Shannon Bolithoe : A Writing Life

Chapter 2 – June 1950


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Chapter 2 – June 1950

“Clean accommodation for discerning tenants now available in Roseville. Lady or Gentlemen tenants welcome. Contact Mrs. Carstairs for details.”

The week after starting work at the radio station Lucy saw a ‘Room for Rent’ poster on the bulletin board in the canteen. She had been thinking about moving out of home for quite a while since she felt she was too old to be still living with her parents. The new job gave her an excellent excuse to move out, without having to hurt their feelings; she could tell them she wanted to live closer to work.

She rang the landlady later that day. Mrs. Carstairs chattered on about the “splendid house” and the “pleasant tenants”. Lucy could hardly get a word in edgewise, but eventually interrupted the stream of chatter and made an appointment to visit the house after work on the following day. Mrs. Carstairs gave her the address, accompanied by voluminous instructions on how to find it. With a happy smile on her face, Lucy hung up, hoping the house would turn out to be as good as it sounded.

Lucy caught the train to Roseville station after work on the following day. She enjoyed walking along the beautiful, tree-lined streets on the way to the boarding house. Although it wasn’t far from the station, it was almost dark by the time she arrived. In the fading light, she saw a large rambling house in the middle of a huge block of land. The garden was filled with a profusion of coloured bushes, with a row of massive palm trees bordering the driveway. The house had two storeys, with the bottom level surrounded by broad verandas.

Lucy tapped the brass lion-head knocker tentatively against the door, afraid she would mark the wood if she banged too hard. After a few minutes, the door was opened by a short, stout old lady, with a mop of curly white hair atop a round smiling face.

‘You must be Miss King.’ The little woman, who Lucy assumed to be Mrs. Carstairs, smiled and tilted her head up, peering at Lucy through tiny wire-framed glasses that sat low on her nose. Lucy was relieved to see that Mrs. Carstairs’ smile didn’t waver. Lucy always steeled herself for judgemental stares when she met new people. Thankfully, there was no sign of disapproval in the old lady’s friendly greeting.

‘You must be Mrs. Carstairs,’ replied Lucy with a smile and held out her hand politely. ‘How do you do?’

‘Very well, thank you.’ Mrs. Carstairs returned Lucy’s handshake vigorously, surprising Lucy with the strength in her stubby-fingered hand.

‘Come in, my dear. I’m glad you’re punctual. I’ve just made a cup of tea.’

Mrs. Carstairs was about the same height as Lucy, although much broader in the beam. Lucy followed her into the house, looking around with interest as they walked down the hall and through to a large sitting room on the ground floor. The ceilings were high with decorative mouldings, and the dark wooden floor had a thick red Turkish-style carpet. The lounges in the sitting room were old but very comfortable, as Lucy discovered when she sat in the chair Mrs. Carstairs indicated. Mrs. Carstairs sank into the chair opposite with an enormous sigh. On the little table between them was a fine bone china teapot with matching cups, set out on a silver tray.

‘I’ll be mother,’ Mrs. Carstairs said as she poured the tea. ‘Do you take milk or sugar, my dear?’

‘Only milk thanks.’

‘I take both, for my sins. I’m afraid I have a very sweet tooth. Three sugars it is for me. My dear departed husband used to say he thought I was sweet enough already.’ Mrs. Carstairs giggled at the memory then her smile faded, and she sighed deeply.

‘I still miss him, the dear man. Even after all these years I still expect him to walk through that door, calling for his dinner.’

‘How many years has it been since he passed away?’ asked Lucy, assuming he must have died.

‘It was eight years and three months ago last week. It’s easy for me to remember when he died because it was on our 40th wedding anniversary. We had just finished our dinner. He leant back in his chair, loosened his trousers, and told me what a good cook I was. Then he fell off the seat and tumbled onto the floor. I can’t tell you what a shock it was. I called the ambulance, of course, but it was too late. They said he’d had a massive stroke. I was devastated.’ She sighed again and shook her head. ‘He was such a kind man, and I miss him dreadfully. Unfortunately, we were never blessed with children, and I was left all alone in the house. It seemed so quiet without him.’

They sat in silence for a few moments until Mrs. Carstairs brought herself back to the present and carried on with her story.

‘I must admit I fell into the mopes for a while after that, but eventually, the silence got too much for me. That’s when I had the idea of having other people come and stay with me. Mr. C’s family built this house in the days when families were large, which is why there are so many rooms. It’s far too big for one little old lady, so I rent out the rooms. Just for the company, you know since Mr. C left me quite well provided for. Since then I’ve kept the house full of boarders, but only with respectable people, of course.’ She nodded her head vigorously, a grave look on her face.

