Books by Roger Crook

Bangalore

A Fatwa in the Outback

Bangalore is a one million acre sheep station in the Gascoyne region, over a thousand kilometres north of Perth in Western Australia.  Bangalore has been owned and leased from the Crown by the Sinclair family since the 1860s. Lachlan Sinclair and his Indian wife, Indira, the daughter of Indian Royalty, packed up and left the East India Company in India, shortly after the Indian rebellion in the 1850s, and together with several Indian families, camels and horses, and quite a lot of money they settled and pioneered Bangalore. 

The owner of Bangalore is Angus Sinclair, although his father Lachlan, a much decorated bomber pilot from WWII is still alive and fit and living in Perth. Angus manages Bangalore with the help of Alice and her son, Ali. Alice is a direct descendant of one of the original Indian families, now in her seventies she is twenty or so years older than Angus. Still a beautiful and somewhat regal lady and having been Angus’ nanny and governess and now his general factotum she knows Angus as well as he knows himself, maybe better. Ali is the Overseer on Bangalore and Angus treats him like a second son.

Chapter 1.

Just another day at Bangalore.

It was an hour before dawn; there was a faint streak of grey in the eastern sky. It was hot and stiflingly humid. A galah screeched and a mob of magpies warbled their morning song. In the distance a black crow mournfully replied. He wondered if the crow could read his mind and the galah was laughing at him. The magpies were just being magpies, calling to each other, fooling around, celebrating another day. They didn’t care.

It had been one of those summer nights without end. It had been too hot with the overhead fan off and too noisy with it on. The noise of the fan had never bothered him before.

Grumbling to nobody he went through to the kitchen and made a cup of tea. The effort made him sweat. He took his tea into the shower and let cold water run over his sweaty body. Without drying himself he put on an old khaki sleeveless shirt and faded pair of blue shorts. Eventually he found two matching socks and put them on. Why they had to match he didn’t know. It was that kind of morning.

He put a change of clothes plus a pair of denim jeans into an old canvas holdall; two towels and a ready packed toilet bag out of the linen cupboard completed his needs for the trip. He smiled to himself that Alice had remembered to pack the toilet bag for him. She never forgot.

Back in the kitchen, Angus Lachlan Sinclair sighed. It was going to be a long trip. There were stock-watering points to check and that normally meant with no breakdowns and no windmill repairs, driving all day in the heat on rough tracks and corrugated roads.

This trip was different; it wasn’t going to be normal mill run. There were sheep yards to repair at ‘Queens’, the shearing shed at the other end of the property. A couple of days work at least, and that meant camping out under the stars unless the forecast thunder storms eventuated and then he would camp in the shearers’ quarters.

He went over again in his mind that he’d packed his tucker box and fridge with enough food and supplies and a few cans of beer for an couple of extra days – just in case the unforeseen happened. As he drank his tea he cut a few sandwiches. Home-made bread, cold mutton, and a smear of mint jelly. Then tomato and cheese with plenty of salt and pepper and lastly a hunk of cake for lunch and smoke-o. He packed them into a small Esky with a plastic ice block, leaving just enough room for a couple of oranges.

It was too hot for breakfast so he decided on another cup of tea in his ‘sipper-mug’, which would at least keep him going for the first half-hour of the drive.

The dawn came bright red in the eastern sky as he filled his two canvas water bags from the rainwater tank outside the back door. Angus was ready for the day. He checked the tools and spare parts in the back of his Land Cruiser tray-top for what must have been the umpteenth time. Tools, pipe wrenches, block and tackle, spare pump buckets, bits and pieces for pump-rod repairs, oil and grease. Fencing materials for the yards. Two-stroke petrol and oil for the chain saw. Assorted drill bits, shovels, crowbar, forty litres of water in two old plastic drench drums.

In the vehicle toolbox, fan belts, hoses, Gaffa tape. He knew they were all there but he checked them just the same. He opened the passenger door and his old kelpie, Charlie, jumped in, sat looking through the windscreen ready, as always, for the off. The heat was causing Charlie, to pant and slobber on the canvas seat cover. Angus put the Esky he’d packed on the front seats where he could easily reach it.

Four days later at five-thirty in the afternoon it was still hot. The late February sun shimmered off a red gravel road somewhere in the Gascoyne Region, more than a thousand kilometres north of Perth in Western Australia. Heading for home as fast as the road would allow, his Land Cruiser created swirl of red dust that hung in the still air.

Angus had enjoyed being on his own for a few days. Working quietly, without distraction. The heat of the day had been intense; at night, the storms had stayed away so he’d camped out down by the dry creek, in the same place that he’d camped as a child with his father.

Cooking their evening meal over the campfire. Lying under the stars so bright you could almost touch them, as his father told stories of the old days that he, in turn, had learned from his father. They had talked until he had fallen asleep in his swag to dream of camels and Afghans and droughts. Sometimes, Alice had been there.

Then when shearing time came around his father would wake him with a mug of black billy tea and then it was off to the shearing shed to have breakfast of mutton chops, eggs and piles of toast with the shearers, roustabouts and shed hands as they sat around the big table talking quietly.

The shearers telling ‘lies’ about how many sheep they had shorn, their tally, at the last shed, joking, smoking and trying to get their bodies, their stiff muscles moving for another day of the intense physical effort needed to shear a couple of hundred sheep in an eight-hour day – in the heat.

Then, when the wool classer rang the bell at seven-thirty the shearing shed was transformed. Shearers pulling sheep out of the pens, roustabouts picking up the fleeces and throwing them onto the wool-tables, other roustabouts sweeping the board clean before they got pushed aside by a shearer dragging out another sheep, trying to achieve a tally bigger than the day before.

He remembered how he would rush around with his father, pushing unshorn sheep into the shearing shed and driving the shorn sheep away. Dogs barking and running along the backs of the sheep, nipping ears, pushing them ever closer to the shearers. Dogs lying in water troughs to cool off. How he would stand listening as his father talked to the wool classer about the clip, the quality, and the fleece weights.

Then, at nine-thirty the bell would ring again and the frantic activity would stop. Half an hour for smoke-o. More tea, sandwiches, fruitcake. A good cook meant a happy team. Some of the shearers lay on the floor; others sat and cleaned their shearing gear as the half-hour break ticked away and their bodies recovered. Then, as ten o’clock approached the shearers would line up by the catching pens ready to dash in and grab another sheep as soon as the wool classer rang the bell.

So it went on every day, day after day after day, until it was finished. There were three shearing sheds, fifty thousand or more sheep to be shorn. Four two-hour ‘runs’ a day. Start at seven-thirty finish at five-thirty. At the end of the day he always had to wait until all the shearing team had had their shower, which always meant that the water was cold when his turn came. Clean clothes for dinner with the shearing team, listen to the stories as they drank their beer and then down to the creek to lie under the stars as his father talked him to sleep.

Now forty years on, as he drove north and the sun sank lower in the western sky its rays gradually crept across the cabin of his Land Cruiser. Charlie, to get out of the heat, abandoned the seat for the floor, where he lay panting.

Angus reached down and scratched the dog’s head and got a lick on the hand in return. They had been together for nearly fifteen years and knew each other well. The dog sighed. Angus squinted at a mirage that danced on the gravel road ahead. He thought he saw the dust of another vehicle, but wasn’t sure. It could have been a little whirlwind, a ‘willy-willy’.

A dry, rough creek bed tested the Toyota’s suspension. The steel boxes full of hammers, pipe-wrenches, assorted tools and pipefittings, rattled in the back.

Angus changed down a gear, then another, as he negotiated the steep bank out of the creek; his attention was momentarily distracted by a couple of kangaroos startled by his sudden appearance. They stopped and looked at him. He thought about a feed for his dog and for himself if he shot the young one. The kangaroos sat up and watched him. It was getting late and he couldn’t be bothered spending half an hour butchering, so he took one hand off the steering wheel and gave them a wave. They seemed to understand and hopped off.

As the Land Cruiser climbed out of the creek, a blue, new model Volkswagen Beetle going in the opposite direction startled him as it passed within inches of his door mirror and disappeared into the dry creek bed he had just negotiated. He stopped, and as the dust cleared he saw the Volkswagen make it safely to the other side and keep going.

All he’d seen of the driver was sunglasses and a bright red baseball cap. He thought it was a girl or at least female. “Don’t think she saw me, Charlie; bet that creek bed rattled her,” he said to the dog who had now jumped back up on to the seat and was looking out of the back window as the little car disappeared in its own dust. “Gets more like bloody Hay Street every day; next thing you know we’ll have busloads of tourists wanting to experience the magic of the bush in summer.” Charlie pushed his nose under Angus’ arm and grunted in agreement. Angus scratched him behind the ears. Satisfied that his comments had been accepted the dog jumped back on to the floor and sighed again. “One more mill, old timer, and then back for a cold beer.” Charlie sighed again.

The last mill, the last watering point of the day, was about 200 metres off the road. Angus checked the water tank and it was full. The mill creaked in the afternoon breeze and with each rotation of the big fan it moved the pump rods up and down and the pump lifted more water from deep below ground and into the tank. Because the tank was full, an overflow pipe directed the water back down the bore.

Soon the sheep would be in for their drink at sundown and they would half empty the tank to quench their thirst. So, he calculated if the mill broke down when the tank was full there was two days’ water in reserve. If it broke down after the stock had watered, then there was only a day. Angus thought about that and casually wondered whether his life was half-full or half-empty and decided he didn’t know. The question was too much after a long day in the sun. Would the mill break down? He didn’t know. But then it could. Then again it never had and it was well maintained, so probably not.

Angus knew he had too many sheep on the one watering point and the tank wasn’t big enough. He knew, and that he really should move some sheep away or put in a second, mobile tank. But his best ewes and rams, what he called his ‘Commercial Stud’, were benefiting from the good feed in the river valley, and shearing was only about four maybe six weeks away if the shearers turned up on time; then he could split the mob and take some pressure off the watering point. His life, he reflected, was full of ifs.

He decided to take the easy way out, he would check the tank every couple of days; it was only a short drive from the homestead. If he got time he would bring out an extra tank. His decision nagged a little. Making too many easy decisions? Avoiding the obvious?

He unscrewed the plug out of the end of the trough and using a long-handled trough brush, scrubbed the trough clean, forcing the rubbish that had accumulated out through the plughole together with the dirty water. Charlie lay in the dirty water as it ran over the dry red soil and he grunted with pleasure.

Clean water flowed and when the trough was clean, Angus replaced the plug. Then for no reason that he could later recall, he decided to climb up the windmill tower, perhaps it had been to check the oil? The fan was about ten metres off the ground. As he climbed the ladder on the tower up to the fan he heard a vehicle. As he got to the small wooden platform just underneath the fan he again saw the blue Volkswagen, this time going in the opposite direction, the same direction as he was heading. It was still going hell for leather. He watched as it disappeared, hidden in the vortex of its own dust. The faint breeze had exhausted itself and the fine red dust hung in the air.

It was not all that unusual to see other vehicles on the road. Tourists, prospectors, government employees, shearing teams all used the road. What was unusual was to see a vehicle, a little Volkswagen, with apparently a female driver, charging up and down the road with the sun rapidly setting and the nearest petrol pump a one hundred and fifty kilometres away at Gascoyne Junction. And it was summer and hot, too hot for travellers. He just hoped that whoever it was had told someone where he or she was going.

He climbed down the mill and Charlie watched him and made sure he was going to the Land Cruiser before he left his cool spot in what was now mud. Satisfied that they were off again Charlie got up, shook himself and followed. Angus opened the passenger door and without being told Charlie jumped inside and lay on the floor. Wet and muddy, he knew the seat was off limits.

Back on the road the dust from the Volkswagen had mostly drifted away; traces of it still hung in the hollows. In just twenty kilometres he would be home, back to Bangalore. He thought about the Volkswagen and rather than make the call from his vehicle decided to ring the police station in Carnarvon when he got back to the homestead. He needed a beer. There was nothing he could do anyway. If whoever it was in the little car was lost, if they stayed on the main road they would finish up in Gascoyne Junction, if not tonight then in the morning. If they didn’t turn up by mid-day the next day then the police would make inquiries.

He looked north and saw clouds on the horizon, big thunderheads rising, catching the setting sun. It was still hot. A faint breeze had picked up again and it was now coming from the direction of the clouds; occasionally a stronger gust raised a bit of dust off the road. He looked down at the dog, “Might get a thunder storm Charlie, cool the place down a bit. God, I’m ready for a beer.” Charlie grunted.

Every time he drove off the road, over the cattle grid and into the driveway of his home, Bangalore Station, passed the now-faded sign that said ‘Bangalore Station-Circa 1880’, he thought of his great grandfather and the vision that he must have had over a hundred and thirty years before.

He never failed to marvel at the man’s foresight in those harsh pioneer days – days before cars, before phones, before anything really. Just days filled with hard work, family, horses, camels and sheep – but most of all planning for the future.

Big palm trees lined both sides of the narrow straight drive, their fronds nearly touching high overhead, providing instant shade for the weary traveller. The palms must have been collected at the coast, hauled by camel train for probably two weeks, carefully tended en route to keep their roots alive and then planted and watered by hand until they were established. No more than a metre high when they were planted, they now stood tall and proud and nearly ten metres high.

Over the years, they had withstood flood and drought and more than one cyclone. When his great grandfather died they were probably no more than a couple of metres high. Like everything else on Bangalore, what had been done in the early days had been done for the future.

The driveway forked about a hundred metres from the homestead and he took the left fork to take him round the back of the old house. Had he driven to the front he would have been welcomed by sweeping well-manicured lawns, rose beds and a small fountain standing in front of the five wide wooden steps leading to the four-metre wide veranda. Bangalore was an oasis in a hot and potentially hostile land.

The only building close to the back of the house was a bough shed, built to house the light horse carriages of another time; it now served as a three-vehicle carport. He reached over and opened the passenger door and Charlie jumped out and headed for the back door of the old house. He opened his own door, got out, took two canvas water bags off their clips behind the cab and followed his dog.

Angus could smell the cooking before he pulled open the flywire door. Alice, his housekeeper was standing at the sink in the big kitchen. A tall statuesque woman, now in her late sixties but looking twenty years younger, smiled at him. Her dark-brown skin contrasted with her perfect white teeth. Her grey hair was pulled back into a tight bun accentuating her long neck, her dark dress, as always, nearly touched the floor.

Alice’s great grandfather had been an Afghan camel driver, one of the famous cameleers, part of the folk law of the pioneering of the West Australian outback. Her family had lived on Bangalore from the beginning. Their ancestors, Angus’ great grandfather Lachlan Sinclair and his Afghans, had built Bangalore, and the ‘Bangalore Afghans’ had never left.

Alice dried her hands on a tea towel. “There’s someone here to see you.”

“Who?”

“Don’t know, Angus. Young lady, good looking, got here about half an hour ago.”

“What does she want, petrol?”

“Not as far as I know; she asked for you by name.”

“What did you tell her?”

“I said I expected you back this evening if you had finished your work but that you might not be back until tomorrow. I gave her a cup of tea and she’s out on the front veranda.”

“I’d better go and see what she wants then. Is she driving a blue car?”

As he opened the door from the kitchen into the long hallway he heard Alice say, “Yes, blue Volkswagen”.

Angus pushed open the flywire door leading from the cool hallway and stepped out on to the polished floor of the veranda and into the last of the day’s heat. A young woman was sitting in one of the armchairs and she stood up. Tall, very slim almost thin, mousy blond hair cut quite short. Her face was tanned and she wore no makeup. A faded blue shirt and equally faded loose-fitting jeans and brown elastic-sided boots completed the picture. She was, he thought, thirty – early thirties?

Angus smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Angus Sinclair.”

Her handshake was firm and she looked him in the eye as she replied, “I’m Patricia Fawcett.”

“Pleased to meet you, Patricia.” He raised his eyebrows trying to ask the question as to why she was there.

“I’ve been trying to ring you for three days. Couldn’t get through so I decided yesterday to drive up here. I missed the gate the first time; there was another vehicle, one of those road trains, and I got lost in the dust and must have driven right past.” She was rushing her words and she seemed a little agitated. First impressions were that she was calm and composed. Now that was changing.

Angus, sensing her mounting distress, said quietly, “I’ve been out on the mill run and doing some yard repairs for a few days, but I’ve had my satellite phone turned on all the time; must be on the blink, sorry about that. But what brings you all the way out here?” He spread his hands palms up, “I’m sorry you have me at a loss.”

“I spoke to your wife.”

“Ex-wife.”

“I’m sorry, ex-wife, and she said she’d been trying to reach you as well and that you could be anywhere for all she knew. She seemed very exasperated with you. So I decided to take some leave and come up here, I felt someone had to find you and tell you.” She made a conscious effort to stand up straight; she pulled her shoulders back and looked at him.

Angus saw this and again said quietly and with a lop-sided grin, “Michelle is always exasperated with me. You still haven’t answered my question though, Patricia. What really brings you to Bangalore? You could have rung the police if it’s an emergency. They would have found me. You could have kept on ringing the homestead number.”

“Ewen hasn’t told you then?”

“Ewen, like his mother doesn’t tell me very much. Like mother like son. We spoke just before he left for Afghanistan for his current tour with the army. Even army pilots are secretive buggers you know?”

“I know. You haven’t heard about Ewen then?”

She was looking at him without blinking. He could see tears welling in her eyes and a cold shiver ran down his back. “Heard what?” He didn’t want the answer.

Visibly holding her emotions in check, very slowly she said, “Ewen is missing, more than a week now. The army didn’t say anything for a few days; security reasons they said, apparently, Ewen’s helicopter took unfriendly fire on a mission. They put down with little damage and came under even heavier fire. Some of the troopers made it back; some didn’t, though nobody saw anybody killed. They split up to distract the Taliban. I think they’ve sent a search party out today their time. My Commanding Officer said he would ring here as soon as they hear anything, but if your phone isn’t working…”

Now she lost her composure and tears filled her eyes and she sniffed as her nose ran in sympathy. She felt her pockets for a handkerchief and couldn’t find one. Angus gave her his; it was big and red and white and a little oily in places. She wiped her eyes and left a smudge of oil on one cheek. She blew her nose and went to hand the handkerchief back and then changed her mind and hesitated.

“Keep it; stick it in the laundry basket in the bathroom later. You must stay the night of course. Sorry silly thing to say, where else could you go? Didn’t mean that either. I don’t want you to go anywhere. I’m grateful that you have come all this way to tell me. The reason you haven’t had any reply from this phone is because Alice only got back from Carnarvon this afternoon. Been away for a week or more seeing her relations and it seems that my phone in the Ute is on the blink. Sorry if I’m not making much sense, I’m trying to get my mind round what you’ve said. Would you like a drink?” She nodded. “Whisky, gin and tonic, beer?”

“Whisky please.”

“Ice, water, straight? I think I’ll join you, the need for beer seems to have gone.”

“Lots of ice please.”

Feeling inadequate but trying to comfort her he said, “Good girl, only way to have it. Go and sit down again and I’ll fetch the drinks.”

Angus’ mind was in turmoil as he went back into the house and then into the lounge to the drinks cabinet. He pulled out a bottle of Johnnie Walker, two tumblers, opened the bar fridge and half-filled both tumblers with ice. He heard Alice, barefooted, softly pad into the room behind him.

“Is something wrong, Angus?”

“Yes, Alice, Ewen is missing in Afghanistan.”

“My God, the poor boy, when did this happen?”

Alice, standing close to the doorway switched on the light. Her ancestors had come from northern India and not Afghanistan and she had never been to either country – yet in Australia they had always, wrongly, been called Afghans. The shock and the pain were evident in her face at the news. She had read about the Taliban and the things that they did. She had seen them on television. She had been a second mother to Ewen. Maybe even his mother in every way except that she hadn’t given birth to him.

Thoughts of Ewen rushed through her head. She thought about his mother, Michelle, who, almost from the beginning, had been too busy for children, too busy for Bangalore except when it suited her. She had insisted that the children went to boarding school as soon as they were old enough. ‘Just babies really,’ thought Alice.

Then in the nineties when wool prices crashed due to the stockpile, Michelle left Bangalore for good, preferring to live in their house in Claremont, one of the better suburbs in Perth. But Ewen and his sister Rachael stayed in boarding school.

Both schools were no more than five minutes’ drive from where Michelle lived, so when she could spare the time, which wasn’t often, she saw them at the weekends. As these thoughts rushed through her head, Alice thought about her poor Ewen lost somewhere in that foreign land – maybe dead.

Bottle and glasses in hand, Angus looked at the pain in Alice’s clear blue eyes. He’d never seen her cry and now she stood there looking at him, tears welling in her eyes, not knowing what to say.

“He’s just missing as far as I can tell. They’ve gone looking for him now. The girl out the front is an army pilot as well, I think. I gather she must be Ewen’s girlfriend.”

“She’s wearing an engagement ring.”

“I hadn’t noticed. Maybe more than a girlfriend then. I must take these drinks out. Help yourself will you, and excuse my manners this once?” He smiled at her and she touched his arm.

“Away you go, Angus, and take care of the young lady. I already have one in the kitchen, God bless Johnnie Walker, I say.” She turned and walked quietly back to the kitchen wiping her eyes with the tea towel.

Angus found Patricia standing at the top of the veranda steps looking over the small fountain and beyond down the drive between the two rows of palm trees. The last rays of a fiery red sunset were shining straight up the drive silhouetting the palms and giving them a majestic red glow.

She turned as he approached and he saw that she was more composed; then she turned to look at the garden again, “Is this sunset just by accident or did someone know what they were doing?”

“The sunset up the drive and on the palms? I suspect old Lachlan, my great grandfather, like with everything he did, knew exactly what he was doing.”

“It’s quite beautiful, almost majestic.”

He held out a glass. “Say when.” He splashed whisky over the ice cubes.

“When, thank you.”

For the first time he saw her smile. He noticed that like Alice, her eyes were blue, a pale blue. He poured himself a good measure and put the bottle on a small table between two big cane armchairs. They stood looking at each other, neither knowing how to re-start their conversation.

Like Alice had said there was a ring on her engagement finger. She watched him waiting for the question and when none came she said, “Ewen and I got engaged the day before he left. We decided not to tell anyone. Ewen insisted that he wanted you to be the first to know. This is the first time I’ve worn the ring. We chose it at Rosendorfs. It’s an Argyle diamond.” She held out her hand for him to look.

“I’m no judge of these things, Patricia, as my ex will confirm, but it looks quite beautiful. Did you tell Michelle?”

“No.”

“I must ring his sister. She’s in Sydney, doing another degree or diploma or something. She’s a doctor, something to do with babies this time, I think. She and Ewen are very close; I think they relied on each other all through school. I was up here and their mother… well, that’s a long story. I’ll ring her in the morning. Her mother will have told her by now I would think.”

“Mr Sinclair, can I call you Angus?”

“Of course you must, I’m sorry I always forget the formalities. Do you get called Patricia or Pat?”

“Pat. Only my parents call me Patricia.”

Alice appeared at the doorway. “Angus, I’ve put your dinner out on the table in the breakfast room. It’s cooler in there. All you have to do is carve; it’s a bit of beef fillet. I brought fresh salad back from Carnarvon; what’s in the garden is just about finished. I’ve got my dinner and I’ll take it down to my cottage and leave you two in peace.”

Angus beckoned Alice forward. “Alice, this is Patricia Fawcett, known as Pat. She and Ewen are engaged and I’m sorry I haven’t introduced you before.”

Alice smiled warmly. “Welcome to Bangalore, Pat. I’m sorry about Ewen. Such a dear boy. Like us, you must be terribly worried; all we can do is wait, isn’t it? I’m sure… I pray he’ll be all right.

“I’ve put towels out in the first bedroom on the right through this door. You have your own shower and toilet, so don’t worry about having to wander round this old house in the dark. I’ve also put a dressing gown on the bed; such bulky things to pack, good towelling robes, I always think. Good night Angus, Pat, God bless.”

Angus beckoned Pat to follow Alice down the long hallway to the back of the house. Just before they got to the kitchen he said, “Next on the right.” She pushed the door open into what Alice had called the breakfast room. It was quite a small room; the walls were painted a pale blue that contrasted with the clear varnish on the dark-brown skirting boards, door and polished floor. A small, what looked like very old, oak dining table that would easily seat four was in the middle of the room; on it Alice had set two places, a big bowl of salad together with a small fillet of beef on a carving plate.

“Wine, Pat?”

“Yes please.”

“Red or white? I can open both.”

“Red please.” As she was speaking she was gazing at the walls of the room that were hung with what seemed dozens of photographs. Camel trains with bales of wool. Men on horseback, many of them with fine beards and moustaches. Men wearing strange headdresses attending to camels. Men on big four-wheel drays loaded with bales of wool. Beautiful dark-haired, dark-skinned women, some wearing what looked like saris and then the same women dressed in Victorian-style clothes. Mostly the women were unsmiling, just looking at the camera, sometimes just a hint of a smile, but always beautiful.

There was a faded picture of what she recognised as the front of Bangalore homestead under construction. Men leaning on shovels, holding hammers, some of the men with pipes in their mouths. Her attention was drawn to the man at the front of the picture. Tall, slim, almost laconic in the way that he stood and looked at the camera; she thought she could see Angus in his eyes. Then she saw a picture of Ewen in uniform.

“That was taken at his passing-out parade, ten years ago, maybe more. That’s his mother and my mother. That’s my father standing at the back. I took the photograph.” The similarity, the almost unreal likeness between the grandfather, son and grandson was striking.

“Are your parents still alive?”

“My word they are. Both in their eighties, fit as fiddles, though the old man claims that his longevity is due to a lifetime of drinking whisky and smoking a foul black shag that he stuffs into his pipe. Mother is from an old English family with French origins. She has distant relatives here in WA, all from the French stock; they’ve been in WA as long as the Sinclairs.

“My mother and father met during World War Two. Dad was a pilot. Mum was a nurse. They live in Perth now, a house in Dalkeith by the river. Come and sit down. This fine fillet is nearly cold but it’ll still be the best you’ve ever had, I guarantee.”

Before he joined her at the table Angus turned down the lights that illuminated the walls; just one light was left on over the table. They sat facing each other. They helped themselves to salad and Angus passed the dish of carefully carved pink slices of fillet. He poured her a glass of red wine and one for himself. He looked at her and smiled. She saw the face in the old photograph. He raised his glass. “To Ewen, a safe return, back to you, Pat, where he belongs.”

She smiled and raised the glass to her lips. As she looked at him again she saw Ewen in the dark eyes. “This is a lovely wine.”

“Made by a bloke I went to school with. Made a packet in the eighties, most of it legal, I think. But then again, you could float a sinking ship on the Stock Exchange in those days. Anyway, he made some serious money and cashed up and went with his third wife, I think, to Margaret River.

“Happy as pigs they are down there now. He keeps me in wine and fossicks around the other wineries for anything else that he thinks I might like. He sends me far too much, but he’s seen the big cellar under this house and he insists that it must be stocked. The way I’m going, my heirs will be able to drink themselves silly and not spend a dollar.”

The mention of his heirs took the smile off her face as she thought about Ewen somewhere in the moonscape of Afghanistan. Angus saw her expression change and said softly, “He’ll be all right, Pat. We must be positive.” Scared to admit a shiver had gone down his spine as well.

She gazed into the red wine in her glass and, without looking at him, said quietly, “I know. I’ve been there. To Afghanistan…it’s such a hostile landscape to fly in…never mind the Taliban; they just make it infinitely worse. But the troops have very sophisticated communications…even personal satellite phones.”

Angus put a little more wine in his glass. “So if Ewen and his mates are out there then they, his commanders, will know?”

“Yes, they will – getting them out is the difficult part. Nobody knows where the Taliban are, not for sure anyway. They, the Taliban, have some quite sophisticated weapons and communications as well. Some left behind by the Russians, most from over the border in Pakistan, probably bought with US aid money. The other trouble is, it’s an SAS operation, so they could be anywhere, even in Pakistan.”

“If they are in Pakistan, what does that mean?”

“I’m not sure, but I gather it would save a lot of trouble if they could get back into Afghanistan. There seems to be a fine balance between the war against terrorism and invading Pakistan’s airspace and all the diplomacy that would involve. I’m only just another pilot, Angus. I can only tell you what we have been told when flying out there.”

‘What was Ewen flying?’

“Who knows? They were probably flying at night using night-vision. Low-level stuff. Not without danger at the best of times.”

A moth attracted by the light fluttered around the hot light globe. It clung to it for a moment and then, damaged, fell to the table, still fluttering, not dead but disoriented. They both watched it struggle back into flight and back into the heat of the globe only to fall again.

Chapter 2.

The waiting begins.

When Pat woke the next morning it was to a soft knock on her bedroom door. Realising she was naked Pat scrambled to find the towelling bathrobe Alice had provided. All she could remember from the night before was that they had finished their meal, Angus had fetched her canvas holdall from her car, steered her towards her bedroom, given her a quick kiss on the cheek, said goodnight and opened the bedroom door for her. She didn’t remember undressing; getting into the big soft bed was the last thing she remembered.

There was another knock and as she pulled the robe around her Alice’s head appeared round the door. “Tea Pat, I took a guess and made it white with no sugar?”

“Thanks Alice. Have I slept in, what time is it?”

“Just after seven. No, you haven’t slept in. In case you’ve forgotten, today is Sunday so Angus is only just up. I think he was all tuckered out last night like you. He’s out on the veranda drinking tea; go and join him.”

“I need a shower first.”

“Go and join him. He’s just sitting there in shorts and tee-shirt. Drink your tea out there, then, have a shower while I get breakfast. Do you want something cooked? There’s plenty of fruit and cereals. I brought some fresh bread out from Carnarvon. Baking day is Tuesday after washday on Monday. Old habits you know, they never die.”

“Just fruit and cereals for me, Alice. I’m not vegetarian, that fillet last night was scrummy, but I don’t eat a lot of meat. I find it easier living on my own; buy it raw eat it raw, saves on the washing up.”

“Scrambled eggs? Guaranteed organic chooks.”

“What will Angus have?”

“Probably everything that you have plus scrambled eggs and bacon and piles of toast. I keep telling him that one day he’ll start putting weight on, but he doesn’t, like his father; thin as an old roo dog and eats enough for three.”

Alice motioned to the French windows leading out on to the veranda. “Go out that way. He’s just outside reading the papers I brought out from town. He doesn’t bother with papers much, only when I get them.”

Pat tied her robe, slipped the catch on the doors and stepped out on to the veranda. She could tell it was going to be a hot again, maybe more humid than the previous day. The evening thunderclouds were still there; now they were more active but silent in their mounting rage.

The west side of Bangalore was in the shade and the first thing Pat noticed was the scent from the hundreds of roses in the flower beds that, mixed with the scent from the biggest Frangipani she had ever seen, gave the morning a gentle and exotic freshness.

From a big high-backed cane armchair she heard, “Morning, Pat, lovely morning?”

Angus was lounging in the big chair. Faded blue tee-shirt and shorts, tousled uncombed hair, two days of black stubble flecked with grey. Arms and legs deeply tanned except for his feet, which, shaded from the sun by boots, were a creamy light tan. He looked rested and relaxed.

“Morning, Angus, this quiet, the smell of the roses, the gentle light is all a bit surreal; yesterday was so tumultuous.” She smiled as she sat in a chair opposite him, “Did I fall asleep at the table last night?”

“Nearly. I realised at one stage that I was talking to myself so I went and got your bag out of your car, showed you to your room pushed you inside, you mumbled goodnight and that was that. I then rang my father and to give him the news. He took it well and sent his best to you.”

Pat looked out on the lawns and the roses and then further out beyond the lawn to the carefully planted river red gums and white barked river gums, which provided a natural barrier between the garden and the wide expanse of the red dusty outback.

As she was looking, Angus started talking. “Somewhere in the office there are the original drawings of my great grandfather’s design, his vision of what he wanted the garden to look like. We’ve pretty much remained faithful to that vision, even the fountain was his idea but the best he could do was feed it from a cocky tank, you know, one up on a high stand. It worked all right but now I’ve put a little solar pump on it so it runs during the day and turns off at night. I can override it if we have guests and they want atmosphere here in this uninhabited land.” She looked at him and could see that he was smiling with eyebrows raised, almost mocking those who wanted to impose on his sanctuary.

“All these gardens, Angus, they must use a lot of water?” As she spoke sprinklers popped up on one section of the lawn and immediately attracted a few galahs and some little birds she didn’t recognise.

“Water is something that we have plenty of. How he did it, heaven knows. Imagine coming out here over a hundred years ago with nothing except a few horses, pack camels and camel carts and deciding, in mid-summer mind you, that this was the place. Some say there was a water diviner among the Afghans. Some say there was an old blackfella in the party as a guide and that he picked the spot. All I can find from the records, old Lachlan kept a detailed diary, is that they decided to dig a well right here on this spot not a hundred yards from where we are sitting; that was the first thing they did.

“It took three months to get through rock and shale. They felled and pit sawed timber to line the well as they went down and down. The diary says the first well, they dug two over the first five years, the first well was just over ten yards deep. Water started seeping into the hole and they worked all night to shore up as the water rose higher. By next morning it was just two yards from the top and it was perfectly pure crystal clear water.

“The next thing they did was build a bough-shed, which served as the first homestead. Then Lachlan went down to New Norcia and bought his first merinos. Put them on a sailing ship and brought them up to Carnarvon, and from there they walked two hundred ewes and a dozen rams all the way out here. It took them months and they didn’t lose a sheep. That was the start of Bangalore.” Standing up, he said, “Come on, I can smell breakfast. Time for a quick shower before Alice rings the bell.”

Standing in the shower letting the luxury of the hot water wash away some of the stiffness from her long drive Pat thought about Ewen and how like his father he was, certainly in looks anyway. The only difference she thought she could see was that Ewen had a hard driven streak that she hadn’t yet seen in Angus.

She’d never seen Ewen really relax. His idea of relaxation was a never-ending search for excellence, to be the best at everything he did, coming second was unacceptable. From what she’d seen of Angus, father and son were not the same. Then she thought of Ewen somewhere in hostile country, maybe dead, and her heart skipped a beat.

Angus was already in the breakfast room when she joined him. She’d changed into khaki shorts and dark blue tee-shirt and because all she had with her were her elastic-sided boots, she was barefoot.

Angus had showered and his normally curly black to grey hair was still wet and glistened, but he wore the same old tee-shirt and shorts he’d worn on the veranda and he hadn’t shaved. “Cereals, fruit, fresh bananas, mangoes all on the sideboard, help yourself, Pat. Toaster and bread there too; make your own in this house. Alice will be here in a minute with what you can smell cooking. Tea in the pot too, don’t drink coffee. There might be some old instant stuff around somewhere if you really want it.”

“No, tea is fine; do me good to get off the coffee for a while. I think I drink too much of it. It goes with the job is my only excuse.” She put a few cornflakes into a bowl, picked out a mango and turned to sit at the table and noticing it was set for three people, hesitated.

Without looking up from peeling another mango, Angus said, “Alice will claim that she is not a creature of habit but she always sits there,” pointing with his knife to the place on his left. “So you can sit anywhere you like so long as it is where you were last night.” He went on, “Pleased to see you have a mango, make the most of it. Alice is a closet mango eater. I bet there are a couple of trays in the cool room today, minus what we have here, but you watch; they’ll just disappear.”

The doors through to the hallway and the kitchen were open and Alice came in carrying a tray. “I heard every bit of that, Angus; I’m surprised you would mock someone for such a small weakness of character. It’s my only vice, Pat.”

“Except for Uncle Johnnie,” said Angus still looking at his mango trying to hide a smile.

Alice paid no attention to him. She rested the tray on the table, passed Angus his scrambled eggs and bacon, gave Pat her plate and then put her own down. As she went to put the tray back in the kitchen, in what Pat could only interpret as a genuine sign of affection, as Alice passed Angus she squeezed his forearm and he smiled at her.

Breakfast was an easy affair. Pat was conscious that Alice kept on steering the conversation away from any mention of Ewen. She talked about her great grandfather being a camel driver for Lachlan Sinclair and how they had started as man and servant and finished dying within weeks of each other as firm friends, inseparable to the end, it was said.

Alice pointed out her grandfather in one of the faded photographs with a group including Lachlan. Her grandfather was a tall thin angular man with a big moustache and what looked like arms too long and big for his body. As Pat studied the photograph, Alice said, “He was a big man, wasn’t he? Legend has it that he was so strong that nobody dared challenge him. I think he got his strength from loading and unloading camels from when he was a boy. It must have been so hard in those days.”

They heard the phone ring and Alice stood up and said, “I’ll get it, could be my niece having problems with the baby. Don’t know why she rings me. She’s had more children than I ever had.”

She returned almost immediately, “It’s for you, Angus. It’s Michelle.”

Without saying anything Angus picked up his mug of tea and went to the phone, shutting the breakfast room door behind him.

Alice looked at Patricia. “Now this has the potential to ruin what could have been a quiet day. Michelle gets under his skin. Even now after all this time. You won’t hear Angus shout or anything like that; if he gets upset he will just go away somewhere, in his study, down to the pool, somewhere just to be alone.”

Pat thought for a moment. “I suppose they have something in common at the moment, because of Ewen being missing. It must be hard on both of them. I know I keep on trying to push it out of my head but it’s not possible, Alice. How long have they been divorced?”

“Angus and Michelle? Ewen is what, thirty-two? That makes Rachael thirty. Michelle left here semi-permanently when Ewen was just a toddler, hardly walking. She would go away for months and leave Ewen and his sister, Rachael, here with me. She left permanently when Ewen was about seventeen, so about ninety-seven. She never liked it here from the day she became pregnant with Ewen, which by my calculations was on their wedding night. She wouldn’t divorce Angus until about six or seven years ago. Claimed she was a good Catholic and couldn’t. Then she met her rich lawyer and found she could. Settlement was a ragged affair. If it hadn’t been for Angus’ father having the foresight to tie things up, she could have succeeded in what I think was her aim, and that was to ruin Bangalore. They all became very bitter and wouldn’t talk for years.”

Angus came back into the room, his face expressionless. Looking at them both, he said, “I am not going to say anything that could be construed as derogatory. What Michelle had to say makes some sense. She thinks we should all be together for the next few days or so, or until we hear some news about Ewen. Hopefully it won’t be too long. She said she knew I couldn’t spare the time to be away from my precious Bangalore, quote unquote; then she told me she and Roderick Goldsmith, QC, are waiting at Perth airport now for Rachael, who is flying in from Sydney this morning. She will just have to walk from one terminal to the other and they will board Roddy’s new plane and they will be here at about two-thirty she thought for a late lunch, quote unquote again. Before you ask, Alice, no, she didn’t ask if it was convenient. You know Michelle.”

Pat was the first to speak. “I’d better get moving then; it sounds like a house full.”

For a split second Angus’ eyes flashed in anger but then he smiled. “You will do nothing of the sort. There is enough room in this house for at least a dozen in reasonable comfort. Anyway, you’re family and should be here. How much leave do you have?”

“One week from last Thursday – more if I want it.”

“Good. So you can stay?”

“I brought hardly any clothes.”

“You don’t need many clothes out here, by that I mean that jeans, tee-shirts, shorts and boots will do just fine and the washing machine is in the laundry. I’m sure Alice can find you a pair of sandals. There must be some of Rachael’s clothes around somewhere.”

Alice stood up. “Shall I put Michelle, Roderick and Rachael down in the south wing? It’ll be cooler down there for them. Rachael can have her old room.”

Angus nodded.

Turning to Pat she said, “Come with me, Pat. You can help me make up the beds. It’s easier with two. We’ll get some towels from the linen closet. The sooner we start the sooner we finish. Then I have to think about lunch and dinner for five. I’ll eat on my own tonight I think. Angus, will you clear up the breakfast dishes and put them in the washer and turn it on?”

Angus nodded again, knowing full well that once Alice had a head of steam up, there was no room for ifs or buts, so he started clearing away the dishes.

The phone rang as Alice and Pat were getting fresh sheets and towels out of the linen cupboard in the hall; Alice picked up the phone and said, ‘Bangalore’. She listened for a moment and handed the phone to Pat. “I think it’s your Commanding Officer.”

Pat took the phone. “Pat Fawcett here.”

“Hello, Pat. Harry here. I tried your mobile so I thought you must be up there. How are you?”

“Fine, Harry. I’m with Ewen’s dad; got here yesterday.”

“I have some news, Pat. I’m a bit limited in what I can say because there’s a bit of a flap on. The first thing is, and we don’t know how it happened, but Captain Ewen Sinclair’s face will be all over the international newspapers in the morning together with the beginning of the story of the mission he was on. It first appeared in Pakistan, then the Arabic News Services picked it up, then it was all over the world. The Australian Defence Force press corps has gone into damage control. They had no way of stopping it here once it was on the Internet. We are very suspicious considering the nature of the operation. I can’t say any more at this stage. Looks as if we will have to manage it, and leave it to the Intelligence people to find out how the bloody news got out. Apologise to his parents for me will you? More importantly, the press and others may well contact them in the near future, they need to be aware. I expect the shit to hit the fan quite soon.

“Now for the good news. We had contact from the group yesterday. They are all together again. They estimate they should be in safer country by nightfall. They have two of their party on makeshift stretchers and they are being pursued. No details. Once we get a firm position, and we know they can stay within the vicinity, we should have them out at first light tomorrow morning their time, earlier if we can, but as you know, it’s not easy up there. If we evacuate them at first light we will be able to send some assistance in with the evacuation team. If we have to evacuate them at night, then it will be more difficult. They are four hours behind us, so that with luck, if they go in the dark, the evacuation team will be in the air sometime after midnight our time or around then. Sorry I can’t be more specific. I’ve tried to ring Ewen’s mother at home and on her mobile, but all I get is answering machines and her message bank. Is she with you?”

“She’ll be here this afternoon; she’s flying up.”

“Good. You tell her then, and his father, please. I’ll ring this number as soon as we have something definite. I’ve probably said more than I should on an open phone; I just hope I am in front of the ‘mob’. That phone will get busy very soon. Don’t worry about your unscheduled leave – that’s all covered and squared away. Stay positive, Pat. Speak to you soon. Goodbye.”

“Bye, Harry.” Before she could say ‘thanks’ the connection went dead.

Angus and Alice were watching her as she put the phone down. She told them what she had been told, especially about the publicity concerning Ewen, and added, “That means they were over the border in Pakistan and soon they will be back in Afghanistan. It’s a difficult choice they have, whether to evacuate them under cover of darkness or wait until first light. They will have to take an escort, probably Apaches, but the terrain is difficult and the evacuation team will stand a better chance of finding them in daylight. Conversely they will present a better target if the enemy is close.” With an air of resignation she said, “All we can do is wait.”

“And pray,” Alice added.

Pat then looked at them both, her expression was serious and she seemed to have gone pale, she didn’t take her eyes off Angus as she spoke.

“My CO says there has been a ‘stuff up’ as he put it. Ewen’s photograph with a story of the crash has gone viral on the world media. They, the ADF, don’t know how it happened. They say the story first appeared on an Arabic radio with the name, then television with the pictures, then the Internet and before anyone could even try to stop it, it was all over the world. They couldn’t stop the press coverage once it was on the Internet. The origin of the story was apparently from sources beyond their control. It is not NATO and certainly not Australian policy to release personal details of our Special Forces. My CO was really telling me there has been a serious security breach. He says we may get other visitors, not just from the press; he didn’t say from whom or from where. He asked me to apologise to you all on behalf of the ADF.”

Angus was the first to speak. Alice, looking apprehensive, stood quite still. “ Pat, any idea what is behind this security breach? What does that mean?”

“All I know, Angus, is that great care is taken to ensure the identities, especially of our Special Forces personnel, are kept secret. That is why when you see them on television they are wearing something that covers their faces – usually balaclavas – or their faces are blurred out. I have no experience so I am just assuming that once the pictures of Ewen were all over the Internet, then the Australian press ran with it. If someone like Reuters or another big news agency ran it, again I am presuming, the Australian press would have assumed it was okay. Again, I don’t know but I would imagine the ADF are trying to put a lid on it now but it’s probably too late. Not much they can do if it’s on Fox News and in the Sun newspaper in the UK, and of course all over the Internet. I suppose, depending on what kind of mission they were on in Pakistan, Ewen’s face will be plastered all over the media and there will now be a mass of speculation.”

Now Alice spoke. “Pat, they hide their identity to try and prevent reprisals?”

“Yes and no. These men are covert operators. You cannot be covert if your picture is in the paper – well, it makes it more difficult. Sometimes these men operate in civilian clothes here in Australia. They may be on duty when foreign diplomats or leaders visit if the AFP needs extra help. In Afghanistan they may well be dressed like the locals. I am not being clever, but covert means just that, and this is a war on terror, a war that relies on intelligence gathering by people who are…well… covert.”

Angus asked, “What will this mean for Ewen?”

“I have no idea, Angus. He’s probably in the safest place on the planet right now. Let’s just see what develops; nothing has changed. We will tell the others when they get here. Honestly, I am as much in the dark as to what might happen as you are. The ADF will try and persuade the papers to let it slide, but I don’t like their chances. There is nothing the ADF can do about the Internet or the foreign press. The best we can hope for is that something more important crops up and the press concentrates on that. It may well blow over in a couple of days.”

Alice sighed and said, “Well, Pat, we had better get on with what we started. It looks as if we are in for difficult times.”

The South Wing, or Madam President’s Quarters, as Angus later called it after his ex-wife, comprised two small single bedrooms, a double bedroom, a small comfortable lounge and a big bathroom with two showers.

All the rooms were furnished with old comfortable furniture that Pat thought were probably antiques. As she and Alice made up the beds Alice gave her the history.

“Angus’ grandfather added this wing. It was built so the next generation, in this case Angus’ father and family, could get away from the grandparents. So Angus and Michelle used it when they got married and I think Michelle hated it. She hated not having the run and control of the whole house. She had to wait her turn to be the lady of the manor; she never made it though.” She looked at Pat across the double bed as they folded in the sheets and with a perfectly straight face added, “So I’m sure she will be comfortable in here.”

As they left the South Wing, Alice said, “Pat will you please remind Angus to put some white wine to cool?”

End of Chapter 2.

 

Chapter 3.

Michelle, Roddy and Rachael.

As Pat walked down the hallway to find Angus she looked at her watch. It was a pilot’s watch, big enough to read at a glance with numerous functions that would help with dead reckoning navigation if instruments failed. Ewen had bought it for her and she thought about him somewhere in the cold mountains of Afghanistan, maybe injured, maybe dying, maybe under fire, running, fighting his way to safety with his mates.

She thought about her contact with SAS Troopers. Seeing them return after weeks in the hills of Afghanistan, where they had been self-sufficient, carrying all their needs on their backs. She remembered the tiredness, the exhaustion in their eyes, the smell of fighting men who hadn’t showered, maybe hadn’t washed in all the time they had been away. But most of all she remembered the cautiousness, the wariness in their behaviour, always checking, always looking out for each other. When they were being evacuated there was no scrambling to get away, each man watched the others’ backs until the last one got in the helicopter; even then one of his mates watched his back from the door. Always searching the landscape, always watching. She knew that if Ewen was going to survive, it would be because of those men.

Pat found Angus on the veranda, in the chair he had been in before breakfast. He was rolling a cigarette. As he licked the paper he motioned towards his tobacco and papers on the table, offering them to her.

As she picked up the pouch and papers, she said, “Haven’t smoked for six months. Ewen got me off them. Now I think I need one. I can always stop again.”

“Don’t let me lead you astray.”

“You’re not. I was dying for a smoke yesterday when I was driving out here, but I didn’t have any.” As she was speaking she was, quickly and with a definite dexterity that could only have been acquired with practice, taking a filter from the pouch, licking the paper and rolling a cigarette. Angus held out his lighter to her.

“I’m the same, with smoking that is. I just find it so hard to give up. All those holier than thou people, even governments, don’t seem to understand. They spend so much money on anti-smoking campaigns, and Drink Safe, and Work Safe and Drive Safe or whatever it’s called, and here we are in the new millennium and there are still thousands of kids living on the street, homeless. Old people needing blankets every winter. They tell me the cost of electricity is going through the roof. Taxes on everything. Now a carbon tax, which seems to have everyone confused, including me.

“More people paying twice for education and don’t even mention the Aboriginal people. There was a time when we had a school for all of the kids on Bangalore, and they all learned to read and write at the very least. Now many of the black kids in the desert communities are illiterate, and the stories are coming out of some of the remote communities about child abuse and petrol sniffing causing permanent brain damage, I sometimes wonder what’s happened to all the money over the last forty years. It’s so very sad…”

“Is that why you like it up here?”

“What, away from the maelstrom of what is called modern life, the new millennium? Probably. It’s getting more and more difficult to run this place, but up here we like to think we have kept some vestige of real values, some might say old values. Maybe they have no place in the world anymore. Now it’s a dog against dog world. It’s a litigious world. Everybody wants to blame someone else for every stumble they make in life. So yes, to answer your question, I like to be away from all of that.

“I have a small circle of wonderful friends who I know are not on the make, as far as our friendship is concerned. I have a larger circle of friends, many introduced to me by my ex-wife, most of whom work in the big end of town, who I would not trust an inch and certainly not with my secrets or my money.” Angus looked at her. “I’m sorry; didn’t mean to sermonise, although some of my family think I am a bit monastic living out here.” Then he grinned. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”

She looked at him as she stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray on the table. “Can’t say I blame you. You and my dad will get along fine. He hates lawyers and accountants.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s a mining engineer. Got re-trenched two years ago after twenty years of loyalty to one company. The firm he worked for was taken over by an American company. Dad was the Chief Engineer. He was integral to the takeover; it was his knowledge that secured the deal with the American investors. After assuring him there would be no changes they called him in one morning and put his retrenchment deal on the table, told him take it or fight, but ‘clean out your desk and be gone by lunchtime’. They had a security man stand by his desk. He had to catch a taxi home. They humiliated him and it hurt him so deeply.

“Dad fought them until he had spent all his savings and re-mortgaged the house. When all that money was gone, then he gave up. He’d spent his entire package and his savings on legal fees and then his lawyer told him that they were still at least two years away from the Supreme Court and that he had better have eighty thousand dollars available when the time came. So he gave up. His lawyer also told him that they had done everything they could and the decision was up to the Court, and whether the Judge had shit on his liver and whether he liked the look of Dad when the case started. That really depressed him. Now he hates lawyers and the legal system.”

“He and I do have something in common then. The whole legal system seems to be out of control. Justice it seems to me is now the province of the rich in this land. Who is right and who is wrong doesn’t seem to matter. Whoever has the most money to pay the best lawyers wins. What average workingman or woman can afford lawyers at anything from three hundred to five hundred dollars an hour? Lawyers are leaches. What’s your father doing now?”

“He formed a small engineering consultancy firm with a friend. With the boom in mining they are now in great demand. He’s changed though.”

“How?”

“He split up with my mother after thirty-two years. I don’t think it was because of the lawsuit. I think they’d been unhappy for years, but the lawsuit and the cost wouldn’t have helped. She’d always worked as a theatre nurse; she now works in Royal Perth. Dad knew nothing but work – so they drifted apart. Then Mum and a skin specialist found each other and she moved out to live with him down by the river. The settlement went through very quickly. Her lawyers started on Dad when he was at his most vulnerable, so he gave her everything that was left. Basically he got screwed when he was most exposed. I lent him some money when times got really bad and that embarrassed him, I think. The whole thing made him very bitter against my mother.”

With a knowing look, Angus replied, “I’m not surprised he’s bitter. I sometimes wonder about the law, justice and lawyers, it’s – they – are almost an oxymoron.”

“He paid all the legal costs out of what was left of his share of their house when it was sold. He now lives in a rented apartment in East Perth, overlooking the river. If he has another good year he says he will be able to buy in the same complex. Mother bought a BMW with her share of the house.”

“Do I occasionally catch a hint of an accent in your voice?”

“I thought it had all gone. Mum and Dad came out from Scotland when I was ten. He’d been in the coal industry and, as he often says, he got ‘Thatchered’ or ‘hand bagged’ when the British coalmines were closed down. Being a mining engineer, they eventually came out here.”

Angus looked at her. “We lead such complicated lives don’t we? Much of it is not of our own making.” Then, smiling, he said, “I suppose we’ll have to wait for Michelle and the others to get here before we can have lunch. Cup of tea?”

Pat moved to stand up and said, “You stay there, I’ll get it. I know where everything is.”

“Sit down, Pat. You’ve hardly been here what, fifteen, sixteen hours? And not found what you expected, I’m sure.”

Before she could answer the flywire door banged behind Angus as he went into the house. She thought about the last twenty-four hours. She had to admit she hadn’t known what to expect. What Ewen had told her about his father didn’t really fit with what she’d found. For a start she’d expected to find someone older than Angus. She didn’t know how old, but Ewen was thirty-two and from what Alice had said when they were making the beds, Angus was just fifty-one or two, but he looked younger. So Angus and Michelle must have been quite young when they got married, twenty maybe. Ewen had said that Angus and his mother just drifted apart and that was not the true story, again according to Alice; it looked as if they had been moving apart for years, since Ewen was a boy.

Every time Ewen had spoken about Angus to her it had been almost with awe. His father was the giant in his life and she had felt more than once that the regard in which he held his father was the reason Ewen had decided not to return to Bangalore. Even though he had told her he loved the place and he knew he would be breaking the dynasty as he called it, he had chosen a career in the army. Was Angus just too big a character for Ewen to live with? She hoped she would get a chance to find out, sometime, when Ewen came home.

Her thoughts then turned to Michelle, the ex-wife. Before her thoughts could develop, the flywire door opened and Angus came through with two mugs of tea. “Here you go – milk no sugar.”

As he handed her a mug of tea and sat down he said, “How are you feeling, Pat? You look tired.”

“It’s been a busy twenty-four hours, Angus. I’m glad I’m here; I think Ewen would want me to be here. Even though we are a long way from Perth, I’m glad I’m here. But you’re right, I’m tired, and we won’t get much sleep tonight either. I keep on thinking about those men, those warrior soldiers, Ewen, and those ghastly mountains in Afghanistan.”

“So do I. It’s practically impossible to make conversation. I find myself thinking about them and feeling so helpless. I’m sure it will be good news when we get it. I still can’t help wondering why his mother wants to be here. She usually only comes up here when the races are on… doesn’t seem to make any difference to her that we’ve been divorced for so long… she still waltzes about the place as if she’d never left.” Angus didn’t seem to be talking to Pat directly, just letting his mind wander.

“It’ll be good to see Rach though. Haven’t seen her for…must be twelve months. We won’t see much of Alice while Michelle is here; she’ll stay well clear. Michelle and Rachael are very alike, but very different, certainly in looks. Both of them are very brainy. I sometimes think Michelle envies Rachael and what she’s achieved. It’s a strange paradox, almost an absurdity. I have always felt that what Rach really wanted was to be here on Bangalore. She was always as good or better than Ewen around the station – terrific horsewoman, loved the station life. But Michelle wanted more from her. I’ve often wondered if Michelle persuaded Rachael to do those things she never had a chance to do because we got married so young and we lived out here. So Rachael went off at just twenty to university and did Medicine. Was it to please her mother? God knows. I never understood it. There I go again, talking about my family and soon to be your in-laws.” He laughed at her and added, “We’re a strange lot the Sinclair Clan; been in the mulga too long.”

Pat stood up from her armchair and stretched her arms out wide above her head and took a deep breath, giving Angus the opportunity to admire her slim figure and his son’s choice of a wife. ‘She really is quite beautiful,’ he thought. ‘The sort of beauty that’s not apparent to start with. She’s not startling like Michelle was at nineteen, even at thirty. There’s quietness there, a depth.’

She could feel him watching her and for some reason didn’t mind. When she turned to face him he was looking the other way. “I’m glad you’ve told me what you have, Angus. In some ways if Ewen hadn’t gone missing it might have taken me years to learn what you’ve told me in hours. I don’t have such a tale.

“All my grandparents are dead. Dad was the first of four generations not to go down the coalmine, the pit, as it’s called. I’m an only child. I think Dad wanted more but Mum couldn’t wait to get back to work.

“Dad broke the mould in his family. All his cousins became miners or married miners. Even in the seventies, miner’s sons just didn’t go to university, didn’t get a profession and certainly didn’t become one of the bosses. It was against their tradition. They were working class and proud of it.

“When Dad applied and was accepted for Nottingham University, he almost became estranged from his father. Gran was very proud, told anybody who would listen, but not my grandfather; he just ignored it all.

“After four years, when Dad got his engineering degree and joined the National Coal Board, a nationalised industry, he got a job in Yorkshire, away from Scotland, away from family. Gran attended his graduation in Nottingham, but not grandfather. I think he felt it would be a betrayal of all he believed in to attend those hallowed halls.

“Dad has told me that when he visited Scotland as a young mining engineer, my grandfather wouldn’t talk to him about his degree, his job or anything. I think he thought he’d gone to the other side; he’d become one of the bosses – one of the oppressors of the working class.

“Britain was riven with strikes in those days, especially in the mining, steel and vehicle industries. Even though most of them had been nationalised after the war, there was a definite them and us divide – the workers and the bosses. The mining unions were very strong, many somewhere to the left of Mao in their political beliefs.

“My grandfather ruled the house and his family with a rod of iron. There was always an underlying bitterness about him. His word was the law. He worked down the pit, as he had since the age of fourteen, starting as a pit pony boy until he was big enough to handle a shovel. Gran did everything else; she even cleaned his best shoes. There was no sharing of house duties in those days.

“He’d been told how his family and his community had been decimated by World War One. As a boy he’d suffered, like everyone, through the Great Depression. The ‘coal barons’ owned the coal industry in those days between the wars, and most of them were English and many had connections with if not the genuine aristocracy then the ‘new aristocracy’ the nouveau riche of industrial Britain.

“In just a few generations families had risen from almost obscurity to be part of what was then the technology centre of the world. They owned the mines, they owned the steel works, they owned the shipyards, they owned everything. Even the houses the miners lived in.

“Conditions were poor down the mine. Many worked twelve-hour shifts and were poorly paid. In Scotland, men like my grandfather literally hated the bosses and hated the English even more.

“Then after World War Two the coalmines were nationalised. The new Labour government was dedicated to wealth sharing. The workers, through the government, owned the mines. So the miners wanted their money.

“Every miner supported the Unions in their demands for more and more pay. The tables were turned and the miners became the nouveau riche of post-war Britain. Miners were paid more than schoolteachers, policemen and many ‘white collar’ professions. Miners demanded and got houses in the new council estates and the rents were low. They demanded and got a free allocation of coal every month.

“Even with their newfound wealth my grandfather remained a bitter man. He apparently had a huge fight with my grandmother when Dad received a scholarship to go to grammar school. No son of his, he claimed, would ever go to grammar school – State education was good enough for the working classes was his socialist mantra. He even claimed no workingman could afford the uniform and the extras, like books and sports equipment. The additional insult was that the grammar school played rugby; no son of his would play rugby. It was a rich man’s sport.

“The reality was that many miners were among the best-paid workers in the country and often earned more than some of the so-called professions. Grandfather finally relented when Dad’s primary school teacher went round to their house to try and change Grandfather’s mind. It turned out the schoolteacher was the son of a miner. My grandfather knew his father; they had worked together on the coalface.

“The schoolteacher, it turned out, had been to grammar school and then to teachers training college and then on to university and had then decided to be a teacher. He told my grandfather his income was just over half of what his father earned down the mine.

“Grandfather asked him why he was a teacher then. The reply left Grandfather without an argument. The teacher just said he loved his job. He liked being a teacher; he didn’t want to and had never wanted to be a miner. He wanted his own children to get out of the mining environment and get an education. He and his wife were both teachers, had two children – both were going to the grammar school.

“The mine, his local pub, the Miners Welfare, his union and the Labour Party ruled Grandfather’s life. Dad’s mum was a sweet quiet woman. I remember her crying when we left for Australia. She made me promise to go to Sunday school. Grandfather said goodbye at his house. Stony faced I remember him letting me kiss him and he hugged me for the first time I could remember. Then he made Dad cry when he shook his hand and said, ‘Don’t suppose I’ll see you again then?”

“Did you go to Sunday School?” Angus asked.

“No. We went to church though; Dad’s always been a good Christian, I think. He doesn’t talk about it, he never imposed it on me, but he and I went to church together until I went to Melbourne University.”

“Did he see his father again?”

“No. Grandfather died in his favourite pub with his friends and family, a pint of McEwen’s in his hand.”

“I’d assumed you’d always been in the military.”

“No, I went to Melbourne University to do aeronautical engineering. Someone there told me I could be an officer in the RAAF and get paid to study, so I did.”

“So you’re not in the army?”

“No. I’m in the RAAF. I’m seconded to the army at present; I have to go back to RAAF sometime soon. My job is to study army operational needs, requirements if you like, for the next generation of rotary wing aircraft. Flying, talking, listening, that sort of thing. Of course, what the army gets the RAAF will get as well, so we need to consider everything we can.”

 

 

 

Chapter 4.

The family gathers.

At two o’clock that afternoon Angus and Pat sat on the veranda waiting for the sound of Roddy’s plane. The day was hot and the humidity stifling. The thunderclouds, which had hung around for days, were building up again, fast. This time they looked as if they meant business.

Angus looked at the clouds. “Hope Roddy packed some sick bags; Michelle doesn’t have much of a stomach for a bit of turbulence. I think they’ll be having a bumpy trip. I had a look on the Internet. It says the weather could be interesting after about Mullewa. The last thing we need is a downpour here. The landing strip will be all right; it’ll take a lot of water. But for Michelle, it’ll be a white knuckle job if there’s much of a side wind and rain when they land.”

“How long has Roddy been flying?” Pat asked.

“More than twenty years as far as I know. He’s a good pilot as far as I can gather. I’ve never been up with him. He puts in a lot of flying hours both on business and for pleasure. It’s a lovely plane he flies, a Cessna Stationaire, which he bought new last year. It’s state-of-the-art in every way, especially the avionics. He even had big wheels fitted; they are especially designed for landing on dirt strips. He flies up to exploration companies and mine sites, so it was sensible, necessary really.”

“He sounds more like a business executive than a lawyer, and very rich.”

“Lawyers have a better nose for money than many a businessman. They get involved in negotiations with traditional owners for mining leases. They draft documents from the beginning, when the parties reach an MOU. Then they draft final agreements. They appear at hearings. Check prospectus. All for a fat fee. For Roddy that means somewhere around seven hundred to a thousand dollars an hour and more. After that he sits on company boards and gets a fat director’s fee. On top of all that, Roddy’s firm, Goldsmith and Blaud, specialises in taxation, so he represents the big end of town to make sure they don’t pay tax or pay the very minimum. I didn’t know until recently that the Tax Office will negotiate with big end of town if it looks as if they are in for an expensive fight. Roddy may not make the tens of millions some CEOs make, but he won’t be far off. He has his fingers in many a pie, both here and overseas. Africa is the flavour of the month, I gather.”

“I think I can hear a plane now, off to the south,” Pat said.

Angus listened. “That must be them. Those new turbo prop engines have a sound all of their own, don’t they? He’ll fly over the homestead; the airstrip is about a mile to the east. Let’s go and get the car.”

As they walked out of the back door the first big drops of rain started to fall and a gust of wind lifted the fine red dust. Angus’ car was a twenty-year-old Mercedes diesel station wagon. It was the only Mercedes that Pat had ever seen with a roo bar. Bolted to the bar were two big spotlights, the kind favoured by the truckies. As they climbed in Angus said, “Don’t let the exterior mislead you, Pat. She may be twenty years old but mechanically she’s perfect. A couple of bumps here and there but she’s good for another couple of hundred thousand.”

Inside the Mercedes the leather upholstery was covered with fitted sheepskin covers. As he started the diesel motor he opened his window slightly as the air-conditioning started to take over from the heat inside. By the time they were bouncing down the road to the airstrip the rain got heavier and there were flashes of lightning in the north.

Angus looked at the sky, looked at Pat and smiled. “That’s Roddy – just in time. That storm is coming this way and I reckon it’s about half an hour away. It’ll give us time to put his plane in the hangar out of harm’s way, save us having to tie it down. I bet he’s been watching that storm and had it flat chat.”

