PAPERBACK BOOKS

DARK OASIS 


Advised by her Melbourne doctor to ‘find a place in the sun’, 22-year-old Gail Mitchell travels to the oasis city of Belleville in the Victorian Great Southern Desert.  

It proves to be a life-changing experience, which makes dramatic demands on her weaknesses and strengths.  

When a Belleville News reporter is later assigned to investigate Gail’s disappearance, she uncovers a story of passion, love and romance through which runs an undertow of hatred, violence, mystery and betrayal.  

As a result, the reporter poses the question: Does the desert confront each desert dweller with a personal moment of truth? The moment of truth which asks, which will you choose: Good – or Evil?

In Store Price: $28.00 
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ISBN:978-1-921240-41-6
Format: A5 Paperback
Number of pages: 295
Genre: Fiction

 


Author: Dulcie M. Stone
Imprint: Poseidon
Publisher: Poseidon Books
Date Published:  2007
Language: English

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About the Author    

Dulcie May Stone, born Dulcie May White in Melbourne 1924, has won acclaim as an author, educator and campaigner for people with disabilities. She has been awarded an MBE for service to the handicapped (1981), was nominated International Woman of the Year in 1996/97 and was included in the Outstanding People of the Twentieth Century Selection.  

A prolific writer, Dulcie has previously published the following works:  

Fiction

1978           I Laugh I Cry I Feel.

Spectrum Publications

Included in the International Year of the Disabled selection, Bologna Book Fair, 1981

1982           Jonny Love

Spectrum Publications

1991           Hullo Fay

Self Published

1995           Ask Me about Saturdays

SpringDale Publications

1997           Ask Me about Saturdays

SMARTBOARD Internet Publisher

2003           Chance’s Children

Spectrum Publications

2006           Fay

The Australian Institute on Intellectual Disability, Canberra

2007           Tools of War

Zeus Publications  

Non-Fiction

1971                     Parent Power

Mildura and District Educations Council Pub

1979                     Teaching with the Retarded

Spectrum Publishing. Melbourne

1988                     Principles of Voluntarism

Community Service, Victoria. Publication

1990                     For Adults Only?

Upper Yarra Com. House

1993                     Towards the New Dream

SpringDale Publications

1993                     What’s Volunteering & What’s Not?

SpringDale Publications

1994                     Parent Power ’94

SpringDale Publications

1996                     Becoming a Writer

Stone & Associates Pub

2002                     Switching on the Light

Spectrum Publishing  

As well as a full professional life, Dulcie enjoys a busy family life with her four children, twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Prologue

W

hat is she looking at, the old woman in the wheelchair? Does she see the purple mountains, the scented silver gums, the emerald ferns, the sad willows in the park across the road?

 

What does she hear? The carolling magpies, the cackling kookaburras, the chirruping sparrows, the occasional passing car, the hollow ring of the woodsman’s axe, the gossip of her fellows?

What does she see? What does she hear?

Perhaps nothing captures her fleeting interest. Perhaps she simply sleeps out here on this freezing winter verandah.

She’s been here, in this mountain shelter, for many years. She cannot tell you how many. Or is it that she knows, but won’t tell? Anything’s possible with this old one who talks to almost no one, and admits few visitors.

Peculiar in the head. That’s what this withered old cripple is. Peculiar.

Was she ever young? Impossible.

Surely the thin white hair, the lined parchment skin, the beaked nose, the twisted body and the arthritic hands could never have known youth or vitality. Yet the most casual observance cannot fail to remark the life in those keenly darting eyes. Old she may be, young she may long ago have been. But could that predatory glance be a true reflection of who she once was?

The nurse, on her mid-morning rounds, stops. “Gail! You’ll freeze.” She tucks a fallen blanket around the scrawny shoulders.

