Ivy’s hand trembled as she drew the brush over her lips, in danger of smudging the bright colour. Who would have thought at ninety-three she’d feel the need for war paint to stare down her son? Her Aunt Leonie always maintained that the devil caught most souls in a golden net. After last night’s conversation with Ken she finally understood what her aunt meant.
‘They’re going to foreclose on me,’ her son had said. ‘There’s only one option, one way to save both properties. You’ll need to sign them. No one needs to know.’
Her whole body had gone rigid. How could this be? But, in her heart, she’d seen it coming.
She pressed her lips together, smoothing the lipstick, then tilted her head to find a clear reflection in the mirror. The silver backing had starting to fall away around the edges. Another repair that would never be done now.
She peered at the face in the mirror. ‘Hello, Ivy Dunmore,’ she murmured, feeling like she was meeting an old friend for the first time in years. Wispy white hair was brushed back from a high forehead, the pale skin surprisingly unlined despite the years in the sun. Those summer blue eyes had paled to a frosty winter hue, framed by gold-rimmed glasses. There were creases in the cheeks, lines carved around the eyes – from laughter, she told herself – eyelashes that clump together, short and sparse. No point in batting them at a good-looking young digger anymore.
She tried a smile and examined her teeth. At least they were all her own, even if they wouldn’t be advertising toothpaste any time soon. She caught a glimpse of a feisty girl with her skirts flying as she whirled around the old Methodist Hall, bright eyes sliding towards the tall rangy cattleman who, dressed in his army uniform, lounged against the doorframe.
Wex and Lady interrupted the memory, their barks as creaky as her joints. The kelpies were the only survivors of the pack that helped Charlie rule sprawling Roseglen with benevolent care.
At the sound of a car speeding up the dusty track to the homestead Ivy sat taller on her wheeled walker. She looked to the faded photo of her husband beside their bed. Charlie’s battered felt hat was tilted back, his laughing eyes framed by a deep web of lines. There was strength in the chords of his neck and muscles of his shoulders. Behind him was Roseglen’s whitewashed chapel with the family graveyard and beyond that the ridgeline with the silhouette of towering gums. He was seventy that year, a man still vigorous and alive. That was the way he’d always be in her memory.
Hurried footsteps sounded up the stairs and across the verandah. She heard the front door swing open.
‘Mum? Mum? Where are you?’ Ken called.
No rush. I’m still alive, dear.
She bit back the retort. Even at sixty-three he could be so needy.
‘I’m here, son. I’ll be out in a moment.’
‘Right.’ Ken stopped outside the door. ‘I’ve got the papers.’
Well, of course you’ve got the papers. Why else would you be here? She swallowed a laugh and hiccupped.
‘Put the kettle on, there’s a dear,’ she said, hoping her voice sounded bright.
‘I’m on a tight schedule, Mum.’
‘Yes, I know, but there’s time for a cuppa. I’ll just be a moment.’
His heels thudded on the hall runner as he strode back across to the kitchen. Why could he not remember to take his boots off outside? The drought had sucked the moisture from the dirt in the front yard and he’d be leaving a trail of dust behind him on the old Persian carpet.
She sighed and glanced around the room, taking comfort from the pressed metal ceilings, the painting of the homestead surrounded by lush pastures and sleek cattle, and the solid oak furniture, gleaming with beeswax.
It had been her home for sixty years, ever since they moved from the tiny manager’s cottage to care for Old Mrs Dunmore. She loved every plank, every French door, every polished floorboard. The memories were as thick and rich as the chocolate topping she used to make for Charlie’s favourite pudding. She fingered a linen and lace doily on the dressing table. One wet season, when Lissie was just a toddler and the road was cut by floodwaters for a month, she’d grown bored with baking. That had resulted in a collection of doilies and tablecloths. Not too shabby an effort if she said so herself.
Sinbad, her Siamese, lounged on the handmade patchwork quilt, his gaze unwavering.
‘Yes, lovely boy. You stay here.’ The tip of his tail flicked. Ken had no love for cats.
In the kitchen the kettle screamed. Ivy could picture Ken on his phone, trying to ignore it. If he wasn’t poking at the screen, then he was talking, like a disembodied head holding a conversation with a ghost. Bluetooth, he’d told her one day when she’d chipped him about it. Sounds like a reason to visit the dentist, she’d retorted.
The whistle shut off abruptly.
‘Mum!’ He was imperious this time.
All right, all right. I’m not one of the dogs rounding up cattle.
She’d a mind to make him wait, but instead she stood and turned, straightened the skirt of her favourite blue dress, the fabric rippling over her legs, then gripped the handles of her walker and released the brakes. Let’s get this over and done with, Ivy Dunmore.
Old Mr and Mrs Dunmore frowned down from their formal portrait hanging on the picture rail in the short hallway that led from her bedroom and the office to the kitchen. Their disapproving eyes followed her as she passed. This wasn’t the way it should be, but the situation was not of her making. She was reaping what her parents-in-law had sowed sixty-three years ago.
