Two weeks later, on a sunny Saturday morning, the sound of hooves heralded the arrival of Fred. The children surrounded him with joyous laughter. Everyone wanted to talk at once. Al took the horse away for a drink and a feed while Fred carried a bag into the kitchen from which he extracted two live hens.
“A present from the Boss,” he said, grinning.
Ruby wondered if the Boss knew about his kind gift but decided not to say anything.
“Good layers, they are, so don’t be chopping their heads off. You should get two eggs a day from them and next time I’ll see if the Boss’ll give me some more.”
“So, have you got a job?” Ruby watched his face expectantly.
“Have I got a job! You bet I have! They are so short of workers at Widgee they didn’t know where to put me first. Did a week of fencing. Then it was time for crutching so it was full on. The Boss says if I play my cards right I could get to be an overseer in time. I just need to get a bit more experience with the sheep.”
Fred unrolled an oilskin and onto the table fell five crumpled pound notes. One he gave to Ruby. The rest he put back in the oilskin and slipped inside his shirt.
“That is your first pay, Mrs Lane and the rest goes to Bill Barker at the Store. Best get there before he closes up shop.”
“I’m taking the children to church tomorrow. I thought it would be good for them to go out and mix with the rest of the people in the town.” Ruby looked hopefully at Fred.
“I’m not one for going to church. But I reckon I owe it to the girls to do this for them. God knows they’ve been through a lot. Al should go too. It won’t do him no harm.” Fred scratched his head. “Looks like we’ll all need a bit of scrubbing up before we can show our faces.”
During the week Ruby had examined the girls’ “Sunday Best” dresses and decided they had outgrown them. She was able to pass each dress down to the sister below but Muriel was a problem. Although not fully grown, the eldest girl was solidly built but would fit into one of Ruby’s dresses if the hem was taken up.
Saturday night saw four girls bathed and ready for bed with rags in their hair. A night of lying uncomfortably on their pillows would be rewarded with glorious curls the next day. Al and Fred submitted to haircuts performed by Ruby. Shoes were polished and socks and stockings darned. Ruby was going to show the world the transformation of her new family.
The weekend was a whirl of activity. Fred set off for Widgee Station on Saturday, riding a borrowed horse and carrying enough mutton, flour, tea and sugar to last until he found work. Al combed the local businesses looking for a job. Ruby checked the girls’ clothes, making sure they were presentable for school on Monday and set about putting the house in order.
With the help of the girls she took down the curtains, removed the rugs and cleared the rooms, one at a time. They mopped the floors, washed the walls and stacked the detritus of the last few months in the back yard. The kitchen was the worst. Ruby and the girls carried everything outside so they could scrub the floor and the walls and clean the ominous looking black fuel stove.
Al returned at lunchtime with a smile on his usually serious face. He had been successful with his first attempt at finding a job. Mr Jones at the Produce Store needed a strong young man to lift sacks of oats, wheat and barley and he could start on Monday. He planned to donate all his pay to the grocery bill at the General Store. Ruby could see the sudden transformation from sulky boy to family breadwinner as Al proudly related his experience to them all.
Al was willing to set the fire under the copper so that the afternoon was spent washing the sheets and blankets, curtains and clothes that had been piled outside next to the laundry. They still hadn’t finished by nightfall so Ruby called it a day and began work on the evening meal. The girls peeled potatoes while Al lit the fire in the stove. Ruby chopped up leftover roast mutton and turned it into Shepherd’s Pie.
“I know we shouldn’t work on the Sabbath,” confided Ruby the next day, “but this is an emergency!” All day they toiled until the washing was dry, the beds made and the curtains once again blowing in the breeze.
On Sunday Muriel happened to mention that before Mother died they used to go to church. Ruby thought that maybe they could go next week as that would give her time to make sure they had something decent to wear. She was pleased to find Margaret’s sewing machine in good working order and after obtaining permission to use it from the girls she promised them each a new dress as soon as she could find some material.
Monday morning came with a rush, lunches wrapped in brown paper, steaming porridge devoured with haste, hair brushed and braided, beds made, farewells.
Ruby sat in the kitchen, amazed by the silence. Annie looked around for her new playmates and cried. Ruby picked her up and kissed her on the nose.
“We are going for a walk, just you and me!”
She grabbed Florence’s old pram, plonked Annie in and wheeled it out onto the dusty road. Soon she was in the tree lined main street, peering into each of the shops. At the General Store she bought some fresh fruit and vegetables, planning the evening meal for her brood of six children. She paused at the Haberdashery counter, fingering material and checking the prices, wondering if she could obtain credit here as well.
