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  • Published: 26 February 2018
  • ISBN: 9780143789642
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $32.99

The Pearler's Wife


Chapter 1

From the deck of the SS Oceanic, Maisie Porter looked down on the wharf. The bugle sounded, signalling that all guests should curtail their farewells and go ashore. Her father had already averted his face and was walking away.

This is it, then, she thought. As she watched him vanish in the distance she could not say if he would miss her. She hoped so but in her heart she doubted it. Over the week before setting sail, Maisie had felt she was being edged towards a precipice, that her days with her family were counting down like the number of nights until Christmas Day. And now here she was, off to Australia. The bugle sounded again, and the ship slid into the stream.

Her mother hadn’t bothered to see her off. Up until the last moment she had wondered if her mother might have made the effort, if only for the pleasure of seeing her go, to give the final shove that propelled her over the cliff edge, permanently out of view.

A few weeks ago, Maisie hadn’t even known her cousin Maitland existed. Now she was on her way to marry him.

She hefted the leather bag at her feet and stood staring at the dot that was her father in the distance, traces of panic rising inside her again. Her heart began to pump hard against her ribcage, like a fist.

When she was a child, Maisie had thought her father was like one of the old leather reference books that lined his library shelves – something to touch only when allowed and to consult on rare and weighty matters – but like the books, he was solid and dependable. Although he was never a man to show his affection, she felt his loss like an engulfing wave.

A steward, tall and portly in his dark uniform, appeared at her elbow, startling her. He looked at her closely, in a way that made her feel exposed, like a curiosity at the circus. She became instantly conscious of her unfashionable travelling clothes, the heavy shoes that rubbed against her heels, the felt hat that couldn’t quite contain her disobedient hair.

Then he blinked and smiled: a tight smile that turned his eyes to slits. ‘May I be of assistance, Miss?’

His grim reproval washed over her. She knew that her face telegraphed her discomfort. She felt colour flood her cheeks, like the sting of the face slap her mother had given her when Maisie tried to protest the arrangement. She swallowed the lump in her throat. ‘Might you show me to my cabin? I am travelling without my family but am to share with a Mrs Wallace.’

He consulted his list and squinted in the gloom. ‘Miss Porter?’

Maisie nodded.

‘Mrs Wallace is already in the cabin. I’ll walk you there.’

He took her bag and pushed open the door, leading her down a flight of carpeted stairs towards the first-class staterooms.

She held on to the handrail, thinking the ceiling was too low, that her feet hurt, that she wanted to run away. The steward steered her along a narrow corridor, until he stopped with a crisp click of polished heels at a sturdy door.

Somewhere within the ship, a woman began to scream.

The ship had started to roll, its sides creaking, the roar of the engine a deep unfamiliar resonance. For a moment, Maisie braced herself against the wall and clung to the handrail. ‘The lady sounds very distressed. Do you think she might require a doctor?’

‘Hysteria would be my diagnosis,’ the steward said, matter-of-factly. ‘Happens every voyage as soon as we set sail.’

‘But aren’t you going to check – just to be sure nothing is seriously wrong?’

He doled out his opinion. ‘Not much point. There’s no pill that can cure her of this ailment. When she realises she’s not going to drown, she’ll stop. Simple as that. Now, here you are, Miss.’ He took a step forward and knocked on the door, his touch surprisingly light.

Maisie mumbled her thanks and tried to ignore the persistent screaming.

The door opened inwards and a stout, big-jawed woman with a helmet of crinkly platinum hair appeared in the doorway.

The woman raised her eyebrows over steel-rimmed spectacles as the steward loitered. ‘No need to stand there, steward,’ she said, her clipped English poorly disguising her Australian vowels. ‘You have already received your tip.’

The man sniffed but held her gaze for a fraction longer than was strictly polite before stepping away.

Maisie’s shock at his boldness shrank her voice to a croak. ‘Mrs Wallace?’

‘Pompous little pipsqueak,’ Mrs Wallace said, loud enough for him to overhear. ‘Put an ordinary man in a uniform and he thinks he commands an army.’

She stepped to one side and gestured Maisie in. ‘Come on, dear. We may as well get acquainted. We are to be roommates for the next couple of months, after all.’

Mrs Wallace was, Maisie understood, related to a friend of her mother. She had a tone of address which might easily have rivalled that of a major general. Though the older woman had been paid handsomely for her chaperoning services, her connec­tion to home was of some comfort to Maisie, and she very much hoped they would get along.

Maisie looked round the tiny cabin. The room was spare and had a strong, clean smell, like pine trees. She took in the white rivet-studded walls, the little handbasin and tap concealed in a coffin-like upright stand in one corner, and the crisp linen sheets folded flat on the bunk beds, which were separated by a short ladder hooked over the foot rail.

‘What’s the matter, dear?’ Mrs Wallace asked. ‘You don’t look very happy.’

Maisie tried to rearrange her expression into a smile. ‘It’s just . . . Well, this is not quite what I was expecting.’

Mrs Wallace blinked several times. ‘In what way exactly?’

