Authors: Jill Ker Conway
The causes of my extreme shyness were complex. I didn’t look right and couldn’t blend with the crowd. I worried constantly about my responsibilities at home. At a deeper level I felt I had no right to exist unless serving the family in some tangible way. At the University, the reassurance of playing that role was not possible. I knew that a young woman’s existence could be justified by being attached to the appropriate young man, but I radiated too much nervousness and anxiety to make any new friends, let alone to find male company.
When I rushed to the afternoon train, I should have settled down to working at my books during the journey home. However, my Abbotsleigh training was immutable, so on the crowded commuting trains I usually stood up for much of the fifty-minute journey. I was hot and tired when I arrived home and began to cajole my mother into a good mood. While we had a cup of tea, I listened to a diatribe against the physiotherapist who came daily to massage her wrist, now free of its cast. Then there was dinner to prepare. If my mother ate after 6:30 p.m. she couldn’t sleep for dyspepsia, so the meal must be promptly on the table and prepared without deviation from my mother’s exacting standards.
At school sitting down to my books in the evening had been the happy occupation which capped the day, but now I was too weary to enjoy the work. I might have been lifted out of it by the interest of my work, but I was finding most of it dull or disappointing or both.
The French Department insisted that one speak with a near-Parisian accent before settling down to studying French literature. I had no mimetic faculty, could not make the required sounds, and the two-thirds of my week’s French classes which were conversation exercises were a constant humiliation. No amount of drilling could convert what I had taken in from Mrs. Fisher’s Belgian accent into Parisian sounds. In philosophy, I could do the logic exercises, but I didn’t really care whether an argument contained a syllogism with an undistributed middle clause or not. The meaning of what I read or heard was perfectly clear to me, but this painstaking analysis of language seemed dull. I had looked forward to reading Plato and studying Greek philosophy, but the hours spent on the
were not spent dealing with what it meant and how that fitted into the Greek view of life, but on analysis of every word, comma, and phrase. In English we read Chaucer and studied phonetics. I wasn’t interested in Middle English. I was champing at the bit to read T. S. Eliot and to study Shakespeare’s tragedies, but these were nowhere in sight. Only history lived up to my expectation, but one didn’t do anything in first-year history but attend lectures of two or three hundred students until toward the end of the term when the term’s essay was assigned. I raced through the assigned books, many of which I had read before, loving every moment of them, but there was not enough history to make up for the boredom of those hours trying to make French
sounds, fussing over the punctuation of the translation of the
, or converting Chaucer to phonetic script. German, being at 9:00 a.m., quickly fell by the wayside. To get to the University in time for the classes, I would have had to rise at five o’clock to finish my household tasks and make the train journey in time.
I lasted to the middle of the year before using my mother’s increasing ill health as an excuse to escape from the daily ordeal of having no friends and no place where I felt I belonged. I told my mother truthfully that I was bored with most of the academic work and couldn’t imagine how I would ever use what I was learning. I knew she agreed with this. Once I began to attend the University, her attitude to my studies became more ambiguous. She had a romantic picture of what university study would be like. All her frustration at not having completed high school was loaded into her questions. Each day she asked me hungrily what I was learning, hoping to live out her own thwarted longing for education through me. When all I could tell her was an account of classes in logic or phonetics, she would make some derisive comment and remind herself and me that at my age she had already been working and supporting herself for many years. If ever I mentioned needing more pocket money than train fares and change for lunch, she would raise her eyebrows, remind me of the same information, and change the subject.