The windsock at the landing strip was horizontal, indicating a strong northerly wind. They stopped by a hangar. There was another hangar about one hundred metres away. “You didn’t say you had a plane, Angus.”

“You didn’t ask. I thought Ewen would have told you. This is where he learned to fly, same plane too, an ancient Cessna 180, affectionately known as Bessie, don’t know why, I think the kids named her. My father bought it when he moved to Perth, second hand then. Like my car she looks a bit forlorn, especially against Roddy’s gleaming monster, but she’s as good as we can keep her, needs a paint job really; apart from that she’s as good as the day she was built.” They pushed open the sliding doors of the hangar to reveal as Angus had said, a Cessna 180 with faded red paint, and a little dusty.

Now they could not only hear Roddy but they could see him in the south, as, into the wind, he lined up the runway on his final approach. A loud clap of thunder made them both jump as the Cessna Stationaire made a perfect landing almost level with the hangar. Pat and Angus watched as he taxied and then turned towards them. Behind the plane the storm had arrived faster than Angus had predicted. There was a savage fork of lightning that seemed to be just at the northern end of the runway followed by a clap of thunder that rattled the sliding doors of the hangar. Then the heavens opened.

Roddy taxied right up to the hangar doors and turned the engine off. The rain was falling in sheets. They watched as Roddy opened his door and climbed out and they helped him push the plane a few yards into the hangar and got soaked in the process.

Pat hadn’t met Michelle and didn’t know what to expect. Her romance with Ewen had been short, just three months, and during that time Michelle and Roddy had been away on a business trip and holiday for the same duration. They had been to South Africa to see his family, then on to look at an investment one of the companies, of which he was a director, had made somewhere in Africa. Then on to London for two weeks and then a month for Michelle in Vale, Colorado, skiing, while Roddy did, as he said, ‘A few things in the States and Canada’.

The rear door of the plane opened and Roddy helped Michelle out. Pat knew she was the same age as Angus, so just over fifty. She was dressed for the bush. Well-fitting jeans, plaited leather belt, blue-striped long-sleeved shirt with the Longhorn logo over the left breast pocket; polished but not new Cuban-heeled R M Williams boots completed the outfit.

She was of medium height, with a trim but full figure that showed no sign of running away to excess. She looked fit and tanned. Blonde hair that was just above shoulder length and looked as if it received plenty of professional attention; for the flight she had it pinned back behind her ears. She wore no jewellery except for a broad white-gold wedding ring, gold stud earrings, each with a small diamond and a simple fine gold chain around her neck. Very pale lipstick was all the makeup she wore.

When Michelle saw Pat she smiled and Pat saw a stunningly beautiful woman. Michelle said, “You must be, Patricia. Ewen told me over the phone that he had met a beautiful girl.” She gave Pat a warmish half-hug, just enough, and a kiss on the cheek. “How long have you been here, Patricia?”

“Yesterday afternoon. I drove up. Left on Friday, stayed the night at Carnarvon and then came on out here.”

“What a pity we didn’t know what we were doing. You could have come with us and Roddy could have shown you his new toy; you probably could have flown it, couldn’t she, Roddy?” Her voice was what Patricia’s father always called an ‘Australian money’ accent. Not quite Australian and not quite English upper class, somewhere in between, unique to Australia. In Western Australia mostly found in the river suburbs of Perth, in the up-market boutiques and coffee shops, and at the big end of town among lawyers, stockbrokers and those with old money, or wealth, real or pretend. An accent that blows away forever the popular myth of Australia being a classless society.

Pat’s father had always taken pride in his Scottish accent, and like many Scots in Australia, it had never left him. A Labour man when in the UK, he became a fierce Labor man in Australia. She remembered him making fun of Malcolm Fraser, commenting, “How could Australia have ever trusted a man that speaks like that, that toffee-nosed prat?” Michelle’s was that kind of ‘Malcolm Fraser’ accent.

Roddy Goldsmith had been taking luggage out of the locker of the plane and he turned to Pat when Michelle asked her question. “Hello, Patricia, pleased to meet you. Yes you could have taken over coming up here, suppose this sort of thing, gesturing to his plane, is pretty much all in a day’s work for you?”

Pat held out her hand and his handshake was firm and in spite of the heat of the day, cool to touch. “Not really, Roddy. Haven’t flown anything like this for a while now, but the avionics and instruments Angus tells me are state-of-the-art, so I’m sure I would soon get the hang of things. It’s a lovely plane.”

Pat saw that Roddy was about the same height as Michelle, slim waisted with no sign of a paunch. She guessed his age to be about fifty. Powerful shoulders, close-cropped grey hair running to bald on the top, clean-shaven and wearing rimless spectacles. Like Michelle he looked fit and tanned. She recognised his accent as being from southern Africa. It was quite distinct but again had a refinement to it. She was later to learn that he had been born in what was now Zimbabwe, had been educated in England and qualified as a lawyer in England and then practised in London and Cape Town before migrating to Australia in the early eighties.

Roddy too, was dressed for the bush, bone-coloured jeans, light-blue long-sleeved shirt and polished, brown, elastic-sided boots. As Pat helped Roddy with the last of the luggage and Michelle watched them, Angus came round from the other side of the plane with his arm round the shoulder of his daughter, Rachael.

She was without doubt her father’s daughter. Same black hair, same dark to sallow complexion, and dark eyes behind black-rimmed glasses. Rachael was smaller than Angus but with the same, seemingly ungainly, yet graceful walk. Pat could see the Indian in her from many generations ago. There was nothing that Pat could see which would identify her to an outsider as Michelle’s daughter.

Unlike Michelle and Roddy she wore khaki long shorts and a faded blue Billabong tee-shirt and sandals. When she saw Pat she held out her arms to her and enveloped her in a genuine hug. “I’ve been waiting so long to meet you. Ewen never stops talking about you every time he phones me. Now, what do we call you? I know Ewen calls you Pat, so is it Pat or Patricia?”

“Pat.”

“Good. Now, Roddy, where’s my backpack?”

“Round the other side, Rachael; haven’t had time to get it out yet.”

As she got her old and well-travelled backpack from the other side of the plane there was another flash of lightning followed by another door-rattling clap of thunder and the heavens opened again.

Angus got his station wagon as close to the doors of the hangar as he could and they all clambered in after putting the luggage in the back. Pat couldn’t help but notice the contrast between Michelle and Roddy’s expensive matching leather cabin and suit bags and Rachael’s old backpack covered in airline and hotel stickers. She also couldn’t help noticing that Michelle got in the front of the station wagon and left Roddy and Rachael to stow the luggage and Angus to slide the doors of the hangar closed.

The storm passed as quickly as it had arrived and before they got back to Bangalore there was only light rain falling. Angus pulled up at the front of the big house and Michelle quickly got out of the Mercedes and ran up the steps on to the veranda and again waited for the others to unload the luggage. Angus hadn’t said a word to Michelle since they’d arrived. She’d given him a quick peck on the cheek when Rachael had been giving Pat a hug; that had been all the greeting they’d exchanged.

Angus, carrying Michelle’s bag and suit bag, and Roddy, carrying his own, followed Michelle up onto the veranda. “Where have you put us, Angus; in the main guest room?” Michelle asked.

“No, Pat is in there. I’ve put you three in the South Wing.”

“Wouldn’t the girls be better together down there? Then they can talk and things.” Michelle’s voice had taken a harder more strident note, almost demanding a change in the arrangements.

Before Angus could reply and before Pat could offer to move, Rachael said, “For God’s sake Mother, stop making a fuss and trying to change everything. We arrive almost without notice and you want Dad to move poor Pat. We’ll be very comfortable down there. It will be like old times.” She hadn’t raised her voice but in one sentence she’d settled the matter without giving Michelle a chance to reply, let alone argue. Rachael picked up her backpack and led the party into the house and down to the South Wing. As she strode down the hall she called out, “Alice, Alice, where are you?”

“In here, darling. In the kitchen.”

Rachael dropped her backpack in the hall and ran into the kitchen. Alice was standing by the big wooden table putting salad into a bowl and as Rachael ran into the room, Alice dried her hands on a tea towel and held out her arms. The two of them stood there hugging and kissing each other on the cheek. Rachael was crying and Alice brushed her hair from her eyes and gave her another kiss and held her at arm’s length, “My, you do look well, Rachael. Sydney must agree with you, darling.”

“It does, Alice, but there’s no place like home. It’s just a pity that I’m here because of Ewen.”

“I know. Has Pat told you we’ve had a call from the army?”

“We haven’t had time yet, but Mum caught up with her calls while we were coming up here so we’ve got the news. I’m so worried.”

Alice stroked Rachael’s hair. “I know, sweetheart, he’ll be all right I’m sure. Now go and wash your face. Lunch will be about half an hour. Tell Michelle will you?”

Michelle wasn’t there to see the emotional re-union. As soon as Rachael had run into the kitchen she had turned down the short passage leading to the South Wing telling Roddy and Angus to follow her. Finding herself the only witness to the re-union, Pat turned and went back out onto the front veranda and found Angus, hands in pockets looking at the gathering storm clouds.

He turned to see if Pat was on her own and smiled. “She doesn’t change – Michelle, I mean.”

“Rachael said that Michelle had spoken with the army, so they know about Ewen. I didn’t get a chance to tell them when they landed.” Pat was half-apologetic but realised that since they had arrived less than half an hour ago, the time had been packed with family emotions which she didn’t really understand.

Angus put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a squeeze. “Don’t worry about it, Pat; it’s always the same. If Michelle were honest, Alice spent more time with Rachael as a child than she did. Alice and Rachael are very close as you’ve no doubt seen.” Before he could continue, Michelle and Roddy came out of the house and joined them.

Michelle looked at them standing there, Angus with his arm around Pat. “My God, Angus, you could be Ewen standing there. I know you are alike but I’ve never seen it so strikingly before. I’m dying for a drink.”

“What would you like – wine, gin and tonic, beer?”

“Cold white wine would be lovely.”

Angus looked down at Pat, still with his arm around her, “Pat?”

“Could I have a beer, Angus?”

“Course you can. I’ll join you. Roddy?”

“Same again, Angus, please.”

Angus went off into the house to get the drinks and for a moment they stood in silence. Then Roddy spoke to Pat and she looked at him and immediately felt uncomfortable; his eyes seemed to be boring into her even though he was smiling. “Now Pat, you’re in the RAAF and a pilot, so what is it, Pilot Officer Fawcett?” The question was blunt and Pat felt unnecessarily probing considering that they had only spoken a few words of greeting over the previous half-hour.

Trying to look as relaxed as he could she smiled and said, “No, it’s Flight Lieutenant, actually, and yes, I’m a career officer in the RAAF, nearly ten years now since my commission. After this tour with the army I hope to go Canberra and take up my profession again.”

Roddy stood there smiling at her and before he could speak Michelle butted in, “Patricia, I had no idea you had a profession – I thought all the RAAF did was fly and maintain aircraft.”

“That’s only what the public see, Michelle. The RAAF is a high tech business these days. We operate a wide range of aircraft from VIP passenger aircraft, to the planes which are used by the PM and cabinet, as well as our defence capabilities. We have to keep up with the rest of the world and we have to be part of, and act as an interface with, what the military and in some cases the civil aircraft industry are developing.”

Almost demeaning, but not quite, Michelle asked, “So what is your – profession?”

“I’m an aeronautics engineer.”

Before either Michelle or Roddy could ask another question Rachael joined them and Michelle turned to her. “Rachael, did you know that Patricia is an engineer?”

“I did, and a very good one I’ve heard. Ewen told me. He also told me, Pat, that you have been resisting going to Canberra and a promotion for some time. What would the promotion make you, Squadron Leader Fawcett?”

Pat gave a little laugh, “That’s only part true Rachael, I’ve been working on my last semester for my Master’s Degree, externally. I’m here looking at the particular operational needs of the Special Forces in both fixed and rotary wing and at the same time trying to get my final ratings for a number of aircraft. Heavy lift rotary is the area I want to specialise in, the RAAF understands, so far, anyway.

“The army does rotary wing; that’s helicopter flying. That’s why I’m based with the RAAF in Perth and working with the army. Special Forces have special needs. On what, I can’t tell you. I happen to believe that if I’m going to sit behind a desk and be of any use, then I should have as much experience of aircraft in all areas where they operate – that includes seeing how combat zones function. That’s what got me to Afghanistan. The RAAF does the transport. I pulled a few strings with the army and got a ride a couple of times in the Chinooks.”

Angus came through the door with a tray of drinks and handed them around. As her mother watched her, Rachael grabbed a stubby of beer and took a quick drink.

“Rachael, didn’t Angus bring you a glass?”

“I said I didn’t want one.”

Michelle’s voice went up half an octave. “Why?” It sounded more like “Whey?

“Saves the washing up.”

“But he has a dish washer.”

“I don’t. Force of habit I suppose.”

In the same tone as she had asked Pat about her profession, Michelle said, “Well, I hope you don’t do the same thing with wine.”

With resignation Rachael looked at her. “I don’t Mother, not yet, but if I do I promise I will wrap it in a brown paper bag and drink where nobody can see me.” Under her breath as she turned to Pat she muttered, “And certainly not in Perth.”

Angus watched the exchange between mother and daughter, and changed the subject. “Alice said about fifteen minutes. She brought a heap of fish back from Carnarvon, so, for anyone who doesn’t want fish, the alternative is cold chicken.” Nobody answered, so he left to tell Alice.

Roddy was looking out on the garden and Rachael and Pat had moved three or so paces away from Michelle talking, laughing and drinking their beer. She moved to join them smiling but determined not to give up on the question of drinking beer. “Aren’t you two worried that you’ll get a tummy drinking beer, no sign of it now – but as you get older?”

“Not me, Mother,” answered Rachael. “I still swim four or five times a week; try and do my fifty laps if I can. How about you, Pat?”

“We’re lucky. We have a good gym on base, including a swimming pool. I’m not a big swimmer but I play squash when I can and I’m hooked on jogging. I also go surfing as often as I can.”

“There you go, Mother,” said Rachael. “You should tell that personal fitness coach of yours that you want to drink beer. He’ll give you some tummy exercises to keep it all in control.”

“I’ve never drunk beer, you know that; well, not since I was about nineteen anyway.” When there was no reply from either girl she walked over to Roddy and stood talking to him.

In the following few short chapters tensions rise as the evacuation begins in Afghanistan, Michelle tries to dominate everyone, Rachael is reunited with Ali, her lover since they were teenagers. Then they all learn that Ewen, the son, is very badly injured, possible brain damaged and is to be evacuated to Germany. Then the newspapers and the TV stations get on to the story and Bangalore is in their sights.

 

CHAPTER 5
Getting to know the family.

Pat hadn’t had a chance to see the dining room at Bangalore. It was a big room dominated by portraits of ancestors and landscapes of not only the Gascoyne region, but also, she presumed, of Scotland. The big table could easily seat twelve, so the five places had been set at one end, two on each side and one at the head of the table. Pat looked at it again and realised the table could be extended beyond its current size to maybe seat twenty. Down the centre of the table was a white linen runner on which had been laid two bowls of salad, salad cream and the condiments. Angus sat Pat and Rachael together and Roddy and Michelle opposite them.

The dining area was barely half of the room. Twenty or more people could easily fit into an area furnished with big sofas and armchairs and small tables of all shapes and sizes, pieces of furniture collected through the ages. On the far wall was a huge stone fireplace, now fitted with a modern slow combustion stove, wood neatly stacked at each side. Above the fireplace was what she presumed to be the Sinclair Coat of Arms.

At first, looking round, she thought it a strange room as it was in the middle of the house with one window facing north. Inside there were heavy wooden shutters the same as on the outside. Angus noticed and reading her mind explained. “I think old man Sinclair built this room to be the strongest room in the house. They were always concerned about, maybe frightened of, cyclones. The north-facing window intrigued me until I realised that the room would seldom be used during the day, and in the afternoon the summer sun would have passed, and in the winter, for what winter is up here, a north-facing window would provide little warmth. So this is the cyclone shelter really. I’ll put the lights on one night and you can see how I’ve played with the features. It really is a great room for a dinner party. They say John Forrest had dinner here several times, and other Premiers after him.”

Once seated, Rachael whispered in Pat’s ear and they both got up and left the room only to return a few moments later carrying five plates with fillets of fish garnished with parsley and a wedge of lemon. Pat sat down and Rachael went back to the kitchen and returned with a dish of freshly boiled and buttered small potatoes. Angus exchanged glances with his daughter and he smiled. They both knew that it was only a matter of time before Alice and Michelle came face to face. He knew that Alice would not stray from her end of the house and he knew that Michelle would not break the habit of a lifetime and go into the kitchen, especially if Alice were there; just the same, he knew that they could not avoid each other for ever.

Pat was pleased that lunch was dominated with easy conversation. The fish melted in the mouth; the chardonnay was cold as was an old and golden bottle of Riesling. Roddy congratulated Angus on his wine and asked intelligent questions of both her and Rachael.

Michelle for a while, held forth about the coming opera season and the rumour that Placido Domingo would do two farewell concerts in Perth. When no one showed any interest in those remarks she told them in detail about their new house at Dunsborough. As she talked the mood around the table changed. Now Michelle had the floor and she held forth as she would at any lunch among friends.

Roddy had bought the house next door and they had bulldozed both houses and made one big block and construction had nearly finished on the new house. While they were away she told them, she had made a quick trip to Italy to choose the tiles for the floors and the furniture for the dining room and lounge, as she couldn’t find what she wanted in Perth. By the time she got to the bathrooms Rachael had had enough. “Mother, how many days a week are you going to live in this new palace?”

“Hardly a palace, darling. It only has four bedrooms.”

“All en-suite, I suppose?”

“Of course, darling.”

“And a tennis court, at a beach house?”

“Some people don’t like the beach. They might like to play tennis.”

“You don’t like the beach, Mother, and you’re never going to be there anyway.”

“Yes I am, at the weekends and for holidays in the summer. Anyway it’s there for the family, isn’t it, Roddy? Anyone can use it.”

Roddy didn’t answer Michelle’s question. Instead, he fixed Rachael with the same stare he’d used on Pat when they had first met, only this time he wasn’t smiling. He looked a little annoyed at the way Rachael had challenged her mother. “It’s an investment, Rachael, you know that. When you’ve qualified as a specialist and can charge patients what I am sure you are worth, you’ll be looking for the same thing. It’s called insuring your old age.” His tone was sufficiently patronising to show that he didn’t like Michelle, and by default him, being examined so bluntly.

Rachael looked at him for a moment, unblinking. “You mean it’s a tax lurk?”

“Tax minimisation. Superannuation.”

“Same thing. But no, Roddy, I’ll pay my taxes like everyone should and next June, after I’ve qualified in obstetrics, I’m off with Médecins Sans Frontières, for a couple of years at least.”

At this news Angus looked at his daughter with a quizzical smile and she reached over the table and held his hand. “Sorry, Angus, should have told you, but it only became final last Wednesday.”

“Where are you going, do you know?”

“Back to the country of my ancestors, India. About 200 kilometres north of, would you believe, Bangalore? I didn’t choose that. I just said India, if I could. There’s a little hospital there without a trained obstetrician and about ten births a day and that’s a lot considering that most women have their children at home. The hospital gets the problem births and the sick babies.”

“You’ll probably find that you’re related to some of them.”

“Hope so. Wouldn’t that be exciting?”

Michelle looked hurt at being excluded from a brief moment of touching between father and daughter. She smiled and said, “But, Rachael – your Indian ancestors are four or five generations ago. You’re hardly Indian, well only a little bit.”

“Sorry Mother but it’s not that far back – my great great-grandfather remember, married an Indian princess. Look at me, Mother, I’m a throwback to the sub-continent. Put me in a sari and I’d pass as an Indian any day, a little pale, maybe an Anglo Indian. There are plenty of them out there.” She pointed to a portrait next to the fireplace. “Over there, Pat, that’s my great, great grandmother, Indira Sinclair. Can’t you see the likeness?”

Before Pat could reply Michelle stood up and put her napkin on the table. “We have a long night ahead of us in case any of you have forgotten. My son is somewhere out there maybe injured or worse and we haven’t mentioned him all day. I’m going to lie down for a couple of hours.”

Rachael went over to her mother and put her arms around her. “Come on Mum, we haven’t avoided talking about Ewen, it’s just that there is nothing to say. All we can do is wait. I’m sure we’ll get a phone call as soon as the army knows anything positive. You go and have a lie down. I’ll take Pat down to the pool. I’m sure she hasn’t been there and we’ll have a swim before dark. Dinner is any time we want it. Alice has made more salad and put some steaks and chicken pieces to marinate, so you can sleep for as long as you like. Angus will do the barbecue and we’ll eat outside, whenever. I’ll light the mozzie coils in plenty of time and Alice said she bought some of those big flame torches that have a repellent, citrus I think, so we’ll be quite comfortable outside. You go and lie down.”

Michelle gave Rachael a kiss on the cheek and left the room. After she’d closed the door Angus said, “You go, Rach. Roddy and I will stick this stuff in the dish washer and the fridge. Take the Mercedes.”

“C’mon, Pat, off for a swim. Is that okay?”

“I haven’t got any bathers.”

“Neither have I. You won’t need them. There’ll just be you and me so we can swim in the buff.” Before Pat could reply, Rachael was in the hall shouting, “I’ll get the towels. See you at the car.”

 

Chapter 6

The meeting at the Pool

The ‘Pool’ as Rachael had called it, was really a billabong kept full by a spring of water that bubbled out of the ground and flowed into a big dam, probably one hundred metres in diameter and surrounded by old shady eucalypts. By the side of the track, about ten metres from the water edge there was a bough shed used for a changing room. Behind that a small toilet and at water’s edge a gazebo-like bough shed with table and benches all made out of bush timber, and close by, a stone barbecue.

Rachael stopped the car and turned to Pat. “Welcome to the site of the annual Bangalore Olympics, a place where all the kids and at the weekends parents and anyone else who happened to be at Bangalore, would meet and play. Almost every day in the summer we used to ride our horses down here. Ewen and I, and I am sure all the other kids, learned to swim here, and as we got older some of us fell into and out of love down here. Bathers were never compulsory when we were kids; they became compulsory as we got older unless parents and Alice weren’t around. C’mon, let’s have a swim and cool off; then we can sit in the shade. There are couple of aluminium lounges, or there should be, in the changing shed.”

They got out of the car and walked to the gazebo where Rachael quickly took off all her clothes except a pair of skimpy briefs, almost a G-string. Without looking at Pat she ran the five metres or so to the water’s edge, waded in, let out a little squeal as the cold water splashed over her body and then dived. She surfaced ten metres out and obviously treading water shouted, “C’mon, Pat, it’s wonderful.”

Pat hadn’t swum in the nude since she was a child, maybe ten or eleven. With friends she’d gone to the Collie River on a hot summer’s day, boys and girls, and as a dare they had all taken their clothes off and gone swimming in one of the deep pools. They had been seen by a local busybody, who had told their parents. Her dad had smiled and said that they meant no harm, but added bathers would be a good idea in future. Her mother had gone ballistic and grounded her for two weeks of the summer holidays.

Pat took off her clothes down to her pants and bra, then she hesitated. She watched the bra-less Rachael swimming strongly in the middle of the pool. So she reached behind her back and undid the clip on her bra and shrugged it off. The water was cold, so she dived and it took her breath away. Then it became a welcome luxury as her body cooled and she swam after Rachael.

They stayed in the water for ten or fifteen minutes, swimming and talking. As they were standing at the water’s edge drying themselves, Pat saw someone sitting on a horse in the shadow of one of the big trees on the far side of the pool. She continued drying herself and said, “Rachael, we’re being watched. There’s someone on a horse over on the other side.”

Rachael stopped and turned to look at the shadowy figure. She made no attempt to cover herself as Pat turned her back on whoever it was and grabbed her tee-shirt and put it on. Rachael stood there looking without a trace of embarrassment as she faced the shadowy figure and then she shouted, “Is that you, Ali?” The figure waved, nudged the horse in the ribs and man and horse started walking round the pool towards them.

Still Rachael didn’t get dressed; she just watched the man and horse as they slowly approached. Pat watched Rachael and couldn’t help but admire her body as she stood in the rays of the evening sun; it wasn’t the body of an athlete like hers, but nonetheless it was trim and well proportioned. It showed no sign of marks from wearing bathers or any sort of covering; the tan was even and almost coffee coloured. Now she was smiling as the man and horse got closer and she reached for her tee-shirt and put it on. “It’s Ali; might have known he would turn up.”

“Who’s Ali?”

“Barnaby Kamran, known to all as Ali. As kids we reckoned he was Ali Barber and the name stuck. Even Alice calls him Ali. He’s Alice’s son.”

He stopped in front of them and looked down from his horse. “Hello, Princess. Didn’t expect to see you here. Alice told me you were coming.”

“Hello, Ali. It’s good to see you again.” Rachael stood quite still, looking at him.

He was wearing a faded blue shirt and jeans and a big felt hat; he didn’t get off the horse and the horse stood still. “Heard any more about Ew?”

“Nothing, we expect to hear good news tonight sometime.”

“Poor bugger. He’ll be all right though. Has to be, doesn’t he? The Three Musketeers must go on.” His face was sombre and he looked at Rachael from under the wide brim of his hat. Pat couldn’t see his eyes.

Suddenly tears welled up in Rachael’s eyes and she said softly, “Get off that bloody nag, Ali.”

He slipped his feet out of the stirrups, lifted his right leg over the horse’s neck and slid to the ground not taking his eyes off Rachael and letting the reins fall to the ground. They stood with their arms around each other Rachael resting her head on his chest. “Look at me. I haven’t cried since…”

“That’s when we became the Three Musketeers, ‘all for one and one for all’, remember?”

“Of course I do, that’s what made me cry…because there are only two of us here. Oh Ali, I’m sorry.” She turned to Pat and disentangled herself from his arms. “Ali, this is Pat; she’s engaged to Ewen. Pat, this is Ali, my friend.” She gave a little laugh. “And my fellow Musketeer.”

Ali held out his hand to her and it was hard and calloused but his touch was gentle. He’d taken his hat off and Pat could see his face. He was darker than Rachael but not much. She could see Alice in his eyes except that years squinting into the sun had given him wrinkles, but again, like Alice’s, the eyes were blue. He smiled and looked her. It was an easy smile. “Pleased to meet you, Pat. Alice told me you were here. Long drive from Perth for a city girl.”

“Hello, Ali. Yes, it was. I’ve never been up here before; flown over it a few times.”

“Alice said you’re a pilot.”

Rachael took hold of his hand. “Come and talk to us under the bough shed. We can sit down there.”

As they walked the few metres to the gazebo-like structure Pat noticed Ali had a pronounced limp. As if reading her mind Rachael asked him, “Leg no better?”

“Not really, Rach. This weather seems to stir it up. It’s all right when I’m riding, but the motor bike gets it going.”

“Well, I’ve told you, they can work wonders these days, but the longer you leave it, the older you get, the more difficult it becomes. You should have it done.”

He laughed at her. “Yes, Doctor. I’ve told you the only way that I’ll have it done is if you are there as my nurse.”

“Then you’ll have to come to Sydney.”

“What, for a month?”

“You can stay with me.”

“What about the re-hab, physio and all that? I can’t go off into Carnarvon twice a week.”

“Then you’ll have to stay for three months.”

Now seated facing each other across the table Ali looked at Rachael. “Can’t do that. Might get to like it.”

Rachael was looking into his eyes. “What, me or Sydney?”

For a moment he just looked at her, oblivious of Pat. Neither of them really smiled. Rachael returned his gaze; there was a challenge in her eyes.

Without answering her challenge he smiled and said, “Angus couldn’t manage on his own for three months out here anyway.”

“You haven’t answered my question, and yes he could.”

Ali stood up, “Must get going, Princess. Got a yard full of horses; better go and feed ’em before it gets dark.” The horse he’d been riding was pulling on tussocks of green around the pool. Rachael got up and walked to it with him, holding his hand. Before he got on the horse he put his arms around her waist and pulled her towards him. Rachael kissed him and the kiss lasted for long enough for Pat to realise that both Rachael and Ali might have been happier if she hadn’t been there.

On the short trip back to the homestead Rachael answered the question posed by the kiss. “Ali and I have been lovers since I was about sixteen. Don’t know how I didn’t get pregnant… long school holidays. The doctor at school was good. I went to her, worried and frightened; she put me on the pill.”

“You miss him?”

“Ali, is a constant ache in me. I’m just over thirty now. I left this place to go to medical school when I was nineteen, I think to please my mother. She was a huge influence on me when I was young, dominant in many ways.” They reached the homestead and put the Mercedes in the bough shed. Rachael didn’t move to get out. “I did medicine in Perth so I got home at the end of every semester. As time went by going back to Perth got harder and harder, but for some bloody reason I kept on doing it. Then I started working at Princess Margaret with kids and babies; time passed. Then I got offered this job in Sydney and the chance to do some further study…so, I don’t know why, I took it.”

“What did Ali say?”

“What he always bloody says – nothing. He just said it’s a long way to Sydney.”

“How long since you’ve seen him?”

“Nearly twelve months. I’ve been out with other men, but every time I do I think of Ali and it just ends. I think some of my colleagues think I’m gay.” With a rueful little laugh Rachael said, “C’mon, let’s go and have a shower, I’m getting hungry and I could do with a beer.”

 

Chapter 7

The long wait.

Even though Angus had said that he would cook the dinner, Rachael finished up organising everybody and being the life of the small party. The tension between her and Michelle had dissipated and they chatted happily as they set the table under the veranda and close to a blaze of bougainvillea. They lit the mosquito coils and the citronella torches, putting candles on the table to compliment the soft lights hidden in the bougainvillea.

Rachael let the heat of the gas-fired barbecue build up until she was satisfied and then called everyone to choose what they wanted for dinner. Soon the air was filled with the smell of cooking. Alice had prepared a favourite of Rachael’s, Tandoori chicken. A simple marinade of yoghurt and Tandoori spices. For those who didn’t want chicken, there were home-made sausages and marinated mutton chops.

Absent-mindedly, Pat stood looking at one of the flaming torches and thought the combination of the torches and the smell of Tandoori suited the moment – not only was she at a place called Bangalore, but the naked flames together with the aroma of exotic spices reminded her of her tour in Afghanistan, of markets and dark eyes and the smell of cooking and strange spices.

Then she looked at her watch, eight o’clock. Four o’clock in Afghanistan. If the search and rescue team were to leave at first light they would have been briefed. If they had decided to go in the dark using satellite navigation and night vision they would be resting, waiting. Waiting for darkness so they could get into their helicopters, weapons ready, medics ready, rotors slapping, then go chattering low over the treacherous landscape of Afghanistan homing in on Ewen and his party and telling them and whoever was trying to kill them, telling the Taliban, they were coming.

She felt an arm round her shoulder. “No good giving you a penny for your thoughts; it’s written all over your face.” It was Angus. He gave her a glass of wine.

“Sorry, Angus. I was miles away.”

“Night flying in Afghanistan?”

“Mmm.”

“Come and sit down. Rachael is just finishing.”

Everyone did their best to make light conversation during the meal. The flickering candles and the burning torches gave an eerie light. At any other time it would have been a warm and friendly, even romantic, atmosphere. Now it was different. Shadows on faces showed the strain they were under. Michelle looked tired. A couple of times while she was talking she had rested her head on Roddy’s shoulder and stopped mid-sentence but then started again. Once when she stopped and started again, she talked about something entirely different. Nobody mentioned it.

Pat sat between Rachael and Angus on one side of the table. Mostly they all pecked and pushed their food round their plates – only Angus and Roddy finished their meal. Michelle didn’t eat anything except for a bit of salad.

Rachael cleared away the plates and returned from the kitchen with a bowl of fruit and a platter of cheese and dry biscuits. Angus opened a bottle of his best Margaret River Shiraz and an old bottle of wooded chardonnay and they sat, sipped, nibbled and talked. Pat felt alone, desolate, and Rachael, as if she knew, held her hand, and they grew closer.

Angus felt empty and apprehensive. He’d never felt like it before. He’d never had to examine his feelings for those he loved, especially in matters of life and death. When Ewen had told him he didn’t want Bangalore, that he was going to be an army officer, he’d unemotionally accepted it. Should he have tried to stop him? If he had, would it have kept him safe? Who knows? He’d never tried to influence his children; he didn’t like people who wanted to control, to influence others. He believed in freedom, in being a free spirit. For a fleeting moment he wondered if that was why he was the only one around the table who was really alone. He didn’t like the question and the half ‘yes but’ answer creeping into his mind, so he pushed it away.

Michelle and Roddy went to the kitchen and made a pot of tea and a jug of coffee with the freshly ground coffee Michelle had brought with her. In all her visits since they’d been divorced he’d never known Michelle go into the kitchen, not once. Now she tended to them all and even fussed a little with a natural warmth he hadn’t seen for a long time, not since they’d first married. Had he misjudged her?

Roddy took a small tin of cigars out of his breast pocket and offered Angus one. He declined and said he’d stick to rolling his own cigarettes. He offered his tobacco pouch to Pat, who rolled herself a cigarette, Michelle watched saying nothing. When Rachael took the pouch her eyebrows arched, but still she said nothing.

Time passed slowly. Michelle made more tea and coffee. Angus looked at his watch as the phone rang. Without saying anything he got up and hurried into the homestead as the ringing seemed to become more urgent. Then it stopped. It was one-thirty in the morning.

After about ten minutes Angus came back and sat down. Trying to smile he looked at them one by one around the table. “That was the army. They got them out about two hours ago; they should be in Kabul by now. Ewen is one of the injured; they have no details except that he is injured. They said they will ring again as soon as they have any more information. They thought about two or three hours; that will give the medical team time to give a proper report or whatever they call it. He said he was sorry that he didn’t have more information but that he thought that he’d better ring with what he has.”

Michelle had gone very pale and tears were running down her cheeks and she was dabbing them with a handkerchief. Roddy had his arm around her. Angus had his hands folded on the table; Rachael reached and put her right hand over them. Her left hand was holding Pat’s hand. It was Rachael who spoke first. “The best thing we can do is try and get some rest, at least have a lie down and try. I’ll stay up and listen for the phone just in case they ring.”

Nobody moved. Nobody wanted to go to bed and be alone with their thoughts. Roddy said, “C’mon, Michelle, let’s go down to our room. You can doze in a chair if you don’t want to go to bed. You can’t sit out here all night; it’s nearly two o’clock now. Michelle got up. She hadn’t spoken since Angus had got off the phone; she had stopped crying but hadn’t regained any colour in her face, which was now devoid of any expression. She went round the table and kissed each one of them on the top of the head and allowed Roddy to usher her into the house.

Angus took his hands from under Rachael’s and said, “I’m going to have a large whisky – anybody else?”

Rachael looked at him. “Brandy, Dad. Have you got any?”

“I have – a bottle of your grandfather’s best cognac at the back of the cabinet. Pat?”

“Whisky, Angus, then I might try and lie down, I’m wide awake at the moment.”

As he got up they heard footsteps on the veranda and Ali appeared around the corner of the house. Angus smiled when he saw him. “Ali, my boy, come on in and join us. Do you want a drink – whisky, brandy, beer, what’ll you have?”

“Whisky will do fine, Angus, thanks. I saw the lights on and I couldn’t sleep so I came over. Have you heard anything?”

“Rachael can tell you while I get the drinks.”

Pat was the first to go to bed. She got undressed and lay down, wide-awake and thinking of Ewen. She heard Angus close his bedroom door across the hallway. She was glad that Ali had come over to sit with Rachael to talk to her and listen for the phone.

 

 

Chapter 8

Came the Dawn.

The soft grey light of dawn was creeping across the morning landscape. Pat was half-awake, in that nether land between being awake and being asleep. Then the phone rang in the hallway and she sat bolt upright. When she got there, pulling the robe that Alice had provided around her, Rachael, blanket around her shoulders, was talking to whoever was on the other end. Ali was by her side. She watched Rachael’s face for any hint of what might be being said. Rachael didn’t look at her. Angus joined them and she didn’t look at him either.

Eventually she said, “All right, thanks, I’ve got all that. Will you tell your people over there that I am a doctor and if they can give a more detailed report I will explain it to my family and Pat, in layman’s language?” She listened to the reply with an impassive face. “Good. Shall we say in about four hours, that’s around nine o’clock?” Again a short reply. Rachael waited and then said, “Rachael, Rachael Sinclair. Bye.”

Rachael turned to face them. Instead of giving them the news she said, “Ali, be a darling and go and put the kettle on in the kitchen; this calls for big mugs of tea. When you’ve done that, slip over and get Alice. She should be here. I’ll go and get Mum and Roddy. They must be awake.” As she finished, Michelle and Roddy appeared, as did Alice saying, “I’ve been in the kitchen for the last hour and the kettle is boiling.”

When they had congregated in the kitchen and as Alice was making the tea Rachael gave them the news. She tried to smile and communicate confidence but it was evident to them all that the news was not good. “The report says that Ewen is gravely ill. He has broken bones from the crash but the survivors all say that they owe their lives to him. As far as they can determine so far, he has a gunshot wound to his lower leg and the other leg is broken. They suspect there has been some internal bleeding. He is very weak from exposure and has lost a lot of blood. At the moment they are trying to stabilise him so that they can conduct more detailed examinations. He’s had a lot of powerful painkillers so he is only semi-conscious. They are trying to determine if he has suffered any head or spine injuries. He is suffering from concussion. They are doing head x-rays.”

It was Angus who spoke first. “Rach, in plain language, what does gravely ill mean?”

She looked at him. She’d had to do this before when people she didn’t know had rushed to casualty after being told by the police that their loved one had been in a road crash, frightened people grappling with their emotions. Now it was different. She was one of them – it was her family.

Her reply was as soft and gentle as she could make it. “It means, Dad, that they are probably fighting to keep him alive. The injuries he has are serious; he may have others that they don’t know about. The injuries they know about would have been serious enough if he had been treated straightaway, but after over a week out there largely untreated, in shock, in the cold and at altitude, being thrown around on a makeshift stretcher… I gathered the eight who were uninjured carried the two injured for over 40 kilometres, which is quite amazing.”

Michelle was wide eyed as the reality of what Rachael had said gripped her with fear. In as strong a voice as she could muster she asked, “When he’s been stabilised, what happens then?”

“I don’t know, Mum. I can’t tell with the little we know. I would imagine that…I don’t know anything about the hospital in Kabul.”

“It’s a military field hospital, very well equipped to deal with the seriously injured, but they get them out of there as soon as they can, mostly in less than twelve hours. They get evacuated to the US Military Hospital at Landstuhl. It’s about 120 kilometres west of Mannheim in Germany.” Pat had spoken with authority and the attention turned to her.

Angus spoke first. “Why Germany, Pat?”

“It’s a lot closer than Australia and we, as part of NATO, have an agreement with them for our casualties that cannot be flown to Australia, for whatever reason. The American medical infrastructure is the best there is. It’s a huge hospital at Landstuhl – they specialise in battle injuries; they’ve had a lot of practice. All the American casualties from Iraq went there, as do those from Afghanistan. Ewen will have the best care that’s available anywhere in the world.”

They stood there, not wanting to look at each other, not wanting the thoughts, the terror that might be in their eyes, to be seen by the others.

Alice, who had been standing by the stove, was the first to break the silence. In a quiet voice, but with some authority, she took control. “There’s nothing that we can do but wait. I know that’s obvious but it is the truth. Waiting is not going to be easy. My Ewen… Ewen, would want everyone to take care of themselves and each other, that’s what he’d want. You are all going to need as much strength as you can muster.

“I’ve made tea, I found the tin you brought down, Michelle, so I’ve made coffee as well; I’ve cut some bread. If anyone wants toast, you just need to pop it in. Everything else is on the table in the breakfast room, cereals, and fruit. I’m going back to my room to…to pray for the dear boy. It’s all I can do for him. I wish to God there were more.” Her voice was starting to break with emotion. Angus looked at her standing straight and erect with tears rolling down her cheeks. He’d never seen Alice cry before; now he had seen it twice on consecutive days. He went to her and put his arms around her as the others watched. For just a moment she let him hold her, then she pushed him gently away. “I’ll be back at eight-thirty.” Wiping her eyes, she left them.

Rachael and Ali started pouring tea and coffee and handing it round. Michelle was crying again and she let Roddy help her away saying that she was going to have a shower before breakfast. Pat looked for Angus and couldn’t see him.

She found him on the veranda, sitting on a cane sofa looking at the dawn sky. Without looking at her he patted the cushion beside him, “Come and sit with me, Pat.” She sat beside him. Still without looking he said, “I thought it would be you, the others…well, they have someone to talk to. Rachael will want to talk to Ali…Michelle and Roddy…well Michelle…It’s hard this business, isn’t it? How are you? Silly question I’m sorry. You must be devastated.” She could see that he was struggling for words. He didn’t look at her.

“It might sound how I don’t want it to sound, Angus, but I think I’ve had too long to think about it. In some ways I was expecting it…that Ewen was one of the casualties. These days, communications from the field are very good, like I told you…when we didn’t get good news I was expecting the worst. In some ways I’m relieved that he’s only injured; I thought he might be dead.”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“There was no point…if I’d said something and then been wrong, you might have thought of me as alarmist. It would have been unfair to worry everybody unnecessarily, so I kept it to myself.”

“That was brave of you. What do you think will happen now?” She saw his knuckles were white as he tightly gripped his mug of tea. He didn’t like his own question.

“I have little experience, Angus. All I can tell you is what we would do and that is stabilise and evacuate. Those are the rules. The Americans are very good at that sort of thing.”

“I suppose they are. As we said before they’re getting plenty of practice. I suppose that’s the reality, isn’t it? Over there, in the States, thousands of miles away from Iraq and Afghanistan, there are hundreds of people just like us, getting news just like us, some of it immeasurably worse. Losing loved ones in a war, for a cause that they don’t really understand…Full military honours…It must be hard if you are a farmer in the mid-west or a single black mother in Harlem.” He still hadn’t looked at her; he hadn’t taken his eyes off the distant skyline as it was changing from pink to pale blue.

“Do you want more tea, Angus?”

As he held his mug out to her she thought she would see Ewen again in his father’s eyes, but she didn’t. Ewen would have been different if he had been there.  He would have given a quick unemotional appraisal of the situation, usually followed by a frank summary and then tell everyone to just get on with whatever it was that had to done. That was his strength and his weakness. He had a steeliness sometimes, a recklessness that could frighten her. Was that what she’d fallen in love with, Ewen the warrior?

In Angus’ eyes she’d seen none of that. What she had seen was a softness and mounting confusion. A father being brutally confronted by a reality that was hurting him and he knew he was helpless; there was nothing he could do. She smiled at him with as much confidence as she could muster in spite of the mounting lump in her throat. He tried to return her smile and couldn’t. Fighting for control, he pursed his lips, shrugged with almost resignation and looked away.

In the kitchen she found Rachael making another pot of tea. “Is Dad with you?”

“Yes, he’s out on the veranda.”

“How is he?”

“He’s… He looks like he’s hanging on, I think, Rachael. He’s shocked. He looks…confused.”

“Poor darling. Dad’s not good at this sort of thing. He can cope with anything on Bangalore better than anybody – cyclones, flood and tempest, drought, Dad has the strength, but coping with this sort of thing gets easier with practice, I’ve found, and that’s something he’s never had living out here.”

Now Pat could see Ewen, not in his father but in his sister. Straight, matter-of-fact, even blunt. Rachael the doctor. The doctor who lives every day, with the joy and the tragedy of life. Pat stood looking at her not knowing what to say. Rachael looked up from pouring the water into the pot and saw in Patricia’s eyes what she was thinking. She put the kettle back on the stove, looked down at her feet and sighed, looked up and walked over and put her arms around her. “I’m sorry, Pat. I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Alice is crying and praying. Ali has gone quiet and gone to feed his horses. He’s very upset. Mum has gone to get showered and when she comes out she’ll…well she’ll be Mum. We’re not used to this sort of thing, you know, this family of mine. We can fight over nothing…fight with great strength. Now we have to come together and forget all that.”

“I’ll take Angus another cup of tea.”

Pat gave Angus his mug of tea and again sat down on the sofa next to him. Even though it was still early in the morning the heat was building; it was going to be a hot day. The rain from the day before had changed the smell of the garden. There was little breeze so the humidity was high, the scent of the Frangipani hung in the air and combined with wet leaves and bark lying and now drying under the eucalypts there was cleanness in the air. Pat put her arm through Angus’ and gently squeezed his forearm and left her hand there. His arm was cool. She looked at her slim fingers, pale in comparison to his dark tan. Her well-manicured fingers contrasted with his scarred and sinewy forearm. His hands were big and calloused, the hands of a workingman. Not like Ewen’s, slim like a pianist’s.

The sprinklers popped up on the far side of the lawn creating little rainbows in the morning sun. In spite of the drama and the intense emotion of the last twenty-four hours there was a peace and quiet about the place. She was glad that she was there, not just because she was with Ewen’s family, but also because she was away from the noise, bustle, rumour and gossip of the base, away from the city traffic, away from the flat that she and Ewen shared. When she went back, as she must, she wondered how she would handle it all.

Rachael came out and said that news of the incident, as it was being called, had been on the radio. No names, just that two had been injured. She’d looked at the TV news and there was just a mention, same thing, no names. She went back inside.

Pat hadn’t thought about the inevitability, the intrusion of press coverage. Now she thought of grave-faced politicians on television giving their opinions. She hoped none of them would see this as an opportunity to criticise the government and the Prime Minister, saying things like “Our brave boys have no place being there. It’s the government’s fault”. Ewen wouldn’t like that. Most of them, the politicians, had never been there, there in Afghanistan anyway. They didn’t know what it was like. They hadn’t seen what the Taliban had done to women and children, to their own people, all in the name of Allah.

The flywire door banged behind them and stopped her wonderings. Pat looked up; Michelle with Roddy at her side was looking down at them sitting close together on the sofa. Michelle was showered and changed. Her hair was drawn straight back and clipped behind her ears. Her face was pale and without a hint of the careful makeup of the previous day. When she spoke her voice was a little shrill. “Angus.” When he didn’t look at her, she said again, “Angus!” He looked at her, expressionless, and for a moment she hesitated and looked at her hands and then, looking back at Angus and speaking quickly, she said, “Angus, Roddy and I have decided to go back to Perth after we get the phone call this morning. There is nothing that we can do here. I’ve decided that I will talk to whomever in the army when I get back to Perth, and find out if I can go to Germany if that is where they take Ewen, to be with him. I’m sure I can, go to Germany, I mean, I’m sure there must be hotels in Mannheim, hopefully closer, Roddy is going to find out. What are you going to do?”

Angus stood up as if not to give Michelle the opportunity to talk down to him. Speaking gently he replied, “I honestly haven’t thought about it, Michelle. I was just waiting to see what they have to say at nine o’clock or whenever they ring and make some plans after that. It sounds like we will have to handle the intrusion of the press in our lives once names are released. No doubt all sorts of experts and commentators on television and radio, not to mention the papers, will have their two bobs’ worth on the politics of the thing.”

Roddy asked, “Would you like my firm to handle that for you, Angus? We do have an expert on staff.”

“Thanks, Roddy. Wouldn’t that just make it worse though? You know ‘a spokesperson for the family said’. From what I’ve seen on television, what they want with this sort of thing are pictures, stories, something to feed to the masses.”

“Roddy’s only trying to help Angus,” snapped Michelle, sounding defensive and exasperated.

Again speaking gently and looking at her, trying to diffuse what was beginning to look like her mounting anger, Angus said, “I know, Michelle, and I’m not being ungrateful. It’s very generous of Roddy. What I want to do is wait and see what happens in the next twenty-four hours or so.”

“Will you come to Germany as well?” Now she was getting angry and louder.

“Of course I will. That’s a silly question! What I’m trying to say is that we need – no –sorry – you may not, but I need, more information than I have at present. For all we know, right now, it might be good news we get or it might not; it might be worse.”

“Whether it’s good or bad, why should that affect your decision?”

“It doesn’t. What I’m trying to say is…”

“That you can’t make up your mind!” The anger showed.

Angus turned his back on her. Pat could see that he was upset and it looked as if he was getting angry as well. Michelle was tormenting him. Before she could think of what to do, Rachael joined them. “What’s going on? I could hear raised voices in the kitchen…Dad, what’s wrong?”

Calm again, his anger gone, he turned. “Nothing, Rachael. Nothing at all. Your mother and I were just discussing going to Germany.”

“Well, my advice is to wait. Wait and see what the next report is and then wait for the one after that. Wait until you get a full and detailed report. Then make up your mind. Remember it’s too early to judge, but Ewen is quite likely to be in hospital for a long time and even for you, Mum, there must be a limit to the time you can spend in Germany. On the other hand, he may be home in a matter of weeks. Right now, nobody knows.”

“Well I’m going, Rachael, as soon as we hear he’s been taken to Germany, if that’s where he’s going. I’m not going to wait. Roddy and I are going to Perth later this morning. Then I can make arrangements. What are you going to do? Are you coming home with me?”

“I have a week off, more if I want it. I rang the hospital half an hour ago and sorted that out. I’ll stay here, I’d like to spend some time just mucking around. I can always drive back with Pat, or if necessary all three of us can fly down in Bessie if there’s an emergency, but in my experience these things unfold slowly, often over days once the initial trauma is under control. It’s only like it is on television for a very short time.”

“And you and your father have been talking.”

Calmly but with an air of resignation Rachael said, “No we haven’t, Mother; that we agree is coincidence. Now if anyone wants breakfast, it’s ready. I’m going to have scrambled eggs, which is about my culinary limit. If you want bacon there’s plenty in the fridge. All you have to do is chuck it in the pan.”

Breakfast was an eclectic affair. Michelle took a bowl of cereals back to the South Wing. Roddy cooked some bacon for himself and Angus and they joined Rachael in the breakfast room eating scrambled eggs. Pat made some toast and vegemite and a big mug of coffee and sat on her own in the barbeque area outside, glad to be away from what looked like old deep-rooted family feuds and animosity, still festering after all the years.

She’d phoned her father while the others were making their breakfasts in the kitchen. He’d been quiet and sensible as he always was. He told her that he would ring her mother and tell her all the news. His big news was that they had landed a contract that would keep them well occupied for at least two years and it meant some overseas travel, which he was looking forward to. It also meant he was well on his way to getting back financially to where he had been two years previously.

Now she’d seen Angus and Michelle at close quarters, under stress, Pat wondered how they had stayed together for as long as they had. But then, according to Alice, they had been growing apart almost as soon as the first hot flush of marriage had gone. Did Michelle becoming pregnant with Ewen cause that? Only to be followed quite quickly by Rachael?

Michelle couldn’t have been more than twenty-three or four when she found herself, no doubt a beautiful young woman, married with two children all the way out here. Ewen had told her that he and Rachael and Ali had done school-of-the-air with a variety of governesses, none of which were suitable to Michelle. Eventually Alice took over their schooling as well as their care. So probably they had a childhood of no television, just the radio, tapes, vinyl records and books for entertainment. But then of course, they had the biggest playground in the world, Bangalore.

Angus’ parents were still out here then, so Michelle had the in-laws to cope with. That couldn’t have been easy for Michelle, married to the only son of this vast pastoral empire and having to play second fiddle to his mother. Michelle was obviously an impatient lady and Angus’ parents would have had to cope with her tantrums and single mindedness.. Wonder what Angus’ mother is like?

It was Angus sitting down opposite her on the bench by the table that broke her quiet contemplation.  “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She smiled. “You didn’t, Angus. I was just day dreaming.”

“You obviously didn’t hear the phone?”

“No, I wasn’t really listening. I thought another hour or so.”

He rested his big arms and hands on the table and looked at her trying to smile, “They rang about five minutes ago. There’s no real change. Rachael took the call. They said Ewen has been put into an induced coma. Rachael says that’s quite normal, probably a good thing. They are concerned that he may have some bleeding in the brain. The report really was that he is still gravely ill; they are worried about the injured leg, the one that’s broken. The other leg is okay. They don’t want to move him until they are sure that he can stand up to the journey. They say that will be another twelve hours at least and they won’t ring again until this time to-morrow unless there is some real news. Oh yes, when they move him it will be to Germany and yes, he will be allowed visitors. There is some short stay accommodation on the base and there are several hotels nearby. The names of the injured will be released at…” he looked at his watch. “By now, the press will now have names and the army, or the ADF, or whoever does it, will have issued a press release.”

“It’s like Rachael said then, these things take time.”

“Looks like it, doesn’t it?”

“I was hoping that we might get better news. I feel so helpless…”

“You mean being out here? You can go with Michelle and Roddy if you want. Rachael and I will get your car down to you. We could probably get it on one of those vehicle-transporters from Carnarvon. That wouldn’t be any trouble. I have a car in Perth at my parents’ that you could use until we got yours down there.”

“No, I didn’t mean out here, Angus. I just meant being so far away from Ewen. But I suppose if Ewen was in Perth there wouldn’t be anything that we could do except wait. No, I’m glad I’m here, like I said, I like the peace and quiet; it’s something new for me.”

“Some people from the city can’t stand it. A couple of days at the most, being without their mobile phones and text messages, seems to drive them crazy. We even had a young lad out here who went around all day with an ‘IPod’ or whatever you call them, plugged into his ears all day – hated the quiet.”

“It’s strange, I haven’t missed my mobile phone one little bit, yet back in Perth I was never without it. I could even talk to Ewen while I was sitting in a café having coffee and he was thousands of kilometres away…” As Pat had been talking Angus noticed that her bottom lip had started to tremble and as her voice trailed away she looked away from him, tears welling again in her eyes.

He reached over the table and took her hand. He’d never felt comfortable in the presence of emotion, especially when women cried; he’d never been able to handle it. Yet now, now he could see this girl, this young woman opposite him doing her best to be brave because her lover, his only son, was in some hospital in Afghanistan…

“Pat?”

She looked at him, blinking back the tears.

“Pat, it’s not supposed to sound like I’m sure it will, but we have a long way to go with all of this…it’s only just starting.” It was the best he could do.

She covered his hand with her other hand and tried to smile and found she couldn’t. She looked up at him across the table and into his dark eyes. They sat there looking at each other; the need to talk had gone.

Angus noticed how small, soft and cool her hand was resting on the back of his. How she gently moved her thumb almost stroking the back of his hand. He heard footsteps approaching along the veranda and gently took his hand away from under hers and noticed that she didn’t stop looking at him. As Michelle came around the corner of the house, she looked away.

“Angus, Roddy and I are ready for off; have you heard the weather forecast today?”

“No. Why?”

“There’s a cyclone brewing north-west of Wyndham. The tracking predictions are that it will go west and then curve and come down the coast.”

“We haven’t had a decent cyclone for years. It’s three or four days before we will feel any effect if it does decide to come down the coast.”

“Don’t you think Patricia should leave? She could finish up being stranded here for weeks if the creeks come down.”

“Hardly weeks, Michelle, but we’ll keep an eye on it. Same thing applies to Rachael, I suppose. She only has a week off.”

“I tried to find her to tell her but Alice says she’s gone off riding with Ali. He’s been schooling some horses that he’s just broken in, so she could be anywhere.” Michelle was obviously exasperated again, unable to exert any influence on her daughter and she made no secret that she didn’t approve of Rachael going off with Ali. Angus just looked at her impassively.

Angus got up. “I’ll run you out to the plane. You coming for the ride, Pat?”

As they drove to the airstrip Roddy asked, “Thought any more about cattle, Angus?”

“Think about it all the time, Roddy; the wool market looks a lot better this time. We have another two hundred bales in the next auction, the last of last year’s clip. Father will go down there again as he always does.”

Michelle interrupted from the back, “Why don’t you just make the decision, Angus? You know it’s the best thing. I hear everyone is moving out of sheep.” Again she sounded exasperated.

“Not that easy, Michelle, you know that. The Old Man and his father and his father before him have all run sheep out here. It would be hard on him if I sold them all.”

“But it’s you that has to make a living out here, not your father; he’s got enough for five lifetimes for goodness sake!”

Roddy asked, “Are the cattle available?”

“Oh yes. Be a bit of a challenge getting what we would need, but they are out there.”

“Sheep prices good?”

“Not bad. Looks like the export wether trade is good and mutton prices are better than they’ve ever been. If this cyclone comes down we will have them all in good order in a few months.” Angus turned and smiled at Roddy with an air of resignation. “Maybe that will help me make the decision. Still don’t know how I’ll tell the Old Man though.”

“He knows what’s going on, Angus,” Roddy said smiling. “We met them, or at least they were at the same art gallery function as us a couple of weeks ago, and during the drinks and nibbles session later he told me he was optimistic at the recent rises.  He had all the numbers at his fingertips.  We didn’t discuss Bangalore directly, but he did say he knew sheep numbers were dwindling in this country.  I think he keeps in touch with what’s going on through his club and the Pastoralists and Graziers.”

“He does. I know that. He still attends meetings, I think. He reads everything he gets from the P & G, he reads the rural press and I know he talks with the wool brokers all the time.”

Michelle and Pat were sitting in the back of the Mercedes and Michelle joined in the conversation. Again her voice had a shrillness about it and she made no effort to hide her exasperation. “Well, you must do something, Angus. Everyone in town is saying that wool is finished. Why, I heard the other day that there is more money in trapping wild goats than there is in sheep. You should get Ali out there catching the damn things instead of spending all his time with his precious horses!”

Angus didn’t turn round to look at her. “The traps are set, Michelle; that’s what he was doing last week. The truck is coming on Tuesday. We think we should have three hundred by then. I told him to work the horses, so he’s not just playing around on some recreational pursuit; we will need them for mustering the breakaway country at shearing. We do know what we are doing.

“I have three dog teams out there now. They are keeping the wild dogs under some control, so we are keeping the sheep in good order. Don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for some of the old Aboriginal families who enjoy being out there.”

Michelle dismissed Angus’ comments on wild dog control as if they didn’t matter.

“Well, I hope Ali knows what he’s doing with those horses. We don’t want Rachael having a fall. That would be all that we would need right now!” Angus didn’t reply.

They pushed the gleaming white Cessna out of the hangar and while Roddy did his pre-flight checks Michelle watched Angus and Pat stow Roddy’s and her luggage in the rear locker and on the back seats. She made no move to help them.

The checks complete Roddy smiled and shook Angus by the hand. “All complete, Angus. We’ll give you a ring when we get there.” With genuine affection he kissed Pat on the cheek and gave her a hug. “Chin up, Pat, give me a ring when you are in town. I’d like you to have a turn in this plane and tell me what you think. Saturday or Sunday is a good time for me.”

“Thanks, Roddy. I’d like that.”

Michelle kissed Angus on the cheek but otherwise didn’t touch him. She turned to Pat, looked at her and then, as if it required an effort, gave her a kiss and what could have passed for a hug. She didn’t speak to either of them.

Pat and Angus watched the Cessna taxi out to the end of the runway and turn into what little breeze there was. The pitch of the engine changed as Roddy opened the throttle and let the brakes off. The plane accelerated quickly and after what seemed only a few hundred metres it was airborne and climbing quickly to the north. Then he banked steeply and flew back over the landing strip now heading south and for Perth. As he passed them he dipped his wings.

Pat and Angus were still standing, side-by-side, almost touching. They watched the plane until it was a speck in the sky and then it disappeared. Pat became aware that Angus had made no effort to move so she stood quietly by his side. The heat of the day combined with the rain from the thunderstorms made the atmosphere oppressive, stifling. She could feel the perspiration running down her back and between her breasts.

She realised that in the rush of the morning she’d forgotten to put her bra on. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d forgotten, probably never.

Her mother had insisted she wear a bra as soon as puberty had set in. Like all teenagers Pat had fought her mother when it came to clothes, but her mother had always won. Loose jeans. Loose shirts not tee-shirts.

In the Air Force, the dress code imposed by her mother had stood her in good stead. She remembered her mother’s words: “Clothes must be appropriate for the occasion, Patricia. People judge you by what you wear – always remember that.”

Now she was standing, barefoot in the red dirt, dressed in a pair of Rachael’s frayed denim shorts that had started their life as jeans and a very old tee-shirt with ‘Trust me I’m a doctor’ just discernible on the front. Bareheaded and without a bra and feeling a freedom that she had never felt before. And there was no one to judge her.

Angus was motionless and still looking at the horizon, the vast red landscape that stretched out before them. Then, without looking at her, he started to speak. “You know, I’ve never been far away from this place. Perth…Sydney and Melbourne a couple of times…Went to South Africa once to look at some merinos but I was on my own in a big group of married couples so it wasn’t much fun. I was glad to get home. Went to Bali once with a girlfriend –lady friend really – hated it. We had a row and I came home and left her there…never saw her again.

“I’ve been trying, standing here in this vast placid landscape, to imagine what it’s like to be a combat soldier these days, flying in a war zone as desolate and barren, exposed to the enemy as it is in Afghanistan. I’ve been trying to imagine what it’s like to be my son – trying to get in touch with him somehow…I can’t…he’s out there somewhere…in a coma…in a bed in an ICU, in a plane with tubes sticking out all over him…maybe he’s dying…maybe he’s already…I feel helpless. He and I have never been as close as say, Rach and I.

“He’s always been so driven. I hardly got a chance to know him with him being at school in Perth, and then he was in the army. I was thinking, they were only with me until they were about twelve; then all I saw of them was for about three…four months a year. Hardly enough time to get to know him as a boy…I don’t know him as a man – he’s almost a stranger – yet he’s my son…”

Angus’ voice trailed away and he stood still, looking into the distance and ignoring the flies that clung to every drop of moisture round his eyes and mouth. Pat looked at him and saw tears trickling down his face; he was making no effort to brush them away. Before Pat could speak Angus continued. “If there isn’t time to make up for the years…I don’t know what I will do…I just feel so helpless…”

Pat moved her hand the few centimetres between them and took his hand in hers and squeezed it gently. His big calloused hand remained limp so she raised it to her lips and gently kissed it. He still didn’t move. “C’mon Angus, let’s go and get a cup of tea.” Still hand in hand she led him to the waiting Mercedes. She opened the passenger door for him and without a murmur he got in and she shut the door.

When she started the car the cool air from the air conditioner wafted over them. Angus took a big red handkerchief from his pocket wiped his eyes and blew his nose. When Pat looked at him the agony from a few moments ago had gone from his face and he was looking at her with a half-smile. He reached over and brushed her face with his hand, “Thanks Pat.” When he took his hand away she wanted to follow it. Instead she put the car in gear and set off down the track to the homestead. As she drove she felt calm and for some reason that she didn’t understand, in spite of all the turmoil that was starting to engulf them, she felt free, a freedom of what – her soul? Her spirit? She didn’t know.

All she knew was that since arriving at Bangalore she had started some kind of metamorphosis and it wasn’t finished. She thought of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Was that it? Instead of flying in a machine, was she going to learn to fly – free? Had her life so far been that of a caterpillar? A butterfly in a caterpillar’s skin, just waiting for time to pass and the right conditions to wrap herself in a cocoon and then emerge as a different creature, unrecognisable from the previous life. Was that it? Whatever it is, she thought, I’m powerless against it out here in this vast place, close to something very gentle, yet raw and powerful.

Three hundred metres away, sitting on their horses under a couple of big gum trees Rachael and Ali had been watching Pat and Angus. Because of the dark windows on the Mercedes the only bit they had missed was the moment of brief intimacy when Angus had touched Pat’s cheek.

Ali and Rachael were both wearing jeans, riding boots, old shirts and big stockman’s hats. Their eyes were shaded from each other. Rachael broke the silence. “Well – what did you make of that?”

“Nothing.”

“C’mon, Ali…They were holding hands!”

“He’s a big sensitive man that dad of yours.”

“C’mon, Ali, you saw them. They stood there for what, five minutes? I’m sure she kissed his hand. They were definitely holding hands and she put Dad into the passenger seat and she drove the car!”

“You’re making too much of it, Princess.”

“I don’t think I am.”

“Well, I do.”

“Why? How?”

Ali turned and faced Rachael; he was close to being angry. “Just listen, will you? I’ve spent more time with him than either you or Ewen. I think I know the man as well or better than anyone. We spend our lives together. He doesn’t handle family emotions very well. I remember him when you went missing for a few days in Africa when you were chasing gorillas or something…I found him down by the pool one night…I’m sure he’d been having a bit of a cry. He was the same when he and your mother were finally divorced…it had been going on for years but when it was final…he had a few bad days then. He’s lonely, Rach – in spite of all his good humour, he’s lonely, I reckon. You need to remember he spends a lot of time on his own. Now poor old Ewen is injured and I reckon he must be taking it pretty bad.”

