Ocean Child by Tamara McKinley – Extract

Ocean Child

1

England, February 1920

The soft, downy warmth intensified and Lulu Pearson moved rest­lessly in an attempt to escape it. But the smothering heat seemed to press harder, covering her eyes, her nose and her mouth. With a whimper of distress she discovered she had no strength to push it away, and as her damaged heart hammered and she fought to breathe, she knew she was about to die.

The pressure was even greater now, the blood singing in her ears, the fear giving her strength to fight this awful thing. But as she flailed and thrashed and tried to cry out, her heart struggled – thudding away inside her, weakening her with every tortuous beat. She heard voices. Was aware of a sliver of light. And suddenly she was free.

Rearing up in the bed with a great gulp of clean, life-giving air, she opened her eyes. The room was in darkness, and this was not the little house in Tasmania. Her heart continued to strug­gle as she fought to regulate her breathing and calm the terrible fears this recurring nightmare always elicited. She was no longer a child – she was safe.

No one would have guessed he was sixty-five, for his step was robust, his figure sturdy, the walking stick more of an affectation than an aid. He fitted into the country scene and, as it was a role he’d played over many years, he felt comfortable in the tweed jacket, plus-fours and walking boots. It hadn’t always been so, for he was a city man at heart, but, like a good actor, he’d grown into the part and enjoyed these annual visits to Sussex.

Camouflaged by the dappled shadows of the trees, he ate the last of his sandwiches and watched the rider slowly descend the far hill towards the livery stables. She had been gone for over an hour, but he hadn’t minded the wait. The weather was clement, if a little chill, and he was being generously paid. He tucked the sandwich wrapper in the canvas bag, brushed crumbs from his moustache and raised his binoculars.

He knew Lulu Pearson intimately, yet they had never met or spoken, and if things went to plan, they never would. His occa­sional surveillance had begun many years ago, and as time had passed he’d seen her grow from coltish childhood into the beau­tiful young woman who now moved with lithe grace about the stable-yard. Her hair was her crowning glory, usually falling almost to her waist in curls that sparked gold and chestnut in the sun, but today she had pinned it into a thick knot at her nape.

As she left the stables he got to his feet and began the long, uphill walk home. With the canvas bag and binoculars swinging from his shoulder, he headed back towards the village and a wel­come pint of beer.

The effects of Lulu’s nightmare had been dissipated during her gentle horse-ride, and although the arrival of that strange letter this morning still puzzled her, she felt exhilarated. It was won­derful to be in the fresh air after all those hours in her studio, and now she was eager to return to work. The clay model was almost finished, and she wanted to make sure she’d captured the right sense of power and movement before she judged it ready for the foundry. Yet her great-aunt Clarice would be expecting her home for afternoon tea and, despite her enthusiasm for work, the prospect of a blazing fire, buttered crumpets and Earl Grey tea was enticing.

She put all thoughts of Tasmania and the mysterious letter aside. It was a perfect English winter afternoon, with the sun shining from a cloudless sky, frost glittering in the shadows beneath the trees and the air crisp with the promise of snow. It was on days like these she was thankful she hadn’t followed the fashion for short hair, and as she tramped slowly homeward she took out the combs and pins and let her luxuriant locks fall over her shoulders and down her back.

No doubt Clarice would make a fuss about her being out so long, but her troublesome heart was beating steadily enough, and it was liberating to have only the sky and silent landscape for company after the smog and noise of London. She’d enjoyed the independence of driving the omnibuses during the dark days of the Great War, and the thrill of earning her own money and sharing a flat with other girls, but the Downs soothed her.

She smiled at the thought, for she had once believed she could never belong anywhere but Tasmania. She’d been so young when she’d arrived here – her accent and family circumstances setting her apart from the other girls at boarding school – her damaged heart making it difficult to join in their boisterous games. A stranger in a strange land, she’d felt bewildered and lost, blindly clawing her way through those emotional early years until she made friends and felt easier in her new life. The landscape had helped, for although the trees were different, the hills more gentle, the rivers less wild, it contained the essence of that Aus­tralian island she still called home.

