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!”