- Published: 17 July 2017
- ISBN: 9780143784586
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
Secrets of the Springs
The letter arrived in my absence. Rose’s birthday was coming up; that’s Rose Buchan, my friend, landlady, surrogate mother and grandmother rolled into one. She and her husband, Kevin, were the only reason I was on King Island, so her birthday gift required something more than the little township of Currie had to offer. It was the reason I had boarded the ridiculously small ferry to brave the boisterous waters of Bass Strait. When I returned a day or two later, shaken, and thankful for the feel of dry land beneath my feet again, the missive was waiting for me, the outer envelope stiff and official looking, marked with the logo of the bank, and postmarked Emu Springs.
My instinct was to ignore it. Normally the only communication I had from my bank was my monthly statement, but this envelope was too thick to contain only that. I dropped it onto the dressing table, then paused in my unpacking to turn back and stuff it into a drawer. Out of sight, out of mind. Later, after dinner and an evening spent in the cosy atmosphere of Kevin’s den where I recounted details of my trip to him and Rose, I fished the letter out again and reluctantly held it up to the light. Through the thickness of the envelope, the faint outline of another was visible.
Curiosity warred with dismay. It had been five years since I left, creeping from the sleeping house to catch the night bus without a word to a soul. Five years of silence had ensued from the burning inland waste beyond the Barrier Range. It was only since settling on King Island that I had sent the bank my address and had received in return a jiffy bag crammed with years’ worth of statements in envelopes on which my neatly typed name and address, Miss Orla Macrae, 5 Donal Street, Emu Springs, NSW, had been crossed out and substituted with my uncle’s script; broad black strokes as unyielding as his own nature – Not known at this address.
So why, five years after we had last spoken, had he decided to get in touch – if indeed the letter came from him? What could he possibly want with me, the despised niece, daughter of the brother he had hated? My parents had died in a road accident when I was twelve and I had loathed Uncle Palmer ever since. He had taken over my life, along with the station property my father had owned. Everything that I knew and loved had been swept away on that fateful day. July 12, 1963 – the date popped into my mind as if programmed, even now, thirteen years after the event. Well, whatever had forced him to write could not compel me to answer. I dropped the letter back into the drawer and got ready for bed.
At 3 a.m. I gave in and stretched a hand through the cold air to find the switch on the bedside light. Ignoring the letter wasn’t going to work so I might as well open it as lie awake all night wondering about its contents. The wind had risen and the window frame rattled as it always did in a westerly. I pulled the quilted comforter higher as I reached for the drawer and caught the envelope between my fingertips.
Slowly I pulled it open and took out the envelope contained within. The superscription on the inner envelope was also typed. Miss Orla Macrae, it read, and then Urgent. Please forward. I turned it over and read the discreet script on the flap. Casselot and Evans, Solicitors. Emu Springs. NSW. Not from Uncle Palmer then, but why in the world . . .? With a sudden jolt I wondered if the solicitors were writing to tell me that he was dead. He was only – well – I paused to do the sums. Dad would have been sixty-one this year, which put Palmer at around seventy. The knowledge came as a surprise. Pushing my hair back I ripped the letter open.
It was from Ben Casselot, the younger partner. My uncle, it seemed, was still among the living – at least at the time of writing – but he was dying of pancreatic cancer. He needs to see you, the solicitor had written. There is something on his mind. And as you are the sole beneficiary of his will, there will be decisions to make regarding both his business and Malvern Park. You must come home, Orla. Please, he needs you to do so. I just hope that this letter finds you in time.
The solicitor must have taken it by hand to the bank (there was no stamp). There was only one in town so no guesswork had been needed there, just the gamble that I had kept my account open. Obviously a canny man, Ben Casselot. I remembered him vaguely, much younger than the senior partner Gilbert Evans, who must be pushing eighty now. The pair did a little of everything in their line – land disputes, house conveyancing, wills . . . Emu Springs was a small town and their firm its sole legal representatives. Just remembering the names brought the past flooding back, but I had taught myself not to remember. Forget it. The words were a stern reminder of lessons painfully learned. For the most part I managed to do so. Sad things and bad things, like my parents’ death, happened. That was life – dreams ended, not just for me, but for everyone. All one could do, I told myself, was accept the facts and move on.
