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

* * * * *

WINNIFRED – Part 6


October 1931 (cont.)

     In the early stages, as they drove through the inner suburbs, Emma gazed in awe at the row upon row of houses which looked as if they were stacked on top of each other, their square, orange roofs making a checker-board pattern against the sky.  How could so many people live so close together?

     Continuing to gaze out the window, Emma left her brothers to answer as best they could the many questions put to them by Mrs Reiner concerning their life at the The Home.  Their replies were brief, for most of the details were locked away in their memories, far too painful to speak of.

     Memories like the morning parade of bed-wetters, among whom her big, strong brother was a regular.  This measure was under-taken in the mistaken belief that the offenders would be cured of their weakness.  As the white-robed figures entered the hall, the wet sheets draped over their heads with the wettest part over their faces, Emmy’s eyes would quickly identify the tall erect figure of Walt.  She felt his pain and humiliation as they were paraded in front of the assembled children.  Her heart ached, her insides hurt so much that she could have doubled up.

     At such times, her cloak was not sufficient to protect her, and she was utterly exposed to the thrusting stabs of pain that pierced her.  How could they hurt him like this? He was so kind, so manly.

     At school, Walt was always the teachers’ right-hand man, so capable and dependable.  Emmy was to treasure the memory of a particular day when his dependability was to get her out of trouble.  In the Third Grade, she seemed unable to keep track of her possessions.  Books, pens pencils – all had a will of their own and successfully kept out of her sight.. On this particular morning, as writing lesson rolled around once more, Emma scrabbled in vain among her things trying to find her pen.  Her teacher’s patience exhausted, Emmy was banished in disgrace to the porch outside the classroom, where she sat in utter dejection.

     Suddenly, the door of the next classroom opened and Walt came into the porch.  “Hello Em, what’s up’?” he asked.

     Instantly cheered at the sight of her big brother, Emmy told him her  troubles.

     “Well, aren’t you lucky?” he said, grinning at her.  “I’ve just come out to get my spare pen for one of my team.  Each team gets points for having all their gear.  We’re winning at the moment.  But, here y’are Em.  You take it and go back to your writing lesson.”

     Emma took the pen, her heart in her eyes, too choked to speak her thanks.  Despite his hearty manner, she knew what it cost him to part with it.

     At The Home, he was just a bed-wetter, but in the school community his qualities were quickly perceived and extended.  This was his place – he thrived on the trust placed in him by his teachers.  As captain of his team he took his responsibilities seriously and was proud of being in the lead, but his responsibility for Emma came first.

     Bed-wetter he may be – he was Emmy’s Hero.. Some ten years later he would rank high among the heroes of Tobruk, as he fell leading his men into battle.

     It was from his classroom that Emma first heard the strains of the beautiful Londonderry Air and the words of “Danny Boy”.  There was something about the words and music that filled her with ecstasy.  As she listened to its haunting opening: “The pipes, the pipes are calling”, the words caught at her very soul, calling to something within her – so exquisite, yet painful.

    “From glen to glen and down the mountainside” held for her a mystical quality.  The little girl would sit at her desk enraptured, listening, transported from the mundane world of multiplication and subtraction, out into the hillsides beyond the schoolroom, until she too, was part of the mists swirling over rocky glens, rising, falling, at one with the haunting melody.

    “tis you must go and I must bide …“ it ran, moving with infinite sadness to its conclusion: “And I shall sleep in peace . . . . .‘ “  The song was always linked in her mind with Walt – prophetically as it happened.

     But memories like these were certainly not to be shared with strangers.

     There was the terrible night, when she was summoned from her bed, confused and half-asleep, and taken to the cover-way which separated the boys’ dormitories from the main building.  On the way, she was vaguely conscious of others – a few girls dressed in their night-gowns standing in a group on the balcony, talking in low voices.

     Arrived at the cover-way, Emma saw a van drawn up, ready for departure. Standing near were a number of staff members, but since it was dark Emmy was unsure who they were.

     In utter bewilderment she then saw Dick with another boy about his own age, on the point of being ‘loaded’ into the van.

