Taking the Hard Road-Y

Young Love Amidst the Hate

Annie was in her third year at Roma High School.  She was tolerated but not popular.  Some considered her snobbish, others didn’t think of her at all as she sat quietly in the classrooms, saying little and concentrating even less.  Those who lived at the hostel thought her stuck-up for leaving to board privately.  The town students dismissed her as from “somewhere else” and thus below their interest level.

One person who adored her was George Caradi.  It began the day his school bag was thrown over the balcony by one of the Roma boys.  Teasing George was a favourite occupation as he was different.  Not only was he Greek – his parents owned the milk bar, but he was a swot.  He continually topped the class in almost every subject. He hated anything to do with sport but  Science, Maths, History and English were his great loves. Now Annie was included on the list.

Annie was below the balcony when it happened.  The flying school bag almost hit her on the head.  She picked it up and refused to give it to the excited, panting boys.  George came rushing down the stairs and only then would she hand it over.

“There doesn’t seem to be any damage.  Those Globites can take some pretty rough handling,” she said as she gave it to him.

He turned to walk home and she kept in step with him. “Maybe if we walk together they’ll leave you alone.  They’re just a bunch of country hicks.  Wouldn’t know what day it was, half the time.”

George waited at the school gate each afternoon for Annie and looked forward to their chats.  They found if they walked along the river it added an extra fifteen minutes to the journey so favoured that route more often than not.

George was full of the future.  His parents wanted him to be a doctor so he was studying hard for his Junior Certificate and hoping to get a scholarship to a private school to complete his Senior.

“What do you want to do, Annie?” he asked.  “Maybe you could be a nurse and work in my hospital!”

“Oh no, think of emptying all those bedpans!” Annie was horrified.  “I suppose I’ll be a dressmaker like my mother.  She has a dream that one day we will own a Frock Shop together.  We’ll have a big back room where we sew the clothes and a special room for measuring ladies when they come and a shop front with dresses on mannequins in the window.”

George looked put out at this.  “I think you should do Commercial Studies, you know, shorthand, typing and bookkeeping.  You could become a secretary or maybe even an accountant.  Then you could run my doctor’s surgery for me.”

In a small town rumours spread quickly and viciously.  George’s parents soon demanded he come straight home from school to study.  Mrs Moss began a program of educating Annie for her future life of domesticity.

“It’s all very well to get an education but no use at all if you can’t run a house.”

Annie found work waiting for her each afternoon when she arrived home from school.  Overflowing baskets of ironing required folding and pressing, the silver collection needed cleaning, the furniture needed dusting and polishing.  What made it worse was Mrs Moss insisting she take no longer than fifteen minutes to get home from school.

“My mother pays good money for my board,” Annie flashed, “and I see no reason why I should be your house cleaner.”

Relations with Mrs Moss became strained so that when Mother arrived shortly before the end of term she felt relief that finally someone would be on her side.  She was sent out for a walk while the adults discussed her behaviour.  Mother also went up to the school to talk to the headmaster about her future.  By now Annie felt she didn’t care what happened.  She just wanted to leave with Mother and never come back to Roma again, even if it meant saying goodbye to George.

Mother sat down on the armchair in Annie’s bedroom and looked at Annie accusingly.

“What has been going on with this Greek boy?  You are only just  15 and yet all I hear about is that you are boy mad.”

Annie blanched at the sting of her words.

“He’s my friend.  That’s all.  We walk home from school together and fight off the enemy.  The other boys here are country bumpkins.”

“I also hear that you refuse to do what Mrs Moss requires.  She says she is trying to train you to be a good housekeeper but you are lazy and uncooperative.”

Annie remained silent.  She decided that to defend herself was beneath her dignity.

“The report from school is not good either.  All the teachers say you daydream, lack concentration in class and don’t apply yourself.”

Again silence.

“What do you want to do Annie?  I know it’s been hard for you but I only want what is best for you.”

“I want to leave Roma.  I hate this place.  I hate the school, I hate Mrs Moss.  I just want to go back to Charleville and be with you.”

“Very well,” Mother picked up her gloves. “We’ll go and make the necessary arrangements now.  And while we’re on the train we’ll talk about your future”.

Taking the Hard Road-X

Crossroads

Annie arrived in Charleville for the May school holidays,  delighted with the news that she would never, ever have to return to that horrid hostel.  She chattered excitedly as they approached Noah Park Station and sat happily in the big kitchen eating fruit cake and talking to Tommy. He couldn’t wait to tell her the story of the rotten egg but assured her that the cake she was now eating was fine. The Boss, Mr Winter, saddled up a steady horse for Annie and gave her some riding lessons. He told her she was a natural born rider and she could help with the mustering next holiday. She helped Tommy gather the eggs in the henhouse and fed the orphaned lamb with a bottle.

