Annie’s Secret-4

Chapter 4

Annie had been expecting something far grander than the house that stood before them.  It was a simple timber construction sitting on stumps with wooden steps leading to a narrow veranda. A corrugated iron roof extended over the verandas on three sides giving the house a low, squat appearance.  Around the house a sapling fence served to keep livestock and feral animals out the garden.  The gate was open as if they were expected.  Annie climbed out of the Roadster, pulling her dress into shape as it stuck to her legs and body with sweat.

A tall, thin woman appeared at the door.  Dressed completely in black she was a forbidding figure. Her sharp featured face was framed by a severe grey bob.  As she hugged her son she cast a fleeting look at Annie.

“Cat’s eyes,” thought Annie.  Ma’s unusual eyes were not welcoming.

“Annie, this is my mother, Ma Walsh.  Ma, meet my girlfriend Annie Lane.”  Hayden smiled confidently but even he wavered in Ma’s glare.

“Won’t you come in,” she indicated the door.  “I’ll put the kettle back on.”

Inside Annie could see a man hunched in the corner reading a newspaper.  He stood up as soon as she entered and grasped both her hands.  “Pleased to meet you Lassie.  You are very welcome.”

So overwhelmed was she by his gentle and warm reception tears came to her eyes.  Ma jerked the large whistling kettle off the stove and filled the equally large teapot.


“Yes please”. And then she wished she hadn’t as it had a strange taste.

“Prickly pear,” said Ma.  “The cows eat it and it affects the milk. You get used to it…. So, where does your family come from?”

Well she’s straight to the point, thought Annie.

“My mother’s grandparents came from Scotland and my father’s parents were from somewhere in England.  I don’t know where,” she ended lamely.

“One of my family was Lady in Waiting to Queen Victoria,” announced Ma.  “The Dersby-Willoughby branch it was. You have to have a good pedigree to be that close to the Queen.”

Annie searched her memories of family history.  She had never been very interested.  Suddenly she remembered William Robbie.

“My great grandfather was an artist in Scotland.  He tutored the daughter of a wealthy family.  They eloped and moved to South Australia where he painted the ceiling of the Mount Gambier Hotel.”

Ma looked at her sharply. “Hardly something to boast about,” she said.  “It must have been quite a come down for your great grandmother.”

You don’t know half of it, thought Annie.

Hayden tried to lighten the mood by interjecting. “Australians aren’t worried about where you come from.  It’s what you make of your life that matters.”

“And how you treat other people,” Annie couldn’t help adding.

Ma indicated she was going to the kitchen to prepare dinner.  Annie offered to help so was presented with huge piece of corrugated pumpkin to peel.  As she worked she heard the rumble of thunder.

“It will come to nothing,” said Ma.  “Even so I think we should put the kerosene tins out just in case.”

Wondering what she meant Annie followed the others outside. The buckets were placed under parts of the guttering with known leaks. 

The dinner was forgotten as they looked at the ominous dark clouds gathering above.

“Probably we’ll get one drop to the acre,” said Alfred.

The drops began.  Heavy and loud, the rain surprised them all.  Soon the guttering overflowed and water went everywhere but into the tanks. Ma was first, clambering onto the verandah railing to claw at the guttering, pulling out handfuls of leaves.  Soon she was joined by the others, including Annie in her new dress and stockings, shoes long discarded.

“I hear it!” cried Hayden.  At last the water was running into the tank. Almost drowned and shivering with cold they retreated to the warmth of the house to dry themselves, put on new clothes and find something to eat.

Alfred disappeared into the storeroom announcing he was off to get something special to celebrate the occasion. He returned bearing a large tin of Letona Peaches. “I thought it was time to get out the delicacies,” he said.

Annie ate hers without cream. She wasn’t risking the taint of prickly pear and decided to give up dairy altogether from now on.

All night the rain drummed on the roof.  No one had a good night’s sleep for the noise was incessant.

Next morning Alfred rapped the 2000 gallon tank at the end of the verandah.  He smiled as he held up three fingers.  Three rungs from the top was a good result.

There was some doubt as to whether Annie and Hayden would make it back to Goondiwindi in the car.  Hayden promised his mother he would not do anything foolish, especially as he had a very precious cargo.