The sly old eyes wait; they watch the nurse retreat to the warm indoors. The gnarled old hands peel off the blanket. It falls, again, to the floor. The chill mountain air caresses the scrawny shoulders. The old woman shivers, and the withered lips smile a secret smile.

I step forward. For the first time, at least so far as I know, she sees me. The smile freezes, as chill as the mountain air.

“You’ll catch your death, Gail.” I attempt to readjust the blanket. This time she makes no pretence, just slaps the blanket from my hands.

Not so far removed from reality!

I try a ruse. “Do you remember Belleville , Gail?”

The name hangs in the air.

The old woman shrinks and the knowing smile disappears.

 

I’m on assignment for the Belleville News. As a kind of good-will bonus, the new young editor has sent me off to the mountains to follow up a mystery Old Belleville is still interested in. Years ago, this social butterfly just disappeared. No one knew why. Or where to. Or even if she was still alive. Or, to be honest – if she’d left Belleville alive. Maybe she’d just disappeared not too far from home. It wouldn’t be the first time in Belleville . If that’s what had happened it sure wouldn’t be the last. In my time at the Belleville News, I’ve been close to more than a few unsolved disappearances.

 

Whatever the truth, Gail went missing half a lifetime ago; around the time I got my job. There one day, gone the next. Just like that. Not usual. Even for Belleville , not usual. Both in town and in the newsroom, Gail’s abrupt absence from the social scene and her home had been a seven-day wonder. Soon forgotten. There were enough other scandals in the place to titillate their thirst for drama. The thing is, even though the family let it be known she’d simply gone off back to the big smoke, she’d left behind a raft of rumours that never actually died. Rumours that had to do with the family itself, intimate stuff, the kind of thing that happens behind the closed doors of the rich and powerful, and never sees the light of day. Well, almost never.

Then, out of a clear sky, the editor sends me off. “She’s been found,” he says. “Go check it out.” Which is why, after two days driving, I arrived at the country branch of the Calthorpe Clinic. Hidden away in the Blue Mountains , the country clinic is the last resting place of the infirm elderly; the wealthy infirm elderly. Plushly furnished and serviced by top echelon medical men and superlatively trained staff, it’s a place where families can send off their unwanteds with a clear conscience. Let’s face it; most families own a couple of embarrassing geriatrics. But most families have neither the money nor the will to so richly exile them. In my role as bona fide reporter, I discovered that some of the Calthorpe’s guests can be regarded as clinically insane, and harmless, comparatively harmless. Others are just old and rejected, and entirely harmless.

So what about Gail? Opinions differ. Gail is different. For one thing, she has a regular visitor who’s turned up once a year for years. Which leads to a couple of conclusions. Gail has been here a damned sight longer than the expected average; therefore, unless she suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s she’d been no doddering geriatric way back then. There’s another thing. As far as I can detect, Gail has never been clinically diagnosed as insane. Yet she sure is crazy now. Crazy as a loon, some say. Crazy as a fox, say others.

By the end of the week, I’m adding two and two and getting around to four. Because this is adding up to more than my assignment intended – verify this person at the clinic is who we believe she is, and that she’s alive. This is all the slick young editor wants to know. Details not relevant, he’s ordained. Understandable.

So let’s face this too. It’s understandable if you’re employed by the Belleville media monopoly. A good Belleville News story is only as good as, or as publishable as, the bosses, the rarely seen faces who employ the editor, say it is. Any hint of crossing them and you’re out! Big time out! If you’re stupid enough, or idealistic enough, to try to cross them, your name is mud and you’re on their black list quicker than you can cry, “Foul!”

In all my years as their women’s affairs reporter, covering carefully frivolous social gossip and carefully censored fashion (no in-your-face boobs and bottoms), I’ve never had to worry like the newsmen do. One thing for sure I have worked out – you get a big story, you check it out. Which big shot does it advantage and which does it hurt? Who stands to gain, who to lose? Like you walk into our room, the reporter’s room that is, there’s these notes pinned around. They read, ‘No mention of xxxxx (Name deleted because I’m still vulnerable to the power brokers) to be made in this newspaper.’ It goes for the other two branches of the media as well. No mention of (name deleted) on air or TV. For the record, ‘name deleted’ is almost always connected to the current political climate.

