by Rose Saraswati (Queenies daughter Rose) based on a few diary entries written by “Queenie” in 1919.
Mary Maude Nicholas placed her mending basket on the table. Thoughts of yesterday filled her mind: Christmas Service at Trinity Church, then roast dinner and plum pudding; her boys’ noisy exuberance in the afternoon; the strange quietness, then Kirby, her 17 year old, rushing in to change. He had split the seat of his best trousers. Mary had sighed then and mentally tallied yet another mending job.
Ten weeks before this Queenie described her brothers’ behaviour (SNews,12 October, 1919):
…brothers got frisky, and then rampageous, Dad was asleep on the couch and so I tore down to the goat’s yard to find Mont & K holding Ralph’s head ½’ above a bucket of clean water! I saw the poze in less than a second, and without any warning invaded the “Penetentiary” and administer’d corporal punishment to Mont who dropped Ralph like a hot brick and then I hammered K. Released Ralph & they grabbed another victim. I accordingly repeated the piofformance & two (2) woebegone creatures stood outside the goat’s fence. So then K., having nothing better tried it on Mont, who tipped the bucket of water into K’s boot! So you will understand from that 1 incident that I’ve had a lively afternoon…
Now today, being Boxing Day, the boys were off to Como beach with their Dad, but not before creating chaos, searching drawers for bathing trunks, tripping over each other to find sandshoes, raiding the kitchen and slamming doors. Four-year-old Bobbie wailed loudly until Queenie, her eldest, tied his shoes, patted his tears and led him out the door to his Dad. Thus Mary went to find the trousers, her ears stunned by the sudden descent of quietness and peace.
Peace! Mary paused as the word ‘peace’ resounded in her mind and drew her into a reverie. She repeated the familiar words “Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth, Peace!” This Christmas, 1918, had been the most bitter-sweet just weeks after they had heard the Armistice officially announced. At last, peace had come.
Then the big gun across the river fired three times, sending everyone into the streets hooting, yelling, screaming, banging tins. Kirby tore off to join his friends. Montie and Ralph seized the dinner bell, got on their bikes and rang it up and down the street, followed by two or three barking dogs. Little Bobbie caught the excitement and jumped up and down. The bell at Cargill Street School rang on and on for ages. I was allowed home early from work. Crowds gathered down at the Recreation ground, talking happily and singing until well after dark.
In the days that followed everyone’s face had shone with happiness. Still today, the relief of that good news after four long, painful years was fresh in her mind.
At the Christmas Service there had been tears on so many faces. Voices faltered over words. She watched as Bertha’s face reddened. Mary knew her friend was in anguish, longing for her three eldest sons, George and Walter and Charlie. For her and so many others, the joy and relief was poignant with worry and longing. Mary felt the air heavy with their pain.
She drew a deep fresh breath to fill her lungs and her mood lightened. She wiped her eyes. Mary recalled the pun going around lately, and her face creased into a smile:
Tommy (just returned from the front) to Jack Tar:
Say Jack, if we’d lost this War, I pity the bloke wot found it.
That reverie ended as Mary fingered the serge trousers, ‘dem breeks’, as Queenie would say. Wherever did she get these words? From the boys at the Bank where she worked? And where was her girl now? Mary listened for sounds in the house. All was completely quiet. Maybe she was writing in that diary again about her ‘comrade’, Norman. The starry-eyed looks between those two often brought Mary a frisson of concern about the power of impulse over prudence. But she knew the importance of trusting and felt that her daughter, now past adolescence and very responsible, had understood their woman-to-woman talks. She couldn’t do without her daughter’s help with the boys, but they were a real trial for her, with their noisy roughhousing and prying into her writings. Yes, Queenie deserved this rare moment of blissful privacy.
Mary’s hands smoothed the trousers flat over the polished dining room table and her eyes widened at the sight. Passably good stitches bound the rough edges together. Queenie wouldn’t have had time, would she? Or was it possibly Kirby, making amends? Children are such a puzzle. But these trousers would be needed for Sunday. Mary chose a patching piece to reinforce the mend against further boyish pranks, threaded a needle and restored the trousers with perfect invisible stitches.
If Mary had been standing by her window in the heat of the previous night she might have seen Kirby’s bike move carefully through the front gate about 3.30am, soundlessly. She might have leaned out through the open window to call out “Kirby, where are you going?” Then, to the fast disappearing figure, “I’ll speak to you later.” How could she guess it was her daughter in disguise, going out alone in the dark? Yet if she had seen the words Queenie wrote the evening before she might have asked questions.
