Authors: Di Morrissey
Also by Di Morrissey
Heart of the Dreaming
The Last Rose of Summer
Follow the Morning Star
The Last Mile Home
Tears of the Moon
When the Singing Stops
Scatter the Stars
In association with
First published 1994 in Pan by Pan Macmillan Australia Ply Limited
St Martins Tower, 31 Market Street, Sydney
Reprinted 1995 (twice), 1996 (twice) 1997,1998 (twice)
1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 (twice), 2005, 2006
Copyright Â© Di Morrissey 1994
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and
retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
National Library of Australia
The last mile home.
ISBN 07329 0804 3
Typeset in 11.5/14.5 pt Bembo by Post Typesetters
Printed in Australia by McPherson's Printing Group
This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of
the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to
actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
These electronic editions published in 2007 by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd
1 Market Street, Sydney 2000
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced
or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any
person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any
form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying,
recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the
The Last Mile Home
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Dedicated to families everywhere . . .
who are linked by those members present,
those past who are still with us across the circle of time,
and those yet to come . . . in the hope that respect and
affection for our own family might forge us all into
one international family.
And for Poppy who always said,
âThe last mile home is always the longest . . . but isn't it
good to get there!'
For my children, Gabrielle and Nicolas, who continue to astound and humble me with their insight, their compassion for others, and their beautiful free spirits.
For my mother who lost a husband and a son and still raised a daughter to believe in the beauty of the world.
For Jim, Ro, David and Damien Revitt . . . only family could be so giving.
And especially for my best friend, for his gifts of love, strength and belief in me.
HE DARK WOOD DOUBLE-DOORS INTO THE
library opened slowly, and the mustiness of old velvet, leather and furniture oil seeped through the narrow slit. For a moment, a slice of light was visible, then small hands carefully turned the brass handles to minimise the click as the doors interlocked and closed off this private world.
The room was dim, but the small figure moved surely, going to the great fall of wine draperies, giving a little tug to one side, dragging them apart. The slash of bright light was as sudden and unexpected as a rifle shot.
The lance of light illuminated the room so that
the furniture â a bulky desk, a standing lamp and a coffee table â was thrown into relief against the shadows. Two walls were lined with bookshelves; a third had bookcases with leadlight doors standing either side of a fireplace. Behind the wall of drapes were high windows whose view across landscaped grounds had been hidden. Like curtains moving across a grand stage set, the world of the library room and the beauty of the gardens was revealed, awaiting an audience that never came.
The little figure in short pants, neat shirt and woollen socks pulled straight up his legs, shuffled the small stepladder into place before the second wall of books. He took three steps up and leaned across without hesitation to a red leather book with gold lettering on its spine. Three books further along was a black book and this too was pulled from its place. A quick trip to turn the key of the glass door of one of the fireside bookcases and three more books were added to those at the boy's feet. The pile was transferred to the window where he settled himself against the loops and swathes of the velvet drapes, leaning back and lifting the first book into the sunlight that beamed over his shoulders.
First he held the book, reverently running his hands lightly over the front; then he opened the
heavy bound cover, leaning down to sniff the tang of leather and old paper. Then came the tingle of anticipation as he tenderly peeled back the tissue over the frontispiece.
The boy studied the pictures, his mouth curving in a slight smile. There was a family gathered around a long kitchen table with a jolly looking father holding a carving knife ready to plunge into a steaming baked brown bird set before him. The boy had studied the faces around the table before â the kindly smiling mother, the eager faces of the children â and wondered, as he always did, what their names were and what they said to one another. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, inhaling the warmth of the kitchen, the smell of roast turkey and chestnuts roasting on the fire, and for an instant he imagined that laughter and chatter echoed in the silent library.
The boy closed that book and lifted the next. This one had pen and ink etchings through it and he turned the pages slowly until he found his favourite. This family was gathered in front of a simple hearth where a fire burned brightly; the father was lifting a cup without a handle to propose a toast. Beside him on a stool, very close, sat a little boy. He was so frail, his limbs supported by an iron frame, a little crutch resting at his feet. The man held the withered hand of his
son tightly in his, as if he loved the child so much he didn't ever want to let him go. The little boy was saying something to his family, gazing up at his father with eyes that shone with love.
