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  • Published: 26 September 2023
  • ISBN: 9781761340123
  • Imprint: William Heinemann Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 512
  • RRP: $32.99

Black Sheep

From the bestselling author of Khaki Town


George Wakefield was an enigmatic figure to most, even something of a mystery. An Englishman from Cheshire, where he’d been a shearer, he’d arrived in Australia in 1878 with a three-year-old boy. No wife. Just the boy. Which was highly unusual. He was appeal­ing company; handsome, bearded, with a lean, fit body, ice-blue eyes that beguiled and an easy smile; a man’s man respected by his peers, and to women highly attractive. But despite his pleasant personality, he remained a mystery. What were the details of his background, his family, his wife? No one knew. And if anyone asked, they received a politely delivered answer brief enough to invite no further query. His wife had died in childbirth, so he’d brought his son to Australia. He’d heard shearers had a good life down here. A winning smile, and that was that.

His son had received little more information, apart from the fact that his mother had been Irish and her name had been Molly.

‘And if she hadn’t died giving birth she would have loved you very much, Jimmy,’ his father had fondly assured him. And again, that was that.

Young James didn’t even know where he’d been born, but as the years passed this didn’t appear to bother him. If ever he was asked where he came from he’d say, ‘Right here. Right here in Longreach.’

The region of Longreach in Central Western Queensland was the only home James had ever known, so it seemed rightful he should claim it as his. Yet ‘home’ in the literal sense didn’t really apply. Most of the boy’s life was spent camping out under the stars with his father who worked as an itinerant shearer during the season, a farmhand during the layoff and occasionally as a labourer in one of the small local towns that appeared to be springing up throughout the area.

It was during one of these layoff periods when George was working in the township of Aramac that James’ life underwent a radical change. The year was 1882, he was seven years old, and the change arrived in the form of widowed schoolteacher Harriet Brereton.

Harriet had fallen under the spell of George Wakefield upon their very first meeting, just as George had planned she should. Upon his employment as a builder’s labourer in the rapidly expanding town, he’d been delighted to discover it boasted a school, which had opened only four years previ­ously. How wonderful, he’d thought; he hadn’t known there was a school anywhere in the region. Upon further discov­ering the school was run by a forty-year-old widow, he’d thought how even more wonderful, and he’d set out, sight unseen, to woo her. Harriet Brereton would fit his plans perfectly, or rather she would fit the plans he had for his son.

‘James is a very bright boy,’ he said as the three of them sat in her poky office at the rear of the neat, weatherboard structure that constituted the school. He’d made sure they’d arrived shortly after school hours so that the pupils, admittedly not many in number, had left for the day.

The discovery that Harriet Brereton was a rather plain little woman did not in the least deter George who now channelled upon her the full force of his charm.

‘He’s had no formal education, but he can read quite well nonetheless, can’t you, Jimmy lad?’

He cast an affectionate smile at his son, who grinned back and nodded eagerly.

‘Taught him myself I did,’ George went on in the hum­blest of fashion, although with the knowledge she’d be impressed, ‘to the best of my ability anyway.’

‘Very admirable, Mr Wakefield.’ Harriet was indeed impressed, particularly as many itinerant workers were illiterate, but what impressed her most was the relation­ship between father and son, which she found touching, and also more than a little puzzling. How remarkable that a shearer should travel the countryside with such a very young child, she thought. She wondered what had hap­pened to the mother, or to the mother’s family, or to the man’s own family for that matter. Surely the child could have been left in the care of others. From her personal experience, having worked on a sheep station in the past, she knew this to be the case under normal circumstances.

‘I must admit, however, I did have some help in my tutorship . . .’ Aware of the favourable impression he was making, George continued to play ‘humble’ and, picking up his kitbag, which sat on the floor beside him, he pro­duced the book.

‘Popular Nursery Tales and Rhymes’, he said, opening the cover to display the beautiful frontispiece of a mother gathering her children around her. ‘With One Hundred and Seventy Illustrations’, he quoted, smiling winningly at the schoolteacher. ‘It was the illustrations that interested James most in the early days,’ he admitted, ‘but over the past year or so he’s taken to reading the words for himself, haven’t you, Jimmy?’

Another vigorous nod from James. ‘Yes, I like reading the words,’ he said. He’d been told how to perform, that he must put on a show, and he wasn’t about to let down his pa.

‘And these days his favourite part is learning some of the stories behind the nursery rhymes, isn’t it, son?’

‘Yep.’ James’ eyes lit up. He wasn’t putting on a show now. ‘I like the gruesome ones best. My favourite’s Mary, Mary, Quite Contrarybecause of all the torture and the executions.’

‘I see.’ Harriet wasn’t prepared to admit that she didn’t know the story behind Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’, although she determined to look up the nursery rhyme’s background in her encyclopaedia, which might hopefully provide the answer. ‘And where did you get the book, may I ask, Mr Wakefield?’

‘It belonged to my wife.’

‘Ah.’ This was a matter of far greater interest to Harriet, and she was wondering how to pursue the subject. But there proved no need.

