Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Mate, Bernice.

Another excerpt  from Tales of A Publicans Wife by Lyn McGettigan. Read more about her upcoming book here.

The story continues...

Throughout my years at the Union Hotel at North Sydney and especially during my days at Sheila’s, I had, and still have, a good mate called Bernice.

Bernice and I met when our kids were at St. Mary’s Primary School at Ridge Street, North Sydney. Her daughter Briony was the same age as my daughter Kate. They met on their first day of kindergarten. Kate had been refusing to go to school because her mates, old Jack and Eric, from the Public Bar, told Kate she didn’t have to go to school. They would teach her all she needed to know. Kate believed them, after all they were her mates. On most days she would sit in the public Bar with them for half an hour and they would, all three, have philosophical chats over her pink lemonade and packet of Smith’s Crisps and their middies. Consequently, she was not happy on her first day. Her elder sister, Danielle, a perfect pupil, walked in a lady-like way to school. On this day Kate, in her school uniform, sat down in the first gutter she came to and refused to move on. Brian the Publican was taking her to school as I was at Ryde Tafe, enrolling for a 4 year, part-time Hotel Course.As well as the recalcritant Kate, he had the lady-like Danielle and the baby, “Buddha” in his stroller.

Brian the Publican managed to move her on. She moved, only to encounter the headmistress, Sister Ellen, at the school gate. Sister Ellen was a trooper in a million! After enduring a kick aimed at her shins, followed by a left hook, she took Kate to her classroom.( Before continuing, I would like to say they emerged hand-in-hand at lunchtime, and to this day are good friends).  

Bernice's son, Dylan, and my son, “Budds” also became firm friends. Budds was so nick-named because he was rotund, but on being asked at St. Joseph’s College, Hunter’s Hill the origin of his nickname, replied, “It’s because I pray a lot!”  Went down a treat at that school! Anyway Dylan and Budds became best mates. The children used to play together upstairs at the hotel after school until Bernice arrived to pick Dylan and Briony up. Bernice and I became best mates after an incident at St. Mary’s.

One morning I arrived at the school to hear an altercation coming from around the side of the Church where the mothers used to park.
“You can’t park here again.” said an elderly male voice.
“Why not?”  replied an irate female voice.
I think that’s Bern, I said to myself as I rounded the corner, all guns blazing. My paternal grandmother was a suffragette and the fight to right all wrongs comes out strongly in me, so strongly that I think all grandmothers, maternal and paternal, from way back must have been suffragettes!
I  came around the corner to find Bern and an old priest standing toe-to-toe.
‘What do you mean she can’t park here? She’s a working mother! She has two children to support on her own. She can’t afford parking fees!”
‘I don’t care’, said the old priest.
“Don’t worry, Bern," I said, "you can park in the hotel car park”.

So started our friendship! I’d like to relate a few instances from our history that will explain why we have remained good mates.

One of the customers at Sheila’s was a lovely girl called Mary. We had arranged to have a night out with her and met up at the bottom bar at Sheila’s about 8pm. Brian the Publican was being an angel again and minding all the kids. We had a couple of drinks there and decided to go to the San Francisco Grill at the Hilton for dinner. The Hilton was an institution in those days. It had the Marble Bar, which is still there, and the Grill.

 The San Francisco Grill was famous for its “silver service”. This is a form of service whereby waiters serve all main course dishes to the table from a silver platter. They served the meal to your plate (already in place in front of you), from the left side and cleared from the right. You had to remember to lean slightly to the right when serving was in progress and to the left when clearing! They also had “gueridon” service. This was a cart wheeled to your table and speciality dishes were cooked in front of you, or in the case of cheese or bread, you made your selections from it. Two dishes that were famous for gueridon style preparation were Chateau Briand, a beef fillet, which was finished off and carved right there and Crepes Suzette, a pancake which was sauced, flamed, and served in front of you. This may sound very grand but the “piece de resistance” was the signature “dish”. A small silver tray in the shape of the San Francisco Bridge was presented with coffee. On it had been placed dry ice and on this were four or five chocolate-coated peppermint ice cream balls! This was Sydney in the days of Romanos, Pruniers, the Silver Spade Room, The Coachman. Dining was an event you anticipated, dressed for and thoroughly enjoyed.  The guests around you were often as varied and “colourful” as the menu.

