The Shire Clerk's Wife

Maisie was one of those rare women who drift into your life from God knows where, yet manage to leave a footprint upon your soul when they depart.
Newly arrived from England, young, beautiful, ambitious to a fault, way ahead of her time, Maisie toured the Australian outback lecturing young ladies of the bush on acceptable social etiquette. Never told anyone how she came to travel to the uncouth antipodes of the world. More than likely, it was believed, Maisie had been sponsored by a distant relative, then set about upon her journey of social discovery. A gentleman squatter in Orange and a dentist in Wagga Wagga proposed marriage, the first rejected on account of age, the second, she claimed, was because kissing a dentist was like having your mouth inspected for cavities. Instead, Maisie, totally in love, married a blown-away Scottish health inspector called George.
Maisie saw in George all the stepping stones to what she called her positive future, culminating in the world of state and federal politics. Problem was, Maisie had yet to educate George in the new science of positive thinking.
The very first step in that direction was moving to Broken Hill, then elevating George to the status of Shire Clerk.

Mr. Baldwin stopped outside number 17, shuffled his feet in the dusty road, and dispassionately surveyed all that lay before him in Day Street. A small willy-willy stirred the dust into activity, whipping it erratically in his direction, then suddendly swirled to crash into a nearby garden.
For most of his life Mr Baldwin had trod the streets of Broken Hill. He well knew their sounds, smells, also the sights of modest weatherboard houses, each one surrounded by a wooden picket fence, complete with galvanized wire gate.
Hot in summer, cold in winter, it was all the same to Mr Baldwin. Fortunately, in this remote mining town, the rainfall was minimal. Mr Baldwin did not fancy rain. Being wet was for purple swamp hens and other such weird creatures.
Most of the dwellings were now occupied by widows with small children; such was the legacy of a devastating world war on a country town.
1919, a year when the world turned around to look back upon itself, a year when many such towns recognised playing host to single parent families. Day Street appeared to support more than the average.
There was no humour in this street. Peace had not yet delivered happiness.
Each fatherless family lived within the confines of their cherished memories.
For women, the joy of living was smothered by the uncertainty of their immediate future. Even here, in this far western New South Wales mining town, there was the fear of the influenza pandemic which was sweeping the world, killing more souls than were lost in recent war years.

Number 17 was a rental house that only recently became occupied by strangers to the town. They brought with them all the joys and aspirations of newlyweds, far too early yet for them to become an integral part of street society.
The good citizens watched as the young wife busied herself around the apology for a garden, vainly trying to create blooming wonder within unyielding soil in an uncompromising climate. Visions of an English country garden that refused to become a Broken Hill reality. At other times, Maisie, trim in figure, natural in beauty, just bursting into her early twenties, jollied her way down the dusty street to go about her shopping. There was always a cheery greeting to the faces at the fence. The mumbled replies of ‘G’day love’ advertised the degree of sad envy of this beautiful young woman, full of youthful vitality, suffering none of the consequences of war nor the ravages of the harsh western sun. A woman who, unlike them, enjoyed the love of a husband.
The street saw little of him.
A rather dour Scotsman from all accounts, who was some official in the Council’s Department of Health. Whilst Maisie walked, he did cycle to work, methodically pedalling, always wary of large, exposed stones in the dirt road,
stones that could deliver a puncture, thereby causing a late arrival. George was a most punctual person.

Mr Baldwin, satisfied with his street survey, nibbled at a patch of grass that had fought its way into existence, then gave a snort of approval when his master opened the door of the cart. Such a fine cart it was indeed, painted in royal red and emerald green, the sides of which proclaimed to all who wished to read, “Nicholas Dowse. Transporter of Quality Furniture. Satisfaction Guaranteed. Telephone: 745.“
Maisie was out of the house the very moment Mr. Baldwin halted outside.
‘Good morning to you, Mr Dowse. I trust you are making a delivery.”
‘Indeed I am, marm, indeed I am.’ Mr. Dowse had a reputation for repeating himself in conversation.
Day Street residents, including those with four legs, emerged from the woodwork to supervise the unloading. Most of the women were content to drape themselves over the front fence, then natter to each other from a distance. There was an occasional warning shout for some adventurous child to stay well clear of the giant hooves of the clydesdale. Mr Baldwin ignored the invading brats, munched upon what remained of the grass, then flicked away the annoying flies. A few of the more inquisitive women ventured outside the wire gates and edged their way closer to the cart, the simple act of furniture delivery being both news and entertainment, something to chat about over the fence to others with less favourable observation.
‘It looks like we have an audience, Mr Dowse,’ said Maisie.
‘Indeed we do, marm, indeed we do. Why, I do believe this be the first piano we ever see in Day Street.’
The four men adjusted the padded lifting straps, then, with apparent ease, the piano was moved for all to see, from the cart onto the verge. Thin demanding voices — ‘What is it Mum?’ — were ignored for the moment, the surrounding silence being indicative of some being impressed, others wondering why anyone who resided within the sadness of Day Street would want with a flaming piano. The men rested to settle their bearings, then the lifting straps again took up the strain. With the lady of the house leading the way, the little procession moved through the gate, along the short path, then up four steps to disappear inside the dwelling. The neighbours, seeing the show was over, went about their business. Some of the older children remained to talk to Mr Baldwin.

