Ch10 Pt6 Kempsey and exam results

Our house was perched on the ridge with beautiful views both ways, especially up the Tweed Valley to Mount Warning. The main window in the lounge was plate glass, and the view was like an oil painting of the Valley by a master landscape artist. Sometimes birds skimmed across the valley and tried to fly straight into our lounge room, often knocking themselves out on the plate glass. But the chief disadvantage in building on such commanding ground was brought home to us one night when a cyclonic wind started to blow. We had not realised the enormous energy created and dissipated in the form of cyclones on the Queensland coast. Now we found out. The house shuddered and shook throughout the entire night, and the wind only abated the next morning. During all this time, Irene and I lay silently in bed, waiting for the next sledgehammer blow to hit the house and make it shudder. Irene was wake and I was awake, but neither let the other know for fear of creating unnecessary alarm. The only people who slept peacefully through that night were Patricia and Peter in their bedrooms on the opposite side of the house. They slept the peaceful sleep of the innocent and the young.

The next morning, when Irene and I got out of bed and realised that we had both been awake simultaneously, we went downstairs to see what had happened to several large tea-chests containing heavy tools, books and household goods which we had stored under the house. They had been blown right across the road, and scattered into the scrub. Now we realised why our builder had actually anchored the house with huge bolts into the concrete foundations, and strongly strutted the wooden “stumps” on which the house stood.

It was very hot in Murwillumbah, and all the neighbours used to leave their front and back doors wide open all day long. Everybody knew everybody else, and in those days you could leave your house open without fear. We had a small bitzer dog at the time. He was only a puppy, but he was full of fun. He would run up and down the street and steal slippers and shoes from other people’s houses. At times I would have up to a dozen odd pieces of footwear hidden underneath the house. He was an incorrigible thief, and people started to complain. In the long run, I had to have him put down. He was a lovable animal, just the same, and the last dog I ever owned.

At the Council, I began to chafe at the large number of people senior to me. I thought I should never get promotion here. So when a job was advertised in Kempsey for an “A” Grade Clerk at Macleay Shire, I took it. I would be that much nearer Newcastle and Sydney, and in any event, I felt that middle age was starting to catch up with me. It was nearly time for me to think in terms of a permanent billet. The Council bought a very nice house for Irene and me at Kempsey, on the understanding that I refinance it from my own resources and pay them back at an early date. The sale of our house at Murwillumbah, and the raising of a further bank loan, fulfilled this task.

Our house in Sullivan Street, East Kempsey was a large fibro residence on sloping ground with a huge garage at the back. It was possibly the best house we had ever lived in during our Australian experience. Every day I walked over the big old-fashioned timber bridge that crossed the Macleay River to the Macleay Shire Council Chambers above Reg Harrington Motors in Belgrave Street, the main thoroughfare. 

I had joined a Masonic Lodge in Sydney, and gone through the 3rd degree in Murwillumbah, on a rainy night just before the entire town was flooded. In Kempsey I was fortunate enough to meet a number of men who embodied all that was good in Freemasonry. 

I never quite repeated the experience elsewhere. I reached the 18th Degree at Kempsey, and later, in Wingham, became the Master of the Royal Arch Chapter before abandoning “The Craft” for one reason and another.

We had had no car at Murwillumbah, but at Kempsey I bought an old but durable 1939 Chevrolet. It enabled us to make trips to Port Macquarie, Crescent Head, and the beaches. We also had a couple of very hazardous trips to Sydney. For in the old Chev the petrol had the habit of vaporising in the middle of a very hot day so that it never got as far as the engine, and the whole contraption stopped until the engine, and the weather had cooled down. I remember that one day we started off for Sydney at eight o’clock in the morning, but didn’t get there until well after midnight, being stranded for hours on what was then a dusty gravel road between Gloucester and Krambach.

After I had been at Kempsey a couple of months, Lloyd, the Shire Clerk, called me in. He said, “My wife has just rung me about you.”

I made a non-committal noise. I hardly knew his wife.

