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Lady legend of Jesuit Publications


Geraldine BattersbyGeraldine Battersby, 1949–2014

If you rang Jesuit Publications at its Victoria Street Richmond home during its initial decades, chances are you'd hear a familiar voice. If it was the superbly efficient, ever-loyal Nomeneta Schwalger, you knew your business would be dealt with promptly and effectively. If Geraldine Battersby answered your call, her telephone manner was so impressive you'd think you were going to be connected to the Pope — or at least a cabinet minister.

I used to ring sometimes for the sheer joy of hearing Geraldine switch voices as soon as she realised who it was. We'd often compared notes about Catholic educated 'ladies' and their elocution tones (my mother had a telephone voice as formidably professional as Geraldine's), and wondered what all that meant. Not hypocrisy. Certainly not pretension. Rather, an ability to adapt, instantly, to circumstances. To meet every occasion with a confident, reassuring front.

Perhaps it was a technique picked up from the many Irish Mothers Superior we'd known during our lives and convent educations. And if there was a touch of hauteur about it, there was also a dignity to Geraldine's professional manner that was wholly genuine, and a mark of respect for the person she was addressing.

The corresponding wonder was that Geraldine could change in the flash of an eye. And her eyes did flash. She understood irony and she was gifted with laughter — a gift she shared, liberally. My memories of working with her over so many years are freighted with laughter — at folly, at shared pleasures, at the bemusing, dreadful, wonderful ways of the world.

We watched a kerbside drug bust from our upstairs Victoria Street window one day and celebrated the birth of a daughter to one of our staff the next. We were a family, loving, occasionally dysfunctional, but held together by the essential goodness and dedication of women like Geraldine and Mrs Irene Hunter, who came as a volunteer and stayed, keeping us decent, and in her quiet way, making sure our feet were on the ground.

Geraldine's way wasn't quiet, but it was grounding in related ways. She had an acute sense of class: Eureka Street, she would sometimes chide us, was produced by university (over-educated?) scruffs from one post code and read by proper citizens from another.

We didn't mind. She remembered our birthdays, followed our romances and knew the names of our children. She was there for the occasional long nights and she laughed with us, not at us.

Jesuit Publications was a robust workplace, with characters enough to fill a Trollope novel. Geraldine was one of the characters, but she was also an essential ingredient in the glue that kept us together. We heard her opinionated. We saw her jubilant. We saw her vulnerable, as she did us. We knew sorrow, anger and deep joy together. And she gave us moments that have become Jesuit Publications legend.

One bright morning Geraldine arrived, a little overheated from the long tram ride in, and dressed, as she often was, in a confection of black drapery. Jesuit Publications had mirrored pillars downstairs. You could check yourself from every angle. Geraldine checked herself. I heard the shriek from upstairs. Thought she'd fallen. Maybe a missile had been thrown into the front door (we'd had some odd incidents).

A string of expletives followed. Eureka Street's Jon Greenaway rushed to pick Geraldine up. Was she all right? No, was he blind? She most certainly was not all right. 'I've come all the way to work, in the tram, in my black petticoat. I forgot to put on my skirt. Everyone in the tram will have seen me. They must think I'm demented.'

Jon bowed and offered to lock the front door. Then, as sharp-witted as Geraldine (they sparred often, and riotously) he offered to strip, so she would have a partner in discomfort. I think Geraldine snarled, but perhaps she was so overcome by an amalgam of shame and hysterics that her face kept distorting into different masks.

The entire staff gathered — not in sympathy (this was family after all) but in unalloyed hilarity. Someone remarked that in these Madonna (Guccione) days no one would have noticed anyway. Geraldine was not to be consoled by the dictates of (decadent?) popular culture. Her son Ben was rung and told, in Mother Superior tones, that he would bring the black skirt to Jesuit Publications. On the tram. Now! I think Ben demurred, as any self-respecting teenager might. (Carry mum's skirt? On the tram? Over his shoulder, or what?)

The rest of the day is lost in laughter. None of us remembers how Geraldine got home, or in what state. But we remember that day even better than we remember the day we won a small fortune betting (jointly) on Saintly in the Melbourne Cup.

Forgive us, Geraldine, for not taking your embarrassment seriously. But we knew a lady when we saw one, and she didn't need a skirt. And we loved her exactly as she was — human, mercurial, vibrantly alive — and great of heart.

Morag FraserMorag Fraser AM was editor of Eureka Street from 1991 until 2003. She now chairs the board of Australian Book Review.

Topic tags: Morag Fraser, Eureka Street, Geraldine Battersby



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Existing comments

Thank you, Morag. The second last line in particular had me laughing out loud. My own time with Geraldine at Jesuit Communications was only brief, but I do remember her wonderful phone manner. Particularly the patience she had when dealing with some of our more difficult callers, and the explosion of frustration whenever she hung up the phone afterwards, like a dam being released. I also remember hearing her on the phone counselling people who had placed unsuccessful adverts in the Australian Catholics Meeting Place column. She had a great heart, particularly for people who were despondent.

Michael McVeigh | 14 May 2014  

Geraldine, Momentous wit and a big heart. Just saying her name is moment of grandeur. Nice words Morag, Jon Greenaway

Jon Greenaway | 18 January 2015