warehouse with orderly rows of parked cars. Dad leaves me with Mr Denton while he goes off to consult with a man in an office somewhere. He returns with the man who clutches papers in his right hand.

He leads Dad and me to a sparkling modern car where some conversation occurs. Dad puts me into the front passenger seat and then goes around to the other side and sits behind the wheel, where he listens to instructions from the man. He starts the car, manipulates the column gear shift, pumps the brakes and accelerator, and then puts it into gear. Next, we are driving out of that warehouse in our new car, a beige Hillman Minx number plate JB 365. After a pleasurable drive along the Pacific Highway, through Lane Cove shopping centre, along Burns Bay Road, and into Barwon Road, Dad enters our driveway in a cloud of self-satisfaction. He pulls up just before the front porch. We get out, stand back, and admire the car as Mum appears. Dad turns to her with the expression of a puppy wagging its tail, awaiting caresses from its mistress.

Marie and Michael arrive home from school to see a strange car parked in the driveway. With a huge smile, Dad tells them it’s our new car. Their bemused expressions quickly change into pleasure and excitement. They dance around the car. They had no idea of what Dad and I had gone to do. Neither did I until we drove out of the warehouse. Dad loves giving happy surprises. And this surprise came with happiness and excitement we could scarcely contain. We are one of the few houses in the street with a car, and a new one at that. The Allisons do not have a car. I cannot wait to tell Pete. Dougie Chesterfield across the road and Geoffrey Pollock next door will also be impressed. One of the first additions to the car is a St Christopher medal, which Dad jams into the receded section where the Hillman Minx emblem is on the dashboard. Every time I look over from the back seat, I see the St Christopher medal.

The purchase of our first car, a brand spanking new Hillman Minx, not long after my fourth birthday seemed to mark the point where my surroundings began to cohere. Perhaps it only seems that way because of the gaps in my memory. The coherence might have already been there around the time of the first Tuggerah Lakes holiday. Mum often told me that she had to keep the side of the cot down when she put me to bed in the afternoon. To her horror, I climbed out of my cot when I awoke and played around on the floor or knocked on the bedroom door.

To see the possibility of climbing over the relatively high gate of the cot and carry out the perceived task would imply a competent mental capacity. Whatever the case, it seems that around my fourth birthday, my mind escaped from the dreamy days of wandering around the backyard and ventured outside the front gate to Barwon Road, to the Allisons’ backyard and my grandparents’ houses—those most familiar places of the time.

The apparent fragmentation of my awareness until then was a fragmentation of the material world in which I had my material and temporal existence. There was a world, however, which was never fragmented. It was always immediate and continuous. It was the immaterial world of my thoughts, my feelings, and my judgments. Overseeing that immaterial world was the authority and example of my parents. It was an authority and standard that was always clear and unambiguous. And the sanctions for failing to heed the example and the directives of their authority were just as clear and immediate. It was a safe world that made sense, a world that grew stronger and more comprehensible as I grew older, and my reasoning powers expanded.

There was never a doubt about the distinction between the stories of the God of that moral world and the world of the strange fairy tales Mum read to me for my amusement. An old woman who lived in a shoe with so many children she didn’t know was to do was an image whose weirdness I could never fathom. Little Red Riding Hood’s confrontation with the wolf in her grandmother’s nightie was not the least bit convincing. You would have to be a dope to fall for the wolf’s stupid trick. From the example of the Cardinal virtues of Justice, Fortitude, Prudence, and Temperance to the necessity of good manners, I could see and feel the sense of it all. It was a world that possessed its own illumination, though presented by my parents. Of course, it was an illumination that frail human nature could ignore. And my human nature frequently did.

***

I NOW write of the neighbourhood people and places that featured in our lives over the coming years. Except for one block, there were houses on Barwon Road between Centennial Avenue at the top and Hallam Avenue down at the next intersection in 1950. The incline to Hallam Avenue was not steep but was enough for a billycart to get up a respectable speed, especially if you had a good push. On the left, halfway down as you came from the top, was Yethonga Avenue, which joined Cullen Street at the other end. Tickles Corner was on the corner of Burns Bay Road and Cullen Street. Beyond Hallam Avenue along Barwon Road, there were a few houses on the right, and only the back entrances of the houses on Henley Street on the left, except for the Mitchells’ house on the corner with Hallam Avenue. On the opposite corner along Barwon Road was a vacant lot before the houses began again. We called that paddock ‘Rolly Polly’ because there was a nice drop from the footpath down to the paling fence of the adjacent house. We had endless fun rolling down that grassy slope. Rolly Polly, perhaps in deference to the neighbourhood kids, was still vacant when we left our Barwon Road paradise in 1962.

