Suzie St James – The Early Years – Darlington

I was born in December of 1967 at St Margaret’s Hospital in Bourke Street Surry Hills, in the wee early hours of the morning. I was a Xmas baby, oh how I hated it as I got older. It really isn’t the best time of the year to be born.

I was born 4 weeks premature and stayed in hospital in a Humidi crib for 3 weeks. I was a slight ranger as a child, reddish strawberry blonde hair and I was named Steven John. I always thought it was nicer than my brother’s name. Micheal Reginald. Like most families we got names given to us after other family members.

I was the younger of two boys; I had an older brother Micheal by two and a half years. Mum actually had more children, a set of twins, but she lost them due to a miscarriage. Twins were very common on Mums side of the family. She is a twin herself. I often wonder how different things would be if we had had a larger family.

We lived in a house in Cleveland Street Darlington. Darlington is a lovely little suburb just on the fringe of the city. It’s much different these days. There was a higher population of Aboriginal people back then and there were also a lot of factories still operating in the area. It was a little rough in Darlington at the time and Cleveland Street was notoriously busy with traffic. I wasn’t aloud out the front of the house, it was much too dangerous. A lot of people don’t even know where it is. Darlington is a small little suburb tucked away in between Redfern and Chippendale. The best way tell someone where it is today, is just say I’m near Sydney University or the Seymour Centre. Ah they say, never heard of it before. They often think we are in Darlinghurst.

Mum was a factory worker and Dad was an interstate truck driver when I was young. We were just your very average Australian family. I remember the house well, it was quite run down, but Mum always did her best with what we had. She had a certain style about her, in her younger days she was a ballerina and dancer. Dad was your typical Aussie bloke, loved his beer and had a love for animals. Especially pigeons. Oh my, the animals we used to have. Dad enjoyed racing his pigeons and he also went rabbit hunting quite a lot, so we had ferrets that he would keep and take on his hunting trip to chase the rabbits out of their burrows. I was warned to stay away from the ferrets as they can be vicious animals. They were not tamed, they were kept for hunting. Boy could they bite, and I learnt the hard way. Dad used to let them loose in the house as rats were a small problem in the area, or was it due to all the animals we had. I used to run as fast as I could as they chased me around the house and I would jump up on the lounge to get away from them but they would jump on you and nip you with their sharp teeth. They are very funny animals to watch they are quick and have this unique little jump they do. We had numerous fish tanks in the front room with a wide variety of fish, goldfish and tropical, we also had a turtle until it fell down the drain and we never saw it again. We had rabbits and dogs and it was just a menagerie of all sorts of animals.

Mum and Dad had their issues, they fought a bit. I used to get scared when they had a fight. I would run to my room and try and block it all out. It wasn’t nice. All the screaming and shouting. I admire them though, in the end they actually stuck it out and managed to get through their issues and have been married for over 50 years now. That’s tolerance and determination for you.

I was around about 4 years old at the time when my Grandma Rose, Mums mother, bought me a cleaning set. Broom, mop, bucket and dust pan set with a feather duster. It was my pride and joy. I used to follow Mum around the house trying to help her do the house work. I was in love it. A bit OCD really and I’m still the same today. Sadie the Cleaning Lady was a song by Johnny Farnham which was released in 1968. It was a huge hit for him and his first solo single. It was still very popular on the radio in 1971 and My Grandma Rose nicknamed me “Sadie The Cleaning Lady”. How very apt is that. Who would have thought… lol

Nana M, Elizabeth is her real name was always known as Betty or Blossom to everyone else. She was my father’s mother and she has played a huge part in my life. Nana M and Pop M lived just behind our house in a small terrace in. You could go out our back gates and run up the Dunny Lane and into Nan’s backyard it was that close. As I got older Mum changed jobs a few times, she was a Barmaid at The Brittania Hotel. It was so close, just 20 mtrs from our house, it was a little too convenient I think. But I got to play in their sometimes and go upstairs to the accommodation rooms. I even ended up learning how to play Pool in that Hotel. Mum then moved on to work for Parker Pens in an administrative role in their factory just up the street. I would go in there sometimes and sit at Mums desk and play on the typewriter. I always thought I was an efficient receptionist.

So I got spend a lot of time with Nana M as I grew up. She would baby sit me and my brother a lot as Mum and Dad worked. She was a very strict and stern woman. She scared me sometimes, but she was always there for us. She had worked hard most of her life, she was 14 and had a job in a lipstick factory. Forget that, at 14 we’re still going to school. Pop worked on various councils, he was a garbage man. Now he was a crap collector, and I know where my father gets it from. Anything and everything he would find on the streets would be brought home. One day he brought home a Corella, for those who don’t know they are similar to a Cockatoo. He said to Nan, just minding it for a mate who’s gone on holidays. Nan gave that usual raised eyebrow stare. Well that bird was still here, approximately 35 years or more later, he passed away about 4 years ago. Nan loved birds she taught the bird to talk, or better still, swear. She taught him the saying, “Get out of it you bastard”. Later on the bird was actually Nana M’s watch dog to let her know anybody was in the yard.

During my younger years Nan bought us an array of toys and stuff to play with, even a record player each and a record. We had the choice to choose between to records wrapped in Xmas paper. What did I end up with? Liberace. The writings on the wall….. lol. Nana M used to bring home toys like KerPlunk; it was a game of sticks and marbles in a plastic tube. It was so much fun. We even had a Meccano Set that used to be dads, I loved building things.

Nana M had a thing for keeping everything. Nothing was thrown away. I feel it stems from growing up during the war and depression. There was always something to do at Nana M’s place, it was like my wonderland.

