“I work until 1 pm on Saturdays,” she wouldn’t tell me where “I can meet you at Gibbys on Collins Street at 2 pm. You know where that is?”
“I grew up in Melbourne. Everyone knows where Gibbys Coffee Lounge is.”
She smiled at me. Not too big a smile and definitely not a come-hither smile, she was too classy for that.
We had danced together since I walked into the hall.
Fitzroy Town Council had allowed a women’s auxiliary to put on a dance to entertain the soldiers who were home on leave. I’ll bet the councillors believed it was better to have the servicemen all in one place instead of roaming around looking for an excuse to defile their daughters.
During our second dance (I had to give the glare to some Army sergeant to get him from cutting in) I told her that I only had a couple of days leave before I was due back in England.
My dark blue uniform and the gold wings on my breast pocket didn’t hurt my chances with the ladies. All girls love a uniform, but she wasn’t a girl and I think that she looked past the uniform, which made me nervous — I don’t reveal myself to people easily, especially not women.
She was a few years older than most of the young women at the dance. I could see it in her eyes.
Before the War, there were groups of men and women who would come early to a dance because they wanted the floor to themselves. They came to dance and anything else that might happen was secondary.
Molly was an unofficial member of this unofficial association of lovers of dance.
The hall was beginning to get crowded and Molly’s friends were tugging at her sleeve.
“Come on Mont, it’s getting past that time.”
I must have looked quizzical because she said to me, “Friends call me Mont. My little brother couldn’t pronounce Molly and it stuck.”
“I don’t care what they call you as long as you meet me tomorrow. Don’t forget that I’m due back at the front.” I placed my hand over my heart in an exaggerated silent movie pose. She smiled again — just a little one. She understood my World War One reference. A beautiful face, not frightened to smile, well dressed on a shop girl’s wages and she has a sense of humour. I’m going to enjoy this leave.
During our brief encounter, I did manage to find out that she worked in a ‘Sweets Shop’ somewhere in the City, but when I pressed her she said, “The details are boring. A person needs to eat so a person works. It’s better than working in a Knitting Mill and not as good as working as a nanny, but it pays the bills. Well, half of the bills. My sister pays the other half.”
Her friends whisked her away and they were soon absorbed by the ever increasing crowd and I was left to ponder how I was going to fill in the rest of my evening.
I wandered around looking for a drink and maybe a little trouble, but in the end, my heart wasn’t in it. I found a place that was selling sly grog, but other than that, trouble wasn’t looking for me. I didn’t really mind. My senses were still reeling. I could hear her voice and I could smell her perfume. She had style and taste. Her perfume must have cost more than a weeks wages.
The RAAF had me billeted at a small hotel on Lt Collins Street. I could have travelled to Ferntree Gully and caught a bus to Belgrave, but I knew how my mother would react. She’d have invited all the neighbours and any relatives within a hundred mile radius. I couldn’t face the fuss. I’ll visit them on Friday and be on my flight on Saturday night. This is precious time and I don’t want to spend it travelling around. One day of having my father look at me with those sad eyes is about all I can take. He was in the trenches during The First World War and he saw what happened to flyers. He’s convinced that the same thing is going to happen to me.
I’m strongly ambivalent about death — my own that is. On the other hand, I have to stay alive or my crew don’t make it home. Bombers don’t fly themselves and every time we go up they expect the crazy Australian to bring them back alive.
The other crews are starting to look at us strangely.
We have never had a crew member injured, let alone killed. We refused to paint a naked woman on the side of our ship and we didn’t give her a name.
Half of the other crews think we are crazy and will not come home one day and the other half are beginning to think that we are charmed.
I don’t know what I think and just now, all I’m interested in is getting to see that well-proportioned woman with the dark wavy hair and the excellent legs.
I grabbed a few hours sleep, walked around the city and down by the Yarra River.
I caught a number 12 tram up the Collins Street hill and sat on the Parliament steps until just before 2 pm. I enjoyed savouring these few moments before I saw her again. Gibby’s is only a short walk from my place of solitude.
I can find solitude in the midst of bustle — chaos even. In the briefing room where other pilots would moan when the night’s targets were read out — in the air with flak bursting all around us. On a good day, I can even find solitude under the clocks at Flinders Street Station.
This was a good day, but I was looking forward to more than solitude. A woman in the depth of her beauty and me just back from a place where beauty was hard to find. She could never understand and neither would I want her to. My father knew that — he never spoke of his War, never marched on Anzac day except that one time. I’ve never met any of his Army mates and I asked him once — only once and he said that most of his mates lay in foreign lands and the ones who did come back with him dispersed themselves to all points on the compass. None of them wanted to remember and now I know why. Who would want to remember constant terror — constant responsibility.
