The most bizarre day of Emily’s life started in quite a normal fashion. Isaac arose as usual at a quarter to six. Emily had hardly slept all night, but she forced herself out of bed to prepare breakfast for her husband. Coming face to face with her jaded reflection in the mirror as she brushed her hair, Emily felt shot through with guilt.
She looked around the bedroom. She had always disliked the dark, ponderous bedroom furniture which had belonged to Isaac’s parents. The bed creaked and sagged, and there was something off-putting about Isaac’s father having died in it. And the wardrobe and chest of drawers still smelled of something unpleasant despite her constant use of lavender bags.
Emily looked in on Katherine. The child was still asleep, never any trouble.
In the kitchen she struck a match, heaved the cast iron frying pan onto the stove top with a clatter and scooped a dollop of dripping out of the pot. Emily found a fried breakfast distasteful, but a man who spent his day engaged in strenuous labour needed something substantial. Along with doorstep-sized corned beef sandwiches and a flask of tea to last him the day on the railways.
Isaac’s part in the ritual was to make the tea - a dainty china cup for Emily, a substantial white mug for himself, and the rest of the pot went into his flask. As usual they went silently about their morning routine.
At half-past six Isaac gathered up his sandwiches and flask.
“What’s for tea tonight?” he asked. Always the same question.
“Lamb chops and potatoes,” replied Emily, forcing a smile.
“I’ll be back at six. And don’t forget, we‘re gunna visit Mother tonight.”
Emily hadn’t forgotten.
She remembered her grandmother’s words at the time Isaac had asked for her hand in marriage, when she had been bowled over with the breathless excitement and romance of her situation.
“You should be aware, Emily, that you’re not just marrying the man, you’re marrying into his family. And we haven’t met them.”
Isaac was an Australian. He had, along with numerous fellow Australians, gone to war in France, and had been wounded in the trenches near Ypres. Emily met him while he was in hospital on the outskirts of Cambridge. Her University choir regularly visited the hospital, giving the wounded men the benefit of their uplifting young voices. Within a couple of months Emily had put aside her studies and was packing her trousseau for the long sea voyage to Australia. The tall, dark-eyed soldier with the disarming smile had won her heart.
Her parents were considerably less captivated. They urged their elder daughter not to rush into marriage, to wait until she had finished her degree. After all, she was about to start her final year.
“Oh, Daddy!” remonstrated Emily. “I don’t need to become a teacher! I’m perfectly happy to be a wife and mother.”
Charles Carter shook his head slowly and looked out of his study window which offered a view of the University buildings. He’d had high hopes for Emily. And now she was throwing away her education, the first in a succession of Carters not to graduate from Cambridge.
The only person to share Emily’s joy at her forthcoming marriage was her sister Sarah, three years younger and still at school. Sarah insisted on being a bridesmaid in full regalia even though it was to be a simple civil ceremony at the Register Office in Cambridge. Emily borrowed a bridal dress from a friend not long since married, and the two girls spent the whole morning preening in preparation for a service which took a mere twenty minutes. Emily put out of her mind the thought that her mother should have been there, doing her hair and telling her how lovely she looked.
Emily’s parents attended the wedding, but their participation was as limp and bland as the cucumber sandwiches served back at home by way of a reception, accompanied by cups tea and slices of dry wedding cake.
Two days later, Emily and Isaac boarded their ship at Southampton. They had said farewell to her family in Cambridge, making their way alone by train to the port.
Emily felt overcome with excitement as they stood at the railing waiting for their ship to depart.
“Oh, Isaac!” she said, clutching the arm of her brand new husband in his stiff, new suit, the one he had been married in. “A six week honeymoon on board ship! Sooo glamorous! And I can’t wait to see Australia and meet your family.”
Their first night on board marked the beginning of proper married life. They had spent their first two nights as a married couple in the Carter home. Emily’s mother had insisted Isaac sleep on a folding bed in the dining room and Emily remain in the bedroom she shared with Sarah.