She wheeled Annie around a corner and came face to face with All Saints Church.This was where Margaret had taken her family each Sunday.It wasn’t quite what she had imagined.
More like a shed, she thought, with its high pitched roof, verandahs and white weatherboard walls. Curiously she pushed the front door and found it unlocked. The cool air was a welcome respite from the heat outside so she put her arms around Annie and sat her on a pew. They both looked up at the black beams and then peered through the small glass windows where glimpses of blazing sunshine contrasted to the dark interior.
“May I help you?” The unfamiliar English accent belonged to a youngish man in a black shirt and white clerical collar. He stood in the aisle holding a pile of hymn books.
“The family I work for, the Burtons … they lost their mother a few months ago. They used to come to this church and I was just sitting here, thinking it might be helpful for them to come back again.”
“Of course they must. It will do them the world of good!” The man placed the books on the opposite pew and sat down beside them, looking across at Ruby and Annie. “I’m afraid I don’t know the family as I have only been here a couple of months. I’m Peter Hale from the Bush Brotherhood. I’m based at this church although I’m away more often than not. Dreadful tragedy about the mother. Was it the Spanish Flu?”
“Yes, she was the only one in the family who died.”
“Let’s hope she didn’t suffer too much. And how are the children taking it?
”Of course they are devastated. I’m trying to get their life back to normal.”
A silence fell between them. Ruby looked at a sign on the wall which said “Baptisms, Weddings, Funerals”
“I wonder if I could have my child Baptised,” she heard herself saying. “My husband wouldn’t allow it, especially with the influenza.”
The man kneeled down and took Annie’s hand. “Her eyes are so blue! Like the sea! I can arrange a Baptism if you wish. I just need to gather a few details.”
Ruby told him everything that had happened in the last few weeks. That she was widowed and had made the near impossible journey by train from Melbourne. That Fred was off looking for work at a sheep station. That they were living on credit and that the eldest, Al, was working at the Produce Store.
The Reverend made a note in his large diary. Annie May Lane, Baptism scheduled for Monday, 3rd May, 1920.
“Make sure you put Annie May, not Mary,” insisted Ruby. This time the names would be right.
Ruby stopped in front of the small weatherboard house, apprehensive, wondering what lay ahead and yet seemingly compelled by some unknown force to progress to the next phase of her life. Crossing the wooden verandah she raised her hand to knock on the door, only to find it opening in front of her.
“Welcome, welcome. You are a sight for sore eyes.”
Fred’s reception was effusive. “You’ve got the front bedroom, with a cot for the young’un. Come and put your things in there and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Hey, Moo, give us a hand!”
A tall, sturdy girl of about twelve backed down the hallway, eyes on Ruby, and disappeared into a room at the rear. Three other little girls watched Ruby silently as she put her suitcase on the bed and deposited Annie in an armchair.
“Well….you must be Eva, Elvia and Florence. Now let me see if I remember your ages. Eva, you are ten, Elvia, you are eight and Florence… you must be five.”
The children continued to stare.
Ruby summoned up all her courage, crouched down the children’s level and put her arms gently around them. “Don’t be scared of me. My name is Mrs Lane and I’m going to look after you so your Daddy can go to work. Do you want to say hello to Annie? She is two and a half year’s old and would love to play with some big girls like you.”
The oldest girl stood at the doorway. “Tea’s in here,” she said, indicating the sitting room with a sideways movement of her head. She poured tea into a pretty flowered cup from a tarnished silver teapot.
“No milk. I’m afraid. The cow’s gone dry. We do have some fruit cake. The neighbours have been very kind.”
“And you must be Muriel.” Ruby looked carefully at the pale young girl, imagining how she must have been trying to take the place of her mother for the past few months. “Thank you for the tea and cake. It’s just what I needed. Now I must talk to your Daddy about important things like food and school!”
Ruby opened the new notebook she had been given by Mrs Christakos, her sharpened pencil poised to take notes. Fred sat down opposite, ready to answer questions.
It seems there was very little food in the house. Fred had lost his job after his wife died, choosing to stay at home with the children and drown his sorrows with regular doses of rum. Now Ruby was here he planned to ride out to the local sheep stations and get a job doing anything that paid a wage. He would return after two weeks with his first pay packet but what to do until then was a problem. If the local store would allow him credit they could buy the necessities to keep the family running until his return.
Fred’s house was a short walk from the main street of Charleville. The four girls walked with them to the local store where Fred and Ruby, carrying Annie, convinced the local storekeeper that Fred was “on the wagon” and would be bringing a big fat pay check at the end of the month.