I used to love waiting for Santa to arrive, until one night I woke up and was sitting at the top of the stairs watching Dad put our bikes and toys together while having the beer and fruit cake we left out for Santa. I was shattered, there was no Santa, it was just a big myth, but I still loved waking up in the morning and making a mess opening the presents. Then we would go to Nana M’s place for Xmas lunch. There we were all sat around the table in a small dining room. She would put on a huge spread. Baked dinner with the works. Pork, Chicken, Turkey and Ham with lots of baked vegetables. It took me a while to get used to some of the vegetables and I would try and throw them away or put them on my brother’s plate. Dessert time was interesting, Nana M made the usual Xmas fruit cake and pudding. When you got pudding with custard and if you were lucky enough to get the Three pence she put inside the pudding, whoopee , but you had to hand them back. I was always scared they would break my teeth. It was an old Xmas tradition that went on for years; it’s believed to bring good luck and wealth in the coming year. The tradition died out sometime later as the introduction of metal based coins was introduced, but Nana M still has her Three pence collection and was always used in her Xmas puddings, except the ones she would give away. Weeks before Xmas you would go to Nana M’s house and see them in pieces of fabric hanging in the laundry room. Nan always made things in bulk. She would give the extras away to family and friends. Every Xmas we would get a fruit cake to take home. I didn’t like it much as a youngster, but I certainly do now.

My relationship with my older brother was the usual love hate brotherly thing. He was the oldest so he would always throw that one at me to get his way. Mum would constantly complain about us fighting and sometimes we copped a good whack for being naughty. Dad was the worst, when he would come home and find out what we had been up to, it was on again. I don’t hate them for it, it’s not a done thing these days, but discipline was needed to keep us in line. Nana M also used the strap. She would give you that look and you knew it was coming. I would run, but she always got me in the end, and boy did it sting. Sometimes children take longer to learn, and that was me. Always the slow learner when it came to getting into trouble, but I eventually learnt my lesson.

I enjoyed when Aunty Joe used to visit, I loved sitting down with her doing some colouring in. I remember if I went outside the lines I would tear the page out as if it had never existed. OCD again. She was extremely patient with me. I think from a young age I had the perfectionist trait in me. Everything had its place, colour in between the lines and I loved cleaning the house and tried to organise everything. I adored the animals; I would cuddle the rabbits and my cute puppy dog. I don’t remember if he was actually bought for me but I rose to take the responsibility of keeping him, Buffy was his name. A little fox terrier. He was cute as a button. A little trouble maker too. He used to climb the ladder of the pigeon loft and play up there, getting him back down was a different story.

I would constantly help Dad with the pigeons, when racing day was on you used to have to go up to the loft cages and shake a tin with seed in it and call the birds in. Try and get them back into the cages as quick as possible. I would yell, Come on. Come on. Come on, and they would fly down and go into their cage and Dad would clock their rings and race day was over.I was always and still am fascinated as to how they would find their way home. Mind you some never returned. Attacked by bigger birds or lost their flight path.

I’m sure a big part of my flare has come from my Mum; she was a very social person. I remember she loved going to Redfern RSL for the Easter Bonnet Parade. She would have a huge hat and dressed smart, I can’t recall if she ever won. But in my eyes she did. She had fancy hairdos and clothing and always tried to look her best. She always had a huge wardrobe full of clothes and shoes, nothing’s changed. Now she has 4 wardrobes full of them.

Easter time was my favourite time of year. We used to walk all the way from the Newtown end of Cleveland Street, up to the old Show Ground at Moore Park. We would go and have fun on the rides and get lots of show bags, eat lots of Pluto pups and candy floss. Then we trudged all the way back down Cleveland Street all the way home. We were all exhausted by the end of the day, but not before I would go through all the show bags and enjoy all the treats.

Our house was scary sometimes, due to being run down. I recall Mum and Dad were having a party once and all of a sudden the cockroaches would crawl out from the brick work and fly at you. I screamed and ran. The upstairs back room was terrible, if I remember it as I do, the floor was falling in. Mum would always say, don’t go in there. A huge memory from that house I have is from when Dad would play dentist. He used to tie the string around your tooth and then tie it to a door, then slam the door. Your tooth was gone. Ouch.

I was a bed wetter as a child. Nana M recalls the times when I would stay at her place and I would piddle the bed, all the way up her back. During the night she would wake me up to change the sheets. I was in a total daze and had no idea what was going on until the next morning. My Dad didn’t deal with it too well. He used to spank me for it. Mum tried to explain it was something I had to grow out of but he didn’t get the message, and it continued on for a few more years yet.

Today I walk around to the old house on Cleveland Street and just stare at it and all the memories come flooding back. Where the pigeon loft was, the old dodgy back gates, of course it has changed, it’s been renovated like everything around here has, but the memories are still strong in my mind of how it used to be and the time we spent in it.

I can’t recall having feminine feelings at a young age, but I did feel that there was something inside me that told me things would be different and would sort themselves out. When we visited our cousin’s place I would ditch my Evel Knieval (American Motorbike Stunt Man) campervan for my cousins Barbie pool set. So maybe I did have the urge for feminine things.

Looking back at the early years I was just your average boy. Mum says I was normal. Growing up in Darlington was fun. We would ride our bikes up and down the street, bang pots and pans at New Year’s Eve and play with the neighbours. There were lots of friends that lived in the area and mum and dad were having parties or going to our neighbours places for stay overs and being minded by them if Mum, Dad and Nana M weren’t available. I loved music and dancing and being the entertainer amongst the family. It all started very early.

Now the school yard was calling.

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