Gradually the chilly winter winds began to ease and I started to notice a hint of spring on the breeze as the days grew warmer and new blossoms began to appear on the trees lining the streets. As the bright pink and white flowers bloomed, their perfume filled the air while I rode my bike to school without gloves for the first time in months.
Ellen and I had developed into best friends and we started doing everything together at school. Although we were both the same size, she was outgoing and talkative where I was shy and quiet. She lived on a farm and once I was allowed to spend the whole weekend with her.
I caught the school bus home with Ellen on Friday after school. It was really noisy on the bus with all of the children talking and squealing loudly all the way. Ellen and I sat together and she pointed out all the landmarks along the road and we talked about how much fun we were going to have on the farm. Every few minutes the bus would stop along the road and a couple of children would climb off, before the doors shut and we would start off again with a jerk.
All of the stopping and starting had made me feel car sick, but eventually the bus pulled up in front of a dusty gate on the side of the road and Ellen and I climbed off. The bus took off again, leaving us standing there in a cloud of dust and diesel smoke. We threw our school bags over the gate and then climbed over, before walking all the way up the hill from the main road. By the time we had made it to the house my legs were really tired and I couldn’t wait to sit down.
“Mum, we’re home,” Ellen shouted as we walked through the back door, the screen slamming shut behind us. The kitchen was bright and sunny and the late afternoon light that was shining through the window made the bowls on the bench sparkle. It was the cleanest kitchen I had ever seen, with everything neatly in its place. Beside the kitchen bench there was a large grey tabby cat that was curled up on the floor sound asleep. A ginger cat sat beside Mrs Lees’ legs, looking up and watching her moving around at the kitchen sink, and Ellen’s baby brother was sitting in a high chair and waving a plastic spoon around.
“Hi sweetheart. Hello Molly. You girls can put your bags in the bedroom then come out and have some afternoon tea.” Ellen led the way down the hall to her bedroom and we put our bags down on the floor then ran back to the kitchen. Mrs Lees had left a slice of orange cake and a glass of milk on the kitchen bench for each of us and I was glad to climb onto a stool and rest my legs while I ate.
“Okay girls,” said Ellen’s mother, “When you are finished you need to fetch the eggs and then wash up before dinner.”
I watched Mrs Lees moving around the kitchen as I ate my afternoon tea. It was the first time I had met her. She had long brown hair that was tied back in a pony tail. It made her look quite young and pretty. Her skin was smooth and tanned and her mouth looked kind. She was clearly Ellen’s mother because the same pair of brown eyes smiled gently at me across the kitchen bench that I was used to seeing in the school playground.
She was stirring something in a bowl and the ginger cat stood up and rubbed his face against her leg before he walked over to the bench and rubbed himself against my foot. I bent down and patted him on the head and he closed his eyes and purred. Ellen’s baby brother made gurgling noises as well as he waved the spoon around and smiled at me.
“Come on Molly, let’s go,” said Ellen as she put her glass down on the sink. I hopped off the stool and put my glass carefully beside hers and followed her outside. The screen door banged shut behind me as I raced to catch up with Ellen.
The chicken coop was at the back of the yard and its smell reminded me of the chicken shed I had seen at the show. Some of the chickens squawked loudly as Ellen opened the gate, and when she took a handful of oats from a bag and spread them around on the ground they all flapped around her and made a big fuss. “Here, chook chook chook,” she called, as she threw the little seeds on the ground. As the chickens were busy scrabbling after the grain, Ellen and I searched amongst the straw for the smooth brown eggs. She showed me how to carry the eggs by holding up the skirt of my school dress to make a little basket. I placed three eggs in my skirt basket and walked very carefully back to the house, making sure I didn’t drop any on the way.
It was dark by the time Ellen’s father came into the house and Ellen and I had already been in the bath and changed into our pyjamas. The baby had been put to sleep in his cot and the rest of us sat at the dining table and ate dinner in silence. I couldn’t help thinking how different it was to dinnertime at home where the television was always on in the background and the girls were talking all the time. We sat at a large wooden table covered with a lace tablecloth and there was a nice warm log fire crackling in the background.
I was a little scared of Mr Lees as I watched him slicing the roast beef. He had dark curly hair and eyes that looked at me from under thick black eyebrows. Every now and then I could hear his heavy boots shuffle around on the wooden floor. I looked down at his dirty trousers and thought about how they contrasted with the clean white lace of the table cloth.