Rachael looked at him; the anger and suspicion had gone out of her voice. “We, no I, forget, don’t I? I’m all wrapped up in my own little world. I just think of him as ‘good old Dad’ doing what he wants to do out here in this beautiful wilderness. I never think of him as being lonely. Are you lonely too, Ali?”

He didn’t answer her. He looked away to where Angus and Pat had been standing.

“Oh Ali…what can I do?”

“Stay close to him, Rach…he can be fragile that giant of a man.”

“What about you, Ali?”

“What about me?”

“You didn’t answer me – are you lonely?”

“You don’t need to ask.”

Rachael took her hat off and shook her hair loose. Now Ali could see her eyes and there were tears running down her cheeks as she looked at him. He took an old handkerchief out of his pocket and gently wiped away her tears. “Put your hat on, Rach. Let’s take these nags back and give them a wash and a feed. It’s getting bloody hot.”

Rachael didn’t move and the tears flowed. “Ali…what can I do?”

“Later, Princess. We will talk later. You know the answer to your question anyway if you really ask yourself – it’s not for me to tell you. But this is not the time or the place to go into it – for the first time in years we have a bit of time. Let’s have a swim this afternoon. I have a couple of watering points to check in the holding paddocks, so if you spend some time with Angus and Pat, I’ll be back about four. See if you can get away on your own.” He urged his horse forward into a walk and Rachael scrunched her hair under her hat and jammed it onto her head and allowed her horse to follow. She nudged it with her heels, caught up with Ali and they rode together.

Chapter 9.

Catharsis.

Pat parked the Mercedes in the bough shed and remembered not to take the keys out of the ignition. Without looking at Angus she got out and followed him into the cool homestead. Alice was in the kitchen pouring water into a big teapot. “I heard the plane leave, so I put the kettle on. Have you seen Rachael and Ali? You all right, Angus?”

“I’m fine, Alice. No, we haven’t seen Rach. I would think they won’t be far away. It’s getting a bit hot out there for handling young horses.”

“You two go out onto the veranda if that’s where you want your tea. I’ve put some cake on the tray as well; nobody seemed to have much of a breakfast this morning except you and Roddy. Go on, I’ll bring the tray through. I see you’re learning fast, Pat, no shoes. What’s the point in wearing shoes I always say when God gave us two perfectly good feet?”

Instead of leading the way, Angus and Pat followed Alice out onto the veranda where she put the tray down on a small table between two cane armchairs. She smiled and reminded them lunch was cold mutton and salad and it was in the fridge. All they had to do was get it out. She was going for a lie-down.

Angus poured the tea, pushed a mug across the table to Pat, took a piece of cake and looked at her. “Sorry about that bit out at the airstrip, Pat…I, err…”

She returned his gaze; his eyes seemed darker than ever. “There’s no need for you to say anything Angus…we are all under a lot of pressure…in uncharted waters with a lot of shock and emotion…flying blind or something like that. I’m just glad I’m here, not just for you but for me as well. I’m away from the scrutiny of my colleagues who would all be well intentioned I’m sure – but there would be the inevitable questions. It would also be hard to concentrate on any real job at present and if they sent me home, then all I would have is my own company.”

“This may sound silly, Pat, but in spite of all we are going through, you seem to have changed. I don’t mean that to embarrass you, but you were very tight and nervous when we first met – now you’re different, somehow.”

“It must be the majesty of Bangalore, Angus,” she said smiling. “I’ve felt the same myself – I looked out on that landscape when we were seeing the plane off – it was almost as if I could see forever. No people. Listening to the sound of the plane slowly fade into nothing and then silence – just silence. Then a crow cawed somewhere as if to remind us we weren’t alone; then even he was quiet – in reverence to the moment perhaps – don’t know. I haven’t had much silence in my life; certainly not in recent years. There’s always been noise of some kind.”

“I would have thought a city girl like you might be frightened out here.”

“I’m not frightened, I’m more in awe than anything. Like everyone I’ve read and been told since I was a girl about the dangers of the outback. I’ve been out here a few times but always with a gang or an air crew of some kind so it’s always been a bit of an adventure and a couple of times a real chore.

“So to answer your question, yes, I do feel different. Look at me, barefoot, old tatty, frayed, borrowed shorts. A very old and comfortable tee-shirt and nothing else. I have never dressed like this since I was about thirteen on a school camp down at Point Peron where I was away from my mother and her strict rules.”

“Your mother was strict?”

“If I had to sum up in one word my mother’s views on clothes it would be ‘appropriate’. I think if she could have had her way she would have dressed me in a long black shapeless dress from the age of about thirteen.”

“Any more tea in that pot?” It was Rachael; they hadn’t heard her walking through the house. The flywire door banged behind her as she joined them on the veranda. Pat poured her a cup of tea and she sat on the arm of Angus’ chair and playfully, gently, ruffled his hair. “How ya goin’, Angus?”

“So this is what Sydney teaches, is it, lack of respect for your elders?”

“Absolutely – none of these petty bourgeois manners for us. From now on I’ve decided it’s going to be Angus.”

“And Dad, when you want something.”

“Of course! Can’t give everything away at once.”

“So your mother will now become Michelle? I’d like to see that.”

“Steady on! That’s going a bit far, no Mum will become Mother. I don’t think she would accept Michelle somehow. What do you call your parents, Pat?”

“Dad is Dad, sometimes Jim when we’re alone.”

“Your mother?”

“Mother. Your Majesty. Your Grace. Definitely not Elizabeth or Liz, as my dad used to call her when they were happy.”

“Divorced?”

“A few years ago now. Bitter, acrimonious. Made Dad very sad. Especially when he gave her everything really. She now lives with a rich surgeon so she has double everything. Mother forced the sale of the family home and bought a BMW with what was left. Dad had borrowed against the house to pay lawyers so he got virtually nothing. Shortly after, my mother and her new man bought a block down at Yallingup. They are building there now.”

“What is it about Yallingup, Dad? Have you been down there? That’s where Mum and Roddy are building their mansion.”

“Haven’t been there for years. Had a mate at school and his grandparents lived down there. Had a little farm and ran cows. We used to go down there at half-term. It was all gravel roads and beautiful beaches with nobody on them. Great surf. The old man used to let us drink beer and he knew the best places to go fishing. He had an old Land Rover and sometimes we’d stay out all night fishing and drinking beer and then cook fresh fish for breakfast on the beach. He was a wonderful old man.

“He’d been in the First World War. Like so many he’d seen some terrible slaughter. So when he got home he walked away from the family business in Perth. I think they were foundry men or something like that, very wealthy. He bought a block, milked cows and said goodbye to the world. When his son, my mate’s father, became of age he gave him all his shares in the family business. Last I heard my old school friend was floating a new mining company in Perth. I suppose he’s built his mansion where his grandad milked cows. It was only half a mile from the beach.”

Rachael looked at Pat. “How about you, Pat, been down there?”

“Ewen and I went down there one weekend and indulged ourselves at one of the resorts called Palm Bay. It was quite beautiful but I don’t think those places are for me. They have everything there, gym, tennis courts, and swimming pools by the beach, sumptuous restaurants, and a spa in the room overlooking the ocean. I just wondered why you would want to pay hundreds of dollars a night to go and sweat in a gym or swim in a pool when the ocean is a short walk away. The place was full of designer beachwear and sunglasses, white socks and nothing less than a BMW in the car park.”

Rachael now had her arm round Angus’ shoulder. “I know what you mean. I went to a medical conference up in Queensland. It was quite beautiful too but so extravagant. I should have known better really.”

Angus looked at her. “What do you mean you should have known better?”

“It was full of male doctors all on their own away from home off the leash. There were only three women at the conference. One was a professor and about sixty, jolly and fat. The other one was as gay as all hell and had her partner with her so that left me with all these randy doctors. Talk about harassment. They even pushed notes under my door!”

“What did you do?” Angus asked.

“Stuck it out to the end and then left before the conclusion and caught the plane home. Then I got a phone calls when I got back to Sydney from some Registrar that said he couldn’t forget me, asking me to meet him.”

“What did you do?”

“Told him to go and fuck himself and if he didn’t stop, I’d claim harassment.”

“Women of the modern era,” Angus said with a sigh. “What about you, Pat, that sort of thing happen in the RAAF?”

“You have to be very careful; there are always the predators. I think it’s worse in the Navy where they are confined in small spaces for long periods. At least with us, most of the time you get home at night. If you’re on the base then the quarters are secure.”

Angus got up. “I’m going to have a look at the Internet and see what’s happening to this cyclone. If you two want to check your emails or send any I’ll be about ten minutes, then it’s all yours.”

Rachael slipped into the chair that Angus had vacated and drained the last of the tea into their mugs. “How is Angus, Pat?”

Pat looked at her hands for a moment and then, looking at Rachael, said, “He got a little emotional out on the airstrip after your mother left.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, he just stood there looking at the horizon…then he…I’m not sure if I should tell you.”

“Please, Pat, I’m a bit worried about him…he’s a very silent man you know…keeps a lot inside.”

“Well, he started talking about Bangalore and how he had never really been very far away from it for many years. A couple of trips that he didn’t enjoy.”

“Did he tell you about Bali with Jane Baxter?” Rachael asked with a mischievous smile.

“Yes, he did. He said they had a row and he came home.”

“So he didn’t tell you about the masseuse?”

“No.”

“It’s a funny story. I’ll tell you one night when we are alone. I don’t think he got over it for years. I’m sorry, you were saying, he was talking out on the air strip.”

“Yes, he started talking about Ewen and trying to imagine what it was like to be in a combat zone like Afghanistan. He said he feels he hardly knows his son because Ewen was away at school. Then he went into the army and they have hardly seen each other for years. He gave me the feeling he was trying to connect with what was going on and he couldn’t. He used words like feeling helpless and hopeless. I think he’s frightened Ewen will die without him really knowing him.”

“Did he get emotional?”

“A little.”

“How did you feel?”

“A little hopeless myself. He’s such a big man and not just in stature. But he’s not equipped…no that’s not the right word…he’s led something of a sheltered life out here for so long…at least sheltered from where I have come from and I expect where you have come from. Now war and grief has caught up with him and I suspect it’s a very painful experience. I think he’s worried if Ewen dies, then he will have failed to have shown him, told him of the love he really feels.”

The whole time Pat had been speaking Rachael hadn’t moved and she hadn’t taken her eyes off Pat’s face. “Wow! You should have been a doctor, Pat. That’s very understanding.”

Pat gave a little shrug and a half-smile and reached for Angus’ tobacco pouch and papers he’d left on the table. As she looked down rolling her cigarette she went on. “I’ve only been here a few hours and I don’t really know Angus at all but he gives the impression that he loves this place so much – that this is what he’s connected to. He and your mother had a few words in the car about selling the sheep and buying cattle – I didn’t really understand what it was all about, but Angus gave the impression that he would change, that he will change, but he doesn’t know how to break the news to your grandfather. He thinks it will hurt him and he doesn’t want to do that. So he’d rather lose money than hurt his dad.”

She lit the cigarette and inhaled. Rachael said, “Oh wow. There is a lot going on I don’t know, isn’t there? That’s a statement not a question, Pat. I have never thought about change out here. You and I face up to change every day. Career changes. Moving house. Changing men, all that sort of crap. But Bangalore? Change? I’d never thought of that. I just think of Bangalore as the only thing that doesn’t change. That’s selfish really. Dad’s always here. Ali’s always here. Alice is always here. Nothing changes.

“I can come home after six or twelve months away and everything, even my room, is just the same as I left it. This place is just like my riding boots, I can just slip into them and I’m back. Then I leave knowing I can come back and do it all over again…anytime I like. Now that is selfish.”

Pat stubbed her cigarette out and stood up. “I’ll go and make another pot of tea.”

Rachael looked at her, smiling. “My God, Pat, look at you. No shoes and no bra is that becoming an officer and a lady?”

“Not really and what’s more, Rachael, I don’t care, so there!” Laughing, she tossed her head in mock disdain.

“Good. I’ve got just the dress for you this evening, bought it in India. It will suit you down to the ground if you’re game to wear it.”

“Try me. I told Angus that I feel a freedom out here that I’ve never felt before. I have never walked around barefoot since I was a child. I have never, ever, not worn a bra, goodness me!

By the time Ali got to the pool Rachael had already had a swim and was sitting at the barbecue table under the pergola. She refused his offer to have another swim and watched as he walked into the water and did a few duck dives and splashed around. Never a great stylist Ali swam powerfully but the perfectionist would say that he spent too much energy with little result. But then Rachael mused ‘he’s never been taught; it’s all pure raw talent and willpower’.

It was four-thirty in the afternoon and still hot and, if anything, the humidity was more oppressive. Rachael had swum in just her bikini bottoms and now she had pulled an old tee-shirt on to cover her body. From the way Ali had behaved that morning it was obvious he wanted to talk after she had asked him whether he was lonely, like her father.

As he walked out of the water again she noticed the limp. Like many men who work outdoors his head and forearms were a darker tan than the rest of his body, except for the tell-tale line around his forehead showing the line of his hat.

Like Rachael there was Indian blood in his family so his coffee-coloured skin that was shaded from the sun during the day was a natural colour not a suntan. She thought he hasn’t changed since they were teenagers – still slim to thin, big arms from all the manual work, the hair receding at the temples and a hint of grey, but he was still the same Ali.

He went to the cab of his Land Cruiser and came back with a small six-pack Esky, a towel and his tobacco tin. “Beer?”

“Love one.”

He unscrewed the tops off two stubbies and gave one to her. “Cheers, Princess. Here’s to Ew and a quick recovery.”

Still seated she looked into his blue eyes and he held her stare. Then he picked up his towel and vigorously dried his hair and forearms and sat down on the bench opposite. They faced each other across the table. Rachael’s forefinger traced a heart that had been carved into the wood many years ago and saw that the sun, wind and rain had almost worn it away.

Ali asked, “How old were we when we carved that?”

Without looking up she replied, “Sixteen—and I was crying because I was so happy.”

Before he could ask another question she went on. “It was the day that we became lovers for the first time.”

“Over there under that old tree on a li-lo that you had been floating around on, on a day much the same as today. You put a tartan rug over it.” As he was speaking he pointed to a spot under a tree not ten metres from where they sat.

“Ali…please…” There was pain and apprehension in her voice.

“You asked me today, Rach, if I was lonely and I told you that you knew the answer to the question. My answer is sometimes I am, but mostly I’m not. I sometimes wonder if I’ve spent too long out here. You know what they say about old bushies and not being happy unless they are alone. It’s not like that for me—I’m not lonely because…because there is always part of you around this place…especially around this pool. I can come down here and find a strange kind of peace.”

Rachael wanted to reach over and hold his hand but, before she could, he continued, “You and I grew up together, Rach, like brother and sister. Then when we started to move out of childhood into being adults we changed – we knew that we were in love and we knew that one day we would make love. When it happened – for me it was the most natural thing in the world. There was no shame. No regrets. I just got deeper in love, I suppose.”

“Then I went away.”

“Then you went away, and then you came back. Then you went away again and you came back again. When you were away you were still here for me. Over the years I’ve been living with you even though you’re not here. I don’t mean that in a sexual sense. I didn’t appreciate what it really is until the last few years. I think the black fellas would call it the spirit. Old Walter the gardener knows what’s going on. He often ask me how you are and when I reply he just chuckles and walks off shaking his head.”

Rachael was crying. Big tears rolled down her cheeks. Her nose started to run down over her top lip. He gave her a handkerchief and she wiped her eyes and blew her nose.

“You’ve never really asked me why I keep on going away. Why is that, Ali?”

“That’s the way we’ve always been, Princess. You went off to boarding school at about twelve and left me behind. Then I went off to High School in Geraldton and you went back to Perth. Then we all came back to Bangalore for holidays. Then we went away again. Then when I left school and went to Ag College, down to Northam, you went to university. Even though you were only a few hours away I didn’t drive down to see you because that was the way we were. Then I came back here and you stayed away for longer and longer periods…that’s the way it is. Then you went to Sydney and you stayed away. Then Alice told me the other day you were going to India to work; didn’t know what to think then.”

He unscrewed the tops off another two stubbies and pushed one over the table to her. Rachael was crying again.

“Ali…why have we been so stupid?”

“Don’t know.”

“Why have we never talked like this before?”

“Don’t know. I have thought about it. As the years have passed it’s always seemed to me that you were holding something back. I put it down to your ambition to succeed. You’re a driven person; I didn’t want to interfere with that. I didn’t want to come between you and your work.”

“I think I’m some kind of weird masochist.”

“Masochist – why?”

“That day that we lay on the li-lo, what was I sixteen, and you just seventeen? And afterwards when you carved this heart in the table, that day is seared, branded into my brain, I can re-live it at any time I want.”

“Do you?”

“More often than I’ve always wanted to admit. On so many days you are the last person that I think of before going to sleep and the first person that I think of when I wake. On that first day and every time since, whenever we have been together, even today out riding, a peace, I don’t know, a glow maybe. Something happens to me…I know I am doing the most natural thing in the world and that is just being with you. Then…when we make love…we become one person…there is this fusion…that has always filled me with an ecstatic happiness…yet it frightens me with its power – it’s that power the two of us have – I can’t believe I have been so stupid to only just realise it. It’s the power we have when we are together that has made me run away; it’s been too big for me. I’ve always thought of running away as irrational, but I’ve been helpless in trying to fight it.

“Having seen the way that Dad was today and when you said you thought he was lonely…that hit me between the eyes…it knocked the breath out of me. I realised, in spite of everything I am doing…I’m lonely too…and the reason you are lonely is because I’m not here with you.”

Ali was quietly rolling a cigarette. When he’d finished he lit it with the Zippo lighter that Rachael had given to him one Christmas. He drew on it and offered it to Rachael. She took it, took a puff and handed it back. “I remember the first time we did this too – share a cigarette – it was that day when we finished mustering that last mob of stragglers – it might have been the same summer. Do you remember? It was as hot as hell and we’d been out in that breakaway country all day, big wethers that refused to move in the heat and we were into the last couple of days of shearing.”

“We had a couple of hundred by the time we’d finished and it was getting dark so we moved them down to that goat trap so that we wouldn’t lose them again. We lit a fire and drank tea and ate everything that was in our saddle packs.” Ali handed her the cigarette again.

“Then we lay on backs and gazed at the stars all night.”

Rachael blew smoke in his face across the table. “Not all night, Ali,” she said in a tone pretending to mock him because he’d forgotten something.

He looked her in the eyes and she felt herself being drawn towards him. “No, Princess, not all night. Then before dawn we moved them out and had the mob at the shearing shed by smoke-o. The cook gave us breakfast. Angus came out to see shearing finished at that shed and all he did was thank us for getting them in. If he knew we’d been out all night he didn’t say anything.”

“He’s always known about us, hasn’t he, Ali?”

“I’m sure he has, Rach. He never mentions it to me. He tells me when you’ve been on the phone. I tell him if you ring me. Alice asks me about you sometimes.”

“She knows too, of course.”

“There is nothing Alice doesn’t know; she never talks about it either. You and Ewen are her children really, but she keeps it all to herself. She’s a very private person is Alice.”

“When we got back to Bangalore, Mother was there on one of her rare visits. I think I had said that the only reason that she was there was so that she could count the wool bales. Someone must have told her or she had deduced somehow that we had been out all night and she went ballistic. Said she was going to take me back to Perth. I remember being very cool about it. I told her that she would have to put me in chains, but if I had to stay with her at least I would meet her boyfriends. She never mentioned it again. She left for Perth the next day.”

As they’d been reminiscing they’d found each other’s hands across the table. “Ali.”

He lifted his eyes from their hands and looked at her. “Ali…can I come back and can we get married? I’m thirty now and I want a child with you. I don’t want this place to end with just Dad and you – two lonely men. I want to be with you, and with Dad. I want to be in this place.”

“Of course you can, Princess.”

“Can we get married?”

“Of course. We’ve been man and wife since we were kids, we know that, maybe everyone else knows that. It’s just taken us a long time to get round to accepting it.”

“That’s been my fault.”

“I don’t want you to ever say that again. What has happened has happened. I could have followed you everywhere but I didn’t. I stayed here.”

“And I could have come back at any time and I didn’t, except when the thoughts of you consumed me – when I needed you.”

“That’s past now, Rach.”

“Ali.”

Again he looked at her. “Ali, there is something else that I want to tell you.” He waited. “There has never been another man in my life. You are the only man that I have ever made love to. There has never been anyone else. I have had boyfriends but if it ever got to where they were looking at going to bed, then I finished it. I always thought of you and I couldn’t – I don’t know – defile myself with another man.”

He just sat there looking at her. She began to feel a little nervous. Then he smiled at her. “We are a couple of bloody fools, you and me, Princess. Here we are thirty years of age. We’ve been lovers since we were sixteen and neither of us has had another lover in all that time. It’s unbelievable.”

“You too?”

“Never saw the need. If I saw a pretty girl or a good-looking woman, especially if they came on to me, then I’d just think of you and have another beer.”

“That’s almost monastic.”

“Not really. Old Walter taught me years ago how to sit quietly under a tree and how you can go to other places. The modern term is meditation I suppose. Walter and I used to camp out for days on end fencing and that sort of thing. He taught me a lot about his ways, blackfella ways. When he first told me that he knew what was going on with his family back in Meekatharra I didn’t believe him until one day he started packing up and saying that he had to go to town. I brought him back to Bangalore. He jumped into his old Ute and was gone. Your dad rang the sergeant in town and told him Walter was on his way and his family were a bad lot and asked him to keep an eye on Walter. The sergeant told him that less than an hour before Angus had rung, Walter’s brother had been in a fight and was badly injured and they’d sent for the Flying Doctor.”

“Are you saying that you knew what I was up to when I was away?”

He laughed and stood up. “Not at all, Princess, like I said half an hour ago, I could come to this place, or be anywhere else and think of this place for a few minutes and find peace; in a strange sort of way I could be with you. Let’s go and have a swim and then we have to decide how we are going to tell everyone.”

They swam, both content with an inner comfort and soothing awareness that their time together now stretched to the far horizon and beyond. Their mistakes of the past, if they had been mistakes, were gone.

They held hands as they walked out of the water. At the water’s edge Rachael stopped and turned and faced him. Her bare breasts touched his chest. She took his face in her hands and kissed him. “I love you, Ali Barber.”

 

Chapter 10

The world finds out.

At about six o’clock Angus went to his study, the place where he could be really private. Like in the breakfast room there were pictures on the walls of the old Bangalore, faded sepia prints and paintings. To these had been added photos of his father and mother during the Second World War and later, when fortunes were made, when wool was a pound a pound. Then there were some of his own photographs; mementoes of school. School photographs, sports teams; the eight for the head of the river when he had been seventeen. Working as a jackeroo in the Queensland Gulf country. On his desk there were photographs of Rachael at graduation and of Ewen when he received his wings. There were no photographs of him and Michelle.

He turned his computer on and as it booted up he let his eyes wander round the walls. Not in exact order, each wall mainly contained the pictures of a generation and their activities at Bangalore.

There were pictures of yards being built, wells being dug and windmills being erected. Always there were pictures of sheep, Bangalore merinos. Mainly rams with proud owners and stockmen. One picture in particular held his attention. Three generations, his grandfather, his father and himself as maybe a twelve or thirteen year old, all on horseback and in the background a big mob of sheep. Bangalore sheep.

In spite of the worries about his son and the waiting for news from the army, the decision about what to do with Bangalore was never far from his mind, as it had been for several years. Merinos and Bangalore went together like fish and chips. Michelle shrilling about the need for change from the back of the car had irritated him. Why did he let her get under his skin like that? After all these years she could still push his irritability buttons. Why did he let her?

He wondered if Roddy had told him the full truth about what his father had said when they had met in Perth. There was little his father missed. Angus knew his father still enjoyed going to the Pastoralists and Graziers Association both to sit on the committees and also to their social functions. The P & G were on the Right of agricultural politics. His father had men and women of his generation, also retired in Perth, with whom he could yarn and reminisce about the old days. There were a couple of old fellows who had also been in Bomber Command and Fighter Command, so they had plenty to talk about.

He looked at the computer screen and he logged on to the Bureau of Meteorology site and clicked on the cyclone warnings. It had gained intensity and was now a category two. It had been named ‘Ada’. Warnings had been issued for Kalumburu and down the coast. It was heading southwest, well off the coast. They said it was too early to predict its path but early warnings were out for Port Hedland and Broome.

Angus closed the bureau site and put his password into The Globe newspaper site. There on the front page was a picture of his son in flying gear staring back at him. The picture was accompanied by a short story saying that it was breaking news that Australian forces had suffered serious casualties in the war against terror in Afghanistan. They said they were trying to contact his family and that his son was gravely injured, the extent of the injuries were not known, and for security reasons no details would be released of the mission that he and his colleagues had been on. The only additional information was that it was believed the injured trooper was from New South Wales.

Angus logged off and sat looking at the blank screen. It had been in the back of his mind for years as it had become increasingly apparent that Ewen would never run Bangalore, what would happen to the place when he became too old to get around. He couldn’t do it forever. Now with Ewen lying in a bed somewhere, broken into pieces, his perfect body shot up and unconscious, with strangers fighting to keep him alive, Angus’ thoughts became a jumble of jagged images.

He could hear Rachael calling him as she walked through the house. She opened the office door, her eyes were dancing and she looked excited. “Dad, I’ve got something to tell… Dad…are you all right?”

“I just looked at The Globe. Ewen’s on the front page. They said they were trying to contact the family. I suppose we can expect calls from the Press. Don’t know what I’ll say.”

“Would you like me to handle them?”

With an air of resignation he replied. “Not really, darling…I’ve got to handle it. I’m sure they won’t be satisfied until they talk to me. I’m sure they won’t have the same problems with Michelle.”

“Dad,” she said putting her arm around his shoulders, “She still winds you up, doesn’t she?”

“She does and she knows it. She likes to pick at what she sees as my weaknesses of which she believes I have many. I think she’s always felt I need improving. And then there’s my relationship with my father, which she’s never understood. I wonder sometimes if your mother will ever be really happy. Maybe she’s happy now spending Roddy’s money. Fancy going to Italy for tiles or something. More money than sense as your grandfather would say.”

“Have you told Pat that Ewen is in the papers?”

“No. You came in just as I turned the computer off.”

“That will be the early edition, won’t it, for tomorrow?”

“Suppose so, maybe they’ve just put it up. I didn’t look at the date. Should I get it up again?”

“I’ll do it. You go and get yourself a drink and find Pat and tell her. I’ll have a beer when you go to the fridge; one of those Heinekens if there are any left, otherwise whatever is in the fridge.”

Angus found Pat in the kitchen stacking the dishwasher. She smiled. She was still in the same old clothes she had worn all day. He thought she looked younger. “Ewen is on the front page of The Globe. Rachael, is just looking to see if it was today’s edition or the first edition for tomorrow.”

She stood up and leaned back on the sink. “What did it say?”

“Very little, just said he had been badly injured. That I live up here and his mother in Perth. That no details can be given about what they were doing on the mission and that he and the other soldier have been injured in combat, in the war against terror.”

“I suppose that means we can expect some more calls?”

“I suppose it does, Pat. You want a drink?”

“Beer, Angus, please. This is real beer weather.”

“It is, isn’t it?” He opened the fridge and found that Alice had put six or so stubbies in the tray under the freezer. They were all Heinekens. He took out three, took the tops off and handed one to Pat. “I’ll just take this to Rachael. She’s on the computer. See you on the veranda?”

As he opened the office door the phone rang. Rachael swivelled round on her chair and picked up the phone. “Hello Mum. Yes, we’re just looking at it now…No, we haven’t heard from anyone…No it’s from today’s edition…hang on, hang on, Mum! No Mum, we haven’t… I’ll put Dad on.” She covered the mouthpiece with her hand and said, “It’s Mum in a frightful flap.”

Angus took the phone from her. “Michelle.”

“Angus the press were waiting for us when we got here to Jandakot airport. How did they know we were flying in; did you tell them?”

“No, I didn’t, Michelle. We haven’t heard from the press.”

“Then how did they know?” Her voice was getting shrill again.

“Pat heard from her CO. Apparently the photograph and story started in the Arabic press. It just grew from there. Once it was on the Internet it went viral.”

“Well, who told the Arabs, Angus?! And who told the local press where I live?” Her tone was shrill and accusing.

“Well, it wasn’t us. Roddy is not exactly unknown, Michelle, and neither are you. Maybe his office told them he was taking a few days off. I’m sure it’s not hard find out. I’m sure Roddy can handle the press. He’s had plenty of experience. What did you tell them?”

“Nothing. Roddy left me in the restricted zone so they couldn’t get to me and then we made a rush to the car. They got photos of me though. I felt sick on the way down, and then I fell asleep, so I looked awful. Roddy said the family will issue a statement later this evening. So I suppose Roddy will ring you.” As she spoke she seemed to calm down a little. Then she said, “And when you’ve made up your mind to come to Germany, let me know will you? Don’t put it off, Angus.”

Instead of reacting to her taunt he smiled and in a very soft voice said, “Of course I will, Michelle. You will be the first to know. Goodbye.” And hung up.

Rachael had taken her beer and joined Pat on the veranda. “That was Mum. The press got her at Jandakot and it sounded like she was looking for someone to blame. So, Dad was getting it in the ear.”

Pat took a sip of beer. “I suppose we can all expect some attention now. For a few days at least?”

“Inevitably. Dad seems to have changed his mind. He’s going to speak to Roddy, and get his office to issue a statement on behalf of us all but I don’t suppose that will stop the news hawks. They will be looking for something extra.”

Pat took another sip of her beer as she looked to the west and the setting sun and the palm trees standing in straight lines as if making a guard of honour standing to attention. She pushed the comparison out of her mind and, without looking at Rachael, said, “I suppose I can expect some attention too? Not very good at that sort of thing.”

“Publicity – attention?”

“Umm. Don’t like to be at the front of things. Just like to get on with my job and that job seems a long way from here.”

The phone rang in the house and they looked at each other. As Rachael started to get up it stopped. “Maybe that’s news of Ewen. Hope so, it’s time they let us know what’s going on.”

They sat and waited for a few minutes and then Angus joined them. “That was the army. Ewen is on the move to Germany. They think they have saved his injured leg but they won’t be sure until the specialists in Germany check it. He’s still in an induced coma. The big worry is brain damage, apparently. There was some bleeding and they have stopped that. He’s in a special pressure capsule for the flight. They have relieved the pressure inside his head but there is still some brain swelling, which is causing concern. The rest they said is broken bones, which are serious as far as they can tell. I asked them if they wanted to speak to you, Rach, and they said no. I asked them if now would be the right time to go to Germany and they said better to wait until he’s had a full check.

“The officer who spoke to me said he thought it would be at least twenty-four to thirty-six hours before that was done. He did say that it was a difficult decision to move him because of the seriousness of the head injury. They had consulted the people in Germany and they had given specific instructions about capsule pressure. They sounded as if they thought they could be damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. I’ll go and ring Michelle and tell her. I’ll also ring my father; he must be wondering what’s going on. Surprised he hasn’t been on the phone if he’s seen the papers.”

Rachael turned to Pat. “I’ll go and tell Ali and Alice. Will you be OK for ten minutes?”

“Of course, Angus will be back in a moment. This…this head injury, Rachael…it’s serious, isn’t it?”

Rachael paused and then sat down again. She spent a moment thinking and then slowly and deliberately said, “Head injuries are always difficult, Pat. We know a lot about what goes on in the brain and still we know precious little. The brain is the mainframe computer; it controls everything. Standard procedure in these cases is to do exactly what they are doing. They induce a coma, with anaesthetics, to reduce the activity of the body and to keep the patient quiet and stable. It’s easier to monitor a patient when they are not suffering mentally from the physical part of a trauma. Medications and nutrients can be easily administered. At some time a decision is made to slowly reduce the anesthetic and to allow the patient to wake up. Then an assessment can be made if there is any damage to the brain caused by the injury.”

“How long does the induced coma usually last?”

“There’s no rule. Sometimes hours, sometimes days, seldom weeks, but I have heard of it being done. It’s up to the neurological team.”

“As he has been put in this induced coma does that mean he has suffered brain damage?’

“What it means, Pat, is that he has suffered some damage to his brain, but more importantly nobody knows yet, it would seem, whether he has suffered temporary or permanent damage. They may have made some initial assessment from the scans they will have taken, but quite rightly, in my view, they are not talking about that right now.”

“So we wait.”

Rachael got up from her armchair and bent down and gave Pat a kiss on the cheek and a little hug. “So we wait, Pat. Now I will be ten minutes or so. I’ll go and find Ali and his mum.”

Angus joined Pat; he was carrying a small bucket of ice, two glasses and a bottle of Red Label. He flopped into the chair that Rachael had just vacated. “I need something a bit stronger than beer. Join me?”

Pat nodded.

As he was putting the ice and whisky in the glasses he told her, “Michelle says they have a camera crew from one of the TV stations parked in the street as well as a couple of photographers. She said one young lass from a TV station had even knocked on the door and shoved a microphone under her nose. Roddy has gone into the office to brief the young lady in his firm about issuing a statement. Michelle hasn’t done anything about going to Germany, but by her tone she’s about to ring Obama or his wife and demand that Air Force One be sent here to get her. She’s furious that the bloke from the army couldn’t or wouldn’t give her more information.”

As Pat took her whisky and ice, not speaking directly to Angus, she said. “Rachael said that they won’t know if Ewen has suffered any damage to his brain until they wake him up.”

“We must be positive, Pat, and if the worst happens then face up to that when it happens. I’ve had the same thoughts as you. Like what do we do if the poor lad is permanently damaged? What will be the extent of the damage? I made up my mind yesterday to try and push all those thoughts out of my mind until we have more information. But it’s not easy…in fact, it’s bloody hard.”

“Now we have to wait another twenty-four hours or so before we could, perhaps, know something more definite.”

The phone started ringing in the house. Angus, a little wearily, got up to answer it. He was gone about five minutes. “That was my father. He hadn’t seen the paper today. He and mother had been up to New Norcia for the day to stay with an old friend and a man whose family have supplied us with rams since forever. There was a reporter and cameraman waiting at the house in Dalkeith. Poor old chap got quite a shock. He said he hadn’t received the news about Ewen – no, he hadn’t seen the paper and no, he hadn’t got anything to say and he asked them to leave. He said Mother got very upset when they started taking photographs. She needs a walking stick, so it’s not as if she could run away. So I suppose their pictures will be in the paper tomorrow. I wonder what the pictures of Michelle will be like?”

He had no sooner sat down when the phone rang again. This time he was gone for ten minutes. “That was The Globe. They wanted to know if they could send a senior reporter and photographer up here tomorrow. They have a plane standing by. They asked if the landing strip could handle a Beechcraft Baron or similar. I told them it was RFDS approved. They asked if you were here as well; actually they said they understood you were here and wanted to know if that was true. I had to say yes, I’m sorry, Pat.”

“What did you tell them about coming up here?”

“I said I’d ring them back in an hour or so. Thought I’d have a word with you and Rachael first. I suppose this is the start of it; could be the TV stations next. I’ll go and ring Roddy; I think I’m getting a bit out of my depth with all this. Do you want to talk to them?”

“I’d prefer not to, but I’ll take advice from those who have some experience of these things; like you I’m starting to flounder. I thought I might be out of their reach here.”

“No such chance, it seems. If you have to talk to the Air Force, feel free to use the phone, if you can get on it that is without some other bugger ringing first. I’ll go and ring Roddy.”

Angus poured more whisky in his glass together with a handful of ice and again went to the phone. Pat could hear voices but she couldn’t hear what was being said. While he was talking, Rachael returned. “Who’s Dad talking to?”

“Roddy. The press have been on the phone. They want to send some people up here tomorrow; they said they have a plane standing by. He went to ring Roddy before he gave them a reply.”

“I suppose we will have to say yes. If we don’t say yes, maybe they will come and just fly around with those telephoto lenses that the paparazzi use. Those parasites seem to be able to photograph through concrete walls. They are so intrusive.”

“Oh, don’t say that, Rachael. Do you think we will become a target of the paparazzi? I don’t think I could stand being followed. Surely all this isn’t that newsworthy?”

“I suspect it’s not whether it’s a big thing or not – I think it’s more what the media can make of it. I suppose it’s all part of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. How many times have you seen a non-story on television or in the paper? Long mournful faces holding a dead cat’s collar or something like that. You’d better look out, Pat, New Idea or Women’s Weekly will be on the phone next.”

Pat looked at Rachael and could see the mischief in her eyes, and ignored it. “Now that I would find disgusting. I abhor people who sell their private stories to magazines. They reveal the most intimate of feelings and secrets of their lives or so they say, or they make them up, we will never know. So-called celebrities, or wives and partners of celebrities reveal all of what went on in and out bed, every salacious detail, almost before they’ve washed or at the very least changed the sheets. What’s worse, they do it for money! Someone even sold, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the first pictures of their baby.”

“Sorry, Pat, I can see I’ve touched a nerve.”

“Not really, Rachael. I just hate the tabloid press. I hate the way they get people to spend their money to read about some film star or cricketer’s latest root. They have photographers with those long lenses that almost totally exclude privacy from people’s lives and now they’re using those directional microphones so that they can listen to what people are saying. The press make something as inconsequential as a night out on the town into something of national importance. They never seem to get the other side, you know, why was the man or woman out on their own? Where was their partner? What drove them to go out on their own? Are they just sex-mad or desperately unhappy? Television is no better; they intrude. They put together poorly researched so-called current affairs and people watch it in droves – and what’s more, believe it!”

“I hope we’re not in for that sort of thing,” Rachael added.

“So do I. More casualties in action in Afghanistan is political fodder for some in Australia. Ewen and his mates are elite troops. There will be enquiries as to where and by whom they were shot down. No doubt the Greens, and others who have been against our involvement both in Iraq and Afghanistan, will have something to say. I can see it now. Politicians with grave faces holding, what do they call them, door-stop interviews or something?”

“What will be the position of the RAAF as far as you are concerned? Do you know what you can say?”

“No, I’ll have to ring my CO in the morning.”

As they were talking Angus came back. “I’ve spoken to Roddy and to his PR lady. She sounds very competent. She says she will issue a statement to the media tomorrow asking they respect our privacy until we know something more definite about Ewen. She doesn’t think it will do much good though. She says the story is already big and growing; there is some question as to where they were shot down: was it in Afghanistan or was it in Pakistan? They are apparently trying to get another team in there at present, wherever that is, to make sure that the helicopter was destroyed in the crash and if it wasn’t, then to destroy it or recover it or something, she wasn’t sure. She said that wasn’t official about the helicopter; it had come in over the wires from CNN.”

“Wonder what will happen if it is found to have crashed in Pakistan?” Rachael said to no one in particular.

Pat replied, “Not a lot, I would think. From what I can gather from the gossip, Pakistan confuses everyone, The stories we get are that there are powerful elements in Pakistan, in the military and among the politicians, who are pro-Taliban and who are anti, even hate America and her allies, so that means Australia. Many of the people in Pakistan do not see, or do not know, the war in Afghanistan is really a NATO operation. I have read briefing papers telling our troops not to assume anyone in Pakistan is friendly, far from it in fact.”

The three of them sat quietly contemplating the last few days. The rapid change from a stressful family trauma was now spinning them into a vortex of uncertainty. Like cyclone Ada, the fierce rotating storm that was gathering far to the north; the ferocity and the extent of the damage that it could wreak if they were in its path – impossible to predict.

Angus was the first to break the silence. “If you’re both agreed, I’ll go and ring The Globe and tell them they can come here to-morrow if they must. Roddy thought that was the best thing to do – try and put them off but agree if that didn’t work. He also said the television stations would probably try as well. Wish I could turn the phone off but I can’t.” Without waiting for an answer he went to phone the editor of The Globe.

“Poor Dad, he’s suffering a bit by the look of him. I hope the TV people don’t ring up.” Pat looked at her and didn’t reply; all she could muster was a nod and a little smile. Rachael continued, “I wonder how Mum is. I’ll give her a ring when Dad finishes on the phone. I must remember to ring her at least once a day or she’ll start complaining about being neglected. I think I can manage her if she starts going on, like only she can. I must try and keep her away from Dad for a while. He doesn’t need her winding him up just at the moment.”

Pat looked at Rachael. She looked composed. Pat knew what it was like trying to protect a father from his ex-wife and her own mother. She’d known about her mother’s affair before her father. She found out by chance when she and a girlfriend, on the spur of the moment, decided to join for dinner a flight crew who were leaving for Afghanistan in a few days’ time.

In a little Italian Bistro in Subiaco, tucked away in the darkest corner of the room in a booth just for two, she saw her mother. She didn’t know who the man was. Just by watching them for a few moments she realised her father was being betrayed. Her mother and the man she was with were holding hands over the table. From the other side of the restaurant, Pat could feel an almost rhapsodic intimacy between them. If they had been strangers she would have smiled at the public demonstration of their physical attraction to each other.

The farewell party for their friends was in another room. Pat followed the welcoming waiter with childhood memories tearing through her head. Memories shattered into shards of glass like a vandalised shop window. Thirty years of family memories lying broken on the pavement waiting for someone to come and board up the gaping hole while a curious crowd looked on and walked around the mess.

What would be her mother’s excuse in the morning? She had been asked to do a double shift? There had been an emergency and she had been called in?

Somehow Pat managed to stay at the party for long enough to bid her friends a safe mission. Then she had excused herself and left the restaurant by the back door. The next morning she rang her father and he told her that her mother wasn’t home. He told her that Mother had called and told him she’d been called in to an emergency. Pat had put the phone down and cried for her father. His only other news was that he’d run out of money and was ruined. He’d lost his legal battle.

Angus, Pat and Rachael sat together in the breakfast room and ate a chicken pie with a Greek salad Alice had prepared for their dinner. Busy with their own thoughts they hadn’t heard her in the kitchen late in the afternoon. Rachael found the note Alice had left on the table telling them when the pie would be ready. Rachael and she set the table in the breakfast room and opened a bottle of red wine; she still hadn’t told Angus about the decision that she and Ali had come to, and made up her mind to do it before they went to bed.

Over dinner, in turn, they each made half-hearted efforts to start a conversation and each time it faded into silence. Angus seemed to be content with his own thoughts; he appeared to be brooding. Pat wanted to hold his hand. He looked bleak and desolate.

For the first time since she’d arrived at Bangalore, Pat wondered whether she was intruding. She knew she wasn’t, but she felt a little uncomfortable. She wondered if it would –perhaps – be the best thing if she made the decision to drive back to Perth the next day. Would that be seen as running away? Running away from what? She wouldn’t be running away from Ewen. She would be running into a storm of publicity in Perth. She looked at Angus picking at his salad with little enthusiasm. She noticed that Rachael was watching her and gave a little smile, but said nothing. She decided to stay.

Very softly Rachael said, “Dad. Angus.” Angus looked up; whatever his train of thought had been she had broken it. “Dad, I have something to tell you. I know this is not the right time, but the way things are there isn’t going to be a right time for a while.”

Angus stared at her. “If it’s good news then I want to hear it. If it’s not good news then I had better hear it anyway and get it over with. The floor is yours, Rachael.” He tried to smile but it didn’t spread to his eyes.

Pat started to get up from the table, saying. “This sounds like family business. I’ll leave you two alone and go and put the dishes in the washer and put it on. I’ll take my drink with me.” Before Rachael could prevent her she’d gathered the three dinner plates and her glass of wine and left them closing the door quietly behind her.

“Dad…Ali and I had a long talk today…we’ve decided to get married.”

“Good Lord!” Whatever his previous mood had been, Rachael’s news shocked it out of him.

“You sound surprised.”

“Well, I am. I’d given up hope of it ever happening years ago, especially when you went to Sydney and then a couple of days ago you said you were going to India and I thought that had put the kybosh on it altogether. What brought all this on?”

Rachael was screwing her napkin, twisting it, not looking at her father, searching for words. She looked up, her face almost expressionless, so that Angus feared more bad news.

“I have finally realised, with all that’s going on that nothing in life can be taken for granted, particularly as far as Ali is concerned. That sounds a bit trite…clichéd…do you know what I mean, Dad?”

“I do. We have led relatively placid lives so far. Not too many traumas along the way. I was only saying the same thing to Pat today. Time passes and suddenly we find there are regrets – regrets that there are some things we haven’t done – that we should have done.”

Haltingly, Rachael confessed to her father, “I think I’ve realised I have been selfish. I’ve always done what I wanted to do and taken Ali…not for granted…well, it’s like I’ve led two lives for so long. The real one was always here because I knew it was always here – just a few hours away no matter where I was. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think I do, sweetheart, but I must say that I have never understood you two. There was a time when you were teenagers, when I thought that you would run away, just to get away from your mother. But you didn’t; you just went your own way. Then you would come back and then…”

“I would go away again…and again…and again.”

“What amazed me was that Ali didn’t show any signs of wanting to follow you. Never understood that, still don’t.”

“We talked about that today.”

“What did he say?”

“He said…it’s a bit creepy…no not creepy, spiritual maybe…he said that he was always with me…or at least he could find me when he was in a quiet place.”

“And you?”

“I told him I was the same. In the morning he was with me and at night he was with me…are you happy for us, Dad?”

Angus got up from the table and went to where Rachael was sitting. She stood up and they put their arms around each other and held each other closer than they had for years. “Of course I am. It’s wonderful news.” He kissed the top of her head. “It’s the best news that I could have got.” He held her at arm’s length and looked at her teary eyes and smiled. “At least it will stop me waking up when you try to sneak back into the house before dawn. I think you were sixteen when it started and you have kept up the charade ever since. Always amused me. Your mother thought you were up to something once. I convinced her you had just been going to the toilet.”

“What do you think she will say?”

“Do you care?”

“Not really.”

“Does Alice know?”

“Ali was going to tell her tonight.”

“She’s known about you two and your nocturnal habits for as long as I have, you know.”

“We thought as much. Ali said she knows everything.”

Angus pushed Rachael away to arm’s length and held her. “I think she probably does, but like me, she keeps a lot to herself. Go and tell Pat. You should. Then go to Ali and you can bang the flywire door as hard as you like if you come back in the morning. You can tell me how you are going to plan everything when all this is over with Ewen.” He kissed her again on the top of the head and pushed her away. “Go now – give me a few minutes and tell Pat I’ll join her on the veranda.” Then as an after-thought he added, “Don’t suppose he’s given you a ring.”

“Hardly, Dad. This wasn’t planned.”

“Tell him I want to see him in the morning. He still hasn’t asked my permission for the hand of my only daughter.” Rachael thought for the first time that day, he had a real smile on his face.

As she was leaving Rachael turned to Angus. “Angus, if you have known about Ali and me right from the beginning it would seem…you never said anything…looking back now we were so young, I was still at school. You even put mother off the trail, why was that? It’s a bit unusual for parental behaviour.”

“Never really thought about saying anything. You were always old for your age. Even as a child I could see that. You were the leader. Ewen relied on you. You and Ali? Blind Freddy could see that there was something magical between you. By the time you were well into your teens it was evident, at least to me, that you and Ali were lovers. I’d already made the decision to let things be; you deserved your happiness.”

“Did you worry about me getting pregnant?”

“Not really. I knew you would manage it if it happened and your mother would go ballistic. It’s not that I didn’t care, sweetheart. I just knew that whatever happened it would be for the best. Looking back now I don’t know how I would have felt if your mother and I had still been in a decent marriage, but we weren’t. I suppose I knew that between us, Ali and I could take care of you, and Alice of course.”

“You’re a strange man, Angus Sinclair.”

“I’m beginning to agree with you.”

“You value freedom of choice, don’t you?”

“That’s getting a bit deep, Doctor.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Do I? I do believe that we are put on this earth to help and to guide. I’ve never been one for discipline or for trying to control you or Ewen. Not after you reached an age where I thought that the best lessons you could learn would be from experience. I’ve always seen it as my job to be here if you stumbled, as we all do from time to time. I’ve always seen it as my job to be ready to help you back on your feet if that was what was needed. That was what your grandfather did for me.”

Rachael remembered what Pat had told her about what Angus had said to her out on the airstrip that morning. She went back to Angus and put her arms around his waist and looked into his dark eyes. “And what about you, Dad; do you feel you are free to make your choices?”

He looked down at her and gave a half-smile. “Away you go Doctor Rachael. Go and find Ali.”

“Can we talk about it sometime?”

“Of course.”

“You’re not unhappy, are you, Dad?”

“I am worried about Ewen, as we all are. I don’t think I ever contemplate whether I am happy or not – never think about it.” His tone was a little brusque, even guarded.

Rachael decided that the conversation had gone far enough. She felt that some emotional shutters were being put up and she didn’t want that. When she’d asked whether he was unhappy he’d momentarily looked away from her, taken a deep breath and then replied. She’d seen a similar reaction in the children’s hospital. Parents when they were confronted with a seriously ill child, especially when the parents felt some blame, like after a car crash in which their child had been injured and they had been driving, they would often look away when they were being spoken to. It was a half-fearful look and then either they broke down or the shutters went up.

Rachael kissed him softly on the cheek. “I’ll go and find Ali and tell him he has to ask you for my hand in marriage.”

Chapter 11.

Alice in the Looking Glass

Angus wasn’t used to being questioned about happiness. He’d never talked to anyone about it, not even his father. Happiness didn’t come into the lexicon of his life. Challenges yes. Happiness? Angus realised that he’d never genuinely thought about it. He knew his life was not an unhappy one. He was surrounded by everything that was familiar to him. Things, places he had known all his life that made him content, but happy? He remembered he’d been happy when he and Michelle had married. At least he thought he was at the time.

Then Rachael and Ewen came along in quick succession. Not long after he realised something was missing in his marriage. He remembered he had been happy when the children were born. Then the change came. Michelle had always been off to Perth on some pretext. Then when she came back one time, in a matter of fact way, without any emotion, she told him she’d had her tubes tied. She hadn’t asked him. She’d just done it. No more children.

The news had devastated him. It has left him with an empty feeling. Why? Why, had she, how could she…? What had she done, what was the message to him, had she ‘fulfilled her obligations to provide a son and heir’? Was that the beginning of the end? A noise behind him made him turn. It was Alice drying her hands on a tea towel.

“Rachael has told you then.”

“Yes.” Alice looked nervous.

“Are you happy about it?”

Angus smiled. “That’s the second time in so many minutes that I’ve been asked if I am happy. Yes, I am, Alice. It’s time that they did something. Don’t know why they’ve taken so long. What about you?”

“It means that you and I are going to be related by marriage.”

“About bloody time too! Does that bother you? You’ve been a member of this family for a long time as far as I am concerned. Now at least it will be formalised.”

“What do you think Lachlan will say?”

“My father? I would think he will be happy about it. Why do you ask?”

As Angus looked at her he could see the tension in her face. She was struggling with herself and wringing the tea towel in her hands.

“What is it, Alice?”

“Your father and you are of different generations Angus…so different…”

“I don’t understand. I think that my father will be happy for Rachael and for Ali. He likes the lad.”

“Your father is the son of your grandfather…he’s very like him…in so many ways. Yet in many ways he’s so different…you don’t remember your grandfather, do you?”

“No. He died shortly after I was born. All I know is he was mustering and his horse stumbled; he was thrown and broke his neck. He died very quickly.”

“Yes, that’s what happened to Fergus Alexander Sinclair. Died April 1, 1957, with his boots on. I was about eighteen; he was just sixty. That means he was born in 1893. You may wonder why I remember the dates. I remember dates because I often think about how times have changed in just a few generations; now we have my son marrying into the Sinclair family, something just a few generations ago, wouldn’t have been possible.

“The Aboriginal stockmen brought your grandfather back here in the back of a truck. Your grandmother, matter of fact as always, got on the radio; a doctor came out from Meekatharra with the Minister and a coffin, signed the death certificate and he was straight away buried next to his father and mother.”

Alice sat down at the table in the chair where Rachael had been just a few moments before. A little of the tension had gone out of her voice. Angus poured her some wine in Rachael’s glass. She swirled the ruby red liquid, sniffed the aroma and took a mouthful as she looked at Angus. He could do nothing but look back into her eyes.

As gently as he could, he said, “Alice, where is this going?” She paid no attention to his question.

“All the Aboriginal families from miles around came to the funeral. They had the service in the old school room that used to double as a chapel on Sundays.” Angus didn’t speak. He just watched as Alice swirled the wine in the glass. “They all knew the hymns. They’d learned them at school, either from your grandmother or from me when I took over from her. It was a lovely funeral. The women had been out and found flowers in the bush and there were roses from the garden. It was almost as if the chapel was filled with the emblems of Australia and that far-off land in another hemisphere which most of us hadn’t seen. We’d had rain so there was some early wattle, the green and the gold. Then the red and yellow and pinks of the roses whose ancestors, like yours, Angus, had started life in another place and over the generations, perhaps by natural selection, had learned to thrive in this place. We are all foreigners really, aren’t we, Angus?”

Angus didn’t reply. He smiled gently and poured a little more wine in her glass. This was a new Alice. He had spent most of his life with her around him, from childhood talking to him. He had learned to read and write because of Alice. Together with his father she had been the bedtime and campfire storyteller. It briefly crossed his mind he couldn’t remember his mother ever reading him a story. Had she been there?

Alice started talking again. “When the service was over they put the coffin and all the flowers on the back of a little truck and slowly went down to where the rest of the family, and my family, are buried. It was a cool day I remember. I remember walking with, helping, my father, who was suffering from arthritis. As we walked behind the coffin the galahs screeched a final farewell. The Minister said a few words and as he was speaking a couple of black cockies flew over and said a few words and he had to pause…then a magpie warbled as he started speaking again. They were all saying goodbye. The Aboriginal stockmen and your father lowered him into the ground and I looked up and there were two crows watching us from the tree. Your grandmother sprinkled a handful of red dirt and a white rose on the coffin and turned away. One of the crows let out that mournful caw…caw…caw that they have. The stockmen smiled. She didn’t cry, your grandmother. I never saw her cry.

“Two days later she was gone. I didn’t see her go. I just came to work one morning and your father said she had gone to the house in Perth. From that day on your father took over Bangalore. After the funeral, that night there was a corroboree, then the next morning all the stockmen and their families were gone; it was what they called ‘sorry time’. The house staff stayed. They slipped quietly around, no chatter as there usually was. The girls even found some black ribbon for their hair – goodness knows where from. Then after a week the whole community came back, happy smiling and got on with the preparations for shearing. The big change was that your father became the Boss, rather than his father, Fergus…the generations had changed.”

Alice took another sip of wine. “Your grandfather, so my family said, had been in the First World War. He was one of just twenty from his battalion who survived the battle of the Somme. They say that forty thousand or so young Australians died in that far-off land – in the mud and the filth of another man’s war. Far more died out there than in Gallipoli. He hadn’t enlisted here in Australia like so many, but he had gone back to what they now call the UK and, because of his name and education, got a commission in the British army in the family regiment. I can’t remember which one.”

Angus knew but he didn’t want to break the flow.

Alice took another sip of the wine. “He must have seen some dreadful things. When he came back here to Bangalore in 1919 or 1920, they say he had changed.”

“In what way?”

“His own father, your great grandfather, had died while he was away. I think it says on the headstone, 1918. My father and your great grandmother were running Bangalore. When Fergus came home he also brought with him a wife, Elizabeth Campbell. A beautiful girl, they say. It must have been a shock from Scotland to Bangalore. They say she never properly settled to this harsh country. She would insist on spending the summers in Perth where she became deeply involved in work for charity, mainly the Red Cross and medical services in the station country. Many of the station owners in those days didn’t live on the station, like now. They would have a manager and they would live in Perth and maybe come up here three or four times a year.”

“You said he had changed?”

“You and your father have a great attachment to this land. To its history and its people, black, white and brindle. Your grandfather had seen some terrible things during the war in the trenches. He used to say that it was the peace of Bangalore that stopped him going mad. Yet my father always said that Fergus never really knew where he wanted to be after the war.”

“Unlike you, Angus, there was not a trace of Indian blood in his looks. He was a throwback to the Scots. Sandy blonde, fair complexion. Though of course the British had been in India for a long time so who knows what blood was in his mother? The army had taught him to be an officer and a gentleman. He had mixed with his family and the aristocracy in Scotland and of course, in London.

“It was in London where he found his wife; she too was from a long Scots lineage. From what I gather the Scots aristocrats, or at least many of them, I shouldn’t say that because I don’t know whether it was all of them, but Scotland was a place where many had their estates and their castles or fine houses, but it was London where they lived and at the same time proclaimed their Scots ancestry.

“When your grandfather came back to Bangalore it was as if he couldn’t forget his ancestry. He knew what he’d left behind. He knew where he had come from, or at least he knew where some of his blood had come from, the other part of course, was Indian, just a generation away, but he never talked about the Indian side of his family. I think he was proud of them…but he never talked about them, not that I heard anyway. I think your grandmother chose to ignore it. It was your father who dug out all the old photographs after your grandmother left. It was your father who had them framed and hung in the breakfast room. Your grandmother never came back to Bangalore. I don’t think your grandmother, or in many ways your grandfather, had the same attachment to this place as say… you and your father. I think they always dreamed of the ‘old country’. Do you remember her?”

“Grandmother? Not really. I have a vague memory of going to Perth and seeing her. I don’t remember the funeral or anything like that. I’ve never really thought about it before. I have a few memories of grandfather as a distant man. I suppose we went to see my grandmother before she went on that trip back to England.”

Alice took another sip of her wine. “She went and she never came back. Maybe your father sent her money. I always thought that she had money of her own. She married again, a rich landowner in Scotland.”

“I remember father writing to me when I was at school to tell me she had died and that he was going to Scotland. I saw him when he came back. He said that he, as her only son, had inherited her estate and he’d left instructions in Scotland for everything to be sold. We had just come through the fifties’ wool boom and times were good. I think he bought the house in Dalkeith and a whole heap of shares with the money. I have no idea to this day what my grandmother’s estate was worth”

Alice’s story seemed to have dried up. Angus didn’t want to probe but then he remembered what Alice had said about telling his father about Rachael and Ali.

“What did you mean, Alice, when you asked me if I had told my father? You seemed concerned.”

Now she didn’t look up when she spoke. “Oh, it’s nothing Angus, just memories flooding back into this old head of mine. Your daughter and my son getting married… just jumbled thoughts about the past.” She looked up and again her blue eyes locked into his. “Just tell me what he says when you tell him.”

‘You don’t think he’s prejudiced, do you?”

Alice smiled. “Lachlan prejudiced? No, he’s not prejudiced, Angus, he may still call the Aboriginals, blackfellas, but he’s not prejudiced. I think he grieves for the state that they are in now with the grog. I would just like to know what he says when you tell him.”

“Why don’t you ring him?”

Alice looked up sharply. “I have never rung your father.”

“Maybe now is a good time to start.”

“No, you ring him.”

“I think Father has changed. You mustn’t forget, Alice, there is Indian in my blood, only a few generations back. It doesn’t really matter what he says, or thinks. It doesn’t matter what Michelle thinks either, and we still have that bit of nuclear fission to cope with.”

Alice brushed her eyes with the back of her hand and smiled. “Well, Angus, at least now they have made formal what you and I have known for the last fifteen years or so. Maybe they will stop sneaking around in the middle of the night like a couple of truants.”

“They kept Michelle fooled.”

“They did, although she hasn’t been here for a lot of the time.”

Alice smiled again with a knowing twinkle in her eye, relishing what was to come. “That won’t be half of it. God willing, they will have kids and when they arrive, black haired, dark skinned and with blue eyes, then I suspect Michelle will have a problem, especially showing the kids off to her ‘set’ of snobs in the leafy river suburbs or down in the café at Cottesloe.” Angus had never heard Alice refer to Michelle as a snob before.

“What do you think Michelle will say?”

With an air of resignation Angus looked at her. “I honestly don’t really care, Alice. I’m just happy the two of them have realised they want to be together, that life is frail; it has taken this business with Ewen to make them realise they need each other and I’m grateful for that. Let’s hope it is just the beginning of good news.”

Alice looked at Angus; he thought the lines around her eyes and mouth had softened. As she stood there looking at him, he caught a glimpse of the Alice of his childhood, the proud, young, beautiful dark-skinned woman who had always been around the homestead, teaching him to read and write, the Alice who would ride with him out to the stock camp, and sometimes they would stay out there overnight. The glimpse was brief; he saw his father and Alice sitting by the campfire talking as he, tired from the day’s excitement, fell asleep in his swag.

It was all over in a moment. Alice walked over to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Courage Angus. We will need all the strength we have over the coming weeks. I would like to know what Lachlan says when you tell him about Rachael and Ali. You will tell me, won’t you?” She was holding him at arm’s length, still looking into his eyes.

“Of course.”

“Bless you, Angus – you are a good man, you know. Don’t ever doubt that.”

“That’s an odd thing to say, Alice.”

“Maybe, but its time someone told you. I get the feeling you are in danger of doubting yourself.”

“Is it that old intuition working overtime?”

“No. Maybe? I know you better than anyone. You look tired.” Alice gently squeezed his arm, smiled, and left him standing there.

He did feel tired. More had happened in a couple of days than had happened to him in the previous twelve months. The almost monastic tranquillity of his life had been ruptured. He looked at the door, which Alice had quietly closed, and realised he knew Alice better than he knew his own mother. He hadn’t thought about it before, and the realisation shocked him a little, but now, as the crisis in his simple life mounted, he was being forced to look back on his life – to reminisce. He pushed the thoughts from his head and decided to ring his father.

The phone rang three times and then he heard his father’s familiar voice, “Lachlan”.

“Father, it’s Angus.”

“Angus, not bad news?”

“No Father, no news about Ewen; we are just waiting to hear. He’s on his way to Germany.”

“Have you had any of those thunder storms? They said on the television that there is a cyclone building. I suppose you would welcome a good soaking.”

“They are around. We’ve had a few but nothing more than to settle the dust. I have some other news though.” There was no response from his father so he went on. “Rachael and Ali have decided to get married.” There was no response. “Are you there, Father?”

“Course I am. About bloody time; what did Alice say?”

“She is happy. She wanted to know what you think.”

Again there was no response but he could hear his father breathing. He heard him strike a match and could visualise him putting it into his pipe. “Your mother is off to Melbourne to see some bloody Chinese artifact exhibition that isn’t coming to Perth and she and her exclusive coven want to go and see the ballet from Russia or somewhere that isn’t coming to Perth either, so she’s off tomorrow. Five of them, I think, first class do you mind! And they’re taking that woman with the undershot jaw that use to be a matron at one of the private hospitals, never married, true bitter old spinster! Well, they’ve all shouted her a trip so she can be with them if any of them fall off the twig. They all have their tablets. So look, Angus, I’ll put the dog with a mate down the road and I’ll catch the plane to Carnarvon. Can you pick me up from there? Is the old plane still flying? Wouldn’t mind a trip in that. We could have a look at the country. Haven’t done that for years.”

“That’s good, Father. It will be good for us all to have you here. When will this happen?”

‘I’ll ring the airline in the morning. Your mother is being picked up for the mid-day flight to-morrow. They are all staying at the Windsor so I know they will be all right. That means I can leave anytime I like. I’ll let you know when I have a flight booked.”

“What should I tell Alice?”

There was silence for a moment. “Tell her I will bring some mint just in case she hasn’t got any. Have you got any decent sheep meat in the fridge? I think your mother’s gone vegetarian. Haven’t had a decent roast for months. I think she’s trying to make me into a ruminant. Have to go down to the club for lunch to get a decent feed. You’ll have to come with me next time you’re in town. Are you still a member?”

Angus was taken aback; the conversation had gone off in a totally new direction that he hadn’t expected – his father talking about visiting and what he was going to eat. “I don’t know about the meat, Father. I haven’t asked Alice. I just leave it up to her and Ali.” He knew his reply was aimless.

