When Adelaide Nightingale, Louisa Worthington, Maggie O’Connell and Pearl McCleary threw caution to the winds, disgrace was bound to follow. They lived in a time and place peculiar in history on the matter of sex versus gender.
The time was September 1919. The war was over. Everyone who was going to die from the flu had done so.
The place was Prospect, a bustling rural town in southern New South Wales known abroad for its sheep and awful weather but distinguished in its own eyes by the imminent arrival of the railway and the excellence of its general store, Nightingales.
It sounds harmless enough. It wasn’t.
Nightingales was pivotal to the ladies’ fate, although right-thinking people argued the mess was of their own making and could be traced directly to the arrival in Prospect of Pearl McCleary. The shop, these decent people insisted, had nothing to do with it. But it did, because Nightingales was equally at odds with the time and place, just the oddness was never mentioned.
This might have been because it was owned by the upright family Adelaide had married into, but more likely it was because of the comfort the town had taken in its luxury all war long. Nightingales was uniquely well stocked. Customers came from hundreds of miles just to breathe in the heady scent of indulgence and smallgoods that whacked them in the face as they crossed the threshold.
For maintaining such extraordinary standards, which it was generally believed reflected Prospect’s own, the town gave thanks to Archie Stokes. There was no finer shopkeeper in the whole of Australia than this large, white-haired, purple-faced, steely-eyed beacon of respectful service with his infallible grasp of all things grocery and his cunning understanding of ways and means. He was the shop’s – and so the town’s – heart and soul.
Which was one way of looking at it.
There are always dissenters, especially silent ones. Adelaide Nightingale née Bluett was dissenting her heart out as she hurried along Prospect’s main thoroughfare, Hope Street, on a bitterly cold spring day when no one could have foreseen the outrage that would bring horror and delight to the town in equal measure. Her blonde head was bent against the wind, her large grey eyes were watering from cold and despair, and two bright pink patches of remorse coloured her faintly freckled cheeks.
She clutched a thin poplin coat about her to ward off the weather but it no longer met across her chest. It failed in every way to ward off anything, least of all the bitter knowledge that while she’d been in charge of the shop, Archie Stokes had wormed his way from its perimeter into its precious centre where he’d become sole procurer of merchandise and sole keeper of the books. He wasn’t the last word in honesty everyone believed him to be. He was a liar. He was a thief. She knew it. She knew he knew she knew it. She knew they both knew there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
‘Now, Mrs Nightingale,’ he’d said just ten minutes ago, ‘you pay me to do the books, so leave the books to me.’ He’d smiled and winked at her. They both knew that every night he cooked those books and took from the till whatever amount he guessed wouldn’t be challenged by a woman famous for being as silly as a duck since she’d had her noisy baby. He was famous for his excellent business brain. He could, within seconds of clapping eyes on a customer, tell you how much they owed and how quickly but politely he would refuse them further credit. No one doubted him for a minute. Except Adelaide, who’d yet again failed to confront him out of cowardice. And exhaustion. And uncertainty.
Adelaide was as certain about Archie Stokes as she could be, but she was blessed with a sweetness of nature that suggested second thoughts on everything. She thought she was sure, but who would believe her? Not her husband. Not his mother. No one she could think of, since she’d never been sure about anything.
The uncertainty raging in her poor, tired brain played on her face for the entire world to see. There were deep blue circles under the grey eyes that were blank from lack of sleep. There was misery about her mouth and something unkempt about her hair, which was a poor show in an eminent businesswoman. Not that anyone considered her to be a businesswoman any more than they believed her husband to be all there. She knew what everyone thought. Captain Nightingale had been back for more than a year but there was still no sign of the bit of his mind he’d left in France. She sometimes wondered if he hadn’t mislaid it locally in his youth but in her eagerness to marry him she’d failed to notice.
In its absence, Archie Stokes had consolidated his position as young Mrs Nightingale’s trusted right-hand man on whom she relied for everything because she was a bit of an idiot. This was how she was seen, Adelaide was sure of it. She looked like a woman who was failing to manage, who would never be able to manage because she had no idea how to run a household, let alone a store famous for the joy it brought to harsh, rural wartime living. She looked like a woman with a bawling baby she couldn’t calm, a raging husband she couldn’t pacify and a life far more complicated than anything she’d been prepared for.
Poor Adelaide, walking so fast along Hope Street that she could have been running, stifled a sob. Did she care that women running in broad daylight look mad however sane they think they are? She did not. She was stupid and cowardly and also ugly, so what did it matter? That’s how she looked so that’s what she would become. She had gone to the store in her capacity as the owner’s wife and, yet again, she’d failed to exert herself.
She broke into a trot as she passed through the large sandstone Coronation Arch that announced to travellers that they were arriving or leaving Prospect, even though the town, strictly speaking, began a quarter of a mile along the road where the plain gave way to bush. The bush turned into scrub, which was barely distinguishable from the first property you came to on the right if you approached from the east.
