DARK OASIS preview

book preview of DARK OASIS


 


PAPERBACK
BOOKS

DARK OASIS 


Advised
by her
Melbourne

doctor to ‘find a place in the sun’, 22-year-old Gail Mitchell travels to
the oasis city of
Belleville
in the Victorian Great Southern Desert.

 

It proves to
be a life-changing experience, which makes dramatic demands on her weaknesses
and strengths.

 

When a
Belleville News reporter is later assigned to investigate Gail’s
disappearance, she uncovers a story of passion, love and romance through which
runs an undertow of hatred, violence, mystery and betrayal.

 

As a result,
the reporter poses the question: Does the desert confront each desert dweller
with a personal moment of truth? The moment of truth which asks, which will you
choose: Good – or Evil?

In Store Price: $28.00 

Online Price:   $27.00

ISBN:978-1-921240-41-6




Format: A5 Paperback

Number of pages:
295


Genre: Fiction

 

Author:
Dulcie M. Stone

Imprint: Poseidon

Publisher: Poseidon Books
Date Published:  2007

Language: English

HOME PAGE

About the Author

 

 

Dulcie
May Stone, born Dulcie May White in
Melbourne
1924, has won acclaim as an author, educator and campaigner for people with
disabilities. She has been awarded an MBE
for
service to the handicapped (1981), was nominated International Woman of the Year in 1996/97
and was included in the Outstanding People of the Twentieth Century Selection.

 

A
prolific writer, Dulcie has previously published the following works:

 

Fiction

1978           I Laugh I Cry I Feel.

Spectrum Publications

Included
in the International Year of the Disabled selection, Bologna Book Fair, 1981

1982           Jonny
Love

Spectrum Publications

1991           Hullo
Fay

Self Published

1995           Ask
Me about Saturdays


SpringDale

Publications

1997           Ask
Me about Saturdays

SMARTBOARD Internet Publisher

2003           Chance’s
Children

Spectrum Publications

2006          
Fay

The Australian Institute on Intellectual Disability, Canberra

2007          
Tools of War

Zeus Publications

 

Non-Fiction

1971                    
Parent Power

Mildura and District Educations Council Pub

1979                    
Teaching
with the Retarded

Spectrum Publishing. Melbourne

1988                    
Principles
of Voluntarism

Community Service, Victoria. Publication

1990                    
For
Adults Only?

Upper Yarra
Com. House

1993                    
Towards
the New Dream

SpringDale

Publications

1993                    
What’s
Volunteering & What’s Not?

SpringDale

Publications

1994                    
Parent
Power ’94

SpringDale

Publications

1996                    
Becoming
a Writer

Stone & Associates Pub

2002                    
Switching
on the Light

Spectrum Publishing

 

As
well as a full professional life, Dulcie enjoys a busy family life with her four
children, twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Prologue

W

hat is she
looking at, the old woman in the wheelchair? Does she see the purple mountains,
the scented silver gums, the emerald ferns, the sad willows in the park across
the road?

 

What does she hear? The carolling
magpies, the cackling kookaburras, the chirruping sparrows, the occasional
passing car, the hollow ring of the woodsman’s axe, the gossip of her fellows?

What does she see? What does she hear?

Perhaps nothing captures her fleeting
interest. Perhaps she simply sleeps out here on this freezing winter verandah.

She’s been here, in this mountain
shelter, for many years. She cannot tell you how many. Or is it that she knows,
but won’t tell? Anything’s possible with this old one who talks to almost no
one, and admits few visitors.

Peculiar in the head. That’s what this
withered old cripple is. Peculiar.

Was she ever young? Impossible.

Surely the thin white hair, the lined
parchment skin, the beaked nose, the twisted body and the arthritic hands could
never have known youth or vitality. Yet the most casual observance cannot fail
to remark the life in those keenly darting eyes. Old she may be, young she may
long ago have been. But could that predatory glance be a true reflection of who
she once was?

The nurse, on her mid-morning rounds,
stops. “Gail! You’ll freeze.” She tucks a fallen blanket around the
scrawny shoulders.

