I have put together the first 5 Chapters of my Historical Fiction novel Widow's Lace for everyone to read. I hope you enjoy entering into the story.
If the tale of Ellie, Edward, Clara and Archie captures your interest, you can purchase the full novel from Amazon in kindle and paperback form.
Regardless, I hope you enjoy Part One of Widow's Lace.
Sunlight glints through the brown murky water, spreading warmth. Small fish dart where the green reeds break the surface, swaying in the gentle current. Suddenly, bubbles spill forth and the surface begins to move further away. The light above darkens. A white hand reaches up to the few remaining shards of light still penetrating the murky depths. The hand is not fast or alarmed, it does not clutch. Buffeted by the swirling water it drifts in an arch through the gentle current. Riverbed mud rises up like bellows of smoke in the brown water. The reeds close in, thicker at their base, twining around the hand as it floats back down to the river bed. All dark now. Still. Not even the current moves.
Part One: Ellie
Silence. Cold. Dry and brittle.
Adrift in an ocean of darkness.
Sydney, Australia 2018
I’ve always loved the sight of water, cooling, calming, the shades of blue, green, brown, all natural and peaceful. I hugged my handbag to my chest and gazed out towards Sydney Quay, the harbour waters rolling gently beneath me. Dusk kissed the currents in orange and pink. The breeze, though warm, carried the promise of winter at its edge. Another ferry crossed our path, it’s wake rocking us side to side, forcing me to admit that perhaps that last pint at the Four Pines was a pint too many.
My friends and I had spent the morning hours in the waters off Manly, swimming, splashing, laughing, the warmth of the sun soaking into our skin, before retiring to the micro-brewery by the ferry station to eat and drink away the sunshine hours. Golden light had bathed our smiles, glinting off our auburn and rose coloured drinks, shading us in the hues of summer. Chasing away the sound of tomorrow morning’s 6 a.m. alarm and the grey of weekdays ahead.
Crowded trains, blaring car horns, shoulder to shoulder in black suits, carrying briefcases, sucking down the last ash of a cigarette before the office doors, thoughts of my father… all pushed firmly aside as another slice of fruit cheese, dried apricot popping from the pale flesh, was gathered up in greasy fingers, wrapped in bright pink salami and passed through wine stained lips.
My mobile bleeped. I rummaged through my bag, pushing aside lip balm, tissues, beer change and a barrage of crumpled receipts from the bar.
Message from Caleb: ‘Happy studying. See you Wednesday?’
A heavy sigh escaped me as I returned the phone to my bag, message unanswered. I’d told my boyfriend I needed tonight to prepare for my tutorials, ready to launch into the new term. And to work on my thesis, if in fact I could find the time around the marking and lesson planning. Truth. But another truth was that I would stop at the little grocery store on the corner of my street in Darlinghurst. That I would buy a bottle of sav blanc - or rosé? Both. I would climb the stairs to my student apartment under the dim light of the automatic fluros: five lights, three broken. I would sit on my tiny balcony, just wide enough for my bum, legs stretched out before me, the view of the concrete apartments of next door rising up, gum trees silhouetted against the last of the suns rays. And, wine in one hand, ice blocks clicking in the glass to cool the room temperature liquid (that mattered for the first one), cigarette in the other, I would rest my head against the concrete panel behind me and toast the night. A cloud of smoke rising from my lips to mix with the cooling autumn air. Open wine bottle wedged between my legs, I would watch the darkness swallow the sky, the ambient light of the city and gathering winter clouds hiding the stars.
And I would drink, and smoke, and drink some more. Until I finished both bottles - why stop at one? And finished my cigarettes - because I would quit tomorrow and these shouldn’t go to waste. And finally, sometime around 1 a.m, exhaustion would creep into the haze of boredom tinged with nothingness that sat inside me. Not heavy, not light, not anything really, just there. And I would stagger to bed, bottles and butts left on the balcony and collapse onto my mattress, not even bothering to pull back the sheets, definitely not brushing my teeth. But remembering last minute to set my alarm, because tomorrow… tomorrow, I had to show up.
‘Good Easter break Ellie?’
I looked up from the essay before me, red pen hovering over yet another correction and smiled warmly at Tessa.
‘Wonderful, thank you.’ I said, reaching for my coffee – third one since arriving at my office, ‘You?’
‘Yes, went down to Bondi with the family. Lots of niece cuddles. Can you believe she’s almost two already?’
‘Two! Wow, time flies huh?’
‘I can’t wait to have my own. But thesis first. Did you find any time for good ol’ EB over the break?’
EB - Edward Barrington, author of the poem I was analysing for my PhD thesis. I suppressed a cringe. No, no I hadn’t. Truth be told, I hadn’t ‘found time’ for my thesis in weeks…
‘Some,’ I said, ‘but mostly I had to catch up on these papers. And planning for the term.’ Lie.
‘I hear you. The extra money is nice, but taking tutes and working on a PhD is tough. Still, better than the ‘real world’, am I right?’
I smiled in response and, slurping down a large mouthful of coffee, returned to my marking. I still had half of this class and all of the third to get through before the end of the day. Tessa settled down at the desk opposite me and soon the only sound around us was the scrape of my correction pen and the click of her typing… probably finishing another chapter of her thesis.
I liked Tessa. Her thesis was in history, specifically definitions of genocide, which still surprised me every time she gifted me one of her smiles. Straight black hair, shimmering glory unlike my dull ash brown; bright eyes behind purple rimmed glasses, mine bloodshot hazel; pearl white teeth, Tessa seemed totally at odds with, well, the horrors of war. When we’d first met as new PhD candidates two years ago I had thought her crazy for taking on such a complex topic. I had chosen The Fall, a poem by a famous and revered English Poet who had also lived in Australia. An unfashionable poem sure, but with the fame of Edward Barrington, and the connection to Australia, it would be easy… should have been easy.
Yet here we sat, entering our last 18 months of scholarship, and she was almost finished her core chapters. I was… not there yet. Not even close.
I had started well. My opening chapters covering his life, fame, and his move to a property just outside of Goolwa in South Australia, drew from his personal history to shape and support my interpretation of The Fall. I’d even won a grant to visit the UK to research on Barrington’s home soil (I hadn’t used it). From my own structured life I could indulge in the wretched sense of loss that leaked from the words: someone else’s pain, someone else’s cage.