The houses on the right ended at a street sign which said Garling Street. This sign remained a mystery to me for my whole childhood. There was no observable road where the sign pointed, only bush—thick bush. I learned later that Garling Street was out of sight on the other side of the bushy gully and that the sign was for the single house below the house facing on Barwon Road. At that point, Barwon Road dropped steeply, making it the hill of choice in the area for big kids and their billycarts. Michael, Lloydie and I would spend afternoons on that incline in our billycarts. It was one common 1950s activity for boys that Pete was not allowed to enjoy. At the bottom, the road turned sharply to rise again to Epping Highway—at least what we always called Highway. I learned much later its correct name was Epping Road.

When I ventured beyond the boundary of 18 Barwon Road at the age of four, I had two houses on the right on our side of the road. The Barrs were next door in their odd P&O-style house. I never realised how refined and up to date Mr and Mrs Barr’s residential architectural tastes were. The Dentons were on the corner in their white cement-rendered house. To my left, our next-door neighbours were the Pollocks, then the Allisons at 14 Barwon Road. The Lees were next to the Allisons and the Petersons next to them. There were a few more houses further on, but I never knew who lived in them.

Directly across the road at number 15 were the Maguires, a scowling older couple with whom we had nothing to do. Mrs Maguire’s blue hair framing her pinched and puckered face always warned me off. Next to them on the right was Mrs Barclay, a kind old Catholic lady who Mum and Dad were fond of and helped whenever they saw the need. Michael was Mrs Barclay’s favourite for reasons I never understood. Next to Mrs Barclay were the Osbornes, and next to them on the corner was an old lady, Mrs Hanley, with her two unmarried daughters. Despite my naughtiness, I was their favourite for reasons that equally escaped me. I suspect they felt sorry for me because my hyperactivity was, in their view, misinterpreted as naughtiness. They would feed me up with lollies and biscuits at odd times and always bought a raffle ticket from the raffle ticket book the schools regularly handed out to their pupils. Usually, it was the only raffle ticket I sold.

Next to the Maguires on the other side at number 13 were the Chesterfields, the master of the house being the incorrigible larrikin Bill Chesterfield, who would provide some amusement for the street a couple of years on. Next to them, on the corner with Yethonga Avenue, were the Dunlops. On the other corner continuing up Barwon Road were the Skinners. The Skinners had a big Dalmatian dog. I knew them for nothing else. After them, except for the Sachs a few houses further on, I had no idea who peopled those houses. In one of those houses was a grouchy old lady who once tore strips off Michael, Michael’s best friend Lloydie, and me for taking the garbage men’s Christmas money. We thought it was just there. Someone had left it around. You know, finders, keepers, and all that. Well, anyone can make a mistake. Damned unreasonable of the woman, we thought, to apprehend us with, ‘You put that money back, you little monkeys.’

At the top of Barwon Road, still on that side, were the bus stop and a mysterious house overgrown with trees and tangled shrubbery. There was no doubt in Narelle’s mind that a witch lived there, ready to snatch stray children and poke them into a boiling cauldron. I was not sure about the witch but had to admit there was something weird about the place. I never ever saw anyone go in or leave, despite catching the bus from that corner many times through the years. That house, at the time of writing, is still hidden behind a jungle of trees and foliage. Of these known neighbours, those who featured most in our lives were the Allisons, the Barrs, the Dentons, the Chesterfields, and the Pollocks. The Pollocks weren’t there long. They moved in 1951. The Allisons’ and the Pollocks’ houses were identical and rented. The Allisons remained at number 14 until 1964, but there was a constant turnover at number 16, as I will relate.

End of sample chapters

*****

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Writer … and still in the fifties