The Castle of Heavenly Bliss sample

The Castle of Heavenly Bliss

Book 5 Conciliar Series

Chapter 1

The mission

THE SUMMER SUN was dipping down over the dry countryside of north-western Victoria. The hot hours of the day had driven the folk of the sleepy town of Binawarra into their homes, leaving the streets parched and deserted. Some ten miles out of town, traveling in the subsiding heat, a car made its way along the narrow, patched road. The car’s occupants squinted and shaded their eyes against the flickering glare as the sun danced in and out of the gum trees with the curve of the road. The driver hummed a ragged tune and tapped the steering wheel while the woman, with a cigarette stuck between her fingers, had her eyes fixed on the papers she shuffled on her lap. The scene of rolling and peaking hills covered with eucalypts and expanses of dry brown grass was not enough to break her concentration. Now and again, she stopped the shuffling and stared at the jottings on a piece of paper held loosely in her left hand. Eventually, she flicked at the sheets and frowned at her notes. The driver glanced at her and then at the paper. Then, casting a quick look along the road, he leaned closer. She was alerted to his movement and saw the bored expression fade.

‘What?’ She drew on her cigarette and blew a puff of smoke out the side of her mouth.

‘Your notes are in Dutch. Not usual,’ he said, in heavily accented English.

‘Well?’ She folded over the sheet of paper in her left hand, making no attempt to hide her irritation.

He smirked.

Gerda Vrouwendijk could speak several European languages without an accent. She was so adept at mimicking some national and regional accents that she often fooled the locals. To tune her ears, she tested herself in unobtrusive places. Her audacity and the ease with which she brought off such performances drew praise from her companion, a grudging admiration she did not return. She had contempt for the man she had to put up with when circumstances warranted his unique skills. He was a mere caricature in her mind—a savage brute brandishing pistols and swearing blood oaths. As brutish as he was, though, he served his purpose well.

He was methodical and unfeeling in his tasks. He backed up these useful qualities with great natural strength and physical conditioning. Above all else, his lazy indifference to her plans provided her with the compliance indispensable to her work. The indifference remained as long as he could lock the task with its negotiated rewards into his limited vision and as long as he had time to waste himself on the exploitation of those rewards wherever he could. He revolted her as no other man could.

She called him Boris, almost always with a sneer. She did not know his real name and did not care to know it. Boris was unperturbed. He assumed the name in his travels with her, having a false passport and business cards produced for the purpose. The full significance of the nickname, oddly enough, seemed to escape him. So she thought. Despite the show of indifference, she had to reassure herself now and again when he shook his head and cast a menacing look from under those dark brows or when he perpetrated some unspeakable violence on command and then absently sucked the blood from his split knuckles. But he dared not touch her. Apart from any other consideration, his objectives in the association, whatever they were, depended on her.

She unfolded the sheet and contemplated it. What was it to him that her notes were in Dutch? He recognized the different European languages, and even spoke some Eastern European and Arabic languages well, but she was not sure how good his Dutch was. These sorts of things he was cunning enough to hide.

‘I do not pay you to concern yourself with such matters. In any case, the reason would not advance your font of knowledge.’ Then realizing how much she would need him in the coming months and how effectively she could exploit the energies of his dark hatreds, she forced out, ‘These notes are of the briefing reports you gave me. Right? I was tired at the time … unconsciously reverted to my first language. It’s the easiest way of organizing your thoughts. You should know.’

Boris frowned, stared at her, and then returned his distrustful eyes to the broken road in front of him. Gerda prided herself on remaining elusive, but she must not antagonize him. She needed him. Reinforcing Boris’s chronic distrust would be an unnecessary risk. He was right about the jottings in Dutch. She had been lax. Through tiredness? The preparation and travel had been demanding. Through common human frailty? Who knows, she thought, not wanting to dwell too much on such irrelevance. It was essential to keep in character. She would be more alert.

‘But thanks for pointing it out,’ she added, feigning a conciliatory tone.

Calmly stubbing out her cigarette, she pretended to return to her paperwork. She hoped her casual accommodating remarks would wipe the distrust off the face of the frightful man she would have to spend the following months with. A few moments later, Boris took up his humming and tapping again. She was relieved. That savage Balkan could be a nuisance when he had a mind to it. But a glance from Boris showed he was playing the same sly game and keeping an eye on his companion.

During this time, the car was winding its way upward between two peaks. Close on their right, the land rose steeply up out of the undulating fields in a stream of rocks, dirt, dry grass, and stunted and spiky eucalypts until it reached a sharp peak towering over them. Near the top of the peak, a strange, gray, rocky outcrop jutted. Like a platform put there for some purpose. Underneath the platform was a sheer drop along a scaly cliff face for about sixty feet. From there, a short leveling incline to the roadway. A little farther on, on their left and not as close to the road, a massive mound rose to reach a height above the sharp peak. Its huge, hunched, squatting form was treed all around its rugged slopes. Though burnt brown in the Australian summer, the grass was long and thick, hiding any sign of the reddish-brown earth that appeared on the opposite peak. Its top was inviting and negotiable by a fit and eager bushwalker.

Gerda and Boris drove on past the rocky outcrop, ignoring the hunched squatting form on their left. The road reached its full height and then descended to burst from the hills and trees onto a broad view of farmland with Binawarra nestled cozily just below them. In the distance, the farmland rose again to form a chain of low-lying hills. On their slowing descent, the township’s pattern of roads, its settler-period public buildings, and the clusters of pioneer houses with their verandahs opened to them. As dull as their observations were about the countryside on their approach to Binawarra, this enchanting rural scene intruded on their purpose. They silently stared as they emerged from the trees between the peaks. The uneasiness was soon gone. For as they drove on, two figures walking hand-in-hand towards the town drew their attention.

‘That’s her,’ said Boris, without feeling.

‘Keep calm,’ said Gerda. Boris remained unmoved. ‘Don’t give any sign that we have seen them. Drive on, but slowly so I can get a clear view. Easy … I said easy!’

Boris eased on the accelerator. The two people, a very tall man, and a tall, well-formed young woman, both of darkish complexion, gave no indication they were aware of the approaching car. As the car drew level, Gerda turned and looked around Boris’s head. ‘Don’t move!’ she hissed. She had an unimpeded look, satisfied that the two walkers paid no attention to the car, let alone show any interest in its occupants.

‘Well,’ said Gerda, more to herself than to Boris, ‘reports about her have not been exaggerated. She is exquisite … Quite exquisite … unusual …’ She turned to Boris: ‘You stay away from her. Don’t forget it.’

Boris laughed loudly. Gerda did not respond to this mocking reaction. She knew, as he did, that they were playing out a little theatre and that a general warning had been repeated. Binawarra was worlds away from his style of pleasure, and, more importantly, he would stick to his task. They drove on in silence. Stunning! Absolutely different. Not only the physical appearance: tall, sturdy, and well-formed but with a manner, an allure, like nothing Gerda had seen before. This was indeed a prize. Gerda was not one to rush to judgment. She had been skeptical and hesitant when the idea arose, and the possibilities suggested. The results, on a long shot, almost far-fetched, did not promise to reward the time and effort, she had thought. But now. Defying her own rules, she rushed to judgment. This would be worth the risk. If this girl could take her, Gerda Vrouwendijk, so directly in, surely she would have the same effect on others. The car slowing almost to a stop, broke in on her musings.

‘What are you doing?’ she snapped, glancing back over her shoulder.

‘Well, where do you want me to go?’ Boris tapped the steering wheel and looked in front of him.

‘Keep driving.’

They had crossed the bridge over a fast-flowing creek and headed toward the town center. Gerda stroked her cheek and then her chin, staring but not seeing in front of her. Boris glanced at her with smirking interest.

‘Show me where the publisher of The Binawarra and District Mail lives,’ she said, waving her hand without bestowing even a sideways glance. ‘Go on and mind your business.’

She put her sunglasses on, took a broad-brimmed sunhat from the back seat, and positioned it on her head. She lit up another cigarette and exhaled, deep in thought. Waving the smoke away, Boris made a turn at the end of the large, lush park in the middle of the town’s shopping center, took a turn to the left, and drove several blocks to a fashionable part of the town. He stopped outside a smart, restored colonial-style cottage. Despite the presence of few people on the cooling streets of Binawarra, Gerda took on the attitude of an interested visitor to the picturesque town and surveyed the living quarters of the publisher of the principal organ of communication in the district.

‘Our publisher is a discerning man with a taste for the finer things of life,’ she murmured. ‘A most tastefully restored property. Your report has not been amiss as yet, it pleases me to say.’

Boris nodded in acknowledgment.

Dropping ash from her cigarette, she flicked through the papers on her lap and with a wave of the hand directed Boris to drive on. She isolated one of the sheets, looked around, and then motioned him to stop. She read for a minute. ‘How reliable is this? Is there really something between our publisher and the wife of the Returned Soldiers League President?’

‘It’s a reasonable suspicion. They come into contact quite often. Collins fancies himself… the sophisticated type … targets the notables in the town …’

Gerda rubbed her chin again. ‘Keep an eye on them … for whatever may be going on.’ She returned to the sheet of paper. ‘This debt and his ambition to set up a chain of country newspapers. Too vague. I want a clear picture of his financial circumstances. The urge to build a media empire can be a virulent one.’ Apparently not expecting a reply to this gratuitous opinion, she waved him to drive on. ‘Take me on a tourist drive around the town.’

Following his companion’s promptings, Boris made his way at a tourist pace around Binawarra while Gerda took in as much as she could. When they returned to the square, she said: ‘Now the high school.’ Boris drove around the square, at the end of which he turned into Melbourne Road, the main road out of the town. He drove several blocks and then turned right into Goldminers Road. The town’s high school was at the top of a slow incline, from which there was an arresting view of the town center. The administrative block looked out over the fields to the range of hills, of which the great hunched mound and the sharp peak were prominent. The sports fields, set into the treed slopes, were lower down on the hill. They stopped there, contemplating the view.