I came to the decision to drop out of the University just as Barry announced that he was leaving Coorain for good. He was not going to make the land his calling in life. Coorain was too lonely. Instead, he would use his spanking-new Auster aircraft as the basis for launching a country air charter service. He settled on the pleasant country town of Narromine in the central western part of New South Wales for his base, and opened his business, combining his charter services with teaching flying at the local flying club. He was happy from the moment he began. He was more than a competent bush pilot. He was an inspired one. He throve on landing in out-of-the-way places to whisk sick people away to the hospital. His physical endurance and courage earned him admiration and considerable réclame during a season of dangerous floods when he was always ahead of the flood waters saving households or carrying needed medical supplies. Every country town and its outlying regions needed such services desperately. Barry delivered them with courage and daring combined
with quiet and efficient concern for the safety of others. Other bush pilots might be lackadaisical about their aircraft and its maintenance, but Barry reminded me of my father in the way his plane and everything associated with it was lovingly cared for. He had made his own place in life, was sought after for skills everyone valued, and his circle of friends grew with the passage of each week.
My mother, nonplussed at this turn of events, oscillated between admiration of Barry for defying her and complaint that he was using her gift for purposes other than hers. To me she complained of her worries about who would take care of Coorain for her in the future. It was a sacred trust, she said, our last link to my father and our once happy family life there. I embraced this responsibility energetically, seeing it as a comfort to my ailing mother, whose complaints were now numerous. She had an inflamed gallbladder and gallstones. She developed high blood pressure. Her thyroid gland became enlarged and she was diagnosed as being slightly hyperthyroid. These conditions were susceptible to medical management had she been content to accept a consistent pattern of medical care. However, she went from one doctor to another, in search of one whose manner she liked, only to rage against the follies of the medical profession, and to abandon one program of medication after another. High blood pressure and a hyperthyroid condition, she decided, required a totally predictable life with no distractions, no deviations from her schedule, and no emotional pressures of any kind. This meant that any attempt to oppose her will produced dramatic results. A disagreement raised her blood pressure, bothered her thyroid condition, or triggered a gallbladder attack. No matter the hour of the affront, it left her sleepless. She would emerge white-faced from her room the next morning, every line in her body an accusation for causing her such discomfort.
When I went out to Coorain to be on hand for the shearing that year, I relished my chance to be alone on the journey. It was comfortable to be working there, once again tracing familiar
patterns over the contours of the land. After my unsatisfactory studies, the practicality of simple physical labor delighted me. I could see for myself why Barry had left. The house at Coorain, always simple, now lacked my mother’s touch. It wasn’t polished like a new pin. The garden was gone. A lot of the machinery was wearing out. Because my mother was oblivious to the passage of time, and too thrifty to invest in much comfort for her employees, it had been a negotiation worthy of the Congress of Vienna to get her to agree to replace the 1940 Ford utility with a new one.
Working for Geoff was a constant test of whether my life in the city had made me soft. I kept up the pace he set, but when I got back to Sydney I was eight pounds lighter. I presented no threat of replacement to the Coghlans, and received their warm hospitality and affection, but I could see that Coorain would be a heartbreakingly lonely place for any young person to work.
On the train journey back I came to my decision. I would not go on being financially dependent on my mother, listening to her undertone of contempt for people who didn’t earn their own living. I would find a job, save some money, and gain some independence. Finding a job in the expanding Australian economy of the 1950s was simply a matter of reading the newspapers. The daily Help Wanted or Positions Vacant advertisements (segregated by sex) were many pages long. They read “Help Wanted—Men” or “Help Wanted—Women,” regularly listing lower wage rates for the same job when the employee was a woman. To me the difference was part of life, like the weather. The week I returned to Sydney I scanned the women’s column of Positions Vacant in the morning paper and decided to claim, falsely, that I could type, so that I could apply for a job as a receptionist for a medical practice in the nearby suburb of Castle Hill. I was accepted, and began to work the next week for two partners who shared a sprawling medical practice in a group of suburbs on the northwestern fringe of the city of Sydney.
