First Person

On Becoming Elizabeth

This is a tale of unrequited love, as desperate as any in history or literature, because it happened to me, and that of course puts a completely different complexion on the matter. Unrequited love is satisfyingly romantic and tearfully tragic when it happens to others in created works, but when its eagle talons grab us and fly us personally into its bumpy skies, then the affliction is serious. That is especially the case for a thirteen-year-old girl in times long gone, lacking the input of today’s screen-based instructions for life—or any instructions at all really.

For we are speaking of life on a pocket-sized rented acreage on the outskirts of Mount Druitt, on Sydney’s intemperate western plains, before they were mostly taken up by new housing estates. We had escaped from local public housing bleakness into my British father’s idyll of a landed baronetcy, known to others as rural squalor. The old house stood next to a sinking well. Occupying five acres, the place was once the home of an army officer, and had some very faded 1920s pretensions to grandeur, the hints of which suited my father’s unusual personality, lingering as it did on the edge of delusional madness.

This memoir appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The place was nearly derelict so the rental was very cheap. Old wallpaper mouldered on the walls and broken linoleum on the floors curled and tripped you up. In the then unfashionable style of a three-bedroom Californian bungalow, there were some sets of mostly non-functional French doors leading to the outside, and to one side were the hardly discernible remnants of a tennis court, now covered with prickly pear growing in its gravel remnants. There were no workable drains from the kitchen with its single cold-water tap, nor from the tin bathtub and its “chippy” that lived in a shanty at the back. The residue from these facilities simply poured outside from two pipes in the walls, thus creating a fine bog around the well. Dad would dig it out, occasionally. Next to this real bog was the pan dunny, buzzing with blowflies. It all stank.

It was here that I learned to milk a cow and to cook “doggie”, our nightly stew of mince, an Oxo cube, carrots, potatoes and onions, salted and boiled together on a Primus, for with Mum in the psychiatric hospital once again, and the fuel stove not working any more, I had only the kerosene stove to make meals for my two siblings and Dad and leftovers for the dogs. I can’t say we were happy, but the roof hardly leaked at all, we didn’t go hungry, Dad was earning some money for once, and there was some fun in having pigs, chickens and cows around to tend; and in the case of piglets, to love. I used to take the tiniest one to bed with me at night, to stop him from freezing. We warmed each other up nicely.

I was warming up in other ways too. I’d sometimes crawl under the old curtains and army blankets we used as bedcovers, inexplicably drawn to the privacy of my verandah sleep-out by some compelling imagining of things unimagined. My body was changing in ways some of the bigger girls at school talked about between themselves, but not to me, for I was such an un-ironed sockless squib. I was trying to figure out the rumours concerning what actually happened, when, as the girls hinted, you know, some boy’s hands did this or that and tried for the other, the secret place. My imagination would then touch my body and it always ended well for me, alone in bed, sometimes with my little sleeping pig down at my feet, under the blankets where the cat once produced her kittens.

It was very pleasant there under the blankets, where living things loved to creep. It took me a while to put two and two together and come up with the answer: this strange feeling was “sex”. It was what you did with someone else. With “him”, I thought in the abstract. I’d read about “him” in books, they’d talked about “him” on Mother and Daughter Night at school, when my mother sat impassive as a tombstone and less cheerful. The “him” I had in mind wasn’t any of the weedy or rough teasing boys at school. Not when I was going to be a famous actress or model when I filled out a bit. The “him” I started to envision must certainly refer to something special, something wonderful. Which put “him” right out of my current ambit.

And then I met “him”. He turned up in all his beautiful male glory when I applied for weekend work as a waitress in a local guest house. The guest house prided itself on its refined clientele. They took people in “from the city” for “a country retreat”. There was a small golf course. There were cabins and a row of simple rooms, which I cleaned as part of my duties. There was a large dining room seating about fifty people where in the evening they pushed the tables back for dancing.

We girls worked in shifts. The cook was a Miss Smith, a small eternally flustered older woman buried in a large apron, for whom making and serving three meals a day for fifty expectant appetites was her life’s work. She cooked traditional country food in large commercial oven trays as well as making her superb egg custards on the big fuel stove. To those girls she favoured as more likely to marry than she was now, she gave away items from her treasured “glory box”, a trunk of disappointed hopes that still lived under her bed. I was not so favoured, as she was on to my case, but she made sure she fed me well.

She’d guessed I’d put my age up from thirteen. Yes, I’m fifteen, I’d declared, and they hired me out of pity even though they didn’t believe me, for I still had the looks and body of early adolescence. My thirteen-year-old arms carried the heavy loads of plates as a fifteen-year-old was expected to do, which sometimes left me staggering under the weight. It was hard work but thoroughly enjoyable, and as a bonus we got tips to add to our cash-in-hand payments. I felt tremendously important as a cog in that guest-house wheel.

