Book 1: Meet Grace
Ma Honeywell, their mother, stopped when she saw Grace and gave her cheek a playful pinch. She had eleven children, most of them girls, though she could never find half of them.
'Hello, luv,' she said, smiling. 'How was business today?'
Ma Honeywell always asked the same question, only today Grace could give her a different answer. 'Good,' she said, smiling back. 'Very good! My uncle will be happy!'
'That'd be a sight for sore eyes. You better get home, luv, and give him what you got!' Ma Honeywell patted Grace's arm, then turned and walked on. She was on her way to the alehouse, where she would drink so much gin that later she wouldn't remember who Grace was at all.
Grace continued up the steps, imagining what it would be like when Uncle Ord saw the hammer. 'Well done, Grace,' he would say. She could almost feel the heat from the fire and taste the toasted cinnamon bun.
'Uncle Ord!' she called, as she pushed in the door of their lodgings.
Her uncle was sitting in his chair in front of the empty hearth with his sore leg up on the table.
Uncle Ord used to be a sailor until his leg was caught in a loop of rope that lifted him into the air and snapped his knee-bone. 'I was hanging upside down like a side of ham in a butcher's shop!' he told Johnny Dugs, the rag shop man. Uncle Ord and Johnny Dugs laughed as if it were a joke, but Grace knew that it was not. Uncle Ord couldn't be a sailor after that. He wasn't good for anything, he said, but 'selling the rubbish from the bottom of that stinking river.'
Grace tipped out the contents of her kettle. Wet coal tumbled across the table beside Uncle Ord's leg.
Without turning around to look at her, he growled, 'Is that all?'
Grace carefully placed the hammer on the table beside the coal. Uncle Ord picked it up and swung around to her, his eyes hard.
'Where'd you find this?' he snarled. 'You little thief!'
Grace jumped back. 'I never stole it. I stood on it,'she stammered.
She lifted her foot to show him the cut. But Uncle Ord didn't look, he smacked his hand down onto the table, making Grace jump.
'You bring the runners to this house and they put me in chains, I'll kill you!'
'I never stole it, Uncle!' Grace protested, but she could tell he wasn't listening. 'I never stole nothing! It was Joe Bean tried to steal from me. There won't be no runners coming for you.'
Uncle Ord stroked the sharp claws of the hammer with his tobacco-stained fingers.
'They hanged a boy smaller than you down at the Newgate gallows yesterday. He stole a pair of boots worth a lot less than this here hammer. He was so small they had to weigh him down with stones so he'd drop right when he stepped off the platform.'
Grace shuddered. She had never wanted to see a hanging, but most people didn't feel that way - they flocked to see an execution as if it were a circus show. Even her uncle's stories frightened her.
'Please, Uncle, I found the hammer in the river, I swear.' Grace could feel her eyes welling with tears. She wiped them away; if Uncle Ord saw her cry he would curse her and say she was a useless girl.
'A thief and a liar,' he said. 'Get out of my sight and give me some peace.'
Grace went back out the front door and sat on the step.
Uncle Ord isn't proud of me for finding the hammer, she thought. He's angry at me for bringing something so valuable home.
For the first time, Grace realised that it didn't matter what she brought her uncle - she could carry half a barge into the house - it wouldn't make him happy. Nothing Grace found in the river could bring back his son, or fix his sore leg and make him a sailor again.
Grace picked at the mud drying on her knees and ankles. She should have let Joe Bean take the hammer - what difference did it make? When it was time for her to get back in the mud tomorrow she knew she would have to face Joe Bean and he would be very angry. She wouldn't have the hammer and she wouldn't have any money for him either. And the other boys from the gang were sure to be with him this time.
Grace sighed. She tore off a strip from the hem of her dress and, using it as a rag, she cleaned the dirt from her wound. She tied the rag tightly around her foot to make a bandage.
'There now,' she said. 'Let's go to Fleet Street and see the horses.' Just thinking about horses helped Grace forget her troubles.
[ back to top ]
Book 2: A Friend for Grace
Mama told me we might be setting sail today,' Hannah said excitedly, between mouthfuls of bread and butter. 'Today we head for Sydney Cove on the open seas and become sailors!'
Grace sat in the wooden sleeping berth next to Hannah and watched her friend make a telescope with her hands. Hannah's chains knocked against each other as she held the telescope to her eye.
'Do you think we will know when the ship begins to sail?' Grace asked. It had been a week since she had seen the outside world and breathed fresh air - the ship was still anchored in the River Thames, being loaded with cargo for the six-month trip to Sydney Cove.
Hannah picked up her cup and swallowed the last of her tea. 'We will know we are on the open seas when the ship starts to rock because the waves will be so big. The guards will make us rush to one side of the hold so that the ship doesn't tip over. If it does, we'll go under.'
'Tip over?' Grace was startled.
'Yes. It's what ships do in storms. That's why we will have to run from side to side to keep the whole thing upright.'
'Don't you listen to a thing that girl says, Grace,' said Hannah's mother, Liza, walking between the bunks, gathering up the dirty breakfast bowls. 'She'll have you believing that she herself is the ship's captain and everyone must do as she says.'
'Aye, aye, Captain Hannah!' Grace said, saluting her friend, her chains clanking.
In the berth opposite, Jenny Tankard, the oldest prisoner on board the ship, cackled, showing her toothless gums. 'Listen to the little rascals! They're busy planning to sail the seven seas and we're heading for the bottom end of the blooming world! England is getting rid of its garbage so it don't have to look at us no more.'
'Oh, these two aren't garbage,' said Sally Major, who slept in the berth below Grace and Hannah. 'These two are fine strong sailors steering the rest of us to the garbage heap. 'Other women in the berths around them laughed.
Grace had grown used to the way the prisoners teased each other and picked fights, especially big Nance Tucking with shoulders as broad as a man's. But Sally Major acted as if nobody could scare her, even though she wasn't very much bigger than Grace. I wonder how old she is? thought Grace. She doesn't look no more than fifteen.
It didn't help that the prisoners were crammed in so close to each other on the ship. They were forced to spend all their time on slatted beds set in two narrow rows, one on top of the other, like double bunks It was always dark and the air was rank and stale. Grace wished she had room to walk about, or stretch out. For once I'm glad I'm small, she thought. At least I don't hit my head on the beams overhead.
But Grace didn't really care about being locked in a ship's hold with chains around her wrists and ankles and no fresh air to breathe or light to see by. Her new friend Hannah turned everything into a game, full of possibilities, and Grace could even ignore the stink of the privy, the lice that lived in her hair, and the rats that hurried between the berths if Hannah was by her side.
The girls lay back. Grace was happy to hear they would soon be setting sail, but she was sad, too. I'll never see England again, she thought.
She turned to Hannah to tell her how she felt, but Hannah nodded before she could say a word. She understood. There was a lot Grace didn't need to explain to Hannah.
Then Grace felt the ship pitch forward. She grabbed her friend's arm. 'The ship is moving. It's moving!'
Hannah was silent for a moment. The ship continued to rock and pitch, and the hold filled with the murmurs and whispers of the other women as they realised what was happening.
'Grace, we're on our way!'
Towards the end of that first day, the Indispensable began to rock up and down more roughly. The ship must have reached the open seas where the waves are bigger, Grace thought - just as her uncle had described it.
Grace quickly grew used to the rocking of the ship. She liked to imagine she was on the back of a galloping horse. She already missed the horses in London - missed watching them gallop and trot and rear high in the air. She had loved to get close to them, look in their kind dark eyes, touch their smooth coats and take in their sweet scent. She thought of the day she rode Pegasus in London. That was when she was arrested - the worst and the best day of her life. She had re-lived those moments on Pegasus's back, over and over, and each time it was as if she were there riding him again.
Her daydream was interrupted by Hannah - 'Oooohhhh,' she moaned and gripped her stomach. Grace saw that many of the other prisoners were doing the same or standing bent over the privy buckets in the narrow aisle. Grace could hear them vomiting. She was worried for her friend. 'Are you all right, Hannah?' she asked, sitting up.
'Ooooh, I feel sick, Grace,' said Hannah.
Liza leaned over and stroked her daughter's damp forehead. 'You're seasick, my girl. But don't worry, you'll get your sea legs before you know it. Grace, you're lucky, you seem fit as a fiddle.'
'I am!' said Grace, surprised. 'It's all right, Hannah,' she said, holding her friend's hand as the Indispensable pitched from side to side. 'I'm sure your sea legs will be here soon.'
In the afternoon, a guard opened the hatch and called for the 'matron', which meant Liza. She had been chosen to be responsible for making sure they all behaved, telling them the rules, and handing out food and water rations, seeing that every prisoner received their fair share. If it weren't for Liza, Grace knew that she would be eating a lot less. On her very first day on board the ship, she had just received her meal of salted pork and bread when one of the women grabbed the meat from her hands.
'You won't be needing that, will you?
Scrawny little thing like you! Better off in my belly than in yours!'
In an instant Liza was standing there, hands on her hips. 'You give that back to the child or I'll make sure you never see another piece of meat on board this ship. Mark my words - I won't be saying them twice!'
The woman gritted her teeth and silently handed the pork back to Grace.
Grace had been stunned. Nobody had ever cared whether she'd got her fair share before. She'd never had anyone to watch over her - unless they wanted something in return.
Liza pushed her way along the narrow space between the berths towards the open hatch to speak with the guard, then she shouted for everyone to pay attention.
'All right, ladies,' she said. 'Our kind masters up above say that as the ship is no longer in sight of shore, we're all allowed to go up on deck. But any bad behaviour and everyone will be sent under again. So do me proud, because I'm desperate for clean air.'
Me too, thought Grace, clambering down from her berth.
Sally Major shoved past, pushing Grace back against Hannah. 'Out of my way, chavvies - I've got to get out of this stinking cage!'
'Wait your turn, Sally,' Liza warned. 'You'll be up there causing trouble for everyone soon enough.'
'Stay away from Sally,' Hannah whispered to Grace. 'You never know what she'll do.'
Grace didn't need to be told. She knew Sally was dangerous. I wonder if she's ever had a best friend, or a mother, or someone to watch out for her, Grace thought.
Two guards stood at the open hatch as the women climbed the ladder up onto the deck. Grace helped Hannah pull herself towards the square of light above, wondering what it would be like outside.
[ back to top ]
Book 3: Grace and Glory
The sun was low in the sky and the spring air growing cool when Tom, Grace's new master, rowed the small wooden boat to the river's edge. We must be close now, thought Grace, as she looked around at the cleared land sloping up from the bank.
'It's quite a walk to the property from here,' said Beth, Grace's new mistress, as she stood and rubbed her back. 'But I'll be glad to stretch my legs.'
The boat rocked and swayed in the shallows.
'Careful, my love, or we'll end up in the water!' Tom smiled at his wife before turning to Grace. 'You get out first, and I'll pass the supplies across.'
Beth and Tom had selected Grace to be their servant from the Factory Above the Gaol in Parramatta only hours earlier. Grace had been sure they wouldn't choose her â€" it was clear to Grace that it wasn't Tom's idea. He wanted somebody older and stronger, but for some reason Beth had thought Grace was right for her and her husband. At the last minute, Tom had gestured to her to come out of the line of hopeful convicts and join them.
Grace was glad. She had watched Hannah and Liza, her only friends, be chosen as servants that day. The three of them had come so far together, spending five months aboard a convict ship from England before arriving at the colony and being taken to the Factory. The thought of being left behind without them was unbearable.
Now, even though Grace's heart ached with missing them, it was a relief to be away from the Factory, with its violence and danger.
Grace clambered out of the boat, her boots sinking into the cold, muddy bottom of the river. Though the river's edge was thick with mud, Grace noticed that it didn't stink the way the shores of the Thames did back in London. It smells clean, she thought. She held out her arms for the goods Tom passed to her â€" a hessian sack that wriggled, a bucket filled with rope, an iron kettle, some pots and pans, and a sack of flour that she almost dropped in the water. Lastly, Grace watched as Tom carefully carried his pregnant wife from the boat to dry ground. He seems kind, thought Grace.
Grace looked at the land around her. To the far west, above the forest, she could see a range of high blue shimmering hills.
'That's the Blue Mountains you can see, Grace,' said Beth. 'Nobody can cross them 'cause they're so steep and dangerous, so nobody knows what's on the other side. Could be bloomin' fairies for all we know! And they really are blue.'
Grace thought the land looked magical. Mountains that glow blue! How she wished Hannah was here to see them, too.
Beth helped Tom strap the bundle of pots and pans to his back. Grace picked up the wriggling hessian sack along with the bucket, kettle and flour, and followed Beth and Tom up the trail leading north away from the river. Grace heard a muffled squawking coming from the sack as she walked.
'Careful with the chickens!' Tom snapped.
Grace wanted to do the right thing, and tried hard to carry the chickens without jiggling them.
On one side of the trail she saw a field neatly lined with rows of pale yellow stalks that she guessed must be some sort of crop to eat. It was Grace's first time in the country. Before coming to this new land she had spent all her life in London â€" a busy city. She knew about night markets and crowded rookeries and the noise of street life, but nothing about living on the land. Grace was curious about the open, quiet country around her, but also uncertain.
On the other side of the trail, the land was covered in tall brown-barked trees with long pale grass growing underneath. There aren't even any houses here! Grace thought. So far from everything, it felt as if this was a whole different world.
Just as Grace was wondering if she could take another step, Beth turned and spoke to her over her shoulder. 'We're almost there. We'll just beat the dark.'
The trail crossed a shallow creek that was narrow enough for Grace to jump without wetting her feet. Then it opened out to cleared land.
In the distance Grace saw a small cottage, uneven with a bumpy bark roof and a wooden chimney. It wasn't like the houses she knew in London, which lined up straight and were made of bricks neatly piled one on top of the other.
'Is that really going to be my new home?' Grace whispered to herself. She had never seen anything like it.
'There it is,' said Beth, stopping where she stood. 'Wattle Park. Bloomin' lovely, isn't it? Tom and I built the house a year ago â€" using the same bark the natives use. Who would've thought it?'
Beth put her hands on her hips. 'The walls are tree branches plaited like a basket and then filled in with mud. I was always covered in the stuff! The trees we used are called wattles.' She pointed at the lines of shadowy trees. 'They're all around the house and they have the prettiest golden flowers you ever saw. I could've sold them on the streets of London and made a pretty penny. You are lucky you've come in spring, Grace, they will look as lovely as ever.'
Grace could tell by the way Beth was speaking that she was proud of her house.
In the fading light, Grace could make out a shed at one side of the hut, and a fence surrounding an open field. The dark moving shapes she saw in the field looked like they might be sheep, grazing.
'You go inside, Beth, before it gets much colder, and I'll take care of things out here,' said Tom. 'Grace, you help Beth.' Tom unloaded the supplies and took the sack of chickens.
'Welcome to your new home, Grace,' said Beth, pushing open the front door.
When Beth had lit three slush lamps, Grace saw that the house was made up of one room divided into two by a wall of hessian sacks hung over a wooden frame. The kitchen hearth was at one end and there were two windows, but they held no glass â€" only shutters made of twigs bundled together. In front of the hearth was a table that looked like it had been a wide tree growing in a forest not very long ago. On either side of the table were benches, also roughly hewn tree trunks.
'It's not fancy, but it's ours,' said Beth. 'Help me get this fire going, Grace. The spring air holds a real chill, though nothin' like the cold back home. Bet you're not sorry to leave that behind!' Beth piled sticks into the hearth and blew into them before speaking again. 'It's too late for a proper meal. Just some salted beef and bread. Tomorrow we can do better.'
When Tom came inside, the three of them ate in silence at the table, tired from their long day. Grace was so exhausted she barely tasted her food.
Beth stood and stretched. 'Grace,there's your bedding. 'She pointed to a mattress rolled up in the corner of the room. 'You can wash in the morning. If I don't go to bed this minute I'll fall asleep on my feet. There are blankets and a pillow wrapped in the mattress. Should make a bed fit for a princess. Goodnight, Grace.'
'Goodnight, ma'am,' said Grace.
Beth took one of the slush lamps and disappeared behind the wall of sacks. Tom checked the fire, then followed her.
Grace lay on her back on her bed and looked up at the rough bark roof of her new home, dimly lit by the glowing embers in the fireplace. Beth coughed from the other room, and Grace listened to Tom's low whispers as he comforted her.
Grace had never had a mistress and master before. She hadn't even been a servant, and she wasn't sure that she would make a very good one with so little practice. 'How am I going to do this?' she whispered. She didn't know how to cook or work in a garden, or how to look after chickens or sheep. At least I can stoke the fire, Grace thought, and make tea for my mistress. Grace liked Beth, but Tom made her nervous.
Grace rolled onto her side and wished that her best friend, Hannah, was there. What's she doing right now? Grace wondered. Is she thinking about me? Hannah could turn every difficult thing into an adventure. Without her, Grace didn't know how she was going to make an adventure out of her new life with Beth and Tom.
Grace missed Liza, too â€" Hannah's mother. Liza had taken care of Grace. No one had done that since her own mother had died, which was so long ago that Grace could barely remember her. Liza had taught her what it was like to feel safe.
Grace scratched at her legs where the grass poked through her mattress. I mustn't think about Hannah and Liza, she told herself. It only makes me miss them more. I must try and be a good servant, and show Beth and Tom that they made the right choice.
Seven years â€" that was how long she'd have to work as a convict-servant before she'd finish her sentence. Seven years seemed like a whole lifetime away to Grace. She'd be grown up by then. She tried to picture what she'd be like, but she couldn't imagine it.
Grace listened to the quiet, gentle sounds of the forest beyond the walls of the hut â€" chirpings and whistling and soft rustlings. In London it was never quiet. There was always the sound of other people, everybody crowded in together â€" arguing and singing, laughing and shouting. The streets were noisy with the calls of the costermongers selling their wares, music men playing trumpets and drums, drunken folk pouring from the alehouses, the iron wheels of the dustman's carriage running over the cobblestones at dawn, roosters crowing, babies crying, dogs barking...
But here the sounds were less human, and Grace lay listening to a forest lullaby made of wind and leaves and insects singing.
At last she fell asleep.
[ back to top ]
Book 4: A Home for Grace
Grace was hanging a row of Alice's nappies on the line in the late afternoon sun when she heard men's voices coming from the track leading to the house. Tom must have returned from his journey, she thought.
Grace knew she should have been pleased her master was back to take care of things, but instead she felt an anxious knot in her stomach. She wondered what Tom would do when he discovered she had ridden his precious mare all the way along the East Trail and left the horse with a deep cut down her side. Grace wished she never had to face him.
Reluctantly, she picked up the empty washing basket and walked back into the house to tell her mistress that her husband was home. She knew Beth would be glad to see Tom - it had been very frightening for her to have a baby with her husband working so far away. But Grace was happiest when she was just with Beth and baby Alice.
When Grace reached the front of the hut, she found Tom and his friend and neighbour, Jerry, tethering the horse and wagon to the railing, and unloading their gear.
'Master Tom,' she said, bowing her head and keeping her eyes to the ground.
'Hello, Grace,' he answered. 'How is my wife? Is she well?' Without waiting for an answer, he rushed inside.
'How did you fare with the boss away?' Jerry asked, his eyes friendly and warm.
'Good, sir,' Grace answered. 'My mistress had a baby.'
'A baby? You have been busy, Grace!' Jerry smiled.
Tom raced back out of the house, his face flushed pink. 'I'm a father, Jerry! A father!'
'So I hear.' Jerry grinned at his friend, who was already on his way back inside. Jerry shook his head. 'He looks as happy as the day he brought home that blasted mare from the saleyards.' Jerry walked stiffly towards the front door. 'I hope you have some tea on for us, Grace. That was one very long week.'
I wish my master was as friendly as Jerry, thought Grace, as she followed him into the hut.
Tom was kneeling by his wife where she lay on Grace's bed on the hearth. The fire gave Beth comfort on the cooler nights, so Grace had slept in Beth's bed on the other side of the sack partition. Alice gurgled contentedly in Tom's arms. Tom and Beth were smiling at each other through joyful tears.
Grace thought she had never seen Beth look prettier, her eyes as bright and blue as the favourite ribbon she wore in her hair. It was as if having a baby had been good for her.
Tom looked up proudly. 'Jerry, this is Alice.' He held the baby out to his friend.
'Well done, laddy. What a beauty!' Jerry rubbed his backside. 'Any chance of a cup of tea around here? If I don't wet my whistle this minute, I'm likely to fall down dead and then how will I be able to give your lovely wee girl a cuddle?'
'Grace, would you put the kettle on for our hard-working men? Anyone would think they'd just had a baby the way they carry on!' Beth winked at her. Grace wished she felt as playful and happy as everyone else in the room but she could hardly manage a smile.
Kind Beth must have noticed. 'Tom,' she said, 'did you know that if it weren't for our Grace you might have come home to a very different picture?' She sat up in her bed and smiled at Grace. 'When the baby started to come, we didn't know what to do, did we, Grace? I didn't want to do anything but pretend it wasn't happening until you got home. But Grace found help.'
'Help?' Tom frowned.
'She remembered our new neighbours, Tom - the Clays. Grace fetched Liza, the wife. Turns out Grace knows her! And her daughter - Hannah. They came out on the very same ship together from England. Who would've thought it? It was Liza who brought Alice safely into the world, God bless her.' Beth took her husband's hand. 'As soon as you can arrange it I want you to take Grace to visit them to thank her. Will you do that, Tom?'
'Yes, I'm sure that can be managed,' said Tom. 'But how did Grace get all the way to the Clays' property? It's a fair distance along the East Trail. She must have walked the whole day ...' Tom looked at Grace, his eyebrows raised.
Grace turned away from him to put the kettle on the stove. The cups clattered together noisily as she took them down from the shelf.
Beth sat up higher in her bed. 'She took Glory, Tom. And Glory did you proud. She carried Grace all the way there and back.'
In the long pause that followed Grace finished preparing the tea and stood back against the wall of the hut. The room felt very hot. Sweat dripped down the backs of her legs. Tom turned slowly to look at her. Ever since she had arrived at Wattle Park, Tom had treated her with suspicion. He had never trusted her around his precious horse, as if she might do something to deliberately hurt her.
The way Tom was looking at her now made Grace feel ashamed, even though she knew she had never meant any harm or intended to do wrong. If she hadn't ridden Glory to find help, Beth and Alice may not have survived - didn't Tom know that?
Grace worried that if things didn't improve between them, Tom might send her back to the Factory Above the Gaol, where she'd had to work when she first arrived. While she was there, she'd heard about convict-servants who had so disappointed their new masters that they'd been returned in exchange for better workers. Grace swallowed, her throat dry. She would rather die than be taken back to the Factory - so far away from Liza and Hannah, her best friend, who Grace knew now were living nearby, and from Beth and Alice - back where it was violent and dangerous. She felt her face grow hot under Tom's stare.
Beth placed her hand firmly on her husband's arm. 'Aren't you going to thank Grace, Tom, for making sure our baby was born safe, and that I was taken care of while you were away?'
The room was silent. Grace wished the wall would pull her straight through it and put her safely on the other side beside Jerry's tethered horse and wagon. How tempted she would be to ride away!
'Thank you, Grace,' Tom muttered.
But Grace knew Tom would regret thanking her when he saw what had happened to his horse. How could he possibly want to keep her at Wattle Park once he saw Glory's wound?
'I think this calls for a celebration stronger than tea!' Jerry's warm voice filled the room, and Grace was grateful he was there. 'It's not every day a baby as beautiful as Alice is born in Rose Hill!'
'I believe you're right, Jerry.' Beth smiled back. 'Maybe I'll even have a drop myself.'
Alice began to cry in Tom's arms. He rocked her and stroked her cheek, but she only cried louder.
'Tom, give her to Grace, she knows how to stop the tears,' said Beth. 'A proper little nurse, she is. And take down the nice glasses from the top shelf - the ones with only half as many chips.' She smiled. 'Today is a day to be remembered. Father and baby meet for the first time!'
Tom passed the baby to Grace and immediately Alice was quiet again, holding onto Grace's finger. Grace had never looked after a baby before but little Alice didn't seem to mind. If ever Alice was upset and crying, Beth would pass her to Grace and she would settle, as if she trusted Grace and liked to be in her arms.
Tom took down the glasses and Jerry poured a shot of whiskey into each. Grace gave Alice back to her mother and busied herself stoking the fire.
'To Alice!' said Jerry, raising his glass high in the air.
'To Alice!' said Beth and Tom, arms around each other, their daughter in between.
Grace stood back against the wall, wishing for Liza and Hannah. Finding them again so close by had been like a wonderful dream. But now it made her long for them even more. She could hardly wait to see them again. I don't know if I will ever truly belong here, she thought, her heart aching, especially now that Tom is back. This is his home - not mine.
At dusk, Grace went out to milk Moll the cow and give her a bucket of corn for her dinner. The weather was growing warmer as spring drew to a close. The air buzzed with the evening insects - she could smell sweet flowers and the minty trees she had grown so used to. She breathed in deeply.
As Grace was carrying the bucket of milk back to the house, she saw Tom over at the fence with Glory. Beth must have told him what had happened while I was riding her, Grace thought. Tom was stroking Glory's neck and looking into her eyes. Grace saw him move across to examine her damaged side and she held her breath. Grace had checked on Glory only an hour or so before Tom had returned, and the cut had looked as if it was getting worse. The blood had dried but the lips of the wound were swollen and leaking a watery fluid.
Tom must have sensed she was there, and he turned to look at her. Grace saw anger and mistrust in the shadows across his face. She carried the milk back into the hut so quickly that it sloshed over the sides, spilling onto her shoes.
Jerry spent that night at the hut, and Grace was glad. His noisy talk warmed the house as he told Beth about their time away clearing the land. Alice liked him too, sleeping peacefully in his arms even as he laughed loudly when Tom teased him about his snoring by the campfire.
Grace slept back in her bed in the kitchen that night, and Beth moved Alice's cot behind the hessian partition to be close to her and Tom.
As Grace was putting out the lamp, Beth came and sat on the edge of her bed. Grace could see her mistress's face in the soft light that came from the fading embers in the fireplace. It was full of concern.
