Bridie slid into her wine red satin dress with the rose pink sash. She pushed her toes into shoes, which added three inches to the five foot four nature had given her. Posing as she’d seen the stars at the movies do, she looked at her figure from all angles. Perfect. She sat at the dressing table and painted her lips bright red. Pursing her mouth for full effect, she fluttered her long curled eyelashes at her image in the mirror. The eyebrows needed reshaping one more time. She fiddled with the bobby pins that fastened the roll at the crown. Lovely. Half closing her eyes to capture what someone else would see, she stood up, pulled her tummy in and poked out her sharp pointed breasts. She tossed her dark brown hair, watching it cascade around her shoulders, like Vivien Leigh or one of the other Hollywood stars.
Johnny will say that I look like a million dollars. This was the opposite message that her mother, Eliza O’Toole, plump and pot-bellied in middle age, had tried to plant in her mind: ‘He wouldn’t want you, too good for us,’ she’d said of one of the town’s well-to-do bachelors.
Bridie knew better. She couldn’t properly put it into words. She’d heard the saying ‘uncouth’. Maybe, a couth man … someone with manners and good looks. Someone to take her away from all this. She intended to use her own advantages to the fullest.
‘Mumma, how do I look?’ Bridie did a twirl for her mother, sweating at the wood stove in the kitchen.
‘Not bad, though I say so myself,’ Mumma said, looking up and wiping her forehead, ‘seeing as I ran it up on the old Singer.’
‘Yeah, thanks Mumma, don’t stay up for us, will you?’
‘Just you make sure an’ come straight home with Ned and Johnny. Don’t want any goings-on in back lanes afterwards.’
‘You know, Mumma, I’m not a child anymore.’
‘You’ll do as I say while you’re under my roof,’ her mother, red-faced from the heat in the kitchen, sighed, ‘and have a bite to eat with your brothers, before you go out.’
‘I’m not hungry, Mumma,’ Bridie called out as she turned toward the verandah. Voices and static assailed her senses through the thin walls of the house. ‘I’ll have some bread-and-butter, when I get back.’
The noise was coming from the dining room, a dark interior space where the brothers listened to the races, leaning on the mantelpiece ledge. Johnny and Billy who were a bit deaf glued themselves to the Bakelite wireless to hear the caller chanting like a maniac at the race meeting.
Bridie perched herself prettily on the back verandah railing and watched the sun dipping, a voluptuous ball, into the mountains. Please don’t let it rain tonight, not tonight of all nights.
The War had ended and she was determined to enjoy herself at the victory dance tonight.
She glanced back at the grey clouds looming up from the north and spreading their menace over the tin roof. Was bad weather brewing out west? High up on the peaks large dark birds circled. Swifts, a sign of real crook weather to come.
Storms sometimes shook the old farmhouse, sending Bridie screaming along the unsealed track to the neighbours’ more solid dwelling on the banks of the Karrana River.
Returning her thoughtful gaze towards the far horizon, she whispered infinity, that the nuns at the convent had talked about, as the hills gobbled up the last rays of the sun.
One part of her loved the farm and nature with a passion. She’d always carry the country with her. It was in her veins. Her other side was a headstrong filly that wanted to get away. Always two sides. Was everyone like that? Two sides to them?
Now she had to endure the outside lavatory before it turned pitch black. She shuddered as she tiptoed along the grassy path, recoiling at the thought of the black widow spiders called red backs that hid in the wood heap out the back. Huge green tree frogs, throbbing in high up crevices of the lavatory, blinked down at her with yellow eyes.
Back on the safe hub of the verandah, she picked up snippets from Chifley’s speech about the war ending: Soldiers, many wounded, and prisoners of war coming home. Who were these Jewish camp survivors she heard so much about? If only she’d been allowed to stay at the convent longer, maybe then she’d understand things better. The future looked brighter, though, that was for sure, the war taking a bit longer to peter out down here in the Pacific.
She wondered if her two missing brothers would be amongst the returning soldiers.
Irresistibly, the image of young men vying for her attention intervened. American soldiers and sailors with their snappy uniforms and polite manners.