It made me feel closer to my dad; how I miss him.
He found the good in things. Always said, ‘Even in shadow, there will always be hope.’ I still liked that.
I applied it to my research and study of The Fall. But as I learned of Barrington’s life, I came to see the poem’s paradox. A sense of loss and hopelessness ached from the words, a return to the dark poems that had made him famous, though it was written at a time of peace in Barrington’s life. My pace had slowed.
Then I visited my mum, and the foundation of my life was torn away. Her words plunged me into my own dungeon and The Fall became too personal, too real. No longer could I indulge in the emotions of the poem, safely distanced. Now it seemed to speak to my own heart and soul.
I’d decided I needed a break from study and had taken a few days off to brunch with friends, say yes to a few date invites. I’d met Caleb and, sucked into the vortex of a new relationship, I was happy to drown my thoughts, my feelings in his warm tanned body and ready fingers. My few days had become a few weeks, then months. And now, now…
I sighed and reached for my coffee cup. Empty. Restless, I rose from my desk, pen falling from my fingers. ‘I’m going for a refill, can I get you anything?’
‘Hmmm…’ Tessa held up a quick finger and, brow creased in concentration, finished off a thought before, ‘Sorry, you asked? Coffee! Right. Um, no thank you, I am fine for now.’ And returned to her typing.
I nodded and headed for the door, the sound of Tessa’s focus taping on the keyboard behind me. As I pulled our office door closed I wondered: had I been engrossed in my thesis like that too? At the start? Had I felt that passion and lost it? Was it somewhere still, inside?
I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin, fixing an amiable but vacant smile on my face, ready to run the gauntlet of staff and students between my office and the cafeteria. The picture of professional calm, studious and focused; the PhD candidate nearing the end of her tenure, looking forward to a career in academia as a professor and lecturer. I smiled at a group of passing students, they nodded to me in acknowledgement. I knew I looked the part, in my blue shirt and black heals, hair neatly tied back. And I knew it for what it was. Felt it. I was on the precipice of failure. If I got past my upcoming review with my supervisor without being stripped of my scholarship, it would be a miracle. Because I was a fraud. Pretty packaging wrapped over an empty box. Nothing inside, nothing to show for the years of funding, research grants, time. I had taken my scholarship. I was expected to give back to the academic community, to advance knowledge… but I couldn’t even get through a class worth of tute marking. Not the problem. Not really.
The cafeteria loomed before me. I made a snap decision. Rather than enter and get that longed for coffee, I turned and headed out. Out across the campus, through the front gates and down the street. A walk, some fresh air, that’s what I needed to clear my head. To find some focus. Liar. The word leapt up at me but I pushed it down and headed for the park, for the chair by the lake I knew was waiting for me. Waiting like it did most days lately, to keep my bottom off the dry grass as I gazed at the water and felt nothing inside me. Nothing at all.
I reach for colour, bright and warm.
Rejection another shade of black.
The rosé slipped coolly down my throat. The Vanguard bar was dimly lit but the conversation around me sparkled and shimmered. Wednesday evening. Mid-week drinks. Not as raucous as Friday night cocktails, but still lively and buzzing. Caleb slipped his arm around my waist and I leaned into him, hoping to feel – something. He smiled down at me happily before continuing his conversation with Tessa and Paul across the table.
‘Personally, when I finished my accounting degree, I couldn’t wait to be out the door. I don’t know how you and Ellie do it… further study. I feel ill just thinking about a library these days.’
‘No!’ Tessa exclaimed, eyes gleaming, bright. ‘Surely you are exaggerating.’
‘He’s not,’ Paul chimed in. ‘That Caleb even got into his degree still amazes me. We were the boys who weren’t meant to finish year 12, let alone get a degree.’
‘What do you mean?’ Tessa asked.
Leaning in close to her, voice hushed, Paul said, ‘Too busy with the ladies to get our homework done.’ Tessa reddened prettily. ‘Some habits die hard.’
‘Now, now,’ Caleb said, ‘I’m a changed man since I met Ellie. You just have to find the right girl Paul, that’s all.’
‘I wonder if I’ll know her when I meet her,’ Paul breathed in Tessa’s direction.
I felt ill.
Inviting Tessa had been Caleb’s idea. Thinking the shy, slight woman might be ‘the one’ for his perpetually single mate from high school. From what I could see, Paul had no desire to ‘settle’ for anyone for more than a night.
I poured the last of my wine down my throat and reached for the bottle to refill.
‘Well, Ellie and I are just different from you both I suppose,’ Tessa said.
‘So what are you studying? Is it something, intimate…’ Paul leaned closer, Tessa shifted uncomfortably.
‘Genocide,’ she announced like a shield, ‘but that’s not really drinks talk. Ellie’s thesis is far more interesting anyway. Famous poet, mysterious death, romantic love story… won’t you tell us a bit about where you are up to in your research Ellie?’ Tessa turned a pair of too wide, startled eyes to me and I read the request, clear and pleading: talk, shift the focus.
Caleb turned, an eyebrow cocked in my direction. ‘You know, I would like that too Ellie.’ He addressed the table, Paul now leaning back into his chair, ‘six months in and Tessa just told me more about your thesis topic than you have…’
Tessa laughed a little too high and reached for her glass, barely touched. ‘It’s truly a fascinating story… And so sad. Edward Barrington was famous beyond reason in England, but his wife was ill. So he risked everything to bring her here to Australia to get better. And she did. But then, less than two years later, he disappeared. All very mysterious. His wife remained in Australia until just before the First World War, when a young academic came over from England to learn about Barrington’s life here. He took her home…’
‘Dirty little bugger,’ Paul interrupted. ‘Getting off with the widow.’
Tessa slid an irritated glance at him before continuing, ‘Not at all! She was an old woman by then and he young and engaged. But he took her home to England, and then he died in the War. It’s a very sad story on all sides. She brought back Barrington’s poems from those few months in Australia. A plethora of work, all when everyone thought he produced nothing.’
‘And what is your angle on the story then Ellie?’ Caleb asked, eyes searching.
I tried for a brief overview, ‘I’m looking at a poem he wrote, one of his last, from when he was here in Australia. One that his widow brought back. It’s not well known, probably not his best work…’
‘But there is just something about it… isn’t there Ellie? Some question unanswered.’
