When Box Hill Was A Village

 

Miss Appsley of the Silver Screen

Just as World War II closed in those early days of Box Hill, my old home town where I grew up, my father died and my mother was faced with a dreadful decision about what to do to get more income. The insurance policy she had had on his life had paid off most of the mortgage and the debt on the cake shop and bakery that he had purchased in Station Street.

Over the shop we had some large tea rooms but after the war, except for occasional political meetings, people did not use the tea rooms. My mother decided to rent out two of the rooms to aid her income.

There were not that many people interested in renting rooms just at that time. One tenant was Mr. Geoffrey Baker the well known photographer with his thin moustache and friendly manner. He photographed the debutantes at the mayoral ball and coloured in each photograph by hand with oil paints inscribing his name in the bottom right hand corner with the flourish of a famous artist.

The other rooms remained empty until Mother decided to let one to Miss Appsley. Miss Appsley, who pronounced her name Apps Leigh was a teacher of speech, deportment and drama. On one edge of the front wall of our shop was now a brass plate which read in bold print

 

Miss Elizabeth Appsley
Actress
Speech, Deportment and Drama Taught.

Miss Appsley was of indeterminable age. She had beautiful long auburn hair that fell in natural waves. She had what the men in our bakehouse described as a “gorgeous hourglass figure” although someone observed that in more recent years some extra sand had been poured into both the top and the bottom of the hourglass.

Miss Appsley had been a movie actress. She had featured in an Australian black and white sound movie film made some time in the mid 30’s. Everybody had seen it but no one remembered its name. Before that she was also a beauty contest winner but again no one could quite remember where. She had been the cover girl on more than one woman’s magazine.

She was undoubtedly Box Hill’s most glamorous resident.

She wore gowns every day, real gowns made of organza and chiffon of soft colours and when she turned, the edge of her full skirts would flow out. She was the only woman I knew who used to wear blue eye shadow and she had extremely long eyelashes. She always wore shoes with very high heels and very pointed toes and often the shoes glittered.

In those days after the War when the 1940’s came to a close there was little work for an actress. It had been, as they used to say, a long time between drinks.

She had spoken one day in my mother’s shop to my mother about my speech impediment. She had indicated that there was no need for my mother to keep taking me into town to the Royal Children’s Hospital where I used to have to take speech lessons she would train me. An agreement was reached between the two women who were both on their own battling against limited incomes. Miss Appsley would have her upstairs room rent free in exchange for giving speech lessons twice a week to my mother’s eldest son. That meant my mother was able to work instead of having to take me into town. It meant that I was in the same building and it meant that she was doing her best to overcome my speech problem. As for me, I had no say in it.

Her room overlooked Station Street. We were No. 591 and right in the heart of the shopping centre, near the railway gates.

We used to take any telephone messages for her on the wall ‘phone in the cake shop. Our number was WX 451 but now, as more people had moved into Box Hill, it was WX 1451.

In her room upstairs Miss Appsley had a wardrobe of beautiful dresses, a table and chair where budding actors and actresses could learn how to walk and sit, and a large framed mirror before which they had to stand.

I had to stand looking into the mirror repeating meaningless sentences that made me repeat the same sound over and over again. One favourite was “Thora thrust thick thistles through the thinning hedge” which certainly has been difficult to work into speeches since. I also had to learn basic gestures moving my hand high in the sky and down again as I said “Little boys like to fly their kites high and pull them in again”. To improve graduated volume, I had to say “Jack” “Jack” “Jack” each louder than the one before.

Before I ever repeated a sentence she would demonstrate how it had to be said. She would stand before the mirror and look herself in the eyes with one foot slightly ahead of the other with her shoulders back and carriage erect. A hand would brush a fine wisp of auburn hair which fell in rows of soft waves about her shoulders. She would flutter her long eyelashes. She had hazel eyes and her lipstick was applied perfectly right up in the very corners of her lips and her nails were long and coloured. She smelled powerfully sweet. She would open her mouth wide and move her lips back from her teeth and say in a cultured tone “’The Bush Christening’ by Andrew Barton Patterson”.

Then it was my turn. I would stand in front of the mirror, one foot just ahead of the other. She stood just behind me, so close that I could feel her dress brushing my back. The perfume wafted around me. Her head was just behind mine when I looked in the mirror. It was almost too much for a twelve year old boy suffering from the early onslaughts of premature puberty.