The creek was rising so they left early, hoping to cross before it broke its banks.  Annie could already see a green sheen in the paddocks but she was keen to get back to Goondiwindi, away from the inquiring gaze of Ma.

“She likes you,” Hayden exclaimed happily.

“It wasn’t obvious to me,” said Annie.  “I got the feeling my family wasn’t good enough.”

“I don’t think our family is anything special.  Mostly railway workers.  That’s hardly high society.”

The creek had nearly reached the bridge but they crossed without mishap.  Hayden dropped her off at the hotel where she collapsed on her bed to catch up on sleep.

Soon after Hayden checked out of the hotel but he was a frequent visitor to Goondiwindi.  One day when he picked Annie up she noticed a large white bag tied to the dicky seat. 

“What’s that,” she asked.  She saw that it had lettering on one side. H.WALSH in black on a white background.

“Oh that,” said Hayden dismissively.  “That’s my bookies bag.”

“You’re a bookmaker!”  Annie was astonished.

“What if I am?” Hayden was amused by her reaction.  “Nothing wrong with it.”

“I remember my mother telling me her father Reuben was a bookmaker.  They were so ashamed of it they said he was a book binder instead.”

“I think there would be a lot more money in being a bookmaker,” mused Hayden.

“Now that I’ve met your mother I want you to meet my mother.  You can call her Ruby.    She’s not like me.  She’s talkative and laughs a lot.  She’s the life of the party but has her quiet times too.  As for Fred, her husband, he is hard to work out.  I don’t really like him although he has done nothing to make me think badly of him.  I was thinking we could drive out to their station whenever you are not racing horses or bookmaking or playing poker!”

“I do work as well, you know,” he said, laughing.  “All right, how about next weekend?  I can take a break from the horses for a while.  I am wondering what your mother will think of me?  In fact I am quite nervous.”

“She will love you,” Annie answered with confidence.  “What’s not to love?”

The following weekend the Roadster headed in a new direction to Westcourt Station.  The recent rain had greened the landscape and it was exciting to see the change in the once dry plains.  Westcourt Station was much grander than Booni Creek but Mother didn’t live in the big house.  She and Fred had the Manager’s quarters while the Manager lived in the house.  The owners were in no hurry to return from Brisbane.

Annie was excited to show off her mother.  She admired her outgoing personality, wishing she could be like her, but on this occasion she was disappointed.

Ruby was guarded, almost hostile.

“Just like Ma Walsh,” thought Annie.

She was not interested in family history.  She asked questions about Hayden’s work on the station.  She listened in silence as Annie told her of “Little Court” and the bookie’s bag with Hayden’s name on it.  Annie thought it wise not to mention the two-up and poker games.

“Well, what do you think?” Annie was alone with her mother in the kitchen preparing lunch.

“He’s a gambler.  I can spot them a mile off.  He’s also got no trade. He hasn’t stuck with one job for any length of time and spends everything he earns.  Look at that car!  I’m warning you Annie.  You have the looks and the charm to marry anyone.  Don’t throw yourself away on the first man you meet.”

“But I love him!” said Annie tearfully.  “He’s the most exciting person I have ever met.”

Lunch was a stilted affair with Hayden finding Fred far more conversational than Ruby.  They discussed cattle prices and whether the much needed follow up rains would eventuate.  Annie and Ruby washed the dishes in silence.  Although they had thoughts of staying overnight Annie and Hayden agreed it might be better to head back to Gundy after lunch.

Ruby looked as if she wanted to say something.  They looked at her expectantly.

“Hayden, I have to tell you something about my daughter.  She is not as pure and innocent as she might appear.  I had to take her out of school because of her behaviour.  She is the leavings of a Greek boy!”

Hayden looked perplexed.  Annie was white with shock.  Even Fred said, “Aw, come on Ruby.  That’s below the belt.”

“Let’s go.” Annie leapt into the roadster, tears prickling her eyes.  How could her mother say that?  It wasn’t even true.

Hayden was in the driver’s seat, his face grim.  The car sped out onto the muddy road, skidding slightly before Hayden regained control.

“It’s not true!  Mother made that up so you wouldn’t see me anymore.  She thinks you’re a gambler.  Oh, I’ll never ever speak to her again.”