She climbed the stile and sat to catch her breath after the trek up the hill. The light was extraordinary, and her artist’s eyes drank in the scene as if parched of beauty. The South Downs undulated around her, offering glimpses of church spires and tiny hamlets, of the tapestry of ploughed fields, hedges and black-faced sheep. A solitary walker traversed the hill to the west, his sturdy figure silhouetted against the sky until he slowly faded from sight – leaving her truly alone in these magnificent sur­roundings.

A shaft of sunlight illuminated the house far below, and she eyed it fondly. Wealden House was far removed from the tin-roofed wooden cottage in Tasmania. It was rambling and old-fashioned, the signs of age and neglect veiled by distance and the protective cover of wisteria and Virginia creeper. Smoke drifted from several of the tall chimneys, and the sun glinted on the many windows beneath the peg-tiled roof. The formal gar­dens were divided by hedges and connected by a cobbled path seeded with scented herbs. There were arbours entangled with honeysuckle and roses, a croquet lawn and tennis court, and a pond which reflected weeping willows and dormant rhododen­drons. At the southern boundary lay the kitchen garden and greenhouses, and to the north a wide gravel driveway swept up from imposing gates through banks of azaleas to a large porch and an oak front door.

Lulu clambered off the stile and, on reaching the five-bar gate at the bottom of the hill, remembered that first spring sixteen years ago. It had brought the English bluebells; a great carpet of them spreading from beneath the ancient oaks and ashes, pro­viding a wonderland for the little girl who had never seen them before. Then the daffodils, wild anemones and buttercups had come – a new carpet of yellow and white beneath the delicate froth of apple and cherry blossom.

She closed the gate and dug her chin into her collar as she walked into the shadows that now crept across the ragged lawn. The frost glittered like crystals in the grass, but there was already the promise of new life in the tiny green shoots of snowdrops and crocuses that poked their heads through the weeds. Each season had its own beauty, and if she hadn’t been so cold and hungry, she would have fetched her sketchbook and tried to cap­ture the scene.

Entering the kitchen, Lulu kicked off her boots and made a fuss of the elderly Labrador stretched before the range. This was the warmest room in the house, for even the blazing fire in the drawing room couldn’t cope with the draughts that whistled under every door and down the stairs.

The housekeeper crashed through the kitchen door and folded her meaty arms beneath her vast bosom. ‘About time too,’ she muttered crossly. ‘I’ve enough to do without trying to keep my crumpets warm.’

Lulu bit her lip against the giggle and continued to pat the dog. ‘I’m so sorry, Vera,’ she managed. ‘Am I terribly late?’

Vera Cornish sniffed and tugged at her wrap-around floral pinafore, but her dour expression softened as it always did with Lulu, and she sighed. ‘Tea’s at four, as you well know, Missy, and without a house full of servants, it’s the devil’s own job to keep up with things.’

Lulu apologised again, but the silence that fell between them seemed to emphasise the emptiness of the cavernous kitchen – reminding them both of the time when the cook and housemaids chattered with the gardeners around the scrubbed table. The delicious smell of baking remained, but the clatter of pans and the tramp of many feet on the flagstones were gone, leaving only ghostly memories. The Great War had changed everything.

Vera clucked with annoyance and grasped the tea-trolley. ‘Wash your hands,’ she ordered. ‘What with ’orses and dogs, you’ll be eating more than your peck of dirt, and what with your ’eart and everything . . .’ The rest of the sentence was swallowed up in the screech of wheels and the clatter of china as she thrust the trolley out of the room ahead of her.

Lulu was still smiling as she washed her hands under the kitchen tap and padded down the chilly hallway in her thick socks. Vera’s disgruntled exterior hid a soft heart, and Wealden House just wouldn’t be the same without her.

