Lifting the corner flap of flyscreen, Robbie pushed against the stained- glass window of the schoolroom. The timber frames creaked ominously, revealing the steely bark of trees, scattered branches and a glimpse of bush beyond. Breath held, he waited for the footsteps of the governess on the veranda.
When no board squeaked, Robbie tiptoed across the polished wooden floor to peek out the door. Sure enough, the woman was already sitting at the opposite end of the porch. He studied the pinched- face yard of pump water known as Miss Hastings, although Robbie called her Duck Face on account of her beady eyes and beaky nose. He watched and waited, knuckles still stinging from the harsh rap of the ruler. He wondered why it was so vital to be able to name each of the red- shaded countries on the large map on the wall. Everyone knew those lands belonged to England and, as he never intended leaving River Run, Robbie figured that he’d never need any more information than that.
The governess turned the pages of a book disinterestedly and then, leaning back in the cane chair, gazed out across the expanse of dirt to the green oasis of the homestead garden. Ponds and shrubberies were bordered by a white timber fence that stretched like a weathered spine past the house and thorny rose bushes, to where massive bougainvilleas proclaimed the entrance to the grounds. Somewhere within the house surrounds was a well dug by the first Rivers to have settled this land. It was filled in now, the water having been found brackish. Robbie’s mother explained that a tree was planted on the very spot. Rex, the gardener, said it was one of the bigger trees, on account of a stockman having been dropped down the deep hole. Excellent fertiliser, Rex explained. Robbie was yet to discover if the story was true or not, but it sure riled Duck Face.
The governess’s eyelids grew drowsy, her wrist slipping from the arm of the chair to hang languidly in the afternoon heat. Robbie retreated back inside the schoolroom, closed the study guide sitting on his desk and scrawled on the blackboard: finished. He studied the copper- plate handwriting with some satisfaction, before his attention was drawn to the teacher’s satchel. There was never much inside it. A lined exercise book, writing paper and envelopes, a long pencil box with a sliding lid and an outline of the day’s study.
From inside his flip- top desk, Robbie retrieved a glass jar with a screw- top lid and held the contents up to the light. The slimy tadpoles were tiny frogs now, although some retained stumpy tails. It didn’t take much to fish the little critters out, and they seemed pretty happy in Miss Hastings’ pencil box, their new home. With the slippery transfer complete, he replaced the box in the satchel and returned the jar to the desk.
At the window, Robbie wormed his slight body through the hole, angling down the side of the building until hard ground braced his palms. The toes of his boots caught on the sill, halting the escape, however, he twisted one way and then the other, and then slid himself to freedom.
River Run village appeared deserted for a Friday afternoon. Eleanor Webber left her suitcase at the station master’s of?ce, crossed the street and turned into the main thoroughfare. At the intersection, she tugged a beige hat over red hair and straightened her grey skirt and pink blouse. Old weatherboard houses, some dilapidated, others inhabited, intermingled with newer dwellings, vacant lots and public buildings, the line of randomly placed structures crowned by the two-storey Royal Hotel and the peaked roof of the Catholic church.
Two men leaning on the hitching post outside the Royal Hotel eyed Eleanor with interest as a willy-willy of red dust careered down the street, before turning a corner, caught by the changeable wind. Eleanor clutched at her ?apping skirt as someone whistled appreciatively from the upstairs balcony. A row of men leant on the railings, a yellow dog among them. Feeling conspicuous, Eleanor lingered on the kerb as a truck with a load of hay came by, throwing up a cloud of dirt. The vehicle continued down the street, passing the church and the Memorial Hall to stop outside the garage. A few seconds later the mechanic, Sweeny Hall, appeared. He talked brie?y to the driver and then, lying on the road, pulled himself under the vehicle.
Cutting diagonally across the street, Eleanor headed to the Post Of?ce-cum-telephone exchange.
Pattie Hicks stuck her head out the door of the building, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. ‘Thought I heard a pair of heels a-clacking.’ She stepped down onto the cement footpath. ‘You home for a visit then, Eleanor?’
