Ella Steiner hadn’t been going too high on the swing since that wasn’t allowed. Mostly she’d sat with her legs dangling, mulling over the fact her dad hadn’t let her go into town with him. It just wasn’t fair. Usually, she got a halfpenny to spend while he spoke with Mr Mills in the grocery store. Or if he had to leave her on the bench outside while he went into the bank she might get a strawberry ice-block. Especially when it was hot. This time he’d gone to the station to meet the train from Auckland and even though she’d danced around the truck as he was leaving he’d refused to take her along. He’d even acted a bit angry, as if he was in a hurry and already late. Mum had been strange too, parking herself in front of him and fussing with his collar and patting his shoulder in a way she didn’t usually.
And that wasn’t the only thing.
Grasping the ropes binding the swing to the gnarly old branch and with her bottom perched on the very edge of the short length of wood she dragged the toe of her sandal back and forth through the dirt.
Mum had gotten up early to bake scones and a sponge and those little round cakes she called fancies, even though everyone knew it wasn’t Sunday when they had a big roast at lunchtime and a proper English tea later on. Hanging around and climbing onto a kitchen chair after breakfast she’d watched icing sugar and butter beaten together with some stuff in a little brown bottle that turned everything pink. But instead of being allowed to lick the spoon like always, she’d been shooed away and told to get into a clean dress. The primrose one with the white collar, mum had shouted after her. It was her best one but when she’d returned to get the buttons done up mum had complained it was too short. That or she’d grown. Then she’d been pulled over to the sink. The metal-tasting water gushing from the brass tap came from the corrugated iron water tank on the roof and after soaking and squeezing the flannel her mother had scrubbed her face extra hard. She’d tried to protest, struggling and stamping her foot, but the next thing she knew her arm had been clamped and the scratchy brush was being dragged over her scalp and through her newly bobbed hair.
When the seat lurched to one side she hopped off to twist the ropes around and around themselves, then clambered back on and with bare arms taut and legs out straight, leant as far back as she could and stared upwards. The world corkscrewed, blending sky, leaves and branches in a dizzying fashion.
There was something else to worry about too, something much more important. Would Miss Hargreaves call her to the front of the class in the morning? That’s what happened when you did something naughty, like bunking off lessons. Not that she had. Not exactly. Mum said she would write a note, explaining why she’d been kept at home, but Freddie Bayley was always absent and even though everyone knew his mother said he was more use working out back of their hardware shop than learning stuff he’d never need in all his life, he still got the wooden ruler on his knuckles when he showed up the next day.
Did it hurt, she wondered? Freddie always gritted his teeth and looked away when Miss Hargreaves raised her arm, so perhaps it did.
She lolled back again, this time with her eyes half closed. Her dad said any day now all the grey buds at the end of the stems would open and then the entire tree would be a mass of crimson flowers. It was because the weather was warming up and Christmas was coming. She also liked what Marshall said the afternoon they’d been sat on the verandah—he’d been cleaning his boots and he always did that when he was going into town for the evening—that Pohutukawa like theirs were special because they only grew in New Zealand. Sprawled in her mother’s wicker chair with one leg hooked over the arm, Seymour had said that was rot because they could be found in other countries too, but Marshall hadn’t cared. He’d just leant down and said ever so quietly, that certain people didn’t know everything they thought they did. She loved him best of her two brothers because he tickled her sides and made her giggle. And he knew the names of her dolls. But even better, sometimes he’d read her stories of princesses that danced all night or slept on mattresses with peas underneath. He got them from the big book that lived on the shelf in her bedroom. Seymour never did anything like that, but she reckoned that was because being the oldest he had to be serious all the time, like dad.
Suddenly she was bolt upright. Despite the fact there wasn’t a breath of wind, clouds of dust rose and billowed from the long, white track on the other side of the paddock and leaping from the swing she raced around her mother’s potato and kumara patch and sprinted across the yard towards the once-imposing gable roof and single bay window of their home. Skidding to a halt as her father’s truck drew up, tyres crunching and spewing grit, she’d no time to blink before he opened the door and stepped out.
Only then did she catch a glimpse of the woman in the passenger seat.