All too soon it was time for the school term to begin.

Ruby said they may as well go in search of a suitable family as soon as possible but first she would give Annie a night to remember.  They checked into the marvellous Corones Hotel in Charleville. 

Mother and daughter could not remember experiencing such luxury, especially as they sat in the elegant dining room studying the menu for dinner. Annie couldn’t take her eyes off the the painted hanging lamps and the gently moving overhead fans.  The white tablecloths, shining silver cutlery and  crystal vases full of fresh flowers were a world away from the hostel and even the station. She was about to pick up a bowl and drink when Ruby stopped her, saying that it was for washing your fingers.

The talk of the town was the highly anticipated arrival of Amy Johnson. The first woman to fly on her own from England to Australia, she arrived in Darwin on 24th May, 1930 in Jason, a two year old Gipsy Moth aeroplane. She had landed in Longreach, taken a rest in Quilpie and was due to arrive the day Ruby and Annie were leaving for Roma.

“It would be good if she could give us a lift to Roma,” said Annie, laughing. “Flying beats sitting in a train for six hours.”

Ruby read later in the newspaper how Amy was mobbed at the aerodrome by wellwishers. By the time she was bundled into a car and driven to the Corones Hotel she was overwhelmed by the crowds and weeping from exhaustion. It was a case of too much love.

After the excitement of Charleville Annie’s mood darkened as they approached Roma.  Ruby had a list of possible homes to visit. After four unsuccessful interviews where Annie took an instant dislike to the “witch ladies” in question, she finally agreed to living with Mrs Moss, a widow whose house was close to the school.  Ruby was impressed with the large bedroom which would be Annie’s.  From the window she could see a shallow sandy river with willow trees hugging the bank.  There was a bookcase and a large desk for Annie to do her homework.  On it was an electric reading light, which Ruby thought would have been excellent for sewing in her early days.  The mother followed her daughter around the town, stopping to meander through Hunter’s Emporium with its enticing selection of drapery and furniture.  They admired the avenue of bottle trees planted after the Great War in memory of the fallen.  Annie also led her to the Milk Bar which she often visited.  They both sipped their fruit salad milkshakes, scooping out the ice cream and chopped up apple from the bottom of the glass with great delight.  They  walked past the hostel and around the perimeter of the high school, Annie pointing out her classrooms and the sporting fields.

Mrs Moss said Mother could stay until Monday after which time she would return to Charleville.  They decided to attend church on the Sunday with Mrs Moss, who was a very devout C of E.  Ruby let her eyes wander over the white framed stained glass windows, contrasting handsomely with the grey brick walls.  They were impressive in number and depicted characters from well known Bible stories. Various families in the area had dedicated the windows to their departed loved ones. Ruby wondered what it would be like to belong to a respectable family where money was not a problem and children were not separated from parents through necessity. Where you could enjoy the social life of the town, the balls and dinner dances held by the local graziers and even fly to the coast on one of the QANTAS aeroplanes to escape the summer heat.

That was not going to be her lot and she might as well get used to it.

Taking the Hard Road-W

Worries About Children

Ruby stirred the flour and butter mixture with a large wooden spoon.

“Pass me the eggs one at a time, please Tommy,” she said to the young Aboriginal boy at her side.

“Oh Missus, that stinks!”  Tommy held his nose as the offending egg landed in the cake. 

Too late the bad egg disappeared into the mixture.

“I can’t waste all that flour and butter.  This is going to be a huge cake so maybe one bad egg won’t be noticed.  Don’t say a word now Tommy.  Promise?”

“I promise, Mrs Lane.  I just won’t eat any.  Phew!”

Ruby poured in the dried fruit and gave Tommy the spoon to continue mixing.  She pulled out the letter from Annie and read it again.

“That a letter from your daughter Mrs Lane?”

“Yes, Tommy.  She’s at a hostel in Roma but she doesn’t like it very much.  Says they are starving her and she’s all skin and bone.”

“Why don’t you bring her here, Missus?  She could eat some of this cake.”  He looked at it doubtfully and sniffed.  “It doesn’t smell so bad now.”

“I’ll put some rum in it.  That should fix it up.”

After the cake disappeared into the interior of the large fuel stove Ruby removed her apron and sat on the shady back steps trying in vain to find a cool breeze.

What to do with Annie?  Tears had fallen onto the letter leaving smudges on the childish handwriting. This was not the only disturbing letter she had received.  The matron at the hostel had written to say Annie was uncooperative and unwilling to make friends with the other boarders.   The fees for next term were due and it was going to take much of Ruby’s earnings to pay them.

Should I be making my daughter’s life a misery because of my own poor choices? Ruby sighed and returned to the kitchen to check whether Tommy had finished peeling the mound of potatoes she had left.