“How did you go at school today, girls?” Mr Lees asked in a stern voice.
“It was okay,” Ellen replied calmly. She picked up the sauce jug and tipped some gravy onto her roast.
“What about you, Molly?”
“Oh, it was fine.” I spoke very quietly. My heart was beating fast and I was afraid to look at him.
“Sorry, what was that? You’ll have to speak up,” he said. His voice sounded very gruff and when I lifted my head I couldn’t take my eyes off his boney looking fingernails.
“She said it was okay,” said Ellen, spearing a potato with her fork.
“I was talking to Molly.” He didn’t take his eyes off me and his hands were still holding the carving knife.
I tried to speak again but my tongue felt as thick as a sausage and I had a sick feeling in my stomach. He kept staring at me, waiting for an answer, until suddenly the telephone rang and broke the silence. Mr Lees put the knife down and went to answer the phone. He was gone for a few minutes and when he came back and sat down he complained loudly to Mrs Lees about the high price of something. “How are we meant to make money when it costs twice as much as what we get for the crop?” he growled. He seemed to have forgotten all about me and as soon as we finished eating, Ellen and I were excused from the table.
We raced down the hallway to Ellen’s bedroom and sat on our beds talking until Mrs Lees came in and told us it was time to go to sleep. Ellen’s bedroom was long and skinny, with a bed on either side. At one end of the room there was a bookcase and a small desk while the other end had a dressing table covered with dolls. We lay in our beds and smiled at each other and kept talking in whispers, even after Mrs Lees had come back and turned the light out. It was amazing how our conversations could start with one thing and then float around like a butterfly going from flower to flower. Every now and then we would stop and try to work out how the conversation had flowed before giggling quietly from under our blankets.
We eventually stopped talking and I had drifted off to sleep, when I was suddenly woken by a loud voice coming through the bedroom wall. I couldn’t understand what the voices were saying but I could hear that Mr Lees sounded angry about something and his voice rattled the walls like a bass drum. Mrs Lees was harder to hear with her desperate soprano. Soon there was a loud bang and then silence. I looked across at Ellen but she had her back to me and seemed to be sleeping so I just lay there in the darkness and watched her breathing body moving up and down under the blanket until my eyes started to get heavy.
It was early morning when I woke the next day and I lay in bed and watched the curtain moving slightly in the breeze coming through the open window. Outside the window I could see the sun had started to paint the sky with pink and orange. The colours were reflecting on the bedroom wall, shimmering like fairy lights. I looked across at Ellen’s sleeping face where it was bathed in a soft pink fairy light that made her look so beautiful.
Somewhere in the distance a dog was barking and I could hear sheep baaing just outside the bedroom window. The smell of bacon and eggs came drifting through the doorway and it made my tummy start to grumble.
Eventually Ellen woke up and we climbed out of bed and walked out to the kitchen together to find Mrs Lees standing over a frypan cooking breakfast.
“Good morning girls, I hope you slept well.” Her eyes looked red and there seemed to be a mark on the side of her pale face. Ellen gave her mother a hug and I thought I saw a tear forming in Mrs Lees’ eye. “Breakfast won’t be long,” she said briskly, as she wiped the back of her hand across her eyes.
Ellen and I climbed onto the stools at the kitchen bench and we were soon munching on a huge plateful of bacon and eggs. No-one talked as we ate so I just watched Mrs Lees moving around the kitchen. She didn’t seem so bright and sparkly as she had yesterday afternoon.
After breakfast, we set off to explore around the farm. Ellen’s world seemed to be really huge to me as we walked from paddock to paddock. She chatted away as we walked and pointed to all the different parts of the farm. She told me the front paddock that we had walked through yesterday was sown to wheat over the winter. I could just see the green shoots starting to appear from the clods of dirt. Over the summer months, she said, sheep would graze the stubble after the crop was harvested.
At the bottom of the paddock was an old house that Ellen said was haunted. It looked really spooky and I didn’t want to go near it, but Ellen insisted on having a look through the window. I stood nervously on the edge of the verandah while she stood on her tippy toes and peered through the dusty window. She said it was too dirty to see inside so she was going to try the door.
“No Ellen,” I said quickly. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Aw, c’mon Molly. I’ll just be a minute.”
