The day was a stinker. The sun overhead was blazing and sweat trickled beneath the bridegroom’s collar. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t the only cause of his discomfort as he waited outside the quaint white church perched on a rise above Burralea.
‘You look like you could do with a smoke, Joe.’ His best man, Cliff, shook out a packet of Camels.
Joe hesitated, remembering the aunts he would have to kiss once this ceremony was over. Then he thought about his bride, who was carrying his child, and who was about to head down the aisle in a fancy white wedding dress specially transported over a thousand miles from a Brisbane department store.
Stuff it. He needed a smoke. ‘Thanks,’ he said, taking a slim cigarette and then ducking his head to meet the flame held between Cliff’s cupped hands.
‘They reckon every bridegroom gets nervous,’ Cliff suggested.
‘I s’pose the trick is to keep your thoughts fixed on the honeymoon.’
Joe dragged a little harder on his cigarette. Grey clouds hunkered on the horizon, but they offered no relief from the burning sun.
‘You’ll have a bonzer time on Hayman Island,’ Cliff suggested. He’d been Joe’s mainstay during the past few weeks, ever since the drunken debacle at Joe’s twenty-first birthday party, the night that had started this wedding train rolling. The poor fellow was still doing his best. ‘I hear it’s really flash.’
Joe nodded, but he wasn’t about to confess that the bride’s father had coughed up the money for the luxury Barrier Reef resort. Ted Walker wanted the very best for his daughter, of course, and as owner of Burralea’s one and only pub, a grand two-storey affair with a splendid fireplace and a magnificent silky oak staircase, Ted could easily afford it. He was footing the bill for the wedding reception, too. It was going to be held in the pub’s enormous dining room.
Joe didn’t have that kind of money. He ran a cattle property with his dad not far out of town. Kooringal was a modest place compared with the huge stations out west, but Joe and his dad turned out good quality beef, and they kept their heads above water.
He knew the Walkers weren’t happy about their daughter marrying ‘down’, but when Gloria had told them she was pregnant, they’d had little choice. They’d demanded a wedding, and put on brave faces.
Joe knew how that felt. He needed a brave face now as the church’s wheezy organ started up and Reverend Gibson popped his head around the vestry door. The minister beckoned to Joe and Cliff.
This was it.
A cold jolt of panic spiked through Joe. His legs felt hollow as he ground the cigarette into the dirt with his heel.
He didn’t want to do this. He had no choice.
Cliff patted his coat pockets. ‘Still got the ring,’ he said with an encouraging grin.
Joe couldn’t manage an answering smile. ‘Good man,’ he said.
Shoulders squared, Joe followed Reverend Gibson into the little church, packed with family and friends all dressed in their wedding finery. He saw his parents in the front pew, his mum looking dewy-eyed and his dad stern but proud. They were both disappointed that Joe’s older sister, Margaret, hadn’t come up from Melbourne for the big day, but Joe understood why she’d stayed away. Besides, he had bigger things to worry about today.
Now, his collar was choking him, but a whispering excitement buzzed through the congregation, and there was a stirring at the back of the church. No time to ease the knot at his throat. Already, too soon, the organist was striking the chilling chords that announced the arrival of the bride. Joe stiffened like a prisoner facing a firing squad.
He told himself that once the ceremony was over he’d be okay. He’d just get on with the rest of his life as best he could. He wouldn’t be the first man to wed out of necessity, and he and Gloria would manage. Romance was supposed to be overrated anyway, although Joe, drowning in the very deepest of regrets, knew this wasn’t true.
Uneasily, he turned and saw Ted Walker and a figure in frothy white making their way down the aisle towards him. A rustle of satin whispered at his side, announcing Gloria, looking pretty and surprisingly innocent, behind a misty veil. The music stopped.
Reverend Gibson’s voice boomed. ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God . . .’
Joe took a deep breath and the time-honoured ceremony flowed seamlessly towards its inevitable end.
Afterwards, they posed on the front steps of the church for photographs. There were photos of the bridal party, photos with parents, with the aunts and uncles, with friends.
