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Authors: John Fiennes

Tags: #Fiennes, John, #Biography - Personal Memoirs, #Social Science - Gay Studies

The Good Boy (4 page)

BOOK: The Good Boy
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In the 1920s the building, which was of triple-brick construction and on massive stone foundations, had been sold and turned into a private house by an enterprising developer. The steep iron roof was replaced by a Marseille-tiled one at a much lower pitch, the high Gothic-arched window above the original front door went, and a handsome bay-windowed living room was built right across the front of the building, the entrance hall on one side turning to run initially along the inner side of the new room and then turning again to run down the middle of the house, ending with a door into the back garden. A wide verandah was built across the front and the old church porch and steps were replaced by a rather grand entrance at one end of the new verandah, with sweeping steps rising up from the new garden. The whole building had then been rough-cast, or covered with a tinted wash of cement and small pebbles, ones which later on were the source of endless abrasions for a boy keen on climbing walls or asked to wash windows or to touch up the paintwork on the gables and architraves. One thing that I didn't like about the house as a child was that I could not see out of any of the windows other than the bay window in the front living room (the only totally new window in the place). The other windows, although wide, were all too high for me to see over the sill. They had probably been built that way to help the Primitive Methodists avoid outside distraction and daydreaming while attending church services and to just let in ‘God's heavenly light'. To a pre-school-age boy they seemed more designed to keep me in the dark than to encourage my mind to soar.

We visited my Great-Grandmother Fanny Sullivan shortly before her death at the age of 94.
10
She was the only one of my great-grandparents whom I actually met and she still lived with her daughter, Mill, in Maryborough in the central Victorian goldfields where she had met and married her husband in 1861. My parents, sister and I had been staying with my grandparents in Bendigo and had ‘motored over', as my grandmother used to say, to Maryborough for the day. It was quite an expedition as the road, although sealed, was a winding one and, taken at about 30 mph (the speed at which my father and most good drivers travelled in the late 1930s), involved about two hours of travelling time. The route took us through Harcourt, where we always stopped to buy a case of apples at an orchard gate, and then Castlemaine, where a stop was usually made to ease a carsick passenger (me) and to stock up on ‘Castlemaine Rock', a local confectionery tasting somewhere between toffee and peppermint. A picnic lunch was the order of the day, sometimes taken in the Botanical Gardens in Castlemaine and sometimes in the park at Vaughan Springs, where at least one full glass of brackish-tasting mineral water had to be got down by us children before anything more appetising was allowed. We then went on through Carisbrooke to Maryborough, arriving after lunch. The timing was designed to spare my Great-Aunt Mill the trouble of having to provide lunch for a carload of visitors, or was it perhaps designed to give her ample time to set out the most splendid afternoon tea which would await us? When we arrived, my great-aunt somehow just happened to be on the front verandah and came out to the car to greet us, one hand raised to shield her eyes from the bright sunlight while she worked out who was in the car.

She was a tall, well-built woman with a deep voice and the wispy beginnings of a goatee; she was dressed in a severely tailored blue skirt with a white blouse ruched and buttoned up to the collar. Out of doors she always wore a white tennis shade with a green rubberised band around her head to keep the shade in place. I found this puzzling, as I never saw Auntie Mill play tennis. (Later on I did learn that in her younger days she had been a keen player, readily accepting invitations to play from her many nieces and nephews, some of whom were close to her own age, provided they dropped the title ‘Aunt' when speaking to her at the tennis club.) She apparently wore the tennis shade outdoors because her eyesight was failing.

Once arrived in Maryborough we all poured out of the car and after hugs all round my father, with some difficulty, opened the double gates at the side of the house, rarely used as there was no car there, and drove in a little way to get the car off the road. Parking in the street was considered ostentatious.
11

I slipped quickly into the house and headed for the living room, hoping for a preview of the afternoon tea which I knew would be set out and covered with light embroidered ‘throwovers' in case of the odd fly. The living room was a long room, entered from the hallway at one end and with a fire burning in the hearth at the other, my great-grandmother's favourite rockingchair always beside it. The room had a big window opening out to a shady garden beyond a wide verandah, whose overhanging roof tended to keep much of the sunlight out of the room itself.