“Calm down,” insisted Hayden.  “I know what mothers are like.  No-one is good enough for their child.  Look at Ma! She gave you a pretty rough time.  Although she didn’t drag up my past misdeeds… if there were any,” he hastened to add.

“I was at Roma High School and had no friends.  George was a loner too because he was Greek and smarter than anyone else.  We used to walk home together and talk about what we would do when we left school.  We didn’t even kiss!  Rumours went around the town, my landlady blew it up out if all proportion and my mother asked if I wanted to leave school.  I thought I could go and live with Mother.  That’s all I wanted.  And now I will never speak to her again.”  Annie could no longer hold back tears and sobbed violently. 

Hayden pulled off the road and held her in his arms.  “Annie, I don’t care what your mother or my mother thinks. I can’t live without you.  Let’s get married and the sooner the better!”

Annie’s Secret-3

Chapter 3

What was it that caused Hayden, a confirmed bachelor of 27, to fall in love with a tall, willowy girl who worked in reception at the Victoria Hotel? Was it her air of innocence, her self-possession or her arresting blue eyes?

It all began after he was supervising the delivery of some cattle to the sale yard. He had checked into the fanciest hotel in Goondiwindi.  Its style was hard to pin down.  A bit of Victorian and Twenties with some early Colonial for good measure.  Dark panelling and white lattice on its exterior, stained glass windows and an ornamental tower on top.  This was the definitely the place to stay in Gundy.

The young woman was sitting at her desk in reception, checking people in, allocating rooms and directing some to other hotels as the Victoria was nearly always full.  As Hayden approached he could see she was going to send him away but he had a booking for a week, made over the telephone, so she relented and offered him the hotel guest book.  As she handed him the keys to his room he saw those eyes regarding him with cool detachment.  She looked very young, maybe 18, and had a quiet reserve which made him think of his mother.  She would approve of this girl, he thought.

The next day he walked in with six boxed shirts.

“Shopping?” she remarked.

“Well,” he replied rather shamefacedly.  “There’s nowhere to wash and iron my shirts so I just buy new ones.”

“Oh, I’m sure you could get them done…” She paused. “Of course, it’s none of my business.”

A few days later she caught his eye. “I see you’ve made the local paper. ‘Man buys every shirt in local store’.  What a claim to fame!”

Hayden decided it was now or never. “Would you like a ride in a motor car?” he asked. “Just around town to test her out.  I would like your opinion.”

“Are you buying a motor?” She appeared impressed.  “I’m off work at 5 o’clock and would have time for just a short spin.”

The car was a Chevrolet Master Roadster.  Hayden had seen it at the car yard and negotiated a lease for six months.  Dark green duco, light yellow wheels, rich brown leather upholstery and a removable beige cloth top to take care of the hot sun. It certainly stood out in the dusty streets of Goondiwindi!

Annie gasped with delight when she saw it. She slid onto the seat and sniffed appreciatively.  “Oh, smell the new leather!”

Hayden started the car and put it into first. “It’s got coil spring independent front suspension.  Good on our bumpy roads.”  He drove carefully down the main street, dodging horse drawn wagons and wandering pedestrians.  Out on the open road he put his foot down and the car responded smoothly. 

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Not far.  Just to the stables.  I have something to show you.”

They pulled up near the race track.  Hayden opened the car door and led Annie into the cool dark interior of the stables where horses stamped and whinnied and snuffled in their nose bags.

“See this horse?  She’s called ‘Little Court’ and has already won two races as well as three places.”

“She’s lovely,”said Annie, patting the horse’s nose.  “Who owns her?”

“I do,” said Hayden proudly.  Bought her from the McDonalds when she was just a filly.  I could see the potential”.

“I’ll take you home now.” 

Hayden didn’t want to push his luck.

Annie lay awake in her small room at the back of the Victoria.  What did she know about this man who had suddenly swept her off her feet? So far they had been out for dinner together three times, attended the races to watch Little Court come second and participated in a rowdy game of two up where he had won sixty pounds.

