PAPERBACK BOOKS
DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO

Pam Hunter takes the reader on a lifetime of adventures through the character of stubborn Claire Meredith, who learns life’s lessons the hard way. Don’t Tell Me What To Do begins with stories about Claire’s parents and grandparents, and continues with her life at school, Sunday school, enrolment in the army and her work in nursing on Palm Island and in Papua New Guinea .  

Returning to Australia , Claire undergoes an abortion in Sydney and then continues with her nursing career in Coffs Harbour where she meets the love of her life. But marriage is not on the cards and Claire moves to Sydney .  

Written in an entertaining, conversational style, Don’t Tell Me What To Do is rich in anecdotes and gives an honest, forthright insight into the life of a well-travelled, twentieth-century woman.  

This is Pam’s second novel. Her first, also published by Zeus Publications, is Shadows of Time.

In Store Price: $AU29.95 
Online Price:   $AU28.95

ISBN:    978-1-921118-35-7
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 313
Genre: Fiction
 

 


Author: Pamela Claire Hunter 
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2007
Language: English

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About the author

Pam Hunter was born in Tweed Heads, New South Wales , in 1934. Raised in Queensland she joined the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps when she turned eighteen, resigning to commence her general nurse training in Townsville in 1954.  

Over the next fifty years, she travelled to many countries of the world as a regular respite from a life committed to the pursuit of excellence for herself and the ever-changing profession of nursing.  

Midwifery was her main love but she was also wooed by academia, pursuing teaching and eventually obtaining a Masters degree. A short time working in psychiatry and research was followed by a twenty-year affiliation with diversional therapy and aged care.  

Now living in Brisbane , where she retired in the year 2000, Pam has reinvented herself as an artist and a writer.  

Don’t Tell Me What to Do is Pam’s second novel published by Zeus, the first being Shadows of Time.

Prologue

Nursing was my chosen career; it was not my life. It was the backbone of what became a successful working life, beginning when I was only fifteen, as an assistant in nursing in the local cottage hospital in the 1950s, until retiring in 2000 after more than twenty of those years as Director-of-Nursing in a number of aged care facilities.

During these years there were many wonderful people who passed through my life, helping me to develop the skills and find the necessary courage to pursue my career, while, deep inside, I was trying to identify that certain elusive element – that certain something – that most of us seek all of our lives and do not find. It is unidentifiable, in keeping with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and has nothing to do with the popular image of success. The answer to whether I found it or not can perhaps be discovered embedded in the pages of this book as I explore the decisions I made along the way and the effects that social changes and circumstances had on those decisions.

Born out of wedlock in an era when such behaviour was certainly unaccepted, I was absolutely adored by my parents, each for different reasons. My mother saw me as replacing the daughter she had lost to gastroenteritis before reaching her first birthday. My father envisaged his beautiful daughter as developing into a well educated, ethical and moral woman, perfect in every way, preferably looking like my mother Agnes. He adored her.

Their motives were different but their goals were the same. Both were searching for something and hoped to find it in their newly born daughter.

My early childhood could be called idyllic; my mother smothered me with unconditional love while my father instilled in me a strict code of ethics, the importance of education and an iron will to succeed. These ideals are commendable but Mum’s passion for material things and Dad’s propensity for alcohol saw all of their plans eventually come unstuck.

With my sister, Margaret, only fifteen months younger, we shared a beautiful but unconventional childhood, living in a tent in the Jimna State Forrest where my father felled timber.

After commencing correspondence school when aged five, with my sister Margaret joining a short time later, I was thrust into the ‘real’ world when my parents moved to the small community of Jimna and we both continued our education at the local school. It was here that competition with my sister became more than just sibling rivalry as it was while living in the bush. The introduction of other children and my parent’s continuing reminder to take care of my sister placed a heavy responsibility on my six-year-old shoulders. Margaret wouldn’t listen to me, using other kids to gang up on me, making me feel useless. Feelings of guilt and resentment at not being able to do as my parents asked were to affect my entire life. I needed their approval.

