Authors: Judy Nunn
I made a cup of tea and wandered around, touching the walls and the stairs, ‘just being there’, the painting and scrubbing forgotten. (That was typical of me in those days, motivation was not my strong suit.) Then I wandered upstairs. I supposed I should have at least carted the bed up with me but, no, that could wait, plenty of time.
I looked at the wardrobe in the corner. I should have accepted the man’s offer to take it away. Getting rid of it was going to be hell. I opened the French windows and stood on the balcony. Amazing to think that they’d hauled the thing up and over the railing. Maybe it wasn’t as heavy as it looked.
I went back inside and opened its doors. One half of the wardrobe was bare hanging space. The other was open shelves. And, to my amazement, the shelves were full, stacked neatly with blankets and linen. The blankets were old and threadbare – the grey military kind you buy at St. Vincent de Paul’s – but they were clean and smelled of mothballs. The sheets, bleached white and carefully mended in places, were crisply ironed into squares.
I spread a blanket on the floor and carefully, one by one, lifted the contents out of the wardrobe, marvelling at what was there. Tea towels and pillowslips, bath towels and tablecloths, all worn but in pristine condition. I went through the wardrobe shelf by shelf and, when I came to the very last one, I found two pieces of hand crochet – one navy, one pink. Hot water bottle covers, I presumed ‘his’ and ‘hers’. And, behind them, at the very back of the shelf, something wrapped in tissue. Quite a large parcel. I lifted it out, set it down and gently eased back the paper. On top was a christening gown. Cream lace. Very old and in perfect condition. And it rested on top of a man’s dressing gown. Wool, the old-fashioned sort, in big maroon checks with a satin tassel tie.
I sat back on the floor and looked at the love and the care laid out on the grey army blanket. Who’d lived here, I wondered. I so wanted to know. Love pervaded this house, I’d felt it the moment I stepped inside. Who were they? Who was she? Who’d tended the Kookaburra stove?
‘Deceased estate,’ I remembered the salesman said. ‘Old lady died six months ago, her sons want to make a quick sale.’
Then I noticed the open wardrobe door – the one on the other side. There was writing there, figures and dates, some difficult to read. Whoever had written them had had trouble with the pen, but they’d laboured to make an impression in the wood and, even where the ink ran out, the words had been indelibly inscribed:
Elizabeth Jane, 2nd Jan. 1922.
Stephen Harold, 25th Feb. 1925.
James Robert, 9th Mar. 1930
And then, below these dates:
8th Nov. 1948, my beloved Harry died.
There was nothing after that.
I looked at the dressing gown. Harry’s surely. And the other names and dates. Children? A daughter and two sons?
I packed everything neatly back into the wardrobe, just the way it had been. Then I rang the real estate man.
‘Yes, the old lady had been a widow for a long time, I believe. Don’t know anything about a daughter. One of the sons lives in Surfers Paradise. High-rise real estate. Loaded. The other one’s here in Sydney. Jim Roper. He’s the one who put the house up.’
. Yes, I remembered the name on the contract.
When I asked the man if Jim Roper would like to collect his mother’s personal belongings from the wardrobe, his answer was immediately dismissive. ‘Oh no, he wouldn’t want any of that junk. The wives went through the place with a fine-toothed comb; they said there were some old blankets and stuff. Just chuck it out or give it to the Salvo’s.’
I was bristling with anger as I replaced the receiver. I didn’t know which pair I disliked most, the sons who hadn’t bothered to check through their mother’s belongings or the daughters-in-law who had and considered it ‘junk’.
During the week that ensued I didn’t. have much time to ponder the matter. Workmen came and repaired the roof and builders came and replaced the floor, and I worked hard on my magazine assignment amid the chaos.
Then, suddenly, it was over and the house was my own again. Peaceful. I still hadn’t got around to painting the kitchen and bathroom. I think I knew I never would, although the five-litre cans of paint stood accusingly in one corner.
I did, however, move in my motley selection of furniture, mostly acquired from second-hand shops. The removalists left it piled in the downstairs front room, and I stood there wondering where to start. The main bedroom, of course – it was where I’d been camping out after all. The chest of drawers would have to go up there and I could finally stop living out of a suitcase.