She accepted the fact that he was older than her.  He told her he was 27, almost 28. Apart from owning a racehorse she wasn’t sure what he did.  He seemed to be on the land as he was in Gundy to sell cattle.  He must be rich to own a fancy car like that.  He also spoke differently from the locals, who rarely opened their mouths lest the flies get in.  She wanted him to meet her mother.  Ruby would like him and be impressed by his outstanding qualities.

He had asked her to go with him to Booni Creek.  It was a cattle station where his mother worked for Alfred McDonald.

“She’s his housekeeper.  My father died when I was young and so she has been working on stations ever since.  Alfred never married and is a little… eccentric, but he likes Ma and they’ve been together for years.  He’s got just under 4,000 acres at Booni Creek, just south of Boggabilla.”

Annie was a little disappointed to find that Hayden wasn’t the son of a wealthy landowner and that his mother was a housekeeper, just like hers.  Still it might be easier to be accepted by his mother if they could find similarities in their backgrounds.

Somehow Hayden managed to extend his stay at the Victoria.  He took Annie to a smoky room where men played poker and drank beer.  She didn’t like it there very much but they left with his winnings which amounted to twenty pounds and he bought her a box of chocolates.

The day they were to drive to Booni Creek dawned clear and sunny, just like every other day.  In fact it hadn’t rained  for months and the countryside was brown and the waterholes only muddy puddles.  Annie had negotiated two days off as they were to stay overnight at Booni Creek before their return journey.

“Tell me about your mother,” Annie said.  “It might help us get along better.”

“She’s a very strong, very brave woman,” said Hayden with a catch in his voice. “We were in Sydney visiting my aunt for a few days when my father was stationmaster at Bogan Gate.  I was only six.  We received a telegram with the news.  He had had a massive heart attack at the railway station.  Asked the young porter to get him a glass of water.  When he got back Father was dead on the floor.  Ma and I lived with her brother for a while.  He was also a stationmaster – at Hayden, where I was born.  That’s how my parents met, at Hayden, when my mother was staying with my uncle the first time.   Eventually she got a job as a housekeeper on a cattle station. Word got around that Alfred needed someone to run the house and she has been there ever since.  She sent me to Newington but I left after three years.  Hated it there….” Hayden paused and concentrated on the road ahead, avoiding potholes and rocks.

“So what trade did you learn?  I went to Lucy Secor’s and learnt to be a dressmaker,” she said proudly.

“And now you work as a receptionist in a hotel!”  He laughed.  “I trained to be a wool classer but threw that in.  There was big money in rabbiting.  Texas has a factory where they process 6,000 rabbits a day.  You wouldn’t believe how many there used to be.  Masses of white tails bobbing up and down all over the paddocks. Now I do station work.  We have to move the cattle around from paddock to paddock, take them to the sales.  We’ve got sheep too.  There’s lots of work to do with sheep.”

“So you’re the son Alfred never had?”

“I suppose so.  He’s a strange character.  Not like his brothers.  They are all for producing the best strain of cattle, showing them at the Ekka and the Sydney Royal Easter Show.  They win ribbons and trophies and people want to breed from their prize winning beasts, but Alfred is content to just graze his cattle and sheep.  He’s never been interested in marrying.  Never had a girlfriend I don’t think.  He just watches his pennies.  He’s your image of a Scotsman.  Keeps a record of every penny and doesn’t spend anything he doesn’t have to.  Saying that, he can be very generous.  He offered to send me to university in Scotland if I would go back to Newington and complete my secondary education.”

“Why didn’t you?” gasped Annie.  “Imagine going to Scotland!  That’s where my great grandparents came from.  Our family hasn’t been back since.”

“School was not a happy place”, he said grimly.  “When your father is dead and your mother is a housekeeper,  it doesn’t quite cut the mustard at boarding school.”

His bitterness surprised her so she decided to change the subject.

“My mother is a housekeeper at Westcourt Station.  Her husband is an overseer there.  You wouldn’t believe it but they met when I was a toddler but my father was still alive then. He died last year but I never really knew him.  We have a lot in common, don’t we?”

Hayden pointed to a low building in the distance.  “There it is.  Booni Creek.  I just can’t wait to show you to Ma!”

Annie’s Secret-2

Chapter 2

The arrival of Annie had been good for Harriet. She enjoyed hearing about life at Lucy Secor as Annie moved from single word answers to whole sentences! She missed having a daughter as Eddie was not very communicative.