Adding to my miseries was the fact that soon after our move my mother took over the management of the local boarding house, while my father was establishing a satisfactory career for himself in the timber mill, leaving little time to spend with Margaret and me. Although we were happy about the material things we now enjoyed, we began to wonder why our lives had altered since we left the bush; maybe our parents didn’t love us any more; maybe we were adopted.

The changes to all our lives brought with them lifelong repercussions. The loss of family cohesion and my parents’ drive to give us all a better life, resulted not only in my feelings of rejection, but could be seen as a contributing factor in my mother being unfaithful. My father never ever forgave her, punishing us all for almost the rest of his life by his excessive drinking. Much to my chagrin I learned that my wonderful father had clay feet.

It is fair to say that both the positive and negative components of my parent’s teaching was to last a lifetime, providing the cornerstones on which my life was built as I endeavoured to make the most of the ideals they had taught me, while trying to overcome the legacy of emotional trauma they had unwittingly imposed on me.

As a determined, undisciplined young adult, I sought guidance in structured situations like the armed services and nursing training. I seemed to realise instinctively that I needed someone whom I respected to say, “Whoa, nought’s enough.” Without such limitations my life was going nowhere.

From my early years there were people who saw prospects in this wilful energetic woman unaware of her own potential. With their encouragement I went from strength to strength, accumulating both personal and professional advantages as I propelled myself from one learning situation to another.

Conventional family life was never on my agenda; however an unsought romantic interlude changed my life when I was 27, remaining a beautiful memory, overshadowing all other hopeful relationships. Longer lasting have been the love and loyalty freely given me by the many friends, male and female, that I’ve made along the way and it would have been a futile journey without the company of those very valuable people.

My nursing career has been the basis on which I’ve built my life and I have made a comfortable living while still maintaining the self-discipline that I originally needed to build a successful existence.

Towards the end of my career I began to realise that I must be looking for my utopia in all the wrong places, as years of searching had not borne fruit. I then wondered if my parents had found it. Does anybody?

After mulling this question over for some time, one day on a beautiful November morning in 2001, I realised that I was no nearer to that pot of gold than I had been more than 50 years ago. Despite many warnings over a long period of time, I had not been listening, continuing to struggle with my many demons in an effort to achieve and maintain success. Believing that that was my goal, to give up was unthinkable.

The last six years leading to this day was spent as Director-of-Nursing at Crossly Park doing battle with management and governmental agencies in an effort to provide an acceptable standard of care for the residents – a role that I had played for over 20 years in various settings, and was still losing.

I readily accepted responsibility for all inconsistencies despite the fact that many of them were out of my control. After what seemed to be a lifetime, the burden became intolerable. The feelings of self-doubt, fear of failure and rejection, now rendered my position as Director-of-Nursing untenable.

That morning as usual, I arrived for work about seven a.m. and walked from my undercover car space into the main street. Making my way to the front door of the nursing home, I noticed that the garden hose was on and water was collecting in a variety of holes in the lawn, so I walked over and turned it off. On the way back I picked up a stray empty packet of Smiths potato chips that had blown or was thrown onto the front garden. These actions were automatic, born of many years of accountability. Making my way to my office, I continued to scan the entrance and note anything unusual or out of place. This ‘free wheeling’ allowed me to deliberate on what the day might have in store for me. It was usually a bad start when I arrived to find an ambulance parked outside, heralding a crisis of some description that had disrupted the routine for the day before it even began. This could happen at any time and needed to be viewed as part of the job description; however of late, it simply added to an already busy day with little possibility of relief. A constant feeling of failure and hopelessness had infiltrated the very core of my being and despite all my efforts to control it, could not be ignored.

My actions on that November morning were unrehearsed and unplanned. It was as if the whole scene was simply played out without any conscious thought from me, but it was certainly with my approval. My day had only just begun when somewhere in my mind the decision was made that enough was enough. My spirit was defeated and I had no heart to carry on. I began completing a few tasks that would make it easy for my staff to continue without me. They were not the problem and there was little doubt that they would manage quite well without me. They were self-reliant and would care for the residents regardless of whether I was there or not. With a heavy heart I picked up the phone and punched in Michael’s number.

