Mrs Palmer was herself again the next morning. Flora was surprised to find her up before anyone else, bustling with the breakfast in the kitchen. She served the two remaining boarders with unusual cheerfulness; clerks at the post office and the mine office—tee- totallers both. She was glad to have the work to do for them.
Flora told Don about her mother’s performance the night before.
‘Mum isn’t fair,’ she said. ‘She said some rotten things to Doris.’
‘Doris shouldn’t have hit her,’ Don said.
‘I might have done the same myself if she had said that to me. About not having babies. She knows very well it’s not Frank’s fault.’
‘Mum’s not well these days. You can’t blame her for going over the edge.’
‘You should talk, Don. Look what she made you do. She made you look a fool in front of the dredge-hands.’
‘If you can buck Mum’s will, Flora, you’re stronger than I am. She’s the strongest-willed woman I know.’
‘Well, it’s not fair if she expects to get her own way with everyone. Other people have got wills too. What about Myra? She didn’t get a fair deal.’
‘Forget Myra. Don’t open old wounds, Flora. I’ll never speak to her again. She tried to make trouble between me and Mum.’
‘Well, you had to make the choice, Don.’
‘We could have all lived together and been happy. There was no need to make a battle out of it.’
‘I’m beginning to wonder about that, Don.’
‘Well, I don’t blame Doris for sticking up for herself. But I’ll never fight Mum. And if anyone’s to settle these troubles it’s Dad. You shouldn’t worry about it. Doris isn’t your concern.’
‘It might be my concern, too. What if I wanted to get married? I’d want to be free.’
‘You don’t mean you’re going to walk out on us for Paul, do you? He’s caused enough trouble in this house. He hasn’t got a friend in the world now.’page 266
Flora didn’t answer.
That evening she knocked on Jimmy Cairns’s door. Russell Cairns answered. ‘It’s the girl of Palmer,’ he called.
‘Well, Flora,’ Jessie Cairns said. ‘It’s a surprise seeing you.’
‘I know what you want,’ Jimmy called. ‘You want me to buy the pub back because you’re losing on it. I can’t afford it.’
‘Is Paul in?’ Flora said.
‘Come in then and sit down,’ Jessie said. ‘He’s helping the kids with their homework. I don’t know what Heath’d say if he knew. I said he’d need to do it to make up for Heath giving Dick the strap for calling him scab. I’m bringing that up at the committee meeting tomorrow too.’
Russell was sitting on the floor in front of the coal stove saying his reading. Rogers was sitting at the table helping Dick with his arithmetic. Two girls, younger than Dick, were squabbling over possession of a pencil.
‘Hullo, Flora,’ Rogers said. ‘You’ve caught me working.’
‘It should be interesting, Paul,’ she said. ‘You make me jealous, being with children all the time.’
‘You try it for a while,’ he said. ‘Especially with little ruffians like these ones.’
‘Here, you,’ Jessie said. ‘Don’t you start insulting our kids. They’re the apples of my eye.’
‘You never said that when I wanted to go to the pictures last week,’ Dick said.
‘I am not a ruffian,’ one of the girls said.
‘Now, Betty, I only meant the boys,’ Rogers said.
‘He called me a ruffian. I know a name to call him,’ Dick said. ‘I can too. Mr Heath gave me the strap for it.’
‘Now son. Cut that out,’ Jimmy said. ‘We’ve had enough of that. Your teacher’s on our side now.’
‘He’s not my teacher.’
‘Well, he’s one of the teachers. You can show a bit of respect for him anyway.’
‘I’d like to have a chat with you, Paul,’ Flora said.
‘Okay, Flora,’ Rogers said, getting up from his chair.
‘Take a seat, Flora,’ Jessie said. ‘Here, Betty, get up and let Flora sit down.’
‘I won’t stay long,’ Flora said. ‘I’ll stand.’
‘Old Don didn’t send you, did he, Flora?’ Jimmy asked. ‘Or your mother?’
‘No, Mr Cairns,’ she said. ‘They don’t know I’m here.’
‘Well, look,’ Jessie said, ‘you won’t get much of a chance to talk page 267 here with this gang around. They’ve got cars as wide as the pit-mouth, and tongues as long as the main road.’
‘We have not,’ said Betty. ‘We can keep secrets.’
‘Well, you won’t get a chance,’ Rogers said. ‘We’ll go for a walk instead.’
‘Go into the front room if you like,’ Jessie said. ‘There’s no fire. Dick can make a fire for you.’
‘No, thanks, I’d just as soon have a walk,’ Flora said.
‘You might run into Winnie,’ Jessie said. ‘She’s out somewhere with Arty Nicholson.’
It was a dull night threatening rain. The mist was low on the hills but you couldn’t see much in the dark. There was already a fine drizzle in the air.
‘I’m glad you left, now, Paul,’ Flora said.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Mum gets too much of her own way,’ she said. ‘We went to Doris’s last night. She tried to turn Doris against Frank. It’s not right. She said something Doris’ll hardly forgive her for.’
‘I shouldn’t tell you. Can you keep it to yourself?’
‘Course. If you think I ought to know.’