     “Here’s your little sister come to say ‘Goodbye’ to you,” she heard someone say.  Then speaking to Emmy, the voice continued, “They’re going to the Reformatory for being naughty boys.  They were in bed together.”

     Reformatory!  Emma had no idea what it was like, but the word was one she’d heard in association with crime and punishment of the extremest kind.  She looked at her brother’ s white face and shared his fear.  Fear of the unknown terror that lay in store for him; fear that if he was sent away she’d never see him again. What would become of him?

     Emmy tried to speak and found that she had been crying for some time. “Please, please don’t send him away” she sobbed.

     “There now, see how upset your sister is,” said the Voice.  “We’ll let you off this time for her sake, but there’ll be no more chances.”

     Emmy was sent back to her bed, where she lay emotions in turmoil – wondering why two little boys should not share each other’s beds.  Some twenty years passed before she posed the question to her brother.

     “Why were you in bed with that other boy?”

     “I forget now” said Dick “We were probably cold or lonely and thought that two would be warmer and more comfortable than one.”

     “But why should you be sent to the Reformatory for that’?” Emma persisted.

     Dick smiled grimly.  “Come off it Em.  Two boys in bed together.  What else are adults to think but the worst?”

     Did they really intend to send them away? Or had they only intended to frighten them? Either way, it was surely an act of the coldest cruelty.

(C) Winnifred Knight  2000 – 2007

Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007

(C) 13/06/2013

* * * * *

WINNIFRED – Part 5


October 1931

“You’re going home tomorrow.”

     Emma stared in disbelief at the girl who’d whispered to her as they passed in the corridor on their way to bed.  Going home – dared she believe the magic words she’d waited to hear for the past three years.  Too good to be true!

     But here they were with only another fifty miles to go!  Emma thought the journey would never end.

     It had been early morning when they left The Home and wound their way down through the hills – one of those soft, cool mornings that holds promise of a beautiful day to come.

     “We have to pick up a passenger on our way through the city,” their father had said.  “But if we don’t have any other delays or unexpected mishaps, we should be home by mid-afternoon.  Seeing it’s such a nice day we’ll leave the curtains off and enjoy the fresh air.  So hop in and let’s get started,” he added.

     In a hurry to be off, the boys had opened the front door of the car for Emma, then fairly bursting with excitement, scrambled into the back, urging her to get a move on if she didn’t want to be left behind.  Emma needed no second bidding and climbed quickly in, shutting the door behind her.  For a while at least, she was to sit beside her father – this handsome, half-real, half-imaginary being, who for the past three years had existed chiefly in her dream-world.

     How many times had she looked up from her work or play and seen his tall, lean figure materialise before her eyes, walking towards her with his firm, springy step, so that as time passed, she became uncertain which of his visits had been real and which merely fancy.  Even here, at this moment, she couldn’t be sure.  Was she still dreaming?

     She watched him as he walked around the car, checking the tyres and doors, ensuring that everything was tied on securely before slipping into his place behind the wheel.

     “All set, lads?” he asked, glancing back at the boys.  Their hearty response set Em shivering with excitement, so that thinking she might be cold her father reached over, placed a rug across her knees, and with great tenderness, tucked it around her.

     “Comfy, little girl?” he asked, his grave deeply-lined face softening into a smile as he leant towards her, his face close to hers.

     Emmy nodded shyly, too overcome for words, her cup was filling too quickly.  As the engine started, she gave herself up to the joy of the moment.  The dream had come true.  They were going home!

 * * *

At the start of any journey, the traveller’s thoughts tend to linger for a time with the people and places he has just left behind, perhaps pondering unresolved problems or unfinished business, or merely reluctant to let go of familiar scenes – or they of him.

So it was with Emma.  The events of the past three years were not quite ready to release their hold on her and for a time accompanied her along the way.

As the car drew away from the building and moved slowly along the avenue of pines and past the orchard, she recalled the many hours she had spent there, looking for ‘monkey’ nuts – which was permissible – and in the orchard picking fruit – which was not.  How precious those hours had been and how fleeting!