“Hello,” came his familiar voice, and when he knew it was me he said, “can I ring you back in a minute?”

“No,” I replied, “I will not be here. I cannot work under these conditions any longer and am leaving right now.”

At the time I didn’t know that those words were to finish my nursing career forever.

 

Chapter One

Agnes was only sixteen when she was compelled by her mother to marry forty-year-old James Dunstan, a Brisbane bayside fisherman who had recently emigrated from Yugoslavia in search of a better life.

 

Agnes was a beautiful young woman about five foot two, of medium build with black hair, olive skin and dark-brown, expressive eyes. She grew up in an era when it was customary for mothers to marry off their daughters as soon as they began to show the least interest in the boy next door, or any other boy for that matter. This custom was believed prudent, as it reduced the possibility of wayward daughters getting themselves ‘in the family way’.

After the birth of three sons and the death of an eleven-month-old baby daughter, Jean, Agnes walked out when the youngest son was only three years old. She never went back. That three-year-old, now a man of seventy, clearly remembers the day she left and seems compelled at every opportunity to tell me, “I knew she wasn’t coming back because she took her port (now the perennial suitcase). I saw her put it into Bill Stevens’ bus as it stopped on the way to the train.”

The rail service was a valuable amenity for the citizens of Brisbane, most of whom were dirt poor because of the depression of 1930 and would otherwise have walked, or ridden their bikes. It serviced local areas from Cleveland to South Brisbane. To travel to outlying places like Mt Gravatt, it was possible to catch a tram from Stones Corner by getting off the train at Buranda and walking back, the same as we would today. Freight services also began to grow as an alternative to the limited road transport.

Agnes had obviously planned her getaway well, but we can only guess why she left. She never did confide in any of the family. The only thing she told me was that five years before her escape, she had wanted to go to Mt Gravatt to see her parents but James had told her, “I don’t want you to take Jean over there for the next few days. They have a bout of gastro and I don’t want her to get it.” However, she did take her and the baby died.

Gastroenteritis, even today, remains one of the major causes of death in young children between 0-4 years. The major causes are unsafe water and inadequate sanitation, both of which were normal in nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia. Rainwater was used for all personal needs, including drinking. It was collected in large tanks, a wonderful environment for frogs to breed, thereby encouraging contamination of the water supply.

Sewage was either buried in deep pits or collected by the ‘dunny man’ (if you had a dunny), who replaced the full can with a clean one. ‘Outhouses’, through necessity, were in the back yard. The dunny man’s job was made easy because all houses had a special lane running behind the dunny, with access through the back of the outhouse, so he only had to open the small door, pull out the full can and replace it with a clean one. He would then check the box of sawdust located in the loo itself. An adequate supply was essential to cover each offering, discouraging fly maggots from breeding and escaping from the pan. The dunny man had to run around to the front door to do this. Many an unsuspecting soul had been caught reading the latest news when the pan had been whisked away from under them, closely followed by the door being flung open and the dunny man appearing in front of them.

Regardless of the hazards, it was always tempting to read in the toilet because all ingredients were at hand. It was a quiet spot. The previous occupant would have left a newspaper or magazine on the bench top of the loo, either side of the roughly hewn hole suitable for all sized derrieres. Sometimes it was already torn into hand-sized pieces, threaded through a piece of strong string or wire, and hung on a nail somewhere at arm’s length ready to wipe your bum. There was no ‘Wonder Soft’ in those days – just the harsh reality of the daily news. The only relief from this was after the fruiterer’s weekly visit – he sold apples wrapped in tissue paper. This material was the only luxury levelled at our otherwise harshly-treated bottoms. But the worst blow was when reading an interesting story and you turned the page only to discover someone had already used the vital page for more personal activities. It was enough to make you want to kick the dunny down.

It is doubtful that Jean’s death was the only reason for Agnes’ leaving. I can only deduce that James never forgave her for their daughter’s death. I doubt if she ever forgave herself. The one thing she held dear was that, “Jean had been a beautiful baby – too beautiful to live.” I hope that this belief gave her peace.