I started to notice how different these people, the guests, were from the people I’d met so far in life. They had big fancy cars, for one thing, and they laughed and chattered at mealtimes without seeming embarrassed at all about some of the things that were mentioned. Nobody seemed shy and nervous, as I was when the men jollied me about my clever remembering of their orders, and they were kind when I got something wrong, unlike Dad, who would go right off.

But it was the women who amazed me. I thought they were like film stars. They smoked cigarettes from small holders and laughed with great confidence as men swooped with a lighter to assist at the end of the meal. They drank pink wine in stemmed glasses from bottles on the table and ate delicately with a poised knife and fork, always leaving a little on the plate as they finished. I’d never done that in my life, except for Mum’s boiled cabbage and sprouts. They often changed for the evening meal and they seemed to always have something different and interesting to wear. Silently, I started to catalogue their clothes.

My “him” made his first appearance early one Saturday morning, arriving just as I had mop and bucket in hand ready to go and swab the row of rooms. I saw him unfold his well-proportioned body from his little black car in the carpark, and noted his broad ready smile at a guest of about eighteen, a young lady on the steps near Reception. Self-assured and looking at her watch after flashing him a return smile, she was wearing a polished cotton shirt-waist, blue-and-white pinstripe dress and wedge-heel shoes made of rope, shoes such as I’d never seen and a dress that, although I tried later at Rockmans, I could somehow never match. I felt, and was, invisible in this exchange of smiling interest, perhaps even of recognition, as they may have met before. But I did have a pang at being unnoticed by this tall and slightly rumpled young man who so easily wore a knitted-cotton crew-neck jumper in a grey that matched so well with this lucky lady’s dress.

I found out from Reception that he was staying in one of the rooms in the row, and that he would be a permanent guest while he completed some engineering work in what was now known as the “factory area”, site of the old munitions buildings of the Second World War, in the nearby growing working-class town of St Mary’s. I suppose he was some sort of student on a project, but I didn’t know that. What I did know was this: his eyes were pools of lively brown warmth, his shoulders were as broad as his smile, his ways were winning, and the jumpers and tops in his room, which I sniffed and held close to my chest whenever I could, smelled of aftershave and sweat and some indefinable essence of “him” which I’d recall in my lonely trysts at home.

For I was deeply and passionately in love. It happened quickly. I knew almost nothing about him, and he barely registered that I existed, but he was the whole wide world wrapped up in a present for me. Everything about him made my heart flutter, my mouth go dry, and other parts of me go in the opposite direction, to fluidity. I’d serve him his meals with a slight brush of my arm against his shoulder, and stand eagerly around in the carpark as he went to and from his car. I gamely put on some lipstick and tried to flick my hair as she did hers, although it never stayed flicked as I’d never heard of hairspray and I failed to realise how much hers owed to her city-girls’ cut. Yes, she was still around, she was staying for three weeks, I found out, and during that time she visited his room (I knew! I checked!) and my heart broke into little pieces at the thought of it. I’d watch them strolling around the golf course area, she with her clubs, practising her shots, and then he’d have a go, she with her admiring arm on his sleeve as she smilingly passed him the right club in a game about which I had no clue, my ignorance of golf being second only to that of the game of romance.

Then, miracle of miracles, as I stood around the carpark one day mooning after him, he actually saw me. “I’m going to St Mary’s,” he said. “Can I take you anywhere?” To the moon, perhaps, I felt like replying, although I’d just jumped over it, and it probably showed in my startled expression. Reading it as hesitation, he said it was fine to get in the car with him as he was on his way to pick up his mother and little sister. You’re wise to be cautious about getting in cars with men around here, he added, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that he saw me in the same way as he saw his little sister, who was just twelve, so he informed me, as we headed down the road which was also where I lived. “How old are you?” I asked boldly.

He was twenty. He filled the car with manliness. And politeness. And unreachability, an impossible dream. We drew up outside our terrible old place and I said thank you in a breathless rush and he was gone. Gone from my life, for I never saw him again. On my next shift, when he was at work, the guest house dismissed some casuals, and I was one of them. For the next year, even after I turned fourteen, I stood outside our front gate whenever I could, hoping to wave to his car. Once I caught sight of the back of his car as it disappeared around the bend, but after that, nothing, although I stood there in heat and cold at all hours hoping against hope for a glimpse. I walked the golf course at first, desperate to see him, until a greenkeeper sent me off as a nuisance to safety. All I ever managed to see to turn into one last memory was, in the distance, strolling towards the clubhouse, the golden girl, the girl in the blue pin-striped dress, whose name I knew was Elizabeth.

