Shannon Bolithoe : A Writing Life

Chapter 3 – June 1950


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Chapter 3 – June 1950

Lucy moved into the boarding house the following Saturday. Lifting her two bags on and off the train by herself was a struggle. Her parents had offered to help her, but she was stubbornly determined to do it by herself. The trip from the railway station to the new house turned into a juggling act, as she changed her bags from hand-to-hand, stopping regularly to rest her arms. When Lucy arrived at the house and knocked on the door, an attractive girl in her early twenties answered it. Lucy liked her vivid blue eyes and bright smiling face surrounded by a riot of blonde curls.

‘Hello, you must be Lucy, I mean Miss King. Mrs. Carstairs told me to expect you. I’m Sally. I live in the rooms below yours. I can help carry your bags up for you.’ The words tumbled out of her mouth in a rush.

‘Thanks, if you don’t mind, that is, and please call me Lucy.’ Lucy smiled back at her, grateful for the help.

Sally took the small suitcase, while Lucy hefted the larger suitcase up the stairs. Sally chattered all the way up. She told Lucy what a lovely place it was to live, how long she had been there (six months), how delightful most of the people were (with some exceptions) and how pleasant it would be to have another young lady there. She gave Lucy a brief description of the other boarders. There was Mr. Smith (a grumpy old so-and-so), Jimmy (lots of fun), Mr. Thompson (an old gentleman, known to everyone as Tommy), and Mrs. Lock (a lady of Lucy’s age who had been widowed in the war, thing).

Sally seemed to want to stay and chat while Lucy unpacked her belongings, but Lucy hinted that she needed some time to put her clothes away, and said she’d look forward to seeing Sally later. She shut the door behind Sally’s retreating back and sank onto the bed with a sigh.

What a lovely girl, even if she is a bit of a chatterbox. She could talk the leg off a table, as her mum would say.

Lucy bounced on the bed to see how it felt: comfortable enough, she thought with satisfaction. She poked around the room, deciding where she would put her books and other knickknacks. Yes, this would do nicely. She smiled to herself and hummed her favourite song as she unpacked and made herself at home.

***

Next day, Lucy was too excited to eat. She skipped breakfast and instead explored the nearby streets, and wandered through the grounds of her new home. Roseville was an affluent suburb with huge blocks of land, sprawling houses and big shade trees lining the streets. The trees would be a welcome relief from the sun in summer, she thought, as would the beautiful Moreton Bay fig in the yard of her new home. It was a massive tree with ropey roots running a great distance from the trunk. Underneath it, she found a swinging seat, a few garden seats, and an old outdoor table. She thought what an enchanting place it would be to sit and read. As she explored further into the garden, she discovered another seat close to the back fence. She almost missed it as it was hidden underneath a trellis, which was covered in a trailing potato vine. She thought it was a charming little hideaway. She was trying out the seat when she heard the sound of footsteps approaching.

Lucy waited, wondering who was coming. As the footsteps drew closer, she saw through the gaps in the trellis that it was Mr. Smith. He was strolling down the path reading a book, chuckling to himself. When he reached the trellis, he ducked and glanced towards the seat, but stopped dead when he saw her. His smile disappeared, replaced by a questioning frown.

‘Good afternoon Miss,’ he murmured, a questioning tone in his voice.

‘King,’ Lucy clarified. ‘Miss King that is.’ She jumped off the seat, her face red with embarrassment. She felt as if she’d been caught in someone else’s room. ‘I’m the new boarder,’ she added.

‘Good afternoon Miss King,’ he repeated gravely, adding her surname. ‘Welcome to Berrilee.’

‘Thank you, Mr. Smith. Was I sitting in your seat?’

‘You know my name?’ he asked, his eyebrows quirking up.

‘Of course. We work at the same radio station. I’ve seen you there sometimes.’

‘I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t pay attention to other people,’ he remarked, his pale face flushing slightly.

‘Don’t worry; it’s a big place. You can’t be expected to know everyone, and I’ve only been there a few weeks. I work for Mr. Martin.’

