From Aunts Up the Cross (1965)

Robin Dalton was born Robin Eakin, moving to London after World War II and becoming a leading literary agent, then a film producer. In her memoir of Kings Cross in the 1920s and 30s she describes growing up in what Clive James calls ‘gentility in reduced circumstances’ with her doctor father:

On mornings when I was not at school I frequently accompanied my father on his rounds, sometimes visiting the patient and sometimes waiting in the car outside. If he left me in a doubtful slum area, he always admonished me, ‘Now, if anyone speaks to you, just make a noise like a five-year-old girl’ or whatever age was appropriate at the time. When he emerged he would sometimes tell me about the case. I remember some of our family intimates only through their ailments which, if they were startling enough, my father could not resist recounting. Thus, one plump and coyly coquettish lady was embedded in my consciousness since a tick had ‘crawled up her’. My father felt her charms were forever damned because as, he put it, ‘when I got to the poor brute, it had died’.

Actually, for me, all Sydney was an extension of the security of the house. My days never had an even tenor, but always an assured one, and certain events brought their certain flavour.

Was there ever a threat to this security, I now wonder? Financial threat may have been there but never to be taken seriously. In the 1930s so-called ‘society’ women thought little of popping into the pawn shops with their jewellery. This particularly appealed to my mother, whose fiscal week was ruled by Saturday’s betting results. Many a Thursday morning on Tony McGill’s settling day she would borrow Juliet’s sapphire and diamond ring (now on my finger) or one of her diamond, ruby and emerald butterflies, ostensibly to wear to a party, but in reality to appease Tony that night. After a few days, Juliet would become both curious and querulous and, dependent on the race results, my mother would either fling back her jewellery or plead another party.

Redfern Interior, David Moore (Art Gallery of NSW)

Redfern Interior, David Moore, 1949 (Art Gallery of NSW)

In our urban life, my consciousness of the depression was an awareness of a wicked man called Jack Lang, bent, it seemed, on ruining all our lives. I do remember a sense of apprehension, almost fearful, attached to this man. But my only experience of actual financial concern was the occasion on which my parents made a pact to give up smoking – in order to pay for my school fees.

The pact lasted a week. My mother gave in first. This did not appear to affect my education and the school fees were never mentioned again.

Darker moments have been pushed away, into another dimension. Every now and then, a sound, a smell, a chink of light or darkness breaks the happy carapace of memory. Sitting downstairs in a two-up, two-down Surry Hills tenement I watched my father disappear up the narrow stairs with his worn, brown leather ‘doctor’s’ bag, while from upstairs came screams – neither cries nor shouts, but piercing, wrenching, beseeching screams. When he came down again, the screams would have stopped. Someone else came with him – an elderly man or woman, talking in low voices. I knew that the screams came from a woman upstairs who had cancer. I knew that my father had, out of his leather bag, stopped the screams. I do not remember how I knew this, how my father had seen fit to introduce me to reality but all my life I have remembered – screams, cancer, horror, fear. It did not have the remote and curious connection of Uncle Ken’s pneumonia and the bread and sugar. This death (for surely the woman was dying) belonged to the real world, more affecting – not one’s uncle from my fairy tale (albeit sometimes a Grimm’s fairy tale) world – but a creature in extremis.

–Robin Dalton, Australian, b. 1921


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