Read an extract: The Secrets We Keep by Shirley Patton

A mother’s secret. A father’s betrayal. A town on the edge. 

For readers of Judy Nunn’s Spirits of the Ghan… When a newcomer blows into the mining town of Kalgoorlie she unwittingly uncovers a web of lies and a heartbreaking tie with her tumultuous past in this compelling family saga.

In stores from March 19th, 2018. Click here to find out more!

Chapter One

There are moments of destiny and moments of choosing and we rarely know the difference. Maybe that’s why Aimee McCartney thought she was making a choice the day she drove into town and fell through the front door of the welfare office.

She was a blow-in, literally.

A dust storm whirled through the goldmining town lifting the tin roofs of houses and lashing the legs of caught-out locals with a mixture of gold dust, cyanide tailings and precious topsoil from the Nullarbor Plain. It catapulted her through a set of swinging doors where she dropped her bag and any semblance of a dignified entrance.

Startled faces looked up from behind the counter. She bobbed down and scooped up her bag, grateful to be out of sight for a few seconds. She peered through a dark veil of hair, took a deep breath and stood up again.

A tall, stocky man with curly hair rushed past.

‘Hang on a minute, I’ll be right with you,’ he called out. ‘Let me close the doors or we’ll all be covered in dust.’

It was Patrick O’Connor, the Irishman who’d interviewed her in Perth six weeks ago.

My ticket out, she mused. She leant on the chest-high counter and watched for a moment as he heaved his shoulder against the large outer wooden doors, fighting to click the front and bottom latches into place. She turned away and took in her surroundings. Below the counter a sandy-haired young woman was speaking on the telephone; behind her stood two rows of filing cabinets, their steely greyness softened by several spider plants trailing from dull brass pots. In the far corner a long, narrow window sliced open the creamy-yellow walls. Outside, clouds of red dust swirled with gathered gum leaves, obscuring the morning sunlight.

Above her glowed two rows of fluorescent lights, out of place against the high, ornate ceiling. She recalled the chandeliered dining room ceiling at Parliament House in Perth where she’d been only two weeks ago. Same era, she guessed. Her stomach tightened. Her politician father, Richard, still found it a novelty to invite family and friends there for lunch, especially now that Labor was finally in government. She’d tried to get out of it but her mother, Susan, had cajoled, ‘We hardly see you these days, darling. Please come. For me.’

For her, she went. The little contact she now had with her family—special events, the occasional Christmas—her mother struggled to understand.

Better she doesn’t, she thought, looking across the room.

On the far side of the welfare office sat two women at wooden desks one behind the other. In the corner stood a large machine with a perspex cover—she would later learn it was a telex machine for sending messages to the main office in Perth. One of the women smiled up at her. She smiled back. The other, an older woman, her hair pulled into a tight bun, studiously ignored her. Aimee pushed back her own long hair and straightened her jacket. She looked down. Her black patent shoes were covered in dust. She was rubbing them up the back of her trouser leg when Patrick returned.

‘You didn’t get blown away, then?’ he laughed, leaning against the counter.

She dropped her shoe to the floor, hoping that he hadn’t noticed, and laughed along with him, a loud, earthy sound that filled the room. The women looked up from their desks.

‘Well, almost! Does this happen often?’ she asked, relaxing a little. The weather was always an easy topic.

‘No. We get smaller gusts—willy-willies. They blow up around the slime dumps out on the flats, but these big ones come in off the desert,’ he explained, running a hand through his hair and tucking in his shirt. ‘I came here in ’83—what’s that, three years ago—and I’ve only seen a couple. And let me tell you, you don’t want to get caught out in them. But hey, you’ve arrived before the worst of it.’ He reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘C’mon, I’ll introduce you to everyone.’

‘Hi, I’m Lori Patroni,’ the smiling woman called out. ‘Do you want a cuppa? People don’t start coming in till after nine so get in while the going’s good, eh.’ She laughed. ‘After that you never know when you’ll get a break.’ She jumped up and came around the counter to shake her hand.

Like her own, it was a firm handshake. They were about the same height and build—tall and athletic. Lori’s dark eyes reminded her of Lee’s. She felt a pang as she realised how much she missed Lee already.

But it’s too late for that.

She turned back to Patrick.

‘Lori runs the place,’ he was saying. ‘I only pretend to. If you need to know something or find anything, ask her.’

She noticed Lori blush slightly.

‘And this is Hayley Dimer, our receptionist, the most important person in the building,’ he enthused, leaning over the counter.

The sandy-haired woman beamed up at him. ‘That’s because I make you all look good, Paddy!’

‘True, but you know, the way we treat people when they first turn up at the counter reflects what we try to do here, Aimee,’ he said, turning towards her. ‘Isn’t that right, Maureen?’ he called out across the room. ‘Maureen’s our longest serving staff member. Maureen Johnstone, this is Aimee McCartney, our new social worker. What a day to arrive, eh?’

