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Authors: Mary-Anne O'Connor

Gallipoli Street (55 page)

BOOK: Gallipoli Street
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‘Shhh.' Pattie put her finger to her lips and they moved closer.

‘We shouldn't,' Veronica whispered.

‘Oh we already know what she's going to tell her anyway.'

And so, against Veronica's better judgement, they listened.

‘'Tis a very pretty dress,' Mildred began. ‘I remember the night yer mother wore it.'

‘Was that the night my father came and proposed here?'

‘Aye, that was the night…only there was a complication. Theresa, yer mother did some things that people haven't forgotten and when ye wear her dresses and behave in a certain way, well, tongues will wag. Especially when certain people want to get them to wagging. That priest…'

‘Charming man, isn't he?' Theresa observed dryly, sipping her champagne with a small hiccup.

‘Dangerous,' Mildred warned. ‘I wish you had told me about yer…dancing and so on…'

Theresa frowned, regretting her grandmother's embarrassment from all this. ‘That's all it was, I promise…'

‘Of course child, y'don't need to explain to me. I just want to be protecting ye now because some will think the worst. Reputations are fragile things and y'mother…rather damaged hers that Christmas.' She paused, looking pained. ‘Ye'll be tarred with the same brush if yer not careful.'

‘What do you mean?'

Mildred sat down and sighed, taking another sip of her drink. ‘Yer mother was being courted by someone else for a few months and it seemed serious. In fact everyone expected them to announce their engagement, then yer father arrived out of blue…a stranger even to yer grandfather and I. It was quite the scandal when Gregory announced the betrothal here, especially in front of the man's family.'

Theresa put down her glass, starting to feel suddenly sober. ‘Who did she do that to?'

Mildred paused before admitting it. ‘Jack Murphy.'

Theresa felt sick, the photo taken right there at Greenshades all those years ago flashing through her mind. The crowd around the Sunbeam. Jack Murphy's arm around her mother's waist. Her mother had betrayed Pete's father? How could she do such a thing?

‘I know, it seems hard t'understand how she could jilt a man so cruelly and at first I was most ashamed, I assure you. But t'was a reason you see. She didn't expect Gregory t'come back into her life and she was…in need of marriage.'

It took a moment for the truth to dawn. ‘Christmas.'

‘Aye.'

‘And my birthday is in June.'

‘Aye. I know, I know, but before ye go judgin' her harshly jus' think what t'would have been like t'have ye out of wedlock.'

‘But…are you sure I'm Gregory's child?' she asked, aghast at the alternative.

‘Of course. There's no mistaking that hair, child. Ye have no fear there.'

Theresa stood, somewhat unsteadily, and walked slowly over to the mantel. ‘But no one can blame me for that. I mean, I was just an innocent baby…actually, I wasn't even born!'

‘I know, I know,' Mildred said sadly, sipping at her sherry and holding her handkerchief across her heart. ‘But you look so much like her in t'dress and all, and there y'were dancing with all those men…with the priest whispering his gossip and lies…people will tend t'think the worst.'

‘Then more shame to them,' she said, raising her chin. ‘I've done nothing wrong except dance, as a job for a while then tonight for a little fun. Since when is that a sin?'

‘It's the sins of the mother ye have to consider…'

‘But I'm not my mother…and anyway, maybe people would understand if they knew
why
she chose my father…'

‘Perhaps…but not when they know the rest. And that they will, I'm afraid t'say. 'Tis only a matter of time.'

Veronica went to pull Pattie away, still trying to accept the fact that Rose had been pregnant when she courted Jack, but Pattie stood firm, wanting to know it all.

Theresa looked at her grandmother, confused. ‘What is the rest?'

Mildred took another large gulp of sherry. ‘I…I can't say…anyway ye'll find out soon enough…'

‘Nana, what aren't you telling me?' Mildred sniffed against her tears and Theresa went over to hold her hands. ‘What else do I have to live down?'

Her grandmother looked at their joined hands and spoke in a low voice.

‘She did something else that will cause a great scandal when it is known. It's only that they are buried together…otherwise no one would ever find out.' She shrugged helplessly.

‘Who is? My mother and father? Please, tell me.'

Mildred looked nervously around her, clutching at her glass and handkerchief, then took a deep breath. ‘No, not your father. I wasn't entirely honest about him, dear. Truth was, he was a violent man. That's why she ran way with ye.' She paused, as Theresa tried to digest that terrible fact.

‘I'm sure you know yerself that during war…things are different. Time seems so very precious…'

‘She found someone else, didn't she?' Theresa knew in an instant it was true.

Mildred nodded. ‘Aye, that she did. I only found out about him later, from her friend Beatrice, who she served with. She wrote me and told me…'

Theresa braced herself as the words continued to rock her, not wanting to know but needing to.