Looking back, she exchanged a glance with Dick, and realised that he was having the same thoughts.  But from now on they’d be together all day and every day.

At The Home, contact between the three children had been very restricted.  The girls’ section was separated from the boys’ and strict supervision was exercised to ensure that the occupants too, remained separate – even at meal-times.  Though they ate in the same building, their dining-rooms were separate, and at school of course, the three were in separate class-rooms.

There were fleeting moments during the week when brief contact between them was possible – in the mornings when they waited to take their places in the ‘crocodile’ for the walk to school, and in the evenings in the Common-room when assembled for prayers.

Seating on the floor was somewhat haphazard, and it was sometimes possible for Emma to sit near one or other of her brothers and exchange a few words.  Just knowing that they were near, in the same room, brought a measure of comfort and companionship.

Saturdays provided the best opportunities for being together.  Every alternate Saturday was Visiting Day.  It was the highlight in the dull routine and must have made life considerably sweeter for those fortunate enough to have family or friends within easy reach of The Home.

At first, Emma would watch wistfully as one by one the other children were caught up in the centre of a group of familiar faces, friendly, loving.  Her eyes would examine each group closely as they arrived, hoping to espy a familiar form among them.  While she watched, a small hollow would begin to form in the pit of her stomach, slowly enlarging until the feeling of emptiness was too great to bear, and she would turn away.  These were the lucky ones who at the close of a pleasant day within a small circle, returned to the larger community refreshed – both physically and emotionally – hands filled with gifts, most often in the form of food treats, which broke the monotony of plain dining-room fare.

But as Visiting Days came and went uneventfully, Emma learnt to remove herself early from the visiting area, so that she would not have to witness the reunions, and together with one or two other lonely ones, or sometimes with Dick and a couple of his friends they roamed the large grounds, in which there were several delightful areas where, freed from Authority’s watchful eye, it was possible to lose themselves for an afternoon.

An occasional foray into the orchard in the right season could yield a succulent ‘King David’ apple with ruby skin, so juicy that the creamy flesh inside had turned in places to jelly; at other times an orange, which could be peeled and eaten, the pieces of skin then secreted on their persons and hidden under the pillow to be nibbled on in the dark after ‘lights out’.

Their favourite haunt was the driveway leading up to The Home.  Here in this quiet place, they were sustained by the bill of fare supplied by kindly Mother Nature.  The towering pines provided a canopy above them and spread layers of brown needles to form a soft carpet beneath their feet, and in Autumn the cones which littered the ground were fat with nuts, their hard, brown shells streaked with black.

Responding to the pressure of eager fingers, they spilled out and were carefully cracked between stones to release the luscious kernels.  Slipped from their silky bronze coating, the milk-white kernels were put to one side until the heap was large enough to make a tasty mouthful.  And how tasty they were!  Nothing could compare with the unique milky taste of these ‘Monkey’ nuts, and to children fed on a plain, unchanging diet they were exotic fare indeed!

* * *

As the car reached the end of the long drive, the children’s excitement mounted.  Always on the rare outings with their father, a sense of freedom overtook them as the gates came into view, and today there was no thought or their return to dim the excitement.  Emmy’s stomach seemed to turn over as they passed through the gates for the last time.  This time there’d be no going back.  She turned for a last look.

In the grass beside the gate, as though reluctant to see them go, a lone clump of snowdrops that somehow still persisted hung their heads.

“They look so sad,” thought Emmy who loved the tiny white flowers with their ever-drooping heads and the ever-present teardrop on their faces.

“Look at the wild-flowers Em,” said Dick pointing towards the hillside as they drove out on to the road.  Then with a wicked grin, “But I can’t see any orchids.”

Again sharing his thoughts, Emmy grinned back then turned to look out of the front window.  Yes, it was wild-flower time again.  She thought of the bush-track around the hillside along which they walked to school each day, and the flowery slopes that always invited them to stop and play – as on one memorable day they did!