This modest two-bedroom worker’s cottage had been constructed to meet the needs of an average family. Apart from the bedrooms it accommodated a kitchen featuring a wood stove, hanging meat safe, wall cupboards and a six seater kitchen table. As a touch of class the landlord covered the kitchen floor in new lino, the rest of the house being bare floor-boards. Tenants were expected to provide their own carpets, if they wished such a luxury.
Adjacent to the kitchen was a small laundry-cum-bathroom. The gleeming wood-fired copper was quite new; the bath, complete with chip-heater, bore evidence of better days. At the front of the house there were two rooms on either side of the entry passage. One could have been anything one wished, an extra bedroom, perhaps even a ladies sewing-room. For George and Maisie it was a dining-room. The other room, directly opposite, most definitely the small front parlour, was now being asked to accommodate the giant, iron frame, German upright piano.
Mr Dowse was directed to locate the massive instrument against the far wall. Even there it seemed to fill the room with its presence.
Like the child that still lurked within her, Maisie twirled herself around on the piano stool, then opened the lid to expose the hidden keyboard. ‘Do you play, Mr Dowse?’ she asked.
‘No, marm, sad to say I never partook of lessons in pianoforte. Mind you, my mother claimed I had what is called an ear for music. My father rightly reckoned these large hands would be all fingers and thumbs.’ He paused for a moment to display the size of his hands. ‘All fingers and thumbs, is what he said. Did worry me none. In this business, I never be knowing what free time I might be having.’
Maisie stopped tinkling the piano keys and spun around to face him. ‘Nonsense, you should douse such negative thoughts, Mr Dowse. We, sir, have embarked upon the age of positive thinking. In 1902, women in NSW were granted voting rights. We would never have achieved such privilege without the action of positive thinking, Mr Dowse.’
‘Positive thinking, marm ? Positive thinking? Ooooooh, I don’t rightly know about that, marm. My father always told me I was not paid to be thinking, hard work is what he said, leave the thinking to them with brains, he said.’
Maisie, with a mischievous look, an eye search to ensure nobody was listening, plus a conspiratorial tone in her voice. ‘I shall tell you a secret, Mr Dowse.’ Maisie placed an index finger against her lips. ‘It is a secret mind.’
Even though she only had an audience of one, Maisie was enjoying the theatre. ‘Before I was married I advised my husband to be that there was little room for advancement or social status in him being a humble Health Inspector. Can you imagine, Mr Dowse, me spending my life with a fellow who is continually looking up rat holes, or smelling other people’s filthy kitchens?’ Maisie paused, but the capacity to answer that question remained beyond the imagination of Mr Dowse.
‘I encouraged George to sit for the Shire Clerk’s exam. One which offers considerable prospects of elevation to a capital city and an eventual career in politics.’
‘Did your husband sit for the exam, marm, did he sit for that exam?’
Maisie was quite taken back that anyone, even Mr Dowse, should ask such a question. ‘Of course he did, Mr Dowse. The results have not yet been announced, but he shall pass. Positive thinking, Mr Dowse.’
Dismissing any further conversation and beckoning with the back of her hand for Mr Dowse to follow, Maisie swept out of the room with a final ‘Positive thinking, Mr Dowse.’

George arrived home with all the exuberance of a young man who has a secret to tell. Today he was notified that he had passed his Shire Clerk’s exam. Typically, he failed to inform any of his colleagues. George, never one to boast of his achievements, perferred to savour the moment until he could tell his darling wife that her ambition for his advancement had been realised.
George, fussing in front of the hallstand, fastidously hanging his hat upon the correct peg, replacing his jacket with a vest, was fighting an inner turmoil. With this promotion there came responsibility and status. They had little money to support such ambitions. However, if they were frugal, as a good scot could surely be, if they avoided unnecessary luxuries, adhered to the basics, then his diligence to work, his conscientious approach for social improvement, could well be attainable within the foreseeable future. Yes, he must impress upon Maisie their need for thrift. George smiled to himself as he buttoned up the vest. When cycling home, he noticed a florist who received daily fresh flowers by the night train from Sydney. Momentarily inspired, he considered buying flowers to take home to his wife. That romantic inclination soon dissipated with realisation of the need for self-imposed thrift. George could hardly impose restrictions upon Maisie’s housekeeping budget, then set a bad example with the unnecessary luxury of a floral tribute. The words of a stern parent flooded his brain. ‘Look after your pennies, George; the pounds will look after themselves.”