She checked the mail that had come by second post, and entered the drawing room. There was a letter from Maurice, but she was in no hurry to read it.

‘How many times have I asked you to change before coming in here, Lorelei? The stables cling to you like a noxious scent.’ Clarice was fragrant with French perfume, her expression stern and her ramrod poise uncompromising as she waited for Vera to position the trolley to her satisfaction. With an imperious nod, the housekeeper was dismissed.

Lulu and Vera were used to this rather haughty demeanour and ignored it. Clarice enjoyed playing the grande dame, but there was no malice behind it, and as her aunt didn’t like tacit shows of affection Lulu resisted kissing her and sank onto the sofa near­est the fire. ‘Sorry,’ she murmured, running her fingers through the tangle of her hair, ‘but I couldn’t wait for tea. I’m ravenous.’

Clarice poured from the ornate silver pot as Lulu took a hot buttered crumpet from the chafing dish and bit into it. ‘Plate, Lorelei, and napkin.’

She took both and munched the heavenly food as the heat from the fire began to thaw her. Clarice had always refused to shorten her name – she thought it rather common – and although she liked to maintain the impression that she was a harsh taskmaster, it was an act Lulu had seen through long ago – and yet, when truly riled, Clarice had a glare that could stop a rampaging bull at fifty yards. Today, however, the blue eyes glinted with humour.

Clarice was seventy, or thereabouts – it was a closely guarded secret, and Lulu had never dared probe – but she had the com­plexion, vitality and sharp wit of a much younger woman. Her short silver hair had been freshly set in rigid waves, and there were pearls in her ears and in a rope that encircled her neck and fell in loops to her waist. Rings glittered on her fingers, and bracelets jangled on her slender wrists. Clarice was the widow of a long-dead diplomat, and the strict code of conduct and appear­ance he’d enforced was still rigidly adhered to. She had no intention of letting standards slip while she could draw breath.

‘It is rude to stare, Lorelei.’

‘I was just thinking how lovely you look this afternoon,’ she replied truthfully. ‘That soft grey really suits you.’

Clarice smoothed the low-waisted dress over her knees, the heightened colour in her cheeks showing her pleasure at the praise. ‘Thank you, dear. I wish I could return the compliment, but you look like a ragamuffin in that get-up.’

Lulu took in the grubby jodhpurs, the moth-eaten sweater and worn tweed jacket. ‘The horses don’t mind, and they’re comfort­able.’ She flicked the curls out of her eyes and picked up another crumpet.

‘I do so envy your youthful appetite,’ sighed Clarice, ‘and the way you never seem to put on weight. If I ate half what you do, I’d be the size of a house.’

Lulu hid a smile. Clarice was as slender as willow, and always had been, if the old photographs were anything to go by, yet her appetite was robust.

‘Still,’ added Clarice, ‘it’s good to see you eating again. It shows you’re in good health – but I worry that you try to do too much.’

‘I can’t spend my life sitting about and feeling sorry for myself,’ Lulu replied through the crumpet. ‘Exercise and fresh air cheer me up no end.’

‘That’s all very well, but you know what the doctor said. Your heart isn’t strong, and it doesn’t do to overtax it.’

‘I know when I’ve done too much,’ she reassured her, ‘and although I tire easily, I’ve learnt to deal with it.’

Clarice eyed her over the teacup and changed the subject. ‘Did you find Maurice’s letter?’

Lulu nodded, but her thoughts had returned to that other letter which had arrived this morning. As it was from Tasmania, and the contents made little sense, there was no point in discuss­ing it with Clarice – who had made it quite clear over the years that she didn’t want to talk about Australia, or anything con­nected with it.

‘Maurice must be very lonely to write to you every day. What can he find to say?’

Lulu brought her thoughts back to the present as she sipped the fragrant tea. She didn’t really want to discuss Maurice and spoil the mood of the day, but Clarice was awaiting a reply. ‘He keeps me up to date on his latest painting, the people he meets at the gallery and his general health.’ She didn’t mention the rambling pages of introspection, the endless picking away at his fears, and his inability to settle on anything for long – it was too disheartening

‘I realise he had a bad time in France, but that is no excuse for idleness. It’s time he bucked up his ideas.’

