Claire has left behind the harshness of life in the outback for college and a career in Sydney. Estranged from her family, she is about to take up a position at a prestigious veterinary practice when her Great Aunt Aurelia summons her home to the family cattle station in Queensland. Claire's relationship with her parents and sister has never been easy, and it is the reunion with her indomitable mother, Ellie, she dreads the most. But coming from a long line of Warratah women famed for their grit and substance, Claire knows better than to shy away from a fight.
Ellie accepts that a reconciliation with her eldest daughter is long overdue. But to do so will mean she must face her own ghosts and reveal some of Warratah's more shameful secrets. She only hopes her family is strong enough to survive the coming storm.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 9.68(h) x 1.36(d)|
About the Author
Tamara McKinley was born and raised in Australia. Adopted by her grandmother, she was eventually brought to England to finish her education. Tamara McKinley lives on the south coast of England, and writes full-time, but travels back to Australia frequently to visit her eldest son and do research for her books. She is the author of Matilda's Last Waltz and Jacaranda Vines.
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A Novel of Australia
By Tamara McKinley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Tamara McKinley
All rights reserved.
Thirty-Four Years Later
Claire struggled with the spare tyre and once she'd finally got the damned thing in place she eased her back and glared out at the deserted highway. The endless miles of Queensland's outback lay before her, the heat dancing in waves along the horizon. She hadn't seen another car for hours, and although she was perfectly capable of changing a wheel it would have been nice to have had help. That was why she disliked the outback – it was too empty – too lonely; after her five years in Sydney, she had become used to people and noise and the bustle of city life.
Her mood was dark as she smeared the perspiration from her face. Her long fair hair clung to her neck and the cotton minidress that had been crisp this morning was now crumpled and limp. This was no way to celebrate her graduation from Veterinary College, and if she'd had her way, she'd have been on the beach with her friends instead of stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. But the summons home to Warratah could not be ignored. Aunt Aurelia had made it clear it was time to clear the air and put an end to her estrangement from her family. And no one argued with Aurelia. Not if they valued a quiet life.
She twisted her hair into a rough knot and tethered it with a clip then took a long drink. The bottle had been on the passenger seat and the water was unpleasantly warm. But it did the trick, and she was soon tightening the last bolt and lowering the jack. Throwing the tools into the back of the van, she climbed in and switched on the engine.
The van was an old green Holden her dad had picked up at an auction in Burketown. It looked a wreck, but the Warratah mechanic had stripped the engine and it purred as good as new despite the rust showing through the chipped paintwork and the rear doors needing to be tied at the handles to keep them from bursting open. She'd had plenty of offers to decorate it with flower power daisies and Ban the Bomb insignia, but had resisted. It was bad enough driving the thing through Sydney's traffic without looking as if she was part of a circus.
Claire let the engine idle as she lit a cigarette. Thoughts of home and family had come to the fore again, and now she was only a few days from Warratah, she was experiencing a mixture of emotions. It would be good to see the old place again. To breathe the scent of the citrus yellow wattle trees and the profusion of roses that clambered over the old homestead. Her mother, Ellie, had a passion for roses and in the soft outback nights the musk of them filled the house. Yet she remembered the tense atmosphere between them all on the last day five years ago, and knew this summons home was Aunt Aurelia's attempt to put things right. And that made her uneasy. For the questions that haunted her were finally to be answered – and she didn't know if she was ready. Her life was settled in Sydney. She had friends there and after Christmas would take up the job offer in a prestigious veterinary practice. The shadows that had once haunted her were almost banished, and she didn't relish the thought of their returning.
Stubbing out her smoke, Claire put the van in gear and headed back on to the highway. She was not the same naive country girl who'd left Warratah all those years ago, and despite the olive branch being offered by her aunt, she knew this was not going to be an easy home-coming. Yet she was wise enough to realise she couldn't run for ever. It was time to face the truth, no matter how harsh.
* * *
Ellie had had a restless night. She didn't like sleeping alone, but her husband was away on the annual muster and the house seemed to echo now both Leanne and Claire had left home. She'd lain there in the darkness listening to the old timbers creak and sigh, wondering where the years had gone. It felt as if it had only been such a short while since she'd arrived at Warratah – a skinny kid with no possessions but a few ragged clothes and an old pony – yet here she was rapidly approaching her forty-eighth birthday and mistress of one of the biggest cattle stations in Northern Queensland.
The ghosts of the past crowded in and she gave up on sleep. Tossing back the sheet she clambered out of the big brass bed and padded barefoot into the kitchen. It was the centre of the house, the place where the children had played and homework had been done while the men discussed the stock, the weather and the price of beef. It looked so tidy now she realised, as she waited for the water to boil, so ordered where there had once been a jumble of riding boots in the corner, dirty laundry piled in a basket next to the boiler, toys and discarded books left lying where they fell. Happy days, she thought wistfully.