Several days later she was drinking tea with Mrs Winters, the wife of the Boss.  This was a time to discuss the running of the household and plan the month ahead.  Talk drifted to the problem of Annie.

“I think I might have a solution,” Mrs Winters said thoughtfully. I have heard of some girls boarding with families instead of at the hostel. It would be more pleasant for her than where she is.”

“Maybe she could come here more often?” Ruby wondered.

“It’s still a long train trip to Charleville… about six hours.  Then it’s another hour to get here.  By all means she could come for the school holidays.”

Taking the Hard Road-V

Vexation – Just When Life was Looking Good

Glebe, Sydney, 1929

Annie guided the scooter out the front gate and across the road into Jubilee Park. Ahead was the long uninterrupted path down which she loved to ride, the wind in her hair, the sun on her face, until she braked and stopped at the bottom.  A long walk back up and she was off again, imagining herself a bird flying through the air.  Ruth, who was her best friend, told her that she was too old for scooters.  She had just turned 12 and should be thinking about becoming more ladylike.  Besides she was going to high school next year and everyone would laugh at her. In that case she only had two months of scooter riding left so she was going to make the most of it.

Her news for Mother filled her with excitement.  She had raced home from school and burst in the front door, only to be told sternly to be quiet as Mother was having an important meeting with a client.  Annie caught a glimpse of her in the front room.  She was a very wealthy lady who had bought several dresses from Mother so she guessed this was another job in the pipeline as Mother would say.  At least Mother would be in a better mood as business hadn’t been so good lately.  The number of orders had declined  and Mother had said it was something to do with the fall of the Stock Exchange in far away New York.

Finally the elegantly dressed woman left the tiny semi in Glebe where Annie and her mother lived with Mr Adams. Annie loved everything about the house, the overgrown back yard, the sunroom where Ruby sewed and the cosy kitchen with its Early Kooka stove.

She wasn’t so keen on Mr Adams but Mother had told her he was needed to share the rent.  He worked at labouring jobs but they were few and far between lately.

“Mother, I’ve got the best news!  I’ve been made Jumping Centre in the Netball team.  We are going to play against other schools on Saturday morning.  Oh, and Ruth is Goal Attack.”

Mother looked like she was trying to be happy for her but not succeeding very well.  

“That’s good news, Annie.  I suppose your height would help.  Won’t be long and you’ll be as tall as me…. Annie, I’m afraid my news is not so good.  That was Mrs Macarthur-Brown who as you know is one of my best clients.  Well, her husband’s investments have gone down the drain and they have lost everything, even their house.  There’ll be no more orders from her…and she’s not the only one.  Another week like this and I won’t be able to pay the rent.  Arthur has hardly had any work at the docks. It looks like we are going to have to make a living in some way, shape or form somewhere else.”

“You mean we have to leave Glebe?”

“We’re leaving Sydney, leaving the state of NSW.  I know where I can get work in Queensland.”

Annie tried not to be downcast, to look on the bright side.

“Remember when we moved to Warracknabeal?  The furniture didn’t arrive until the next day and we had to sleep on the floor?”

“We’re not taking the furniture this time.  I’m selling everything, including the sewing machine.  We won’t be needing it where we’re going.”

“But what will you do if you don’t sew?”  Annie couldn’t imagine her mother doing anything else.  She was always pinning and cutting, handstitching and machining, the thump of the  treadle as much a part of her as her voice or her smile.

“I’ve got a job as housekeeper on a sheep station out of Charleville.  The owners are getting on in years and they need someone to relieve the wife from running the house.  It’s a big job, you know, feeding the shearers, ordering the food, training the kitchen staff.”

“So will I go to school in Charleville?  Do they have a high school?”

“They only go to 7th Grade and besides the station is too far for you to travel each day so I have a special surprise for you.  You are going to Roma High School and staying at a hostel for country children!”

Annie’s lip quivered.  Despite the constant moving from place to place, Annie had always felt anchored by Mother.  She was always there, dependable and hardworking, listening to Annie recount her day as she calmly sewed.  The thought of being separated from her only relative to live in a hostel filled with strangers terrified her.

I’m not going to like this and I’ll run away from there as soon as I can! 

Taking the Hard Road-U

Understanding Consequences and Taking Action

Peter had only been home for five minutes. His horse was drinking thirstily from the trough and he had just unsaddled him when a woman and child appeared through the dust.

“Please, Reverend Hale, I must speak with you.”

Peter quickly ushered Ruby and Annie into his small house.  House was too grand a word, he thought as he pulled out a rickety chair for his guest.  The leaky corrugated iron roof and rotten floorboards constituted little more than a dump but he cared nothing for his surroundings.  Until now, that is.  All at once he felt guilty for not taking more interest in his home.