On this particular morning – Emma was afterwards unsure just how it had come about – she and Dick became separated from the ‘Crocodile’ and, wholly oblivious of the passing time, spent a wonderful hour wandering through the scrub.

How peaceful it was – so quiet and still – like being in church.  The call of birds was the only sound that broke the silence and the two fell under its soothing spell.  It was early Spring and the wild-flowers were in bloom.

Unmindful of scratches to legs and hands, they picked their way past banks of blackberry bushes that grew thickly beside the track.  Mingled scents of boronia and wood-violets reached them as they tramped among the clumps of fern and heath in search of the elusive ‘spider’ orchid.

It was an hour stolen from Time, and they lavishly spent each moment, heedless of the reckoning.

Mercifully, no repayment was exacted when, flushed with guilty pleasure, they presented themselves – two hours late – at the schoolroom door – precious orchids drooping in hot, grubby hands.  Surely that day, the windows of Heaven were open wide, the golden hour shared and blessed, for with rare forbearance, Authority smiled faintly and held its hand.

(C) Winnifred Knight  2000 – 2007

Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007

(C) 13/06/2013

* * * * *

WINNIFRED – Part 4


 Emma’s memories of life with her mother were vague.  She had recollections of a lady, dressed in a long black dress, whom she was ‘helping’ to wash the clothes outdoors.  They had a house at this time but no laundry, so the copper, and the washtubs on a stand, all stood in the open.  One of the tubs was used to wash the clothes which didn’t need to be boiled, but most of them needed much rubbing on the scrubbing board – a vital piece of equipment on washdays!  The other was used for rinsing.

     Bed-linen and towels were washed at another time, when Emma was fascinated as she watched her mother wring the water out of the heavy sheets and towels, looping the ends over her arm as she did so, both before and after they went into the rinse water, and then hang them on the lines, which were strung between posts and trees.  A forked branch acted as a prop to hold the loaded lines up.  A far cry from modern washdays!

     There were dim memories of sliding off the rump of a horse, and the trembly feeling in her legs when she tried to stand, and later burying her face in her mother’s skirts, as she was comforted.  (The horse could only have been Brownie, as Kit would not have stood still long enough to allow three children to clamber on her back at the same time.)

     Another incident which stood out in her memory, was having had mustard put on her tongue – presumably for using a forbidden word.  Unable to stay outside, and anxious for her mother’s forgiveness, she peeped around the kitchen door, pressing herself close to the wall as she did so.  (She must have been four years old at the time.)  Her mother was seated on a chair facing the doorway, feeding the baby.  When she caught sight of her errant daughter, obviously seeking ‘absolution’ she smiled her humorous Mona Lisa smile.  Emma remembered that smile and treasured it.

     The last event she would rather not remember – the day the ‘phone rang in the kitchen, answered by her eldest sister, Maud.  When she’d replaced the receiver, she stood quite still for a moment or two, then turned, her face flushes red, as though to prevent herself from crying.  Then it drained of all colour as she spoke just two words – words which were to bring with them pain, heartache and above all, change to the life of each member of the family left behind – “Mum’s dead”.

     From that time onward there was a blank, except for those memorable nights when, as she and her father watched for the evening star, and she would say, “Is that where Mum has gone Dad?”  and he would reply, “Yes dear, that’s her star”.  All her life, Emma was to think of it as her star.

     Then one chill morning, she was wakened while it was still dark, bathed and dressed by Maud, and after having an early breakfast with her father and the two boys, they set off in the truck for The Home.

 * * *

  October 1928

     “This way kids, follow me.”  The voice of a small girl rang out as she set off confidently in the lead across the lawn, the two older boys trailing.

     “Wait up, Em, we’re coming.”  Dick, the younger of the two ran to catch up with her.  Walt followed more slowly.

     The suggestion of a smile showed briefly on the deeply-lined face of the man who watched them.  They crossed the drive-way to the front entrance of the elegant building which was to be their home for the next three years.

