We liked our future landlords, Mr & Mrs Jarmyn, and from the first moment we fell in love with their property. It was situated in a very large garden with many trees, mostly camellias, but there were also fruit trees and even fir trees and it was surrounded by green grass. The house was on top of a hillock and as the windows reached right to the floor, we had a view from each one. The rent was six pounds which we could just afford as we were still paying off our debts to the hostel for the time when Zygmunt was earning alone. At last we had our home. We needed furniture and went to Myers as Zygmunt could get a discount of 20% there. We did not buy what we would have liked but we asked the assistant to give us the cheapest possible beds, mattresses, blankets, chairs, a table and an ice-chest. No wardrobes and only four chairs as we had some packing cases which would do. We bought one luxury – one comfortable deep chair which Bama had sometimes to share with others. There were of course no curtains, no floor coverings, no extras.
We had a stove in the kitchen but had to buy a pot and pan, also cups, plates, cutlery and a broom and a rubbish bin. That was the lot. We bought in on so-called “Easy Payments”. How hard they were at times, the “Easy Payments”. The school was not far from home and it was also surrounded by trees. Only now did we realize how we have missed the trees, the grass and the quiet and the clean fresh air. We had our own toilet which we did not have to share with anyone, our own bath which looked like a Roman bath as it was so big and deep; it even had steps to get into it, and above it was a shower.
It was good to be in Mt Evelyn and Lorna and her husband were the best landlords one could have wished for. Theirs was a big, old house where Lorna’s sister lived with her husband and a boy, and also a Dutch family with many children. However, it was not easy for Zygmunt. He had to get up at 4:00 am and walk down to Lilydale for the first train which left before the first bus from Mt Evelyn arrived. Even taking the first train he was still half an hour late at work in West Footscray. Later on he changed work and once again became a welder, this time at K & M Steel in Richmond. He did not like his new work nor did he like his workmates and he missed old Archie, his boss from the wood carving department. I was unable to find work near Mt Evelyn. After many attempts I found work as a machinist in Mooroolbark at Jeldi’s factory which made bedspreads. I did not like this work. All of us were covered in dust. I became tired after a few hours although it was not heavy work; we just had to sit and hold the bedspreads straight. We did not have to know about sewing, we had only to follow the lines marked on the fabric. My back was aching and there was nowhere to relax. I sneaked out to the toilets and lay down on the concrete floor but the toilet was too small for my full length and I had to put my feet on the toilet seat, but I could not stay there for long as others were waiting to do the same.
I quit after two weeks and was annoyed with myself for being a weakling. I was too weak to put up with constant backache, the running and smarting eyes, the running nose and constant sneezing. I knew that Zygmunt had it hard too but he managed whereas I quit. Zygmunt was not angry with me – he even urged me in the first week to give it up and to look for something else. I applied for many jobs such as at the Lilydale shoe factory but was not accepted as I had not had previous experience in leather work; the same happened at other factories and the local pub. I was unable to find work as I had no experience whatsoever because I had not worked in a factory before. I was ready to learn and try but no-one was prepared to give me a try. Lorna suggested that I should look for clerical work in the city – that was Melbourne. I had never given a thought to clerical jobs as my English was very poor but I started looking at advertisements as my earnings were needed. The Bonegilla Holding Centre wrote us a polite letter reminding us that we were still in arrears.
I applied for a position doing general clerical work in the accounts department of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) Housing Society in Queen Street, Melbourne. I had an interview with a very nice man, a Mr O’Mullane. I answered all his questions truthfully. I was a Pole, I was a Catholic, I had my matriculation certificate, I loved juggling figures and maths was my favourite subject. I could type but was slow and not a good typist. He gave me the job and for a start he would pay ten pounds a week. I was very happy. At last I would be earning too and would receive a lot of money (it was then 1950) and the travelling, including bus and train, would cost me approximately 2 pounds which would leave about 8 pounds clear. It sounded like a lot of money.