She was sitting at the table by the window.
Gibbys isn’t a large shop, there’s room for about six tables and the shop counter is toward the back of the shop. A glass fronted display case is filled with cakes. The back wall has glass shelves displaying coffee pots of various sizes and ground coffee in discretely marked packets. There seemed to be only one staff member and she was young, bored and surprisingly efficient. The decor was simple with only two paintings on the walls — a scene from Paris painted by someone who had never been there and a country scene with lots of Gum trees and a river.
I got the feeling that she chose the seat by the window so that I could see her as I walked along the street.
The top end of Collins Street is leafy and high class. Lots of doctor’s rooms and exclusive clothing shops; the type that only have one dress in the window without a price tag and you go in if you can afford to not ask “how much is that green dress in the window?” The shop girl would never say it, but she would be thinking, “If you have to ask, you cannot afford it,” and she’d be right.
Molly was sitting quietly reading a book.
She wasn’t sitting in the window when I went past on the tram, but that was almost forty minutes ago. However long she had been there she looked like she belonged. If I owned the shop I would pay her to sit there — she gave the place a sense of style.
A simple white hat sat on the chair next to her and her matching white gloves lay on the edge of the table. She wasn’t wearing a watch, but she was wearing an antique brooch. White and green stones, not precious stones but tasteful and old, probably from a time when people took pride it what they made and others took pride in what they wore. Her dress was white with green flowers, definitely not what a shop girl would wear so she had gone home to change, wherever home was it was close by. More importantly, she wasn’t wearing a ring. She was just as pretty as I remembered her. As I entered the shop, she looked up from her book and smiled at me while removing her reading glasses. She has green eyes, how could I have not noticed last night.
“Captain,” she held out her hand and I took it gently, “you came.”
“Did you doubt that I would?” She smiled and there was a lot behind that smile.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Eventually. I did a bit of walking around before sleep found me. You?”
“No. I tossed and turned and my sister complained because she has to be up even earlier than I do.”
“Was it me that kept you awake?”
“You think a lot of yourself, Captain.”
“Not really. I just thought that the question might make you smile. I like it when you smile.” She tried not to, but her face betrayed her. In the midst of that suppressed smile, I saw a look that said she wasn’t a woman to be taken lightly.
“What would you like to do this afternoon Miss ….?”
“Holmyard. Molly Maria Holmyard.”
“The Molly Maria sounds Irish, but the Holmyard doesn’t.”
“Irish on one side and Spanish and Danish on the other,” she said.
“I was thinking we could go for a walk through the Treasury Gardens and maybe find somewhere to eat in the city when it gets dark?”
“I would love to walk with you Captain, but I can’t keep calling you Captain.”
“William — William Smith, but you can call me Bill.”
“Well, William, I would love to go walking with you, but I’d like to finish my tea first.” This was a gentle hint. I’d sat down and started talking and had forgotten to order.
“Will they let us drink tea in a coffee shop?”
“I think they will if you ask them nicely.”
I asked the girl behind the counter for two teas and couple of sticky buns and I did it nicely as my mother had taught me and as befits an officer in the RAAF.
We talked about nothing until the teas arrived, which did not take very long.
The shop was half full and mostly with couples like us. A corporal with his girl who hung on to his arm as though she feared he might suddenly bolt for the door. Two civilian couples. The bloke in the blue suit had that look in his eyes that I’ve seen a hundred times. When they got up to leave he took his girl’s hand and no matter how hard he tried he still walked with a limp. He gave me a nod as he walked by and I gave him a nod right back. It’s a funny thing that — the nod that men give each other when they recognise a fellow traveller.
“Do you have anyone in uniform? I asked.
“If I did, I would not be sitting here with you.” She wasn’t mad but she was firm.
“I’m sorry, that was rude, but in my defence, I only have four days before I’m on a transport heading back to Blighty. I don’t want to be treading on anyone’s toes and I don’t want to be wasting my leave.”
“I’m not spoken for, I don’t have a boyfriend, I’ve never been married and I have all my own teeth, at least for now.”
“How did you get this leave? However short it may be.”
“I have no idea. It’s rare to get leave to come back to Australia. Local weekend leave is hard enough to get.” I sipped my tea which was hot and strong and took a bite of my bun.
