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  • Published: 2 July 2018
  • ISBN: 9780143789048
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 368
  • RRP: $32.99

The Heartwood Hotel


Chapter 1

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. Early risers if they’d come from Goola, an hour’s drive to the south. Of course, if they were towing a caravan they might have camped along the way, but it was a bit unlikely. Most tourists were urbanites and there had been enough well-publicised murders along lonely outback roads to make people cautious about pulling up on the side of the track.

This lot then – would they stop? It amused her to speculate on travellers’ probable actions. For fuel? Or a drink at the hotel. Bit early for the latter but you could never tell. Maybe they’d be sightseers into the rusting history of the almost-ghost-town, keen to document a place they wouldn’t dream of living in – photographing the old cemetery, the few abandoned huts and the dilapidated railway station from which the steel rails curved off to nowhere. All that had survived the years was the tiny store, the newish campground down by the riverbank, and the pub.

On that thought Lyn glanced across at the neighbouring hotel standing somnolent in the morning light, the tubs of plants along the verandah’s edge still wreathed in shadow. A movement caught her eye and she waved at Max Dunstan’s tall form bent over the tap and coiled hose.

‘Morning,’ he called cheerfully. ‘First customers already, eh?’ The water spraying from the hose’s end glittered in the sunlight as the vehicle slowed at the grid then coasted more moderately towards them. It was a dusty red 4x4 towing a camper trailer, a suntanned arm and a glimpse of a green top visible through the passenger window as the driver eased to a stop in front of the bowser. A fuel top-up then. Unlikely they’d need anything from the store but if they did she’d be inside. Heading towards the door, she saw Max bent again over the tap, turning it off, the morning chore of wetting down the dust delayed while he chatted to the strangers and pumped their fuel.

Letting the screen door swing shut behind her, Lyn surveyed the tiny store with its old-fashioned wooden counter set before the open-fronted shelves and gave a discontented sigh. She should be wearing a long calico dress and cap, she thought, and dispensing items in paper bags, having first rung them up on the ancient till whose keys you really had to hammer. Half her customers came expecting her to have EFTPOS facilities, the fact that they were now officially in the outback having apparently escaped them. It was true that Tewinga had recently acquired phones (three, actually – one each at the store and pub, and the third in the cop shop) but did travellers really think that the shop transacted enough business to warrant the expense of a dedicated line? If it wasn’t for the station folk, and the district’s two major draw-cards of the year – the rodeo and the annual race meeting – things would be even tighter.

For a moment she let herself long for her old life in Brisbane, the regular pay packet and the tightly structured orderliness of the hospital routine. She was born to nurse – for the caring service of the medical wards, the drama of emergency, the uplifting joy of maternity – and instead she was back where she had started, tethered by family responsibilities, with no end in sight.

Well, it was no use repining. Lyn took the broom from its hook on the door that led into the living area behind the shop – the front room of the original dwelling – and began to sweep the floor. Even in May with a tinge of green still in the feed and the Wyper River that flowed past Tewinga in the wet season continuing to do just that, dust was a perennial problem. The recent wet season of 90–91 had been bigger than any she could remember and though Tewinga was on the southernmost fringe of the Gulf Country proper, the benefit of all that rain (two metres on the coast!) had resulted in a better than usual season. A glance through the window showed, beyond the red ribbon of road and the hump of the blue-metal rail embankment, the grass stretching in an unbroken line across the valley, shooting greeny-yellow fingers up into the gullies and folds between the stony ridges whose sides sported only the darker hue of spinifex mounds, and the ragged trunks of snappy gums, theirs crowns a riot of new growth.

The station people were happy anyway, another good year coming up, even if it was bound to result in fires before the next monsoon. Lyn stopped the thought and huffed out a disgusted breath. God, what was wrong with her? Already a whinge-artist and not yet out of her twenties! ‘But it’s only three weeks till I am,’ she said aloud.

‘Till you’re what?’ Adam asked behind her.

She jumped, saying crossly, ‘Don’t do that! I swear I’m going to tie bells on your boots. You sneak around like a . . . like a . . .’ She couldn’t think of anything stealthy enough and looked pointedly at his footwear. ‘I’ve just swept that bit.’

‘I wiped ’em at the door,’ he said mildly and slipped an arm around her. ‘What’s up, hon? Why are you talking to yourself, anyway?’

Because there’s nobody else? Lyn swallowed the tart reply, something her mother had once told her floating through her mind: ‘You’re as happy as you think you are, Lynie. It’s a condition that starts in your head.’ Her family had been Evelyn Harris’s life and she had endured much for them – living in a tent, doing the family wash in a bucket, bringing up the older boys in the primitive surroundings of the Nonsuch mining field in the fifties. Compared to that Lyn had it easy: a roof over her head, power, and phones, a washing machine . . . Surely, she thought, she loved her husband more than the career she had given up for him – well, for him and her father both.

‘It was a protest against the years,’ she explained now, leaning for a moment against his rangy form. ‘You realise I’ll be thirty next month? It suddenly seems awfully old.’

