Hayden left all the accounting to Annie. She often thought of George, her friend at Roma High School, who fancifully suggested she keep the books in his medical practice. Maybe she should have stayed on at school and taken up Business Studies. She felt unable to cope with the problems that now faced her. In front of her was a list of people who owed them money. A long list. She had sent them letters reminding them that the money was due but had received only one or two replies. Those who did reply begged for more time until money was available.
Why buy something when you have no money? she wondered. Business had been going so well and now they didn’t have enough money to pay for Hayden’s next purchase at the Sydney sales. Then there was the rent on the Custom’s House and their cottage. As she buried her face in her hands she felt panic rising and her heart beat faster. Will it always be like this?
A knock at the door brought her back to the present. It was Jack, looking a little shamefaced.
“I’m sorry to bother you but I wondered if you had forgotten the rent? It was due a week ago. If you need more time just let me know but I thought it might have just slipped your mind with Hayden being away.”
Annie was puzzled. How could she have forgotten? She was sure she had paid it. Now she remembered. She had given it to Hayden in an envelope and asked him to drop it off at the Real Estate Agents just before he flew to Sydney. He must have forgotten. She opened the safe, pleased that there was just enough to cover the rent. That meant nothing for food until some more of those debtors paid up.
“I’m sorry Mr Hamilton. I promise you that will never happen again. I’m afraid the accounts get on top of me sometimes.”
She paused, thought for a moment and decided to confide in him. “I wonder if you could give me some advice. We have a lot of money owing to us and even though I have written letters no one is paying. How can I get them to pay what they owe us?” She smiled. “I suppose I could do what you did to me and go to their blocks and ask for it?”
Jack sat down on a chair near her desk. “First of all let’s dispense with this Mr Hamilton business. Call me Jack. Everyone does. Now my suggestion is not to let any more goods go out without being paid on the spot. Don’t extend any credit. You can’t afford it. Then I would treat each case differently depending on who it is. Do you mind if I have a look at that list? I might know some of them.”
He cast his eye down the row of names. “That one, that one and that one. They can afford to pay. I would give them seven days to pay or you will send someone to reclaim the goods. Some of these others genuinely are doing it tough. Give them the option of paying you a certain amount per week until the debt is paid. Just a small amount that they can manage.”
Annie felt hopeful for the first time. She realised that Hayden would never have Jack’s business sense so resolutely determined that from now on she would have much more say in how things were run.
Jack jumped up to leave but turned suddenly. “Saturday night we are having a few people around for drinks and savouries. You and Hayden must come. Think of it as your welcome to Mildura! What do you say?”
“I’ll have to ask Hayden. But thank you very much for the invitation.”
Annie now had something else to panic about. Would Hayden want to go? Would they be able to mingle with Jack’s friends? Would she be able to think of anything to say? What should she wear?
Hayden sat at the dining table while Annie prepared the evening meal in the kitchen. Since his return that day she had acted normally but meanwhile planning the surprise that might bring him to his senses. As she brought out the steaming plates he looked expectantly for his meal.
“What the …. Honey, is this meant to be some kind of joke?”
“No, my dear, this is all I had left after paying the overdue rent which you were supposed to give to Jack last week. It’s porridge, but I’m afraid there’s no milk because I had no money left.”
“Well!” Hayden didn’t miss a beat but smiled and stood up. “I have a surprise for you. We are going out to a restaurant tonight. I’m sorry I forgot to pay the rent but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When I was in Sydney I went around to Thommo’s one night, played some poker and found I had an envelope with twenty pounds in it. Turned it into a hundred and twenty.”
“You gambled our rent money!” Annie stood in the kitchen doorway staring in horror at Hayden. “If you knew how close we are to having no money at all you would never take a risk like that.”
“Are you wearing that or getting changed into something more suitable for dinner at the Rendezvous?” asked Hayden.
Annie sighed. Hayden was her husband so what could she do but go along with his schemes. It wasn’t as if she had any alternative. She certainly wasn’t going to run away to Queensland like her mother did.
Music drifted in the evening air as Annie and Hayden walked the two blocks to Jack’s house. When they knocked the music stopped and the door was opened by an unseen hand. They were ushered into a large lounge room by Jack, who, violin in hand, bowed to Annie and began to play Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.