Maureen glanced up from her typewriter and gave her a brief smile before turning back to her work.

Patrick touched her elbow. ‘Come on in while I find your orientation folder. Then we can grab a cup of tea and I’ll show you the rest of the building.’

She relaxed as he guided her into his office. But not too much. She turned towards him and forced a smile.

‘Pull up a chair, it’ll be here somewhere.’

She watched him flick through neatly stacked piles of paperwork on the large wooden desk. His broad forehead furrowed in concentration. ‘Paperwork, it’s never-ending,’ he muttered. He glanced at her, smiling, apologetic.

She smiled back. What you see is what you get, she surmised. She’d been impressed by his open and frank manner during the job interview. He’d warned her: ‘There’s some challenging social issues involved in working in an isolated community like Kalgoorlie.’ But his eyes shone when he extolled the importance of trying to make a difference. A good man, she’d decided.

‘Ah, here it is, under the ministerial I’m avoiding. Politicians—they want pat answers yesterday!’ He picked up a sheet of paper and read aloud: ‘Please explain the high rate of Aboriginal youth incarceration. Detail strategies addressing the problem.’ He shook his head. ‘They have no idea of the lack of alternatives, the lives some young people are forced to live.’ He put his hand to his mouth. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot, your father is …’

She stared at him for a moment, then laughed. ‘No, no, it’s okay, I agree. But I never mentioned he was—’

‘No, sorry, I heard, should I not mention …?’ He put down the paper and sat on the edge of the desk, his hands clasped in front of him.

Aimee took a deep breath. ‘No, if you don’t mind, it can get awkward, you know how it is.’

Patrick nodded and smiled. He reached back for the orientation folder and stood. ‘Shall we?’

Aimee rose, her face warm. Lee wasn’t the only one she wanted to forget.

Over six hundred kilometres to begin again. Hopefully, it was far enough.

Chapter Two

Standing on her front verandah, Kerry Steele watched the storm looming over the town. She hated the dust. Even without the wind it crept in, covering everything. Every day she pushed it out of her house, washed it out of her clothes, shook it out of her mats. But she couldn’t get it out of her husband.

Covered, smothered, mothered.

The words bounced around in her head. If she didn’t distract them soon, they would get faster and faster. She looked over the fence at the mining poppet heads.

Williamstown was the closest part of town to the mines. Too close, most people had said, but it was all they could afford. Paul’s birthday had come up in the National Service lottery conscripting him to Vietnam, his belated prize a war service home loan at a low three and three-quarter per cent interest. They’d married a year after he was dropped off in darkness near Fremantle, travelling home on the train in civvies so no one would hassle him. He’d gone straight to the mine manager and asked for his old job back.

The following year Amber came into their lives—they couldn’t believe their good fortune. Her hazel eyes gleamed like a cat’s eyes and like a cat she’d mewed on her first night home, until their love softened her whimpers. But there were no more children; times had changed, maybe for the better. The words started bouncing again as tears pressured her eyeballs.

Better, letter, fetter.

She kicked the tin can Paul used for his cigarette butts and watched the wind take it for a roll down the front path. It lodged below the letterbox in the Erica bush, one of the few flowering plants she’d managed to grow. The plastic tag from Woolies said it originated in Africa so she figured it would have to grow here. Paul thought she was mad trying to make a garden out of the two rectangles of dust either side of the path but Amber had needed somewhere to play other than the quarter-acre dust bowl out the back. The backyard clothesline, held aloft by a forked branch, hung alongside two rusted car bodies and Paul’s shed, the old mulberry tree ripening over their roofs.

As if there wasn’t enough bloody red, she thought.

Aware the storm was closing in, she ran down the path to check the letterbox, tugged out the yellow envelope and, grabbing the tin can, bolted back into the house. ‘Department of Community Welfare’ it announced in black. She ripped it open as she walked down the passage and saw the heading on the page: ‘Isolated Patient Travel Assistance and Accommodation Scheme (IPTAAS)’.

‘You wanna cuppa tea, Kerry?’

She looked up at Paul in his pyjamas, filling the kettle by the kitchen sink. His tousled hair stood on end, his top loose across his shoulders. She swallowed hard.

‘Yeh, that’d be great. I didn’t hear you get up. Have you seen the size of that dust storm? The whole town’s gonna cop it. Hang on a tick while I close Amber’s window.’

Still clutching the letter, she crossed the passage into the smaller of the two bedrooms. She looked around her daughter’s room. As usual the window overlooking the backyard was open, the wind billowing the purple chiffon curtain and tinkling the fairy chime above the white wooden bed. Amber liked her window open even on those cold winter nights that surprised newcomers to the desert. Some evenings Kerry would find her talking away to herself, staring out the window at the stars.