Which means that when I eventually decide to look into the mystery of Gail, I begin to smell foul play. Why? Initially because a telephone call from the editor orders me to confirm the bare facts and get the hell out of the place. Not me. I want to know why she’s here, why she was sent here. Why the decades of silence? Why the loyal visitor to this obnoxious woman? Who is he? It’s going to take months, maybe longer, to get to the truth. The years have taught me that the truth is not what Belleville News is interested in. Not often, and certainly not this time.

Therefore, because my retirement is due soon anyway, I again contact my cautious young editor. By mutual consent, plus mutually agreed financial arrangements, we cut the ties. Following, gathered from sources both reliable and unreliable, is this reporter’s interpretation of Gail’s intriguing life journey.

 

BELLEVILLE

 

The City of Belleville is at the heart of the huge Great Southern Desert. Though each desert presents its own distinctive challenge, the nature of a desert is that it is cruel, desolate, ruthless and unforgiving. For both man and beast, survival in each distinctive desert is purchased only with ruthless, cruel, merciless and unforgiving brutality. For some, the desert is compelling and irresistible.

 

It provokes the question – Is it only the ruthless who can survive the desert? This in turn invites more profound questions – Does the desert attract only its like? Are the ruthless desert dwellers inherently ruthless? Or is the desert a peerless teacher? Is it that its people live by the cruel lessons of survival the desert has taught them? Or could it be that the desert experience is an examiner? Does the desert confront each desert dweller with a personal moment of truth? The moment of truth which asks – which will you choose? Good – or Evil?

There is another question, a critical one. Does the desert experience also examine those who live in its soft green heart? Seated in her mindless wheelchair in her icy mountain retreat, the old woman might tell us. But if even she could, she’s not going to.

The Great Southern Desert is grey sand, blistered grass, stunted shrub, shrivelled bush and flat from burnt horizon to burnt horizon. The pitiless desert sun fires each white-hot day, the tantalising desert stars freeze each blue-cold night. Desert sun. Desert stars. Fire – and ice. Life – and death.

The Great Southern covers nearly a thousand miles from south to north, four hundred and fifty miles from west to east. Its life is the desert creatures; its animals, its birds, and its people who are unique to Australia . Its first people, its indigenous people, knew and respected its spirit – and enriched it.

Its settlers have become distinctively Australian. They came from around the world, from many places for many reasons, and they became ‘Australians’. They vanquished the indigenous people and their rich legacy. They decimated them, ignored them, abhorred them, denigrated them, expelled and degraded them.

Disdaining guilt or social responsibility, they melded their own desert character – an admixture of Irish, Scot, Brit, Italian, Greek, German, Slav, Dane. Always white, never coloured. Not then. The Continent on the edge of Asia was never to be settled by Asians. The principle of the White Australia Policy satisfied deep-rooted fear.

Free from all taint of ‘colour’, they channelled life-giving water from the rivers, irrigated the unproductive desert and imported their cherished European way of life. They cultivated the land as they’d done in old Europe and, employing scientific innovation calculated to preserve, protect, enhance and maximise crop output, they flourished. They attracted universal interest in their new-world dreamtime culture. The tourist is drawn to the offspring of this most unlikely marriage between the rich traditions of Old Europe and the primitive brutality of the Southern Desert – a way of life that is recognisably Australian.