The sly old eyes wait; they watch the
nurse retreat to the warm indoors. The gnarled old hands peel off the blanket.
It falls, again, to the floor. The chill mountain air caresses the scrawny
shoulders. The old woman shivers, and the withered lips smile a secret smile.

I step forward. For the first time, at
least so far as I know, she sees me. The smile freezes, as chill as the mountain
air.

“You’ll catch your death, Gail.” I
attempt to readjust the blanket. This time she makes no pretence, just slaps the
blanket from my hands.

Not so far removed from reality!

I try a ruse. “Do you remember
Belleville
, Gail?”

The name hangs in the air.

The old woman shrinks and the knowing
smile disappears.

 

I’m on
assignment for the Belleville News. As a kind of good-will bonus, the new young
editor has sent me off to the mountains to follow up a mystery Old Belleville is
still interested in. Years ago, this social butterfly just disappeared. No one
knew why. Or where to. Or even if she was still alive. Or, to be honest – if
she’d left
Belleville
alive. Maybe she’d just disappeared not too far from home. It wouldn’t be
the first time in
Belleville
. If that’s what had happened it sure wouldn’t be the last. In my time at
the Belleville News, I’ve been close to more than a few unsolved
disappearances.

 

Whatever the truth, Gail went missing
half a lifetime ago; around the time I got my job. There one day, gone the next.
Just like that. Not usual. Even for
Belleville
, not usual. Both in town and in the newsroom, Gail’s abrupt absence from the
social scene and her home had been a seven-day wonder. Soon forgotten. There
were enough other scandals in the place to titillate their thirst for drama. The
thing is, even though the family let it be known she’d simply gone off back to
the big smoke, she’d left behind a raft of rumours that never actually died.
Rumours that had to do with the family itself, intimate stuff, the kind of thing
that happens behind the closed doors of the rich and powerful, and never sees
the light of day. Well, almost never.

Then, out of a clear sky, the editor
sends me off. “She’s been found,” he says. “Go check it out.” Which is
why, after two days driving, I arrived at the country branch of the Calthorpe
Clinic. Hidden away in the Blue Mountains , the country clinic is the last resting place of the infirm elderly; the
wealthy infirm elderly. Plushly furnished and serviced by top echelon medical
men and superlatively trained staff, it’s a place where families can send off
their unwanteds with a clear conscience. Let’s face it; most families own a
couple of embarrassing geriatrics. But most families have neither the money nor
the will to so richly exile them. In my role as bona fide reporter, I discovered
that some of the Calthorpe’s guests can be regarded as clinically insane, and
harmless, comparatively harmless. Others are just old and rejected, and entirely
harmless.

So what about Gail? Opinions differ.
Gail is different. For one thing, she has a regular visitor who’s turned up
once a year for years. Which leads to a couple of conclusions. Gail has been
here a damned sight longer than the expected average; therefore, unless she
suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s she’d been no doddering geriatric way
back then. There’s another thing. As far as I can detect, Gail has never been
clinically diagnosed as insane. Yet she sure is crazy now. Crazy as a loon, some
say. Crazy as a fox, say others.

By the end of the week, I’m adding two
and two and getting around to four. Because this is adding up to more than my
assignment intended – verify this person at the clinic is who we believe she
is, and that she’s alive. This is all the slick young editor wants to know.
Details not relevant, he’s ordained. Understandable.

So let’s face this too. It’s
understandable if you’re employed by the
Belleville
media monopoly. A good Belleville News story is only as good as, or as
publishable as, the bosses, the rarely seen faces who employ the editor, say it
is. Any hint of crossing them and you’re out! Big time out! If you’re stupid
enough, or idealistic enough, to try to cross them, your name is mud and
you’re on their black list quicker than you can cry, “Foul!”

