Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life, #Romance, #Historical, #20th Century, #General

Wildflower Hill (9 page)

Mum turned to me and forced a smile. “It’s all right, we can talk about it later.”

“I don’t see why we should have to wait till later,” Uncle Mike said. “We’ve already been waiting for years.”

I shrugged. “I’m curious now. I want to know.”

Mum glanced at Uncle Mike. Her nostrils flared slightly, a sign that she was pulling her emotions under control. “We’ll take tea in the garden. These things should be done properly.”

Of course I had figured out this was something to do with Grandma’s estate. Mum and Uncle Mike had never quite recovered from the shock of being left nothing. Had she left me something, then? It was no secret that she doted on me. I’d always had a special bond with her. Sometimes I’d even wondered if my mother was jealous of my relationship with Grandma; they’d been so prickly with each other. I was intrigued but not excited by the idea of an inheritance. The only thing I wanted was to dance again. And maybe to have Josh back, but the Josh who didn’t cheat on me. Material things had never been particularly important to me.

It was late afternoon. In the distance, a lawn mower growled, and the scent of freshly cut grass was heavy in the air. As the sun moved down in the sky, the blue velvet foretaste of evening set in, and my knee began to pulse with dull pain. I waited for Mum and Uncle Mike, whom I suspected were arguing as Mum filled the teapot and arranged the cups on the tray. That would explain why the tea was taking so long. I leaned back in my chair and stretched out my injured leg. A flock of birds, distant black shapes, shot past overhead. For some reason, the late part of the day always
brought on a miserable, hopeless feeling. I missed London, I missed Josh, I missed the rehearsal studio. The painkillers and sleeping pills had been an easy addiction to break, but those other things—those things that had underpinned my happiness for so many years—were impossible to withdraw from. The sadness built up inside me, and I had no way to express it. I had always expressed myself through moving my body. My entire adult life, if not before, I had chaneled my most intense feelings into my muscles and sinews, then danced them out. All I had now were tears, and I was nauseatingly bored with them.

I glanced up to see Mum and Uncle Mike approaching. Did I imagine the avaricious gleam in their eyes? They were mad. No amount of money could buy me back my happiness; my insurance payout had already proved that to me.

With a practiced politeness that was stretched tight over their tension, they settled at the wrought-iron table, one on either side of me. Mum poured tea for her and me; Uncle Mike stuck with beer. There was small talk. I watched it all as if from a distance. Then I finally said, “How much?”

Mum and Uncle Mike exchanged glances.

“What I don’t understand is why you couldn’t tell me until now,” I said.

“We don’t know how much,” Mum blurted. “That’s the thing. Mr. Hibbins has said—”

“We couldn’t tell you because your Nana Beattie put a stupid condition on the will.”

“She was adamant, love, that you be back in Australia before you received anything. Or even heard about the
inheritance.” Mum stirred her tea vigorously. “It was intended as a gift on your . . . retirement.”

Memories drifted back to me. Sitting with Grandma in the music room of her big house at Point Piper. I must have been about eleven. She had promised me a present for “after.”
Ballerinas can’t dance forever.
All the nerves in my body lit up with indignation.

“I’m not retiring,” I said forcefully. “I don’t want anything from Grandma. It’ll be something small, anyway. She gave her money to charity, and you two just have to get over it. I’m not going to be an heiress. I’m going to get better, and I’m going back to London to keep dancing.”

A vacuum of silence followed my tirade. Uncle Mike stopped with his beer can halfway to his lips. If I’d been physically capable of it, I would have stormed off. I had to settle for carefully drawing myself out of my chair and hobbling away.

“Come back, Em,” Mum said.

“Let her cool off, Louise,” Uncle Mike said.

“We really should talk about this,” Mum called.

But I didn’t turn around, I didn’t look back. If I had, they would have seen my tears.

I locked myself in my room. As though I were fourteen again. I didn’t come down when I heard Dad’s car in the driveway, nor when I could smell frying garlic, nor when Mum knocked and called through, “Are you going to eat?”

My silence sent her away.

