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  • Published: 2 April 2019
  • ISBN: 9780143787570
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $32.99

Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife



The point of life had been preying on the Mayor’s mind. Why was he on earth? Other than greatness, what was required of him? Only this, he’d decided. To be good and to be loved. That was it. But was he good? Was he loved? He thought he was. Yes, he was. Of course he was. He was as good as he needed to be and as loved as he wanted to be. And then he was dead.

Now he lies cold and bloated in his coffin, and the people of Prospect, whose council in rural New South Wales he has led for twenty-five years, are agreeing, since he’s so newly dead, that he was good and he was loved. Loved, certainly. Listen to the living proof. Just listen to his widow.

Mrs Mayberry, Florence, a large woman garbed and veiled in deepest, dullest black, is grieving noisily. Her shoulders are heaving, her lungs are gasping, her throat is hiccupping, her eyes are blinking to relieve their dryness. She falters as she follows the coffin down the central aisle of St Andrew’s, Prospect’s splendid homage to the Church of England, not five minutes’ walk from St Benedict’s, the less splendid monument to the Church of Rome. She can barely hold herself erect.

Good God, she’s going to fall. Grab her, someone! No one grabs her. She steadies herself and stares wildly about her. Who are these people? she seems to be asking herself. She opens her mouth dramatically and those closest to her brace themselves, but she shuts it suddenly and her eyes harden. In rapid succession they register recognition, surprise, fright and fury, because they have lighted on Isabella Hawthorn at the back of the church, standing among the latecomers, smirking. Smirking!

The widow’s heart, melted with grief, turns to ice. Isabella Hawthorn is on the warpath. She has come to make trouble. She has come to denounce the family that has so recently rejected hers. A show of strength is required. Mrs Mayberry tosses her head. She squares her shoulders. She will show the mother of her whining and recently discarded daughter-in-law Blanche that in coming to Prospect she has made a terrible mistake. She might pride herself on her place in Sydney society but she has underestimated the power of the Mayberrys in Prospect. She has seriously misjudged the respect, the honour, nay, the majesty and the awe that the name commands. She will see for herself the stature of a late mayor who provided this town with a railway station, a butter factory and, most recently, a rubbish dump. She will see for herself that the name cannot be sullied. Malice will be met with dignity, contempt with composure. Watch your step, Madam, rants Mrs Mayberry to herself.

She leaves her position behind the coffin, she marches to its head and she signals to the pallbearers to stop so she can invite the congregation to applaud the corpse one more time before it departs the sight of God here on earth. But the pallbearers, led by Bert Lambert, stare at her in disbelief. They can’t stop. The coffin is bloody heavy. To put it down now would require it to be lifted again, from the ground. To a man they think, ‘Bugger it!’ Mrs Mayberry sees the words written large on the back of their insolent heads as they make their way steadily past her, ten yards at least behind the sombre Reverend Wilmot, who is obliv­ious to her wishes. No one could have failed to spot her desire. She’d thrown her right arm into the air so that it was parallel to her ear as well as to the ear of Bert Lambert.

‘Stop!’ that arm had said.

Her mouth should have said it. But her mouth hadn’t and the coffin had been borne past her so now, that arm is abandoned in a gesture that is hard to decipher. Mrs Florence Mayberry considers the size of the humiliation. Quick as a flash, she raises her other arm and then, to the confusion of Fanny Albright on the organ, she brings both arms down together, as a conductor might, and she begins to sing.

‘Onward Christian So-lo-lo-lo-gers,’ she warbles and, slowly, the congregation joins in and the procession moves on. Mrs Mayberry nods at important people of the parish as she passes. She nods, she sings and she misses nothing except the departure of Isabella Hawthorn, who seems no longer to be in the church. In her confusion, Mrs Mayberry loses track of the cross of Jesus, which anyone in that congregation might have told her was ‘going on before’, in the manner of Bert Lambert for one, and the Mayor for another. She is obliged to improvise with a ‘Da da da de da’.

As it happened, where the Mayor, or for that matter Bert Lambert, was headed was of scant interest to that congregation because something infinitely more compelling has commanded their attention.

Not Mrs Hawthorn, because with three notable exceptions, none of them knew her from a bar of soap. Something much, much more shocking.

It is the extraordinary reappearance in Prospect of Louisa Worthington, famous trollop, ten years absent from the town, on the arm of William Mayberry, the Mayor’s son and heir, a fellow everyone believed was happily married to an heiress in Sydney, the epitome of propriety and himself destined for even higher office than his father. If ever anything could sabotage seemly respect and mourning, this spectacle is that anything.

Was the Mayor great? Was he good? Who cared?  



Louisa Worthington, not to put too fine a point on it, had the moral standing of a sewer rat even if she did have an accent direct from Hampshire and was the widow of a war hero. What was William Mayberry thinking? Surely he knew her background. Everyone from Myrtle Grove to Tasmania did.