“My crew don’t mind because they don’t have to fly until I get back. Maybe the brass believes that we have been pushing our luck. We are the only crew that hasn’t had a fatality. We are kind of a good luck charm for the squadron. They pulled me into the CO’s office after our last mission. We lost almost half our group that day and we were all exhausted. I thought I had done something to annoy someone important, but I was told that our aircraft was being pulled out of service for a few days for major servicing and I was required for a special mission. My co-pilot and navigator as well. They told me that I could say no, but there was eight days leave and a return flight to Australia if I agreed. No one asks your permission in the RAF they tell you what to do and you do it. This was genuinely strange and when I asked if my crew were to receive leave as well, they said yes, so I said okay and what did they want us to do.”
“It must have been a dangerous mission for them to have asked you and given you so much time away from action?” She was staring into my eyes, probably trying to imagine what this all felt like.
“I was told that I’d be flying a Dakota to France at night. Landing behind the lines on a small field that was just long enough to land on. We had a passenger. A very young woman –some sort of spy. She was so young and innocent and I thought to myself for the first time, that the Allies were in real trouble if we had to resort to dropping young women behind the lines.”
“Did you land safely?”
“My navigator earned his money that night. They had chosen a moonless night and we only had a few seconds of a bonfire to guide us in. When we got to where the field was supposed to be there was no bonfire.”
“What did you do?”
“I asked my navigator if we were in the right place and he said that he was sure we were. I flew over the field once and hoped that we would see the signal, but none came. Dakotas make a hell of a noise and if we went by again there was a good chance that there would be a hostile reception committee waiting for us. So, I called the young woman up to the cockpitand asked her what she wanted me to do. She seemed determined to go ahead with her mission so I turned and dropped through the trees. I swear that the propellers were in danger of cutting off a few branches. We touched down and as we got to the end of the field I had to turn her around before we had washed off enough speed. The Dakota tipped up on one wheel and I thought we were in trouble, but the propeller only grazed the grass and I was very happy to be facing in the right direction and in an upright position.”
“That’s what I said, but I used slightly more colourful language. Our navigator made me promise that we would never volunteer to do anything like this again. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t sure we had enough space on this field to take off. We would be slightly lighter, but the young woman and her tiny suitcase weighed about as much as a large cat.”
“Did anyone shoot at you?”
“No, and I’m pretty sure that whoever was supposed to be there to meet her wasn’t there either. My co-pilot and I put our feet down as hard as we could on the wheel brakes and I opened the throttle as wide as it would go and the plane started to skid along the grass with the wheels locked. After that, I released the brakes and held on until the last possible moment when we pulled back on the stick as hard as we could. It didn’t take a genius to work out that we were not going to clear the trees at the end of the field. I didn’t pull the gear up because I hoped that it might help to slow us down if we crashed. We clipped the treetops and for a moment I felt the plane hesitate, as though she was insulted by being flown into trees, but then she started to climb and everyone took a breath.”
When I finished my tale she sat for a moment and looked at me. I could see her visualising what I had just told her.
Her sticky bun had disappeared very quickly and it crossed my mind that she might be hungry.
“Have you had lunch? Can I buy you anything else to eat?”
She hesitated before saying, “No, it’s okay, I’m fine.”
She gathered her hat and her gloves and I took this as a sign that she was ready to leave. When I looked at my watch I saw that an hour had gone by, but it felt like only a few moments.
I stood back to let her walk by. I paid the girl behind the counter and she looked disinterested when I thanked her.
I opened the door and we stepped onto Collins Street.
I reached out and took her gloved hand and she didn’t pull away.
I have them all over our house. Mostly because I get too ambitious about what I am to read next and sometimes because cool books present themselves to me at a bargain price. What am I to do? I have to have them, right?
Other times, it’s because I have gathered a few books together to take to our secondhand bookshop, or in the case of not very good books, to the charity shop. The pile usually sits there for a while until I get around to taking them.
The stack in the photo is different.
They are all mine. By that, I mean I wrote them. There is something incredibly satisfying about looking at a stack of your own books.
Until recently, the idea of stacking them up in one place did not occur to me, but toward the end of last year, there was a flurry of publishing activity and now it seems worthwhile.
I’ll put them back on the shelf eventually, but for now, I’m going to enjoy walking past them every time I go to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee (which is quite frequently!)
But, along with a long list of other things, dad didn’t reveal his given name.
Stacko and his wife turned up one evening at our home, which was an event in itself — we rarely had visitors and almost never from outside of dad’s family circle.
I don’t remember much about him or his wife — I was young and it was a long time ago.
The evening went well, as I remember, but there was no reciprocal visit, and therein lies a tale.
The two couples played cards and talked about old times and I listened from my bedroom.