Emily felt shy and awkward returning from the communal ladies’ bathroom to their cabin with her dressing gown buttoned up to the chin and flannelette pyjamas beneath. Isaac seemed like a stranger. She sat on the edge of her bunk, anxious as he closed the porthole curtain and sat himself down beside her. He kissed her hard on the lips and fumbled with the top button of her dressing gown.
“Jeez, woman! Yer all done up like a game of ‘pass the parcel’.”
She met his gaze with embarrassment, but caught the twinkle in his brown eyes. They laughed together as he undid her buttons one by one, counting them as he did so.
“If there’s more than a hundred buttons the deal’s off. I’ll send yer back to yer Mum and Dad.”
Emily felt a moment of panic at the thought of being cast aside, but this was soon forgotten as Isaac planted gentle kisses down her neck to the lace of her vest. Yes, she was wearing a vest under her pyjama top.
Soon the rhythm of the ship breasting the waves became the rhythm of their loving, and Emily and Isaac spent their first night together crammed into one bunk.
By the time the Oriana docked in Sydney Harbour Emily suspected she was pregnant. She felt queasy in the bright sunlight and bustle of disembarcation. Isaac gave her a running commentary as the taxi carried them through the heart of the city and out into the endless suburbs, through streets of low, box-like houses surrounded by palm trees and other unfamiliar vegetation.
“You’re quiet, Em,” he commented at last.
“I’m sorry, Isaac,“ she whispered. “I feel a little unwell. I think … I think I may be pregnant.”
Isaac’s eyes grew wide in amazement. “You little ripper! Jeez, Em, you’ve made me the happiest man on earth! I tell you, when I was in France there was times I didn’t think I’d make it, but to come through the war and marry a bonzer lass like you, and now we’ve got a kid on the way …”
His eyes were bright with tears as he hugged her, and the taxi driver grinned into the rear vision mirror.
Isaac and Emily were so preoccupied discussing names for their baby that she didn’t notice the taxi had pulled to a halt.
“That’ll be a shillin’ mate,” called the driver.
The first thing that struck Emily as she opened the taxi door was the persistent sound of the cicadas. She didn’t know what it was. She was tired and giddy with a pounding headache, and the constant zirring in her ears was the last straw. She opened the nearest front gate and vomited on the flower bed.
Isaac turned round, having paid the driver and taken possession of their suitcases.
“Em! Not that house, next door!” said Isaac with a jerk of his thumb.
Emily wiped her mouth guiltily and shut the gate. Fortunately no-one seemed to have noticed.
She followed Isaac up the path and into the next house, not even registering that perhaps he should have carried her over the threshold. All she wanted was to lie down somewhere cool and dark. Part of her wish was granted: the bedroom was mercifully dark, but it was hot and airless.
Too soon it was time to meet her new family. Emily hadn’t explored further than the kitchen, bedroom, and makeshift bathroom of her new home, but now she had to scrape herself together into something presentable to meet her new mother-in-law, and she still felt like death warmed up.
Isaac insisted on walking the two miles to his mother’s home in the next suburb. It was dark by this time: night had fallen suddenly like a blind coming down, nothing like the gradual twilight at home. Emily clutched onto Isaac’s arm as they tramped down endlessly long streets of uniform bungalows, all dimly lit from within.
Finally Isaac stopped at a gate. It gave a warning squeak as he entered, and they walked up the path. He used his key to open the dark front door which also gave a warning squeak. Later, with hindsight, Emily wished she’d listened to the advice offered by the gate and front door and headed straight back home.
The Redman family were gathered in the sitting room, at the end of which was a dining table formally set for dinner. Six pairs of eyes fastened themselves onto Emily, and it took all of her courage to stand her ground.
Isaac didn’t seem to notice the way they stared. “Mother, this is Emily,” he said calmly. “Emily, this is me Mother. This here is me brother Benjamin and his wife Rae. Next to him is me sister Rachel. Next is Ben and Rae’s son Joe and their daughter Lucille.”
