Welcome to the Sheila Stories, which chronicle the life of an Australian woman in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
In episode #8, Thomas reveals to Chris the source of the Sheila Stories.
In Sheila’s world, Sheila follows the news closely to learn what happens to Colin McKechnie and the Eighteenth Brigade.
Here is the manuscript for episode #8. To listen to the episode with commentary, click the THE SHEILA STORIES tab.
Sheila Stories - Episode #08 - Waiting
The girls gaze at me with looks of worry. I sense they want to ask a question. Will Colin be okay? But by now, they know I won’t provide spoilers to future stories. The air is heavy, like that of an unused room with closed curtains, but then Chris changes the atmosphere as easily as if she were opening a window on a bright spring day.
“Oh, that story is so romantic,” she says.
Natalie blinks a few times and turns to Chris. “Romantic?”
“Yes, I could see the magnificent ballroom and hear the big band playing the swing tunes. Couldn’t you?”
April nods her head.
Chris continues. “And he took her dancing! Now that’s romantic. Men never take women dancing anymore.” She glances at me and shakes her head, a clear reference to my empty-suit move in the kitchen.
“I like to dance,” says April.
“Me, too,” says Chris.
But I’m not listening closely. My mind is drifting through the next few stories. I am concerned about where they are headed. Could I wrap them up neatly in Queensland? I don’t mean to change them. I could never do that, but perhaps I could cut the series short. I’ll have to give it more thought.
After leaving the girls’ room, Chris and I meet in the kitchen. She’s made a carrot cake, and she cuts a normal slice for me, and a half slice for her.
Out on the porch, I take a bite. Holy smokes is that good—moist, with cinnamon, walnut, and a trace of . . .
“Is that pineapple?”
She nods. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“That’s delicious, like, you are one hell of a cook.”
I focus on the cake, trying to extend the experience, savoring each morsel. Wind in the trees makes the leaves applaud. Stars above force their way through the ambient light of the city.
Chris says, “I’m impressed that you can make up stories like that on the fly. How do you do it?”
An image pops into my mind. Seven years ago, I sat on Julie’s hospital bed. Her body was shrunken and her face worn out, but she managed a tiny smile. I tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear and told her I loved her. I would love her forever.
On any other night, if that image appeared, I’d walk to the river bench and think about Julie. But with Chris sitting so close, I force the image away.
“I don’t make up the stories,” I say. “My wife, Julie, told me the stories many years ago. They’re her stories, not mine.”
Chris nods. “Well, she had a marvelous imagination.”
I take another bite. Honestly, Chris could open a bakery and sell only carrot cake.
“I must say though,” Chris continues, “I expected G-rated content, but tonight’s story veered close to the PG zone.”
“You think so?”
“I wondered about who slept where at the Surfer’s Paradise Hotel. Did they book one room or two?”
“Two rooms, definitely. I thought I mentioned that.”
“I don’t believe you did. And the big smooch in the train station—that was definitely PG.”
“People kiss in G-rated movies.”
“They don’t deep kiss.”
“I don’t believe I used the words ‘deep kiss.’”
“I’m sure you did.”
“I trust you’ll censor any R-rated scene,” she says.
“R-rated? Oh, no, I won’t go there.”
For the first time, I notice she hasn’t touched her cake. Her legs are angled toward me, her bare knees less than an arm’s length away. I lose focus on my taste buds. My breath runs faster. My eyes wander.
“That’s good,” she says, “because I would hate for anyone to get all worked up.”
Worked up? What’s that mean? Who is she talking about? Me?
Sheila parked the old truck outside the library in Toowoomba. Once inside, she waved at the librarian and hurried to the news rack. Ever since Colin had left, she drove into town twice a week to devour the newspapers from Sydney and Brisbane. The local press printed the wire stories, but to get the detailed reporting and commentary, she had to read the city papers.
She laid the Sydney Morning Herald across the big reading table, and the headline screamed at her.
GERMANY INVADES DENMARK
She took a sharp breath, her eyes glued to the paper.
The day before, on April 9, 1940, coordinating units of the German armed forces had attacked from air, land, and sea. The Danes surrendered after six hours of fighting.
Germany had invaded Norway the same day. Fighting there continued. The story said the Germans were after Denmark’s airfields and a shipping port in Norway.
Mrs. Thornton, the librarian, approached the table shaking her head. She had brought the big map book so they could look at it together.
The countries in Europe were all bunched up. Germany bordered Denmark. London was less than six hundred miles from Berlin, about the same distance Brisbane was from Sydney.
“Hard to believe,” said the librarian. “They already have Austria and Poland.”
“And the Soviets have Finland.”