Beneath the picture, letters formed words and words formed the sentence, â
God Bless us every one!' said Tiny Tim.
But these were hieroglyphics to the boy with the book. How he longed to know what the poor little boy was saying. And did he get better? His questions would have to remain unanswered until the day came when he could read and all the treasures within the covers of these books would be revealed to him.
Guiltily he looked up, and suddenly, as if he'd willed the wrath upon himself, the library doors burst open.
âCaught! You wicked boy!' the voice boomed. A figure loomed in the doorway as the boy scrambled to his feet, trying to hide the books behind his back.
A tall man advanced on the boy, grabbing him by his collar. âYou've been told before not to come in here. Not to touch these books. These are valuable books. Not books for children.' The man raised his voice even further. âMrs Anderson,' he shouted. âMrs Anderson!'
The child was propelled towards the door as a worried voice and hurrying feet echoed down the hallway. âComing, sir.'
The housekeeper bustled into the room looking flustered, strands of greying hair spraying from the bun on top of her head. Her plump pink face was damp with perspiration and she was wiping her hands on her apron. âOh Richie, what mischief have you been up to now?' she chided.
Phillip Holten was holding the boy by the back of the shirt collar as if he were an errant puppy. He thrust the boy towards her. âTake him to his room; he is not to come down until I say so.' He angled the boy's head towards him and glared at the downcast face. âLook at me when I'm speaking to you, Richard.'
Hesitantly the boy lifted his chin, his mouth quivering, gazing up at him, his blue eyes humbled.
The man spoke in low, carefully measured tones. âYou are forbidden to touch these books or to come into this room. Is that understood?'
The boy nodded.
âAnswer when spoken to, please.'
âYes, sir,' he quavered. âI wanted to look at the books with the pictures . . .'
âThat's enough. You will learn to read when I say so, and you will read books appropriate for children. You will have a governess who'll prepare you for a good school. Until then, you do as you're told. Understood?'
âYes, sir.' It was a meek voice.
âSay sorry, dearie,' prompted Mrs Anderson, taking his hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. â
âOff you go. Mrs Anderson, see this room is put to rights.'
âYes, Mr Holten. I'll just settle him in his bedroom first.'
Holding his hand, she led the boy upstairs. When she heard the door of the study shut, she stooped, picked the boy up and carried him. âWhy do you go in there, luv? You know you aren't allowed. You have lots of toys and pretty books in the nursery. I suppose you like climbing up that ladder. I know you didn't mean any harm, but it's not worth getting him upset and cross at you.'
The boy nestled his face into the warmth of her shoulder. âNever mind, luv, I'll bring a nice supper to your room. Maybe a treat if you're good.'
She was breathing heavily as she deposited him inside the door of his bedroom.
Back in the library, Mrs Anderson drew the drapes, put the stepladder back in place and picked up the books. Idly she glanced through them, wondering why the boy had chosen these. The pictures in them brought a lump to her throat. âPoor little lamb,' she sighed. âHe must
wish his life was like this. If only it were . . . for all of us.' She slipped the books back into the spaces on the shelves and went to make supper.
Far from being a punishment, Richie enjoyed his solitary supper. Mrs Anderson sat a tray on the low table with his soft-boiled soldier egg sitting under its knitted cosy, fingers of toast on one side. A bowl of sago custard with stewed apple, a mug of warm Cadbury's chocolate and, as a special treat, a little cupcake sprinkled with hundreds and thousands in a pleated paper cup accompanied the egg.
Richie was left alone to eat and he ate slowly, with enjoyment, dipping his toast into the egg just far enough so the yolk didn't dribble over the edge, just as Mrs Anderson had shown him. He played with his food; he hummed; he licked his fingers; he blew bubbles in his milk. This was far more fun than eating in the formal austere dining room as he did most nights.
Usually he would be seated at the long rosewood dining table, his legs swinging, the table uncomfortably high, making it even more difficult for him to manoeuvre his knife and fork; while at the far end of the table, Phillip Holten would sit and meticulously eat his meal. Pausing occasionally, he'd sip a glass of claret and interrogate the
small boy, who found it difficult to give more than short answers as he tried to concentrate on keeping the peas on the back of his fork. When a longer answer was required, he'd learned to rest his hands in his lap, respond, looking directly at his calm inquisitor, then turn his attention once again to the complicated business of eating while minding his manners.
