The early evening breeze boarded the train like an unaccompanied debutante.
Awkward and unsure of herself, yet much appreciated as relief from the heat and humidity, not to mention the rigours and tedium of such a feeling of displacement while still within the borders of your home state.
Remnants of her presence remained more as wishful thinking once the doors to the carriage closed and the train continued from the siding.
For a family of nine, conditions proved cramped for the seven siblings and mum and dad, despite the boys sharing one compartment and the girls another.As much for probity sake as for space.
Destination: Melbourne, via Sydney.
Queensland seemed to stretch out forever as the journey south unfolded. A tapestry of landscapes appearing and disappearing in the time it took to visit the dining car for a warm ginger beer or cup of tea, and take a slow, swaying stroll back to the sleeping compartment.
This seemed apt for the family whose head had plied his trade as a tailor. Harry and Gwen had relocated several times about the state following business opportunities as the family grew. And outgrew the hand-me-downs. From Charleville, Roma, Dalby and the “Bun” on the Western Downs, north east to Townsville and Ayr for a time on the coast and a taste of the Coral Sea.
Gwen was a homemaker, but more than capable about the bush surrounding their inland homes. She had once brought home a gift to her mother of a stunned death adder on the end of a long stick.No beating about the bush.
As proud pater familias of his Catholic brood, Harry was determined to see them safely south out of harm’s way, should the expected invasion from Imperial Nippon eventuate.A series of connections would transport them to a new life.
The rail system meant that because of the different gauges between states, there would be three main changes with another few minor ones to offload and pick up along the way.
They had been lucky to secure passage on this relatively splendid example of railway luxury, but Harry had put enough away to interest the favour of a friend on the board of transport.It wasn’t all just troop transports up and down the line and khaki setting the scene for defence.
Some were making the same journey on board commercial liners running the risk of U-boat attack.It was a cheaper option, but for a comparatively well-to-do family including three under ten years of age the appeal of remaining on terra firma won the day.
Besides, the novelty of making the trip overland by train, or the “big dragon”, as little Delores had called it, made it seem like an adventure for the young ones who hadn’t learnt to swim, while keeping the familiar landscape of their natural state in reassuring tow.
Townsville had faded behind them as they still chugged along between Rockhampton and Bundaberg, variously passing the time reading, school work that would not be handed in, cards, knitting (which seemed odd in the heat, but Gwen assured them they would be thankful once they reached Melbourne and a scarf became part of their winter uniform), telling yarns and imagining the new chapters in their lives together and apart.
Harry seemed to be making interminable ‘to-do’ lists and roving about the train talking to other men his age to garner any sage opinion as to the likely developments in this time of war, as well as any tips as to possible contacts or connections in old Melbourne Town.
Not they would be completely isolated, what with several members of the extended family having established themselves and who had made the persuasive invitation to decamp for the cooler climes of Victoria. Such was what comes of the strong bonds of intermingled Irish and Scots roots, even in the far-flung outpost of the antipodes. Who could have guessed?
The two older boys, Robert and Frank, in between playing cards for matches, discussed how different the rugby and cricket would be after the players came back from national service.Harry had himself played rugby and thought that a sport was essential to shaping and defining healthy young men of the next generation. Boxing was another discipline he favoured and added ‘punching bag’ to his list of items to be procured once they had settled.
And time to settle down it was.
An early ‘lights out’ being a ritual exercise in keeping the squabble to a minimum and ensuring a little peace and quiet for mum and dad who would return to the dining car for a last cup of calming tea.
The rock of the train did the trick of lulling the children to sleep and inducing dreams that dispelled any notions of fear. Another reason for the separate quarters being to prevent the boys getting into their sisters’ heads and terrifying them with ghoulish tales and teasing.
Morning was another early event. This was brought about by a conductor doing the rounds and offering hot water from a thermos.
First the children had to wash their faces and comb their hair and brush their teeth in staggered turn in the small male and female ablutions cubicles on each car.
An early start was advisable.
Once this was attended to, it was breakfast by allotment. Tickets could be purchased for a trifle the night before, so the dining car wasn’t overrun, and meals would be served according to the tokens.
Rationing had begun to bite more than had been previously noticeable, but still it was pretty good fare considering.
Porridge, toast and conserve and even eggs, if there were any left.
And of course, tea.
