(I'm not a musician.) I was taught as a child that I must not 'blow my own trumpet' as in talking about myself – especially not to say anything good about myself. I was also taught that much of what I could say about myself was nonsense and I needn't expect anyone to believe it. If I myself believed it, I must be insane. If not, I was obviously a liar. Telling my story, therefore, became a very confronting task. I am now in my late seventies, as I begin this blog, and it is only a preparation – things I write on the way to writing the memoir. Nevertheless, everything posted here is copyright and must not be reproduced without written permission from the author (usually me).

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Learning to Fend for Myself

(With a little help from my friends and relatives)

My brother and I were soon, and forever after, glad that we ended up in Melbourne instead of Hobart for our university years, due to the fact that we finished our schooling in the State of Victoria. I don't say it made the two years under our Stepmother's roof worth it, but it turned out to be the one good outcome of our father's desire to have custody during school term.

Nothing against Hobart Uni (which I know very little about) but Tasmania as a whole was quite parochial in those days. It was a wonderful place for a child to grow up in, but would have been stifling for an adolescent.

I loved my island, and still do in memory and on my increasingly rare visits. If something about Tasmania comes up on TV or in a movie, I'm riveted to the screen, I drink in the images. But it's interesting that when I lived there I used to sit in my classrooms gazing out the windows and dreaming of 'over the hills and far away' – listening to the planes leaving Launceston to fly across Bass Strait to what we called The Mainland. I pictured them landing in Melbourne, the closest capital city. That city – only vaguely imagined – was the focus of my daydreams. Not being there, not what might happen there, but just arriving there. I saw a glorious but undefined future opening up like a golden sun once I went to live there.

For us it was The Big City. Hobart wasn't that. We went to Hobart quite often as kids, to visit our cousins. It was a small city, not much bigger than Launceston, and even colder. Melbourne, though, seemed huge, dangerous, exciting. After we settled in and learned our way around it (or around some parts of it anyway) it became another dear, familiar home while simultaneously retaining the Big City edge. In many ways, too, it was a beautiful city. I loved it dearly for decades.

I was often pathologically shy and self-conscious during my university years, but for the most part concealed it fairly well. I think I might sometimes have seemed aloof. Nevertheless I enjoyed my time there, and became on friendly terms with some other students.

My stepsister Merrie and I had gone through a religious phase while living under the Stepmother's roof, largely for social reasons, but also falling in love with Jesus for a while. We had joined the local Methodist Youth Fellowship, and met nice, boring boys who dreamed of becoming ministers or missionaries. This phase didn't last! At university I joined the Evangelical Union briefly, but found I had too little in common with the other members and couldn't get excited about their events and activities. I certainly felt no call to try and convert anyone. (But I have stayed a little in love with Jesus, despite not following a Christian path and utterly repudiating the churches created in his name.)

Merrie was living in Melbourne by the time I got there, doing her nursing training. (She never did put that finishing school to good use by marrying a wealthy grazier or corporate baron.) She got over her churchiness too. With big-sister concern for my social life, she took me to parties of nurses and wealthy (male) Asian students who were sowing their wild oats whilst away from strict parental eyes. My Aunty Ev was dubious about me going to parties with folk she didn't know and couldn't vet, but after the first time Merrie arrived to collect me in a friend's car, she relaxed. 

'Merrie's so reassuringly wholesome!' she said.

In fact she was right to be worried; however I came to no harm. I looked back later and realised that those parties always ended with couples pairing off and finding semi-private corners as the hour got later and the lights got lower. It was assumed that everyone would stay the night. I used to find a spot on my own to fall asleep, usually with others who hadn't got lucky. In my case I was blithely oblivious. Once a young man tried to roll on top of me, and I pushed him off the high bed to the floor, laughing loudly as I did so. I hadn't even taken him seriously. And in fact it was a very half-hearted attempt. He got the message and slunk away.

I look back now and wonder that I came unscathed through what were almost orgies. Innocence was its own protection, I guess. And let's face it, I wasn't even trying to look sexy, only pretty. Socially, I was gauche. I wouldn't have had much attraction for young men who were looking for 'fast' girls. But it got me out of the house and made me feel that I was having a life.

I enjoyed living with Aunty Ev and Uncle Tommy for a year, experiencing warmth and something like normality. But it wasn't very practical. I was quite far away from the university (University of Melbourne, the only one that city had then, though later it acquired two more) and spent long hours daily travelling back and forth. I wasn't so far away as the crow flies, and in these days would get there much faster, but roads and public transport were both more limited then.

Eventually Uncle Tommy wanted the use of the room I was sleeping in. Aunty Ev booked me into the Salvation Army hostel for young women, in the city. My brother stayed with them a few more years, attending a local school. He says now that Aunty Ev wasn't as warm to him as she was to me, and that may be so. But she was a lot better than the Stepmother. She was kind, practical, and a good cook, and had a basic wish for our wellbeing.

She always used to tell the story of how, after we first arrived, she found him lugging his sheets out to the laundry in the morning and asked what he was doing. He told her he'd wet the bed and was going to wash his sheets.

'Oh, don't worry about that,' she said. 'Give them to me and I'll put them in the washing machine. If you don't want to wet the bed, just don't have anything to drink after 4 o'clock.' Problem solved! I loved her for that as well as everything else. She couldn't fathom that such a big deal had been made out of something so simple, or that anyone could be so unkind to a child.

