Ch10 Pt5 Paw paws and confidence.

I had gained maximum experience from Eurobodalla Shire. However with the appointment of the new Deputy all promotion was blocked for me. I wrote away for a job as “B” grade clerk at Tweed Shire Headquarters at Murwillumbah. I would drop a grade, but Tweed Shire was a big undertaking, and I hoped to gain more experience in the costing and plant side as well as some knowledge of mechanised accounting. I also thought that should I get stuck there, it would not be a bad town for the family, being in close proximity to the Gold Coast and Brisbane. I was accepted without interview, and set off to drive six hundred miles north, leaving Irene and the children in Moruya until she could organise furniture removal. This was what deterred people from moving around more in those days, I am sure – the high cost of removals.

I set off on Friday afternoon, and felt very uneasy about the car from the beginning. It just didn’t feel right. I got to Wollongong in the evening, and as night fell, started to climb the steep ascent of Bulli Pass. The engine got weaker and weaker, and finally conked out altogether when I was about a third of the way up the pass. I was unaware of it at the time, but the old fashioned timing had slipped. Of course, it was such an old and worn out engine that it probably wouldn’t have made it anyway. Now I was truly in strife, and I was only pleased that Irene and the children were safe and sound and probably asleep in Moruya.

After a while I heard a car coming down the pass accompanied by much singing and shouting and merriment. I stepped out into the dark road to halt it. Three young fellows had been celebrating somewhere, but they were only too happy to get out of their vehicle and give me a hand. They physically lifted my car and pointed the front end downhill back in the direction of Wollongong. Unfortunately the exhaust once again fell off in the process, but this had now become a minor matter. So I taxied downhill, the engine creating a tremendous noise every time I touched the accelerator. At the bottom of the pass the road became a series of gentle rises and falls into the centre of town, but I found that although the engine roared like a bracket of bofors guns when I put my foot down, I could barely make it over each gentle rise, so weak was the pulling power of the engine. I therefore drove into the first service station I came to and begged for help.

It was at this stage that I suddenly realised that when I stopped, the car seemed to behave like a concertina and actually seemed to draw itself together and stretch itself out. On closer examination I found that the chassis of the car had been broken in several places, but some previous owner had bolted the bits and pieces together. The bolts now seemed to be coming loose. It was suddenly very clear to me that not only would I not get to Murwillumbah in this car, but that I would not even get to Sydney without the whole mess collapsing somewhere en route. 

I was now in a near panic. My wife and children were in Moruya, under notice to quit their residence. I was in Wollongong late on Friday night with a heap of a car fit only for the junk yard. I had to get up to the Queensland border and start work on Monday morning, and I had very little money.

I finally arranged with the service station proprietor that he would garage my car until I could make suitable arrangements. In addition, for five precious pounds, after he closed his business he would drive me to Caringbah, on the outskirts of Sydney. At Caringbah – Taren Point, to be exact – I looked up my old friend Lionel, whom Irene and I had met on the Ranchi when we were all migrating to the promised land of Australia. It was one o’clock in the morning when I got Lionel and his wife “Johnnie” out of bed. But when I told them the nature of my problem, they were only too pleased to help.

We arranged that in the morning their son-in-law, whom I knew, and who had a powerful old Chev, would take his vehicle down to Wollongong and physically tow me and my old car back to Lionel’s place. Lionel would then store the Morris in his own back garden until we could do something about it. This would enable me to catch the train to Murwillumbah and start work Monday morning. It is certainly good to have friends. Four years before, I had helped Lionel to dig out the foundations for his house. I had laid bricks for him and helped him stand up his frame. I must have cast my bread upon the waters, because he certainly saved my bacon on this occasion.

We stayed at Murwillumbah for one year. 

I think that our arrival in this town was our low point. For a few terrible weeks I had a feeling of absolute failure. The capital we had gained from the sale of our house in Caringbah had been eroded by the purchase of an old bomb of a car and two furniture removals over substantial distances. I had had two jobs in one year and suddenly seemed to be very unstable. Prices were rising everywhere and I was no longer sure of my touch. I had had two years of miserable lack of success at my examinations, although I believed that I had worked to the maximum. I questioned the wisdom of leaving Sydney. I even questioned the wisdom of coming to Australia. I questioned my own ability.

