The Secret Years
From the wild beauty of the Australian bush to England’s rugged south coast, this is a deeply moving story of heartbreak, heroism and homecoming by a beloved, multi-award-winning author.
Some family secrets are best set free.
When Lucy Hunter stumbles upon her grandfather’s World War II memorabilia, she finds a faded photograph of a stunning young woman known simply as ‘George’ and a series of heartfelt letters. They are clues about the secret years, a period of Lucy’s family history that has been kept a mystery … until now.
How did a cattleman from north Queensland find forbidden love with the Honourable Georgina Lenton of London? And why are the effects of this encounter still reverberating in the lives of Lucy and her mother, Rose, all these years on?
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The Secret Years
The Englishwoman arrived at Kalkadoon on a hot and sultry summer’s afternoon when even the crows were silent and the creaky old windmill was deathly still.
Rosie was hanging upside-down from her favourite branch in a shady bottlebrush tree, but it was Dougie, hanging beside her, who first saw the cloud of dust on the horizon.
‘Car comin’,’ he remarked with a resigned lack of interest.
They both knew that visitors who ventured out to Kalkadoon station only ever came to see Rosie’s father, the Boss.
Hanging there together, their skinny knees gripping the tree branch, the children stared through the thin fringe of leaves, out across the shimmering stretch of flat dry paddocks, watching with idle curiosity as the dust cloud grew gradually bigger.
‘Wonder who it is?’ Rosie mused, although she knew it had to be a neighbour or someone bringing supplies from Cloncurry.
Then Shirleen’s voice cut the lazy afternoon stillness. ‘Ros-ee! she yelled from the homestead. ‘Come here, quick!’
‘You betta go,’ Dougie said.
Rosie pouted. Why did she have to go? Visitors never came to see her.
‘Come on. Hurry up,’ called Shirleen. ‘You got a visitor and your dad’ll skin me alive if I don’t get you ready.’
Rosie might not have moved if she hadn’t also heard horses’ hooves drumming across the hard ground. That would be her father riding back to the homestead. Maybe he’d seen the dust, too. Maybe these visitors were important after all.
‘Don’t make me come out there and get you, Missy.’
Reluctantly, Rosie wriggled her knees free from the branch and swung down. It had taken her ages to learn how to do this as easily as Dougie could, but she was quite the little acrobat now. Letting go with her hands, she dropped the last bit to the ground, her bare feet landing in dust softened by many similar landings.
Dougie was still hanging like a fruit bat, his white teeth grinning in his dark face. Even though Shirleen was his mum, not Rosie’s, he didn’t have to stop playing because of visitors. As far as Rosie knew, he never had to bother about getting tidy.
‘See ya,’ he said sympathetically.
Rosie shrugged. ‘See ya.’
Shirleen met her at the foot of the homestead steps and grabbed her arm. ‘Come on.’ Her tone was urgent, but not unkind. ‘No dragging your feet today.’
A glance beyond the homestead showed Rosie’s father, riding his horse hard.
‘Who’s coming?’ Rosie wanted to know as Shirleen bustled her inside and dragged her T shirt over her head.
‘Don’t pester me with questions. Just get here.’ Already she was yanking Rosie’s shorts down. ‘I shoulda called you in earlier. Come on, quick, get these off. Then we got to get your shoes on.’
‘But my feet are dirty.’
‘Too bad. There’s no time for gettin’ clean.’ Shirleen was already kneeling beside Rosie, pushing her dusty feet into clean white socks and then into her best black patent leather shoes. The shoes were newish, but Rosie hadn’t worn them for a while and as Shirleen did up the buckles, they were already too tight.
Shirleen sprang to her feet again and reached for Rosie’s best dress, hanging on the back of a kitchen chair.
‘I can’t wear that!’ the little girl cried. ‘Not without having a bath.’
The dress had come all the way from a store in Townsville and was a lovely pale lemon voile with white daisies on the collar and a full skirt that was held out by a stiff net petticoat. She hadn’t worn it since Christmas.
Now, without comment, Shirleen lowered the dress over Rosie’s head. It felt uncomfortably clean and crisp against her hot sticky skin.
‘Now hold still. I gotta do up your sash, then brush your hair.’
