Since Beryl’s dad had died in the 1970s and she and Alan had taken over the day-to-day running of Emu Hill, Beryl’s time had been divided between the house and family and managing the farm’s books. But it was Alan who spent his days on the plantation; Alan who ensured there was a crop to harvest and sell every year, come drought or flood. It was Alan who repaired the machinery, cleared the blocked irrigation channels and rebuilt damaged sheds after cyclones.
They might have worked at it together for over 40 years, but Beryl knew that, without a husband like hers, Emu Hill could never have prospered the way it had, and the question that lay ahead now was, without a son to take up the challenge of keeping the farm going, how would Alan ever be able to retire?
Susanne was a wonderful daughter. Kind, good-natured, everything any parent could wish for. Beryl and Alan were proud of her, especially now that she seemed to have found her calling in the travel industry.
But Michael, the son they’d lost to dengue fever, was never far from Beryl’s thoughts, either, and, as a flock of rainbow lorikeets hopping between the branches of the poinciana tree at the foot of the veranda steps caught her eye, she speculated that Emu Hill might have had a very different prospect had he not died in his infancy.
Alan might have been different, too.
With a small sigh, her gaze then moved to the rows of pineapples stretching as far as her eye could see. Despite her concern for the future of the farm, it was an exuberant landscape. Lush and fertile, a playground of nature, Nell had always said that this small corner of North Queensland was her idea of paradise and that it had helped her forget the hardship of her childhood.
Beryl could only imagine what sort of misery her mum had been referring to, for Nell’s early life in Dundee was something they never talked about. Even as a young woman Beryl could tell that some memories were too painful for her mum to revisit, and so the subject had been avoided.
Who knew what sadness had lain in Nell’s distant past?
After seeing the photograph of her mum aboard the North Star with Ruth Jones, and another girl who had an uncanny resemblance to Nell, Beryl wasn’t sure what to think.
Later in the day, when Kate paid her a visit, she confessed her doubts about the story.
“If I did have an auntie Jean, why on earth did Mum and Dad keep her a secret?”
“Maybe they fell out with her.”
“And never, ever put things right?” Beryl said with a disbelieving expression. “No. Mum wasn’t like that, Kate. I mean, you know what sort of person she was. She was one of the most forgiving people that ever lived. In fact, I don’t remember her holding a grudge against anyone.”
Kate took a sip of iced tea.
“Maybe Jean wasn’t her real sister. Maybe she was just a friend that Nell grew close to aboard the ship.”
“Or before that, at the orphanage,” Beryl added.
“Yes, that might explain things,” Kate agreed.
“And maybe . . .” Beryl’s mind cartwheeled “. . . Ruth Jones misunderstood their relationship.”
It seemed unlikely that her mum would have lied honesty was something that Nell had valued above all else. In fact, despite her mum’s lack of openness about her past and the circumstances in which she was orphaned, Beryl still had a hard time believing that Nell might have had a sister or best friend that she’d sailed all the way from Scotland with, yet never spoke about.
“So,” she said slowly. “You reckon it was just a coincidence that Nell and Jean looked so alike?”
Kate’s mouth twisted.
“That’s the funny thing, isn’t it? There was an undeniable resemblance, wasn’t there?”
Beryl nodded. She wished she could take another look at the photograph. Small though it was, the image of the three young girls was clear. But Ruth had put it away in her handbag and it had occurred to Beryl at the time that the photograph was precious to the elderly lady, recording, as it did, an important event in her life.
“What about Ruth’s yabber about Nell and Jean’s early days in Melbourne?” Kate asked. “Did any of that stuff about their placement together as maids in a well-to-do house in Toorak make sense to you?”
“Well, Mum did work in a big house before the war. In fact, that was where she met Dad. He was an assistant gardener there and she was a scullery maid. But she never mentioned anyone called Jean.”
“What a mystery,” Kate murmured.
“I’ll say,” Beryl replied.
There was a thoughtful lull while the two women tucked into freshly baked lamingtons.