Offering Help When Needed
Ruby stopped in front of the small weatherboard house, apprehensive, wondering what lay ahead and yet seemingly compelled by some unknown force to progress to the next phase of her life. Crossing the wooden verandah she raised her hand to knock on the door, only to find it opening in front of her.
“Welcome, welcome. You are a sight for sore eyes.”
Fred’s reception was effusive. “You’ve got the front bedroom, with a cot for the young’un. Come and put your things in there and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Hey, Moo, give us a hand!”
A tall, sturdy girl of about twelve backed down the hallway, eyes on Ruby, and disappeared into a room at the rear. Three other little girls watched Ruby silently as she put her suitcase on the bed and deposited Annie in an armchair.
“Well….you must be Eva, Elvia and Florence. Now let me see if I remember your ages. Eva, you are ten, Elvia, you are eight and Florence… you must be five.”
The children continued to stare.
Ruby summoned up all her courage, crouched down the children’s level and put her arms gently around them. “Don’t be scared of me. My name is Mrs Lane and I’m going to look after you so your Daddy can go to work. Do you want to say hello to Annie? She is two and a half year’s old and would love to play with some big girls like you.”
The oldest girl stood at the doorway. “Tea’s in here,” she said, indicating the sitting room with a sideways movement of her head. She poured tea into a pretty flowered cup from a tarnished silver teapot.
“No milk. I’m afraid. The cow’s gone dry. We do have some fruit cake. The neighbours have been very kind.”
“And you must be Muriel.” Ruby looked carefully at the pale young girl, imagining how she must have been trying to take the place of her mother for the past few months. “Thank you for the tea and cake. It’s just what I needed. Now I must talk to your Daddy about important things like food and school!”
Ruby opened the new notebook she had been given by Mrs Christakos, her sharpened pencil poised to take notes. Fred sat down opposite, ready to answer questions.
It seems there was very little food in the house. Fred had lost his job after his wife died, choosing to stay at home with the children and drown his sorrows with regular doses of rum. Now Ruby was here he planned to ride out to the local sheep stations and get a job doing anything that paid a wage. He would return after two weeks with his first pay packet but what to do until then was a problem. If the local store would allow him credit they could buy the necessities to keep the family running until his return.
Fred’s house was a short walk from the main street of Charleville. The four girls walked with them to the local store where Fred and Ruby, carrying Annie, convinced the local storekeeper that Fred was “on the wagon” and would be bringing a big fat pay check at the end of the month.
Loaded with eggs, milk, flour, sugar, half a sheep, potatoes, beans, pumpkin, carrots and necessities for the kitchen, the group returned cheerfully to the house. On the front verandah stood a young man, the frown on his face indicating a dislike for the unnecessary frivolity.
“Ruby, this is Alfred. We call him Al. Al, this is Mrs Lane. She will be looking after the family while I’m away working. I want you to be the man of the house and do everything you can to help when I’m not here.”
Al grunted a reply and turned away. “I’m gonna chop some wood,” he muttered and disappeared around the side of the house.
Ruby cooked up a storm. Roast mutton with gravy, baked potatoes and pumpkin with green beans was followed by bread and butter pudding. Everyone ate as if it was the only meal they had eaten in weeks. Even Al asked for seconds of pudding and then ate three slices of bread and jam.
Once all the children except Al were asleep, Ruby brought up the issue of school. The children hadn’t been since their mother died and Al had declared he wasn’t going back as he was 14 and ready to work. He wanted to go with Fred to the sheep station but Fred insisted he stay to look after Ruby and the girls. It was settled that Al would find work locally and the girls would go back to school on Monday.
Ruby lay in the double bed in the front room, listening to the even breathing of Annie in her cot. It occurred to her that this was probably where Margaret had died as Fred was now in the sleep-out on the back verandah. Her mind whirled with endless lists and plans and questions until tiredness overcame her. I’m getting into the habit of replacing dead women were her last thoughts as she drifted off to sleep.