‘You’re a good-looker, Princess Bridie,’ Cyclone Johnny said back in the kitchen.
In spite of herself, the syllables that slid from her brother’s tongue sent waves of pleasure throughout her body. He’d been saying this to her since she was an infant, the first girl born after five sons. She hardly understood the words at first, until one day her mother caught her looking into a mirror, saying, Yes, I have a pretty face. This became part of family folklore. Humour, inherited in the family, was often at the expense of the target.
Johnny had an announcement to make.
‘I won the race again today, this time pitched against Will Featherstone. He’s pretty fast too. From the north side. Old man’s loaded.’
‘You’re a real champ, Johnny,’ Bridie said, smiling at him, ‘All the girls’ll be throwing themselves at you, I bet.’
‘Sure thing, Bride, wouldn’t miss it for the world.’
Johnny, with his star status as a champion cyclist, fancied himself as a bit of a ladies’ man with his playboy looks. He was wiry and handsome, his brown hair sculpted into waves with the aid of Brylcream.
He took Bridie into the men’s dressing room and showed her earrings from one of his recent flings. He kept them as trophies on the mantelpiece of the darkened room the brothers shared.
‘Johnny, that’s awful,’ shrilled Bridie, ‘I’d hate a man to do that to me.’
Her eyes flashed as she faced him now. ‘You’re disgusting when it comes to women. Dadda used to call you black sheep and loafer, said you didn’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work. I stuck up for you then, but now I think I agree with him.’
Her voice, rising in anger, dropped, as Johnny hung his head. ‘Trouble is, you’re nothing when you’re not behind the bars of a racing bike.’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll take you along to the dance, Bridie. Introduce you to some of the lads.’
‘Mumma will only let me go if I’m with you and Ned. She’s so old fashioned. I’m nearly eighteen, for God’s sake.’
She’d managed, when she’d stayed over at Stella’s house, to go out with town boys. The good-looking ones were often vain and boring show-offs. She’d found it easy to slap fumbling hands from straying into unwanted territory in the dark.
Town boys, they’re only after one thing, Bridie. You be careful, Mumma’s voice would ring in her ears.
‘We’ll look after you, Bridie. What’s the word? Chaperones, isn’t it?’
Johnny grinned at her.
Ned tooted the horn out the front and they ran out together. Bridie jumped in the back seat and let Johnny sit next to his brother at the wheel of the navy Pontiac. Mumma’s parents’ legacy had provided the family with this shiny dark car, but that’s as far as the money stretched.
Like a needle stuck in the groove of a record, Bridie’s mind went now to the dreariness of the dairy farm. It went there often, especially since Dadda’s passing. The shabby farmhouse signalled the rut her family was stuck in. If only one of the five brothers could have used his head to do something more with the hundred acres.
Mumma, with Ned’s help, was only just making ends meet, spending every penny they earned from the small herd of milkers.
She looked over at poor Johnny, and thought of him amid the blood and guts at the local abattoirs each week day.
The car bumped over the potholed dirt track that led to the sealed road towards the township of Karrana. She’d like to belong to the well-heeled northern side that she glimpsed as they passed by, driving north out of town.
She thought of Billy and his shyness that kept him away from dances. When he talked, the words jostled over one another in a jumbled mess, as if in a race to get out.
‘Pity Billy’s not here,’ she murmured. ‘He’s good-looking enough to attract some nice girl when he gets dressed up.’
‘Argh, Billy’s better off at home,’ growled Ned, ‘no girl will have him, the way he can’t get his words out. Embarrassing, is what it is.’
‘Don’t be too hard on him, Ned,’ shouted Johnny, ‘you’ve got a bit of a stammer yourself when you get worked up. Yeah, Bridie’s right, he should’ev come.’
‘Wonder who will want to take me home this time,’ said Bridie.
‘You’re comin’ home with us,’ said Ned, pulling up on the grass below the dance hall. ‘I’ve promised Mumma, and that’s the end of it.’
‘I know, I know… all I’m saying is Paddy Maloney wanted to, last time, that’s all I’m saying,’ said Bridie, screwing up her face at the thought of those calloused hands on her waist and his cocky, stuck-up looks.