Stacko was an almost mythical figure from my dad’s time as a professional cyclist. Dad finished sixth in a board track final where the first four were to represent Australia in the 1936 Olympics. Board track was dad’s second string event. His real event was the road race, but he had to concentrate on one event and he chose the wrong one. No one remembers who won the silver medal and absolutely no-one remembers who came close to qualifying — except me — I remember.
This sort of thing happened to my dad.
He had a lot of success as a sportsman and had a trophy case to prove it, but the really big wins eluded him.
He grew up within spitting distance of the old Fitzroy football ground and narrowly missed being included in their roster, back when they were part of the highest league in the land. By the time the war had ended he was at the end of his playing days and although he was strong and quick he was also lacking in height when compared with those who he was competing against.
These ‘near misses’, the Great Depression, the War, and losing his father at a young age, coloured my father’s view of the world and his place in it.
He learned a trade when life should have propelled him into a profession. He was a superlative tradesman, but he would have been an excellent accountant or solicitor. In his hands, numbers sang sweetly.
At fifteen, he won an all-expenses scholarship that would have been followed by another one that would have taken him to university.
A short time after being presented with a gold-tipped fountain pen in recognition of his high scores, his father died suddenly, leaving my father as the only hope for a mother and her six children. My dad was the eldest.
With the glowing praise of Archbishop Mannix, an icon in Melbourne history, still ringing in his ears, my father left school and began work at the height of the Great Depression. Another near miss — another brush with ‘what might have been’.
When I was young, my father told me many stories, mostly about his years as an athlete, but as the years went by my father became progressively more reserved. The stories stopped. I can only surmise that he believed that life had passed him by.
I will never know what might have happened to him if I had not come along, but I do know that I arrived, fully formed, as a disturbed eighteen-month-old tornado, he did as he would always do for the rest of his life — he behaved responsibly. He worked hard and supported his family and watched his dreams fade like smoke on a gentle breeze.
I make it sound like it was all one-way traffic, but it wasn’t.
Just before I came along, he launched himself into a career as a professional gambler.
In a rare moment, he showed me his ledgers from that time. As I mentioned, dad and numbers danced happily together.
One ledger showed that he paid back a loan from a rich relative in eighteen months. The loan was to buy a three bedroom home. Think about what a three bedroom home on a quarter acre block is worth in your neighbourhood and then imagine what skill it took to pay back that amount in eighteen months.
This was dad’s one big chance to prove himself to himself.
It was an uncertain lifestyle and it meant dealing with some unsavoury characters, but my dad was strong and he could handle himself, but, in the end, it wasn’t a disgruntled gambler with a knife that ended my father’s dream, it was my mother.
She was childless and scared and the uneven flow of income fed into her anxiety. She never expressed it to me, but I expect that she also feared for his safety.
In the end, she gave him the ‘it’s me or the gambling, one of us has to go’ speech.
He chose her and even while he was showing me his ledgers there was never a hint of recrimination. She stole his dream of ‘being someone’ and he never reproached her for it. This was also my dad — he excepted responsibility for his decisions.
I pushed dad a few times for answers when he told his stories. I wanted to know how ‘Stacko’ got his name. I suggested that it was because he crashed his bike one too many times back in their riding days, but he insisted that wasn’t it. Even then, I could sense a story, but dad would not budge, “It’s just a nickname we gave him. I don’t remember how it started.” It was the way that he said it — there was definitely more to that story, but my dad has been gone a long time now and even though he comes to me in my dreams quite regularly he has never referred to “Stacko Jackson’. Mostly, we just hang out and do stuff, just like we did in later life.
That was my dad too, he understood the power of being with someone. Words were not necessary. I live my life surrounded by words, but I understand what he meant and I treasure those dreams where we simply hang out together.
The night where Stacko Jackson and his wife came to visit was a futile attempt to rekindle a time that had long passed. The friendship did not rekindle and I know why because I’ve tried to do this myself.
You can’t go back.
The Stacko Jackson’s of this world belong back there. They belong in stories we tell our sons about our glory days.
When they reemerge they are invariably a disappointment. That spark of life that we remember in them is dimmed by life and even if it isn’t, it is probably dimmed in us and they see that and wisely stay away.
Someone very wise said that “the past is another country; they do things differently there.”
I try to stay away from that country, but I can’t help wondering what ‘Stacko’ made of that night so long ago. Did he sense my father’s despair or was it Stacko’s lost dreams that saddened my father.
In any case, it matters very little now.
I love my life and I miss all of the amazing people who have come and gone.
The ‘foreign country’ where my father and Mr Jackson reside is still fascinating to me. I don’t need a passport or a visa to visit — all I need to do is fall asleep.