The ‘Billy Boy’ and His Girls

 “Come on in, boys,” said Bill with a big smile as he opened the door. We, my friend from work and me, did not consider ourselves boys, but he was close to fifty years older than we were. From his point of view we were just some youngsters blown in by the trade winds from another continent.

“Did you have any trouble finding the place?” he asked. His face had a reddish, weather beaten complexion. Large furrows and wrinkles criss crossed his face like the legendary canals on Mars, bearing witness to a long outdoor life. He had seen much of Australia as a train driver during the war years. Supplies were taken up to Darwin by train and from there by ship to the troops fighting in the Pacific.

He had befriended us at work, where he was our ‘Billy Boy’ providing us with hot water for tea and for washing ourselves. He also helped us with our English. Bill told us to call in at his place when we were in Picton.

“Saturday would be fine,” said Bill .

“And you will get to meet the girls,” he added with a friendly smile.

We heard ‘girls’ and thought it was about time we got acquainted with some females in Australia. We had not been in Australia for long and all was pretty new to us. I had bought an old Austin A 40. My  friend and I took the car for the half an hour’s drive to see Bill and the girls; probably his granddaughters as he was already past seventy.

We accepted his invitation and went inside his house, a large double story stone building at the edge of town. It was dark inside. He lead us into the dining room.

“The girls will be coming down soon to say ‘Hello’ “, Bill said.

The dining room was dark too. Thick, heavy curtains blocked out any daylight. We could just make out some furniture. As Bill started to draw back the curtains, revealing a beautiful table and eight chairs all made from red cedar, we saw a large cabinet with glass doors and behind them some Royal Dalton and Wedgwood tableware. On the wall was a painting of a stern looking couple. We felt transported into the nineteenth century.

“You know, we haven’t used the dining room since 1935,” Bill said.

“That’s over twenty five years ago, Bill,” I said to him.

“There you are, it shows you how time flies,” he answered.

He went to the door from time to time to look up the stairs where he expected the girls to come down from.

“Have a seat while I’ll put the kettle on. The girls should be down very shortly. You know how it is? They want to look their best,” Bill said with a wink. ‘They have never met Germans in their lives.”

Bill wasn’t gone long when he came back and announced, “Here they come!” and motioned us to the door.

“Aren’t they beautiful?’ Bill whispered, so the girls would not be embarrassed.

There was an electric light on now in the hallway and what we saw, were three women, of advanced years ― of very advanced years, I thought. They were dressed in dark frocks, which nearly touched the floor, white blouses and short black jackets. On their heads they wore small, round hats. They were holding on to the beautiful carved bannister as they carefully stepped from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. They gave me the impression they had been found in a tomb. Their faces looked old and wrinkly too, as the heat and the harsh wind in Australia had not been kind to them.

After we exchanged a few “Pleased to meet you” and “How are you?” we all took seats at the table. I noticed now that they wore long sleeved gloves. Bill, his face beaming, arrived with a pot of tea from the kitchen and took out the tea cups from the cabinet. He did all the work, if one could call it work, and served us and the ‘girls’. He explained that they were his sisters and much older than him. They reminded me of Daisy Bates, of whom I had seen some pictures.

“I was the baby of the family,” Bill said with a wink, “and now I have to look after them.”

Bill had such a great personality and he was full of life and always had a sparkle in his eyes. He seemed so proud that he was able to introduce his new friends and his sisters to each other. At the time we did not know that Australians called women of any age ‘girls’. We still had to learn a lot as newcomers to this great country.

The Matron and her Tale

Many years ago, Betty and Jack were on a coach tour to the Outback of Australia. Every evening they stopped at a motel for the night. The tour guide suggested that on each evening one passenger would tell a tale. It could be anything from their own life or some event they had heard about. Here is one such person and her story:

The Matron

There was a matron on the coach, coming from Sydney, who was on long service leave. She was in her early fifties, not married and probably never would be. No time for such nonsense, as she would say.

This saved a man from great unhappiness as she would dominate him like she was in the habit of doing with the nursing staff, the young resident doctors and registrars at the hospital where she was known as “Queenee”. Men, she felt, are useless, they have to be told what to do. They have no sense of order nor organisation.

On the coach too, she made her presence felt and had several arguments with the driver who, obviously, thought he was the captain. “Queenee” could not resist giving the driver advice and during the travel was sitting right behind him. She became quite agitated, when she noticed the needle of the speedometer getting closer to the road’s speed limit.

She found the mother of the three children too lenient and from time to time gave them a sharp look when they misbehaved. According to her, children especially needed firm instructions. When they were running around the coach on a stretch of winding road and were constantly being thrown about, “Queenee” told them about the dangers and they believed her by the way she said it. But of course they thought, she was the danger and called her the “Old Dragon”.

