100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I

The Telegraph Boy

By Sandra Stirling

It was Harry’s first day at work.

After completing seventh grade at the local primary school, and now aged 14, he had applied to the local post office for training as a telegraph boy. His parents, Joyce and Arthur, had been so proud when he had rushed into the kitchen to tell them the good news.

“I’ve been accepted, Mum!” He suffered the smother of her hugs and kisses.

“They want me to start right away, Dad!”

“Well done, young lad,” smiled his father, offering his hand in a firm handshake. “Right proud we are, aren’t we, Mother.”

“We certainly are, Dad,” smiled Joyce. “And we’ll have something special for tea tonight to celebrate.”

Telegram BoyTelegram BoyState Library of Victoria, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/89568And now, completing the official log book, Harry carefully signed his name and the day’s date: ‘Harold Arthur Simpkin, 20th of April, 1911.’ He was given a uniform to wear of shirt and jacket, short pants and long socks and a pair of sturdy boots, together with a smart peaked cap. But his pride and joy had been the pushbike he’d also been allocated by the post master.

“Now young Harry, you must take good care of this bicycle and, while it’s for your use to deliver the telegrams, it remains the property of the post office.” The words sounded stern, but they were accompanied by a smile and a clap on the shoulder as Harry stared at this prized item. Painted red, it had been signed ‘Property of the Renmark Post Office’ on the crossbar. This was official, this was no mere plaything, there was a heavy responsibility attached to the ownership of this bicycle, and Harry would not let them down.

Over the weeks and months that followed, he was meticulous in his care of the bicycle that took him all around the township, delivering telegrams of all types. Wheeling his bike to the front door, he would knock and wait for someone to appear. He would then touch his cap politely and deliver the telegram. There were the happy ones, such as birthday greetings, when Harry would sometimes be given a penny to thank him for bringing the good news. He knew, of course, not to expect anything if the contents proved to be troubling or sad.

Harry’s punctuality and diligence over the following years was noted by his superiors, and his cheeky smile and good nature made him popular with his co-workers. One such youngster, Jack Tilley, invited Harry home for tea to meet his family, including his sister, Eileen, whose dark hair and blue eyes made quite an impression on him. And within months, they were walking out, tentatively finding their way towards a loving friendship.

And then, suddenly, in 1914, Harry’s job took on an unexpected urgency. Britain had declared war on Germany and, as a consequence, Australia was also at war. There was an air of excitement and adventure amongst the young men of the town who were rushing to enlist in the first Australian Imperial Forces or AIF, as it soon became known. There was a hustle and bustle at the post office as newly enlisted men and boys entered in their khaki uniforms and distinctive slouch hats to say “cheerio” to their fellow workers.

That year, Harry’s workload gathered pace, and he was often out late at night as the fate of some of these same lads became known to their families. On many occasions, it was only Eileen’s support that kept the sadness at bay, as most of the telegrams he now delivered brought only unhappy news. Soon he too knew where his duty lay.

One evening, after tea, Harry approached his father.

“Dad, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Yes, lad. What is it?” His father guided him towards the chair in the kitchen.

“Dad, I have to join up.” He paused. “I know you won’t like the idea, but I’m nearly 18, and they need me, Dad. I can’t let fellows like Jack Tilley go over there and get killed and still stay here always delivering bad news to people.” He spoke earnestly and with conviction. His father, sensing this, smiled at him.

“Well, Harry lad, if you feel that strongly about it, I think your mother and I had better let you go. Mind you,” he paused, “we do it with a heavy heart, but knowing that you have to do your duty by your mates and by your country.” He sighed. “If I was fit enough, I’d probably volunteer m‘self.” He gave a wry smile. “So you just leave your mother to me.”

“Thanks, Dad. You’re the best.”

The following day, Harry resigned from the post office, returning the prized bicycle to the post master. “This has been a terrific bike, Mr Jackson, and it’s never let me down.”

“Well, you’ve never let us down, Harry. We’re all proud of you, and I’d just like to wish you all the best.” He turned to leave. “And remember, this job and a promotion will always be here for you when you get back.” Harry returned his wave before leaving the building.

Over the months that followed, Harry’s sporadic letters were eagerly read by his parents.

“Here we are, Mother, the latest from our boy.” The couple settled themselves at the kitchen table, the sun streaming through the open window. “Let’s see now: put the glasses on. Right. Here we go then. ‘Dear Mother and Dad.’” A sepia coloured photograph fell from the letter to the table.

“Look, Arthur,” said Joyce proudly. “It’s a photo of our Harry in uniform.” She pushed the photo across the table. “Such a handsome boy, Dad.”

“You’ll get no argument from me on that score, Mother.” He paused then added with a smile, “Obviously comes from your side of the family, love.”

She laughed. “Go on, keep reading, Dad.”

Arthur cleared his throat before continuing. “’We’ve been told we’re moving up the line soon, to help our boys who are struggling a bit. They’ve been there for over a month now and they need our help. All is fine here, good food and strong hot tea, so don’t worry about me. Thanks for the scarf and cake, Mum, which I shared with the others, and they thought it was fine. Give my love to Eileen when you see her. I’ll write again son. Your loving son, Harry.’” Carefully, Arthur folded the letter back into its envelope. They glanced at each other, emotion very near the surface.

“Well, best get on, Mother. I’ve got to put those vegetables in and prune those roses of yours.” He patted his wife on the shoulder as he walked past her chair.

Two months later, on the 19th of March, 1917, a pink telegram was delivered to the home of Joyce and Arthur. The contents were brief: ‘I regret to inform you that Private Harold Arthur Simpkin, No 65723, of this Company, died of wounds in the battle of the Somme.’

The young lad from the post office glanced at the man slumped in the doorway, before riding away on his bright red bicycle.

Sandra Stirling, 2018

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