The railway tracks were of great significance in our town of Box Hill in those last days of World War II. The railway tracks divided the town in half. They brought people out from the city each night from their places of work to their places of rest, and took people every morning into their places of employment.
It was an era when few people had cars and even those who had, because of petrol rationing, where unable to drive their cars. Consequently, everybody travelled by rail.
The railway ran due east and west. The southern track took people into Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station which we were proudly told was the busiest railway station in the world. Whether it was true or not, whether it could compare with New York’s Central Station or Japan’s Tokyo Station mattered little. The politicians proudly told us and we readily believed that it was the busiest station in the world. It ran eastward to Ferntree Gully and to the beautiful mountains of the Dandenongs, snowcapped in winter and glorious in spring and autumn.
The railway divided the community into north and south. On the north side were all the orchards and the main public buildings, the Court House, the Town Hall, the Returned Soldiers League, the Post Office and the larger shops including ours. It was on the north side that we had the professional offices, the solicitor, Mr. Kenneth G. McIntyre, the doctors, Dr. Kemp and Dr. Judkins, and the dentist, Marshall G. Tweedie. It was on the north side, too, that we had the richer churches the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, the Presbyterian and the Church of Christ.
On the south side we had the bus station, the chinese laundry, the delicatessen and the smaller shops. It also had the newer homes, the unmade streets and the unsewered areas, and the poorer churches the Salvation Army, the Baptist and the Methodists.
To cross the railway lines was to move into a different cultural territory. To cross the railway lines was always an adventure. We had in those days red electric trains with dogbox compartments. Whenever young people rode the trains we always got into the last compartment nearest the guard. But we also had steam trains that ran into the mountains and brought back long logs of timber, huge trees which were destined for the timber mills of South Melbourne to be made into piles for piers or perhaps trusses for road bridges. The railway tracks were central to the town. We never just crossed them, for the railways were always fascinating. I do not know for how long we did it but it seemed that throughout my childhood we were always putting halfpennies on the railways line and waiting for the next train to come so the wheels of the engine would run over the halfpennies and hopefully squash them flatter and rounder so that we could pass them off as pennies, thereby making one hundred percent profit on each enlargement.
Up at the railway sidings were the fruit carriages where the produce from the orchards were loaded. They always had some spoilages and half empty boxes of fruit always seemed to be available for any who were passing by up the tracks.
The cattle and the sheep vans were filled with cargos of miserable animals destined for the slaughter yard, and always willing to poke a dry tongue out between the bars to receive a kindly stroke upon the nose.
Over the other side of the tracks from us was one unusual house. It was one of the few substantial homes that had been built on the south side of the tracks and it was the home of Margaret and Rowland Perry.
The home was jointly owned by three members of the family. Maggie and Jean Perry were single ladies in their fifties. They worked for my parents in the bakery and the cakeshop. Their father had owned the business before it was purchased by my father. They owned the old family home jointly with their brother Alec who also lived in the house with his wife, Joyce, and their two children Margaret and Rowland.
With four adults and only two children in the house, with no house payments to make and plenty of money from the sale of the business they were comparatively wealthy.
Margaret was a beautiful girl, a classic beauty. She could have been in those Pears soap ads of very beautiful girls with long sausage curls that appeared in the magazines and on the railways hoardings. If there was a painting called “Little Girl Blue” it would have been of her. She was a beauty who always wore beautiful clothes of lace and velvet. What other girls would have been pleased to wear to Sunday School as “good”, she would wear to ordinary day school.
Rowland went to Boy Scouts and even though he was younger than the rest of us always had the full uniform with the peaked brown felt hat, the leather neck piece and green scarf, green socks and rope lanyard. But best of all he had a full leather belt with a silver buckle with the words “Be Prepared”.
My idea of absolute wealth was to have a pair of braces with silver buckles which said “For Police and Firemen” and a leather belt with a silver buckle which declared “Be Prepared”. I never owned either. Perhaps if I had I would have been the original belt and braces man! But we did not have money for such luxuries in those war years.
Margaret and Rowland lived with their two aunts and their parents in this big house with a wide verandah. It had beautiful standard rose bushes throughout the big front garden and in the backyard a banana passionfruit which was the pride of the area at a time when these were unknown in Melbourne. In fact people came just to see their banana passionfruit.
How I envied those children their big home and their expensive toys. One Christmas morning, I rushed down the street from our side of town, ran across the railway tracks and ran up to their house with its wide verandahs to show them my best Christmas toy.
It was a wind up bakelite car. In those days before plastic we had a substance called “bakelite” which was thick and heavy but which was much better than the tin cars that had sharp edges and were easily broken if trodden upon. The bakelite car had moveable front wheels and a big spring with a key in the side. I was excited to show them this beautiful racing car.
As I neared their house the two children were shouting to me from the verandah. I stopped dead in my tracks. The girl was riding the most beautiful rocking horse I had ever seen. It was on a big frame, stood higher than my head, and its four hooves were connected to two iron bars that allowed it to rock backwards and forwards. It was a dappled grey horse with a real leather saddle and stirrups and real eyes and real horse hair mane and tail.
I slowly walked up the garden path between the standard roses. My hand carrying the wind up bakelite car dropped to my side.
I had never seen such a beautiful horse in all of my life.
Margaret and Rowland were so proud of their horse. They let me pat the mane and to stroke the tail, but I was not allowed to ride it.
A few days later I realized that they were going into town with their parents and their aunts were at work. I reasoned that if I was to ride the horse it had to be then or never. I crossed over the railway tracks eagerly and ran down the street to the house with the wide verandahs.
No one was at home but the rocking horse was still on the verandah.
I climbed up onto the horse and began to ride it. Gently at first and then more vigorously. Then faster and then it seemed as if the horse became alive under my knees.
The faster I rode the horse the freer it became.
I jumped it over the verandah. It ran down the front path between the standard roses, jumped the front gate and started to gallop on the green verge along the footpath. I raced up to the railway tracks where the horse jumped the barbed wire fence and ran into the railway tracks. I galloped westward towards the mountains and as we galloped further up towards the hills I passed speeding trains.
Along the line we passed numerous red indians who were hiding in the cliffs of several cuttings, passed several tough cowboys, shot at bandits and escaped a gang of bushrangers. I rode harder and faster towards the hills, then desperately towards a great canyon over which I had to jump. I lunged forward in a mighty leap over the edge of the cliff towards the river far below.
The rocking horse tipped over on its head and landed on the verandah floor. The dream was ended.
Slowly I picked up the stricken rocking horse. I had been riding hard and I was still on the verandah. My frantic action had taken me nowhere.
As I straightened the horse a dreadful feeling of failure came upon me. I went back and crossed the railway line to play with my wind up bakelite car that could travel ever so fast up our lino covered hallway. The bakelite car went places and I had to run to catch up with it. I never rode the stationary rocking horse again. I realized that day that many people spend all their lives riding rocking horses. Their lives are full of dreams and hopes. They are in perpetual motion, always busy but never achieving anything. Full of frantic action, but going nowhere.
At least my bakelite car could go somewhere and I could follow it.
A new sense of the worthwhileness of what I possessed came over me as I crossed the railway tracks that January morning and walked up Bank Street along the railway line to the top of the hill and to No.5 Miller Street, Box Hill, a great city which was once a village, where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.