Ken had his back to her as she entered the kitchen and her body softened. The disappointment dissipated like smoke on a windy day, blown away in a rush of affection. The power, the depth, of a mother’s love didn’t diminish. He’d been such a sunny-natured child. She recalled the love in his eyes as he’d peer out from behind his fringe, one hand hanging onto her skirts. Ken’s shoulders were broad, like all the Dunmore men. As he turned, the chambray of his shirt stretched tight across his muscled chest. His sandy hair, shot with grey, was thick and generous. Charlie had had the same easy command, the same striking good looks.
‘Here, Mum.’ Ken pushed the cup towards her and she eased onto her chair at the head of the long table, in front of a thick pile of paperwork. The tea was more white than tan. ‘Sorry, bit too much milk,’ he said, as he brushed a kiss across her cheek. She didn’t meet his eyes. She’d been drinking strong tea with a dash of milk all her life.
‘Thank you.’ She pulled a coaster over. There’d be no rings on the oaken top on her watch.
‘I’ve done all the work with the bank and I’ve marked with stickies where you need to sign.’ Ken patted the hefty document, its edges fluttering with fluorescent yellow tabs.
‘That many?’ She lifted her head to look through the bottom of her glasses and he frowned at her. Did he think she was being defiant? She flattened her lips before she could smile. Possibly. She used to do defiance better than any else.
She slid the document closer. A bank didn’t produce a clutch of papers like this in a day. The deal had been done long before. She was the last to know.
She leafed through them, the pages rustling, and cursed her frailty. Ken’s breathing was heavier.
‘I’ve marked where you need to sign, Mum,’ he reiterated. ‘Just find the tabs.’
‘I know, I know.’
He flicked his wrist and glanced at his watch. He was always so busy and she did miss seeing him. He could indulge her a little.
But before she could get to the bottom of the pile he reached over and placed the pen in her hand, curled her fingers around it. The warmth of his touch was at odds to the pain of arthritis in her joints.
She refused to look up, concentrating on the document as he closed it then opened it at the first tab.
‘Here, Mum, let’s get going. I know it’s tough. I do understand.’
The strength in his hands on hers, the rumble of his voice reassured her. She took a breath. Courage, Ivy, courage. It’s inevitable. After another moment, she signed her name with a flourish. It was a flamboyant, if wobbly, statement about who she was, her standing in the community. Ivy Dunmore filled the line nicely. It was much grander than Ivy Major.
Ken’s phone rang and he answered as she turned another page. A series of questions asked whether financial and legal advice had been obtained. She scoffed as she signed that too. As if her accountants or lawyer would have agreed to this.
‘And your sisters are happy with this?’ she asked, as he finished his call.
He nodded, his smile sympathetic. ‘I told you that already, Mum. They understand. You’re forgetting things.’ He rubbed her shoulder.
She blinked. Should she call his bluff? Georgina would fight him tooth and nail on principle, just because she could. And Felicity, her baby Lissie? She’d have found a compromise, another way than this.
But there was nothing to be gained. If she didn’t agree to this mortgage over her home, then the Dunmores may well lose everything. Her mind wandered as she signed page after page. At her age it wasn’t as though she was still running Roseglen. The four-year drought had been a blessing in some way. Her neighbour, Mitch Trethowan, agisted cattle on Roseglen and that kept the property’s head above water. And Mitch, God bless him, was doing all the maintenance himself. Such a shame he and Ken didn’t see eye to eye. They hadn’t for years. She’d long forgotten what had caused the rift.
‘There.’ She pushed the documents towards him.
‘It’s just until I get Arran Downs back up and running,’ he said, eyeing the photos on the fridge. Which one had caught his attention? The one of him with his ex-wife Samantha and their girls, Cassie and Sarah, in happier times? ‘Just until the next wet season,’ he continued. ‘It’s not forever. You understand.’ The flush on his neck might be guilt. Or embarrassment. What man wanted to admit his plans haven’t come to fruition? Especially a man who was used to success.
‘Perhaps you can stay for lunch next time. I’ll cook a curry, your favourite.’
He nodded. ‘Sure, that’d be nice, but don’t go to any trouble.’
There was a tiny pause. She chose not to fill it.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’ll get going. I’ll come by through the week.’
‘I thought you were off to Melbourne to see Cassie and Sarah?’
‘No, Mum. I didn’t say that.’ Ken looked puzzled as he stuffed the papers into his briefcase.
She’d bought him that case in 1983, when he was first elected to the Parliament of Queensland. Charlie was so proud of Ken.
‘Let’s get him something special,’ he’d said. ‘How about a pen?’
‘We’ll buy him a Hermès briefcase,’ she’d countered. They’d had a string of good years full of fat cattle and lucrative sales. The bank was their friend. The bag was big enough to take clothes for a weekend with a concertina document section. All gold clasps and leather straps, it was a beautiful piece. They’d call it vintage now. The fact he still used it gave her a warm glow. She was still proud of him.