     “Plucky little Emmy,” he thought.  “Thank God she seems almost to be enjoying herself.  She’ll be good for the boys, and they’ll watch out for her.  Walt’s very responsible.”  He sighed deeply.  “Perhaps everything will work out for the best.  At least they’ll be well-cared for.  But I hate to leave them.”

     Matthew Haywood looked around at the beautiful grounds and gardens that provided the setting for the Queen Victoria Home for Children.  Sloping lawns, surrounded by shrubberies, spread across the entire front, and beyond – out of sight – were orchards and vegetable gardens which he’d seen on his initial visit.

     At the front stately columns supported the verandah, and within the entrance, passageways led directly to dining-rooms, kitchens and laundries.  Immediately on the right, a graceful staircase led up to the large common-room, bedrooms, bathrooms and administration office, where Matt had earlier had his final discussion with the matron in charge.

     Now he followed his three children into the hall and saw them into the hands of the waiting nurse.  A quiet goodbye, and they moved off up the stairs, seeming eager to inspect their new surroundings.

     Matt stood looking after them for a long moment.   “It’s the best I can do for now, kids,” he murmured.  “God bless you.”

     Turning, he went out to the waiting car, and began the long journey home, alone.

* * *

The Years Between

There were good times and there were bad.  There must have been laughter, but it couldn’t have been very deep, for she couldn’t remember it.

     There were brief moments of joy, injustice and bewilderment.   The latter predominated during the years between.  Her earliest memories were, naturally enough, dream-like – at times nightmarish.  It was like living in a fog – everything became blurred around the edges.  Nothing seemed real – reality, like reassurance, seemed always just out of reach.

     Time didn’t exist – just this sense of waiting and filling in time until someone should say, “You’re going home.”

     She learnt not to feel too much or too deeply, but to accept things as they came – the good and the bad.  Even the good times she leant to regard as somewhat common-place, because if you enjoyed them too much, you missed them too much when you didn’t have them.  The bad she learnt to endure.

     She learnt to contain herself – like a caterpillar which wraps itself in a protective covering to await the day when it is time to emerge.  What it amounted to was survival.  How strong within us is this instinct, when a five-year-old child feels the necessity to wrap itself in a protective cloak from within which it resists those things that appear to offer too great a joy or pain.

     Thus Emma existed day by day, her cloak proof against much that would assail her from without, while within its folds she wove a lining of resilience that allowed her to survive the worst times – when forced to witness the unpitying hand of Authority turned against her brothers.

     Her father’s visits – so rare and so doubly precious – whatever form they might take (a day at the beach, the zoo or the gardens), must be kept in their right perspective; the heady draught must be merely sipped, because at the end of the day they would go back to The Home and Dad would drive away – back to the farm.  In order not to taste the bitter dregs, she must not drink too deeply.

     Her one excess, because she held the cup in her own hands, was her joy in singing.  No-one could take it from her; she could call on it at will.  It was always there – constant.  Possessed of a voice that was regarded as both wonderful and unique, she was known as ‘the little girl who sings’.  It was this that gave her inner strength, that made it possible, when trouble pressed too close, to draw her cloak around her and wait, in the knowledge that no matter how bad it might be, when it was over, this part of her would emerge unharmed, unaltered.

     Yes, there were good times and there were bad.  Some of them she would never forget.

(C) Winnifred Knight  2000 – 2007

Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007

(C) 13/06/2013

* * * * *

WINNIFRED – Part 3


This is Winnifred’s story, told and written by her – I merely transferred it from Floppy Disk to Hard Drive, adjusting the altered format, and typos at her request. Emma is Winnifred.  Mother changed the names for two reasons – she didn’t want to upset any family members still living; and for her anonymity, and her reputation, as what she wrote would deconstruct the public persona she had created for and of herself.  Also I think to distance herself as she wrote.  If it had been in first person I think it may have been too traumatic, even after all those years.

Prologue

     “Mrs Roberts?  Please come in.”  Emma entered the tiny cubicle, closing the door behind her.  Struggling to compose herself and suppress the familiar surge of panic, she looked around the confined space.

     The attendant looked at the notes in her hand, then pointing to a pile of folded garments on the end of the seat, said kindly, “Just change into one of these gowns.  We’ll call you as soon as we’re ready for you.”

