TO FLY FOR THEIR BREAD
Two Sydney girls, Miss Nancy de Low Bird, aged 18, Manly, and Miss May Bradford, are working hard to win their ‘B’ (commercial) aviation licenses. When they win them they plan to take up flying as a profession. Both are pupils of the Kingsford Smith flying school.
Nancy Bird, who won her ‘A’ licence in September, now has it endorsed (50 hours flying solo) so that she can take up passengers, but she cannot obtain her ‘B’ licence until she is 19 next October. Her age is a handicap to her ambition, which is to secure all engineers’ licences, but she must be 21.
—Morning Bulletin, 1933
• • • • •
Edna Higgins clasped the hat to her head as she watched the racing-green Gipsy Moth glide gradually back to the Mascot Aerodrome. She waved more out of exhilaration than any expectation that her salute would be seen. Beside her, Milton Isaacs attempted to push a particularly ugly greyhound back into the yellow Mercedes. The misshapen dog resisted, straining against the lead in its desperation to chase the biplane. The poet dragged the greyhound back, cursing as his immaculate cravat was pushed awry in the battle.
The Rule Britannia touched gently down onto the tarmac and taxied to a stop. Charles Kingsford Smith climbed out of the passenger seat, pausing to speak at length and, by his posture, quite stridently, to the pilot before he jumped down from the fuselage.
A girl in overalls emerged from the hangar. “He banked too hard on the turn,” she said, grimacing. “Smithy’s letting him have it!”
“Really?” Clyde Watson Jones folded his brawny arms. His weathered face creased into sceptical lines. “You could tell that from here?”
“Of course,” she replied.
Loyal Clyde rolled his eyes. Some pilot’s daughter, no doubt, convinced she knew everything about flying. As far as he could tell, the flight had been perfect: the Gipsy Moth soaring into the sky, executing several acrobatic manoeuvres and then returning to the ground in a series of precisely angled glides and turns. Clyde had been impressed though not surprised.
Rowland Sinclair pulled himself out of the cockpit, patting the Rule Britannia’s fuselage affectionately before he strode over to greet his friends.
The ecstatic greyhound broke away from Milton, hurling itself at its master, who reeled backwards under the impact. “Lenin, settle down, mate,” Rowland said uselessly as the dog writhed with the momentum created by the movement of its overlong tail and tried to pull the leather gloves from his hands. He laughed, giving in and allowing himself to be mauled with the robust affection. Eventually Lenin calmed and, having claimed a glove, retreated to the car to chew it in peace.
Rowland removed his aviator cap and goggles. He was boyishly elated. Milton clapped him enthusiastically on the back.
“Well, that was a fine thing to see, Rowly!”
Edna embraced him. “I was completely terrified you were going to fall out when the plane turned upside down.”
“I banked a little hard on the turn,” Rowland admitted. “I wouldn’t have tried the acrobatics if Smithy hadn’t been on hand to tell me what to do.”
The girl smiled smugly.
Rowland winced as he realised his mistake had not escaped Nancy Bird’s sharp skyward eye. He introduced his fellow student of Kingsford Smith’s flying school. “Miss Bird is a flying prodigy,” he said. “She wouldn’t have so royally cocked up the turn.”
“I’ve had an extra month’s lessons,” Nancy conceded graciously.
“You’re a pilot?” Clyde looked the diminutive young woman up and down. She was barely five feet tall and wore her hair in braids. “How old are you?”
“Clyde! You can’t ask a lady that!” Edna was indignant.
“I’m eighteen,” Nancy replied, raising her chin defiantly.
Rowland sighed. “It’s embarrassing…shown up by a child.”
“I am not a child!”
He laughed, and then so did she.
Rowland had taken an immediate liking to Nancy Bird. The girl was aptly named, giddy for the clouds with what seemed a natural affinity for flying machines. She’d made clear from the start that she intended to obtain her commercial flying licence, to seek a career in aviation, to set records and win races, while the likes of him were content to simply fly well enough for their own amusement.
If Rowland had not been a Sinclair perhaps he might have sought his fortune in aviation, but as it was, his fortune had been amply made by his grazier forebears. And as much as flight stirred his blood, it did not run in his veins and define his view in the way that paint and canvas did. Even fifteen hundred feet in the air he’d found himself composing a portrait of Kingsford Smith against an inverted horizon. He’d landed exhilarated yet already he longed to take out the sketchbook he carried in his breast pocket and somehow capture the love of speed and freedom revealed in the lines of the airman’s craggy face.
Milton handed him a glass of champagne whilst Edna found a bottle of ginger beer for Nancy in the abundant hamper packed by Rowland’s housekeeper.
The poet put one arm about Rowland’s shoulders and raised his glass with the other. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!”
“Keats,” Rowland murmured. His friend had been reading Keats of late. Milton’s reputation as a poet was earned primarily through borrowing shamelessly from the English bards with neither public nor private acknowledgement that the words were not his own. “Are you referring to me or to Nancy?”
“I’d be delighted to propose an appropriate salutation to the exceptional young lady,” Milton said, winking at Nancy Bird. “But I thought that first we should toast the fact that you didn’t die.”
“Hardly reason enough!” Kingsford Smith declared as he joined them. “But you may want to celebrate that Mr. Sinclair’s licence is now endorsed so he may take his biplane and a passenger up whenever he pleases.” The aviator accepted a glass of champagne and raised it towards Rowland. “Just watch your turns, Sinclair. The Moth’s instruments are very sensitive.” He rapped his knuckles against the long bonnet of the yellow Mercedes. “It’s not the same as steering one of these hefty contraptions.”
