A novel by Bronwen Welsh
The sequel to 'A Foreign Country'
Author's note: When I finished my first ever novel 'A Foreign Country', like many other authors I nearly wept at the thought of saying goodbye to characters with which I had become so familiar. Now, two years on I have taken up the story of Lesley Brodie and what happened in the new chapter in her life. For those who have not read 'A Foreign Country', I respectfully suggest that by doing so they will learn about the background of many of the characters who appear in this story.
When my doctor suggested that I keep a journal or diary, I decided at once that an ordinary exercise book would not do. Instead I sought out the finest book of blank pages that the Heyward's Crossing's combined newsagent and bookstore could supply, in order to record my 'deathless prose'! It would surprise many people to learn that such a small outback town would have in stock a leather-bound book with 'My Journal' printed in gold leaf on the cover and spine, but that's exactly what I found.
Tonight I sat for a good ten minutes trying to find the right words to begin. There is nothing more daunting than the sight of a blank page. I thought of the famous opening lines of some of my favourite books:--
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
I wonder how long Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and L.P. Hartley spent staring at their own piece of blank paper before taking up their pens to write those famous lines. However long it was, I know that I'll never come up with anything as good, but at least I have made a start and the page is no longer blank.
I suppose I must be totally honest with myself if this journal is to mean anything to me. It will contain the truth and nothing but the truth, and if that sometimes reflects badly on me, so be it - I'm only human after all. Here then is the first truth - the doctor in question is a psychologist, and I've been to see him at the suggestion of my dear friends Tom and Ellen.
Chapter 1 The New Boss
It's been over two months since my Darling John.....died (how hard it still is to write that word), and since that time I've been on autopilot. Fortunately the head stock-man Jack has kept things running very well, seldom referring anything to me for approval, and I must thank him for that.
It's been so hard, and the nights have been the hardest of all. So many times I've reached out for the comfort of John's warm body in the bed beside me, and, finding nothing, the tears have flowed once more and I've laid awake for hours, staring into the darkness.
Dear Tom is my oldest friend. He was the first person to meet me when I arrived, a frightened teenager in a strange land all those years ago. We have been through the ups and downs of life together – the worst time of all being when his first wife, my dear friend Jenny passed away from cancer. Despite my protestations to the contrary, he still feels he owes me, and owed John a debt, and as a result, he and his second wife Ellen have spent more time that they can spare in helping me through my loss. It was Tom who with great hesitancy, and I'm sure with Ellen's encouragement, suggested that perhaps it was worth me seeking some professional help in my grief.
I thought I was coping reasonably well, but obviously I was not, so I took them at their word, and that's how I came to see Dr Charles. He's been a great help to me, and it was he who suggested that perhaps keeping a journal where I can record my innermost thoughts might be a help now I no longer have John to confide in. I know it sounds corny and not everyone would believe me, but John and I really did have no secrets from each other. Now the pages of this book must act as my surrogate confidant.
This evening I entertained Tom and Ellen to dinner and cooked a chicken. Why anyone would serve chicken when they have access to the finest cuts of beef might puzzle some people, but really you can get tired of the same meat sometimes, so the moment they saw the chicken, Tom and Ellen knew that this was a special occasion.
We kept to small-talk during the meal – you don't discuss your future while chewing a mouthful of chicken, delicious though it was. It was afterwards, while we sat in the big old chairs with a small glass of port and our coffees that I opened up to them.
“Ellen, Tom, thank you for coming over this evening. There's something I wish to discuss with you,” I began.
“We thought as much, so why don't you tell us what it is?” said Tom, although I think he and Ellen already had a pretty good idea of what it was I wanted to talk about.
“I have to decide what to do, now that (and here I almost choked on the words) John has gone.”
“And you want our opinion I suppose?” said Tom gently, and I nodded agreement.
“Well.....” he started slowly, looking solemn, “if you sell the Station you will be very well off. You could move down to the coast near Brisbane, buy a nice property overlooking the sea, maybe go on overseas trips, attend concerts, join some charities, do good works – that sort of thing.”