‘Are you the new secretary? I did hear that Mr. Martin had employed a new secretary who was, um, different.’ Jo’s flush darkened, and he looked uncomfortable, the word “different” hanging in the air between them.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ snapped Lucy tartly. An awkward silence fell between them. Lucy was the first to recover.

‘I’ll leave you to your seat. I’ve been exploring the grounds, as it’s my first day here.’

‘Thank you, but it’s not my seat although I like to sit here and read when the weather’s fine. It was nice meeting you,’ he added as she ducked under the vine and slipped past him.

‘Yes, and you too. I’ll see you later.’ She left the arbour with a wave and a slight smile. She continued her exploration of the garden, contemplating the enigmatic Mr. Smith. It was if he had two personas: his “on air” one was gay and friendly but his “off air” one was the exact opposite: polite when he had to talk to people, but otherwise distant and morose. She didn’t think he’d meant to insult her when he called her “different”. She almost laughed out loud, remembering the look on his face.

He looked like he could have bitten his tongue off. I wonder how he came to live here, and if he’s ever had a wife or children. Why is he living in a rooming house?  Surely he can afford a home of his own. Or was there some sad story behind his long, rather woebegone face? What could it be: a jilted lover, a dead fiancé?  Why did he live in this busy house if he didn’t want any company? I wonder if he’s divorced or lost his money somehow. He might be a gambler or a drinker, spending his money on “wild women and song”.

She laughed at her fancies. He also might be someone who prefers to keep himself to himself. She knew some people preferred a solitary life, although she couldn’t imagine it since she was of a more sociable disposition.

She’d seen him from a distance, at the radio station. You couldn’t miss his tall, immaculately dressed figure. He reminded her of a British officer from the movies; very erect and distinguished looking, with a long face and prominent nose that cut his face like a knife. She thought his hair was lovely; blond and wavy with a widow’s peak, which she had always found attractive in men. The grey around the edges showed he wasn’t young, but at least he still had his hair, unlike Mr. Martin, who was as bald as a badger.

I wonder how old he is. He’s even taller close up than I thought he was. But when you’re four foot ten that pretty much describes everyone.

She laughed out loud, thinking how funny they must look beside each her, with her so short and him so tall. She wandered up the path and back towards the house, musing on her new housemate. She thought about what beautiful hands he had; large and well-shaped with long, slim, meticulously manicured fingers. She hadn’t realised before what an unusual blue-green colour his eyes were; so startling in his pale face. She’d found herself staring at his eyes as they talked, fascinated by the intensity of the colour until she’d forced herself to look away.

What was I thinking? How rude to stare at him like that. He has a very sweet smile, though. What a pity he doesn’t smile more often. I only saw it for an instant before he saw me, and his face closed down again. Have I ever seen him smile at the radio station? I don’t think so. It’s not surprising, though, since I’ve only ever seen him reading the news, which usually isn’t a very cheerful subject. He sounds happy on the Quiz Show, though. I hope I’ll get to see that one day. I’ll have to think how to arrange it.

 What a beautiful voice he has, with that posh English accent the announcers use all the time. Or maybe he is English? Even if he isn’t no one wants to hear an Australian accent on the radio. Now I know he speaks the same way when he’s not on the radio. He seems so uncomfortable in person; all stiff and stilted.  

***

Lucy went down to the dining room for dinner that night, hoping to meet the other boarders and wondering if she would see Mr. Smith again. She didn’t know why but he intrigued her, and she would like to know him better.

The dining room was huge, with lush crimson curtains framing the floor to ceiling windows, reaching to the wide, dark-brown wooden floorboards. The food was in covered bowls and platters on a long oak sideboard that matched the massive dining table. When Lucy entered the room, Sally was helping herself from the sideboard while Mrs. Carstairs presided at the head of the table. The other boarders sat around the table talking and eating. The chairs were made of oak, like the table, with thick dark-crimson seats. The table looked as if it had been built for a larger group of diners and there were more chairs than people.

