Sun hats, 1949
WE LIVED ON THE HILL. From our gate we could see far across the valley to the mountain. Everyone called it Terrible Billy though its real name was Mount Terrible. At the foot of the mountain was our town, Werris Creek, just three miles from home. At night we watched the lights sparkling, mainly street lights and those at the loco yards where steam locomotives shunted the freight cars. In summer I slept on the veranda. The night sky shimmered and I heard trains puffing slowly up the valley.
The coal mine was further down our hill, hidden by gum trees. It was small and inconspicuous as pits go, with the boilers beside the rusty corrugated iron shed that confined the steam engine. All day I heard it in the distance, groaning and hissing as it wound the steel rope that heaved the coal skips from the tunnel. I could smell the black coal smoke that billowed from the chimney stack.
Going to Town
We sat in the battered utility truck, my big sister and I, looking out for the pit horses as my father drove down the paddock, jolting along the track as far as the cattle ramp. The tar road started there, a narrow pot-holed strip that went all the way to town beside the railway track. We had to get half off the road if we met a car. Sometimes we saw Tommy Windsor on his tractor, ploughing a paddock, or Mrs. Fred Jones milking her nanny goat in the lucerne patch. Mr. McClelland shuffled out of his old wooden house to close the railway gates across the road. It would be a freight train, perhaps bringing coal from our pit or wheat from the silo. The passenger train didn’t come through until lunch time. Occasionally we had to wind up the windows because of the smoke and soot as the locomotive chuffed past. We waved to the driver in his greasy clothes and maybe saw his mate shovelling coal into the furnace.
We ran into the schoolyard and up the slope trying not to trip on the cracked asphalt, but we always had skinned knees painted with orange Mercurochrome. If the boys had rung the bell, we joined the juniors, standing in front of the big kids, ready for assembly. The sun was hot at nine o’clock in the summer. Our headmaster, Mr. Porter, would be on the retaining wall at the edge of the playground with the other teachers. They lined up on either side of the flag pole. The sixth class boy battled with the flag then hauled it up the pole. We saluted, shoulders back, and sang ‘God Save the King’ for George VI who lived in London on the other side of the world, and ‘Advance Australia Fair’, or ‘There is a land…’ but I didn’t know the words except for the chorus: ‘Australia Australia Austraaaaaaalia’. It made me feel funny in the chest like I was going to cry. We recited the school pledge which to me was a jumble of words, then sang the school song. ‘Werris Creek Central School’ were the only words I managed to make out. I just sang ‘la la la’ when I didn’t know. Mr. Porter would shout, ‘School dismissed!’ like they did in the army and we marched away to the crackling sounds of a brass band issuing from the tinny loudspeakers. Sometimes it was ‘The British Grenadiers’ or ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, other times ‘Waltzing Matilda’. ‘Swing those arms. Lift those knees. Left right left right.’ We marched round the playground and eventually up the wooden steps into school.
On a swing with my sister
In Kindergarten I played in the sand tray with Noah and his animals and drew on a small blackboard with broken chalks, or opened my book and traced the fish with a wobbly line and coloured the hippo with blunt pencils. Then I danced on tippy toes and stomped like the giant, or sang about little nut trees and kookaburras sitting in old gum trees. We all slept on blue mats after lunch then played with big wooden blocks and it was three o’clock and time to go home.
But my father would be doing the mine inspection. He couldn’t collect us for another hour. I’d go to my sister’s Second Class room. They didn’t finish till half-past-three. Mrs. Boram gave me a special drawing book. I drew pictures with pastels in delicate colours, not like the red, white and blue of those broken chalks. On the first page I drew flowers with long stems, beautiful petals and ladybirds. ‘Bring your work here and show me,’ Mrs. Boram said from her desk at the front. ‘Just a minute,’ I called back. I still had more ladybirds to draw. ‘Don’t “just a minute” me, young lady,’ she said, looking fierce. ‘Bring your work here immediately!’
One of the big boys from sixth class ran across the playground and rang the bell at half-past-three. I walked down to the gate with my sister. Her name was Dora. We sat on our school ports or played hopscotch for ages till my father came in the ute. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we walked over to the convent straight after school for piano lessons with Sister Paula. I thumped away at middle-C and Jesus looked on from the wall, with his bleeding heart.