This was a conversation they’d had before, and Lulu took her usual defensive stance. ‘Maurice tries his best,’ she murmured, ‘but it’s difficult to find work when he can’t cope with crowds and noise.’

She had a sudden memory of Maurice cowering in a corner during a violent thunderstorm, whimpering in fear as each bolt of lightning lit up the London house they shared. She’d known then that the battlefields and trenches still haunted him, and as the terrible storm had raged overhead she had taken him into her bed. Their lovemaking had been frantic, clinging to one another in a kind of desperation as if the heat and touch of another body could reassure and heal – blot out the memories. But of course it had only been a fleeting release, for the memo­ries were still raw.

‘I do hope you haven’t got too involved. He obviously relies upon you, and although you have your art in common, there is very little else to commend him.’

Lulu reddened under Clarice’s penetrating scrutiny. There was little doubt Clarice suspected her intimacy with Maurice, but she needn’t have worried. It had been short-lived – a mistake they had both soon acknowledged. ‘We’ve agreed to be friends, noth­ing more,’ she replied. ‘There’s never really been anyone special since Jimmy.’

Silence fell, but for the hiss of flames on damp logs. Lulu’s gaze settled on the photograph that stood on the grand piano. Jimmy looked handsome in his uniform – and unbearably young, with his wide smile and honest brown eyes. They had known each other for years and were planning to marry, when war was declared in 1914 and he enlisted. He had been killed within weeks of landing in France.

Unwilling to dwell on such sadness, Lulu loaded up the trolley and headed for the door. ‘I’m going to have a long soak in the bath before I check on the sculpture.’

‘Don’t forget we’ve been invited to cocktails and dinner tonight at the brigadier’s to discuss the Easter fete. If you’re not coming with me, you’ll have to make do with cold cuts and soup. It’s Vera’s night off.’

The brigadier was a bluff, red-faced old buffer who had been pursuing Clarice unsuccessfully for years. Lulu had long decided there were better ways to spend an evening and declined the invitation.

With the tea things washed and set to dry on the drainer, she fed the dog then slowly went upstairs. After her bath, she snug­gled into her fleecy dressing gown and sat at her dressing table, where she could glean the meagre heat from the fire that was doing battle with the draught from the ill-fitting window.

The mysterious letter had been forwarded from her address in London, and was lying beside her. Although she’d read it several times this morning and almost knew it by heart, it intrigued and unsettled her. Tugging the single sheet from the envelope, she smoothed it open. The handwriting was bold and masculine – the contents completely baffling.

Dear Miss Pearson,

As I have been training your colt, Ocean Child, for over a year now and have had no word from you, I thought you should be kept informed of his progress. Perhaps your agent, Mr Carmichael, has done this already, in which case I apologise for contacting you. The Child is proving to be an exceptional two-year-old, having won most of his trials – these are races to test young horses over different distances, and there is no betting or handicapping involved. Although he has yet to be fully tested over longer courses, I have high hopes he will prove to be a stayer. He has a good temperament, is not distracted by noisy crowds and has become a firm favourite in the yard, especially with Bob Fuller, the young jackaroo I employ to ride him.

The Child is still too young for more important races, but he’s muscling up nicely, and I’ve been working him hard with regular spells of rest in between. In another six months or so, I plan to enter him into some of the smaller steeple­chases to see how he fares.

I hope you don’t mind me writing, but as there has been no word from you, I feel it is my duty as trainer to keep you informed.

Yours sincerely, Joe Reilly

Lulu frowned. ‘I don’t know who you think I am, Mr Reilly,’ she breathed, ‘but you’ve obviously got me confused with someone else.’