Then we moved, or rather, we fled, a fearful mother and her three scared children. Out of the broken French window and into the night to live in a rented garage in St Mary’s. My mother and little brother returned within weeks, to help my father, not very changed after his release from psychiatric care. My sister and I simply refused to return to “the farm”. The animals had mostly gone; as had our will to help any more.

My sister was fifteen, I was fourteen and four months, and neither of us ever returned to our school. We put our ages up and got jobs. We became “the girls in the garage”, trying to keep one step ahead of the dreaded girls’ home of “the welfare”; who as it turned out cared not a jot anyway.

In that garage, where I learned to type on a borrowed portable Olivetti, I decided to become “Elizabeth”. That, like typing, seemed to be an improvement that was within my power. I didn’t tell anyone about it though for a long time.

Elizabeth Beare has never learned to play golf but she did get better at romance and became quite proficient at typing.

3 comments
  • Wayne

    A fortunate life. No victims here only people coping with what life throws at them. A delightful read.

  • lloveday

    “Then we moved, or rather, we fled, a fearful mother and her three scared children. Out of the broken French window and into the night to live in a rented garage in St Mary’s.”
    .
    That brought back memories of a fearful mother, her three scared and confused children and me, her fearless 10yo eldest, fleeing, not from a “terrible old place”, but a substantial new home, 2 cars in the driveways, plenty of £sd and for me a large workshop where I could build with my Meccano set and listen to whatever I liked on the crystal set I made, free of pesty siblings. During school holidays rather that at night so we were all home except the father.
    .
    We likewise shifted into a “garage”, a 12′ x 24′ iron shed in a “bush” town, same size as my workshop, provided rent-free by a relative, drop-hole toilet, wood-fuelled copper for hot water and ice-box for perishable food – no child support back then, let alone a property settlement for a “deserting wife”. Mother worked nights at the telephone exchange while I looked after the youngsters (4,6 and 8). Like Elizabeth, we kept “one step ahead of the dreaded girls’ (and boys’ in our case) home of “the welfare””.
    .
    I pedalled an old bike 3-4 miles each way before and after school to empty and re-set rabbit traps for food and at weekends caught yabbies which I’d bring home and put into the bath tub to keep fresh, and hopefully consequently avoid a bath. Dogs/foxes got their share of the rabbits, and I’d oftentimes find just the legs still in the traps. One day a massive eagle got caught in a trap, presumably while swooping down to grab a rabbit. It would not let me close to free it, so I killed it – I was just a 10yo, maybe just turned 11 at that time, what else could I do?
    .
    We all turned out just fine, all-but certainly far better than we would have in the miscare of “the welfare”. The media focuses on Catholics, but try reading the report of the Mulligan-chaired “Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry”.

  • en passant

    Elizabeth,
    I almost missed reading this as the title gave no clue to the beauty of the content. It is a rarity for me to read ‘romance’ (despite being a ‘romantic’ …), so I nearly passed this story by, leaving it unread. I am glad I did not.

    This story (and the comments) are about a different Australia to the one we have now. It was clearly a tougher, harsher place, but like all survivors of stressful, difficult experiences, people emerge stronger, better, more resourceful and resilient – and vastly more independent and self-reliant. They appreciate what they have accumulated, what they have experienced and what they have achieved, despite the adversity. They understand that it is their strength of character that defines them, not money nor their victimhood.

    It is not where you start in life, but where you finish that counts.

    This is the sad part of the whole ‘victim industry’ and why it can never be resolved. If a ‘victim’ were to say “If I had A, B & C, then I would no longer be a victim.” Granted. Now suddenly their whole meaning for being has been taken from them. This is what makes many remote aboriginal communities such sad places, because they must seize every opportunity to miss every opportunity to succeed. The very basis of their lives depends on perpetually failing and remaining tax-money sucking parasites, otherwise the gravy train stops. The sad part is that the past and present generations are condemning all future generations to a time warp somewhere between 10,000 years BC [trigger-warning] and modernity, but deliberately choosing to remain unable to fit into either world.

    This uplifting story is one side of the coin. Unfortunately, I have known some people whose characters were not up to the ‘task called: Life’ and became wrecked by their adverse experiences. If I had to choose between a snowflake, safe-space, thumb-sucker with a colouring book and a therapist, on the perpetual edge of collapse; or a tough, no prisoners survivor, there would be no choice.
    Unfortunately, in any strong resilient society or culture there will always be some collateral damage. Such is life, so be it.

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