James also demanded sex from her, keeping a knife under his pillow to reinforce his demand. Consequently, Agnes was only seventeen when her first child was born, and without today’s choice of contraception, was pregnant almost every two years after that.

There was little money in those days during the depression. To make a living, the family ran a fish shop in Cleveland. James did the fishing while Agnes sold the fish and took care of the kids. She needed a lot of help from her family, and was especially close to one of her sisters-in-law, May. She was the kindest soul but spent her life escaping from a drunkard husband. She was Agnes’ lifeline and a connection to the local community, which was an important part of everyone’s extended family. People tended to live in small enclaves, relying on one another for their very existence. Transportation and communications were in their infancy, so most walked or rode a bike or horse to keep in contact with one another. Many worked large farms of varying kinds, sometimes earning barely enough to survive.

Those were the days before the introduction of the fish co­op, with local fishermen selling directly to the public or through their own fish shops. The personal approach was the acceptable way to do business, but it had its disadvantages. Agnes was a kind-hearted young woman who knew what it was like to have no money. Feeling sorry for her friends and neighbours who couldn’t pay, she would not hesitate in giving fish away to them, or asking for payment later. Unfortunately, because of this she had to explain the discrepancies to James, or have less for her own family. Nevertheless, Agnes could not bear to say no. It made her feel good to help others. James tried to reason with his wife but to no avail; so when the shop burned to the ground as the result of an electrical fault, it was never rebuilt.

“James was cruel to me,” she told me, “he gave me little money but I knew he had hidden some in the manhole in the kitchen ceiling. I would often stand on the table to look at how much he had but was never game enough to take any. I was terrified he would find out and be mad at me.”

She said he was so jealous that when he was out fishing at Wellington Point, after the loss of the shop, he would lock her and the kids in the house, leaving them there for hours. With the loos outdoors, if you had to go inside it was in the ‘goesunder’ (goes under the bed) or a kerosene tin, both of which were essential under the circumstances.

Fortunately for the family, James could fish only when the tides were right and his nets were intact. He would spend other days down on the waterfront repairing nets or at home smoking some of the fish that he caught, usually mullet. On these occasions, Agnes and the children were given the freedom to help with the activities.

The nets were stowed in a dingy, an essential accessory to the fishing boat, and rowed to the beach where they were spread out for inspection. Repairs were carried out and the nets returned to the dingy, then rowed back out to the usual mooring position. There were no motorboats so the help of family and friends was vital in maintaining this industry.

James won first prize two years running in a competition held at the exhibition ground for the best smoked fish. From all accounts, he was a good fisherman who took great care smoking his fish. He preferred to use mullet, saying that it was the oiliest and best suited to the drying process. After salting, the fish fillets were hung in the sun and secured with skewers from the clothesline. The sun encouraged the oil to leach out. James returned without fail every half hour to delicately brush over each fillet, ensuring even distribution of the oil. When it had dried thoroughly, the fish were put into a specially designed wooden box in the back yard and smoked, using dry sawdust.

His great-grandchild remembers eating that smoked mullet when she was a little girl. “You didn’t even have to cook it. We just broke it off and ate it. It was delicious.”

Agnes learned these skills as she worked alongside James. I had the pleasure of learning some of them thirty years later when a school of mullet swam into Coffs Harbour and our catch overflowed our freezers. It wasn’t as good as freshly cooked fish but it was a great alternative.

Agnes had to fill her days caring for the house and children, however there were times when she would forget her woes, breaking into song and delighting her young brood. She had a lovely soprano voice. In fact, she was chosen out of all the schoolchildren in Queensland to sing ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ before King Edward VIII, then the Prince of Wales, when he visited Brisbane in 1920. He was made Prince of Wales in 1911, ascending the British throne in 1936, but abdicated in favour of his brother George, on 10 December 1936, to marry divorcee Mrs Wallis Simpson. George was crowned King George VI in 1937 and Edward was given the title of the Duke of Windsor, marrying Wallis Simpson on 3 June 1937.