‘She died in childbirth.’ George halted any further enquiry with his customary blunt rejoinder.

‘Oh I am so sorry to hear that.’

‘Thank you, ma’am.’ Another smile, warm and respect­ful this time, and they got down to the business at hand.

James was enrolled in Aramac State School that very day and within just two weeks George and Harriet had become lovers.

Their affair was conducted most discreetly. If seen together during daylight hours, they were perceived as a caring father communicating with the woman responsible for his son’s education. Given the ten-year age difference, who would ever have thought the mousey little schoolteacher with her bony body and her wire-rimmed spectacles would have been of any interest to the handsome young shearer anyway? During the darkest hours of the night, however, when George surreptitiously visited Harriet’s cottage, a different scenario altogether played itself out.

Harriet’s sexuality being finally unleashed after four years of widowhood, she gave herself to her lover with complete abandon. Despite her prim appearance and her adherence to the image she chose to present given her position in the town, Harriet Brereton was an extremely sensual woman.

‘Well, well,’ George remarked delightedly the first time they made love, ‘still waters run deep, eh?’

She hadn’t been insulted. Not in the least. She’d laughed instead. The sexual relationship she’d shared with her husband had always been robust, and four years was a very long time.

Harriet’s husband, Albert, had been a foreman at Aramac Station. They’d been employed as a couple in 1870, Harriet serving as governess to the boss’s two children. Over the years they had not been blessed with children themselves, which had been a profound disappointment to Harriet, and also a great source of guilt for she held herself solely responsible. But she and Albert had been happy at Aramac Station nonetheless. Aramac was a fine home to many.

During the 1860s in this western central region of Queensland, the traditional tribal land of the Iningai, pastoral occupation had taken hold of great swathes of territory. Before long, sheep stations had sprung into being, some large with their own facilities, including stores, workers’ accommodation, smithies and the like. Aramac was one of the earliest of such stations, and when the region’s first township was established in 1875 it was deemed only right it be named after the thriving sheep station that had pioneered the colonisation of these bounti­ful pasture lands to the west.

By the late 1870s the township of Aramac, with its neat weatherboard houses, boasted four stores, three hotels, three butcher shops, a post office, a bank, a courthouse and a surgery. And in early 1878, a school!

The school had proved most fortuitous for Harriet Brereton, whose husband had died just three months prior to its opening. Poor Albert. An accident. A mundane, meaningless, commonplace accident with the direst result.

The whole episode had been foolish. Farcical even. A fall from his horse! How had that happened? Albert was a marvellous rider, as skilled as the Aboriginal stockmen the station employed, which was true testament to his horse­manship, for as Albert himself had professed on many an occasion ‘those boys can really ride!’. And if by some odd chance he were to take a fall he’d pick himself up and get back on the animal as all riders did.

But not this time. This time, when he’d left the boys penning the sheep and whirled off to bring in a couple of breakaways, his horse had stumbled. And that too was a farce. Betty was Albert’s favourite stockhorse, as sure-footed as any on the property. Betty never stumbled. But she did that day. Heavily, too, and on stony ground. Betty broke her knees and had to be shot where she lay. Albert broke his neck and was dead before the boys could get to him.

Harriet was deeply distressed by her husband’s death, but despite an appearance some perceived as ‘mousey’, she was tough and resilient, like most women accustomed to life in the outback.

When a replacement foreman and his wife were employed, as was standard procedure – the station preferring to hire couples for positions of importance – Harriet applied for the post of teacher at the new school and moved into town.

Now, four years later, she was a highly respected member of the community, considered indeed to be one of the most important citizens in the small township, responsible as she was for the education of its children.

Harriet and George’s clandestine affair continued, their nightly trysts conducted twice a week arousing not a shred of suspicion. The back door of Harriet’s cottage was shrouded by bushes and George’s comings and goings were seen by none. He would arrive and leave under the cover of darkness, sneaking back to his lodgings and the room he shared with young James, who regularly slept through his father’s nocturnal wanderings. And even were the boy to awaken, there would be no cause for alarm.

‘I like to take a bit of a walk now and then in the dark,’ his father had told him. Just in case.

George very much enjoyed his affair with Harriet. He’d been most gratified to discover her lack of inhibition, which was an added bonus to his plan. And as the weeks passed he found also that he rather enjoyed Harriet’s company. That too was a bonus. They would talk in the dead of the night, about all sorts of things; she was a woman who held strong views, particularly on politics. George realised he could learn much from Harriet Brereton. Which was no surprise, she was a schoolteacher after all. She was teach­ing his son, and she was teaching him too.

Theirs was an amicable relationship. And one could not deny that he paid in kind. George took pride in the knowl­edge that he satisfied Harriet’s sexual appetite, taking care always to make sure that he did.

There was one step in their lovemaking, however, that he would not take.

‘Stay,’ she whispered time and again. ‘Stay inside me. Please, George. Stay inside me.’

But he never did. She had told him she was infertile, that there was no need for preventative action, and he had no doubt she was right, besides which she was surely already past child-bearing age. But George was reluctant to take the risk and always withdrew before ejaculation. He had no wish to be saddled with another child.