‘I’ve never shared sleeping quarters before. It seems a very small space for two people. Especially in first class.’

Mrs Wallace smiled. ‘You can’t buy something that is not for sale, Maisie. Not even your parents, for all their money and influ­ence. There are very few single-berth cabins on this steamship and you were simply too late to secure one.’

‘Oh dear.’ Maisie faltered. ‘And there is no window. How shall we get fresh air?’

Mrs Wallace wagged a finger. ‘You’ll be very pleased when the weather turns foul, just mark my words. You wouldn’t want seawater sluicing you in the middle of the night. Now, buck up dear. You need to have a wash and change for dinner.’

Maisie froze as confusion overtook her. Was she supposed to undress there and then, in front of Mrs Wallace? Whom she’d only just met? Maisie stared at the floor, fingering the top button of her jacket, aware that her eyes had become slightly damp.

Mrs Wallace coughed two or three times, as if she understood the awkwardness of the situation. ‘Would you like the cabin to yourself while you change your clothes?’

Maisie nodded, pulling out the sharp pearl-tipped pin from her hat and tossing it onto the bottom bunk. Almost before it had landed, Maisie snatched it back up again and glanced at Mrs Wallace.

‘Put it on the chair, dear,’ Mrs Wallace instructed. ‘We are going to have to learn to dance round each other, aren’t we?’ the older woman quipped brightly. ‘There isn’t enough room to unpack everything, so you will have to use your trunk as a sort of auxiliary chest of drawers. It is already under the bed. I am afraid that I have filled up the wardrobe with my own frocks, so you will have to fold your things carefully.’

Maisie felt a flicker of annoyance as she watched Mrs Wallace pat her hair into place and then squeeze past to open the cabin door. ‘I shall go up to the drawing room for half an hour or so and see if I can rustle you up a cup of tea. How does that sound? And don’t worry about the sheets. They’ve already half made up my bed and they’re going to do yours while we are having our dinner.’

When she left the cabin, Maisie stood looking at the back of the door for a moment. As soon as the heavy footsteps died away, she began to unbutton her jacket.

She pulled her trunk out from under the bed and ran a shaky hand across its pitted surface. Bound with brown, wooden ribs and fastened with two brass locks, it wasn’t new. She traced a finger over the initials stamped in gold on the scuffed black lid. ‘Maisie Porter,’ she said aloud. What on earth are you doing here?

She fished out the key from her handbag and sprang open the catches. She managed a wash of sorts at the cabin’s tiny basin, trying not to miss her evening bath nor the spacious London bedroom of which she’d had sole occupancy. By the time Mrs Wallace swooped in over an hour later – with no sign of the promised cup of tea – Maisie was changed into evening­wear and ready for dinner.

Mrs Wallace bustled her out of their cabin and down the cheerless corridor. When they reached the landing, they stopped at the top of a wide wooden staircase.

‘We go down to eat, dear,’ she explained, ‘not up. The dining saloon is always situated on a lower deck, but everything else – for us – is above.’

Maisie peered over the bannister at the small knot of people below. ‘That’s interesting. Why down?’

‘To be nearer the kitchens, I would imagine, although I’ve never really given it much thought. Come along, dear. People are already gathering and we don’t want to keep them waiting. Unpunctuality is not attractive in a lady, and we are already later than I would like.’

As they went down the stairs, Maisie glanced across at Mrs Wallace. ‘Do the second- and third-class passengers go down to their meals as well?’

Mrs Wallace tucked in her chin and at first gave a fair impres­sion of considering the question. It was apparent, though, quite quickly, that her mind was elsewhere. She pointed a large finger. ‘Look what has been prepared for us!’

Laid out on the side tables were plates bearing small rounds of toast covered with what seemed to be tiny black seeds.

Maisie’s eyes widened. ‘What are those?’

‘That’s caviar, dear,’ Mrs Wallace explained. ‘Fashionable with the wealthy. I’m surprised you don’t recognise it.’

She processed this a moment. ‘My mother says it’s a delicacy from the Caspian Sea but I’m not sure I know what the delicacy actually is.’

‘Sturgeon eggs.’

‘Oh dear!’

‘You should try some. Good for your education if you are to live by the sea.’ She beckoned to a steward.

Maisie watched the waiter lift a plate and followed his progres­sion to her side. She looked from the caviar to Mrs Wallace, hoping that by some miracle she would understand her silent plea. Fish roe, she thought. How absolutely ghastly.

‘Pinch the toast between your fingers, dear,’ Mrs Wallace said and gave her an encouraging smile.

‘I don’t care for fish.’

‘For goodness’ sake, Maisie, just eat the thing.’

Maisie frowned and picked up the small round of toast. She bit into the spongy roe, which had the texture of tapioca. The eggs burst on her tongue as the overwhelming taste of fish swelled in her mouth and into her nose. It almost made her retch.

‘Nice?’ Mrs Wallace asked.

She shook her head and pressed her clenched hands against her sides. Mrs Wallace patted her shoulder. ‘It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it’s good you’ve tried it. I don’t especially like it either and have never understood why it’s considered such a delicacy in English society. Personally it makes me think of mouse dirt.’