Somewhat frustratingly, her mother barely gave her a glance as she shot into the kitchen, wide-eyed and trying to get the words out. Rather she carried on twisting her head this way and that and frowning into the small mirror normally propped up on the shelf above the range. Hopping from one foot to the other she couldn’t understand it. Mum looked lovely, especially with her hair combed that way and in the flowery dress with the puffy sleeves and heeled shoes she only ever wore when she was going into town, but didn’t she realise there was a stranger outside? Only when voices carried from the verandah, and after giving her hair a final flick and lowering her chin for a last quick look, did her mother stand the mirror back up between the tea caddy and the clip of bills and accounts.
“I can’t believe how messy you get, and in no time at all,” she said, clutching Ella’s arm. The scratchy brush appeared as if from nowhere and for the second time that morning, and with the sound of her father’s heavy tread in the hallway, a neat parting was made and the Kirby grip pushed back in.
Then he was in the doorway, saying, “There you are.”
Before she could wonder where else they might be, her mother had spun her around and gripped her shoulders. Her father didn’t look in their direction. Instead, he glanced behind him.
The woman was extraordinarily beautiful; anyone could see that. From the pale complexion and glossy red lips, to the sheer elegance of the brimmed hat sloping low over one eye, and the nip-waisted jacket and snugly fitting skirt skimming her knees. Years later Ella would recall her mother’s intake of breath and the tension in her father’s shoulders, but at that moment all she was aware of was the glorious creature standing on the threshold of their kitchen, and how dull and dreary a place it had suddenly become, with its dark corners and faded linoleum and tired, painted cupboards.
“How do you do it, Ruby?” Easing Ella to the side, Olympia Steiner wrapped her arms around their visitor, laughing as she did so.
“Manage to look so wonderful, of course. Look at you!”
“And look at you too.”
“Well… you know how it is,” her cheeks burned. The moment she’d clapped eyes on her friend the dreadful churning in her stomach settled. Ruby would never change and after all this time she should know that. So why did she go to pieces each November when she came up? “Things have been good lately.”
“So it seems! And your hair…. I don’t believe it. You’ve cut it all off!”
“Do you like it?” Thrilled and embarrassed at the same time, she patted the froth of curls at her neck. “It’s so much easier to manage now.”
“I love it. Mind you, I always did think you’d suit a permanent wave. That old-fashioned bun at the back of your head never did anything for you, you know.”
“So you told me, and not just once either.”
“And wasn’t I right?” Pulling on the fingers of her gloves and slipping the long, silver pin from her hat Ruby Selwyn-Jones’s eyes gleamed. “So, where did you have it done? Heavens, don’t tell me there’s a decent stylist in town now?”
“There is,” she replied, partly in amusement, “and more than one believe it or not. And that’s not all. Not only do we have a brand-new beauty salon that does everything you could want but you should see the dress shops opening up. You know, it won’t be long before our little backwater is giving Auckland a good run for its money.” Glancing in her husband’s direction she thought, if he dared say anything about wasting hard earned cash on things that weren’t important…
But Mr Steiner merely grunted before telling her he would go and fetch in the boxes.
Ruby set her hat down on the table. “Oh, just a few things I thought I’d bring up with me.”
The tone might have been light-hearted but it still aroused the usual twinge of resentment. “If you’ve been spending again…”
“Don’t be ridiculous! It’s bits and pieces, that’s all.”
She knew exactly what that meant. Gifts for Ella and something for her too, a new handbag perhaps. Or as once before, a beaded, mohair sweater that as beautiful as it was, she just couldn’t wear around these parts. Their neighbours would see it as being affected and her husband would agree. But what could she say? Ruby could afford to be generous, married to a Member of Parliament and owning a busy Auckland hotel. But Olympia worked hard too. The orchards didn’t run themselves, neither did the farm and while Mr Steiner and the boys were the ones doing all the manual work, didn’t she spend hours in the shed during picking season checking over the fruit they were sending off and discarding anything bruised or blemished? The difference was, she wasn’t getting a cut of the profits every week, she wasn’t even getting a wage. But in fairness, she could hardly blame Ruby for that.