I could hear the door creak as she pushed it open. I squeezed my legs together in agony. The inside of the house was dark but I could see a dusty old arm chair facing the doorway, like it was waiting for its owner to return. Ellen stuck her head inside for a moment before changing her mind.
“Maybe we should do this another time,” she decided. Suddenly there was a noise inside, like the sound of something being knocked over and hitting the floor. I’m not sure who was first to run but we were both tearing across the paddock as fast as we could. My gumboots were flopping against my legs as I ran, stumbling across clods of ploughed dirt. I was sure there was a monster after us and I could hear Ellen breathing heavily beside me. It was only after we reached the other side of the gate that we stopped and looked back. The ginger cat that had been in the kitchen yesterday was watching us from the open door of the haunted house. He opened his mouth and yawned.
I looked at Ellen and her brown eyes were laughing. “It was only the cat. Why did you run?” she laughed.
“You ran too,” I said and giggled.
“That’s because you started running.”
We laughed at ourselves and walked off holding hands towards some sheds that were just over a rise. One of the sheds was really high and had an open front. Ellen said it was the tractor shed and it was where the tractor and some other machines lived to keep them out of the weather.
Near the side of the tractor shed we found a few poles made from cypress pine saplings and it was Ellen’s idea that we should make a teepee from them. We dragged the poles all the way down to the backyard and set them up to make a frame. Mrs Lees gave us an old sheet to wrap around the poles and soon we had the perfect cubby house for a couple of girls to sit and talk or read books. We planned to spend the night in our cubby house, just like Wombat, Mouse and Tabby Cat from Ruth Park’s books.
Mrs Lees made sandwiches for lunch and we took them outside and sat in our teepee to eat. “We could live out here, you know,” said Ellen, “And nobody would ever be able to bother us.”
“It might get a bit cold at night,” I said.
“Nah, we would just have lots of blankets to snuggle under.”
I started to think of Mr and Mrs Bear and wondered if they would enjoy sleeping in a teepee all the time.
After we finished eating lunch, we starting exploring again until we saw Ellen’s father walking across a paddock hunting for rabbits with his ferrets and dogs. We sat hidden in the long grass and watched him from a distance. Ellen explained how the ferrets were sent down the rabbit burrows and the dogs caught the rabbits as they shot out the other end. I watched as one cute and furry grey creature launched out of a burrow.
“Oh my gosh, there’s one,” I pointed excitedly. Suddenly one of the dogs pounced on it and brought the rabbit to Mr Lees. He took it from the dog’s mouth and I was horrified when he broke the poor thing’s neck and put it in a bag. One moment it was so full of life and activity, and the next its body was slumped like a piece of old rag. I felt so sad for the little rabbit and wished it had gotten away. All I could think about was the bruise on the side of Mrs Lees’ face.
Still in shock, I let Ellen lead me away to a smaller paddock in front of the house where her mother’s car was parked. “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” she said as she climbed into the car. I thought we were going to pretend that we were driving but Ellen was able to start the car by turning the key.
“Can you drive?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “Watch this”.
We drove around and around the paddock a couple of times; Ellen was laughing her head off, but I was a little scared. Suddenly we slid to a stop. Ellen revved the engine but we didn’t move as the car bogged in the freshly ploughed dirt.
Everyone was quiet that night as we waited for Ellen’s father to come home. After dinner I was sent to have a bath, but I could hear yelling and the sound of someone being smacked carrying through the thin walls of the bathroom.
We didn’t talk much at bedtime that night. Ellen said she was too tired.
“Are you okay, Ellen?” I asked cautiously.
She didn’t answer but I could hear her sniffling in the darkness. I climbed out of my bed and slid under the blankets with her. “I love you Ellen,” I said, as I wrapped my arms around her warm body. We fell asleep that way until I was woken from a deep dream when the bedroom light suddenly turned on.
“Wake up girls, I need your help. Get your clothes on.” It was Ellen’s father, dressed in his heavy work boots and dirty jeans.
I was still half asleep as we stumbled outside, following a torch beam across the dark paddock. The night air was chilly and a light frost sparkled in the torchlight. We seemed to be wandering aimlessly and I thought Mr Lees was going to take us to the haunted house.
I was shivering from the cold when suddenly an old ewe appeared in the circle of light. She was having trouble and Mr Lees bent down to assist her, gently drawing out a little lamb and depositing him on the grass. As he made contact with the cold ground his limbs twitched and I could see his ribs heaving.