Our life now settled into a routine. Zygmunt and I got up before 5:00 am and had a quick breakfast. He caught the first bus at 5:30. I started to pre-cook the evening meal and left before 7:00 am to be on time at 9:00 am in Queen Street. It was dark when we got up and dark when we got home after 7 pm especially during the winter months when we were working back. I even lost my way home from the bus, although it was not far but there were so many trees. On getting home I finished cooking the evening meal, bathed the boys, did some urgent darning or ironing and was ready to drop dead by midnight.
On weekends we firstly played with the boys, asked about the school and their friends, then we three went to light the copper and started washing. The copper was an ancient thing. It was so deep that Roman could stand in it and only the top of his head would show. After the washing I would put some Bandaids on my hands as they always bled after the washing, pegged the things out and we three would go to do some shopping. Later on there would be the cleaning to do and the darning. Bama did not feel well and could not help. If possible, I tried to do some ironing which was better to be done then than during the week. Zygmunt tried to make some furniture from the material which he had from Myers.
The afternoon was left for the boys and we would walk along the channel or, when the season was right, we picked mushrooms. Mushrooms! Lorna, our landlady, was horrified when she saw us gathering what she called toadstools and which I called “Rydzy”. She urged us not to eat them as she was certain that they were poisonous. However, I considered myself to be an expert on mushrooms as I had gathered them since the age of four. These mushrooms looked exactly as our “Rydzy” did, including the saffron-coloured juice and there were masses of them. When we had our first meal Lorna watched us, sitting near the telephone with the numbers of emergency services and doctor before her. When, after eating the mushrooms, we still did not show any symptoms of poisoning, she came every few minutes to check up on us. Next morning (when we were still alive and healthy) she stopped worrying and the next weekend when we again had “Rydzy” she tried some and even liked them. Until now, I still do not know what these mushrooms are called in Australia; their botanic name is Lacterius Deliciosus.
We made friends not only with Lorna but also with an architect and his wife who lived not far from us, along the channel where we gathered the mushrooms. He was a real English gentleman, a race which has now died out. I also liked his wife. At work I had made some friends, especially Estelle who was to become my friend for years and who helped me through the hard times which were just coming.
Travelling by bus to Lilydale, I became interested in two children whom a woman brought to the bus stop. She was tall and wore slacks which, at that time, were not popular. Zygmunt and I both commented on how nice and pleasant she looked when escorting the children. Sometimes we saw them in the street. The girls did not look alike; one was shy and tiny and used to sit quietly and just smile occasionally whilst the other one did not stop talking. She always sat next to the driver (called Chappy), dangled her long legs and talked and laughed non-stop. Both girls looked very different and both looked lovely. Each morning I looked forward to seeing them. I spoke with Zygmunt about them, wondering if they could be sisters. We wondered who the woman in slacks was – could she be the mother of both girls? In the evenings a man got out at the same stop and went towards the house where the girls came from in the morning. His name was Tom and usually he was not sober. Was he the father of the girls? One day the lady in slacks boarded the bus and sat next to me.
I made what the Australians would call a “faux pas” and started to talk with her about the children. They were her daughters and the man, Tom, was her brother. After a few more bus trips I gathered that the father of the girls was not living with them but I did not know if she was a widow or divorcee. I had the feeling that she loved her children just the same way I did mine. One day she invited me, half-heatedly, to see her at the cottage. I was not certain whether she had invited me to “do her duty” to the New Australian or if she really wanted to see me. I decided to go anyway as I liked the children and she seemed to be all right. I went the next Saturday but with mixed feelings as I was worried that once again I would be given to understand that we were not as good as the Australians. The cottage was not much to look at from outside but inside it was very nice and had a very friendly atmosphere. We sat in the kitchen sipping tea which I did not like as I preferred coffee. The girls were even nicer at home and were constantly popping in and out. The brother Tom came and said “Hello” in quite a friendly way. Even the dog (called Freddy), was friendly.
