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  • Published: 30 July 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761047992
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

Back To Birdsville

An outback rural romance, from the bestselling author of As the River Rises

Extract

Phoebe McFadden, seventeen and wise to her dad’s fondness for the horses, tilted her head to watch her only parent straighten the new sign on the front entrance of the racetrack. His strong, lithe frame stood silhouetted by the sun, and she knew his red fringe would be plastered to his forehead under the tattered Akubra. The rest of the hair under that hat would be wet curls.

She’d inherited those curly waves and glints of red from her dad, though hers were long, but sometimes she wished her hair was black like her mum’s had been.

‘Looks good, doesn’t it?’ her dad called down.

BIRDSVILLE RACE CLUB INC. ENTRANCE. The green letters stood out brilliantly against the cream corrugated iron and wooden frame.

‘Yep.’ The sign looked smashing, and pride swelled in Phoebe’s chest. Her dad had made that sign. He could make anything. Except, of course, money. Clever, wonderful, exasperating, financially bereft Dad. Sometimes she felt like the parent.

But he’d been her hero since she was old enough to stand up and gawp at him and nothing would change that.

Dad, so tall with his big hat and his heeled boots, ruggedly handsome when he smiled that winning smile. They didn’t have much in the way of extras at home – never had, Dad said, since Grandpa made that infamous bet on a long-gone Birdsville Cup and they’d lost the family station – but they had enough.

Dad said he’d inherited Grandpa’s luck, which she believed, while she’d inherited her dad’s hair. But despite relying on lady luck, Dad always made her feel special and loved. That said, Phoebe remained determined to save her own nest egg for a better life.

From when she was little Dad’s blue eyes would crinkle when he crouched down to say, ‘How’s my princess? You’re so clever. So pretty.’ And always, ‘Dream big, baby. You can do anything.’ Yes, she could. And would. And she’d look after him.

Today, he called down from his high ladder next to the old crane arm, ‘Is that straight, Phoebe?’ Like he did every year when she watched him do repairs to the racecourse buildings.

She laughed because she knew he had his own spirit level up there and didn’t need her input. Dad was a gifted carpenter, a sign writer, opal miner, sometime training jockey, barman and a bookie’s assistant. On race day, when the tiny outback town could swell from around one hundred residents to thousands of tourists, he was an excited racegoer.

Dad was her world, her small world, since her mother had died when she was little. Otherwise there was only her cousin, Scarlet, Scarlet’s parents, and her other aunt – and school in Charleville, of course.

The year before, she had made friends – despite their age difference – with a young kid when his family ran the pub for a while. Atticus had only been ten, so there were more than six years between them, but the things he’d come out with! He was fun. Yes, she missed the little jerk. He’d been like the younger brother she’d never had – not that they would have become friends for real, if she hadn’t spectacularly stacked her bike in front of him the first time they met.

He’d almost made her forget the scrapes on her knees and hands when he picked her up, telling her stories of the sensational disasters he and his older brother, now in boarding school, had had. His dad had taught them both first aid – they needed it so often.

She’d laughed, shakily, while he offered his handkerchief for the blood, realigned her bent front wheel, and dried her tears with the back of his hand. So grown-up for a kid.

He’d walked beside her, pushing his own bike, when she’d been too sore to ride home, and handed her over to her dad.

After that, Atticus paused to chat whenever he ran into her, and she’d humoured him – she’d even shown him her wreck of a car she would fix one day, the Desert Lizard, in all its disastrous glory and wonderful potential.

He was almost as tall as her despite the difference in their ages, with a smile that could show how glad he was to see her from across the street. She often wondered what happened to Atticus after his family moved on.

She’d run into him a lot when she was at home from school for a weekend or holidays – Birdsville was a very small town – but if her cousin was with her, Scarlet told him to push off. She said the older brother, Dali, was hot, but Phoebe wasn’t drawn to him at all, despite him being closer in age to her and Scarlet than Atticus was.

She’d been sad when he said his family were leaving. Sad for the loss of her little mate – almost cried, though she’d hidden it. She’d never told Scarlet that story. Her cheeks heated at the thought of what Scarlet would have said.

