October 1931 (cont.)
Rousing herself, Emma turned her thoughts to what lay ahead. What would her new school be like? One thought sustained her. At least she’d have someone to tell her troubles to. Again she looked at the back of her father’s head and felt safe.
It was late afternoon when at last they entered the little town of Northingham and drove along the dusty, main street. Emma sat up and tried to recognise the various landmarks pointed out to her by her brothers, who were vying with each other to be first to identify them – the Post Office, the Police Station, War Memorial, hotels, banks and shops, but to Em nothing looked familiar.
It was with profound relief all round that they said “Goodbye” to their passenger and her packages, and Emma was again able to sit in front with her father. Her spirits rose as they drove out of the township, her brothers assuring her that there were definitely no more towns ahead, and as they crossed a bridge on the outskirts of the town, they became increasingly more voluble.
“It won’t be long now kids,” said Walt. “Only two more miles. Look Dick, there’s the old showground.”
“Do they still use it Dad?”
“No son, not for shows anyway,” was the reply. “There’s a new ground closer to the town. This one makes a good shelter for swaggies, and there are plenty of them around at present.”
As their father was speaking, the car passed the gates, and they saw the old show hall looking forlorn and neglected – and just a trifle sinister with its doors and windows tightly shut against the world. Tall grass added to its unused appearance. Only a thin curl of smoke from a chimney at the rear gave some evidence of life. The boys looked at it thoughtfully, turning their heads to look back at it until a bend in the road hid it from their sight.
But, barely conscious of the countryside through they were passing, Emmy kept her eyes on the road ahead, flanked by great gums growing along its side, their wide—spread arms offering welcome shade to ‘friends of the road’.
In the paddocks too, creating a scene of utmost tranquillity, stood more of these stately giants, survivors of a bygone age. Spared by the settler’s axe, their leafy branches had provided homes for generations of nesting magpies, and in their shade, livestock found shelter from the heat.
But today was mild. Cattle grazing at will in the late sunshine completed this idyllic rural scene. Set on a background of lush green grass, surely a worthy subject for a master’s canvas.
But Emma’s thoughts were busily sketching a different picture. After three years they’d be home again! What would it be like? She had no real recollection of the farmhouse, being barely five years old when they’d left. Only vague scraps of memory remained of her life before The Home. She stole a glance at her father’s face, as if to help restore her memory.
“It won’t be long now,” Walt said again. Em found herself sitting tense, hands tightly clutching the rug over her knees. A properous-looking homestead came into view. Set back from the road, behind a garden of fruit trees, its inviting driveway led up to the door under a vine-covered trellis.
“Is this it?” Emmy asked hopefully.
Dick’s laugh rang out. “No, that’s Sexton’s, isn’t it Walt? But it’s not far now.”
A short distance further on, giant gums provided the backdrop for a red-roofed house, with a beautiful front garden of flowers, shrubs and lawn. Emmy held her breath. “Please let it be this one,” she breathed.
“And this one belongs to the Misses Carter, two dear old ladies,” said Walt. “But you won’t have to wait much longer Em. The next one’s ours.”
In the distance, but clearly visible now, was a small red-brick dwelling, flanked on either side by paddocks of wheat, with a number of out-buildings at the rear and extending to the extreme right. The house was set back from the road about the same distance as the others they had passed, but there the resemblance ended. Missing was the gum-tree setting and the cared-for garden at the front.
Here a few straggly fruit trees competed for sustenance with tail grasses and weeds which had long since established a claim to the area. A tired row of almond trees drooped beside the fence that ran at right angles to the road, forming the right boundary of a wide race between the house property and the paddocks on the left.
The house itself was quite unlike anything Emma had seen before, or could have imagined. As the car turned into the gateway, she stared in disbelief. A high brick wall stared back at her. It had no doors or windows, but what appeared to be chimneys where the windows might have been. Her brothers laughed at her astonishment.
“The house isn’t finished yet Em,” Walt explained. “Two more rooms have to be built on the front, don’t they Dad?”
Her father nodded. “One of these days, son. When our ship comes in.”
“See Em,” Dick broke in. “There’s already a fireplace on each side. They were built into the wail when the rest of the house was built. We used to play in them, remember?”
Something stirred in Emmy’s memory, a shadowy glimpse of hide-and-seek, of hiding in the fireplaces. She tried to hold on to the picture, but as always, it slipped away.
“Who’s going to open the gate?” Her father’s voice broke into her thoughts. Glad to be out of the car at last, both boys sprang out and raced to slip back the bolt on the large wooden gate, jumping on the bottom rail as it swung open.
“Young devils,” Em heard her father growl, and watched his expression change from momentary annoyance to tolerant good humour as he drove through the gate and up the long drive to the house, the boys racing, laughing, behind.
Emma knelt on the seat and watched them through the rear window. Walt at twelve years, dark-complexioned, strong and husky, was in the lead, but only just. Dick, his junior by two years, was close behind him. Em looked at their laughing faces. How dear they were to her. Her heart lifted and she felt a tightening of her throat, as a wave of love and gratitude flowed through her at the memory of what they’d meant to her during the past three years.
