Perth 1967

You have to understand something about my childhood before I begin to tell about Hilda.My father – what is essential information about him? Wack!The toaster cord hits thin,knobbly kneed legs.‘I already told you,put those bloody books away!’

It was difficult to explain to people who did not have kindred childhoods,or to wish away his two personalities.To Dad’s friends he was charismatic,man’s man.At home he was a nightmare.Hit first and ask questions later.Even now I can recall his belt,a piece of kindling wood and a wooden spoon were implements wielded under the justification of discipline.


Dad was the second youngest of six sons,who grew up on an isolated farm called ‘Carin’ because once past there,you were past caring.Too many mouths to feed;the Great Depression,you know the story.I suppose Dad had to fight for everything.

I’m not trying to make excuses,but my relationship with males was heavily influenced by duck­for­ cover self­protection instincts.

Surrounded by demeaning taunts,Mum was a ‘silly half baked puddin’,a lame brain,or just woman.The latter directed with real belligerence.

Being a child badgered with,‘you useless article!’ was a self fulfilling prophecy which only exacerbated the uselessness.I wore this badge for at least twenty years and am still trying to deal with an inherited inner critic.

Why didn’t mum do something? She probably didn’t have much choice.No women’s shelters then,minimal availability of lowly paid jobs to support her family;where else would she go? So she just stayed.I know this all sounds like a feeble justification.I can’t remember where I heard it,or if I’d made up the story of her sole attempt to leave him.More than once I ran over the tale in my head; narrated her walking through Perth’s summer heat, tugging at least one kid’s reluctant arm,pushing a laden pram,fleeing with her young family to her mothers’.Just to be sent away with,‘you’ve made your bed now you have to lay in it!’ Mum endured, kept her head down too;perhaps enjoyed her own power trip.Back then you stayed for the kids; waited for a future martyr medal.That’s just the way it was.In my defence I did tell her not so long ago how much my childhood was ‘hell on wheels.’ It’s not meant to be cathartic to share all this now,just my way of establishing that nary tenderness, gentleness nor caressing existed for me,before Hilda that was.

In High School post­war Italian migrants were making their presence felt.Boys with tight pants, macho effervescence and way too much confidence patrolled playing fields and corridors.Even though I was generally head and shoulders taller they still intimidated.My limbs were not yet resembling their Sophie Loren perfect woman images therefore I was a target.Let’s face it,long skinny legs,knobbly knees that seemed to turn in,pigeon toed,wearing glasses, braces on my buck teeth;I was never going to be the subject of their teenage fantasies,or even worth befriending.

To make matters worse I seemed to have a penchant for strong,aggressive females.Blame it on my father’s one sister – Sylvia.Sent back to the farm to care for a male dominated household when their mother died young must have been tough, she was only a teenager.Sylvia used to say,‘I don’t want equality,women have always been superior to men’. Her ability to drink as much as dad,and tell tales of youthful adventures was inspirational.

I craved for visits with my aunty and looked around for alternative female role models.This manifested itself in an obsession with the Avenger’sTV show.

Watching Emma,Diana and the femme assistances to the top­hat wearing leading man,John Steed became an indulgence.Even though it was at risk of abuse and involved sneaking back into the lounge room well after bed­time.For a weekly fix, I could tolerate possible punishment.Anyway,more often than not Dad would provide a snoring backdrop.

In some ways Hilda was a teenage version of these women,she certainly came to my rescue, although not because of school­yard name calling.

Just that she seemed to be a friend through those sad,lonely years.Can’t remember exactly when we met,might have been Girl Guides,because the hall was near her house.But Hilda quickly became everything.

The daughter of Dutch immigrants who had given her what was an ordinary name by their standards,yet wonderfully exotic to my ears.Her father was an engineer who owned a business making tractor shaped sprinklers that travelled along your hose and watered the whole garden.

Hence they were comfortably well off compared to my squalor.Hilda’s sister Doreen had a horse stabled amongst the market gardens of Osborne Park,yet another example of their affluence and an adolescent dream I dare not ask about.

Hilda’s family of mum,dad and the two girls; what luxury compared to my four siblings.No shared bedrooms,no multiple bath sittings.I fell in love with Dutch salted liquorish,iced ginger biscuits,blue and white china depicting windmills.

I even endured the wandering about a few sports grounds enduring long,wintery,Saturday afternoons watching the soccer – a game I could never understand.The walk or bike ride that was needed to get to her home was like a quest with inherent reward.