A family this big took up almost half the space in the snug car and their arrival each morning was expected with a pleasure at their cute antics and generally good behaviour. All under Harry’s stern stare and Gwen’s tut-tutting at the merest hint of upset.
“So, what’s on the cards for today, then?” asked Harry of no one in particular.
Gwen was quick to set the itinerary straight.
“We have a short stop-over in Brisbane this morning and if we play our cards right we could even have lunch before we move on down the line.”
Harry relaxed and smiled at his wife.
“Alright then, let’s count off. Who wants to go into town rather than stay around the station?”
In inconceivable though well practiced order of descent by age, each child accounted for themselves by name and a “Yes, please” to indicate their enthusiasm for the outing.
“Robert. Yes, please.”
“Frank. Yes, please.”
“Siobhan. Yes, please.”
“Dolores. Yes, please.”
“Kate. Yes, please.”
“Bridget. Yes, please.”
At this point Colleen simply giggled into her soft-boiled egg and announced
“But I know my name. I’m Colleen…”
The reaction was just as well practiced.
The boys cheered.
The girls rolled their eyes.
Gwen leant over and wiped her egg stained chin.
Harry helped himself to another sugar cube for his tea.
“And that you are, my sweet. Our little Colleen.”
Gwen raised her eyes over her cup at this indulgence.
“A full contingent, it would seem. We’ll move as one like a close-knit team. We must stay close, no dawdling as we don’t want to hold up the train.”
Frank couldn’t help himself and had to make a joke of his father’s choice of words.
“But, we’re not bushrangers dad…”
Siobhan groaned, and Robert knocked knees with his brother under the table.
“Very clever, son. But neither is this a stage coach. We don’t want to make the train late…”
“Or get left behind” was Gwen’s discriminating observation.
“Righto, then. It looks like it’s time for us to move on and let someone else have a feed. Back to quarters to make ready.”
The family slowly unrolled itself from the dining car and went to make ready for a few hours in Brisbane.
The train arrived at Central Railway station shortly before 10 a.m. and the family assembled on the platform prior to making their excursion into the big smoke.
Frank persisted in his attempts to prolong the experience, or at least make it as memorable as he could.
“Do you reckon we could take in the flicks before lunch?”
Harry cleared his throat, in cheerful taunting of his son’s suggestion.
“After so long on an overnight train? You must be kidding. We have much further ahead of us yet. Tell you what, I’ll take us all to the flicks when we get to the Sydney stopover. What do you say?”
“Yes please, dad!”
“And ice cream?” asked Kate.
“Now hold your horses. One stopover at a time.”
“And where do you suppose we start?” inquired the ever-patient Gwen.
“The City Botanic Gardens. For a little wander. At the rate of this trip, we’ll lose the use of our legs without some fresh air and exercise.”
There ensued a universal groan.
“Alright, alright. That’ll do. I’m going walking. Mother, what say you?”
Gwen paused before answering.
“I’ll be more than happy here to bide my time and get another cuppa in the cafeteria. There’s the arcade I read about in the Women’s Weekly over the road. I could take the little ones.”
“Fine. We can meet back here at 12. Then a bite to eat before we reboard the Newfound South Special.”
There then universally ensued the query, “the what?”
“Why, the NSS of course. Our locomotive, our escape route…”
“He’s pulling your legs, kids.”
“Think of it as a stretch before our walk in the park.”
Harry motioned to Gwen for a private word to one side.
“I suppose you’ll need the wherewithal for tea and sweets. Don’t spoil their lunch.”
“You know me better than that, Harry. Now, a nice tide-me-over would do just fine.”
He whispered something for her benefit, to which she shook her head and cleared her throat in a fretful rebuke, before accepting the discretely proffered money.
“Don’t spend it all at once.”
A quick peck on the cheek and the bargain was sealed.
With that, the McGuigan family broke into two cells: dad, the two boys, Siobhan and Delores headed off to the gardens, while mum took the two littlest ones in hand and made for the cafeteria.
Right on the toll of 12 the two groups reformed outside the main entrance to the station as arranged.
Much was made of the new ribbons in the girls’ hair and hat pin sported by Gwen.
“We collected leaves” declared Delores.
“I can see, dear. Very beautiful. And you boys?”
Frank and Robert looked at each other.
“Our boys climbed trees and wrestled in the grass.”
“You don’t say, Harry. You could do a better job of making sure they have brushed each other down properly in the future.”
Harry repositioned his hat to conceal his sideways glance at Gwen.
“It is a park, dear.”