‘Now show me where he lives,’ said Gerda.

Boris drove back down the hill and turned right into Eureka Street. They proceeded about half a mile to the outskirts of the residential area. The house with a view of the hills was the last on a large block. All around was an abundance of plants in well-cared-for gardens. Behind the house, the farmland stretched out. Eureka Street continued, taking a curving swing to the left, and met Melbourne Road just before the bridge over the creek. As Gerda and Boris drew abreast of the house, the man himself appeared on the verandah. Gerda motioned Boris to drive on. Boris did not blink. He drove on through the curve until he was out of sight and turned back. At first, the man ignored the car. Many such tourist cars drove around his delightful country town. He stood with a rapturous expression, running a proud eye over his flower gardens, and breathing in the fresh country air. When the car approached a second time, he looked up and gave a friendly wave. Boris lazily returned the gesture.

‘You fat old fool,’ said Gerda, happy that this first sighting had reinforced the picture she had formed of Bill Huckerby. ‘You are going to be rocked out of your complacency.’ A woman appeared on the verandah and put an arm around the man’s ample waist. She gave him a kiss and snuggled up to him. Gerda turned her head away. ‘Quick, get going,’ she ordered. Boris jerked the car forward and drove off.

‘Now, the girl,’ said Gerda, ridding her mind of the detestable sight.

Boris turned right at Goldminers Road, headed across Melbourne Road, and took the third turn to the right into Old Melbourne Road. As with Eureka Street, Old Melbourne Road was an alternative way south out of the town and joined the main road around fifty yards before the creek. The last house on a large parcel of ground and hemmed in by two long dry-stone walls stood snugly among a welcoming array of flowers, bushes, trees, and vegetable gardens. Boris nodded in the direction of this house. ‘Where the girl lives.’ He slowed the car while Gerda fixed her eyes on the house, mingling with the early evening light. Then the girl emerged from the yellow glow. She stood motionless, facing the hills at one end of the verandah. At the risk of being seen, Gerda looked around as they passed.

‘Stunning!’ she said and added, ‘Drive on a little further, turn around and come back. I think she is too preoccupied to pay attention to us.’

The girl seemed to recollect as the car returned for a second pass. She turned and walked to the other end of the verandah, where she sat on a swing seat and gazed at the hills. Gerda could not help leaning around and having a last lingering look, but she turned back too early to see the girl glance at them. When Boris turned into Goldminers Road, she told him to pull up somewhere unobtrusive. There seemed nowhere more unobtrusive than where they were, and he brought the car to a halt. From there, they had a clear view up Goldminers Road to the high school at the top of the hill. Gerda was lost in thought.

‘Is she always like that?’

‘Like what?’

‘Serene, detached, aloof. Like she was gazing on the world from a different place. You know.’

‘Yes,’ he said, contemplating the question in his lazy way. ‘People her own age say she’s as cold as a dead fish. The boys call her the “Ice Maiden.” She has most of them in awe of her.’

‘Good. What about other people in the town, the older people?’

‘I’ve heard that some of the men, prominent men, have thought it necessary to protect her.’

‘Against what?’

‘They’ve warned the town’s youth …’

‘Hypocrites.’

‘That’s what I’ve heard. There is only so much questioning I can do. My accent is already a signal I do not belong. You know the way country people are.’

‘I certainly do.’ She consulted her papers again. There was silence for a while. ‘You say there is frequent contact between the girl’s family and that fat fool and his wife. It’s a long walk from one house to the other.’

Boris shrugged his shoulders. ‘It may be, but I have often tracked her on her way there or coming back again. She is a keen walker. She is known for her lone walks in the bush and farmland. The farmers keep an eye on her. It’s easy to see she is fit and strong. A year or so ago, people thought she would be a champion athlete.’

‘That’s not in your reports.’

‘Well … the story was too vague. People say she lost interest. She takes part in the school sports but does not try.’

‘Extraordinary,’ said Gerda to herself. ‘To look like that and have the potential to be …’

Silence followed for a while, and then: ‘A close connection with the Catholic priest, that’s expected. But then this relationship with that woman. You don’t say much about her.’

‘There’s not much to say. Miss Barker, as she insists on being called, is a shriveled spinster in her fifties. She keeps to herself. Or when she does speak, it is often to abuse someone. Most people stay out of her way. She works part-time as the school’s nurse and lives cheaply. They say she had a bad experience with the Japanese during the war. Not much is known about her. She is not important—just a sad, lonely figure. You don’t have to worry about her.’

Gerda and Boris were too preoccupied to notice that one slat of the Venetian blinds on the lounge room window of the house they were parked outside of was raised at an angle.

‘You had better move on. Otherwise, someone might see us parked here doing nothing,’ said Gerda. ‘Drive into the shopping center again, and then to where the Vatican stooge lives.’

Without reacting to the melodramatic request, Boris drove to the shops, took a turn around the square, and came to a stop outside the little sandstone church with its charming steeple. ‘St Philomena’s Church.’

‘This is it, is it? Not very impressive.’

While Gerda was looking at the church with unfeigned disgust, the priest appeared at the stone archway of the entrance. He walked stooped with much difficulty, supporting himself on a walking stick. He had to stop and turn himself round so he could shut the cumbrous set of wooden doors before locking them. His face was weather-beaten, and his emaciated figure was covered loosely by a cassock that was patched, discolored, and frayed at the edges. Gerda watched in silence, contempt showing on her face. Taking notice of Gerda’s uncovered expression, Boris drove to the opposite side of the park, where the trees and shrubbery hid the car. They watched as the stooped figure checked the front area and sides of the church. He was in some pain, for he grimaced now and then.

‘There you have him,’ said Boris, smiling for the first time that day, ‘a compatriot of yours.’

‘Yes, but from the south-east of Holland, the Province of Limburg,’ Gerda hastened to say. ‘I’m from the south-west, the Province of Zeeland. Very different.’

‘Are there not Catholics in the south-west of Holland?’ said Boris, the mocking smile lingering on his lips.

Gerda ignored the question. ‘Besides, your notes say he has spent more of his life out of Holland, in New Guinea.’

‘Yes, his disabilities date from that time. I don’t know what happened to him. Nobody knows except his doctor, and he will not talk about it.’

‘That may be useful.’

‘They say he’s been put out to pasture.’

‘Out to pasture?’

‘There are few Catholics in Binawarra, the girl’s family among them, so the order of priests responsible for this small parish has never had a priest stationed here—that is until they exiled Fr van Engelen to this God-forsaken place. It seems that he is a sort of recalcitrant.’

‘About what?’

‘He cannot adjust to the Second Vatican Council, they say. So they put him where he could not cause trouble, which did not please some of the townsfolk, at least in the beginning. I don’t know how much of this is true, but it is plain he is not popular with his superiors. Otherwise, he would not be here in such poverty. He is very close to the girl and her parents. He gives the girl special instruction, which, they say, she laps up.’

‘This priest will be my biggest obstacle. I want you to focus on him. I want to know all about him. Find anyone antagonistic to him and his Church. Now drive me once more around the town. Show me where some of the minor figures live.’

Gerda Vrouwendijk leaned back and settled into assessing what she had seen. A self-satisfied expression appeared on her face as she listened without comment to Boris’s bored commentary while he spent another half-hour touring the town. At length, Gerda gave the signal, and he headed out along Melbourne Road. They drove up the fast-rising incline into the hills, passed the dark, squatting mound on their right and the rocky platform on their left. The hills, peaks, and trees disappeared into the growing darkness behind them while they remained occupied with their thoughts. The tall, striking figure of the girl with the darkish complexion stayed in Gerda Vrouwendijk’s mind. Boris resumed a vacant expression.

An hour and a half later, they were in their rooms in different motels in the provincial city of Bendigo. Gerda booked two international calls. Drawing heavily on her cigarette, she walked up and down her room in a distracted manner. Boris threw himself onto his bed and flicked through the motel’s flyers. At about one o’clock in the morning, two young women knocked on Boris’s door. Gerda Vrouwendijk, who stood opposite under a tree smoking, watched as the door opened, flooding the area with yellow light and then shut it into darkness. She looked into the dull, lifeless, overcast sky. How she wished she could sleep through the night for once. She needed all her energy and alertness for what lay ahead.

***

Chapter 2

Estella

IT WAS TUESDAY morning, the 4th of February 1975. The rays of the early morning sun streamed through the large pane glass windows of Charles Winterbine’s workshop. He and his assistant were finishing several wooden window frames, part of a commission from the Binawarra town council. Charles would not be satisfied until the style was right and the workmanship flawless. He stood back and surveyed all the delicate joins. He motioned Ken to stand back, too. They ran their eyes over each section.

‘We have it right, Boss,’ Ken said. ‘There were a few difficult points, but they are now exactly the same as the plans.’

Charles walked to the charts pinned to the wall. ‘Okay. You’re right. We cannot do any better than this.’

‘Better! What we have done is better than the original!’

Charles gave his young assistant a smile of approval. ‘Right, let’s have a break. Get yourself a cup of tea. I’ll be back in a minute.’ Charles stopped before the crucifix hanging in the workshop, bowed his head for a few moments, and then continued his way.

Ken went to the workshop bench where Mrs. Winterbine had prepared his morning tea as she did each day. He was used to the routine of the Winterbine household and knew the Boss was off to say goodbye to his daughter, who would be setting out for school shortly. Ken took his tea and biscuits to the front garden, where there was a bench. He said it was a comfortable place to sit and relax. But it seemed he wanted to get an eyeful of the girl without equal in his town—or anywhere else. She always gave him a friendly wave and sometimes spoke to him.