‘Doris can’t have children. Mum said Frank was too mean to give her any.’
‘Doris slapped her face. Mum broke up. We had to get Miss Dane to drive her home in her car.’
‘What did Don think?’
‘Don lets Mum rule him. He could have been happily married if he’d had more independence…. Paul, Doris and Frank are happy enough, even without children. I’ve thought over what you said the other afternoon, in the wash-house. I want to go ahead with it, Paul. I don’t care what happens. I feel terrible doing this, behind Mum and Dad’s back, just when they’re in trouble. But I’ve got to. They think I’ve broken off the engagement now. They didn’t say so. They just take it for granted.’
‘It’s hard for you, Flora…. But don’t worry about it. Because you know I’ll do everything I can for you.’
‘There’s something else, Paul, you mustn’t tell anyone. I think Dad’s thinking of moving. He’s looking for another pub, away from the Coast. He didn’t say anything. But I can tell. If they go, Paul, I’m not going with them. I’ve had to face it, Paul. I can’t spend all my life with my parents. I’ve got to think of my own future. I want a home of my own, too.’page 268
‘We’ll manage together, Flora. Whatever happens.’
‘Oh Paul, I know I’ve been silly. I shut my eyes to a lot of things…. You don’t know how it hurts me, Mum and Dad have been everything to me, before I started with you.’
‘Don’t think twice about it, Flora. Once you’ve made your mind up, you’ll have to stick to it. But there’s something else, Flora.’
‘You’ve lived such a sheltered life. There’s so much you don’t understand. I talked politics to you. I thought you understood. But I didn’t even understand, myself. It was just talk. Airing opinions that were a bit different. It was the blind leading the blind. I’ve learnt now, you’ve got to stick by working people. Flora, all these troubles you and I have had, they might happen all over again. If you leave home and we marry, you won’t be leading the same kind of life you were used to….’
‘I don’t care about that, Paul.’
‘There’ll be other occasions in the Flat. Disputes and strikes. All sorts of political issues. Your whole upbringing will make you see things different from the way I see them. You’ve got to know what you’re letting yourself in for.’
‘I don’t pretend that I understand these things, Paul. I’ll just have to trust you on them.’
‘That’s not good enough, though, I’ll explain and explain. I don’t ask you to swallow everything I say just because I say it. I mean, we don’t want to have arguments later on. You know what I mean?’
‘Doris managed. She doesn’t have any arguments with Frank. The only time they argue is when they see Mum.’
They stood together by wet blackberry bushes at the side of the road for several minutes. Rogers put his arms tenderly around this girl who had taken the hardest decision of her life. It wasn’t like the night when they stood overlooking the creek and Peter Herlihy was foxing them, when they had been so deeply confident and happy. Now they saw each other as two independent people, needing each other if they wanted to establish their independence and self-respect so that they could live fruitfully among their neighbours. The night was silent without the dredge; only an occasional drip from a blackberry leaf. He saw the vitality in her glossy hair tinily beaded with mist, in the clear skin of her tender ripening features and her frank devoted glistening eyes. Her face looked stronger, now that she had made up her mind. ‘I won’t let you down,’ he said. She felt his strength and knew then that with him she could face most things, and her older problems dwindled. They felt a strong physical desire for each other, but neither wanted to act on it, not page 269 yet. As if he knew what she was thinking, Rogers said, ‘It’s too wet. Anyway, there’ll be hundreds of other days.’ Flora smiled a full smile that seemed to come from deep inside her.
‘I’ll have to get back,’ she said. ‘Or they’ll be wondering where I am.’
When they got back, Flora’s face was glowing, the glow emphasized by the wet, and by the mist on her hair like dew on a spider web. Rogers, too, though he didn’t know it, was animated. The children were in bed.
‘Here, you two, have you been drinking?’ Jessie asked. ‘You look so fresh, both of you.’
‘Ah, Flora sneaked him up home for a couple of sevenpennies,’ Jimmy said. ‘You have to watch those Palmers. All publicans are the same.’
‘We’ve only been for a walk,’ Rogers said.
‘Stretching our legs,’ Flora said.
‘Ah, what it is to be young,’ Jimmy said. ‘Do you remember, Jessie, that pozzy we had under the birch at the top of old Ned Seldom’s? He came out one night with a stick. He thought it was Mike Herlihy. You should have seen his face when he found it was us.’
‘The names he called us,’ Jessie said. ‘It makes me feel old to think of it. Will you have a cup of tea, Flora?’
‘I never used to drink tea at this time,’ Jimmy said.
‘He never used to be home at this time, that’s why,’ Jessie said. ‘He was always up at your pub before the boycott, Flora.’
‘We had a pozzy in the scrub where the new school is,’ Jimmy said. ‘Money was short then. You couldn’t take your girl to the pictures. You made do with the entertainment nature gave you.’
‘Here, don’t tell everyone,’ Jessie said. ‘Flora’s blushing.’
‘So is Paul,’ Jimmy said. ‘Anybody’d think they didn’t know what it was.’
Flora and Rogers began to laugh. There were tears in his eyes as he laughed.