“Yes, and now we are back in the city centre about to enjoy lunch.”
Robert couldn’t help himself
“We should have settled on a picnic.”
“Well you boys can carry the baskets in future.”
This comment silenced any more carry-on from the male camp.
While the girls did a poor job of concealing their amusement.
A light lunch was then taken in the station’s dining rooms, the boys made to first brush each other down on the platform as penance before they could continue any further.
Once lunch was over, the family headed straight back to their allotted platform and boarded the new train for the next leg of the journey.
This meant a change from the Queensland narrow gauge track to the NSW standard gauge, which now connected Brisbane with her southern cousins.
There would have to be another change once they crossed over into Victoria.This meant passengers would again have to swap trains after their belongings had been packed and moved to their new quarters housed just down the line and over the border, at a siding equipped to make a smooth transition.
Time now seemed to speed up, the further they pulled away from the state’s capital and soon crossed over into NSW.
“I’ve heard of the stations of the cross, but this has to be sorted out. How the hell are they coping with all the freight and troops for the home defence?” Harry complained, as they settled into their new carriage and found their bags neatly arranged just as they had packed them before the stopover.
Gwen stiffened at this and berated him for such an outburst, “bordering on blasphemy.”
“Don’t worry, love. The kids are too pooped to care what they overhear, let alone understand.”
Only the youngest remained while the older two boys and girls had gone to explore the new lounge and public cars to see if there was anyone new, their own ages to talk to.
Harry went on to air his other concerns with the threat to the north.
“If the Japs do invade, which seems highly likely, Brisbane may be the last line of defence. Anything above her skirts will be fair game, if you ask me.”
“Please keep your voice down Harry. We don’t want to alarm other passengers. And remember your tone when you’re confiding in me.”
“As always. But I’ll be blown if I’d live to see our leaders abandon the rest of the state to the Japs’ forces. And what, sacrifice such a large chunk of the country to make sure our resources are protected below the line. Evacuation is one thing, but a scorched earth policy be damned.”
“Alright. I know, I know. But we can’t let the panic overrule our better judgement. It I’d be like leaving the flamin’ front door wide open and inviting them in. What if we were being attacked from the south or east? What then? Abandon Melbourne or Sydney? Hardly likely.”
Gwen sought to calm her husband.
“Well, we are on the move and have to make the best of it. Whether it’s temporary or not, we have to do what’s right by the children. Maybe they can go back one day.”
“I hope so Gwen, I hope so. That’s our heritage. Our history.”
“Let’s think of their future for now.”
The train chugged on through the countryside. Day and night.
Coffs Harbour. Port Macquarie. Newcastle. And finally, Sydney.
The plan at this stage had been to take a break from the travel and stay for a few days for some well-earned R&R. And a chance for the kids to see the famous harbour.
They had arranged to stay with a cousin who was hospitable to a fault in inviting the entire brood to stay with him and his wife for the stopover.Their home was by no means palatial, but since their children had moved out they had spare room to accommodate the visitors at a pinch. But roomier than the train carriages, at least.
Maroubra was located south of Sydney proper, so this meant another trip from Central Station in order to reach their temporary new digs.
This meant another local train and a bus to reach cousin Tom.
After a good nosh up and chinwag, it was time for a good night’s sleep in what felt like luxury, despite the younger ones sleeping top and tail.
Breakfast was a veritable feast, outdoing the train menu to include bacon and pikelets.The round table joke was that the kids were enjoying themselves like seven little piglets.
While the kids had a good scouring, and Tom’s wife Dawn loaned Gwen some curlers, Harry and Tom took a stroll to smoke their pipes. It had been too long.
Next item on the agenda was to decide on the day’s activities.
A unanimous decision was for a trip to the beach. A picnic was suggested, and the provisions prepared.
Tom said the beach wasn’t far and suggested he ferry the party in his car as two separate groups.
The car, a ‘jalopy’ as Robert described it, was a Hudson Straight 8 tourer that could seat five passengers comfortably with room to spare for luggage. Even an extended family on a beach outing was not a difficult proposition for this automotive stalwart Tom had apparently imported for a song thanks to ‘irregularities’ in the paperwork. “Never mind the body work, just settle back into that upholstery.”
Two trips later and the whole gang was carefree on the sand.
The weather wasn’t too hot, but care was taken to make sure hats were handed round and a couple of beach umbrellas were set up to provide extra shade. If things got too hot, there was always the scrub and tea tree at sand’s edge to provide some shade.