     Emma’s mouth felt dry.  Licking her lips, she asked, “How long is that likely to be?”

     “Only a few minutes,” replied the nurse, looking at her more closely.  “Are you all right?”

     “Yes, for the moment,” she murmured.  “But Nurse . . . please don’t shut the door.  It’s rather cramped in here.”

     “Just as you like.”  Smiling, the girl withdrew, and she was alone.

     Clad in a white gown, Emma sat down on the narrow bench-seat and looked at the opposite wall.  How close it was!  The room was so small – like a cupboard!  She leaned back, trying to relax, but the words she had spoken stayed with her, and in the shadowy recesses of her mind faint images were stirring, while in her ears sounded the plaintive plea of a child: “Please Nurse, don’t shut the door.”

          She closed her eyes . . . . . .  remembering.

* * *

      It was dark in the cupboard, except for a narrow strip of light which showed beneath the door as it closed behind the tiny form, shutting her in.  the sound of footsteps faded, and she was alone.

     Unable to see, she was sharply aware of the scent of clean linen and the musty smell of mice.  She didn’t cry, conditioned to passive acceptance of a punishment she didn’t question, though could not understand.  Shivering in her thin nightgown, she lay down across the doorway, pressing herself as close as possible to the fragment of light, as if to draw some warmth and comfort into her small body.

     She closed her eyes to shut out the dark, but could not shut out the sounds – the furtive scurrying of tiny feet somewhere near her.  “Please God,” she thought, “don’t let them touch me.”

     How she wished she were safely back in the dormitory!  Perhaps, if she wished hard enough, it might come true.  She tried, but nothing happened.

     Quietness descended on this House of Charity.

     Charity?!  The mind screams at the word.  Dear Heaven!  Were their windows closed?  Did no-one care?  Did no-one see – or hear?  None, it seems, save the inscrutable walls standing guard over the helpless child as she lay thinking of the other girls asleep in their beds.

     Presently, in spite of her fears, she too fell asleep.

     Here at The Home, bedtime was always the best time of day.  Bed was the one place you looked on as your own personal territory which you did not have to share.

     Of necessity, in such an institution, nothing you had – the clothes you wore, the books, pens, pencils – none belonged to you.  All were on loan.  The prettiest dress had been worn by someone before you, and you had to take care of it, for someone else would surely wear it when you’d outgrown it.

     The Home itself was not your home.  You were a visitor, and that feeling never faded.  No room was your room.  There was no corner into which you could creep and feel at home, no chair which was your own place.  You took it for granted that you would be asked to move up and make room for someone else.  There was always someone else!  You did not have your own space – except in bed!

     Here was your won world, where no-one could touch you or intrude upon your privacy.  Here, with some secret treasure tucked under your pillow, you could escape from the bewilderments of the day, whisper your own special prayers, play ‘Let’s pretend’ and wish yourself to sleep.  “Perhaps . . . perhaps I’ll wake up in the morning and find myself still at home on the farm, with Dad out milking the cows, Mother feeding the baby, and all this just a dream.”

     Yes, it was a good time of day.

     And it was good too, after ‘lights out’, to lie and talk to the other girls in the comforting semi-darkness of the dormitory.  From this place of her own each could be, for a time, herself.  As the uniform clothing of the day was put aside, so the uniformity which cloaked their personalities gave way to individuality.

     The soft shadows seemed to cast a spell over the room and its inmates, healing the hurts inflicted by angry, unkind words; soothing the cruel sting of indifference, the ever-present pain of aloneness and the yearning for close family contact – a goodnight kiss and a loving hand to tuck them in.

     In the darkness they reached out to each other.  Quarrels were for a time forgotten; confidences could be shared.  This was the best time for talking.  But talking after ‘lights out’ was against the rules!

     And so here she was, alone in the dark with only the mice to keep her company.