There was conversation wafting from the kitchen, some excuse for not being able to greet him at the door. ‘Go into the dining room George, I will be there in a moment.’ By habit he went to enter the parlour, but that was locked. Before he could question why, Maisie was by his side, directing him into the small dining room, a room that had now been transformed into what must surely be a celebration. One of their wedding presents, a white damask table-cloth with fine lace edging, now covered the small dining table. George had wanted to use that cloth soon after they were married, but Maisie insisted they wait for a special occasion. The table itself was fully set for a three course meal, complete, he noticed, with wine glasses. There was a cut-glass vase. In the absence of flowers, Maisie had created an arrangement of lillipilli leaves, studded with bright red berries. ‘Good God,’ he thought, ‘how could she possibly know about Shire exam result? Is it possible I have married a psychic?’ Maisie guided him into one of the chairs and disappeared to collect a tureen of soup. First course was always soup. One of the idiosyncrasies they had brought with them from the home country, summer or winter, be it ninety degrees in the shade — for dinner Maisie always served soup. Steaming hot, delicious soup.
‘Come on, George, sup-up. We cannot allow it to become cold.’
The remark snapped George out of his reverie, his mind flooded with images of crystal balls and psychic predictions. ‘May I ask why we are enjoying this celebration?’
Coquettishness within Maisie took control of the conversation. She enjoyed being able to tease her husband. ‘Indeed, sir, you may ask, but roasting chicken with delicious vegetables smothered in gourmet gravy must take preference over satisfying your curiosity. You, sir, will have your just desserts directly after the Blacmange layered with home-made strawberry jam.’
George focussed all his attention upon the magnificent platter of roasted chicken with crusted roast potatoes, pumpkin and two more veg. Indeed this was a celebration, like Christmas. Roast chicken came but once a year. George’s digestive juices were working overtime in anticipation of the culinary delight about to decorate his dinner plate, but the newly created thrift resolution replaced the vision with one of tripe and onions with mashed potatoes.
‘You must realise, Maisie, now that I have been elevated to the qualifications of Shire Clerk, we will have to maintain a certain status that will necessitate a discipline of considerable thrift within the household budget, meals such …’ Maisie did not allow him to finish his directive. ‘You passed your exam! My, what a clever husband you are. Only this morning I was telling Mr Dowse that certainly you were going to pass your exam, and now you have.’
‘Who may I ask is Mr Dowse? By God, this chicken is delicious.’
‘Mr Dowse is the lovely man who delivered the piano for me.’
Down went the knife and fork, the look of luxurious pleasure disappeared. ‘Piano, what piano is this?’
‘Ours, George darling. I bought us a piano.’ Maisie noticed the state of shock upon George’s face and hurried on with her explanation before George had time to compose the verbal blast that was building up inside. ‘When, when, I first saw this instrument listed in the catalogue, it was being offered for sale at below cost price. A custom made order, against which the client, a goldfields bordello would you believe, had defaulted. War had been declared on Germany, you see. Fortunately, this instrument, which is German made, had already been loaded onto a British vessel, and now was safely upon the high seas. Because of war time priorities, it was then unloaded at the nearest British port, where it remained until after the war. Meanwhile, lucky for us George, the bordello, just like the gold, was no longer in existence. To recover demurrage the shipping company was forced to sell the entire cargo on behalf of the shippers.’ Maisie clapped her hands with delight. ‘Your clever little wife purchased this beautiful instrument at the bargain price of less than cost.’
‘I trust the price included piano lessons?’ sighed George.
‘Ah, well, on that count, I have been a wee bit naughty,’ teased Maisie.
‘I suppose that explains the mystery of the locked parlour door?’ asked George. ‘I seem to recall your impression that a piano was a most desirable acquisition for a Shire Clerk’s household …’
‘Never underestimate the importance of the position of Shire Clerk,’ interrupted Maisie. ‘The Shire Clerk is the professional executive mananger of the entire shire,’ she enunciated with great clarity, ‘and as such one is expected to maintain an acceptable status.’ Humour had returned to George. He, too, knew how to tease her about obsessive ambitions. ‘There are times, Maisie, when I believe you think we are only here in Australia to stand in for royalty. I would remind you, Shire Clerks who have newly obtained accreditation are not expected to apply for even provincial appointments. Such lowly individuals, humbly beg their positions from small, remote areas.’
‘Ah ha, good point, George. I believe such shires would suffer a paucity of entertainment. They would welcome such a universally popular instrument as a piano.’ George has a distinct feeling of being out-manoeuvred. Maybe visions of isolation would be more persuasive. ‘ There are two positions currently advertised in the Government Gazette; one in the Shire of Buninyong and the other much further north in Tambo Shire. Which of the two would you prefer ?’
Little did George realise that Maisie, at this point in time, did not care how isolated it was, as long as her husbamd was Shire Clerk and the piano travelled with them. ‘Tell me, George, where is Buninyong ?’
‘Somewhere near Ballarat in Victoria, I believe. Apparently some years ago they found gold there.’
‘And Tambo, what about Tambo George ?’
‘Well now, that is a different kettle of fish. It is so far west, my dear, it is almost off the map of Queensland. You definitely would not like Tambo.’
‘Think positive, George, think upon it as a challenge.’
Poor George gave a sigh of resignation. Secretly he would have prefered to apply for Buninyong, a far more civilized appointment. However, there was a risk that the vacancy would attract many more applications from others far more experienced. George had been advised that next to no-one would apply for Tambo. Still, it was worth one more roll of the dice with Maisie.
‘Tambo, for your information madam, has a population of some eighty-five thousand sheep, plus one hundred and fifteen christian souls, none of whom I imagine know how to play the piano. I do not know how to play the instrument, and from all accounts neither do you.’
‘Come with me, George. Now is the time to unlock the mystery door.’
George was required to close his eyes while Maisie opend the parlour door, then he was led a few feet inside the room before being allowed to reopen them.
The vision of the enormous German instrument forced George to take an involuntary step backwards. ‘Good God, Maisie, is that really a piano ?’
‘Not really, George. It is actually what is called a pianola. Sit on the stool, George, while I explain.’ Maisie read aloud from the small instruction booklet. ‘The pianola is a type of mechanical piano which allows even the most inexperienced person to play for pleasure. The keys are depressed by air pressure from bellows, this air being regulated by perforations in a paper roll.’
‘Amazing, how does it work?’ inquired a captivated George.
‘Simplicity itself, George. Bend down, please, and open those two doors and pull out the two pedals that work the bellows. Marvellous exercise once you get cracking, George.’
This done, Maisie slid open the doors on the face of the instrument. ‘See, me dahlin’, all you do now is hook this tab on the paper onto the roller, take a good grip onto the ledge under the keyboard, then start pumping the bellows.’
It was not by chance that the piano started playing one of George’s favourite Scottish songs, ‘Roamin’ in the Gloamin’.