The food smelled delicious, and there was plenty of it. The serving platters had a blue rooster pattern on a white background. They were piled high with slices of hot and cold meats, mashed potatoes, beans, carrots, and peas. There were jugs at the end of the sideboard with gravy and white sauce, and smaller salvers containing mustard, mint sauce, and other similar condiments.

‘Lucky for us Mrs. Carstairs likes to cook.’ Sally was piling her plate high, in evident appreciation of the food. ‘She’s an excellent cook too,’ she continued, with a fond smile at the landlady.

Sally stopped to introduce Lucy to the other boarders at the table. They looked at her, with varying degrees of curiosity, but no apparent hostility. With relief, Lucy smiled and nodded at the other diners as they were introduced.

Lucy knew Jimmy from the radio station, but he was too busy filling his mouth to do more than grin when it was his turn to be introduced.

‘This is Mr. Albert Thomson, our elder statesman.’ Sally smiled at the small man seated next to Mrs. Carstairs. He was probably in his sixties, with a dapper little moustache, dark greying brylcremed hair and a devil-may-care smile.

‘Please call me Tommy.’ He beamed at Lucy and tipped an imaginary hat. She nodded and smiled back, immediately warming to him.

‘This is Mrs. Lock.’ Sally gestured dismissively at the other side of the table. Mrs. Lock smiled slightly and nodded, before returning to her meal. She was a rather stern looking woman of uncertain age, with an upright carriage and a quick, precise way of eating. She reminded Lucy of some of the matrons she’d known when she worked as a nurse’s aide during the last war.

Looking around the table, Lucy noticed that Mr. Smith was the only boarder not there. She asked Sally the reason for his absence.

‘Oh, him. He never eats with us. He’s too high and mighty if you ask me. He eats at a cafe at the shops I think.’

‘Lucy came here from China as a baby,’ Mrs. Carstairs interrupted, as Lucy filled her plate with food from the sideboard. ‘Her father’s a minister, and he was a missionary. Do you remember anything about China, my dear?’

‘No, nothing at all I’m afraid. I was a baby when they brought me here. My Mum and Dad have been wonderful parents, though, so I don’t think I’ve missed anything. I was told that someone left me under a fence at the Mission. I have no idea who my birth parents were.’

She was used to telling her story since strangers always wanted to know how she had come to Australia. Because of her physical differences from her parents, her adoption had never been kept a secret from her, and she was glad of it. She knew many people were never told they were adopted, which she thought was a mistake, since they usually found out eventually, and it always led to trouble with their parents. Her parents had always made her adoption sound unique – as if she was the chosen one.

‘It’s just as well. You don’t miss what you’ve never had, I think,’ Lucy commented as she sat down and tucked into the food; she hadn’t realised how hungry she was, and it smelled delicious.

‘Very true,’ replied Mrs. Carstairs. ‘I’ve never drunk a drop of alcohol in my life, and I’ve never missed it. I watched too much of it being poured down my father’s throat ever to want to drink it myself.’

‘You don’t know what you’re missing Mrs. C.’ Tommy smiled mischievously at the old lady. ‘There’s nothing like a little drop of whisky to warm the cockles on a cold winter’s night.’

‘No thank you. My hot water bottle is enough for me,’ she replied tartly, much to the amusement of most of the assembled group. Mrs. Lock continued eating, paying no attention to the conversation. Lucy looked at the silent woman, trying not to stare.

She’s a sad one; different from everyone else here. I wonder what her story is.

‘I’m with you Mrs. C. I much prefer a cold lemonade drink,’ Sally interjected. ‘Especially sitting on the veranda in the shade, on a long hot afternoon,’ she added with a pretended southern accent. She leant back in her chair, waving a pretend fan and acting the part of a “Southern Belle”.

‘I think you’re having Scarlett O’Hara delusions again,’ teased Jimmy.