More clouds had gathered by this point, now darkening the sky and casting a gloom over the afternoon. Joe was blinking from all the camera flashes when he saw the lone figure in the distance.
From the church’s position at the top of the rise he had a clear view down the street. About halfway, a woman was standing beneath a leopard tree, watching them.
His heart stilled.
She was wonderfully slender and wearing a green dress, a dress he remembered too well, with a scalloped neckline that sat neatly against her perfect pale skin, and a narrow belt that circled her slim waist. Despite the gathering clouds, her hair glowed like honey.
For bleak, gut-churning moments Joe stared at her. Helpless. Distraught. She was more than a hundred yards away, and he couldn’t read the expression on her face, but he felt her desolation land like a blow, an axe to his heart.
He had tried to apologise to her for this heartbreaking mess, but no apology could undo his stupid, careless, unforgivable mistake.
‘Hey, Joe, you’re not smiling,’ his Aunt Gertrude called rather bossily.
Joe swallowed, tried desperately to dredge up a smile as another flash went off and another cloud, dark as a bruise, rolled over the church’s roof. A gust of wind came with it and all the wedding guests looked up, their faces a picture of dismay as they realised they were about to be drenched.
The rain arrived in a sudden, nasty scud that sent everyone scattering. Gloria’s father stepped forward with a huge black umbrella held protectively over his daughter.
Down the street, the girl in green climbed into a small white VW and drove away.
Hattie tried to let herself into the cottage quietly, but she hadn’t managed yet to oil the front door hinges and so they squeaked.
‘Is that you, dear?’ her mother called weakly from the bedroom.
Hattie stopped just outside the bedroom doorway, needing to compose herself before she went in. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, willing her rioting emotions to calm.
The unthinkable had happened. Joe was married and somehow she would have to find a way to keep going.
When she stepped through the doorway, her mother looked gaunt and sallow against the white pillow. In recent weeks, even her hair had faded, and now it was the colour of withered cornstalks. She was lying just as Hattie had left her, and the level of water in the glass on the bedside table was exactly the same.
‘Have you been asleep?’ Hattie asked her.
‘I’m not sure. I think I might have dropped off.’
The rain was blowing in through a window. The white painted sill glistened with water and streaks of dampness showed on the floral curtains. Hattie crossed the room and closed the window. She would have to fetch a towel to dry the sill.
‘Were you caught in the rain?’ her mother asked, eyeing similar dark streaks on Hattie’s dress.
‘Only a few spots, really,’ she said. ‘I jumped in the car as soon as it started.’
‘You went to watch the wedding.’ It wasn’t a question, but a matter-of-fact statement.
Hattie flinched. ‘How did you know?’
‘About Joe Matthews’s wedding? Jenny Greeves told me yesterday.’
Their neighbour had obligingly agreed to sit with Hattie’s mother on Friday afternoons, while Hattie drove to Atherton to attend to the weekly business of banking, grocery shopping and getting her mother’s prescriptions filled.
‘You should have stayed well away from that church today,’ her mother said now. ‘You should have more pride, Hattie.’
‘I kept my distance. No one saw me.’ This was a lie, of course. She knew Joe had seen her.
Despite the distance between them, she had known the very instant that his careful smile left his face. She’d sensed his distress in the sudden way he’d become ramrod-still as he’d stared down the street at her.
It was no compensation for the unbearable pain he’d caused her.
‘Darling, I know you’re hurting, but I’m sure Joe can’t have been right for you. What’s happened is for the best. It has to be.’
Hattie wanted to challenge her mother, to demand how she could possibly know this. How could losing the one you loved ever be for the best? But she couldn’t ask such a thing. Her mother was dying.
With a very thin, too-pale hand, Rose Bellamy patted the space beside her on the edge of the bed. ‘Hattie, come here, please, darling. Sit here. There’s something I need to tell you.’
Suddenly nervous, Hattie stayed where she was. ‘What is it? Do you feel worse? Should I call the doctor?’
‘No, no, I don’t want the doctor.’