But time is revealing the desert’s revenge. Immense salt pans encircle the irrigated farmlands. Man is catastrophically vulnerable to imperfectly controlled pesticides. Graphic examples of the desert’s revenge invite enquiry into the as yet unproven, but anecdotally sound, high incidence of carcinogenic related illnesses. What are the as yet unproven consequences of wholesale chemical spraying of the crops? Should the conquerors of the desert be asking questions about the reputedly high incidence of the Big C? Should they go further? Should they not be wondering about the ‘reputedly’ high incidences of Parkinson’s disease, suicide, mental breakdown, alcoholism? And God alone knows what else?

Could it be that these are related to man’s meddling intrusion into the jealous rhythms of the desert? Or are they evidence of man’s inability to survive it? Or, perhaps, they are a complex interweaving of both?

Then there’s Belleville . Nowhere is there more reason to fear the desert’s revenge; in Belleville that’s the hidden under-belly, spoken of only in whispers if at all. At the very heart of the desert, this municipal oasis is unique. Although unarguably ‘Australian’, it remains totally unlike any other Australian town. Anywhere. Neither in the settlements of its closest neighbours nor in the cities of the distant seaboard. Nor, even, in the thousands of other isolated communities in the giant island that is a Continent.

It’s no mystery. The reason is evident. Belleville ’s settlers were a very different breed of pioneer. Not from genteel Old Europe, but from adventurous New America, came the Yankee Engineers who manufactured the oasis. Banishing dreamtime man and forestalling Old Europe, was the American – the American of the Wild Wild West.

So that the soulless ethos of the raw and arrogant American pragmatist underpins, and over-rides, all else in the resolutely atypical City of Belleville . Brutally stripped of its dreamtime soul, it is a disparate conglomerate. Its values, an opportunistic admixture of the values of New America, Old Europe and young Australia are an insecure and confusing mishmash. Self-interest is the single unifying theme. Which, of course, ensures its opposite – dis-unity.

Latterly, young Australia has come to Belleville from the coastal cities. It came with the soldier settlers. City-bred ex-soldiers from both World Wars and, later, from Vietnam and Korea , have brought to the city the values and traditions of the ‘dinkum Aussie’ and the best and worst of all that means. The admirable and the virtuous and the disreputable and the profane and the downright abominable; mateship in its many-coloured, many-splendoured but always inherently misogynist manifestations.

The admixture becomes more complex, self-interest intensifies, disunity thrives. And, for those interested in trends and forecasts, Belleville sounds its distinctive warning. Futurists may well wonder – is this a microcosmic glimpse of the pragmatic and mercenary Australia which, even now, is hurtling down its terrible evolutionary path? Greed, money, intolerance, bigotry, self-absorption – is this our national destiny? Is the heart of Australia as desiccated and unfeeling, and as arid, as the heart of this dark oasis in the Great Southern Desert?

To get to Belleville , from north, south, east, or west, you have to cross at least one desert, sometimes more, through Victoria , South Australia , or southern New South Wales . From whichever direction, you have to cross the desert. There are many ways to travel. There always have been – by foot, by horse, by camel, buggy, car, train, plane. But the first, the original and still the most interesting, is by boat, by way of The River. The Mighty Murray . The pioneers came this way. The tourists, still, sometimes come this way.

 

 

Chapter One

February 1948

G

ail Mitchell, a recuperating invalid, first travelled to Belleville by train. An eleven-hour trip, the train left Melbourne at dusk, wound through outer suburbia, stopped at busy country towns, slipped past sleeping villages and reached the rim of the Great Southern Desert at dawn.

 

Those practised enough to enjoy sleep in the crowded overnight carriages woke to the stark reality of the desert; to windows too hot to touch, to the stench of sweating bodies, to burning horizons, intolerable boredom and the abhorrent knowledge that there were still many miles of the desert to suffer. At five in the morning.

Gail, who hadn’t slept, checked her watch. At least two hours to go!

The overweight woman who’d snored against her all through the exhausting night, stirred. “You okay, love?”

She nodded.

Last evening she and her sister, Barbara, had been at Spencer Street Station. Following their widowed mother’s death, they were the sole survivors of their small family. Their father, a victim of Germany ’s 1915 chlorine gas attack in the First World War, had died before they were teenagers.