“Never mind then, Angus. You have enough on your mind. Tell Alice I’ll bring half a sheep with me just in case. You can’t buy mutton these days, you know. It’ll have to be one of those grain-fed lambs. They’re not too bad but nothing like a young wether off those salt flats down by Queen’s. Alice and I used to get one from down there…she used to put the rest in brine…best meat in the world…” The old man’s voice trailed away.

“Are you still there, Father?”

“Course I am, trying to get my pipe going.”

“What should I tell Alice about Rachael and Ali?” There was silence.

“Father?” He could hear him sucking on his pipe and could imagine the clouds of smoke wafting through the house that these days brought complaints from his mother.

“Just tell her what I said. I’m on my way as soon as I can. I’ll bring a lamb, or half one anyway, and the mint. She’ll know what I mean.”

With some exasperation Angus repeated his question, “What shall I tell Rachael and Ali?”

“Tell them to get busy, I haven’t got much time to be a great grandfather!”

“Is that all?”

“It’s enough ’til I see them. No. Tell them and Alice I am happy for them and that I will dance at their wedding, which incidentally, I expect to be at Bangalore!”

“Is that it?”

“That’s it. I’ll see you as soon as I can get a flight.” Angus heard the phone being put down. He looked at his now-dead phone, put it back on the wall and wandered through to the kitchen not knowing whether he wanted a cup of tea or a stiff scotch. It had been as if he was hearing a new father, certainly one he hadn’t heard for thirty years or so. Animated, decisive, enthusiastic. Something had happened and he didn’t know what.

Alice was standing by the fridge. She quietly closed the door. There was a bottle of Johnnie Walker on the table together with some ice. She didn’t ask. She just poured him a large measure and said, “Well, what did Lachlan say?”

Angus, trying to gather his thoughts, spoke slowly and deliberately, trying not to miss any of the message or the inflection, of what seemed to him the half-told truth in his father’s voice.

“Some of what he said to me, Alice, didn’t make a lot of sense. He said Mother was off to Melbourne with her coven. I presume he means what he calls the witches of the book club and the bridge club. The woman with the undershot jaw, whoever she is, is going to take care of them all. They are flying first class. They are staying at the Windsor. They are going to see a Chinese exhibition and going to see a ballet, I think from Russia, which isn’t coming to Perth. He’s coming up here on the first flight he can get to Carnarvon and he wants picking up in the plane. He said he is bringing half a lamb with him and some mint and he said you would know what that means but it wouldn’t be as good as a young wether off the salt flat at Queen’s and you would know all about that. He said something about the way you used to put the rest in brine. He said he was happy for you, the marriage will be at Bangalore, he will dance at their wedding and he wants Ali and Rachael to get on with it, because he wants to be a great grandfather. It’s not much I know, sorry Alice.”

“What your father just said in a few moments would make a book, Angus. I know what he’s talking about.” She was smiling now. Her nervous demeanour of just a few minutes before, even her palpable nervousness had gone, and the shine was back in her eyes and her voice had lifted and lost its dullness. “He needn’t have worried about sheep meat, I must be psychic. I asked Ali, a couple of days ago, to get us some meat. He got a couple of two-tooth wethers, not off the salt flat though. They are hanging in the cool room now. I was going to butcher them in the morning and put them in the freezer. Sounds like I’d better get the old brine tub out. Haven’t used it in ages. Be like old times with some corned mutton for lunch. I’ll do it all in the morning. I’m tired Angus. It’s been such a big day, I’m glad it’s over. Nothing else can happen now, surely?”

“I’m tired too, I think we’re all just about done in. I’ll go and find Pat; maybe she’s gone to bed already. I’ll go and have a look. Goodnight Alice”

Before he left the kitchen he got more ice out of fridge, sloshed the tumbler with some more whisky, wondered if he was drinking too much, took a mouthful and as he went through the house to find Pat, Alice left the kitchen by the other door.

Pat was on the front veranda curled up on the cane sofa. The only light was from inside the house and a citronella candle which she had taken from the outside dining table and put on the little table between the sofa and an armchair. She pulled her feet a little further in and motioned for him to sit next to her. “Do you want a drink, Pat? I thought you might have gone to bed.” She didn’t reply, just shook her head.

He took out his leather tobacco pouch, took what he needed for a cigarette and offered it to her. Again without speaking or looking directly at him, she took it. He waited while she finished rolling her cigarette and then flicked his old Zippo lighter and held the flame for her. It was then he saw that her cheeks were wet. Angus lit his own cigarette and couldn’t think of anything to say.

He thought she’d finished crying, but in the darkness he couldn’t be sure. He took the ashtray from the table and put it on the sofa between them. Far in the west lightning danced in the high thunderclouds. They were too far away to hear the thunder. They sat in silence. The night air had cooled a little but there was no breeze. The flame from the candle was straight and undisturbed, the scent from it hanging in the air. Somewhere in the garden a frog croaked and another replied. A magpie gave a half-warble.

It was Pat who spoke first as she stubbed out her cigarette. “I’m happy for Rachael and Ali – I haven’t known Rachael for very long but it’s obvious that they’re doing the right thing.”

“So am I, Pat. It’s long past time they came to their senses.”

“I wonder if that is what this place does – makes one come to one’s senses?”

He looked at her and could only see the outline of her face. She wasn’t looking at him; she was looking at the lightning. It seemed a little closer and he thought he heard a rumble of thunder.

Before he could think of what could have only been a lame response she went on. “This place – this Bangalore…look at us now. We could be the only people on earth…in my short life I have never known, never had, the feelings that this place can stir in me. I have spent my life in a world full of people.

“At school I was encouraged and succeeded. At university…I found it easy. In the Air Force I find it easy to be a high achiever. But I live in a world of computers, instruments, satellites, iPhones, iPads, Bluetooth, voice recognition and dozens of other things. I am a high achiever in a world of technology.

“While we sit here in placid isolation, it’s easy to forget there is a brutal deadly war going on where people are getting killed every day. It’s a war of extremes. Our side is flying drones over Afghanistan and Pakistan; the pilot of the drone is sitting in a comfortable chair in a control centre in America. He or she is watching screens, searching, patrolling thousands of square kilometres. If the pilot finds the target they are hunting for, it might be a car, a house, a camp; then missiles are fired… they do their job, they kill people, then the drone drones on. Then the pilot’s shift ends and someone else takes over. The pilot goes home to his or her family and has dinner, and maybe plays video games with the kids.

“Then there is the war at the other extreme. There are those boys like Ewen’s patrol…away from their family for months…the hunters and the hunted…in danger every moment of day and night…for them, nothing has changed in a thousand years.

“Meanwhile, back here in Australia every minute of my working day is planned. That is what I am trained for. Sometimes I think I am being swept along in the strong current of a river of computer-driven technology. Sometimes I wonder if I am actually in touch with anything real, or if I am levitating above reality. Am I in a different world, beyond the real world?

“When Ewen and I went to Dunsborough we had three days, so we programmed ourselves to enjoy ourselves. Ewen planned and quite willingly, I followed. Up at first light, go surfing… at which he was better than me…then have breakfast… then squash or tennis until lunchtime. Sightseeing in the afternoon, which was planned like a flight plan, vineyards to be visited were plotted on the GPS. What had the critics said about the wine was all on Ewen’s iPad. Ewen would make notes after the tasting the wine, again on his iPad, on whether he agreed or not with the wine writer’s assessment. Buy a few bottles and write the date of purchase on the label.

“Everything was planned. The phone in the car would store messages. If we had received any calls we would ring them back as we drove. It was as if we had to be in touch no matter the cost.”

“You could have turned the phone off, couldn’t you?”

“Yes, we could. Ewen wouldn’t though. Even when you turn it off, and I have done that, there is always that question in the back of your mind wondering if anyone has left a message. It’s like a drug.”

Angus couldn’t think of anything to say. Pat was thinking out loud. She was questioning, analysing her lifestyle; all he could do was listen. She kept her eyes on the far horizon. There was no real pattern to what she said; the words came tumbling out.

“Have a spa, get changed, have dinner with waiters fussing around, drink good wine, go to bed, make love. Go to sleep, wake up and go surfing, but not before checking the message bank, voice mail, SMS, in case anyone had sent a message, tried to contact us while we were alone, while we were enjoying ourselves…were we? Were we enjoying ourselves?

“Do you know, Angus, I’ve never painted a picture. Not since primary school anyway. I don’t know if I can paint a picture, Angus. I am thirty and I don’t know if I can paint. What’s worse, I’ve never thought of it before. I have always gone for certainty in my life. I know I can fly the most complicated machinery known to man. I can fly it efficiently and as well as anyone on this planet, so that is what I do…yet I don’t know if I can paint a picture.

“I have a camera to record images. It’s the latest digital high-tech camera that money can buy. Ewen bought it for me. It’s quite amazing what it can do and it’s doubly amazing what I can do with those images when I download them on to my laptop computer. I can change them. I can do anything I want with them. Science, technology has made me into a very good photographer…a recorder and manipulator of images. I can send those images across the world in minutes…but I can’t – I don’t know if I can paint that picture.”

“Neither do I.”

“Do you want to?”

“I have a head full of images. I have albums full of photographs. I’ve never thought about painting,” Angus replied quietly, not wanting to break Pat’s mood of introspection.

“Neither had I until I started to take notice today as the light changed. When we stood out on the airstrip looking into the distance, that wasn’t a moment for a camera. A camera would have recorded the image but a painting would, perhaps, have captured the essence, the spirituality of a moment. Does that make sense? Then I came out here when you and Rachael were talking and the last of the sun was going down and I remembered when you and I had sat out here this morning, drinking tea, and watched the dawning of a new day. The same place, but the light was so different from the start to the end of the day.

“And here we are facing up to the trauma of Ewen’s injuries and all it entails, yet we have spent a day without external pressure, no pressure from the IT revolution. Just not having a mobile phone makes a difference. My mobile phone will do everything: take pictures, receive emails, download videos, newscast, it even has voice recognition so I can talk to it and get an accurate response. I suddenly asked myself…I don’t know what brought it on…I suddenly asked myself if I needed it, all that…what is it, junk? Stuff? Is it an addiction that I have in my life for state-of-the-art technology? So much is going on, yet we are coping quite, no very well, with a phone, a TV that nobody watches, a radio that sometimes is on for the news and we have the Internet for emails, to watch the cyclone and for you to read the morning paper.

“We are coping well because we have each other. I can imagine what it would be like if I was in Perth on my own, mobile phone going, messages on voicemail, text messages, emails both at home and at work, chatter around the Base. I think I would be a wreck by now with all the pressure from other people, well-meaning pressure, but pressure nonetheless.”

“It might be about to start, Pat, the media are circling and I don’t think they will be happy until they have something from us. I told you they want to fly up here. I don’t know if we can put them off. On top of that, my father is coming here in the next couple of days. He didn’t say as much but I think he’s coming to give us all a bit of support. He’s used the pretext that my mother and her coven, as he calls them, are off on a cultural jaunt to Melbourne, complete with a nursing chaperone. I suspect he knows more about what will be happening here, or what might be going to happen, than we give him credit for.”

“How old is he?”

“Father? He was fourteen in 1938 so that means he’s well into his eighties. Jesus! I’d forgotten just how old he is. Mind you, I saw him six months or so ago and he doesn’t seem to have changed much since he was ten years younger, maybe a bit thinner, but still very active. He still walks for miles everyday round the river. Goes fishing. Loves his cricket in the summer. Some of his mates from the War are still around, rapidly dwindling now though; they enjoy themselves when they get together. Mother is older and she is not wearing as well; lots of trouble with aches and pains and I think her bones are a bit brittle.”

You told me he was a pilot in the Second World War?”

“Yes, he was. Left Australia and went to England to join the RAF as soon as he was eighteen. Trained as a bomber pilot, did more than his share of sorties on the round-the-clock bombing raids on Germany; then he was moved to the Pathfinders. They flew Mosquitos, those wood and fabric twin-engine speed machines that literally blazed the path for the bombers on the night raids. They went ahead and dropped flares lighting the pathway for the bomber pilots. They almost totally relied on speed.

“The casualties in Bomber Command were very high, I’ve heard numbers like fifty thousand. I’m sure if you get him with a few good whiskies under his belt he will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck with stories – all before he was twenty-five. I think he finished his training when he was just nineteen or twenty, so he had five years of constant war. Hard to imagine now.”

“When is he coming?”

“He said he would book a flight tomorrow. Wants me to pick him up at Carnarvon in Bessie, so if you’re game we might go and get her out in the morning and give her a run. I had her down in Perth just a couple of months ago, so she’s all up to date – only had her up once since then. That reminds me, I told Roddy’s lady that I should ring the editor of The Globe, try and put him off and if that didn’t work agree that they can come tomorrow. Is that all right with you?”

“Might as well get it over with, Angus. I suppose there is little we can do. Better we agree than wake up one morning and find them camped on the lawn. I’ve heard of that sort of thing happening.”

Pat followed Angus through the house and when he stopped at the phone, she said, “Cup of tea?”

“Please, make a big pot, I’ve drunk enough Scotch for one day, maybe for a couple of days and if we’re going flying tomorrow, better take it easy.”

The editor of The Globe, proved to be persistent and persuasive. Without the heart to argue against the odds, Angus agreed to meet with a journalist and a photographer at Bangalore, around midday the following day. The editor would ring at first light and give him an estimated time of arrival. When he told Pat, she just shrugged, finished her tea, stood up, bent down and with some affection put her arm around Angus’ shoulder and gave him a kiss on the cheek and said, “Goodnight, Angus, let’s hope we have some good news tomorrow.”

Angus sat there as the flywire door closed behind her and wondered why he noticed, for the first time, the smell of her. Was it soap or perfume or what? It lingered as he thought of how he would get through the next day.

Pat went to her room and straight into the shower. First the hot water and her favourite soap, the same soap that she had used ever since she was at school. Hair, face, body, all got the same treatment and the smell of the soap and the steam seemed to cleanse some of the emotion of the day out of her mind. Gradually she closed off the hot water and let the cold water sting her body.

Dried off and just wearing the bathrobe that Alice had given her, Pat lay on the bed and looked at the ceiling. The lights went off on the veranda and she heard Angus’ bedroom door close. In the distance she could see the lightning and wondered if they would be able to fly tomorrow.

Sleep wouldn’t come. Pat thought of Ewen. She thought about their time together. Were they in love? Did she love Ewen? If she did then it was a different kind of love than she had seen between Rachael and Ali. They had a chemistry, a way of communicating without words, she had watched them; looks, little gestures – they hadn’t seen each other for more than a year and they behaved as if it were yesterday. It wasn’t like that with her and Ewen.

Was it fair to compare her and Ewen with Rachael and Ali, who had been lovers since they were teenagers? If not, what was the difference? Did she know what love really is?

Once she thought a fellow student had broken her heart, but he hadn’t. She’d had several other affairs that had run too hot and then suddenly run cold. Had they been love? If they had, they hadn’t been the same as she’d seen between Rachael and Ali. Were Rachael and Ali the benchmark by which she should judge herself and Ewen?

Until she’d met Ewen, her life had been consumed with study and career – had work been a substitute for men, for love? Or had she just found the men she met to be not up to her standards? What did that mean? Did it mean she’d made a judgement? Had they failed her tests, her standards? Had they not been worth the trouble? Had she frightened them off because they knew she was better at her job than most of them? Did she know any men who didn’t wear a uniform? The answer was no. How did senior female officers manage a married life to someone outside the RAAF? Pat couldn’t think of any.

She tried to recreate how her life had been with Ewen in the few days before he’d gone away. Not just the days, but also the moments. The times when they hadn’t spoken – the quiet times – had just being together meant anything? What had those days been like? The only words that would come as she lay there in the half-light were ordered, predictable, regimented. At times tender and loving but damn it! Damn it! Predictable.

What a contrast Bangalore had turned out to be compared to her last days with Ewen in that luxurious beachside resort hotel at Margaret River.

Now she was lying on an old comfortable bed in an old and comfortable house. Built well over a hundred years ago by people who, having made the commitment, had no alternative but to build, or perish.

Built out of stones as old as the earth itself. Stones collected off the ancient landscape by hand, stone by stone. Lifted by sweating men into carts pulled by horses or camels. Then unloaded, moved, hammered, chipped, broken, carried up ladders to fit piece by piece into the big walls.

The handmade clay bricks dried in the sun, perfect in size and shape. Similar but smaller bricks had been used to build the intricate and detailed surrounds to the fireplaces so that the wooden mantels fitted perfectly.

They must have been big trees that were cut down, carted and sawn by hand to provide trusses for the huge roof area. The boards on the veranda were wide and thick. No tongue and groove here. Then there were the doors and windows; a craftsman had obviously made them; were they made on-site or in Perth? She would ask Angus.

She wondered what had driven people like Angus’ ancestors to come to Australia. Was it a fear of going back to Scotland with an Indian wife and what people might say? Was it problems of what an Indian Princess, daughter of a Maharaja, marrying a Scotsman, a white man, might face in India? She didn’t know. All she knew was that for whatever reason they had done it. They had come to this place and started an Australian pastoral dynasty.

What had driven Alice’s ancestors to accompany their master, their employer, to a new land? She would ask Alice.

She then thought of her own parents doing the same thing. What had motivated them to leave behind family, school friends, places where they had grown up? What was the chemistry? What drove people to migrate? The promise of a better life? But what of the cost of leaving the ‘tribe’?

She had been just ten when they had left Scotland. She could remember the parties before they had left. She could remember her grandmother crying on the railway station platform as the train had slowly pulled away, taking them away from her and on their way to a new life.

Her grandfather had worked all his life down the same coalmine shovelling coal. He had started at fourteen and as she had learned later, he was fifty-five when they left Scotland. Forty years working in the dark, shovelling coal, drinking beer, getting to the football when he could, to watch his beloved Celtic Rangers.

Sunday mornings, walking with his grandchildren in the park. She could remember the frosty mornings all dressed up in a warm coat, woolly hat and gloves, holding her grandpa’s hand and listening to him talk – his rich Scots brogue now seemed a world away. They always had a bag of bread scraps to feed the ducks on the lake. When they had fed the ducks he would take her back to his house. Then he would go to the pub and drink beer with his sons and his friends of a lifetime. After a few pints of beer, by no later than one o’clock they would all have ‘Sunday dinner’ together. All the family, three generations of coalminers, round the table, Nana banning any discussion on politics or religion.

Only recently she’d realised that as her grandfather had slept the afternoon away, he knew that at five o’clock the next morning, whatever the weather on the surface, he would walk the mile or so to the ‘pit’, get in the cage and go far below ground, where the weather was always the same, and shovel coal. That was all he knew. That was all he did. He did it with men he had gone to school with, chased girls with, drunk gallons of beer with and one evening in the pub, had died in their arms.

Why had her grandfather cried that day when they had left Scotland? Did he want a new life as well in a new world away from the coal dust and silicosis? Did he want it – yet did he know in his heart that he didn’t have the courage to leave behind everything he had ever known? The pub, his friends and family, his beloved Celtic football club – his tribe.

Was he jealous of his own son, educated and wanted by another country for his knowledge: a country on the other side of the world? Did he know his own job down the mine, all he knew in the world, was in danger of being taken away from him, closed down.

Pat thought of Ewen lying in some intensive care unit in Germany and realised she didn’t know what to think. Her life with Ewen had been quite normal considering the ordered life they led. But now, here in this place, this uncomplicated place called Bangalore, this raw place where emotions were there for all to see – this place where people talked to each other person to person, not by SMS or email, her thoughts were muddled, topsy-turvy, random. They were ‘night thoughts’ rushing through her head and preventing her from sleeping.

She thought of Angus out on the airstrip fighting against and then giving in to his feelings about his son – how little he knew him – how the very thought of losing him had to be confronted and he didn’t know how to do it. Angus, coming to the realisation that his life was changing, probably forever.

Then Pat wrestled with the notion that they were both changing. Angus knew he was going to be thrust into her modern world and it frightened him more than a little. She had driven into his sheltered, his secluded world, on an impulse not knowing what she was going to find, and now she was here at Bangalore. Was she going to find herself? Whatever that means. Did she want to? If she was now finding herself, what had she been before? What about Ewen? What about Ewen?

She lay there with her tangled emotions of introspection. One minute calm and rational, the next minute almost reduced to tears. Sleep wouldn’t come. Her head ached.

In the room opposite Angus showered. Let the cold water run over his body for a while. Decided that he was too old for heroics and turned it off. Wrapped a towel round his waist while he searched for the boxer shorts that served as pyjamas. When he found them under his pillow he put them on and with body only half-dry, lay on the bed.

The overhead fan was turning slowly and the water on his body cooled him a little. He reflected that in just a few days his contented, some would say comfortable and monastic way of life had changed. Usually there was just him and Alice around the house. Over the years they had developed a kind of linguistic shorthand; like an old married couple, they could almost dispense with words. Each seemed to know what the other was thinking and behaved accordingly. There was never any tension or argument.

They would usually eat their evening meal together, talk about Bangalore, the sheep, the weather and what was planned for the next day. Sometimes if he was around, Ali would join them. Content, they would eat and drink together and then go off to their beds. Sleepless nights were a rarity. Sometimes he would work with Ali; sometimes they would go their separate ways. They would meet at day’s end, have a beer, compare notes, have a shower and the cycle started all over again. It was an uncluttered, simple life.

He had learned over the years to ignore those problems that he couldn’t fix. He remembered the words of the Dalai Lama. Something like, ‘If it’s a problem that you can fix, then fix it. If it cannot be fixed, then why waste time and energy worrying about it?’

That simple philosophy had stood him in good stead. Like the price of wool. He knew, perhaps he had persuaded himself, that he could do nothing about it. So he didn’t worry about it. Or did he?

Michelle had raised the question again about cattle. Roddy had put his ‘two bobs worth’ in and he had felt the pressure from them both. He knew they were right. He knew he had to do something. He had to change. The wool cheque was erratic. Prices had improved of late but for how long? Shearers were getting harder to find. The contractor he’d employed for the last twenty years was talking about retiring but he couldn’t find anyone to buy the ‘run’. Last year he had told him it would be his last, now he was due back in a month or so, for how long though? For how many years would he be able to find shearers? Bangalore without sheep? He pushed the question out of his mind.

Rachael looked well. He was glad she and Ali had finally come to their senses. Would she have children? He’d never thought about being a grandfather with grandchildren around the house. Would Rachael and Ali want the homestead? Would he have to move from the bedroom he had inherited from his parents, or would Rachael and Ali live in Ali’s stone cottage? Ali’s cottage was quite big enough and comfortable. He had made sure Ali had everything he wanted and Jimmy the gardener kept both gardens pristine. Would they want him to move into the cottage and leave behind the smells and creaking floorboards of the only home he had known? He knew it was too big for him alone. He pushed thoughts of change out of his head.

Michelle didn’t change. She still got under his skin, still pushed his buttons, as Rachael would say. He could still remember how fierce and passionate she had been in those early days. They had met in their final year at boarding school and nothing would satisfy her until they were married. She had bound his mind with her willing thighs. He hated it but he could still see the Michelle of his youth in his mind as clear as if it were yesterday. She didn’t care where they were. In the Land Rover, out on the station mill run, having a swim in the pool, she could arouse him by just looking at him and then he was helpless. Then, when the children arrived something went wrong. Her fire, at least for him, went out.

He didn’t understand it – he blamed himself. She was the first and for many years the only woman in his life. They had become lovers as teenagers – as children. They had taught each other and marvelled in each other’s bodies and minds. Then it stopped. From love to hate in one move. Or for Michelle, had it just been lust? Then she’d had herself sterilised. When it happened he, not her, had become empty.

One night, when they were nearly at the bottom of the whisky bottle, his father had told him Michelle had a man as soon as she’d moved to Perth – he was an old school friend of Angus’. Maybe it had been going on for years. It had taken nearly ten years for him to realise that it wasn’t his fault their marriage had failed.

She hadn’t transferred her love to the children; that had been hard to accept. When she wanted them, which wasn’t often, they were an adornment she would parade with pride. When she didn’t want them, they stayed in school.

Through the tough years of drought and dreadful wool prices she had insisted they stay as boarders instead of becoming day pupils. So he had paid all the school fees and an income to her as well. If it hadn’t been for his father, he would have gone broke. It was during that time his father had told him that before he and Michelle had married, he had changed the structure of Bangalore to ensure, if the marriage didn’t last, Michelle would never be able to make a claim on their precious Bangalore. When Angus had asked why? The old man had just said, “Because.”

Angus looked at his watch. The luminous dial of the Rolex Oyster his father had given him on his fiftieth birthday told him only half an hour had passed since his shower. It seemed impossible it could only be ten-thirty.

He got up and went out onto the veranda where he had left his tobacco pouch and papers. He slumped onto the sofa and rolled a cigarette. The sound of him closing the Zippo lighter was loud in the quiet night. The lightning was closer and the rumble of the thunder louder. Charlie startled him when he put his cold wet nose on his bare leg. He’d been under the sofa hiding from the impending storm. Angus scratched his ears and Charlie grunted and crawled back to be against the wall, safe.

“You want to go into the house, Charlie?” The dog crawled out again. Angus got up and the flywire door creaked as he opened it and Charlie gratefully brushed past him and into his bedroom to get under the bed where he always went when there was thunder around. Angus knew that Charlie would snore or whimper and bark as he chased sheep in his dreams. He envied Charlie his ability to sleep and to feel safe under his bed.

Back on the sofa Angus thought about his son. Where was he now? How was he? Was there any permanent damage to his brain? Would he lose a leg? Would he die? What would he do if Ewen came home as an invalid with brain damage? He wanted to be in Germany with his son; suddenly he wanted it badly. Then he realised there was nothing he could do for him if he left today or tomorrow. They had discussed all that and agreed to wait. Rachael had been right and sensible. There was no point in charging halfway across the world. Michelle had embarrassed him. Made him look like he was indecisive and didn’t care about his son. The bitch had done it in front of Pat.

What about this girl, Pat? What about what she had said about feeling in some way liberated from her modern life out here on Bangalore? Another few days and she would be a different girl than the one Ewen had left behind. What would she do? But then she wasn’t a girl, was she? Like Rachael she was a young and obviously highly skilled, professional woman. A career officer in the Air Force no less, and according to what Ewen had told Rachael, destined for bigger and better things. A move to Canberra and then onwards and upwards.

He thought about Rachael and children, grandchildren. Did Ewen and Pat plan to have children? Couldn’t see how they could, and at the same time, both keep their careers. If there was a way, like Rachael, they would have to get a move on as they were all over thirty and counting. Did a high-powered career allow for children? He’d heard it talked about on the radio and television and never paid much attention.

Career women leaving it too late to have children or even worse trying and failing for years and then what? IVF? He’d never learned what IVF with people was all about. It was common practice in animal breeding programmes. The very thought that it was the same process with humans he found a bit disturbing and then smiled at himself at his hitherto unrealised, what was it – prudery? He wasn’t a prude, was he? However it was done it involved sperm collection. This time he almost laughed out loud. Ali and Ewen in a sperm collection programme? Goodness me!

How on earth had he got onto that subject? As he reached for his tobacco pouch the flash of lightning and the sound of it striking the ground close by followed by a deafening clap of thunder which made the windows rattle, made him jump. As big heavy drops of rain started to fall on the tin roof, he didn’t hear the flywire door open. The first he knew that Pat was there was when she sat on the sofa beside him. “I couldn’t sleep so I came out to watch the display. Thor seems angry tonight.”

“He does. Maybe it will clear the air for a while. I couldn’t sleep either. Brain going round like a washing machine on the spin cycle. Do you like thunder storms?”

“I don’t mind them now; they used to frighten me as a child. I would go and climb into bed with my parents and Dad would tell me about Thor. I have a healthy respect for them when I’m flying. When I was in the States, I went up with those boys who fly into cyclones, never again. They must be mad, but they don’t seem to bother, all in day’s work, they say.”

“Special aircraft?”

“Full of instruments, they are specially converted. I didn’t ask too many questions, just sat and watched, gobsmacked, and more than a little frightened. They fly into the storm and go with the spin and gradually work their way into the centre, then do the same thing coming out. Invaluable they say for predicting intensity and where they will go. As I said, all in a day’s work for them. America is so densely populated compared to Australia; we saw what cyclones can do when New Orleans was devastated. Cyclone Tracy and Darwin magnified a hundred times.

Another flash of lightning silhouetted Pat’s face for just for a moment; then all he could clearly see was her white bathrobe.

The wind changed and a squall with a few drops of rain blew onto them. Angus realised that he was dressed in his boxer shorts. He went into his bedroom and put on his tee-shirt and shorts and on an impulse pulled the doona off the end of his bed and carried it back outside. Without asking he put it round Pat’s shoulders and sat down by her side.

She pulled the doona around her and he felt her shiver. “Are you cold?”

“No, just a shiver.”

“Want a cup of tea?”

“Shall I make it?”

“Answer the question.”

“Yes, please.”

“Back in a minute. Biscuit? Granita or Ginger Nut?”

“Granita.”

“I’ll bring the tin.”

“We can have a picnic and watch the fireworks.”

“We have to meet the press tomorrow and then go for a fly to make sure the plane is okay. We should get some sleep.”

“I can’t sleep in this storm.”

Another flash and another crash of thunder. “Neither can I.”

“It’s not yet midnight. We can still have five or six hours sleep if this storm blows away.”

“I’ll go and make the tea.”

When Angus went into the house, Pat helped herself to tobacco and papers. The doona warmed her. She could smell lavender. Her grandmother had always used lavender. Her house, her clothes, her body, had always smelled of lavender. The lavender reminded her of her grandmother, Morag. Quiet sensible Morag. She remembered her grandfather ranting and raving about the English. She remembered her grandmother saying, “Shush now. That’s enough in front of the bairns.” Then she would kiss the top of his head and say he had been born too late. He should have been around in 1745; then he could have marched on England.

Later at university she had listened to a Buddhist monk talk about re-incarnation, about previous lives. Had her grandfather been there in another life fighting the English on the moors and down in the Glens?”

Angus gave her a mug of tea and put a tin of biscuits down on the floor. He sat down next to her and she pulled the doona round his legs. He could feel the warmth of her body.

Pat sniffed at the tea. “This doesn’t smell like just tea.”

“It isn’t.”

“What is it then?”

“It’s good Australian tea with raw sugar and a splash of Bundaberg rum. Best sleeping pill in the world.”

“I’ve never had rum before.”

“Try it. It could habit forming. Be warned.”

“I don’t want to go to sleep, I want to watch the storm.”

“Then just enjoy the tea.”

She sipped the brew. “I like the rum.”

“A contract musterer, a pilot, told me once about a cattleman up in the Kimberly who was never without a hip flask of rum, had it in his tea, drank it neat, probably cooked with it, never had a day’s sickness in his life. He used to order it by the barrel from Bundaberg. The last boat before every wet always had two twelve-gallon kegs for him – enough to see him through the wet.”

“It was almost the currency in the early convict days too. Caused a lot of trouble.”

“Rum, buggery and the lash.”

“What made you say that?”

“Association of thoughts, I suppose. The Royal Navy bought cheap rum in the West Indies from the early sugar barons. A tot of rum a day to keep the sailors happy. Then it became part of the ‘necessary’ cargo down to Australia to keep the so-called Militia loyal to the Crown. The Militia were corrupt and they used it to bribe everyone – prostitution became rife. The currency of the day was rum. Nothing changes, does it? We now have corruption in the police forces around Australia and there is always money or money from drugs somewhere in there. It started with rum – now it’s drugs. People don’t change – just time and circumstance.”

“Who said rum, buggery and the lash?”

“Churchill. It was his view of the Royal Navy when he was trying to modernise it between the wars and he was being resisted by the Lords of the Admiralty. He was concerned that Hitler was ignoring the Treaty of Versailles and re-arming and that there would be another war. He was right.”

Another lightning flash was quickly followed by another window-rattling crash of thunder. A gust of rain blew; it prompted Pat to tuck the doona closer around them. “Do you like Australian history, Angus?”

“Fascinated by it. Fascinated by what has been called, over the last couple of years, the culture wars. John Howard talking about the ‘Black Arm Brigade’. Lefty historians and their political disciples and their influence over the last twenty years or so on what people in your generation know about the history of Australia, the true history that is; the truth has been lost in ideology. Never been able to understand why there are always people who want us to be ashamed of our past, and to achieve their objective they were prepared to, at the very least, interpret the past wrongly.

“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with Australia? We find it hard to accept success. Never been there, but the Americans always seem to celebrate success. We just want to knock it down, be cynical. I sometimes wonder if the true Australian spirit is cynicism. It’s time we forgot this mantra of being a nation of bush battlers – nothing could further from the truth. Drive around Perth these days and just look closely at what is going on. Just look at all the new houses, new cars, new railways, new buildings – politicians make the most of it to their own advantage – they pick off the bits they want to use.

“The Labor Party and Union spin doctors love to tell us about the blue shirt, white shirt divide, which really doesn’t exist anymore. I find it hard to believe that someone earning well over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in a mine in the Pilbara can identify with the downtrodden claims of the unions of the poor done-by blue-collar worker being exploited, yet they do. Beats me – many of them earn more than the so-called white collar workers in the city. I know of a young man who is a cleaner and general factotum to the men on a drilling rig, and he earns over a hundred thousand dollars a year, and he’s on ‘fly-in fly-out’ from New South Wales.”

“We were always told at school that England had invaded Australia, tried to exterminate the natives and had stolen the land.”

“I know. I went through a period with Rachael when she first went to university where she thought her ancestors had been part of some deliberate genocide. Therefore by default I was part of that and so was she.”

“She doesn’t think like that now, does she?”

“No. It stayed with her for a few years and then she spent some time working in Wiluna and the other outstation communities in the eastern desert. When she came back she made a point of finding out why so many people lived out there with nothing to do. I think she came to the conclusion that with money, the grog, drugs, petrol sniffing, child abuse, were all caused by having nothing to do. She wondered what a community of white people would be like if they were out there with money and nothing to do. In some way she understood what others could not. When she talked about it to her contemporaries no one believed her. When she tried to take it up with the history department they ignored her.”

The storm was receding away to the south. They had finished their tea. Pat thought for a moment and, not looking at Angus, was aware of the warmth of their bodies, close together under the doona. Looking at the now-clearing sky and the emergence of a whole galaxy of stars she said in a quiet and faltering voice, “Angus?”

“What, Pat?”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For talking to me about life, a life that is different from the one I know.”

“I didn’t realise…”

“I don’t suppose you did. That’s the first time since I don’t know when, maybe when Dad and I talked when I was in high school, that I have sat down and talked to someone where the outcome didn’t have to be decided there and then. I realised when you were talking, there is another world…there is something to talk about, which is not all about… is different from job, flying, careers, next week’s or even tomorrow’s plans. That there are bigger things than those which affect just me.”

“Maybe I just spend too much time on my own. Me and Charlie. He’s a good listener, Charlie.”

She smiled in the darkness and was still smiling when she looked at him. “Is that what it is – solitude gives you time to think? In the tradition of the Bush Philosopher?”

“There are few deadlines out here. I suppose I have what some would call the luxury of contemplation while I go about my everyday business because so much of it is driving, listening to the radio – so thinking, I suppose. Don’t know about the Bush Philosopher though. Michelle thinks that the world is passing me by, leaving me behind in a forgotten era – what’s worse for me is that she, and I suspect many of her ‘set’, think what we do out here is some sort of social anachronism. They think I am a remnant of the past glories of pastoral Australia – I’m sure they do.”

“Except?”

Angus smiled. “Except… yes, you are perceptive, Pat… she loves to bring them here: sometimes they fly in, sometimes they are giving their luxury four-wheel-drives a first and last run in the bush before they trade them in on the next model. They love to pull on their R M Williams boots and moleskins and Akubra hats and squint into the distance for a few days – then it’s back to Perth with regular stops at a good hotel every night.”

“Why do you let Michelle do that or shouldn’t I ask?”

“I don’t mind you asking. I’m too lazy; can’t be bothered saying no. Some of the people are quite nice. The women more than the men, I think. I couldn’t do it without Alice. Alice doesn’t mind preparing for them. She will leave things out or tell them where they are in the fridge, so they cater for themselves largely. ”

“In what way are the women different?”

“I think the women look at all this and wonder how on earth earlier generations of women managed without electricity, fridges, washing machines and all they take for granted these days. Had children too. I think many of the women who come here respect those women for what they did.” Angus looked at his watch. “C’mon, Pat, the storm has gone. The tea and rum is drunk. We have to meet the media tomorrow. Get the plane out and give her a run and the way things are going, handle goodness knows what else, hopefully some good news about Ewen.” He pushed the doona aside and momentarily the chill made him shiver. He stood up and held his hands out to Pat to help her to her feet. Her hands were soft in his. She stood up easily keeping hold of his hands, stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

“Thanks Angus,” she said softly and before he could respond she was gone through the door and into her own room. The smell of her soap lingered in his nostrils. He gathered up the doona, went to his own room and was soon asleep.

In the next chapters the Press invasion begins. Lachlan arrives after receiving an unexpected phone call from Afghanistan and then more visitors in an unmarked helicopter.

Chapter 12

Meet the Press.

The next morning the storms had gone. The morning light or the screeching of the galahs woke Pat. The first thing she remembered was the night before sitting under the doona with Angus just talking about life. How natural he had been. She wondered what Ewen, or anybody else, might have thought if they had seen them under the doona together. She didn’t care. It had seemed the natural thing to do. Would she have done it if others had been there? She didn’t know, but again the very thought that she didn’t care, just… plain… didn’t… care, made her smile. The thought that it must end soon, she pushed out of her mind, but it took the smile off her face.

She hadn’t heard the phone ring so there couldn’t have been any news about Ewen. She got up, found a clean tee-shirt, an even older pair of shorts that Rachael must have left for her and put them on. The waist was a bit big so she got the belt out of her jeans and threaded it through the loops, as she looked at herself in the full-length mirror on the old wardrobe. Hair a bit dishevelled, a tee-shirt with Bali on it covering bra-less body, baggy khaki shorts with an array of pockets and bare feet. She said to herself, “Well, Flying Officer Fawcett, just what do you mean coming to work dressed like this?” “Don’t care,” she replied to the image in the mirror.

From the veranda she could see Angus talking to a tall old Aboriginal man standing beside a green ride-on-mower. He saw her and waved and started walking towards her. “Good morning, Pat. You were right last night. Five or six hours’ sleep and feeling refreshed, how about you, sleep well?”

“The rum and tea did their job, Angus.”

“Not a bad brew, is it? No news of Ewen so far. I’ve just made a pot of tea, Alice is in the kitchen but she’s busy butchering a couple of sheep so it’s self-serve breakfast this morning, but not until after we’ve had a cuppa. You stay here I’ll bring it out.”

“He sounds in a good mood this morning.” Pat turned to see that Rachael had walked round the veranda from the other side of the house. “You must be good for him, Pat. Usually it’s ‘speak to me only with thine eyes’ until I’ve had my tea.”

“We sat up and watched the storm last night, and talked.”

“About what.”

“Nothing and everything. Mainly I think at the back of it all was how much Angus loves this place and this life.”

“I’m glad you did that, Pat. I was worried about him yesterday. This whole business seems to be getting him down and then Mother coming I don’t think helped a great deal.”

Angus came through the flywire door. “Rach, morning! Shall I get you a mug? I’ve just made a pot of tea.”

“No, I’ll get it, Dad. Ali said Alice was cutting some sheep up this morning, I’ll go and see if she needs some help.” With a smile she added, “Maybe she will let me be the surgeon.”

Left on their own he handed Pat her tea and said, “Sans rum, I’m afraid.”

Smiling, she took the mug. “It was nice, wasn’t it? If someone had suggested it before I don’t think I would have been very keen.”

“I think it’s the raw sugar that makes the difference. I’ve heard people claim the same thing about rum and coffee, but I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t know. Ready to meet the press this morning?”

“What time do you think they’ll get here?”

“Any time after nine, I would think. They’re probably in the air now. Are you ready for them?”

Angus was looking at her with his lopsided grin. She didn’t know what to make of it. Was he making fun of her? On impulse she put her tongue out at him and smiled, trying to say with her eyes that you won’t get me that way. He laughed and then apologised. “Sorry, I was playing tricks. It just struck me while I was talking what a dishevelled pair we look. Rach is no better from what I saw. If they got here now they would find Dr Rachael up to her armpits in cutting up and freezing a couple of sheep and you and I looking like we have just got up – which we have, of course.”

“Do you think I should change?”

Again he was smiling. “No, I don’t, Pat. Well, I don’t have an opinion one way or the other. To be honest I don’t know why I allowed myself to be pressured into saying they could come here. I suspect the newspaper people know just the right time to ask, just when the pressure is really on and you can’t say no – or don’t have the energy to.”

“Do you know who they are sending?”

“A lady. I think he said her name was, is, Sabbatini.”

“That would be Maria Sabbatini. She usually does political stuff; I think she’s their chief political writer. Maybe she wants a day away from the office.”

The phone rang in the house and before they could move they heard Rachael shout, “I’ll get it.” After a moment she called through the flywire door, “Dad, it’s some women’s magazine; they will only talk to you.”

Angus looked at Pat, said nothing and went to the phone. Pat could hear him talking, almost shouting. When he returned he looked annoyed. “That was a well-known women’s magazine in Sydney. I think they were offering money for an exclusive.” He picked up his mug of tea and looked away.

“What did you say?”

“I think I told them to fuck off!”

“Do you think there will be others?”

“Suppose so. Circling like a mob of vultures.”

Again the phone rang. This time Rachael called, “It’s for you again, Dad.” With a sigh of resignation he put his mug down and again went to the phone only to return within minutes.

“That was a television station. Saying the same thing, I think.”

“What did you say this time?”

“Nothing. I just hung up.”

Again the phone rang. Again Rachael called. Again Angus went to the phone, this time visibly annoyed. When he returned he said, “That was another television station. This time they wanted to come up here and get some ‘background’ pictures; said they wouldn’t bother us at this time. I suppose that means they will make up the story. I don’t know, Pat, this is getting a bit hard to handle.” Now she could see he really was annoyed. He looked at her with the same expression she had seen when Michelle had taunted him.

“Didn’t Roddy ask you if you wanted his office to handle the press?”

“He did and I declined his offer. Said I wanted to wait and see what the next twenty-four hours would bring. Well, now I’m finding out. From obscurity to this in twenty-four hours.”

“Have you changed your mind?”

“What do you think I should do? If telling them to fuck off gets into the papers I’m sure Michelle will be suitably impressed. That will probably bring her down on my neck as well.”

“I think you should handle it; then you are in control. Rachael and I are here to help. I’m quite capable of using the exact words of your offer to them, in spite of how difficult they may find it, and I am sure Rach is as well! You could always tell them to go and fuck themselves – in my experience there are few answers to that offer. I wouldn’t worry about your entreaty getting printed. They must realise the sympathy vote with the readers would be with you and Michelle just now. The wouldn’t dare print they had annoyed you.”

As she was speaking the phone rang again. This time Angus was quick off the mark and got to the phone before anyone. “Now look here whoever it is. Just leave us alone for a while, will you? When there is any news I’m sure it will be issued by the Defence Department or someone in Canberra. Until that happens, just stop ringing, will you?”

“Is that you, Angus?”

“Dad?”

“So they’ve got to you already. I was ringing to warn you. The buggers were waiting for me when I went out to get the paper off the lawn at five-thirty. I told them to sod off. They probably got a picture of my knobbly knees in my short pyjamas. Don’t know if they saw that my fly was undone. Perhaps my old fella will get on the front page of The Globe.”

Angus could hear him chuckling at the very prospect and he smiled at the thought of his tall, gaunt father, probably with his pipe in his mouth, mouthing off at the press corps.

“How many of them were there?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Didn’t hang around long enough to count them. The television crews were there, I did see that. Pretty young thing, blonde, looked like she’d just got out of bed was with them carrying the microphone. I should have asked her in for a cup of tea.”

“Thanks Dad, it’s good to hear your voice. The phone started ringing about half an hour ago. I thought you were another. Have you booked a flight?”

“Tomorrow morning at nine-thirty at the airport. Had trouble getting a seat, had to wait for a cancellation, all this fly-in fly-out business apparently; ETA Carnarvon eleven- thirty I think they said. You can check that anyway. So I’ll see you then. Anything else you want?”

“Nothing, Dad. Be good to see you.”

“Chin up, Angus. I’ve told my friend down the road not to expect me back for a while. The old dog won’t mind so long as she gets a feed and a walk. I’ll see you at eleven-thirty tomorrow then.”

“Good, Dad. Bye.”

“Bye son.” The line went dead.

He had no sooner put the phone down than it rang. This time he recognised Michelle’s shrill voice before he got the phone to his ear. “Is that you, Angus?”

“Yes, Michelle.”

“This place is crawling with the press! They are over the road with those big lenses on their cameras trying to get a picture. Poor Roddy had to make a run for it in his car. They even held the cameras up to the window as if he were some fugitive. I can’t leave the house and I have a hair appointment every Monday morning. What are you going to do, Angus?”

“There’s not a lot I can do from up here, Michelle. Why don’t you tell them to fuck off?”

He could hear her breathing. “I suppose you think that’s funny?”

“Not really. That’s what I’ve just told them to do.” Again he could hear her breathing, thinking, presumably, about the possible implications to her of what he had said.

When Michelle did speak her voice had gone up an octave and now she was shouting and obviously getting upset. “Angus, I might have known that you would do such a thing.” Then he heard a stifled sob. “Angus, I don’t know what to do.”

“Ring Roddy.”

“He went on the early plane to Melbourne, some board meeting, then he goes to Sydney tonight.”

“Ring his PA. She’ll know what to do.”

“I don’t think she likes me very much.”

“Well, one of the partners then.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know Roddy’s partners, Michelle. Do you have a girlfriend you could ring – what about that Italian woman, the doctor’s wife?”

“Franca? Thanks, Angus. She’ll know what to do.”

“Just try and relax, Michelle. This could go on for quite a long time. You might even consider diverting your phone and going down to Dunsborough or staying with Franca. Then they won’t know where to find you. Do you think the press know about your beach house?”

“Only friends and family know about it, but my picture has been all over the papers. Someone might recognise me down there.”

“Well, maybe that’s a chance you will have to take until Roddy gets home and then he will know what to do. Ring him tonight – do you know where he’s staying?”

“His firm has a serviced apartment down at the Harbour. I don’t like to ring his mobile. I’m sure he’ll ring me tonight as soon as he can, but I know he has a full programme. Dinner with the New South Wales Premier tonight and then the late direct flight tomorrow night after another board meeting.”

“Well, the best thing, I think, for you to do is to ring Franca, get her to pick you up and go and get your hair done if that is important. If it isn’t, then just go down to Dunsborough. Get Franca to take you and stay there if she can. You have a car down there, don’t you?”

“Yes, we have a little four-wheel drive.”

“Sounds like the best option to me. Divert your phone and just go. I’ll ring you on your mobile if anything happens here.”

For the first time in years Michelle’s voice sounded softer, even grateful for his advice as she said, “Thank you, Angus. I didn’t know who else to ring.”

“Take care, Michelle.”

They heard the plane seconds before a twin engine Cessna flew over the homestead, banked slightly and headed for the landing strip. By the time Angus and Pat got there, they had taxied and parked the plane close to the hangars and were unloading briefcases and cameras out of the forward baggage compartment.

Maria Sabbatini was small and round. Her black hair was short and accentuated her round face and olive complexion. She was dressed in blue jeans, a black shirt and black soft leather, flat-heeled shoes. A heavy gold necklace and what seemed like gold rings on every finger completed the picture. Her smile was warm and genuine as she introduced herself and then her photographer, Peter (Flash) Gordon, and the pilot, Chuck Smit.

They exchanged pleasantries on the short trip back to the homestead. As they headed for the back door, Chuck said he would wander around if that was all right and Alice, who met them at the door, told him that she had put tea and biscuits for him in the lounge together with some magazines and she steered him away, telling Angus she had laid a small table on the front veranda for the rest of them.

Angus led the way through the house and out onto the veranda to where the table was laid out.

“No coffee. I’m afraid, only tea. Hope that’s OK?”

“Can I just have a glass of water please, Mr Sinclair?” said Maria. “I don’t fly too well in those small planes. I feel a bit queasy. It’ll pass in a few minutes once I get my ground legs again.” Alice had put a jug of cold water on the table and Angus poured Maria a glass and handed it to her. As he was doing that, Pat poured tea for the rest of them. Flash Gordon was unpacking a camera from a big black bag as Rachael came through the door and Angus introduced her.

They all found chairs and sat in a half-circle round the table. Maria opened her black briefcase and took out a small recorder. “Do you mind if I use a recorder, Mr Sinclair?”

“Please, call me Angus. We are all on first name terms. This is Pat and this is Rachael. Pat, as you already probably know, is Ewen’s fiancée, Rachael his sister. Alice, who just took the pilot away, has known Ewen and Rachael since they were born. She was born on Bangalore. No, I don’t mind if you use a recorder. Pat? Rachael?”

They both nodded agreement. Maria put the small device on the table and before she could turn it on, Rachael said, “What exactly do you want to talk about Maria? There’s little that you don’t know about the events and if there are things we know that you don’t, then we are certainly not going to tell you. This is a very difficult time for us all and we really only agreed to this interview because we thought it better to talk to someone rather than have someone make something up.”

“We don’t make things up.”

“Maybe I should put you in the picture as far as I am concerned. I am a doctor. I work in Sydney. I have worked in casualty in a major hospital and in ICU. I have extensive experience of families in trauma. I know that if some of your fellow press people can’t get the full story, they are not beyond speculation that can appear as fact when it gets into print or on to the airways. I, for one, am apprehensive about the press. That’s why I speak for all of us, because I have some experience of this sort of thing, even had some training in handling the media, so we would like to know what you want to talk about and we want the right to have the recorder turned off, if that’s what we want.”

“Angus agreed with my editor that we could come up here.”

“But he didn’t agree to a carte blanche interview, did you, Dad? Angus nodded in agreement but didn’t speak. “So there are some no-go areas here, Maria.”

“What are they?”

“No politics for a start.”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t want to, will not, answer questions about the rights and wrongs of what my brother is doing. My brother is an officer in the army, full stop. He is doing no more and no less than what he was ordered to do for his country. Pat is a serving officer in the RAAF. That is off limits. She is here as Ewen’s fiancée, nothing else.”

“Anything else?”

“My mother lives in Perth as you know. Mum and Dad were divorced years ago; that you probably already know too. She is intensely worried about her son, as you would expect. She gets angry and very agitated when photographers and reporters hang around outside her house. I suspect we know little if anything more about Ewen’s condition right at this time than what you, or other members of the press corps know, or will find out pretty soon. So all they can be doing is looking for a photograph of a worried mother. That’s not news in my book.” Turning to Pat and Angus, Rachael asked, “Is there anything else that either of you wish to add? Speak now, so that Maria knows what she can talk about and where she can go.”

As Rachael had been speaking Pat had been watching Maria. Her expression had perceptibly hardened. She had started to fidget with her recorder. Pat watched, making sure that she didn’t turn it on. Maria looked up, “You haven’t left me much to talk about, Rachael. We are not as bad as you seem to think, you know. We do try to be sensitive to the stories and the people. This story has particular interest at present as, you know, we have had deaths and casualties in Afghanistan and several have been from Western Australia.”

Rachael looked straight back at her, “I know, and we now find ourselves in the middle of it. It’s not that we want to obstruct, but the phone has been ringing hot with everyone from women’s magazines to TV stations all wanting to come here, some, obliquely, offering money for the story. Others saying they just wanted to come for some ‘background’ pictures. They have even found my grandfather in Dalkeith and have been camping outside his house and my grandmother is going frantic with the attention she is getting. Why can’t we just be left alone until we know something for sure?”

“Your brother is news, that’s why.”

“But my brother is in Germany, gravely ill; not to put too finer a point on it, he may not survive his injuries. So this is not about him, it’s about us, his family, from grandparents to fiancée. You want to put us under scrutiny. You want to see how we are reacting. I know from experience that when families are under stress from life-threatening injuries or illness of their loved ones, the last thing they want, in the majority of cases, is public scrutiny. Even when drunk drivers have killed innocent people, many, perhaps the majority of, families want to be left alone in their grief. Anger may come out if there is a court case – but not when they are grieving.”

“Do you want us to go, Rachael?” asked Maria not looking up from her recorder.

“That’s not for me to say; that’s Dad’s call. I have nothing to say to you except that as his sister, I hope and pray that Ewen gets well soon and can come home to us. I’m now going off to ride some horses that have just been broken in. Keeps my mind off other things. Is that all right with you, Dad, or do you want me here?”

“No, you go, Rach. Pat and I can manage. Not that there is much to say really.” Turning to Maria he went on, “I only agreed with your editor, Maria, because he said that the place would be crawling with the media and it was better to get whatever the story is, out there through one outlet. He said your paper was the best and the only local West Australian paper, so that we could tell the real story, just once. I admit now that I felt the pressure at the time. Now that Rachael has put our case so eloquently, better than I could, I don’t know what there is to say that can make a story. But that’s for you to ask and we will see if we can or want to answer you. Incidentally, I don’t think talking to you is going to stop the others. I think I can hear a helicopter now and it’s certainly unexpected, whoever it is.” In the distance they could all hear the chatter of the helicopter rotors beating the air. It reminded Pat of Afghanistan.

Pat realised that Rachael had said everything that she had wanted to say. For her sake and for Angus’, she was glad that Rachael had spoken up. She wanted to go away with her, somewhere, anywhere, but she couldn’t leave Angus alone with this woman who now seemed to be becoming an unwelcome guest. Nobody spoke.

It was the photographer who broke the silence. In a very quiet voice he said, “Mr Sinclair, do you mind if I get a few photographs of the homestead and buildings while you have your talk? Not so much for this story but being surrounded by so much history, the paper ran a bit of a bio on Bangalore for us and I read it on the plane. This is such a beautiful place; it’s like an oasis out here. I would like to capture the morning light.”

“Of course, be my guest, wander wherever you please. If you want to go inside you’ll find Alice in the kitchen or somewhere out there; she will show you around wherever she thinks you should go,”

“Thanks.” Flash stood up and with his camera around his neck wandered off into the garden.

Rachael had gone without saying goodbye. Just the three of them, Angus, Pat and Maria were left and they all looked at the recorder. Eventually Maria spoke in a now-hesitant voice. “Maybe I’ll just leave the recorder off and make a few notes to start with and then if we have to, we can come back to it later on, if that’s okay?”

“Sure,” Angus replied.

“Was Ewen born out here?”

“No. St John’s in Perth. Rachael too.”

“Did he do School of the Air?”

“To start with. Then he went to Scotch College as a boarder.”

“That must have been hard on you and your wife, your only son going away at what, twelve or so?”

“I did the same thing,” Angus replied. “Don’t think it did me any harm. Most station kids finish up in Perth for their education.” His answer was easy and he half-smiled as he spoke as if Maria should have known.

“Rachael was already at school then, in Perth?”

“ No, there’s only a bit over a year between them. Rach started a bit later at St Hilda’s. That is later in life than Ewen, but they went away at the same time.”

“How did you handle that?”

“I missed them of course – but that’s station life. We expect it. We know it’s going to happen.” Again Angus’ body language told Maria that he knew that she already knew the answer to her questions. It was hardly thrust and parry, more like going through the motions.

“What about their mother?”

“What about her?”

“How did she cope with both of her children going away at the same time?”

Pat could see the reply. Michelle was already almost living in Perth before the Rachael and Ewen had gone to boarding school. She was living in Perth but her children were boarders just the same; she hadn’t wanted her children living with her. Angus, without looking up, replied, “You’d better ask Michelle, if you get the chance to talk to her.”

“Why did Ewen choose the army rather than Bangalore?”

“I never asked him.”

“Did it disappoint you? The generations running Bangalore being broken?”

“My father was in World War Two. He came back here afterwards.”

“But Ewen is different, surely? He’s a career officer. Do you expect him to come back here after the army?”

“I’ve never asked him. Father was away for nearly eight years.”

“And he got the DFC and Bar, twice wasn’t it?”

“You seem to already know the answer.”

“Was Ewen an army cadet at school?”

“Yes. He plays the bagpipes too. Quite well they tell me.”

“Why did he join the army to be a pilot?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you talk to him while he was in Afghanistan?”

Angus didn’t reply. Maria looked at him enquiringly. Angus’ face remained impassive.

“I understand that Defence personnel have access to a mobile phone network and emails, which enables them to ring home almost anytime they want to.” Again Angus didn’t reply. He didn’t tell Maria that he and Ewen had talked about it and they were both of the opinion that constant communication would be unfair on Angus and particularly on Michelle. They had decided to rely on emails and the occasional phone call. He had received the emails but not the phone calls. It hadn’t worried him.

Maria turned to Pat. “Pat, you are an Air Force Officer?”

Guardedly, Pat answered, “Yes”. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rachael return and stand in the shadow and out of Maria’s line of vision. She showed no sign of having seen Rachael return.

“Flying Officer?”

“Flight Lieutenant”.

“How long have you been in the Air Force?

“Since university. I finished my engineering studies in the Air Force.”

“I gather that you are in line for promotion and a new and important job in Canberra. I understand it has to do with the evaluation of new aircraft to make Australia a major air power in the Region?”

“So you’ve been checking on me.” There was no emotion in her voice. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement of fact. She didn’t sound surprised. Inside her head the alarm bells started ringing. She purposely didn’t look at Angus.

“Apparently you can fly just about any aircraft that we have; is that true?

Pat didn’t reply. Instead she looked at Maria and said, “What a nice watch you have.”

Maria was unfazed. “Are you looking forward to going to Canberra?”

Again Pat didn’t answer; instead she looked at Rachael and saw that she was smiling encouragement.

This time in a more demanding tone Maria repeated her question: “Well, are you?”

This time Pat smiled. “Really, Maria, I don’t think your question has anything to do with you or your readers. I will neither confirm, nor deny, anything that you say to me, any questions you ask about my service in the Air Force. That is policy. I suspect you know that.”

Maria was unperturbed by the rebuff. If she had known all along that Pat shouldn’t answer, she didn’t show it. “You’re engaged to Ewen?”

“You know I am”.

“How long have you known him?”

“Long enough to get engaged.”

“Are you frightened?”

“About what?”

“About Ewen.”

“Ewen is a soldier.”

“What does that mean?”

‘It means just that. Soldiers get injured. It’s in the contract.”

“Do you agree with the war in Afghanistan?”

Pat didn’t answer.

“Have you been to Afghanistan?”

Pat didn’t answer again. She just looked at Maria with a vacant expression.

Maria persisted. “Have you?”

“Ask your informant, Maria. I am not going to tell you anything about where I have served and what I do, mainly because it has nothing to do with you, or with Ewen, who right now, in case you have forgotten, is in the care of the American doctors. He is injured and we are worried, end of story. Now, if you will excuse me I have other things to do.” Pat got up to leave. Before she could Maria again asked a question.

“Why have you come all the way up here? I understand you had never met Ewen’s family before now. Isn’t it unusual to get engaged before you have met the family of your future husband?”

Pat was now standing. She looked down at Maria. There was anger in her eyes. They were all looking at her. Before she could reply a camera shutter clicked. Without taking her eyes off Maria, she said, “Is that picture of me?” No one had seen Flash, the cameraman, join them. In an instant there was tension in the air.

“Yes.”

“Then bring the camera here.” The cameraman didn’t move. Pat turned and faced him, “Did you hear me? Bring it here, now!” The blood drained from her face as she tried to keep her anger under control. No one moved.

Flash looked at Maria for guidance. Before she could intervene, Pat said, “Don’t look at her for help. You have just taken a photograph of me without my permission. I want that photograph deleted and I want to see it done. Now, bring your camera here.” Pat was now all Air Force Officer; she had changed before their eyes. “Bring it here or do I have to come and get it?”

Slowly Flash walked the few paces from where he had joined the group through the doors from the lounge to where Pat stood. He was a big man and towered over her. The camera was still around his neck. Pat held out her hand. “Give me the camera.”

No one was sure whether his expression was a smile or a smirk. Pat fixed him with a stare that showed her anger and disgust at what he had done. “Give me the camera or show me as you delete the photograph and then before you leave you might have the common decency, maybe for the first time in your life, to show Angus the other photos that you have taken as you have been skulking around in the shadows, our shadows. By your one action you have showed us all the real purpose of your visit. You, and this woman here, have betrayed a trust. You have betrayed a trust that we had in your newspaper. Your newspaper almost pleaded with us to let you come here and we agreed. Now we find that you are no better than the rest of the media. What you want is something sensational, something controversial; a picture that is raw and emotional and you have demonstrated that you are quite prepared to create a situation that will give you what you want. I suppose it was just by chance that Maria turned up the heat on me and then you just appeared at the right time? Don’t bother answering; it’s written all over your face. Now, give me the camera or delete the photograph as I watch.”

It was an order, firm, concise and unequivocal. It was also a challenge. It was a challenge to the machismo and the unprofessional conduct exhibited by the cameraman. The choice was obvious, obey, or disobey and take the consequences. Angus saw a different Pat, not the sad, tender, confused and compassionate young woman who had held his hand on the airstrip and sat with him under the doona drinking rum and tea, but a woman as fearless and tenacious as any woman he had seen in his somewhat protected life.

He saw flashes of his mother talking to the native men and women around the station when he was a boy. Different to his father who had always got his own way by talking to everyone at their level, joking, cajoling, encouraging compliance, his mother’s way was to order and demand obedience.

For some silly, maybe perverse, reason he recalled Margaret Thatcher on television with George Negus when he told her that some people in her own party were unhappy with her. Without changing her expression Margaret Thatcher had replied, “Give me their names.” The flashback of recollection jolted Angus as he watched the drama unfold. He knew he could not have spoken as Pat had. Rachael moved and sat on the arm of his chair. Nobody moved; everybody waited.

Flash returned the challenge by not moving but the smile had gone. Pat ignored him and moved a couple of steps towards the edge of the veranda and stood gazing at the garden. A tentative smile returned to Flash’s lips; had he stared her down? Had he won? Rachael felt Angus move as if to speak and she squeezed his shoulder where her arm lay and shook her head as he looked up at her.

A galah squawked impatiently as if waiting for a reply – some action. A crow rebuked it and asked for silence. The galah protested and flew off with three mates, all screeching and echoing his opinion.

Without turning to face her and with the anger gone from her voice, Pat replaced with flat and steely monotone that could have been mistaken for malevolence; if it was, then it was a challenge to Maria and her stooge cameraman that only the stupid would ignore and then at their own peril. Very slowly Pat said, “Maria if you print anything of what I have just said I will, believe me, ensure that you and your paper are censored. You have betrayed the trust we placed in you and your editor. I will ensure that the world knows the manner in which you, your cameraman and presumably your editor, have set this whole thing up – this trap for us to fall into.”

She now turned to Maria who was still looking down at her notepad. As she started to speak again Maria felt compelled to look up and face Pat; show that she was listening. Maria saw that Pat was now leaning against a veranda post and her hands were in the pockets of her shorts. She looked relaxed. There was no arm waving, no finger pointing. Pat continued, “If we had wanted to see ourselves plastered all over the world at this time, showing our worry and deep concern for Ewen, we could quite easily have accepted the offers that we have had from those who make their living out of publishing the gossip, that I for one consider to be an invasion of privacy and trash journalism. We took advice to do one interview and then we had decided, all enquiries from the media would be directed to a professional media adviser in Perth. We chose your paper for our one interview. I haven’t asked the others, but I regret that decision. If it were left solely to me, I would ask you to leave now. I would then be on the phone to your editor before you could get to a phone. I leave the others to make up their own mind, so I speak just for myself. For me this interview is at an end.” Pat then turned to the cameraman. “Now, for the last time, give me your camera or show me as you delete that photograph of me.”

As an attempt at one last act of defiance against this woman, with a look of contempt, Flash gave her the camera to see if she was as good as her word and could delete the photograph herself. Pat took it from him, looked at it quickly, opened the side of the camera and took out the memory card. She handed it back. “It’s done. Now you won’t need to show Angus the other pictures. I will have a look at them on the computer and the ones we approve will be with your editor before you.” The cameraman didn’t move.

Maria stood up and looked at the garden and then turned and faced them. She spoke in a very quiet voice. “My editor told me to be gentle with you all and to make sure that it came through in the story. The decision to push hard was my idea, mine alone.”