The ewe seemed to be just as thrilled as I was as she pushed her nose at the new arrival. We did this a number of times through the night until eventually I found myself back in my warm bed, thinking about all those little lambs and how gentle Mr Lees had been with them.
Warm sunshine greeted us the next morning as Ellen and I raced outside to count the number of new lambs that were frolicking around the paddock. We rescued about half a dozen little lambs that had been abandoned by their mothers during the night and carried them one by one up to the house.
Mrs Lees set up a little nursery for the lambs on the back verandah that she made from an old child’s playpen with some blankets on the floor for warmth. Ellen and I followed her into the laundry where she showed us how to put a scoop of powdered milk into a bucket of warm water and mix it around until there were no more lumpy bits.
I filled a baby feeding bottle with the powdered milk mixture and Mrs Lees showed me how to teach the little lambs to suck the teats. I sat on the verandah with my legs crossed and held a soft little lamb in my arms as it squirmed and wriggled on my lap. It took me a few goes to get my lamb drinking because every time I poked the teat in its mouth it would push the teat away with its little tongue and then start wriggling a bit more until I nearly dropped it. Eventually my lamb got the idea and I clung tightly to its warm body as it sucked noisily at the teat.
After all the lambs had been fed, we put them back in their pen and they snuggled together in the corner and fell asleep. Every now and then I would look in the pen and smile at the lamb that I had fed. I had decided that I would call him ‘Woolly’ and sometimes he would lift his head when he saw me looking and make the tiniest little baa because he knew that I was the one that cared for him.
Ellen and I spent the whole morning playing on the verandah and watching the little lambs in their pen. They were nothing like the lambs I had seen in my picture books because they looked so skinny and wrinkly, but they were really lively and noisy. Their wool was so much softer than anything I could ever have imagined and I wished that I could keep one as a pet. Ellen said we weren’t allowed to keep them as pets, though, and as soon as they were big enough they would have to be put back out in the paddock with all the other lambs.
Mrs Lees brought lunch out to the verandah for us, but she told us that we should leave the lambs in peace for a while and go and play in the yard instead. Ellen said it was too boring to play in the yard, so we wandered around the shearing shed looking for something to do.
There were some old doors leaning against the wall in a corner of the shed, and Ellen suddenly had an idea that we could use one to make a raft. It was really heavy and it took ages to drag it down to the dam, but we eventually made it, even though I thought my arms were going to get pulled out of their sockets.
Ellen found an old coke bottle in the dirt and smashed it against the side of the raft to christen it. She said that it was what people did when they launched new ships. We pushed the raft into the water and quickly climbed on board. It leaned precariously to one side as we floated out into the middle of the dam, and every time one of us moved the raft would bob up and down in the water until we were both wet and giggling.
I felt like the whole weekend had been a dream from a story book. “We are just like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” I said with a smile.
“Who are they?” asked Ellen. She was lying on her back with her arms behind her head and her feet were dangling in the water.
“Oh, they’re from a book that Grandma gave me for Christmas last year.” I started to tell her about all the things that Tom Sawyer had gotten up to, how he was always being naughty and getting into mischief. Ellen said she knew exactly what that was like.
After a while I started to get cold from being wet, so Ellen suggested we hop off the raft and start catching yabbies. We ran up to the house and Ellen took some meat out of the fridge, before running back down to the dam. She found a piece of twine near the fence and tied the lump of raw meat to one end, before throwing the line out into the water with the other end tied to a stick on the bank. We then waited in the warm sunshine while I continued to tell her about how Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry went to live on an island and pretended they were pirates.
Eventually the line started to move slowly and with a very delicate touch Ellen drew the twine in until the goggling eyes of a yabby began to appear. She leant forward and scooped the yabby out of the water with her hand and I screamed loudly as it suddenly started waving its claws around and crawled backwards towards the dam. Ellen bravely picked it up behind the head and dropped it in a bucket. When I looked in the bucket I could see the yabby’s eyes looking back at me and it waved its claws around wildly. Ellen asked if I wanted to have a go, but I was happy just watching her catching them.
As she threw the raw meat back into the dam, I moved a little further back up the bank. I decided that I didn’t want to live on an island and be a pirate after all, but I wasn’t game to tell Ellen that.