'Grace,' she whispered, 'you looked so worried over dinner tonight. Remember what I told you about Tom? Just give him time. I warned you how bloomin' silly he is about that horse. You and I both know you did the right thing - even though Glory was hurt. It wasn't your fault, Grace.'
Grace felt a lump in her throat.
'Grace, are you all right?' Beth put her hand gently on Grace's arm.
'Yes,' Grace managed to answer. She watched as Beth pulled at the blue ribbon in her hair, so that her long dark locks fell loose around her shoulders.
'I wanted to give you something,' Beth said. 'To thank you for all you have done for me and Alice.' She pressed the ribbon into Grace's palm. 'And I wanted to tell you that Tom has promised to take you in the wagon to visit your friends very soon.' Beth leaned close enough for Grace to smell the scent of Alice mixed with the sweet lavender she liked to use, and kissed Grace on the cheek. 'Sleep well, dear Grace,' she said, before standing and leaving Grace's bedside.
Grace knew how few pretty things Beth owned, and the way she treasured the ones she did. 'Thank you, Beth,' she whispered into the darkness.
[ back to top ]
Book 1: Meet Letty
'Don't fuss. They can't get far.' The girl gestured towards the other side of the ship. 'I've already measured the deck. It's just nineteen steps across, when the sailors don't get in the way. I'm Jemima,' said the girl, twirling one of her curls. 'What's your name?'
'Letty,' she answered. 'My sister's Lavinia and I have to find her straight away.'
'We'll ask the Doctor then.' Jemima pointed to the back of the ship, where a wooden balcony rose above the deck. 'See the bald man with the long moustache?'
Letty saw a man with a pen and paper in his hands, next to another in a top hat.
'The Doctor's nearly as important as the Captain,' said Jemima.
Jemima was so confident - Letty gladly followed her up the wooden ladder.
'Good afternoon, Doctor,' Jemima said.
The men turned around.
The gentleman in the top hat glared at them.
'Have I seen you already?' The Doctor frowned at Letty.
Letty shook her head.
'Name?' he wanted to know.
'I'm Letty Beddows,' she answered.
He looked down his list. 'Miss L. Beddows, female, unmarried emigrant,' he read. 'Done.' 'But sir, I -' she began.
The Doctor waved her away with his pen. 'Only cabin passengers are allowed on the poop.' He turned his back.
Letty wanted to tell him she was the wrong Miss Beddows. But he didn't want to listen.
Jemima stuck her tongue out at the men's backs. 'Poop to them too!' she whispered to Letty.
'Let's go,' Letty whispered back. She didn't want to be on the poop deck if she wasn't supposed to be there. She wanted to be off the ship completely. She had to find Lavinia before the ship left the jetty.
'There she is!' From the ladder, Letty spotted her sister coming up from the hold, looking around her.
'Lavinia!' yelled Jemima, in a voice as loud as a boy's.
Lavinia picked up her skirts and swept across the deck. She stood in front of Letty with her hands on her hips. 'We looked all over the shore and the jetty for you,' she said. 'What are you doing here?'
'I was minding your chest. You didn't come back.' Letty saw Jemima take a look at Lavinia and slip away. Letty guessed why - Lavinia in a temper was like an iron hot from the fire, hissing steam and not to be messed with.
'Where is it now?' demanded Lavinia.
'In the hatch,' Letty answered, with pride.
'That's just as well! But why didn't you wait on the dock?'
Why didn't you come back? thought Letty. 'I told you,' she said in a small voice, 'Papa said to stay with the chest.'
'Oh, never mind!' Lavinia gave Letty a short, hard hug. 'You'll have to get off right now and find Papa by yourself.'
'But, Lavinia, the gangplank's gone.'
'No!' Lavinia stared at her. She grabbed Letty by the wrist and called out to the Doctor.
The Doctor looked down from the poop deck.
'Help us, please,' Lavinia said. 'My sister shouldn't be on board.'
'I beg your pardon?' he said.
'My sister here,' Lavinia said, 'has to be let off the ship.'
'Isn't she on the passenger list?'
'No, I am,' answered Lavinia.
The Doctor frowned again. Lavinia and Letty followed him to the ship's front end, where he interrupted a sailor shouting orders.
'First Mate, this child must disembark.'
'Cable stowed then, Jones?' First Mate roared at the freckled boy Letty had spoken to before.
The boy was dripping with green slime and mud now. Letty thought he looked like a mermaid gone wrong. The ship was a very strange place, where she didn't belong, and Letty desperately wanted to be away from it.
'There's your answer,' the Mate bellowed at the Doctor. 'Ship's anchors are stowed; towlines are fastened. The tide won't stop for nobody and neither will I!'
The Doctor turned to Lavinia.
'Your sister must remain on board, Miss Beddows.' The Doctor's moustache twitched as he looked down his nose. 'It's a great nuisance.
A nuisance? thought Letty. Is that what she was?
'Ready the mainsail!' First Mate yelled. A dozen sailors swarmed up a crisscross net of ropes, stretching like a spider web from the big mast in the middle. The ship's crew were undoing the knots that held the biggest sail in place. The sail began to flap like the wings of a monster seagull. The ship creaked and shuddered. It really was about to take off.
'I can't believe it,' Lavinia said. They looked helplessly at the wedge of water between the ship and the jetty. Lavinia twisted her shawl between her fingers. 'Look, Letty! It's Papa! Wave for all you're worth!'
Papa was clutching his watch chain, looking very small amongst all the people on the jetty.
'Papa!' Letty screamed. Lavinia fluttered her best red handkerchief madly.
Papa's hand went up. He'd seen them.
He'll come after me in a boat, thought Letty. He must. 'I'm here, Papa! Help me get off'
Book 2: Letty and the Stranger's Lace
Sydney Winter's Night
The ground felt unsteady under Letty's feet as they trudged up the hill. She was glad she held her sister Lavinia's hand. The street was dark; it seemed to Letty to have a secret life, scratching and scuttling at the edges of her hearing. A dog howled.
Letty did not have much to be glad for, other than Lavinia. She was tired and starved. Her clothes were stiff with salt water and dirt. She and Lavinia had sailed all the way to Australia from England, leaving their family behind. It was their first night in this strange country. And they were homeless.
Lavinia hadn't been happy with the immigrant tents, or the loud pubs offering rooms to stay. So they were searching for the home for girls that they'd been told about at the last hotel. They had come to an intersection and they didn't know which way to go. Sydney had no street signs. Or if it did, there were no streetlamps to read them by.
A street ran off to their left. Not far along it, Letty could see a well-lit building. Several horses were tied up outside. A faint hum of voices and music came from inside. Letty felt drawn to the cheerful light like a moth.
In front of Letty, her sailor friend Abner stopped, bent sideways under Lavinia's hope chest. Letty knew Abner was used to travelling, and working by starlight. But not even he could find his way around this strange city at night.
'Better ask directions,' Abner suggested, lowering the chest off his shoulder.
A big sign above the door told them the building was a theatre. As they came near, a bell rang and people began to spill out onto the street.
Lavinia and Letty hesitated. A group of men staggered out the theatre door, bumping into the people already there. A woman screeched, then a man was yelling, and next Letty saw him swing his fist. The woman fell to the ground. Letty shrank back into the darkness like a startled mouse.
'Let's get out of here,' said Lavinia. She grabbed one handle of their chest.
'Which way?' said Abner, taking the other handle.
More scuffles broke out all over the street. Letty heard a thud as someone was thrown against the theatre wall. She wanted to run.
'That way!' She pointed left, down the hill. She didn't know if it was the right way, but it was the quickest and easiest way.
Abner, Letty and Lavinia hurried down the hill, the chest swinging and banging against their shins. Another turn took them past an empty fenced square and along a main road.
'This way's back to the sea,' said Abner. Letty could feel it too: a damp, salty breath of air in their faces. So they turned upwards.
The street narrowed. All three of them were breathing heavily. Abner stumbled over a step.
'Are you all right?' Letty asked, puffing.
'Aye,' he said gruffly. 'But we'd best be asking someone whe-er to go, I think.' Just up the hill, a house door opened, casting a circle of light on the street. Lavinia looked at it, then she gathered her skirts in her hands to climb the steps.
'Well, here goes,' she said.
Letty admired Lavinia so much. Her sister was not lanky and strong like Abner, but she was brave. Letty could not imagine herself knocking on a stranger's door for help. Even an open door.
Abner put out his hand. 'Wait now, Miss Lavinia.'
A big man was coming out of the doorway, fiddling with his belt buckle.
'Oh!' Lavinia turned her head away, but the man didn't notice her. He stood with his legs apart. Letty tried not to listen to him splashing on the street. The man turned to go back in.
'Ugh!' Lavinia muttered. She lifted her skirts just above her ankles. 'Excuse me!' she called.
Letty kept close behind her.
'Who's keeping you, George?' called a voice from inside. Behind the man at the door, Letty saw three or four others, lounging around a table strewn with cards.
'A pair of lasses,' said George, looking them up and down. He looked at Lavinia's slim ankles particularly. Lavinia dropped her skirts to cover her feet.
'Not your raving sister?' said the man inside.
'Mind your mouth, Archie,' warned a third card-player.
'Ask them in, why don't you?' said Archie.
Lavinia took a step back. 'Can you tell us how far it is to Mrs Chisholm's house for girls?' she asked George.
The man scratched his stubbly chin with a large hand.
'Struth. Can't say that I can,' he answered.
'On Kent Street,' Lavinia persisted. She looked past the big man to see if the others could tell her.
'You're no help to the ladies, George,' the man inside said. 'They need me.'
'We need Mrs Chisholm's Female Immigrants Home,' Lavinia said firmly. Her hand squeezed Letty's tightly.
The men all laughed. Letty wished they would stop staring and joking around, and answer the question. She felt uneasy, caught between the men in the room and the darkness of the streets.
She remembered how Papa had often warned his daughters against strangers. But he was not here in Sydney to look after them.
'Ah, now we can help you,' said Archie. 'That's not on Kent Street, up top of the Rocks. That's on Bent Street.'
'You're on the wrong side of the Cove,' George explained. 'You have to go down to the stream and back up the other side.'
Oh no, thought Letty. They had to return in the direction they'd already come. She had led them the wrong way.
'Thank you,' said Lavinia.
'Come back if you get lost,' George called after them.
'And how are we going to do that?' Lavinia muttered, as they went back to Abner and the chest. 'Lost is lost. Some people are so stupid!'
'Sorry Lavinia,' said Letty. If she hadn't chosen the wrong way before, they wouldn't have to go all the way back now.
'I wasn't talking about you,' said Lavinia. 'Don't be sorry, just keep walking.'
They shared carrying the chest with Abner. Letty's feet ached. Lavinia's steps were dragging too. By the time they reached the intersection near the theatre again, Letty's head felt dizzy.
'That the-er is Bent Street, I'd say.' Abner pointed to where the street zigzagged up.
Letty was too tired to talk. Lavinia just nodded. The three of them plodded on, around the bend.
Up ahead was a long, low wooden building. A verandah came down over the windows, like a hat over its eyes. The posts were a bit crooked, like the street.
'Do you think that's the home?' Lavinia wondered aloud.
'Not much of a building, it aren't,' said Abner.
'Better than the seashore,' said Lavinia.
Or the theatre, thought Letty. Or George's house. She hoped so anyway. Maybe here they could get a safe bed for the night. Away from drunks and dogs and creeping shadows.
Lavinia marched up to the door and knocked.
Letty could hear laughter inside - high-pitched and happy - women's laughter. Chinks of light escaped the curtains. Letty thought she could smell food, too. She wished she was inside. But what if it was the wrong place? Where would they go next?
Lavinia knocked again.
After a long while, a woman opened the door, a candle in her hand. She had a hard, square face and was wearing an old nightcap, as if she were going to bed.
'Is this Mrs Chisholm's house?' Lavinia asked her.
'Surely,' said the woman. She held the candle forward and looked at the three of them. 'You're straight off a boat. I can tell by the smell of you.'
'Could you take us in?' Lavinia asked. 'Please? We don't have anywhere to stay.'
'We're fair full up,' the woman said. 'Near seventy souls here already.'
Tears rose up in Letty. It seemed as if the whole wide world didn't have a place for her. But she didn't want to give in and cry in front of a stranger. She fought the tears down.
Lavinia tossed her head and straightened her shoulders. 'All right!' she said to the woman in the nightcap. 'I trust you don't mind us camping on your doorstep. I cannot walk a step further. And neither can my sister.'
The woman laughed. 'You can hop off your high horse, Miss,' she said. 'We don't turn desperate people away. There's always room. Even for the lad, if he'll bunk down in the kitchen. Come in.'
Book 3: Letty on the Land
Until the letter arrived, Letty was having a very fine morning. A square of warm Sydney sunshine lit Mary's lace pillow. Victoria's baby smiles lit everyone's faces.
For the past two months, Letty had been working in the little house behind George Fry's Bakery. Her job was to help with the housework while Mary recovered from having her baby and the fearful time that had led up to that. Mary still had silent days sometimes, but she was up and about in her neat red dress, instead of hiding in her blanket. Mary's brother George was very relieved. Although he paid Letty's wages, he did not bother much about tidiness. So really Letty's work was lots of cuddling and talking to the baby. Letty felt like a big sister again. She hadn't been happier since leaving England, months and months ago.
George came in from the bakery and handed Mary a floury envelope. 'There's a letter for you, from the Bathurst mail.'
Mary laid her lace bobbins down and took the letter to the window.
'Is it from Clem?' Letty whispered to George. Clem was Mary's husband, who lived somewhere in the New South Wales countryside.
George nodded. He and Letty watched Mary's back. The last letter had made her cry. Then she was wooden and silent for days.
Eventually Mary turned around. 'Clem's sent money,' she said. 'For the coach over the mountains. He wants us to come home now.'
'Go back to the bush, with the little babe?' said George. 'To live in a paddock with convicts and blackfellows? What's he thinking?'
'I've lived there before, 'said Mary, lifting her chin. 'Clem wants me back. Not every man's a city toff like you.'
George rolled his eyes.
To Letty, the bush was a dark green shadow on the far shore of Sydney, full of strange beasts and dangers. She wanted to stay away from it, and she felt a fierce desire to keep Victoria away, too, far from anything that could hurt her.
'Why do you have to go back?' she demanded. 'Why can't you stay here?'
As soon as the words were out, Letty knew she shouldn't have said them. Servants weren't meant to question their mistresses.
'I want to, 'Mary answered. 'That's my home, Letty.' Her face softened. 'With Clem and my little boy. I'm Harry's mama, too. They need me; and it's where I belong.'
Mary did not mean to be harsh, but Letty felt as if her words had scratched open an old scab. Letty knew what it was like to have no mother. She knew what it was like to have nowhere to belong. That was how Letty's life in Sydney had been before George took her in. It was how her life would be again if Mary and Victoria left. George would have no reason to keep employing Letty then. Letty didn't want them to go, but she couldn't stop them. She bit her lip and hunched her shoulders.
'Oh,' was all she managed to say. She looked away from Mary, at the baby wrapped warm and safe in her basket.
Mary sat down beside her. 'We'll be fine, Letty. The bush isn't that bad.'
'When are you going?' George asked.
'As soon as you can get us seats on the Bathurst coach,' Mary replied. 'I need to speak to Letty's sister Lavinia, too.'
'Christ.' George ran a hand through his hair.
It stood up like a cockatoo's crest. Letty almost laughed, but she was too choked up. She would miss George as well.
'What am I going to do without you ladies to look after me?' George moaned.
'Ha! Find a wife of your own,' said Mary.
Could that be why Mary wanted to speak to Lavinia? George was sweet on Letty's sister, everyone knew. Perhaps Mary thought she'd hurry things along. Mary didn't know Lavinia then, Letty thought.
Lots of people wanted Letty's beautiful sister. But hardly anybody wanted Letty.
Mary, George and the baby came along for Letty and Lavinia's Sunday stroll. Lavinia tossed her long curls when she saw George, and made Letty walk between them.
They went through the Domain, down to the point with a view of the open ocean. Letty sighed. The world was so vast. Way across that hazy blueness, far out of reach, were the rest of her family. Somewhere on the ocean, perhaps all the way to China by now, was Letty's best friend, Abner. And now Mary and her baby would be leaving Letty, too. It was like losing her family all over again. Letty felt like a stray seabird, blown out of the nest and off-course by one gust after another.
Lavinia gave Letty a searching look. 'You're quiet today,' she said.
Letty didn't want to say anything in front of George and Mary.
'How about you and I sit down for a rest?' Mary suggested to Lavinia. 'George, you take Letty to look at the Governor's new house.'
George looked disappointed. But he doffed his hat to Lavinia and offered Letty his arm.
At the top of the hill, they glimpsed the white outline of the building below.
'Right-o,' said George, after a two-second look. 'We've seen that. I think the view's better back there, don't you?' He winked at Letty. 'Let's sneak up on them, eh? Find out what secrets our sisters have.'
Letty laughed. She and George walked soft-footed down the slope, shushing each other. They crouched behind a bush where they could hear Mary.
'...so we're going on the Bathurst coach next week,' she said.
'Hmph,' muttered George, unimpressed.
'Oh,' said Lavinia. 'So soon.'
Letty thought so, too. What would she do? Lavinia's employer up on Cumberland Street hadn't wanted Letty to work for them. The Immigrants Home, where she had stayed before, wouldn't take her either â€" it was only for girls who were new to the colony. Fear knotted her stomach.
'Letty is a good child,' Mary continued. 'She's trustworthy and hardworking.'
'You've been good to her,' Lavinia said.
'I'm glad you think so, 'Mary said. 'I'm not the easiest person to be around.' She paused. 'Clem suggested something else in his last letter.'
What? Letty wondered. She and George leaned forward.
'Would you allow Letty to come back to our sheep run with me? 'Mary asked.
'Oh!' said Lavinia.
Letty's eyes widened.
'Clem would pay the same wage, and she'll live in the homestead like one of our family.'
George grinned, patting Letty's shoulder.
Letty didn't know what to think. She wanted to stay by Mary and the baby, but she didn't want to leave Lavinia and Sydney for the unknown.
'It's kind of you to offer, I'm sure ...' said Lavinia carefully.
'But what?' said Mary. 'But not with a madwoman like me?'
'Well -' said Lavinia awkwardly, 'I would miss her... But - it's so uncivilised out there. Something might happen to her.'
Letty wanted to hug her sister for her concern.
'And what would happen to her in Sydney?' said Mary.
'I don't know,' Lavinia admitted. 'She is a bit of a problem for me.'
The women were silent. George frowned. Victoria gurgled in Mary's arms. Letty wanted to scoop up the baby, breathe in her milky smell and shut out the world. Letty was crushed. Lavinia loved her, but she was still a nuisance. She hated to be a problem for anyone.
Lavinia went on, 'But she is my little sister. I can't send her into the wilds.'
Letty came out from behind the shrub and stood up. The blood rushed into her cheeks.
'You don't have to send me,' Letty said. 'I choose to go myself.'
Book 4: Letty's Christmas
A hot wind blew across the Greys' sheep-run.
It blew riffles of dust around Letty's feet. It blew grit into her mouth, and into baby Victoria's eyes. It blew no good to anyone, Mary said.
In the first days of November, the paddock grass had faded from green to gold. Letty had watched the tussocks sway on the ridgeline, like ladies bowing in a dance. Then the sheep had eaten the grass into clumps of short bristles. The water in the creek got low and soupy. Still it didn't rain. The sheep kept eating, until they'd chewed the land down to its bare bones.
That was when Letty's boss, Clem Grey, had said their time was up.
'I'll sell the flock now,' he told Mary. 'I'd rather not watch them starve, and have them eaten by the flies.'
'Mightn't it rain?' Letty had asked. 'And then the grass would grow?'
'Not enough,' Clem had said. 'The pasture's already thin from last year's drought.'
Mary had sighed, but she hadn't argued. Letty didn't like to see her shoulders slump like the worn hills of the farm.
So a month earlier, Clem, Abner and the kelpie had herded all but the best of the flock onto the road, and set off for Goulburn. Letty was sorry to see the sheep go. She'd got used to their baaing and chomping. She missed watching the lambs skipping around their mothers. They were like part of the family.
Letty was even more sorry that Abner had gone along to help with them. Mary missed Clem too. Harry did not know what to do without the men or the sheep to follow, so he misbehaved. Harry had accepted Letty as part of the household, but they weren't really friends. He often ran away from her.
Letty was looking for him now. It ought to be easy to find him in the empty paddock, Letty thought, but it wasn't.
'Harry? Harry!' Letty wandered along beside the creek until it bent into a patch of reeds and tangly bush. She didn't want to go in there, because she didn't like snakes. Letty went around the bushes, towards the road. She had a feeling he might be there, even though she couldn't see him. The thicket of white-blossomed shrubs was one of his favourite places.
Letty sat down. If Harry didn't think she was looking for him, he might come out to surprise her. He was that sort of boy - Letty could never make him do anything.
Letty took a worn letter from Lavinia out of her pocket. She knew it off by heart, but she liked to look at it when she felt lonely. The graceful, swirly writing reminded her of her sister. Don't come back to Sydney now, it said. Plenty of girls can't find good work here.
I suppose I'm lucky, thought Letty. I have a job that I mostly like. I'd better get on with it.
There was still no sign of Harry, so she tried a different trick.
'What a shame,' she said aloud. 'By the time Harry comes for tea, all the jam and damper will be gone.'
Leaves rustled and dry branches cracked behind Letty. Harry crawled out on his hands and knees. Letty grabbed at him as he tried to squirm past.
'Let me go!' he demanded.
'First you have to tell me what you were doing,' Letty said. 'It's not fair when you hide on me. Your mama gets worried.'
Letty was afraid that Harry might get lost. Harry didn't see the bush as strange. Unlike her, he was born here. The bush was part of his home.
Harry's eyes slid away. 'I was watchin',' he mumbled.
'What is there to watch in a patch of prickly bushes?' said Letty, annoyed.
Harry gave her a sly look. 'Stuff,' he said. Suddenly he pointed at the road. 'Look!'
Letty refused to look. She thought he was trying to get away again. But Harry began to wave and yell. 'Hey!'
Letty looked up. Someone stood on the road with the sun behind him. He was waving his hat, and his hair made a flaming copper halo. Letty knew who that was - her friend Abner. He was back! Clem was beside him on his horse, waving too.
She let go of Harry. He burst up the hill on short, strong legs. Letty hurried after him, wondering what kind of news Clem and Abner might bring from town.
It was too hot to eat in the kitchen. The household ate their damper and jam together on the verandah. Now the sheep were gone there'd be less meat on everyone's plates. And Clem wasn't happy about the price he'd got for his animals.
'Nobody wants livestock,' Clem said. 'I had to sell them all for tallow.'
'Why do sheep want tallow?' Harry asked.
Letty wasn't sure what Clem meant either. She only knew that tallow was the smelly brown stuff used for making candles and soap, and Mary had plenty of it already.
The corners of Clem's mouth turned down.
He seemed thinner, and there were lines on his face tracing downwards from his moustache that Letty hadn't noticed before.
'They don't want it,' he said. 'They get turned into it. Wethers, ewes, rams, lambs - the lot. All slaughtered, then boiled down in iron cauldrons big enough to fit you in.'
'Don't frighten the boy,' said Mary.
'Good thing none of you saw it,' said Clem gloomily. 'The fires burn all day long. Goulburn stinks like death. And some cove is getting rich, on other men's ruin.'
Abner made a face. 'Aye, a stench to reach heaven, it makes.'
'Da da daa,' said Victoria cheerily, waving a squashed piece of damper in her fist.
Letty smiled. But Clem looked at his daughter without really seeing her.
'Mary, we saw blokes there who sold their last sheep,' he went on, 'then they went and blew the money at the pub. But I didn't.' Clem passed the rest of his damper to Harry. Mary looked at her husband with concern.
'I'm going to hang in here, for you and the little ones. I swear it, Mary.' He hugged her to him. 'I've been thinking it through all the way home. This is good land; it's just a bad year. I've decided: I'm going to Sydney with the wool clip, to make sure we get the best price.'
Letty knew the wool from the spring shearing was still in the shed, waiting to be sold. Between the wool bales was another of Harry's favourite hiding places. Letty had a thought: if Clem was going to take the wool to Sydney, perhaps he could take something small for her.
'Would you mind carrying a letter?' Letty asked. 'Actually two - one for my sister Lavinia and one to send to my papa in England?'
Clem gave Letty an unhappy look. She was surprised. She didn't think it was a lot to ask.
'I just want to tell my family I'm fine,' she explained.
Clem shook his head. 'I'm real sorry, Letty. But I'll be taking you and Abner to Sydney with me. I have to lay you off. I can't afford to pay wages anymore.'
'Oh.' Letty was losing her job. She stared at her boots.
Of course, it should be wonderful to see her big sister again. Except that in Sydney Letty would be without a place to belong or a way to make a living. Lavinia would not know what to do with her. Letty thought it would be much better if she stayed with the Greys, even if times were hard. 'We can work for nothing,' she suggested.
Clem rubbed his chin. Mary looked at him hopefully.
'I don't feel right about that,' he said. 'There's less work now the shearing's over and most of the sheep are gone. Less work, less money and less food to go round.'
'Sorry,' said Clem.
Letty blinked away tears. She hated the thought of leaving. It made her feel lost and unwanted, all over again. Just when she was happy. It didn't seem fair. Stupid, awful drought, thought Letty.
Abner put down his plate. He didn't ask for seconds like he usually did.
'What will you do?' Letty asked him. If he didn't work on the land, Abner would probably have to go on another ship. He might sail off to China or England. She would lose him, too.
'Don't fret now.' He laid his freckly hand over Letty's. 'I'll find something, right enough.'
Abner smiled at her, but it only hurt all the more, knowing he wouldn't be around much longer.
'If you, Letty and Abner are all going, I'm not staying here on my own,' Mary announced.
'But Mary,' Clem argued, 'we'll be back after Christmas.'
'Exactly.' Mary's eyes flashed. 'I'm tired of being left behind. So's Harry. We'll all go together and have a proper Christmas with George.'
'What's Christmas?' said Harry.
Clem looked down at his son.