She also enjoyed mothering Annie as she felt the girl had missed a normal childhood full of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.  Even her parents were absent most of the time.  She hoped that Annie would continue at Lucy Secor to a management position so that she could be independent of a man.  Not that there was anything wrong with having a man but to be able to get up and leave without plunging into poverty would be a decided advantage.  Women put up with an awful lot from men, as well she knew.  If she had been able to support herself, would she have left Edgar?  She thought that maybe she would.

Ruby did it, but from what she had heard it had been, and still was, a struggle.

Annie asked if she wanted to go to the pictures with her.  “The King of the Jungle” was showing at the local Hoyts Shore Picture Theatre. Annie had never been to the pictures and Harriet hadn’t been since the era of silent movies. They walked together on a chilly Saturday night, wearing their winter coats and with hats pulled low over their ears.  The lights and glamour of the picture theatre took even Harriet’s breath away.  She looked at Annie and saw her eyes large with amazement. The auditorium was lined with panels depicting scenes of sailing ships, steamers, a lighthouse and seagulls. The lights dimmed and the curtains across the stage moved back as if by magic.  A mountain overarched with stars and the words Paramount Pictures appeared before their eyes.  Soon they were zooming in to Africa and watching a small boy growing up with lions.  Suddenly he became a man wearing very little except a revealing loincloth.  Harriet glanced nervously at Annie, hoping this detail would not get back to Ruby.  They continued to watch with fascination until the lights reappeared and the magic was over.

As they walked arm in arm through the streets of Williamstown, Harriet saw a future where life would be more exciting than in the past.  She even wondered what Ed would say to her taking up dancing again.

Christmas was approaching.  Annie had completed a year at Lucy Secor and received very good reports on her progress.  Harriet asked her if she would like to stay for the festive season but Annie was intent on going home.  Home was where her mother was but she was disappointed to find that she was no longer living near Charleville.

The letter arrived a month before the end of her year at Lucy Secor.

Dear Annie,

I am looking forward to seeing you this Christmas but must tell you that my circumstances have changed.  I am to be married to Fred Burton and we are already working at a station 50 miles west of  Goondiwindi in southern Queensland. At least it will not be so far for you to travel as Brisbane to Goondiwindi is about thirteen hours on the train.

Fred last saw you when you were only two and a half so he will see some changes!  He is waiting to get a divorce from his estranged wife and we will marry as soon as possible after that.

Please telegraph your arrival time and I will meet you at Goondiwindi station with the buggy.

With all my love,


Annie let a small sigh of irritation escape her lips.  Her treasured time with Mother was to be shared with a stranger.  She decided already she didn’t like Fred Burton and wondered if her mother was sharing a bed with this man.

As she packed she pondered if she would return to this small dark room which had been her refuge for the past year.  Whether she returned would depend on what she found in Goondiwindi.  All that she left behind was the thick winter coat she had purchased for the Melbourne winter.

Travelling in the heat was exhausting.  As the day progressed from early morning to evening the train became hotter and hotter.  In Sydney she stayed in a hotel near Central, running a cool bath and then lying on the bed with a wet towel draped over her body. She chose to take the night train to Goondiwindi from Brisbane as it would be more comfortable.  Arriving in the early morning she appreciated the cool air before the heat of the day began in earnest.

The buggy was waiting, a strange man at the reins and Mother seated beside him.  Annie’s luggage was stowed in the back and she squeezed in beside her mother.

“It’s a whole day to Westcourt so we thought you might like some breakfast at the hotel before we start,” said Mother.

Annie dutifully ate bacon and eggs although her appetite seemed to have left her.  Fred tried to make small talk but must have sensed her hostility because he quietened down quickly enough.  Mother was busy describing the station, her role running the house and Fred’s job as overseer.

“He would have got the job as manager except the last boss gave him a bad report.  It was all fabricated to cover up for the poor state of the property when Fred took over.  What could he do with a drought and little money?”

Annie nodded to show she understood but she wondered if Fred was really as capable as Mother had led her to believe.  He did seem to genuinely care for her mother with his actions and words but Annie still felt uneasy.