“Ella, you remember mummy’s friend?” she said, fixing her smile in place and pulling the child forward. “She came to see us last year when you were only four. Come on, say hello” she encouraged.
The child didn’t move. Instead, grasping the seam of her mother’s skirt in her fist, she nuzzled into her thigh.
“Heaven’s!” she tried to make light of things. “You’re not normally this quiet.”
Crouching down, Ruby reached forward as if to touch a fingertip to the softly rounded cheek. “Hello, Ella. You’ve certainly grown since I saw you last. And what a lovely dress.”
Ella’s eyes may have widened, but she seemed more dumbstruck than ever.
“She’s beautiful. Her hair. It’s so dark…” Ruby stopped, dropping her hand and glancing up. “Of course, she’s at school now. How is she doing?”
Olympia beamed, “She’s very bright. Knows her alphabet and can write simple words, and she seems to understand numbers too.”
“That’s amazing,” Ruby turned to Ella again. “Well done.”
As before, the child simply stared.
“Let’s get comfortable,” Olympia suddenly came to life. “You sit down, I’ll put the kettle on. You must be parched after that journey.”
“I could do with a decent cup of tea.”
“Coming up. And meanwhile, I want to know everything that’s happened these last twelve months, starting with that darling little boy of yours.”
Pulling out a chair and sitting down, Ruby laughed. “You know if you get me started on Robert James I won’t stop. He’s an absolute treasure even if I do say so myself, and so smart for his age. He gets that from his father of course.”
Stoking the range to bring the heavy, enamel kettle back up to boiling and looking over her shoulder, Olympia lifted a questioning eyebrow. “Of course?”
“Well, he’s certainly got Freddie’s stubbornness. But we’ve time for all that later. I want to know what you’ve been up to.”
“Hardly anything really. Little changes around here, you know that. This place is so quiet I sometimes think we’re all half-asleep.”
“Then tell me what hasn’t happened.”
Leaning against the sink, Olympia folded her arms. “Well, things are good in general. The boys are working hard…”
“Still arguing though?”
“Of course. They’re chalk and cheese, so what do you expect? Somehow though they manage to put their differences aside long enough to get the work done. After that?” she shrugged.
“So, Seymour is still moody and Marshall is still dreaming?”
“That about sums it up. Oh, there is one thing… your suggestion last year we should send some of our fruit to the auctions in Auckland instead of taking it all into town?”
“Yes? What about it?”
“It seems to have paid off.”
“I knew it would,” Ruby was gleeful. “I was only talking to Lee Chin the other day. His market garden supplies the hotel with all the produce we need,” she added by way of explanation. “He said with the city expanding in every direction, demand is already overtaking what he can supply. So how did you manage to persuade Mr Steiner to try something new?”
“It was Seymour who pushed for it. The other two weren’t particularly keen, after all we’re pretty small fry even up here, but we’re known. That was the thing. Listening to them talking, the main stumbling block was competing with everyone else. That and not getting a good enough price. And then there were the costs to transport it. Anyway, Seymour investigated and said there were more advantages in doing it than not and after that Mr Steiner and Marshall went along with it. In fact, they’re now going to plant more peach and plum trees in the bottom field though it’ll be several years before we get a decent enough crop.” She stopped. “For God’s sake don’t let on that was another one of your ideas though.”
“My lips are sealed. I’m not surprised it was Seymour who went for it though.”
“No. I have to say he’s the real driving force around here. Talks about the future all the time. He says we need to diversify and invest. Buy up more land if we can.” But she was shaking her head. “I don’t think Mr Steiner sees it quite the same way.”
“He’s probably thinking it’s time to take things a little easier, after he’s been working this place for what, twenty years?”
“Nearer thirty. Seymour’s twenty-four after all.”
“Yes, I suppose he is. And being the eldest he’ll be looking to take the reins soon. Can’t blame a son for being ambitious.”
“No,” Olympia mused.
“That’s not what your face is telling me.”
Sitting up at the table with her thumb in her mouth Ella was listening avidly, and with a pointed look in her direction Olympia mouthed, “Little ears.”
Ruby nodded. “So what else have you been doing this past year? Other than cutting off your hair of course. I still can’t get over it. I never thought I’d see the day!”
