Welcome to the Sheila Stories, which chronicle the life of an Australian woman in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
In episode #7, April surprises Thomas when she invites Chris to join them for the nightly telling of the Sheila Stories.
In Sheila’s world, Sheila will take a long holiday in Surfer’s Paradise and receive some big news from Colin McKechnie.
Here is the manuscript for episode #7. To listen to the episode with commentary, click the THE SHEILA STORIES tab.
Sheila Stories - Episode #07 - Fresh Faces and Crisp Uniforms
After kissing the girls goodnight, I walk to the kitchen and find Chris leaning to place a glass in the dishwasher.
She wags a finger at me. “I know your secret.”
“How you get them ready for bed. It’s the Sheila stories.”
How did she learn about Sheila? No one knows about Sheila, except . . .
“One of the girls told you,” I say. “Let me guess—April.”
Chris nods. “They sound fascinating.”
“Nothing special. A young woman finding her way in Australia.”
“How did you come up with that? I mean, what an imagination.”
“I don’t know.”
I shift my weight from one foot to the other, and then back, and then I realize what I’m doing and stop moving. I resist the urge to scratch my neck. A shiver runs down my spine. I have to change the subject.
“How about a bowl of ice cream?” I say.
Her divinely shaped eyebrows move closer together. She looks at her tummy, which seems flat to me.
“Zero calories,” I say, “one scoop. What could it hurt?”
Her lips slowly lift and then break into a smile. She points her finger at me again. “You’re bad.”
“Get the bowls,” I say. “I’ll get the ice cream.”
We’re standing in the narrow aisle between the island and the line of cabinets. She moves left as I move right and we block each other’s path. I step left as she steps right, and we’re close to touching. She giggles, lifts her arms, and says, “Shall we dance?”
I stop breathing. My hands are tense, my right one anxious to touch her waist, my left one ready to reach for her hand. I anticipate her light touch on my shoulder. I’m so close to making the move. She’s ready, the smile still in place. And then I think, What am I doing?
I back away, leaving her with her arms in the air. Her smile fades, and her hands drift down awkwardly, first to her waist and then to her sides. I jostle around her on the left.
“Vanilla or chocolate?” I say.
“Neither, thanks,” she says. “I changed my mind.”
I watch as she trudges to the utility room, opens the side door, and slips out.
Wow. That was close. I almost . . .
She made a friendly gesture, nothing more, and I made her feel uncomfortable. What a jerk. It was as bad a move as the thong incident. Worse.
Get a grip, Thomas. She’s the tenant. You’re the landlord. Nothing more.
The next night, I stride the hall toward the girls’ bedroom full of purpose, eager to get started, blood pumping to my arms and legs. I feel good. The first words of the next story are queued up for the move to my lips. I enter their bedroom and pull up short.
My brain stops working. As usual, April and Natalie sit with their backs against the headboards with bedcovers pulled to their laps. April has Spot nearby. But between the two single beds, on the floor with her back to the wall, sits Chris. She smiles, mischief in her eyes. She’s wearing shorts with her sandaled feet on the carpet and her knees in the air. Her arms are to the side, and there is a lot of bare skin. Her toenails are painted lime green.
Natalie lifts one eyebrow as if to say, “Don’t blame me. It wasn’t my idea.” Her eyes shift left toward April’s bed.
“Guess what, Daddy,” says April. “Chris wants to hear a Sheila story.”
She says this in the most innocent way. Somewhere deep inside me, anger wishes to spark. The stories are private, reserved for family. I had held this core belief so firmly that I assumed the girls understood. But the genuine warmth of April’s expression overwhelms me. How could she know how I felt? She likes the stories and she likes Chris. It must have seemed natural to invite Chris to sit in.
Chris’s eyes suggest she understands most of what I’m thinking.
“I won’t say a word,” she says. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
Oh, yes I will. It will take a great deal of focus for my eyes not to wander to her toenails, her ankles, and her muscular calves and thighs.
I snap out of it, try to form a smile with my lips, and say, “Welcome to the Sheila stories.”
“I guess I’ll jump right in.”
Fresh Faces and Crisp Uniforms
In October 1939, Sheila ambled onto the balcony of her suite at the Surfers Paradise Hotel. A slight breeze billowed the sheer curtains. The surf crashed nearby. A sandy track below her wound through palm trees to the beach. Although she’d checked in two weeks earlier, the salt air still thrilled her.