Their distraught mother had reared them in a sick atmosphere of prolonged mourning. Even the smallest and most insignificant decision could not be taken until she’d consulted his ghost. “What would your father have wanted?” was a daily, almost hourly, question. Though they’d loved him, they’d scarcely known him as their mother remembered him, much less known what he would have wanted. It made no difference. For Carol Mitchell her husband had lived on. Until she too had died. The death certificate, signed by family doctor Frank Petersen, declared cause of death to be tuberculosis. Barbara, a trained nurse, knew better. Their mother had died of a broken heart.

Devastated by her mother’s premature death, twenty-two-year-old Gail had suffered persistent chest infections. Darkly predicting serious complications, Doctor Petersen had prescribed total bed rest and unspecified time off from her office job in an inner-suburban factory. Barbara had again taken night shift work to take daytime care of family. Poor Barbara.

Until the doctor had finally ordered, “Find her a place in the sun.”

It had not been easy. Post-war Australiana-conscious tourists were happily following the Australian sun, a few interstate, the majority intra-state. Victoria on the Murray – Swan Hill, Echuca, Albury, et al – was booked out. Eventually time and necessity stimulated Barbara’s memory into recollection of an old family friend, also a World War One veteran, who lived in the North-West. Not in Swan Hill, Echuca, or Sunraysia, but in Belleville .

Belleville ? On the map they’d had trouble finding it, a dot in the corner, uppermost north farthest west. As west and as north as Victoria could get. At the end of the endless rail line, Belleville was way too far from home. Gail was too fragile for the long journey. Besides, she’d be too far from the one person left who cared about her. No, Belleville was out of the question.

“North of the Ranges.” Frank Petersen, having heard of the location of the old family friend and the possibility of a solution to the problem, had refused to consider objections. “The sun. Wherever you can get it. Or face the consequences.”

Therefore, fragility and absence of carer notwithstanding, the nightmare journey to Belleville had to be endured. Terrified, disoriented, accustomed to heeding authority – in whatever guise – she’d allowed Barbara to make the arrangements.

“You sure you’re all right?” The fat woman pressed even closer.

Again, she nodded. Barbara had warned, “Don’t to talk to strangers. Be careful of strangers.” Easily said for Barbara, who was healthy and strong-willed and capable and forthright and all the things she was not. Curse the weak lungs, curse the family’s legacy of ill health, curse the city smog. Curse her sister’s strength and her own debilitating guilt because of the debt she owed her, and would never ever be strong enough to repay.

But right this minute, this five a.m. nightmare morning, curse the sun and the desert and the fat woman who’d sprawled over her all night and the loud, crude, brutish farmers and their sloppy wives and mewling kids. Curse the burning air and the stench of sweat and baby vomit and the terror of aloneness.

Nauseous, she felt faint. Nothing had prepared her for this. Family trips, though rare, had been out of the city and into the luscious green sweet-smelling foothills or to the mountains – snow-capped and cloud-misted and storm-tossed in winter, wattle gold and eucalypt green and shimmering in a burnished heat-haze in summer, dressed in richly heart-stopping reds and golds and bronzes in autumn. Both her father and her mother had adored the mountains and the foothills. As for Barbara – who knew?

Burning head pressed against the raging heat from the train window, she let the frustrated tears fall.

“You shouldn’t do that, love.” The fat woman missed nothing. “You’ll only make it worse.”

Pretending not to hear, she surreptitiously felt for a handkerchief to dry the tears. She didn’t need it. The intense heat on the hot glass had already dried them.

“I’ll get you a drink.” The woman waddled from her seat.

The vacant space at her side was already cooler.

From across the worn leather, a farmer grunted, “You should know better, Miss. You’ll burn your face.”

Though he was right, she protested. “It’s so hot.”

