Friends and Neighbours
As I have mentioned, Penny Russell and I were constant childhood companions. Her family, though I didn’t know it at the time, was a split family. Her mother had two girls before marrying David. Later in life, Penny found out she had a brother in England from her father’s previous marriage. David, her father was probably schizophrenic; he had huge mood swings. When Myrtle Russell was away, her children stayed with us. Penny’s sister, Kaye, would sit on our gatepost to wave to her father on his way home. He’d pass without a glance in her direction; she was begging to be acknowledged and he’d ignore her. Her sorrow was palpable. Penny’s sisters left home as soon as they were 15 and moved to Melbourne. Penny always dreamed of moving to the city too, which she did as soon as she could. She lived with my parents for twelve months whilst her parents went overseas and I was at boarding school. My mother could see her potential and offered to pay for her university education. This offer was not accepted. Penny later went on to higher education as a mature student. Her diabetes, inherited from her father, was a major disappointment, especially after the devastation of loosing her first, and only, baby soon after birth.
Elspeth, who lived next door, lived in a very different family. Her father was bedridden. Her mother entertained her friend ‘Uncle Bert’ in the next bedroom, and we accepted this as normal. My mother did say to us, ‘I don’t like you calling him ‘Uncle Bert’, he’s Mr. So and So.’
He was a bank manager, and when Mr. McKintyre died, ‘Uncle Bert’, couldn’t be seen for dust, as he applied for a transfer.
Elspeth would come over for breakfast when her mum wasn’t up. She’d put things on the tab at the local shop. Elspeth and I consumed a whole Neapolitan, pink, white and brown, ice-cream family sized block, only once, as we felt guilty about this, even though we were not sick. Sometimes she’d bring over jelly crystals, and we’d eat them straight out of the packet, hiding behind the greenhouse. When I was sick with mumps, Elspeth used to hop in my window and finish up any food. Mum was amazed that Elspeth didn’t get the mumps until six months later.
Elspeth came to school with me one day; usually she went to the Roman Catholic school next door. When we arrived home, her sister Ruth was crying. Elspeth was supposed to have gone with her sister and mother to Hobart, but instead Mrs. McIntyre had left Ruth at home because Elspeth was missing. Ruth had to grow up quickly to take on the mothering role.
When Dad was out at the farm, there was a fire in our backyard. The conversation of our eccentric neighbours, Joan and Noel Hammond, who lived behind our house, up the lane, went like this: ‘Joan, Brenda has firemen up her plum tree!’
‘ Noel, get back into bed, you’ve had too much to drink.’
In fact, Noel was right, there were firemen up the plum tree. Mrs. McIntyre entertained the firemen afterwards, and my mother just thought it was a party. It wasn’t until the next morning that she discovered that it was the hot ashes from our Raeburn on our compost heap that had started the fire and burnt down the back fence and our wood-stack.
The Hammonds enjoyed parties, and one New Year party they decided that the space wasn’t large enough so they brought out the sledgehammer and knocked down the wall between two rooms, with the help of the guests. The place remained in that state for a long time. My mother and Margaret Pyett occasionally played cards there. One night Joan came in with supper. ‘I had to rescue it from the rats, they were running right over the food!’ There was one particularly fastidious woman called Bette Shrosbee who paled and refused to eat. The others tried their best, so as not to hurt Joan’s feelings.
Noel suggested to Bette Shrosbee, when she was telling them how she had to keep boiling everything to sterilise it for the baby,
‘Why don’t you boil the baby?’
The Hammonds’ outdoor dunny had worn weatherboard walls that backed onto the back lane, and Joan complained, ‘I can see eyes looking at me through the cracks!’ Noel would turn the lights on in his ancient Jaguar to give light to anyone needing to relieve themselves, as there was no electricity out there. Noel tried to repaint the Jaguar with a powder puff, though the job was far too tedious to complete.
Margaret Pyett was another individual who was idocyncratic and was very fashion-conscious. When she admired Joan’s outfit, Joan said with her smoker’s raucous laugh, ‘I’m wearing Mrs. Webb’s corset!’ Mrs. Webb was older and bigger, so everyone thought this a huge joke, most of all Joan. She worked as a stenographer for the court system and was renowned for her quick and reliable shorthand. If there were a thunderstorm, Joan would be found hiding under the stairs in the cupboard. Everyone, including the police magistrate, would be at her parties, as Joan had such a wicked sense of humour she was popular with everyone.
When they needed the roof painted, Noel paid their son Peter to do the job. Peter paid someone else half of what he’d been paid to do it. Of course, it didn’t get finished. Noel was very proud of Peter’s enterprise. The roof remained half-painted. When the fence needed repairing between our house and their front lane, my father chose to do the job himself. Noel came to help him measure it. When Dad had completed the fence, he received a letter from Noel’s solicitor, saying that Dad had taken a few inches from the lane. When Dad discussed this with his lawyer, the man laughed and said, ‘Let him sue you. He’ll never win. He let you do all the work.’ Of course, nothing happened. From then on my father had little to do with Noel. Joan died young of cancer, and Noel went on to have a relationship with Pat White. Pat was pronounced Paat, as she had a large plum in her mouth.
Noel moved into the house that my grandfather had built for his parents in Nichol Street. Before he bought it, it had belonged to Dickie Dobby, the police magistrate and his wife Kitty.
They were famous for turning up at parties without an invitation, saying; ‘We knew you meant to invite us!’ The Nichol Street house was later sold and restored to its former glory by an enthusiastic young couple, putting a large fountain in the front yard.
Dr. Budge, the optician, lived nearby. He and his wife had a child late in life, Sandy, ‘my hhhobby’, stuttered Alec Budge. He was a wise man who recommended to my fiancé, ‘let her hhhave hhher wwway 98% of the tttime, and you jjjust ssstick out ffffor the imppportant 2%.’
When he had a puncture with Sandy in the car, he went to the bushes and waited for some nice young man to come and help attractive Sandy. He then appeared, thanking them for their help.
Sandy had her 21st birthday party at the charming Lane’s Grand Hotel that was later demolished.
Dr. Budge said,’ My analogy of mixed feelings is, seeing my Holden utility being driven over the Bluff by an Englishman.’ Then he’d added, ’This does not include you Eric,’ to Eric Pyett, a good English friend.