‘I am. How are you, Pattie?’
‘Me?’ The woman took a puff of the cigarette. ‘Nothing that a trip to Sydney wouldn’t ?x. You must ?nd it right boring when you come back here.’
Boring wasn’t the word that came to mind. ‘Actually, I like the peace and quiet. It’s a nice change,’ Eleanor conceded, the sun biting at her skin through her blouse.
‘Well, I guess you have to have a change to know the difference.’ Pattie took a long drag then ground the cigarette out with a ruby-red sandal. ‘Missed the festivities, you did. We had a march and everything down the main street for the jubilee celebrations. Imagine, ?fty years since federation, two wars, the blasted depression and now those slanty- eyed Koreans are picking a ?ght. Well, you chose your week, coming during this hot spell. Fry an egg on the pavement you could these past couple of days, and no sign of it ending soon.’ She stepped from the kerb onto the road, grimacing at the dirt. ‘Those Greeks down the road reckon I should be rubbing fat into my face to stop my skin from cracking up.’ She looked unconvinced. ‘Might as well sit a woman out in the middle of the road and cook her, I say. And what about the stink? Mutton lard on my face in this weather?’
‘I think they probably meant olive oil,’ suggested Eleanor politely.
‘I know I ain’t the prettiest in the west,’ Pattie lifted a foot, brushing dust from her toes, ‘but do I look like a ?aming tossed salad?’
This time Eleanor didn’t risk an answer. Only a few years prior, the telephonist had stabbed a woman in the back of the hand with a blunt fork for making eyes at her beloved husband.
‘So then, what’s the news from the big smoke?’ She looked at Eleanor’s ring ?nger. ‘Nothing, eh? Well, maybe you’re the smart one.’
Not that smart, Eleanor thought. Dante had stolen her novella and published the work under his name. The man she’d fallen in love with, had given herself to, had betrayed her.
‘It’s not what everyone says it is, this marriage caper, and I should know. Had two of them I have. One dead and the other not far off.’
‘Oh, Pattie, I’m sorry. Is Bill sick?’
‘Sick? He will be once he feels the rolling pin on the back of his head. Good piece of wood like that, well, I mean, you can’t just be using something like that for making scones.’
‘I guess not.’ Eleanor did her best not to laugh. The glint in Pattie’s eyes suggested she was serious. ‘Could you call River Run for me and let them know I’m here?’
‘No need. Rex is in town picking up some trellis from Stavros. That’s if you’re happy to ride with the help,’ Pattie challenged.
Sure enough Eleanor could now see her father’s old blue truck parked at the far end of the street outside the General Store. ‘Of course I am. Thanks, Pattie.’
‘Unexpected visit, eh?’ the operator pried. And when no answer was forthcoming, she gave an off-hand wave. ‘Be seeing you, Eleanor.’
Rex March and Stavros Pappas, the owner of the General Store, were sliding the length of trellis into the tray of the truck as Eleanor approached. They were complete opposites, with one dark-haired and thick-set and the other wiry with skin burnt red from a life lived outdoors. Chuckling quietly, they only noticed her when she was a couple of feet away.
‘Miss Eleanor?’ Rex had droopy spaniel eyes and a craggy neck but his gap-toothed smile was one of the happiest she’d seen in quite a while. ‘It’s a treat for an old man to see you again.’
‘Hello, Rex, hello, Mr Pappas.’
Both men tipped their hats in greeting.
‘Miss Eleanor,’ Stavros Pappas said loudly, ‘welcome home. It is good to see you. You come when the sun is very hot, yes?’
‘Yes,’ she agreed.
‘You’re a sight then, Miss Eleanor,’ the gardener said, ‘appearing out of the blue.’
‘I thought I’d surprise Mother.’
‘That you’ll do. But she’ll be real pleased to see you.’ Rex unwound a length of rope and began to loop it through the trellis. ‘You’d be needing a lift,’ he surmised, securing the lattice-work to the truck.
‘That would be great. My suitcase is at the station.’