We were staying in one of four Council flats at Tumbulgum on the banks of the Tweed River just out of Murwillumbah. It was a picturesque location, but the flats were old and the haunt of immense cockroaches, which hid behind the picture rails and skirting board and disgusted us. We decided to build again.

We bought a block of ground on the top of the ridge overlooking the town of Murwillumbah in one direction and with a beautiful view up the Tweed Valley in the other. At the end of the valley one saw Mount Warning, so aptly named by Captain Cook as it lifted its unmistakable crest into the sky. On either side of the valley, lovely, orderly banana plantations climbed up the slopes, presenting a scene of marvellous sub-tropical beauty. Only a short distance from the town pineapple plantations stretched themselves across paddocks of volcanic red soil. Paw-paws grew like weeds. Sugar cane was everywhere. 

In Sydney, Lionel had got rid of our car for sixty pounds, and sent us up the money with great promptitude, which I much appreciated. The car was such a wreck that I would have thought myself lucky to get forty pounds for it. A spring had collapsed, and he had actually had to weld it before getting rid of the vehicle. (Imagine a welded spring!)                                        

I drew up plans and specifications for a house, copying the plans out myself laboriously several times to save money with pen and Indian ink kindly supplied by the Building Inspector. But now I had difficulty in finding a builder. We finally ran someone to earth who could start building in a couple of months. The house was lined inside and out with fibro, again to save costs. I was to paint the interior myself. Despite all these machinations, I was still fifty pounds short after I had borrowed the maximum amount of money that the local branch of the Rural Bank was prepared to lend me.

Back in Sydney, I had bought Irene an electric sewing machine, another one of those luxuries which my mother had aspired to, but had never been able to obtain – she had thought herself lucky to get a treadle model. Irene now sold her sewing machine for exactly fifty pounds, and we were in business.

I now went up to our block – on top of the hill in Myrtle Street – every weekend to clear it, for it was completely covered with lantana. Patricia came with me, while Irene looked after Peter, still a very small boy, in the flat at Tumbulgum. Patricia wandered around picking flowers and sunbaking while I wielded a brush hook and mattock and rolled large amounts of lantana a hundred feet and more downhill behind us. It was only later that I discovered that this area was a breeding ground for black snakes. A tree in front of the block harboured amongst its roots a family of a dozen snakes. They went squirming in every direction when we subsequently had it snigged out. Immediately across the road, in a mess of lantana, a cross-bred terrier used to come down every day and catch himself a black snake. These reptiles were extremely venomous, and had I known of their close proximity, I certainly wouldn’t have brought Patricia with me, and would have been much more careful myself when clearing the block.

However, clear the block we did. Our house went up, and within about eight months of coming to Murwillumbah, we had moved in. The house was perched on thick wooden “stumps” about six feet high. These were anchored into a huge slab of concrete, which became an open air laundry. It was my intention to enclose this when I got some money. I now began to landscape the front garden and to lay down a huge concrete driveway between the house and the road. All the concrete was mixed up by hand, and by the time the job was finished, I felt finished too.

I was still studying for my Town Clerk’s certificate by correspondence, and this time went for my examinations to the Murwillumbah High School, under the supervision of one of the local teachers. I took several subjects at the same time. If I succeeded in all of them, I should have obtained my ticket, but in view of unsatisfactory results in previous years, I was not very confident. I had now had considerable experience, and knew what I was talking about. However, the exams were becoming more difficult with every passing year, and I was sure that there was a deliberate attempt to limit the number of successful candidates. When I had finished, I felt that I had done a good job. But I had felt like this on previous occasions, only to find my optimum rudely shattered when the results came out.

I forgot about the exam, and turned my attention to the house and garden. I planted some paw paws, and they grew like Jack’s famous beanstalk. Everything grew in this steamy, tropical climate. 