'You see?' said Mary. 'Last Christmas - I was sick. The year before that -' she glanced across the paddock to where a little wooden cross leaned into the hill. The year before, Letty knew, Mary had had another baby, who died. That obviously hadn't been much of a Christmas.
'Christmas is a fine time,' said Abner, with a faraway look. Letty wondered if he missed his family.
'I want Christmas,' said Harry, sticking out his bottom lip. 'Or I'll run away.'
Harry crossed his arms, just like his father. 'I will!' he insisted.
'No need to do that,' said Clem. 'I'd be glad of your company on the road. The new convict can look after our last few sheep. But you realise we can't afford coach seats this trip?'
Letty remembered the bouncing, jolting stage-coach that had brought her here. It hadn't exactly been a feather bed. The Greys' cart wouldn't be any worse, she thought. And at least this journey wouldn't be cold.
Letty and Mary nodded.
'I've hired Cabbagetree Bill,' Clem told them.
Letty giggled at the name. So did Harry.
'We've got a couple of days before he comes,' Clem said.
Such a short time, thought Letty sadly.
Book 1: Meet Poppy
A few hours later she was awakened by a terrifying howl.
Poppy sat bolt upright. Where was she? She felt around her. Oh, my nest. Her eyes adjusted to the dark. Then she gasped. In the moonlight she saw a large dog trotting towards the base of her tree.
She sat rigid, not daring to breathe as it came closer and closer. If it was a dingo, Poppy wouldn't have been worried. Gus said dingos were more scared of people. But this looked like a wild dog, a very large wild dog.
The dog lifted his head and sniffed the air. He stood on his hind legs, resting his front paws on the trunk.
Poppy's fingers closed around the hilt of her knife.
'Good dog. Good boy. I'm only staying for one night.' She spoke in a soft calm voice.
A low growl came from the dog's throat and he laid back his ears.
'Go on home, now,' she urged. 'I promise I'll be gone by the morning.' Poppy's voice was shaking so she began to hum 'The Bellbird Song'. The notes were soft and tentative at first but then she sang the words. To her surprise, the wild dog dropped to the ground and trotted away.
Poppy listened all night for the dog to return.
In the morning, she looked over the side of her nest. Tracks led around the tree, down to the water's edge and back again. She looked up and down the river. Only then did she spot the dog, on the other bank.
Surely he couldn't have swum that far!
Now was her chance to get away. She quickly climbed down then stood for a moment watching, the safety of the water between them. The dog was beautiful, with pale grey fur and a proud and noble head. He looked more like a wolf, but how strangely he was acting.
He was standing by a partially submerged log, not moving, just staring into the water as though admiring his own reflection. Then suddenly, he plunged his whole head under the surface. When he came up, he was holding a large flapping fish in his mouth!
Poppy couldn't believe it. She watched as the dog placed his paw on the fish and began tearing at the flesh, snapping through the bones. After he had eaten every scrap - tail, head and all- he lay down, panting gently.
The dog looked at her but then he pricked up his ears and stared upstream.
It took Poppy a few moments before she heard it too - the soft chug chug chug of another paddlesteamer. Quickly she ran behind the big tree as the boat came into view. It travelled towards her and she saw people standing on the deck.
As it passed she heard snippets of their conversation about the goldfields and meeting up with relatives and friends. There was also mention of the gold at Beechworth and Rutherglen. Then, someone pointed and shouted.
'Look at that massive brute! Anyone got a pistol? I feel like a bit of sport today.'
No! Don't shoot him! Poppy wanted to yell. But she was too afraid they might shoot her for sport instead.
She looked at the dog, who remained in the one spot watching the boat.
The man took aim.
Poppy shut her eyes. Then she heard a gunshot ring out.
There was a yelp from the far bank. When Poppy opened her eyes again, she saw the dog limping up the embankment and disappearing into the bushes.
'Looks like you winged him, Freddie.'
'Can't you men think of anything better to do than shoot a poor harmless dog?' said a lady sitting under a parasol.
'They're pests, my dear. They kill the pastoralists' sheep, just like those damned natives,' the man replied.
And then the paddlesteamer was gone and silence returned to the river.
If I hadn't been such a coward... Poppy sat down on a large rock feeling frustrated and angry with herself. She should have continued on her way but she was worried about the wild dog. Someone has to see if he's all right. Someone has to take care of him if he's hurt, she thought.
Book 2: Poppy at Summerhill
Follow Your Heart
Poppy and her dog, Fisher, were resting by a rock in the sunshine. It had been a long journey escaping from the Mission and they were both very tired.
Since running away from the policeman at Tocumwal her path had led her into the forest, but she knew she had to get back to the river. Then she had to cross it. That would be the hard part.
Suddenly Fisher leapt up.
Fear gripped Poppy as she rose to her knees, looking around. 'Fisher, what is it?'
There! It was only a small wallaby sitting on a rocky outcrop not far from their camp, its long furry ears turning this way and that. She breathed a sigh of relief. The dog bounded after it through the long grass.
Over the past five days since Fisher had saved her from the policeman, their trust in each other had grown. When Fisher took off, Poppy knew that he would always come back. And when he made a kill, he never kept it to himself but would drop it at her feet, and she would pet and praise him. Thankfully he had never brought back anything bigger than a rabbit. She hoped he would catch something, but not the small wallaby.
Poppy gathered sticks and leaves and squatted in front of last night's dead fire. They hadn't eaten anything for two days and Poppy's stomach was grumbling in protest. She shook a Lucifer stick from its cylinder. Oh no! Only three left.
The Aboriginal stockmen who sometimes helped Charley at Bird Creek had shown Gus how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together. When Poppy had asked her brother to show her, he had shrugged her off, saying, 'Girls don't need to know that sort of thing.'
And that was exactly the problem - girls didn't normally roam the countryside on their own. So to avoid drawing attention to herself, Poppy wasn't a girl anymore. She was disguised as a boy now, and needed every skill a boy should have. Without a fire she wouldn't be able to cook. Worse still, she would freeze at night. The days were becoming shorter. Summer would soon head north like the waterbirds, leaving a shiver over the land.
Poppy scratched the Lucifer stick until it exploded into flame. She lit a bundle of dried grass and leaves. On top of this she piled sticks and twigs. As the fire grew, Poppy added thicker branches. The leaves crackled and curled as the coals came alive.
She turned at the sound of Fisher pushing through the bushes. In his mouth he held a fat goanna with yellow stripes and a long tapering tail. Fisher's lips were pulled up around the lizard making him look as if he was smiling. He dropped it on the ground and sat down, panting.
'Good boy, Fish,' Poppy said, rubbing his side. 'Did that old wallaby outsmart you?'
Fisher's ears drooped as he looked at her.
'Oh, don't worry, I know you're a good hunter.' She gave him a scratch at the nape of his neck, his favorite reward.
Picking up the lizard by the tail, Poppy flipped it on its back. Now came the worst part of all. Even though it was dead, she had to skin it, then take out its insides. A small shiver ran through her.
She took a deep breath, her knife poised over the body ready to make the first incision. 'Thank you, lizard, for giving up your life to feed us, 'she said. Then, with her eyes scrunched up, she stabbed the goanna's creamy white chest.
As the lizard cooked in the coals, Poppy sat cross-legged, watching the flames dance and the sparks swirl like golden butterflies. All at once she was reminded of Blossom and her graceful dance. Dear, sweet Blossom. Then her thoughts turned to little Daisy, and Juniper and Tobiah, and to all the orphans at Bird Creek. Tears sprang to Poppy's eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hand and leant forward, prodding the goanna from the coals. It was no use thinking of Then. Then only made her sad. She had to concentrate on Now and finding Gus before he returned to Bird Creek and found her gone. She would be turning twelve soon. Time was running out.
As she and Fisher ate, Poppy's thoughts turned to that night when she had found the secret code with the words LINTIAN and the two Chinese symbols carved into the tree. 'Where could Gus be now?' she sighed. The only thing was to stick to her original plan of reaching Wahgunyah. Perhaps in that town she would find someone who knew about the Chinese poster at Tocumwal - the one with the red tiger seal. The same red seal was on the mysterious letter in her pocket. It must be something to do with our father, she thought. She felt for it to make sure it was still there.
The sun had lifted above the trees. Poppy cleaned their camp, burying the fire well, spreading branches and leaves over the area. Standing with her satchel on her shoulder, she looked back at the place with satisfaction. A good tracker might be able to tell someone had stayed there. But to the casual eye it looked just like undisturbed bush. She gave Fisher a pat and they set off to look for the river.
It was late in the day when Poppy and Fisher came to a fork in the road. One track led into a dim, dark forest, but looked easier to walk. The other was harder, climbing upward. But it was clear and bright.
'What do you think, Fish?'
Fisher cocked his head to one side.
Reaching inside her jacket pocket, Poppy took out a handful of berries. Eating seemed to clear her head. What were Gus's words just before he left? Oh yes, that's right. 'When I'm not around and you have to make a decision on your own, you gotta let your heart tell you what to do, Kalinya.'
'But my heart only knows how to cry when it's sad and laugh when it's happy,' she had replied.
'You're wrong. Your heart knows more than that. But you have to take the time to listen.'
Hmm... listen to my heart, she thought. All right, Gus. Let's see if it works.
Closing her eyes, Poppy faced the track that led into the dim, dark forest. It was strange. A part of her, her legs in particular, wanted to take the easy way. But when she faced the other track, her heart swelled and she knew.
Fisher ran on ahead, barking for her to follow. He seemed to know instinctively which way to go.
It was only a gentle ascent at first. Another mile or so, however, and the track began to climb in earnest, winding between boulders and amongst trunks of thin twisted gums. Poppy was puffing hard and had to stop. She watched Fisher go over the crest of the hill and struggled after him.
As she neared the top, a cool breeze washed over her. Then she took one more step and gasped.
There spread out before her like a shimmering mirage lay a vast landscape covered in dense forest. A tiny town sat snuggled into soft rolling hills. And there too was the river sparkling in the sunlight. Far off in the distance, Poppy saw purplish peaks covered in something white. With a thrill she realised it must be snow.
Above her, clouds drifted and wedge-tailed eagles soared. Poppy's chest expanded and she breathed deeply, filling herself up with the bigness of the world.
'It's beautiful, Fish, just like the place in my dreams where Gus and I build our home.'
Fisher wagged his tail and barked, beckoning her to follow.
He was right, Poppy thought. It was only a dream. There was still such a long way to go. But sometimes dreams do come true. At least that's what the storybooks said.
With a sigh, Poppy took one last look. Then she and Fisher set off down the hill.
Book 3: Poppy and the Thief
The Crazy Boy
As Poppy galloped away from Summerhill, there was a gnawing emptiness in the pit of her stomach. Saying goodbye to Tom and Noni had left her heavy with sadness. I always seem to be leaving, she thought, always saying goodbye. But until she found her brother, Gus, this was her life. The people at the camp said Gus was on his way to Wahgunyah.Well, now so was she. Poppy couldn't stay any longer in case that policeman from Tocumwal discovered the truth about her â€“ that she was a runaway from Bird Creek Mission.
But now she was back in her boy's disguise and on the road again. 'Come on, Fish,' she called out to her dog. She kicked Gideon's flanks and the big black horse lengthened his stride.
Riding bareback had been hard at first. But Tom's words had echoed in her mind and helped her along: You just do it, over and over. Don't worry you no good. Get good soon enough. Gideon's spirit was tied to hers, Tom had said. And she knew that to be true. The horse had done everything Poppy had asked him to since their escape from Summerhill.
Wahgunyah lay in the colony of Victoria, on the other side of the Murray River. Bird Creek Mission was in Victoria too. But after hiding on the paddlesteamer heading up the Murray, Poppy had been forced to sneak off the boat at Tocumwal, in New South Wales. Poppy had been on the wrong side ever since. Now she had to get back across, but the river was wide, and deep.
And Poppy couldn't swim.
Would Gideon want to go in the water? Tom had assured her that horses were natural swimmers. But what if he floundered when they were in the deepest part?
As the miles from Summerhill lengthened behind her, Poppy worried about the river crossing to come.
Several hours later they came to the Murray. What had Tom called it? Oh yes, Tongala. Poppy drank thirstily with Fisher and Gideon at the water's edge. Then she rose and washed the dust from her face. The ride had been tiring. Finally she dared to look up and across the river. It was so wide! Poppy felt her heart falter.
No! she thought. How will we ever get across? She stood up, took off her boots and tied them together by the laces, slinging them around her neck.
'It's time to go,' she said to Fisher and Gideon after a moment.
Fisher wagged his tail and ran into the water, barking excitedly.
'It will be all right,' she told Gideon as she climbed onto his back. 'Even if you've never been in water before, you can swim. Come on now.' Poppy made clicking sounds with her tongue, urging him forward. And slowly, with a few encouraging jabs with her heels, he entered the water.
'Good boy, Gideon. Good boy,' she said. 'You can do it. You can do it.'
Suddenly Gideon lunged forward. He was swimming!
The water was freezing but the horse was warm against Poppy's legs. Then she felt herself floating off his back. She quickly grabbed chunks of Gideon's mane and gripped tightly. As long as she didn't let go she would be all right.
Gideon held his head high. His lips were parted and he was making soft snorting sounds. He seemed to be enjoying the swim.
Poppy then remembered Fisher. He had been swimming alongside her. But where was he now? The current was strong, maybe too strong even for Fisher.
Then she saw him, way downstream, struggling to reach the bank.
'Fisher!' she called. But he disappeared, swept around a bend. She was helpless to do anything except pray that he would not drown. He's swum this river many times before, she told herself. Please, Fish, please be all right.
It took ten minutes to reach the other side. As soon as Gideon stepped out of the water he lowered his head and shook himself. Poppy held on tight. She didn't know horses shook water from their coats like dogs did. When he was still, she slipped off his back and looked downstream for Fisher. She began to worry even more when she couldn't see him. But then she heard a bark and he came into view, running along the sandy shore towards her, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth.
'There you are!' She knelt down to give him a big wet hug. 'You're my darling boy, Fish,' she said.
While Poppy's clothes dried over a branch, she sat on the bank watching Gideon graze nearby. He was a handsome horse and his wet coat gleamed in the afternoon light.
Soon she would have to send him back to Summerhill as she had promised Tom she would do. How she would miss this wild horse whom she had grown to love, whose spirit was tied to hers.
Maybe one day Gus and I will have horses of our own, she thought. We'll ride until our muscles ache and our lungs are near bursting. But there will never be a horse like Gideon.
Fisher licked her face as if sensing her sadness.
Poppy dressed and led Gideon down to the water's edge. She stroked his soft muzzle and put her cheek next to his. 'Thank you, my beauty. I will never forget you.'
Gideon blew softly into her hair and nickered.
Holding back tears, Poppy said, 'Off you go, now. Tom will be waiting, and if you don't get back soon, he'll worry.' She patted him on the rump.
Gideon hesitated a moment and stepped into the water.
'Good boy, Gideon. Go on, now. Go home.'
Poppy shaded her eyes against the sun as she watched Gideon swim to the other side. He stood on the bank, lifted his head and sniffed the wind, then galloped home to Summerhill.
The bush was dense this side of the river, but Poppy soon found a track that led through dappled forest and over a small rise. She had been walking for about half an hour. Fisher had run on ahead when suddenly she heard him barking.
There was a cry, as if someone was in pain. Cautiously, Poppy went forward.
The track led down to a creek and up over the other side. There, sitting on the bank, Poppy saw a Chinese boy. He looked about the same age as Gus. He was acting strangely, sitting very still, staring at something in his hands, not noticing the water lapping around his feet in their cloth shoes.
Fisher ran towards the boy, wagging his tail. But when the boy saw Fisher, he raised his hands in fright.
'He won't hurt you,' Poppy said, running up and pulling Fisher away.
The boy glanced at her then dropped his head again, looking down at the thing in his hand. It looked like a long black snake.
Suddenly Poppy realised what it was. Someone had cut off his queue!
In The Book of Knowledge she had read that the Emperor of China was Manchurian, not Han Chinese, and he made all Chinese men wear their hair in a long plait called a queue. If anyone disobeyed and cut off their queue it meant that they were against the Emperor and the punishment for this was beheading. Poppy shivered at the thought of having her head chopped off with a big, sharp axe.
No wonder this boy was sad. It would be a very long time before he could go back to China. Poppy squatted down looking into his face. 'Are you all right?' she asked, touching his arm gently.
The boy jumped as if he had been touched by a ghost. He stared at her a moment and his face grew pale and his eyes wide with fear.
'M'ho da gnor! M'ho da gnor! M'hai gno tao ge!' he said in a language Poppy didn't understand. Then he spoke in English. 'No me! No me!' He scrambled backwards through the mud on his bottom, pushing himself with his legs.
Fisher sensed his fear and growled, stepping forward as if to lunge. But Poppy grabbed him just in time. She wondered if the boy was crazy or dangerous. Why was he so scared of her? What did he mean when he said, 'No me, no me'?
She stood up and backed away.
He was looking at her curiously now, his head cocked to one side. Then he suddenly broke into a smile. It was such a beautiful, open smile, showing straight white teeth, Poppy was taken by surprise.
The boy laughed to himself. 'Me no me, you no you.' Then his smile faded as he stared once more at the queue in his hand.
Poor thing, she thought. But Poppy couldn't stay with him to see if he was all right. It would be dark soon and she had to find a safe place to spend the night.
'I'm going now,' she said, waiting a moment to give the boy a chance to speak. But he didn't say a word, so she set off across the creek, jumping from rock to rock.
Book 4: Poppy Comes Home
A pink river stone lay at Poppy's feet. She kicked it and Fisher gave chase, deftly picking it up in his mouth while still on the run.
'Clever boy, Fish,' she said, as the dog came trotting back to her. He dropped the stone at her feet. Poppy was about to kick it again when she suddenly smelled the wonderful aroma of roasting meat.
Fisher took off in the direction of the smell along a narrow track.
'Come here, Fish!' Poppy called. But it was no use. Whenever he smelt food, he would go back to his wild ways.
Poppy was so glad she had met Fisher. He had been her constant companion on her journey to find her brother, Gus. She had been tracking Gus for two and a half months, and the trail led to Beechworth.
Will he be here? Poppy wondered. And will the gold nugget, the one that old Murray Cod gave me, be worth enough to build a home? Poppy was so scared of losing it, she had wrapped it in a piece of old cloth and tied it on a string to hang around her neck under her shirt. Poppy also still had the Chinese letter from her father, which Jimmy Ah Kew had translated for her. She hoped one day her family could be together again. These were the thoughts that played across her mind.
Poppy ran after Fisher. As she rounded a bend in the track, she saw a colourful wooden wagon covered with words: 'Holloways Pills and Ointments', 'Your Future Read' and 'Teeth Extracted'. From the wagon, a tarpaulin was stretched out, with ropes tied between two trees, to form a covered area. And under the canvas was an empty chair and a low table made of a thin plank set on two logs. A horse grazed nearby, craning its neck to bite the top of a weed.
A little distance away a fire burned. Two rabbits cooked on a spit over red coals. This was where the delicious smell was coming from.
As Poppy was wondering who the wagon belonged to, a tall man with long shoulder-length hair and a thick moustache that curled up at the ends came around the corner of the carriage. He was carrying a tin plate.
'Well, what do we have here?' he said. 'What's yer name, my boy?'
Poppy heard Fisher growling softly behind her. She turned, and he was looking fixedly at the man.
'Now, now,' said the man, 'that ain't friendly-like, 'specially as I was just fixin' to offer you some o' this here roast rabbit. Too much for me, anyways.'
He had a funny accent, Poppy thought. Not quite Irish, but definitely not English. Meanwhile, her mouth watered for that rabbit. Strange, here she was, rich with gold, but still hungry.
'What's the matter, kid? Cat got yer tongue?'
'Uh, no. Sorry. My name is Kal. And this...' Poppy turned around, '...is my dog, Fisher.'
'Fisher, eh? Mighty fine dog. Bet he's worth a bit.' The man walked toward Fisher, extending his hand slowly. Fisher backed away, baring his teeth and growling some more.
'Fisher, don't be rude,' Poppy hissed. 'Sorry, Mister, he's usually fine with strangers.'
'Don't bother me none,' the man said. 'Like as not he's pickin' up the scent o' this here patent medicine I been brewin'.' He reached into the wagon and showed her a bottle with a hand-drawn label. 'Cutpurse's Cure-all. Fixes everythin' from snakebite to bankruptcy,' the man said with a wide grin.
'Oh, so you're a doctor?' Poppy said, thinking of Dr Lin from Wahgunyah and all the bottles and pouches of herbs he had kept in his shop.
'Doctor? I'm not just a doctor, I'm a Professor!' The man drew himself up, stuck out his chest, threw out his arm and declaimed, 'Professor Cutpurse, famous from Nantucket to Nashville, well-known from Paris to Pensacola, fresh from a tour of Europe, now bringin' health and happiness to these here goldfields. At your service.' As he said the last words he bowed regally, sweeping his right arm up and then down across his chest, as if he had swept off a hat with a flourish.
Poppy looked at him with surprise. In those few words the man's whole demeanour had changed. Even his voice sounded different. Poppy glanced back at Fisher. The dog had sat down with his mouth open and tongue lolling, looking at the man. Then Fisher's eyebrows lifted and he shifted his eyes to look at Poppy.
'So tell me, young man. What talents do you possess?' Professor Cutpurse said, still using a professorial voice.
'Impossible. You must be able to do somethin'. You can juggle, surely?'
'Um, no, sir.'
'Dance, then? Hornpipe? Buck dance?'
'No, sir. Sorry, sir.'
Professor Cutpurse's eyes widened. 'Why, you astonish me. What about singin'? Surely you can sing. Even a bird can do that.'
Poppy had never thought of singing as a talent. It was just something she did. 'Yes, sir, I can sing, some.'
'Let's hear you then. And after that, some tasty rabbit.'
'My voice... it's as rusty as old nails, sir,' she said.
'Never mind that,' the Professor said. 'Go on now, lad. Don't be shy.'
So Poppy stood in front of Professor Cutpurse and sang The Bellbird Song, and afterwards the man applauded, then made her sit down by the fire. He relaxed back into his normal speaking voice.
'Kid, you got a great voice. It's high like a girl's, ain't broke yet, that's good. Exactly what I need for the show. . . if you want to travel with us fer a bit, I mean. I can guarantee food, most times, fer you and yer dog there, and you can sleep under the wagon.'
Poppy was busy by now, chewing a delicious roast rabbit leg, but she spoke between mouthfuls. 'Sorry, sir, but I have to find my brother. I've been looking for him for months. I think he's in Beechworth.'
'Well, if he's in Beechworth, you can bet he'll be comin' to our show. My boys are puttin' up the posters right now. The whole town will turn out fer it. No siree, you can bet your boots he'll be there, if he's within a hundred miles.'
Poppy considered this. The idea made sense. But what would she have to do?
Professor Cutpurse explained that the show provided entertainment to gather a crowd, then, in between acts, they sold things, like his patent medicine. 'I'll pay you well... and I have the perfect part for you to play. Do you want to hear it?'
The Professor took a drink from a bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. 'Now here's the bit you mightn't like too much. I want to dress you up like a girl, a princess, in fact, a princess from India.'
Poppy pretended to scowl. 'I can't dress up like a girl, Professor.' But inside she was smiling. If only Noni from Summerhill was here! She'd laugh so hard.
'And I want you to sing the same song, but don't use the words, just make up sounds. Pretend that you're singin' Indian. You got me?'
Poppy nodded. That didn't seem too hard. And the idea of being paid for something she loved to do made her smile.
As they finished the rabbits, even Fisher looked happy. Sitting back, full and satisfied, the Professor told Poppy more about their show. He had two helpers who went into town and put up advertising posters, whipping up excitement. They also helped sell the bottles of medicine. 'We do more than sing and dance and juggle,' the Professor said. 'Sometimes I tell fortunes or pull teeth. There's always someone with a bad tooth. Why, once I pulled sixteen teeth in the course of one hour. Used to wear them like a necklace. Completely painless.' He smiled. 'Leastwise, no one can hear them scream. I have one of the boys blow a big trumpet when I'm doin' the extraction.'
Poppy felt sick to her stomach.
'Anyways, nothin' quite so entertainin' as seein' someone else suffer, don't ya know. Folks will line up for that, every time.'
Poppy frowned. The Professor said he was more than a doctor, but he didn't sound like a doctor. Poppy knew what a real doctor was. She had seen Dr Lin, and how he cared for his patients. She had seen Tom and what he had done to heal her. Professor Cutpurse didn't sound like he cared at all.
'It's all part of the show,' the Professor finished up, grinning at her. 'Greatest lil' ol' show around these parts.'
Book 1: Meet Rose
Aunt Alice hailed a cab and they sped up Bourke Street, the horse's mane and tail flying, as if it knew they were trying to beat Mother home.
Rose dared to hope that they would indeed get there first. Trees and houses whipped past, and as the horse slowed on the hill up from the river, Aunt Alice leaned out and peered ahead. 'There's the carriage.' She called up to the driver. 'Take the next right, and then the left. Hurry!'
The driver followed Aunt Alice's directions, urging the horse on, and Rose realised they'd be entering their street from the other end. She leaned forward, craning her neck.
If they were caught, Rose'd be writing lines for the next year! What would Aunt Alice's punishment be? What if Mother put her out on the street? With all her trunks?
No. Rose sat up straight and clenched her hands. Aunt Alice had just given her the most exciting day of her life. How could that be wrong? She would not let Mother turn Aunt Alice out. She would argue and get Father's support and be as stubborn as a mule, so there!
The horse trotted in through the iron gates and Aunt Alice paid the driver. Rose glanced around. 'Maybe that wasn't her in the carriage. '
But as they walked up the steps, the front door swung open and there stood Mother, still wearing her hat and gloves. Her face was set like a stone mask, but her eyes glittered angrily.
'Where have you been, Rose?'
'Into town,' Rose said, wishing her stomach didn't have such huge butterflies bumping around in it. 'I . . . we . . . we saw Father.'
'Don't lie to me, Rose!' Mother stood back. 'Come inside. Now.'
