Read The Good Boy Online

Authors: John Fiennes

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

The Good Boy (6 page)

BOOK: The Good Boy
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My Great-Uncle Ray was one of these occasional weekend visitors, although he came more often in the evening to play cards than in the afternoon for a drive in the bush. He was the youngest child of my Great-Grandma Fanny Sullivan, and on leaving school he had gone on to join the bank, eventually rising to the level of Branch Manager. In his forties he had been sent (by ship, then the only available means of transport available) from Melbourne to Darwin to open his bank's first branch in the Northern Territory. He had retired by the time I met him and rather exotically lived in St Kilda, by then a somewhat bohemian suburb of Melbourne. He lived ‘in rooms', somewhat like a gentleman character from a novel by Dickens or Trollope, at first in a large red-brick place on Beaconsfield Parade called Hollywood, though it seemed to me much less glamorous than the name suggested, and then in The Gatwick on Fitzroy Street, a rather posh-looking establishment in those days with marble front steps and highly polished brass lamps at the entrance, quite in keeping with my image of a well-off man-about-town. (Half a century later The Gatwick was referred to in the Melbourne media as one of St Kilda's most notorious drug dens and rooming houses!)

Uncle Ray was a handsome, well-spoken and well-dressed man and he quite often came to our house to play solo with my parents and their friends. He had never married; it seems that presentable single males were as much needed then as they were in Jane Austen's day, if not as potential husbands then at least to make up a table at cards. I was puzzled one day when my mother referred to Uncle Ray's glass eye. I had never noticed any difference between his two eyes but my mother insisted that one of them was made of glass. I asked for more information and was told that he had been attacked in the street one night as he was walking home in St Kilda and had been lucky to escape with just cuts and bruises … and the loss of one eye. (Long afterwards I learned that Great-Uncle Ray was gay and had been the victim of ‘poofter bashing', and that my parents had done all they could to help him recover and to continue a normal social life.)

My parents were both quietly spoken people – shouting was just not done, and I think that they must have agreed to raise their children by giving a good example rather than by laying down the law. I can remember only one occasion when they argued and that was when we had returned by car from a visit to Auntie May in the convent at Kyneton, a country town 70 or so kilometres north of Melbourne. I was four or five, and had been violently carsick on the long drive home. Perhaps my sister had been too. My mother had cleaned us up and had organised a light tea (it must have been Vera's Sunday off ) and then I saw my mother in the hallway thumping my father on the chest and saying it was all the fault of Auntie May, that the nuns had given us children so many sweets and so much afternoon tea that we had been sick. There were raised voices but no real shouting, and my father seemed to just hold my mother's arms until she stopped complaining … but I was terrified! I had never seen them argue before and asked my sister whether we should go and get the neighbours or the police – someone – to stop them. My sister, a mere eighteen months older than I, airily replied that it was ‘nothing', that grown-ups argued like that, and that we should just get on with tea and bed. So we did, and in the morning everything was, as she had foretold, back to normal.

A normal morning meant that Vera's alarm clock would go off at 6.45 a.m. and I would hear her getting up and then setting out the breakfast things in the kitchen. After having her own breakfast she would start on the day's work, first of all going to the newsagent next door to collect the morning paper and then making a start on chores such as polishing the floors in the surgery and waiting room, lighting the copper and starting the washing. My mother got up soon after Vera and would wake us children and see that we were dressed and breakfasting at the kitchen table before she arranged and carried a big tray up the hall to my parents' bedroom and gave my father breakfast in bed. This she did every morning in their twenty years of married life, with an exception being made on Sundays to allow for attendance at Mass. The menu never varied: a bowl of cornflakes with a small silver jug of hot milk; the silver sugar bowl, salt and pepper shakers; a plate of bacon and eggs; a rack of toast; butter and marmalade; a pot of tea; the necessary cutlery … and a large white napkin in a silver serviette ring. My father would be sitting up in bed for this ritual and would tuck one corner of the napkin into his pyjama coat before eating. My sister and I would, if allowed by my mother, rush in before he had quite finished his bacon and eggs and beg for a ‘mopper', a square of toast which he would impale on his fork, swirl around in the egg yolk, and extend to the favoured offspring. I think that this largesse was limited to one mopper per child per breakfast and that once the third child, my baby brother, came on the scene the ritual ended … or my mother would have had to serve my father a larger breakfast. With breakfast finished, my father would then read the paper,
The Age
, before getting up and heading in his black dressing gown (my mother's was red, making them look more Stendhalian as a couple than they really were) for the bathroom, a shave, and the day's work.