I cursed myself for not having had the presence of mind to ask the removalists to cart some of the heavy stuff upstairs, but those sorts of things always occurred to me too late and the men had seemed only too eager to leave. I’d have to get a friend to help. Damn. During my week’s encampment, I’d become very proprietorial about the house – I didn’t want anyone else there.
‘Just until I’ve done the place up,’ I insisted to my friends, although it wasn’t really that. I don’t know what it was, but whatever it was, it was annoying Sandra. ‘You’re becoming a bloody recluse,’ she grumbled. ‘We only want to help.’
Maybe, if I took the drawers out, I could cart the chest up by myself, I thought. I measured it; I measured the width of the stairs (I’d have to drag it up sideways); and I measured the wardrobe and the front bedroom to see where everything would fit. The wardrobe would have to be shifted. Only a yard or so. And, yes, I could do that by myself too, I decided. If I shuffled it.
I started shuffling. It wasn’t difficult. And, inch by inch, between my feet, a cardboard box appeared. A slim, flat cardboard box, grey with layers of dust. I hadn’t realised there was space beneath the wardrobe. From front view it appeared to be flush with the floor. But now I noticed, below the doors, the decorative cross-section of hardboard added for appearance. The plain square sides revealed the six-inch gap between the lower shelving of the wardrobe and the floor.
I lay on my stomach, cheek pressed against the floorboards, and peered beneath the wardrobe. There was another box, or what appeared to be another box, a little smaller than the first. I pushed it out the other side with a broom handle and checked if there was anything more. There wasn’t.
With an old tea towel, I wiped the layers of dust from the boxes. The smaller of the two turned out to be a biscuit tin. An Arnott’s biscuit tin with a picture of a once gaudy parrot on its now faded top. It was rusted solid, the lid immovable, so I sprayed it with anti-rust compound and set it to one side. Then I opened the cardboard box.
Its green ‘marble’ design reminded me of the Laminex-topped table we had when I was a child. The box had a lift-up lid and looked as if it had originally contained office stationery, ledger paper or such.
There wasn’t much inside. Something that looked like an old bank deposit book and half a dozen official papers.
I opened the bank book. Columns. Amounts on the right and dates on the left. Each amount was for three pounds seven and tuppence ha’penny and each was dated fortnightly throughout the year of 1918. It was in the name of Corporal Harold James Roper. And, folded up in the last page of the book, there was a separate piece of paper. The Australian Army’s notification of the honourable discharge of Corporal Harold James Roper.
So Harry had been in the army, the First World War, and he’d left nothing but the barest of records. He obviously wasn’t much of a memorabilia hoarder. How frustrating.
I sifted through a couple of insurance policies dated 1919 and came to a letter from the Australian Immigration Department. It was dated 12th September, 1920, and it informed Mr. Roper that application for the entry of his fiancée, Miss Emily Tonkin, had been approved. Beneath that, a letter from the P&O shipping line:
Dear Mr. Roper,
We are pleased to inform you that passage has been secured for your fiancée, Miss Emily Tonkin, aboard the 55 ‘Orontes’ due to depart Southampton 5th December, 1920, and scheduled to arrive in Sydney 7th February, 1921.
I sat back on the floor and looked at the wardrobe. The doors were slightly ajar. I pushed them wide so that I could see the writing on the inside and the folded linen on the shelves.
So her name was Emily, I thought. Emily Roper, née Tonkin. It was Emily who had tended the Kookaburra stove and recorded the dates of the births of her children and the death of her husband in the old wardrobe.
It was Emily and Harry Roper who had lived in the little old house.
I turned my attention again to the cardboard box. Only one paper remained. It was folded and, when I picked it up, I felt a weight inside. I opened it. A medal. Plain. In bronze. And the paper was an army citation. that read:
Action for which commended.
