Elsie Esmé McDonald (nee Lucy) 16 September 1907 – 3 June 1995.
There was a time when everybody who wanted to make a new life in Australia, came by boat. They liquidated their assets, broke their ties and carefully packed all their hopes for the future. The ambitious and the unprepared, the hard working and the opportunistic, the willing and the unwilling, the tides brought them all in from the sea.
On the 17th of October of 1922 the SS Largs Bay left England bound for Australia. On board was Elsie Esmé Lucy who had just turned fifteen.
If Esmé had leant over the rail to watch the water rippling in a widening angle behind the ship, she might have read something into the pattern of the waves. From here it looked as though what she was leaving behind was a broadening expanse of possibilities, with the future ahead narrowing to a pinpoint. She hadn’t wanted to leave her home but at fifteen she was not in charge of her own destiny.
She was so far from being in charge of her own destiny that she hadn’t even been told of this hasty exodus, from her beloved Oak Farm in Stratford-on-Avon, until a few weeks before they left. And even then her parents only told her when they realised that she already knew. Esmé had gleaned, from secretly listening to whispered conversations, that something was afoot.
Being an only child, used to stepping around the fractures and fissures of her parent’s unhappy marriage, Esmé had taken up quiet listening at an early age. Her survival, thus far, could be put down to constant vigilance, hidden behind a studious, preoccupied air.
In the early years of the twentieth century when Esmé was born, the world was changing. Hugh Lucy, despite being from a wealthy, propertied family, had been apprenticed to a butcher at an early age. Being in trade was still regarded in some parts of society as being almost shameful, but in the bright light of a new century, hard work was admired. Hugh was as sharp and quick as a boning knife, and he prospered. Violet Hendley was the renegade younger daughter of an old farming family from Warwickshire. At sixteen she insisted on leaving home for London, where she trained to become a nurse. Before she could be snapped up by one of the many young doctors who paid her court, she received a call to come home and care for her ailing mother. Despite her rebellious nature, Violet understood duty well enough.
Esmé had never been told how her parents had met, but it is possible that Violet might have frequented the shop where Hugh was working. She did know that the Hendleys disapproved of the match, which would probably have been sufficient incentive for Violet to decide to marry. In 1905, as a newly married young couple, they were attractive and unconventional, progressive and daring, and together they set out to forge themselves a new life.
A child is not always a welcome addition to a marriage, and Esmé’s recollections of her early life were bright snapshots of laughter and music from which she was constantly removed. At the age of four she had been sent to boarding school, which must have seemed the perfect solution to every one but her. She remembered, quite distinctly, the uncontrollable storm of weeping that engulfed her when she was finally allowed home. She also remembered the calm voice of the doctor telling her parents that she was suffering from a nervous breakdown and on no account should be returned to school. The power of Esmé’s emotions had come to her rescue back then, but she was far too reserved and sensible a child now to have staged a tantrum over this second forced removal from her home.
Esmé didn’t know why her parents had suddenly uprooted themselves and boarded a ship bound for Fremantle, nor were they likely to tell her, had she asked, but she had a strong feeling that it had something to do with Edgar.
Edgar Spencer was a mystery. He was the ne’er-do-well son of a neighbour who still lived at home at the age of twenty-five. He had attached himself to her parents, to her mother to be precise, and had made a place for himself in the family. His only skill lay in card playing and as Violet was a lucky card player Edgar began to take her out to whist parties. Hugh’s views on this arrangement were kept to himself. Esme’s views on this, as on everything, were not required, and soon enough it was Edgar who was taking Violet about and waiting upon her at home.
Edgar certainly wasn’t the type of man that Violet usually made friends with. He looked as though he had been too loosely put together around the arms and legs and walked with a strangely jerky manner. He had small piggy eyes, shockingly bad skin and hair that refused to lie flat on his head, yet, for all this, he wasn’t bad looking. Esmé could not understand why Violet accepted his attentions. He was lazy, ill equipped for any sort of hard work and did nothing but follow Violet around like a devoted dog.