Paul scoffed. ‘A poem? What’s the point of that…’
A glare from Tessa. ‘It’s personal. It was her father’s favourite poem. Wasn’t it Ellie?’
‘So, you are looking to interpret the sadness?’ Caleb prompted me.
Sadness? The word took me by surprise. ‘Sad’ just wasn’t strong enough to describe the darkness and longing of The Fall. It was desperate and resigned and hopeless.
I glanced up at Tessa. Her passion breathed out across the table. It was like Barrington and his poem were her thesis. I felt my own interest responding, a glimmer of my former self. Uncomfortable, I shoved it down. I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t want to admit…
‘Well, what are the odds?’ Paul drawled from across the table. Bored of the conversation, he’d been scrolling on his iPhone.
‘What?’ Caleb said, irritation in his voice. Probably at being interrupted by his friend.
‘Your poet’s on the news,’ Paul said, turning up the volume on his mobile and placing it on the table, oriented for me to see.
We all hunched forward watching the device broadcast its tinny news report from channel Nine’s Facebook stream. A young reporter with short bobbed, brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses was speaking to the screen.
‘The bones were discovered yesterday, on a property just outside the town of Goolwa in South Australia. At this stage it’s too early to say, but there are high hopes that they may be those of the famous English poet Edward Barrington, who lived on the property until his mysterious disappearance in 1888. I spoke with the current owner, Deborah Jenkins, earlier today.’
The vision cut to a shot of a large verandah-rimmed home nestled on a green lawn. Beyond the house shone a waterway edged by reeds shifting in the breeze. Then a middle aged woman, dark haired, face lined with wrinkles creased in a smile, stood by the reporter saying, ‘… the workmen found the bones. You know the rules here, with the Aboriginal history of the area. We contacted the council immediately.’
‘They could be aboriginal bones?’
‘Well, they say it’s not likely...’
‘So, this could be the missing body of Edward Barrington?’
‘Well, yes, yes indeed. It’s certainly a possibility. I’d never really thought much about the history of this place before. But as soon as I heard about the bones, Barrington was the first thought that popped into my head.’
‘How long until the bones are processed and dated?’
‘They say a couple of weeks, and then we will know. Such an amazing find. And on our little property…’
I turned to Tessa, our eyes meeting across the table. ‘Ellie,’ she breathed, ‘they’ve found your poet!’
‘They’ve found some bones.’ I said flatly.
‘How can you say that? It’s obvious! Amazing. This will put Barrington back into conversation, just as you are finishing your thesis on his work from Australia. The timing couldn’t be better for you Ellie.’
Oh it could. It really, really could. Yet despite myself something within me stirred.
‘This calls for a toast,’ Caleb said, beaming at me, something like pride in his eyes. ‘Cheers to Ellie, and her good fortune. To those with talent who deserve good luck. None more so than my girl.’
‘Cheers,’ Tessa echoed. I smiled lamely and gulped my wine. From across the table Paul’s dark eyes watched me. A small, knowing smirk on his face.
Conversation ebbed and flowed between us for a few more hours before we all decided it was time to head home. Waving to Tessa and Paul as they headed for the bus stop, Caleb looped an arm around me and pulled me into an embrace. I fought the cringe at the contact and allowed the hug. He pulled back, looking into my eyes. ‘Back to mine?’
Panic gripped my heart, how to say no? ‘I’d love to but…’
‘You have to work on your thesis. I understand, Ellie. Well, I do now anyway. I never really got it, a thesis on a poem. What does that matter? But seeing your guy on the news… people care about his works, his history. And the connection to your dad… Study might not be my thing. But I support you, Ellie. I do.’
Study might not be my thing either, I wanted to scream. I can’t focus, I can’t see the point. I feel trapped, caught between expectations. And I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I’m not enough.
But I smiled and nodded. Caleb pulled me close, brushing a kiss to my lips. I willed the rush of desire, the flood of lust that had had me gasping for him in those first few heady months. But nothing came.
We parted and I walked to my train, a stone in my belly. And I stopped at the corner store and stared at the window, stared and stared. And then I went in, and I bought the sav blanc and the rosé and a fresh packet of cigarettes and returned to my apartment, my balcony, glass in hand. The news report buzzing through my mind.
My fingers interlaced in my lap, curling together, then apart. I twisted my hands to thread my digits the other way, then back to curling. Fidgeting. I was fidgeting. Stop it. I clasped my hands together and faced my supervisor.
Peter Tuft was a round man, robust and vibrant, but slowing down as he neared retirement, his grey moustache drooping over swollen lips. A deep frown of irritation (or was that disappointment?) marked his brow. Presently, he dropped the stack of papers in his hand, my latest chapter, and leaned back in his chair heavily. Folding his hands over his rounded belly, he fixed me with his milky blue eyes. Silent. Staring. I held his stare as long as I could. Then, shame flushing my cheeks, looked down and away. I knew. He breathed in. I braced myself: for my reprimand, for dismissal from my scholarship, for what I deserved.
‘When did you last see your mother?’
Shocked, I looked up sharply. His eyes remained on my face, but softness had replaced the irritation of before.
‘We spoke… last month.’
‘Not over the holiday?’
‘Easter was never something she was into.’
‘We all need family, Ellie.’
I looked away, mouth set in a grim line.
Peter huffed loudly and leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the desk. ‘So, are you going to ask me? For the time off?’
Confused, I cocked my head at him. ‘To go to SA? To see the burial site, speak to the locals? The discovery of the bones is all over the news. People are talking about Barrington again, the town is alive with the memory. It would be ripe with inspiration for your thesis.’
He glanced pointedly at the pages before him, ‘Inspiration seems just what you need. And perhaps, family.’
‘Phone calls with her are plenty. I live here now, not in Adelaide,’ I said, purposely avoiding his real point.
‘Ellie Cannon,’ Peter said, straightening, ‘I’ve never known you to be a fool.’
I frowned at him. Where was this going?
‘This,’ he flicked his wrist at my pages before him, voice hardening, ‘is not a chapter. It’s not even a collection of thoughts. It’s just words, repeating your first chapters, but in new phrases. You haven’t brought me anything new in months.’
‘Something has to change. You, have to change. What happened to the passionate girl who first walked into my office and announced her thesis topic? Who had already written the outline plan and argued confidently against my suggestions? What happened to the girl who would be a professor? Because she is not here now Ellie. She’s not been here for a while.’
‘You know what happened.’