This was the O’Connells’ rundown farm. Between the O’Connells’ and Adelaide’s own large house was a dusty lane leading to the vast acres of Somerset Station, fifty years the Bluett family seat, currently owned by Adelaide’s brother, Angus, but let to an antisocial man called Fletcher. Across the road was the Worthington place, once as smart as Adelaide’s but now reduced and neglected. All those properties were as entitled to have been included within the town’s boundaries as anything further up Hope Street, but they’d been overlooked in the siting of The Arch, and so somehow the residents of the enclave known as Beyond The Arch had come to be regarded as separate. It mattered. In the long run, it mattered.
Close to home, Adelaide began to run. It was well after lunch, milk from the two o’clock feed was drenching her bodice and she could hear the baby screaming from 200 yards away. She thought she could hear Marcus yelling at the new housekeeper to make that baby go to sleep and she pictured Pearl McCleary cooing and rocking and clapping and singing and skipping about the room, banging a pan with a wooden spoon as the child grew ever more frantic.
She didn’t see Louisa Worthington backing out of her front gate, and because she was leaving backwards, Louisa didn’t see her. They crashed to the ground, each grabbing the other, though whether to save herself or her neighbour no one could have told. Adelaide, the taller by a good four inches and heavier by several stone, fell on top of Louisa, who blinked at her in disbelief.
‘Heavens, Louisa, watch where you’re going,’ the now not-so-gentle Adelaide snapped. She pushed herself to her feet and yanked at Louisa’s arm to help her up but dropped it when Louisa didn’t budge. ‘You’re not hurt, are you?’
‘Your baby’s crying,’ Louisa said. ‘Screaming.’ She hauled herself upright and brushed down her skirt. ‘I’m on my way to the shop. Do you know if my tea has arrived?’ But Adelaide had already crossed the road, hurried down her path without looking back and closed her front door behind her. Her house suggested wealth with its many asymmetrical gables but it needed paint, and here and there, nails.
Louisa stared after her, then back at her own house, equally large but with fewer gables and in need of not just paint and nails. It could also have done with a new roof, a new path to the front door and the total demolition of the crumbling brick wall to which a once lovely gate was only half attached. She asked herself if she should go back into the house to check that the doors and windows were locked. She’d been glancing back for possible points of illegal entry when she’d reversed into Adelaide. If she returned to the house she could examine her clothes for dirt and holes. She thought about it. But she didn’t. She wouldn’t let herself. Punctuality was more important than a tiny rip in a lace blouse or a silk skirt and she was darned if she’d let nerves get the better of her. She stopped thinking about Adelaide as quickly as Adelaide had stopped thinking about her. Like Adelaide, she had so much more to worry about.
She didn’t run, or even walk unusually fast, back the way Adelaide had come along Hope Street and into the town. She strolled, in the composed manner of a calm widow from an important local family on her way to interview a bank manager who would certainly be from something less. Her plan was very definitely that she should interview him and not the other way round. She was a client with a substantial property and clever moneymaking schemes that couldn’t fail to appeal to anyone with an eye for a sound investment from an attractive woman.
Louisa knew from constant assessment that grief had, if anything, improved her looks. She was just that bit slimmer in the face and more delicate in her carriage. She knew very well how to drop her disturbingly blue eyes in the face of men’s brilliance. She knew how to tantalise by wrapping a long dark tendril around her index finger as she gave men’s opinions respectful due. So stately was her pace along Hope Street that she could easily have been taken for the woman she hoped the world believed her to be: slightly bored and rich, with no more on her mind than tea. She clung to the confidence she’d spent days marshalling even as it began to slither away from her.
Ahead of her was the horror of the bank. Behind her was the horror of home. She wished she’d worn a coat. Lace and silk were no match for the wind. She shivered but she didn’t falter. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath, turning her attention to the speech she had prepared. She had a house. She had many horses. Surely a moneyman could see the possibilities, and if not the possibilities, then the obligation to a widow whose husband had sacrificed his life so that the nation’s banks could prosper.
She passed St Benedict’s, she passed The Irish Rover, she passed the offices of The Prospect Gazette, the town hall, and on the other side of the road wide enough to accommodate stampeding cattle, she passed the chemist, the newsagents, Elsie’s Teashop, the baker, the butcher, Browns the fabric shop, and Furlongs, which sold ugly clothes. She saw but didn’t acknowledge Theresa Fellows carrying flowers into St Benedict’s and Charlie Saunders overseeing the unloading of beer barrels at the pub. She didn’t register the sheep being herded into the stockyard down Endeavour Road.
What stopped her in her tracks was a staggeringly large sign so poorly fixed to the noticeboard outside the Arts and Crafts Hall that, had she not jumped out of its way, it would have slapped her hard across the chest. ‘This is ridiculous,’ she said to no one in particular. And it was ridiculous. Nothing could have been more ridiculous.
The sign announced ‘A Very Special Evening with Florence Mayberry’, who was to speak at seven o’clock sharp that night on ‘A Matter of Huge Importance to The Nation’. Mrs Mayberry was to impart information of the Utmost Significance to Each and Every Household but most especially to Prospect’s Womenfolk. Louisa would have laughed out loud had she not been so upset by the sign’s near miss with her bosom.