WINNIFRED – Part 7


October 1931 (cont.)

     As the travellers emerged into open countryside, Emma looked around with interest.  In contrast to the hills they’d left, the country was gently undulating, with vast open paddocks – some high with yellowing wheat, and in the distance an occasional farmhouse set among trees like an oasis in the desert.  In others cows and sheep grazed contentedly or stared with quiet unconcern at the car and its occupants heading northwards.

     Their way lay through many creeks and natural water-courses, but the road had been formed and culverts installed where creek-beds had become impassable.  These early roads were very narrow and high in the centre, and their father had kept, for the most part, to the old dirt track that wound along beside it, often at a lower level.  In dry weather, this was more comfortable for the passengers, and kinder to the tyres than the coarse metal surface of the newer road, in which there was always the danger of hitting an unexpected pothole, spelling disaster to springs and axles alike.

     Of course, the side-track was not without its hazards either.  There was more likelihood of punctures – from old horse-shoes, nails, half-buried roots and pieces of wire.  Motorists were careful to carry plenty of spares, sometimes on the mudguard, sometimes strapped – as in this instance – on the back of the car.  Since the tools were carried under the back seat, however, changing a tyre on this trip could be a very awkward exercise!

     As it happened, it was neither a pothole nor a puncture that was the cause of their second mishap and subsequent delay.

     A hundred miles had been covered and all was going well. Having left the small town of Drayford behind them, they were approaching a wide creek-bed where once again necessity dictated that they abandon the old road and cross by way of the culvert, when they noticed that a large vehicle appeared to have stopped up ahead.  This proved to be the case.  A truck had come to a halt in the middle of the road – right in the middle of the culvert! They too would have to stop.

     The children were ecstatic!  A chance to stretch their legs.   Since they had a good supply of sandwiches, fruit and biscuits on board and could eat as they traveled, stops alonq the way had been restricted to toilet needs only.  So it was with a certain degree of alacrity that they leapt out of the car and followed close on their father’s heels as he went to speak to the truck’s driver.  The man stood looking despondently at his vehicle. Matt introduced himself.

     “In trouble mate’?” he asked. “Can I do anything to help?”

     “Only if you can fix a broken axle” was the gloomy reply.  “Been hoping somebody’d come along before it got dark.  Name’s George Weston.”  They shook hands.

     “What I need,” he went on, “is in Marney’s Creek.  But getting there’s the problem.  I’m blocking the way, and I can’t see anyone getting through down there, can you?”  Together they looked dubiously at the rough rock-strewn gully that barred the way.

     Matt shook his head, “‘Fraid you’re right,” he said.  “But I’ll have to give it a go.  If I get through I can send help back to you from Marney’s Creek.”

     There was no alternative.  To wait any longer was to run the risk of darkness overtaking them, and they were still nearly fifty miles from home.   He walked down and closely examined the floor of the creek-bed, deciding how he would negotiate the mass of stones and boulders, then advising Mrs Reiner and Emma to cross by way of the road, he called to the boys who jumped enthusiastically into the back of the car.

     The others watched as the car moved forward and entered the creek-bed, slowly at first, then gathering speed, clawed and bounced its way over the rocky surface.  They were almost across when the back wheels spun suddenly, and in a shower of stones and pebbles, the car jerked to a halt.  Now it was Matt’s turn to look worried.

     “What’s holding her?” asked George Weston, as he joined Matt on his knees beside the car.

     “A ruddy great rock,” replied Walt, “wedged between the front axle and the track rod.”

      Mrs Reiner turned to Emmy.  “We might as well take a little walk dear,” she said.  “There’s nothing we can do, and it will be some time before we can get into the car again.”  For a time they walked in silence, then Mrs Reiner looked down at Emma and said, “What a little thing you are, Emmy.  You haven’t grown much have you?”

     Emma was used to being told that she was small for her years. Once or twice at The Home, when it was necessary to balance the numbers in each section, she was moved into the Babies’ Wing with the ‘under fives’. She loved it there.  Nothing was expected of her and even the addition of the Monday morning Epsom’s Salts to her porridge, as was customary in the Babies’ Wing, didn’t detract from her happiness in that environment.  The older children too, partook of the Monday morning draught, but they were considered mature enough to drink it straight down from a cup, without fuss.

     One day, while there, she was home from school suffering from a cold – not sick enough to be in bed, but there was a rule that the Babies Wing received a little more attention than the residents of the others.  Suddenly, looking up from her drawing, she saw through the open doorway a tall man walking towards her.  She thought that he looked like her father, when he suddenly turned and began walking away.  Leaving her chair Emmy quickly followed him as he went back to the car.  Fortunately, before climbing into his car he glanced up and saw her.

     “Emma!  It’s a week-day.  So I thought you’d all be at school” he exclaimed as he hugged her.

     If she hadn’t have seen him, how disappointing would it have been to find out later.  It would have been one more of many.

     Emma would quite happily have remained with the babies for the duration of her stay at The Home.  At school it was the same story.

Her year in the First Grade was her happiest year at school, and she wished never to leave it.  The small group of Beginners, drawn from a handful of five to six-year-olds from The Home and others from the surrounding district, enjoyed a warm, secure environment.  As in any ideal infant class, their days were a succession of pleasurable activities.  Not all beginners – even half a century on – are fortunate enough to have a teacher whose sole concern is the happiness of her little charges.