A frown. ‘Yes, Ellie, yes I do. But you can’t let it best you. I told you to take time off, to reset. But you haven’t. It won’t just heal, Ellie, you have to work at it.’
‘There’s nothing to work on. What’s done is done.’
‘So act like it!’ I cringed back at his sharp tone and looked at him through hooded eyes.
“Ellie, this cannot continue. I have given you all the leeway I can. All the time I can. But if this… phase doesn’t correct itself, well, you know what I have to do.’
I did. I would have to leave my thesis, abandon my PhD, my academic goals. Was that what I wanted?
Into my silence Peter sighed. ‘Go to Goolwa, Ellie. Speak to the people, walk the land that Barrington called home. And visit your mother. In person. You two need to talk this out. You need to find closure.’
‘I can study well enough from here. And my tutes…’
‘Tessa will take your tutes. They will learn more from her anyway and the parental complaints will wash over…’
Shame burned my cheeks. I was struggling, but that didn’t make it right to let down the first years. I hadn’t known parents had complained, but I wasn’t surprised. I had given them so little lately, I hadn’t even marked the last semester papers.
‘… Ellie, this is not a choice. You will go to South Australia, on research leave for the next four weeks. Don’t object. You will go. And you will deal with what has happened to you, to your family. And when you come back you will present to me a new core chapter. One with the fire of your first and we will never speak of this time again. You will go, or you leave me no option. Have I made myself clear?’
I nodded, sullen. Fingers twitching for a cigarette.
‘Your study leave starts now. Go. Pack a bag and go home. Bring back that sparkle. Bring back yourself. You are dismissed.’
I stood up stiffly, gathering my satchel and headed for the door.
‘Ellie,’ I paused on the threshold. ‘I understand Ellie. I do. But you have to rise above it. You cannot let this take you down. Not any longer.’
I pulled the door shut behind me, harder than I needed and walked out of the university. Irritated, but for the first time in a long time, energy bubbled in my core.
I create escape. In browns and greys and maroons.
The Finniss River, Australia 2018
A cup of coffee warmed my hands as I gazed down an expanse of green grass that coursed in a gentle slope to the riverbank. The sound of the reeds rustling in the cold breeze and the tweeting of birds filled the silence. Barrington’s estate, Hathrone Farm, was just as beautiful as I had imagined from his poems. The homestead at my back was of the old style, with a low ceiling and thick sandstone walls. The verandah on which I sat was polished wood, almost certainly a replacement of the original.
I’d flown down from Sydney that morning, hired a car in Adelaide and driven the hour and bit from the city to the coastal town of Goolwa, just outside of which, along the Finniss river, lay Barrington’s former home. Despite growing up in suburban Adelaide, I’d never been to this holiday and farming region. So far, it looked to be a beautiful place.
‘Mum said you are welcome in now, she’s done with the builders.’ I turned and nodded my thanks to the tall, fair skinned youth. ‘Thank you, Alison.’
‘Just head to the kitchen,’ she shrugged, walking past me down the steps and, moving with the loping stride of a teenager newly grown out of childhood, headed to a shed on the side of the property. I watched as she hauled out a kayak and pushed it into the water, paddling out through the reeds onto the Finniss River. I rose, downed the last dregs of my coffee, cold now from the autumn chill, South Australia was always colder than Sydney, and headed inside.
The hallway was dark and empty, a weathered looking rug running down its length. But finding the kitchen proved to be no issue. Voices, speaking rapidly over and around each other, floated down the hall from an open doorway, bright lights shining within. I entered cagily, feeling very much an intruder. Within stood three workmen, a teenager (boy, probably brother to Alison) and Deborah Jenkins, the owner. We had spoken briefly twice now: over the phone when I asked to speak to her about the discovery of the bones, and then again this morning, when I arrived to the chaos of her home renovations and, plied with coffee, was asked to wait outside.
Tall and lean, despite being the mother of teenagers, Deborah radiated elegance. Dark hair pulled back in a high ponytail, a few grey hairs fuzzing from the sweep to catch the light from the window in a soft glow about her forehead.
Waving her manicured hands expressively, she addressed one of the workmen. ‘I understand Brett. We are happy to accept the delay. But it would be better for us if the time could be used on the shed extension, then come back to the lounge. What do you think?’
‘We can do it. No drama. But we will need to get the supplies. We’d have to invoice for them ahead of time…’
‘Of course! No worries at all. Just send it through and I’ll get on it. Then you and the boys can get back to work.’
The three workmen, clad in light green shorts and t-shirts, boots crusted with dirt, stood comfortably around the central kitchen bench, a bowl of cookies in the centre, a mug of coffee in each man’s hands. Despite their bulk filling the pristine kitchen with the musty scent of dirt and sweat, they seemed not at all uncomfortable. Like mates hanging out.
‘Mum, I have to go…’
‘Oh, yes, Billy. Hang on.’ Deborah reached into her purse and proffered the boy a 50 dollar note. ‘Have a great day in town,’ she called as he slunk past the workmen and me, heading for the front door.
It was then that Deborah saw me. ‘Oh, Ellie! Alison got you. Excellent. We are just about finished here. Thank you for your patience.’
‘No trouble at all,’ I gave her my nicest smile as a wall of male faces, browned from the sun, turned and took me in. I couldn’t help but notice the strong muscles moving beneath their shirts and fought the blush that threatened to redden my cheeks.
‘Take a seat over here, dear,’ Deborah indicated a bench stool to her left as she turned back to the men. ‘Anything else, just give me a call. But we are happy for you to move on to the next stage while the lounge is paused. I’ll get that invoice paid ASAP.’
‘Cheers, Deborah,’ Brett, who seemed the boss said. ‘I’ll be in touch in the next few days with a start date.’
‘Thanks Brett. Have a good day lads.’
As they shuffled out, dropping their mugs in the sink on the way, Deborah returned to the coffee peculator bubbling in the corner. ‘Fresh cup?’
‘No thank you, I am fine.’
‘Help yourself to some cookies love.’ She poured herself another mug, all coffee, no milk or sugar and came to sit on the stool opposite me, ‘Righto, now I am all yours.’ She offered me a welcoming smile.
‘Thank you for seeing me.’
‘No trouble at all. I mean, reporters…,’ she rolled her eyes theatrically and grinned, ‘but a young lady studying. For you I will always have time.’