From that day on she became Elizabeth and I Marushka, and the girls were Diane and Helen. How odd that through a bus ride and my “faux pas” I received the gift of a friend and a friendship which survived many ordeals and will, I hope, last until death. I decided to learn English during my travelling time which lasted for three hours each day. I did not like the boys’ school readers and decided to learn in an unconventional way. I armed myself with a Polish-English dictionary, an exercise book, a pencil and a light novel or crime story. I noted down each unknown word in the exercise book and, whilst on the bus, I tried to memorise them. I preferred the crime stories as there was a lot of conversation which made it easier to learn. The atmosphere at work was very pleasant. Estelle and I became friends. I was given more accounts work, calculations of part-payments to members after receipt of valuation reports. It became interesting. I tried to talk Elizabeth into applying for a job there too as we had a vacancy. I had quite a bit of trouble with her as she was sure that she could not do it, but I explained that she did not need any knowledge, only commonsense, and had to do some thinking – nothing more. When later on she accepted, I was very happy as the pay was better than that which she received in her previous work.
Everything was going fine and we were even able to reduce our debt at the hostel when there came, what I called, the “Difficult Time”. There were two reasons. Firstly, Zygmunt’s health started to deteriorate rapidly and secondly, Bama became unreasonable and difficult, in fact very difficult. Zygmunt changed. There were no more jokes, no more playing with the children. He even said that he was tired. So what? Who was not? One day (it was a Saturday) I suddenly saw him – really saw him – and realized that he had lost a lot of weight and had sunken eyes. I could not understand it as he was eating more than before. I gave him more food for lunch and began to observe him.
He was losing weight; his clothes were hanging on him and he ceased being interested in anything. I talked him into going to the local GP. He was examined, various samples for tests were taken and he was told to report in a few days’ time. When I came back alone, the doctor looked grave and explained to me that Zygmunt had cancer, incurable cancer of the brain – or did he say spine? I heard the words “cancer” and “incurable”. The doctor also told me that he might have made a wrong diagnosis and advised that Zygmunt should go to St Vincent’s Hospital for more tests. He had already written to them and I should contact the hospital in a few days’ time. The doctor was sorry, but there was nothing he could do to help. I felt stunned. I had only one thought – Zygmunt was not going to die now, he would not, not NOW.
Nobody could be that unfair – neither God nor fate – not after letting him live through all the years of the war holocaust, not now when we had started to make a new life, NOT NOW. When I calmed down, I went home and told Zygmunt that he needed more tests which would be carried out at the hospital. Zygmunt became weaker each day. We had to wait for weeks for the appointment and he was deteriorating rapidly. Luckily, he broke his wrist which was just a clean break, and was not able to go to work and was still receiving some money. I hoped he would improve staying home and resting but he did not; he became weaker and weaker, his hands started to shake and he had trouble walking as he became tired very quickly.
Bama also worried about Zygmunt and became worse and worse and, in a very short time, I found her really unreasonable. She always wanted us to try either building a house or buying one. It was impossible as we had no money. She became worse each day too. She had ten pounds saved and wanted to buy a house at all costs. Jurek could speak English quite fluently by now and was a bright boy for his age, and Bama’s favourite. She took him with her as an interpreter when visiting different agents, looking at houses and flats. Sometimes they came home after midnight when they missed the last bus and had to wait for someone to give them a lift.
I became worried about Jurek too. He was not happy, he stopped talking to Zygmunt and me, he seemed somehow always on guard whilst talking with us. Bama used to talk to Jurek in front of us like this: “My darling Jurek, your father is a weakling, he is even unable to control his shaking hands although he is not an old man. He complains and says that he is tired even when sitting at home and not working. Your father is no good, he can’t even give us a house. Do not blame your father too much, he is only a weakling, he is influenced by your mother who has no sense, who is frightened of everything. Your mother does not want us to have our own house such as all the other people have. Do not be upset, Jurek darling. You have me, I will look after you until you are a really big boy, then you can look after me and your parents. You should never forget to show respect and love to your parents. Don’t forget that God expects you to show respect and love to your parents even when they are no good, even when they are bad and weak.”