A quick dip and paddle was too hard to refuse before a lunch of sandwiches, homemade cordial and fruit was served, payed out on a large picnic rug that turned out to be an old double bedspread recycled for just such occasions.
After lunch and it was building sand castles, human pyramids and foot races to let off some steam before another quick dip in the inviting salt water.
Gwen as adamant that the kids not go in any deeper than knee deep for the girls and waist deep for the boys. Harry posed as lifeguard and kept a vigilant eye on the splashing and carrying on, despite Tom’s reassurance that they were on a safe stretch of beach.
Gwen and Dawn remained steadfastly beneath their scarves and shared parasol, bringing them closer together as an apparition of mutual spousal endorsement. And contentment with their roles as mothers whose duties were either in abeyance or continuing to run their course.
The natural order of things was such, that the elements of a family were like the cells of an organism; splitting and rearranging themselves to suit the environmental conditions. Protecting itself from the threat of hostile incursions.
The immediate threat being from the north in the path of the rising, blanketing sun of Tojo, who sought to conquer the great southern land and enslave her sons and daughters to the cause of imperial expansionism.
This, the McGuigans had so far outrun.
Somewhat less severe in the face of apparent violence was the change to the very conditions the family were observing, as the tide began to turn and flow with an increase in wind making the swells less manageable even in the shallows.
Time for the clan to rearrange itself in the chosen activities of the moment.
The picnic things were packed up and stowed back in the car’s trunk.
Gwen and Dawn chose to remain with the car in the shade of their own reluctance to overexpose themselves to the glare and wind as much as to the heat on the beach.They kept with them the youngest who were happy to loll and play in the back seats while mum and aunt caught up on gossip and family fortunes.
Robert, Frank, Siobhan and Delores set off with Harry and Tom to explore the sand dunes and escape the direct winds from off the ocean.They approached from the protection of the scrub and tea tree that lined the division of bush and sand to scale the rising packed forms that rose to a ridge, that spanned almost the entire length of this stretch of coastline point to point.
Balanced like a ballerina, Siobhan pirouetted in the forgiving sands, her bare feet luxuriating in the hot particles as she closed her eyes and imagined she was on stage beneath the hot stage lights of a vast auditorium.
Delores lay down on her back with arms and legs spreadeagling back and forth like a four-armed windmill, creating patterns like tracks of determination to get somewhere, but which stalled and caught up with themselves to repeat their original intent in the heat of the moment.
Predictably, Robert and Frank couldn’t help themselves and gave in to the temptation to undertake acrobatic duties, performing somersaults and what they called ‘rolling pins’ to propel themselves down the face of the biggest dunes they dared to challenge, laughing and hooting all the way.
The ‘elder statesmen’ as they mockingly referred to themselves, stood firm atop the dunes surveying the hijinks and looking out to sea in a bid to catch a glimpse of the future.
“What do they think this is, a bloody fortress? “, demanded Harry half rhetorically of Tom.
“Not so much a fortress as a last line of defence”, offered Tom distractedly, as he drew a line in the sand with the toe of his shoe.
“We’re not playing rugby, Tom…”
Harry had barely muttered these words through his teeth clenched round his pipe stem when there was a short shrill burst from behind them.
Tom and Harry turned on their sand sunken heels to be confronted by an alarming apparition.
Upon the crest of their dune stood two khaki clad figures in slouch hats with rifles slung over their shoulders.
Corresponding to Harry’s clenched pipe was a whistle between the teeth of one of the soldiers, who appeared to now suck upon it as he would a cigarette. Its copper casing glinted a dull burnish in the sun.
The quartet in and out of uniform stood momentarily by and surmised the occasion in silent ease.
Dolores had ceased her ground born performance and appeared by her father’s side like a sand raised urchin.
“Reporting for duty, dad?”
Harry put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her into his side.
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary Dolly.”
The soldiers grinned their tanned smiles and both offered a salute to the young girl by her father’s side.
“Didn’t mean to startle you, sir” said the taller of the two by way of an apology.
“We’re under orders to ‘announce ourselves’ upon approach to civilians to alert them to our presence. Don’t want to go and stumble across a tryst and make a scene on such a lovely day.”
Harry and Tom exchanged knowing looks.
“A helluva reason to scare the socks off us”, quipped Tom.
