Ruby appeared to be fully recovered from her ordeal and spent much of her spare time dressing carefully and disappearing down the street.
“Are you looking for work”, asked Annie hopefully. Tension between Hayden and Ruby was increasing.
Ruby thought for a moment and then admitted that she was looking at a business proposition.
“I’m thinking of opening a Frock Shop. It hasn’t been built yet but it will have a large sewing area out the back for customised dresses and alterations plus I will sell some ready made clothes at the front.”
Annie was amazed. “How will you manage that with no capital?”
Ruby continued dreamily, “It will be in Pitt Street in Mortdale. Above the shop will be a flat. Kitchen at the back with views over the hills. The latest bathroom with flushing toilet, shower and bath, all in green tiles. My bedroom at the front looking out over the street. A giant built in wardrobe for all my clothes…..”
“And pigs will fly,” scoffed Annie. “Who’s the sugar daddy?”
“His name’s Harry Mason.”
“Not your Harry?”
“Well, he is my Harry now. I’m afraid I’ve had a better offer. By marrying Harry I can have the shop I’ve always wanted. The other Harry had nothing. We would have lived a life of poverty. I just couldn’t stand it.”
Annie was stunned. How did her mother do it?
“What’s he like, this Harry Mason?”
“Well, he’s no oil painting. Shorter than me, bald, but nice enough. He’s got a lot of get up and go.”
“What does he do?”
“You sound like my mother,” laughed Ruby. “He owns a lot of properties in Mortdale. Rents them out and rakes in the money. He thinks the shop will be a nice little investment even if I decide to retire one day. He does a little SP on the side.”
“You can’t keep away from those gamblin’ men,” Annie sighed. “Please be careful, Mother. Are you sure you have thought it through?”
“Oh yes I have,” said Ruby. “For the first time in my life, I’m going to have money. Lots of it!”
Annie and Hayden worked continually, six days a week, every week of the year. The occasional relief was welcome. They celebrated Ruby’s wedding. They watched the building in Mortdale rise from the ground. Ruby was in a constant state of excitement. The piano wouldn’t fit up the stairs, so it would have to be lowered from above by a crane before the roof went on. The new name appeared on the shop front. Kay Mason Frocks.
“I’m no longer Ruby. My name is now Kay. Much more businesslike,” she laughed. Kay was always laughing. Her mouth developed a gum disease and her teeth had to be extracted, every single one. The dentures were white and even. Her smile was infectious. She was the life of the party.
Hayden had been out all day. Annie was resentful that she had been left with all the work. There had been a steady stream of people, some very demanding and it was not fair that she had to cook and serve. He arrived after six and she was sure he had been drinking.
“We’re moving,” he said cheerfully. “You’ll never need to work in the Milk Bar ever again.”
Annie sat down on the nearest chair and waved her hands in front of her. ”Stop it please. What harebrained scheme have you thought up now?”
“I have met the most remarkable man. His name is Jack Hamilton and he comes from Mildura.”
“Isn’t that near Tocumwal where we lost our sheep? You’re not thinking of another farm, surely.”
“No, I’m going to supply material to the farmers. After World War 1 the government opened up lots of land for Soldier Settlers. Jack was one of them. Now they are doing the same for World War 2 veterans. They have unlimited water from the Murray River but the problem is getting it to the farms. I’m going to supply the farmers with portable motors, flexible hoses – all the stuff they need to irrigate their crops.”
“Where will you get it from?” Annie was having trouble comprehending this sudden change of direction.
“War surplus! You wouldn’t believe what is left over from the war! There are sales every week. I just buy the goods, ship them to Mildura and sell them for a huge profit.”
“Why doesn’t this Jack Hamilton do it himself?”
“He’s already got more on his plate than he can handle. He’s a Real Estate Agent – he’ll fix us up with a house. He is also a Stock and Station Agent, Auctioneer. You name it, he’s got his finger in the pie. A very good man to have at your back.”
As they cleaned up the Milk Bar for the very last time Hayden talked endlessly about his new mentor, Jack.
“He was a hero in World War 1. Fought in Gallipoli and was wounded. He was in France and Belgium until the end. After the war he settled on a block near Mildura, grew grapes. But he saw he wasn’t going to get rich that way. He set up a Packing Shed to distribute the grapes to the various markets. You see, no-one had thought that far ahead. Just plant the grapes, pick them and then what? He’s got brains and business sense. He’s just gone ahead in leaps and bounds. Lives in a big house in Mildura now. And… you wouldn’t believe it, he was also in the Second World War. Recruitment for the Air Force. Said he hated signing up boys who could be killed but someone had to do it to stop the Japs from taking over the country.”
There was little sleep to be had that night. One or other would come up with a question or an idea, a problem or a consideration. Annie felt Hayden’s excitement but most of all she was glad she would never have to spend another day in the Milk Bar.
The truck pulled into the main street of Mildura, creeping slowly until the occupants saw the sign of Hamilton and Brown. Hayden and Annie climbed slowly out of the vehicle, stretching their cramped limbs and gazing around at the small country town. A few minutes later a middle aged man of average height appeared from the shop and shook hands with them both. He had a pleasant, genial face and welcoming manner.
Ushering them inside, he offered tea and biscuits with great bonhomie.
Annie was keen to see the house so he gave them directions.
“It’s very easy to find. The names of the cross streets are actually numbers and you are in 11th Street, just around the corner from here. Come, I’ll walk there and you can follow in your truck.”
The house was set back behind a recently trimmed hedge. With a gable over the front bedroom and another larger one over the entrance porch it looked quite inviting. Once inside Jack decided to leave the couple to settle in and left with strict instructions to contact him should they have any problems.
Annie walked around every room, mentally placing their meagre furniture. It was important to set up sleeping arrangements for the sun had already set. They dragged the mattress off the truck and pulled it into the front bedroom. Sheets, blankets and pillows were found and soon a bed was made.
“What is that bump under the rug?” asked Annie.
“One way to find out,” said Hayden.
They pulled the rug away and saw a hole in the floor. In the hole was a rectangular box. Once that was removed all they could see was the bare earth. A strong, unpleasant odour wafted from below.
“Oh, how disgusting,” Annie felt sick. They returned the box and the rug but Annie was furious. What sort of person would put them in a house like this?
Hayden was expecting the semi-trailer to arrive the next day, loaded with the irrigation equipment he had bought in Sydney. Jack took them both to the Old Customs House where the goods were to be stored. Annie waited until the tour of inspection was over and just as Jack was about to leave called out in an accusing voice.
“Why is there a hole in our floor, Mr Hamilton?” She glowered at him and continued. “Who put a box in the hole and what made the disgusting smell?”.
Jack looked stricken.”I am so sorry Mrs Walsh. I personally inspected the house the day before you were due to arrive. To my consternation there was a horrid smell, obviously a dead animal. I couldn’t get under the house so the only option was to saw away the floor until the creature was found and removed. Then, so you would not fall down the hole, I placed a sweat box there until I could send a tradesman around to replace the flooring.”
Annie was still glaring.
“I’ll send someone right away. Just let me get back to my office”.
“Well that worked,” she said to Hayden.
“You scared him half to death. I’m sure he was going to get it fixed.”
“Never trust a Real Estate Agent,” she nodded sagely, pleased with herself.