The weeks became months and then, winter over, spring beckoned. Shearing season. George needed to be on his way. He must now carry out the plan he had set in motion from the very start of their relationship.

‘What say if James were to stay here with you,’ he whispered in the dark, as if the idea had just occurred to him while they lay together sated, the sweat of their bodies mingling despite the cool of the night. ‘I have no wish to interfere with his learning, Harriet. Education is of the greatest importance, as you of all people know only too well.’

She didn’t reply instantly, unsure of her own reaction, which was complex. She loved George, she knew that much, although she’d never told him so, and she never intended to. She’d been dreading the onset of the shearing season and the knowledge that he would leave. This would certainly be a way of assuring his return to her. But did she dare? There was her reputation to consider. Did she dare risk compromising her position in the town?

George knew exactly what she was thinking, but he’d planned well in advance how to combat the problem.

‘We’ll keep everything above board, there’ll be no cause for suspicion,’ he coolly assured her. ‘I’ll pay for the boy’s lodgings. You have a spare room. James will be a tenant, a pupil of yours who needs a roof over his head, as simple as that.’ He drew her to him and kissed her gently. ‘I’ll call on you when school’s out tomorrow, shall I? When some of the mothers will be collecting their children?’

She could hear the smile in his voice.

‘We’ll discuss the proposition right out in the open for all to see. The whole town knows of your devotion to your pupils. Taking in the young son of a widowed shearer with no family would be seen as an act of kindness.’

George had already made sure that it would. Over the past two months he’d ingratiated himself most successfully with the townspeople. Everyone liked George Wakefield, particularly the women, all of whom considered him a wonderful father. They talked about the fact what’s more.

‘So devoted to his son, isn’t he?’

‘And to his son’s schooling. Why he said to me only the other day, “My boy’s education is the top priority in my life.” Not many fathers like that around here.’

‘There certainly aren’t,’ some protective mothers would say. ‘Most want their sons working by their side from the age of eight. Boys are to be men by the time they’re ten.’

Other mothers, particularly the wives of farmers, might disagree. ‘And that’s just as things should be. We need all the workers we can get.’

But the women were of one accord when it came to George Wakefield. He was without doubt a fine father.

‘He’ll miss the boy when he’s out on the road, but he’s determined to do the right thing. The right thing the way he sees it, anyway. And that’s the true measure of a father’s love, that is.’

George was genuine in his desire for the boy to have a decent education, and he would indeed miss his son when he was out on the road. But he knew also that life during the shearing season would be easier without James, for he’d be able to stay in the shearers’ quarters with the other men instead of having to set up camp at night. Previously the boy had been left during the day in the care of the sheep station’s housekeeper, or cook, sometimes even the station owner’s wife, but during the nights the two had always camped out together. A child of that age could not be housed in the shearers’ quarters.

The stage successfully set, all went according to plan. No one suspected for one minute there was any personal relationship between the young, widowed shearer and the middle-aged schoolteacher. When the shearing season was over and George returned, he reclaimed his son and the two stayed together in lodgings, the boy attending school, the father seeking work around the town or at nearby farms. George Wakefield continued to be viewed by the townspeople as the finest of fathers and Harriet Brereton as the most devoted of teachers, while their twice-weekly trysts told an altogether different tale.

During the several years that followed, the status quo was maintained, but there was one upon whom the subter­fuge took its toll.

Young James Wakefield’s existence had undergone such a radical change that he was left confused. Throughout the whole of his short life there had been no one but his father; now it seemed he led two different lives. And this second life involved a woman, the only female influence he had ever known. Like everyone else, he was unaware of the relationship between his father and his schoolteacher, but when he sat down at the little dining table with Harriet Brereton, he felt an intimate connection. He pictured her as his mother. He even fantasised about it. What would it be like, he wondered, to be gathered in her arms and cuddled the way he’d seen other mothers gather their children to them? The way the mother in the beautiful frontispiece of Popular Nursery Tales and Rhymes gathered her children to her.

The fantasy grew and grew, until on one occasion he was bold enough to put it to the test.

‘Goodbye, son.’

It was shearing season and once again his father had delivered him, together with his kitbag and small travelling case, to the schoolteacher’s house where they now stood on the verandah, Mrs Brereton having gone inside.

‘I shall leave you to make your farewells, Mr Wakefield,’ she’d said and closed the door behind her.

‘Goodbye, Pa.’

James accepted the hearty pat on the shoulder and watched as his father strode down the front steps and mounted the eight-year-old mare that was waiting patiently, untethered and loaded with gear. Red Nell was a fine animal. ‘The best horse I’ve ever had,’ George maintained.

‘You behave yourself now,’ his father instructed.

‘Yes, Pa.’

A touch of heels and Red Nell set off at a trot down the dusty street.

Black Sheep Judy Nunn

Judy Nunn's new blockbuster is a sweeping historical novel about a prosperous sheep-farming family and the enigmatic young man they let into their lives . . .

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