“How about learning to drive?” She couldn’t help feeling a touch smug when her friend’s eyes widened and fetching the tea-pot and warming it with a little boiling water, went on, “Marshall is teaching me in the truck. How about that! Not,” she put in quickly, “that Mr Steiner is very encouraging. He seems to think I’ll run the thing off the road at the first chance.”
“Men! You need a little car of your own. That way you won’t have to rely on anyone else when you want to go down into town.”
“That’ll be the day!”
“I have to say, it’s good to see things are improving around here.”
“Oh, they are. I even get to go to the pictures every now and then.”
“I don’t believe it! Mr Steiner takes you to the cinema?”
“He does. Not often, but enough to keep me happy.”
“It’s about time. You’ve done a lot for him and his boys over the years and if you ask me he’s had the better part of the bargain, especially considering how young you were when he married you. Why, you weren’t even twenty and Seymour was, what? Already fifteen?
Olympia glanced sharply in Ella’s direction again. “But it’s worked out.”
“Of course, and I’m glad for you,” she said quickly. “I always have been. You know that. Now,” and reaching for one of the packages Mr Steiner had dropped onto the table before shooting out of the back-door muttering something about helping out in the shed, she glanced down at the child. “A little bird told me it’s your birthday in three days. So, what do you think? Should we open some of these?”
Ella could barely contain her excitement. How did her mum’s friend know when her birthday was? And did she know she would be six? Probably not. But that didn’t matter. Her mother was setting the table with the plates of scones and fancies just like a party, and the lady was handing her a box covered in brown paper and tied with shiny pink ribbon. Flicking an anxious glance, she wondered if she was meant to open it or hand it over to be taken away and put with the other presents hidden in the wardrobe. The ones she was not supposed to know about.
“Well,” her mother’s voice reached her, “what do you say?” And then, “Go on, you can have it.”
Uncomfortable at being the focus of attention, and knowing it was the height of bad manners to tear open a gift as if she’d never received anything in her life before, she carefully tugged on the silky tails to release the bow. That way her mother could wind the ribbon around her fingers and put it away to use for someone else’s present. The stiff paper parted, revealing the picture glued to the front of the long cardboard box and suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Surely this wasn’t for her? Yet her mother’s friend was nodding.
Taking the lid in both hands, Ella eased it up.
The rosy cheeks were perfectly rounded and the ebony hair curled and primped just like the ladies in the magazines her mother sometimes brought home. More astonishing, the eyes were the most beautiful sapphire blue she’d ever seen, and the eyelids opened and closed. She couldn’t believe it! Even the lashes were long and dark and looked just like her own. But that wasn’t all. The doll was wearing a pink striped dress and white shoes. Yes, real ones, with tiny straps and buttons on the side.
“Oh Ruby, that’s quite an expensive present,” her mother scolded. Then she tutted. “Ella, what do you say?”
She knew that voice. Oh, yes she did. And she wanted to say it. Wanted the words to tumble out. Oh, she did, truly. But this was the most beautiful doll she’d ever seen. Not even Mattie her best friend had one like it, and she always got good presents since her father owned the mechanical workshop on the way into town and they had more money than anyone else. At least that’s what Seymour said, every time he got the bill for something he’d dropped in for repair.
No, this couldn’t be for her.
Perhaps she was just supposed to admire it? Certainly, it shouldn’t be taken out of its box. It was far too precious for that.
“Here, let me,” and before Ella knew it the doll had been lifted free and placed into her hands. “What are you going to call her?”
She was speechless.
“My goodness Ruby,” her mother was saying again. “You really shouldn’t.”
“Rubbish. Just tell me you don’t mind. I saw it on display in Farmers when I was having tea with Amy McIntyre and couldn’t resist it. It walks, you know. You hold it up by its arms apparently. Anyway, if I couldn’t give such a marvel to Ella, who could I give it to?”
Her mother was wearing the look she used when she was about to say something unpleasant and frightened she might not get to keep the doll after all, she clutched it to her chest.
“You spoil her,” her mother said after a moment.