‘Your tea’s out, Kerry.’

‘Coming.’

Closing the window she looked over the back fence at the lights on the poppet heads, glowing brighter as the red darkness swept the length of the Golden Mile. It would be over in half an hour and the rain would come, just enough to cake the dust on the roof, the verandah, the window ledges, the paths, her life.

Dust, must, trust.

Bouncing words. Bouncing words.

‘Kerry?’

‘Yeh, yeh, coming.’

She softly closed the bedroom door and slowly counted her steps into the kitchen. ‘Sorry, I was looking at the mines. What a day for Johnny to start at the Lake View.’

Johnny was Paul’s youngest brother and, like every bloke in his family since 1892 when their English-born great-great-grandfather George Steele pushed his wheelbarrow and kit from Perth to Southern Cross to Coolgardie, they’d made their living from gold. Only Johnny was doing it different—he was working on the surface. Paul’s mum Beryl was determined one of her three sons would not go underground. She called Johnny her ‘change of life’ baby, coming as he did unexpectedly in her late forties. She’d fought hard to keep him in school and badgered Paul to use his connections to get him an apprenticeship. Beryl had cried with relief when she heard he’d be an electrician; her only brother had been killed in a rockfall underground, her eldest son compoed out five years ago with shoulder damage from diamond drilling, and now Paul.

And now Paul.

She showed him the letter.

‘Next Monday at nine o’clock.’ She searched his face.

He looked away. ‘That was quick. You only rang ’em last week.’

She knew why it was quick. She’d spoken with the welfare lady like Dr Robinson said and she could tell by her voice that she knew. Maybe a year, maybe longer, the doctor had said. Less if Paul didn’t have treatment. Treatment in Perth. No facilities here. Her mind had raced. No money. No one to stay with. Amber at school. She’d gripped Paul’s hand, struggling to keep the fear off her face. He’d turned to her and braving his eyes, she’d watched as part of him departed to a place where this wasn’t really happening.

Paul pushed the cup of tea towards her. ‘Here love, drink your tea before it gets cold. I didn’t hear you get up. Sorry if I kept you awake last night, I sweated like a pig. That’s three nights in a row.’

‘Yeh, well, Dr Robinson said that might happen.’ She drank her tea and dropped the cup in the sink. ‘Here, give me your pyjamas and I’ll put ’em through with the next wash. Mind you, it’ll be awhile before I can hang ’em out—look at that dust.’

Paul stripped off his pyjamas and, laughing, threw them at her. Catching them, her eyes roamed over his body. Not for the first time, she wished she knew how to draw. His body was beautiful. He was long and lean with broad shoulders; years of working underground and bike riding had sinuously carved his arms and legs. She loved the hardness of him. And she loved softening him, in their bed with the moonlight filtering in through the window, their moans captured in each other’s mouths for fear of wakening Amber.

Her throat thickened and turning away she walked down the passage, opened the laundry door and quickly closed it behind her. Throwing the pyjamas onto the floor she gripped the edge of the washing machine and quietly wept.

The flywire back door banging in the wind disturbed Agnes King’s daily meditation. The storm had arrived, as usual, without warning. Through the sliding glass front door she could see the desert sky streaked red like a watercolour wash. Sheets of tin struggled against their nails and skinny tree branches flew past the window. She jumped up and ran from room to room, slamming shut every window. Eyes squeezed tight against the stinging dirt, she pulled hard on the flapping back verandah flywire then wrestled shut the wooden door. The red dust felt soft underfoot as she padded back across the slate grey linoleum, her footprints following her into the kitchen, fading as she re-entered the carpeted lounge room.

She sat down again, making herself comfortable, feet on the floor, hands in her lap. The tempest faded from her mind as she breathed deeply and slowly relaxed. She imagined light drawing up through her body with each breath until she felt the familiar rush of connectedness and expansion. Every cell in her body quickened, vibrating faster and faster till, seamlessly, she moved between worlds. From the vantage point of the ceiling she glanced down at herself in the chair and was reminded of a coat, taken off and carefully arranged. A wave of compassion flowed through her. Suddenly, she was jolted back into her body as a piece of front verandah tin, minus its nail, banged noisily in the wind.

Disgruntled at her early return, she looked out at the storm and thought about the story old Jack next door told, about ‘Dirty Dave’ the local hardware store owner who in the 1930s got rich overnight by having the monopoly on roofing nails after a huge dust storm tore off half the town’s roofs. A downpour of hot desert rain soaked the houses’ contents and turned the roads into rivers of red mud. The price of Dirty Dave’s nails trebled and no one was given credit. Jack bitterly recalled the hardship it caused for those without cash but the increased wealth paved Dirty Dave’s way into the council chambers, an ermine cloak and a heavy gold chain. Before he died thirty years later he had a knighthood and the local swimming pool named after him. She once saw a large gilt-framed photograph of him hanging in the council chambers and had looked for a mean spiritedness that wasn’t reflected in the eyes looking back at her. She wondered, not for the first time, what made someone behave that way, out of character perhaps, grabbing an opportunity and to hell with the ethics of it. Still it took him far.