In all my years as their women’s
affairs reporter, covering carefully frivolous social gossip and carefully
censored fashion (no in-your-face boobs and bottoms), I’ve never had to worry
like the newsmen do. One thing for sure I have worked out – you get a big
story, you check it out. Which big shot does it advantage and which does it
hurt? Who stands to gain, who to lose? Like you walk into our room, the
reporter’s room that is, there’s these notes pinned around. They read, ‘No
mention of xxxxx
(Name deleted because I’m still vulnerable to the power
brokers) to be made in this newspaper.’ It goes for the other two
branches of the media as well. No mention of (name deleted) on air or TV. For
the record, ‘name deleted’ is almost always connected to the current
political climate.

Which means that when I eventually
decide to look into the mystery of Gail, I begin to smell foul play. Why?
Initially because a telephone call from the editor orders me to confirm the bare
facts and get the hell out of the place. Not me. I want to know why she’s
here, why she was sent here. Why the decades of silence? Why the loyal visitor
to this obnoxious woman? Who is he? It’s going to take months, maybe longer,
to get to the truth. The years have taught me that the truth is not what
Belleville News is interested in. Not often, and certainly not this time.

Therefore, because my retirement is due
soon anyway, I again contact my cautious young editor. By mutual consent, plus
mutually agreed financial arrangements, we cut the ties. Following, gathered
from sources both reliable and unreliable, is this reporter’s interpretation
of Gail’s intriguing life journey.

 


BELLEVILLE

 

The City of
Belleville
is at the heart of the huge Great Southern Desert. Though each desert presents
its own distinctive challenge, the nature of a desert is that it is cruel,
desolate, ruthless and unforgiving. For both man and beast, survival in each
distinctive desert is purchased only with ruthless, cruel, merciless and
unforgiving brutality. For some, the desert is compelling and irresistible.

 

It provokes the question – Is it only
the ruthless who can survive the desert? This in turn invites more profound
questions – Does the desert attract only its like? Are the ruthless desert
dwellers inherently ruthless? Or is the desert a peerless teacher? Is it that
its people live by the cruel lessons of survival the desert has taught them? Or
could it be that the desert experience is an examiner? Does the desert confront
each desert dweller with a personal moment of truth? The moment of truth which
asks – which will you choose? Good – or Evil?

There is another question, a critical
one. Does the desert experience also examine those who live in its soft green
heart? Seated in her mindless wheelchair in her icy mountain retreat, the old
woman might tell us. But if even she could, she’s not going to.

The Great Southern Desert is grey sand,
blistered grass, stunted shrub, shrivelled bush and flat from burnt horizon to
burnt horizon. The pitiless desert sun fires each white-hot day, the tantalising
desert stars freeze each blue-cold night. Desert sun. Desert stars. Fire – and
ice. Life – and death.

The Great Southern covers nearly a
thousand miles from south to north, four hundred and fifty miles from west to
east. Its life is the desert creatures; its animals, its birds, and its people
who are unique to
Australia
. Its first people, its indigenous people, knew and respected its spirit – and
enriched it.

Its settlers have become distinctively
Australian. They came from around the world, from many places for many reasons,
and they became ‘Australians’. They vanquished the indigenous people and
their rich legacy. They decimated them, ignored them, abhorred them, denigrated
them, expelled and degraded them.

Disdaining guilt or social
responsibility, they melded their own desert character – an admixture of
Irish, Scot, Brit, Italian, Greek, German, Slav, Dane. Always white, never
coloured. Not then. The Continent on the edge of Asia was never to be settled by Asians. The principle of the White Australia Policy
satisfied deep-rooted fear.

Free from all taint of ‘colour’,
they channelled life-giving water from the rivers, irrigated the unproductive
desert and imported their cherished European way of life. They cultivated the
land as they’d done in old Europe and, employing scientific innovation calculated to preserve, protect, enhance
and maximise crop output, they flourished. They attracted universal interest in
their new-world dreamtime culture. The tourist is drawn to the offspring of this
most unlikely marriage between the rich traditions of Old Europe and the
primitive brutality of the Southern Desert – a way of life that is
recognisably Australian.

