The summer of 1981 had been long and hot in Adelaide. People prayed for rain and watched the sky for signs of smoke but neither had come – not yet, anyway. On this particular February day the temperature was again predicted to climb into the forties and already at six o’clock you could feel the heat closing in, dry and dust-laden. The young couple packing their over-laden station-wagon smiled at each other, feeling they’d chosen a good day to leave. There were mixed feelings naturally, this city was home, but ahead lay a very big adventure, a chance to re-invent themselves, the hope of a new and different life. They were risk-takers, these two; certainly not the sort to buy a suburban house on a quarter-acre block and stay there in stultifying boredom for the next fifty years.
Brendan Jones manoeuvred a last, very large box into a space reserved for it, a space not quite large enough. ‘What on earth is it?’ he muttered.
‘You know Caroline,’ Molly laughed. ‘I hate to think.’
‘Couldn’t we just leave it on the nature strip?’ A tempting idea but out of the question. Caroline was Molly’s formidable mother. If she ever found out that her parting gift had not been duly appreciated, Molly would be disinherited. Brendan got the offending box into position at last and shut the rear door of the wagon. There wasn’t room for a stray sock.
‘Ready?’ Brendan asked.
‘Ready for anything,’ Molly said.
And indeed they thought they were; certainly more than ready for the quiet little town in north-eastern Victoria to which they were headed. The question could also have been asked, was Wandin Valley quite ready for the Joneses?
Terence Elliott paused at the end of the last row of scraggly vines. There was fruit, yes, but not a lot of it and vintage was only a few weeks away. What the vines bore was evidence of long years of neglect. Still, Terence was an optimist. And if the house and the buildings were also in need of some repair, he was too busy enjoying the view away to the mountains in the east to take much notice. He smiled at the elderly woman who’d been his guide and extended his hand.
‘Thanks, Mrs. Eldershaw. I’ll let you know within the week.’
He walked back to his Nissan Patrol and headed off down the long drive, wondering if he were totally mad to even consider buying the place. Wondering too, how Mrs. Eldershaw must feel about selling when she’d called it home for fifty years. Terence couldn’t imagine how it felt to put down roots like that, or to be forced to pull them up. He’d been in Wandin Valley for three years now and it was, he supposed, starting to feel like home. Certainly, the life he’d left behind in Sydney seemed further and further away, the disconnect more complete. But he could not see himself staying anywhere for fifty years. He got out to open the vineyard gate and a yellow Mercedes sped past travelling far too fast, Terence thought, it was a hardly a highway. He himself went in the opposite direction, taking a roundabout route back to Wandin Valley township; it was still early, time to make a quick house call on old Bill Jackson, see if he was okay after that snake bite. And then the hospital. Simon could handle surgery for a while. He grinned to himself; if the patients would let him, that is.
The yellow Mercedes, meanwhile, had been forced to a standstill by a very large mob of sheep. Sandra Myers, the woman behind the wheel, had left Sydney before dawn. She was exhausted and she was distraught. She beeped her horn but the man and boy in charge of the sheep, not to mention their dogs, ignored her.
She yelled out the window. ‘Hey! Excuse me! You’re blocking the road!’
There was a Commodore waiting behind her. Elaine Mackay, a local, got out and went to have a friendly word. ‘I know it’s annoying but they won’t be long.’
‘They’re blocking the road,’ Sandra said, uncomprehending.
Elaine smiled. ‘You’re in the country. Stock have right of way. Look, Jack’s just moving them across into that other paddock, see? Won’t take more than a few minutes and we’ll be on our way.’ She went back to her car. City people! What on earth was the rush? But as she would soon discover, Sandra Myers had reason enough to be in something of a panic.
At the Wandin Valley Clinic, on the other hand, where Terence Elliott and Simon Bowen laboured to keep the populace in good health, it was far too early in the day for rush or panic. In fact, neither was likely to affect Simon, barring a major disaster. Simon was suffering as Terence himself had suffered when he’d first come to Wandin Valley. The locals, no matter how sick, avoided him. He’d asked Shirley Dean, the clinic’s nurse and receptionist, about it and she’d told him plainly. ‘For heaven’s sake, Simon. You’re new and very young. You’re a city boy who drives a rather flashy sports car. How can you compete with old Dr Clarke?’
‘I don’t know, Shirl. What was old Dr Clarke like?’
‘Sixties. Favoured tweeds and silk cravats. Played a lot of golf, member of Rotary. You know …’
Simon was getting the picture: he was no substitute for Dr Clarke, it would be years before anyone in this town trusted him.
But as he bounced into the clinic this particular morning and saw several patients already waiting, he thought for a moment that his luck had changed, that he had somehow assumed an aura of gravitas that had won the populace over. Not so.