Her smile was wry as she put the paper back in the envelope. The nearest she would ever come to owning any kind of horse was the sculpture awaiting her attention in the studio. What an extraordinary mistake to make for a man who obviously knew his business. Surely he must have realised she couldn’t possibly be the owner? After all, she lived on the other side of the world – why on earth would she have a horse in training so far away?

‘Ridiculous,’ she hissed, as she tightened the belt on the dress­ing gown and reached for her writing box. Her reply was polite but short, and when she’d sealed the envelope she dressed and went down to the village post office.

He had been drinking a welcome beer in the village pub and was enjoying an evening pipe when he saw her walk down the lane. Following her to the tiny shop that seemed to provide every­thing, he hovered by the open door and eavesdropped on her conversation with the fat, garrulous woman behind the counter.

Satisfied he’d heard enough, he headed for the station and the last train home. The letter from Australia had obviously arrived. All he had to do now was inform his employer and await further instructions.

As she strolled back to the house, Lulu wondered what Mr Reilly’s reaction would be to her letter. Embarrassment probably, she concluded.

She skirted the side of the house and followed the path to the semicircular summer house which she’d turned into her studio. Nestled against the high brick boundary wall, its deep windows looked out over the lawn and offered a sunny spot even on the coldest day. She had fallen in love with it the day Clarice had first brought her to Sussex. Ten years old, and trying to come to terms with the sudden changes in her life, the summer house had become her refuge.

Great-Aunt Clarice had understood her need for solitude while she sketched and painted, or moulded clay figures, and those early years, which might have been interpreted by some as lonely, had brought a slow, steady awakening in Lulu – a realisation that now she could dare to dream – that under Clarice’s loving, watchful eye she was free to blossom. It was the greatest gift anyone could bestow, and she adored Clarice because of it.

Stepping inside, she lit the gas lamps, dug her chin into her coat collar against the cold and began to peel off the damp cloths that kept the clay pliable. She examined the three-foot high sculpture and smiled at the irony, for her current work was a colt. A leggy, unbroken creature with a stubby tail and short mane, he seemed poised to break free from the restraints of the armature that held him to the wooden turntable. She absorbed the lines and curves, the promise of growing muscle and strength she’d managed to capture, and the feeling of constrained energy and movement that had been so difficult to attain. It was a fine piece, maybe the best she had done.

She regarded the colt, her thoughts dwelling on the strange letter. Perhaps it was an omen – a sign that he was somehow linked to the one in Tasmania. It was a ridiculous idea of course, one that Clarice would scorn – and yet, as she assessed the clay colt and her thoughts raced, she realised how very auspicious this moment was. The piece had yet to be titled, but because of Joe Reilly’s error in sending that letter, she now had a name.

Her imagination took flight as she hastily reached for a lump of clay and began to soften and mould it. It might be difficult to do, but it was a chance to stretch her ability and enjoy the chal­lenge. The real Ocean Child would race over Tasmanian tracks, grow old and end his days at pasture, but hers would stay forever young and dance in the shallow ripples and waves of a bronze shoreline.

Galway House Racing Stables, Tasmania, April 1920

Joe Reilly had finished mucking out, the yard was swept and hosed, and Bob Fuller, the jackaroo, had just left to exercise Ocean Child up on the gallops. It was still early, but the kooka­burras were already laughing in the nearby trees and Joe could hear the haunting single note of a bellbird not far away.

He dug his hands in the pockets of his moleskins and proudly surveyed the yard. It looked very different to how it had been when he’d returned from Europe, and although it had taken time, energy and most of his savings, it had been worth it.

Where the stables had been falling down and infested with rats, they now rose sturdily on either side of the paved yard, their newly tiled roofs and fresh paint gleaming in the autumn sun. The repairs to the barn, tack room and feed store were almost finished, the fences replaced and the paddocks clear of harmful weeds.