‘Mrs Wallace!’

‘What, dear? I can’t believe you’ve reached nineteen years of age without coming across the mouse’s particular calling card.’

Maisie looked into her inquisitive eyes, which seemed to expect a reply. ‘I have, of course, Mrs Wallace, but never on a piece of toast that I was ordered to eat.’

Mrs Wallace chuckled as they moved away from the plates of fishy roe and joined the other passengers funnelling into the restaurant.

‘Where shall we sit?’ Maisie asked as they paused at the entrance, eyeing the tables that snaked round the room, white-topped and solid. ‘Surely there must be a seating arrangement?’

‘The staff will tell us, dear. No need to be quite so anxious. We shall be seated with people like us.’

As if on cue, a young officer, immaculate in his white uniform, appeared beside them and ushered them to a circular table set for eight. Stiff white napkins stood on empty plates like sails and a lone candle rose tall in a silver stick.

Mrs Wallace poured some water in a glass and handed it to Maisie. She lifted the half-filled tumbler and took a sip, resisting a very strong urge to gargle the taste of caviar away.

‘We shall eat our meals here for the entire voyage, so best to get busy and befriend your fellow diners,’ Mrs Wallace said.

According to the name cards, Maisie was placed next to Mr Smalley on one side and Mrs Wallace on the other, with the ship’s second officer to Mrs Wallace’s left. Maisie turned to her neighbour, a seedy-looking gentleman with a sweaty top lip and a flaky patch of skin on his scalp, and managed a faint smile. Mrs Wallace craned forward and introduced herself loudly to a newly married couple sitting across the table, which was so wide that even if they stretched out their arms as far as they could, their fingertips would never meet. The couple boomed back that they were travelling with the bride’s parents, Mr and Mrs Jenkins.

A waiter was working his way through the dining room and arrived at their table to light the candle with a long taper. As he explained the menu, Mrs Wallace announced, ‘I shall decide for us both, dear. You are too young to make sensible dietary deci­sions. I believe we shall both have the soused salmon tonight.’

Maisie dipped her head, lips sucked tight, and swallowed down her resentment. She had wanted the duck because she knew her mother loathed it, and had already told Mrs Wallace she did not care for fish. At what point will anyone see I have a mind of my own? Good God! She hugged the blasphemy and enjoyed it. I am nearly twenty and considered old enough to get married. Why am I not permitted to choose what I want to eat?

During the meal, she picked at her food and sipped her water, her eyes jumping from one diner to the next as if following a game of tennis.

The mother of the bride was rubbing her arms and complain­ing of the cold.

‘I’m sitting in a draught, Harold,’ the woman said to her husband, staring accusingly at the door. ‘Could you ask them to close it?’

‘Of course, my dear,’ Harold said, getting to his feet. A moment later, a waiter pounced on his napkin like a cat on a ball of wool and replaced it by his plate.

Mrs Wallace covered her mouth with her hand and whis­pered, ‘You should try to make conversation, Maisie. It will seem rude if you don’t.’

‘Are you looking forward to the warmer weather?’ Maisie called across the table.

The mother of the bride cupped a hand behind her ear and shook her head.

Maisie leaned forward and tried again. ‘Are you travelling to Australia for the better weather?’

The woman’s new son-in-law, a handsome man with blond hair and a military moustache, said loudly from his side of the table, ‘You’ll have to crank up the volume, Miss Porter. The new mater is dreadfully hard of hearing.’

Maisie pressed a hand against her chest and said ironically, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Don’t bother yourself trying to shout tonight. There’s going to be lashings of time to get to know her. Perhaps best though if you talk to someone else just for now, don’t you think?’

The waiter cleared away her half-eaten bowl of consommé.

She was not in the mood for another culinary scolding. She glanced at Mrs Wallace who, happily, was chatting enthusiasti­cally to the second officer and glowing like a lantern.

Maisie turned back to the seedy gentleman. He was stabbing at peas with the tines of his fork, stacking them up like beads on an abacus.

‘Could I pass you anything, Mr Smalley? Salt or pepper perhaps?’ A shovel?

‘Wine bottle first,’ he said, his mouth full. ‘Then the bread basket.’

She resisted the temptation to pass comment, and lifted the decanter. ‘Is your wife not with you on this trip?’

Mrs Wallace, who apparently had the hearing of a bat, leaned in close as though about to tell her a secret. ‘Don’t ask personal questions, Maisie dear. It’s vulgar.’

Mr Smalley filled his glass and swirled it round, inspecting the amber liquid in the candlelight. He took a large gulp and chewed it a few times, as if consulting the wine for an answer, then began cramming wodges of butter into a roll. ‘Never married,’ he said, a spray of spittle flying from his mouth. ‘But that’s not to say I’m not open to offers.’


The Pearler's Wife Roxane Dhand

This stunning debut is a compelling piece of historical fiction, set at the turn of the century, among the pearl merchants making their fortune in the ports of Western Australia.

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