As the hot summer weather came along, streaky white clouds started to float in the wide blue sky each day. Every morning I would look out my bedroom window and wonder if it was ever going to rain again, because I hadn’t even seen a drop of rain in the whole time since we had moved here from the north coast.
I hadn’t been invited to stay at Ellen’s farm again, but Ellen often stayed with me for the weekend so that we could play together. In the warmer weather we spent most of the time on the weekends at the swimming pool.
“Come on you two, hurry up,” Samantha called from outside. She was always in a rush to get to the pool. I just liked to take my time and enjoy the walk with Ellen. We walked holding hands and Ellen never stopped talking.
“We’re coming,” I called out from the kitchen. I was dressed in pink swimmers and a white tee shirt and Mum was busy covering my face in sunscreen. She always said she was terrified of me getting sunburnt and so she slopped extra layers of sunscreen all over my nose. I had to close my eyes tight so that I didn’t get any sunscreen in them because it really made my eyes sting. As soon as she finished I put my hat on my head and tucked my towel under my arm then raced outside to catch up with the others. The girls had already set off, so I climbed through a hole in the fence next to the rusty iron shed in the backyard and hurried after them. Ellen climbed through the hole behind me and our sandals raised little clouds of dust as we moved quickly across the dry ground, skipping to catch up with Samantha, Catherine and Jasmine.
Samantha took her hat off as soon as we are out of sight of the house and I watched her straight black hair bouncing against the back of her white tank top as her long brown legs strode along the footpath. I thought she should have kept her hat on or she would get sunburnt.
Ellen and I caught up to the girls when they stopped to wait for the traffic at Hoskins Street, and then we all ran across the bubbles of melted bitumen to get to the park. The sun had started to get quite hot by then and the grass in the park was brown and spiky. There was a little bit of shade every now and then from a row of date palms that lined the footpath through the middle of the park. Each time we came to a tree, Ellen and I would stop in the shade to rest before racing each other to the next tree.
As we stood in the shade for a moment, I looked up and saw some high school boys watching us walking through the park. I hurried after the girls when I heard one of the boys say something and the other boys started laughing. I wasn’t game to look around again when another boy whistled loudly. Catherine and Samantha didn’t seem to notice though as they just kept on walking. Samantha was busy pushing some stray hair behind her ear, and when Catherine leaned toward Samantha and whispered something they both giggled. Samantha looked back over her shoulder to where the boys were standing. I started walking a bit quicker in case the boys followed us, but we were soon at the safety of the pool entrance.
It was cool in the shade of the little shop at the front of the pool, and I lined up behind Catherine as she paid the lady behind the counter. As soon as we went through the turnstile, the bigger girls disappeared into the change room and Ellen and I raced to put our towels down on the grass. The pool was surrounded by soft grassy lawns, and there was a big shady peppercorn tree in one corner.
“Last one in is a rotten egg!” yelled Ellen. She was already half-way to the pool so I just dropped my towel and raced after her, leaping into the cool clear water. At first the water was so cold it took my breath away, but then I bounced to the surface laughing and Ellen splashed water in my face.
“Ellen!” By the time I splashed back, she had already swum away from me like a little seal and I started chasing her. She swam much faster than I could but she eventually slowed down until I caught up to her. We spent the whole morning in the water like that, swimming around, playing games, and chasing each other until we eventually got tired and climbed out to lay on our towels for a rest. I lay there watching all the colourful bodies splashing around in the pool.
“I wonder where the girls have gotten to.” I looked around the pool from my towel but I couldn’t see them anywhere amongst all the rainbow coloured swimmers.
“I thought I saw them over there earlier,” Ellen said as she pointed toward the back fence. I looked over to where Ellen was pointing and saw a group of teenagers sitting around on their towels. There was Samantha was lying on her side, one tanned knee propped up in the air. She was talking to a boy and running her fingers through her hair. I thought he looked like one of the boys that had been outside in the park and he was lying on his side as well. They seemed to be leaning quite close toward each other.
Catherine was lying on her stomach with her eyes closed. Every now and then she lifted her head and said something to the others, then lay down and closed her eyes again.
I kept looking around until I found where Jasmine was. She was with a different group of girls, sitting on the edge of the pool with her feet splashing in the water and talking to her friends.