There had once been over thirty horses at Galway House, with stable hands and jackaroos to look after them. But that was in the good years – the years before war and influenza had inter­vened. He remained optimistic, however, for there were already five recent arrivals to the yard, with enquiries about two others, and he’d had to take on a couple of hands to help. The stock mar­kets were still jittery, but the world had begun to shake off the gloom of the past years and there was a sense of excitement in the air as they entered a new decade, reflected in the jazz music that was becoming so popular, and in the way people were pre­pared to spend their money on pleasures again.

His gaze travelled beyond the yard to the hills where the gal­lops ran for four miles along their crest. He had heard Tasmania being compared to England, and now he understood why, for this corner of the island was as green and lush as the Sussex country­side surrounding the military hospital where he’d recuperated.

The two-storey homestead stood squarely among the trees and faced the short driveway and double gates. Its rear aspect was of the fast-flowing river that ran in a tree-lined gully at the bottom of the valley. The wrap-around veranda was cluttered with the usual chairs, tables and his mother’s tubs of flowers. The shutters and screens were mended, the lawn had been cut and the trees were in full leaf. It was the home he’d once thought he would never see again, and he felt a glow of appreciation and love for the old place.

The Reillys had lived at Galway House for four generations, their name synonymous with well-trained and successful race­horses. Joe had willingly followed in his father’s footsteps, and had been looking forward to marrying his childhood sweetheart, Penny, and taking over on his father’s retirement. Then war intervened. His father had died shortly after Joe had been shipped out, and as the memories of Gallipoli and Fromelles came unbidden, his fingers automatically traced the scars that puckered the flesh above his left eye and cobwebbed his cheek.

Penny had promised in her letters that she would love him regardless of how badly injured he was – that they would marry and take over the yard as planned – and yet on his return home he’d seen her flinch from his kisses and had noticed how she avoided looking at him. She had done her best to hide her revul­sion, but the girl he’d loved since boyhood could not accept the changes in him and, knowing she was too kind-hearted to do it herself, he’d broken off their engagement. The relief in her eyes had torn him apart, the scars a tacit reminder – if he ever needed one – that war had changed everything.

He shook off the gloomy thoughts, whistled for the two dogs, cranked up the flatbed truck and headed for the gallops. He was one of the lucky ones who’d made it home. At thirty years old he was fit and healthy and his business was on the up. He loved his home and his work, had embraced the isolation and peace they gave him, and was content.

Bob Fuller was walking the Child to rest him, but even from a distance Joe could see the tow-headed youth’s excitement. He’d barely climbed out of the truck before Bob was chattering at him.

‘He’s a little ripper, Joe. Didn’t turn a hair when I asked more of ’im.’

‘I hope you didn’t overextend him.’

‘Fair go, Joe. Look at him! He’s not even blowing.’

The boy’s enthusiasm was catching, and Joe returned his grin as he assessed the colt and realised he still had plenty of running in him. Ocean Child was a chestnut, with pale mane and tail and a white diamond blaze on his forehead. Still youthfully leggy, he nevertheless had an air of confidence about him that boded well, for he’d proved over the past year that he was undeterred by noise and strange surroundings.

Joe ran his hand over the well-shaped hindquarters and down the sturdy legs. There was good muscle and bone there, the pas­terns just the right length. His chest was in perfect proportion and would widen and muscle up as he matured, and the eyes were intelligent.

‘You’re a beaut and no mistake,’ he murmured as he stroked the neck and looked into those golden eyes. ‘Give him another short run so I can see how he’s moving, then spell him. He’s had enough for today.’

He leant against the railings, hat in hand, dark hair tousled by the breeze as he watched horse and rider canter away along the dirt track. The Child was certainly moving well, and seemed eager for the exercise, but unformed muscle and growing bones needed time and patience to build to their full potential, and he’d seen the tragic results when other trainers pushed too hard.

He watched keenly as Bob brought the Child around and gal­loped back towards him. The colt’s neck was stretched, ears pricked, each leg placed with confidence as he opened up his chest and raced along the track. Joe’s pulse quickened. Ocean Child was one hell of a good horse, and if he lived up to this early promise, Galway House might have a real winner.