Their teacher, Miss Johnson, was just such a person.  Emma had never given any thought to whether people were pretty or plain. Had she been told to describe her teacher she might have said that she had fair smooth hair, blue eyes and was good to look at.  Emmy only knew that she was kindness itself, and her lonely heart opened to her teacher like a flower to the sun.  With her quiet voice and the smile that reached her eyes, she held the children in the palm of her hand.  Like all the others, Emma loved her, and she loved her lessons.

She never remembered beinq taught to read.  She seemed always to have been able to do so and her appetite for books was never satisfied.  From the very beginning she astonished grown-ups by her ability to read the words in the hymn books in Church and at the mid-week prayer meetings.  Poetry too, she loved.

But her favourite lesson was singing.  All her life, with no-one to remind her, she was able to recall the words of some of the songs she learnt in this first year of school.

She had no special friend, and was to regret a lost opportunity to gain one.  One morning, just after they’d begun lessons, Miss Johnson was sitting at her desk talking quietly to a new girl who was being enrolled, while the class was working on its own.

Suddenly Miss Johnson said ‘Emma, put up your hand.”

Emma, who was sitting in the back row, looked up in surprise.  She didn’t understand.  Children put up their hands when they wanted to speak to the teacher.  Now here was Miss Johnson telling her to put up her hand.

Again the teacher spoke. “Emma put up your hand.”

Still Emmy continued to look surprised, wondering what it was all about . Had she done something wrong? By now all the children had turned to look at her.  Feeling very self-conscious, Emma slowly began to raise her hand.

“Never mind Emma” said Miss Johnson. “Mary put up your hand” Mary did so.  “Mary,” said Miss Johnson. “This is Polly.  Please make room for her to sit beside you, and look after her on her first days with us.”

Emma watched sadly, as Polly took her place next to Mary.  Why hadn’t she understood what was required of her?  Polly would have been sitting next to her, and might have become her special friend.  In this, she was probably right, for Polly was the soul of loyalty and attached herself to Mary devotedly.

Polly was to become a legend in the school, because of her unpredictable behaviour.  Completely self-willed, she did exactly as she liked, and let everyone know if she didn’t.  Under the gentle ministrations of Miss Johnson she was fairly tractable, but once the Infants Class was left behind her and expectations in the Second Grade became greater, many a battle royal ensued between Polly and her teachers.  If sent from the room for misbehaviour, she would open the door, walk through, then on the point of closing it, would put her head through the half-open doorway, open her mouth and scream loudly!

To Em this was high drama indeed.  How she admired Polly’s audacity! Mary, as Polly’s special friend, basked in her reflected glory.  Alas!  All this could have been Emma’s.

Although the second grade was more demanding, the atmosphere was still fairly comfortable.  Emma thrived on all the work associated with language of any kind. Spelling and Dictation were child’s play, while as before, Reading, Poetry and Singing were a sheer joy.

     But sums were another matter.  The principles of Mathematics were a closed book to Em.  Arithmetic lessons were torture.  Addition was impossible – numbers refused to line up straight and be counted. Subtraction never came out right and while Em could memorise whole songs – words and music – on first hearing, multiplication tables played hide-and-seek with her memory cells and always eluded capture.

In this class also, she was for a short time blessed with a teacher who was on the same sympathetic plane as Miss Johnson.  She got on well enough with the regular teacher, but kept her protective cloak closely-drawn to compensate for the lack of real warmth.  For a time Miss Bell was on leave, and her replacement, Miss Jones, brought the sunshine back into the days.  One small act of kindness was to imprint itself on Emma’s memory forever.

It was Anzac Day.  Emma knew that this was regarded as an important day by her family.  Her father had been a soldier and had been wounded in the Great War, so she took the ceremonies very seriously.

A few days earlier, Miss Jones had said, “I have a supply of small flags – Union Jacks – which you may order for one penny each and collect on Anzac Day.”

Emmy’s heart yearned for one of these bright flags.

On Anzac Day, when the morning class ended, and they were ready to be dismissed for their half-holiday, Miss Jones said, “Now those children who have flags to collect can do so on the way out.”

Some of the children who lived in the district moved out to the teacher’s desk, while the rest, together with all The Home children filed out of the room – that is, all except Emma.  Impelled by some power she could not resist, she found herself on the end of the line of children at Miss Jones’ desk.  As each child’s turn came, Miss Jones asked “How many?” and handed over the requested number.  The flags had been paid for in advance so that no money was changing hands.  At last it was Emmy’s turn.

“How many for you, Emma?” asked Miss Jones, without batting an eyelid.  They both knew that Emma had not paid for any flags.  How could she?  She had no money.  But Miss Jones hadn’t referred to flags being paid for.  She’d said “Those with flags to collect.”

Greatly daring, Emma raised her eyes to her teacher’s face and whispered, “Two please.”  Of course she’d love to have asked for three – one for each of the boys – but if she could just have one for Dick, as well as herself, how thrilled she would  be.  In exactly the same tone of voice and with the same kindly smile that she had given the other children, Miss Jones placed the two flags in Emma’s hands.

“Here you are Emma, have a happy half-holiday,” she said.

Emma was her slave for life!

(C) Winnifred Knight  2000 – 2007

Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007

(C) 13/06/2013

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