“We could hear the voices from below, carried over by the wind. Sounds like the kids are having a ball.”
“That’s one thing we didn’t pack”, explained Dolores literally.
“Ah, well love, maybe leave that to the boys”, said the squat private who had let the whistle dangle round his neck from its leather lanyard.
Dolores frowned and crossed her arms.
By this stage the boys and Siobhan had joined the group.
“Is that a Lee-Enfield?” asked Frank, pointing to the rifle over the squat private’s shoulder.
“Too right, son”, replied the digger.
“Dad had a rifle he used to shoot snakes and strays”, contributed Robert to the exchange.
“I don’t doubt it, cobber.”
Frank leant in close to Robert and whispered, “they remind me of Laurel and Hardy.”
Robert had to turn and look out to sea to contain his mirth at the comment, while Frank stood with his hands in pockets staring at his sand baked feet.
Harry cleared his throat.
“So, what brings you boys out on patrol in these parts?”
Private Laurel sprang to the fore in his explanation.
“We’re part of the expanded coast guard initiative in time of war. Several companies have been commandeered to do this and ours got the area around Botany Bay and Malabar Headland.”
“And what are you supposed to be looking for?”, queried Tom.
Private Hardy took his turn.
“Jap landfall is the biggie. Can’t give too much away, though, as you can imagine. Never know where a bloody sub might pop up.”
“At least we’re not as exposed as Darwin”, observed Harry reassuringly as much for the country as for the kids.
“Too true, Sir, too true”, agreed Private Hardy.
“Seen anything out of the ordinary?” asked Tom the local in a sly bid to extract intel.
Private Laurel raised the binoculars that he had around his neck by way of demonstration and aimed them out to sea before slowly lowering them again.
“Whales. Lots of bloody whales…”
This quip gave free rein to the boys to have a good laugh without being rude to the men in uniform and incurring dad’s wrath.
Frank took up the slack and ventured to explore the limits of his burgeoning sense of humour.
“No wonder they call it New South Wales! Get it?”
Such a puny pun was enough to set off the powder keg of groaning delight that ensued.
“You’ll be on the music hall stage yet, son”, Harry proudly announced.
Robert mocked his brother and took a bow before corking him in the shoulder and taking off back down the dune to the beach.
Frank self-consciously and politely excused himself and gave chase.
“I wish we could bottle their morale”, conferred Private Laurel.
The two girls quickly lost interest and resumed their frolics further along the dune.
“Smoko?” suggested Tom, taking out his pouch of pipe tobacco.
The others fell right in, Harry following suit and tapping time with his pipe on the soul of his shoe, while the soldiers retrieved their cigarettes from the pockets on their webbing belts.
The immediate atmosphere was suddenly infused with the shared fumes of patriotic camaraderie, while the men stood firm in their outlook, despite the slow sand of time’s pending, and consecrated the moment with laconic banter.
The old clinker brick block of flats that Tom and Dawn called home consisted of three storeys, with two dwellings on each level. The block was one of several almost identical structures that seemed to have been installed wherever there was spare ground to build upon. The result was high density living in what was an area still to be even remotely developed to its full potential. Perhaps it was a knowing nod to the future.
They were on good terms with their neighbours across the landing and shared responsibilities for the upkeep of the garden.
New neighbours had recently moved in upstairs and they had only exchanged pleasantries in passing while the move was taking place. They seemed like a nice enough couple. Quite pleasant. He seemed to work shifts as he came and went at all hours, while she kept up modest appearances in his stead; all the while maintaining an air of quiet reserve and application.
On the penultimate night of their stay, the family shared a meal of fish and chips with plenty of salt and vinegar, which gave the place a distinct impression of squeaky clean crystal transparency, and yet imparted a residue of discrete tradition upon unspoken longings.
Calling it an early night for the kids, Harry made sure the youngest were readied for bed before the grand tucking in.Colleen and Bridget were bathed and put into their pyjamas, while Dolores and Kate did their best to delay lights out.
Looking for distractions, Dolores decided that the large hall cupboard afforded her a great vantage point from which to eavesdrop on the evening’s mission to create a space for the adults to blend back into themselves; as though they had stood out all day from themselves for the sake of the kids and needed to revert to their true adult natures.
Hidden from view behind the big cupboard doors, she closed her eyes in the semi-darkness and listened.
First, only her breathing and heartbeat stood out from the exterior world. Then, as she became accustomed to the slowing down, she began to detect things she had never noticed before.