I turned back to Ellen, content now I knew I hadn’t been left behind. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could play here forever and never have to go back to school?”
“Except when your fingertips get all wrinkly from the water,” Ellen laughed. I smiled into her sparkling eyes and felt as happy as the sunny day.
“Ellen, what are those marks on your legs?” Suddenly Ellen’s eyes lost their sparkle and she looked down at the blue-grey bruises at the top of her thighs. They were normally covered by clothes, but I could see them clearly now she was in her bikini bottoms. There were four of them, shaped like fat sausages spread out in a fan.
“It’s nothing,” she said quietly, “I just bumped them.” She didn’t want to talk about it and I was sorry that I had brought a cloud across our sunny mood, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Ellen… I’m really sorry. Was it your Dad?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just swim.” Ellen leapt up from her towel and jumped in the pool. I sat there feeling helpless for a few moments until I thought of asking Catherine what I should do. I stood up and walked over toward her group.
As I got closer I could hear them talking.
“It seems Lauren is the flavor of the month,” said a girl in a strawberry-coloured bikini.
“I know, both Peter and John have asked her out.”
“Oh my gosh, what did she say?”
I tried to get Catherine’s attention but she had her back to me, so I stood there uncertainly for a moment.
“Hey Catherine, is that your little sister? How cute!” one big girl said. I felt my face blush bright red and the boy that was talking to Samantha looked up and grinned.
Catherine sat up and didn’t look very happy to see me standing there. “Molly, what do you want?”
“I wanted to talk to you, about Ellen.”
“Can’t you do this at home?”
“It’s just that she is sad. I made her sad about the bruises on her legs.”
Catherine stood up. “Okay Molly, let’s get an ice cream.”
As we walked toward the canteen I told Catherine about the bruises on Ellen’s legs, and how she wouldn’t talk to me about them. I told her that when I asked if it was Ellen’s Dad she ran off. Catherine gently put her hand on my head. “Why don’t you just go and play with her. I think she just needs you to be her friend and make her happy.”
Catherine bought two ice creams, and I took one over to where Ellen was sitting on the side of the pool. She was looking down at the water and slowly kicking her legs back and forth. I sat down next to her and gave her one of the ice creams. As we sat there eating together silently, I put my arm around her wet shoulder and she leant her head against mine.
A few weeks later Ellen and I were sitting on my bed reading books. I was laughing at a funny passage in my novel and Ellen was smiling at me because I kept making her laugh. Sometimes we went on like that for what seemed like hours, but Ellen was always the first one to get bored with reading. This day she seemed a bit restless and her smiles looked a little sad. I wasn’t sure what was wrong but I didn’t want to ask and upset her again so I just tried to find funny parts of my book to read out so that she would laugh with me.
“Mum and I are going to Melbourne for Christmas,” Ellen suddenly blurted out.
I looked up from my book. “What?”
“I said, Mum and I are going to Melbourne for Christmas. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t.”
“When… when do you go?” I wasn’t smiling anymore. I had thought we were going to be together for the whole summer holidays. I didn’t know whether to feel happy for her or not but I knew I felt unhappy for myself.
“We catch the train after school on Friday. Mum said that she wanted to visit her sister. I haven’t seen Aunty Vicky for years… I’ll write to you every day, Molly.”
“I’ll write to you as well, but I’m really going to miss you, Ellen.”
“I’ll miss you too, Molly, but you have to promise not to tell anyone, at least until after we’ve gone.” I looked at her face closely. I felt like there was something she wasn’t telling me. How come she had never mentioned going to Melbourne before, and why the secret?
“I won’t tell anyone,” I said, “I promise.”
She looked happy; no, more relieved than happy, and gave me a hug.
“It’s going to be all right,” she said. “Mum and I will be safe. Aunty Vicky lives on the beach just south of Melbourne.” She had become chatty now, but I was still worried.
“I remember going there a few years ago,” said Ellen, “It was when I was little and it was really pretty and colourful. These little wooden houses were on the edge of the beach and we walked on the sand every day.” Ellen stopped and looked at me thoughtfully. “You’ve gone quiet, Molly.” She kissed me and I put my arms around her neck and she leaned her head against the curve of my arm. There was so much I wanted to say to her but I just couldn’t think of the words. I closed my eyes to stop the tears from falling.