Rag dolls & curling rags, 1949
At lunchtime we sat in the school playground on splintery benches. Bees buzzed overhead in the pepper trees. I’d have an apple and Vitawheat biscuits with butter and Vegemite. I squeezed the biscuits together and out through the tiny holes wriggled lots of butter and Vegemite worms. No one else (except my sister) had Vitawheat biscuits with worms. Sometimes I swapped for slabs of white bread and jam or half a cream bun. I didn’t tell my mother.
On Fridays we bought lunch from Mrs. Munson at the sandwich shop across the gravel road opposite the school gate. I got a baked bean sandwich or sometimes egg or devon or tinned sardine. In winter it was a pie or sausage roll with tomato sauce. My mother said, ‘Now don’t you go buying lollies. Buy an apple.’ But I just had a big round All-Day-Sucker for a penny instead. It changed colour as I sucked. I took it out often to see what colour it was. Soon my fingers were multi-coloured and sticky. The lolly didn’t last all day but sometimes it lasted so long I still had it in my mouth when we went back into school. ‘Are you eating?’ Miss Barwick would say. If the lolly had shrunk to the size of a small bead, I crunched it between my teeth and swallowed, but sometimes it was too big and I was caught. ‘Show me,’ she’d say and I’d open my mouth. She’d look disgusted as she peered in. She’d say, ‘Put that in the bin!’.
Sometimes I bought pink sherbet instead in a small white paper bag with a short liquorice tube like a straw. The sherbet fizzed as I sucked it in. It made my teeth go pink and my tongue go red and the liquorice made my lips go black and my fingers too. Sometimes I bought a long black liquorice strap. I spent the rest of lunch time chewing on it and pulling faces to scare everyone with my mouth, tongue and teeth all black. Sometimes it was a small paper bag of Conversation Lollies – tuppence worth. They were flat, in different shapes, with a message on top like ‘I love you’ or ‘Be my friend’. I offered them round in the paper bag like a lucky dip.
With my big sister and a friend
Mr. Cox was the dentist. He had a moustache and wore a white coat. I went down to the Railway Institute after school with my sister and lined up with the other kids. He was only there on Mondays. His room was tiny like a walk-in closet and there was a big chair like Nippy the barber’s. I clambered up and he leant the chair back and said, ‘Now open up’. He peered into my mouth with his little round mirror on a stick and his spiky probe. If he found a hole, he said, ‘Now this won’t hurt,’ and he pedalled away with one foot to make the drill turn and I heard a ‘whirr whirr’ sound like a bicycle. I felt the drill slowly grinding into my tooth. It made a horrible noise in my head. Sometimes I jumped because it hurt but mostly it didn’t. He mixed grey stuff on a little glass tray and rammed it in the hole. ‘Now have a good rinse,’ he’d say and I swilled my mouth out with the pink water and spat in the dish. One day he was poking about in my mouth with his finger and he said, ‘Now bite’. He started to remove his finger and I just didn’t think. I snapped at his finger because I thought I was going to miss. I bit it – hard. He was very cross but I couldn’t see why. He said ‘bite’ so I bit – and there was nothing else there to bite, only his finger.
The Railway Institute
It was First Class, when I was six. We sat in desks with curly cast iron legs, lined up in rows facing the blackboard. We kept our books on a shelf under the desk. That was the year I learnt that time extended further back than ‘the olden days’ when ladies wore long dresses like Scarlett O’Hara and there were coaches and horses like on the biscuit tin. Before that, Miss Kievis said, there were cave men who lived in caves and rubbed sticks together to make fire and didn’t wear clothes unless it was cold. Then they wore animal skins. I drew tiny cave men in my book. She didn’t mention what came before that. Not a word about dinosaurs. I didn’t find out about dinosaurs until I saw them at the pictures, killing the cave men.
The dunnies were across the playground under the pepper trees. There was no roof, just a high corrugated iron wall round the battered wooden cubicles. I could see the sky through the branches above and got wet when it rained. It was the same in the boys’ only they had a urinal as well. Mr. Porter said at morning assembly that the boys had to stop peeing right up the walls. The bees roared in the trees but the blow flies roared even louder. I ran in holding my breath because of the smell. I tried not to look down into the sanican underneath the wooden seat because there were masses of maggots writhing, especially when there was a heat wave.
