Sunday, September 8, 2013




    Where others enjoy shopping malls and smart boutiques I’m drawn to the old and derelict; car boot sales and junk shops.  I love nothing better than to ferret through piles of old forgotten memories.
    That’s how I came across two small insignificant and tatty notebooks, one detailing just three months of the year 1941; the other recounting a year in the life of a country woman some twenty years earlier. 
    The mind pictures these two diaries created were as unalike as chalk and cheese, but both were in their own way poignant love stories:  Two separate tales of two couples in vastly different circumstances – complete strangers to me but brought alive by their handwriting in old fashioned ink on aged and yellowing paper.

    The first diary, actually a small notebook labelled in neat handwriting Private Accounts August 8th 1941 was chanced upon some few years ago on a country rubbish heap by daughter Jenny.  Together with a Hebrew bible or Tanakh, and a used rail ticket indicating a journey from Austria to Paris the forlorn bundle of discarded memories tugged at our heart strings.  
    Our own Uncle Erwin had arrived in Australia in 1939 with his first wife and small son as Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis of WW2. For Uncle Erwin his sanctuary in Australia was bitter sweet; his parents perished in the concentration camps.  His sister survived and was repatriated to Sweden where eventually the Red Cross found her, and brother and sister were reunited.
   There was no indication in any of the discarded items of the owner’s identity and we can only assume he was Jewish. The Tanakh complete with the rail ticket found inside it was forwarded to the Sydney Jewish Museum; but I couldn’t bear to part with the accounts book.  Its contents were repetitive but oddly intriguing, clues without a final solution.


    The accounts list the daily expenses of an office worker in wartime Melbourne.  The un-named gentleman receives a fortnightly pay packet of £12.11.6 which indicates perhaps an accountant or book keeper of some responsibility.   
    He fastidiously records his everyday expenses … 1st return rail fare Melbourne 6 pence…30 Captain cigarettes 1 shilling and 9 pence…matches 1 penny…two newspapers, the Argus and the Herald 2 pence each… and each day lunch at the Le Meilleur Restaurant in trendy Collins Street  1 shilling and 9 pence.  (I discover later that the Le Meilleur Restaurant regularly exhibited the work of Melbourne’s artists of the time and was a favourite eating place for the arts world.)
    Household expenses are listed as rent £4.10 shillings, surely for the fortnight, if not longer, though then again wartime rental properties were hard to find and expensive.  Occasionally he mentions buying half a pound of coffee 1 shilling and 9 pence, or Colgate’s toothpaste price 1 shilling and 3 pence. He is a heavy smoker buying daily a packet, and sometimes two packets of cigarettes. A hair cut cost him 1 shilling and 6 pence, and on one occasion he forks out a penny and a half for two bananas.
   His daily routine seldom varies.
   There is mention on one particular day his support for the annual Wattle Day appeal for children’s charities when our mystery man buys a sprig of wattle for one shilling.  Regularly 3 pence is paid to the Australian Red Cross.
    Keep in mind pounds, shillings and pennys were worth far more in those days than the dimes and cents and pfennigs of today.
    But the one entry that never fails, and the only clue we have to this Jewish gentleman’s identity, is the purchase every week of two dozen flowers for his wife Louise… carnations, sweet peas or daffodils depending on what is available. A memory jogger for me, as a small child in war time Sydney I remember my grandmother buying small bouquets of fragrant violets from a street side vendor.
    Then there is the day Louise’s husband pays out a whopping 7 shillings to repair his black shoes, on the same day paying the gas bill 4 shillings and 3 pence.  Their life together apparently follows a familiar pattern. On one occasion though there is the added return fare to Melbourne for Louise and a visit to the Cinema. 
         Interspersed through the weeks is a frequent 6 pence spent on a registered letter to New Zealand.  Why registered mail and why to NZ?  His identity and their surname remain unknown.

    The accounts ledger ends abruptly on October 6th 1941.  In that final week our mystery man once again bought flowers for his wife Louise and lunches again at Le Meilleur… but there is no mention of his salary.  In his September 26 entry he lists his savings balance as £50.9.8 pence, a total that in the space of one week has plummeted to £8.8.9 pence.  What has happened to warrant this huge dip into their savings?
     The remainder of this very small note book comprises unused blank pages…it’s as though on the 6th October 1941 our mystery man’s life was suddenly cut short.
    Yet for the next 66 years someone, somewhere kept these old yellowing memories intact;  guarded by chance or design the secret of their owners identity, ensured no clues were left behind to reveal Louise and her husband’s surname or the incidentals of their past lives.
    The couple remained invisible until the inevitable last day when a final breath has been taken and all that is left behind is thrown on a remote rubbish heap in country New South Wales, Australia… the last sad reminders of a devoted couple and their memories of a war and a previous, happier existence in Europe.
Robyn Mortimer ©2013


Diary of an Angel, my next story based on yet another discarded diary will reveal the daily thoughts and activities of a young woman in country Queensland back in 1920.