Ch10 Pt4 Moruya and the toy car

Whilst still working at Hurstville, and as an additional task, as if the Clerks Course wasn’t enough, I built a thirty foot glassed-in verandah and extra bedroom on the back of our house at Caringbah. I did everything myself, from the concrete and drainage to the roofing, window-flashing and floorboard cramping. Once again, although it might have been amateurish in many ways, it was as solid as the rock of Gibraltar and never leaked anywhere, which was more than might have been said of some houses put up by professional builders. I thought that I was beginning to learn some of that good old Australian versatility, and was mightily pleased with myself. The glassed-in verandah with its huge six-foot louvres was intended for Patricia to play on as she grew up. The extra bedroom was for our first son, Peter, who was born at Kogarah hospital in 1954. (After the experience at the Jacaranda Private Hospital where Irene had actually been left by the doctor in the middle of delivery while he went to attend to a call elsewhere, I had grown wary of private hospitals. I had come to realise that a modern hospital with all the best equipment and ample staff available for every emergency was a far better proposition from the patient’s point of view).

After Peter’s birth, Patricia and I went to the hospital one day, Patricia being just old enough to toddle around and hold my hand. We had our first glimpse of Peter through a glass screen being held up by a nurse. He was a red-faced little fellow with screwed-up eyes, and a huge red nose, just like his old man, poor little chap. Never mind, son. All the better to smell with. Subsequently, of course, Peter’s face gained more normal proportions. Patricia and I went upstairs to see Irene, and I blundered into the maternity ward just as the mothers were feeding their babies, and was roundly told off by the nurse in charge. However, the new mothers all seemed very proud of themselves and didn’t mind a bit. As for me, well, I know of no more beautiful sight on this earth than a mother nursing her child. Irene was also very pleased with herself. She now had a son as well as a daughter. Moreover the birth had been very much easier. 

“I’m quite pleased with him, quite pleased with him,” she kept saying, grinning like a Cheshire cat, and sounding as if she had won the lottery.

However, Peter was not long to inhabit the little room I had built for him. They had promised me a rise of one grade to “B” grade at Sutherland Shire after one year of satisfactory service. After a year, I asked for the rise, but was refused. I thought this was very rude of them, as I had never had any complaints about my work, and again took to consulting The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturdays, when the local government advertisements were published. Within a month I had been offered and had accepted a job as “A” grade clerk at Eurobodalla Shire at Moruya, on the coast, some two hundred miles to the south of Sydney. We sold the house for three thousand two hundred pounds, and I moved down to Moruya, while Irene stayed in Caringbah to finish off details of the sale and organise the transfer of our furniture. Before I left, however, I bought a second hand Morris 8/40 motor car, 1939 vintage, from a man I knew at Sutherland Shire and thought was my mate. 

Alack and alas!! How many times have I told myself to trust nobody, and how many times have I failed to take my own advice! The cylinders of this wreck of a car were dreadfully scored, and on the way down to Moruya from Sydney, it seemed to consume voraciously equal parts of petrol and oil. As we put-putted along, we left a technicolour trail of blue smoke behind us.

That car gave me untold trouble. I was booked the only time in my life when the exhaust fell off, just as I had to rev up to start on a steep hill at Narooma, amidst a bottleneck of tourist traffic. I put my foot on the accelerator, let the brake out to get away, and there was a sound like a rocket blasting off. Naturally this happened at the exact spot where a tough looking police constable was monitoring the holiday traffic. He jumped six feet in the air, like a startled acrobat, then came at me waving his arms and wanting to know my name, rank and number. The position was exacerbated because on this day of all days, I had left my driving licence at home. That little episode cost me ten bob.

It was a dreadful car.

On another occasion, when Irene, I and the children were travelling in the direction of Eden towards the Victorian border, we stopped for a breather and just happening to glance at the rear of the car, I noticed that the differential housing had pulled apart and I had lost all my oil through great gaping gaps. When I put my hand on the diff, the metal was hot enough to fry an egg on. 

To resume my story, I left Irene up in Sydney, and went down to Moruya to start work. I once again left my old job on Friday and started at Moruya on Monday, thus saving a year’s holiday pay to help cover the removal expenses.