But Agnes’ mother wouldn’t let her sing for the Prince, believing that no daughter of hers should be involved in a public performance. The place for all women was in the home, caring for the men. Some well-meaning friends, who had other views on the place of women, plotted behind her back. They arranged the making of a dress and all the trimmings. Despite all their efforts, Agnes’ mother found out and still refused to give her daughter permission to sing. For the conspirators it was a bitter disappointment, but for Agnes it was an opportunity gone forever.

She was never to cultivate her natural talent, her life becoming completely involved with husband and children. However, she loved to sing and was familiar with most of the singers and their songs: Vera Lynne, Gracie Fields and Gladys Moncrieff. She heard them on radio, a recent invention that was a direct result of the first radio signal sent across the Atlantic by Marconi in 1901.

Music was popularised by the advent of electronic sound recording in the 1920s, making it possible to transfer sound to recording. During the 1930s, 78-rpm records were played on a gramophone. This worked by winding up a spring situated beneath a turntable. The record was placed on the turntable, and the arm holding the needle or stylus released onto the revolving record, producing sound. When it ran down, you simply wound it up again.

Agnes had no television or telephones to fill her long days. Thoughts about the possibility of a better life were never far away. She had no life of her own and could not see this ever changing. The prospect of more babies constantly reminded her of Jean and did nothing to ease the pain.

In 1931, while James was down mending his nets with the two eldest kids, she packed her small port and left.

The family home, a high-set Queenslander in much need of repair from which Agnes eventually escaped, is now a stark reminder of those harsh days and the courage of a young woman who defied convention and followed her heart’s bidding.

After leaving Wellington Point, Agnes went to stay with her mother, knowing that she would not approve but also realising that her father would be her best ally. Through her family, Agnes became aware that a doctor, a family friend, needed someone to help his wife take care of their home and children. Nothing could have been better. Agnes was a good cook and knew how to care for children; she had been caring for her own the previous nine years. She didn’t hesitate to contact the doctor and apply for the job, and was readily accepted.

Agnes moved into the home of Doctor and Mrs Richardson in Burleigh Heads and took up her first paid job as housekeeper/nanny. She loved the sense of freedom that earning her own living gave her, but more than that, appreciated being treated with respect for the tasks she did. Her life had changed, and there was no going back. She missed her children and would have loved to see them, even for a moment; but it was not to be. They were out of her reach, cared for by their able father. He never spoke of Agnes from the day she left, feeling that it was better for the children that she remain out of their lives. He may have been a poor husband but Agnes knew that he loved his children. In spite of her heartbreak at the loss, she did not see her family again for more than ten years.

She started to build a new life, still cherishing the memory of her young family and a childhood lived in Western Australia. Clearly remembering the floral emblem of that state, the Kangaroo Paw, she bemoaned the fact that it didn’t grow where she now lived. She hadn’t seen it since she had left Western Australia, recalling that, “Dad owned a large house and land, and gave me everything that I desired, including my own Shetland ponies with a carriage to ride around the estate. I loved pretending that I was Queen Victoria travelling in her carriage through London streets, tossing silver coins to her subjects.”

Life for her parents had not been as rosy as Agnes remembered. Her father had worked to maintain their lifestyle and preserve some of the funds that he and my grandmother brought out from the U.K. Both came out on different ships from England in the late nineteenth century. They met in Claremont in Western Australia and were from ‘opposite sides of the track’. He was the son of a wheelwright who had worked on some of the first cabs to go down London streets. She was the daughter of a major in Queen Victoria’s Guards, who had been killed on the battlefields in 1881.

Mary’s mother, Alita Ginorio Valdez, was a beautiful, petite, Spanish lady who eloped with the major while he was on duty in Spain. She had been betrothed to a countryman and had provoked the anger of her family when she decided to travel to the U.K. to marry the major.

After the wedding, at which she wore a handmade gown crafted by one hundred work girls, she lived in the army barracks with her husband. She became the delight of the company, entertaining them with her singing prowess. She died when Mary was born.

Mary came to Australia with the family of one of her father’s friends, who had taken care of her since she started school. She had been unable to remain in the barracks – it was against the rules. She remained with her new family even though her father remarried. His second union produced another daughter who subsequently claimed her father’s estate, including jewellery and a considerable quantity of real estate in and around London.

