Welcome to the Sheila Stories, which chronicle the life of an Australian woman in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
Episode #9 begins PART TWO of The Sheila Stories. PART TWO takes place primarily in the state of New South Wales and will relate Sheila’s activities during World War II.
The episode begins with Thomas anxious about telling the stories from the war years to his young daughters.
Here is the manuscript for episode #9. To listen to the episode with commentary, click the THE SHEILA STORIES tab.
Sheila Stories - Episode #09 - You’re in the AWAS Now.
It’s my fault.
Of course, Natalie and April insist we move forward.
I never intended to relate the stories from the war years, but Sheila has fallen in love with Colin McKechnie, and my daughters demand to hear the rest.
I worry about them. I want to protect them from knowing the costs of war. I want to shield them from the bad in the world.
But I can’t. No one escapes war unscathed, and I should not disguise that. Some people die, others are hurt, and that’s the truth.
We have a story without an ending. I have no choice but to move forward, and so I will, but slowly, cautiously. I will watch the girls’ faces as they learn of ration cards and casualty lists. I will monitor their expressions when I tell them of the fall of Singapore, the bombing of Darwin, and the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.
If it becomes too much, if their eyes grow big and their breath short, then I will stop and retell earlier stories. When their hearts have settled, and their tears are dry, I will risk telling them another story from the war years.
You’re in the AWAS Now
The other young women gradually finished dressing and left the hut, but Sheila lingered on her bed. She pulled his latest letter from under her pillow.
Her friend Mavis walked past, her khaki pants and white shirt clean and pressed. Mavis always looked great, her big head of blond hair pulled tight behind her.
“You’d better hurry,” said Mavis. “Physical fitness in five.”
“Just a minute.”
She lay on her back, held the letter in front of her, and studied Colin’s clear handwriting. She closed her eyes and saw him working with his hands on the farm. He pulled hay from a truck and laid it out for cattle in the cold weather.
I received a letter from you yesterday. It took four weeks to reach me. They must have routed it via Singapore. Never mind. I’ve read it six times now. The lads call me hopeless. They claim I’ll go blind reading by the light of the stars, but the moon was full last night. I had no trouble.
They’re jealous, of course. No one but me has a beautiful girl waiting at home. Well, Thompson is married, so I suppose that counts, but I’ve seen his wife’s picture; she’s no match for you. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t know about that, but as long as I have your picture in my pocket, I carry a beauty everywhere.
Are you sitting down? You’d better, for I have shocking news. They’ve promoted me to sergeant. Imagine me as leader of the squad. I used to think the officers were bright sparks, but now I’m not sure. Anyway, I’ll do my best. We have great lads. They don’t need much help.
The food has improved. They’ve rigged up a real kitchen and hired local cooks. I’ve developed a taste for fish and olive oil and garlic and chickpeas. Not sure where I’ll find those items in Queensland. Maybe we can plant olive trees on the sheep farm.
Must go now. It’s our turn to stand watch. Not much action lately, which is fine by me. There’s talk of us moving away from here. No one knows where.
Good luck with rookies. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.
As always, he said nothing about the fighting itself. The casualties. What happened to the old sergeant? Was he injured? Killed?
A noise came from outside the hut. Someone shouted.
Oh, jeez. She’d be late for exercises.
Training camp—which everyone called “rookies”—was in Canungra, about fifty miles south of Brisbane. The women had arrived in ones and twos from all over the state, young women mostly, eighteen to twenty, with a few her age or older. Days were long, starting at six a.m. with exercises, then breakfast, then classes. They had to learn the army’s rules and regulations. Sergeant Caulfield often said, “There’s one right way to do everything and many wrong ways. Learn the right way.”
That morning, the girls joked about that line over breakfast.
“Is there a right way to eat your oatmeal?” said Mavis.
“Of course,” said Sheila. “Haven’t you read the manual?”
“What about going to the bathroom?” said Betty.
“First thing in the morning,” said Sheila. “Any other time is the wrong way.”