“So, what are you plans for next year?” Ruby asked searchingly.  “Will you go back to Lucy Secor or find a job up here?”

Annie was surprised that her mother gave her a choice..

“I’m undecided.  I’m happy enough in Melbourne although I can’t see a long term future in a glamourised “sweat shop”.  It’s very boring and repetitious. Maybe if I could sew whole garments for people like you used to do it would be more satisfying.  And I do really miss you Mother.”

Ruby thought for a moment.

“Of course there’s no suitable work for a young woman like you on the station.  You would hate it.  However if you could work for a dressmaker in Goondiwindi I’m sure your experience at Lucy Secor would go a long way.”

Christmas at Westcourt Station was as hot as the roast chicken and the plum pudding they valiantly ate at the large dining table.  The owners were away in Brisbane so Ruby had cooked dinner for the manager, several overseers, herself and Annie. A wishbone was on Annie’s plate and the two threepences she found in her slice of pudding.

“You want to be careful not to swallow one of those,” warned Fred.  “It could block your windpipe and you might never talk again.”

They toasted Christmas with a glass of cold beer courtesy of the Hallstrom kerosene refrigerator.  Ruby commented how it had changed their lives in the Outback.

“I just want to stand in front of it with the door open,” she said. “But of course the food would get hot.”  She laughed, “One day I want a house by the sea, with the cool breeze blowing all the time, and no dust storms or drought in sight.”

New Year saw the beginning of 1934.  Annie obtained a job with a dressmaker in Goondiwindi but found that everything she did was wrong.  Much of her time was spent unpicking mistakes which surprised her as she thought her sewing was of a high standard.  Obviously Miss Cruikshank had other ideas or maybe she thought she was a better teacher than those at the Lucy Secor School of Dressmaking.

Annie was staying with a widow in Goondiwindi, paying a small amount of board for two meals a day and a bath once a week.

“The rest of the week we just wash up as far as possible, then down as far as possible and then we wash possible,” the widow said with a wicked grin.  She had the most astounding vocabulary of vulgar sayings.  Pointing to a young woman pushing her pram past the house on the way to the shops, she called out, “Last year’s fun on wheels.”

Annie was rather shocked but also amused by the woman who was known as Ma Brown.  She was a sharp contrast to the fastidious Miss Cruikshank.

One morning, as she was eating her boiled egg, Annie ran her eyes down the job vacancies in the Goondiwindi Advertiser. There was a vacancy for a young woman to act as receptionist at the Victoria Hotel.

Quickly finishing her breakfast, she took the newspaper to her room to study the details and write an application.  She would have a room at the hotel with board included and the pay was better than she was getting from Miss Cruikshank.  Things were looking up.

A to Z Challenge 2020

Reflection #atozchallenge 2020

I have read a number of ‘Reflections” by other bloggers and am impressed by those who have listed all the blogs they are following. I must admit that I have jumped around a lot, read a few here and there, started some more, lost track and then found them again. So I won’t list them, or the wonderful people who have commented on my “Taking the Hard Road” historical fiction. They know who they are and they have contributed to a number of changes, although I did write most of it before the A to Z started.

The biggest problem was where to finish. Obviously at Z, but with Ruby meeting an old flame and Annie setting off to Melbourne to start a new career it was hardly the end. So Annie’s story continues in a slightly different format. Each post is longer than in the A to Z but will only appear on a Monday. That way I hope to keep ahead by a few weeks so I can make necessary revisions.

As for next year’s A to Z, I have no idea. Hopefully Annie’s Story will have run its course and I will be inspired to do something entirely different.

My sincere thanks to the organisers of the A to Z. Since I began participating in 2016 the month of April has taken on new significance. I think this year especially it has given people like myself a reason to get up each day and turn on the computer. As “Reflections” on the A to Z home page noted, the comments this year have been very friendly, the key words being “substance and encouragement”. We need all the convivial company available while we are restricted to our homes and separated from friends and family.

A to Z Challenge Organisers, you are doing your bit to guide us through these dark times. Let’s hope when the next challenge comes around the world will be a better place.