It had taken a couple hours the first day for her to recall how to surf. Unused muscles grew sore, but after the first week, it was like she’d never left the beach. The sheep farm might have been a thousand miles away—the rolling hills, the work, Tom and his family. The hundreds of details that had crowded her mind for years flew away like migrating birds. Only the ocean, the wind, and the mystery of Colin’s intentions remained.
She could hardly stand still. Her weight shifted from one foot to the other and back again. She walked to the bureau and read Colin’s telegram for the fourth time.
WILL ARRIVE BRISBANE MAIN STATION 17 OCTOBER 2 PM STOP CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU STOP
They had been apart for a full month. Before boarding the northbound train in Toowoomba, he had kissed her hard to make it last. By the time he returned, she would already be on holiday.
“I’ll see you at Surfers Paradise,” he had said.
“No,” she had replied. “I’ll meet you in Brisbane at the train station.”
The sun had risen an hour earlier. She had four hours to kill before catching the bus to Brisbane. She’d go batty waiting in her room, so she hurried to dress in a bathing suit, loose-fitting pants, and a shirt. Downstairs, the bellman fetched her surfboard, and she hiked a few hundred feet to the beach.
Two surfers straddled their boards at the wave break, waiting for the perfect ride. She’d met them the first day. They worked in Brisbane during the week and camped nearby on the weekends to spend their days surfing. They were both eighteen, little more than boys. Few women surfed at the beach, so she had become an instant celebrity.
One of them caught a wave and rode it well. His name was Ned, and he finished his ride a few feet from her.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said, standing, “at last she arrives, the queen of Surfers Paradise. Did you sleep well, your highness?”
“Much better than you did in your tent, I’m sure.” She walked in until the water reached her waist, then she hopped onto the board. “How are the waves?”
“A bit slow. I think they were waiting for you.”
Ned paddled next to her. Ringlets of wet hair dangled in front of his face. “The best waves always wait for you.”
“It has little to do with the quality of the wave and everything to do with the talent of the surfer.”
He laughed and shook his head, and they paddled to the surf break.
The waves were quite good. She occupied her mind with the challenge of positioning the board, catching the waves, and moving her feet to control the ride.
She surfed for ninety minutes, returned to the hotel, dressed, had breakfast, and arranged a ride to the bus station. The bus was almost full, and she sat next to a middle-aged woman in a blue dress and a white hat.
“I like your hat,” said Sheila, “very pretty.”
“Thank you. I’m staying with my sister in town for the evening. We’re going to a show. What about you?”
“Meeting my guy for a few days.”
“Good for you. Is he joining the service?”
The woman referred to the Australian Imperial Force.
For nearly two decades, Australia had had little use for an army, but in reaction to global events, Prime Minister Menzies had announced the formation of the Second Australian Imperial Force.
“No,” she said. “He’s older.”
Colin was thirty, further along in life than typical soldiers, who were often in their late teens or early twenties.
She could read the woman’s mind. An older boyfriend? The woman glanced at Sheila’s hands, perhaps searching for an engagement ring.
“Have you known each other a long time?”
“Oh, how nice.”
Sheila’s face grew warm.
The woman batted her eyes and pressed her lips together as if afraid she might actually speak her mind. Two years was a long time for a young couple to go without marrying. Some considered it odd.
Ignore her, Sheila reminded herself. Bigger issues were at stake than the prudish prejudices of a middle-aged biddy.
The global landscape had changed in a flash. After years of rising tensions and hopes for diplomacy, Germany had invaded Poland, which had driven Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia (but not the US) to declare war on Germany.
And then there was Japan. The newspapers speculated that Japan—which had already occupied parts of China for eight years—now had designs on the rest of Asia.
The war had mobilized the entire country. Young men who volunteered traveled to new towns to join their units. When on break from their training, the young men went into town and met young women. The newspaper covered the story of a couple that had married two weeks after they met.
Which was outright lunacy. No matter how passionate the love, how could anyone decide to live with another person forever after only two weeks?
Yes, others were crazy, but not Sheila. She knew Colin well. She loved his laugh and the way he moved and how he made decisions.
Her stomach fluttered, and she tried but failed to pay attention to the passing scenery. The engine revved when the driver shifted gears. Her heart revved as well, for she suspected Colin would propose in the next few days.
Back in the Western Downs, she had found the perfect spot for a house, a flat piece of land nestled in trees at the top of a beautiful valley. She preferred the sea, but Colin’s heart would always remain in the countryside. So be it. They could own their farms west of Toowoomba and take holidays at the coast.