“What about dancing? Or holding hands? Or kissing?”
“Of course. Of course. Of course,” said Sheila. “There’s a right way to do everything!”
“Well, I haven’t bathed in days,” said Mavis, “and I’m beginning to smell. I’m going to run and take a bath now while no one else is there.”
“You’ve only got a few minutes,” said Sheila.
“I’ll be quick.”
Two minutes later, Sergeant Caulfield came into the dining tent and told them to proceed immediately to the assembly hall for a special meeting.
Sheila hurried to the sergeant, a big woman with large freckles and impossibly curly hair. “Oh, Sergeant. Mavis has just run to take a bath.”
The sergeant crossed her arms, a monster frown on her face. “Now?”
“We only have the one tub. We have to grab it whenever we can.”
“Run get her,” said the sergeant. “Try to sneak in the side. I don’t want the captain to notice we’re not all present.”
With any luck, she would reach their quarters before Mavis undressed. She raced as fast as she could and paused at the door to catch her breath. A scream came from inside.
Sheila’s heart jumped in her chest. She stumbled through the door and blinked in disbelief. Mavis ran naked from the bathroom, her eyes burning like light bulbs. She pumped her arms and legs, focused on leaving the hut, clothes or no clothes.
Sheila tackled her at the hips, and they crashed to the floor.
“Let me go,” shrieked Mavis. “Let me go!”
“What is it? What happened?”
“Snake! Snake in the tub. A huge snake in the tub.”
“I hate snakes!” Mavis struggled to free herself.
“Calm down. Snakes can’t move far or fast. You don’t want to go out looking like that, do you?”
Mavis’s chest heaved. She stared across the room as if afraid she would see the snake in pursuit. But the wood floor was bare . . . no snake. Mavis regarded her nakedness.
Sheila pushed off the floor. “What does the snake look like?”
“Black . . . slithering . . . big.”
“Is it black or brown?”
“I don’t know. It might be brown.”
“It makes a huge difference. You get dressed. I’ll deal with the snake.”
A harmless three-foot black snake slithered like crazy in the tub. It frantically tried to climb the side but fell each time before reaching the top. If the snake couldn’t climb out, how on earth did it climb in? She studied the rafters ten feet up. No sane snake would drop from such a height.
She grabbed her laundry bag, emptied the contents, and gently pressed her foot on the snake’s back. Pinching the snake behind its neck, she tossed it in the sack and tied the strings. Then she ran to fetch Mavis.
They got to the assembly hall and joined their group before the program started. The AWAS women sat on one side of the room, separated by an aisle from the support troops for the training camp.
The men acted strangely; they laughed and peeped at her row. One of the men pointed at Mavis and said something to his friends. They laughed louder. He had blond hair and a red face. Sheila recognized him; he worked in the supply room handing out blankets and uniforms. He noticed her watching and immediately turned away.
So that’s how the snake got in the tub.
The next morning, some people stared at Sheila as she marched into the dining tent. No wonder.
The tent was more crowded than usual. Mavis and Betty had seen to that. Betty had made friends with some men on the camp staff, and it had taken her less than an hour to confirm the culprit was Hugh Donnelly. He was bragging to everyone.
The men ate on one side and the women on the other. She strode to the men’s area. There he was . . . the kid with blond hair and a red face. He sat hunched over his plate, staring at nothing, chewing slowly. His shirt was a size too big, and the collar stood off his neck.
She walked up behind him. The man across from Hugh eyeballed her hand, and his mouth dropped.
She grabbed Hugh’s collar and yanked it away from his neck.
“You like snakes so much,” she said, “see how you like this one.”
And she jammed that black snake down the back of his shirt.
Hugh shrieked. He leaped off the bench, and his knees banged the table, causing him to fall. He writhed on the floor, yelling.
“Get it off me! No. NO! Get it off!”
The man across from Hugh laughed, and Sheila backed away.
Hugh jumped to his feet.
“Aagh! Aagh! Nooooo!”