At that moment, the object of Ken’s aesthetic appraisal was finishing her preparations for school. Estella Winterbine, who would turn eighteen in September of that year, stood before the full-length mirror in her bedroom and looked at her reflection. Her rich brown hair was drawn back to form a ponytail that dangled in a bunch of naturally streaky curls between her shoulder blades. She smoothed the hair on her temples with both hands to ensure it was gathered with no loose strands. She examined her blue school uniform. She frowned again at the hem. It was too short. But she was reluctant to lower it further. Her classmates wore their dresses much shorter, and she would stand out too much if the hem were any longer. The last thing she wanted was more attention. She had to be satisfied her school clothes were neat and spotless. She brushed her hands down both sides of her dress as if to have it at an optimum modesty. Then she bent down to fold and align the gleaming white socks set off against her glowing light-brown skin and the polished black shoes. She considered herself for the last time; she had to be happy with what she saw.

The books lying on her bed were gathered up and put back on the shelves. A duster gave the books a quick brush. The top shelf housed her books on Scripture, doctrine, devotions, and the saints. The next shelf had her favorite novels, mostly nineteenth-century English classics. The exceptions were The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. On the shelf below were her gardening books. They filled that shelf and part of the bottom shelf. The rest of the bottom shelf was taken up with a miscellany of books on history, languages, and the arts. They were her favorite school subjects. She dusted all this, bending down frequently to ensure she had all the dust.

Satisfied that all was neat and in order, she turned to the adjacent wall where she had set up a shrine to the Virgin Mary. On a polished wooden shelf, which her father had fixed to the wall at her request, she had placed a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. On each side of the statue were candles and two little flower vases. She stood before her shrine, closed her eyes, bowed her head, and made the sign of the cross. She repeated prayers of thanksgiving and intercession. Finally, she checked the flowers in the vases. They had to be replaced. She would attend to that after school. Taking up her school satchel, she slung it over her shoulder and headed for the front verandah.

She opened the front flywire door to find her mother and father holding hands and waiting for her. She took her mother into her arms and hugged her. Aine Winterbine was not short. She was rather on the tall side, but her daughter seemed to dwarf her. Estella was a couple of inches taller, but the contrast was in the fullness of figure. Estella had inherited the physical features of her father. Her height, her darkish complexion, the sturdiness of body and the evident strength in her limbs, were from her father. And standing next to her mother made her mother appear even more delicate than she was. One would notice, however, a subtle blending of her father’s robust physique with delicate, unblemished features and an expression radiating a sweet manner that was all from Aine. Only in her dreamy hazel eyes did she differ from her mother. It was this combination of features and manner that drew everyone’s attention. People could not help giving Estella Winterbine a second look. Some of the Binawarra folk wanted to see augury in the presence of someone whose appearance was so different and so striking.

‘The first day of your final year at school, my darling,’ said Aine, with her arms still around her.

‘I’m all right,’ said Estella. She felt a responsibility with her father to ensure that her mother remained in good health and good spirits. She let her go and flung her arms around her father, resting her head for a moment on his shoulder. Then she stepped up on her toes and kissed him loudly.

‘Okay! Okay!’ Charles said, pretending to resist as he did each time he was subjected to his daughter’s unrestrained affection. ‘Enjoy your day.’ He traced the sign of the cross on her forehead with his thumb and then kissed her.

‘Are you going to come home for lunch?’ said Aine.

‘Yes, of course.’ She took Aine’s hand and kissed it. She turned to leave. ‘I’ll see you then, okay?’

‘Is everything all right?’

Estella stopped at the top of the short flight of verandah stairs. ‘Yes, of course.’ She looked at her father. ‘Everything’s all right.’ She descended the steps and turned. ‘I’ll see you at lunchtime.’ She was about to head off when her father called to her.

‘I forgot,’ he said, coming to the front gate. ‘Please give this to Roley Seddon.’ He took an envelope from his overalls pocket. ‘It’s his account. Say hello from me to Roley, and Terry, too, if you see him.’

‘I’m all right,’ she repeated. She walked off up the road, turning twice to wave. Once out of view, she pondered. Why were they worried? She had not said anything. She could cope with her problems. But she knew the answer. It was her mother. It was as if her mother had a separate sense of how she felt. For the way her father felt, too. They could not hide the slightest worry. It was a problem.

Estella often thought in recent years that her mother’s periods of incapacity were due to some undefined feeling for her family and not to any physical cause. It was something above the physical. The doctors had found nothing wrong with her. They said she was physically healthy. She looked very healthy, and Estella knew she was admired for her youthful beauty. On one occasion, Dr Enright had taken her father aside and said her mother should learn to relax, not to take things so to heart.

Charles had repeated this to her in exasperation. She rarely saw her father like that, but she could understand his upset. The doctor made her mother seem childish or immature, and that was just not true. When she saw how well she organized the household and cared for her father and herself, the last thing she could accept was that her mother was mentally or emotionally weak. Her intense feeling was akin to an almost mystical insight into how she and her father were feeling. So often had her mother anticipated a worry or a threat of something about to bother her. It put a strain on her. But what was it she saw now? What was causing these warning signs in her mother?

By this time, Estella had reached Goldminers Road. She looked to see if Miss Barker was in her front garden. That forbidding woman was often there at this time to wave at her. And yes, there she was again. Estella waited to catch Miss Barker’s attention. She did not have to wait long. Miss Barker was in the habit of surveying her surroundings. She beckoned.

‘So, Miss, how do you feel now that you are starting your last year at school?’ she said when Estella came up to her.

‘Oh, I don’t really feel anything. It’s just another year.’ She knew she did not sound convincing. She was also aware of what was on Miss Barker’s mind. There had been hints enough during the last few months.

‘Just another year? Have you thought yet about what you will do after school?’

‘I have, but it’s a question I don’t have an answer for at the moment.’

‘Well, my girl, you’ll have to put your thinking cap on.’

‘Yes, of course, you’re right.’ She tried to smile.

‘It may not be an easy time for you,’ said Miss Barker, softening her manner. ‘You can always talk to me about things. You know I’m not that fearsome, don’t you?’

‘Of course, I do,’ said Estella. She had long seen past Miss Barker’s stern manner. At times, this notorious spinster deliberately reinforced her reputation. Estella didn’t know why, though. Miss Barker was a capable, well-organized woman who showed concern and affection for those she held dear.

‘Come here,’ Miss Barker said. She took Estella into her arms. ‘I want to wish you all the best for this determining year. I hope … no, I know you’ll come through it.’ She let Estella go. ‘And I know you’re not cold and aloof.’ Then putting her hand on Estella’s breast: ‘In here is the warm heart of an affectionate little girl.’

Estella was so surprised by Miss Barker’s unanticipated words and uncharacteristic behavior that she was initially lost for words. ‘Thank you. I’m sure things will be all right.’

‘Be watchful. Now, be off with you. People will get the wrong idea if they catch me going on like this. Perhaps I will see you at the school’s assembly.’

Estella crossed over Goldminers Road, gave Miss Barker a final wave, and then walked toward Seddon’s Timber Yard. Miss Barker’s words stayed with her. Fr van Engelen had said similar things. They were both concerned about her future. She was, too. But it wasn’t her future bothering her mother. It was something else. What exactly? On reaching Seddon’s open yard, she peered around to see if Terry Seddon was there. She liked Terry. He was one of the few boys in Binawarra whose manner with her was friendly and unaffected. Perhaps Terry was different because he was in love with her dearest friend, Jenny Brougham. She turned to go to the front office.

‘Hey, Estella, wait!’ Terry called as he emerged from one of the sheds. ‘How’s Jenny?’ he said as he came running over.

She expected the inquiry about Jenny but could not tell him much. For the first time in their lives, she and Jenny had seen little of each other during the Christmas break. She tried not to think about why Jenny kept company with a group of girls she had not cared about in the past.

‘I’m not really sure. I haven’t seen much of her recently. I’ve been away, too, in Melbourne, visiting a friend of my mother’s.’

‘Oh,’ said Terry, showing no interest in her activities. ‘I’ve tried to call her, but she won’t answer the phone to me. What’s going on? Six months ago, there was no separating us. Now it looks like she can’t stand the sight of me.’

‘Jenny has other interests and other friends now.’ She had to tell the truth. ‘Perhaps it’s better to forget her for the time being.’ She felt bad she could not give him any encouragement.

‘I can’t,’ he said. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Put in a good word for me if you can.’

‘Of course.’ She handed him the envelope.

‘Thanks,’ said Terry, fiddling with the envelope. ‘Call in here if you’ve got any news. Okay?’

She left him standing in the middle of the yard. Checking her watch, she saw she still had time for a visit. She hurried to St Philomena’s. As she knelt in the back pew, Fr van Engelen came hobbling from the sacristy. His face lit up when he caught sight of her.

‘Do you have time for a few words?’ he whispered after hobbling down the aisle. He nodded towards the front doors. ‘It won’t take long.’

‘It’s such a beautiful morning,’ he said when Estella joined him outside. ‘Let’s sit in the park. We can enjoy the fresh morning air together. I want you to console this broken-down old priest. Here, give me a shoulder.’ He put his hand on Estella’s shoulder while they walked across the road.

‘The first day of your last year of school, isn’t it?’ he said when they were seated on the nearest park bench. Estella nodded. He looked at the ground in front of him as if he were considering his words. Estella cast a searching glance around the square. Mr. Foley, the President of Binawarra Returned Soldiers League, was at the far end of the plantation. He spotted them and started in their direction.

