A Memoir

Starting School

My brother's bike was to be our mode of travel to school for the rest of 1936. It was not the most comfortable way especially for a skinny rear, but to go to school was worth any discomfort and I did not complain. School was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me, though my arrival was a surprise to the teacher. As he could hardly send me home again, a desk was cleared and a slate and slate pencil found. I was the only pupil in the first grade, though grades one and two were combined. We learnt arithmetic by buying and selling in the play-shop, a new experience for me.

My mother had always told me that when I went to school my cousin Marge would look after me. This expectation was soon put to rest by cousin Marge herself when on my first day at school she called all the other children around the tank-stand, put me in the corner and began teasing and calling me names. One of the names she used was new to me. I could understand her calling me Irene, for she thought I did not like my middle name, but I did not dislike it enough for it to worry me. It was the tone of her voice as she called me "bastard" that mattered more than the word itself. It was meant to be an insult, to hurt and to wound. Perhaps it was just as well I did not understand what "bastard" meant. Many years later I was to recall Marge's words that day, but on my first day at school I had better things to think about. Mum had told me to say "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me?" I soon settled in. There were games to play in the playground, and lunch to eat in the shelter-shed. After school, we all walked to the Post Office to collect the mail.

One day, as we were walking to the Post Office, my cousin Marge mentioned cousin Ray. "Don't talk to me about Ray," I said. "He promised me a watch and he didn't keep his promise." The anger and disappointment were still there.

School was soon over for the year, and after only three months I had been told that next year I could "go up" to Grade 2. The end of 1936 was also the end of my brother's schooling. He turned 15 on 22nd December 1936. He had been offered the best schooling opportunities by my parents but had no wish to further his education.

When, in 1939 cousin Len started at Longerenong Agricultural College and later attended Dookie Agricultural College, coming home with wonderful stories and photos of college life, my parents again tried to encourage my brother to attend a higher education facility. But Johnny had no intention of changing his mind.

This was also our teacher Sam Tully's last year at Meatian School. Sam Tully had been, so far as I can recollect, of medium height and build - a gentle, quiet man. I know my brother had great respect for him. Next year there would be a new teacher, and I would be going to school on my own. My brother would be working on the farm. I would no longer have anyone to dink me to school. How was I going to get there? I asked my mother. She was always noncommittal and gave answers like, "we'll worry about that when school starts" or, "we'll find a way." I hoped for a bike of my own but knew they cost a lot of money and so did not really expect to get one.

School Holidays

The school holidays had begun, and Ray was coming up again for Christmas. I did not want to know. I had no intention of speaking to him again. When he arrived I was conspicuous by my absence. At tea time I said "hello" because he said "hello" and I could not be rude. When tea was over and we were once again settled in the lounge room, Ray came up to me. He held out his hand. In it was a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. "This is for you," he said. I looked at him and at the parcel. "Well, open it," said Mum. I did. Inside was a little blue box. "What a beautiful blue box," I thought. I wished it had been a watch, but this little box was lovely. "Open it," said Mum. "How?" said I. "Look," said Ray, as he showed me how to open the box. Inside, nestled on dark blue velvet padding, was the most beautiful watch I had ever seen. Mum said it was chrome, but to me it was made of silver. The edge of the watch case was artistically engraved with flowers, and the watch face glittered with all the colours of the rainbow. "The face is made of mother-of-pearl," Mum said. "See how the colours change when you move it." Fascinated, I moved the watch and marvelled at its changing colours. "Try it on," said Ray, "and see if it fits." The band was far too big, but Ray soon fixed it by taking out some of the links. There it was on my wrist. I held out my arm and proudly displayed it to my father and brother. Then I looked up at Ray. All the resentments were gone. I thanked him and gave him a kiss, a rare occurrence for me. Having waited one-sixth of my life for the most beautiful watch in the world, it was no wonder it became my most treasured possession. I only wore it when I went to town, church or on special occasions, never to school or around the house. At all other times, it was kept in its box on my dressing-table.

Christmas Day, 1936, found the whole family sleeping on the front verandah. I often marvelled how Father Christmas found us way out in the Mallee. But he did. This year on Christmas morning, I awoke to find a brand new bike against my bed. It was wrapped in brown paper which I hurriedly removed to reveal a dark blue 24" girl's bicycle. The family was soon aroused to see what Father Christmas had brought. "But I can't ride," I said. "Johnny will have to teach me." The rest of the day was spent with my brother running behind as I wobbled up the road. Gradually, I got the hang of peddling and was doing quite well until I realised Johnny was no longer hanging on. I immediately fell off. So my brother continued running until I was confident to ride on my own. Up to that point, I could take off if I was against a step or the fence. But to take off from a standing position was proving difficult.

My mother, who could neither ride nor run, decided it was about time I learnt to get on and start by myself. She was supervising the action from the verandah, encouraging, cajoling and giving advice, while Johnny and I battled to make me mobile. Suddenly as I was struggling to get myself seated on the bike, my mother called out, "put your bum back." I was standing up on the pedals, the bike was moving, but I was not on the seat. With a sudden shock, I put my bum back. I kept my balance and away I went. I nearly fell off again, not because I could not ride, but through shock at what my mother had said. Had my mother actually said it? I'd never heard her say "bum" before. She always told me it was a rude word. Bottom, definitely not "bum". In amazement, I said, "Mum, you said bum!" "Well," she said, "you put it back and it worked didn't it? I couldn't think of any other way to get you to sit on the seat. It just slipped out." Forever after, Mum credited herself with teaching me to ride, not my poor brother who wore himself out chasing me up and down the road.