‘You’re staying home, then?’ she asked. She knew it had hurt him terribly when he lost the last election. He’d been a solid representative for the district, but Blind Freddy could see the writing on the wall after Charlie died. Ken had lost his biggest asset, yet he carried on believing the spin doctors. ‘Delusional,’ Georgina unkindly called him.
‘I told you, Mum,’ his hand warm on her back, ‘I’m only flying to Brisbane for a day. I’ll be back by Tuesday. You’re going to have to start writing things down. Your memory’s not what it used to be.’
He stooped to kiss her cheek and she patted his face before he pulled away. ‘Bye, Mum.’ His smile was gentle.
‘Bye, son.’ A pulse of visceral grief surged through her, and she bit her lip to stop the sob escaping. His boots beat time with her heart as he walked down the hallway. The front door closed and she heard him take the steps two at a time. A moment later the engine roared to life and the sob escaped.
Ivy sat in her grand kitchen, pressing the linen hanky to her mouth. Was that dreadful sound really coming from her? Lady and Wex were doing circles on the back verandah and she wanted to curl her fingers in their fur, feel their rough tongues on her papery skin. But her legs wouldn’t stand so she was stuck at a table that had seen five generations of Dunmores eat, laugh, love and argue around it.
Sinbad appeared, his tail high, and jumped into her lap, rubbing his head on her chin. She sat a little straighter and took a deep breath.
‘Hello, little friend.’ She ran her hands down his silky fur. How did it come to this? How have I become so vulnerable? She’d almost welcome the chance to defend herself from a slap or a shove, to rail against mistreatment. But no, this was more subtle, this losing her life one brick at a time. Am I starting to forget things?
The phone rang and she fumbled in the seat pocket of the walker for the handpiece.
‘Hello, Ivy Dunmore speaking.’
‘You okay, love?’ Esmay asked. The sympathy of her oldest friend made Ivy’s voice catch.
‘I’ve had better days, but I’m still standing.’ She glanced at her bent knees. Esmay would know she was fibbing.
‘Did you phone the girls like I told you?’
‘No. I’ll tell Lissie when she gets here next week. She’s staying for a couple of days. But they’re both so busy and . . .’ And what’s the point? Why start World War Three?
‘They’ll be hurt when they find out, Ivy. And maybe they could have come up with something else, a better solution.’
‘Bit like the Sunlander train, Esmay. It would take more than a couple of heifers to derail Ken when he’s on a mission.’
Esmay laughed. ‘A stick of dynamite should do it. Just saying the girls will be hurt.’
She was grateful for Esmay’s bluntness. At their first meeting Ivy was the brand-new bride on the arm of the most sought-after bachelor in the district. Esmay was heavily pregnant with her first baby, swatting flies away with a hanky while perspiration beaded on her forehead, her husband busy behind the bar. Ivy had sat beside her and fanned her, grateful for something to do as everyone passed judgement on the city girl who’d won Charlie Dunmore’s heart. None of them expected her to last the distance, not even Esmay, but Ivy Dunmore was no quitter.
‘So now what happens?’ Esmay asked.
‘I don’t think anything changes, really.’ She glanced out the window at the land that had crept into her marrow, filled the arteries of her heart.
‘Except that if the rain doesn’t come, the bank will take the lot. Ivy, don’t be burying your head over this. I wish you’d told me sooner.’
She wished she’d known sooner. ‘I shouldn’t have worried you with it at all. And it’s . . .’ Ivy trailed off. Esmay had called straight after Ken had hung up last night. He was so persuasive, reasonable, but still she was beside herself. Esmay’s sixth sense for trouble had been a most useful trait when the pair of them were in their heyday, running the Limestone Hill CWA. It was not so welcome now, winkling out trouble in her life.
‘I know, I know,’ Esmay said. ‘I’ll keep it under my hat. No one’s business but yours. No wonder that wife of his took off with the girls and never came back. Lucky that Ken doesn’t come near me these days. I’d give him a piece of my mind.’ And Esmay would, with knobs on, as she was so fond of saying. She was of a different political persuasion. There’d never been any love lost between her and Ken. ‘I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning and we’ll go to church together.’
Ivy hesitated. Going to church almost felt hypocritical. How was it possible that guilt weighed more heavily as each year passed?
Esmay cut in again. ‘You know it’s been months and I know how much you love a good hymn. Besides, I’m sick of getting stuck with the Lathers and they’ll keep their distance if you’re there.’
Ivy laughed and it felt good. She and the Lathers hadn’t seen eye to eye since she’d told their teenage son off for kicking the back of her pew. Perhaps she could have been more diplomatic. ‘All right, then, but drive around the back. I don’t feel like facing those front stairs at the moment.’
‘Of course, love. I’ll see you at eight-thirty.’
They rang off and the tension leached from Ivy’s body, taking the rush of adrenaline with it. She stretched out her fingers, the arthritis burning in the joints. She was weary, beyond tired, and she raised her face to the heavens.
‘Dear Lord, I’m ready to come home. Anytime soon is fine with me.’
The silence mocked her.