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  • Published: 15 June 2022
  • ISBN: 9781761046902
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 368
  • RRP: $32.99

Gathering Storms

Extract

Lisa arrived in Southbend in mid-November on a day of gathering storms, when the air dripped with humidity and the huge grey-white cumulus clouds were piled like soapsuds above the line of timber fronting the banks of the Rainsford River.

The vehicle approached from the east in a swirl of dust that slowly died as its wheels met the bitumen streets of the town. I was sitting at the table on the verandah, the coolest spot in summer, sorting invoices, and I watched the dusty vehicle slow as it hit the main street, travel slowly along it and then nose into the parking space in front of the pub, just two blocks over from me. A woman got out and hurried inside without pausing to look around her. I couldn’t place the vehicle though, and in a town as small as Southbend one soon came to recognise the wheels that belonged there.

When I glanced up again, it was to see the same vehicle cruising towards my place. The woman pulled up beside the Carter’s Nursery sign with its garish illustrations of palms and hibiscus flowers. My father-in-law, Angus, who had designed and painted it, had originally gone for overwhelming brightness, despite my protestations that nothing in nature had ever attained those colours. ‘You won’t think so in a coupla years’ time, lass,’ he had replied, and I’d had to admit that he’d been right. Deserts anywhere couldn’t better the weathering effects of Gulf Country sun on paint.

I waited, invoices forgotten, as both car doors opened and the woman and then a child emerged. They were bare-headed, dressed in t-shirts and shorts, the child loitering behind the woman, her footsteps dragging.

‘Come on, Lisa,’ the latter snapped, seizing Lisa’s young shoulder and propelling her forcibly forward.

I stepped to the edge of the shade while they traversed the garden and called to them. ‘Hello. I’m Penny Carter. Can I help you? There’s a back entrance if you’re after plants.’

‘I haven’t come to buy,’ the woman responded. ‘Is Angus McCloud here?’

‘He’s around somewhere,’ I said. ‘He could be taking a nap.’ It was the hottest part of the day, when customers rarely came and the plants were best left alone, with potting and watering being done in the comparative cool of either morning or evening. ‘Look, come up out of the sun while I go see. Who shall I say wants him?’

‘Tell him his granddaughter’s here,’ the woman said. Having climbed the steps, she pulled a chair out from the table and sat uninvited. ‘I’ll wait.’

Astonished, I stopped mid-step and swung back to face her. ‘What? His granddaughter? Who are you?’ I stared at them both. The woman had heavy legs and thick arms and looked about forty. Her hair was scraped back into a ponytail, and she wore frown lines between her brown eyes. The child was a thin, sullen-looking girl with a peaky face, hazel eyes and straggling brown hair. She was pre-pubescent – nine, perhaps ten years old. She glowered at me as the heat rushed into my face and my gaze turned back to the woman. ‘You . . . What do you mean, his granddaughter?’

The woman waved a dismissive hand, a hard expression on her face. ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m Pauline’s half-sister, if you must know, and I’ve been lumped with her kid long enough. And now she’s come to visit her grandad. Just for a week. So why don’t you go find him and let me get on my way?’

Shocked beyond speech at the woman’s effrontery, I went. If the child really was Angus’s grandchild, then that made Pauline Michael’s wife, which meant . . . Stunned, I clapped a hand over my mouth. Angus wasn’t resting; I found him in the open-fronted workshop to one side of the smaller shadehouse where we grew the ferns and house plants. He was seated on an old oil drum engaged in sharpening a handsaw. He looked up at my approach, saying, ‘Yeah, I know. But it’s too hot to lie around. Cooler out here, so I may as well be doin’ something.’ And then, catching my expression. ‘What’s wrong, lass?’

I said baldly, ‘There’s a woman come. She’s brought a child called Lisa with her. To stay, she said. Apparently she’s your granddaughter.’ It was half a question.

‘What?’ He shot to his feet. ‘What woman? Who is she?’

‘According to her, Michael’s wife’s half-sister. Angus, I know that makes the child your kin but I can’t – I won’t have her here! How that woman would dare to even think—’

‘No, no, of course not,’ he soothed me. He stroked his nose, a habit he fell into whenever agitated or thoughtful, as if even after seventy years he still couldn’t believe anything so big could belong on his face. ‘Bloody cheek! I’ll speak to her, lass. They can put up at the pub and I’ll go over later and talk to the kid. She’s too young to know—’

‘Ha! Maybe so, but what about her aunt or half-aunt or whatever she is? You can’t tell me she’s not perfectly aware of the situation.’

‘All right, Penny,’ he said calmly. ‘It’s no good upsetting yourself. I’ll get rid of her. Make yourself a cuppa, and leave it to me.’ Wiping his hands on the seat of his jeans, he settled his battered old hat and headed for the front of the house.

A cuppa. Angus’s panacea for everything. Ignoring his advice, I followed him, but found only the child kicking her heels where I had left her. The car and the woman were gone.

The girl was eyeing Angus dubiously. ‘Grandad?’ Her voice was uncertain. ‘She never said you were that old.’