‘I’ll heat some more of that chicken soup.’
‘Not now.’ Her mother looked even more distressed than usual. ‘There’s something I need to explain. It’s very important, and I don’t want to leave it too late.’
A horrible chill crept through Hattie. ‘What’s this about?’ she asked fearfully, as she edged towards the bed and took her mother’s frail hand in hers.
‘It’s about you.’ Rose squeezed her hand ever so gently. ‘Firstly, I want you to promise that you’ll go to England now. When this —’ She gave a small nod to indicate her failing body, the bed, the sick room. ‘When this is over, you must go.’
Rose had written to Hattie’s grandmother in England when she’d first learned how ill she was. The reply had been sympathetic and, in her grandmother’s polite, remote, English way, she’d invited Hattie to come and stay with her. Indefinitely.
‘I know you’ve been resisting, because you were so set on Joe,’ her mother said, ‘but there’s no point in staying here now, is there?’
‘I can still get a job.’
‘Hattie!’ The thin voice was surprisingly sharp. ‘I’m not asking you, I’m telling you to go to England. I need to know that you’ll do this. I’m sure there must still be enough money in the account.’
The last thing Hattie wanted was to distress her mother by arguing, but she didn’t want to leave Burralea. This quiet country town was their home. She could scarcely remember anything else. And yet, she knew she would be miserable trying to stay here without her mother or Joe. Besides, how could she refuse her mother at this point?
‘Yes, all right,’ she said. ‘I promise.’
‘Thank you.’ Rose looked more exhausted than ever and closed her eyes.
‘I’ll leave you to rest for a bit,’ Hattie said.
The faded blue eyes flashed open again. ‘Don’t go yet. There’s something else I need to tell you.’
‘But you’re tired. Leave it till later.’
This brought a bitter, dismissive little laugh. ‘I’m always tired and this is important. It’s something I should have told you long before this – about what happened when you were born. I need to explain about – about your father.’
Hattie’s mind had been preoccupied with Joe and her mother’s illness, and she was totally thrown by this sudden mention of a father she’d never known. Her mind flashed to the photograph album they’d brought with them when they’d fled to Australia from China.
Hattie had been almost five when they left, so she had only shadowy memories of Shanghai, but the photos had helped to keep these memories alive. There were pictures of her grandparents’ spacious, pleasant house in the French Concession, set back from a tree-lined boulevard behind tall wrought-iron gates.
Another snap showed Hattie aged four with her amah, Ah Lan. Hattie was wearing a party dress with a satin sash and a full skirt, with frilly socks and black patent leather shoes. Ah Lan was dressed simply in plain dark cotton and her hair was pulled back tightly from her round, smooth face to reveal her gentle smile. From beneath her skirt, her tiny, misshapen, bound feet peeked.
There were also photos of Rose, her mother, looking young and pretty, and of Hattie’s glamorous Aunt Lily with her bright honey-gold hair cut into a bob and lacquered into waves like corrugated iron. Her Uncle Rudi with his dark, dark eyes and flashing smile. Her very proper and rather distant grandparents.
Then Hattie’s mild-eyed father with his pleasantly handsome face and smart seaman’s kit.
‘My father’s dead.’ Her mother was well aware of this sad fact, of course, but Hattie felt impelled to repeat it now. ‘He died when I was a baby.’
Rose had told her this story many times over the years, speaking of Hattie’s father with a fond smile, as if her memories of him were comforting. Her story had never changed and Hattie found it terribly important to repeat it now. ‘My father was Stephen Bellamy. He was English, a merchant seaman based in Shanghai, and his ship was bombed by the Japanese. He was terribly heroic, saving the lives of lots of passengers, but he was injured too, and he died.’
Over the years, Hattie had come to cherish a mental image of her father as a handsome and heroic seaman, a veritable knight in shining armour who had nobly sacrificed his life for others.
‘I’m sorry, Hattie,’ her mother said softly. ‘I really am so terribly sorry.’ Her pale lips trembled. ‘I’m afraid the correct story is rather more complicated than that, and it’s time you knew the truth.’