Authors: Barbara Hannay
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Multi-award-winning author Barbara Hannay is a city-bred girl with a yen for country life. Most of her forty-plus books are set in rural and outback Australia and have been enjoyed by readers around the world. In her own version of life imitating art, Barbara and her husband currently live on a misty hillside in beautiful Far North Queensland where they keep heritage pigs, hens, ducks, turkeys and an untidy but productive garden.
This one was always for you . . .
Charters Towers, 2013
Sally’s friends were wrong. She shouldn’t have come to the ball. It was a mistake.
But her friends had been so very persuasive.
‘You have to get back into the social scene, Sal. You can’t go on like this. There’s only so much running and swimming and kickboxing a girl can do.’
The messages had been coming at her on all fronts. She should be over her loss by now. Her grief for Josh was a moving and beautiful thing, but two and a half years was long enough.
Even the little old ladies at her grandmother’s nursing home had chimed in with their two cents’ worth.
‘You still have your whole life ahead of you, my dear. You’re not Queen Victoria, you know. You can’t grieve for your husband forever.’
The only people in Sally’s circle who had
showered her with advice were her parents. Admittedly, Sally’s mother had tried to steer her out of the black morass of her initial grief, but she’d been rebuffed by her only child one time too many. Angela Spence’s focus had quickly reverted to her mega-busy job as one of Townsville’s most in-demand lawyers.
And yet it
Angela who’d come up with the suggestion that Sally needed a dog. Of course, Angela hadn’t visualised an elderly female cattle dog, virtually on death row at the pound. She’d tried to urge her daughter towards a puppy.
‘This poor thing only has a few years left in her,’ she’d said as they stood in front of the old dog’s cage.
But there was something about the cattle dog’s wistful look that speared straight to Sally’s wounded heart. The poor old girl might be slow and arthritic, but she looked like a creature who needed a companion as much as Sally did.
The dog had arrived at the pound without a name, so Sally called her Jess, and after only a few nights together she and Jess were old friends, as if they both understood and shared the same sadness and loss.
Sally’s father had done his best, too. Tom Spence ran a second-hand furniture business, and while he wasn’t quite as busy and distracted as her mother, he was far too reserved to discuss deeply emotional issues with his daughter.
Instead, Tom had taken Sally skindiving on the reefs off Magnetic Island, where they’d swum around brain coral as big as a truck and she’d rediscovered the beauty of blue damsels and rainbow-coloured wrasse, silvery schools of herring and fascinating spotted maroon rays. Together they’d also canoed down the Burdekin, paddling between steep limestone cliffs and drifting lazily around shady bends, making their camp on the riverbank where, in the late afternoon, they listened as a wind rippled through the river gums, as if someone had rolled out an invisible rug, shaking dead leaves from the treetops.
To her huge surprise, Sally had found she enjoyed these activities now in her twenties almost as much as she had when she was a child. She’d understood that this was her father’s gentle way of showing her that it was possible to enjoy Life After Josh.
But while her parents had been gentle, Sally’s girlfriends had been persistently vocal. They’d coaxed her steadily and with such rowdy enthusiasm that eventually she’d started to feel the tiniest glimmer of hope.
At first it was scary to sense even the slightest change in herself. She’d become used to the awful emptiness that had dulled her for the past two and a half years, but now the lethargy shifted ever so slightly.
‘I don’t know what you expect of me,’ she’d warned her friends as they gathered for Friday drinks in their favourite Palmer Street wine bar. ‘I couldn’t possibly face the nightclub scene again. And I don’t want any of your matchmaking, thanks. Don’t bother inviting me to dinners and parties where you’ve already lined up some poor guy to be nice to me.’
Her best friend Megan had pouted at this. ‘You’re really making this hard, you know, Sal.’ Since kindergarten, Megan had always been a girl who needed quick-fix solutions to every problem.
In the end, it was Kitty Mathieson, an old lady at the nursing home, who’d told Sally about the ball. Sally and Jess were making their weekly visit to Sally’s nan, who had Alzheimer’s.
While Angela Spence only had time for quick visits to the home, mainly fussing with admin over the level of care her mother was receiving, Sally had developed the habit of sitting with her grandmother. Conversation was difficult, so she often read aloud to her.