We decided to have a pre-dinner drink at the cocktail bar outside the Grill. We were all “dressed up” and looked very attractive, even if I say it myself! We had been seated for a while with our martinis in front of us and had polished off about three, when a guy who had been sitting at the end of the bar, moved up and asked if he could join us. He was closest to Mary, so she politely replied,
“No. We are having a quiet drink and a chat and would appreciate it if you would go away.”
No chance.
After retreating for a while and keeping his eyes fastened on the three of us, he thought he would try again.
“No,” said Mary, “we have told you that we are having a quiet drink. We do not want to be disturbed”.
“The third time he tried he said nothing. He perched on the stool beside her. He was ignored. Then he tried to join in our conversation. Mary very quietly gave us a wink and then opened her handbag and casually laid it on the bar between herself and the pest.
The guy went white, spluttered in his drink and knocked the heavy bar chair over in his haste to get away. Bernice and I looked at his retreating figure, looked at Mary and laughed.
“How did you manage that Mary?’ asked Bernice,
Mary gave a little smile and pushed her open handbag over to us. In it was a pistol.
It wasn’t only blokes who were part of the underworld!

Often we would go to the Bourbon and Beefsteak in the Cross. The Bourbon was another Sydney institution, particularly in the 60’s. It was rumoured that it had been set up by the American Government and that the boss there was ex CIA. His job was to garner any intelligence he could from the American servicemen who were on leave from Vietnam. It was very American — there was Bourbon of course and the best hamburgers in town! It introduced Australia to the American way of eating salads before a meal. However, it could not get us drinking water before and during a meal, The Australian attitude was, “Waste of good drinking time” or “It will rust your insides". The interior had a large eating area with white tablecloths on the right when you walked in. There was a maître d’ in a dinner jacket and a very large menu. To the left was a long bar with stools all along, tables and a dance floor. The best feature was a piano at the end of the bar with enough space for people to sit around. It played jazz, generally the popular kind of Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra. It was the place to be and such fun!

I started going there in the 60’s when Sydney girls went out with the visiting servicemen. Usually you met at the American Club, which held dances to facilitate meetings. It was unheard of for a “nice” girl to meet any American in a bar! The Cross went all out to cater for these boys, with strip clubs, gambling dens, brothels. There were drugs, but they were something that was unknown to the average young Australian who would not have known what they looked like, or if an exchange was happening. The American male also brought super good manners when taking out a girl and always gave them a gift on first meeting. In hindsight, I can understand the furore during WW2 when the Australian men got upset when the girls flocked to the servicemen then!

 Bernice and I often went to the B&B and felt extremely comfortable. This, however, was the 80’s and the clientele had changed. Instead of servicemen, there were all types — underworld, police, regulars from the Cross, hospitality employees, anyone really. We were lucky enough to know them all, from the big doorman, to most of the clientele. We wouldn’t get there until after midnight and the place was buzzing! This night Bern and I sat at the bar in our usual seats and ordered our usual drinks — scotch and soda for Bern, martinis for me. For some reason, we never had to pay for our drinks! We put it down to being in the hospitality business (Sheila's was raging at that time) but I think that it was due more to the fact that we knew most of the “goodies and baddies” in town!

We began chatting to the barman and to the people next to us, and as one does, got into an interesting conversation. The fellow next to me admired my ring.
“There’s a lovely stone in that," he said.
“Yes”, I replied, “I’m giving it to my older daughter. I have two daughters. I would love to find another one of the same size for her.”
With that he whipped out his notebook.
“I’ll just take details”, he said, “What size is it, what clarity?”
So I went along with this and told him. When wanted my contact information I realized that he was serious.
“Thanks,” I said, “Let me think about it and I’ll let you know next time I see you up here.”
“No worries," he said, “I know what you want. I can get it overnight and you’ll have it the next day.”

It was a common thing for “people in the know” to order things that would be stolen to suit. I didn’t want to be part of this scene, but I knew a bloke who did. His particular band of mates specialized in stealing clothes. One day this bloke was passing through Coffs Harbour on his way to see his parents on the Gold Coast. He was walking along Coffs street when he was passed by two blokes in white overalls wheeling a large clothes stand. They winked at him, not a word was exchanged, and the guys went whistling along on their merry way. Another placed order, another satisfied customer!

It was a 'wink and a nod' type of society. There were boundaries between the criminals and the citizens and people generally stayed within them. It was as if there was also a barrier of osmosis, and sometimes one could slip in and out without any harm.

The content for this blog are excerpts from the forthcoming Tales Of A Publican's Wife, by Lyn McGettigan, edited by Jan Cornall. Jan and Lyn are preparing the book for publication in 2014.

Please leave a comment or get in touch HERE if you have a Sheila's story to tell.

(c) Lyn McGettigan 2013

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