But time is revealing the desert’s
revenge. Immense salt pans encircle the irrigated farmlands. Man is
catastrophically vulnerable to imperfectly controlled pesticides. Graphic
examples of the desert’s revenge invite enquiry into the as yet unproven, but
anecdotally sound, high incidence of carcinogenic related illnesses. What are
the as yet unproven consequences of wholesale chemical spraying of the crops?
Should the conquerors of the desert be asking questions about the reputedly high
incidence of the Big C? Should they go further? Should they not be wondering
about the ‘reputedly’ high incidences of Parkinson’s disease, suicide,
mental breakdown, alcoholism? And God alone knows what else?

Could it be that these are related to
man’s meddling intrusion into the jealous rhythms of the desert? Or are they
evidence of man’s inability to survive it? Or, perhaps, they are a complex
interweaving of both?

Then there’s
Belleville
. Nowhere is there more reason to fear the desert’s revenge; in
Belleville
that’s the hidden under-belly, spoken of only in whispers if at all. At the
very heart of the desert, this municipal oasis is unique. Although unarguably
‘Australian’, it remains totally unlike any other Australian town. Anywhere.
Neither in the settlements of its closest neighbours nor in the cities of the
distant seaboard. Nor, even, in the thousands of other isolated communities in
the giant island that is a Continent.

It’s no mystery. The reason is
evident.
Belleville
’s settlers were a very different breed of pioneer. Not from genteel Old
Europe, but from adventurous New America, came the Yankee Engineers who
manufactured the oasis. Banishing dreamtime man and forestalling Old Europe, was
the American – the American of the Wild Wild West.

So that the soulless ethos of the raw
and arrogant American pragmatist underpins, and over-rides, all else in the
resolutely atypical City of
Belleville
. Brutally stripped of its dreamtime soul, it is a disparate conglomerate. Its
values, an opportunistic admixture of the values of New America, Old Europe and
young
Australia
are an insecure and confusing mishmash. Self-interest is the single unifying
theme. Which, of course, ensures its opposite – dis-unity.

Latterly, young
Australia

has come to
Belleville
from the coastal cities. It came with the soldier settlers. City-bred
ex-soldiers from both World Wars and, later, from
Vietnam

and
Korea
, have brought to the city the values and traditions of the ‘dinkum Aussie’
and the best and worst of all that means. The admirable and the virtuous and the
disreputable and the profane and the downright abominable; mateship in its
many-coloured, many-splendoured but always inherently misogynist manifestations.

The admixture becomes more complex,
self-interest intensifies, disunity thrives. And, for those interested in trends
and forecasts,
Belleville
sounds its distinctive warning. Futurists may well wonder – is this a
microcosmic glimpse of the pragmatic and mercenary
Australia
which, even now, is hurtling down its terrible evolutionary path? Greed, money,
intolerance, bigotry, self-absorption – is this our national destiny? Is the
heart of
Australia
as desiccated and unfeeling, and as arid, as the heart of this dark oasis in
the Great Southern Desert?

To get to
Belleville

, from north, south, east, or west, you have to cross at least one desert,
sometimes more, through
Victoria

,
South Australia

, or southern
New South Wales
. From whichever direction, you have to cross the desert. There are many ways to
travel. There always have been – by foot, by horse, by camel, buggy, car,
train, plane. But the first, the original and still the most interesting, is by
boat, by way of The River. The Mighty
Murray
. The pioneers came this way. The tourists, still, sometimes come this way.

 

 

Chapter One

February 1948

G

ail Mitchell, a
recuperating invalid, first travelled to
Belleville
by train. An eleven-hour trip, the train left
Melbourne
at dusk, wound through outer suburbia, stopped at busy country towns, slipped
past sleeping villages and reached the rim of the Great Southern Desert at dawn.

 

Those practised enough to enjoy sleep in
the crowded overnight carriages woke to the stark reality of the desert; to
windows too hot to touch, to the stench of sweating bodies, to burning horizons,
intolerable boredom and the abhorrent knowledge that there were still many miles
of the desert to suffer. At five in the morning.

Gail, who hadn’t slept, checked her
watch. At least two hours to go!

The overweight woman who’d snored
against her all through the exhausting night, stirred. “You okay, love?”

She nodded.

