By Karen Crawshaw
Alma Moleman sits at the window, a library book open in her hands to catch the sunlight. Despite the cataracts, her good eye scans the large text. The other rests behind a closed lid.
“I’m up to 255 pages,” she calls to her daughter Janet, whose head is deep in a wardrobe in the next room. “The book I started this morning.”
A pause in the rustling. “That’s good, mum.”
At 95, Alma lives with her daughter Janet and son-in-law Ian in a two-bedroom, two-storey house on the NSW mid-north coast. They moved there from Sydney nine years ago.
Alma has pills to thin her blood, dull the grip of arthritis and osteoporosis, and right an irregular heartbeat. She wards off anaemia, water retention in her ankles, and high blood pressure. Her pills are sorted into a pink blister pack, by day and meal.
She is a survivor of bowel cancer surgery at 90, the disease that withered her husband Ben and widowed her.
She has her snowy hair set every three weeks between visits to doctor and specialist. Her new hearing aid gives her nothing but trouble. She walks slowly, a fixture on her daughter’s elbow when they go out.
She will not entertain a walking aide, nor socialise with the elderly. Assisted living is not a discussion topic.
“I look after myself,” she tells her doctor. She prepares food using the toaster and the microwave, though not the oven or stove, under orders from her daughter. She washes up the sharp knives and waves the pointy ends at the knife block until they slip into their slots.
“I don’t know why I’m still here,” she says to Janet. “Everyone else my age is gone.”
“She says that to me a lot,” Janet says.
Alma Nellie Coates was born in East London in 1918. She grew and was educated in Limehouse, the youngest of three children. She shared a bedroom with her brother George and sister Edie.
Breakfast was often bread and dripping and her mother relied on her to help around the house. When she was allowed outside to play, she climbed onto George’s bicycle handlebars and sailed around the neighbourhood with him. Edie never accepted the offer.
Alma was given a pair of roller skates and sometimes skated to school. One day at the local rink, a larger boy pushed Edie down and stood over her. Alma flew over to him, her skates in her hand. “Get away from her,” she yelled and struck him in the shoulder with them. He backed away and left Edie alone.
Alma’s father changed jobs two weeks before her 14th birthday and her mother kept her home from school to help pack up in preparation for the family’s move to the nearby town of Welling. By the time the school inspector investigated her absence, she was 14. Her mother told her she may as well work and start earning money instead.
After Welling, the Coates moved to Bexleyheath and Alma started work at Barclay’s Bank. She dreamed of being a teller but only men could hold the position. Bored with having to do paperwork in the back room, she took a new job at the department store, Barker’s of Kensington.
Two weeks before her 18th birthday, Alma met Benjamin Moleman, who was18. He marked the occasion by giving her a pyramid-shaped box of handkerchiefs. They courted as World War II loomed and bomb shelters were built.
During the war, unmarried women and married women without children went to work in munitions factories. Alma started at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, a bicycle ride of about five miles (eight kilometres) from home and a prime enemy target. Inside the arsenal, a train delivered her to the platform of her workplace.
Every shift, Alma and the other women stripped to their underwear and hung their clothes on a hook that was winched up towards the ceiling. Then they moved to the ‘clean’ side and pulled on an asbestos floor-length smock, a cap that covered their hair, and soft-soled plimsolls that would not spark dropped charge.
Every day she pulled spaghetti-lengths of cordite through a hole in a bench and tied them tightly together. She forced a smaller length of cordite up inside and packed them into a box which men took away. She had a quota of 100 a day. The women working in some of the other factories in the arsenal started to look sallow and their skin turned yellow due to exposure to sulphur; those women were called ‘canary girls’. Alma felt lucky she never had to work in those factories. “What about the bus story?” Janet asks her.
“I don’t remember,” Alma says.
“The bus you caught to work when you were running late…”
One morning Alma decided to catch the bus to work. It trundled past her to the stop ahead. She hesitated: should I run or wait for the next one? She ran and caught it. As it pulled away from the kerb, a bomb dropped and destroyed the place she had been standing.
Ben and Alma were married when she was 20. He was Jewish and she was Presbyterian. Asked for the secret to their long marriage, Alma says, “Give and take. We never talked about religion.”
He signed up to serve in the war but was refused, due to an eye injury from a boxing opponent’s glove when he was 16. He joined the Home Guard and dedicated himself to the war effort from the age of 22 until it ended, helping man anti-aircraft weapons during the Battle of Britain.
Alma became pregnant and left the munitions factory. Two weeks after she left, she bumped into a former workmate in the Woolwich marketplace. “You were lucky,” the woman said. “A bomb dropped on the factory just after you left.” Several of their friends were killed.
In hospital, Alma watched a nurse tend newborns in cots in the corridor outside her room. As she went into labour, she called out. The nurse didn’t respond. Alma called her again. And again. No answer. Alma’s fingers twist around themselves as she relives the memory.
“I gave birth to a girl. The matron came into the room. She looked down at her and said, ‘Your baby is dead’. She called the nurse into the room and had a go at her. I asked to take the baby home to bury but I wasn’t allowed. They took her away.”
Alma was 23 when David was born, a home birth in Bexleyheath, England, in 1942. Janet was born at home four years later.
Alma pauses.. An Australian Mist cat wanders over and curls its head into her hand.
“Hello darling, come and eat your food.” The cat follows her to a plate of tuna and kibble. It waits for Alma to bend down and hand-feed it.
Alma opens the fridge and pulls out a container of raw mince. She pulls off a small piece and walks onto the back veranda, where a kookaburra is perched on the wooden railing. She holds her hand out flat and the kookaburra gently stabs the mince from her papery skin.
Ben, Alma, David and Janet emigrated to Australia in June 1952 on the SS Ranchi, an ocean liner formerly in service as an armed merchant cruiser in World War II. During storms, the crew chained the tables and chairs to the floor. Alma was seasick most of the way.
Alma’s mother was against her and the family migrating to Australia. Before they left, , Alma’s parents went away on holidays and didn’t say goodbye. When the SS Ranchi arrived in Sydney five weeks later, Ben’s brother Sam invited them to live in a room behind his shop in Bondi.
Legion Cabs offered Alma a job in the office in Foveaux Street, Surry Hills. Eighteen years later she retired with a gift of leather travelling cases, $500 and a silverware set.
Ben and Alma retired to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. She recalls he enjoyed the slowing of their days.
Unfortunately, the pace of Ben’s days shifted when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He underwent chemotherapy and fought the cancer for five years. Alma cared for him at home until he died in her arms.
Afterwards, her neighbour Wally saw her up on her roof checking tiles and clearing the gutters. She was 77.
“Get down, Alma,” he called. Eventually she did. She returned to Sydney and had a Cape Cod extension built on to Janet and Ian’s house.
And there she might have stayed, except Ian broke his neck and spent a year in hospital and rehabilitation where he learned how to walk again. Janet retired early and they moved to the mid-north coast. Alma became a member of Laurieton Library and began on the large text section.
“See this book?” Alma holds up a Catherine Cookson novel. “I’ll finish it this afternoon. What else am I going to do?”