She came into her rooms late every morning of the week. She looked the nearest thing to a film star. She would pause at the foot of the wide black stairs that led up to the tea rooms and say “Good morning, ladies” to the girls behind the counter in the cake shop. Half way up our wide black stairs she would stop, slowly turn, slide one arm up and the other arm down the banister, throw her auburn waves back, flutter her eyelids and ask the shop girls “Any calls for me today?”.

There were never any calls. But that pause half way up the stairs and turning towards the girls was enough to drive any of the bakers, or bread carters, or boys from the bakehouse, who happened to be in the shop at that moment, into a wild frenzy.

The U.S. marines might have had Lana Turner, but the bakehouse boys had Miss Appsley.

She never had many pupils. Speech, deportment and drama were luxuries that few people could afford in those difficult days of Box Hill’s growth. Of course, pupils were not her main work. Her main work was in films but she was just resting temporarily between calls.

She lived in an apartment somewhere in upper class Mont Albert. We never knew where until one night delivering newspapers after school I saw her going down the side of an old brick house, collecting her half pint of milk from a little tray on the fence, and then opening a door to a couple of rooms at the back of that house.

There was a mystery man in Miss Appsley’s life. We never actually saw him, but every now and then she would be wearing a soft chiffon dress with a very pull petticoat underneath and an orchid spray backed with maiden hair fern with silver paper around the stem pinned to her bosom.

Our shop girls would ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over the orchid and ask who had given it to her but she would just reply “A friend”. The identity of this mystery friend was tantalizing. Who was wooing our Miss Appsley?

Miss Perry, the fore lady in our shop, said that there was no secret admirer at all. Miss Perry, having seen her come downstairs with the orchid and the lovely dress one day, after she had gone said “I’ve been in the shop all day and no one has gone up those stairs and she wasn’t wearing it when she came in.”. Miss Perry seemed to know the answer and when one of the girls asked from whom she had received orchid, Miss Perry said in a very blunt and matter of fact fashion, “Mr. Ellis, the florist.”

Later Miss Perry was to ask an innocent sounding question about the sale of orchids to Miss Appsley, but Mr. Ellis replied that his business was a confidential profession and he could not discuss the purchases of his clients.

Miss Appsley was our own film star. I could imagine her riding bareback on a white horse with her hair blowing behind in the breeze as she rode into the sunset: or else being dressed in a ball gown slowly walking down wide black stairs in a southern mansion. Really Miss Appsley was too grand for Box Hill.

But standing in front of the mirror with her standing so close just behind me, smelling of perfume, did something to my twelve year old frame. I found that before speech lessons I would sneak upstairs above the bakery at the back to the men’s changing room, and put on some green “Californian Poppy” hair oil before heading up the wide black stairs in the front of the shop for my speech lesson.

Miss Appsley never married. She had many offers of course, but she had put her career first.

Once a year she hired the local Mechanics Institute for Gala Concert by all of her pupils. It was usually written up the following week in the “Box Hill Reporter”. Every one of her students took turns in reciting poetry or repeating great speeches, and a couple of older ones took part in a short drama in which Miss Appsley played the heroine.

Everybody enjoyed those evenings. The entire audience was related to one or more of the presenters so there was at least one item which they liked. I can remember starting off one night as I stood behind the footlights:

 

“There was a movement at the station,
For the word had passed around,
That the colt From Old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses.”

 

For an encore I recited a much briefer piece that received an even better ovation:

 

“I had written him a letter which I had,
For want of better knowledge,
Sent to where I met him down the Lachlan years ago;
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just on spec., addressed as follows,
‘Clancy, of The Overflow’.”

 

Many years later Miss Appsley called to see me. By now I had been speaking on television and was frequently heard at large gatherings. I was surprised how much she had aged. She wore a tailored suit, white gloves, a hat and high heels. Her auburn hair was much greyer now but still wavy. Her eyes were immaculately made up. Her eyebrows trim and I am sure her nails were perfectly manicured. She was elegant, refined, still with an excellent figure, and I would say, very poor.

But her spirit was bright. The call back to the silver screen had never come but one day if the director should call she would be ready to resume her career.

In the meantime, she had heard me in public and had noticed that I had said “You and me” when I should have said “You and I” because the I was in the subjective case. I thanked her for her interest and concern. Miss Appsley left me with a whiff of perfume lingering. I suddenly had visions of rushing out to buy a bottle of Californian Poppy hair oil!

But I must say that I had such sensual thoughts like that when I first got to know Miss Appsley in those days so long ago when I would walk home up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was only a village, where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.

GORDON MOYES