‘Good morning,’ he called. ‘Just the place to be on such a beautiful morning. How are you, Father?’ A brief exchange of greetings followed before the RSL President continued. ‘Father, we are well down the track with organizing Anzac Day. The committee has authorized me to ask you to do the blessing at the dawn service. Actually, it’s on Bill’s insistence. Are you okay with that? Only need a commitment now. I’ll discuss the details later with you.’

‘Certainly, I would be honored. But do you really want a shabby priest like me to appear on such a formal occasion,’ he said with a smile. ‘And me with my accent! Don’t you want a local voice?’

‘Don’t be silly, Father. There’ll be plenty of local voices,’ said Ray Foley. ‘Far too many before the old diggers close their eyes that night. And forget about your accent. You’re an honored member of our community.’

Fr van Engelen offered no more resistance and again said he would consider it an honor.

‘Last year of school for you,’ said Ray Foley, addressing Estella. ‘It’s amazing how time flies. It seems like yesterday that your dad arrived in Binawarra with Aine eight months pregnant. What excitement that was for everyone! Let’s see. That was nearly eighteen years ago, wasn’t it?’ Estella nodded. ‘Blow me down. And look at you now! And how’s that twin pal of yours?’

‘Okay, I think.’

‘Father, did you know Estella and Jenny Brougham were born on the same day, in the same hospital?’ Yes, Father did know that. He had heard it once or twice before. He glanced at Estella, who was trying to hide her uneasiness.

‘Yes, it’s quite true,’ Ray Foley nodded. ‘People forget these things. Two such striking girls, never seen anything like it. And they’ve been like sisters ever since. Inseparable.’ Then looking at his watch: ‘Goodness, I must fly. There are many things for me to follow up on. Have a good day, Father, and you too, Estella.’ He turned to head off but exclaimed, ‘Look, speak of the devil; there’s she is now!’ With another wave, he was on his way.

Estella looked across the square at Jenny walking along the shops with some friends, her long wavy blond locks streaming behind her. She twirled and giggled and looked around at the boys following on her heels. They were the friends Jenny had acquired during the last year. Estella watched as she danced out ahead of the group, throwing comments behind her. She watched as Len Dawson threw some back in the sly smirking manner she was so familiar with.

‘What is it?’ asked Fr van Engelen. Estella hesitated, glancing at his lined face. He passed on. ‘We all have our pitiful anxieties. I do, too, you know.’ Estella smiled faintly. ‘Last night I was reading some reports about Holland.’ These last words, as he murmured them, brought on a sadness that seemed to bend his emaciated shoulders. ‘If I close my eyes and let my mind wander,’ he went on, after a long pause, ‘it goes straight back to the town of my childhood. The images, though jumbled, are clear. I can feel and smell and see the changes in the seasons, the mists tumbling over the freshly ploughed fields. I can hear the birds in the trees early on a summer’s morning. I can see the pheasants running across the grassy meadows, the hare with its distinctive gait, leaping for cover. I see the bare trees of winter beside the frozen canals. I see the distinctive gables of the houses lining the canals and the narrow streets…’ He stopped, hesitated, and glanced at Estella.

Estella was content to listen to the crippled priest for whom she had much affection, especially now as he told her of his sadness. She was relieved, too, that he was moving away from the subject of her future. She smiled again.

‘That’s why my heart breaks over my country,’ he continued. ‘Everything that seemed to be wholesome in Holland, everything that seemed to make Holland what it was, is being turned over. The softness of character that rose above the hardships of the cold, swampy land is disappearing. The glowing lights in the misty windows and the sip of Jenever around a warming fire, all the things that eased the life of the Low Lands are counting for little. There is a hardness of heart washing over its people.

‘Along some of the main thoroughfares of Middelburg are shops that are proud to sell all the dirt and degradation of the human mind. The same hardness of heart is like a tidal wave flowing over the world and submerging all that’s innocent and pure.’ He took Estella’s hand. ‘That wave has not yet reached this beautiful little town, but there are signs of its approach. You are on the brink of adulthood. You have much to learn about people and the world. Your mother and father, the best of people, have protected you from the rough edges of life so far. In the future, you will be on your own. You know that, don’t you?’ Estella nodded.

‘You need God’s graces to help you along. You need to understand that God has given a good spirit to help you, your guardian angel. Don’t worry about the world laughing at the idea of angels. God’s good spirits exist. Pray for their help when things are difficult. You will be protected against the evil spirits always there to urge you to do the wrong thing. They will help you to protect the goodness that is inside Estella Winterbine, to keep that innocence shining that everybody sees in you.’ He let go of her hand and reached into the pocket of his habit, struggling until he found what he was looking for. He held up a little shiny medal.

‘Do you know what this is?’

‘Yes, it’s the Miraculous Medal. My mother has one attached to the bracelet she wears.’

‘But do you know of its significance?’

‘Only that it is to remind us of the tender spotless heart of Jesus’s mother.’

‘That’s right. Do you have one?’

‘No.’

‘Then I give this one. This represents a devotion for our times when the degradation of the human spirit is celebrated when much pleasure is taken in befouling and destroying the innocent soul. Wear it on a chain or on a bracelet. It has no magical qualities, of course. It merely signifies a devotion to the purity and holiness of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ He paused. ‘We all are prey to temptation, and you will be too, even though at this point you might not understand how. Let this medal be your symbol of resistance and protection.’

‘I will put it on a cherished silver chain and wear it.’

Fr van Engelen took Estella’s hand again and held it. At that moment, a woman appeared from the milk bar a little distance down the square. She carried the local newspaper in one hand and several packets of cigarettes in the other. She was flicking the paper open in a clumsy manner as she tried to read the front page. Looking around her, her eyes alighted on the priest holding Estella’s hand. She stopped. The priest became alerted to the woman staring at them.

Goede hemel!’ he exclaimed. ‘Het is niet waar! It can’t be true!’

Estella turned to see what had caused the exclamation. She recognized the face. The woman composed herself and got into her car.

Father van Engelen said nothing as Gerda Vrouwendijk passed them by. ‘She was staring at us,’ he murmured at length, and then in a normal voice: ‘Do you know her?’

‘No,’ said Estella, not understanding the priest’s reaction. ‘But I saw her yesterday driving into town. I mean, she was a passenger in a car that passed Daddy and me on the road. I’d never seen her before then. She also drove by our house twice.’

‘Did she? Twice?’

‘Who is she?’ said Estella, intrigued by the priest’s sudden change. It was not like him to become excited over something so ordinary.

‘Eh…, I mean, I don’t know, at least I’m not sure. She looks like somebody I was acquainted with a long time ago in Holland. Well, not her directly, people close to her.’ He frowned, deep in thought. ‘In any case, that’s not of interest now. And it’s time for you to go to school. You must not be late on the first day. Now, come on. Give your tired old priest help in getting across the road.’

Estella left the priest at the entrance to the church and then hurried off to school. Fr van Engelen slipped into one of the back pews and bowed his head. But the sight of Gerda van den Donker if it was she, intruded on his prayers. No, there was no mistake, he thought, throwing off his inclination to deny what he had seen. It was fifteen years since he had seen Gerda van den Donker, but the intervening years had not changed her much. It was she. There was Cees van den Donker written all over her. But what was she doing in Binawarra? What had brought her to the sleepy, picturesque country town of Binawarra? He felt the approach of the shadows of that dirty room and then saw the fresh, innocent face of Truus van den Donker emerge from the darkness. The thought of her being subject to Cees van den Donker filled him with sadness and revulsion. He struggled to drive it all from his mind.

***

BEHIND a clump of bushes at the side of the lower school oval, some boys were lolling about smoking. There had been a pause in the conversation. With a mocking grin, Len Dawson waited. Nobody seemed inclined to comment or even to be thinking about it. Len let out a half-laugh and took a long draw on his cigarette. ‘None of you losers can do better than that.’ He blew the smoke into the air. He still got no answer.

‘Nobody can do better than Jenny Brougham,’ Len teased. ‘It has been the best summer of my life.’ He dragged on his cigarette and blew the smoke at his friends.

‘Somebody could, you know,’ said Larry Burgess, who had walked away from the cover of the bushes.

The boys swung towards him.

‘What are you on about?’ said Len. ‘Who’s better than Jenny Brougham?’

‘The Ice Maiden.’

‘The Binawarra Virgin doesn’t count.’ He waved his hand. ‘There’s a fortress around her.’

‘But she is better.’

‘She doesn’t count.’

‘But she is better,’ John Sayer insisted, nodding at Larry.

‘Not really,’ said Len unconvincingly.

‘Come off it. Jenny Brougham is stunning. But the Ice Maiden … and we all know she thinks Len Dawson stinks.’ Dennis Lorimer pointed at Len as if that was an adequate answer to his boasting.

‘Here she comes,’ said Larry.

The boys moved forward. From there, they could see Estella, eyes on the ground, walking up the pathway around the oval’s embankment. Lost in her thoughts, she appeared aloof and detached as usual. The five boys looked at her in silence.

‘That’s something that’ll remain untouchable, even for Len Dawson,’ said John Sayer. The other boys murmured their agreement.

‘No girl is untouchable,’ said Len, retrieving his offhand, confident manner. ‘There’s always a vulnerable point. You just have to find it.’

‘Well, it won’t be Len Dawson to find it. She thinks you stink.’ He mockingly held his nose. The others laughed.

Len held out his hand. Don McGlashan, who was closest, grabbed it.

‘Three months,’ said Len.

‘Right,’ said Don. ‘You’ve got no hope.’

‘You bunch of girlie pikers!’ Len dropped his cigarette in front of him and ground it in the soft earth with his heel. Estella was now level with the trees obscuring the boys.