Her mother’s friend was smiling. “Only because I can. Now, will you open your present? Or do I have to take that back to Farmers too.”
“I am!” Olympia slammed hard down on the pedal. She didn’t need telling Marshall was expecting a collision with the broken branch hanging across the road. Head down and forearms braced on the dashboard, he was clearly prepared for the worst—which was just as well considering the wheels had locked and the truck was slewing from side to side. Knuckles white on the steering wheel she didn’t even have time to say a prayer but someone upstairs must have been looking out for them, for just when disaster would have struck they juddered to a halt.
“That was close,” pulling himself upright Marshall ran a hand through the shock of muddy blond hair that had fallen forward. “Are you alright?”
Despite his grim expression he was trying to appear as if nothing were amiss and she nodded. It went without saying her heart was racing fit to burst but yes, thankfully she was in one piece and uninjured. A surprise all round, given they were no longer facing the direction they had been going and were partially up the bank on an angle. But the overwhelming sense of relief was quickly followed by a surge of anger. How was she supposed to know there was going to be danger around every corner? It wasn’t as if she had the gift of prophecy after all.
Though on second thoughts, perhaps she had been going a little too fast. Thinking a little contrition might be called for she offered, “Do you want to take over the driving?”
“No,” he was shaking his head. “You carry on. Though if you could just take it a little more carefully in future?”
His tone was nothing if not hopeful, and after wiping her palms on her skirt she reached forward to turn the key in the ignition.
“Wait! You’re still in gear,” he exclaimed, lurching for the dashboard again. “Foot on the clutch and get her into neutral, then switch her on. Good. Into first and foot off slowly. Easy...easy... let’s get her back down onto the road.”
Thinking it would be a useful skill to have, especially when the boys were busy or not around, she’d been eager to master driving the truck. Now though she was no longer sure. It wasn’t that she wasn’t capable because she’d only get better with time, but really was it right to put her stepson under so much pressure? On the other hand, if she was to have any chance of learning, someone would have to teach her and if not him, then who? Not Mr Steiner that was for sure, for while her relationship with her husband might be described as cordial for the most part, she hadn’t been joking when telling Ruby he wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of a woman behind the wheel. Nor did she want Seymour sitting beside her since he was no more in favour than his father, and even more grouchy sometimes. So, who else was left?
Managing a relatively smooth gear change she pointed the truck in the right direction and after manoeuvring around the offending branch, said, “I will get the hang of this you know.”
“You’re certainly determined enough. Just don’t rush things. And maybe concentrate a little more.”
She accepted the rebuke gracefully. “I’ll try. Are you going into town tonight?”
Straightening the wheels and pressing the accelerator a little harder she relaxed enough to add, “I suppose there’s a dance on?”
“There usually is on a Friday.”
Seeing he’d settled back and hearing the hint of amusement in his voice she knew he was waiting for her to probe a little deeper, but she’d discovered years ago how pointless it was to press either him or his brother for information, personal or otherwise. Seymour especially played his cards a little too close to his chest for her liking, but she could sometimes glean the odd snippet from Marshall when he was in the right mood. He’d been fourteen and skinny and awkward, and with a smattering of freckles he’d so hated when she and Mr Steiner had married, but on reaching his twenties he’d filled out, growing into his features and becoming comfortable with what nature had given him. Or not, as the case might be. For along with the granite jaw and broad shoulders he’d acquired an aura of discontent and a shaded, pensive expression as if there were other places he should be. Yet for all that, there were plenty of girls only too happy to be seen in his company and while she’d heard he might have a fancy for a certain Lizzie Byrne, rumour also had it the delectable Miss Byrne could have the pick of the bunch and had set her sights high.
She only hoped he knew what he was doing, for regardless he was old enough to look out for himself she would still hate for his heart to be broken.
How different could two brothers be? Certain neighbours who’d known the first Mrs Steiner and were only too pleased to gossip, told her that while one was the spitting image of his maternal grandfather, a gentleman from a town a little further north, the other had inherited little from that side of the family and much from his German blood. Not that anyone could say for certain, seeing as how no-one could quite recall ever meeting any of Mr Steiner’s relatives, but it was clear the same gruff disposition and ruddy complexion found on her husband were equally as evident in his eldest son. Along with the already receding hairline that meant he was never seen without a hat.