Annie’s Secret

Chapter 1

Annie jumped off the tram at her stop in Williamstown. Autumn was well on its way and the gusty wind blew leaves into her face as she turned towards Perry Street. Uncle Edgar’s house was narrow and long. It stood, detached, in a row of similar small houses, each with a picket fence neatly removing it from the street. Off the hallway were three bedrooms, one for Uncle Edgar and Aunty Harriet, one for their son Edgar and one for her.

Opening the front gate Annie entered the house, dumped her bag on her bed and walked into the kitchen.  The stove was alight and she held her hands in front of the heat and shivered.

“Cold already and it’s only April,” she commented.

“Your blood’s thinned being up there in that hot Queensland weather,” said Aunt Harriet. “You wait until winter arrives.  You won’t know what hit you.  Those winds come straight off the ocean and they are vicious.”

“I’ll need a winter coat.  Haven’t needed one of those for a long time.  Although it does get cold in Charleville in winter but not like Melbourne.”

“How’s the work going at Lucy Secor?”

Aunt Harriet asked this every day and Annie struggled to find something interesting to say.

“Well I’ve been promoted to collars.  They told me I would have to do seams for a year but I showed them what I was capable of and so I skipped the first year.  It should be a bit more interesting from now on.”

Annie didn’t say that the work bored her stupid or that the other girls seemed so shallow.  Their lives revolved around their families and the young men they hoped to marry.  Annie hadn’t met any young men except her cousin Edgar, who didn’t count.  Her aunt and uncle were kind but she felt no excitement at the prospect of working her way up the Lucy Secor ladder while spending her free time in a tiny dark bedroom.  Still she planned to stick it out for one year at least while the sunny skies of Queensland where her mother lived and worked pulled continually at her heart.

It was some time later that Annie was able to answer Aunt Harriet’s questions with some enthusiasm.  The girls at work had been full of the much anticipated dance in Williamstown.  They were all making their own dresses and excitedly comparing notes.  Annie looked at her aunt eagerly as she gave her the details.

“Goodness, Annie, you are only sixteen.  Far too young to be going out dancing.  What would your mother think?”

“She was dancing at sixteen.  She was the Belle of the Ball she told me.”

“Look where that got her.  An unhappy marriage and a child to support.”

Annie answered quickly, “She didn’t marry until she was twenty, so you can’t blame the dancing.”

“Always needed a man, that woman did.”  Aunt Harriet sighed.  “She was too young and too high spirited for our Walter.  He seemed to lose all his get up and go when his first wife died and got stuck into the gambling.  We all hoped that Ruby would bring him back to his senses but it wasn’t to be.  I heard she found another man in Sydney, when you were in Glebe?”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Annie said.  Secrets were secrets and if her mother had taught her anything it was to keep your mouth shut when it came to one’s private business.

“Getting back to the dance.  May I go?” Annie wasn’t going to plead but she decided to press her point a little further.

Aunt Harriet considered for a moment. “I have an idea.  Eddie could go with you, as a chaperone.  He hates dancing but he could make sure that you don’t mix with the wrong type or be forced to do something you don’t want to do. Yes, it would be good for him to get out.  He’s getting very set in his ways for a boy of 26.”

Annie couldn’t help but agree.  Edgar junior was a clerk at an insurance company. His adoring parents considered he had come up in the world from his father’s occupation of tinsmith at the Shell Company. He seemed far older than his years and had settled into a contented life more suited to a man twice his age.

His reaction to his mother’s suggestion was one of horror.

“I don’t dance.  I don’t want to go out on Saturday night.  I just want to stay home with a good book.”

Harriet knew how to win her son over.  “You know the job you hate, cleaning out the grease trap?  Well if you take Annie to the dance I’ll get someone else to do it.  It’s due to be done this weekend so there are your options.”

Edgar had to think about the proposition, carefully weighing the pros and cons, in his usual serious manner.  The awfulness of the grease trap with its foul smell and slimy contents spoilt his plans for a restful weekend.  What harm could there be in going to a dance, sitting on the side and watching young Annie prance around the room.  He could be home and in bed by ten o’clock.

The matter settled Harriet wanted to know if Annie could dance.  Annie mournfully admitted she couldn’t.  What a different life she had led to her mother.  Tales of admirers, balls and gorgeous gowns made her mother’s early life sound exotic and desirable.  Maybe she too would be admired by all the young men and in demand for every dance.  But, she thought bitterly, she was so different to her outgoing mother.  She was reserved and only spoke when she had something to say.