‘Hey, Estella!’ he shouted. Estella stopped and turned in the direction of the voice. Len stepped into full view. Then the familiar cold stare. Len looked a little unsure for a moment but then walked over to her, his mates looking on.

‘How are your parents? Is your mother well?’

‘They are all right, thank you,’ said Estella, in a soft but steady voice. Her expression remained unchanged.

‘I heard your mother suffered a relapse at the beginning of the holidays. She’s okay now?’

‘She is quite all right. There was nothing wrong with my mother.’

‘Oh, I heard there was. That must be a worry for you and your father.’

‘She’s quite all right.’

Estella gave a sign that she had nothing more to say.

‘Look, Jenny hasn’t seen much of you … spends most of her time with me. I’m sorry about that. I know she’s your best friend. Why don’t you join us—share the fun?’

Estella looked him in the face and frowned. Len took a step back. As she walked on, she saw the others. She frowned again, her gaze lingering on Larry Burgess. The boys’ eyes followed her in silence. The tall, well-formed figure, the healthy sheen of the skin against the spotless blue uniform and the gleaming white socks, the slim, firm calves and ankles, the gliding upright posture, the gorgeous flowing brown hair, it was all too much for them. Too much even for Len to make one of his waggish comments.

‘Well, I hope you can do better than that,’ scoffed Don, breaking the silence when Estella was out of sight.

‘What?’ said Len, roused from his thoughts and glancing around at them. ‘That’s the trouble with you dunces,’ he said, lighting another cigarette with a shake of the hand. ‘You’re just ignorant of the way the female mind works. You just want to barge in. This is the start of a campaign for a great trophy. And that was the first move.’ His lips curled in a grin. ‘I’m the lion. She’s the gazelle. I must draw her slowly and expertly into the open plain where I can swoop. By the time I’ve finished, that shrine in her room will be to Len Dawson.’

‘Nobody’s fuller of it than you,’ said Dennis Lorimer, putting his finger in his mouth.

Len seemed not to hear. ‘Why did she look at you like that?’ he said to Larry.

Larry blushed. ‘How would I know? She didn’t, anyhow.’ But she did, and he did know, but he would not admit it.

***

ESTELLA HAD accompanied her father on his jobs from a young age when permitted. Some years earlier, when he was doing renovation work for Mr. Dawson, a developer and property agent, she saw a lot of Len. From the first contact, he made it obvious that he meant to be a nuisance. He got in the way, interrupted conversations, and made mocking comments about the building plans. He enjoyed frustrating his father by pretending not to know what was expected of him. He seemed to do it to amuse Estella because sly glances often accompanied his antics. One occasion stood out.

Her father and Mr. Dawson had set up a make-shift table by placing a sheet of three-ply on trestles. On this, they laid out the building plans. One day, Len narrowed the adjustable legs. When Mr. Dawson leaned on the table, it keeled over and crashed to the floor in a cloud of dust. Later Len walked by Estella, smirking. She could not understand it. Why did he get pleasure from causing so much trouble? It was a mystery he could not see that his sneakiness, dishonesty, and obvious pleasure in irritating and mocking others disgusted her. How could he think she shared in his amusement? It was the closest Estella ever came to disliking someone.

She asked her father and mother why Len was like that. Why did he enjoy upsetting others while most people wanted to do the opposite? Her mother said she should try to understand. Mr. Dawson was often away from home, and Len’s mother seemed unable to manage. Her father later said Mr. Dawson was neglecting his responsibilities as a father. Len would be different if Mr. Dawson’s business did not consume him. Nevertheless, Len was capable of understanding that he should not deliberately upset others.

Estella remembered that conversation when the report went around the town that Mr. Dawson had left Binawarra to set up an office in Ballarat. Mrs. Dawson and her three children stayed behind in Binawarra. Sometime later, people were shocked at the news that Mr. Dawson was living with another woman. From that time, Len’s sneakiness and deceit increased. He was caught shoplifting, which forced a visit from Sergeant Willis. The sergeant gave Len a formal warning. Charles told Estella she should never be unpleasant to Len, but it was better to keep away from him. Estella had never needed that advice.

It surprised everyone that Len grew into a good-looking teenager. As a child, he was weedy, angular, and awkward, which seemed to go with his character. It also appeared to match the sly narrowed-eyed expression that his underhandedness fixed on his face. But that weediness and bad posture disappeared as he passed puberty. He grew tallish and filled out but remained pleasantly slim. The awkwardness faded, and he stood and walked straight and with confidence. His clear boyish face was offset by floppy fairish hair, which he let grow long. Around his neck, he wore a fine 18-carat gold chain.

Len was quick to realize he was considered good-looking and would gain more pleasure from exploiting his appearance than from being a nuisance. He learned to manipulate people so efficiently that most of the people he had irritated as a child forgot how annoying he had been. Len was now all smiles and slick charm with the people of his parents’ generation. With his own age, he worked at projecting an air of confidence, independence, nonchalance, and close familiarity. Len Dawson was the most popular boy in the town and never seemed without the rapt attention of at least one girl. And he was cunning enough to cultivate one girl at a time, however short that was.

Len’s change in reputation surprised Estella because she found his new manner even more off-putting. He was so deceitful. How did people miss it? How did those girls let him humiliate them in such an obvious way? It was hard for her to believe, but it appeared that his success with the girls added to his attraction. She did not doubt as she continued her way that Len’s inquiries about her mother were not sincere, that it was a ruse for some purpose or other.

***

LARRY BURGESS dropped behind his friends as they made their way to the assembly hall. He wanted to avoid giving Len any reason to pursue his last question. Seeing most students crowding the side entrances, he turned towards the back. As he broke free of the milling students, he found that he was walking beside Estella. There was a moment of surprise.

‘How are your parents, Larry?’ said Estella.

‘Um, quite well,’ he stammered. She usually walked right past him. He wondered whether he should stop and let her go on alone.

‘I haven’t seen them for a while. Didn’t you go away on holidays this Christmas?’

‘Yes.’

‘Where to?’

‘New York.’

‘Oh, so far away? What was it like?’

‘A whole lot of tall buildings. My father had to attend a conference there, an agricultural conference.’

‘Oh.’

They were now at the back entrance.

‘We used to have fun together,’ said Estella stopping. ‘You remember, when Daddy was working on your house.’

‘Yes, um, I remember.’ But he could not recall the last time Estella had spoken to him in such a friendly way.

‘It seems a long time ago now, doesn’t it?’ She hesitated. ‘You have such lovely parents. Your mum was always so friendly …’ At that point, Mr. Seaver, the Deputy Principal, appeared at the back door to save Larry from further discomfort.

‘Come on, you two, Estella, Larry. Mr. Huckerby is almost ready.’ The hall was noisy with the students’ chatter. ‘You can sit over there.’ He indicated two seats in one of the back rows. ‘No, Larry,’ he added, seeing Larry looking around, ‘you go and sit there where I told you. There’s no time.’

Many eyes followed them. Larry knew everyone would be wondering what he was doing with Estella. As they sat down, it occurred to him that Len would try to make the most of such a situation and carry on a double conversation. This was one of Len’s envied skills. He could talk on one level to the person he was addressing and on another for the people listening. He had tried it on Estella with his false concern for her mother, but Larry was pretty sure he had not fooled her. That was the reason she had let her gaze rest upon him.

‘I have such good memories of playing with you and Jenny,’ said Estella, taking up the conversation again.

‘Do you?’ said Larry, not knowing what else to say. He tried desperately to think of something. What could he say to such a girl? Then he felt the attention of his friends around them. He glanced at Estella. She seemed oblivious to it. Then a comment from Len rose above the chatter. He glanced in the direction of Len’s voice and then saw the cool expression returning to Estella’s face. He felt such a fool.

Estella had not been oblivious to what was going on around her. She had wanted to reconnect with Larry. He was not like Len and the others. But she could only do so while he was not in Len’s company. It would be useless now. She caught sight of Jenny’s blond head bobbing around as she chatted. It pained her to think she could sit there ignoring her. If Jenny had abruptly cut contact with Terry, it had been almost the same with her, the break coming after some painful cooling. It was around the time that Jenny began to mix with Len and his friends. The thought she would prefer the company of a person like Len Dawson was heartbreaking. Feeling tears coming to her eyes, she turned her attention to the rostrum and was surprised to see the woman who had caused such a strange reaction in Fr van Engelen. Uncle Bill was speaking to her in his usual welcoming manner while she listened expressionless. To the side of the rostrum, she saw Miss Barker observing her. Then the principal motioned her and the others to take their seats. Miss Barker moved to the side of the hall, keeping her eyes fixed on the woman.

 ‘Hello, hello, right, we are ready to start,’ said the principal, tapping the microphone. ‘All right, everyone, can I please have your attention!’ He waited until the chatter had died away. ‘I want to warmly welcome you all on the first day of another school year. As usual, we will carry out the flag ceremony at the end of the assembly. I want to remind you that it is just on thirty years since the end of the Second World War. The town is making a special effort to commemorate Anzac Day this year. I want to encourage you, students, to contribute. Remember that many of our diggers who lost their lives were no older than many of you.’ He paused, and the hall fell silent.

‘You know, it is one of the unique qualities of this great land that our nation was born amid failure. It was born in the blood sacrifice of those young men landing on a deserted beach at the other end of the world. Many of our youth make a pilgrimage to what we often call the old country. That is a great experience. There you will recognize the origin of so much of our social and political heritage. But for me, the first destination of a pilgrimage for young people these days should be to that deserted beach, Gallipoli, on that barren peninsula of modern Turkey, to meditate on the spot where those young men willingly shed their blood. They shed their blood willingly because they believed that our society, our Christian civilization, was worth saving, worth fighting for.