‘So what’s that make me, Methuselah?’ He was thirty-six – thirty-seven on the thirtieth of June. If his mother had held off giving birth for just another few hours, she thought suddenly, his name wouldn’t have been in the barrel that fateful year and he might have missed the draft altogether. And if he had, he would never have gone to Vietnam, never seen or done the things that haunted his nightmares.

Lyn forced a grin. ‘Well, cradle-snatchers, you know. There comes a time when their brides are still blooming but they’re so old and decrepit they can no longer catch ’em . . .’ She ducked but his hands swooped out, anchoring her to his side.

‘Decrepit, is it? We’ll see about that. I should tear your clothes off here – or wait till tonight?’

This time Lyn’s laugh was genuine. Hazel eyes crinkling, she pulled his head down and kissed him, murmuring, ‘This is very risqué behaviour for so early in the day, husband mine. Was there something you came in for, or were you just feeling lonesome?’

‘Ah, the board,’ he said. ‘Yep, that was it. There’re beans, zucchini, lettuce, and plenty of silverbeet if you want to write it up?’

‘I’ll do it now.’ Lyn reached for the stick of chalk beside the till. ‘There’s a vehicle at the pub fuelling up. You never know, they could take a walk around and see the board. On such chances are fortunes built.’

I thought it was on growing vegies. If you see Max, tell him I could do with a hand. There’re still the mail boxes to pack and Sonny’ll be here in half an hour.’

‘Right.’ Sonny Ah Ching, the driver who made the weekly run from Goola to deliver goods and mail, also carried the fruits of Adam’s labour on his round. The days when stations could afford to employ their own gardeners were long gone, and so the half-acre of market garden behind the Tewinga shop supplied the town’s residents, the station properties and the travelling public as well. Unfortunately, Lyn thought ruefully, vegetables, like tourists, had their season, which here in the lower Gulf was April to September. After that, the summer’s heat withered both sources of revenue.

There would still be watermelons of course. They marked every summer she could remember: black shade and sweet sticky juice, and the watermelon grins of barefoot brothers gulping the red flesh and spitting seeds with a careless expertise she could never master. These days she flicked the black pips out with the point of a knife and Adam carried the excess fruit to the chook pen, smashing it open for eager beaks to explore. From September the vegie boxes contained only melons, while the few lunches the pub provided for the dwindling travellers had a heavy melon content. Lyn had even tried making watermelon jam but found it tasted of nothing but sugar.

When she’d asked why he always planted so many vines, Adam had shrugged. ‘Why not? The sunlight’s free and we’ve any God’s quantity of water.’

‘But it’s extra work.’

‘I don’t mind.’ His clear grey eyes had been placid, free of torment, and she knew that he truly didn’t. Long days spent working with the soil, with his complicated irrigation system, and the plants kept his mind focused while it tired his body. At Tewinga he came to bed each night with a good physical weariness that allowed him to sleep undisturbed. The tight control he had previously found necessary to maintain had slipped away, along with the mood swings and crippling bouts of depression she remembered from before their move from the city; nightmare occasions when, for days at a time he had hunkered unshaven and uncommunicative in their bedroom, refusing to go out, flinching at any sudden yell or traffic sound. Days when the sound of a television drama made him bolt from the room, when he couldn’t enter a cinema, and the only peace he could find was with a bottle. All behind him now, she thought looking with love upon her tall husband with his slightly jutting ears and mop of blond hair. All her brothers had been dark, as she was herself, and she suddenly wondered if it was the unexpectedness of that fair crown that had first attracted her to him.

Adam returned to his tasks and Lyn, humming softly, took a duster to clean off the board on the shop verandah. Under the heading Garden Fresh she listed the names and prices of the vegetables currently available, then assembled, from the pile of flat packs in the laundry, the cardboard cartons that Max would help Adam to pack. While her quick fingers worked she reflected that though it mightn’t be the life she would have chosen for herself, it had multi-skilled her talents into any number of different areas. The task finished, she slipped next door to collect Max, finding him on the pub verandah chatting to the couple from the red 4x4.

‘Adam could do with a hand,’ she said.

‘Okay. I was just telling Jim and Meryl here about the place. Can you . . .?’

‘Of course.’ He left and she turned to smile at the travellers. ‘Morning. It’s a lovely one, isn’t it? I’m Lyn.’

‘Jim,’ the portly man, bare-armed and red-faced with a fringe of greying hair beneath his cloth hat, stuck out his hand. ‘My wife, Meryl. From the south coast. Our first time this far west. So, where do you fit in around here, Lyn?’

‘I run the store and help out at the pub. My father’s the licensee. Just so you know we’ve fresh vegies for sale. My husband’s a bit of a market gardener. So,’ she settled herself to listen patiently – it was, after all, part of the job – ‘where are you off to today?’

The Heartwood Hotel Kerry McGinnis

The new outback mystery from Australia's authentic rural writer and voice of the bush Kerry McGinnis.

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