‘The rent helps pay for Mr. and Mrs. Preston too. Mrs. Preston comes in to do the cleaning since the house is far too big for me to do it all and Mr. Preston looks after the maintenance and the garden. They do an excellent job. The house and garden are as well-kept now as they ever were in the days when everyone had servants,’ she added proudly.

‘From what I’ve seen so far, it’s a beautiful house, inside and out.’

Mrs. Carstairs beamed at Lucy’s praise of her house.

‘Mind you; I don’t tolerate unpleasant people here. Out the door they go.’ She swept her little hand in the direction of the door, with an attempt at sternness. Lucy thought it looked odd on her round smiling face.

‘Now, to business.’ Mrs. Carstairs put her cup down on the saucer and looked at Lucy intently.

‘Can you tell me about yourself, my dear, and why you want to come and live here?’

‘Here are my references.’ Lucy handed them to Mrs. Carstairs who read them slowly, before looking up with a smile.

‘These are excellent references, my dear.’

Lucy smiled with relief. She’d known good references would be necessary when she moved out of her parent’s house, given the suspicion her face often aroused in strangers. She launched into the short autobiography she always told strangers. She detailed her origins, her father the missionary and minister, her work history, etc. as Mrs. Carstairs nodded and smiled encouragingly.

‘The Bishop of Sydney, the Mayor of Hornsby Shire. Very, very impressive references,’ Mrs. Carstairs commented when Lucy had finished.

‘Yes, I’ve been lucky to have a father who has many friends. I’ve known them all since I was a child, and they have been kind to me’.

‘Your work references are excellent too,’ Mrs. Carstairs noted.

‘I’ve been lucky with my employers too.’

‘You have been a very lucky young woman, all things considered,’ Mrs. Carstairs nodded, giving Lucy a meaningful look.

‘That’s true, all things considered,’ Lucy repeated with a smile, thinking she understood Mrs. Carstairs’ meaning. ‘My parents have always treated me as if I was their real daughter, despite my origins.’

‘They must be very kind. Why do you want to leave home now?’

‘‘I have a new job at 2DL. It’s the radio station in Crows Nest. I’m the secretary to the Station Manager, Mr. Martin. I thought it would be easier if I moved closer to work.’

‘What a coincidence,’ exclaimed Mrs. Carstairs. ‘I know 2DL. Mr. Smith and Jimmy Cooper work there. They are some of my other boarders. Do you know them by any chance?’

‘Yes and no. That is, I know of Mr. Smith. I’ve seen him at the station, but I’ve never spoken to him. I know Jimmy though since he delivers the mail at the station, among his other jobs. I see him most days as I look after Mr. Martin’s correspondence.’

‘Jimmy’s a pleasant lad.’ Mrs. Carstairs smiled fondly. ‘And Mr. Smith is a charming gentleman. He was my first boarder, and he’s never been an ounce of trouble to me. He’s been here for about eight years I think. My goodness how time flies; it seems like only yesterday when he first came here.’

Lucy had seen Jo Smith from a distance at the radio station and thought he looked very distinguished. She had overheard many people at the station remark on the professionalism of his work, although she also had the impression he wasn’t very popular. He appeared to be a solitary person; she’d even overheard some of her co-workers calling him standoffish. She never saw him have morning tea or lunch with any of the other staff in the canteen, which was unusual, as the canteen was the usual meeting place for most people at the station. She wondered why, if he was as nice as Mrs. Carstairs seemed to think, Mr. Smith never socialised with the other staff.

She knew he read the news during the day shift and acted in some of the radio plays, as well as hosting a Quiz Show on Friday nights. Lucy had often listened to the Quiz Show at home as it was one of her mother’s favourites. When she first saw him at the radio station she’d been surprised at his aloofness. His behaviour in person was a complete contrast to the friendly, lively voice she was used to hearing on the radio.

Mrs. Carstairs interrupted Lucy’s thoughts, rising carefully from her chair, her knees creaking in protest.

‘You’ll see more of them both if you decide to board here my dear. Would you like to have a look at the house and see the vacant rooms? I’m a bit slow because of this darn arthritis, but I can still walk around the house well enough to show it off.’ Lucy again noticed how proud she was of the old house.

Mrs. Carstairs took Lucy on a slow, stately tour of the house. Lucy thought it was beautiful. It was an old building that had aged, but grandly. It looked as if it had always been well maintained and there was a warmth and sense of life in it. Some old houses felt cold and dead, like museums, but this wasn’t one of them. Lucy had loved the house from the outside and was even more charmed by it; now she’d seen the inside.

During their tour, Mrs. Carstairs told her the history of the house and the family who had built it in the mid-Nineteenth Century. They had called it “Berrilee”, after the farming community where the original owner was born. Her husband Mr. Carstairs was the youngest and last surviving of the nine children of the original owner and his wife. He had inherited the house when his childless siblings died before him.