I reached the room, saw the fire, the table, the covered party spread, and began to lift one of the throw-overs when a firm voice came from the shadows by the fireplace: ‘And what do you think you're doing, stickybeak?' My great-grandmother in her long black dress, almost invisible in the gloom, was suddenly standing right beside me. She pinched my arm and then gave a little laugh. I was more startled than had been intended, but by the time the others came into the room to greet Grandma, or ‘Ma' as she was called, I was already enjoying the cream-filled brandy snap she had slipped to me. Brandy snaps have remained my favourite
gourmandise
ever since. None have ever seemed as good as the ones in Maryborough.

Two months later Auntie Mill was staying with us in Melbourne for part of the May school holidays. She had left her mother in the care of the maid and of friends and neighbours as she had been wont to do for several years at the urging of her mother (who insisted that her daughter take a break from her carer duties at least once a year). This time, however, a few days after Mill's departure her mother suddenly felt unwell and told the ‘little maid' (my mother's words: I never knew the girl's name) to ‘telephone Miss Sullivan in Melbourne and tell her to come home, as I'm dying.' The maid did as she was told, phoning Auntie Mill at our house and then the priest and the doctor in Maryborough. Mill returned home immediately and arrived just in time to say goodbye to her mother who, even at the end, maintained her reputation as being a person who said what she meant and meant what she said.

Another of my early memories is of the time my grandmother and Miss Donovan, a neighbour in Bendigo, went to New Zealand on holiday. They were a little bit like Chaucer's pilgrims in
The Canterbury Tales
as they combined their holidaymaking with attending a religious festival held in Wellington to mark the centenary of the landing of the first Catholic missionaries in New Zealand. I think that the highlight of the trip for my grandmother was, however, a visit to Rotorua where she found much relief from her rheumatic pains in the hot sulphur springs. Miss Donovan on the other hand had no need of sulphur baths and could not get away from ‘that damn stink' fast enough. The Australian ‘pilgrims' heading to Wellington travelled on the Huddart Parker liner
Wanganella
, which sailed from Melbourne in the evening, and our family went down to see them off. I vividly remember the music of the ship's band, the streamers, the excitement of the people and my concern that we were not going to get off in time before the ship actually sailed. The coloured lights strung along the deck swayed as the ship slowly moved off down the river from its berth at South Wharf. Perhaps my own life-long fascination with ships began then.

I suspect that I may have been a nuisance with my carryingon about being carried away, because the next year my grandmother went for a cruise to North Queensland and the Barrier Reef on the new
Kanimbla
of the McIlwraith McEachran Line. I was not taken to the wharf to see them off and knew nothing about the trip until long afterwards. Similarly I was not taken to see Auntie Mill and a friend off on their Pacific Islands cruise on the
Orama
in the following year, although I did get to sigh over a few menus and other ship memorabilia when they returned and Auntie Mill spent a few days with us in Melbourne before returning home to Maryborough.