‘I invite you to walk around our town center and reflect on what you see. There are not just shops, businesses, municipal and government buildings, churches, and other private premises. There is more to them than just the material structure. Embodied in them are all the beliefs, values, traditions, customs, and political ideas that they presuppose. It’s worth thinking about. Those places, our town, did not materialize on their own. They are built on all those beliefs and values, and so on. We are a Christian civilization, and that is the foundation of our free society. You young men and young women should think about these things. That’s what our young soldiers fought to keep. Now, I don’t want to be too serious on this first day, so I will stop there. Let me get onto other matters. First, there’s the class timetable and your teachers for the year.’

Estella’s mind drifted as the principal went through the timetable. She could not help looking over at Jenny, whispering in Tricia Barry’s ear. Tricia, with her hand over her mouth, returned the whisper. They both giggled. Jenny smiled teasingly at Len Dawson, who wore the same smug, self-satisfied expression. It was nearly too much for her. Jenny’s every action continued to draw her attention: the wavy blond hair flicked this way and that; the playful teasing look in her sparkling blue eyes; the movement of her shoulders; and the pout of her lips. Estella forced herself to turn away.

‘Lastly, I want to introduce you to the teacher who has joined the staff this year,’ the principal was saying. And then, turning to the woman Estella had seen that morning: ‘Miss Bicknell, I welcome you on behalf of myself, the staff, and the student body to Binawarra High School.’ Then addressing his audience: ‘Miss Edith Bicknell comes to us with some very impressive qualifications and experience. She will be taking up a new position in the school.’

‘In addition to teaching English and history, she will be the senior year coordinator. She will be looking after the welfare of the students, not only regarding their course work but also their general welfare. Let me assure you that Miss Bicknell is well qualified for this. I must say it is a privilege to have her on staff. I do not doubt that the senior students will benefit from Miss Bicknell’s expertise.’ He turned and gave a little bow in Miss Bicknell’s direction. Miss Bicknell gave a perfunctory nod. ‘Miss Bicknell will say a few words.’ He stepped away from the microphone.

Miss Edith Bicknell rose and approached with confident steps. ‘Thank you, Mr. Huckerby, for the welcome on behalf of the teachers and students. It is much appreciated. I won’t keep you. You have already heard too much. Such assemblies can be a little tedious, can’t they?’ A flicker of a smile passed across her lips. ‘I want to take a moment to introduce myself and say that I am looking forward to working with the teachers and students and providing whatever help I can. I will be indeed rewarded if my experience and qualifications are of benefit to you.’ She looked around the hall.

‘You have heard that our freedoms can come under assault from the heavy-handed tyrant riding at the front of a military machine. Unfortunately, that is all too true. But the restrictions on personal freedom come not only from an enemy carrying a gun. The deprivation of freedom can come in a much more insidious form. That is when you don’t realize that you are being oppressed, when you have been so long in chains you don’t recognize it anymore. Like the woman trapped in a marriage with a violent husband, or worse still, the woman prevented from fulfilling herself by a demanding, thoughtless husband, or even worse still, a woman trapped in the grip of traditions that keep her silent. A great philosopher wrote these words in one of his famous works:

Men and women are born free; and everywhere they are in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about?

‘An important part of my task is to help the final year’s students fulfill themselves, to reach their full potential. And that means throwing off the restrictions that society has placed upon you. I want to help you all to focus on the answer to the question of how and why people are not free. I am sure you have noticed the awakening of women in the last few years. Their issues are just as important as the subjects you will study in class. One thing before I finish. Forms of address are just one small part of the problem. It is now accepted that the form of address for all adult women is “Ms.” Please address me as Ms. Bicknell. Thank you.’

Ms. Bicknell returned with the same confident steps to her seat. The students looked on in silence and expectation, while bemusement and indecision seemed to have overtaken the rostrum. Bill Huckerby struggled to his feet and shuffled to the microphone.

‘Well, thank you, Miss Bicknell, for that inspiring speech. I’m sure we have all been encouraged to reflect on issues that seem to take a back seat on such occasions as this.’ He paused, his eyes on the floor in front of him. ‘Yes, I think the young men here can profit by contemplating how they relate to the young women in their class. I don’t want to sound like I am reprimanding you in the first assembly of the year, but it is well worth encouraging you all to consider how you treat the fairer sex. Girls are not the same as boys. You need to treat them with care and respect. Some day they will be mothers of children just like you. Some of them may be the mothers of your children, as you must be aware.’

‘I won’t say any more now, but I think the boys here know what I am talking about. The same roughhouse behavior and language are not for people emotionally and physically more sensitive than you boys. There has been a sad deterioration in the attitude of boys to girls over recent years. Some very bad influences are abroad. You boys should reflect on why this is so. But now, let me finish on this subject. There are other matters to get on to before we start the ceremony of the flag.’

Estella saw Miss Bicknell’s face darkening as the principal extemporized. She noticed, too, that Miss Barker was still observing Miss Bicknell. Then the principal announced the commencement of the flag ceremony. Four final-year boys marched solemnly two abreast down the middle aisle to the rostrum. Bill Huckerby held the folded flag aloft and then handed it to the boys. Each of the boys took one corner and mounted the rostrum. They turned the folded side showing the Union Jack.

‘This side of the flag shows the flag of Great Britain,’ Bill Huckerby began. ‘But at a deeper historical level, this unique design represents the common origins of Great Britain and our great nation. The superimposed flags of England, Scotland and Ireland (those of St George, St Andrew, and St Patrick), which make up the Union Jack, represent our shared Christian heritage. They represent our system of morality and the system of law and political organization that has grown out of that moral system. They represent a system of law and political organization that has evolved over hundreds of years. We honor and cherish that system and commemorate and honor the people who bequeathed that system to us, their descendants, to all their descendants in spirit and hope who now make up the great land of the southern seas.’

With a nod from the principal, the boys turned the flag around and held up the side that depicted the Southern Cross.

‘The Southern Cross of the night sky: mysterious, hopeful, and unifying. While the superimposed flags of the old countries bid us to look back to acknowledge and honor our origins, the Southern Cross represents the new, the future, and our aspirations. It is symbolic of a unity that binds together those that were here and those that have come, a unity that will take us forward under God in building this great nation.’

The boys unfolded the flag and, carrying it aloft, set off down the aisle with Bill Huckerby close behind, followed by the teachers and students. They processed to the flagpole in the recreational area, where they attached the flag to the ropes hanging from the flagpole. Then, with the students and staff gathered around, the boys raised the flag until it fluttered in the warm blue sky above the town of Binawarra.

***

Chapter 3

Aine’s dark moments

AMID THE NOISY bustle of students leaving the flagpole, a voice whispered over Edith Bicknell’s shoulder, ‘I bet you’ve not often witnessed anything as ridiculously reactionary as that.’

The voice belonged to a slim, attractive woman with fashionable slacks and matching top clinging to her trim figure. A pair of elegant wire-frame glasses perched a little forward on her nose. Her sleek, youthful complexion and bright blue eyes were an arresting contrast with the rather studious-looking spectacles. The senior boys eyed her as they passed.

‘Jane Cox,’ she went on, putting a hand on her arm and bending toward her. ‘History and social studies, senior years.’

‘Ah, yes,’ said Ms. Bicknell, ‘I’ll be working closely with you.’ They turned to walk toward the final year students standing around the entrance to the classroom block. ‘Like what?’

‘You know, all that stuff about Christian heritage and that embarrassing flag ceremony. Enough to make you throw up endlessly! Who could believe it? When was the last time you saw anything like that?’

‘It’s very unusual to make such an elaborate ceremony around a mere flag.’

‘Huckerby is such an absurd clown. It’s a travesty in this day and age that someone like that is still the principal of a state high school. Preaching like that! How out of touch can you get? You would think the political revolution of the last decade, the betterment of society, was unheard of here. He barely mentioned the Aboriginals.’ Ms. Bicknell feigned an uncommitted response. ‘I know just what you meant about freedom and oppression,’ Jane Cox continued, ‘I’ve been dying to say something for ages but never had the support. The man provokes me like … I don’t know what. You probably heard you did not get through that thick skull of his. You know, you’re going to find out that a gang of men just like Huckerby run this town. Thick as bricks, they are.’

They were now standing in front of the students.

‘Can’t talk now,’ said Ms. Bicknell, glancing at the restless students. ‘Let’s meet later. Anyone else feels the same way?’

‘There certainly is.’

‘Really? How many?’

‘At least five who feel strongly and a few others who are irritated but won’t act.’

‘Are you prepared to act?’

‘Yes!’ she hissed.

Ms. Bicknell responded to Jane’s enthusiasm with surprise and admiration.

‘Okay, I understand. Let’s get the students organized first. Then we can talk about getting together. I would like to hear more.’

‘You just wait! You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.’

When the students began to break away after the flag ceremony, Estella seized her opportunity.

‘Larry, you do remember when we used to play together, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ said Larry, appearing a little more at ease.

‘We had fun, didn’t we?’

‘Yes … yes, we did.’

‘And you just thought of me as a good friend to play with?’

Larry hesitated. ‘You came with your father. And my mother liked having you around.’

‘Your mother is a good person, so kind and considerate. Your father is kind, too. Do you think they would like Len Dawson if they really knew him?’

‘What do you mean?’

 ‘You know what I mean, Larry,’ said Estella, not wanting to say something bad about someone else out loud.

‘No, I don’t,’ he said, blushing from the blatant lie.

During this time, they walked to the classroom block and stopped with the others while awaiting further direction. Estella saw how uneasy Larry was. Then she noticed Len Dawson not far away. She knew Larry was not like Len. He just couldn’t turn his back on the honor of being part of Len’s group.