Emily nodded and tried to smile, but her face felt stiff and awkward. Cora Redman rose to her feet and stretched out her hand to greet Emily. She was a tall, dramatic-looking woman with lustrous dark hair swept up and fixed into place with tortoiseshell combs. Her eyes were dark like Isaac’s, but whereas his gaze was fond and warm his mother’s eyes felt as though they bored right through to her soul. The dark eyes darted about, taking in every detail of her appearance. Her red-stained lips were plump and prominent like those of a petulant goldfish.
“How nice to meet you at last, my dear,” she purred. She didn’t sound Australian like Isaac. Her accent was pleasant and cultured, but unidentifiable.
“Do sit down, Emily,” continued Cora Redman, indicating an empty chair. “You look tired. Rachel, fetch Emily a glass of lemonade like a good girl.”
Rachel rose to her feet, pouting with goldfish lips inherited from her mother. Fortunately these lips had not been passed down to the men of the family or young Lucille.
Emily sipped her lemonade nervously. It was cold and refreshing and she felt a little better.
“Do let’s sit up at the table,” encouraged Cora Redman after they had made perfunctory enquiries about Isaac and Emily’s journey by ship.
Emily then noticed that the table was set with seven places, and in the middle was a platter of some sort of flat bread and a bunch of herbs. Strange.
Next, Cora said a prayer in a foreign language. Emily bowed her head, copying the others. The significance of the prayer and the way the table was laid suddenly became clear to her. Emily glanced at Isaac, seated next to her, as soon as the prayer was over, but she couldn’t catch his eye. The meal was excellent: fish. Not a fish Emily had eaten before, but delicious and just what she needed. She ate every scrap.
“I enjoyed that very much, Mrs Redman. Thank you,” she said, placing her cutlery neatly on her plate.
Cora Redman nodded and smiled her acknowledgement of the compliment.
Rachel cleared the plates, and she and her mother brought out the pudding. It was a pastry roll containing spiced apple and assorted dried fruits. Again, delicious. Emily dreaded having to return the dinner invitation as her cooking skills left much to be desired.
Emily offered to help wash the dishes. She joined Cora and Rachel in the kitchen, while the others remained at the table. The awkward silence in the kitchen was broken only by the rattle of crockery.
As she wiped the plates and laid them on the table for Rachel to return to their cupboards of origin Emily couldn’t help overhearing Isaac telling his brother of their arrival.
“So she opens up Mrs Fisher’s gate and spews all over her flowers! My oath, I coulda died laughing. But I tells her, no, Emily, not that gate. Next door.”
Ben, Rae, Joe and Lucille all laughed like drains.
“Jeez, Zak,” said Rae, wiping her eyes. “I bet the poor cow wished the ground coulda opened up and swallered her. Still, she seems like a nice girl. Bit quiet, though.”
“She’s not feelin’ too good.”
“Ahh,” said Rae sympathetically.
For some reason Isaac did not divulge the suspected cause of Emily’s sickness. If he wasn’t ready to announce her pregnancy then she certainly wasn’t going to say anything.
Mercifully Isaac soon announced that they’d better be getting on home, and helped Emily into her coat.
Half way down the street she tackled him.
“Isaac, why didn’t you tell me your family was Jewish?”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just Mother‘s way. She’s not Jewish, but we humour her.”
Emily let the subject drop, and they continued their walk in silence.
Emily spent the rest of their walk home mulling over the events of the evening. As Isaac opened their front door she plucked up courage and spoke.
“Isaac, you didn’t tell them we’re expecting a baby.”
“Uh, no. I’ll save that one for next time.”
The next morning Emily explored her new home properly. A good night’s sleep had put paid to her nausea. Perhaps she wasn’t pregnant at all, merely overtired. It seemed Isaac had known best not to tell his family after all.
