Friday, January 14, 2011
“You’ll have to call them back,” my sister said.
I had applied for a job as a junior clerk with the Insurance Company of North America, an old line Philadelphia company who were establishing themselves in Australia following the Second World War. It had been a week since I had called and there was no reply.
Still a country boy of nineteen, I had no idea of the routine of applying for a job in the Big City. My sister, twelve years my senior, was already making her way up the secretarial ladder and was the assistant to the Chief of Staff of Sydney’s ‘second’ paper, the Daily Telegraph.
“I don’t want to annoy them,” I said. But she was right; the only way ahead was to assert myself and let them know I wanted the job – a job in the Big Smoke.
After a couple of calls, the Manager for New South Wales, Bill Dixon, interviewed me. Just like him, I was dressed in my best blue double-breasted suit, Riverview school-tie and my shoes were brightly polished. So was my smile.
Always the first question, “Where did you go to school?”
My best Public School diction had given me away; yes, I was a Riverview boy and no, I had not completed my Leaving Certificate - the Aussie equivalent of matriculation for university. When I explained why, he seemed to understand – he was a grammar school boy and had served as a fitter in the ‘other ranks’ of the Royal Australian Air Force during the War.
An hour later with several years of U.S. printed, Company Annual Reports to read, I sipped my coffee at Reppins on George Street. I had been hired and could start next week. My sister who had been paying my rent at the boarding house would be delighted.
The five others in the office were a mixed but pleasant lot: Max Riddington, already a household name in surfing Iron Man circles, was a sandy-haired, six footer and soft spoken person; Norm Horwood was our accountant, another tall, single bloke who loved ballroom dancing; Kath Sherlock a strange girl and probably a closet lesbian who took care of all the re-insurance paperwork and a wizard on the primitive calculator; Bill Dixon our New South Wales manager and a very handsome, well dressed gentleman, and Polly. Yes, Polly was our receptionist and Bill Dixon’s secret love for many years even after she returned to her first love – finding a rich husband.
Our associations shape our lives, and Polly surely shaped mine. And her shape was built for heavy duty cuddling. Firm, rounded in the proper places for the times, and an Irish Australian charm that would bring the birds out of the trees. But she wasn’t after those kinds of birds. This girl knew what she wanted.
Prior to joining the Company, Polly had been a stewardess for Trans Oceanic Airways, a small three-plane airline flying large seaplanes to Lord Howe Island and Tasmania. The airline, founded by Captain Brian Monkton, flew the Short Sunderland Hythe, a predecessor to the well-equipped and maintained Ansett Solents. Her flying career was short lived – the airline folded after a year.
A convent-educated, Catholic girl from a North Shore middle class family, Polly found a niche in the City and traveled by electric train to Wahroonga where she and her two sisters lived with their mum and dad, the Postmaster. After we became friends, I would join her for the Friday noon Confessions at St Patrick’s Church just up the hill from the office. I think Polly had a few sins I didn’t quite understand perhaps a result of her many closed-door conferences in Bill Dixon’s office. But Norm, the accountant had very sharp ears and his thin wall adjoined the manager’s office. And, she did not like Norm. Had he heard too much? One evening after a beer at Royal Exchange Hotel, Norm let it slip that Polly and Bill’s relationship was more than just boss and receptionist. Was it just a kiss and a squeeze or more? Did he need a confidant or a lover? I never found out.
But Polly and I did go out together - one or two formal events at the Sydney Trocadero; I in my grey dinner jacket, Polly dressed in a ball gown – I still have the picture, a double date with sister Bernice and her partner of the moment. But like Polly, Bernie loved aviation. Her real fella was learning to fly. How I envied him. My ambition was to be doing anything connected with airplanes; wash ‘em, smell ‘em, fix ‘em and beyond my wildest dreams, to fly them.
I guess I fell in love with Polly at the Annual Office Christmas Party held in the home of the Australia Manager, Mr. E.W.H Cowper. I never did learn his first name, but he had a beautiful home on the harbour in Mosman. The salesmen were there, the Sydney Office, the Head of the Brisbane Office, Dave Stanwix and all the wives and girlfriends. Polly did not bring anyone. Why? She danced with me all night to Cowper’s collection of Big Band records. With sweaty armpits, she oozed a promise I would love to keep and we drank many beers. We danced close and I could feel her body movements like a second skin. Yes, I was definitely aroused and she liked it. But, was I just a ‘cover’ to allay any suspicion that Bill Dixon’s wife may have had?
I longed to take her home but unlike today’s twenty year old, I had no car or motorbike. At two o’clock, the salesmen offered to take the carless home.
Polly left the Company a few weeks later hired as a stewardess by Trans Australian Airlines. She left Sydney and moved to Brisbane.
Did I see her again?
A few months later, I hitchhiked to Brisbane, camping out along the way. Was she gracious when I showed up? Yes, and to the annoyance of her two stewardess roommates, she allowed me to pitch my sleeping bag in the living room. But I was quickly learning that Polly had other interests. She had collared a young business owner who had inherited a cabinet works and was destined to provide a better future for her than the soon-to-be QANTAS blue collar, mechanic. We parted good friends and went on with other lives.
I left Sydney a year later and began my life in America and a career in aviation. I sent her and Bill Dixon my Graduation Card from the USAF just to show them I was on my way to something better. Showing off? No, they were friends who had helped me along the way: Bill who encouraged me complete three undergraduate insurance courses, Polly who opened my eyes to what women really want.
Just last year, I got in touch with Max Riddington who was long retired and was proud of his son Max, also an Iron Man. Big Max told me that Polly’s relationship with Bill lasted long into his later life. Exactly what that relationship was, I’ll never know. Polly died several years ago. And she had stayed with her cabinet-maker entrepreneur. I guess it pays to shop around.