When writing the first of my period dramas, a historical novel set in the wilds of the Australian bush, I brought back to mind the years of living on isolated properties in the middle of nowhere. This is my personal story about a party-line telephone which we really needed on occasions.
The telephone wire was very simply strung from tree to tree; being re-strung and mended by my husband after every wind or rain storm. However it did remain in tack through one battering thunderstorm when I had a real emergency with one of my children.
I had put the toddler down for his afternoon nap, walked into the kitchen to find the highchair pushed against the kitchen cupboard and a bottle of pills on the floor. The little fellow had climbed up to reach the bottle of fluoride tablets – a necessary supplement suggested by our doctor, when rain water off the roof was our only water supply. The storm was raging. I telephoned the nearest medical help, forty kilometers away. The static and commotion on the line was extremely bad. I could not understand the doctor and I had no idea if he could hear me. However, with much yelling and shouting, the doctor’s muffled words: ‘give him milk,’ came through and I hung up with a sigh of relief. Our precious child suffered no symptoms of poisoning; and I do realize that the extra fluoride tablets may not have harmed him. I was truly thankful that day for the shaky, trembling wire strung from stringy-bark to forest oak and numerous other trees for many kilometers that had given me a measure of peace. It was certainly better than no telephone at all.
A pioneer woman of course would not be supplementing her child’s diet with fluoride tablets; they would be drinking from a well or a creek; but I did massive amounts of cooking as did my character in the novel. She purchased flour and sugar and a few condiments and got on with the job as I did. She bought fabric and cotton and clothed her children and herself with the aid of a Singer sewing machine as I did. My dear Aunty Janey gave me recipes and I made my own jams, jellies and pickles. With the sewing, I taught myself with the help of the Enid Gilchrist pattern- making books. I became very proficient at boy’s shirts and on occasions sewed my own evening gowns for the numerous charity balls we attended. It was a whole new world of creativity and endeavour. I churned the cream to make the butter for both families – the butter going into biscuits, scones, cakes and slices. I reared cockerels for the table and kept hens for the fresh eggs they laid daily. The vegetable garden was always productive. At times we had our own beef and mutton. It was as close to a life of self-sufficiency that was possible at the time. My apprenticeship for my pioneering family in the novel was played-out in reality. I loved every minute of those turbulent, early years.
Barbara Hartmann King