From a very young age, and I’m talking not yet seven, I was served a wee sweet sherry before lunch when I stayed with my maternal grandparents, Giddy and Joe. They lived in Newcastle and I used to choof up there all the way from Sydney, unaccompanied, on “The Flyer”. Train travel then was something else – pots of tea and buttered scones served with the elegance of the Orient Express but without the murders. I think if there had been regular murders I might have been sent accompanied.
There was a lanky eucalyptus on top of the cliff at the back of Giddy and Joe’s Brooks Street house. The crazy-paved path up to it was an epic trek, winding past the clothes line, hen house, parsley patch, coiled hose and two weathered garden gnomes. One had an attitude of industry and held a rake. My reward for effort was that from the first branch of this tree I could see the town hall clock and so would know the time without asking and therefore, how long, roughly, till sherry.
Visits to Newcastle meant
… Popping in nearly every day to visit a neighbour who lived round the corner and up a bit. She was also my grandmother’s best friend. They called each other Mrs Dickinson and Mrs Caldwell.
… Being shown off at Joe’s work. He did the evening shift as The News Editor at The Newcastle Morning Herald after a motivational pre-lunch rum while I had my sherry.
… Picking up the flattened lamb cutlets from Barney the Butcher for Tuesday lunch. From this I learnt two life skills – cutlets have to be flat to crumb nicely and raw sausages won’t necessarily kill you. Butchers in the 1950s were allowed to poison little girls with complimentary uncooked tidbits from the window display.
… Helping crumb the mullet for Friday lunch. Crumbed food was very popular back then. I’ve forgotten which day’s lunch was crumbed brains. Anyhow, The Pope had decreed only mullet on Fridays and it had to be followed by creamed rice for dessert as only Giddy could make it. Half a cup of short grain rice, teaspoon of butter and pinch salt boiled to soften a little with small amount of water, then a pint of milk slowly added while stirring constantly over a low gas flame. When fully absorbed add two beaten egg yolks with two tablespoons sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla. Empty into good crystal bowl leaving enough on the wooden spoon and bottom of saucepan for salivating granddaughter.
… Remembering to say that 37 Brooks Street was in MEREWEATHER and not Cooks Hill for, heavens to Betsy, Darby St running parallel and a little downer the notorious Hill was a slum, and maybe even housed Ladies of the Night. Those same terraces and semis fifty years on are now high-end art galleries and funky bistros.
… Watching Sunday lunch’s squawking chicken being chased around the backyard with an axe. Even after it lost it’s head.
… Waiting for the baker’s cart to bring the day’s high-top loaf and wondering if his horse would drop a poo (free veggie garden fertiliser for the first neighbour to get there with his spade).
… listening to the titillating daily episode of Blue Hills by Queenie Ashton on the Bakelite radio. This was The Bold and the Beautiful of the 1950s!
… Sitting with infinite patience in the Ladies Lounge at the Northern Star Hotel with Giddy and her one shandy while Joe had a few pints with other important chaps in felt hats and three-button suits at the saloon bar.
… Anticipating that Giddy, when she spotted me sprawled on her cut moquette lounge engrossed in my Enid Blytons would bring me a forehead kiss and a little tray with sweet tea and hot buttered pikelets.
However there were two traumas in my childhood, just in case you think my juvenile years were just a bed of roses:
Firstly the anxiety before ballet lessons. I was terminally unsuccessful at walking with my feet in second position while wearing a red crossover cardigan that my mother had knitted very badly.
Secondly having an irrational fear of aunts who were nuns. Giddy’s sister, known to me as Aunty Mary, and to others less familiar as Sister Mary Leander, taught at All Hallows’ Girls School for Wicked Grand-Nieces. My parents’ ultimate punishment threat was to send me to Brisbane to board at Aunt Mary’s penitentiary. It sure kept me on the straightened arrow!
Sometime during my dad Bob’s wartime career with the RAAF, he had met my mother. She was at that time the reigning Miss Victoria League, the Newcastle equivalent of Miss Universe. Crown, sash, the whole shebang. No wonder he fell for her.
After a couple of years of living with Giddy and Joe, it was time to go hang out with my other grandparents for a bit. Bob’s parents, Nanna and Pa, had a houseful already at 715 Beaufort Street Mt Lawley Perth Western Australia so I suppose three more meant just another cup and a half of water in the stew. With seven boisterous sons and one daughter it is it no wonder that Nanna found some solace in joining the Christian Scientists.