Pat fixed her with an ice-cold stare. “So you fucked up?”

“Yes, I was told to remember that Ewen was, sorry, is, with our Special Forces and that they, the Special Forces, have a base and families here in Perth. Their wives and children read our paper. It was my decision alone to approach you in the way that I did. I thought it would make a better story – to get the personal bits in – I can see now that I have offended you. All I can do is offer an apology on behalf of the two of us and of course, on behalf of our newspaper.”

Pat looked at Rachael and saw that she was smiling her approval at Pat’s destruction of Maria and her cameraman. She spoke from her position sitting on the arm of Angus’ chair, her arm across his shoulders as if to protect him. “Why didn’t you ask me, Maria? Why didn’t you ask me about Ewen? Did you decide to target Pat before you got here? If you did and without finding out from all of us how we are coping with this tragedy that could get a lot worse in the next few hours and maybe even days, then I find that particularly distasteful.

“I have already apologised, Rachael. What else can I do?”

“Sit down and listen.” Maria sat down on her chair. “You see, Maria, as I said when you arrived and in case you have forgotten I will repeat myself. I work in the Accident Trauma Ward in a major Sydney hospital. I see broken people and broken families all the time. I see crash victims, suicides, and the results of domestic and street violence. I deal with them almost every day of my life. Sometimes I have to tell people that their loved one has died before they could get to the hospital. I am now one of those doctors who people sit and wait for. Just because I am a doctor doesn’t mean I am immune from feelings.

“I also see the media at my hospital, quite rightly, seeking news and information. Sometimes I have to brief the media – I give them information. I also see how some of the media use that information. Some handle grief sensitively. Others are never content; they want more, they want an angle. We, here at Bangalore, are no different to all of those friends and relations that rush to be with their injured, traumatised, loved ones, except that our loved one, our Ewen, is in Germany. He is in the care of the American doctors – the best in the world. Ewen, as far as we know is in an induced coma because of his injuries, which are extensive and life threatening. There is no angle here, Maria; we are just an ordinary family waiting for news. The only thing that makes us different is our location and that Ewen is with the Special Forces and is one of the far too many that have been injured or killed in Afghanistan. Pat came here to be with us, Ewen’s family, soon to be her family. We are all tired and a little distraught. You haven’t helped that condition. I can tell you that my father and mother, and maybe Pat, will fly to Germany as soon as they are told that they can. That is our story. Now, if this isn’t enough, then please don’t make anything up. I think I can hear that helicopter again – they must have been for a look around. We were warned. If you have finished Maria, I will run you out to your plane and then I can see what this other mob want.”

With a sigh of resignation Maria put her note pad into her briefcase. Without speaking, she stood up, shook hands with Angus and said to them all, “ I am sorry again I behaved as I did. I should tell you, a colleague of mine is trying to find Ewen’s grandfather, your father, in Perth, simply because we understand how aviation runs in the family and that Mr Sinclair senior is a much decorated pilot from World War Two. I’m sorry it’s another angle. We won’t be the first, believe me.”

Angus gave Maria a half-smile. “He told me they’ve found him. He gave them a colourful reception. He was in his short pyjamas. Not a pretty sight, he said.”

They could now clearly hear the helicopter.

As Rachael started Angus’ old Mercedes station wagon, a helicopter bearing the livery of a television station flew over them at tree height and they could see a cameraman in the open door. It then banked sharply and headed in the direction of the airstrip. As she engaged gear Rachael said, “At least they had the good manners to not land on the front lawn. A pox on them and their children for coming here uninvited and without warning.” Then smiling, with malice in voice, she turned and looked directly at Maria who sat next to her, “May their pubic hairs turn into fish hooks – I learned that from an Arab colleague – he was talking about the Americans at the time. I think it’s a wonderful curse – very Arab.”

Rachael drove fast to the airstrip and nothing was said until they saw that the helicopter had landed close to the hangars and three people had got out; it looked like a woman and a camera team of two. They could see the pilot in the cabin.

Rachael stopped the station wagon about one hundred and fifty metres from the helicopter. Looking at Maria and still smiling she said, “Now, Maria, you have a chance to redeem yourself. You speak to your colleagues out there and stop them getting up to any silly antics. Tell them what you like but make sure it is the truth. Tell them we will not see them. Tell them we will not be interviewed. Tell them if they try to invade our privacy then we shall complain to every other media outlet we can and to the authorities and to the media council or whatever it’s called. Tell them if you like that you have an exclusive. If I were you I would email a draft to Pat, before you go to print. Now be a darling, get out and go and talk to them. Your plane is quite close. Bye.” Rachael leaned across and opened the passenger door.

The pilot of their plane and the cameraman got out of the back seat as Rachael said, “Don’t slam the doors, please.” Flash, the cameraman slammed his, then realised he had left his black bag of lenses on the seat. Before he could open the door again Rachael saw the bag and his dilemma and gently, so slowly, pulled away.

He shouted. She ignored him. At just over walking pace she continued on her way and watched in her mirror as Flash, the not-so-fast cameraman, took his precious camera from around his neck and gave it to Maria and started an ungainly run after the Mercedes. She saw the people from the helicopter waving to her so she ignored them. They couldn’t see her behind the darkened glass anyway. She looked in the mirror again – he was gaining on her and was just five metres or so away – he looked distressed. What to do accelerate and pretend nothing had happened or make him run a little and then stop? He might have a heart attack from the exertion. Then again he might not. She looked again; he did look ungainly, almost comical. Feeling that she had every right to a little revenge, she accelerated and drove back to Bangalore.

The last she saw of what was a now-angry Flash was him standing in a cloud of red dust shaking his fist at her and the Mercedes’ rapid departure. She gave his reflection the one- finger salute.

Chapter 13

More Visitors.

Instead of finding a more relaxed atmosphere when she returned from the airstrip, she found Pat and Angus sitting on the veranda in earnest conversation. There was an atmosphere, which was different to that she had left behind. Neither of them smiled when they looked at her.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, “Have you heard something about Ewen?”

It was Pat who answered. “No, Rach; my Commanding Officer has been on the phone to Angus, and told us to expect another helicopter. He wouldn’t tell me who is in the helicopter. He just told me to try and make sure that we were all available and if necessary cancel any arrangements.”

“How many of them?”

“Four. Two passengers and two pilots.”

“Two pilots? Is that usual, Pat?”

“For the military it’s not unusual.”

“Are you saying this is a military mission?”

Angus replied, “That’s just what we were talking about, Rach, when you arrived. We were wondering why Pat’s CO would make the call. We decided there’s no good speculating; all we can do is wait.”

Rachael looked at her watch. “I’d better tell Alice to expect another four for lunch.”

“Already done,” Angus replied.

Rachael slumped down in another of the armchairs. “This is all getting a bit much. This morning was bad enough with those people from The Globe, then that TV helicopter. I can hear them leaving now. Now this. I suppose whoever they are, can take the Flash man’s lenses back with them.” She related her little story of her reaction to him slamming the door on the Mercedes.

Angus looked at her and smiled. “Well, at least you got a bit of fun out of what was an example of very bad behaviour towards us. I think the lady, Sabbatini, will have some explaining to do when I have a word with her editor. He broke a promise, or at least his staff did. Pat, don’t forget you have the photo card or whatever you call them? You said you would send them on.”

“They can wait,” Pat replied. “Let’s see what these other people have to say for themselves. Something in my bones, something in my water, tells me we are in for an interesting afternoon. Mainly because I cannot for the life of me think of any reason why some, I think obviously military people, could be coming all the way up here. And why in a helicopter? They will probably have to stop and refuel somewhere. Why not just jump into a plane like Roddy’s? They would get here quicker with less fuss. Something just doesn’t make sense. Most choppers have a range of about six hundred and fifty to seven hundred kilometres, which would mean they will have to refuel at least once on the way up and on the way back.”

“I forgot to tell you, Pat,” said Angus, “they asked if they could get some Avgas from us, I told them there was plenty. They said they would replace it.”

Now it was Pat’s turn to raise her eyebrows even further. “How the hell are they going to replace it? I don’t like the sound of this at all. Maybe they meant they will pay you for it?”

“They could just mean they will get another drum or so put on the truck next time they do a delivery. Maybe we should just try and be patient. We’ll know soon enough.”

Pat reached across for Angus’ tobacco pouch on the small table, opened it, took out tobacco, paper and a filter, and rolled a cigarette. Angus did the same. Rachael sat back in her chair with her eyes closed, massaging her temples. Without opening her eyes she said. “I’ll go and tell Ali to come for lunch; he should be in on this whatever it is. I’ll tell Alice on the way through.” She got up and went into the homestead, again the flywire door banged.

Angus, still sitting on the sofa, looked at his watch – it was only twelve-thirty. He felt as if he had been up all day and all night. The emotion of the visit from the newspaper people, the adrenaline which had surged through his body when the probing questions from Maria had been persistent, had tired him. His attempt at showing no reaction and being calm and collected was beginning to tell. He knew the feeling. It was like the feeling one gets after a narrow escape from danger. First comes the rush of adrenaline – then the letdown. Now all he could do was wait and see what these other people wanted.

Angus looked at Pat to find she was looking at him. She smiled. “All this getting to you, Angus?”

“Is it so obvious?”

“To me it is.”

Her expression was one Angus hadn’t seen before. She was half-smiling, half-serious. What was it he saw, tenderness? He looked at her for a moment longer, then looked away. He spoke slowly. “I was thinking about what you said the other night about being away from it up here at Bangalore, away from it all, all the ‘stuff’ as you called it. Now it seems to be following you.”

Pat sat down next to him on the sofa and put her arm through his and gently stroked his forearm with her other hand. “It does, doesn’t it? It feels like we are being invaded. First Michelle and Roddy and I could see you didn’t enjoy that episode, even though they brought Rachael, which really is a blessing. She and Ali have made a big decision, so something really good has come from it. Then there were all the phone calls from your family and the press. Then, the awful visit from that Maria woman. I must admit I got very annoyed, something I don’t do very often. I have a reputation for being able to clear a room or even a hangar when I see things go wrong, when I witness something which could have been avoided, or when people behave badly. I know it’s on my character file that I don’t suffer fools gladly. Nobody has ever told me whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. I know I have a reputation for always working to the book, for being something of a disciplinarian.”

Angus could smell the scent of her soap. He could feel the warmth of her hip against his. He looked at her well-manicured hand stroking his arm. The gentle sounds of a Baroque Adagio filtered into their world.

“Where does that sound come from, Angus?”

“There are a couple of very expensive speakers at each end of the veranda, I don’t use them as often as I should. Rach must have put it on. She knows this is my favourite music.”

Pat continued stroking his arm. The two of them just sat there and let the gentle music do its work. Then their peace was ruined as a helicopter chattered over the homestead, banked and headed for the airstrip. The moment had gone. Pat patted his arm one last time and stood up watching the helicopter fly away.

“That’s a Dauphin AS365 N3, same as the Police use. Wonder where they got that from? No livery on it, so it’s not from the WA Police. They only have a range of 600 kilometres or so. So they must have made a couple of fuel stops. Very modern though, the one the WA Police have has everything that a police force could want. Never flown one.”

“Yes Ma’am,” said Angus smiling at her.

“Aircraft recognition, Angus. Always been one of my strengths.” She smiled back at him and again that expression of a few minutes ago was back. He realised, with some confusion, she was looking into him, not just at him.

He replied, losing his composure a little, “I suppose we’d better go and get them then? We’ll take the two vehicles, the Mercedes and the Land Cruiser. Then the pilots can refuel if they want to. If they had any sense they will have landed close to the drums. Then they can make their own way back here.”

With Angus driving the Toyota and Pat the Mercedes they found, as expected, four people standing by the side of the helicopter, and as Angus had hoped, they had landed close to his drums of Av Gas, which were standing on a platform of old railway sleepers built at about truck height. Angus stopped at the hangar to get the fuel pump.

The two pilots carried their flying helmets under their arms; there was no insignia on them. They wore plain grey flying suits; again with no insignia. Pat guessed their ages to be about thirty to forty. They were hard to tell apart. Same height, shaven heads, wrap-around sunglasses. Black military-style flying boots.

The two passengers were dressed in civilian clothes. One about 170cm tall, fair hair, close cropped. He was wearing rimless sunglasses and dressed in a pale-blue long-sleeved shirt and jeans. His only luggage was what looked to Pat like an iPad in a case. On his feet were lightweight hiking shoes or boots.

The other man was a giant. Well over 180cm, slim to thin, looked very fit and tanned, dark-brown hair, quite long and a bit untidy looking, sunglasses pushed up in his hair above his forehead. He was dressed the same way as his companion except his shirt was a dark-red short-sleeved polo style. Same style footwear as his companion. Same iPad case.

It was the smaller of the two who spoke first; he smiled and held out his hand to Angus. “Mr Sinclair, my name is Nigel Lennox. This is my colleague, Andy Liebovitch.” Angus shook hands with both of them.

“Gentlemen, I presume you already know, this is Pat Fawcett, my son’s fiancée.”

Nigel shook Pat’s hand and smiled, saying nothing. The big man, Andy, as he extended his hand, said, “Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.” He was American.

Again Nigel took the initiative. “I see you brought two vehicles. Does that mean the boys can refuel and make their own way to your house?”

“Of course,” said Angus. “Help yourselves to whatever you want.” The pump is in a canvas case in the back of the Toyota. It has a new filter on it. Hand operated though so there will be a bit of arm work.”

“All right with you boys?” asked Nigel. The answer was obvious but they both nodded just the same.

With the two strangers in the back of the Mercedes, instead of driving round the back of Bangalore, Angus drove round to the front of the house. “What a beautiful place you have here, Mr Sinclair. Been in the family for generations, I gather?” Nigel asked.

“Please, let’s get the formalities over. I would like you to call me Angus. That goes for the rest of us here, please, first names only.” Looking at Pat in the seat next to him Angus, with a playful attempt to break the ice, said, “I presume that is all right with you, Flying Officer Fawcett?”

Pat smiled back. Again that smile. “Of course. These gentlemen probably outrank me anyway.”

Neither replied. Round one to Pat, thought Angus. Whoever they are they are not saying, not yet.

Alice was standing on the veranda smiling. “Angus, I have laid lunch for us all in the dining room, as Rachael asked. I have set for nine. Ali and Rachael are in the kitchen. If your guests want the bathroom, I will show them the way.” She looked enquiringly at the two men.

Before they could reply, Angus said, “Alice, this is Nigel and Andy. Gentlemen this is Alice, part of the family; she is the mother of Ali, who is to marry Rachael, my daughter. Alice has been on Bangalore for longer than I have.”

“The bathroom sounds like a good idea to me, Alice,” said Andy, his accent confirming he was American. “Would it be all right if our pilots eat somewhere else, please?”

“Of course. I’ll move them into the breakfast room. Now if you follow me I’ll show you to the bathroom.”

The two men followed Alice into the house.

“Well, what do you make of that, Pat?”

“Don’t know. Thought they might be Commonwealth Police, but then the American…don’t know. Spooks? That helicopter is the WA Police chopper; they have just covered the livery on the sides. Maybe the pilots are police, so they don’t want them in on whatever they have to say to us? All very strange.”

Nigel and Andy returned, smiling, “That feels better,” said Nigel. “Quite a long trip even though she cruises along at about 200 kilometres an hour; ever flown one, Pat?”

“No. I haven’t, Nigel. I think we have a couple of them somewhere over east, but they have never come into my sphere.”

Before an awkward silence could develop, Rachael and Ali joined them. Rachael walked straight over to Nigel. “I’m Rachael and this is Ali.” There was a flicker of recognition between the two of them, but before Rachael could pursue it, Nigel cut her short.

“This is my colleague, Andy.”

Rachael and Ali shook hands with them both, then Rachael said, “Now, would you like a cool drink or a beer or something before lunch, or would you prefer to get on with lunch? It’s up to you.’

Andy was the first to reply. “I’d like a beer, Rachael.”

“A cool drink for me,” said Nigel. “Water preferably and I think we should just have lunch if that is all right with you. We have all the time we need, but we don’t have time to waste.”

“Okay. One beer, water is on the table. Dad, Pat, Ali? What will you have?”

They all replied they would like a beer. “Right, so I’ll get five beers and Dad can show you to the dining room.” Rachael left to get the beers and Angus led the way to the dining room.

The two visitors sat side by side. There were seven places set, which included a place for Alice. It was a big table and Alice had deliberately set two places on one side and the rest spread around the other side and the ends. Alice sat between Rachael and Ali. She looked nervous.

Rachael returned with the beers and glasses, and it took a few minutes for everyone to settle and help themselves to the cold mutton and salad set out on the table. When they were all ready, Rachael again took the initiative.

“Gentlemen, the floor is all yours, and we are all ears.”

It was Nigel who spoke. “I suppose I should first of all clear up the reason for our visit to Bangalore. You must be curious, especially as it comes in the middle of what must be a very difficult time for you. We understand you have done one media interview and have refused all other offers. We think that is a good decision.

“The first thing I wish to impress on you is that what I am about to tell you is Top Secret. I mean that in the full meaning of the words. That is why our pilots are away in another room. They are WA policemen and they have been told the importance of the secrecy of this trip. Pat, you probably noticed the livery had been covered?” Pat nodded.

“First of all – who we are. I am from ASIO, Andy is CIA.”

Everybody except Ali had stopped eating. Nigel noticed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that to be a lunch-stopper, but I had to get it out of the way, straightaway.”

“Now I’ve got you,” said Rachael looking at Nigel. “I treated you one night in Sydney casualty; you had a gunshot wound in the leg. The Commonwealth Police brought you in and just told us to patch you up and send them the bill. It was just a flesh wound, but you’d lost quite a lot of blood. They wouldn’t let us keep you for the night so we plugged and stitched the hole, filled you full of antibiotics and blood, gave you some antibiotics to take with you and they took you away. I thought you were a prisoner.”

“I recognised you,” said Nigel smiling. I wondered if you would remember. You did a good job. It healed quickly and the antibiotics you gave me made me nauseous.”

“Well, they were pretty strong and not everyone can tolerate them.”

Nigel put his knife and fork down. He touched the screen of his iPad. “To continue with the reason for our visit, I have to explain a bit of policy, of which I know you are aware, but it helps to stitch our story together. As you will all have noticed on television and all other media, whenever Special Forces are involved they either have their faces covered or the television people pixilate out the faces. They do the same thing for police TRG operations as well.

“The reason for this is twofold. The obvious one is to keep the identity of the person secret so they don’t get recognised away from their job, to avoid reprisals, that sort of thing. The other reason, which we don’t talk about but it’s just as important, is so that nobody can associate a family with the operative, whether he or she be Special Forces or TRG. We don’t want wives confronted at the shops or their children asked awkward questions at school. So we do our best to keep the identity of our people as secret as possible. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“I’m sure you can fill in the gaps or questions in our logic and we will answer any questions you have at the end. The picture, which appeared of Captain Sinclair, was taken before his recent mission. Like all of his team he’d grown a beard. In the photograph he is clean-shaven. He still had his beard, or most of it, when he went to Germany. Andy’s team is working to determine if NATO Special Forces in Afghanistan have been covertly photographed and if they have, when, and more importantly, how.” He smiled at Andy. “I hasten to add that is not all Andy’s team do, far from it, but it is important. Andy is particularly paranoid about their SEALs.

“The next thing I have to tell you is very sensitive, but I have to tell you so that you understand everything that is going on. The mission which Ewen and his team were on was quite deep into Pakistan. They went in there to ‘snatch’ or ‘extract’ a senior member of Al-Qaeda. They were successful and that person is now in custody. He is known to have been the brains behind several suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan, which have killed dozens of Afghanis. He is also an expert IED maker, so no doubt he has been responsible for some military casualties as well.

“It’s unfortunate that our team was pursued, or at the very least they were being tracked, after they had made the extraction. I can leave it to your imagination regarding who could help or who has the ability to help. Let me just leave it at that. That area of the world presents some diplomatic and military challenges. It may have been chance, but we doubt it. We are still analysing radio traffic in Pakistan at the time. It not beyond the realms of possibility that it was just a fortunate burst of gunfire from the ground that found a vital spot. All we really know is the helicopter went down with little control.

“The damaged helicopter did go down in Pakistan. The prisoner was on the other helicopter. The helicopter with the prisoner was given specific instructions not to render assistance to the one damaged. The information we received was that they had crashed, without any serious injury, and the crew of the crashed helicopter would destroy their craft and head for the border.”

All but Ali and Andy had stopped eating and were hanging on Nigel’s every word. Nigel noticed this. “Perhaps I should stop for a while so everyone can get some lunch?”

Angus replied, “Maybe that’s a good idea, Nigel. We will never eat at this rate.” Ten minutes later they had all finished whatever they were going to eat so Angus said, “The floor is yours again, Nigel.”

“The rest of the story you largely know and it is not part of our mission here to go into extra detail. In fact there is little more we can add. So let me take up the story from this end in Australia. It is common knowledge that we operate surveillance on some people in Australia. You will remember the recent case in Sydney where we stopped an Islamist group carrying out a plan to raid and kill people in an Australian army barracks. They are now in prison. The threats are real; the dangers we must treat as being constant.

“Surveillance goes on all the time. It can be difficult in these days of mobile phones and SIM card changes. Some of the surveillance is done by automatic recording and is reviewed regularly. It is programmed to record the number of times names and places are mentioned, when they are mentioned, and the location from where the call is made, the best fix we usually get is just the mobile phone transmission tower, but it gives us a rough location.

“It’s largely boring work, but a vital part of our big investment in counter-terrorism. We must also remember, there are many people from Pakistan and Afghanistan who have lived in this country for a long time and who still have family in those countries, so they have legitimate reasons for making phone calls. Mostly, though, even in this age of mobile technology, the genuine calls, in the main, are made from fixed landlines. So to cut a long story short, our work is involved in looking for patterns, largely in the mobile networks. The time and date of all calls going out of the country to Pakistan and Afghanistan are recorded. Not what is said, unless we have a specific interest, but just that the call was made.

“For instance, we have a lady in Sydney who calls her son in Peshawar to make sure he has been to Friday prayers; she does it every week. The regularity of the calls made us suspicious because all kinds of things go on in Peshawar, so someone checked him. He’s a camel trader and small-time businessman, no interest to us at all. Keeps himself to himself and his extended family. He’s made application to come to Australia but he has many children. If he disappears from Peshawar, we wouldn’t be surprised to find him in Indonesia or on a boat off Ashmore Reef. That’s how things often happen.

“We share our information of special interest with the CIA, especially that of people of interest in Australia.” Looking around the table at each one of them he said, “So much for background.”

It was Pat’s turn now. “That’s all very interesting, Nigel, but where do we come into this? I probably know more than most, with the exception of you two about security, but where does Bangalore and Ewen come into all this? Ewen is an army pilot, working with the Special Forces, in a theatre of war, who has suddenly had his photo in the paper. It’s happened before with soldiers who have been decorated, injured or killed.”

Nigel didn’t answer her question directly. Instead, he continued with the explanation of the reason for their visit. “There are three people in Australia in whom we have a special interest as far as this case is concerned. I can’t go into details. One is Australian born of Pakistani parents and lives in Sydney. The other was born in Pakistan and lives in Melbourne, came here as a refugee some five years ago. The third is an Afghan living in Perth. He was granted refugee status and then citizenship, some eighteen months ago.”

Rachael interrupted. “This all seems to be happening in Australia. Why the CIA interest?”

It was Andy who replied. It was the first time he had said more than half a dozen words, Rachael put his accent down to somewhere in the deep south of America. He spoke slowly and deliberately. “ I am here on secondment, more of that later. When I say we, I mean our team. Four weeks ago, one of our junior staff was monitoring a call from our person of interest in Perth, the Afghan fellow, well, this fellow, just out of the blue, mentioned the name, Bangalore.”

All eyes around the table were now on Andy. He continued without showing any reaction to their attention; it reminded Pat of a briefing for an operation. “The unusual word, Bangalore, was logged in the usual way. A couple of days later, Bangalore was mentioned in another conversation between another two people. Then it was mentioned again by one of the clerics in another conversation. Sometimes we only got one side of a conversation, because people use different phones. We became curious as to why Bangalore was being mentioned.

“Bangalore as you know is in India. India and Pakistan have a strained relationship. Just to be safe, we let friends in India know and they couldn’t think of a reason for Bangalore being mentioned. Except that Bangalore is becoming something of an IT centre in India. So it could be a source of electronic, radio material and that sort of thing. So we asked the Australian authorities, customs, to put a special watch out for parcels from Bangalore. Nothing. Hundreds of parcels were x-rayed both in Bangalore and here – nothing.

Angus, who had been staring down at the table, concentrating and listening intently, now looked up. “Are we allowed to know anything more about these three people who are talking about Bangalore?”

With a reassuring nod to Angus, Nigel took up the story again. “I’m sorry, Angus, it is a bit slow but it has started to develop into quite a tale and we want to be sure we miss nothing. It is important you know everything.” He thought for a moment. “I would prefer not to give real names. We have assigned the three men code names, which we can use freely when we speak over the phone or in other communications; just a precaution you understand? The person who was born in Australia of Pakistani parents and who are all Australian citizens we have named, ‘Aussie’. He is thirty years old, well educated, went to a good school and went on to Sydney University and got first class honours in engineering. He works full time as a consulting contract engineer in his own business. His father is a surgeon and rich. ‘Aussie’ has a sister who is a gifted musician and plays violin with the SSO at present, and is soon off to the USA on a scholarship to some prestigious academy, of which I forget the name.

“The whole family attend the same Mosque. The father adopts a low public profile as far as his religion is concerned, but we do know he is philanthropic supporting various scholarships for disadvantaged children within his religious community. He makes his donations through a Trust, so his name does not appear.

“Aussie is different. He has been quite outspoken at times. He could not be considered by what he does as being an activist, but does show his support for his Mosque and for a cleric at that Mosque. I will come back to him later, the link being that Aussie went to Mecca last year with his cleric. To sum up Aussie’s family, they are rich, they all live together in a good, but not ostentatious house on the West Shore of Sydney, and to all intents and purposes keep themselves to themselves. They have an extensive circle of friends in what could be generally called the Sydney cultured community.

“The Pakistani, who lives in Melbourne, we have given the name of, Hawke. Mainly because he is a keen Hawthorn fan. He has been in Australia since he was five years old; he is now twenty-nine. He works in the IT industry in middle management in the Melbourne CBD. He attended university, well MIT, and is highly regarded in the company where he works. Shows little interest in girls of his faith, but is now in a six-month relationship with a Melbourne girl who works in the same office. She has a flat in South Yarra.

“Hawke attends Friday prayers with his father who works in a factory. We know little of his mother and see even less of her. We doubt she can speak English very well. Hawke’s relationship with his girlfriend is known to his family. She has been to their house, which is also in Hawthorn. Her name is Angela, she is twenty-five years old, clever, did an MBA after a degree in history and politics at Melbourne Uni.

“At university she was active at every political demonstration, particularly those about issues against the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Her politics are certainly of the Far Left or Green or both. She is a prolific anti-Afghanistan War, anti-Iraq War blogger, all under a pseudonym, Boadicea. We have no proof, but we think she is receiving religious instruction from a cleric at Hawke’s Mosque. A cleric who just happens to be the cousin of the cleric at the Mosque, which is attended by Aussie’s family in Sydney.”

Glances were exchanged around the table between Pat, Rachael, Angus and Ali. The only one not to look up was Alice. She had sat throughout the talk with her hands folded in her lap, occasionally taking a sip of water. Now she looked up and realised the water jug was empty. “I’ll go and get some more water.” Her chair scraped a little on the wooden floor.

Rachael intervened. “Maybe we should all break for a few minutes, comfort stop. Maybe another beer, or a cup of tea, anyone? At least we can have a stretch.”

Nigel looked at his watch and then at Andy, who nodded imperceptibly. Pat saw the exchange and concluded that in spite of their assurances they were concerned about time. Nigel said, “I will vote for a cup of tea, please. Let’s take a ten minute break.”

Before anyone else had a chance to reply Alice said, “I will make a big pot, there are cups and saucers on the trolley over there; then everyone can help themselves. I’ll only be a couple of minutes, everything is ready. Pat, could you give me a hand?”

Angus and Ali headed for the double doors leading on to the veranda, Angus reaching for his tobacco pouch as he went. They had no sooner started rolling a cigarette than Andy joined them. “Is this what I think it is, Smokers’ Corner?”

Angus offered his tobacco pouch. Andy looked at it and smiled. “I haven’t rolled a cigarette for years. We used to carry our tobacco and papers in a waterproof bag, not allowed to carry packet cigarettes. Long time ago now. Since then I have always stuck to packets, so I’ll have one of my own if you don’t mind, Angus.”

Pat poked her head out of the door. “Andy, how do you like your tea?”

“Black, please. One sugar.”

A few moments later she returned with three mugs, not cups, of tea. Handing them round she said, “Five minutes, boys.”

Making conversation Andy commented. “Pat is some pilot. From what I have read the only aircraft your Air Force fly she hasn’t flown yet is the Hornet, and she’s up for that anytime she wants to. If she stays in your Air Force I would think the sky, literally, is the limit.”

“We have a Tiger Moth in a hangar, Angus’ father’s pride and joy, in perfect condition. Wonder if she could fly that. You a pilot, Andy?” asked Ali.

“No sir, I came to where I am through the Navy. Broke both my legs on a mission; that’s why I roll a little when I walk. I never understand why I don’t set the metal detectors off when I travel – there is that much Titanium in me. I still pass all my fitness tests and I jog every day; it’s just the repairs left me with one leg shorter than the other. They said they can fix it, but I reckon I’ve had enough surgery to last a lifetime. In fact, hospitals give me the shivers.”

“Are you resident in Australia?” Angus asked.

“Classified information, Angus,” he replied laughing, “but yes I am. Been here six months, work with your guys in Canberra. That’s just between the three of us. Officially I’m a Trade Liaison Officer.”

They finished their tea and returned to the table in the dining room. Nigel was the first to speak. “I suppose I should ask if there are any questions so far.”

Pat asked, “What led you to these three people?”

Again there was a slight nod between Nigel and Andy, which Pat noticed.

“It started with Angela. Her face kept on appearing on videos we took of demonstrations in Melbourne and Sydney. I can’t go into details, but we identified her. That led us to Hawke. We then found that Hawke and Aussie had attended the same Islamic ‘retreat’ in the Blue Mountains, run by one of the leading Muslim clerics in Sydney. This cleric has been very outspoken on religious matters in Australia and the ‘rights’ of the Muslim faith. He has also spoken in public promoting Sharia Law for the Muslim community in Australia.

“I must say he has little following among the older generation – many have been critical of him both privately and publicly. Some have indicated they would like to see him sent back from whence he came. That has proven to be difficult. His following among the younger men is quite strong. There is no doubt he is an eminent scholar of the Islamic faith. The retreat he has in the Blue Mountains can only accommodate about ten students at a time. Most weekends the place is full of young boys and teenagers, mostly from Sydney.

“He also runs longer courses usually for ten days or so and these are for older males. Again the age group seems to be from twenty to mid-thirties. The property is about thirty acres and surrounded by a sophisticated security fence. The reason offered for the fence is that the house is often unoccupied. No one can argue with that. It was at one of these longer courses that Aussie and Hawke met.

Again Pat asked, “What about the Afghan man in Perth?”

This time Andy took up the story. “We, that is the USA, arranged for him to come to Australia. He had been Taliban, we turned him and he worked for us. Then the Taliban found out and we got him out before they got him. He was given a new name and a job was found for him down in the south of Western Australia. He has since married a lady of his faith. It was not until his name cropped up in some phone taps that we realised we may…may have made a mistake. In other words we had been double-crossed. As time has gone on we have confirmed that. The decision was made, in consultation with Nigel’s team, to leave him be and see what he led us to. We gave him the code name, Swan.”

“Am I allowed to ask how you tied the three together?” asked Angus.

“Phone calls to the same Mullah in Sydney. There was no reason that we knew of at the time, why Swan should have known the Mullah. Swan didn’t use his real name when he made his first contacts. We just had one end of the conversation. We had to trace the phone calls back to Swan. We presumed he had read about the Mullah in the press; once we discovered who Swan was, and what he meant to us, we kept electronic surveillance on him and the Mullah.

Nigel took up the story. “I need to stress to you here, this isn’t the stuff of films or novels. Most of what our teams do is boring. Technology is making it easier. Like image, name, or word recognition. That’s how we got on to this bunch of guys. Apart from that, we just have to keep our noses to the grindstone. Listening and when the budget will stretch to it and it’s absolutely necessary to do it, watching.”

Rachael was unconvinced, “Do you mean… Nigel, are you saying you are short of money to do security surveillance work, short of money for matters of national security? Even under this government I find that hard to believe.” Her tone was edgy and incredulous.

“No. It wasn’t meant to sound like that, but surveillance is an expensive business. Just as guide: if we put a team in the field providing twenty-four hour surveillance it’s usually a minimum of eight, preferably men and women, probably three or four cars, different colours and models, Sometimes, say if it’s a small town, accommodation needs to be found in different places in the same locality. It’s an expensive business. I’m not being patronising, but television programmes make it look easy when they set up a watching post opposite whatever it is they want to keep an eye on. Often as not, we find that almost impossible.

“Then there are the local police. They notice us if we are hanging around. Do we tell them? Not usually; can’t trust them. So if it becomes necessary we have to make a call to their headquarters, speak to the appropriate senior officer to tell everyone to leave us alone and most importantly ignore us. For God’s sake, don’t wave! So no, to answer your question, Rachael, our budgets are not severely restricted. Just the same eight people in the field for sometimes weeks, even months, runs into a lot of money and like all public servants, we have to justify every cent. Though I must add, since 9/11, the purse strings have been loosened.

“New communication technology has made field work a lot easier. Smart phones, iPhones, iPads, cameras in everything, photo enhancement from long distance photos and as we see on television every day, video clips taken from mobile phones, have all made our job a lot easier. For night surveillance infra-red camera technology has made life simpler.”

The strain was now showing on Angus’ face and when he spoke it was with some frustration and a mixture of exasperation bordering on anger. “Nigel, this conversation started with the name of ‘Bangalore’ cropping up in tapped telephone conversations. You talked about the concern of your Department of Security as far as the families of Special Forces personnel are concerned, as well as members of the Special Forces back here in Australia when they mix with the general public.

“You then tell us about three individuals. Reading between the lines I am assuming they have had some instruction, teaching from some Mullah in the Eastern States, who you are suspicious of, my interpretation, not yours. Cutting to the chase, as they say, are you going to tell us that we might be, or worse are, right now, in some kind of danger?”

There was not a sound. Everyone in the room looked at Nigel, Alice for the first time. Andy with a smile playing the corners of his mouth stared at Nigel and waited for the answer. After some contemplation Nigel looked up. He was now choosing his words carefully. “The three men we have been discussing, and Boadicea, have just taken four weeks annual leave.

“The three men have each bought a powerful, top of the range, cross-country and touring type of motorcycle. Two KTMs and one Honda. One was bought in Sydney, one in Melbourne and the Honda in Perth. They have all had long range fuel tanks fitted to them. They have also had them fitted out for touring. So they all have panniers and that sort of thing.

“We don’t know if Boadicea has a motorbike. We do know she can ride one and does have a licence. She owns a Land Rover Discovery, a white one, and it’s equipped for long distance travel – we’ve established that. She and Hawke often take off for the weekend on camping trips. Before you ask, no, we’ve never followed them. Phone records have been sketchy because of the places they have been, up in the mountains, down in the forests. The Land Rover has disappeared and so has Boadicea. We only found out about the motorbikes after the event; that is after they had been bought. We don’t know why that is. Maybe it was planned; maybe they have a means of communication we haven’t traced.

“We’ve had one stroke of luck though; they had the three bikes fitted with a GPS. Little do they know that our ‘pointy heads’ have found a way of following them every time they turn them on – so far it’s worked.”

This time Angus tapped the table with his forefinger, his mounting tension was evident in his voice, “You still haven’t answered the bloody question, Nigel. Are my family and I in danger?”

“Angus, we don’t know. As I have said the name Bangalore, in all our phone taps, didn’t have a fit with anything until the news reports came out on your son and the name Bangalore was mentioned as his home. Bangalore had been mentioned in phone calls, you will recall, several weeks before the release of Captain Sinclair’s photograph and story. When the photograph was released, that’s when the bells rang for us because it meant there had been, some weeks or months previously, a serious security breach regarding the identity of Captain Sinclair. Now, to address the matter of danger.

“There is sufficient intelligence, in a general way, for us to be aware that there are extreme groups within the Islamic community in Australia, not to put too finer a point on it, who have an objective to bring, what they see as the War against Islam, to Australia. It’s not just Australia; it’s worldwide in non-Islamic countries.

“I could spend hours telling you of our experiences, what we know about what goes on in Australia. Andy could spend weeks. What we have in Australia, the USA has in spades. Isn’t that so, Andy?”

“Sure is. Homeland Security is now a vast government department. Add on to that the Secret Service, the CIA and the FBI, and we spend more on counter intelligence than the GDP of some significant countries.”

Nigel continued, “To answer your question directly, there is now sufficient compelling evidence for us to be concerned that the four people mentioned have formulated a plan to pay Bangalore a visit. Without being facetious, we have to presume it’s not a social visit. We do not know what they intend to do; that’s our dilemma. Better we overreact than regret at our leisure. We have no evidence they are armed. We have no evidence they are not, so we plan for every contingency.

“Bangalore is over a million acres; it is a vast area. From a security perspective, Bangalore is almost impossible to keep under meaningful surveillance. Aussie, Hawke and Swan have purchased motorbikes, which are capable of handling any terrain, from sealed roads to the bush, so they are highly mobile and capable of covering huge distances in a short time.

“In our favour is that to the best of our knowledge, we are as certain as we can ever be, that they are unaware we are monitoring them. To return to your question of whether you and yours are in personal danger, it is obvious, under normal circumstances, out here, isolated, with just three or four people on Bangalore most days and more importantly most nights, if you did have ‘visitors’ and correct me if I’m wrong, it could be days before anyone outside of Bangalore might think something was amiss. By that time, ‘visitors’ could be a couple of thousand kilometres away. They could dump their bikes, all jump in the Land Rover and just be a happy bunch of campers.

“I know I haven’t answered your question, because I can’t. What I can and have done is taken steps to ensure, to the best of our ability, that your safety is protected. Every Police Highway Patrol, starting at the WA border has been instructed to watch and not apprehend. If any of our four are caught, say speeding, then the orders are to just issue the usual ticket. The WA Police have cooperated and all highways will be patrolled day and night. That is both in the north and the south. It is our view that the motorcyclists will use the highways, probably Highway One, at least as far as Perth, so as to cover the greatest distance in the shortest possible time. If they turn on their GPS systems, all the better.

There was a knock on the door. Andy got up and when he opened it he was handed a note by one of the pilots. He looked at it and handed it on to Nigel. Nigel glanced at it and said, “Aussie has left Sydney, and it would appear he is on the road to Melbourne. New South Wales and Victorian Police have been asked to keep an eye out. So that confirms they are on the move.”

When Angus had tapped the table with his forefinger asking for answers, Pat had reached under the table and taken his other hand in hers. As she now started to speak she realised she was still holding his hand, so as gently as she could she removed her hand from his. “Nigel, you said you have taken all possible steps, or words to that effect, to ensure the safety of those at Bangalore – you can include me in that, by the way.”

“And me,” said Rachael, “I’m going nowhere till this is all over. It’s starting to sound like a movie script. But I’m going nowhere. Sorry, Pat, I interrupted.”

Pat smiled. “Now, Nigel, tell us what steps you have taken to ensure our safety. Let’s assume that our would-be ‘visitors’ make it to Bangalore; what then?” Angus noticed Pat had started using her Air Force Officer voice again, the same voice she had used on the cameraman from The Globe. There was a command in it and by Nigel’s expression it didn’t go unnoticed. He gave it away when he answered.

“Ma’am, I don’t want anyone to be alarmed, but our plan is for our ‘visitors’, as we now seem to be calling them, our plan is to allow them to get here. We want them on Bangalore and we want their intent to be evident.”

“You want to catch them in the act?” Pat almost snapped back.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Andy answered, “If we catch them in the act, Ma’am, we get the Mullah. We get the okay to raid every goddamn facility he and his family have in Australia and every associate he has in every other country including the USA and the UK. We get into what we think is an international ring of Islamic extremists. Being isolated out here there is a reasonable chance they will be without communication. We have no evidence that they have satellite phones. Even if they have, they won’t get a chance to use them. Once they are here at Bangalore, the Commonwealth Police TRG or the State TRG in four States will raid, knocking down the doors of every facility and person associated with the Mullah. There will be a hell of a fuss, probably politically, questions will be asked in Parliament. Refugee advocates will be on it straight away. It is our intention that none of the operation will be traced back to here. If there is a court case we will attempt to have that information suppressed – but no one can be sure on that score.”

“Bloody hell.” Everyone looked at Ali; his frustration and exasperation was starting to get the better of him. He wasn’t used to sitting round a big conference table. His world was being invaded. “I hope for your sake you have this properly planned, because if you haven’t, you’ll have to answer to me! Never mind all these platitudes and fancy talk about international extremists. This is us you are talking about and our loved ones. Jesus! We already have Ewen shot up in Germany, somewhere! What you are really talking about if you are honest, is four potential crazies, who have equipped themselves to get here, not just by road but over land if necessary, to get up to some kind of mischief, which probably is a euphemism for killing someone, probably a member or members of Ewen’s family, my family, and then disappearing into bush, the same way as they came in. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence knows that within no time at all they could be on the West coast, picked up by a boat and be in Indonesia, at least in international waters within hours. Gone. You’d better have a good plan, Nigel, or we must get all the women away from here and out of harm’s way.”

Rachael put her arm around Ali’s shoulder as Nigel answered. “Ali, we have made provision to evacuate anyone who wants to leave. We have time to do that. Aussie has started his trip. Given that he and the rest of them will have to rest, we have allowed in our planning that they will cover a thousand kilometres a day. Sydney to Perth is about four thousand kilometres. That gives us four days. Then there is the distance between Perth and here, so at the very least another day and a half. So we have time for everyone to think about it. We are not rushing you.

“Let me tell you what is planned. Tomorrow morning a mobile home, a rather old Winnebago, will arrive here. There will be three men in it. It will be towing a trailer on which will be two motorbikes and a quad bike. If you have any visitors, say neighbours, you will tell them these lads turned up looking for work and to do some hunting. Goats, pigs, anything. You will find them somewhere to camp within easy reach of the homestead. They are fully self-contained; all they may need is water.”

“Who are these men?” Pat asked.

“They are from the SAS in Perth. I know there is this grey area about using troops for this sort of thing, so we have obtained Ministerial approval. Only the Minister knows; government offices leak like sieves, even the Attorney General’s. He has given permission on the advice of the head of ASIO. All the men coming here in the mobile home know Ewen. A couple have served with him in Afghanistan. Two of them are specialists in surveillance. Their Winnebago is really a command centre. The surveillance specialists will first of all place cameras that monitor day and night any traffic on as many roads as we can leading to Bangalore. They will be placed on the road at the boundaries and any other place they identify from the aerial photos they are bringing with them. They will need your local knowledge.

“Their second job will be to make the perimeter of this homestead secure in a similar way. There will be nothing intrusive, nothing obvious. It will all be outside, nothing, at least no cameras, will be inside. They will operate day and night and are extremely sensitive; so we are prepared. Should wildlife activate them we will have automatically recorded the movement so we can quickly check the cause; then there will be no jumping at false alarms. Nothing will be obvious to you if the alarm is triggered. It will just be investigated quietly and unobtrusively.”

“Forewarned is maybe forearmed, but say these people are stupid enough to use the main road to get to Bangalore, that still only puts them an hour at the most from the boundary to here, less if they come in from the West. You then still only have four men available. What happens if they come in from different directions, which is what I would do if I were them?” Ali looked aggressively at Nigel and Andy for an answer; he was still exasperated.

Nigel looked directly at Ali, didn’t take his eyes off him as he spoke with a tone of genuine respect. “A good question, Ali. Half an hour away from here by helicopter, we will have in place tomorrow, what will look to the outside world like a geophysical survey team. There will be three four-wheel-drive trucks with accommodation, a kitchen and mess area and an office mounted on them. They are the genuine articles; we have leased the trucks from a company in Perth; the office is ours. There will also be four four-wheel drives, all fitted out with what will look like soil-sampling rigs. One will have a fuel trailer, the others will tow caravans. Everything will look the real McCoy. There are fifteen men in the team.

“They will also have an array of electronic equipment, with which our men will wander around the landscape taking readings, using theodolites, knocking pegs into the ground. There may even be a few small explosions to make the whole thing look real. They will be on Rose Downs, your neighbour to the north. Jim Humphrey, the manager, has been told we are going out there. He thinks we are on a fool’s errand as others have been there before. It’s about as far away from his homestead as we can be. He says he has no cattle out there that he knows of any way. So he’s happy. Two of our colleagues flew in to see him yesterday and then sorted out the site for the crew. The survey company is called Hunter Surveys. As of today, those we have referred to as ‘visitors’ have the collective name of ‘Johnny’, who we now know is on the move. I will now order the team to start making their way over here; it should take them three days if they make it look as if they are working.

“Needless to say this team is also SAS. The helicopter has caused us a bit of a problem so right now there is another helicopter the same as the one we are using today on its way from Sydney. It’s being flown over by RAAF Transport. In fact it should be in Perth now.

Andy took up the story. “So you see, Ali, we can have a team here in very quick time. No plan is fool proof and I agree with you that the very size of Bangalore and the number of tracks and roads these people could use is cause for concern. If anything happens at night the SAS team are equipped with night vision and infrared detection technology.

“Maybe we can help with the problem of the size of this place,” Angus said to Andy.

“How’s that, Angus? We won’t allow; we won’t be very happy I should say, if you or anyone else here goes off looking around the place.”

“I have three teams of two men in each team out there right now trapping, poisoning and shooting wild dogs. All Aboriginal men. All from families born and raised on Bangalore. They have their own community about thirty kilometres away. It’s on Bangalore, but they have Native Title to it, or whatever the right term is. The community still provide labour for us whenever we need it. It’s a dry community. They have a one-teacher school. Satellite communications and the Internet. In fact they are as well-equipped as we are. They have just managed to persuade all the old people, who go off in all sorts of old vehicles, to carry an EPERB. A couple of them forgot their medication; diabetes is a big problem. One old lady died, went into a coma. They wander all over Bangalore hunting, gathering firewood. They know this place as well or better than I do. They’re by and large a good mob. They’ve got rid of the bad ones into Carnarvon. It would be relatively easy to get some of the Community scattered around Bangalore, just watching.”

“Could they really help?” asked Andy, “This is hardly something we want broadcasting around.”

“They won’t talk if we tell them not to.” It was the first time Alice had spoken. “If I go down and talk to the women, I will guarantee it will be kept secret. The women run the community. It was them who got the place dry – no grog is allowed. The men are now realising it is a better place. As far as the women are concerned if the men don’t like it they can leave. There hasn’t been any trouble there for twelve months.

“The other thing is that all of the community, men and women, even the kids, can track a camel over stony ground. It may sound extraordinary to you, but they can recognise individuals from their footprints; they know everyone in their own mob from their tracks. They could tell the difference between Angus and Ali, even if they were wearing the same kind of boots. So anything unusual, any strange tracks, they would certainly notice them.”

“Are you sure about this, Alice?” asked Nigel. “It’s a big risk for us, for the operation.”

“I’m sure,” said Alice. “You should also know that Ali and I are related to some of them. So we are part of their mob. We are, they are, family. There is no Aboriginal blood in either me or Ali, but my ancestors married, or certainly had children with some of the Aboriginal women. If you ever see them you will see the Afghan blood, usually in the shape of their noses, other features too. The other thing is they will all do anything for Angus.”

Nigel thought for a moment. “What do you think, Andy?”

“Hell, it could put a lot more people on the ground, Nigel. It could fill in some of the gaps we have been worried about. If our three visitors split up we only need to pick up one and we will know the rest are not far away. I say go for it. How would we keep contact with them?”

“Could we give them a satellite phone?” Rachael asked.

“Could they use one? From your description these are bush people. Would they know how to use a cell phone?” Andy seemed uncertain now, there was doubt in his voice.

“Don’t worry about that, Andy,” Angus replied with some humour. “These people may not carry mobile phones around out here. But you should see them when they get into Carnarvon. Out come the phones and they are texting and chattering away to all their relations. They know how to use a mobile, don’t worry about that.”

Nigel was making notes on his iPad and speaking as he wrote. “So what we need is what, another six sat phones, programmed just to the one number which will be to our boys here. Not being rude, but will they be able to understand them?”

“Should be able to,” said Ali. “If your men have trouble they can get one of us; we won’t be far away, Alice will be here the whole time. We will get them just to tell us where they’ve found the tracks and which direction they are travelling. That should be enough, shouldn’t it? We can always ring them back if there’s a problem.”

“Okay, let’s go for it. I’ll get the phones to you one way or another, even if it means a special flight by a light aircraft. I will leave it to you people to talk to the people at the community, and liaise with our men when they get here, so that they know where your people are travelling. I will leave it to you, Angus and Ali, to put your people where you think best. You know where the tracks are.” He looked up at Andy and then spoke to them all. “Andy and I have to get going within the next thirty minutes or so. We want to give ourselves enough time to have a look around, that’s why we came by chopper rather than by something a bit faster. We want to familiarise ourselves with the general countryside. I know there’s not much we can do in a short time but we have some good aerial photos to help us get our bearings. We are more concerned with a five- or ten-kilometre boundary around the homestead. It will mean we will know what our crew are talking about when they talk to us. Anybody got any questions?”

Only Angus answered. “You have given us a lot in a very short time, Nigel, Andy, and I thank you for your patience. I’m sure I speak for everyone that we are all a bit numb. We were only just getting used to Ewen being injured and now his war seems to be coming here. I have one question and it’s about Ewen’s mother, my ex-wife, Michelle. Is she in the same danger? Are you sure you have all these people who mean us harm?”

“I’m sorry, Angus, I should have told you. As this briefing has been going on here two of my colleagues met with Mr Goldsmith in Sydney; they have given him a similar story. I spoke to them on the way up here from the helicopter.” As if Angus didn’t realise he said, “There is the three-hour time difference.” Realising he had stated the bloody obvious he hurried on. “They say Mr Goldsmith was very decisive. While they were there he spoke to someone in a Perth, an international security company, and your ex-wife now has a bodyguard, apparently whether she likes it or not. The bodyguard was born in South Africa, ex-South Africa Special Forces, fifteen years’ service; lost a kidney and took a pension rather than a desk job. He has accompanied Mr Goldsmith when he’s travelled to Africa, so apparently, they know each other well. We do know this man. Mr Goldsmith has also instructed the same firm to do whatever is necessary to upgrade the security of both of their houses. He has also sent his Mercedes down to Dunsborough to replace the little Rav 4. So all that end is tied up. We think the danger is minimal, but, better to be safe than sorry. Mr Goldsmith says there is no limit to personnel if we believe it warranted; all we have to do is say the word. He must be well connected, Mr Goldsmith?”

“We will never know, Nigel. Roddy is an industrialist, a QC, a partner in a leading Law Firm, company director. Wouldn’t surprise me if he owns or has shares in or is the lawyer to the security firm. Roddy knows everybody who is anybody and everybody who wants to be somebody in town. I’m not joking, it wouldn’t surprise me one little bit, if just by picking up the phone Roddy could have the house in Dunsborough patrolled by the ‘Hells Angels’. It’s good to know that Michelle is safe.” Smiling at Rachael he added, “Wonder how she reacted when Roddy told her and the bodyguard turned up in Roddy’s Mercedes. Hope the poor bugger has a lot of patience. Hope he can cook too, ’cos he won’t get far on Michelle’s limited culinary expertise, not unless he likes beans on toast.”

Nigel and Andy stood up. Shook hands with everyone round the table and told them they could be contacted anytime through the team arriving the next day. Ali said he would drive them to their helicopter and they followed him out of the door, closing it quietly behind them.

Angus, Pat, Rachael and Alice stood there looking at each other, not knowing what to say. Alice broke the silence. “I’ve had a leg of mutton in a slow oven all day. I’ll go and check on it.” She kissed Angus on the cheek. “Johnnie is in the kitchen, Angus, so don’t worry about me, and yes, I know it’s only four o’clock, but who cares on a day like today? On a day like no other in my life, it must be five o’clock somewhere.”

“I’ll grab a couple of beers out of the fridge and go and talk to Ali, see if he’s settled a bit.” Rachael left Pat and Angus together.

“C’mon Pat, let’s go and sit outside. It may be early but I think we should follow Alice’s example, unless you want a beer?”

“No. I want a large scotch and ice and access to your tobacco pouch. I’ve been in some briefings in my time but that one beats them all. Who cares what time it is? Wonder why I get the feeling they haven’t told us everything? They know more about ‘Johnny’ than they have told us. You can’t just pick up a GPS location just like that, not as far as I know. No, they have told us just enough to justify what they are doing. They are taking no chances. They are keeping this in-house, and, and it’s a big ‘and’, they have brought in the SAS. This operation is covert.

“If an enemy, for months, has covertly been taking photos of NATO Special Forces personnel and people like Ewen, I’ll bet there are a hell of a lot of questions being asked. Be some worried people in all areas of security and in many countries.

Angus and Pat sat together on the sofa. Angus half-filled the small tumblers with ice and sloshed in a good measure of Johnnie Walker, this time Black Label. “No more cooking scotch, Angus?”

“Bugger it, Father always drinks Black Label; hope he brings some with him. Cheers.” They touched glasses.

“Did you deliberately forget to tell Nigel and Andy that your father was on his way up here?”

“Yes. How could I tell them? How could I tell him not to come without telling a pack of lies? Sooner lie to Nigel and tell him my father has turned up unexpectedly.”

“Do you think he will believe you?”

“Don’t care. The Old Man would want to be here anyway. He will be out of the way if the news does leak out to the press. He can go down to the community with Alice. The old people will do anything for those two. What about you, Pat? You said you’re going to stay – are you?”

“Yes, I am. I’m not leaving now. Now more than ever.” She put her arm through Angus’ and gently pulled it towards her.

Chapter 14

Lachlan Robert Sinclair. DSO & Bar DFC & Bar born 1924 ‘Bangalore Station’

It was six o’clock in the morning and Lachlan had things to do. He’d been up for an hour and was on his second mug of tea. He’d bought himself an insulated mug and reckoned it was the invention of the year because he could wander around looking at his garden and his tea didn’t go cold. He was dressed to his usual level of sartorial elegance befitting a very rich person who lived in probably the best street in the most expensive suburb in Perth, Western Australia.

Khaki shorts with long legs, the ones with pockets all over them, so plenty of room for his pipe, tobacco and matches. He always bought his shorts a size too big so they were comfortable and as he said, allowed the air to circulate where it mattered. They reminded him of the ‘Bombay Bloomers’ the nickname the armed forces gave War Office issue shorts during World War Two. He wore shorts summer and winter.

This particular morning he wore a dark blue tee-shirt; sometimes it was dark green, sometimes maroon, sometimes grey and always a size or two too big. In winter the tee-shirt would be covered by a thick blue wool pullover and if necessary, a Drizabone stockman’s riding coat.

Doc Martin sandals, solid and comfortable, were never off his feet summer and winter. Hatless, but when the sun was up he would have his straw Fedora covering his thin grey hair. He’d seen the Fedora in the window of his tailor’s shop in Perth. When he enquired the price, it shocked him, but it was a genuine hand-made hat and he’d never regretted the purchase, once his head and the hat became comfortable with each other. In the winter the Fedora was replaced with his old, ageless, battered Akubra.

So Lachlan Sinclair, in his late eighties, had his long thin and suntanned frame clad in clothes that would make him inconspicuous no matter where he went. Dressed in a manner that caused constant irritation to his wife of over sixty years, Isobel.

Lachlan knew he was ‘old school’ and everyone thought of him as ‘old school’. He knew he was one of the last of his generation. He’d been to, and now pondered on, the three funerals he’d been to in the last three months. They had all been funerals for World War Two veterans. One, a big affair, had been for one of his friends from RAF Bomber Command. Not many of them left in Perth now. Bomber Command had nearly gone.

Standing at the graveside he’d looked around. A couple of his old comrades-in- arms were in wheel chairs, another walking with the aid of a frame. None of them looked like they would last for much longer. They proudly wore their medals, and remembered. Most of them had a tear in their eye as the lone piper played a pibroch, Donald Dhu. Their dead comrade was a McDonald. At least the piper isn’t old, Lachlan had gloomily observed.

He’d attended the wake at the church hall and a man he’d known for over sixty years didn’t recognise him. The vacant expression on his old mate’s face upset Lachlan more than the funeral. He made up his mind driving home that if ever he was diagnosed with dementia, he would do the ‘blackfella’ thing and just head out into the desert. He reminded himself that somehow he had to ensure he was buried at Bangalore along with all the other Sinclair clan and their Afghan friends. He didn’t want his family to have to put up with a crowd of old men and women – some who might not remember him…

He counted his blessings he didn’t need a walking stick to walk for an hour a day round the river. He still enjoyed a swim in the surf at Cottesloe beach at least three times a week, summer and winter; and he still enjoyed looking at the girls. He was a founding member of the Surf Club and its oldest member.

The day after the funeral he’d kept his three-monthly appointment with his doctor, a man he’d known and who had tended to all his needs for more than thirty years. Their friendship was deep and Lachlan considered himself fortunate.

The check-up went fine. Keep on taking the blood pressure tablets, but really there was no need; better to be safe than sorry. They talked. The doctor asked about the ‘Black Dog’, and Lachlan told him it had been hanging around and he didn’t know why. Nothing had changed at home.

Nothing had changed in the last forty or so years. He and Isobel just lived together. She’d scolded him when she saw he hadn’t changed out of what she called his ‘working clothes’ to go to the doctor. He’d ignored her. He remembered she’d used the words ‘looked a disgrace’ as he had walked away.

On the rare occasions he had to get dressed up, the limit was moleskins or dark grey flannels, brown R M Williams boots that were at least twenty-five years old or a pair of black hand-made brogues. Always, a light-blue shirt. If a tie was needed he had three to choose from, although his wardrobe had at least forty hanging, unused. One of the three was his RAF tie the other was its counterpart from the RAAF and the last was his favourite, Scotch College.

Lachlan had three jackets, a green fine-wool tweed sports jacket, a dark-blue, cashmere and wool blazer, and his sheepskin flying jacket from World War Two.

His tailors, Worthingtons of Perth, knew him well, and he was comfortable with them. They too were from the ‘old school’ and were service oriented, the last of their kind in Perth. Lachlan knew the tee-shirts they provided him with were more expensive than those from the supermarket but they aged before they wore out – he liked that. He could ring them and they would deliver whatever he wanted. They knew all his measurements, all his sizes.

After burning a hole in the pocket of his only suit with a still-burning pipe, he’d been measured for a new suit and chosen the cloth. Choosing dark blue with a subtle pinstripe, had reminded him of the post-war years when the same cloth was in fashion. He’d asked for the trousers specially tailored so he could wear braces; he’d also included a waistcoat in the order. On some occasions, he had to admit, he did feel the cold.

Worthingtons kept his clothes in pristine order and especially his dinner jacket. He wore it for his Lodge meetings and sometimes when the RAAF Association had a black tie dinner. He was on the mailing list at Government House as he had been since the end of World War Two. The residents of Government House changed, but not the mailing list.

He wore his medals a couple of times a year and Worthingtons always made sure they were clean, the same with the miniature medals he sometimes wore with his dinner jacket. Lachlan didn’t know, but to the staff of Worthingtons he was a legend; they would do anything for him.

Isobel didn’t like them because every time she ordered clothes for Lachlan, they deferred to him for approval, as often as not he changed or cancelled the order. He refused to change. To him it was what he wanted, or nothing.

The press corps on his front lawn that morning had annoyed him. He’d slammed the door and startled Isobel, who had called from the bedroom, “Is that you, Lachlan?”

“Who do you think it is, the milkman?” It was his stock answer and he knew his reply exasperated her and he regretted saying it the moment it left his lips. He didn’t want any aggravation on this morning in particular. But then he shrugged with resignation and smiled to himself waiting for her stock reply.

“As if I would be waiting for the milkman, really, Lachlan! Are those press people still there?”

He didn’t answer, just went to his bedroom and got dressed. He could hear Isobel saying something and paid no attention. Situated just 100 metres or so from the Swan River and five minutes’ walk from the shops, it was an old house, a prime piece of real estate in the most prestigious suburb of Perth.

Skyrocketing house prices had made him a millionaire, again. He bought the house when Angus started school. He paid, he thought, about $60,000 for it, and everyone thought and some told him, he was mad. He smiled to himself.

The house was far too big for the two of them and his dog ‘Blackie’. That was when he could smuggle his dog into his study. Isobel didn’t like having his dog in the house; neither did her cat.

As he often did, Lachlan thought his house should have a family in it; there should be noise, children playing – perhaps he would give it to Rachael? She would need somewhere when her children had to be educated. Lachlan adored his house. He was happy in it. He liked the thought that someone he loved would be happy in it when he was gone.

His house had no secrets from him. He knew its every nook and cranny; over the years he’d painted the outside of it twice; the last time he paid someone to strip back the old paint and re-paint it. The result was that it was in pristine condition. He knew where it was feeling its age in its old timbers and red bricks. He’d fixed all the sash windows. They all slid up and down effortlessly, just as they had when they’d been made.

He’d become expert at home decorating. Isobel liked wallpapers. Sometimes he thought she picked complicated patterns just to see if he could hang them properly. He never failed.

Woodwork became his abiding passion, so repairing balustrades, posts and spindles on the verandas was a task he enjoyed. Lessons in cabinet making had been a natural progression so he built a workshop. Visitors always admired the pieces of furniture he made, mainly out of Jarrah, which were scattered throughout the house.

Lachlan grew used to Isobel moving or trying to hide his creations. She would try and remove anything which she believed detracted from the ambience of the house. One time she removed a lamp he’d made and put it back on the bench in his workshop. When he took it back to the house, he glued it into place. She ignored him for a week. After that any moves she made were subtler.

The paradox in Isobel’s behaviour was she was a compulsive dealer in antiques. She bought and sold all the time. Lachlan got used to it. He placed his study and certain items around the house as out-of-bounds, sacrosanct, untouchable by Isobel: furniture, paintings and ornaments which he knew had been purchased from England and India when the Sinclair family had gradually settled in Australia. Items donated by families in India and Scotland, sent as presents to help the pioneers settle in a new land, some no doubt valuable, maybe some were priceless. Others were just ‘things’ which should be passed down the generations.

Lachlan grumbled these days to himself that the house was far too full, but it made no difference whether he grumbled to himself or to Isobel. New pieces of antique furniture, paintings and bric-a-brac continued to arrive and space had to be found for them.

He’d thought about sending what he made up to Bangalore, and then he let the idea slip; perhaps it was time to resurrect it?

Without a heated discussion with Isobel he couldn’t sell anything to make more space in the house. His suggestions that something be sold were almost always rejected. Then, months later he would notice a piece of furniture, often something he had suggested they get rid of, had disappeared. He made a point of not commenting.

Such was their life, a constant chess game of move and counter move. The only new rule brought on by age and Isobel’s cunning was that the opposing player had to be out of the room when the other moved. Lachlan became increasingly suspicious that Isobel was moving more than one piece on the chequer board at a time. He didn’t care because, he decided, it wasn’t a game of any consequence – it meant nothing to him. So he avoided the opportunities for checkmate.

He’d found over the years, Isobel had the memory of an elephant. He often thought about elephants when thinking about Isobel. The association Lachlan made between Isobel and an elephant had nothing to do with size; it was her memory. Isobel knew the exact location of every piece of furniture, of every vase, ornament and picture in their house.

Lachlan would sometimes, mischievously, just for the sake of it, move a small ornament or a lamp, just a few centimetres. It was always moved back to its original place within the day, without comment. It was just another little fragment of the deepening decline in their life together. Another pawn moved on the chessboard. Individually it meant nothing; collectively, it was part of the game.