‘Where’s your aunt?’ I demanded.

She shrugged. ‘Lily? She went. To the pub, I expect. Are you my dad’s other woman? You’re too young to be a grandma.’

I took a deep breath. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Michael McCloud married me seven years ago, so I suppose I am.’ I noticed then that a smallish bag lay at the foot of the shallow steps. ‘Is that yours?’ Without waiting for an answer, I looked at Angus. ‘She’s just dumped her and gone.’

‘Right.’ He wiped a hand over his chin and flicked sweat away. The humidity must have been over ninety per cent, normal for this time of the year. He looked at the child and smiled, the wrinkles of his face adjusting to the kindly gaze of his faded blue eyes. He was a slow, gentle man, old Angus. Good for the long haul, as he said himself, though he’d take his own time getting there. ‘So, you’re Lisa. I don’t suppose your father told you about me?’

‘No,’ the girl said. ‘Lily said you were my grandad, so why didn’t you come and see us when Daddy died?’

‘Because I didn’t know about you then.’ He pulled a chair out from the table. ‘Whew! It’s hot. Let’s sit down, shall we? How old are you, Lisa?’

‘Eleven.’ She made no effort to sit, just folded her arms and scowled at him. ‘My mum died last year.’ The childish face twisted for a moment, then resumed its sullen expression. ‘That’s when Lily came and got me, but now she’s fed up. If she wanted a kid, she said, she’d have had her own. So now you’re it. That’s what she told me.’

A dreadful certainty filled my mind. I said sharply, ‘Your aunt said you were just here for a visit – a week.’

The unchildlike look she cast me contained equal measures of dislike and triumph. ‘She says a lot of things. Like she was going to the pub. I bet she never. She’ll be long gone by now.’ There was no mistaking the satisfaction in her tone.

I swung sharply, craning to see past the corner of Flint’s Place on the next street over, and it was true. The pub’s parking, a marked area under the poincianas that edged the lawn around the building, was bare, save for a dust-smeared Toyota, which, at a guess, had come in from some station. And when I looked, the west bound road leading off from the edge of town held a hint of dust. It could have been a willy wind or stock crossing the road, but was likely Lily leaving Southbend.

Twenty minutes later, as I nosed my own vehicle back into its bay in the shed, having completed the rounds of the town, I knew that Lisa was right. The woman had gone and, much as I didn’t want her, it seemed the girl was here to stay. For the moment at least. There must be somebody, I thought wildly, slamming the cab door and striding back to the house, who could take her, whose responsibility she was. But with her parents dead, and her aunt (half-aunt?) abrogating the task of caring for her, it seemed depressingly likely that Angus was her only remaining relative. Her father, Michael, had had no siblings and presumably if there had been any on Pauline’s side, it wouldn’t have fallen to a mere half-sister to take the child in.

‘Well,’ Angus said reassuringly, meeting me at the door, ‘we’ll sort something out, lass. Come and sit down, have a cold drink. It’s thirsty weather.’

Lisa piped up behind him. ‘I’m hungry. Lily said I could wait till we got to the pub, but she didn’t buy anything and we came straight here.’ She sidled behind the old man and I was suddenly ashamed of myself. I had been less than welcoming. And how traumatic was it for a child to know herself a burden and then be summarily dumped on strangers in surroundings far different from any she had known?

‘All right. I’ll find you something.’ I turned towards the kitchen. ‘Come with me. You can call me Penny. I didn’t know when I married your father that he already had a wife. I’m sorry your mother died. Of course you can stay and visit your grandfather. You’ll like that, won’t you, Angus?’

‘Too right,’ he agreed heartily. ‘Mike never told me he had a kid. What about your mum’s dad – do you see him at all?’

‘He’s been dead forever. I never knew him,’ Lisa said, glancing around at the cupboards and benchtop as she entered the room. ‘Don’t you have air-conditioning?’ She wiped sweat from her lip.

‘No, but there’s a fan.’ I switched it on and we all enjoyed the rush of air against our damp skins. ‘So there’s only you and Lily now?’

‘There’s only me,’ she muttered. ‘Lily’s gone to Darwin. We were going too, Mum and me, but we went shopping that day and she fell down right in the middle of it. An ambulance came and a police lady—’ With a great effort she stiffened her wavering voice and repeated, ‘So there’s only me.’

Pity tore at me. ‘I’m so sorry, Lisa,’ I said, realising even as I spoke that I was caught and she was here to stay. Angus would insist on it and, anyway, how in good conscience could I condemn her to the dubious mercy of the welfare system? It was inconvenient and, from a strictly selfish point of view, grossly unfair, but she was all that was left in the world of Michael McCloud, whom I had once adored and, even now, could not entirely cease from the habit of loving, despite daily damning his bigamous soul to hell.


Gathering Storms Kerry McGinnis

Set against the stunning backdrop of the Gulf country’s monsoon season, this is a dramatic story of betrayal and forgiveness from bestselling author and Australia’s authentic voice of the land.

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