'Sign you're getting old when you complain how tidy everything is,' she muttered crossly as she poured the water over the tea and added two spoonfuls of sugar. She took a sip and grimaced. Talking to herself was another sign of age but she'd found herself doing it more often lately. The truth was she missed her girls. Missed their bright chatter and their energy – even their flaming rows. It was just too damn quiet.
She looked around the kitchen, seeing it properly for the first time despite the hours she spent in here. The timber walls and ceiling were dark with smoke from the ancient range they'd replaced five years ago and the linoleum was cracked and faded from primrose yellow to a pale cream. The solid kitchen table and chairs had been made in the carpentry shop and were scarred by years of abuse from children and drovers and the cupboards were mismatched and needed a coat of paint. The sink was old, the gas fridge unreliable, the curtains faded at the window, and although she'd been tempted by the magazine advertisements to have one of the new, streamlined kitchens, she preferred things as they were. This was home, she was at ease here.
Without really knowing why, she drifted from the kitchen into the square hall at the front of the house and opened the bedroom doors on either side. There were four in all, added as the years went by and the children came along. Her own room looked out to the gum trees and the billabong, the muslin curtains drifting in front of the fly-screens, diffusing the bright light that came in the afternoon. The brass bed almost filled the room, the lace mosquito canopy adding a touch of exotica. Photographs lined the battered dresser, paintings of horses lined the wooden walls and the polished floor gleamed beneath the scattered sheepskin rugs.
Ellie smiled as she softly closed the door. It was their refuge, the one place in all the madness that went with running a place like this that they could escape to and find one another again.
The girls' rooms had been almost stripped of any sign they had once lived here. Apart from a few outgrown toys and books there was nothing much to show for their twenty-odd years of habitation. Ellie tweaked the patchwork quilts, plumped pillows and fingered through the books and riding trophies. Leanne was married now, with a home of her own, and Claire ... Claire was newly qualified, with a bright future in the city and a lifestyle that Ellie could only guess at. There had been little communication between them over the past five years and she realised sadly her eldest daughter had become a stranger.
Impatient with her gloomy thoughts she shut the doors behind her, grabbed a sweater from the hook by the screen door and went out on to the verandah. It was still dark, the moon high in the sky, the stars so clear and bright it was almost as if you could reach out and touch them. Ellie breathed in the scent of wattle and roses that mingled with the more earthy smell of horses and cattle and good rich soil. Life at Warratah was all she needed, the seasons following one another almost effortlessly as cattle were born, branded and put out to pasture before they were rounded up, selected for breeding or the stock yards.
She sighed as she looked out into the darkness to the pastures she knew stretched further than any eye could see. She would never leave this place, this beloved corner of Queensland, for it had been mother and father to her for most of her life. The land had been nourished by her sweat and the blood of those closest to her. Had demanded her strength and courage as no human had ever done.
The rocking-chair was old, the runners creaking beneath her slight weight as she sat there on the verandah with her cooling tea and watched the dawn bring colour and warmth. Ghostly white mitchell grass turned silver, the dew glittering millions of diamonds in the new light. Gum trees cast deep shadows over the impacted red earth of the cattle pens and corrals, and the billabong was pewter bright between banks of weeping willows and spinifex. Her smile was one of pleasure and sadness as she realised how long ago it was since she'd first set eyes on Warratah, and as she sat there in the burgeoning light she felt the ghosts of the past return once more – and they could no longer be ignored.
* * *
The boys gave her water and set about making a camp-fire. 'What we got here then?' muttered Joe as he peered into the gloom.
Ellie turned and shrieked with joy. 'Clipper! You're safe.' She ran to the pony as it trotted towards her, the grey in his wake, and flung her arms around his neck. 'Oh, Clipper,' she breathed into the dusty coat. 'I thought I'd lost you as well.'
'Steady on, mate. It's only a scruffy old pony.'
Ellie turned on Charlie. 'Might be scruffy to you but he's all I got,' she yelled.
'Sorry I spoke.' Charlie backed off and returned to help his brother at the camp- fire.
Ellie heard them laughing and realised she'd overreacted and had probably blown her cover by blubbering over Clipper, but as she took the saddles off and brushed them down she relaxed. They would have said something if they'd been suspicious.
After a supper of smoky billy tea and damper drenched in golden syrup Ellie began to enjoy their company. The twins seemed honest enough – just ordinary country boys. They were handsome and strangely similar despite their different colouring, and she liked the way their eyes creased at the corners when they laughed. And they did a lot of laughing. 'Where you from?' she asked in a quiet moment.
'Small town south-east of Brisbane called Lorraine. Probably never heard of it,' said Joe as he blew on his tea. 'Just finished mustering brumbies over in the Territory.'
'Sounds exciting,' said Ellie. She glanced across at the magnificent chestnut hobbled under the trees. 'That where he came from?'
Joe nodded. 'Broke him meself. Satan's a devil of a horse, but there ain't none better.'