Sighs. Both her mother and Dawn were prone to regular intervals of sighing. For no apparent reason. Other than being adults. Or mothers. They shared that much.
The other human expression came from the men. Fathers both, they shared the unusual trait of making heaving, lurching grunts and groans. She pictured them hefting and lifting heavy loads, sacks of spuds or coal, when in fact they were simply moving their own body weight as they went to sit down or regain their standing feet.
The wireless played low, soft strains of some unidentifiable music of the era, to which her father would invariably hum along as he pottered about the house.
Flies. Blow flies. Followed by a smack from a swatter.
Then a different sort of pattern.
The long and the short of it.
It reminded her of the sound made by a cicada except not quite so high pitched.
The sound was coming from beyond the wall behind her. Or, if she concentrated, it could be all around.
No other sound could be detected from the next door flat, although she thought she could make out the occasional creaking of a floorboard.
Then her mother called her name.
She had lost track of the time and couldn’t be sure how long she’d been hidden away.
No need for a search party, as this would only cause commotion, and she knew how this could upset the domestic order of things.
Dolores left her hole in the wall and went in answer to her mother’s call.
“Where have you been, dear?”
“Listening? To What?”
“The house talking.”
“I see. And what did it say?”
Dolores paused for thought.
“Don’t worry. I’m not angry. Just tired. Surely you must be.”
“So, what did the house say?”
“It sounded like an insect. Or a car.”
Harry had by then sidled over to hear what the story was. Humming as he approached from the kitchen and the freshly brewed pot of tea on the table, around which sat Tom and the boys ready for a last game of cards.
“What kind of car, Dolly” he asked.
“A toy car. Not a big one like Uncle Tom’s.”
“It has a horn letting you know.”
“Yes. Beep, beep and another beep. Again and again. Over and over.”
“Over and over?”
“And where is the car?”
Dolores looked back over her shoulder down the hall towards the cupboard.
She pointed back towards her cubby hole.
Harry and Gwen exchanged world-weary glances.
“OK Dolly. This is our little secret. We can’t be rude here or tell funny stories or we might upset Uncle Tom and Dawn. This isn’t our place, remember. We are guests here and have to respect our hosts.”
Dolores nodded and yawned.
“Time for bed, Dolly. Go and get ready like a good girl.”
Dolores toddled off to get ready and join the other girls.
Harry and Gwen remained motionless while they considered the ramifications of this development.
“Well, I suppose we have to let Tom know”, reflected Harry as he tried to interpret his wife’s ironically stoic features.
“No need to cause any panic, especially for Dawn. Try to broach it gently. Tom can decide what to do. It is his place after all.”
“You know what an imagination Dolly has. It could be a complete misunderstanding on her part. Still, better to make sure everything’s above board. Don’t want to think we could’ve prevented an outbreak of some bloody secret code relay and stood idly by.”
“More’s the pity…”
Harry shot Gwen an astonished look.
“Did you say…? No, don’t worry. Now I’m hearing things.
Gwen pursed her lips to supress a smile.
“Go and do your duty while I attend to the children.”
Gwen went to look in on the girls while Harry went back to the kitchen to ask Tom to join him for a smoke outside. The boys paid scant attention and went on with their sleight of hand card tricks.
Once downstairs and out of earshot, the two men continued at a stroll around the block, smoking and discussing this strange and unnerving incident.
Neither man suspected Dolores of making it up, and yet they found it hard to fathom that anything so untoward was unfolding right next door.
“If anyone, I would’ve guessed it to be the new tenants upstairs. They do a good job keeping to themselves. I can’t believe this could be going on right under our nose.”
“What do you propose?”
“Can’t ignore this kind of thing in the current climate. Only one thing for it. I’ll have to report it. I don’t want a confrontation on our doorstep. This is a peaceful neck of the woods. I’ll ask it to be kept anonymous.”
“Don’t want word getting back.”
“Too right, Harry, too bloody right.”
And so it transpired that there was soon on the market a vacant flat for rent.
Tom and especially Dawn were none the wiser as to what had played out behind their hallway cupboard.
The revolving door tendency of the tenants kept up its steady turnover with new residents soon moving in, and inadvertently brought out from under cover the couple upstairs who couldn’t resist the urge to ask their below stairs neighbours about all the visits from the uniformly clad and officious gentlemen.
Harry and his brood took it as a sign to be on their way further south and the final leg of their journey. The war refused to leave well enough alone.