The morning passed quickly as everyone went about their usual work, and Joe had just sat down to deal with the account books when he was interrupted by the arrival of his mother. ‘Our visi­tors are here,’ she said breathlessly. ‘I bet you’d forgotten they were coming.’

Joe had indeed, but whenever he was with the horses he forgot most things. ‘Sorry,’ he murmured, reluctantly closing the ledger. He smiled as he ran his fingers through his hair. ‘I don’t suppose you could deal with them, Ma? I’ve got a lot to do this morning.’

Molly Reilly was short and plump, with a bustling presence and a mop of rather wild greying hair. She had struggled to keep the yard going after her husband’s death, but despite her deter­mination and energy had found it an impossible task. Joe understood that her relief at his survival was tempered by the knowledge that he now found socialising extremely distressing.

‘You can’t hide in here for ever,’ she said with a briskness that belied the concern in her eyes. ‘This is business.’

He noted the determined tilt to her chin and knew there was little point in arguing. Towering over her as he took his battered hat from the nail on the wall, he rammed it on and tugged the brim low so it shadowed the damaged side of his face.

‘What are they like?’ he muttered as he ambled along beside her.

‘Rich.’

‘That’s a good start.’ A smile twitched his lips. His mother had her own endearing way of cutting straight to the point. ‘Any­thing else?’

‘They’ve got two horses at Len Simpson’s yard in Melbourne, but they’ve had a falling out with him and want to move them.’

‘Sounds like they could be trouble. Len’s a good bloke.’

‘My thoughts exactly, but we can’t afford to be picky.’

Joe had been weaned on stories of difficult owners and their high, sometimes impossible, expectations of their horses. It seemed the more money they had the more awkward they were. He tugged the hat brim and steeled himself for the meeting. His mother was right – they needed the money.

A showy black car sat on the driveway, chrome headlamps and wide running board glinting in the sun. Joe took in the two people waiting on the veranda. The man wore tweeds and had a cigar clamped between his teeth. The young woman was wreathed in furs against the chill wind, and Joe could only think of the word ‘glossy’ to describe her.

‘Alan Frobisher,’ the man said, shaking his hand, ‘and this’s my daughter, Eliza.’

Joe glanced at the girl, who was eyeing him with open curios­ity. He dropped his gaze as he swiftly shook the cool, slender hand, then stepped back and tugged furiously at his hat. He was aware of her continued scrutiny as they headed back towards the stables, and was so disconcerted he became tongue-tied. His mother had no such inhibitions and was chattering like a spar­row as they toured the yard.

They had inspected everything and were now standing by the paddock fence. Joe began to relax as the women went off to the house and he was left alone with Alan. ‘How did you hear about us in Queensland, Alan? You’ve come a long way.’

‘A bloodstock agent called Carmichael,’ he replied. ‘I under­stand he’s recommended you before.’

Joe’s interest was piqued. ‘He sent me Ocean Child, but we’ve never met, only communicated by mail. What’s he like?’

Alan shrugged. ‘I’ve only spoken to him on the two-way, but the Victorian Breeders Association recommends him.’

Joe nodded. It seemed the elusive Carmichael did all his busi­ness at a distance, for no one had yet admitted to ever having seen him. ‘May I ask why you want to move your horses?’

The other man looked away. ‘There was a difference of opin­ion,’ he muttered. ‘Things got awkward.’

Joe waited for him to continue, but it seemed Alan had decided he’d said enough. Whatever had proved awkward would remain between Alan and his previous trainer – and yet Len Simpson was well-regarded in racing circles for his easy-going temperament. Joe couldn’t fathom what had gone wrong. ‘Len has a fair reputa­tion,’ he said, ‘so if he took them on, I’d be glad to. But I’ll have to contact him and make sure he has no objection.’