‘It’s better than having “Jimmy Olsen ace reporter” delusions like some people I can think of,’ she replied, with a smirk. With his red hair, freckles and bow tie, he did resemble the cub reporter from the Superman comics.

‘What’s wrong with a little ambition, I’d like to know?’ reproved Mrs. Carstairs. ‘I’m sure Jimmy will do well, eventually.’

Jimmy smiled at her fondly.

I think he might be Mrs. Carstairs’ pet. Look at how quick she is to defend him. Maybe he’s like the grandson she never had. He’s definitely a charmer if a little on the flighty side for my liking.

‘I forgot to ask you, Sally, do you work near here?’ asked Lucy.

‘Not far. I work at a lady’s dress shop at Chatswood, on Victoria Avenue. It’s a great job, and I get a discount on any clothes I buy for myself. You wouldn’t believe how much this dress cost.’ She spread her arms to show off the light blue frock she was wearing.

‘It’s gorgeous.’ Lucy declined to guess the price, remembering her mother’s admonitions that it was rude to discuss money. ‘I’ll have to come and buy some clothes there. Do you work on Saturday mornings?’

‘Yes, I do sometimes – every second Saturday. I hope we have something in your size.’ Sally looked at Lucy’s figure speculatively. ‘You are rather petite, as they say in the fashion world.’

‘I know,’ Lucy sighed resignedly, ‘and it can be a real trial. Sometimes I have to buy girl-sized shoes and clothes. It’s very demoralising. It’s difficult to find fashionable women’s clothes in my size.’

‘I’ll have to see what I can find for you.’ They launched into a discussion of the latest fashion trends that quickly cleared the table of the male members of the household.

‘I think I’ll pop out for a smoke,’ Tommy called out as he left the room.

‘I think I’ll join you.’ Jimmy headed for the door after him.

When they were finished eating, Lucy rose and began to clear up the table.

‘I’ll do the washing up if you like,’ she offered, looking at Mrs. Carstairs.

‘Yes, you go and sit down and have a rest, Mrs. Carstairs. We’ll fix this up,’ added Sally.

‘Thank you, girls, you’re sweet to do that for me. Now you mention it; I wouldn’t mind resting my legs.’ Mrs. Carstairs stood and made her slow way out of the room. ‘I’m not getting any younger you know, and I think my feet could do with a soak.’

Lucy and Sally chattered together as they cleared the table and washed the dishes. Just as they were finishing, they heard the main door open, and footsteps pass along the hallway heading towards the back of the house.

‘That’ll be Mr. Smith,’ remarked Sally pulling a face. ‘He’s such a creep.’

‘Why do you say that?’ asked Lucy. Maybe Sally knew more about him, something that could illuminate the mystery man.

‘Because he gives me the creeps. He’s sneaks around and never talks to anyone.’

‘I don’t think he “sneaks” and maybe he’s just shy.’ Lucy didn’t know why she felt as if she had to defend him, but she couldn’t help herself. ‘He spoke to me when I saw him in the garden this afternoon. He was very pleasant, in fact, and Mr. Martin thinks very well of him at work.’

‘Aren’t you the fortunate one. He’s never honoured me with a single word.’

‘Maybe you haven’t seen him at the right moment,’ suggested Lucy.

‘Hmm,’ Sally raised her eyebrows, looking sceptically at Lucy, but didn’t pursue the subject.

‘Do you want to come to my room for a game of cards? I love having someone young to talk to. There’s been no one else here to talk to except Mr. grumpy bum, old people, and young boys. There was an old lady in your room before, and she wasn’t much company. Her daughter took her away to live with her when she couldn’t manage the stairs anymore.’

Lucy was rather shocked at such plain speaking but tried not to show it. She didn’t think her mother would have approved, but she wouldn’t hold it against Sally. She was different from the girls Lucy knew; one minute she was an excited young girl and the next, a world-weary woman. She was pleasant company, though, and Lucy was eager to make a new friend so she agreed to Sally’s suggestion, and they spent a pleasant evening playing cards and exchanging life stories.