“How can I help you?” Peter fought hard to remain calm and impartial.

Ruby told Peter of Fred’s promotion and the effect it would have on the family.  His heart sank as he realised what it meant for Ruby.  Uncharitable thoughts entered his mind, mistrust of Fred and the realisation that in his role he should sanction and encourage the marriage, even perform the ceremony. God forbid!

And then Ruby told him the news that made his heart sing.  She was already married.  There was no way that she could marry that scoundrel Fred.

“You must go back to your husband at once, before…If Fred thinks you are to be married he might take advantage of you.  I will help you get away.”   

“I can’t leave the children. Who will look after them?”

“I give my word I will find someone for them, but you must make haste!”

“I was thinking,” said Ruby, “that I will tell them I have to return because my mother is ill.  That is not a lie because I received a letter from my sister saying that Mother was increasingly unwell. It would be good for her to see Annie again.”

“What about your husband?” Peter was curious. “Has he contacted you?”

“Oh yes.  He wants me to come home.  Says it will be different this time.” She looked up fiercely. “And so it will.  He is not going to tell me what to do any more.  There will be no more sneaking around trying to hide the fact that I’m a dressmaker and earning my own money.  If he doesn’t like it he can leave!”

Taking the Hard Road-T

Too Many Terrible Choices

“I’ve got great news!” 

Fred grabbed Ruby by the waist and twirled her around the room.

“I’ve been offered the job of overseer!  Better pay but best of all, they’re offering me a house!  They said I can bring the family!”

“Wait, let me think!  What about school … and Al’s job?  What about me? Where do I fit in?”  Ruby was full of questions.

“There’s a school on the property.  The owners are real churchy  people and she, the Missus, runs a school there.  Educates the Aboriginal kids on the station and her own children too. Muriel could probably help her with the younger ones.  She says she’s looking forward to having them.  Al can get a job on the station.  Easy.”

“All right,” Ruby’s brain was unable to take it in all at once.  “Do you still want me to look after the children?”

“Do I want you?  Of course I do.”  He looked away as if to collect his thoughts. “Problem is, the Missus thinks you’re my wife.  I had to say that to get the house.  But we get on well, don’t we?  You love the children.  I reckon we’d make a good team.  Maybe get that friend of yours, the Reverend, to make it all legal, and Bob’s your uncle!”

Ruby almost burst out laughing at this quaint marriage proposal but the gravity of the situation immediately became apparent.  Would she have accepted Fred’s proposal if she was free?  Possibly …but now of course it was out of the question.  Or was it?  Melbourne seemed  as far away as the moon.  No-one up here would ever know she was already married.  

She would know.  How could she live with herself knowing she committed bigamy.  There was only one thing for it.  She had to tell Fred.

“Fred, there is something I didn’t tell you.  I said I was a widow, but my husband is alive and living in Williamstown.  I left him because he was a gambler and because I didn’t love him and because I was…” She searched for the right word and suddenly it hit her. “I was frustrated.”

Fred didn’t seem surprised.  He thought for a moment and looked at her keenly.

“All right.  We have two choices.  One is we get the Reverend to perform a marriage anyway because he won’t know about His Nibs in Williamstown.  Or we just go away for a night to Townsville and come back and tell the family we got married.”

“I’ll go and see the Reverend Hale before I decide what to do,” announced Ruby.

“Don’t you go telling him you are already married,” said Fred, “or we’re up shit creek without a paddle.”

Taking the Hard Road-S

Salvation in a Country Town

The month of May arrived and with it came cold nights gathered around the fire and mild sunny days which made Ruby feel glad to be alive.  She was happy, or at least too busy to be unhappy.

Fred gave her some extra money for material so she was able to keep her promise of a new dress for each girl.  Bill Barker agreed to her request for fashion magazines after deciding they may be of interest to other women as well.

“Once I have more time I could start making clothes for the women in the town,” she told him.  He also agreed to add to the supply of dress material in his store with suggestions from Ruby.

The day of the Baptism was clear and mild.  Ruby had made herself a grey-blue long sleeved dress with a double draped skirt ending a good ten inches above her ankle. With a close fitting black hat, black gloves and shoes she felt pleased with herself and also with her brood of girls.  Fred was away at Widgee, Al was working at the Produce Store but the event was to take place at four o’clock to allow the girls time to come home from school and change.  Plaits were undone and hair brushed, new clothes were slipped over excited shoulders and of course Annie in her new white Christening dress was admired by all.

The schoolmaster and his wife had offered to be Godparents.  Peter made the sign of the cross on Annie’s forehead. She was still deliberating over this when he poured water over her head. She paused for a moment , mouth open, and then decided to wait and see what would happen next.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.”

Annie May Lane, even though she had no say in it,  was now part of the Family of Christ.