The nightcart turned up when the cans were full. Sometimes it arrived when we were in the playground. We watched from a distance as the big filthy boy took each slopping can on his shoulder out to the truck and returned with an empty one. We held our noses and said ‘pooooh’ and the sixth class boys jeered and laughed until the job was done and the old truck revved up and disappeared down the lane. The new cans reeked of Phenol and for a few days there were no maggots.
Sometimes there were squares of cut up newspaper hanging on a rusty nail behind the wooden cubicle door but more often there was no paper at all. We could bring some from home. If we ran out, or forgot to get it from our school port before coming out at recess or lunch time, we weren’t allowed back inside to fetch it. We scouted round the garbage bins to find some, maybe old lunch wrap or something, and the blow flies buzzed and swarmed round. We washed our hands outside, under the tap over by the weather shed – cold water, no soap, but we could bring that from home too. I had a little bag for my soap. I kept it in my pocket, together with some paper and a handkerchief. But some kids had nothing; they didn’t even have shoes.
In Second Class our reading book was full of animals like the platypus, the wombat, the dingo and the kangaroo but I struggled with the words. And there was the Race for the Stars, a big chart on the wall with everyone’s name. ‘If you do good work you’ll get more stars,’ Miss Beavis said. But everyone else was getting lots of stars; I didn’t know why I wasn’t getting many. And they won prizes but I didn’t get any. That was the year Dora and I learnt a piano duet from ‘Teaching Little Fingers to Play’. I had the bottom part. Mum said we weren’t playing loud enough, but we played so loudly on the night of the open-air concert, the nuns said they could hear us at the convent, and that was over beyond the Presbyterian church.
Me aged 7 with a small cousin
When I was seven I saw something remarkable through the small square panes of the Second Class window. It was a jet trail. I’d not seen one before. It was far up in the blue sky like a streaky cloud, so high I could barely make out the plane in front, just a tiny glint in the sunshine and the trail growing longer like toothpaste coming out of a tube. Robert sat at the desk beside me. He said it was a jet trail because he’d seen one in Life Magazine and a jet plane too, and on the newsreel at the pictures. We rarely saw planes in our skies. If we saw one when we were in the playground, we waved and shouted to the pilot but he probably couldn’t hear. They were small planes with propellers. Once we even saw a helicopter. The day we saw that jet trail, Robert said, ‘It’s the Russians coming,’ but we didn’t tell Miss Beavis because we were supposed to be getting on with our work. We’d heard grown-ups talking about the war and the Germans and the Japs but that war was over and my uncles were all back home. Now it was the cold war and the communists with their hammers and sickles and the Russians who made trouble with the Berlin blockade, whatever that was.
Mr. Muir owned the cafe opposite the pedestrian bridge that went over the railway to the train station. My father said Mr. Muir was a red hot communist. I didn’t know what a communist was. We sometimes spent time in the cafe talking to old Mr. and Mrs. Muir and their son, Kevin, after my father collected us from school. Kevin had a girl friend called Daphne who was the waitress. She wore a white apron and cap. My father talked and laughed with Daphne as he leant on the Laminex counter, but they didn’t talk about hammers and sickles. I’d have ice cream in a fluted glass dish with sticky strawberry topping, crushed nuts and a wafer triangle, and maybe a malted milkshake with a straw, to fill in the time.
One day I wandered out to the back room. There were heaps of newspapers stacked on a shelf. They had strange letters and words printed on them and photos of soldiers and tanks parading through crowded streets, and fat old women wearing overcoats and headscarves in the snow. ‘Can I take this home to show Mum?’ I asked Mr. Muir, waving a paper at him. When I got home, my mother said, ‘A Russian newspaper! Where on earth did you get that?’ It was only an old newspaper with foreign writing but she thought it was something to do with this cold war. She told my father he shouldn’t be going to Muir’s cafe. He just laughed. ‘Half the blokes at the pit are bloody commos,’ he said. ‘They’re always waving the red flag.’ But I didn’t see any red flags.
Third Class was my last year at the Werris Creek School. I was eight and I had a crush on Ken Hays. His father owned the dairy. I posted him a letter during the Easter holidays but he didn’t answer. He pretended not to see me when we went back to school. At the end of the year Miss Barwick had some of us line up in the playground. She photographed us with her Box Brownie camera. She said we were her shining stars.