Rose walked into the hallway, her legs shaking, her throat bone dry. She had never seen Mother so angry before, not even when Rose broke her favourite vase with her cricket ball.
'Alice, how dare you take my daughter into such a place!'
'Elizabeth, half of Melbourne has visited Coles Arcade,' Aunt Alice said calmly.
'Not the half I wish to be associated with,'
Mother snapped. 'I want you to -'
Rose interrupted. 'Coles Arcade is a wonderful place, Mother, and Aunt Alice is not to blame. I asked to go there.'
Mother's face turned a deep red. 'That is a perfect example of what a bad influence you are, Alice.
Whatever manners Rose might have had are nowhere to be seen. She has turned into the rudest child I have ever met!' Mother sucked in a deep breath, then spat out, 'Alice, you are no longer welcome under my roof'
Rose was horrified. She opened her mouth to protest, but Aunt Alice said, 'Ah, but it's not your house, Elizabeth. I'll leave when Daniel asks me to, and not before.' She turned and walked up the stairs, her back straight, her head held high.
Mother stared down at Rose, her hands clasped so tightly in front of her that her knuckles were white.
'You are to go to your room and stay there until I say you may leave. That may be never. Go!'
Rose rushed up the stairs, tears spilling down her face, and slammed her door. Mother was the meanest, cruellest person in the whole world! How could she tell Aunt Alice to leave?
It wasn't fair!
Rose paced around her room, muttering to herself, then flung open her wardrobe doors. Lying on top of her underwear was the dreaded corset. That, she thought, is the cause of all of my troubles. And I intend to do something about it.
Rose pulled the corset out and dropped it on the floor. She stamped on it with both feet, but that wasn't enough. What else? She grabbed the scissors from her sewing basket and started cutting at the corset. Some parts were too stiff, but she made half a dozen satisfyingly large holes, then marched it out of her room and down the stairs.
Voices rang out from the drawing room. She stopped - Mother's voice was so loud, Rose could hear every word. Who was she talking to? Martha?
'It's not enough that she has ruined her own reputation, now she has to cast a shadow over our family, too!'
The bubbling anger inside Rose spilled over like a red-hot fountain, and she pushed open the drawing-room door.
Book 2: Rose on Wheels
Rose pushed her embroidery needle through the doily and gasped as she pricked herself. Holy smoke, I hate embroidery! she thought. Blood welled up and hastily she wiped her finger on a handkerchief. She threw it down and pulled her chair over to the window of the small schoolroom.
From this part of the house, she could see John grooming the horses, and a strange boy in the yard cleaning Aunt Alice's bicycle, which she'd promised that Rose could learn to ride. The boy was skinny, about her height but with arms like pea sticks. His bright thatch of blonde hair was like a patch of sunlight moving around the yard, and when he talked and laughed with John, his whole face came alive. I'm going to find out who he is, Rose thought. He looks interesting.
The room was stuffy, and Miss Parson had piled more coal on the fire while she sniffed and coughed. 'Rose,' she said suddenly, 'I'm not well. Lessons are finished for the day.'
'Oh! I hope you get better soon,' Rose said, and rushed out of the schoolroom, so grateful to escape that at first she didn't think much about what Miss Parson had said. But Miss Parson hadn't been her usual self for a few days. Usually she tried to sound bossy and important like Mother, but lately she'd been very gloomy.
Oh well, Rose was just delighted to be free for the rest of the day. What should she do? She was soon curled up in an armchair in her room, reading a wonderful new story, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. It was almost as good as Treasure Island. In the three months Aunt Alice had been staying with them, she'd lent Rose lots of lovely novels to read. Even better was the time she spent with Aunt Alice - laughing and talking about all sorts of things. Sometimes Aunt Alice felt like an aunt, a sister and a friend, all rolled into one.
But it wasn't long before Rose began fidgeting, not really in the mood for a book after all. Instead, she remembered the boy and the bicycle - maybe this was the perfect time to ask Aunt Alice if she could learn to ride, and she could find out more about him.
Rose ran along the hallway to Aunt Alice's room, knocked and rushed in, banging the door back against the wall. 'Aunt Alice, do you think - oh!' She stopped short. The person who stood in front of her was not Aunt Alice.
It was Miss Parson! The governess froze, colour leeching from her face, her mouth open. She was clutching something tightly in one hand.
Rose's heart banged against her ribs. 'Are you . . . are you supposed to be in here?'
'I... I came to... borrow a book,' Miss Parson stuttered.
Rose stared at Miss Parson - she wasn't holding any books at all, but her hand was still clenched. 'What have you got there?'
'Nothing. Er . . . one of my hair pins fell out, that's all.' Miss Parson took a shuddering breath and moved forward, brushing past Rose and heading for the hallway without another word.
Phew! Rose was baffled, but she had a feeling Miss Parson had been lying. Rose checked Aunt Alice's dresser drawers and, sure enough, they were all messy, as though someone had been rummaging through them. She opened the jewellery box but she couldn't tell if anything was missing. She'd have to ask Aunt Alice later.
Rose's heartbeat slowly returned to normal while she puzzled over Miss Parson's behaviour. Was she only snooping, or was there more to it? She'd often snooped in Rose's room. And if she were stealing things, why? Was she so terribly poor, like the people Rose had seen being evicted from their house in town? Yet Miss Parson had a room in this house to live in, plenty of food to eat, and a yearly wage. Did she have debts? Rose wondered.
These worrying thoughts were like sharp teeth nibbling at Rose. Aunt Alice mightn't be back for ages, and there was no use asking Mother - she'd demand an explanation and then Miss Parson would be in tremendous trouble. Mother would dismiss her, and maybe she'd even go to gaol. That would be awful! Even if Miss Parson were stealing, Rose didn't want bad things to happen to her.
Father was at the Emporium. Edward was at school. What about Martha? She always listened.
Rose walked to the other end of the hallway, to Martha's room, and knocked.
'Who is it?' Martha called in a soft voice.
'It's me, Rose.'
'Come in,' Martha said.
Rose entered and found Martha's room in near darkness. The curtains were closed and no lights were on, apart from a small lamp on the wall. Martha lay on her bed, a cloth over her eyes. Thoughts of Miss Parson flew out of Rose's head. 'Are you sick?' she asked anxiously.
'Just a headache,' Martha whispered. 'It'll go away soon.'
'Oh. I'll go away too, then.'
'No, no, stay,' Martha said. 'I hardly ever see you anymore, or talk to you.'
'Well, you're always so busy dressing up with Mother and thinking about getting married,' Rose said. She plopped herself down on the chair next to Martha's bed and leaned forward, resting her arms on the bedcovers. 'Maybe that's why you have a headache. Your brain is tired of hats and hair and hat pins.'
Martha smiled. 'I think my head is tired of Lord Elton's nephew, Raymond.'
'Is he handsome?' Rose asked. 'Or is he rich?'
'He's both,' Martha said, 'but he is a complete ninny. Spends all his time gambling and riding horses and pretending he is someone special. Ugh!' She shuddered. 'I'd rather die than marry anyone like that.'
Goodness, Martha's head must really be aching! Rose thought.
'Me, too.' She stroked Martha's forehead, and sprinkled cool water from a jug onto the cloth.
'Oh, that is so nice,' Martha said. 'Anyway, Raymond says he may return to England next week, thank goodness.' She closed her eyes and Rose waited, and then wondered if she had fallen asleep.
But a smile crept across Martha's face. 'I still can't believe you cut up your corset.'
'Mother nearly had a fit!' The memory still made Rose laugh, even though it was weeks ago.
'Good for you. The corset she bought me is hurting my back terribly, but she won't listen. I may have to take to it with the scissors, too.' She opened her eyes and stared at Rose. 'Now, something is bothering you, I can tell, and it's not the corset. What is it?'
Rose hesitated. Could she really accuse Miss Parson without knowing for certain if she'd taken something?
Book 3: Rose's Challenge
First Day at School
Rose gazed up at the tall iron gates, and then down the driveway to the big two-storey stone building that was St Swithin's School for Young Ladies. She couldn't believe she was actually here, about to start her first day at school!
John urged the horse forward and the buggy rattled towards the school, pulling up in front of the tiled steps. Rose jumped straight out.
'Thank you, John. Will you be back at three o'clock?'
'Yes, either me or Tommy.' John smiled. 'Good luck, Miss.' He clucked at the horse and drove away, not wanting to hold up the two carriages that were coming in behind him.
Rose made sure her new straw hat was on straight, took a deep breath and climbed the steps. The hallway was full of girls in white blouses and long skirts who chattered like galahs and giggled together happily. Rose's eyes widened - so many girls, just like her!
Martha and Edward had both told her that school was boring, but she refused to believe them. How much more interesting to be here rather than sitting at home with a governess, learning French verbs and wrestling with embroidery.
In all her excitement, though, Rose hadn't thought about what it would be like to be surrounded by several dozen strange girls, many of whom were staring at her curiously. She was starting school so late in the year, and surely they would all have made friends with each other already? Suddenly she felt all alone and very small as the girls swept past her so confidently, and she took a hesitant step back towards the front door.
'Come along, girls,' a woman called. 'The bell is about to ring.'
Indeed, it did ring just then, and within a minute, the hallway had emptied, leaving Rose wondering what she should do next. A woman poked her head out of the room on the left and said, 'Are you the new girl? You'd better take your hat off and join us in here.'
Rose did as she was told, stopping short inside the doorway when fifteen pairs of eyes focused on her, all fifteen faces bright with interest. She shrank back against the wall. What if they thought she was stupid? What if she said the wrong thing, or nobody liked her or...
The teacher, whose small round spectacles were perched right on the end of her nose, smiled at her warmly. 'Don't be nervous. You must be Rose McCubbin.'
Rose nodded, not sure her voice would obey her.
'Then you're in the right class, my dear. I'm Miss Capstan, your teacher. You're one of our youngest pupils, so I shall seat you next to... Abigail. Abigail?'
A girl at a desk near the window stood quickly. 'Yes, Miss Capstan.'
'You'll look after Rose, won't you?'
'Yes, Miss Capstan.' Abigail smiled, giving Rose the courage to thread her way between the desks to the spare seat. Abigail's blonde hair was pulled back into a tidy knot and her blue eyes sparkled.
I hope she's as nice as she looks, Rose thought.
She sat down and was about to say hello when Miss Capstan clapped her hands.
'All eyes on me, girls. Now, as usual, we'll begin the day with a poem. I shall write it on the board and you will copy it, then we will learn it and recite together.'
Rose knew what a poem was - she'd read plenty in the Cole's Funny Picture Book that Aunt Alice had bought for her. But the poem that Miss Capstan wrote on her blackboard was very different. It was called a sonnet, and was by William Shakespeare. It took Rose ages to copy the poem neatly. At home, Miss Parson had made her write with a thick pencil and she wasn't used to a pen with a nib. Despite her great care, there were still three blots of ink on her page. Even after copying it out in the booklet Miss Capstan gave her, and reciting it several times, Rose still wasn't sure she understood it.
'Don't worry, Rose,' Abigail whispered. 'Miss Capstan will explain it to us in a minute.'
Rose smiled at her gratefully. Thank goodness Abigail was there to help her.
Miss Capstan did indeed explain, although Rose wasn't convinced that you could love someone in so many ways, as Shakespeare said. Wasn't one way enough? All the same, Rose had enjoyed the discussion. How different it was to learning alone.
But then they moved on to arithmetic, and it was even worse than Rose had feared. While the others could add and subtract and multiply vast numbers, she was unable to add much past 100, and had never learned her multiplication tables. Rose hunched in her seat as Miss Capstan checked her page. But instead of scolding, the teacher said, 'You'll soon catch up, Rose. It's just practice.'
By the time the bell rang for morning break, Rose felt as if her head was going to explode. Still, she also felt a buzz of excitement. She was learning! And this was only the beginning.
The girls were allowed half an hour to walk in the garden and have a drink of lemon cordial or tea if they wished. Rose followed Abigail to the dining room for some cordial, and then they went outside, first putting on their straw hats.
'How old are you?' Abigail asked.
'Eleven,' Rose replied.
'Me too! Where did you go to school before this?'
'I didn't. I had a governess but she left.' Rose's cheeks grew hot. 'I couldn't do any of those sums, you know.'
'Don't worry, I'll help you if you like,' said Abigail. 'I learned at home, too. My mother taught me herself before I came here.'
'What other subjects do we study?' Rose asked.
'This morning it'll be geography, and then history after lunch. And today we also do physical exercises, which is mostly marching around or running races. Other days we have singing and nature walks, and needlework. I just hate needlework!'
'So do I, 'Rose said. 'I've been embroidering the same horrible doily for about three months.'
Abigail screwed up her face. 'I'm supposed to be embroidering a lace collar but it looks like a dog ate it.'
The two girls giggled, and went to sit under a shady tree. 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' Abigail said. 'I'm going to university.'
A pang of envy jabbed through Rose. She had thought she would like to do the same, but perhaps she was already too far behind. 'Wouldn't university be wonderful?' said Rose. 'But also I want to travel all around the world.'
'If you were a classical scholar, you could visit all the historical ruins, 'Abigail said.
Rose nodded - she didn't like to ask what a classical scholar was. Maybe she'd ask Father.
It seemed to Rose that she'd only just started talking to Abigail when the bell rang. They weren't allowed to even whisper in the classroom. Hopefully she could sit with Abigail for lunch and talk some more. Perhaps it doesn't matter that I haven't had a friend before, thought Rose. Perhaps friendship is as easy as talking and spending time together.
In geography, the class was learning about mountains and glaciers - just the kind of facts Rose loved. She learned many new words, such as alluvial and igneous, and tried to write them neatly, but the pen just would not behave.
Miss Capstan walked up and down the aisles, checking everyone's work, and stopped to watch Rose writing. 'I think this is the first thing you need to work on, Rose,' she said, after a few minutes. 'Does your father have a pen and ink at home on his desk?'
'Yes, I think so.'
'Then I shall write him a note to ask if he'll let you practise with them.' She gave Rose a small book with line after line of perfect script in it. 'I'd like you to copy one page per night from this, and bring your work to me each day so I can see if you are improving.'
'Yes, Miss Capstan.' Rose was embarrassed to see that the book was for Grade One pupils. Was her writing really so bad? Right at that moment, as she was forming a nice big 'g' for glacial, the nib stuck and ink splattered across her page in tiny dots. Abigail looked across at the mess and giggled. Rose gritted her teeth. She would practise then, every night, until she could write a perfectly clean page.
Before lunch, they went outside again for physical exercises, but first Rose had to wash the ink off her hands. Then she joined a row of girls from her class who were swinging their arms and lifting their knees high while the teacher chanted, 'One, two, three, four, waiting at the kitchen door.' The girls answered her: 'Five, six, seven, eight, now we're at the garden gate.'
After this warm-up, they ran races across the lawn, and then quietly walked all the way around the school building to settle down again. Rose won two of the races! She was glad she was in her usual dress and pinafore - the older girls who were in long skirts and blouses struggled to run without getting caught up in their clothes. The more daring simply lifted their skirts, not caring if they showed their stockings. How much easier it would be if we had pants like Aunt Alice's, Rose thought. But even here, long skirts and dresses were what young ladies had to wear.
Lunch was soup and then cold slices of meat and salad. Rose sat quietly at a table with Abigail, listening to the girls around her chatter. The older girls seemed to talk only about new dresses and hats, just like Mother and Martha. But the younger girls near Rose had a fascinating argument about their favourite books - much more interesting.
When Abigail declared that Treasure Island was one of the most exciting books ever written, Rose grinned at her and nodded. She really was a kindred spirit!
In the afternoon, they studied the history of Great Britain. Rose had missed the early centuries, but Miss Capstan lent her a book about the period. 'I can see your reading is excellent, Rose, so you should be able to cope with this. I'm sorry to give you so much work to do at home.'
'I don't mind,' Rose said. 'It's wonderful to be finding out all these interesting new things.'
And it was! She couldn't wait to get home and tell everyone. Well, everyone except perhaps Mother, who often said Rose talked too much at the dinner table.
It turned out that Mother had a headache and ate in her room, so Rose was free to talk non-stop all through the meal about Abigail and all the things she'd learned.
Did you know there were glaciers in New Zealand? 'Aunt Alice asked.
'No. 'Rose jiggled in her seat. 'Have you seen them? Are they huge?'
'The Fox Glacier is like a river of ice. It's spectacular.'
Father nodded when Rose mentioned her pen problems. 'You may use mine after dinner, Rose,' he said. 'Practice makes perfect.'
Martha said little, smiling at Rose's excitement, but Edward's scowl grew bigger and bigger.
Finally, he said, 'It's just boring old school. What are you getting so excited about?'
'You might hate school,' Rose said, 'but I love it.'
'Now, now,' Father said, 'I'm sure nobody hates school. Let's all go to the sitting room. I want to read my paper.'
Rose skipped ahead of everyone and sat on the chair next to the lamp. If Father was in the mood, he would read items out of his newspaper, and she wanted to know about current world and Australian events in case her teacher asked questions.
Father put on his spectacles and unfolded his paper, reading the headlines. 'Oh, for heaven's sake,' he said. 'Edward, are you learning about the moves towards Federation at school?'
'Yes, Father.' Edward sprawled back on the settee, biting at his thumbnail.
'Good. Those darned Sydneyites are still moaning. I haven't forgotten that their Premier called us a 'cabbage garden'. Anyone would think Victoria is a backward foreign country, the way they carry on.'
'Don't they like us?' Rose asked.
'They don't want the government of the new Commonwealth to be in Melbourne.' He humphed and flapped the newspaper. 'Well, it certainly shouldn't be Sydney. Nothing but money-grubbers up there.'
'Then where would it be?' Rose said.
'There's talk of creating a new city halfway between here and Sydney, 'said Father. 'I suppose it would be a town, to start with, but it would be our capital.'
Rose leaned over to see what Father was reading. 'It says an earl is coming from England to be our first Governor-General. What does that mean?'
'He's the Queen's representative, 'Father said. 'He will choose our first Prime Minister, and he'd better pick a Victorian, is all I can say.'
Martha was threading embroidery cotton onto a needle. She smiled at Father. 'Are you and Mother going to Sydney for the proclamation?'
Rose had heard plenty about this - there was going to be a special ceremony to join all the states together.
'We'll have to see if we receive an invitation first. Your mother has already chosen a new dress to be made, but there'll be few Victorians invited, I wager.' Father glanced at the clock.
'Rose, hadn't you better start your pen work? I've left you a new nib and bottle of ink.'
'Yes, Father.' Rose went into the study and had to stack Father's huge leather chair with cushions. She found it much easier to use the tricky pen when there was no teacher watching her.
Martha came in to see how she was going. 'That's good, Rose.' She tilted Rose's hand a little. 'See, if you hold it straighter, the nib doesn't stop on the paper so much.'
'Thank you.' Rose examined Martha's face. 'Are you feeling better this week?' Martha suffered with awful headaches.
'Yes, although I do miss not going to school now. 'Martha had graduated from her finishing school with commendations for dancing and music, and a special certificate and prize of a set of watercolour paints for her art.
'I'll tell you everything that I'm doing, 'Rose said, 'and you'll feel just as if you're still there.'
Martha laughed. 'I'm not clever like you. Politics and history aren't interesting to me. I'd much rather be down by the river, painting or drawing.'
'When I travel around the world, you can come with me and paint all the exciting places we visit.'
'That's an excellent idea,' Martha said. 'Now, it's your bedtime, so off you go. You need plenty of sleep so you can do your schoolwork tomorrow.'
In bed, Rose kept her lamp on and opened the history book Miss Capstan had given her. The pictures were disappointing, just a few drawings, but Rose was soon caught up in reading about how the Romans had lived in England hundreds of years ago. Just think - there were still lots of Roman ruins all over the countryside there! One day she'd go and see them, too.
Book 4: Rose in Bloom
All in Black
'Isn't it beautiful?' Rose's big sister, Martha, twirled and the pale-blue silk of her dress shone in the sunlight streaming through the bay window. The dress had been specially made for Martha's forthcoming seventeenth birthday dinner, a huge occasion that Mother had been planning for weeks.
Rose nodded. 'You look like a bunch of bluebells.'
Martha laughed. 'Thanks ... I think.'
But from her room, not ten minutes later, Rose heard Martha crying loudly. She ran to Martha's bedroom, but Mother stopped her at the door. 'Leave Martha alone for now,' she said. Her face was sombre, and she dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief.
'Is Martha ill again?' Rose asked. 'She seemed fine before.'
'We've just had news that Queen Victoria has passed away,' Mother said. 'The whole city is in mourning.' She took a breath and tucked away her handkerchief. 'I'll need to arrange new black dresses for us to wear.'
Rose was left standing in the hallway, open-mouthed. Queen Victoria lived on the other side of the world! Why did they have to wear mourning clothes for someone so far away? But then again, Rose thought, Australia's ties to England are very strong. Their state, Victoria, had even been named after the queen.
Despite Mother's command, Rose went in and sat on the edge of Martha's bed. 'Are you really sad about the queen?'
'No. Well... yes.' Martha sniffed. 'But Mother has said my birthday dinner will have to be postponed. It would be very bad taste to have a party just after the queen has died.'
'Oh,' said Rose, who didn't actually mind missing the stuffy adults' dinner at all.
We might be wearing black right up until the opening of Parliament,' Martha said.
'For four whole months?' Rose said in astonishment. 'Well, perhaps you'll get to wear your beautiful blue dress to the Federation celebrations then - that's not until May.'
'Oh, the dress is nothing. It's my dinner.' Martha sighed. 'Mother had invited Sir William Pennington and his family.'
Well...' Martha blushed. 'Samuel was going to come, too.'
'You're sweet on Samuel Pennington?' Rose giggled. 'But he's got such a big nose!'
'He has not!'
'And bushy hair.'
'He's got lovely eyes,' Martha said. 'Not that it matters. I'll never get to see him now. We'll be spending all our time at church.'
Rose didn't like the sound of that, but Martha was right. First they had to attend a commemorative service. Then when Queen Victoria was buried in England eleven days later, they went to church again. Everywhere Rose looked, the city was draped in black. Shops and businesses hung black curtains and swathed their awnings in black bunting. The churches put black cloth over the altars and pews, and when Aunt Alice took Rose to the State Library, she saw black and purple cloth wound around its columns, making them look like strange candy canes. The city was busy but somehow quieter.
Mother made everyone in the family wear black clothing, even Father, who grumbled that most men were simply putting on black armbands. When the Government Gazette announced at the end of January that full mourning should be worn until the 6th of March, Mother said, 'I told you so. Everyone is fulfilling their duty, and so shall we.'
But when Martha created a huge fuss over her dinner party being postponed yet again, Mother finally relented.
'Very well, then, we'll have it at the end of February,' she said. 'But we will all dress in dark colours. No pinks or yellows or whites.'
On the first day back at school, Rose and Abigail hugged each other.
'Do you think we'll be allowed to sit together still?' Rose asked anxiously.
'We've got Miss Capstan again, so I'm sure she'll say yes,' said Abigail. And Miss Capstan did!
The teachers all wore black or dark colours, and so did most of the girls. It made everyone feel even hotter on a warm day, and someone fainting was a regular event.
One morning, as Rose rushed in through the front door, pulling off her hat, Enid called out to her in the hallway. 'Rose - wait!'
'Are we having cricket practice at lunchtime today?' Rose asked.
'Yes.' Enid beamed. 'The game against Merton is set for two weeks' time. And we've got a new coach! She'll choose the team.'
Rose hesitated. 'Maybe she won't pick me.'
'I don't see why not,' Enid said. 'You're a good bowler, even if you are a little small.'
'I'm growing, though. I've sprouted two whole inches since my last birthday.'
'Jolly good,' Enid said. 'I'll see you at midday, on the grass behind the school.'
Rose went into her classroom, bubbling with happiness. She could hardly wait for the match - but first she had to be chosen. Enid always picked Rose, but some of the other girls thought she was too young. The new coach might think so, too.
Abigail slipped into the seat next to Rose. 'What's wrong?'
'We have a new cricket coach,' Rose said. 'What if she doesn't pick me for the team?'
Abigail smiled and shook her head. 'I've seen you bowl. She will for sure!'
Rose grinned back at her. Abigail always knew how to cheer her up. While Rose loved learning, especially about other countries, Abigail was by far the best part about school.
At lunchtime, Rose ate quickly and then ran down to the big lawn. Most of the other girls were already there, and so was the new coach, who was tall and wearing grey pantaloons. She tossed a ball into the air over and over as she waited for everyone to gather around her.
'Welcome, girls. I'm Miss Guilfoyle. I hear we have some very keen cricket players here,' she said. 'The game against Merton is in two weeks, but I'm sure we can get in plenty of practice before then.'
'Who will be in the team, Miss?' Myrtle Culpepper asked.
Rose's face burned. Myrtle was the one who kept calling Rose a baby and saying she was too young to play.
Miss Guilfoyle looked around. 'I'll select a team of fourteen, but you may not all play.'
'How will you choose?' This time Myrtle glanced at Rose.
'Let's get onto the field and see how you all go, then I'll make my decisions. Fair enough?'
Not to Myrtle. 'But some girls are too young to play a proper game,' she said.
'I judge on skills, talent and hard work,' Miss Guilfoyle said. 'So let's see plenty of that.
Myrtle scowled at Rose. As Rose walked onto the playing area, her heart was beating so loudly she could hear it in her ears. Would she be good enough? She was told to field first, but no one hit the ball near her. Then Miss Guilfoyle sent Rose and Enid in to bat.
'You'll be fine,' Enid said, but Rose wasn't so sure.
Myrtle was bowling and Rose knew Myrtle wouldn't give her a chance.
Sure enough, the ball came whizzing down and bounced just in front of her. All she could do was block it, like Tommy had shown her. The same with the next one and the next.
Just wait until I bowl to you, Myrtle, she thought. And very soon it was Rose's turn to bowl. But instead of Myrtle, she bowled to Enid and another older girl who was an excellent batswoman. Neither would be an easy out. Rose took several breaths, imagining how she wanted the ball to move and bounce, curling her fingers around the ball in different positions until she found the right one.