Lachlan enrolled at night school so he could repair and make leadlight windows, as the ones in his house, like him, slowly showed signs of age. Gradually, as he worked round and through the house, his attachment to the house grew – it became part of him, each indivisible from the other.

He’d long stopped showing Isobel his latest new window or how he’d invisibly repaired an old window or some other part of the house. If she noticed the work he’d done, she didn’t say. If she didn’t say – he didn’t care. In the old days if he’d been feeling particularly generous towards her, he would tell her what he’d done. Gradually he stopped as it became apparent she didn’t care what he did. These days, he thought, it’s easier not to bother rather than be generous of spirit.

Shortly after they were married Lachlan realised Isobel didn’t do housework. If she could avoid it, she didn’t cook either.

When they met, Isobel was a nurse in a military hospital and Lachlan, at the age of just twenty, was a Flight Lieutenant in a Lancaster Bomber Squadron. By the time the war ended he was a Squadron Leader and Isobel was a Ward Sister.

The round-the-clock, one-thousand bomber raids on Germany had started. The American Air Force bombed Germany during the day and the British squadrons, made up of airmen from all over the world, bombed them at night. Germany defended the Fatherland with ferocity because they knew if they lost the battle in the air, after the bombing would come the invasion – they fought and they watched as their cities, with monstrous unending regularity, were burned and flattened.

Germany fought and Germany burned. Just as Britain had fought and burned years earlier as the Luftwaffe had pounded it day after day, night after night.

The Allied Forces bomber squadrons were decimated. New B17 bombers were built and flown over the Atlantic Ocean to keep the Americans in the air by day. The British aircraft factories constantly refined their production so more and more bombers could line up on the runways ready to fly into the night and play their part in bringing Germany to her knees.

As the raids continued and the Allied losses mounted it seemed to Lachlan the crews got younger and younger. The average age of Lachlan’s crew of ‘veterans’ was twenty-three, the youngest being nineteen and the oldest a twenty-five-year-old married man with three children – all the rest were single. The losses of men and their flying machines was horrendous. Many young and inexperienced airmen didn’t complete their first mission.

Nobody knew from one day to the next how many faces they would know at the next sortie briefing. Young fresh-faced enthusiastic young men would turn up from the flight training camps, champing at the bit to get into battle. If they survived, they changed – they aged years in weeks.

After a night raid over Germany, those who had survived would stand together on the airfield in the streaky dawn, drinking tea and straining for the sound of an aircraft engine in the hope that another of their squadron was coming home. To the horror of those who watched, some would limp in, almost hedge-hopping, their aircraft seriously damaged; men and machine bleeding. Then, sometimes, they would crash and burn on landing. There was nothing anyone could do.

Occasionally they would land without their wheels down, do a belly flop and start breaking up as they slewed along the runway in a shower of sparks and screaming metal. The fire engines and the rescue teams would chase them and when they eventually stopped if the crew appeared in the doorways or clambered out of holes in the fuselage and waved, the watchers would cheer.

Lachlan shared with his commander the task of writing to the next of kin of every airman in their squadron who was declared missing presumed dead. The task was too great for one man to sustain.

There was hardly a sortie that went by without the two of them putting pen to paper. Not like the telegrams sent by the War Office, no two letters were the same – that was the least they could do for their dead comrades and their loved ones who would never see them again.

Lachlan tried to be philosophical as he supervised the packing and dispatch of their belongings. One day he kept saying to himself – one day it will end. But it didn’t; it went on and on.

The worst part was the photographs; carefully packing photographs into an envelope with some stiff cardboard to stop them being damaged on their way to the four corners of the world.

Photographs of strange places. Photographs of mothers and fathers. Photographs that looked as if they had been taken on holidays somewhere – somewhere where people had been happy before the war. Photographs of pretty girls in swimsuits looking straight at the camera; sometimes laughing, sometimes looking shy, but always looking straight at the camera.

The eyes of all the girls in the photographs said, “Come home, I’m here, come home to me.”

In the mothers’ eyes Lachlan often saw fear. Eyes that held a fear that only the camera could see; was that what it was? Did the camera never, ever, lie? It was the innocence in the eyes of the girls and the fear in the eyes of the mothers, which had haunted him for more than sixty years. It all came back to him as he struck another match and put it to his pipe.

In those dark days Lachlan kept to himself his horror at the ruthless violence that man could inflict on man and the part he played in it day after day. He had seen the effect of the German bombing on Britain. He had seen, read and been told about the men, women and children who had died.

On a raid over Germany, when the order was given ‘bombs away’, relieved of its load their Lancaster would heave a sigh of relief. Then they would bank into a turn and climb and climb, seeking altitude, away from the searchlights and above the range of the anti-aircraft guns and head for home. All the time watching for enemy fighter planes hunting in the night sky.

The disease of depression wasn’t known as depression in those days of war. It was called battle fatigue, melancholia, or shell shock, named after the men who became almost vegetables after being blasted day and night in the trenches of the Great War.

If battle fatigue happened in Lachlan’s war the airman was given a few pills and ‘excused duties’ for a few days. It was easy to be melancholy the doctors told them. When they weren’t flying they were advised to have a good night out and to get plenty of sleep.

The time for sleeping for the night raiders was daytime. The routine was de-brief, breakfast and bed. For Lachlan before he could sleep, there were letters to write. Then when he tried to sleep the images of pretty girls and mothers crying denied him the rest he so desperately needed.

Just as he was about to admit to a doctor and to himself that he needed a rest, the horror stopped. After sixty sorties and a medal, he and his crew, who had come through hell with no more than scratches, a few holes in the airframe and a few burns, were taken off operational flying.

For some it was a desk job and a period of well-earned rest. For others it was training new flight crews and a rest, for a while, from night flying over Germany.

Lachlan’s crew had a party before they went their separate ways. Each and every one hugged Lachlan as a brother. He was their hero; they all believed that it was his skill, which had brought them through the valley of death, to the safety on the other side. Lachlan knew it was nothing but luck. They had been some of the lucky few out of the forty thousand or so who’d died.

After the party Lachlan returned to his quarters. For the first time in months he didn’t have any letters to write or the belongings of dead airmen to pack. Fully clothed and quite drunk, he lay on his bed and fell asleep.

They tried to wake him the next morning and failed. His batman, Bert, became worried and called the Medical Officer. An old RAF doctor attended Lachlan and diagnosed him as being seriously, acutely and totally, knackered; from which, in time, he would recover. They covered him with another blanket and let him sleep.

Lachlan was given a train ticket to the north of England to join a new squadron flying the twin engine De Havilland Mosquito, arguably the fastest aircraft in the war. He was given two weeks’ leave before he had to join his new Squadron and decided that he was too tired to go London where everyone seemed to go, so he booked into a pub just a few miles from where his new Squadron was based.

He walked the Lancashire lanes and watched the Mosquitos he was soon to fly as they passed low overhead. It was common knowledge the Mosquito could fly higher and faster than any other plane in the war. They were equipped with new improved, secret radar, which, week by week, was being further improved. There was optimism in the air.

There had been stories in the papers that Mosquito squadrons were probing deep into enemy territory flying too high and too fast to be caught. Lachlan also knew with their new radar, they could see where they were and who was chasing them.

One night in the pub, quite by accident, he discovered that one of the pilots from his previous squadron, who had been badly burned in a crash landing, was recovering in a nearby hospital. It was there he had first seen Isobel.

Whenever he thought about it, as he did briefly now, he knew that for him it had been love at first sight. Was he influenced by battle fatigue, loneliness, fear? He didn’t know and couldn’t recall. All he could remember was once he had seen her, the image of Isobel had filled his waking hours and at night had chased away the horrors of war and given him pleasant dreams.

Lachlan soon found out when visiting his wounded friend that it was common knowledge the fair Isobel was unavailable. When asked by her young and wounded patients if she had a boyfriend she just smiled. If anyone asked her out, she told them they should get some sleep instead of wasting time on her.

When they stole flowers for her out of the hospital garden, as many of them did, she scolded them and then found a vase and arranged the flowers in a prominent place in the ward.

She was the mother to her wounded children. They were just boys and she was a woman. She comforted them, laughed at their attempts at humour and their incessant practical jokes. To the severely injured and to those who somehow knew or thought they knew they were dying, she was always there at their bedside. Patients and nurses alike admired her generosity of spirit, patience and stamina.

They all commented she gave the hopeless strength. She defied the odds and the doctors for her children. She never gave up and many, many times her defiance and her strength won through. When she lost the battle they would see her walk away with dry eyes; only to be there again at the start of her next shift, smiling, caring, tending, never to mention the previous day or the man who had died. They knew she attended every funeral and had never been seen to cry.

What made it more frustrating for all the patients was the information from the other nurses that as far as they knew Isobel didn’t have a man in her life.

Isobel was a paradox.

Everyone agreed, Isobel was beautiful. The starched white and grey uniform added to the mystery and allure. At night in her red cape she seemed to float from bed to bed. She spoke and behaved like a lady and by her demeanour made it quite clear to all and sundry, other ranks and officers that her contact with them would remain as their nurse, their carer, and would go no further.

Her nurse’s uniform couldn’t hide her figure. There was always discussion after she had swept through a ward as to whether she tried to camouflage her figure behind the starched uniform or whether she deliberately set about increasing the mystery with a hint of perfume; or was it the sheer black stockings she always wore?

Tall and athletic, Isobel moved with an easy grace. Her neck was long and slim, accentuated by her blonde hair piled on top of her head and kept in place, somehow, by her starched nurse’s cap. Her eyes were blue and bright, set in what many called a perfect English face. Her complexion smooth and pale and her lips always had just a hint of lipstick.

Even in the middle of winter her hands were always warm. She would help other nurses with the incapacitated, moving them, massaging those parts of their bodies that had gone numb from too long in one position. Isobel had the ability to remove any embarrassment from those who needed help with bedpans and bottles. She also knew those who were quite capable and were feigning incapacity in the hope that she would tend them, so they could brag. She was up to all the tricks of wards full of wounded, young, virile warriors. Young men who had looked at death, and stared it down.

Nurse Isobel became known to all and sundry as Lady Isobel.

In a hospital full of young men it was inevitable Lady Isobel would become a challenge. One of the wounded airmen, a cheeky cockney gunner who’d lost an arm, started a book on who would be the first to take Isobel out.

If Lady Isobel knew wagers were being placed, she showed no sign of it. It was evident to all that Lachlan was smitten by her, so he was started at twenty to one for a date and a hundred to one if he got her to bed. The bookie gladly took the ten pounds Lachlan confidently wagered. The bookie bragged it was easy money.

Lachlan found it was not difficult to engage Isobel in conversation when he visited his wounded friend. After a couple of visits she enquired when he would next visit and how long his leave was for. Her questions encouraged him.

She accepted his first offer of a Saturday night out at the cinema.

On the Monday morning Lachlan refused his winnings, much to the relief of the would-be one-armed cockney bookie.

From that first night out, life for Lachlan became a whirlwind. Isobel took control. He was invited to meet her parents for a weekend in Dorset. They travelled in her MG, which she drove at a furious pace and insisted that he drove it on the return journey. He didn’t ask how she got the petrol coupons for the journey.

It didn’t seem to matter to anyone, even her parents, that Lachlan was a few years younger than Isobel, even though at first he thought it a bit strange.

Her father had a military bearing and worked in London. He didn’t tell Lachlan what he did and Lachlan had learned in those times of war, not to ask. Her parents’ house was big and they employed a housekeeper and a gardener. Some of what must have been beautiful gardens before the war remained untouched; the rest had been dug up and turned over to growing food.

To Lachlan, Isobel’s mother was the epitome of an upper class English ‘county’ lady. Tall, slim, hair turning grey and always piled on top of her head, very little if any makeup. In many ways Lachlan thought when he first met her, she was an older version of Isobel and just as beautiful. His first impressions were of austerity, of a deep seriousness, yet when he got to know her, she was the complete opposite. She was warm and caring and always working and organising something in their Parish. She was determined, he found, to lead by example.

It was she who decided to dig up part of their magnificent garden and turn it over to food production. It was her job, she insisted, to distribute the surplus food from their garden to the aged, the needy in the village and to the village school, to supplement the government rations for school dinners.

She fenced off their orchard and had a big hen house built and filled it with hens, so there was never any shortage of eggs for their own use and to give away. Nothing went to waste; every scrap of food, lawn clippings, waste from the kitchen garden finished up feeding the hens.

To Lachlan, who knew little of English country life, Isobel’s mother in his eyes was the Country Squire’s wife, tending to, helping and leading her community in a time of war.

Lachlan quickly learned that both of Isobel’s parents had a detailed knowledge of what Bomber Command had been doing and when he told them that he was moving on to a Mosquito Squadron, Isobel’s mother gave him a new, heavy pullover. She told him she had spun the yarn from the raw wool and then knitted it herself. She told him it would keep him warm at high altitude; later he found that it did and he wore it on every sortie.

Lachlan was much bigger than Isobel’s father so he knew the pullover hadn’t been made for him. He wondered for whom it had been made. It wasn’t until after the war that Lachlan learned Isobel’s mother had knitted the pullover for her brother, the captain of a merchant ship on a North Atlantic convoy, which had been lost with all hands, just a few months before she’d given the pullover to Lachlan.

Because Isobel was Catholic, and Lachlan, Anglican, they were married in a Registry Office and received the blessing of the priest at the local Catholic church, situated close to Isobel’s home. To Lachlan’s surprise many of his RAF friends attended and gave the newly married couple a Guard of Honour outside the church. The reception was at Isobel’s parents’ home and it appeared to Lachlan that most of the village attended. There was no shortage of food in spite of food rationing. The local community contributed whatever they could. The landlord of the local pub found some extra beer and Isobel’s father was generous with his cellar.

A friend lent them a cottage in North Wales for a week and then it was back to the war. Lachlan went back to his squadron and Isobel to another hospital close to Lachlan’s new base. He never asked how she managed to get a transfer.

Lachlan soon realised that being married to Isobel was going to be different to what he’d imagined married life would be. To start with Isobel didn’t do housework. Secondly, if she could avoid it, she didn’t cook. When she did cook, she demonstrated an ability to create dishes which defied the restrictions of food shortages and coupons. Lachlan never asked questions.

It came as no surprise when somehow Isobel achieved the impossible and found a small cottage close to his base. She then quickly arranged for a local lady to clean and cook for them. Lachlan was told when he asked, to never ask again about the housekeeper/cook’s wages. He never asked.

Lachlan learned to fly the Mosquito. His crew was another Australian, a man who’d been a stock man from Queensland before the war.

His name was Jim Watson, Flight Sergeant Jim Watson, known to all as ‘Ginger’ because of his red hair and beard. He was small and immensely strong. Single and on holiday in England at the outbreak of war, he’d just walked into a recruiting office and signed up for the RAF.

Off duty, Ginger was a drinker and a fighter, in that order. A seasoned campaigner, a veteran of Bomber Command, Ginger should have been promoted to at least the rank of Warrant Officer. His recreational pursuits denied him promotion time and time again.

The first time Ginger met Isobel she took him to one side and lectured him, told him off. Told him he should be an example to the young men who knew nothing of war. Told him it was about time he grew up. From that day he changed; he moderated his drinking and stopped fighting. When the war ended Ginger returned to Australia as Warrant Officer First Class, Jim Watson, DFC.

Ginger Watson and Lachlan made the perfect crew. They were the first choice to lead raids far into Germany. The aerial photography they took always showed they had achieved their objective – hit their targets. It was flying Mosquitos far into Germany where Ginger had earned his DFC and Lachlan the Bar to go with his. They did thirty sorties together.

After the war Lachlan stayed on with the RAF test flying new variations of the Mosquito, flying ever higher, ever faster, while toying with offers of a career in the RAF. The incentive being the next generation of planes were to be powered by jet engines. The thought of having learned to fly in a Tiger Moth, and perhaps being able to fly faster than the speed of sound, excited him.

One day, Isobel told him she would like him to consider stopping flying; he had done more than his share. At the same time she got him talking about his home, Bangalore, and life in Australia.

Slowly at first, the memories of Bangalore became clearer and memories of the war seeped away. One hot summer day in July lying on his back gazing at the sky he asked Isobel if she would like to go to Australia. Her reply, an enthusiastic yes, stopped him from adding they could return to England if she didn’t like it.

The next day his commanding officer informed him that His Majesty the King had awarded him a Bar to his DFC. No one except Lachlan was surprised. When he and Isobel travelled to London to meet her parents before going to Buckingham Palace to receive the Bar to his medal, somehow he wasn’t surprised to see Isobel’s father in the uniform of the Green Howards and with the rank of Brigadier. He had never seen him in uniform during the war.

That night they dined at the Savoy and slept in the Dorchester. Lachlan was the guest of honour at a dinner organised by Isobel’s parents, Brigadier, Sir James Knox-Drummond MC DSO and Mrs Julia Knox-Drummond OBE. To Lachlan it seemed like every member of the RAF Command were there as well as a number of politicians, including Lord Beaverbrook, the man who’d transformed the British aircraft industry to ensure more and more new planes kept rolling off the assembly lines to replace the dreadful losses suffered over Germany. Isobel’s parents were well connected.

At the reception before the dinner Lachlan watched Isobel as she easily and confidently worked her way round the guests. She spoke to everyone and lingered with and obviously charmed every man in uniform from an Air Marshall to Warrant Officer ‘Ginger’ Watson. As he watched Lachlan wondered how she would manage on Bangalore, an isolated sheep station in outback Australia hundreds of miles from the ‘society’ in Perth.

Within weeks they were on a Cunard Liner to Australia. Lachlan was going home and Isobel to a new life.

Isobel settled easily into Bangalore life. Lachlan’s parents loved her. Her natural aversion to housework was accepted as being perfectly normal. There were staff at Bangalore to attend to Isobel’s every need. She showed she could communicate with the Aboriginal women and men, seemingly without effort. They, in turn, would do anything for her.

So that was how it had been all of their married life, for over sixty years. He had never seen Isobel with so much as a duster in her hand.

They now had a lady come in twice a week and the house in Dalkeith was spotless. The same lady also took their laundry away on a Monday and brought it back on a Thursday. She didn’t need instructions – that was how Isobel expected it to be. If there was a special occasion like an afternoon tea in the well-manicured gardens she would meet with the housekeeper, tell her what she wanted to be arranged and give her handwritten instructions to ensure nothing was forgotten.

If they were away the housekeeper had her own keys to the house. So when they returned it was always as if they had never been away. The current housekeeper had been with them for about ten years and had succeeded the lady before her who had lasted more than fifteen; only her age had caused her to retire.

Lachlan tended the garden himself and took a pride in the well-manicured lawns and rose-beds at the front of the house.

The garden at the rear was what Isobel called an English cottage garden. Originally this garden, it was agreed, was to be hers and hers alone to tend. It was also agreed that it would be a mixture of flowers, fruit trees and vegetables in season. The agreement was that Lachlan would help with the heavy work, like digging and pruning the big established fruit trees. The rest was to be Isobel’s and Isobel’s alone. That was the agreement. He had the front garden and she had the back.

Lachlan was never quite sure when it happened, when reality became different from the agreement, but it was a long time ago.

By now Isobel’s strident voice was just a noise in the distance as Lachlan was through the house and standing on the back veranda. As he filled his pipe he decided it must have been about twenty-five years ago when Isobel started asking for help in ‘her’ garden as she had meetings to attend to at the Red Cross or the Children’s Hospital, her two main voluntary pursuits.

Whatever the reason, as Isobel became increasingly busy with ‘good works’; progressively, increasingly, Lachlan found he became responsible for the entire garden and what was worse, he was master of only his half. He had to be careful not to be available when he was sure Isobel was ready to give him his morning orders on what should be done in ‘her’ English country garden. He reflected about it again this morning as he did most mornings; he had become her gardener.

Not that he cared too much, because it kept him outside and out of sight and trouble. He talked more to their cleaning lady than he did to Isobel. Her name was Victoria Angeles, and she was originally from the Philippines. Years ago, mostly when Isobel was away, she had started taking him a cup of tea as he worked in the garden or around the house. Then he had invited her to bring one out for herself and now they often sat in the shade and talked and drank tea. She sometimes helped with a bit of weeding without being asked.

As he sucked on his pipe and noticed aphids on some roses and made a mental note to spray them before he left for Bangalore, he thought about Angus – how old is he now? Just over fifty? Why hadn’t he been more assertive in those terrible months following the birth of his son?

Isobel, much to everyone’s relief, had an easy pregnancy with Angus. She’d suffered several miscarriages over the years, yet showed a determination to keep on trying insisting Lachlan must have a son.

Isobel and Lachlan’s mother decided that at month six of her pregnancy, Isobel would move to Perth into the family apartment in the exclusive Sherwood Court, in the centre of Perth. There she could get the best medical attention available. An agency provided Isobel with a live-in house companion-nurse and a daily housekeeper-cook. Isobel blossomed during the later stages of her pregnancy and told everyone she intended providing Lachlan with at least two and maybe more children.

This made Lachlan as happy as he had ever been. He was running Bangalore under the watchful eye of his father, as his father settled into trying to write the family history and catalogue the boxes of diaries and photographs.

Lachlan’s mother was up and down to Perth as she had been all of Lachlan’s life. She preferred to travel by car and Ben, a decendent of one of the original Afghan families who had pioneered Bangalore with Lachlan’s grandfather, was her chauffeur.

She had her Land Rover station wagon specially fitted out with a more comfortable seat on the passenger side; it was known to everyone who used the road between the Gascoyne and Perth.

It always seemed to Lachlan that his mother and Isobel were great friends. His mother had willingly, but slowly, stepped aside and let Isobel run the homestead at Bangalore. When Isobel became pregnant his mother took over again. When his mother went to Perth on one of her many trips there was no interruption to the daily routine of the house as Mary, another lady of Afghan descent, trained from childhood by Lachlan’s mother, took over the running of the household.

Lachlan’s mother had a golden rule; under no circumstances was the routine of the homestead to be interrupted. If it was, then the lives of the men who ran the station, her husband and her son, would also be affected and that would be to the detriment of the business.

Mary was assisted by her daughter, Alice, who’d recently returned to Bangalore after finishing her schooling in Perth and while she was trying to decide whether to go on to university. Alice was special. She was not only the daughter of one of the Afghan families who’d pioneered Bangalore with the Sinclair family and the daughter of Mary, she was the first non-Sinclair child to be educated away from Bangalore.

As her teacher, Lachlan’s mother had soon realised Alice was an exceptional child. She quickly learned to read and write. Children’s books quickly bored her and years before her age she was reading Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Lachlan’s mother sent to Perth for books to satisfy the child’s appetite for reading. A teacher at St Hilda’s in Perth advised on a mathematics curriculum. As soon as she was old enough the decision was made to send Alice to school in Perth. Not to a private school but to a state school, where accommodation was provided in a school hostel. Bangalore paid for everything.

Alice didn’t let her benefactors down. In year nine, Alice won a scholarship to St Hilda’s, one of the best and most expensive private schools in Perth. Again Bangalore paid for everything.

Alice rewarded Lachlan’s parents and those who had provided the scholarship by easily achieving sufficient marks to go on to university to study any subject which took her fancy. All doors were open to her for a career of her choosing.

The thought of another five years or more away from Bangalore and in Perth troubled Alice. She missed her family. She’d been born on Bangalore and knew every inch of the one million acres.

In the back of her young mind, she was just eighteen, she felt that she’d repaid Lachlan’s mother and Bangalore for the faith they had had in her – now she wanted a little time to herself. It worried her that Lachlan’s mother might think she was ungrateful. She summoned up the courage and talked to ‘Mrs Sinclair’ about her dilemma and was overjoyed when told the decision was hers and hers alone. She had twelve months to make up her mind. If, after say twelve months, she wanted to go to university, Bangalore would support her.

Like her father, Alice was tall and slim, almost thin. She was nearly a hundred and eighty centimetres tall and obviously part Indian. Her skin was a creamy colour when she returned from school; it darkened when she worked outside. Her hair was long and as black as jet and mostly worn in one long pigtail. Her eyes were a startling amethyst blue.

Like all of the children on Bangalore she was an accomplished horsewoman. There wasn’t a horse on the station that she couldn’t or wouldn’t ride.

The first time Lachlan met Alice was a few weeks after she’d returned from school. It was early one morning; he was out exercising a stallion he fancied in the upcoming Meekatharra Races. He’d given Bangalore Raj a good gallop over a couple of miles and had turned for home at an easy walk to let the big black horse cool down.

He stopped at the billabong that was the station swimming pool to give the Raj a drink. The horse willingly walked into the water until it was just below the saddle girth. As the horse drank Lachlan leaned down from the saddle to scoop some water into his hat to first have a drink himself and then put the wet hat on his hot head. Horse and man relaxed.

Just as Lachlan was at full stretch with one foot out of the far stirrup and with all of his weight on the other he felt the stallion’s back tighten and then the big horse snorted and shied violently. There was nothing Lachlan could do except fall off into the shallow water and do his best to keep hold of the reins. Now sitting in the shallow water Lachlan held on to the reins as the stallion snorted again and threw his head back pulling Lachlan to his feet.

Before Raj had the chance to really get upset and shy again, Alice was at his head, standing in the water with a firm grip on the bridle and the bit. The reins of her own small chestnut stock horse, over her shoulder.

“Are you all right, Lachlan?” came the question over the shoulder of the girl as she stroked the stallion. “It was my fault. I was just about to call out when I saw you lean down from the saddle, so I decided to keep quiet. Then old Raj here, heard us.” Lachlan was surprised. Alice’s voice was a quiet and cultured, a Perth river suburbs accent, usually jealously guarded by the wealthy and privileged. Not the voice of a ‘coloured girl’ from the bush.

It took Lachlan a second or two and then he recognised her. The tall tomboy, who his father had said should have been a boy, was now a tall and quite stunning young lady blossoming into adulthood. For a moment Lachlan was speechless. Apart from his wife and his mother, beautiful women with a cultured accent were a rarity at Bangalore. “It’s Alice, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry, Alice, I didn’t recognise you.” She just looked at him with neither surprise nor embarrassment. Not knowing what to say next and for a reason that he couldn’t explain to himself later, he self-consciously said, “Did Raj fancy your horse?”

She laughed at him. “Not unless there’s something wrong with your prize stallion, Lachlan. Breeze here, is a gelding.”

Lachlan realised that the joke was on him and that it would soon be all around the station. Alice held the bridle of Raj as Lachlan climbed back into the saddle and with a nod from him, Alice let go the reins. Raj snorted a couple of times and settled.

Lachlan watched Alice as she walked her horse out of the water and easily vaulted into her saddle. They rode the half-hour or so back to Bangalore together.

Alice answered all his questions about school and went quiet when he mentioned university. She surprised him when she said that Bangalore was in her blood, that Bangalore was her lifeblood; she had come back to have her blood revitalised after years in Perth. She wanted to give it time to happen. There was no anger or regret in her voice; in a strange way she had expressed a confidence it would happen – given time. He knew what she meant.

It had taken World War Two and a new wife to make him realise the same thing. He asked her if it was working; was she feeling better? She disarmed him again with a smile and looked right into his eyes as she replied, “It’s getting better, Lachlan, being out here riding; riding with you and talking – it all helps.”

As he washed Raj down he thought about Alice. What a charming girl, not beautiful in the accepted way – yet, he mused, a beautiful girl in her way. She rode easily. She talked with confidence and looked at him as she spoke.

A few days later they met again when she rode up and gave him a hand moving a big mob of sheep. She’d noticed he was struggling on his own with dogs which were tiring trying to keep a mob of young wethers together. Without speaking she helped get them onto water in the mid-day sun. He didn’t ask what she was doing a good three hours’ ride away from Bangalore.

When the sheep settled in the shade he lit a small fire and boiled the billy to make tea. He offered to share the bread and mutton that he carried in his saddlebag for his lunch; she said she had her own. Without asking, she took the saddles off both horses and walked them to the water trough. As they drank she used her own quart pot to pour water over their backs where the saddles had been. Then she hobbled them close to a bit of sparse grass.

Alice walked back to the fire where Lachlan was brewing the tea. He handed her a mug without speaking and she took it from him and smiled, her eyes saying thank you. For the next hour they didn’t speak. Lachlan thought later there was no need. Talking would have been superfluous. It entered his mind and stayed there for a while when he realised speaking might have spoilt the moment.

With his head on his saddle Lachlan stretched out to rest. He cheated and kept his eyes open sufficiently to watch Alice. She moved around the fire and poured water on it to make sure it was out. Still with an easy grace, she too stretched out with her head on her saddle, pulling her felt hat over her eyes to keep the flies away. So she wasn’t watching him, he thought. So he slowly moved his arm and pushed his hat down over his eyes so he could no longer see her. In the dark he wondered why he had been watching this somewhat strange and quiet, self-confident girl.

In the heat Lachlan dozed off. He was woken by Alice leaning over him saying, “Time to go, Lachlan. Where are you taking this mob – down to One Tree water?”

She’d caught and taken the hobbles off both horses and she stood looking down on him while holding the reins of both horses. “Yes, how long was I asleep?”

“About an hour. You were breathing so deeply I didn’t want to wake you.” She was laughing at him, her startling blue eyes dancing.

Slightly embarrassed he got up and they saddled their horses. Without asking she took one of his dogs and started gathering the now-wandering wethers back into a mob. Within the hour they had them on the water at One Tree. They stayed with the young wethers for half an hour and then Alice said to him, “These young blokes should be all right now we’ve shown them two good watering places.” Lachlan nodded. Alice smiled.

On the ride back to Bangalore they talked. He asked her about school and she always, cleverly, turned the conversation back to Bangalore. She asked him about the war. He hadn’t talked about the war to anyone in Australia, not even to his father. He and Isobel never discussed it. He still had bad dreams about flying at night over Germany, dodging searchlights and dropping bombs weighing over half a ton on an already burning Germany. He had never thought about it at the time but now he dreamed about the women and children who were the innocents, killed in that hell-fire holocaust created by their incessant day and night bombing.

Alice asked him about the war and he told her. He didn’t know why, but he told her. She didn’t have to prompt him with further questions; he just talked. It was after dark when they got back to Bangalore. She insisted that she take both horses to wash down and feed. When he protested she looked at him with those blue eyes in the dusk and said, “Go to your wife, Lachlan. You have a son on the way and she will be away to Perth soon. Make the most of the time.” Then with a laugh she said, “I’ll do the job better than you anyway.”

Lachlan readily agreed. He and Isobel had waited a long time for a child – nearly ten years of trying and being disappointed. Isobel had several miscarriages and with each event her enthusiasm for trying seemed to wane a little. To compensate, Lachlan had reasoned, she spent more time in Perth with Lachlan’s mother, getting deeply involved in both the Red Cross and the cultural life of the city.

Lachlan didn’t really miss her when she was away and he didn’t know why. Perhaps he was so used to his mother being away from Bangalore that it didn’t seem unusual when his own wife did the same thing. He and his father got on well enough. His father being absorbed in cataloguing the family records meant Lachlan had an almost free rein with the running of Bangalore.

When Isobel moved to Perth in preparation for the birth of their child, his mother had taken her down in her new car complete with driver. Lachlan’s father didn’t seem to notice they’d gone. He emerged from his study for meals and then disappeared again only to re-emerge at dinnertime, have dinner, get a little drunk and stagger off to bed by nine o’clock.

With Lachlan’s mother and Isobel away, Mary ran the house. Alice was there when she was needed, mostly helping with the heavier work.

Lachlan saw her doing the laundry on a Monday and the baking on a Tuesday morning. He heard she’d decided to run the school for the Aboriginal children until they could find another teacher or his mother took over again. He told her to order whatever she wanted; all she had to do was send a message by radio to his mother and she would arrange whatever she wanted. He bought the ‘school’ their own radio so they could use the School of the Air. Lachlan was pleased the station children would have a teacher again. He wanted his stockmen of the future to be able to read and write.

Whatever free time Alice had, she would be with the horses. The station hands trusted her. If there was a horse that needed more work or had got into bad habits, they gave it to Alice.

Lachlan watched her one day in the yard with a rogue horse called Tinker. Tinker, the stockmen said, had realised that if she couldn’t be caught she didn’t work. If she was caught all she had to do was misbehave and she would be ignored for the next day’s work. But, the stockmen told Alice, Tinker was a good young horse once, but had been mistreated in one of the out camps by a stockman who was no longer with them.

Lachlan watched. There was just Alice and the horse in the round yard. Every time Alice moved, the horse took off round the yard. Alice got a stool from the saddle room and sat in the middle of the small round yard with a billycan of oats and waited.

Tinker snorted and ran around the yard. Lachlan watched for a while and made up his mind that Alice had met her match and left her to it.

That evening he met Alice riding Tinker back to the horse yards.

“Done the job, Alice?”

“Think so, Lachlan, want to see?”

She opened the gate to the yard, took the saddle and bridle off the horse and let it go. She closed the gate and carried her saddle and bridle into the saddle room, took a halter and a short stock whip off a peg on the wall and walked back out and into the yard. Tinker snorted. Alice cracked the whip once and then hung it over her shoulder. She then said, “Stand up”. Tinker stood still, she was nervous, but she stood. Alice walked over to her and slipped the halter over her head and led her back to Lachlan. “There you go, Lachlan, another few days and anyone will be able to do that with her. You should teach those boys in that stock camp, teach them to stop chasing horses round every morning. Some of their horses run off even with the hobbles on. I saw one double hobbled the other day, poor thing.”

When Lachlan announced he was going to Perth for the birth of his child, Alice laid out his clothes on his bed and asked him if he could pack them himself. When he shrugged, she packed them.

Two months after the birth, Lachlan returned to Perth for Isobel and the baby they had christened ‘Angus’. Isobel soon stopped breastfeeding and without being asked or told, Alice took on the duties of bottle-feeding and taking care of the baby.

Isobel watched Alice and gave her instructions on how she wanted her son to be fed, nursed, cared for and clothed. When she felt that Alice was sufficiently skilled to carry out her every wish, she left her son to his new nurse.

One day Lachlan asked Alice if she’d forgotten about university and all she did was smile and look at the baby, Angus. Alice was nineteen.

Lachlan didn’t wholly approve the arrangement of Alice being nurse to Angus, but he knew he was in no position to argue. What developed was an almost Victorian routine for their life. He would go to work in the morning before Isobel was awake. Alice and the baby Angus were in a nursery room close by. He sometimes heard the baby cry during the night and if Isobel heard she didn’t move from their bed. He would hear Alice moving around and then his son would be quiet.

In the morning he would go to the nursery and see Angus and Alice. Alice never looked tired and she always smiled at Lachlan. They didn’t talk even if Angus was awake. In the evening after his work he would shower and change and then Alice would bring the baby to him and Isobel. After an hour or so Alice would reappear and take Angus away for his evening feed, bath and bed.

Before their marriage Isobel had been a hungry lover. She told Lachlan often that she loved their time in bed. She could embarrass him with a hungry look over the dining table. Years later he realised he had been the pupil and Isobel the teacher.

Isobel was also an experienced horsewoman. Lachlan soon learned after settling into Bangalore that Isobel enjoyed a ride early in the morning and all the better if she could get Lachlan to ride with her. She would then find some secluded spot and trap him, demanding he take his conjugal rights there and then. To start with, her appetite for practically violent intercourse had surprised him, but quickly he learned that there were many moods to his new bride and some of them were very enjoyable.

When Isobel became pregnant and didn’t miscarry Lachlan experienced Isobel’s slow and progressive disinterest in their sex life and in him. From nowhere he got the impression that his job was done; he had sired a child, hopefully an heir. He tried to ignore what appeared to be such a stupid perception, yet it persisted and nagged at him.

When Isobel returned to Bangalore with Angus it was quite obvious to Lachlan she had changed. He had heard about women being ‘different’ to their men after the birth of a child. Not really understanding why, he just waited for life to return to normal.

It was around the time Isobel left Bangalore for the birth of their child that Lachlan started to experience increasing moods, periods of a black hopelessness. He didn’t know what caused them. At first he had thought it was Isobel’s disinterest in him before she had left for Perth. But it wasn’t that. He didn’t know what caused them.

The feelings of hopelessness frightened him as, over time, their intensity increased. They could start at any time, even when he had every reason to be happy and content. Lachlan was confused about his black moods. There was nothing in his life to worry about. His family was rich. They could ride out any period of drought or poor wool prices without making too many adjustments. He had a good marriage as far as he knew, a wife who would be herself once again after their child, a son he hoped, was born. This pregnancy, this time, she had the best of medical attention in the country.

Each time over the years when Isobel had miscarried he had tried to be a pillar of strength and support for her. Then, as she returned to normal, happy and it seemed content, his black moods returned.

His problem was inexperience about the cause of his condition. He became anxious that his black moods, his feelings of hopelessness, might have something to do with the miscarriages. Could they? Who could he ask?

Because of the nightmares, the awful nightmares, which could happen night after night, he worried that the war had damaged him in his head. He started to think about madness. Was he going mad? Was he irreparably damaged? He didn’t re-live the raids or anything like that – there were just images, terrible images of war, which had never happened, filling his nights with horror. Could that affect the unborn? He didn’t know who to talk to.

He tried to hide his increasing fear and anxiousness from everybody. He became short tempered and his family, the stockmen around the station and their wives all put it down to him worrying about Isobel and their history of trying for a child for so long, only to be disappointed so often.

One day Lachlan was working in the shearing shed and he heard a shuffling behind him. When he turned he found one of the oldest Aboriginal women on the station, Maisie, standing looking at him. Maisie was an Elder of the community and respected by all. Many believed she had magical qualities. Her word was certainly the law among them. Not even the men challenged her. Lachlan had known her since he was a little boy. “Morning Maisie.”

“Mornin’ Lachlan. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Maisie. How are you?”

She grinned, “I’m okay, gettin’ old though, old bones creaking a bit. Can I talk to you, Lachlan?”

“You know you can, Maisie. What’s on your mind?”

“You, Lachlan. You on my mind. I known you since you were a little boy. I seen you go away to school and then to war. I seen you come back with Mrs Lachlan and I seen you and her try to have children. I’ve seen the many times you have failed and lost the baby. I now see you are worried about this baby that is coming. That worry is making you ill. Just want to tell you this time it will be okay. It will be a boy. You shouldn’t worry. It will all be fine.”

“Are you sure, Maisie?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Never been wrong yet.” She gave him an almost toothless grin.

“Thanks, Maisie.”

Maisie turned to shuffle away and after a few steps stopped and turned back and faced Lachlan. “One more thing, Lachlan, those bad dreams you havin’, I can see them. They will go away, but not completely. Find someone to talk to. Not family though. You’ll find someone around here who will understand.”

Lachlan was shocked at the old woman’s words. “You’re a wise old lady, Maisie. How did you know?”

“How does anyone know anything? I just know. It comes to me. Bad spirits can make anyone ill. I can see them, I will help, but you got to remember they will always be around you. You got to learn to push them away. Talk is the best.”

“Who should I talk to?”

“I think I know, but I can’t tell you.”

This time she did shuffle away. Lachlan didn’t doubt the wisdom of the old woman. Some said her daughter Rosie was going to be the same. There were too many stories about her strange powers to take her words lightly. Yet all she left him with was the comfort he would have a son and she, of all people, knew of his nightmares and somewhere, somewhere, there was someone he should talk to.

Unlike his father after the First World War, Lachlan didn’t take to drink. He liked whisky and red wine but never got drunk. One night his father and he were dining alone. His father was a little drunk. They were quietly eating and watching the lightning dance across the western sky. Lachlan was lost in his thoughts when an almighty clap of thunder shook the house. Lachlan started trembling and then the trembling turned into a bout of uncontrolled shaking, which wracked his whole body. His pulse was racing and his head hurt. He was frightened.

His father looked up at his son and in a demonstration of affection that Lachlan had never known before, his father quickly moved round the table and held Lachlan’s head and stroked his hair. “It’s all right Lachlan – it’s the bloody war, son. It happens to us all eventually. I’ve watched you these last few months as the demons have got to you. They will go away and they will come back, mine do. All you can do is have courage and accept that this is the price of going to war; this is the price the young pay for the rest of their lives, for going to or being sent to war. It has always been so and will always be so.

“The only thing that helps me is to talk about it. I talk, she understands. Try talking to Isobel; she’s a nurse; she should know what to do. Just promise me one thing.”

The shaking had stopped. It had only lasted a minute or two. “What’s that?”

“Stay away from psychiatrists and anyone else who wants to give you pills or any other kind of treatment apart from talking. I’ve seen good men turned crazy by experiments, electric shocks into their brains, pills that have different effects on different people. The treatment can be worse than the affliction. Nobody understands the brain, nobody understands people like us who have been to war and seen men die, seen our friends die. Eat with them one day and see them blown to smithereens the next.

“I am reading Jung and Freud, maybe they understand? Though what they believe would frighten your mother. When I’ve finished I’ll give them to you. They might help. Best help I get is talking to someone who understands.” Lachlan assumed it was his mother.

That night was never mentioned again. Lachlan had no idea who Freud and Jung were. He didn’t even know what his father knew about them. His father forgot to give him the books and Lachlan didn’t ask for them.

Lachlan tried to talk to Isobel. She was almost dismissive. Told him to go and see a specialist in Perth, someone who understood war trauma. He remembered his father’s advice and didn’t do anything.

When the black hopelessness became unbearable he started making up stories about some mill or fence in one of the far outreaches of the station, which needed attention, so he would be away for a day or two. Sometimes the excuse was that he had to visit one of their out camps and take stores to the stockmen and their families. Sometimes to catch up with the doggers, the men who spent all their life hunting, waging war against the wild dogs and dingoes, which attacked and killed their sheep.

He’d purchased a couple of Land Rover Utes and he thought it would pass unnoticed when he loaded one up with swag, food and equipment. Once out on the station he would just drive. If the tears came, as they often did, there was nobody to see him. He would stop and camp at a water hole or a mill, light a fire, cook some food, drink a little, forget to eat and fall asleep.

When Angus was about eighteen months old nothing seemed to be going right for Lachlan. His once-hungry lover, Isobel, was showing no interest re-establishing their former glorious sex life. He had tried and been repulsed with every excuse from a headache to not being ready – just yet. Outwardly to anyone watching she was a normal, warm, loving wife. In the bedroom she was cold.

As a result, Lachlan spent more and more nights away camping somewhere on his own. To add to his worries it hadn’t rained for eighteen months. His father, seeing something was wrong but not asking what, had tried to take some of the pressure of the day-to-day tasks off Lachlan’s shoulders and it had only resulted in them having a few sharp words, which they both regretted as soon as they were uttered.

Lachlan didn’t know what to do. In less than two years, his ten years of happy and satisfying married life was a train wreck. There was no one in whom he could confide. He sometimes thought his father could see through the charade he and Isobel were living. If he did, he never mentioned it and Lachlan hadn’t got the words to confide in his own father. They didn’t have that kind of relationship.

Lachlan’s mother was always too busy either with her grandson, talking to Isobel about what was happening on the committees and boards that she was on in Perth, or travelling up and down to Perth. So long as the homestead at Bangalore was running like clockwork, she didn’t bother herself with anything else.

Alice continued to care for Angus. As he began to crawl and then walk, Lachlan would often see them playing around on the lawn being watched by Isobel sitting on the veranda in the shade. He couldn’t help but admire how such a young girl could be so maternal to his son. One time when Lachlan noticed Angus fall and graze his knee, he ran to Alice and not to Isobel.

It was Alice and not Isobel that had Angus on a Shetland pony almost before he could walk. Lachlan was grateful that Alice had decided to stay at Bangalore and not go to university. Had she gone to Perth he wondered what he would have done. What would Isobel have done? Trained one of the young Aboriginal girls? Maybe she would have hired a nanny from Perth?

Lachlan made sure that Alice was on the station payroll. He put her down as a governess and paid her what he was told was a governess’s wage. When he told her what he had done she had said thank you, and then added that she would have cared for the little man for nothing. Alice didn’t draw her wages, so they accumulated. Occasionally she would get new moleskin trousers or a shirt from the station store, but that was the limit of what she spent.

When his mother returned from Perth one time, she gave Alice a parcel from Boans and waved her away when Alice asked how much she owed her. Told her to go away and try it on and if it fitted to come and show her.

Half an hour later Lachlan was stunned when he saw the new Alice in a dress. So that was what was in the parcel from Boans. He was also a little disconcerted at the sight of this beautiful new Alice. He’d only ever seen her in moleskin trousers and working shirt.

The dress she now wore was dark blue and covered with bright red flowers in no uniform pattern; it was long, nearly reaching her ankles. The single pigtail had gone and her long hair had been arranged in chignon style, which accentuated her long slim neck. She wore no jewellery and no shoes.

Cinderella Alice. Alice the schoolgirl, as he always thought of her, was transformed into a young woman with looks that demanded attention. If Isobel noticed the transformation of Alice, she didn’t comment. His mother said, “My goodness, Alice, we will have all the Jackaroos in the Gascoyne around here if we are not careful.” Alice laughed and made a mock curtsy to his mother, who clapped in delight.

All his father could muster was an approving “Goodness me, Alice, how the years fly by. I remember you being born in the front bedroom in this house while a thunderstorm raged overhead as a cyclone headed this way. The reason your mother was here was because it was the only safe place. You look very nice Alice, and don’t forget to tell your mother I said so”. That was the most Lachlan had ever heard his father say to Alice.

“Lachlan,” said his mother, “do you like Alice’s new dress? I bought it at Boans.”

Lachlan hadn’t expected the question. He looked at Alice, who smiled at him, looking straight into his eyes, again. He was embarrassed and he never got embarrassed! He stumbled over his words. “I think it’s, err… charming, Mother. It makes her look very grown up.” As soon as he said ‘grown up’ he knew it sounded patronising and wished he could take his words back.

“She is grown up Lachlan,” replied his mother reproving him. “Some things you men don’t see. You just get so used to the women around here, I sometimes think you and your father wouldn’t notice anything until your food wasn’t on the table. You look lovely, Alice. Pay no attention to Lachlan; he’ll wake up one day.”

Lachlan looked at Isobel and saw she hadn’t raised her eyes from the book she was reading. His mother didn’t ask Isobel for an opinion and Isobel didn’t offer one. If she had heard Lachlan stumble over his words, she didn’t show it.

His mother finished the conversation by saying, “Well, if it is the correct size, Alice, I will tell my lady at Boans. Then you can send them an order any time you please for anything you need, and they will put it on my account. Anything, Alice, do you hear me? Anything else you need, Alice, you just send for it, understand?”

‘Yes, Mrs Sinclair. Thank you. Thank you very much.” She gave a little curtsy and Lachlan’s mother did something Lachlan would never see again. She got up from her chair, walked over to Alice and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She then held Alice at arm’s length and said, “No, thank you, Alice.” Isobel didn’t look up from her book.

A few weeks later, one evening, Alice found Lachlan in the stables. He was sitting on an old wooden stool with his head in his hands. He hadn’t made it to his Land Rover, which was already packed for another night away, somewhere. Alice startled him and when he looked up she could see he’d been crying. His embarrassment was extreme. He’d been caught; his secret was out.

Alice didn’t show any surprise. She moved quickly, gently pushing him back on the stool as he tried to rise. Then she knelt down in front of him and took hold of his hands in hers. Lachlan’s tears flowed again. She stayed there kneeling on the ground in front of him until the tears stopped. When he looked at her she was smiling. “Lachlan, I don’t know what’s going on in your mind. If you want to talk about it, I’m a good listener. The war, my mother says, changed your father. There were times when the only person your father would talk to was Mary, my mother. Nobody knows that, not even your mother. Your father still talks to Mary. Nobody will know if you talk to me. Nobody.”

All those memories of so long ago flooded through Lachlan’s head as he wandered round his garden, sipping at his tea and puffing at his pipe. He had gone back fifty years in a few minutes. He could remember the details as if they had happened yesterday.

He thought about the funerals he had been to recently. How long had he got left?

Lachlan was now sitting under a gum tree at the bottom of their garden, a gum tree, which Isobel hated because it kept on dropping branches on her garden – but Lachlan refused to do anything about it because it was the first tree he’d planted when he’d bought the house. Isobel didn’t know that he’d grown the tree from seed collected from a white-barked river gum in the garden at Bangalore. A tree that his father had planted when Lachlan had been born. So every time he sat under it, or even looked at it, he remembered Bangalore and in a strange way, his strange father. He sat under it now and planned his day.

Lachlan had a mobile phone. He hadn’t wanted it but Ewen had begged with him to have one; the boy that now lay wounded in Germany had bought it for him. Lachlan had relented on his concerns about the very notion of a mobile phone when Ewen had told him he wanted him to have it so that he could ring him whenever he wanted, so he now carried it everywhere.

Over several weekends he remembered, under this very tree, Ewen had taught him how to use it. It was the latest and the best phone money could buy. It had voice recognition so he didn’t have to fumble with the keys. It had a camera and to his amazement he had mastered the thing and he could take and transmit pictures to Ewen. Ewen had sent him pictures from Afghanistan and he had them stored away. Ewen had asked him for a picture of the yachts on the river at sunset. He had sent them to him.

The agreement was that he would tell no one that he had a phone even though Ewen had put into its memory all the important numbers that Lachlan could think of; it was to be their secret. He carried it in his pocket at all times. It was small and unobtrusive, so small that Lachlan marvelled that so much could be stored in such a small device. The ‘ring tone’ was turned off; if it jumped around in his pocket he knew that it could only be his grandson ringing him.

As he sat there looking at the phone, the simpleness of it, its size and symmetry, its power, power to talk to the world, all concentrated in something so small, he jumped a little as it started vibrating in his hand…only Ewen knew the number and he was in an induced coma in a military hospital in Germany.

Lachlan flipped the phone open and said, “Hello?”

“Who is speaking, please?” It was a voice Lachlan didn’t recognise, a woman’s voice.

“Lachlan Sinclair.”

“Are you Captain Sinclair’s father?”

“His grandfather; who are you, what are you doing on Ewen’s phone?”

“My name is Eugenie McMahon. I am a major in the United States Army and I am the team leader in our Intensive Care Unit taking care of your grandson. I’m a neurologist.”

“In Germany?”

“That’s right. I understand that his parents have been informed of his location; he is in our care. Are you Mr Sinclair Senior?”

“ Yes I am, Major. How is the boy?”

“He’s doing okay. We’ve started reducing his sedation. When he had a brief period of consciousness about ten minutes ago, the first thing he said was, “Ring Pops, tell him I’m okay.” I thought by Pops it would mean his father, so I rang. I suppose you must be in Australia, sir?”

“In Perth, Western Australia.”

“I was there just last year at your Royal Australian Navy facility on Garden Island. They have an advanced hyperbolic chamber and we were visiting your doctors there. We also went to one of your teaching hospitals in Sydney.”

“Is Ewen conscious now, Major?”

Lachlan’s heart had stopped thumping in his chest. He could listen to the voice of the army major. It was a cultured voice; from what he knew of Americans he would say from Boston or somewhere that way. It sounded young and friendly. “No, sir, he’s just drifted off, more from tiredness that the drugs; we only have him mildly sedated, but he’s covered in tubes and sensors measuring and monitoring everything that we can think of. I must say though, we were greatly relieved when he spoke when he woke up and remembered you. Frankly, we were very surprised because one of our concerns was that he might have suffered brain damage due to the injury trauma and the subsequent exposure when they were getting him out. But he’s doing fine, sir. His leg is OK. He might have a limp and he will need more surgery, which he can have in Australia. We will just keep him here until we can get him fit to fly home”

“I’m very glad you rang me, Major.”

“Would you like me to ring you again, sir, if I can get clearance to do so? I made this call on impulse.” She chuckled. “If I am asked why, then I shall say it was in the interests of the patient; no one will argue with that.”

“I am leaving shortly for an area that is not within mobile phone range, only satellite phone, so I will leave this phone with a friend. He will ring me if you ring. Leave a number with him that I can call if it is different from Ewen’s mobile. Percy Jones is my friend’s name. Then he will pass the message to me and I will ring you as soon as I can.”

“Mr Sinclair, I will do that. Please let the rest of his family know that Ewen is still very ill, but the signs are positive that he has suffered little if any brain damage. We are getting responses to muscle stimulation in spite of all his broken bones. He is a very fit and strong man. I will make sure all of this information is passed to the Australian Command straight away.”

“Major McMahon?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you please keep this conversation between you and me for now? You see, nobody else in the family knows I have a mobile phone; I am in my eighties. Ewen bought the phone for me before he left Australia, just so that he and I could talk and exchange text messages. It’s our secret. I will be travelling for a day or so, so if you pass the information through to Australia and they pass it to his family they will have it almost as quick as I could give it to them, and nobody will be any the wiser. I will choose the right time to tell everyone when I get there.”

“Your secret is safe with me, sir, I will tell the rest of the team that if Ewen wakes, then to tell him I have spoken to you. What time is it now in Australia?”

“Early morning just after seven.”

“It’s three am here. I’m here until six, then on call. I am sure I will talk to you again, Mr Sinclair.”

“Thank you, Major.” The line went dead. Lachlan closed the phone and brushed away a tear.

He sat there and thought for a moment, slowly, as if the clouds were parting and letting the sun shine down on him, Lachlan decided it was time for a change. It was time for him to change.

He realised that in whatever time was left to him on this earth, he was going to do what he should have done years before; he was going to do what he wanted. His life with Isobel was just that, a life. They seldom saw each other, seldom had a conversation of any meaning and whenever she wanted, they appeared in public with the veneer of an old and happy couple, content in their old age. For Lachlan that was a blatant contradiction of the reality of their life together.

Sitting there under his tree, early in the morning, after hearing that his only grandson probably wasn’t going to die, Lachlan decided the time had come for change.

First, he changed his mind about how he would travel to Bangalore. He would not fly to Carnarvon; he would drive direct to Bangalore. It had been at least five years since he had made the journey by road. Now he felt a need to retrace the steps he and Ewen, together with Rachael, had made so many times over the years.

The reason he’d stopped driving to Bangalore was because it was a long way, over a thousand kilometres, and Angus and others had expressed concern at him making the journey on his own and at his age. Reluctantly he had acquiesced to their demands. ‘Well, bugger them’, he thought. This time he would do what he wanted to do. ‘This time I’ll not listen to their objections, I’ll do what I want to do. It’s about time I did a bit more of that.’

He thought about what Percy had said the week before when they were sitting under this very tree having a beer. Percy had related he had been reading about getting old and how to handle the advancing years. The writer had compared life to a game of football. The early years were the first quarter, marriage and children took the football game of life up to half-time and so on. That meant that both he and Percy were in the last minutes of the last quarter. With a smile as he opened another can Percy had quipped, “Maybe they should bring in extra time in Aussie Rules, Lachlan? Another beer?”

“Well, if we are into extra time then I am going to play my heart out and show them,” he muttered out loud. With that he drained his mug, got up and went into the house to phone Angus.

As he expected, Angus was against his decision. Lachlan said his mind was made up and agreed he would spend the night in a motel at Meekatharra, and yes, he would pack his swag just in case. Yes, his satellite phone was working; he and Percy had used it a couple of weeks previously when they had gone up the coast to Jurien Bay and stayed in Percy’s beach house and gone fishing. Yes, he would bring his old dog for company. Yes, the fridge was working – how did he think they got their fish back to Perth?

Eventually Lachlan said, “Listen Angus, I’ve made the trip a hundred times. My Range Rover is serviced and ready to go. Just remember, Angus, you persuaded me to buy a new one last year. It’s like being in the cockpit of an aircraft driving this thing, it’s wonderful. Hell of a price, but I don’t regret a penny. It’s no bloody good for round Perth though. I use my little old Ute for that.

“All I have to do is fill up the spare water tank in the Range Rover, pack some tucker, chuck my gear in the back and I am off. Stop worrying about me. I have my phone. I have the GPS, don’t forget. If I get stuck I can tell you within ten metres of where I am, for Christ’s sake. Don’t forget you bought me that new EPERB for Christmas either; that’s in the glove box. So what the hell can go wrong?”

With one last try Angus said, “I know all that, Dad, but it’s still a long way on your own.” There was resignation in Angus’ voice so Lachlan knew he had won.

“I’m looking forward to the trip in air-conditioned comfort. At least I’ll be able to get around Bangalore without bothering you for a vehicle or getting my old Land Rover going. I know it will be hot, but I will be fine. Now I must go. I have a lot to do. I will leave at sparrows in the morning, soon as it’s light, about five, five-thirty. I will make Meekatharra easily and before you ask, no, I won’t drive in the dark. Goodbye.” Before Angus could reply he put the phone down.

“You’re an old fool, Lachlan.” Isobel was standing, arms folded, in the doorway of her bedroom and had been listening to his conversation.

“Don’t you start Isobel,” he said gruffly. “You’ve never said anything about all the other trips I’ve made.”

“You’ve always had Percy with you, two old fools together if you ask me.” Isobel spoke to him as a mother might speak to a teenage boy going off on some time-wasting venture. There was a note of condescension in her voice and that annoyed him. He rounded on her, looked at her and saw she was standing with her arms folded, just out of bed and not a hair out of place, looking straight into his eyes, a half-smile on her lips. He’d seen that look so many times in the last forty years, it had never really bothered him before; now it irritated him to the point of annoyance. He bit his tongue.

As he walked away he said over his shoulder, “Well, I didn’t ask you, Isobel. You and your lady friends are going to Melbourne to live it up like queens. I am going to do what I want to do and go bush, then to Bangalore. What you do is none of my business and what I do is none of yours. Hasn’t been for years. So why now?”

“What about the garden?” was the only retort.

“ Find a bloody gardener. There must be plenty around.” Bugger her! He suddenly had a yearning to be on the road and away, away from her.

“How long will you stay up there?”

“Don’t bloody know. Won’t make any difference to you anyway. You don’t know I’m here half the time. Weeks at the very least. I’ll take my dog with me too.” Before Isobel could reply he walked away.

For the rest of the day he busied himself with the preparations for the road trip. Filled the drinking water tank he’d had built into the chassis. Went down to the service station and filled up with fuel, checked the tyres and spare. Put the big chest fridge in the back and made sure it was working. Packed a tucker box with food essentials for a few days, just in case. Picked up the lamb that his butcher had cut up and packed onto trays and carefully stacked it in the fridge together with a few cans of beer. His swag went on the back seat next to the dog’s blanket. He remembered Ewen and although he knew he didn’t need to, he checked the oil and water in the engine.

In his bedroom he packed his leather travel bags with all the clothes he thought he would need. Shearing wasn’t far away so he remembered his moleskins and boots. Into a suit bag he put his blazer and flannels. If he needed anything else he would ring Worthingtons.

Last but not least he got a small tool kit off the shelf in the workshop together with a small gas stove, billycan, frypan and gaslight and put them in the back. He was ready. Then he remembered one last thing. Under the workbench he lifted a carton of Black Label, and put it in the back of the Range Rover. Now, now he was ready!

He looked at the half-loaded Range Rover and remembered all those trips he had made with Ewen and Rachael when there was little room for anything else. Now there was just him, and his old dog, plenty of space in a vehicle crammed full of memories that took no space at all. How the time had passed… so quickly. Could it really be more than twenty years ago that he and Rachael and Ewen had set off?

The next morning at five-thirty, with his old dog on her blanket on the back seat, without saying goodbye to Isobel, Lachlan started his journey. Driving down Stirling Highway towards the city he wondered, momentarily, if he should go back and say goodbye. In all the years they had been married they had always followed the convention of saying goodbye, goodnight and good morning, and so on, often accompanied by a kiss on the cheek. But that is just what it has become he thought, a convention. Instead of turning around and going back to keep with convention, he reached for his pipe.

As he drove passed King’s Park on Mounts Bay Road the lawns and gardens were wet, some blocks of sprinklers were still on and a couple of mud larks were taking a morning shower. A hot day was forecast but now it was cool and fresh with a hint of eucalyptus in the air. Perth at its best, Lachlan thought.

He now had a decision to make. Go north by the Mitchell Freeway and save maybe half an hour to forty minutes on a journey that could take a couple of days, or go the way that he and his grandchildren had always gone, out along the Great Eastern Highway to Midland and then north, through the Swan Valley, Bindoon and on. There was no choice really; he took the road that would lead to Riverside Drive, across the river at The Causeway and on to the Great Eastern Highway, the old way, the way full of memories. Once clear of Midland the early morning traffic thinned a little and Lachlan relaxed.

He was on the road that he knew so well; much had changed in the last fifty years or so, but much was the same.

Clear of Midland he turned on the GPS and smiled as the screen came to life. He looked at the internal thermometer; it was twenty degrees in the Range Rover and twenty-five outside. Like the old pilot that he was, his eyes travelled over the other gauges. He checked the handbrake was off and again smiled to himself – force of habit, he knew there would have been a light flashing at him by now if he’d left it on. He loved the technology in his Range Rover. He adjusted the suspension for highway travel, not because he needed to, but because he liked doing it – it was like trimming an aircraft once the course was set. He moved the settings on his armchair-like driving seat; satisfied after making just minor changes to angle and elevation, Lachlan remembered his coffee.

Again he grinned at the simple technology that made a difference to his life. His insulated mug was in its holder, from the mug ran a cable that finished in a plug in the dash board, a red light glowed in the plug to show that it was on. Lachlan took a sip; his coffee was as hot as when he had made it an hour ago.

His favourite coffee came from the New Guinea highlands. He liked to think that an old RAAF friend or at least his family who had moved there at the end of World War Two had produced his coffee – it gave him a string, a connection across the years. His old comrade had gone from bombing Germany, killing people, to planting one of the first post-war coffee plantations in New Guinea – what a life. That was a piece of unfinished business, an ambition unfulfilled. He’d always wanted to go to New Guinea and find out if his friend was still alive. For one reason or another he’d never made it. Maybe Alice would go with him?

These days, at home, he made his coffee with a plunger jug. It was easy, clean and convenient. When he made it ‘on the road’ he would bring the water to just under boiling point, chuck in the coffee and turn the heat off. Let it stand, stir it, let it stand again, add raw brown sugar.

That in Lachlan’s view was real coffee. Sometimes, in the old days, milk out of the Esky if he’d managed to keep it cold, if not, black. Now he had a car fridge so he could have either – a car fridge for goodness sake! God, he was going to enjoy this trip. No more Eskys and freezer blocks and bags of ice; a bloody fridge in the car! He could remember the first kerosene fridge on the station and the first electric one when they had installed the first 240-volt generator. Now he had a fridge in his car!

Just south of Bindoon he pushed the buttons on the radio and was surrounded in sound and it made him smile, technology again. The radio had found the closest AM station and ‘The Country Breakfast’ programme on the ABC. The weather forecast was 34 for Perth, 40 for Dalwallinu, just a few hours north. The cyclone was still building off the far north coast, thousands of kilometres away.

Without thinking he checked the outside temperature; it was already 29 degrees, inside the Range Rover the temperature was still 22 degrees – he couldn’t hear the air conditioner – he had trouble hearing the big V8 diesel engine that drove the vehicle and powered the radio, the fridge, the air conditioner and the element in his insulated mug.

‘Mind you,’ he thought, ‘the first plane I flew was a Tiger Moth and last year I had the controls of a Lear Jet for half an hour around the skies around Perth and up as far as Onslow on the west coast. From Tiger Moth to Lear Jet in sixty years – some journey.’

An association of ideas, which came from nowhere, but he suddenly thought about powdered milk. He’d never liked powdered milk so he’d always drunk his tea black. Nobody in England during the war had understood his aversion to powdered milk. It had intrigued the English ladies. Lemons, had they been available, would have been offered, but no milk? “Really, these Australians!”

Just south of Bindoon he remembered he hadn’t given his mobile phone to Percy. It was sitting in its rack on the dashboard. He pressed a button and glanced at the screen. He still had a strong signal. So if that army major had rung back he wouldn’t have missed it. He was unsure if he could divert his mobile phone calls to his satellite phone; if he couldn’t sort out how to do it he just hoped he could find someone to help him on the way, but who? Then he remembered the satellite phone; it too was on the dash board. He turned it on, the screen glowed for a second or two. More like a cockpit all the time; he smiled again – he was enjoying himself.

It nagged at Lachlan that he didn’t know how to divert his mobile phone calls as once he was out of the agricultural region later in the day, he might be out of mobile range, and he might miss a call. He drove on until about eight-thirty and then at the next truck bay, he pulled off the road, poured another cup of coffee out of his vacuum flask, discovered the telephone number of the satellite phone company was on the phone, so he rang them.