“Someone should of told you last night,” he clucked disapproval. “You shouldn’t of taken your shoes off.”

She looked down at her stockinged feet. Overnight they’d ballooned to twice their normal size.

“What a shame we didn’t notice.” Opposite, the young mother who’d routinely breast fed her screaming infant into slobbering silence for most of the crowded night, gloomily warned, “Now you’ll never get your shoes on, dear.”

Blushing, she scrabbled under the seat for the high-heeled shoes she’d discarded last night.

“See what I mean.” The farmer was confirming what didn’t need confirmation. “City people ain’t got a clue on these long hauls. Not a clue.”

“We should’ve told you.” The young mother was helpful. “What about slippers? They’re in your case. The swelling won’t go down for hours.”

“Here we are.” The fat woman was back, the tumbler of water sloshing to the rattling rhythm of the train.

Squeezing back against the window, she sipped the tepid water.

The passengers exchanged knowing glances.

“You’ll be right, love.” The fat woman comforted.

Together they lifted the case from the luggage rack, located the blue satin slippers, a present from Barbara, and returned the case to the rack.

“So pretty, love.” Calloused fingers stroked the blue satin. “Somebody loves you.”

She bent to put them on. The train lurched. Falling forward, she frantically scrambled for support, and woke the sleeping baby. The wailing started up again. The mother stuffed her naked breast into its open mouth.

She’d known worse moments; too many. Her father’s death, her mother’s, the legacy of bills and mortgage and uncertainty and, finally, the fear of following her parents into early death. She didn’t want to die young. She wanted to be fit and healthy. She wanted to marry, to be healthy and have healthy children. She wanted to be happy.

Right this minute she wanted to be back home. Because this had to be just about one of the worst times ever. This time, she was really alone. This time there was to be no rescue. There would be no loving mother, no caring sister, no attentive doctor, no familiar warm bed. There was no one and nothing to ease the pain. Tears waited and these simpletons were not going to see them.

Returning to the burning window, she watched the merciless desert slide past – flat, grey, empty, dead. Lonely.

The sun climbed, the heat soared and the carriage was a seething oven.

“Pull the blind down, girlie.” The farmer begged.

“Better do it, love.” The fat woman agreed. “The baby’s feeling the heat even if you aren’t.”

About to reach for the blind, her attention was caught by a cloud of birds in flight. Pink cockatoos. Beauty on wings, they wheeled across the dust, circled, climbed, dived and climbed again and dived again and settled on a carcass – the desiccated bones of a dead kangaroo.

Sick, she jerked the blind down. There was no escape, none. She let the tears fall unchecked.

“Don’t cry, love.” Hot fat pawed her. “I know. It’s your first trip away from home. I saw you last night. When you left. Your friend. What a nice kid. She…”

“She’s not my friend.”

“Not your? I get it,” the fat mouth bared yellow teeth. “The way she looked out for you. Carrying your case and all. She’s got to be your sister! I’d never have guessed. What a pretty kid. I’d never have guessed. She’s not a bit like you.”

“Leave off,” the young mother chided. “That’s not nice!”

 “Oh God!” The fat woman yelped. “Me and my big mouth. I’m sorry, girl. How awful! I didn’t mean it like that!”

“It’s all right.” It wasn’t all right. Even though she’d learned to live with it, she hated being the ugly sister.

Not that being the pretty one had done Barbara any good. She’d given up everything, career advancement, boy friends, social life – everything – for family. No wonder she was planning to escape, to travel overseas. She’d earned a life of her own.

“You’re pretty, too.” The woman tried to make amends. “In a different way.” The nasal voice droned on, dreary accompaniment to the metallic thunder of the train.

No one had ever told her she was pretty, not even her father. The mirror didn’t lie. The mirror reflected brown eyes, gold flecked, too intense, too sharp, too penetrating; eyes which too often discomforted others. The mirror also reflected pale lips too full-blown in an ashen face, thick straight brown hair, a strong jaw line, a high broad forehead and a body that looked thinner than it was because of its above average height.