Isaac’s brother had arranged the rental of the house ready for their return, and moved Isaac’s possessions in along with odd bits of furniture gleaned from the family and goodness knew what other sources. Emily could see she would have her work cut out getting the place to look respectable, but knew anything would be better than moving in with her mother in law. That had apparently not been an option even though Cora and Rachel lived alone in quite a substantial house.
It was the garden that appealed most to Emily. Tropical and mysterious, but totally overgrown. She didn’t know where to begin but knew she wanted to bring order to the tangle of growth which threatened to engulf the crumbling tiled path leading from the back door.
Even despite the excitement of new beginnings Emily felt a huge grey cloud of homesickness envelop her that morning. Gone forever were the fresh, clear mornings of Cambridge. The familiar flowers in the garden. Sydney even smelled and sounded totally different from Cambridge.
Sure enough, as the weeks went past, it became apparent that Emily was indeed pregnant. She missed another monthly, and often felt queasy in the mornings. She visited the local doctor who confirmed what she knew already. Her baby was due towards the end of June next year. She put her homesickness and terrible sense of loss down to the turmoil of hormones which came as part and parcel of her pregnancy.
Every Friday night they would join the family for the dinner ritual. This appeared to be the only contact Isaac had with his family. Emily was relieved, but felt it was a strange way for a family to interact.
The Friday after Emily had seen the doctor, Isaac told the family that they were expecting the patter of tiny feet.
Cora surprised Emily. She clapped her hands together with glee and rushed over to hug her new daughter in law.
“Such wonderful news! Oh, well done, my dear!”
Emily felt her heart soften. Perhaps she’d been mistaken in judging the woman so harshly.
Emily had of course written to her parents to tell them of her new life and her pregnancy. It would take weeks and weeks to get a reply, she knew, but every day she anxiously awaited the postman. She’d written a separate letter to Sarah and sent it to a friend’s address. To Sarah she had told the story in more detail, able to pour out her heart about her everyday joys and sorrows. The sweltering, steamy heat of summer, the filth of the house and her slow progress at making it look better. Her elation when she managed to stitch some loose covers for the sofa and chairs, having mastered the primitive sewing machine she’d found, presumably abandoned by former tenants. How she worked on curtains for the whole house, as the household budget permitted. She described the rudeness of the woman in the drapers shop, and that she would have preferred to buy her household linens elsewhere but there was nothing else nearby. Emily bemoaned her disappointment at not yet meeting any other girls her own age. Yes, she still thought of herself as a girl. A lonely, homesick English girl.
Finally, a letter from Sarah arrived, full of news from home which made Emily weep miserably. She missed all the things that were familiar and could hardly bear to finish reading her sister’s letter.
Life went on, and the summer passed into a more moderate autumn. Emily busied herself in the garden, hacking back the monstrous weeds. At least she hoped they were weeds and not useful plants. She delighted in the four orange trees hidden among the tangled undergrowth. They had borne a few small fruits, and she hoped that with nurturing the trees would do better next year. Emily discovered that the tall trees with large, pale green leaves were banana trees, obvious from the heavy bunches of green fruit way above her reach. She felt like a banana tree herself, bearing an increasingly heavy, green, hard fruit.
Then the baby started to move.
“He’s gonna be a footballer!” announced Isaac one evening, his hand pressed to Emily’s belly.
Emily was surprised to realise she hadn’t yet thought of her baby as a boy or a girl. Just an unripe fruit.
She received a letter from her mother a couple of weeks after Sarah’s letter. Just one page, with only mild congratulations at the news of her first grandchild. Emily’s sadness at the widening gulf between herself and her parents further enhanced her homesickness.
Cora produced a beautifully crocheted jacket and hat, all in white. Emily realised with a pang that she had not yet begun to make any baby clothes. She did not dare admit to her mother-in-law that her ability to knit was somewhat feeble, and her skills with a crochet hook were non-existent.