I looked at him aghast. “But that's not me at all!” I cried. “This is my home and my country. This is where my friends are; everyone and everything I know and love. What you're suggesting isn't me at all!”
Tom suddenly grinned “We both know that of course, we just had to hear you say it.”
“Oh Tom, you never change!” Now I was laughing, for the first time since I lost John, and it didn't seem disrespectful to his memory to do so.
Ellen now contributed to the conversation. “Lesley, now you know what you really want to do, don't you think you should let the hands know? One of them spoke to me as we arrived. He didn't ask me anything specific, just 'How is the Missus?', but it's obvious to me that they want to know what the future holds for them.”
“I know that,” I replied, “but they're used to a man being in charge. How do you think they'd take to having me tell them what to do?”
“I think they'd cope with it very well,” replied Tom. “They knew that the day would come when you'd be in charge, and no-one's made any move to leave have they? They have confidence it you because they know you had the finest teacher in the country.”
“There's just one thing,” said Ellen “It might be a good idea to tell them now that you plan to stay on. That gives them security.”
“You're right,” I said. “I'll have a barbecue tomorrow night and tell them then. Would that be a good idea?”
“Yes, that's perfect,” said Tom, so that's what I intend to do.
Earlier today I passed the word around that I was holding a barbecue for all the staff this evening. For some reason I felt ridiculously nervous. These are people I've known for years, but what I had to tell them was something life-changing and while I hoped they'd be alright with it, I still had a nagging doubt in the back of my mind.
The day dragged, but finally it was six o'clock, the appointed time, and I had asked them all to gather at the foot of the steps leading up to the homestead. This was the traditional place where important announcements were made and there would be nothing more important than this. I waited until five past the hour to make sure everyone was there, and then I walked out onto the verandah. It was a warm evening and I was wearing a light yellow cotton dress. There was significance in the colour I chose. Yellow was John's favourite colour and I hoped that he would in a sense be with me for the announcement. It was also a change from the rather sombre clothing I had been wearing since his passing.
I looked down at the sea of faces looking up at me expectantly. I felt nervous, but from somewhere I felt an air of confidence too. After all, the worst that could happen was that they would all decided to leave and I sold up the property. I cleared my throat and began.
“Friends, I have asked you to a barbecue this evening, but also because I have an important announcement to make. It's been two months since my....since 'The Boss' passed on and you have all been so generous in keeping the Station going with very little input from me. I'm sure you all want to know what my plans are for the future and again you have been very kind in not pressing me about my decision. Well that decision is that with the help of you all, I will continue to run the Station just as it has been in past years.”
I intended to keep talking but whatever I was going to say would have been drowned out in a loud burst of cheering. I stood there with tears forming in my eyes as I realised that I had said exactly what they all wanted to hear. It seemed that all my fears that they wouldn't want a woman in charge had been for nothing. When the cheering eventually died down I said all I needed to say --
“Let's fire up the barbies.”
A little later as the steaks started to sizzle, I drew Jack the head stockman aside for a quiet word.
“Jack,” I began “I really appreciate how you've kept things running recently, using your initiative and not troubling me with the day-to-day decisions. Now that I've made my decision about continuing to run the Station, I would like you to act as my deputy, and I will increase your salary accordingly. Please come and see me tomorrow morning and we can discuss the details.”
Jacks eyes were shining in response to my words. “Thanks so much Missus,” he said “I'll let my missus know. She'll be so pleased.”
Later, after the steaks were eaten and some beer drunk, Jack surprised me when he called for quiet. He was generally a man of few words, and certainly not one for public speaking, but it seemed on this occasion he was going to make an exception.
“Quiet everyone, I want to say a few words,” he shouted above the general hubbub, and when quiet was achieved, he went on in a quieter voice, “I just want to say that we all appreciate what Mrs Brodie had to say today. We all know what's happening now and we couldn't be more pleased. Now I'd like to propose a toast – to “The Boss”.
“The Boss” was echoed from every throat except mine of course and anyway it was too choked up to have said anything at that moment. No longer was I 'The Missus”, they had paid me the ultimate compliment.
To be continued.
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Image credit: Australian cattle station by Harris Walker reproduced under Creative Commons licence with attribution.
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