She ran up and bowled, the ball floating through the air. It curled and turned, bounced and then spun away to the left. Enid tried to hit it but missed. She smiled at Rose. 'You're getting even better.'
'Swap ends,' Miss Guilfoyle said. She came in closer to the pitch. 'I'd like to see you bowl to Elizabeth.'
This time Rose moved her fingers around and bowled a ball that curved in the opposite direction, and then back at the last moment, skimming past Elizabeth's knees and into the wickets. Miss Guilfoyle stared at Rose. 'Interesting. Can you do that all the time?'
'Mostly,' Rose said. 'Sometimes I send it straight to fool them.' Oh dear, that sounded boastful, and she flushed bright red.
Miss Guilfoyle nodded and said, 'Interesting,' again. Then she called someone else to bowl and Rose's turn was over. She trudged to the outer to field again, her heart heavy. Two balls! That was all she'd been allowed. Miss Guilfoyle obviously thought Rose wasn't good enough, or her technique was wrong. Tears prickled in her eyes. Maybe there'd be another game next year.
'Gather around, girls,' Miss Guilfoyle called when the practice was over. 'It's been excellent to see how you all play, and also to see how keen you are.' She smiled widely. 'I'll put the team list up in the hallway before you go home today. Now, don't be disappointed if you aren't chosen this time. I'm sure there will be more games in the future.'
The end of the day came quickly, and Rose didn't want to go home. She could've stayed in the classroom all night, poring over the nature study books and making sketches. But a ruckus in the hallway caught her attention and she suddenly remembered the cricket team list. It must be up! No hurry, she thought. I won't be on it, so I'll wait until they've all gone. That way I won't have to see Myrtle's gleeful face.
But Abigail rushed back into the classroom. 'Come and see!'
Was it possible? Rose's hands were clammy and her breath caught in her throat. She walked slowly out to the hallway. Abigail put her arm around Rose's shoulder. 'What did that man say at the exhibition match last year? Playing for Australia one day?'
Rose focused on the list. Enid was there, of course. Most of the other names were no surprise either. Myrtle had been chosen. Rose's heart sank a little. But there, fourth from the bottom, was her name! She read it over and over.
'I'm in the team,' she whispered. 'I'm in the team!'
'You're only there to carry the drinks,' Myrtle said behind her.
Rose spun around but Miss Guilfoyle beat her to it. 'Myrtle, the day you can bat for two whole overs without Rose bowling you out will be the day I eat my hat. We'll be playing as a team, so if you don't understand what that means, you had better take your name off.'
Myrtle's face turned a dark shade of beetroot and she shot Rose a venomous glance before saying, 'Yes, Miss Guilfoyle.'
'Now, here are the notes for your parents to sign, girls,' Miss Guilfoyle said. 'Bring them back as soon as you can.'
Instantly, Rose's joy evaporated but Abigail took the note for her and pulled Rose aside.
'Don't worry about it,' she said. 'I'm sure your father will sign it for you.'
'But he'll still tell Mother,' Rose said, 'who will say no.'
'It'll be fine, I know it will,' Abigail said. 'See you tomorrow.'
Rose forced a smile, took the note and went out to the waiting buggy. All the way home, she kept thinking about what Mother would say. Maybe Rose would tell Aunt Alice first, and work her way up to Mother later.
Book 1: Meet Nellie
'We must always look after each other, Mary. Goodness knows what could happen to us in Australia. Superintendent O'Leary told me it's a very peculiar place. He said there are snakes that can poison you to death in a second, and animals that bounce like india-rubber balls.' Mary shuddered. 'I'll always be there for you, Nell, I promise.'
'And me for you. Never forget it.'
There was a sigh, and a thump, as Peggy Duffy, above Nellie, turned over in her bunk. 'Do hush up, you two! Think of us who's trying to sleep, now.'
'Oh, hush yourself, Peg!' retorted Nellie. 'We're making no noise at all, and it's you who's disturbing the peace with your moaning.'
In the morning the Elgin would be docking at Port Adelaide. And after that, as Nellie knew, all the girls had to find work. She'd heard that there were plenty of jobs for Irish maidservants in the colonies. Perhaps she and Mary could work together! Someone in a fine big house might need two maids just like themselves. She imagined how much fun they'd have. They might even be put to work outside, in the sunshine. Mr O'Leary had said that the weather in Adelaide could be very hot.
Thinking about Mr O'Leary made Nellie remember the Killarney Union Workhouse, which had so recently been her home. She was grateful to it because it had kept her alive when she had nothing but the rags she stood up in, but what a cold, grey, cheerless place it was! Each day was as dreary as the last, with rules that told you when to work, when to eat, when to sleep.
Nellie felt that she would always be haunted by the thin, careworn faces of the women and children there. They were the faces of people who had given up all hope.
She gave herself a little shake and made herself see happy pictures again: pictures of Mary and herself picking apples, throwing grain to hens, running through a flower-filled garden ...
'I'd feel much better about it if I knew that only good things would happen to us. The dear Lord only knows where we shall be in a year's time, Nell.'
'Oh, let's make a plan!' Nellie cried. She loved making plans: they were exciting, and they gave you something to work towards. Nobody could take a good plan away from you. 'In this country we can do things we couldn't have dreamed of back in Ireland! Let's say what we wish for, and then after a year we can see if our wishes have come true. Shall we do it?'
'Nell, you know I hate to make plans for the future,' Mary said. 'It's such terrible bad luck.'
'That's pure nonsense,' said Nellie. 'Just cross yourself and say "I know this won't happen". That will break the bad luck, won't it? Come, say what you most wish for.'
Reluctantly, Mary crossed herself. 'Well then ... I know this won't ever happen, but what I want is to be a nursery maid in a great big house and look after little children. I did love the babies at the workhouse. It was cruel that they were stuck in such a place, the poor things, and most without their own mothers to look after them.' She paused, thinking. 'Oh, and I wish that I shall never be hungry again, not ever. So what do you wish, Nell?'
'I'm with you entirely on the bit about not being hungry. But I want so many other things as well. Most of all I want to be part of a family again. I miss my own family so much.'
Mary patted her hand. 'Don't be thinking about that now. What are your other wishes?'
Nellie sat up a little straighter. 'Well, I don't want to be called "orphan" or "workhouse girl" ever again. I want to be only myself, Nellie O'Neill.'
'And you are yourself,' laughed Mary. 'Who else might you possibly be?'
'You know what I mean! You know how you hate it, too, when you're treated like the filth on somebody's boot.'
'Well, yes, but I don't let it bother me. And I'd not waste a wish on it.'
'Maybe you should let it bother you, for it's not fair,' said Nellie with passion. 'And I still have one more wish. Don't laugh! - I want to learn to read.'
Mary gave her a wondering look. 'Why?'
'You don't need to read when you're scrubbing f loors or emptying slops,' said Peggy's voice from the bunk above. 'You're a daft eejit, Nellie O'Neill. Now go to sleep!'
'Maybe I don't need to,' Nellie said, 'but I want to. My dada could read. He read the Bible to us children every night.' She thought sadly of the last time she'd seen her father, so weak from hunger and disease. 'Be strong, Nellie,' he'd said to her. 'Don't let the workhouse break your spirit. Remember that the O'Neills are descended from Irish kings.'
'I know your wishes will all come true,' said Mary. 'You have a face on you that good luck can't resist.'
'I hope you're right, Mary angel,' said Nellie. 'And good luck will touch you on the shoulder too, I just know it will.'
The two girls reached forward to hug each other, and then turned around to go to sleep. Soon their journey would be over, and their new lives would begin.
Book 2: Nellie and Secret the Letter
Every careful step Nellie O'Neill took down the long gravelled carriage drive sounded impossibly loud. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. The gravel glared white in the hot sunlight, and the flowers in the neat garden beds blazed red and orange. Nellie had never felt more out of place in her life. She was painfully aware that in her shabby, smoke-stained dress she could be mistaken for a gipsy or a beggar.
Crunch. Crunch. She tried walking on tiptoe, but it made no difference. Surely any minute now someone would emerge from the front door of that big, important house and order her to leave. No beggars allowed here! the person would say. No tinkers! No Irish!
What if her new mistress, Mrs Lefroy, decided not to employ her after all?
Nellie took a deep breath, and touched the two gold sovereigns in her pocket for luck.
Off the noisy gravel at last, she ran down a side path and around to the back of the house, to the servants' entrance. Timidly, she knocked.
The door opened almost immediately. Nellie had hoped that her dear friend Mary Connell would be there to greet her, but she was unlucky. Of course, Nellie thought, Mary was the family's nursery maid, and she must be busy with the children. Instead, the doorway was filled by the broad, white-aproned figure of Bessie Rudge, the Lefroys' cook.
Nellie's heart started to beat very fast. Mary had told her many stories about Bessie Rudge and her permanently bad temper.
'I'm Nellie O'Neill, if you please, ma'am,' she said, 'and I'm here to be the kitchen maid.' She held out a crumpled piece of paper. 'I have a reference from my last mistress, ma'am, to say I'm capable.'
Bessie took the paper, holding it between two fingers. She looked Nellie up and down, and shook her head. 'You'd better meet the mistress,' she said. 'Come with me.'
Nellie wiped her sweaty hands on her skirt and followed Bessie Rudge at a respectful distance, feeling more like a beggar girl than ever. She'd never seen anything like the inside of this house. It was a bit like being in church, but without so many candles. She half expected to see Father Donnelly, the kindly priest she'd known back in Ireland.
The walls of the front parlour were hung with paintings, and there was a piano in one corner. Everything shone with polish, even the floorboards. But it was the carpets that Nellie noticed most of all. She wished she could take off her boots and dig her toes into that lovely warm softness. It would be the most wonderful feeling, even better than walking through a peat bog. Instantly she was back in the fields outside Ballycasheen, with the sun warm on her back, and Dada lifting the turves of peat with a spade . . .
'Her name is Ellie, madam,' Bessie Rudge was saying. 'She's from one of them Irish workhouses, you know. Only a pauper girl and an orphan, but she has a reference from her previous employer, a Mrs Thompson. It was her what ran the boarding house in Rundle Street that burned down a short while back, if you remember. Our own Annie Higgins also put in a good word for the girl, in spite of her being Irish, which normally I'd not hold with. Gipsies and tinkers, the lot of them, and not to be trusted.'
The creature! Nellie thought indignantly. But she said nothing.
Mrs Lefroy read Mrs Thompson's reference, raising her eyebrows once or twice, and then bent towards Nellie and sniffed. She brought a handkerchief to her nose, and moved back a step. 'I trust the fire at the boarding house was nothing to do with you, Ellie?'
Nellie quickly gathered her thoughts. 'It's Nellie, ma'am, if you please: Nellie O'Neill, although my real name's Ellen. And no, the fire was none of my doing – it was the Thompson children playing with fireworks, although of course they aren't bad children at all, and I know they never meant to burn down the building. But –'
'That's enough, Ellie. We are not having a social visit. I see you have some experience as a kitchen maid?'
'Oh yes, ma'am. Mrs Thompson taught me to cook breakfast and all. Mr Strout, who was one of the young gentlemen at the boarding house, said my breakfasts were every bit as good as his mother's.'
Bessie Rudge gave a sour little snigger. 'Perhaps the young gentleman's mother was a shocking bad cook, madam, if you'll pardon me.'
Mrs Lefroy laughed. 'You may well be right.' She turned back to Nellie. 'We will not expect you to do any cooking. Your job will be to keep the kitchen area scrupulously clean, and to help Cook by preparing vegetables, washing up, and so forth. You may sometimes be asked to assist with other tasks when Trotty needs a helping hand.'
'Yes, ma'am.' What did 'scrupulously' mean? Nellie wondered. Was it a new kind of cleaning that she would have to learn? But she liked the sound of the name Trotty. Perhaps she and Trotty would be friends. Then (she put her hands behind her back and counted on her fingers) she would have three friends: Mary, Tom Thompson and Trotty . . .
'And of course you will obey Cook in every particular. If you fail to give satisfaction, I shall expect her to tell me.'
'And do have a good wash. Soon.'
'Yes, ma'am. Sorry, ma'am, about the smell, and all.' Nellie felt a wave of longing for the boarding house. Life there had been pleasant, and Mrs Thompson had been as kind to her as a mother. Best of all, Tom Thompson had started to teach her to read and write. Now the Thompsons had moved far away to Burra Burra, which they called 'the Burra'. Tom's father worked there in a big copper mine.
Nellie had lost her own family to the famine in Ireland – her mama and dada, and her baby brother and both her little sisters. Her greatest wish was to be part of a family again, and she'd hoped to go to the Burra, too, and to stay with the Thompsons for always. She realised now what a foolish hope that had been. 'You're not their family,' Mary had told her. 'You're their servant.' Nellie hadn't wanted to believe her, but Mary had been right, after all.
Still, Nellie had promised to send Tom a letter, and she must find a way to do it soon. If only writing wasn't so difficult!
When the interview was over, Mrs Lefroy asked Bessie to show Nellie to her bedroom. To her disappointment Nellie found that she wouldn't be sleeping upstairs near Mary, but in a tiny dark room next to the kitchen. Bessie and Trotty had bigger rooms close by, down a narrow passageway.
'Susan Trott is the housemaid here,' Bessie Rudge told Nellie. 'And that means she's a sight more important than you are.'
'Please, ma'am, what does Trotty do, exactly?' Nellie asked. 'Miss Trott, I mean.'
'Of course, you wouldn't understand about domestic staff, would you?' Bessie said with scorn, shaking her head. 'In a civilised English household it's the housemaid what sweeps and dusts and polishes and makes the beds and waits at table and so forth. That's a position of responsibility, second only to being cook. But a kitchen maid is the lowest of the low, and don't you forget it.'
When Bessie Rudge had gone, Nellie sat down on the hard little bed that was now hers. 'You must make the best of things,' she told herself firmly. 'It's a grand opportunity you've been given. And never forget, you'll be living in the same place as Mary, and isn't that worth putting up with Mrs Rudge?'
But still, something told her that in this big, wealthy household, things weren't always likely to go her way.
Book 3: Nellie's Quest
The Story So Far
Since Irish orphan Nellie O'Neill arrived in South Australia, her new life hasn't turned out at all as she imagined. A fire burned down the boarding house where she was a maid for the Thompson family, and they had to move to the Burra. Although Tom Thompson wrote to Nellie, inviting her to join them, she didn't see the letter until it was too late. Then, because of a terrible misunderstanding, both Nellie and her best friend, Mary, were dismissed from their jobs as servants to the wealthy Lefroys. Now the girls have nothing left but hope...
Starting All Over Again
Whenever she walked down Adelaide's North Terrace, Nellie O'Neill liked to imagine that she was a fine lady in a silk dress. The street was so wide and clean – hardly a pinch of rubbish on it anywhere. Nellie loved looking at the grand new villas with their big gardens, and the promenade, and the newly planted street trees. Best of all was Government House. Almost like a palace, it was, with the Union Jack flying bravely from its flagpole.
Right now Nellie could picture herself, in her beautiful silk dress, knocking on the door of that big stone building. The Governor and his wife would be so pleased to see her. They'd invite her in for cake and hot cocoa, and how lovely that would be! She could almost feel the warmth of the cup in her hands, and taste the sweetness of the cocoa.
But as she made her way down her favourite street on this windy, rainy morning, even the thought of cake and hot cocoa couldn't make Nellie happy. She was cold and wet. And she and her friend Mary Connell weren't fine ladies at all, but poor Irish servant girls with no home and no jobs.
Rain swept down, dripping off their cotton bonnets and soaking into their shawls. Mary walked more and more slowly. She didn't complain, but Nellie could see that each step was an effort for her.
'Keep your spirits up, angel,' Nellie said. 'It's not far to the Depot. We'll find work there right away, I'm sure of it.'
'We have no references from the mistress, Nell, to say we have any skill or experience. How shall we ever find jobs without them?'
'References are nothing but pieces of paper. I can tell them you are the best nursery maid ever to leave Ireland, and that's no more than the truth. And you can say that I have a flaming Irish temper to go with my red Irish hair, but I'm a good hard worker all the same.'
Mary shivered as a gust of wind made her stagger. 'If only I could feel warm again,' she said, through chattering teeth. 'Even my bones are cold.'
'Sure, it's chilly enough to freeze the tail off a goat. But maybe there'll be a great big fire waiting for us at the Depot. Wouldn't that be a fine thing?'
At last they reached the Immigration Depot, the building that served as a hiring house for the Irish orphan girls shipped out to the colony. Nellie saw that there was indeed a fire in the fireplace of the front room, but it was nothing like the cheerful blaze she'd imagined. The gum-tree logs were too green to burn properly, and clouds of smoke made Mary cough till she was so exhausted she could hardly stand.
Nellie looked around her, and her hope that she and Mary would easily find new jobs faded away. The room was already full of girls and young women, most of them crowded on benches that backed onto the walls. There was a strong smell of wet wool and unwashed bodies.
A sturdy girl in a mud-spattered dress stood up to give Mary a seat. 'The poor thing,' she whispered to Nellie. 'It's a shocking cough she has. Does she have the influenza, do you think, or is it something worse?'
'It's just the smoke that's getting to her,' Nellie said, carefully lowering Mary onto the bench. 'There, angel. You'll be as right as rain in a minute. Take some deep breaths, now.'
The other girl looked at Mary curiously. 'She don't look well,' she said. 'If it was me, I'd be home in bed.'
Nellie pretended she hadn't heard, but the girl refused to be put off. 'So what brings you two here?' she asked. 'Trouble with the mistress, was it? They can be devils, can't they?'
Nellie shrugged. She still couldn't quite believe that only yesterday she and Mary had lost their jobs at the big house on East Terrace, and she certainly didn't want to talk about it.
'I'm a dairymaid myself,' said the girl. 'And I'd be one still if my master hadn't upped sticks and gone off to the copper mines. There's more money in copper than cows, he said. I'm from Tipperary, and before the Hunger –'
She broke off as the Depot supervisor, Mr Lang, came in, followed by a small group of men and women. Nellie looked at them curiously: would one of them be her new master or mistress?
Mr Lang held up a hand for silence, and several dozen bonneted heads turned expectantly towards him.
'I have very little for you young ladies today,' said Mr Lang. 'There are only four positions available. Mr Brownrigg from Mount Barker is looking for two dairymaids with experience. And I require a housemaid with a proper understanding of cleaning methods for Mrs Turnbull in Mitcham Village.'
'There's a job I could do,' Nellie whispered to Mary. 'I could bring a shine to a doormat, so I could.'
'And finally Mrs Good in Walkerville is looking for a nursery maid. She wants a girl with knowledge of caring for a young baby. Those of you who qualify for these positions, please come forward.'
'There we go, Mary,' said Nellie. 'I told you we'd be lucky! Mrs Terrible for me, and Mrs Good for you. I think Mrs Terrible is that lady standing next to Mr Lang, the one with a face like a turnip. Off we go, then.'
Mary stood up shakily, brushing down her wet, muddy dress, and she and Nellie made their way towards Mr Lang, now seated at his desk. They stood behind the young woman from Tipperary, who had rushed forward as soon as the job of dairymaid was announced.
Several other girls went up to the desk with them, but the rest didn't move. 'What's the point of it, at all?' Nellie heard one of them say. 'If you haven't a skill or a reference you might as well turn to begging or thieving.'
'There's worse occupations,' agreed another. 'Peggy Duffy got five shillings the other day.' She giggled. 'This daft old eejit gave her a shilling, and when he turned away she fiddled the rest out of his pocket. He never felt a thing.'
Nellie was shocked. She remembered Peggy Duffy from the Elgin, the ship on which they'd sailed to Adelaide. What was Peg doing in town, thieving? Hadn't she found employment in the Adelaide Hills? Maybe she'd fallen out with her mistress, too.
No matter what the reason, stealing from others was a terrible thing to do. Nellie knew that she herself would never fall so low.
'Name?' Mr Lang asked, pen poised over the ledger in front of him.
'If you please, sir, I'm Nellie O'Neill, and I'm after being hired as a housemaid,' she said. She curtsied quickly in the direction of the turnip-faced woman, and received a faint smile in return.
'Nellie O'Neill . . . Nellie O'Neill,' muttered Mr Lang. 'I'm sure I remember you.' He turned back several pages of ledger, and ran his finger down the hand-written columns. 'Yes! Nellie O'Neill, hired out to Mrs Thompson of Rundle Street on the eleventh of September last year. That would be you?'
'It would, sir.'
Mr Lang frowned. 'You are entered here as having taken up the position of kitchen maid,' he said. 'Do you have experience as a housemaid?'
'Oh yes, sir. I can clean anything.'
'And why are you out of a job, Nellie?'
Nellie bit her lip. 'It was not my doing, sir. The Thompsons moved to the Burra, and they had no place for me there. After that I found a position with Mrs Lefroy in East Terrace.'
Mr Lang made a note in his ledger. 'And this is the job you no longer have?'
'Well then, I presume you have a letter of reference?'
'The mistress wouldn't give me one.'
Mr Lang sat back in his chair. 'Why was that, Nellie?'
Mary stepped forward, her face very pale. 'Please, sir, it wasn't her fault.'
'And why wasn't it Nellie's fault?'
'She gave up her job, sir, because somebody else was treated unfairly.'
'And now you expect the Depot to get you out of trouble,' Mr Lang said irritably. 'Do you think we have nothing to do but look after young ladies who decide, for some ridiculous personal reason, that they no longer wish to remain in employment?'
Mary was whiter than ever now. 'No, sir,' she said.
'There aren't enough jobs to go around as it is,' Mr Lang went on. 'I trust you understand the position you're in.'
'We do, sir. And we're sorry to be a bother.' Mary paused, as if about to say more. Then, to Nellie's horror, she fell to her knees, gasping for breath.
'Nell,' she whispered, 'help me!'
Book 4: Nellie's Greatest Wish
The Road Home
'Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what am I doing?' moaned Nellie. 'Was I daft, thinking I'd walk all the way back to Adelaide?'
The Burra, where she had lived for so many weeks, was now just a memory. After four days on the road, Nellie wasn't sure where she was, or how much further she had to walk. Her face and hands were sunburned, her eyes felt gritty with dust and tiredness, and there were big raw blisters on her feet. She was hungry, too, and her water bottle was nearly empty.
The thought of seeing her best friend, Mary Connell, kept her going. 'You're doing this for Mary,' she told herself, over and over. 'Every step brings you closer to Mary. Never ever forget it.'
When Nellie had started her journey, she'd been so full of hope. Sure, Adelaide was a long way from the Burra, but she knew she could make it. Back home in Ireland, when she and her family had been homeless and starving, she'd been used to wandering from village to village and sleeping in the open. But now it seemed as if the long, dusty road to Adelaide would never end, and she'd have given the little finger on her right hand for some cool water to bathe her sore feet. Why was this great big country so dry? You hardly ever saw so much as a duck pond.
For the last three nights Nellie had slept on the hard ground, wrapped only in her old tartan shawl. Not that you could call it sleeping when all she did was lie awake in the moon-shadows, shivering with cold and alert for the wild dogs that might tear her to pieces and gobble her up. Dingas, that's what the man who drove the Burra coach had called them. She imagined their drooling jaws and sharp yellow teeth. They'd eat anything, the man said – even horses.
Nellie hated the countryside after dark. It wasn't only the padding feet of prowling dingas she feared. There were all sorts of strange noises too: hissing and hooting, howling and wailing. They weren't the sounds made by any animal she knew. Every rustle made her sit bolt upright, straining her ears.
Nellie was sure it was the Pookas, the bad fairies, who haunted the scrub and made her life a misery. Mary had once told her that all the Pookas would still be in Ireland, but couldn't they have hidden themselves on a ship sailing to Australia? It could only be the Pookas who tweaked her hair and put grass seeds in her boots and sent great big black ants running up her arms and legs, leaving painful red bites on her body. And suppose there might be snakes? Nellie didn't think she could bear it if she saw a snake.
Tonight she'd very likely have to bed down in the haunted scrub again. To make things worse, the soles of her boots were starting to come away from the uppers, and she had no way of mending them. Maybe she'd be better off wearing nothing on her feet at all.
There was hardly any traffic on the road, and Nellie had become used to the lonely sound of her own plodding footsteps. To stop thinking about the distance she still had to walk, she turned her mind to the spelling book her friend Tom Thompson had given her, almost a year ago. It was tucked safely in her bundle, and she didn't need to take it out to study it. Already she knew the words and pictures on the alphabet pages by heart.
Silently she recited them in her head.
'A-p-e spells Ape. B-e-l-l spells Bell. C-h-u-r-c-h spells Church, and how long is it now since I've been inside a proper church, or even said my prayers? Father Donnelly would think me the worst heathen ever born. D-o-g spells Dog. How thankful I am that the dingas have left me alone, touch wood. Perhaps the blessed saints are watching over me, after all. E-a-g-l-e spells Eagle. Now that's something I'd love to be, because then I could fly all the way to Adelaide.'
Instantly Nellie imagined the empty plains skimming away beneath her, and the vast blue sky above. How wonderful it would be to fly like an eagle! Her friend Li's pet bird Bertie must have felt like that when he was free of his cage. But Nellie wasn't an eagle, or even a little parrot like Bertie, so back she went to the spelling book.
'F-o-x spells Fox. G-o-a-t spells Goat, and what a goat I've been, leaving my poor Mary all alone in Adelaide. H-o-r-s-e spells Horse. Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what wouldn't I give for a horse!'
Towards evening, as the shadow walking at her side grew thinner and longer, she heard sounds of trotting and jingling behind her. She turned to see a light four-wheeled buggy coming down the road.
Nellie expected it to go past her in a cloud of dust. But to her surprise the driver pulled up with a 'Whoa, Brown Bess!'
A plump, dark-haired woman and a man with fine ginger side-whiskers looked down at Nellie in a friendly way, and immediately she was sure she could trust them. Their horse was shining and well cared for, and Nellie knew that people who looked after their animals were good people.
'We've room for one more, if you'd care to travel with us,' the man said in a broad Scots accent.
It was a long time since Nellie had spoken a single word aloud, and when she opened her mouth, her voice came out in a hoarse little squeak. She cleared her dry throat and tried again. 'Thank you, sir, that would be grand,' she said.