Isaac suggested Jacob as a name for their baby, determined that Emily would bear him a son. Emily hoped for the child’s sake that he was right; she couldn’t imagine Isaac being enthralled by a daughter.
Yes, a Jewish name. She pondered further on this. Perhaps he’d chosen this name in order to please his mother. Despite Isaac’s denial, she wondered if they were indeed Jewish. Either way it didn’t really matter, the whole situation was just a bit puzzling.
Autumn gave way to winter. A mild winter, mostly sunny, but some days it rained. And as she woke on the twenty-second of June Emily went into labour. Isaac called for a taxi and escorted her to hospital before heading off to work. Yes, in those days men had no place in the delivery room. Emily gave birth to her daughter that afternoon, alone except for medical personnel.
By the time Isaac returned to the hospital that evening Emily had already decided to call her daughter Katherine Louise. Katherine was Sarah’s middle name, and she just liked the sound of Louise in combination with Katherine. It had a solid, royal, English sound.
“Hello, Isaac,” said Emily, watching her freshly-scrubbed husband approaching down the ward. “Come and meet your daughter.”
His face was a picture. Bewilderment mixed with pride as he beheld the innocent child in his wife’s arms.
“Jeez, Em. I thought we was havin’ a boy.”
“Katherine had other ideas.”
“That’s what I’d like to call her. Katherine Louise,” said Emily, fixing Isaac with a level gaze.
Nothing further was said on the matter.
Emily spent a week in hospital, which gave her time to reflect on her life. She felt like a stranger in this bright, hard country. Granted, she felt somewhat accepted by her mother-in-law now that she’d produced a child. Even if it was a girl, not the hoped-for son and heir. Cora had been to visit twice during the week, bringing fruit for Emily and an exquisite knitted dress for Katherine. The rest of Isaac’s family still referred to her as The Pom, but she felt they liked her nevertheless. It was just the loneliness, really.
Emily looked at her situation from this way and that, and at the end of her week in hospital she took her baby in her arms, climbed into the taxi and went home with her husband. For that was where she belonged. She chided herself for being fanciful and childish, for missing everything that was familiar with such a deep and enduring pain. Now that she had a baby Emily knew she would have less time to fret. Her darling grandmother had always said there was nothing like keeping busy to hold your troubles at bay.
So it was with a considerable amount of surprise that Emily plucked up the courage to pack just a few bits and pieces into a small suitcase on the morning of September 15th 1919. With Katherine in her arms she walked the long streets in the opposite direction to that of the Redman home, fetching up at the taxi rank by the station. Emily held her breath, hoping no-one would recognise her and question where she was going.
Once in the taxi heading into the heart of the business district she said a relieved farewell to the relentless cicadas. Their racket had dominated her life for nearly a year and she was glad to be rid of them, for they symbolised everything that was wrong with Australia. The insects, like the majority of the people she had met, were vulgar and noisy. And she didn’t want her little girl to become like them.
It was somehow fitting that she boarded the same ship that had brought her to Australia the year before as a bride. She would be forever grateful to Sarah for having paid for her return ticket and mailed it to her. However if her parents were to find out that Sarah had taken money out of her savings account there would be hell to pay. Emily knew she would have to eat a massive portion of humble pie in order to be accepted back into the fold, but she was prepared to rise to the challenge. She didn’t know quite what the future held, but was sure she could make a better life for herself and Katherine back in Cambridge.
The Oriana slipped calmly through the narrow neck of Sydney Harbour into the vast Pacific Ocean. The steep cliffs demarcating the Australian shoreline vanished in the haze. Emily held her daughter close and inhaled her familiar, delicate baby smell.
“Just a few weeks on board ship, my darling,” she crooned softly. “We’re going home.”
Emily felt sorry for Isaac. There would be no lamb chops and potatoes waiting for him today on his return after a hard day’s labouring. Just a letter explaining where his wife and daughter had gone.
By Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015