Authors: Kimberley Freeman
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For Meg Vann, from one big girl to another
May 15, 1892
My brain is full of blackbirds! I have heard something this afternoon . . . I scarce believe it. I do not want to believe it. What a burden it is to have such knowledge. Should I tell Papa? I cannot comprehend what she has done, what she yet intends to do. But if Papa knows he will send her away and I have come to love her so dearly.
And I am almost certain Papa has too.
une sunshine blessed Tilly Kirkland’s wedding. Only the luckiest brides married in June, and Tilly could not believe how lucky she had been. Even though her feet were pinched by the white satin shoes, the boned corset under her silk and organza gown made it hard to breathe, and she had been smiling so energetically for so long at all the well-wishers that the muscles in her face ached, she counted herself the luckiest girl in the world. Jasper had come along at precisely the right moment, and one speedy courtship later, here she was married and on her way to a new life.
The garden of Grandpa’s house in Dorset was lush and green, flowers bright in the soft sun. Two long tables had been laid out with food, and the guests milled around happily, talking and laughing. The warm breeze lifted her hair and cooled the perspiration at the base of her scalp. The sweet-smelling orange-blossom coronet couldn’t contain her wild red curls, and she was constantly pulling strands of hair out of her mouth. A distant and very old aunt related to her in painful detail the unfortunate tale of her old
dog’s recent illness and death. Tilly was relieved for a chance to frown sympathetically rather than smile, but the story was very long and she couldn’t always hear the elderly woman’s soft voice clearly over the chatter.
Tilly risked a glance away. Where was Jasper? Where was
? The thought made her glow a little. Jasper, with his stylish tailcoat and gray cashmere trousers. Ever well dressed, handsome, with a dash of panache other men did not have. She returned her attention to her aunt for a few moments, then tried another stealthy glance around the garden.
There he was. The sun was bright in his golden-brown hair and his neatly trimmed sideburns. His body was lithe and erect, and he seemed to stand outside all the chatter and movement, singular and proud. His gaze roamed over the gathering and his eyes took a moment to find Tilly. In that moment, before he
registered that she was regarding him, she saw something that made her stomach prickle with doubt. Was it pity in his expression? Or disdain?
But then he smiled and Tilly smiled in return, warily. Hopefully. She told herself that perhaps she was tired and imagining things. He was now the same Jasper she had always known and the shadow passed like a cloud passing over the sun.
A clumsy crash shook her out of her reverie. Voices rang out in alarm behind her, and Jasper’s expression was forgotten.
Grandpa lay on the grass. Sharp heat speared her heart. Dishes and cups had been knocked off the table in his fall, and anxious guests were running towards him. Time slowed. He looked so pale, so old. When did he become so pale and old?
Then she was at his side, asking people to give him room to breathe, ordering cousin Godfrey to run into the village to fetch a physician.
“Grandpa? Can you hear me?”
His eyelids flickered and his right hand trembled as though he were trying to move it.
“No, no, don’t move. Relax. Be still. The physician is coming.” She stroked his forehead gently. “Be well, Grandpa, be well,” she said under her breath. But she could already feel the ship sailing away from her, pulled on a mighty tide she could neither measure nor control. She grasped Grandpa’s hand and waited.
can barely hear you, Nina. You keep breaking up.”
I repositioned myself in the very corner of the verandah and leaned out as far as I could. The fresh smell of the sea was laced with the less pleasant scent of seaweed. A quick breeze off the bay shot up my shirt, cooling the sweat on my ribs. Up here on the escarpment I had an uninterrupted view of the pale blue mainland off in the distance, the place where I hoped to entice a mobile phone signal from. “I said, did you already call the builder?”
But my mother was no longer on the line. I checked my phone, saw the
signal, and slid it back in my pocket.
No mobile reception. Nobody could phone me. All the knots in my spine loosened.
I turned and went back inside: Starwater House as it had been once called, though I didn’t know whether that was an official name or my great-grandmother’s romantic appellation. Eleanor Holt had been known for romantic notions. I threw my mobile
phone onto the couch and stood by the chimney, poking at the damp wallpaper. Starwater had been the administrative office of a whale-watching business for two years. A whale-watching business that had always been late or light with rent, and which had now failed, packed up, and disappeared without any official notice and owing thousands of dollars in rent to me, their landlady.
It wasn’t the lost money I minded. It was that nobody had been here to report the storm damage. October was the heart of storm season on Moreton Bay and the one that had blown in last week was so violent it even made the news in Sydney. I had seen pictures taken over on the mainland: trees crashed through car roofs and powerlines down and floodwater raging down suburban streets. And I thought at the time, I wonder how Starwater held up. It was an old house, built in 1868, and while I’d spent a lot of money on keeping it solid and safe, its position up on the escarpment of Ember Island made it vulnerable to storms. I’d phoned the whale watchers the next morning and got a disconnected notice.