She never fancied any of the boys at high school; she was too busy at her aunt’s Charleville truck-stop, where she boarded during term time. There, she and Scarlet had learned to cook fast, clean well, and save their money. Auntie Daph believed in women standing on their own two feet – she wasn’t relying on Grandpa’s luck – and Phoebe took those lessons to heart. Any boys at the truck-stop were either petrol heads or cowboys with no manners, and none were funny or kind like her dad, so her heart was never at risk. Besides, her dad was her hero.

Dad, Scarlet’s parents, Auntie Bee and Uncle Rob and Scarlet were such a big part of her life that she couldn’t imagine not living here in Birdsville when she wasn’t at school. She’d be with them forever.

Any time she could, Phoebe hitched a lift home with the cattle transports coming through Charleville Friday night on their way to one of the big stations past Birdsville. Mrs McKay had made it possible. She owned five of the stations in the channel country and she’d told Dad she’d arrange it. And she had.

Phoebe would always choose the chance to sleep behind  someone’s seat compartment if she could go home – even if it meant ten hours trucking Friday night and the same back on Sunday night – waking with just enough time to shower and head to school Monday. She missed home too much. Seemed sensible to travel since she had to sleep anyway and waking up at home made it all worthwhile.

But schooldays were spent at Charleville High along with Scarlet, coming back to Birdsville for the holidays. Soon she’d have her driver’s licence. She’d be able to come home any time, then, with only a year to go before she could get a proper job in their little town.

It was holidays now; she was back in Birdsville before her last term of year eleven, and she’d already worked at the bakery when they were short. Hopefully, she’d get a few days at the caravan park too, and maybe a shift or two at the fuel depot shop if they needed her.

She’d been saving to repair the Desert Lizard, a Land Cruiser, for what felt like forever.

‘The paintwork is so beaten it looks like she has scales,’ Dad had said, and yes, the outside was a bit rough, though he said he’d help her panel beat and repaint when it was ready to be registered.

The old beast had been a present from one of Dad’s friends on her fifteenth birthday. Dad had been broke that year and his mate had stepped in. A throwaway gift that turned into a savings goal she focused on with the intensity of a hungry kookaburra watching a snack-sized snake. Phoebe’s red 80 series needed the engine rebuilt. Her good luck that Dad’s mate couldn’t be bothered selling the rest of the vehicle for parts.

But, for a smile from her, the boys from the garage had promised to help Phoebe get it up and running when she had her licence and could afford the components needed. With her own calculations – and she hadn’t counted the stash under her bed since she came home – she was almost there.

Two years of saving. Two years of loving the interior of the car while it sat in Dad’s shed, her humming a country song as she polished the old leather seats and wiped away the dust that had accumulated in the weeks she’d been away. That was the saying – The dust never settles in Birdsville – and it was true.

She’d saved good money this year because she and Scarlet were both clever in the kitchen and at the cash register and worked hard doing jobs for people. Both stashed coins and small notes away with weekend work. And especially, this month, in the kitchens at the once-a-year Birdsville Races. There was great money to be made this weekend.

Since acquiring the Desert Lizard she’d even saved the present money Dad gave her, often well after the birthday or Christmas, whenever he finally had cash to spare. Sometimes the dosh might come two months late, but always, eventually, he’d give her some-thing. And she’d save it. She could be determined like that.

‘Not like her mother or father,’ Dad said with pride. ‘You’re a saver.’ He always laughed at the fact he seemed permanently broke. Told her if it wasn’t for the horses, they’d be rich. Yet, he’d always covered their needs.

Yesterday had been a big day. Dad had taken her out into the desert again in his car and, after watching her manage the sand hills, had pronounced her capable to drive. She’d already booked an appointment with the police office to go for her test as soon as her birthday came. Couldn’t come quick enough.

‘You wool-gathering down there, Phoebe?’

She was.

‘Hold the ladder, would you, love?’

She gripped it firmly as Rusty began his steady descent from the roof of the entry gate. He looked down and smiled his million-dollar smile.

