When I was three or four, Dad was given a posting to Roma, a medium sized town in Central West Queensland, but an important rail centre. I think he was traffic officer there in charge of the administration and staffing of the trains that came through. I have a letter he sent to my brother Brian who was about ten years older than me and at the time was attending Gregory Terrace Christian Brothers school where I later went. Dad had, of course, gone on ahead to handle all the moving and to save Mum any worry-he was always very caring of her.
The house we lived in was a pretty old one owned by the Railway-part of the attraction of taking a country job in the Railways was getting a free house. It was made of weatherboards and had big wide verandahs round two sides. It was in York Street, within cooee of both the Brothers high school and the convent school and was on the west of the town centre. We had a big sand and gravel yard and a large garage and several tall trees, including a shady, sharp-smelling pepperina tree in the front around which I used to ride my tricycle.
We became good friends with our neighbours, the Murphys, on the south-there was nothing but open plain on the other sides. The father was the local officer for the Lands Department, an important job where there were so many pastoral properties, and the mother was a very energetic and warm woman who became good friends with my mother. There were three children-Patsy the eldest, a bit younger than my brother, John, a few years younger than her, and Billy who was about my age. Billy and I played together a lot, despite the fact that the Murphys thought I was a bit of a sissy. They had been brought up pretty tough, and used to poke fun at me going around in a beautiful dressing gown which my doting mother insisted I wear.
While I was still three or four, I used to ride my tricycle a lot around the yard, particularly in the front in the sand and around the pepperina tree. It was, of course, some of the worst of the Great Depression and one of the common scenes of the day was men on ‘relief’, or the dole, and known as ‘relief workers’, working on the maintenance of the roads. Some of them came up York Street, which extended past our place some distance on and disappeared over the top of the slope ( to where?-I often wondered), mending the roads and gutters. For some time I went out to the front where they used to stop in the shade of a tree to have their lunch. I remember chatting with them very happily-they seemed big and strong to me and very glad to talk. so I have some good memories. I was impressed with them and when sometime later, someone asked me what I’d like to be when I grew up I answered, “a ‘lief worker’! Not well received by my mother who even at that stage was looking forward to my becoming a doctor.
One of my clearest memories is of Billy and me lighting a fire in the garage, which was empty, fortunately, because we had no car-Dad used to ride a bike to work. In no time the fire got out of control. Luckily, someone from the high school saw the blaze, and the Brothers and some of the neighbours organised a bucket brigade to put out the fire. Very exciting! I don’t remember what happened to Billy and me, probably not too much, but it was a great event in our lives.
Dad was pretty lenient and he was very proud of my big voice. It was unusually strong and true and I used to sing a lot. He thought that in the fullness of time he would make his fortune out of me. My mother was very musical and had taught herself to play the piano, not very well but enough, so she used to encourage me. She used to keep up with all the popular songs on the radio, and the new shows and films. A very popular one was “Rose Marie” with Nelson Eddy, a great tenor, as a Canadian Mountie in the woods and on the rivers, and Jeanette Mac Donald, a wonderful soprano, as the beautiful lady. I was very taken with Nelson’s splendid Indian canoe. So I got out Dad’s ladder as a canoe in the backyard, with a shovel as the paddle, sat down in the middle rowing and sang all the songs. Another memory I have of that time is being carried on Dad’s shoulders when we went somewhere and thinking how big and strong he was when I heard his shoes making a loud crackling noise as he stepped on the gravel.
Sometime later, at the beginning of the next year, Billy and I had to go to school. John Murphy was delegated to take us on our first day and I remember him dragging us by our collars along the bush track to school. The convent was a two storied building and the little kids were taught on the ground floor. In those days they had two six month courses, Prep 1 and Prep 2, before you went into the first grade. I remember that, apart from ordinary lessons, for which we used slates and slate pencils to write things down-which made a teeth-grinding scratchy noise-we did things like paper folding, a sort of simple origami. And there seemed to be a lot of playing outside.
We had a ‘Miss’ for our teacher, not a nun, a young woman of about nineteen or twenty who was what they called a pupil teacher. One day, I think it was somehow in the daily religion class, I asked her where babies came from. She laughed very gaily, I remember, but she didn’t tell me-much too confronting a question, from a five year old, for Prep I in a convent school. From that I learned to be careful about what questions I asked. As Brian was so much older than me-and later went off to boarding school in Toowoomba-I didn’t ask him much, as I otherwise might have. I think it contributed to a life-long habit of trying to work things out for myself.
I think Roma was for Mum and Dad one of the happiest periods in their marriage. Although Mum suffered badly from ‘nerves’ she took a lot of pleasure in the social life that was associated with the Church in a country town-fundraising events, dinner parties and particularly the annual fancy dress and debutante balls. And then there was the associated social life at people’s homes, including those from other churches. People used to support each other’s events. My parents had good friends called the Costains who did a lot of work for the Anglican Church-the father was in one of the banks, Charlotte was the mother (called ‘Shar’) and they had two children, Anne who was my age, and a brother whose name I forget.
When I was about four my parents dressed me up as a pirate for the fancy dress ball, with a bandana round my head, an eyepatch, a sequinned waist coat, a sash, and a sword of some kind stuck in it. I was very nervous about being made different and when they got me to look in the mirror I burst out in tears-I thought I had disappeared and been replaced by this strange looking fellow. The next year, I think it was, they had the debutantes’ ball when all the girls coming out were in long white dresses, very pretty, and all the boys were in tie and tails. My mother made sure that I was in the thick of it and there was I in a pink , silk Cavalier’s suit with big white buttons and elastic edged pants, and a huge pink Cavalier’s hat with a large white feather. As each couple came forward I escorted them over to the bishop-who had come up from Toowoomba for the occasion-and bowed deeply, with a low flourish of the hat, as I presented them to His Grace. I still have a thing about hats.
I have memories of riding on the frame of Brian’s bike while he went to the shop or rode around and visited people. We often used to visit the Costains and one memory is particularly sharp. My brother was then about fourteen or fifteen, and interested in girls of course, and apparently he had asked Anne to take her pants down and show what girls were like. It was dark, I remember, and we all crowded around to see, but for me all that remains is a big dark shadow.
Another memory, pretty vague but clear enough, was listening to the announcement of the outbreak of war on the big old cabinet wireless we had at the time-I’m pretty sure it was a Breville brand. Of course, I didn’t know what it was all about, though I was keen to learn, but I knew it was important and Dad sat nearby and was very serious. Radio was all-the only-go in those days and we listened to it a lot. I remember I used to follow a famous serial, “The Search for the Golden Boomerang’, which triggered off a great interest in Aborigines. It was sponsored by Hoadley’s Violet Crumblebar and the theme music was a piece from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
Although my mother liked Roma and the social life she always collapsed after an event. It seems that she used to work herself up to be able to handle it and then just gave way. So although I have happy memories of various occasions when she was well, and also when she used to play at the piano, my abiding recollection is of her in bed with a worried harassed face, with a cloth, soaked in vinegar and filled with ice, on her brow and continuous complaints about what she called her ‘tin head’. She had what today what would be called a severe anxiety disorder, which lasted all her life, without relief. No pills for it in those days.