The first time Australia was mentioned was at breakfast on a school day. I was astonished when Mum said
‘How would you like to go to another country?’
Where had this idea come from? The furthest we had ever been was a hundred miles to visit my aunt in Cheltenham.
I replied instantly ‘If I can have a horse.’
I had always wanted a horse and what other reason could there be for going to another country? I would need no help caring for it due to my extensive reading of the Kit Hunter Show Jumper series and all the other pony books I could lay my hands on.
I returned from my reverie to hear what Mum was saying. A new picture presented itself; warm weather, living by the seaside and swimming every day. I couldn’t actually swim, but had been up to my chest at Frensham Ponds and in the sea, while Mum and Dad sat in deck chairs huddled in coats and rugs.
But my most vivid image of what our Australian life would be like came from my favourite television programme, The Adventures of the Terrible Ten. Ten children living in rural Victoria, who all had ponies, discovered some old packing cases and built Ten Town. They never went to school or saw their parents.
Mum said I might get a horse, would probably get a dog and would definitely go swimming. But for now the whole adventure must be kept deathly secret; until we knew for sure we had been accepted for migration. This meant absolutely no one, not even my best friend or my younger brother and sister. I kept the secret.
It was spring now and by autumn we would be ready to go, not on the dangerous voyage of the early settlers, but Mum and Dad would be burning their boats. Cheap flights at ten pounds each for Mum and Dad and free for children; but it was a one way ticket. My parents expected never to see England or their relatives again.
In the meantime a momentous year lay ahead. It was our last year at junior school; the first year Top Of The Pops was broadcast and in the garden shed our pet white mice were multiplying rapidly. As top years we went on school holiday for the first time to the Isle of Wight. It was a very pleasant holiday, but two strange things happened. As a Church of England school we knew several of our classmates were Roman Catholics, it made no difference to them or us. But on the Sunday of the holiday, one poor catholic boy was to be marked out as different. All of us were to attend morning service at the local church, but Eric’s mother had decreed that Eric must go to the catholic church. As a relatively new boy he was already slightly different; now as his lone figure trudged off in the opposite direction, to the mysteries of candles and incense, he had become an outcast. Later that day, as we ran around in the grounds of the hotel, some primeval, sectarian instinct took over and we all chased Eric; convinced in that moment that we were going to lynch him. Luckily the teacher came out blowing her whistle and normality was restored.
Peter was another unfortunate boy. For some reason he was the only child of our class of forty who didn’t come on the holiday. As we ate dinner one evening, the headmaster came into the dining room looking very distraught. Peter had run away from home and managed to reach the island before being caught by the police. We all thought him very clever to have got that far and very sad that he still wasn’t allowed to join us.
Back at school our summer term was nearing its end; we practised maypole dancing ready for our centenary celebrations and Mum and Dad visited the headmaster. Later that day he entered the classroom to chat to us; a common occurrence, but this time I realised with horror he was talking about me. I had kept my promise and not told a soul and now was mortified the headmaster was telling everyone I was going to Australia! Having spent four years mostly unnoticed, I was now the centre of attention as everyone turned to look at me.
As autumn arrived life became surreal. The date was set for our departure. I had passed my eleven plus, but it would make little difference to my future, the Australian schools were comprehensive. Our little school gang had been split in half, four of us were going to grammar school; one mother didn’t come out of the house for a week with shame that her daughter had failed. For a few weeks I experienced a glimpse of what my life might have been at a girls’ grammar school, dressed in bottle green uniform with the excitement of Bunsen burners.
Soon our house was sold and we had reached the point of no return. As the taxi collected us for the airport my grandparents stood stoically waving and my school friend Wendy skipped up the road after us; she would be the only person from those days to stay a lifelong friend.
The taxi had been late, very stressful for my parents. As we arrived at London Airport (now Heathrow) our friends and relatives were waiting, wondering if we had changed our minds. We rushed through with hardly time to say goodbye. The airport was much smaller then; as we climbed the steps to the plane we could see our loved ones gathered on the balcony waving. Except for Dad, it was the first time we had been on an aeroplane. I was really excited until I noticed the big card in the seat pocket. How to put on your lifejacket! Until that moment I had not considered the possibility that planes could crash. I wondered if we would reach Australia.
My novel Quarter Acre Block was inspired by our family’s experience. It is not autobiographical, but people who have read it ask which things were ‘true’. Find out more at my website. https://www.ccsidewriter.co.uk/chapter-six-fiction-focus
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