Despite such promising beginnings, Mary arrived in Western Australia with only the items her father had given her. My mother used to reminisce, “She had a diamond tiara, the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, and a pair of large, ruby, drop earrings that were absolutely breathtaking.” As the eldest in the family, my mother would have been in line to inherit such gems, but they had been put in a bank safety deposit box somewhere; no one knew where. In any case, we couldn’t afford to get them out. If the story is true, the jewellery should still be in that bank somewhere in Claremont.

My grandfather, Charles, was a manual worker: carpentry, gardening anything related to manual skills. He loved it, but found that work was not easy to obtain in Western Australia. He wrote to a cousin, Jack Maxwell, who had settled in Woody Point in Queensland, asking about job prospects. Jack’s reply encouraged him to make the move.

During the autumn of 1917, Grandad, Mary, the two kids, Agnes and Fred started out from their home in Claremont, on their journey across the Australian continent. They travelled by steam train. Because of the different rail gauges in all states, they had at least five changes of trains along the way – and that was only to Sydney. The first was Kalgoorlie where the narrow gauged railway ended and the standard gauge of the Transcontinental began, running to Port Augusta.

There were no luxuries on those early steam trains, such as refreshments on board like there are today. The sleeping carriages introduced on the Afghan Express running from Terowie to Oodnadatta through Quorn in 1923 were austere. Railwaymen dubbed the train the ‘Afghan Express’ after an Afghan passenger alighted at Quorn to recite his prayers. In time, this was abbreviated to ‘The Ghan’. People took all they were likely to need for comfort, and dreamt of sleeping in their own beds again.

Fortunately for Nan and Grandad, their two children were old enough to cope with the arduous journey without too much concern. But it was still a courageous decision to have made, travelling such a long way from one side of the country to the other, not knowing what might be expected of them, or what awaited them when they arrived.

After arriving in Brisbane, they rented a house in Cleveland until cousin Jack suggested they relocate to Mt Gravatt; work was easier to find in that area. Grandad accepted his suggestion, obtained a worker’s loan and bought a house, securing sufficient handyman jobs to service the loan.

Within a few years, the family grew from two to six, four boys and two girls; the youngest, my Aunt Betty. The increase in the family, together with the deepening depression over the course of the next seven years, brought about a dramatic change in their lifestyle. The opportunities for work glibly promised by Jack were short-lived, and before long Grandad was searching further afield for employment.

He again approached Jack, who ran the dunny cart at Woody Point and owned most of the houses in Main Coast Road. Jack suggested that Grandad make the trip to see him and assess the job possibilities for himself. So he took his family to Woody Point, leaving his son Bert in the family home with strict instructions to pay the rent on time. He failed to do so, resulting in my grandparents losing their home. Fortunately, Jack offered Grandad a job on his dunny cart, with the prospect of buying one of his houses in Main Coast Road, not far from the depot where the trucks were garaged. Grandad accepted and worked for Jack, until sewerage took over from the manual dunnies. Jack then turned to selling ice. Nana and Grandad lived in that house until they died.

My grandfather was the most generous and delightful man I have ever met. He was tall and thin, with an imposing handlebar moustache. He loved his pot of beer at the local on Friday nights, leaving there as happy as a lark after having had more than his fair share, singing loudly as he weaved his way home up Woody Point Road. We could hear him singing songs like Mademoiselle from Armentiers, long before we could see him.

There will always be a special place in my heart for a happy old man who chose one day each week to let everyone in Woody Point know that he was alive. My grandmother was never amused, but she was a very different person. Where he was a happy, generous, lovable old man, she was more reserved, serious and somewhat angry. Perhaps she had every reason to be angry. Ties with her family had been lost through no fault of her own, and the few treasures she had were in a bank vault somewhere in Claremont.

Charles had lost the only thing left of her heritage, a ring. Queen Victoria had given it to her father when he was a member of her Royal Guards. Nan gave it to Grandad on their wedding day and he did the unthinkable, losing it on one of his Friday night sprees.

 

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