Ten years ago, Louisa Worthington, along with her neigh­bours Adelaide Nightingale, Pearl Fletcher and young Maggie Albright, had advertised for a part-time husband. An Irish tinker had turned up, pretending to be the cousin of Pearl Fletcher (who was then Mrs Nightingale’s housekeeper) and they had shared him. SHARED him!

All hell had broken loose. The tinker and Mrs Worthington had fled from the town on the very same day and had never been seen again, which was good riddance.

But look at her now. Bold as brass didn’t begin to describe it. Blonde did, when she’d disappeared a brunette. Blonde and beautiful and standing right behind the coffin, not singing but smiling and waving.

You could have knocked down with a feather the crowd on the church steps when she’d emerged from the cortege.

Bert Lambert’s gleaming black Riley had pulled up, the vicar had heaved Mrs Mayberry from the car and William Mayberry had opened the door nearest the kerb. A long, ele­gantly stockinged leg had appeared followed by another, then a tiny hand had taken the larger hand of Lieutenant Mayberry and what had uncoiled from the car had taken their breath away.

‘She’s dyed her hair,’ they told each other.

Every eye, without fail, had scanned those steps for Adelaide Nightingale, Pearl Fletcher and Maggie Albright. Had those ladies been expecting her? They’d been secretive before, so no one doubted they could be secretive all over again. If they hadn’t been expecting her, why were they nowhere to be seen?

The answer to that was simple enough. None of them had been expecting her and none were hiding. They were sitting in pews, among the bosoms of their families, waiting to be bored rigid because none had nursed any great love for the Mayor. His twenty-five years were almost certainly going to be accounted for in dreadful detail and the new vicar’s sermons were already famously dull. Neither Pearl Fletcher nor Maggie Albright should have been there anyway, since they were Catholic. No, those ladies were as unprepared for the appearance of Louisa Worthington as the crowd on the steps had been and their shock, when it occurred, was even greater.

Adelaide Nightingale, recently widowed and newly slender as a result, was sandwiched between her children, eleven-year-old Freddie and ten-year-old Phyllis. She’d remained oblivious even when Louisa had sidled into the front pew next to Mrs Mayberry and adjusted the widow’s voluminous veil in a gesture so intimate that quizzical glances were exchanged as far away as the organ loft. Adelaide knew nothing of any recently arrived Louisa because her eyes had been firmly shut. In prayer, she’d wanted her children to believe, but in sleep was the truth. She had been startled into knowledge only when someone behind her had gasped ‘Good God’.

Even from the back, even though a tiny hat sat snugly on a blonde head and not a dark one, she’d known it was Louisa. She’d have known her anywhere, any time, because this was the back of a tormentor, the cause in her life of misery upon misery and all she had seen in that back was more misery. She’d been so instantly overwhelmed by ancient dread that she’d clapped her hand to her mouth and, so it seemed to her children, spat into it. It had caused those children to catch each other’s eye behind their mother’s back, but they said nothing because that was now their habit. They’d watched her grip the back of the pew in front, they’d felt the tension in her body. They’d waited as she fought to find a calming breath in the suffocating air around her. They’d wondered if the sight of the coffin was reminding her of their father, because it was memory of him that most often rattled her nerves. And they’d been right, in a way.

Marcus Nightingale, faultless though he was in death, had not been entirely so in life and definitely not where Louisa Worthington had been concerned. Louisa had tried to lure him from his marriage. For that she was to blame. But hadn’t he encouraged Louisa to believe he was tempted? And hadn’t that been a repeat of something repellently similar when she and Louisa had been barely out of their teens and Louisa had lured William Mayberry from an understanding everyone knew he’d had with her? It might have been long, long ago. They might now be thirty-six, but a knife stuck into the same wound twice leaves a scar so tender it can never be forgotten. No man was safe from Louisa, no man, and now she was blonde, for crying out loud!

While the vicar, pious in the pulpit, had been asking the congregation ‘How big is a small man and how small is a big man when it comes to the eye of a needle?’, Adelaide had asked herself, with more precision, ‘Why is she here?’

What on earth could have induced the bane of her former life to come back to Prospect when all she was returning to was a falling down house and a very bad name? Well, she definitely wouldn’t welcome her. Louisa had been dead to Adelaide for years and she would remain dead, deader than Marcus and the Mayor combined.

Adelaide Nightingale, known above all things for the sweet­ness of her nature, was consigning Louisa Worthington to hell when, without warning, Louisa turned in her seat to seek her out and, finding her, had smiled enthusiastically and waved.

God help her, Adelaide had waved back. She had smiled and she had continued smiling even as she’d turned to her children, who were transfixed. ‘That’s Mrs Worthington, I can’t stand her. Stop staring. You’re in church.’

