From the moment I started writing in the early 80s, talking to elderly people has been a very enjoyable part of my writing life. The first person I remember interviewing was a friend of the family of my first boyfriend. I was now a married woman (not to the first boyfriend) and beginning a novel that was later abandoned. From memory she was very interesting to talk to. (Her name escapes me now.) She had grown up in an old log cabin somewhere in the sticks and as a middle aged woman had written parodies of the romantic short stories featured in the Woman’s Day and the Woman’s Weekly at that time. The stories were actually accepted much to her amusement. I can’t remember her name but after our short interview I didn’t see her again.
In late 1982 or early 1983 I interviewed two wonderful WWI soldiers living in a retirement village in Collaroy. One of them was a veritable minefield and I still have the notes I took from speaking with him. He was a sniper and told me some fascinating details not found in any history books. One interesting fact that concerned soldiers digging in under fire I actually used in my long short story The Running Lady published in Reveille in 1988.
In 2002 I was very lucky to be able to interview many elderly residents of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay in regards to the US soldiers stationed there during WW2. At one stage I was driving up there once a fortnight to speak to someone about those fascinating times and I was always made to feel welcome. I think they enjoyed talking to me and I definitely enjoyed listening to them, including among many Mrs Blanch and Mrs Norburn.
In January 2010 I came up with the idea for a new novel and almost immediately I decided to set the novel, with the working title of The Grey Silk Purse, in Mayfield. I was unemployed for the first few weeks of that year and I spent a lot of time walking the streets and taking photos of beautiful old houses. I was also doing a lot of research on the net about the history of Mayfield. Two names repeatedly came up – Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. I contacted Gionni di Gravio, the archivist at Newcastle University and asked him if it was okay to contact both of them. He said yes and told me where they lived.
I didn’t record the date I first rang Helen Marshall but we hit it off immediately and from May 2010 on I saw her quite regularly. I would visit her beautiful home in Elizabeth Street and mercilessly ask her questions. She loved talking about the old Mayfield and she would describe walks she went on with her father. I loved hearing about Mayfield as it was in the 30s and 40s and her memory was prodigious.
On one occasion she helped me map out a walk my character took near Platts Channel. She described in great detail a gate that led into the property of Argyle House (later the Murray Dwyer Orphanage). I explained what my character was doing. Helen described the gate for me, the latch and that there was lantana nearby. She could still remember the smell of the lantana. When I mentioned which way my heroine was walking home – up the steep slope by the side of the property to reach Bull Street – Helen told me that my heroine wouldn’t be opening the gate if she was going that way. I asked why and Helen explained that you only needed to open the gate to walk through the property if you were walking along by the channel. I was astonished that she could remember so much about a gate from around 1933 or so! I said as much and we had a good old laugh.
She also had very detailed memories of Waratah House which her father sketched before it was pulled down. On one of my visits Helen helped me mark out a map of the land near Platts Channel choosing the approximate location of Argyle House, Waratah House, the potteries, the ponds, the wheat field, a well and the dairy. (Not an easy feat with Industrial Drive and extensive industry transforming the landscape.)
Another day we actually designed the garden of the fictional house Summerville in Crebert Street. I still have the sketch in her hand. We also had some lovely talks over the Greg Ray books and an excellent book about the Middle East campaign of WWI. But apart from all this we were the best of friends. She wasn’t just an elderly lady with a fund of knowledge. She was someone that I knew I would have been life long best friends with in a parallel universe. As it was I only had less than three years to have lovely chats with Helen but I valued my time with her. I now miss her terribly. Her quick wit and her kindness were a joy to me and I know it will take me quite some time to get used to the loss of her friendship. I can still hear her saying happily: “You clever girl!” or “You are devious!” when I explained some plot intricacies in my writing. I know she enjoyed our talks and I definitely did. I’m so grateful that I knew her, if only for a short time.