Berrigagama was transformed. Confiscated by the government, it became a killing yards to supply meat to the nearby Air Force Base stationed at Tocumwal. Alfred and Ma fled to Norfolk Island “for the duration”.
“How about we move to Sydney?” Hayden looked hopefully at Annie.
Immediately memories of Glebe and the small house by Sydney Harbour came rushing back to Annie. “Oh yes,” she said with enthusiasm. “That’s the best idea you’ve had for quite some time. What do you suggest we do?”
“I thought we could buy a big old house and let out the rooms to guests. We could cook breakfasts and maybe other meals if necessary. What do you think?”
“Can we afford it?” Annie was amazed how someone with no money could buy at will.
“We’ll have to borrow some money but the paying guests will more than make up for the interest.” Hayden was confident his new plan would work.
For twelve months they worked hard in their Summer Hill Guest House. Annie enjoyed catching the train into the city and exploring David Jones and Grace Brothers. They even went to the pictures together in the early days. Hayden organised a maid to clean the rooms and a young assistant to help with breakfast. After six months Annie pointed to the ledger she had been working on and shook her head. “We are going backwards. By the time we make the repayments to the bank, pay for food and the staff, there is nothing left. We are doing all this work for nothing.”
“We’ll have to let the staff go.” Hayden sheepishly agreed. He wasn’t one for bookwork. Annie seemed to have taken to it extraordinarily well and he was impressed by her ability with figures. He may have topped his class in mathematics at Newington but when it came to putting figures in columns, that was her forte. He was an ideas man.
True to form he came up with another idea. Obviously, the guest house wasn’t the money spinner he thought it would be. Some guests even left without paying. Strolling through Paddy’s Markets to buy supplies for breakfast he decided it would be easier to sell fruit and vegetables than run a guest house. All they needed was a shop.
He found it in Smith Street, Summer Hill. On the ground floor was a shopfront with full length windows each side of a double door. Above was a residence with a large bow window overlooking the street. Behind the shop was a living room and kitchen with four bedrooms upstairs. There was even a small back yard with an outdoor toilet.
Hayden put the guest house on the market but because he was in a hurry for the money he sold at a loss. The shop was leased so they had enough to live on once the sale of the house went through. Hayden would disappear early in the morning to buy fruit and vegetables at the market. They had a small and steady trade but Hayden was forever thinking up new ideas.
“We need to add value,” he said. “Maybe we could do some prepared food like tea, coffee, milkshakes, hamburgers, fish and chips, steak and eggs…”
“You mean a Milk Bar,” said Annie wearily. “Sounds like a lot of work.”
Her mind flashed back to George and his hard working family in Roma. She wondered if he ever got to be a doctor. He had tried so hard to get away from the endless grind of the Milk Bar and now Hayden was suggesting they do the same thing.
It was hard work but the Milk Bar was popular and Annie was pleased to see the books balancing at last.
A number of times people asked Hayden why he wasn’t fighting in the war. Eventually he had had enough so left for the recruitment centre assuring Annie he would only accept the job of cook. She worried all day over how she would manage the business without him but he came home a little crestfallen.
Overweight, irregular heartbeat and flat feet was the verdict. He was not fit to serve.
“You need to watch your diet”, Annie said. “Stop eating the fat on the t-bone steak!”
“That’s the best part,” replied Hayden. “Life’s too short to starve yourself.”
Annie received letters spasmodically from her mother and dutifully replied. It seemed Fred was unable to hold a job for more than a year so they were always moving on. It was shortly after the end of the war that she received a letter that made her call out frantically to Hayden.
It had been a long, hard day. The shop was clean, ready for an early start tomorrow and she slowly dragged herself up the stairs to the bedroom. The letter from her mother was in her hand as she flung herself on the bed, kicking off her shoes and tearing open the envelope.
I have a favour to ask of you. Fred has left me for another woman. I have little money and nowhere to live. Just until I get myself sorted out would I be able to stay with you?
All my love,
Annie and Hayden had a serious discussion. They had three spare bedrooms. Of course they could provide a haven for Mother. Hopefully it wouldn’t be for too long. She was a resourceful woman and should be able to gain employment with her skills.
Ruby’s appearance shocked her daughter. Her clothes hung off her tall emaciated frame. Her face was thin and lined. As soon as she was tucked up in bed Annie shared her worries with her husband.
“I think she is very sick. We must get her to a doctor straight away.”
The doctor’s verdict was that severe stress had caused Ruby to lose interest in food and consequently lose weight. Her heartbeat was irregular, blood pressure was sky high and her resistance to infection was low. She needed months of care to restore her to full health.
