Ch10 Pt2 Our brick and fibro castle at Want Street

Alack and alas! We had barely been in it a week when there came a sudden downpour of rain – one of those tropical downpours which are so common in southern latitudes, but which we did not seem to experience in England. The rain came through the roof of our garage in buckets. It fell on the second hand chairs and dining room table we had bought. It soaked the second hand bed with its second hand mattress, spotted the second hand wardrobe and kitchen cabinet dividing the living area from the sleeping area, and gathered in pools on our new if somewhat cheap quality lino. Irene sat down and wept. I was at first filled with despair, and then with a blinding rage. After all this effort, was a leaking roof now about to defeat us? We ran around placing pots and pans in strategic positions. I swore that as soon as the rain abated I would fix up that roof so well that not a drop of rain would come in for the next hundred years.

The next day was Saturday and I climbed up to have a look at the corrugated iron close-up. It was second hand, and there were numerous small holes from where it had been previously fixed on some other roof. I walked the mile and a half to Caringbah and bought some bituminous mixture. When I got back, I first plugged every hole with bitumen. I then tore up small strips of tent canvas and put them on top of the holes. Each piece of canvass received a further coat of bitumen and then a coat of paint. When the paint dried, I placed more bitumen on the spot, another piece of canvass, another covering of bitumen, and a further coat of paint. Every nail that held the iron sheeting to the timber rafters was similarly treated. The roof never leaked again while we were there, and I will guarantee that it does not leak to this day.

My job at the Department of Local Government had proved a very present help in trouble. However, I was earning only a labourer’s wage. Indeed, a labourer might have earned more with overtime and odd jobs on the side. Since the Department had the oversight of all the local government Councils in New South Wales, I began to wonder if there might be some future for me in this direction. I therefore composed and had typed something to the order of two hundred letters of application, which I sent to every municipal, shire and county council in the State. I might have received at the most half a dozen replies, which I thought then and still think today was a very poor reflection on local government. However, one of them was from Hurstville Municipal Council, half way between Sydney and Caringbah. They were looking for a clerical assistant, and offered me an interview. I rang up George, the Town Clerk, thanked him for his consideration, and asked when he would like to see me. We arranged an unlikely rendezvous the next Sunday morning at the bus stop just outside Kogarah railway station.                                                

George was a tall, bespectacled, black haired, lantern jawed man of fifty. His accent was aggressively Australian. He chain smoked cigarettes through a long holder. His brown, spaniel-like eyes hid a shrewd and pragmatic mind. He thought before making a statement. But when the statement was made, you could rest assured that it was authoritative and was backed up by a lifetime of experience in guiding the affairs of a local government council. He was the first of a long line of town clerks that I came to know, whom you could recognise almost as you would instinctively recognise schoolmasters, doctors, policemen and bookmakers.

After he got out of his car at Kogarah, we had an impromptu interview on the street corner. He seemed to be satisfied, and invited me back into the car beside him, saying he would take me to look over the Council Chambers at Hurstville. We went into the neat brick and tile building (now regrettably demolished), and after I had looked through the tidy offices with polished lino floors, he asked me if I liked what I saw. I said I did. He explained to me that in this job I would gain a good knowledge of New South Wales local government in a substantial Council and that they would “train me up” so that I would have a steady job in a good atmosphere and something to back me if I went elsewhere. I took all this with a pinch of salt, but on reflection in later years, I began to think that George was probably sincere. We left with the understanding that I should give a week’s notice to the Department of Local Government, then start at Hurstville. I would be a “D” Grade Clerk, and would earn one pound a week more than I was then getting. Moreover, since Hurstville was closer to Caringbah than Central Sydney, my travelling time as well as my fare would be halved. I went home and conveyed the news to Irene with jubilation. Thus, although I did not realise it at the time, I took one of the most important decisions of my life. I decided how I was to earn the money to pay off the mortgage and enable Irene and me to raise our children. The field of endeavour in which I had arrived more or less haphazardly was to take us up and down the coast of New South Wales over half a lifetime, and thus have a decisive influence on the lives of our children.

After we had raised the money to build our garage, Irene had commenced work in the Coles store just down from St. James’ Station. She served behind the sweet counter and finally finished up in charge of the lemonade counter. I think she had the distinction of selling more drinks with less lemonade essence than any other sales assistant within living memory, thus contributing considerably to Coles’ large profit that financial year. Irene worked in Coles for about nine months, and during this time we paid off the mortgage on our garage at a record rate and also bought a very nice lounge suite and an Axminster carpet square from Bebarfeld’s the large furniture store opposite the Sydney Town Hall, in George Street, now occupied by Woolworth’s. It is necessary to realise that in England we had never been able to afford a lounge suite of similar quality to the one that now graced our garage, whilst Axminster carpet was something to which the working man simply did not aspire. We lived on the smell of an oil rag, got up very early, and worked very hard. One week, we had no money after paying debts, and existed on tomatoes grown in the garden and bread and milk bought on credit. But with Irene’s wages and mine we were paying off our commitments at the rate of ten pounds a week. After so many wasted years we were at long last getting ahead.

If we were solving difficulties regarding work and accommodation, on another plane Irene and I were having problems. I had always thought that no man was complete without a wife. Certainly I had found that Irene and I had been of tremendous help to each other during those first lonely and difficult days in Australia. But by extension, no marriage is complete without children. We had been married for three and a half years, and there were no children. Indeed, we had been led to believe in England that there was a strong chance that we should never have any. For me, this was a matter of great sadness, as I am quite sure it was for Irene also. I suppose that you see in your partner desirable qualities you hope may be transmitted to your children. Also there is a natural desire to be related by indissoluble bonds of flesh and blood. This, of course, is the mere beginning of things. What follows after is the serious business of raising the children, and this is what life is really all about. Life may be financially easier without children, but it becomes very empty. Love and affection, those important qualities no money can buy, must inevitably diminish. With children, love and affection increase, and a man and a woman achieve a sense of purpose.