During the next eighteen months a series of heavy burdens slid
from my shoulders. The work was undemanding in its routines, but endlessly interesting in its human details. I learned that once a person dressed in a white starched coat, however unqualified, chances among those seeking medical advice, the mantle of authority descends, and his or her advice is sought about all manner of human predicaments. I had scarcely sat down at my desk in the outer office of the surgery than the first talkative patients arrived and began to volunteer all sorts of startling information about their intimate lives. My shyness was irrelevant to people who needed to talk about themselves and their problems. Listening and making soothing sounds, I saw the uncertainties and worries behind people’s appearances, and realized that my troubles in life were modest in relation to the human predicaments which people paraded before me daily. I was an all-purpose medical records clerk, receptionist, appointments secretary, and occasional practical nurse when a child needed stitching up, or emergency procedures were necessary for someone brought in with injuries needing immediate attention. The complexity of the human drama each day was gripping. When times were quiet I read my way swiftly through my employers’ medical texts. When the office was busy I received a more concentrated education. It was not simply about the ailments which brought each patient to the doctor’s office, but about the social context surrounding each patient and his or her family. I saw the usual range of neurotic suffering which wanders through the door of a general practitioner’s office. Seeing the terminally ill coming regularly for their visits to the surgery, their courage and laughter carried me past my fear of the dying. I began to be able to distinguish the telephone voice of the alcoholic complainer from the quiet dismissive voice of the man or woman who was disguising fear of illness with false heartiness. I came to know and like the young mothers, stuck at home, trying to cope with the newest baby and the five-year-old who had just fallen out of a tree. My employers were good physicians who showed humor and sensitivity in their dealings with their patients. I liked seeing
them at work, and enjoyed laughing with them over the follies of the day or the sheer lunacy of some of the daily life situations we learned about. It was like being thrust inside the mind of a gifted novelist. Thenceforth I looked at people, myself included, with more compassion and more distance.
My mother’s respect for the fact that I was earning my own living was palpable. A year after her injury some strength returned to her broken right wrist. She became more active, her moods improved, and patches of sunshine broke through our stormy domestic scene. She was almost childishly delighted when I bought tickets for the ballet or the theater and took her out for an evening’s entertainment. Besides planning diversions for my mother, I spent my early earnings on attending an evening school where one could learn how to make the best of one’s appearance. The school sent me to a hairdresser who knew how to cut my kind of hair, a task completed with transforming effect. Armed with new knowledge about diet I steadfastly refused to eat much of my mother’s daily fare of meat and potatoes. More pounds joined those run off in hard labor at Coorain and a new shape emerged to accompany my well-coiffed head. Able to ignore my mother’s critical oversight, I bought the kind of clothes I thought suitable, and won grudging approval from her even as she exclaimed over my spendthrift ways. I didn’t care. I knew my appearance was beginning to approximate the glossy fashion magazines I studied so assiduously. I was painstakingly constructing an acceptable public self.
This was easier to do as my mother’s refrain of criticism diminished. Our happiest times came on the weekends when we ranged far and wide about the city and its environs, looking for rare plants, nurseries with desirable strong stock, books about the propagation of plants. We shared a genuine obsession with growing things, and could spend hours happily pondering whether a yellow or a pale orange rose would complete the color composition we were planning for some corner of the garden. In springtime the results were breathtaking. Yellow daffodils and
deep blue iris marked the meandering edge of the front garden. Behind them were pink and white azaleas backed by white and yellow jasmine, white mock orange, and graceful blue buddleia. In a sheltered corner were seven different species of scented daphne, their perfumes competing with the heady onslaught of port wine magnolia and ginger plant. One could hear the hum of the bees on sunny spring afternoons as they drowsed homewards through the air fragrant with the pungent smell of lemon-scented gums and the heavier perfumes of daphne, magnolia, and ginger.
My evenings were no longer spent exclusively at home. One of my older brother’s friends, for whom I had nurtured hopeless romantic feelings since my early teens, suddenly reappeared in our life and began to squire me around. He was handsome, happy-go-lucky, and good-natured, a combination ideally suited to provide for relatively painless first love. It suited my pride that he was older than most of my Abbotsleigh friends’ companions. I felt that at last I was traveling at a heady speed toward adulthood, dressed to kill and ready for adventure. My mother observed my comings and goings warily, but I was too elated to notice her watchful and guarded behavior.