Evening deepened toward night, and I sat on my bed with
the window ajar, listening to the crickets chirping, listening to the gentle breeze in the leaves of the giant camphor laurel trees that lined the creek running parallel to the street, listening to the distant sounds of cars on the highway. Darker and cooler. I didn’t turn on a light. It was as though I were paralyzed, as though I couldn’t think and move at the same time. But I wasn’t thinking, really. I was trying
not
to think.

I heard my parents watching television. I heard Dad come up the stairs, the creak of the pipes in the bathroom as he showered. I heard Mum lock the front door and turn out the lights. I heard them go to bed, soft voices in the dark. Talking about me, I supposed. About how I had lost touch with reality, how I didn’t want inheritances but still believed I could dance.

Midnight, and still I was a statue. Finally, I rose. The half-moon outside gave me enough light to find my suitcase under the window. I hadn’t unpacked yet. Denial. In the side, in a satin-covered box, I found my shoes. New Russian pointe shoes, worn in just enough to be comfortable and flexible but not yet starting to break down. Perfect shoes. Next to them was the tiara I had worn for
Swan Lake
in Yugoslavia the year before. It had been designed especially for me by a Czech jewelry designer, and even though the jewels weren’t real, it was exquisite. I slid it onto my head and eased myself onto the floor, hitching my skirt up to my hips to lace the shoes on. The movements were reassuringly familiar: I hadn’t worn them since the accident. Then I struggled to my feet. I had danced through pain before.

I stretched each foot gently, then . . . up.

For a microscopic space of time—perhaps a billionth of a second—it felt normal. My muscles did what they were supposed to do, replayed their memories faithfully. But the searing pain was quick to blot out my glimmer of hope. I cried out, crumpled to the ground. And allowed myself to sob. For my pain. For my disappointment. For the loss of the thing most important to me. My head had known it all along, but now my heart did, too. By the time I rehabilitated my knee—if that were even possible—I would be too old to cast. Too risky. And because semi-professional work or small roles were so vastly beneath me—there, I admitted it—that meant my career was definitely over.

A gentle knock at the door.

“Go away,” I called.

But it was Dad. He let himself in. “Em? Did you fall? Are you all right?” He turned the light on; it was hideously bright. He took a glance at me, at the tiara on my head, the pointe shoes on my feet, and rushed over to pick me up. I cried into his chest, my face awash. He sat me carefully on my bed. For a large man—a real bloke’s bloke—he had always been infinitely gentle.

“Are you hurt?” he said. “Should I call a doctor?”

“I didn’t fall,” I replied in a bubbling, hiccuping voice. “I’m crying because . . . I’ve realized . . .” I couldn’t finish.

He pushed my hair off my hot face. “I’m so sorry, my sweetheart,” he said. “I would do anything to make it better. But I can’t.”

Of course he couldn’t. Nobody could. I carefully pulled
off the tiara and handed it to him. “Throw it away,” I said. “I never want to see it again.”

By the following Monday, I found myself in the offices of Mr. Hibbins, who had been our family’s solicitor for as far back as I could remember. I’d never heard anyone call him anything other than Mr. Hibbins, though I’m sure he had a given name just like the rest of us. But there was something old-fashioned about him, with his carefully pressed shirts and slightly too-wide ties. It would have been wrong to address him any other way.

Of course my mother was there. Much to her delight, I’d refused to allow Uncle Mike to come. Mum fidgeted, a clear sign that she was nervous. I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t anticipate money, while Mum clearly did. Grandma would know better than to leave me money. I expected, perhaps, an item of treasured jewelry, or a book that had some meaning to her. I expected a token, something with a lesson in it for me: probably a lesson I didn’t care to learn just now.

Mr. Hibbins opened the folder on his oak desk with all due ceremony. Clocks ticked, paintings watched, dust accumulated on bookshelves. He already knew what was in the folder and was playing the part like a host on a reality television game. “The winner is . . .”

Mum twisted her elegant hands together.

“Emma, your grandmother gave me very clear instructions. She has left you something of great sentimental value,
but there are conditions attached. One of those conditions has been that you return to Australia.” He smiled. “Welcome back.”

I couldn’t meet his eye. He knew nothing about my injury, my loss. My misery must have been brutally evident. His smile faded and retreated.

“In any case,” he continued gruffly, “the object in question also has some monetary value, though you can’t actually sell it for six months after it is transferred to you.”