Scrambling up into the buggy, she squeezed herself onto the seat next to the woman, trying to make herself as small as possible.
The man gave the horse a touch with his whip. 'Trot on, Brown Bess!' he said.
The woman moved sideways to give Nellie more space. 'We're from Braeside Farm, down the road a few miles,' she said. 'I'm Janet Cameron, and the gentleman beside me is my husband, James. And who are you, my dear? You look quite done in. Have you been walking a while?'
'I'm Nellie O'Neill, if you please, ma'am,' said Nellie. 'I've come from the Burra, and I'm on my way to Adelaide.'
'Adelaide!' said Mrs Cameron. 'That's a very long journey for such a wee lassie. I'm surprised those who care for you would allow you to do such a thing on your own. Wouldn't they be worried about you?'
Nellie's laugh was more like a croak. 'Sure, there's nobody to worry about me except myself. It was my choice entirely to make the journey.'
'Well,' said Mrs Cameron, 'after all that walking, I expect you're hungry.' She reached down to a sack under the seat, and gave Nellie a couple of small, rather withered apples. Nellie ate one, relishing its sweet juice, and slid the other into her pocket for afterwards.
Soon, lulled by the regular clip-clop of Brown Bess's hoofs, Nellie closed her eyes. She was almost asleep by the time Mr Cameron turned the buggy off the road and on to a narrow track.
Immediately Brown Bess began to trot faster.
'Bess can't wait to be home, and neither can I,' said Mrs Cameron. 'We've been visiting my aunt in Clare for two days, and although it was good to get away, we missed the children. Now, Nellie, it will soon be dark, and you're welcome to stay with us for the night. It's not right that you should sleep by the roadside.'
'You are kindness itself, ma'am,' said Nellie gratefully. 'I'll rest easier knowing there aren't any wild animals wanting to make a meal of me.'
Those wicked Pookas won't tease me tonight, she thought with relief. Surely the blessed saints really are looking after me; and how could I ever have doubted it?
Book 1: Meet Alice
As Alice ran along Lovers' Walk, the path by the river, she thought back to Teddy's latest painting, which they'd put up on the wall just last night. When you looked at it from across the parlour, it was the most perfect copy of their tall brick house with its wide verandah, honeysuckle up the wall and the rope swing on the ghost gum. He'd painted their tennis court to the left, the orchard on the right, and their bright green lawn, as big as a field, sloping gently down to the fence line. But if you went up close to the canvas, you could see that the whole scene was made up of thousands of dots – millions – that seemed to shimmer like tiny coloured stars with the magic that Teddy gave them. Castle of Dreams – Ours, he had written underneath.
Now why would he ever leave that?
'What's eating you, Tink?' asked Teddy, looking up as Alice stormed round the bend and dropped her bag next to his easel. 'Tell Uncle Ted.'
'Everything,' she said, kicking off her shoes and not knowing where to start. She found a soft patch of dirt and slid into the splits, laying her chest down and inching her fingertips towards the sliver of moon, white as milk, hanging over the water. Every night, Alice would stretch and point and glide and unfold until she felt that she had done everything that a perfect ballerina would be able to do. A real ballerina. It was all that she wanted to be.
Her thoughts wandered back to poor Jilly, out doing the milking. Even though Jilly's house wasn't much different to theirs from the outside, on the inside it felt a little like a church and a little like a gaol. Jilly had once told Alice that her father ran a cold bath in the evening and let it sit all night so that by the morning, when he jumped in, it was extra specially cold. Papa Sir had liked nothing better than a warm bath, a pipe and a hot cocoa all at the same time, while someone sang to him from outside the door. It's a wonder that Jilly turned out so nice, thought Alice.
'Teddy,' she said as she switched legs, 'why aren't we like other families? Not that I want to be,' she added hurriedly.
Teddy paused with his brush in the air.
'There are lots of ways we're different. Which way are you thinking?'
'Well ...how Mama doesn't really believe in things. You know, like going to church, and having a cook or a governess or anyone, and being on those committees that make things for the war – you know, like Jilly's mother does. And how she has a job.'
Mama was brilliant with numbers, and had been asked to work at a bank in Perth when the manager had left to go to war. They were all so proud of her that they didn't mind one bit that it meant extra chores. Besides, Little was magic at cooking, if someone helped her lift the pans. And even though he couldn't talk, they could always call on Uncle Bear, Papa Sir's brother who lived at the bottom of their garden with Pan, the handsomest, smiliest dog that Alice had ever met.
'Mama doesn't care what people think – she just wants everyone to do what they love,' said Teddy. 'Why do you think I paint and you dance? And Mabel sings like a blooming bird, and Little can cook like some kind of fairy chef? And Pudding, well, who knows what she'll do?'
'Love people,' said Alice smiling, thinking of their littlest sister, who was three and so blonde and plump and soft and sunny that she was always being squeezed but didn't mind a bit.
'If we were off to church or knitting socks every second, we wouldn't have time for any of that. Good grief – can you even imagine what a governess would make of Mabel?'
Alice laughed as she pictured it. Mabel absolutely could not be quiet. Mama said it was because she was eight, and that eight is a chatty age. But Alice could just imagine Mabel as an old lady, chattering away to a young man at a shop counter while people waited behind her, looking at their watches.
'As for Mama's job,' Teddy went on, 'well, she works because now she can. You mightn't remember, but before the war, women mostly stayed at home with their crochet and croquet.'
'Some still do,' said Alice, thinking of the ladies in their frilly white dresses who took tea on their verandahs every afternoon.
'Perhaps around here, where they're not short of money. But others are working in factories and shops – there are even some at the front, driving ambulances. And the really clever ones like Mama, they're showing that they can do a man's job just as well,' said Teddy, frowning at his canvas. 'Now, is that really what was on your mind?'
Alice looked out across the mauve water to the curved white sandbar that sliced into the bay. She took a deep breath. 'Jilly heard her mother say to someone ...that you might go and leave us. To fight, I mean.' She couldn't bear to look at Teddy, so she put her hands on the ground and flipped her legs over her head, pushing into a handstand with her body straight and strong, just as Miss Lillibet had taught her.
Teddy looked up. 'I think the real question here is whether you're going to leave us. They'd go wild for you in the circus, Tink.'
'Don't be funny,' said Alice crossly from upside down. 'I'm serious, Teddy. You'll be seventeen soon. Are you going to war?'
Book 2: Alice and the Apple Blossom Fair
On Napoleon Street
Walking down to the Village on a Saturday was one of Alice's favourite things to do, and this morning, as she trotted to keep up with Uncle Bear's big strides and Pan's loping dog legs, she was sparkling with happiness. Alice had a long list of errands, and there was nothing she loved more than a list. Uncle Bear had their washing in a bag to drop at the Chinese laundry, and then he was going to carry back a sack of sugar for Alice's sister, Little, to cook with.
'I've got all our boots for Mr Schenberg to repair,' said Alice, 'though perhaps we should call by Miss Roberts's Drapery first. But you don't have to go in there if you don't want to, Uncle Bear – it's a bit girly, isn't it. We haven't done this in ages! Thank you so much for coming with me.'
He smiled and squeezed Alice's shoulder. Uncle Bear didn't talk – at least, not in the way normal people did. He spoke with his hands and his wide kind face, and Alice and her family understood perfectly. Other people thought it made him strange, and Alice knew that when they got to the Village, everyone would stare. But dear, gentle Uncle Bear would just keep his head bowed, not even showing that he noticed. It hurt Alice's heart every time.
As they waited on the corner of the Perth-to-Fremantle Road, Alice thought how much she loved the sounds of the Village, so different from home, though it was only a short walk away. Home was the squabbling of Pudding's chickens, Honey's moo, the rustle of the river and the sound of Mabel singing. The Village was hooves clopping and people calling, the hoot of trains and the tinkle of the bell on Jimmy Poor Eye's blue-and-white cart with the special gadget that sharpened knives. It was the thrum of little motor cars and the trundling of the ice man's wagon. All together, it seemed everything exciting in the world was there in Napoleon Street, playing like a thrilling piece of music.
Alice felt for Uncle Bear's hand and squeezed it. 'I'm glad I'm not going to leave you all and be a ballerina. I never want to live anywhere but here.'
Uncle Bear raised his eyebrows, as if he didn't believe her. And as she looked up at him, Alice wondered if she really believed herself.
'Well, maybe it would have been nice . . . When I was bigger, perhaps.'
Up until a few weeks ago, Alice had danced every day and dreamed about ballet most nights. She'd had an audition with a famous dance instructor from London, and he'd written a letter to her ballet teacher, Miss Lillibet, saying that Alice was so good, one day she'd be a famous ballerina. He'd even invited her to go to London when the war was over.
But while she'd been off dancing, Little had almost drowned. And Miss Lillibet had been put in a prison camp, just because her grandfather was German and the Germans were the enemy in the war that was being fought in Europe. Miss Lillibet had never had a chance to read the letter, which was still hidden under Alice's mattress. And then Teddy, Alice's big brother, had signed up to fight and left for France. Next to those things, ballet didn't seem important. Though she thought of Miss Lillibet every day, Alice hadn't danced since.
As they crossed the road, Alice spotted the long red ponytail of Jilly, her best friend who lived next door. 'There's Jilly! I wonder if she got my note. And is that . . . Douglas?'
Douglas was Jilly's biggest brother, and the one Alice liked the least. He was sitting on a bench in his uniform smoking a cigarette. Jilly stood next to him, balancing paper bags from the grocer and smiling.
Even though Douglas had been away at the war since it started, Alice hadn't forgotten that he was quick and sly and mean. But just as Alice adored Teddy, Jilly thought Douglas was marvellous.
'Hi, Jilly. Hello, Douglas. Welcome home,' said Alice, trying to be polite.
Douglas squinted one eye and looked her up and down in a way that made Alice feel as if she were standing in only her petticoat. His hair seemed an angrier red than she remembered. 'Heard Teddy finally got the nerve to sign up,' he said. 'About time.'
Alice bristled. If I were a cat right now, she thought, my claws would be out.
'Douglas might be getting a medal,' Jilly said happily, not even noticing. 'For bravery. A bullet went straight through his leg. But the doctor came today and said it's healing nicely.'
Douglas sucked on his cigarette again, and looked at Alice. 'Damn fine doctor he was, too. Best we've had in these parts.'
He blew his mouthful of fumes straight into Alice's face, and she fanned them away angrily. When Alice's father, Papa Sir, had been the local doctor, everyone had loved him. But when the war started, he had joined the navy, and now Papa Sir was most probably gone: lost at sea, the cablegram had said.
'Well!' said Alice. 'I don't think that's –'
'What he means is that . . . that Dr Peters is very experienced with war injuries,' said Jilly, blushing.
'Do I?' said Douglas. 'Well, I hope he's around to put Teddy back together when the Krauts have finished with him. If he ever makes it home, that is.' As he turned away, he spotted Uncle Bear. Alice's heart sank.
'Mr Alexander, how are you?' Douglas asked with a horribly cold politeness.
Uncle Bear dropped his head and nodded, reaching out to stroke Pan's knobbly back.
Douglas leaned forward. 'I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that. I said, how are you?'
Pan stiffened, and growled a little, breaking the awful silence. Jilly looked like she might start to cry, and in spite of Alice's anger, she felt sorry for Jilly being caught in the middle. Jilly hated any kind of fighting.
'Rude, isn't it, to ignore someone who's been off defending your country? Cat got your tongue?' Douglas threw his cigarette butt onto the path and ground it with his good foot. 'Or are you just a sicko?'
For a second, Alice thought she was going to kick Douglas, right in the middle of his wound. But at the last second, she remembered how Jilly had slept over in the truckle bed the night that Teddy had left for the war and dried Alice's teary face with the hem of her nightgown.
'Let's go,' said Alice, picking up her basket and hooking her arm through Uncle Bear's. 'We've got so much to do.'
'Alice – come back!' Jilly called. 'I got your note. Didn't it say you had something to tell me?'
But Alice couldn't bring herself to turn around, not even to tell Jilly about her big decision. It would just have to wait.
Book 3: Alice of Peppermint Grove
A Long Hot Night
'Alice?' whispered Mabel. 'Are you awake? 'I can't sleep – it's too hot.'
'Mmm, me neither,' Alice said to her sister, as she dripped water over her forehead. She and Mabel had dragged cot beds onto the top verandah, but even out in the open, it wasn't much cooler. The sea breeze hadn't come that afternoon and it felt as if Peppermint Grove was baking.
'Alice?' whispered Mabel. 'It's so hot I think I might die.'
'Mmm,' said Alice. 'Possibly.'
'Alice?' whispered Mabel. 'I –'
'Well, what do you expect me to do about it?' Alice snapped, turning over to glare at Mabel. But Mabel looked strange – she almost seemed frightened. Alice couldn't remember the last time Mabel had been frightened of anything.
'Sorry,' Alice whispered, 'it's awful when it's like this, I know.' She held out her hand. Mabel took it, and they lay there for a minute.
'Alice? I did something silly,' Mabel began again after a pause. 'I need your help.'
Alice let go of Mabel's hand and sat up. 'What did you do? Of course I'll help.'
'I . . . Oh, I can't tell you. I'm too ashamed.' Mabel turned and buried her face in her pillow. 'It's bad.'
Alice was itching to know, but she just said calmly, 'Everyone makes mistakes. There's nothing that can't be put right. Count to ten, take a deep breath and just say it.'
In the pause that followed, she tried to imagine what Mabel was going to say. Well, she can't have killed anyone, Alice thought. Perhaps she's broken something – Grandmama's crystal glasses?
'I told a lie. A big lie. Lots of lies,' Mabel whispered.
'What do you mean? To who?'
'I've been writing letters to a soldier. Pretending I'm a lady.'
'Oh Mabel,' said Alice, exasperated. 'Why would you do that? Did he write back?'
Mabel turned over and nodded, sniffing. 'Lots of times. We've been writing for months.'
'Well, that was a silly thing to do. Really, Mabel, I know you probably thought it was funny, but lies always hurt someone. What did you tell him about yourself? Your imaginary self, I mean.'
'Oh...you know...things...That I only wore yellow, and that I had an identical twin and that I played the trombone. Things like that.'
Mabel nodded, wiping at her nose. 'Because I told him I have big lips. Oh – and that my name was Arabella. That I only have champagne for breakfast. And I might have said that I was very funny.'
Alice groaned. 'Did Violet put you up to this? No, don't even tell me how the whole thing came about. Look, I won't tell anyone, but you've got to write and tell him the truth.'
Mabel shook her head. 'You don't understand. James – that's the soldier – he's coming back and he wants to meet me. At the Indiana Tea House.'
Alice lay down again. The backs of her knees felt raw with being so sweaty, and somewhere near her ear, a mosquito whined.
'Alice?' whispered Mabel. 'Will you come with me to meet him? He sounds so nice that I can't leave him sitting there waiting. Can I stand on your shoulders and put a coat over you so I look like I'm twenty? Please, Alice?'
'What? That's ridiculous. Mabel, you're just so –' But then Alice reminded herself that with Teddy still away at war and Papa Sir gone forever, it was up to her to fix things, and being horrid about it wouldn't make life any easier. 'There's nothing else for it – we'll have to go and meet him, and apologise lots, and use your pocket money to buy him tea.'
'What – all of it?'
'All right, all right. But what if he gets violent? You know what some of those soldiers are like – they're deranged.'
'It's not their fault! You would be, too, if you'd had to hear bombs exploding all day and all night, and you couldn't sleep, and you'd been up to your ankles in mud.'
'Stop it!' Mabel said, her voice starting to go scratchy with tears.
Alice clicked her tongue. 'Oh, don't cry. If he's nice in his letters, I don't think he'll be violent. At least, not in a tea house.' She covered her eyes. 'When is this horrible meeting exactly?'
'The day after tomorrow.'
'The day after tomorrow?'
'At two. I said I'd wear yellow so he could recognise me.'
'But you don't own anything yellow!'
'I know. Could we make something, Alice? Perhaps we could boil up some dye and colour a sheet or something?'
'Please don't talk to me right now,' said Alice, turning her back to Mabel and kicking the covers off her bed. 'And as soon as we get home from the beach tomorrow, I'm boiling you in yellow dye.'
Book 4: Peacetime for Alice
Potatoes and Onions
'Mama,' whispered Alice as she held her mother's cool, dry hand and stroked her elegant fingers. 'I'll never forget you. Not ever.'
But Mama didn't answer. She lay on her bed, still and pale, as though she'd been chipped from marble and polished. Her breath rasped and creaked as it struggled out of her throat.
While Alice sat by the bedside, she looked out the window at the curls of moonlight dancing on the river and tried to remember the last thing she'd said to Mama before she'd been taken ill at the peacetime concert, back in the autumn. Was it something kind? Had Alice said that she loved her? She had tried so hard to remember, but she couldn't be sure.
This was the third time Alice had said goodbye since Mama had caught the Spanish flu. Twice before, her mother had lived through long, scary nights where foamy blood had poured from her nose and her ears, and her breath had rattled like a door in a storm. Instead of getting easier, each time it got harder to kiss her goodbye. Alice wasn't sure if she could do it again – if she could bear to hear Little ask once more if it hurt to die.
Dr Peters said it was remarkable that she had survived this long – that many people died within a week and some within a day. But Mama had hung on. 'She must have a lot to fight for,' he'd said kindly. 'And you must have kept everyone nice and healthy here, Alice, because it's a miracle none of the rest of you have gone down.'
Oh Mama, please don't leave me, Alice thought desperately. I'm frightened of being an orphan. And Pudding's too young to be without you.
But she tried to keep her face calm and her voice steady. 'Mabel,' she said to her sister, who was nestled into the crook of Mama's knees, 'could you fetch some more aspirin? And get Little to make some warm milk and cinnamon?'
Mabel uncurled and stretched and went trotting off downstairs. Then George knocked lightly on the door and came in to take Mama's pulse. Through the haze of her panic Alice thought for the hundredth time how brave her brothers and sisters were, and how strong.
'It's time to call Dr Peters,' said George gravely, after a little while. 'I'm sorry, Alice.'
Alice nodded and swallowed hard. 'Can you bring Pudding in on your way back?'
And then it was just Alice and Mama and the moonlight, and the sound of the wind through the peppermint trees, and the thrumming of Alice's heartbeat in her ears. 'I'll talk to you all the time when you're in heaven,' Alice said shakily. 'I'll tell you how everyone's going.' But did Mama believe in heaven? Alice had never asked. There would be so many things that she wouldn't be able to find out from Mama now, and the thought of all those questions with no answers made a tear slip down Alice's cheek. The wind picked up and whistled a little, and she started to shiver. It was almost winter now.
The door opened again and suddenly everyone was there: Teddy with a tumbler of whisky, Little with the milk, George with the bottle of aspirin, Mabel with something on a plate – in the dim light Alice couldn't quite see what – and Pudding with a potato to slip under Mama's pillow, which Mrs McNair had told them was the only cure for Spanish flu.
'It's killed more people around the world than the Great War now, this sickness,' she'd told them. 'Try putting salt up your mother's nostrils tonight,' she'd added solemnly, and frowned when Mabel had giggled.
But though people had new ideas every week, there didn't seem to be a cure for Spanish flu, and it had swept around the world, as strong and unstoppable as the flames that hurled through the bush in the summer.
'What's that you've got, Mabel?' Alice asked as Pudding slid the potato under the pillow and tucked herself in alongside Mama's cheek.
Mabel climbed up on the other side of the bed, carefully balancing the plate so she wouldn't spill what was on it. 'It's onions – raw ones. Come now, Mama,' she said loudly. 'Just chew this – just a little. I've heard it's very good for you.'
Alice winced as Mabel forced her fingers into Mama's mouth. 'Don't,' she said. 'She might –'
'Ow!' Mabel jerked back her hand and glared at Mama. 'I'm only trying to help you,' she said angrily.
Mama sucked in an extra loud breath, followed by a string of short, sharp ones.
'There, there,' said Pudding, patting Mama's forehead with her plump fingers, just as Mama had done when Pudding got the chicken pox. Alice felt as if she'd been kicked in the stomach by Tatty, their goat.
'Shall I put you to bed?' said Teddy to Mabel, taking the plate of onions.
His voice had none of the warmth and tenderness that it'd had before he'd gone to war, back when he'd called Alice 'Tink' and dashed about on his bicycle and spent every spare minute painting. Remembering those times made Alice want to cry out for all that she'd lost. Since then, Papa Sir, their father, had died at sea, and the war had stolen the old Teddy and replaced him with someone who was prickly and sad. Even Mama's illness hadn't brought him back from the cold, lonely place where his mind seemed to be. And now they were losing Mama, too – stylish, clever, beautiful Mama.
'It's not fair,' said Alice, mostly to herself.
'Life's not fair, I'm afraid,' said George. 'Yes, I've written many a poem about the world's injustice. Would you like me to fetch –'
'I want to stay,' said Mabel, wriggling out of Teddy's grasp. 'Let's not take it in turns tonight, and just be here together – can't we, Alice? Let's not any of us leave Mama, and then she might decide not to leave us.'
Alice wasn't sure that sickness really worked like that, but it didn't matter now. 'Why not? At least until Dr Peters comes,' she said.
'Well, about that,' said George. 'Unfortunately, he's not coming after all. Someone's having a baby, and then there are three new flu victims for him to see afterwards. His wife says he's awfully sorry, but that probably all we can do now is wait. We're on our own.'
Perhaps Mama heard him then; perhaps she didn't like the idea at all, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But when they all fell glumly silent, she groaned a little. And then, with no warning, she sat bolt upright, as if a catapult had thrown her forward. She gave a great cough, and a rivulet of blood dribbled out of her mouth, the deep red of raspberry jam.
Then something incredible happened. Mama opened her eyes and said, 'Tiens!'
And she smiled.
Book 1: Meet Lina
Lina woke to the sound of the old rooster crowing in the backyard. It can't be morning already! she thought, peering out through the curtains at the velvety grey sky. In the distance she could hear the rumble of the delivery trucks on Lygon Street and the clip-clopping of the milkman with his horse and cart.
Time for chores, I guess. Sighing, she quickly slipped a jumper over her nightdress and, standing barefoot on the freezing linoleum floor, teeth chattering, hunted for a pair of warm socks in the chest of drawers she shared with her grandmother.
At the back door, Lina pulled on a pair of her father's work boots and the padded jacket that had once belonged to her brother. Her older brothers were already outside doing their chores in the long narrow garden of their terrace house in Carlton. In the pale morning light she could just make out the hunched-over shape of her eldest brother, Pierino, turning over the frosted earth around the broad beans and broccoli.
Lina fed the chickens then marched back to the house, stomping her feet against the cold. She prised off her muddy boots and went inside. The stove was on and the kitchen was warm and Lina could smell the oily metallic smell of her father's work clothes. Dad must be home, she thought. Sure enough, her father stood at the sink, scrub-scrub-scrubbing at the grease compacted under his nails. No amount of soap could ever completely bring back the smell he'd had before he began working at the car plant – of olives and sunshine and coffee.
'Hey, cara mia,' Lina's father said wearily. 'How you doing this morning?'
'Good thanks, Papa,' Lina said, leaning in to receive a kiss.
'Mama's already left?'
Lina nodded. 'And Nonna's in the garden.'
'You make me a coffee, love?'
'Sure,' said Lina. 'Aren't you going to bed?'
Lina's father gave her a slow cheeky smile. 'You think I forget? Today is your assembly performance, no?' His eyes crinkled at the corners.
'Oh,' said Lina, her cheeks stinging pink. 'That. I didn't mean you had to come and watch, Papa. It's not important. Kids read stuff out in assembly all the time.'
Her father's face dropped into a frown. 'You sounded like it was important the other day.'
Lina's cheeks burned hotter. She wished she hadn't mentioned it at dinner last week. 'I know, but you're tired, Papa. You've worked all night . . .' Lina's voice petered out. How could she tell him she really didn't want him to come? With his grease-stained hands and his shabby suit jacket and thick Italian accent. What if the girls at school made fun of him?
It's not that I don't love him, Lina told herself. Lina loved her father so much that sometimes she felt her heart might burst. I just don't want to stand out any more than I have to – than I already do, she thought desperately.
Lina hung her head and a lie crept out over her lips. 'Actually, it's been cancelled. I just remembered. They only told us yesterday. They said they weren't doing performances in assembly anymore.' Her voice came out ashamed and small.
Lina's father stood quietly for a while, his hands still foamy in the sink. 'All right, love, 'he said slowly. 'Another time. Go wake your little brother and I'll be off to bed, then.'
Lina slunk down the corridor, relieved to escape her father's eyes, but with a cold dark lump of badness lodged in her gut. She slipped into the stuffy dimness of her brothers' bedroom and jerked back the curtains.
'Get up,' Lina told the pile of blankets.
Lina's little brother, Enzo, peeked his sleepy face out of the muddle. He stuck out his arms towards Lina. 'Cuddle?' he said in a baby voice, but Lina wasn't in the mood. She pulled his clothes off the chair and tossed them onto the bed.
'Up, Enzo!' she repeated.
Enzo sat up obediently, blinking. Lina huffed and yanked his pyjama top over his head.
'Ouch!' Enzo squeaked and scrunched up his forehead. He rubbed his eyes with his fists. Despite her grumpy mood, Lina couldn't hold herself back from giving him a cuddle.
He was so warm and soft in the mornings, with his skinny white arms sticking out of his singlet like sticks of spaghetti. Enzo squeezed Lina tight and she buried her face in his downy neck, and as she did, she felt that black lump in her stomach soften and melt away.
'Thanks, Enzo,' she whispered in his ear. Then she tickled him until he squealed. 'Come on! Nonna will spank you if you're late for breakfast.'
Lina helped Enzo put on his clothes then chased him down the corridor.
When they entered the kitchen, Nonna was already busy, kneading the dough for the evening's zeppoli, up to her elbows in flour.
At the other end of the wooden table, there were three neat bundles tied up in Papa's big cotton handkerchiefs. Lina took a peek at her lunch for the day. Inside was a hunk of crusty white bread, a wedge of Parmesan cheese and a hard-boiled egg. 'Nonna! I told you I can't take Parmesan to school anymore, 'Lina complained. 'The girls don't like it. They say it smells like vomit.'