The mirror was unable to perceive the potential for beauty, a beauty that waited. It waited in the high cheekbones and the rare symmetry of the oval face, in the tawny magnificence of the watchful eyes, and in the repressed passion of the full lips. As though awaiting the imprint of youth’s reaction to life’s influence, this face seemed to be asking – what kind of beauty will I be? The bare bones of beauty were there. How would they be fleshed out? Would they soften? Or harden?

 Whatever the product of life’s imprint on that perfectly formed face, one thing was certain – Gail Mitchell would never be merely pretty.

But, on the searing morning train, the unsophisticated tongue of the country woman at her side could only manage, “You’re pretty in a different way, love. You been sick? I can tell. You need some of our sun. You get out and around up here, you’ll be a new woman. You’ll…”

“It’s after six.” A farmer interrupted. “Do you mind putting the blind up again?”

The raising of the blind re-fuelled the furnace. And still, in all directions, there was only desert to look at. She turned from it.

“Wait a while, love. There’s better things to look at soon.” Her neighbour promised. “You’ll be surprised.”

The passengers stirred. The carriage came to life. Each – farmer, housewife, child, fat lady, nursing mother – sat on the edge of their cramped scrap of leather. Every eye was on the searing window.

What were they expecting?

Nothing. Nothing but endless flat land blanketed in miles and miles and more miles of depressing dead-grey scrub. Again she turned away, and closed her eyes. Why had she let them persuade her? Barbara should not have.

Disturbed by a collective sigh, she returned to the window. The desert had disappeared! The dispiriting scrub had gone. Totally. Passing by the window was only vivid green. Clear to the horizon was only green. Turning her head, she looked back along a cloud of steam that sat thickly on the gentle curve of the retreating train track. There, was desert. Here, running alongside the hot window, was green.

The line of demarcation was as sharp and as uncompromising as a single pen stroke on a map. Comprehending that they were at the rim of the oasis that encircled Belleville , she turned to look ahead. As far as she could see was green. At last. They were entering the centre of the desert.

Millions of rich green vines in hundreds of vineyards were interrupted only by islands of tall shade trees dwarfing secret homes. Mysterious and intriguing, the almost unseen houses and the unseen people in them challenged the imagination. Who lived in those houses? What kind of people were they? How did they live? Where had they come from? Why?

Within the carriage even the locals were mesmerised. Even the fat woman was finally silent.

“You can just about see mine from here.” Eventually breaking the spell, the friendly farmer collected his bag from the over-head rack. “I get out at Barclay.”

She started up.

“Not yet, love.” He cautioned. “Another twenty minutes to Belleville . If you’re ever out our way, look us up. We’re in the phone book. Jessup’s. Tom Jessup. The wife loves visitors. She cooks up a mean cream sponge.”

The train stopped. A sun-leathered woman embraced Tom Jessup, a small family welcomed an elderly woman, a lone man carrying a heavy case limped to the distant exit, a yapping terrier raced unchecked along the narrow platform. Sun-scorched white sand glittered, hard-muscled men collected milk cans, uniformed postmen unloaded bulging mailbags and the frenetic station manager shouted directions above the combined clatter of metal and the rhythmic clacking of the impatient engine.

The whistle shrieked its familiar warning, the shouts peaked to their familiar hysteria and doors slammed shut with the sharp finality peculiar to train doors. Childhood memories of stations and trains and trips to the mountains, and the utterly irrational terror that the doors might slam before her parents could board the train with her, escalated panic. She would never manage so far from home – alone and sick and knowing no one.

The train, shuddering as each carriage along its long length responded to the engine, quickly picked up speed.

“Next stop Belleville .” The nursing mother tucked her breast into her dress.

The fat woman located Gail’s shoes. “Have another go at these, love.”  

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