“What is it?” Mum asked, unable to hold still any longer.

Mr. Hibbins didn’t even glance at her. The fallout from Grandma’s inheritance had put him at odds with Mum and Uncle Mike. “It’s a house, Emma.”

“A house? But you sold off the Point Piper place,” Mum said, leaping from her seat. “I remember. The money went to some bloody animal refuge.”

Mr. Hibbins cleared his throat, shuffled his papers back into the folder, waited for Mum to sit down again. A house. Grandma had left me a house. That was a good thing, surely. I shouldn’t feel this sense of being burdened.

“As I said, the house had enormous significance for Beattie.” He pushed the folder across the desk to me. “It’s in Tasmania.”

“That old place?” Mum said. “I thought she sold it years ago. Is that all? Are you sure?”

“Thank you,” I said to Mr. Hibbins, tucking the folder underneath my arm. “But I don’t know what I’ll do with it. Is it in salable condition? I mean, I don’t have to go there, do I?”

Mr. Hibbins’s voice softened. “Your grandmother was very keen that you go, but she knew she couldn’t make you. As
I said earlier, you can sell it in six months but not before. I think she was rather hoping you’d spend some time there.”

“In Tasmania?”

“Yes. It’s very pretty. You’d like it.”

I knew about Grandma’s sheep farm. One of my earliest memories was sleeping over at Grandma’s place and waking with a fright in the middle of the night. I’d run out to where she sat, up late, reading in the music room. She’d put my head in her lap and told me to look at the gum tree painting that she loved so much. That was her favorite view from the homestead, she’d told me, and it always made her feel calm and happy to look at it. I’d watched the painting carefully for a long time while she stroked my hair, until I’d drifted back to sleep.

I was curious to see the place. Stepping down from London to Sydney was one thing. But to head down to an island full of farms at the bottom of the world . . .

“Just sell it,” Mum was advising me, sotto voce. “You can’t go down there in your condition. You need me to look after you. You might get a nice sum for it.”

I thought about Mum and Uncle Mike, both of them telling me what to do, anxiously trying to control the last small piece of Grandma’s estate. And I thought about Grandma, about what she might be trying to tell me by leaving me this house—I knew how much it meant to her—and I decided I would rather listen to Grandma than to Mum.

“I’ll go,” I said.

Mum was blessedly silent with astonishment. Mr. Hibbins smiled, and this time I found that I could smile back.

“I’m so pleased, Emma,” he said. “Beattie would have been pleased, too. Perhaps you can breathe some life into the old place.”

“I’ll go and have a look, that’s all,” I said, hands in front of me, palms out. “I’m not going to stay for any length of time.”

He seemed to be about to say something, then stopped. Adjusted his tie. “There was no estate sale, so the house is still rather . . . full. Somebody will need to sort through the things.”

“What things? Books? Knick-knacks?”

“Actually, all the furniture is still there. Under dustcovers, I imagine. Boxes and boxes of . . . I don’t know. She sent a lot of her things there for storage. You might find it a big job sorting them.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Mum said.

“No,” I replied, probably too quickly. I gave her an affectionate rub on the arm. “No, I’ll be fine. In fact, I’m rather looking forward to it.”

EIGHT
 

Beattie: Hobart, 1933

 

B
eattie was hanging out washing on the thin line that ran between the eaves of the house and the side fence when she heard the postman’s whistle from the street. That sound, so innocent, had lately filled her with dread as their debts mounted up and increasingly frustrated creditors reminded them just how much they owed.

She finished hanging up Henry’s shirts with wooden pegs, wiped her hands on her apron—her knuckles were red and split from a morning of scrubbing and wringing clothes over the steaming copper—and headed to the letter box with trepidation.

It was a fine March morning, briskly cool, yet the sky seemed wide and sunny. Doris Penny from next door beat a rug on her front patio, and the rhythmic thump echoed between the houses on the narrow street and sent clouds of dust up in the air to catch the sun. Beattie retrieved a single envelope from the letter box, flipped it over, and didn’t see the name of anyone they owed money to. Her relief was short-lived. Because the name was far worse than the name of a creditor.

“Hello!” Doris called in a hopeful voice.

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