‘Read the one with all the food,’ Nan nearly always said, and Sally knew exactly what she meant. She’d lost count of the number of times she’d read about Ratty and Mole and their picnic on the riverbank, but she read their favourite scene from
Wind in the Willows
yet again. Whenever she looked up from the book, she felt a lump in her throat to see the almost childlike smile on her nan’s sweet familiar face as she listened and nodded and patted Jess.
As always, it was quite a lengthy process for Sally and Jess to make their way back through the home from Nan’s high-care ward. They had to stop for lots of visits with other residents who also loved to pat Jess’s soft coat or to slip her treats.
,’ they would call, gleefully waving.
Sally always made a point of visiting Kitty Mathieson, who saved pieces of biscuit for Jess. While Kitty’s mobility was limited and she apparently had a heart condition, her brain was as sharp as a needle and she always had something interesting to discuss.
Today, her eyes held a special sparkle. ‘I have something for you, Sally.’ With a very shaky hand, she shifted a tea mug on the stand beside her bed and revealed a flyer underneath. ‘My daughter dropped this off.’
Sally had a nodding acquaintance with Kitty’s daughter, Virginia, a slim, lively woman, around sixty, with greying blonde hair and friendly blue eyes.
‘They’re having a dance with a wartime theme out at Charters Towers, and Virginia thought I might be interested.’ Kitty laughed. ‘Not to dance, of course, but I spent time near the Towers during the war.’ She pointed with an arthritic finger to a decorative string of American flags on the front of the pamphlet, partly obscured by a tea stain.
‘Reviving old memories, Kitty?’
‘Actually, I thought
might be interested.’
‘In a ball at Charters Towers?’ Sally tried to hide her dismay.
‘It’s really just a dance with a wartime theme.’
‘How . . . how nice,’ Sally said doubtfully.
‘Those war years were such a romantic time.’ Kitty’s normally clouded grey eyes were shining. ‘All the men in their snappy uniforms. The wonderful big-band music.’
‘I guess you have fond memories.’
For a moment, Kitty seemed lost in those memories, lost in the past, but her smile trembled sadly as if the memories were bittersweet. Then, with a little shake, she snapped back to the present, switching her gaze directly to Sally. ‘You could write a story about it for one of your magazines.’
‘About your love life during the war?’
Kitty made a little huffing sound of impatience. ‘About the dance, the old-time music and everything.’
‘I suppose I could . . . possibly . . .’ Sally wondered if she’d touched a nerve. It almost seemed as though the war might be a sensitive subject for Kitty. She found herself looking hard at the old lady. Her skin was crisscrossed with lines and it looked incredibly fragile, as if to touch it might leave a bruise. Her hair was thin and snow-white, but she wore it swept up into a surprisingly elegant topknot.
Sally tried to imagine how Kitty must have looked seventy years earlier, but it was impossible.
‘There’d be plenty of photo opportunities at this ball,’ Kitty prompted. ‘The uniforms and medals. The forties dresses were very elegant, you know.’
‘I guess.’ To Sally’s surprise, she could
feel a skerrick of interest in the idea. An old-fashioned ball was not her scene, but it could, quite possibly, kill two birds with one stone. She could head off to this dance and prove to her girlfriends that she wasn’t a total social drop-out, and if she took her notebook and camera, she could make a start on resurrecting her off-and-on career as a freelance journalist.
After the recent downward trend in the mining industry, her old job as PR rep for an engineering firm had been reduced to two days a week. She’d picked up casual work, subbing and writing advertorials for the local papers, but what she really wanted was to write features. Magazines with a focus on country lifestyles were always looking for good colour stories.
She would go, Sally decided with uncharacteristic impulsiveness, which was how she found herself, two weeks later, driving a hundred kilometres west on a Friday evening to a ball in Charters Towers, dressed in no less than a precious and fragile 1940s dress of pale-pink georgette that Kitty Mathieson had unearthed and offered to her.
The dress was beautiful, with a band at the hips and triangles on the hem outlined with black beading. Sally hadn’t been sure it would fit her, as Kitty was so tiny these days, but to her surprise it was perfect and it made her feel unexpectedly glamorous.
For one night, she would put on a costume and play a new role . . .