Mum was the one who suggested I pay a visit. Mum was the driving force behind anything to do with Starwater. She had made me buy it six years ago. “You’re the only one of us that can afford it at the moment,” she’d said, one of the infrequent times she compared my two older sisters unfavorably to me. The engineer and the surgeon usually trumped the novelist. “It should be back in the family.”
The damage around the chimney was not as bad as I feared when I’d first arrived to see the blue tarpaulin flapping in the wind on the roof. The tree branch that had split open the roof was still pinned at an awkward angle to the house, the mighty arm of a Moreton Bay fig that had probably been on Ember Island for hundreds of years before white men came here and built the
infamous maximum security prison I’d learned about in school. But inside, apart from this large water stain on the wallpaper and a jagged crack opening up in the brickwork of the chimney, there didn’t seem much to fix. If the builder could do it in the next few days, I could be back in Sydney by the weekend.
The thought of Sydney made me feel sad and desperate. I didn’t want to go back. Not now, not until . . . after. But even then I’d still have to see them, wouldn’t I? We couldn’t avoid each other.
My train of thought was interrupted by footsteps on the stairs leading up to the front verandah and I hurried out to meet the builder, glad for the distraction.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m grateful you could make it so quickly. Come in and have a look.”
The builder looked back at me. He seemed startled, but I didn’t know why. He was what my mother would have called a “strapping lad” in his thirties, with curling blond hair, broad shoulders, and tanned skin.
“I’m Nina,” I said, leading him inside. “I’m the owner.”
“Joe,” he said, finding his voice. “I put the tarp up. I hope you don’t mind. I knew there was nobody here and . . . she’s such a beautiful old place.”
“Mind? That’s really lovely of you. The water damage might have been so much worse. Now you’ll see it’s mainly a stain on the wallpaper and a cracked chimney.”
We stopped in front of the fireplace.
“The walls should dry out okay, though the stain might be hard to get rid of,” he said. “But I think the chimney might be cracked up a bit further than this. Somebody would need to get on the roof and look. I don’t know how sound the structure would be.”
“So can you do that for me? Or do I need to call a roofer? I’m sorry, I don’t know much about these things.”
Joe blinked back at me. “I guess I could do it. I don’t have any other work at the moment.”
“That would be great. How quickly can you get it done?”
He tilted his head to the side and scratched just above his ear, surveying the chimney. “I . . . Well, that would depend on the extent of the damage, what supplies you needed, how quickly I could get them from the mainland . . .” His eyes locked on something on the chimney’s brickwork. He stepped forward and ran his finger over the jagged crack. It followed precisely the pattern of the brickwork. His finger came to rest on the last line of mortar before the top of the fireplace and he pushed lightly. “Look at this,” he said.
I moved close to him and peered at where he was pointing. A mortar-free gap between the bricks had opened up and inside it, there was a thin sheaf of papers.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Let’s have a look,” he said, pulling out a pocketknife. He gently scraped it into the crack and coaxed out the papers.
I saw and recognized her handwriting before the papers were in my hand. “This is my great-grandmother’s handwriting,” I breathed as I took it from his fingers.
“How do you know?”
“I’ve read all her papers. Or at least I thought I had.” My eyes fell on the first line on the first page. “It’s a diary.”
He peered at it. “1891.”
“She would have been twelve.” Twelve. This could only be a child’s nonsense. I’d hoped for something much more substantial. Disappointment sank cold in my veins.
“It’s not much of a diary, only a few pages,” he said.
“Maybe it’s been torn out of a book. I’ll read it later.”
“The letters are so tiny.”
I glanced at the first line.
Papa intends to hire me a governess.
“I’m used to her handwriting. I can decipher it.”
Joe was poking other bricks now. “I didn’t know this house had a family heritage,” he said.
“It doesn’t,” I replied, folding the pages and sliding them into the back pocket of my jeans. “I bought it a few years ago, for my mother’s sake. She’d always hoped it would come on the market one day. My great-grandmother lived here with her father when he was the prison superintendent. When the prison was decommissioned they kept the house. Her name was Eleanor Holt. She’s
legendary in our family.”
Joe folded the knife and pocketed it. “Why?”
“She was a wild nonconformist. Never married, had her son, my grandfather, at thirty-eight, never told anybody who the father was and raised him single-handed. Grandad always spoke so proudly of her. She was a member of the Socialist Party and wrote angry letters to just about everybody. She was fierce.”
Joe smiled. “Well, now you’ll know if she was fierce as a child too.” He glanced at his watch. “I have to go pick up my son shortly, but I haven’t answered your question. About how long it would take me to fix your roof.”