Last evening she and her sister,
Barbara, had been at Spencer Street Station. Following their widowed mother’s
death, they were the sole survivors of their small family. Their father, a
victim of
Germany
’s 1915 chlorine gas attack in the First World War, had died before they were
teenagers.

Their distraught mother had reared them
in a sick atmosphere of prolonged mourning. Even the smallest and most
insignificant decision could not be taken until she’d consulted his ghost.
“What would your father have wanted?” was a daily, almost hourly, question.
Though they’d loved him, they’d scarcely known him as their mother
remembered him, much less known what he would have wanted. It made no
difference. For Carol Mitchell her husband had lived on. Until she too had died.
The death certificate, signed by family doctor Frank Petersen, declared cause of
death to be tuberculosis. Barbara, a trained nurse, knew better. Their mother
had died of a broken heart.

Devastated by her mother’s premature
death, twenty-two-year-old Gail had suffered persistent chest infections. Darkly
predicting serious complications, Doctor Petersen had prescribed total bed rest
and unspecified time off from her office job in an inner-suburban factory.
Barbara had again taken night shift work to take daytime care of family. Poor
Barbara.

Until the doctor had finally ordered,
“Find her a place in the sun.”

It had not been easy. Post-war
Australiana-conscious tourists were happily following the Australian sun, a few
interstate, the majority intra-state.
Victoria
on the Murray – Swan Hill, Echuca, Albury, et al – was booked out.
Eventually time and necessity stimulated Barbara’s memory into recollection of
an old family friend, also a World War One veteran, who lived in the North-West.
Not in Swan Hill, Echuca, or Sunraysia, but in
Belleville
.


Belleville
? On the map they’d had trouble finding it, a dot in the
corner, uppermost north farthest west. As west and as north as
Victoria
could get. At the end of the endless rail line,
Belleville
was way too far from home. Gail was too fragile for the long journey. Besides,
she’d be too far from the one person left who cared about her. No,
Belleville
was out of the question.

“North of the Ranges.” Frank
Petersen, having heard of the location of the old family friend and the
possibility of a solution to the problem, had refused to consider objections.
“The sun. Wherever you can get it. Or face the consequences.”

Therefore, fragility and absence of
carer notwithstanding, the nightmare journey to
Belleville
had to be endured. Terrified, disoriented, accustomed to heeding authority –
in whatever guise – she’d allowed Barbara to make the arrangements.

“You sure you’re all right?” The
fat woman pressed even closer.

Again, she nodded. Barbara had warned,
“Don’t to talk to strangers. Be careful of strangers.” Easily said for
Barbara, who was healthy and strong-willed and capable and forthright and all
the things she was not. Curse the weak lungs, curse the family’s legacy of ill
health, curse the city smog. Curse her sister’s strength and her own
debilitating guilt because of the debt she owed her, and would never ever be
strong enough to repay.

But right this minute, this five a.m.
nightmare morning, curse the sun and the desert and the fat woman who’d
sprawled over her all night and the loud, crude, brutish farmers and their
sloppy wives and mewling kids. Curse the burning air and the stench of sweat and
baby vomit and the terror of aloneness.

Nauseous, she felt faint. Nothing had
prepared her for this. Family trips, though rare, had been out of the city and
into the luscious green sweet-smelling foothills or to the mountains –
snow-capped and cloud-misted and storm-tossed in winter, wattle gold and
eucalypt green and shimmering in a burnished heat-haze in summer, dressed in
richly heart-stopping reds and golds and bronzes in autumn. Both her father and
her mother had adored the mountains and the foothills. As for Barbara – who
knew?

Burning head pressed against the raging
heat from the train window, she let the frustrated tears fall.

“You shouldn’t do that, love.” The
fat woman missed nothing. “You’ll only make it worse.”

Pretending not to hear, she
surreptitiously felt for a handkerchief to dry the tears. She didn’t need it.
The intense heat on the hot glass had already dried them.

“I’ll get you a drink.” The woman
waddled from her seat.

The vacant space at her side was already
cooler.

From across the worn leather, a farmer
grunted, “You should know better, Miss. You’ll burn your face.”