Every time, after a break, the travellers got back on the coach, “Queenee” would look along the aisle as if to check that everyone was present. The women did not like her very much. And the men?

In a perverse way they admired her. ‘Queenee’ was not unattractive, well dressed, not one hair out of place, and she could be a charmer too, if she wanted to. But her stern manner would stop many men from approaching her with any intention of seduction. That was the way she liked it  and it gave her the freedom to pick and choose. The men on the coach could only fantasise.

The priest on the coach was reminded of one of the nuns he had had as a teacher in primary school.

“A good Mother Superior is wasted here”, he mused

Even the truck driver from Wangaratta knew when to shut up, though he was used to running his own road train and not in the habit to take orders from any one.

So, a certain order was established on board the coach and there was no doubt, that “Queenee” was in charge, the same as she would have been on the floor of her ward at the hospital.

The Matron’s Tale

The coach party had their dinner and they settled down to hear the Matron’s tale as it was her turn that night. Nearly all were in the lounge but some stragglers were still coming, carrying some drinks. They had been travelling for a few days and some tiredness could have been expected, but tomorrow they were going to see Uluru, the highlight of their trip and this expectation reduced all weariness to nothing.

Everyone was wondering, what ‘Queenee’ would be telling them. Some of them knew already, that she was a matron in a major city hospital. So a saucy hanky panky between doctors and nurses could be expected. Or so they thought.

“Years ago, when I was a student nurse”, she began with a firm voice, brushing away a fly from her blouse and looking at the priest, who was sitting admiringly in front of her, “I was on the late shift in ‘Infectious Disease’ at the hospital when the ambulance men wheeled in an unconscious, four year old girl from the country, who was suspected of having Poliomyelitis.”

The matron stopped for a moment to let the last information sink into the minds of the listeners. Then she continued, “Polio was very rare in Australia at the time, but sometimes, in the country, it still occurred. The sister in charge of the ward took a look at the girl and called the doctor at once. He only had a quick look and understood the situation. The girl could hardly breathe.

‘To the Op for a tracheotomy’ he said and the girl was wheeled away before we even had her put on her bed. Tracheotomy is a cut into the wind pipe to insert a small tube to which a breathing apparatus is connected. This helps with the breathing of the patient.

The parents had come with the ambulance and were very anxious, and when they heard that their child had to have an incision and a tube inserted into her throat, they became very agitated. The head nurse told me to look after them. I led them to some chairs in the waiting room and gave them a cup of tea. The mother had tears in her eyes and the father looked very sullen.”

The matron stopped for a moment and took a sip from her drink. One could feel that the memory of that night was still fresh in her mind. The others looked and listened intensely.

“The surgery did not take long”, ‘Queenee’ continued, “when the girl came back she had a portable respirator attached to her. We put her to bed. She was white as a sheet, beautiful looking with her dark hair, almost like an angel. I brushed her hair and spread it out over the bed sheet before the young parents were allowed in.

It was late in the evening and there was not much activity in the ward any more. The only sound was the quiet hissing of the respirator pump.

Before they came in, the parents were informed by the doctor that the disease had probably entered the brain through the spinal cord. That is why she was unconscious. A prognosis about the damage the illness would cause, could not be given at that time. But, they had been told, that the worst could happen. I could see in their faces the distress the parents were feeling. I swore then, that I would never have children of my own.

No one was able to say how far the little girl was gone. But the coma helped her little body  rest. I learned later, that she had been exhausting herself by constantly calling  for her mother.  The parents were sitting beside the bed, the mother stroking the girl’s head very gently. The father holding the girl’s hand as if trying to pass his energy  to her.

I was checking on her, when I heard the father calling her quietly by name,
‘Holly, Holly …Mum and Dad are here….’. I noticed that her eyelids were flickering as if dreaming, the monitor showed an increase in her pulse rate. She had come out of the coma and was  sleeping peacefully. We were all relieved that the crises seemed to be over. We did not want to loose this beautiful girl, that had her life still in front of her.”

‘Queenee ‘ stopped and looked around and saw in the faces of the others a question mark, “And, what happened to her?”

“Holly did get better from then on, but she would never walk again. Even though she is a quadriplegic and needs constant assistance from others, if you see her today, as I sometimes do, you see a young women full of confidence, getting around the city in her wheelchair, on her own, accepting her life.

The travellers were very quiet that evening and they were happy that life had not dealt them such a blow. Only the priest smiled a little when he thought about ‘Queenee’s’ last remark.