Coming onto a section of deeply rutted track she steered carefully.
“And will Seymour be going with you?” she asked, slowing and changing down a gear in preparation for another tight bend.
“You know dancing doesn’t interest him.”
“But he could take Doris. I’m sure she’d love to go.”
“I’m sure Doris would like to do a lot of things.” Marshall rolled down the side window. “The problem is, my brother. Only interested in himself is Seymour. How she puts up with him I’ve no idea.”
Olympia wondered the same. The long hours he willingly put into the farm often left him with little time for anything else. And that included courting the daughter of a neighbouring farmer.
Regardless, she wore a stern expression. “You shouldn’t say things like that,” she said. “He just needs to be told to make the effort, that’s all. Especially if they’re to be married one day.”
“And why shouldn’t they be. Isn’t it a match made in heaven?”
She winced, for while Doris might not be the prettiest girl around the fact her family owned the five hundred and twenty acres on the Steiner’s northern boundary made the union, if not a little calculating, attractive to someone like Seymour. Especially given his plans for expansion.
“Do you see yourself staying here forever?” she asked suddenly.
“I have no idea.”
“You understand your brother’s ideas better than I do. He really wants to make something of the place.”
She glanced over. Elbow resting on the sill, Marshall remained intent on the passing scenery.
“He’s thinking ahead that’s for sure, but it’ll take a lot of hard work if he’s to succeed.”
“With you at his side, he will.”
His silence concerned her. In truth, the farm was only big enough to support one family, two at most if additional land could be purchased. Happy to leave the overseeing of the sheep up on the higher ridges to the others, Seymour had already made it abundantly clear his interest was in developing the produce side of the business. Originally planted out by his father, until two years ago the rows of peach and plum trees had been given scant attention by anyone other than Olympia herself. She’d been the one to harvest enough of the crop for bottling and preserving, or bagging up to exchange with friends and neighbours for other goods. She’d even left little piles of ripe, sun-warmed fruit up at the gate with an honesty box. Now the orchards were Seymour’s domain, and while on the surface, Mr Steiner appeared to have no issue with his eldest son’s drive and determination it hadn’t escaped her attention that he was saddling up his old mare and riding up into the undulating landscape to check on their thousand head of sheep far more than he’d done in the past.
So where did that leave Marshall, other than trying to find his own place in the grand scheme of things? Or had he already made that decision?
Driving back into a yard baking and shimmering in the heat, for once Ella’s rooster, with his floppy red comb and arched tail, was nowhere to be seen. Nor was the sow and her piglets, who had no doubt escaped to the shadiest corner of their sty. Nosing the truck into the barn and with Marshall announcing he had a spot of work to do, Olympia hung around to revel in the quietness of the place. Ella was at school, having begun the new term after Christmas with madcap excitement. Seymour would be in one of the orchards or failing that in the packing shed, while having spent the last few days up in the hills Mr Steiner would be returning home that evening and no doubt in time for supper. With time enough for her chores later, she intended to enjoy half an hour of quiet on the verandah with a glass of iced tea and Ruby’s latest letter.
Given they had been friends for years, it might be considered surprising they didn’t correspond more often. Rather they exchanged news once or twice a year and while she enjoyed catching up with the goings-on in Auckland she worried her replies were far too mundane to be of interest. What could she write, that she’d tried a new recipe for treacle tart? Or that the vegetables she’d planted last the autumn were doing well? Hardly compelling stuff for a woman running her own business, albeit with her father in residence and a manager in charge. On top of that, being married to a sitting member of parliament bought other responsibilities. Having tea with important constituents or opening the new wing of a library, Ruby’s days were hardly run-of-the-mill. Instead, they were busy and consuming.
Olympia knew the world was passing her by. It might also be said she’d wasted the last nine years—and her youth—on a marriage that was little more than a convenience and a husband who would never see her as anything other than a housekeeper. Of course, the gulf in their ages didn’t help since it meant they had so little in common. Even so, she was starting to wonder what had possessed her back then in agreeing to the union.
But she already knew the answer to that.