When I was growing up in Box Hill my old home town in 1948, I was attracted to a very pretty girl by the name of Helen Frick. I was then in Grade 4 at Box Hill South State School.
I started to attend the Box Hill South State School after we moved house. The School was in the same kind of order as the houses in the paddocks around it. Many of the buildings were prefabricated and had been formerly army huts. They were cold in winter and hot in summer. Around the school yards we had open trenches dug for us in the event of an air raid. The trenches were dug in solid yellow clay and rapidly filled with water. If there had been an air raid and we had all jumped in we would have drowned. The yellow clay came with us into the class room and to our homes on our clothes, our shoes and school bags. Our school yards were not paved and consisted of clay and native grass. Most of our teachers were very old. They had been brought out of retirement when younger teachers were drafted for the war, or else joined the women’s land army.
We had reached that time in our schooling when we began to change over from pencil to pen and ink. The whole romance of receiving your own ink well in the hole in the top right hand corner of your desk, of the ink wells being filled each morning from the lemonade bottle with the rubber spout filler, and owning your own pen was one of the biggest achievements that we had made in our time at school.
Not everybody was able to write with pen and ink. Only the very best and neatest writers were allowed to graduate. That separated us into good neat writers and scrawling messy writers, which corresponded roughly to the girls and the boys.
Helen Frick was the prettiest girl in the class. She had a delightful quiet temperament, pretty features, freckles, blonde hair and an engaging smile. She was also the most intelligent student in class and received the highest marks. She used to sit in the very front row desk in the centre of the room, immediately in front of the teacher on her own. She concentrated on all of her lessons and paid little attention to the noise and troublemakers who always sat at the back. My desk was furthest from the front. From that desk were hatched many a plot designed to disturb classes and to sidetrack teachers from work into much more enjoyable occupations. None of us sitting near the back had ink wells. We were still struggling with pencils trying to perform copperplate loops on the handwriting in our books.
That did not mean to say that we had nothing to do with ink. Walking back from dropping a piece of paper in the rubbish bin or from another trip to the toilet we would sometimes dip a little wad of paper in someone else’s ink well on the way back to our seat, place it on the end of a ruler and then, at an appropriate moment when the eye of authority was on the blackboard, lodge another ink stained wad on the ceiling.
We only had two choices of pens. One was a wooden holder although some fortunate people had a plastic holder with a round steel end and steel nib. The nibs tended to get crossed and splatter ink upon a page. The other was a fountain pen. Only Mr. O’Reilly our crusty teacher had a fountain pen.
Mr. Thomas O’Reilly was very old. He had been retired for a number of years when the Education Department brought him out of retirement back to teaching to take the place of some of the male teachers who had been called up during the war. He was crusty and crabby and not at all disposed towards being patient with irritating boys. He fawned over the girls and they received every benefit possible. They were let out first, allowed to come in last, allowed to pack up and get ready for home and were given all of the pleasant tasks to do, whereas those boys who sat at the back were punished, made to spend our lunchtimes picking up paper in the school grounds, empty garbage bins and constantly writing out words we spelled incorrectly.
Mr. Thomas O’Reilly was a tough taskmaster and not at all popular with any one of us boys.
One week I tried very hard to do the very best writing I could, on the promise given that those of us who wrote neatly throughout the week would be allowed to commence writing with a steel nib and ink the following week. Late Friday afternoon two of us presented our books and requested the right to write in ink. Mr. O’Reilly scornfully looked at them “Do you call this neat? Have you had spiders crawling in the ink well and then all over your page?” He tossed the books back at us. “You will have to try a lot harder than that if you want to write in ink” he said.
We went back to our seats simmering with rage. We had tried really hard. We had improved immeasurably. We deserved to write in ink. It was just that he preferred girls to us. After school was out that day, I contemplated how to get even with Mr. Thomas O’Reilly. I knew where he lived and thought of all kinds of plots to get even with the hard tyrant.
The next day I had to fulfil a Saturday late morning chore. It meant going to our cake shop and bakehouse where Miss Perry would have finished counting the morning’s takings. She hid all of the coins away in a large calico bag in a hiding place under the stairs. In those days, banks were not open on weekends.
She rolled all of the notes into a roll in an elastic band and wrapped them in some white wrapping paper used for loaves of bread, tied it in string and gave it to me to take home to my mother. She kept the notes hidden in the bottom of her wardrobe for safekeeping over the weekend.
I picked up the roll of money as usual that day and started out for home. I walked around the back lane past Zigouras’ Greek cafe, past the back of the Rialto Theatre, up the lane beside Templeton’s Bike Shop and out into Main Street. I passed Fox’s Fruit Shop. I stopped for a while in front of Syd Lawrie’s Men’s Hairdresser. His window was fascinating. Full of packets of cigarettes from exotic overseas places, plugs of tobacco, many pipes with carved bowls featuring faces of pirates and bearded men, and some long thin clay pipes that had come from Holland. While I was staring in the window, I suddenly had an idea. Running down past George Morton’s Auction and Poultry Market, I went round the corner and down the street to the big factory that boasted a sign “The Egg and Egg Pulp Marketing Board”.
