A step back in time (Part 2)

AS we rejoin SASHA WASLEY during her time as writer in residence with the National Trust, she’s just discovered a culinary delight during the colonial era was stewed bandicoot, and has heard a mysterious bell ringing in the depths of Peninsula Farm in Maylands – already the source of many a ghost story.

WAS it a ghostly mistress ringing for a servant? 

It took me a few minutes to remember the frequently passing cyclists and the glassless windows down the hall (glass was hard to come by in the early settlement days). I was both relieved and disappointed!

After a fortnight, I moved to Woodbridge House, a manor home built in the 1880s in Guildford, where I spent the remainder of my residency. Woodbridge is a stately home that belonged to the Harper family and its schoolroom was the very beginnings of the adjacent Guildford Grammar School. 

At Woodbridge, I was sequestered in an upstairs room (possibly once for a maidservant, which is appropriate because most writers earn about the same). My room overlooked the Swan River, with the sounds of train horns and the Governor Stirling netball program kids drifting past my ears.

I was particularly interested in the tale of the young Harper men, Wilfred and Gresley, who were both lost on the same day in WWI, going over the parapet at the Charge at the Nek. I found some photos of the ill-fated Harper boys and their cousins the Lukins, who all joined the 10th Lighthorse Regiment together.

It was sad to see their hopeful young faces and read the letters of the family upon hearing the terrible news. A volunteer loaned me a replica of the little package sent back to Mrs Harper, containing a compass, photos, their unit colour patches, a card case and a housewife (a military sewing kit) – a poignant collection.

On my second last day of the residency, I finally climbed to the tower. What an amazing view they had – probably even more amazing before the roads and buildings were developed in the area. Apparently Charles Harper used to go up there to see boats coming from Perth to deliver mail and other items. It was extraordinarily peaceful, even with the shrieks and shenanigans of the little corellas on the grass below.

During the stay at Woodbridge House, my character Edie Stark began to come to life. I wrote a letter by Edie to a soldier friend, explaining why she was reluctant to ‘prepare’ his young sister for his possible death. I look forward to bringing this story to light and I’m ever-grateful to the National Trust of WA for this wonderful opportunity.

A letter from Miss Edie Stark to Pte Walter Macmillan

I can understand why you would wish for me to prepare Kitty. She is a sensitive soul and feels disappointment keenly, whether it’s the spoiling of cream for her pudding or the imagined jilting of her brother by a flirtatious young stage actress. 

However, I’m not sure there is a way to prepare her – and in any case, in doing so, do you not think that Kitty might sink into, as you say ‘the morbs’? She thinks about you constantly and imagining you in grave danger or not coming home will, I suspect, bring her to a state of dreadful apprehension and make her unable to think on anything else. 

In short, Kitty doesn’t know how to temper her hopes or fears. If she thinks you in peril, she will grieve as though you are already lost and make herself miserable.

When my own brother enlisted, I found it extremely difficult to keep my mind from wandering toward more gloomy possibilities. I tried to stay busy, but Father prevented me from taking a teaching post, saying I was needed at home – perhaps an attempt to keep at least one of his children on a tight rein. 

I went to help at the Red Cross meetings, and did my share 

of knitting socks, baking, and raising funds, as every other woman does, but it was impossible not to fear. With each family’s loss, 

every discharge due to injury, each battle or skirmish reported in the newspaper, every letter describing the nightmare of life at the front, 

I pictured my dear, kind, freckled brother. I saw him bleeding, blown up, shot, ill, captured or trampled underfoot in a muddy trench. 

I’m sure, Mr Macmillan, that the imagination cannot compare to the reality of war, but it certainly tries. I suspect Kitty has just as many fears, just as vivid visions of your fate, and yet she is holding up rather well beneath them. I’m loath to intervene for fear I’ll make it harder for her.

You ask how we got on when we heard we’d lost Aubrey. In truth, it was terrible. There was a rumour at first. Someone sent a message of condolence to our house in Guildford and my father was outraged, refusing to entertain it for a moment. You see, my brother was in the same regiment and Mr Shiel’s boy, Joseph, and Mr Shiel had had a letter from Captain Anderson to say Joseph had been killed in action and that all but three of the regiment had also died or gone missing. That led Mr Shiel’s neighbour, who is a friend of Father’s, to send his condolences even though we had not received the dreaded pink telegram.

Father rushed down to first the post office, where he demanded they check and double-check for any letters, then to the telegram office, where he did the same, and then war office – as if they knew anything or would be able to help. Then he shut himself up in his study and wrote all manner of furious letters to everyone he could think of. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if the recipients included not only the captain of Aubrey’s regiment, his sergeant-major, the Turkish war offices, the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and even the King Himself. He was frantic to know the truth, although this was all of course disguised with his usual manner of gruff scepticism.

‘Don’t you mind what the Shiels or the Barberrys or Ducketts have to say, Edith,’ he would tell me if he ever caught me with a tear in my eye. ‘Utter nonsense. This is a war of confusion and misinformation, propaganda and censorship. Aubrey’s far too clever to have got himself injured.’

You see, my father had an idea of Aubrey as wily and invincible. He objected violently to Aubrey signing up. Aub had to do it quite 

in secret and it wasn’t until the day he went off to Blackboy Hill for training that Father knew. He flew into a fury, of course, and I 

was stuck dealing with it – something Aubrey was terribly apologetic for afterwards. ‘Sorry Edie,’ he said to me when he came home for Sunday dinner before he was sent off. ‘I couldn’t stand the thought of Father’s rages, or of his doing everything in his power to pull strings to get me out of it.’ 

This book has a projected publication date of 2023. Sasha Wasley’s next novel, Spring Clean for the Peach Queen, releases March 30, 2021. Visit: http://www.sashawasley.com

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