As we sat there silently for a moment, I tried to think of myself in Ellen’s place. There were no secrets between us and my mind ran with thoughts of rabbits and bruises as I tried to understand Ellen’s struggle. We sat there clinging to each other for ages until Mum called out from the kitchen,
“Molly, Ellen – it’s time for dinner.”
“You mustn’t tell anyone,” Ellen whispered as we walked out of the bedroom.
One afternoon I came home from school to find Stephen laying on his bed and listening to the radio. His hands were behind his head and his eyes were closed. There were clothes carelessly thrown all over the floor.
“You’re home early,” I said as I threw my school bag on my bed. Lately he was getting really down in the dumps and I was worried. He didn’t normally throw his clothes all over the floor like that.
He opened his eyes and turned his head to look at me, sadly I thought. “I lost my job today, Molly. They just told me they were putting some people off and I was the newest starter so I had to go first.” I didn’t know what to say so I just gave him a little smile.
“Well, at least we can play together again, can’t we?” I said hopefully. He just looked at me for a moment and then turned his head away and closed his eyes again. I didn’t know what else to say so I just sat on my bed quietly and read my book.
After a while he sat up and put his feet on the ground. “I’m sorry, Molly,” he said. “Do you want to go and play in the tree house?”
I closed my book and we both went outside to play. The afternoon sun was still hot, but it was nice and shady in the tree house. Stephen helped me climb up first, and I sat on the platform with my legs crossed while he climbed up the ladder.
“What do you want to do?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know. Why don’t you just play and I’ll watch.” I watched his face but he had closed his eyes again and was leaning back against a branch of the tree.
I started playing with a doll, making her climb up the tree, but every now and then I would look up to see if Stephen was watching. He kept his eyes closed for ages, but then he started talking about going away somewhere, maybe to Western Australia to work in the mines. Mum had recently received a letter from an uncle who worked over there and he said Stephen could easily get a job there if he ever wanted one.
“But you don’t want to go all that way, do you?” I didn’t like hearing him talk like this. Usually he was so happy and fun to be around.
“I might have to if I can’t find any work here.”
I was worried about him going away, but a week or so later he found work picking fruit at a local orchard. He took me with him one weekend, out amongst the green leafy cherry trees and the hot red dirt between each row. Stephen showed me how to pick the cherries by twisting them with my fingers and then putting them in a tin until the farmer came to collect all the full tins.
After a little while my fingers began to hurt so Stephen said I could stop picking. I sat on the ground under the shade of the tree instead and started to read my book. Every now and then I took a cherry out of the tin and popped it into my mouth. They were different to the mulberries I had eaten before. Some of the cherries were a little tart and made me pull a face. In the afternoon I got tired and lay on the ground and watched Stephen climbing on the ladder way up in the cherry tree. It reminded me of when I watched him climbing trees when I was little. I closed my eyes for a little while and all I could see were red cherries dancing before my eyelids.
The cherry picking lasted for a few weeks and then Stephen started working for a builder. He told me he spent the day carting bricks and things around. It seemed like everything would be okay and he would be happier, but then he got put off by the bricklayer because there wasn’t enough work around.
Soon after another letter arrived from Western Australia to say there were some apprenticeships available. I saw the forms spread out on Stephen’s bed and he just stared at them all afternoon. It was a few days later that he came home and filled the forms in.
“I just can’t bear being out of work any longer, Molly,” he told me in bed that night. I lay there with tears forming in my eyes because I couldn’t bear the thought of him going away.
He was really excited a couple of weeks later when he got a letter to say he had been accepted. I found out he was to start in a few months time after being cleared by a doctor and some other things. At least that meant he would still be at home for Christmas.
Then I got a letter from Ellen; she told me that she was going to stay in Melbourne with her mother and wasn’t coming back. To top it all off, Dad came home one night and said we were moving again.
I was very sad and confused when I went to bed that night. Everything seemed to be happening at once. I sat on my bed with my legs crossed and started to write a long letter to Ellen to tell her my sad news, but every time I tried to use my pen the page was blurry with tears. I wanted to tell her that I would be her friend forever and would visit her in Melbourne one day.
Stephen came and sat on the end of my bed. “Don’t worry, Molly. I won’t be gone that long. Once I’ve got some experience for a few months I’ll be able to come back here and get a proper job.” He gave me a big hug and I left wet tears all over his shoulder. Eventually I finished the letter and popped it in the mail box.