‘This Beatrice, she said they were terrible in love. She found her happiness you see, but the man was someone close to home again and I'm afraid it will come back on ye when the truth comes out. It will only get worse when they know…' She wrung her hands anxiously and Theresa felt sick.

‘When who knows?'

‘His family,' she whispered.

Theresa felt the dread arrive just before the words landed.

‘'Twas the son of this house, Clarkson, Peter's uncle.'

Pattie let out a cry and they turned in shock to watch her storm into the room, closely trailed by a pale Veronica.

‘
How could she? How?
' she sobbed.

Pete came in then, watching in confusion as his aunt accosted Mildred. ‘Why him? Why not any other man? Isn't it bad enough she tried to trap my brother with Gregory's bastard?'

Theresa flinched. Now there was a new word to be hurled at her as well as orphan and slut.

‘She had to steal my husband while I waited here, holding his baby?' She flung herself at Theresa, hurling the words in her face. ‘
It's all because of you
. If it hadn't been for you Rose never would have used Jack, she never would have married Gregory and run off to France and she never would have stolen my husband from me.
My husband
. Do you know how long we had together as man and wife? One week.' She paused, angry tears streaming as her face contorted with pain. ‘
Just one lousy week
. Long enough to get with child and that's about it. A child he never saw. And you, you're just the same. Father O'Brien is telling everyone about it. You're a slut, just like her,' she spat. ‘Get out of this house! Hasn't your family done enough? Go! Tell her Pete,
tell her
!' Pattie screamed at him.

Theresa raised her gaze to Pete and she could see him torn, struggling to take it all in and find a way past his anger, past the sins of the parents. She waited, praying desperately it would be the way back to her, back to the place where it was just them.

Pete wouldn't let her down.

But the moment passed and somehow…he did.

‘Come along, Nana.' Theresa stood, the euphoric effects of alcohol now dissolving into heaviness and nausea. From somewhere within she found the strength to pull back her shoulders, hold her tears and help her shaking grandmother to her feet. They made their way in silence to the door, silence broken only by Pattie's choking sobs.

‘Theresa.' Veronica reached out to her, but she shook her head and kept walking. Without Pete's voice raised in loyalty there was nothing left to say.

Forty-seven

Numoikum, New Guinea, 15 August 1945

They sat, weary and hot, accustomed to both and past caring, just tired of it all. Squinting against the horizon, watching the warships as another plane took off in the waters below. The 16th Battalion were seasoned now, like many of their fathers before them, ambivalent about the politics of war, past the mutterings of surrender. They'd heard it for too long as they chased the Japanese north, further and further away from Australia, through creeks, rivers, beaches, jungles and villages. All they knew was that the enemy was still biting in retreat, proud and cunning and remaining invisible to any man who felt a Jap bullet as the last thing he ever knew. They feared them now, more than ever, as stories grew of torture and mindless cruelty in prisoner-of-war camps. Peter hated those sadistic monsters, that he couldn't deny. But the average Jap soldier was a pathetic sight these past months, skin and bone and many of them starved to death by the time the Aussies found them on the jungle floor. It made Pete sick to see the waste of life, even after all these years.

He sat against a palm tree near the village, half watching the planes, the paper and pen idle in his lap. The page was blank save the words at the top:
Dear The
resa.

All the words that should follow had already been written a hundred times over and sent to Mildred or Missy or anyone else he could think of who might know where she was hiding in London. No one would give him an address but at least he knew she was receiving his letters: Mildred had assured him of that much. According to the same she was also refusing to read any of them.

Pete sighed, lifting the page and looking at the photo underneath of a woman in a shimmering dress, eyes like fire as she tilted her chin at a photographer who little knew this beauty was filled with outrage that Christmas night, two and a half years earlier. Simon had asked him once: why this photo? Why not ones that brought back memories of happier times? One that might give him hope? Pete hadn't offered an explanation at the time, but the truth was that the memories of happier times were easy to conjure. They lived like a beautiful gallery in his mind that he visited every night as he closed his eyes against hell and war. But this photo…this photo gave him something more important than hope: it gave him conviction. He knew this side of Theresa would never surrender to lesser emotions. She would always have passion in her blood and he would need that the most when the time came, because he was gambling, with whatever life he had left owing after the war, that she would face him again. And fight him. Having it out was the only way.

He would have to stoke her outrage and anger until it exploded, praying that it would wane into forgiveness and she would become soft once more. Loving. His. Any other ending was unimaginable. That outcome was the only thing keeping him sane in his nightmarish exile in the tropics. He felt he was paying for his sins now, forced to endure the brutality of man at his worst. Forced to examine his own shortcomings, his ability to lose himself in anger and hatred. The beast within. It was a battle they all waged but his father's words still sustained him. War wouldn't take his soul. And holding that photo helped him cling to that every day. He was more than a soldier, more than a body that took life. And he would spend the rest of his days being the rest of that man. With the woman he loved.

BOOK: Gallipoli Street
7.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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