‘How long will Dr Elliott be, Shirl?’ Esme Watson asked.
‘I really can’t say, Esme,’ Shirley said. ‘You could see Dr. Bowen?’
Simon gave Esme his most winning smile.
‘I’ll wait,’ said Esme.
‘Sorry,’ said Shirley sotto to Simon.
Simon hid his disappointment. ‘Lovely roses, Sister.’
‘She’s got a secret admirer.’ This from Harry Palmer.
Shirley said quickly, ‘They’re from Sergeant Frank Gilroy. In appreciation of my many kindnesses to his late wife.’
Simon was reading the card. ‘It just says, “Warm regards, Frank Gilroy”.’ Shirley snatched it out of his hand.
‘Best part of a year, isn’t it? That Frank’s wife’s been dead?’
Harry should have kept quiet. Shirley smiled sweetly and stood up. ‘You can pop into doctor’s room now, Mr Palmer. I’ll be giving you your injection today.’
Simon murmured, ‘Can I …?’
‘No, no. It’ll be my pleasure.’
Simon grinned and helped himself to one of her roses, which he stuck in his lapel. Shirley took pity on him. ‘You do have someone at ten fifteen. Jenny Secombe.’
‘A real live patient? Me? I will try to compose myself.’
He went off into his surgery.
Sandra Myers was not composed. When Jack Dale’s sheep had finally cleared the road, she had taken off too fast again, relying on the German engineering under the bonnet to keep her safe. It could only do so much. Sandra was tired and in pain and her reflexes were not as good as usual. She misjudged a bend on this unfamiliar road and skidded off into the gravel. No major damage was done but she was badly shocked. Elaine Mackay, arriving some time later, found her there with her head on the steering wheel, weeping.
‘I’ll call an ambulance.’
‘No, I’m alright. I’m just – upset.’
‘I took the bend too quickly. Stupid.’
Elaine felt something wasn’t quite right. ‘Where are you going in such a hurry?’ she asked.
‘I was heading for Melbourne but I turned off – ’ She gasped in sudden pain.
Elaine was all concern. ‘What is it?’ Suddenly she noticed the seat belt stretched over Sandra’s enlarged belly. ‘Good God, you’re not in labour?’
‘I think I must be. It’s early. There was a sign – something Valley? I thought I’d better find a doctor.’
‘Wandin Valley. We’ve got a really good little hospital. You shouldn’t be driving though, I’ll take you.’
‘Thanks, but it’s not that far, is it? I can manage.’
Elaine doubted that she could but Sandra sounded determined. ‘It’s about ten kilometres. At least let me show you the way. I’m Elaine Mackay, by the way.’
‘Sandra. Sandra Myers.’
‘Follow me, Mrs. Myers.’ Elaine smiled. ‘We’ll take it a bit slower if that’s okay.’ She drove off sedately, wondering what on earth this young woman was doing so far from home, so large with child – and so very much alone.
Terence Elliot was in the office of the Wandin Valley Bush Nursing Hospital, on the phone to Shirley Dean, when Elaine brought Sandra in and sat her down. Elaine had a quick word with Marta Kurtesz, the matron.
‘Name’s Sandra Myers. I found her not far from the Widgeera turnoff, she’d driven all the way from Sydney. Skidded off the road. Labour started about three hours ago.’
On the phone, Terence said to Shirley, ‘Sorry Shirl, something’s come up, I may be a bit longer than expected. Tell them they have to see Simon!’ He hung up.
‘I’m late for a meeting,’ Elaine was saying, ‘can I leave her with you then?’
‘Yes, of course, and thanks Elaine.’ Marta already had an arm around Sandra.
‘Good luck, Mrs. Myers!’ And Elaine was gone.
‘She was very kind,’ Sandra said.
‘She’s a powerhouse,’ Terence told her. ‘Does all our fund-raising.’ But Sandra was having another contraction and didn’t comment. In fact she said very little at all while they got her to a room and Marta helped her into a hospital gown and into bed. Then Terence examined her.
‘Your first baby?’
Sandra nodded. ‘It’s not due for another month.’
‘You’re sure about your dates?’
‘And you’ve not had any spotting or bleeding?’
‘Nothing at all. It’s too soon, isn’t it? Can’t you stop it?’
‘Not really, Mrs. Myers. Your baby’s decided now’s the time. Elaine said you’d driven from Sydney?’
‘So your own doctor’s there?’
‘I can at least give him a call then. And your husband?’
‘No!’ Sandra’s vehemence surprised even her. She said again, more quietly, ‘Please … no.’
