My mother, Jean Irwin, escaped the confines of provincial Ballarat in her teens. She went to live in Melbourne, but she yearned for a wider experience. She saved up and finally sailed to England in 1937. She was 23.
In London, she got a poorly paid job as a typist. With another Australian girl, she shared a tiny attic room rented out by a large family who occupied the rest of the house, along with more boarders in the basement.
The family was horrified that she slept with the window open at night. But she insisted on maintaining this odd Australian custom.
She did all the things she had dreamed of. She went to the galleries, and, on the rare occasions she could afford it, to the theatre. She went to places she’d read of in her childhood. In summer, she hiked through the north of France with her boyfriend. She went to Italy, where she was shocked by the blatant boasting about Mussolini’s triumph over Ethiopia.
Although she was in awe of the cultural landscape, she was not in awe of the English. She had an Australian boyfriend, who wore a hat which she described as “unique in England”. She had weekends in the country, courtesy of the Victoria League. This was an association of English families who entertained colonials. My mother loved these breaks from London, but found herself hankering for the wildness of the Australian countryside.
She used to go to Australia House with friends to pick up letters from home. They sat, sometimes in the sitting room, sometimes on the steps and read the news from home. Her mother wrote about making the Christmas pudding in 90 degree heat, picking which chook to kill for Christmas and ordering the pork, while Jean struggled to find the money for a warm overcoat. But she still insisted on having the window open at night.
These letters from home with their description of ritual preparations for a summer Christmas affected her more than she expected.
Her feelings of homesickness intensified as her first Christmas in London approached. The days grew shorter, the fog thicker and the weather colder. She imagined the dusty heat of the countryside, the childhood pleasure of swimming in the Creswick dam. She longed to hear the voices of her family, to have a sense of connection with home.
She tentatively inquired about the cost of a telephone call home. It would cost almost two week’s wages, over three pounds sterling. And she still hadn’t bought the winter coat. She told herself it would be madness. That money would get her to Europe the following spring. Or to Egypt. But she took the plunge. She wrote to her family in Ballarat. “I’ll ring you on Christmas day.”
“Jean’s going to ring on Christmas Day!” Her mother, ever anxious for her grown up offspring, was ecstatic.
“She’s going to telephone.”
“She must be mad!”
“Imagine the cost!” The Scottish ancestry had surfaced, but they were delighted.
Her father, Harold Irwin, went down to the Ballarat Post Office, an imposing building on the corner of Sturt and Lydiard Street. The technological intricacies of the call fascinated him, but worried him too. He was a recognizable figure, a mason, a member of the Old Colonists’ Association. His family had been in Ballarat from its beginnings as a gold rush town.
“My daughter Jean will be telephoning from England on Christmas Day,” he announced. “I’d think we’d need to check that telephone.”
A technician was called. A long discussion followed. My grandfather was nothing, if not thorough. The importance of this event was recognized, the monetary cost discussed, the possible hitches, the general vagaries and past faults of the telephone system.
The technician agreed it was a weighty matter, deserving an in-depth investigation. “We’ll come and inspect the premises.”
A man from the Post Master General’s Department came to the house. The phone was on the wall in the hallway, in pride of place, next to a photo of the Mordialloc Bridge which my grandfather had constructed for the Country Roads Board in 1932. There was a polished phone table, with two drawers containing the stubs of pencils, old bills and receipts and a tin of nails.
The technician carefully looked at the phone from every angle. When you picked it up, you got the local operator. A lot of the time, the operator knew people by their voices. Sometimes, when you asked for a number, she’d tell you they were out and to try later.
The technician, however, wasn’t after gossip, but was assessing the suitability of the phone for a higher purpose. He replaced the receiver, looked the phone over yet again.
“I think you’d need a newer job,” he said. “One of those ones that sits down on the table.”
The order went in, and it was duly installed. At this point, my mother’s mother, Nell Irwin, assumed guardianship over the phone. Sh decreed that phone was no longer to be used for local calls. She instructed all her friends and the tradespeople that they were not to ring. This was no great hardship in a town like Ballarat where you met most people down the street. The butcher, greengrocer and baker called almost every day in their horse and cart.
“Nellie, Nellie, nice beans today,” the Chinese greengrocer would sing out as he came through the back yard. “Nice beans Nellie.”
As Christmas approached, if the phone did ring, it was not answered. Instead, Nell sent her youngest son round the neighbourhood to find the caller and warn them that the Irwins’ phone was only for that call from London.
The table on which the phone sat was dusted daily. The object, black and solemn, was looked at by everyone who came to the house. On Christmas morning, the family assembled round the telephone table as the pork crackled in the wood stove in the kitchen. The table was set in the dining room with a white damask cloth and the best silver. There were plenty of bottles of Ballarat Bitter waiting for after the phone call.
On Christmas evening in London, after a cold, agitated day of waiting and homesickness, Jean reminded her landlady that the time was drawing near for her call to the family in Australia. The landlady’s family had also been waiting for this momentous event. Speaking to people on the other side of the world. Kangaroos. Emus. An upside down country. “Can we watch?” they asked. “Is it really summer there?”
My mother, aware of her rising emotions, did not want an audience. “I’d rather talk to them in private, if you don’t mind,” she said. She withdrew into the sitting room, shut the door, and called the exchange.
“I want to phone Australia, Victoria. Ballarat, 1338,” she said. The wait seemed interminable on both ends. Finally, the heavy black phone on the polished table rang.
“Pick it up!”
“But what if it’s not her?”
“Quick! Before it rings off.”
Gingerly, my grandmother picked the sacred object up. “Hullo. Is that you dear?” Her voice was shaking.
“Is it Jean?”
“The operator’s putting her through.” The tension was palpable.
“Is it Jean?”
“Yes!” At last. “She said hullo.” Miraculous!
“What else did she say?”
“She said Happy Christmas.”
“Tell her Happy Christmas.”
“They all said Happy Christmas dear. What’s the weather like?”
“What did she say?”
“She said it was cold.” The remark was taken in, passed on, a sacred incantation. “It’s cold.”
“Ask her what time it is?”
“What time is it dear?”
“She says it’s nine o’clock. At night!”
“It’s eleven here. In the morning!”
“Five past, more like it.”
“Your father wants to say hullo dear.”
“Hullo dear. Happy Christmas.”
“What did she say?”
“She said Hullo. And Happy Christmas. And it’s cold.”
“Can we talk to her?” Her two younger brothers, Bill and John, waited anxiously for a turn.
“Hullo. Happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas. It’s cold, is it?”
“What’s she saying now?”
“It’s freezing! Foggy. You can hardly see when you go out in the street. She’s got to go. It’s the operator.”
“Say good bye.”
“Goodbye dear. We miss you. Happy Christmas.”
My mother put down the phone in that prim little English sitting room. She sat, almost unable to breathe, then burst into tears.
She could imagine it back home – the glasses filled with beer on the table, the old silver serviette rings, the sun reflecting off the white of the gravel edged roads, the torpor of Christmas day in an Australian country town, the white painted wooden house with the shady verandah and the blue hydrangeas wilting in the summer heat.
The sound of those voices from home, echoing down the line. She felt the full 13,000 miles away.
She blew her nose, composed herself and opened the door of the sitting room. The whole of the landlady’s family, their ears to the keyhole, collapsed into the room.
“What did they say?”
“What’s the weather like?
“What time was it?
“Did they wish you happy Christmas?”