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  • Published: 27 June 2023
  • ISBN: 9781761049279
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $32.99

The Secrets of the Huon Wren

Extract

It wasn’t Nora she’d wanted to meet that day. It should have been a different corridor, a different door, a different story scribbled into her notebook.

When Allira signed in on the visitor clipboard, under the column ‘Reason For Visit’ she wrote: G. Tredinnick. Her eyes stung with bleach fumes and vanilla air freshener that were masking . . . something. 

She smoothed her t-shirt into the waist-band of her jeans. She’d dressed down today to put her subject at ease. When it came to the interview, she would press record on her phone and slip it out of sight, and then casually write trigger words on her notepad. She would massage the conversation, laugh and maintain eye contact until trust was strong enough to pose the questions she really wanted to ask.

A statuesque woman with a name tag dangling from her pocket marched towards Allira, her footsteps thudding on the industrial carpet. ‘Can I help you?’

Allira fiddled with the visitor lanyard around her neck. ‘Um . . . I’m Allira Ambrose from Folk magazine.’

‘I’m not familiar with that one.’ The woman hugged her suited elbows, unsmiling.

Allira’s right index finger traced the constellation of beauty spots below her right eye. She shifted her weight, impatient to get started. ‘Ah, I had an interview lined up with Mr George Tredinnick. Could you point me to his room?’ A clock ticked obstinately on a nearby wall and a bald man in red flannelette pyjamas moved at a painfully slow pace towards them using a walking frame.

‘I’m Sally Cosgrave, Mercy Place Aged Care Manager.’ She thrust her hand into the space between them for a perfunctory handshake before continuing. ‘And unfortunately Mr Tredinnick won’t be doing any interviewing today.’

Heat shot from Allira’s stomach to her throat and she lifted her chin. ‘This meeting was approved by Mr Tredinnick himself, and his family. I spoke to them this week.’

The bald man had nearly reached them now and for a moment the two women watched his snail-like progress in silence.

Folk magazine is produced to capture real stories of people who have lived extraordinary lives,’ Allira continued. ‘My editor, Justin Taylor, tells me that Mr Tredinnick was a prolific boat-builder in Tassie’s west, and that his Huon Pine constructions were sold across the world.’ Allira preferred to source her own leads, but last week Justin had handballed this one to her. He rarely wrote his own stories any more, and inevitably he would take his frustrations out on those who did.

Finally, Sally spoke. ‘Mr Tredinnick died last night. We’ve only just moved him out.’ She looked past Allira, eyes scanning from corridor to corridor, room to room.

‘Oh, I’m . . .’ Allira’s eyebrows peaked. ‘I had no idea.’

‘You weren’t to know. He would have been a difficult interview anyway,’ Sally said, ignoring Allira’s paling face. ‘He had severe dementia.’ She smiled thinly, a lip-stretching manoeuvre she clearly reserved for the requisite demonstrations of sadness or pity in her job.

‘I’ve actually interviewed quite a few people living with dementia. It just takes time and patience, and often a bit of research to sort fact from fiction,’ Allira said.

The bald man stopped at Sally’s side. She pointed his walker towards an empty recliner and began guiding him towards it. Allira tagged along.

‘Well, I’m glad to hear someone is taking an interest.’ Sally’s voice warmed ever so slightly, and Allira was suddenly self-conscious of how fresh-faced she looked in her jeans and ponytail, like she had just graduated from uni rather than her full twenty-eight years. An inexperienced blow-in mining these vulnerable residents for a sensational headline. ‘We do our best to meet all their physical needs, to ensure they are safe and cared for. In fact, we have an unblemished reputation for our standard of care. But there are some who just need the ear of someone willing to sit and take the time.’

The man was now settled in his chair and Sally patted him on the shoulder before swinging round to squint at Allira, hands on hips, taking the measure of her. She lowered her voice. ‘If you’re after a story . . .’ Allira was surprised to see her eyes sparkling with things she evidently wanted to say but couldn’t. ‘Spend some time sitting with these people. There are stories here.’