On 24th April, 1918, between the junction of the rivers ANCRE and SOMME, near HEILLY, this N.C.O. and men were linesmen attached to the 8th Australian Field Artillery. The enemy put down a heavy bombardment of gas and heavy explosives, and all telephone lines were cut. These men at once set out to get communication with batteries. The lines were broken in dozens of places, and the bombardment continued for eight hours, during which time these men were exposed to the heaviest shell fire. They eventually succeeded in getting communication with batteries and it was only with unflagging energy, dauntless courage and devotion to duty that this was accomplished. (Sgd; 3. Monash, Major General, G.O.C. 3rd Aust. Divn. Military Medal was awarded to Harold James Roper (Corp)
By now I had no idea of the time of day, lost as I was in Harry and the past. But, as I closed the French windows to keep out the draught, I was surprised by the chill, dusk air. I turned on the overhead light and, one by one in sequence of dates, spread the papers out on the floor. Then, armed with a screwdriver, I attacked the Arnott’s biscuit tin.
When, after a fifteen-minute battle, the lid finally gave way, I was not disappointed. Letters. There must have been over a hundred jammed into the tin. But neatly. Still in their envelopes and in bundles – one small and three large – each tied up with a slim blue ribbon.
The smaller bundle was addressed to Miss Emily Tonkin of 23 Warrane Road, Halstead, Essex, England. The larger bundles were all addressed to Mrs Harold Roper of 21A Alexander Street, Surry Hills, NSW, Australia.
At the bottom of the tin, beneath the letters. were two christening photos, each in a miniature silver frame. Both babies were wearing the same christening gown – the gown that now lived in the wardrobe. Where was the other baby, I wondered. There should have been a third christening photo.
I opened the first few letters from each bundle, intending to sort them into sequence in order to follow the events of Emily’s life. But no sorting proved necessary; Emily had done that for me. The letters in the smaller bundle were from Harry during 1919 and 1920, and those in the larger bundles were from a woman called Margaret Leigh and they dated from 1921 on.
I settled down to read. I had no compunctions about what I was doing, no underlying guilt at the thought that I might be prying. Strangely enough, I had the feeling that Emily would like me to know about her.
Harry was a lazy correspondent for whom writing was a chore. But, far from being hurt, Emily apparently nagged and teased him mercilessly. ‘It is all very well for you to chide me for my shortcomings, my dear,’ Harry wrote. ‘But I have difficulty in expressing myself through my pen. The ease with which you find the right words and place them in the right order is a talent I shall never possess. And the pleasure you attain from so doing is a pleasure which totally eludes me.’
The next letter was dated two months later, during which period Emily had obviously written to him a number of times.
You have every right my dearest to take me to task for the time elapsed between my letters, but never for the brevity of the letters themselves. After all, it is not the lines upon the paper you must read, but the spaces in between.
The banter between them continued and the more I read of Harry’s letters, the more I cursed him for not having saved Emily’s. Damn you, Harry, couldn’t you have saved just a few? Two?
There were times when Harry did commit himself to paper. When he genuinely had something to talk about. ‘I have found our house,’ he wrote joyfully.
Oh, my dearest girl, how you will love it. In fact, it reminds me of you. It is neat, petite, quaint, loving and has great strength of character. Forgive me for perhaps waxing a little overly lyrical but I am envisaging your excitement upon seeing it and, as usual, your excitement is contagious
Harry could certainly express himself when he wished to but, as Emily well knew, he was just bone lazy most of the time.
He even had the grace to admit it. A letter several months later stated,
I may have been a little lax in my correspondence (yes, yes, all right – lazy), but I have been far from lax or lazy in my efforts to accelerate the bureaucratic process. The man from the Immigration Department assures me the papers will be through any day now and I have already approached the P&O shipping line for dates and details.
I opened the last of Harry’s letters. It was written in his customary lighthearted vein but, when I got to the end, he took me totally by surprise.
Emily, My Dearest,
I count the weeks, the days, the hours until I see you. You are in my heart and I pray that, until the very last breath I take, you shall always be by my side.
Your loving husband to be,
I looked at the letter and felt a sudden pang of conscience at having read it. I returned it to its envelope and, as I was retying the blue ribbon around the small bundle of his letters, I glanced up at the open wardrobe door.