Susanne felt proud. She’d had no idea that her daughter felt that way about the Hall. Then again, Jess was sensitive enough to know that her nan had organiseSt Andrew’s ceilidh tonight for good reason. The family had a long and happy association with Anzac Hall, and Nell would have wanted them to try to save it.
They were joined by Beryl and Alan.
“Everyone enjoying themselves?” Alan asked. “I hope you’ll join us for the Eightsome Reel.”
“I’m not sure I remember the steps, Mr Reeve,” Walker replied with humour in his voice.
“Susanne will keep you right, won’t you, love?” Beryl said.
Susanne didn’t have time to answer as their little group was joined by Kate and an elderly woman she didn’t recognise.
“Excuse me, Beryl,” Kate said in a louder than normal voice. “This is Ruth Jones.” She turned to the small white-haired woman. “This is Nell’s daughter, Beryl Reeve.” There was an exchange of polite hellos before Kate went on. “Ruth’s staying with relatives of hers in Mareeba, and she was hoping to meet up with Nell because they were friends long ago.”
“Oh, yes,” Ruth spoke up. “We came over here together on the North Star. The voyage took three months, you know. Nell and I remained pen-friends for several years after that.” She stopped. “I’ve been looking for Nell for years. You see, she moved away, then I got married, and we lost contact.”
“Mum passed away four months ago,” Beryl said, reaching out to touch Ruth’s hand. “What a pity you never got the chance to meet up again.”
“Yes, your friend told me the sad news,” Ruth replied. “I wrote to the children’s home in Melbourne where we stayed when we first arrived, but they’d closed down, same as the Dundee Orphan Institution and the Child Migration Society. I’d given up hope of ever finding out what happened to Nell.”
“How did you discover she’d lived in White Rock?” Alan asked.
“By chance,” Ruth answered. “I met someone who’d been with us on the North Star, and he remembered bumping into Nell’s sister and hearing that Nell had married a man called Watson and moved to Queensland.”
“Sister?” Beryl frowned.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Beryl smiled. “Mum was an only child.”
Ruth looked confused.
“Helen McIntosh, known as Nell, born in Dundee in nineteen twenty-one, came to Australia on the North Star in nineteen thirty-one, married someone called Watson?”
“Yes,” Beryl said. “But she didn’t have any siblings.”
“Well, that’s strange,” Ruth said, reaching into her handbag and pulling out a black and white photograph. She handed Beryl the picture of three young girls on the deck of a ship, arms linked, faces smiling.
“Me, Nell and her sister, Jean.”
Beryl stared at the photo then looked up, face blank.
“Yes,” she said. “That is my mum . . .”
“You’re up early,” Alan said.
Surprised by his voice, Beryl, standing barefoot on the veranda, turned sharply.
“Couldn’t sleep,” she said. Then, after a thoughtful pause, she added, “Got a lot on my mind.”
They both knew she was referring to the revelation of the night before, but all Alan said was, “Well, another dawn has broken.”
“Gonna be a beaut,” she said quietly.
Wordlessly, Alan nodded.
They’d left the Anzac Hall in the early hours of the morning. She wasn’t surprised, though, that Alan was up and about at daybreak as normal. That was him all over. He’d thrown himself into farming for more than four decades, rarely, if ever, taking a day off, and preferring to work alone.
Sometimes Beryl just wished he’d stay in bed an hour longer, maybe relax with her on the veranda, read the newspaper, drink coffee with her, chat about this and that like he used to in their early days together.
But she knew why he didn’t.
She knew why her husband had gone from being a happy-go-lucky sort of bloke to a solemn, deeply private man. Tragedy had folded itself round him.
She’d spent four decades trying to unfold it but never succeeded.
She watched as he sat down on one of the cane chairs to tie the laces of his well-worn boots.
Probably been over every inch of this farm, those old boots, she mused. For Emu Hill may have been her inheritance as Nell and Gilbert’s only child, but it was Alan, not her, who’d given his life to the pineapples, routinely working 14-hour days in the tropical heat. And now, as the blaze of the sun’s first rays lit up their white-painted homestead, she noticed how tired he looked.
Of course, neither of them was getting any younger.
“Reckon my legs about fell off last night,” she said. “You forget how fast those reels are.”
“That was only half the problem ” Alan began, his voice as dry as dust.
Beryl’s face creased. Hadn’t he enjoyed himself? When everyone linked arms for “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of the evening, she had caught sight of his face and, just for a second, she thought she’d seen a glimpse of the lighthearted, untroubled expression that he had routinely worn when they were a young couple. That was the Alan she’d fallen in love with; the cheerful optimist who enjoyed company. Not the withdrawn Alan of today, who’d tried to talk her out of holding the ceilidh at all because he couldn’t understand why she wanted to resurrect the St Andrew’s Day celebration one last time.
“Kate puts more brandy than fruit in that punch of hers,” he went on. “Feels like I’ve got a wombat throwing a wobbly inside my head.”
Beryl stepped forward.
“Why not take it easy, then? How about I cook us some breakfast?”
Alan stood up, adjusting his wide-brimmed hat.
“Sorry, love,” he said. “I’ve got a tractor to repair.” And with that, he hurried down the steps.
Grimacing, Beryl watched him.
A family business like theirs could be as much of a burden as it was a legacy. She accepted that. She also knew, regardless of what was missing from their relationship, she was lucky to have Alan.
Just before he disappeared, she called out, “I’ll bring you a tucker-bag at lunchtime!”
Glancing over his shoulder, he gave her a wave.