‘You are having renovations done? You look to be very busy.’
‘Yes, sorry about the mess. That’s how we found the bones. The hold up with the lounge is causing no shortage of drama. We wanted the works done by November – it’s my 50th. But the bones have thrown a spanner in that plan!’
‘So they were found quite close to the house?’
‘Yes, yes,’ Deborah said, slurping her coffee down between sentences, ‘just out on the side. Would you like to see?’
Surprised, I nodded. ‘Yes, yes please.’
‘Follow me,’ Deborah stood, plucking up a cookie as she led me out of the kitchen to the opposite side of the house. We walked through a large lounge room. It had been gutted. Walls stripped back to the frame, bare board beneath my feet. ‘We are knocking out this wall,’ Deborah pointed to the wall that would be the outside of the house, a small door stood in its centre. ‘We want to open it up more – have a larger room and then a deck that heads out to the far garden. Great spot to sit outside and enjoy the river views with a glass of vino.’
‘Wait til you see the side views.’
Pushing the small door open, Deborah led me down some makeshift scaffold stairs. ‘Mind your step. They had already removed the verandah here before we had to pause.’
Before me was a large rectangle of cleared dirt, perfectly flattened. Around it were deep cuts in the soil, orange plastic sticking up and out of the cuts.
‘So this is where the extension will be?’ I asked, showing an interest.
‘Yep, those are the footings,’ she indicated the orange plastic rim, ‘and then beyond will be the deck.’ We stepped over the footings and walked across yet more flattened ground until we came to a rough edge of turned earth. It sat on the verge of the bushland that surrounded the property. Looking up towards the river I realised this angle afforded a more sweeping view around the river’s natural curve, allowing us to see further down it’s passage, the birds swimming over the currents, the reeds poking through. For a moment, I lost myself in those shimmering waters.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ Deborah smiled. ‘And there,’ she pointed to the upturned earth, ‘is where they found the bones.’ I glanced down. I don’t know what I had expected to feel. Something. I took a moment. It was a beautiful resting place. Lined by trees, the water not far away.
‘What was here before?’ I waved my hand back over the flattened outline of the extensions.
‘Just grass. When we bought the place last year, Andrew’s retirement gift to himself, my husband’s a little older than me, it was all overgrown shrub. We’ve had gardeners in to clear the area for grass, and give the bush some shape. Found a patch of old woody rose bushes, they had to go. Then Andy had the idea of the deck. Summer parties. We honestly never thought there would be any traditional owners here. And the poet! Well, that was just completely out of mind.’
‘When will you know the age of the bones? Does the dating take long?’
‘Around a week or two they said, so we are just waiting. But we know they’re not aboriginal.’
‘You do? I thought that was still in doubt…’
She waved a hand. ‘No, that was just for the news. The Ngarrindjeri elders were here the very day they were found… and they know. Their ancestors were smaller in stature and buried standing up. This was a white man’s body for sure…’
A thrill of excitement raced through me. ‘So, it really could be Edward Barrington?’
‘Umm,’ Deborah mumbled distractedly, ‘Barrington. Oh, well I hope so! At first I thought them being aboriginal would be the biggest issue,’ she heaved a sigh. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I get it. The importance of culture. But I now realise an unknown body is a far greater hold up. Police, forensics, I tell you, even I really hope it’s your man.’
She grinned at me and I found myself smiling.
‘It would have been a lovely place for him to rest. It would have made her happy.’ I said.
‘Who’s that then?’
‘His widow, Rosalind. They originally moved here for her health. She was older than him by some 12 years, and a divorcée, quite the topic for gossip when they were wed. She had a lung illness, probably TB. The climate here cured her. But then she outlived him, by about 40 years. He was not 30 yet when he died.’
‘Oh, that’s tragic! To overcome societies pressures, sickness and then to lose him anyway. I can understand that, to some extent. When Andy and I were first seeing each other my friends didn’t like it. But you know what? It’s not about them. It’s about us. Tell me they at least had some happy years before he passed?’ she begged dramatically.
‘By all accounts they were a devoted couple, utterly in love. And very happy here.’
‘How romantic. Tragic, but romantic. Why is it that the best love stories always end in grief?’
‘I think it gives them more substance. To love is one thing, but to love over adversity…’
‘Wise words young lady,’ Deborah smiled at me wryly and I felt myself blush. ‘Did they have any children?’
‘Sadly no. It is assumed Rosalind was too ill or too old to conceive…’
‘Sounds like they had a lot of pain in their lives.’
We stood in silence regarding the empty hole in the ground.
‘So…’ I began, ready to break the moment, but the crush of footsteps interrupted us.
‘Hey Mrs J,’ a light friendly voice called from behind us. We turned. There stood a young man of around my years, tall and lean, moving with an easy grace that suggested a wiry strength to his limbs. Tanned skin peaked out from his arm length brown shirt, his hair a mess of brown curls atop his head. He smiled at me easily, hazel eyes shining. I didn’t think I’d ever seen such an open, warm smile. I blinked.
‘Taj! Oh, I’d forgotten it was your day. The garden needs it. Things here have been such a mess since, well, you know.’
‘No problem Mrs J. I know what needs doing. Just wanted to let you know I was here. Didn’t want to startle you.’
‘That’s very thoughtful Taj. This is Ellie, I was just showing her the gravesite. She is doing a thesis on the poet they might belong to. Now we know they are not Kaurna or Ngarrindjeri.’
Deborah bobbed her head respectfully, and I wondered at her polite diffidence with this youth.
‘Pleased to meet you Ellie,’ Taj gifted me another of those smiles, and I felt a welcome warmth spread through my belly.
‘In town for a while?’
‘Around a week, initially at least.’
‘Make sure you get down to the Coorong. Best first thing in the morning.’
‘You mean where the mouth of the Murray is? Can I drive there?’
‘You can, but it’s better from the water. You wanna see if you can get on a boat. Plenty of us have them around here.’
‘Thank you, I will keep that in mind. Local pro-tip!’
Taj grinned at my lame attempt at humour. ‘Well, have a great stay. Mrs J, I’ll just get to it now. Won’t be in your way.’
Deborah was wearing a private smile I couldn’t interpret as she waved Taj off and returned her attention to me.