Ellie smiled but kept silent. She felt the same way about Clipper, even though he was past his prime and most people probably saw him as just an ordinary old stock pony. She emerged from her thoughts aware Joe was watching her. His scrutiny made her uneasy, for it was as if he suspected she wasn't all she seemed. 'Something bothering you, mate?' she asked.
'I was wondering what you're doing out here on yer own,' Joe said, his dark hair flopping into his eyes. 'What happened to yer mum and dad?'
It was obvious he wasn't going to let it drop, so Ellie decided to tell him the truth – or at least part of it. 'Me and Dad were signed off from the drove up to Longreach and was on our way to the Curry when the storm hit.' She swallowed hard. 'Dad died,' she said curtly. Tears blinded her and she angrily dashed them away. 'I buried him back there somewhere,' she said, waving her arm towards the darkness.
Charlie gently squeezed her shoulder. 'Good on yer mate,' he said softly. 'Must have been real tough.'
Joe swept the dark hair from his forehead and scratched his chin, his green eyes gleaming with humour as he looked at her more closely. 'You sure you're tellin' us the truth, kid? You ain't running away from somewhere are you?'
Ellie rammed her hands in her pockets and stood over him. 'I ain't a liar,' she snapped. 'Dad's dead. Mum shot through years ago and I'm on me way to Gregory Downs. So stick that up yer arse.'
Joe leaned back, his hands up in submission as he roared with laughter. 'Whoa there mate, I didn't mean to get yer back up.' He looked at his brother who was also laughing. 'Jeez. He's fiery for a little bludger. Worse than you Charlie.' He finally stopped laughing and his expression grew serious. 'How you planning on getting to Gregory Downs?' he asked. 'It's a fair cow of a way. What's there for you?'
'I got an aunt at Warratah Station,' she said stoutly. 'And it ain't that far. I've walked further.'
She saw the interest flare in their eyes. 'Walked?' said Charlie. Joe whistled. 'Looks like we've met the youngest swaggie in town,' he murmured. 'Where you from originally, kid?'
Ellie sank on to her bedroll as memories flooded back. 'Sydney,' she said quietly. 'Dad lost his job and the house a coupla years after the stock market crashed in twenty-nine. We lived in the Domain for two years and been on the road for nearly nine months.'
The boys nodded as if they understood what this meant – had experienced something similar. Encouraged, Ellie carried on. 'Dad was an accountant. Had no idea what it was like out here in the Great Wide, but he learned pretty quick. We both did.' She stared into the camp-fire flames as she thought of their long trek north. 'Work wasn't easy to come by, especially not with a kid in tow,' she said bitterly before falling silent.
'So what happened?' prompted Joe softly.
Ellie stared into the fire. She'd realised by the time they'd reached Charleville that she would have to do something to help. If she'd been a boy, then it was possible they'd have been more welcome on the cattle and sheep stations. Once her hair had been cropped and she'd adopted the stance and swagger of the boys she'd known back in the Domain all she'd had to do was persuade Dad to accept her as Ed. It was the start of better times. 'Me and Dad got a job at Gowrie Station. I worked with the cook, Wang Lee, and Dad helped the horse tailer.'
'We know the place,' said Charlie eagerly. 'Head stockman's a mate. Snowy White. Good bloke for an Aborigine. Tells bonzer stories.'
Ellie grinned. 'The best,' she agreed. 'Wang Lee was all right once you got past his bad temper. He was a good bloke too.' She fished in her pocket and pulled out the ornate mirror. 'Gave me this at the end of the drove. Saved me life.'
'Funny thing to give a bloke,' muttered Charlie as he eyed the gilding and brightly coloured stones embedded in the frame.
Ellie shoved the mirror back into her pocket. It had been a mistake to show them such a feminine present. She hurried on to explain how the mirror had saved her from certain death – embellishing the tale, drawing it out, making it more daring and exciting, just like the men used to do around the camp-fire each night. 'Wang Lee was always giving me presents,' she added. 'Had a bit of a fall and hurt me foot on the drove, and he made me this stick so's I could walk easier.' She pulled the gift from the saddle-bag and the intricate carving of bison and coolies on the walking-stick was duly admired.
'Reckon it's time we had some sleep, mate. Early start in the morning.' Charlie unrolled his blanket, placed his saddle more comfortably and settled down. Within moments he was snoring.
Ellie looked at Joe and grinned. There was something still within him that she recognised in herself – an ease with his surroundings and the life he led. 'Reckon I wore him out,' she said quietly. 'The blokes on the drove were always telling me to shut up, but I can't help it if I want to learn everything.'
Joe smiled, his dark eyes emerald in the dying flames. 'Everything's a lot to learn in a few months,' he drawled. 'Reckon you'll get there soon enough.'
Excerpted from Windflowers by Tamara McKinley. Copyright © 2002 Tamara McKinley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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