And meanwhile it seemed I would inherit something. I brightened at the thought. Malvern Park, I supposed, had always been mine, though there had been precious little to show for the fact in my bank balance over the past five years – or in fact since I had turned twenty-one (I had known better than to expect a cent before that). But now, perhaps, that would be redressed. A decent sum of money would be very welcome for I earned little more than a pittance from my job in the shop. But did the fact of inheriting necessarily require my actual presence? Surely Casselot and Evans could do all that was necessary with my uncle’s stock and station business – arranging for probate, and later, its sale. There was also the station itself; I could sell it too, without opposition, once Palmer died. Would they need me there to accomplish that? I wondered what it might make at auction. It was a sizeable family property, well founded and managed, with a large and gracious homestead built in the days when wool ruled rural Australia. It must be worth a lot. My future suddenly expanded, blooming like the desert after rain. Suddenly there was no end to the possibilities opening before me.
Folding the letter, I dropped it onto the bedside table, turned off the light and snuggled into the bedding. I would shed no tears for Palmer’s passing. However bright the future now loomed, the past was another country to which I had no intention of returning.
The next morning, Rose, offering the toast, cast a searching look at my face. ‘Did you sleep all right, Orla? You look a bit peaky.’
‘Not really.’ I helped myself to a slice and reached for the butter. ‘There was a bit of a gale; maybe that disturbed me.’
‘It’ll make for a rough crossing,’ Kevin said. ‘Just as well you’re already home. It’ll be a sea for sailors today.’ His eyes twinkled at me; I’d admitted ruefully to a bout of seasickness the day before. Both Kevin and Rose were long-time yachties with cast-iron stomachs, and they liked to tease me about my frailty in this regard.
‘That letter,’ I said abruptly, because I would have to tell them sometime, ‘it was from a solicitor who’s always worked for my family. Apparently my uncle’s dying. They want me to go back – he’s been asking for me, it seems.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ Rose’s fine-boned hand, deformed by the cruel arthritic knots of her knuckles, laid down the marmalade spoon as her face filled with concern. ‘That’s sad, dear. Did you – were you close? Is he very old?’
I had told them nothing about Emu Springs or my reasons for leaving it, and they had never asked. It was one of the many things I loved about them. Help offered without questions; kindness without strings.
‘I disliked him intensely,’ I said, buttering toast. ‘As to his age – at least a decade younger than you two anyway. The point is that I’ve been named as his heir. He runs – ran,’ I corrected, ‘his own business and he also managed my father’s property.’
‘So, who will take that on now?’ Kevin was always practical. ‘What sort of property is it?’
‘A cattle station. It was sheep in my grandfather’s time, though.’ Dad had switched over to cattle a few years before the accident. He’d always preferred them and the decline in wool prices convinced him that wool had had its day. He was right – even I, who knew nothing of the industry, hadn’t missed the growing crisis of the ever-multiplying store of wool; thousands of stockpiled bales that no buyer wanted. Every second news bulletin back then had seemed to lament the end of Australia’s ride to prosperity on the sheep’s back.
‘A station, eh? Well, no doubt you can find someone else to manage it. There must be staff in place.’ Kevin stirred his tea. ‘You’ve never said what part of the country you came from.’ He paused, then added, ‘But I don’t want to pry, Orla, so if you’d rather not talk about it that’s fine.’
‘It’s not that. How could I mind you knowing? I just wanted to forget it all.’ I smiled into their concerned faces: Rose with her silver hair, and pink cheeks covered with a fine network of lines, and Kevin’s blunt, wind-burned features and the little patch of white whiskers along his jaw that the razor had missed that morning. ‘The station’s called Malvern Park and it lies beyond the Barrier Range to the north of Broken Hill. My grandfather took it up eons ago. Dad was born there, but he left as a young man and only returned to it when he married at the end of the war. My grandfather was living then but he died soon after. It’s where I grew up – until my parents were killed, anyway. That’s when my uncle took over.’
‘Ahh. And is it that you don’t want to make the trip back or . . . if it’s money, well, I fancy we could spring to an airfare for our favourite girl, don’t you, Rose?’ Kevin offered.
‘Of course we could.’ She reached out to touch my hand, her thin, silky skin cool against my own warmer flesh.
I felt tears prick my eyes. ‘As if I would let you! But thank you, thank you both. No, really, I can pay my own way. I just don’t see why I should. He’s dying so I have to rush back? I don’t think so! It’s emotional blackmail. And so typical of him. Everything always had to be Uncle Palmer’s way.’