‘Fair enough, but he won’t object. Speaks very highly of you, which is why I took Carmichael’s advice.’ Alan turned from his scrutiny of the grazing horses and smiled. ‘I think I’ve seen enough, Joe. Let’s do business.’ His expression became quizzical as his gaze settled on Joe’s face. ‘France, I suppose.’

Joe nodded.

‘At least you came home,’ the older man muttered. ‘So many didn’t.’ They began to walk towards the house. ‘Don’t mind Eliza, mate – she’s still young and, without a mother’s guiding hand, hasn’t really mastered the art of discretion.’ He shot a glance at Joe. ‘I saw how she was staring, and I apologise.’

‘I’m used to it,’ Joe lied tactfully.

‘Once she gets to know you she’ll forget about the scars, you’ll see. Eliza’s a little headstrong at times – it’s what comes of losing her mother at such a young age, I reckon – but she’s a born horsewoman, and once she’s fully engaged with her animals she’s a very different person.’

Joe felt a chill of apprehension and he drew to a halt. Perhaps the differing opinions and awkwardness stemmed from a meddling Eliza – if so, he could not do business with Alan no matter how much he needed his money. ‘I run a tight yard here,’ he warned. ‘The owners are welcome to visit any time as long as we’re not preparing for a race, but I don’t encourage them to linger or mess about with the horses. It upsets the rhythm of the stables.’

‘Too right, mate. Any time you feel we’ve outstayed our wel­come, just tell us. You’re in charge.’

‘As long as you understand that?’ He sternly held the other man’s gaze.

Alan’s expression was solemn. ‘You have my word, and I’ll make sure Eliza keeps her distance too.’

‘I thought you lived in Queensland?’

‘We do for now, but I’m thinking of buying a place in Delo­raine.’ He must have noted Joe’s alarm at this news, for he chuckled. ‘No worries, mate. We won’t get in your hair. Just give us a winner now and again, and we’ll be happy enough.’

As he stood on the veranda and watched the Frobishers drive away in a cloud of dust Joe was still not convinced about the con­tracts he’d just signed. ‘Len didn’t give much away, but he assures me the horses are promising and that Alan pays his bills promptly.’ He gnawed his lip. ‘Alan seems a nice enough bloke, but that girl could be a menace if they move over here,’ he mut­tered.

‘She’s just young and rather full of herself. I shouldn’t let her worry you.’ Molly waved the cheque under his nose. ‘They’re paying top money, Joe, and Eliza hinted they might recommend you to their friends. I realise you find her a little daunting, but if you remember you’re in charge, things will work out. You never know – this time next year we could have a full yard.’

Joe didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm, so kept his opin­ions to himself. ‘Has the post come yet? I’m waiting for that money order from Hobart.’

Molly reached into her cardigan pocket. ‘Sorry, I forgot all about it in the excitement. Nothing from Hobart, but there’s a reply from England.’

He tore it open and scanned the single page. It didn’t take long, but the contents drained the colour from his face and he sat down with a thump.

‘Whatever is it?’

‘Trouble,’ he said tersely, as he gave her the letter. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that Carmichael.’

‘But this makes no sense,’ breathed Molly, as she scanned the note and sank into the chair beside him.

‘Worse than that, we have a horse without an owner. A promis­ing two-year-old I can’t race, and can’t sell on until this is cleared up. What the hell am I going to do?’

‘At least the fees for the next two years have been paid upfront, so we won’t be out of pocket,’ snapped Molly. She shoved the single sheet back into the envelope. ‘Get hold of Carmichael and demand an explanation, then send her the papers and a stiff letter ordering her to stop playing games.’

Joe retrieved the letter that was in danger of being mangled and tucked it into his pocket. His expression was grim as he glared into the distance. ‘I’ll do that, but Carmichael’s not an easy man to pin down. There’s something fishy about all this, Ma, and I aim to find out what the hell’s going on. No one plays me for a fool and gets away with it.’


Excerpted from Ocean Child by Tamara McKinley. Copyright © 2013 by Tamara McKinley.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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