A young lady took the details of the make of his mobile phone and within minutes, before he’d finished his coffee, she rang back with clear and simple instructions, which he jotted down. Five minutes later and at the first attempt, Lachlan succeeded in diverting calls from his mobile phone to his satellite phone. He turned off the mobile phone. Now, no matter where he went, no matter what remote part of this land, there was an instant satellite communication between him and his grandson in Germany and anyone else who wanted to ring him.

He stuffed tobacco in his pipe and flicked on his new and fancy gas lighter, made in China he had noted, that made a perfect flame for one-handed pipe lighting, far easier than matches. A few strong pulls and the pipe was going. He let the window down a little. Second nature now, just to press the button, no more window-handles. His sunglasses were in the centre console. He’d complained they were bloody expensive when he’d bought them, but now he appreciated their quality. As the day changed from the soft yellow light of the morning to the full glare of the day, he put them on. They softened the light and reduced the glare. Money well spent after all.

Lachlan set the cruise control at just on the speed limit as there was no hurry and he didn’t want flashing blue lights. So for the next three hours that was how the old, highly decorated World War Two bomber pilot, who’d flown too many missions over Germany headed north in Western Australia – back to Bangalore – back to where he had suddenly, under the tree from Bangalore in the garden of his house in Dalkeith, Perth, decided it was Bangalore, where he wanted to be. He was contented and calm. He was going home.

The air conditioner kept the Range Rover cool, the radio kept him informed; if he wanted, Ewen had put twelve hours of his favourite music on a little stick, which fitted into what Ewen told him was a USB socket in the dashboard. All the music he wanted in something no bigger than a finger, wonderful!

The GPS was telling him where he was at any time to within a couple of metres of accuracy and the satellite phone was turned on and again, at the push of a button he could speak to anyone he wanted to, anywhere in the world.

How different to almost flying blind at night over Germany with the navigator trying to make the best of glimpses of the stars, radio beacons that were jammed by the enemy and early crude radar that sometimes told the truth and sometimes didn’t.

oOo

After the phone call from his father telling him of his change in plans, Angus put the phone down, turned round and found Rachael standing listening. “Has Pop changed his mind?”

“Yes, he’s decided to drive; leaves at first light in the morning. Couldn’t persuade him not to. He told me his Range Rover has everything he needs; we can track him if we want to with his GPS. He has his Sat phone and his dog and he reminded me of his new EPERB. He wouldn’t be dissuaded – not that I tried very hard.”

“You didn’t tell Nigel and Andy he was coming here.”

“No, deliberately. I thought about it, then I realised Mother would be in Melbourne. Michelle will have a bodyguard; that would just leave your grandfather on his own. So I thought I would tell Nigel when Father gets here. He’s probably better here than back in Perth, certainly for my peace of mind anyway. I don’t know what the bloody hell to expect. I just hope Nigel and his mates do, so at least Father being here is one worry out of the way. I’ll go and tell Alice.”

Chapter 15.

Alice.

When Angus told Alice his father was driving to Bangalore, leaving the next day, she tried to remain pokerfaced. She didn’t want to show any emotion. She’d spent nearly half a century, fifty years or so, hiding her feelings about Lachlan from his family, so she smiled and said, “That will be nice. I’d better get his room ready.”

When Angus told her Lachlan was bringing a lamb with him because he wanted a roast dinner, memories came flooding back, but again, she just smiled. When he went on to tell her what his father had said about the lamb, it wouldn’t be the same as a two-tooth wether, Alice wondered once again whether it was just coincidence she had asked Ali, several days before, to get her a couple of two-tooth wethers as they were running short of meat. Was it coincidence she thought – or is it working again?

It wasn’t coincidence and she knew it. Over the years it had happened so often, it no longer surprised her when, somehow, somewhere, she could be anywhere when a thought would enter her head and she would follow it. It nearly always involved Lachlan. When Angus told her that Lachlan had changed his mind about flying and was now driving, again, she wasn’t surprised.

After Alice had prepared lunch for the family and left it in the fridge, sorted out what she had to prepare for the evening meal, she decided to put her feet up for an hour or so. She walked the one hundred metres or so to her cottage. It was cool inside the little stone building. Two bedrooms, a bathroom and a large room divided into a simple kitchen and a comfortable living area. The furnishings were modest and unassuming. Some of the furniture had been her mothers’; her mother and father had bought some when they first married. Some had come from the homestead when changes had been made.

Alice and her mother had lived in the cottage after her father had died. She could still feel her mother’s presence. She talked to her sometimes, mostly in her head but sometimes out loud. Ali had heard her once and asked her who she was talking to? She had replied, “Your gran.” Ali had smiled with a knowing look that reminded her of her father.

Alice made a small pot of tea in a china teapot, which had been her mother’s. She didn’t like tea bags. The tea she chose, this time, was an Orange Pekoe, which she kept in an airtight tin in a cool cupboard. Her favourite cup and saucer were of fine china decorated with red roses. Alice drank her tea with a little honey and without milk.

Alice loved the smell of freshly brewed tea. Tea brewed in a pot had a different smell, a more delicate aroma than tea made in a billy over a campfire. Same tea, different drink. Different water, smoke from the fire, an old stained billy had a personality that suffused into the tea. Her china teapot was old and also, for Alice, had a personality. She couldn’t remember life without it.

Alice carefully put her cup and saucer down on the small rosewood table at the side of her armchair, a forty-year-old rocker recliner which, apart from the mattress on her double bed, was the last piece of furniture she had purchased. She sat down slowly in the familiar chair, pulled the lever at the side that raised the footrest and took the weight off her feet. Picked up her cup of tea and thought of Lachlan.

The smell of the tea. Lachlan liked his tea. The smell of the tea and the thought of Lachlan made her smile.

He had been thirty-five and she just twenty that day she had found him in the stable quietly crying. She had seen the look of hopelessness in his eyes as she had held his hands in hers and spoken to him. She remembered how easily the words had come to her. What had surprised her was he hadn’t pulled away when she’d taken his hands; he hadn’t shown any signs of embarrassment. His eyes had told her he was glad she was there. He hadn’t said much on that first meeting. He’d just thanked her for being there. She had reassured him it was their secret.

As Alice sat in her old chair, closed her eyes, the memories came back.

oOo

At seven o’clock the morning after she had been with Lachlan, Alice was clearing up after the three year old, Angus, who, in a tantrum had thrown his breakfast around the breakfast room, when Lachlan’s mother, Mrs Sinclair Senior, Angus’ grandmother, told Alice that Lachlan wanted help moving a big mob of wethers, and all the men were away mustering. She said she would take care of Angus as his mother was still in bed. “Be quick now, child. You know how grumpy Lachlan seems to be these days. Off you go and get changed.”

By the time she had changed into moleskin trousers and a man’s shirt with the sleeves cut out, found her big, almost white, broad-brimmed felt hat and her old riding boots and hurried, almost run to the stables, Lachlan had already saddled her horse, a dainty little chestnut filly.

Lachlan gave her a half-smile. “ Morning, Alice, I’ve picked up lunch and smoke-o from cook, sorry, your mum, and it’s in our saddle bags. It looks like there may be a storm later so I’ve tied a coat on for you. If you’re ready, Alice, we might as well get going. The sheep, six hundred of them, are in the holding paddock behind the shearing shed. They’re what’s left of that mob of wethers we sent off last week, so they could be a bit toey when we open the gate, just hungry – we should have moved them sooner. We have to take them down to ‘Dukes’ so it could take us the best part of the day, depends how they travel. Hope you don’t mind a day off from Angus?” There was just a hint, she thought, of self-consciousness in his grin, maybe a hint of embarrassment, maybe he was unsure after the previous evening? But he’d looked directly at her when he’d spoken, he hadn’t turned away and that pleased her.

As she untied her little chestnut filly it started fidgeting and prancing around eager to be off. Alice pulled her horse’s head around with the inside rein, then, with the rein and a handful of mane in her left hand, put her foot in the stirrup and swung easily into the saddle. All the little filly could do was move in a tight circle. As her other foot found the other stirrup she looked back at Lachlan who had also mounted his horse, a big grey gelding. “Glad of the day off, Lachlan. Couldn’t think of anything better on such a lovely day.” She made sure she smiled and looked into his eyes as she spoke.

Hungry, the wethers scattered when they were let out of the holding paddock. An hour later after giving the dogs and horses a good work out, they settled. Still hungry and hot off shears Lachlan and Alice didn’t attempt to drive the sheep too hard, rather they kept them going in the general direction of their destination, Dukes. They let them pick and graze as they moved slowly along. All Lachlan and Alice had to do was stop any stragglers wandering off into the shade.

The morning started cool but as the sun rose in the sky it told them it was going to be hot. The thunderclouds in the distance also told them that Lachlan had been right to pack their long, waterproof riding coats.

At 10 o’clock they found a shady tree, quickly made a small fire with a few twigs and dry grass and boiled just enough water, in a quart pot, for two mugs of tea. They didn’t speak as the fire was made and the water boiled. There didn’t seem to be any need for words. They worked in unison to complete their simple task. Make a fire, boil the billy, make tea and get going again.

Within ten minutes they were drinking their tea and eating a piece of fruitcake. As they downed the last of their tea, Lachlan poured the dregs of the tea from the quart pot onto the fire and added a bit more water from his water bag to the still smouldering embers just to make sure they were out. Having done that he kicked loose sand onto the dead embers to make doubly sure. They fastened their quart pots back on their saddles, checked and re-tightened the girths and re-mounted. They had stopped for no more than twenty minutes.

Enough time for the mob to wander and scatter; it took a quarter of an hour to get them all together and moving again. Lachlan and Alice rode side-by-side content with their own thoughts and each other, finding no reason to speak. Sometimes they found they would just look and smile at each other.

Occasionally, without one referring to the other, one of them would ride off and push a couple of stragglers back into the mob.

They stopped for lunch at a water tank and trough. While the sheep drank Lachlan took the saddles off the horses and hung the sheepskins that they used over the saddle cloths, and the saddle cloths, on a bush to dry. As the horses drank he used his quart pot to wash the sweat off their backs. He then tight hobbled them and left them to nibble around some spinifex.

Both Alice and Lachlan knew it had to be a quick break. Alice had the fire going and the billy boiling by the time he got back to her. She smiled at him. “This is an almost perfect copy of the first day we worked together, Lachlan. Do you remember?’ The question was in her eyes rather than in her words. She would tell from his eyes if he remembered – had he remembered their first day working together?

“I do remember, Alice. You rode a small chestnut gelding not unlike that mare you have today. Angus was a month or so from being born. We worked much the same as we have today – not finding the need for a lot of conversation. That was over three years ago now.”

Alice smiled, pleased he’d remembered. “The water’s boiling – you got the tea?”

“It’s in my saddle bag, I’ll get it.” As he unbuckled the saddlebag flap and took out a small tin of tea his question to her was barely audible, “Why do we talk so little, Alice? We each seem to know what the other is thinking when it matters, the rest of the time we don’t seem to have any use for words, no small talk, no gossip. We don’t know each other very well, yet sometimes…” He handed her the tin of tea. This time the question was in his eyes, together with just a glimpse, no more than a flicker of…was it pain?

As Alice removed the lid from the tin and poured sufficient tea into her other hand and then dropped the aromatic black leaves into the boiling water, she looked at him and smiled. “Probably because neither of us sees any reason to make small talk, Lachlan. I know I don’t. So many people waste words.” She kept her eyes on him and saw he knew she hadn’t answered the question he hadn’t asked.

The water was starting to boil again so Alice picked up a small stick, hooked it through the wire handle and took the billy off the fire. Lachlan handed her the lids off their quart pots to use as mugs – Alice poured the tea and without asking, put sugar out of another tin into both mugs and stirred them with a twig. “You didn’t ask me if I wanted sugar.”

“I remembered, Lachlan.”

“What else do you remember?” Again there was something behind his eyes – a question unasked? – pain? – fear? No, this time there was a flicker of uncertainty.

Lachlan bent down and picked up both mugs and handed one to Alice. When she raised her eyes to look at him, Lachlan’s face had changed again. The fear, the pain, the uncertainty, whatever it had been had gone to be replaced with a blank stare and watery eyes.

Quietly Alice said, “Lachlan, let’s just sit down and eat the bread and corned mutton that I’m sure Mother has packed for us. There’s no rush to answer questions, is there? We have all day; we have all week if we want it.”

“Do we have a lifetime, Alice?” The watery eyes were still there. His question momentarily startled her. He didn’t look away.

Without smiling, though desperately searching, trying to put reassurance and confidence into her voice she looked back into his eyes. “We have a lifetime, Lachlan… whatever that means. A lifetime can mean until tomorrow, next week, next year… forever I suppose… we can talk when we have this mob to Dukes. I haven’t forgotten anything, Lachlan.” Again, his expression told her he understood. He looked away and quickly brushed his eyes with the back of his hand.

Nothing more was said. Lachlan cut up the meat and bread with his pocketknife. They ate in silence and fed the scraps to the dogs. It was not an uneasy silence. Occasionally they caught each other’s eye and exchanged a smile. A rumble of thunder in the distance caused them to look at each other; there was no need for words. They both knew they had to get moving.

Lachlan threw the last of his tea on the hot embers of the fire, caught the horses and as he saddled them Alice doused the fire with water from the trough and re-packed their saddlebags.

This time it was easier to get the mob together. Some were resting in the shade of the few sparse trees and wattles, others were just standing in small mobs, fidgeting and stamping to keep the flies away from recently acquired shearing cuts. It was hot now and the sheep were reluctant to move. On the far side of the mob and just out of sight, Alice heard Lachlan shout at his dogs, then she heard a few sharp cracks of his whip. She kicked her horse into a canter and picked up the last of the stragglers on her side.

Soon they had the mob moving slowly and reluctantly, their energy sapped by the stifling heat. They knew where they were going – the watering point at Duke’s and to get there would be at their pace.

Alice joined Lachlan at the tail of the mob and saw that his horse was lathered in sweat. Before she could ask he answered the question. “About forty of the buggers got into the shade in that little breakaway over there and refused to come out. The young dog got around the wrong side and scattered them even further. I think I got them all. They’ll follow if I missed any, with a bit of luck anyway. If they don’t, we know they’ll have water.”

Alice looked to the north. “Those storms are coming up quickly. We might get wet yet.”

“If we get caught in a storm we’ll never keep this mob moving; fresh off shears they’ll feel the cold straight away and start looking for shelter or just stop and stand around in little mobs.”

Still an hour’s walk away from their destination the threatening storms were suddenly nearly on top of them. The wind came in strong gusts lifting the fine red dust so that it got into their eyes and caked on the sweat on their faces and clothes. Their horses became restless with the occasional rumble of thunder. The dust stuck to them too. It stuck to their sweaty withers and between their legs. The wind unsettled them.

The sheep slowed and for the first time that day Lachlan and Alice had to start pushing them. The dogs hated the heat and the dust. The old dog, Ben, knew what he was doing. The young dog, Bess, got frustrated with the ever-increasing reluctance of the sheep to move – she resorted to the odd nip and occasional bite. Seeing this, Lachlan got off his horse, untied a muzzle he’d attached to his saddle with a leather thong and put the muzzle on his young dog. “Be a good dog that one, if she’ll just stop biting.”

Half an hour away from Duke’s Alice felt the first drops of rain. Big drops that ‘plopped’ as they hit the hot dusty earth and disappeared immediately. The rain felt good on her back and face.

“I think we’ll just about make it to the bough shed at Duke’s before we get that storm, Alice,” Lachlan said, raising his voice above the wind and pointing to the heavy black clouds rolling towards them. “I think these boys will be all right now, some of them have been here before so they will lead the others to water. We can check them in a couple of days anyway. Let’s get out of here and get to that shed and sit this storm out. Time for a cup of tea anyway.” With a reassuring grin he turned the head of his big grey gelding, gave it a kick in the ribs and set off at a fast canter for the bough shed at Duke’s.

The storm beat them to the shed. A flash of lightning and a crack of thunder directly over them startled Alice’s horse; it shied violently and tried to break from a canter into a mad gallop. Lachlan admired the way she gathered the horse in, settled it down and kept it moving. His own horse gave a bit of a ‘pig root’ but didn’t break step.

By the time they got to the bough shed visibility was down to less than 200 metres. The bough shed had been built in the 1920s to provide stockmen and mill men with shade when camping out. It was also waterproof, the roof and sides being heavily ‘thatched’. In more than ninety years the shed had required little maintenance and was in perfect condition.

The bough shed at Duke’s was one of several strategically positioned around Bangalore. In the days when all of the station work was done on horseback or, in the case of the mill men and fencers, with a horse and cart, Lachlan’s ancestors, particularly his grandfather, had insisted that every comfort that could be provided, should be provided, to those who led the tough life of a station hand.

The shed at Duke’s measured ten metres by five metres and was divided down the middle to make two five-meter rooms. Again, Lachlan’s grandfather insisted that all who worked for him took the best of care of their animals, so half of the shed was a stable complete with a saddle rail.

As they walked their horses into their side of the shed Lachlan asked, “Have you been here before, Alice?”

“Not for a long time, Lachlan, and not inside since I was a little girl.”

“Well, with a bit of luck and if everyone who has been here has respected the system, there should be some dry wood next to the old stone chimney and fireplace in the other room, and…” reaching above one of the posts and onto a ledge set in the eaves close to a post, “and in here there should be at least two quarts of oats in an old kero tin, that if my memory serves me correctly, was made by your father. Bit of history, Alice.”

“I’ll light the fire while you rub the horses down and give them a feed.”

As Lachlan unsaddled the horses and rubbed them down as best he could, Alice lit the fire. Beside the oat tin there were a couple of crude hand-made tin feeding bowls fashioned out of the same kerosene tins as had been used for the oat tin. He measured out oats for each horse and noted there were some left, probably enough for another feed, secured the lid back on the tin with a piece of wire and put it back where it had been. Lachlan made a mental note to remember to give the next person who was coming out to Duke’s a small bag of oats to replenish the supply.

His grandfather had started the practice of leaving tins of oats at watering points and in the bough sheds around Bangalore. His argument was that a man could always trap or shoot something to eat in this country, or go hungry, but if he had to rely on his horse to get him home, for his life, then horse food, energy for the horse, was just as, if not more important than food for the rider.

Another flash of lightning and this time a crack rather than a rumble of thunder, then the heavens opened. The rain was too heavy to soak into the ground so the raindrops did a mad dance on the sheet of water that was quickly forming into rivulets. The temperature dropped quickly.

Alice had a good fire going in the stone fireplace. The water was already boiling and Lachlan watched her as she again made the tea and handed him a mug. “Here, Lachlan. You look cold.”

“I felt a shiver a moment ago, just the change in the temperature I’m sure. I feel all right.”

“I’ll get your coat, you can put that on and I can dry your shirt by the fire. There’s a good pile of wood in the corner. Someone must have been very industrious when they were last here.”

Alice noticed that Lachlan turned away when she mentioned that someone had left a good pile of wood. Still not looking at her he said, “I’ll get my coat and yours. You must be just as wet as me. Maybe we should both dry off a bit. It could be a long wet ride home. We’ll be lucky to make it before dark if this storm keeps up.” He looked out of the open doorway. “It looks like it’s coming back for another go. Last thing we want is a couple of inches of rain on those sheep, hot off shears. Poor buggers.”

With the tea made and the billy by the side of the fire, Alice got some bigger pieces of wood from the pile in the corner of the shed and soon the fire was blazing. She found a bit of wire and fashioned a crude coat hanger. “Give me your shirt, Lachlan, it’ll dry in no time in front of this fire. It’s one of those old thin shirts you like so much. Mother says if she has to patch it one more time it’s going in the duster bag.” She was laughing at him. He grinned and pulled his shirt over his head and handed it to her.

Alice couldn’t help but notice that Lachlan’s skin was several shades lighter where it had been protected from the sun. His forearms were dark brown while his chest was a light creamy colour. He was almost painfully thin, but well-muscled. She took the shirt from him and put it on the hanger and hung it from another piece of wire in front of the fire.

“Don’t you catch cold now, Alice. Want me to look the other way while you take your shirt off?” He was laughing at her. There was a challenge and a bit of mischief in his eyes.

Is this a challenge? Alice thought. She’d never been challenged like this before. He was still grinning – then, just then, she thought she saw a flicker of self-doubt in his eyes.

She stood there, tea mug in hand and looked at him. She didn’t smile; all she did was hold his gaze and be careful that her expression didn’t betray her amusement. She wasn’t embarrassed or in any way concerned or frightened.

They stood looking at each other for about ten seconds. Slowly the grin faded from Lachlan’s lips. Then he looked a little embarrassed and turned away. “I’m sorry, Alice. That was childish of me. I’ll go and check the horses while you get changed – leave you in peace – I’m sorry.”

“No need, Lachlan.” He turned back to face her to find that she had taken her shirt off and, with her back to him, was half into her raincoat. In the process of pulling her shirt over her head she’d dislodged the tight bun her hair had been in under her felt hat. In all the years Lachlan had known Alice he hadn’t realised that she had such long hair – it cascaded below her shoulders and was as black as jet. “My hair is a bit wet too. I’ll try and dry it a bit.” She shook her head and a small silver clip fell from her hair to the dirt floor. She bent down to pick it up and saw something else glint in the dust at her feet and she picked it up. It was a stockman’s knife with a bone handle, the sort that all stockmen carry in a pouch on their trouser belt. “Someone must have lost this lovely knife, look, it’s a very expensive one. Not the average stockman’s knife. Have you seen it before, Lachlan?”

Lachlan didn’t look at the knife; he looked away and said, “No.”

Alice turned the knife over in her hand and then quietly said, “It has your name on it, Lachlan.”

“I know.”

“Did you lose it, or did you lend it to someone?”

“I must have dropped it the last time I was here. Before you ask, I didn’t want you to know that I’d been here recently.”

The mood had changed from one of humour, even a bit cheeky, to one where Alice could see the hurt in Lachlan’s eyes, again. Again the same look he’d given her earlier in the day when he’d asked her how long they had and she’d replied, a lifetime if they needed it.

She didn’t speak. The rain had stopped. All she could hear was the crackle of the fire and the raindrops falling off the thatched roof onto the now-sodden red dirt. She still wasn’t uncomfortable as she watched him struggle to find the right words. She waited. Eventually he spoke.

“You know when you found me in the stable that day?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” he sighed deeply, “well, that wasn’t the first time I had been like that. It seems to be happening more often now than before. I don’t know what it is. It happened once, no more than once during the war; the doctor put it down to battle fatigue. I just sat down and cried one night.” His sentences were short and staccato. He was struggling for words. “They sent me on leave. I went up to Scotland. As far away from the war as I could get. That’s why I come here.”

“To get as far away as you can?”

“Yes.”

“What do you do?”

“Drink mostly. I get a couple a bottles of rum and some rations from the store and make some lame excuse I have something to do that will keep me away for a day or so. I usually use my Land Rover, chuck my swag and tucker in and come out here. This is my favourite spot. Sometimes I go to Queen’s, but that’s too close to the road. Don’t want to be seen, really.” He looked away from her. “Taking rum is easier than whisky; Father counts all the bottles regularly.” He drew a line in the dirt with the toe of his riding boot. “I make sure that I always have rum in the house.” He looked at her and she could see that he was embarrassed and looked lost.

“I didn’t know, Lachlan. I’m sorry.”

“About my drinking or about my running away?”

“Both, I suppose. But I don’t see it as running away.”

“That time you found me in the stable you said you wouldn’t tell anyone. Did you mean that?” He was searching her eyes.

“Yes. It’s still our secret.”

“Thanks.”

“I also meant it when I said you can talk to me anytime if it will help. Is that why you asked me to help you today?”

“Partly. I needed a hand with the sheep and after the other night I wanted to get to know you better. We’ve almost lived in the same house all our lives and I realised that I didn’t really know you. You have nursed our child, you’re his nanny. Angus spends more time with you than he does with his mother and certainly more than he does with me.”

Alice tried to lighten the mood. “Well, you certainly tried to get to know me better when you challenged me to take my shirt off in front of you, Lachlan Sinclair.” She shook her long hair in the warmth of the fire; now she smiled at him. “Was that your idea of getting to know me better?” He remained impassive. “Well?”

He looked away and then faced her with tears running down his face and fear in his eyes. “Sometimes… Sometimes I think I’m going mad, Alice. I…I don’t know what to do.”

Alice put her now-cold mug of tea on the ground beside her, stood up and faced him. He was close enough for her to touch him but she kept her hands by her sides. He didn’t seem to notice that her coat had fallen part open and she was shirtless, naked underneath. She took a step towards him and took both of his hands in hers. “You’re not going mad, Lachlan. You’re as sane as the next man. Look at me, Lachlan.” He looked at her. He looked into her eyes… searching… “You’re not going mad. If only half of what I have read and heard about the last war is true, then you have had some dreadful experiences. That you survived at all amazes me. My mother says your father still has bad times, which are his legacy from the First World War. You’re not going mad, Lachlan – I won’t let you.”

“Look at my father though, Alice. I don’t want to finish like him.” The tears flowed again, his face crumpled with anguish, “The very thought haunts me. You know he locks himself away with his books and his bottles. Sometimes we don’t see him for days. Your mother takes his meals to him.” Tears were trickling down his face and his nose was starting to run; he wiped them both with the back of his hand. Alice gave him a handkerchief.

“And my mother talks to him.”

“Does he confide in her?”

“I don’t know. She won’t talk about it.” Then Alice, still holding Lachlan’s hands in hers, said something and did something that would change the rest of her life. “I won’t let you go mad, Lachlan.” Then she settled her future; she kissed him. She didn’t think, she didn’t hesitate, for her it was the most natural thing in the world to do. It didn’t enter her head that they were alone, that she’d never kissed a man before and that the man she was kissing was Lachlan Sinclair, the only son of the man who owned Bangalore, married to a beautiful English woman who, Alice knew, had grown away from him. He was the father of the infant Angus, whom she adored. At that moment and for the rest of her life, Lachlan became… Lachy. It was her name for him and hers alone.

Lachlan held her and sobbed.

Alice stroked the back of his head kissed away his tears as they stood there. Then she said, “Lachy, we should go; the storm has passed.”

“Then what?”

“Then we will find a way.”

“I can’t lose you, Alice, not now.”

They rode back to Bangalore sometimes in the rain, sometimes with the storm going round them with flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder in the far distance. At just a slow walk it took them four hours, so it was after midnight when they walked the horses into the stable at Bangalore.

Without speaking they took the wet saddlecloths and saddles off the horses and slipped the bridles and replaced them with leather halters. While Alice got them a few oats, Lachlan filled two hay nets and hung them over the troughs in front of both horses.

The storm had passed. Clouds crossed and then cleared a nearly full moon, and in its pale light, just for a moment, they could see each other quite clearly. Then another cloud and it was dark again. There was just a step or two between them.

It was Alice who moved. She crossed the small space between them. Lachlan could smell her perfume, her scent. What was it? Soap? Lavender? Sun tan oil? Coconut oil? A mixture of all? All Lachlan knew was that it was Alice – he didn’t know at the time but that sense, that scent, would stay with him for the rest of his life.

“What do we do now, Alice?”

It felt completely natural to her; she put her hands under his riding coat and up his back and held him. He rested his chin on the top of her head. Alice could feel the warmth of his body – all there was between them was the thickness of two thin working shirts. She turned her head, rested it on his chest and could hear his heartbeat. She felt his hands slowly, uncertain at first, open her coat, slide around her back and come together in the middle of her back. A slight pressure from his hands and she pushed against him, yielding.

Then he stopped. The pressure had gone, he wasn’t pulling her towards him now, he was just holding her. Alice dug her fingers into his back. His grip tightened again. “Alice,” he whispered. She dug her fingers into his back even harder. He gently pulled her shirt out of her trousers and his hands, rough and calloused were on her bare back.

Then he stopped. He took his hands off her back and gently lifted her face to look at him and then he kissed her. Again she could taste the salt in his tears.

“Lachy, Lachy, listen to me.” Alice couldn’t see his face clearly but with her arms around him she felt the muscles in his back tighten. It felt like he was going to push her away so she tightened her hold and her tone demanded his attention. “Lachlan! Listen to me.” She felt the muscles relax in his back and she loosened her grip a little in return.

Alice didn’t know where the words were coming from. “Lachy, I am here for you. We will find a way out of all of this. Nothing is ever hopeless. I’m glad today happened. I’m glad we are here right now.”

oOo

That was over fifty years ago Alice thought as she finished her cup of tea and put it down on the rosewood table by the side of her chair. Now Lachlan was coming to Bangalore. She hadn’t spoken to him in the last few days, but it was obvious to her, from the way Angus had spoken, that Lachlan was behaving strangely. Something had changed.

What would he say when he got to Bangalore?

Chapter 16.

Lachlan

Lachlan stopped at a service station in Mount Magnet, filled up his Range Rover and cleaned the windscreen. Found that the owners had recently installed an espresso machine so he filled his mug with fresh coffee and bought two meat pies. It was just after one o’clock; he calculated he would reach Meekatharra easily by nightfall. He had done as Angus had insisted and booked a motel room.

He felt good. It was easy driving the Range Rover. He knew he would be glad to see the motel and admitted to himself it would be better to have a beer and a meal somewhere in Meekatharra, than cook it for himself somewhere out on the road.

Back behind the wheel Lachlan remembered that day at Duke’s with Alice, as if it were yesterday. He could vividly remember his feelings of desolation and hopelessness that had gradually built up in those days after Angus had been born.

His marriage changed; it stopped. It became an empty and cold routine. He didn’t know why. It was the emptiness that worried him. The laughter went. Gradually a distance developed between him and Isobel.

As he drove and reflected on those times, Lachlan compared life today with those days just half a century before. Was it fifty years ago that he and Alice had spent the night in that bough shed? It felt closer than that. If he thought about it, he could still touch her as she was then – the years fell away in his mind. He could smell her breath… tea and sugar. Taste her lips. Coconut oil? Sun oil? No sunscreens in those days. Maybe it was Nivea Crème? What was it? He would ask her when her saw her tomorrow.

Lachlan smiled at the thought of being with Alice – tomorrow.

oOo

When Lachlan and Alice got back to Bangalore after their night in the bough shed and each other’s arms, Isobel and his mother had gone – gone to Perth. They had forgotten to tell him that they had to be in Perth for the Annual General Meeting of the Red Cross, of which his mother was the State President. His father had gone with them. They had driven to Carnarvon; from there they were flying to Perth.

Lachlan shrugged a little in this mind. Ever increasingly these days his mother and his wife simply forgot to tell him of their arrangements. They organised their lives in spite of what was happening on Bangalore. They were spending more time in Perth, so less time with him and Angus.

Again he shrugged in his mind, history was repeating itself. He realised he hardly knew his mother. Did he love her as a son should love his mother? He didn’t know.

His education had been governesses young and old. Then at the age of twelve, packed off to Scotch College.

School holidays had been spent out and about with the station hands, working sheep, mending fences. He had been able to sit on a horse by the time he could walk and was an experienced rider before being sent to boarding school. The days he really looked forward to were the days he spent with his father.

Lachlan could still remember how much he had looked forward to those days. They didn’t happen often, so they became occasions to look forward to. They would ride together and his father would tell him of the history of Bangalore.

Then there were the times when he would be told the ‘occasion’, the day with his father, which he had been looking forward to, wasn’t going to happen. He would be told his father was unwell.

It was not until he was fifteen or so that he learned the days were cancelled because his father had retreated to his study, locked himself away to drink and fight the demons he had brought home from the trenches of France.

His mother had treated him the same way as she was now training Isobel to treat Angus. Children are to be seen and not heard. Properly clothed, fed, and eventually educated. So long as those matters were attended to, that was motherhood.

Mary, Alice’s mother, was caring for Angus. Apart from the two of them, the homestead at Bangalore was deserted.

Mary behaved as if Lachlan and Alice hadn’t been away. She didn’t ask questions about the storm or their absence for the night. She fed and attended to Angus and let Alice and Lachlan be together.

oOo

As Lachlan approached Meekatharra he automatically did a quick ‘cockpit check’; bit over seven hundred kilometres in the day. He chuckled inside; he knew there was no need for the check, because if anything had been wrong with this Range Rover there would have been warning lights flashing. He stopped at the first filling station, filled up and cleaned the windscreen again. Drove down the street, found his motel and booked in. No, he didn’t want breakfast, as he wanted to be on the road at dawn. He paid with his credit card. Wandered down to the pub, had a couple of beers and ordered a steak sandwich with chips. Sat in the corner at a small table and ate his meal. Wandered back to the motel, found his bottle of Black Label, got some ice from the fridge in his room and put the ice and a good measure of the whisky in an old glass and sat on the plastic chair outside his room and watched the last of the day disappear in the western sky.

It was a pleasant surprise to find the bed was comfortable. At five o’clock the next morning he was showered and on the road again. Next stop Bangalore and Alice.

oOo

At about the same time as Lachlan left Meekatharra Angus and Pat were doing what was becoming something of a routine, sitting on the veranda of Bangalore, drinking tea and watching the day dawn.

Rachael was with Ali in his cottage. Alice usually appeared about seven o’clock, so they had the homestead to themselves.

They sat together on the sofa. Neither of them mentioned, perhaps they didn’t even notice that in just a few days, sitting together on the sofa had become what they did. It seemed quite normal.

Pat drained her mug. Angus stood up. “Another? I’m going to have one; seem to have a great need for tea this morning.”

“Please. Whichever way we look at it, today is going to be interesting to say the least.”

As he took the mug from Pat and picked up his own Angus looked at Pat and gave a mixture of a grimace and a smile. “You can say that again. The cavalry should arrive and Father won’t be far away.”

He was back within minutes together with a biscuit tin. “Alice made some Anzacs yesterday, probably because Father’s coming and they’re his favourite. So if you want one you’d better make the most of it now. He’s been known to hide them, selfish old bugger.”

Pat took a biscuit and Angus took another and put the lid back on the tin. “You’re allowed to dunk,” he said. “In fact, it’s almost obligatory or even common sense if you have any expensive dental work. Alice always makes them as she says they should be made. They must be hard and not overcooked and definitely, definitely, no coconut. She maintains the Anzacs wouldn’t have had coconut, so no coconut. I’ve heard her argue about it.”

Pat dunked her biscuit and took a bite. After a moment she said, “I think your father must be a very sensible man. If he doesn’t hide that tin, then I might. Fancy Alice making Anzac biscuits just for your dad? First it was the business of the lamb, or hogget do you call it, that he said he would bring with him. This is a sheep station. Surely he didn’t think you would be without meat?” Angus nodded. “Then Alice said she would corn some of the meat, which I presume means salting it in some way. She must know him very well.”

Angus thought for a moment. “I suppose some of it’s a country thing. Never go anywhere empty handed. You know, take a plate, that sort of thing. Maybe he wanted to make sure we did have the meat so he could have his favourite dinner in what I am sure he still considers his dining room. He knows that both Ali and I can get a bit lazy and it’s not unknown for us to maybe not run out, but to have a deep freeze with only a few flaps or hocks, and he wants his roast dinner with mint sauce. I’ll bet he has a carton of Black Label on board too, so our quality of whisky will improve very soon. He often, like you, calls Red Label ‘cooking scotch’; never known him refuse one though.”

“What time do you expect him to get here?”

“If I know Lachlan, he will already be on the road. He has a five-hour drive maybe a bit more if he stops and boils the billy, as I am sure he will. So I would think sometime around midday, maybe an hour or so earlier. I could check his position on the Internet. I had a look last evening. He made Meekatharra well before dark. So that was good. He is fine driving in the daytime. He may have the best lights money can buy on the Range Rover, but regardless of what he says, I’m sure his old eyes get dry and tired at night. I hope I’m going as well as him at his age.”

“He and Alice have known each other for a long time?”

“All their lives. Bangalore educated Alice. She could have gone to university, but instead, as a girl of about eighteen or nineteen, she decided to be my nanny. I have never been able – no that’s the wrong way to put it – the relationship between my father and Alice is something I don’t understand.

“It seems to run in the family. The Sinclair men have all married women who have wanted to spend as much time as they possibly were able, in Perth, typically, to give them their due, with the exception of Michelle, doing good works. Predominantly, Red Cross and the Flying Doctor, School of the Air when it started, as well as the children’s hospital. Fund raising, sitting on committees, lobbying politicians, that kind of thing. It got passed on from one generation to the next. My grandmother passed it on to my mother. Michelle broke the chain. I’m sure they’ve also been benefactors to some of the art world too. I know my mother has money of her own, which she inherited. She’s never talked to me about it even to this day so I have no idea how wealthy she is.

“My mother is probably better known in Perth than my father; he has never quite fitted into her ‘set’. They are a bit ‘arty farty’ as he calls them. He’s been quite rude about them at times, particularly about their sexuality. If a man is homosexual then to Dad he’s a ‘queer’, a ‘poofta’. If a woman is a lesbian, then as far as Lachlan is concerned she is beyond understanding except she’s probably a Labor supporter, so she becomes in his language a ‘lesbian lefty’. He is very much a man of his generation.

“We’ve always had two homes; one in Perth and Bangalore. The constants in my life until I went to school were Alice and my father. I think I saw more of Alice than I did of my mother; I certainly spent more time with Alice. Alice was my nanny, then my governess and got me to a standard of education so I could go to Scotch College at just twelve, and, more importantly, fit in.

“Alice taught me to ride from bareback to breaking in horses. Whatever bushcraft I have, owes its origins to Alice and all the Aboriginal women and kids that Alice and I wandered through the bush with, I was a bit feral as a kid. Because I was an only child, my playmates were the children round the station, mostly Aboriginal and relatives, in one way or another, of Alice’s family. Alice would have been about thirty when I went to school. I missed her and Dad more than I missed my own mother.”

Pat sipped her tea. “When you went to school did that leave just your father, Alice and your mother here, and your mother spent a lot of time away?” Angus could see the obvious question in her eyes.

“Yes. My grandfather died when I was very young. Fell off a horse and broke his neck. Not sure if he was sober or not. Buried within days here on Bangalore in the family graveyard. Gran, a somewhat severe woman as I remember, apparently left for England within months of my grandfather dying, never to return. I was too young to remember. Alice told me the story the other day. My grandmother married again, this time to some wealthy wool man in Lancashire who owned an estate in Scotland. Father hinted once that they may have been related, second cousins or cousins or something. He died and left everything to Gran, and when Gran died she left everything to my father. He went to England and sold what I gather was a valuable country estate.

“He’s never told me the details. I do know he invested a lot into Wesfarmers when they were just a rural co-op, so he must be laughing now with their shares at over thirty dollars. So as you can see, Pat, the Sinclairs can be a secretive lot and there is no shortage of money. I know that because before Indian Independence in 1947, the Maharaja or whatever he was, got as much money as he could out of India. Part of his family was here in Australia, at Bangalore. Some had gone to England and they all got their share. I know Father is the Trustee of that Trust. What’s in it? No idea.

“To answer your original question, as I’ve got older I’ve sometimes wondered about Father and Alice. Yes, it did just leave the three of them here, and yes, Mother did spend a lot of time in Perth, so that left Father and Alice here. Never asked questions though. Wouldn’t dare, even now.” He laughed and shook his head at what he had just said.

Their conversation was broken by the sound of a vehicle. Angus looked at his watch. It was just six o’clock. A Winnebago turned into the drive, the top of it just brushing the lower fronds on the Palms, which lined the driveway.

Pat looked at Angus, “This must be what you called the cavalry.” They walked down the veranda steps to meet the visitors.

The vehicle was, as Nigel had told them it would be, towing a trailer on which there were two motorbikes and a quad bike, plus other assorted camping gear. Three men got out. All of medium build. All wore faded blue jeans and a leather belt, attached to each of their belts was a phone on one side and on the other, not a stockman’s knife in a pouch, but a sheath knife. One wore a blue singlet and the other two, dark blue tee-shirts. There didn’t seem to be an ounce of fat on any of them. One had long blonde hair nearly to his shoulders; the heads on the other two were almost shaven bare. They all had at least a week of stubble growth; one with a shaven head had red to ginger stubble. They looked for all the world what they were supposed to look like – a bunch of friends out to have some fun and do some hunting.

It was the blonde who spoke first. “Mr Sinclair?”

“Yes, Angus, please.”

The blonde smiled. “I’m Blondie, for what it’s worth, I’m the team leader. This here,” pointing to the one with the ginger stubble, “Is Ginger or Nuts. He will answer to either. Next to him is Beanie; you will see why if the temperature falls below twenty degrees.” He was laughing as he spoke and his colleagues were smiling. Pat thought they looked incredibly relaxed considering the task which was before them.

They moved forward to shake hands and Angus said, “This is Pat, Ewen’s fiancée.” As the three shook hands with Pat and Angus it was Ginger who spoke next. “We’ve met before, Pat. Do you remember?”

“I’ve been looking at you, but it won’t come to me.”

“Afghanistan. You were the co-pilot on the chopper that picked us up after a mission. Couldn’t expect you to remember me the state we were in. We’d been hunting and hunted for days. Been out there for two weeks. I just remember you and the pilot got us out of what could have been a bit of a spot.”

“It was your slight accent, Irish? I remember now. You were the one who talked over the intercom to tell us when we could get out of there and you had a few ideas about where not to fly. It was supposed to be routine and turned out to be anything but.”

“That’s me.”

“Have you boys had breakfast?” Angus asked.

“No, we drove up overnight,” Blondie replied. I don’t mean to be rude, but if you could just show us the places around this compound where we might set up camp, we have a lot to do. Beanie is the cook, so while he makes breakfast, Ginger and I can have a look around. Beautiful place you have here. Pity the tranquillity might be broken for a while.

“First thing I want you to help me with this morning is to show me on the aerial photos where you’re going to put your Aboriginal people. I think that’s a brilliant idea, actually. Their phones will be here this morning sometime. They’re sending them up by plane. Just an in and out job. Nothing fancy, a single engine Cessna; nothing that will raise any curiosity.

“I gather from the photos you have three houses here. This one and two smaller; what do you call them married quarters or cottages? They’re about one hundred and fifty metres away. There is a carport out the back where you keep your Mercedes and Land Cruiser. There is what we presume is a workshop with another vehicle and a truck in it. There is also another building with a mass of solar panels on the roof; I presume that’s your source of power. Is a generator going to interfere with us at night?”

“No,” Angus replied. “The building you refer to is full of batteries. We then convert to a/c. The solar system provides all the power we need, especially this time of year. You missed the windmill generator. The diesel generator is only there for backup and I usually run it for a few hours every week, really just to check that if the batteries go off, the generator will come in. I can turn the generator off; then there is no chance of it coming on.”

“How does the power get to the buildings?” Blondie asked.

“If you know I have a Mercedes, I’m surprised you don’t know,” said Angus with a half-smile.

“Well, we had a bloody good look, but we couldn’t see any cables.”

“All underground. This is cyclone country. Everything is buried and before you ask, the generator room and batteries are as secure as I can make them. There is no way in, except through the door, which is very strong and locked with the best padlock I could buy. I don’t want visitors snooping. No one can turn the power off to the buildings; the main switches and safety gear are all inside. There is a cellar under part of the building and the walls have a cavity connected to the cellar, which allows the air to circulate. Original air-conditioning. Same in the house.”

As Angus was talking to Blondie, Pat was watching Beanie and Ginger; they had wandered away looking round the immediate area, down the sides of the homestead. Then Blondie said, “First things first, show us around and where we might camp. We would like it to be no more than a couple of hundred metres from this house and the two cottages if possible, though if we do have visitors, we would like everyone to be in this house, make it easier for us. I might have to insist on that.” Suddenly and almost imperceptibly, he told them who was in charge.

“Not a problem,” Angus replied. “There is one thing you don’t know; my father is on his way here.”

“Your father? With due respect, Angus, even though I have read a brief on your father, he can’t be a young man. How’s he getting here? How old is he?”

“Driving. Late eighties. Very fit for his age.”

“Driving? Where is he now?

“Haven’t checked this morning. He has a state-of-the-art Range Rover, complete with sat phone and we can track him on his GPS. He was in Meekatharra last night, so I would think he will be here by lunchtime. I know, I should have told someone sooner, but I thought I might save you the trouble of him being in Perth, seeing as Michelle has her own private army and Mother goes to Melbourne today and will be away for a week.”

“You’re probably right. I know our people saw it as something of a potential problem if our friends, we’ve given them the collective name of ‘Johnny’ by the way, if Johnny disappeared and didn’t leave Perth it could have caused a bit of angst – I’ll tell our people as soon as we have a camp site.”

Once they had chosen their campsite and run a cable to one of the cottages for power to save their own batteries, they agreed to meet with Angus and Ali within the hour to study the aerial photos of Bangalore. Pat and Angus returned to the homestead.

Alice was in the kitchen together with Rachael and Ali. Rachael was poaching eggs and without turning round from the stove said, “That was our SAS friends, I presume? Had a look through the window, motley looking mob if you ask me. All part of the trade, I suppose. So what’s the plan? Ali and I thought we would eat here with you; then we can have our own private meeting.”

“Good idea. Pat and I have just shown them round. They’ve run a cable into Ali’s cottage just for a bit of spare power. If our visitors or ‘Johnny’, do get here, they want us all in this house. I told them that wouldn’t be a problem.” For the first time there was a strain in Angus’ voice, the muscles in his face were tight and his expression a mixture of bleakness and confusion.

Alice looked up at him from the bread she was cutting for toast. “We can’t do anything about this, Angus, I know it’s a worry for you, but honestly, darling, it’s being done to us. We are not doing anything to anyone. I just thank the Lord for men like Nigel and Andy in this world.” She stopped cutting the bread and moved round the table and put her arms round Angus and held him tight, and then, as they all watched, stroked the back of his head, raised herself slightly and kissed him on the cheek. It was a motherly demonstration of affection, the likes of which not even Rachael had seen before. Angus briefly returned her hug. Patting him on the arm, she continued, “Now, you go into the breakfast room. Rachael is practising for married life – she’s cooked you and Ali poached eggs and bacon. Pat, if you want the same, put your order in. I’m sure our new cook can manage.” Alice was doing her best to raise the spirits in the room.

Pat watched Angus; the pressure was showing even more after Alice’s demonstration of affection. It appeared to have had the opposite effect to what she’d intended. He didn’t go to the breakfast room; he walked down the hallway and out onto the front veranda. Pat watched him. “Put Angus’ breakfast in the oven, Rach. Angus has gone outside. I’ll go and sit with him, if he wants me to. Those men that are here are so professional, bit sinister too. I think it’s shaken Angus a little to realise they are here and why. I think he’s beginning to realise what they do for a living. I’ll go and see if he wants a cup of tea.”

Angus was seated on the sofa gazing down the drive and into the distance. He seemed to have aged; his expression was still grim. He gave Pat a half-smile as she sat next to him. “Angus?”

Not looking at her, he said, “I’m all right, Pat. It just hit me as we walked back from settling those lads into their campsite that, in any other circumstances, that could be Ewen out there. Ewen is one of them. That is what he does for a living. Did you see the look in their eyes, the professionalism? I suddenly realised, more than ever, I don’t know, I just don’t know my son; who he really is; he lives in another world. Those young men left me in no doubt they will do whatever, whatever is necessary to succeed in their mission. That’s shaken me. Afghanistan has come to Bangalore for fuck’s sake! I’m sorry, didn’t mean to swear.”

“That’s not swearing; you should hear what goes on in a cockpit at times. Yes, they are a breed apart. You may need to brace yourself because if I am any judge, and I am no expert, we probably haven’t seen anything yet. Do you want a cup of tea or shall we go and have breakfast?”

Angus stood up, held out his hand and pulled Pat to her feet. “Let’s go and get breakfast. Blondie will be back soon and the sooner we get those maps and photos on the dining room table the better. Then Alice and Rachael can plan when to go down to the community and arrange to get them out there as well. They should all be there. Pensions aren’t due until next week, so they won’t be off to Carnarvon.”

They had hardly finished breakfast with little or no conversation when there was a knock on the front door. Angus got up. “That’ll be Blondie. Ali, if you’re ready we’ll take them into the dining room.”

Angus was surprised at the aerial photos of Bangalore. He was sure he could have done a sheep count from the detail. And yes, on one photo, a blow up from a larger photo, he could see his Mercedes in the bough shed next to his Land Cruiser. They talked for an hour and decided on five places where there were decent tracks and which were the most likely tracks ‘Johnny’ would use. They concentrated on which tracks were accessible if ‘Johnny’ came in from either Carnarvon or Meekatharra. It was Blondie’s view ‘Johnny’ would leave the main road once they knew they were within striking distance of Bangalore. The word striking resonated in Angus’ head. Ginger entered the room.

“I’ve just been having a look at those maps and photos in my palatial office,” he said with a grin. “I reckon we won’t need satellite phones. I haven’t cancelled them but I reckon we could have radio contact with most of the station. So I’ve ordered some radios as well; make it a lot easier. All the lookouts will have to do is turn it on, give us their location and wait for an answer from us. If that doesn’t work, use the sat phone. What do you think? Well too late really, the plane is on its way now, left five minutes ago.”

Blondie turned to Angus. “Angus?”

“Either or both, it’s up to you. The people out there can handle either. Certainly the men can, as we use radios during muster. Ali, what do you think?”

“Same, Angus, we just need it all to work. If I was coming in from Carnarvon and didn’t want to be seen, I would use that track that runs past the Donkey Flat bore, with a map and a compass that would lead you straight here. I would put Jimmy and his missus on that bore. They always camp there; they even have an established camp under a tree.

“Just to be safe I would put Augustus on top of that hill east of Goat Flat; he can see for miles from there, and providing we don’t get any more rain, he will see the dust if anyone is around. I agree with the places from the Meekatharra side. I also agree that the doggers should keep an eye out, patrol if you like, the sections of the boundary you’ve marked. Personally, if these people aren’t bushmen, I think they’ll stick to the tracks.”

It was Ginger who still grinning slapped Ali on the back. “Always expect the unexpected, Ali. We don’t know a lot about these buggers. We think we know what they are up to but we have little idea of their plans. We don’t know if they have had any ‘military’ training. I agree with Blondie, but just the same we must be as sure as we can that these buggers don’t unwittingly outwit us. The advantage we have is they don’t know we are here.”

“How long have we got?” Ali asked.

It was Ginger who replied. “Beanie has just been on the blower checking his lines. They told him they got a fix on Aussie as he turned his GPS on to find his way to Hawthorn. So we know he is there. Someone is watching the house so we will know when they leave. Just happened there was a flat for rent across the road; how lucky can you get? Depends if Aussie wants a rest, I suppose. If he doesn’t, what two days, three days to Perth? They have to rest sometime, somewhere. The cops will see them on the Nullarbor; we have made sure of that. There will be eyes on that road twenty-four seven, more than one car too. Then it’s in the lap of the gods what they do when they all meet up in Perth. We’ll have to wait and see.

“The other bit of news is we’ve included the white Land Rover Discovery in the watch, just to be on the safe side. Little Boadicea has disappeared. So she may be on the road already, so we have a watch out for her. She may be staying with friends, we don’t know. So to answer your question, Angus, we all reckon at least four days from this morning, probably more. So we’ve plenty of time. No rush with your Aboriginal people.”

Speaking now to Blondie, “The cameras we put on the cattle grid on the boundary are working fine; got a good picture of a road train driver having a pee, but that’s all. Oh, and a VW Kombi coming in, but we got them on the camera at the entrance passing by, so they are gone. We also picked up your father’s GPS. We reckon eleven-thirty the way he’s travelling.”

“How did you do that?” Angus asked.

“Ask Beanie. We just ask for info and someone gets it. Don’t know how. Fill my head with junk if they did. I, we, just want to know and someone finds a way. I suppose if you can track him, so can we. Beanie and I will start on this complex now. Remember every picture from the cameras we put around the house, we not only get them in the van, they will also go east and to the geo survey team, who will be in place now. Mainly because we can’t be in two places at once. We’re no good in the van if Johnny is around. We’ll have direct radio contact with the people watching the pictures. We’ll also have direct contact with the other lads in the other team; in fact, it becomes one team. We won’t turn the homestead system on until we need to, so we won’t be watching for three nights or more. We’ll tell you when.”

Blondie took up the story. “At the same time as we do that, we will expect everyone to be resident in this house. Okay, what now?”

“What indeed?” said Angus. “I’m almost speechless.”

Ali responded, “There’s nothing I can do here. Rach and I will go and do the northern mill run, should take us about six hours. We will leave first thing in the morning and do the rest. Do we have enough time to take our swags and camp out, Blondie?”

“Sure, you’re on the phone anyway, so we can always contact you. Can I ask if you carry a rifle?”

“2.43 Parker Hale. More than twenty years old, but good. Scoped. On a good day I can get a dog at four hundred metres.”

“Not bad shooting. Do you use it a lot?”

“Yes. There are always goats, pigs and donkeys as well as the dogs and dingoes. We try and keep on top of them, that’s the theory. Angus has the twin to it. Your dad bought both of them didn’t he, Angus?”

“Yes. For my thirtieth birthday, both in boxes he had made. We have the boxes fixed on the back wall of our Land Cruisers. We check the scopes every week or so. We have a range and a tripod. We test over two, three and four hundred metres, after that its every man, or dog, for himself.”

“Dogs a big problem?” asked Ginger.

Ali looked at him. “If ever you want to spend some time, come on out with me and I’ll show you. We’re one of the few stations out here that still have sheep. Most have gone to cattle because of wild dogs, not so much because of dingoes, but them as well. Dogs and dingoes and the lack of labour killed the sheep business out here. Angus has stuck with sheep and we have dog teams out around the station. If it wasn’t because this is ‘Bangalore’ and the Aborigines tell stories of the first of the Sinclairs to come here in the 1880s and settle here, the Aboriginal people at the community don’t have a bad story about any of the Sinclairs, and if it wasn’t for the Aboriginal women who made the community ‘dry’ a couple of years ago, which meant we could get some men out there dogging instead of drinking, we would probably be into cattle too, wouldn’t we, Angus?”

Blondie cut off Angus’ reply. “Well, that’s good. At least we know what firearms you have. Anything else in the homestead, Angus?”

“Father has a matching pair of World War Two service revolvers, 45s. They are in the safe together with a couple of boxes of bullets. I have a .45 Smith and Wesson pistol, licensed, quite old but in perfect condition, that too is in the safe, again with a couple of boxes of ammo. I carry the pistol sometimes when we are mustering; sometimes come across a rogue bull or a pig. Only Ali and I carry firearms on horseback. We each have a .22 Hornet in a saddle scabbard. They are locked in the cabinet. That’s about it. No. I have a pump action 12 gauge locked in the cabinet with the other rifles.” Angus walked a few paces towards the door and then turned, his eyes weary, yet there was a fierceness in them, and his expression one of barely controlled anger, which Ali hadn’t ever, ever, seen before. He didn’t raise his voice. “Why the bloody, why the fucking hell, do you want to know what weapons we have here? This whole exercise according to you is as safe as can be. Then we are questioned about all this other stuff. You’re not expecting us to arm ourselves, are you? Because, if you are, I’m going to get everyone off this fucking place right now! I don’t care if Osama Bin Laden himself knows that the Sinclairs have evacuated Bangalore! So what goes on? Are you telling us the whole truth? Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder.”

Ginger walked away from the table and looked out of the window. Angus and Ali waited for Blondie to reply. He looked at the floor for a moment and when he looked up he was smiling. “I heard your son give someone a dressing down like that once. I’ve never forgotten it. I’m sorry; I just let the conversation continue for too long. It was more curiosity on my part. It is of no consequence to me in any way what firearms you have in the house. If I thought you were in any danger I would have evacuated you by now, by force if necessary. Believe that to be true; it is my decision alone.” Angus opened his mouth to speak and then nodded.

“ Our plan is that ‘Johnny’ will not get within a perimeter of four hundred metres of this house as once in the front gate every inch will be covered. There are fourteen men in the survey team. What we haven’t told you is they will gradually work their way in this direction. They will move camp every day. When ‘Johnny’ is close, day or night, they will all be in position here, right here. They are trained for it; they can wait for hours if need be. Ginger and I are just going to check their positions again. Line of fire that sort of thing. As I have said and I think I am only repeating what Nigel and Andy told you, we want these men alive. The order to shoot to kill will only be given as a very last resort.

“I’m sorry, Angus. I should have stuck to the business instead of letting the conversation wander. I cannot deny I would be happier if you were not here, but in saying that, there is no danger to either you or your family. The only thing, which may change, is when I want everyone to move into this house and that’s because we don’t yet have an exact fix on when ‘Johnny’ will get here. Again, I’m sorry if I’ve caused you any distress.”

“No, it’s my turn to apologise. I may come from a line of fighting men, but I am the exception to the rule. I abhor violence. I know it’s an ever-increasing part of life. I’m now aware, more than ever, what my son does for a living. That knowledge doesn’t change me. That’s why it needs wild horses to get me off this place; I stay here because I can stay away from the world. In the last few days I’ve had a version of reality: violence almost beyond my comprehension, flung at me, forced down my throat by a variety of very dedicated people. So, please, don’t let me hold you up. Go and do what you have to do. If there is anything you need, then please ask. We in turn will do what we have to do and we will try and be as normal as we can, at least for a few days.” Angus held out his hand and Blondie gripped it firmly.

“Thanks, Angus.” Ginger followed Blondie out of the dining room, leaving the maps and photos on the table.

Ali called after them, “You’ve left your stuff on the table.”

“They’re your copies. We have more in the van. If you have any changes to your lookout positions wander over and tell us. Beanie will be in the van.” With that comment over his shoulder, Ginger closed the door.

Angus looked at his watch. “Half past nine, time for a cuppa?”

Alice was alone in the kitchen putting the final touches to a large leg of hogget on the kitchen table. Angus examined it. “We’ve come for a cuppa, Alice, and one of those Anzacs if you haven’t hidden them.”

“I made some more this morning. I noticed you’d found them. I’ll put this roast in about midday, slow roast, just as your father likes it. We can put his lamb in the freezer. The rosemary has survived the summer and I’ve put a few cloves of garlic in there as well so it should be perfect. Don’t know if the girls eat roast potatoes but that’s what they are going to get. Pumpkin and green peas will complete the meal. Pudding will be tinned peaches and cream and if anyone is still hungry there is still some of that blue cheese in the fridge. You can make your own tea. I’m too busy.”

oOo

Totally unaware of the mass of activity at Bangalore, Lachlan turned off the bitumen and on to a gravel road a few kilometres out of Meekatharra. He reset the suspension on his Range Rover and didn’t know why. Did a cockpit check. Pushed the button on the dash and the car filled with light classical music. He was now into his country. It had been a few years but he quickly and happily recognised landmarks, a big rock here, a tree there.

He had to concentrate a bit more, no cruise control; the constant four-wheel drive on the Range Rover gave him confidence to keep pressing on at a good speed; on to Bangalore.

Lachlan thought about the phone call from the major, the lady who was taking care of Ewen in Germany. He wondered when they would send him home. His mind wandered back over the years; he reminisced as the kilometres slipped by.

He was glad he’d been there for Ewen and Rachael in Perth, when the time had come for them to go to boarding school. His house in Dalkeith was within easy walking distance of Scotch College and Rachael’s school.

Michelle, he remembered, had already, years before, persuaded Angus to buy a house in Claremont, on the pretext it would be close to both schools when the time came.

He didn’t seek the information; his friends told him, in friendly conversation, which was really gossip, where they had seen Michelle. At this reception or at that concert. At this party and at that play. Who she was with – it wasn’t always the same man – but it was always a man. So even though Michelle never contacted him or Isobel, he knew how Michelle was spending her life in Perth and she had, to all intents and purposes, left Ewen and Rachael to Alice and Angus on Bangalore. History was repeating itself.

Lachlan knew Michelle had refused Angus a divorce and Angus, for whatever reason, refused to push it. He didn’t know why. Who was he to judge his son in such things?

So Lachlan gave his time to his grandchildren. Lachlan watched Ewen play rugby on cold wet days and when the sun shone. He watched him and the school ‘eight’ early in the morning, rowing up and down the Swan River as they trained for the inter-school regatta and the prized ‘Head of the River’. He hardly missed a home cricket match as Ewen worked his way into the school teams, from a little boy right through to when he was nearly, but not quite, a man. He was proud when he became the Captain of the First Eleven.

He gave the same attention to Rachael as she grew – at times he found it more difficult when Rachael was just a little girl – but strangely more rewarding. Both children missed their mother, whom they seldom saw. He felt that Michelle only took them out of school when she wanted to show them off to her friends – but never to her men friends. The very thought of it, twenty years on, still irritated him.

If their sports fixtures clashed he told them whose turn it was for him to watch. Sometimes Rachael would watch Ewen with him. Ewen would never go to Rachael’s school with Lachlan. Once, after much cajoling from Lachlan, Ewen relented. He was about sixteen and even Lachlan recognised Ewen was a handsome lad. The girls in the boarding school agreed. Lachlan watched Rachael play hockey and for his troubles, Ewen got the full treatment of big wide innocent eyes and group giggles from the girls. If Ewen noticed he didn’t say, but he never went back to Rachael’s school until he partnered her at the Leaver’s Ball.

On that occasion Rachael saw little of Ewen after they had the first dance together. Lachlan smiled to himself as he recalled how Rachael had been wide eyed as she had told Lachlan, as they had left Perth on the road to Bangalore, how the girls had almost queued up to dance with Ewen.

Ewen, for once in the back of the Range Rover, refused to comment; he just smiled as Rachael told her tale. Rachael pleaded with him for details and Ewen refused. Rachael, in sheer frustration, reached over the front seat and hit him and Ewen laughed even more and covered his head. Lachlan brushed a tear from his eye as he thought about how happy they had been that day, the three of them together, heading north, going where they all wanted to go – to Bangalore.

Lachlan also made sure his grandchildren wanted for nothing. Michelle made sure that their school uniforms and ‘civvies’, as Lachlan called them, were perfect. She was good at that, but nothing more. Whether she thought everything else was in the fees or whether she knew Lachlan was paying, he never found out and he never told. Not even Angus.

Lachlan purchased whatever his grandchildren needed from books to the very best of sports equipment and clothing. Isobel said he spoiled them. Then she appeared to lose interest in what he did for them. Then, just to confuse the issue, Rachael told him Isobel had arranged for her to have an account at a Department Store; all she had to do was ring up and order and they would deliver to the school.

Lachlan paid for their additional school trips and outings. Rachael and Ewen learned to ski in the snowfields of Victoria.

On long weekends over the summer, Michelle always told her children she was going away, so Lachlan and his friend Percy, who owned a yacht called The Lark, took them sailing over to Rottenest Island or down the coast to Rockingham. They would fish and swim all weekend. Once they sailed to Busselton for a regatta and they left The Lark there and went back the next weekend to sail her back to Fremantle. That was a real deep-sea adventure. Ewen and Rachael learned from Percy how to sail and eventually he was quite happy when he and Lachlan became the crew to their two young skippers.

As they got older it was quite evident to both Lachlan and Percy that Ewen and Rachael shared a bond, an understanding, which was usually seen in identical twins. They sailed The Lark without one deferring to the other. This was most noticeable when they were racing. They took turns at being skipper and they would race all afternoon without an order being issued. Lachlan and Percy became ballast and occasional sail trimmers; mainly they did what they were told.

The only time that Percy tried to intervene was during a race when he and Ewen had a difference of opinion as to whether, on a hard tack, The Lark had sufficient speed to clear a fast-approaching much bigger yacht, or whether, as was the rule, they would have to give way.

Percy lost his nerve first. “Give way Ewen,” he said quietly. Ewen paid no attention so Percy shouted, “Give way, lad!” Ewen held his course and they crossed in front of the bigger boat with seconds to spare. Percy never questioned Ewen’s judgement again. They won the race that day on handicap. It was the first race The Lark had ever won.

Lachlan remembered how he, Ewen and Rachael would return to Bangalore together for every school holiday, Rachael and Ewen excited at the prospect of seeing their dad and their horses, he pleased he was returning to his country, to his son and once again to… he smiled to himself and dwelt a moment on the memories and then, deliberately, pushed them from his mind.