Walt, except for rare bursts of laughter, given to seriousness, his dark eyes quietly proclaiming his confidence in his own strength and his ability to endure whatever might befall him, had been her protector. Brown-haired Dick, freckled sensitive face, full of fun, whose green eyes could glint with devilry and as quickly cloud over with hurt or brim with compassion – her playmate, when opportunity permitted. How she loved them both!
They came alongside as the car drew to a halt, and stood looking at a tall gum tree which grew beside the gate leading into the yard.
“I see the tree’s still standing, Dad,” said Walt, quietly. “Gee, I was so glad to be coming home, I’d almost forgotten she wouldn’t be here.” No laughter now on the strong young face.
“What does he mean, Dad?” Emma whispered.
“That was your mother’s tree, dear,” he replied, lifting her out of the car and holding her for a moment before setting her down. “She planted it the year before she died.” His words seemed to hang in the still air, as the late afternoon sun cast long shadows around them.
A silence fell on the little group. Emmy slipped her hand into her father’s, his mention of her mother restoring a picture which had lain locked away from conscious thought and become obscured during the long years of their exile. She recalled that day – so far off – when holding tightly to her father’s hand, she had walked beside him down the long room between the rows of beds, until they stopped at the foot of one and she heard him say:
“I’ve brought you a little visitor.”
It was by now only a faint picture – the face on the pillows had become just a blur, but the feeling was still strong. She felt again the wobbly sensation that was somehow connected with the wobbly feel of the hot-water bottles that seemed to fill the bed. She remembered the sound of soft voices murmuring above her, while a gentle hand stroked her head – then later, the long walk back towards the door, a pause to wave a last ‘Goodbye’, then into the strange steel cage that seemed to go up and down at the same time, taking her stomach with it, until the door opened and the man and child walked out of the large building into the late afternoon sunshine. The man was silent as they walked across the lawn, and it seemed to the child that his usually springy footsteps had somehow lost their spring.
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Now, as she looked up into her father’s face, he pressed her hand gently, then released it, passing his own across his eyes. Emmy drew nearer to her brothers, and on the instant, a light breeze passed over the tree, gently lifting its leaves, and it was as though they themselves were touched by a gentle hand, drawing them more closely together.
Matthew, his hand resting on the door of the car, stood studying the faces of his children – now partial strangers – seeing in their eyes a reflection of his own still deep sense of loss, noting the expressions of the younger two – defensive, uncertain, yet full of hope. He felt a pang of regret for the lost years, but what else could he have done?
Then, with a smile that changed the lines on his face, he reached in and blew the horn long and loud.
“Welcome home kids,” he said.
The door of the house flew open, and they were caught up in the hustle and bustle of homecoming.
The two older girls – to Emma’s eyes now quite grown-up – were the first to greet them, rushing past William, who at nineteen, was eldest in the family. He stood by looking quietly pleased to have them home again, as Maudie, seventeen, and Ellen, two years younger, hugged them excitedly. Then overcome with emotion and strangeness, they stood aside while their new step-mother greeted Em and her brothers. They had met her on a previous occasion and had found her pleasant enough.
But where was Rosie?
Emma was feeling tired and a little overcome by the excitement of the reunion, and was glad to hear her father’s voice behind her say, “Well kids, lets go inside.”
As they headed towards the wide verandah – Emmy leading, the two boys a step or two behind her and the tall figure of Walt bringing up the rear, a small vision in pink and white came through the door and stood smiling shyly at them. Emma’s face lit up, a joyous surge of warmth swept away the lonely ache that had been a part of her for so long.
“Rosie,” she breathed, taking in every detail of the lovely face, whose image had remained the one indelible memory of her life before The Home. How possessively she had held the memory to her! No-one could ever know how much she had missed her little sister, how constantly she had longed for her companionship. There was a moment’s pause while the two little girls took stock of each other, the two boys watching with indulgent grins, while their father looked on.
What a contrast these two provided!
Emma – small for her eight years, thin boyish figure, dark hair cut short, adding to the boyish look, her pale face unremarkable except for its liberal covering of freckles. A plain child, observers might well describe her, until they chanced to look into the blue eyes and found themselves held by some indefinable quality, wondering whether the shadows that moved within their depths were cast by the fringe of thick, dark lashes or came from the thoughts that stirred behind them.
And Rose? Surely angels must have attended her christening, for a halo of fair, shining hair framed her face, and the colour of the soft dimpled cheeks would rival the pinkest rose. Eyes calm and untroubled, were as unexpectedly brown as Emmie’s were blue. But it was her mouth, a perfect cupid’s bow, full and softly-pouting, which gave the face its beauty.
Emma dashed forward and wrapped her arms around the younger girl, holding her as though she would never let her go.
“Rosie, Rosie, where were you?” she said at last.
“Hiding behind the door, but you took too long to come in,” she replied, eyes crinkling and lips curving in a mischievous smile.
“Hey, you two, you’re blocking the gangway,” Walt’s voice complained laughingly, as Rosie wriggled to free herself from Emma’s tight embrace.
Slipping her hand into Emmy’s and holding it firmly, Rose drew her into the house. They were home!
(C) Winnifred Knight 2000 – 2007
Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007
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