‘Well, I’ll just ?nish up with the River Run order,’ Mr Pappas said amiably, stepping onto the pavement and walking back inside the shop.
Rex tested the knot on the rope. ‘Stavros’s family has arrived from Greece since your last visit. Got here a good six months ago. Fitted in real well they have. One of the boys has taken up an apprenticeship with Sweeny Hall while the eldest girl is real ? ne with a needle. A new frock or a fresh wound, you name it, either way she’s a boon to the district.’
‘She’s a nurse?’ Eleanor noted the shiny new rabbit traps piled in the tray.
‘Served she has. Sad story there,’ Rex replied cryptically.
‘Mr Pappas must be happy to have them all out here with him at last. I know he’s wanted them to emigrate for a long time.’
Rex weighed her reply. ‘Yes and no. Neither of the grandmothers came. Couldn’t shift them with a barge pole, Stavros told me. They lost boys over there. Killed in the war. And those old ladies won’t leave them behind. But as I said to him, that’s their choosing and I can’t blame a person for not wanting to be buried in foreign soil. Of course it’s real hard on him and the others, leaving those two old girls behind in Athens, knowing they’ll never see them again.’
The wind blew down the main street, bringing with it the sounds of another vehicle. A battered taxi drew up outside the hotel to the interest of the shearers on the balcony above. One man got out, popped the boot, dropping a swag in the dirt.
‘Hey, Don Donaldson,’ a young man in a red and yellow ?annel shirt yelled from above, ‘in the wrong district, aren’t you?’
The heavy-boned man with bunched muscles for arms looked up brie?y but said nothing. Hefting the swag over a shoulder, he walked inside the building.
‘For a young pup you’ve got a mug on you,’ one of the men on the balcony accused the ?annel wearer. ‘That man you’re chiacking with, well, he can throw a punch that would send your teeth to your feet, he can.’ The voice grew reverent. ‘Donaldson. Gun shearer from the Riverina, but he ain’t never come to River Run before.’
The inhabitants of the balcony, eight men and the mangy dog, craned their necks over the railing. The taxi lurched forward as if struggling to gain momentum before continuing down the street and out of town.
Rex resumed their conversation. ‘I should tell you too, Miss Eleanor, your mother’s having one of her weekends, so be prepared. Mrs Howell has been making a din in the kitchen since Wednesday.’
‘Oh, I didn’t time that very well.’ That was the last thing Eleanor needed. Her return home after a year’s absence was a last-minute decision. She needed to escape. To forget the Italian she’d so adored, so trusted.
‘And there’s shearing about to start. It’s a busy month ahead.’ Rex rubbed a lined cheek, his attention diverted by raucous laughter. There was a scuf?e occurring on the hotel balcony. A thin, short man, the one who’d backchatted the gun shearer, was being edged over the wrought iron balustrade by Donaldson and dangled above the street by his ankles.
Eleanor’s eyes grew large. ‘Rex? What are they doing?’
The laughter from the men on the balcony grew loud and encouraging.
A dog barked. Someone yelled out you bloody mongrel and the man was dragged back to safety.
Rex gave a snort of laughter. ‘That’s some of the team. Started arriving in dribs and drabs a couple of days back. I reckon a man would be right entertained just by pulling up a chair here on this very street and watching the village come alive at shearing time. Come every-which-way this year they have, girl. Came early to get their ?ll before heading out to River Run come Sunday.’ Noticing Eleanor’s confusion, he elaborated, ‘Dry camp. Some of them don’t drink, mind, and there are others happy to take a few weeks off the beer and rum to dry out, although they gripe about it. But there’s them that can’t exist without it. They can get real cranky.’ He rested cracked brown arms on the edge of the truck. ‘Ah, shearers. We were kings once, Eleanor. Kings. Forty-six degrees in the waterbag and each man’s tally two hundred and twenty ewes a day and rising. It was an honour to be in a good team with fast men. The rouseabouts back then were terribly religious. We kept them that busy that they’d drop to their knees at the end of the day and pray, pray for rain, so they could have a break. And the musterers and pennerups, why, they could barely keep the sheep up to us. I shore in places where the boards were that long you could run a Stawell Gift.’