But old Jack never forgot—Jack Gray never forgot anything. Which reminded her, she had promised to take him over some apricot jam. That would be the last of it this summer as there would be no apricots left on the tree after this storm passed. Giving up on her daily meditation, she performed her usual ritual, imagining white light creating a protective cocoon around her entire body. Feeling more peaceful, she went into the kitchen and found Jack’s jam. She’d take it over to him later; he didn’t like being disturbed too early.

They’d been neighbours for over forty years. The day she and Frank moved in was her twenty-first birthday. Frank had picked her up like a baby and carried her over the threshold. She recalled the intensity of their lovemaking as he softly dropped her onto the bed and the thrill of realising they could make as much noise as they wanted, and they did. They’d been married two years but that was their first time alone. The deposit was saved by living with Edna, Frank’s widowed mum. She had learnt a lot from Edna but she’d counted the days and the pound notes till they could buy their own home. Frank earned more money than most by working underground—danger money really; he worked at the stope, cutting into the face of the ore body. Machine mining was a strong man’s job. Frank had huge arms from the digging and he was proud of his skills. Which made it all the more shocking for her when his body wasted from the lung disease and it was her and Jack who carried Frank over the threshold, after his naps under the apricot tree.

Jack lived alone except for a succession of dogs. The last one, Kelly, was a red cloud kelpie. Jack was sentimental and openly cried every time he lost a mate, human or animal. Until Jack retired ten years ago, his dog had accompanied him to work. While Jack tarred the roads for the council, the dog would sit patiently in Jack’s sky-blue Consul parked in the shade outside the council yards; back for crib breaks, Jack would fill a battered old hubcap with water and let the dog out for a drink and a run around.

Now they were both alone. ‘No more dogs’, he told her, after losing Kelly.

She stared out the door at the thick red curtain drawing across the sky. Although it had been nine years she still expected Frank to walk in the back door, steel crib box in hand yelling out ‘Aggie, where are you, Aggie I’m home,’ even though they both knew she would never be far away. ‘I’ve run away with a kiltie’ was her stock reply and they would laugh as they wrapped their arms around each other. It had been like that the thirty or more years they’d shared. Never a night apart and they had never gone to sleep on an argument—sage advice from her Irish grandmother the night before their wedding. They never had children though they’d tried hard enough and after a while she began working as a nursing assistant at the local hospital but she was always home before Frank knocked off.

She stopped when he fell ill and the only work she did now was reading tea-leaves. Well, not exactly work. Frank hadn’t really approved of her doing readings for strangers but he’d respected her gift and as long as they weren’t there when he came home it hadn’t been a problem. On her Mondays off, she’d do three readings at home for a small donation, half of which she always gave to charity, usually her local church benevolent fund. Now she was busier than ever. People from all walks of life rang her up, finding her through word of mouth because, of course, she never went looking for them. She had learnt to read the tea-leaves from her grandmother. It wasn’t the only gift inherited from Nanna MacKinnon—her ‘gift of the gab’, as her mother called it, had also skipped a generation and landed on her. She loved company, and reading teacups provided her with plenty of that.

Although nothing would ever make up for the loss of Frank’s.

Her spirit guide had forewarned her several months before, but she was unprepared for the overwhelming grief of an empty bed and her empty arms. She knew something was wrong when his winter cough lingered on through the summer but you can’t work underground without your ‘ticket’—your clean bill of health—and he had that from the mine’s doctor, so she’d pushed away her concerns. After they found his cancer Frank only lived five months. She couldn’t go back to nursing after that. A light within her had dimmed and for a while she was no company for anyone.

Except for old Jack. He came over every day with some excuse—could he have a loan of a cup of sugar, borrow the colander, give her some grapes off his pergola, have a cup of tea—until it became a daily ritual that she looked forward to and they took turns now. It helped her come back to herself—that and seeing Frank at the end of her bed four months after he died, looking tall and strong, dressed in a fine suit. She felt his love wash over her and knew then it was time to get on with things.

Which reminded her—she needed to check who was coming for a tea-leaf reading today. She reached up for the little book she kept on the shelf above the yellow kitchen bench; two regulars and a new one, with a first name only—Lori. She felt her body tingle. It was always like that with the new ones. She looked out the window and hoped the storm wouldn’t keep them away.

Posted on April 10, 2018 by

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"Read an extract: The Secrets We Keep by Shirley Patton"

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