I was renting a large old house next to the Council Chambers in Campbell Street, Moruya. Most weekends, while Irene was still in Sydney, I would sleep on a camp bed until half past two in the morning Saturdays, then rise to the shriek of my alarm clock and catch the bus to the rail terminal at Bomaderry, about a hundred and thirty miles north. We arrived at six o’clock in the morning, and I would catch the steam train to Sydney, generally finishing up in Caringbah a little after midday. I returned Sunday nights to Bombaderry, then caught the early morning bus back to Moruya. They were whacko weekends all right, and I always went to sleep very early Monday evenings, absolutely exhausted. I had taken the old Morris car to Moruya, but parked it in the shed behind the Council Chambers, and did not use it very often because of its unreliability. After about three months, Irene came down with the furniture and the children. A furniture removalist had agreed to shift our stuff down in his lorry for a hundred pounds, which was not unreasonable, considering the distance to be travelled. It was a special trip, and he was taking advantage of it to bring his girl friend down. On their way back to Sydney, after our furniture had been removed, the van would be turned into a love nest for the amorous couple. Neither Irene nor I cared what they did afterwards, as long as they delivered our furniture safely. When they eventually made the trip, the weather was thickly foggy, and Irene has horrific recollections of sitting in the cab with Patricia and Peter in her arms while the driver drove down Bulli Pass, probably one of the steepest and most dangerous roads in the State at that time, with visibility of about three feet. They eventually turned up safe and sound. We transferred our furniture to the big old house at Moruya, and settled in.

At Moruya, I worked harder than at any time in my life before. The Statements of Accounts were years behind. Everything was done by hand; mechanical aids, even like simple adding machines, were conspicuous by their absence. I gained an enormous amount of experience, but I wondered why, if this was local government, I had not volunteered for Siberia. Eric, the Shire Clerk, was a very nice and understanding bloke, but he was understaffed, and we were all overworked. In addition it was winter, and suddenly I felt the cold. We warmed our bath water with an old-fashioned chip heater. Our fire was fed by timber from a heap of mill offcuts I chopped in the back garden. Since our house was right next to the Council Chambers the temptation to bring work home or go next door and do it was irresistible, particularly as there was such an enormous amount to do. Jack, the Deputy, who had come at the same time as I, and who was Peter’s godfather when he was christened at the local Church of England, gave up after a few months, and took a job elsewhere. An unqualified Deputy came from Sydney, and as this blocked my own promotion and things were starting to get me down, I thought that perhaps we ought to move on. There were eight hundred people in Moruya at that time, and the small town atmosphere after the big city was very difficult for both Irene and me to accustom ourselves to.

I had now begun to do the balance of my course by correspondence through the Sydney Tech, and one way and the other had no time for leisure or my family at all.

At this time, a haemangioma, or superfluity of blood vessels on Peter’s eyelid began to worry us. He was born with it, but now could not shut his eye properly, and when he eventually went to sleep, one eye remained partially open, giving the impression of a villainous, perpetual wink. We secured an appointment with an eye specialist in Wollongong. Eric insisted on filling our car up with petrol from the Council pump, and one dark evening at midnight, after having left Patricia with a friend, I drove off northwards. Irene was at my side. Peter slept peacefully in a basket on the back seat.

I doubt if I shall ever forget that ride. The performance of the car was always uncertain, but I knew that I absolutely had to get Peter and Irene to the specialist at nine o’clock the next morning. Huge semi-trailers seemed to bear down on us out of the darkness every few moments. I hated the wretched car that I was driving, and was conscious of my responsibility for that young life in the basket on the back seat. Neither did I forget Patricia sleeping peacefully back in Moruya. Every two hours I stopped and by torchlight refilled the sump with oil from bottles that I carried. It was a nightmare drive, but Peter slept peacefully through it all. I was very pleased when dawn came up as we entered Nowra, and for the first time I was able to top that wretched sump up with oil without the necessity of balancing a torch to do so.

The specialist in Wollongong examined Peter benignly without turning a hair, and informed us that any fears we might have were groundless. A haemangioma such as this was not at all uncommon and would right itself of its own accord within a few years. If there was no improvement by the time Peter was four or five, we should come to see him again. Much relieved, back we went to Moruya. But before leaving Wollongong I bought a toy pedal motorcar which Patricia and subsequently Peter got quite a bit of fun out of. It might have been some sort of sublimation. I had always longed for such a toy when I was a kid, but my family had never been able to afford such extravagance. Now my kids enjoyed it!