Both of us were tall and skinny.Hilda had straight strawberry blond hair (today’s colour technicians would labour long and hard to achieve, but she despised),cut blunt just below her ears, accentuating an elegant neck.Compared with my mousey brown,razor cut and sticking up in multiple directions locks,Hilda’s was a crowning glory.The boys taunted her as carrot tops,fire head or mistook her Netherland heritage as German which was a real insult.It felt amazing to bond over mutual torment.

Even now I can recall meeting her in a grassy patch half way between the two houses and laying watching clouds float pass while we talked about books,horses and television.Shared secrets like, ‘those Italian boys in their jeans....’ ‘Yer,how do they get them so tight?’ ‘You know they put socks down them.’ ‘My mum gave me a book with all these pictures.Something stuck out in the front.’ ‘It goes stiff before it goes in.’ ‘I aren’t ever going to do that,it’s so disgusting!’ The smell of wild oat weeds drying to blonde in summer even now evokes a tang of nostalgia for those innocent days.That was when I touched her ginger tinged skin.

For a teenager who was horse mad,Evelyn Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books had been my escape for several years all Hilda had to offer was the tiniest equine snippet to seduce me further.

Even if that meant that she could not get the distance desired away from Doreen.We would bike down to the stables off Royal Street,bring Solitaire in from the paddock,and groom her,before the ‘evil’ older sister would arrive for lessons.I’d head up the hill to home heady with scents of stable dust, saddle grease and hay.Closeness of our fingers,her patient instructions as we platted mane and tail,or polished leather was all dizzying.Working on a shared task with Hilda left me steeped in pleasure.

Once after Osborne Park Agricultural show we took turns riding back to the stables.Straddling that broad back with Hilda’s legs firmly behind mine and moving with Solitaire’s motion ­ euphoria was like a drug.

Any sleep­over night was alive with all sorts of new sensations.Their house was on a smaller block with Pine trees along the western edge,to wake in a fold out bed with the scent of those needles, heaven!This is another of those triggers that creates a throat lump.

I was on the trundle out bed,but as we talked and the chill of winter settled when Hilda invited me to,‘get in here and we’ll keep each other warm.’ I felt a slither of flesh,smooth skin,picturing tiny ginger hairs under my fingertips was beyond excitement.I touched her,she let her fingers trace across my belly.‘Turn over,face the wall.’ Her arm encircled from behind,I could feel her hips against my pyjama pants,and there was radiating warmth.Her breath on the back of my neck,hard small breasts behind my shoulder blades, where she touched was bliss magnified.Her fingers strayed upwards under my pyjamas top.She never would have touched my breasts;girls simply didn’t do that sort of thing back then.

‘It feels better if you take your pants off.’ I could feel her pubis against bare skin.

I didn’t know what it was then,but it wasn’t long before my body shuddered out of control.

Then I did a stupid thing.I wrote a note to a girl in a senior class,nothing sinister just simple and straightforward.I’d cut out a picture of the actress who played the current Avenger and informed her of what I saw as an obvious resemblance.So added to taunts of four eyes,giraffe legs,bean pole,I was now called leso.In those days this was a fire­brand, derogatory insult.There was no way our young love could carry that weight.Hilda’s response to my little letter was,‘why on earth did you do that?’ As if I needed to be told that I’d done something wrong? Being a “useless article” came to fruition yet again.

Hilda absented herself from my vicinity at school and opportunities to spend time either at the stables or her place suddenly became scarcer than a wet day in Perth during January.

Saw her again when I came back to Perth in the early 80s,she hadn’t changed that hair colour and looked right at home on the large table of well dressed people in the Max Kay’s ScottishTheatre Restaurant.A simple black dress embraced her slim form.Whereas I was in wait­ staff uniform;white shirt,bow­tie and black trousers.This was a time of struggling with two jobs;Max Kay’s being the one that involved late nights,very heavy trays and limited space between overloaded tables.At first I thought she wouldn’t recognize me.I must have changed over the years.So much time,so many miles between us yet some things change and some things stay the same.Hilda reached out.

‘You work here?’ Yet she turned away to some table top anecdote, laughing way too loudly.So in my waitress role I did what all good serving staff should ­ made myself invisible.But from my elevated perspective I could see her thin hand grasp a man’s thigh in a possessive manner.That moment shouted loud that I was just a teenager game to Hilda.

Karen Lethlean