     Always she slept soundly, for in sleep she could enter that other world where everything was possible.  But tonight, after a few short hours, she stirred, moving her cramped limbs.  She felt cold and uncomfortable.  Reaching for her bedclothes she became aware of the hard floor beneath her and sat up, opening her eyes.

     Why was it so dark?  Straining her eyes to see, she listened for the sound of breathing from the other sleepers in the room.  All was quiet and still.

     Sudden realisation brought her fully awake!  This was no dream.  She was still in the cupboard.  They’d forgotten her!  A wave of desolation swept over her at the thought.  Then a further flash of insight told her the awful truth.  But surely they wouldn’t  . .  they couldn’t leave her here all night!

     The little head drooped and the plucky little figure crumpled, as the courage which had sustained her thus far ebbed away . . . and slow, creeping fear took its hold.

     She sank down and lay quite still, curled up against the door, unable to move, scarce daring to breathe in the oppressive silence.  Her chest felt tight, her throat ached with pent-up feelings clamouring for release, while closer and closer as in a nightmare, pressed the impenetrable darkness, enveloping her, stifling . . . smothering.

     In terror she started up desperate to escape.  Her searching fingers found the door-frame, slid upwards until they touched the large, cold door-knob.  How smooth, how cold and real it felt!  Grasping it with both hands, she turned it and the door moved inwards.  It was unlocked!

     For a moment her heart stopped beating, then began pounding with hope of freedom – and fear of discovery.  Opening the door she crept out, drawn towards the faint light at the end of the dark passage.

     Across the vast common-room, which seemed incredibly larger in the pale glow of the night-light, she could see the doorway of her dormitory . .  and just inside – her bed.

     Her bare feet made no sound as she stole across the floor towards it.  What a journey it seemed!  She was alone in a world of silence and shadows – an overwhelming sensation for a hapless mite, seeking the sanctuary of her bed and blankets, shaken by the experience – and the reasoning behind it.

* * *

      Emma felt a light touch on her shoulder and opened her eyes.  The nurse was bending over her.

     “You can come through now dear,” she said.  “Sorry to keep you waiting.  How are you feeling?”

     Gladly Emma rose and moved through the open doorway into the large room beyond.

     “I’ll be fine now thanks,” she replied.  “And thank you for leaving the door ajar.  Those cubicles are very small aren’t they?”

     The nurse smiled, sympathetically.  “A little claustrophobic are we?”

     “More than a little I’m afraid,” Emma replied.  “It goes back a long way.”

(C) Winnifred Knight  2000 – 2007

Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007

(C) 13/06/2013

* * * * *

WINNIFRED – Part 2


They had lived with the knowledge of their mother’s childhood almost all their lives.  The horror of how Winnifred and her brothers, the middle three kids, were taken by their father from their siblings – to lighten his load when their precious mother died from complications from the ninth baby’s birth – to live in Morialta Children’s Home on the edge of the Adelaide Hills, hung like a guilty cloud over their lives.  It coloured their perspectives, it undermined their sense of security – if it happened to her it could happen to them – and it made her overly precious to them.

And as time passed, as they moved from childhood to teens, they were constantly aware of the progress she made in her life – her attainments were like stepping stones, each praised and complimented when reached, with the knowledge that there would be more to come.  What a role model!  Not that they thought of her in that way – it wasn’t a phrase bandied about back then, but in retrospect that is what she was.  Yet it left them feeling that they could never catch her.  She was always way out in front, ahead of them, and when they did later pass her they didn’t notice it.

For them, there was a drawback to this as well.  She was so busy attaining her own goals in her careers – musical and educational – that she failed to assist them to attain theirs.  She knew they could all sing, that they could all play instruments, could write well and were artistically creative, but her notions of what constituted a working career didn’t apply to their talents.  Consequently, they were encouraged and organised into teaching and nursing careers that suited none of them, instead of into music, stage and art careers.  Inevitably they opted out, felt like failures, then tried to resurrect their particular talents later in life, when they had ‘missed the proverbial boat’!