We’d learnt about explorers. They mostly got lost in the desert or died of thirst or were speared by Aboriginal people. Nobody mentioned all the Aboriginal people killed by white settlers in those early days. I didn’t even see this at the pictures though I saw lots of American Indians being killed by cowboys, and we all cheered. Gloria was in my class. She was an Aboriginal girl. Her skin was like chocolate. She had a big smile and gleaming white teeth. My father said her father was lucky because he worked on the railway and they lived in a railway house down near the loco yards. Other Aboriginal people weren’t so lucky.
On Saturday afternoons we went with our friends to the pictures in town. We called it the matinee. We sat at the back and ate red Jaffas full of chocolate, or Minties or sometimes it was Fantails which were chocolate coated toffees. My sister saved the wrappers because they had things on them about the film stars. There were hardly any grown-ups, just children. The lights went out suddenly and we cheered as the curtains opened because we saw Hoppalong Cassidy riding Silver, and the Mexican bandits hiding behind boulders. Then Hoppalong was galloping across the desert after the baddies and we shouted ‘Come on Hoppalong’ and stamped our feet with all the kids and jumped up and down, raising the dust from the bare floor boards while Jaffas rolled under the seats. Some man would yell, ‘Pipe down you kids’ and we went quiet for a while. Then we were laughing at Felix the Cat, or Tom chasing Jerry, in colour. Next we saw the serial with robbers stealing the treasure and falling into the snake pit or sinking in quicksand or being trapped in a cave with moving walls covered in spikes that slowly closed in. Just as the heroine was about to be impaled, the screen seemed to flash open and the voice said, ‘Don’t miss the next thrilling episode of – The Drawn Dagger’, or whatever it was. We came out of the pictures so excited and I had nightmares for weeks about snake pits or boiling oil.
On hot summer nights we went to the open-air picture show which had a neon sign over the entrance. It said ‘Talkies’ in red but the ‘T’ often didn’t light up so it said ‘alkies’. That sign was old then, at least from the Thirties, my father said, and it was now the Fifties. The theatre was surrounded by a high battered corrugated iron fence with the silver screen at one end and the corrugated iron entrance door and ticket office at the other. There was a dirt floor and we sat in deck chairs under the stars with our parents. The big kids came with their friends.
There were pepper trees round the perimeter. When I was bored with the film or there was too much kissing, I looked up at the black velvet sky and saw the Milky Way and shooting stars or maybe looked for the Southern Cross, or watched the possums clambering in the branches overhead. I heard the puffing locomotive’s whistle and the crash of the freight cars being shunted in the loco yards.
Sometimes the projector broke down and a few electric lights came on at the back. We talked to our friends and ate tiny pink musks or got fruit flavoured Jujubes stuck to the rooves of our mouths while we waited. Kids ran up and down the aisles until the lights went off and the film started up again. The picture show man flashed his torch to make the naughty boys sit down.
Once I was unlucky because the old canvas seat started to rip. My bottom sank through and my knees ended up level with my eyes and someone had to pull me out. I watched the scary movies between my fingers so I could cover my eyes if I couldn’t stand it, like when King Kong was climbing the Empire State Building in black and white. I cried at the end of ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ with Greta Garbo. Everyone cried in ‘Lassie Come Home’ and when Bambi’s mother was killed in that fire, and it wasn’t in black and white – it was colour.
Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian, born in inland New South Wales before the end of World War II. Her professional life has been devoted to music education. She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before taking her Education Degree in music from London University in 1973. She initially taught in England. On returning to Australia, she taught at all levels over the next thirty five years, from preschool to tertiary (the latter in the 1980s at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, now part of the University of Tasmania). She was involved in the formulation and writing of a new school music curriculum for the NSW Department of Education during the early 1980s. In the last twenty years she has run her own private music studio in Sydney. Over the years she has published (in education journals, music teacher and parenting magazines) material on child development and music, and aspects of music pedagogy. Her final work in this field was a regular essay in the journal of the United Music Teachers’ Association of NSW between 2005 and 2012. Creative writing and poetry have been important leisure activities since childhood although publication was never in mind until the completion of a memoir, Vanished Land, published in 2014.