He went on, “She’s seen your name in the Sydney Morning Herald.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your name was published in the list of successful Technical College examination candidates. You’re a qualified Town and Shire Clerk.”

I don’t remember what I said. I know that an enormous wave of relief swept over me. I didn’t feel that I had suddenly been clothed in a garment of omniscience. I knew my limitations too well for that. But I was vastly pleased that through perseverance I, a stranger in a foreign land, had acquired a qualification that a very large number of the native born who aspired to it failed to obtain. That might mean I was lucky. But it certainly had to mean that I had perseverance and that if I wasn’t a genius, I surely wasn’t stupid either.

I will recall what Irene said when I rang her about it. She was silent for a moment. Then she said: “Oh, my dear, I am so glad.”

The terms of my appointment to Macleay Shire were that if I got my ticket, they were immediately to promote me to Deputy Shire Clerk and, more importantly, pay me the going rate. To the credit of the Shire Clerk and the Council, this was done at once and without any argument.

It was during this time that Patricia learnt to swim at the local pool under the tuition of Neville Duke, the lessee, who was an excellent teacher. Peter, too, liked to paddle at the beach and occasionally dip his toes in the shallow end of Kempsey McElhone Memorial Pool, although he was rather small yet to take much of an interest in swimming. It was in Kempsey, too, that Chris, our Number Two son was born. It was rather fortunate that just before Christopher put in an appearance I had traded in the old 1939 Chev for a brand new Morris Minor. I was not quite 37 years old, and this was the first new car I had ever owned. I was, of course, vastly proud of the little wagon.

Irene had been experiencing discomfort for quite a while, and thought that labour pains had started. The doctor, an expatriate Pommy, put her into the Macleay District Hospital. However, nothing happened, and they sent her home to ”do some washing.” Being who she was, she was up at six o’clock next morning, doing just that in the laundry under the house.                                            

Half way through, she suddenly dashed upstairs, pulled me out of bed, and screamed at me to get the car going. At this stage, I was very glad that I had invested in a new Morris Minor, for the car started like a charm. Patricia and Peter, wondering what it was all about, piled into the back, Irene grabbed her suitcase, and we were away. No sooner were we in the street than she urged me to go faster. I crammed on speed, but then she cried out that I was going too fast and would risk an accident. So I slowed down. However, when I slowed down, I was told to step on it, otherwise I would have to deliver the baby personally in the car. This really shook me, for I hadn’t the faintest idea what would be required of me. Thus, alternately speeding up and slowing down, we shot across the timber bridge over the river, along the deserted main street, and finally arrived at the hospital on the other side of town.

Irene told me to drive right up to the door, practically fell out of the car under the sympathetic eyes of several globular pregnant ladies on the verandah, and into the understanding arms of a nurse who sized up the situation immediately. I was abruptly dismissed. This was women’s work. So I got back in the car and drove home with the kids. 

Reaching home five minutes later, I heard the phone ringing and dashed inside to answer it. They told me that we had another son, and that I could come back to see him. So once more I raced across town and entered the Macleay District Hospital.

There, on a table, Christopher lay stark naked. He was very obviously a manchild, and I will swear that he swivelled his head around on the table and grinned at me as I came through the door. His umbilical cord hung carelessly across his stomach and over the edge of the table. He seemed to be saying, “How are you mate, all right? Are you pleased to see me?”

Our next door neighbour in Kempsey was Ralph, an exceptionally fine man, who had built the house in which we now lived. One of his sons was called Christopher, and Irene told me that Patricia and Peter, between them, had decided that “Christopher” should be the name of their new brother. (“James” was inserted by Irene, after myself). Thus was Christopher named, and I only found out about it afterwards, when the registration had been made. I must confess that I thought it was a good choice. But I always told Irene that I was convinced that she had actually named Chris after the doctor who had attended her during pregnancy. She never failed to deny this with some vehemence. Incidentally, that doctor came charging down the road in his little car about half an hour after everything had happened. Apparently he had been abruptly pulled away from his breakfast, so young Chris really stirred the possum in Kempsey on that memorable morning in 1959.

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.