I found hostel living quite strange, but tolerable. There were some strict rules, such as being in by 10pm unless you had special permission for a very good reason. The doors were locked at that time, and if you were later and had to knock, you'd better have permission! The threat hung over our heads of being thrown out for failing to comply with the rules.

The rooms were small, occupying several floors. There was a huge communal dining room, a cold, old-fashioned laundry in the basement with coin slots to start the machines, and a roof balcony with views over the city.

Many of the girls were students like me, including Asian students from Malaysia and Singapore. Others were girls from the country who had found work in Melbourne. Then there were the unmarried mothers. They were working for their keep, scrubbing the floors and washing the linen.

The staff, all senior Salvation Army officers, were cold, stern women who seemed to think we were all naughty children. At least they were frostily polite to the paying customers. They treated the handful of unmarried mothers like slaves, speaking to them scathingly and working them hard. Those girls themselves had a crushed, hang-dog air, never looking anyone in the face. I know the Salvation Army is famous for its good works, but that first impression of them stays with me. I tell people that's where I first learned the meaning of the expression, 'cold as charity'.

As for the rest of us, we were in some ways naughty children.

I made some friends. Two of them became important friends in my life, and one of those I'm still in touch with today, nearly 60 years later. Some of my friends encouraged me to ask for a transfer from my ground floor room to the floor they were on. They knew a room near theirs was coming vacant.

The transfer was granted, which made it easier to spend giggly nights crammed into one or other of our rooms, drinking alcohol and cooking chips on our tiny methylated spirit stoves – both of which activities were strictly forbidden.

Two of my friends, chafing at the restrictions of hostel life, invited me to join them in renting a house in Carlton, near the university. Rents were cheap there, and although they were both wage earners, not students, they weren't earning much. It was close enough to their places of work by public transport, as well as being ideally situated for me.

My father came to Melbourne and spent a day with me, buying furniture (at auction) for my room and arranging its delivery. It was a companionable day, in the course of which we saw an art exhibition advertised, wandered upstairs and were shown around a studio by the white-haired man who lived there. The paintings were by his friends. Dad remarked how much he'd like to be able to paint like that.

'You can!' said the man. 'Look at that horizon. That's just a line. You can draw a line.'

That made such an impression on my father, he soon started to paint landscapes, first with acrylics and later oils. He continued for the rest of his life, sold many paintings, and some are in the Art Gallery where he lived. I have several hanging on my walls, and love them. Mine are of Tasmania.

He and my stepmother used to travel on vacation to various places including Tassie, avoiding anywhere they might run into Mum or any of Dad's old friends from his earlier life. They couldn't avoid it entirely, and stories came back to Mum of old friends rushing up to hug him warmly, only to be frozen out by my stepmother's icy manner.

He was unable to hold down a job in his new environment, and ended up being kept by his wife in return for odd jobs around the property. It was also clear she'd turned off the sex pretty soon. Ironically, this former womaniser, terrified of his second wife and her nasty tongue, and without money or free time, lived the rest of his life celibate. But at least he got to travel to some good places, and he made himself a life as an artist.

In the Carlton house, life was enjoyable and frugal. We learned the usefulness of the local pawn shop, and seldom redeemed our goods. We walked places as much as possible. But we liked the new freedom. One of the others painted a mural on her bedroom wall. I got myself a cat. Every week I bought a lettuce and sixpence-worth of mincemeat (quite a large amount back then). I lived off that, sharing the mincemeat with my cat. One of my flat-mates had a big sack of oranges sent from her country home, and we shared those too. I still visited Aunty Ev sometimes, at weekends. I didn't do so just because I'd get a good meal – but of course I always did get one there. The student cafĂ© was fairly cheap too. I didn't starve.

My other favourite Aunty, my Dad's sister Kathleen, aka Katy, who never married and was a favourite with all her many nieces and nephews, worked in a big bookshop called Robertson and Mullens. She got me holiday jobs there (in the short vacations when I stayed in Melbourne) which I enjoyed very much. I had won a Commonwealth Scholarship which paid my university fees but provided only a meagre living allowance. When I was still living with Aunty Ev, she encouraged me to advertise, by notices in the local store, for jobs baby-sitting and ironing, so for a time I was able to augment my income that way. After I moved from her house, the work in the bookshop was a godsend. I lost my shyness in that situation, and liked interacting with people, helping them to find what they wanted.

While I was living in Carlton I applied for, and to my surprise got a job at Victoria Market, Melbourne's biggest market, right in the city. I assisted on a toy stall run by an old German couple who were very sweet to me. I enjoyed that too, working weekends and public holidays.

At the end of the year, though, two of us went home to our families for Christmas – the 'long vacation' in my case, lasting three months. We couldn't afford to keep renting the house while we weren't in it, and the other lass couldn't keep it on by herself. Sharing a house had polarised us anyway, as it so often does. One of the others was a somewhat older young woman, who found me and our third irresponsible and tiresome. (The third and I were kindred spirits who remained close friends for a number of years.) Abandoning our rental suited us all by then. I found another loving home for my cat, and joined my brother on a flight to Tassie.

4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading your write.

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  2. I love reading your story, Rosemary. I am glad you had good aunties.

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  3. I wonder how many lives that man changed with these words "'You can!' said the man. 'Look at that horizon. That's just a line. You can draw a line.' " he is even doing it now and i would say he is long dead if he was old back then. How wonderful. My favourite so far. What I want to know is what you cooked with your mince and lettuce.

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    1. I ate the lettuce raw, and made mince patties. Vey basic! I suppose I had toast or cereal for breakfast; can't recall that bit.

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