While Edgar inspired little more than irritation in Esmé, he managed to inspire a violent rage in his father. It was Mr. Spencer, despairing of Edgar ever achieving anything, who begged Hugh to take him on and make something of him. This Hugh agreed to do, although it brought him nothing but worry and none of them any happiness. Why her father should agree to such a scheme was beyond her understanding as Edgar was as unprepossessing a person as you could meet. His unceasing attentions to Violet were embarrassing for all concerned.
The talk in Stratford was that Edgar’s parents were first cousins, the implication being that this explained a certain deficiency in all the children, and in Edgar in particular. Esmé was certain that their hurried and secret departure from England had something to do with removing Edgar from the clutches of his family, but she wasn’t sure why it was such a clandestine business. It was entirely likely that Mr. Spencer was delighted to discover that his inbred son had been whisked away to Australia with no effort and at no cost to himself.
It is difficult for a child to think about their parents objectively but Esmé did try. Her father, at thirty-six was handsome and clever, and despite working in a trade, was related to some of the best families in the district. She could see how women would have fallen for him, but about her mother she was less clear. Violet was not beautiful and certainly not pretty in any conventional sense, but she did have something. What that something was, Esmé had no real idea but she could see that her mother would light up a room if there were men in it and that they were drawn to her almost against their will. Violet was careful never to disclose her age but Esmé had an idea that she was a year older than Hugh. In fact Violet was almost forty at the time of this voyage but maintained the fiction of her birthdate until she died. Violet disliked women altogether and quite possibly children as well. Being both female and a child, Esmé was always going to struggle to be noticed and had long since given up the effort.
On the ship, Esmé often saw her mother sitting in a deck chair chatting to one or other of the officers. Next to her on the other side would be Edgar, sitting slumped like a sulky child, unhappy that Violet was paying attention to another man but unwilling to walk away in case she should suddenly need him. Esmé, looking at his scowling face, might have had a sudden pang of sympathy for him. She knew what it felt like to be ignored by Violet. And what of Hugh? He was not to be found on a deck chair so where on board the ship might he be?
When the war had begun Hugh Lucy had enlisted with the Royal Navy Air Service. On the day he left, Esmé stood half hidden in a doorway and overheard him granting Violet the freedom she had long been wanting, telling her that she could now go her own way and do whatever she wished. Esmé wasn’t sure what such freedom in a mother might mean for a small daughter but it could hardly be good. However, in the absence of a husband to nag and be dissatisfied with, and indeed in the absence of many men at all during the war, Violet was far easier to be around than before.
In fact, during the war, Violet was a model wife. Writing often to Hugh and making up ingenious parcels of forbidden foods like liquid cocoa butter poured into blown eggshells, masquerading as hard boiled eggs. For the duration of the war Violet resumed her career as a district nurse and moved with Esmé to Southampton to be closer to where Hugh was stationed. After the war they decided not to reopen their chain of butcher shops, choosing instead to buy the Hendley family property and move their small family to Oak Farm.
So maybe freedom wasn’t what Violet wanted after all, at least not that kind of freedom. It is possible that the safety of marriage might have given Violet more licence to flirt with officers and have Edgar dancing in attendance than if she was on her own. It was entirely possible that on his return from the war, Violet and Hugh had come to some sort of arrangement.
Of course Esmé couldn’t know if they had, but she did know that her father was seldom to be found during their sea voyage. When Violet and many other passengers were bedridden with seasickness, Edgar and Esmé were often the only people eating meals at their table. They might have wondered, perhaps, why Hugh was not at breakfast when, having been a member of the Royal Navy, even as a pilot, he was likely to be a better sailor than most.
The long journey from London to Fremantle in Western Australia included several Ports of call. Esmé, having never left England in her life, found it very exciting, despite the enervating heat. Port Said was black with coal dust and busy with traders who arrived alongside the ship in little boats and climbed onto the deck to display their wares. The city itself was a strange and crowded place with someone always at your elbow selling something or begging alms.
The Suez Canal was a fascinating corridor, the banks lined with donkeys and camels and colourful people. The heat was severe and Esmé along with her fellow passengers rested in the afternoons, fanning themselves in the shade on the deck, watching the passing traffic.
