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!”