A short stopover outside the nation’s capital, Canberra, a sleepy hollow by all accounts, but out of bounds to most inquisitive interlopers during this time of perceived impending peril. Not your average vacation destination.
Goulburn was a regional way station on the southern tablelands of NSW; connecting and bypassing the topography between eastern seaboard population centres, and followed an inland route of historical exploration and expansion of the colony, which had settled for itself as a country of self-conceiving promise, if not self-fulfilling prophecy.
Military checkpoints dotted the landscape and the station was host to a contingent of troops who patrolled its perimeter and kept an eye on the comings and goings.
No time to see any sites surrounding the rustic locale, even if there had been any of note. Too bloody hot, any way…
The gang pressed on.
Through to Albury and another border where gauges met again to conform with the next prevailing set of best laid plans.
As traversals went, time was made good in running against itself to capture the moment in the blink of a mind’s eye, looking back and beyond, remembering the past and imagining a future.
Spencer Street Station. Melbourne.
End of the line.
The extended family was cast wide, and so it was to the bayside suburb of Saint Kilda where two spinster sisters called home in the refined and sprawling setting of their inherited Edwardian manor house, Alma.
Grace and Rose Harcourt were related to Gwen, but no one could quite remember which branch of the family tree had bowed down to place them there – second cousins of Gwen’s mother’s or the daughters of a great-great aunt? No one had the certainty to claim the fact of the conjecture, so it was decided that it didn’t really matter in the end. What was the difference anyway?
Who would dare impose themselves on a family in such a way that they were thus earmarked for eccentricity?
Well-heeled and of an aging social set, the sisters insisted on their accommodation of the Harcourt offshoots. They wouldn’t hear of Gwen and her children traipsing far and wide in search of sanctuary. Besides, they thrilled at the idea of playing house and entertaining guests.
The transition from commuters to temporary house guests was a smooth one.
A suburban train ride over the short distance from the city to the bayside, followed by a brief trek along residential streets and the nine wayfarers had found their well-appointed, extended port of call.
“Please, please, don’t mention it. It’s no trouble. You are family, after all.”
Harry had been tempted to pay homage to their hostesses and have some fun with their monikers, but had been warned off by she who knew best.
“A rose by any other name will get you nowhere. They’ve heard it all before. These hens are no spring chickens and make no bones with naivety, especially if it’s yours.”
“Grace was proving to be an obvious choice for divine intervention…”
“And how many times can you be struck by lightning and still be stuck for inspiration?”
Harry reflected on his fortune at having such a no-nonsense muse for his wife.
Gwen mused on her own providence at having been blessed with such a dependable and lovable spouse. Not to mention the charge of care for her family. It was her calling. Her catholic bidding.
Not wanting to overstay their welcome, the preoccupation was then to find a place of business from where Harry could again ply his trade as a tailor.
The top end of Bourke Street was his aim.Then there was a matter of finding a home for the nine of them.
The tall order of finding somewhere affordable meant looking further afield and making the commute into the city for work.
And yet it wasn’t all work and no play.
There was plenty to keep the kids occupied and one local attraction was a real treat that kept them coming back for more. The beach was one thing, but the Melbourne weather was fickle, and they’d had their fill thanks to several trips with Tom and Dawn while in Sydney.
Luna Park, the fun palace on the esplanade with the gaping clown face for an entrance was a sure thing to amuse the kids every time they needed a distraction over the drawn-out school holidays, until the tearaways started at their new school.
Gwen was rather reluctant to allow for such, but Harry insisted that it was born of wartime necessity to keep everyone happy.
As he use to incite: “I scream, you scream, we all scream ice-cream!”That was enough for a scrum to ensue, even before leaving Alma’s.
For some it was the funny faces of the clowns who regurgitated numbered ping-pong balls for prizes, or the slide-on potato sacks only the boys were allowed to ride.
Otherwise, the Scenic Railway fabulously rejoined events and even Rose and Grace flung their hands back in the air in celebration of surmounting the challenge.
Gwen was not so sure. Harry insisted, lest the kids figure out “something or other”.
The crescendo as such, for Harry, who pulled his hat down over his throbbing temples, after all the jollity and rides on the merry-go-round for the girls, was the hall of mirrors.
There they spanned the ages; angled out like some fold-out forget-me-nots in undulating glass, reflecting and refracting the truth of a rare permanence.