When I wanted to hug Jurek he would push me away, not roughly but he would not allow being hugged either by me or Zygmunt. Roman started to cry a lot, especially in the evenings, but he would let me hug him. He told me that nobody loved him – neither Bama, nor Jurek, nor Daddy nor even I, his mother, because I was bad and worried only about Daddy who was also no good and weak. It was a hard time for me and I did not know what to do. I tried speaking with Bama but got nowhere.
It was no good speaking with Zygmunt for he did not care about anything, he barely listened. I do not remember what I really felt, I do not even remember how I felt about Zygmunt’s imminent death, nor about the unhappiness of the children. I remember only a terrible struggle to keep them all fed. How very prosaic. Zygmunt’s sick pay stopped and we did not know about unemployment benefits or about the help of social workers. My pay (which was now over ten pounds) had to cover my fares (approx. 2 pounds), the rent (six pounds), repayments to the hostel and repayments of the “Easy Payments” and also it had to feed us.
I explained my situation to Lorna and she suggested that we should all move into one large room which would cost only four pounds. I agreed gladly and we moved into this one large room. Bama was in one corner, the boys were in the middle of the room and we were divided from the family by a wardrobe which we had bought not long ago. Now we had no stove and the cooking had to be done on a portable cooker, the washing up in the bathroom where I had to bend nearly to floor level, but that did not matter as we would have two pounds more to live on; however, it was still not enough. The tests in the hospital (some of which were very painful for Zygmunt) took nearly a week.
I wrote to Talunia and Mietek who could not have children of their own, leaving Roman in their care. They loved Roman. They came over, tried to cheer us up and, although themselves not well-off, left us ten pounds which was a fortune to us. I thought that Jurek would be better off with Stach in London and Jurek would fit in better with Stach Kruszewski who was a chemical engineer of very good standing. He had been offered a job in America at a much higher salary, but he refused, explaining that England had accepted him when other countries would not and his loyalty was with England where his work might be useful. All these arrangements I made quietly and quite deliberately as I knew that I would be no good without Zygmunt, I knew that I would be unable to cope with Bama and I knew that I would be just a shell, somehow earning enough money to support the children, but I would be unable to give them all that they needed; a shell is not a person.
One weekend a strange thing happened to me. I took my darning and sat under the big tree. I know that I was not thinking about anything in particular; I was not seeing anything; but all of a sudden I “woke up”. I don’t know whether minutes or hours had passed. All of a sudden I felt strong, healthy and full of hope and I knew – KNEW for certain that Dr Hurley (who assisted Mr Carlton) would cure Zygmunt. I felt very happy because I KNEW. I was unable to explain my state to anyone, I did not even try. I just knew that everything would be all right, I would only have to wait … Let others try to explain it. It was not the first time that something similar had happened to me in critical times. I rushed to Zygmunt and told him that I was going to make an appointment for him to see Dr Hurley, not to worry, everything would be all right. Zygmunt barely listened – he said that he was resigned and would not see any doctors as it was pointless; he was only waiting to have it all finished.
I told him that, should he refuse to go to see the doctor in the city, I would ask the doctor to come to Mt Evelyn and that the bill would simply kill us. I blackmailed him and at last he agreed, but I had to promise that this would be the last appointment with any doctor. I promised readily as I was certain that we would not need another doctor. When we went to see the doctor, Zygmunt was staggering and I had to help him walk. His eyes were protruding from a haggard and greyish face. It was a long journey, changing from bus to train and then to a tram, but we managed.
Dr Hurley was a nice old gentleman. He was really gentle and very kind. He listened attentively about the diagnosis of the local GP and the results from St Vincent’s Hospital, he listened when Zygmunt told him how he felt. He asked for a short test and came back with a wide smile. He told us that he was unable to understand how people could speak about cancer, etc., Zygmunt just had an over-active thyroid gland and one should recognize it simply by looking at the patient and could confirm it by touching the skin. He saw it the moment Zygmunt came in. It was not fatal but he thought that he would be unable to cure it with tablets as it had progressed too far. Zygmunt might need an operation, but much later. First he would make Zygmunt feel better in a very short time and he would even be able to work and to lead a normal life. We were both speechless.