Terence smiled. ‘Your choice.’ He sensed there was more going on here than they knew about as yet and he wanted her as calm and relaxed as possible. She had another contraction then and handled it well, breathing deeply to combat the pain. Sandra had clearly been to ante-natal classes. Marta checked her watch. Twenty second contractions every five minutes. There was certainly no stopping this baby.
Sandra asked how long she’d have to stay in hospital and was told a week or so. The news did not seem to upset her too much. Marta asked where she was heading. Sandra hesitated.
‘Melbourne. For now, anyway.’
Marta and Terence both thought it a strange answer; not to know where you were going with a newborn baby. But it was none of their business.
‘I really should get to the surgery. I’ll drop back later, Mrs. Myers, and see how you’re going. Matron Kurtesz can phone me if there are any developments. Oh – your doctor’s name?’
‘Dr. Lionel Cohen. He’s in Double Bay. I can’t remember the number.’
‘I’ll find him, don’t worry.’
Sandra just nodded. She was looking tired now.
Terence added, ‘Just try to get some rest.’
Marta asked, ‘Do you have any luggage, Mrs Myers, maybe I could get it for you?’
‘In the car. The keys are in my handbag.’ Marta retrieved them. ‘It’s a yellow Mercedes.’
Terence, waiting in the doorway, reacted to this but neither woman noticed. Sandra said again, anxiously, ‘Please. Promise me you won’t tell my husband where I am? I don’t want him here.’
Marta tried to reassure her. ‘It’s your decision entirely, Mrs. Myers.’
Sandra turned away then and Marta walked outside with Terence. It had turned into a glorious, if hot, autumn day. Marta regretted that she was unlikely to get a chance to go for a ride, the way things were panning out. She made a mental note to ring the stables and make sure that someone else gave The General a work out. Terence was looking at Sandra’s Mercedes.
‘I was out at Mrs. Eldershaw’s this morning. That thing passed me like it was on the autobahn.’
‘She’s troubled about something. Elaine also said she was driving too fast, she’d actually run off the road.’
‘See if you can find out what going’s on, Marta? Why she’s driven alone from Sydney and washed up here.’
‘You’re worried about the baby?’
‘I am, a little. She’s a small woman with a small pelvis … a highly emotional state is not going to help her. Find out what she’s running away from.’
Marta laughed at that. ‘A man, of course. What else? By the way – what were you doing out at Mrs. Eldershaw’s? Did you try any of their wine?’
‘There’s been no wine made there for ten years. Not since her husband died. Sad really. I did admire the view, though. You can see clearly all the way to Mt Tallebung. Fantastic.’
He drove off, giving her a wave. Marta smiled. She wondered what he really thought of the place and whether he would indeed buy it, or anywhere else for that matter. Marta had got to know Terence quite well, she saw a little of herself in him for the past still haunted them both. She wasn’t sure that growing grapes would lay the ghosts to rest. She went to retrieve Sandra’s belongings from the Mercedes.
Outside the clinic, Jenny Secombe, who’d never been in a Mercedes in her life, was parked with her boyfriend, Tony Pieri, in Tony’s beaten up panel van. This was the vehicle that Jenny’s father privately thought of as the sin bin, even whilst fervently hoping that his daughter committed no fall from grace within it. Jenny was nervous about this landmark visit to the doctor and rather wished she’d come alone; she didn’t need Tony making things worse.
‘I’ll come in too if you like.’ He almost had to yell over the sound of Rick Springfield belting out Jessie’s Girl on the cassette-player. Jenny leaned over and turned it off. It was a good song but she thought the occasion deserved a bit more solemnity. ‘If you’re nervous.’
‘I’m not nervous. Well just a bit. And you’d only get embarrassed.’
‘No I wouldn’t.’
Jenny started to get out of the car. ‘Don’t wait. I’ll see you tonight.’
‘Hey! What if your father finds out?’
‘How could he? Doctors are like priests. Sworn to secrecy.’
‘You hope.’ He grinned at her. He had the best smile. It was the one of the things she loved about him. He was her first real boyfriend. She loved everything about him.
Jenny walked off towards the clinic entrance. As Tony started the car, a hand grabbed the steering wheel.
‘Hey, Pieri, what’s doin’?’
Peter bloody Gleeson. Three years older than Tony, he’d been picking on him since primary school.
‘Dropping your girlfriend off at the doc, Tone, what’s that all about?’
‘None of your business, Pete.’
‘I’m just concerned about her, mate. Real concerned.’
‘Got the flu, hasn’t she?’
‘The flu?’ Peter laughed. ‘You sure you haven’t got her up the duff?’ He left then, still laughing, leaving Tony seething but knowing better than to go after him. You always came off second best with people like Peter Gleeson. ‘Should have been drowned at birth’ was Tony’s uncharitable character assessment and many – Sergeant Frank Gilroy included – might have agreed.