Too late in her life she realised that she had done this.  Too late, after competing with them as they made their musical way into amateur renown, did she acknowledge that she had failed to support them, had ignored them – still in the ‘children are to be seen and not heard’ mode that was one of the legacies of her terrible upbringing – had considered their talents as multiple but only hobby-worthy.  They did not reach her brilliance.  They could not reach her brilliance.  Not in her mind or theirs.

But as age crept in, and the avaricious ambition of other singers in the amateur musical societies that she frequented began to stress her, she withdrew and looked at this one failure of hers with startled wonder of growing guilt.  How had she remained oblivious to this self-centred characteristic?  Her life had been about her – a created life.  Her husband was seen as part of her support system – his baritone voice complimented her glorious soprano in myriad duets – they were the stars of all the shows.  Her children were seen as a credit to her, dressed properly at all times in public, taught to not embarrass her in public though there were many slip-ups intentional and unintentional as they aged, but always in her shadow.  They were an adjunct to her.

She began to write her story so it wouldn’t be lost when she was gone.  The chapters poured out of her, written about a character she called Emily.  But it was her story.  Her daughter helped her get it in order, transferred it onto computer disks, tightening it slightly but sticking as closely to her mother’s written word as she could.  There were copious hand-written pages that needed transcribing – some were done, some still waited.  All were gathered together, but it was emotionally hard to transcribe, as the terrible abuses that she suffered in the Home were resurrected in black and white.  Not just something told, but there on the page, inescapable.

Then the thing she’d been dreading all her life occurred – reoccurred.  She was put back into a Home!  She contracted a debilitating illness – Cerebral Nuclear Palsy, similar to Motor Neurone Disease – where though her mind remained sharp and intelligent, her body gradually shut down over a dozen years till she could no longer speak or move.  She had to go into a Nursing Home.  Her husband, now in his nineties, could no longer look after her.  Not could the Carers who came daily to assist.  She needed medical facilities.

Their guilt at ‘putting her into a home’ after years of promising this would never happen because they wouldn’t allow it, bore down on them with each visit.  They had no choice.  They told her so vehemently, lovingly, continually.  They had held it off way past the point of no return.  They all loved her – a love/hate of decades of baggage churned around them  – extremes of adoration mixed with resentment, encased in shrouds of guilt.  How could they do to her what her father had done?

When her time came they kept a vigil for six days, rostered between them, keeping her beloved music playing, not leaving her alone  – she must not be alone.  The relief was tangible when she slipped away.  How could fate choose someone so brilliant, so intelligent, to play such a cruel trick on.  But she had made it to 86!  She had hung in there and not let it beat her, as she had done all her life.  The warmth and glow of her personality, her star-quality was gone, but the treasured memories of these and of her attainments overrode the negative feelings, the baggage.  They clung onto the positives and gave her a star’s send-off.

(C) Jud House  10/06/2013

* * * * *

DECLINING


Declining
sinking slowly into miasma
into slow-sand  into mire
into immobility
with such clarity.

How cruel can life be?

What was faced during life
traumas dealt with
crushing emotional blows
intellectual defeats
missed opportunities
uncalled for discriminations
injustices intentional and unintentional
is nothing.

How cruel can death be?

No living to the full
to slip away in sleep.
No sudden rending pain
shocking your systems
frying your circuits
then gone  peace.
No sudden stroke
numbing your muscles
from which return is possible.

How cruel can decline be?

Fully aware  cognizant
slowly watching yourself sink
patronised by strangers
talking at you in third person.
No pain to let you know you’re alive
it’s managed by morphine.
No discrimination here.
Taking no mind of your cleverness
your life accomplishments
your talents  beauty  knowledge.
All slowly phased out
till you’re a mind in a body
refusing to let you speak
unresponsive  leaden
manhandled by strangers
never alone  family in vigil-mode
interminably listening to conversations
you can’t join  you don’t want to hear.
Lying breathing open-mouthed
intermittent deaths occasionally
in a holding pattern
for hours  days  even weeks.

Do your dead siblings wait in the shadows?
Can you let go and join them?
Must you cling on while family linger?

How wonderful will death be?

(C) Jud House  10/04/2013 * * * * *