‘Larry, I’m no different from that little girl you used to play with. I’m still the same person. There’s no reason we can’t be friends. There’s no need to change just because we are older. Think of me as the sister you don’t have.’

‘What …? Okay,’ he said, seeing Len approaching.

‘Hey, lover boy!’ Len cried as he came up to Larry with the others in tow. Estella backed away and walked to the other side of the group.

‘She still thinks you stink,’ Don laughed as they watched her retreat. ‘You’re not getting very far.’

‘What is it suddenly with you and the Binawarra Virgin?’ said Len, ignoring the dig.

‘Nothing.’

‘Come off it!’

‘She just asked about my mother and father. We saw a lot of Estella and her dad when he was working on our house.’

‘I saw a lot of her, too, when her old man was working on my father’s properties, but that has not turned into the Binawarra Virgin sucking up to me.’

‘Estella wouldn’t suck up to anybody. I know her too well.’

It was a fatal mistake.

‘Ohhhh, lover boy!’ the boys chorused.

‘Lover boy here knows the Ice Maiden too well,’ John sneered, ‘but is obviously no threat to the wall of ice.’

The students close by laughed. Estella knew they were mocking Larry because of her. She felt sorry for him. It was a pity he lacked the courage to stand up to Len and his friends.

***

MISS BARKER had positioned herself so she could keep an eye on Miss Bicknell. She observed the faint looks of disgust that came over her face as the flag ceremony advanced. That was very careless of her, she thought. In her short speech, Miss Bicknell made it clear, except perhaps to the naïve and unobservant, that she had an agenda. If that agenda went against the powerful interests in the school and town, it would be incautious to play one’s hand openly, even a little. Miss Bicknell thought she was safe.

When the flag ceremony ended, Bill Huckerby returned to the administrative block with his staff. Miss Barker was about to follow when she saw Jane Cox approach Miss Bicknell. She hesitated. Usually, she would now go to the school’s sickroom, where she, as the school’s nurse, would be on duty until lunchtime. The students had almost dispersed, leaving her vulnerable, standing alone clothed in white. She glanced once more at Miss Bicknell and Jane Cox deep in conversation and then with a decided movement walked to the administrative block. Once in the sickroom, she ensured everything was in order and then walked the short distance to the principal’s office.

‘Is the principal available?’ she said to Mrs. Joyce Charing, the principal’s secretary, ‘I want to take his blood pressure. Tell him it is essential we get this over with now.’

Mrs. Charing regarded Miss Barker with a stony expression. It was known she did not approve of the principal being interrupted by the likes of the school nurse nor of that woman’s imperious manner. She went to his door and said, ‘The school nurse says you must have your blood pressure measured.’ Miss Barker received a withering glance. ‘Do you want me to show her in?’

‘Blood pressure!’ Miss Barker heard the principal exclaim. ‘Why does that old witch want to take my blood pressure now? Okay, show her in,’ he said, laughing. When Miss Barker entered his office, he exclaimed again, ‘You’re determined to kill me with that thing. Okay, Mrs. Charing, thank you, please shut the door as you go.’ The secretary closed the door with a disgruntled expression directed at the nurse.

‘I wonder if that woman is suited to her position.’

‘You leave the administration to me,’ Bill Huckerby shot back, pretending to be indignant. ‘She’s all right.’

‘I wonder.’

‘Don’t wonder. It’s not good for you. Come on, let’s get on with it.’ He began to roll up his shirtsleeve.

‘That can wait for the moment,’ she said, sitting in the armchair in front of his desk. ‘There’s something I want to talk to you about first.’

Bill Huckerby raised his eyebrows and gave an uncomprehending gesture with two open hands.

‘What did you think of that little speech the new teacher, Miss Bicknell, gave?’

‘I thought it was good, a sort of pep talk. What about it?’

‘Didn’t you think there was something discordant in it, something that clashed with your own ideas?’

‘Not really. Or perhaps a little. So what? Miss Bicknell is a young teacher. Like a lot of young people, she has those sorts of matters foremost on her mind, you know, personal freedom, women’s issues, and so on. That’s okay. That’s just something I have to work with.’ He stopped. ‘What’s this all about, Flo? I can see now you didn’t come here expressly to take my blood pressure. Come on, cough it up.’

‘What about the student radicalism that has gripped the university campuses for some years now?’ she said to prod him.

‘What about it? You’re not suggesting it’s being exported to our town in the form of Miss Bicknell, are you?’ he said with a grin. But noticing Miss Barker remained unmoved, he added: ‘In any case, it’s the same thing. Those students have got to have something to get excited about. That’s part of being young. You were young once, weren’t you? Kicked over the traces? Entertained weird idealistic ideas?’

‘No, I didn’t. At least not in that way.’

‘Oh, come on, Flo! I know it’s a serious business on campus. But that’s all city stuff. I don’t think we have to worry about it here in sleepy, isolated Binawarra. This is a bad place to export your student revolution to. Your ordinary student radical will soon run out of puff when the responsibility of being a teacher in a country high school comes to bear on him. Miss Bicknell was producing the rhetoric of undergraduate student politics. In a way, it’s inspiring for the young minds here. It will help them reflect on the rights and responsibilities of adult life. But in the bigger picture, old fogies like you and me, fixed in the rhythms of the bush, are here to keep things in perspective, aren’t we? We should be happy we have such an earnest and enthusiastic teacher. No, the ramparts aren’t about to be stormed yet in Binawarra.’

‘On the subject of revolution, do you know where Miss Bicknell’s quotation came from?’

‘What quotation?’

‘The one in her speech, the lines she quoted to emphasize the need to undertake a struggle for freedom.’

‘What are you talking about …?’

‘Oh, I see,’ she said. ‘The principal of Binawarra High School wasn’t listening, was he? Too busy thinking about other matters, no doubt.’ And before the principal could answer, ‘Miss Bicknell quoted some lines from the opening page of The Social Contract by none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is generally considered to be the theorist and architect of the French Revolution, the revolution that was to be the paradigm for most revolutions over the next two hundred years.’

Bill Huckerby frowned and looked hard at Miss Barker.

‘Oh, Flo, Flo … look, I’m not a political philosopher, and the French Revolution is not part of my stock of useable knowledge. I’m just a simple-Simon economist by training. It’s not that I have no interest in such high-flown academic matters. I don’t have the time. I have a school to administer. Have a look around at the filing cabinets here. All chock-a-block.’ He waved his arms around the room. ‘On the moral and political side, I’m ruled by what is already established in this great land of ours. I don’t need any academic texts. The rights and responsibilities of the citizen are in everything we see. That’s why I told the students to reflect on what we have in this little town of ours. The lessons are there as clear as can be.’ He paused and then wagged his finger at her. ‘You know what? You’ve been spending too much time in that library of yours. You’re becoming too bookish! Loosen up. This is the real world.’

Miss Barker could not hold back the trace of a smile.

‘Hey!’ cried the principal, ‘get me a camera!’

‘You’re more of a political philosopher than you think,’ she commented, but then realizing there was no point in pursuing the subject, she said, ‘Tell me, Bill. Why did Miss Bicknell arrive in Binawarra this morning? That’s unusual, isn’t it? Generally, new teachers arrive well in advance to settle into new accommodation.’

‘She had to stay with an aunt of hers who’s not well. She’s an invalid, and there’s no one else to take care of her. Miss Bicknell rang me in good time to discuss it. It was all right with me as long as she was prepared for the first day of school, and she was.’

‘Really? An aunt, eh? And where is she staying now that Miss Bicknell is in Binawarra?’

‘I don’t know. I didn’t ask. Why are you so suspicious about this particular teacher? What’s going on? This is not like you to be imagining things.’

‘Am I imagining things?’

‘Yes. You are!’ he said his face reddening. ‘I have spoken several times with Miss Bicknell on the phone. All her paperwork is in order. She has very good qualifications and references. Her qualification in psychology is particularly useful in helping the final years, I think. So that’s what I am going to work on.’ He paused. ‘Flo, get out of that dark library of yours. There are too many heavy volumes there, and they’re weighing on your brain!’

‘All right, I give up,’ said Miss Barker, pursing her lips. ‘I’m just alerting you to things. If you do not agree with me, then at least keep in mind what I have said. There’s not a good smell about this Miss Bicknell.’ She rose. ‘I suppose we should be relieved she did not quote from Marx.’

‘Marx! Dear oh me, Flo.’

She took up her blood pressure apparatus. ‘Okay, give me that arm of yours.’ The principal held up his arm. ‘It’s not satisfactory. Far too high. You must do something about it, or you will have trouble in the long run. You should go and see the doctor.’

‘I know, I know. Joanne is on to me too about it. I’ll do something about it shortly after the busy period has passed us by. Now, what about coming around this evening for a cup of tea? Joanne will be pleased to have you over. You can tell her all about your suspicions. She’ll be amused, too. You know, Flo, as a spy, you would make a good nurse!’ He laughed loudly, leaning over the desk, and wagging his finger at her.

Miss Barker packed her apparatus up and gave him a stern look. ‘See you tonight,’ she said as she got to the door. She opened the door to find Mrs. Charing standing in front of it.

‘Oh!’ said Mrs. Charing, ‘I was about to knock.’

‘That’s all right, Mrs. Charing,’ said the principal, ‘come on in. See you tonight, Flo.’

Miss Barker let the startled and embarrassed secretary walk by her and, with a grave nod to the principal, walked to the sickroom. She sat at her desk and gazed through the window. Bill Huckerby was not yet susceptible to her misgivings. Would it have made any difference if she had mentioned she had seen Ms. Bicknell the day before driving around the town with a man who had recently begun making visits to the town, ostensibly for business? But, on the other hand, what if he were right? That Miss Bicknell was just another idealistic left-wing teacher who talked more about changing the world than did anything about it.