Though he was right, she protested.
“It’s so hot.”

“Someone should of told you last
night,” he clucked disapproval. “You shouldn’t of taken your shoes off.”

She looked down at her stockinged feet.
Overnight they’d ballooned to twice their normal size.

“What a shame we didn’t notice.”
Opposite, the young mother who’d routinely breast fed her screaming infant
into slobbering silence for most of the crowded night, gloomily warned, “Now
you’ll never get your shoes on, dear.”

Blushing, she scrabbled under the seat
for the high-heeled shoes she’d discarded last night.

“See what I mean.” The farmer was
confirming what didn’t need confirmation. “City people ain’t got a clue on
these long hauls. Not a clue.”

“We should’ve told you.” The young
mother was helpful. “What about slippers? They’re in your case. The swelling
won’t go down for hours.”

“Here we are.” The fat woman was
back, the tumbler of water sloshing to the rattling rhythm of the train.

Squeezing back against the window, she
sipped the tepid water.

The passengers exchanged knowing
glances.

“You’ll be right, love.” The fat
woman comforted.

Together they lifted the case from the
luggage rack, located the blue satin slippers, a present from Barbara, and
returned the case to the rack.

“So pretty, love.” Calloused fingers
stroked the blue satin. “Somebody loves you.”

She bent to put them on. The train
lurched. Falling forward, she frantically scrambled for support, and woke the
sleeping baby. The wailing started up again. The mother stuffed her naked breast
into its open mouth.

She’d known worse moments; too many.
Her father’s death, her mother’s, the legacy of bills and mortgage and
uncertainty and, finally, the fear of following her parents into early death.
She didn’t want to die young. She wanted to be fit and healthy. She wanted to
marry, to be healthy and have healthy children. She wanted to be happy.

Right this minute she wanted to be back
home. Because this had to be just about one of the worst times ever. This time,
she was really alone. This time there was to be no rescue. There would be no
loving mother, no caring sister, no attentive doctor, no familiar warm bed.
There was no one and nothing to ease the pain. Tears waited and these simpletons
were not going to see them.

Returning to the burning window, she
watched the merciless desert slide past – flat, grey, empty, dead. Lonely.

The sun climbed, the heat soared and the
carriage was a seething oven.

“Pull the blind down, girlie.” The
farmer begged.

“Better do it, love.” The fat woman
agreed. “The baby’s feeling the heat even if you aren’t.”

About to reach for the blind, her
attention was caught by a cloud of birds in flight. Pink cockatoos. Beauty on
wings, they wheeled across the dust, circled, climbed, dived and climbed again
and dived again and settled on a carcass – the desiccated bones of a dead
kangaroo.

Sick, she jerked the blind down. There
was no escape, none. She let the tears fall unchecked.

“Don’t cry, love.” Hot fat pawed
her. “I know. It’s your first trip away from home. I saw you last night.
When you left. Your friend. What a nice kid. She…”

“She’s not my friend.”

“Not your? I get it,” the fat mouth
bared yellow teeth. “The way she looked out for you. Carrying your case and
all. She’s got to be your sister! I’d never have guessed. What a pretty kid.
I’d never have guessed. She’s not a bit like you.”

“Leave off,” the young mother
chided. “That’s not nice!”

 “Oh
God!” The fat woman yelped. “Me and my big mouth. I’m sorry, girl. How
awful! I didn’t mean it like that!”

“It’s all right.” It wasn’t all
right. Even though she’d learned to live with it, she hated being the ugly
sister.

Not that being the pretty one had done
Barbara any good. She’d given up everything, career advancement, boy friends,
social life – everything – for family. No wonder she was planning to escape,
to travel overseas. She’d earned a life of her own.

“You’re pretty, too.” The woman
tried to make amends. “In a different way.” The nasal voice droned on,
dreary accompaniment to the metallic thunder of the train.

No one had ever told her she was pretty,
not even her father. The mirror didn’t lie. The mirror reflected brown eyes,
gold flecked, too intense, too sharp, too penetrating; eyes which too often
discomforted others. The mirror also reflected pale lips too full-blown in an
ashen face, thick straight brown hair, a strong jaw line, a high broad forehead
and a body that looked thinner than it was because of its above average height.