Towards the end of the holidays, my brother and I rode the four-and-a-half miles to Meatian on a trial run to see how long it would take me. I did it in 30 minutes, so that was the time always allowed for me to get to and from school, though as I grew older I was able to cut it down. The rest of the school holidays were spent practising my riding skills, cleaning and polishing my bike, playing with Toots and admiring my watch.

A New Year

By the time school commenced in February 1937, I was a fully fledged bike rider, riding proudly to school on my new bike with my schoolbag on my back, my lunch, neatly wrapped, all to be eaten in the shelter-shed at lunchtime.

Our new schoolteacher was Charlie Banks. To me, he seemed a giant; over six feet tall, heavy and strong, with huge hands. He had a strong voice which could be heard at the Post Office some 200 yards away when he was in fighting form, which was often. He was quite a contrast to quiet Sam Tully.

As school progressed, it became obvious that Charlie Banks was a terror. He could be frightening. I suppose it would be fair to say he did not tolerate fools gladly, though he tried to give every I child a full education.

He battled to pump knowledge into the most reluctant student and would not be beaten. You were there to learn and learn you would, one way or another.

Charlie Banks was a new experience to me. Our home was peaceful. I can't remember my parents losing their tempers. Mum would get cross, Pop would rant a little, but no one yelled or ever hit anyone. Charlie was really a very shy man, especially when with adults. When he spoke to my mother he was always very quiet and never raised his voice. At local dances he would stand quietly watching, and was quite different to the teacher we knew in the schoolroom.

School was never boring, not for me anyway. Charlie Banks's methods of teaching may, or may not, have been in the book, but they were effective. He had a sense of humour which bordered on the sarcastic. He could have us in fits of laughter or scared to death, depending on how much frustration he encountered in penetrating our "thick skulls" - a favourite phrase of his.

For some reason, however, I was never afraid of him. I think it may have been because I felt he was so much like my mother. His word was law. I never felt tempted ever to question him. He was honest, firm and fair. If you gave your best at all times, he was satisfied. For those who did not do their homework, failed to listen or would not try, he was murder.

In his day, schoolteachers had canes and straps. Charlie Banks had a strap and was not afraid to use it, but he also had, as I said before, a very large hand. Whether it was his hand or the strap, we all knew it would hurt. When asked to "hold out your hand", heaven help you if you pulled it back before the strap connected. There was an extra cut for each withdrawn hand. His favourite trick, and one he seemed to really enjoy, was making us bend over to pick up a pin. Whack!

When he became frustrated with those who were "dumb" as he called it, he became more aggressive. He had reddish-auburn hair and the colour of his face often matched that of his hair. Once he took on my cousin Len who, at that stage was about 14 years of age and in his last year of school. Len was almost as tall as Charlie. We all thought there would be a fight, but Charlie Banks backed down as Len unflinchingly stood his ground.

Sunday School

Soon after the commencement of the school year in 1937, one of the most memorable Sunday School concert items I can remember occurred. My brother was then 15. He was asked to play the bridegroom in a wedding scene with Peggy Adler. My mother used to tell how some years earlier, my brother and Peggy had been running away from Peggy's younger sister Loris in the paddock of her parent's farm. My brother was looking back to see where Loris was and did not realise how close he was to the fence. As he turned around he ripped his cheek open on the barbed wire. He was rushed to the doctor in Ultima to have his face stitched up, but he wore the scar for many years.

Rehearsals for the Sunday School play were held at Peggy's home. Finally, the big night came. Just before the play started my brother was given final instructions. He was told that as the bridal party began the walk down the aisle he was to kiss Peggy. He probably imagined that would be the best part, but was not told Peggy would not be expecting it.

The wedding went off without a hitch. The bride's frock looked lovely. The bridal couple, plus "parson" Lindsay Brown and the rest of the wedding party, all played their parts well. As they turned to walk down the aisle, Peggy was smiling happily. Then as they reached the bottom of the steps from the stage, my brother turned and kissed Peggy full on the mouth. A startled Peggy pushed him away in shock and bewilderment. The audience roared with laughter and continued to laugh and heckle Johnny for a long time afterwards. There was to be another wedding that year when Muriel Leach married Charlie Richards. Charlie's cousin Bill Richards was best man, his sister Dorrie Dobie was matron of IllIllour, with Des as groomsman, Dorothy bridesmaid and me, flower girl. I wore a soft apricot frock with silver shoes.

As well as the Sunday School concerts that were held in Meatian Hall, the church held an annual picnic and fete in the hall grounds. These were great days. My mother cooked cakes, made jam, dressed dolls, knitted and crocheted for the fete and helped on the stalls on the day.

Many years after her death, I heard from people who still have my mother's crocheted doyleys. If anyone admired one, she would always say, "if you like it you can have it. I can always make another one." The other was not always made though, not for herself anyway.

There were games for all ages. I could never win the apple eating contest. The apples were always too large and slippery for my small mouth. The most eagerly anticipated event though was an event for the men, held at the end of the day: Catching the slippery pig.

The pig was released in Joe Nioa's paddock opposite the hall. It always seemed to have very strong legs and a loud squeal. The noise was incredible, with the shouting, cheering, laughter and screams of the onlookers, together with the yells of the men as they either grabbed and lost or were thrown and charged by the pig. One year, the men returned without the pig. But most years they finished the day dirty and dishevelled, having finally man-handled it to the ground.