No, too much about her actions gave the impression that she was following a plan. Her speech during the assembly might have been on the spur of the moment, but what she said was well prepared, just waiting for the right moment to come out. She must be patient. If Miss Bicknell was up to something particular and not just general left-wing agitation, it should become clear in time. Meanwhile, she would keep an eye on her and on the salesman with what sounded like a Balkans accent. But on that point, she was not sure. He had an accent that sounded Balkans, but there was something else mixed in there. What it was, she could not say.

***

WHEN ESTELLA left for school that morning and Charles took himself off to his workshop, Aine Winterbine busied herself with the housework. For some time, she walked around distractedly, dusting and cleaning. At length, she stopped and bowed her head, her fair shoulder-length hair falling around her face. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and sat in the nearby lounge chair. The insistent vision of Estella walking to school alone, standing alone in the schoolyard, and isolated in class came before her mind.

Over the last two years, she had seen Estella’s small group of friends break off one by one. There was no conflict evident in the dissolution of her friendships. A divergence of interests, Aine was sure, was the cause. While some of the girls had boyfriends at a young age and others chatted about them, Estella had shown no interest. She had always been friendly with a few, Larry Burgess, for example, but she was not at all interested in them as boyfriends. And those few boys now seemed unable to be just friends.

There was also the girls’ obsession with the latest fashions and music. That meant the conversation often was, if not about boys, about clothes, make-up, and pop stars. Estella had little interest in following the latest youth fashions, even less in the music they liked. She preferred folk and classical music. Her interests remained unchanged. Besides her extensive reading, she had developed a keen interest in gardening. In this, none of the girls had the slightest interest. They laughed at the idea. Her favorite pastime of long walks in the surrounding fields and bush turned them off even more. Estella had been going on her bush walks for years, ever since her father had been able to take her with him. They could not understand how a beautiful girl like Estella could indulge in such boring pastimes.

Aine knew Estella was not too deterred by the desertion of most of her friends. The comfort of her mother and father together with the Huckerbys and Miss Barker, who made up their small surrogate family group, was enough for her. Fr van Engelen also showed the same constant care and concern. They were all she needed for family love and consolation. But Aine also knew it was different with Jenny Brougham. She and Estella had been as close as sisters.

Jenny’s temperament was as bright as her blue eyes and golden wavy hair. Nobody could have as much fun with so little as Jenny Brougham. On the other hand, Estella was quiet and subdued, which seemed to match her darkish complexion and dreamy hazel eyes. Tall and perfectly proportioned, she appeared to glide rather than walk, while Jenny, a little shorter and slimmer, was always bouncy and exuberant. The boys in their age group were besotted with both girls. The difference was that Jenny exploited their interest while Estella backed away from the attention.

Aine was unaware of it, but the effective break happened when Jenny began teasing one of the teachers. Estella did not think it was fun. Worse: it was cruel and unfair. Up to that point, the teacher, in his mid-thirties, was relaxed, outgoing, and popular with the students. As Jenny led him on with a sauciness that only he seemed unaware of, he became infatuated with her. Estella saw how it affected him, and she made her disapproval known. She could not help it. It was beyond her that Jenny was doing it. Jenny did not like her disapproval, resenting it deeply for some unknown reason. It wasn’t her fault, she said vehemently. He should keep his eyes to himself. A man that age should not be looking at her in that manner. What manner, asked Estella? But Jenny told her not to be naïve. What made it worse was that Paul Egan brought up the matter himself the previous year. Estella had asked him for help with an essay. They spent a good twenty minutes discussing the topic when he broke off and, embarrassed, asked her if she minded talking about something personal.

Though suspecting what it was about, she did not object. Mr. Egan said he should not bring up what he was going to say, and he would never have said it to just anybody. He was sure she would keep his confidence and not misjudge his intentions. He knew she and Jenny and their friends were talking about his manner with Jenny. It was not right, but he could not help it. It is a difficult thing, he said, to have problems in your personal life. It is even more difficult when you come across someone you think suits you. But it is worse than difficult to realize your feelings are pointless, besides being improper.

He was sorry to be so explicit and sorry it made her uncomfortable, but he wanted Jenny to know his feelings were honest, despite the difference in age and circumstances. He was a complete fool and even more of a fool in admitting it. That Jenny was teasing him was plain, but he did not think malice was behind it. The circumstances that seemed to go with her state of mind were a factor in his feelings and the reason he was bringing it up. Jenny had an infatuation of her own, and it was for a fellow student he did not regard well. He would do anything to get her out of reach of the unprincipled person who had no real interest in her. But in the circumstances, his hands were tied. Besides, he would look like a hypocrite. He hoped Estella could do something.

He would not say who it was. She would see in the end if she did not already know. He finished by saying that the situation had become irresolvable, and he had to remove himself from the school for everyone’s benefit. The principal had his application for transfer on urgent personal grounds. He was very understanding. He seemed to know more about his predicament than he was admitting and could guarantee a smooth transfer to a school in Melbourne. He would be gone before long, and the matter closed for good.

Mr. Egan’s honesty embarrassed Estella, but the tragedy of his circumstances moved her. She was certain he would never do anything to harm Jenny. Full of compassion and doubting her power to do anything, she saw him alone in his sorrow and prayed he would receive the grace to rise above his trials. The next day she tried to warn Jenny about Len Dawson. But Jenny would not hear about it. Not a word. The incident broke open the whole issue of Estella’s religious beliefs. It hurt Estella when Jenny said she was too strict, unbending, and ready to preach to people like a nun.

Without knowing about this incident, Aine was convinced their religious beliefs were at the bottom of Estella’s isolation. From one day to the next, Jenny refused to go to Estella’s room. From one day to the next, Jenny noticed, as she never did before, the crucifixes and devotional objects around the Winterbine house. She was uncomfortable with things she had seen for years. Worse still, she seemed repelled by them. Aine could feel the estrangement breaking Estella’s heart.

She rose and went to her bedroom. There she knelt before pictures of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, which formed a modest shrine in the corner of the room. She bowed her head and repeated several prayers of intercession. At length, she returned to the lounge room to resume her work. But the gradual onset of the darkness, which had started earlier that morning, could not be resisted. With a sinking heart, she dropped her dusting cloth on the floor and made her way to the front of the house, holding one hand over her eyes. She emerged into the bright light of day and felt along the wall to the end of the verandah.

‘Charles!’ she called. She waited, but he did not appear. The whirr of the electric saw filled the air, smothering the bird and insect buzz of summer. She reached for the rope of a bell Charles had attached to the wall and pulled on it. He appeared on the gravel driveway within seconds, looking up at her. He mounted the verandah stairs, took her in his arms, and clasped her close. Aine let her head rest on his chest as she had done for the first time eighteen years earlier. He held her for some minutes and then led her to the swing seat. He caressed her cheek and neck and then kissed her on her smooth pale forehead. As usual, she had the expression of someone in a swoon. At length, she opened her eyes, and he kissed her lightly on the lips.

‘Do you remember that night at Bill and Joanne Huckerby’s,’ he said, ‘before I left to return home to the South Coast?’

She nodded.

‘Remember? We were sitting on the verandah alone while your parents, Bill, and Joanne were inside, just like we’re doing now. We were looking up into the clear night sky, peering at the stars. I pointed out the Southern Cross and said it was strange that the great symbol of the Southern World was in the form of a cross. Do you remember?’

‘Of course.’

‘Remember I said we had been brought together under that symbol, and there it was in the night sky. When I left, I said that you were to look up in the sky each night while we were apart, find the Southern Cross and know that I was looking at it, too, that evening, looking at you in the love of Jesus. I was so happy.’

‘Me, too,’ she whispered.

‘I drove into a crystal-clear night back to the South Coast. The stars sparkled like diamonds against the dark, icy sky. I suppose I should have stopped. But I wasn’t sleepy. I didn’t want to sleep. I had driven away from Fr Bertollo and my aunts, not knowing where I was going. Now I was returning, knowing where my life would go. It would go with you no matter what. No matter what, do you understand?’

‘You have been too good. I will never forget the pain I caused you when I …’

‘No, don’t say it.’ He put a finger on her lips. ‘You couldn’t help … there were other things at play … you came through it. I’m so grateful to God for bringing us together in the strangest way and for His continuing protection. Sweetest Aine, you have been good to Estella and me. It has never been a burden if I have been good to you.’ He kissed her again.

They sat for a while, saying nothing. Then Aine raised her head. ‘Let me go and lie down for a while. I think I will be all right if I do that.’

Charles walked with her to their bedroom. He made sure she was comfortable and then made a cup of tea. He continued to talk about that week when they first met, the climb to the top of his mountain, his trip home, and telling Fr Bertollo and his aunts all about it, how their joy scarcely exceeded their astonishment. Then, when he was satisfied she was calm and resting, he returned to the workshop.

Aine slid down, so her head was resting on the pillow. She closed her eyes and pondered Charles’s efforts yet again to comfort her. He knew talking about the circumstances of their first meeting always acted as a restorative. It reassured her when that terrible darkness came upon her and filled her with doubts about herself. She could not help it. Charles always had to reassure her, and he did. But, why oh why did it happen, she kept asking herself? Her thoughts drifted back all those years to the convent, Virginia, Jannie, the promising career as a model, the near disaster with Harry the photographer … She became aware of someone caressing her arm. She opened her eyes to see Estella sitting beside the bed.

‘What’s the time?’ she said, sitting upright.

‘Half past twelve.’

‘Oh, I am late.’

‘No, don’t worry, Mamma. Lunch is ready. I have already called Daddy.’

End of sample chapters

***

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Writer … and still in the fifties