Rosie winced. ‘Can you wet my hair first?’ It was long and curly and she hated having it brushed.
‘I told you. We don’t have time.’
‘Ouch,’ the child wailed as the brush was dragged mercilessly through the knots.
‘Sorry, darlin’.’ Shirleen sounded sympathetic, but she didn’t slow down.
Rosie might have yelped louder, but she heard her father’s voice outside.
‘Shirleen,’ he called. ‘That damn woman’s come early. She’s bloody well almost here. Where’s Rosie?’
‘Up here, Boss. Almost ready.’
‘Who’s coming?’ Rosie demanded again as she heard her father’s boots on the steps. ‘Who’s the visitor?’
‘Someone from England,’ Shirleen muttered between dragging strokes of the brush.
England? But that was where the Queen lived, far away on the other side of the world. At Christmas, Rosie had received a parcel from England, a lovely storybook about Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh, and her father had read it to her so many times she almost knew every word by heart.
Someone in England – Rosie couldn’t remember her name – had also sent a jigsaw puzzle with a picture of a girl and boy riding ponies. The first time Rosie had done the puzzle, Shirleen had helped her to find the bits that fitted together, but now she could do it on her own, sitting at the kitchen table with all the pieces spread out. She never tired of seeing the images emerge. That rosy-cheeked pair on their beautiful shiny horses. Shirleen had told her their names were Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
But Rosie was just fascinated by the grass where they played. So lush and green, not the colour of pale biscuits like Kalkadoon’s grass, and it was so soft looking, like the velvet inside the jewellery box that had once belonged to Rosie’s mother.
The intricately woven box was precious, the only thing of her mother’s that she owned, and she loved it fiercely.
Now the growl of a motor in the distance signalled that the car was almost here. A shadow fell as Rosie’s father stepped into the kitchen. Without a word, he flipped his broad brimmed hat onto a hook by the door, took one sharp glance in Rosie’s direction, gave a curt nod of approval, then strode straight to the sink to wash his hands and face.
That done, he flicked his damp dark hair out of his eyes, then crossed the room to Rosie. He was tall and big and the kitchen always felt smaller when he came inside. Smaller but somehow safer.
Shirleen retreated to the stove to check on a pot of simmering corned beef. ‘I’ll go now, Boss?’ Her eyes were big and round in her dark face.
Rosie’s father nodded. ‘Thank you.’
Rosie didn’t understand the sudden tension that had descended, but now that she and her father were alone, she could feel it growing stronger, filling the kitchen in the same way the room had once filled with smoke when Shirleen burned their dinner. The rumble of the car’s engine drew closer and her father took her hand.
She loved the feel of his strong hand wrapped warmly around hers and she wanted to ask questions, but the stern look on his handsome face silenced her.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, his grip tightening. ‘I’ll deal with this. Everything will be all right.’
Completely bewildered, Rosie stood very still beside him, trying to ignore the way her dress itched against her sweaty skin as she looked out through the open front doorway to the car that had come all the way from England and was now bumping up the track to the homestead.
Her father’s grip was so tight now, he was almost hurting her. As the car came to a stop at the bottom of the front steps, she could see the stern profile of a man at the wheel. Two ladies sat in the back and the man got out and opened a back door for them.
Still sensing her father’s tension, Rosie held her breath as the first lady emerged. She was wearing a black hat, a silly hat that didn’t shade her face and would be no use to her at all here at Kalkadoon. It was more like an upside-down flower pot, but it did look smart. The lady’s jacket and skirt were smart, too – pink and tight fitting with a black trim and buttons – so different from the faded, loose cotton shifts that Shirleen wore.
Their visitor stood very stiffly with no hint of a smile on her painted lips. She was wearing dark sunglasses that couldn’t quite hide the pale prettiness of her face and she wore gloves, too, black gloves that reached up to her elbows. Her shoes had very high heels. Rosie had never seen anyone quite like her before.
‘It’s okay, Rosie,’ her father said now in the gentle, soothing way she’d heard him use with a frightened horse. But even though his voice was soft and calm, he was watching the Englishwoman with a face as hard as stone and he gripped Rosie so tightly that she almost cried out. ‘It’s okay,’ he said again. ‘You’re not going anywhere. She can’t have you. I won’t let her. You’re staying here, safe with me.’