Loaded with eggs, milk, flour, sugar, half a sheep, potatoes, beans, pumpkin, carrots and necessities for the kitchen, the group returned cheerfully to the house. On the front verandah stood a young man, the frown on his face indicating a dislike for the unnecessary frivolity.
“Ruby, this is Alfred. We call him Al. Al, this is Mrs Lane. She will be looking after the family while I’m away working. I want you to be the man of the house and do everything you can to help when I’m not here.”
Al grunted a reply and turned away. “I’m gonna chop some wood,” he muttered and disappeared around the side of the house.
Ruby cooked up a storm. Roast mutton with gravy, baked potatoes and pumpkin with green beans was followed by bread and butter pudding. Everyone ate as if it was the only meal they had eaten in weeks. Even Al asked for seconds of pudding and then ate three slices of bread and jam.
Once all the children except Al were asleep, Ruby brought up the issue of school. The children hadn’t been since their mother died and Al had declared he wasn’t going back as he was 14 and ready to work. He wanted to go with Fred to the sheep station but Fred insisted he stay to look after Ruby and the girls. It was settled that Al would find work locally and the girls would go back to school on Monday.
Ruby lay in the double bed in the front room, listening to the even breathing of Annie in her cot. It occurred to her that this was probably where Margaret had died as Fred was now in the sleep-out on the back verandah. Her mind whirled with endless lists and plans and questions until tiredness overcame her. I’m getting into the habit of replacing dead women were her last thoughts as she drifted off to sleep.
Fred Burton had married young. He had to because Margaret told him she was expecting and he was the father. She already had a child, an energetic two year old boy named Alfred. Her short marriage to Tom Painter ended when he was crushed by an out-of-control wagon. She sought consolation in Fred’s arms and in a short while they were a family of four. After a daughter called Muriel came Eva, then Elvia and finally Florence. If Fred wished for a son of his own he didn’t complain. To Alfred he was Father and he followed Fred whenever he could.
The day Margaret died began like any other. She served him an egg and a mutton chop for breakfast, complaining that she was feeling tired. He left for work but at midday Alfred appeared telling him he must come home at once. Margaret lay on the bed panting in short sharp breaths. Her face already had a blue tinge despite the heat radiating from her body. The doctor, face masked, shook his head and steered Fred through the door.
“We can’t take her to the hospital. It is full, even the corridors are full. The nurses are only up to half strength. Better for her to stay here, but I must warn you, chances of her survival are slim. Your whole family must not leave the house until the quarantine period is over.”
No-one else in the family became ill but Margaret did not live to see another dawn.
Fred was now a sole parent with five children ranging from 5 to 14. Alfred was almost a man but the four little girls were inconsolable and scarcely able to function without their mother. For months they all stayed at home, steeped in misery and eating from their store of flour, oats and tea. The school had been closed because of the influenza pandemic. Eventually it burnt itself out and people began to emerge from their houses, trying their best to return to life as before. Families were missing mothers or fathers and many of the people who had kept the town running were now gone.
For the Burton family their only hope had just arrived in town.
A small Greek lady with round eye glasses poured two cups of tea, passing one to Ruby.
“Yes, yes, I realise you have come a long way and that I offered you a position, but you did not mention the child.”
“Annie is very good. She didn’t complain once all the way from Melbourne on that …difficult journey.” Ruby decided not to elaborate on the nightmare of the previous week. There were more pressing worries. This regal young woman sitting opposite was giving her the sack before she even started work!
“Even if you hadn’t lied to me, you could not possibly fulfil the requirements of any of our positions with a child. The hours are long, the accommodation is shared with other women. How did you think you could manage with … her?” She gestured towards Annie who sat quietly on the floor playing with a pine cone.
The sheer hopelessness of her situation coupled with complete exhaustion caused Ruby to do something she had never done before. She fainted, dropping the cup, which smashed to pieces. Annie looked up and whimpered with distress. Mrs Christakos leapt to her feet, full of concern.
As she told her husband later. “The poor woman hadn’t slept properly for a week, she has recently lost her husband and now she has no job. What could I do but put her in one of our rooms and give the little one to the maid to look after?”
“As long as she doesn’t stay too long,” said her husband. “We are not a charity.”
“I think I have a solution. I just have to check with someone who told me about a family in desperate need. The poor mother died from influenza and the father is totally unable to care for the children on his own. For now she needs to rest. We don’t want her to become sick as well. Leave it with me.”
With that Mrs Christakos set off on her mission to solve two problems at once and rid herself of an inconvenient guest.