My father was a ‘general practitioner', the traditional sort of family doctor in the suburbs. His surgery was open for consultations between 9 and 10.30, 2 and 3, and 6.30 and 7.30 (making an appointment was unheard of in those days and patients just queued up along the bench in the waiting room or at busy times overflowed into the front garden). After morning surgery my father would usually come into the house and have a cup of morning-tea and then set off in the car on his morning rounds, visiting patients in the local hospital or small nursing-homes and those at home who were too sick or too feeble to come into the surgery. A similar routine of afternoon rounds would follow afternoon surgery (with a short pause for afternoon-tea with the family).

Sometimes, when the rounds involved a longer-than-usual drive such as a visit to patients ‘out in the country', my sister and I would be allowed to go with my father. The area where we lived was, in 1940, more or less the outer edge of the city and some patients lived on ‘acreage' or small farms to the east, in between the urban growth slowly taking place around the stations along the main south-eastern railway line. I don't think there were any doctors based between our outer suburb and the then country town of Dandenong: Springvale was serviced by the doctors from Dandenong, and Clayton by my father and his colleagues. Dad had patients living on small farms at Clayton that now form part of the Monash University campus. My sister and I were supposed to wait quietly in the car while my father went into the patient's house, and for the most part I think we did. We had strict instructions not to open the doors nor get out of the car. To while away the time we often played at ‘driving' the car (which sometimes became an aeroplane and we the pilots, sometimes a train engine and we the crew) and sometimes people would come out from the house being visited and would be nice to the doctor's children, chatting to us with the window wound down.

My abiding memory of these visits is of the respect and even affection shown for my father by these people. I think that the experience underlined for me the message we were always given at home, to
think of others
and it probably kindled in me the ambition to do things when I grew up that would, like my father's work, help others. Of course, as a child I was probably also attracted by the prospect of being praised for my actions: the phrases ‘what a good boy' and ‘what a little gentleman' and ‘just like his father' were music to my ears. The fact that both parents were trained members of what are now termed caring professions (medicine and nursing) perhaps inevitably oriented me more towards being helpful than towards being financially successful, towards idealism rather than towards realism. Money matters were never discussed in front of us as children and I had no idea that our comfortable lifestyle depended on the amount of money my father's work brought in.

On one of these country visits my sister and I were sitting in the car while Dad went into the house to his patient. Growing a bit bored we opened the car door … precisely why I do not recall and, as if for our disobedience, we were invaded by a large, smelly, noisy white billygoat which had somehow broken free of the long leash attached to the farm gatepost. My sister and I could not get the animal to retreat and were more scared of it than of the expected scolding for having opened the door. When Dad eventually emerged from the farmhouse after seeing his patient he had to summon help to prise the animal out of the car.

We could accompany Dad on his rounds only before we started school, of course, and only in daylight. He was often called out at night and we would not know of this until next day, if at all. My father was fairly deaf in his right ear and so my mother persuaded him that he should normally sleep on his left side. As a result, he did not hear the bedside phone ring in the dead of night and my mother, who slept on the phone-table side of the bed, would answer the phone, filter the calls, and virtually decide whether or not to wake my father. I don't suppose she was really able to save him from many midnight call-outs, but they both enjoyed telling this little story of their teamwork when the question of out-of-hours calls came up with their friends (and it often seemed to, as many of their friends were also doctors and nurses).