It was a good idea in theory. Unfortunately, Sally’s newfound bravado deserted her almost as soon as she arrived at the ball and saw a room filled with strangers. Admittedly they were happy strangers, many dressed in appropriate 1940s costumes, dancing and swinging to the jazzy rhythm of brass band music. But why on earth had she thought she was ready for this? Her first impulse was to turn tail and to drive straight back to Townsville. So much for trying to impress her girlfriends.
She had a job to do, though, and that was easier than trying to make friends with strangers. Needing to look busy, Sally began to take photos of the band as they blasted out a brassy swing tune, and another pic of the little stars-and-stripes pennants strung over the bar. She snapped the middle-aged men dressed in their hired World War II military costumes, and a shot of a cheery, tipsy younger guy in the sailor’s cap with
painted in red letters on his white T-shirt, as well as a trio decked out as short-skirted hatcheck girls.
The ball’s organiser was a bustling, rather formidable woman, who reminded Sally of her school headmistress, but at least the woman was happy to provide far more details than were strictly necessary about the planning and execution of this ‘exciting evening’.
After that, Sally knew she should try to fit in and chat with the revellers. It wouldn’t be too difficult, surely? The band was surprisingly good, and not too loud for conversation right now, as a young man in a sailor suit crooned ‘You Made Me Love You’. It wasn’t as if there weren’t plenty of young people here, all having a good time. And yet . . .
Joining the young people was where Sally bombed.
She knew what she was supposed to do – she should introduce herself, take their photos, make cheerful small talk, including polite questions about their costumes or their elegant forties hairdos, and try to be incredibly interested in their answers. But after one look at the laughing groups who all seemed to know each other, Sally was instantly awkward and shy.
I’ve lost my mojo.
It was worse than that. The sad truth was, Sally had never been to a mixed social gathering without Josh. That was what happened when you bucked the trend of your generation and fell in love with the only guy you’d ever dated . . . when you married your high school sweetheart.
And when he went and died on you . . . you were left in your late twenties with a huge black hole where your head and your heart used to be . . . and with major,
gaps in your social skills.
Embarrassed and very much the wallflower, Sally drifted to one side and while the band switched to the exciting ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, she studied a montage of old black and white photographs. Rows of aircraft were lined up on an airfield in the middle of a paddock and handsome young pilots smiled and laughed at the camera. She looked at their combed-back hairstyles, at their lean, athletic bodies, at their bright, confident smiles and imagined them dancing with lovely girls to this lively music. She wondered how many of these men had survived the war.
Then she stopped herself. She was
going to think about death tonight. The thought of any young man killed in the prime of his youth could still reduce her to tears.
Daily, hourly, for the past thirty months, she’d grieved for Josh, but tonight she was supposed to be taking a brave step forward. Quickly she switched her attention to a picture of an older man, frail and stoop-shouldered, sitting in a wheelchair with a tartan rug over his knees. He had rows of medals on his chest and she wondered if he’d been one of those same dashing young pilots. Someone had written names beneath each photo. If she stepped closer she could read them, but she wasn’t planning to write about old soldiers.
I might as well just slip away home.
‘You look like you need a drink. Or directions on how to escape from here.’
Sally spun around.
The young man smiling at her was not in vintage fancy dress. He was wearing modern-day dark trousers and a smoothly tapered white shirt that showed off his wide shoulders and narrow hips. Already he’d loosened his collar and tie and hooked his suit coat over his shoulder. He might have been posing for a ‘cool dude’ commercial, except there was something very natural and easy and not at all
‘I’ve watched you prowling around,’ he said.
‘And here I was trying to be invisible.’
He smiled. ‘I can’t imagine why.’
Their gazes connected.
He was tall, with sun-flecked, light-brown hair and an indefinable air of the outdoors. Not handsome exactly, but his face had a kind of ruggedness that was manly without being tough. His eyes held smiling warmth. Almost certainly he was a country boy. A man of the land.
Not my type.
Just the same . . . Sally realised she was smiling at him.
Whoa, girl. Careful.
Granted, she’d caved in to her friends’ pressure and come to this ball, but she’d come as an observer, not as a participant. Accepting a drink from a charming guy might seem innocent enough, but it started the ball rolling, so to speak, and awoke possible expectations that Sally had no intention of fulfilling.