They’d pulled up as the rousing strains of We’ll Meet Again reverberated down the slope. Bridie felt tears prickling her eyes as she walked in. Everyone stood stock still on the dance floor, patriotic mouths putting words to the music played by the home grown band at the front. Dressed in royal blue and white with khaki pants and slouch hats, the popular SkyLights were intent on warming the crowd up with nostalgic songs first. A funny mixture, Bridie thought, noting their uniform.
The dance hall was done up with allied flags and tricoloured rosettes. Blue irises and hydrangeas symbolised victory alongside red gladioli. Was blood included in the symbol? There was a large sign hanging above the doorway with ‘Victory in the Pacific’ splashed across it in black letters. Stars-n-Stripes, Union Jacks and Australian flags stood bunched up in vases like tricoloured flowers. Streamers in red, white and blue hung from the ceiling.
A few men stood erect in uniform, proudly displaying wings or other insignia on their shoulders. The band was now playing Bless Em All. People clapped and cheered, as partners entered the dance floor.
Johnny danced with her first. A bit jerky, but fun nevertheless. Then Ned, in grey striped trousers and a white shirt, waltzed her around the hall. He looked good when he dressed up. No one would guess he was a farmer.
She’d seen the big man, towering over most of the other men at the dance, as she’d entered the hall. He’d spotted her coming in too. It was hard not to notice him. Different from most of the cow cockies around the place. He’d watched her partnering Johnny, followed them with his gaze as they danced the first waltz together.
Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree was up next. Not exactly easy to jitterbug to, but fitting, a real tearjerker.
She had no time to accept or to refuse the next invitation. The tall stranger swept her up in strong arms and guided her around the dance floor with confident strides.
In the red calf length dress, tight belted at the waist, and raised up on stiletto heels, she knew she was the belle of the ball, her dark hair twirling, as she danced around the hall with this stranger. He made her feel oddly like Cinderella before the fairy godmother got to her. It wasn’t shyness, so much as a sudden dread, that made her withdraw a little from this upright man.
Bridie stole a glimpse at his shiny face. He was good-looking. Sculpted features. A russet tinge to thick dark hair. His eyes shone.
Was it his heart she could feel beating against her breast. Or was it her own? She looked up into warm hazel eyes that were looking down at hers. Lit up with a tiny spark and … those lips…. She couldn’t take her eyes off his mouth.
Boys had tried to kiss her before, down behind the stables at pony camps. Freckled face sons of dairy farmers.
She was proud that she’d resisted their clumsy attempts. He was different. So different from her loudmouthed brothers, too.
She felt that she had seen him somewhere, had known him.
He wheeled her around the farthest edges of the floor towards the door. ‘Let’s go outside,’ he whispered into her ear.
‘I can’t,’ she whispered back, ‘no, please, I want to dance.’
Gently he pulled her out through the door into the darkness at the back of the hall. Once outside, on the verandah overlooking the river, he grabbed her in a fierce embrace and crushed his lips against her wet ones.
‘My brothers,’ she stammered, savouring the touch of his mouth, dry and salty, and secretly wanting more. She pulled away from him, ‘my brothers will be after me. I don’t even know your name.’
‘It’s Will Featherstone, Bridie O’Toole. I know you.’
‘H-how?’ she stammered. ‘Where from?’
There was something about the intelligent bearing of the man. Something manly and gentle all at the same time. And yet, he had no right….
Johnny came out and joined them.
‘This is my … brother, Johnny,’ Bridie shook a little as she tried to say names. ‘Will Feather….’
‘I know, Bridie, Will’s my cycling mate,’ laughed Johnny.
‘Cyclone Johnny,’ said Will, shaking his hand with vigour. As if he and Bridie had not, a few minutes earlier, been locked together like one.
Bridie blushed as she turned her wide pools of eyes, fringed with dark lashes, towards Will.
‘Is that how you knew who I was?’
‘I’ve seen you for a long time, Bridie. I think … as if… always. You went to the convent, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, that’s right. How did you know?’ Bridie exclaimed.