Such a shame, his daughter thought fondly, we can’t bank some of that charm.

Phoebe pushed the ladder firmly against the brown rail to steady it and let go as he landed. Her gaze travelled over the empty ticket lines. So hard to imagine right now, but several thousand tourists would be here for race day, buses dropping them off at the gate, guiding them towards the open yard before the covered public area, where they’d mill around the stalls selling mementos and drinks.

Dad stepped back to examine the sign and Phoebe grinned at him. ‘Looks great.’

‘That it does.’ But his gaze drifted over the long rail stretching around the huge red-dust circuit. He said, ‘Two thousand metres in circumference. Did you know Birdsville remains one of only four tracks in Queensland that operates in an anti-clockwise direction? Like the Melbourne Cup.’

‘Yes. I did,’ she said. ‘You tell me every year when we check the ticket office is fine.’

‘Do I? Must be a true story.’ He grinned at her and she grinned back.

She wondered who he was going to blow his money on this year. No way would she bet hard-saved money. Excitement fizzed. Soon it would all pay off. ‘This week I’m going to get my stash and ask the mechanics to fix my car. Get it ready for my P plates.’

Rusty’s face froze, along with his body. His gaze pinged back to her and away. Dark brows furrowed, and his mouth pulled down even as he forced it back up with a smile. His eyes slid away again, not meeting her suddenly intent gaze.

She didn’t know why, but Phoebe’s stomach sank. Were they broke? Did he need her money? He’d promised he wouldn’t be silly this year. And the race wasn’t even here yet.

Her heart began to pound, and she felt that cold skitter of fear, scurrying like a tiny gecko had slipped into the neck of her shirt to run down her back, leaving a dew-damp trail.

Rusty cleared his throat. ‘That’s exciting. How about we go to the bakery for a celebration?’

Phoebe’s skin chilled more despite the heat. The bakery? That’s where he told her he didn’t have money for her birthday. A tiny cake in front of her. An excuse on his lips.

As if she wouldn’t cry while the staff watched. It worked. She never did.

She narrowed her eyes. ‘How about you tell me what happened now? Here. In private.’

She watched him swallow, his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down, and she could feel her mouth pull tight as the gecko inside turned cold and dark and stopped in her stomach. Coiled, ready to bite.

He blew out a breath and screwed up his eyes as if he couldn’t watch her face. ‘I’m sorry, love. I had to borrow it, Phoebe. Your money’s gone. But I’ll pay you back.’ He looked stricken. And ashamed. And lost.

Phoebe opened and shut her mouth. Trying to understand.

Trying not to understand. Suddenly she was more hurt, more horrified, more humiliated than she’d ever been. He borrowed it. Took it? From under her bed? Without asking.

She couldn’t grasp the concept.

No. He’d always lost his money but never had he taken hers. She struggled to get the words out. Had to swallow twice. ‘Did my money go on the races?’ Had he actually gambled her hard-earned cash?

His face paled and he clenched his hands. Didn’t meet her eyes. ‘In a way, yes.’

‘In what way?’ It didn’t even sound like her voice. More of a soft croak of horror. So hard to comprehend. Then, not waiting for the answer, she whispered, ‘It’s all gone? The money for the Desert Lizard repairs? You took it all?’

‘Yes. I had to. But I can explain.’

Explain? The hurt closed her throat until she struggled to breathe. She dragged in a breath. ‘How could you?’ Her eyes stung but she wasn’t going to let him see her cry. It wasn’t even the money: it was the fact her own dad had stolen from her. He’d cared more for the excitement of a race tip than for his own daughter.

Heck. She’d just been proud of him! Had thought that would never change. What a joke. ‘You know what?’ She wished she could just walk home but it was too darn hot. She’d melt before she got there. ‘I’ll wait for you in the truck.’ And she turned and walked back to the old truck and opened the door.

That weekend after the races, Phoebe left Birdsville for her aunt’s house. For good. She was never coming back.


Back To Birdsville Fiona McArthur

The heart-warming new rural romance from the bestselling author of As the River Rises.

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