We both thought that it was incredible – no cancer, none at all, only an over-active gland. Could the doctor be right? Zygmunt had to take some tablets and go for examinations of his blood to check his white blood corpuscles. Zygmunt’s recovery was dramatic; his health improved from day to day and, in a very short time he started to look for work – preferably with plenty of overtime so that we could pay off all the debts which had accumulated during the time he was not working. We would again be able to buy a lot of wood and leave the children lunches as, during all this time, Lorna had given them something to eat when they came home at lunch time as there was simply no food at home. We would have meat and butter again for everyone, not only the children. We were all rather tired of the macaroni with onions (from Lorna’s garden), and boiled barley (which was cheap).
Zygmunt heard that there was work available at the Eildon Weir where welders were required and well paid and where there would be plenty of overtime. He was told also that in some cases accommodation was provided for families at a very cheap rate. We went to have a look as the bus ride was free for those who sought an interview. My first impression of Eildon was – dust and noise. Somewhere far in the bush were barracks and tents; the shopping centre consisted of one general store which was not far from a rickety bridge which led over a murky creek. On the unpaved roads huge, odd-looking vehicles were rambling along making a lot of noise and dust. Zygmunt was interviewed in an office which was situated in one of the barracks. The pay was very good and there was plenty of overtime available.
Accommodation was only for single men and in tents only. Some houses were in the process of being built and some old farmhouses were being relocated – accommodation for families would be available later on. How much later on was hard to say – maybe in a few months’ time. There and then Zygmunt accepted the job as a welder as we liked the promise of very good pay and the possibility of accommodation later. Zygmunt left Mt Evelyn a few days later with a few shillings in his pocket as he would not need money – his room was provided, including bedding; food was served in a canteen and later deducted from his pay. He promised to come and visit us every fortnight as they had a 12-day working week and two days off.
Elizabeth was sorry to see us go but she agreed that it would make a lot of difference to us if Zygmunt was able to manage the work and get us some cheap accommodation. We would both miss the Sundays as it was the day when our children had their “Sunday Treat”. We both (somehow) managed to save up for a small bottle of Coke for each of them and sometimes, even extra coppers to spend as they liked. We loved watching their happy faces and to hear their laughter after such a “treat”. Both boys had religious instruction although neither Zygmunt nor I were Catholics in the true sense, but I wanted the boys to have a religion. We continued to let them be taught until we came to Melbourne.
We had an offer from the priest who could arrange for the boys to be boarders in a good Catholic school – St Xavier’s – free. Most of the people we knew encouraged us to accept this offer as the school had a very good name and was usually available only to people who could afford high fees and, in addition, we would have had less expenses at home. After giving it a lot of thought, we thanked the priest and declined the offer – but not for religious reasons. Our boys would be amongst the children of well-to-do parents; they might be invited to their homes which would be spacious and well-furnished as those of professional people or high white collar workers were. Should our boys invite their new friends to their parents’ home that consisted of, maybe, two or three rooms, unfurnished, where the parents could hardly speak English, where the food was poor, their friends would feel out of place. Presuming that in Australia – like in other countries – many people were snobbish because of money or social status, our boys would be either unhappy or would become snobs, trying to hide the fact that their parents were poor labourers. We did not want that to happen to them.
Time would show if we made the right decision. I was glad that the boys had their priest to answer their questions as I was unable to do so satisfactorily. Like once when Roman came home and looked upset. He asked me if God really could hear the children, and when I answered “yes” he asked if God could hear all the children, from all schools, even at playtime. When I again said “yes” he became very upset. He was so very sorry for God as God must have had a had headache as children were very loud. The same day Jurek asked me if God created man: “Yes”. If God created animals: “Yes”. Did God make the animals the way they are now? “Yes”. Why then did God make the cat a cruel and bad animal which was playing with a mouse and hurting it and the cat was not hungry; when the cat killed the mouse (after the mouse cried a lot) the cat would not even eat the mouse?