‘For while you are on dry land,’ she smirked, ‘I think it might be worth your time to check out the local library. They’ve been doing a whole heap of electronic archiving, things like newspaper articles, birth records. Could be you find something about your poet, local info. If he was as famous as they say on the news, I am sure little old Goolwa would have wanted to write about him at the time.’
‘Thank you, yes, I will do that. Is the library in the town centre?’
‘Right on the main street. Nice quiet space too. Well, I have to leave it there. Alison is due at a job interview in an hour and I haven’t seen her return from her kayaking yet. Teenagers!’ Deborah rolled her eyes, but an indulgent smile gave away her lie.
‘It was nice to meet you Ellie.’
‘And you Deborah. Thank you for seeing me, and for the coffee.’
‘The pleasure was all mine. And hey, if you find anything interesting before you leave, about the poet I mean, be sure to pop past. All this bone stuff has stirred up my interest in our famous former resident.’
‘I would be happy to, though I wouldn’t hold your breath that there is much new to find.’
‘Well, perhaps pop round anyway. It would be nice to see you again before you go. You can tell Taj and I about Barrington over a coffee and some more cookies.’
Again, that secretive smile. My hands twitched, wanting to fidget. I clamped them into fists. ‘You are very kind. I will call if I have anything new to share.’
‘You do that,’ Deborah smiled. ‘You can see yourself out? Good girl. Enjoy Goolwa, Ellie dear. It really is an inspiring place to be.’
But black returns. Always returns.
Dark waters swirling.
After checking in at my accommodation at the Marine Cove Resort on the lakeside in Goolwa, I took a walk along the water, enjoying the sweeping views of Hindmarsh Island floating in the centre of the lagoon. Fresh ocean air blew over the sand dunes that separated the town from the beach; the ocean’s roar clearly audible on the wind. Overhead a pelican flew, so elegant in the skies, in complete contrast to their cumbersome waddle on land. As I breathed the salt tinged air my hair whipped back from my face in the breeze and a sense of resolve started to settle in my stomach.
I was here, where Edward Barrington had lived the happiest years of his life, where he wrote The Fall. This sleepy town, filled with more weekend holidaymakers than locals, was beautiful. And it was peaceful, surrounded by water. ‘Dad, you would have loved it here.’ I breathed to the winds.
Something had awoken inside me. Despite my reluctance to come, now I felt invigorated. The determination to know was flaring. I would find out more about Barrington’s life here. Surely there would be information to discover.
After a quick lunch at the local fish and chip shop on the corner of the main street (schnitzel sandwich and a coke, I was treating myself) I walked down Cadell Street, heading for the library. It was a surprisingly modern space. Automatic doors whispered open in greeting as I walked into a high ceilinged open area, lined on all sides with shelves of books. I made my way straight to the large central space, populated by a circular shaped desk and an array of librarians of various ages over 50. I chose a lady with hair dyed deep auburn, cropped close to her head, her oversized red fingernails clicking audibly on the keyboard as she typed. Large golden hoop earrings caught the sun from the skylight above us as she turned to me and smiled. ‘Beverly,’ her name badge read.
‘Can I help you?’ Beverly asked.
‘I think so. Um, I am here researching about the poet Edward Barrington. He lived here in the 1880s. A friend told me that newspaper articles and other data from that period had been recently digitally archived? Is that something I can access?’
‘You most certainly can love. Just take any free terminal over by the windows and follow the search prompts. Anything in the system will come up. I hope you find lots of information.’
‘Thank you,’ I said and she turned back to her screen.
I picked a terminal as far as possible from the other users and settled down. The wall went up higher here, meaning the window was above my head, keeping the light down for the screens I supposed, but still offering a glimpse of the clear pale blue sky outside.
I opened the browser and typed in my search, keeping it simple: Edward Barrington. The browser chugged, loading line creeping in a small circle in the centre of my screen. Then a list popped up. It was arranged by title, with a sub-note beside each for it’s source: newspaper article, council letter, magazine, book.
The third listing down caught my eye: ‘Local poet visits Point McLeay Mission in education coop for administrator Phillip Merryweather.’
I clicked. A black and white scan of an old newspaper article flicked up. And there he was, Edward Barrington, posing for a photo, face solemn, eyes forward, surrounded by a group of smiling aboriginal children dressed in white shirts, trousers or dresses. He stood stiff, hands clasped behind his back, dark curls ringing a gentle face; the very picture of an English gentleman. The children looked relaxed and happy, all toothy grins and wind blown hair.
‘Edward Barrington, esteemed poet from England, made the trek to the McLeay Mission orphanage this week to talk with the children about words and meanings.’ I read.
‘In what can only be seen as a master stroke, current administrator, Phillip Merryweather, asked the poet if he would spare some time with the class and he readily agreed. By all accounts his lessons were well received, the children polite and engaged. Barrington showed no nerves around the natives, despite their obviously rudimentary manners and social skills. Another testament to the teachings of the Mission and the wonderful volunteers who govern there…’
I read on, more praise for the Mission and staff, but little information on Barrington and his classes. I moved on to the next article: Barrington and Rosalind attending a writing society meeting, and sharing a reading of his famous poem Of earth and wind. This time the picture was of Barrington in a fine cut suit, top hat perched upon his brow. Rosalind stood beside him in a long, lace trimmed dress that flowed to the floor. Despite the grainy image, her beauty leapt from the screen, dark flowing curls, open round eyes, full lips. She must have been in her mid-forties when this photo was taken, but she looked younger than Barrington. Such a beautiful woman.
I adjusted my search, specifically looking for information on the Mission and Barrington’s involvement. Turned out he had strong connections to the place, even taking on two young boys as farm hands.
On I scanned, newspaper clippings, magazine extracts, and then, the mystery: ‘Esteemed poet and local man. Missing’. They hadn’t even needed to use his name in the title. The article was brief, but to the point, detailing his disappearance and the efforts of police and local men to search and rescue. I already knew that they never succeeded. It was one of the most famous disappearances in South Australian history. And this was a state of some horrid crimes…
Light footfall behind me turned my head.
‘Sorry to interrupt love,’ my red-haired librarian stood before me. ‘My daughter is part of a local online group here. Through Facebook. I was thinking, if you are after local knowledge about Edward Barrington, perhaps I could ask her to post if anyone has any information? Might get you a different angle. What do you think?’
‘Oh, thank you, I would appreciate that greatly. If that’s ok? Not too much trouble?’
‘Not at all, it may take a while though. Can I take a number?’