I was, however, taken to see the new P&O
Strathallan
in March 1939 when she was returning to the UK on her second or third voyage. One of my mother's nursing colleagues, whom we called Auntie Glad, was going as far as Bombay, having been recruited through a big Melbourne hospital to ‘special' the wife of a colonel in the British Indian Army. The colonel and his wife had come to Australia to buy horses for the army, and his wife had taken ill in Melbourne. (Years later my mother mentioned that the wife had actually suffered a bout of ‘dipsomania', which my mother hinted was endemic among the upper echelons of the Raj at the time. Auntie Glad's real job had been to sober up the
memsahib
before the ship reached Bombay.) I remember seeing the ship, one of the first to have its hull painted white rather than the traditional black, alongside Station Pier in Melbourne. It was floodlit and a hive of activity as the last of the cargo and luggage was loaded just before what was probably a 10 p.m. sailing. My sister and I did not get out of the car and were probably supposed to be asleep on the back seat, but as was the custom in those days the car had been driven right onto the wharf and was parked alongside the lift well and staircase giving access to the upper level of the passenger terminal. While the passengers and their friends filed upstairs and on board, I watched it all from the safety of the car, noting the huge nets used to lift and swing the cargo from the wharf up onto the ship, only to disappear down into the hold and then emerge, empty, and be swung down to the wharf again, ready for the next load. The luggage – cases and trunks and all sorts of strangely shaped packages – was carried up a gangway which ran from the wharf up to a door opening in the ship's side at what must have been one of the lowest decks, while the passengers more majestically marched across from the upper level of the terminal to a reception area on the Promenade Deck. I don't think my parents waited on the wharf until the ship sailed and I have no memory of the
Strathallan
pulling away.

The next time I saw Auntie Glad was six months later when she returned from India and presented me with a soft toy, a pale grey elephant, Queenie, which I immediately adopted as my very favourite companion. I think that Queenie was the name of the real elephant then kept at the Melbourne Zoo and on which my sister and I had a ride at about that time. A family friend owned the merry-go-round and sideshow stalls at the Zoo and after our ride on the elephant we were given a string of free tickets to have as many rides as we liked on the merry-go-round. I was more interested in the mechanism driving it than in riding on it; it had just been converted to an electrically-powered engine and the old steam-driven mechanism was still there, the big boiler and tall green and orange chimney-stack still in place. When I complained that the steam-driven one would have been much more fun, the owner replied that chopping the wood for the old boiler was
not
fun!

Late 1939 again saw us as a family at Station Pier, this time to welcome home a colleague of my father who had arrived with his wife from San Francisco on the Matson Line
Mariposa
, another white-hulled ship, this one with two funnels as against the
Strathallan
's one. The travellers had gone ‘home' to the UK on the Orient Line's
Orion
earlier in the year. Though both were third-generation Australians of Irish extraction, it was then still fashionable to refer to the UK as ‘home', and Ireland was then still supposedly part of the UK. They had spent some months in the UK and on the Continent, hurrying through Germany as that country prepared for war, and then had crossed the Atlantic on the Canadian Pacific Line's
Empress of Britain
. They had travelled by train from Montreal down to New York and then across the USA to San Francisco to join the
Mariposa
for the last leg of their round-the-world trip. I was all ears as my father recited this itinerary on the way to the wharf and immediately began urging him and my mother to go too. (Much later I regretted this importuning when I realised that my parents had opted to spend their money on having and educating children, my brother and sister and me, while their childless friends were able to travel the world much more easily.)

A year or two later, during the War, the
Empress of Britain
made a brief call in Melbourne while serving as a troopship. Dad and I went down to the port to see her. At 40,000 tons and about the same size as the
Titanic
, she was at that time the biggest ship ever to have entered the port. The
Empress
was painted a war-time grey and anchored a mile or so out from Station Pier, perhaps because the water at the pier was not deep enough to handle her draft or perhaps for security reasons. Dad paid a fisherman to take us out in his little rowing boat and we circumnavigated the ship, which towered silently above us as we rowed around.

It was perhaps a little unusual for someone like my father who had grown up in the country to be so interested in ships; I think that like many a young boy I was infected by my father's interest. I have since realised that his first sight of a big ship had probably been that of the troopship on which his cousin and best mate, Mick, had sailed for Europe in 1915. They had both volunteered to join the AIF at the outbreak of World War I, my father being rejected on medical grounds and Mick being accepted and going on to serve with distinction at Gallipoli and in France, only to be killed near Ypres in Belgium in 1917.
12

Dad and I made another visit to the docks to see a big, grey troopship at the end of World War II. This time it was the
Stirling Castle
, a Union Castle Line ship which normally stuck to the Southampton-Cape Town run but had come to Australian waters with the happier task of repatriating troops and civilians.

BOOK: The Good Boy
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