“I’ll teach you with the mop!” Harriet excitedly raced out to the laundry, coming back with a long stick topped with grey woolly hair.  “This is Mr Mop and he is your dancing partner.”

Over the next few days Annie learned the Barn Dance, the Gypsy Tap, the Pride of Erin, the Waltz and the Polka.  She was astonished that Harriet knew so much and found it hard to imagine the short dumpy housewife as a young woman, swirling around the dance floor with Uncle Edgar.

“Oh no, my dear, not with Uncle Edgar.  My dancing days were over once I met him.”  Was that a hint of regret on her face?  If she was unhappy with her lot she never let on.  After all she was much better off than “poor Ruby”, as she often reminded Annie.

Eddie watched the afternoon dancing lessons with fascination.  He announced that it only confirmed what he knew all along.  Dancing was not for him.

Annie, however, found she was good at it.  All weekend she sewed on her aunt’s machine until her dress was finished. In a blue that matched her eyes, it fitted her slim tall body closely until the swirl of skirt frothed down around her calves.  Even Aunt Harriet approved, saying at least it didn’t show too much flesh.

The new Williamstown Town Hall was the venue for the Palais de Danse. Eddie and Annie were able to walk there easily from Perry Street. Crowds of people milled around the entrance doors.  A fee of two shillings had to be paid before entry.  Inside the building Annie was almost too excited to admire the dark panelling, the stained-glass windows, the black and white marble floor.  On the stage the band was tuning up, the brass and stringed instruments emitting strange honks and squeaks.  Annie and Eddie stood against the wall watching as the couples moved to the dance floor.  To Annie’s horror she didn’t recognise the dance. 

She whispered to a young woman beside her. ”What are they dancing?”

“It’s called the Rumba.  It’s the latest craze.  Easy to pick up.”

To Annie’s relief she recognised the next dance, a Pride of Erin Waltz.  It seemed the band was alternating modern and old-time dances.  Of course, Harriet wouldn’t have known about the new dances.  The familiar sound of Alexander’s Ragtime Band accompanied the one step which looked quite simple to do.  Then there was a change of pace for the Canadian Three Step.  Annie was quite happy to watch and wasn’t expecting to be asked to dance so was quite shocked when a smartly dressed young man asked her to the floor.  It was a waltz to the Blue Danube so she happily accepted as she recited 1,2,3 in her head. 

“I haven’t seen you here before,” said the young man. “What’s your name?”

“Annie.”  What else could she say?  Her mind was a blank.  They completed the dance in silence and he guided her back to Eddie.

“Thank you for the dance,” he said politely and moved away.

“Well, look at you!” said Eddie.  “Quite the dancer you are.  Well taught by Ma.”

Annie felt vaguely dissatisfied.  How would she ever get to know about men if she spoke in one-word sentences.  She looked around the room at the other girls.  They all seemed to be talking to men.  The men, on the whole were silent, listening to the excited babble with patience, planning their next move perhaps.  Who knew what they were thinking?

Annie had one more dance.  It was a progressive barn dance so she happily moved on from the sweaty boy who asked her and gazed timidly into the eyes of each man or boy as she moved around the room.  There wasn’t really time to say much so each time she smiled and said hello before the next partner appeared.

There was a demonstration of the Tango by a very agile couple and a few tried the Charleston accompanied by much laughter, although Annie was told it was now out of vogue.

It was time for a refreshment break.  Eddie surprisingly fetched two glasses of cordial and a plate with two butterfly cakes.  He admitted to having a good time watching but consulted his pocket watch and exclaimed over the hour.  They had arrived at eight and now it was half past ten.  He had planned to be asleep half an hour ago.

“Just one more?” Annie’s eyes pleaded.

They watched as couples danced the fox-trot and then quietly slipped through the doors into the cold dark night.  Annie realised she had left her coat behind at the check in so back they went inside.  She cast one last look at the dancers, wondering if she would ever feel at home with all those happy people.  If she had her own fellow it would be different.  Still it was a start.  As Mother always said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”