Half singing, half laughing Annie joined in. And I will pledge with mine,
Or leave a kiss within the cup,
And I’ll not ask for wine. Jack completed the verse.
“Talking of wine, what would you like to drink?”
Annie and Hayden settled on a glass of beer each and were soon busy talking to the other guests. Trays of savouries kept appearing and interludes of music kept them entertained. Enid played the piano and sang while Jack played his violin.
“We must rest now,” said Jack. “We used to do this a lot in the old days but I’m not as young as I used to be.”
One of the guests who knew Jack well asked if he had any war stories for the new arrivals.
“I’ll tell you a story about a narrow escape, not long before the war ended,” he said.
“I was leading a platoon in Corbie. We were told to go in and destroy everything of use to the Germans who were only a short distance away. We entered the most magnificent chateau. Opulent is the only word to describe it. After a bit of exploring we found an open wine cellar filled with marvellous wines and so proceeded to sample them. Can you imagine us in the cellar, laughing and talking, when suddenly we heard boots on the floor above. It was the Germans! Ever so quietly we crept out and headed for the escape road only to find the bridge we had to cross taken by the enemy. It must have been the good French wine which gave us courage but we managed to blow up the bridge and stop a heavy German transport from crossing.”
“Is that how you earned the Military Medal?” asked Hayden.
“Oh no! That is one story we kept very quiet from the authorities. Drinking in the wine cellar wasn’t exactly part of the job description. Now, talking of wine, I have a delicious local drop made by a friend of mine. Anyone care for a glass?”
Hayden stayed with beer but Annie accepted a glass of white wine and tasted it gingerly. She had never drunk wine before and decided she much preferred beer. However, it was a new experience and she swallowed the rest of the contents bravely. Her head spun alarmingly and Hayden glared at her.
“You’re supposed to sip it, not slug it down like lemonade.”
Fortunately, Hayden was side-tracked by another guest and Annie was able to sit down on a sofa and regain her composure. Enid asked if she could sit beside her.
“It must be quite a change moving from Sydney to Mildura. I hope you’ve settled into our little country town.”
“Oh yes, I have,” said Annie. “And I think Mildura is the perfect size. It has everything you would ever need.”
“I have lived here all my life and I must admit when I go to the city I am always glad to get home again. My son is in England at the moment. Jack of course was there during the First War but I have never felt the need to travel that far.”
“So you have a married daughter here and a son in England?”
“Yes, and two more daughters, both married. Do you have any children Mrs Walsh?”
“No, we don’t. Maybe if we stayed in one place long enough we might … but we have each other and that’s all that matters.”
Hayden was listening with interest to a detailed description from a local blockie, on how to process grapes.
“When the grapes are ready around mid February, they are picked by hand into dip tins. Have you seen them? They are rectangular with a handle and perforated with little holes. The dip tins are loaded onto an iron tray which is lifted by a crane and lowered into a cold dip. After sitting in the solution for a few minutes they are raised and taken to drying racks, tossed out evenly and allowed to dry.
“How long do they take to dry? asked Hayden.
“You have to wait about two weeks before the fruit is shaken down onto hessian. You need fine weather for the fruit to obtain the right colour. When it’s dried properly it is packed into sweat boxes, loaded onto lorries and taken to the packing shed. That’s where the fruit is cleaned, stemmed, graded and packed.“
Annie’s ears pricked when she heard “sweat box”. “So that’s what was under our floor! I couldn’t work out why Jack called it a sweat box. Well now I know what prevented us falling down a hole in our lounge room the day we arrived.”
Jack joined in the conversation. “When we first started processing the grapes back in 1920 we used to dip them in a hot caustic soda but that made them very leathery and dark. The London market wanted the golden sultanas from Greece. A Greek man named Nicolas Kolios taught us how to emulate the Greek method of cold dipping.”
Walking home that evening Annie felt happier than she had ever been before.
“I hope we get to stay here for a very, very long time,” she said to Hayden. “I just love everything about this place. I love the town, the people, the grapes with their funny dip tins and sweat boxes, the orange groves, the river and even the weather.”
“Not sure about the weather,” said Hayden, wrapping his coat tightly around him in the chill breeze, “but I agree, you couldn’t find a more perfect place to live your life.”