Sally told Lucy that she was the eldest of a large brood from Lithgow, who had come to Sydney to find her fortune or a husband: whichever came first. She was enjoying her first taste of freedom from her overworked parents and whining siblings.

‘You have no idea how tiresome it is putting up with younger brothers and sisters,’ she grumbled, shuffling the cards at the end of their first game. ‘They always want something. “Tie my shoelace, fix my hair, bandage my cuts”. On and on and on. I think my mother should have been more careful before she filled the house with fifteen children.’

‘Your poor mother. It must have been hard for her, having so many children.’

‘She gets no help from my father either. He’s too busy working or drinking down at the pub, after his shift in the mine. I couldn’t wait to get away.’

‘I would have liked a brother or sister. It can be lonely being an only child when you’re different,’ Lucy said sadly, gesturing at her face. ‘When I was little some people wouldn’t let their children play with me or let me come to their houses. Once when I was in second class my friend Rose Harding took me home to meet her mother. Rose hadn’t told her mum about me, and when Mrs. Harding saw my face, she was so rude to me. As soon as she saw us walking through the door, she screamed: “Get that chink kid out of my house.” I ran home, crying all the way. Rose didn’t play with me at school after that. I think her mother told her not to. My Mum and Dad were very upset, but they didn’t know what to do. It’s not the done thing for Ministers or their wives to go to people’s houses yelling at them.’ Lucy smiled wryly at the thought of her mother doing such a thing.

‘That’s awful. I can’t believe how mean some people can be.’ Sally ejaculated, indignant on her new friend’s behalf. ‘My Mum would have gone straight around there and given that woman a proper tongue lashing. She couldn’t stand that type of thing. We used to play with the local Abo kids, and you should have seen my Mum if anyone dared to have a go at us for it.’

‘“You can’t help what you look like. Kids are kids; it doesn’t matter who their parents are.” she used to say. No-one was game enough to pick on any kids when my Mum was around.’ Sally was obviously proud of her feisty mother.

‘Mind you, at school when she wasn’t around, I used to get teased for having such a large family. I do agree a brother or sister might be all right, but I think fourteen is overdoing it. I would have been happy with just me and my sister Margaret. She’s a year younger than me, and a great girl. She’ll be coming to Sydney as soon as she can get away.  I hope she can find a place nearby to stay, or maybe we might move in somewhere together. ‘

‘You never know; a room might become vacant here.’

‘I hope so. I do miss her.’

‘I hope so too. If she’s like you, I think she will be an excellent addition to the household.’

‘Thanks.’ Sally smiled and blushed at the compliment.

‘It’s the truth.’ Lucy tried unsuccessfully to suppress a yawn. ‘Sorry, it’s time for bed I think. I’m feeling so tired. It’s been such a big day.’

‘It must be exciting, your first full day in your own place.’ Sally put the cards away in a box. ‘Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.’

‘I haven’t heard that for ages.’ Lucy laughed at the old saying.

‘It’s what I say to the little ones. It’s a hard habit to break,’ Sally grinned back at her.

‘See you later.’ With a wave, Lucy left Sally’s room and headed to her room.

Once there Lucy changed into her nightgown and climbed into bed, reflecting on the people she’d met that day. Although she was sometimes shocked by the things Sally said, she enjoyed her company. She reminded Lucy of Kitty, her best friend from school: open with her opinions, and quick to judge, but just as quick to laugh. Kitty had always stood by Lucy, through thick and thin, and she thought Sally would as well.

Mrs. Carstairs is such a sweetie. She’s like a grandmother for the young people here. It’s such a shame she doesn’t have any children or grandchildren of her own. Tommy and Jimmy are all right too, if not exactly the kind of people I’m used to meeting. Mrs. Lock and Mr. Smith, though – they’re unknown quantities. I won’t judge these books by their covers, though, as Mum likes to say. I’ll wait until I get to know them better before I make up my mind about them.

With a yawn she turned onto her side and closed her eyes, ready for sleep.

 

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