‘I go to the cycling tracks near there.’ He seemed to be drawing up a memory from somewhere deep. ‘Saw you once wearing a navy beret. Just outside the convent. You had a fringe.’
‘Gee,’ Bridie gasped, ‘I must have been in third grade! H-how could you remember?’
‘You were wearing a pleated tunic, white blouse, and a beret perched on your head.’
‘That sounds like me,’ she said. ‘How could you remember, after seeing me just that once?’
‘Couldn’t take my eyes off you, even then. A teenager, you must have been, same as me.’
She blushed with pleasure.
‘Where did you go to school, Will?’
‘Karrana Public. Then to the high school.’
‘You’re from the north side, then?’
‘Yes, I live in Riverdale,’ indicating with his hand, ‘directly opposite your farm.’
‘Lucky you, Will Featherstone … that’s where I’d like to live.’
Will smiled a private smile and pulled her close, once again. ‘I’ve heard a lot about Hilltop.’
‘Another dance?’ She relaxed as he swept her up in his muscly arms, an imperceptible scent infusing their bodies like that from a perfumed flowering vine.
No man managed to come between Bridie and Will, as they danced every number together. While they danced, and in between dances, they spoke about the war and how it had affected their families.
How on the dairy farm, she’d felt safe from the conflict How she’d known that the war would never come to Hilltop. How she just knew certain things in her heart, a bit like how the cows knew when it was time to come back for milking. It had touched them, sure, like her favourite brother Charles, wounded and lingering in a military hospital somewhere. The other one Shaun, lost in action.
‘Mumma’s made Ned take over the role of father,’ she said, ‘watches me like a hawk. Dadda was a lot easier, let me do whatever I wanted.’
Will had the look of a horse wanting to bolt when he talked about his family. He’d been exempt from the war, working for his father.
She liked listening to his voice, to the way he spoke.
‘Do you realise,’ he said, pointing down through the gum trees, ‘that this is the same deep river that runs between our two places?’
Fragrant eucalyptus smells wafted through the cool night air. Bridie looked at his strong features, prominent forehead and mane like hair. He seemed to be bursting with an uncontrollable energy.
She nodded, ‘Yes, I love the river, my friend Stella and I swim the horses in the shallows, when they get hot and sweaty after a long gallop.’
‘You must be a good rider,’ he said, ‘living on a farm.’
She nodded. After all, it was all there was to do for fun, if you lived in the bush.
‘Can I drive you home tonight and we’ll talk some more?’
‘I can’t,’ she said, ‘they’re strict with me at home. Won’t be allowed out again, you know.’
‘Well, I want to see you again,’ Will said, his voice urgent.
Bridie blushed with pleasure.
Her feet, tapping in time with the lilting melodies of Over the Rainbow, she took Will by both hands. She pulled him towards the middle of the hall.
Her heart was already dancing, her mind soaring with the high notes, following where the ballad led.
She wanted time to stop right there and then, the moment to go on forever. Up, up, and up into the ether.
‘See you at the race track, Will,’ Johnny said as he came up and winked.
Ned followed and bawled out, ‘Time to go home, Bridie.’
He grabbed her by the arm, yanking her out of Will’s gentle hold, and pulled her across the hall to the front door.
She tried to push Ned away, her face turning as red as the hydrangeas in the vases.
Caught up in the dancing throng, Ned shoved her out the door.
‘Stop it, Ned,’ she screamed. ‘I haven’t said goodbye….’
‘Gotta get up early for the milking,’ he grumbled.
She hated her brother at that moment.
Will followed, keeping his eyes on Bridie’s back.
She looked behind her, fearful of losing sight of him.
Outside, they stood facing one another in the dark.
‘Can you give me your phone number?’ he asked.
She sensed a river of distance between them.
‘Yes. Don’t be surprised if Mumma is rude on the phone.’
Ned revved the car engine.
Will put the paper with her telephone number scribbled on it in his pocket.
He stepped closer to her and pulled her towards him.
He gave her a peck on the cheek that was so sweet she longed for more.
He opened the door for her to get in the back seat alone.
Will stood like a granite statue, as she looked through the window.
He’d raised his hand like a soldier saluting.
The car sped off into the darkness.