‘It’s strange,’ Mrs. Carstairs remarked. ‘You’d think with their parents having had so many children; there would have been at least one grandchild to inherit it. But most of the children didn’t get married, and they lived in the house until they died.  Those of us who did get married didn’t have any children. I outlived them all in the end. That’s why I’m here on my own, or rather I would be if I didn’t have you young people around me,’ she added with a cheery smile. Lucy again felt herself warming to the older woman.

As they climbed to the second storey, with frequent stops for her to catch her breath, Mrs. Carstairs described the other boarders in the house.

‘There are five residents at the minute, three men and two other women. If you decide to stay that will make it six.’ Mrs. Carstairs puffed asthmatically as she climbed the stairs. ‘It’s a comfortable number I think.’

Lucy nodded in agreement. She had no idea how many people usually lived in boarding houses.

They finally reached the vacant rooms, which were two adjoining rooms at the back of the house on the second floor. They looked like they must have originally been separate bedrooms. A door now joined the two rooms, turning it into one suite. Lucy thought they made a perfect bedroom and sitting room. The rooms’ furnishings looked old but clean, with a pale wooden table and matching chair, and a white painted dressing table, cupboard and bed. There was a large blue lounge chair in one corner, with pale blue flowery curtains and a matching bedspread. Lucy noticed the sitting room had a gas ring and toaster on a bench attached to the wall of the sitting room. She’d be able to make herself some tea and toast if need be. Lucy looked around the rooms with approval, thinking she would only need to bring her clothes, books, and toiletries from home. Mrs. Carstairs explained that breakfast and dinner were served downstairs to those boarders who wanted it, for a small extra cost.

‘It’s good plain fare, my dear, nothing fancy.  If you don’t mind me saying so, I think you could do with some feeding up.’ She tilted her head up and peered at Lucy’s tiny figure through her glasses.

‘It sounds perfect. I would love to board here, if it’s all right with you, that is,’ Lucy asked eagerly.

‘I think you’ll do. You’re clearly a well brought up young lady, and not a flibberty gibbert like some people I can think of,’ Mrs. Carstairs added, somewhat cryptically.

Lucy didn’t want to pry, and quickly changed the subject, asking about practical matters such as when she would be able to move in, and the amount and day when the rent would be due. They agreed Lucy could move in the following weekend and with a quick handshake Lucy left, pleased with her first solo venture into the world.

***

Lucy’s next hurdle was to tell her parents about the proposed move. She decided to tell them at dinner the next night. Unexpectedly her parents were neither surprised nor unhappy at her decision.

‘You’re old enough and sensible enough to live in your own place,’ her father remarked after she explained her plan.

‘That’s true,’ agreed her mother. ‘It will be easier for you too; now you work closer to town. We’ll miss you, of course, but we can’t be selfish. I hoped you’d be married by now, but life doesn’t always turn out as we’d want it to,’ she added with a sigh. She didn’t mean to dwell on the subject since it annoyed Lucy, but she couldn’t help the sigh. ‘Our primary concern is for you to be happy. You told us how much you were enjoying your new job, and you never know, you might meet a young man there.’ She couldn’t help herself, and let the idea hang in the air.

Lucy’s relationships with men had never been easy. They were often attracted to her, but their parents were usually less enthusiastic. It had been made clear to her more than once that no one wanted a ‘slant eyed’ grandchild. She’d become resigned to living a solitary life, at least as far as men were concerned. Not that she was a hermit. She went out with her girlfriends, babysat their children and helped with her father’s parishioners. Men just weren’t a priority for her, at least not for now. She wished her mother could understand.

After dinner, as Lucy sorted through her clothes and books, deciding what she would take with her to the new house she thought about her mother. She was, without a doubt, the best mum and the most optimistic person she knew. She was convinced that Lucy would make some man a perfect wife one day. Lucy was sorry for disappointing her mother, but she had decided long ago that she wouldn’t put her life on hold waiting for “Mr. Right” to turn up. There were worse fates than being without a husband. Having the wrong kind of husband was much worse. Her mind immediately jumped to Bobby, her friend Linda’s husband.

Imagine being married to a violent man like Bobby. Poor Linda. He’s so awful to her. I’ve seen the bruises, even though she tries to cover them up. But what’s she going to do? She has the kids to think about, and she couldn’t support them on her own. She’s Catholic too so she’d never be able to get a divorce from him, even if she was prepared to deal with the shame of it.

Lucy shuddered at the thought. Compared to her friend, Lucy considered herself fortunate. She thought about the lives of her friends; one pregnancy following another, screaming babies, sleepless nights, whining toddlers, unending housework and a cranky man to please at the end of the day. In comparison with them, Lucy thought her life was fine as it was. She didn’t need a man to have a home and a life of her own. She was her own woman, and proud of it.

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