It was not long before Ruby’s usual optimism returned.
“I am never, I repeat never, going to the bush again. I am staying in the city, near the coast and you won’t drag me away until I’m in my coffin.”
Nor did she stay upstairs in her room for long. As soon as she was well enough she was out and about, “window shopping” as she put it. Annie didn’t know what exactly she was looking for until she came home with an almost girlish look on her face.
“I’ve met someone. His name is Harry and he is the kindest man alive. He is so different from all the men I have ever known. When my divorce comes through we may be getting married.”
Annie couldn’t believe how rapidly things were moving for her mother.
“His wife has recently died. He is so kind,” she repeated. “There are a few problems, however.”
“He’s a Roman Catholic.”
“Why is that a problem? It’s not as if you will be having children!” Annie could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Somewhere for her mother to live away from them.
There had been difficulties. Ruby and Hayden were never the best of friends and little things that she did irritated him hugely. He liked to have a glass of water beside his bed but Ruby took it away each day to wash it so that when he went to refill it the glass had gone. Then he had to walk all the way downstairs to get a fresh glass. He had asked her not to touch it but she ignored him. To prove his point he charged upstairs with a hammer, nail and some string plus his favourite glass. Hammering the nail in the wall beside the bed he tied the string to the nail and around the glass. Triumphantly he marched downstairs, confident he had won. Ruby didn’t touch his glass again.
The divorce case was settled without Fred’s presence. He signed the divorce papers in Mungindi, writing as he did so;
“I hereby confess that since living apart from my wife I have, at various places, including Moree, committed adultery with a woman who for various reasons I would rather not mention the name. I intend to go on living with this woman as man and wife.”
“Good riddance,” Ruby said cheerfully. “That is a part of my life I would rather forget. Annie, would you come with me to have our fortunes told?”
Annie knew of her mother’s penchant for fortune tellers. As someone who was always hoping for a brighter future she had vouched for their accuracy on more than one occasion.
When Hayden heard he was skeptical.
“If you believe in fortune tellers you must believe in predestination. That means that all our lives are mapped out and nothing we can do will change anything. That makes no sense at all. I would like to think that the decisions I make are not already made by some greater being who pulls the strings.”
“It’s just a bit of fun,” said Ruby.
When he heard that the fortune teller lived in Surry Hills and that Ruby planned to catch a train to Central and walk there, he was concerned.
“It’s not safe, Ruby. At least assure me you will get a taxi from Central Station and back. I’ll give you the money for one.”
Several days later the two women, wearing coats, warm woollen suits, hats and gloves, pulled up outside a dingy, run down terrace house in a row of similarly neglected dwellings. Ruby knocked at the front door and they were ushered into a small sitting room where a coal fire burned in the grate. Annie waited, reading a Women’s Weekly she found on the side table. When Ruby reappeared she waved to Annie.
“Your turn,” she said.
Annie walked into a small room which would normally be a bedroom. Behind a table sat a woman wearing a red scarf, staring into a crystal ball. She looked up and motioned for Annie to sit down.
She returned her attention to the crystal ball. It was several minutes before she spoke.
“You work very hard, I see.”
Annie thought her mother had probably told the women far more about her daughter’s life than was necessary.
The woman told her she had lived on the land but was now in the city. It was only her last statement which caused Annie to start with disbelief.
“Your life will be hard but I see happiness at the end. I also see a baby. You will be blessed with a child.”
“She was a fraud.” Annie spoke harshly as she stared out the window of the taxi at the city lights. Night had fallen and a light rain had begun to fall.
“I thought she was quite good,” Ruby replied. “I got such a shock when she said I was going to marry a man whose name started with H. I thought she got that right. Then she said it would be an unhappy marriage and he would be very cruel to me. I thought Harry would never be like that. He is such a gentle person.”
“She said I was going to have a baby. As if that will happen. She just assumed that because I am married and female I will become a mother. Total fraud.”
“Well, have you tried?” Ruby spoke tentatively.
“Mother, I’ve been married twelve years. We haven’t tried to prevent a baby so I just don’t think I’m able to have one.”
“Have you considered it could be Hayden who can’t father a child? It’s not always the mother’s fault you know.”
“Whoever is at fault doesn’t matter. Can you imagine running the Milk Bar with a baby? I don’t have enough time to spit as it is. By the way, don’t mention anything about the baby to Hayden. It’s something we’d rather not talk about.”
“Well, if you ask me, he’s too fat to be able to make children.”
“Nobody asked you,” Annie said shortly.