Ten rows behind, on the opposite side of the aisle, Pearl Fletcher had watched Adelaide’s distress and flinched. She too had choked in dismay when, alerted by the seated congregation’s low hum of shock and recognition, she’d turned to see Louisa sweep past with such a sense of ownership she might already have been a Mayberry.

Pearl had clutched the arm of her husband, Joe, who’d shrugged because that was his answer to everything. But dark foreboding had entered her soul as surely as it had entered Adelaide’s and she’d hugged close the beauteous child by her side and held on to her for all she was worth, even though that child had struggled and muttered, ‘You’re crushing my dress, Mother. Stop it.’ Even though her three sons, known to all and sundry as A (for Abel), B for (Benjamin) and C (for Christian), sitting next to the beauteous Daisy, were miracles of decorum by comparison.

Surely she wasn’t the reason Louisa had come back? Surely Louisa wasn’t wanting, after all these years, to acknowledge the baby she’d taken such pains to deny?

Louisa had given birth to Daisy in secret, in the small house in Bondi owned by Annie McGuire, who’d raised Pearl from babyhood, attended only by Pearl and Annie.

It should have been a moment of great joy, so beautiful was that baby. Annie had handed her to Louisa but Louisa had passed her right back. She didn’t want it and would never want it, that’s what she’d said. She’d rested for an hour then she’d dressed, gathered her bags and left. Neither Pearl, nor Annie, nor the baby herself had heard from Louisa in ten years, and neither Pearl nor Annie had revealed the fate of that baby to anyone other than Joe, who became her father. For all Louisa knew, the child had been adopted by a missionary family in New Guinea so why would she lay claim to her now?

This was what Pearl Fletcher, known for her common sense, her nerves of steel, her certainty on all matters and her smugness with her place in the world, had told herself to calm her thumping heart. The vicar was describing the genius of the station waiting room and the congregation was shivering because it was freezing, but Pearl could only grapple with the best way to avoid a catastrophe and soon she’d decided.

She and Annie and Joe would fight Louisa Worthington to the death. That’s how fiercely Pearl loved that child. To the death! But as Reverend Wilmot cried, ‘Butter! What did butter mean to this great man?’ Louisa had beamed in her direction. ‘Hello,’ she’d mouthed and Pearl had mouthed the exact word back. And smiled.

Maggie Albright (formerly O’Connell) had been neither looked for nor found during that interminable service. It hadn’t bothered her. She’d been less concerned with where Louisa was looking than how she was looking. Maggie was seated at the back of the church with her husband, Ginger, who now ran their family farm but had once been the shop boy at Nightingales, Adelaide’s famous food store, which Maggie herself now managed.

Missing from the family group were Maggie’s brothers Al and Ed, strapping lads of twenty. They had jobs in Sydney and were doing better than anyone could have hoped for wayward orphan boys raised by a sister whose love for them just about triumphed over their refusal to do as she asked. They wouldn’t have been remotely fascinated by Mrs Worthington. It occurred to Maggie that they mightn’t even remember her. But she remembered Louisa Worthington, with bitterness and resentment for the condescension she’d always shown her. Today, however, her greedy interest was in what Louisa Worthington, freshly back from London, Paris, New York and Sydney, was wearing.

If Louisa had spotted Maggie as she’d passed within inches of her on the way in, there had been no friendly wave or enthu­siastic beam. ‘She doesn’t recognise me,’ Maggie had murmured to Ginger, who’d hesitated so long before replying that when he did, his wife was no longer next to him. She’d moved with great agility to claim a seat on the aisle so she would have an excellent view of Louisa on the way out.

That view had been fleeting but Maggie hadn’t wasted a single instant of it. When the coffin paused just ahead of her during ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, she’d noted every detail of Mrs Worthington’s dress (cut on the bias), her shoes (chisel-toed), her hat (cloche) and the sweet little jacket (bolero) that ended just beneath Mrs Worthington’s heavenly and much fuller than remembered bust. She’d noted as well the state of Mrs Worthington’s face and accepted without question that it looked a good ten years older than her own, because it was ten years older. Eight, then. But so much younger than either Mrs Nightingale’s face or Mrs Fletcher’s. But even as Maggie turned her head to see if she could catch Louisa’s eye, they were off again.

William Mayberry had taken his mother by the arm and he was leading her from the church, allowing Louisa to follow, like an abandoned woman.

‘Serves her right,’ Maggie told herself, but that wasn’t what everyone else was thinking. Adelaide Nightingale, for example, was wondering what life for her would have been like if she’d married William Mayberry and not Marcus.

‘What now?’ the rest of the congregation was asking itself as they filed from their pews. ‘What next?’

Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife Barbara Toner

A hilarious and heart-warming novel about the true meaning of ‘for better or worse’ – both in marriage and in friendship.

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