Mrs Anderson served the courses, giving her little chap, as she called him out of hearing, encouraging smiles and little hints. Carrying the plates back into the kitchen, she'd sigh to Jim, her husband, âPoor wee mite. Should be sitting on his mamma's knee, not struggling with great silver forks and knives at his age.'
âIf he passes muster in there, he'll be able to deal with anything life throws at him,' Jim would advise. âLeave matters be. You know the rules â no discussion about what might or might not be.'
The evening dinner ritual was observed as it had been when Phillip Holten was a boy, and he believed in carrying on the tradition. But for little Richie, uncomfortable in good clothes, lace-up shoes, and best manners to the fore, it was an ordeal. At the end of the meal, when given the nod by Mrs Anderson, Richie would recite, âMay I be excused, please?' And Phillip Holten would nod as he lit up his cigar. Mrs Anderson waited
discreetly in the doorway as he slipped down from his chair and bid, âGoodnight', before escaping to his bedroom.
But tonight, being âpunished' with supper in his room, he wore his pyjamas, and didn't worry if crumbs or egg yolk spilled. All alone, he acted out his little fantasy of a family Christmas party, pretending that there were relatives and friends gathered around and he was offering portions of turkey and pudding and joining in the laughter and the hearty togetherness he only could imagine from the silent pictures seen in forbidden books.
Later, Mrs Anderson came to take away Richie's tray and see that he washed and brushed his teeth. She smiled at his cheerful disposition.
âDo you want a story, luv?'
Richie nodded eagerly, settling himself on the bed and making room for Mrs Anderson to sit beside him.
It was a slow plod as she laboured over the sentences in a flat voice, but Richie followed the story closely, running his fingers along the lines of words as she read, memorising each one. He had heard the story so many times, he could âread' the book himself, word for word.
This was a book from a previous generation, deemed suitable for little boys by Phillip Holten. One Christmas Mrs Anderson had given Richie a
brightly coloured picture book of boys' adventures. Phillip Holten had thanked her but said he preferred that Richie be given more worthy reading matter, adding, âIt is not necessary for you to give the boy Christmas gifts. He is amply provided for.'
âIt'll be Christmas soon,' said Mrs Anderson out loud, thinking of the books Richie had been looking at in the library earlier. âAnd then a whole new year â 1959. I wonder what it will bring. You'll start school for one thing.'
But Richie looked wistful. âWhy don't we have Christmas like the people in those books?' he asked, for Christmas was no celebration in this household.
Richie accompanied Phillip Holten to church on Christmas morning but paid little attention to the service, although he knew better than to fidget. He liked the singing but spent his time studying the festive decorations of beribboned wreaths looped over the handles of the church doors, and the tinsel and flowers massed inside where candles burned. It was different to other Sundays and overflowed with happy people dressed in their best clothes. Everybody wished each other âMerry Christmas', and children's eyes burned with excitement.
Phillip Holten always stood solemnly at the
front of the simple Presbyterian church for the service and afterwards Richie trailed behind him as he departed with a nod to several people and a shake of the minister's hand.
At dinner there was Mrs Anderson's plum pudding for dessert, but no other concession was made to the festive occasion.
Once Mrs Anderson had suggested the boy might like a little Christmas tree and some âtreats'.
âI am raising the child, thank you, Mrs Anderson. Besides, he is too young to appreciate the fripperies and nonsense people go on with . . . a waste of hard-earned money in my opinion.'
Mrs Anderson had held her tongue, but she railed to her husband against the strict frugality of the man and the spartan childhood for the boy.
Jim Anderson knocked his pipe on the edge of the oven and tipped the dregs into the ash box of the fuel stove. âWell, he might seem mean to some, but you can't interfere, Rene. If that's what he thinks is best, then that's how it will be. You can't really blame the man for not being joyful at Christmas.'
But instinctively Richie knew he was missing out. There was some other world where people went and he longed to find the secret door to it. He watched Mrs Anderson put the book away.
âWhat did you do at Christmas when you were little like me?' he pestered.