'Rubbish,' said Nonna, kneading furiously. 'They don't even know what is cheese. They eat that yellow plastic stuff they call cheese. That's not cheese. You eat what I give you, all right? Here,' she said, wiping her floury hands on her apron. 'Take your zio his coffee and tell him to get up. He's not going to find a job in bed!' Nonna handed Lina a tiny white cup of steaming black liquid.
Never mind, thought Lina. I'll just throw out the cheese on my way to school and tell Miss Spring I forgot my lunch again. Getting in trouble is still better than that horrible Sarah Buttersworth telling everyone I vomited in my school bag. Lina breathed in the coffee fumes and wrapped her cold hands around the cup. How can coffee smell so good when it tastes so awful? she wondered. And Parmesan smell so awful when it tastes so good?
Lina walked down the hallway and knocked on the door of the room where her uncle slept. Before he had arrived from Italy, three months ago, this had been the sitting room. Now the only place to sit was in the kitchen or at the long wooden table outside, under the grapevines. In winter it was too cold to sit out there and the vines were spindly and bare, but in summer they became a dappled green shelter, dripping with plump ruby and emerald fruit, like clumps of sweet jewels.
Lina knocked again and when there was no reply, she pushed the door open a crack. 'Zio!' she called quietly into the dark. 'Your coffee.'
Lina could just make out the shadowy bulk of her uncle asleep on the couch under a mound of flowery bedclothes. 'Zio,' she called again, a little louder, but not so loud that she might wake her father, who had just got into bed. Her uncle's only response was a snuffle and a snort, then one arm snaked out from under the blankets and waved towards the dresser. Lina frowned and plonked the little cup onto the furniture by the door. 'Drink it cold then,' she hissed under her breath.
Lina closed the door and hurried back into the warm kitchen, where Enzo was dipping bread into a bowl of hot milk. Lina helped herself to a chunk of old bread and dropped it into a bowl. Then she took the saucepan of milk from the stove and poured it over the bread to soften it.
Pierino stomped into the kitchen, school bag slung over his shoulder, shirt ironed into sharp creases. 'Aren't you even dressed yet?' he growled at Lina. 'It's nearly seven o'clock. You'll miss your bus!' He picked up the lunch Nonna had prepared for him and allowed her to kiss him on both cheeks.
Lina frowned and shoved the last bit of wet bread into her mouth. 'I'm nearly ready,' she grumbled. 'You don't have to nag me. You're not the boss, you know!' She wiped her hands on her nightdress and carried her bowl to the sink.
'Well, if you were ready quicker I wouldn't have to keep nagging you, 'Pierino insisted.
'I've been catching the bus to school all year and haven't been late once. Or missed a single day,' said Lina.
'It's true, 'Nonna piped up, taking Lina's side. 'Not like this one.' She gestured towards Bruno who had just sauntered through the doorway. 'Look at you!' she moaned. 'I iron your shirt yesterday and already it's full of creases. Why can't you stay clean like your brother, huh?' She shook her head despairingly.
Bruno grinned and pinched Lina's arm as she pushed past.
'Ow!' she yelled, but more to get him into trouble than out of pain.
'Bruno!' Nonna scolded, right on cue.
Lina giggled as she dashed down the hallway and pulled her school uniform out of Nonna's wardrobe. Unlike Bruno, who hated the stiff shirt and heavy shoes of his uniform, Lina loved her navy pleated skirt and crisp white shirt, and wore them with pride. She dressed quickly and pulled her dark hair back into a high ponytail, tied with a navy ribbon. I hope I won't be too nervous in assembly this morning, she thought as she took a quick peek in the brown-speckled mirror on Nonna's dresser. She grabbed her hat and gloves from the hook on the back of the door, slung her leather satchel over her shoulder and ran to kiss Enzo and Nonna goodbye.
Book 2: Lina's Many Lives
Lina dashed across the school courtyard through the grey pouring rain. At the entrance to the library, she shook off her wet coat and hat and hung them on a hook by the door to dry.
‘Good morning, Miss Gattuso,’ Sister Rosemary said as Lina entered. ‘Lovely weather for ducks, isn’t it?’
Lina sighed. ‘It would be all right if I was driven to school like all the other girls instead of having to wait at the bus stop in the rain.’
‘They have these marvellous new inventions now called umbrellas,’ Sister Rosemary joked. ‘Go on then, dry yourself by the fire.’
Lina grinned and stood as close to the fire as she could without scorching herself. She watched the steam rise from her drenched woollen stockings as they slowly began to dry.
‘How are you going with that book I lent you?’ Sister Rosemary called from behind the front desk.
‘I brought it in to read this morning,’ Lina said, feeling guilty that she hadn’t even started it. So much had happened over the last few weeks that Lina hadn’t even had the time to write anything in her own diary, let alone read someone else’s!
When her teeth had stopped chattering and she felt a little warmer, Lina dragged her favourite armchair close to the fire and pulled out the book from her school satchel: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Fortunately it was still dry. It was all very well for Lina to arrive sopping wet but Sister Rosemary would never forgive her if one of her precious books were damaged. Lina flicked through the pages.
Hmph! Why would Sister Rosemary want me to read about a girl who died in the war? she wondered. She heard enough stories about the war from Nonna. It wasn’t the happiest of topics.
But then she came across a paragraph that could have come from her very own notebook.
‘I finally realised that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want! I know I can write . . . but it remains to be seen whether I really have talent ...
‘And if I don’t have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself. But I want to achieve more than that. I can’t imagine living like Mother, Mrs. van Daan and all the women who go about their work and are then forgotten.
‘When I write I can shake off all my cares.
My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?’
She sounds just like me! Lina thought in surprise. She turned the book over and stared at the photograph of Anne Frank on the cover. And she was only my age when she wrote this. Perhaps this book is going to be more interesting than I first thought!
That day, during their lunch break, Lina, her best friend Mary and her worst enemy Sarah walked around the school and looked for girls to interview. They began with girls they knew, and then, as they got braver, they stopped girls from the older years to ask them questions.
‘We’re putting together a school magazine,’ Lina would begin, ‘and we’re interviewing students about some current affairs.’
‘Yes,’ Mary chimed in. ‘First of all, we were wondering, who do you think has better fashion sense: Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop?’
‘Oh, definitely Audrey,’ one would say.
‘No, Marilyn,’ another would interrupt, and they’d argue whether a pencil skirt was better than a circle skirt, and whether girls looked better in flats or heels.
Then it was Lina’s turn. ‘What are you most looking forward to about the Olympics?’ she asked. ‘Do you think Dawn Fraser might win gold?’
This question never got the girls as excited as Mary’s did, but then when Sarah ended with ‘What would you like to do when you finish school?’ the interviewees could hardly stop talking:
‘I’m going to go to Hollywood to be a movie star.’
‘I’m going to marry a rich man and live in a big house and have five children.’
‘I’m going to be a nurse.’
‘I’m going to be a kindergarten teacher.’
‘I’m going to marry Bobby Farrelly. That’s if I can get him away from that Amy Withers! She’s definitely not good enough for him.’
Lina quickly realised that people loved to talk about themselves.
By the end of the week, the three girls had a notebook full of interviews with students from Year Seven to Year Twelve. They met in the library to go through their notes and discuss the best way to include them in the magazine.
Gosh, I haven’t argued with Sarah all week, Lina thought happily, as they sat poring over the interviews. Perhaps doing the magazine with her isn’t going to be too bad after all?
‘Hey, we’ve left out three important people,’ Sarah said, looking up from her notebook.
‘Who?’ Mary asked.
‘Us, of course!’ Sarah grinned. ‘I think we should answer these questions, too, don’t you?’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ Mary said. ‘Circle skirts and flats are definitely prettier than pencil skirts and heels.’
‘But what about your hopes and dreams?’ Sarah insisted. ‘What do you want to do when you finish school?’
‘Oh, work in fashion,’ Mary said, nodding. ‘A fashion designer, or an editor for a fashion magazine. Something like that.’
‘Or what about television?’ Sarah asked. ‘You could do something on television, Mary. You’re pretty enough. Mum says television is going to be even more popular than magazines one day!’
‘As if that’s ever going to happen,’ said Lina. ‘Who could ever afford to have their own television anyway? I saw one advertised in the newspaper recently and they cost hundreds of dollars!’
‘No, it’s true, Lina,’ Mary objected. ‘Dad says television is amazing. When he was over in America last year, he said lots of people had them. They’re very popular.’
‘Apparently, they’re even going to show the Olympic Games on the television. Can you imagine?’ Sarah continued.
‘Really?’ said Lina. ‘But that’s only a few weeks away! Who would possibly have a television by then?’
Mary grinned. She pulled the girls in tightly and whispered, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I think my dad is going to get one. He wants to be the first person in our street.’
Sarah squealed. ‘What? Really? Oh, you are so lucky! I am so jealous! I’ll have to tell my dad to get one, too!’
‘A little noisy down there, ladies,’ Sister Rosemary called out disapprovingly from behind her desk.
Mary and Sarah stifled their giggles. Lina pretended she was laughing, but really she was just trying hard to calm the awful ache of jealousy that curdled her stomach every time Mary and Sarah shared something that she knew she could never be a part of.
Eventually Sarah turned to Lina. ‘So, what about you?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean?’ Lina said, worried Sarah was going to ask if her father would buy her a television.
‘Your hopes and dreams? You know, what do you want to be when you grow up?’
Lina’s stomach clenched even tighter and her breath became shallow. Her heart began to beat about in her chest. She wanted to be a writer, of course! There wasn’t anything in the world she wanted more. But this was secret. She hadn’t shared it with anyone. It was too precious and meant too much to risk telling someone who – only the week before – had been her very worst enemy. She shrugged. ‘I don’t know, ’she said quietly. ‘Maybe a teacher?’
Sarah nodded, uninterested. ‘Well, I’m going to be a writer,’ she said confidently. ‘Maybe a novelist. Or a journalist for the newspaper. My dad knows quite a lot of journalists and he says I can get some work experience with them any time I want. That’s probably why the Mother Superior wanted me on this magazine. She knows I’m the best writer in the class. Miss Spring told me so.’
Lina’s head began to spin. But that’s my dream, she thought angrily. Not Sarah’s! And before she could stop herself she blurted out, much more forcefully than she had meant, ‘But that’s not true! I’m the one who was chosen to read out a story in assembly. Not you! I’m the best writer in the class.’
Sarah’s face shifted into the mean smile that Lina hadn’t seen in a while; the smile that Lina hated more than she could have thought possible. ‘Well, yes, but that’s only because they want to encourage you, Lina,’ she sneered. ‘Actually, Miss Spring told me you’re quite good for someone whose family doesn’t even speak English at home. ’Then she shrugged and sniffed and looked down at her nails. ‘I suppose that does deserve some credit.’
Lina’s mouth dropped open. She stood up shakily, her head fizzing and her eyes clouding with tears. ‘I hate you Sarah, ’she hissed. ‘You are horrible and mean and . . . and . . . stupid, too!’ It was a pathetic reply but Lina was too hurt to come up with something more dignified. She pushed her chair away from the table and stumbled out of the library.
Book 3: Lina at the Games
Lina dabbed gently at her brother's split lip with a wet cloth. With her other hand she pressed a folded handkerchief over the cut at his hairline. It took all of her strength not to burst into tears each time she looked at her brother's bleeding face.
'Bruno, we have to tell somebody,' she whimpered.
'No!' her brother said. 'I fell down the stairs after school, okay? You start blabbing about the Carlton Park Gang and they won't just be after me, you understand?'
An image of the sneering pimple-faced gang leader she had bumped into in the alleyways of Carlton came into Lina's mind and she shivered at the thought. Bruno and Lina were hiding in the laundry out the back, having crept through the house before Nonna could catch them. Lina had filled the trough with a little cold water to wash the blood off Bruno's face and now the shallow pool had turned a sickly pink. When her brother winced or caught his breath in pain, Lina felt a rush of dizziness.
'You might need stitches, Bruno,' she insisted, screwing up her face. 'I don't even know if I'm doing this right!'
'There are bandages in the bathroom. They'll be good enough. You're doing fine.' He patted his sister's cheek and tried to offer her a smile, but when he stretched his lips the blood began oozing again.
Lina threw her arms around her brother. 'Oh, Bruno!' she sobbed. 'Why would anyone do something like this to you?'
'Because there are stupid people in the world, that's why,' Bruno said, stroking her hair, 'and they're scared of things they don't know.'
'But they couldn't have done this to you just because you're Italian?' Lina said, brushing the tears from her eyes.
'How do you think wars are started?' Bruno said. 'People get killed just coz of the colour of their skin. Or their religion. Papa talks to us about this kind of stuff all the time.'
'Yes, but he said that was in Italy,' Lina insisted. 'That's why we left, wasn't it? Wasn't Australia supposed to be a peaceful place?'
'It mainly is,' her brother said, dabbing at his lip. 'But there are crazies everywhere, Lina. You can't escape human nature.'
'But what can we do?' Lina said. 'Those bullies can't just beat you up and get away with it! Shouldn't we at least tell Pierino?'
'No!' Bruno said angrily. 'You especially don't talk about it with Pierino. He's in enough trouble as it is.' He murmured these last few words but Lina's ears pricked.
'What kind of trouble, Bruno?' she said, now more alarmed than ever. 'Who with? Pa? At school?' She gasped. 'Not the Carlton Park Gang?'
'No, no! Just forget I ever said anything,' Bruno growled. 'Forget all of this, Lina. Just keep your head down and stay out of trouble, okay? Promise?' He gripped Lina's hand and wouldn't let her go until she promised.
Lina swallowed. 'I promise,' she said. But as she helped her brother tidy up the laundry she boiled with anger and frustration. Why would anyone do something like this to Bruno? she thought. What's he ever done to hurt anyone? And now Pierino's in trouble, too? Pierino has never done a bad thing in all his life! What's going on?
Book 4: A Lesson for Lina
Lina sat in the shade of the jacaranda tree, surrounded by a sea of purple flowers. In the distance she heard the bell for assembly. Her heart felt so heavy it was as if her whole body was sinking slowly into the gravel beneath her feet. I can't go to assembly this morning, she thought. I can't bring myself to sit with all those girls and sing hymns, pretending that nothing is wrong when I feel so broken inside.
Fortunately Lina knew of a place, a sanctuary, where she could hide out for an hour or so, just until she felt a little better.
Once all the girls in their crisp summer gingham and long white socks had finally disappeared into the assembly hall, Lina scooted across the courtyard, like a mouse, towards the welcoming burrow that was the library.
'Aren't you supposed to be in assembly?' Sister Rosemary said, raising an eyebrow at Lina as she came through the heavy wooden door.
Lina winced. She thought about inventing a story, but before she could come up with something convincing, the truth gushed out of her. 'I just can't face those girls this morning,' she said, hanging her head and gulping back her tears.
Sister Rosemary took one look at Lina's sorrowful face and nodded. 'I'd better put the kettle on,' she said. 'But if anyone asks, we're having a meeting about the school magazine, all right?
'Thank you,' Lina said gratefully, sinking into her favourite armchair.
The library fireplace was unlit, swept clean now that it was summer and the school year nearly over. Instead of a roaring fire, Sister Rosemary had placed a large ceramic vase exploding with branches of pink cherry blossom, and their sweet fragrance mingled with the musty papery smell of books and the polished leather of the armchairs. Lina couldn't imagine a more welcoming place to hide out and lick her wounds.
'All right,' said Sister Rosemary. She passed Lina a steaming mug of sweet milky tea and pulled up another armchair. 'I am listening.'
Lina didn't know where to begin. Should she start with the sadness she felt about her broken friendship with Mary? Or the shock and disbelief she felt overhearing Sarah betray her so ruthlessly? Or perhaps the loneliness she felt when she thought about another five years at St Brigid's without a true friend? All of these thoughts jumbled up in Lina's mind, competing for attention, but all that came out were the words: 'I just feel so alone.'
It sounded too small and simple for all the weight Lina was carrying in her heart, but Sister Rosemary didn't laugh, or even tell her not to be silly. She just nodded her head and said with feeling, 'That must be hard.'
Sister Rosemary's words were so powerful and yet so full of understanding that Lina realised this was all that she had needed to hear.
Yes, it was hard. Very hard sometimes. And to hear someone say it was like a gift of water in a sandy desert. It was enough just to sit there in silence across from Sister Rosemary, sipping at her tea, to feel her mind clear and her heart unclench.
When the bell went to mark the end of assembly and the beginning of the first class for the day, Lina stood up and handed Sister Rosemary her empty mug. 'Thank you,' she said calmly. 'I feel much better now.' And she walked out of the library, ready to face the day.
First class was French. Lina hesitated in the doorway when she saw that there was an empty seat next to Sarah. Over the last few weeks they had occasionally sat together in class as the time they spent in the library had spilled over into the rest of the day. They had almost become friends – or so Lina had thought. Sarah looked up as Lina shuffled between the rows of desks towards her but then, at the last moment, Lina saw a spare seat beside Julia Goldbloom, and plonked herself down there instead. Sarah seemed surprised but quickly looked ahead as Madame rapped on the blackboard with her long wooden ruler to get their attention. 'Bonjour, mes élèves!' she said shrilly.
'Bonjour,' Lina whispered to Julia, who smiled welcomingly.
For Lina, who spoke fluent Italian, French was ridiculously easy as the two languages were so similar. She was happy to see that Julia seemed to find it easy too, and when Madame put the girls into pairs for a surprise quiz, Lina and Julia blitzed the class.
'You're not bad,' Julia grinned, as they packed up their books at the end of the lesson.
'You too,' said Lina, returning her smile. She had a sudden thought. She wondered if it was okay to ask. 'Do you speak another language at home?'
Julia rolled her eyes. 'Three, actually. My father is Polish but my grandmother is Russian. She speaks French, too. According to her, all educated people do. So, I speak Polish to my dad, Russian to my grandmother and we all speak French around the dinner table. It's a bit tedious actually. Oh, and I go to Hebrew school on the weekends.'
Lina felt her mouth fall open. Three – no, four languages! she thought, amazed. And I thought I was juggling a lot with two! She snapped her mouth shut and followed Julia out of the classroom.
'So, what have you got next?' Julia said, as they joined the throng of girls spilling out into the busy hallway.
'Maths,' said Lina, grimacing. 'My worst.'
'Oh, me too,' said Julia. 'You doing hyperboles?'
Lina shook her head. 'Algebra.'
Julia shrugged. 'I don't mind algebra. At least it's got letters in it.'
Lina laughed. 'I guess so.' Then, just as Julia was about to turn away and head off to class, Lina took a deep breath. 'Where do you sit for lunch?'
'Behind the Science labs. With Amy and Bettina. And other girls sometimes.' Julia looked deep into Lina's face, as if looking for the answer to a question she didn't quite have the courage to ask. 'Want to join us?'
Lina felt her heart soar. 'Thanks! I'd love to,' she said, holding her voice steady.
Julia smiled and nodded a farewell over the top of her books. Lina clutched hers tightly and wove her way along the corridor towards her Maths class.
I can choose my own friends! she told herself proudly. I don't need to wait till girls choose me.
And even though this seemed like the simplest, most obvious thought in the world, Lina realised it was also incredibly powerful. Perhaps school life wasn't going to be so bad after all?
Book 1: Meet Ruby
Ruby felt trapped. The pale green walls of the classroom seemed to be closing in on her, and the warm, stuffy air was making her feel quite sleepy. If only she could run away! She glanced sideways at Brenda Walker, in the desk across the aisle. Brenda was sitting up very straight and looking interested. How could she? There wasn't a single thing about maths that was interesting. And the very worst thing about it was Miss Fraser's droning voice.
Ruby tried to imagine what it would be like to be Miss Fraser. Everything about her was grey. Her grey hair was pulled back in a tight little bun, and she wore a grey skirt and a long grey cardigan and horrid thick grey stockings.
Marjorie Mack said that Miss Fraser had once had a sweetheart: he was a soldier, and he'd died in the last year of the Great War. But Ruby didn't believe that anybody could ever have loved Miss Fraser.
'Open your books, girls. We have time for some quick mental arithmetic before the bell goes. Page twenty, problem one.'
Ruby groaned and turned to page twenty. Sixteen currant buns at a penny-ha'penny each . . . Picking up her pencil, she began to draw a plate of buns in the margin of the page.
'Perhaps you can give us the answer, Ruby Quinlan? Yes, Ruby, I'm speaking to you. Stand up, please. What is the answer to problem one?'
Ruby stood up. Oh my hat, she thought. I should've known she'd ask me.
'I don't know, Miss Fraser,' she said at last.
'Well, work it out. Sixteen times one-and-a-half pennies.'
Ruby stared at the ceiling. The answer didn't appear there. She stared at the floor. Not there either. She stared at Brenda Walker. Brenda was scribbling something on a piece of paper, partly covering it with her hand.
Ruby tried to read what Brenda had written. 'Um, one pound and four shillings?'
Miss Fraser's lips set in a thin line. 'Good heavens, child, use your head. Would you pay one pound and four shillings for sixteen currant buns? I hope you don't do the shopping for your family.'
'Of course I don't, Miss Fraser. Our cook does it.'
Miss Fraser sighed.' Sit down, Ruby. Brenda, perhaps you can help us.'
Brenda stood up, smoothing down her school uniform. 'Two shillings, Miss Fraser.'
'Thank you, Brenda,' Miss Fraser said, with an approving smile. 'Now for something a little more difficult. Hilary Mitchell? Your answer to the next question, please. If it takes three men five days to dig a ditch ...'
Ruby saw the startled look on Hilary's face. As usual, Hilary had been gazing dreamily out of the window. I'll bet she was thinking about her new little sister, Ruby thought. Baby Cecily was just three weeks old, and Hilary had promised that Ruby could meet her soon.
Sometimes Ruby wondered what it would be like to have a sister or a brother, but most of the time she enjoyed being an only child. It meant she had Dad and Mother all to herself. Tomorrow was her birthday, and she knew they would have chosen something special for her present. Last year they'd given her a shiny blue bicycle with a wicker basket.
At last the bell in the quadrangle rang for the end of the day's lessons. Ruby jumped up and grabbed for her homework books, knocking her wooden pencil-case to the floor with a crash. As she bent forward to pick it up, the end of her plait dipped into her inkwell.
'Gently, Ruby, gently!' called Miss Fraser. 'There is no fire, and our building is not about to collapse. This is a college for ladies. Let us have a little decorum, please.'
'Sorry, Miss Fraser.' Ruby stood still for the tiniest moment, tiptoed to the door, and ran.
Ruby both loved and hated school. She couldn't see the sense of schoolwork. When she was about twenty she'd probably get married and go shopping and wear nice clothes, like her mother did. Why did she need to know about isosceles triangles, or the primary products of Brazil? Things like that bored her silly. But as for the school itself – the old stone buildings, the cosy library tucked away at the back of the boarding house, the Moreton Bay fig trees lining the long driveway – she loved it all, and she loved the fun she had with her friends.
Now, as she set off down the shady drive, past the smooth green expanse of the school oval, she felt free and happy. It was Friday afternoon, and her birthday party was tomorrow! Then she heard running feet behind her, and turned to see Brenda Walker.
Brenda caught up with her, panting. Her owlish spectacles glinted. 'Can I walk with you?'
'If you want to.'
'You've got ink on your shirt.'
Ruby didn't exactly dislike Brenda, but she didn't like her very much either. She'd known her for most of her life because their fathers were in business together. Ruby's father built houses, and Brenda's father was his accountant. 'Donald Walker is a genius with money,' Dad had once told Ruby. 'I couldn't possibly run the business without him.'
Ruby knew that her father was hopeless with numbers, just as she was, and he was happy to leave the money side of things to Uncle Donald. Dad was only interested in houses. Ten years ago he'd built their house – a big California bungalow not far from Ruby's school. It had a fishpond with a fountain in the front garden, and coloured leadlight in the windows, and an indoor lavatory. It was Ruby's most favourite place in all the world.
Brenda walked faster to keep up with Ruby. 'You're not wearing your hat, 'she said. 'Or your gloves. You'll get into trouble if anyone sees.'
'Who cares?' said Ruby. 'My hat makes my head feel hot. And I've lost one of my gloves. I think Baxter might've eaten it.'
'Baxter is so naughty.' Brenda ran a few steps. 'I wish I had a fox terrier too, or maybe a cocker spaniel. But Mama thinks dogs are too expensive to keep, with all the meat they eat.'
'Baxter doesn't eat meat. He just eats my clothes. And my books. And my shoes.'
'Really?' Brenda pushed back her spectacles, which were beginning to slide down her nose.
'I'm only joking.'
'Oh.' Brenda looked relieved. 'What are you wearing to your fancy-dress party tomorrow?' she asked, after a pause.
'It's a secret, 'Ruby said. 'You'll have to wait and see.'
'I'm going as a rose. I really wanted to be a mermaid, though. I saw some green spangly material at Myer's that would've made a good tail, but Mama thought it was too expensive.'
I'd never choose to be a mermaid, thought Ruby. If you had a fish tail you couldn't use your legs, could you? You'd just have to sit around. Even now she felt impatient to move faster. She wanted to skip and jump and run.
'Brenda, I have to go,' she said. 'I've got heaps to do. See you at my place at two o'clock tomorrow!' She made a dash for the gate, only to be stopped by a school prefect.
'Where is your hat, Ruby Quinlan? And why aren't you wearing gloves? You know you are not to leave the school grounds improperly clothed.'
Ruby pulled her battered straw hat from her satchel. 'Here's my hat. I don't know where my gloves are.'
'Final warning, Ruby Q. If I catch you without gloves again, you'll be explaining yourself to Miss Macdonald.'
The thought of explaining herself to her tall, elegant headmistress didn't appeal to Ruby one bit. 'Sorry. I'll look for them, I promise.' She scowled as Brenda, neatly hatted and gloved, walked past her with a smirk.
'Told you,' Brenda said.
'Oh, Brenda,' Ruby burst out. 'Don't you ever get sick of being right all the time?'