I darned a 3 inch split in the seat of K’s trousers tonight – I looked for a pair & the only ‘wantable’ pair had a split so I set to and darned it…
In the early hours of Boxing Day the wheels of Kirby’s bicycle whirred softly in the warm night air, carrying Queenie down the Leonard Street hill towards the Albany Road. A left turn there and another turn or two brought the grid to Norman’s family home on Shepperton Road.
There was a light on at the verandah there. Norman and his friends, Archie and Harry, were checking tyres, torches and bags and loading their bicycles for a fortnight’s riding trip to Bunbury. The planning had taken weeks, asking about the best route and what landmarks to look for and if there was a farmer who might allow them to camp and have a wash? Over the past few weeks they had raided meagre savings to buy food, spares and puncture kits, checked tyres, dynamos and bike tools. Left over Christmas fare contributed to their stores. From before 3 o’clock they worked quietly so as not to disturb the rest of the family trying to sleep in the heat. Now the friends were all but ready for several hours’ cool riding before boiling the billy under some roadside gum trees.
Norman saw Queenie riding on Kirby’s bike. She had really come, what spunk! She glowed pink, breathing hard in the soft light of the verandah, perspiration sparkling her face. Her hands quivered. He sprang to hold the boy-bike steady for her to dismount over the bar. She pulled off the rough boy’s cap, and the coiled plait of her hair, glinting with amber lights, slipped slightly askew. His face coloured up as their eyes met for one moment. Restraint kept his hands gripping the handlebars as long as possible to keep his arms from wrapping around this girl. She still worshipped Charlie, his soldier brother, despite all evidence that her love was unrequited. His knuckles showed white. Then Harry’s gruff voice to Queenie gave him respite:
What’yr doin’ in them breeks instead of yr’ own clothes?
She replied in kind:
Wull, if people saw a lydy ridin’ at 3.30 AM all alone – there might be a stir. But if they saw a mere boy (even if it wasn’t) nothin’ would be said.
Anyhow, it was Norman’s idea.
Attention turned to Norman with muffled spontaneous laughter from Harry and Archie. The torrent of emotions in his brain subsided and he breathed again. His lips parted in a smile and his eyes twinkled.
Attention moved to preparations. She produced the tin that held her cake. He spread the map to show her the revised journey and sensed her sweet blessing on the journey ahead. On the hour, the four of them rode out on the Albany Road with the boys’ energy rising high for the long week’s challenge before them.
[Photo 2: Norman with 2 ‘grids’]
Queenie, however, felt obliged to turn off at the Leonard Street corner to return home. In the light of early morning Queenie struggled up the hill back to her parents’ home, her heart full of intense longing. Boys were free to roam, but she was shut out of this adventure just by being a girl. Arriving home she sat by her window and pressed dark, heavy strokes onto the tiny page of the SNews. Heavy underlining and repetition suggest deep anguish:
“… if you’d gone in the daylight I would not have seen you off at all – as it was I felt a leetle bit funky as Mont says. I wish I were a boy. I do. I do. I do. K would have made a lovely girl, too, and I’ve got a man’s walk (so Harry said)…”
Then the next day she writes again: I’m feeling penitent, very, this morning.
It seems that Queenie was soon to recognise that Norman was her true love, not Charlie. Meanwhile the word “Comrade” was meant plainly in her letter to Norman on New Year’s Eve:
Dear Comrade… before Christmas (and my adventure) I felt quite an ordinary sort of chicken – but tonight I feel quite as a chick might when it first plops out of an eggshell! I’ve seen you off to Bunbury in a manner that no modest girl would.
[Photo 3: first lines of Queenie’s letter to Norman]
Two weeks later Queenie writes :
I’m mighty glad my ma & pa are so reasonable. (Makes me honest with them, anyhow.) You don’t know how glad I am that I can tell Mum all the secrets knowing she won’t growl.
As she heard her daughter confessing and understood her envy at boys’ freedoms, Mary Maude smiled a little. Of course she wouldn’t growl, she recalled the day in 1888 when she and a few other women walked into the all-male lecture hall to begin their B.Sc. degrees. What a stir that caused! Then in 1896, after women had won suffrage, she and her sisters went with their mother to the polling booth at Port Adelaide. Their mother was first to vote there. The faces of men around were a study to behold, some dark with scorn, some cheering the women for their hard-won success. Now even as 1918 ended, society had still been resisting change to allow women equal place, but Mary Maude could dismiss other people’s prudish notions.
Mary and her husband understood equality and had followed Madame Montessori’s child rearing methods. Together they provided a ‘prepared’ environment for their children to discover nature for themselves. They allowed some privacy and dream time for each to develop their own individual, innate path. Well, Queenie was certainly stretching her wings now.
This was the time, Mary realised, to try to let go, to rely on her years of training and let her one and only daughter, precious Queenie who she relied upon, to choose her own life.