Into this huge factory, all the poultry farmers of the area had to bring their eggs for checking and stamping by the approved government authority. Behind the Egg and Egg Pulp Marketing Board factory was a huge incinerator for burning rejected eggs. It always smelt terrible from the burning of the egg shells and the paper mache fillers of rotten eggs. Collecting half a dozen intact rotten eggs waiting in boxes to be burnt, I placed them carefully in my pocket and walked across Whitehorse Road, past the Presbyterian Church and Braeside Guest House and down the side lane.
The corner house belonged to Mr. Thomas O’Reilly, retired teacher now seconded back into active service. He was working on his front garden and had not seen me. The time of revenge had come. Carefully placing five of the rotten eggs on the ground, I launched the first missile at the side of his house. It made a wonderful sound as it plopped against the white paint work. Then quickly followed, two, three, four more each with good aim. The rotten eggs exploded with a marvellous smattering effect.
Attracted by the noise of the exploding rotten eggs Mr. O’Reilly came round the side of his house. I heard him yell and start to scramble up the side wooden fence but by that time I was round the back lane and heading for the back of the Box Hill Post Office. I was well satisfied. The injustice had been corrected.
A wave of satisfaction came over me. I can remember walking up the plantations in the centre of Whitehorse Road, past the war monument toward the band rotunda doing cartwheels out of sheer joy. The sound of those exploding rotten eggs plopping against the side of his white painted house was music to my ears. As I was doing a cartwheel, the roll of money fell from my pocket. I picked it up and the paper at one end was damaged. As I pocketed it I saw underneath the sides of the roll of notes. Inquisitiveness undid the string, temptation filled my eyes at the sight of the roll of bank notes, and acquisitiveness extracted a green 1 pound note. I rolled the notes together tightly, put the rubber band round them, re wrapped them in the wrapping paper and re tied the string as carefully as Miss Perry had done, leaving the damaged end still exposed which I would explain as having been caused by falling from my pocket.
I had no purpose in mind when I took the money. But now possessing the money, a number of purposes quickly came to mind. About the only shop open early Saturday afternoon in Box Hill was McKelvie’s Newsagency just opposite.
I wandered across the road and looked in the windows at the books. It was a display of Conway Stewart fountain pens that caught my attention. Beautiful tortoiseshell pens with real gold nibs and only 10/6d. I purchased one from Mr. McKelvie and took the 9/6d change. I asked him to fill it with ink. I tried the nib out on some scrap paper. I asked him to give me a piece of white card and going over to a secluded place, wrote a message on the card with the pen. I then left with the pen nestled in its beautiful box.
I immediately knew what to do. Diverting from the straight route home I crossed the railway line, went down Station Street, turned up Reserve Road until I came to Bass Street, went down Bass Street to No.33, the house where Helen Frick lived. At that point my courage ran out. I could not go in the front gate. I slipped the Conway Stewart fountain pen in its box together with the card which said simply “To Helen, With Love” into their letter box. The card was unsigned.
As I stood outside her gate, I suddenly realized I had 9/6d change in my pocket and my mother would ask awkward questions if she knew I had that much money. So I took the change and put that in the mailbox as well. After all if you are going to give a present you may as well give it completely. Even when my mother counted the money at the bank on Monday and suspected I might have extracted the one pound it would be worth it.
I walked home absolutely jubilant. I had got even with Mr. Thomas O’Reilly and had made overtures to Helen Frick.
On Monday morning, the class started with the usual routine matters, collecting money for the State Savings Bank of Victoria, filling in our bankbooks and marking the roll. Then Mr. O’Reilly called me out. He said “On Saturday afternoon I had an impression that you may have walked down the lane beside my home. Did you?” I looked at him without blinking “No, Sir, why would I want to walk down your lane?” He looked for a long while and then said “Do you like eggs?” I looked back “Did you say eggs, Sir? No. I don’t like eggs.”
Mr. O’Reilly looked a bit longer and said “I am not satisfied with your performance. I do not know how to punish you. I think I shall have to keep you right under my eye. Go back and get your books and come down to the front and sit here among the girls.” All the boys at the back broke out sniggering and laughing. To sit next to the girls was the most derisive form of punishment in our Fourth Grade.
I picked up my books and walked down to the very front row at the centre. walking slowly and reluctantly. There was only one seat available and that was next to Helen Frick. She was writing with her Conway Stewart fountain pen. The other boys were sniggering, but deep inside I was smiling. Thank you Mr. Thomas O’Reilly.
I often thought about the time when we would get to write with pen and nib and in the best rounded writing write my full name and address which could then be found up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock at No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was only a village, where the adults were kind and where the children grew up responsibly.