The mirror was unable to perceive the
potential for beauty, a beauty that waited. It waited in the high cheekbones and
the rare symmetry of the oval face, in the tawny magnificence of the watchful
eyes, and in the repressed passion of the full lips. As though awaiting the
imprint of youth’s reaction to life’s influence, this face seemed to be
asking – what kind of beauty will I be? The bare bones of beauty were there.
How would they be fleshed out? Would they soften? Or harden?

 Whatever
the product of life’s imprint on that perfectly formed face, one thing was
certain – Gail Mitchell would never be merely pretty.

But, on the searing morning train, the
unsophisticated tongue of the country woman at her side could only manage,
“You’re pretty in a different way, love. You been sick? I can tell. You need
some of our sun. You get out and around up here, you’ll be a new woman.
You’ll…”

“It’s after six.” A farmer
interrupted. “Do you mind putting the blind up again?”

The raising of the blind re-fuelled the
furnace. And still, in all directions, there was only desert to look at. She
turned from it.

“Wait a while, love. There’s better
things to look at soon.” Her neighbour promised. “You’ll be surprised.”

The passengers stirred. The carriage
came to life. Each – farmer, housewife, child, fat lady, nursing mother –
sat on the edge of their cramped scrap of leather. Every eye was on the searing
window.

What were they expecting?

Nothing. Nothing but endless flat land
blanketed in miles and miles and more miles of depressing dead-grey scrub. Again
she turned away, and closed her eyes. Why had she let them persuade her? Barbara
should not have.

Disturbed by a collective sigh, she
returned to the window. The desert had disappeared! The dispiriting scrub had
gone. Totally. Passing by the window was only vivid green. Clear to the horizon
was only green. Turning her head, she looked back along a cloud of steam that
sat thickly on the gentle curve of the retreating train track. There, was
desert. Here, running alongside the hot window, was green.

The line of demarcation was as sharp and
as uncompromising as a single pen stroke on a map. Comprehending that they were
at the rim of the oasis that encircled
Belleville
, she turned to look ahead. As far as she could see was green. At last. They
were entering the centre of the desert.

Millions of rich green vines in hundreds
of vineyards were interrupted only by islands of tall shade trees dwarfing
secret homes. Mysterious and intriguing, the almost unseen houses and the unseen
people in them challenged the imagination. Who lived in those houses? What kind
of people were they? How did they live? Where had they come from? Why?

Within the carriage even the locals were
mesmerised. Even the fat woman was finally silent.

“You can just about see mine from
here.” Eventually breaking the spell, the friendly farmer collected his bag
from the over-head rack. “I get out at Barclay.”

She started up.

“Not yet, love.” He cautioned.
“Another twenty minutes to
Belleville
. If you’re ever out our way, look us up. We’re in the phone book.
Jessup’s. Tom Jessup. The wife loves visitors. She cooks up a mean cream
sponge.”

The train stopped. A sun-leathered woman
embraced Tom Jessup, a small family welcomed an elderly woman, a lone man
carrying a heavy case limped to the distant exit, a yapping terrier raced
unchecked along the narrow platform. Sun-scorched white sand glittered,
hard-muscled men collected milk cans, uniformed postmen unloaded bulging
mailbags and the frenetic station manager shouted directions above the combined
clatter of metal and the rhythmic clacking of the impatient engine.

The whistle shrieked its familiar
warning, the shouts peaked to their familiar hysteria and doors slammed shut
with the sharp finality peculiar to train doors. Childhood memories of stations
and trains and trips to the mountains, and the utterly irrational terror that
the doors might slam before her parents could board the train with her,
escalated panic. She would never manage so far from home – alone and sick and
knowing no one.

The train, shuddering as each carriage
along its long length responded to the engine, quickly picked up speed.

“Next stop
Belleville
.” The nursing mother tucked her breast into her dress.

The fat woman located Gail’s shoes.
“Have another go at these, love.”

 

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