He was approaching Palmers’ pub and he saw Flora at the doorway, in an apron and slippers, kneeling to scrub the front doorstep. When she saw him she stood up with surprise.
‘Paul! Why aren’t you at school?’
Then she looked at him, half-pleading, half-accusing. ‘Then it’s true, you’re in trouble…. Oh, Paul! It’s not true, is it? What they say? What Mr Rae said? Is it?’
‘I thought you’d have known me better than to believe it,’ he said.
‘Paul! I didn’t believe it! I wouldn’t believe it! I said it’s all a mistake!’
‘I’m not that worried, Flora. It’ll all blow over. It’s not going to be hard to prove it’s a lie.’
‘Mr Rae came to see Mum. Mum had to ask Donnie some awful questions. Donnie didn’t know what it was all about. Paul, how on earth did it start?’
‘Mike Herlihy. Peter told him first.’
‘Peter Herlihy. Oh, Paul, I warned you. You brought it on your- page 292 self—only it’s too hard. Why did you have to waste time on that boy?’
‘I can’t explain just now, Flora.’
‘Mum got stinking, Paul. She said you must be coming out in your true colours. I said, “You know you don’t believe that yourself, Mum,” and she cried.’
‘I can’t talk here, Flora. We don’t want a scene with your mother. Can I see you tonight? Half-past seven by the coal-bins?’
She was there five minutes before time. He had been there five minutes already, leaning against the corrugated-iron wall of the bath-house, feeling as if he was skulking in the dark, impatient to see her yet never doubting that she would come. She came hurrying briskly, without a hat, in a short dark coat of the season before, already going out of fashion with the new length in skirts. It made her look girlish, like a trusting innocent girl, venturing so surely downhill in the dark, with an unconscious poise in the way she walked. She hesitated and looked about, but he was hailing her.
She started imperceptibly. ‘Oh, you gave me a fright,’ she said, ‘And I was looking for you, too.’ Her fingers burrowed to his hand and pressed it. Her hand was throbbing warmly.
‘Where can we go?’ she said. ‘Somewhere away from the town,’
‘We’ll go up the Croesus track,’ he said. It was a track that led to an old gold claim fifteen miles away in the mountain range. Near the top it linked with another track, so that you could cross the Paparoas and come out on the beach at Barrytown, not far from the cave where Bernie O’Malley had hidden out during the First World War. For a start the track led through broom and maanuka and native heath, then it climbed and wound through deep bush. They walked slowly, away from the lights of the town, unsure of their feet till their eyes were accustomed to the dark. They didn’t talk at first. The bush was silent except for the sound of fallen twigs snapping and settling down to rot in peace, and the gurgle of runnels spilling where leaves and twigs had blocked them. A morepork called from deeper in the bush, but it only emphasized the peace of the place. Along the bank there were dozens of glow-worms, like dull sparks. Between the foliage above them the Milky Way was crisp and frosty like the night air.
They came to a small wooden bridge across a deeper and noisier creek where the water spilled over the boulders. They could see the foam faintly grey in the dark and the noise was like a muffler to second thoughts.
They talked about the charge and when they had agreed that page 293 there was nothing to do but to see a lawyer and wait for the trial, they stood leaning over the rail of the bridge.
‘Shouldn’t you get back now?’ he said. ‘Your mother’ll know you’re out with me.’
‘I think she’s got a good idea, already, I’m seeing you still. She hasn’t said anything. I think she’s got so much trouble on her hands she doesn’t want to start any more.’
‘Flora, just now for me the future’s uncertain. I’d thought we’d be able to get a house here and set up on my army savings. After the trial I don’t know what’ll happen. I might lose my job, even.’
‘You won’t, Paul. I’ll stick by you. Even if you have to find another job. Don’t let me get away from you, Paul.’
‘You wouldn’t want to…. Come on, we should be getting back.’
‘What’s your hurry, Paul.’
‘This place,’ he said. ‘The noise of the creek, the stillness, the loneliness, it keeps singing in my blood. It makes me want you,’ he said, as if ashamed.
She didn’t move.
‘Let’s go, Flora, before it gets the better of us.’
‘It makes me want you.’
‘Everything’s so unsettled for me, Flora. It’d be silly at a time like this. It wouldn’t be fair to you. How do you know what’s going to happen?’
‘I’ll stick to you, whatever happens. I promise it.’
They did not move or speak for a while. Then Rogers said, ‘Anyway, I gave your father an undertaking. Before he would agree to the engagement. It seems self-righteous to say it now, but I didn’t give it to him lightly…. It seems a long time now.’
‘That’s all over, Paul,’ she said. ‘I didn’t tell you before. Dad said the engagement’s finished. I didn’t say anything, argue or anything. I knew it’d be no use. He won’t help us now, even if we asked him.’
‘Does he know you still see me?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’
‘It wasn’t important.’
They turned to face each other and moved into an embrace. The creek, the stars, the bush seemed to encourage them. They consummated their love on a coat spread on a frosty bank of moss and grass at the side of the track; it seemed they dived out of this world into another existence of song and joy, and neither knew how long they were there, or how it came about.
Rogers slipped into a dark sleeping house when he got to Cairns’s. page 294 When Flora got home her mother was sitting up, looking worn and haggard.
‘Where’ve you been, Flor?’ she asked, with more self-pity than accusation. ‘I’ve been worrying. It’s gone midnight. Dad told me to go to bed, but I couldn’t. I bet he’s not asleep either.’
‘Oh, Mum, you shouldn’t have stayed up,’ she said, more with patience than anger, because she was too strange and happy to be annoyed. ‘I’m old enough to look after myself. I went to Doris’s for the night.’
‘How are they?’ Mrs Palmer asked, a little sullenly.
‘They’re fine.’ She realized, after she had said it, that her mother was looking for some message of apology from Doris; but she added nothing to soften her answer. It was the first time in her life that she had told her mother a lie.
The clear cold nights lasted for a week and every night Rogers and Flora met at the coal-bins and headed for the moss-bank by the Croesus track to share their love under the stars.