Working from home was in those days the norm for most doctors, only a small number having their surgery or rooms at a large hospital or in Collins Street, where most of Melbourne's specialists were established. I think my mother was never really keen on having ‘the public', i.e. the patients, sauntering up the garden path at virtually any time of day or night, even though they did veer off to the side of the house where a surgery and waiting room adjoining the house had been built shortly after I was born. The system did mean, however, that we children saw much more of our father than would otherwise have been the case; we had all our meals together including lunch and afternoon-tea, and we were on hand and able to go with him for a drive on calls taking him into the country … or even into the city, where he sometimes went to visit patients who had had to be taken to one of the major hospitals. As we lived in the catchment area of the Alfred Hospital, that was the one most visited and as many of my father's patients were Catholic, St Vincent's and St Benedict's (which later became the Cabrini Hospital) were also on the list.

Another fascinating destination was the Good Shepherd Convent a couple of kilometres from our house (and since demolished and replaced by the Chadstone Centre, the largest shopping mall in the country). The convent was a huge, grey building set well back from the road and surrounded by a high grey wall and acres of farmland. The path from the front door to the front gate had been replaced by a long masonry ‘tunnel' or enclosed walkway at the end of which was a massive outer front door opening directly on to the footpath. There was a ‘Judas' or small grilled window in the door, so that when answering a ringing of the doorbell the nun inside could slide open the wooden panel, look through the grill at the visitor, and decide whether or not to open the door. The door always seemed to open almost immediately for my father (who had probably been telephoned and asked to call) and I had visions of a little nun roller-skating down the tunnel's highly polished tile floor from the convent proper to the door and breathlessly opening it to my father. I often wondered how long less-distinguished visitors had to wait, and longed to see someone arrive, ring the bell, and be turned away … but that never happened.

My father was the government-appointed Medical Officer of the institution attached to the convent … a ‘home' for young and old women ‘in trouble'. My parents were always a bit vague about the precise nature of this trouble. I slowly worked out that it included more than being orphaned and recalled my mother saying that ‘there were too many keys' in use, that some of the girls had been referred to the home by the courts and that spending time in the institution was seen as a happier alternative to spending time in jail … I assumed that they had been caught stealing or throwing stones or something of that sort and much later on realised that prostitution was at that time a crime and that some of the inmates had been ‘working girls'.

The Good Shepherd nuns had been founded in France in the early 1800s with the mission of caring for poor and destitute girls, of which there were many in the years after the social upheavals of the French Revolution and the subsequent Bourbon Restoration. The aim was to provide a safe home and a basic education, and to teach skills which would enable the girls to earn a living when they ‘graduated'. The order's first convent in Australia was established in 1863 on a large piece of farmland beside the Yarra in Abbotsford, Melbourne, and the nuns had soon taken into care over a hundred women and children. The place grew to become a huge establishment providing, a hundred years later, a home to over 1000 women and girls and 100 nuns. The Good Shepherd nuns had come at the invitation of Melbourne's first archbishop, who was particularly concerned about the large numbers of women and children being more or less abandoned in the town by their menfolk and breadwinners who were heading off to the gold rushes in Ballarat and Bendigo. After twenty years at Abbotsford the nuns opened a branch in a small farming settlement on Dandenong Road beyond the eastern edge of Melbourne. The branch was, I only recently discovered, destined to become a ‘Reformatory for Female Adolescents' and was a very big place indeed by the time I came to visit it with my father in the 1940s. The convent stood on a hundred or so acres of land, some of which was used as a dairy farm where a herd of Friesian cows could sometimes be seen wending its way up the hill to the milking sheds, where the nun in charge, in her white habit with black veil, soon merged into the herd of black and white cows. There was a large flower garden in the front of the main building (but behind the perimeter wall) and a very large vegetable garden beyond the back wall. On another part of the property was a huge steam laundry, where many of the girls worked, and the big green vans with ‘Good Shepherd Laundry' painted on each side in gold were seen all over Melbourne collecting the city's dirty washing and returning the washed and ironed items a few days later. My grandparents availed themselves of a similar laundry service provided by the Good Shepherd convent in Bendigo, laundry services having become the main source of income for Good Shepherd homes all over Australia.

BOOK: The Good Boy
11.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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