‘But,’ Rose ventured, ‘it could be important, my dear, for him and for you. Don’t decide now, will you?’ She hesitated before saying gently, ‘You’re young Orla, and sometimes as one grows older – well, I suppose you see more clearly, less passionately . . . and there are some things you can’t undo. What if you come to regret not seeing your uncle? If it’s his dying wish . . .’ The gentle voice stopped and with an effort I swallowed back the retort crowding behind my teeth. The Buchans had no concept of the antipathy between me and my only living relative. He had never wanted me in his home or his life and I deeply resented this sudden attempt to claim a connection that had never existed between us.
‘He liked being obeyed,’ I said evenly. ‘This will just be his last try at giving orders. He was good at that.’ I flicked a glance at my watch and rose. ‘Lord, look at the time! I’ll be late for work. I’ll see you both this afternoon.’
Ten minutes later I was wheeling my pushbike from its home in the woodshed. Rose had come to the kitchen door to stand on the back verandah, the silver-headed cane she used adding a third leg to her shadow. She lifted a hand, her expression troubled.
‘Take care, my dear,’ she called as I waved back, mounted and rode off.
I had always enjoyed the brief, largely downhill spin into Currie where I worked in the small shop-cum-post office, but today I took no pleasure from the ride. Halfway there I braked and dismounted to stand staring out at the familiar view; on my left the pale rise of the sand dunes patched over with woody scrub, and to my right the sea. Here on the west coast the wind blew permanently, sculpting the shore and everything that grew upon it. The heaving waters with their torn white tops were a crystalline blue today, the sea birds tossing above them like scraps of white paper. Their faint cries blended with the distant surf and the noise of the wind combing the thick tussock grass that clothed the rising ground. During my time here I had come to love the island’s wild beauty – its ever-changing seas, the sheltered spots where the wild veldt daisies bloomed in a riot of colour, the great boulders patched with orange lichen, the cruel teeth of rocks that fringed stretches of the coast. Not for nothing was it known as Shipwreck Island. The Currie lighthouse dominated the headland on which it stood, and there was another, taller and older, on the southern end of the island.
King Island had been my haven from the moment I had set foot on it; it had become a refuge in a time of heartbreak and with aching memories of before. Such a simple word, I thought: heartbreak. Belonging not to life, but to pop songs and teenage fantasies. You had to live with the daily grinding pain of heartbreak to understand what it really meant. Days of grief so bleak and comfortless I had not wanted to open my eyes upon them. Pain so deep it was like knives in my body; loss so immense I had thought the very skies could not contain it. Their combined forces had eaten away my youth until, at twenty-five, I sometimes caught myself wondering if I would ever know joy or laughter again.
Rose and Kevin and the peaceful magic of the island had pulled me through those dark days, and if I had not found joy, I had, at least, stumbled upon contentment. And now, I suddenly realised, I would be wealthy too. Well, perhaps the old-fashioned phrase of well-to-do came closer to the truth. How much was a property like Malvern Park worth? How much of the sale price would taxes take? There was Palmer’s business as well. It was the only stock and station agency in town with, as I recalled, a fair amount of business. At least on all those unpaid Saturday mornings that I had spent working in the cramped and dusty office.
Selling up, I thought, as I walked the bike up the last of the gentle incline before town, might take a while but taxes and all the various charges aside, I would still be left with a substantial sum. Enough to fund what until now had been an idle dream – setting up a guest house on the island for the many visitors who either didn’t wish to camp or couldn’t get a room in Currie’s only pub. It would provide me with both a purpose and a home; although I dearly loved boarding with Rose and Kevin that too must change. And sooner rather than later, much as I hated the thought. Their age and Rose’s arthritis meant that the time they had left on the island was drawing to an end. It was something we never spoke of, as if admitting its approach would bring it to pass.
They had found King Island thirty years before, back in their yachting days. Kevin, retiring in his mid-fifties from a highly successful manufacturing business, had switched from a shore-bound life to that of sea-based rover. They had bought the shell of their spacious house after a fire had destroyed half of it, and had made it the comfortable, welcoming home it now was. Then, still vigorous in their seventies, they had started out to explore outback Australia, travelling each year to a different state. It had been my incredible good fortune, I thought, wheeling the bike round the back of the shop and greeting Mandy as she stuck her head out the window, that they had chosen to visit Coober Pedy while I was there.
I owed them much, I admitted silently, but surely not enough to need to heed Rose’s words about regrets and dying wishes. No way on earth was I going back.
Lyn Portman stood on the front steps of the Tewinga store shading her gaze against the morning sun, and watching with critical eyes the dust cloud that signalled the approach of a traveller.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Her baby’s fingers look like small furled leaves and Louise lifts them to her lips to kiss.
Carra Finlay stood under the clothesline and watched in dismay as all her dreams blew away in the wind.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.