From the beginning Ewen and Rachael had always insisted that their return to Bangalore be by road. It had taken him some time to realise why. It hadn’t dawned on him until he had bothered to watch them, and more importantly, listen to them, talking on the long journey north.

They both knew the road as they had travelled it many times before starting school. Between the two of them they quickly established a routine in which each had their part to play. It was the routine that both of the children loved. They waited for and ticked off each landmark. They always stopped to boil the billy and to camp at the same place. As they got closer to Bangalore the excitement mounted.

He recalled the time he’d bought a new Range Rover. Ewen and Rachael both got a Saturday morning off from school and helped him choose it. There had been a debate between Rachael, who wanted dark green ‘so that they wouldn’t be seen on the landscape’, the environmentalist had stirred early in her, and Ewen, ever practical, wanting white because it would be cooler if ever the air conditioner broke down on the hot Christmas break. Ewen’s choice, with Lachlan’s support, had prevailed.

Ewen had one opportunity to stress, even lecture to Rachael, how right he had been when they spent a very hot few hours between Perth and Dalwallinu, where they had a fractured pipe repaired and the air conditioner unit re-gassed. Rachael never mentioned the colour again.

It was Lachlan’s job to strap their three swags on to the rack on the roof of the Range Rover before they started each journey. Ewen helped him design the addition of the roof rack in such a way that Lachlan could easily remove when it wasn’t needed in Perth. The bull bar and the rack on the back of the vehicle were more serious additions. Even though there were plenty of fuel stations scattered along the long road to Bangalore, Ewen had insisted, and Lachlan hadn’t disagreed, that they should carry extra fuel, just in case.

On the first trip Ewen had very seriously told Lachlan that they had to carry sufficient water not only for their overnight stops, but, “Just in case we break down Pop, or we might meet someone else on the road who is out of water.” After that they always carried an extra twenty litres of water over and above what they needed for each night, that meant two twenty-litre ‘jerry cans’ on the rack at the back.

Ewen had showed an attention to detail early in his life. At school he’d obtained catalogues from four-wheel drive shops and chosen a ‘kangaroo’ jack and a self-recovery electric winch to be fitted to the front bar of the Range Rover. Lachlan had them fitted though he didn’t believe he really needed them.

Ewen also found someone who would custom make a holder for a second spare wheel. He chose the spotlights for Lachlan’s approval, reminding him, at the age of twelve, that it was the size of the reflector that determined the brightness of the light. Ewen was a serious little boy.

Rachael’s contribution had been the choosing of what went into the first aid kit, and the size of the Eskys, what would go in them and how they would fit in the vehicle together with their luggage. She designed the ‘tucker box’ for their tins of food and dry goods Everything had to fit so that it was easy to get at and most importantly didn’t rattle or rub on the interior leather. Rachael had then insisted that their seats be fitted with sheepskin covers. They only needed three seats she had reasoned, so they had extra space. It was Rachael who decided what could go in the vehicle, what had to go on the rack and what they either had to leave at school or get the school to send on. They both learned to travel light.

In the days leading up to the end of every term, Lachlan was busy preparing for the trip and answering their phone calls and assuring them he had carried out their instructions. If Isobel noticed what he was doing, she didn’t comment. She had never expressed any interest in going back to Bangalore after they had left it to Angus and Michelle. The most that Lachlan did was tell her what time he would be leaving the next morning. Towards the end he didn’t even bother to tell her that. In what conversation he had with her there was an assumption on her part that he would not be in Perth during the school holidays.

The routine on the day of departure was always the same. Pick them up from school early in the morning. Back to the house in Dalkeith so they could check that Lachlan had done everything right, make any little additions, say hello and good-bye to their grandmother, who was always there and always gave them some money for the trip, and to buy a present for their father. Off to Bates the saddlers and stockman’s outfitters because they always needed bigger boots and jeans and maybe a shirt or new socks for Angus. Sometimes, if she happened to be there, back to Claremont to see their mother, Michelle, and then they were free, free for the open road.

The three of them travelled well. To start with the two children alternated between the back and front seat every time they stopped. Then Rachael soon learned that she was more comfortable without Ewen shouting in her ear while he was trying to talk to Lachlan from the back seat, so she opted for the peace and quiet in the back where she could doze and read and look out of the window – and then in her teens, think of Ali.

It was Lachlan’s job to make sure he followed their instructions carefully. They would ring him from school and give him their lists for food and drink and what to check in the first aid kit. Ewen would always, at least when he knew no better, insist that they check the oil and water in the engine before they left. Lachlan showed him how to open the bonnet just once and after that, right up to their last trip together; Ewen always checked the engine before they left Perth. He also wanted them to carry at least five litres of extra oil, ‘Just in case Pop.”

oOo

His twenty-first century Range Rover, bumping over the cattle grid on the boundary of Bangalore broke Lachlan’s daydreams and reminisces. He was nearly there.

In no time he was turning past the old wooden sign of ‘Bangalore’, over the cattle grid and on to the red-gravel drive and into the avenue of palms. He noticed two men working close to the cattle grid and presumed they were fencing.

He couldn’t resist a little toot on the horn as the Range Rover crunched through the gravel and stopped by the front steps of Bangalore; it was just after eleven o’clock.

Lachlan let out a deep sigh; he’d made it with ease. He was now in the place which he wasn’t going to leave again. He’d made up his mind on the drive from Perth through all the years of memories and reminiscences, good and bad, that he’d had enough of doing the right thing. He didn’t know, nobody knew, how long they have left in this world; look at Ewen. Whether he had a year, ten years or ten days left, this place, this Bangalore, he had decided, was where he would end his days.

Lachlan looked out of the window to see Angus opening the door for Alice and a young woman he didn’t know; he presumed it was Ewen’s fiancée. He reached over and opened the back door of the Range Rover and his dog, Blackie, jumped out. So Blackie and Angus’ dog, Charlie, were the first to greet each other with a tail inspection.

A little stiffly, Lachlan climbed out of the Range Rover. Alice had walked down the veranda steps in front of Angus and Pat. She looked a little uncertain and then smiled as Lachlan held out both arms and enveloped her in a big hug. As Angus looked on he was slightly bemused as he watched his father kiss Alice first on the forehead and then on the lips. They stood for a moment holding each other tightly.

As if nothing unusual had happened, Lachlan released Alice and walked the few steps to his son and shook his hand and briefly held him in a half-embrace. “Hello, Angus, how are you? Told you I could do it. You ought to get one of those vehicles and get rid of that old jalopy of yours.” Turning to Pat he said, “You must be, Patricia. I am whatever you want to call me, Lachlan, or as Rachael and Ewen call me, Pop or Pops. It’s up to you.”

Pat shook Lachlan’s hand. “I think I would prefer Lachlan, if you don’t mind.”

“Course I don’t. I’m sure you had or have your own Pop anyway. So Lachlan it is. Have you heard anything more of Ewen?”

“No, we haven’t.”

“Well, I have some news for you there. First things first – get this vehicle unloaded and I am dying for a cup of tea.” Turning to Alice he laughingly said, “And I shall leave first thing in the morning if you haven’t made any Anzacs.”

Alice’s eyes were dancing. “They’re made, Lachy. I even made some more when Angus found them.”

‘Lachy,’ thought Angus. ‘What’s all this ‘Lachy’ business?’ He ignored it for the moment. “Father we’ve put you in the …”

Before he could complete the sentence, Lachlan interrupted. “No need, no need. I shall be staying with Alice. We’ll just take the lamb and a case of Black Label out of here and then later I’ll take my bags down to Alice’s.”

Angus looked at Alice and her expression hadn’t changed; he didn’t know her heart was thumping in her chest and she was straining to appear impassive. She looked at Angus and gave him a smile. All he could offer in return was to raise his eyebrows, which Alice ignored.

Fifteen minutes later, the lamb safely in the deep freeze, they were all seated around a small table on the veranda, mugs of tea in hand and dunking Anzac biscuits. “So Angus,” said Lachlan, “I see you have some casual labour; doing some fencing, are they?”

“Not exactly, Father. There’s a long story to tell you.”

Over the next hour, with few questions from Lachlan, Angus told him of the visit from the men from ASIO and the CIA and the subsequent arrival of Blondie and his mates.

He also told him of the Geo Survey of the extra seventeen men who weren’t very far away.

Lachlan was seated next to Alice on the two-seat sofa. Angus noticed that while he was telling his tale, Alice had put her arm through Lachlan’s. As he puffed away at his pipe, only occasionally did she waft away the smoke. It was as if she was used to it.

When he’d finished Lachlan said, “How far away are these buggers, did you say?”

“At least three days maybe four. It all depends on where and how often they stop. I suppose it all depends on whether the surveillance they have in place picks them up. It’s not certain they will as there are many ways of getting here without using the main roads. But, Blondie and his bosses seem to think they’ll stick to the main roads at least until they are fairly close. Will you go down to the community with Alice, Rachael and Blondie? I know they’d all like to see you.”

“Course I will; haven’t been there for years. Hope they’re keeping the place tidy. Last time I was there I told them to clean it up.” As he was speaking an old Holden station wagon turned into the drive.

“ Well, well, speak of the devil,” said Alice. “This is old Rosie. Wonder what she wants.”

In the station wagon was an old Aboriginal woman and three or four children and a couple of dogs. She told the children, and the dogs, in a very loud voice, to stay where they were. It wasn’t possible to determine Rosie’s age. She was a little stooped, had grey hair and like many older Aboriginal women, some coarse wispy hair on her top lip and chin. When she smiled there were many gaps in her front teeth. Her print dress was clean and she wore thongs on her feet. Lachlan stood up and walked down the veranda steps to meet her.

Before he could speak Rosie said, “I knew you were here, so I thought I would come and say hello. You lookin’ well. How are you, Boss?”

“I’m well, Rosie. You don’t look too bad yourself for your age. You must be nearly as old as me now.”

Rosie let out a cackle of a laugh. “Never catch you. Seventy-three, Boss; seein’ all the others off now. Never did drink, you know. That’s what saved me. You know we are dry now at the community?”

“I did hear. How did you know I was here?”

“Dunno, just said to my grandchildren,” pointing to the car, “just said to my grandchildren an hour ago, we goin’ to come up to Bangalore; had a feeling you was here.”

“Someone saw me on the road.”

“No, honest, all the men out the other side. Gone hunting. Now I know you is here, I can go back.”

Before she could get back in the car, Lachlan said, “Hang on, Rosie, I have a favour to ask,”

“Anything, Boss, you know that. What you want?

“Can we have a meeting the day after tomorrow? Alice, Rachael and I, together with a friend from Perth, need some help from you and your people. This is secret meeting, no strangers, no children and no bloody dogs. We want half a dozen couples, couple of blokes, man and woman, doesn’t matter, who will be ready to leave when asked and go and camp out for a few days at different places round Bangalore. Can you organise that?”

Rosie looked at him as if she hadn’t heard. “How Ewen goin’?”

“He’s okay. I heard from his doctor and she says he’s getting on fine.”

“My girl, Mary. You know the clever one that Alice teach? She was named after Alice’s mum. She’s a nurse, passed all her exams now, thanks to Alice and Angus sayin’ she gotta go to school in Perth. Well, she was on the phone yesterday. Works at Hollywood Hospital. She says she hopes they send him there; she’ll make him better.” Rosie laughed and Lachlan grinned back at her.

“I would have thought she would have half a dozen of her own by now,” said Lachlan smiling.

Rosie looked serious. “Not my Mary. She had a bloke, turned out a useless bugger, drinking, doing drugs and always bludgin’ off her. Came from down south somewhere, Noongar bloke. She had lot of trouble with him, and his family. He had a good job up north, on this fly-in fly-out, but he got caught twice in the drug test or drink test or somthin’, an’ he got the sack. Then Mary kicked him out. She was studying an’ all he did was bring his mates around, drinkin’ and smokin’ that stuff, spoilin’ her life. I think he’s in jail now. I think, not sure – I know he’s been in jail. She lives on her own. Buying a flat in Shenton Park. Good girl. No bloke. She’s nearly thirty now. Works hard. She says if they send Ewen to Hollywood she’ll make him better. Seen his picture in the paper. Think she fancies him.” She let out a big laugh, again showing the gaps in her front teeth. Proud of their achievement and her part in making it happen, Rosie told Lachlan again, “We are dry now at the community, Boss.”

“Yes, I heard. Is that working okay?”

“Yeh, most of the time. Best thing we ever did. The elders back in control. If the young ones don’t like it then they can leave. We had a blue the other night when a mob from Meeka turned up with grog. They wouldn’t leave, so I rang Gascoyne policeman and he said he would come and I told them he was on his way and they buggered off real quick. They went to Carnarvon, silly buggers, so I hope he met them on the way. They were all drunk and had their kids with them. We’re better now with no grog. Not so many of us in the community, but the kids are goin’ to school and the teachers are stayin’. Some of the young people come back from Carnarvon, which is good, so we got the orchard and the gardens goin’ again. Some of the young ones want to paint too, so we’re trying to get some money for a studio. We can still go huntin’ and doin’ all that stuff. Just we don’t have any fights anymore. Even the nurse has stayed.”

“That’s good, Rosie. I hope you’re not working too hard?”

“No, it’s good now. They come and ask me and the other older ones. We talk, then the younger ones go an’ do the things we talk about. No grog, no fights, that’s the big change.”

“How about a meeting not tomorrow morning, morning after? You put the billy on. I need your help.” Lachlan looked at her.

“I’ll get them all there, Boss,” Rosie thought for a moment. “Why don’t we meet at that swimming pool you got? We can leave all the kids behind then, an’ we can sit in the shade. Better place for a meeting down there. Better than you coming to the community. We never know who might turn up. Wouldn’t want that bloody Meeka mob to turn up again. What time, about smoke-o?”

“Good, Rosie. Day after tomorrow, smoke-o in the morning. You take care driving back. Now remember this is a secret between you and me. Is that cyclone coming down?”

Rosie stood quite still for a moment or two. “Don’t think so. Don’t feel like it. Maybe, but I don’t think so. We might get a storm.”

Rosie climbed back into her old station wagon, started it up and a cloud of blue smoke erupted from the exhaust, and with the dogs barking and all the children waving out of the windows and out of the tailgate window, drove off down the drive.

Angus watched his father. It was if he had never been away. Rosie called him Boss, as she had always done. She always called him Angus. Which probably meant in Rosie’s eyes, until he died, Lachlan would be the Boss.

Alice was smiling as Lachlan talked to Rosie. Both she and Lachlan had known Rosie for more years than she liked to think about. They had both seen the Bangalore Aboriginal families decimated by ‘the grog’. They had also watched and helped when they could, as, over the years, Rosie had battled to hold her community together. Now they were ‘grog’ free and Rosie was proud of that. “How many times has Rosie done that sort of thing Lachy? Remember when you and Rachael and Ewen used to come here for the holidays, she always knew when you were here, and she’d just turn up like that. I think she runs that community now with a rod of iron, powerful woman is Rosie. To think that five years ago her man died of diabetes and kidney failure and I thought she was going the same way. That Mary always was a clever girl.” Turning to Pat and smiling Alice continued, “Looks like you’ve got some competition there, Pat.”

Pat looked at her engagement ring and didn’t reply, instead she asked, “How did she know you were here, Lachlan?”

“Who knows, Pat? I’ve given up trying to understand, gave up years ago. I now just expect the unexpected. Some might call it supernatural, paranormal. I just say it’s blackfella ‘stuff’. I could tell you a hundred stories just like that one. Anyway, that’s the meeting you wanted, isn’t it, Angus?”

“Yes thanks, I’ll tell Blondie. What’s this about you hearing from Ewen? We haven’t heard a thing.”

“An army major, a lady neurologist, rang me on my mobile from Germany. Ewen had asked her, when he was awake for a brief period, to ring me and tell me he was okay.”

Angus shook his head and smiled at his father. “I didn’t know you have a mobile.”

Nonchalantly, Lachlan looked at him as he put his lighter to his pipe. “Oh yes. Ewen bought it for me. Taught me how to use it. Put everyone’s telephone number in it, even Michelle’s. I even know how to take photos and send them. Never use the bloody thing though. Nobody knew I had it, well not quite, a couple knew. Ewen wanted me to have it so he could ring me if he wanted to. I know you and he have an email agreement – well, I don’t do emails so he bought me a phone. I even found out how to transfer it to my satellite phone. I forgot about that phone, left it in the car. I’d better get it.” He started to get up.

“Hang on Father, what did this neurologist say? You know more than we do. We’ve been hanging out for news. So has Michelle, by the way. She’ll love you all the more if she finds out you’ve been getting special treatment and not passing it on. That’ll really get her going.”

Lachlan settled back in his seat, then changed his mind, stood up went to his Range Rover, took the satellite phone out of its holder, pressed a couple of buttons and said, “Well, I haven’t missed any calls. She said she would ring back if she was allowed. Apparently she was doing Ewen a favour. He asked her to ring ‘Pop’ on his mobile. She thought it was you, Angus. Her name is Eugenie McMahon; she’s a major in the US Army, a neurologist. She said Ewen was doing fine and he was just about off the sedation; he was tired and sleeping most of the time. They had saved his leg and they were as sure as they could be there is no permanent damage to his brain. All the vital signs were there, from what I could gather. That was about the sum of it. She said she would ring again if she had time, and if she was allowed. She rang on the spur of the moment, so I presume without permission. She hasn’t rung again, so I assume no news is good news. I’m sorry I didn’t ring you and tell you but then I knew I would have to go through the rigmarole of explaining the phone. So I waited until I got here.” Turning to Pat he said, “Sorry, Pat, I thought it for the best. For all I knew you might have heard direct while I was on the road.” With a little grimace he said, “I’ll leave it to you to ring, Michelle, Angus.”

Pat hadn’t spoken the whole time; she’d just sat there listening. Angus noticed her expression hadn’t changed while Lachlan had been telling his story. He continued to look at her. She looked up at him and gave a faint smile.

Lachlan took over again. “Well, best thing I can do now is take my stuff down to Alice’s. Then it can’t be far off lunchtime. I didn’t have breakfast this morning, filled my flask at the motel, I had a cup of coffee on the way and a packet of Granita biscuits, so I’m a bit peckish. After lunch I might just have a nap. Then you can take me to meet these lads you have roaming round the place.” He stood up without effort and helped Alice to her feet. Without waiting for an answer they both went to the Range Rover, drove round the back of Bangalore and the hundred metres or so to Alice’s cottage, leaving Pat and Angus alone on the veranda.

At Alice’s cottage Lachlan took his two leather travel bags and a suit bag off the back seat and followed Alice up a few steps of the west-facing veranda and they both went indoors. Alice closed the door gently, and led the way into her bedroom. The room was sparsely furnished, two big old cedar wardrobes, a dressing table with a mirror and a stool. A queen-size bed with a bedside locker and lamp at each side. There was a large cedar chest of drawers against one wall, a smaller one on the opposite side of the room. There was one large window facing east with an uninterrupted view of Bangalore country.

Alice turned and faced Lachlan. “Lachy, what’s going on?”

He sat on the bed and patted the bed for her to sit beside him. He took her hand in both of his. She saw his eyes had misted over a little but he looked straight at her. “I know I should have told you, Ally, but there just wasn’t time. I made up my mind only yesterday. I don’t know what did it; I don’t know what the trigger was. Maybe it was the call from Ewen’s doctor. Maybe it was the way that Isobel spoke to me and called me ‘a silly old fool’ for driving up here. But I think, what really made up my mind was when I realised that whatever time I have left on this world, it’s time that I broke this charade that you and I have been living all these years. The bitter sweetness of parting and meeting again only to part again gets more difficult as time passes. We have led a life full of so many secrets, even deceptions, deceptions, which would be bound to come out when I die and then – then I realised, you would be left to do all the explaining. That would be very unfair on you.

“I decided not to wait until then. Our story might as well come out now. It will explain, I hope, why I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life, whatever is left to me, a day, a week, a year, whatever it is, I want to spend it here with you. That is if you will have me?” Alice now had tears rolling down her face.

She rested her head on his shoulder and let out a great sob and at the same time, was laughing with sheer joy. “Oh, Lachy. I had a premonition the other day when Angus said you were behaving a little strangely. I had the glimmer of hope that you might have decided to stay, but I pushed it out of my mind. I kept thinking about you telling Angus you wanted Ali and Rachael to be married here and you were going to dance at their wedding. Are you going to tell them everything?

“ Everything. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” A little clumsily he kissed her on the forehead and gave her his handkerchief. “Here wipe your eyes and go and wash your face, don’t want them to see you with red eyes. I suspect there will be a few tears tonight. The reasons we haven’t done it before, Ally, I will explain at dinner tonight. Did you see the strange look they gave you when you called me Lachy?”

“No. I had my back to them.”

“Angus’ face was a picture; he looked totally bemused, even shocked. Angus and Pat, Rachael and Ali are coping with a lot at the moment. I know this will only add to it, but I can’t help that. I can hardly move in here with you and not explain the whole story. I had no idea about all this other bloody terrorism stuff when I left. Don’t think it would have changed my mind though. Probably better that I am up here anyway.”

“Wait ’til Ali hears you call me Ally. I must get back to the house. I made some sandwiches for lunch as I didn’t know what time you would be here, so everyone could just help themselves when they got hungry. Ali and Rach have gone on a mill run. They should be back about six”.

“I’ll walk over with you. Then I might come back here and have forty winks. I’ll have to get Angus to bring that big leather armchair out of the dining room over here. Don’t think he uses it much. It was my father’s, so Angus can have it back when I kick the bucket.”

Alice didn’t say anything. She held open the door and they both walked back to the homestead. Pat was alone on the veranda. She had a small plate with a few sandwiches and a piece of fruit cake on her knee, a mug of tea on the small table by her side. Lachlan and Alice used the back door into the kitchen. Lachlan helped himself to sandwiches and a piece of cake, took the cosy off the teapot, decided the tea was hot enough and poured some into a mug. “You having anything, Ally?”

“No thanks, I’ve got a few things to do for tonight. I thought an early dinner, about six-thirty. Rach and Ali should be back by then. It won’t spoil if we have to wait. You must be tired and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of talking to do, so best we make an early start. Must remind Angus to raid his cellar for some good reds. I have a feeling a few will be drunk tonight. I already have the whites in the fridge, put my favourites in there.”

Lachlan finished pouring his tea. “I’ll go and sit on the veranda then, see where the others are.” He found Pat, alone. “Angus, gone off somewhere, Pat?”

“One of the men, Beanie, came to ask his advice, said to tell you he will be about half an hour. That was half an hour ago, so they must have found something else.”

“You’re a pilot, Pat?”

“Yes. I’m an aeronautics engineer really, but I’ve concentrated in getting as many flying hours in as possible over the last three years, on as many types of aircraft as I can. I got my wings eight years ago. I think I’ve been a bit of a pain to the RAAF, because I’m studying for my Master’s at the same time, so it hasn’t left me a lot of time for what some might call ‘other duties’. My secondment with the army is due to finish soon, then there will be a few decisions to be made.”

“Any idea what you are going to do then?”

“I know the RAAF have some plans for me. Canberra has been talked about. Air defence is taking up a lot of time and money in the federal budget. There’s this new strike aircraft from America that we are cooperating on and contributing to; that seems to be stretching out beyond the budget. So there are bound to be upgrades to the Hornet before we get the new strike aircraft, if we ever get it.

“Heavy lift transport is what I am particularly interested in and how we move material away from the big cargo aircraft and the RAN, to where it’s needed. More and more these days that seems to be providing aid to natural disasters somewhere. There has been talk about the RAAF having its own heavy-lift rotary wing capacity. Who knows, the world is full of rumours.

“We seem to be moving resources further north all the time, Queensland and the Northern Territory and we have that base in the Kimberley at Curtin, which is really in mothballs. I suppose sometime, someone, will realise the value of the oil and gas off the north coast and how vulnerable offshore platforms are to anyone who may not like us. Then of course, there is this very fast-growing area of technology in drones, pilot-less surveillance and attack aircraft. I had a look at some of the latest developments in the States last year. For the time being I’m concentrating on getting my Master’s. Then I hope I have the chance to review my career.”

“Is it rude to ask where Ewen fits into all this?”

Pat looked down at her engagement ring and then at Lachlan. “No, it’s not rude, Lachlan. It’s a fair question. Ewen and I met again in Perth, in the usual military social round. We met briefly in Afghanistan when I was over there; about all we had in common then was that we were both from Perth and agreed we would try and meet up when he got home. He was very focused at that time. When his tour was finished he found me, which wasn’t all that difficult. We started going out. We like the same things. I have season tickets for the concert season; he likes the theatre and non-violent films. It just grew from there.

She stopped talking and looked into the distance, down the palm-lined drive and beyond. “He told me about Bangalore, where it was and something of his family history, so I knew a bit about all of you – but nothing very much about any of you, except he worships Angus and never stops talking about you. You are both his heroes, his role models.” Again she stopped and without looking at Lachlan. “Yet in some strange way, which I didn’t realise until I got here, he doesn’t seem to have the same attachment that you and Angus, and obviously Rachael have for this country. All the time I have known Ewen I’ve been impressed with his ambition for his career in the Army. The top is all he’s interested in – as far as he can go. After this tour of duty he wants to go to Staff College. Bangalore doesn’t come into his thinking. I’m not sure if he thinks of it as home. It’s only just dawned on me; I think he thinks of your house in Perth as his real ‘home’. Does that sound odd?” Still without looking at Lachlan but with a voice barely more than a whisper, she continued, “I hope I’m not intruding, Lachlan, but this place, this Bangalore, it brings life, should I say it’s bringing my life into perspective. Bit scary really. The day can’t be far away when I will have to return to duty. Put on my uniform of well-pressed clothes. Salute and be saluted. Get back into the regimented life. I have a feeling it’s going to be hard.”

As Pat had been talking Lachlan had been filling his pipe. Now he lit it and they were both momentarily enveloped in the smoke. He wafted his hand to disperse it. “I’m sorry, my dear, I do that all the time and usually get told off for it. Would you like me to move away?”

“Heavens no. Angus has been leading me astray since I got here. I’ve always smoked a few cigarettes. Learned to roll my own at university, yes, probably, before you ask, I think we all did a bit of experimenting. Then on and off since I joined the RAAF I have smoked. Ewen hates smoking, so never in his company. Then when I came up here, Angus offered me his tobacco pouch and I’ve been bludging off him ever since.”

“Well, he’s left his pouch on that other table if the urge is great.”

Pat got Angus’ tobacco pouch off the chair and rolled a cigarette. Lachlan passed her his lighter. “Do you still fly, Lachlan?”

“Not on my own anymore; age caught up with me. I kept on passing my medicals much to everyone’s surprise. But I hung up my goggles a few years ago. Still a member of the flying club and I can have a fly anytime I want. Last time I flew a plane was a Lear Jet. Mining magnate, friend of the family, his father was in the War with me. He was making a quick trip up to Port Headland, up and down in the day. I got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat for an hour, let me do a few turns and that sort of thing. Good fun but a very complicated cockpit, bit different to the old Lancaster Bomber and old Bessie, our Cessna. Ever flown a Tiger Moth?”

“No.”

“Well, when all this nonsense is over and before you go back to Perth, we’ll have to fix that.”

“How?”

“In that hangar behind where Bessie is, are two more planes. Both in perfect order, both with current airworthiness certificates. There’s a Tiger Moth and a nineteen fifties’ Chipmunk. Someone landed the Chipmunk bit hard at Jandakot and didn’t have the money to fix it up. I bought it for a song, had a bit of money at the time, so I had it rebuilt. I used to use it all the time. Range was a bit of a problem even with what they called long-range tanks. Had to stop to refuel on the way to Perth. I had it in Perth for a while after I moved down there. Angus, Ewen and Rachael learned to fly in it, unofficially of course, I eventually persuaded Ali to learn to fly as well. I paid for his flying lessons when he went to agricultural college. Don’t suppose Rachael has kept her hours up. So, when I had the Chipmunk in Perth, Angus needed a plane here, so we bought Bessie. It was in Bessie that Ewen and Rachael got their wings, Ali too.”

“How did you get a Tiger Moth?”

“Just after the War, a friend in Queensland told me about the Tiger Moth. It had been damaged and was sitting in an old shed out the back of Charters Towers. I bought it sight unseen. My friend had it disassembled and put on a truck. I got one of the last of the old craftsmen at Jandakot to rebuild the airframe. A company in Melbourne rebuilt the engine. Bought two new props from the UK. Flew it up here, and here it has stayed except for when it has to go to Perth for its medical. Usually one of the Tiger Moth boys from the Aero Club are only too willing to come up here and take it down to Perth for me. I don’t think Angus likes it very much. Can’t really get into too much trouble with a Tiger Moth, because they’ll glide for ages. I know Ali takes it up quite regularly for a spin, does the mill-run now and again. He’ll take you up, I’m sure.”

They both turned as Angus opened the flywire door from the house and it banged closed behind him. He looked pale beneath his tanned face. He was obviously troubled. He looked for his tobacco pouch and Pat handed it to him and he gave her a thin smile of thanks. He rolled a cigarette, lit it and inhaled deeply. Without looking at either of them he said, “It’s like they are preparing for the siege of Mafeking.” Again to no one, “That’s a bloody stupid analogy. More like a preparation for a modern siege, which I suppose is what they are expecting. You can’t imagine the sophistication in communications and weaponry those lads brought with them. They are talking all the time with Nigel and Andy, I don’t know where they are but the whole thing is by satellite, I presume. There are cameras set up on the road from Carnarvon about thirty kilometres out from here. There is another set on the cattle grid on the boundary at the Meekatharra end. There are more cameras on the road ten and five kilometres out in both directions. Some are movement activated; some are on all the time. The clarity is amazing. We watched a monitor lizard cross the road; it must have been a hundred metres or more from a movement-activated camera. They work both day and night. The pictures are going to Canberra, and God knows where else.”

As he spoke a Cessna 172 flew over the homestead. Without looking up Angus said, “That’ll be the sat phones and the radios. They said they would go and collect them. We have all that to face tomorrow. I still don’t fully understand why they don’t just pick the buggers up before they get here. I questioned Blondie and he wasn’t exactly evasive. He just gave the same answer as Nigel – all they have as hard evidence at present is from wiretaps and observations, not enough apparently, to stand up in court. They want, literally, to catch them in the act. The definition of the ‘the act’ means them ‘Johnny’ as they call them, on the property, in close proximity to this house. Nobody has said as much, but from the preparations they are making, they expect them to be armed in some way. Like you said, Pat, I have a feeling they have only told us as much as they think we need to know.” Then with a deep sigh, “Jesus Christ, we’re the bait in the trap.”

Alice appeared with a tray loaded with a large teapot of fresh tea, milk, sugar, more mugs and a plate of sponge cake. “Now Lachy, you said you were going to have a rest. Changed your mind?” Before he could reply she continued. “If you haven’t, then there is plenty of time. I’ve done everything that I can, so I’m going to put my feet up until about six o’clock.” Alice went back into the house before he could reply.

Lachlan poured the tea into the three mugs. “Looks like I’ve had my marching orders. It’s been a long couple of days. Alice is right. I suppose I should put my head down. No doubt dinner will take a while tonight. I wish it could wait, but under the circumstances, better we get it over with. Put your own milk and sugar in.”

Lachlan took a piece of sponge cake. “This is more like it. Brings back memories, sponge cake and tea on the veranda at Bangalore.” He took a big bite and with his mouth half- full said, “Did the leader show you where he is going to put his men?”

“Oh yes, say that for them, they are going to be so well prepared. Day or night won’t make any difference. They can see as well in the pitch dark as they can in broad daylight. I just get an uneasy feeling, that’s all. Ginger was doing something with a spade about two hundred metres from the main gate. When I asked what he was doing I got a blank ‘mind you own bloody business’ stare. By the way, the two, Hawke and Aussie, have left Melbourne. Hawke can’t know his way round too well as they had to put the GPS on to get out of town on the road for Adelaide, at least that looks like where they are heading. Police patrols will be looking out for them now.”

Alice opened the flywire door slightly. “Angus, you won’t forget to get some red wine out and opened, will you? You can put it in the cool room where I keep the greens; it won’t get too cold in there. If you leave it out it might get a bit hot in this weather.”

“Any preferences?”

“You did say you had some Moss Wood from 1984 – wonder if it has kept, you said. Be nice to open a bottle of that and have a taste. You could open a bottle of Grange, you have two of one year, that should be nice too, spoil Lachlan. Then just a couple from Bill, from two years ago, the Shiraz, I think.

“I know there is some Houghton Blue Stripe from the eighties there too. A nice fresh Riesling would be nice as well. For a sparkle before, that Pinot Bill sent last year was a real good one; there are still half a dozen of that. I have put some other whites to cool, just in case.”

“Don’t know why you asked, Alice; you seem to have it all sorted out.” His smile was appreciative but the weariness showed in his eyes.

With a big smile she replied “Just a suggestion, Angus; you’re the cellar master.” This time the flywire door closed quietly.

Lachlan finished his cake, drained his mug of tea and followed Alice into the house.

Angus slumped down onto the sofa his father had just vacated. Pat sat next to him and, without thinking, slipped her arm through his. “Can you manage tonight, Angus? Maybe you should go and put your feet up for half an hour? We still have three or four days to go and it’s not getting any easier for you, is it?”

“Three questions in one, Pat, my love. Can I manage tonight? I hope so. I have a feeling it’s going to be a kiss and tell of the last forty years or so of the Sinclair Clan, so God knows what that will throw up? Should I go and have a snooze? Probably, but Ali and Rach aren’t back yet and Rach will be looking for her Pop, and I will have to tell her he’s gone for a rest on Alice’s bed, with Alice,” Now he was smiling and shaking his head still in disbelief. “And yes, this is D Day minus four or so, and we all have to get through it. I did ask Blondie again today about safety and he said we would be as safe as if we were in Fort Knox. I have to believe him. If I didn’t, if it wasn’t, then I am sure he would be the first to tell us. We really can’t all leave anyway. There is work piling up that needs to be done. Ali and I are just marking time at present. By the time this is over there will be a mountain of work. Rach will have gone back to Sydney to do what she has to do. Don’t know if she can leave straight away, I presume she has to give them some notice. You will have gone back to the RAAF. Father will be here. There will be Mother to cope with when she learns Father isn’t going back to Perth. God only knows how we will manage that. It may sound strange to you, but I have never been close to my mother. I think I said to you once, when I was growing up I saw more of Alice than I did of my mother, both before and during boarding school.”

Pat pulled Angus’ arm a little closer. “Then there’s Ewen.”

 

Chapter 17.

United States Military Hospital – Landstuhl, Germany

Captain Ewen Sinclair was propped up in bed with pillows. One end of the bed was raised to give him a backrest. His left leg was encased in a wire frame and elevated with a crane-like contraption. To his inexperienced eyes it looked more like a piece of stainless steel engineering than a device to keep his leg in the required position. He could see his toes – they looked normal. He moved them. The rest of his leg was swathed in bandages so he didn’t know what that looked like and didn’t really want to. When they changed the dressings he hadn’t looked.

His head was shaven bare, as was his face; the Afghanistan beard was no more. The stainless steel frames, which had kept his head and neck in place, had been removed; all that was left were the sore spots and the holes in his skull where they had attached things into place. He had no recollection of anything they had done to him. There were scabs from sores, small wounds and burns on his face. He had two black eyes. His nose had been broken and had a piece of sticking plaster over it.

He had a catheter inserted down his penis and into his bladder to drain his urine. They said they would take it out soon and determine if his water works were working; sometimes, he was told, it took a long time to recover after trauma. He had an oxygen feed through a nose tube. There was another tube into a vein in the back of his left hand, which was connected to a bag with a liquid in it; a machine fitted with a beep alarm monitored the flow from the bag into his vein. If he moved and kinked the tube the alarm went off. When the bag was empty the alarm went off. Sometimes, Ewen thought, usually in the middle of the night, the alarm just went off out of sheer boredom. There was another needle in a vein inside his arm at the elbow; this too was connected to a bag of fluid and to a monitor. There were four sensors on his chest connected to another machine. If he looked at the little screen he could see that his heart was still beating.

His right shoulder and upper arm were heavily strapped. He’d been told the shoulder muscles were badly torn and may need surgery, even a shoulder reconstruction. But that could wait. His right hand was heavily bandaged. He’d been told that he’d lost the ends of his forefinger and index finger from frostbite.

He tried to focus on an article in a newspaper and had to give up after a couple of minutes. He didn’t watch television for the same reason; he couldn’t focus and his eyes and head hurt when he tried.

A young female nurse came into the room. “Morning, sir. Time for blood pressure and temperature.” Ewen didn’t say anything; it happened every two hours day and night. The nurse wound the blood pressure collar round his arm, pressed a couple of buttons on the machine and watched the numbers rise and fall. Satisfied she inserted a probe attached to what looked like a torch into his ear, waited for a beep. Made two entries on the board hanging on the end of the bed.

“Bowels moved today, sir?”

“Yes, nurse. Well, last night. That dynamite given to me yesterday had the desired effect, and then some.” Ewen tried a weak smile.

“The first one is always the worst after people have been where you’ve been. We fill you up with painkillers, especially morphine, which all cause constipation. You spend days in ICU being fed through tubes. You were sedated for a long time. It can only go for so long. We nearly always have to give an emetic. I suppose it was worse because you are still bed bound. It could have been worse if you had still been sedated, for us anyway.” The nurse spoke kindly and with what seemed to Ewen genuine sympathy. Her accent to him, sounded as if she came from New York.

“The doctors are on their rounds now, so I had better get a move on. They hate it when they catch up with me. I just talk too much. See you in a couple of hours. I want to ask you about Australia.” What is it about these people he thought? They all seem so happy and this is a military hospital, which sees day in and day out the worst of injuries man can inflict on man. Now he was one of them. Another war casualty, another statistic. He’d never imagined he would be that.

The door had no sooner closed behind the nurse than it opened again. Major Eugene McMahon, the team leader of the neurosurgical unit came into the room, smiling. She had been the first person Ewen had seen when the fog of sedation lifted. It had been her voice that had welcomed him back into the world of the living. It had been her voice which had asked him gentle questions and pressed needles, or something, against various parts of his body. Unable to speak due to tubes and electrodes, which seemed to cover him, they had communicated by Ewen answering questions with one blink for yes, two for no. He remembered she had held his hand the whole time. He remembered her telling him she was going to sedate him again. That was the last thing he remembered until he woke the next time.

Again, she was there when he woke up. This time he could almost talk and certainly grunt. She’d gently held his hand as she’d told him not to worry if he thought he couldn’t move. He wasn’t paralysed, they had him restrained to prevent any movement. On that visit she’d been joined by what seemed to Ewen, a very young orthopaedic surgeon, a Major Smith.

Major Smith told him they had operated on his leg while he was sedated. He was hopeful he would save his leg. There would be another small operation the next day. He was quite direct, verging on being blunt. The leg was a mess but so far, didn’t warrant amputation. Beads of sweat broke out on Ewen’s forehead at the mention of amputation. Eugene had wiped the sweat and a few tears from his eyes.

Eugene told Ewen later that Major Smith was due for leave. He spent most of his life trying to save, and if he couldn’t save them, cutting off, the legs and arms of soldiers blown up by IEDs and shot by the enemy. He was tired, she’d said. But Iraq and Afghanistan had made him one of the best war trauma orthopaedic surgeons in the world. Ewen had been lucky Major Smith had been on duty when they had brought him in. It was during that visit Ewen had asked Eugene to ring ‘Pop’.

Eugene McMahon, Ewen estimated, was about thirty-five years old, and from what Ewen could discern hidden under her blue shapeless theatre uniform was a good, even ample, figure. ‘At least I haven’t lost that faculty,’ he thought a little sardonically. Her most striking feature was what could only be called a ‘mop’ of curly red hair. It framed a fine-featured, pale face and eyes that Ewen swore were green. He’d noticed she didn’t wear any rings on her fingers, so he presumed she was single.

This morning she was her usual bright and confident self and smiling broadly greeted Ewen, “Good morning, Captain.”

“Good morning, Major.”

Eugene looked at his records on the end of the bed. “Well, I see from this we broke the dam wall last night. Apart from the experience, any pain anywhere, inside? The other doctors will ask you, but I thought I might as well be first. Any pain in the head?”

“Apart from a bit of trouble focusing, when I try, my eyes, and I think my head hurts, apart from that, nothing, just bloody embarrassing being bed bound. Got rid of a bit of the headache last night though; pressure relief valve I suppose?”

“Good laxative always cures a headache. Didn’t your grandmother tell you that? Mine did. Syrup of figs or paraffin oil was her cure for all ailments in children. If you were still sick and she knew your bowels were working, then and only then, would she take a headache seriously; never lost a patient as far as I know.” She was laughing.

Ewen found her green eyes looking into his. He held her gaze for a moment, and then he said, “The nurses were good though, especially Joe, the big black lad from Chicago. He chuckled away while he tended to me saying he had a wife and three children under six here in Germany, so he was used to anything I could produce. Just said the scale was different. That made me laugh at the height of my humiliation. I’ve never been in hospital before, never mind use a bedpan. God, I hope I can get out of bed soon.”

Eugene sat on the bed. “The news is good, Ewen. She took hold of his left hand. Those scans we took yesterday showed nothing untoward. Nothing we wouldn’t expect after what you have been through. There is still some bruising on the brain; you are still concussed, a little. We are going to keep you on the medication you are on as there is always a chance, it gets slimmer by the day, but there is always a chance that you may get some bleeding again. Where you are lucky, is that if it does happen it will be between the brain and your incredibly thick skull and we still have an entry point into that skull, so we can get at it real quick. So, Ewen, any sign of a real headache and you press the button, okay?”

“What about the memory loss?”

“That should come back. But then again it might not. Or it might come back in bits and pieces. It’s only over a short period really, from when you were shot down to when you woke up here in Germany. I’m told you were issuing orders from your stretcher, so you weren’t out to it. I’m just amazed, still, that you survived. Medically you had no right to be alive. What saved you was probably the cold and those guys who got you out; someone knew what they were doing. They must train your medics very well.

“ I know it cost you the ends of two fingers. We first discovered during the war in Bosnia that many of the wounded survived better in the cold than they would have say, in a hot climate. The cold slows the bleeding down. Slows the pulse down. Someone said the other day if we had known this in Vietnam, we would have put the wounded in fridges instead of trying to keep them warm. I know in road trauma now, there is less concentration on keeping people warm, wrapped in blankets and that sort of thing. Keeping them cool seems to be the way to go.”

“Eugene, what about my leg? Major Smith seems evasive.”

“Ewen, ask him directly when you see him later this morning. I know he’s coming to see you and so is the pain team to see if they can reduce the analgesics in that pain pump you have. You may also get a visit from the physio people who’ll give you some exercises. Nothing strenuous I’ve told them. I want you calm. I think they will probably take the dressings off your fingers and get them working again.”

Ewen couldn’t ever remember being emotional about anything but suddenly it was welling up inside him and he couldn’t do anything about it. He hadn’t cried since he was about ten years old. He’d refused to cry at school no matter what happened to him or what was done to him by the older boys. Now the tears rolled down his face. He lost control, his face contorted, became screwed up in a flood of tears as the realisation hit him of where he was and the seriousness of his injuries. He couldn’t face her so he looked out of the window on a Germany in winter, covered in snow.

Still looking out of the window he mumbled with a sob, “Is my army career over, Eugene?”

“Ewen.”

“What.”

“This is not the time for this conversation. My job is to keep you calm and relaxed and here you are getting all screwed up about the army, when you should just be happy to be alive.”

“It’s all I know.”

“No, it’s not.”

“You don’t know me. It’s my life. I know nothing else.”

“You’re a pilot; the world needs pilots.”

“It’s not the same. Civilian flying.”

Eugene pulled a couple of tissues out of the box on the bedside table. With one hand she dried his eyes while the other kept hold of Ewen’s good hand. “That’s what I thought once. Then a couple of months ago, just on a whim, I applied for a research job at a teaching hospital in my hometown in Colorado. I guess I was feeling a little homesick, and what do you know? I got it. I’ll be working with veterans but I won’t be in uniform anymore, I’ll be a civilian. And do you know something else, Ewen, I’m looking forward to just being plain Dr McMahon? Maybe I’ll be a professor down the track, who knows? In three months I’m out of here. Now, I’m going to send Joe in with a little pill for you. I want you to have a cup of tea and a biscuit and take the pill. It will help you get some rest. I’ll leave a note at the nurse’s station to tell the other doctors you are resting. I’ll come back later this afternoon. I’ll have a word with Major Smith, if I get the chance.” If Ewen had had any hair on his head Eugene would have stroked it; as he was shaven bare she ran her hand over his scarred head in what could only be described as a sign of genuine care.

Joe came back with a cup of tea and a pill in a little plastic cup. “Here you go, Captain. Take the pill with a glass of water and enjoy the tea. Have a bit of a nap and after lunch we will take that catheter out and see if everything is working. The major said to tell you they had sent a bulletin to your people, so your family should have it by now that you are out of danger, out of ICU, sitting up in bed, and officially classified ‘stable’. I think you have surprised them all, Captain. I heard when they brought you in, that ICU gave you about 30% chance of making it and a 90% chance you were going to lose a leg. A few days later, look at you. Only reason I heard was because you are Australian and we don’t get many of your people in here. Suppose Germany is closer than Australia. This is the best in the world they tell me. We sure as hell get plenty of practice. I for one will be glad when we get the hell out of Afghanistan. Kids getting blown up for what I can see is some useless piece of dirt. Doesn’t make sense to me. Don’t even know if the Afghans want us there. Don’t think they do. Taliban sure as hell don’t.

“Sorry, Captain, I shouldn’t be going on like that, but hell, I just heard we lost another six kids, Marines, in an IED followed by an ambush. The Brits lost another four somewhere else. It’ll all be on TV in a few days. Honour Guards. Weeping families, mothers and wives and little kids that don’t yet fully understand they have lost a father or a brother or a son. I get told off sometimes for going on like this.

“But, you know, I went to Bosnia. I was there for Iraq Two. I was head nurse in field hospitals in both places. Then they sent me home to study for my exams. Now I’m a senior nurse and I have my family out here with me. Now I’m at the other end of the war, I’m more comfortable and I have my family here. But I have a job because of war.”

“I suppose we all do, Joe.”

“Yeah, I suppose. Can I ask you a question, Captain?”

“So long as it’s not about kangaroos, and you call me, Ewen, when you can – go ahead, what’s the question?”

“No sir, it’s not about kangaroos. Captain, sorry, Ewen, I’ve been in the army since I was nineteen. I’m now thirty-five. I was a bad kid in Detroit and I was given the option by the judge, the army or jail. I started off as a combat medic. I found I had a brain and study was easy for me, still is. I’ve now gone as far as I can go, or at least I’ve been given the opportunity to go back stateside and study at college and if I pass my exams, I could become an officer. Hell, Captain, Ewen, this boy from Detroit could become an officer in the US Army. Don’t know what to do, Ewen. My wife says ‘go for it, nothing to lose’. Suppose she’s right.”

“I’ll have to take that question on notice, Joe. That little pill is having some effect.”

“Sure, Captain. Hope you don’t mind me asking you. I’ve got at least another ten, maybe twenty years in the army. No telling where I could finish up. It’s a bit like a new life opening up before me. Means a lot of change. Can I talk to you later about it? I have to go before the panel next week and give them an answer. I’ll let you rest. I’ll see you later.”

Ewen felt the warm effects of the pill start to take over and make him increasingly drowsy. He was glad; he was feeling a deep weariness. Shock, he supposed.

Slowly he regained consciousness. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep. Standing at the end of his bed was a man he’d never seen before. He had an entourage of four with him, Ewen surmised three doctors and he recognised the head nurse. The man looking at his charts was probably in his late fifties of medium height, tanned and fit looking. His grey hair, in true military style, was very short. His grey eyes were behind rimless spectacles.

“Good morning, Captain. My name is Kurt Jorgensen. For what it’s worth, I’m head of orthopedics. We’ve given your surgeon, Bill Smith, a bit of leave; the man’s been working too hard, so I’m filling in for a while.” He smiled at Ewen. “Do me good to get away from paper and meetings for a day or two and do the ward rounds. They tell me you are one lucky man, not only to still be in the land of the living, but I gather, to still have both legs. I’ve come to have a look at what has been explained to me as a work of art on this injured leg of yours, so I’ve brought an audience – hope you don’t mind.”

Ewen couldn’t think of anything to say, so he smiled. He noticed the nurse who was starting to remove the dressings on his leg had put on a face mask. He looked at the others and they were doing the same. There was a trolley beside the nurse; the discarded dressings were going into a pedal bin. There were scissors, forceps and other instruments Ewen didn’t recognise alongside them. There were also some bottles and syringes.

“You’re doing a good job there, nurse, getting round all that ironmongery.”

“Thank you, Colonel.”

Looking at Ewen he said, “The bones in your leg, Ewen, are still held in place by these big pins, which are fastened to this cage contraption. All the breaks have been repaired and where necessary, which is most places, been screwed or pinned back together. Between your hip and shin there were ten breaks – has anyone told you that?”

“No, sir. I suppose I have been out to it most of the time. I’ve just looked at my leg hanging up there by this crane ‘thing’ and been glad it’s still there.”

“Well, some of the breaks were compound; that means the bones were sticking out, and there was infection as well. I gather it was some journey you had before they got you out. Your field medics did one heck of a job especially with the infection. You lost a lot of blood too. With the limited resources they had in Kabul they also did an outstanding job, because not only could they see your leg just hanging on but you were also lapsing into unconsciousness and they knew you needed special care for what at the time seemed like serious head or spinal injuries.” The colonel was talking as he watched the nurse remove the last piece of dressing.

Colonel Jorgensen and his colleagues peered at the leg. The colonel was the first to speak. “Goodness me, Captain, I can tell you here and now you must be blessed. Not only are you lucky to have had the surgeon you did, who saved your leg. A few years ago, legs not as bad as this would have been amputated. It’s a heck of a thing when war teaches, when war encourages innovation. The other thing, which is remarkable, is the absence of infection and the degree of healing, which is already apparent. Want to have a look?”

Ewen turned his head away, frightened to look. He felt like a cold sweat was breaking out on his forehead. “You’re going to have a look at it sometime, son,” the colonel said gently.

“I don’t think I can, sir.”

“Well, you might as well get used to it. You’re in for a long period of rehab and maybe some skin grafts, depending on how pretty you want it to be. Looking at your other leg I can see you were a very fit man. I might as well be blunt with you; this injured leg is going to be very weak and the muscles are going to shrink. When all the fractures have mended and the flesh wounds healed, you’re going to be on crutches and in a wheelchair for quite a long time. It will take a long time for this leg to regain anything like its former strength…might even be a bit ambitious to expect that, but you boys never fail to amaze me. There might even be a time over the next month or so when you will wish we’d cut the damn thing off. This is why we haven’t; have a look at this.”

Ewen took a deep breath and looked at his leg. It didn’t look like a leg to him, certainly not his leg. It looked like a black and red bruise in the shape of a leg. He could see the incisions where pins had been screwed into the bones. He could see the steel rods, which disappeared into the flesh, and he presumed into the bone, which prevented him from bending either his ankle or his knee. He could see the masses of staples holding the flesh together where the leg had been cut open in many places so that bones could be put into place and ligaments and muscles repaired. It reminded him of a butcher’s shop. The doctors around the bed were exchanging observations and commenting on this and that. Ewen started a cold sweat again – he looked out of the window – it had started snowing – again.

Ewen tried to detach himself from the conversation behind the masks; no matter how much he tried he couldn’t help but hear instructions being given to one of the doctors to supervise the application of new dressings. He heard another asked to arrange some more blood tests. Another to arrange a meeting for the colonel with Major McMahon. He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Well, I’m glad you summoned up the courage, Captain,” said the colonel. “It’s always the hardest thing for a wounded man to do – to confront his injury. I know it’s no consolation to you but we are now off to see two young men, one nineteen and the other twenty, both in the same vehicle in Afghanistan, both have lost a leg. Neither of them has been in the army for more than twelve months. Couple of weeks and they will be sent home. Then they have to start all over again. And the way things are right now in the States, it’s a good job they will be on a pension.”

“Any idea how long I will be here, sir?”

“No idea. I think the head doctors will have the final word on that.”

The nurse tidied the bed as the team filed out of the room. Ewen was glad the bandages had covered what was left of his leg. They must be able to see something I can’t, he thought, because I didn’t like the look of that leg. The colour, Jesus wept! He lay back on the pillow. He could hear his heart beating; he felt a pain in his head and just managed to press the red button and keep it pressed before he passed out.

Joe was the first into Ewen’s room, followed by another nurse. He took one look at Ewan and said, “Page Major McMahon, urgent, room 405.” The nurse ran down the corridor to the nurse’s station.

Joe checked the heart monitor. Pulse a little slow. Respiration normal. He grabbed the blood pressure collar and wound it round Ewan’s arm, pressed a couple of buttons and let the machine do its work. He took a stethoscope from round his neck and checked the machine as the numbers changed. Blood pressure was lower than normal. Pulse steady but slow.

Eugene McMahon ran into the room and looked at Joe. “Alarm went off, Ma’am. Pulse is a little slow. Blood pressure a little low. Respiration is fine.”

Eugene was calm and precise. “ Joe, get him down to X Ray. I want the pictures by the time they have him in theatre. Use the ICU emergency if you can’t find a theatre. I’ll get someone to page the team. Let me know where you finish up. I think he’s bleeding again, thank God, we left that ‘tap’ in his head.” As she was speaking she was shining a bright light into Ewen’s eyes. “That’s what it is, I’m sure. We must relieve, drain, that bleeding. If you can’t find a theatre I’ll do it in the surgery, OK?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

 

 

 

Books by Roger Crook.

Over the last ten years or so I’ve written three novels, the first was ‘Hearts of Stone’ and then its sequel, ‘Flight to Australia, the third and latest is ‘Bangalore’ ‘A Fatwa in the outback’. ‘Bangalore’ has just been released as a paperback and it is available from all good bookshops, not just in Australia, but around the world. How did I gain world wide circulation without a international publisher?

It’s simple really, ‘Bangalore’ is available through a system called ‘print on demand’ or POD. POD if not new to you, it is new to me and for this hard-up storyteller, it works. It works like this, if you order a copy of ‘Bangalore’ from any decent bookseller anywhere in the world, or if you order on-line, a copy is printed and mailed to you within a few days. Put, Roger Crook, Bangalore, into your search engine and the page will fill with places from which you can buy the book on-line. If you support your local bookshop and they need all the support we can give them, they can order from their favorite supplier and ‘Bangalore’ will  be delivered to them, again, within a week to ten days. If as a writer, you want to try POD for yourself, Tablo, an enthusiastic Australian company, is where you must go.

POD is a terrific system because it saves me, and you if you are a writer, from the expense of printing and holding stock, or in my case it will save me from a publisher, for a third time, purloining my warehouse stock and forgetting to tell me. The man who published my self-published (?) books, the man who willingly took my money and promised the world, stole some of my stock of books, which he kindly and conveniently kept in his warehouse for no charge (now I know why no-charge) and sold them to a book wholesaler in Victoria. The wholesaler has admitted, in writing, that he obtained the books from the publisher and sold them to libraries and booksellers. Not being a big internet user I hadn’t Googled my own books when they were published, had I done so, I would have seen how many sellers had my books listed as available from them.

How did I find out I had been cheated, robbed, stolen from? By chance. By bloody chance!  I was a regular contributor to an agricultural website. A reader of that site wrote me and said he had enjoyed my books, he was from Queensland, and what intrigued me was that I hadn’t sold many of my books in that state. What made it even more intriguing was that my Queensland reader got his copies from a public library. After a few phone calls I discovered that copies of my first two books, ‘Hearts of Stone’ and ‘Flight to Australia’, were available in several, for that read many, public libraries in Queensland. I had that awful sinking feeling that I had been cheated, made a fool of.

jokersA search in ‘Trove’ at the National Library revealed that hundreds of my books had been sold across the eastern seaboard by a wholesaler who obtained them, he told me, from my so-called publisher. I tackled the publisher and asked for my royalties. He sent me the address of his lawyer. For me an old age pensioner who has spent more money on lawyers than the average person, that was the end of the road. The law in this country belongs to the rich. I learned that long ago, doesn’t matter if you are right, what matters is money and a lot of it at that. I contacted Arts Law and they were kind and understanding and gave the impression I wasn’t the first with my story. They helped for a while and then I concluded there is a limit to pro bono. The rich always win.

What made the exercise even more galling was that had been made a fool of so easily. My first book, ‘Hearts of Stone’ was printed in 2007 and ‘Flight to Australia’ was printed in late 2008. The records revealed that the wholesaler, a well known name in the book world in Victoria, had copies of my first book as they came off the press, almost before I had them. So the exercise by my publisher, another very well known name in the self publishing world, did what he did quite deliberately. He set out to steal from me and succeeded.

Now it is a new world.

The international publishing houses, those who print real books are an arrogant and self serving literary necessity, but only for those many authors who couldn’t do without them — those who have won the lottery and been successful in having a book accepted by a publisher. Our bookshops are full of books originally accepted for publication in America or the UK. International best-sellers are more often than not from somewhere outside of Australia, because that is where the big markets are. The UK has three times the population of Australia and America ten times. Ever wondered why so many successful Australian authors live outside of Australia?

For the rest like me and thousands of others there is the heavily promoted, much used and expensive world of Self Publishing or Vanity Press. Books have been written regarding the dangers and costs of Self Publishing. But when you have spent months maybe years writing a book, having it edited and then getting involved in what for the majority is the soul destroying experience of writing to publishers and if you are lucky responding to a request for a synopsis and a copy of your manuscript double spaced on A4, it’s hard to give up and accept that no publisher likes your work.It becomes no longer the cost of self-publishing one’s book, but the cost of proving that those who rejected your work, were wrong.

Rejection slips never tell you why your work is rejected. I related my tales of woe to an old and experienced colleague and international journalist friend, the sort of man who could and did regularly dictate by phone from Viet Nam to Perth, a three thousand word story, complete with punctuation, photos to follow. He was also a great photographer. He advised me that the next time I sent a manuscript to a publisher I should pull out a couple of hairs from my head and put them between the pages. Then when the manuscript came back, check the hairs. I did just that with a Perth publisher and there aren’t many publishers in Perth, my hairs, I put them in two places, were still where I had placed them. I rang the boss of the ‘company’ and he was far from impressed and threatened me if I published the story.

The sooner the writers of this world move to POD the better the world of story telling will be. There are many but I have been associated for many years an innovative young Australian team at a company called Tablo . Whether you are a writer or a reader they are worth having a look at, the library Tablo is a treasure chest of Australian literature. Sure, there is the good and the bad, but it’s all according to taste. Most importantly they are Australian and started by a young man called Ash and, obviously, he has gathered around him some very entrepreneurial and enthusiastic people.

POD means that the author remains in control. They can do the marketing themselves or get someone else to do it. There is no capital tied up and in my case I have eliminated the chance of being ripped off yet again. I did quite well with ‘Hearts of Stone’ and ‘Flight to Australia’ as paperbacks, ironically when I caught the miscreant I was costing a third re-print and the stocks didn’t tally.

I have copies of ‘Hearts of Stone’ and ‘Flight to Australia‘ in stock, for A$20.00 a copy, plus post and pack or both copies for A$35.00 including post and pack. Use the Feedback/Contact page to arrange an order or email roger.rankin.crook@bigpond.com and I will pass on how to get the money to me. I hope to have both books on POD, as soon as I can afford to couple of hundred dollars for each book.

Roger Crook - Hearts of Stone

 Available at all good eBook retailers

Hearts of Stone

Hearts of Stone starts with love story before WWII. It develops into a story about terrorism and political fanaticism. Not Moslems in the twenty first century but the Christian Irish in the twentieth century. Whether Terrorist or Freedom Fighter, the ‘cause’, is as old as Ireland itself. Brendan McGonigal exiled from Ireland as a student for his political views becomes a wealthy cattle dealer in North Wales and falls in love with Phyllis, a medical student and daughter of a Welsh hill farmer. Their love further binds the ancient culture of two great Celtic nations.

Thirty years on David McGonigal, the only son of Phyllis and Brendan serves with the SAS in Northern Ireland and later with the Home Office Counter Terrorism Unit. He leaves the army and tries to forget his former life — then one placid night in Wales, hooligans threaten the landlord of his local pub. David goes to his aid and finds that there is another sinister and dangerous agenda. The pace is frantic to stop the killing, this time in the name of God, from starting all over again. (314pp)

 

Available at all good eBook retailers

Flight to Australia

In 1969, David McGonigal, the son of an Irish father and a Welsh mother thought the violence of Ireland was behind him when he left the SAS and a covert life in the British Home Office Counter Terrorism Unit. It wasn’t.

David shoots and kills a demented Catholic fanatic as he attempts to assassinate his mother, the famous Dr Phyllis McGonigal, a world leader in birth control and female reproduction. David’s photograph appears in the national press. He is recognised by old enemies in the Republic of Ireland. They try to kill him.

David’s grandmother, a politically powerful Irish woman, brokers a deal with the IRA. David and his new wife Barbara are exiled to Western Australia to live with his Uncle Paul. Forty years previously, this influential woman spirited Paul out of Ireland after he botched an IRA murder mission. The old lady called in old debts and they were paid.

Paul McGonigal is very rich. He owns land and gold mines and mineral assets that nobody knows about – or so he thinks. He leads a quiet life. The mineral boom has started and Paul is in the thick of it.

Flight to Australia tells the story of David and Barbara’s first month in exile. On their first day there is a bomb threat. David fears the IRA have reneged on the deal, but Paul is the target. Paul doesn’t know who they are or why they want him dead – but they keep on trying.

Flight to Australia is a story of love and tragedy and of love found again. From Perth to the Kimberley a breathtaking story of greed, violence and corruption in high places. (438pp)

What the press said about Flight to Australia

“This is an action-packed, detailed, whirlwind of a story – a credit to its author…set primarily in Western Australia involving the IRA and the SAS, political refugees, diamond mines, international scams, murder, tragedy and love! Roger Crook writes masterfully as he fleshes out this fictional story that spans the globe and breaths life into fictional characters.”
Wendy O’Hanlon, APN Newspapers

“Ireland meets Western Australia in this adventure, which covers all negative aspects of the human soul – greed, violence and corruption.”
John Morrow’s Pick of the Week.

What the readers think of Bangalore.

A reader wrote to me and made comments similar to the review below. Although what he didn’t like was the ‘back stories’ on the characters in Bangalore, thought they were a waste of time and made the story too long. I don’t agree. We are who we are, and behave as we do, because of life’s experiences. I like to build the characters in my stories so that the reader understands them and what made them the way they are and why they behave in the way they do —we are all the product of our life’s experiences. Terrorism is real, it has been part of my life since the IRA of the fifties and sixties. I am aware that we are so fortunate to live in such a placid place as Australia? Terrorism has touched us a few times and it will probably touch us again, but it will never terrorise us if we are aware.

There are some interesting and complicated characters in Bangalore and without knowing their back-story, without explaining what made them who they are, why they behave as they do under stress, they might appear to be incongruous or at least be far-fetched. See what you think. This is what a lady wrote on the Inkitt web site.

Unlike the previous reviewer, I, as a reader, was thrilled to read all the back story, it makes the book more interesting and emotionally connected to the current situation. The similarities between Lachlan meeting his deceitful wife in a hospital and his grandson meeting his new love in hospital are a lovely twist. Lachlan’s naivety in his wife and her family were the ruin of his marriage. His protection of his family at the cost of his own happiness is a great sacrifice, but he was wise enough to see his son make the same mistake and silently protect both him and their home from predators like Michelle. To me, the military protection was a side note to the main story, which is Bangalore, the property and the magic it holds on the people who live there. Congratulations on writing a fascinating book on Australia, it’s large homestead lifestyle and the interaction between the various people who live there. The respect given to the local people who have lived for generations on that land is noted and applauded. It’s such a natural part of the story, the history of the area. I doubt that there would have been much prejudice when Bangalore was first settled. An Indian Princess and a Scot with a bunch of Afghan traders? The local community would have been happy to welcome them. That’s another story I’m sure. Keep writing, looking forward to the next book.

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