I scratched it down on a scrap of paper and Beverly promised to contact me should she hear anything. I thanked her and then found myself at a bit of a loss. The newspaper clippings had been interesting, especially those about the Mission. The Barringtons had never been gifted the child they longed for. I hoped he found some joy being around the orphans. More to look into there for sure, but for now, the sky above was darkening. I had been out and about all day, fatigue from my early flight from Sydney was starting to seep into my bones. As was the need for a cigarette.
I had intended to walk back to my motel, but the route took me past a beautiful sandstone hotel, the Corio. It sat on the corner of the main street of the town, old and proud, rimmed with a green painted balcony. Deciding I should eat, I headed in and ordered a prawn stuffed chicken breast and Imperial pint of beer. Taking my table number on a stick, I headed to the outside seating area at the front of the hotel and claimed a seat in the smoking section. Table secured, I lit a cigarette and leaned against one of the green balcony supports, watching the dusk colours paint the sky. The wind was chill; only myself and another group of smokers braved the outside. But I didn’t mind. The quiet was welcome. I watched the darkening silhouette of a cluster of pine trees across the way and breathed the warmth of smoke into my lungs.
‘Been on the water yet?’ a smooth, deep voice cut into my daydreaming. I snapped my head around. Standing off to the side, calmly watching my face, was Taj. He was still dressed in his brown shirt and shorts, but it looked as though he had tidied his hair, maybe just with his hands as a brush. He held out a pint glass, half empty, towards me. ‘Cheers,’ he smiled.
‘Cheers,’ I returned, clinking my glass to his. He stepped up beside me, closer.
‘So, how did your first day of research go?’ he asked. I sucked in the last of my cigarette and dropped the butt on the ground to stub it out.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I always pick them up after.’ Taj only nodded, waiting silently. ‘It went well, I think. I checked out the library. Found some interesting articles about Barrington working with orphans at a local Mission. It’s not something I’d read about before, so that was cool. And Beverly, a librarian, said she would ask the locals, see if anyone has any information. Could be something, probably nothing. That tends to be how these things go.’
‘If Bev is looking into it, you will have all there is to know,’ Taj paused. ‘Do you know where Raukkan is?’
‘That’s the Mission’s name.’
‘I read Point McLeay…’
‘Was renamed when the Ngarrindjeri took charge. Raukkan means Meeting place.’
‘Oh. No, I’d never heard of it before today.’
‘It was up on Lake Alexandrina, near Narrung, round the river bend. Intended to be self sustaining for the aboriginal community, but the land was too barren. The State gave it to the Ngarrindjeri people to run themselves, back in the 70s. Now it’s really just a small township.’
‘How do you know so much? Local knowledge?’
‘Nah, my grandma was there as a kid, before the orphanage part was shut down.’
‘Prawn stuffed chicken breast,’ I turned. A diminutive waitress stood by my table with my dinner.
‘That’s me, thanks.’ I headed over to my meal. Taj followed, relaxed and at ease, slipping into the seat opposite me. Mildly surprised, I took up my cutlery. ‘You don’t mind if I eat?’
‘Not at all, go ahead. So, any plans for tomorrow?’
I bit into my chicken, covered in a garlicky creamy sauce. ‘Oh, that’s good! Um, yes, well, sort of. I guess I will head back to the library…’
‘Don’t want to spend too much time inside. I have tomorrow off, how about I take you down the Coorong, show you the dunes and the Murray Mouth? I reckon everyone needs a break from work, from time to time. And you are in a holiday town.’
I chewed my mouthful thoroughly, giving myself time to think. Truth was I really didn’t need a break from researching, I had been doing bugger-all for months and had only just started to feel it’s lure again… Across the table Taj’s dark eyes watched me as he drained his pint. I decided.
‘You know what? I’d love that. If you are sure you have the time?’
Taj grinned. ‘It would be my honour. I’m getting another, can I grab you one too? Pale Ale was it?’
I looked at my empty glass. ‘Yes please, thank you.’
And so we talked, and drank and talked, the evening turning to night around us. When the hotel switched off it’s lights at 9 p.m, Taj and I walked slowly along the water front to my accommodation, the stars sparkling above our heads and dancing over the gentle ripples on the water. At my door Taj pecked me on the cheek and grinned. ‘Home safe. I’ll pick you up tomorrow at seven.’
‘Seven?’ I exclaimed.
‘You gotta see the water early, it’ll be like glass tomorrow. Bring a warm jacket. I’ll see you then.’ And with that he turned and ambled away, leaving me to my apartment. I crashed into bed, and for the first time in a long time sleep found me, and kept me right through until my alarm blazed at 6 a.m the next morning.
White, wet snow reveals a light. Anchor.
A gleaming emerald of green and fawn.
Taj was right. As we motored over the lake towards the barrage that separated this freshwater basin from the briny passage to the sea, the water all around us was smooth like glass. Our boat cut a line through the placid waters, round waves, milky blue from the pale morning light, rippling out from us and fading again into stillness. I sat at the front of the tinny, Taj at the back steering.
As we neared the middle of the lake Taj slowed the motor so we were almost stopped in the waterway. He lifted a finger and pointed back around the curve of the river.
‘See how it bends?’
I nodded. He killed the motor and we sat, floating in the centre of the lake, drifting.
‘That’s where the name ‘Goolwa’ comes from. It means elbow in Ngarrindjeri.’
‘Really?’ I felt my eyebrows rise and a broad smile form on my lips. ‘I like that.’
He smiled. ‘Where we are going today is called the Coorong, starts just after the river mouth. ‘Coorong’ means long neck.’
He pointed back to a row of affluent houses wrapped along the lakeside. ‘The green area there? That’s Stranger’s Ground. Back when aboriginal groups traded along the river, other groups could come here to camp. It was the place they could set up and show they were there for trade and not for trouble.’
‘I never knew they had such rules,’ I said, and grimaced to myself at the ignorance of the words. Nodding, Taj fired up the motor again.
As we neared the barrage Taj waved to the operator. Soon enough the large gates opened and we motored into the channel between the waterways. Taj roped up the boat in silence as the gate shut behind us. The water rushed away, exposing barnacles and drooping lichen as we sank to the water level of the Goolwa Channel on the other side. Then the gates opened and we were away again.