I had a toothache very often and, as there was no dentist at Eildon, I decided to have all my upper teeth out. The extractions were performed at the Bush Nursing Hospital, under full anaesthetic, as my teeth had long and twisted roots and crumbled easily. I did not feel well the next day – and even worse the day after. I felt giddy and my temperature was rising. Early one morning I thought that I was imagining things when I heard someone shouting “Fire”. The shout was repeated and there was banging on doors.
The house was on fire. Bama and I somehow managed to bring our things out, including the furniture. We were lucky that the windows reached right to the floor. The boys helped as much as they could. When I remembered that we still had things in the bathroom cupboard, it was too late to bring them out as the whole house was burning rapidly. It was an old timber house and burned quickly. I never saw a house go up in flames so easily. Lorna and the others managed to save most of their belongings; the only casualty was a Labrador puppy, badly burned, as she would not come out from under the house.
There we were, about a dozen people, sitting on the front lawn – surrounded by our possessions. We were all stunned, looking at the cinders. This was the time when my feeling towards the Australian people became quite definite; now I started to love them. Within a very short time people from the neighbourhood came - helping us all, making cups of tea, trying to comfort us; even us, the newcomers. There was not only Elizabeth (who heard it on the news and who took time off from work to come to help) there were also complete strangers who brought food and clothing for us, who offered to take us in for the time being.
Us – the “Bloody New Australians” – us, with our bad English, with our odd habits, with our strange food (such as garlic sausage, black rye bread, etc.). Here were the Australian people; sympathetic, ready to help to the best of their ability. We had offers to spend the night, or many nights if need be. We – two strange women and two children. Some had room for only two of us, others thought that they could manage to have us all.
I will never forget the spontaneous goodwill and compassion the Australians showed us all, including the newcomers to their country. From that day on my love for them never wavered. They might be rude and abusive sometimes, but when they saw people in need, they went out of their way to bring help, irrespective of language, creed or otherwise. Some officials organized that the guest house be re-opened and we could stay there without paying, someone organized the wood for the stove, someone organized the food, someone took care of our possessions, someone brought us clothing. We all went there. I rang Zygmunt and told him about the fire. He promised to come by the first available bus.
Zygmunt came the same evening and I stopped struggling against the temperature and the pain in my gums. I was worried that our ice-chest had been burnt, but Zygmunt said not to worry – he could buy us a fridge – he was earning enough and he had accommodation for all of us. We would go the next morning. Mrs Carlton called the doctor and Elizabeth held me when the doctor examined me. The doctor told me that I had blood poisoning which was well advanced, that I could not go to Eildon, that I would need injections and constant attention.
Zygmunt, the boys and Bama left and I (supported by Elizabeth) looked at an old truck on which were our belongings with the boys and Zygmunt sitting on top of the mattresses. In her gentle and quiet way, Elizabeth took care of me. I let myself go and was either unconscious or raving with temperature. It was many days, even weeks. Then came a day when I heard the girls whispering, felt the cup that Elizabeth was holding to my lips and it smelled lovely. It was soup and I was hungry. Only then did I realize that all the time I had been in Elizabeth’s house. Zygmunt came a few days later and he looked healthy and happy. Elizabeth and I met him at the local pub. After hugging and kissing, he told me that I looked awful, like a chewed and spat-out lemon, but not to worry as everything was very good.
We had a house in Eildon, the old “Mess House” which had three rooms and a kitchen, although without a stove. However, there was one in a house next to us although that house was not completed as yet. I told Zygmunt about my illness and how Elizabeth had nursed me back to life, how she shared her food (which was barely enough for them) with me. Zygmunt was speechless as he had not realized that I was really ill. He just kissed Elizabeth’s hand and told her that he was unable to express his gratitude, that he would never be able to repay her for her kindness and friendship. He could barely speak; he was too deeply moved. Next day we went to Eildon. I had no packing to do as everything I wore was clean. Elizabeth had washed it all the previous day and I stayed in bed until the things had dried. She even shared her underwear with me as mine was beyond repair.
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