Mr Baldwin stopped outside number 17, shuffled his feet in the dusty road and dispassionately surveyed all that lay before him in Day Street. He had visited this sad, humourless street before. The residents, dressed in modest cotton frocks covered with protective aprons, appeared as if by invitation, then assembled around the cart. Each woman doubtless thinking of weeks gone past, when they would join Maisie for hours of happy sing-alongs. How they would take it in turns to hitch their long skirts and work the pedals that worked the bellows that produced such happiness. They also listened to Maisie recount the days of her youth in a land they had never seen. They absorbed her dogma in positive thinking.
The sadness had disappeared from Day Street.
The four men adjusted the lifting straps, then with apparent ease the huge pianola moved out of the house, along the garden path, up the ramp, into the darkness of the cart.
The husband, it was said, had accepted a position in far western Queensland, and had gone on ahead to arrange their new accommodation.
‘Looks like we have an audience, Mr Dowse.’
‘Indeed we do, marm, indeed we do.’
Each woman came forward to say their own personal ‘Goodbye.’
The huge instrument was now loaded into the care of Mr Dowse.
The women gathered, formed themselves into a group, and started to sing. It was of no importance that their voices were untrained, nor their impromptu performance unprofessional. It was an honest sound that delivered tears to all who stood to listen. These were not the voices of sadness that previously permeated the atmosphere of Day Street, these were the voices of women reborn, as it were, into a singing bond that would support them for the rest of their days. Maisie and her huge pianola would soon depart, never to meet with them again. She would write, and they promised to reply.
The years would pass, some memories would fade, but not one of them would ever forget the woman who laughingly called herself the Shire Clerk’s wife.

The Shire Clerk's Wife

iAN Derrick

Tweed Heads, Australia

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Artist's Description

Based upon a true story set in Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia. Around 1919, A young married couple arrive in this isolated mining town, he a health inspector with the Shire Council, she an ambitious wife dedicated to his promotion. The terrible aftermath of the First World War and the war widows left behind to survive.



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