In two hours, the bus entered the outskirts of Brisbane, which resembled the suburbs of Sydney. The big lawns and gardens gradually gave way to paved streets and telephone poles.
The streets grew wider and the buildings taller. Soldiers no older than her surfing buddies strolled on the sidewalks. They had fresh faces and wore crisp uniforms. They ventured about the city looking for action, strong and confident, as if they might believe themselves immortal.
The woman cocked an eyebrow and looked down. Sheila’s knees bounced nonstop. She pressed her hands to her thighs to still them and smiled sweetly.
“I’m excited to see Colin.”
On the five-block walk from the bus depot, she tried to settle down. It seemed like forever since she’d seen him. She paced the platform until his train pulled into the station. So many cars and not a sign of him—had he missed it? Her heart skipped a beat.
Oh! There! He hung out the window of the next to the last car, his arms waving. She jumped and ran, reaching high to touch his fingers. He exited holding a suitcase. She kissed him madly, and he grabbed her and twirled her on the platform, oblivious of other passengers.
They spent two days on the beach at Surfers Paradise. She tried to teach him to surf, but he didn’t care much for it. He had always lived inland and wasn’t a great swimmer. Instead, they went for walks on the beach and sat on towels in the afternoon. They talked about the cattle station, Colin’s work, and the war.
At night, they ate in the fabulous dining room of the hotel. They had lobster the first night and steak the next. After dinner, they danced in the ballroom to big band tunes. They had become quite good at dancing, and she felt wonderful in his arms.
On the third night, he wore a new jacket and tie, and ordered champagne. While they waited for the wine, he kept fidgeting, straightening his tie and running his hand through his hair. What was his problem? He was never nervous.
Oh, my goodness. He’s going to propose.
Her heart pounded. Her throat grew thick. She moved her tableware farther apart, then closer together.
His eyes flitted around the dining room, stopped on her for a moment, and then darted to the stage.
“I need to tell you something,” he said.
“Did you mean ‘ask me something’?” she said.
Their eyes met. He searched hers as if trying to read her mind. Then he understood, and his face dropped.
Oh. He wasn’t going to propose. She had misread him. She wanted to run from the table, to hide in her room, but she never ran from trouble.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean . . . I’m not going to ask you to marry.”
“Why not?” she said. “Don’t you love me?”
“Yes. More than anything. I love you more than the land itself.”
“I’ve enlisted,” he said.
“What?” she said.
Her mind raced. She saw an image of the uniformed boys sauntering on the sidewalks. They would travel far from Australia. But Colin was older; he was a stock and station agent. Farmers relied on him.
“The Eighteenth Brigade,” he said.
“The army will raise the Ninth Battalion here in Queensland.”
All these numbers—the Eighteenth Brigade, the Ninth Battalion—they had nothing to do with Colin and her.
“The war has only begun,” he said. “It will be much bigger than most people think. The Germans and Japanese have huge armies and great warships and guns. The world is going to war, and I have to do my bit.”
“But you’re needed here.”
He shook his head. “The cattle will graze without me, and the sheep will be shorn without me.”
“The armies can fight without you. Other men can die. Not you.”
Many people thought of war as an adventure. Boys would become men; they would amass great triumphs and return home with great tales, or so they thought. But she had studied the First World War. Thousands of Australians never came back.
“We could still marry,” she said. “We could marry tomorrow.”
He shook his head. “I’ll never understand how couples can marry the week before the man leaves for training camp. It makes no sense.”
She could have tried to change his mind, pestered him with arguments for an hour or more, but he’d made his decision. He had reflected on the pros and cons, and settled on his course.
“Will you wait for me?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. “For as long as it takes. When will you leave?”
The skin around his eyes grew tight.
“Soon,” she said.
Her chest fell. He’d be gone for months, perhaps a year. Tears threatened to fall, but she wiped them away. Crying would serve no purpose now.
The waiter brought the bottle and filled their glasses.
“Well,” she said. “Let’s not mope about it. We have champagne to drink.”
They spent another week at Surfers Paradise. More dancing. Walks on the beach. Afternoons in the late sunshine. And then they rode the bus to the city, and he kissed her goodbye.
Two days later, on the train back to Toowoomba, a light rain fell on the sheep farms she passed. The cloud cover deepened the green of the paddocks. She blinked hard and sniffled. The sheep huddled against the chill. They looked sad, as if they knew their stock and station agent had wandered off to war.
END OF EPISODE # 07