Book 2: Ruby and the Country Cousins
Ruby Quinlan stood in the garden and looked back at her house. Ever since she could remember, she had curled up in its window seats and snuggled down in front of its fireplaces and played hopscotch on its wide tiled verandah. When she was very little she’d tried to catch the sunbeams streaming through the coloured glass around the front door, because Dad had told her they were fairies.
The house was a part of her life, a part of her. And now it belonged to the Walkers. Dad’s building business had failed and he’d had to sell the house to raise money. Ruby knew it wasn’t Dad’s fault. Mother had explained to her that Australia was in the grip of something called The Depression. People everywhere were struggling because there wasn’t enough money to go around.
Ruby hated what had happened to her family. By tomorrow her home would be Brenda Walker’s home, and she and Mother would be living way out in the country with their relatives, the Camerons.
Although Aunt Vera was her mother’s older sister, Ruby didn’t really know the Camerons. The last time she’d visited their farm she was six years old, and the only thing she remembered about it was being pecked by a rooster. She and her cousin May were the same age, so they should have been good friends, but they weren’t. May was actually rather odd. All Ruby’s friends had thought so when they met her at Ruby’s twelfth birthday party last year.
As Marjorie Mack had said later, she’d stuck out like a cabbage in a rose garden.
Right now Ruby didn’t want to think about May Cameron. Her plan was to take some special ‘last day’ photographs of her home. She might even get them framed. Dad had framed some of his best work.
Standing near the front gate, she adjusted her camera until she had the perfect image. In the camera’s viewfinder the house was no bigger than a postage stamp. If only she could shrink the real house to this size and keep it forever, like a precious jewel! If only –
Ruby nearly dropped her camera. Oh my hat, she thought, turning around. It’s Brenda Walker. I wish she wouldn’t sneak up on me like that.
‘Shouldn’t you be at school, Brenda?’ she asked.
‘Miss Fraser sent me home early because I was feeling sick. The nurse said I might have a
touch of colic.’
‘And do you?’
‘I don’t know.’ Sunlight flashed on Brenda’s round spectacles.‘Actually, I came by specially to say goodbye. Are you very excited?’
‘Why not? You’re going to live in the country! You might have your own horse!’
‘Nobody ever said anything about a horse.’
I don’t even have my own bicycle any more, Ruby thought. How can Brenda stand there and talk to me as if I’m going on some sort of amazing adventure? Can’t she understand that I’ve lost practically everything, and I have to live somewhere I absolutely don’t want to be?
She re-aimed her camera, tripped the shutter, wound on the film, and walked back down the path.
Brenda followed her. ‘You could take a photograph of me,’ she suggested.
‘I’m only taking photographs of things I want to remember,’ Ruby said. ‘You’d better get on home, Brenda. You might start feeling sick again.’
‘I suppose I might. I’ll say goodbye, then. Goodbye, Ruby.’
Ruby waited until she heard the front gate click shut, and then she photographed her little fox terrier, Baxter, who was happily killing an old slipper of Mother’s beneath the wisteria arbour. Next she photographed the fishpond with its fountain, and the shiny green ceramic frog that lived in the rockery. Ruby had given the frog to Dad for his birthday only last year.
It broke Ruby’s heart that Dad couldn’t come to the country with her and Mother. He had to stay behind to try and find work and to help with the sale of all the things the Walkers didn’t want. ‘Odds and sods’ the auctioneer called them, as if they were just rubbish.
Ruby took a photograph of the front door, leaving just one exposure on her roll of film, and went back inside the house. She found her father in his study, taking his framed photographs off the wall.
‘I don’t know if anybody will want these, ’he said. ‘But the frames could be worth a few bob.’
Ruby was shocked. ‘Dad, you can’t sell your photographs!’
‘We have to make as much money as we can from this sale, sweetheart. The men who used to work for me have wages due to them. Why should they suffer because I couldn’t run a business properly?’
‘You did run your business properly! You didn’t do anything wrong! You’re the best builder in Adelaide!’
‘I wish I could believe that.’ Dad placed the last of the photographs on the pile.
Ruby put her hands over her mouth to stop herself from saying anything more. She wanted to scream about the awfulness of what was happening, but Mother had told her that Dad mustn’t be upset – he already had such a lot to cope with. So instead she made herself look at the photographs. ‘I love these. Will it be all right if I take just one?’
‘I suppose so. Take whatever you want.’
One by one, Ruby picked up the black-and-white photographs. They were nearly all of country scenes – hills in cloud shadow, a wheat field, a ploughed paddock with a flock of birds.
‘They’re smashing, Dad, honestly. Do you think I’ll ever be as good as you are?’
‘Of course you will. Photography is a wonderful hobby, and it’s something we can enjoy together when…when money isn’t a problem for us anymore. I want to see some beautiful work from you. You’ll be living in a lovely spot, so you should find plenty of inspiration.’
Lovely? I’m sure it isn’t a bit lovely, Ruby thought. She looked at the photographs again, and chose a picture of an old stone building nestled under a tree on the side of a hill. Dad had photographed it in low sunshine so that every detail was outlined in glowing light. ‘I like this one,’ she said.
Ruby hugged it to her chest. ‘Dad, do you remember how when I was a baby you told me the coloured sunbeams in the front hall were fairies? I really believed you. I knew you’d never tell me a fib.’
‘Perhaps they were fairies. Who knows what fairies look like?’
‘I do. They look like little coloured lights.’
Dad smiled. Then, serious now, he sat in his chair and looked up at her. ‘Ruby, I know I’ve failed you and your mother. I’d give anything to make it all right again. But whatever happens, remember that I love you. I love you very much.’
Ruby felt her spine prickle. ‘Dad, don’t say things like that. It scares me.’
‘I’m sorry, sweetheart. The last thing I mean to do is scare you. You’re going to be all right, I know. You’ll find your feet in no time.’
Ruby could see that Dad was making a huge effort to be cheerful. Her chin started to wobble, and she turned away so he wouldn’t see.
‘It’s just that people might say things to you – about me, about what happened to my business. If they do, try not to be upset. I can’t make things better for us now, but one day I will. We won’t give up, will we?’
Ruby didn’t dare speak. She shook her head.
‘Good girl,’ Dad said. ‘And now I could do with a cup of tea. Why don’t you ask your mother to put the kettle on?’
Book 3: School Days for Ruby
Ruby Quinlan didn't feel a bit like herself today. This was partly because she was wearing a black woollen shawl, a white apron, and a long skirt she'd made out of two sugarbags. It was also because half an hour ago she had arrived at her little country school in Uncle James's creaky old Ford, squashed into the back seat with her cousins May and Bee Cameron. Usually the three of them walked to school, and it felt strange to make the trip in just fifteen minutes, instead of an hour.
The school wasn't much like itself either. Since yesterday everybody had been preparing it for the Empire Day celebrations. Grades One to Three had picked up every scrap of rubbish. Grade Four had decorated the blackboard in the main classroom with drawings in coloured chalk showing the flags of all the countries under British rule. Grades Five and Six had carried chairs, brought up from the Institute in Mr Schultz's truck, and put them in neat rows in the schoolyard.
The Grade Seven boys had set up a low wooden stage in the girls' playground area, and the Grade Seven girls had decorated it with flowers and ferns. Next to it stood the piano, which had been dragged out of the junior classroom, and the maypole with its red and white ribbons.
Now the rows of chairs were jam-packed with parents and friends and children too young to go to school. In the sea of hats Ruby could see her Aunt Vera's awful old orange cloche. Her own mother wouldn't be seen dead in a hat like that! Mother loved fashionable clothes and pretty things. But times were hard, and money was so short at Kettle Farm that all the Camerons had to wear old clothes or hand-me-downs.
Empire Day was a very special day, and this year it was even more special because it was being celebrated on the last day of first term. It would be followed by Cracker Night, to be held on the Mount Pleasant showgrounds, and after that the May holidays would begin. Ruby couldn't wait.
For the last few weeks the school's head teacher, Mr Miller, had been teaching everybody about the history of Great Britain and the British Empire. He'd told them lots of stories about British heroes, men (there were hardly any women) who had died gloriously for England. Ruby's favourite story, the one that made her want to cry, was about Scott of the Antarctic and Captain Oates. When Scott and his companions were starving to death in a tent, Oates had walked bravely out into a snowstorm, sacrificing his own life to give the others a chance of survival. It was hopeless, of course: in the end everybody had died.
Ruby was proud to be Australian, but when she looked at the big world map on the back wall of the classroom, she was proud to be British, too.
The map showed all the countries of the Empire in pink. There was England, of course, and Scotland and Wales and Ireland. Then there was all of Canada, and all of India, and quite a lot of Africa. Down in the bottom right-hand corner Ruby could see a pink Australia and a pink New Zealand, and there were lots of smaller pink places in between – places like Malaya and Ceylon and Hong Kong.
Ruby knew that more than a quarter of the Earth's surface was pink, and that was why people could say, without fibbing, that the sun never set on the British Empire.
The main Empire Day event was the children's fancy-dress parade. The costumes would be judged by Mrs Miller and the local Member of Parliament, who was the invited important guest. There were four prizes to be won: best senior girl and best senior boy, and best junior girl and best junior boy.
Now Ruby stood next to Doris Spinks in the crowded school porch, waiting for the littlies' teacher, Miss Head, to signal the start of the parade.
Nearly everyone was in fancy dress. Quite a lot were dressed as people from the pink Empire countries, but some of the girls, including Doris, had come as Red Cross nurses from the Great War, and several boys wore the slouch army hats once worn by fathers or uncles who had fought overseas.
All the children held the paper Union Jacks they'd made and coloured with crayons in class. They were trying to be quiet and sensible, but bursts of whispering and giggling kept breaking out.
Looking around, Ruby saw big and little Red Indians in fringed costumes made from sugarbag, with lipstick war paint on their faces and chicken feathers in their hair. She saw New Zealand Maoris wearing decorated cardboard headbands, and Indians in turbans made from tea-towels, or saris made from sheets or curtains.
Eric Weber, one of the Grade Seven boys, had blackened his face with soot and come as an African. He wore a torn singlet painted with brown spots to look like leopard skin, a string of knucklebones around his neck, and a rabbit bone which he tried to hold under his nose with his top lip. Whenever it fell out, which was often, everybody giggled so much that Miss Head threatened to use the cane if they didn't settle down.
Iris Dunn, who sat behind Ruby and Doris in class, was wearing something white and furry around her face and carrying a fishing rod with a painted cardboard fish attached to it by a large hook.
'I think she's supposed to be an Eskimo,' Doris whispered loudly in Ruby's ear. 'Did you ever see anything so stupid?'
Doris was Ruby's best friend at school, but Ruby often wished she wasn't. Doris was always saying mean things about the other children, and sometimes she sneaked on them to Mr Miller. Ruby hadn't had much choice, though: Doris had chosen her to be her best friend, and that was that. And Ruby needed a friend, because she felt like such an outsider at Eden Valley Primary School. The others were country kids, and she wasn't. They called her 'Townie', and mostly they left her alone.
Ruby would never forget her first day at the school. Somebody had hidden her good leather satchel, and it had been found later, ripped and scratched. Worse, her precious china dog had been in the satchel, and it had vanished. Ruby loved that dog because it had been given to her last Christmas by her family's housekeeper, Mrs Traill. She was sure somebody had stolen it – but who? And why? It was a mystery.
Now, pretending she hadn't heard what Doris had said, Ruby turned to Iris. 'I like your fish,' she said. 'It's awfully good.'
'Thanks,' Iris said, smiling. 'Your costume's real nice, too.'
'Quiet, please, Ruby and Iris!' called Miss Head. 'You great big girls should be setting an example to the little ones.'
Ruby didn't feel like a great big girl. She felt pent-up bubbly, like a bottle of lemonade just before somebody took out the stopper. She loved dressing up, and she'd had fun putting her Irish costume together. Great-Aunt Flora had lent her the mothball-smelling black shawl and Aunt Vera had lent her the white apron. Ruby had cut shamrocks from green crepe paper left over from last year's Christmas decorations, and sewn them along the apron's hem. It had taken her ages. This morning, as a final touch, she'd coloured her lips with Mother's Tangee lipstick.
Mother had offered the lipstick to May, too, but Uncle James had made a huge fuss about May wearing make-up. 'Over my dead body!' he'd said.
Secretly Ruby had hoped that May would put on the lipstick anyway, but May didn't want to make her father angry. Uncle James had never been quite the same after he'd returned from the war with only one arm. Mother said he was 'damaged', and that was partly why he was always so cross with Baxter, Ruby's fox terrier. Ruby could never forget that her uncle had once threatened to shoot him.
May and Bee were dressed up for Empire Day too. Bee, wearing a tartan skirt and a floppy red tam-o'-shanter cap, was a girl from Scotland. And May, who was the tallest of the Grade Seven girls, had been chosen to be Britannia.
As the spirit of Great Britain, Britannia was the most important person in the Empire Day celebrations, and Ruby couldn't help envying May just a little.
Britannia wore a long white dress and a red cloak. She sat on a throne decorated with streamers and held a trident and an oval shield painted with the Union Jack. She also had to recite a poem. This year it was 'The Children's Song', by Rudyard Kipling.
May was now standing next to Miss Head, separated from the rest of the group. She looked very grown-up with her springy hair mostly tucked under a gold-painted crown.
Ruby was disappointed that her mother hadn't come to watch the celebrations, but Mother hadn't been well lately, and she was having another of her bad headaches. Dad wasn't there either, because he was away somewhere looking for work. In fact Ruby had no idea where Dad was. She only knew that she missed him terribly.
Thinking about that, she had the most marvellous idea. Dad can't be here to see what my life is like now, she thought, but I can send him some photographs! What luck that he gave me a camera for my birthday last year! I expect they sell films at the general store. Perhaps they develop them as well. How much does it cost to develop a film?
While Ruby was wondering where she might get the money to carry out this plan, Miss Head clapped her hands for the parade to begin.
The children were led out by May, attended by two little Grade One girls holding up her long red cloak.
Everyone marched around the schoolyard waving their flags while Miss Cutting, the church organist, played 'The Grand Old Duke of York' on the piano. Afterwards they all lined up in grades, standing to attention – heads held high, feet together, arms by their sides.
Miss Cutting played 'Rule, Britannia' with a lot of trills and flourishes, and May stepped up onto the stage and sat on her throne.
'May Cameron is that proud of herself,' whispered Doris, who was standing next to Ruby. 'Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. And why didn't she do something about her hair? It looks terrible. There's pomades you can get for that type of hair.'
Ruby wondered for the hundredth time why Doris could never say anything nice about anyone.
'I think May looks pretty,' she whispered back. She'd have said more, but Miss Head was looking at her with a warning sort of face. So instead she tried not to fidget while the Member of Parliament took a very long time to tell everybody what an honour it was for Australia to belong to the British Empire. Australia was like a child learning to grow up, he said, but she would always be loyal to the beloved mother country, England.
Finally May stood up. Holding her shield in one hand and her trident in the other, she recited 'The Children's Song'. Her voice was calm and steady, rising just a little at the last verse:
Land of our birth, our faith, our pride,
For whose dear sake our fathers died;
Oh, Motherland, we pledge to thee
Head, heart and hand through the years
Everybody clapped, and a man in the audience yelled, 'Hooray!'A baby began to cry.
The flag was raised and saluted, everybody sang 'God Save the King', and then Mr Miller announced that the entertainment would begin, followed by refreshments. Ruby was already looking forward to the refreshments – she'd seen the trestle table loaded with cakes and scones baked by the school mothers. And as a special treat every child would be given an apple and a bag of lollies to take home. But first, the Member of Parliament was going to present the prizes to the winners of the costume competition.
The junior prizes went to a brother and sister dressed as tiny Grenadier Guards in red-dyed pyjama jackets and busbies made of black felt.
Ruby hoped Iris would win the prize for the senior girls – that would show Doris! But after the applause for the junior prizes had died down, she was surprised to hear her own name called.
Her face burning, Ruby climbed on to the stage. The Member of Parliament gave her an envelope with First Prize, Senior Girls written on it in typewriting, and shook her hand.
As she left the stage, Ruby almost collided with Eric Weber, who had just been announced as the winner of the senior boys' prize.
'Hey, good on you, Townie,' he said.
'Thanks,' Ruby said. 'Well done to you, too.' Then, because she was still feeling so bubbly, she added, 'And my name's Ruby, by the way.'
'Fair enough,' said Eric 'Good on you, Ruby.'
When she was standing in her line again, Ruby opened the envelope. Inside it was a crisp new pound note.
'Oh my hat, 'she said, under her breath.
Tinkly music sounded from the piano as the Grade Four and Five girls began their maypole dance, but Ruby hardly noticed. She had a pound to spend – twenty whole shillings! And she knew exactly what she wanted to do with it.
Book 4: Ruby of Kettle Farm
Slugs were eating holes in the baby cabbages. Where had they come from? The last time Ruby had looked, the new little plants were growing beautifully. Today they were shredded. Tattered. Falling to bits, just like her life.
She flicked a slug off a leaf with a stick and stamped on it, grinding it into the earth with her bare foot.
It was a cold, sunny Saturday afternoon, and Ruby was helping her cousin May in the vegetable garden at Kettle Farm. She'd just come from the chook yard, where she'd been shovelling dried chicken manure into the big wooden wheelbarrow. She'd shovelled until her arms ached. It was good to work really hard like that, because it stopped her thinking about Dad.
Less than a week ago Ruby had found out that her father had been in prison. The first shock of pain and disbelief had faded, and now she felt sad and angry and afraid, all at once. She still wasn't sure what he'd done, but she knew it was something to do with money and his business going bankrupt.
When she'd told Mother she knew about Dad, Mother had gone very still and quiet. Then she'd said, 'I'm glad you know, Ruby. It helps that I don't have to keep it a secret from you.' That was all. Mother had made it clear she didn't want to talk about it.
Ruby had cried her heart out when she'd discovered the truth. To make it even worse, it was Mr West who'd told her. He and her father had been mates, he said. They'd shared a cell in Yatala Prison.
The West family lived in an old rundown cottage on Kettle Farm. Because he wasn't paying any rent, Mr West was supposed to be helping Uncle James with the farm work. So far he hadn't helped at all, saying he had a bad back. Ruby didn't believe him. She liked the four West children, particularly Cynthia, the oldest girl, and five-year-old Josie, but Mr West made her feel uncomfortable. There was something sly and tricky about him.
The West children went to the local school. They'd had a hard time there because everybody knew their father had been in jail for thieving. Last week they'd been hounded from the school in a way that still made Ruby feel sick when she thought about it.
When she was living in Adelaide (it seemed a lifetime ago) Ruby had heard one of Dad's friends say, 'Harry Quinlan is the most thoroughly decent man I know.' And he was. Ruby still couldn't believe – wouldn't believe – that he'd done anything wrong. At least he wasn't in prison anymore. Mr West said he'd been released. But Mother hadn't heard from him for ages, so where was he now?
The day Ruby had found out about Dad had been the most utterly awful day of her life, even worse than the day Mother had told her they'd have to sell their beautiful Adelaide house, even worse than when Dad said that their house was to be bought by Uncle Donald Walker. But on that utterly awful day something good had happened too, because she and May had decided to forget that they had ever disliked each other, and now they were friends. Not the way Ruby and Doris Spinks had been friends, but proper friends.
'Sometimes you'll find the most beautiful flowers growing in a dung-heap,' Aunt Flora had said, when she'd found Ruby crying about Dad.
Ruby thought about that as Baxter, her little fox terrier, sat down next to her on the path and began to scratch himself. Uncle James had banned him from the house, but when Ruby was outside he liked to stay close to her. He almost certainly had fleas, Ruby decided. And he had the same sort of doggy, earthy, sheep smell as Shep and Sparkie, her uncle's working dogs. He needed a bath. But country dogs didn't have baths. And if they had fleas, they had fleas.
'Wake up, Ruby!' called May. 'Bring us the chicken poo, will you?'
'Coming!' Ruby called back. She trundled the wheelbarrow over to where May was digging a new garden bed. Jars of seeds collected from last year lay on the path, waiting to be planted: carrots and silver-beet, peas and parsnips.
'You're still thinking about Uncle Harry, aren't you?' May said. 'I can tell. You must try to stop it, Ruby. You can't change anything.'
'I know that. I just wish I knew what really happened, though. I can't talk to Mother about it. She misses Dad so much, and she gets dreadfully upset if I ask her anything.'
'She's already upset,' May pointed out. 'It might do her good to talk about it. You shovel, and I'll rake.'
'At least nobody knows about Dad but our family,' Ruby said, spreading a shovelful of manure.
'The Wests know too,' May reminded her, raking busily. 'Cynthia wouldn't say anything, but I don't trust Mr West, do you?'
Ruby shook her head. 'I wouldn't trust Doris Spinks, either. If she ever finds out, it'll be all around the school in about ten seconds, and then it'll be all around the district. Doris already knows Dad's in some sort of trouble.'
'Well, what if she does find out?' May said. 'You can stand up to anyone. Remember what Aunt Flora said – you're as tough as the hide of a hairy goat.'
Ruby laughed, but gloomy thoughts soon began to crowd into her mind again. She concentrated on shovelling till the wheelbarrow was empty. 'Shall I get us some more manure?'
'No, that's enough. Let's get these seeds in.' May stopped, and raised her head. 'Is that a car horn?'
It was. Beep beep! Ruby lifted her head to listen too. So did Baxter. Seconds later the little dog was racing for the gate in the garden fence, barking with excitement.
'Come here, Baxter!' Ruby called. 'Baxter!'
'It's probably Mr Schultz delivering grain for the chooks,' May said. 'I'll go and find Dad.'
But it wasn't Mr Schultz's truck. Instead a big black car purred around the bend in the driveway. A car with a gleaming silver radiator, enormous headlights, and a radiator cap in the shape of a swooping silver eagle.
Ruby recognised it straightaway. It was Uncle Donald Walker's Humber. And inside it were Uncle Donald (who wasn't really Ruby's uncle, but who'd been her father's business partner), Aunt Muriel, and Ruby's second-worst friend, Brenda.
For one magical moment Ruby thought that Dad might be with them, too, but she soon saw that he wasn't. Still, Uncle Donald might have news of him. She ran up to the car, full of hope.
Mother had been the first to come out to the driveway, closely followed by everyone else – Uncle James and Aunt Vera, Ruby's cousins Walter and Bee, and even old Aunt Flora, looking grumpy because she'd been woken from her afternoon nap.
Mother introduced everyone to Uncle Donald and Aunt Muriel and then was silent, twisting a handkerchief in her fingers.
'We were just passing,' Uncle Donald said. 'Muriel has relatives who own a property near Angaston, and we thought we'd pop in and see you on the way home. How are you? How's life in the country, Winifred? Ruby?'
'It's perfectly smashing,' replied Ruby. She waved to Brenda, who was still in the car, but Brenda didn't wave back. Perhaps she was asleep. Ruby didn't want to waste time on Brenda, though, because she was bursting with impatience to hear about her father. 'Uncle Donald, have you heard from Dad? Please say you have.'
'Not lately,' Uncle Donald said. 'I'm not sure where he is. He came around to collect his mail about three weeks ago, but I haven't heard a dicky-bird from him since.'
'Oh.' Ruby tried to make herself believe that three weeks wasn't a very long time. 'Do you have any idea where he could be?'
'None at all. Sorry to disappoint you, Ruby. I expect he'll be in touch with you in due course. You and Winifred can rest assured that I'd tell you if I knew where he was, but I can't go scouring the countryside . . . Yes, it's a splendid car, isn't it?' he added, turning to Walter.
Walter was examining the Humber with a look of wonder on his face. His little sister, Bee, touched the head of the eagle on the radiator cap. 'My goodness, you can see every feather,' she said. 'Is it real silver?'
'Not quite,' Uncle Donald replied. 'But it's worth a bit.'
Uncle Donald looked plumper than he used to, Ruby thought. Everything about him looked sleek and prosperous – his snug-fitting woollen overcoat, his grey gloves with little pearl buttons, his silk cravat. Like Aunt Muriel in her fur-trimmed coat and smart black hat, he seemed to have dropped in from another world. Beside them, Uncle James and Aunt Vera looked even poorer and shabbier than usual. Uncle James's trousers were filthy, and Ruby couldn't help noticing that Aunt Vera's green hand-knitted jumper had holes in the elbows.
Uncle Donald turned to Mother. 'You're looking well, Winifred,' he said in a hearty voice. But Ruby could tell that he was shocked to see how thin Mother was. Her beautiful clothes hung loosely on her, and her hair, once neatly permed in the latest style, was limp and straggly, held back with bobby pins. In the last few weeks she'd stopped wearing makeup.
'That's an extremely expensive-looking automobile,' Aunt Flora observed, waving her walking stick in the direction of the Humber. 'I fully expected that we were being visited by royalty, and I am bitterly disappointed to find that there is not a crown nor a diamond tiara in sight.'
'Well, I'm sorry –' Uncle Donald began, but at the same time Aunt Muriel said, 'Really, what a thing to say! Some people have no manners.'
'And some people have no consideration,' retorted Aunt Flora. 'Isn't it enough that you now inhabit Winifred's house, without coming here to lord it over her further with this ridiculous display of wealth?'
'Please don't say such things, Aunt Flora,' Mother said. Two little dots of red had flared up in her pale cheeks. 'Donald and Muriel are my friends, and I am very happy to see them.'
'Humph,' said Aunt Flora. 'If these are your friends, Winifred, I'd hate to meet your enemies.'
In the silence that followed Ruby could hear a kookaburra laughing, far away across the paddocks. For a crazy moment she wanted to laugh, too, but then, just as suddenly, she felt more like crying.
'Oh dear, I'm forgetting myself,' Aunt Vera said hastily. 'Do come in, everyone, and I'll make you a cup of tea. May, could you please butter us some scones?'
'I'll help,' said Bee. 'Can I get out the good china, Mum? It's ages since we used it. There should be enough cups, if May and I have the cracked ones. Are you coming, Ruby?'
'In a minute,' Ruby said, glancing at Brenda, who was getting out of the car.
The women went inside, followed by May and Bee, and the men and Walter stayed in the driveway. 'Six cylinders,' Uncle Donald was saying. 'A wonderfully smooth ride. What do you drive, James?'