“My husband says they’ll never stop. They want all of Europe. And the Japanese want all of Asia. Even Southeast Asia.”
“The Dutch East Indies?” said Sheila.
“He says everything. Singapore. Borneo. New Guinea.”
Mrs. Thornton nodded. “Everything.”
On the drive home, she worried. Colin wrote every week. He’d trained in Melbourne for months now with the Eighteenth Brigade. They had nearly finished their courses, but not been told where they would go next. Even if he did know, he couldn’t tell her for reasons of security, but they’d go somewhere soon, because new troops arrived every week, and the camp was near to bursting.
The young guys in the platoon looked up to him. He’d lived in the real world and worked a job for a decade. Many of them were eighteen, schoolboys until the day they signed up. Some of them were homesick. They tried to hide it, but on a few nights, he heard whimpers. He felt sorry for them, but there was nothing to do. They’d have to grow up fast.
She pulled off the two-lane road onto their driveway. David ran toward her waving an envelope. She killed the engine and jumped out, her heart pounding her insides.
“What is it?”
She ripped it open.
UNIT’S ON THE MOVE STOP ARRANGED OVERNIGHT APRIL 11 STOP MEET ME AT HOTEL WILSHIRE IN BRISBANE? STOP
She drove to Toowoomba the next morning and caught the afternoon train. On the way to Brisbane, she watched the paddocks through the window and twisted her handkerchief. She hadn’t seen him in six months. Had he changed? Would he feel the same about her as she did about him? He’d been in Melbourne, more than eight hundred miles away. He’d taken leave in the city, gone to dance halls with the other guys to drink beer and let off steam. Had he met another girl? The newspapers were filled with stories of wartime weddings.
But when she saw him in the lobby of the hotel, looking handsome in his pressed uniform, all doubts vanished, and she flew into his arms. He lifted her off her feet and squeezed so hard all the air left her chest.
“You smell good,” he said. “I forgot how good you smell.”
She ruffled his hair and laughed and kissed him.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Put me down.”
Her hands and arms tingled, and she couldn’t stop smiling. She held him at arm’s length and studied his face, the same deep tan from time in the sun, the right eye a smidge higher than the left, as if they shared a secret he would never tell.
“What should we do?” she said.
“Let’s go for a walk on the riverside.”
He reached for her hand and didn’t let go for two miles. They talked about operations on the farm and his training and the German advance in Norway, but they didn’t discuss the things she cared about most: When would he leave? Where would he go? Would he have to fight?
Later, they dined at a riverside restaurant. The hostess sat them at a window with a view. Boats floated by on the Brisbane River, and lights flickered on the water.
She tried to enjoy the meal, but the cloud of his morning departure spoiled her appetite. She wanted to stay up all night, to not waste a minute in sleep. As if he could read her thoughts, Colin reached to touch the back of her hand.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said.
“Will you marry me? I don’t want to wait for the end of the war.”
Her heart jumped; it would skip around the table if it could.
“Of course,” she said. “When? Now?”
“No. Not tonight. It’s too late. And besides, I need my captain’s permission. Those are the wartime rules.”
“We’ll get married on my next leave.”
He pressed his lips together and grabbed her hand. He didn’t know when he would come back.
“I think the Eighteenth might ship out soon,” he said.
He grimaced. “I don’t know. Europe, I think. Everyone is worried about the Germans invading France.”
“When will you return?”
His eyes told her it might be a long time.
Eight months later, on a warm day in December of 1940, Sheila drove out to the Western Downs. More and more she left the work to Tom and his family and took long rides in the country away from people. For hours on end, she wouldn’t see a single person, only a few animals—wallabies, rabbits, and birds.
When the road petered out at the edge of the narrow valley, she saddled Kirra, and they walked up to the homestead site she’d selected. It had rained the previous night, and red and yellow wildflowers bloomed brightly among the boulders.
She reached the ridge and took off her hat to wipe her brow. Her legs and back perspired beneath her clothes. She dismounted, let go of the reins so Kirra could graze nearby, and sat on a rock to view the valley. A breeze blew up the ridge wall and cooled her face. Black clouds covered the forested hills in the distance. Rain fell in sheets fifteen miles away.
Out here, she could try to forget the war, forget Norway had surrendered in June, forget the Germans had conquered Belgium in eighteen days, and forget the Germans had driven the British into the sea at Dunkirk.
Out here, she felt closer to Colin. He’d never relished the towns and cities. He loved the country, the farms, the livestock, and nature. When she first found this homestead, she had thought of him, how he would love to live in the land of brush and dry creeks and rabbits.
Out here, there were no armies or battleships or submarines.