The sun disappeared behind a cloud as Ruby and Annie stood waiting on Williamstown Station. Although it was early Autumn, the cold winds of Bass Strait were making their presence felt. In ten minutes they would be in the warmth of the train, out of the biting wind.
The nature of their journey did not become clear to Ruby until she bought the tickets the day before. The stationmaster had brought out a map of Australia to show her where she was going.
“From here you will travel to Spencer Street Station. That only takes half an hour. Then you catch the steam train to Albury on the NSW border. The NSW gauge is narrower so you have to get on another train to Sydney. Then from Sydney you go up the NSW coast to the border at Wallangarra. Once you’re in Queensland the railway line gets narrower still so you need to get another train to Brisbane. Then from Brisbane it’s a 17 hour trip to Charleville.
The journey would take up to a week and cover 1,700 miles.
The stationmaster assured her she would be able to get food along the way as the train stopped for that very purpose.
“You’d be better getting a sleeper,” he suggested but when Ruby saw how much it would cost she opted for a regular seat.
“With any luck you’ll get a compartment to yourself and you and the lass can stretch out and have a sleep,” said the stationmaster. He eyed the two with concern.
“Family problems?” he asked, not realising how close to the mark he was.
“My mother lives there. She’s very ill.” Ruby realised she was lying again. She was getting good at this. At least Annie was too young to know what she was saying.
Some instinct, maybe it was wishful thinking, made Ruby step outside the station and look down the street towards the Workshops. In the increasing gloom she strained her eyes, hoping to see the person who could, even now, convince her to stay.
“Train’s coming,” called the stationmaster.
Ruby gathered her bags and with Annie on her hip, left her married life behind her.
Walter felt as though his life was spinning out of control. As he walked the mile to his work he passed the railway station where his wife and child would be leaving that afternoon. He had been deeply shocked when Ruby told him about her unwelcome visitors. That must be why she was leaving. If only he could get out of debt all would be well again.
Jack greeted him as he entered the workshop.
“Have I got a good one for you today! 100 to 1 and a sure thing! Five pounds on Knock Back and you could win £500. Set you up for life that would.”
“100 to 1!”, scoffed Walter. “Not a hope in Hell”.
Jack leaned in closer to Walter’s ear. “I have it on very good authority that the other horses are, how do you say, goin’ a bit slow that particular race.”
Walter thought fast. If the housekeeping money was still in the canister on the shelf above the stove he could run back home and get it. That would make him very late for work.
Jack solved the problem. “Here, borrow me bike. You’ll be back in no time.”
Walter’s mind was racing as he pedalled towards home. How would he get past Ruby? Would the money still be there? The front door would be locked so he would have to go around the back. Maybe he could bluff his way into the kitchen and get her out of the room. Good God, it was his money. He didn’t need to beg from his wife. He would just walk in and take it.
Ruby and Annie were nowhere to be seen and all the doors were locked. Walter found the key under the mat and carefully opened the back door. Walking silently on tip toes he reached for the canister. Inside were two pound notes, three ten shilling notes and a pile of florins, shillings and small change. Without bothering to count he thrust the money into a small leather bag and rushed back to the bike, taking care to replace the key under the mat.
“You count it,” Walter said to Jack, throwing the bag at him before reporting for work. He mumbled some excuse to the foreman about his sick child and busied himself measuring timber for his next project.
The race was on at half past four. The day dragged interminably for Walter. If he won he would run to the station, no, he would borrow Jack’s bike and ride. Ruby would be overwhelmed that he had won so much money and would stay. He would buy her a new sewing machine and maybe they would go somewhere nice for a meal. He would tell her the debts had been paid and there would be no more ugly men knocking on her door. Then again, what if the horse lost? Well, she was going anyway so at least he could say he had tried.
Sweat formed on Walter’s brow as the Workshop clock chimed four o’clock. He felt unable to breath. His heart was pounding as his hand rhythmically sanded a piece of jarrah.
Half past four! The clock chimed once and Walter froze. Unable to work he excused himself for a toilet break. He dry retched into the dunny can disturbing some green flies that flew up into his face.
“I’m just on the phone,” Jack spoke tersely. “Right, you sure? Knock Back? I’ll be over to collect right away.”
He smiled at Walter. “We did it! 100 to 1 and he did it!”
“I don’t mind telling you, I had a bit of a flutter me’self. We’re rich.”
“How much?” Walter could hardly believe what Jack was saying.
“You gave me four pounds, three and sixpence halfpenny so multiply that by 100 and you get 417 pounds, 14 shillings and twopence.”
“The bike! Can I borrow your bike? I have to get to the station by 10 to 5.”