Rowland’s brow rose.
“You want to get yourself a vehicle with good British engineering,” Kingsford Smith continued, warming to his subject. “Still, I suppose all these automobiles will be obsolete in time.”
Rowland muttered something unintelligible.
Edna smiled. Rowland did not receive any criticism of his beloved motor kindly. “You could fly back to Oaklea this year, Rowly,” she said deciding to direct the conversation away from the slandered automobile.
With the Yuletide approaching, Rowland Sinclair and his houseguests would soon part for the holidays. Clyde would return to Batlow in the high country to visit his parents. As Edna’s father was away, she and Milton planned to spend Christmas at a succession of decadent Sydney soirees. Rowland, however, was expected at the family property in Yass, from which his brother, Wilfred, reigned over the Sinclair empire.
“I suppose there are plenty of places to land at Oaklea.” Rowland considered the proposition seriously.
“You could take Ernie for a ride,” Clyde suggested. “The little bloke would be thrilled.”
“Yes, but I’m not entirely sure Wil would be.” Ernest was the elder of his two nephews but still only six years old. Although Rowland’s place in the oversubscribed Kingsford Smith Flying School had been arranged through Wilfred Sinclair’s considerable connections, he doubted his brother would be willing to entrust Ernest to him and the Rule Britannia just yet.
They remained at the Mascot hangar for some time, celebrating Rowland’s licence and then watching as Nancy Bird took the Gipsy Moth up. Kingsford Smith provided a commentary as Bird plunged the biplane into more acrobatic manoeuvres, pointing out how the young woman was manipulating the joystick and foot controls to achieve the loops and rolls.
There were moments when Edna just could not look, sure that the biplane would meet tragedy, and others when she gazed upward as mesmerised as the men.
As the afternoon began to slip reluctantly into evening, the Gipsy Moth was returned to her hangar. Rowland took the wheel of the Mercedes while Edna and Milton fought over the front passenger seat. On this occasion Edna prevailed. They drove Nancy Bird home, before returning to the Woollahra mansion which had been the principal residence of Rowland Sinclair and a succession of artists, writers, and poets over the past three years. His current houseguests had more or less become permanent installments at Woodlands House, while others came and went.
It had been the cause of significant friction between the Sinclair brothers that Rowland had converted the grand Sydney estate into some kind of artistic commune, which seemed to exist in a constant state of scandal. In recent years, many heated words had been exchanged over occasional salacious snippets in Smith’s Weekly or the Truth—rumours of naked women, wild parties, and decadent immorality that mortified Wilfred but to which Rowland seemed indifferent if not amused.
The newly licensed pilot and his friends were greeted at the entrance vestibule by the upright character and stern visage of Rowland’s housekeeper. Mary Brown had served at Woodlands House since well before the war, maintaining what decorum she could with a vexed silence and pointed exhalations of despair.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Master Rowly,” she said, addressing him in the manner she had since he was a child. “Colonel Bennett has come to call upon you. He insisted on waiting.”
“Bennett…” Clyde’s brow furrowed. “He’s not…?”
“Lucy’s father?” Rowland finished the question for him. “Yes, I’m afraid he is.”
Lucy Bennett was his sister-in-law’s chum, a young woman of excellent breeding well-meaning Kate Sinclair seemed determined Rowland should marry. Somehow Kate’s hope had become an expectation, one which Lucy herself now seemed to share. For the life of him, Rowland could not think of one thing he might have said or done that might have led either lady to believe he had any interest in marrying Lucy Bennett.
“What do you suppose he wants?” Edna asked quietly.
Rowland groaned. Clyde grasped his friend’s shoulder sympathetically and Milton grinned. They all had a fairly good idea.
“I’d better go talk to him,” Rowland muttered, removing his leather aviator jacket and exchanging it for the grey tweed he’d left on the coat stand. “Is he in the drawing room, Mary?”
“No, sir. I did not think the drawing room fit for company. Colonel Bennett is waiting in the library.”
Rowland smiled slightly at his housekeeper’s less-than-subtle rebuke. The drawing room enjoyed excellent light and so he used it as a studio. The fine furniture shared space with his easels and paint boxes, while canvases in progress leant against the expensively papered walls. To Rowland’s mind it was still perfectly comfortable and now remarkably functional.
The library was another matter altogether. The room had been his father’s and though Henry Sinclair had been dead since 1920, it remained unchanged. Before Henry’s death, Rowland had only ever been summoned to the library when his father was displeased. All things considered, it was possibly a more fitting venue for the delicate conversation he was about to have.
Edna grabbed his arm as he turned to go. “You will be kind, won’t you, Rowly?”
Milton laughed. “Kind? For God’s sake, Ed, that’s the least of our worries. Rowly will probably agree to wed the girl so she doesn’t think him impolite!”
Edna smiled. “Oh dear, you’re probably right.” Rowland’s excessive courtesy had gotten him into trouble before.
Even Clyde agreed. “Every girl you meet seems to become convinced you want to marry her, mate. It probably wouldn’t hurt to be marginally rude.”
“Yes, you’re all very amusing,” Rowland returned, mildly offended. None of the misunderstandings to which they were alluding had been his fault. “I’d better disillusion Colonel Bennett before this gets out of hand.” He wasn’t sure how he could possibly do it kindly.