Eventually I started school, and it was off to the local convent and into the grip of some fearsome nuns and the dubious dogma of Pope Pius the Umpteenth. The trouble started when I was to make my first holy communion and in the pre-event cleansing confession session I mentioned coveting a two wheeler bike. The kindly priest told me there would be one waiting after I died and went to heaven. So I went home and prayed hard to be released early from this mortal coil.
It nearly happened when soon after I fell a couple of metres from an out of bounds ramp leading up to the church. Now this is me who only made it to the first branch of Giddy’s gum tree doing something really daring for probably the first time, so of course I messed up. Embarrassed and injured I was sent home, told the oldies a fib, something like I’d just tripped over a rock. I thought I could confess all at church somewhere down the track and square up with God, the only one who mattered, because he was minding my bike. His earthly nominee, the parish priest, would just give me a few rounds of the rosary as penance. And that done, bingo, should be back in God’s good book. But a nosy nun rang home to check on my WELLBEING, true story comes out, parents mortified and furious, and it’s a choice – a lashing with my father’s trouser belt or a fast train to the dreaded All Hallows for a term of incarceration. The whip, the whip!
But on the upside my wicked behaviour triggered the much needed conversation between my heathen father and my RC mother about where I should go to school next. Time to let the State system drill some sense into me. Since I knew that Protestant kids had no chance of getting even to Purgatory on their way to Hell I was initially apprehensive, but although I hated folk dancing on Friday mornings it still beat catechism recitation hands down. And then God delivered the bike that Xmas anyway.
Life in the red brick veneer on the corner of Ellis and Evelyn Streets Sylvania was cool. My dad was by now a Health Food Shop Pioneer and an Entrepeneur since he had shops at not only Gymea and Caringbah but Kirrawee too. He always had tons of empty boxes in the garage that converted into shop counters where I planned my own retail empire. And I was considered smart enough to help in the shops before I was even 10. I could be trusted to accurately weigh out bags of raisins and mixed peel for the Christmas puddings of the Sutherland Shire. As a bonus a slow boy who was working there part time asked to see mine if he showed me his.
Sylvania at the time was nightclub central for Sydney. In those days before random breathtesting a two hour drive to the outskirts of the city for a big night out at Dora Skelsey’s Ace of Spades or an exotic meal of Chicken in a Basket at Herman’s Haystack with a nice bottle or two of Moselle was tres chic. The swankiest venue was The Colony Club. It had a glamorous indoor pool with oyster shell grottoes for canoodling. Incongruously the management let our school hold swimming classes there during the days.
I learned to drive on my dad’s fancy Dodge Phoenix. Now that was a limo that Batman would have lusted after, but the darn thing was so wide and long is it any wonder I regularly anointed cars on either side with blessings of expensive royal blue paint when I parked it.
We were by then living at 28 Castle Street Blakehurst. Peter Smith lived opposite and later became a medico which didn’t surprise me because he spent much of the last term of sixth class at Baldface Primary measuring his dick with a wooden ruler.
At high school I studied home economics (mandatory for girls in First Year, while boys did woodwork), Latin (Cicero – great name, should be on the Popular Baby Name long list), art (opportunity to bleach hair with Ajax as creative project), history (white men rule, ok?), English (I after E except after C), maths (blank), French (voulez vous desire a couchez avec moi ce soir?), comparative religion (hello Buddha, meet Allah) and biology (knew that already, remember Peter Smith?)
I did quite well in The Leaving Certificate. So after this successful and rounded education my reward was to be taken on the grand European tour with my parents and their three other squirmy progeny to keep me snug in the back seat of a Ford Zephyr for months on end. I got to visit the Windmill Theatre in London, which was pretty grown up stuff as the girls were topless but the main thing I remember is putting on 10 kilos of baguette despite the back seat compression factor.
The sea voyage to Southhampton was a ton of fun. We sank our tug in Suez and drowned four men. The captain put the ship into fast forward in a Bonnie and Clyde-style getaway but Interpol caught up with us mid Mediterranean. He was arrested and jailed while we got a free extra week stuck in Port Said during the Official Enquiry.
On the ship trip home and being so much more worldly (I’d been to the Moulin Rouge), and erudite (I’d seen the Sistine Chapel), and obviously attracted to my recently acquired serious child-bearing hips, I gained a 35 year old suitor talking future marriage. But I trusted my Blink! instinct. I was still only 17 and felt I was yet to formally meet the true man of my dreams. Though I had seen him on on the bus.