We began to visit the Crown Street Women’s Hospital Sterility Clinic. It was not a pleasant experience. One feels like an animal on a clinician’s dissection table. However, they rapidly diagnosed a condition the pundits in England, by some strange oversight had completely missed – a minor obstruction of the Fallopian tubes, which was quickly rectified.

Irene became pregnant, but had a miscarriage, probably due to the need to carry buckets of water across our block at Caringbah before we had it properly connected to the garage. The next time, she had injections, and we were much more careful. Patricia was conceived in our little green and red silver-roofed garage in Caringbah, and born just after we had entered into occupation of the house we later built on the block.

I shall never forget the day my daughter was born. Indeed, I have remembered that afternoon with tenderness all the days of my life. I walked to the “Jacaranda” Hospital, near Cronulla. (We could not afford a car). Here I was shown an olive-skinned newly born child lying in a butter box. There had been many births that day, and they had apparently run out of cots. A fuzz of dark hair covered her head. Her blue eyes rolled in completely opposite directions, chameleon-like, as she tried to focus on what was possibly my vague shadowy shape bending over her, or perhaps sought to identify the direction that my voice was coming from. Her little soft red mouth seemed to pull itself into a kind of smile. She was bruised right across the face, from the forehead, across the eye and nose, diagonally to her chin, for it had been a difficult forceps delivery. That moment, a wave of tremendous love swept over me. Irene and I were both almost thirty years old. We had thought that we should never have children. Yet here was my beautiful daughter smiling up at me.

I went to say “Hallo” to Irene, but she was stretched out exhausted, and very weak. She had been in labour for four days, and the birth itself had been extremely difficult. I think she hardly realised I was there.

That evening I went round to the house of a friend who insisted on playing Richard Tauber records all night. Although Tauber was a great favourite of mine, I simply sat there in a kind of daze. The only thought that kept repeating itself in my mind over and over again was, “I am a father. I am a father.” The wonder of it dazzled me. The responsibility of it overwhelmed me.

Later, I took to washing out the nappies, as they did not do this at the “Jacaranda” Private Hospital. But my good intentions were undermined when I put tapioca in the sink in mistake for washing powder. The result was a bit of a mess. Subsequently, when she returned from hospital, Irene took over this chore.

Some months prior to Patricia’s birth, having paid off the garage and once again obtained a clear title to our land, we approached the St George Building Society for a loan. This was quite a small concern then, with headquarters in Forest Road, Hurstville. We had no money, so we were obliged to pick a plan showing a two-bedroomed house of minimum size – in fact, the overall area was six and a half squares, which most people today would consider laughable. However, we borrowed sixteen hundred pounds on the grounds that half a loaf is better than no bread. Our repayments were two pounds ten a week, and my wages at that time seven pounds.

The problem now was to get a builder. Irene had transferred from Coles’ in Sydney to a milk bar in Forest Road, Hurstville, so we were able to go into work together and come home together, the Council Chambers being just along the road. This enabled us to have more time to look for a builder. However builders were not interested. Most of them had work for the next eighteen months or two years, and simply could not fit anything in prior to that time. We went to builders all over Caringbah and Cronulla without success. I did not want to try to build it myself, fearing that I might not get a good result because of my lack of expertise. I feared also that it would simply take too long and costs would smother me. In the event, we ran a builder down who lived no further than the adjoining street. He agreed to build our small brick and fibro castle after nine months had elapsed. We accepted his offer with alacrity, knowing it was the best we were likely to get, and the house was eventually built just in time to welcome Patricia into the world. How proud I was, that although the place was small, it was entirely adequate at that time for Irene and me and that my daughter had a separate room and lovely surroundings to take her first faltering steps in Australia.

I was not a particularly devout Christian, nor was Irene a devout Jew. We decided that Gentiles have an easier time in this world than Jews, but that it is desirable for children to be taught the moral precepts common to both religions. We therefore had Patricia christened in the Methodist Church just down the road, on the grounds that this was the closest church in the vicinity, my own Church of England being a couple of miles or so away at Cronulla. Patricia’s godmother, our good friend Beryl, was a practising but very tolerant Catholic. Thus were the outward formalities of society completed.

2 thoughts on “Ch10 Pt2 Our brick and fibro castle at Want Street”

  1. From Lynda
    As they fought to conquer every challenge, this one made me laugh: when Jim “put tapioca in the sink in mistake for washing powder.” That’s one way to get out of nappy washing!
    I like the fact that they were practical about the religion issues, rather than insistent on any particular belief.
    Now they have a new path to forge together, it seems all their previous traumas can be set aside; not forgotten, as he wouldn’t have written about them in previous chapters.
    A new life, the responsibility of a little daughter, brings even more love into their future.


  2. From Trish
    It seems like Irena thrived on challenges, from the bank manager to finding work, but a leaking roof brought her down. I can imagine the situation, after all the effort and sacrifices building a dream “castle”, and in minutes your dreams become an invasive nightmare of water. Life has a way of challenging your successes and focus. It’s often what seems like the small choices we make when opportunities present that create our destiny, just as Jim did with his application to Hurstville Council. And so we watch the building blocks of this immigrant couple’s life: building a home with mortgage, employment, pregnancy and children. The last sentence in this chapter is an interesting statement to consider for its concept: “Thus were the outward formalities completed.”


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