Allira smiled and looked at her watch. ‘I wish I could but—’

‘I know. Busy busy. We’re all too busy for the elderly.’ Sally looked away. ‘These places wouldn’t even exist if only families operated like families.’ The words slipped out like the remnant of a conversation she’d been having with herself. She turned back to Allira and smiled apologetically. ‘Forgive me, it’s been a long morning. But truly, if you’re interested in writing real, raw stories, this is where you need to be.’

Allira rubbed the line of spots on her cheekbone again. The manager’s challenge was there in front of her, as confronting as her no-nonsense manner and impeccable skirt suit.

Sally continued. ‘I’d start with Nora. She has no family.’

‘None at all?’

‘None we’ve been able to track down. Just one letter in the three years she’s been here, and her baby doll, of course.’

‘What do you mean?’ Allira was confused.

‘You’ll see. Go sit with her.’

Not wanting to commit, Allira looked down at her feet.

‘Nice to meet you anyway,’ Sally said to Allira’s ambivalence. She continued along the wide hallway, leaving Allira standing behind a semicircle of recliners where a few residents were seated, facing a flat-screen television running repeats of A Country Practice.

Allira sighed, suddenly tired. It had been too hot to sleep deeply last night. Hamish was on night shift and didn’t get home until 1am. He was always so considerate on those nights, taking his clothes off in the dark and gingerly slipping under the covers without saying a word. But she’d been waiting for him.

‘Hey, babe,’ she had said sleepily. ‘How was your shift?’

He’d rolled over and circled her torso. ‘One heart attack and a broken arm,’ he replied, kissing her neck. ‘And we nearly delivered a baby right there in the ambo! We only just got her to the hospital in time, bub was born five minutes later.’

Allira turned to face him. ‘She’s lucky you were there.’ Allira kissed his mouth with tenderness, even as her heart clenched painfully.

Now she rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes to push the memories away and focused back on her surroundings. Grey heads in recliners suddenly bobbed in laughter at something on the television. Allira looked past them, beyond the beige walls and fake plants, beyond the shiny windows and grey car park, beyond the smattering of houses skirting the nursing home grounds. Beyond to the endless blue of the sky. The whole view was soft at the edges, like she was peering at it through a wedding veil. Perhaps a bushfire was burning somewhere, or perhaps it was a mirage of her own brain fog. Everything was fine. But not quite. She dragged her eyes away and looked at her watch: 11 am. I should go. As she turned to retrace her steps back to the clipboard for sign-out, her eyes lingered on the hallway to her right. Mint green doors displayed name cards and plastic sleeves for medical records. The first door was open a crack: NORA GRAY.

Before she had time to think, Allira’s feet were walking her to that door, just a few metres away, and she was peering in. Sally hovered in her thoughts, the way she had described Nora. No family. A baby doll. Allira shook her head. What was she thinking? She should get back to the office and explain to a no-doubt cranky Justin that the Tredinnick story had come to nothing.

‘How’d it go with the old fella?’ Justin called across the room as Allira walked into the tired second-floor office. Lines of light striped the space, straining through half-tilted venetians onto a hodgepodge of desks huddled beneath a lone heat pump. It was a dance studio once, hence the polished floorboards and speakers mounted at the room’s perimeter. One corner had become a graveyard for desk chairs and filing cabinets.

Justin would be annoyed she had nothing to show for her time. She was already in his bad books this week – she had been forty-five minutes late to work on Monday. Allira knew that one of Justin’s pet peeves was tardiness, but what she didn’t know was how to predict the days he’d be sober enough to come into the office, let alone care.

‘Not so great,’ she said. ‘Your fascinating boat-builder from Strahan died in his sleep last night.’