He swatted his shirt as if to hit the wiggling snake. He tore at his buttons.
Another man laughed, and another. Soon the whole table joined in.
Hugh ran to the end of the table, still yelling. The whole dining hall laughed. Every time he jumped or shouted they laughed harder. He finally got his buttons undone, but the snake was trapped under his white T-shirt. He fell against the table, and two men pushed him off. He took three more steps and then yanked the T-shirt free.
The snake fell to the ground, and a nearby woman screeched and jumped onto the table. More people yelled. More people laughed. Hugh ran from the tent in his pants and no shirt.
Sheila followed the snake to make sure it safely slithered under the tent wall and into the grass outside.
That afternoon, Sheila and Mavis and Betty were summoned to the captain’s office. On the walk over, they all agreed: no matter what the punishment, getting even with Hugh Donnelly was worth it.
Still, she felt silly waiting to be scolded for pulling a prank. Mavis and Betty sat together in seats against the wall. They were young, barely eighteen. They chewed gum and gabbed about an upcoming dance in town.
Captain Manning’s low heels click-clacked on the hardwood floor as she entered the reception room. She was tall, wore a khaki dress, and had dark circles under her eyes. She rubbed the back of her neck and glared at Mavis and Betty until they stopped chewing. Then the captain grimaced at Sheila.
“Which of you is Sheila Wright?”
The captain led her into a small office and closed the door. She sat behind a desk but left Sheila standing. “I suppose you think stuffing a snake down Private Donnelly’s shirt was funny.”
“Yes, ma’am. It was kind of funny.”
“I’m inclined to agree.” The captain’s tough expression dissolved into a bemused smile. “I had to bring you girls in to preserve a show of discipline. We can’t condone animals in the dining tent. It’s not a zoo.”
“Having said that, Hugh Donnelly is not a popular guy. In fact, he’s a bore. I suppose it was only a question of how long before someone did something like this. Maybe he’ll learn a lesson.”
“I hope so, ma’am.”
“Time will tell.” Manning shrugged as if some of life’s mysteries were destined to remain unsolved. “But while I have you, let’s discuss a more serious matter.”
“You’re training’s almost up. Time to find you a job.”
She had wondered about that. Many of the AWAS jobs were indoors. Cooks. Typists. She much preferred the outdoors, where she could smell the air and hear the wind in the trees.
“I gather you’re a farmer.” The captain gestured for her to sit.
“I’m part owner of a sheep and cattle farm.”
“At the age of twenty-five?”
“I suppose you inherited it.”
How should she respond? She couldn’t take all day. The captain had a stack of papers on her desk.
“It’s a long story.”
“You might do more for the war effort by staying on the farm and helping out there. The army needs all the meat and wool you can raise.”
Surely they would not try to send her back.
“We have an excellent manager,” Sheila said. “They get along fine without me.”
The captain lowered her head and studied Sheila.
“And,” said Sheila. “Uh . . .”
“My beau’s in the AIF, Eighteenth Brigade, somewhere in the Middle East. I’ll feel closer if I can work for the army.”
Manning’s tone softened. “Everyone has a beau in the service, even me.”
Sheila relaxed in the chair. They would not send her back.
The captain pulled a paper from her desk and studied a list. “I don’t suppose you’ve been to nursing school.”
“Can you cook?” she asked.
“I can cook, but I don’t get many compliments.”
“What about math?” said Manning. “We need code ciphers, but they need strong math skills.”
“I can add numbers, but honestly, I’m better outdoors. I can sail, surf, swim, and pilot a boat.”
Captain Manning drew her shoulders back. “Maybe you should have joined the navy.”
“Can you drive?”
“Oh, yes. I’m a good driver.”
“Can you drive a truck?”
“I can drive anything.”
The captain nodded, satisfied. “Do you fancy a go with the ambulance corps?”
Driving an ambulance meant action—working outdoors and using her hands. She would transport injured soldiers. She took a deep breath and sat higher in the chair.
END OF EPISODE # 09