‘Dad always said you were a gun shearer,’ Eleanor replied with admiration. Rex stored so many stories that she’d never heard the same twice.
Rex frowned. ‘I weren’t no gun,’ he said seriously, ‘but I was good, real good.’
Mr Pappas reappeared carrying three large brown paper bags, his black hair falling across a ridged brow. Rex opened the passenger door and the shopkeeper slid the groceries along the bench seat. ‘That be all then, Rex?’
‘Yes, that’s it, mate.’
‘Here you go.’ Mr Pappas handed Eleanor a white paper bag. ‘Boiled lollies for young Robbie.’
‘Thanks, Mr Pappas.’
‘Keep them hidden if I was you, Miss Eleanor,’ Rex advised. ‘Your mother’s not in a real good mood on account of young Robbie destroying two of her rose bushes, and the new governess is on the warpath again.’
‘Another one, Rex?’ queried Eleanor.
The older man scratched furiously behind an ear. ‘Number eight by my reckoning. Yup, eight governesses in three years. Impressive by any standard.’
When had Robbie not been in trouble? ‘I’m glad to hear your family has joined you, Mr Pappas.’ Eleanor opened the packet and took one of the lollies for herself. The sweet was chewy, a sugary jube.
‘It’s wonderful. Very wonderful. I am a lucky man. Now don’t forget, my Athena she would make you a beautiful frock. You come and see Athena.’
‘I will,’ Eleanor promised, climbing into the truck.
‘And I see you, Rex, for the shearing order. Sunday?’
‘Sounds good. Sunday it is,’ he con?rmed, before shifting the gearstick on the column of the steering wheel. ‘First stop the station master’s of?ce,’ he said to Eleanor, as the truck crawled down the road, ‘then River Run.’
‘We’re starting shearing later than usual, aren’t we?’
‘It’s the overseer. Talked your mother into shearing now.’ Rex tapped the side of his nose. ‘Got a plan, he has. Wants the ewes joined earlier this year to bring the lambing forward. I’ve seen him, you know, in the yards. Hour after hour he’ll go through a mob. Looking, always a-looking. Writes everything in his notebook. Brings the same mob back in a couple of months later and, blow-me-down, does the exact same thing again. Last November he brought in a new classer, Nevin. Took him to the yards to go through a mob. Didn’t ask. Didn’t tell no- one about it. But the Boss, well, she lets him have the run of the place.’
They were soon outside the railway station and Rex was quick to open the door. A few minutes later the suitcase landed with a thud in the tray of the truck.
‘Hugh wants to split the ?ock up a bit more,’ continued Rex as he put his foot on the accelerator. A spray of gravel spun up as they turned left and then right, heading swiftly out of the village. ‘Divvy up the stud ewes. That means more fences and more paddocks. Course the only reason the Boss has given him the okay is because he’s gone back to your grandfather’s ways. The wethers and rams have been out on the western edge of the run since the middle of last year, hardening up on Old Man saltbush. Toughen them up. Grow them out, he says. And your mother agrees. Well, if it was good enough for your grandfather . . . He’s all about improving the ?ock.’ The road quickly altered from the packed, relatively smooth dirt of the street to a potholed single lane.
‘That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’ replied Eleanor.
‘In the bush a man does well not to have delusions of grandeur. I don’t see a shingle hanging above Hugh’s door saying Stud Master.’ Rex blew his nose on a piece of rag.
‘If Mr Goward’s ideas are good,’ Eleanor reasoned, ‘why not?’
‘We’re doing ?ne. And with wool worth a pound a pound, I can’t see the point. If it ain’t broke, you don’t ? x it.’
‘I thought you were friends?’
‘I’m not saying we aren’t.’
Eleanor decided not to pursue the topic. Instead she shuf?ed across the cracked leather upholstery until she found a more comfortable spot. The wireless soon replaced the need for conversation and Eleanor settled back contentedly, turning her face into the harsh, hot wind.