‘Dammit.’ Justin raked long fingers through salt-and-pepper hair. ‘Got anything else, then? Surely there was some other old bird with a yarn to spill at the home.’ His callousness irked her, but what could she do? He was her boss. The fact that he had landed himself the Tasmanian Herald-owned magazine when it was on the chopping block clearly hadn’t diminished his ego. One of the sub-editors said he’d ‘paid’ a carton of beer for it to the general manager, who was more than happy to see the back of both the magazine and the rogue employee.

Allira opened her mouth to say something about having some common decency when she saw a flash of bright coral and the shimmy of an ample décolletage crammed into a plunging neckline. It was Rae Benedetti, hovering in the background making warning hand motions, her lips pursed and eyebrows raised like exclamation marks. Just thinking of her made Allira smile. The office would be a dreary place without Rae.

‘How are sales on the latest edition?’ Allira changed the subject. She could have relayed her conversation with Sally Cosgrave about a home full of stories, but something made her hesitate.

‘We’ve had one hundred-odd more subscriptions since release,’ Justin replied, not quite hiding his own surprise with how well the magazine was travelling.

‘No way!’

‘Yep.’

‘All those changes are paying off.’ Justin nodded, despite himself. He knew there wouldn’t be a Folk magazine if it wasn’t for Allira’s agile response to the magazine’s nosedive soon after he took up the helm, much less the handful of underpaid and overworked part-time staff huddled in the old dance hall. ‘But I still think the price we pay for the paper stock is exorbitant.’

That old chestnut. He still hadn’t let it go. When the decision was made to shift Folk from a free bi-monthly to a larger format subscription publication, Allira had convinced him to upgrade the pages to a thick, porous paper you were compelled to stroke like expensive linen.

‘Hey, the dollars are doing the talking. People are loving it, or they wouldn’t be subscribing, right? And we’ve got  advertisers lining up!’

Justin grunted, picking up a copy of Folk to fan through the pages.

Allira knew she should be happy. Working here was what she wanted, she reminded herself. Delving deep into the richness of story rather than the rapid-fire who-what-where-when-why-how of the tabloids and online news sites. The breeze produced by the magazine’s pages rustled Justin’s hair and the motion reminded her of her father: Saturday mornings when she was an eager pre-teen, hovering at the breakfast table as he thumbed through inky news, his head lifting as he squinted into sun dappling through lace terylenes and beckoned. ‘Al, listen to this.’ She’d scramble to sit beside him, relaxing into that wonderful place of his whispery voice unravelling stories that she tucked into the furthest recesses of her mind. That was before university stripped it of all romance.

Allira forced herself to smile at Justin, trying to swallow the bitter taste in her mouth. One of the first lessons she learned as a cadet journalist at the Tas Herald was to know your people. She knew Justin.

No one knows Nora Gray. The thought was like a stone dropped into water, and the old woman’s door rippled in her mind. Mint green, standing ajar. No family, no one knocking for a visit. Maybe she would go back . . .

‘In truth, I think the spike in subscriptions has more to do with that story you wrote about the life of Simon Kelly’s beard. What a hoot!’ Allira said with a tad too much enthusiasm. It was true: it had been a great piece. The well-known marathon runner had allegedly never trimmed the beard in his life. Even Allira could admit that every so often Justin came up with a page-turner and readers caught a glimpse at the talented writer who’d once won a Walkley Award and boasted by-lines in all the top Australian magazines and broadsheets.

Justin laughed good-naturedly as he walked towards his corner office, forgetting the whole reason for the conversation.

Allira shook her head. I should add ego-stroking to my CV. Rae watched her with a smirk and a wink. They’d been comrades since school. Rae flicked her black bob and turned back to the phone and filing, while Allira pulled the spiral notepad from her handbag to look at a page that was blank but for the name of her intended interviewee. She picked up a pen and scratched a line through the name before writing another beneath it: Nora Gray. What was the story of the old lady with the doll?


The Secrets of the Huon Wren Claire van Ryn

A deeply moving novel of love and loss set in the majestic mountains of Tasmania's Central Highlands.

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