A few weeks before they had finalised the plans for this migration, a friend had been visiting Oak Farm. He was a wealthy young Indian student from Bombay called Mahudawalla, and during one conversation he admitted to being something of a mystic. Esmé was keen to have her palm read but was not given an opportunity. Edgar, though, leapt up and proffered his hand. Mahudawalla glanced at it, then pushed it away saying,
‘There is nothing there.’
Edgar was perplexed but when he pressed the man for further information, Mahudawalla simply repeated,
‘There is nothing in your hand. You will never achieve anything at all.’
Esmé might have thought this didn’t require particularly advanced psychic powers, but as she watched, Mahudawalla picked up Violet’s pretty hand.
‘If you are thinking of leaving England, don’t,’ he said, looking up from her palm to her face. Violet hesitated, then reluctantly, for this was the first time it had been spoken of openly, admitted that they were thinking of going abroad. When she mentioned travelling to Australia, Mahudawalla looked at her sorrowfully. ‘You must not go south of the Tropic of Cancer or you will never be happy again,’ he said. ‘If you travel to the Tropic of Capricorn you will never return.’
It seems a strange thing that the lines that circle the globe and the lines that crisscross your palm could be inextricably linked. Soon the ship would cross the Tropic of Cancer and that would be that, no more happiness. Before the journey’s end they would enter the Tropic of Capricorn and then there would be no return, at least for Violet. Esmé might have clenched her palms to hide what was written there and to combat a sudden queasy homesickness.
Between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn lay the Island of Sri Lanka and the port city of Colombo. Esmé would remember this place for the rest of her life. Leaving the ship, the passengers climbed the streets of this beautiful city set upon the hills above the port. There were easily as many, or more, traders and hawkers and beggars as in Egypt, but the whole atmosphere seemed different. The air was sparkling, the waters clear and blue.
In the native market, Violet, with the help of a government official, entered into lengthy negotiations over some heavy ivory beads, so Esmé wandered about, taking it all in. At one stall she bought a hat woven from native grasses. It cost so little, but she thought it the loveliest hat she had ever seen. When she put it on she was suddenly turned from a child into a young woman and was astonished at the transformation. She was a maiden with quicksilver in her veins, sparkling eyes and cheeks flushed with an unexpected self-awareness. Her long golden hair caught the sunlight and men began to look at her as she passed in a way she had never noticed before.
That day in Colombo was touched with magic. Their departure was delayed so they visited tea plantations in Kandy and had a magnificent seven-course meal at the Hotel Lavinia, where Esmé tasted custard melons for the first time. They wandered past temples and villages and everywhere there were hibiscuses blooming and birds singing and the air so full of perfume. Someone tucked a dark red hibiscus flower into Esmé’s hair and she could have burst with the joy of it. So there was happiness to be found in the bottom half of the world after all. Esmé could have taken this as evidence that her fate would not always be bound up with her mother’s.
So now Esmé knew what it felt like to be attractive, to have men admire you and want to be around you. This may have given her a flash of insight into her mother. Esmé was quiet and shy and quite unlike her mother, but at least now she could glimpse the heady power of the feeling and maybe understand how one might become addicted to it.
The passengers waved goodbye to Colombo and continued on the last leg of their journey. If Esmé had looked back as the ship pulled out of the harbour she would have noticed that she had left her childhood behind forever. But now it was time to look forward. There were ten more days to go before they reached Fremantle and she found the ship to be a much more interesting place than before.
Joe, the young officer from the Purser’s Office, tried to attract her attention and was rewarded with a smile. They would meet when he was off duty and talk of nothing and everything. One evening, when they were holding hands on the afterdeck, he kissed her in the moonlight for the very first time and Esmé realised that life was quite a different affair to what she had known.
On the 17th of November 1922 the Largs Bay entered the port of Fremantle and the voyage was over. From the ship, her first view of Australia was an uninspiring one, a flat sea against colourless sand dunes. After the bustling streets of Colombo, Fremantle seemed empty and desolate. There were shop fronts with verandahs and enormous signs that looked crude and awful in the hard light. Her heart sank. It had been a tumultuous and difficult few months for Esmé and all she could hope was that she would come to know and love this place as she had her previous home. She wrote down the name of their bank, the only Australian address they had, and pushed the paper into Joe’s hand. Then she put on her straw hat, gathered her things and followed her parents and Edgar down the gangway.