In August, the Germans had begun to bomb Britain. Thousands upon thousands of citizens had died. In September, the Japanese invaded French Indochina. The newspapers said they wanted to secure the trade routes for oil and arms.
All those places seemed so far away, places like Nanking and the Channel Islands and Dakar. In October, Italy invaded Greece. Why? Why did men in one country want to rule the next?
And then the previous week, fighting in Africa had flared up. The Italians fought the British, and the United States stayed on the sidelines.
So far Colin and the rest of the Eighteenth Brigade remained in England, but the papers speculated they would leave for Africa soon. He had yet to face combat. Good. She hoped he never had to fire his gun.
Why must he fight while she remained safe? If she were a man, she’d be in England, too. Or with one of the new divisions being raised. Instead, she worked on the farms. It made no sense.
Tom didn’t need her help, anyway. He and Hazel and the boys ran all the operations now, the dairy farms and the sheep and cattle farms. At their weekly decision meetings, David led the discussion of operational issues, and Jon reviewed the financials. Tom had taken over the process of scouting for new land. She oversaw everything, but honestly, was she essential? Or even helpful?
She gazed at the future homestead site and imagined a two-story pale yellow house with a metal roof and white shutters. They’d put a rope swing for the kids in the rusty gum tree. She’d plant flowers in beds across the front. Colin would build a chicken house out back. Tears blurred her vision.
What if he didn’t come back for years? What if he never came back? She couldn’t live here without him. The land would never feel the same.
She made a promise to herself: When Colin came back for good, they would marry and build a house on this spot. And if he never came back, she would leave this land forever.
In October of 1941, Sheila sat in a rocking chair on the front porch of her home with a newspaper in her lap. She gazed at the sheep grazing in the pasture, and out across the hills of Darling Downs. She had lived there for six years. Six good years. She’d accomplished every goal she’d had when she left Sydney at the age of eighteen. She owned four hundred fifty acres of sheep pasture, two dairy farms, and eleven thousand acres of cattle station.
But now, she spent more time in the library than she did on the farms. Earlier in the year, the Eighteenth Brigade had moved to the Middle East to defend Tobruk against Rommel and his army. Australian infantry supplied the front-line defense, backed up by British artillery units. According to the newspapers, the Aussies had acquitted themselves well.
But that meant Colin was fighting now, firing his gun, ducking German bullets and shells. His letters spoke of tremendous heat and constant dust and bad food. He never spoke of the fighting—might as well have been on a camping trip. He wrote silly stories about his mates, a boy from Charleville who could juggle five lemons, a man from Brisbane who sang opera songs, and a part-time thief who pilfered extra rations from the quartermaster.
The war raged. In July, Japan moved 140,000 troops into French Indochina. Columnists believed they were preparing to invade the Dutch East Indies.
The Germans and Japanese attacked the world, and she sat on her front porch and did nothing. For the fifth time, she looked at the full-page advertisement in the newspaper.
THERE’S A JOB FOR YOU IN THE A*W*A*S
The woman in the ad gazed upward, a smile of confidence on her face. She wore a collared shirt, a necktie, and a smart hat. AWAS stood for Australian Women’s Army Service. The small print gave an address in Brisbane for applications.
Tom walked onto the porch. He was the same old Tom—tall, strong, with some gray in his hair now. He sat in a rocker, and his eyes scanned the line of the fence to the creek and around the paddock. He wore clean pants and town shoes.
“What is it?” she said.
He nodded. “We’ve worked together for a long time. It’s been good. We grew the place, just like you wanted.”
“You did most of the work,” she said. “You and Hazel and David and Jon.”
He shook his head. “Not true . . . and you know it. You worked right along with us every step of the way. But now . . . you’re not happy.”
“Let me finish,” he said. “You sit on the porch and stare at nothing for hours at a time.” He licked his lips and then pressed them together like he didn’t want to get to the next part. “You want to leave.”
“Yes, you do. You want to leave Darling Downs and join the action somehow. Like the ad says . . .” He tilted his head at the newspaper. “There’s a job for you.”
“I haven’t made a decision,” she said.
“What I wanted to tell you is we’ll take care of everything while you’re gone, Hazel and the boys and I. David can run the operations, and Jon can work with the banker and the lawyer and the brokers. We’ll keep it all going straight down the road.” He nodded again. “You can leave anytime.”
She bit the inside of her lip. She wanted to speak, but feared her voice would crack. He patted her hand. “You’ve been a great friend. We’ll never forget you.”
After he left the porch, she decided. She would leave Darling Downs. She’d be gone for a long time, several years maybe. What would happen to Tom and his family? He could run the operation, but who would protect him from the jackals that preyed on aborigines, the sharpshooting businessmen, and the corrupt government types? He would need ironclad legal protection, and she couldn’t just pay him wages and bonuses anymore, not if he was in charge of the whole thing.
