It is February 1952. I am with friends at Jim's place when we hear the news that King George VI has died. Jim's mother who loves the Royal Family is in floods of tears. She brings us a plate of ham and pickle sandwiches then hurries off to mourn with her British neighbours. We listen to solemn BBC radio voices telling us how sad this is for everyone in the British Commonwealth.
Our lives have changed twice in a few weeks. Our school days ended before Christmas and now our King is dead. It seems our party is dead too. Jim and his friend Mervyn whisper seriously in a corner. A dark-haired boy I have not met before keeps looking across at me. We're all very subdued until my sister Phil leaps up and starts dancing around the room while singing in an opera singer voice:
A party's not a funeral
Just cos the King is dead
So let's get in a party mood
And have some fun instead.
It's like she's let off fireworks. Everyone starts laughing and kidding around. Jim gets a bottle of Pimms from the cocktail cabinet and mixes us drinks. He tunes the radio to music and we dance: Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene, I'll see you in my dreams.
Goodnight King George sings Phil and she slips off to be with Robert, her boyfriend who our parents have forbidden her to see. Dad says she's too young, Mum says he's not suitable. She thinks Jim is suitable for me as we are both in the church tennis club. I like being with Jim but sometimes wish I had a boyfriend who would cuddle and kiss me in the park, someone less harmless.
Woozy with Pimms I find myself in a dark corner with the dark-haired boy. He winds himself around me like a boa constrictor and puts his hand up my skirt. I hate being handled like this – there's nothing romantic about it. I manage to get away from him and then I stay close to Jim and Mervyn where I am safe.
Jim walks me home from the party. We walk apart –how I want to hold his hand – talking of safe things like exam results and study plans. I lean against the gate and he puts one hand each side of my shoulders but away from my body, like a cage. The party drinks have made me bolder than usual.
'Are you going to kiss me?' I ask.
He leans towards me and brushes his lips against my cheek.
'Is that all?'
'Yes, Eile, that's all. We'll talk about it another time.' But Jim never did talk about it.
'Eileen, come into the study when you've finished tidying up the kitchen. Your father and I have something we want to talk to you about.' What I have done that deserves a formal meeting in Dad's gloomy study?
I feel I'm about to be interviewed for a job I have not applied for. This is all very strange as my parents rarely talk to me privately let alone seated formally behind a closed door. Dad hardly talks to me at all and then only briefly about wasting money or leaving unnecessary lights burning. He never kisses or touches me. Mum chatters to me and Phil when we are captive in the kitchen doing dishes or peeling vegetables, but it's mostly about unsuitable clothes or bad manners so we don't really listen.
She asks if I had a good party.
'Everyone was too sad about the King to have fun.'
'We're all sad, but it's your sister we want to talk about.' She puts her elbow on the table and rubs her nose with her index finger. She nods towards my father as a signal that he should take part in the inquisition.
He frowns at me. 'Didn't your mother tell you and Philippa to walk home together?'
'Jim walked me home.'
'So where was Philippa? And more to the point, where is she now?'
'You'll need to ask Phil.'
'Call her by her given name please. You make her sound like a boy.' Trust him to bring in one of his favourite gripes.
'Was she with that boy? That apprentice with cement on his boots.' Mum's face reddens with anger. 'Couldn't even finish his Intermediate Certificate.'
Dad puts his hand in the air like a footy umpire. 'Florence, that's enough. We are talking about Philippa, not Robert.'
I've had enough of this conversation. 'If you want to talk about Phil or Robert you should do it when they are here. In the meantime I told Jim I'd meet him at the beach so I need to go now.' My voice is controlled but inwardly I am seething. How dare they drag me in here and attack other people.
I pull on my bathers, shorts and a shirt and pedal my bike furiously towards the beach, imagining my parents thinking of suitable punishments for insubordination, bad manners, inappropriate behaviour, lack of respect or whatever archaic crime they can drum up. Then I am lying next to Jim on the rough wooden planks around the baths sobbing my heart out.
Jim pats my shoulder without talking. He can't cope with something as intimate as comforting a girl in distress in a public place.
A distraction occurs near us. A boy has speared a stingray and dragged it up onto the planks. It is suffocating and shuddering in pain. One after another it pushes out tiny stingrays which flap for a time before dying in the sun. The boy scoops the dead ray and its babies and throws them over the railing into the sea. I shed a few more tears for all these deaths but feel better when Jim and I swim across the deep end of the baths and back. We rest on the planks and talk about the way stingrays the size of card tables manage to slip under the bars.
When I get home my father is sitting outside the bike shed as though he has been waiting there all afternoon. He takes hold of the handlebars of my bike and rubs his hand against the chrome.
'Nice bike. You look after it well.'
'Thank you, Dad.'
'Eileen, there is something I need to say.' He starts to wheel the bike into the shed, stops and looks down at the ground. 'Your mother and I are proud of you for being so loyal to your sister.'
I don't remember him using words like proud and loyal before, unless he was talking about war or history. Never in relation to himself or me. I am suddenly choked up with an emotion like sadness or love.
'I was an apprentice myself when I met your mother.' Is this a roundabout apology for Mum's outburst about Robert or for their suspicions about Phil? I wonder if he's been practising this conversation all afternoon. It's time he practised hugging me instead of stroking my bike. Why does he find it so hard to show emotion? Why does Jim?
Now it is June 1953. Yesterday Queen Elizabeth 11 was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Mum has the newspaper spread out on the kitchen table and she reads bits aloud while preparing lunch. 'Listen to what the Queen said: 'Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust. Isn't that just beautiful.'
Robert shows up at the door to take Phil to Luna Park and under the spell of the Queen's vow my mother invites him to stay for lunch. She has boiled up half a pig's head which she now arranges on a carving plate with parsley in its half snout, its one ear and one eye socket. Around it she puts boiled parsnips and potatoes.
'You need nourishing food for the physical work you are doing, Robert.'
'Thank you Mrs B but we've arranged to meet some friends so we need to take off now.'
I pick at my food before excusing myself. I want to reread the letter Jim has sent me. He has small neat writing.
Dear Eileen, You have been my friend for a long time now and I have always valued your friendship. I love being with you at dances and parties, or at the beach like we were that day when we saw the stingray. I love being with you anywhere as you are one of my best friends.
I want to tell you that I cannot be more than a friend to you.
Over the last year Mervyn and I have become more than friends. We are in love and intend to spend our lives together. I think you will have worked this out for yourself, Eileen, as you are so aware of other people.
The distressing thing is that my feelings towards Mervyn are considered immoral in most circles including my own family. If we make our relationship public we will risk being accused of crime. So in the eyes of most people we are breaking God's laws and the laws of the land. I have come to believe that loving another person cannot be seen as any kind of crime.
Mervyn and I intend to spend our lives together and believe it is our right to follow our own emotions.
You might think it strange that I am telling you this in a letter instead of to your face but I would find that just too difficult.
I will miss you, Eileen.
I have known that Jim is different without really understanding why. My friends and I sometimes talk about homosexuals but in our minds they are actors or artists who mingle in circles we know little of. I do not associate them with the kind of love Jim writes of.
It is March 1954. I wave to Queen Elizabeth in the afternoon and meet my first real love in the evening. I do not see Jim again but I still have his letter.
Mary Manning is a Melbourne writer.