The view was spectacular. Before me stretched a long, narrow waterway, lined on my right by tall, proud sand dunes crusted with saltbush and spinifex, to my left, the coast of Hindmarsh Island. Both sides were lined with narrow sandy beaches. The water here had a current, no doubt from the ocean tides. This early we were the only souls on the water, though Taj assured me there would be fisherman up ahead. Slick, black water birds sailed overhead, or rode the currents, ducking under the water chasing their breakfast. We passed a tumbling channel of water: the Murray Mouth, where the river meets the sea. Taj slowed the boat as I took in the churning waves, the glimpse of ocean beyond. I settled down inside the boat, pulling my jacket tight against the brisk winds that coursed down the natural alleyway of the Coorong National Park and simply existed.
At some point on our journey Taj passed me a fruit muffin from the backpack he carried, and poured me a cup of hot coffee from a flask. I accepted both gratefully as we carried on our way, the silence between us comfortable and companionable.
Eventually Taj slowed the motor, this time turning into the sandy bank that lead to the sand dunes. He motored the boat part way up onto the shore before jumping over board, feet bare, jeans rolled to his knees and pulled the boat up a bit further onto the beach. I jumped out and taking up a spot beside him, helped to finish the beaching. He slung his backpack over his shoulder and then led me up the beach and onto the sand dunes. Around me the spinifex rustled, the rising sun glinting off their sharp edged leaves. Underfoot saltbush crunched, their green and red fronds plump and juice heavy. We crested the dune and came to a flat expanse of sand between the first dune and the next, the ground covered in cockle shells.
‘My ancestors ate pipis, left the shells.’ Taj said by way of explanation. The shells crunched under my sneakers. I wondered at Taj’s still bare feet but said nothing. We topped two more dunes, the sound of the ocean growing louder and louder as we approached. Finally, we broke over the last dune and there before me was the ocean. Wild, powerful, full of storm, the waves crashed against the long sandy beach that stretched undisturbed as far as the eye could see. The clouds were grey, but high overhead. Seagulls and small black birds littered the skies and the beach. A sensation welled up inside me. It felt like my chest expanded, opened up, released.
Taj headed down the slope of the dune and I followed. At its base he squatted down and drew a towel from his backpack for us to sit on. We settled and he passed me a sandwich of ham and cheese, wax paper wrapped. Again I smiled in silent thanks. When my alarm woke me that morning, the challenge of getting out of bed had been all encompassing. It had not even occurred to me to bring food or drink.
‘I told you to only bring a jacket,’ Taj said, as if he had heard my thoughts, or perhaps read my face. He passed me another cup of coffee, not as blisteringly hot now, but still steaming. We ate and drank in silence, watching the waves break over the coastline, churning up the sand in a frothy wave along the shore: the Cappuccino Coast.
‘My grandma’s people are part of a coastal group, this was their place. The white settlers called them all ‘Ngarrindjeri’. It’s a collective word they used for the aboriginal people of this area, but really we are a series of separate groups. Grandma tries to keep the old traditions alive, pass them on. But you can’t be truly traditional these days. And why would you anyway? We all like TV.’ He gave me a cheeky grin.
‘I’m sorry,’ I started, not sure if I was being rude, ‘I just… I didn’t realise… You don’t look…’
‘Ngarrindjeri? What would one look like?’ he asked, stone faced. ‘What does an Australian look like?’
What have I said?
Taj grinned. ‘Don’t worry. I don’t look it, not really. Too many white ancestors mixed in. And in this country we all look, however we look.’ He shrugged. ‘But they are still my people, my mob. I am proud of where I come from, on both sides.’
‘So your grandma married a ‘white man’?’ I cringed at the term. Taj gave me another grin. ‘She did indeed, and my dad was white too, though I never met him. Or my grandfather, he died before I was born. Heart attack. Mum raised me alone. And grandma did her fair share of babysitting. So I guess the Ngarrindjeri way was how I was raised. Even if I don’t really look the part.’
‘I suspect that doesn’t matter. Not really.’
‘No, you’re right. It doesn’t. We are still one people.’
We fell into that gentle silence again, munching our sandwiches and watching the waves. Taj fished into his backpack and pulled out two cans of cider, passing one to me.
I smiled. ‘You thought of everything.’
He laughed, cracked his can and leaned back, stretching out his long legs before him, arm behind his head, sipping his drink and watching the sky.
I followed suit, enjoying the feel of the cool sand beneath my hand, the kiss of the salt air, the fizz of cider on my tongue.
‘My dad died 2 years ago, just as I was finishing my under grad. I picked The Fall as my thesis topic because of him. It was his favourite poem… It’s a really depressing poem, but I felt able to work on it because of dad. Because he loved it.’ I stared out before me, surprised at myself for what I had just shared so openly.
Taj lay next to me, chewing the last of his sandwich.
‘So, are you going to tell me about it?’ he asked.
Lazily, I flopped my head to face him. ‘It?’
‘Your thesis, your poet – Edward Barrington. I have heard of him. We did one of his poems at school. I think Mrs Anderson hoped we would ‘connect with poetry’ because he had lived here. Same reason we studied Storm Boy, I guess. Bet the teachers had a field day with the new film this year. Didn’t work though, not for me.’
I huffed a laugh. ‘I think that’s why my teachers chose Peter Goldsworthy and Les Murray.’
We grinned together in shared experience. I took another sip of cider.
‘Barrington moved here in the 1880s, from England. We know so much from before then. He kept extensive journals. But then he came to Australia to heal his wife, she was sick, and the trail goes cold.’
Taj rolled over, rising up on an elbow, head on his hand. ‘That’s a big move, especially back then. But he was already famous?’
‘Oh yes, very much so. From a young age.’
‘So he gave that up, for her.’
‘I don’t think he saw it that way, but yes, I suppose that’s true. His writing took off while he was at university, very unusual. I think his fame had a bit of old school ‘sex appeal’ to it. But he was really talented, not just a pretty face… When he married his success slowed. His works weren’t as dark. But the ‘lost poems’ discovered after his death, The Fall is one of those, they were definitely his old style. The mystery of his death and his wife staying out here, it all increased his fame anyway. The story really is a bit unknown, there is more to it definitely.’
‘Tell me, Ellie.’ Taj said quietly, intensely.
So I did.
Thank you for reading Part One of Widow's Lace. I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to read the full novel, you can purchase it from Amazon in kindle and paperback form.