In late October, she took Tom and Hazel and the boys to meet with Frank Yates in Toowoomba. In the intervening weeks, she and Frank had met several times. She kept asking questions, probing and pushing him to find a way.
On the drive into town, Jon asked her what it was all about, but she wouldn’t tell them. Her stomach fluttered like it had the first time she bought a piece of land. They crowded into Frank’s office. Sheila and Hazel and Tom sat at the round table. The two boys—men now, both over six feet tall—stood next to the closed door. David seemed uncomfortable in his dress shirt. Jon watched everything, his eyes jumping from Frank to Sheila and back again. He peered at the papers in Frank’s hands as if trying to read them from across the room. Frank joined them at the table.
“How should we begin?” he asked her.
She sat straight, pressed her skirt flat on the tops of her thighs, and asked Tom, “How would you like to buy the farms?”
“Not the land,” said Frank.
“Right,” she said, “not directly.”
Aborigines were not allowed to own property in Australia, Frank explained, but foreign companies could. He would set up an international company owned by Sheila and based in the United States. The foreign company would buy the farm properties.
“Slow down,” said Jon. “Why would Sheila buy the farms from herself?”
“Be patient,” said Sheila.
Frank went on to say that Sheila would then sell fifty percent of the American company to Tom. Tom would borrow money from Sheila to buy his half and pay her back over time.
Tom looked at Hazel, who turned to Jon, the business manager of the family. Jon eyed Frank Yates.
“How does Dad pay off the loan from Sheila?”
“The American company will hire all of you as managers of the business. Tom will pay off the note to Sheila out of his salary. It’s all perfectly legal.”
“What will you do?” Jon asked her.
“I’m joining the AWAS. Training camp begins next week.”
“How long will you be gone?” asked Hazel.
She worried most about Hazel. The boys, well, they were boys, with their whole lives ahead of them. Tom would be busy working, as always. But Hazel and she had talked for hours on end, woman to woman; they had kept each other company.
“I don’t know,” she said. “At least a year.”
Hazel’s face sagged.
“I can’t wait any longer. I have to join up. You all belong here. You will help Australia by raising beef and sheep and dairy cows. I trust you to make all the right decisions. I own half on paper; but in reality, it’s all yours to manage.”
Tom’s eyes widened. He turned to stare at the lawyer.
“Yes,” Frank said, “Sheila’s right.”
And so, in October 1941, she left Darling Downs to join the army.
The girls are silent. April blinks several times, as if she might tear up.
Chris’s eyes sweep from Natalie to April and back again.
“Sheila joined the army?” asks Natalie.
“Will she have to fight?” says April. “She might get killed?”
“Well,” I say, wanting to answer honestly, but to also allay their worst fears, “the AWAS made a huge contribution to the war effort, and they were trained to fire weapons, but Australia did not put women in combat roles in World War II.”
“So she doesn’t die,” says Natalie.
I hesitate. I’m loathe to spoil the mystery of future stories. But at the same time, I don’t want them to stress out with worry. In fact, I’m not at all sure we should proceed further, so I give them an easy out.
“Kids, maybe we should end the stories now. We can have Colin’s marriage proposal wrap up the series. Make it a happy ending.”
April pushes her lips out. Natalie rubs a finger on her temple. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea.
“Yeah,” I say, “we can return to some of the earlier stories. You love those.”
Their expressions are non-committal. I’ve screwed this up. I had scored big with the stories, but the war threat has soured the mood. Can I rescue the good vibe?
“What do you say?” I ask. “Should we start over?”
“I’ll have to think about it,” says Natalie. “I’m not sure I want to hear any more.”
“Me, neither,” says April.
Out on the porch, Chris can sense I’m stressed out. She rubs the side of my arm.
“I never intended to get here,” I say. “It just sort of happened.”
“That’s how stories roll,” she says, “one thing leads to another.”
“May I should have changed the stories around. I could have avoided the war altogether.”
Bad things happen in wartime. Thirty-five thousand Australians died in the war, and Sheila knew men of the right age: her brother, her friend Sean Ryker from Sydney, and Colin. And she’d meet more men in the army.
“What are you going to do?” Chris says.
I shrug. “No clue.”
Of course, I could beg off. Tell the girls I’d run out of steam, didn’t have any more stories.
“Let’s go back in time,” I’d say, “to when Sheila was a kid. Let’s hear stories of her learning to swim and sail and surf. Let’s pretend the war never happened.”
END OF EPISODE # 08 and END OF PART ONE of THE SHEILA STORIES